Review: Untold

Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan. The Lynburn Legacy, Book 2. Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: In Unspoken, seventeen year old Kami Glass learned the truth about her village, Sorry-in-the-Vale. Short version: sorcerers are real. Kami’s family may not be sorcerers, but they have the potential to be something just as valuable: a source, magnifying a sorcerer’s magic.

In Untold, now that the secret is no longer so secret, the sorcerers want to take over her village, and reinstate the old ways. Real old ways: like human sacrifice.

Kami is not about to let that happen. Not to her village. 

So what if she’s not sure who is or isn’t a sorcerer? Or whose side anyone is on? Or that she’s not even quite sure where her own mother stands?

She’s Kami Glass. The sorcerers better watch out.

Well, if only it were that easy . . . .

The Good: Despite the fact that Untold is about evil sorcerers who view regular humans as below them in the food chain, so think that human sacrifice isn’t too much to ask, and has terrifying scarecrows coming to life to attack people, despite all that, I’d love to visit Sorry-in-the-Vale and hang out with Kami and her friends. (Well, as seventeen year old me.) Because Kami and her friends are funny and brave. Yes, they’re scared, but they don’t let that stop them.

I have to emphasize this great mix of humor and guts because Sarah Rees Brennan does it so splendidly. That I can laugh and be scared at the same time? Excellent.

Here’s a bit, where Kami’s friend Rusty describes the Lynburn cousins, Jared and Ash: “Jared and Ash – or, as I think of them, Sulky and Blondie – are still sorcerer trainees.” Not only did I laugh, but it’s a great, irreverent look that at the two powerful teen sorcerers that also reveals Rusty’s personality. And yes, Jared is all Mr. Broody while Ash is Mr. Handsome.

The first book, Unspoken, set up Kami’s world, introducing the reader gradually to the reality of magic and murder and sorcerers, of lies told to protect and to mislead. Now that the rules are set up, the fun can really start. OK, so it’s not fun — but in a way, it is. Yes, it is a matter of life and death; of freedom. And there are moments of betrayal and doubt. But it’s also fun, to spend time with Kami and her friends.

Rob Lynburn is the powerful sorcerer who has plotted to take control of Sorry-in-the-Vale; he and his sister-in-law, Rosalind (the mother of Jared) are in league against his wife, Lillian (mother of Ash.) In the first book, Kami was Jared’s source, which made him a stronger sorcerer. That link was broken, and Kami is left uncertain about her relationship with Jared. Where her feelings for him true? What does he think about her? It used to be easy, because the link meant that they could hear each other’s thoughts. Now, not so much, and it’s complicated by Ash.

Untold begins with the attack of the scarecrows: it’s scary but also a bit funny, and emphasizes the power of Rob’s sorcery but also how even this can be fought against, by both regular and magical means.

Lillian is as arrogant as her husband, Rob, but with one crucial difference. She believes the Lynburns are rightful leaders and sorcerers, but she doesn’t believe in things like human sacrifice. She’s disappointed that her son, Ash, followed his father for a time. She thinks that Kami — especially now that she is no longer Jared’s source — is a nuisance who gets in the way. Lillian is good only in contrast to Rob and her follower’s, but despite that (or maybe because of it?) she is one of my favorite characters. As Kami observes late in the book, “Kami had never actually liked Lillian, but she admired her for a moment, with all her heart, and then her heart sank.”

Kami and Lillian are both strategizing against Rob, with Kami’s the primary story, of course, and Lillian’s in the background. As you may remember from my post about When Adults Read Books For Teens, that’s how I think it should be. What Brennan does masterfully in this series is she does so without getting rid of the adults, or having them unreasonably ignorant or stupid or cowardly. The adults such as Lillian and Kami’s own parents are doing things, they just aren’t the main point of the story. And that is part of what is so great about the plotting in Untold; it makes sense, the roles and power that the different characters have.

The third book, Unmade, is due out in September. Luckily, not too long a wait! There is a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of Untold, but not anything too frustrating or to make one throw the book against the wall. The main plot of Untold is wrapped up; the end is more a hint of what has to be taken care of in the third book. (And let me say, I don’t envy Brennan, because I have no idea how all of this is going to work out.)

So, yes, a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: YA Bibliophile; Speculating on SpecFic; Book Lovers for Life.


Review: Death Comes To Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. Random House. 2011. Personal copy. Vacation reads — a non-teen book for your reading pleasure over the holiday weekend.

The Plot: A murder mystery set several years after the events of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The murder takes place at the Darcy estate, and it’s up to Darcy and assorted friends and family to solve it.

The Good: I have to be honest: I was so looking forward to this book, and was disappointed.

One of the reasons I love fanfiction is because it does things like this: it asks, what if Elizabeth and Darcy had to solve a mystery? And bonus: written by P.D. James! Immediately in my head there were images of Elizabeth and Darcy being an Austen inspired Nick and Nora, or Booth and Bones, or, well, you get the picture.

What happened? Death Comes to Pemberley became the classic case of not being the book I wanted it to be. And, unfortunately for the book, I could not get to the point to read it as the book that it was.

The main characters were not the way I imagined them. After the initial fun of seeing just where James put them in life, I didn’t much care for them. They seemed off, from my memory and my hopes for them. Where Colonel Fitzwilliam ended up disappointed me to the extent I didn’t find it believable. Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t get enough time together; I was in Darcy’s head too much, Elizabeth’s too little. Darcy — well, it seemed like Darcy was patting himself on the back a bit too much for marrying down in marrying Elizabeth.

The historical aspects of the novel were spot on. James wrote in the style of the novel, which while it made sense, didn’t make an easy read. Elizabeth and Darcy have a couple of children, and I liked how that was handled. The murder, or, rather, the death, involves Wickham (of course, because WICKHAM) and I found this version of Wickham perplexing. Or, rather, Darcy and others view of Wickham. Despite Wickhams’ track record, there was a “well of course Wickham cannot be a murderer because he’s not that type of person.” Told over and over. To be fair, I think Darcy’s attitude towards Wickham was time period appropriate. But just because people then had a certain view and prejudice about people doesn’t mean they were right.

While I didn’t like certain aspects of Death Comes to Pemberley, I did like the exploration of criminal law at the time. It was fascinating, especially to this former lawyer. For me, Death Comes to Pemberley worked better as a historical fiction novel about the criminal justice system of the time than as a mystery.

So, why include this if I was disappointed? Well, not all readers were. And I wanted to show that I don’t love everything I read. And you may feel differently. And, because, well, despite not loving the book I’m still intrigued enough to be looking forward to the BBC/PBS miniseries based on the book.

Did you read Death Comes to Pemberley? Am I being too tough on it?

Other reviews: The New York Times; AustenProse; SonderBooks.

Review: Jersey Angel

Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Guest post about this book at this blog by Beth Ann Bauman.

The Plot: It’s the summer before Angel Cassonetti’s senior year of high school. “Summer has begun, and I am filled with hope.

Angel just wants to have fun: spending time with her friends at her home on the Jersey Shore, going to parties, working part time at her father’s business, taking care of her younger half-siblings.

The problem is it seems that those around her are wanting, well, more. Joey, her on and off again boyfriend, refuses to continue the drama of breaking up and making up and says “no” when she wants to start things up again. Inggy, her best friend, who is also good at school and from a family with more money, is already full of college plans.

Inggy’s boyfriend, Cork, is always around. If Angel doesn’t mean to hurt Inggy, and if Inggy never finds out, it’s OK, right?

The Good: Trying to figure out the synopsis was tough, because Jersey Angel is not a very plot driven book. It’s pure character driven, by one of the more remarkable girls I’ve met in a young adult.

As pointed out in Bauman’s guest post, “Here was a rebel girl, one who unapologetically likes sex, doesn’t want to be tied down, and knows college isn’t for her.

Angel likes sex, and Angel doesn’t connect sex to love. At one point, her mother tells her, “There’s love, Angel, and there’s sex. And there’s a whole lot more sex than love.” And this pretty much is Angel’s own code.

The problem is — and yes, I use the word “problem” deliberately — are the boys. First, Joey. Why does Angel keep breaking up with him? “It’s true: Joey and I break up a lot. I guess I like my freedom too much, but for me it’s always only a time-out so I can feel like I’m back in my life with all the possibilities. I like possibilities. But after a time-out, I’m always ready to come back.” Joey isn’t ready, though, and wants more from Angel than she’s ready to give.

So Joey begins seeing someone else, and Angel enjoys her possibilities. Some of those boys are unattached, like Angel. So, still not a problem. One of those boys is not: Cork. Her best friend’s boyfriend. And this is one reason I really like Jersey Angel: it’s up to the reader to understand just why Angel does this. Angel is not very self-reflective; she wants those possibilities. She’s also always optimistic, or, as Joey says about her, “you’re waiting for a bus and you’re sure it will come.

This means that the reader sees what Angel does not: that Angel loves Inggy, that Inggy is Angel’s best friend, Angel doesn’t want to lose her to college, yet Angel is also jealous, and competitive, and conflicted about all those feelings. The result? Sleeping with Cork both connects Angel and Inggy, and lets Angel take something from Inggy. Without Inggy ever realizing it. Without, really, Angel realizing why she is doing what she’s doing. She just thinks, well, that she and Cork are having fun. To the extent she thinks about Inggy, she thinks — well. She won’t find out till we’re old. She’ll understand. It won’t matter.

And here is another reason I love Jersey Angel: this is always firmly Angel’s story, so it really only matters what this means, or doesn’t mean, to Angel. When I got to the end, I thought, anyone else would have made this Inggy’s story: a story about a girl with dreams, leaving her shore town behind, having bigger ambitions than those around her, balancing wanting to stay with wanting to leave. Her boyfriend’s and best friend’s betrayal would become known, and would be a catalyst for Inggy to move towards her future.

This is not Inggy’s story.

Instead, it’s Angel’s. Angel, who isn’t overly ambitious, to be honest, and doesn’t come from ambition. Her mother, through luck and family ties, owns three houses by the shore and rents out two to cover their bills. (For the record? This isn’t that uncommon. Local families with long roots in these shore towns have houses in the families for generations, rent them out, and live in towns they wouldn’t afford to be in otherwise. Sometimes they don’t own multiple homes; rather, summer comes and the family moves into the garage apartment while the big house is rented out.) Her father runs the family-owned marina.

What does Angel want to do after graduation? Not to be too spoilery here, but part of what is great about Jersey Angel is it’s not that type of book. Angel isn’t inspired to do what Inggy does and buckle down to her studies. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she wants to be a doctor or teacher or actress. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she’s in love with this boy or that. It’s more Angel sorting out, a bit, her feelings and what she wants, while staying true to herself — that girl who always believes the bus is coming.

I think part of the reason I adore Angel is that I’m the sort who doesn’t believe the bus will come until it’s right in front of me, and I’ve asked the driver twice if it is indeed the bus I want.

A more personal reason I like Jersey Angel? Because, while different names and geography is used, this Jersey Shore is clearly “my” Jersey Shore, and seems to me a mix of various Ocean County shore towns. I mean, bennies! And Zeppoles! and slices!

Other reviews: The New York Times; Reading RantsBibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf; Uniquely Moi Books.

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: Scowler

Scowler by Daniel Kraus. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: August, 1981. Changes are coming; Ry Burke, 19, knows this. The family farm is dying and he, his mother, Jo Beth, and his eleven year old sister Sarah, will have to leave. Sarah hunts the sky for changes of a different kind: meteors are supposed to be falling this summer.

Some would wonder why the three Burkes stayed so long on the farm, considering the events of 1972. That was when Marvin Burke’s physical abuse of his family became so bad, he was sent to prison. Sarah was too little to remember anything, but both Ry and Jo Beth bear the physical and emotional scars.

Back in 1972, Ry and Jo Beth and Sarah barely survived. Ry, then ten, made it through with the help of three imaginary friends: Mr. Furrington, a teddy bear; Jesus Christ; and Scowler, an angry troll. Those childish toys and companions were put aside years ago.

Then Ry hears about a prison break, from the local prison. The prison where his father is.

Marvin’s coming home to the farm he loves. He’s coming home to the wife and son who sent him away. Ry is going to need his own strength, and the kindness, wisdom and brutality of his “Unnamed Three” childhood companions to survive his father once again — unless those companions turn on him.

The Good: Scowler flashes back and forth between 1981 and 1972, slowly revealing the full horror of what ten year old Ry and his mother survived. “Survived” is a bit of an odd word to use, considering, as Ry does, that “this was the Burke farm, over four hundred acres of nothing, and [Ry] was terrified to leave it.” What type of survivor stays in the place that defines them as “victim”?

What is survival? That is what Scowler examines, both the physical survival and the emotional survival. Ry’s ten year old self, scared and alone and desperate, made his three toys real. Mr. Furrington, the stuffed teddy bear with the British accent and the warm reassurances: “You can do it. I believe in you, old boy.” Jesus Christ, a Sunday School present: “Blessings unto thou. Thy teachers have toldest thou how.” And Scowler, a hideous homemade troll of teeth and metal whose fury and bloodlust is expressed in worldless rage: “Tk, tk, tk.

If you want, you can read Scowler as a horror story where these three toys do become real, to protect a small boy and later a young man. Or, as I do, you can read Scowler as a horror story where a person’s mind sometimes needs to invent and believe in things like the Unnamed Three to do what has to be done. Or maybe it’s simply a horror story because it contains people who believe the following to be true: “Things that emerged stronger from suffering were to be mistrusted” and “if enough time passes, the world ruins everybody.” Those are the truths one may believe on the darkest days; days like when Marvin Burke comes home.

Scowler is also a story about family; and while Ry is the main character, to me, Jo Beth is the true hero and the reason this book is set in the early 1970s and 1980s. I’m the type that wonders, why doesn’t she just leave? His abuse starts shortly after their marriage, why doesn’t she just pick up then and leave? For me, it’s easier to understand Jo Beth’s decision to stay realizing she was born about 1943, married about 1962, and so 1972 — well. 1972 isn’t 2013, is it, in terms of options for a woman in Jo Beth’s situation. It wasn’t until 1984 that The Burning Bed appeared as a TV movie, based on a 1977 incident, and yes, I think those things matter in understanding and sympathizing with Jo Beth’s decisions.

The language — the words that paint this time, this place, these people — are beautiful and horrible and terrible, and only horrible and terrible because of the horrible and terrible things they portray. Brutal things happen; a man doesn’t go to jail for over ten years “just” for hitting his wife. And that man that comes home seeking his revenge isn’t going to be content with “just” hitting. I confess, I skim-read a few pages because i had a hard time with it, and then I read the last few pages to reassure myself, and then went back to reading.

The Burke Farm in 1972 and 1981 — this is a real place, these people, their hurts and triumphs and fears, all real. Because of the horror, the easy person to name as a readalike is Stephen King. I thought of King’s portrayal of Jack Torrance; I thought of the death of a child from spinal meningitis in another book. But as I thought more, of the ties of family between mothers and sons and fathers and siblings, and of the creation of a specific place and time I thought of someone else: Pat Conroy.

So, yes, of course this is a Favorite Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Stacked; boing boing.


Review: Yesterday

Yesterday by C.K. Kelly Martin. Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: 2063. Freya Kallas is sixteen, locked in her room, while something terrible happens with her brother. She struggles as she is forcibly evacuated, crying out for her brother, hating her father, wishing for her mother to do something. The Toxo is spreading, she overhears, as a needle slides into her arm.

1985. Freya Kallas is sixteen, starting a new school, mourning the death of her diplomat father in an explosion, adjusting to life in Canada after a life spent travelling from country to country.

Freya feels different from the students around her. Her mother says it’s recovering from the flu; her mother says it’s grief. So Freya spends time with her younger sister, mother, and grandfather, trying to make friends. Then she sees him. Garren. She knows she knows him, even though she doesn’t know how, even though he has no idea who she is.

Freya pushes for answers. The more she pushes, the more dangerous it gets, and suddenly she and Garren are on the run and the stakes are bigger than either dreamed.

The Good: OK, first things first. A sixteen year old named Freya in 2063; a sixteen year old named Freya in 1985. Strange dreams, flashes, and a tag line on the author’s website that says “what do you do when your only future is in the past?” It’s time travel, baby!

What I won’t tell you: why Freya is now in 1985. Why she didn’t remember 2063. Who is after her, and Garren, once they begin to realize something is off about their present. I also won’t tell you what 2063 is like. Or what happens to Freya’s brother….


This is time travel the way I like it, no, love it. It makes sense. A scientific explanation is provided. And the reason for it, for the time travel, also makes sense.

There are bad guys; in the first chapter we feel Freya’s anger at her father and as the story progresses, we find reasons to dislike future Freya’s parents. In the present, bad guys are chasing Freya and Garren and it becomes a life and death situation. But . . . . but it’s not that easy. Or simple. It’s not black and white. Instead they are flawed people, doing the best under the circumstances with what they know and believe at the moment. How far is someone willing to go to fix something broken, to save something lost? By the end of Yesterday, I was surprised at the people I ended up respecting because of the choices they’d made.

Freya is wonderful: so determined, no matter what, to obtain the truth. She won’t let feelings get in her way. She’s smart, she’s bright, she’s clever.

The details! I am such a fan of details in books like this. I am the reader asking, what about clothes, what about money, where do they sleep, what about brushing your teeth? Yesterday provides all those answers.

While I was older than Freya in 1985, oh the details! The movies, the TV shows, the music, the clothes — I loved falling back into that time and just wanted to listen to all the 80s music mentioned.

The ending is — well, perfect. One of the best final lines in a book, ever. Fingers crossed, there will be a sequel.

Other reviews: Joint Review by Presenting Lenore and GalleySmith; YA Reads; Dark Faerie Tales.

Review: The Opposite of Hallelujah

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. Delacorte Books for Younger Readers, Random House. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Caro Mitchell’s older sister, Hannah, left home eight years ago, when Caro was eight. Hannah was nineteen; it’s not unusual for kids to have older sisters go off for college or to make their way in the world. So why has Caro, at best, pretended to be an only child? Or, at worst (like four years ago, when she was twelve), say her sister was dead? Because Hannah didn’t do what most older siblings do: leave home to live her life in a way people would understand. Hannah joined the Sisters of Grace convent, a contemplative order where the only direct contact members have with family is a half-hour meeting via an iron grill. How do you explain that to your friends? Luckily, Caro doesn’t. Hannah is far away.

Until the phone call comes. Hannah is leaving the order; Hannah is coming home. Caro isn’t happy about it. She barely remembers Hannah. Caro reacts poorly to Hannah’s return, and ends up creating trouble with her friends and boyfriend. Neither Hannah nor their parents are dealing with Hannah’s return much better. Caro realizes that she needs to understand — to understand both why Hannah left the convent and why Hannah joined the convent in the first place. These are questions that Hannah and their parents don’t want to think about, so Caro is left on her own to try to sort out what happened.

The Good: I adored Jarzab’s first book, All Unquiet Things. In my review, I called it “pure brilliance.” I was so excited to hear about Jarzab’s second book, The Opposite of Hallelujah, but I was afraid, also. A second book can be like a second date: what if the guy isn’t that funny, cute, or smart after all? I almost didn’t want to request a copy from NetGalley. Wowza, I am so, so glad I did!

Caro’s life seems almost perfect: good friends, a cute boyfriend, doting parents and then Hannah comes back and ruins it all. Caro and Hannah barely know each other; not only was Hannah in the contemplative community, Caro refused to go for the half-hour visits for the past few years. I’ll be honest: at times I thought Caro was being a spoiled brat about Hannah, and lacking in any type of empathy about Hannah’s homecoming. When I reread my review for All Unquiet Things, I saw this: “Jarzab does something that is quite daring for a book: she makes characters unlikable.  . . . [I]t is because they each are at times unlikeable that the book is so strong. They are not perfect; they are human; they have failings.” That, in a nutshell, describes the two Mitchell sisters and it is why this book is so wonderful. Caro and Hannah are painfully honest in their reactions to situations, and sometimes, what people do is less than perfect.

While there is a bit of a mystery here (why Hannah entered not just a convent, but a contemplative convent) this is more a story of family, and a coming of age, as Hannah’s return forces Caro to grow up. Or, rather, it forces her to think outself her narrow world of only daughter. One minute Caro’s practically an only child; the next, there is someone else in her house, someone with her own history and memories with the family that have nothing to do with Caro. It’s not just that Hannah is her sister who has returned; it’s that Hannah is eleven years older, so there is eleven years that had nothing to do with Caro. As Caro admits, “I’d never liked being reminded that my family had once existed quite happily without me in it.” That may be ugly, but it’s honest and raw and honesty is what I want in my books. The beatuy of The Opposite of  Hallelujah is how Caro moves beyond that initial response.

I have to say, I am usually hesitant about books that deal with religious themes. I’m picky; I don’t want a religious tract pretending to be fiction, but I also don’t want a book where religion is not something smart people do because, well, smart people are too smart for religion. Those are extremes, yes, but as I said — I get leery.

The Opposite of Hallelujah treatment of religion, belief, and religious people is almost perfect. Hannah’s reasons for joining, and leaving, are treated with respect and sympathy; the complexity of religious life is shown.

Just as wonderful as the sensitivity with which The Opposite of Hallelujah treats the subject matter is the language. I know I’ve made this sound intense — religious convents and returned sisters, families and secrets and ugly feelings — but it’s also funny and insightful. Here is Caro, on an ex (and haven’t we all felt this way?): “It was amazing how differently you saw some people once the fog of flattery and attention had burned away.” Caro has good friends; there is an interesting love interest; and the full story of Hannah broke my heart. This, at the end, is why I adored this book: “The past doesn’t disappear, but it doesn’t have to define your future.”

For all these reasons, The Opposite of Hallelujah is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: YA? Why Not?

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.

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.

Review: Seraphina

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Edited to add: Morris Award winner.

The Plot: Prince Rufus has been murdered; not just murdered. His head is missing, which indicates a dragon was involved. It’s been forty years since peace was declared between the dragons and the humans of Goredd, but at best, it’s an uneasy peace. The combination of the Prince’s death and an upcoming visit from the dragons leads to more unrest.

Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh is an unlikely person to find herself in the middle of dragon and human intrigue. She is a talented musician who  has recently joined the royal court of the kingdom of Goredd; she is hard-working and while her father is a well-respected lawyer, she is hardly of the same class as the people at court.

Seraphina has a secret. Prince Lucian, nephew of the murdered prince, is perceptive enough to guess it’s about Orma, Seraphina’s dragon tutor who has lived cloaked as a human for years. Lucian believes Seraphina loves Orma. The idea of human-dragon relationships disgusts many. Even when dragons assume human form, one can always tell there is something not quite right about them. They don’t understand human emotion, are overly logical, cold and calculating. Plus, who can forget their true form, or the pre-peace years when dragons hunted humans?

Lucian is right that Seraphina has feelings for Orma; that she doesn’t share the knee-jerk dislike of so many humans. It’s true that Orma has given her insight into the truth about dragons: that they are as complex as humans, just different. He is wrong, though, about Seraphina’s relationship with Orma. This secret may help solve the mystery of Prince Rufus’s murder; and may help preserve the fragile peace.

The Good: Seraphina is an intricately constructed world; and I fell for several things in this book: Seraphina; Seraphina’s world; the dragons; and the royal family.

Seraphina’s secret is quickly revealed (and guessed at); as a matter of fact, the book trailer gives it away, as do other reviews. So, even though I’m usually quite hesitant about spoilers, here goes:

Seraphina is half-dragon. Dragons are indeed dragons in their natural physical form. Dragons in their natural form fly and have treasure hordes. The dragons can shift to human form, and it is in that human form that dragons and humans now interact. (Before the peace, it was much as you’d expect: flying dragons fighting groups of knights).

How to describe dragons, when in human form? Think Vulcans, like Star Trek — individuals who prefer logic and disdain emotion. It’s not that simple, of course. Take, for instance, Seraphina’s own parents, her human father and dragon mother. Such pairings are viewed on both sides with a bit of contempt, so why? Why does it happen? Some dragons are shown to have very little social graces, with the excuse being their failure to fully understand humans. However, other dragons do a much better job of “passing.” Why? The answer is simple: dragons are as much individuals as humans.

Dragons are logical; they are scientists and inventors. Dragons value “ard”, or order, before anything: “Ard was the way the world should be, the imposition of order upon chaos, an ethical and physical rightness.” They are said to appreciate art and music but to be incapable of creating it. Yet, Seraphina, like her mother before her, is a musician. Contradictions, because these two races think they know and understand each other, and themselves, but do not.

Seraphina lives in Goredd; there are other countries, other customs, other peoples. It is a complex world, with each country having their own ways. Hartman shows the layers, from every day people to royalty, their history, the religious beliefs; and how the countries interact with each other. It is a medieval type world, with the scientific dragons giving humans a taste of technology.

Seraphina’s world: What is her world, exactly? The book begins just a few weeks after she joins the royal household, but soon it’s learned that this is Seraphina’s first steps outside her family. Seraphina has tried to keep herself away, hidden, at arm’s length from others to protect her secret. She doesn’t always know how to interact with others. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered, while reading, if some of Seraphina’s brusqueness was part of her dragon heritage or the result of a deep seated sense of isolation: “I did not understand that I carried loneliness before me on a plate, and that music would be the light illuminating me from behind.” Whatever the reason, she is also a keen observer of people: “He noticed my eyes upon him and ran a hand through his wheaten hair as if to underscore how handsome he was.”

Prince Lucian is a bastard, but still a royal; he is engaged to his cousin, Princess Glisselda. In this apparently matriarchal society, Selda’s grandmother is Queen and she is the one who negotiated the original truce with the dragons. One of Seraphina’s duties is music tutor to Selda, and Selda has taken a liking to Seraphina. Lucian, too, respects and likes Seraphina, and this creates a wonderful triangle: Selda and Lucian, who have a political engagement but also truly like each other, and Seraphina, friend to both, who begins to feel something more for Lucian. Seraphina keeps Lucian at arms length (as she does most people) because she is hiding her mixed heritage. Even if she didn’t have that secret, it would be highly unlikely that someone of her background could have any type of future with a Prince.

All of this weaves together to form both a mystery (who murdered Prince Rufus) as well as a story of politics (the factions working for and against human-dragon peace), with a teenage musician at its center.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers (and author interview); Omnivoracious review by Tamora Pierce; Confessions of a Bibliovore.