Friday, September 30, 2016

A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING


Review of A SHADOW BRIGHT AND BURNING by JESSICA CLUESS
(first in the KINGDOM ON FIRE series, review based on an advance reading copy)

Henrietta has long hid her magical powers, terrified of the repercussions if the wrong person discovers a woman with these gifts. Then she learns of a prophecy that a female sorcerer will save her land from the demons tormenting it and suddenly her shameful secret uplifts her status and becomes something to celebrate. There’s a major catch, though. Henrietta suspects she’s likely not the woman of the prophecy…but if she admits that then everything she’s longed for will be taken away again.

This is a fast paced, fun novel with a strong emphasis on romantic tension. Henrietta enters a world dominated by males, which means she has a lot of male attention directed her way. I liked how the author showcases so many different types of relationships and attraction. I found Magnus in particular a very believable hypocrite. Having been raised primarily by women, he’s a proud feminist and woman’s advocate and yet at the same time he’s a shameless womanizer who often diminishes women to objects of attraction.

The magic system sometimes felt a little too arbitrary for my taste. Why does it work one way for some people and another for other people? Fingers crossed that further books in this series flesh out the inner workings a bit more, but as it is from this first book I often found the magic felt a little too limitless and out of control. Checks and balances usually make for a better magic system, especially when there’s a clear cost for every gain.

All in all, though, a fabulous, addictive first book and I look forward to reading on in the series.

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.