Monday, June 13, 2016

Flawed by Cecelia Ahern

Title: Flawed
Author: Cecelia Ahern
Release Date: April 5, 2016

Cover Impressions: The online version of this does not do it justice.  There is a pretty, translucent, white overlay which allows the background image to show through while prominently displaying the F for flawed.  It looks like this theme will be continued through the series, with the next book being red instead of white. 

The Gist:
Celestine North lives a perfect life. She’s a model daughter and sister, she’s well-liked by her classmates and teachers, and she’s dating the impossibly charming Art Crevan.

But then Celestine encounters a situation where she makes an instinctive decision. She breaks a rule and now faces life-changing repercussions. She could be imprisoned. She could be branded. She could be found flawed.

In her breathtaking young adult debut, bestselling author Cecelia Ahern depicts a society where perfection is paramount and flaws lead to punishment. And where one young woman decides to take a stand that could cost her everything.


I received an eARC of Flawed quite a while ago but didn't get around to reviewing it because of work commitments. Then, like a sign from the reading gods, it showed up in my OwlCrate subscription box.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story and characters and have now placed the second book (Perfect) firmly on my 'can't wait for it' list.  

Celestine lives in a world obsessed with perfection.  Anyone makes a choice that does not fit with the strict guidelines of society is publicly ostracized, branded, and forced to live by an even more confining set of rules.  Celestine has always supported the Flawed system as the only way to maintain a safe and just world.  However, she she herself is targeted for an act she thought of as logical, she begins to see through her own blind faith and to discover how flawed the system truly is.  

Celestine does not begin as a sympathetic character.  She is steadfast in her support of The Guild and, at its head, Judge Crevan - her boyfriend's father.  She sees the world as black and white and trusts that if the guild deems someone flawed, it is because they are a risk to society.  Once she is thrown into the system herself, she is finally able to see the fear and abuse of power that has surrounded her, her whole life.  Her character development is my favorite part of the novel as she embarks on a fantastic path of personal growth.
The world Ahern has created is one that all too chillingly possible.  It is easy to imagine the religious fanaticism that could lead to a system similar to the Flawed one, in the hopes of returning society to the nostalgic notions of the past.  It is also just as easy to see how this system can be manipulated by a man like Judge Crevan, for whom ultimate power has allowed the ability to dispose of his rivals and naysayers while also placing his own family members into positions of high esteem.  The Crevan that the world sees is a very different one than is revealed through Celestine's acts of defiance.
While the story is truly one of personal growth, Ahern did not shy away from action and there are some truly shocking moments.  I did enjoy the plot itself, however, the ending was not quite as satisfying as I would have liked.  No secrets huge secrets are revealed, no problems are solved.  A number of storylines are set up and sure to be fleshed out within the second book, we just have to wait for it.
 Bottom Line: A great intro into a new series with some chilling scenes and great character development.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Down with the Shine by Kate Karyus Quinn

Title: Down with the Shine
Author: Kate Karyus Quinn
Release Date: April 26, 2016

The Gist: Lennie always thought her uncles’ “important family legacy” was good old-fashioned bootlegging. Then she takes some of her uncles’ moonshine to Michaela Gordon’s annual house party, and finds out just how wrong she was.

At the party, Lennie has everyone make a wish before drinking the shine—it’s tradition. She toasts to wishes for bat wings, for balls of steel, for the party to go on forever. Lennie even makes a wish of her own: to bring back her best friend, Dylan, who was murdered six months ago.

The next morning gives Lennie a whole new understanding of the phrase be careful what you wish for—or in her case, be careful what wishes you grant. Because all those wishes Lennie raised a jar of shine to last night? They came true. Most of them came out bad. And once granted, a wish can’t be unmade…


Kate Karyus Quinn has this way of writing a new novel that makes me want to go back and re-read all her other books so that I can savor them the way that they deserve.  She never shies away from the darkness and, while that is what makes her so appealing to many readers, it may also result in some scenes that are rather intense for those on the younger end of the YA spectrum.

The characters in Down with the Shine are all incredibly complex and interesting.  Lennie is a snarky teenage outcast with reason to feel like the world owes her one good night.  I loved her strange relationship with her uncle, especially in the scene where they had been explaining the magic behind their moonshine and Lennie thought they were trying to have the sex talk.

Where the novel falls, unfortunately, is in the ending, which can't really be discussed without giving away the plot.  Despite this, I enjoyed the writing and the story enough to give it 4 stars.  

Friday, June 3, 2016

A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry

Title: A Fierce and Subtle Poison
Author: Samantha Mabry
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release Date: April 12, 2016
Rating: 2/5

The Gist: Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl--Isabel, the one the seƱoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers--and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life.


A Fierce and Subtle Poison features some absolutely beautiful writing and an incredibly lush landscape.  It is wonderful to see a non-American setting as it is not all that common in YA.  There was a fantastic incorporation of story telling, culture, and folklore.  I am always a sucker for Magical Realism and love seeing more of it within the YA genre.  

Unfortunately, the novel also features a white main character with a hero complex.  Though he is called out on it, it really impacted my enjoyment of the novel, to the point where I really hated him.  As a matter of fact, I did not find any of the characters particularly appealing.  It also featured two father figures, both of whom were horrible people and terrible role models. 

While the story should have been an exciting murder mystery, it just didn't feel that way.  Instead, it seemed like most of the novel followed the main character as he ran through the rain for one reason or another.  There also seemed to be no reason that the kids couldn't have informed the police at several different points throughout the plot. 

While I appreciate the writing, I just couldn't get past my loathing for all the characters and it made this one less than enjoyable. 

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....