R.J. Anderson is one of my favorite authors. Being a voracious reader, I have a lot of authors I really like, but she is included in a special group of authors whose books I would scoop up in my arms if I was escaping my house in a disaster. They are all excellent and stand up to multiple rereads. Anderson has written books about (awesome) faerys and amazing girls in a mind boggling sci-fi duology. Her latest book, A Pocket Full of Murder, is a MG magical murder mystery and it is a perfect book for me in every way possible.
Isaveth's family has fallen on hard times since her mother's recent death. Her father, a builder, lost a major job he was counting on and has fallen into despair. Her sister had to quit school to get a job in a sweatshop factory. Just when things begin to look better for the family and her father's commission is restored, a worse tragedy befalls them. When the man who had fired then rehired Isaveth's father is found dead by means of Common Magic, Isaveth's father is arrested. Isaveth knows her father is innocent, but she's not sure how to go about proving it. As she begins to investigate, she is joined by a street boy with an eye patch named Quiz who has eyes and ears all over the city and a knack for getting at information. Together they begin to try and discover the real murderer in a case that has too many suspects and disastrous consequences for both of them if they fail.
GAHHHHHH!!!!! I don't really know where I want to start with this. I have so much love for every part of this book, and my brain just keeps doing cartwheels and squealing LOVE LOVE LOVE. Trying to calm it down and act rationally is a challenge. I even waited a few days after finishing to give myself space so I could write this. But as soon as I started thinking about the book again, I got a rush of endorphins and lost control of my critical thinking skills. I will start with what I always love most, the characters, and hope my brain calms enough to cooperate.
Isaveth is smart, courageous, and stubborn. When her family is having hard times, she pulls down her mother's book of magic recipes and concocts spells to sell on the street to give them a little extra money. She has a passionate love for dramatic crystal set (radio) shows and writes fanfiction for it on any scrap of paper she can get her hands on. She is perfecting her craft. Her imagination is vast and she's bursting with twelve year old idealism mixed with the harsh realities of the life she is living. She is desperate to free her father, and her headlong rush into investigating the crime causes her to stumble into unfortunate situations at times and make rash judgements and mistakes. This includes not listening to Quiz on the occasions when he tells her to slow down and think something through.
Quiz is no stranger to dashing into dangerous situations without thinking them through first himself though. He is also a bit of an adrenaline junkie who rides down hills at breakneck speeds and is prone to getting into sticky situations in defense of those who need defending. He is adorably awkward around Isaveth at times. When he's interacting with her sisters you can see how badly he longs for a regular family and normalcy. Together Isaveth and Quiz make a fantastic team. He can go places and get information she can't, and vice-versa. He is there to give her rides when she needs them and generally back her up when she's in a tough spot. And when the tables are turned and he is in the tough spot, she does the same for him. I have all these FEELINGS for both of them, separate and together. Feelings I will never be able to properly put into words.
The mystery is a good old fashioned mystery where there are clues that seem to lead to everywhere or nowhere, lots of suspects, and a few good twists. (Some of which I saw coming due to reasons I imagine will not be the case for the majority of the readers of this book.*) The ways in which Isaveth and Quiz find their information makes sense for the world they live in, and they are reliant on those older than them for crucial things. Isaveth's older sister plays a major part in helping them collect information. The way the mystery all came together in the end was fascinating and the resolution complex and layered, but simple to understand for the intended audience.
The world Anderson created for this book is one where society is split between nobility and those who are not. The nobility has a very specific sort of magic they use to keep the world running smoothly. Common Magic is for those not so privileged and was a hard won ability for the regular people. The city of Tarreton where Isaveth and Quiz live is divided. The common people are tired of being abused, underpaid, and unable to make decisions. Rebellion is whispered of and unrest is high. These political issues are an integral part of the story and woven into the texture of the character's lives perfectly. Religion plays a part in this as well. Isaveth's family are Moshites (very similar to real world Jewish faith) and therefore looked on as outsiders, if not dangerous dissenters. It's part of the reason her father makes such a perfect frame for murder. Anderson presents the religious and political aspects as part of everyday life important in different ways to different people and this makes the world she has built all the more realistic as a result.
I highly recommend this book to all lovers of mystery and fantasy of any age. There is something here to enjoy for everyone. I can not wait until my pre-ordered copy arrives so I can read it again. And so my daughter can read it because this is exactly the sort of book she adores.
*I saw some of the twists coming because I am a fan of the source material that was Anderson's inspiration. A HUGE fan actually. If you are completely unaware of what that source material is or anything about it, you have lots of surprises in store. I'm including this note for those of you who know what inspired this and love it as much as I do. I just want you to know that Anderson did an awesome job with that. It's a nice little treat for those of us who know and love that particular literary detective. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about, but want to, ask in the comments and I'll tell you. Not spoilers. Just what the source material is.)
I read an ARC made available from the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, via Edelweiss. A Pocket Full of Murder is on sale September 8th....more
I have established that I love fairy tales and fairy tale retellings. You know what else I love? Books written by Sarah Prineas. Both her MG series are great favorites of mine. When she happened to mention on Twitter long ago that she was working on a YA, I followed closely eager to read whatever the result was. Ash & Bramble is a fabulous work of genius.
(I consider Sarah a friend as well as an author I love, and she sent me the ARC I'm reviewing here.)
Pin lives in the Godmother's fortress sewing clothes with the other seamstresses tasked with producing the beautiful one of a kind ballgowns the Godmother uses for her mysterious purposes. Pin has no memories of her life prior to the day she begins her work as a slave to the Godmother's will. Everything that came before is a blank nothing. While she has no memories, she is still a person with a will and a fierce defiance to live her own life. She gets a chance to plan an escape when she is used as a foot model for the shoemaker tasked with creating a glass slipper. Shoe has learned his lesson. He knows the cost of disobedience to the Godmother. Yet he still finds himself drawn to the daring seamstress and her plans for escape. But escape is not easy. The Godmother is impossible to outrun. Pin finds herself caught up in a whole new type of prison bound by the power of story and the drive for happily ever after. The more she fights, the more she feels trapped in a life that she doesn't want that leads to a prince, a clock at midnight, and a missing shoe. Her only possible means of escape lie in the devotion of a boy willing to risk himself to break her story and her own determination to decide her own destiny.
Ash & Bramble isn't so much a retelling as a complete shaking up and flipping around of the old fairy tales. And I was not exaggerating when I used the word genius, because much of this novel is dystopian in nature. And what world is better set up to be an actual dystopian hellscape than the world of fairy tales? (Really. Think about it.) While I will never get enough of fairy tales, my patience for dystopia is long gone, but the presentation of it here completely worked for me. I can not stress enough how well the two ideas work together and how brilliantly Prineas wove them into one. It's a commentary and celebration of both while also being an engrossing, moving, and satisfying tale in its own right. I really appreciated the way Prineas used the tropes of both types of stories to twist her own dark tale and highlight the themes.
Pin/Pen (she goes by both names) is a girl who wants to determine her own future, a goal she fiercely holds on to even when she has no sense of her past or even her own self. Her complete loss of memory and history make it difficult to connect with her as a reader at times, but it serves to make her sympathetic. The panic she feels over this is easily experienced by the reader who enters her world as clueless and searching for the familiar as she is. Pin's lack of memory does not leave her an empty vessel for the reader to use as a placeholder. She is very much her own person, which is part of what makes it difficult to get into her head. She is an enigma to both herself and the reader through much of the book. She has a lot of amazing qualities, but a lot of faults as well. Her headstrong stubbornness results in both positive and negative actions and motivations. Even in the end I felt like I was just getting to fully understand who she was, which works well because she is only just figuring that out, and there is still so much she doesn't know. While frustrating at times, it's perfect for the story being told. And I found myself loving her even when I wanted to yell at her about some of the choices she was making. I can see why she does what she does, and a lot of what she does is truly amazing. She has to be a leader and make hard choices that have mixed consequences. She makes mistakes and is not as careful with other people's feelings as she ought to be. She is also a true hero and steadfast friend. She is unlikeable at times (who isn't) and that only serves to make her more real.
The story here belongs just as much to Shoe as it does to Pin. He isn't as forceful as Pin. He isn't as flashily confident as the prince. He has a quiet strength and stubbornness that is just as important though, and it is his determination to see Pin free to make her own decisions that allows her do to the work of freeing herself. But she does the same thing for him too, giving him the courage to embrace freedom in the first place. At times he is hesitant and giving to a fault. They complement each other well. Their relationship develops under incredibly fraught circumstances. I liked the realism in that. Dangerous and stressful events tend to magnify and accelerate the development of feelings and relationships. There are a lot of complications thrown into it too including Pen's role in Story and her relationship with the prince. I know that so many people are going to instantly think "love triangle" and not want anything to do with this. That would be a mistake. Love triangle does not always necessarily equal terrible development. They can be done well, and in this case it is a trope that is fundamentally important to the ideas of choice and happily ever after Prineas is exploring and questioning through her story. The prince, Cor, is a loyal, brave, and dedicated person. He is also smart and able to question the reality of the world around him. He is often a little to oblivious to his privilege and inclined to demand his own way, but he has a good heart. I really loved the interactions between all three of them together too. They are working as adults in their world and in leading a rebellion, but they are also very much teenagers in dealing with their feelings.
The book's numerous secondary characters are all wonderfully rendered as well including the Godmother. I'm going to say little else about that to avoid spoilers, but I loved what Prineas did with her and the fairy tale concept of the Witch. The plot gives a nod to host of tales beyond the obvious reworking of Cinderella and catching them all was part of the fun of reading it.
My favorite part of Ash & Bramble was how it explored the power of ideas, words, and Story. I always love it when books do that and do it well which this one does. I loved the dark twists that took and the ambiguousness of what was right and wrong in some of those cases. It is complicated and a lot of it left open to interpretation with unanswered questions. Yet it also has hope and looks to the future.
Ash & Bramble is everything I want in a fairy tale retelling and in books in general.
I read an ARC received from the author. Ash &Bramble is available for purchase on September 15th....more