Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stealing Heaven - Elizabeth Scott

Dani has been trained as a thief by the best - her mother. Together, they move from town to town, targeting wealthy homes and making a living by stealing antique silver. They never stay in one place long enough to make real connections, real friends - a real life. In the beach town of Heaven, though, everything changes. For the first time, Dani starts to feel at home. She's making friends and has even met a guy. But these people can never know the real Dani - because of who she is. When it turns out that her new friend lives in the house they've targeted for their next job and the cute guy is a cop, Dani must question where her loyalties lie: with the life she's always known - or the one she's always wanted.

I'd been reading good things about Elizabeth Scott for a while, but Stealing Heaven is the first Scott book I've read, and I've definitely been missing out. I wasn't initially too excited about reading about about thievery, but then I remembered how much I loved (and still love) The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke, and reminded myself not to have preconceptions about books on a certain topic.

In Stealing Heaven, Scott does a masterful job of making the reader empathize with not only the main characters, but the secondary ones as well - even those who are not necessarily bundles of love, joy and morality. I often felt pity for Danielle's mother, who is seemingly incapable of happily leading any life but one of lies and crime, and who distances herself from anyone she might come close to truly caring for. Danielle, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to lead the "normal" life her mother abhors - to get a chance to have friends, or even to really know someone besides her mother. In my opinion, the best books are populated by people one could meet on the street, and this is definitely the case with Stealing Heaven. While the plot in the book is also interesting, well thought-out, and occasionally suspenseful, the characters are definitely the most important element.

There is also a romantic interest in Stealing Heaven, as one could guess from the above synopsis, and I suppose some might classify the book as a romance novel. However, I don't see it that way - there are strong romantic elements in the book, but they weren't what dominated my reading of the story. Rather, the struggles and hopes of the characters, not to mention the characters themselves, drove the novel forward and kept me reading attentively to the end. I would wholeheartedly recommend Stealing Heaven.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Witch Hill - Marcus Sedgwick

The fire in his house was a family tragedy that Jamie can't forget. Fire dominates his waking thoughts and his dreams. When his family sends him away to Crownhill to recover, they don't realize they are sending him to a village with its own dark history of witchcraft - and with ancient buried powers that are unleashed by Jamie's presence. A present-day boy, a seventeenth-century girl, and an ancient crone: for a single moment, their lives are fused by fire.

This was one of those books that I picked up randomly at the library. I had heard of Marcus Sedgwick, but hadn't read any of his work, so I figured that the 147 pages of Witch Hill would be a good place to start. After re-reading Ethan Frome this afternoon in preparation for an AP English test, I thought Witch Hill would be a refreshing read.

This book is definitely a quick read - it took me about an hour to read it straight through. Sedgwick's prose is fast-paced, but not rushed, and Jamie's first-person narration kept me interested throughout the book. One thing that bothered me, though, is how long it took me to figure out how old Jamie was. At first, I thought he was around twelve or thirteen, but it became clear later on that he was around sixteen. To me, it seems like it should be more obvious how old a character is unless there is some purpose for obfuscating their age, and in this case, there was no such purpose as far as I could tell. On the whole, though, I greatly enjoyed Witch Hill, and I will look forward to reading The Restless Dead, the only other Sedgwick book my library owns.

Dead Politician Society - Robin Spano

After the mayor falls down dead in the middle of a speech, a clandestine student society claims credit for his demise. Claire Vengel is given her first undercover assignment: to pose as a student and penetrate the society. A streetwise amateur mechanic, Clare finds university a foreign land, and she has trouble creating an in with the suspects. She quickly alienates a popular professor and loses the respect of police superiors. When another politician is killed, Clare kicks herself into high gear. She forges friendships with students and makes inroads into the secret society. As the body count rises, Clare realizes that the murderer she has to unmask is someone she has come to consider a friend. She only hopes that the friend doesn't unmask her first.

I received Dead Politician Society through the Goodreads First Reads program. The book was released in hardcover on September 1 of this year, and is to my knowledge Robin Spano's first novel.

Clare, the main character in Dead Politician Society, is a highly immature young woman who behaves irresponsibly throughout most of the novel. However, it is entertaining to read about her many mishaps and attempts to impress her superiors. While Spano's writing is not particularly stylistically impressive, I enjoyed reading the book and the plot twists kept me reading. The characters were neither completely flat nor well fleshed out, but somewhere in between. Likewise, the plot was not completely unoriginal, but neither was it particularly fresh and new. As a whole, the book is clearly a first novel, and met my expectations as such. While I wouldn't rush out to buy the next Claire Vengel novel (I assume from the cover that there will be more), I would probably pick it up at the library, and I would look forward to seeing Spano improve her craft.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

Doctors took her cells without asking. Those cells never died. They launched a medical revolution and a multimillion-dollar industry. More than twenty years later, her children found out. Their lives would never be the same.

I picked this up in the library almost a month ago, and still hadn't read it. After renewing it once, I finally picked it up, and I couldn't be more glad. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman whose cells were harvested by doctors during the course of her treatment for cervical cancer. After Henrietta's death, those cells multiplied prolifically and have been used in a multitude of laboratories around the world. Skloot follows Henrietta's life, death, and her family's journey through their discovery of what Henrietta's cells meant to the scientific world.

While I enjoy nonfiction, I don't read nearly as much of it as I do fiction because it's generally more difficult for me to find nonfiction that I can thoroughly enjoy. However, this was not at all a problem with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. On the back of the book, a Booklist starred review is quoted as saying that Skloot writes with "a novelist's artistry, a biologist's expertise, and the zeal of an investigative reporter." This short quote just about sums up my experience with Skloot's writing. This book captivated me and kept me reading just as much as a good novel, while still remaining journalistic and clearly nonfiction. Rebecca Skloot manages to strike a perfect balance between style and substance. This balance, however, is not the main reason I enjoyed the book - Henrietta Lacks' story is simply fascinating, and I'm stunned that it has never been written about in such detail before. Again, a quote from the back of the book (this time from Ted Conover) says it perfectly: "This is exactly the sort of story that books were made to tell - thorough, detailed, quietly passionate, and full of revelation." I couldn't describe it better.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander - the heart of Larsson's two previous novels - lies in critical condition, a bullet wound to her head, in the intensive care unit of a Swedish city hospital. She's fighting for her life in more ways than one: if and when she recovers, she'll be taken back to Stockholm to stand trial for three murders. With the help of her friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, she will not only have to prove her innocence, but also identify and denounce those in authority who have allowed the vulnerable, like herself, to suffer abuse and violence. And, on her own, she will plot revenge - against the man who tried to kill her, and the corrupt government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. Once upon a time, she was a victim. Now Salander is fighting back.

I have waited such a long time to read this book - I had it on hold at the library since July 25, and it finally came in yesterday. Naturally, I didn't do much but read in my spare time yesterday or today, and I am absolutely delighted with this last book in the Millenium trilogy.

I was slightly worried that, after loving the first two books, I might be disappointed with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. This was definitely not the case. The plot kept my eyes glued to the page at every possible moment. Even though Salander is confined to a hospital bed or a prison cell throughout most of the story, the book manages not to feel stagnant in the slightest; the plot is always moving, though never rushed. Aside from this, all the characters are exceptionally well drawn. None of the characters are perfect, and none are completely "bad" either (some would probably disagree with me on the last bit, though). I feel Larsson had a very good insight into human nature and human behavior, and he was able to use that insight very well. The first two books, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, were exciting, well-written, had wonderful characters and a complex and captivating plot. In my opinion, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest surpassed them both.

Today, I was looking at Stieg Larsson's website and found that the Millenium trilogy was actually intended to be ten books, and that Larsson died while writing the fourth. Though I knew that he had died after submitting the first three novels to his publisher, I had no idea that there were originally supposed to be seven more. Some have hoped that Larsson's partner, Eva Gabrielsson, could finish the fourth book, but she is positive that this would not be legal in Sweden. For my own part, while I wish that Larsson was alive today and able to finish the ten books, I am glad that there is not likely to be anyone finishing the series in his stead - I feel like this very rarely works well. What's your opinion on the matter?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Passion - L.J. Smith

Back at the lab, captured like animals, Kaitlyn and her friends must face the true meaning of what the link means, and what their lineage is.  They also have the fight of their lives on their hands, as Dr. Xetes does his best to do them in.  But the real question for Kaitlyn is: Rob or Gabriel?  Sunlight or darkness?  Kait has to search her heart for the answer.

When I sat down to write this review, I realized how little I have to say about the book that I didn't already say in my reviews of The Strange Power and The Possessed. The plot is exciting but not particularly original, the characters are interesting and do develop to a reasonable extent, and the romance is rather (in my opinion, of course) trite. Just reading the above blurb, which I got from the author's website, kind of wants to make me throw up in my mouth. Fortunately, the actual book does not focus as much on romance as the blurb indicates - if it did, I don't think I would enjoy these books at all. As it is, I enjoyed the books, but I seriously doubt that I will ever re-read them, and while I'd recommend them to fans of paranormal romance or Twilight, I wouldn't strongly recommend them to anyone else. If they sound like you'd enjoy them, you probably would; otherwise, stay away.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Possessed - L.J. Smith

Kaitlyn and her buddies are on the run. Having learned the dark secrets of the psychic institute they head north, looking for shelter, not daring to even contact their parents or old friends. They're on their own in a race for time, when Kaitlyn discovers Gabriel's dark secret: he's a psychic vampire. He needs to drain other people's life-force to live, and he hasn't been doing it. What to do? Kait volunteers - and finds the experience not entirely unenjoyable.

After reading The Strange Power, the first book in the Dark Visions series, I was left with expectations that The Possessed be just as exciting as the first - and it was. Unfortunately, the romance is more played up in this book than in the first, which I decidedly do not prefer. However, the paranormal adventure part of the book was still more important and well done, so I'm sticking with the series. Again, this is definitely a light read, but it held my attention for the short time it took me to finish. Sorry for the short review, but I really don't have anything else to say about this one!

The Strange Power - L.J. Smith

Kaitlyn is an artist, but not an ordinary one. She draws pictures of things that are going to happen in the future. Everything she draws comes true - but sometimes she can't figure out what she's drawn until it's too late. Kait is only too happy when Dr. Zetes, a scientist who is studying psychic abilities, invites her to come to California and join his school of similarly talented individuals. There Kaitlyn meets golden boy Rob, a healer, and the dark lone wolf Gabriel who apparently wants nothing to do with her. But with so much supernatural energy going around, it's hardly surprising that the psychics develop a telepathic link that can't be broken.

 I was given the Dark Visions series - The Strange Power, The Possessed, and The Passion - last year, but I hadn't read them yet. In part, this was because the cover of my collective edition looked like it was meant to appeal to Twilight fans, and I'm definitely not a Twilight fan. I've been trying to go through some books that have been sitting around for a while, though, so I picked it up.

Though The Strange Power was written in 1994, I would never have guessed had I not checked the front of the book. After all, it shares the traits of the most widely marketed teen fiction today. Paranormal? Check. Romance? Check. Not only that, the romance side of the story is very similarly constructed to that of Twilight. Dark, brooding, mysterious boy? Check. Warm, kind, (sort of) innocent boy? Check. Fortunately, Kaitlyn is not nearly as sappy and weak-willed as I found Bella to be. Also fortunately, romance is not - at least, not so far - the main element of the book. For the moment, the paranormal fantasy element is stronger than the romance, and I'm really (really) hoping it stays that way throughout the trilogy.

All that said, The Strange Power kept me reading. I wanted to know what happened next, and I wanted to find out more about the characters. The premise was interesting, and the plot developed in an interesting, though not always unexpected, way. Without this, I doubt the book would have held my attention. As it is, though, I would recommend The Strange Power particularly to fans of the paranormal romance genre, and I am eager to see what the next two books have in store.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Everything Is Going to Be Great - Rachel Shukert

When she lands a coveted nonpaying, nonspeaking role in a play going on a European tour, Rachel Shukert - with a brand-new degree in acting from NYU and no money - finally scores her big break. And, after a fluke at customs in Vienna, she gets her golden ticket: an unstamped passport, giving her free rein to "find herself" on a grand tour of Europe. Traveling from Vienna to Zurich to Amsterdam, Rachel bounces through complicated relationships, drunken mishaps, miscommunication, and the reality-adjusting shock that every twentysomething faces when sent off to negotiate "the real world" - whatever that may be.

I received Everything Is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour from the publisher as a Goodreads First Read giveaway prize in August, and started it immediately. And then I got sidetracked. And sidetracked again. And again. And...well, you get the point. This wasn't because I didn't like the book, because I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it. I'm not actually sure why it took me so long to finish, but at any rate, I am finished (finally), and here's my review.

I was initially attracted to this book simply because it's about travel, and I am generally fond of travel books - in fact, a proportionally large amount of my favorite books involve travel of some kind. Also, I loved the cover, which affects my reading choices more than I might like to admit. Fortunately, I was not at all disappointed by Shukert's memoir. Her writing is hilarious and very tongue-in-cheek from the very first page: "There are many wonderful ways to use this book. For example, if you are removing a hot casserole dish from the oven and have misplaced all your trivets, you could use this book instead." While her style has the potential to come off as contrived, I didn't find it to be so; on the contrary, the book felt very honestly written. Though I did have to cringe at Rachel during several parts of the book (she makes some very stupid decisions over the course of the memoir), it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the book. On the whole, I definitely recommend Everything Is Going to Be Great.