Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. 

She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

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Set in New Orleans in the 1950s, Out of the Easy was recently named one of YALSA’s Top 10 Fiction picks of 2014.  Although historical fiction does not usually appeal to me, I have come across some recent titles that may change my perception of the genre.  Check out The Diviners (1920s), and In the Shadow of Blackbirds (Spanish Influenza-1918).

The protagonist, seventeen year old, Josie opens the book with “my mother’s a prostitute” and I was immediately hooked.  I loved reading about New Orleans’ dodgy underbelly!  Influenced by her abusive gangster boyfriend, neglect and crime qualify Josie’s mother for the worst mother of the year.  Because of her situation, Josie has become one strong willed, determined, independent lady who earns a living by working in a bookstore and cleaning the brothel.  Readers will be rooting for Josie as she works to escape ‘The Big Easy’ to attend college with her new uptown friend. However, Josie’s dreams are slashed when the mob targets her for retribution of her mother’s actions. Fortunately, Josie has some wonderful  supporters to help her along the way.  My favourite being Willie, the brothel madam.  She is terrifying, but always looks out for Josie. Although many scenes are set in the brothel, Septeys keeps it pretty clean.

Framed by a murder mystery, this novel will keep your interest and stay with you for a long time.  A recommended read to fans of historical fiction.

More praise:

* “With a rich and realistic setting, a compelling and entertaining first-person narration, a colorful cast of memorable characters and an intriguing storyline, this is a surefire winner. Immensely satisfying.” —Kirkus, *Starred Review*

* “[A]nother taut and charged historical novel… Sepetys has also built a stellar cast. Readers will find Josie irresistible from the get-go and will devour the sultry mix of mystery, historical detail, and romance.” —Publishers Weekly, *Starred Review*

* “A Dickensian array of characters; the mystique, ambience, and language of the French Quarter; a suspenseful, action-packed story. With dramatic and contextual flair, Sepetys introduces teens to another memorable heroine.” —School Library Journal, *Starred Review*

 

Man Made Boy by Jon Skovron

Love can be a real monster.

Sixteen-year-old Boy’s never left home. When you’re the son of Frankenstein’s monster and the Bride, it’s tough to go out in public, unless you want to draw the attention of a torch-wielding mob. And since Boy and his family live in a secret enclave of monsters hidden under Times Square, it’s important they maintain a low profile.

Boy’s only interactions with the world are through the Internet, where he’s a hacker extraordinaire who can hide his hulking body and stitched-together face behind a layer of code. When conflict erupts at home, Boy runs away and embarks on a cross-country road trip with the granddaughters of Jekyll and Hyde, who introduce him to malls and diners, love and heartbreak. But no matter how far Boy runs, he can’t escape his demons—both literal and figurative—until he faces his family once more.

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Prepare to embark on a journey that crosses all genres.  Fantasy, romance, and humour are all included in this techno-thriller that features various creatures, including the son of Frankenstein’s monster and the Monster’s Bride, Boy. As Boy struggles to find his place in the world, he quickly learns valuable lessons on responsibility and failure.

Initially, I was intrigued by the creative premise of the book.  How cool would it be if magical and mythological creatures were hidden in communes around the world?  While I enjoyed the multitude of characters, I found a lot of them made a quick cameo and didn’t add anything to the story.  I wish these interesting characters (Invisible man, Sphinx, Dragon Lady, Mozart the werewolf) were further explored!

Techies will love the computer coding aspect and the inclusion of VI (a computer virus). I liked the change up of text when Boy navigated cyberspace and participated in instant messaging chat.  However, my knowledge of hacking and coding is limited, and I found myself skipping over some of the lengthier descriptions of code talk.

Although Man Made Boy includes a variety of genres, potential readers should be made aware of the mature language and nonchalant mentioning of sex.   If you enjoy retellings or re-imaginings of classic stories, than perhaps Man Made Boy is for you!

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are. They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Macallan’s friends. They are platonic and happy that way.

Eventually they realize they’re best friends — which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep getting in each other’s way. Guys won’t ask Macallan out because they think she’s with Levi, and Levi spends too much time joking around with Macallan, and maybe not enough time with his date. They can’t help but wonder . . . are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?

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My Scholastic Rep knows my reading preferences, and swore I’d LOVE this book. She sent me an advanced reading copy, and I immediately dove in to this sweet, contemporary story.  Throughout high school, I too had a very close male friend and I’m sure our families wondered if, at some point, it would turn romantic. For us, we truly were and ARE better off friends! However, it was still fun reading this fairly predictable (but cute) story about two best friends falling in love.

Every chapter switches between Levi and Macallan’s perspective.  Although they have distinct voices, readers are clued into the change with two visuals.  The first is a greyed out male/female image mirroring the front cover, and the other is a different font.  The start of each chapter begins with Levi and Macallan’s flirty banter as they look back at the progression of their relationship.  Even in the earlier chapters, it’s obvious that crush signs were there.  “If I had only one goal in life, it would be to make her laugh loudly everyday (pg.82)”.  Pretty sure that’s not a typical ‘friend’ statement.

Besides the romance, I loved the emphasis on the family. Both Levi’s and Macallan’s family are consistently involved throughout the book. As Levi and Macallan become inseperable, their welcoming, supportive, and protective families also grow tight. It was refreshing to read about teens that understand and embrace the importance of family.

Overall, I enjoyed this wholesome (no booze, sex, or swearing!), high school romance. Although it was my first Elizabeth Eulberg read, I’m sure it won’t be my last.  Look for Better Off Friends in February 2014.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

In 1918, the world seems on the verge of apocalypse. Americans roam the streets in gauze masks to ward off the deadly Spanish influenza, and the government ships young men to the front lines of a brutal war, creating an atmosphere of fear and confusion. Sixteen-year-old Mary Shelley Black watches as desperate mourners flock to séances and spirit photographers for comfort, but she herself has never believed in ghosts. During her bleakest moment, however, she’s forced to rethink her entire way of looking at life and death, for her first love—a boy who died in battle—returns in spirit form. But what does he want from her?
shadow

After putting down three YA titles in a row, In the Shadows of Blackbirds rescued me from my reading slump! The cover, beautiful writing, and haunting photographs immediately drew me in and captured my interest. This historical fiction novel is set in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza and narrated by sixteen year old, Mary Shelley Black. Named after Frankenstein’s author, Mary Shelley is one brave, headstrong heroine- not even war or Death himself can stop her.

Throughout the novel, it is clear that Winters had done a fair amount of research into the time period.  The setting is described in detail and events historically accurate. Gauze masks, public health warnings, visible coffins and death in the streets are not overlooked. Not only was this an enjoyable read, but also an educational one.  I didn’t realize the extent of confusion and panic the flu created, and the many uses of onions! The inclusion of black and white pictures sprinkled throughout work as a dreary visual reminder of the damaging effects of war.  I now can understand the desperation of mourners seeking comfort from spirit photographers and séances.

The plot revolves around the haunting mystery of what happened to Mary Shelley’s ‘sweetheart’ Stephen.  Winters had me guessing along with Shelley, and I was surprised by the violent and brutal ending.  Despite this, a great cast of characters, historical details, romance , mystery and tragedy all amount to one fantastic recommended read!

If you liked the mystery and suspense of  In the Shadow of Blackbirds, check out The Diviners by Libba Bray.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (If I Stay #1)

In a single moment, everything changes. Seventeen-year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck…

A sophisticated, layered, and heart-achingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make, and the ultimate choice Mia commands.

if i stay

Seven years ago, I lost a friend to injuries sustained in a car accident. She too, was in a coma and fought her hardest to stay with us. Ultimately, she lost the battle two weeks later. Clearly, this was an emotional read for me.

As the sole survivor in a car accident that killed her parents and brother, Mia now lies in a coma.  In first person narrative, she chronicles her life with retellings of important events  (first recital, meeting her boyfriend, etc.).  She continuously switches between past and present in deciding whether to live or die. In the present, she exists as an invisible observer; a spirit that watches over her body and observes the impact of the accident on her family and friends. There is an extremely heartbreaking scene with Mia and her grandpa where he recognizes her pain and tells her that he understands why it would be okay if she chose to pass on.  I couldn’t imagine being in Mia’s situation and as a reader, I wasn’t sure what her final decision would be.  You have to read the book yourself to find out!

Music has an overwhelming influence on Mia’s life and plays an integral part of the story. Music is the constant thread that ties aspects of Mia’s life together.  Although I don’t play an instrument seriously (I pick up my guitar every now and again), it was interesting to hear how she perceived situations with her musical lens, especially the very intimate scene in which Mia and her boyfriend pretend their bodies are instruments to play.

Overall, If I Stay is a quick, intense and moving book.  There are no chapter headings; instead the story is organized by time.  Mia’s grim diagnosis fluctuates constantly so every second truly counts.   I will definitely be continuing this emotional read with book #2, Where She Went. 

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

 

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.

 

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Although I’ve never read H.G Wells’ The Island of Dr.Moreau, the book jacket synopsis of a Gothic thriller appealed to me. With elements of suspense, action, mystery and romance, I was immediately immersed in the story. The atmosphere and setting of a remote jungle island only added to the creep factor. Juliet’s father, the mad scientist, Dr.Moreau, makes for a perfect villain. I found it super easy to hate him (especially for his misogynistic views). His disturbing creature creations were so vividly described, that I fear I will come across them again in nightmares.

In terms of pacing, the plot does have some slower periods in the middle, which consists of walking/running through the forest, but for the most part, it held my attention. However, I could have done without Juliet’s love triangle, and her back and forth indecisive thoughts between Montgomery and Edward. Shepherd included a couple of predictable twists, but the last one caught me completely off guard. The action ramped up in the end…. eventually leading to the ultimate betrayal.  Personally, I don’t see the need for a sequel, but there is one in the works (expected publication January 2014). Recommended to those that like dark, twisted, Gothic reads.

Bookit Review: Ruby Red (Ruby Red Trilogy #1) by Kerstin Gier translated by Anthea Bell

Yay! My guest blogger, BookIt returns with a review of Ruby Red. Enjoy!

Ruby Red is the first book of a popular German trilogy that has been recently translated and getting great reviews. The first two books Ruby Red, and Sapphire Blue are available in English, and the last book Emerald Green will hopefully be released in English later this year.

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From Goodreads:

Gwyneth Shepherd’s sophisticated, beautiful cousin Charlotte has been prepared her entire life for traveling through time. But unexpectedly, it is Gwyneth, who in the middle of class takes a sudden spin to a different era!

Gwyneth must now unearth the mystery of why her mother would lie about her birth date to ward off suspicion about her ability, brush up on her history, and work with Gideon–the time traveler from a similarly gifted family that passes the gene through its male line, and whose presence becomes, in time, less insufferable and more essential. Together, Gwyneth and Gideon journey through time to discover who, in the 18th century and in contemporary London, they can trust.

Gwyneth comes from a family of time travellers, in which the time traveller gene is passed down each generation to one female. They are then burdened with the mysterious responsibility of helping to complete a secret mission under the guidance and control of a secret society known as the Guardians. Right from the beginning you can tell that it will be the inexperienced and funny 16 year old Gywenth, and not her perfect and snotty cousin Charlotte that will end up with the gene. Although, predicable for the reader, it leads to a fantastic storyline in which you can’t help but root for the heroine as she learns the ropes of this new and exciting world in which she has been destined to play a crucial role.

I loved so many things book. Set in Britain, the British translator Anthea Bell, did a fantastic job of ensuring that the humor and language was authentic to the storyline. I even wondered if she helped to improve the original text.  Check out this link from Publisher Weekly in which she answers questions about translating metaphors, puns, jokes etc.

Overall,  if you are looking for an exciting time travel adventure with a splash of romance that will make you laugh you should pick up Ruby Red. I will say that it is light, sparse of agonising drama, with more of an end of middle school feel and thus could be recommended for the younger readers of teen fiction.

Overall it was a 4 out of 5 book for me.

Happy reading,

Bookit

Review: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

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I simply cannot begin this review without mentioning the beautiful cover.  It is one of my recent favourites. While I try not to choose my books by beautiful covers, I find myself visually swayed every time.  After the cover, I immediately read the synopsis. In this case, the synopsis didn’t give too much away (see below). However, I think it was just enough dark and creepy to persuade me to pick it up.

Synopsis:

Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there.
It can.
She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed.
There is.
She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love.
She’s wrong.

Oooohh creepy! It gets even more fantastic with the handwritten note by ‘Mara’ in which she refers to murders and the use of a pseudonym for protection.   The eerie darkness is continued throughout storyline and plot. The plot itself had A LOT going on, including kidnapping, murder(s), alligators, hallucinations, and a dog rescue.  I really enjoyed piecing the puzzle together along with Mara.  However, one aspect I didn’t enjoy was the romance piece.  I’m sure many readers were swooning over the bad boy Noah, but I just couldn’t like someone accused of ‘using and discarding girls like condoms’.   Yuck.

The ending had me as confused as Mara.  HUH? HOW?  This allowed Hodkin to end with a very huge cliff hanger moment and clearly readers will want to pick up book two ‘The Evolution of Mara Dyer ‘immediately.

 

Review: Winter town by Stephen Emond

Every winter, straight-laced, Ivy League bound Evan looks forward to a visit from Lucy, a childhood pal who moved away after her parent’s divorce. But when Lucy arrives this year, she’s changed. The former “girl next door” now has chopped dyed black hair, a nose stud, and a scowl. But Evan knows that somewhere beneath the Goth, “Old Lucy” still exists, and he’s determined to find her… even if it means pissing her off.

I think Emonds did a great job at writing a contemporary YA novel that tackles issues that have long plagued teens and young adults. In the book, Lucy is experiencing the effects of a broken home and turning to drugs and alcohol. On the flip side, Evan is dealing with his micromanaging parents and trying to live up to their expectations.

Both Evan’s and Lucy’s story is told in third person. The first half is Evan’s perspective and the second is Lucy’s. I found that it was less confusing than alternating chapters. It is interesting to note that Evan’s chapters were named after Beatles songs, and Lucy’s had Beach Boys (their favourite artists).

Visual elements played a big part in the book starting with the beautiful cover.  Circles created from a hole punch were used as snow!  Since art/comics are significant in both Evan and Lily’s lives there are bits of cartoons throughout the story. At the beginning of every chapter there is also a two-page cartoon spread. I’m not a huge cartoon/graphic novel lover so I have to admit I didn’t quite understand Evan’s drawings of ‘Aelysthia’ (Evan and Lucy’s made up fantasy world).

Overall, many teens will be able to relate to having dysfunctional families, the difficulty of maintaining childhood friendships, and living up to others expectations.  The book will also appeal to those that appreciate graphics to break up the text.

In the end, the book reminded me to not ‘sweat the small stuff’ in my daily life as others around me are often dealing with much bigger issues. On tough days, try to remember:


Book Review: Anna and the French kiss by Stephanie Perkins

                 

 

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris – until she meets Etienne St. Clair: perfect, Parisian (and English and American, which makes for a swoon-worthy accent), and utterly irresistible. The only problem is that he’s taken, and Anna might be, too, if anything comes of her almost-relationship back home.

J’adore this book.  I devoured this YA romance chick lit book within a day.  Chalk full of teen entertainment and drama, this book will transport you back to your teenage years. Perkins is able to nail every aspect of having a teenage crush. The sweet romance between Anna and Etienne St.Clair (swoon) will make you blush and put a goofy smile on your face. It is a gradual, complicated love that readers will eat up.  The best part? This love story is set in the most romantic city in the world- PARIS! Clearly, Perkins did her research on the city before including details about food, arts, and architecture. I’ve never been to Paris, but this book has made me want to go even more! Sigh…

I also really loved the rich cast of secondary characters–Josh, Meredith, Rashmi, and Bridget. All of these high school students face real problems ranging from relationships, friendships and parents. They realistically handle the situations as any teen would. In the end, readers will connect with these individuals and feel apart of this group of friends.

Overall, this book is an entirely addictive, fun read. Please don’t dismiss it for the cliché title and cover.

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