Liars, Inc. (Book Review)

Liars, Inc. (Book Review)

Things can really spiral out of control with one little lie.

Our narrator quickly discovers this in the Young Adult novel, Liars, Inc., when events get out of hand when it is discovered that his best friend has disappeared and died. It all began with one little cover story, but it ended up with a full FBI investigation in which Max looks to be the guilty party in the case of his missing friend.

Liars, Inc. is essentially the story of three teenagers: Max, the former homeless boy who was adopted as a teenager and is often happy to be a part of the gang with his richer, cooler friends; Parvati, his beautiful girlfriend who has a knack for distorting the truth, but is Max’s one true confidant; Preston, the rich son of a senator with a reckless side, who ends up missing and dead (not really a spoiler, this is revealed in the opening chapter). Their interactions together and friendships lead them to starting their own little business at school, which they call Liars, Inc. Through this money-making endeavor, they will create cover stories for parents, or forge signatures, all for a few bucks. Before long, they are making a pretty solid income, as there are no shortage of high school kids looking for a lie to help them out in one way or another.

liar3The problem, however, is that it makes lying too easy for all of them. And this will come back to haunt them as the novel progresses.

The central plot is Max being apparently framed for the disappearance of Preston. He is brought in by the FBI, and from the beginning, the clues are stacking up against him. It will be up to Max and Parvati to clear his own name. This takes us on an adventure in uncovering the clues that led up to Preston’s death. Uncovering and untangling all of the lies will take readers on many twists and turns, many of which will come as huge surprises to the intended teen audience. Author Paula Stokes explores the histories of Max, as well as the tangled past between Parvati and Preston, while taking a side journey on to the political issues of the senator father of Preston’s, before we are able to understand the truth.

Liars, Inc. is a YA novel, intended for teen audiences. As with so much current fiction in the YA genre, there is plenty of swearing and sex, which leads this novel to the higher age groups in the YA demographic. Nothing is too explicit, but enough is there that perhaps a parent would shy away from giving this novel to a 13-year-old. Aside from that, it is written in a quick enough style that should keep young readers engrossed, and many of the twists and turns will be unpredictable for them, and things they have never seen before, or previously read about.

liar2For adult readers, there is some entertainment in Liars, Inc., and it is not a bad book at all. We are able to see the story unfolding before us, but are still left with a few surprises. Some of the craziness from the end of the novel has been seen before, and many parts of the denouement of the book read like Stokes was throwing as many rehashed teen ideas at the wall as possible, and hoping that some of it would stick (I couldn’t help but make some comparisons to She’s All That at the end of the novel). The majority of it does stick. While it may have been a tad overkill as an ending, trying to explain everything away, and there are moments that work out too perfectly well timed to be realistic, it is still a fun read.

At times Liars, Inc., read too much like Stokes was trying to dabble with too many storylines, and ended up having to mash many of them together to make the story cohesive. There are moments that could have been expanded on, and moments that could have not existed, and the story would have remained the same. While this would cause the occasional irritation to me as a reader, in no way did it dramatically affect my views on the novel. It was still good, despite not being perfect.

For the teen reader, Liars, Inc. provides enough of everything to get them to the finish line: an intriguing story, a few twists and turns, some tender moments, some romance, some friendship, and plenty of lies.

Pivot Point (Book Review)

Pivot Point (Book Review)

Pivot Point is a YA novel from author Kasie West that falls into many of the trappings of regular Young Adult fare, but manages to break free of them and emerge successful on the other side.

The novel is something that initially may seem familiar to fans of the Gwyneth Paltrow film, Sliding Doors, in which someone is able to see two distinctive futures based on one choice, and then have the ability to choose between the two.

pivotAddie is a teenage girl who lives in a special Compound, where all the people possess mental powers and capabilities that keep them separate from the Norm(al) world. The Compound is a secret, but the people there live relatively normal lives, aside from the fact that they are trained in their mental capabilities. Initially, the novel starts off pretty cheesily, and some of the discourse and establishment of context comes across as chunky and unnatural. But it gets better.

The mental power that Addie has is to be able to “Search” her future. She can go from one incident, and look at the possible outcomes, to see which one is more desirable. This can provide her with basic skills, like deciding if she should go out with a specific boy. When Addie’s parents decide to get divorced, she must choose between living with her father in the Norm world, or staying in the Compound with her mother, and her best friend, Laila (who conveniently erase memories, which will help Addie when she finds a choice she doesn’t want to make).

Not sure what to choose, Addie performs a Search, to see which outcome will become the more desirable. This creates the split narrative in the story, with alternating chapters between the Search on Addie’s life in the Compound versus her life in the Norm world with her father.

In the Compound, Addie becomes charmed by Duke, the popular and athletic starting quarterback of the high school football team, which does quite well, considering their special “gifts” they are able to use on the other teams. In this world, she is haunted by a Searched incident with another boy, and a case of missing girls in the area that her father is working on (he is a lie detector, able to tell when anybody is lying to him). Despite her initial poor reactions to Duke, she finds herself taken in by his charms.

In the real world, Addie is forced to go and learn to live a normal life. She has to become accustomed to new things, and the old technologies that they use in Dallas, where her new life starts. In this world, she meets Trevor, the former star quarterback at his school, who hasn’t played since getting injured a year prior while playing Addie’s old school. They become friends, and she tries to immerse herself in this new life, and with this new group of friends. Even though she is in a new town, she still keeps in touch with Laila, who continues to live her life in the secret Compound. Sparks fly with Trevor, and we are provided with the stronger of the two romantic options, at least in my opinion, for Addie.

The story comes to a head when the subplot of the missing girls becomes more and more real for Addie, and then she is forced to make her choice, on which Search is the better one, and where she needs to go from there, and what to do after.

Once the clunky beginning to the novel is over with, Pivot Point starts to hit its stride. While the dialogue and descriptions were quite weak and simple at the beginning of the novel, it begins to take shape once the split narratives begin and get rolling. After that point, the novel is paced pretty well, and Addie’s voice becomes more clear and defined in the narrative.

The novel gets more interesting as it goes along, once we begin to see incidents that overlap in both of the possible outcomes that the protagonist is faced with. Everything picks up steam once we realize that she is closer to making a decision, and that choices aren’t always a case of picking the best option, but perhaps picking the better of two poor options. It provides plenty of interest as the story moves forward towards its conclusion.

Once the choice is made, there is still some intrigue, because Addie needs to deal with the consequences of her choice, and needs to decide which memories she would like to have erased. It provides for some interesting fiction.

pivot3Pivot Point works as a stand-alone novel, but as with so many (too many) YA novels, there is a sequel available, entitled Split Second, which seems to take place immediately following the events of the first book. Typically, I am against reading any sequels in the YA genre, because I find them to be irritating and often recycled, but I have to admit that I am curious to see where this one goes.

For a novel that I initially disliked, I really got into Pivot Point, and ended up quite enjoying it. I may just have to read the second.

Young, female readers should enjoy this book, as it gets the chance to double up on romantic stories, and the questions of the kids with superpowers is always present, but not always bashing you in the face with the science fiction aspect of the whole premise. A steady read.

Thirteen Reasons Why (Book Review)

Thirteen Reasons Why (Book Review)

My intentions were to spend a part of Saturday to start this book, perhaps reading the first few chapters, just to get the ball rolling.

By Saturday evening, I was putting the book down, done pouring through the thirteen stories a dead teenager leaves behind in order to explain the reason she committed suicide.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a tremendously addictive Young Adult novel, written by Jay Asher.

13-2The premise is that a girl kills herself, and leaves behind a set of tapes, explaining all of the reasons that she decided to end her life. When the first person is done with the tapes, they are expected to send them along to the next person on the list, so that they can all hear about the part that they played in her life, and her death.

In a way, it is the ultimate revenge for someone who has taken their own life. In another, it is a commentary on how the way we behave, and treat others, can have such a profound effect on the lives of those around us.

The central character of the novel is Clay, a good guy, who receives the tapes on his doorstep one day. He is horrified and haunted by what Hannah has done, considering that he always has a crush on her. Asher creates a great suspense story here, as we, like Clay, are left wondering and dreadfully anticipating his portion of her story: what he did wrong that contributed to the demise of Hannah.

The stories told by Hannah are chilling. Her voice on the recorder, leaving nothing unturned. She exposes the people at her school for being the bad people that they are, and there are thirteen people on the list that are going to hear these stories, as they pass along the tapes. She talks about good people who aren’t actually that good, and bad people who are actually worse than they appear. She goes after everyone, as she takes us through her downward spiral towards her fateful decision to take her own life. It can be painful at times, and one can only imagine what the people hearing the tapes were going through, hearing about their issues in that manner.

What Hannah does to the people she has left behind is cruel punishment for them, essentially blaming them for her being dead. But on the other side, shouldn’t people be aware of how their actions affect others? Or is this something that she has done in order to ruin the lives of others, as they have ruined hers? Is it fighting fire with fire? These are the types of questions that can be discussed at the completion of the novel.

Everything culminates with Hannah making one last attempt to be saved, unfairly going to a teacher, and expecting more than she gets in return, therefore adding him to the list. It is disturbing, and in my opinion, places the blame on someone other than herself for doing what she did.

13-3This novel is truly addictive, and is a very strong read. There is suspense throughout, and it is pretty well written. At times, the dual narrative between Hannah’s tapes and Clay’s thoughts while listening to the tapes can be confusing, or too quick, but once the novel settles in, the reader will get used to it.

There are a lot of unanswered questions with this novel, and endless possible debates about the ethics of what Hannah had done. At the end of the day, however, Asher has created a great, page-turning novel about a very touchy and damaging subject: teen suicide.

In the YA genre, Thirteen Reasons Why is a very good book. In my opinion, it is better than similar books, like Speak, but not quite as strong as something like The Tragedy Paper (despite a very similar story) or Looking for Alaska. If anything, you will be getting a highly entertaining (I know that is the wrong word based on the subject matter) read, that will absolutely fly by. You will be craving to know the rest of Hannah’s story, as does Clay, in the novel.

*Doing a little research on the interwebs, I see that Thirteen Reasons Why is currently being made in to a film, starring Selena Gomez. Not surprising. It could be a very gritty film, if the producers are willing to do it that way. It could end up as serious cheese, as well. 

Stupid Fast (Book Review)

Stupid Fast (Book Review)

Over the course of one fateful summer, a high school kid figures out that he loves to run, and that he is able to do it incredibly well. He is more than fast. As the title suggests, he is Stupid Fast.

Despite his best friend having to leave for the summer, he conveniently begins dating the new girl in town, who just happens to have rented the house where his best friend used to live, and doesn’t seem to mind as our protagonist creeps on her through the window and door while she practices piano in the early morning, which he is able to see while on his disliked paper route.

When others in town begin to notice his impressive speed, he defies logic of his socially meaningless position in the high school hierarchy, and begins to mesh with the football players, working the weight room with them, running routes with the school QB, and building his endurance by running up the menacing town hill.

All the while, he is forced to lament the death of his father, who committed suicide when he was just a kid, his increasingly erratic brother, and his mother, who is slipping into a terrible mental state herself, destroying her family along the way.

fast2It is a lot to deal with for a teenager, and he does it the only way he knows how: by running.

There are some good things and bad things about Stupid Fast. The author attempts to write with constant humour, and while it does give the book a more lighthearted viewpoint, the humour often falls flat, and he does not manage to make the narrator’s voice as entertaining or funny as other YA authors, such as John Green, who has become the master of having his characters make light of serious situations. This failure to develop scenes that are different and fun makes the voice of the narrator kind of annoying, particularly near the beginning of the novel.

While the story definitely takes its time to get going, forcing readers to get through about the first hundred pages or so before anything of real significance begins to happen, it does become more entertaining once the repetitive nature of the first act is over with. Once you get past this, it does become a much quicker, and fun read. There are events that happen in much more rapid succession, and it makes me wish that this pace had been established at the beginning.

For the ending, without giving anything away, it ends too easily and abruptly for my taste. Not that I am adverse to happy endings, but this one read like he was in a hurry to get it all done, and decided to wrap it up quickly, in a nice little bow. He does a good job, however, in making sure that there are no loose ends, and story lines that served as undertones for the novel also were paid there due in the conclusion of the novel.

To his credit, Geoff Herbach, the author, does some things quite well, which keeps Stupid Fast open for a broader audience. He makes sure that the love story never veers into the cheesy or overly romantic territory that too many YA novels tend to do. He keeps it simple, and despite the coincidental nature of his meeting with the girl, the relationship remains pretty realistic for a teen romance. This ensures that the book will still be of interest for male readers, who are not looking for something sappy. Also, the inclusion of sports definitely helps. The sections about running, weightlifting, or football, tend to work quite well, but are not so detailed that they will ostracize non-sports fan readers.

Stupid Fast ended up being a pretty good read, and I quite enjoyed the novel. There were times when I wasn’t sure if it was going to be worth it, but once I got over that initial 100-page hump, it was well worth it. It is a good light read, nothing too serious here, despite the fact that there are some serious issues being dealt with. I wish it were funnier, and that perhaps the narrator had a more sarcastic voice, or something, but in the end, I liked it.

Thirteen Days to Midnight (Book Review)

Thirteen Days to Midnight (Book Review)

If you could only have one superpower, what would it be? How about being indestructible?

In Thirteen Days to Midnight, author Patrick Carman has put together a very strong YA novel. The story focuses on a teenage boy, who has to overcome the guilt of being in a car accident with his foster father, leaving the man dead. He is perplexed by the final words that his friend/caretaker says to him, when he hears him say, “You are indestructible,” right before the car hit the tree and killed him.

thirteen2Jacob doesn’t think too much of it, until he returns to school after a period of mourning, and meets the new girl: the beautiful Ophelia James, or Oh, as she likes to be called. She sports a cast on a broken forearm, and Jacob has the honor of being the first to sign it. Taken in by her beauty, he wants to write something memorable, and witty. The only thing he can think of, are those final words he heard before the crash: You are indestructible.

From here, Jacob, Oh, and best friend Milo discover that there is power in the words, and that Jacob has control over it. If he says the words to someone, he can actually make them immune to anything, until he decides to take the power back. Only one person can have the power at the same time, but it opens a ton of possibilities for the trio of teens.

Thirteen Days to Midnight is a highly entertaining read. We are taken on a fun (to begin with) journey, where the kids take their time in establishing the rules of the power, considering how to use it to do good for people, and testing the limits of it. This allows us to read the descriptions of the many acts they undertake to see if they remain indestructible, and it lets our own minds run wild with the possibilities.

Of course, there are problems that arise. Jacob begins to discover that everytime he releases the power, his body begins to crave having it back, and when it is with others for too long, it begins to take its toll on them, both physically and mentally.

Here we get to learn more about the power, about the creepy, yet wonderful cult-ish book store owned by Milo’s father, the perfectly named Mr. Coffin. There is a history between Milo’s dad, Jacob’s pseudo-father, and the power, and the history is quite intriguing. Our heroes need to decide how to reign everything in when it seems like it is spinning out of control, and deciding how much responsibility weighs on them to do the right thing with it.

There are parts of this book that drag slightly, and some parts where the explanations are fairly confusing to understand, especially when it comes to the origins of the power, and how it really works when a life is saved, and is passed back and forth between people.

Regardless, this is a very good YA book. It is accessible to both males and females, and Carman is able to write a good, entertaining book without many of the downfalls of many recent YA novels. There is no sex, aside from a couple of very G-rated comments by Jacob, and even though there is a fair amount of implied violence, it never gets to the point of some books, where the violent descriptions are actually quite shocking. There is good balance here, but it doesn’t leave the reader any less entertained.

Generally, the pacing is quite solid, and the characters are likable. The subplots also do a good job in keeping the story moving forward, as there are several of them that add to the intrigue of the story.

Thirteen Days to Midnight is definitely a book I would recommend to kids, especially for those who are growing tired of series books, and want something with the same kind of excitement, but without having to commit themselves to reading an entire series of books. Now that I’ve said that, watch Carman turn around and make this into a series. But whatever, this is a fun book to read, with a fairly original premise.

Rikers High (Book Review)

Rikers High (Book Review)

A novel about a teen who has been sent to Rikers Island due to a fairly small charge, and becomes stuck there for months due to an ineffective court system seems like a pretty solid read. Plus, the novel is written by someone who spent years teaching at Rikers Island, to top it all off? This should be something good. Looking over some of the reviews for this novel on Goodreads, it seemed to be fairly well received, getting a score of 3.8/5.

Perhaps I would be getting into the novel version of Dangerous Minds, where a teacher really can make the difference in the life of a young, troubled person?

Sadly, I found none of these things to be true about Rikers High, and really feel that this novel was superficial and flat, in the end.

Martin is a teenage boy, sent to prison on a charge of “steering,” which involved him telling an undercover cop where to by weed in his neighborhood. A harmless enough charge, given that we are told time and again that Martin is a good kid. But he gets stuck on Rikers for months, due to what we are shown to be incompetence by his lawyer, and a system that just doesn’t care.

Returning to the prison after one of his failed court dates, Martin is caught in the middle of a scuffle between other inmates, and has his face slashed by a razor blade, leaving behind a four-inch scar that will be with him for the rest of his life.

rikers high2Eventually he is moved over to another section of the prison, where they send the students to school, so they can continue with their educations, or get their GEDs, or whatever else. There Martin is supposed to find his inspiration, influenced positively by the teachers he encounters, and the new people he is forced to live with.

The story is pretty straightforward, and we know from the start that it is on a finite timeline, because we know that Martin is going to be getting out of prison soon. So we know that he won’t be there to graduate in some heartfelt storyline, where his teachers break down and cry over all the positive changes he has gone through. In fact, he is only in the school portion of the prison for about a week, leading to one of the major problems of this novel: everything is superficial, and rarely goes beyond the surface of what could have been an emotional story about change.

Sure, Martin would love some revenge on the guy who cut his face, but despite feeling angry a couple of times, nothing really comes of it. He is able to stay away from the regular prison issues, and is able to fight off his anger, fairly easily.

All of the characters in Rikers High, Martin included, are pretty flat. We don’t really learn anything about any of them. And this definitely left me not caring that much about them. No details about the lives of his friends are given, so we can’t relate to them at all. There is no sympathy for the characters, only knowing what is happening. The writing in the novel very much felt like we were distantly being told a story, and we were not at all involved in it, as readers. This left the whole story lacking, for me.

The character that meant to be the inspirational teacher, does very little in my mind to deserve that. He treats the prisoners with respect, which is great. He holds their attention in class, but no reason is given why. He teaches them English, and has them do a series of amateurish assignments that are directly from cliched movies about great teachers. For some reason, these tough kids totally buy into these assignments, and really take their time and care to do them well. They even engage in deep conversations during class time. But why? How do they trust this teacher? It is just assumed, from our first meeting with him, that he is the good guy, and people really like him. That’s it, the only explanation that is offered.

In fact, the inmates like all of their teachers, save one. I feel like it’s rare to find a high school where kids like, and respect, all of their teachers, let alone one on Rikers Island. I found the whole school portion of the novel to be unrealistic, and almost pointless. Martin really doesn’t learn anything from the school. We know that he was smart before he walked into the prison, and nothing about that changes during his time there. He feels some kind of bond with his English teacher, which, again, we are unsure of why it is happening, or what it stemmed from.

The author, Paul Volponi, taught at the Rikers high school for years, and states at the beginning of his book that many incidents that he writes about are based in fact. That may be true, but it somehow seems almost too tame for what one would expect.

Another issue with Rikers High is that there is very little suspense in the storyline. Will Martin ever come face-to-face with the kid who cut him? Will he get out of prison (we know, without a doubt, that he will)? What little build up there is, really fizzles into nothing. The head goon on their ward, who controls everything, offers some potential incidents that could have changed the course of the novel, but literally nothing ever happens with him. He acts tough. Martin doesn’t bite. Moving on. There is also the story of the kid in the bunk next to Martin, which I suppose offers the emotional end to the story that it needs. Sanchez, who is going to be soon going upstate to the adult prison to finish his sentence, is looking for a way out. I guess the fate of this kid helps Martin understand something that he didn’t before…no, wait. He definitely knew all he learns before. Perhaps this incident was just something to reinforce the idea that…prison is bad?

Even the “suspense” building up to one of Martin’s fateful last evenings on Rikers, seems to be shallow. There isn’t much more to it than that. We have seen these types of scenes before, and this one was stolen right from The Shawshank Redemption, which did it emotionally and brilliantly. Rikers High, on the other hand, did it without flair or real concern over what was happening.

I did not like this book, and would find few YA readers to recommend it to. I feel that even a younger audience would see through the skimpy characterization and general lack of interesting incidents to keep the plot moving forward. We never feel scared about Rikers High, and it actually seems like a pretty decent place, which couldn’t have been the intention of the author. There was potential here, and not having read any of his other works, I don’t know if this is along the same lines of his other writing, or just an idea that was there, but just didn’t take off.

I think that the average YA reader wants some more depth in the books they read, and I didn’t find that there was much depth at all in Rikers High.

The Beginning of Everything (Book Review)

The Beginning of Everything (Book Review)

There were several things in this book that reminded me of Eleanor and Park. Considering I am one of the few people that mostly disliked that book, that is not necessarily a good comparison, because I really did like The Beginning of Everything, and felt that despite similarities to Eleanor and Park, this is the better Young Adult novel.

The story is based around how our lives truly begin after a tragedy occurs in our lives. How after that point, we begin living the way that we will, for the rest of our lives. Our narrator, Ezra, describes how his best friend caught the severed head of a Japanese tourist on a roller coaster ride at Disneyland when he was 12 years old. This was the tragedy that chose to befall him, and his life was never the same afterwards. 

The tragedy for Ezra is when he catches his beautiful girlfriend cheating on him at a party. After he plays the incident with a coolness unusual for a teenager in this position, he proceeds to get hit in a violent car accident, and it cripples his leg.

beginEzra had been the most popular guy in school, the star of the highly respected tennis team, and a generally decent person. His leg injury was his tragedy, and it changed how he was going to have to live his life. 

Feeling abandoned after the accident, upon his return to school, Ezra takes up with a different clique, including his old best friend Toby, who had been the one to catch the severed head years ago. Ezra eventually fits in with the new group, even joining the debate team, something his former self would have never dreamed of. Here, he meets the new girl to the school, and noted ace at debate, Cassidy. Their relationship forms the centrepiece of the novel, once Ezra has settled back into life and stopped always wallowing over the loss of his popular status. 

And it provides some of the most tender, fun, and surprising moments of the novel. The relationship between Ezra and Cassidy felt far more real to me than the one between Eleanor and Park, even if it was based on some of the same things, nerdier things. There is still talk of music, and comics, and Doctor Who, but I felt that it was more genuine in this novel, and I could buy their relationship as being more honest and believable than in the other novel. 

Being intended for Young Adult audiences, this novel is a coming of age story, about how we need to choose to start living our lives, and about how our memories persist with us, regardless of how hard we try to forget about them, or move past them. We remember, just as other people do too. 

What makes this novel strong is the frequent literary references, especially those related to The Great Gatsby. Ezra is reading the famous Fitzgerald novel, and for the first time, is finding himself connect with a book. There are many similarities between the musings of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby that relate to Ezra and what he goes through inhis life, especially when his relationship with Cassidy inevitably becomes more tumultuous than he would have liked. Even when looking at his dog, Cooper, Ezra feels that he is talking to him in a Gatsby-esque voice, ending all of what he imagines Cooper to be saying with “Old Sport.”

The references don’t end with Gatsby, and I feel this is clever, as hopefully if the reference is not recognized by the reader, it will open them up to looking it up, and having them learn something along the way. An example of this is the frequent references to Michel Foucault’s panopticon, and the basics of the theory behind it. There are many other literary references, and puns, which will happen when the main group of characters, and Ezra’s closest friends, are almost too smart for their own good. There is plenty of hipsterness to go around.

The Beginning of Everything has a little bit of everything. There is humour, which is a must-have in a YA novel. There is a plausible love story, with some sex, but not so much that it should only be for much older teen readers. And the coming of age is something that could probably be easy to relate to for many readers. If they don’t get what they are reading, or can’t understand what the characters are going through, then the message will be lost. But, we have all faced some kind of tragedy, as this is something that can connect with everyone, and I found that it really worked well in this novel. Author Robyn Schneider did a really good job of incorporating all of the elements into a page-turning YA book. She even manages to provide us with a surprising ending that wraps up the novel beautifully.

Recommended.