Friday, November 18, 2016

POISON STUDY


Review of POISON STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER
(first in the STUDY trilogy)

Yelena murdered her benefactor in self-defense (not that anyone saw it that way or would believe her) and now faces execution. Then spymaster Valek offers her a second chance: become the Commander’s food taster. Though she risks ingesting poison with every meal, Yelena recognizes the difference between certain vs. possible death and, of course, accepts Valek’s offer.

Valek slips Yelena a poison called Butterfly’s Dust on her first day. If she reports to him each morning, he’ll give her a daily antidote to stave off a slow and painful death. If she runs away, she’ll die within the day. Now Yelena juggles learning about a wide array of poisons, figuring out who she can trust and how to ally herself, and, perhaps most problematic, hiding her possible magical abilities in a land where such talents equal a death sentence.

Above all, this is a story of survival. Yelena doesn’t have an immediate goal at the start of the book beyond living. A goal that proves especially difficult in her circumstances, but remains her primary drive from beginning to end. At the start surviving means paying close attention to Valek’s poison training in the hopes of detecting something without ingesting enough that it will kill her. Then she encounters enemies who want revenge for the man she killed and she must learn some beyond basic self-defense. As if that weren’t enough, a magician approaches her and reveals that Yelena has “untamed” magic. Magicians are forbidden in Yelena’s land and if she’s discovered her death will be ordered...again. However, if she doesn’t master her magic, the magician warns they will have no choice but to kill her before her magic gets too out of her control. So Yelena faces attacks on her simple survival goal from all sides. This also makes it extra interesting to read on in the series and see what Yelena will start wanting for herself once survival becomes less of a challenge.

This book was a re-read for me and I found myself surprised on the second reading by the strength of the feminist subtext. I primarily recalled this trilogy as a compelling, fun read with a lot of flaws. However, on the second read I barely noticed said flaws and found myself instead impressed by strengths I think I underestimated on the first read. Aside from an admirable heroine and other progressive characters and messages, these strengths also included the big cast of characters, a common theme among my favorite books. I especially like that Yelena evolves from a lone wolf character in a place of desperation at the start of the novel to someone surrounded by people who support her and lent extra power by forming strong bonds with the right people. 

My one consistent complaint with Snyder’s work is that the writing isn’t nearly as strong as the plot. And I believe it’s this weakness in very basic points of the writing that lead me to undervalue the book as a whole. Snyder often connects two distinctly separate sentences with only a comma where there should be a period or at least semi-colon. I also always find multiple dangling participles in her work as well as clauses that don’t apply to their intended subject. It occasionally makes the story a little harder to follow when I’m distracted by basic grammar mistakes or even find myself re-reading sentences to ensure I understood the intended meaning. 

I look forward to re-reading the other two books in this trilogy and was also reminded that Snyder has new work out I have yet to read. Snyder’s another writer who can be a little formulaic, but I like her formula so I’m not complaining.

Friday, November 11, 2016

THE MORNING GIFT


Review of THE MORNING GIFT by EVA IBBOTSON

Ruth had plans to flee with her Jewish family from Vienna before the Nazis reached the city. Her family made it out in time, but not Ruth. Her father’s young colleague Quinn finds her and resolves to help. After exploring their limited options, they agree to marry so she can leave with him as his wife. The plan is to annul the marriage once she’s safe, but they quickly learn such a fast annulment will call the validity of the marriage into question and may send Ruth straight back to Austria. So instead they intend to carry on with their separate lives until such time that a divorce makes sense, except Ruth enrolls in university and finds herself taking Quinn’s classes, which makes not seeing him significantly harder.

I found this Ibbotson novel especially humorous. Ruth and Quinn both go to extremes trying to avoid each other. Meanwhile, as a young prestigious professor, Quinn is considered quite the catch and other young women are doing their very best to get and hold attention. Oh, and did I mention Ruth already has a fiancĂ©? She and Quinn both agree to keep silent on exactly how he smuggled her out of Austria, so Ruth’s family and fiancĂ© have no idea she’s technically a married woman now.

I enjoyed the chemistry between Ruth and Quinn. Ibbotson has a knack for writing romances where characters are drawn to each other not because they have exactly the same views but because they’re intrigued by each other’s different views. Quinn and Ruth argue over near about everything, but then each is left musing over the other’s points.

As with Ibbotson’s other young adult historical romances, the heroine is a classic Mary Sue trope. Everyone either adores or detests Ruth and if they detest her that’s a sure measure they’re a bad character. She’s sweet to the point of naivety and always aims for perfection of character.

With THE MORNING GIFT, Ibbotson crafts another sweet and funny romance against the backdrop of real historical issues. Sadly, I’ve reached the end of reviewing all of her young adult novels, but I still look forward to reading her middle grade work.

Friday, November 4, 2016

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR



Review of THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by NICOLA YOON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I fell in love with this author’s remarkable debut novel EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING about a teenage girl who can never leave her house due to a rare autoimmune disease. Often when a reader adores an author’s first book (or even merely the first one you happened to read), it makes it that much harder for the next to live up to your already high expectations. I definitely didn’t make it easy for this novel to win me over. Despite repeatedly instructing myself otherwise, I kept measuring this one against the first book. For the first quarter or so, I worried that, while good, this wasn’t quite as good, but as I kept reading, and especially once I finished, I concluded that THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR held up to my very high hopes for it.

This entire book takes place over one day. And, in one day, teenagers Daniel and Natasha fall in love. Let me start off by praising the author for challenging herself, because she faced two very difficult tasks: setting an entire book over a single day and having two characters believably fall in love so quickly. And Yoon pulls off both feats, by the way.

Natasha is a scientific skeptic and I doubt I could have invested in such a fast romance without one of her kind. Simply because she’s not the type of person who does this. She tries so hard not to do this, to fight her impulses, to logic her way out of emotions.

Let me back up a little, though, and tell you something else about Natasha. She is an illegal immigrant and her family is being deported tomorrow. She’s out on her own today seeking a lawyer in a last desperate attempt to stop the inevitable when she meets Daniel. He, on the other hand, is a poet and a hopeless romantic, but unfortunately he’s on his way to a Yale interview so he can begin the life of a doctor his parents have planned out for him.

Perhaps to make everything seem longer or to highlight each and every small, special moment, the book features extremely small chapters. The longest are 3-4 pages while numerous are less a full page. As another interesting twist in style, the author sprinkles Natasha and Daniel’s story with the perspectives of peripheral characters. Along the way the main love story will be ever so briefly interrupted for a chapter about Natasha’s dad, the aforementioned lawyer, even a security guard Natasha interacts with briefly. And this isn’t some weird attempt at being original that falls flat. No, this ties in perfectly with the novel’s theme. Because Daniel and Natasha hardly know each other and yet they change each other’s life cataclysmically in one day. And while we barely know some of these minor characters, we see how strongly some small events affect them.

While I will confess that I still like EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING the best of these two books, I think I nevertheless admire Yoon more for this one. THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR cannot have been easy to write, and yet she makes it feel like it couldn’t possibly have been written any other way.