Review: All Our Pretty Songs

All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Two girls, best friends since they were born. Sharing so much: heartaches, family, music. They are not identical, no, but rather they complement each other. “Aurora breaks hearts, and I paint pictures.” Aurora drinks her nights away, knowing her best friend will always be there to make sure she gets home again. Then there is the show where the two girls meet Jack. Beautiful, talented Jack.

Jack and his music will change everything.

The Good: This book can be read two different ways. Which I love.

The unnamed narrator (and how much do I love that we never learn her name) are the daughters of two former best friends. Cass (the narrator’s mother) and Mia (Aurora’s mother) were much like their daughters: living for music, for shows, for the moment, and for musicians. Aurora’s father became famous, and then died, leaving shattered family and friends. Mia has money but she also floats around in a daze of drugs and alcohol. Cass knew she couldn’t get sober and be around Mia, so she picked sober. Cass and her daughter have been struggling financially ever since.

That is the background, all happening before the book, before the summer the girls turn seventeen. Despite their mothers’ estrangement, despite the difference in finances, the girls remain the best of friends. All they really need is each other; together they go to clubs and stay out late. Aurora is the wild child, the golden girl who everyone wants to be and to be with — including the narrator. The narrator offers loyalty, love, fidelity, but she knows she doesn’t shine like Aurora. “People like Aurora don’t have to live with consequences.

And then — Jack. And who is Jack interested in, who does he want? The narrator. She loves Jack, he loves her, and she tries to fight that insecurity and jealousy that makes her wonder about Aurora, and why Jack didn’t pick Aurora, — if I were Jack, she thinks, I’d pick Aurora.

I don’t want to call this a triangle: it’s deeper and more complicated than that. A “triangle” would diminish that.

I love the narrator’s relationship with Jack. Aurora is her best friend and a soul mate; but Jack is a lover, the one who makes her feel things she’s never felt before. Her love, her passion, her desire was so wonderfully shown.

And her poor mother, Cass! Cass, who in some ways is seeing herself as a teenager and what do you do when your daughter follows in your footsteps? How do you tell her to say no when you, yourself, said yes yes yes at that age? Cass is doing her best to be a good mother, and her sacrifices have included the friendship and financial security of being Mia’s friend.

What happens next is one of two things. It depends on how you want to read it.

In one, dark creatures from before time still lurk around our world, offering deals to those willing to make trades. They want Aurora; they want Jack. The narrator is determined to save those she loves from hell. “None of the creatures from that world understand the way human emotions work. They’re all mimicking what they see in us. They can’t create things. They can only steal from us. They’re forever crossing over to wreak havoc because they’re jealous.

In the other, well, those creatures and deals aren’t real. What is real? Drugs and ambition, and that addiction is as real a hell and temptation as any devil. That someone who lives for music will do whatever is needed for that music. And anything else is a hallucination of drugs and need. And those creatures? Those are us, the consumers of other’s crafts.

Either way? And textually, there is more to support the first reading — either way, I love, love, love this book. I love how the narrator loves both Aurora and Jack, and how her insecurity is based not so much in how she views herself as how she views Aurora.

And, I like the way race figures into this book. The narrator is white; Aurora and Jack are not. Neither is the narrator’s boss, Raoul. At one point, the narrator is talking about her love and concern for her friends and Raoul brings skin color into the equation, pointing out her privilege and how her wanting to “save” them is partly her deciding what she wants for Aurora and Jack matters more to her than what Aurora and Jack want for themselves and how she cannot know what it is they want and need: “Look at her. Look at both of them. Do you ever think about what a curse it might be, to look like that? To know that no matter what you were made of, no matter what you did with your life, no one would ever see past your face? Your skin?” 

The narrator’s reaction is, but I love Jack! And I love Aurora! She wants to save them! And Raoul asks her to think about what it is he has said, and what she’s still saying. And this is why I like my theory that there are no real dark creatures and hell, just life, because what Jack is choosing is not a deal with a devil for his music, but rather, he is choosing a life where his music comes first, over love. 

And — the ending!

I love this book; I love the writing; I love that it’s the reader’s choice as to whether or not to believe that Cass is a witch; I love the complicated look at love and lust, ambition, family. So, yes a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Bonus: The paperback copy I read included a sample chapter for McCarry’s next book, Dirty Wings, due out Spring 2014. It’s the story of Mia and Cass as teens.

Other reviews: Book Smugglers; Slatebreakers; author guest post at YA Highway; author interview at X O Jane.

Review: Obsidian Mirror

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher. Dial Books for Younger Readers, a member of Penguin Group. 2013. Library copy.

The Plot: Time travel with a magical mirror.

You want more?

There are also the Shee. You know, the cold blooded not-human beings of legend who steal human children and never really age.

You want more?

A present-day boy searching for his father and a future girl looking for a way to save her world.

Did I mention the time travel?

The Good: Did I mention the time travel?

Jake Wilde has deliberately gotten himself expelled from boarding school and sent to Wintercombe Abbey, the home of his enigmatic guardian, Oberon Venn. A teacher is his reluctant guardian on the trip home, but no worries there. It’s Venn’s home, not Jake’s. And Jake has no intention of running away. He wants to confront Venn, convinced Venn has murdered Jake’s father.

Sarah is running. The Replicant is chasing her. She is alone, running, determined. She has a goal: Wintercombe Abbey. And she has a mission. Wintercombe Abbey is familiar, even though it’s not the place she remembers. She talks herself into a job so she can stay and find what she seeks.

Oberon Venn is surprised to see Jake. And when Sarah shows up, he isn’t sure who she is but he thinks he can use her. Oberon Venn is, you see, a man with a mission. His beloved wife is dead. So what to do? Find a way to travel through time to prevent it from happening. Jake’s father, Venn’s loyal friend, was involved.

I don’t want to give too much away about these overlapping stories —  but I really loved how it wove together. Not only is Venn researching time travel, using the Obsidian Mirror, but Sarah has traveled through time to stop him. While she is vague about sharing the details of her own dystopian future, one thing is clear: the cause is the mirror. Destroy the mirror, save the world. So, as you can see, Jake, Venn, and Sarah have competing interests. Jake, to find his father; Venn, to change the past and save his wife; Sarah, to change the future. Not only are there interests in conflict with each other, no one quite knows all the secrets to the Mirror and how it works. So it’s not as simple as finding the Mirror. It’s not as simple as possessing the Mirror.

As you can imagine, this means that there are peaks at Sarah’s future; Jake’s present; and a trip or two to the past as Venn tries to control the mirror.

But wait, you ask, what about the Shee?

All of this time travel stuff — what you might call the science fantasy aspect of the book — is played out against what is happening on the grounds of Wintercombe Abbey. A place where the Shee live, including the Queen of the Wood, and an ageless (or only slowly aging) human, Gideon — a child taken hundreds of years ago. Venn is aware of them; knows about them; and I loved this odd mash up of genre and expectation.

Oh, and trust me: it may seem that I have given too much away. Trust me, I have not. There is still plenty of reveals and plot twists for you to uncover on your own. There is the Scarred Man! And Mortimer Dee! And Moll! My favorite may be Moll.

The Obsidian Mirror has a sequel, The Slanted Worlds, coming out in March.

Other reviews:  Forever Young Adult; The New York Times; The Book Smugglers.

Review: The Dream Thieves

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Book II of the Raven Cycle. Sequel to Book I – The Raven Boys. Scholastic. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: In Book I, Blue Sargent became friends with the “Raven Boys” — Richard Campbell Gansey III, Ronan Lynch, Adam Parrish, and Noah Czarny. All had become involved in Gansey’s quest to discover in the Virginia countryside the last resting place of the fifteenth century Welsh king, Owen Glendower. A significant step had been made in awaking the ley lines (lines of energy.) It had not been without cost, but all had been excited about the next step.

In The Dream Thieves, they discover that things aren’t as simple as they had hoped. Dangers come from both the outside and the inside. Ronan had confessed to a specific power at the end of The Raven Boys: the ability to bring things out of dreams. What are the limits of this power? Where did it come from? And will it help, or hurt, their quest?

The Good: As a quick recap on our crew: Blue is the local girl from a family of psychics, raised with the prediction that she would kill her true love with a kiss. Gansey is brilliant, rich, and driven is his search for Glendower. He’s the natural leader, but he doesn’t always see what is around him. Ronan’s father is dead and the family in a shambles. Adam, like Blue, is a local; he’s on scholarship at the elite (i.e., expensive) school that Gansey and Ronan attend. And, Noah — well. Noah is a ghost, killed years ago.

Ronan’s story drives The Dream Thieves, as the title tells. After his father’s brutal murder, the terms of his will were a bit — well, strange. “All of the money was theirs, but on one condition: [the three Lynch brothers] were never to set foot on the property again. They were to disturb neither the house nor its contents. Including their mother.” Their father is lost through death; their mother retreats into a type of depression/sadness; and the boys literally cannot return home. Ronan may have money like Gansey, but without family he’s lost. But, wait, three brothers? He has some family then, right? Not quite. His older brother is bossy, his youngest is, well, young.

Ronan’s created family are his friends. They are what matter to him. Gansey wants to find Glendower? Ronan is in. And, as it turns out, Ronan has his own gift that brings him to the search for Glendower. The ability to bring things out of dreams. If that sounds wonderful to you, remember your last nightmare. Would you want to bring that out of your dreams? It also turns out that Gansey’s quest isn’t enough. Ronan wants more excitement in his life, and he gets it from racing cars. Being as I’m not a car person, what I liked about this turn of plot wasn’t the racing itself. It was seeing another side of Ronan; it was seeing Ronan independent of Gansey; and it was seeing how what seemed a distraction turned out to be something significant.

In many ways, Ronan is my favorite.

But Gansey — Gansey is not so much my favorite, as the brightest light. The one who takes all the attention when he’s in the room and doesn’t even know it. The one who doesn’t always realize that he’s sometimes being an arrogant SOB. “Gansey could persuade even the sun to pause and give him the time.” Even with Ronan being my favorite, and Adam being the one I root for, Gansey — Gansey overpowers them both. He’s on the page and no one else matters.

Ronan, as I said, deals with that with his dreams and his racing. Adam, well, Adam already feels inferior because of his family and his poverty so doesn’t deal with it very well. Instead he fights it. Adam is so busy trying to prove his worth and earn his place that he lets some things slip away. (How can one not want Adam to succeed? If Gansey and Ronan were born on third base, walking confidently towards home base, Adam was born ten miles from the baseball field.)

In The Raven Boys, Blue and Adam were attracted to each other, and for part of The Dream Thieves they are sort-of a couple. As much a couple as they can be, given that Blue is going to avoid kissing. Blue’s avoidance, Adam’s own insecurities, leads to — well. Let me just say I loved how realistic this was, and all the feelings! And emotions! Of Blue and Adam.

Which brings me back to Blue. I loved, loved, loved how The Dream Thieves gives a deeper glimpse look into Blue’s family of psychics. I’m still not sure how all these women are related, and what would happen if one of them had a son, but I enjoyed them all. Which brings me to another favorite. (I do have a lot of favorite things in this book, don’t I?)

And that’s Maura and Norman Reedus. Um, OK, not Norman Reedus. But “Mr. Gray” is introduced in The Dream Thieves, in a particularly violent way, beating up Ronan’s older brother. The Gray Man — Mr. Gray — is an educated hit man. He works for hire, and right now is searching for something called the Greywaren. He ends up visiting the psychics and meeting Blue’s mother, Maura. Does the fact that I think of him as Norman Reedus give away that he is a bad guy who is really good, or a good guy who does bad things, or, I’m not quite sure but wowza the chemistry between Maura and Mr. Gray knocked my socks off. And, it led another layer to the story, to the quest.

Because, remember, there is the quest for Glendower. And amongst the car racing and dreams, the not kissing and the Greywaren, family obligations and jobs, there is still the quest. Yes, our intrepid band gets even closer to finding Glendower.

Needless to say: a Favorite Book Read in 2013, and when is the next book coming?

Other reviews: Forever Young Adult; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Review: The Bitter Kingdom

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Conclusion of The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy: The Girl of Fire and Thorns (book one) and  The Crown of Embers (book two).

The Plot: Elisa, Godstone Bearer and Queen of Joya d’Arena, is running into the hand of her greatest enemy, the Invierne.

In Joya d’Arena, people have taken advantage of having a teeange Queen by seizing the country from her.

The Invierno, the enemy of Joya d’Arena, want Elisa — or, rather, her Godstone — and to make her come to them, they have taken Hector, Captain of the Royal Guard and the man Elisa loves.

Elisa travels with a small, trusted group: Belen, Mara, Storm (or, as Elisa describes them, “an assassin, a lady-in-waiting, and a failed sorcerer“).

All they have to do is rescue Hector; stop a war with Invierno; reclaim her throne; achieve peace for her country; and, oh, yeah — complete the act of service required by her Godstone, whatever that is.

It may be difficult; it may require sacrifice and tough choices; but this Elisa we’re talking about.

The Good: As I began The Bitter Kingdom I wondered, just how was Rae Carson going to wrap this up?

The thing to remember, of course, that this trilogy is about Elisa. It is about her journey, from protected child to strong queen. And what a journey! It is both physical — learning to fight, chasing down her enemies, running from others — and emotional. Learning to make the hard choices, including what is best for her country. And learning to find joy and happiness where she can get it.

Take Hector, her late husband’s good friend. Elisa was married to the king, a political alliance. She fell in love with a young man, and he was murdered. And now she has Hector. At the end of The Crown of Embers, Elisa had realized that marrying Hector would be a smart political move. Which means that The Bitter Kingdom includes their romance, which just gave me lots of smiles and happy.

Of course, it’s not all smiles and happy. But what is constant, for me, is the wonder that is Elisa. How strong she is, and brave. How much she has grown in three books.

As I said, this is Elisa’s story, so it is her adventure. She rescues and is rescued. She pushes herself as hard as she pushes anyone else, expects more from herself than others. She is also full of faith, and who wouldn’t be if they had evidence of God in the form of a godstone?

It is also the story of Invierno and Joya d’Arena, and their respective, battling origin myths that have led to centuries of hatred. Without giving too much away, I’ll say, I am still left with questions but in a good way. The “good way” being, I hope that Carson revisits this world, either in Elisa’s past or the future.

And, if like me, you want more, more, more now that the trilogy is over, semi-good news. There are two short e-novellas set in this world: The King’s Guard and The Shadow Cats. It’s only “semi” because that is “more” and “more” but not “more, more, more.” Yes, we readers ARE demanding.

Because The Bitter Kingdom is full of adventure. Because it has realistic politics. Because it’s about ages-old hurts that are hard to forgive and forget. Because I want to know more about the scientific and magical origins of this world. And because of Elisa. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Books With Bite; Magical Urban Fantasy Reads; Bookshelvers Anonymous.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Winter Prince

The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein. Atheneum. 1993. Read ebook edition from Open Road Media, 2013. Personal copy.

The Plot: Medraut is the oldest son of King Artos of Britain, but he can never be Prince. He can never be King. He can never be his father’s heir. He can never have what his younger brother, Prince Lleu, has — not because of anything Medraut has or has not done.

Not because of skills or ability or talent; no.

The reason that the young, arrogant Lleu is heir and favored son is because of the circumstances of their births. Lleu is the legitimate son of Artos and his wife, Ginevra. Medraut is the elder but he is illegitimate, and (as is only known by a handful of people) Medraut’s mother is Morgause, the king’s sister.

Medraut must watch from the sidelines at all that Lleu gets and is expected to get. His feelings towards his younger half-brother are complex, but it is not until his mother visits the royal household that Medraut is forced to make a choice, between his father and his mother, between himself and his brother, between the role fate has for him and the role he wants.

The Good: Why did it take me so long to read Elizabeth Wein’s first book, when I have heard over and over again how wonderful it is? Because I’m an idiot, I guess.

The Winter Prince is a retelling of King Arthur, told from the point of view of his son Mordred. If, like me, you went on a King Arthur binge at one time in your reading life, you may recall that the earliest legends and tales do not say that the king and his son were enemies. So, here, Medraut is loved by his father and his stepmother and their two children, Princess Goewin and Prince Lleu. He is a member of the family, acknowledged (though the truth about his mother’s identity remains a secret) and loved.

From the outside, even, Medraut is favored. Several years old than the twins, he has been educated; he has traveled, to Brittany, to Byzantium, to Africa; he is a healer. He is talented, he is well liked. Medraut cannot see all that he has, because of what he does not have.

Lleu is young and handsome; he is well liked; but he is immature. One thing I loved about The Winter Prince is that even though this is told from Medraut’s point of view, and Medraut loves his younger brother, the reader sees the good things about Lleu but also sees that Lleu is, well, immature. A bit soft. For example, Lleu has no stomach for hunting, even though for the time period (and as his brother tells him) hunting is necessary to get meat to eat to survive. Lleu also sometimes has the unintentional arrogance of a protected teen: he knows he is going to be King someday. Yet, for all that — Lleu is likable. It’s just, like Medraut, the reader wonders if Lleu is really fit to become King.

The Winter Prince explores the relationship between Medraut and Lleu with the question ever-lingering in the back: will Medraut be his father’s son, loyal to his brother? Or will he be his mother’s son, and decide to do what is necessary to become king himself?

His mother’s son: Morgause doesn’t appear until half way through the book, when she escorts her younger sons to Artos’s kingdom. Morgause is a woman who plays with others, including her son and her brother. Artos was unaware of their relationship when he was with Morgause; Morgause knew, and wanted a son to use against her brother in her own quest for power. Morgause’s hold over her eldest son is such that the entire book is actually directed to her. It is a story he tells to “you,” and you is Morgause.

Surprisingly, it is the Princess Goewin who says something that creates some empathy in the reader for Morgause’s viewpoint. “Father’s kingdom, this unity, it won’t last — Lleu’s not like him, and even if he were, too much is changing too fast. It can’t last. Father would have me marry Constantine, the son of the king of Dumnonia in the south. It won’t be bad, it’s important, with all the tin mines and fishing towns. But he may as well marry me to one of my cousins and exile me to the Orcades, as he has his sister, because you can be sure I won’t sit by as queen of Dumnonia and watch Britain trickle through Lleu’s fingers. If I have to I’ll take the kingship from him by force.”

Goewin doesn’t really mean her words, but her frustration about her gender preventing her even be considered for power puts some light onto Morgause’s own actions, her manipulations of her son, her cold heartedness. And, perhaps, it explains in part why it is so hard for Medraut and Arthur to cut Morgause out of their lives.

A couple more random observations before my final raves. Medraut is in his early twenties, and Lleu and Goewin are in their late teens. Yes, this is one of those young adult books where the main protagonist is not a teen. Despite Medraut’s age, and despite his years of independence traveling and living in other countries, he is wrestling with questions that are familiar to teen readers: what will his future hold? Does he accept or reject his fate? How much control does he have for his future? Can he balance his wants and desires with those of others? And of course, all along, the reader wonders, how can this be worked out, knowing how history views Medraut, knowing that there are no stories about any children of Arthur other than Mordred.

Final raves, or why The Winter Prince is a Favorite Book Read in 2013: I adored Medraut. I adored his angst over how his fate and how his family seemed to box him into a very specific space. I loved how he could both love his younger siblings and be jealous and envious and angry at them. I loved that Wein only shows some of Medraut’s and Morgause’s relationship — there are suggestions that something more may have happened between mother and son. She shows just enough, so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed by the abuse Medraut has suffered and so that the story stays focused on Medraut and Lleu. And the ending! I was on the edge of my seat for the last few chapters, wondering where this was going, and was so very satisfied with the ending.  And I love that this is done in less than 200 pages. (Yes, the ebook says 292 pages, but it ends on page 154. The remaining pages are the first chapters of the sequel, A Coalition of Lions, and a biography of Wein.)

And, yes, I have already downloaded the second book, A Coalition of Lions. There are five books in this series; the other three are The Sunbird, The Lion Hunter, and The Empty Kingdom.

Other reviews: Greenman Review; Chachic’s Book Nook (note: spoilers for the whole series); Lack of Genius; Interview with the author at Finding Wonderland (spoilers for the whole series.)

Review: Flora’s Fury

Flora’s Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confounded Their Friends, Astounded Their Enemies, and Learned the Importance of Packing Light by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Harcourt, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Final book of the trilogy.

The Series: Haven’t read this series yet? Then slow down, and — if you’re the type who dislikes spoilers — just read this quick series recap. As I wrote in my post about Alternate History, and  explained in my Beyond the Buzz post at Nova Ren Suma’s blog, in Flora Segunda : Being the Magickal Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog, fourteen year old Flora is the daughter of a famous General and a mad father. Flora is a  smart, quick, brave, stubborn, a bit of a dreamer (she adores the heavily fictionalized tales of the famous Ranger, Nini Mo) but willing to work at what she wants. What she wants is to be like Nini Mo, rather than the obedient daughter who will join the military like the rest of her family.

Flora’s world is fantastic: it’s an alternate version of California, called Califa, with an alternate history where magic is real and where the Huitzil Empire is a world power. Her family is a military one and it’s been scarred by war: her father suffers mentally and physically from being captured and tortured, and there was another daughter named Flora lost in that war whom Flora is named after.

The series begins with a rather narrow focus: Flora Segunda and that House with a thousand rooms, concerns about her immediate family and friends and school. As the books progress, her world becomes bigger and her concerns become bigger. Flora is craving independence, like any teen; but as the story continues, Califa’s own independence grows in significance in the story.

There is magic and action; a complex world; hints of romance. Flora’s world is so complex that, having read the final book, I need to reread the first two in order to understand it all. There is humor, as the titles suggest, and they can read as mad-cap zany adventures, full of wit and quick references, action, pirates and thieves and hidden identities. Yet, lurking behind, there a serious undercurrent because this is not “just” about fun adventures and growing up, it’s also about a subjugated country, the scars of war, and the sacrifices one makes for the greater good.

So, if you’re looking for a smart, intelligent, unique action series; if you want a world unlike anything you’ve read; and if you prefer your series complete so you can read them all at once; then read the Flora books. Note that Flora’s story is just one from Califa. Wilce has also written several short stories set there, and the end of the trilogy clearly allows for more books to take place there. Oh! And Flora’s Fury just came out in paperback, so that’s another reason to get and read all three now.

Now, all that said, on to Flora’s Fury!

The Plot: In Flora’s Dare : How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room), Flora discovered that her mother is not her birth mother; her mother is the infamous Tiny Doom, executed by the Birdies (AKA the Huitzil Empire). One of Tiny Doom’s nicknames is Butcher, which is all you need to know about what Tiny Doom did on the battlefield. Flora also found out that Tiny Doom is still alive.

Flora, now sixteen, has had to keep these secrets and be the good daughter and good soldier the world (and her mother) expect to see, because otherwise someone may suspect her true heritage. Gone are dreams of being a Ranger or practicing magick, because doing that could bring the attention of the Birdies and if they realize she is Butcher Brekespeare’s daughter, they will take her and kill her. And if they realize Tiny Doom is alive, they will use Flora to find and kill Tiny Doom.

So Flora does what is expected, until she just cannot help herself. She needs to know where Tiny Doom is, so she practices a Blood Spell. Flora has her usual luck, which means a were-bear steals the map with Tiny Doom’s location. Flora is then ordered on a mission into the Huitzil Empire, to escort back the wife of an Huitzil Ambassador, an obvious ploy to kidnap Flora and use her as a hostage against her mother. It’s an order that cannot be refused; when pirates attack Flora’s ship, it’s almost a good thing. Except, you know, pirates.

And that’s just the beginning.

The Good: I love these books so, so much and I want you all to read them and love them. I think they are so unique, it can be hard to match them to a reader; it’s not like one can say, “oh this is like (a film/ TV show/ other series” as a quick pitch.

I love the world building is so deep. Magick is real and tricky and isn’t an easy fix; and Flora is hardly an expert at it. Califa’s struggle for independence (and dealing with it’s past) mirrors Flora’s own, yes, but at all times Flora is no more or less than what she is. A teenaged girl of spirit; heir to a great house; but not someone who alone can save the world because that is just not realistic.

I also loved how this was a world without gendered roles. Flora’s adoptive mother is a powerful general; her birth mother is the notorious Butcher. This is not about flipped gender roles; Flora’s father is also a soldier. Her best friend Udo may pay way too much attention to fashion, but he also wants to be a pirate and has his own strengths. Flora’s mother is a soldier and a mother; at the start of the story, she has an infant son who she nurses while she works.

Relationships are also interesting, but not front and center in these books. Flora has feelings for two different young men, but this isn’t something that is front and center (this is NOT a love triangle book). As mentioned, Flora discovers that her mother is not her mother; but she also finds out that her father is still her father and, well, everyone seems to be understanding and fine with that. Udo’s family is a famous love story: his mother fell in love with and married identical triplets.

Because I love the world of Califa almost as much as I love Flora. Because she does what has to be done. Because I now want to go read all the short stories about Califa. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Finding Wonderland; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Bookshelf Bombshells.

 

Review: Far Far Away

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, Random House. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist.

The Plot: Jeremy Johnson Johnson is haunted by a ghost, and honestly, it’s not that bad. The ghost doesn’t want to hurt Jeremy; far from it. The ghost wants to protect Jeremy!

But protect Jeremy from what?  Well, from the Finder of Occasions, of course. Wait, you don’t know what the Finder of Occasions is? Guess what? Neither does the ghost.

So the ghost mostly hangs around, talking to Jeremy (the only person who can hear him), tutoring him in math and vocabulary (yes, the ghost is very concerned with Jeremy’s education and Jeremy is very concerned with not cheating so allows tutoring but not whispering answers), and observing.

Observing Jeremy’s father’s deep depression after his wife left him, leaving the boy alone. Observing the odd ways of the villagers and how they treat people. Observing how the ton Observing Ginger Boultinghouse and how she flirts with both Jeremy and the mayor’s son. It’s really all a ghost can do, observe.

And like the ghost, we observe, and wonder, and get caught up in Jeremy’s immediate concerns — taking care of his father, paying their bills, wondering how to pay off a big loan, doing well in school, and, yes, his developing friendship (or something more?) with Ginger — so we, like the ghost, forget the Finder is still out there.

And then the Finder finds Jeremy.

The Good: To begin with, the ghost is Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm. It is Jacob telling this story: “What follows is the strange and fateful tale of a boy, a girl, and a ghost. The boy possessed uncommon qualities, the girl was winsome and daring, and the ancient ghost . . . well, let it only be said that his intentions were good.” Because it is Jacob, and because it is a tale told after, the tone and style are distinct, original, and infuses the whole tale. In some ways, I was reminded of Bartimaeus, except the ghost Jacob is constantly concerned with the well-being of Jeremy; but, like Bartimaeus, Jacob has a bit of an ego about it. He is, after all, Jacob Grimm.

Jacob, as ghost, has wandered the world, searching for release from his ghostly state. He believes that if he helps Jeremy avoid the Finder of Occasions that will somehow help him move to wherever it is his beloved brother and other family members are. So, yes, his original attachment to Jeremy is selfish, yet despite that (and despite being a ghost) Jacob becomes a sort of father-figure to the practically orphaned Jeremy. Jeremy’s mother abandoned the family years ago; his father took her leaving bad and hasn’t left the house since. Jacob is a product of his own times, so he doesn’t quite get all the modern references or lingo which can be amusing. He also uses old fashioned terminology to refer to things, such as calling the town of Never Better a village and the inhabitants villagers.

References and allusions to folk and fairy tales fill Far Far Away. A person loses a shoe, and I thought of Cinderella. A story is told of Prince Cake’s and eating one and falling in love with the first person one sees. These casual references, and some of the humor (Jeremy’s name) lulled me into forgetting the darkness of the tales. I began to see the happy endings as Jeremy’s friendship with Ginger deepens, as a solution is shown for his family’s financial mess, as his father, perhaps, will leave the house….

And I forgot. I forgot, like Jacob did, that the Finder was out there — or, rather, like Jacob, I was just suspicious enough of all the people Jeremy encountered that I became suspicious of none. And, like Jacob, “I was carried away [by Jeremy’s happiness]… when I should have stood fast and remained vigilant.” Yet, at the same time, we the reader are tuned in to the danger that is coming because Jacob is letting us know.

And the danger. Because there is a ghost, because the Finder of the Obvious has a name out of a child’s story, because the reader has been told about fairy tales over and over, for a few moments there I thought this would be a fantastical danger. I forgot that while Jacob is a ghost, or sees things from a nineteenth century perspective, Jeremy’s world is our world. The danger is not a witch or a dragon. It is a person. And a person can be the most dangerous thing of all.

I thought, silly me, that since this was about fairy tales I would laugh a little. And I did. But I also cried, and was scared, and wondered at just how Jeremy could be delivered from the danger he was in because it seemed so hopeless.

Two of my favorite television series this year are Grimm and Once Upon A Time. In reading Far Far Away, I was reminded that Once Upon a Time is much more based on Disney fairy tales than the Brothers Grimm ones. Far Far Away is much more Grimm (TV series) in tone.

Because I enjoyed spending time with Jacob and Jeremy and, even, Ginger. Because the villagers were more than they appeared to be. Because Far Far Away stayed true to the spirit of folk and fairy tales. Because the tone and the way of telling was different from anything else I read this year. Far Far Away is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

 

 

 

Review: Yellowcake

Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan. Random House Children’s Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: A short story collection from Margo Lanagan. Which means two things: each story is incredibly unique; each is amazingly good.

The Good: Here’s the problem: each Margo Lanagan short story is so unique that it’s impossible to easily sum up just why her short story collection is terrific. What label to even give it? Fantasy? Horror? Magical Realism? Retellings?

Each story in Yellowcake is perfect. With each story, I was pulled into a fully created world. No, more like fell — fell into a place and time and didn’t, at first, know quite where I was. Lanagan treats her readers with respect: she knows you can keep up with her. That no one’s hand needs to be held. Here, she says, in the story; let’s not waste time or words with exposition or any info dumps or any pretend casual, “as you remember, John, (explanation of what John knows but the reader never could.).” Why walk when you can run?

The stories in Yellowcake are a short window into other people’s lives, into other worlds: with each, you know that life was happening before the story began and will continue after it ends. People’s actions aren’t punished or rewarded; they just are.

These stories are rich: rich because of the language Lanagan uses. Rich because of the world-building. Rich because of the plotting. Rich because of the characters. So rich that this isn’t a “read it all at once” collection; it’s a set of stories to be read and savored over time. And because there are ten stories, see why it’s almost impossible to say anything more? Because to say more would mean to do ten reviews, one for each story. And to do that — well, part of why I enjoy diving into a Lanagan story is figuring it out for myself. Realizing, this story is being retold; realizing that something terrible was happening; discovering some quiet beauty. Why take that away from someone else?

So, instead, here are some lines I particularly liked:

“Was she smiling? He wouldn’t put it past her, to have a smile at his expense. Smug cow.”

“Her whole face had come unset form its folds and habits, from here it might age any number of different ways.”

“And her he was in the middle of it, for the moment — “

“Well, in the town where there two beautiful daughters lived there was a fascinator, named Gallintine.”

Down I go. Down and down, down and round, round and round I go, and all is black around me and the invisible stone stairs take my feet down. I sing with more passion the lower I go, and more experimenting, where no one can hear me. And then there begins to be light, and I sing quieter; then I’m right down to humming, so as not to draw attention when I get there.”

I love Margo Lanagan’s novels; but oh, these short stories! So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: TeenReads; Librarian of Snark; Something To Read For The Train; Strange Horizons.

 

 

Review: Midwinterblood

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Always, there is an Eric and a Merle; a hare and a loss; and the island of Blessed.

These are the constants.

What changes in the seven stories of Midwinterblood is the time, starting in the future, 2073, and going back in time again and again until the seventh story set in a time so far past it has no date. What changes are who, exactly, Eric and Merle are; and how they connect or don’t. On what is lost. And always there is the hare.

What is happening? What is going on Blessed?

The Good: I adore stories told like this! Going backward — 2073, 2011, 1944, and so on — emphasizes the mystery. To start at the “beginning”, if that is even the start, would reveal all at once — any tension would disappear.

Instead, it’s 2073 and Eric’s work takes him to Blessed, an isolated island. He meets Merle and feels an instant connection. He also finds himself almost seduced by the island himself, forgetting why he’s there. “The sun does  not go down. That is the first thing that Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.

Something is wrong: despite the friendly villagers, something is obviously not right. But what? And that story ends and suddenly the reader is in 2011.

The island is still Blessed, but there are changes, to the island and the people and what is known or not know. Edward, an archeologist, discovers a viking funeral with two skeletons. He meets two villagers: Merle and her son Eric. There are other changes: there was no hotel or place for visitors to stay in 2073; in 2011, a guest house is mentioned. Changes the reader notices, but unknown and unknowable to the characters who know only their time, their place, their knowledge of history.

One thread is followed, then another, and I loved the mystery of it all. And, as well, the horror. The stories include those of war, of ghosts, even a vampire. The words hint at something more, something worse, and how did this story begin? How can it end? “And there was something about the words she used to tell the story that made them realize something bad was going to happen.”

Because I adore the creepiness; because this type of backwards story, with the mystery falling back in time to be discovered, is the type I love. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews (warning: some have much more spoilers than my review): Sonder Books; Reading Rants; The Book Smugglers; educating alice; crossreferencing (Sarah and Mark).

Review: Quintana of Charyn

Quintana of Charyn by Melina Marchetta, Candlewick Press, 2013. Reviewed from the Australia edition (Viking, an imprint of Penguin Group (Australia), 2012), a gift from a friend. will be published April 2013.

Background: This is the final of three books (and one short story) that make up the The Lumatere Chronicles. It began with Finnikin of the Rock (Candlewick Press, 2010); the second book was Froi of the Exiles (Candlewick Press, 2012). Finnikin is a standalone and creates the world and characters of Lumatere; Froi and Quintana combine to make one story told in two volumes. (A short story, Ferragost, takes place during the same time as the events in the beginning of Quintana). Because of the way the story unfolds, ideally Froi needs to be read before Quintana.

So, I’m doing spoilers from here on out for both Finnikin and Froi, under the assumption that if you’re interested in reading Quintana you have already both of those books. If you have not, go read my reviews of Finnikin and Froi; read those books; then come back.

About ten years before the events in Finnikin, the country of Lumatere was invaded, the royal family murdered, and the country cursed; half the population are trapped outside in exile, half trapped inside with an impostor king. Finnikin is the teenage son of the head of the royal guard, one of the many exiles. Finnikin, despite his youth, manages to bring together the shattered and fragmented exiles, along with the help of a young woman who has visions of the lost heir of Lumatere. Together, they manage to break the curse and recover their country.

Froi takes place a handful of years later; Finnikin is now married to the Queen of Lumatere. Together, they have been working to restore peace and prosperity to their land as well as heal the harm done to it by half of their population being exiles, and half trapped in a country with an evil, sadistic ruler. Froi was introduced in Finnikin as a young orphan, raised on the streets, who was befriended by Finnikin and Finnikin’s friends. Froi was angry, hurt, violent, suspicious, needy, distrustful, hurt. He manages to find a place with Finnikin and the others, in part because he represents the lost generation of Lumaterans.

The Queen of Lumatere, the sole survivor of the massacre, wants those who orchestrated the murder of her family punished. Their country isn’t strong enough to start a war; is recovering from the harm inflicted to it to such an extent that they cannot proceed by normal channels. Froi may now be trusted, but he still has a violent, ruthless streak from childhood. He is selected to go into Charyn and assassinate their King.

Massive spoilers, now, for what happens in Froi. So in case that all sounds good, full of adventure, fights, politics, and all the sorts of things that make a great fantasy, which, yes, it is, so you want to read, go now. I’m warning you. Spoilers.

The King of Charyn is a nasty piece of business, and his fellow countrymen are either a, as nasty as he is, b, have hidden themselves away from him, or c, are trying to survive. The Charynites are hardly the evil enemy Froi was expecting.  And, the King has a daughter, Quintana. Remember Lumatere’s curse? Well, Charyn has one, also. Following the birth of Quintana, every pregnant Charynite woman miscarried and none have been pregnant since. Those girls and boys born that last year before her birth are called “last-borns.” Prophecy states that the curse of no children will end when Quintana gets pregnant by a last-born. After she turned thirteen, forced coupling has taken place in the hopes of ending the curse. I KNOW. This is the weird, twisted world where Froi finds himself, impersonating a “last-born” Charyn in order to kill the king. Instead, Froi finds himself falling for Quintana: proud, hurt, intelligent, damaged Quintana. He finds himself connecting with other people in Charyn, people like himself in that they are good people put in impossible situations.

Froi ends with Froi discovering that his family’s roots lie in Charyn, the King is dead, political instability leads to violence and armed vigilantes, a pregnant Quintana escapes, and Froi is left for dead as he tries to save her.

That leads us to

The Plot: Quintana knows that she is only a piece in a game being fought over control over Charyn. The child she carries has value, as a future king and as the curse-breaker, but she herself? Can be gotten rid of as soon as that baby is born. Quintana realizes she has to “disappear” to save both the baby and herself, and she does.

Meanwhile, Froi is recovering from the wounds he sustained in assisting Quintana’s escape. He has no idea where she is and he is desperate to find her. He is also trying to keep his newly-discovered family safe and figuring out how, with all this going on, he can remain true and loyal to his Lumaterean friends and Charynite family.

The Good: So many hurt people! Froi, Quintana, and the family he discovers are all people who have been hurt by life. Froi is about those people who, when something terrible happens, instead of being broken, they try, each day, each moment, to not become the evil that was done to them. There is comfort going on, yes; but for a good part of this book Froi and Quintana are separated in part so that they can each become more of a whole person on their own. They both save each other, and save themselves, and the big question — after, will they be reunited? — is can they stay together? Should Quintana manage to survive (remember, there are people who want her dead as soon as her child is born), she still remains the daughter of the king of Charyn and mother of the heir. Should the “best” happen and the people of Charyn get their act together and put Quintana on the throne, she’ll need to marry for political purposes, and Froi as a former street teen turner soldier is hardly someone who can remain in her life once that happens.

Meanwhile, there is the Queen of Lumatere, Isaboe, and her husband, Finnikin, who are two of Froi’s friends who still think Froi is on a mission to kill a king and then come home. They have no idea that he is growing closer to the enemy each day; and frankly, Isaboe could care less if Quintana lives or dies because, well, Isaboe’s mother, father, brother, and sisters were all killed because of Quintana’s father.

I want to quickly mention there is a ton of action going on here, fights and battles and scheming, and also a lot of politics, because countries are made not just from battles won or lost but also from the people who have to govern after the violence and blood. There is also humor! Because these are real people, and real people can be funny, at times I laughed over things done or said. It is not all angst and feelings. I feel I need to mention these other things before repeating why I personally loved this book: the hurt, the anger, the damaged people who refuse to be shaped by their histories. This is not about revenge, but about reconciliation and peace and forgiveness that comes after blood has been spilled. It is forgiveness that happens because “forgiveness has to start somewhere.”

Here is a quote, said by one of the characters who should hate the world: “we could look at the side of wonder. Let’s look at the side of wonder as opposed to the disastrous.” Yes, an army is coming to kill you: but a son, a mother, and a father who were separated eighteen years before are now together. That togetherness, not the army, not the separation — look on that. See the wonder.

As I got to the end of Quintana, I began to worry — how was Marchetta going to pull this together? How was she going to give her cast of characters a happy, or at least hopeful, ending? Is it enough to look for the wonder?

All I can say is, I immediately reread it because I didn’t want to say good-bye to these people. And it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: The Midnight Garden; The Mountains of Instead; Holes In My Brain; Dark Faerie Tales.