Book Review: The Westing Game

Westing GameThe Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin
Form: Hardback and Audiobook
Big Themes: Murder Mystery, Contest, Disguise, Partnership/Friendship

Summary from Goodreads: A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger – and a possible murderer – to inherit his vast fortune, one thing’s for sure: Sam Westing may be dead… but that won’t stop him from playing one last game!

My thoughts: I can definitely see why this book is a children’s classic. Well-crafted characters, unique mystery, and unexpected twists.

My favorite characters were Angela, Turtle, and Chris Theodorakis. I appreciated how our understanding of Angela changed over the course of the book. Turtle is a spunky and a tad unlikable, but you root for her just the same. Chris Theodorakis warms your heart.

This book is a quick read, and perfect for kids ages 8-12. This is the kind of mystery that will grab a young reader and blow their minds.

My only criticism is that the red herrings are so plentiful that the mystery is near impossible for a reader to solve. I prefer mysteries where an astute reader could come to the correct conclusion.

Overall: A classic mystery for young readers.

Audiobook Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One
by Ernest Cline
Published by: Crown Publishers
Form: Audiobook
Big Themes: Virtual Reality, Video Games, 80’s Pop Culture, Social Class, Corporate Power, Identity

Goodreads Summary: In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

What I Liked: The world and concept of Ready Player One is fun to read about. The idea of a virtual world wide contest and the puzzles being linked to 80s pop culture is the engaging core of the book. The idealistic nature of Oasis has relevance to the current battle of net neutrality.

Wil Wheaton is a great narrator of the audiobook. He narrates a lot of near-future, cyber-heavy books. I enjoyed his narration of Cory Doctorow’s Homeland as well.

Criticism: The book was incredibly heavy on info dumps. The author doesn’t just drop 80’s references–he explains each one. I wanted the plot to progress, and even listening to the book on 1.5 speed didn’t help the pace with these constant dumps of information.

I also wasn’t pleased with the roles the female characters played in the story. Both Aech and Art3mis existed for serving the hero’s story which really irked me.

I dreamed up an alternate ending–where Art3mis’ reluctance to be with Wade was due to the fact that her and Aech were already in a relationship. This would have forced Wade to acknowledge and consider other’s goals/wants and not just his own. Wade had to make zero sacrifices in the story to achieve a happy ending.

Instead, I felt like the ending was very much a geek fantasy:

  • Meet hot girl
  • Go from fat to muscular
  • Become famous
  • Defeat bad guy single-handedly
  • Win ultimate game
  • Get super rich
  • Get the hot girl

Wade is a bit of a Mary Sue. He’s too good at everything. I had a hard time believing he had played every video game (dozens of times), watched every TV episode (dozens of times), and watched every movie (dozens of times) at the ripe old age of 17/18? Really? He lacked flaws or anything he had to sacrifice to achieve his goals. And therefore, I had trouble rooting for him.

Overall: A fun adventure story with 80s pop culture references, but with slow pacing due to info dumps and characters who lack depth and growth.

Series Review: A Court of Mist and Fury (Book 2)

ACOMAFSome spoilers in this review because I want to discuss some of the key topics in this series: relationships and abuse. Trigger warning, but I think this series does a nice job with the topic.

A Court of Mist and Fury (Book Two)
by Sarah J. Maas
Published by: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Form: Kobo eBook
Big Themes: Magic, War, Love, Relationships, Trauma, Abuse, Recovery, Sacrifice

Summary from Goodreads (Book 2): Feyre survived Amarantha’s clutches to return to the Spring Court—but at a steep cost. Though she now has the powers of the High Fae, her heart remains human, and it can’t forget the terrible deeds she performed to save Tamlin’s people.

Nor has Feyre forgotten her bargain with Rhysand, High Lord of the feared Night Court. As Feyre navigates its dark web of politics, passion, and dazzling power, a greater evil looms—and she might be key to stopping it. But only if she can harness her harrowing gifts, heal her fractured soul, and decide how she wishes to shape her future—and the future of a world cleaved in two.

My thoughts:
Again this series has a huge following with abundant fan art and Etsy merchandise. I’d heard so much about the series–and had to see what all the fuss was about. However, I’d also heard that the second book in the series, not the first, is is the best in the series. (And yes, it’s very much necessary to read ACOWAR first in order to appreciate book two.)

In the first book, the author sets up a romance that ultimately becomes an unhealthy relationship. The author is forcing the reader to question and consider how relationships are portrayed in fiction.

Sarah J. Maas is flipping expectations and stereotypes:

“You think I don’t know how stories get written–how this story will be written? … I am the dark lord, who stole away the bride of spring. I am a demon, and a nightmare, and I will meet a bad end. He is a golden prince–the hero who will get to keep you as his reward for not dying.”

The golden prince, Tamlin, is controlling and abusive. In the first book, he is portrayed as protective, generous, and handsome with a hint of danger. But these traits evolved in book two–protective became controlling; generosity stemmed from misogyny; and that hint of danger became actual violent outbursts.

The dark lord and demon, who we disliked in book one, morphs into someone who deeply understands the value of freedom and the depths of emotion. Rhysand, the bat-winged lord of the Night Court, is an ally and supporter of the women around him. Not only is he comfortable with powerful women, but he encourages them to take center stage.

This flip was not something I was anticipating, and it was executed beautifully. We witness the slow and painful realization by the main character, Feyre, that something isn’t right about her relationship. Part of the book’s exhaustive 600+ is giving Feyre the time she needs to heal after both emotional and physical abuse. And by the book’s end, Feyre has discovered what true love is and should be–an equal partnership of mutual respect.

I realized how badly I’d been treated before, if my standards had become so low. If the freedom I’d been granted felt like a privilege and not an inherent right.

This novel forces readers to consider heavy issues, such as abuse, trauma, and recovery. I went into this series expecting a fantastical world and love triangle romance. But what I got was a heroine who battles PTSD to discover her own inner strength and redefine her self-worth. I had some issues with Feyre in book one, but I am certainly a big fan by the end of book two.

Side note: The settings in this book are stunning. I love the world-building and descriptions of the various courts.

Overall: This book was a pleasant surprise compared to the first book. It twisted the story away from our conventional expectations and explored difficult topics such as abuse, recovery, and identity. Definitely worth reading if you are a fantasy/romance fan.

For mature teens–sex, violence, language, sensitive topics.

I am currently over half way through book three, A Court of Wings and Ruin. Look for a review of the final book in this trilogy soon!

Series Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses (Book 1)

ACOWARMinor spoilers in this review because I want to discuss some of the key topics in this series: relationships and abuse. Trigger warning, but I think this series does a nice job with the topic.

A Court of Thorns and Roses (Book One)
by Sarah J. Maas
Published by: Bloomsbury USA Childrens
Form: Hardback and Kobo eBook
Big Themes: Magic, War, Painting, Love, Relationships, Trauma, Abuse, Recovery

Summary from Goodreads (Book 1): Feyre’s survival rests upon her ability to hunt and kill – the forest where she lives is a cold, bleak place in the long winter months. So when she spots a deer in the forest being pursued by a wolf, she cannot resist fighting it for the flesh. But to do so, she must kill the predator and killing something so precious comes at a price …

Dragged to a magical kingdom for the murder of a faerie, Feyre discovers that her captor, his face obscured by a jewelled mask, is hiding far more than his piercing green eyes would suggest. Feyre’s presence at the court is closely guarded, and as she begins to learn why, her feelings for him turn from hostility to passion and the faerie lands become an even more dangerous place. Feyre must fight to break an ancient curse, or she will lose him forever.

My thoughts:
This series has a huge following and the fans are intense. There is abundant fan art, candle scents in honor of characters, book-inspired jewelry, clothing, and more. I’d heard so much about the series–to the point where I even recognized the characters names without having read the books (Feyre, Tamlin, Rhysand).

However, I’d also heard that the second book in the series, not the first, is what really blew people away. But with book one being over 400 pages and book two being over 600 pages… this was a big investment of my time. Was the second book really going to have the payoff to make it all worth it? (And yes, it’s very much necessary to read ACOWAR first in order to appreciate book two.)

The first book is loosely based around the story of Beauty and the Beast. It was a slow read for me. I enjoyed the main character’s love of painting. The world and descriptions were vivid and interesting. And this author can write action really well! There were some really memorable fight scenes.

But the relationship/romance made me cringe, and the logic of some plot points left me confused. I couldn’t understand why Feyre felt forced into certain positions or made certain decisions.

But what the author is setting up in the first book is an unhealthy relationship. But you won’t necessarily know the relationship is unhealthy as you are reading it right away. Something about it just feels off–yet it’s so similar to a lot of relationships you read in novels (YA or adult). She creates a character who is strong and worthy of love, shows them falling in love, and then shows how the character changes–but changes in an unhealthy way as a result of her relationship. And yet, there were a lot of readers supporting this relationship when this book first came out. The author is forcing the reader to questions and think about how relationships are portrayed in novels.

What makes the second book in this series so excellent is how Sarah J. Maas is flipping expectations and stereotypes, and forcing readers to consider some very heavy issues.

Stay tuned for my next post where I tackle book two: A Court of Mist and Fury

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

HomelandHomeland
by Cory Doctorow

Published by: Tor Teen
Form: Audiobook
Big Themes: Technology, Freedom, Elections, Protest, Corruption

Summary from Goodreads:
In Cory Doctorow’s wildly successful Little Brother, young Marcus Yallow was arbitrarily detained and brutalized by the government in the wake of a terrorist attack on San Francisco―an experience that led him to become a leader of the whole movement of technologically clued-in teenagers, fighting back against the tyrannical security state.

A few years later, California’s economy collapses, but Marcus’s hacktivist past lands him a job as webmaster for a crusading politician who promises reform. Soon his former nemesis Masha emerges from the political underground to gift him with a thumbdrive containing a Wikileaks-style cable-dump of hard evidence of corporate and governmental perfidy. It’s incendiary stuff―and if Masha goes missing, Marcus is supposed to release it to the world. Then Marcus sees Masha being kidnapped by the same government agents who detained and tortured Marcus years earlier.

Marcus can leak the archive Masha gave him―but he can’t admit to being the leaker, because that will cost his employer the election. He’s surrounded by friends who remember what he did a few years ago and regard him as a hacker hero. He can’t even attend a demonstration without being dragged onstage and handed a mike. He’s not at all sure that just dumping the archive onto the Internet, before he’s gone through its millions of words, is the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, people are beginning to shadow him, people who look like they’re used to inflicting pain until they get the answers they want.

Review:
What I enjoy about Doctorow’s books is very much present in this one. I enjoy that the narratives take place in the near-future, and therefore, make you think about the current society and your own role in shaping the future. I also enjoy that Doctorow manages to teach you things in his books–whether it’s tech terminology or why cold-brew is superior. Sometimes these info-dump passages can interrupt the pacing of the narrative, but he does it with humor and within the voice of his protagonist–so I let it slide.

The audiobook is well-done and narrated by Wil Wheaton, who is a great reader and there’s some humor to it since he is an actual character within the narrative.

This book is incredibly relevant to what is going on in the world at present–all Doctorow’s books are–in truth. If you haven’t read any of his work, he’s worth paying attention to.

Overall: Four stars. Incredibly relevant to what we currently face in our country in terms of corruption and elections and protest. Story pacing can be interrupted by info dumps at times, but I also like how I learn something while reading Doctorow’s books.

Series Review: The Selection (Part Two)

Selection Series2

The Heir (#4)
The Crown (#5)
by Kiera Cass
Published by: HarperTeen
Form: Audiobook
Big Themes: Falling in Love, Identity, Royalty, Competition, Reality TV

Summary from Goodreads (Book Four): Princess Eadlyn has grown up hearing endless stories about how her mother and father met. Eadlyn has always found their fairy-tale story romantic, but she has no interest in trying to repeat it. If it were up to her, she’d put off marriage for as long as possible.

But a princess’s life is never entirely her own, and Eadlyn can’t escape her very own Selection—no matter how fervently she protests.

Eadlyn doesn’t expect her story to end in romance. But as the competition begins, one entry may just capture Eadlyn’s heart, showing her all the possibilities that lie in front of her . . . and proving that finding her own happily ever after isn’t as impossible as she’s always thought.

Review:
Eadlyn is not as likable a character as her mother, America, was in books one through three. She is spoiled, self-centered, narrow-minded, and determined. Not all those traits are negative. But it’s the way she treats others that really made me dislike her. She does some callous things that will make you cringe during the Selection process. Eadlyn does grow and change over the course of both books, and makes some wonderful, redeeming choices in the end.

The book has some great positive messages for girls. Both books examine double standards of women in leadership positions. And I wonder whether part of Eadlyn being an unlikable character stems from her being not a traditional, submissive female figure.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy these two books as much as the first three, but I’m still glad I listened to them!

Overall:
The first three books in this series are more fun. Eadlyn’s story is tough to get through at times because of her unlikable nature, but there are great feminist messages for girls who want to be leaders someday. Three stars.

Series Review: The Selection (Part One)

Selection Series1

The Selection (#1)
The Elite (#2)
The One (#3)
by Kiera Cass
Published by: HarperTeen
Form: Audiobook
Big Themes: Falling in Love, Poverty, Royalty, Competition, Rebellion, Reality TV

Summary from Goodreads (Book One): For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.

But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn’t want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.

Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she’s made for herself—and realizes that the life she’s always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.

Review:
If you are a fan of The Bachelor, this is essentially that competition set in a future dystopian world. It was a fun series to listen to on audiobook as I drove or painted bookshelves. Go in expecting some drama between contestants, love triangles, lots of clothing and food descriptions, and some decent dystopian world building.

America (all the names are pretty ridiculous in this series) is a heroine you can root for with her rebellious spirit and musical talent. I was pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on female friendship in this series. And Prince Maxon was an interesting character with some feminist moments as the male lead.

I would be totally fine allowing teen girls to read this if they were looking for some romance because they also get a strong heroine, positive female friendships, and healthy messages about being your authentic self.

Overall:
I was pleasantly surprised by this series. A fun read with some positive messages and role models. Four stars!

Next Post: Part Two of the Selection series where the protagonist is America’s daughter, Princess Eadlyn.

Book Review: Gemina

GeminaGemina
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Form: Hardback
Big Themes: Space Travel, Invasion, Defense, Wormholes, Parallel Universes

Summary from Goodreads:
Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.

Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home.

Once again told through a compelling dossier of emails, IMs, classified files, transcripts, and schematics, Gemina raises the stakes of the Illuminae Files, hurling readers into an enthralling new story that will leave them breathless.

What I loved:
Worthy sequel. Gemina picks up where Illuminae left off and offers fresh conflicts at the same page-turning pace as it’s predecessor. The new characters are just as interesting as Ezra and Kady with clear talents, goals, and personalities.
Hanna’s drawings. I wanted more of these! They were a nice touch to the otherwise tech-focused format.
Nik’s backstory. Very well-done and worth a mention.

Criticism:
Certain plot points felt a tad repetitive to the previous book, but there was enough fresh material that it didn’t bother me.

Overall:
Five stars. Can Obsidio come out like NOW? This series is so well-done. I love it!

Book Review: Illuminae

IlluminaeIlluminae
by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Form: Hardback
Big Themes: Space Travel, Artificial Intelligence, Computer Hacking, Disease, Truth/Lies, Survival, Bravery

Summary from Goodreads:
This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she’d have to do. This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, Kady and Ezra—who are barely even talking to each other—are forced to fight their way onto an evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But their problems are just getting started. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results; the fleet’s AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what’s really going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it’s clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she’d never speak to again.

Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents—including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more—Illuminae is the first book in a heart-stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.

What I Loved:
Format. The format of the story is NOT a gimmick. This story could ONLY be told through this collection of documents. A traditional format just wouldn’t work. That’s all I can say without giving away key plot points!
Fast-Pace. Despite the book’s chunky size, this story moves at a breakneck pace. The book is nearly impossible to put down.
High stakes and shocking twists. These authors raise the stakes to an almost impossible level. Just when you think things have gotten as bad as they can get–things get worse.

Overall:
Highly recommend this book! You should go in knowing as little about the story as possible. But what an emotional roller coaster! A masterful work of sci-fi storytelling! The format wasn’t a gimmick, but purposeful and perfectly suited to the the story it was telling. LOVE. THIS. BOOK.

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake

Three Dark CrownsThree Dark Crowns
by Kendare Blake

Published by: HarperTeen
Form: Hardback (from OwlCrate)
Big Themes: Royalty, Competition, Death, Sisterhood, Magic

Summary from Goodreads:
In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

The last queen standing gets the crown.

Three Dark CrownsWhat I Loved:
Unique and Creative World and Concept. The concept of triplet sisters who have to fight for the crown is unique in and of itself. Then add each sisters distinctive magical abilities on top of it–and you have a fresh story! I especially liked the poisoners. Their world and ability was deliciously creepy.
The Ending. Whew! The ending will blow your mind. I’m quite good at predicting where stories are headed, but I did not forecast this ending! There are two major twists that have left me so excited for the sequel. Bravo to the author for a super satisfying twist! That is hard to pull off!

Criticism:
Secondary Characters. My only criticism is it was hard to keep all the secondary characters straight. I think the author needed to provide more character descriptions or distinguishing characteristics. I couldn’t tell you what half the characters looked like. I can handle big casts of characters (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones), but this cast of characters left me confused at times.

Overall: Four stars! Loved the unique world and premise. Many unexpected twists. Changing POV from queen to queen left you rooting for all of them!