April 28, 2013

Rants & Raves: Yes, I *Am* Stingy With My 5-Star Ratings

This is a feature that appears sporadically on the blog, whenever I have a bookish issue I need to rant or rave about. Feel free to comment with your thoughts!

*Note: this post was inspired/influenced by any number of discussions other bloggers have had about ratings, and in particular Steph Su Reads's posts here and here.

You may have noticed I don't give 5-star ratings very often. In fact, it is quite a rare occurrence for me. But I know some authors find 3 or 3.5 star reviews disappointing, so I thought I'd explain my thought processes regarding ratings.

To start with: I may not hand out 5 stars like they're going out of style, but I am even less generous with 1-star ratings. In fact, I've never given a book just 1 star on this blog. I think I'd have to be actively appalled/offended/disgusted/horrified by its content in order for that to happen. Usually I can find some redeeming quality in a book, even if overall I didn't enjoy it, and that will bump up the rating.

I guess I see the distribution of book quality kind of like a normal distribution.

You're bound to get a few pretty crummy, poorly written books, on the low end — say, 2 and 2.5 stars in my rating system.

Ones that make me look like this.

You're bound to get a few absolutely fantastic, blew-me-away books on the high end — 4.5 and 5 stars.

Ones that make me look like this.

And then you've got the majority of the books in-between: not bad, but not the best book you've ever read. Those are the 3 and 3.5 and 4-star books.

Bloggers differ in how they approach rating a book. Some people are fine with giving a 5-star rating even if they found several aspects to criticize. Some might only give 5 stars to books that have the "re-readability factor." Personally, for me to give 5 stars to a book, it has to wow me. Maybe it's tackled an issue in a completely original way. Perhaps it's a stand-out example of a story within a certain sub-genre. Maybe there is absolutely nothing I can think of that would improve the novel.

Because let's face it: if I went around giving 5 stars to loads of books, the 5-star rating would quickly lose its impact. It wouldn't be that extra star beyond the (still very good) 4-star rating. And I think I would soon start having trouble distinguishing between what qualifies as a 4-star read vs. a 5-star one.

5 Stars: Outstanding! Buy it!
Not every book stands out enough to be "outstanding".

Interestingly, for me a 5-star rating does not always correspond to a belongs-on-my-favourites-shelf book. Sometimes, but not inevitably. I think there are likely plenty of books I consider my favourites that would get 4 or 4.5 stars, and perhaps even a few books I would "objectively" give 5 stars that aren't among my favourites. So just because I give a book 4 stars doesn't mean I didn't truly enjoy it! It just means there wasn't that "it factor" (for lack of a better term) to elevate it to 5 stars.

I'd also like to point out that books I gave (or would have given) 5 stars when I first started this blog are not necessarily ones I would now give the same rating. I was a lot less particular and critical a reader back in 2010! This doesn't mean I don't still love those books. I just suspect that were I to read them again, examining them critically, I'd probably catch sight of more flaws or areas that could be improved.

The Goose Girl and Crown Duel are a couple that might fall into this category...although it's impossible to tell, since I suspect my view of them will be forever tinted with nostalgic affection!

In conclusion: 5 stars is not my default rating. Authors, your book has to earn it. And because I do read so critically, I keep that 5-star rating in reserve for the ones that strike me as the most exceptional. Kind of like giving out the "class valedictorian" award. So if your book's gotten a 3 or 3.5 or 4-star rating from me, there's no need to worry — you may not be that one kid in the class getting the elusive 100%, but you're still bringing home good grades.

April 23, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Liked More or Less Than I Thought I Would

The Top Ten Tuesday meme is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. It's been too long since I participated, so here I am with this week's topic: books that I reacted differently to (in either a positive or negative way) than expected!

Books That Pleasantly Surprised Me:

1.) The Host by Stephenie Meyer

I'm not much for sci-fi, but I have to say I got totally sucked into this book. Of course, there's more "fiction" than "science" in this sci-fi novel, so hard-core sci-fi fans would probably take issue with it...but if you're not one of those, then be sure to check this one out!

Apparently the movie adaptation flopped, though, so I haven't seen it...not sure I'm going to. Any thoughts on the film one way or the other?

2.) Enclave by Ann Aguirre

I'm generally a fan of dystopians, but apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic books are usually less my cup of tea. I found myself really absorbed in Enclave, though! Need to get caught up on this series...I've still only read the first one.

3.) Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

This is a book that I found actually lived up to the buzz it got! Anna is just such a relatable narrator. I can't say I was as thrilled with Lola and the Boy Next Door, though, probably because I didn't connect as well with Lola as I did with Anna.

4.) The Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead

I tend to steer clear of most vampire books, with a few exceptions...and this series is one of them! These books have wonderful characterization, interesting psychological metaphors, and an awesome unputdownable quality to them.

5.) What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

I don't read adult books that often because I find I can't relate to the themes/situations that the characters are facing, and the voice is frequently too "mature" for me to connect with. However, I really did enjoy much of What Alice Forgot (in particular, I loved the younger Alice's sense of humor!).

Books That Unfortunately Disappointed Me: 

1.) Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I think this book just got hyped up way too much, and for me the execution didn't live up to the potential of the premise. It was a combination of implausible world-building (seriously, how were the 'rebels' able to escape the notice of "Big Brother" for that long?) and characters I just didn't care that much about. I haven't continued on with the series so I couldn't say if things got any better with the later books.

2.) Possession by Elana Johnson

My major problem with this book was the ending...it sort of made the time I spent reading it feel wasted to me. I know there are companion books to this one (I haven't read them), which might change the situation, but as a story in and of itself, the ending made the rest of it come off as pretty pointless. 

3.) Forgotten by Cat Patrick

This was a case of 'concept that sounds neat in theory but really doesn't work out in reality'. It was just too odd a premise, not to mention poor characterization and a writing style I found kind of clinical.

4.) A Witch in Winter by Ruth Warburton

I just felt like this one had a lot of unharnessed potential...it was really easy to see things that could have been changed to improve it. I think if this one had been edited differently it could have been a much better story.

5.) Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

I saw quite a few glowing reviews of this one before I read it, but I'm very glad I only got it out from the library. There were just too many issues I had with it, from disliking Lena as a character (yep, I flat-out admit it) to the hodgepodge of magical elements thrown into the mix.

Anyone have thoughts about the film version of this one? Worth seeing, or not?

April 19, 2013

The Humming Room: A Close-Up Review

"Hiding is Roo Fanshaw's special skill. Living in a frighteningly unstable family, she often needs to disappear at a moment's notice. When her parents are murdered, it's her special hiding place under the trailer that saves her life.

As it turns out, Roo, much to her surprise, has a wealthy if eccentric uncle, who has agreed to take her into his home on Cough Rock Island. Once a tuberculosis sanitarium for children of the rich, the strange house is teeming with ghost stories and secrets. Roo doesn't believe in ghosts or fairy stories, but what are those eerie noises she keeps hearing? And who is that strange wild boy who lives on the river? People are lying to her, and Roo becomes determined to find the truth.

Despite the best efforts of her uncle's assistants, Roo discovers the house's hidden room--a garden with a tragic secret.

Inspired by The Secret Garden, this tale full of unusual characters and mysterious secrets is a story that only Ellen Potter could write."
(from Goodreads)

The Humming Room by Ellen Potter

Premise: My ARC (and Goodreads' description) says that it's inspired by The Secret Garden. I'd like to take a moment to say: this book is more than "inspired" by that classic. This book is basically a retelling of The Secret Garden with the names and details changed. This was my number one problem with The Humming Room, because really — The Secret Garden is a classic for a reason. Sure, Ellen Potter has modernized the story a little, and yes, the behaviour of the character of Colin in the original has been given a more practical, plausible explanation. But apart from that, this book doesn't really add anything new to the story!

Characters: Be warned, I will be referring to The Secret Garden characters a lot (from my memory of the 1975 film version, though, to be perfectly honest).

Roo: She's a gritty character and I liked her, perhaps more than Mary from the original because Mary was selfish and bossy, and Roo isn't like that (she doesn't come from the privileged background Mary did). She does share other characteristics with Mary, though, like tenacity and curiosity. They're both sort of prickly with others, determined and stubborn, and know their own minds. Roo barely takes the point here, but since she's not all condescending like Mary, she does.

Jack: otherwise known as "The Faigne," he's obviously supposed to be Dickon's counterpart. He's a natural with animals, lives on the river, and doesn't really need the company of people (although he likes Roo). Jack's a cool guy, but Dickon wins this one, for being such a sweetheart. (It doesn't hurt that as a kid I thought the actor who played him was cute.)

Phillip: he's The Humming Room's take on Colin. He's pretty similar to Colin in terms of personality — a whiny, bossy child who feels sorry for himself. The biggest difference between them (and indeed, between the two novels) is that instead of being a physically disabled boy with a bad attitude, he is a depressed, grieving boy with a bad attitude. Making the character's challenges about mental illness and grief rather than a physical problem actually makes more sense given how The Secret Garden ends (spoiler for The Secret Garden, highlight to read: it was always a little far-fetched that the garden helped him walk again). Anyway, I liked him more than Colin because I didn't find him quite as irritating. Point goes to Phillip.

Violet: Cough Rock's equivalent of Martha, the maid from the moors. No contest here: I liked Martha better. To be fair, this might be partly because she had an awesome accent. But I didn't think Violet's personality shone, and it honestly doesn't feel like her role is that necessary. We also don't see much of a connection forming between her and Roo like we do in the original.

The squirrel: the requisite animal friend that helpfully leads the main character to the hidden garden. In Mary's case, it was a robin; in Roo's case, it is a black squirrel. I like robins and squirrels, so they cancel each other out. 


I don't think it'll come as a large surprise that The Humming Room follows a lot of the same plot points as The Secret Garden. Roo is an orphan, taken in by her uncle, who finds a secret garden (have I spoiled anything yet?). Really, I just don't see the point of, essentially, rewriting The Secret Garden without doing anything radically different with it. This is not even just a "loosely based on" sort of retelling. You can pretty much map out, plot point by plot point, how the storyline matches up with the original. If you don't know beforehand there's a connection to The Secret Garden, perhaps it isn't so obvious; I couldn't say because I knew going into it. At the start I didn't think it was so strongly reminiscent of the classic, but the parallels become blatantly obvious midway through. You couldn't really get much closer to the original if you tried.

Ellen Potter does handle Roo's character transformation well here. It's really brought home towards the end — how much more lively and open she is with people, rather than being closed-off and withdrawn, trusting only herself, as she was at the beginning. She's become much more motivated and optimistic, embracing the world, and that was a wonderful change to see.

The ending seemed a little bittersweet to me, ultimately happy but with a revelation containing a sad irony (which is in keeping with the original). There's also arguably a very slight magical realism element involved, but I think it works within the context of the story. Cough Rock has a certain sort of mystical charm to it, after all, where you believe miracles can happen. I think the end was missing a much-needed father-son discussion, however. We never get to see them spilling their emotional guts out to each other, for the sake of some closure.

Writing style: The writing is, for the most part, one of the marks in the book's favour. Some of the descriptions are quite picturesque, giving the reader a good visual and sense of the atmosphere without lapsing into purple prose or becoming too detailed. The garden sounds really beautiful and I'd love to hang out there (spoiler: minus the creepy spider, of course).

However, sometimes there's a weird POV switch that happens. We're getting it 3rd-person attached to Roo, and then all of a sudden it will sort of abruptly "head-hop" to someone else, right in the middle of a scene. I found it a little awkward and jarring at times.

Final verdict: 3 shooting stars. Certainly, the storyline is decent...we know that already because it's been done before! I'm just not sure why anyone would pick up The Humming Room and prefer it to The Secret Garden, except perhaps for the fact that the language is likely more accessible to young readers nowadays, since it wasn't written in the 1900s. It's not a bad book in and of itself, but it shouldn't have been marketed as anything but a retelling — and even as that, it's not exceptional.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher for review.

April 16, 2013

The Book Lode (15)


There are quite a few memes to choose from now for showing the books we've gotten recently, so I thought to be fair I'd link my posts up to a different meme each month. I'm grouping the posts under the name "The Book Lode," and this month I'm linking up to Stacking the Shelves, hosted by Tynga's Reviews.

You can read my Grave Mercy review here.

For review:

In Search of Goliathus Hercules by Jennifer Angus
Infatuate by Aimee Agresti
What We Become by Jesse Karp
Breath by Jackie Morse Kessler
Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Thanks to Thomas Allen & Son, Hachette Book Group Canada, and St. Martin's Press!


Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell
Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard
Reached by Ally Condie

Thanks very much to my parents for these! :)

April 10, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday: The Fall and The Bone Dragon

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine and features books that we just can't wait to get our hands on!

My WoW picks this week are:

The Fall by Claire Merle

Goodreads' description:

"London, in the not-so-distant future. Society has been divided into Pures and Crazies according to the results of a DNA test.

But seventeen-year-old Ana, whose father invented the Pure test, has uncovered a recording with dangerous evidence that the tests are fake. Ana has escaped her father and made it to the Enlightenment Project - a secluded protest group living on the outskirts of the City.

Back in the arms of Cole nothing is simple. Some in the Project believe her presence jeopardises their safety, others interpret her coming as part of their prophetic Writings. When the recording Ana stole goes viral, the Project comes under attack. Now Ana's father isn't the only one looking for her. She's come to the attention of Alexandria Knight, the Chairman of the Board - a powerful woman with a sinister plan. Ana must take greater risks than ever to unravel the truth and discover the secrets that lie beneath the Pure test. But unlike her father, the Chairman doesn't want her safely home. She wants Ana's spirit crushed, permanently. And she will destroy everyone Ana cares about to do it.

Although I had some issues with the first in the series, The Glimpse (you can read my review here), it's a neat premise and I'm looking forward to seeing it explored further in The Fall. (Interested to meet this new character, Chairman Alexandria Knight, too!)

The Bone Dragon by Alexia Casale

Goodreads' description:

"Evie's shattered ribs have been a secret for the last four years. Now she has found the strength to tell her adoptive parents, and the physical traces of her past are fixed - the only remaining signs a scar on her side and a fragment of bone taken home from the hospital, which her uncle Ben helps her to carve into a dragon as a sign of her strength.

Soon this ivory talisman begins to come to life at night, offering wisdom and encouragement in roaming dreams of smoke and moonlight that come to feel ever more real.

As Evie grows stronger there remains one problem her new parents can't fix for her: a revenge that must be taken. And it seems that the Dragon is the one to take it.

This subtly unsettling novel is told from the viewpoint of a fourteen-year-old girl damaged by a past she can't talk about, in a hypnotic narrative that, while giving increasing insight, also becomes increasingly unreliable.

A blend of psychological thriller and fairytale, The Bone Dragon explores the fragile boundaries between real life and fantasy, and the darkest corners of the human mind."

Well, you know me, I am all about psychology and I am also all about fairy tales... so this one definitely caught my eye. I am admittedly not the biggest fan of unreliable narrators, but the technique can work in the right context and given that this one involves psychology, I have the feeling it'll be used well here. *crosses fingers* Also, very cool, artsy cover!

April 4, 2013

The Dark Unwinding: A Panoramic Review

"A thrilling tale of spies, intrigue, and heart-racing romance!

When Katharine Tulman's inheritance is called into question by the rumor that her eccentric uncle is squandering away the family fortune, she is sent to his remote English estate to have him committed to an asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine discovers a genius inventor with his own set of childlike rules, who employs a village of nine hundred people rescued from the workhouses of London. Katharine is now torn between protecting her own inheritance and preserving the peculiar community she has grown to care for—a conflict made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a mysterious student, and fears for her own sanity. As the mysteries of the estate begin to unravel, it is clear that not only is her uncle's world at stake, but also the state of England as they know it. With twists and turns and breathtaking romance at every corner, this thrilling adventure will captivate readers.
" (from Goodreads)

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron

My reaction: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it was very entertaining! I wasn't that into it for the first few chapters, as it was a little confusing trying to figure out what was going on and keeping track of all these characters. But then it started getting really good, the mystery becoming complicated with lots of red herrings, and me repeatedly questioning who was "good" and who was "bad."

It isn't exactly action-packedthere are certain scenes with a lot of action going on and others where not that much happens beyond Katharine picking up hints/cluesbut there's usually a little push of momentum moving it forward. There are a couple intense, dramatic climactic scenes (spoilers, highlight to read: the scene with the flood! And the scene with Katharine getting opium poisoning and the bunny being shot!). The end is more drawn-out than some books in that there are a couple climactic scenes, and the last few chapters happen over a larger span of time than the rest of the book. I thought one of the villains was trumped a little too easily (spoilers: the aunt... I didn't actually follow all the ins and outs of the legal thing), although since she was a real piece of work I was glad she got some comeuppance.

I did find the whole politics-and-inventions storyline (involving Ben Aldridge) to be rather tenuous and far-fetched, requiring some suspension of disbelief. So too does the fact that there are that many mysterious things going on. But pretty much everything is accounted for in the end, and it makes sense that it isn't all explained away by a single storyline.

Best aspect: The characters. They have a lot of personality, and are each quite distinct. Moreover, they aren't split really evenly into "good guy"/"bad guy" camps. I like that Cameron gives many of her characters complexity and depth, making some of them not so easy to categorize one way or the other.

Katharine's not perfect, but her flaws aren't ones that really irritate me. She has a bit of a tendency to think she knows best, and not to be quite that open-minded to other people's ideas. It's like she just shuts everything else out, and sees only very stark, either/or black-and-white choices; she doesn't pause to consider that maybe there's a way for her to reach her objective without giving something else up. Also, she doesn't really like to make herself vulnerable, which means it's difficult for her and Lane to get together, because she keeps pushing him out. That said, I enjoyed the romance we do get (and would have liked more of it!). Lane is so frustating a character in some ways (he's not the most emotionally stable, for one thing), but if he's decided he can trust you, then he is very loyal. He can be fun at times, but he is predominantly serious, especially when it comes to Mr. Tully. It was sweet to see the romantic lead concerned not just about the protagonist, but also about secondary characters like her uncle, his aunt, and Davy. While Lane doesn't show affection that openly, in his own way he certainly demonstrates how he feels about others.

I found the uncle to be a fascinating character. Although it's never specifically stated, I believe he's supposed to be an autistic savant. I definitely think he falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, as there are several clear indicators that he has an autism spectrum disorder — his temper tantrums, his need for routine, his discomfort with social contact, the fact that being swaddled by a blanket soothes him... Then there's the "savant" aspect: his talent for mental math and invention. I would definitely be interested to know what kind of diagnosis he would receive nowadays.

Mary was so much fun. She's one of those talkative types that just leaps off the page — an unintentionally amusing chatterbox. Everything she says is sort of leading to a point in a roundabout way, but you're not really sure how she gets there. She looks out for Katharine in her way, trying to be the best ladies' maid she can. Really, Mary's one of those honest, open, good-hearted characters you can't help but like, even if she's not super clever.

If I could change something... I would up the romance factor. I can enjoy a slow-burn romance as much as the next person, but this was...crawling. I think Katharine and Lane complement each other quite well; the dislike-at-first-sight turning to trust, then turning to love is almost always an enjoyable storyline to read. But once we finally got there...it needed a little more heat! I don't think it's too much to ask for after sitting through such a long, slow build.

If you haven't read it: and you enjoy Gothic mysteries with a cast of distinctive characters, pick this one up! In particular, I'd recommend it for readers who liked Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin, Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey, or Sorcery & Cecelia by Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer.

If you have read it: who wants Katharine to go to Paris in the next book? Hands? If she took along her ladies' maid I bet Mary would die of happiness.

Just one more thing I want to mention: The Dark Unwinding has the Gothic feel down-pat.
Some of the character's roles conform to stereotypes of Gothic novels, but not too terribly; it doesn't feel like this is a book I've read many times before. The steampunk element isn't heavy-handed or overwhelming, but fits in well with the character of the uncle.

Final verdict: 4.5 shooting stars. Overall I actually don't have that much to criticize (which is unusual for me!). I was very impressed, and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Katharine's adventures continue in the next book.

March "New Adult" Challenge Reviews – Link Them Up Here!

Participants in the "New Adult" reading challenge: if you have reviews from March, here's your chance to link them up! And if you have not yet signed up for the NA Challenge but want to participate, never fear: you can still sign up here :)

Also, my fellow co-host Barbara from Basia's Bookshelf is having a giveaway, so be sure to drop on by her blog and enter!

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