Friday, December 30, 2016

I AM PRINCESS X

Review of I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

Best friends Libby and May create a fun character called Princess X and collaborate on a comic featuring this heroine.Then Libby dies in car accident and May loses both Princess X and her best friend.

Three years pass and all of a sudden May starts noticing Princess X paraphernalia everywhere: stickers, graffiti, a whole web comic carrying on the story of this character. As May looks closer into this phenomenon she finds clues that suggest only Libby could be the one behind this, not to mention further clues within the comic that seem to be trying to tell her that Libby never died; she was kidnapped.

While it seems crazy and dangerous and also too good to be true, May cannot let go of the idea that her friend is actually alive and the only way she can tell May is with Princess X. With the help of her neighbor, who is amateur hacker, May follows the clues to dark corners all in the hope that at the end of this maze she’ll find her best friend.

While the characters feel a little flat, the twists in this plot-driven YA novel make up for it. PRINCESS X is a fun, exciting read: a thriller wrapped up in a sweet friendship story.


*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The novel kind of lost me once May actually finds Libby. At that point they decide to hunt down the man behind this, a known murderer, by themselves. Now I could get behind May’s logic for looking for Libby herself. Adults wouldn’t believe her. Everyone already thinks Libby dead and May comes across as a crazed grieving friend. However, once they have Libby it seems the strategy should be getting to safety and alerting authorities, not chasing after a dangerous man themselves. While there are explanations for risky actions, nothing felt convincing to me and the last part of the book felt contrived for extra thrill.

Friday, December 23, 2016

STONES FROM THE RIVER


Review of STONES FROM THE RIVER by URSULA HEGI

With this novel, Hegi crafts a sweeping tale about prejudice and belonging. On a wider scale, the book follows World War II from the perspective of the Germans, while on a smaller scale we live through the eyes of Trudi, a dwarf but more importantly an intelligent, tenacious woman driven to bitterness by the ostracization of her peers.

The first half the novel focuses on Trudi’s individual struggle fitting in as a dwarf starting from childhood. She starts collecting secrets about people as she learns that: 1. Secrets give you power. And 2. People like gossip. Then the storyline shifts as the Nazis come to power. All of Trudi’s grudges, which felt so justified earlier, start to feel petty in comparison to the horrors taking place around her.

While I enjoyed most of this novel, I did grow bored around the halfway point and set it down for perhaps three months before resuming. When I did resume, it felt like I had given up right before the story picked up its pace, so I suppose there’s kind of a “calm before the storm” feel to the plot as it transitions from Trudi’s personal grievances to the larger scale atrocities being committed by Nazis.

There’s a huge cast of characters in this novel, which I always enjoy. Far too many to list in a review. I particularly like Trudi’s father, a classic personality: the grounded, quiet, wise mentor. Leo truly sees his daughter for all her unique strengths, but he also recognizes how the world will see her and doesn’t try to shield her from the reality that many people won’t look past her differences.

I also love that this book continues past World War II, following aftermath in Germany. So many World War II novels cut off during the war, usually because they’re telling a more focused story about one or a few individuals who didn’t fare well during that time. However, this novel has a wide scope. It doesn’t feel so much like it’s about World War II but rather that’s one of the many things that happens in the story. The book begins well before and continues on after the war, remaining true to the themes of prejudice and belonging.

Friday, December 9, 2016

CREWEL


Review of CREWEL by GENNIFER ALBIN
(first in the CREWEL WORLD series, based on a review copy)

Adelice lives in a world where gifted women possess the power to “weave” reality on a physical tapestry, crafting every decision for every individual in society. These revered Spinsters weave everything from birth and death to relocating supplies.

In a society where you have to pick your words very carefully, well, Adelice’s parents have done just that her whole life. Thankfully, their careful word selection has been enough to warn her that they hope she isn’t picked as a Spinster because that life isn’t the heaven those in power would have her believe. Of course, as any reader would expect, Adelice is picked as a Spinster. Her parents’ attempts to hide her fail and have devastating consequences. Once in her new home, Adelice hears repeated whispers about how girls who try to run like she did rarely get the honor of living...and yet she’s receiving preferential treatment. It turns out Adelice has some extra special capabilities that make her too powerful an asset to murder over the slightest display of rebellion.

I really liked Adelice. She’s recklessly brave, speaking up in situations where she knows full well that her challenging comments will have repercussions. She’s too true to her mind to keep her mouth shut even when doing so would make life go more smoothly for her.  

Albin also populates her novel with an assortment of distinct and interesting side characters, each well crafted and intriguing in their own way. Most admirably, each feels like they have their own story even if we’re fixating on Adelice’s right now.

While I really love the concept of this crafty magic system, the magic sometimes feels a little arbitrary. The limitations are laid down like facts, but I don’t understand why you can do one thing but not another, except that it works better for the story that way. I think that if you can weave reality you should be able to change time, for one thing. Though I will mention that I really liked how Adelice learns to manipulate the weave to create “new moments,” little snippets of reality outside what others around her can see or experience. Talk about having a nice safe space in a bad situation.

With CREWEL, Albin introduces readers to a unique and intriguing world but more notably to an exceptional heroine. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

Friday, December 2, 2016

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE


Review of HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I’m a sucker for a strong, smart female protagonist, but when everyone’s trying to write an original character sometimes unique becomes a little less original. My point is that, pleased as I am that there are so many worthy heroines in contemporary literature, some of the less layered ones start to blend. Not Libby. Her incredible strength, spirit, and humor feel completely fresh and specific to her experiences.

After Libby’s mom’s death several years ago, she started eating her feelings. Not a little, but a lot. Until she becomes morbidly obese and confined to her bed. Then she made headlines when a crane had to remove the side of her house and lift her out of her room so she could be taken to a hospital. Fast forward to today and Libby’s lost a lot of weight (though she’s still big enough to attract stares and whispering) and she’s venturing out of home school and into a public high school.

In contrast, we also follow Jack, one of the most popular guys at school and a typical jerk. Except the atypical secret that no one knows is that Jack has face blindness. Terrified of becoming a target rather than a weapon, Jack hides his inability to distinguish faces with an egocentric attitude. When you’re popular, people aren’t as surprised when your gaze slides over their face without any recognition, even when you ignore someone supposedly a friend.

Somehow Jack finds himself drawn to Libby. Well, their initial introduction isn’t a pleasant one. Jack isn’t proud of his jerk friends or his jerk self, but deep down inside he likes the idea of being a better person. So when his friends come up with a cruel game for harassing overweight girls at school, Jack comes up with a plan. It’s mean and makes him the bad guy, but it will end his friends’ game once and for all.

I completely understand why Jack admires Libby. It’s frustrating when you read a book where characters respect/love/hate someone and you just can’t see what they see. Well, Libby does stand out and I’m not talking about her size. She’s comfortable with who she is as a person and has learned to accept and cope with the fact that others will mostly focus on the external. She’s outspoken and intelligent and brave and basically all the virtues Jack wishes he had the guts to embody. Oh, and in a weird way her size is an asset for Jack. Libby may be one of the few people he can pick from a crowd. Even if he can’t recognize her face, he can recognize her size.

This novel is also funny, a rare and precious asset in a good book as I can tell you from both my experience as a writer and an avid reader that drama is so much easier to write than humor. As only one example from this book, I cracked up out loud at a line when Jack’s talking to his girlfriend. Internally, he always reminds himself that his on and off again, popular, and equally jerk girlfriend used to be sweet. And she still has nice moments. So when they’re talking on the phone one night and she’s being, well, not so sweet, Jack thinks to himself that he wishes he could just ask her, “Can you put nice Caroline on the phone now?”

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE is an empowering story about inner strength and inner beauty. I doubt I’ll forget Libby or humbling resilience anytime soon.

Friday, November 18, 2016

POISON STUDY


Review of POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(first in the STUDY trilogy)

Yelena murdered her benefactor in self-defense (not that anyone saw it that way or would believe her) and now faces execution. Then spymaster Valek offers her a second chance: become the Commander’s food taster. Though she risks ingesting poison with every meal, Yelena recognizes the difference between certain vs. possible death and, of course, accepts Valek’s offer.

Valek slips Yelena a poison called Butterfly’s Dust on her first day. If she reports to him each morning, he’ll give her a daily antidote to stave off a slow and painful death. If she runs away, she’ll die within the day. Now Yelena juggles learning about a wide array of poisons, figuring out who she can trust and how to ally herself, and, perhaps most problematic, hiding her possible magical abilities in a land where such talents equal a death sentence.

Above all, this is a story of survival. Yelena doesn’t have an immediate goal at the start of the book beyond living. A goal that proves especially difficult in her circumstances, but remains her primary drive from beginning to end. At the start surviving means paying close attention to Valek’s poison training in the hopes of detecting something without ingesting enough that it will kill her. Then she encounters enemies who want revenge for the man she killed and she must learn some beyond basic self-defense. As if that weren’t enough, a magician approaches her and reveals that Yelena has “untamed” magic. Magicians are forbidden in Yelena’s land and if she’s discovered her death will be ordered...again. However, if she doesn’t master her magic, the magician warns they will have no choice but to kill her before her magic gets too out of her control. So Yelena faces attacks on her simple survival goal from all sides. This also makes it extra interesting to read on in the series and see what Yelena will start wanting for herself once survival becomes less of a challenge.

This book was a re-read for me and I found myself surprised on the second reading by the strength of the feminist subtext. I primarily recalled this trilogy as a compelling, fun read with a lot of flaws. However, on the second read I barely noticed said flaws and found myself instead impressed by strengths I think I underestimated on the first read. Aside from an admirable heroine and other progressive characters and messages, these strengths also included the big cast of characters, a common theme among my favorite books. I especially like that Yelena evolves from a lone wolf character in a place of desperation at the start of the novel to someone surrounded by people who support her and lent extra power by forming strong bonds with the right people. 

My one consistent complaint with Snyder’s work is that the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the plot. And I believe it’s this weakness in very basic points of the writing that lead me to undervalue the book as a whole. Snyder often connects two distinctly separate sentences with only a comma where there should be a period or at least semi-colon. I also always find multiple dangling participles in her work as well as clauses that don’t apply to their intended subject. It occasionally makes the story a little harder to follow when I’m distracted by basic grammar mistakes or even find myself re-reading sentences to ensure I understood the intended meaning. 

I look forward to re-reading the other two books in this trilogy and was also reminded that Snyder has new work out I have yet to read. Snyder’s another writer who can be a little formulaic, but I like her formula so I’m not complaining.

Friday, November 11, 2016

THE MORNING GIFT


Review of THE MORNING GIFT by EVA IBBOTSON

Ruth had plans to flee with her Jewish family from Vienna before the Nazis reached the city. Her family made it out in time, but not Ruth. Her father’s young colleague Quinn finds her and resolves to help. After exploring their limited options, they agree to marry so she can leave with him as his wife. The plan is to annul the marriage once she’s safe, but they quickly learn such a fast annulment will call the validity of the marriage into question and may send Ruth straight back to Austria. So instead they intend to carry on with their separate lives until such time that a divorce makes sense, except Ruth enrolls in university and finds herself taking Quinn’s classes, which makes not seeing him significantly harder.

I found this Ibbotson novel especially humorous. Ruth and Quinn both go to extremes trying to avoid each other. Meanwhile, as a young prestigious professor, Quinn is considered quite the catch and other young women are doing their very best to get and hold attention. Oh, and did I mention Ruth already has a fiancé? She and Quinn both agree to keep silent on exactly how he smuggled her out of Austria, so Ruth’s family and fiancé have no idea she’s technically a married woman now.

I enjoyed the chemistry between Ruth and Quinn. Ibbotson has a knack for writing romances where characters are drawn to each other not because they have exactly the same views but because they’re intrigued by each other’s different views. Quinn and Ruth argue over near about everything, but then each is left musing over the other’s points.

As with Ibbotson’s other young adult historical romances, the heroine is a classic Mary Sue trope. Everyone either adores or detests Ruth and if they detest her that’s a sure measure they’re a bad character. She’s sweet to the point of naivety and always aims for perfection of character.

With THE MORNING GIFT, Ibbotson crafts another sweet and funny romance against the backdrop of real historical issues. Sadly, I’ve reached the end of reviewing all of her young adult novels, but I still look forward to reading her middle grade work.

Friday, November 4, 2016

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR



Review of THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by NICOLA YOON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I fell in love with this author’s remarkable debut novel EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING about a teenage girl who can never leave her house due to a rare autoimmune disease. Often when a reader adores an author’s first book (or even merely the first one you happened to read), it makes it that much harder for the next to live up to your already high expectations. I definitely didn’t make it easy for this novel to win me over. Despite repeatedly instructing myself otherwise, I kept measuring this one against the first book. For the first quarter or so, I worried that, while good, this wasn’t quite as good, but as I kept reading, and especially once I finished, I concluded that THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR held up to my very high hopes for it.

This entire book takes place over one day. And, in one day, teenagers Daniel and Natasha fall in love. Let me start off by praising the author for challenging herself, because she faced two very difficult tasks: setting an entire book over a single day and having two characters believably fall in love so quickly. And Yoon pulls off both feats, by the way.

Natasha is a scientific skeptic and I doubt I could have invested in such a fast romance without one of her kind. Simply because she’s not the type of person who does this. She tries so hard not to do this, to fight her impulses, to logic her way out of emotions.

Let me back up a little, though, and tell you something else about Natasha. She is an illegal immigrant and her family is being deported tomorrow. She’s out on her own today seeking a lawyer in a last desperate attempt to stop the inevitable when she meets Daniel. He, on the other hand, is a poet and a hopeless romantic, but unfortunately he’s on his way to a Yale interview so he can begin the life of a doctor his parents have planned out for him.

Perhaps to make everything seem longer or to highlight each and every small, special moment, the book features extremely small chapters. The longest are 3-4 pages while numerous are less a full page. As another interesting twist in style, the author sprinkles Natasha and Daniel’s story with the perspectives of peripheral characters. Along the way the main love story will be ever so briefly interrupted for a chapter about Natasha’s dad, the aforementioned lawyer, even a security guard Natasha interacts with briefly. And this isn’t some weird attempt at being original that falls flat. No, this ties in perfectly with the novel’s theme. Because Daniel and Natasha hardly know each other and yet they change each other’s life cataclysmically in one day. And while we barely know some of these minor characters, we see how strongly some small events affect them.

While I will confess that I still like EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING the best of these two books, I think I nevertheless admire Yoon more for this one. THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR cannot have been easy to write, and yet she makes it feel like it couldn’t possibly have been written any other way.

Friday, October 28, 2016

A SONG FOR SUMMER


Review of A SONG FOR SUMMER by EVA IBBOTSON

As is often the case, Ellen didn’t turn out the way her family expected, or wanted. Her suffragette mother and aunts feel dismayed that Ellen embraces all the feminine ideals they reject: cooking, cleaning, cultivating calm in a chaotic home. She brings these missions with her when she starts working at an Austrian school for the arts. She tames the wild children and brings order where previously there was none, all while falling for the mysterious part-time help Marek, who is already plenty occupied shuttling people out of Nazi occupied territory.

A SONG FOR SUMMER starts a good conversation about feminism and what it means to be a strong woman. I’ve always believed that it’s about choosing your own path and resisting outside attempts to steer you in other directions, whether it be by those telling you be more traditional or those telling you to be less so. It’s all the same really: people telling you the right way to live your life. Only you can decide what’s right for you.

Ellen’s interest in the domestic isn’t described as a simple draw towards the familiar route, either. She has a mentor she admires, a woman who takes care of her uncle. For Ellen, it’s about being a good person, (Yes, that familiar ideal from Ibbotson’s works.) about providing for others for the greater good without expecting or requiring fanfare for all the effort.

This book probably has the least happily ever after of all Ibbotson’s young adult historical romances. As a warning, the rest of this paragraph contains very minor spoilers. As with the other novels, the romantic tension eventually bursts into a passionate display that then settles into true love and riding off into the sunset. Except in this one, there’s a Part Two to the book. As Ellen and Marek are readying themselves for their idyllic future together, the Nazis burn down Marek’s family home and idolized sanctuary, killing those inside. Marek becomes consumed with hate and revenge and turns into someone Ellen can’t be around. So Ellen marries someone else, someone she doesn’t love, but who provides her with the financial means to help others fleeing Hitler’s Reich. Marek and Ellen do eventually find each other again, but it’s years down the line after plenty of heartache and sacrifice. Ibbotson fled from the Nazis herself long before she started writing these books, so I interpret the fact that this novel is slightly darker than her others as indicative of the period about which she’s writing. I suspect for someone having lived through Hitler’s Reich, it’s difficult to portray a simple happily ever after around that time without giving more weight to the horror of the era.

As with all Ibboton’s works, I adore the large cast of varied characters. My favorites in this one undoubtedly include two children, the soft spoken Sophie who is growing into her own bravery and the cynical Leon, who is far less cynical when he’s around Sophie.

Though a bit more psychologically complex due to the war in the background, this novel is yet another sweet, funny romance that will warm your heart.

Friday, October 21, 2016

NOBODY'S PRINCESS


Review of NOBODY’S PRINCESS by ESTHER FRIESNER

The story of Helen of Troy is certainly appetizing bait for a writer. However, Helen rarely appears in retellings as anything more than a passive - if beautiful - catalyst. Friesner sets herself the challenge of portraying Helen not as the typical damsel in distress but a capable, remarkable young woman overwhelmed by impossible circumstances.

People comment on Helen’s appearance from a young age. She enjoys the attention, until her sister’s jealous remarks made Helen think harder about what it means to be beautiful. As her sister Clytemnestra laments, Helen often doesn’t earn this special treatment. Helen also starts to realize that this “gift” of beauty will likely infringe on her precious freedom more and more the older she becomes. People will expect her to behave a certain way and to fulfill feminine ideals. Perhaps it’s because she’s young and perhaps not, but Helen yearns for adventures besides marriage and children.

She starts training in secret with her brothers and goes on to learn whatever she can about weaponry and fighting arts by spying, disguising herself, and seeking out willing mentors.

For me, the greatest strength of this novel is undoubtedly the characters and relationships. Clytemnestra may not be the nicest to Helen, but she probably molds Helen for the better by making her consider why everyone treats her differently. Helen also has a sweet if complicated relationship with her brothers. They’re torn between respecting her capabilities and a sense of duty to steer her back towards traditional feminine roles. Whenever she announces what she wants to do, they’re usually doubtful and mocking, but they do get credit for admitting when they underestimated her. The best part is that all these personalities are so subtly delivered; I never felt the author hitting a point too hard.

I normally don’t pick out specific quotes from books. I may notice the quality of the writing overall, but it’s rare for me to find individual lines that I feel the urge to mention. With NOBODY’S PRINCESS, though, I kept finding quotes that fit that wonderful combination of funny and wise, such as “The gods protect me from men who mean well!” I also liked “it wouldn’t be the first time a man found courage he never knew he had until he met the right woman.” I think “man” and “woman” in that phrase can be changed out for “person,” but I’m a big believer in the catalyst relationship where meeting someone new ends up changing your whole outlook. Last I’ll mention “A rock at the bottom of a well is safe from worries too,” a reminder that sometimes we compromise comfort for a little adventure.

But there’s no compromising with NOBODY’S PRINCESS! This is a fun, fast read with understated depth and warmth.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A COMPANY OF SWANS


Review of A COMPANY OF SWANS by EVA IBBOTSON

Harriet has lived a dreary, dull life penned up with her conservative father and aunt in 1912 Cambridge. They permit her one indulgence, ballet, but certainly neither approves of the art. Then someone offers Harriet a place in his ballet company set off for a South American tour. It seems the adventure she’s dreamed of all her life, except her father would never allow it. Given a choice between submit and rebel, Harriet goes against her good girl instincts and chooses rebel. She sneaks off to join the company against her father’s wishes and finds a happiness exceeding her wildest dreams. Of course, her father and the man he hoped Harriet would marry are determined to bring her home, ideally ashamed and contrite.

With this premise, Ibbotson delivers another complex and engaging young adult historical romance. Ibbotson’s books are very similar and many of my comments remain the same despite the specific novel. That all said, if the books are formulaic it’s a successful formula and I would happily read as many as she could write.

Each book features a wide and diverse cast and, though having a big cast may be a commonality, Ibbotson makes each character unique and plenty surprisingly layered. In A COMPANY OF SWANS, I particularly like Marie-Claude, a gorgeous dancer who many, men especially, wish to peg as a loose and simple harlot for her enviable curves and mermaid-like, long, blonde hair. Except Marie-Claude already has a fiancé to whom she’s devotedly committed and, thankfully, her intelligence isn’t inversely proportional to her looks either. Part of why I like this character so much is because authors often fall into a trap of making their heroine the most, or worst – only, likable female in the book. It shouldn’t detract from one woman’s strengths to acknowledge other strong women.

Another trend throughout these novels is that the heroines are rather interchangeable. Though they have different hobbies, their general outlook and personality are the same. Harriet is young and naïve, but also smart, considerate, passionate, and not someone to underestimate merely because she’s growing into herself. All the books feature a much older romantic interest who’s drawn to the heroine for her refreshing innocence and purity. That may be the only thing that irks me a little in these books: the importance placed on “purity.” In defense of the novels, the author seems to mean more of a purity of spirit: being a good person. That said, sometimes the heroines are such good people that they seem annoyingly Mary Sue. I like the parts when one of them has to battle a negative emotion like resentment or jealousy more than when the character seems too wholesome to feel such petty emotions.

I intensely admire how Ibbotson describes characters’ appearances. She has so many distinct ways of crafting an image in the reader’s mind, and she uses vivid, unusual words for writing about features rather than simplistic descriptions like “big nose” or “brown eyes.” In general, Ibbotson claims an utterly unique writing style. Some works are more about plot than writing, but I believe I could pick out Ibbotson’s writing from many random samples. Her writing can be wordy and indulgent, but always endearingly passionate and heartfelt.

Sadly, Ibbotson only wrote five of these delightful young adult historical romances. Additional reviews to come, though other than plot descriptions you will find much of my commentary on these books the same for all.

Friday, October 7, 2016

TELL ME THREE THINGS


Review of TELL ME THREE THINGS by JULIE BUXBAUM
(review based on an advance reading copy)

As if Jessie’s life didn't change too much already when her mom died, now her father has abruptly remarried and moved them to a new state to live with the new stepmom and her son. This is also means leaving Jessie’s school and all her friends in Chicago and starting new in Los Angeles, which feels like a completely different world. Lucky for Jessie, a mysterious stranger emails her offering to help her learn all the insider tips for surviving at this snooty school.

Of course, the stranger refuses to reveal his identity, only stating that he wouldn’t be able to make this same connection with her if he introduced himself in person. I loved the cast of this novel, which is packed full of varied and layered characters, many of which seem flatter until Jessie pays closer attention. The premise also provides an entertaining mystery, because Jessie can’t help assessing everyone she meets – or sees from afar – as her potential mystery friend.

The voice really won me over. Jessie feels familiar and unique. Believable and likable. Young but mature. As with a lot of young adult novels, a good chunk of this book is interior monologue as Jessie takes in the world around her, and I loved reading everything through her perspective, especially since she does in fact grow over the course of the story.

My only complaint is that ending felt abrupt and focused entirely on wrapping up the romance plot thread at the expense of all others. Sometimes how a book ends can tell you as much about the story as the rest of this book. I would have pegged the novel more as a story about Jessie learning how to look closer at people. Then the ending suggests it’s really meant foremost as a romance.

Regardless, this one stood out from the plethora of young adult novels out there thanks to a crisp and district voice, lots of faceted characters, and fun mystery begging for a big reveal.

Friday, September 30, 2016

A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING


Review of A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING by JESSICA CLUESS
(first in the KINGDOM ON FIRE series, review based on an advance reading copy)

Henrietta has long hid her magical powers, terrified of the repercussions if the wrong person discovers a woman with these gifts. Then she learns of a prophecy that a female sorcerer will save her land from the demons tormenting it and suddenly her shameful secret uplifts her status and becomes something to celebrate. There’s a major catch, though. Henrietta suspects she’s likely not the woman of the prophecy…but if she admits that then everything she’s longed for will be taken away again.

This is a fast paced, fun novel with a strong emphasis on romantic tension. Henrietta enters a world dominated by males, which means she has a lot of male attention directed her way. I liked how the author showcases so many different types of relationships and attraction. I found Magnus in particular a very believable hypocrite. Having been raised primarily by women, he’s a proud feminist and woman’s advocate and yet at the same time he’s a shameless womanizer who often diminishes women to objects of attraction.

The magic system sometimes felt a little too arbitrary for my taste. Why does it work one way for some people and another for other people? Fingers crossed that further books in this series flesh out the inner workings a bit more, but as it is from this first book I often found the magic felt a little too limitless and out of control. Checks and balances usually make for a better magic system, especially when there’s a clear cost for every gain.

All in all, though, a fabulous, addictive first book and I look forward to reading on in the series.

Friday, September 23, 2016

ESPERANZA RISING


Review of ESPERANZA RISING by PAM MUNOZ RYAN

Someone gave me this middle grade book when I was 13, and I thought I was too old for it. I kept it, though, and finally read it for the first time in late college only to find myself shocked at how much it affected me. How many times do I need to re-learn that target age isn’t that much of a factor in terms of a book’s power? When I started my blog, this one made the cut for ones I needed to re-read for a fresh review. I don’t generally re-read books and one of my great fears is that I’ll discover some of my all times favorites lose their luster upon a closer look. I have already found some that don’t hold up to my memory, but I’m relieved to say that ESPERANZA RISING was just as good on the second reading!

Esperanza lives a privileged life in Mexico on her father’s ranch, until he’s murdered by bandits while out repairing a fence. It seems her world can’t be any more shattered at the news of her beloved father’s death. Then her cruel, powerful uncles start pressuring her influential mother to marry one of them, providing all her popularity to their name as well as the ranch, too. One of the servant families (and close family friends) convinces Esperanza’s mother to flee to the U.S. with them. While the idea of avoiding her terrible uncle seems smart enough at first, Esperanza doesn’t fully realize everything she’s giving up: a private education, beautiful dresses, expensive toys, a huge ranch.

This new start requires that Esperanza work, too. While hardly a spoiled brat, she doesn’t transition to her new role without complaint. At first, it feels she can’t do anything right even when trying so hard. To make matters worse, some people enjoy seeing the “fallen princess” failing at simple tasks. As if that weren’t enough, Esperanza’s mother then takes ill as well, leaving Esperanza in circumstances that will truly test her character.

Munoz Ryan is a talented writer. Her invisible writing says a lot with a little. I get a strong sense of several different characters in a very slim novel through perfect dialogue and actions that reveal plenty.

The ending is simply beautiful. Endings don't make or break a novel for me. Some great books have quite forgettable endings. However, the best endings resonate like this, echoing the novel’s theme without feeling forced.

Friday, September 16, 2016

WRITTEN IN RED


Review of WRITTEN IN RED by ANNE BISHOP
(first in THE OTHERS series)

Bishop is one of my all-time favorite authors, so it was with pleased surprise that I found a book by her I had not yet read sitting patiently on my to-read shelves.

The story takes place in an alternate contemporary reality, but with the twist that “the Others,” fae and their like, lived here long before humans. While the Others and humans have found a way to co-exist, humans will always want to eliminate their rivals and the Others are always ready to remind the humans who holds the real power.

Meg is a blood prophet, which means when someone cuts her skin she sees visions of the future. Humans have a law allowing for “benevolent ownership” of blood prophets, the argument being that their visions make them too crazed and unpredictable to take care of themselves. When Meg manages to escape, she flees towards the Others. While the Others are dangerous themselves, human law does not apply on their territory, meaning Meg cannot be dragged back and returned to her human owner. She finds a simple job sorting mail for her shape-shifter (essentially werewolf) landlord Simon. However, Meg’s unique gift earned her Controller a lot of money and they want her back. When the wrong people start tracking her down, Simon and his friends will need to decide how much they’re willing to put on the line to protect a near-stranger human.

From here, both my praise and criticism will sound very similar to any other reviews of Bishop’s work. I always adore her huge, varied casts of characters as well as pretty much each individual character. I also cherish the amazing combination of dark and cute; she really knows when to provide what for that perfect balance. In my mind and for my taste, her novels are near perfect.

My criticisms are more objective. None of them bother me or diminish her novels in my perspective, but I can pick out the same weak spots in her books that I know would irritate some readers more than myself. First, too many characters. If you often struggle keeping track of lots of names, her books will doubtless confuse you. Second, the villains are too evil. I will admit to usually preferring more complex antagonists. Most all of Bishop’s villains are simply selfish. How villainous they are depends on how far they’ll go to pursue their own selfish wants. Third, the heroines are too Mary Sue. Everyone either adores or detests them. It sometimes feels like the world has shifted to revolving around this protagonist. Because I always like her heroines myself, I forgive this without much complaint.

I didn’t realize this is the first in a series when I started it. However, I didn’t find myself irritated at that realization as I often am, because Bishop found such a good closure point. I did, however, moan, “Nooooooooo!” because I wanted to keep reading the story to the finish and didn’t have the next book.

Friday, September 9, 2016

THE BAD BEGINNING


Review of THE BAD BEGINNING by LEMONY SNICKET
(first in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS)


I already read this entire series years ago, but I wanted to re-read them to review on my blog. It’s a collection of short, witty middle reader novels where terrible and unfair things keep happening to our perfectly likable main characters.

Most fiction, especially that for younger audiences, strives for an upbeat tone, a happy and neat ending, and often even a nice moral. This one breaks that mold. The title warns you and the narrator continually warns you: if you want a happy story, read something else.

Siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were once happy, before this first book even started. They had two wonderful, loving parents and lived in a huge mansion that provided everything they could want. Then their parents died. The children are sent off to live with their nearest relative, Count Olaf, who’s a cruel oaf and only after their vast inheritance. He concocts a plan to take that inheritance for himself, but the children may not survive once he has what he wants.

Sadly for these children (and for any readers who can’t stand this type of book) it seems all the adults, even well-meaning ones, are incompetent. Our protagonists try to turning to kind people for help, but no one can see what’s really going on. While I understand how this style does annoy some readers, I believe it’s a powerful metaphor for children in unfortunate situations themselves who feel the world is turning a blind eye to what’s really going on in their life. And all the more empowering because these kids don’t let the fact that there’s no knight in shining armor stop them from trying to save themselves.

I do recall that this series can become a little same old same old as you keep reading, but I’m only on book one so far in my re-reading, so I’ll call it out when it feels that way. I remember the plots as being similar in outline: siblings sent to new home, problem with new home, they resolve it, another something bad happens anyway to take away happy ending.

My favorite aspect of this series, however, is the wry humor. You’ll find ample instances of playing with both words and expectations in these pages, many of which actually make me laugh aloud (not an easy feat for such an avid reader). Delightful how unfortunate events can be so amusing.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA


Review of A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by ANTHONY MARRA

This story feels more like a puzzle than most, flitting between different perspectives and back and forth in time and providing information that will only have significance when pieced together with later information.

The story takes place in a small village in Chechnya during Russian invasions. The viewpoint shifts between different characters all interconnected even if not everyone knows everyone directly. Eight-year-old Havaa finds herself alone in the woods after Russian soldiers abducted her father. Ahkmed, a friend of her father’s, rescues her and brings her to a hospital for safekeeping (or more like a war-time sorry excuse for a hospital with about 1% of the staff and supplies they should have).

At the hospital they meet the doctor Sonja. Personally, I’m a sucker for women like Sonja, women overrun by their own determination. It’s like her will becomes a force of its own. And I loved the line where Sonja’s sister Natasha, who recently escaped from being forced into prostitution, recoils from Sonja’s medical work. Watching Sonja’s detached attitude towards the human body, Natasha can’t help thinking her sister’s not that different from her pimp.

Marra writes very distinct voices and dialogue. I often read writers where their own voice shines through, because the characters all sound too similar. Not the case here. Everyone feels unique from each other.

And, without any spoilers, what a powerful ending.

Friday, August 26, 2016

BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY


Review of BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY by JACLYN DOLAMORE

I loved Jaclyn Dolamore’s novel MAGIC UNDER GLASS. Sadly, my local library doesn’t carry the second in that series. However, in my search I did discover this other intriguing young adult tale by the same author about the forbidden relationship between a mermaid and a winged boy.

Mermaids Esmerine and her sister have been selected for the honor of becoming sirens. Hopefully this prestige will overshadow Esmerine’s lifelong reputation for being that weird mermaid child who played on the beach with that winged boy. Though Esmerine hasn’t seen Alander in years, their taboo friendship has followed her everywhere.

Those selected as sirens often have a dangerous fascination with humans. It helps if you’re going to be spending so much time at the surface luring men to their deaths. When becoming a siren, a mermaid receives a magical belt that adds to the power of her song and gives her the ability to transform her tail into legs. If a human takes a siren’s belt, she cannot return to her mermaid form.

Esmerine’s sister Dosia has always liked humans a little too much for Esmerine’s taste, even abusing her belt’s powers so she can stride on human legs into human parties. When Dosia goes missing Esmerine fears the worst: that one of the human men Dosia has been flirting with took her belt, trapping her on land. Desperate to find and save her sister, Esmerine ventures on land where she finds Alander and he in turn offers his help for finding Dosia.

This is a hyperbolized, familiar tale about people born from such different worlds that you wonder what they can possibly have in common. Yet it turns out they have the most important things in common, core commonalities in their philosophies that make them unexpectedly perfect for each other.

Big surprise, but I love books about characters who love books. And both Esmerine and Alander love books. He works in a bookshop and her main draw to the surface world is the sad fact that the pages of knowledge loves so much disintegrate underwater.

Dolamore delivers another fun, smart read. She never lectures, but there’s a lot of depth to her storylines and characters.

Friday, August 19, 2016

AND I DARKEN



Review of AND I DARKEN by KIERSTEN WHITE
(review based on advance reading copy)

Last summer I read my first novel by White and loved it so much that I’ve been on the lookout for her next release. With AND I DARKEN, she spins a long, unfolding epic about three politically powerful children and their doomed friendship.

Princess Lada may be another tough heroine but she is by no means a cliché. She makes most other tough heroines you’ve read look like wimps (or at least like they have more soul). Lada is brutal and merciless. She learns about power and control at a very young age and lives her life in pursuit of gaining more and dread of losing what she has. This “education” includes lessons on the dangers of caring about anyone, for when you care for someone that only turns them into a weapon that can be used against you.

Lada can’t help caring for her younger brother Radu, at least not completely. Radu cares enough for the both of them and, unfortunately for himself, he doesn’t have Lada’s warrior instinct. He hides and cries where she fights. He will never understand how Lada can sit by at times when someone hurts him, but little does he know Lada believes the best way she can protect him is by refusing to let on how much she cares.

Then their father sells out Lada and Radu by offering them up as collateral to an enemy in exchange for peace. Their situation doesn’t seem so bad when they meet Mehmed, son of the Sultan holding them both captive. Both Lada and Radu fall for Mehmed and he holds them captive in his own way as once again they both care more than they would want. The three form a tight trio, but fate will not make their friendship easy.

Despite funny parts here and there, there is a significant melancholy tone to this entire book. While I enjoyed the novel, the ending frustrated me greatly. In a good novel, I want events to change the characters in some way. This end puts far more weight on fate over decisions than I like philosophically speaking. There’s a sense of being trapped on the hamster wheel, always ending where we started, and us the fools if we think otherwise.

I’ve mentioned before that I dislike rating books because sometimes I want to give the book so many stars for some aspects or chunks and a different number for the rest. I think I would give this book 4-5 out of 5 stars up until the very end when I want to give it only 1 of 5. In short, it feels like a great story…without any actual point.

Friday, August 12, 2016

THE MORNING STAR


Review of THE MORNING STAR by ROBIN BRIDGES
(third in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Young necromancer Katerina is back for her finale. Her mission of protecting the tsar from the undead Konstantin’s pursuit of power continues. She doesn’t yet know Konstantin’s next move, but she knows their fight isn’t over. To complicate things further, at least on a personal level, the tsar grants his blessing for Katerina to marry his son, on the condition that she abandon her dream of becoming a doctor.

I respect that this trilogy holds steady in its appeal. I read plenty that lag in the middle or tapper off from brilliant first book to waste of my time third. The writing and plotting feels consistent from the start of this series to the end and that indicates, to me, a writer comfortable in her style.

For that matter, any criticisms I have remain the same. Katerina takes a little bit more initiative in this book, but she’s still more of a passive vessel. When she takes physical action, it’s with the help of an enchanted object. Also in all three books, the climax scenes felt so chaotic to me I had trouble following what was happening.

There’s a twist at the end of this trilogy that I LOVED! It feels both powerfully affecting as well as hilariously delivered, and I didn’t see it coming in the least.

A strong conclusion to a great series and one that I can add to my growing list of vampire books I actually enjoyed.

Friday, August 5, 2016

EVERY OTHER DAY


Review of EVERY OTHER DAY by JENNIFER LYNN BARNES

On some days, teenager Kali is completely normal, attending high school and doing her best to blend into the wall. However, every other day, she’s superhuman. She doesn’t know if there’s a word for what she is, since she’s never met anyone else like her, but every other day she’s a driven, unstoppable hunter. She tracks down hellhounds, dragons, and other beasts that endanger her world. She senses their presence, feels lured to them, and compelled to kill them. On these days, she’s inhumanly fast and strong, with blood that poisons these beasts if they get a taste of it and a miraculous healing rate. Then Kali notices a symbol on a girl at her high school, a symbol that means that girl will die within the day. Unfortunately, it’s on one of Kali’s “normal” days.

I loved the premise of this book. So many fantasy novels feature protagonists with too much power. It often doesn’t feel they’re earning enough of their accomplishments if they have too many or too strong of magical gifts. Kali manages to be both the cliché superhero and someone who will need to earn her triumph. Not only do we have front row seats to her resourcefulness, but there’s the added twist that she’s not accustomed to needing to be this resourceful. (She can’t help counting down throughout the day to when she’ll be invincible again.)

I also really enjoyed the varied characters and how they play off each other. For starters, Kali doesn’t even like the girl marked for death. She’s a popular cheerleader known for bullying misfits. It tells us a lot about Kali that she would risk her life for this girl nevertheless. And this girl (Bethany by the way) turns out to be an engaging mix of predictably superficial as well as refreshingly layered. Oh, and Kali’s own voice is consistently fantastic.

I did find the book sometimes told rather than showed too much, especially in regards to the characters. The author frequently makes explicit statements about someone’s personality that any attentive reader could figure out herself.

My only other criticism is that the story almost lost me from the start by opening with killing puppies. Granted, they’re hellhound demonic puppies, but I’m a zealous dog lover who felt disgusted by the opening scene all the same.

Back to more of what I admired though, there’s a very unique magic system that keeps unfolding throughout the story to reveal more twists. And this can probably go on the list of the few vampire books that I like! Probably because vampires are only a small part of what’s going on here and the author’s take on vampires feels fresh and intriguing.

Fresh and intriguing. Those words probably summarize this whole book pretty well.