May 22, 2015

Review: The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

I'll walk forever with stories inside me that the people I love the most can never hear. 

YA Book Review - The Book Rest - The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle HodkinTitle: The Evolution of Mara Dyer
Author: Michelle Hodkin
Genre: Contemporary? Paranormal? Horror?! 
Rating: A-
Recommended For: Fans of light-horror because this is becoming one scary ride! 
Source: Public Library

One-sentence review: If you thought the first book in this series was crazy (pardon the pun), get ready for a roller coaster of emotions, surprises and new obstacles for Mara Dyer as she tries to figure out her powers and why someone is targeting her.

TBR It: Goodreads
Buy It: Amazon

This review contains spoilers for The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Book 1 in this series)

Michelle Hodkin's second novel in her Mara Dyer series,  The Evolution of Mara Dyer, has even more twists, turns and surprises than you would expect, which is really saying something. We find Mara in almost the exact same situation as in at the beginning of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer: in a hospital with almost no recollection of how she got there. Only this time Mara is restrained and under psychiatric care. Nobody believes that she saw her ex-boyfriend Jude still alive. In fact they have surveillance footage from the police station proving that it could not have been Jude that Mara saw. Noah is the only person who trusts Mara and will stop at nothing to protect her. The only problem is, Mara might need more protection than Noah can offer. If Mara wants to avoid being sent to live in a mental health facility, she must play the game of acting healthy, which might inevitably prove to be impossible.

What makes this story such an exhilarating experience is that there is so much going on and yet, as a reader, I don't feel annoyed by that. Usually if a story has too many directions I get frustrated and overwhelmed. But Hodkin weaves all of the threads of this story so that you trust the outcome will be a worthwhile finished product (I sure hope I'm right!).

Mara is coping with some strange supernatural abilities that she's somehow inherited and trying to figure out why she has them, especially in relation to similarities with her grandmother. She has strange dreams that seem like flashbacks from her grandmother's experiences. Mara doesn't know how to control her abilities, how they relate to  her boyfriend's supernatural abilities, or how she can get through life without accidentally killing someone.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg with her problems. She's also being stalked by someone, presumably her ex-boyfriend who everyone thinks is dead. While she's being terrorized, everyone except Noah simply believes she's certifiably insane. While all of this is happening, Mara must do everything she can to prove to her parents and doctors at her out-patient mental health facility that she's just suffering from PTSD. The stress Mara experiences in this book is palpable, it practically jumps off the page. Just when you think you're beginning to make sense of one area, something new happens that completely throws off any logic. The chaos of the story is written succinctly enough that instead of growing frustrated, readers just feel the overwhelming sense of insanity akin to Mara's experience.

The symmetry in this book is something that I really enjoyed from a literary perspective. The trend of Mara in the asylum is powerful and grows more and more claustrophobic. Similarly, the foils of Jude versus Noah is fascinating in regards to Mara. How it's implied that one wants to hurt her and one wants to save her. As the story progresses, I really wanted to know any and everything about Jude: is he a ghost? Is he alive? What is his back story? Obviously if he tried to sexually assault Mara we don't count him as a "good guy", but what is his story? I really hope that we get more information eventually.

The writing in this book is just as masterful as the first book, if not even more vivid and beautiful. It's elegant and witty, smart and juvenile all without sounding pretentious. Mara's narrative voice is one of my favorites I've read yet. There's so much personality in her writing that I wonder if future works by Hodkin will sound the same or if she'll be able to craft yet another colorful personality that has their own strong voice.

Michelle Hodkin's Mara Dyer series is truly unlike anything I've ever read before. I do not enjoy "horror" stories, so perhaps there are more similar stories out there that I just haven't read yet. But even without enjoying horror, I love how spooky, intense and chaotic this book is. The experience of reading it will keep you on the edge of your seat and you will need to know more. I can't wait to finish this series!

May 15, 2015

Review: From A Distant Star by Karen McQuestion

Love trumps logic every time, she'd said. He didn't understand at first, but now he did.

The Book Rest - YA Book Review - From A Distant Star by Karen McQuestionTitle: From A Distant Star
Author: Karen McQuestion
Genre: YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Rating: A-
Recommended For: fans of Pivot Point by Kasie West and other contemporary YA sci-fi/fantasy
Source: ARC

One-sentence review: A refreshing examination of the human race through the eyes of an alien where he learns to understand why humans on Earth act, fight and love the way they do while he searches for a way home.

TBR It: Goodreads
Buy It: Amazon

This week I'm sharing one of my favorite debuts of the year, Karen McQuestion's YA sci-fi adventure From A Distant Star. This book will be released next Tuesday, May 19, and I recommend you pre-order now!

When Emma's boyfriend, Lucas, is miraculously cured of terminal cancer she is elated. But her elation turns to suspicion when she realizes Lucas is nothing like he used to be. In fact, he behaves like he's from a different planet. Emma quickly comes to discover her boyfriend isn't her boyfriend at all, but the essence of a (non-threatening) alien scout from another planet who crash landed on Earth and is now inhabiting Lucas' body. If Emma wants Lucas back and the alien (dubbed Scout) wants to return home, they must work together to find a way to make contact with his planet and dodge a series of obstacles along the way.

I realize that synopsis sounds crazy, but this book is awesome. I'm not a huge fan of alien stories, mainly because I'm not a fan of horror stories and generally aliens are classified as threatening. But From A Distant Star is not like that; in fact, it's not like any story I've ever read before.

Scout, the alien essence that crash lands on Earth is gentle, thoughtful, and kind. His alien race has surpassed humans on Earth not only technologically, but also mentally and emotionally. He has problems reconciling human problems with their actions. He questions why people do things like drink alcohol to escape their problems instead of just solving their problems. He can't comprehend why people make decisions based on the way they feel or why they hurt each other (until, of course, he's faced with strong emotions himself).

Similarly through her experience with Scout, Emma learns to more carefully consider her actions. She questions and challenges her preconceived notions because she's able to see them through the eyes of her new friend. It's also funny to see how Emma explains Earthen culture to Scout. The dichotomy between Scout and Emma's experiences as alien and Earthling is incredibly refreshing. Many authors use different races, sexes or cultures to explore the human experience, but I've never read a story where the species are examined on such a level that sparks quality dialogue about the human race. Similar to McQuestion's Edgewood series, From A Distant Star would make a wonderful book for parents to read alongside their teenagers to create important conversations (all while being thoroughly entertained, of course).

Technically I think this book is written with simple enough prose despite its complex ideas that even young teens would be able to understand and relate to it. But I have one very big complaint: one sentence about sex. It's not even explicit or racy or trashy, but Emma mentions that she and Lucas "were just a breath away from having sex". In my opinion, I just didn't think this book needed that. I was able to appreciate the intensity of Emma and Lucas' teen relationship without the sentence that essentially isolated readers aged 12-15. Obviously that's up to the discretion of parents and/or readers, but in my (old fashioned) opinion that sentence kind of spoiled things for me. It won't be the same for everyone, I know, but I felt like it cheapened a good, non-sexual story.

My only other major complaint was the pacing at the beginning. The book began interesting enough, but it took so long to get to Emma and Scout's adventure toward resolving their problem. There's a magical element to the story that I didn't think was necessary, I think if that was eliminated the story would have read much more fast-paced and exciting. Once it did begin moving, it was so fun and adventurous, I really enjoyed the fast pace. There are a lot of ridiculous things that happen to Scout and Emma on their journey, but that made the adventure all the more entertaining. I just wish the entire book started at this pace.

The dynamic that blossomed between Emma and Scout was my favorite part of this book. While I love how in love Emma is with Lucas, her relationship with Scout is an entirely different thing. I won't spoil it, but rest assured it's a satisfying relationship that overall makes this book especially sweet. I less-than-three Emma and Scout so much!

While there are a few things that I didn't love about this book, it didn't detract from my overall experience reading. I think this book is not only entertaining, but also important. It would make a clever platform for dialoging with teens, friends, or a book club about why humans do the things they do; why we behave certain ways; what we can do to change our human experience. For that reason alone, I highly recommend this book and hope you'll pick it up next week when it debuts!

May 8, 2015

Why Elisa Lorello's Novels are So Re-Readable

Language is not unlike art in that words contain values of lights and darks, hues and tonalities, texture and sensuality. Words can paint complex pictures.

Title: Faking It / Andi & Dev Series
Author: Elisa Lorello
Genre: (Smart) Chick Lit / Women's Fiction
Rating: A
Recommended For: Female readers looking for something light, fun but smart and deep as well!
Source: My personal library

One-sentence review: Intelligent chick lit is difficult to find, but you will fall in love with Andi's adventures through love, loss and love again in my favorite women's fiction series ever! 

TBR It: Goodreads
Buy It: Amazon

 photo FakingIt_BookCover_zps0afba89d.jpg  photo 18318647_zpsfb2114f3.jpg

I have good intentions of re-reading far too many books. Sometimes I want to dub an entire year, "Danielle's Year of Re-Reads!" I used to think it would be impossible to re-read a book because knowing what happens would ruin the ending. But that's not the case. When a book is re-read worthy it's because it transports you into a new world and gives you feelings you want to be surrounded by. If you're not a serious reader you might not understand, but if you do understand then this post is definitely worthwhile.

One book I find myself re-reading every single year is Faking It by Elisa Lorello. Lorello has become one of my favorite authors since I first read Faking It in 2012 (the year after it came out) and one of the few authors whom I will read a book the minute it comes out (or sooner, thanks to ARCs)! There's a feeling Lorello constructs when I read her books; something comfortable and warm but not cheesy with simple solutions to fairly typical chick lit problems. That's what keeps me coming back to her novels and what keeps me re-reading them, too.

It's been over a year since Lorello released her last novel She Has Your Eyes, the third part of the series that starts off with Faking It, but it feels like it's been so much longer than that for me! So this year when I was in a sort-of reading rut, I decided to throw all my TBRs out the window and re-read all three novels in this series from start to finish! It was just what I needed and I'm hoping I can convince you that you might need it, too.

If you want my first-read reviews for the novels, you can find them here: Faking It - Ordinary World and She Has Your Eyes. Those reviews are spoiler-free, but I'm going to keep this one a little more open, more of a discussion. I don't usually do this, but since I've already reviewed these books before, I think it's fair. Besides, my review for the second and third books would already spoil the first and second anyway. ;) Similarly, I'm not going to spend time on synopses of the books.

So I repeat, this review/discussion MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. If you haven't read these books, I'd rather you go read them than finish reading this blog. That's how much I heart them.

When I considered why I gravitate back to these novels, especially Faking It, I found that there's something about the realistic essence of the characters Lorello crafts that I can not only love but also intrinsically relate to. Andi and Dev are why I read and re-read and tell everyone to read these novels. They are real, they are flawed and they feel like people I would want to know or become. The characters have realistic flaws and come up with realistic solutions. Even if the idea of a professor and a prostitute exchanging services doesn't seem real, it won't sound weird once you jump in. Rather than a story about sex, Faking It is a story about identity and boundaries, especially the identities we fake to enforce the boundaries we keep. That's something more people can relate to than are willing to admit and a subject matter I feel Lorello attacks with fun but smart fervor through her emotionally complex characters.

When I re-read Ordinary World this year it was my first time re-reading it after losing somebody I love. Almost a year ago my grandpa, who was my father-figure growing up, passed away. Even though it's nothing like the loss Andi experiences in Ordinary World, I was much better able to appreciate the ebb and flow of  her grief. Andi goes back and forth in this book between feeling like she can't go on and feeling like she can tolerate life. When I first read this book it got somewhat frustrating because it was hard to see the shape of the book's arc. But I get it now and I love how Lorello can really bring reality to things that are so difficult to articulate. Somehow she uses words to construct a world of feelings without telling you how to feel as a reader. I love that.

And can we talk about how swoon-worthy Lorello's male characters are? Somehow Sam is made to be greater than Dev through the loss of him. Even without giving forward movement to his character in this second book, we fall in love with him as Andi mourns him and that just gutted me. Which means, of course, I was able to feel Andi's loss even more acutely. But don't discount Dev, because he's still one of the best romantic male characters ever. Readers get to see a new vulnerable side of Dev in Ordinary World which only increases his value. Neither Sam or Dev are perfect, but its their flaws that make them feel almost tangible and their humanity that makes me appreciate them more.

I'm going to be honest with you: She Has Your Eyes was difficult for me to re-read. I don't like Dev in most this book. More accurately, I don't like how Dev isolates Andi in this book. It was harder for me to relate to Andi not standing up for herself when I thought she deserved to. Perhaps it's because this book is so convicting that Andi is more easily forgiving than I am. There are also a lot of not-nice or not easily-lovable characters in this one. That's of course not to say that I don't love the book, but perhaps it was too real for me. Ironically, the first time I picked up an Elisa Lorello book was to escape the reality of a similar family drama that was happening in my life, so I suppose I should laugh at how this series has truly come full circle for me!

Of course, I still highly recommend She Has Your Eyes, it's a truly wonderful book no matter how my emotions mangle my re-reading experience. Andi's growth with her mother is especially notable and will make re-reading the other two books even more fascinating. Similarly, somehow Lorello makes Sam even more missed in this book with stories we haven't heard about him. And as with the other books in the series, Lorello structures this one in a beautiful symmetry that can only be truly appreciated the second time around. I would like to think it's not just me, but these books have so many things that make me happy to read them.

Of course, no series is perfect (except maybe Harry Potter). Some of the things Andi does, says, and thinks, are pretty awkward and there can be generational gaps that separate this series apart from New Adult readers. But it's obviously not a deal-breaker. And some of the awkwardness or references made for teens-of-the-80s just add to the humanity and personalization of the characters. I wouldn't feel like a legitimate book reviewer if I didn't mention those things that I noted in a somewhat negative light, especially because I want to reinforce that I'm not getting paid, bribed or blackmailed to write this bonus review.

My only huge complaint isn't directed at Elisa Lorello, but toward Hollywood: When is Faking It going to be a movie starring Ian Somerhalder as Dev? I cannot think of a better Devin or David, even if Sam is supposed to look like a young Rob Lowe and Ian Somerhalder is essentially a young Rob Lowe. I. don't. care. Somerhalder's smooth, cocky attitude coupled with his sweet nature make him perfect. #IanAsDev should be thing we start, yeah? ;)

May 1, 2015

Review: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

Thinking something does not make it true. Wanting something does not make it real.

The Book Rest - YA Book Review - The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle HodkinTitle: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer
Author: Michelle Hodkin
Genre: Paranormal YA
Rating: A-
Recommended For: Fans of dark YA
Source: Library copy

One-sentence review: This is by far one of the most bizarre books I've ever read and the only book that I've ever been on the fence about for so long without being able to put the book down.

TBR It: Goodreads
Buy It: Amazon

This book is crazy. I had heard about it for so long and had so many assumptions about it even though the synopsis is so cryptic. Almost everyone I know who has read it raves about it, so I finally found the time to begin this series. And now, I don't even know what to say!

Michelle Hodkin's bizarre YA series starts with a letter from Mara Dyer. She explains that she doesn't even know her name, so she's selecting this one and telling her story. And what a story she tells: Mara wakes up in the hospital after a terribly tragic accident in which 3 of her friends (including her boyfriend) are killed in a building collapse. Somehow Mara survives with almost no harm done to her except for what appears to be a nasty case of PTSD. Despite moving out of state to escape the location of the tragedy, Mara sees the ghosts of her friends. She also has strange experiences with other people around her dying. And she knows that if she tells her mom, who happens to be a mental health professional herself, she'll have Mara committed. At her new school Mara catches the eye of the school's gorgeous rebel and tries her best to keep her cool so he doesn't see her crazy. But there's only so much Mara can handle and things only continue growing more insane.

The question I found myself asking throughout most of this book is, "What is the genre?!" Is this a paranormal book? Is it fantasy? Is Mara truly suffering from PTSD making this contemporary YA? I have never felt so confused throughout so much of a book and yet not considered quitting, which goes to show how well written this novel truly is. Even though I was dying to know if Mara's visions were in her mind or actually happening, it made this book so exciting to not know. Which is why, of course, I'm not telling you.

Despite all the crazy happenings in Mara's life that led me to believe this book was either paranormal or she was truly crazy, there was also a very teen-romance phase between Mara and Noah, the generally boring bad boy trope. While I despise the bad-boy-falls-for-nobody-girl-for-no-good-reason thing, Hodkin makes this work somehow. And at the conclusion of the book you'll be happy you trusted her. Again, I can't explain myself without spoiling the reading experience, but trust me that it truly is an experience.

It's both impressive and unnerving how often this book fades into different things. From a book about extreme PTSD to a cliche contemporary romance and then feeling like a totally different book altogether, this is one of the weirdest good books I've read. It's unknown if we can trust Mara as a narrator throughout this entire book. She's all but diagnosed clinically insane and yet I had to keep reading. Similarly, Noah can't necessarily be relied upon to be an honest character either. I just hope that the end of this series is worth all of the acts of faith the push me to keep reading.

I am still confused about the letter at the beginning of the book and hope it also has a good pay out. If Mara Dyer doesn't know who she is but she's telling her story, why does she reference so many people who could corroborate her story, like her family members? I can't see why that letter was left in place, even if it was gimmicky, without some greater purpose. I really look forward to this series clicking together the way the final quarter of this book did. It's amazing how much clarity a small portion of a book can give!