Monday, June 30, 2014

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell is an almost fairy tale retelling -- a thought-provoking work of fantasy in an historical setting.

A broken castle lies surrounded by a wall of fierce thorns. Nobody goes near it, nobody speaks of it. Every item in every room of the castle has been sundered, ripped it two by some unimaginable force. And within the castle lies a girl who is sleeping.

No. Within the castle lies the body of a girl who is dead.

Sand doesn't know how he came to be in the castle. He ran away from home, fell asleep by a roadside shrine, and woke up in the castle's kitchen fireplace. Nor does he know how to get out -- the thorns are just as fierce when approached from within. So, he starts setting things to rights, as much as he can. He patches up furniture, twists torn bedding into a rope for the well, collects scraps of metal near the smith's forge. He even ventures down into the castle crypt, where he straightens the body of a girl his own age, thrown onto the floor like a rag doll during the sundering (though fortunately still in one piece). Nothing grows in the castle grounds, but the food that was in the castle is well-preserved, simply dried out. Sand starts to get to the point where he can manage, though he doesn't relish the idea of spending his life in the castle. But then everything changes again: Perrote, the girl from the crypt, wakes up. She's neither a ghost or a zombie, but simply a girl Sand's age, who was dead for a while but has come back to life. Working together, Sand and Perrote mend many things in the castle, and forge the beginnings of a friendship as well -- but can they figure out how to break the curse and remove the thorns that imprison them?

As you can see, this is almost a Sleeping Beauty retelling, but not quite. And, just so you know, there is no kissing in this middle-grade novel, so that's not the solution to the mystery! Over the course of the narrative, Perrote's back-story is revealed, and readers get a slowly dawning sense of why she is alive again and why Sand is the one sent there to be with her. This makes for leisurely pacing -- this isn't the sort of book that drives you on to the conclusion. The setting and the characters make up for any shortcomings in plot and pacing, though. I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it.

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

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige is an Oz sequel with a bit of a twist.

Amy Gumm is just an average poor girl from Kansas. She lives in a trailer park, shops at the thrift store, and is bullied by the mean girl in her class. Her mom is an addict, hardly functional, so Amy has been acting as head of the household since she was 13. When a tornado sweeps through town and deposits Amy in Oz, there's a large part of her that doesn't want to look back -- no "there's no place like home" for her. But Oz isn't the cheery land of movie and storybook that Amy expects: towns have been reduced to vacant ruins, dangers are everywhere, and the few people Amy does meet are cryptic and unfriendly. The source of all of this misery is, of course, Dorothy Gale, the other girl from Kansas. Apparently, home wasn't all it was cracked up to be for Dorothy, either, because she has returned to Oz and now rules beside Ozma (who she's somehow reduced to a mere puppet-like figure) as a princess, demanding every good thing for herself (including the land's magic) and withholding it from everyone else. The Cowardly Lion leads an army of beasts to enforce her wishes, and the Tin Woodsman has a troupe of metal soldiers who protect her. Meanwhile, the Scarecrow bends his powerful brain to scientific experimentation, creating mutants and fiendish devices for Dorothy as she relishes her life of luxury. Obviously, something has to be done, but is Amy the one to do it? She may be from the same place as Dorothy, but she's equipped with neither magic nor fighting skills -- at least, not until she falls into the hands of the Order of the Wicked, a group of witches and fighters dedicated to one goal: Dorothy must die.
Now, I have to admit: I'm no Oz aficionado. I neither reverence the original nor adore the Wicked version (though, to be fair, I haven't seen the musical yet, so I suppose that could change). In terms of fantasy lands, give me Wonderland, give me the Enchanted Forest, give me Neverland, give me (please O please give me) Narnia, but Oz? Meh. I couldn't tell you the difference between a Quadling and a Gillikin if one came up and poked me in the nose. So I'm not fussed about any authorial depredations on Oz and its inhabitants, nor am I bothered by Dorothy coming back and being evil. What does bother me about this book, you may ask? Well, I'll tell you: the GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER at the end of the book. That bothers me. Sure, there were times when I found the characterization a little flat, and the pacing, though generally good, lagged once or twice. But all of that pales in comparison with the GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER. I did find the premise of a dystopian Oz interesting, and I think this book will appeal to teens (there's a hot guy or two and some fighting), but did I mention that it ends in a GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER? Because anyone like me, going into the book not realizing it was the beginning of a series, might be a bit put out at that. But if you're fascinated by the concept and not bothered by books that end in a GINORMOUS CLIFFHANGER, you might want to give this a try.

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare is a children's classic and Newbery medal winner set at the time of Christ's early ministry.

Daniel has nothing but hatred for the Romans. They occupy his native land, with soldiers everywhere, and Daniel feels that they are to blame for his parents' death. Though he is only 15, Daniel considers himself a zealot, has taken a vow to avenge his parents, and has run away from his apprenticeship to a cruel blacksmith. He now makes his home in the mountain caves with a band of thieves led by Rosh, a hard but charismatic man who promises to lead the fight against the Roman oppressors. When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying, he returns to the village where he grew up. He finds his grandmother at death's door, and his sister Leah, who is mentally ill and refuses to leave the house, in a pitiable state. Daniel longs to return to the mountain, but when his grandmother dies, he is the only person who can care for Leah. The old smith has died, and the new smith Simon, a friend of Daniel's, has left his forge to follow a new teacher named Jesus whose words are inspiring many in the area. Daniel occasionally goes to hear this Jesus but finds his teachings confusing. Daniel is determined to continue working for Rosh from his position in the village, and even recruits Joel, a friend from the nearby city of Capernaum. Daniel also gathers together a group of village boys who feel the same way he does about the Romans. But when one of Rosh's plans results in Joel being captured and Rosh does nothing to help, Daniel's faith in his leader is shaken. And when Daniel's sister is taken ill with a fever, there is only one person Daniel can turn to -- but will Jesus demand that Daniel give up the one thing he's always clung to: his hatred of the Romans?

I found the pacing and characterization in this book very good, though it is a product of its time and contains a few historical inaccuracies. This book will be best appreciated by readers who approach it from a Christian worldview, as it dovetails neatly with Biblical accounts of Jesus' teachings in Galilee during the early part of his ministry. This book is not without bias, and has been criticized for portraying some aspects of Judaism harshly, so that's something some readers may want to keep in mind. However, I actually found this much less problematic than the last Speare book I read (The Sign of the Beaver). As inspirational historical fiction, this book works pretty well -- and since I believe the author originally wrote it for her Sunday School class, that makes perfect sense. I doubt that it will appeal to a broader audience, though.

The audio version was acceptable, but not phenomenal. Having a female narrator (Mary Woods) is an unusual choice for a book with a male main character, and though she did an adequate job, I was never particularly impressed.

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth from the perspective of Psyche's oldest sister.

Istra is the most beautiful child you can possibly imagine -- sweet and wholesome as a summer's day. You would think that her older half-sister Orual would hate her, but quite the opposite is true. Since Istra's mother died in childbirth and their father the king cares little for his female offspring, Orual is free to mother and care for Istra. Along with their tutor, a Greek slave known as the Fox, they wander the hillsides surrounding the city, happy and free. But all is not well in the kingdom: there are rumors of war with surrounding nations, wild animals ravaging the countryside, and now a plague in the city. The priest of the goddess Ungit casts the lots, and they fall to the king's household. Istra must be sacrificed, left on the holy mountain for the Shadowbeast. Orual is devastated to the point of sickness herself. When she is able to leave her bed, she resolves to go to the mountain and care for her sister's remains. What she finds there, however, is Istra alive and healthy. Istra has been living in a small valley high in the hills, but she claims that it is a castle, though Orual sees only rocks and bushes. Istra claims that she dwells in her husband's house -- the house of the god of the mountain. He comes to her at night, and she is forbidden to see his face. Orual tries to persuade Istra to come home, or to go into hiding with her, but Istra will not leave her mysterious lover. Orual eventually convinces Istra to at least light a lamp and see what sort of creature she has married -- surely, Orual thinks, either some monstrous beast or else a vagabond living wild in the hills, who has preyed on Istra's mind, weakened from the trauma of being sacrificed. Orual is sure that, once Istra sees her bridegroom, she will return to her sister's care. She waits at a distance, watching in the night for Istra's light to appear . . .

This is the book I like to recommend to people who think they know C.S. Lewis. It's much more nuanced and subtle than the Narnia stories (though, don't get me wrong, I am an avid fan of those as well), and I would contest that this book is his strongest literary work, and Orual his best female character by far. She's both a nurturer and a warrior, both strong and flawed. She's clever and bitter and not afraid to speak her mind. If you haven't read this book, either because you haven't heard of it, or because you wrote off C.S. Lewis for one reason or another, I urge you to go find this book and read it. Highly recommended.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley

Don't Call Me Baby by Gwendolyn Heasley is the story of a teen struggling to step out of the spotlight her blogging mother constantly shines on her.

Imogene has been known online as Babylicious since before she was born. Her mother started a mommy blog as soon as she found out she was expecting, and she's chronicled Imogene's life ever since, from potty training to bed-wetting to Imogene's first period. But now Imogene is starting ninth grade, and she longs for privacy. She doesn't feel that she can confront her mother about the invasive aspects of the blog, especially since it's one of their household's primary sources of revenue, but when a school assignment leads to Imogene starting a blog of her own, she hatches a plan to serve her mother a little of her own medicine.

This is a quick read and poses some interesting ideas about the prevalence of the Internet in people's daily lives, but I can't really recommend it. The book's problems start with the cover and title, neither of which serves the actual book well. And then there's the content: clunky dialogue, unrealistic and inconsistent characterization, and a tone and plot better suited to a much younger audience -- more tween than teen. Imogene and her friends are frustratingly immature, "Mommylicious" is a caricature of a mommy blogger, and secondary characters are likewise flat. The ending wraps things up a little too neatly, as well. While I read through it to see how things would turn out for Imogene, I feel it's not successful as a YA novel.

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

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart is a . . . well, I'd tell you, but I'd probably have to lie.

Ever since they were eight years old, they've spent their summers together: Cady, Johnny, Mirren, and Gat. Three cousins and a friend, running wild on the cousins' grandfather's private island. But then, two summers ago, something happened, some trauma Cady can't quite remember. She hit her head, she thinks. And last summer she toured Europe with her father. But now she's back on the island, back with Johnny and Mirren and Gat, her favorite people in the world, ready to face whatever it is that she's been trying so hard not to remember. Or is she?

I found this book intriguing in the literary sense, though I never connected with it on an emotional level -- too many of Cady's problems are Rich Kid Problems, and she's a little too intentionally vague to transcend her socioeconomic background and resonate with the rest of us, I think. But it kept me reading to the end, to see how things played out in terms of the mystery. The hints were there, but I didn't even suspect the truth until shortly before it was revealed. I also appreciated the homage to King Lear. This book grabs hold of the brain, though not necessarily the heartstrings, and if you're okay with that, then I would certainly recommend it to you.

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

Monday, June 23, 2014

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

West of the Moon by Margi Preus is a well-written play on a variety of traditional Norwegian tales, bound together with the story of two girls' journey to America in the mid-1800s.

In the old tales, a girl who is pure of heart can overcome obstacles and reach her goals with courage and hard work. In Astri's life, this has not proven to be the case. When she was a little child, she lived with her parents and little sister Greta, but now her mother is dead, her father is in America, and she and Greta are living with her aunt and uncle. When her aunt sells Astri to a smelly old goatherd who expects her to cook and clean for him now, and to marry him when she is a little older, Astri dreams of escaping the old man, finding her sister, and making her way to America, but she has no idea of the hardships in store for her when she sets her plan in motion. To get to safety, she is willing to lie, cheat, and steal . . . so, not very much like those pure-hearted fairy-tale maidens at all. Greta is still sweet and innocent, the kind of girl that everyone immediately loves, but pragmatic Astri can't afford to be so naive. Astri knows that there will be a price she has to pay to get herself and her sister safely to America -- but when the time comes, will she be able to pay it?

I'm really impressed at this book: the setting, the characterization, the plot, the use of fairy tales to highlight the theme -- all done right. Astri isn't always likable, but somehow you find yourself pulling for her all the same. Part of it is Astri's voice: the story is told from her perspective, with a hearty helping of snark and sarcasm. This book is also quite dark in places, but written so that readers at different ages will understand what's happening in ways that they can handle. This is one of the best children's books I've read this year, and I would not be surprised if it garners a shiny sticker on its cover when this year's awards are announced!

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann is a fun and fantastical steampunk story.

Some years ago, a faerie door opened in the city of Bath, nearly obliterating the city and releasing a wave of the Fae into the mundane world before closing again. There were skirmishes and struggles, but now the faeries are assimilating into human culture, kept in check by iron and tolling bells. The mixing of the two races has, however, created a despised sub-class of changelings, or Peculiars. Bartholomew Kettle is one such child. He and his sister Hettie live with their human mother in the slums of Bath, having been long since abandoned by their faerie father. When changelings start disappearing, nobody is particularly concerned, but when Hettie is taken, Bartholomew will do anything to rescue her. Along the way, he will find himself tangled up in political schemes far beyond anything he could have imagined.

I really enjoyed this book. I listened to the audio version, and found it difficult to tear myself away. The premise is interesting, the worldbuilding strong, and I loved the characters -- plucky Bartholomew, wistful Hettie, lackadaisical Mr. Jelliby -- and the Sidhe always make such convincing villains! The book does end on a cliffhanger, so I'll be reading the next book in the series soon.

(Reviewed from an e-audiobook borrowed through my library system.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott

School of Charm by Lisa Ann Scott is historical fiction with a touch of magical realism, set in the 1970's American South.

Chip has always been her daddy’s girl, sandwiched in between two sisters who take after their mother much more strongly.  But when Chip’s daddy dies and the family must move from New York State to North Carolina, Chip finds herself at loose ends.  Her grandmother is cold and exacting, and while her sisters quickly adapt to life as Southern belles and make plans to enter the Miss Dogwood beauty pageant, Chip can’t seem to settle in.  She has no interest in being in a beauty pageant, that’s for sure!  Exploring the woods near her grandmother’s house, Chip comes across a path leading to Miss Vernie’s School of Charm.  Hoping for something magical, Chip follows the path.  Miss Vernie’s school is a little bit magical, even if the purpose of it is to train girls for the same pageant Chip’s sisters are planning on entering.  Chip almost turns and leaves, but she finds herself intrigued by the charm school and the other girls there.  Since Miss Vernie doesn’t charge tuition at her school, Chip continues to attend.  Perhaps, if she can surprise her mother and grandmother by entering the pageant, she will feel like part of the family again.

I found this book underwhelming – the characters are a little flat, the plot a little patchy.  There's a good message underlying the story, but it's a bit heavy-handed in its application.  All in all, this is not a bad read, but not a great one, either.

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Landline by Rainbow Rowell is a sweet, mysterious story about a foundering marriage and a magical telephone.

It's finally happened: a major network has expressed interest in the show that Georgie and her writing partner Seth have been working on since their college days. The problem is that the network executive wants to meet with them on December 27th . . . and Georgie and her husband and daughters have plane tickets for a Christmas visit to Omaha. When Georgie breaks the news to her husband Neal, she proposes rescheduling the trip.  Instead, Neal and the girls go to Omaha without Georgie, leaving her to write scripts with Seth and contemplate whether her marriage is in danger of disintegrating. She'd feel better if she could just talk to Neal, but she's having a hard time getting to him on his cell. In a fit of desperation, she tries the land line (she memorized the number for his mother's house years ago, though she hasn't used it in years). Neal finally answers the phone, but not the Neal who packed himself and the girls off to the airport two days ago. Instead, Georgie finds herself talking to Neal of fifteen years ago, from the last Christmas they spent apart. The Christmas when Georgie thought that he had broken up with her. The Christmas when he turned up on her doorstep after a week of silence with an engagement ring. Now Georgie is inexplicably connecting with this past iteration of Neal. Is she being given a second chance? Is she supposed to save their marriage? Or is she supposed to save Neal from their marriage?

I binge-read this book in one evening. It has all of the charming elements I've come to expect from Rowell's works: lovely writing, great characters, well-constructed plot, delightful touches of humor. This book doesn't have quite the emotional punch of Eleanor and Park, nor did I connect with Georgie on he same level as I did with Cath in Fangirl, but I still love it wholeheartedly and definitely recommend it!

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

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee is a magical wintery fantasy featuring a nameless, ageless child and an evil Snow Queen.

Ophelia would say she's not very brave. Mostly, she feels broken inside because her mother died three months ago. Ophelia's mother was the one who dreamed and wrote of adventure and heroines and danger. Now, Ophelia's father, an international sword expert, has taken Ophelia and her older sister Alice with him to a museum in a strange city, where he is arranging an exhibition of swords from around the world. While her father works, Ophelia wanders the mysterious halls and galleries of the museum. Tucked away in the far reaches of the building, she discovers a keyhole, and on the other side of the keyhole is a boy without a name, who says he's been locked away for hundreds of years. He asks Ophelia to rescue him, but it will be dangerous: a quest fraught with ghosts and monsters and magic, and Ophelia doesn't believe in any of those things. (Well, she's withholding judgment about the ghosts.) And she doesn't have much time, because the Wintertide Clock will chime in three days -- and when it does, the world will end. If you believe the Marvelous Boy, that is. Which Ophelia doesn't . . . at least, not yet.

I found this story engrossing. It's the sort of book that draws you into its atmosphere, until you are almost surprised to find yourself not surrounded by snow or wandering through endless corridors of mysterious displays. It's a bit predictable, but the story is less about figuring out who the Snow Queen is, and more about watching Ophelia discover that she is stronger and braver than she knows. For that, I recommend it -- though if you can wait, read it in the winter, or at least at a time when you are longing for winter!

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

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson is steampunk (or, to be more technically correct, gearpunk) set in an alternate North America where magicians called Rithmatists duel with chalk figures that come to life.

Joel has always been fascinated by Rithmatists, though he knows he will never be one. Joel is a non-Rithmatic student at Armedius Academy, one of only eight schools in the United Isles where Rithmatists are trained. As the son of a chalkmaker and a cleaning lady, Joel could never have afforded tuition at Armedius, had not Principal York given Joel a scholarship after his father died. Joel dreams of becoming a scholar of Rithmatics, though his grades in his normal classes are lackluster at best. When he sees a chance to study with Professor Fitch, a Rithmatic professor, over the summer, he jumps at the chance. Little does Joel know that the quiet, orderly world of Armedius is about to be turned upside down by the disappearance of several Rithmatic students. When the principal asks Professor Fitch to help the police by examining the Rithmatic lines found at the scenes of the disappearances, Joel is drawn in to the the investigation as well. He's also drawn in (much more reluctantly) to a friendship with Melody, a young Rithmatist who is seeing Fitch for remedial tutoring over the summer. Can Joel, Melody, and Professor Fitch unravel the mystery before other students are taken?

Once again, Sanderson has come up with an innovative and complex magic system, a detailed and imaginative setting, a gripping plot, and fully realized characters. In fact, my only real quibble with the book is that Melody is a stereotypical "spunky redhead" -- where are all of the spunky blondes and brunettes in novels, huh? But that didn't take away from my enjoyment of the story. Fans of Sanderson's adult novels may find this a little simplistic, but I think the target audience (young teens) will find a lot to like here.

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

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Sunshine by Robin McKinley is a vampire story, though not nearly as sparkly and youthful as this particular (wretched) cover design would suggest.

Rae, nicknamed, Sunshine, is a baker. She works at a coffee shop, dates a biker, and has a fairly ordinary life. One evening, she drives out to the lake for some peace and quiet. That's where the vampires get her. She is taken to an abandoned mansion and chained to the ballroom wall. Someone else is chained there, too: Constantine, a vampire. "Speak," he tells her. "Remind me that you are a rational creature." Con has been chained there for too long, tormented by lack of food and the need to constantly avoid the sunlight pouring in through the room's uncovered windows during the day, lest he burst into flame when the light touches his skin. Sunshine's presence is just that much more torture -- but, unbeknownst to their captors, she can also be his salvation. Working together, Sunshine and Con can escape . . . but if they do, both of their lives will become extraordinarily complicated. There is no such thing in their world as human and vampire cooperation. The human police will become suspicious. And, as for the rival vampire who imprisoned Con in the first place? He will be furious, and both Con and Sunshine will be his constant targets until he exacts revenge.

I'll admit, I kind of hated this book when it first came out. McKinley is one of my top ten favorite authors -- I'll admit she has some stylistic quirks (most notably, a tendency to ramble through pages of back-story and description in the middle of a scene), but her books usually work for me. But I'm not so much a fan of the vampire story (even less then than I was now) and I was not enamored of Con, who is dead (heh heh heh) creepy, nor of Sunshine, whose actions I still find a bit ambiguous. Also, this book is unapologetically adult, which is a bit of a shock to the sensibility of someone who is expecting something along the lines of Spindle's End and Rose Daughter. I liked the book a little better this time, knowing what to expect from it. (Also, it made me crave pastries like crazy.) It's never going to be among my favorite McKinley books, but I can see why so many people are fond of it. Readers who love a good dark, grown-up vampire story will savor this one.

(Reviewed from my personally purchased copy.)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Selection by Kiera Cass

The Selection by Kiera Cass is basically a dystopian version of The Bachelor set in a future nation on the North American continent.

America Singer is a member of the Artisan caste, fairly low in the country's class system. America is content with her life, though: she gets by using her vocal talent, and she's in love with a handsome boy from the caste below hers. When it's announced that the Selection will be held to find a bride for Prince Maxon, she's not even interested in entering. She does so because her family, and even her sweetheart, pressure her to enter -- and because she's sure she won't be chosen. But, of course, she is chosen, along with thirty-four other girls, to travel to the palace and try to win the heart of the prince. America is up-front with him: she's only there for the food (and for the stipend that her family receives while she is in the competition). But, as they interact with one another, America and Maxon become friends. Naturally, some of the other girls are jealous of what they see as America's favored position. There are dangers from the outside, as well: revolutionaries attack the palace, and the girls may be in danger of losing their lives, not just their hearts.

Okay, so it's a little bit reality-show cheesy, and the reasons for the downfall of the USA and the rise of this extremely different government are never quite explained. Even the motives of the revolutionaries are kind of murky. And nobody really believes that America isn't going to end up with the prince, right? But, despite all of that, I'll keep on reading, because it's fluffy and fun and a quick read, and I'm hoping some of the missing details will be filled in over the course of the next two books.

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