Serena’s Review: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back”

42867937Book: “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” by Adrienne Young

Publishing Info: Wednesday Books, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: For as long as she can remember, Tova has lived among the Svell, the people who found her washed ashore as a child and use her for her gift as a Truthtongue. Her own home and clan are long-faded memories, but the sacred symbols and staves inked over every inch of her skin mark her as one who can cast the rune stones and see into the future. She has found a fragile place among those who fear her, but when two clans to the east bury their age-old blood feud and join together as one, her world is dangerously close to collapse.

For the first time in generations, the leaders of the Svell are divided. Should they maintain peace or go to war with the allied clans to protect their newfound power? And when their chieftain looks to Tova to cast the stones, she sets into motion a series of events that will not only change the landscape of the mainland forever but will give her something she believed she could never have again—a home.

Review: Here’s another example of a cover that has a model but is still super cool to look at. Notably, she’s wearing clothes appropriate to her character and it depicts a scene that seems to connect with the title and description pretty well. Always love to see that! But, cover aside, I really decided to check this book out based on my enjoyment of the author’s previous book, “Sky in the Deep.” As I mentioned in the Highlights post, it’s always exciting to find standalone fantasy novels. And when you have an author who chooses to write multiple standalones, but in the same world, it’s like getting your cake and eating it, too.

Tova’s remembered life began alone, cold on the sea. It’s only through fate, it seems, that her small craft washes up on shore and she is taken in by a people who are both mystified and wary of her mysterious origins and the power she possesses. As a young woman, she is drawn into a brewing conflict, both internal and external, as the Svell people debate the merits of war. With two of the major tribes having joined together, the Svell see this as their time to rise. But Tova sees darkness ahead. Will they listen to their own mystic, or is she, and the young warrior Halvard from the opposing tribe, doomed to be caught up in another round of warfare?

Sadly, this book wasn’t as much of a hit for me as the first one. I think there are a few factors, but first I want to talk about the things I did like. I was again pleased to return to this world that Young has created. The Viking-like mythology is still intriguing, as is the way of life and cultures that are described for the various clans. The writing itself is still solid and I think she did a good job balancing out introducing new characters and themes, while also giving readers a few peaks at what is going on with beloved characters and arcs from the first book.

All of that said, however, I just wasn’t able to connect with this story the way I was able to with the first. Part of this might come down to the dueling narrators. Having two narrators means that the author needs to balance two characters’ worth of story, emotional motivation, and overall arc with only half the page time that one alone would have. There are obviously benefits in getting to see various characters’ differing perspectives, but it’s still quite challenging. Here, I think both main characters suffered for the lack of full devotion to either.

Halvard, to some extent, was better served in the fact that I at least was familiar with him from the first book and had a bit more emotional investment right off the bat. Tova, however, the titular “girl the sea gave back” always felt a bit bland. Her backstory is intriguing, and her life growing up as a powerful mystic but one who is still seen as an outsider in the clan that has adopted her is compelling. But for some reason, I struggled to fully invest in her story. In the end, both main characters lack the spark that gave life to the main character from the first book.

The plot was also incredibly predictable. To some extent, the same could be said of “Sky in the Deep,” but I think there was enough of a personal arc of her discovery of her brother in the midst of her enemy’s camp and the slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance to keep the plot failings afloat. But, as discussed, with flat characters, the plot failings become much more apparent. Must of the story revolves around a discussion of fate and destiny. These themes can be compelling if taken apart and contrasted against free will and choice. But here they are simply wielded as clumsy explanations for why unlikely events occurred, hand-waving away coincidences one way and another.

“Destiny” also killed the romance of this story. For one, there was simply a lot less of one than there was in the first, which I personally found disappointing. But for two, what romance we were given was one meet-cute away from instalove, right down to the almost deadly brawl that somehow ends with a “connection.” With all of that destiny and intertwinedness to go around, the reader is never given a reason to root for these two, as we’ve been told from the start that it is simply meant to be. The characters don’t need to build up feelings for each other, they just know they’re there, even across time and space almost.

Overall, this was a very flat story for me. I struggled to find anything to connect to and by the end reading it felt more like a chore to get through. How disappointing, based on the strength of the first story and the fact that the author clearly has skills. In many ways, it almost feels like this would be the author’s first book, and that one the one she pulls out later in all of its more-polished glory. I’m not writing the author off completely, as I know she has good stories in her. This one just wasn’t one of them.

Rating 6: Fans of the first book should beware that this is in many ways “Sky in the Deep” lite.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Girl the Sea Gave Back” is, weirdly, on this Goodreads list: “Summery vibes.”

Find “The Girl the Sea Gave Back” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Tiger Queen”

42281646._sy475_Book: “Tiger Queen” by Annie Sullivan

Publishing Info: Blink, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In the mythical desert kingdom of Achra, an ancient law forces sixteen-year-old Princess Kateri to fight in the arena to prove her right to rule. For Kateri, winning also means fulfilling a promise to her late mother that she would protect her people, who are struggling through windstorms and drought. The situation is worsened by the gang of Desert Boys that frequently raids the city wells, forcing the king to ration what little water is left. The punishment for stealing water is a choice between two doors: behind one lies freedom, and behind the other is a tiger.

But when Kateri’s final opponent is announced, she knows she cannot win. In desperation, she turns to the desert and the one person she never thought she’d side with. What Kateri discovers twists her world—and her heart—upside down. Her future is now behind two doors—only she’s not sure which holds the key to keeping her kingdom and which releases the tiger.

Review: I requested this book based purely on my curiosity to see how an author would transform the short story “The Lady or the Tiger” into a YA fantasy novel. The rest of the book description sounded fairly familiar, but I was hopeful that the unique source material would propel it beyond your typical fare. Alas, no.

In Kateri’s world, water is life. Her city and her people suffer for its lack and have fought for years to continue to thrive in a city that is barely getting by. Conditions are only made worse by a group of rebels who defy the water limits and steal the city’s supply for themselves. But Kateri’s father has developed a clever deterrent: if a thief is caught, they much choose between two doors, one of which allows them to return to their home and the other that releases a deadly tiger onto its prey. As Kateri continues to fight for her place in the royal line of succession, she begins finding more and more secrets behind other doors. And soon enough she finds herself questioning everything she’s come to know.

Honestly, take out the bit about the tiger/lady door thing and I feel like I’ve just typed out the same description that I have for so many books before. Substitute “tiger” for “dragon” and you pretty much have the plot of “The Last Namsara.” And that’s just the first one that comes to mind. I’m pretty sure anyone whose read a decent amount of YA fiction could read that book description and give me the entire outline of this book. And you’d be right.

It’s really hard to rate and review books like these. Is this book any worse than the million and one that came before it with the same plot and the same main character? Was I in a less forgiving mood when I read this one as compared to them? I’m not sure. But I will say that this book made me mad. It took what could have been a clever concept and instead of exploring the unique opportunities available there, it twisted it to fit the exact same “write by numbers” mold that we’ve seen forever now in YA fantasy fiction.

I knew I was in for trouble in the first chapter when I read about Kateri’s experience watching a caught thief go through the process of choosing a door. At first she’s sympathetic to the thief who is so young, to show that she’s caring. But then, for no reason, she must show that she’s ruthless and rage against his option for freedom. He should die now for what he’s done! It flip flops as easily as I’ve just written it. There is no explanation or developed rational behind this. It’s clearly there just to get to two basic character traits, at the expense of the character’s overall development as a believable person. The author clearly just wants to get through this whole “character building” bit as fast as possible. This mode of character “development” holds true throughout the rest of the book. Beyond that, Kateri was only the “warrior woman” she’s touted to be on the most superficial level. Other than her fighting skills, her entire plot line is in reaction to the men around her: her father, the men she fights, the man she loves.

In that same chapter we’re introduced to the king, her father, who is OF COURSE not hiding any secrets and OF COURSE is telling her the full truth about this whole water/thief thing. And there’s the nefarious dude she might have to marry and the rumored young, hot leader of the rebels and…man, I’m so bored even typing this out. It’s all exactly as you’d expect.

Frankly, I have very little to say about this book. I’m having a hard time even filling out this review to the word count that I usually hit. There’s just so little new here to even critique. Anyone who is passingly familiar with YA fantasy can see every twist and turn coming from a mile away. All of the characters dutifully follow the scripts laid out for them in books like this, with nary a unique trait to be found. It was incredibly disappointing. Maybe someone who hasn’t read a bunch of YA fantasy would enjoy this, or those who are not worn out by this basic storyline yet. But anyone looking for something fresh or new should beware.

Rating 5: The book itself is like opening the door and getting the tiger instead of the lady.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Tiger Queen” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Books Based on Myths, Legends, Fairytales and Folklore.”

Find “Tiger Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Five Midnights”

41555950Book: “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, June 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?

Five Midnights is a “wickedly thrilling” (William Alexander) novel based on the el Cuco myth set against the backdrop of modern day Puerto Rico.

Review: The first time I encountered the el Cuco folktale was in Stephen King’s book “The Outsider”. While I really liked what he did with it and REALLY liked “The Outsider”, I did see how it could be a little problematic that a white guy was taking a Latinix/Portuguese mythology and twisting it to his own needs. Because of this, when I heard about “Five Midnights” by Ann Dávila Cardinal, I definitely wanted to give it a whirl, given that she is of Puerto Rican descent and sets her story about el Cuco in modern day Puerto Rico. Luckily my local library system had some copies checked in despite its new status, and it didn’t take long to arrive.

“Five Midnights” has a lot of strong points and a lot of potential for YA horror fans. The story is both unique but also timely. You have an old school ‘boogeyman’ story that blends with social themes that are affecting Puerto Rico of the 21st century, such as poverty, the drug trade, and wealthy (read: white) developers coming in and creating further divides between the haves and have nots. You have two perspectives you are seeing within this story: there is Lupe, a Vermont based teenager whose father is Puerto Rican who is visiting her policeman uncle, and Javier, a local who has fought against poverty and drug addiction and is now in recovery. It is mostly Javier and those in his group that reflect the struggles that his community is facing, as he and his friends have fallen into dangerous behaviors due to desperation and circumstance. It is also Javier’s friend group that has started to end up dead, one by one, the targets of a potential murderer, or perhaps supernatural being based in the folklore they grew up with (el Cuco!). Along with Javier is a girl named Marisol, the sister of one of Javier’s dead friends, whose rage and resentment towards their circumstances is channeled towards Lupe, an outsider from America who is also white passing. I really liked that Cardinal took these social issues and not only put them into the narrative, but was able to show how the story of el Cuco could be tied to them, given that it is said el Cuco targets misbehaving children. And honestly, I really like the el Cuco myth, and since it’s still kind of new to me I liked seeing a new interpretation that is based more on what the original folklore is as opposed to Stephen King’s version of it. It makes me want to go out and learn more about the mythology as a whole.

That said, there were definitely some weaker aspects of this book as well. The mystery itself wasn’t REALLY a mystery, as it’s clear from the get go that this isn’t a serial killer or human antagonist, but el Cuco committing the murders. The reasons are sound, and I liked the reveal of the origins, but I never really got completely invested in whether or not Javier and his friends were going to make it out alive or not. I think this is in part because the characterizations weren’t as strong as I would have liked. Javier was fine, but he wasn’t very fleshed out. And Lupe, while the other protagonist, was a bit harder to like, if only because she never really tried to understand nor was totally called out on her privileges, be it that she is an American citizen or that she is white passing. For me the most interesting character was Marisol, but even she never really got past being a two dimensional quasi-antagonist, especially since her antagonism is based in a very understandable anger about her disenfranchised circumstances. On top of that, she and Lupe could have very easily had an interesting relationship where they could have learned a lot from each other. Instead, it was merely two strong willed girls butting heads, which was disappointing. 

The negatives aside, I definitely appreciated “Five Midnights” and the story that it told from perspectives we don’t see as much in YA literature. It has some well done scary moments, and some relevant themes interwoven with the scares.

Rating 6: A compelling and original horror story with some well done social commentary. While the characters weren’t as fascinating as I had hoped, the el Cuco myth was a true strength of this novel.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Five Midnights” isn’t included on any Goodreads lists as of now, but I think that it would fit in on “Books Set in Puerto Rico”.

Find “Five Midnights” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me”

29981020._sx318_Book: “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.

Publishing Info: First Second Books, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laura Dean, the most popular girl in high school, was Frederica Riley’s dream girl: charming, confident, and SO cute. There’s just one problem: Laura Dean is maybe not the greatest girlfriend.

Reeling from her latest break up, Freddy’s best friend, Doodle, introduces her to the Seek-Her, a mysterious medium, who leaves Freddy some cryptic parting words: break up with her. But Laura Dean keeps coming back, and as their relationship spirals further out of her control, Freddy has to wonder if it’s really Laura Dean that’s the problem. Maybe it’s Freddy, who is rapidly losing her friends, including Doodle, who needs her now more than ever. Fortunately for Freddy, there are new friends, and the insight of advice columnists like Anna Vice to help her through being a teenager in love.

Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell bring to life a sweet and spirited tale of young love that asks us to consider what happens when we ditch the toxic relationships we crave to embrace the healthy ones we need.

Review: Teenage love is rough. True, I married my high school sweetheart and we haven’t really had any rough patches, then or now, but hey, I had my fair share of awkward pining and heartbreak before all that. While romance isn’t really a go to genre for me, when I do read it I like seeing how the love story aspects of a book portray romance and relationships, especially when a book is Young Adult. This brings me to “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, a YA graphic novel about the tumultuousness of a teenage romance. I’ve always found Tamaki to be honest and realistic when it comes to her books, and therefore I was very interested in seeing what she was going to do with the story of Freddy and Laura, two teenage girls who keep falling in and out of a relationship.

Like her other stories, Tamaki really knows how to capture realistic and relatable teenage voices. Just about every character in “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” feels like a real teenager, both in how they act in situations and how they don’t always understand how their actions affect other people. Freddy is our protagonist, the lovelorn girlfriend of the fickle and manipulative Laura. When we meet her Freddy has had her heart broken by Laura once again, and is seeking advice from an online advice columnist. Freddy is absolutely being taken advantage of, but at the same time she is so caught up in her own miserable love life she isn’t able to see what is going on with her other, more loyal friends. She is both someone you can’t help but root for, as well as someone you want to shake for being so self absorbed. As a character she’s very well conceived, and her flaws and moments of unlikability make her an even stronger protagonist than I was expecting. Her relationship with Laura is toxic at its heart, as Laura’s interest is only in Freddy when it’s convenient to herself, and because of this you both feel pity for Freddy, as well as frustration. But that was one of the stand out themes of this book, in that toxic relationships, be it between teens or adults, romantic or platonic, don’t only affect those in said relationships, and how we can blind ourselves to the people we become while inside of them. But even if Freddy makes mistakes and can be hard to like at times, she doesn’t compare to Laura, who is just the worst. We don’t really get to see THAT much of Laura when all is said and done, as she flits in and out of Freddy’s life in fickle and self absorbed ways, but you definitely know the kind of person she is even in these moments. Tamaki is great at portraying how cruel and mean Laura is without going into heavy handed monologues or speeches, as well as how the toll it takes on Freddy ripples across her other relationships. It’s a great example of showing and not telling, something that is sometimes lost in books written for teens.

I also really liked that this book is very sapphic and LGBTQIA+ in it’s themes. Many of the characters, from Freddy and Laura to their friends groups, are LGBTQIA+, and the normalcy of it all is very evident from the get go. While sometimes these themes did fall more into a telling vs showing trap (a couple of kind of shoe horned in bits of dialogue that didn’t quite fit popped up here and there), I really liked that all of these characters were true to themselves and the majority of the conflict had nothing to do with their identities. Along with this, I liked that this exact normalcy made it so that Laura Dean could be a genuinely terrible person, and that it would be next to impossible to say that she is that way because of her sexual orientation, a them that is sometimes still seen in fiction stories, regrettably. This book also tackles other, harder issues that YA books aren’t always comfortable tackling in empathetic ways. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that there is a side storyline involving abortion that did a really good job of not stigmatizing the procedure or the choice of having one. 

Finally, I really really loved the artwork in this book. It has a muted and subtle quality to it, with some manga-esque traits that still felt unique to the artist, Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. I also liked that while it’s mostly in black and white, there are little splashes of a soft pink throughout the story. It really made the images pop.

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(source)

“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is a bittersweet and hopeful look at the ups and downs of teenage relationships. If you haven’t checked out anything by Mariko Tamaki yet, I would say that this would be a good place to start.

Rating 8: A bittersweet story about the ups and downs of teenage romance, “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” hits you in the feels when it comes to love and toxic relationships.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Loki: Where Mischief Lies”

37076222._sx318_Book: “Loki: Where Mischief Lies” by Mackenzi Lee

Publishing Info: Marvel Press, September 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley!

Book Description: Before the days of going toe-to-toe with the Avengers, a younger Loki is desperate to prove himself heroic and capable, while it seems everyone around him suspects him of inevitable villainy and depravity . . . except for Amora. Asgard’s resident sorceress-in-training feels like a kindred spirit-someone who values magic and knowledge, who might even see the best in him.

But when Loki and Amora cause the destruction of one of Asgard’s most prized possessions, Amora is banished to Earth, where her powers will slowly and excruciatingly fade to nothing. Without the only person who ever looked at his magic as a gift instead of a threat, Loki slips further into anguish and the shadow of his universally adored brother, Thor.

When Asgardian magic is detected in relation to a string of mysterious murders on Earth, Odin sends Loki to investigate. As he descends upon nineteenth-century London, Loki embarks on a journey that leads him to more than just a murder suspect, putting him on a path to discover the source of his power-and who he’s meant to be.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

Long time readers of this blog might remember that, unlike Serena, I am rather prickly when it comes to the DC and Marvel rivalry. I don’t really go out of my way to read many Marvel things, and when it comes to the MCU I’ve only seen a handful of the films. But the movies within the canon that I have seen multiple times and in a complete arc are the ones that center around Thor. And it probably surprises no one that the biggest factor of this is Loki, the sometimes villain, sometimes anti-hero brother of Thor who is at turns a pain in the neck and other turns a somewhat valuable ally. Because of this, when I saw that Loki was getting his own YA novel that gave him his own adventure and some backstory, I was mildly intrigued. But when I saw that it was being written by Mackenzi Lee, the author of the lighthearted and romantic romp “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue”?

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Sign me up post haste! (source)

Lee has always had a real talent for giving voice to snarky, bitchy, and flawed yet likable protagonists, so it’s really no surprise that her version of Loki was spot on. She does a very good job of balancing the complexities of his personality, both the megalomaniac side, and the side that has been emotionally warped by his family life and the ways that his father and brother have failed him. You see him wanting to bring pride and joy to Odin and Thor, but ultimately falling into the easier patterns of being out for himself, in part due to his only friend Amora. Amora is a mysterious character who is the court sorceress’s student, and her magic entices Loki since he, too, is magical. You get the sense that Amora isn’t a great influence on him, but you also completely understand why he would be drawn to her, given that Odin has tried to suppress his magical powers. But while you can definitely understand why Loki lashes out and behaves in the ways that he does, Lee is also very careful not to go to the ‘poor misunderstood baby’ interpretation. Loki’s choices are his own, and while she lets you see why he’d do it, she never lets him off the hook. If anything it makes him all the more tragic, especially when you see him interacting with his family, particularly Thor and their mother Frigga. Given that the reason I can’t totally write of “Thor: The Dark World” is the heartbreaking themes and Frigga and Loki’s relationship, any scenes with these two had me almost in tears. Lee really know how to get to the meat of Loki’s motivations, and that was great to see.

The overall plot was also a delight and a half. While we do spend a large amount of time in Asgard (as well as other realms), a big chunk of the story is spent on Earth in Victorian London. Odin sends Loki to work with a mortal secret society that has found evidence of Asgardian magic being used for bad purposes, and to have the spoiled and vain Loki have to interact with Victorian era humans is QUITE amusing. The secret group, SHARP, consists of a number of societal misfits, much like Loki himself is, and I felt like Lee gave solid backstories to all of them. My favorite of this group was Theo, the earnest and loyal investigator who has to hide his sexuality from the world. Theo acts as a moral compass to Loki, but in ways that don’t come off as condescending or self serving, which tends to be the problem with Thor back in Asgard. This is in contrast to Loki’s other foil, Amora, who tries to pull him more towards his more self serving side, and the two relationships make for high tension and conflicting feelings in Loki. Related to this is that Lee has made Loki the genderfluid and pansexual character that has been long heralded in the fandom, and it really, really works within this narrative. Sweet, sweet romantic agony as you feel like Loki wants to be good enough for Theo, but feels he can only meet Amora’s standards.

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All the tears. (source)

Overall, “Loki: Where Mischief Lies” was a super fun interpretation of a beloved Marvel fan favorite. Mackenzi Lee is writing a couple more backstory novels for other Marvel characters, and even if they aren’t my own personal favorites, I may have to give them a go.

Rating 8: A fun backstory for Loki from one of the most fun YA authors of today, “Loki: Where Mischief Lies” gives the morally ambiguous quasi-villain some time to shine and be the (anti)hero of his own story!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Loki: Where Mischief Lies” is included on the Goodreads lists “The Trickster”, and “YA/Middle Grade Comic Book Superhero Novels”.

Find “Loki: Where Mischief Lies” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Beasts of the Frozen Sun”

42118210Book: “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” by Jill Criswell

Publishing Info: Blackstone, August 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Burn brightly. Love fiercely. For all else is dust.

Every child of Glasnith learns the last words of Aillira, the god-gifted mortal whose doomed love affair sparked a war of gods and men, and Lira of clan Stone knows the story better than most. As a descendant of Aillira and god-gifted in her own right, she has the power to read people’s souls, to see someone’s true essence with only a touch of her hand.

When a golden-haired warrior washes up on the shores of her homeland–one of the fearful marauders from the land of the Frozen Sun–Lira helps the wounded man instead of turning him in. After reading his soul, she realizes Reyker is different than his brethren who attack the coasts of Glasnith. He confides in her that he’s been cursed with what his people call battle-madness, forced to fight for the warlord known as the Dragon, a powerful tyrant determined to reignite the ancient war that Aillira started.

As Lira and Reyker form a bond forbidden by both their clans, the wrath of the Dragon falls upon them and all of Glasnith, and Lira finds herself facing the same tragic fate as her ancestor. The battle for Lira’s life, for Reyker’s soul, and for their peoples’ freedom has only just begun.

Review: Our fairly recent re-read of “Sky in the Deep” for bookclub reminded me just how much I enjoyed Vikings stories. Pair that with “The Wolf in the Whale,” another story that I read this year that partially featured Vikings and had a good romance at its heart, and I was ready and raring to go for more of the same. This made it an easy decision to request a copy of “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” for review. But while it did have elements of what I was looking for, it also seemed to be a bit too off the mark at times for me to fully enjoy.

Lira and Reyker had met years before, though one remembers it as a half-believed nightmare, and the other as a strange encounter with a wild young girl who inspired him to break his own codes of warfare. When they meet again, it is under very different, and yet oddly similar circumstances. Now an adult, Lira holds an incredible power to see the truth of person’s being through a mere touch. It is an ability that has garnered her respect, but also makes her a valuable tool for her tribe, offering her limited option for her future. Reyker has continued on the path set before him so long ago, as a member of  Viking marauding crew that has taken down countless villages. Now, Lira’s tribe is the next and the two are thrown together once again, natural enemies, but with a connection that neither can deny.

As I said in my introduction, this book didn’t quite connect for me. But there were a few pros that I want to start out by highlighting. For one, the writing itself was strong. There was one blurb I read before starting it that mentioned a comparison to Juliet Marillier’s work. Given that this story description sounds just like something that author would write herself and the fact that she’s one of my favorite authors, I had high hopes on that front. And there, at least, it didn’t disappoint. The writing it lyrical, smooth, and feels as if it is a fairytale in the making. At the same time, the action, dialogue, and character moments all read as natural and alluring. There were several turns of phrase that popped off the page for me. While I’m not sure I would quite put it at the level of Marillier’s work, I can definitely see where the comparison came from.

The other stand-out was Lira herself. I really liked her voice and the way her character moved throughout the storyline presented her. She rose to the challenges presented to her, but never lost sight of herself or her unique gifts. Early in the book there is a big emphasis placed on Lira’s limited life choices, due to her unique powers, and I enjoyed the way that Lira approached the responsibility of her gift as well as the confines it put on the paths before her. While I do wish that a bit more was done with her gift itself, Lira, as a character, was another point of favor for this story.

Where the book let me down, however, was with the plot itself and the romance. The plot felt meandering and full of too many ideas all at once. A few chapters would focus on one thing. Then a new event would pop up and suddenly take over. It felt almost like a bunch of mini stories all crammed together, losing sight of any connecting tissue that would pull them all together. There was also a lot of repetitive planning, action, escapes, but then failures. The story literally couldn’t escape its own restrictions and it felt like it, like our characters, was simply floundering around in captivity.

I also didn’t love the romance. And this is where the comparison to Marillier hurt the book for me. If there’s anything that Marillier excels at, other than beautiful prose, it’s amazing romances. So I went into this perhaps with my expectations too high. But, on top of that, Reyker and Lira are both strong characters on their own. And the build up to their romance is intriguing, especially given that they don’t share a common language. But then they kiss, and it’s all downhill from there as they immediately fall into all-consuming love for each other. I wish this could have been drawn out a bit more or progressed in a more natural way. Perhaps I would have been less disappointed with it had Lira and Reyker on their own been less compelling. But as it was, they were both strong characters who deserved an equally strong romance.

I think this book had a lot of promise, and the writing and strong characters get it a long way down the road to success. But the plot seemed to circle back on its self a bit too much and the romance was underwhelming. This is the first in a series, however, so these things could be improved in the sequel. Fans of historical fantasy would probably enjoy this; just keep your expectations in check better than I did.

Rating 6: A solid attempt, but it read as a bit too bland for what I was wanting and missed some opportunities a long the way to take advantage of the strengths it had going for it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Beasts of the Frozen Sun” is included on the Goodreads lists “Viking Era” and “Tristan & Isolde Retellings.”

Find “Beasts of the Frozen Sun” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Kiss Number 8”

22612920Book: “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw (Ill.)

Publishing Info: First Second Books, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Amanda can’t figure out what’s so exciting about kissing. It’s just a lot of teeth clanking, germ swapping, closing of eyes so you can’t see that godzilla-sized zit just inches from your own hormonal monstrosity. All of her seven kisses had been horrible in different ways, but nothing compared to the awfulness that followed Kiss Number Eight. An exploration of sexuality, family, and faith, Kiss Number Eight is a coming-of-age tale filled with humor and hope.

Review: It may seem like I’m doing a LOT of graphic novels lately, but in my defense I neglected this format a lot this summer. This occurred to me when I was requesting books for a teen graphic novel display, and one of the books I stumbled upon was “Kiss Number 8” by Colleen A.F. Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw. After requesting it for work, I requested it for myself. I hadn’t looked too much into it when I requested it; I knew that it had LGBTQIA+ themes, and I knew that it was about a teen girl figuring out her sexuality. But what I didn’t expect was how emotional “Kiss Number 8” was going to be, and how hard it would be to read at times because of the themes.

And to note, I will have to address some vague spoilers in this review to fully discuss my opinions. I’ll do my best to keep it general.

“Kiss Number 8” takes place in 2004, a time that doesn’t seem to distant to me but is actually fifteen years ago. As I was reading this book, it served as a reminder of how many things have changed in terms of societies views on sexuality, and yet how far we still have to go. Amanda is written as a pretty typical teenage girl of this time and place, and up until this point she can count on a number of things: she has a fantastic relationship with her father, she has a tempestuous relationship with her mother, and her best friends Cat and Laura are always going to be there for her, even if they don’t particularly like each other. You get a great glimpse into Amanda’s life through snippets of scenes, and by the time the main plots start to kick in you already know who she is and what her reality is. Venable does a good job of showing rather than telling when it comes to how Amanda feels about those in her life, especially her growing infatuation with Cat, whose care free and somewhat selfish personality is apparent to everyone BUT Amanda. I also liked the slow unraveling and reveal of the other main plot line: a mysterious phone call to her father, and a mysterious letter that he tries to hide from her. Venable does a really good job of making the reader think it’s going to be one thing, but then piece by piece shows that it’s something completely different, something that connects to Amanda’s present emotional situation with Cat and goes even further back into how people have to hide their identities from others.

I also thought that Venable did a good job of portraying realistic, and at times very flawed, characters. As I mentioned earlier, Amanda is a pretty normal teenage girl, but along with that comes a cruel streak towards those who care about her, especially her mother and Laura. She makes bad decisions in moments of great emotion, and it ends up hurting people, who in turn react poorly and hurt her back. But you never get the sense that she is a bad person when she does these things, rather that she is in a great deal of pain and dealing with confusion about herself and a life she thought she had all sorted out. The fallout from these choices always felt real, and sometimes that meant that it was painful to read. But again, Amanda doesn’t ever come off as a bad person, just a person who is still learning. In fact, most of the characters are given a certain amount of grace when they screw up, and aren’t painted as being one dimensional or cardboard cut outs of tropes…. Even when they don’t necessarily deserve it. Because to me, with how some of the characters did end up reacting to Amanda’s identity, and the identities of others within the story, I didn’t want them to be given a pass, realistic or not. Not when they caused to much pain.

And that is a good segue into difficult moments that I had with “Kiss Number 8”, specifically with how a number of the characters were when it comes to LGBT issues. There is a LOT of homophobia and transphobia in this book, and while it’s all written within the context of the story, and doesn’t feel like it’s excused or glossed over, it could still be triggering for readers who are in those communities. While Amanda was a lived experience of learning about herself and her sexuality, I feel like the ball was dropped a bit more with the trans characters in the narrative. They were more used as lessons for Amanda to learn, and their voices and experiences were put in the context of a cis girl realizing that they too are human beings who deserve respect and dignity. That isn’t to say that I thought Venable was malicious in her portrayal, but it does show that we still have a ways to go when it comes to how trans characters are portrayed within the stories we read. That said, I am a cis straight woman, so if my assessment is off kilter to anyone please do let me know. I, too, am still learning.

I have nothing but good things to say about Crenshaw’s artwork. The characters are cartoony and fun, and their designs remind me of other popular teen graphic works like “Drama” and “This One Summer”, but the style is still unique and feels new and fresh. And even with the more ‘cartoony’ drawings, the emotional weight of the various situations still came through loud and clear.

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(source)

Uncomfortable and clunky aspects aside, I enjoyed “Kiss Number 8”. It’s an honest and emotional book that kept me reading, and reminded me that there is still so much progress to be made, even if we’ve come so far.

Rating 8: A bittersweet and emotional story about finding one’s identity, “Kiss Number 8” has complex characters and relevant themes. We’ve come so far with stories like this, but we still have a ways to go.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Kiss Number 8” is included on the Goodreads lists “Lesbian Teen Fiction”, and “Sapphic Graphic”.

Find “Kiss Number 8” at your library using WorldCat!