Serena’s Review: “Magic Binds”

17333174Book: “Magic Binds” by Illona Andrews

Publishing Info: Ace, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Kate and the former Beast Lord Curran Lennart are finally making their relationship official. But there are some steep obstacles standing in the way of their walk to the altar…

Kate’s father, Roland, has kidnapped the demigod Saiman and is slowly bleeding him dry in his never-ending bid for power. A Witch Oracle has predicted that if Kate marries the man she loves, Atlanta will burn and she will lose him forever. And the only person Kate can ask for help is long dead.

The odds are impossible. The future is grim. But Kate Daniels has never been one to play by the rules…

Review: From all accounts, the Kate Daniels series is set to be a ten book run. And this, the 9th, definitely feels like it is the setup for a grand finale, hitting all the right notes by growing the conflict with Roland, raising the psychological stakes for our heroine, and setting up a clear end game for the story as a whole.

The last few books were a bit middling, if I’m honest. As I said in my last review of this series, with Roland on the scene any other “big bad” feels superficial and like a place-holder whose only purpose is to delay the big eventual show-down between Kate and her father. In this book, we’ve arrived at that show-down. Or, at least, to the initial skirmishes that lead up to it.

For a series that started out fairly firmly rooted in the urban fantasy/romance genre, I feel like the story has really come into its own as a family drama. And what a dysfunctional, all-powerful, ego-maniacal family it is! While Curran still plays his role, his and Kate’s relationship has felt steady and well-defined for some time now. And I really appreciate that after the one stumble with relationship shenanigans a few books ago, Andrews hasn’t felt the need to fiddle with this aspect much. Instead, the focus has shifted to Kate’s growing understanding and relationship (?) with her remaining family, in whatever form they may now be.

Kate’s aunt, the “City Eater,” who was killed off a few books ago makes a refreshing re-appearance. That character was brilliant the first time around, both as a legitimately threatening enemy for Kate, but almost more importantly as another bridge into Kate’s family history. Here, this secondary role is even more strongly focused in upon. Kate is feeling the repercussions of her claim on Atlanta, an action that has triggered a well of power and family ambition. Not only do we get Kate’s aunt back with all of her amazing snark, but we even get to meet whatever remains of Kate’s grandma, a powerful being whom Roland has trapped to serve as an energy source to power his massive prison. There’s a lot of focus on the extensive history of Kate’s family with some beautiful looks back to what their world had been like. These flashes, combined with some quiet moments between Roland and Kate, served to much better flesh out Roland’s character and motivations.

Roland himself was great as always. Here we really begin to see the pay-off of taking this long (several books worth of time) to fully flesh out a villain. Roland is so many things all at once: loving father, murdering sociopath, sympathetic hero, misguided maniac. The reader both despises him, but also understands him. With Kate herself struggling with the “Dark Side,” for lack of a better word, it is easy to see Roland’s own fall from hero to villain. His relationship with Kate is so tragic, and yet Andrews saves the book from melancholy with trademark wit. At one point Roland is both threatening to end Kate while also being offended on her behalf about the “shameful lack of feasting” that is planned for her wedding. It’s lovely.

There are few short mini-adventures in this story, and those were the weaker points for me. They were fun enough and we run into a few interesting new creatures (a spunky pegasus is a high point), but given the added depth that we were seeing in the other parts of the book, these adventures also felt a bit too simplistic.

My only other quibble was with the very end of the story, and it was an event that had been literally prophesied from the very beginning of the book, if not the book before even. And really, this quibble is only a personal choice as *spoiler warning* not typically being a fan of pregnancy storylines in fantasy is purely on me.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. It actually might be one of my favorites in the series. The stakes are higher, the personal conflict is greater, the backstory is richer, and the characters have all come into their own.

Rating 8: A great penultimate story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Magic Binds” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Vamp’s, Were’s, Sorcerer’s/Witches & Elves “  and “Girl with a Sword and an Animal Friend.”

Find “Magic Binds” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “Kate Daniels Series” and  “Magic Shifts”

 

The Great Animorphs Re-Read:#2 “The Visitor”

324505Animorphs #2: “The Visitor”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, June 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Morphing is certainly more fun than Sega — you can soar as an eagle and walk as a cat. But being an ANIMORPH is by no means just fun and games. Rachel knew better than anyone. One of her best friends, Melissa, is acting very strange. And it looks like Melissa’s dad, who is also the school’s Assistant Principal, may be connected to evil aliens. Rachel can’t tell Melissa what the ANIMORPHS have learned, but Melissa doesn’t seem interested in talking to Rachel these days anyway. Could Melissa be one of “them?” With the help of Jake, Cassie, Tobias and Marco, Rachel plans to enter her friend’s house as a cat, intent on unlocking the secrets from within. If only Rachel could keep her mind off mice…

Narrator: Rachel

Plot: Fun, not-plot-related note, this was the first Animorphs book I read, because I was given it for a Christmas present by a relative who simply saw a cover with a cat and thought “Hey, Serena likes cats…” And thus, an addiction was started! 

The plot! The Animorphs aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing in this whole “battle the Yeerks” thing after their disastrous attempt at infiltrating the Yeerk pool in the last book. So, like all good decisions, they decide to simply follow around the one Controller (other than Tom) they know about: their vice principal Mr. Chapman. (This is such middle school greatness! Cuz of course a Yeerk big bad would be a school vice principal!) And they’re in is Rachel’s friend Melissa, Chapman’s daughter. This being Rachel’s story, she is the one to morph Melissa’s cat Fluffer McKitty (actual cat’s name!) and infiltrate her friend’s home. What she finds is a boatload of teen sadness and a secret basement set-up where Chapman and Visser Three discuss their evil plans to take over the world. Visser Three, however, is of the paranoid type, and after noticing the suspicious house cat lurking down there once,  is not about to take any chances a second time. Thus opening the final act of the story in which Rachel is carted off in a kitty carrier and barely escapes with her life!

Xena, Warriar Princess: Rachel is probably my favorite character (though Tobias and Marco give her a run for her money). In the other books, she’s portrayed as a rather simple example of the “heroically brave” one. So, it’s always interesting reading her books and getting to see beneath this front that she puts up for her friends. I had completely forgotten about her friendship with Melissa (and I’m pretty sure there’s not much more of it going forward), but it was a lovely glimpse into how seriously and deeply Rachel understands the word “friendship.” There are also plenty of examples that highlight Rachel’s tendency to charge headfirst into things and to believe that she needs to shoulder things alone. After getting spotted by Visser Three the first time she goes in as a cat, she is careful not to mention the incident to her friends, since she knows they will insist she not repeat the tactic going forward. And, given what happens…probably not the best idea, Rachel! But her bravery isn’t simply foolish headstrongness, she’s actually just that willing to make the sacrifices that are needed. Towards the end, when she thinks all is lost, she insists the others flee and that she’ll go down fighting alone. And it’s clear that this isn’t just lip service. She is truly just that willing to die for her friends.

One last note, in this book we get Rachel’s reason to continue this fight. And, no surprise given her characterizations that I discussed above, it’s because the Yeerks have hurt her friends, namely Melissa whose parents are both Controllers and have withdrawn from her completely:

Next time Marco asked why we were fighting the Yeerks, I knew I would have a whole new answer. Because they destroy the love of parents for their daughter. Because they made Melissa Chapman cry in her bed with no one to comfort her but a cat.

*sobs*

Our Fearless Leader: Jake’s main event in this book is spending waaaaay too much time as a flea riding around on kitty!Rachel. Turns out that Tobias (couples watch!) doesn’t quite believe Rachel when she claims nothing happened after her first trip in the house, and so the others come up with the brilliant plan of Jake going in with her. As a flea. He’s got a few funny lines towards the end, and it’s kind of relief to realize that Jake has a sense of humor, as all too often if feels like he’s just stoic-leader-“we must be responsible!!”-Jake.

A Hawk’s Life: Poor Tobias. (Obviously). But his time in this book is spent on some of the less sexy tasks. Like chasing an angry tom cat (original Fluffer’s not too keen on these random teens chasing him around the yard every night), catching shrews for Rachel to morph, then having to rescue kitty!Rachel at the very end. A feat that I’m not sure a red tailed hawk could even pull off, given the size and weight of your average tom cat.

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot going on in this book. In the beginning there’s another example of the fact that she’s much better at morphing than the others. While de-morphing from birds, the others all look disgusting, while Cassie manages to save her wings for last and go for the “angel-like” look. She, along with Tobias, also notices that Rachel is acting strange after her first trip into the house.

The Comic Relief: Marco, too, doesn’t do a lot in this book. Though his quippy lines are still great! He does get to drive around a few bulldozers in the final confrontation at the end, which I think is our first example of Marco’s terrible driving. I do believe it comes up again later…with some disastrous results!

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: I’m sure if we had gotten an actual scene of Jake morphing the flea, that would have been the hands down winner. And really, morphing  a cat seems like one of the better options. The shrew…not so much. So, not really disgusting, but shrews in general seem like a morph to avoid given the extreme panicky state of their little rodent minds. Well…there you go…”little rodent minds” is disgusting enough!

Couples Watch!: Given that this is a Rachel book, we get a lot of Rachel/Tobias action. They’re pretty adorable, and by far my favorite couple (sorry Jake/Cassie, there’s just no competing with the “one of us is a hawk!” angst/tragedy!) We get a very pointed moment where Tobias privately thought speaks Rachel to be careful when she’s infiltrating the house. Not to mention his insight into her character to realize something’s up, and the dramatic rescue at the end!

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: I’m pretty sure that Visser Three wants to have his own cat. He spends a good amount of time admiring Rachel’s cat morph in this book, even going so far as to say that it’s a shame that the cat species is too small to be a good Yeerk host. Combined with the tiger-love from the last book…yeah, the Visser’s a cat person.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: Oh man, these books! In this one, we get the heart breaking scene of Melissa crying on her bed alone, cuddling kitty!Rachel because she doesn’t understand why her parents suddenly stopped loving her. And then later, when kitty!Rachel is being carted away in a cat carrier by Mr. Chapman, Melissa starts crying and asking why her cat is being taken away and when she finally gets an answer she’s like “But…didn’t you hear me before? I was crying!” and he’s like “Oh..were you?” It’s so awful. Another insight into how truly horrible the Yeerk invasion in when you think of these types of ramifications. It’s not just the hosts who are being hurt.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: So, to catch Fluffer so that Rachel can acquire him, they decide that the absolute best plan is for Rachel to first morph a shrew and then run around as bait to lure Fluffer down from the tree. Yes. This plan is as dumb as it sounds.

Favorite Quote:

I have a feeling that many of these will be Marco quotes, but who cares! Here we have Marco’s insights on fashion. Background info: the Animorphs all have to morph in skintight clothing so as not to de-morph and be naked.

“Not Fantastic Four. I’m thinking more an X-Men kind of thing. It’s not about being identical, it’s just about having some style. Right now, if anyone saw us, they wouldn’t think ‘Oh, cool, superheroes,’ they’d think ‘Man, those people do not know how to dress.’”

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 0

The scorecard goes unchanged in this one. Not much really happens as far as a win/lose scenario.

Rating: A slower book than the first, but a deeper look into the truly awful, and often more unseen, side effects of the Yeerk invasion.

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

Serena’s Review: “A Darker Shade of Magic”

22055262Book: “A Darker Shade of Magic” by V.E. Schwab

Publishing Info: Tor Books, February 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Kell is one of the last travelers–magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes connected by one magical city.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad King–George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered–and where Kell was raised alongside Rhy Maresh, the roguish heir to a flourishing empire. White London–a place where people fight to control magic and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She robs him, saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Review: Apparently, I picked up this book right when my bookclub friend Alicia was looking for a book gift for me for our bookclub gift exchange ruining all of her plans. But…#NOREGRETS! Sorry Alicia! I already waited too long to get to this gem, a fact that was even more underlined once I discovered what I had been missing. This is a good example of being bit in the butt by being too gunshy of books that have been extremely hyped, since it well deserved all the mass praise it has received over the last few years!

In this book, there are three (or…four?) Londons based in different worlds, all with varying levels of magic. Grey London (our London) is practically magic-free, Red London is thriving with a healthy relationship with magic and magic users, White London is slowly dying, starved for magic, and then…Black London, a place many have forgotten ever actually existed outside of its own cautionary tale of what happens when greed, gluttony, and power mix too closely with magic. These worlds are all disconnected from each other, a decision that was made to protect the worlds when Black London began its descent. Kel is one of two beings left with the ability to travel between these worlds.

Right there you have a great set up for a new fantasy world. Not only is there one new world, but a whole set of them with various interactions and politics between them. Through Kel, we see these three worlds (Black London remains a threatening presence looming in the background and the source of the book’s primary conflict, but not an actual place that is visited in the book. I hope this changes in future stories!). I loved the time that was spent in each of these worlds. They are all so fully realized and populated, from the named characters we interact with in each, to the general feeling and culture of the populace. Each world is full of rich detail, and I couldn’t ever decide which was the most exciting to spend time in. Well, maybe Grey London, our London, was the least interesting. But there lives Lila! So, I don’t know!

Speaking of Lila, I was so excited to realize that she plays a much more integral role to this story than I had been lead to believe by the book description. In reality, this is a dual protagonist book featuring both Kel and Lila.

Lila is a Grey London resident, a thief, and a young woman who is desperately looking for something more out of life. Namely, she wants to be a pirate. This sounds silly, typing it out, but one of the things I most loved about this character was her unwillingness to apologize for what she wanted out of life and the decisions she made pursuing these goals. Obviously, being a thief, Lila’s outlook on morality is skewed by her own experience growing up in extreme poverty and a life full of danger and uncertainty. What was fascinating about Lila was the evolution of the reader’s understanding of her throughout the story. Even finishing it, I’m not quire sure where the line is drawn between the brash, hyper confident, bold persona that she has created to survive, and her actual core being. Her moments of vulnerability gave small glimpses further in, but it was also gratifying to discover that, while some of this seeming persona was built up as a survival tactic, Lila is also just Lila: foolishly brave and lovably standoffish. Her characterization could have easily slipped into stereotypes, but Lila practically jumps off the page as a fully formed, fully flawed, character.

Kel, too, was a great character. I particularly enjoyed the inner struggles we see within him with regards to his strained relationship with the royal family of Red London who have raised him as their son, but also rely on him as a valuable tool due to his power, and, though he doesn’t remember, likely stole him away from his original family when young. I especially loved the relationship he has with the crown prince, Rye. It was a lovely example of male friendship and  brotherly love, full of tension, heartbreak, and affable goodwill.

Together, Kel and Lila are great duo. Their characters bounce off each other perfectly, and I pretty much just want to read a whole book series of just these two going off on madcap adventures, Kel full of exasperation with Lila the whole way.

I haven’t even talked about the plot or villains, but they were much darker than I had initially thought when picking up this book. The mad twins who rule White London, in particular. I also loved the increasing knowledge of the uses, limitations, and dangers of the magic system in these worlds that readers slowly discover throughout the course of the story. None of it felt like convenient wand-waving, but parts of a larger system that we as readers are only scraping the surface of. I’m excited to see where the author goes with this aspect of the story as well.

I’ve already gone on and on and only touched upon a few of the points of this story that I loved! 2017 has just started, but I’m pretty sure I’ve already found a Top 10 inclusion for the year!

Rating 10: Loved it. Loved everything about it. Characters, world building, magic system, adventure, danger, family, friendship, romance!

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Darker Shade of Magic” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Most Interesting Magic System” and “Books with parallel world.”

Find “A Darker Shade of Magic” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Dark Days Club”

15993203Book: “The Dark Days Club” by Alison Goodman

Publishing Info: Viking Books for Young Readers, January 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: London, April 1812. On the eve of eighteen-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall’s presentation to the queen, one of her family’s housemaids disappears-and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his lingering eyes? And will her intelligence and headstrong curiosity wind up leading them into a death trap?

Review: I always love it when I can find cross-genre novels that mix two of my favorite things. In this case, we have Regency era historical fiction and dark fantasy. Getting right down to it, I loved this book! And it served as an example of something that I had never been quite able to put my finger on when it came to my frustrations with other similar stories.

Lady Helen, a young woman just now entering into her first season as a lady of society, has worked her whole life to shake of the scandal of the death of her treacherous mother. Or…at least so she’s been forced to do by her Uncle, the man who controls her vast fortune and, along with her more kindly Aunt, has housed her since her parents’ deaths. But, of course, something dreadful must happen to set our protagonist on the path to becoming a heroine (line paraphrased from “Northanger Abbey” cuz why the heck not, it’s spot on in this case!). She runs astray of the even more scandalous Lord Carlton, a man rumored to have murdered his wife, though no body was ever found, and she discovers that she inherited from her mother a set of powers that belong to those destined to fight the demons that walk among them, disguised as average people.

Getting back to my point earlier, this book excelled in something that I had never been able to quite put my finger on when I attempted to explain why certain historical fantasies failed to hit the mark. What it gets down to is this: obvious extensive research done by the author. This book isn’t a paper thin veneer of a historical fantasy, it’s a thoroughly researched tale that combines the detailed aspects of this time period’s culture alongside its fantastical elements, never letting the magic and adventure wash away its historical foundation.

As one bookclub member and I discussed, this is the kind of book that you can read and come away from with an assortment of little tidbits about the time period that you wouldn’t have know before. For example, a gentleman who asks a lady for the last dance in the first set before the supper period is expected to walk that lady to her seat and sit near her. Thus, this gentlemen is expressing an even more active interest in the lady by requesting this particular dance! Fun Regency fact! So, in summary, this book fully embraces the historical aspects of its story, instead of simply appropriating convenient aspects for the sake of fitting into a popular genre than immediately discarding them in lieu of all the fantasy action, as too many have done before it.

Lady Helen herself is also very true to her time. While she is extremely intelligent and often frustrated by her Uncle’s very unfortunate views on a woman’s place, she’s also been raised to be a lady and a wife, and, if not thrilled about this prospect, accepts that this is the direction her life is headed. And, when suddenly presented with this demon-hunting alternative, she’s rightly wary. She’s been trained to run a household, converse with society, and manage other domestic duties. All notably free of risk of bodily harm and death. So when she’s told she’s a demon hunter and that said demon hunters face constant danger and often lead a life where their duties lead to eventual madness, she’s not jumping in head first. I really appreciated the fact that a primary arc of this story is simply Lady Helen fully coming to realize the choices before her and making realistic decisions with the knowledge that she’s given. At times it was frustrating as a reader, since we all know where things will end up, but it was also a very good character study of how a Regency era lady would struggle with these realizations, her own intelligence and curiosity be damned.

The fantasy elements were also much more dark than I was expecting. There are your run of the mill demons, and then you have the ones here who infect every layer of society, taking advantage of and feeding upon the worst aspects of humanity. There were several scenes that were straight up gruesome.

One last note on the historical accuracy of the books. The author included a very good afterward where she discussed the research that went into this book. It was fun to see how diligently she tried to incorporate the real life politics and goings-on of the time within the story. The newspapers that were referenced were real papers, the murders that take place really did happen (if, perhaps, not caused by demons). I always appreciate hearing about how an author approaches their work, and this was a particularly interesting example.

Rating 8:  A great example of well-researched historical fiction that doesn’t become overwhelmed by its fantasy elements.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Dark Days Club” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Regency Fantasy” and “Mysterious London.”

Find “The Dark Days Club” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Bear and the Nightingale”

25489134Book: “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

Publishing Info: Del Rey, January 2917

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC

Book Description: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

Review: I received an ARC of this book and was so excited when it arrived on my doorstep. Of course, we all know that I love a good fairytale type fantasy novel. Further, Russian fairytales are a bit in vogue currently it seems. This probably started a few years ago with the “Shadow and Bone” series, but is still going strong today it seems. Only a few months ago I read yet another Russian fairytale, “Vassa in the Night,” which I had middling feelings about. So, I’ve been waiting, waiting for the good one to arrive. And here it is!

This book is a perfect example of when the cover art can in fact speak to the actual story. Looking at this cover, with the deep, dark cold blues of a winter night and the cloud of brightness and warmth blossoming in its center, beckoning the shadow of a young woman in from the dark, just so perfectly fits the mood, tone, and feel of this story. The feeling of winter, with its beauty, its power, and its danger pervades every moment in this story. The land itself is a character, and the changing of the seasons, its voice. But this world is home to Vasilisa and her family. They accept its challenges, just as they relish the unique joys that come with living far away in a deep dark woods.

What is so lovely about this story is the very “fairytale-ness” of it. There is no one fairytale that it is retelling, and, in many ways, it could also just be any old, winter fantasy novel in the hands of a less gifted author. But Arden nails that indescribable element that somehow transforms a story into a folktale. I’m not quite sure even what it is. Some combination of lyricism, philosophy, beautifully rendered characters, and a respect for the beauty that can be found in the whole process of storytelling, not just the destination. Juliet Marillier is one of my all time favorite authors due to her ability to capture what feels like the essence of folktales into her novels, and here, Arden, too, seems to  embody this same quality.

While this is Vasalisa’s story, in many ways, I loved how Arden didn’t short shift the characters that surrounded her. More and more, recently, I have found many young adult female protagonists seems to be written in a void. They are the only developed characters in their world, and that then leads to they themselves not being fully developed due to a lack of support and framework from which to interact. Here, we have Vasalisa’s father, her brothers, the priest who comes to their small village, the nurse, and the step mother. All fully realized, all with motives, all with unique perspectives and strengths and weaknesses. Not a single character is all good or all bad. Vasalisa’s father, so supportive much of the time, struggles with one of his son’s choices. The step mother, who is in many ways the villain of the story, has chapters that introduce her as a completely sympathetic individual. And even as we see her behave atrociously, we can understand how her world has shrunk, how she has been betrayed and manipulated by everyone around her, and how her every decisions operates from a place of stark terror.

This is a slow-moving story. The first fifty percent of it is setting up this world and these characters. I completely enjoyed this section as well, but it may seem slow to others who are looking for more fantasy action. But the second half completely delivers on this point, as well. There are many truly creepy and horrific moments, and plenty of other developments that simply left a smile on my face. The ending, too, was perfect. Bittersweet, poignant, and left open to interpretation. I can’t rave enough about this book! Another story that I’m sure will make my Top 10 for 2017! Apparently this is the first book in a trilogy, so I’m very excited to revisit this world and these characters going forward!

Rating 10: A perfect read for a snowy evening and a wonderful book all around.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Bear and the Nightingale” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best of Russia”  and “Russian Fairy Tales.”

Find “The Bear and the Nightingale” at your library using Worldcat!

And, even better, you can enjoy this book, too! I’m hosting a give-away for the ARC of this book (cuz, let’s be honest, I’m going out to buy my own hardback any day now!). The giveaway will run until Feb. 1, 2017. Please see the Terms & Conditions for more details!

Click here to enter the give away!

The Great Animorphs Re-Read: #1 “The Invasion”

776877Animorphs #1: “The Invasion”

Publishing Info: Scholastic Paperbacks, June 1996

Where Did I Get this Book: own it!

Book Description: Sometimes weird things happen to people. Ask Jake. He may tell you about the night he and his friends saw the strange light in the sky. He may even tell you about what happened when they realized the “light” was only a plane — from another planet. Here’s where Jake’s story gets a little weird. It’s where they’re told that the human race is under attack — and given the chance to fight back.

Now Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias, and Marco have the power to morph into any animal they choose. And they must use that power to outsmart an evil that is greater than anything the world has ever seen…

Narrator: Jake

Plot: This book has so much going on, guys! It’s like some strange feat of magic that Applegate somehow fits this all in one, tiny book. We have the introductions to the gang, the introductions to the intergalactic war, the Andalites, the Yeerks, the “discover your powers” moment, two wacky mini adventures, and then finally, the climatic final arc.

Basically, 5 teens meet and then decide (very poor decision #1) to wander through a deserted construction site at night. Like you do.They then proceed to stumble across a UFO and a dying alien who identifies himself as Elfangor, an Andalite, whose species is in an intergalactic war with the Yeerks, evil alien slugs, essentially, that take over the life forms of other aliens and who are intent on seizing Earth as their next conquest. Elfangor explains how the Yeerks could be anyone, how they control the body and mind of their hosts by crawling in the ear and attaching to the brain, and how the Andalites are losing the war. The only hope is if he gives these kids a weapon to fight back while they wait for the Andalites to return with reinforcements some years in the future. And this weapon is the ability to turn into any animal whose DNA they acquire through touch. The catch being that if they stay in this morph for over 2 hours, they will be trapped forever as this animal (no terrible foreshadowing here or anything!).

They then meet the enemy: Visser Three, the only Yeerk with an Andalite body as a host (and thus the ability to also morph) who is just like a Bond villain with his villainy spelled with a capital “V.”  There are also other Yeerk-controlled minions made up of Taxxons, disgusting worm creatures with too many teeth, and the Hork-Bajir, the muscle of the group, huge aliens covered with razors. 

Seriously, there is so much plot I’m already overwhelmed trying to re-cap it! The Animorphs get their powers, learn to use them, discover that Jake’s brother Tom is a Controller (all the sads), figure out that this creepy, cult-like youth group called The Sharing is a Yeerk front to recruit new Controllers, and infiltrate the Yeerk pool (where the Yeerks must go every 3 days to feed), barely escaping Visser Three once again and really pretty much failing completely at their first mission. Also, Tobias gets stuck as a hawk. The end!

(I promise this section will be shorter in the future, when there’s less set up to get through, too!)

Our Fearless Leader: This is Jake’s story so we get a lot from him. We learn that he is best friends with Marco, cousin to Rachel, has a crush on Cassie, and saved Tobias from a close-call with a toilet and some bullies. All of this goes to say that Jake is a pretty good guy who naturally falls into the leadership role of this group, much to his own dismay. His relationship with Tom, his older brother, is central to this story and saving Tom from the Controllers becomes his main motivation for continuing this battle. In this book he morphs his own dog, a gecko, and acquires his battle morph: a tiger.

Xena, Warriar Princess: This is Rachel, Jake’s cousin. Our intro to her is rather minimal, but we find out that she is model-level beautiful (but, ew, gross, she’s Jake’s cousin!), but is also the most natural fighter of the group. I had forgotten about her wacky relationship with Marco, but their quipping back and forth was one of my favorite parts of this book. Her battle morph is an elephant, though I’m pretty sure this changes later on as even here this proves problematic. She can’t fit up the tunnel to escape the Yeerk pool and has to demorph as she runs. How she survives, no one knows. Or…you know, author’s prerogative!

A Hawk’s Life: What a bummer this section title even is! Tobias’s life is rough. Terrible home like (no parents, shunted from one relative to another), bully-filled school life, and now, stuck as a hawk cuz he essentially felt more comfortable as a bird than a boy. Some people read his arc in this story as one pointing towards him wanting to become a hawk full-time, but to me, this was a boy who was trying to escape his life, but didn’t mean to fall in this trap. Obviously his battle morph is now himself as a hawk. *sniff*

Peace, Love, and Animals: Cassie doesn’t have a whole lot going on in this book. It’s notable that she, along with Tobias, note that Rachel is acting strangely after her first mission into the house.

The Comic Relief: Oh, Marco! How I love thee! Marco is Jake’s best friend, and at first comes off as the stereotypical funny guy of the group. But Marco is also the smartest, I’m pretty sure, being the first to pick up on the “Tom’s a Controller!” and “The Sharing sounds like a front!” vibes. Marco, too, has tragic home life with the recent loss of his mother. This being the case, he’s also one of the more unwilling members in the fight, not wanting to burden his grieving father with another loss. His battle morph is a gorilla.

Best (?) Body Horror Moment: These books contain way more body horror than I remembered as a kid! So each review will feature this lovely section where you all get to enjoy the revulsion with me! In this book, we have not only Jake eating a spider while in morph (with all the talk about feeling it move in his stomach later included) but also losing his tail after being stepped on and seeing it wriggle around on the ground behind him.

Couples Watch!: Ahh, teen love! Our couples are already laid out for us in this book, which was another surprise as I thought these hints came later. But Jake discusses how he maybe, kind of, ok really, thinks Cassie is pretty awesome. And Tobias tends to land on Rachel’s shoulder, for some unknown reason that poor, delusional cousin Jake wonders about. So cute!

If Only Visser Three had  Mustache to Twirl: Visser Three makes two appearances in the book, and in both he is established as a big bad with a penchant for show-boating. He boasts and talks himself up at every possible moment! He also has a fondness for tigers, it seems, admiring Jake’s morph while trying to fire blast him as the Animorphs escape.

Adult Ugly Crying at a Middle Grade Book: A tie between Jake’s older brother Tom fighting so hard to get out of the Yeerk pool only for Jake to see him at breakfast the next morning knowing that the Yeerks captured him and he is once again under their control and Tobias. Just everything about him.

What  a Terrible Plan, Guys!: There are a lot of truly awful plans in these books, from what I remember. For this book, it’s pretty much the whole plan to infiltrate the Yeerk pool all together. No recognizance. Half of the people don’t have appropriate morphs (Cassie can only morph a horse! A HORSE!). And several things go wrong right off the bat (Tobias already in morph, cutting his time short. Cassie’s missing.) that should have served as enough warnings to maybe spend a bit more time on this whole idea.

Favorite Quote:  This quote illustrates perfectly why Marco is a favorite character of mine and why I, too, tend to get exasperated with Cassie.

“Don’t be so sure,’ Cassie said. ‘We’re fighting for Mother Earth. She has some tricks up her sleeves.’
‘Good grief,’ Marco said. ‘Let’s all buy Birkenstocks and go hug some trees.”

Scorecard: Yeerks 1, Animorphs 0

This one goes to the Yeerks, since the Animorphs’ biggest accomplishment was escaping with their lives, and even then it was a loss considering the whole Tobias situation.

Rating: Awesome start that is still fun today, full of adventure, danger, and more sadness than is acceptable!

Note: I’m not going to rate these books since I can’t be objective at all! But I’ll give a one sentence conclusion and you can take from that what you will!

 

 

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Wondrous”

32578571Book: “Wondrous” by Travis M. Riddle

Publishing Info: January 17, 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC

Book Description: Miles went to sleep tucked tightly in bed in his Austin apartment and woke up in the middle of a damp, dark forest in the kingdom of Rompu, a land being torn apart by a civil war between its king and queen.

Miles has few companions in this vast kingdom, which is filled with fantastical animals and flora yet sprinkled with familiar items like digital clocks and vinyl records. As he searches for a way to return home, he discovers that certain memories trigger magical abilities: he can shoot fireballs from his palms, heal with nothing but a touch, and more. But as he struggles to make sense of this new world, his thoughts are punctuated by painful memories of his sick grandmother, quarreling parents, and an icy school therapist.

When Miles learns that a monstrous entity flying through the countryside and killing for sport was summoned from a portal to another realm, he believes this creature is the key to learning how to open another rift and return home. Tracking down this beast and mastering his newfound magical abilities may be the only way for Miles to help save Rompu and get back to his family in Texas.

Review:  I received an ARC for this book from the author, and after checking out the plot synopsis, it sounded like a book that might be up my alley! I always love an “other world” story where our hero is plopped down with as much confusion as we the readers have, and I was intrigued by the idea of the protagonist being such a young boy.

The story doesn’t waste any time getting started. I was a bit concerned after reading the first chapter and having Miles so suddenly transported to this new land with very little explanation for how/why he was transported and no backstory to support the reader’s interest in Miles story. While I still wish there had been a bit more set up to Miles’ trip to this new world, I was pleased to discover the clever way the author provided this backstory and connected Miles’ real life problems to his own burgeoning powers in this new world.

The magic system was rather simple, but the way Riddle connected the use of the power to Miles’ memories of his home life and the emotions that these memories inspired was an interesting take. I appreciated the inclusion of these aspects of Miles’ life. It would have been all too easy to simply write a fun, adventurous romp for this character. But instead, through Miles, Riddle addresses many aspects of childhood that are challenging, such as parental conflict, the death of aged relatives, and struggles with school.

I wavered back and forth with regards to my opinion of Miles himself. In many ways, he was a very likeable, young boy. But at other times, perhaps realistically, he came off as a spoiled brat and it became hard to understand the patience with which the adult beings in this new world had for him when they were in the midst of a very trying war. My other struggle with Miles was his age. Nine years old is very young, and at times it was hard to buy-in to Miles’ inner voice and thought process that sometimes verged into what felt like an older child’s range, perhaps 12 or so. Ultimately, I still did enjoy Miles when I could get past these few distractions.

As for these side character, they also had varying mileage. The species we meet are creative, but there were a few stylistic choices that sat oddly, like a frog-like species called Rompun speaking French. But these choices may work better for young readers.

Speaking of young readers, some of these concerns, simple world-building, a lack of depth to certain narrative choices like Miles trip to this land and the relationships between the different species that make up this world, could be explained by the target audience of this book. Though it isn’t explicitly stated anywhere in the book description, I’m guessing that this book is aimed towards middle grade readers. In this case, some of these choices make more sense (in particular, in the end there were a few rather implausible, narrow escapes for our supporting cast) if Riddle was wanting to keep the tone of the book more light. However, I would also suggest that middle grade fiction should still be held to a similar high standard with regards to some of these choices. It is possible to add depth to a fantasy world and create positive, but more believable, outcomes to dangerous situations that is still approachable to middle grade readers.

All in all, I had a fun time reading this book, but feel that it is an example of middle grade fiction that might be received better by its intended age range, rather than adult readers. If you have a middle grader who likes escapists fantasy, this might be the book for them!

Rating 6: A fun story, but had frustrating moments for me as an adult reader.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Wondrous” has just been published, so it isn’t included on any Goodreads lists yet. However, an obvious similar book would be “A Wrinkle in Time.” Both feature young protagonists thrust into new worlds with new alien beings.