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What’s Left of Me

by Kat Zhang (The Hybrid Chronicles, #1) (Author’s Site | Amazon)

Meh.

Seriously, I had such high hopes for What’s Left of Me.  The concept is great – everyone is born  with two souls, but everyone – most everyone, anyway – eventually settles, with only one dominant soul left while the other fades away.  For the past three years, Addie has been lying, letting the doctors and her parents believe that the soul she shared her body with, Eva, is gone – but Eva is still inside her, trapped.  If anyone found out, they’d be locked away in an institution, never to leave again and lead a normal life.

Sounds awesome, right?  Unfortunately, I did not connect with this book at all.  I never got a feel for the characters beyond their roles in the plot, the plot itself beyond the interesting concept of hybrids was a paint-by-numbers dystopian that never surprised me, and – slight spoiler alert – evil vaccines?  Seriously?  Come on, there are already enough idiots that believe vaccines are giving our children autism or whatever.  Vaccines killing off souls too?  Um, nice message, I guess.  Except ew.

There was never any real urgency to the plot, either.  I never felt Addie and Eva’s fear of being found out to be hybrid, and later, never felt the urgency to get out of the facility they were trapped in.  There was, to this reader, no real danger, or risks taken in having bad things actually happen to people the reader is told to care about.  “Oh no this bad thing might happen at some point” is nothing compared to actual, real fear for the characters’ lives or souls, and there was none of that present in this novel.

Just… meh.  I wanted to like What’s Left of Me so badly, but there was just nothing in it for me.

Rating:

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The Book of Blood and Shadow

by Robin Wasserman (Author’s Site | Amazon)

The Book of Blood and Shadow is nowhere near a perfect book, or even one with much literary merit.  It’s a 400-plus page popcorn flick.  It’s like National Treasure with teenage protagonists – IN SPACE PRAGUE.  And it was so.  much.  FUN.  This is exactly what I want in an adventure – gorgeous foreign setting, fast-moving plot, and a mystery to solve that spans centuries.

Admittedly, it does take the book a while to get going.  The opening slaps you in the face with the fact that awful things are going to happen to the characters, and tells you exactly which – and then you’re pulled back in time to the beginning, before things went bad, for chapters and chapters of getting to know these characters, learning about the protagonist Nora’s family and her relationships with the other major players of this early segment of the book: her best friend, Chris; his girlfriend and “by the transitive property of social addition,” now Nora’s friend, Adriane; and Chris’s college roommate and, in no time at all, Nora’s boyfriend, Max.  Nora, Max, and Chris are all working on the same archival project together with a noted historian, translating an alchemist’s letters that he believes may help them crack the Voynich manuscript.  Nora, relegated to translating the letters of the alchemist’s daughter Elizabeth, begins to relate to her, and steals the letters for herself – but then an attempt is made on the life of the historian she works under, seemingly related to what is revealed in Elizabeth’s letters.  And from there, everything spirals out of control.

This is a book about crazy-smart characters, which may turn some people off.  Nora has been a Latin scholar since a very young age, and uses words like “rescinded” in casual conversation with her friends.  She doesn’t talk or narrate like your average YA heroine, and some readers might find it pretentious – I personally found it fitting for the subject and tone of the book.  After all, Nora’s entire quest for answers is based around translating Latin, solving riddles and cyphers, and generally using her wits to get to the truth.  If she were a typical main character, all that would feel ridiculous – “this average teenage girl is solving these centuries-old mysteries?”  But there was no need to suspend my disbelief that Nora, Max, and Eli were all more than capable of cracking the case, so to speak.

I can’t say much as to the plot without revealing some twists that really should be experienced first-hand – the summary doesn’t give too much away, and so I knew much less than what this review reveals going in – which is how this book should be read.  I can, at least, tell you that the twists and turns the story takes are excellent, and learning the truth behind everything Nora and her allies uncover is absolutely worth getting through the slower first section of the book.  The Book of Blood and Shadow was just the adventure I was looking for, and I wish there was more YA like it.

Rating:

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Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn – Review

Goodreads | Amazon | Author’s Website

Published: June 11, 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin

Genre: Contemporary

Pages: 224

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.

It’s not often that I have any sort of visceral reaction to a book. I can read some of the goriest, most disturbing scenes in horror novels and only mutter “oh, ew” or pull an exaggerated face of disgust. I read a lot of YA “issue” novels that deal with dark and upsetting subjects, but they rarely upset me to a point beyond maybe tearing up a little.

Charm and Strange, however, definitely did get a reaction from me as things about Andrew’s past came to light – it made me feel physically ill. I know that sounds bad – “this book made me feel sick” is not, generally, a glowing compliment, but considering the subject matter I think it’s an appropriate reaction. This is not an easy read, especially if you’re triggered by discussions of abuse, which I wish the jacket summary had been clearer about. I didn’t know what Charm and Strange was about going in, and its Goodreads page lists it as paranormal, so I’d assumed that it was just going to be a dark paranormal mystery. It, um… wasn’t. Not exactly the nicest surprise for someone who needs to mentally prepare themselves before reading about this sort of thing. I realize giving away just what happened to Andrew would spoil the shock of finding out, but I would have liked some sort of warning as to the book’s content.

As far as writing goes: Charm and Strange has an incredibly strong narrative voice. I’ll be honest, I don’t find a lot of male narrators in YA to be very compelling; ones I find distinctive are few and far between. Thankfully, this is one of the ones I do. Andrew’s voice is a little bit hard to get used to at first – he uses a lot of fragmented sentences, and he doesn’t reveal anything about himself very easily. He’s also… not the most likeable of people, even admitting he’s “not a good person.” He purposefully cuts himself off from others, and even reads like he’s throwing up walls between himself and reader in the chapters set in the present. As someone who thinks that writers and reviewers both put too much stock in characters being “likeable,” I thought Andrew was a unique and fascinating protagonist, flaws and all, but, of course, that’s all subjective.

There isn’t much to say regarding the plot that wouldn’t be considered a spoiler. Watching Charm and Strange unfold and give you one tiny piece of the truth at a time is one of its strongest points, and to say more than I already have would take away from that. The book’s – and Andrew’s – unwillingness to give up any easy answers about what happened may be frustrating for a lot of readers, and I can tell it’s going to be a DNF for some. I personally liked that aspect a lot – it matches up perfectly with Andrew trying to push his past away, and the denial he keeps himself in. The reader is getting pieces of the story at the rate he lets himself remember them.

I absolutely loved the secondary characters in this novel, too. Jordan, the first to appear, is blunt and no-nonsense, and while she’s part of what drives Andrew’s story forward it’s not in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl way. She’s a very real character who’s made mistakes in the past and is a genuinely good person, and I kind of want a book just about her, because what little we learn about her past sounds like it would make an amazing story of its own. Lex starts off being just a douchebag, but as the night goes on we see that he really is a good friend to Andrew, and cares a hell of a lot about him. And Andrew’s brother Keith – he absolutely broke my heart. I love Keith, even if I can’t say much about him without giving some very important things away. I’ll admit it, I shed a tear over what Andrew has to say about him at the end of the book.

This is far from being a typical YA novel, even alongside other books dealing with similarly dark subjects, and I appreciate that. There is no easy ending, no happily ever after. No world is saved or bad guy vanquished or girl’s heart won. Andrew’s story ends on a positive note, but a realistic one – it’s clear that he still has a lot to work through and a lot of progress left to make, and that he won’t be easily fixed. Despite all that, it wraps up in a way I found completely satisfying, and touching without being cheesy. Charm and Strange was not an easy book for me to read, and I can’t imagine that was an easy story to tell, but it was absolutely worth it. This is an incredible, haunting book that I won’t be able to stop thinking about for a long time to come.

Rating:

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Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas – Review

7896527 Goodreads | Amazon | Author’s Website

Published: August 7, 2012 by Bloomsbury USA Children’s

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 404

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin. Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her… but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead… quickly followed by another.

Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

I had SO. MANY. PROBLEMS with Throne of Glass. If you follow my updates on Goodreads, it probably seems like not ten pages went by without me griping about some figure of speech, easily guessed “twist,” or mischaracterization. I had problems with the character development, the writing, the “mystery”… and somehow, despite all this, I really, really enjoyed the book as a whole despite my nitpicking.

I have to admit, I was skeptical when I opened the book and saw that the author had dedicated it to her FictionPress readers. I mean, FictionPress? I remember my friend posting her (amateur and trope-filled) stories on there when we were both, like, twelve. (Dear friend: no hard feelings if you read this, okay? Like I said. We were twelve. At least you weren’t the one writing self-insert anime fanfic back then.) And there is definitely a feel to most of Throne of Glass reminiscent of a young fantasy fan taking elements from works they’ve enjoyed and sprinkling in a good-sized dose of fanfiction tropes, but instead of feeling ripped off, I had to grin a little. You do it for the preteen girls who dream of writing their own fantasy epic, Sarah J. Maas. I am 110% supportive of this, no sarcasm.

Despite its predictability, I liked the main plot. I like stories about competitions, especially of the deadly sort. The Tests to decide the king’s champion were nothing new or innovative, but I can see how anything particularly complicated or over-the-top could feel out of place in the world of the book. They were just what they needed to be, although I wish a little more time had been spent on them and less on the love triangle! The big reveal of who had been murdering the contestants was pretty obvious, but certain others after, though not huge shocks, were interesting and set things up nicely for the rest of the series, as well as introducing some neat elements to the fantasy portion of the story.

The writing is where the book’s online origins really start to become clear. If you’ve ever been a fanfiction reader, you’ll recognize a characteristic of those stories in the writing here: referring to a character by a trait instead of name, as in “the brunette” or “the knight.” Maas uses this a lot in regards to Celaena. Not a page goes by without her being referred to as “the assassin.” It’s an amateur mistake that shouldn’t be cropping up this often in a published work, in my opinion. Once or twice is alright. Often enough that you notice it and groan inwardly every time it’s used? Not alright. Some of the dialogue tags are… interesting, as well. One that made me grit my teeth out of annoyance both times I caught it: “he/she said softly, but not weakly.” There are a thousand ways to convey that without sounding that, well, stupid. “He said under his breath,” for example. “She said, in a low voice.” Heck, even “they said softly,” because I know I, at least, don’t see that and automatically think WOW, THEY SURE SOUND LIKE A WIMP, HA HA. And I think the castle healers should take a look at Celaena’s heart, because it is always doing weird shit. Screeching and diving behind her spine, for example. Or: “… feeling her heart grow, and grow, and grow.” The repetition of “grow” three times honestly made me let out a giggle, because… is Celaena the Grinch? Because it sounds like her heart grew three sizes that day! Har har har.

The character development is… shaky, to say the least. Relationships jump all over the place within pages – ooh, they distrust this other person! Now they feel like this person has their back! Now they resent them! Seriously, Chaol needs to get his mood swings checked out. I know that the relationships between the love triangle are complicated – Celaena has good reason to hate anyone involved with Adarlan’s royalty, and Chaol and Dorian’s apprehensions about her because of her profession make sense – but these feelings don’t grow organically, but progress and regress depending on whatever makes the current POV character seem angstiest. And Celaena herself… whoo boy. Her morals are ALL OVER THE PLACE. This girl who’s hyped up to the reader as a heartless killer actually stops to think “What was ‘Champion’ but a dressed-up name for murderer?” You know what’s a dressed-up name for murderer, Celaena? ASSASSIN.

Despite that, I really love her as a protagonist – I like that her tongue is as sharp as her killer instincts, I like that despite her background as an assassin she cares for others, and I like that she isn’t totally fearless. She may be a stone-cold badass, but not one with a stone heart. And she loves pretty dresses and puppies! You know what, even if it was just a chance to describe her beautiful gowns, I’ll let it slide, because Celaena’s the perfect example that you can love feminine things and not be fragile or shallow.

As for the romance, I found it… actually, pretty decent. I much prefer Chaol to Dorian, although the first book seems to put things on a very pro-Dorian path, but neither romance of the love triangle made me roll my eyes or want to slap any of the participants for their sheer stupidity, which is… refreshing, I guess. Neither of the romantic interests is a “bad boy” type or creepy and coercive in the least, and I can see how fans could find both swoon-worthy. Although the romance does take up a good portion of the middle of the book, it never figures directly into the main plot – Celaena deals with all of that on her own (or with a little help from a friend who shall remain a spoiler!) and her feelings for her love interests never drive her decisions.

Throne of Glass is anything but perfect, and has some major, obvious flaws – but it did exactly what a fantasy story should do: immersed me in its world and kept me turning the pages. I have high hopes for this series and where it’s going – Crown of Midnight cannot come out fast enough for me.

Rating:

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – Review

12875258 Goodreads | Amazon | Author’s Website

Published: June 19, 2012 by Random House

Genre: Contemporary, literary fiction

Pages: 335

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): 1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

It’s easy for me to write about books I hate. There’s a sort of gleeful joy in pulling a story apart to show all its flaws, in finding the most dramatic language to convey just how terrible a plot point, characterization, or the implications from either is. Writing about books I enjoyed, but had issues with certain elements of, is also simple – state what about the book worked for me, what didn’t, and how it could be improved upon.

But it’s very, very difficult for me to talk about books I love without feeling self-conscious. What can I say about them that doesn’t fall into the realm of cliche, or read like a publisher-selected cover blurb? As bloggers and others who talk about books online, it’s part of the job description to be critical, so when I find virtually nothing to criticize in a book, I end up questioning myself: am I not thinking hard enough about this? Am I letting my enjoyment of this book, and how it affected me, cloud my judgement and keep me from assessing its quality? And what is there to say about a book that leaves you speechless?

I don’t know. Glowing reviews are just not something that comes naturally to me. But even if they were, I still doubt I’d be able to eloquently write about how I feel about this particular book. I’ve tried, in the hours since I finished it. I’ve tried to capture what exactly made it perfect to me in words – and it’s come out cringe-inducing every time. Maybe later, when I have a chance to buy my own copy and re-read it, I’ll be able to untangle the jumbled mess of feelings in my head and write a coherent review explaining exactly why this book is as beautiful as it is. For now, that’s just not something I can do. Plenty of others, judging by the Goodreads and Amazon reviews, already have; if you’re curious about the book and exactly what people liked about it, those would be a far better place to look. But right now, that’s just not something I can do. The most I can say, and the best praise, I think, that I can give to this book or any other, is that even if just in a small way, I feel like Tell the Wolves I’m Home changed the way I look at myself and my relationships to those around me.

(What I said about feeling self-conscious talking about books I love? Yeah, every time I look back over that last sentence, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It just reads so… overblown, true as it is. I feel like I need to write like ten snarky reviews of subpar YA just to make up for that sentence and regain my Cool Blogger Cred.)

My own feelings aside, I do think Tell the Wolves I’m Home is an incredible novel, and I meant it one hundred percent when I called it beautiful. Move it to the top of your TBR pile. Request it at your library. Please read this book. I can’t promise it will blow away your expectations like it did mine, but I can’t imagine you’ll regret picking it up.

Rating:

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And a bucket of tears.

Orchards by Holly Thompson – Review

orchardscoverGoodreads | Amazon | Author’s website

Published: Feb. 22, 2011 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

Genre: Contemporary, verse novel

Pages: 336

Received: From library

Summary (from Goodreads): After a classmate commits suicide, Kana Goldberg—a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American—wonders who is responsible. She and her cliquey friends said some thoughtless things to the girl. Hoping that Kana will reflect on her behavior, her parents pack her off to her mother’s ancestral home in Japan for the summer. There Kana spends hours under the hot sun tending to her family’s mikan orange groves.
Kana’s mixed heritage makes it hard to fit in at first, especially under the critical eye of her traditional grandmother, who has never accepted Kana’s father. But as the summer unfolds, Kana gets to know her relatives, Japan, and village culture, and she begins to process the pain and guilt she feels about the tragedy back home. Then news about a friend sends her world spinning out of orbit all over again.

I feel like I would have enjoyed Orchards a lot more if I’d read it when I was younger – middle school, maybe. This isn’t a negative thing; it just feels more like a novel that a tween or early teen would like and relate to than something I would. Besides the use of “bitch” and the topic of suicide, there’s not much in here that would be inappropriate for, say, a twelve year old, and most twelve year olds I know have heard all of that before. And, seeing as the character whose suicide kicks off the plot is an eighth grader, I’d say suicide is a subject relevant to readers that age. I personally had trouble identifying with Kana, very likely due to her age, but also because I just… didn’t get a good grasp on her as a character, I guess, which is hugely important when your novel is narrated in first-person voice and everything we’re reading is your narrator’s personal thoughts. The story, although definitely intriguing with the culture clash between Kana’s American upbringing and her family’s very Japanese values, didn’t really pick up until 260 or so pages out of 325 (the numbers on my page count differ from the ones Goodreads gives, for some reason) which in my opinion is far too long, and the sudden spike in pace and intensity felt very jarring.

The verse didn’t really grab me, either – it didn’t read like poetry, but like chopped-up sentences. I found myself mentally moving around the line breaks throughout the book, adding commas or periods to the end of sentences in my head – which, while it may be just my personal preference, was seriously distracting.

(Another personal gripe – all these YA novels about suicide from an outsider’s perspective, and I can only think of a few – much less successful – written from the point of view of someone who is suicidal themselves. I realize that it’s probably more easy to relate to, for readers who haven’t had any first-hand experience with being suicidal. But to me, it just feels… really, really patronizing. Very rarely do we get to tell our own stories, or have them told from our own perspectives; it’s always the story of the grieving friend, the bully who takes things too far, the bystander who let it happen, and how someone else’s actions effect them, and isn’t suicide terrible because of that? Well, yes. I don’t mean to invaldiate the experiences who’s lost someone they cared about to suicide or had to deal with a loved one’s attempt, because obviously, that’s a horrible thing to go through. But the fact that someone feels there’s no choice but to end their life, that someone has a little voice in their head telling them it would be better for everyone if they just died, that someone feels so tired and worn down by the world that they can see no other way – that’s terrible, too, and terrifying to notice those thoughts in your head. So, yeah. More first-person stories about this subject, please, I beg of you. Rant over now.)

The reason I picked up this novel, the fact that it takes place in Japan, does not disappoint. Kana’s mother’s relatives are very traditional, as most of Japan is, and if you’re new to Japanese culture and traditions Orchards is a good place to start learning about it through fiction. One of my favorite parts of the book was the scenes during Obon, a Japanese Buddhist holiday where families come together to perform a ceremony to guide home the spirits of their ancestors. It’s one of the sections that didn’t distract me with my own personal annoyances about the verse, and quite honestly, it’s beautiful. (It also put a pretty big smile on my face when Kana said that “it would just be easier to give the spirits GPS-activated cell phones.” This sounds exactly like something my cousin, around Kana’s age, would say.)

Although I’m not in the target audience for Orchards, and I feel like my enjoyment of it suffered for that, I actually found myself quite fond of it by the time I turned the last page. Issues with the verse format and its choppiness aside, this is a very sweet story despite some of the subject matter and one that I think middle-grade readers could learn a lot from, about not only Japanese culture but also grief, family, and moving forwards.

Rating:

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(Also, the cover!  It would be absolutely gorgeous if only the font for the author’s name and “a novel” fit better with the rest of it – they do, however, help to tip the reader off that this is aimed just a little below YA.  But those colors, my god, they are fantastic.  I want my room painted that shade of blue!)

 

Mind Games by Kiersten White – Review

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Goodreads | Amazon | Author’s website

Published: Feb. 19, 2013 by HarperTeen

Genre: Paranormal, dystopia

Pages: 237

Received: From library

Sisters Fia and Annie are… talented. That’s how the boarding school they attend puts it, anyway. Perhaps a better term would be psychic. Annie, although blind, can see visions of the future – beginning with the one that killed their parents. Fia, on the other hand, has perfect instincts – the ability to know in less than a fraction of a second which is the right choice to make, an ability only she possesses. Due to its uniqueness, Fia’s power is very valuable, and the school doesn’t intend to waste it. Since she arrived, she’s been put through incredibly intense training to test her abilities, her instincts put to use picking stocks, committing espionage… and now killing. If she doesn’t follow her orders, she knows Annie – held hostage by the school’s owner, Mr. Keane, to ensure her cooperation – will be killed. But she can’t bring herself to murder her target, putting herself and Annie in danger that, even with both their abilities, they may not be able to get out of…

The best word to describe Mind Games is probably propulsive.There really isn’t time to wander off on side plots or take a break for some comic relief – it’s a straight, crazy shot from beginning to end, over the book’s short 237-page running time. This isn’t a bad thing; there’s no slack to the story and no pacing issues or unnecessary time spent in introspection by the narrators (something a lot of female YA protagonists fall prey to, at the expense of the story.) However, perhaps a tiny bit of the extremely fast pace could have been sacrificed for a little more world building and explanation. I never got very much of a feel for Annie’s character, for example, and knowing more about Keane’s plans and why we should be against him would have raised the stakes a lot higher and given the plot more of a sense of urgency. Hopefully some of these things, as well as the full extent of the psychic powers that give the series their basis, will be fleshed out in the sequel.

While a lot of readers may find Fia’s narrative, with its repetition and stream-of-consciousness style, annoying bordering on unreadable, I personally found it one of the book’s strong points. Fia is completely mentally broken, both from her training and what she’s had to do to protect her sister, and it shows in her chapters. She reads like someone who’s gone insane, instead of the “oh, by the way, have I mentioned I’m crazy?” with nothing to back it up that plagues many books with similar types of protagonist.

Annie was much less compelling to me, unfortunately, but I did find the relationship between her and Fia very interesting, especially the way the two girls blamed themselves for the other’s situation. If only they’d shared more screentime, and the reader got more of a sense of their bond instead of just being told how much they cared for each other, it could have been one of the strongest points of the book.

From what reviews I’ve seen of the sequel, Perfect Lies, it improves on the major problems I had with Mind Games, and I’m very much looking forward to its 2014 release. (Even if that title sounds like something that would be found on a New Adult romance cover, instead of YA dystopian. I mean… really?) Mind Games definitely isn’t perfect, or even close to it, but it was an enjoyable, exciting read for sure.

Rating:

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