Review: The Archived

The Archived by Victoria Schwab. Hyperion Books, Disney Press. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Mackenzie, sixteen, is a “Keeper” like her grandfather before her. She’s been taught by him how to hunt down Histories (the dead) that have escaped from the Archive  (run by Librarians) before they enter the Outer, our world.

Histories are not the actual people who have died, but they do hold their memories and knowledge. When they wake in the Archive, they are often confused and that can lead to violence. It’s Mac’s job to make sure that they don’t enter our world, where they can cause real harm.

Things have gotten complicated.

Her brother died, and Mac is haunted by the idea of him being in the Archive. She knows it’s not really him, but still — to know his memories are there. To know she can look at his face one more time. But, of course, she can’t. Only Librarians can do that, not a Hunter. It doesn’t stop her from wanting.

In the aftermath of her brother’s death, her family has moved to an apartment building in a new town. At first, Mac thinks that the increase in escaped Histories is because the apartment building has a rich, old history. Instead, she finds out the building’s history has been tampered with. The ever-increasing number of escaped Histories isn’t normal.

Mac is going to break a few rules to find out what is really going on with the Archive, the Histories, and the Librarians.

The Good: Mac has to balance multiple roles and worlds. To the outsider, she’s a typical teen girl. She has this secret life that no one knows about or suspects, including her own family. Being a Hunter, being part of the world of the Archive, is a secret to be held and shared only with others with the potential to enter this strange world. For Mac, that was her grandfather.

At the apartment building the Coronado, Mac encounters two young men: Wesley, a teenaged Hunter; and Owen, someone a bit more mysterious. Mac’s life has been rather close up till now. While she has a best friend, in her old home town, having to live a life that involves training and disappearing at odd moments to hunt Histories has left her a bit isolated from other teens. Even in the world of the Archive, the only people she has met are the Librarians, who are usually a bit stand-offish and business as usual. Meeting Wesley, and Owen, two people who know her secrets, is the first time she’s really had peers who understand what she does.

And yes, there is a bit of a triangle there. And it’s a creepy triangle.

Mac is one of those characters I kept wanting to talk some sense into, because she did some stuff that made me scream ARGH. But her choices made perfect sense for her: Mac is a character who is grieving, deeply, and her grandfather has trained her to be more about action than self-reflection. She is, also, lonely, and doesn’t realize it. Or, rather, doesn’t realize how that influences her decisions. Plus, there’s the whole emotional hurricane of dealing with the Histories, who think they are real but aren’t. While Mac’s action mode can help, as when Mac has to figure out what is going on with the Library that so many more Histories are escaping and what it has to do with her new home, sometimes it hurts. As when it doesn’t really allow her to feel the loss of her brother, or, for that matter, her grandfather.

What else? I like that part of action-Mac is doing research into her apartment building’s history, both by looking for documents and records but also by talking to other residents. I like the relationship that develops with Wes. I like her relationship with her parents, and how that has been affected by her secret life. And the world building! I want to know even more about the Archive and the people who work there.

Other reviews: Disquietus; Sarcasm and Lemons; The Book Smugglers.









The Good: al;dskj;l

Review: Poison

Poison by Bridget Zinn. Hyperion. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Kyra, sixteen, is not your typical hero. She is breaking into the home of the Master Trio of Potioners to steal a very specific, very deadly poison. So, thief and killer?

Not quite.

Kyra is — was — one of the Master Trio, one of the best potioners in the kingdom. Until the day she tried, and failed, to kill Princess Ariana, heir to the throne and Kyra’s best friend.

Why did Kyra throw her life away? Why is she trying to kill her best friend? Kyra has knowledge that if the princess lives, the kingdom will be destroyed. What is worse: one death, or the death of everyone and everything? Kyra races against time to try to find Ari and this time, succeed in killing her and ending the threat.

How to find a hidden princess when the entire country is hunting you?

First, get a pig.

The Good: Poison is a delightful, inventive, clever fantasy.

Kyra is smart and a master potioner. Her world is one with magic, but potions is not magic. Being good at it, like she is, is a combination of talent and work and schooling. It’s scientific, like chemistry. Kyra is rather dismissive of the magical elements of her world, seeing it as not quite as good as her potions.

See that right there? This bias reveals Kyra’s own prejudices and arrogance. Flaws help make a character whole, but what is extra terrific is that these flaws are also important to the narrative. They impact the decisions she makes and the consequences of those decisions. Delicious! Here’s an example without giving anything big away: the pig. Kyra needs a way to find Ari, and she gets — a pig. And doesn’t quite believe that a pig can track someone. The way that she interacts with the pig, who eventually acquires a name, Rosie, is revealing and important and matters to the plot and I loved it.

Poison has plot twists and one reason I adored the twists is that I wasn’t expecting them — oh, some things I figured out but others left me surprised. When I reread Poison not only where hints there, it explained things that before seemed to just be coincidences. I loved this.

Kyra reveals what she has to when she has to and even then, only tells you what she wants you to know or what she thinks you need to know. In the first chapter, we find out she’s breaking into the home of the Master Trio; she doesn’t share right away that she was one of the Trio. Or that she was engaged to one of the other potioners. Those quick plot twists in the first chapter are just a tease of some of what happens later.

Kyra has a pig to track the princess down, and while on her hunt she runs into Fred. Fred! He’s cute and charming and nice and of course, Kyra lies to him about who she is and what she is doing. Her lies? Her name is Kitty and she is a dairy maid delivering the pig to her sis, er, cousin …. yes. Kyra’s not so great with making stuff up, but Fred believes it. Plus Fred has a pet dog named Langley.

Poison is a great adventure, smart with a touch of humor. At one point, Kyra thinks that “she didn’t like children at the best of times, and now was certainly nowhere near the best of times.” As for adventure, she encounters criminals and goblins and witches as she tries to find Ari, and the reader gradually learns more about why Kyra is so convinced her best friend and princess has to die that she abandons her business partners, friends, and fiance in pursuit of killing Ari.

Poison is also modern while being a classic fantasy. On the surface, you have a princess and a kingdom and magic, with it all seeming like a typical quasi-medieval fantasy. Except, the tone that Kyra and others use is modern rather than pretend-medieval. Someone calls a parent “Mom,” for instance. Professions don’t seem to be coded as men or women only; Kyra is a potioner and lives with her two business partners, both young men. The royal line is through the female. Kyra saves Fred with both her potions and her fighting skills.

Because Kyra is a terrific character. Because Poison was even better the second time I read it. Because of the adventure and humor. Poison is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Bridget Zinn, the author of Poison, passed away in 2011. As shown in some of the links, below, the children’s literature community has come together to do what Zinn herself cannot: promote this wonderful book.

Other Reviews and Links: E.M. Kokie talks about Bridget Zinn at Cynsations; a mention at EW’s Shelf Life blog; Publishers Weekly discusses the promotion being done for Poison; Beth Reads; Parajunkee.

Review: Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Edited to add: Printz Honor Book.

The Plot: France. 1943. Verity, a British spy, has been captured by the Nazis. “I AM A COWARD,” she explains. She has given the Nazis the wireless codes they wanted; she is now writing out her confession, explaining how and why she ended up in Ormaie in Nazi-occupied France, why she has the identify papers of Maddie Brodart, and why she is telling the truth and telling the Nazis every little thing.

How much time has Verity bought for herself? A handful of days to write her confession; and after that, what?

The Good: This book is outrageously good.

Historical fiction can be a bit like fantasy: the author has to convey a lot of information to the reader for the reader to understand the setting. Here, a book about Britain in World War II, and the war effort that involved women: the Air Transport Auxiliary, Special Operations Executive, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Verity is writing her confession for her SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, wanting to include every last detail to buy more days, so she is thorough in what she tells. She starts in 1938 to explain just how and why Maddie, the granddaughter of a merchant, became a pilot that ended up bringing Verity to German occupied France.

As the pages go by, the reader falls into the past. The horror and disgust at what Verity has done — given the Nazis the secret wireless codes in exchange for the return of her clothes — slowly fades away. Partly it  is because Verity is equally disgusted with herself, and had, as a child, thought she’d be as brave as her various ancestors such as William Wallace, and she cannot believe she hasn’t lived up to her ideals. Partly it is because, while Verity never gives direct descriptions or details because, of course, Von Linden knows what was done to her so why tell him, she gives enough sideway hints and references to burns and bruises and pins for the reader to realize that more was involved in the questioning of Verity than taking away her clothes. But, for me, what most led to my forgiving Verity is that, as she recounts her past, I can’t help but like her.

It’s as simple as that. She’s Queenie, bright and funny and loyal and if Queenie has decided that “the warmth and dignity of my flannel skirt and woolly sweater are worth far more to me now than patriotism or integrity,” the reader can at least sympathize and understand as the reader (or at least this reader) wonders just how many burns and bruises and breaks and pins the reader could withstand.

Is Verity her name? No; it’s a code name. And even in her writings, she doesn’t use her direct name, using a nickname that others gave her: sometimes Queenie, because of her posh accent and upper class upbringing complete with castle; sometimes Scottie because, as she reminds us, she is Scottish not English. Her real name? That I won’t tell you; I’ll let Queenie tell you herself.

Maddie and Queenie become friends, meeting first as wireless operators, staying in touch as their war careers take different paths, Maddie as a pilot and Queenie with the OES. “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.” This friendship, this pair — how can you not love them? Love Queenie? And one moment there is laughter in the English countryside as Queenie displays both her ability to get lost and to talk people into doing what she wants, the next the reminder that Queenie is in a Gestapo prison listening to people being tortured, clutching her dirty sweater as if it can somehow make the noise and dirt and blood go away.

Somehow, remembering a younger, more naive and sheltered girl telling another, while German bombs fall during the Battle of Britain, “‘Kiss me, Hardy!’ Weren’t those Nelson’s last words at the Battle of Trafalgar? Don’t cry. We’re still alive and we make a sensational team,” somehow, that makes Queenie hold on just a little bit longer as she writes to explain herself and what she has done.

Queenie is telling a story, under great stress, trying not to give too much away, but having to. Page after page and I wondered, is there any hope or escape for her? And Maddie, what has happened to Maddie, the pilot of the plane that brought Queenie to France?

I can tell you the pages where I literally gasped. And the pages where I cried. And cried again. It’s Queenie’s story to tell, and she has earned that right, with each article of clothing and wireless code. So, I won’t say much about what ends up happening or not happening. But when we meet in real life? Let’s sit down and talk about it all, every word.

I will say this: Code Name Verity ripped out my heart and chopped it into little pieces in front of my eyes.

As the pages turned and I realized just what Wein was doing — where she was going — how she was getting there, how Queenie was getting there — I was blown away. It reminded me of the first time I read Jellicoe Road or Going Bovine.

Because days later I am still crying. Because of the seamless craft of this book, in character, setting, writing, and plotting. Because this is about being a coward while telling the truth,and being brave while telling lies. Because it is about the power of words and of story. Oh, kiss me, Hardy. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Things Mean A Lot; Chachic.

Review: Out of Sight, Out of Time

Out of Sight, Out of Time by Ally Carter. Disney Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group. 2012. Personal copy.

The Plot: Cammie Morgan awakes to find herself in a strange bed, in a strange country. Worst of all? A several month block of time is missing from her memory. The last thing she knew, it was the end of the school year and she was leaving, on her own, without telling anyone, to discover more about the secret Circle of Cavan that had targeted her. The wounds on her body tells her things may have happened that she doesn’t want to remember.

Cammie’s going to need all her strength, all her spy skills, all her smarts, and all her friends to figure out what happened to her. Only problem is — when you run away from home, even though people are happy you’re alive, they’re still mad that you left.

Previously, in the Gallagher Girls saga:

Cammie Morgan and the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women (AKA a school for super spies) were introduced in I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You. Cammie juggled spy school, friendships, and secretly dating a town boy who knows nothing about spies or spy schools. Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy introduced a new layer to Cammie’s world: boy spies from the Blackthorne Institute including a maddening, heart pounding, annoying, (and so cute!) Zach. Cammie and friends prevent a kidnapping in Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover. More secrets about the Gallagher Academy, Blackthorne, spies, family and friends are uncovered in Only the Good Spy Young.

The Good:  My brief series spiel: yes, this is best read in order. Yes, this is a terrific addition to the series.

What I like about Carter’s series is that she gives readers both what they want (the predictability of a spy story) with what they need (new story and series elements). What I also liked: I had half-suspected that Carter’s overall series arc wasn’t plotted out until the second book, based on who was mentioned and what happened and the like. I had a moment of awesome squee when something from the first book, Love You, Kill You, was mentioned as being important to that arc. Yay!

How does Carter mix things up? Take Cammie: a classic Gallagher girl with mad spy skillz. Out of Sight, Out of Time changes that up, by putting Cammie in the strange position of loss of memory with evidence that what happened to her was bad: “Blood and dirt were caked under [my fingernails] as if I’d crawled out of my school and halfway across the world on my hands and knees to reach that narrow bed.” That Cammie is in this position at all meant, also, that whatever she did over her summer vacation, whatever she did in hunting for information about the Circle of Cavan, it went bad, bad enough for her to be bloody and broken in bed. Bad enough to show that Cammie is not the perfect spy some of us (um, me) had begun to think of her as.

Readers may recall Cammie’s tight group of friends, Liz, Macey and Bex, and boyfriend, Zach, who she trusts as if they were family. This, too, is shaken up, as well as Cammie’s relationship with her mother and aunt, because, well, she left. Trust has to be rebuilt on both sides.

Will Cammie regain her confidence? Will she find out what happened during the summer?

She’s a Gallagher Girl! She’s going to do that, and more.

Some classic quotes; “He looked at me like I was a crazy person. Trust me, I’m a teenage amnesiac. It’s a look I know pretty well.”Jet lag. It’s killed more people than anthrax.”

And the end! The end! All I’ll say is I had a big goofy grin on my face.

Because the Gallagher Girls are my go-to books when I want to be happy. Because these are books about confident, smart teenagers (both girls and boys). Because these books build on each other. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Emily’s Reading Room; Biblio File; ReaderGirlz (author interview).

Review: Uncommon Criminals

Uncommon Criminals: a Heist Society Novel by Ally Carter. Disney-Hyperion Books. 2011. Personal copy. Sequel to Heist Society.

The Plot: Kat Bishop, 15 (the teen thief introduced in Heist Society) returns with a new criminal caper. Last time around, Kat was the girl who left, who tried (and failed) to get out of the family business. This time around, things start with Kat being a bit too good at it. She’s known as the girl who robbed the greatest museum in the world; she’s also been taking on projects to return artwork stolen by the Nazis to their rightful heirs. Truth be told, her friends and family, especially Hale and Gabrielle, aren’t happy that most of those projects have been solo.

Things change when Kat is approached and asked to steal the Cleopatra Emerald; or, rather, steal the Emerald back for its original owner. Problem is, the Emerald hasn’t been displayed in over 30 years. And, it’s cursed. And, her Uncle and other family members have said not to. But her father and Uncle Eddy are down in South America on a “project” and it’s just the type of challenge Kat wants to take on.

Unfortunately for Kat, the job turns out to be more than expected. Fortunately for Kat, she’s thick as thieves with a bunch of thieves. Teen thieves, that is.

The Good: I honestly believe there are two types of people in the world: those who love Ally Carter books, and those who haven’t read them yet. Those who do love them because they are “a good read”: fun, engaging, lively, smart. When certain critics moan over the dark state of YA literature, and where are the fun, lighthearted books, we turn to each other and say, “wait, what? There were no Ally Carter books on the shelves?”

The question I usually ask myself when reading a series: does it stand alone or is it best to read it in sequence? While Carter reintroduces the main characters to new readers (or, readers like me who read the first book a year ago), I think the books are best read in sequence to get the full flavor of Kat and her friends. So, go read my review of Heist Society and then read the book.

Next, does this particular volume stand alone or does it end on a cliffhanger? Standalone, my friend. So far, there is no series-long mystery or storyline. Uncommon Criminals is about the Cleopatra Emerald, and whether or not Kat manages to steal it and avoid any curses is resolved in this volume.

A caper story has to stay one step ahead of the reader; and Uncommon Criminals does that. Like the television show Leverage, Carter shows the reader just enough for the reader to think they know what is going on, only, not so much. Once or twice the reader may figure it out, only to fall behind in guessing in the next chapter. (And, you’re not watching Leverage?! Start, now. I’ll wait.)

Speaking of chapters: Uncommon Criminals may have the best ends of chapters ever. No, really. Yes, I thought about quoting them but sometimes they give away the twists, and that would be wrong. Seriously, if as a writer you want to know how to end a chapter to make the reader turn the page, read Uncommon Criminals. The chapter endings are also very elegant, in how they both wrap up the current chapter and lead into the next.

Finally, and this is the main reason why this book makes my Favorite Books Read in 2011 list, Uncommon Criminals is both fun and smart, in a way that doesn’t bop you over the head with it. It has a strong, smart, capable female lead. Issues touched on in the book include art, history, and issues of social justice. But, it’s never in a heavy, learn this way; it’s part of the fun.

Review: The Ring of Solomon

The Ring of Solomon: A Bartimaeus Novel by Jonathan Stroud. Disney Hyperion Books. 2010. Reviewed from unedited version from publisher.

The Plot: Jerusalem, 950 B.C.E. King Solomon (yes, that King Solomon) rules Israel with wisdom and strength. And a ring — a ring that gives him unbelievable powers. King Solomon controls Israel, including the magicians of his court. Magicians control djinni. One of those magicians has a djinni named Bartimaeus.

The Good: I’m addressing this to three different readers. Sort of like choose your own adventure! First, new readers to this series; next, members of awards/lists committees; finally, people who have read the other books in the series.

New Readers: In The Ring of Solomon’s world of magic, magicians bind djinni and other creatures to do their bidding. Bartimaeus is one of those djinni, summoned to do a master’s bidding. Djinni are rarely willing conspirators; elaborate spells and ceremonies are required to both summon and bind them and one misstep by a magician frees the djinni. The djinni are not happy to be summoned and commanded, so those missteps usually don’t end well for the magician. Usually the magician ends up eaten. So there is danger and risk in magic. The djinni do have some free will. With Bartimaeus, that means he is snarky, looks out for number one (that would be himself) and always tries to figure a way out of serving his current magician. Oh! And whatever you do, don’t call a djinni a demon. It’s rather insulting.

In The Ring of Solomon, Bartimaeus serves a magician who serves the mighty Solomon and, of course, it is Bartimaeus’s story. It is also the story of Asmira, personal guard to the Queen of Sheba. Sheba hopes to protect herself and her country from the personal, political, and military advances of Solomon so she sends Asmira on a secret mission. Kill Solomon. Take the ring. 

There’s no way you cannot like Bartimaeus, in part because he’s funny, sarcastic, and smart. Does Bartimaeus speak the truth? “Dissemblers as we sometimes are when conversing with humans, higher spirits almost always speak truth amongst themselves. The lower orders, sadly, are less civilized, foliots being variable, moody and prone to flights of fancy, while imps enjoy telling absolute whoppers.” An example of Bartimaeus’s behavior is, despite Solomon’s power, Bartimaeus sings bawdy songs about him and, at one point, takes the appearance of hippo that bears a startling resemblance to one of Solomon’s wives.

Asmira is also very likable. First, she’s strong — as a member of the guard of the Queen, she’s been taught to fight from the time she could walk. Second, she’s smart. She even knows a bit of magic. She’s on a journey anyone can respect: save her queen, save her country. Since Bartimaeus is linked to someone who protects Solomon, and Asmira is out to get Solomon, well, you know these two kids will hook up at some point.

So, you have action, humor, great characters. You also have a continuation of a series, but set several thousands of years before the other series, so you do not have to have read the trilogy to understand this book. Be warned: once you read this book, you will want to read the entire trilogy.

People on awards and lists: while this is a part of a series, because it is set so far before the trilogy, this book truly stands alone.

If you have read and enjoyed The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Stroud, here’s what you need to know: it’s the Bartimaeus you know and loved. The Ring of Solomon is set thousands of years before the trilogy, so none of the humans mentioned in the trilogy appear here. It’s a whole new cast of characters. If, like me, it’s been four years since you read the books, that’s OK because the only character you need to know is Bartimaeus and how can you forget him? You don’t have to worry about remembering anything about plot or characters from the other three books. The final version of the book will have a list of main characters as well as a map.

Is The Ring of Solomon stand alone? Yes; no cliff hangers here. As someone who loves Bartimaeus and his unique voice, which makes me laugh out loud, I hope that The Ring of Solomon is just one of many additional books about Bartimaeus.

Is this one of my Favorite Books read in 2010? Does a djinni call when summoned?

Review: Only The Good Spy Young

Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter. Disney Hyperion. 2010. Personal Copy.

The Plot: Life is never boring for Cammie Morgan, Gallagher Girl and spy-in-training. Winter vacation in London with her friend Bex turns into something more. No, really, something much more, even for Cammie. She is going to need all her skills, all her talent, and all her friends to figure out who to trust.

The Good: Cammie Morgan and the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women (AKA a school for super spies) were introduced in I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You. Cammie juggled spy school, friendships, and secretly dating Josh, a town boy who knows nothing about spies or spy schools. Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy introduced a new layer to Cammie’s world: boy spies from the Blackthorne Institute including a maddening, heart pounding, annoying, (and so cute!) Zach. Cammie and friends prevent a kidnapping in Don’t Judge a Girl by Her Cover.

The Gallagher Girls are best read in order. Cammie falls for Josh in book one and then Zach enters the picture, which is GREAT. One of my pet peeves with books (any books, not just young adult) is the “first guy is The One” theory of romance. (I won’t waste your time with my rant on that, but it’s a doozy!) It’s terrific that Cammie can fall for a guy, kiss him, have feelings for him and, then, well, life happens and it doesn’t work out and that’s OK and there are other cute guys out there.

The Gallagher Girls — the girls themselves — continue to rock. How many books have a school were the students love school? Study because they want to? OK, they’re studying Covert Options BUT STILL. This is a book were learning is cool and exciting and matters.

While some elements of the storyline that takes center stage for Only the Good Spy Young were in the first book (Cammie’s father died on a mission, teacher and family friend Joe Solomon) other elements (the Blackthorne Institute, the Circle of Cavan) are introduced later. Each book is a stand alone adventure, but each book also builds on the one before which is why they are best read in sequence.  All of Carter’s fabulous touches remain (humor, great characters, fast plot, inventive storytelling) but a seriousness is being added to the series. Cammie is getting older and realizing spying is not all fun and games. Oh, she knew from what happened to her father that spies die. What she is learning now is that spying (and what it takes to become a spy) is more than what is taught in the Gallagher Academy. Sometimes, it is ugly; and sometimes, there is betrayal. Carter is introducing shades of gray to a story that began very black and white. Yes, these are books about teen spies, but they are also books about teens, and teens grow up. Cammie is growing up, realizing there is much more to her world, and I’m looking forward to what happens next.