New review: The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien

By Ekta R. Garg

September 17, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

A young woman attending an elite boarding school for the arts discovers a dark secret about the institution. When she begins searching for details, she realizes that the secret encompasses more than she or her friends could ever imagine. Young adult author Caragh M. O’Brien brings readers this concept in her brand new novel The Vault of Dreamers that alternates between fascinating and puzzling.

Rosie Sinclair has received the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to study at The Forge School, the most prominent arts academy in the country. Teens come to Forge from everywhere to receive instruction and to grow in their chosen arts, and fierce competition to enroll and stay at Forge pervades the first-year students. The competition gets fueled by the fact that the school also comprises a popular reality show, and the votes of the viewing public decide who stays and who goes.

For Rosie staying on the show means the chance at a better life. The Forge School feels light years away from the boxcar in Arizona that constitutes the home where she and her family live. Her stepfather doesn’t have a job, and her mother works hard to support the family. Her half-sister, Dubbs, provides Rosie with motivation and a bright spot in an otherwise dismal life. When Rosie feels discouragement about her public rank, she thinks about Dubbs.

Rosie barely makes it past the big cut, and then she notices strange occurrences around the school. They bother her enough that she begins to investigate, despite breaking school rules to do so. What she finds out shocks her: the school administrators use the students in some type of experiment. Rosie knows the experiments run contrary to the image the administration wants to portray, and she also wants to stop them. She’ll just need to find a way to do it without losing her own self in the process.

Author Caragh M. O’Brien provides readers with a fascinating concept. She examines the idea of dreams and how scientists use those dreams. The result gives the book’s intended audience some interesting fodder for thought.

Unfortunately O’Brien’s narration leaves several gaps in the story. Rosie manages to get out at all odd hours to spy on people in her quest to find out what is going on. She receives the occasional reprimand about sneaking out but doesn’t really have to endure serious consequences. When administrators give her an ultimatum it feels forced, as if the plot required a point of tension and every other option had already been exhausted.

Also, the characters talk often about the reality show aspect of the academy, but the reality show doesn’t feel real. Rosie narrates the story in first person, which limits how much information readers can get, and because she devotes so much time to her experiences and her investigation the reality show gets pushed to the background. As a result readers get told several times about the importance of the show but don’t feel the impact of that importance.

Nevertheless, O’Brien gives her readers a story that might be difficult to believe in parts but is impossible to ignore in others. For those who persevere and gloss over the book’s flaws, they will reach an end that will captivate them. O’Brien doesn’t bow to social convention, and she refuses to employ closure for closure’s sake. For that The Vault of Dreamers deserves to be read.

I recommend this book for those who enjoy young adult dystopian novels and also those who like books that present interesting scientific concepts present as possibility.

Latest review: Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts

By Ekta R. Garg

September 10, 2014

Rated: Borrow it

Two teens meet in the hospital during bouts of chemo. When they part ways they can’t stop thinking about one another, and life finds a way to bring them together once again. Author A.J. Betts’ Zac and Mia will build on the recent excitement around books about teens suffering from illnesses and accomplishes her goals, for the most part.

Zac has gotten to know his hospital room really well. During this latest bout of chemo he can’t leave the room at all; it compromises his immune system. Select staff members come to administer to his needs, and his mother provides an endless amount of optimism and sincere efforts to play the online games Zac likes. But nothing can quite make up for the fact that he’s stuck inside of four walls.

When he gets wind of a new patient next door, he starts communicating with her. Granted, their communication consists of taps on the wall, notes under the door (from her,) and Facebook messages. It doesn’t matter; the more Zac communicates with this girl, the more she piques his curiosity.

They form a tentative friendship, and when he finally leaves the hospital Zac can’t stop thinking about her: Mia. He has a name, and he’s seen her face online. Zac can’t help wondering whether their friendship will last, but he and Mia lose track of one another. At least he thinks they do; when Mia comes back into his life in the most unexpected way, Zac wants to help her. But Mia doesn’t know if she wants—or needs—his help.

Author A.J. Betts uses a story form made popular by another book: that of a pair of teens who may die soon and become drawn to one another because of their shared experiences. Betts manages to hold her own, although parts of her story veer off track. Mia’s decision to leave home will make sense to an extent, but after a point her journey starts to get a little tedious. At one point Betts uses misdirection, and it sticks out as a forced device. Readers may feel compelled to flip pages (or scroll) to see if they missed something, pulling them out of the story. Betts divides her story in thirds, the first narrated by Zac, the second by both protagonists, and the third by Mia. The book’s arc makes sense, even if Mia’s third lets down the entire story a little bit.

Still, some moments between Zac and Mia will make readers smile. Their snarky, typically teenage comments sound and feel familiar for their synergy with the universal teenage experience. Betts may have given her protagonists stereotypical family setups, but she offers a refreshing change in preventing the relationships from fulfilling those stereotypes.

I would recommend readers borrow this book.

Brand new review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

By Ekta R. Garg

September 3, 2014

Rated: Bookmark it!

When a young girl learns that her grandfather has made the most amazing scientific discovery since penicillin, it ignites in her a newfound respect for science overall. But complications arise from her grandfather’s work, and the girl finds herself facing brand new situations and making the most unlikely of friends. Jennifer L. Holm delights and charms her middle grade readers with this plot in The Fourteenth Goldfish.

Ellie has begun to learn the hard way that growing up means lots of changes. Going from fifth grade to sixth grade means starting over in finding one’s place within the school’s social paradigm. Having a best friend who recently made the volleyball team means spending lunches without said best friend. When the goldfish dies, Ellie finds out from her mother that this goldfish was not, in point of fact, the one Ellie has raised since preschool. It’s actually one of many that her mother replaced through the years in secret.

But the word “change” hits home in full force when Ellie’s grandfather shows up on their doorstep…as a teenager. Grandpa Melvin has discovered something that helps reverse aging and used himself as the first human test subject for the experiment. Now that he’s a teen, however, no one takes him seriously, and Melvin needs Ellie’s help to re-establish himself and his lab so he can continue with his work. In the meantime he’s trying to figure out how to live like a teenager again without getting caught—or at least without getting detention.

Soon enough it becomes apparent that re-establishing Grandpa Melvin’s lab will mean more than shoving some boxes in the garage to one side to make space for a table and a microscope. The more Grandpa Melvin talks about his work, though, the more intrigued Ellie becomes. She realizes that science is as much about change as anything else, and that if her grandfather can endure such a major life change than she can tolerate these smaller ones.

Author Jennifer L. Holm presents middle grade readers a refreshing story. She doesn’t allow room for any innuendo, letting her audience enjoy Ellie’s tale as it unfolds. As a result, parents will have no trouble giving their kids permission to pick up this one. The benefit doubles when readers will discover that this book teaches as much as it entertains, and Ellie’s increasing interest in science could possibly become infectious.

A solid plot and primary and secondary characters guarantee this book will score high for its intended readership, but adults will also want to check it out. I highly recommend The Fourteenth Goldfish for anyone who likes to read.