Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

I knew literally nothing about E. Lockhart’s WE WERE LIARS when I settled down to read. It’s better when you know nothing, is the phrase that was repeated to me by friend after friend. But they all insisted that I simply must read it, and that when I had, we would DISCUSS, but no, they would not tell me what it was about.

I was intrigued, so I read.

They were not wrong. It’s better when you know nothing.

That said, I need to write a review. This may be tricky.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

My Thoughts:

Obviously, the summary gives you very little to go on to decide if you want to read this book. For me, it worked for friends to shove it into my hands saying, you will like this. But that’s because they know my taste. You probably need a little more to go on, because I actually don’t believe this book is for everyone.

So here’s the most non-spoilery summary I can give:

WE WERE LIARS is about a group of four teens (three cousins, one friend) who grow up spending their summers with their families on a private island. When they are fifteen, the narrator, Cady, has an accident. She hits her head and loses her memory, suffers a traumatic brain injury, and spends two years convalescing under the watchful eyes of her parents. She never can recall what happened to her, but she misses the island and begs to return. So when she is seventeen, she does.

Only this time, everything is different. And no one will tell her why.

This is a hard book to peg down. It’s not the suspenseful page-turner I thought it would be, given the back cover copy (although it is a speedy read). Nor is it the quiet literary fiction that it feels like in parts. It’s a mystery that doesn’t read like a mystery. It’s a modern story that feels vaguely historical because of the isolated setting (Internet, phones, cable all don’t seem to work on the island). It’s psychologically manipulative, but then again, maybe it’s not.

It’s an enigma. It defies categorization.

The prose is gorgeous, but detached. It took me a while to become completely engrossed in this book because I couldn’t emotionally connect with the narrator. I was always interested in the plot and wanted to see what happened; I just wasn’t invested until about the halfway point. (Take this with a grain of salt – I have many friends who were utterly riveted by page 1.)

That said, once I was in, I was all in. This book solidly staked its claim on the “There Were Tears” shelf in my brain, and let me tell you, that is a small shelf.

There are twists and red herrings galore in WE WERE LIARS, and whether or not you see them coming or find them satisfying is part of the draw of this book. I found it smart and well-executed and original, but I also was able to call some of the surprises early on. However, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

This is a book you can only really discuss with others who have read it, and it’s one of very few books that I’ve heard people recommend even if they didn’t like it, just because they wanted to be able to talk about it. It’s well crafted, beautifully written, and unlike anything else I’ve read. It’ll leave you thinking for days (and, if you’re like me, you’ll flip back to the beginning and start reading again immediately after you finish, looking for the things you missed), and talking about it over dinner with your friends.

You know, the friends who read it because you made them read it because you just had to talk about it.

I will give you the disclaimer that this book isn’t one for people who need clear answers. There is a lot open for interpretation, and there is a very valid way of reading the book that could leave the reader in a pretty dark place. There’s also a more uplifting way to read, but if you prefer your endings unambiguously positive, this may not be the book for you.

That said, if you’re up for a ride into the twisting dark unknown, I hope you’ll give it a try.

Review: The Unbound by Victoria Schwab

I was given an advance copy of this book from the author.

Happy 2014, friends! I hope the holidays treated you well, that you greeted the new year with people you love, and that 2014 has good things in store for you. I’ll admit, I’m pretty excited for this year. Not because I’m anticipating anything specific, exactly, but because I’m anxious to see what opportunities the year will present. 2013 exceeded my expectations in so many ways, probably the greatest of which was the friends I made. It boggles my mind that some of the people I would now count among my best friends are individuals I hadn’t even met a year ago.

One of those people is someone who, a year ago, was just a name on a spine to me. Last year, I read Victoria Schwab’s The Archived, and absolutely loved it. To the point that the first time I met Victoria, I think I fangirled on her a bit. (I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry. It was well-deserved fangirling.) Since then, she’s become a wonderful friend, but I’ve remained a fan. Through shameless cajoling, I was able to convince her to let me read the sequel to The Archived a bit early. This book hits shelves in a couple weeks, and if you enjoyed the first one, trust me, you’re going to want the sequel. I enjoyed The Unbound every bit as much as The Archived, if not more. That’s right. More.

Let’s get to it.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Imagine a place where the dead rest on shelves like books. Each body has a story to tell, a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive.

Last summer, Mackenzie Bishop, a Keeper tasked with stopping violent Histories from escaping the Archive, almost lost her life to one. Now, as she starts her junior year at Hyde School, she’s struggling to get her life back. But moving on isn’t easy — not when her dreams are haunted by what happened. She knows the past is past, knows it cannot hurt her, but it feels so real, and when her nightmares begin to creep into her waking hours, she starts to wonder if she’s really safe.

Meanwhile, people are vanishing without a trace, and the only thing they seem to have in common is Mackenzie. She’s sure the Archive knows more than they are letting on, but before she can prove it, she becomes the prime suspect. And unless Mac can track down the real culprit, she’ll lose everything, not only her role as Keeper, but her memories, and even her life. Can Mackenzie untangle the mystery before she herself unravels?

With stunning prose and a captivating mixture of action, romance, and horror, The Unbound delves into a richly imagined world where no choice is easy and love and loss feel like two sides of the same coin.

My Thoughts:

I expect a lot from sequels. I need them remind me of everything I enjoyed in the first book, but not retread old ground. I need them to give me new likable characters, while allowing me to grow closer to characters I’ve already met. I need the events of the previous books to have consequences, and for the actions of the characters to have repercussions. I need higher stakes, deeper world-building, tighter plots, and more satisfying resolutions. Whether it’s the second or the third or the tenth book in a series, I need each sequel to continue upping its game to keep me invested in the series. It’s a tall order that is hard to fill, which is why I often wind up settling for less.

I’m pleased to report that no settling was necessary in the case of The Unbound. The narrative picks up shortly after the events of The Archived, with heroine Mackenzie Bishop coping with the trauma of a betrayal that nearly killed her, and the fallout of the decisions she made as a result. In the meantime, her world is broadened by the start of the school year. The story is no longer confined to the halls of the Narrows and the rooms of the hotel-turned-apartment-building that Mackenzie calls home. Now she has to deal with a new school and new friends, and must work constantly to keep the ghosts of her past and the demons in her head quiet — while still proving to the Archive that she is a competent Keeper.

Fortunately, she’s not alone. Guyliner-sporting co-Keeper Wesley Ayers is once again by Mackenzie’s side, livening up her life with sass and sarcasm while also providing the grounding and support that only someone who knows her secrets can. Their relationship grows and deepens as it is tested by both the trials of high school and the string of disappearances that seem tied to Mackenzie. His humor and openness provide a much-needed balance to Mackenzie’s seriousness and secretiveness. Mackenzie also makes some friends at school, and it’s fun to see her interact with people her own age who don’t share knowledge of the Archive.

The new setting of Hyde School gives The Unbound a freshness that is much appreciated after the purposefully claustrophobic confines of The Archived. With the move into the world outside the hotel, the scope becomes greater and the stakes feel higher. It’s interesting how the broadened environment plays with the narrowing walls of Mackenzie’s mind, as no matter where she goes, she can’t escape the haunting memories of the History who terrorized her. He even plagues her dreams, which results in nearly crippling insomnia and the concern that she may be suffering a break from reality. Mackenzie’s struggles are compounded by the disappearances happening around her, as the lines between reality and the Archived continue to muddle. It’s a brilliant balance of internal versus external conflict, with both plotlines weaving together and building on each other as they head toward a conclusion that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

As always, Victoria’s prose is lovely, a perfect blend of poetry and suspense. It gives the book a visceral quality that makes it easy to picture and hard to put down. There are some authors who have the gift of stories and some who have the gift of words. It’s clear in Victoria’s writing that she has both. Not only are the tales she crafts smart and imaginative and original, but the ways in which she tells them are beautiful.

The Unbound is everything I wanted in a sequel to The Archived. More mystery. More suspense. A greater sense of purpose and consequence and world. Deeper relationships. Higher stakes. And, of course, more Wesley Ayers. If you read The Archived and are wondering if you should pick up the sequel, wonder no more. Go forth, read, and enjoy.

Review: Vicious by V.E. Schwab

I have been salivating over Vicious by V.E. Schwab since she first announced its existence on Twitter. I don’t think it’s any big secret that I love a well-written villain. So finding out that Victoria, whose writing I adore, had penned an entire novel about supervillains? Bliss. Pure, utter bliss. The only problem was that I had to actually wait for Vicious to release, and I suck at waiting.

BUT because I live in the best writing community in the entire world*, one that is home to one V.E. Schwab, I was actually able to get my hands on an early copy. Naturally, I devoured it almost the second I got my grimy** little fingers on it (not the exact second, as I had to drive home and that would’ve gotten messy). As expected, I loved every single twisted page.

Disclaimer: You’ve probably heard of V.E. Schwab’s alter ego, Victoria Schwab, author of The Near Witch and The Archived. Victoria is a YA author. V.E. is an Adult author. Vicious is an Adult book, with an adult voice and adult content. It’s still very much Victoria’s lovely writing, but it does not feel like her YA. It’s all grown up and dark and twisted and in need of therapy. So if you are a teen, or an adult who prefers YA, a word of caution before jumping on the Vicious bandwagon. It’s fantastic — but it’s not YA.

*I have not lived in every writing community in the world — just the one — but I’m pretty sure it’s the best.

**They were probably not actually grimy, but I can’t rule it out since I had tacos for dinner.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.

Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.

My Thoughts: 

I loved Vicious from the first few chilling pages. Vicious is a little grittier, a little bleaker than Victoria’s YA novels, but although the prose is more stark than in her other books, it lacks none of her characteristic lyricism. It’s obvious from the disturbing opening — where we meet two of our main characters as they dig up a grave — that the reader is in for a well-crafted tale spun by a mind that is twisted in the best possible way.

Let’s talk for a minute about characters. Vicious focuses around two central characters, Victor and Eli, once best friends, now mortal enemies. Each has his own small band of misfit allies, some with powers, some without. And the best part of every single one of these characters is that each of them chooses sides based on what they believe in their hearts to be right. Maybe not good, but right. The calls they make are difficult, their actions are not clean and the consequences are often messy, but each fully realized secondary character picks the side they think is best not just for them individually, but the world as a whole. Which makes every character think they are fighting for the side of light, when in reality, they all inhabit a world of gray.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Getting back to Eli and Victor, my favorite villains in fiction have always been the ones who were motivated by more than darkness, power, and a desire to watch the world burn. Sure, there’s a strange dark beauty in a villain who will stop at nothing to destroy the hero, simply because he stands on the side of good. The Jokers and the Voldemorts and the Moriartys. But an excellent villain is one who can make me root for him, in spite of the fact that he opposes our hero, because in his own mind, he is right. These are the Lokis, the Magnetos, the Dr. Horribles, the Javerts. They’re the villains I know need to be defeated, but I keep hoping they will redeem themselves, because they make me care for them. Sometimes even more than I care for the good guys.

Eli and Victor both fall into this second category. Vicious is a book about villains, except none of the characters see themselves as particularly villainous. Certainly neither starts off that way. Eli and Victor begin as college roommates and best friends, whose downward spiral into villainy begins as nothing more than a thesis project and a flight of fancy. This is not a case of characters destined to be evil masterminds. They’re simply two guys who were, quite literally, too clever for their own good.

Ironically, the character who is indisputably the more righteous of the pair is probably the closest thing to a pure villain, whereas the one who comes across as more heroic (although even he is far from a hero) sees himself as irredeemable. The character with the stronger moral compass drifts deep into the darkness, while the one with little empathy or remorse holds himself in check right where the light begins to fade into shadow. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, and brilliantly executed. Vicious doesn’t paint either protagonist in particularly rosy colors, and both characters make terrible decisions and, at one point or another, commit terrible acts of violence with motives that are far from noble. But in this world where nothing is as simple as black and white or good and evil, it’s fascinating to see who we root for. I finished the book thinking really, one character wasn’t so bad — surely he wasn’t a villain — until I thought back to what he actually did, and I realized yes, yes he was. He just wasn’t as much of a villain as the other character. And I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him, because I liked him — even though in a black-and-white world, I really shouldn’t have liked him.

As for the plot itself, Vicious is an intricately woven tale of intrigue and deception, betrayal and revenge. The rules of the world are simple and clear, enough that you find yourself wondering if maybe it is possible to give yourself superpowers through thwarting death. The twists and turns aren’t predictable, yet everything makes sense. The action isn’t constant, but ebbs and flows in a natural rhythm that keeps the pages flying by. Victoria masterfully builds the tension leading to the final confrontation between Victor and Eli throughout the entire book, slowly ratcheting up anticipation until it’s almost unbearable. And when they finally do meet, the result is explosive, bloody, and deliciously satisfying. I was left wanting more, not because any threads were left dangling, but because this world and these characters were so painfully amazing that it hurt to be parted from them.

If you’re a fan of sympathetic villains and realistic superpowers and dark, twisty tales brimming with moral ambiguity, make haste to your nearest bookseller and pick up a copy of Vicious. Run, don’t walk. Or, if you can, fly.

Blog Hop: Playlist for A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron

Welcome to Day 1 of the A Spark Unseen blog hop! I’m so thrilled to help promote Sharon Cameron’s upcoming sequel to her her historical YA debut, The Dark Unwinding. I just finished reading A Spark Unseen yesterday, and it is a wonderful follow-up to the beginning of Katharine Tulman’s story, full of fascinating gadgets, unexpected twists, and fabulously varied characters, all told in Sharon’s gorgeous, flowing prose. Both books are smart, well-crafted tales set in wondrously captivating places, and A Spark Unseen takes us from the (pink!) halls of Stranwyne Keep to the streets and dark corridors of Paris. I loved the story and the characters, and hope you will too.

Here’s a bit more from the publisher about A Spark Unseen:

The thrilling sequel to Sharon Cameron’s blockbuster gothic steampunk romance, THE DARK UNWINDING, will captivate readers anew with mystery and intrigue aplenty.

When Katharine Tulman wakes in the middle of the night and accidentally foils a kidnapping attempt on her uncle, she realizes Stranwyne Keep is no longer safe for Uncle Tully and his genius inventions. She flees to Paris, where she hopes to remain undetected and also find the mysterious and handsome Lane, who is suspected to be dead.

But the search for Lane is not easy, and Katharine soon finds herself embroiled in a labyrinth of political intrigue. And with unexpected enemies and allies at every turn, Katharine will have to figure out whom she can trust–if anyone–to protect her uncle from danger once and for all.

Filled with deadly twists, whispering romance, and heart-stopping suspense, this sequel to THE DARK UNWINDING whisks readers off on another thrilling adventure.

Today, I have Sharon here to share a bit of her playlist that helped inspire her as she crafted Katharine’s tale. Take it away, Sharon!

This is really more of a song for The Dark Unwinding rather than A Spark Unseen, but I couldn’t resist including it.

I spent my former life as a classical pianist, and this was one of my favorite pieces, mostly because it shows the heights that can be reached with one simple, evocative melody line. The challenge in this piece is not the notes, but what to do with them, how to paint the picture of a song in the mind of listener. Not that different from writing, really!

So this is Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor, nicknamed “Suffocation,” written around 1835 and, by Chopin’s request, played at his own funeral. This was the tune running through my head every time I envisioned Katharine’s life with Aunt Alice, before her fateful carriage ride to Stranwyne Keep. And this is a tape recording (on actual tape!) of me in my moody 20’s, playing it!

Do enjoy.

Find Sharon Cameron:

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Review: The Devil’s Backbone by Rae Ann Parker (@raeannparker)

Complimentary copy received from the author in exchange for my honest review

Rae Ann Parker is one of the lovely Nashville authors I met through SCBWI. She has always been kind and generous in all my dealings with her. She also makes some killer iced coffee. So when she asked if I’d be interested in reviewing her debut, The Devil’s Backbone, a middle grade historical mystery centered around the Natchez Trace Parkway, of course I was happy and excited to read.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

David Baxter takes the blame for the graffiti on the school gym doors to keep his friend out of trouble and earns a three-day suspension. His dad, the juvenile judge, forces him to go on a roadtrip to redemption on the Natchez Trace Parkway. What his dad doesn’t know is that David meets a ghost carrying the last letter of Meriwether Lewis – the piece of evidence that may solve the 200-year-old mystery of Lewis’s death. Thanks to the ghost, David just might figure out how to relate to his dad and forgive his wayward mom.

My Thoughts

The Devil’s Backbone is a quick, easy read, with clean writing and a unique concept. David Baxter is an instantly likable character, and I happily followed him through the pages of his story as he traveled down the Natchez Trace. The pace is steady throughout, and kept me engaged as I learned more about David, as well as the historical mystery he sets out to solve.

Speaking of which, the mystery is actually fairly light, as both the letter-carrying ghost and the unsolved death of Meriwether Lewis serve more as backdrops to David’s own personal journey than the central force of the story. It’s not all dropped clues and careful deduction; the ghost and David work through their questions and what needs to be done in a straightforward and simple manner. The ghost adds a bit of fun and intrigue to the story, without making it the slightest bit scary or spooky. The real meat of the narrative is David’s relationship with his father, and his feelings about his relationships. Through the course of the story, David realizes what’s truly important to him, and is able to be more honest with his father about his concerns and choices. 

Rae Ann’s love of the Natchez Trace Parkway is evident in the pages of The Devil’s Backbone. The Trace becomes almost as much a character as David and the others. Through a journal David keeps, she manages to weave historical facts into the story that highlight interesting and curious pieces of the Trace’s past. The way the modern story intertwines with the historical trivia would make this book an excellent addition to any middle school teacher’s classroom library. As a Tennessee resident myself, I found myself itching to travel the Trace, to experience the same beautiful scenery and bits of history that David discovers as he travels with his father.

Overall, The Devil’s Backbone was an enjoyable, educational book, uncovering some lesser-known pieces of American history through the eyes of its relatable teen protagonist. I’d recommend it especially to teens (and teachers and parents!) in Tennessee and the surrounding states, but I’d happily recommend it to anyone with an interest in history and a love of compelling characters.