Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

I liked Rae Carson's Walk on Earth a Stranger very much, with one notable exception: the lazy, useless, no-good burden of a reverend. That trope was thin and tired seventy years ago, and I'm taking off a full star for it. I expected better from the author of the Girl of Fire and Thorns series, which explored the complexities of faith and belief in a beautiful, authentic way.

Still, there was much about Walk on Earth a Stranger to love. The main character yearned for freedom, and deeply enjoyed her taste of it while posing as a boy, but she didn't gleefully throw off all trappings of the feminine. Putting back on a skirt, she said, felt like being in her own skin again. She didn't want to abandon being a woman--she wanted freedom as a woman.

There were a wide variety of other well-developed female characters, with complex relationships and motivations. And the male lead, Jefferson, was wonderful.

This book reminded me, too, of why I loved the Western genre so much as a kid: the danger, maybe, the thrill and drama, but mostly the possibility. The wide-open sky. The idea that anything could be around the next bend or over the next ridge. Adding a touch of magic just makes it better.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review: Hour of Mischief by Aimee Hyndman

Aimee Hyndman's Hour of Mischief was a fun, fast-paced romp through an original steampunk setting, and despite a few pesky editing problems, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In a clockwork world where time itself relies on a pantheon of clockwork gods, 17-year-old Janet pulls heists with her little found-family of thieves. A job gone bad lands them in prison, where the irreverent trickster God of Mischief, Itazura, offers Janet a chance to save her friends by working with him to avert the apocalypse.

Janet was a great MC: tough, funny, haunted, utterly loyal to her team, and completely in over her head. Itazura served as a good foil--charming, witty, alien, and never quite trustworthy. The supporting cast was mostly well-developed, too. As a person with anxiety, I especially liked the character of Sylvia, Janet's teammate and dear friend, who was smart, observant, had a great head for strategy, and suffered anxiety attacks. I wished Sylvia had gotten more focus.

The world-building unfolded naturally, and drew me in until I was completely absorbed. By the end, I dearly wanted to know more about Janet's world, its characters and creatures, and its eventual fate.

There were a few drawbacks: Despite the good storytelling, Hour of Mischief could have used further editing to clear up its occasional grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. Also, I had expected a stand-alone novel, and was caught by surprise when the storyline was not wrapped up. But despite the rough edges, I liked Janet and her world well enough that I will be picking up the sequel, whenever it arrives.

*I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Review: Black Widow Forever Red by Margaret Stohl

I nearly wept for joy when I saw that Margaret Stohl's Black Widow: Forever Red was going to exist. Natasha Romanoff is one of my favorite fictional characters. Now she's going to be in a YA novel--my favorite genre?! Life couldn't get any better!

Well... It could, a bit.

Natasha's characterization is... unsteady. She flips back and forth between arctic and maternal at a dizzying pace. I think that might have been meant to convey internal conflict, but it just comes off as inconsistent, in my opinion. Her characterization, to me, is not as bad as Tony Stark's, however. In the MCU, Tony is fascinating, as much as he's a jerk: crackling with humor and impudence, thinly layered over trauma and insecurity. In this book, he sounded like he was trying to be funny but didn't quite have the wit to pull it off. And the damage that's always just under the surface? Nowhere to be seen.

And as for the original characters, teenagers Ava and Alex: Tropes. Tropes everywhere. It's not all bad, and they have their moments of being likeable, but there wasn't anything really original about them, nothing I haven't seen done dozens of times. Seemingly ordinary teenagers have a super-special suppressed past that comes roaring back in hidden memories! They're drawn together and feel like soulmates even though they don't know why! INSTA-LOVE!

Spoilers for this section (highlight to reveal): A character dies in the end (there are hints of this all through the book), and hir relationship to another character means that we should care about hir a lot, but I just... Didn't. I finished the book and went, "Hmm. Okay. Well, zie ain't gettin' any deader." Which tells you something about my lack of emotional connection to hir and everyone else.


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Review: Wardbreaker by J. A. Cipriano

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to the author!

J. A. Cipriano's Ward Breaker was a book with great potential.

There were a lot of intriguing things about the world in which it was set. I liked most of the characters. It was occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. And somewhere past the 70% point, I started forgetting to take reviewer's notes because I was reading quickly to find out what happened.

Unfortunately, it could not quite live up to that potential because it really, really needed an editor.

Misspellings ("feint" instead of "faint," for example) and grammar errors were quite common. Some of the most intriguing plot points or characters were dropped, never to be seen again, and the world, while interesting, was not fleshed out nearly as well as it might have been.

Lillim Callina, the main character, is not from Earth. She's a member of a magical race called the Dioscuri. By the end of the book, I still didn't have much of a feel for exactly who the Dioscuri are as a people, or where Lillim grew up. An alternate world? Somewhere on Earth that just held itself separate from everyone else? I know there are more books in the series, but I'd still like to have at least a slightly better feel for where this girl comes from, since her not being from Earth was made into such a plot point. (Inconsistently: she apparently knew what string cheese was, but not what the term "nurse" meant. She also seemed to have pretty good snark and pop culture knowledge for someone who was clueless about Earth, which I excused because it was funny.)

I liked Lillim, and most of the other major characters. Lillim is a former great warrior reincarnated into a teenage girl, which provided great opportunities for conflict--everyone near-idolized the person she was before, and Lillim doesn't feel she can live up to it--but, like several interesting plot threads, that was dropped pretty quickly.

Lillim's male lead, Jean Luc, was a mystery wrapped in an enigma: I liked him, and how his relationship with Lillim unfolded, well enough. I also liked Danae, the succubus who didn't much care for sex, and I'd hope to see both of them return in later books.

The main antagonist was creepy and vicious and difficult to beat: once s/he showed up I was always invested--though it was sometimes hard to follow exactly what was at stake on a global scale--because the risk to the major characters felt so immediate.

Bottom line: Lots to love, but I would hope to see an editor's touch to improve spelling and grammar and tighten up plot and characterization in later books.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I cannot believe it took me this long to finally read Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea. (I feel like I'm at risk of losing my credibility as a lifelong YA fantasy fan!) But now that I have read it, I definitely understand the hype.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the coming-of-age story. It is quiet and lush and intelligent. It is full of wonder, but does not flinch from the horrible.

Gifted with incredible magic, young Ged makes a mistake--a proud, thoughtless mistake, a child's mistake--which is magnified because of his power. He spends much of the rest of the book seeking to atone, and to track down the terrible, nameless thing unleashed by his actions.

The world-building is exquisite. Ged's journey, his search for atonement always interwoven with his discovery of the shape and nature and name of things, is deeply compelling.

I will confess to some surprise at the lack of female characters--the only one I recall being positively portrayed was a fourteen-year-old who seemed to know her place, who dutifully took care of her household--but I have hope that will be remedied in later books.

If, like me, you have managed to miss this classic, I advise giving it a read as soon as possible.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Waiting On" Wednesday: Revenge and the Wild

"Waiting on" Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by the ladies at Breaking The Spine. In it, book bloggers talk about the upcoming books they're most excited about.

Finding a book isn't a problem for me. Choosing one is. There are always far too many upcoming books I'm just dying to read.

Today's pick is Michelle Modesto's REVENGE AND THE WILD, which is scheduled for release on February 2, 2016.

The two-bit town of Rogue City is a lawless place, full of dark magic and saloon brawls, monsters and six-shooters. But it's perfect for seventeen-year-old Westie, the notorious adopted daughter of local investor Nigel Butler.
Westie was only a child when she lost her arm and her family to cannibals on the wagon trail. Nine years later, Westie may seem fearsome with her foul-mouthed tough exterior and the powerful mechanical arm built for her by Nigel, but the memory of her past still haunts her. She's determined to make the killers pay for their crimes--and there's nothing to stop her except her own reckless ways.
But Westie's search ceases when a wealthy family comes to town looking to invest in Nigel's latest invention, a machine that can harvest magic from gold--which Rogue City desperately needs as the magic wards that surround the city start to fail. There's only one problem: the investors look exactly like the family who murdered Westie's kin. With the help of Nigel's handsome but scarred young assistant, Alistair, Westie sets out to prove their guilt. But if she's not careful, her desire for revenge could cost her the family she has now.
This thrilling novel is a remarkable tale of danger and discovery, from debut author Michelle Modesto.
(Summary from Goodreads.)
I cut my teeth on Westerns, and their current resurgence warms the cockles of my heart. Plus: magic? Monsters? Mechanical arms? A beautiful cover? All adds up to a book I very much want to read. Please don't let me down, Revenge and the Wild.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

YA Recs: Recent Fantasy Favorites

I like a little variety in my fantasy. Sometimes I'm in the mood for a fairy tale that breaks free of retelling the same old stories. (What are we up to now, five Cinderellas? Nothing against them--Marissa Meyer's Cinder is wonderful--but it's so nice to have a new story on occasion.)

Naomi Novik's Uprooted delivers there. Does it ever. The characters are as lush and wonderful as the world-building. Full of detailed, grounded magic, encroaching evil, and beautifully drawn relationships, Uprooted was one of my recent favorites. For me, this was a book that lived up to the hype.

Sometimes, though, I'm in the mood for a little magical realism.

Moira Fowley-Doyle's The Accident Season is hard to describe. It's about secrets, and shadows, and shattering. It's about families, the ways we break ourselves and each other, the things we hide and how they always come back to haunt us. While the secrets underlying the "accident season" were intriguing, I ended up caring more about the damaged, sympathetic characters, and how they might find some measure of healing.

Or what about good, old-fashioned second-world fantasy? Not a fairy tale, just solid world-building and a great story.


Miriam Forster's Bhinian Empire series (City of a Thousand Dolls and Empire of Shadows) is set in a richly-imagined world populated with shape-changers and based loosely on ancient India. With so many books already based on European mythology, this setting provided a refreshing change. I deeply enjoyed both books. (They are connected and set in the same world, but feature different main characters.)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Review: Beastly Bones by William Ritter

Far from suffering "second book syndrome," William Ritter's Beastly Bones--sequel to Jackaby, which I reviewed here--was, I thought, superior in nearly every way to its predecessor.

Jackaby was a fun book, but suffered a bit from lack of originality. It read like a mashup of "Sherlock" and "Doctor Who," with just enough likable characters and original concepts to keep it afloat. Beastly Bones takes flight from where Jackaby left off, advancing the world-building and the characterization of existing characters, and introducing several fascinating new players and supernatural beasties.

Characters and events that seem unrelated all tie back together in the end, culminating in a suspenseful, explosive finale that I did not see coming. And have no fear--the lovable character from Jackaby who seemed to have been Put On A Bus at the end is present and accounted for here. This book takes place in his new home.

Unlike many second books of trilogies, Beastly Bones refuses to end on a maddening, scream-inducing cliffhanger. It ties up the storyline in a satisfying way, while also effectively setting up the villain and story of the third book.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

(This review contains some mild spoilers.)

I wanted to love Erin Bowman's Vengeance Road.

I am a child of the West, daughter of generations of pioneers (raised, as you might expect, on Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey). My grandmother's father, born in 1887, lived to be 101, dying just after I was born. Though I don't remember him, my childhood was filled with the rhythm of the stories he passed down, among those from many other close relatives--mountain men and trappers; children who grew up in covered wagons; farmers and ranchers and one great-uncle who broke out of the Texas Rangers' jail (mostly to say he'd done it).

I'm excited that Westerns are coming back into fashion. I was especially excited about Vengeance Road, because it sounded good--and, well, look at that cover. I'm shallow about beautiful covers.

I could not love it, sadly, though it had some positives. The first and foremost reason I could not love it was because the dialect is very wrong. The Western dialect, which I grew up speaking as a "first language," may sound uneducated to outsiders, but it has its own consistent internal grammatical rules. It also has a powerful and beautiful storytelling tradition--which does no good unless you understand it.

Dear authors: Please do not write in a dialect with which you are unfamiliar unless you are going to make a SERIOUS effort to familiarize yourself with it.

Read books written by people who either speak the dialect natively, or who did their research well (ideally the former). Watch movies for which the same rules apply. Listen to stories being told by people who speak the dialect. (This website is a great resource for that.) While you are doing those things, pay attention. Then, once your book is written, get beta readers who speak the dialect. They will tell you what you've done wrong so you can try to fix it.

The Western dialect does not consist of misspellings and incorrect grammar. No one in real life has ever said, and I quote: "I's gonna said rude." We might say, "He done it" or "I seen him leave" or (in the older, pioneer generation) "He taked a bath." We would never say "I's gonna said rude." It makes my brain hurt just thinking about it.

Beyond the dialect issues--which, I'm sure, bothered me more than most--was the lack of real consequences. I enjoy some ruthlessness--True Grit is a classic, of course--but early in the book, Kate's quest for revenge leads her to kill an innocent person. Though it is technically in self-defense, due to a misunderstanding, the man is no less dead.

This is mentioned a few more times throughout the book, but it has no real consequences, and Kate still gets her happy ending--unlike the dead man. It's that lack of consequences, rather than the ruthlessness itself, that bothered me about that particular plot point. If a heroine is going to essentially mow down bystanders in her quest for revenge, I like to see that followed through.

Then there was the treatment of Native Americans. It could have been worse--Liluye, the Apache girl, had little interest in helping the white people, and was definitely the lead of her own story in her own mind--but it was stereotypical overall. "Indians" were presented as the violent, faceless bogeyman for much of the story, and once they appeared as individuals, Liluye and her people fit the shallow "at one with Mother Earth" stereotype you see in movies like Pocahontas.

This isn't to say there weren't positives. Kate's brutal, ruthless pursuit of "justice" (actually revenge) was sometimes compelling, and might have been more so had her actions been followed by real, permanent consequences. Kate's act of saving Liluye's life would usually have led to the tired, ugly old trope of a person of color who is blindly devoted to serving the white main character, and though the treatment of the Apache characters was tired and trope-y in nearly every other way, it was refreshing to have Liluye go, "Forget this, I owe you people pretty much nothing." There's one moment, between Kate and her love interest, that demonstrates consent in a very healthy way. And toward the end of the book, there was a twist I very much didn't see coming.

What killed the story for me was: The lack of consequences (for Kate), the stereotypical Natives, and the clumsy attempt at Western dialect, which at its best absolutely glows in storytelling.


Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston

I had the privilege of reading an ARC of E. K. Johnston's A Thousand Nights (in exchange for an honest review), and it emerged as one of my recent favorites. It features gorgeous world-building and vivid, well-developed depiction of scenery and culture. (I'm not at all surprised to find that the author has spent considerable time in the Middle East.) The characterization is wonderful, with a truly beautiful relationship between the sisters, who remain unnamed, but whose love for each other transforms the world.

I drank in the beautiful, concise prose and the taut pacing, and after I was done reading, my mind kept going back to the underlying themes: the power of storytelling; the power of choosing to sacrifice oneself for another, out of love; the power that can be claimed by women, even in societies where they are afforded little.

I got to read an ARC, but I pre-ordered another copy anyway. I want this book to succeed, and I want more books like it. This is the re-telling of Scheherazade that I've been longing to read.


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Review: Jackaby by William Ritter

William Ritter's Jackaby is advertised as "Sherlock" meets "Doctor Who," and it doesn't disappoint on that count. For me, that was mostly a good thing.

Occasionally it was a little too on-the-nose--I could hear Sherlock's or the Doctor's voice in the brilliant, eccentric Jackaby's--but mostly I thought the author succeeded in creating a distinct character and world despite the influence of those two powerhouse British properties.

Intelligent, headstrong Abigail, daughter of a famous paleontologist and a proper Englishwoman, determines to forge her own path in the world and quickly finds herself assistant to Jackaby, a man of science who believes only in what he can see. He just so happens to be able to see the mystical world beyond our own. The two dive into pursuit of a Ripper-like serial killer who may or may not be supernatural, their mission both helped and hindered by a series of mystical encounters.

In addition to the main cast, I enjoyed the setting, and the minor characters--the brave but sad ghost, Jenny, who serves as Jackaby's housekeeper; the handsome policeman with a secret, upon whom Abigail develops a crush; and the near-madwoman whose Sight is as likely to show her a jumble of horrifying nonsense as anything helpful, but to whom all dangers are equally real.

Though Jackaby was not necessarily the most original book I have ever read, all the components were solid, and the plot threads wove together to a satisfying--and surprisingly action-packed--conclusion. I will definitely be picking up the sequel when it comes out later this fall.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes

I enjoyed Shaunta Grimes's Viral Nation. The world-building was good. The book kept me interested enough to finish. It was also nice to have an autistic main character, Clover, who felt like a real character, though I wasn't always sure how to feel about her. (I'm not autistic, so I can't speak with authority; for a great review by actual autistic people, including author Corinne Duyvis, go to Disability in Kidlit here.)

On the downside, sometimes things seemed to happen just because they served the plot, and the ending felt extremely anti-climactic.

I will probably read the next book, because this one was well-done enough to make me wonder what might happen next; and by the end, I was starting to care about Clover and her world and her friends.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Love in the Time of Global Warming is a strange, ethereal retelling of The Odyssey in a post-apocalyptic world, focusing on a teenage girl in search of her family. I can see how the choppy back-and-forth structure, lack of internal logic, and sometimes implausible characters might bother some people, but I was able to turn my brain down and enjoy the lovely, lyrical prose.

The main character, Penelope, was an enjoyable narrator, especially in her fierce love of her little brother, whom she, with a big sibling's single-minded focus, considered the most beautiful and worth person alive.

All in all, a weird but quick and enjoyable read.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin

I grew up a quiet, introverted child roaming the remote canyons of the Texas Hill Country, searching for magic. I saw myself as fundamentally wrong because I just couldn't become an extrovert, no matter how hard I tried. Nikki Loftin's Wish Girl is the book I needed.

Peter is gentle and thoughtful, and doesn't fit in his loud family. Smart, artistic Annie has a disease that could kill her, but the treatment could leave her with permanent brain damage; she's as afraid of that as she is of dying. They find each other in a canyon whose quiet magic can turn distinctly ugly to those who don't respect it.

Wish Girl is about life and death. It's about children and the choices they are or aren't allowed to make for themselves, and how powerless they feel (and how there are no easy answers to that, because they are still children). It's about how our society sees quiet, gentle people as broken, especially if they are boys. It's a beautiful love letter to nature and silence, and the value of closing your eyes and listening for a while.

The book itself, for all its quiet magic, doesn't shy away from hard questions and sharp edges, which gives them powerful impact when they come. Child or adult, introvert or extrovert: I think everyone should read this book.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Review: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

There's a gap in the cornfields, and if you fall through, you'll find yourself Somewhere Else.

Laura Ruby's Bone Gap is one of the most original books I've read recently, twining together the eerie and the mundane, the past and the present, in a truly haunting medley.

Finn knows beautiful Roza was taken, but he can't tell by whom. His brother Sean, who loved her, can't forgive him for that. Finn determines to find Roza, even as he falls for Petey, the local Bee Girl--called that both for the fact that she raises bees, and for her strange face which entrances Finn, even as others call it ugly.

In the past, Roza leaves her homeland for America, where she encounters a man who will do anything to own her--even pull her out of our world, through the gaps into Somewhere Else.

Weird and dusty and beautiful, Bone Gap was packed with original characters, in an ordinary little town that was anything but, beneath a looming threat as inexorable as a summer storm.

The greatest power of magical realism, in my opinion, is its plausibility: we've all had those moments where we could almost sense something more, just beyond the edges of the known world. This book made excellent use of that, weaving a story out of the ordinary otherworldly magic of cornfields, silvered and rustling in the moonlight... and the all-too-common, terrifying menace of men who would go to any length to possess women they find beautiful.