Friday, September 23, 2016

ESPERANZA RISING


Review of ESPERANZA RISING by PAM MUNOZ RYAN

Someone gave me this middle grade book when I was 13, and I thought I was too old for it. I kept it, though, and finally read it for the first time in late college only to find myself shocked at how much it affected me. How many times do I need to re-learn that target age isn’t that much of a factor in terms of a book’s power? When I started my blog, this one made the cut for ones I needed to re-read for a fresh review. I don’t generally re-read books and one of my great fears is that I’ll discover some of my all times favorites lose their luster upon a closer look. I have already found some that don’t hold up to my memory, but I’m relieved to say that ESPERANZA RISING was just as good on the second reading!

Esperanza lives a privileged life in Mexico on her father’s ranch, until he’s murdered by bandits while out repairing a fence. It seems her world can’t be any more shattered at the news of her beloved father’s death. Then her cruel, powerful uncles start pressuring her influential mother to marry one of them, providing all her popularity to their name as well as the ranch, too. One of the servant families (and close family friends) convinces Esperanza’s mother to flee to the U.S. with them. While the idea of avoiding her terrible uncle seems smart enough at first, Esperanza doesn’t fully realize everything she’s giving up: a private education, beautiful dresses, expensive toys, a huge ranch.

This new start requires that Esperanza work, too. While hardly a spoiled brat, she doesn’t transition to her new role without complaint. At first, it feels she can’t do anything right even when trying so hard. To make matters worse, some people enjoy seeing the “fallen princess” failing at simple tasks. As if that weren’t enough, Esperanza’s mother then takes ill as well, leaving Esperanza in circumstances that will truly test her character.

Munoz Ryan is a talented writer. Her invisible writing says a lot with a little. I get a strong sense of several different characters in a very slim novel through perfect dialogue and actions that reveal plenty.

The ending is simply beautiful. Endings don't make or break a novel for me. Some great books have quite forgettable endings. However, the best endings resonate like this, echoing the novel’s theme without feeling forced.

Friday, September 16, 2016

WRITTEN IN RED


Review of WRITTEN IN RED by ANNE BISHOP
(first in THE OTHERS series)

Bishop is one of my all-time favorite authors, so it was with pleased surprise that I found a book by her I had not yet read sitting patiently on my to-read shelves.

The story takes place in an alternate contemporary reality, but with the twist that “the Others,” fae and their like, lived here long before humans. While the Others and humans have found a way to co-exist, humans will always want to eliminate their rivals and the Others are always ready to remind the humans who holds the real power.

Meg is a blood prophet, which means when someone cuts her skin she sees visions of the future. Humans have a law allowing for “benevolent ownership” of blood prophets, the argument being that their visions make them too crazed and unpredictable to take care of themselves. When Meg manages to escape, she flees towards the Others. While the Others are dangerous themselves, human law does not apply on their territory, meaning Meg cannot be dragged back and returned to her human owner. She finds a simple job sorting mail for her shape-shifter (essentially werewolf) landlord Simon. However, Meg’s unique gift earned her Controller a lot of money and they want her back. When the wrong people start tracking her down, Simon and his friends will need to decide how much they’re willing to put on the line to protect a near-stranger human.

From here, both my praise and criticism will sound very similar to any other reviews of Bishop’s work. I always adore her huge, varied casts of characters as well as pretty much each individual character. I also cherish the amazing combination of dark and cute; she really knows when to provide what for that perfect balance. In my mind and for my taste, her novels are near perfect.

My criticisms are more objective. None of them bother me or diminish her novels in my perspective, but I can pick out the same weak spots in her books that I know would irritate some readers more than myself. First, too many characters. If you often struggle keeping track of lots of names, her books will doubtless confuse you. Second, the villains are too evil. I will admit to usually preferring more complex antagonists. Most all of Bishop’s villains are simply selfish. How villainous they are depends on how far they’ll go to pursue their own selfish wants. Third, the heroines are too Mary Sue. Everyone either adores or detests them. It sometimes feels like the world has shifted to revolving around this protagonist. Because I always like her heroines myself, I forgive this without much complaint.

I didn’t realize this is the first in a series when I started it. However, I didn’t find myself irritated at that realization as I often am, because Bishop found such a good closure point. I did, however, moan, “Nooooooooo!” because I wanted to keep reading the story to the finish and didn’t have the next book.

Friday, September 9, 2016

THE BAD BEGINNING


Review of THE BAD BEGINNING by LEMONY SNICKET
(first in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS)


I already read this entire series years ago, but I wanted to re-read them to review on my blog. It’s a collection of short, witty middle reader novels where terrible and unfair things keep happening to our perfectly likable main characters.

Most fiction, especially that for younger audiences, strives for an upbeat tone, a happy and neat ending, and often even a nice moral. This one breaks that mold. The title warns you and the narrator continually warns you: if you want a happy story, read something else.

Siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were once happy, before this first book even started. They had two wonderful, loving parents and lived in a huge mansion that provided everything they could want. Then their parents died. The children are sent off to live with their nearest relative, Count Olaf, who’s a cruel oaf and only after their vast inheritance. He concocts a plan to take that inheritance for himself, but the children may not survive once he has what he wants.

Sadly for these children (and for any readers who can’t stand this type of book) it seems all the adults, even well-meaning ones, are incompetent. Our protagonists try to turning to kind people for help, but no one can see what’s really going on. While I understand how this style does annoy some readers, I believe it’s a powerful metaphor for children in unfortunate situations themselves who feel the world is turning a blind eye to what’s really going on in their life. And all the more empowering because these kids don’t let the fact that there’s no knight in shining armor stop them from trying to save themselves.

I do recall that this series can become a little same old same old as you keep reading, but I’m only on book one so far in my re-reading, so I’ll call it out when it feels that way. I remember the plots as being similar in outline: siblings sent to new home, problem with new home, they resolve it, another something bad happens anyway to take away happy ending.

My favorite aspect of this series, however, is the wry humor. You’ll find ample instances of playing with both words and expectations in these pages, many of which actually make me laugh aloud (not an easy feat for such an avid reader). Delightful how unfortunate events can be so amusing.

Friday, September 2, 2016

A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA


Review of A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by ANTHONY MARRA

This story feels more like a puzzle than most, flitting between different perspectives and back and forth in time and providing information that will only have significance when pieced together with later information.

The story takes place in a small village in Chechnya during Russian invasions. The viewpoint shifts between different characters all interconnected even if not everyone knows everyone directly. Eight-year-old Havaa finds herself alone in the woods after Russian soldiers abducted her father. Ahkmed, a friend of her father’s, rescues her and brings her to a hospital for safekeeping (or more like a war-time sorry excuse for a hospital with about 1% of the staff and supplies they should have).

At the hospital they meet the doctor Sonja. Personally, I’m a sucker for women like Sonja, women overrun by their own determination. It’s like her will becomes a force of its own. And I loved the line where Sonja’s sister Natasha, who recently escaped from being forced into prostitution, recoils from Sonja’s medical work. Watching Sonja’s detached attitude towards the human body, Natasha can’t help thinking her sister’s not that different from her pimp.

Marra writes very distinct voices and dialogue. I often read writers where their own voice shines through, because the characters all sound too similar. Not the case here. Everyone feels unique from each other.

And, without any spoilers, what a powerful ending.

Friday, August 26, 2016

BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY

Review of BETWEEN THE SEA AND THE SKY by JACLYN DOLAMORE

I loved Jaclyn Dolamore’s novel MAGIC UNDER GLASS. Sadly, my local library doesn’t carry the second in that series. However, in my search I did discover this other intriguing young adult tale by the same author about the forbidden relationship between a mermaid and a winged boy.

Mermaids Esmerine and her sister have been selected for the honor of becoming sirens. Hopefully this prestige will overshadow Esmerine’s lifelong reputation for being that weird mermaid child who played on the beach with that winged boy. Though Esmerine hasn’t seen Alander in years, their taboo friendship has followed her everywhere.

Those selected as sirens often have a dangerous fascination with humans. It helps if you’re going to be spending so much time at the surface luring men to their deaths. When becoming a siren, a mermaid receives a magical belt that adds to the power of her song and gives her the ability to transform her tail into legs. If a human takes a siren’s belt, she cannot return to her mermaid form.

Esmerine’s sister Dosia has always liked humans a little too much for Esmerine’s taste, even abusing her belt’s powers so she can stride on human legs into human parties. When Dosia goes missing Esmerine fears the worst: that one of the human men Dosia has been flirting with took her belt, trapping her on land. Desperate to find and save her sister, Esmerine ventures on land where she finds Alander and he in turn offers his help for finding Dosia.

This is a hyperbolized, familiar tale about people born from such different worlds that you wonder what they can possibly have in common. Yet it turns out they have the most important things in common, core commonalities in their philosophies that make them unexpectedly perfect for each other.

Big surprise, but I love books about characters who love books. And both Esmerine and Alander love books. He works in a bookshop and her main draw to the surface world is the sad fact that the pages of knowledge loves so much disintegrate underwater.

Dolamore delivers another fun, smart read. She never lectures, but there’s a lot of depth to her storylines and characters.

Friday, August 19, 2016

AND I DARKEN



Review of AND I DARKEN by KIERSTEN WHITE
(review based on advance reading copy)

Last summer I read my first novel by White and loved it so much that I’ve been on the lookout for her next release. With AND I DARKEN, she spins a long, unfolding epic about three politically powerful children and their doomed friendship.

Princess Lada may be another tough heroine but she is by no means a cliché. She makes most other tough heroines you’ve read look like wimps (or at least like they have more soul). Lada is brutal and merciless. She learns about power and control at a very young age and lives her life in pursuit of gaining more and dread of losing what she has. This “education” includes lessons on the dangers of caring about anyone, for when you care for someone that only turns them into a weapon that can be used against you.

Lada can’t help caring for her younger brother Radu, at least not completely. Radu cares enough for the both of them and, unfortunately for himself, he doesn’t have Lada’s warrior instinct. He hides and cries where she fights. He will never understand how Lada can sit by at times when someone hurts him, but little does he know Lada believes the best way she can protect him is by refusing to let on how much she cares.

Then their father sells out Lada and Radu by offering them up as collateral to an enemy in exchange for peace. Their situation doesn’t seem so bad when they meet Mehmed, son of the Sultan holding them both captive. Both Lada and Radu fall for Mehmed and he holds them captive in his own way as once again they both care more than they would want. The three form a tight trio, but fate will not make their friendship easy.

Despite funny parts here and there, there is a significant melancholy tone to this entire book. While I enjoyed the novel, the ending frustrated me greatly. In a good novel, I want events to change the characters in some way. This end puts far more weight on fate over decisions than I like philosophically speaking. There’s a sense of being trapped on the hamster wheel, always ending where we started, and us the fools if we think otherwise.

I’ve mentioned before that I dislike rating books because sometimes I want to give the book so many stars for some aspects or chunks and a different number for the rest. I think I would give this book 4-5 out of 5 stars up until the very end when I want to give it only 1 of 5. In short, it feels like a great story…without any actual point.

Friday, August 12, 2016

THE MORNING STAR


Review of THE MORNING STAR by ROBIN BRIDGES
(third in THE KATERINA TRILOGY)

Young necromancer Katerina is back for her finale. Her mission of protecting the tsar from the undead Konstantin’s pursuit of power continues. She doesn’t yet know Konstantin’s next move, but she knows their fight isn’t over. To complicate things further, at least on a personal level, the tsar grants his blessing for Katerina to marry his son, on the condition that she abandon her dream of becoming a doctor.

I respect that this trilogy holds steady in its appeal. I read plenty that lag in the middle or tapper off from brilliant first book to waste of my time third. The writing and plotting feels consistent from the start of this series to the end and that indicates, to me, a writer comfortable in her style.

For that matter, any criticisms I have remain the same. Katerina takes a little bit more initiative in this book, but she’s still more of a passive vessel. When she takes physical action, it’s with the help of an enchanted object. Also in all three books, the climax scenes felt so chaotic to me I had trouble following what was happening.

There’s a twist at the end of this trilogy that I LOVED! It feels both powerfully affecting as well as hilariously delivered, and I didn’t see it coming in the least.

A strong conclusion to a great series and one that I can add to my growing list of vampire books I actually enjoyed.