October 31, 2014

Review: Amity

Amity By Micol Ostow
Available by now from EgmontUSA
Review copy
Read my Micol Ostow tag

I've read several books by Micol Ostow, many of them quite sweet and cute.  Her recent books, FAMILY and AMITY, have been a change of pace.  AMITY plays off of the Amityville Horror legend, with a strange house and disturbed kids.

The narraction switches back and forth between Connor (ten years ago) and Gwen (present).  Each has their own issues.  Connor is a sociopath, and Gwen sees things that aren't there.  The only person Connor loves is his twin sister, so he doesn't resist the sinister house much.  Gwen, on the other hand, fights hard because the house can't quite infect her brain chemistry.  I thought the combination of real-world mental issues with paranormal horror was an intriguing touch.

The thing is, I just didn't find AMITY scary.  In a book, there's no creepy music or jump scares for cheap thrills.  The tone and imagery have to carry it.  I remember one image, of a ghostly figure outside the window and Connor reaching to touch it, to welcome it instead of being afraid.  But the images that were meant to be scary just faded from my mind.

AMITY is an extremely quick read.  It is a little under 400 pages long, but took me less than an hour to read.  (I'm fast, but not usually that fast.)  It's a good enough way to pass the time, but don't go in expecting to be very scared.  The juxtaposition of time and point of view is interesting, and the plot offers a few twists.  Overall, Ostow has done better before.

October 30, 2014

Review: The Brothers Cabal (and giveaway)

The Fear Institute Book four of the Johannes Cabal series
By Jonathon L. Howard
Available now from Thomas Dunne Books (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read my review of The Fear Institute

THE FEAR INSTITUTE ended with the surprising revelation that Horst Cabal was once again alive.  (In a sense, given that he is once again risen as a vampire, and technically he's just undead again.)  For the first two thirds of THE BROTHERS CABAL, the focus is on Horst's resurrection and his adventures before reuniting with Johannes.

While I missed Johannes' dry impatience, I did relish getting the chance to see this world through a different point of view.  Horst is more social and affable, if inhuman in his own way.  He certainly makes friends and allies easier, including monster hunters and a barnstormer circus.  Once more Leonie Barrow doesn't make an appearance, but a wide range of female characters are introduced.  It's an aspect I appreciated.

The plot starts simply, with a supernatural society that wants to take over the world.  There is a long chase, and a big battle, but it's just big set pieces illuminating that Johannes Cabal's enemies are starting to work together for a bit of revenge.  I liked that there turned out to be a personal motive behind everything and that the bad guys were much smarter than they first appeared.

Some of the action was a bit hard to follow.  There are a lot of people with different powers on the scene, which means sometimes there are giant, fierce bugs with little explanation of how that happened.  The humor, however, is more than intact.  I can turn to almost any page and find a gem that made me laugh.  Let me try it right now.

"Does my little brother have a crush?"
Cabal started to deny it, but then instead blushed a little, and a small, perhaps even shy smile appeared on his own face.  He leaned towards Horst and said in a lowered voice, "She told me where to find the fifth volume of Darian's Ocusculus." - ARC, pg. 58-9

The humor is best whenever Horst and Johannes banter with each other, but really, many of Jonathon L. Howard's characters give good banter.  Thanks to the multitude of new characters and POV change, THE BROTHERS CABAL is fairly welcoming to new comers.  The climax slightly less so, although the old connections between the characters are explained.

This is one of my favorite series, and I dread the wait for the next book. 
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October 29, 2014

Review: The Heart Does Not Grow Back (and Giveaway!)

The Heart Does Not Grow Back By Fred Venturini
Available November 4 from Picador (Macmillan)
Review copy

(A version was previously published as THE SAMARITAN by Blank Slate Press.)

Dale Sampson, through a fortuitous game of Blind Man's Bluff becomes Mack Tucker's best friend.  Before that, Dale was a lonely, ignored boy.  But together, he and Mack have big dreams.  That is, until a horrific tragedy at the end of their junior year.  A tragedy that leads to Dale discovering that he can regenerate.

THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK begins much like a YA novel, full of young love and sports triumph.  It becomes something much more bleak, although it always retains a dark humor and eventually finds hope.  Dale is a broken, pitiable man, and I often just wanted for him to get a good therapist.  At the same time, even at his lowest point, he retained the ability to think and plan that made him once so promising.

Over the course of its pages, THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK takes on ethics, reality television, and domestic abuse.  But its heart is always the characters, who are all dealing with trauma in their own ways. 

I often disliked Dale.  In fact, none of the characters are written to be particularly likeable.  They're deeply flawed people.  As Dale is the protagonist, we get to know him in particular.  He's obsessive about women, has a bit of a savior complex, and is pretty confrontational.  It works because author Fred Venturini understands that these things are flaws and that Dale needs to work on them.

THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK is an intense reading experience.  As Dale cuts away more and more of himself, I feared the promise of the title coming true.  From coming-of-age tale, to reality TV satire and slice-of-life superhero, to nailbiter, this is a memorable book.

I have one copy to giveaway to someone with a US or Canada mailing address.

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October 28, 2014

Redeemed: Excerpt and Giveaway

Redeemed Today I have an excerpt from REDEEMED to share with you.  This is the twelfth and final House of Night novel by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

To celebrate the launch of REDEEMED, P.C. and Kristin Cast teamed up with some great companies, like Sinful Colors, 21 Drops, Jamberry, Chrislie, Baby Blue Designs, and For Strange Women to put together “Goddess Gifts” filled with goodies that represent main characters in the books.


Excerpt #1 

…Neferet beamed a smile at her Dark minions that was both exquisitely beautiful and terrifying. “I have an answer to our dilemma, children! The cage we created to hold Redbird was a weak, pathetic attempt at imprisonment. I have learned so much since that night. I have gained so much power—we have gained so much power. We will not cage people, as if I am a gaoler instead of a goddess. My children, we are going to blanket the very walls of my Temple with your magickal, unbreachable threads so that my new supplicants will be able to worship me unhindered. And that will only be the beginning. As I absorb more and more power, why not encase the entire city? I know it now—I know my destiny. I begin my reign as Goddess of Darkness by making Tulsa my Olympus! Only this is not a weak myth passed down as trite stories from schoolchildren to schoolchildren. This will be reality—a Dark Otherworld come to earth! And in my Dark Otherworld, there will be no innocents being abused by predators. All will be under my protection. I hold their fates in my hands—they have only to look to my welfare to be fulfilled. Ah, how they will worship me!”

Around her, the tendrils writhed in response to her excitement. She smiled and stroked those nearest to her. “Yes, yes, I know. It will be glorious!”

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October 27, 2014

Review: Stitching Snow

Stitching Snow By R.C. Lewis
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

It will be of little surprise to anyone that I jumped on the chance to read a sci-fi retelling of Snow White.  STITCHING SNOW opens on the remote mining planet of Thanda, where young Essie makes her living as a mechanic and cage fighter.  It's definitely not the traditional Snow White beginning.

I really enjoyed getting to see the rhythm of Essie's life.  She's clever, tough, and resilient.  She's managed to keep herself safe (and profitable) in a place with few women, much less single women.  Then, a spaceship crashes and brings Dane into her life.  I'm of mixed feelings about Dane.  Essie did need someone to remind her that there was a world beyond Thanda, and I found their relationship built believably, and even included some natural setbacks.  But the opening goes to such lengths to establish Essie as a tough, worthy opponent when fighting.  Yet, of course, Dane is infinitely better than her and she has to learn from him.

After Essie repairs Dane's ship, events lead them to travel to the planets of the galaxy.  I was fascinated by the different economies, politics, and ways of life, but felt that there wasn't enough time to devote to each.  It definitely meant that the climax was rushed and mostly devoid of emotional turmoil.  There was one particularly nasty late-game reveal that had little impact because there were no previous signs of it.  I liked Essie and Dane, but by the end they felt flat, just going through the predictable motions.

I think STITCHING SNOW had a fascinating setup and a good sense of humor.  Essie's droids, which take the place of the dwarves, are real highlights.  But somewhere everything takes a turn for the generic.  This is a find tale for fairytale fans, but nothing truly exciting.  It is a good choice for readers waiting for the next book in the Lunar Chronicles.

October 24, 2014

Review: (Don't You) Forget About Me

(Don't You) Forget About Me By Kate Karyus Quinn
Available now from HarperTeen (HarperCollins)
Review copy

Kate Karyus Quinn's sophomore novel is an unsettling fable about a town called Gardnerville, where no one dies of illness but strange things happen, getting worse every fourth year.  Last fourth year, Skylar's older sister Piper killed sixteen other teenagers in revenge for getting dumped.  Now, it is a fourth year again.

Skylar is one of the last of the Gardners, the founding family.  Her greatest pursuit is the forget-me-nots, a drug that leaves her forgetful.  But Skylar needs to remember if she's going to prevent this year's tragedy.  She needs to remember her sister, who no one else in the town wants to remember.  She needs to remember her family's shadowy history.  She needs to remember who she can trust.

(DON'T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME is an interesting beast.  Every other chapter is a tape from Skylar's childhood, recording her memories with Piper from various points in their lives.  The present chapters cut in and out, sometimes coming back to a Skylar who doesn't remember what happened last chapter -- or even what happened between chapters.  And the story just gets stranger the more Gardnerville reveals its secrets.

I liked the romance between Skylar and Foote, who has is own secrets.  It's very subtle, which is what saves it from its predictability.  The rest of the novel is too surreal for a rote romance.

If you're looking for a disorienting read that requires you to put together the pieces, I suggest giving (DON'T YOU) FORGET ABOUT ME a try.  It's a little bit fairy tale, a little bit magical realism, and a lot bizarre.  It's certainly a memorable reading experience.

October 23, 2014

Review: Liesmith

Liesmith First book of the Wyrd
By Alis Franklin
Available now from Hydra (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I was first drawn to LIESMITH by the cover.  You don't see many black guys on the cover of urban fantasy novels.  Then there was the blurb, which promised Norse mythology meets IT.  That made me think of the SpellCrash series by Kelly McCullough, which I love.

Alis Franklin's debut novel is about Sigmund Sussman, a low-level IT nerd who just humiliated himself by not recognizing his boss when he meets Lain Laufeyjarson, the new guy in the department.  The two hit it off, leading Sigmund to question himself - and Lain's attraction to him.  But soon he has even more to question than his new relationship, because strange things are happening.  Strange, dangerous things.

I enjoyed Franklin's writing style quite a bit, although I expect it might not be for everyone.  It can tend a bit toward the labyrinthine, like the plot.  There are lots of characters trying to pull of long-term master plans, which means their is a bit of a pileup of complicated events at the end.  At the same time, I appreciate that ambition and that Franklin managed to pull off a few brilliant twists grounded in mythology.

Obviously, no one even slightly familiar with Norse mythology (and who isn't, in the age of Marvel?) will fail to ascertain Lain's real identity even before it is revealed to the reader.  (Thankfully, not too long.  Both Lain and Sigmund narrate.)  But it might be more complicated than it first seems.  I also liked that the cast wasn't entirely male.  Sigmund's two best friends are both women, and both play an active role in the climax.

There are lots of rough edges to LIESMITH.  The romance is a touch cliche and sometimes it is hard to follow what is happening.  But LIESMITH shows a lot of promise.  It's sweet, but tough, much like many of its characters.  I look forward to the next book of the Wyrd.

October 22, 2014

Review: Rose and the Magician's Mask

Rose and the Magician's Mask Book three of the Rose series
By Holly Webb
Available now from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Review copy
Read my reviews of Rose and Rose and the Lost Princess

ROSE AND THE MAGICIAN'S MASK can be read alone, although it is best if you have read the first two books about maid and nascent magician Rose.  This book reveals more of her personal history, and delivers a thrilling plot.

Fans of the series know what to expect.  For those who are new, expect a practical heroine, friendship, and magicians versus magicians.  Gus, the talking cat, will be funny.  The adult-in-charge will be useless, leaving saving the day to Rose and her friends.  In this story, Venetian thieves who have stolen a mask of great power that must be retrieved.

This series reaches the point that so many series featuring magical kids (such as Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender) must reach.  As Rose becomes more powerful, and faces more dangerous enemies, she can potentially use lethal force.  This lends a bit more darkness to the final confrontation.

It's hard to say something new about the third book in a series.  But it is easy to repeat something old.  If you have a young reader in your life who enjoys fantastical adventures, I highly recommend this series.  Yes, even to the boys.

October 21, 2014

Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Blue Lily, Lily Blue Book three of the Raven Cycle
By Maggie Stiefvater
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read my Maggie Stiefvater tag

Ever since I finished this book, I've been discussing it with fellow fans.  It's been a little hard since the book wasn't out yet and we had to keep the discussion quiet, so as not to spoil new developments for others.

But that is my number one reaction to this book, and this series as a whole.  I need to talk about it.  I need to pour over the details and make crazy theories about what I think is going to happen next.  I ponder each detail: Is that a clue? A red herring?  Just a bit of flavor?  It's hard to believe that there is only one book to go.

The Raven Cycle has a notably slow, meandering pace.  BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE picks up the pace.  I thought that it didn't go so fast as to be jarring compared to the previous two books, but one person I talked to thought it moved a hair to quick in the beginning.  It's very clear that things are getting serious.  One of Blue's greatest secrets is revealed (to some people), there are deaths, and the book ends with one very shocking revelation.

BLUE LILY, LILY BLUE adds several characters to the already crowded ensemble.  My favorite was Piper, wife to the apparent villain of the story.  (He comes on strong, but finishes weak.)  The banter between Piper and Greenmantle is hilarious, a wonderfully conscienceless counterpoint to the banter between the raven boys and Blue.  There is still time to develop the existing characters further.  This is really Blue's book, with a strong assist from Adam.  I particularly liked the focus on Blue's abilities and finding ways to be more than just a battery.  I also liked that it seems like Blue and Gansey's budding relationship might not explode into irrevocable drama with Adam.  Maybe Maggie Stiefvater could pull it off, but I am afraid of standard teen drama bogging the final book down.

So far, however, this series hasn't let me down yet.  I am in love with the characters, the tone, the unexplained magic of it all.  Okay, one development in particular strikes me as coming out of the blue, but I enjoyed it enough to roll with it.  (Plus, it led to an adorable scene of Ronan and Adam racing shopping carts in a parking lot.  Those boys.)  I can't wait for the inevitable doom that is sure to come with the end of the cycle, because I have enjoyed the lead up so much.

October 20, 2014

Review: The Dark Defiles

The Dark Defiles Book three of Land Fit for Heroes
By Richard K. Morgan
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I'll be the first to say that I'm not a big grimdark fantasy fan.  I like more optimistic worlds.  And yet, I adore the Land Fit for Heroes trilogy.  It follows the adventures of Ringil, Egar Dragonbane, and Archteth, old war hero friends who get drawn back through a long and winding road for one last quest.

When THE DARK DEFILES opens, right after THE COLD COMMANDS ends, they are being separated again thanks to a sudden war and an ambush.  It's the final push for what the various greater powers in play have put into motion.

Richard K. Morgan doesn't give all the answers to his world, but he does give enough to satisfy me.  Nor does he give all of the endings.  However, it is clear enough where the characters are going for me.  Ringil, Egar, and Archteth are all sharply drawn characters, even if their world has deliberately shaded edges.  All of them meet ends that they can be content with.

I don't recommend this series to everyone.  The heroes, such as they are, commit almost as many crimes as the villains.  They are cruel, vengeful people.  At the same time, they aren't fans of slavery or mass murder or the extinction of the humans, which is something most readers can get behind.  It isn't a series with many happy endings, either.  Do not expect your favorite characters to escape unscathed.

But if you like intelligent fantasy that asks you to put the pieces together yourself, characters who are loyal to their friends even in desperate circumstances, and small snatches of love piercing the hardest hearts, then I recommend this trilogy.  The ending did not let me down.  I only wish I had time to re-read the trilogy and savor it altogether.

October 18, 2014

Why book bloggers use pseudonyms

Last January, I read NO ONE ELSE CAN HAVE YOU and thought it was a funny little mystery, just falling onto the right side of the twee line.  Yesterday, author Kathleen Hale published a piece for the Guardian, "Am I being catfished?" that reveals that a) she has no idea what catfishing is and b) stalked a book blogger without realizing she was doing anything wrong.

It is a horrifying article.  She finds the woman's address and work address.  I sometimes consider just going by my real name here, since it is a bit of an open secret.  But then I read this.

So yes authors, many of the book bloggers you interact with are using fake names.  Maybe lying about their personal details to muddy the waters.  Obviously, this is one incident with one disturbed person.  (See another article by Hale where she throws hydrogen peroxide in a girl's face and stalks her for two years and yet still makes herself out to be the victim.  Wow.)  Still, I think I'll keep my pseudonym. 

Also, kudos to HarperTeen for backing away from this mess.

October 17, 2014

Review: Avalon

Avalon First in the Avalon series
By Mindee Arnett
Available now from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Review copy

I love YA science fiction, and I love Joss Whedon's short-lived space western Firefly.   Thus, I couldn't resist a YA sci-fi novel inspired by Firefly.  AVALON definitely wears its inspiration on its sleeve, which is sometimes a detriment.  (Every time there was a paraphrased Firefly quote I was jolted out of AVALON.)

At the same time quite a bit of the influence is good.  There's the obvious, like a close-knit crew and young girls with mysterious powers.  Then there's the less obvious tropes that Mindee Arnett cultivates, like being stranded in nothing and strange horrors at the edge of the universe.  It's all stuff I like and was eager to read about.

Jeth is a young captain working for a crime lord known as Hammer Defoe.  He and his crew take advantage of the fact that children aren't suspicious.  When a new job comes up that can only be performed by the Avalon, Jeth takes advantage of the chance to win back his ship and his freedom.  At the same time, he knows escaping Hammer won't be that easy, because Hammer has his own plans for Jeth's future.

Things quickly get complicated, and horrifying.  Worst of all, Jeth's crew is stuck with three survivors who aren't supposed to exist and who are being hunted from all sides.  It was fun to watch the characters come up with a plan, and then come up with another, and another, always adjusting to try to survive.  Not every step is brilliant, but there's some good problem solving going on.

I did feel like quite a bit of AVALON was set up for future books in the series.  There is plenty of action in the novel, but very little payoff for the secrets that are revealed.  I'm more curious about what the protagonists will do with what they've learned than satisfied with what they did in the immediate aftermath.  I also felt like Hammer's interest in Jeth was a bit overplayed.  Some of his other crew members had more unique skills, for instance.

Still, AVALON is a promising start to a new series that should satisfy science fiction fans.  I don't think it will be of much interest to readers outside of the genre, however.

October 16, 2014

Review: Damsel Distressed

Damsel Distressed By Kelsey Macke
Available now from Spencer Hill Contemporary
Review copy

Imogen Keegan knows she's the ugly stepsister.  Heck, her stepsister is named Ella Cinder.  But her stepsister moving in is just another thing going wrong in her life.  There's her mother's death, her weight gain, her hopeless crush on her best friend, and her depression.

Imogen is not an easy heroine to like.  She's unhappy with herself, and tends to think badly of others in return.  She has very little empathy.  Debut author Kelsey Macke, however, understands that her heroine is no angel.  Throughout the book, people tell Imogen when she goes to far, or she eventually realizes that for herself.  Often, she judged people harshly before they could judge her, and she learns that maybe she should get to know people a bit more before making such decisions.  Macke also maintains a careful balance with Imogen's depression.  It colors how Imogen sees the world and her struggle is very sympathetic, but it is also not a free pass to treat other people badly.

DAMSEL DISTRESSED will appeal strongly to artsy YA fans.  Imogen is in charge of the sound booth for the school musical, Once Upon a Mattress.  All of her close friends are involved in the crew in some way.  There is art before each chapter, and Macke recorded an album with her duo (Wedding Day Rain) to accompany the book.  It adds some nice layers to the whole package.

DAMSEL DISTRESSED also has a lot of appeal for fans of contemporary YA retellings and books that deal with serious issues with humor.  Imogen's difficulties are definitely lightened by her own humor and that of her closest friends.  The Cinderella angle is a nice hook, but DAMSEL DISTRESSED diverges quite a bit to be its own story.  There is a Prince Charming, but he's no distant, half drawn figure.  In addition to depression, bullying figures prominently, as does Imogen's acceptance of her weight.  There's quite a bit going on, but it all gels.

October 15, 2014

Review: God's Play

God's Play By H.D. Lynn
Available now from Curiosity Quills Press
Review copy

H.D. Lynn's debut novel GOD'S PLAY is the story of Toby, a hunter; William, a shapeshifter; and Cassie, a Gorgon.  Although it is mostly Toby and William's story, with Cassie's point of view thrown in to explain who some of the many characters are.

I thought Cassie was very interesting.  She's an older monster, one of the oldest, and had to live in isolation due to her abilities.  She's terrified by Toby, who has the ability to lift the Veil in addition to being a monster hunter.  The Veil is a bit of magic created a long time ago that makes the monsters look human and keeps the vast majority of them from using their powers.  It's allowed Cassie to live a normal life, including developing an on-again, off-again romance.  Cassie's sections did a good job of expanding the world of GOD'S PLAY and emphasizing the importance of the Veil.  They furthered the plot, but were pretty irrelevant to the character section of the novel.  It made the separate point of view feel a touch awkward.

Toby and William meet when Toby's group of hunters (including his mom and uncle) are ambushed.  William comes by late and takes the wounded boy home, for reasons he's not entirely sure of.  The two form an uneasy alliance, both wanting to kill Fennis, the wolf who lead the ambush.  They go seeking allies, and along the way develop mutual crushes on each other.  I don't know if there are sequels planned, but there's definitely room for them since the romance doesn't even really begin in GOD'S PLAY.  What does begin is the beginnings of mutual respect and a tentative reach beyond prejudices.

The plot of GOD'S PLAY is fairly straightforward.  Pretty much all of the monsters want Toby since he can take down the Veil.  Some want to make him take it down; others want to prevent him from taking it down.  The hunters just want him back.  Meanwhile, Toby is mostly on the run by accident because he's focused on revenge. 

I think GOD'S PLAY is a fun debut.  Lynn weaves together a variety of mythologies in an original fashion and writes top-notch character interaction.  The few domestic scenes are particularly well done.  She even manages to weave in flashbacks fairly organically.  However, there is a very large cast, so I wish there had been more time to develop more of the characters.  (And maybe some time to deal with the age gap between sixteen-year-old Toby and been-around-for-decades William.)  I wish that Cassie had played a more active role in the climax or made more of a personal change to give her point of view equal weight.  Still, if there are any sequels in the future, I'd be happy to give them a try.

October 14, 2014

Review: My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Holiday Stories

My True Love Gave to Me Edited and with a story by Stephanie Perkins
Stories by Holly Black, Ally Carter, Matt de la Peña, Gayle Forman, Jenny Han, David Levithan, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire, Rainbow Rowell, Laini Taylor, and Kiersten White
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

For her first anthology, Stephanie Perkins did not play fair.  She gathered up a veritable who's who of YA authors to deliver a nearly perfect anthology with something to offer for everybody.  Some of the stories are speculative fiction; some are contemporary.  All have at least a touch of a romantic edge.  There's also a smattering of diversity.

For me, the weakest link was Jenny Han's "Polaris Is Where You'll Find Me," the story of a human girl adopted by Santa.  There were hints of an interesting elf world and two potential love interests, and it was all a bit much for one of the book's shorter stories.  It felt like the beginning to something longer.  My favorite was Kelly Link's "The Lady and the Fox," a sort of Christmas retelling of Tam Lin with a young girl who loves costumes and an old family with lots of stories.

David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell, Matt de la Peña, and Gayle Forman and more deliver solid contemporary Christmas and New Year's stories.  I liked that Levithan's brought in some Jewish heritage to the proceedings.  Holly Black did what Holly Black does.  So did Laini Taylor to deliver a memorable closing story.  I found Kiersten White's "Welcome to Christmas, CA" took longer to charm me than the others, but by the end I was under its delicious spell.

I appreciated that MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME skewed a little older.  Almost all of the characters are in their first year of college.  It united the anthology in a way, and gave it a bit of a different vibe from similar YA holiday anthologies.

This is a charming collection and an excellent choice for anyone who likes at least one or more of the twelve authors.  It's rare to come across an anthology this solid.  And with so much winter cheer, it's hard for me to be a Grinch.

October 10, 2014

Store Review: GoneReading.com

GoneReading.com sells everything a reader could want: bookshelves, book lights, novelty dishes, calendars, and more.  GoneReading.com recently contacted me about reviewing some of their products, and I leaped at the chance!  I chose to review the "Melodrama, Modernism & Myth" literary knowledge cards and then let them surprise me.

This deck of cards is similar to a set of flash cards.  On the blue side, there is a description of a literary term.  On the white side, there is the term and a paragraph about the history, use, and literary importance of the term.  I find it very refreshing since it's been awhile since I've had an English class, but I want to stay up on my lit crit knowledge for reviewing reasons.  On the other hand, I'm having trouble finding people who aren't scared to compete against me to guess the term first.

Click any picture for full size
GoneReading.com also sent me an Archie McPhee Jane Austen action figure.  She's currently chilling out on top of one of my bookshelves.  This is a cute figure, with several points of articulation and two accessories: a book and a quill.  My Jane has a deformed right hand so she can't really hold her book.  I just rested it on top instead.
This gives you an idea of her size.
Finally, I received a set of 25 bookmarks.  Now, I'm not a big bookmark fan, so the "Yes, I'm Actually Reading This" bookmark pad works for me.  I like the art on bookmarks and such, but I just lose them to easily to think that they're practical things to buy.  Why not use a receipt? (Or, as my friends have never let me forget, an empty candy bar wrapper?)  However, these bookmarks are made to be disposable, although you can certainly use one for more than one book.

As a bonus from the book blogger perspective, they also have blanks for keeping notes.  I can see these being very handy for book club books.
Yes, I'm Actually Reading The Paying Guests
If you're a book fan or buying a present for a book fan, I recommend giving GoneReading.com a look.  The main drawback I can see is that you have to spend $90 to get free shipping.

(Also cool: the site recently funded a library in Ethiopia.)

October 9, 2014

Review: Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema

Scandals of Classic Hollywood By Anne Helen Petersen
Available now from Plume (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have been a huge fan of Anne Helen Petersen's column "Scandals of Classic Hollywood" for The Hairpin.  It was funny, juicy, and beautifully illustrated by images of the stars.  When I heard about her book deal, I was extremely excited.  Unlike many blog-to-books, SCANDALS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD is 100% new content (although it covers some of the same stars).

I have mixed feelings about the result.  I really miss seeing the pictures, which say so much about the star's image and presentation.  I felt that the humor was intact, but there was a bit too much reaching for contemporary connections.  The conclusions of each chapter are going to age pretty quickly.

The information, however, is still fascinating.  SCANDALS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD covers the rise and fall of the studio-managed star, the Hays Code, the MPAA, and more through the lens of several major stars.  The stars in question include Dorothy Dandridge, Judy Garland, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Fatty Arbuckle, and more.  All are interesting people with eventful lives and careers, sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic.

Now, not all of this is novel stuff.  There's certainly been plenty written about James Dean.  But it is a wonderful introduction, and a great reminder that so much of Hollywood is a carefully controlled image.  Even better, it is an introduction to how Hollywood got that way.

I miss the columns.  It was fun to wait for each of them, and to read the comments.  But I certainly enjoyed SCANDALS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD (the book) quite a bit, and recommend it to any fan of Petersen's writing or of old-time movie stars.  The truth is pretty wild and strange indeed, except for where it was exaggerated for entertainment.

October 8, 2014

Review: The Diamond Thief

The Diamond Thief By Sharon Gosling
Available now from Switch Press (Capstone)
Review copy

THE DIAMOND THIEF is a British import and one of the first books from Switch Press, a new YA imprint from Capstone.  It switches between the points of view of Rémy Brunel, a trapeze artist and thief, and Thaddeus Rec, a policeman.  Both of them are after a diamond - Rémy to steal it and Thaddeus to recover it.

I loved the premise of THE DIAMOND THIEF and was very fond of the characters, although I think the whole book could've been from Rémy's point of view.  My favorite character was probably J, a younger urchin who befriends both protagonists.  But I thought that the book was a little lacking.  It is historical fiction with a bit of steampunk and of fantasy, with no real limits on what was possible in the world.  There was magic and impossibly advanced science with little explanation of how either worked.

Going back to the characters, I love the idea of two basically good people working at cross purposes with each other.  Thaddeus is almost impossibly good, a truly honest cop who will sacrifice himself to save others.  Rémy is a bit more complicated.  She steals to survive and understands that there are shades of grey in the world, but at the same time she, too, will sacrifice herself to save others.  She understands that there are more important things in the world than her individual happiness.  

I don't know.  I liked these characters so much, yet there world lacked a snap to pull me in.  I felt like the plot was a pretty basic progression from point A to point B, and the romance a touch tepid.  I liked Rémy and Thaddeus individually, but they were pretty quickly passionately in love with each other for little reason.  It's hard for me to remember the specifics of THE DIAMOND THIEF already, because there weren't many memorable details (aside from J).

I think THE DIAMOND THIEF will appeal to younger YA readers who like circuses, thieves, and curses.  Older YA readers who think that sounds interesting would do well to look into PANTOMIME by Laura Lam.

October 7, 2014

Review: Exquisite Captive

Exquisite Captive Book one of the Dark Caravan cycle
By Heather Demetrios
Available now from Balzer+Bray (HarperCollins)
Review copy

I was intrigued by EXQUISITE CAPTIVE: a princess in exile, sold a slave and joining the rebellion.  I found the execution quite uneven, however.  It takes quite awhile for the story to get really rolling, for instance.

I think the slow pace in the beginning came from my disconnect from Nalia.  She's spent three years in slavery, the exact fate the lower caste djinni rebelled against Nalia's caste to escape.  She says it has changed her point of view, yet she still treats the lower castes as beneath her.  And I just never saw a difference between her voice and the generic YA heroine voice.  She likes tooling around in her Maserati and pondering her attractions.  She does flash back to the horrors of the genocide, but the tone was just so light when her master Malek wasn't in the scene.  Sometimes even then.  It felt easy at times to forget that Nalia is enslaved and has been for years, which is somewhat horrifying.

Then there's the issue of Nalia seducing Malek to gain her freedom and join Raif, the leader of the rebellion.  I am fine with Nalia taking advantage of the man who owns her and wants to rape her.  But at times she worries about feeling something genuine for him and I just can't.  I know Stockholm Syndrome is a thing and he's sometimes nice to her (to try to get her to sleep with him, because he's just nice enough he won't do it by force), but it's not what I want to read nor what I expected to read.  I am so tired of YA love triangles, and I definitely don't need a book about a girl who is torn between a boy who wants to help free her (to get what he wants) and the man who owns her.

What does work in EXQUISITE CAPTIVE is the growing danger to Nalia from the Ifrit, the caste that took over.  They've found out she's alive and sent out a crazed assassin.  He is genuinely scary (albeit reminiscent of Buffalo Bill), and his search leads to a thrilling showdown.  The growing prominence of that storyline is part of why the end of the book works so well.  There's also the set up of two rivals chasing after a McGuffin for book two.

Personally, I don't think I'll be back for book two.  EXQUISITE CAPTIVE finally caught my attention at the end, but the slog to that point was a bit much.

October 6, 2014

Review: The Wrenchies

The Wrenchies By Farel Dalrymple
Available now from First Second (Macmillan)
Review copy

There are two brothers who kill a shadow and find an amulet.  One of those brothers grows up to write a comic called The Wrenchies.  There's a world where shadowmen have killed almost everyone, and the best fighters who oppose them are a group of young'uns called The Wrenchies who read a comic called The Wrenchies.  Then there's young Hollis, who reads a comic called The Wrenchies and then falls into the world of The Wrenchies.  Confused?  Welcome to THE WRENCHIES.

Honestly, I feel like I should read THE WRENCHIES again to better sort how things fall into place as the novel progresses.  At the same time, I haven't, because I don't really desire to read it again.

Farel Dalrymple's art is well suited to the world of THE WRENCHIES, fading and decaying and under siege.  I do wish there was some variation in style to help keep separate worlds apart visually.  At the same time, that works for how the layers and locations of the story blend together.  But really, I just found that I didn't like the art much.  There was something off-putting about it to me, although it was so close to what I usually like.  There is a deliberate ugliness, but not one that worked for me.  Plus, I found all the red noses distracting.

As for the story itself, it will appeal to fans of post-apocalyptic literature.  There are a lot of characters to keep straight, and it can be hard to remember who has died.  I definitely felt like I never had a great grasp on Hollis's age.  His looks told me one thing, but his behavior and voice made me peg him as younger.  (I definitely liked him better when I decided he was younger than I first thought, although I felt weird about him being the questing hero in a gory story that in some ways boils down to drug addicts vs. zombies.)  I feel like the book could've spent more time developing Sherwood as well, since Sherwood drives most of the plot, even if he isn't the one of a heroic quest.

THE WRENCHIES just never grabbed me, although it was full of ideas I found intriguing.  It's wonderfully layered and complex, but not interesting enough for me to really try to unpack what lies beyond the surface.  I'm just not the right audience for this graphic novel.

October 3, 2014

Movie Review: Gone Girl

Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox and Regency Enterprises)
Last night, I attended the New York Film Critics screening of Gone Girl at the Alamo Drafthouse.  This screening had a Q&A with Gillian Flynn afterward.  She had on a glittery blush that I want and spoke to Peter Travers about the way the quote about her throwing away the third act took on a life of its own (you will be surprised by the end) and how she got her dream adaptation, with David Fincher, Ben Affleck, and Rosamund Pike.

It really is a dream adaptation.  Gone Girl is that rare book-to-film adaptation that's faithful, but with just enough alteration to keep in smooth on screen.  Ben Affleck, as Nick Dunne, is handsome and likeable in all the wrong ways, oozing a smooth charm that doesn't work for a man whose wife is missing.  Rosamund Pike is brilliant as Amy.  They were very smart to cast a mostly unknown actress.  I know her as Jane in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, which makes me want to like her.  She's got big, doe eyes that can go cool in an instant.  The only note I had trouble with is her accent.  She doesn't sound English, but she doesn't sound like she's from New York either.  At the same time, her voice did sound Amy.

The real revelation, for me, was Carrie Coon as Nick's sister Margo.  She's supportive, she's loving, she's broken by the terrible things happening to her brother and the reveals of all the little lies he's been telling her.  If you haven't read the book, at the beginning of Gone Girl, Nick's wife Amy goes missing.  As the police investigate and find Amy's diary, it starts to look like Nick might've killed her.  It's one twist after the other.  (Which, Kim Dickens is awesome as the lead cop.  All of the actresses - and actors - really pull it off.)

When I read Gone Girl, the hype was full speed ahead.  I felt a little let down because I expected something that was probably more than one book could offer.  The movie makes me want to revisit the book, re-examine the texture of Nick and Amy's monologues.  Gone Girl the movie has to get out of the characters' heads and use more dialogue, and it works.  The dialogue is raw and bitter and funny.  Fincher definitely got the comedic elements of the story.  He didn't skimp from the nastier touches either.

GONE GIRL was the book to read; now, Gone Girl is the movie to see.  And boy, it is worth seeing.  It's one I'll be revisiting.

October 2, 2014

Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves By Robin Talley
Available now from Harlequin Teen
Review copy

LIES WE TELL OURSELVES is a hard book to read.  It focuses on the first year of integration at a Virginia high school.  Debut author Robin Talley doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the brutality the black students faced.  Racial slurs fly, violence is common, and nasty comments are constant.  Although the students who go to the white school were chosen because they were the best of the best, they're stuck in remedial classes and everyone acts like they're stupid.

And the hate definitely goes beyond simple bullying and the relentless use of variations of the n-word.  The white characters genuinely believe that they are superior.  The normalization of the racism, accurate to the period, is horrifying.  The resistance to integration is a shameful part of our nation's past, and it is difficult to read about such hate happening in the same era my parents were in elementary school.

The point of view in LIES WE TELL OURSELVES switches between Sarah, one of the "agitators," and Linda, the daughter of a powerful newspaper editor who is firmly against integration.  I found Sarah's sections more compelling.  Linda's were a bit over the top - not only is her father firmly racist, but also abusive.  He's so evil that he's easy to dismiss, when so much of the antagonism in the rest of the novel is deftly drawn.  Despite being on opposite ideological sides, the girls are instantly physically attracted to each other.  That's a problem for their beliefs in more ways than one.

I felt like the romance tended to fade being the historical detail and focus on what happens during the tumultuous school year.  I believed the girls were attracted to each other, because they had a real antagonist spark that drove each of them to respect the other's intelligence (through time spent in debate).  But I feel like LIES WE TELL OURSELVES ended before really convincing me that Sarah and Linda could make it as an interracial lesbian couple.  I believe both girls have the strength to try, however.

I think LIES WE TELL OURSELVES is a strong debut.  The story wanders without much focus, more interested in the historical atmosphere than the actual romance.  But the growth of the characters is wonderfully done and it is a fascinating piece of history.  Do not expect to read this one in one day.  It is rough to revisit integration.  At the same time, the social issues the girls face are a reminder that we still have so much farther to go.

October 1, 2014

Review: Sacrifice

Sacrifice Book five in the Elemental series
By Brigid Kemmerer
Available now from K-Teen (Kensington)
Review copy
Read my reviews of Spirit and Secret

SACRIFICE is the fifth and final book in the Elemental series.  The Merrick brothers - Michael, Gabriel, Nick, and Chris - have fought off several guides and proved to some former enemies that they aren't a danger.  They're building a pretty good life with their significant others and Hunter, the former Guide-in-training who moved in.  But an enemy is closing in, and their methods are deadly to bystanders.  Michael is determined to stop whoever it is, alone, without risking his brothers.

Michael is the oldest and has felt the burden of responsibility since their parents died.  SACRIFICE is the perfect title for his book.  It's a title with several meanings, in fact.  Given that the Merrick brothers are strongest together, his determination is a little silly.  At the same time, it makes perfect sense from a parent's point of view.  And it makes waves with his girlfriend (an actual parent), who doesn't appreciate being out of the loop when her boyfriend keeps showing up in mortal danger.

Hannah and Michael have been dating in the background of previous books, so I was curious how the vibe of an established relationship would affect the book.  But Hannah is almost a non-entity.  Her chapters are rarely about the actual plot, and she's even given a secondary love interest like a love triangle was needed.  Hannah and Michael rarely interact.  Given how vibrant the romances in the Elemental series have been, it was a bit of a letdown. 

The plot, however, is thrilling.  The reveal of the Guide who has been harrowing them is simply brilliant.  There's a real sense that the heroes are in danger, and the effects of the violence aren't disposable.  There is a lot of pain in SACRIFICE.  If this was just another book in the Elemental series, it wouldn't be my favorite, but I would be very happy with it.

Having said that, I found that SACRIFICE was not a satisfying series finale.  There are a number of threads left dangling, including what I felt was the most important thread of the series.  The conclusion of SACRIFICE has about as much impact as the conclusion of the other four books.  I feel like I should still be expecting the next chapter to come out next year.  I thought this was a very fun series, but people considering picking it up should expect a very open ending.


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