Saturday, April 12, 2014

An Unhappy Hiatus

Hello quirks,

I've been putting this off because I was hoping circumstances would change and I wouldn't need to do this, but they haven't, so here we are.

Writer Quirk is going on an indefinite hiatus starting today.

I love blogging and reviewing, but my mental health is at a point right now where the stress of trying to keep posting reviews and such when I'm barely reading and barely functioning offline is one thing too many. I've never been a super-frequent poster and have been very lenient with myself on how I run this blog, but the guilt of not reading and not posting is getting to me, so I need a break from it.

It's difficult to put into words what is going on in my head that is making life so tough, so suffice it to say that despite efforts to battle my depression, I'm losing. In a way, things have gotten better since I switched to a new medication, as in suicidal thoughts and self-harm impulses are way down, but the pervasive sadness and lethargy I feel seems to only increase. Add in new stress at my day job and my usual stress at home, and I'm a zombie pretending to be human only when necessary, and it is exhausting.

I hope to return sooner rather than later, but only time will tell if that is possible. Until then, I hope you read amazing books, write your hearts out, and live life to the fullest.

~Shalena @ Writer Quirk

Friday, April 4, 2014

Reading Challenge Update [March 2014]

Hey quirks! Welcome to my Reading Challenge Update (RCU). I'm doing a few of the same challenges as last year, and I added a couple new ones as well. I'm really excited about these challenges because challenges like these pushed me to read more in 2013, so I hope the same will happen this year because my goals are even bigger!

Unlike my Goodreads Rundowns where I give a bunch of stats, here I will just be listing the books I read during the previous month under the challenges to which they apply. To see where I am at between these posts, check out my Reading Challenges tab above.

This Month: 5 --- Total: 13/75
Until I Die by Amy Plum (Revenants #2)
If I Should Die by Amy Plum (Revenants #3)
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis (Woodcutter Sisters #1)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd (The Madman's Daughter #1)

This Month: 1 --- Total: 3/12
The Alchemy of Forever by Avery Williams (Incarnation #1) [Key Word: Forever]

This Month: 2 --- Total: 3/12
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity #1) [Motif: Award Winner]
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis (Woodcutter Sisters #1) [Motif: Fairy Tales]

This Month: 6 --- Total: 14/40
Until I Die by Amy Plum (Revenants #2)
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity #1)
Enchanted by Alethea Kontis (Woodcutter Sisters #1)
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd (The Madman's Daughter #1)
The Alchemy of Forever by Avery Williams (Incarnation #1)

This Month: 0 --- Total: 0/1

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ink Anticipation [20] - April 2014

Welcome to Ink Anticipation! This feature is for sharing the top five YA releases I am looking forward to this month. 

Don't forget to share your most anticipated releases in the comments!

Goodreads / Release Date: April 8th

Goodreads / Release Date: April 8th

Goodreads / Release Date: April 8th

Goodreads / Release Date: April 15th

Goodreads / Release Date: April 22nd

Monday, March 24, 2014

Quirk Review: The Madman's Daughter (The Madman's Daughter #1) by Megan Shepherd

Series: The Madman's Daughter ~~ Release Date: 01/29/2013
Source: Books-A-Million

From Goodreads:

In the darkest places, even love is deadly.

Sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau has built a life for herself in London—working as a maid, attending church on Sundays, and trying not to think about the scandal that ruined her life. After all, no one ever proved the rumors about her father's gruesome experiments. But when she learns he is alive and continuing his work on a remote tropical island, she is determined to find out if the accusations are true.

Accompanied by her father's handsome young assistant, Montgomery, and an enigmatic castaway, Edward—both of whom she is deeply drawn to—Juliet travels to the island, only to discover the depths of her father's madness: He has experimented on animals so that they resemble, speak, and behave as humans. And worse, one of the creatures has turned violent and is killing the island's inhabitants. Torn between horror and scientific curiosity, Juliet knows she must end her father's dangerous experiments and escape her jungle prison before it's too late. Yet as the island falls into chaos, she discovers the extent of her father's genius—and madness—in her own blood.

I had the opportunity to meet Megan Shepherd at the Bringing YA 2 You event last year. She was so nice and while I had heard of her book, hearing her talk more about it made it all the more interesting, so I got a copy. Like for most of the books I buy, it was quite a while before I picked it up to read it.

There were aspects of the writing that I both liked and didn't like. My favorite part of Shepherd's writing was how she was able to grasp the emotions of the narrator, Juliet, and make them feel vivid to me as the reader. The style of the writing was where I got hung up. It was a little adverb-heavy and was reminiscent of the style used by the authors of classics of the time period in which the book is set. While that aided in creating atmosphere, it did make reading feel laborious at times.

Shepherd reveals a side of London that is bathed in blood and grime and evil intentions that are in no way akin to the societal manners often associated with the time period. When the setting changes to a sea voyage from England to Oceania, the sense of the open water and claustrophobic ship is in full force. The story's final location, the island, feels both wild and yet has its own kind of order due to the society that has been set up. Each of the settings is immersive and vibrant and really added to the mystery and mayhem of the story.

Juliet was a protagonist I immediately liked. From the get-go, she is tough and determined. She tries to be the girl everyone expects her to be, but she struggles with a dark side of herself that eventually leads to trouble. I loved the continual internal conflict she felt regarding everything from her father and his work, to Montgomery and Edward, to what she truly wants out of life. I loved how despite growing up in a time where women were entirely marginalized, she doesn't just accept what others or society thinks of herself and instead relies on her own truth and talents.

I also really liked Montgomery. It is clear how he feels about Juliet, but also clear that he is torn between what he knows and what he believes about himself (being a servant) and his feelings for her (the boss's daughter). He is full of courage and sensitivity, but he has trouble letting that show considering what is going on on the island.

Edward, even though he came from a different background, was similar to Montgomery in that his feelings for Juliet were plain while he also had secrets he wanted to keep buried. I think the obvious veil he had over his life made him feel less trustworthy than Montgomery, so I didn't like him quite as much. However, I completely understood why Juliet was drawn to him, which made their relationship complicated and intriguing.

Dr. Moreau was more brilliant and more demented than I expected. His experiments were horrifying and miraculous and there were several times I wanted to reach into the book and slap some sense into him. I love that Shepherd made me feel towards all of these characters so intensely.

This story had a lot of interesting and gritty elements throughout, but it wasn't until the characters were on the island that the stakes were raised to full height. After many spoilery things happen, and a lot of amazing and scary creations are introduced, Shepherd manages to make an island feel confining and the danger inevitable, like being on a sinking ship. I loved that aspect of it, especially in conjunction with the rest of the action going on.

I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. The emotions were intense and relatable, the secrets and science were mind-blowing and terrible, and I was right there with the characters as they struggled with the consequences of a madman's actions. I am so glad there is more to Juliet's story and cannot wait to read Her Dark Curiosity.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Quirk Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Series: None ~~ Release Date: 03/1/2012
Source: local library

From Goodreads:

Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics.

Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel.

Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives.

And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight.

I based my decision to read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on very little information. I'd heard/read online that it was supposed be a humorous book (and I loved the cover) so I put it on my TBR list. When I was in my local library recently, I happened to be in the mood for a contemporary YA novel and saw it on the shelf and grabbed it. I was not disappointed.

I don't talk about covers much because there is often not a lot to say, but for this book I just want to smash my face into the keyboard because of how amazing it is. Love is not a big enough word to describe how I feel about this cover. The colors and the art and the shadows and the font are perfect and it looks fantastic and I'm just going to stop now before I ramble on forever.

I am impressed with how well Andrews pulled off the writing of this novel. It is a very stream-of-consciousness style with bits of screenplay and bullet-pointed sections thrown in, and if Andrews had been less careful, it would have been a hot mess. But Andrews was deft in the crafting of the story and it was my favorite aspect of the novel. It felt fast-paced (like thoughts often feel) and a little crazy without overdoing it. It read easily (I finished in a few hours which, for me, is saying something) and I enjoyed the experience.

The novel is set in and around Pittsburgh, but it could have been set anywhere. The setting was just a backdrop for the events of the story. It felt realistic that the descriptions of places were minimal because Greg's narration was direct and true to his character in that he only noticed certain things and didn't care about the minute details of his surroundings.

While Greg did not give me the warm-fuzzies, I still related to him. He, like everyone, was trying to make his way through what he saw as a difficult life stage (high school) and thought he had the best path figured out. Learning he was wrong about that, and about other things, was a shock to his carefully crafted existence. Watching him grow was good even if he thought he wasn't changed by the events in the story.

Earl was the kind of character you think you have pegged but who then surprises you. I liked that Andrews brought out some of the deeper aspects of his character and showed how he too was affected by what happened in the novel. Those aspects didn't explain away some of Earl's other attributes (gross language being my least favorite), but I was okay with that because not knowing exactly what makes a person tick is realistic.

Rachel was more difficult for me to grasp. There wasn't as much to go on because her time with Greg was limited and Greg did most of the talking, so the view of Rachel that we get is really Greg's view of Rachel. For most of the novel, that view is simplistic and it is only later when we get to understand the finer points of her character.

Apart from the language bits I wasn't fond of, my only other issue was the fact that I could not emotionally connect with the characters or the story. I was able to relate to Greg on a human-to-human level, but because of the writing style and the kind of person that Greg is, it didn't go deeper than that.

While I was reading this novel, I kept thinking about something: the potential and probable comparison between this book and The Fault in Our Stars due to cancer being part of the story. However, if Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is anything, it is the anti-TFIOS. Where John Green's story takes a more realistic view of life and cancer through the eyes of its narrator, Hazel, than many similar stories, Andrews's novel is hyper-realistic and more profane than profound. It was refreshing if not as emotionally impactful as it's contemporary.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a humorous and uniquely told story about the realities of high school, feelings (or lack thereof), and learning what you've got before it's gone. While the profanity may be off-putting to some, overall this was a fun and easy read that I would recommend to fans of YA. Based on his skill with this book, I'll be looking forward to what Andrews writes next.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Quirk [Series] Review: Revenants trilogy by Amy Plum

Author: Amy Plum ~~ Series: Revenants
Release Dates: 2011 - 2013 ~~ Source: Parnassus Books/local library

About Die for Me from Goodreads:

In the City of Lights, two star-crossed lovers battle a fate that is destined to tear them apart again and again for eternity.

When Kate Mercier's parents die in a tragic car accident, she leaves her life--and memories--behind to live with her grandparents in Paris. For Kate, the only way to survive her pain is escaping into the world of books and Parisian art. Until she meets Vincent.

Mysterious, charming, and devastatingly handsome, Vincent threatens to melt the ice around Kate's guarded heart with just his smile. As she begins to fall in love with Vincent, Kate discovers that he's a revenant--an undead being whose fate forces him to sacrifice himself over and over again to save the lives of others. Vincent and those like him are bound in a centuries-old war against a group of evil revenants who exist only to murder and betray. Kate soon realizes that if she follows her heart, she may never be safe again.

I picked up Die for Me on a whim from my local library. I wasn't sure how much I would like it because it seemed to be heavy on the romance, but the revenant aspect intrigued me, plus it was set in Paris, so I gave it a shot. I ended up really enjoying it and eventually read the rest of the series.

Plum's writing strength shows in two areas: description and dialogue. She makes Paris not feel like a tourist destination but a real, living city. I also enjoyed the conversations between the characters because it was clear who was talking and there was a lot of fun banter. The romantic conversations also weren't too sappy or melodramatic, which was nice. The rest of her writing was good and never took away from the story being told.

I've already mentioned it, but the Paris setting was amazing. I've never been to Paris (or even Europe for that matter), but Plum made the locations feel real and vibrant. It was like having a resident's view of Paris, getting to see the small shops and random streets, with some of those tourist destinations thrown in on occasion. At one point the characters take a quick trip to New York, and it felt the same.

Over the course of the series, the main character, Kate, goes from being a sad teenage girl to a strong, empowered young woman. I loved that transformation. Kate made the decisions that showed she truly was strong and brave on the inside and not just a love-sick person reacting to the world around her. By the last book, she had become my favorite of the entire ensemble.

Vincent was a good love interest, but he had a little too much Edward from Twilight in him sometimes, but he got away from that by the end of the first book. I did like how when Kate wanted space, he gave her space and didn't just pretend to do so, and he respected Kate's view and choices and didn't get mad at her for them.

Jules and Georgia were my other favorites in the series because they brought some comedy into the story, and I was pleasantly surprised at how their character arcs changed and grew throughout the books.

One of the best things about the characters were they acted and reacted like real people. Their relationships felt real and they had legitimate feelings and issues with each other which made them endearing.

There are only two aspects of this series that I felt were drawbacks. One was that, as I suspected, the romance was the main focus of the books. Thankfully though, Plum writes it in such a way that makes it interesting and that focus was lessened, or at least equaled by, other things going on in the later books.

The other issue was that in the second and third books, I guessed early on in each what the big twists and reveals were going to be, so there wasn't much to surprise me in that regard.

I loved the lore that surrounded the revenants. It was intriguing and extensive and those links to art and history made the story that much richer. That includes the backstories for each of the revenants, especially what was revealed about Vincent and Lucien in the first book.

While I figured out some of the major plot points, there were still a few things that caught me off guard. Specifically, the endings of the last two books, where Plum really went for it and didn't hold back on breaking readers' hearts.

I also loved the action scenes. There weren't a lot of them, but every one we did get was great fun to read. The one that shows up at the end of the final book was especially satisfying. I can't really say why because of spoilers, but it was the best thing I could have imagined for the ending of the series.

The last thing I really enjoyed was the parallels to Twilight. That might sound weird considering my mixed feelings on the Stephenie Meyer saga, but Die for Me felt a lot like the basic set up of Twilight, except Plum wrote it the right way. Everywhere I expected Plum to zig, she zagged, and vice versa. It was fantastic because it made the story almost like the anti-Twilight - having all the romance and supernatural aspects without some of the more problematic parts.

While I was unsure of this series going into it, I am now a staunch fan. The romance is sweeping, the setting is vivid, the lore and world building are enthralling, and the characters grow and change and make you happy you stuck with them to the end. I would suggest anyone with reservations about another human/supernatural romance story give this series a chance because it is so much more than that. And now that I've finished this series and loved it, I'm even more excited about Plum's upcoming novel, After the End.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Quirk Review: The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler

Title: The Dark Between ~~ Author: Sonia Gensler
Series: None ~~ Release Date: 08/27/2013
Source: Books-A-Million

From Goodreads:

At the turn of the twentieth century, Spiritualism and séances are all the rage—even in the scholarly town of Cambridge, England. While mediums dupe the grief-stricken, a group of local fringe scientists seeks to bridge the gap to the spirit world by investigating the dark corners of the human mind.

Each running from a shadowed past, Kate, Asher, and Elsie take refuge within the walls of Summerfield College. But their peace is soon shattered by the discovery of a dead body nearby. Is this the work of a flesh-and-blood villain, or is something otherworldly at play? This unlikely trio must illuminate what the scientists have not, and open a window to secrets taken to the grave—or risk joining the spirit world themselves.

I absolutely loved Sonia Gensler's The Revenant, so when she came out with another historical paranormal mystery, I knew I had to read it.

The writing style of The Dark Between took some getting used to. It felt stiff at first, and I think that was due to being in third person POV, which was different from The Revenant's first person POV. Despite this, the writing was intelligent and economic. The word selections and dialogue made reading the novel feel like a trip back in time.

As I just mentioned above, Gensler makes 1901 Cambridge, England, come alive. The atmosphere of Summerfield College, the rough streets, the museums, the seances, everything added to the experience. I was able to visualize the entire story and think this would be amazing to see on a screen. I was completely sucked into the world and wanted to stay longer.

While I didn't have quite the emotional connection with the characters of The Dark Between that I did with Willie in The Revenant, I still came to adore Kate, Elsie, and Asher. Each has their own secrets and they were not revealed easily.

What I loved the most about them was how they were so different and fleshed out. Kate is a survivalist and rough around the edges, but intelligent with a heart of gold. Elsie is the daughter of a Lord but could care less about her place in society and has no shadow of the mean girl type you might expect. Asher is American and on the arrogant side, but he has a strength and sense of compassion underneath his formal exterior.

The three form an unlikely team, and watching their relationships form and change was just as great as watching them try to solve a mystery. Even so, they still have individual goals and, even at the end of everything, secrets to protect.

I really loved the Thompsons. They were a quirky pair but were some of the best adults I've ever seen in a novel. In contrast, Eliot, though he only makes a few appearances, was one of the worst pieces of scum.

This story had a great paranormal element, the kind that isn't based on magic but on science, so learning about it and the Metaphysical Society was beyond interesting. Add on to that a murder mystery, and this book was hitting all the notes that I loved.

The Dark Between, while whole in and of itself, had an ending that left things open for more to be written about Kate, Elsie, and Asher. I would love to read more about them and the paranormal things they encounter.

While the story didn't quite have the emotional resonance I hoped for, The Dark Between was still a great story of friendship, ghosts, and secrets, with an amazing historical setting full of atmosphere and intrigue. I am a total fan of Sonia Gensler and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

2014 Goodreads Rundown [January - February]

Welcome to my Goodreads Rundown post, where I give detailed stats on what I've read so far this year. To see where I'm at between these posts, you can check my Reading Challenges tab above.
My goal this year is more than I've ever read before, so I'm a little nervous but trying to stay focused on reading regularly.

Reading the stats: In my #/# calculations, the first # pertains only to the current months; the second # is the total thus far for the year.

Main Breakdown 
Books read to date: 14
Books read in January: 12
Books read in February: 2
Average books read per month: 7/7
Books reviewed: 10/10
Type/Format Breakdown
YA books: 13/13
Non-YA books: 1/1
Print books: 6/6
Audiobooks: 8/8

 Genre Breakdown
Paranormal: 5/5
Contemporary: 4/4
Fantasy: 0/0
Science Fiction: 2/2
High Concept: 0/0
Historical: 1/1
Dystopian/Apocalyptic: 1/1
Mystery/Thriller: 0/0
Classic: 0/0
Reference/Craft: 1/1

 Title and Review Breakdown
Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill (WQ Review)
Saving Raphael Santiago by Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan 
The Savage Grace by Bree Despain (WQ Review)
City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare (WQ Review)
This is Not a Writing Manual by Kerri Majors
Champion by Marie Lu (WQ Review)
 Shadow Eyes by Dusty Crabtree (WQ Review)
What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang
The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson (WQ Review)
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando (WQ Review)
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher (WQ Review)
Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita
Icons by Margaret Stohl (WQ Review)
The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler

What are your reading goals for 2014?
Let me know in the comments! ^_^

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Reading Challenge Update [February 2014]

Hey quirks! Welcome to my Reading Challenge Update (RCU). I'm doing a few of the same challenges as last year, and I added a couple new ones as well. I'm really excited about these challenges because challenges like these pushed me to read more in 2013, so I hope the same will happen this year because my goals are even bigger!

Unlike my Goodreads Rundowns where I give a bunch of stats, here I will just be listing the books I read during the previous month under the challenges to which they apply. To see where I am at between these posts, check out my Reading Challenges tab above.

This Month: 1 --- Total: 8/75
Icons by Margaret Stohl (Icons #1)

This Month: 1 --- Total: 2/12
The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler [Key Word: Dark]

This Month: 0 --- Total: 1/12

This Month: 1 --- Total: 8/40
The Dark Between by Sonia Gensler

This Month: 0 --- Total: 0/1

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ink Anticipation [19] - March 2014

Welcome to Ink Anticipation! This feature is for sharing the top five YA releases I am looking forward to this month. 

Don't forget to share your most anticipated releases in the comments!

Goodreads / Release Date: March 4th

Goodreads / Release Date: March 4th

Goodreads / Release Date: March 11th

Goodreads / Release Date: March 25th

Goodreads / Release Date: March 25th

Monday, February 24, 2014

Quirk Review: Icons (Icons #1) by Margaret Stohl

Title: Icons ~~ Author: Margaret Stohl
Series: Icons ~~ Release Date: 05/7/2013
Source: local library

From Goodreads:

Your heart beats only with their permission.

Everything changed on The Day. The day the windows shattered. The day the power stopped. The day Dol's family dropped dead. The day Earth lost a war it didn't know it was fighting.

Since then, Dol has lived a simple life in the countryside -- safe from the shadow of the Icon and its terrifying power. Hiding from the one truth she can't avoid.

She's different. She survived. Why?

When Dol and her best friend, Ro, are captured and taken to the Embassy, off the coast of the sprawling metropolis once known as the City of Angels, they find only more questions. While Ro and fellow hostage Tima rage against their captors, Dol finds herself drawn to Lucas, the Ambassador's privileged son. But the four teens are more alike than they might think, and the timing of their meeting isn't a coincidence. It's a conspiracy.

Within the Icon's reach, Dol, Ro, Tima, and Lucas discover that their uncontrollable emotions -- which they've always thought to be their greatest weaknesses -- may actually be their greatest strengths.

I'm a big fan of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's Caster Chronicles, so when the pair came out with solo projects, I knew I would read them. I started with Stohl's Icons. I wasn't sure what to expect since this wasn't a magical tale but a sci-fi one, so I went in to it cautiously optimistic.

Starting out, I enjoyed the writing style because Stohl is able to craft amazing images and emotions with her words. But later on there were weak spots. One issue was moments of telling that cropped up enough to make me take notice. The pacing and transitions throughout the story were also off and certain things, specifically relationships and parts of the action scenes, just didn't seem to connect or work fluidly.

I loved the contrast between the countryside Mission where Dol and Ro live to where they end up, the harsh, locked-down Embassy. And while I've never been to Los Angeles (a.k.a. the Hole), having the Icon sitting on the site of one of its famous landmarks (the Griffith Observatory) helped me to imagine some of the locations and action more clearly.

Dol was a good character at first. I liked her relationship with Ro and the Padre, but once Lucas came into the picture and was there to stay, Dol lost her spunk. She became interested in him while at the same time realizing she might have feelings for Ro. While Dol and Ro have an established relationship, the leg of the triangle between Dol and Lucas felt underdeveloped, despite them moving things along at random times. I'm not much for love triangles, and in this one, I don't like either of the guys as a love interest.

I initially liked Ro but he was the kind of character that no matter how good he might be, he was still a ticking time bomb and that made him dangerous. Lucas was interesting at first, being the son of the Ambassador and yet seeming to fall for the potential rebel in Dol, but he lacked a backbone and was bland overall.

Lucas's friend Tima was the most attention-grabbing of the bunch. We don't get her full back story, but whatever has happened in her past, plus her emotional gift/curse, has done a number on her and this manifests in some eerie and surprising ways.

The relationships between the four main characters were complicated, which was good, but at times it was typical and expected, and thus, boring. Dol seemed the most fleshed out but that could be attributed to being in her head the whole time since the story was told in her first person point of view.

Some other notable characters were Doc and Fortis and I loved them both because they added heart and humor to the story. The villains, the Ambassador and her goon squad, were typical and yet had some shocking moments of cruelty. We don't get to see the alien Lords that control the Icons (and that felt like a carrot dangling in front of me that I really wanted to get to).

I've already mentioned most everything I took issue with, so the only thing I want to add is that while the premise and the world-building were fantastic, the plot and execution were just average, making it difficult for me to tell if I really liked the story or not.

I just mentioned the world-building, and my absolute favorite part of the novel was that between the chapters we get reports, memorandums, and articles involving the Icons, Lords, and other topics. I loved these little snippets of info, and the farther you got into the story, the more these reports and things made sense.

And while were given quite a chunk of information by the end of the novel, there is still so much more that is unknown that I really want to find out.

While average and predictable in many instances, I still mostly enjoyed Icons. Stohl's strengths seem to lie her her descriptions and world-building, so I'm looking forward to more of that in the sequel, Idols, and hope that some of the weaker elements are improved.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Quirk Review: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Title: Ketchup Clouds ~~ Author: Annabel Pitcher
Series: None ~~ Release Date: 11/12/2013
Source: local library

From Goodreads:

Dear Mr. S. Harris,

Ignore the blob of red in the top left corner. It's jam, not blood, though I don't think I need to tell you the difference. It wasn't your wife's jam the police found on your shoe. . . .

I know what it's like.

Mine wasn't a woman. Mine was a boy. And I killed him exactly three months ago.

Zoe has an unconventional pen pal--Mr. Stuart Harris, a Texas Death Row inmate and convicted murderer. But then again, Zoe has an unconventional story to tell. A story about how she fell for two boys, betrayed one of them, and killed the other.

Hidden away in her backyard shed in the middle of the night with a jam sandwich in one hand and a pen in the other, Zoe gives a voice to her heart and her fears after months of silence. Mr. Harris may never respond to Zoe's letters, but at least somebody will know her story--somebody who knows what it's like to kill a person you love. Only through her unusual confession can Zoe hope to atone for her mistakes that have torn lives apart, and work to put her own life back together again.

I'd seen this book available from my library, but it wasn't until I saw that it was up for a 2014 Edgar Award that I was curious enough to find out what it was about. The premise caught me immediately, so I borrowed the book and hoped for the best.

This was one of those contemporaries that is full of atmosphere in a way that most contemp stories aren't. Pitcher writes with a tone that is weighty and quiet and draws you in immediately and keeps you throughout.

I'm not sure where exactly in England this is set, but the setting was really only a backdrop for the emotional journey of the main character, Zoe. The biggest indicator of the location was the British vocabulary and the fact that Zoe walked everywhere, making her home feel like a smaller town or city and not somewhere like London.

Zoe feels a lot of guilt about killing someone and decides she needs to tell someone (because she feels like she got away with it), so she picks a death row inmate, Stuart Harris, in Texas. I thought how she opens up to him was really interesting. She creates this one-sided bond with him and without ever hearing from him, imagines how she and him are alike and what he must feel like having killed his wife.

As Zoe explains her life before the big event, I found before-Zoe uncompelling. There wasn't really anything wrong with her, just that the whole confusion that caused her to be torn between two boys could have been solved with a couple conversations. After-Zoe had a lot more going on in terms of emotional turmoil, not just because of the event but also because of her family. I enjoyed her growth over the course of her sending the letters to Stuart Harris.

The two boys/love interests - Max and Aaron - weren't really enamoring for me as a reader, though I could see why Zoe cared about each of them. Max seemed to be more emotionally complex due to his relationship with this father, while Aaron was more well-adjusted and comfortable with himself. However, Max, maybe in part to his father issues, was more the immature teenage boy and Aaron, maybe due to the age difference between him and Zoe, could be arrogant.

Zoe's family was probably my favorite part of the book. Her parents were dealing with keeping the family afloat through different problems as well as navigating their own relationship with each other.. Zoe's little sister Sophie, the middle child, obviously had issues with their other sister Dot being the focus of so much attention, and I liked how she relied on Zoe to understand her and how close their relationship was. Dot was the cute youngest kid who had her own struggle with being deaf. How the family worked and didn't work as a whole felt real and relatable and I loved how they all kept trying and eventually found a way to make everything work.

While the premise of this story was enthralling, I felt that it ultimately wasn't satisfying. On Zoe's end the letters were a vehicle for her character growth. But the one thing I wanted was to hear what Stuart Harris, the death row inmate, thought of Zoe's confessions and her . I thought that somehow we would get to hear his thoughts, maybe about how he related to Zoe or how he thought she was completely wrong in her imaginings of him, but we get nothing on that front.

What we do get is an unsent letter written to Zoe by one of the boys. It added to the bittersweet tone of the ending, but ultimately it wasn't his thoughts I cared about (as they were fairly obvious anyway).

Another issue I had with the book was that I got confused about the timeline of Zoe's family problems. In her letters to Harris, Zoe talks about both present events and past events. When talking about the boys, it is easy to understand that those events are in the past. But when it came to her family, it was hard to keep track of which problems were happening concurrently with Zoe's love triangle and which were happening during the present timeline.

The final thing that bothered me about the book was how, after everything is revealed, what Zoe did was not equal to what Stuart Harris did. From the beginning of the book, Zoe talks about the death of one of the boys as if she killed him, when really, the intent was not there. Zoe may have felt that way about what had happened, but really, it took all the edge out of the story. I actually expected the true nature of the big event and hoped I'd be proved wrong. If she Zoe really had intended to hurt someone, that would have made a bigger impact and made the book more unique from the typical tragedy it ended up being.

While Ketchup Clouds is well-written, has an interesting structure, and has fantastic family drama, the main part of the story focusing on the mystery surrounding Zoe and her love interests was average and predictable. This book could have been one that stuck with me beyond the final page, but the edge implied in the synopsis just wasn't there and that lessened the impact. This book didn't completely work for me, but Pitcher's writing was good enough that I might try her debut novel My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece or another future story.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Reading Challenge Update [January 2014]

Hey quirks! Welcome to my Reading Challenge Update (RCU). I'm doing a few of the same challenges as last year, and I added a couple new ones as well. I'm really excited about these challenges because challenges like these pushed me to read more in 2013, so I hope the same will happen this year because my goals are even bigger!

Unlike my Goodreads Rundowns where I give a bunch of stats, here I will just be listing the books I read during the previous month under the challenges to which they apply. To see where I am at between these posts, check out my Reading Challenges tab above.

This Month: 7 --- Total: 7/75
Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill
Saving Raphael Santiago by Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan (The Bane Chronicles #6)
City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments #5)
Champion by Marie Lu (Legend #3)
What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang (The Hybrid Chronicles #1)
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando
Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

This Month: 1 --- Total: 1/12
Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita (Secrets of My Hollywood Life #1) [Key Word: Secret]

This Month: 1 --- Total: 1/12
The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson (Shades of London #2) [Motif: Around the World]

This Month: 7 --- Total: 7/40
Meant to Be by Lauren Morrill
The Savage Grace by Bree Despain (The Dark Divine #3)
Champion by Marie Lu (Legend #3)
Shadow Eyes by Dusty Crabtree
What's Left of Me by Kat Zhang (The Hybrid Chronicles #1)
 The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson (Shades of London #2)
Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita (Secrets of My Hollywood Life #1)

This Month: 0 --- Total: 0/1

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Quirk Review: Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

Title: Roomies ~~ Author: Sara Zarr and
Tara Altebrando
Series: None ~~ Release Date: 12/24/2013
Source: local library

From Goodreads:

It's time to meet your new roomie.

When East Coast native Elizabeth receives her freshman-year roommate assignment, she shoots off an e-mail to coordinate the basics: television, microwave, mini-fridge. That first note to San Franciscan Lauren sparks a series of e-mails that alters the landscape of each girl's summer -- and raises questions about how two girls who are so different will ever share a dorm room.

As the countdown to college begins, life at home becomes increasingly complex. With family relationships and childhood friendships strained by change, it suddenly seems that the only people Elizabeth and Lauren can rely on are the complicated new boys in their lives . . . and each other. Even though they've never met.

National Book Award finalist Sara Zarr and acclaimed author Tara Altebrando join forces for a novel about growing up, leaving home, and getting that one fateful e-mail that assigns your college roommate.

Despite not having read any of Sara Zarr's books, I'm a fan. She has a great blog and a podcast all about the writing life. Sadly, before this book, I'd never heard of Tara Altebrando. But together they became part of my TBR list when I learned about Roomies. I've grown to appreciate and enjoy contemporary YA, and in addition to the dual POV, this book focused on a period of time in the YA life that I haven't seen written about very much - the summer after high school/before college. I remember that time in my life and I was interested in seeing what kind of story Zarr and Altebrando could make out of it.

I like when contemporaries have writing that is simple and direct because the story is supposed to be realistic (because people don't usually go around describing their surroundings in flowery language), but there was a level of honesty and heart in the writing of this book that went above and beyond that need. It wasn't always smooth, but it made the two main characters, Elizabeth and Lauren, feel like actual people dealing with real, and sometimes awkward, issues.

I enjoyed the portrayal of the two main settings - New Jersey and San Fransisco - because it did not rely on stereotypes. The locations were described in the way that the characters saw them, because they lived there, not how the rest of the world might think of them. For Elizabeth, who lived in New Jersey, her home was the beach, her usually empty house, and the lawns and gardens of the homes she landscaped. Lauren's San Fransisco wasn't hills and trolley's and the Golden Gate Bridge; it was the sandwich shop and the insurance office where she worked, and her house filled to the brim with family members. I also appreciated how those stereotypes were brought up and thought/talked about and that the kind of people (again, stereotyped) who live in a place are often thought of as being part of that setting, which isn't something I've found in most books.

The novel begins with Elizabeth's POV. She's a girl who is into landscaping, babysitting, has friends, a boyfriend, a semi-absent mother, and a completely absent father. I was ambivalent about Elizabeth at first, maybe because I didn't relate much to her. She seemed to have a fairly normal life with a couple of issues, but she also seemed to have an element of temper/unreasonableness. This aspect of her got worse as the story went along, but thankfully she eventually learned that, despite what she feels, she may not be right about certain situations. Elizabeth was also bold in standing up for what she wanted and I really liked that about her.

Laruen, Elizabeth's potential roomie, I liked from the start. She is the eldest of six kids and is basically a third parent because she is so much older than the rest of them. She did well enough in school to get a full scholarship, and she has to work two jobs to save up money for living on campus because her family is strapped for money due to its size. She has a hectic life, and if I were her, I would have blown my top way more than she had, considering how put upon she is by the needs of her family. While she didn't have as much growth as Elizabeth, she did learn to better appreciate the people in her life, as well as to put herself out there more and not hide herself away from those around her.

Seeing Elizabeth and Lauren change because of their new-found relationship with each other was really cool. It wasn't a smooth or easy path for either of them, but the realistic way they became entangled with each other's lives was touching.

The families of Elizabeth and Lauren were interesting. Elizabeth's mom is not what I'd call a model parent by any means, but I loved how, like her daughter, she grows throughout the course of the story and her relationship with Elizabeth improved (you could also see where Elizabeth got her stubborn streak). Lauren's family is full of cute and sometimes obnoxious kids, but her parents are great. They were funny and warm and I loved their relationship with each other as well as with Lauren.

There were some love interests in the story that I really like. Elizabeth had a fun and heartfelt relationship with the son of client, Mark, that had some really unfortunate complications. How things turned out for them was not exactly what I expected, but I liked it. Similarly, Lauren had a stuttering, awkward relationship with her coworker, Keyon, and that also turned out unexpectedly. Keyon was a great character and his family was amazing as well.

Because the girls' are still at home during the novel, their high school friends, Justine for Elizabeth and Zoe for Lauren, make many appearances. As Elizabeth and Lauren get to know each other, their relationships with their respective best friends was explored. I appreciated this aspect because it showed what could happen between long time friends when a big change like going away to college comes along. Sometimes they remain the kind of friends you keep in touch with while you are apart, and sometimes you only talk to them when you are back in the same town, but it was refreshing that a book focused a good portion on friendship and how it changes.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the novel, but I did feel like something was missing. The only thing I can think of is that the plot is very simple - two potential college roommates begin emailing each other - and the rest of the story flows from the characters. This was definitely what I'd call a character driven book, but my personal preference (or at least the books that really leave a mark on me) are equally character and plot driven, or even lean more on the plot driven side. This is just a "me" thing, so even though I did enjoy the book, I can't say I was completely captivated and engrossed by it.

I've been trying to keep myself from repeating this word, but so much of the book - the conversations, the interactions, the thoughts - were so awkward that it really made the book feel more realistic than most. It wasn't the cringe-worthy kind of awkward, but the kind that you know everyone deals with at some point - not knowing what to say, wondering if you're being insensitive, trying to figure out if a problem is because of someone else or you - so the book and the characters were extremely relatable.

I also loved the honesty that filled the book. Things like race, sexuality, and economic status were discussed with questions and ideas that many people wonder about but usually don't say for fear of embarrassment of for coming off the wrong way. Keyon is a big part of this because he is black and Lauren is white, and while she recognizes there is nothing wrong with that, she also is aware that by trying to not make it a thing, it still might be a thing depending on her thoughts and actions. She also realizes that Keyon's mom is probably dealing with this as well when she meets her, and I thought that was really enlightened and just added to the sentiment that we are all human.

Throughout the book I wondered how it would end, and I liked how the authors concluded the story. Speaking of the authors, I could not tell that this was written by two people. It is my understanding that each author wrote one of the POVs, but I couldn't guess who wrote what because the POVs worked so flawlessly with each other.

Awkwardly real, fun, and touching, Roomies is a great contemporary addition to YA that focuses on a time when teens are trying to figure out how to handle growing up and moving on. While it wasn't perfect for me, I would recommend this to any realistic fiction fan, and I plan on checking out what else Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando have written.

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