book reviews

Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts: A Book Review.

I’ve read a lot of books about sick people–fiction, nonfiction, the grey space in between–but, I’ve also witnessed sickness. I’ve heard lungs catch and breathes stop. I’ve felt the weakness of atrophying muscles. I’ve seen the red of a central line being removed. You see, sickness is a monster and, for all the knowledge you can have about it, it is facing it first-hand or alongside another that makes the ultimate impact.

When I was selected through Netgalley to read and review Zac & Mia by A. J. Betts, I was prepared for a watered-down version of sickness. Authors often seem too wary of the “delicate and impressionable” minds of young adults to do stories of sickness any justice, and the stories and their readers suffer because of it. In short, I was expecting a pretty inaccurate and mildly insulting portrayal; however, I’m happy to admit that that was not what I found during my reading.

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Within the pages of Zac & Mia, I found something painful and broken, yet altogether believable. It would seem that, despite its packaging as a young adult novel and my own fears of encountering the usual “sick-lit” cliches, this book presents something that someone who knows sickness can read without scoffing. It is undeniably the work of someone who has been touched by sickness, so perhaps it is fitting then that I read all 306 pages of this book while visiting my own mother at UF Health Shands Hospital.

To set the scene, imagine the methodical clicking of a morphine pump, the white-noise hum of a television with the volume turned down low, the low hissing of air blowing through an old grate. Imagine the sharp scent of alcohol and sanitizers, the deceptive flickering of shadows gliding by the bottom of the door, the feel of worn leather sticking to your legs. Imagine bruised skin, shallow breathes, weary eyes, weak limbs, rough speech, painful movements, nurses’ interruptions, doctors’ sighs, and my mothers’ chronic inability to remain conscious.

If nothing else, the stage was set.

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Zac is the quintessential good guy from a farm town who had the bad luck of getting stuck with myeloid leukemia. He knows his odds–55% chance of living five years without relapse–and he knows the odds of his fellow cancer ward residents. What Zac doesn’t know if how to truly communicate with the only other person in the ward who is his age–a moody teenage girl named Mia.

Mia is the ultimate city girl, used to parties, formals, and hundreds of facebook friends; however, she doesn’t know how to deal with osteosarcoma, and she is not so keen to try when ignoring her condition and treatment seems to be going so well. If she’d just listen, she would realize that she has the best odds of them all–90% even on her worst day. But, how can numbers matter when you feel otherwise?

The collision course that Zac and Mia set out upon after their initial meeting is essentially a “slice of life” portrayal of living with and after sickness. There is chemistry and romance, but this is not a love story. There is sickness and poor health, but this is not a scientific depiction. There is hope and, at its heart, this is a brilliant story of survival, desire, and courage. However, the beauty and uniqueness of this story is truly in the details.

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It’s in the uncomfortable and awkward questions that nurses must ask and family will overhear. It’s in the tests that must be done and redone in fear of and preparation for recurrence. It’s in the fragile hope of a mother who does word puzzles by her son’s bedside and brings new patients’ family members’ a cup of tea. It’s in the complicated request of a mother to a doctor to save her girl in spite of everything. It’s in the comfort of an answering knock on the other side of a beige wall. It’s in the fear of impending doom and the struggle to find the will to fight.

It’s in the honesty with which Betts describes sickness. As someone who has watched over their mother from childhood, someone who has acted as a nurse and a doctor and a friend and a daughter, this book resonated in a way that many “sick-lit” novels do not and perhaps cannot. Despite the fact that I am not sick and my mother’s sickness seemingly involves everything except cancer, I found my kindred in Zac, Mia, and their creator. There was a familiarity in the story that was simultaneously upsetting and comforting.

On a scale of one to five, I award this book four stars because it was realistic, honest, and it approached sickness with a level of understanding that I can only compare to the works of Lurlene McDaniel. I could not, in good faith, award this book five stars because (*spoiler alert*) the number of time jumps quickly became annoying and mildly detracted from the movement of the plot, rather than speeding or propelling it along (*spoiler over*). Overall, I felt that it was a well-executed story that delved into sensitive subjects with care and compassion.

I do not agree with the comparisons to John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars or Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park because I feel like that is comparing apples to oranges. Green’s and Rowell’s works are amazing and I enjoyed reading them, truly; however, neither had the sheer authenticity and realism of this book. Perhaps that is something only someone who has been repeatedly touched by sickness can understand and appreciate though, and I do not know that the untouched will recognize or feel its resonance quite so clearly.

I would recommend Zac & Mia to anyone over the age of 14 who is interested in a truthful (yet still fictional) story that does not sugarcoat or glaze over the realities of sickness, mortality, and navigating life’s many plot twists. There are some mentions of topics of a sexual nature and the blunt discussion of death is nothing to dismiss, so I would be wary of allowing younger readers to delve into this novel unless their maturity level is particularly high for their age.

Anyone interested in learning more about A. J. Betts, her experience as a long-term hospital English teacher, her other literary works, and her guiding principles in life, should check out her facebook page, twitterwebsite, TEDx talk (“Why I Collect Shopping Lists”), this radio interview, and this article about “sick-lit.” Although I don’t know her personally, Betts seems like a wonderful person and I cannot wait to see what else she may write in the future. Cheers, readers!

(Disclaimer: I received this book through NetGalley’s Feed Your Readers program for Professional Readers in exchange for an honest review. The review I submitted to Netgalley has been posted here, verbatim.) 

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Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho: An ARC Book Review.

Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. A strong friendship develops. Boy and girl are friends for more than a decade. Girl has feelings. Boy has a medical condition. Feelings and illness do not combine well. Bad things happen. All is well…sort of.

That is the essence of Cristina Moracho’s first novel, “Althea and Oliver,” which explores the ebb and flow of friendship as individuals develop, together and apart. Touted by Penguin Group as a coming of age story akin to Rainbow Rowell’s and Stephen Chbosky’s many noted works, Moracho’s “Althea and Oliver” is the novel equivalent of film that relies on a cast of high-profile actors at the expense of plot and theme. As characters alone, Althea and Oliver are powerhouses—their personalities are multi-dimensional and their internal diversity makes them relatable—however, as the motivating forces within this particular novel’s plot, these characters are weak. The plot in which Althea and Oliver exist is simply not strong enough to hold a reader’s attention, nor is it powerful enough to propel the characters.

Where Althea is the “broken girl” who supposedly brings trouble wherever she goes, Oliver is the “boy wonder” who supposedly brings light and peace. There is a certain symmetry in Althea and Oliver’s friendship, a yin and yang nature that can be found in their personalities and basic actions. This simple dynamic is upset when Oliver is struck by a mysterious and incredibly debilitating illness, thereby making Althea the less obviously “broken” individual and leaving Oliver unable to maintain his previous position. It would seem that one development, one change, has the power to alter or even destroy Althea’s and Oliver’s lives.

As his illness advances, Althea and Oliver struggle to maintain their friendship as they do not know how to operate outside the realm of their previous, symmetrical relationship. In the face of uncontrollable change, the characters experience a palpable longing for sameness and normalcy. Althea and Oliver’s friendship is then further tested by a confusing mix of fledgling romances, raging hormones, and differing social statuses. At that point, the storyline diverges from the catchings of youth and proceeds to address–albeit, shallowly and over-simplistically–a collection of moral dilemmas revolving around sex, alcohol, and familial obligations.

While it was admirable of Moracho to attempt to tackle multiple topics of import to young adult (and even adult) readers, I felt that the effort was ultimately unsuccessful because none of the topics were wholly or thoroughly addressed. A part of me wishes that I could have had a hand in editing this novel because there are dozens of great ideas, but those ideas are, for the most part, poorly executed and underdeveloped. In effect, the story still needs to be expanded to create a viable tie between the plot and the characters that are active within it because, in its present state, the characters are languishing in a dead-end plot.

Perhaps the most obvious scene wherein a good idea simply doesn’t manifest well is when Althea physically attacks another student at school. There is anger, there is desire for retribution, and there is trauma, yet Althea’s actions are attributed to her inability to maintain order and a weak moment wherein her “head exploded.” Following this event and the damage it does to her academic future, Althea simply wallows in her feelings, but no attention is given to precisely what those feelings are…until those feelings relate back to Oliver. By doing so, Moracho suggests that anything that happens apart from Oliver is less significant, thereby making the physical attack merely a plot “device” rather than actual plot.

Similarly, when Oliver goes to a party with Althea and some of her new friends, Oliver acts resentful of the new friends’ presence and even seems inherently antisocial. Juxtaposed with Oliver’s behavior prior to his illness, wherein he is described as being the social counter to Althea’s antisocial behavior, an examination of this difference could have proved interesting. In fact, if Oliver’s feelings and actions had been explored beyond the matter of their existence then Oliver’s maturity through his illness might have become apparent. In the scene’s current condition, Oliver simply seems to be an uncooperative youth who is jealous of his friend’s acceptance into a new crowd that does not automatically include him. Oliver’s feelings are thus reduced to mere plot devices.

Overall, I found “Althea and Oliver” to be a lackluster novel that, with a bit more plot development, could have been a bestseller. More specifically, the reading experience was not exciting or otherwise emotionally charged—I felt particularly disappointed by the “so that’s that and life goes on” ending. I award this novel two out of five stars solely because, despite placing her characters within a feeble plot, Moracho managed to create truly compelling characters/character sketches. Regardless of my criticism, I’m excited to see what else Cristina Moracho writes in the future and how her writing style further develops.

(Disclaimer: I received this book through Penguin Group’s First to Read in exchange for an honest review. The review I submitted to Penguin Group has been posted here, verbatim.) 

A to Z Bookish Survey.

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I recently came across a version of THIS reader survey by The Perpetual Page Turner while reading a blog tour post on THIS site about MY FORMER TEACHER‘s new novel. It seemed like a really fun and simple blog topic, so I thought I would give it a try. I hope you enjoy my answers and feel free to answer it yourself!

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Author you’ve read the most books from:

Back in eighth and ninth grade, when I was a weepy little 13-year-old, I loved novels that took readers and sent them on emotional roller coasters, so I read just about every novel Lurlene McDaniel had ever written. Note: my bookish masochism has not gone away. McDaniel, publish more, please?

Best sequel ever:

Do not let the reviews of this woman’s works fool you, Override by Heather Anastasiu, is a perfect follow-up to Glitch. In some ways, I would even say that it is a better book than the first because it really steps up the action and makes readers settle in for the long haul.

Currently reading:

The last semester of my undergrad degree has officially begun and coursework is eating my life. So, I’m currently reading The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States by Jim Cullen.

Drink of choice while reading:

Agua, eau, wasser, uisce! In other words, water.

E-reader or physical book:

I definitely prefer reading a physical book. I mean, you completely miss out on the old and new book smells if you use an e-reader.

Fictional character you probably would have actually dated in high school:

Without a doubt, I would have dated David from Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. He’s adventurous and natural, but also intuitive and contemplative. What’s not to like?

Glad you gave this book a chance:

The Christy Miller Collection (and the companion trilogy, Christy and Todd: College Years) by Robin Jones Gunn was really an example of me taking a chance on a book. At the time I read it, I was fresh out of Catholic school, and even though I didn’t detest religion, I was really reluctant to allow any more discussion of it into my life. When I finally picked up Christy Miller’s story, I just couldn’t put it down again. Christy and Todd are such addictive characters and

Hidden gem book:

I haven’t actually seen this book mentioned much in the blogosphere and it definitely should be. Freaks and Revelations by Davida Wills Hurwin is a truly incredible story of two teenagers finding their own ways amid the sexual revolution of the 1980s. When you consider that the story is inspired by the true story of interactions between Matthew Boger and Timothy Zaal it simply becomes all the more extraordinary. I have yet to see another book that speaks about the effects of hate crimes, prejudice, and discrimination in such a vivid and beautiful way.

Important moment in your reading life:

Reading Just Listen by Sarah Dessen for the first time way back in my freshman year of high school was a big thing for me. I think I needed that book as much as it needed me.

Just finished:

Someone, please, read Reached by Ally Condie. I need to fangirl with someone!

Kinds of books you won’t read:

I will read almost anything from self-help books to science fiction, but I just cannot stand nature photography books. I get so restless paging through books that are just filled with pictures! There’s nothing wrong with photography and I love physical photo albums, but I have no patience for books filled with sunrises and landscapes.

Longest book you’ve read:

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. 1,463 pages of awesome.

Major book hangover because of:

The Mortal Instruments: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare. How am I suppose to deal with an ending like that? Gah! I needed the next book at least 5 hours ago.

Number of bookcases you own:

Technically I have 1 bookcase and 1 entertainment center for books in my room, but my books are actually spread all over the house. At least if a book thief ever pops in, they can’t get to them all in one fell swoop!

One book you have read multiple times:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. I may have, kind of, sort of, seriously, read that book more than 20 times since it was published. I may have also read “The Prince’s Tale” alone at least double that amount.

Preferred place to read:

I actually love reading somewhere that isn’t quiet or peaceful, like the living room with my family, a hospital cafeteria, or a park. But, at the same time, I don’t want anyone to actually talk to me while I’m reading. Sorry!

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

“In the absence of real thunder, he’s making his own” (Ally Condie, Matched).

Reading regret:

I wish I hadn’t let college courses get in the way of my book reviewing. 21 course hours this semester and frequent book reviewing is totally possible, right? RIGHT?

Series you started and need to finish (all books are out in series):

Blue Bloods by Melissa de la Cruz

Three of your all-time favorite books:

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (It’s technically a poetry collection, but, I’m going to be stubborn, claim it as a book, and stick my tongue out at anyone who disagrees.)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn

Unapologetic fangirl for:

Divergent by Veronica Roth…err, well, actually, the whole of the Divergent trilogy and the accompanying short stories. Dauntless for the win!

Very excited for this release more than all the others:

I am indescribably excited for the release of Allegiant by Veronica Roth. I need to know what is outside of the fence!

Worst bookish habit:

I’m awful about not noticing the world while I’m reading! If I’m reading a good book, I’m pretty sure an earthquake, hurricane, and sharknado could happen, and the only think I might do is grip my book tighter so it wouldn’t get pulled away.

X marks the spot–start at the top left of your book shelf and pick the 27th book:

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier is the 27th book on my shelf, but it is much higher on my favorites list! Cormier does an excellent job of delving into the world of psychology, while still writing the book at a level that can be understood by almost any age group.

Your latest book purchase:

The History and Theory of Rhetoric by James Herrick. Okay, so maybe it was a textbook purchase, but I’m having a “first day of school mental hangover,” so my memory is unwilling to go any further back to remember my last fun reading purchase.

Zzz-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

Requiem by Lauren Oliver. I could not handle the feels, so sleep was not allowed to come between the conclusion of that trilogy and I.

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If any of you do the survey as well, I would love to read what you write. Post the linkage in the comments. Cheers!

10 Books Reviews for 10 Days Until Fall Semester.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

5 out of 5

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Clary Fray has been officially introduced to the world of the Shadowhunters and nearly immediately she is faced with a comatose mother,  thoughts about Jace that don’t lend well to her new knowledge that they’re siblings separated long ago, and a villainous and possibly insane father named Valentine. On top of everything else, Clary must worry about murdered Downworlders, the romantic side of Simon, and figuring out the runes that seem to pop into her head at random. The plot moves quickly, the characters show genuine development, and readers who are hooked from the first book of the series won’t be disappointed. However, as a minor criticism, the book truly hit you where it hurts by throwing incest into the mix; at times I found myself wanting to shake Clare just for putting us all through it. But, trust me on this, guys, it’s a book that is worth the character shipping anxiety.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare

5 out of 5

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If you’re into breaking and entering (with regard to secret cities), prejudice against Downworlders (metaphor much), the dark side of Shadowhunters (we all just love the dark), a mysterious guy named Sebastian (sigh), and toeing the line between friendly and incestuous (eek), then this book is right up your dark and creature-filled alley. Valentine and his allies have begun a civil war, leaving Downworlders and Shadowhunters unsure how to react and Clary Fray certain that she must harness her power with runes to save the Shadowhunters’ Glass City. If readers go into this series with any expectations, they are sure to be shattered and recreated at least 20 times before they’ve even read through the first 100 pages. Once again, Clare manages to combine a bit of reality, a dash of myth, and a heap of world-building to create a truly unique experience.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

4 out of 5

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So, what does one do when the war is over and everything should be going back to normal? Well, if you’re Clary Fray, you help plan a wedding that’s been several decades coming, begin training as a Shadowhunter about sixteen years late, allow a rift to develop between you, your boyfriend, and your best friend, and generally have your world fall apart all over again. The Mortal Instruments series was very clearly intended to be a “three shots and done” endeavor, but for some crazy, wonderful, fan-pleasing reason, Clare decided to take it a few steps further. The issue with this continuance is that the series ends of feeling disjointed and broken, with the first three books an entity apart from City of Fallen Angels and the plot it introduces. While I adore Clary, Jace, and the rest of their leather-wearing, weapons-wielding crew, and this book is definitely worth reading, readers beware. Go in with a clear mind and an openness to an entirely new plot or you’re bound to end up whining and crying on your sofa with a tub of ice cream.

Through the Ever Night (Under the Never Sky Trilogy) by Veronica Rossi

4 out of 5

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Aria needs to find the Still Blue to get Perry’s nephew back , Perry needs to lead the Tides as their Blood Lord or they risk dying out, and Aria and Perry NEED to be together despite their seemingly opposite pursuits. I have never seen a book that so thoroughly and perfectly describes and exemplifies the needs of the various characters, as well as how those needs interact and often conflict. Additionally, Rossi must be commended for her efforts and general success in incorporating the needs and pursuits of secondary characters, Roar and Liv, without casting aside those of the primary characters. Rather than characters canceling each other out as many second books mistakenly do when expanding the character base, Rossi was able to create a storyline wherein they truly coexist (even if certain characters…*cough* Liv *cough*…aren’t allowed as much growth as others). Readers will not be disappointed by this book, but they might be nervous about the long wait for the next installment–come on, Rossi, January of 2014 is too far away for my book addiction to deal!

Shiver (Linger Trilogy) by Maggie Stiefvater

3 out of 5

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You know those RomComs and RomDrams where you literally want to reach into the film and make everything okay for the key characters? That’s how I felt about this installment in the Shiver trilogy: Grace and Sam needed a different set of hands to manipulate them or at least guide them on their way because Stiefvater’s simply weren’t cutting it. Sam is human and maladjusted, Grace is sick and hiding it from everyone, Cole is a broken human hiding behind a wolf mask, and Isabelle detests the wolves after the death of her brother but she just can’t seem to stay away. While this book certainly made valuable contributions to the trilogy overall–most importantly insight into Grace’s childhood experience with the wolves and explaining Sam’s back story overall–but, it also seems to have attempted to do too many things at once. With so many different directions to go, the storyline and readers experiencing it might feel a bit frazzled even if they do appreciate the plot development.

Forever (Shiver Trilogy) by Maggie Stiefvater

4 out of 5

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By the conclusion of this trilogy, Sam and Grace have effectively switched places, the problem is also the cure, a cast of new characters detracts from the old, and it seems as though Stiefvater has decided that ambiguity is her specialty. While a slight improvement over the second book, this third and final book continues the trend of approaches a plot from too many different angles at once. At times, the book  felt like a tedious chore–rather, it was not so much the plot’s conclusion that was important, but rather a personal devotion to not leaving a book unfinished once started. Yet, even once the end was reached, the plot felt unsettled and wracked by the lack of a definitive resolution. My biggest suggestion: go with the flow and don’t focus on the details during the reading. If you stick to the bigger picture, you’ll have a better reading experience; you might miss a couple of side stories, but at least you won’t feel like you’ve lost as much when the book comes to an unsatisfying end.

Override (Glitch Trilogy) by Heather Anastasiu

5 out of 5

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I was incredibly annoyed some months ago when I read Glitch, the first book in this work-in-progress trilogy, and saw that reviewers tore it apart like homemade confetti. If I’m honest, I went off on a bit of a tangent when that happened, and I promptly began to rebut every bad review I saw. Well, this follow-up to the first book only serves to prove my point: Anastasiu knows what she is doing and she truly can deliver! Moving beyond the confines of the Community and the slower pace that world-building can sometimes include, Anastasiu truly allows the character of Zoe to develop and grow into her world, becoming a part of it, rather existing as a separate and one-dimensional entity. Through endeavors in strengthening the Resistance, fighting the authority of the Community, and developing a growing cast of superhuman fighters, the story literally and figuratively moves above the surface and becomes three-dimensional.

Crossed (Matched Trilogy) by Ally Condie

5 out of 5

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After confusion regarding Society’s first Match for her, Cassia rebelled against a life without choices, and decided to choose for herself. In this second installment, Cassia has ventured to the Outer Provinces of society in search for the love that she was torn from because of Society’s harsh restrictions. Told in alternating points of view, this book allows insight into Ky’s search for a better future, Cassia’s wish to find a way to fight the wrongs of the past, and, through them both, a peak into how significant Cassia’s first match and old best friend, Xander, truly is in society’s future. I’m hesitant to say much about this book because I feel as though even the most vague comments would reveal too much and take away from the wonderful experience that Condie was able to create and invites readers to enjoy. Thus, my only recommendation is to read this one as soon as possible because you won’t regret it. (Plus, I need more people to fangirl with about it.)

Requiem (Delirium Trilogy) by Lauren Oliver

5 out of 5

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First there was Lena: insightful, strong, and illegally in love with the idea of love since the day her “ill” mother first mentioned the idea. Then there was Alex: a boy from the outside who enticed Lena with ideas of a world where one’s emotions were purely one’s own. And, finally, there was Julian: beautiful and nearly perfect, but considered “faulty” in a society where, if surgery cannot remove one’s emotions, the person is an unnecessary. Between the three of them is a love triangle and a struggle for survival that none of them expected to come about. Now, having all escaped the emotionless society and escaped back into the Wilds, the three dedicate themselves to the resistance. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this storyline is that, in spite of the theme being that of love and the intrinsic necessity of emotions overall, the characters do not lose themselves to love, nor is the trilogy a love story. Instead, Oliver’s is a tale of finding oneself in the world that surrounds you and realizing that, no matter what society says, it is society that is flawed, not you. While the conclusion is mildly unsatisfying and will not bring the closure that love story aficionados will crave, the story in itself is sublime and I would not change the ending for the world. I urge everyone to read this trilogy even if it is the only reading you do this year.

Asunder (Newsoul Trilogy) by Jodi Meadows

5 out of 5

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Ana is the only Newsoul in seemingly all of existence, and ever since Templedark, that fact has become even more significant, putting her in increasingly more danger as the number of Darksouls is counted and fear of more Newsouls increases. In addition to such internal conflict within Heart, sylph are also acting in new ways and dragons frighten even the seemingly invincible character that is Sam. With her very existence at risk, and the existence of everyone else so uncertain, Ana has to learn to defend herself better and find her true purpose quicker, all while trying to save those that may very well want her dead. At its core, Meadows presents an existential crisis of mammoth proportions, as well as an exploration of how age, history, and our own choices shape our souls. When I wrote about the first book in the trilogy, I already knew that I was attached to Ana’s character and needed to see her through to the end of her story, but this installment has only intensified my attachment. If I had a time machine, I would jump ahead to January of 2014 just to get my hands on a copy of Infinite.

Now, to conclude what seems to have become a parade of science fiction and dystopian books from series and trilogies–I don’t know what was up with my reading list but I haven’t read a single one shot book lately–I hope that you will check out some of these books and have as good an experience as I had. If I were to choose just one, I would hope that you would give any of the books from the Delirium trilogy a shot, but I truly wish you would try them all. If you have questions or comments, please leave them below and get the conversation going. Happy reading!