Category Archives: Contemporary

06 & 07) Mind Games & Perfect Lies

By: Kiersten White

Date Finished: 02.06.17


The moment he bends over to help the sorrow-eyed spaniel puppy, I know I won’t be able to kill him. This, of course, ruins my entire day. -Mind Games

How many lies can a brain tell itself before they become truths? -Perfect Lies

God bless the depravity of Kiersten White’s brain.

These books are BRUTAL but also completely brilliant. Fia has perfect instincts and her sister, Annie, is physically blind but can see the future. The sisters are brought to a school that trains girls with superpowers like theirs and then exploits the ones who excel.

Both books are fast-paced, action-packed, what-the-what?!-inducing, and also deeply heartfelt. The bond between the sisters is powerful and beautiful and pushed past the breaking point. Annie and Fia have vastly different ways of seeing the world (not just on the physical level) and yet their protectiveness of each other is absolutely compelling. They are the centerpiece of this tornado of a story in a way that makes you feel what’s happening more intently.

The writing style is very much an extension of the character. Each chapter is told from either Fia’s or Annie’s perspective, and the voices couldn’t be more different. Every word and punctuation echoes their mental state in ways that are super cool — but I won’t share details because, spoilers! The unusual sentence structure is part of the puzzle and it was so gratifying to solve it.

I have a tendency to become deeply invested in books I like and I may yell out loud once or twice if something big happens. Never has one complete book made me scream as much as the last twelve pages of Perfect Lies alone. I. Was. Living. It.

At the end of the day: FOR ME!!

5) Liar

By: Justine Larbalestier

Date Finished: 01.26.17

by Justine Larbalestier

Full disclosure: I listened to the audio book of this one and it may have altered my perception of the story. The performer did a great job but it was a difficult story to track. For one thing, it’s first person and I had a hard time distinguishing dialogue from inner monologue. For another, it frequently jumps in time. Each chapter is marked by “Before,” “After,” or “History of _______.” There were generally enough context clues to point to where it fell in the timeline but I did get lost on occasion.

The biggest struggle was keeping up with the unreliable narrator. It’s not a complaint exactly — the book is called Liar for goodness sake so there’s no use pretending that the main character is trustworthy. Still, it’s hard to keep up when you can’t flip back through the pages to see exactly what she said the first time. That’s where listening the audio book did me a disservice.

That being said, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this book even in print. I found it excessively repetitive. I suspect that I would have skimmed or skipped over large chunks if I had the option. Also, I never quite liked the main character enough to worry about her or cheer for her. I nearly abandoned ship a couple of times but that is where the audio book was actually helpful; I didn’t have to expend any extra time or effort to see it through to the end.

At the end of the day: Not for me

(Oh, I never summarized the story. Here goes: Micah is a liar partially because she’s hiding a big family secret and partially because she likes seeing how long she can get away with it. When her boyfriend turns up dead, lots of people think she killed him. Her lies start to get her into real trouble so she swears to start telling only the truth…and doesn’t succeed.)

4) The Shadow Cabinet

Book Three of The Shades of London

By: Maureen Johnson

Date Finished: 02.22.15

by Maureen Johnson

 Busted by a girl and her trusty bicycle. Well played, MI-5.

Rory’s world is crumbling fast, and the only protection she has is in lying low. She is whisked away to a safe house and allowed no contact with her family and friends who think she’s a missing person. But Rory isn’t the sort to sit still for, well, any length of time when people she cares about are in danger. She will take on secret societies, death cults, and covert government agencies to get back the people she’s lost.

My love for this series has been proclaimed twice on this blog and does not falter with this latest installment. The Name of the Star remains my favorite while The Madness Underneath is a fascinating look at the aftermath of a trauma… all leading to even greater trauma in The Shadow Cabinet. This one is by far the grittiest of the three, but doesn’t neglect Rory’s Southern sass (or the wonderfully entertaining tales of her crazy Louisiana relatives). Which is important. The book is well-balanced with new characters to fall in love with or to fear, old characters to have feelings about on a deeper level, and another blasted cliffhanger. Something big is coming. And I hate waiting.

But ultimately, I prefer to have these books in my life than wait for the complete set. This way I get to remember the many great moments as I wallow in impatience.

This series is brilliant. All three books are masterpieces of pace, wit, danger, and surprises. They’ve made me scream at the printed page, laugh out loud (in embarrassingly public places), and cry. And I am devastated that I can’t have it all right now. I would totally read an 800 page Shadow Cabinet if it wrapped everything up.

If you start this series (and you really should), let me draw your attention to an additional Shades of London story called The Boy in the Smoke which gives an account of how Stephen gained his ability and started working in London. Stephen is one of my Favorite Fictional Dudes of All Time, and The Boy in the Smoke is a beautiful read. I suggest reading it either before or after The Madness Underneath (it would spoil part of The Name of the Star and part of The Shadow Cabinet wouldn’t make as much sense without it). It’s available for free here.

P.S. I pre-ordered this book, so it came with these awesome stickers. All of which apply.

Shadow Cabinet stickers

At the end of the day: Really, really for me

2) Fangirl

By: Rainbow Rowell

Date Finished: 01.16.15

by Rainbow Rowell

While most teenagers look forward to their independence, Cath dreads going to college, especially after her twin sister, Wren, says that she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is uncomfortable with change and uncertainty — more so than most people — and so she retreats to a world that she knows intimately, the world of Simon Snow. The Simon Snow book series started when Cath and Wren were kids, not long after their mom left. It became a cultural hit, and both Cath and Wren grew up as devoted fans. They wrote Simon Snow fanfiction together until Wren moved on to other things, but Cath didn’t give it up. And even when the new rhythms and influences of college life wrap around Cath, she can’t bear to let go of Simon.

This book is the real deal. It’s a celebration of life in all its messiness and of fiction in all its iterations. Rowell paints a positive picture of fanfiction and fangirling, but doesn’t let Cath off the hook for burying herself in Simon’s world at the expense of the real one. There is a time for fiction, and a time for living; this book covers both.

I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book because I had no idea how things were going to play out. I could guess where some of the threads were going, but Cath, despite her aversion to change, was rather unpredictable. She didn’t respond to every trigger, but when she did engage, she committed completely. I liked that about her. But she made me nervous too, when she ignored the good things in her life. It was difficult to watch Cath’s world crumble, but it was that much more satisfying to see her rebuild. I was always rooting for her.

The book is divided into two parts — the fall semester where Cath is almost paralyzed by discomfort and the spring semester where she really begins to grow. While Cath’s transformation is gradual throughout the course of the book, there is a distinctive shift in tone for the second part. The spring is more hopeful, and, in a way, more active. Between each chapter, Rowell includes snippets of Simon Snow stories — never more than a page. Some vignettes are from the Simon Snow books and some are from the fanfiction that Cath (with or without Wren) wrote. I enjoyed this feature at the beginning because it gave more context to what Cath was obsessing over (Rowell also helped give context by starting the book with a fake Wikipedia article on the Simon Snow series). Further into the book, the snapshots started to feel repetitive since they were too short to give much information. Even though these scenelettes lost their potency as the book went on, I was still grateful to have them.

All in all, it’s a fascinating read. Rowell doesn’t hold back from the pain in these characters’ lives, yet the story is always hopeful. Consider me a fan.

At the end of the day: Really for me

29) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By: Mark Haddon

Re-read Finished: 12.18.14

by Mark Haddon

Someone has killed the neighbor’s dog, and Christopher Boone has decided to solve the mystery. He writes down what he learns as a book, but the search for Wellington’s killer leads Christopher to uncover dark secrets within his own family.

The word is never used in the book, but it is clear that Christopher is autistic. As the narrator of the story, Christopher’s worldview is not the least bit extraordinary to him. He understands that others see the world differently than him, but he is his own normal. And that is why the book works so well: it is told with the utmost sincerity.

I first read this for an English class my senior year in college. Many of the other students were thrown off by the unconventional storytelling such as the chapters being numbered with prime numbers and numerous vignettes that seemed like digressions instead of linear plot. I was delighted by these idiosyncrasies (and still am). Ultimately, all the pieces fit together and not a single sentence was out of place. Christopher explains why the chapters follow the sequence of prime numbers rather than numerals, and it’s brilliant. It makes every detail of the book, even the commonplace elements, an extension of Christopher’s character. Once you embrace the quirks of the story, it will take no effort at all to slip into Christopher’s mind, and only after you step back to consider the book as a whole will you see Haddon’s hand.

27) Dark Places

By: Gillian Flynn

Date Finished: 11.17.14

by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day and her brother, Ben, are the sole survivors of the massacre that killed their family.  Almost instantly, Ben was charged with the murders, convicted, and sent to prison for life.  Libby has been hiding from that night ever since, incapable of making any real connections or commitments, and living off the pity of strangers.  As her money runs out, Libby agrees to track down other suspects for a group that is trying to prove Ben’s innocence — so long as they’re willing to pay.  Along the way, she discovers that there was much more to that night’s horrors than she allowed herself to believe.

Well, the title does not lie.  This book goes to some very dark places indeed.  It is written from three perspectives: Libby, Ben, and their mother, Patty.  Libby’s story is the primary story, taking place in the present and occupying the odd numbered chapters.  Ben and Patty both speak from the day of the murders, their stories alternating on the even numbered chapters.  It is grotesquely fascinating to watch misunderstanding after misunderstanding pile up, ultimately leading to the brutal massacre.  All the while, the reader watches in horror as compounding bad decisions are made, knowing that it’s only going to get worse.

Parts of it are downright gruesome, but I have to admire Flynn’s craft.  Every part of the story falls into place like a Rube Goldberg machine.  A day in the life of Ben and Patty mirrored the trajectory that Libby took to uncover the truth twenty odd years later.  Both arcs were natural and complete, and their interactions complex and seamless.

I wish I could say this is the book form of a Cold Case episode (one of my favorite shows; the concept and structure are similar in many ways) but it’s a little too grotesque.  This was a book club read, so I can’t tell you if I would have finished it or not on my own.  I suspect I might have skipped to the end to see who committed the murders, or maybe read just Libby’s chapters (because she is delightful even in her bitterness).   The craft is excellent, but some things you can’t unread.

At the end of the day: Not for me

26) Afterworlds

By: Scott Westerfeld

Date Finished: 10.7.14

by Scott Westerfeld

Darcy Patel is graduating high school with much more than a diploma — she has just signed the contract for her $300,000 two-book deal.  In lieu of attending college, Darcy decides to move to New York City and try to become a part of the writing scene.  There, she meets her heroes, falls in love, and generally ignores her budget all while editing (oftentimes procrastinating at editing) her novel.  The book she wrote tells the story of Lizzie, a young girl who survives a terrorist attack by crossing into an afterworld.  When Lizzie wakes up, she finds she has the ability to see ghosts in the real world and to cross between the two planes of existence.  For her, the afterworld is a magical place to explore and home to the most marvelous boy she’s ever met, but it also houses a dark man with an insatiable appetite.

Afterworlds — the one written by Scott Westerfeld, not Darcy Patel — tells both stories.  The odd numbered chapters explore Darcy’s journey of moving to New York and going through the publishing process while the even numbered chapters tell Lizzie’s story exactly as Darcy (via Westerfeld) wrote it.  Meta much?  What I have gathered from internet rumblings and my friends is that everyone develops a clear preference for either the Darcy chapters or the Lizzie chapters.  I’m Team Lizzie all the way.  Lizzie’s story would make a wicked cool book on its own, but I would have found a Darcy-only story a bit tedious.

To be fair, there are some great things in Darcy’s storyline.  I enjoyed reading about the publishing process in a narrative sense.  I suspect that reality is heightened in some situations, but I would bet that some of it is muted (weird things happen in the arts).  Westerfeld did a fine job of crafting those publishing-heavy vignettes into the arc of a young girl navigating a new lifestyle, her first romantic relationship, and figuring out how to relate with her family post-high school.  The problem is Darcy herself.  I’m comfortable with heroines who suffer doubts, have weaknesses, and maybe even make bad decisions, but Darcy’s insecurities should have been completely debilitating.  Her success feels like sheer dumb luck without much growth to capture my interest.  But, even though Darcy isn’t on the list of my favorite YA heroines, Westerfeld’s story design is impeccable.

Lizze is more my kind of protagonist.  She’s bold and independent and often dead wrong — everything you want in a YA lead.  This section is a paranormal romance (an acutal Barnes & Noble category for some reason) which means it’s a little sappy at times, but the fascinating paranormal elements more than make up for minor cheesiness.  This story has an interesting variation of ghost-lore, and the afterworlds are truly captivating.  There’s a sense that the book gives just a glimpse of what could exist in the afterworlds and the rest is an infinite blank canvas for the reader.  Like its leading lady, the story is daring, unapologetically exploring some very dark ideas.  And yet, it was refreshing to see a unique YA heroine in Lizzie.

On the whole, I’m glad that both stories were told together.  Alternating between Darcy and Lizzie maintained a nice rhythm, and, even with the space in between plots, I never got lost.  It is a long book, naturally, but it reads quickly and smoothly.

At the end of the day: For me

P.S. The tagline pictured here is 100% cooler than the one on the copy I bought.  The line on my copy is: “Darcy writes the words.  Lizzie lives them.”  LAME.  “You thought your way here,” is far more epic.

25) The Chaos of Stars

By: Kiersten White

Date Finished: 09.08.14

by Kiersten White

All I know about American high schools is what I’ve seen in movies, and I doubt it’s very accurate.  Too many spontaneous, choreographed dances for real life.  That or the American education system is seriously screwed up.

Isadora had an unconventional childhood – as the child of the Egyptian god Osiris and goddess Isis, she never expected her life to be normal, but she had believed it would be permanent.  She grew up blissfully unaware of what it means to be the mortal offspring of an immortal family: Fleeting, forgettable, replaceable.  When her understanding of her family is abruptly shattered, Isadora tries desperately to get away, and to save herself from a future pain by avoiding attachments altogether.  But as it turns out, immortals are difficult to escape.

Isadora fascinates me.  Had she been presented differently, I may have found her annoying.  As it is, White connects Isadora’s rebellion and conflict with her mother to a place of very real pain.  And even as Isadora tries to build a fortress around herself, she’s incapable of shutting others out entirely.  I think it helps that Isadora has a clear and tangible passion (interior design) and is given opportunities to use that passion throughout the story.  Being able to see her shine while in her element made me more sympathetic when she freaked out over other things.

There’s a lot going on in this book: a prologue that sets up Isadora’s internal conflict, the main storyline, dreams that simultaneously depict childhood memories and an ominous future, and recaps of the real Egyptian myths.  Everything’s formatted uniquely and has a distinct use of tense.  It felt like a lot to keep track of at first, but I quickly settled into the rhythm of the different sections.  For the most part, everything contributes to the story intrinsically.  Only the dreams became repetitive and I wonder if I needed to know quite so much about her childhood.  The Egyptian myths seemed a touch overkill initially, but ultimately, I loved them.  Each myth is compacted into two or three short paragraphs and ends with a beautifully snarky comment.   They were always good for a laugh and turned out to be a nice way to break up the chapters.

I had the opportunity to hear White speak shortly after I read the book.  She said that reactions to this one are heavily divided — people either really like it or can’t stand it.  I would recommend it, having enjoyed both the story and the experience of reading this book.  Now, pardon me while I read all things Kiersten White.

At the end of the day: For me

21) Vampire Academy

By: Richelle Mead

Date Finished: 06.23.14

by Richelle Mead

I didn’t like having reasonable arguments thrown at me.

There are traditional vampires, and then there are Moroi, who are essentially human except they drink blood, practice magic, and don’t do well in sunlight.  Dhampirs are half human/half Moroi, and have a unique set of skills; they don’t drink blood, don’t practice magic, but are supernaturally strong and fast.  As such, they are the perfect bodyguards for their Moroi cousins.  Rose is a hardcore Dhampir and Lissa is a Moroi princess.  They’ve been best friends since they met in kindergarten, and Rose will do anything to protect Lissa, even if the threats are coming from inside the school.

I know, I know, this looks like another trashy vampire book, right?  Well, maybe it is a bit silly, but it’s well crafted.  I watched the movie first, renting it on a whim when Redbox didn’t have what I wanted.  I loved it.  There were a few places where I had to pause the movie so I could laugh properly, and I watched the last scene twice.  The high school presented in this story is in the same vein as 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls, and Easy A.  There are interesting characters, fun quips, and legitimate surprises along the way.

So, I needed to read the book.

The tongue-in-cheek tone of the movie comes directly from Rose’s sassy narration in the book.  Her self-aware, no prisoners attitude drives the story, and allows the sentimental moments to be even more poignant.  The concept for this book has the potential to be really kitschy, but Mead handles the subject with care.  The world is vivid, the stakes are high, and the characters are flawed, but passionate.  Who could ask for anything more?

What makes the story really work is the friendship between Rose and Lissa.  I mean, this is a Code Name Verity (British spies trapped in Nazi-occupied France) level friendship.  Rose’s impulsive nature is redeemed by her loyalty and devotion to her friend.  Lissa is far less combative, but will get her hands dirty to defend Rose’s honor.  In the midst of all the other drama, their relationship is central.

However, Rose’s romantic angst – which was practically nonexistent in the movie – muddied up the book just a touch too much.  I couldn’t bring myself to dive into the sequel right away because of it, although I do plan to continue the series whenever I need a casual read.

If you’re looking for a good laugh, I highly recommend the movie.  The book is only slightly less good, and definitely worth a read if you like the movie.

At the end of the day: For me

20) We Were Liars

By: E. Lockhart

Date Finished: 06.19.14

by E. Lockhart

He was contemplation and enthusiasm.  Ambition and strong coffee.

If you want to live where people are not afraid of mice, you must give up living in palaces.

Once upon a time there was a wealthy man who owned an island off the coast of Massachusetts.  Each summer, the whole family would gather on the island and enjoy the leisure of their riches.  Cadence is the first grandchild in the mighty Sinclair family, and is enraptured by a forbidden love.  From birth, the Sinclair children are conditioned to bury their flaws and emotions deep inside but Cadence longs to express herself, to feel something real.  She digs for the truth, not realizing how dark the truth is.

This is an impossible book to describe without revealing too much.  I expected the narrator to be unreliable and she was to a degree but for the most part, she told the story as accurately as she could.  The dishonesty lies in the family party line: No one is broken.  No one is hurting.

Style-wise it’s a masterpiece.  The book has a very specific, well, cadence to it.  Occasionally, Lockhart will break up a sentence into lines like poetry.  Most of the sentences are short, utilizing language that packs a punch.  In many ways, it is poetry masquerading as prose.  As the narrator, Cadence often presents vivid metaphors as fact.  There are a few possible metaphors that might have been completely true – even now, I don’t know what to believe.  Also, the timeline is ambiguous, revealing the story inside out almost.  I was swept up away by the style before I realized the depth of the plot.

I am so grateful I read this book, even though it lies far outside my usual choices.  I fear giving things away by saying any more, so I will end here.  Trust me, you want to experience these surprises firsthand.

At the end of the day: Really, really, really for me