Serena’s Review: “An Enchantment of Ravens”

30969741Book: “An Enchantment of Ravens” by Margaret Rogerson

Publishing Info: Margaret K. McElderry Books, September 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from ALA

Book Description: Isobel is a prodigy portrait artist with a dangerous set of clients: the sinister fair folk, immortal creatures who cannot bake bread, weave cloth, or put a pen to paper without crumbling to dust. They crave human Craft with a terrible thirst, and Isobel’s paintings are highly prized among them. But when she receives her first royal patron—Rook, the autumn prince—she makes a terrible mistake. She paints mortal sorrow in his eyes – a weakness that could cost him his life.

Furious and devastated, Rook spirits her away to the autumnlands to stand trial for her crime.

Review: This was an ARC that I nabbed at ALA purely because of the beautiful color and my vague guess that it was probably some type of fairytale…maybe? Honestly, ALA is such a mad house that I don’t think I even got around to reading the book description until I was back in my hotel. But man, what luck! This story was one giant mash-up of all of my favorite things about fairtyales: a relatable heroine, a hilarious and charming hero, and the darker side of magic.

In Isobel’s village, fairies are common customers. Humans possess the ability to make Craft, construct things out of materials, something that is deadly to fairies, and thus fascinating to these long-lived beings. Isobel is a prodigy portrait artist, and as such, as worked with fairies most of her teenage life, becoming quite familiar with the quirks and dangers of these people. In exchange for her work, she is paid with magical favors, like chickens that produce a certain number of eggs each week. But in every fairy gift, there lurks the potential for disaster, so Isobel has gotten quite skilled at carefully wording every request she makes. More so than other in her village, she understands that even the ultimate fairy gift, a drink from the Green Well which grants immortality and is reserved for only the most special cases of humans who posses Crafting talent over and beyond the usual and who come along maybe once every century, is not all its cracked up to be. So when whisked away by an unhappy fairy prince client, Isobel knows that her trip to the fairy realms is rife with potential disaster.

Isobel herself was one of my favorite parts of this book. From the very beginning, we see that she has grown wise through her experience with the fairies. She doesn’t trust them and sees the loss that immortality has inflicted upon them. They can’t seem to relate to others or feel real emotion about anything. In fact, the presence of emotion is what makes Rook stand out to her, and the painting of it is what gets her carried away. And even then, trapped in the fairy world with a volatile prince, Isobel never loses her head. The relationship she develops with Rook over their travels develops in a natural way and Isobel always retains her common sense about the dangers this is presenting to both her and him, since relationships between humans and fairies are forbidden.

Rook, too, was exactly the type of romantic hero I love. He’s lovably arrogant about his own kind, a trait that both amuses and exasperates Isobel. There were several laugh out loud moments for him throughout the story. He’s also given a strong backstory to justify the differences between him and the other fairies. But never loses his inherent “otherness.”

As readers of this blog know, my favorite fantasy stories often mix a good dash of darkness and horror into the story (see: “The Beast is an Animal”). Here, the fairy court is like a brilliant confectionery cake, but once you cut into it, you see the mold. Time has not been kind to beings who live forever. There is madness, isolation, and loneliness mixed behind every aspect of the fairy realm.  At the center of it is the Summer King, the ruler of the fairies, who has withdrawn from the world, but whose madness lurks and has begun to trickle into the human world as well.

For a fairytale not directly tied to re-telling any of the tales we are familiar with, “An Enchantment of Ravens” reads as a staple in the genre. Magic, adventure, danger, comedy, and romance are all balanced in this story, held together by two protagonists you quickly grow to love. I can’t recommend this enough to fans of fairytale retellings!

Rating 9: What a wonderful surprise! Sometimes judging a book by its cover has a massive upside!

Reader’s Advisory:

“An Enchantment of Ravens” is on these Goodreads lists: “Traveling in the Faerie Realms” and “Dark Fairy Tales.”

Find “An Enchantment of Ravens” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Now I Rise”

22817331Book: “Now I Rise” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: She has no allies. No throne. All she has is what she’s always had: herself.

After failing to secure the Wallachian throne, Lada Dracul is out to punish anyone who dares to cross her blood-strewn path. Filled with a white-hot rage, she storms the countryside with her men, accompanied by her childhood friend Bogdan, terrorizing the land. But brute force isn’t getting Lada what she wants. And thinking of Mehmed brings little comfort to her thorny heart. There’s no time to wonder whether he still thinks about her, even loves her. She left him before he could leave her.

What Lada needs is her younger brother Radu’s subtlety and skill. But Mehmed has sent him to Constantinople—and it’s no diplomatic mission. Mehmed wants control of the city, and Radu has earned an unwanted place as a double-crossing spy behind enemy lines. Radu longs for his sister’s fierce confidence—but for the first time in his life, he rejects her unexpected plea for help. Torn between loyalties to faith, to the Ottomans, and to Mehmed, he knows he owes Lada nothing. If she dies, he could never forgive himself—but if he fails in Constantinople, will Mehmed ever forgive him?

As nations fall around them, the Dracul siblings must decide: what will they sacrifice to fulfill their destinies? Empires will topple, thrones will be won…and souls will be lost.

Previously Reviewed: “And I Darken” (some spoilers!)

Review: “And I Darken” was another surprise hit from last year, so much so that it made my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year. So I was anxiously awaiting this sequel. The stakes (…pun intended?? with impaling?? get it???) have never been higher for Lada, Radu, and Mehmed. Impossible dreams are being pursued, but how much will need to be sacrificed in the attempt? And once they get what they want, was it worth the price?

The narrative is again split between Lada and Radu, however, so many of their choices revolve around their conflicting feelings towards Mehmed, their childhood friend, ruler of the nation that has held them hostage from family and country, and lover/wished for lover of both, that he almost feels like a POV character, too.

As I mentioned, this story is mostly about obsessions that have taken the place of love. Lada, Radu, and Mehmed all serve as prime examples of how letting one goal become your purpose in life can begin to rule you and lead to choices you never would have imagined. Each of their goals are impossible in different ways.

For Lada, it turns out that reclaiming her homeland isn’t as easy as she thought. Also, Mehmed’s “support” isn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Lada’s story here is a tragic example of expectations vs. reality and her slow realization that she is truly alone in the world, even from those she loves best. Lada wishes to become Prince of her homeland of Wallachia, a nation that has never had a female ruler and has been willing subservient to the Ottomans for decades. She is routinely dismissed by those around her for simply being a girl, and it takes the entire book for her to realize that even those closest to her see and use her this way. And along her own path, she is forced to make choices, betray those she loves, in pursuit of this seemingly impossible goal. Terrible acts are committed all for the good of Wallachia. And what makes her story, and these books, most compelling is the morally grey area these choices always exist within. Lada does terrible things, but in a certain light, she also does incredibly good things. She betrays those around her and is betrayed herself. Routinely, she chooses Wallachia over those who love her and those who claim to love her. She pushes forward with a single-minded determination, dealing out consequences left and right, that both help and hurt her. So, too, she must deal with the fact that Mehmed and Radu are equally single-minded in their own pursuits, and those don’t always align with her own goals.

Radu’s unrequited love for Mehmed is front and center in this book. He has been shunted to the side in Mehmed’s court to serve as a “sleeper agent,” essentially. But this also results in real isolation and distance between the two. And then he is sent in to Constantinople as a spy and things go from bad to worse. The “enemy” is now humanized for him, and while he despises their strange obsession with “signs” and holy artifacts, he also grows to respect Constantine himself, and especially, the young man, Cypiran, who serves as host to Radu and his wife, Nazira. He is forced to double cross and double cross again his friends on both sides of what he is increasingly convinced is nothing more than a war of egos between Mehmed and Constantine.

While Lada, too, makes choices that are hard to read about, she’s also fighting for respect and acknowledgement for her accomplishments, a goal that I can very much understand. She’s also simply a badass character, and has some fun moments between herself and her soldiers that were even comedic. Radu…I struggled with more. His obsession with Mehmed is the epitome of unhealthy, something that Nazira (probably the most likeable and objectively “good” character there is in this book!) is quick to point out in the most strong language. His choices, while understandable for his character, routinely made me want to smack him up the backside of the head. But, all of this said, he is an intriguingly conflicted character. It’s a sign of incredible strength as an author to make a character whom I often very much disliked at the same time read as incredibly interesting and whose story I am still fully invested in.

And Mehmed. As I said, we don’t get a POV for him, but he’s so instrumental to the other two, that we are painted a fairly clear picture. And that picture is: nothing and no one matters except for Constantinople. His obsession is arguably the worst of them all. He uses Lada and Radu in truly unacceptable ways. He claims to love them both, and I believe he probably does, but by the end of this story, to me, he reads as the true villain.

The themes of this book are dark and heart-breaking. Again and again, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed choose impossible dreams over the love of family and friends. Radu abandons Lada in pursuit of Mehmed. Mehmed uses Radu’s feelings for him against him and abandons Lada in the wilderness in pursuit of Constantinople. And Lada sacrifices the goodness and softness in herself to become whom she must to be Prince of Wallachia. Poetic tragedy, conflicted characters, and a stark historic landscape that proves that no one wins when obsessions rule over love and kindness.

This isn’t an easy read, but the writing is incredibly strong, the characters are full fleshed out, and the story is like watching a slow-motion car crash that you can’t look away from. Definitely check this book out if you enjoy books that look at the darker side of history.

Rating 10: Poignant and beautiful, terrible and tragic, a must-read for historical fiction fans.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Now I Rise” is on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Children’s and YA with LGBT characters” and “Diverse YA Retellings.”

Find “Now I Rise” at your library using WorldCat!

 

A Revisit to Fear Street: “The Secret Bedroom”

176577Book: “The Secret Bedroom” (Fear Street #13) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, September 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: ILL from the library!

Book Description: Lea Carson can’t believe it when her family moves into the creepy, old house on Fear Street. Most creepy of all is the secret room up in the attic.

The room has been locked and boarded up for at least a hundred years. A murder was committed in that room, the story goes, and it has been closed up ever since.

Lea knows she should stay away. But she thinks she hears footsteps inside the secret room. And voices.

Someone—or something—is waiting for Lea in there.

Should she open the door?

Can she resist?

Had I Read It Before: Yes

The Plot: Once again, we are introduced to a new student at Shadyside High. This time it’s a girl named Lea, and I have to wonder about enrollment policy at this school. Are kids just joining willy nilly at any time, or are all these things supposed to be happening on the same timeline? Regardless, Lea makes a splash at her new school in week two where she spills chili on the white sweater of class megabitch Marci Hendryx. After getting a severe tongue lashing from Marci, who goes to clean up, Lea gets in help cleaning up her tray from a cute boy. He says his name is Don, and she says that she’s Lea and she just moved to Fear Street. When Don is, of course, shocked, she explains her parents are the predecessors to “Flip This House” and are going to focus on Fear Street. After some more chit chat, Don asks her out, and Lea is excited and says yes! But when she returns to her seat, her new friend Deena (from “The Wrong Number”!) tells her that Don is Marci’s boyfriend and Lea will catch hell if she goes out with him. Don, you’re a creep.

Lea walks home and thinks about the first time she and her parents entered the house. Their realtor, Mrs. Thomas (Suki’s Mom! I love Suki, so this bitch is tops in my book), told them about a boarded up room in the attic after Lea stumbled upon the locked door. Apparently it was a bedroom, but someone was murdered in their and it’s been shuttered ever since. Um, that should probably have been disclosed before they closed on the house, Mrs. Thomas, but perhaps when selling homes of Fear Street you’re encouraged to leave stuff out. Lea’s parents say they’ll just leave it alone. I bet not.

So now it’s Saturday night and Lea is on the phone with Deena, waiting for Don to pick her up. While giving Lea advice, Deena then has to hang up because her friend Jade has arrived (no word on whether or not she’s still dating her rotten half brother). So Lea waits, and waits, and waits… And Don doesn’t show. She calls his house, and Don’s mom says that he’s out with Marci. Ouch, girl. But instead of accepting that she’s been stood up, Lea decides that the thing to do is… CALL MARCI?????

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(source)

Predictably, it doesn’t go well. Marci tells Lea she dared Don to ask her out, and that Don would NEVER go out with her, and that Lea deserves it for hitting on her boyfriend. Yikes. Lea goes to sleep that night convincing herself that Don really DID ask her out, but then chickened out because Marci found out and that he does really like her. As she falls asleep she thinks she hears footsteps in the secret bedroom in the attic.

Monday at school Don approaches her and says he’s really sorry about the date thing and that Marci is jealous. While trying to explain himself, Marci shows up, and he runs off to her like the spineless jellyfish that he is. After lunch, Marci approaches Lea at her locker and tells her that she’s sorry. It was a joke that went too far, and to make it up to her she wants Lea to join the school sorority! How nice! She tells Lea that the next meeting is the next day in room 409. But Lea isn’t a dummy, and tells her that the school only has three floors so there ISN’T a room 409!! Boy, she sure was spared some kind of douchey prank a golf pro might pull off.

That next Saturday after a night of watching movies by herself (as even her parents have a social life), Lea decides to go to bed. But again, she hears footsteps above her in the attic. She goes up to investigate, but finds nothing up there. Yet as soon as she turns out the light, the footsteps start again… in the secret bedroom! She presses her ear against the door and calls inside, but then hears a new sound… the sound of blood flowing from the doorway!!! She freaks out and calls Deena (instead of her parents? I know this is before cell phones but did they not leave an emergency number?) and asks her to come over. Then she calls the police. When Deena arrives they go up to investigate, but they find nothing. So have fun explaining THAT to the cops who show up a few moments later. Lea apologizes, saying she thought she heard something, and after both cop and Deena leave, she tries to go back to sleep… But the sounds start again, louder this time.

At breakfast the next day her parents brush off her concerns. That night Lea is thinking about Don, for some reason that I can’t fathom… Yes I can, I was a teenage girl once. But the noises start up again. This continues for the next few nights, and then it even evolves into a voice! Lea dreams that she goes into the attic, and into the bedroom… and finds Marci in there, right before waking up. Marci is truly a jerk so the stress dreams are understandable.

The next weekend Lea, having been blown off by Deena, is all by her lonesome at home again, and when she hears the sounds this time she’s going to investigate. She hears a voice on the other side of the door, but this time she decides she wants to open the damn thing up. Of course, when she tries, a bunch of iron spikes slam through the wood and almost gore her. I just….. WHAT. They pull back into the secret bedroom, and Lea is left dazed. When the phone rings she almost misses it, but she answers, and it’s DON!! Who wants her to meet him at the mall right away!!! Lea, foolishly, thinks that her time has come, and she rushes in the rain to her car and drives over to meet him. I have no idea where her parents are. When she gets to the mall and to good ol’ Pete’s Pizza, she sees Don… and that he’s sitting across from Marci. Lea, the definition of insanity is to repeat an action expecting a different result. This is you to a t. Don says she should sit with them, but Marci shuts that shit down. Lea, after accidentally knocking into a waitress and making  a scene, returns home.

Given that the house is still empty but the sounds are still happening, Lea storms up the steps to settle this once and for all. This time when she calls through the door, she hear’s a girl’s voice asking her to open it up. Lea complies, prying the boards off with a hammer, and finds a key in the lock. When she walks in, she finds an ornate bedroom with an old fashioned looking girl sitting on the bed. The girl says that she ‘lives’ there, so that means she’s haunting the place because she’s clearly a ghost. A ghost who wants to touch Lea’s hair. Which is a bit too much, and Lea runs out of the room, slamming and locking the door behind her.

The next day Lea convinces herself that it was all a dream, and goes to play tennis with Deena. Deena agrees that it must have been a dream and then tells her that Marci is spreading rumors about her being a floozy. Fun. That night, while her parents are engrossed in a nature show, Lea tries to go to bed early. But the noises start again, and Lea goes upstairs to investigate. She finds the room and the girl again, and realizes that it wasn’t a dream. The ghost says that her name is Catherine, and that while she knows she’s dead it took her awhile to believe and understand it. She says that she was locked in this room because her parents didn’t want the world to know about her, as she was born out of wedlock. When she tried to escape one day, they killed her, and kept her body up there to rot. Lea isn’t convinced, and Catherine gets angry with her AND wants to touch her hair again. Lea runs out and slams her bedroom door, but doesn’t remember if she closed the door to the secret bedroom. She goes back to look, and all seems locked up and okay… But then in her own room Lea’s stuffed tiger’s eyes start to glow red.

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This bodes well. (source)

At school the next week, Lea overhears Marci spreading more lies about her, and wonders just why Marci keeps doing this even though she clearly has her beaten into submission. Well, Lea, it’s because girls like Marci are like a dog with a bone and can’t get enough of torturing you because you have been seen as weak, and weakness is easy to exploit and fun too, if you’re a total sociopath. No, I don’t have personal experience. Lea, however, gets the bright idea to use her new ghost friend (?) to teach Marci a lesson (and I am convinced that Ryan Murphy lifted this for “AHS: Murder House”). When she gets home she goes up the secret bedroom and formally introduces herself. Catherine tells her how much she loves her hair, and that she wishes her blonde tresses were dark like hers. Lea, undaunted, asks Catherine if she will help her scare Marci. Catherine agrees, but starts to press her ghostly essence into Lea, explaining that she’d use all her energy if she traveled on her own, and that she should really just hitch a ride in Lea’s body. Lea is a little weirded out, but convinces herself that it’s a legit request.

Lea goes to Marci’s house to confront her, and Marci tries to slam the door in her face but Catherine (who did leave Lea’s body) prevents that from happening. Lea gets into the house and starts to read Marci the riot act, but then Catherine lifts Marci up in the air and drops her. Marci, now freaked out, runs up the stairs in a panic… and runs right through the railing and plunges to the floor. Oops. Lea calls 911 as Marci’s Mom is screaming and sobbing (this was actually way upsetting, thanks Stine), and when the cops arrive Marci is pronounced dead. An officer drives Lea home, and she feels Catherine re-enter her body. When they get home Catherine returns to her attic room and Lea tries to eat dinner, but just has to confront Catherine about how things went down at Marci’s house. She asks Catherine if she pushed Marci, and Catherine just smiles at her, saying that she did Lea a favor and now Lea has to do one for her. Catherine wants to be inside Lea’s body PERMANENTLY. She tries to possess Lea, but Lea fights her off and runs out of the room screaming for her parents. When she tells them everything, they think that she’s suffering from PTSD because she saw Marci fall. Lea tries to show them the attic door she broke into, but it looks all boarded up, as if never touched. Huh?

A doctor recommends bedrest to Lea. As she’s trying to rest up, suddenly Catherine appears and REALLY flips things on its’ head: she says that she’s been messing with Lea the whole time! Lea never actually went into the secret bedroom, that Catherine was ALWAYS in THIS room and that she just planted those memories. When asked why, Catherine says that that secret bedroom is evil and Catherine boarded it up herself one hundred years prior, and the blood and the spikes were to keep Lea out before she just started planting memories. And now they’re going to share this room AND LEA’S BODY!!! Catherine succeeds in possessing her this time. Holy shit, this is getting real.

A few days later Catherine tells Lea that they have some stuff to take care of. I have a feeling it isn’t running to get paper towels from the store. CLea (as I will be referring to them) pulls a long rope out of the closet, and Catherine tells Lea that they’re going to go make Don Jacobs pay. They end up at Don’s house, and right before CLea can strangle him in cold blood, his friends arrive. Lea is able to fend off the control for a bit, and they make a hasty exit. But Catherine tells her that soon Don will be dead and so will his stupid friends. WHAT DID CORY AND GARY DO? The next day Lea realizes that Catherine has left her body for a bit, and thinks that perhaps the key to her salvation is opening up the secret bedroom. She grabs a hammer and gets to work on the boards, but then Catherine shows up to try and stop her. Lea tells her that she won’t be stopped, and she manages to get into the bedroom…. AND FINDS THE LONG DRIED OUT CORPSES OF CATHERINE’S PARENTS ON THE BED!!!! Catherine manages to possess Lea just then, and then the BODIES GET UP AND START SHUFFLING TOWARDS CLEA! ZombieDad wraps his hands around CLea’s neck, and Catherine leaves her body saying they killed her once and now they want to do it again…. But ZombieMom says that it was CATHERINE who was the murderer, who killed THEM and locked them in the bedroom. Suffice to say, the corpse parents start to circle Catherine faster and faster, and when Catherine reaches to Lea for help (ha, yeah right), one of the corpses LITERALLY rips her hand off and tosses it away. I AM LIVING!!! They ghostly family spins and disappears into nothingness, and Lea, presumably, passes out.

She wakes in the hospital some time later and is told she’s been battling a fever that’s left her in and out of consciousness. But Don has been calling to check on her and Deena has been bringing her school work for her to work on when she gets better. So maybe it was all a dream? When she gets home, she does find the attic door all boarded up, and is thinking that yes, it was all a dream. But the she sees one of Catherine’s hair ribbons on her dresser, and she thinks of Marci and the ghost in the secret bedroom. The end.

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(source)

 

Body Count: 2. Well, technically one with Marci falling to her doom. But I think that I may count Catherine too, since she was kind of taken out again.

Romance Rating: 3. Don is a total wimp when it comes to his girlfriend, but he and Lea could have some potential now that she’s out of the way (sorry, Marci).

Bonkers Rating: 10. This one has a secret bedroom, a ghost, possession, mind alterations, murder, AND skeletons just drying out in an attic. Seriously, it’s crazy.

Fear Street Relevance: 9! Lea living on Fear Street and the ghosts living in an attic in a Fear Street house are exactly the kind of setting these books need to be as good as they can be.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“Lea was the first to break the silence. “I don’t believe it,” she said, her hands pressed tightly against her face.”

… and then there’s literally nothing there. Though I have to say, this book had some really SOLID cliffhangers.

That’s So Dated! Moments: Lea is watching “Ghost” on her parents VCR. Also, many descriptions of Lea’s bangs. Also, see below….

Best Quote:

“Patrick Swayze is a real babe, she thought, stretching sleepily. He can come haunt me any time.”

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Ditto, Lea. Ditto. (source)

YEP, this one was a really fun and great read. It’s right up there with “Missing” in terms of “Fear Street” faves. The next one up is “The Knife”, and the cover alone makes me think it’s going to be a journey.

Serena’s Review: “Scythe”

28954189Book: “Scythe” by Neil Shusterman

Publishing Info: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, November 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: Giveaway from ALA 2017!

Book Description: Thou shalt kill.

A world with no hunger, no disease, no war, no misery. Humanity has conquered all those things, and has even conquered death. Now scythes are the only ones who can end life—and they are commanded to do so, in order to keep the size of the population under control.

Citra and Rowan are chosen to apprentice to a scythe—a role that neither wants. These teens must master the “art” of taking life, knowing that the consequence of failure could mean losing their own.

Review: Confession: I had never really heard of Neal Shusterman before attending the YA Coffee Klatch at ALA with Kate and hearing her get excited cuz apparently he’s a big deal. So big miss for me! What’s worse is the day before I had walked by a line where he was signing this book and passed it up, not knowing who he was! But after hearing from Kate that he was quite good and hearing his own synopsis for “Scythe” when he came around our table, I tool the time to seek out a copy of his book later that day. Alas, no signature, but these are the trials.

Shusterman described his book as growing from the question “What would happen if the world solved all of its problems? What would people do in a true Utopia?” “Scythe” is his answer to that question. There are so many interesting concepts presented in this book that I don’t even know where to start!

First off, the basic premise of the story is incredibly original and ripe for exploration. Immortality has been reached, but for reasons only briefly touched upon in this book, space exploration was a failure, so humanity is stuck with the world it has. This being the case, overpopulation is a real concern. To solve this problem, the Scythe organization came into existence. Their task is to randomly (emphasis on random) cull the population by killing a certain number of people per year. The family of this person is then granted immunity from culling for the next year. There are so many interesting ideas packed into this seemingly straightforward concept that I can’t begin to cover them all: the methods by which Scythes choose their victims, the methods by which they kill them, the combination of hero worship and fear they inspire in the population, the punishment for defying being chosen to die, and the fact that the odds are incredibly low that you will be chosen, though Scythes are a visible presence in the world. So much great stuff!

As mentioned in the synopsis, the central conflict of the story revolves around our two protagonists, Citra and Rowan who have both been chosen to be apprentices to a Scythe. The story alternates between these two and each character was well-drawn and presented a unique reason for why they were selected and how they approach the challenges of killing people for a living. Essentially, neither wanted the job, and that’s why they have it. Through their eyes, the layers of the Scythedom are peeled away and we begin to see that for all of its advancement, when left to their own devices for long enough, even the most well-intentioned organization begins to grow rot. There are deviations and factions of the Scythedom, all fighting for control and to shape the direction of the future. Should Scythes remain on the periphery of society, chosen for their distaste of their work but equipped with a strong sense of moral obligation? Or should a “new guard” take over, one that relishes in its task and in the glory that is allowed to all Scythes?

All of this and I still haven’t touched on half of the creative and unique world-building aspects of this book. There is the Thunderhead, a rare example of a benign A.I., that essentially runs society. There’s Rowan’s friend who loves “splatting,” jumping off high places only to inevitably be brought back to life each time. There’s Citra’s and Rowan’s training, and there are the well-drawn Scythe elders who alternatively take them under their wing, or force them forward down paths they wish not to tread. Throughout it all, Citra and Rowan form a tenuous alliance, each experiencing very different paths through their year of apprenticeship. The final act was tension filled, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see how the many conflicts laid out throughout the story would be wrapped up. The end was satisfying, but did its job and left me all too eager for the next!

I honestly can’t say enough good things about this book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a story that was so totally engrossing, perfectly balancing an action-packed plot, complicated characters with clear story arcs, and fully realized world-building. Definitely check this one out of you are interested in sci-fi or dystopian fiction!

Rating 9: One of the most unique and creative reads of the year so far!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Scythe” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fiction Books About Grief, Death and Loss” and “Grim Reaper Books.”

Find “Scythe” at your library using WorldCat

 

 

Serena’s Review & Giveaway: “The Waking Land”

32671619Book: “The Waking Land” by Callie Bates

Publishing Info: Del Rey Books, June 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC giveaway from Goodreads & ARC NetGalley e-book

Book Description: Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life.

Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition powers that suddenly stir within her.

But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.

Review: First off, thank you to the publisher and Goodreads for providing me this book through a give away! I also read a portion of it through an e-book ARC provided by NetGalley. You know, cuz I need to be able to read the book at ANY GIVEN MOMENT and thus need copies available in every format.

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(source)

Anywho! On to the review! Beyond the beautiful cover (yes, I do judge a book by its cover when it suits me, thank you very much), I was instantly intrigued after reading the story synopsis. It sounded like an appealing mix of political intrigue, manners and etiquette, and, of course, magic. And while it was all of those things, there were a few stumbling blocks along the way.

First off, the political intrigue. It became very clear early in the book that the author was drawing inspiration from the Jacobite rebellion between Scotland and England to create the history and heart of the conflict in her story. There are two countries occupying an island nation, one has been overthrown in recent history, but still hopes to put their own choice leader on the thrown and regain independence for their portion of the country. Obviously, there’s much more to it than this, but at its core, it’s fairly straightforward. I was very pleased with this portion of the story. It was interesting finding similar threads to real history sprinkled within this fantasy novel, especially when those threads diverged from the path with which we are familiar.

Bates clearly had a lot of world building she was trying to pack in this novel. Beyond these tie-ins to the Jacobite rebellion, there’s a complicated history that goes back centuries before it, involving not only these two nations, but another powerful nation who had conquered the entire region at one point and then retreated again.  Detailed histories likes this make a story interesting, but they also present a challenge to authors. All too often books end up with large info-dumps presenting all of these details, which no one loves. But here, we saw the opposite side of the coin. I was a good 150 pages into this story and was still trying to work out the timeline of who conquered who when and why. At a certain point, it was so frustrating that I simply gave up trying to understand. I hesitate to recommend more info dumping, but in circumstances like this, it’s probably the better option than sprinkling in details throughout a long-ish book where much of the plot revolves around the political implications of this history and readers end up just confused.

I did love the magical set up that was brought into the story. Sure there was the cool magic that Elanna was able to create, but the more interesting part was, again, the detailed framework and history behind her power. Not only are her powers needed for the rebellion, but the symbol that she represents as a corner of the tri-part governing force that traditionally ruled the land is highly motivating to the people.

I had mixed feelings with regards to Elanna herself. Her history (the stolen child of a failed rebel leader being held to keep the other side in check) is one that sets her up to have many conflicting feelings and views of those around her. Things like family, friendship, and even national loyalty are all tied together in knots. She feels abandoned by one family, guilty for developing attachments to her captors, questions everyone’s motives around her, questions her own loyalties. Much of this was very interesting and created a rich character arc for her to travel. Unfortunately, all too often she would perform complete 180s on a dime with very little explanation for why she changed her mind. She hates her father! She’ll join her father in this rebellion! Also, while the stress and frustration that would arise from her situation is understandable, at times she read as very unlikable and immature. I never could quite decide how I felt about her. Ultimately, I think I was more invested in the story that she was living than in her as a character on her own.

So there are my thoughts! To be summed up, I was very conflicted with this book. It had true moments of brilliance with a unique and complicated history, both political and magical, and the main character also had flashes of greatness. But I was also all too often confused by the same history and frustrated with Elanna herself. I would still likely recommend this book to readers who enjoy historical “fantasy of manners” type books based on its strengths. Want to judge for yourself? Enter our giveaway to receive an ARC of this book!

Enter to win an ARC of ‘The Waking Land!”

Rating 6: Had so many things going on (complicated history, complicated characters) that it didn’t quite manage to fully flesh it all out.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Waking Land” is new and isn’t included on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Fantasy of Manners” and “Best Books Containing Elemental Powers.”

Find “The Waking Land” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Reviews: “When I Am Through With You”

32957193Book: “When I Am Through With You” by Stephanie Kuehn

Publishing Info: Dutton Books for Young Readers, August 1st, 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC at ALA thanks to the publisher.

Book Description: “This isn’t meant to be a confession. Not in any spiritual sense of the word. Yes, I’m in jail at the moment. I imagine I’ll be here for a long time, considering. But I’m not writing this down for absolution and I’m not seeking forgiveness, not even from myself. Because I’m not sorry for what I did to Rose. I’m just not. Not for any of it.”

Ben Gibson is many things, but he’s not sorry and he’s not a liar. He will tell you exactly about what happened on what started as a simple school camping trip in the mountains. About who lived and who died. About who killed and who had the best of intentions. But he’s going to tell you in his own time. Because after what happened on that mountain, time is the one thing he has plenty of. 

Review: I am always on the lookout for well done and legitimately suspenseful YA thriller fiction. While sometimes it’s well written and holds my attention, there are other times that the characters are too trope-ridden and the plot is too spoonfed to the reader, as if teens couldn’t possibly stomach a bit of nuance once in awhile. This is why I thank my lucky stars for Stephanie Kuehn, as she is one of the consistently shining stars of the genre when it comes to writing it for teens. I have loved her ever since I read her book “Charm and Strange”, and every book she’s written since has pleased me and sated my need for cerebral and dark themes with complex and damaged characters. Because boy, do I LOVE complex and damaged characters, and no I’m not sorry about it.

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Case in point, my longtime obsession with Bobby Briggs from “Twin Peaks”, who demonstrates how resigned I am to my tastes. (source)

Our complex and damaged character this time is Ben Gibson, a migraine-riddled teen who lives with an addict mother who resents him and has no hope of ever leaving his small California town. True, he has a girlfriend named Rose, but she is a bit manipulative and has big dreams of college, and a life that’s on the other side of the tracks. Ben is our narrator, and while he does sort of fit the mold of unreliable, he also is incredibly honest, so the reader is left not sure if what he’s saying is true, but knows he believes that it is. While Ben has accepted that his life is pretty much going to be stuck park and not deviate from it’s current path, he still tries to make those around him happy, even if it’s to his detriment. Be it trying to please Rose, or striking a deal with his teacher Mr. Howe to become a wilderness guide for a modest fee so that he can support his mother, Ben is both a doormat and a knight in shining armor for those who don’t want saving. Kuehn slowly peels back the layers to show just why Ben is like this, and his added dimensions and complexity make him all the more interesting, and yet slightly uncomfortable, to follow.

The wilderness survival story also went above and beyond expectations. I had expected one way that it was going to go, but then it went in a whole different way than I anticipated. I don’t want to give much away, but I will say that Kuehn doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to portraying a bunch of multi-faceted, and pretty realistic, teenagers who make trouble for themselves and don’t know how to react when it blows up in their faces. The group is filled with a few different tropes, the artsy and mysterious girl, the troublemakers, the emo snob (who also happens to be Rose’s twin brother), the sporty girl, but while they all have their niches to fill, Kuehn gives all of them their due and fleshes most of them out. It would be easy to keep them in the lines of their various stereotypes, but instead we kind of get to see the perspectives of a good number of them and that makes them a bit messier and also sympathetic to a degree. Along with being unafraid to try and draw complexity from these kids, Kuehn is also unafraid to be frank and honest in depictions of violence and sexuality. The violence and the consequences of the violence are upsetting and appropriately gory, but it never feels like it’s being written just for the sake of shocking the reader. She seamlessly walks the line between exploitative and realistic, and while some of it made me cringe, it wasn’t because I felt like a voyeur to something gross. She also does a good job of portraying sex and sexuality in a number of ways, from a couple of momentary sex scenes to brief portrayals of fleeting intimacy between lovers. I know that some people would probably be uncomfortable with the sex in this book, and while even I was like ‘whoa’ during one scene in particular, I think that Kuehn clearly gives her readers credit and thinks that they can handle it. If they can handle the violence, they can certainly handle the sex.

I think that for me the one problem I was was a final twist that didn’t feel like it really fit in too well. I understood the thought behind it and while it was set up pretty well, ultimately I didn’t really feel that it added much to the story overall. But given that everything else was so well done I wasn’t too upset about it, and was far more willing to accept it.

And it wouldn’t be a Stephanie Kuehn book if there wasn’t a whole lot of tragedy. I just want to put that out there because 1) fair warning, and 2) I love that Kuehn is more than willing to pile it on, and does so in a way that never feels melodramatic. I love melodrama, but the fact that this ISN’T melodrama makes it all the more tragic.

If you haven’t already picked up books by Stephanie Kuehn, “When I Am Through With You” would be a good place to start. If you like dark and suspenseful, and super honest, thrillers, I implore you to check out her entire body of work. You will not be disappointed.

Rating 8: Kuehn once again delivers a dark and suspenseful book that takes the YA genre above and beyond the usual expectations.

Reader’s Advisory

“When I Am Through With You” is new and isn’t on many relevant lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Books About Survival”, and “Best Wilderness Survival Books”.

Find “When I Am Through With You” at your library using WorldCat!

A Revisit to Fear Street: “Lights Out”

176474Book: “Lights Out” (Fear Street #12) by R.L. Stine

Publishing Info: Simon Pulse, June 1991

Where Did I Get This Book: ILL from the library!

Book Description: Who killed the counselor?

“I could kill you!” screamed Geri Marcus.

Could she? Would she? something is very wrong at Camp Nightwing, and junior counselor Holly Flynn is determined to solve the mystery before it destroys the camp!

The trouble begins with frightening acts of vandalism. After each, a red feather is left behind—signature of the culprit.

Suddenly, one of the counselors is dead. “An accident,” say the police. But Holly knows better—and she knows she’s next. Holly can’t trust anyone now, not even her best friend, as she stalks the camp killer—and hopes that it soon won’t be “lights out” for her!

Had I Read It Before: No.

The Plot: Just so everyone is aware, y’all are getting gifs and images from my favorite camp movies “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Sleepaway Camp” for this one.

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(source)

Holly Flynn has been conscripted to be a counselor at her Uncle Bill’s summer camp, Camp Nightwing, for the summer. She doesn’t want to be there, as is made clear by her terrible interaction with a spider that wanders into her bunk. But her Mom made her, because she can’t just spend the whole summer on Fear Street, now can she, especially since her summer job at the Dairy Freeze was a bust. And besides, poor Uncle Bill has been having a rough go of it while running this camp. The first year, lightning burnt down the rec hall. Year two, both a flood AND a measles outbreak struck the camp (vaccinate your kids, folks). Year three, a camper was LITERALLY KILLED IN A BOATING ACCIDENT. So this year is kind of it for Uncle Bill, though honestly it sounds like he’s not so good at his job and maybe this just isn’t for him. Holly’s friend Thea is a counselor at the camp as well, but has her main goal for the summer to hook up with fellow counselor John Hardesty. While they talk about Holly’s not so outdoorsy nature, they hear someone call for help. Turns out Uncle Bill managed to overturn a cabinet full of sports equipment upon himself. After Holly and Thea help him out from under it all he comments that it seems like it was oddly loose. As Thea and Holly start to clean it all up, Holly finds a red feather in the bolt hole of the cabinet.

But she can’t dwell too long on it, as she soon finds out that Geri Marcus is one of the counselors at this camp!!! Geri Marcus, who had been Holly’s best friend before Holly moved to Shadyside, but they had a falling out. Geri had been dating at eighteen year old at age fifteen, and Holly had tried to keep it a secret but was caught in a lie. Geri’s parents found out, broke them up, and Geri blames Holly. You know this because of the not so kind look and demeanor she has around Holly. She also meets Debra, the senior counselor in her cabin who is also the arts and crafts and sailing instructor. She also takes an instant disliking to Holly for reasons unknown. But the Holly meets Mick, a handsome counselor who she takes an instant liking to, even though she’s sworn off boys this summer. When she gets back to her cabin, nature rears it’s ugly head as a brown bat is in the room. Holly freaks out, and Debra and Geri walk in and make her feel bad for freaking out.

They go to the counselor campfire that evening. Holly and Mick flirt a little bit more. Uncle Bill reads them the rules of the camp that they need to abide by, but is interrupted by a maniac in a hockey mask, who ends up being another counselor named Kit, a nerdy dude who has a crush on Geri. We also meet a softspoken boy named Sandy who wears polo shirts and Porsche sunglasses, and get a glimpse of the famed John Hardesty, who is antisocial to the max. Uncle Bill reads the rest of the rules, the last one being ‘counselors cannot date campers’. Seems like a no brainer, Bill. Holly and Mick flirt a bit more, and then Holly catches Geri glaring at her from across the bonfire.

The first morning of camp Holly goes for a walk. She meets up with Sandy, who warns her about leeches and to be careful in the water. She then runs into Mick, and they go walking by the lake to look at the canoes… Which have sunk. They pull them out and see that someone has punched holes in them, and Holly finds another red feather. No time to investigate further, though, as the campers are arriving. Holly is late and Debra chews her out for her tardiness. After they round the campers up and take them to their cabin, two of the girls get in a fight about the top bunk. When they both jump on the bed, it collapses. Neither girl is hurt, but Debra still reams Holly out for some reason, just as Geri and Uncle Bill walk in. Uncle Bill commends Debra on her ‘quick thinking’, and it leaves Holly alone to try and figure out what happened. She finds the broken slat, and along with that another red feather.

Holly goes to find Uncle Bill to tell him about the feathers and how she thinks that perhaps it’s a sabotage , but he isn’t interested in listening to her about it and snaps at her to leave him alone to deal with other things. Holly confronts Debra about chewing her out like that in front of other people, and Debra blows her off, saying that Holly won’t get any special treatment, even if Bill is her uncle. Things go from bad to worse at dinner, when Kit runs in and throws a rubber snake on the table. Holly is so scared she hesitates at first, but then is AGAIN chewed out by Debra for just sitting there while the campers are upset. I can’t even with this girl. Thea tells Holly to meet her by the lake that night, because she has some information that could explain some things. When they meet Thea tells her that Geri and Debra are tight, and that is probably why Debra is making Holly’s life a living hell. Also, Mick and Geri had something last summer, but now it seems that Mick may be into Holly. UH OH!! I smell a Judy and Meg situation a la “Sleepaway Camp!”

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Nothing says summer camp mean girls like Judy and Meg. (source)

Thea also says that she’s meeting John there, and Holly rightfully leaves before Thea gets into another pathetic John loop. Holly runs into Mick on her walk back, and when he asks her if they can spend more time together she says no. Why she doesn’t tell him that Geri is the goddamn worst, I couldn’t say. Mick gets mad and GRABS HER ARM? I was rooting for you, Mick, but not anymore. He lets her go quickly and stalks off, ego bruised no doubt. As she gets back to her cabin, she thinks she sees someone sneaking out of it. Before she can investigate further, Sandy shows up. They talk for a bit and he seems like a far nicer guy than Mick at this point, as he tells her he’s sorry she’s having a hard time. When she goes back into her cabin, she finds an actual snake on her bed. She screams and wakes everyone up, including Debra, who chews her out AGAIN, calling her ‘worse than useless’. Calm down, Debra.

The next day Holly goes to try and talk to Uncle Bill about the feathers and the snake. But, so concerned with a mixed up order that has left a supply delivery AWOL, Bill, once again, has other things on his mind and downplays her concerns. He asks Holly to just be supportive of him, saying that those feathers are all over the camp. Holly decides that if he won’t listen to her, she’ll have to save the camp herself. She starts to observe the fellow counselors at a camp baseball game, and Mick puts the moves on her since she’s been ‘staring at him all day’. She agrees to meet him that night (WHY?), but when she does he puts the moves on a bit too strong and she demures. Which makes him storm off because HEAVEN FORBID SHE NOT WANT TO KISS HIM YET. And, of course, Geri saw the whole thing, and confronts Holly about trying to steal Mick away.

The next day Holly meets up with Sandy, and when he’s super nice to her she tells him her theory about the feathers, the camp, and the sabotage. He isn’t really convinced, and tells her that maybe she’ll be more comfortable when they co-lead that wilderness hike the next week. Holly isn’t thrilled to be co-leading a hike, but at least Sandy is nice. She runs into Thea, who is having more John Hardesty woes, as he just doesn’t seem interested. THEN she goes to the arts and crafts building to help Debra teach pottery… and one of the campers breaks a pot, which is clearly Holly’s fault. As she’s walking back to her cabin after this terrible day, she is confronted by Kit, who says that since she’s so awful to Geri, he’s going to be awful to her. He then GRABS HER AND PINS HER ARMS BEHIND HER BACK, as Geri and MICK of all people show up with a BUCKET OF LEECHES. They knock her in the creek and toss the leeches on her. After they leave she peels the leeches off and then runs afoul someone yelling ‘no please!’, and finds JOHN by himself. When she questions him, he says she better mind her own business or she’ll be sorry. JESUS CHRIST this camp is filled with sociopaths! She sees Sandy again and he gives her the finalized counselor list for their wilderness trip. Joy of joys, it’s them, Geri, Mick, and Kit.

At dinner that night Holly and Thea are hanging out and Holly realizes that John and Debra aren’t anywhere to be seen. Holly decides to go find Debra so they can eat with their campers together. She isn’t in their bunk, so Holly goes to the arts and crafts building…. AND FINDS DEBRA SLUMPED OVER DEAD ON THE POTTERY WHEEL, HER FACE A BLOODY PULP FROM THE CONSTANT WHIRLING OF SAID WHEEL. Now THIS is good shit, Stine!!! Her necklace is caught in the wheel, so obviously it must have been a horrible accident.

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(source)

But then of course Holly finds another red feather.

Okay, this is so long and we have so much more ground to cover, and frankly this book isn’t good enough to dwell. So let’s just bullet point it down.

  • Geri thinks that Holly did it.
  • Uncle Bill assigns Geri to be the new senior counselor over Holly.
  • Holly thinks John did it but then maybe it was Mick because she finds feathers in his room.
  • Uncle Bill says the camp is going to close if one more thing goes wrong. Rebuffs Holly’s theories for the umpteenth time.
  • The wilderness trip begins.
  • Turns out John is just being weird because he’s messing around with a fifteen year old camper.
  • Sandy asks Holly to go canoeing with him.
  • And it turns out that the whole time it was SANDY because it was his little brother who drowned at the camp on Debra’s watch the previous year!!!!
  • There’s a showdown in a canoe on the rapids. Holly hits Sandy with a paddle but he perseveres.
  • There’s a second showdown in a cave involving snakes and Sandy falling down a hill.
  • Mick helps get her out of the woods and the police come and take Sandy away.
  • Holly isn’t scared of snakes anymore. THE END.

Body Count: 1, though I have to reiterate that this is by far one of the most gruesome and coolest deaths in this series yet!

Romance Rating: 2. Mick is a friggin’ weirdo and Sandy is murderous. Not to mention John Hardesty is an eighteen year old messing around with a fifteen year old. Look, I have lots of complicated opinions about statutory laws when it comes to applying to mid to late teenagers, but that’s the kind of gap that is a bit too much.

Bonkers Rating: 3. The pottery wheel death was nuts, but everything else was pretty uninspired, filled with “Friday the 13th” and “Sleepaway Camp” rip offs.

Fear Street Relevance: 2. Once again, our main character lives on Fear Street, but none of the action takes place there! This isn’t even on Fear Island or by Fear Lake.

Silliest End of Chapter Cliffhanger:

“The footsteps stopped, then all at once the started again, faster, running. Who could be in the woods at this time of night? Whoever it was was just behind her and getting closer.”

… And it turns out it’s just two campers late for getting back to their bunks.

That’s So Dated! Moments: Amazingly enough, the fact this book takes place at a summer camp means that the usual pop culture and technological references were few and far between. I didn’t find much that was dated at all! Outside of saying that there are only eight “Friday the 13th” movies. “Jason X”, anyone? Oh, and Mick being described as looking like ‘actor Kevin Bacon’. That’s a blatant “Friday the 13th” reference too.

Best Quote:

“What was it about him that was so attractive? Was it that he seemed somehow…. dangerous?”

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The OG Bad Boy of summer camp (source)

This one was pretty mediocre and forgettable. Up next is “The Secret Bedroom”, another one from my childhood and one I have fond memories of. Will those memories hold up?