Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters

Title: The Steep and Thorny Way
Author: Cat Winters
Amulet Books
Release Date: March 8, 2016
Rating: 2/5

The Gist:
A thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Steep and Thorny Way tells the story of a murder most foul and the mighty power of love and acceptance in a state gone terribly rotten.

1920s Oregon is not a welcoming place for Hanalee Denney, the daughter of a white woman and an African-American man. She has almost no rights by law, and the Ku Klux Klan breeds fear and hatred in even Hanalee’s oldest friendships. Plus, her father, Hank Denney, died a year ago, hit by a drunk-driving teenager. Now her father’s killer is out of jail and back in town, and he claims that Hanalee’s father wasn’t killed by the accident at all but, instead, was poisoned by the doctor who looked after him—who happens to be Hanalee’s new stepfather.

The only way for Hanalee to get the answers she needs is to ask Hank himself, a “haint” wandering the roads at night.

While The Steep and Thorny Way is inspired by Hamlet, it is not your average re-telling.  The plot follows the source material fairly closely in the beginning, but steps eventually steps away from the basic plot and becomes a great deal less predictable.  There are some really terrifying moments that involve the KKK and some exploration on how easily these hate groups can pull in and indoctrinate new members.  The violence is, however, tamed down a bit for a younger audience.

I enjoyed the main character well enough but I did not find her particularly interesting and she did not have the level of depth which usually endears a character to me.  As with all the characters here, her motivations were unsurprising and single-minded.  I did really enjoy the relationship between Hanalee and her best friend, but this did not feature very strongly in the second half of the book and I missed it. 

While the book itself is enjoyable and it brings to light some very important and uncomfortable truths regarding racism and violence, I am a little uncomfortable with the thought of (what appears to be) a white author writing this story.  It is not that I don't think she did a good job (though I am also white so I am certainly not the one to judge the validity of the young, black, girl experience) but in publishing it appears that there are a set of boxes to be ticked.  When this one ticks the Historical Fiction exploring racism featuring an African American lead box, that means that another author, likely one of color, who wrote a book with similar themes, will not get published.  It is a bit of double edged sword, we want to see more POC characters and themes, so this is fabulous, however, in an ideal world they would also be WRITTEN by POC.....

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag

Title: The Witches of Cambridge
Author: Menna van Praag
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: February 9, 2016
Rating: 4/5 

The Gist:
Amandine Bisset has always had the power to feel the emotions of those around her. It's a secret she can share only with her friends all professors, all witches when they gather for the Cambridge University Society of Literature and Witchcraft. Amandine treasures these meetings but lately senses the ties among her colleagues beginning to unravel. If only she had her student Noa's power to hear the innermost thoughts of others, she might know how to patch things up. Unfortunately, Noa regards her gift as a curse. So when a seductive artist claims he can cure her, Noa jumps at the chance, no matter the cost.

Noa's not the only witch in over her head. Mathematics professor Kat has a serious case of unrequited love but refuses to cast spells to win anyone's heart. Her sister, Cosima, is not above using magic to get what she wants, sprinkling pastries in her bakery with equal parts sugar and enchantment. But when Cosima sets her sights on Kat's crush, she conjures up a dangerous love triangle.

As romance and longing swirl through every picturesque side street, The Witches of Cambridge find their lives unexpectedly upended and changed in ways sometimes extraordinary, sometimes heartbreaking, but always enchanting.

The Witches of Cambridge is a lovely book with just a touch of magic within its pages.  It tells the story of five women, of finding love, of losing love, and of learning to love your own gifts.  Amendine fears that she is losing her husband while also trying to help her mother, Heloise deal with the death of the only man she has ever loved.  Noa's inability to prevent her self from blurting the truth as she sees it have prevented her from having a true friend, let alone a true love, and she soon finds herself at the mercy of a mysterious man with a power all his own.  Cosima wishes for the unrequited love of a child and her sister Kat refuses to admit to love, even to herself.  Together these wonderful women weave a web of magic as they see out their heart's desire and learn to heal themselves.

Menna van Praag writes fantastic worlds where magic is in the everyday and her characters are bound to witch their way into your heart.  She tells a powerful story of friendship, love, loss, and finding yourself.  The women are all very different characters and the plot revolves through their points-of-view.  This keeps the plot moving at a steady pace, though while four of them move in and out of each other's stories, Noa ended up feeling a little disjointed as her story (admittedly the most interesting one) occurs outside of the sphere of the others.  She doesn't have much contact with the other witches, and they are so wrapped up in their own issues that it takes a little too long for them to realize that she is in trouble.  I also have to admit that I wasn't nearly as invested in the sisters' story lines.  I think this is because they are introduced later than the other characters and I was less invested in their tales.

The magic in The Witches of Cambridge simmers just at the surface, with a wonderful sprinkling throughout the plot.  Except for Cosima, the witches are much more passive with their powers, having things happen to them rather than because of any actions that they have taken.  Cosima uses her magic in her bakery, creating fantastic treats for all sorts of reasons, including the attempt to bring her the only thing she has ever wanted - a daughter.  I particularly loved Heloise's storyline as she dealt with the death of her husband and the long grieving process.  We get to watch her 'come back to life' and even find love again, all the while, her magic blooms around her. 

Unfortunately, the ending comes together a little too quickly and easily and I felt some moments that could have been truly poignant were glossed over.  Mostly though, it is great story with some beautifully written characters.    

Monday, February 8, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books
Release Date: February 2nd, 2016
Rating: 4/5

The Gist:
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are  Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Salt to the Sea tells the story of four teenagers as they experience the last days of WWII.  As they travel to the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff in an attempt to escape the ravages of war, we learn of the hardships they have already endured and watch as even more horrors befall them.  Admittedly, I do not usually seek out novels of this nature, especially those centered around the holocaust (since having children, I just can't handle the subject matter), but nonetheless this is a story I have not read before.  I knew nothing historically about the disaster to come, but did find it a little frustrating that the cover so clearly gives the plot away.  I realize in historical fiction this is a common theme (I wouldn't expect a book about the Titanic to try and hide the fact that the ship was to hit an iceberg) but I find in these cases I have difficulty keeping my interest in the plot because I am waiting for the disaster to strike.   

While Joana, Emilia, and Florian have stories full of heartbreak and sorrow, the fourth, Alfred is best described as putrid.  The more I read in his point-of-view, the more creepy he became.  He is the epitome of a young man who, in his own mind, is special and it is everyone else who is wrong because they are unable to see it.  He is entitled and lazy, finding a myriad of ways to avoid the work required of the other soldiers.  He becomes infuriated when others do not recognize how wonderful he is.  There is an extra, shiver-inducing, layer in his "letters" to a young woman at home that he was clearly obsessed with and who, expectantly, did not share his feelings.  The fact that I am writing this almost a month after reading the book and still want to strangle Alfred myself is a testament to what a well written character he is. 

There are several scenes that were difficult (especially as a mother) to read.  These usually involved children.  There were some heart-wrenching moments for our main characters and their friends, but also a number that happened in the background, in a mere line or two, and had nearly as much impact.  The story is told through the eyes of our four main characters and each of the sections is rather short.  This keeps the plot moving quickly and allows each character's secrets to be revealed slowly.  I was, however, a little disappointed in the ending.  It didn't seem as developed as it could have been and was overly sweet, given the circumstances. 

Bottom Line: Recommending this book for all my historical fiction fans. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace

Title: Shallow Graves
Author: Kali Wallace
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books
Release Date: January 26, 2016
Rating: 3/5

The Gist:
When seventeen-year-old Breezy Lin wakes up in a shallow grave one year after her death, she doesn’t remember who killed her or why. All she knows is that she’s somehow conscious—and not only that, she’s able to sense who around her is hiding a murderous past. In life, Breezy was always drawn to the elegance of the universe and the mystery of the stars. Now she must set out to find answers and discover what is to become of her in the gritty, dangerous world to which she now belongs—where killers hide in plain sight and a sinister cult is hunting for strange creatures like her. What she finds is at once empowering, redemptive, and dangerous.

Shallow Graves features a new and interesting concept of the dead.  Breezy is dead, or undead, but not in the 'must have braiiiiiiiiiiins' fashion that has become so popular in fiction today.  She seems just like a regular girl, she just can't die.  And believe me, she has tried.  One of my favorite parts of this book featured Breezy's lists, one of which was her list of ways in which she has tried to die including drowning, shooting and crashing head-long into a tree.  The writing style worked well and Breezy is a great new voice.

I love seeing diversity in main characters and Breezy ticks a lot of boxes; she is a Chinese, bisexual teenage girl who loves Science and was obsessed with being an astronaut.  I really felt her pain as she lamented the fact that her one ambition in life was now off limits despite the fact that she was now perfect for the job - no need to eat or breathe and apparently indestructible.  It was also really interesting to read as she tried to apply her analytical mind to the new task at hand - namely figuring out this new world and finding out why she isn't dead.

Shallow Graves does not follow down the traditional path of distracting from the plot with an ill-fitting love interest.  There is a boy, there is potential with the boy, but neither of them seems interested in pursuing that at the moment.  There is also an underlying thread that makes social commentary on the issues of slut shaming and victim blaming.  I loved that Breezy was self and socially aware enough to recognize how differently her life (and death) would have been if she had been a teen boy murdered rather than a girl and these sections come off as thought-provoking, rather than preachy.

Unfortunately, not everything in this story worked quite as well as it could have.  The author chose a non-linear manner of storytelling which worked in parts, but other times was strange and confusing.  There are two main mysteries and neither of them ends particularly strongly.  I was particularly disappointed in the reveal of who killed Breezy.  I was hoping for one of those 'oh my god, no way?!' moments, but it just fell a little flat and felt frustrating.  The other storyline featured a big baddie who, rather than being defeated, was merely contained.  This made the book feel like the first in a series, though that doesn't appear to be the case, and I didn't like that ambiguousness. 

Bottom Line: A fun book with an interesting new character.  Wish it was a series though....

Monday, December 7, 2015

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Title: Walk on Earth a Stranger
Author: Rae Carson
Greenwillow Books
Release Date: Sept 22, 2015

The Gist:
Gold is in my blood, in my breath, even in the flecks in my eyes.

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

The acclaimed Rae Carson begins a sweeping new trilogy set in Gold Rush-era America, about a young woman with a powerful and dangerous gift.

Walk on Earth a Stranger is, ultimately, a story about how Leah learns to trust people and finds a new family.  After her parent's brutal murder and the loss of the gold she had been collecting for years, Leah finds herself the target of their murderer, a person who will stop at nothing to gain control of her gift.  With very few possessions and even less money, Leah begins the arduous trek to California to find her fortune along with so many other Argonauts.  The journey is not an easy one, and certainly not a safe one for an unescorted young lady, so Leah becomes Lee - a young man setting out on his own, and gets hired on by a family also headed West. 

While I found the plot to be a little less exciting than I would have preferred, the novel really shines in its character development.  Throughout the journey, we get to see many sides not only of Leah, but also of the many companions that she meets along the way.  By the end, she has learned to trust again and created a new family of her own.  She has also learned just what she is capable of not in spite of, but because of, being a girl. 

I was a little disappointed that the whole 'gold sense' didn't play as much of a role as I had expected, however, I also thought that this was a stand alone and not the beginning of a series.  I am hopeful that Leah's gifts will play a greater role in the next book.  The same can be said of the villain of the story.  He book-ended the story with parts at the beginning and the end, which was slightly disappointing as he was dealt with rather quickly at the end.  I will be much happier if he plays a larger role in the second book and adds and extra sense of tension. 

There is also a theme of feminism that runs through the novel.  This was refreshing and interesting as we watched Leah live as herself and disguised as a boy.  As Lee, she was able to see how differently people treated her when she was in pants rather than skirts and as Leah she became more and more frustrated with the way that men, even those who care about her, tried to control her.  I loved this aspect of the plot and look forward to even further development in the next book.

Teaching/Parental Notes:

13 and up
Sex: Kissing
Violence: Hunting, Murder by gun
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: None
Other Issues: Death from exposure, illness, childbirth

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Girl with the Wrong Name by Barnabas Miller

Title: The Girl with the Wrong Name
Author: Barnabas Miller
Soho Teen
Release Date:
Nov 3, 2015

The Gist: 
Seventeen-year-old Theo Lane has been hiding half of her face from the public ever since “The Night In Question,” a night that left her with a long, disfiguring scar, an unquiet mind, and no memory of what happened. An aspiring documentary maker, she uses her camera to keep the world at a safe distance, shooting hours of secret footage with a hidden button cam on her jacket collar. But when Andy Reese, a forlorn and mysterious “Lost Boy,” wanders into her frame, he becomes the unknowing star of her latest project. Her unhealthy obsession with him tears her from that sheltered life behind the camera, pulling her into a perilous, mind-bending journey through Andy’s world. But is it really Andy’s world she’s investigating? Or is it her own?

Two months ago, on "The Night In Question" something horrible happened to Theo Lane, leaving her with a long jagged scar down the side of her face.  No one seems to talk about it and even Theo doesn't seem to know what happened.  Having distanced herself from her friends, Theo begins obsessing over a mysterious boy at a coffee shop, the subject of her new project.  Breaking the first rule of documentary film making, she involves herself in her subject matter when she is unable to ignore Andy's sadness any longer.  The two set out to find the mysterious Sarah, the love of Andy's life who never showed up to meet him.  As locating her becomes more and more difficult, Theo and Andy fear that something terrible may have happened and as the coincidences between Sarah and Theo's life compound, she begins to fear that she may be more involved than she ever expected. 

I was really surprised how many twists there were in this novel.  It was slow going at first, and I actually contemplated tossing it on the DNF pile as it seemed to be just another "search for the elusive 'perfect' girl leads boy to see what was right in front of him all along" story.  However, I'm very glad I didn't as this is definitely NOT that kind of story.  As more and more secrets are revealed we find that there is something far more sinister going on here and Theo is smack in the middle of it.  Along with her, we question what we are seeing and what the truth really is.  This leads to a very suspenseful and exciting conclusion and while some plot twists were easy to ascertain, it also held some genuine surprises.  
One place where this novel fell off was in characterization.  Theo was defined almost solely by The Night In Question and, by the end, there was a real question about how much of her personality was her own and how much was borrowed from somebody else.  Andy was harder to pin down.  At times he seemed like a typical lovesick teenager and at other times he became something darker, and more sinister.  The minor cast featured Theo's mother, stepfather, and her friends Lou and Max.  They were less interesting and mostly served as Theo's sounding board.

Bottom Line: The Girl With The Wrong Name is a suspenseful thriller that will appeal to any mystery fan. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

15 and up
Sex: Kissing
Violence: Rape, Murder by fire, 
Inappropriate Language: Shit, Slut, Bitch, Fuck,
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking, Prescription Drug Abuse

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Need by Joelle Charbonneau

Title: Need
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date:
Nov 3, 2015

The Gist:
"No one gets something for nothing. We all should know better."

Teenagers at Wisconsin's Nottawa High School are drawn deeper into a social networking site that promises to grant their every need . . . regardless of the consequences. Soon the site turns sinister, with simple pranks escalating to malicious crimes. The body count rises. In this chilling YA thriller, the author of the best-selling Testing trilogy examines not only the dark side of social media, but the dark side of human nature.

Need is a website that promised Nottawa High School students their heart's desire in exchange for completing the tasks that it sets forth.  At first, this involves sending invites to other students, then a simple task like delivering a box of cookies.  Very quickly, however, things turn sinister as these tasks lead to the very real deaths of students and adults and Kaylee must find out who is behind the website, before it frames her for murder.
Need has an interesting premise, but it is based in a couple of unrealistic assumptions:
1) Teenagers are selfish idiots who are willing to do anything to get what they want, regardless of the consequences.  In order for Need to work, the students have to be willing to complete tasks.  That they would do this is somewhat believable when the payoff outweighs the cost.  However, once they are able to see that these seemingly inconsequential tasks are actually leading to the death of other people, it is just not realistic to expect that they would continue.  IF this plotline had lasted a little longer, with the kids completing assignments that didn't REALLY hurt anyone and got them what they wanted, it would have been a much more enjoyable plot
2) Adults and people in positions of authority never believe students.  Kaylee's mother gives her NO credit and believes she is making up everything.  I get it, she has a history, but you can't tell me that none of the other kids tell their parents and none of those parents believe them either.  Also, a website leaves footprints, even when it is taken down for a short time.  There would be a way to trace it back.  Finally, there is no way that police would not investigate claims of a website setting up murders, especially when MULTIPLE people have died and MULTIPLE kids are telling them the website exists. 
Need just wasn't realistic in its treatment of teenagers.  One thing that bothered me to no end is that the kids seem to have no idea how to take screenshots.  I would expect every kid over the age of 10 knows how to take screenshots.
There was also a problem of too many narrators.  We changed POV constantly and most of the characters just didn't have unique enough voices for this approach.  I found myself constantly trying to figure out which character I was following - is this the one who wants the concert tickets, or the one with the over-protective parents, and was that the same love interest the last guy was talking about or is that someone completely different? - it was exhausting.  While the plot was suspenseful, the multiple narrators kept removing me from the plot and the ending was just silly.