Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rook by Sharon Cameron

Title: Rook
Author: Sharon Cameron
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Rating: 4/5

Cover Impressions: 
Dark and foreboding.  I love the image of Paris in ruins and the iconic Eiffel tower decimated.  The fact that the only things in color are the title font and the tip of one feather add interest and call attention to those elements.  The rain of feathers is a beautiful way to fill the sky. 

The Gist:

History has a way of repeating itself. In the Sunken City that was once Paris, all who oppose the new revolution are being put to the blade. Except for those who disappear from their prison cells, a red-tipped rook feather left in their place. Is the mysterious Red Rook a savior of the innocent or a criminal?

Meanwhile, across the sea in the Commonwealth, Sophia Bellamy’s arranged marriage to the wealthy René Hasard is the last chance to save her family from ruin. But when the search for the Red Rook comes straight to her doorstep, Sophia discovers that her fiancé is not all he seems. Which is only fair, because neither is she.

As the Red Rook grows bolder and the stakes grow higher, Sophia and René find themselves locked in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse.


The only hope for Sophia's family to maintain their ancestral home and escape debtors prison is for her to marry Rene Hasard and have him pay for the privilege.  However, unknown to all but her inner circle, Sophia spends her nights creeping about prison halls releasing those who would face the Razor for nothing more than being on the opposite side of someone more powerful than they.  As Sophie, she must allow others to determine her fate, but as the Red Rook, she is the master.  As she tried to meld her two lives, the cruel and determined LeBlanc is coming ever closer to discovering the identity of the Rook and everyone Sophie loves is coming closer to the Razor.

"The heavy blade hung high above the prisoners, glinting against the stars, and then the Razor came down, a wedge of falling darkness cutting through the torchlight."

From the very first line, we are introduced to the darkest of atmospheres.  A polar shift has caused the world's technology to fail and satellites to fall from the skies.  Humanity found themselves unable to cope without the machines they had come to rely on and thousands died.  Eventually, the people of Paris turned their backs on the evils of technology and engaged in hyper-vigilance, watching their neighbors for any sign that they were disobeying the new laws put in place by a government who punished whole families by putting them to the Razor, an even more terrifying weapon than the guillotine of the past.  This results in a strange and fascinating blend of modern architecture and remnants with a return to historic style of dress and the subordination of women.  There are descriptions of how inventions like cars and elevators have been re-purposed without the use of machinery.  These add an interesting layer to the story and result in some truly unique world building.

Sophia is a strong, independent woman in a world that requires her to submit to the will of the men in her life.  Despite this, she maintains a secret life and an attitude of self-reliance that makes her an engaging main character.  She is smart and witty when she is angry and even more so when she is fighting.  Sophie is set up for a love triangle between her childhood best friend, Spear and her new fiance, Rene.  However, refreshingly, this never truly materializes.  Sophie has been blind to Spear's interests and, once she discovers them, remains uninterested and tells him so.  Spear appears to represent the man who presents himself as a "nice guy" but has his own ideas for Sophie's life, ideas he has never consulted her about.  He becomes incredibly controlling, always believing that he knows best and that he can manipulate the situation to his own benefit and that, eventually, Sophie will thank him for it.  As I got further into the novel he become more and more controlling and I was very happy to see that Sophie was not falling for his "I have your best interests at heart" act.

The antagonist of Rook is truly mad and through his obsession with fate the novel makes an interesting point on fanaticism and blind faith.  LeBlanc puts his trust in rituals of his own creation and asks the same question again and again until he receives the answer he was looking for.  He then uses this to justify horrific evils and to advance his own position.  His unpredictability leaves the reader on the edge of their seat as we never really know what he is going to do or how much he really knows.  

The first half of the plot is, admittedly, a little slow.  There is a large cast of characters to get to know and I found myself losing track of who was playing what role.  The second half, however, makes up for it.  Just when you think you know who to trust, Cameron changes the entire game and leaves the reader guessing.  She has a fantastically clever way of switching between characters, using short paragraphs and ending each with a word or phrase that is repeated in the next.  This adds a sense of urgency and suspense and allows the writing to flow beautifully.  

Rook explores a world that is no longer able to rely on technology.  It is a fascinating view into what society might devolve into when stripped of the things we have come to depend upon and features some wonderfully strong, independent and noteworthy characters who fight for justice and humanity. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

16 and up
Sex: Kissing, allusion to intercourse
Violence: Beheadings, knifeplay, swordplay, attempted strangulation
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: Drinking

This and other reviews can be seen on Young Adult Books Central

Monday, April 27, 2015

Mark of the Thief by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Title: Mark of the Thief
Author: Jennifer Nielsen
Release Date:
Feb 24, 2015

Cover Impressions:

The Gist:
When Nic, a slave in the mines outside of Rome, is forced to enter a sealed cavern containing the lost treasures of Julius Caesar, he finds much more than gold and gemstones: He discovers an ancient bulla, an amulet that belonged to the great Caesar and is filled with a magic once reserved for the Gods -- magic some Romans would kill for.

Now, with the deadly power of the bulla pulsing through his veins, Nic is determined to become free. But instead, he finds himself at the center of a ruthless conspiracy to overthrow the emperor and spark the Praetor War, a battle to destroy Rome from within. Traitors and spies lurk at every turn, each more desperate than the next to use Nic's newfound powers for their own dark purposes.

In a quest to stop the rebellion, save Rome, and secure his own freedom, Nic must harness the magic within himself and defeat the empire's most powerful and savage leaders.

Working in the mines and obeying orders (at least the ones that aren't stupid), Nic has one goal - to free himself and his sister.  When the men discover a mysterious cave one doesn't come out, and the other will never be the same again.  Forced to enter the cave himself, Nic encounters a fearsome Griffin and an ancient Bulla (an amulet given to male children in Rome).  Stealing both, he ends up on the run from a general who has darker plans for Rome and finds himself at the center of a plot to overthrow the emperor and a world of magic that he never dreamed existed.  Now, Nic must fight for freedom, his sister, the empire and discover who can be trusted in a world of intrigue.

Nic is a very reminiscent of Sage from Jennifer Nielsen's The False Prince trilogy.  He is clever and witty.  He is always willing to deliver a scathing retort - even when he probably shouldn't.  I was a little disappointed that his inner monologue was not nearly as interesting as Sage's was, and I found myself skimming those parts to get to the action.  Nic has a great frenemy in Aurelia.  She is determined, single-minded, and great with weapons.  Nic and she have a very love-hate relationship, but I don't really see this going the romantic route.  More, they will continue to gain respect for one another and become strong allies.  We only see a little of Livia, Nic's sister, and I am really excited to see what type of role she takes on in the next book.

I knew very little of Ancient Rome coming into this book and the author did an excellent job of describing the architecture, politics, and methods of entertainment.  The magic of this world is really well incorporated into the Roman belief system.  I was a particular fan of Nic's new found power to talk to animals.  I can see this having fantastic implications as the series continues.  I also loved that where most media concentrates on the gladiator fights that took place in the colloseum, this one features the animal fights.  It was interesting to see a different side of these events. 

The plot is fast paced and fun.  There are very few moments of downtime as Nic attempts to escape the consequences of stealing the Bulla.  For the first half, he spent a great deal of time simply reacting to the situations unfolding around him and I began to get frustrated with his inability to concoct a plan.  As we reached the middle of the book he took on a more controlling role and started to meet challenges head on, rather than attempting to run from them.  This developed his character further and allowed me to engage more with the plot.   

Mark of the Thief is a fun and exciting start to a promising new series. Young readers will love Nic's adventure and the historic elements on which the plot is built.

Teaching/Parental Notes:

10 and up
Sex: None
Violence: Knifeplay, Swordplay, Death of animals, Death by magic
Inappropriate Language: None
Substance Use/Abuse: None

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Wicked Will Rise by Danielle Paige

Title: The Wicked Will Rise
Author: Danielle Paige
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: March 31, 2015
Rating: 5/5

Cover Impressions: 
I love the entire concept of this cover.  Very dark and gritty.  The cut out showing storm clouds is fantastic and I love the shade of green for the title font.

The Gist:

In this dark, high-octane sequel to the New York Times bestselling Dorothy Must Die, Amy Gumm must do everything in her power to kill Dorothy and free Oz.

To make Oz a free land again, Amy Gumm was given a mission: remove the Tin Woodman’s heart, steal the Scarecrow’s brain, take the Lion’s courage, and then Dorothy must die....

But Dorothy still lives. Now the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked has vanished, and mysterious Princess Ozma might be Amy’s only ally. As Amy learns the truth about her mission, she realizes that she’s only just scratched the surface of Oz’s past—and that Kansas, the home she couldn't wait to leave behind, may also be in danger. In a place where the line between good and evil shifts with just a strong gust of wind, who can Amy trust—and who is really Wicked?


Review:Having failed to assasinate Dorothy, Amy Gumm is on the run.  Alongside her is princess Ozma, former ruler of Oz and current space case.  All she has to go on is the Wizard's assurance that she can succeed in her task once she has collected the three most powerful objects in Oz.  With the tin man's still beating heart squirreled away in her satchel, Amy sets out to find the rest her compatriates, collect the Lion's courage and Scarecrow's brain, and finally kill Dororthy.

For those people new to the story, this is not the Oz we grew up with.  It is much grittier and features some truly dark characters.  There are gruesome deaths (usually at Amy's hand) and some scary moments that are not for the faint of heart.  This creates an action-packed plot that is near impossible to put down (even when it is past midnight and you know that your 3 month old will be waking in a few hours!) 

In this second book in the series, Danielle Paige has expanded to cast of characters and moved beyond those we may be familiar with.  We meet LuLu, the monkey queen with a past close to the crown, Bright, a beautiful but cowardly young man and Polychrome, the rainbow fairy who appears to have a great deal more going on beneath the surface.  Of course our old favorites reappear and we get to see a developing relationship between Amy and Nox.  Amy experiences a great deal of growth within this novel as she learns more and more about the magic of Oz and balances the line between good and wicked.  She is not your simpering, goody-two shoes character who whines about her lot in life and she never hesitates to do the dirty work - even when that involves beheadings!

We follow Amy and Ozma through several new, enchanting lands and get a glimpse of what Oz could have been without the influence of Dorothy and Glinda.  These worlds are truly magical and I only wish the book had been longer so that we could spend more time in these incredible places.  We also get to see a twisted, macabre version of the Emerald City and discover that the liberation of Oz has become even more complicated than we had previously thought.  In the end, we are left on a cliffhanger that had me thinking about the book all night long and pining for the release of the next in the series (2017? Say it ain't so?!)

If you haven't already, do yourself a favor and pick up this book.  And while you are at it, grab the novellas as well. They add an interesting dimension to the story and allow you to immerse yourself in Oz just that little bit longer.

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age:  13 and up
Sex: Kissing
Violence: Knifeplay, Swordplay, Death by Beheading, Death by Strangulation
Inappropriate Language: Fuck, Dick, Shit,
Substance Use/Abuse: Smoking

Monday, April 6, 2015

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Title: Shadow Scale
Author: Rachel Hartman
Random House Children's Books
Release Date:
March 10, 2015

Cover Impressions: These covers are so intricate.  I can't help but stare at all the little details and I love the color.  I wonder if the physical copy has the iridescence that the Seraphina re-do did.

The Gist:
The kingdom of Goredd: a world where humans and dragons share life with an uneasy balance, and those few who are both human and dragon must hide the truth. Seraphina is one of these, part girl, part dragon, who is reluctantly drawn into the politics of her world. When war breaks out between the dragons and humans, she must travel the lands to find those like herself—for she has an inexplicable connection to all of them, and together they will be able to fight the dragons in powerful, magical ways.

As Seraphina gathers this motley crew, she is pursued by humans who want to stop her. But the most terrifying is another half dragon, who can creep into people’s minds and take them over. Until now, Seraphina has kept her mind safe from intruders, but that also means she’s held back her own gift. It is time to make a choice: Cling to the safety of her old life, or embrace a powerful new destiny?

Shadow Scale continues the story of half-dragon, Seraphina as she seeks out others of her kind and endeavors to find a way to save her home from the fallout of a dragon civil war.  Seraphina still struggles with who she is as she travels the region meeting hatred in some and acceptance in others.  
Shadow Scale features some fantastic characters.  First, we continue with the half dragons we have already met - Abdo, Lars and Dame Okra - all phenomenal characters in their own right.  Particularly with Dame Okra's sense of wit.
"'Ah children' growled Dame Okra, watching him climb. 'I forget what darlings they are.  How I long for the opportunity to forget once more.'"

But, as Seraphina travels we get to encounter even more half-dragons and see how the avatars in her mind garden compare to the actual specimen.  It was fascinating to see how the dragon side manifested in each of these people and the different motivations of each.  We are also able to see the impact of location and upbringing as we travel from Goredd, where Seraphina hid among the people of the city, to Ninys, where the Ityasaari were banished from society, to Porphyry, where they experienced their own sense of community and family.  We also see more of Jannoula, raised in the worse of circumstances and playing her own game with the people, Ityasaari and dragons.  We spend a great deal of time trying to ascertain her motivations and whether or not she can be trusted.  This adds a sense of intrigue and mystery to the plot.  
The story itself lags a little as we get bogged down in several different places.  There are instances where Seraphina appears to spend a great deal of time in limbo, never really accomplishing anything and also times when the plot is slowed by a sense of helplessness as Seraphina appears unwilling or incapable of saving the people that she loves.  There are also several sections where the author delves into metaphor and introspection, particularly with regard to the inner workings of Seraphina's mind.  The whole concept of the mind garden and Jannoula's tethering is confusing at best, and I did find my eyes glazing over when the author tried to explain them.  The rest of the plot is much stronger, particularly after Seraphina returns to Goredd and the war approaches.  

This being YA, we can't quite escape the love interest aspect, but it is particularly well done in Shadow Scale.  Here we see two characters making a conscious choice not to be together because of the pain it will cause someone they both care about.  There are also some unexpected surprises to this portion of the plot which were a breath of fresh air to someone who has seen the same old love triangle over and over again.  I was also very thankful to Harman for the inclusion of diverse characters - those of color, of all sexualities and even transgendered.  Those aspects of the characters are not a plot device, or even their defining characteristic - it is simply part of them being well-developed characters.    

Bottom Line: Shadow Scale features some phenomenal characters and an interesting plot.  It is an excellent continuation of the story started in Seraphina and, in the end, will leave the reader satisfied, even if we do wish for books in this world. 
Notable Quotables: "Oh, good - he was dead, too. It wasn't just me."

Teaching/Parental Notes:

12 and up
Sex:  Kissing
Violence: Swordplay, Knifeplay, Death by Falling
Inappropriate Language: Bastard
Substance Use/Abuse: None

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lies I Told by Michelle Zink

Title: Lies I Told
Author: Michelle Zink
Publisher: HarperTeen
Release Date: April 7, 2015
Rating: 3/5

Cover Impressions:
  Not as compelling as it could be.  I like the mysterious feel of the shadowy figure but this cover has been done before. 

The Gist:

Grace Fontaine has everything: beauty, money, confidence, and the perfect family.

But it’s all a lie.

Grace has been adopted into a family of thieves who con affluent people out of money, jewelry, art, and anything else of value. Grace has never had any difficulty pulling off a job, but when things start to go wrong on the Fontaines' biggest heist yet, Grace finds herself breaking more and more of the rules designed to keep her from getting caught...including the most important one of all: never fall for your mark.

Lies I Told tells the story of a family of con artists as they embark on their biggest heist to date.  Having spent considerable time in the foster care system and been adopted during her teens, this life is the only one that Grace knows.  She trusts her family implicitely and follows their rules to elude suspicion.  Until there is a boy.  Logan is supposed to be just another mark and Grace is supposed to worm her way into his good graces in order to allow her family the opportunity to steal from his father.  But this is different than other jobs and Logan is different from other boys.  Grace finds herself losing her drive and wishing for a different life, a life in which she can have a future with the boy she is falling for.  Meanwhile, her brother Parker is becoming more and more disillusioned with the life they have been taught to lead.  He wants out, and he wants Grace to come with him.  As she falls deeper and deeper into the con, Grace must decide which will stand, her loyalty to her brother, to her parents, or to the boy who has won her heart.

While the first half of the book is a little slow to get started, it does feature some fascinating facets of the life of a con family, for example the fact that they have a "war room" in each home and that details of the job are only discussed there.  It also develops the details necessary to pull of their job and allows for the developing romance of Grace and Logan, a romance that is, thankfully, more slow-burn than insta-love.  The plot gets more and more exciting as we approach the heist and it has some truly heart stopping moments.  

I was a little disappointed in the characters.  Most of them are pretty one-dimensional and, other than Grace herself, we see most characters as part of a larger group and don't get to know any of them all that well on their own.  The one stand-out was Rachel.  She was suspicious of Grace from the moment she met her and didn't quite fit the stereotype of Rich Girl Queen Bee.  In fact, I found myself wishing that this had been written as a dual narrative so that we could watch Rachel as she sought out the truth about Grace and her family.  I wasn't a great fan of Grace at the beginning as she tended to whine a little too much about the type of life she had.  Coming into the book, I had been hoping for a character who reveled in the life and, perhaps, began to change her ways through the plot.  Grace however, was already becoming frustrated with never staying in one place and with the guilt that came from befriending people only to betray them.  As the novel wore on, she became much more of an agreeable character and, with help of the surprising ending, I have high hopes for her in the next novel.  
The novel truly shines in its ending.  From the moment the heist itself gets under way the plot becomes much more exciting and each page had me coming up with a new theory about how it would end.  I was surprised by how satisfying the ending was, while still making me anticipate the next book. 

Lies I Told is a solid introduction into a new series and a great read for fans of espionage and betrayal. 

Teaching/Parental Notes:

Age: 13 and up
Kissing, Sex between teenagers - not described
Violence: None
Inappropriate Language: Fuck, Shit, Assholes, Bitch, Jesus
Substance Use/Abuse: Underage Drinking, Marijuana Use

This Review can also be found on Young Adult Books Central