Review: The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare by MG Buehrlen

I’m going to be honest – Sci-Fi/Fantasy has not been my thing lately. This pains me to say, because I adore those genres, and it’s absolutely not the books’ fault. It’s totally a problem with me. The book I’m trying to write (I say “trying” because I’ve rewritten the ending so many times I’ve lost count, and it is still not right) is very plot-heavy and intricate, and my poor brain is just not capable of processing the world-building that’s necessary in speculative fiction.

Contemporary. That’s all I can do. Because although contemporary fiction can still be smart and intricate, at least my brain is already familiar with the world and the laws of the universe. Plus, contemporary fiction is often focused a lot more on emotion and character than plot. I can handle emotion and character. But plot? I am up to my ears in plot. I have reached my capacity on plot. No more plot.

You’re wondering where I’m going with this, aren’t you?

ALL THIS TO SAY, I was wary about reading MG Buehrlen’s debut, THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE, because it is not only sci-fi, but it is the epitome of mind-bendy sci-fi, which is TIME TRAVEL SCI-FI. I didn’t know if my poor brain could handle it.

But I knew I had to at least give it a try, because MG is delightful (I haven’t met her in person — YET — but we converse often enough on Twitter that I feel like I know her. Creepy? Let’s hope not.) and because I have friends who know her and share my taste who swore up and down that her book is brilliant and I would love it. I trust these friends. And I really, really wanted to enjoy MG’s debut. So even though I was pretty sure it would break my brain (again), I gave it a shot.

The verdict? I should never have doubted. I loved it.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.

But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.

It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.

Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.

And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.

My Thoughts:

THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE does all sorts of things I don’t see often in YA, and especially in this kind of intricately-plotted, genre-bending, world-building-heavy YA.

It gives our main character, Alex, an entire intact family unit, complete with parents, grandparents, and siblings, that is not dysfunctional in the slightest.

It puts at the center of the book a relationship that is in no way romantic, and a male lead who isn’t even kind of swoony (unless you are about 40+ years older than the book’s target audience, in which case 1) GOOD FOR YOU, and 2) go right ahead and swoon).

It presents three possible love interests for the main character, but at no time ever resembles a love triangle, square, hexagon, dodecahedron, or any other geometric shape. And of those three, not a single one is an obviously terrible choice.

Yet at the same time, Alex is not a She’s-All-That-esque swan-in-ugly-duckling-clothing. When she takes off her nerd glasses, she is — shockingly — still a nerd. She never becomes magically popular. She isn’t stunningly beautiful underneath her rumpled appearance. And she actually turns out to be less of a Chosen One than she originally thought.

This all brings me to the main reason I loved this book: It put characters first. A lot of time, even in good books, when there’s this many EVENTS that have to happen on the pages, writers almost seem to run out of room to develop the characters. But with ALEX WAYFARE, the thing that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime wasn’t the thrilling missions through time or the looming menace of the ever-nearing villain — though those were fun too — it was the heart in the characters. It was the fact that the characters rang true.

They reacted illogically. They made mistakes. They carried unfair prejudices. But these weren’t just quirks. They weren’t a laundry list of imperfections so that the characters could be more interesting. They gave the characters depth and history, even when I didn’t agree with them.

Take Alex herself. At one point, she tells a boy that he should know that most girls are “shallow, shallow creatures.” At first glance, a reader might be turned off by that line. That’s an awfully sweeping statement to make about half the human race, isn’t it? Isn’t she a girl? Isn’t her sister, who she adores, also a girl? Why does Alex think she’s such a special snowflake?

But then you realize, Alex literally has no friends. Her only encounters with other girls are with the couple popular girls at school who bully her and gave her an ugly nickname. Everyone else seems to pretty much ignore her. She’s under the impression that the entire school is constantly whispering about her, but in reality, they’re probably not. It’s just her perception of reality. As a result, she closes herself off and tries not to interact with anyone. Ever. So of course she thinks all girls are awful. Her only encounters with them have been negative, and as a coping mechanism, she’s made sure that the only way she will continue to have contact with girls is if they seek her out. And who seeks her out? The bullies.

Vicious cycle.

This isn’t the only example where Alex, or the other characters, rang true in their shortcomings. It’s just one that stood out, because I remember going through a whole circuit of reactions when I read that line. Plus it’s toward the end of the book, so it’s fresh in my memory. I liked that MG Buehrlen didn’t shy away from the less appealing aspects of her characters, but instead explored them and allowed me to see why they’d come to think or act the ways they did. In addition to being a bit prejudiced against her own gender, Alex is impulsive, naive, and kind of shockingly short-sighted at times.

But then these moments of weakness are balanced with strengths. Alex is also clever, inventive, brave, caring, and loyal. Her good points really do outweigh the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her develop and mature throughout the story. And she’s not the only one. I loved her family, and how involved they all were in each other’s lives. I loved Porter, her middle-aged mentor who teaches her about herself. And I loved Blue, the boy she meets over and over again in each of her lives, and Jensen, the boy on whom she blames her social misfit status.

Outside of the characters, though, I loved the story itself. I loved the creative spin on a reincarnation story, and how each journey into Alex’s past highlighted a different point in history. The narrative weaves seamlessly through different eras, jumping from the modern day to Prohibition-era Chicago to a train heist in the Wild West. It kept me constantly on my toes, wondering where I’d be transported to next, and opened the door to endless possibilities in the future. And I followed the logic of the time travel pretty easily, with most of my questions being answered just a few pages after I asked them.

All in all, I loved the timey-wimey goodness that is THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE. It was a fun, energetic  romp through history with characters I enjoyed following on their various (mis)adventures. It helped me rediscover my love of the genre, and made me excited for what’s to come in the series. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and when I turned the final page, I was left simultaneously satisfied and yearning for the next chapter in Alex’s story. If you’re a fan of time travel and adventure and history and heart, I highly recommend this one.

Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

I received an ARC from the author.

I’ve been wrestling with how to write this review for months. On the one hand, anyone that follows me on Twitter knows it’s no secret that Courtney Stevens is one of my dearest friends. Can you really objectively review a book written by one of your dearest friends? I don’t know. Maybe not.

But on the other, I loved this book with my whole heart, and it’s only partly to do with my love for Courtney. When I read it, it gave me goosebumps thinking of how many people’s lives would be touched once it was out in the world. So I simply must talk about it. And this is my blog, so I’m gonna.

As a sidebar: Courtney is going on tour in a couple weeks with Robyn Schneider, Kate Cotugno, Melissa Kantor, and Lauren Oliver. If you can make it to one of their tour stops, you should. Even if you’re not sure if you can handle the heavy subject matter of FAKING NORMAL, Courtney is one of those people I wish everyone could meet. She has a beautiful, beautiful heart, and is a wonderful encourager to everyone around her. So if you’re on the fence about the book, or you love the book, or you have no interest in the book – go to the tour anyway. (Read here about her inspiration for FAKING NORMAL.)

Plus, I hear the other four authors – and their books – are lovely. I’m really bummed that the tour isn’t coming to Nashville, even though I see Courtney pretty regularly, because those other four books sound pretty amazing too, don’t they?

SO now that I’ve totally embarrassed Courtney (who may not even read this because she KNOWS I will totally embarrass her), let’s get to the review, shall we? Which I promise I will try to make as objective as possible.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Alexi Littrell hasn’t told anyone what happened to her over the summer. Ashamed and embarrassed, she hides in her closet and compulsively scratches the back of her neck, trying to make the outside hurt more than the inside does.

When Bodee Lennox, the quiet and awkward boy next door, comes to live with the Littrells, Alexi discovers an unlikely friend in “the Kool-Aid Kid,” who has secrets of his own. As they lean on each other for support, Alexi gives him the strength to deal with his past, and Bodee helps her find the courage to finally face the truth.

A searing, poignant book, Faking Normal is the extraordinary debut novel from an exciting new author-Courtney C. Stevens.

My Thoughts:

FAKING NORMAL is one of those books that sucks you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go. It’s a quiet, introspective story, but the connection I felt with the characters and the truth that radiated from every page made it impossible to put down. Alexi isn’t like me, but her voice rang so true that I practically felt like I was her. No matter your personal experience going into FAKING NORMAL, she is written with such honesty that it’s impossible not to empathize with her. Even when she’s making bad choices. Even when she’s hurting herself. Even when she’s too petrified to speak up, no matter how much she should.

Alexi isn’t strong in the way we often think of “strong characters.” She is broken and she is scared and she is silent. She doesn’t seethe about what happened to her, she doesn’t cast blame on the people who wronged her, and justice doesn’t fuel her. She carries her burden alone, even though it weighs her down, because she feels she has no other choice. And though I spent the book yearning for her to take action and seek justice — because that’s what happens in books, right? — her strength was in her empathy, her selflessness, and her perseverance in putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t that her actions (and often, inactions) were right or healthy — arguably, they were neither — but that while some people would completely shut down after an ordeal like Alexi’s, she keeps going.

Then there is Bodee, who also doesn’t fit into the typical YA hero mold. He has his own struggles and fears and doubts, and he needs Alexi just as much as she needs him. He doesn’t swoop in and fix her problems, and she doesn’t fix his. Rather, they help each other find the strength to face the dark marks on their own souls. Readers will love Bodee not for his strong jaw and chiseled abs (neither of which he actually possesses…at least not in my mind), but for his gentle heart and quiet encouragement. I appreciated that Bodee was a friend more than a love interest, and that romance never dominated the story. FAKING NORMAL is a story of friendship and loss and betrayal and hardship and healing, and while there is romance, it is at most a supporting character, never the star.

FAKING NORMAL tackles difficult topics without ever seeming like an “issues” book. It’s not a “self-harm book” or a “sexual assault book” or a “domestic violence book,” even though at the surface, one might assume it is. But at its core, FAKING NORMAL isn’t about events and moments and trauma. It’s about healing and friendship and trust. It’s about finding light in the darkness, strength in unexpected places, and triumph in moving forward. It’s about being honest with yourself, and with the people who love you.

FAKING NORMAL isn’t the easiest book to read — although the clean, truthful prose certainly helps — but it’s worth the pain and the tears. While the events of Alexi and Bodee’s pasts are not universal (although for too many, they are), every reader can find themselves in the pages of FAKING NORMAL. Maybe not in action, but in heart. Everyone has dealt with dishonesty and helplessness and heartbreak, and everyone can use the (not so) occasional reminder to channel their brave.

I’ve read a lot of Contemporary YA fiction that was good, moving, even inspiring. But as I was turning the pages of FAKING NORMAL, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this book was something special. Important. Empowering. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait until this book is in the hands of teenagers and can start changing lives.” Because I really believe it will.

Fortunately, I don’t need to wait much longer. It comes out tomorrow (February 25, 2014), and you should check it out. I can’t recommend it enough.

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.

Nutshell Film Reviews: Ender’s Game, The Book Thief, Catching Fire

I have been a bad blogger lately. I’ve been reading good books and seeing good movies, yet my reviews are few and far between. I blame this on the holidays, and writing, and critiquing, and children, and travel, and the Internet, and Netflix, and queso. Since none of these things are going away any time soon (*whispers I love you queso*) I figure it’s best not to stress about it, and to give you what reviews I can, when I can.

Because really, I know you’re all waiting with bated breath to hear what I think before you decide what book or movie to see next. Right?

(And as a general reminder, reviews from me are also a bit sporadic because I only review what I can also recommend. So I’m reading more books than I’m writing about. Thankfully not a lot more — since life is too short to read bad books — but still, more.)

Anywho, I had lofty plans to write detailed reviews on each of the book-to-film adaptations I’ve seen in the theaters recently, but alas, I just don’t think that’s going to happen. So instead, you’re going to get three mini-reviews, and you’re going to like it.

Okay, maybe you won’t like it. That’s really not up to me. Sorry, got a bit presumptuous there.

The three films I’m going to be talking about are vastly different, their only common denominator that they are all based on books written for young adults, and that they are all books I really enjoyed. They are Ender’s Game (novel by Orson Scott Card), The Book Thief (novel by Markus Zusak), and Catching Fire (novel by Suzanne Collins).

Before I get into the individual reviews, let me mention a few of my opinions that apply to all three movies. First, I found the casting brilliant in all of them (with a couple very minor exceptions) and the acting superb. Even when an actor didn’t look like how I pictured a character from the book, their embodiment of their character more than made up for it. I tend to be pretty forgiving when it comes to actors physically matching character descriptions anyway — to me, the feel of a character is far more important than whether they have the “correct” hair or eye color — but even if I was more of a physical purist, I think I could have forgiven most of the times when casting drifted significantly from the way a character was described in the book, simply because the actor was the character.

I also thought the effects in each film were fabulous. Granted, they were certainly more noticeable in Ender’s space-and-explosions setting than in the historical town of The Book Thief, but none of them had effects that made me roll my eyes or felt at all cheesy. The effects were well-integrated and appropriate, and really helped bring each world to life.

Also, each film had a fantastic score. I’m a sucker for a good soundtrack, and I thought all three of these soundtracks perfectly accompanied the stories being told. Book Thief‘s was simple and haunting, Ender‘s was tense and epic, and Catching Fire’s seamlessly wove between the over-the-top anthems of the Capitol, and the subtler, more intimate melodies of the Districts. All three scores were beautiful, and I’ve already added Ender to my writing playlist.

Okay. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the films themselves.

Ender’s Game

I really, really enjoyed this film adaptation, but after talking to other friends who have seen it who have and have not read the book, I’m willing to admit that it’s possible that this film will appeal far more to those who come into the movie already familiar with the story. The movie made some significant changes to the book, streamlining the complex and nuanced narrative down to its core elements to fit into a 2-hour film, and either truncates or eliminates many of the subplots that give the story its texture. So while I don’t think the movie would have confused someone new to the story, it may not have resonated as much with them. Most of Ender’s internal struggle as he adjusts to Battle School is only hinted at, and we lose almost all of the back story of him and his siblings, which sheds significantly more light on his character. The Mind Game that Ender plays, through which his commanding officers are psychologically evaluating him, also only gets a brief scene, as opposed to being a common thread running all throughout the story. In addition, I could have used at least one or two more Battle Room sequences, where Ender is honing his command style, because that would have really helped the audience understand how his brain works, and why the adults in the movie have so much faith in him. (Plus, Battle Room sequences were my favorite parts of the book and the movie, so I could have happily sat through another half hour of them at least.)

That said, there were other changes I was totally fine with. For example, Book!Ender is probably a good 5+ years younger than Movie!Ender, and this pretty much applies across the board to all the kids. Truthfully, if they’d kept the characters elementary-aged prodigies like they are in the book, it would have been nearly impossible to find child actors who could portray them accurately. They also changed the gender/race of several of the adult characters, and/or combined multiple characters into one, and I thought it worked really well. Also, they updated the graphics Ender and his jeesh see on their displays (the book came out in the ’80s, and as such, has ’80s-era graphics notions), for which I was highly grateful.

The one casting decision I was a little torn on was the character of Bonzo Madrid. The actor was a perfect Bonzo — seriously, I can’t imagine anyone playing his personality better — but by casting a kid who was smaller than Ender, it didn’t seem like quite so much of a David-and-Goliath situation, and therefore didn’t evoke the same kind of tension that their relationship evokes in the book.

However, I still thought Ender’s Game was a great adaptation of one of my favorite books, and that even though it at times felt a bit rushed, it’s still a wonderful story that was amazing to see brought to life on the big screen. If you’re a fan of the book, try to catch it in theaters. If not, it’s worth checking out on Redbox or Netflix in a few months.

The Book Thief

I spent this entire movie in awe of how perfectly it captured the spirit of the book. Even the feel of the book — the drifting, hazy quality that comes from having Death as the narrator — translated to the film. I know I already mentioned that I was a fan of the casting, but I need to give a special shout-out to Sophie Nélisse, who plays Liesel. She was absolutely stunning in the role, and I hope to see her in many, many more films in the future.

There were some minor changes and a few parts missing from the book, but I didn’t miss any of them as I was watching. It was only after leaving the theater and discussing it further that I realized changes had been made. The experience of watching the movie was riveting and immersive, and I was moved to tears over and over (seriously, bring tissues). Each moment of the film felt purposeful and thoughtful, and I have to believe that the writer, director, and cast must be devoted fans of the book to have translated its essence to film so beautifully.

While some events of the book were streamlined or skipped, the movie never felt rushed. The plot was extremely easy to follow, and each of the characters developed wonderfully well. I went to see the film with a friend who had never read the book, and she also adored the movie, so while I still absolutely recommend everyone reads the book, it’s not a prerequisite to enjoy the film.

Bottom line, I thought The Book Thief was a thoughtful, moving, beautiful film that will both satisfy fans of the book and enthrall new fans. It’s adapted from a YA novel, but I believe it will appeal to viewers of all ages, from early teens to great-grandparents. And while it tells about one of the darkest times in human history, it does so in a manner that is sensitive and quietly uplifting without becoming saccharine. It recently opened in wide release, so go look up showtimes and get thee to a theater.

And again. Tissues. I cannot stress this enough.

Catching Fire

I’m going to preface this with the obvious: Catching Fire is a sequel to The Hunger Games, so if you haven’t seen the first one, you should probably do so before you see the second.

THAT SAID! If you saw the first one and weren’t pleased with the deviations from the book, or the extensive use of shaky cam, this one is so much better. (Disclaimer: I really liked the first Hunger Games movie, but I can see why some didn’t.) And if you did like the first movie, prepare to love the sequel.

Catching Fire takes all the best parts of The Hunger Games – the excellent cast, the glorious and appalling extravagance of the Capitol, the musical themes, the visceral sense of the Games — and takes them up a notch, in addition to fixing most of the problems with the first film. Gone is the nausea-inducing shaky cam, the significant changes from the book for the sake of action or shock value.

This film relies far less on putting the viewer in the Games, and more on making the viewer feel Katniss’ and Peeta’s gamut of emotions as they are flung back into a fight for survival. While the first film definitely wrung a few tears from me, I was a mess for most of Catching Fire. Secondary characters that I enjoyed in the first movie — Haymitch, Effie, Cinna — are fleshed out and humanized in this one, and we also are introduced to two of my favorite series characters, Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason.

Again, I know I already mentioned casting, but I need to give a shout-out to Sam Claflin and Jena Malone, who portrayed Finnick and Johanna, respectively, because they were perfect. Neither of them is who I pictured when reading the books, but I can’t imagine anyone doing more justice to the characters. Their scenes were my favorites in a movie full of amazing moments (which is doubly saying something, since Peeta Mellark is one of my favorite fictional characters ever).

Catching Fire is my favorite book in the Hunger Games trilogy, not only because of the amazing characters, but because I like how it digs deeper into the turbulent climate of Panem, and how while we do get a second set of Games, how we experience them is totally different. This time, Katniss is not a lone wolf, but a member of a team. This time, it’s not children in the arena, but adults. And this time, although they ostensibly have the same mission, the underlying tone is that they’re fighting for something far greater than survival. And all of this was somehow even more effective in movie form than in book form. I thought this film did a stellar job in driving home the toll the Games take on the Districts, the savage mercilessness of the Capitol, the horror of the tributes and their families, and the psychological trauma that plagues even the “winners” of the Games. And I thought it set up audience expectation going into the third movie (which is going to be painful) masterfully.

My one quibble with the film was that it still harped a little too much on the supposed “love triangle” (which I still maintain does not even exist in the books), which made Katniss more wishy-washy and hormonal than she should be, given the events going on in her life. I think the filmmakers are shooting themselves in the foot, giving themselves an unnecessary uphill battle in pulling off the end of the trilogy convincingly, all in the name of being able to print more “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” t-shirts. But it’s a minor quibble, and I can overlook it in light of all the other major things the film got so, so right.

Overall, I can honestly say that not only was Catching Fire one of my favorite movies of the year, but one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations ever. It made me laugh, gasp, and cry on more than one occasion (this is another movie where I must stress, bring tissues). My theater burst into spontaneous applause and cheering at several parts. The cast, the visuals, the direction, and the storytelling were all spot-on. I don’t say this often, but the film was, in my opinion, better than the book. If you are a fan of The Hunger Games, whether in book or movie form, Catching Fire does not disappoint. I’ve already seen it twice in theaters, and may need to see it again. It’s that good.

OKAY. THAT WAS A LOT OF TYPING.

So those are my thoughts on the latest YA book-to-film adaptations, now playing in a theater near you. In non-book-adaptation news, I’ve also seen Thor: The Dark World (twice) and it is also pretty awesome. SO much more of all the things I wanted more of after the first movie (and yes, this includes LOTS more Loki).

Hopefully soon I’ll review some books on here. I spent most of November reading and critiquing friends’ manuscripts (coming down the eventual pipeline to a bookstore near you!), but am now finally caught up and back on the reading-books-currently-on-shelves bandwagon. Right now I’m reading ALLEGIANT, which I’ve managed to NOT SPOIL for myself yet, so please, I know it is polarizing but DON’T TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. Please and thank you.

In the meantime, seen any good movies lately?

Cover Reveal Celebration + Giveaway: The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare by MG Buehrlen

It’s time to PAR-TAY!

MG Buehrlen is one of those online friends that it sometimes feels weird to refer to as a friend, because we’ve only met via social media and email. But we’ve bonded over our shared affection for coffee and Gilmore Girls and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, so I’m pretty sure we’d do okay. Which means I was super excited earlier this year to hear that MG sold her debut novel, The 57 Lives of Alex Wayfare, not only because I am thrilled for her, but also because it’s a time-travel adventure, folks, and I really can’t get enough of those in my life.

Are you excited? I’m excited.

Today we’re celebrating the cover reveal for THE 57 LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE by MG Buehrlen with a guest post and a giveaway!

BONUS POINTS: Mention you saw the cover on my blog (when you fill out the giveaway form below) and you can earn extra entries!

Before we get to the cover, here’s a guest post from MG:

5 Things an Author Hopes for in a Book Cover – Guest Post by MG Buehrlen

Waiting for a book cover to arrive can be a nerve-wracking experience for an author. There are so many things you hope for! Here are the top 5 things I hoped for while waiting for cover art from my publisher.

1) To get a say in the cover design.
Every author hopes their publisher involves them and their opinions in the cover design process. Many publishers don’t. They simply hand the author a cover and that’s that. But my publisher, Strange Chemistry, listened to my ideas and feedback throughout the entire process, which is rare in the industry. I’m so appreciative for the chance to collaborate with them on the design.

2) To have kick ass typography.
We went through quite a few fonts, trying to find the one that fit the mood and theme of 57 LIVES. I think we’ve done it.

3) To have the cover depict a scene from the book.
Don’t get me wrong, I love abstract covers, covers that are title-centric, and even covers that are pure symbolism. For 57 LIVES, though, I wanted the cover art to be something readers come across between the pages, so they can flip back to it and feel like they’re in the story.

4) To have artwork that catches the eye and stands out on the shelf.
The colors, the depth of field, the light — I definitely think this cover will stand out on the bookstore shelf. It’s mysterious enough to draw you in, and eerie enough to make you wonder what the story is all about.

5) To see a part of the book’s world brought to life.
The main character in 57 LIVES is Alex Wayfare, a girl who can travel back in time to her reincarnated pasts by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. What you see on the cover is Alex standing in Limbo. I love seeing Limbo brought to life. It makes it feel all the more rich and real. It’s no longer just in my head. Now it’s in the reader’s as well, and that feels magical.

Ready to see the cover? Here it is!

(Lauren again) What do we think, friends? My reaction can be pretty well summed up like this:

I love the dark and mysterious graphic in combination with the playful font. Makes me think this book will be equal parts serious, high stakes combined with fun timey-wimey goodness. (I could be wrong. I haven’t read it. But I have a good feeling about my hunch.) Plus, I think this cover will appeal to both boys and girls and bridge a variety of age groups. I can’t wait to add it to my shelf!

About the Book

One girl. Fifty-seven lives. Endless ways to die.

For as long as 17-year-old Alex Wayfare can remember, she has had visions of the past. Visions that make her feel like she’s really on a ship bound for America, living in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or riding the original Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair.

But these brushes with history pull her from her daily life without warning, sometimes leaving her with strange lasting effects and wounds she can’t explain. Trying to excuse away the aftereffects has booked her more time in the principal’s office than in any of her classes and a permanent place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Alex is desperate to find out what her visions mean and get rid of them.

It isn’t until she meets Porter, a stranger who knows more than should be possible about her, that she learns the truth: Her visions aren’t really visions. Alex is a Descender – capable of traveling back in time by accessing Limbo, the space between Life and Afterlife. Alex is one soul with fifty-six past lives, fifty-six histories.

Fifty-six lifetimes to explore: the prospect is irresistible to Alex, especially when the same mysterious boy with soulful blue eyes keeps showing up in each of them. But the more she descends, the more it becomes apparent that someone doesn’t want Alex to travel again. Ever.

And will stop at nothing to make this life her last.

Pre-order The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare now!
Barnes & Noble|Books-a-Million|Amazon|Indiebound|The Book Depository

About the Author

When she’s not writing, M.G. moonlights as a web designer and social media/creative director. She’s the current web ninja lurking behind the hugely popular website YABooksCentral.com, a social network for YA (and kids!) book lovers.

These are the places you’ll find M.G. hiding: in her creaky old house nestled in Michigan pines, sipping coffee on her porch, cooking over campfires, and dipping her toes in creeks. Say hello to M.G. on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

Giveaway Details

One winner from each participating blog (10 total) will receive signed bookmarks and stickers.

One grand prize winner will receive a copy of the book (once available) as well as the Mega 57 LIVES Character Prize Pack (each item pertaining to a significant character in the book):

- A pair of black Wayfarer glasses, like Alex wears
- A pack of chocolate pudding cups, courtesy of Jensen
- Vintage piano sheet music for the song Star Dust, the song Nick plays for Alex
- An orange Baltimore Orioles cap, like Porter wears
- A pair of engraved Polygon game piece stones (You’ll have to read the book to find out how these come into play!)
- A YABooksCentral.com tote bag
- Signed bookmarks and stickers

This giveaway is open internationally. Winners will be chosen and notified by email within 30 days of the giveaway end date.

To enter, fill out the Rafflecopter form below. Extra entries can be earned by following the bloggers involved in the Cover Reveal Celebration.

a Rafflecopter giveaway