Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas

A Wicked Thing by Rhiannon Thomas is a retelling of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty."

Imagine waking up one day to find that your family is long dead, you've been asleep for a hundred years, and you're now expected to marry the complete stranger who just woke you up by kissing you. That's Aurora's life in a nutshell. While she slept, the kingdom moved on, power changing hands in dramatic and tempestuous ways while Aurora slumbered in the sealed tower, visited only occasionally by princes hoping to wake her with a kiss. Rodric, the one who finally achieves this feat, is the sweet but unexciting son of the current rulers, who plan to use Aurora's waking to solidify their political position. He's not the only prince on hand, though, as Prince Finnegan, heir to a neighboring kingdom, pays a visit to welcome (and flirt with) Aurora. Finnegan is everything Rodric is not: dashing, adventurous, charming. Meanwhile, revolution is brewing among the common people, as Aurora learns when she sneaks out of the castle in disguise. She meets a handsome revolutionary who makes her question the current king's rule and his treatment of the common people. But Aurora is a figurehead, a puppet -- and, thanks to her overprotective parents who locked her up due to her curse, that's all she's ever been. Can she change things by stepping away from the fairy-tale ending with Rodric -- or would she be better off trying to change things by staying with him and working at making things better when she is his queen?

I liked this Sleeping Beauty retelling, but I didn't love it. There's plenty of good stuff in terms of court intrigue, and some of the plot twists did surprise me. On the other hand, I think some readers will find that the pacing lags as Aurora spends a great deal of time trying to decide what to do. In my opinion, this suits her character and her circumstances, but readers looking for a fast and gripping read might disagree. Also, it's obvious from the somewhat inconclusive ending that this will be the first book in a series. Will I read on? Perhaps, if I come across the sequel and I'm in the mood to see what becomes of Aurora. Do I recommend this? Yes, but probably only to established fans of the genre, not to those who are trying out fairy tale retellings for the first time.

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki is a young adult graphic novel that has won some pretty impressive awards.

Every summer, Rose and her parents vacation at Awago Beach. This summer, though, things seem different. The relationship between Rose's parents is strained, as is the relationship between Rose and her mother. And Rose and her best beach friend Windy are discovering a whole new world of adolescence as they discuss fascinating forbidden topics, watch equally fascinating forbidden horror movies, and spy on the even more fascinating older teens in the area. There's some serious drama going down among the local teens, and Rose and Windy have definite opinions about what's going on -- but when the situation turns dangerous, will they find themselves in over their heads?

This graphic novel is gorgeously illustrated and emotionally complex. While it's not exactly my cup of tea, genre-wise, I can see why it has garnered so many honors. The author does a great job of portraying that curious, intense, and occasionally silly stage of early adolescence as Rose and Windy test the tempestuous waters of puberty. Readers who enjoy realistic coming-of-age stories in the graphic novel medium should certainly take a look at this one. Be advised: despite its Caldecott honor, it's not well suited for most children.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Jinx's Fire by Sage Blackwood

Jinx's Fire by Sage Blackwood is the conclusion of a delightful fantasy trilogy. This review may contain some slight spoilers for earlier books in the series.

In this book, Jinx finds himself the unwilling leader of the Free Urwald (a country located mostly in and around the wizard Simon's house). Though Jinx himself has powerful magic, he still doesn't know how to wield it in a way that is useful, and meanwhile, three kings threaten the borders of the Urwald and Simon is a magical captive of the Bonemaster. Jinx is probably the only one who can fix everything -- but how?

This is the third book in a trilogy, so obviously it's not going to make a whole lot of sense unless you've read the first two. And if you haven't read the first two, why not? If you like fantasy, you should absolutely be reading this series and looking forward with relish to whatever Sage Blackwood writes next!

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier are two graphic memoirs about the author's teen years.

In Smile, middle-schooler Raina is not looking forward to getting braces, but the process is complicated by a painful accident that results in the loss of her front teeth just days before the braces are scheduled to go on. Will her missing teeth and metallic grin spell social disaster?

Sisters focuses on the relationship between Raina and her younger sister, particularly on one long road trip that the girls take with their mother and younger brother. They're on their way to a family reunion, but in many ways these two sisters have never felt further apart. Will their adventures on the road help them learn how to be better sisters to each other?

Both of these books have been popular at my library lately, and I can see how they would appeal to readers, especially those in similar circumstances. I liked Smile slightly better than Sisters, which I felt was a little inconclusive about certain points at the ending, but both were fun, quick reads. I'd better get them back to the library now, as they are in demand!

(Reviewed from copies borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse is a dystopian survival story, but it's probably a lot more low-key than you're expecting from that description.

Radley is doing volunteer work in Haiti when the totalitarian American People's Party gains control of the USA. She catches the first available flight back in order to be with her parents again, but they are not awaiting her arrival at the airport, and the USA she lands in is not the one she remembers from her departure a few months ago. Her cell phone charger is lost, she has no cash on hand and credit cards no longer work, and she doesn't have the proper paperwork to cross the state line in order to get home by bus. When she can't even get in touch with her parents by scrounging coins for a pay phone, Radley decides to set out on foot across New England. She makes the journey to her hometown only to find her house standing empty. There are police and soldiers enforcing curfews -- have her parents been arrested, or did they flee to Canada? Hoping for the latter, Radley sets out once again, this time heading north. Can she stay safe from the military, gangs who attack lone travelers, wild animals, and the elements? And even if she does, where will she go?

This is a dystopia written on a human scale. Radley isn't out to save her country or overthrow the government -- she's just doing the best she can to stay alive and safe, hoping to connect with the people she loves, waiting out the storm. It's probably what most of us would do in similar circumstances. The near-future setting and the focus on the individual makes this an excellent book for readers who enjoy realistic stories of survival. Recommended.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Friday, June 26, 2015

From the Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot

From the Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess by Meg Cabot is a charming spinoff to the author's popular Princess Diaries series.

Olivia Harrison is about to get the surprise of her life. Although, according to one of the mean girls at her school, what she's about to get is the beat-down she deserves, out by the flagpole after school. Just when she's practically seeing her life flash before her eyes, she sees the limo. The one with the princess in it -- Princess Mia, who has just discovered that Olivia is her younger half-sister. That's right: Genovia has another surprise princess. Olivia's journey will be similar to Mia's in some ways, but also quite different (she manages to immediately charm Grandmère and her little dog, too) -- but Olivia's aunt and uncle, who have been responsible for raising her up until the grand revelation, are not going to make the transition easy for anyone, since giving up Olivia will also mean giving up the generous support checks her father has been sending them each month.

I actually only read the first Princess Diaries book -- it was fun, but not so much that I couldn't walk away. But I think I actually like this story better, for one reason or another. Olivia is a fun character, naive and optimistic, a little blunt, but well-intentioned, and a dog lover, which gets points from me as well as Grandmère, apparently. I might even keep up with the series -- but if I do or not, I'll be sure to recommend it to the tween girls it was actually written for!

(Reviewed from an advance copy, courtesy of the publisher.)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas is a rich and satisfying fairy tale retelling.

Maybe Feyre knew the wolf was a faerie. Maybe she didn't care. But she didn't know that killing it would break the Treaty and that her own life would be forfeit. When a faerie lord comes to avenge the death of one of his kind, Feyre faces him boldly, but rather than killing her, he takes her with him, across the wall to the faerie lands, to his own estate. Feyre's life is forfeit, and she will spend the rest of that life with him. She is treated with a sort of cold kindness in her new home, and she even begins to see some of the beauty of it -- and some of the darkness. A blight creeps across the faerie realm, and her host's once powerful magic is greatly reduced. Feyre finds herself interested in the plight of her captors, and then more than interested in her host, specifically. But she promised on her mother's deathbed to take care of the family, to keep them together -- and if the faerie blight threatens the mortal realms as well, she must return to her father and sisters. It's only when she is home once again that she realizes she may have made a terrible, costly mistake. Can she find a way to make things right?

I've read a lot of Beauty and the Beast retellings, and I generally like them to some extent. But this one, I loved. The author incorporated so many lovely little twists to make the story her own, while still remaining true to the heart of the original tale (or tales, because there's just a faint strain of a second fairy tale woven through it). I particularly like the way things unfold after Feyre returns to the estate, because it doesn't end there -- oh, no, indeed. But I'd hate to give anything away and spoil your enjoyment of this book that I found to be both velvety as a rose petal and sharp as a thorn.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Colonial Madness by Jo Whittenmore

Colonial Madness by Jo Whittenmore is a cute and fluffy romp, bound to appeal to tweens.

Tori Porter and her mom lead a fun, rather haphazard life: Tori's mom has never lost her youthful spirit, to the point that sometimes Tori feels like she has to be the adult in their relationship. When a financial crisis looms, a surprising way out emerges in the form of a contest set up in the terms of Great-Aunt Muriel's will. Tori and her mom, along with various aunts, uncles, and cousins, will spend two weeks on Great-Aunt Muriel's farm, living a colonial lifestyle: no modern conveniences allowed. They will face various challenges, and the family to survive to the end with the best score in the challenges will inherit. The competition is steep, and Tori and her mom are not exactly used to roughing it -- but of all the contestants, they need the money the most. Of course, there are some unexpected distractions for Tori along the way, such as the surprisingly cute son of the estate's groundskeeper. . . .

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in this case, you totally should. This book delivers exactly what the cover promises: tween fare, light on the historical accuracy, heavy on the innocent flirting. It's not always particularly realistic, but it's cute and fun, great for girls who are ready for just a little romance but not quite up to the stuff in the young adult section yet.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

The Brides of Rollrock Island (originally published as Sea Hearts) by Margo Lanagan is a haunting retelling of the selkie legend. (Note: my browser's spellcheck dictionary does not recognize the word "selkie." It recommends replacing it with "selfie." This is what's wrong with the world, you guys.)

It all begins with Misskaella, a dissatisfied, unattractive young girl who discovers that she has an inexplicable affinity for the seals that bask on the rocks around Rollrock Island. First, she learns how to suppress this connection -- but later in her life, she learns how to exploit it. Misskaella can bring wives from the sea to the men of Rollrock: gentle, docile, sensual wives, more attractive and biddable than any land maiden. But, as Misskaella knows, the magic comes at a terrible price. . . .

I'm always a little intimidated by Margo Lanagan, for some reason. When I get past that and actually read her stuff, I find it intelligent and compelling. She does an excellent job with subtle emotion and atmosphere. This is the sort of book that sticks with the reader for days after the cover has been closed.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce

Tortall and Other Lands: A Collection of Tales by Tamora Pierce is just what it says: a collection of short stories, some set in Tortall, others elsewhere.

I enjoyed this brief trip back to Tortall and the other worlds of Pierce's imagination. My favorite story of the lot was probably "Nawat" -- which is interesting, as the Trickster duology is one of my less-favorite series by Peirce. I also enjoyed "Lost" and "Mimic." I didn't care as much for the last two stories in the book, both of which were set in our world, so maybe that was the problem. While I felt that the general level of quality was consistent, I did notice that four or five of the stories share the same basic plot: a young woman with skills (fighting, magic, mathematics, etc.) that set her apart from the rest of the people in her village/family faces obstacles and is rewarded by finding a teacher who can take her away and help her develop her skills. It's a great plot, and in a few cases I would be interested in reading more about those characters -- but the similarities were a bit glaring. All in all, though, an enjoyable read which I would recommend to fans of the author's full-length fiction.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)