July 31, 2014

Review: Buzz Kill

Buzz Kill By Beth Fantaskey
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy

The tone of BUZZ KILL reminded me of NO ONE ELSE CAN HAVE YOU.  It is both chipper and dark.  Millie Ostermeyer, the heroine, is a school reporter who gets nosy after Coach Killdare is murdered.  In many books, there's a murder of a nice person that then reveals their dark secrets.  In BUZZ KILL, Coach Killdare was hated, but his death reveals some good things about him.

BUZZ KILL is hard to put down, almost every chapter ending at a place designed to keep you reading.  The mystery keeps things moving, as does Millie herself.  She's still struggling with her mom's death, in addition to her attraction to Chase, the cute quarterback she spotted going into Coach Killdare's home after his death.  Before Millie had the mystery to capture her attention, she spent a lot of time at the public library.  She's not up to speed on getting a boyfriend.

I'd be happy if BUZZ KILL got a sequel (or two).  It's very much in the vein of Nancy Drew mysteries, with a plucky girl detective, a fairly chaste romance, and clues popping up like daisies.  Things really move into gear once more bodies turn up, but the beginning of the book certainly isn't slow.

It's also similar to Nancy Drew in that the girl detective herself is as much or more an attraction than the actual mystery.  Millie has an appealing voice, both extremely stubborn and vulnerable.  Some of the secrets she uncovers during her investigation hit her in soft spots, but she keeps going because there is a story out there and because Coach Killdare deserves for someone to fight for him.  That's a heroine who'd I'd read about again.

July 30, 2014

Review: Summer State of Mind

Summer State of Mind Companion to Sleepaway Girls
By Jen Calonita
Available now from Poppy (Hachette)
Review copy

It's the perfect time of year to get into the SUMMER STATE OF MIND.  Harper McAllister's family moved to LA after her father (McDaddy) became a successful music video director.  She's become a bit spendy as she works to fit in.  But when McDaddy gets the credit card bill, he decides she's going to summer camp.

I've never read companion SLEEPAWAY GIRLS, but it's really not necessary.  It's about characters who are counselors in SUMMER STATE OF MIND and not Harper.  I really liked Harper.  I don't share her obsession with aromatherapy candles or hair care, but I felt for her struggle to fit in.  She relies on things because it's the best way she knows to make it work.  That doesn't work so well at a summer camp, but there are still people worth meeting. 

Harper's friends Lina and Ethan were terrific.  Lina in particular is very different from Harper, a real sports maniac, but they both understand standing on the sidelines.  Ethan is sweet like Harper, and always willing to talk.  Harper's twin brother is also there, egging her on at every turn (since he thinks she can't hack it).

I found the descriptions of summer camp pretty dead on.  (Except for the cabin raid.  I think those only happen in movies.  At least SUMMER STATE OF MIND gets how upsetting it would be to have your sheets and luggage ruined.)  There's the zip line, the lake, the clean up, and the singing.  There's also the enthusiasm whenever anything competitive happens.

SUMMER STATE OF MIND is a short read well suited to a long bath or rest by the pool.  It's not a complicated book, but Harper's journey to remembering who she is beneath the materialism is well done.  Don't expect twists and turns, but do expect fun.

July 29, 2014

Review: Wolfsbane

Wolfsbane Book three of the Rebel Angels series
By Gillian Philip
Available now from Tor (Macmillan)
Review copy
Read my reviews of Firebrand and Bloodstone

It's a little hard for me to accept that there's only one more Rebel Angels book to go.  I've been enjoying the hell out of this series.  It's sprawling and twisted and based on characters who make mistakes because they can't be anything but themselves.  And, of course, the villain who takes advantage of that.

WOLFSBANE did feel a bit like a holding pattern before the end.  The stakes weren't quite as high, the protagonists didn't lose quite as much - but the antagonist didn't win as much either.

The first two books centered around the relationship between brothers Seth and Conal MacGregor.  WOLFSBANE focuses on a new relationship, that of Seth and his son Rory.  Queen Kate wants Rory in her power, but he's safe on Seth's lands.  Unfortunately, he's also a teenager and sick of staying close at home.  (Especially once he meets a teen girl).

WOLFSBANE takes place almost entirely in the world of the Sithe, with very little in "our world."  It's a chance to get a closer look at the Sithe who aren't in the center of the struggle and what they think of Seth's rebellion against Kate.  Few know that the center of their struggle is the fate of the Veil, but they can still decide who they want to side with based on how their vassals are treated and other criteria.

The time jump between BLOODSTONE and WOLFSBANE allows a variety of relationships other than Seth's and Rory's to progress.  There's romance, new siblings, and hate.  Seth's past mistakes haven't always won him friends, and some of those enemies are making their move.  The action in WOLFSBANE might be smaller, but it's closer.

FIREBRAND was an unexpected favorite of mine, but I'm glad I came across it, especially since the sequels have been so wonderful.  I can't wait to see how the Rebel Angels series concludes when ICEFALL comes out in the US.

July 28, 2014

Review: Wish You Were Italian

Wish You Were Italian An If Only novel
By Kristin Rae
Available now from Bloomsbury
Review copy

WISH YOU WERE ITALIAN is the second novel I've read lately set in Italy.  (The one I preferred was BLONDE OPS.)  I wanted to like this novel, if only because Kristin Rae is a fellow Houstonian.

The main flaw is similar to that in Stephanie Perkins' ANNA IN THE FRENCH KISS, but unlike that novel it doesn't recover.  Namely, protagonist Pippa is pissed that her parents are sending her to Florence, Italy for the summer.  Yeah, I was crying a river for her.  She's supposed to study art history there, which she doesn't want to do because she wants to be a photographer.  I hope she realizes that if she goes to college for photography she will have to study art history and it will make her a better photographer. 

When Pippa arrives in Rome, she wants to stay and be a tourist.  So she ditches her program (because Florence is a terrible place to be a tourist, obvs) and sets out.  (And yes, I was wincing about the thousands of dollars in tuition her parents lost.  Pippa never thinks twice about this.)

Most of the action takes place in Cinque Terre, part of the Italian Riviera, where Pippa heads after all signs seem to point in that direction.  She stays with her new friend Chiara, who is a good friend if a bit two dimensional.  Pippa also starts falling for two boys: Darren, a fellow American, and Chiara's bad boy cousin.  Pippa's main fault with Darren is, of course, that he isn't Italian and she wants to fall in love with an Italian while she's abroad.  And Bruno is super smooth, even if he does have a player reputation.

I think WISH YOU WERE ITALIAN has its good points.  It certainly makes me want to visit Italy and see all the sites for myself.  But the setting has more character than the actual characters.  Yes, this is a breezy summer novel, but the love interests are straight out of central casting.  Pippa has the most development, and I found her so annoying.  (Seriously kid, stop complaining about your parents.)

July 25, 2014

Review: Blonde Ops

Blonde Ops By Charlotte Bernardo and Natalie Zaman
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

I've read two books set in Rome lately, and I can tell you that I vastly prefer BLONDE OPS.  It's a zippy novel about a hacker sent to live with a family friend in Italy for the summer who ends up interning at a fashion magazine edited by that family friend and getting involved in foiling a plot to kidnap the First Lady.

The first thing you should probably know is that the title is a lie.  Rebecca "Bec" Jackson has pink hair.  It's mentioned so often that, even though the title is cute, it started to bother me.

Second, there is a love triangle.  There's local bike messenger Dante (who has useful cousins all about Rome) and visiting fashion blogger Taj (who is also a hacker).  Both boys are very attractive, of course, and appreciate all the trouble that Bec manages to get herself into. 

Thirdly, BLONDE OPS is full speed ahead.  The characters beyond Bec don't get much development, but she is a firecracker.  She can't resist prodding her nose where it doesn't belong, and spotting something fishy just makes her more determined to get to the truth.  She's quite clever in how she goes about getting information, not just relying on her computer skills.  The focus is really on the zany plot, which combines the madness of getting a magazine published with protecting a political figure from a serious threat.  It isn't a serious book by any means, but co-authors Charlotte Bernardo and Natalie Zaman clearly know what kind of book they're writing.

BLONDE OPS will appeal to fans of Ally Carter who are looking for more books with a nosy heroine, cloak-and-dagger hijinks, and a cute boy willing to take a few risks himself.  There are a few hooks for a sequel, but this adventure stands on its own.

July 24, 2014

Review: Oliver and the Seawigs

Oliver and the Seawigs By Philip Reeve
Illustrations by Sarah McIntyre
Available now from Random House BFYR
Review copy

Philip Reeve's latest novel, OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS, is an interesting thing.  It's a bit more complex than a chapter book, but simpler than a middle grade novel.  It's heavily illustrated (almost every page!) but I wouldn't call it a graphic hybrid because there isn't use of sequential graphic scenes.  The illustrations enhance the story, especially a dual-page spread of the seawigs, but they never tell the story.

The eponymous Oliver is a young boy who travels the world (reluctantly) with his explorer parents.  One day he wakes up to find them missing.  It turns out he is on a Rambling Island, one that moved away while Mr. and Mrs. Crisp were exploring.  Oliver gets to know the island, called Cliff, and a near-sighted mermaid named Iris.  Together, the three try to create a magnificent seawig for Cliff.  The Rambling Islands have an annual competition for who can have the best seawig.  Unfortunately, a meaner island, populated by monkeys and a boy named Stacey de Lacey, doesn't plan to play fair.

It's a cute little book that will appeal to fans of Neil Gaiman's FORTUNATELY THE MILK.  There are some really clever elements, such as how the island's guts work.  And even writing for a younger audience, Reeve knows how to turn a phrase.  OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS is independent reader friendly, but not too simple.

Sarah McIntyre's accompanying two-color art has clean lines, big eyes, and a surprising amount of detail.  The illustrations look extremely simple, but there are often parts of dense visual information.  I can see readers, especially young rereaders, getting a kick out of lingering over the illustrations.  (And all of the two-page spreads are just magnificent.)  I also recommend going to her site to download some activity sheets.

I think OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS is a fun adventure novel for young readers.  I'm definitely planning to share it with my niece, who is now reading on her own. 

July 23, 2014

Review: Like No Other

Like No Other By Una LaMarche
Available July 24 from Razorbill (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

The cover is a clear bid to convince ELEANOR AND PARK fans to pick up LIKE NO OTHER.  I think it's a smart move.  LIKE NO OTHER is a bittersweet book about a cross-cultural romance, written in an appealing and immediate style.  It is contemporary, although I can see the lettering making a potential reader think seventies.

Devorah is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community in Crown Heights Brooklyn.  She's a good girl to friends, family, and teachers alike.  But when she sees her sister's light crushed after her marriage and meets Jaxon, she starts questioning the strict traditions that govern her life.  Jaxon is a somewhat nerdy Brooklynite of West Indian descent who can't believe he managed to hit it off with Devorah when they got stuck in an elevator together.  He's caught up in the first flush of love, and hurt that Devorah wants to keep him a secret.

I thought LIKE NO OTHER was a wonderful depiction of a young relationship and two teenagers' growing confidence in themselves and their desires.  But this book made me so mad (often in a good way).  I hated that Devorah had to risk being cut off from her community and her family, because so many of the rules she lives under are ridiculous.  Being accidentally alone with a man is a potential smirch on her honor.  Giving birth is unclean.  No dating before marriage.  I understand things like when a woman wants to dress modestly before God.  But this felt, because it is how Devorah felt, like she was being forced to dress modestly to prevent being a temptation.

Meanwhile, Jaxon kept making the dumbest romantic gestures.  He just wants to impress Devorah and reassure himself that she feels the same way, but he really never gets that Devorah could get disowned because of their relationship.  He forces her to take stupid risks, which really soured me on him.  I could accept the risks of the relationship not being equal for them, but I had trouble with him refusing to understand the gravity of the risks Devorah takes.  (Although, to be fair, in the end the relationship is quite risky for Jaxon.)

I thought that LIKE NO OTHER was a compelling look at Hasidic Judaism and a sweet, ultimately very realistic romance.  Una LaMarche's novel might've made me angry, but it's a powerful book that can make me feel so deeply.

July 22, 2014

Review: Extraction

Extraction First in a trilogy
By Stephanie Diaz
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

In the world of Kiel, people from the Surface are tested on their sixteenth birthdays to see whether they are worthy of living in the Core.  Maybe five people are picked per year.  Clementine is determined to make it, and to do well enough to convince the Core people to change their mind about Logan, her brilliant and strong boyfriend who happens to be disabled.  When she does make it to the Core, it is a struggle to fit in and excel.  Especially because the Core sees the Surface as an enemy, still.

I have to give it to Stephanie Diaz.  She does a good job of making the division between the Core, Surface, and other layers seem plausible.  The Surface people did revolt, and lost hard.  They're all killed off before they turn twenty, and a population of mostly children doesn't have much potential military force.  There's an acid rain that plagues the surface and also keeps them from becoming upwardly mobile.

EXTRACTION definitely has some narrative influence from the dystopian trend.  However, it does slot more into the rising science fiction trend as the story goes on.  There is much more to Clementine's world than there initially appears to be.  EXTRACTION also avoids the dreaded love triangle.  Any gestures towards it are mere feints, and the boy who would usually be the other leg of the triangle is not a mysterious bad boy but a petty, cruel villain with the merest shade of sympathetic backstory.

I thoroughly enjoyed EXTRACTION, even with the brutality of life on the Surface and the boot camp in the Core.  The romance between Logan and Clementine is both sweet and strong, two people who love each other deeply and have each other's backs.  I like that their love story was allowed to stand on its own.

And for those who aren't sold, I have one word: aliens.

July 21, 2014

Review: Second Star

Second Star By Alyssa B. Sheinmel
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)
Review copy

I wrote earlier this year about how much I love stories based on Peter Pan.  Therefore, I was quite excited to see that Alyssa B. Sheinmel's newest book was a modern retelling.  In SECOND STAR, the Lost Boys are surfers, Hook is a drug dealer, and Wendy is searching for her twin brothers.  They went out in search of a wave and never came home.

SECOND STAR is not a very straightforward contemporary.  It is dreamy, possibly made up entirely by Wendy as she struggles to cope with her brothers' disappearance and apparent deaths.  She stumbles onto the cove where Pete lives almost by accident after seeing a picture of it.  The dreaminess only increases once drugs become involved.  (Wendy doesn't just take the known-to-be-highly-addictive drug, but things happen.)  I didn't find the "fairy dust" sequences entirely convincing.  It is very over the top in a Reefer Madness way, and seems like possibly the least fun drug ever.

The two romances were more convincing.  Wendy is romanced by both Pete and Jas (not always at the same time).  She's attracted to both charismatic boys, but can't trust either.  Pete teaches her to surf and seems sweet, but he has the possessive Belle hanging around and keeps secrets.  Jas seems sweet and caring, but he's a drug dealer, which is a huge negative in the people-to-get-involved-with column.  It doesn't hurt their pursuit that Wendy is feeling vulnerable.

The ending of SECOND STAR is quite ambiguous, fitting the imaginative mood of the novel.  I know what I think happened, but I like that it is open to interpretation.  This is not a straightforward retelling of Peter Pan with surfers, which is for the best.  Sheinmel takes the basic framework and throws in a friendship betrayed and a girl who just wants her family back.  She also ages up the material - SECOND STAR is definitely on the older end of YA.

I personally didn't love SECOND STAR, but it is a compelling beach read.

July 18, 2014

Review: After I Do

After I Do By Taylor Jenkins Reid
Available now from Washington Square Press (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy
Read my review of Forever, Interrupted

In AFTER I DO, the love has gone out of Lauren and Ryan's marriage.  They decide that Ryan will move out for a year, leaving Lauren with the house and the dog.  They'll meet in six months to trade the dog, and then meet in another six months to decide what to do next.  No other contact.

It's a strange solution, but as everyone in the book points out, it is telling that neither Lauren nor Ryan wants a divorce.  The year apart is to give them room to breathe, room to rediscover what they want from life, whether they still want each other.  It is a bit of a strange premise, but Taylor Jenkins Reid makes it work.  Lauren's ups and downs through the year are compelling.

There is the loneliness, coming home to no one but the dog.  There's the difficulty of confessing her troubles to her family, just as her mother and brother are having new success in their own relationships.  There's meeting new people.  There's meeting new men, and deciding whether to date (as they both agreed to be non-exclusive during the year).

The difficulties in the marriage seemed real.  AFTER I DO is in Lauren's POV, but it doesn't let her off the hook.  She's just as responsible as her husband for their failures in communication and microaggressions toward each other.  She isn't a saint in the year off, either.  But it's still easy to root for her to heal from their nasty final fight, and to find out who she is on her own.  (They married young.)

AFTER I DO is less wrenching that Jenkins' debut novel FOREVER, INTERRUPTED.  But it is an equally compelling look at a young woman who suddenly finds herself alone.  The ending is a touch contrived, but heartfelt.  This is definitely a wonderful, emotional read to pick up during the summer doldrums.

July 17, 2014

Review: Half a King

Half a King Book one of the Shattered Sea series
By Joe Abercrombie
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have never read a Joe Abercrombie book before, but I knew his name from discussions of modern fantasy. When I saw he was starting a new series, I wanted to give it a try.  HALF A KING begins much like this year's fantastic THE GOBLIN EMPEROR.

After a sudden assassination, a younger son who doesn't fit in at the court becomes the ruler.  But there the books sharply diverge.  Prince Yarvi is knowledgeable, but not a particularly savvy ruler, and he is quickly eliminated by a rival from the throne.  Presumed dead, Yarvi is sold as a slave and must find a way to rescue himself and his country.

HALF A KING is a twisting adventure full of unexpected allies and enemies.  Yarvi encounters people from many countries, and people who have much less and are more desperate than anyone he's known before.  He also meets people who are not so ambitious as to murder for power, but loyal to the end.  It's often pretty obvious which characters are which, but Abercrombie manages some surprises.

No one ever expects much of Yarvi, because the countries prize physical strength and he was born without a hand.  His brain is one of his greatest assets, as he often has to convince people that he is too valuable to kill.  And, as his journey continues, it starts to become true.  The spoiled prince learns skills - physical, social, and mental - that he was lacking.  At the same time, it may not be enough to make him a good king even if he would be a better one than at the beginning.

I've heard that Abercrombie writes fairly grim and dark fantasy.  HALF A KING certainly isn't optimistic or idealistic, but neither is it grim (even with all the slavery).  I'm sure it will have a significant overlap with the YA audience, given Yarvi's young age.  I really like that HALF A KING stands very well on its own despite being the first book in a trilogy.  I think the story works even if Abercrombie never writes another word about the Shattered Sea.

July 16, 2014

Review: Kiss of Deception

Kiss of Deception Book One of the Remnant Chronicles
By Mary E. Pearson
Available now from Henry Holt & Co. (Macmillan)
Review copy

Mary E. Pearson has tacked contemporary and science fiction, and now she's taking on fantasy.  KISS OF DECEPTION is the story of Lia, a princess angered by her upcoming marriage - a marriage she had no say in.  So she runs (with her best friend Pauline) and becomes a bar maid.

There she is joined by the two men following her: Rafe and Kaden.  One is the prince she is supposed to marry, the other is an assassin from a third country sent to prevent the alliance.  The narrative goes through hoops with the point of view to obscure which is which, but it's not that hard to figure out.  I thought it was a bit of trickery that didn't add much to the story.

I don't think KISS OF DECEPTION will convert people who are tired of love triangles.  Especially since it doesn't make that much sense for the assassin to be that soft hearted.  But for those who can stomach them, Lia is a terrific heroine.  She honestly adapts pretty well to a much smaller life, although she is haunted by the knowledge that she has a duty that is going unfulfilled.  She has to find a balance between herself and her country.

I'm also intrigued by the world presented in KISS OF DECEPTION.  It's a historical-type fantasy world, with hints of magic around the edges.  As a First Daughter, Lia is supposed to have a magical gift, but she's never felt she had one.  The politics between the three countries aren't the focus, but they do add a bit of flavor.  I'm ready for the assassin's country to become more defined in the next book.

KISS OF DECEPTION does have a cliffhanger ending, which annoyed me.  But Pearson's writing is so good that I'll still be back for more.  This looks to be the beginning of a great series, one that will appeal to fans of Megan Whalen Turner.

July 14, 2014

Review: Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty By Rosamund Hodge
Available now from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Review copy

CRUEL BEAUTY blends fairytales and Greek mythology together to create a unique romance featuring an unconventional heroine and hero.  Nyx Triskelion has been raised to murder her future husband, Ignifex, known as the Gentle Lord.  She has been raised knowing that she will die killing him.  Oh how she resents her younger sister, who has been left ignorant and innocent of the darker parts of Nyx.

Nyx does not save the beast through her virtuousness.  She's is angry, vicious, and can be as cruel as her husband.  You see, Ignifex grants wishes, but they always go wrong.  But isn't part of the fault the wisher who knows that his wish is doomed?  Ignifex is no angel, but as Nyx comes to know him, she understands that there's more to him than cruelty.  But then there's Shade, Ignifex's shadow servant, who is human by night.  He could be Nyx's ally in destroying Ignifex.

CRUEL BEAUTY is a thrilling read in which love is complicated, and communication even more so.  There's a wonderful sense of lurking danger, something even more sinister than Ignifex and Shade waiting in the shadows.  The story's mythology is complicated, and goes far beyond the classical sources that spawned it.  The setting sells the romance.  There's something Gothic about it all, the manor, the secrets, the isolation.  Nyx and Ignifex would not work in any sort of contemporary setting.

That is not to say that CRUEL BEAUTY is perfect.  For one, it could use far more of Nyx's sister.  Some of the book's most important action hangs on their relationship, but it doesn't have much force since the sister appears briefly in the beginning, then disappears until the climax.  The reader has to take it on faith that the sisters love each other even as they hate and resent it each other.  It could be a complicated relationship to rival that of Ignifex and Nyx, but it's just not there on the page.

I think CRUEL BEAUTY is a stunning, romantic debut.  I enjoyed it, and I thoroughly enjoyed the nastiness of Nyx and Ignifex.  Rarely do protagonists get to revel in being bad people.  (But for all that, they aren't that bad.)   I look forward to whatever Rosamund Hodge writes next.

July 11, 2014

Review: Scan

Scan First in a series
By Walter Jury and Sarah Fine
Available now from Putnam Juvenile (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I love Sarah Fine's Guards of the Shadowlands series, so when I found out she was co-authoring a sci-fi novel, I perked up and paid attention.  SCAN is the story of Tate, whose genius inventor father has high expectations he can't quite meet.  He loves rebelling in little ways, including sneaking his girlfriend into his father's lab for a makeout session.  But when he takes an invention out of the lab . . .

SCAN is basically an extended chase scene with lots of explosions and double crosses.  There are also aliens, and I love aliens.  The cover did make me expect a more futuristic novel, perhaps one even set in space.  But the aliens and their technology are the main things that make SCAN science fiction.  The novel is generally set in normal, twenty-first century America otherwise.  Of course, SCAN is focused on one of the great sci-fi questions.

One of the best aspects of SCAN were the relationships, which added stakes and pathos to the constant chases.  Tate's relationship with his father obviously looms large, but his relationship to his mother (who left his father) is also important.  She's a woman who struggles to be strong for her son in an impossibly dangerous and painful situation. 

Then there's Tate's relationship with his girlfriend Christina.  They're obviously very much in love (and have trouble keeping their hands off of each other), but they still get into fights because they're in a tough situation and have no room to cool off.  In addition, Tate asks for forgiveness after being a jerk, and they talk about their problems when they get the rare quiet moment.

These relationships are so important to the focus of the novel, which is what makes us human.  The chase is just set dressing.  SCAN is a fun novel with surprising hints of depth, but it isn't entirely satisfying.  There's a cliffhanger ending, and far more questions than answers.  I look forward to what comes next in this series, but I'm a bit miffed that SCAN doesn't really stand on its own.

July 10, 2014

Review: Astonish Me

Astonish Me By Maggie Shipstead
Available now from Knopf (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have trouble resisting novels about ballet.  As far as literary ballet novels go, I prefer THE CRANES DANCE by Meg Howrey.  However, ASTONISH ME does have quite a bit to offer.

In a series of vignette-like chapters, ASTONISH ME covers a few decades in the life of Joan, her husband, her son, their neighbors, and Arslan Rusakov, a dance who Joan helped defect from Russia.  Their lives come together and fall apart, the tangle more complicated than it first appears.

As short as ASTONISH ME is, there are still some subplots I wish had been cut.  For instance, the neighboring wife and mother has a chapter of narration that's everything people mock about literary fiction: brutal observations about every character, some musings on the banality of suburban life, cheating.  It does have consequences on her daughter Chloe, one of the book's many ballerinas, but none that couldn't have been accomplished in a more interesting way.

I also found ASTONISH ME disappointing as a dance novel.  Many of the characters are passionate about dance, and that felt true.  But there's no sense of the pain in their bodies.  Their dances are sketched out, but never came to life for me.  The climatic ballet left me cold.  It felt like a piece of stuntcasting, everything the characters tried to promise it wasn't.

At the same time, Maggie Shipstead's writing is wonderful.  It has a beautiful flow to it.  For instance, I love how she describes the instant one character realizes how arrogant he used to be, upon being faced with an ex-girlfriend, or how she describes the anger in Chloe.  I liked seeing the pieces of the past and the present come together, as the story is told nonlinear-ly.  But I felt like the ending was rushed, with a central relationship coming out of nowhere and everything coming to a head when previously the book just moseyed along.  ASTONISH ME could've had a bit more balance by cutting out some of the beginning and giving more time to the end.

I'd be willing to read another book by Shipstead, since she clearly has talent, but ASTONISH ME felt a bit paint by numbers.

July 9, 2014

Review: Agostino

Agostino By Alberto Moravia
Translated by Michael F. Moore
Available now from NYRB Classics (New York Review of Books)
Review copy

Whenever a new NYRB Classic comes out, I pay attention.  I basically regard the imprint (and the Children's imprint) as lists of books I should be reading.  I rarely come across an NYRB classic that doesn't have something to offer me.

What drew me to AGOSTINO?  Perhaps it was the promise of a Tuscan seaside (even in Fascist-era Italian).  The eponymous Agostino travels there with his mother.  When they arrive, he loves her in an uncomplicated fashion.  But when she takes a lover (although Agostino is too young to realize that he is a lover at first), Agostino starts to feel like a third wheel, and starts to see his mother in a more complicated light, as her own person, as a woman.

Then he meets a group of boys, slightly older than him, who bully the naive young Agostino for not knowing about sex, for not knowing what his mother is doing, for not knowing to beware of predators.  There is also the resentment, for the boys are working class and Agostino is quite rich.  They lack the privilege of being sheltered.

AGOSTINO is short, and written in a fashion that approaches, but doesn't quite reach stream of consciousness.  The book's rhythm is quick, but the unusual style causes the eye and mind to linger a bit longer over the prose.  There are some odd quirks to the storytelling, such as Agostino's mother usually being referred to as "the mother" rather than his mother. The translator's note from Michael F. Moore mentions that this is deliberate, due to the Italian using an ambiguous construction.

Despite the fact that the narrator isn't even a teenager, AGOSTINO is not a children's story.  It is meant to be read by an adult, by a reader who has the perspective and knowledge Agostino is just starting to realize exists.  It is an interesting reading experience.

I found myself being left cold by AGOSTINO.  I can admire the construction of the novel, and that Agostino's growing Oedipal obsession with his mother is supposed to be troubling.  Agostino longs to be a man, but how can he when the most information he gets about being a man is scrambled and delivered by cruel boys?  It is an intriguing portrayal of sexual awakening, but one that stuck me as more as surreal than psychologically incisive.  At the same time, I kind of feel like I want to read it again.

July 8, 2014

Review: Midnight Thief

Midnight Thief By Livia Blackburne
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

Kyra isn't a schemer or a fighter, but she is a talented thief.  When the Assassins Guild offers her a lucrative job, she takes it despite her misgivings and conscience.  MIDNIGHT THIEF also explores the point of view of Tristam, a young knight who is on a collision course for the plans of the Assassins Guild.

Much of the pleasure from the early chapters of MIDNIGHT THIEF, for me, was watching Kyra and Tristam's stories come closer together and inform each other.  Both of them only know a small piece of the whole, but the reader can glean more by putting their perspectives together.  The changing POVs quickly make it apparent that things are not as they seemed at first.  Rather fitting for a novel about thieves and assassins.

Even when they're on opposite sides, Kyra and Tristam are both clearly good guys.  Tristram is a bit uncertain about what he wants, but he keeps a cool head in a crisis and he treats the lower-born men who serve with him like people.  Kyra is a bit too willing to overlook that she's working for assassins, but at the same time she has a large network of people that she cares for and works to support, because most of them happen to be homeless children.

The upper class and lower class tension appears to be the main conflict in MIDNIGHT THIEF at first, but soon the incursions of the Demon Riders prove to be the biggest trouble to both Kyra and Tristam.  They're fast, deadly, and can't be found.  As MIDNIGHT THIEF explored the Demon Riders more, I felt frustrated that their point of view and motivation remained opaque.  They clearly view humans as lesser beings, but why?

There aren't many surprises to MIDNIGHT THIEF, but it is a fun fantasy that will entertain fans of similar novels (and it is certainly better than DEFY, another much hyped 2014 fantasy debut).  Kyra is a standard spunky protagonist with unknown talents, but the book does thankfully point out that her tendency not to think more before she acts is a major flaw.

I liked that MIDNIGHT THIEF tells a satisfying story about Kyra and Tristam, although it leaves plenty of open ends for sequels.  It also made me curious about the stories of secondary characters, like Kyra's best friend who is the bastard son of a noble and apparently knew Tristam before he lived on the street.  If there are sequels, I'd probably check them out from the library.

July 7, 2014

Review: The Immortal Crown

The Immortal Crown Book two in the Age of X series
By Richelle Mead
Available now from Dutton (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Age of X, the newest adult series from Richelle Mead, takes place in a future United States where religion has been outlawed, but now the gods are coming back with a vengeance.  Both heroes, Justin March and Mae Koskinen, are Elect, which basically means they can serve as vessels for gods on Earth.  Justin is all but claimed, and Mae is up for grabs.  However, both of them are indepencent people who would rather follow their own agendas.  In this case, it's taking a trip to neighboring country Arcadia.

I absolutely love the world Mead is shaping in the Age of X.  Her use of mythology is clever, and often allows the reader to be about one step ahead of the characters.  THE IMMORTAL CROWN explores a new country, a future Canada taken over by a fundamentalist religion.  Women are treated particularly badly, which the Gemman (US) ambassadors, since all their bodyguards are female, including Mae.

The romantic tension between Justin and Mae continues, although I hate the continued push and pull as Justin tries to push Mae away without telling her the truth.  GAMEBOARD OF THEIR GODS set up the conundrum of their relationship - if Justin has sex with Mae, then he has to serve the god that's been helping him out.  And it's getting harder and harder for them not to consummate their relationship, especially since Mae doesn't know why he keeps turning into a jerk when they get close to getting it on.

Meanwhile, Justin's ward Tessa gets her own storyline in which she becomes the intern to a reporter.  Honestly, I think Tessa gets the best storyline plotwise.  The Arcadia plotline has some interesting character development, but it gets wrapped up fast and ends up not being all that important despite the build up at the beginning of THE IMMORTAL CROWN.

THE IMMORTAL CROWN is a decent second book.  It continues to set up the series, the characters grow as people, and there is some action.  Best of all, there is a major twist at the end with some seriously sinister implications.  (Unfortunately, I hate one half of the twist - it is a bit of plot drama Mead draws on too often in her adult books.)  I'll definitely be back for book three to see what happens next in the Age of X.

July 5, 2014

Summer in the City Essentials giveaway!

I am currently enjoying my first real, out-of-state vacation since I started working.  It's been a great deal of fun to get out and about (while staying hydrated and coated in sunscreen, of course).  Things started a bit rough (thanks for ruining my suitcase during your search, TSA!), but everything has been fun since then.

I have a special giveaway to make your summer a fun, too.  I have one a Summer in the City Essentials kit, inspired by the Fifth Avenue Trilogy, to give away.  I reviewed this trilogy by Maisey Yates, Caitlin Crews, and Kate Hewitt, over on The Good, The Bad and the Unread.  This kit includes a variety of beauty and fashion products from brands such as Juice Beauty and Nyx.

Special thanks to Harlequin and Meryl L. Moss Media Relations for providing the prize.  Must be 13 years of age or older to win, have a US address, and no PO boxes.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

July 4, 2014

Review: Reckoning

Reckoning The first book in the Silver Blackthorne trilogy
By Kerry Wilkinson
Available now from St. Martin's Griffin
Review copy

This UK import reads similarly to Steven dos Santos's The Torch Keeper series.  Kerry Wilkinson imagines a future world of scarcity and recent peace wherein people are sorted into a strict class system based on a test called the Reckoning.  At the same time, thirty young people total, gathered from the four provinces, are sent to the capital as Offerings to the King.  No one knows what happens to the Offerings, but everyone imagines - perhaps important jobs? 

When Silver Blackthorne is chosen, she soon finds out that the Offerings do get jobs, but their main function is to serve as the King's playthings.  Few survive even a single year.  Only two have survived five years.  She doesn't know how to escape, but knows she must.  But escape becomes ever more complicated as she falls in love and makes friends with other Offerings.

I wasn't impressed with the beginning of RECKONING.  The sorting aspects felt derivative and the brutality simply felt grotesque.  At the same time, RECKONING was very effective at showing why Silver felt beat down so soon.  Wilkinson is quite clever at explaining why the Offerings don't fight back or work together.  The plot comes together very neatly, delivering a few surprises, mostly through unexpected character beats.

I thought RECKONING was a fast read that will appeal to fans of darker dystopians.  The romance is a bit more developed than most, with lots of daringly private conversations between Silver and her beau.  Silver's talent with technology did seem a bit too much to me at times, especially since so much of the plot revolves around her special talent.

In the end, I don't really think RECKONING was one for me.  It was lighter on the science fiction than I expected and a touch too depressing.  But it was a quick read and not without its charms.

July 3, 2014

Review: The Gospel of Winter

The Gospel of Winter By Brendan Kiely
Available now from Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster)
Review copy

Brendan Kiely's debut is a tough read.  It is set back in the early 2000s, when the first large wave of abuse cases in the Catholic church were made public.  Aidan Donovan seems like a normal spoiled rich kid.  Closer to his nanny than his mother, drinking and taking drugs.  But he does work at his church.  And that's the source of so many of his problems.

I think one of the great strengths of THE GOSPEL OF WINTER is that it really explores why Aidan hasn't told anyone what's happening, why he wants to stay silent.  He's afraid of what will happen if he tells, and being pressured by many to stay silent.  He's scared and hurt and his denial is allowing him to function.

THE GOSPEL OF WINTER is also told beautifully.  Many scenes take place outdoors - on beaches, golf courses, rooftops - and Kiely captures the wintry landscapes beautifully.  Aidan's world is a cold one, but there are touches of warmth and beauty.

THE GOSPEL OF WINTER is a moving novel of a young man coming to terms with the sexual abuse he suffered.  Moments of levity are few, mostly provided by Aidan's three new friends, one of whom has his own troubles.  At the same time, it wasn't a depressing reading experience.  It would make a good pairing with last year's THE NAMESAKE by Steven Parlato.

July 1, 2014

Review: Sinner

Sinner Companion to the Wolves of Mercy Falls
By Maggie Stiefvater
Available now from Scholastic Press
Review copy
Read more posts in my Maggie Stiefvater tag

Cole St. Clair and Isabel Culpeper return in the long awaited conclusion to their relationship that began in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series.  I'm very happy that Maggie Stiefvater waited until she was inspired to write their story, because SINNER is sun drenched, sexy, and the story these characters deserve.

For those who just want to jump in, it is possible to read SINNER without reading SHIVER, LINGER, and FOREVER first.  Cole even starts by warning the reader that he's a werewolf so that wouldn't surprise the uninitiated.  Grace and Sam are briefly mentioned, but they're off doing their own thing.  However, SINNER is most satisfying if the reader knows how Cole and Isabel's relationship originally went sour (not to mention what happened to Cole's drummer).

I really liked that Cole is still dealing with his addiction issues in SINNER.  He might've gotten clean during the series, but being sober is an ongoing process.  And Cole is a master at finding new addictions and new ways to self destruct.  It's even more difficult to keep control since he's agreed to be on a reality webshow and his producer wants drama.  Isabel might bring the drama, but she won't sign a release.  (Smart girl, as always.)

Cole and Isabel are such a wonderful pair.  The both hold themselves aloof, but Isabel does in coldly while Cole reaches out through a persona.  Isabel is pretty good at seeing through Cole's mask, but he's pretty terrible at seeing through hers.  It isn't easy between them, but it could be worth the effort.

I think Maggie Stiefvater just keeps getting better and better.  SINNER is a wonderful story about two damaged people helping each other and learning what lies beyond their passion for each other.  It's a story about art, and family, and grief.  I expect the fans who have been waiting for more about Cole and Isabel will not be disappointed.


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