Monthly Archives: November 2015

Between Shades of Gray

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Ruta Sepetys bases her debut novel on her own family’s history in Lithuania during WWII. It is part of a history that has been overshadowed by the other horrors witnessed during the war years.

Can a book about abuse and starvation and labour and imprisonment in a Siberian work camp be lyrical? This one can. The story about the atrocities committed by Stalin against so many during the war is evocative and beautiful and horrifying and soul crushing and stunning. It takes away hope with one hand, and lets it shine thorough with the other.

15 year old Lina is an artist, looking forward to a life at art school, and all the joys and trials of being a teen. But it is 1941, and she lives in Lithuania, and her life is about to come crashing down. Soviet secret police barge into her home and grab her family; Lina, her mother, and her young brother are separated from her father, sent north on a crowded train, and eventually end up at a work camp in Siberia.

There, Lina witnesses the worst of humanity, and the best. She documents her experiences through her art, in the hope that she can get word to her father where she and her mother and brother are being held. In the hope of seeing him again, and in the hope of maintaining her soul through her sketches. She wants to honour their fight for survival, whether or not they make it out alive.

The title of the book perfectly captures her long imprisonment. She is terrified by the evil which surrounds her, and lifted up by the moments of goodness displayed at the most surprising times.

SO beautifully written. The flashbacks, Lina’s perspective, the way Sepetys documents the day to day life in the camps is more than compelling. She dragged me kicking and screaming into the crowded trains and barracks and freezing fields, right into the fight for food and medicine and life. The bone-numbing cold and the growing pile of corpses, the loss of friend after friend after family member is heart-wrenching and horrifying.

The characters are vivid and so well written.  The toll of their imprisonment, the strain of the adults trying to shield their children, the children being forced into early adulthood, and even the innocent romance between Lina and Andrius; the characters lose hope even as they continue to fight for their lives, and Sepetys writes them all so clearly.

This is a tough book about a horrific subject. But it is still a YA novel, and can be read by the entire age range.

Between Shades of Gray is published by Philomel Books.

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Seven Realms (series)

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I don’t think this high fantasy series gets enough love. It has everything an adventure craving reader can ask for – magic, action, battles, underdogs, evil wizards, princesses, queens and chivalry. To name just a few.

Han Alister is a reformed street lord, now living in the mountains of the Fells. It is hard living, but he does what he can to support his family. Times are tough. The only thing of value he owns are the thick silver cuffs he’s worn since birth. The trouble is, he can’t sell them, as they are impossible to remove. Magic is at play.

After confronting three young wizards causing mischief in the mountains, Han’s life, and that of his best friend Dancer, changes. One of the wizards is the son of the High Wizard, and Han relieves him of a powerful amulet during their confrontation. Wizards use their amulets to store power, but this is no ordinary one. It once belonged to the Demon King, the wizard who nearly destroyed the world millennia ago.

Raisa ana‘Marianna, princess heir of the Fells, has just returned to court after three years of life in the mountains, living with her father’s people and learning the ways of the Clans. As heir to the Gray Wolf line, Raisa wants to unite her people and have a peaceful reign, like the legendary warrior queen Hanalea. Her distant ancestor saved the world and eradicated evil. But evil has returned, and Raisa’s mother, Queen Marianna, sees a different path ahead.

This is a powerful and complicated series.

LOVE Han Alister. The former thug can handle himself, but has a heart of gold for his gang and his friends and family.  He has magic and he has ambition, and he must learn to channel them both. Princess Raisa is a kick-ass heroine, with good intentions and a good vision for her people. But she, in turn, is governed by tradition and restrictions, and has to learn to work within a system that has grown ever more corrupt.

All the secondary characters; Dancer, Averill, Bird, Queen Marianna, the High Wizard, Micah, Cat and all the street thugs, Amon, Raisa’s best friend and bodyguard, and so many, many, more, are so well thought out and distinct throughout the story.

The world building is spot on for a fantasy novel. The wilds of the Fells, the dark streets of the city, the schools for wizards and warriors, and the politics within and out of the castle are all equally fascinating and received equal attention from the author. There are no weak spots that I could find!

The plot is fantastic, but the first book takes time to really get started. Don’t give up. You will find yourself totally immersed in the world Chima has created. The clash between the different forms of magic – the green of the Clans and the high magic of the Wizards – has to take a back seat to the threats from outside forces. Raisa’s biggest challenge is to unite her people, and the twists and turns she must navigate to do so are impeccably written .

And, because you know I am a sucker for a good cover, LOOK AT THESE. They are STUNNING.

The romance between Raisa and Han is definitely a big part of the story, but the series is so much more than that. Anyone can read these books, and they will appeal to boys and girls alike. There is enough kick-ass mystery and intrigue and sword fights and magical battles to grab everyones’ attention.

The four books of the Seven Realms series (The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne and The Crimson Crown) are published by Hyperion Books.

The Casquette Girls

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Book one of the The Casquette Girls series is AWESOME. Magic and mystery and history and romance and vampires (NOT sparkly ones) and fire and voodoo and the French Quarter all combine into an action-packed, semi-romantic, paranormal whirlwind of a story.

In the wake of The Storm, a hurricane so destructive that there is no need to name it, New Orleans lies decimated. 16 year old Adele Le Moyne is banished by her father to stay with her absentee mother in Paris while the city is rebuilt, but it has been months now. Born and raised in the French Quarter of the historic city, Adele wants to come home. So she puts her foot down and informs her dad she is on her way.

But home isn’t what she left behind. Her re-entry to the city is heart-breaking. Vast destruction, unsalvageable homes and businesses, parish-wide curfews, missing friends and mysterious murders turn the once vibrant city into a ghost town in more ways than one.  And Adele finds herself enmeshed in mysteries and magic that have their roots in the early 18th century, just as New Orleans was establishing itself. Myths have a way of being based in past truths.

I. Loved. This. Book. The characters, the plot, the world building, the pace. I would love to find something to pick apart about it, but I can’t. It’s good. Even the romance/love triangle wasn’t enough to make me knock it down a bit. Teenage love is so angst-ridden and fickle and overwhelming, and author Alys Arden handles it SO well.

Nothing is random.

Characters are well developed, distinct, believable. Adele is a kick-ass teen, homesick for a city she loves, confused about normal and abnormal teen stuff, and caught up in a spell that is not of her own making. Desiree is her perfect counterpart, Nicco brooding and tormented, Isaac a bit pathetically smitten, but in a cute-tortured-artist sort of way, the triplets from another time just leap off the page, Emile and Gabe are flat-out bastards (although I still found Gabe likeable (my weakness for the bad boy)), and Ren is AMAZING. The list goes on.

I have never been to New Orleans. I now feel I could find my way around blind-folded. Arden’s vision of the city, seen through the eyes of a teen who passionately loves every inch of it, makes me want to travel there. SO well done. You can feel the magic and history lifting from the pages. The entire book reads like a loving tribute to a city struggling to rebuild, and refusing to have its spirit crushed.

The plot and pace are impeccable. What a GREAT story. Vampires and magic that have roots in France, travel to New Orleans, and shape the history of the city. The diary entries throughout the story, something I normally can take or leave, kept me on the edge of my seat as much as the main story. And the twist in the attic! Unexpected, yet not. What else do you need?

There is some violence (there are vampires and death, after all), but it is by no means gratuitous or overdone. Anyone who enjoys mystery and magic can read this novel.

The Casquette Girls (series) is published by Skyscape.

Madly

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The first book in the Potions Trilogy is told from the dual point of views of Samantha, apprentice alchemist of the famous Kemi family, and Princess Evelyn, heiress to the crown of Nova. Also mistaken drinker of her own illicit love potion. You know that can’t be good.

And it isn’t. She falls in love with someone eminently unsuitable, and is distraught when the feelings are not returned. Not to mention the fact that love potions were banned for a reason; they are dangerous. She is in danger of losing her life, and control of her magic.

The King summons alchemists nationwide to develop a cure, offering a prize of magic and riches and fame for saving the princess. Teams of competitors, including the king’s evil and banished sister, travel the world in their search for the unknown ingredients in a no-holds-barred dangerous hunt. And, no pressure, the quest is world news, all over social media.

Sam enters the competition, knowing that she has what it takes to save the princess, and win the hunt.  In the process, she will show the world that the old ways of alchemy, that natural ingredients and pure instinct and training, are superior to the synths of Big Pharma.

Sam makes a GREAT protagonist. She is a teen struggling to find herself, and her place, in the changing world. Driven, smart, sweet, she is close to her whacky family and friends, and loves her heritage and history.

Princess Evelyn is an 18 year old in the throes of unrequited love, and acts just as rationally as you would predict. So not.

The rest of the cast of characters are just as alive and distinct as Sam and the Princess. I, apparently, have a thing for crusty, stubborn granddads. (See The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and The Fourteenth Goldfish). If you’d ever met mine, you would totally understand. He was awesome. And so is Ostanes. Former alchemist to the royal family, Sam’s granddad refuses to accept the new ways, and trains Sam in the old. And he is, of course, right.

The world building is fabulous. It is, essentially, the modern world, with everyday technology like phones and tv and social media, with magic overlaid. Everything is believable, from the ferocious but lonely abominable snowman, to the magical and pure unicorn. Magical mermaids and ivy that tries to devour bemused passers-by. Travel through mirrors. And cell phones that don’t work in the mountains. I love the little details.

The fast-moving plot was a great mix of adventure and magic and just plain fun.

If I have an issue with the novel, it is the romance. I thought it unneeded. Although I can understand why author Amy Alward went with it, it seemed a bit forced, that she had to make it happen in order to steer her story. I think she could have found another way, or just developed it differently. It wasn’t organic. I LOVED the princess’s romance, however! Loved it.

As well, I do think the story ended a bit quickly and neatly, but given that it is the first in a trilogy, and Alward didn’t stick me with a cliffhanger, I am ok with it.

Madly is a fun, fast-paced fantasy novel that’s purpose is to entertain, and that is precisely what it accomplishes. Any age can read it, and should, for the escapism and giggles it will give you.

Madly is published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Ruby Red (series)

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Take a time-travelling teen, add in mystery and romance and high school and a few socially prominent (in the 18th century, anyway) ghosts and demons, and you have the Ruby Red trilogy. It is flat out fun to read.

16 year old Charlotte has spent her entire life preparing to time travel. She comes from a long line of female time travellers, was born on the predicted day, and has been feeling dizzy lately. She is foretold to be the Ruby of prophesy, to close the Circle of Twelve. Except she isn’t, and so doesn’t.

Gwyneth, Charlotte’s one-day younger and far less prepared cousin, is walking home from school one day when she feels overcome with dizziness and ends up a few decades (give or take) in the past.  But only for a moment or two. This was unexpected. She returns to her time, doesn’t tell a soul, freaks out and travels two more times before she realizes that MAYBE her mum could help. She does come from a long line of travellers, after all. She might be believed.

But it does end up being more trouble than it is worth. Not only is she used by the Guardians to solve a mystery, the travelling opens up even more puzzles. Together, she and Gideon, a fellow traveller from a male line, journey through time to discover who they can trust, in the past and the present.

Gwyneth is a fun character. She’s totally unprepared for her new life, and totally unprepared for Gideon. Yes, she got on my nerves a few times, was a bit weak and whiny, but I can forgive her that, given the path her life suddenly took. Her ability to talk to and interact with ghosts is hilarious, and leads to some interesting exchanges with other people who don’t know about her odd talent. She is friendly and generally up for an adventure. Cries a lot, though.

Gideon bugs me. He is totally not my type. (Which is good, as given the difference in our ages, I could get arrested…) But who said teens make good choices? I’m sure he’s hot and a great kisser, but a bit superior. That said, their relationship made for some fun moments.

Lesley is hilarious, Charlotte is the PERFECT snob cousin that you just itch to put in her place, Grace and Glenda and Arista and Louis and Mr. Squirrel and the Count and James and Xemerius and the rest are all well written characters that move the story along so well.

I loved that the whole idea of time travel wasn’t overthought. It’s just something that can happen to certain members of certain families when they reach a certain age. No other explanation needed. The whole idea of time travel gives me a headache anyway.

The story moves along nicely through the three books. The writing is good. The ideas are fun, it doesn’t lag at all. I liked that I did not know who to trust until the very end of the third book. The traitor was hidden beneath my very nose the whole time.

In the end, I liked, not loved, this trilogy, but that is not a criticism. If you are expecting Shakespeare, Ruby Red, Sapphire Blue and Emerald Green are not for you. If you want a fast-paced fantasy with an original plot and a cute romance, read this series. It is fun and appropriate for all ages.

The Ruby Red trilogy is published by Henry Holt.

Outspoken

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I received a copy of the eBook from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Outspoken is a cute, contemporary coming-of-age story about 18 year old Penny Beck. She is a girl who always says yes when she means no. She is a people pleaser, and that has led to some disasters in her personal life. So she is going to change.

A grandpa with early stages of Alzheimers who needs someone to check in on him is the perfect excuse to leave home for the summer before college. Penny travels from Montana to the coast of South Carolina, practicing her new assertive self on all she meets.

Archer could be trouble, though. Penny cares what he thinks of her, and is in danger of losing her newfound independence.

This was a light, fun read. Lora Richardson successfully gets into the head of an 18 year old girl searching for independence. Her personal struggles were realistic; she fought with her parents about her decision to not go to college in the fall, she wanted space from her overbearing family, she wanted to make her own decisions. She was uncertain about her direction, and terrified to break the rules.

That said, I’m not sure I really liked Penny. She is friendly and willing to approach new people, and, to be honest, a bit boring. The disconnect I had with her character was simple: she thought of herself as a someone who couldn’t say no, she slept with a guy who had just dumped her, but then she had no problem telling someone she’d barely met and who thought he was doing something nice that he was rude and shouldn’t interfere. Speaking up for herself isn’t actually her problem. Timing and delivery, on the other hand, is definitely questionable.

Archer didn’t really appeal to me; he was intended as the bad-boy love interest, but I found him a bit boring as well.  That said, the development of their relationship was cute.

The plot wasn’t very fast paced  or exciting, mainly, I believe, because it dealt with issues of day to day life and growing up. For all that, Richardson portrayed a realistic life of an 18 year old on her own for the first time; we didn’t all have exciting lives at that time!

Because this novel is character driven, I had hoped for more development throughout the story. I think this is where it fell short. Penny did not really seem to change; I didn’t find that she really became more sure of herself. Perhaps her romance with Archer was more mature than her last one, developing at a realistic pace, but her basic character remained the same.

All in all, a nice romance from a debut author. It is a good read for a teenager, with nice themes about standing up for yourself, growing up, and when to ask for help. I don’t think it will appeal so much to those of us who already have figured it (mostly!) out.

Outspoken is published by Createspace.

Wolf by Wolf

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So much for a nice, light read. Wolf by Wolf will grab your heart and leave you gasping for breath. This is one that you will not be able to put down.

In 1956, in the capitol of the alternative reality Third Reich, Yael carries the hopes and the weight of the resistance on her shoulders. As the survivor of a painful medical experiment in the death camps, she escaped with the ability to change her appearance at will, or skinshift.  This supernatural ability is her hope for a successful mission to change the world.

The victorious Third Reich and Imperial Japan control half the world. To commemorate their Great Victory over Britain and Russia after WWII, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race from Germania to Tokyo, 20,000 kms long, with the best of the best of elite teenage racers competing. The victor is honoured with wealth and celebrity, and the chance to meet with Hitler himself.

Yael has one goal: win the race and kill Hitler. Avenge and honour the lives of millions, but specifically the four lives that haunt her, and the one life that taught her to live again. But she can’t race as herself; she does not exist. Yael must become another in order to compete, she must stand out to blend in.

Yael is an amazingly relatable character, given the torment and torture that defined her childhood.  With her ability to skinshift and take on new faces and personas, she must find a way to define herself beyond her physical presence. She learns to channel her pain, not to leave it behind, and to use it to fuel her purpose.

The various supporting characters are as alive as Yael. With a few strokes of her pen, author Ryan Graudin paints vivid characters that fight and race and scheme and die around the reader. The five wolves that mark Yael are as distinct as the rest of the cast; while their actual appearances in the story were necessarily brief, their images haunt throughout.

The world building, difficult to do in a “what if” recent past, was impeccable. Graudin transported me to the dark streets of Germania, dingy beer halls, arid deserts, exotic cafes and humid jungles. The various scenes had me on the edge of my seat, and I can say with complete honesty that the ending was a total surprise. I did not know who to trust, and who to avoid. I did not know if Yael would be successful in her mission; Graudin gave nothing away. The twist at the end left me reeling.

There will be a second book – thank goodness! I need more.

This is an excellent book, but with dark imagery of death camps, medical torture and wartime. It may not be for everyone.

Wolf by Wolf is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.