Saturday, April 30, 2011

Review: Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty

Title: Second Helpings (Jessica Darling #2)
Author: Megan McCafferty
Publisher: Three Rivers
Release Date: April 22nd, 2003
Pages: 349
Jessica Darling is up in arms again in this much-anticipated, hilarious sequel to Sloppy Firsts. This time, the hyperobservant, angst-ridden teenager is going through the social and emotional ordeal of her senior year at Pineville High. Not only does the mysterious and oh-so-compelling Marcus Flutie continue to distract Jessica, but her best friend, Hope, still lives in another state, and she can’t seem to escape the clutches of the Clueless Crew, her annoying so-called friends. To top it off, Jessica’s parents won’t get off her butt about choosing a college, and her sister Bethany’s pregnancy is causing a big stir in the Darling household. 
Plot: 5/5
Creativity: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Impact: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Total, utter perfection.

If I had Jessica Darling’s way with words, I could probably come up with pages upon pages of praise delivered with wit and irreverence. But sadly I lack her talent, so I’m going to have to settle with telling my account of a book so wonderful and hope it doesn’t come across totally pedestrian.

With her usual bluntness and candor, Jessica reflects on her final two years of high school. Hope is still away in Tennessee and college applications breathing down her neck, Jessica feels more alone than ever, forced to deal with unrelenting Pineville life by herself. But things look a little better when Jessica gets herself a geek-cute boyfriend with a brain to match hers. Equipped with her black-and-white speckled journal and her first real relationship, Jessica might finally be able to forget about the enigmatic Marcus Flutie.

Everything that was left suspended in the first novel comes full-circle in Second Helpings. Jessica comes to terms with life without her soulmate and best friend Hope with her usual cocktail of candor and snark. Facing a whole new phase of her life- being in a relationship- she learns more about herself and her feelings, never compensating humor.

But even further than that, the rest of the characters are brought to light as well. The first novel orbits around Jessica and Marcus and their pseudorelationship, but this one discusses the supporting characters with more depth than its prequel. True to their roles, majority of the characters remain their flat, clueless selves, but they develop in a way that you see more of them and get to know them better. There are some exceptions, of course, who break out of the molds set for them in Sloppy Firsts and emerge as completely new people.

Marcus falls somewhere in between both of the categories. The catalyst for most of Jessica’s emotions- be it happiness, confusion, angst and everything else in between- in the first novel, he’s a mystery with the answer wrapped up within him, an open book albeit one in a completely foreign language, inscribed with a lexicon entirely his. But like any language, you begin to understand it as you read or hear more of it, though you never quite grasp its intricacies. Marcus, his character as well as his intentions, surfaces and transcends his riddle of an outer shell, but you don’t fully understand him as well. He’s not so much an abstract anymore, his true self more apparent, but still vague and distorted like an impressionist painting as opposed to a razor-sharp photograph. And in this respect, he becomes even more compelling than he was before, a montage of honesty and mystery.

A true beauty that shines so bright it upstages its predecessor, Second Helpings closes Jessica’s high school life with flourish and sass. I’m sort of hesitant to read the following novels because this one is already so perfect and ends on a high note that it feels like there’s nowhere else to go but down, but I’m taking the risk and keeping my fingers crossed that McCafferty pleasantly surprises me as she did with this one. Funny, romantic and real, and it gives a sufficient, heart-racing closure to the Jessica-Marcus tandem but leaves just enough room for more to take place. An ellipsis in nature, but a bold red exclamation point to me. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

Title: City of Fallen Angels (The Mortal Instruments #4)
Author: Cassandra Clare
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Release Date: April 5th, 2011
Pages: 424
City of Fallen Angels takes place two months after the events of City of Glass. In it, a mysterious someone’s killing the Shadowhunters who used to be in Valentine’s Circle and displaying their bodies around New York City in a manner designed to provoke hostility between Downworlders and Shadowhunters, leaving tensions running high in the city and disrupting Clary’s plan to lead as normal a life as she can — training to be a Shadowhunter, and pursuing her relationship with Jace. As Jace and Clary delve into the issue of the murdered Shadowhunters, they discover a mystery that has deeply personal consequences for them — consequences that may strengthen their relationship, or rip it apart forever. 
Meanwhile, internecine warfare among vampires is tearing the Downworld community apart, and only Simon — the Daylighter who everyone wants on their side — can decide the outcome; too bad he wants nothing to do with Downworld politics. Love, blood, betrayal and revenge: the stakes are higher than ever in City of Fallen Angels.
Plot: 4/5
Creativity: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Writing: 4/5
Impact: 4/5
Overall: 4/5 

The fourth installment in the famed Mortal Instruments series, City of Fallen Angels is another thrilling urban fantasy filled with originality and adventure. 

Taking place a few weeks after where City of Glass left off, the story is set back in New York. Clary is dealing with her new life as a Shadowhunter, and Simon is coming to terms with being a Daylighter and trying to manage dating Isabelle and Maia at the same time. Things are a little chaotic, but on the whole good. But Jace begins to stray away, and mysterious Downworlder deaths begin to surface. Did Clary and friends really find peace with Valentine's downfall, or was it just the beginning of the end?

For the first time in the entire series, the story is told mostly from Simon's point of view. Simon is a character I had a love-hate relationship with from the very beginning, ending in love in City of Glass, so it was really nice to be able to see things from his perspective. Along with the primary point of view, his character is also given the spotlight in this novel. Jace and Clary still play key roles, but Simon is given more attention than he's received in the previous books. I found myself really sympathyzing with him, and though he was never really a favorite of mine before, I have to say I enjoyed the change.

As with the three previous books, the action and creativity is alive and well in this novel. Clare is a total powerhouse- her imagination is simply amazing. I didn't think she could do it, but she manages to continue building on the story, adding more elements and characters, further enriching the series' urban fantasy background. Seriously, it's insane. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.

However, I didn't find this installment as gripping as the first three. The first three novels had me head-over-heels in love, staying up all hours just to read them. City of Fallen Angels didn't have that same effect for me. I can't really put my finger on what it is that kept me from loving it as much as the rest, but I felt like it just wasn't the same. But taken alone, the novel is still really good and packed to the brim with excitement, and I will definitely be picking up the next books in the series.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Title: Saving Francesca
Author: Melina Marchetta
Publisher: Knopf Books
Release Date: March 31st, 2003
Pages: 243
Francesca is stuck at St. Sebastians, a boys' school that's pretends it's coed by giving the girls their own bathroom.  Her only female companions are an ultra-feminist, a rumored slut, and an an impossibly dorky accordion player.  The boys are no better, from Thomas who specializes in musical burping to Will, the perpetually frowning, smug moron that Francesca can't seem to stop thinking about. 
Then there's Francesca's mother, who always thinks she knows what's best for Francesca—until she is suddenly stricken with acute depression, leaving Francesca lost, alone, and without an inkling who she really is.  Simultaneously humorous, poignant, and impossible to put down, this is the story of a girl who must summon the strength to save her family, her social life and—hardest of all—herself.
Plot: 4/5
Creativity: 4/5
Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Impact: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

An honest, endearing story of family, friendship, and love, Saving Francesca is a contemporary novel that's occasionally humorous and heart-warming all the way. 

Francesca Spinelli is used to being in the background. Constantly surrounded by girls with more eccentricities than one could handle, she's used to going unnoticed, and to her life being planned out for her by her control-freak mother. But one day, her mother doesn't want to get out of bed, and lost with no one to make her decisions for her, Francesca is forced to break out of her shell and for the first time in her life, take charge.

Francesca is a character who undergoes an incredible transformation throughout the novel. While I initially had trouble connecting with her, it does not take away from the fact that she's one of the most multi-faceted protagonists I've read of. She starts off almost nondescript but by the end of the novel, she builds a silent strength to her that's inspiring.

And Francesca is not the only one who shines. Marchetta is a master of contemporary YA fiction, and a total wizard when it comes to creating concrete, believable, and most of all lovable characters. Each character, from Francesca to the broody Will to promiscuous Siobhan, is well-developed and important. Their differences don't only make them stand out, they contrast the rest of the characters and make them shine as well. And they're not just different personality-wise. Marchetta translates her Italian-Australian background into her novel and geniusly creates a multicultural setting. She molds her characters in such a way that they're modern and relevant, but stay true to their heritages. This is not something that can be commonly found in a lot of YA novels, but let me tell you, it makes for a unique and enriching reading experience.

The story itself comes across as more of a family drama than a romance. The love story, while satisfying, doesn't take the front seat with this one. It's more like a gift, a nice surprise that greets you along the way. What takes centerstage for the entirety of the novel is Francesca's relationship with her family, particularly her mother. She starts off as the daughter, but the roles reverse and she's compelled to be the nurturing maternal figure. The change is so drastic, and yes, it is heartbreaking to read about a family fall apart, but it's also tinged with hope, because it reminds you of just how far one will go to save a family, and how strong love truly is. I found myself in awe of the bond Francesca and her mother form through the depression at times, because in the beginning Francesca almost resents her mom, but love evidently pulls them together in a way that's still realistic.

Marchetta once again reinforces that she's a pro at contemporary novels with Saving Francesca. While I did not enjoy it as much as I did Jellicoe Road as it did not hit me with the same earth-shattering impact, it's still a great novel that exemplifies the importance of love and friendship. 

note: I bought this copy of Saving Francesca

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review: Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty

Title: Sloppy Firsts (Jessica Darling #1)
Author: Megan McCafferty
Publisher: Three Rivers
Release Date: August 28th, 2001
Pages: 280
When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?
Plot: 4/5
Creativity: 4/5
Characters: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Impact: 4/5
Overall: 4/5

With its witty narrative and refreshing voice, Sloppy Firsts is one of the most compelling and relatable depictions of average high school teendom.

Jessica Darling is a typical, run-of-the-mill New Jersey teenager. She's less than impressed with her peers and is pretty much bored with her lackluster life, but she has her best friend and soul sister Hope to share it all with, so it's not so bad. But then Hope moves away, leaving Jessica to deal with her worries alone. Factor in Jessica's loneliness with insomnia and the enigmatic Marcus Flutie, and she's in for an unforgettable year.

Jessica is the ultimate anti-hero. She's snarky and cynical and blunt, charming for the most part but at times just plain appalling; a nonconformist in essence but a conformist in practice. She's just as confused with adolescent woes as the next person and that causes her to make some questionable judgements, but her unique outlook on life and the fact that she owns up to her faults with such blatant honesty makes her endearing. Sure, she's not always lovable- there are times when she's plain unreasonable- but she's a solid protagonist through and through.

With that aside, some of the other characters are pretty flat. I get that they're supposed to be flat and portray the many sins everpresent in high school life, but there are times that they're just cliche and predictable. They remain a steady source of entertainment throughout the whole novel, but there's still a lot that could have been done with them and I'm interested in seeing the parts they play in the next installments.

There's one secondary character who stands out almost as much as Jessica does, though. Marcus Flutie. He's, well, a mystery, so much so that it's almost frustrating, but he's a force to be reckoned with in the novel. Besides the fact that he fills Jessica's thoughts so much that he's impossible to ignore, his entire existence is dazzling. He's the catalyst that provokes Jessica's life-altering actions in the story, and, quite frankly, the story wouldn't be nearly half as good without him.

The Jessica-Marcus pairing is, in one word, mystifying. It's random, unidentifiable,  comes out of nowhere, goes away, lingers on, comes back suddenly and spreads like wildfire. It's as insane and complex as the two characters involved in it but it's strangely pleasant, and while Jessica and Marcus tread the very fine line between friendship and something more, rooting for them can't be helped- even though you don't really know what you're rooting for.

A novel spanning an entire year, Sloppy Firsts is a near-perfect portrayal of high school from the point of view of a cynically-charming, technophobic, antisocial, irreverent teenager. Laugh-out-loud funny and filled with tongue-in-cheek candor, Sloppy Firsts is a must-read.

note: I bought this copy of Sloppy Firsts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

In My Mailbox (4)

 In My Mailbox is a meme created by Kristi of The Story Siren and inspired by Alea of Pop Culture Junkie.

Okay, so my presence has been pretty sparse in the blogosphere lately, with my posts being reduced to only the occasional review here and there (believe me, all the books I've reviewed are the only ones I've read this year). School's getting insanely hectic, so I hardly have any time to do anything non-school-related. But I'm trying to keep reading and post reviews as frequently as I can, so hang in there, guys! Don't lose hope in me just yet :)

It's also been almost two months since my last IMM post, so I thought I'd do one today! I had some free time on my hands, so I took out the books I've accumulated since I last did an IMM and snapped a few pictures of them.

For review:
Instructions for a Broken Heart by Kim Culbertson
(thanks Kim and Sourcebooks Fire!)

Startled by His Furry Shorts by Louise Rennison
The Iron King by Julie Kagawa
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson
Angelfire by Courtney Allison Moulton
Delirium by Lauren Oliver
Torment by Lauren Kate
Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick

Nightshade by Andrea Cremer (signed)
(won from Kate of Call Me Crazy)
Freefall by Mindi Scott
(won from Nic of Irresistible Reads)
Need by Carrie Jones
Low Red Moon by Ivy Devlin (ARC)
Where the Truth Lies by Jessica Warman (ARC- second copy)
(won from Mavie of The Bookologist)

As you guys could see, I sort of went on a binge- stress does things to people! I bought Delirium and Angelfire in one go, and during another shopping trip, I bought Crescendo, Torment, Iron King and Jellicoe Road. My wallet is not very happy, but my bookshelf sure is. And I got a pretty good deal for Startled by His Furry Shorts and Prom- I got them both for $2. Not bad at all! And I'm incredibly thankful for all the books I won, and for Instructions for a Broken Heart. So many great books, I can't wait to read them all! :D

What did you get in your mailbox this week?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Review: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Title: The Truth About Forever
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Puffin
Release Date: May 11th, 2004
Pages: 374
Sixteen-year-old Macy Queen is looking forward to a long, boring summer. Her boyfriend is going away. She's stuck with a dull-as-dishwater job at the library. And she'll spend all of her free time studying for the SATs or grieving silently with her mother over her father's recent unexpected death. But everything changes when Macy is corralled into helping out at one of her mother's open house events, and she meets the chaotic Wish Catering crew. Before long, Macy joins the Wish team. She loves everything about the work and the people. But the best thing about Wish is Wes—artistic, insightful, and understanding Wes—who gets Macy to look at life in a whole new way, and really start living it.
Plot: 5/5
Creativity: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Impact: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Charming, memorable and hopeful, The Truth About Forever is queen of contemporary YA Dessen's best so far.

After her dad's sudden death, Macy's tried so hard to be perfect. The perfect daughter, the perfect student, and even the perfect girlfriend to achiever Jason. But the summer before her senior year, Jason heads off to Brain Camp, and Macy finds herself taking up a job catering for Wish, with its chaotic albeit friendly crew, and befriending Wes, the artist with a past. With them, Macy finds that good things can come out of disasters, and maybe, the perfection is worth sacrificing if it means being really, truly alive. 

Filled to the brim with authentic teen emotions, painted with a palette of friendship, family and love and occasionally streaked with loss, it's a gorgeous story of grief, romance, and self-discovery. Dessen once again pieces together tragedy and love to come up with with a noteworthy novel that transcends its generation.

The characters in this novel are simply perfect. Macy, with her quest for perfection and her eventual self-discovery, is a character many can identify with. She has issues, ups and downs, but for the most part, she's honest and sincere, but that's tainted by her fear to step out of her comfort zone. She's identifiable yet unique all at once, and that combination make her the perfect character for a story like this one. Wes is fantastic. He's pretty much ideal, save for his dark past, and the contrast between his past and present and how he used art as a bridge to get to where he is makes him so profound. The crew from Wish, with their quirks and shortcomings, is also crucial for the story. The way they show Macy how to make the most of her imperfections and accept who she is is empowering, and the message all of them convey to the readers is beautiful, especially in this day and age when outward appearances and social statuses seem to take the wheel.

Macy's journey towards finding herself is believable and inspiring, but that aside, I really enjoyed her relationship with Wes. It starts with them being friends, and it slowly blooms, unnoticed, until later on. It's a refreshing change from all the whirlwind romances, and furthermore, the pace of their relationship allows them to get to know each other thoroughly, and ultimately, it allows you to get to know them, and all of them, even the parts of them hidden by the darkest shadows.

A novel that is truly stunning, The Truth About Forever is one of those YA novels that are absolute must-reads, joining the likes of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Forever by Judy Blume. It's everything a contemporary tale should be and more, and I'd give Dessen a standing ovation if I could for this magnificent piece. But since I can't, I'll settle for ending this review with a little piece of advice: if you have not read this novel yet, go and read it. It will move you like you never thought possible.

note: I bought this copy of The Truth About Forever

Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

Title: Jellicoe Road
Author: Melina Marchetta
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: June 26th, 2007
Pages: 419
At age eleven, Taylor Markham was abandoned by her mother. At fourteen, she ran away from boarding school, only to be tracked down and brought back by a mysterious stranger. Now seventeen, Taylor's the reluctant leader of her school's underground community, whose annual territory war with the Townies and visiting Cadets has just begun. This year, though, the Cadets are led by Jonah Griggs, and Taylor can't avoid his intense gaze for long. To make matters worse, Hannah, the one adult Taylor trusts, has disappeared. But if Taylor can piece together the clues Hannah left behind, the truth she uncovers might not just settle her past, but also change her future.

Plot: 5/5
Creativity: 5/5
Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Impact: 5/5
Overall: 5/5

Some books are destined to be legendary. Some books are made to be passed down from generation to generation, talked about and appreciated for years and years. Some books are meant to live forever.

I truly, honestly believe that Jellicoe Road is one of those books. A brilliant, moving adventure that links two stories both ridden with poignance and loss but so much love, it's a novel that ignites every emotion you could possibly muster and makes them resound through your entire being, even in the darkest crevices you didn't know existed. This is a novel that speaks to your soul.

The entire novel has two story arcs, and initially, it's a little hazy. One takes place in the present and the other decades before, so it's confusing at first. But as you read on, you discover you're on a forked road, except backwards. Instead of standing at the point of the fork, you're one a lone path, and eventually you reach a crossroad and you realize that there's this whole other path that's been linked to yours all along, and you venture into something greater, together. The two story arcs may seem distant from one another, but you realize they're intertwined, and the best thing is that they build on each other. You learn more about one from reading the other one. It begins unclearly, but as you continue on with the novel everything begins to unravel- actually, it begins to crack open. Instead of falling apart or crumbling away, the story breaks open, making way for a revelation. And then the puzzle that's been cloudy from the beginning starts to rearrange itself, and all the pieces that were beautiful on their own form a bigger picture that, as a whole, is greater than the sum of its parts. Every bit of confusion at the beginning is worth enduring because of the marvel waiting to meet you at the end.

The characters that make up this story are all amazing. Taylor, the main character, is damaged beyond belief, and she's guarded and independent and untouchable. It takes a lot to keep up with a character like hers, but Marchetta expertly molds unique, well-developed characters. Raffy's a gem, Chaz is crazy and Hannah is a mystery, and they all take a bit of credit for Taylor's journey towards self-realization and redemption. But nobody can match Jonah Griggs. The only person Taylor has history with and someone else with a grief to match her own, he's loyal, sincere, impatient- totally different from his tough-as-nails exterior but the contrast compliments his character. He and Taylor are so similar in their sadness and shattered pasts, but their affection for one another is almost miraculous in the way it brings out their vulnerability. 

A story greater than any word can encompass, Jellicoe Road reminds you of the importance of love and friendship and just how redeeming both can be. It's an enigmatic, life-changing work of fiction with an essence so haunting and breath-taking it's hard to believe all of it could fit into just one volume. It leaves a lingering impact on every reader, one so impossible to forget there could only be one word to describe it: immortal.