Review: The Blood Keeper

The Blood Keeper by Tessa Gratton. Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to Blood Magic.

The Plot: Mab Prowd, 17, has grown up in the world of blood magic. She and others keep themselves isolated on a Kansas farm, practicing magic and taking care of each other. Mab is strong, proud, and sure and confident of her abilities. When the leader of their community died, it was young Mab left in charge.

Mab was also left with an instruction. Destroy the roses. Mab decides, instead, to figure out what secret the roses holds.

What Mab creates takes on a life of it’s own, and in chasing it down she meets Will Sanger. She thinks, they both thing, that what Mab created is destroyed.

It’s not. It’s growing stronger. There are secrets held in the land, in the roses, dark secrets, that may destroy all Mab knows and loves.

The Good: One doesn’t have to read Blood Magic to understand The Blood Keeper. To be honest, while I remembered some basic elements so recognized Reese, the boy who had been turned into crows, his sister, Silla, and her boyfriend, Nick, I’d forgotten other details, such as Nick’s mother Donna, or some of the long history of magic practitioners. So, in a way, I was in the same position of someone coming to the book fresh. My conclusion: you don’t have to read the one to read the other.

Mab has dug up things best kept hidden; but one wonders why the powerful practitioners before her did nothing to destroy the danger and instead left it to Mab. The Blood Keeper gets complicated — Mab’s and Will’s story, Mab learning more about those who have talent who were not raised like she was, the danger that is out there and what happens as Mab and Will try to stop the danger, all of it tied to the way blood magic works. (Let me add, I wonder how these books could ever get filmed because there is a lot of blood!) But wait, there’s more! A story is told, set in the past, about a young woman and the two men she comes between. The reader can guess that this has something to do with the roses, and the secret, but it’s unclear exactly what happened in the past that haunts the future. It gives the reader more knowledge, and at times a bigger sense of dread than Mab or Will have about what is happening or may happen.

Another area where I’ll be honest: I didn’t like Mab right away. I found her a bit too arrogant. She’s been born into power, she’s had her talent prized, she’s been taught how to use it and when to use it. All of which is good: a strong woman who is confident of herself, her abilities, her place in the world. I liked all that. But. But, she thinks she knows it all, and it bites her, as well as Will, when she directs her power at discovering the secret of the roses instead of destroying the roses. I found it interesting that Gratton began with this, because Mab’s initial activities involve sacrifice to gain blood magic, creating something, and having it quickly spin out of control. I believe I’m supposed to realize that Mab just went a step too far. I also confess: there was an interaction between Mab and Silla, regarding Reese, that annoyed me, because I felt Mab lacked any type of empathy to Silla’s situation. That lack of concern for another is a flaw that is addressed, because Mab discovers that power is more than having power, or being left power, or being the most talented person at the party. It’s about how that power is used, and how others are treated.

The Blood Keeper is not just about Mab and Will having to confront the danger she’s brought to life. It’s also about Mab realizing what power is, what blood magic is, and what that means in a broader world beyond Mab as an individual. What is terrific is this happens while Mab doesn’t back down, or apologize, or reject her power or position or talent. It’s about Mab’s world view growing larger, not about Mab being humbled.

Will is intriguing; a guy who seems to have nothing in common with Mab, yet when the two meet, there is a connection. Will is from a military family, and he’s expected to join up just like his older brothers. A family loss has changed that and Will questions his life, his role, his future, at the same time that Mab appears adding another thing for Will to question: his understanding of the world and magic and reality.

Other reviews: Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog.


Flashback September 2005

I’m flashing back to reviews from years past. Here is what I was reviewing in September 2005.

Confessions of a Teen Sleuth by Chelsea Cain. My review: “The premise: Nancy [Drew] is, and always was, real. That evil roommate of hers, Carolyn Keene, used her life and pedaled it as fiction. This book is Nancy’s chance to set the record straight.”

Good Brother, Bad Brother: the Story of Edwin Booth & John Wilkes Booth by James Cross Giblin. My review: “[John Wilkes Booth] was the younger son of a very well known actor, Junius Brutus Booth. JBB’s sons were also actors, including Edwin Booth. Both EB and JWB were well known and respected in their own right; JWB was not the failed actor/ wannabe that I seem to recall learning about. Both were making extremely good money (tho, as with actors today, they had good years and bad years.) In 1863, JWB made $1,000 for 4 performances. Up until April 1865, JWB was probably viewed as the “good son”, despite being an enthusiastic supporter of the South in a family that was more for the North. He was handsome, charming, and very popular with the ladies (JCG omits the many people claiming to be descendants of the never married JWB). EB was far from perfect; his drinking had caused professional and personal heartache. Then JWB killed the President. And the rest of the family was left to pick up the pieces. The media of the 19th century were no kinder than the media today.”

We Were Tired Of Living In A House by Liesel Moak Skorpen. My review: “This is one of my favorite picture books from when I was little. I read it over and over. I’m tempted to buy a copy so I can have the pleasure of owning it. The Plot: Three siblings are tired of living in a house, so they pack their bags and find a new home. A tree is fine… until they tumble out. Then they move onto a raft… until something happens and they move on to a new residence. They bring a memento from each home with them. At the end, they decide a house is best and go back home. The Good: I think this is my earliest “survivor” book. Yes, one can argue for the language, or the pattern storytelling; the fantasy element as the children pretend to set up housekeeping until, at the end of a day of make believe, they return home. For me, it was examining the details of illustrations and truly believing that this intrepid group was living in a tree. And a raft. And a cave. The illustrator for the edition I loved was Doris Burn, so I’ll need to hunt used book sales to get my own copy.”

Review: Adaptation

Adaptation by Malinda Lo. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Reese and David are returning home from nationals for debate  (they lost, don’t ask) when the world seems to go crazy. They are at the airport when birds begin attacking planes; a series of crashes forces the shut down of all air travel. Their teacher manages to rent a car for the long drive home from Phoenix to San Francisco, but panic on the streets has led to traffic, road closures, evacuations, and worse.

The car hits a bird and crashes; twenty-odd days later, Reese wakes up on a military base. She and David are lucky to be alive. They return home, to relieved parents, to a world that is has recovered from the panic but still has some measure, such as curfews, in place.

All seems normal; even Reese’s best friend, Julian, still believes in conspiracy theories. Only thing is now his theories involve birds and what’s been happening after the crashes. Things even start looking up for Reese personally. After a disastrous encounter with her crush, David, before nationals (don’t ask), Reese meets someone new. All seems normal.

Seems normal.

Except, it’s not. What happened with the birds? And what happened to Reese and David in the military hospital? Why did they have to sign confidentiality agreements about their treatment? Reese is noticing strange things, having strange dreams —

It all comes together in a way Reese couldn’t imagine, couldn’t predict, when she saw the first birds die outside a Phoenix airport.

The Good: So many twists and turns! Just when I thought, aha, THIS is what is going on, BAM, twist, BAM, secret, BAM, not what you think. Why would I ruin this roller coaster adventure ride for you by telling those secrets?

As you can imagine, from that, Adaptation has action and adventure and romance and science fiction, along with other things, and it’s all woven together wonderfully. More than wove together; sometimes, those elements are almost red herrings for what is “really” going on. One minute, birds are attacking and Reese and David are in a horror-type movie, taking a road trip from hell to get back home; the next, they are in a hospital wondering just what happened during the previous month. Next thing, Reese is home and adjusting to being back home, and part of that includes meeting Amber Gray, the girl who sets Reese’s heart racing, so things slow down, a bit, to a cute romance.

Or should I say hot romance? “[Amber] pulled at her hand, like a girl tugging on the string of a balloon that has floated nearly all the way up to the sky, and just like that balloon, Reese felt herself drawn downward, half-floating, half-sinking, towards Amber.”

Reese is dating Amber, adjusting to the realization that she likes girls (but she also likes David), but that doesn’t stop Reese’s nightmares or concerns about what went on while she was at that military base.

Reese, Amber, David — let me say this is one of my favorite love triangles in a YA book. Reese is attracted to both Amber and David; there are no good or bad guys. Yes, Reese likes boys and girls (well, at least one boy,  David, and one girl, Amber), and that’s another aspect about Adaptation. It’s multicultural and diverse, in a casual way, meaning it’s no big deal. It’s not a thing. The teens and adults in Adaptation are straight, bi, and gay; they are white, African American, Asian American. Except, it is a big deal to YA readers because too often the “default” for books is all white, all straight.

Because Adaptation is as diverse as our society. Because it kept twisting and turning, from adventure to romance to love triangle to conspiracy theories. Because I didn’t realize just where it was going to go, even though all the clues were there. Because Reese is smart and vulnerable. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: Safekeeping

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse, with her photographs. Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Radley, seventeen, is volunteering in Haiti when she hears the news: the president has been assassinated, the news reports are scary, and all Radley wants is to be home, safe, with her parents. She can’t get through to them, so she boards a plane hoping they’ll get the message she’s coming home.

“Home” has changed. Planes are rerouted, customs take hours, she is looked at with suspicion; the TV news shows vigilante groups and looters; new laws enforce curfews and travel restrictions.

When Radley’s parents don’t show up at the airport in New Hampshire, she’s scared. Her cell phone is dead, she doesn’t have the charger, she has no cash, her credit cards are worthless. Radley does the only thing she can think of: she starts walking home.

The Good: “Dystopia” tends to be a word used for any futuristic world where bad things happen. In April, The Horn Book defined it as follows: “Dystopias are characterized as a society that is a counter-utopia, a repressed, controlled, restricted system with multiple social controls put into place via government, military, or a powerful authority figure. Issues of surveillance and invasive technologies are often key, as is a consistent emphasis that this is not a place where you’d want to live,” adding that “while shambling, brain-eating zombies; nuclear holocausts; electromagnetic space pulses that knock out most of the population; or alien invasions all make for compelling reading, they do not necessarily fall into the category of dystopia. Now, if the survivors of those various tragedies form a messed-up society where freedoms are curtailed in order to protect its citizens from imagined future terrible events, then we’re talking dystopia.”

Safekeeping doesn’t start with zombies or nuclear holocausts or aliens. The backstory is simple: the American People’s Party was voted in, the president was assassinated, and the APP has used that as an excuse to seize control using laws, restrictions, arrests, and fear. The details of how this all happened are few, both because Radley was in Haiti while some of this was happening, and because now that she has returned she doesn’t have access to news (assuming that such coverage would be accurate). Is it a place I’d want to live? No; like Radley eventually does, I’d be looking for a way out. This makes Safekeeping a  unique addition to the current dystopia genre: a world very much like our own, only one election away, with no supernatural or paranormal occurrences.

Before all this, Radley was a typical teen. Perhaps a bit spoiled; or, rather, she is a child of privilege who doesn’t realize her privilege. It’s the privilege of leaving clothes behind in Haiti because the orphans could use them, and “Mom will buy new stuff for me when I get home.” When she realizes her cell phone charger is also still in Haiti, she thinks, “my parents never scold me about the frequency with which I lose things. They always fix it for me, no matter how I screw up. I’m  used to them just fixing it for me.” She’s also a teen who took time to go to Haiti, to volunteer, so “spoiled” is the wrong word. A better word is “easy”. She has had things easy. Even her time in Haiti was with the safety net of knowing comfort and her parents were just a flight away.

Radley’s return home puts her in a dire position: someone suddenly “without.” Someone who has fallen through the safety net. In Haiti, she had gotten used to less but was aware it was temporary. Now, it’s different — with no food, no money, and no one she can trust, Radley sleeps in the woods, begs for food, and searches through dumpsters. Because society is still standing, even if it’s over regulated, Radley can still go into a public washroom to get water. This isn’t a case of total fending for oneself; it’s a case of having to take care of oneself because society cannot be trusted. When Radley cannot find her parents, she cannot go to the police or to neighbors or friends because she fears the consequences. She doesn’t want to be arrested, to disappear into prison — and she sees just enough on the news, observes just enough on the streets, to realize her fears are well founded.

Safekeeping isn’t about changing the world; it’s about surviving the world. It’s about one teenager. All Radley cares about is making it through another day, lasting long enough to find her parents. As someone who is now on the fringes, she stays on the fringes — she doesn’t meet up with any resistance group, or looters, or even any APP members. She doesn’t quite trust any of them. In some ways, she is lucky; where she lives and where she travels are places where she can be alone, can disappear, can leave space between herself and the others who also are wandering the roads either looking for safety or fleeing from danger.

Radley is alone: and at first, it was almost painful, how alone Radley was. As pages went by, I realized just how few times she spoke to others, interacted with them. Even though external things were happening, Safekeeping is mostly about what is happening in Radley’s head as tries to adjust to this new reality. Sometimes, what Radley was going through almost seemed dreamlike, in a nightmarish sort of way but also in how it was equally about what she was feeling as what she was doing. In other words, this isn’t a book that will help you survive an apocalypse; in terms of surviving a dystopia, the tips are more “keep to yourself, get to Canada.” (Yes, Canada is the promised land of freedom). It is a book that will help in terms of emotional and mental survival, as Radley tries to figure out what she needs to do, how to take care of herself when others have always taken care of her, and, how, eventually, to take care of others.

Review: The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic. 2012. Reviewed from arc from publisher. Official website.

The Plot: Blue Sargent, sixteen, is part of a family of psychics in Henrietta, Virginia. Since she can remember, the same prediction has been made about her: she would kill her true love. With a kiss. Blue keeps people at arms length, to make sure that prediction doesn’t come true or is at least delayed.

Richard “Dick” Campbell Gansey III attends Aglionby Academy, an exclusive boys school in Henrietta Virginia. He’s on a quest to discover Owen Glendower, a Welsh king who led armies against the English and disappeared in the early fifteenth century. He’s pulled his friends into his search: Ronan, Adam, Noah.

Blue stays away boys like Gansey, rich, spoiled, Raven boys. When their paths cross, she knows she should stay away from them. Gansey, rich and driven. Adam, the scholarship student with a chip on his shoulder. Ronan, lost and angry following the death of his father. Noah, quiet, watching, observing. Blue knows she should stay away —  but she cannot help it. The adventure of finding Glendower, of discovering the magic in the world, the laughter and trust of friendship, and, maybe, love.

Oh, those Raven boys.

The Good: This book is better than a hot fudge sundae. With whipped cream. No, really.

Blue knows the supernatural is real. She’s in a family of psychics, remember? She’s not one; her gift is to make the talent of those around her stronger. Gansey hopes the supernatural is real. Yes, he’s good at finding things, and yes, he’s spent years and trust fund money on the search for Glendower. It’s not the burial place he wants. Gansey is convinced that Glendower is only sleeping and can be woken. Gansey’s belief is so strong that he’s persuaded Ronan and Adam and Noah to join him on his quest. Part of the fun of The Raven Boys is how Blue and Gansey and the others meet up. How they form a team. No, more than a team, a friendship.

Oh, and if you’re thinking if Blue’s family is psychic why don’t they just look into the future and see everything —  that’s not quite how it works. As Blue explains at one point, it’s “a realization that even if you had discovered the future, it really didn’t change how you lived in the present. They were truth, but they weren’t all of the truth.” Perhaps that is the reason why, despite the prediction that Blue will kill her true love, she doesn’t keep the boys at arms length. She even finds herself falling for one of them. So easy to think, before it happens, oh, she’ll stay away from boys and so keep herself and her true love safe. So different when the boy you want is real, rather than a hypothetical.

While raving about this book on Twitter, someone asked if there was a cliffhanger ending. No, not really. The Raven Boys is the first in a four part series; and this part is about a necessary step that needs to be taken in the search for Glendower. There are twists and turns, and surprising things happen, and there are hints that there are more layers to the supernatural than is shown. There are the secrets and references — for example, I’m convinced that Stiefvater refers to a geis, just not by name. Which, if true, shows that for all the reader thinks they know by the end of The Raven Boys, there is so much more to learn.

I loved this book; and yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2012. Unfortunately for you, and frustrating for me, some of the things I want to gush over are, well, spoilerish. (My definition of spoiler — things I wouldn’t want to know before reading.) So, alas, this book review is short except to say — Blue, Gansey, Noah, Ronan, and Adam are all wonderful characters. No, not characters, people, they are that real. The myth and magic and supernatural woven into the real world is just the type of fantasy I adore, and I can’t wait to see how much more is shown in the next books. There are turns and twists and reveals that made me reread this book right away, because I wanted to stay in this world but also because I wanted a better appreciation of how The Raven Boys was put together. What was told when? What was shared when?

How’s that for a lovefest with few details? Like I said: a hot fudge sundae of a book.

Review: The Diviners

The Diviners by Libba Bray. Little, Brown. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Series website.

The Post: New York City, 1926, is the best place in the world to be! At least, according to Evie O’Neill, who — get this — has been punished by her parents by being sent away from home to New York City to live with her Uncle Will. Evie can’t believe her good luck! Shopping, parties, speakeasies, the Ziegfeld Follies, what doesn’t New York have? Why, it didn’t have Evie O’Neill and now that Evie is there, she’s determined to stay, to shine, to leave her mark.

As for Uncle Will, yes, his museum is odd — the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, aka the Museum of the Creepy Crawlies. And things get weird when Uncle Will is called in to consult on the murder of a girl not much older than Evie. It’s actually weirder than Uncle Will or anyone else knows, because Evie has a gift. Sometimes, when she picks up an object, she sees things about its owner. Discovering (and blabbing) about someone’s secrets discovered this way is what got her into trouble back home. Now her gift may bring her trouble of a different kind — it may help her find a killer.

Bodies pile up as the jazz plays on.

The Good: It’s Libba Bray; so, of course, The Diviners is something completely different from what she has done in the past.

The Diviners is a supernatural story set in the Roaring Twenties. Evie is the main character, yes; but she’s only one of the main characters. Once in New York, she meets her uncle’s assistant, Jericho, reunites with best friend, Mabel, becomes friends with Theta, a Ziefgeld Girl, and Theta’s roommate Henry; and crosses paths with a pickpocket, Sam. At the same time, we learn about Memphis, a numbers runner in Harlem. In a way, Bray is establishing a Team; but (since it’s Bray) it’s not as simple as bringing a Team together. Bray doesn’t do anything as expected as having these teenagers (and all of them are about seventeen years old) meeting and sharing their secrets with each other by page 110. Heck, it’s not even as simple as Evie and the others meeting each other; there are crossed paths and missed meetings. In other words, it’s a cast of characters who are unexpected and fresh and delicious, both in who they are but also in how they related to each other, even when they don’t know it.

The story being told in The Diviners is that of Naughty Jack; what the reader knows (but the characters don’t, more on that later) is that this serial killer is a spirit raised during a reckless OUIJA Board game. (True fact: OUIJA boards creep me out.) While The Diviners is first in a four book series, rest assured (and, sorry, I’m the type of reader who needs this assurance when I hear the word “series” so I assume so are you), it works as a standalone for the primary supernatural mystery while painting a broader world with bigger questions that are left to be explored in future books. In other words: perfect first book in a series.

The setting is 1926; and I am not a historian, but I am someone who reads a lot and looks things up and watches all sorts of movies and TV shows and documentaries. The Diviners is chock full of historical details, from clothes and music to slang and prejudices. Just one example — Zarephath, which some readers may read about and think “no way” or “not in New Jersey.” Yes way! Totally a real place and accurate history, and I love how it is woven seamlessly into The Diviners. Most of the story is set in New York City, and I got to the end and knew exactly what I wanted out of any series related website: information on the various places and people mentioned in the book along with a map to follow in the footsteps of Evie and crew.

One of the interesting things Bray does is that, while this is Evie’s story, it is told from multiple viewpoints. Because of this, from the start the reader has more information than Evie or any of the other characters. The characters don’t reveal all their secrets right away, not to each other, and not to Evie, and not even to the reader. Just when I thought I had more puzzle pieces than Evie so knew what was happening, something else was added. I was reminded (in a good way) of Stephen King. At times, I was waiting for Evie to catch up to what I knew, or wondering when she’d work something out, but just as often I was surprised by what had happened or where things were going.

Evie, Evie, Evie. Evie is an interesting girl, throwing herself boldly into the brave new world of the Jazz Age, embracing fashion, hairstyles, music, slang, and attitude. She pushes herself forward almost desperately; running to something because she is running away from something. She is running from her beloved brother’s death in the Great War; she is running from a family that mostly shut down after that death. She is also unsure of her own powers and what they mean, so hey, what better thing to do than find a party and dance and think just about the moment?

Because I loved every part of this book, from setting to characters to plot. Because Bray doesn’t do what a reader expects. Because of Evie. Because of the sheer fun and terror. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Reading Rants; Teen Librarian’s Toolbox; SLJ’s review.

Review: The Dark Unwinding

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: June, 1852. England. Orphaned Katherine Tulman owes everything to her Aunt Alice. Not in a good way. When Katherine was left orphaned, Alice was the one who took in her late husband’s niece. Aunt Alice makes it known that in every possible way that without Alice, Katherine would be on the streets. With nothing. Aunt Alice fears that her husband’s eldest brother is spending all his money, which will mean nothing left for Alice’s son.

Aunt Alice’s instructions are clear: Katherine is to travel to Stranwyne Keep, the family estate. Get proof that her uncle is incapable of handling his own affairs. Report back to Aunt Alice and her solicitors, so that Alice can seize control of the family fortune and property on behalf of the sole living heir, her own son, Robert. (The family property goes strictly to the eldest living male heir, so Katherine, as a female, is excluded.) Katherine agrees, because as a poor orphan with no prospects, her only hope for future food and shelter is that young Robert gains his inheritance so he can, like his mother before him, take care of the poor relative.

Katherine arrives at Stranwyne. She meets her uncle Frederick. Aunt Alice is both right, and wrong, about what is happening with her uncle and the Tulman fortune. Her uncle is child-like, who lives with odd self-imposed rules and is also a brilliant inventor. Money has been spent on the inventions; but money has also been spent in taking 900 men, women and children from the workhouses of London to create a community that, given time, will not just be self-sufficient but also a source of income. The longer Katherine stays, the more she becomes attached to her uncle and the local villagers; but she cannot forget that it is her aunt who ensures her future. What should she do?

The Good: Uncle Frederick’s inventions are, for the most part, automatons. The descriptions of them seem almost fantastical; but this is not a story of magic or fantasy. It’s historical fiction, and the described automatons reflect the science of the day. Cameron’s website includes links to some videos of automatons. Stranwyne is also based in historic reality: Welbeck Abbey. I love how two of the aspects of this book are things that seem so unreal or unlikely that one could think The Dark Unwinding is a fantasy. It is not. Instead, it’s the type of historical fiction I really enjoy, grounded in lesser-known history.

Katherine is an interesting character, between a rock and a hard place. Aunt Alice is a nasty bit of business. When Katherine meets some resistance and suspicion from her uncle’s employees, Katherine thinks “the normalcy of being in a room with with a woman who despised me had restored some of my common sense.” Katherine, despite herself, wants more from life even if she cannot voice it, cannot dream it. She decides to delay reporting back to her aunt, and as each day goes by, she grows closer to the villagers: the housekeeper/cook, Mrs. Jeffries; her 18 year old nephew, Lane; Davy, a young mute boy; Ben Aldridge, an engineering student from Cambridge studying her uncle’s inventions. All seem to share a common goal: convince Katherine to not tell the truth about Uncle Tully’s condition. Are their friendships, are the flirtations of Lane and Ben, to be trusted? Katherine isn’t even sure she can trust herself: she starts sleepwalking and having memory loss.

I loved the idea of the Tulman family (Frederick’s mother, not his brothers or his sister in law) trying to figure out a way to protect Frederick and the money; and the solution of creating a self-sufficient village. Invest in crafts and industry, an investment of several years, and yes, it will cost money at first, but in the long run it creates a home and livelihood for people in addition to preserving enough family money. I also loved Uncle Tully and his inventions. Can all these people survive Aunt Alice and the laws that seem to be on her side? I also loved the Stranwyne Keep itself: full of rooms and hallways and pathways.

Finally, I loved that The Dark Unwinding surprised me. First, by not being a fantasy. Second, by it’s interesting look at history. Next, by Katherine herself, damaged and hurt and learning for the first time to trust and love. Finally – the ending! So unexpected yet it makes sense. And it’s brave because it makes sense but it’s not what the reader wants. The Dark Unwinding rather gives the reader what he needs. A good story.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Reading Everywhere; The Ninja Librarian (and author interview).

Review: Unspoken

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan. Book 1 of the Lynburn Legacy. Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Kami Glass has plans and dreams. The plan: investigative reporting! Even if in her small town of Sorry-in-the-Vale nothing much seems to happen. She manages to get her school to agree to start a school paper and drafts her best friend, Angela, to help. As for dreams, well, does her invisible friend/voice in her head, Jared, count? She’s learned to be careful about letting people know about him, but, still, he’s there, a constant companion and friend.

Plans and dreams unexpectedly collide when the Lynburn family returns after decades away. Kami is convinced there has to be a story behind the Lynburns; after all, they and the village go back over six hundred years. The Lynburns return to their mansion overlooking the town? Terrific story potential!

Kami discovers more than she bargained for when she begins to look into the Lynburns, into the teenage son named Jared, and into her village’s past. It’s not that the town has no secrets; it’s that they have been unspoken for so long.

The Good: Deep breath in; deep breath out. Deep breath in; deep breath out. Relax. Count to ten.

Nope, still not calm enough to talk about this book. WOW. WOW. LOVE. LOVE. AWESOME. AMAZING. WAIT, WHAT? WOW. LOVE. THAT ENDING.

Let’s try that again.

Unspoken begins with a report by Kami, “The Return of the Lynburns,” and it does two things: provide needed background information to the reader, and establish Kami’s own character and voice. Example: “Which leaves us with a town in the Cotswolds that has a lot of wool and no secrets. Which is ridiculous.” and “Six hundred years do not go by without someone doing something nefarious.” As Kami looks over what she wrote, she thinks that “a serious journalist should probably not make so many jokes, but whenever Kami sat down to the computer it was as if the jokes were already there, hiding behind the keys, waiting to spring out at her.” Later on, when she’s corralled her group of friends into doing something that perhaps requires a second or third thought, “she did not let her steps slow. Kami had found it was important not to give people time to say, “wait, is this really a good idea?””

As I reread those first few pages, I realize something else: Brennan is telling you what will happen. Nefarious things did happen; they will again. Be prepared. Oh , be lighthearted, have fun, but there will be violence and death and bad things and difficult choices. While this is a book about the supernatural and magic (not spoilers! in the catalog description and book jacket!), it is also a mystery. The mystery of the village, and of the Lynburns; the mystery of Jared; but there are also some violent acts, including a murder. Here’s the thing about a murder mystery: in books, they are much easier to solve than in real life because all the characters are set out for you. It has to be one of the people in the pages. This means it can be easy to guess the killer. I just have to share — that did not happen with Unspoken. While I won’t hold guessing something like this against a book, it makes me quite happy when I don’t figure it out.

So, terrific: Kami’s voice; the humor; the plotting, setting. Also: the cast of characters and their diversity. Take Kami herself: yes, this is set in England and part of her family, like most of the villagers in Sorry-in-the-Vale, goes back hundreds of years. Except. Kami’s grandmother was Japanese; she met and married Kami’s grandfather in Japan, returned to England for a quick trip, her husband died and the grandmother decided to raise her son, Kami’s father, in Sorry-in-the-Vale. Kami, her parents and two younger brothers, live in the house that has been in the Glass family for generations. Kami’s ancestry is more than “just” including diversity. It also matters to the story. Part of the reason Kami is unaware of the secrets her village holds is because of her grandmother’s outsider status and own lack of knowledge. It’s no coincidence that Kami’s best friend is another outsider, Angela, whose family moved to the village six years before and so has no link to the village history.

If I listed all the things I loved about Unspoken, this review would be almost as long as the book itself. Kami’s parents! The Lynburns! The cousins Ash and Jared! The reveals! The twists! So many funny lines! The romances!

Unspoken is the first book in The Lynburn Legacy, so, yes, it doesn’t “end” at the end. Given how much I adore the world Unspoken has created, and Kami and her friends, it’s quite happy making to know that I get to revisit them. Unspoken delivered on what it promised: that is, the mysteries about Sorry-in-the-Vale, Jared, Kami’s imaginary friend, the Lynburns, and, yes, that murder, are all revealed. But, it’s never that easy, is it? Getting answers leads to more questions. Solving some problems creates others. Learning the truth about one’s world changes what one thinks they knew. And, of course — one cannot uncover the truth about one’s village and then say, “oh, OK, that’s all I needed, thanks, I’ll return to my safe room now!”. Especially when that person is Kami Glass.

Needless to say, in case WOW. WOW. LOVE. LOVE. AWESOME. AMAZING. WAIT, WHAT? WOW. LOVE. THAT ENDING. wasn’t a clue, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Leila Roy of Bookshelves of Doom at Kirkus.

Flashback September 2007

I’m flashing back to reviews from years past. Here is what I was reviewing in September 2007.

The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg. Minx. Graphic Novel. My review. “Jane narrowly escapes injury in a bomb attack in Metro City; her parents, wanting safety, move to the suburbs. Jane’s questioning; Jane’s not satisfied with life. She changes her hair from long and blond to short and black; and she uses the move to change the types of people she has as friends. Outsiders, instead of the popular kids. But she wants more. Needs more. Or so she starts P.L.A.I.N. . . . .  People Loving Arts In Neighborhoods. See, Jane likes art; and she wants something more; and she’s not a fan of the suburbs. Put it all together, and she’s creating projects to bring art to the people, and to make them think. All done anonymously and quietly; a pile of stones sorted into a pyramid to protest new buildings, fireplugs decorated with hats and mittens, stuffed animals outside an animal shelter.”

The Qwikpick Adventure Society by Sam Riddleburger. Middle Grade. My review. “The Qwikpick Adventure Society is comprised of three kids: Lyle Hertzog (who is recounting their adventure, using the typewriter his Dad got him), Marilla Anderson (who took the pictures) and Dave Ruskin (maps.) And the adventure involves a poop fountain. Oh no, I’m quite serious. The Good: This is a great, old-fashioned fun book. Three kids who hang out together and have an adventure: going to see the sewage treatment plant. Because the town is about to update the treatment plant so it will no longer have a, erm, poop fountain. The humor is from the kids, from the journey to the sewage treatment plant and what happens there…. I was laughing and almost throwing up at the same time.”

Lessons From A Dead Girl by Jo Knowles. My review. “Laine and Leah have been friends forever. Since fifth grade. As high school students they drifted apart. There are secrets. Secrets Laine never wanted made public. I wish you were dead, Laine thinks. And now Leah is. Why? What happened? . . .  I found this devastating to read. It is so painful; and so scary, what children can do to one another, what teens can do to one another. The abuse and teasing and tormenting and control; the kids who do things, the kids who let it happen, the strange dynamics of friendship. The fear of a child being Laine; of a child being Leah. Of being Laine. Of being Leah. Leah; who damages Laine. But, of course, Leah herself has secrets. Her actions, her tormenting, her torments don’t come out of the blue. This book is beautifully written; Knowles manages to create sympathy for both Laine and Leah. And she doesn’t answer all the questions she raises. In some ways, Laine and Leah are a twisted love story. Twisted not because it is two girls; twisted because of how Leah uses power, secrets, and abuse to get what she wants and to manipulate Laine. And Laine, left with questions unanswered about who she is.”

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. My review: “A haunting, lyrical book, where, quite frankly, nothing much happens. This is about the journey, not the trip. . . . It was published in 1942; Daly wrote it in college; so despite the date, this is really a book at small town America between the wars, in those last golden years before WWII. Angie leaves childhood behind after that summer; the reader knows that all those golden boys, Jack, Fritz, and Swede, will no doubt be seeing battle soon. . . . Angie is quiet and an observer, almost passive. Much is made of her not being part of the crowd before meeting Jack; she mentions girls she went to school with, but no friends. It’s as if she didn’t start to live until she met Jack. And, in many ways, in this place and time, it’s true. Without a boy, a girl who walks alone to town to get a Coke will be talked about. The rules are complex to the point of being an alternate world, about when it’s OK to call a boy (apparently, never); when it’s OK to go steady with a boy (apparently, rarely.) I’m sure this can be viewed as “clean” romance; Angie questions whether it’s OK to kiss Jack on a third date, even though she likes him; a declaration of love stops the world; she doesn’t understand what “necking” is, or the “fast” reputation of certain girls. But. But. There is so much more here, obvious to the reader who is, well, a little big older. And wiser. The couple who are in the back seat of the car and so quiet. We know, or suspect, what they are doing, even tho Angie does not. Just as we wonder at the inclusion of the young Dolly, from the poor family, going out with “the crowd” and drinking beer. There are the couples who disappear, the places people park.”

King Arthur: Excalibur Unsheathed: An English Legend by Jeff Limke and Thomas Yeates. Graphic Universe. Graphic novel. My review: “It seems like most of the Arthur (re)tellings I’ve read recently jump to the end, with the focus on old(er) Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Mordred. So it’s nice to see one that focuses on the early years and Arthur building his kingdom and his power base; to learn of his early adventures and victories and Arthur becoming king, in name, and in power. Kingship starts with the sword and the stone but is made real with battles, kidnappings and quests. It’s always a little sad to read early Arthur, knowing the darkness which will come.”

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton, a member of Penguin Group USA. 2011. Personal copy. Companion to Anna and the French Kiss.

The Plot: Seventeen year old Dolores “Lola” Nolan has a pretty good life. Her two dads, Nathan and Andy, are super supportive even if they are over protective and a bit stricter than other people’s parents. Lola has a terrific best friend, Lindsey; a hot, rocker boyfriend, Max; a job she likes; and a passion — clothes and costume design — that she wears everyday.

Then HE moves back in next door. Cricket, the boy next door. Who broke her heart years ago and moved away. Now she has to see him every day. Lola begins to reluctantly acknowledge that she still may have feelings for Cricket. What about her boyfriend, Max? What about her future plans?

The Good: Lola and the Boy Next Door is another terrific teen romance from Stephanie Perkins. It’s a companion to Anna and the French Kiss; more about that later. And, just to be clear, as the title promises, the romance is between Lola and her next door neighbor, Cricket.

Lola’s boyfriend at the start of the book is Max, and Max is an appealing boyfriend on paper. Look a little deeper, though, and something seems off. What I love is how Perkins, who tells this from Lola’s perspective, has the reader come to the realization along with Lola that Max is not all that and a bag of chips. This is not a book where from the first page I wanted to say, “Lola, what are you thinking?” Yes, Max is older, 22. Yes, he’s the musician to her high school student. But, it shows Max going along with all the rules her parents have put in place because of the age difference, including a weekly Sunday Brunch. It’s only as time goes by that the reader — and Lola — discovers that Max isn’t happy about that, not at all.

I know some people may be thinking “triangle! cheating!” As with Anna and the French Kiss, Perkins handles this aspect very gracefully and respectfully, and I won’t reveal all. Lola and the Boy Next Door addresses some complex emotions: having feelings for two different people; trying to sort out what one really feels versus what one wants to feels; and learning how to read a situation. (All I’ll say is one good lesson to learn: if your best friend doesn’t get along with your boyfriend, take that seriously and don’t dismiss it.)

Because of Lola’s anger from what happened a few years back, and because of her current boyfriend, Max, Lola and Cricket’s relationship progresses slowly. A friendship is discovered, or, rather, rediscovered, and here, also, the contrast between Cricket and Max is made apparent slowly. Another lesson to learn:  not a good sign if your boyfriend doesn’t want to hang out with any of your friends.are

In addition to the fun, sometimes flirty, often awkward, but ultimately hopeful and healthy relationship that develops between Lola and Cricket, the strength of this book is the supporting cast of characters. Anna and St. Clair appear, and they are just the type of couple you’d hope they’d be.

Cricket is as fashion-aware as Lola is (did I mention that Lola’s mantra is “I don’t believe in fashion, I believe in costume“?) Lola doesn’t just read fashion magazines and buy clothes; she makes her own clothes. I’m not a fashion person, but I adored the descriptions of Lola’s clothes and how she basically wore her heart, her mind, her soul on her sleeve. Whether whimsical or depressed, her outside reflects her character.

Cricket’s sister, Calliope, is an Olympic level figure skater, and that’s not just some throwaway make her interesting tidbit. The practice, expense, and dedication that level of athletic training requires of the whole family is shown; and  yes, it ends up tying back to Lola herself.

Lola’s family is complicated. Not because she has two dads. Lola references their strictness, and it’s clear they don’t like Max but also don’t want to do anything that pushes Lola away and pushes her towards Max. They are supporting and loving. What is complicated is that her biological mother is the sister of one of her father’s.

As with Paris in Anna, place matters: here, it is San Francisco. Instead of someone discovering a city, it’s about a girl whose city is her place, who knows that city better than she knows herself. And given what Lola needs to realize about herself, Max, and Cricket, that’s quite true.

Other reviews: Librarian by Day; Reading Rants; GalleySmith; Youth Services Corner.