Serena’s Review: “Unspoken”

10866624Book: “Unspoken” by Sarah Rees Brennan

Publishing Info: Random House, September 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Kami Glass loves someone she’s never met . . . a boy she’s talked to in her head ever since she was born. She wasn’t silent about her imaginary friend during her childhood, and is thus a bit of an outsider in her sleepy English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Still, Kami hasn’t suffered too much from not fitting in. She has a best friend, runs the school newspaper, and is only occasionally caught talking to herself. Her life is in order, just the way she likes it, despite the voice in her head.

But all that changes when the Lynburns return.

The Lynburn family has owned the spectacular and sinister manor that overlooks Sorry-in-the-Vale for centuries. The mysterious twin sisters who abandoned their ancestral home a generation ago are back, along with their teenage sons, Jared and Ash, one of whom is eerily familiar to Kami. Kami is not one to shy away from the unknown—in fact, she’s determined to find answers for all the questions Sorry-in-the-Vale is suddenly posing. Who is responsible for the bloody deeds in the depths of the woods? What is her own mother hiding? And now that her imaginary friend has become a real boy, does she still love him? Does she hate him? Can she trust him?

Review: I’m not sure how this book ended up on my TBR pile. I’ve read some Sarah Rees Brennan in the past, but it has been a while since I picked up one of her books. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I was browsing the library shelves (Goodreads app in hand to check against my to-read lists) and found this book right there waiting for me and didn’t have a lot of pre-existing expectations set in place going in. And it was good! Brennan manages to balance many classic YA tropes with a fresh voice and perspective that allows them to grow past their typical, clumsy restraints.

From the get go, I liked Kami Glass. She’s pretty much a half-Japanese, British born, Lois-Lane-in-the-making. And we all know how much I love Lois Lane. Full of spunk, wit, and drive, Kami pursues her goals with an energy that can’t help but draw in those around her. And in a testament to the author’s creative ability, the cast of characters who surround Kami are as diverse as they are typical, without falling over the stumbling block stereotypes often found in young adult literature. Kami has a female best friend, Angela, who is very clearly her strongest support system (stereotype avoided: lack of female friends for the female protagonist so as to cement her “difference” from “other girls”). There is even a third female friend, Holly, one of the more popular girls at school (stereotype avoided: “mean girls”). Angela has an older brother who is a healthy, non-romantic male friend of Kami’s (stereotype avoided: meet-cute with the boy-next-door who is a love interest). Kami has a very stable, loving family complete with two parents and two younger brothers (stereotype avoided: nonexistent/absent parents, lack of siblings or poor relationship with a distasteful, often older, sibling).

And, while there are the makings of a love triangle, this too is waded through carefully and with respect to the emotional struggles that would exist due to the situation. In fact, the way the relationship between Kami and Jared was portrayed was one of my favorite aspects of the story. Each honestly believed the other was a made-up character in their own head. Discovering at age 16 that your imaginary friend is not only real, but here in your own town, going to your own school, would have dramatic affects. This is not a romantic, blissful situation. Suddenly the closeness and emotional vulnerability becomes real and, perhaps, invasive. Kami begins to question where she leaves off and Jared begins. Physical contact is uncomfortable to the extreme.

I can’t say how much I appreciated the author’s handling of this situation. What could have so easily been twisted into a silly, romantic plot device is instead highlighted as intensely unhealthy, especially when Kami and Jared attempt to build a real friendship/relationship with their fully existing selves. In a book notable for its witty dialogue and punchy descriptions, Kami spends a significant amount of time analyzing independence, a sense of self, and what a healthy relationship should look like.

The mystery and fantasy elements of the story were also strong. The history of the Lynburn family and this small, British town was chilling and the book does a good job setting up this conflict for the remaining two books in the series. My one point of real criticism is the location for the book. It is set in England, however, the language felt very Americanized. Not being natively British, I’m not sure if maybe my expectations are out of sorts or whether this is an actual failing. But I routinely forgot that this was set in England at all. The lack of British terms and turns of phrase in the dialogue felt odd. Other than creating a “manor family” legacy for the Lynburns and the town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, this setting felt underutilized and perhaps even disingenuous with regards to the other narrative decisions.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and have already placed a request at the library for the second one!

Rating 7: Very good, though a few questionable decisions with regards to underutilizing its setting.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Unspoken” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best YA Books with Non-White Protagonists” and “Strong Womances In YA.”

Find “Unspoken” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two”

17261183Book: “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, October 2013

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

Book Description from Goodreads: September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home, and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers.

Review: Can my whole review just be this gif?:

cumberbatch-feelings

No? Ok, fine, but I have to say, with this, the third installment in Valente’s “Fairyland” series, my love of these books has only continued to grow and my coherence for a reviewing them continues to deteriorate. But onwards we go in my now usual fashion for this series: blatant and unapologetic quoting!

September is growing up. We spend the longest portion yet in this series with September home in the “real world” waiting, wondering, and, now as an older girl, preparing for her trip to Fairyland. And with this growing up comes feelings, so many feelings! Fear, sadness, worry, and, suddenly, the thought that one must hide all of these feelings away. September has been practicing her “stern” face.

“It is such hard work to keep your heart hidden! And worse, by the time you find it easy, it will be harder still to show it. It is a terrible magic in this world to ask for exactly the thing you want. Not least because to know exactly the thing you want and look it in the eye is a long, long labor.”

But finally her traveling companion and escort to Fairyland arrives in the form of a very grumpy Blue Wind and she’s away! In the previous story, with September’s adventures in Fairyland Below, we spent a lot of time with the shadow versions of her companions, the wyverary A-Through-L, and the madrid Saturday, who were not quite the same as the true versions of themselves. So, as a reader, I could sympathize with September’s reflections on missing friends and loved ones and the complex feelings that arise from being reunited with those we care about after years of grieving their absence (though I am a spoiled reader who only had to wait until the next book to find my beloved characters again).

“September laughed a little. She tried to make it sound light and happy, as though it were all over now and how funny it was, when you think about it, that simply not having another person by you could hurt so. But it did not come out quite right; there was a heaviness in her laughing like ice at the bottom of a glass. She still missed Saturday, yet he was standing right beside her! Missing him had become a part of her, like a hard, dark bone, and she needed so much more than a few words to let it go. In all this while, she had spent more time missing Saturday than seeing him.”

The breadcrumbs that had been laid out in past books regarding the slow build relationship between September and Saturday come to a head in this story. Fully ensconced in “teenagedom,” September and Saturday struggle with the everyday challenges of first love while also dealing with the very-not-everyday-challenges of dating a madrid whose experiences with time as a river that can be traveled up and down with ease puts uncomfortable truths in the forefront. September had a glance of what could be her and Saturday’s daughter in the very first book, and a few run-ins with an adult Saturday in this story just further highlights her discomfort with fate, love, and choosing.

“But the trouble is, I do want to be surprised. I want to choose. I broke the heart of my fate so that I could choose. I never chose; I only saw a little girl who looked like me standing on a gear at the end of the world and laughing, and that’s not choosing, not really. Wouldn’t you rather I chose you? Wouldn’t you rather I picked our future out of all the others anyone could have?”

And per what is typical of these books, September’s adventures through bizarre and magical lands, meeting nonsensical and wonderful creatures, is all peppered with philosophical ponderings that speak to deeper truths. A few of my favorites include:

“Marriage is a wrestling match where you hold on tight while your mate changes into a hundred different things. The trick is that you’re changing into a hundred other things, but you can’t let go. You can only try to match up and never turn into a wolf while he’s a rabbit, or a mouse while he’s still busy being an owl, a brawny black bull while he’s a little blue crab scuttling for shelter. It’s harder than it sounds.”

and

“It’s Latin, which is an excellent language for mischief-making, which is why governments are so fond of it.”

and, of course,

“All Librarians are Secret Masters of Severe Magic. Goes with the territory.

I don’t think I have mentioned it in past reviews, but these books come with beautiful illustrations by Ana Juan. I listened to this book on audiobook (read by the author herself, and she was very good), so I missed the illustrations here. I nabbed a copy of the printed version to peruse them and they are beautiful, as they were in the previous books. Yet another plus to the series as a whole!

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by Ana Juan

Rating 10: The perfect balance of beautiful and poignant.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” is included on this Goodreads list: “Books You Wish More People Knew About” and Beautifully Written Books

Find “The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Reviews: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” and “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.”

 

Serena’s Review: “The Keeper of the Mist”

25739099Book: “The Keeper of the Mist”

Publishing Info: Knopf, March 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Keri has been struggling to run her family bakery since her mother passed away.  Now the father she barely knew—the Lord of Nimmira—has died, and ancient magic has decreed that she will take his place as the new Lady. The position has never been so dangerous: the mists that hide Nimmira from its vicious, land-hungry neighbors have failed, and Keri’s people are visible to strangers for the first time since the mists were put in place generations ago.

At the same time, three half-brothers with their own eyes on the crown make life within the House just as dangerous as the world outside. But Keri has three people to guide her: her mysterious Timekeeper, clever Bookkeeper, and steadfast Doorkeeper. Together they must find a way to repair the boundary before her neighbors realize just how vulnerable Nimmira is.

Review: I have read a few other titles by Rachel Neumeier, and I’m beginning to come to a bit of a conclusion about her work. She has great ideas and the book summary is always amazing, but the actual execution somehow makes even the most thrilling concept seem tedious.

Everything about this book description is right up my alley. Features a strong leading lady, set in a unique fantasy setting, aided by her friends with a dash of romance, and out to save a kingdom. And it all started out well. Keri, an outcast in her own town given the questionable nature of her birth, is attempting to run her recently deceased mother’s bakery on her own when her life is turned upside down. She is suddenly the new heir to the small, but economically wealthy, country of Nimmira and the invisibility spells that have protected it for so long from its vicious and greedy neighbors are failing. With the help of her childhood friends, Tassel and Cort, she must set out to right what is wrong before her country falls.

Unfortunately, for what sounds like an action-packed start, the story quickly falls into several pitfalls right off the bat. Firstly, Tassel and Cort, for as little page time as they get in the beginning of the story, are each intriguing characters. Keri’s character is itself rather bland, but when played against the more flamboyant Tassel or the stern, responsible Cort, her character is seen in the best light. Unfortunately, both characters, especially Cort, are absent for large chunks of the story, leaving us with Keri at her most pale.

Further, with magical protections failing, a new kingdom to run, and the arrival of questionable neighbors with perhaps evil intentions, you would think there would be a lot of room for the story to move. Instead, we spend pages and pages with characters just talking and planning on what to talk about next, and who should talk to who, and on and on. And look, I’m all for detailed storytelling and character building, but when huge portions of the book are simply characters rehashing the exact same subject over and over again I lose my patience. There was one line about a neighboring country perhaps not realizing that Nimmira was vulnerable that was repeated at least 5-6 times throughout the book. It would have been laughable, if it wasn’t frustrating.

What makes many of these factors all the more irritating is the strong premises, like I mentioned. The author has created a unique magic system, but then fails to explain how it works. With almost any fantasy novel, there is a level of basic acceptance that readers are expected to go in with, but unfortunately this story pushed past this point. Keri, Tassel, and Cort all come into their new roles and discover their own specific brand of magic. However, the limits, boundaries, or rules of each of their abilities is never explored. There were several points where one or another character would conveniently discover just the right ability at just the right time to get them out of whatever scenario they were stuck in. This is not a magic system, this is a plot magic.

And sadly, the romance was not what I had hoped for either. It’s odd that I’m usually complaining about instalove relationships in  young adult books, and while this was definitely not that, it was equally unsatisfying. Cort is absent for large portions of the book, which means that any progression of feelings (Keri starts off respecting Cort but very definitely not interested) isn’t based on any interactions between the characters, but more a “realization” towards the end of the story that she had always felt that way. Similar to the sudden magical abilities that were never hinted at before, this was sudden love feelings that we are shown no examples of, just merely told are suddenly there, on both characters’ part. It was very disappointing.

All in all, while there were strengths to this story (a creative world, an interesting idea for a magical system, and the beginnings of good characters), none of these strengths were ever fully realized, and it was ultimately a frustrating and disappointing read.

Rating 5: For having such a strong premises, the story and characters never felt fully fleshed out or sure of themselves.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Keeper of the Mist” is included on this Goodreads list: “Upcoming 2016 sci-fi/fantasy novels with female leads or co-leads.” 

Find “The Keeper of the Mist” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There”

13538708Book: “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, October 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows—and their magic—to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.

Review: It’s another home run, folks! And, since I am not one for changing routine, I’m going to conduct this review in the same manner as I did the last: Insert beautiful quotes and weep at the author’s literary majesty. Here we go!

“A book is a door, you know. Always and forever. A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world.”

September is waiting anxiously to return to Fairyland and continue her adventures. But this time around, her return is marked not with the exultation of a savior, but the practical results of her previous actions. Her shadow, lost in exchange for aide the last go around, is loose and making trouble in Fairyland-Below and it is up to Septmeber, as the owner of said shadow and therefore responsible, to set things straight (or as straight as they can get in such a nonsense world).

“You know, in Fairyland-Above they said that the underworld was full of devils and dragons. But it isn’t so at all! Folk are just folk, wherever you go, and it’s only a nasty sort of person who thinks a body’s a devil just because they come from another country and have different notions. It’s wild and quick and bold down here, but I like wild things and quick things and bold things, too.”

September is also growing up, much to her own dismay. She is no longer a Heartless Child and her new, untried heart proves to be quite a struggle in this book. She must bargain away a first kiss as well as time itself, an even more precious and unknowable currency.

“For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it.”

This new heart proves troublesome with her friends as well, new and old. The realization that friends are different, individual people with their own thoughts, feelings, and priorities challenges September’s perception of herself and the world. But A-Through-L and the Madrid, Saturday, are as wonderful as ever. Her relationship with Saturday grows deeper and even more confusing for poor child-on-the-verge-of-adulthood hearts.

“And then she felt her Ell’s great strong presence beside her, and Saturday slipped his hand in hers. Oh. Oh. They would not abandon her. Of course, they would not. How silly she had been. They were her friends—they had always been. Friends can go odd on you and do things you don’t like, but that doesn’t make them strangers.”
 Valente continues her unique writing style of beautiful lyricism, grammatical twists, and deep truths masked in narrative gymnastics. I continue to enjoy her insertions of the narrator’s own voice on the story.

“Oh, September! It is so soon for you to lose your friends to good work and strange loves and high ambitions. The sadness of that is too grown-up for you. Like whiskey and voting, it is a dangerous and heady business, as heavy as years. If I could keep your little tribe together forever, I would. I do so want to be generous. But some stories sprout bright vines that tendril off beyond our sight, carrying the folk we love best with them, and if I knew how to accept that with grace, I would share the secret.”

As I’ve mentioned, the real joy of these books lies in the combination of nonsensical world building and creativity alongside very deep, and often sad, thoughts on life and living. This book, specifically, deals a lot with September’s father, his absence while fighting in a war in Europe, and the effects that war  itself has on a person.

“Her father’s shadow looked sadly down at her. “You can never forget what you do in a war, September my love. No one can. You won’t forget your war either.”

September learns several lessons regarding grief, friendship, love, betrayal and forgiveness all while cavorting in an underworld ruled by her own capricious shadow.  The shadow-selves in this story are a fascinating look at the unknown self, the better and worse aspects of each being that lie out of our own sight and awareness.

“For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.”

All around, another amazing story featuring September and Fairyland. I loved this book almost as much as the first, the only detraction being my own rush to want to return to the beloved Fairyland characters from the first story, which is a hard thing to hold against a series that is themed around creative new ideas and worlds. Again, I will be rushing on to the third book and am pretty sure that this series will end up being purchased and added to my own personal library.

“A library is never complete. That’s the joy of it. We are always seeking one more book to add to our collection.”

Rating 9: Very excellent indeed!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best Fairytales and Retellings” and “Children’s Books I’ll Re-Read No Matter How Old I Am.”

Find “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review of “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.”

 

Serena’s Review: “Oryx and Crake”

46756Book: “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood

Publishing Info: Anchor, March 2004

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

Book Description from Goodreads: Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride.

Review: Margaret Atwood is a master of dystopian fiction. And that is why I read her books rarely. Want to sink deeply into existential malaise? Wallow in the realization that many of these “dystonian” constructs seem frighteningly close to the truth? Oh boy, get ready! And while this is a glum start to a review, the fact that she is able to tap so directly into these dark themes is simply an example of her expertise in action.

“Oryx and Crake” drops readers off right in the middle of the action…er…inaction. A man who calls himself “Snowman” is seemingly the last human alive on a very clearly climate-impacted earth. Surrounded by bizarre hybrids species such as Rachunks (raccoon/skunks) and Wolvogs (wolf/dogs), he spends his days sleeping in a tree, scrounging for food, and acting as a sort of prophet to the “Children of Crake” a humanoid species that he shares his beach with.

A beginning like this is definitely challenging. Atwood starts her story in the middle and leaves readers to trust that the answer to an overwhelming number of initial questions will come. The story does become clear slowly throughout the book using extended flashback as Snowman thinks of his life before when he was known as Jimmy and had a brilliant friend named Crake and a mysterious lover named Oryx. Through these flashbacks and what seems like the slow decay of Snowman’s sanity given his isolation, important facts and connections can be gleaned and fit together forming a complex puzzle that is incredible once you reach the end. However, while I loved this tactic, some readers may be frustrated with the amount of trust and patience that is required early on in the story.

The main focus of the story is the life of Jimmy/Snowman. Knowing the end result, it is fascinating reading about his life unfolding and spotting the signs that things would not end well. And right here is what I’m talking about! The mad science of this society that comes across as horrific to an omniscient reader who knows the outcome can also be easily seen as a natural progression of a society gone wild with its own power of creation. What’s more, in the moment, lacking this foreknowledge, these advancements would seem as nothing more than the logical next step in society. And it’s terrifying, the ease with which one can imagine these things as all too plausible in the near future! Atwood pulls no punches in her critiques of society, science, and the pitfalls of humanity’s relationship with nature, science, and, perhaps most importantly, with itself.

As a character, Jimmy is the everyman of the story. As the son of two scientists, Jimmy’s life is one of privilege given the state of society. He grows up in a “compound,” one of the elaborate campuses that private companies create to house their most prized goods: the brilliant scientists they hire. Outside these communities lie the “Pleblands” where the average members of society make their living. I wish we had heard more about this outside world. As I said, Jimmy starts life in a very privileged position and this start is enough to successfully carry him through a life inside the more cozy world of these compounds, even though he doesn’t possess the brilliance of his parents or genius best friend, Crake. That being the case, we see very little of this outside world. It seems to still run like current society, with a hierarchy of wealth within its boundaries as well, though more plagued by crime, disease, and, obviously, poverty, than the compounds.

The second member of the three main characters is Oryx, the love interest for Jimmy and Crake, though this is a very small part of the story, as far as I could tell. The book description plays  it up in a way that I don’t think rings true at all. Of the three characters, her life story is the most tragic and she is the most ambiguous. It is clear that Jimmy never fully understands her, so we as readers glimpsing her only through Jimmy’s own perceptions never see a clear picture either. While I enjoyed hearing her story and seeing different aspects of society through her life, as a character she was probably the weakest. Her storyline did not seem as integral to the plot overall.

And Crake. Jimmy has a better understanding of him, but an understanding that is constantly distorted through rose colored glasses of childhood friendship. Again, knowing the outcome and in combination with Snowman’s more cynical thought process in the present, the story of Crake is one of simmering horror.

“Oryx and Crake” is the first in a trilogy, however, it reads well as a stand alone novel. I will most likely continue the series (again, once I’ve given myself a rest from the dread that Atwood so effortlessly dredges up), but I am satisfied with the story as it stands now, as well. Her writing is strong, the characters intricate, and, as always, this book definitely reads as a cautionary tale for humanity.

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Agent Smith had it right, according to this book!

Rating 8: Dark, but great.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Oryx and Crake” is included on the Goodreads list “Smart Apocalyptic and Dystopian Fiction” and “Science Fiction Books by Female Authors”.

Find “Oryx and Crake” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making”

9591398 Book: “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” by Catherynne M. Valente

Publishing Info: Feiwel & Friends, May 2011

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

Book: It’s going to be so hard to talk about this book without gushing. Or crying. Or gushing. Or crying/gushing. (Gushily crying?)

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But remember how I listed the “Oz” books as one of the formative series of my childhood? Along side a similar love for the “Narnia” series and a brief stint as Alice in a children’s theater production of “Alice in Wonderland,” I have a special fondness in my heart for books about children traveling to fantastic and nonsensical worlds. But the true joy of this book was its heart, the deeper meanings, feelings, and yes, tragedies, that could be seen sparkling through the ridiculous trappings of a crazy Fairyland world. And I loved every minute of it.

Beyond the gushing, it’s also going to be hard to write about this book given what it is. While there is a plot, and there are great characters, its all wrapped up in the trappings of madness. And the language itself is what makes the story great. How do I really capture that in a review? So, I might try something different here, and pull out some of my favorite quotes and use those to frame my thoughts.

“Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”

September, our 12 year old heroine, is ready for an adventure. As a child who loves to read, she is well accustomed to what it would take to be a great traveler and is only waiting for her invitation.

“One ought not to judge her: all children are Heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb high trees and say shocking things and leap so very high grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless At All. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown.”

And one day it comes in the form of a Green Wind riding a leopard ready to whisk her away to Fairyland where she will get in an awful lot of trouble, meet some great friends like a Wyverary (a wyvern/library definitely NOT dragon) and a mysterious boy names Saturday, and be called upon to de-throne a monarch.

“Such lonely, lost things you find on your way. It would be easier, if you were the only one lost. But lost children always find each other, in the dark, in the cold. It is as though they are magnetized and can only attract their like. How I would like to lead you to brave, stalwart friends who would protect you and play games with dice and teach you delightful songs that have no sad endings. If you would only leave cages locked and turn away from unloved Wyverns, you could stay Heartless.”

The beautiful language in this book can not be praised enough. It is difficult enough to write a nice, straight forward story. But to write nonsense, and nonsense that hides deep, dark truths while also just being simply beautiful to read and repeat aloud, that is a unique and rare talent.

“… but as has been said, September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armor and rode out with colors flying.”

Valente also employs another tricky technique, that of inserting her own authorial voice into the story. I’ve seen this ploy used all too often to super-cheesy effect. But here, like with everything else, Valente captures the perfect balance of whimsy and wit, so instead of being read as intrusive or tonally jarring, these insertions only add depth and further insight to the story.

“It is true that novelists are shameless and obey no decent law, and they are not to be trusted on any account, but some Mysteries even they must honor.”

So, I have successfully reviewed this book while mostly relying on the author’s own work to speak for itself and done very little myself. But, that too, is a praise of the book and of the author herself. I am proceeding straight to the next book and, if it is as amazing as this one, will likely be equally incoherent in my next review.

“All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again.”

Rating 10: Could have gotten this rating for this quote alone, but the book also completely earned it.

“She sounds like someone who spends a lot of time in libraries, which are the best sorts of people.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Books that Love Words” and “Girls with Dragons” (but A-Through-L is NOT a dragon!!)

Find “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Every Heart a Doorway”

25526296 Book:“Every Heart a Doorway” by Seanan McGuire

Publishing Info: Tor, April 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads:

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children:
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Review: I highlighted this novella as an upcoming release that I was anxiously looking forward to back in April. I have read some of Seanan McGuires other books and have liked her style. Beyond that, the premises is right up my alley.

When my sister and I were little (or maybe only a few years ago, too), we would discuss what we would do if we suddenly came upon a portal to another world. The conversation was always pretty short: we’d go through of course! Having grown up on stories where children visit places like Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, this really seems to be the only option.

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Going is never in question and there are millions of stories that share these adventures. But what happens when these children come back? (I am restraining myself from going into a long, drawn out discussion about the existential trauma that the Pevensies children must have gone through after living full adult lives in Narnia only to suddenly topple back to their own world as small children. If you really think about it for a minute, the true horror of that situation really sets in. Ok, mini rant over.)

“Every Heart a Doorway” addresses this very issue.  This novella posits that every child who disappears to these different worlds is also matched to a world that fits an inner part of themselves that cannot be fully expressed here in the human world. And when those children (adults in children’s bodies, many of them) return, it is not by free choice. Nancy is one of these children. After spending the last several years in an Underworld, the “Halls of the Dead” world specifically, she has returned to the “real” world and finds that she’s not too happy about it. Her parents, confused and saddened by the loss of their daughter of before, a past person that Nancy herself does not mourn, do what many such parents have done: carted her off for “treatment.” Luckily for Nancy, this “treatment” consists of a boarding school operated by a woman who knows all too well of Nancy’s unique struggles, having herself traveled between worlds for much of her life.

It’s amazing how much ground McGuire covers in such a short story. The book is only 150 pages long and yet she lays out not only Nancy’s story, but several other unique characters as well. Such as Jack and Jill, twins who spent years and years in a land called “The Moors” which seems to be based on old horror movies such as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein.” There’s Sumi, Nancy’s roommate, who traveled to a nonsense world, and perhaps has the most honest things to stay about these experiences from it. And Kade, a boy who was scooped up by fairies as a child, but who was kicked out when they learned that the little girl they thought they had captured identified as a boy and was much more interested in slaying trolls than in parading as their princess.

Alongside these fantastic characters, McGuire creates a unique system for cataloging these worlds, with axis of Nonsense and Logical with cross beams of Virtue and Wicked and many other offshoots as well. As a longtime reader of fantasy stories where characters world-jump, it was great fun looking at this mapping process and trying to apply it to other magical worlds from stories.

The mystery at the center of the story is also very effective and another huge mark in its favor. Again, the author had half the page count of a typical book to fit in all of these elements. I loved every minute of this book, and while I would love to have spent more time with these characters and this exploration of children traveling to fantasy worlds and their experiences after returning, the best compliment I can give any novella is to say that I felt fully satisfied with it as a short stand-alone.

Rating 9: Really great read! Fun characters, fun mystery, and most importantly, a great exploration of a typical fantasy trope.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Every Heart a Doorway” is included on the Goodreads list “Gender Non-Binary Fantasy & Science Fiction” and “2016 Speculative Fiction New Series And Standalones Books”.

Find “Every Heart a Doorway” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Pirate King”

9970915 Book: “Pirate King” by Laurie R. King

Publishing Info: Bantam, September 2011

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: In England’s budding silent-film industry, megalomaniac Randolph Fflytte is king. At the request of Scotland Yard, Mary Russell is dispatched to investigate rumors of criminal activities. At Lisbon rehearsals for “Pirate King”, based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”, thirteen blond-haired, blue-eyed actresses meet the real buccaneers Fflytte has recruited to provide authenticity. But when the crew embarks for Morocco and the actual filming, troubles escalate.

Review: I have been reading Laurie King’s “Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes” series on and off for the past…decade?? A long time is all I know. It’s one of my favorite mystery series, and the fact that I can simply jump into the story at whatever point I left off previously (perhaps years previously) with such ease is a huge mark in its favor. All that said, when I was feeling the need for a little mystery action in my reading cycle, I knew just where to look. And King’s “Pirate King” did not disappoint!

Following the usual track for these stories, the book begins with Mary Russell being sent off on some investigation or another. This right here is one of the reasons I enjoy this series so much. The focus is well and truly on Mary Russell’s character, with Holmes firmly in the supporting role. The fact that I love the Sherlock Holmes mythos so much makes me all the more appreciative of this decision. Like the originals, told from Watson’s perspective, Holmes is a character best appreciated from a slight distance and in sprinklings of narrative brilliance. And Mary Russell, herself, is a strong lead for the series. Adventurous, witty, clever, and full of energy, it has never been a challenge picturing her as the equal and companion of our famous detective throughout the series. She drives the story, and while I always look forward to Holmes’ next appearance, I am never antsy waiting for it. Russell is a great lead on her own.

As noted in the jacket description, this mystery revolves around a silent film production featuring pirates. The film company “Fflytte films” is known for the “realism” in its production quality. So, naturally, this means that the eccentric director must hire “real” pirate actors, rent a pirate ship, load 13 flighty British actresses on board and head off for Morocco, with poor Russell trailing along attempting to solve a mystery of criminality in the production history all while arranging the administrative details of such a venture. No small task!

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, as I mentioned earlier, have always been great characters in this series. That being the case, the strength of individual novels in the series often depends on the supporting characters that are introduced. “Pirate King” has a great cast! The aforementioned eccentric director, his long-suffering cousin who is in charge of arranging the “realistic” pieces (“A pirate parrot!” “A real castle!”), the Moroccan man-of-mystery hired to play the pirate king, and, of course, the 13 actresses and their doting chaperone mothers. It is easy to see why Russell might have been hesitant to sign up for this one!

A few criticism of the book. The pacing was rather uneven. The story gets off to a slow start, at times feeling dragged down by the minutiae of the film industry and the challenges of the bloated cast of characters. While enjoyable, it’s hard to keep track of 13 teenage actress characters right off the bat! But, by a third of the way in, the story really takes off and is highly enjoyable. However, the ending is then wrapped up all too quickly. These abrupt shifts in pace were rather distracting and interrupted the flow of the story, ultimately.

My second criticism will really depend on how much of a mystery element one wants in a mystery series. This book is definitely light on the mystery itself. The investigation that Mary Russell sets out on initially is even acknowledged by herself as likely much ado about nothing. And the additional mystery that is tacked on towards the end has much less to do with an actual mystery than in character analysis. I, personally, was ok with this as I found the adventure and light-hearted tone to be a nice reprieve from the more grim and serious books that came directly previous to this in the series. But if you’re looking for a capital “M” mystery, this might not be your best choice.

All in all, “Pirate King” is another solid entry in this series. While I recommend checking out the other books in the series, especially if you like historical mysteries, it is by no means necessary to have read them all, or any, to enjoy this book.

Rating 7: Another fun adventure with Mary Russell! The pacing in the first and third act were my only holdups, and whether the mystery is compelling enough is going to be highly dependent on reader expectations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Pirate King” is included on these Goodreads lists: “The Best British Crime/Mystery Fiction” and “Women who Solve Crimes.” 

Find “Pirate King” at your library using Worldcat!

 

Serena’s Review: “This Shattered World”

13138734Book: “This Shattered World” by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: Disney-Hyperion, December 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audio book from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Jubilee Chase and Flynn Cormac should never have met.

Lee is captain of the forces sent to Avon to crush the terraformed planet’s rebellious colonists, but she has her own reasons for hating the insurgents.

Rebellion is in Flynn’s blood. Terraforming corporations make their fortune by recruiting colonists to make the inhospitable planets livable, with the promise of a better life for their children. But they never fulfilled their promise on Avon, and decades later, Flynn is leading the rebellion.

Desperate for any advantage in a bloody and unrelentingly war, Flynn does the only thing that makes sense when he and Lee cross paths: he returns to base with her as prisoner. But as his fellow rebels prepare to execute this tough-talking girl with nerves of steel, Flynn makes another choice that will change him forever. He and Lee escape the rebel base together, caught between two sides of a senseless war.

Review: After reading and liking “These Broken Stars,” the first book in the “Starbound” trilogy, I was excited to jump right into the sequel. As I said in that review, I was even more intrigued by this book (and this series) by the fact that it was being written as companion novels, each featuring new characters, while spinning out a larger mystery that connects them all. When most YA series have recently followed a very predictable path, this was a creative take and a way to “have your cake and eat it, too” as an author. Sustainable series that will build and maintain a reading followership? Check. Get to write exciting, new characters and storylines? Check. Garner new readers with each book by not requiring knowledge of a previous story to engage with the current one? Check. So, in theory, “This Shattered World” was a brilliant concept. In reality, it was a swing and a miss for me.

Starting with the things I liked. Strengths from the previous novel were still present here: strong grounding in science fiction, not shying away from the realities and horror of the story’s premises, and the ability to draw characters who are both flawed and sympathetic and whose journey to mutual understanding is believable and compelling. These are no easy marks to meet, and I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I have been by the authors’ ability to balance alternating character chapters in a way that makes each perspective relatable and interesting in both of these stories. I personally found Jubilee’s voice more compelling, but this is likely due to my own personal preference for her character type as opposed to the more quiet and introspective Flynn.

Further, I was impressed with the way that the previous book’s main characters were tied into this story. The larger conflict dealing with Lilac’s father, his company, LaRoux Industries, and the experiments they have been undertaking on a mysterious alien life form were neatly woven in to this book. The unique conflict and peril of the story, the growing rebellion between the military and rebel leaders, were balanced nicely with this larger plot point. And while Lilac and Tarver are not present for much of the story, when they do make an appearance, it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. This story neatly builds upon the first one and does a good job laying down more groundwork and pushing the narrative towards the inevitable confrontation that will take place in the final book in the trilogy.

Now, sadly, for the negatives. First off, the writing in this book, overall, felt weaker than the last. The limited vocabulary was noticeable to a point of distraction. At one point, the word “shattered” was used 4 times within 2 pages. Hearts shattering. Sound shattering. Thoughts shattering. And it was only later that day when I remembered that that word was also in the title! I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is a marked difference from the first book, but instances like this did happen often enough to make me notice it in this story. Whether that comes down to the fact that there was an actual drop in writing quality in this book, or instead an indicator that I was not as thoroughly invested in this story enough that I was noticing things like this, I don’t know. Honestly, neither explanation is very good.

For some reason, beyond the alternating character chapters, the authors chose to include dream sequences from Jubilee’s perspective between each chapter. In a book as long as this is and with chapters as short as they were, that’s a lot, A LOT, of dream sequences. Way too many to be of any actual use to the story. A few of them may have contributed some background knowledge into Jubilee’s past, but I’m not convinced that this method was the best way to go about this. We learned Flynn’s past fine without resorting to 20+ dream sequences spread out through the entire book. And by the time the story gets to the final act, these dream sequences were not only failing to add to the story, but actively distracting from it and inserting a jarring tonal change between action-packed sequences. Further, there were more writing quality issues with the decision to refer to Jubilee as “the girl” throughout each dream sequence. “The girl hid under the table. But the girl could not see anything.” This writing technique is only rarely successful, from my experience, and there needs to be a good reason to choose to do it. That wasn’t the case here.

This also ties in neatly to my last critique. Typically I don’t have a lot to say about the audiobook version of a book I’ve read. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far and had good experiences. This, however, was decidedly not. The writing challenges were only further highlighted, I feel, when listening to the story. And some of the creative decisions were very poor. For instance, they decided to have three narrators, one for Jubilee, one for Flynn, and another for the dream sequences portion.

The direction for the dream sequences was absolutely atrocious, and I don’t say that lightly. For some reason, they decided to include this whispery murmuring and wind sound affect in the background for each bit. And the voice actor read the entire thing in a very dreamy, whispered voice. It was almost impossible to take it seriously. The combination of these affects, and the dramatic reading voice,  alongside the very simplistic writing style and the whole “the girl” narrative style, was severely off putting. It was taking itself way too seriously and ultimately made a joke of the whole thing. This is very unfortunate. I feel like I would have disliked the dream sequences even if I had simply read the book for the reasons I highlighted earlier, but the audio book version almost made them unbearable.

And sadly, the voice actor who read for Flynn was also not a favorite of mine. His tonal inflection was very bland and he didn’t vary his voice at all between characters which made several portions of the story very difficult to follow. The woman who narrated Jubilee, however, did a very good job. It is just too bad that having only one successful voice actor out of three makes a serious impact on the audio book’s success overall.

I would have rated the story alone as a 6. The strengths from the previous book were still present, however this book suffered from slightly weaker characters, a slightly weaker plot, and even perhaps slightly weaker writing. However, when the audio book is as bad as this one, I have to detract another point. It just goes to show how important it is to properly cast and direct an audio book. It has a huge effect on a story, making small flaws that much more noticeable and potentially adding points of distraction and distaste to an otherwise adequate story.

Rating 5: The story was ok, but the audio book was not.

Reader’s Advisory:

“This Shattered World” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Australian Women Writers – YA Speculative Fiction”and “Companion Novels”.

Find “This Shattered World” at your library using Worldcat!

Previous Review of “These Broken Stars.”

 

Serena’s Review: “These Broken Stars”

13138635Book: “These Broken Stars” by Aime Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, December 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Luxury spaceliner Icarus suddenly plummets from hyperspace into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive – alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a cynical war hero. Both journey across the eerie deserted terrain for help. Everything changes when they uncover the truth.  

Review: For all the proliferation of young adult fantasy novels, there is a distinct lack of young adult science fiction. I’m not quite sure why this is the case as the two genres are so often combined into one “fantasy/sci-fi” due to the vast number of similarities. Further, if there was ever a saturation point for readers, I have to think we’re reaching it with the number YA fantasy series out there right now. In this way, “These Broken Stars” stands out. Not only is it distinctly science fiction, but it is also a book that can be read as a stand alone! Both of these aspects were a refreshing change, and while there were some weak points in the story, for the most part “These Broken Stars” left me very satisfied.

Heiress and socialite Lilac LaRoux and war hero Tarver Merendsen have a typical meet-cute: plummeting towards a planet aboard a malfunctioning escape pod from an exploding spaceship. But really, the ship was called the “Icarus,” what did they expect? Why would anyone, ever, get on a ship named the “Icarus”?? There’s your first mistake. After crash landing, the two discover they are the only survivors of the wreck and must trek across an unknown planet in the hopes of discovering some means of sending a distress signal and escaping alive.

This is a solid plot. I appreciated the fact that Kaufman and Spooner didn’t pull any punches with the realities of a disaster of this magnitude. Not only do Tarver and Lilac have to deal with the challenges of their maroonment, but gruesome details of the crash and its aftermath are not shied away from. There are no easy outs. Injuries, starvation, dehydration, the confusion of a new environment, the grief and fear of a situation so fully out of one’s control: these are all painted with deft strokes. At one point, Tarver and Lilac reach the main wreck of the ship and the practicalities and horror of the situation is fully explored. Often, young adult novels can have a tendency to go easy on the realities of the story in favor of focusing on character drama. It can be very disappointing and also distracting. (Why is that character fretting between her love interests when an army is invading her kingdom?!?!) Not so, here.

And that’s not to say the characters in this do not experience their own drama. It’s only that their drama seems more grounded in the situation they find themselves in and their own biases and preconceived notions of the individual they have been forced to experience this trial alongside. The love story feels earned with its two characters going through misunderstanding, frustration, and anger, before building mutual understanding, respect, and care.

There were a few points where Tarver and Lilac fell a bit too closely into stereotypical characterizations. Or, more like, their “shocking reveal” anti-stereotypical characterizations. Of course Lilac isn’t just a socialite, but also a wiz at mechanics! However, each time I was about to roll my eyes at some overdone character moment, the authors would surprise me with a bit of realism that was enough to draw me back in. Lilac may be a wiz at mechanics, but she still struggles with her situation. So, too, Tarver, who could easily be written as the character more fully in the know and the right with his judgements of his companion, is also given flaws that make him more relatable and believable. Their physical and emotional journey is surprisingly balanced.

The mystery was also surprising. I enjoyed the reveal, and the final challenge in the third act of the story came completely out of left field. Also, while loose ends remained, the story also wrapped itself up in a way that was satisfying. Again, in young adult fiction where trilogies, cliff hangers, and dangling romantic plot lines that are drawn out through at least three books are the norm, I can’t emphasize enough how much I appreciated this respite.

There are two more books in this “series.” However, they each seem to focus on a new pair of individuals. This is a unique framing technique for what I’m guessing will be the larger conflict that was begun in this story. I’m curious to see how it will all pan out!

Rating 7: A solid outing for a young adult science fiction novel!

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Broken Stars” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Teenagers . . . IN SPACE!” and “Space Opera Romance”.

Find “These Broken Stars” at your library using Worldcat!