Monthly Archives: January 2016

Uprooted

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The gorgeous cover says it all. For those who love a dark re-telling of a fairy tale – in this case, a fairy tale rooted in Slavic folklore and definitely NOT for children – this is the one for you. Or at least, it is the one for me. But you should read it too.

In the country of Polyna, 17 year old Agnieszka lives in a quiet valley village beside a shining river, the Spindle, surrounded by mountains and trees. But it is not all quiet and peaceful; the corrupted Wood, a dark forest full of evil and menace, throws a malevolent shadow over the entire country.

In the tall tower overlooking the Valley is the Dragon, a powerful and remote wizard who serves the King and keeps the evil of the Wood in check. He receives a yearly tribute for his work from the surrounding villages, but every ten years he exacts a higher price from the people: he takes a 17 year old girl to serve him for the following decade. Upon completion of service, the girls are released with a sizeable dowry. Why they are chosen, or for what, is a mystery.

Agnieszka is afraid. Born in a choosing year, she and all girls of her age will gather at the festival and the Dragon will choose his next companion.  Everyone knows he will take Kasia, Agnieszka’s dearest and only friend, brave, beautiful and special, and trained for years to serve him. But when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he chooses.

Every once in a while, you come across a story that crawls into your brain, curls up, and refuses to leave. Uprooted is that story for me.

Agnieszka is a fabulous heroine. She is a disaster, sartorially, and manages to attract mud and spills and dust and cobwebs just moving through life. We must be related. She also discovers that she has magic, a deep, powerful, unusual magic, one that doesn’t follow the typical path of spells and potions.  She learns to control it through feeling and song and vision. Her development from a terrified girl, helpless, to a powerful and confident wizard is so beautifully done.

The Dragon is, sadly, not a dragon. I love dragons. The wizards of Polyna are given names that reflect their individual power when they attain a place on the List by first defending their magic before a panel of judges. The Dragon is a bit of an ass, but he is powerful. More than a century old, he remains distant from the valley he protects. Too old to change, he softens slightly under Agnieszka’s influence.

Of all the other characters, such as Prince Marek, a somewhat bitter spare to the throne, Solya the jealous wizard, Queen Hanna, taken and corrupted by the Wood, and Alosha the ancient wizard of swords, among others, Kasia is the only one who remains unknowable. Odd, considering her importance to Agnieszka, and that author Naomi Novik wrote a such a wonderfully realistic relationship between the two girls, full of friendship, trust and love. Maybe it is the influence of the Wood…?

The world building is gorgeous, the writing so evocative. Throughout the novel, I wandered with Agnieszka through the dusty village, paddled in the shining Spindle, collected berries in the fields and feared the dark Wood. I am rooted in the Valley. But the Wood is horrifying; I will never look at a tree the same way again.

I love the plot. LOVE it. It is complex and layered and disturbing and gorgeous and action packed and by the end you will be holding your breath and hoping for resolution to come. There is political intrigue and magical warfare. It is not for the faint of heart.

Uprooted is beautifully written, examining the nuances of good and evil, love, friendship, and loyalty to king and country. It is a dark story, and I don’t know that it will appeal to everyone. Like so many classic fairy tales, there is a side to it that holds horror by the hand. It is, perhaps, suitable for the upper end of the YA range, given the violence and darkness it explores.

Uprooted was published May 19th 2015 by Del Rey.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds

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If ever I wanted a book to go on and on, this is the one. What an original, enchanting, heart-breaking, haunting (no pun intended), story.

In October 1918, 16 year old Mary Shelley (yes, named after the author) Black flees to San Diego and her Aunt Eva on the heels of her father’s arrest for treason back in Oregon. She arrives hoping to hear news of Stephen, first a childhood friend, and then her first true love. He joined the war effort just shy of graduating school, and letters from him are sporadic.

Stephen’s older brother Julius is a Spiritualist, one who claims he can see and capture the spirit world with his camera. Julius preys on the desperate, who have lost so many loved ones to the war overseas and the deadly Spanish influenza. Unknowingly and unwillingly, Mary becomes his muse, helping to attract his bereaved customers with a doctored image.

But Mary’s scepticism of the spirit world takes a beating when she learns Stephen has been lost, and she herself narrowly escapes death, forever changed by the experience. She begins to feel a presence, an overwhelming knowledge that the young man’s essence is near and in agony, and her scientific curiosity gets the better of her as she searches for a way to help Stephen rest in peace.

Author Cat Winters has me caring about her characters from page one. Mary Shelley is a lost girl, trying to deal with the father she loves being arrested, trying to understand why someone doing right can be accused of wrong, trying to handle the enormity of loss brought on by world conflict. Strong and intelligent, she uses a scientific approach to solve her problems, is a feminist raised to see value in the human being, not the gender. “Why can’t a girl be smart without it being explained away as a rare supernatural phenomenon?”

Stephen is as gentle and caring as his brother is vindictive and selfish. His curious mind and nature are drawn to Mary Shelley’s strength and drive, and although we see little of him whole in the novel, Winters draws a complete picture of him. Aunt Eva is a great complex individual – while she is breaking down barriers, proud of her work in the shipyards building battleships while the men are overseas, she also is a product of her time, widowed young and worried that she won’t find a man at her advanced age of 26.

The plot is engaging from the first page. The initial few chapters do a great job of setting the stage, and by the second half I was fully immersed. As Mary’s world unravels, the action is non-stop and I did an extra 15 minutes on the treadmill because I couldn’t stop reading (my thighs thank Cat Winters).

Mary, as a budding scientist, struggles against stereotypes in a man’s world. Winters manages to weave in a few lessons of the struggle for women’s emancipation without it taking over the story. Aunt Eva’s work in the shipyard illustrates in a few words the shifting and changing expectations of women, not only by men but also by the women themselves.

Ugliness and death are everywhere. There is only fear and mistrust where there was life and curiosity before. Everyone wears gauze masks to protect and mask themselves, and a culture of fear evolves, fed by the snake oil salesman and spiritualists.

The search for equality, the hunt for solace, the need for peace, the desire for answers to how and why; Winters manages to explore so many aspects of human nature, without forcing the story or spoon-feeding the reader. Her style is completely captivating. Her writing evokes images of the horror in the trenches, the uncertainty of life in a flu-ridden city, and the beginning of hope.

This is a lovely, multi-layered story, well-researched about a horrific time in world history. It is a snapshot of a time of fatigue, when hope was nearly gone. Along with the gorgeous sepia cover are archival photographs from the period scattered throughout the novel, adding to the realism of the story. It is easily one of my new favourites.

Appropriate for any age, with the acknowledgment that there is description of war wounds and influenza deaths.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds was published April 2nd 2013 by Amulet Books.

Taken (series)

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Echoes of The Maze Runner and Hunger Games. This three book dystopian series follows a familiar formula, but brings in a unique premise and riveting world building to set it apart.

In the small community of Claysoot, behind the Wall, boys vanish at midnight on their 18th birthdays. The ground shakes, the wind howls, a blinding light descends, and young men are Heisted.

Gray has one year to accept his fate. But after watching his only family, his brother Blaine, disappear only weeks ago, he isn’t sure he can face it so calmly. While dealing with his grief, he comes across a small clue that leads him to believe that there is more to the Heist and the Wall than the town believes. Is the Wall actually worse than the Heist? What could possibly lie beyond it that scares people more than disappearance into nothingness?

This series ran hot and cold for me. On one hand, I tore though it, and really wanted to know how it ended. But on the other hand, it seems to drag in many places.  I seriously think three books was too long for it – author Erin Bowman could have made one longer, standalone novel, and it could have been incredible. The premise is unusual, but the execution falls just short.

Gray is well-developed; smart but undisciplined, unable to make a decision without second guessing everything. He is a believable teenage boy, likeable some times, other times a complete ass who I could cheerfully toss off the Wall myself. Impulsive and selfish, but consistent throughout. He does grow and mature a bit through the series, but remains the same person at heart.

The secondary characters were a mix. Blaine is the annoying perfect big brother, but I actually found him to be quite a weak character.  Granted, he is not present throughout the entire series due to various circumstances, but he seems a bit vanilla when he is there. Bree and Emma, Sammy, Clipper, Harvey and Frank all have good roles, and are well drawn. Although Bree and Emma both annoy me. A lot.

Love triangles can be good, but this one seems unnecessary and predictable, and takes all three books to resolve.  MAKE. UP. YOUR. MINDS. Sheesh.

The plot is good.  The idea of a central power controlling lives and fighting rebels is not a new one, but Bowman gives it a few twists. The Forgeries are terrifying. The cloning and experimentation and mind-control coding are reminiscent of the Third Reich. Yet it is not fast-paced; a lot of time is spent walking and thinking and planning and analyzing and navel-gazing, and slows the action. When the action does happen, it is vivid and descriptive, akin to taking a walk, with the occasional sprint here and there.

Bowman’s world building is without fault. Detailed and distinct, Claysoot, Taem, the Rebel HQ, Burg, every site is clearly imagined. Running through the forests, trekking the frozen plains, breathing in warm salt air, everything comes alive on the page.

While the third novel did a good job of wrapping everything up, I also felt a bit spoon-fed throughout. The reader does not need to know every detailed thought that goes into every decision. The ending feels too neat and tidy, the right people changed sides at just the right time, which does not add to the tension, but rather makes it seem forced.

Even though I do feel it could be a standalone, the series is an enjoyable, quick, read, with enough surprises to keep you on your toes throughout. There is rebellion and war going on, so expect some blood, but it works.

The Taken series is published by HarperTeen.

This Is Where It Ends

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Debut author Marieke Nijkamp tells a story of 54 terrifying minutes following a high school assembly. As the principal of Opportunity High finishes her speech welcoming students to a new school year, one student locks the door to the gym and seeks revenge for wrongs, real and imagined. Less than an hour later, dozens lie dead.

I’ve sat on this review for more than a week.  How do you talk about a mass shooting? A massacre? My initial reaction was a total gut punch, but as I’ve processed the story more, my feelings have changed somewhat.

It is gripping and traumatic, on the surface. It is so foreign and horrific to even think about a school shooting that it paralyzes you, at first. But it is the topic itself that does that, not the novel.

The story is told from four points of view, which I found confusing.  Jumping back and forth between characters, I never really got a sense of who was who. It took about half the book to know which character was telling the story at any one time, and their relationships with each other.  The addition of the texts and blog posts did not clear up the confusion; they detracted from the story.

The one point of view that was never examined was the shooter’s. And I think that did the story a disservice, because the reader can never get a clear picture of motivation from the four narrators. They don’t know. They can only guess. And they don’t really spend a lot of time doing that (understandably, they are being hunted), they just classify him as loathsome, a loser.

So with this vague picture of the shooter, the reader is left with the sense that he is just a bad person. Maybe he is that. But it seems too convenient. Seeing him only through the eyes of others who don’t know his motivation themselves, who can only guess, coloured by their own prejudices, dismisses perhaps the most important facet of the story. Why.

While I normally applaud diversity in a YA fiction, the cast of characters felt very formulaic. Najkamp wanted to hit every possible box, probably with good intentions, but it came across that way. Lesbian couple?  Check. African American sisters? Check. Latino students? Check. Disabled student? Check. Muslim immigrant? Check. Older sibling (white) serving overseas? Check.

The story is not actually told over the 54 minute period, which is, again, confusing.  It includes a lot of flashbacks, which interrupts the urgency that could have been built by a minute by minute telling.

Timing, response, everything seems off. I did a quick search online, and found that police response times to school shootings are incredibly fast in the USA (sadly, due to practice), not the 20+ minutes it takes in Opportunity, Alabama. The students did not behave logically; wouldn’t you run if you had the chance? Everyone at the assembly had a phone, and it is never clear if anyone calls 911, or just sends a text/tweet out.

This book definitely has moments that stun and appall, as well as small moments of hope, but it needs more.  More depth to the characters, more exploration of motive, more horror, more complexity, more resolution.

Najkamp’s inexperience as an author prevents it from being a powerful read. With school shootings sadly being a subject all too familiar in this day and age, the story needs to grab the reader and not let go until everything is examined.

This Is Where It Ends was published January 5th 2016 by Sourcebooks Fire.

Passenger

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Etta Spencer has no idea of her family legacy, beyond an incredible talent for the violin.  The 17 year old prodigy is set for her professional debut after years of single-minded practice, when her world is torn apart. Literally. In the blink of an eye, she goes from standing on the stage at The Met in 2015, to waking up in the middle of a sea battle on the Atlantic in 1776. On Nicholas Carter’s ship.

Nicholas is a 19 year old freeman, soon to captain his own ship. He is also tied to the travellers, descendants of four families that can travel the centuries and continents, exploring the world. But while that option was dangled before him years ago by the patriarch of the ruling Ironwood family, it was just as quickly yanked away. Now he sails, burying his demons in the everyday work of staying alive on the seas.

Etta and Nicholas team up on a dangerous search (ironically, on a tight deadline) through hundreds of years in Paris, Cambodia, England and Damascus, for a priceless family heirloom that can change not only their destinies, but also the time line of the entire world.

Killer concept. I love it.  I am a sucker for time travel, even though thinking about it usually gives me a headache.

Etta is a strong, well-written character.  She is thrown into a life that she was never trained for, was not even aware existed, yet finds a strength and drive inside her that was formerly directed at the violin, and is now directed to saving her mother. I love that Nicholas is an African American freeman. Diversity. It is getting more common in YA, but there is always room for improvement. Son of a slave, Nicholas’s freedom was bought by his guardian, who also educated and trained him for a life on the sea. He is a product of his times, but has a drive that matches Etta’s in a desire to make something of himself.

Sophia is a b*tch, Alice is lovely, Hasan is a cheerful guardian of the family, Chase and the rest of the privateer crew are loyal and rough and definitely individuals. Cyrus and Rose are perhaps the two characters that I haven’t figured out my feelings for yet; I’m supposed to hate Cyrus, but he’s a bit bland. Controlling and power-hungry, yes, but just does not come across as totally threatening. Rose is remote and cold and calculating, and I did not find it easy to connect with her. For all of Etta’s devotion to her, it does not seem reciprocated.

The settings are wonderful. Travelling through humid jungles, arid deserts, war-torn London and the vibrant culture of 19th century Paris is fabulous. Alexandra Bracken’s writing is descriptive and imaginative, as she paints detailed pictures of the sights and sounds of the various destinations. I almost feel traveller’s sickness myself after each trip through a passage.

Romance between Nicholas and Etta develops slowly and naturally, with Nicholas fighting against the constraints and prejudices of his time and his family, and Etta’s experiences of still fragile race relations 21st century America tempering them. It is beautifully done. Bracken handles Etta’s shock at being face to face with historical prejudices, both racial and gender, realistically.

This story, for being close to 500 pages in length, finished way too quickly.  I need to know what happens next! I could use that damn astrolabe right about now to go a year in the future and bring the sequel back…

Passenger was published January 5th 2016 by Disney-Hyperion.

Red Queen

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In a world divided by colour of blood, 17 year old Mare Barrow is a professional pickpocket, and a  Red. She fears her 18th birthday and her conscription into the century old war, fears for her three brothers’ lives who went to battle before her, and fears for parents. Their one hope for a fairly safe life is their youngest daughter, Gisa, a talented embroiderer.

The Reds are impoverished slaves to the Silvers, who rule over them with their supernatural powers. Whether it be power over the earth, over metal, over water, or even incredible strength, the Silver live in unbelievable luxury, while the Reds starve.

After a chance meeting with a Silver, Mare is hired to work in the Palace, saving herself from conscription, but putting herself at the Silvers’ mercy. Or lack thereof.  Until Mare discovers, against all odds and in spite of her Red blood, that she possess abilities greater than those of the Silvers. Her mere presence could change the balance of power.

Let’s get this out of the way. You know I can’t help it. WHAT A FANTASTIC COVER!

Ok.  Moving on. The main characters – Mare, Cal, and Maven – were inconsistent. But that does not take away from their story. In fact, I think it was why I warmed to Mare, specifically. She has lived a life of poverty and fear, does not trust easily, and without preparation, is offered everything. But everything can also be taken away on a whim. She is constantly off balance, has no idea whom to turn to or trust, and that includes her own instincts. Her biggest fault is her inability to commit, either to a friendship or an ideal. She believes she does, but waffles back and forth with her decisions, unable to totally accept the consequences.

Princes Cal and Maven are alternately brothers and foes. They love and mistrust each other at the same time, are each others’ best allies and yet, underneath it all, rivals. And a not-really-love-triangle with brothers?  I’m pretty sure that’s an off-limits competition. Oh, and gross.

The other characters were a bit hit and miss. Farley, Kilorn, Gisa, Evangeline, Lucas and Julian, were, I felt, underdeveloped and a bit forgettable. Hopefully they will be more fully addressed in the coming sequel.

I did not find the plot to be anything earth shatteringly new, but it is good.  Fast paced, action packed, electric (no pun intended); the scenes fly by, leaving small clues and cliffhangers throughout.

The world building is underdone, but, like the secondary characters, hopefully will be fleshed out in Glass Sword. The radiated area has been done (hello, District 13), and it feels  unnecessary to the story. The abandoned subway tunnels would have been sufficient headquarters for the Red Guard. Mare’s home village of Stilts, the Silvers’ city Summerton, the Hall of the Sun, Archeon, Gray Town – all have the potential to be incredible backdrops, but are never quite thoroughly drawn.

I will smugly say I figured out the bad guy pretty quickly. In the interest of honesty, however, that was more luck and wishful thinking than actually knowing definitively. Victoria Aveyard does a good job of keeping you on your toes, and changing your mind with each page turned.

For all my nitpicking, Red Queen is a total page turner, a lot of fun to read, and I really had trouble putting it down! It is appropriate for any age; although there is some violence and gore, it is not graphic.

Red Queen was published February 10th 2015 by HarperTeen.

The Thing About Jellyfish

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Just before seventh grade begins, Suzy gets word that her former best friend died in a drowning accident.  Unable to process the news, she channels her guilt over her last hate-filled encounter with Franny, turning to silence to cope. She refuses to accept her mother’s explanation that, sometimes, things just happen, shuts everybody out and focuses on the cause of the accident.  Franny was an excellent swimmer, she couldn’t have just drowned.  It couldn’t just happen. There must be a reason.

Suzy is an outsider in grade six and seven.  A personality that was fascinating as a child becomes embarrassing and odd to her friend as the girls hit their pre-teen years. Her interest in science, in why things are as they are, in collecting and diseminating as much information about anything that strikes her fancy puts her at odds with the former tomboy who is starting to check out her reflection in the mirror, wear cute clothes, giggle over boys, and brush her hair between classes.

Suzy’s incredible six month journey through her grief tackles so much more than “merely” the death of a best friend.  Author Ali Benjamin uses the process to delve into the evolution that children go through in middle school, from child to pre-teen to teen. What happens when your best friend becomes one of the giggling girls more concerned with clothes and hair than chasing rainbows, what happens when you don’t change at the same pace, what happens when you search for your place in the world, and aren’t sure if it is where you want to be?  How do you handle the changes?

Benjamin perfectly captures this sense of isolation. Suzy’s attempts to bring order to chaos through immersing herself in fact and research, her commitment to silence, her need to control her environment, even her eventual acceptance, ring true to life.

The secondary characters also breathe realism into the story. Justin’s struggle with ADHD and his explanation of it to Suzy, Sarah’s approach to Suzy at the dance, Franny’s distance and cruelty as she tries to grow up, are all echoes of most middle school years.

Scientific facts about jellyfish and real life characters from the scientific community and pop culture are woven throughout the story, adding to the feeling that you may have lived this story yourself.

This middle grade novel does a fantastic job of tackling a difficult subject for any age.  It must be read with a box of tissues (or two) beside you, and your sarcastic husband in another room. Suzy’s journey back to life, along with her discovery that not all change is bad, is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful.

The Thing About Jellyfish was published September 22nd 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.