Monthly Archives: March 2016

This Monstrous Thing

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Well, talk about a book hangover.  The Serpent King gave me the worst one I have ever suffered, with three DNFs following that novel. But I have found the cure: an awesome, clever, original, steampunk retelling of Frankenstein.

Alasdair Finch is a Shadow Boy, one of the illegal group of craftsmen that build and maintain the clockwork parts some people need to survive. Legs, arms, even lungs and hearts. The clockwork people, known as Frankenstein, live shunned by society that thinks them less than human. And one horrible night in Geneva, in 1816, Alasdair loses the only three things that matter to him: his older brother Oliver dies, his secret love Mary leaves, and with their loss, his chance to escape his smothering life in the city and study at the university is gone.

Alasdair does the unimaginable. He resurrects Oliver. But it is not as simple as replacing bones and adding gears. Oliver’s clockwork heart beats and his oil paper lungs breathe, but he is a misshapen shadow of his former self, with few memories and a violent temper. Alasdair must keep him hidden, for his own safety, and the safety of the city. In the process, Mary disappears. Forever.

But two years on, Alasdair receives a package containing a book with a title but no author: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. And it is his story. His, and Oliver’s. And the book sparks a rebellion.

I have been reading a lot of retellings lately, and the good ones all have a couple of things in common: they pay tribute to the original and add unexpected twists and innovative elements to keep readers enthralled. Author Mackenzi Lee does just that.

Alasdair is a fabulous main character. He is a mechanical and medical genius, curious and intuitive, but severely lacking in emotional skills. It is perhaps his youth, or maybe being blinded by first love, but he misses a LOT of what, to others, would appear obvious. He is selfish in his need to resurrect Oliver, then selfish again in his desire to free himself from his obligation to his brother. But he is also capable of growth; he faces his fears and inadequacies and, in the end, stands up for what is right and just.

It is difficult to call Oliver and Mary and Clemence and Geisler secondary characters when they are beautifully alive and so central to the story. Mary is selfish and awful and true to life, Clemence is independent and vulnerable, Geisler is pure obsessive evil, and Oliver is a wonderful mirror for Alasdair’s own conflict.

The plot echoes the original’s creation myth, adding steampunk clockwork and weaving in  Shelley’s real-life exploits. It is about humans and monsters, and how often they are two sides of the same coin.

The world that Lee creates shows that she has clearly done her research. The literary references, the university, the attitudes, the cities and the people, are true to the period and the original. While Lee massages a few facts and timing to make her reimagining work, and the clockwork people are products of her amazing imagination, the overall feeling of the novel is authentic and reflective of the then societal fear of a rapidly changing  world.

And that cover. OH, that cover. Gorgeous and creepy and gothic and so promising of a story that will chill you to your bones.

This novel is appropriate for all ages, and is a must-read for a fan of the original.

This Monstrous Thing was published September 22nd, 2015 by Katherine Tegen Books.

The Serpent King

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

Three friends with three very different lives, bound together by love and respect for each other. One with a cursed name and history, one with a destructive present, and one with a glowing future.

Set in a small town outside Nashville named for a big wig in the KKK (“the second ‘r’ in Forrestville is for racist“), the story takes place over the friends’ senior year in high school as they each face a future apart from the others, and try to find their own way.

SO beautifully written.

The Serpent King is told from three POVs, and each voice is distinct in personality and tone. Even at the beginning of the book, even without the name at the head of each chapter, each narrator is unmistakeable.

Dillard Early Jr. lives in a world where he takes on the sins of his father. He lives in fear that his grandfather’s and father’s instability was passed down along with their name; his grandfather’s obsessive grief that led to his suicide and his father’s snakehandling, poison drinking, Pentecostal evangelicalism are two sides of the same coin. Dill fights back the darkness that shadows his everyday life. There is light, but he must choose to follow it. Will he be strong enough, with the burden he already carries, to make that decision?

Travis is an epic nerd. A giant of a boy who dresses all in black, carries a staff, wears a dragon necklace, and can quote pretty much all of the high fantasy series Bloodfall is going to be open for attack in any small town. But Travis, he of the horrible home life and bleak future, he of the gentle nature, knows who he is and takes joy in the moment. Travis has courage. And Travis broke my heart.

With doting, supportive parents, Lydia is privileged, determined, and self-assured. She hides the insecurities she does have with a smart mouth and an incredible work ethic that will see her set her corner of the world on fire. And she has love for and faith in her two best friends, no matter how the rest of the world sees them. She plots her escape from this small-town hell and fights for the same opportunity for her friends.

And Jeff Zentner is a musician who decided to write a book that reads like a love song to growing up.

This is a story about making choices. It is a story about climbing beyond despair and finding hope and peace.  It is a story about finding yourself.  It is a story about all kinds of faith and all kinds of courage.

This book punched me right in the heart, then turned around and filled it with hope. It is nothing short of spectacular.

The Serpent King was published March 8th, 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House.

Unhooked

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Let’s get this straight right off the bat: Everything you have ever heard about Neverland is a lie. Peter Pan is not the good guy, fairies can be a b*tch, Captain Hook is hot, Neverland is a place to be avoided at all costs, and the Lost Boys kill for fun. As far as retellings go, Unhooked has a lot to offer.

Gwendolyn Allister has spent her life moving from one place to another.  Not just for the commissions her artist mother receives, but also because the unstable woman believes that monsters are hunting them. The past couple of years have been stable in Connecticut, with Gwen finally believing she would stay in one place for awhile, and her last year of school would be with her best friend Olivia.  And then her mom moves them to London.

Drizzly grey London is nothing like the city Gwen left behind, the dingy flat is nothing like the warm cottage back home, but she won’t be there long. Dark shadows kidnap the girls from their restless sleep that first night, and they are flown far from the city and into another world.

The good:

The characters. I like Gwen, even though, through no real fault of her own, she makes one disastrous decision after another throughout the novel. She has spent her life with her mother in ignorance, and it continues in the new world, with no one ever giving her enough data to make informed choices. But she seems to have a strong character and doesn’t take kindly to captivity or being kept in the dark. She is determined to save herself and her friend. There are times when she is a bit passive, out of character, but, for the most part, is strong.

Olivia, the Captain, Pan, Fiona, the Queen, and the boys are even better. Each individual has two sides. Good and evil sometimes change faces, and one cannot always be sure which is which.

The world building, the plot, both get an A++.  From London to Neverland, author Lisa Maxwell brings the scenery to life. London is grey and morose, Neverland is ever-changing and terrifying. You can hear the creak of the ship on the black water, feel the shaking of cannon fire, sense the grey mist enveloping you as you wander lost on the island.

The idea that the Captain and Pan are pawns caught on opposite sides of a more powerful and complicated war is fantastic. Gwen holds a power that can change their world, and the Dark Ones will stop at nothing to control her.

I love the story within the story at the beginning of each chapter. It isn’t obvious where it is going until the very end, but it never detracts from the central narrative.

The conclusion was a surprise and overall, well done, although it felt a bit rushed after all the suspense. And the epilogue wraps it up nicely.

The not-so-good:

Love triangles are not my favourite, but when well written can add to a story. I don’t even mind the occasional love-at-first-sight moment, it can be fun.  But please, for the love of all that is holy, who writes a scene where a girl is mysteriously kidnapped by flying monsters she had no idea even existed and one of the first things she does after almost dying and being held captive against her will by a one-armed pirate is to notice how hot her captor is and how he makes her feel all warm inside? SERIOUSLY? At least find out what side he’s on. Or, you know, his name. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome, without the extended period of confinement. Sheesh. I was so frustrated I put the book down for three days.

I also did not like the direction that Gwen and Olivia’s relationship took; what started out as such a strong friendship crumbled over a boy. Yes, there is dark magic involved, but it seemed too easy.

Overall, though, this is a wonderful retelling with a lot of new ideas and directions in it.  The good definitely outweighs the bad, in my opinion. It is interesting how good and evil are never quite what they appear to be at first glance. Anyone can read it, and there is enough action and adventure to counteract the initial off-putting (to me) romance.

Unhooked was published February 2nd, 2016 by Simon Pulse.

Blackhearts

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Before Blackbeard struck fear into the hearts of sailors, he was a young man who wished for a life of exploration and adventure on the high seas. But promised to a Baron’s daughter and destined to follow in the footsteps of his successful merchant father, Edward “Teach” Drummond’s dreams are just that, dreams.

16-year-old Anne Barrett, orphaned daughter of a British merchant and a West Indian slave, is a penniless maid who also imagines an escape from her dreary life in Bristol, England. The two meet, and recognizing the adventurous spirit in each other, fight to overcome the conventions that do not allow them to be together.

With this beautiful cover and the back page blurb, I expected a story of pirates and adventure and swashbuckling and revenge and Blackbeard’s origin. Instead, it is a romance. Which is fine, if it is the story you are looking for. But Blackbeard is probably the most well-known and notorious pirate in history, and this novel is a love story that could have been about any two people.

That criticism out of the way, if you approach the book with no expectations of a high seas adventure, it is a very enjoyable historical romance. Teach is the wealthy son of a merchant in late 17th century England, and Anne a biracial girl forced by circumstances to become a maid. Both are educated, independent, attractive, and wishing for a different life. The development of their relationship is nice and slow, although unlikely.

This story does seize the opportunity to discuss some very serious themes: racism and interracial relationships, along with class prejudice, among others. Author Nicole Castroman presents them very authentically to the time. So while the romance is implausible given the prejudices of the era, she uses it well to illustrate those very morals.

There is something familiar about the plot, and about halfway through I remembered the story of Anne Bonny. (I loved pirates as a young girl. Too bad I hate sleeping on boats, or I totally could be one. A pirate, not a boat.) Infamous in the 18th century, Bonny was the daughter of an Irish merchant and his servant, raised in the Carolinas, who ran away to marry an unsuitable man and become a pirate. There are shades of her amazing story in Blackhearts.

I do not like the ending. It is a cliffhanger, but there is no sequel in the works. Now, if this is indeed an origin story, I guess Teach just becomes Blackbeard and off we go on our merry way, rejoicing. But if you know Blackbeard’s story, there is a HUGE gap between this story and his known one. It is an unsatisfying conclusion, with far too many loose ends.

The novel is appropriate for the YA range, but will not appeal to those looking for an adventure story. It is a boy-meets-girl romance, lovely and predictable, with a few twists thrown in for interest. If a sequel ever does appear, I would read it, for fun.

Blackhearts was published February 9th, 2016 by Simon Pulse

Shallow Graves

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17-year-old Breezy (yes, hippie parents) remembers everything about the day leading up to her death, but doesn’t know who killed her, or how she came to wake up in a shallow hole, digging her way up and spitting dirt from her mouth.  But a year has passed and a man lies dead next to her grave. Because of her.

So now she is alive, sort of; her heart beats and she breathes air when she remembers. And she is conscious of those who hide a murderous past. The shadows of former crimes follow certain people, and she can sense memories of past bad deeds. Breezy sets out to discover what she is, and if she can ever go back to the life she had planned. As you might have guessed, it isn’t that simple. There are those who would hunt her down, those who hate her unnatural state, who can sense what she is.

There are a lot of reasons this novel is impossible to put down. Breezy is the first one. She is strong and independent, curious and confident, with just a touch of vulnerability. She enters a world she previously had no idea existed, armed with strange abilities and facing a cult that wants her dead (or, really, more dead), and she fights her way to understanding and freedom. But it isn’t an obvious outcome, and her plight kept me turning page after page, and I had to force myself not to skip ahead. Her voice is authentic and matter-of-fact, and she faces incredible violence without letting it define her.

Added to the constant cliff-hangers are humour and character diversity. A ghoul joking about eating the dead, mermaid fight club, and chilling with the brownie in the basement, all bring unexpected laughs throughout the story. And a biracial and bisexual main character who accepts herself unquestioningly sends a positive message, without it feeling forced.

The secondary characters are equally well fleshed-out (a little zombie humour for you), with Zeke and Jake being my favourites. Rain is creepy and terrifying, and Violet is still a little girl trapped in a life she doesn’t know how to escape. And Willow and Mother just creep me out.

Flashbacks of Breezy’s family and friends provide great context for her personality while moving the plot along and adding information.

The book is a total page-turner. It is packed full of changing and unresolved threads and heart-stopping predicaments in a creepy world filled with monsters that had me reading just “one more page,” right up to the end. And the end lives up to the rest of the story. Breezy faces an unknown future filled with infinite possibilities and dangers, and makes the brave choice to leave her old life behind and charge into the unknown.

The writing is beautiful, with stunning imagery. Debut author Kali Wallace has a great take not only on death, but also on creatures and ghouls and monsters and things that go bump in the night. They are the monsters we have grown up fearing in the dark, but with unexpected twists and personalities. Maybe all is not as the myths have led us to believe…

The novel is an appropriate read for the full YA age range, but may have the reader looking at people suspiciously after finishing it.

Shallow Graves was published January 26th, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook

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If you need a feel-good story about love and family and forgiveness, look no further.

11-year-old Perry has an interesting and unusual life. He starts each morning just before 6:30, with a wake-up call over the P.A. system. After that task is completed, he races through the halls to find his mom, sprinting to get his morning hug. Perry has lived his whole life at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in Surprise, Nebraska. His mom, Jessica, lives in Cell Block C, and Perry sleeps in a small room off Warden Daugherty’s (his official guardian) office.

But the new district attorney discovers the arrangement, yanks Perry from the life he knows “for his own good,” and delays Jessica’s parole pending application. Perry has to adjust to a life “outside,” and with his best friend Zoe, vows to find the answers to questions he has been too afraid and respectful to ask up until now.

I love Perry and Zoe, love Jessica and Big Ed and Halsey and the other rezzes and the Warden, and even love Brian. I love each and every character. They are all individuals that are never extraneous to the story, but weave in and out, illustrating the relationships that build a family while moving the plot along.

The DA is a bit over-the-top-obvious-bad-guy, but his caricature is maybe needed to illustrate the divide in the story. And I like that he doesn’t have a big moment of understanding and becoming a whole new person, but does try to see the other side, even if he can’t understand it.

The author, Leslie Connor, weaves in two perspectives; the majority of the chapters come from Perry’s POV, but also the occasional one from Jessica’s. It not only reinforces their devotion to each other but also shows that while he may not understand everything that happens around him, Perry’s instinct for honesty is right on.

Perry chooses to try and understand why others see him and his life the way they do, rather than defensively fighting against events out of his control. In doing so, he comes to understand that the lives of others are not always as they appear, either. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve in his quest to see his mom and help get her out of prison, but they are realistic and inventive ideas.

The characters change and develop throughout the novel, but it is amusing to see that, as, in reality, some people stubbornly remain the same, and life goes on around them.

The view of life in prison may be a bit rose-coloured but serves as a great backdrop to illustrating how families come to be.

This is a fabulous middle-grade novel about love and family and friendship, about respecting yourself and others, about knowing when to fight and when to wait it out, and about doing your best to make the difficult right choices, even when the wrong easier ones tempt you.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook was published March 1st, 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.

A Study in Charlotte (Charlotte Holmes, #1)

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So, Holmes and Watson are not fictional characters. And Arthur Conan Doyle did not write about them. Actually, Sherlock solved the crimes, Watson wrote the books, and Arthur Conan Doyle was his literary agent.

Fast forward a century or so, and 16 year old Jamie Watson, great-etc. grandson of Dr John Watson leaves London on a rugby scholarship to a Connecticut boarding school, where he meets up with the great-etc. granddaughter of Sherlock, Charlotte Holmes. The two families have been linked since the beginning, but do not always get along. Charlotte has fascinated him for as long as he can remember. Once they meet, however, the imagined romance of their linked history is wiped away. She has no need of his presence.

But when a student is murdered in a copycat of a Holmes mystery, the two infamous cohorts are under suspicion. By everyone.

I was really looking forward to this one.  Then I started reading it, and I became annoyed. Charlotte annoys me.  Jamie annoys me. I realize it is a retelling of Sherlock, but the whole murder most foul at a ritzy boarding school with predictable characters is, well, predictable and annoying. (I need a thesaurus).  And the plot is confusing.

And I still stick by that, but admit, that for all my irritation, the book is hard to put down.

Charlotte has inherited not only her genius for detection, but also a drug addiction and erratic temperament from her famous forefather. Two things don’t ring true for me. The original Sherlock was an ass, but also had a quick wit and charm. Charlotte has neither.  She is not stupid, but comes across as rather spoiled and bratty, rather than charming.

And I find the way the drug addiction is handled in the story confusing; no one seems that concerned about it, it seems very much a “oh, she’s just like him.” I don’t think sending a teen to a posh boarding school is an approved way of dealing with a drug dependency.

Jamie is a bit boring as a narrator. Again, his personality does not always make sense. One minute, he has an uncontrollable temper, the next he is meek and mild, and doesn’t speak up for himself. He adopts the sidekick role with Charlotte, and allows her to call the shots, almost as if he has inherited the role, and can’t be bothered finding his own place.

The development of the friendship did, on the other hand, strike true to me. It happens over time, and seems genuine.

The plot is all over the place. Pacing was slow at times, and quite action-packed at others. The story has potential to be more, but I am not sure where the problem lies. A retelling needs to honour the original, while adding something new. And female lead aside, I am not sure this one accomplishes what it sets out to do.

I am really on the fence about this novel. It was hard to put down, Brittany Cavallari’s writing pulls you in, but I cannot honestly say it is enjoyable.

There is discussion of sexual violence, although no description of it. Drug use is, again, discussed but not described in detail. Any teen can read this book, but I am not sure whether it is better to be a Sherlock fan, or to not know the original to appreciate the story.

I think that this is a novel that the reader will either love or hate. It just didn’t do it for me.

A Study in Charlotte was published March 1st 2016 by Katherine Tegen Books.