I think I just accidentally read my first New Adult book? I ended the previous sentence with a question mark because I’m still unsure how to categoriz...moreI think I just accidentally read my first New Adult book? I ended the previous sentence with a question mark because I’m still unsure how to categorize Cate Tiernan’s Darkest Fear, the start of her new Birthright series. It is a shapeshifter (paranormal) fantasy with a protagonist who is in that liminal time between high school and college. Usually I’d say that means it’s YA, but most of the other characters are older than the protagonist. So. I think I may have read a New Adult paranormal. And… it was addictive reading.
Vivi (short for Viviana) was perfectly happy being the normal, beloved daughter of a Brazilian immigrant couple on the Florida coast. But she’s not. Normal, that is. Vivi is a Haguari, a member of a group of shapeshifters who turn into jaguars. And she’s been dead set on denying that heritage from age thirteen onward. When a terrifying attack occurs on her 18th birthday, Vivi can’t hide from what she is any longer. Worse, she’s alone in facing the world. In the aftermath, Vivi discovers a family connection she didn’t know about, and she takes a chance on a new life and new friends. However, danger seems to be following her wherever she goes…
Darkest Fear was up on the Simon Pulse website as a free read this week (in case you were wondering how to hook me on a book I’ve never heard of before). I started reading the first chapter on the strength of the words ‘shifter fantasy romance,’ and the cover art, which is pretty sweet. From the beginning I felt like I was being towed into the story (and I went willingly!). Tiernan is deft at writing strong emotion, and her portrayal of a scared, lonely and lost Vivi making a new life and dealing with the unknown was more than a touch mesmerizing.
That said, I experienced reader’s remorse upon finishing the book. It’s packed with emotion throughout, yes. However, the pace and action pick up in the second half, and by then it was too late for some of the details and world-building I wanted or for wrapping up certain plotlines. *cough*WHAT WAS THAT ROMANCE*cough* Actually, I have a bone to pick with the word ‘romance’ in connection with this book. The actions/emotions having to do with the supposed romantic entanglement(s) never approached healthy, romantic, or even coherent. I get that it’s the first in a series and the author can’t tip her hand on everything right away, but as a reader I have issues being supportive of or even excited about reading the continuation of that (whatever it was) in the next installment.
Actually, all of my confusion has to do with the second half of the book, and in particular the final episode. Tiernan placed a completely different kind of action-movie-plot in the middle of what was a slow-moving but intense story of a girl finding herself and making peace with her heritage. I didn’t stop reading, but I did expect an answer or two as to why that happened, and where the story would go in the future. Unfortunately, nothing materialized. I have reading whiplash in the worst way.
In all, Darkest Fear is an emotionally intense take on shifter mythology and tradition, but it suffers from uneven plotting and pacing and a weak/unfortunate romantic plotline. I may try skimming book two to see if answers crop up, or I may not!
Recommended for: fans of paranormal fantasy and New Adult set in the South, and those who can’t keep their hands to themselves around shifter romance books.(less)
I’ve been in a self-proclaimed contemporary reading slump for what feels like AGES. In fact, it has been 13 months (my last contemporary YA read was M...moreI’ve been in a self-proclaimed contemporary reading slump for what feels like AGES. In fact, it has been 13 months (my last contemporary YA read was Marni Bates’ Decked with Holly, which I actively disliked). BUT. Jennifer E. Smith gets the most gorgeous book covers, and I pay attention to the Amazon Kindle deals each day. Her famous-boy-meets-ordinary-girl romance This Is What Happy Looks Like was on sale earlier this month, so I bought a copy to read ‘someday.’ That day turned out to be last Thursday night.
When two strangers accidentally end up in an email conversation about a pet pig named Wilbur, it’s serendipity for both parties. Graham Larkin is an increasingly lonely film star on the edge of the big time. Ellie O’Neill is a small-town girl with family secrets and a bright, impossible future. When their relationship goes from virtual to in-person in a day, they’ll both need to reach outside of their comfort zones to discover if something this impractical can work in real life.
It’s been bitterly cold here in DC over the past couple of weeks, and I felt the need for a summery read. This Is What Happy Looks Like is just that – a beach read with a little bit of depth, a lot of cute, set on the coast during the summer months. Ellie is the daughter of a single mother, she's working in an ice cream shop, and she’s into poetry. Graham is a well-adjusted young film star (the most far-fetched part of the plot?!) who doesn’t know where he’s going yet, but he’s miles away from the person his parents want him to be. They’re both endearing characters, and they both need something. Smith just never convinced me that what they needed was each other, especially on such short acquaintance.
A portion of the trouble may be laid at the door of insufficient flirting. I wanted to like the characters together, and I expected to swoon at their chemistry. Unfortunately, the book is so brief that flirting (both in email message and in person) is given short shrift. Smith hasn’t written a dawning romance so much as a novel about a girl and her mother negotiating life. In summer. In Maine. With a cute boy on the side.
What I’m trying to say is that although it tried, This Is What Happy Looks Like didn’t have the emotional depth of Unbreak My Heart, or the swoon of a great romance. Instead, it had more than a bit of wish fulfillment, a silly setup, and a pet pig that only makes appearances in conversation, not in person. I whiled away a couple of hours with the book, but I was not as charmed as I hoped I’d be. Maybe next time.
Recommended for fans of Rachel Hawthorne's Snowed In, Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin's Jenna & Jonah’s Fauxmance and Claire LaZebnik’s Epic Fail, and those who like light contemporary romances.(less)
At the end of last year and during the holiday season I kept my head down, busily reading for the CYBILS first round of judging. Perhaps that’s how I...moreAt the end of last year and during the holiday season I kept my head down, busily reading for the CYBILS first round of judging. Perhaps that’s how I missed early buzz for Rosamund Hodge’s fairy tale retelling Cruel Beauty. When I looked around in January, there were positive (glowing, really) reviews for the book on blogs as far as the eye could see. Overnight I went from interested to must buy it the day it comes out. And that’s the story of how I found myself reading (and liking!) a compelling fantasy about a girl who hates everything, but most especially her fate.
Nyx Triskelion is the daughter of the leader of the Resurgandi, a group pledged to overthrow Arcadia’s demon ruler, the Gentle Lord. Before her birth Nyx’s father made a bargain to marry one of his daughters to the Gentle Lord on her seventeenth birthday. Nyx has been training to kill that demon since age nine, all the while guarding hate in her heart, lest it mark her twin sister, too. The trouble is that Nyx’s plan is a suicide mission. She knows it. Her father knows it. Her husband knows it. The only option left is to carry out the plan, if she can.
The official book summary makes much of the Beauty and the Beast overtones in this story. As many other reviewers have noted, however, Cruel Beauty does more homage to the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, and there are strands of many other fairy tales woven into the whole as well. BUT. This is more than a retelling. It’s a book about memory, knowledge, sacrifice, and clues left at the edges, about self-hatred and redemption, and about the stories that can be built between the lines of any life.
Nyx is an interesting character. For the first fifty pages of the book, I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading about her. She had so much poisonous hatred in her heart, and it (inevitably) spilled out into her life and the lives of the ones she was meant to love. I’ve realized that I am not one to challenge myself by reading about difficult characters, so Nyx was a stretch. What kept me going, then? Her absolute determination, her intelligence, and her willingness to take unbelievable risks. For those first few chapters I thought to myself, ‘Textbook depressive personality,’ and then for the rest of the book I was swept into the story, into the incremental changes in Nyx’s actions and purpose, and into a hope for a better ending.
Any first-person narrative rotates around its main character, but of course Ignifex (the Gentle Lord), his shadow and his house also loomed large. I didn’t find the book quite as swoon-worthy as expected – the central romance didn’t appeal to me that way. However, the banter between Nyx and her husband and the mysteries of the house did appeal, immensely, as did the theme of trust growing on rocky ground.
I was also enchanted by the Greek mythology and theology sprinkled throughout. There were notes of other myth traditions, too – it was really a smorgasbord of tales and allusions, and I adored that aspect. I do think that could be a negative for some – if they don’t know their mythology well, the allusions would then seem like dead ends, rather than offshoots of world-building. In that respect, I believe Cruel Beauty is one of those books that will mean or speak wildly different things to different readers – much of its meaning and beauty is hidden in allusion and metaphor.
In all, I thought Cruel Beauty was a rather wonderful read, with lovely bits of mythology and fantasy woven in to complement a story about a mysterious house and its owner, and the girl determined to destroy them both.
Recommended for: fans of Charles de Lint’s darkness, Robin McKinley’s Beauty and the Beast retellings, and Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse, those who like fairy tales, mythology and perilous bargains, and anyone who can appreciate beautiful writing that hints at the true self hidden deep in our hearts.(less)
I had never read Brandon Sanderson before I picked up The Rithmatist for CYBILS award consideration. I had heard of him as the author appointed to com...moreI had never read Brandon Sanderson before I picked up The Rithmatist for CYBILS award consideration. I had heard of him as the author appointed to complete Robert Jordan’s epic Wheel of Time saga (by the by, i got to the sixth book in that series in college, looked up, and realized two weeks had flown by/my grades had slipped. put it down and never picked it up again…), and as such an almost constant presence on Tor.com (go there if you haven’t yet!). I do love a beautifully crafted magical system and superior world-building, so it makes all sorts of sense that I’d fall in love with The Rithmatist and its chalklings. Which I did. Smart, unique fantasies don’t grow on trees!
The world of The Rithmatist is one where flat, 2-dimensional chalk drawings come to life and act on people and things. Only a specific set of people have the power to draw these magical chalk lines, though – Rithmatists. Joel is the son of a chalkmaker, and he always wanted to be a Rithmatist. He even has the mind and skills for it. But he wasn’t chosen. He lives at Armedius, the best school in the American Isles, but he’s so obsessed with Rithmatics that he’s failing classes and headed nowhere fast. Then Rithmatics students start disappearing, with suspected Wild Chalkling involvement. Joel will have to use every ounce of his cleverness and ingenuity to help solve the mystery (and save the day, of course).
As mentioned above, the strongest part of this book, by far, is the Rithmatic magic/science system. It’s a combination of geometry, chalk art, and religious experience, and no one is sure exactly how or why it works – or if they do, they’re not telling. Joel is thirsty for knowledge, and it is through his inquisitiveness and academic bent (and location at a school for Rithmatists) that the reader learns about the world. Lest you think that it’s all dry theory, there are exciting duels. Duels with serious consequences for the combatants, as is only fitting for Rithmatists, who each have to complete a 10-year tour of duty in Nebrask (where Wild Chalklings threaten all of North American civilization). It’s part logic, part keeping-cool-in-combat, part talent, and all of it is exhilarating reading.
Sanderson’s world-building is also fascinating. He’s constructed an alternate world where the Americas are a collection of islands, only recently populated, and before that mysteriously (sinisterly?) empty. The culture seems to be a mash-up of Asian, European and Egyptian influences, though the characters themselves aren’t particularly diverse.
Aside from Rithmatics-mad Joel, the main characters are Melody, a very mediocre student Rithmatist, and the professors and president of Armedius. Sanderson’s writing is strong on world-building, plot and magic, but the characters get shorter shrift. It’s a murder mystery at a boarding school, with magic. For most of the book, that was enough. There were expected twists, and a few unexpected ones, and Joel learned a lesson or two. However, the majority of characters remained static, and their dialogue felt stilted at times. Not weak, but not emotion-packed (which the target audience may have come to expect? or not), either. It was not something that made a difference in MY reading experience, but I noticed it, and other readers (less impressed by the shiny new magic!) may as well.
In all, The Rithmatist introduced an exceptional magical system, a smart hero, a nation rife with political tension, and a long-running war. I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Recommended for: fans of school-set fantasies and marvelous world-building, those who enjoy(ed) geometry, and anyone interested in a great story with unique dangers and clever, courageous protagonists.(less)
Eight years old was one of the best years of my life. I was the oldest of my siblings (authority!) and I had just begun homeschooling. That meant I co...moreEight years old was one of the best years of my life. I was the oldest of my siblings (authority!) and I had just begun homeschooling. That meant I could read anything I wanted (within the checkout limits at our local library) while my mother taught my little brother the basics. All the same, I loved it when she read aloud to all of us in the mornings, and I couldn't get enough of animal stories. I adored Jim Kjelgaard's Big Red, Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows and anything Marguerite Henry. I'd beg and beg for just one more chapter, and it wasn't uncommon for my mother to accede and read until her voice grew hoarse. I know my eight-year-old self would have loved Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp.
Raccoon brothers J’miah and Bingo are official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts, and they know their duty: to be alert for trouble and to wake the legendary Sugar Man in case of emergencies. Never mind that no one has seen him for nearly 60 years! Nearby, 12 year-old (human) Chap Brayburn is mourning the death of his beloved grandfather Audie, and trying to figure out how to be the man of the house. When trouble comes to the swamp, J’miah, Bingo and Chap must each use all of their ingenuity and courage to save it, and themselves.
J'miah and Bingo are raccoons, and raccoons are known for mischief. However, these brothers have just been inducted as Official Scouts of the Sugar Man Swamp, and with that appointment comes responsibility. They've got to listen to the Voice of Information, watch out for trouble, and most of all, be true to each other. Their antics are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, and in the end the number of crawdads, dewberries and sugar pies they have eaten amount to an adventure all its own.
Appelt writes human emotion with just as much laughter and verve as the animal action, but with an extra dose of poignancy. Chap's attempts to step into his grandfather's shoes are a little bit funny, a little bit doomed, and all the way sincere. Chap's story could stumble into maudlin or contrived territory, but it doesn't - the author keeps just the right balance. The fantastical element is included in a natural, organic way, so that the book rides somewhere between tall tale and a 'book about talking animals,' and makes you want to (for just a little while) visit the magical place that is the Sugar Man Swamp.
My favorite passages were those that talked about the flavors of the swamp and Paradise Pies, the tiny bakery that Chap's mother runs. This excerpt from pages 68 and 69 of the hardcover version gives you a little taste of the book:
"The huge coffee urn was full of dark, rich Community Coffee, roasted in Baton Rouge. And even though there wasn’t a drop of coffee in the pies, Grandpa Audie always said, “The chicory in the coffee makes the pies taste better.” He followed that with, “Besides, it puts hair on your chest.”
Right then Chap pulled the neck of his T-shirt out and looked down at his chest. Not a single hair. Didn’t he need a few chest hairs to be a man? With that, he filled Audie’s mug, right up to the brim.
“You might want to put some cream and sugar in that,” his mom said.
Grandpa Audie had never used cream and sugar, had he? “Blacker ’n dirt.” That’s the way he had always drunk it. That was the way Chap would drink it too. He raised his grandpa’s mug to his lips and took a tiny sip. It was hot hot hot. It was bitter bitter bitter. All at once, he understood how coffee would make the pies taste better.
The sweet of the pies would offset the hot and bitter."
The True Blue Scouts is a funny, beautifully written and environmentally friendly tale of familial love and the ways in which a specific spot in nature can become ‘home’ to the heart. J’miah, Bingo and Chap explore the swamp and discover some of its dangerous and wondrous secrets, and each tries to protect it in his own way. I would imagine that it's especially charming when read aloud, so that the animal and human voices really come alive.
Recommended for: fans of Kate DiCamillo, those who enjoy animal stories on the order of Charlotte's Web or The Adventures of a South Pole Pig, and readers ages 8 and up who enjoy their stories with a light fantasy element.(less)
Charles de Lint is a name that I’ve associated with fantasy since before I knew that genres were separate, distinct things. His books were shelved in...moreCharles de Lint is a name that I’ve associated with fantasy since before I knew that genres were separate, distinct things. His books were shelved in the Teen section at my local library right alongside historical fiction and the classics. I’ve been perusing the YA shelves since… oh, age ten? So that’s quite a while ago now. I haven’t gotten anywhere near finishing his backlist, but I know that de Lint can always be counted on for a twisty, magical stories, heavy on mythology. The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is his latest – an illustrated (by the marvelous Charles Vess) chapter book for younger readers.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is Lillian’s story more than it is any group of cats’, although the title may suggest otherwise. Lillian is a half-wild girl who lives on a hillside farm with her Aunt Fran. They have neighbors, but are far enough from town that Lillian is more familiar with the Creek families from the reservation than the townspeople. One day while exploring the wild forest, Lillian is bitten by a snake. To save her life, the cats of the forest transform her into a kitten. Lillian’s mission thereafter is to return to herself, as she should be – and her journey will take her in many different directions before the threads of fate and story set her free.
Lillian has always been the sort of girl who believes in (and hunts for!) fairies. She leaves food out at the base of the old apple tree and pours cream for the feral forest cats. It is that cultivated kindness that prompts the mysterious cats to save her when danger strikes, but it is her own wit and determination to turn back into a girl that drives her on. Lillian’s journey takes her to parts unknown and introduces her to characters straight from fable-land.
While I appreciated the variety of animals and the centrality of Native American legend to this tale, I found that the narrative split into too many directions to be truly cohesive. To put it in hunting terms, the trail doubles back on itself too many times. The poignant bits are smoothed down into the whole (thus losing some of their emotional weight), and mounting tension dissipates before the reader feels anxious that all will end as it should. That said, the character interactions are magical on their own, and those fond of wise, talking animals will find much to love.
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest is a story that brings myth to life, and the beautiful illustrations accompanying the text and focus on folklore make it an excellent choice for reading aloud with a loved one.
Recommended for: fans of Bill Willingham’s Down the Mysterly River, those who have enjoyed Charles de Lint’s or Charles Vess’ work in the past, readers who like talking animal fantasies, and anyone with an interest in non-Western myths and legends.(less)
I am intrigued by the idea of werewolves, and I know I am not the only one out there (see: the popularity of paranormal fiction and film). Even more t...moreI am intrigued by the idea of werewolves, and I know I am not the only one out there (see: the popularity of paranormal fiction and film). Even more than werewolves themselves, I’m interested in the mythology and world-building it takes to make a story with werewolves in it viable and more-or-less believable. So: I was interested, and I’d heard about Rachel Neumeier’s Black Dog, But what actually got me reading? Stephanie Burgis’ tweet and Liviana’s review. All at once I felt a pull toward the book – you could even say it was like the lure of the full moon (if you wanted to be incredibly cheesy) – and I am so glad I heeded that call. The puns, they just write themselves…
Natividad and her brothers Miguel and Alejandro are on the run – and they’re hoping that their destination will offer a refuge. Hoping, but not counting on it. Natividad’s parents were killed in Mexico in an attack from their father’s enemy, and now they’re fleeing to his homeland Dimilioc, in Vermont. Dimilioc is their only option, despite its repulation. Natividad is Pure, a rare girl who can use magic, her twin Miguel is human, and Alejandro is a black dog, a shifter. And Dimilioc is famous for being the home of the most vicious and protective black dogs – black wolves – in North America. But before they can find a place in Dimilioc, they will have to prepare for a battle against the enemy that followed them across a continent.
I REALLY liked this book. It had unique werewolf lore, diversity, fantastic world-building, beautiful writing, layered characters and an intense fight for survival (aka plot). Wait, I need to write more?! Ha. Let’s go with Natividad. She’s a girl who has recently lost her home as well as her mother, but she’s still intensely protective and caring. She’s not surrendering to anger or turning her emotions into reasons to fight. She doesn’t always know the answer, she sometimes acts rashly, but she’s constantly learning and hoping and surviving, driven all the time by love for family. I wonder if it is possible NOT to fall in love with Natividad.
Even if Natividad didn’t carry the story, there’s Dimilioc and its complicated hierarchy, and Miguel and Alejandro struggling to find a place in it – all the while wondering if death is around the next corner. It’s pretty intense stuff, and that’s not even counting the fight against Malvern Vonhausel, their father’s old enemy. Add in the very nature of black dogs, where the ‘shadow’ of their other self is always trying to overtake their human side, and you have a setting rife with tension and anger, shame and secrets that keep trust from taking root. And still, that’s not all.
Neumeier has written a story where familial relationships shine. Miguel and Alejandro and Natividad are the obvious family unit, but so too are the Dimilioc wolves. The give and take of those relationships adds layers of depth to every character – there are no cardboard representations in Black Dog. Also wonderful: the diversity of those characters and families, and the Spanish dialogue that Natividad and her brothers fall into unwittingly or use to describe their magic/nature. The obvious contrast of Mexico and Vermont adds to the strangeness of the situation for the newcomers. As Natividad assimilates to her new environment, so does the reader. It’s really rather genius.
You may have noticed that I have said nothing yet about the fact that Natividad, due to her status as Pure, must choose a mate (it’s right there in the official summary). I understand that this is part of the culture/tradition in this setting, but it still made me uncomfortable in the extreme, especially at the beginning. I believe Neumeier deals with this element well (by narrowing the field almost immediately), but the fact remains that all of Natividad’s dealings with the Dimilioc wolves have at least a double meaning. Of course they value her magic, but they value her possible fertility even more. I can’t decide if I think this is creepy enough to be a true reservation, or adds to the world-building. Probably a little bit of both.
I will certainly be reading the sequel, and I very much enjoyed the book overall. It’s young adult fantasy with a bite, and the tension and pace compliment the characterization and plot wonderfully well.
Recommended for: fans of werewolves and unique paranormal lore, those who like diversity, great world-building and solid characters, and anyone who loved Robin McKinley’s Sunshine or Anne Bishop’s Written in Red.(less)
It’s January, and one of the things I resolved to do in the New Year was participate in Long-Awaited Reads Month. I’m sure any avid reader will agree...moreIt’s January, and one of the things I resolved to do in the New Year was participate in Long-Awaited Reads Month. I’m sure any avid reader will agree with me – sometimes you buy a book that looks absolutely wonderful, and then for one reason or another, you don’t read it for YEARS. It sits on the shelf (or e-reader) gathering dust, and though you know it’s probably wonderful, you keep putting it off. Well, I’m finally reading a few of those books. Sharon Shinn's Jenna Starborn was up first. Shinn writes beautiful, deep, heart-wrecking books, including Archangel from the Samaria series, and Troubled Waters from the Elemental Blessings series. Jenna Starborn is a sci-fi standalone, and perhaps even more relevant to a potential reader, it’s a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
In this science fiction future, there are five levels of citizenship, and one’s place in the hierarchy determines everything (or almost everything) in life. Jenna Starborn is a half-citizen – she was commissioned, ‘grown’ in a gen tank, harvested, and then raised by a citizen, but never formally adopted by her ‘creator.’ As a half-cit, her future is precarious at best. In the beginning she must face it alone – but Jenna is quietly extraordinary, and she wins friends and family for herself. While working at Thorrastone Park on the terraformed planet of Fieldstar she finds love, but there are mysteries, complications and machinations to maneuver before the tale comes to a (satisfying) conclusion.
The plot of Jenna Starborn is, of course, well-known to anyone who has read Jane Eyre, or seen the film versions (Michael Fassbender as Rochester in the latest incarnation = hello, dreamy!). When I first read Brontë’s classic in the 9th grade I mooned over it for several months – reread it and identified with it and thought it enormously romantic. I am a different person now, and I’ve had many years to consider whether or not I’d like a Mr. Rochester of my own. The answer has changed to an emphatic ‘NO.’ I can still see the romance in the tale, but I would not want to live it… and I think that knowledge kept me from sinking completely into Shinn’s web of words.
Like the original Jane, Jenna is a private, quiet person. She prefers quiet environments and smart, purposeful people. She’s guided by strong moral principles and believes in justice, equality and kindness, though she knows that in practice the world around her is unfair. Unlike in the original, she’s a highly proficient nuclear technician, and she is no one’s governess. Jenna is also a member of the PanEquist belief system, and what one gathers of this religion and its believers fits in nicely with her ideals and uprightness (and also makes for a nice differentiation from the 19th century Christianity that was Jane Eyre’s faith).
The most interesting part of the book, for me, was seeing the ways in which Shinn was faithful to the original tale, but still made it her own, and made it sci-fi. An unapologetically brilliant and scientific heroine is a lovely rarity in my reading life. At the same time, Jenna doesn’t discard her feminine side or lack for emotion – she feels deeply, but organizes her hopes quite strictly according to her inner moral compass. This combination adds to generally practical, rational Jenna’s humanity and empathy. She’s a character that the privileged modern reader can access.
I’d say Shinn has done a marvelous job of evoking the classic in Jenna’s character. I can also tell that Jane Eyre must be a huge influence on everything Shinn writes, because it contains her standards: a heroine who knows herself, and a hero who has made (or is still making) dubious choices, even though he means well. Shinn writes the most beautiful, shattering romantic moments, and though I’m not as partial to Jenna Starborn as I am to other of her works, I can’t say I escaped unscathed – I cried!
Jenna Starborn is a noteworthy tribute to a classic, and at the same time a delightfully deep sci-fi romance, with wrenching emotion and difficult choices that make up real life, and the requisite happy conclusion.
Recommended for: fans of Jane Eyre, and anyone looking for sci-fi, romance, or beautiful, emotion-filled writing.(less)
There are times when you need to sit with a book for a while after finishing it to process your feelings and reactions. Maybe the reading experience w...moreThere are times when you need to sit with a book for a while after finishing it to process your feelings and reactions. Maybe the reading experience was emotionally exhausting. Maybe the subject matter was disturbing (or nightmare-inducing!). Maybe… a lot of things. After I finished Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, I struggled to evaluate my reaction. My roommate walked in and saw me sitting on the couch, book closed on my lap, staring into space. I told her, “It was a good book, but creepy as hell.” She said, “Put that in the review.” Great advice.
Lucy is a girl with: an exceptional ability to listen to ghosts, bad mistakes in her past, and a tendency toward obsessive preparedness. She’s also an agent at London-based Lockwood & Co., a small outfit whose job it is to banish spirits. To do her work Lucy abides by three rules: 1) Get in quick, 2) Don’t use electricity, and 3) Wear a watch with a luminous dial. The other (unspoken) rule is that things never go quite as expected. Increased hauntings are plaguing Britain, and only the young can detect and eliminate them. Which is how/why three teenagers came to run a business of a sinister nature.
In this first in a new paranormal series, Stroud introduces three young ghost hunters: the narrator Lucy, Anthony Lockwood and George. Lucy is new and trying to prove her competence. George is abrasive and fanatical about jelly doughnuts and research. Lockwood brings them together as a clever and charismatic leader. And Stroud unites their disparate talents and abilities to tell a dark and disturbing tale for middle grade readers. Oh, it’s also funny, smart and can’t-put-it-down-addictive reading. If you like mystery,danger, and stories that involve escaping by the skin of your teeth, this is the book for you.
Did I love it? I had a hard time knowing for the first few days. It scared the freaking daylights out of me in parts, but I couldn't stop reading. I loved Lucy and George and Lockwood, and I will be counting down the days until the next book releases and I can find out what happens next. I thought the mystery was extremely well-executed, with twists you could see coming, and others you couldn't. In some ways, I was intrigued in spite of myself, because I say I don't like scary books. And yet. I couldn't stop thinking about The Screaming Staircase. I think this is what being in love with a complex book looks like, folks. Yes, I think it must be love. Because while the story offers all the thrills and chills expected of a good ghost story, it's also about three characters who have the odds stacked against them and still rely on their ingenuity (and luck!), and let their stubborn will and intuition guide them through. That sort of pluck will win me over any day.
Let me be clear: The Screaming Staircase is close to perfect. It has a well-realized fantasy world with an insidious paranormal problem, engaging characters and real danger. The story has enough twists, surprises and scares for everyone. It's also great all-ages (10 and up?) reading - I'm giving a copy to my 23 year-old brother for the holiday. Yeah, that's a pretty whole-hearted recommendation. It IS love!
Recommended for: readers ages ten and up (especially those who like mysteries), fans of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, and anyone who likes a good ghost story.(less)
Historical fiction + fantasy + female main character = HAPPY CECELIA. Oh the fun I’ve had reading (and re-reading!) Patricia C. Wrede’s A Matter of Ma...moreHistorical fiction + fantasy + female main character = HAPPY CECELIA. Oh the fun I’ve had reading (and re-reading!) Patricia C. Wrede’s A Matter of Magic and Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk adventure Leviathan! More recently I’ve enjoyed Holly Webb’s Rose and Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. There’s just some mysterious alchemy about that specific combination that makes my heart happy. Catherine Jinks’ How to Catch a Bogle hit that sweet spot, and I (of course) ended up liking it. A lot.
Young Birdie McAdam is an apprentice to Alfred Bunce, a bogler by trade. Well, what does a bogler do? He/she catches (and destroys) bogles for a living. Bogles are nasty, magical, child-eating creatures, in case you were wondering. Not that Birdie is doing any actual bogle-catching. No, she’s bait. Bait with a beautiful voice that’ll lure bogles out of their dark hidey-holes and into salt circles so they can be bound and disposed of. Birdie’s job is to be alert, quick, and follow directions. The only trouble is that the bogling business can be treacherous, on both supernatural and human fronts. When local pickpockets go missing and a nosey folklorist gets involved, Birdie’s life will change, whether she wants it to or not.
Jinks’ novel is set in London, during (I presume) the Victorian Era. The neighborhood Birdie and Alfred live and work in isn’t very nice, but they scrape by fairly well – bogling work is steady. However, that doesn’t keep illiterate and clothes-mad Birdie from worrying about the future, about Alfred, and about being conscripted into Sarah Pickles’ pickpocketing gang. It’s a hard life, even if there’s food and shelter on hand. Then children start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, leading to a puzzle, an imprisonment and… I won’t spoil any more of it for you. Suffice it to say that the plot is thick, the characters interesting, and the setting and vernacular pitch perfect.
Jinks’ moment of authorial genius (at least to my view) is the bogle. Or bogleS, I should say, as there are many, and they are varied. The creature isn’t just one type of thing, with one dangerous element. Each bogle might have a different monster characteristic and therefore the methods of containing and destroying it might be different, depending on the circumstance. Wondering whether the next bogle might have feathers, or breathe fire… that was interesting and kept the future of bogling open (creatively). At the same time, bogles were supposed to be terrible beyond belief, but as a reader, I was not frightened. There was only one scene that transmitted tension and hopelessness to me; otherwise the rest of the plot was easy to parse.
But back to good things: Birdie herself. She’s enterprising, upstanding, honorable and loyal. Add in brave, but that goes without saying. Lest you think her insufferable, Birdie’s ‘goodness’ is tempered with practicality, and she serves as a perfect foil to Mr. Bunce, whose ethical waffling when money is involved make him slightly unpredictable (and realistically adult). I could have done with a few more moments of humor, but I think that may be an adult reader complaint, like my earlier not-scared-of-monsters moment. How to Catch a Bogle will appeal greatly to young readers with patience to wade through the vernacular in the early going and get absorbed in the story.
Recommended for: fans of historical fantasy for children (think Holly Webb’s Rose or Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage), those who prefer girl heroines with agency and an excellent sense of adventure, and anyone interested in fantasies set in London.(less)
I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden when I was a child, and I’ve had an abiding interest in stories featuring plu...moreI read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and The Secret Garden when I was a child, and I’ve had an abiding interest in stories featuring plucky orphans ever since. Luckily (?!), children’s lit is full of either absent or deceased parents, so I’ve been able to indulge. The trouble is that many of these books use missing parents merely as a plot device – a way to set up unusual freedom for the children in the tale. Holly Webb’s Rose does feature a spirited orphan, but she’s not your typical heroine, and that’s a very good thing.
Rose is a ten year-old orphan, and she would love nothing better than to leave St. Bridget’s Home for Abandoned Girls and begin working as a maid in some great house. When her wish is granted, Rose is scared stiff that she’ll do something to jeopardize her position. After all, she never hoped to be claimed by a family, just to have a change to earn wages and make her own way in the world. Mr. Fountain’s house is mysteriously magical, but Rose’s fellows below-stairs and her new work keep her occupied. Or at least that’s what Rose tries to tell herself. The truth is that Rose may be magical herself – and it may be her unwanted talent that saves the day.
Sensible, grounded, hardworking – these are all terms that describe our heroine, Rose. She knows next to nothing about her past and the world beyond the orphanage’s walls, but she has plans for her future. They may be modest plans, but that suits clever Rose. There’s no doubt she’d achieved all her goals if interesting (and magical!) things didn’t keep happening around her. As it is, Rose needs all her wits to hide her magical leanings, keep her place, make new friends, and never mind the talking cat!
As you can see, there is a lot for Rose to assimilate. Webb describes Rose’s world in flowing prose and reveals interesting tidbits of plot and characterization through easy conversation, making the whole a seamless and enjoyable read. Rose’s story is a funny, touching and clever one, and my only complaint was that I wanted more. More about the magical house, Bill the footman, Isabella, the master’s bratty daughter, and more history for all of the girls at St. Bridget’s. Luckily, Rose is the first in a series (four have already been published in the UK), and my wish will be fulfilled soon.
Recommended for: fans of Ellen Potter’s The Humming Room and Maryrose Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and anyone who likes plucky heroines, and funny, magical stories.(less)
Flora & Ulysses is the story of an extraordinary squirrel (Ulysses), a youthful cynic (Flora), and their comic book-inspired adventures. A rather...moreFlora & Ulysses is the story of an extraordinary squirrel (Ulysses), a youthful cynic (Flora), and their comic book-inspired adventures. A rather extraordinary chain of events transformed an average squirrel into a flying, poetry-typing, super-strong wonder. Even Flora, who looks for cracks in logic and is always prepared for the worst, believes that Ulysses is special. But every superhero has an arch-nemesis, and Flora and Ulysses must navigate obstacles, relationships, and anti-squirrel elements to eventually save the day. K.G. Campbell’s illustrations make this hilarious and clever story come to life, and its sly humor will make readers of all ages smile.
Recommended for: young (and old!) fans of comics and superheros, those who have loved Kate DiCamillo’s previous books, and readers interested in magnificent squirrels, delicious words and wonderful surprises.(less)
I broke my ankle this past weekend playing touch football. Yes, you read that right. TOUCH. Football. (also, complete fracture of the fibula!) I’ve al...moreI broke my ankle this past weekend playing touch football. Yes, you read that right. TOUCH. Football. (also, complete fracture of the fibula!) I’ve always been a bit of a walking time bomb, but this is special, even for me. The silver lining to being injured and having to ice and elevate my injured limb all day long? Reading time opened up on my calendar like magic. And since it was (over)due at the library, I picked up Anne Ursu's The Real Boy first. It turned out to be a charming fable about magic, choices and human character.
Oscar is the hand of the last magician in the world. A hand in Barrow terms is the person who does the menial tasks that an apprentice can’t be bothered to complete. And Oscar is content with his place and his fate – he’s an orphan, after all, and feels most comfortable working with plants and talking to the cats that live in the cellar of Master Caleb’s shop. He’s safe, useful, and can sneak away to read in the library in the middle of the night. However, events conspire to thrust Oscar out into the world outside of his cellar, and he must deal with customers, with a strange sickness that affects only children, and with the most surprising thing of all – a friend. In doing so, Oscar will learn about the magic and history of his land, and what his future holds.
Oscar lives in a very limited world - mostly in the cellar of a shop. When he's not in the cellar, he sometimes ventures to the forest to gather plants, and rarely out into the marketplace. The narrative was pretty clear in suggesting that Oscar had agoraphobic or OCD tendencies, or possibly that he registered somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum. What did that mean for Oscar as a character? It meant that decoding gray areas and human interaction were hard for him. And since the reader experienced the story from his perspective, much of it was hazy, vague, or simply unexplained. This added atmosphere and sincerity to Oscar's story, but it did not forward the world-building - and that is a hard bargain to make in the world of fantasy fiction.
Speaking of the world-building, what there was of it was well-done. When Ursu meandered out of fable-land and into reality, she described a world that was interesting and flawed, peopled with conflicted citizens and magic users. Ursu's plot played with a well-known fairy tale, but I was most intrigued by the details of the Wizard Trees, the plaguelands, Asteri (the city walled by magic), and the 'shining people' who resided in that city. In addition, the prose was quiet without being boring, and encompassed Oscar's narrow world and its truths while also describing the confusing complexity of humanity. And let's not forget Erin McGuire's illustrations! She made Oscar's experiences come to life.
As I mentioned above, my chief reservation was related to the vague, slightly unfinished feel of the story. It had the distance of a parable or allegory, no matter how vivid Oscar and Callie's interactions and arguments were. I wondered at points if I was missing the grand metaphor. Was Asteri meant to symbolize religion? Capitalism? I worried that I didn't get it. Now I wonder if I was overthinking it all? Perhaps younger readers would understand and accept the small gaps I noticed. I couldn't, but The Real Boy was still a beautiful, albeit perplexing, read.
Recommended for: fans of fairy tale retellings and fables, and those who like quiet fantasies that focus on character and a quest for truth.(less)
Chris Kurtz's The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A novel of snow and courage is the story of Flora, an unusual piglet with an even more unlikely goal...moreChris Kurtz's The Adventures of a South Pole Pig: A novel of snow and courage is the story of Flora, an unusual piglet with an even more unlikely goal - to pull a sled, alongside dogs. When Flora boards a trip to Antarctica, she believes she's finally on her way. Unfortunately, not everyone is on the same page. Flora's story is one of bravery, friendship, and unlikely partnerships that will end up inspiring and changing each person (and animal!) they touch. It's a cute, idealistic, and sweet 'talking animal' story that will appeal to young readers and their parents.
Recommended for: fans of Charlotte's Web and the The Tale of Despereuax, and anyone who needs a reminder that courage and kindness are skills you can practice and perfect.(less)