Friday, December 30, 2016

I AM PRINCESS X

Review of I AM PRINCESS X by CHERIE PRIEST

Best friends Libby and May create a fun character called Princess X and collaborate on a comic featuring this heroine.Then Libby dies in car accident and May loses both Princess X and her best friend.

Three years pass and all of a sudden May starts noticing Princess X paraphernalia everywhere: stickers, graffiti, a whole web comic carrying on the story of this character. As May looks closer into this phenomenon she finds clues that suggest only Libby could be the one behind this, not to mention further clues within the comic that seem to be trying to tell her that Libby never died; she was kidnapped.

While it seems crazy and dangerous and also too good to be true, May cannot let go of the idea that her friend is actually alive and the only way she can tell May is with Princess X. With the help of her neighbor, who is amateur hacker, May follows the clues to dark corners all in the hope that at the end of this maze she’ll find her best friend.

While the characters feel a little flat, the twists in this plot-driven YA novel make up for it. PRINCESS X is a fun, exciting read: a thriller wrapped up in a sweet friendship story.


*** SPOILER ALERT ***

The novel kind of lost me once May actually finds Libby. At that point they decide to hunt down the man behind this, a known murderer, by themselves. Now I could get behind May’s logic for looking for Libby herself. Adults wouldn’t believe her. Everyone already thinks Libby dead and May comes across as a crazed grieving friend. However, once they have Libby it seems the strategy should be getting to safety and alerting authorities, not chasing after a dangerous man themselves. While there are explanations for risky actions, nothing felt convincing to me and the last part of the book felt contrived for extra thrill.

Friday, December 23, 2016

STONES FROM THE RIVER


Review of STONES FROM THE RIVER by URSULA HEGI

With this novel, Hegi crafts a sweeping tale about prejudice and belonging. On a wider scale, the book follows World War II from the perspective of the Germans, while on a smaller scale we live through the eyes of Trudi, a dwarf but more importantly an intelligent, tenacious woman driven to bitterness by the ostracization of her peers.

The first half the novel focuses on Trudi’s individual struggle fitting in as a dwarf starting from childhood. She starts collecting secrets about people as she learns that: 1. Secrets give you power. And 2. People like gossip. Then the storyline shifts as the Nazis come to power. All of Trudi’s grudges, which felt so justified earlier, start to feel petty in comparison to the horrors taking place around her.

While I enjoyed most of this novel, I did grow bored around the halfway point and set it down for perhaps three months before resuming. When I did resume, it felt like I had given up right before the story picked up its pace, so I suppose there’s kind of a “calm before the storm” feel to the plot as it transitions from Trudi’s personal grievances to the larger scale atrocities being committed by Nazis.

There’s a huge cast of characters in this novel, which I always enjoy. Far too many to list in a review. I particularly like Trudi’s father, a classic personality: the grounded, quiet, wise mentor. Leo truly sees his daughter for all her unique strengths, but he also recognizes how the world will see her and doesn’t try to shield her from the reality that many people won’t look past her differences.

I also love that this book continues past World War II, following aftermath in Germany. So many World War II novels cut off during the war, usually because they’re telling a more focused story about one or a few individuals who didn’t fare well during that time. However, this novel has a wide scope. It doesn’t feel so much like it’s about World War II but rather that’s one of the many things that happens in the story. The book begins well before and continues on after the war, remaining true to the themes of prejudice and belonging.

Friday, December 9, 2016

CREWEL


Review of CREWEL by GENNIFER ALBIN
(first in the CREWEL WORLD series, based on a review copy)

Adelice lives in a world where gifted women possess the power to “weave” reality on a physical tapestry, crafting every decision for every individual in society. These revered Spinsters weave everything from birth and death to relocating supplies.

In a society where you have to pick your words very carefully, well, Adelice’s parents have done just that her whole life. Thankfully, their careful word selection has been enough to warn her that they hope she isn’t picked as a Spinster because that life isn’t the heaven those in power would have her believe. Of course, as any reader would expect, Adelice is picked as a Spinster. Her parents’ attempts to hide her fail and have devastating consequences. Once in her new home, Adelice hears repeated whispers about how girls who try to run like she did rarely get the honor of living...and yet she’s receiving preferential treatment. It turns out Adelice has some extra special capabilities that make her too powerful an asset to murder over the slightest display of rebellion.

I really liked Adelice. She’s recklessly brave, speaking up in situations where she knows full well that her challenging comments will have repercussions. She’s too true to her mind to keep her mouth shut even when doing so would make life go more smoothly for her.  

Albin also populates her novel with an assortment of distinct and interesting side characters, each well crafted and intriguing in their own way. Most admirably, each feels like they have their own story even if we’re fixating on Adelice’s right now.

While I really love the concept of this crafty magic system, the magic sometimes feels a little arbitrary. The limitations are laid down like facts, but I don’t understand why you can do one thing but not another, except that it works better for the story that way. I think that if you can weave reality you should be able to change time, for one thing. Though I will mention that I really liked how Adelice learns to manipulate the weave to create “new moments,” little snippets of reality outside what others around her can see or experience. Talk about having a nice safe space in a bad situation.

With CREWEL, Albin introduces readers to a unique and intriguing world but more notably to an exceptional heroine. I can’t wait to read the rest of this series.

Friday, December 2, 2016

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE


Review of HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE by JENNIFER NIVEN
(review based on an advance reading copy)

I’m a sucker for a strong, smart female protagonist, but when everyone’s trying to write an original character sometimes unique becomes a little less original. My point is that, pleased as I am that there are so many worthy heroines in contemporary literature, some of the less layered ones start to blend. Not Libby. Her incredible strength, spirit, and humor feel completely fresh and specific to her experiences.

After Libby’s mom’s death several years ago, she started eating her feelings. Not a little, but a lot. Until she becomes morbidly obese and confined to her bed. Then she made headlines when a crane had to remove the side of her house and lift her out of her room so she could be taken to a hospital. Fast forward to today and Libby’s lost a lot of weight (though she’s still big enough to attract stares and whispering) and she’s venturing out of home school and into a public high school.

In contrast, we also follow Jack, one of the most popular guys at school and a typical jerk. Except the atypical secret that no one knows is that Jack has face blindness. Terrified of becoming a target rather than a weapon, Jack hides his inability to distinguish faces with an egocentric attitude. When you’re popular, people aren’t as surprised when your gaze slides over their face without any recognition, even when you ignore someone supposedly a friend.

Somehow Jack finds himself drawn to Libby. Well, their initial introduction isn’t a pleasant one. Jack isn’t proud of his jerk friends or his jerk self, but deep down inside he likes the idea of being a better person. So when his friends come up with a cruel game for harassing overweight girls at school, Jack comes up with a plan. It’s mean and makes him the bad guy, but it will end his friends’ game once and for all.

I completely understand why Jack admires Libby. It’s frustrating when you read a book where characters respect/love/hate someone and you just can’t see what they see. Well, Libby does stand out and I’m not talking about her size. She’s comfortable with who she is as a person and has learned to accept and cope with the fact that others will mostly focus on the external. She’s outspoken and intelligent and brave and basically all the virtues Jack wishes he had the guts to embody. Oh, and in a weird way her size is an asset for Jack. Libby may be one of the few people he can pick from a crowd. Even if he can’t recognize her face, he can recognize her size.

This novel is also funny, a rare and precious asset in a good book as I can tell you from both my experience as a writer and an avid reader that drama is so much easier to write than humor. As only one example from this book, I cracked up out loud at a line when Jack’s talking to his girlfriend. Internally, he always reminds himself that his on and off again, popular, and equally jerk girlfriend used to be sweet. And she still has nice moments. So when they’re talking on the phone one night and she’s being, well, not so sweet, Jack thinks to himself that he wishes he could just ask her, “Can you put nice Caroline on the phone now?”

HOLDING UP THE UNIVERSE is an empowering story about inner strength and inner beauty. I doubt I’ll forget Libby or humbling resilience anytime soon.