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Tease
Tease
by Amanda Maciel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.21
78 used & new from $3.55

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Infuriating, brilliant, and important, July 18, 2014
This review is from: Tease (Hardcover)
From the opening pages of TEASE, I knew I wasn't going to like Sara -- and that it was okay. It's a rare YA book that has such a purposely unlikable narrator (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL) but when you're reading about a girl that bullied her classmate to the point of suicide, you don't really expect her to be all sweetness and light.

If you are looking for sweetness and light, a warning: there is none of that in these pages.

Sara is self-centered, whiny, and seems to lack even a trace of empathy for everyone around her. Her rolling eyes and her "like, whatever" attitude immediately set the tone for the rest of the book. This wasn't a girl I wanted to root for. This was a girl I wanted to take by the shoulders and shake every time she repeated her "But I didn't do anything" mantra -- which she does for almost the entire novel, which alternates chapters between the months leading up to Emma's suicide and the months following.

In the flashbacks, we get to watch Sara and her BFF Brielle (think Regina George from "Mean Girls," except worse) be utterly, inexcusably horrible Emma. They're vicious and cruel and infuriating. But what's interesting is that we also get to see that Emma was no saint herself. She made mistakes. She did some underhanded stuff. In Sara and Brielle's eyes, she earned every bit of vitriol they spit at her. From Sara's perspective, she was the victim of Emma's cruelty, since Emma "stole" her boyfriend. Sara and Brielle were certain that Emma's tears were a stunt to grab attention, and that everything she did was intended to irritate them.

Now, does that excuse what they did to Emma? No. Not in the slightest. I thought Brielle was an absolutely horrible person (and totally undeserving of Sara's devotion to her) and that despite Emma's missteps, the punishments that Sara and Brielle doled out were far, far worse. They were toxic in every way. Watching them revel in their constant abuse of Emma was sickening and horrifying, especially since we kept flashing forward to the period after Emma had died and Sara still couldn't see that she did anything wrong.

That was the most disturbing part for me. How even after Emma was dead, Sara still couldn't understand the role she played. She still thought that Emma deserved what they'd done, and that the main problem was her lack of ability to take a joke.

It may sound like I'm trying to discourage you from reading this book, but here's the thing -- I thought TEASE was brilliant. I spent the majority of it furious with Sara and Brielle, but I thought it did an amazing job of showing how bullying happens without romanticizing either the perpetrators or the victims in the slightest. Sara is a terrible bully, but then we get to see her be a wonderful big sister to her two brothers (although let's be clear - I never really liked her). Emma is absolutely a victim, but she also purposely provokes them on a few occasions. Brielle is...well, Brielle is awful. But her awfulness is still somehow raw and real. Every character in TEASE was fully-formed and utterly believable, which is one of the things that made it so challenging. It wasn't like reading a story. It was like watching these events unfold in real life, and watching these kids self-destruct, and being unable to do anything about it.

But that's the beauty of a book. Because despite the fact that Emma, Sara, and Brielle don't exist, there are kids just like them who do, and maybe after reading TEASE, they will think twice about pulling a prank or starting a rumor. I think it's good that TEASE is infuriating, because maybe if a reader is furious with Sara, she will try harder to avoid being like Sara.

The prose is far from poetic, peppered with frequent, "like"s, "I don't know"s, "whatever"s, and "or something"s from Sara, who narrates exactly like the bored, insecure, self-centered teen she is. Her voice gives the whole book an authenticity that I don't think could have been achieved with a more lyrical style. It's a book where I thought the writing was perfection, even though it kind of made me want to rip my hair out.

Which is kind of the theme with every part of TEASE. Infuriating brilliance. Flawless abhorrence. Frustrating authenticity.

TEASE is not an easy book to read, but I found it impossible to put down. It's beautiful and ugly and terrifying and real, and I think there should be a copy in every high school library. It's not a book that made me cry, but it's a book that made me think. I never really came to root for the characters, but I'm not sure that was the point of this book. I hope that in a strange way, this book about these kids who totally lacked empathy will be able to inspire empathy in the Saras and Brielles who are reading. Not toward these fictional characters, but to the real people they encounter every day. I hope they'll be able to put themselves in someone else's shoes and choose the higher road. The one that Sara and Brielle never took.

And to any Emmas out there, hang on. There is always hope.


Prisoner of Night and Fog
Prisoner of Night and Fog
by Anne Blankman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.30
63 used & new from $7.33

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating historical tale, July 15, 2014
I’m no historian by any means, but I have a deep appreciation for a well researched piece of historical fiction. Even when I know very little about a time period, I think that when an author does her homework, it shows. This is especially essential when the subject matter is one about which many readers already have formed opinions — in this case, the Nazi (National Socialist) Party and Adolf Hitler. I was excited, but a little wary, to see how Anne Blankman would approach such a delicate topic. I knew the protagonist starts the book very close to Hitler, but surely she couldn’t actually like Hitler? Surely the author wouldn’t dare paint Hitler as a nice guy who’s been horribly misunderstood?

I needn’t have worried. While, yes, protagonist Gretchen Müller is very fond of Hitler when we meet her, referring to him as Uncle Dolf, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG very thoughtful in its approach to her beliefs and her interactions with the infamous Führer. I could see how this young, intelligent girl would have been won over by Hitler’s charisma and propaganda. It was clear a lot of care had been put into Hitler’s portrayal, and Gretchen’s perception of him, and I found it extremely believable.

It was chilling to see characters that truly seemed like good people embrace Hitler’s horrifying ideals. Some of the Nazi characters in this book were, indeed, monsters, but many were otherwise decent folk who didn’t seem to see how wrong their beliefs and actions truly were. One by one, they all turn against Gretchen when they realize she’s pulling away from the Party, in a series of events that becomes more and more terrifying as Gretchen sees how deep Hitler’s poison has sunk into the hearts of her German friends and neighbors. Watching as Gretchen slowly has the wool pulled from her eyes was both compelling and heartbreaking, especially when I considered that this story takes place before World War II, which meant opposing Hitler would only become more difficult for Gretchen.

The murder plot is exciting, but I have to admit, it wasn’t much of a mystery. The reveals that shocked Gretchen I found somewhat predictable, but I didn’t mind, because I wasn’t really reading to learn who killed Gretchen’s father. The answer was interesting — and tied brilliantly into a real historical event — but the aspect of the story that gripped me the most wasn’t the ten-year-old crime, but how Gretchen would survive once she knew the truth.

Likewise, I loved watching Gretchen’s interaction with Jewish reporter Daniel. It was fascinating to watch Gretchen grow from someone who mindlessly accepted that Jews were subhuman into someone who understood the value and humanity in all people. The love story was sweet, but much like the murder mystery, it was secondary for me. I was mostly invested for Gretchen’s internal change and growth. It’s rare to read a book where the protagonist wholeheartedly buys into the rightness of society’s harmful ideals, and then is forced to change her mind and heart completely when she is faced with the truth. I thought PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG handled that transformation wonderfully.

As I mentioned before, the attention to historical detail in this story is commendable. While Gretchen, Daniel, and several other important characters are fictitious, many of the characters in this book were real people, in addition to Hitler himself. Similarly, many of the events and locations referenced also were based on true historical accounts. I thought Anne Blankman’s thorough research and her thoughtful portrayal of history helped the fictional events leap off the page, and gave her story a real air of believably. I don’t think anyone should pick up a historical fiction novel expecting a 100% educational experience, but I do think PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG helped shed a light on a period of history that isn’t often taught in schools, and did so with a lot of care and respect to the time period. The plot of the story may be fictitious, but the backdrop was real, and I thought the balance between the two was wonderful.

Overall, I found PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG a fascinating read, full of compelling characters and challenging questions, set in one of the most intriguing and terrifying periods of history. If you enjoy well-written, thoughtfully researched historical fiction, or simply great characters making hard choices against overwhelming odds, I highly recommend you give it a try.


We Were Liars
We Were Liars
by E. Lockhart
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.90
105 used & new from $6.97

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Left me thinking for days afterward, May 13, 2014
This review is from: We Were Liars (Hardcover)
Obviously, the summary gives you very little to go on to decide if you want to read this book. For me, it worked for friends to shove it into my hands saying, you will like this. But that’s because they know my taste. You probably need a little more to go on, because I actually don’t believe this book is for everyone.

So here’s the most non-spoilery summary I can give:

WE WERE LIARS is about a group of four teens (three cousins, one friend) who grow up spending their summers with their families on a private island. When they are fifteen, the narrator, Cady, has an accident. She hits her head and loses her memory, suffers a traumatic brain injury, and spends two years convalescing under the watchful eyes of her parents. She never can recall what happened to her, but she misses the island and begs to return. So when she is seventeen, she does.

Only this time, everything is different. And no one will tell her why.

This is a hard book to peg down. It’s not the suspenseful page-turner I thought it would be, given the back cover copy (although it is a speedy read). Nor is it the quiet literary fiction that it feels like in parts. It’s a mystery that doesn’t read like a mystery. It’s a modern story that feels vaguely historical because of the isolated setting (Internet, phones, cable all don’t seem to work on the island). It’s psychologically manipulative, but then again, maybe it’s not.

It’s an enigma. It defies categorization.

The prose is gorgeous, but detached. It took me a while to become completely engrossed in this book because I couldn’t emotionally connect with the narrator. I was always interested in the plot and wanted to see what happened; I just wasn’t invested until about the halfway point. (Take this with a grain of salt – I have many friends who were utterly riveted by page 1.)

That said, once I was in, I was all in. This book solidly staked its claim on the “There Were Tears” shelf in my brain, and let me tell you, that is a small shelf.

There are twists and red herrings galore in WE WERE LIARS, and whether or not you see them coming or find them satisfying is part of the draw of this book. I found it smart and well-executed and original, but I also was able to call some of the surprises early on. However, that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

This is a book you can only really discuss with others who have read it, and it’s one of very few books that I’ve heard people recommend even if they didn’t like it, just because they wanted to be able to talk about it. It’s well crafted, beautifully written, and unlike anything else I’ve read. It’ll leave you thinking for days (and, if you’re like me, you’ll flip back to the beginning and start reading again immediately after you finish, looking for the things you missed), and talking about it over dinner with your friends.

You know, the friends who read it because you made them read it because you just had to talk about it.

I will give you the disclaimer that this book isn’t one for people who need clear answers. There is a lot open for interpretation, and there is a very valid way of reading the book that could leave the reader in a pretty dark place. There’s also a more uplifting way to read, but if you prefer your endings unambiguously positive, this may not be the book for you.

That said, if you’re up for a ride into the twisting dark unknown, I hope you’ll give it a try.


The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare (Strange Chemistry)
The Fifty-Seven Lives of Alex Wayfare (Strange Chemistry)
by MG Buehrlen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.65
48 used & new from $3.65

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun, energetic, timey-wimey romp through history, March 8, 2014
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THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE does all sorts of things I don't see often in YA, and especially in this kind of intricately-plotted, genre-bending, world-building-heavy YA.

It gives our main character, Alex, an entire intact family unit, complete with parents, grandparents, and siblings, that is not dysfunctional in the slightest.

It puts at the center of the book a relationship that is in no way romantic, and a male lead who isn't even kind of swoony (unless you are about 40+ years older than the book's target audience, in which case 1) GOOD FOR YOU, and 2) go right ahead and swoon).

It presents three possible love interests for the main character, but at no time ever resembles a love triangle, square, hexagon, dodecahedron, or any other geometric shape. And of those three, not a single one is an obviously terrible choice.

Yet at the same time, Alex is not a She's-All-That-esque swan-in-ugly-duckling-clothing. When she takes off her nerd glasses, she is -- shockingly -- still a nerd. She never becomes magically popular. She isn't stunningly beautiful underneath her rumpled appearance. And she actually turns out to be less of a Chosen One than she originally thought.

This all brings me to the main reason I loved this book: It put characters first. A lot of time, even in good books, when there's this many EVENTS that have to happen on the pages, writers almost seem to run out of room to develop the characters. But with ALEX WAYFARE, the thing that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime wasn't the thrilling missions through time or the looming menace of the ever-nearing villain -- though those were fun too -- it was the heart in the characters. It was the fact that the characters rang true.

They reacted illogically. They made mistakes. They carried unfair prejudices. But these weren't just quirks. They weren't a laundry list of imperfections so that the characters could be more interesting. They gave the characters depth and history, even when I didn't agree with them.

Take Alex herself. At one point, she tells a boy that he should know that most girls are "shallow, shallow creatures." At first glance, a reader might be turned off by that line. That's an awfully sweeping statement to make about half the human race, isn't it? Isn't she a girl? Isn't her sister, who she adores, also a girl? Why does Alex think she's such a special snowflake?

But then you realize, Alex literally has no friends. Her only encounters with other girls are with the couple popular girls at school who bully her and gave her an ugly nickname. Everyone else seems to pretty much ignore her. She's under the impression that the entire school is constantly whispering about her, but in reality, they're probably not. It's just her perception of reality. As a result, she closes herself off and tries not to interact with anyone. Ever. So of course she thinks all girls are awful. Her only encounters with them have been negative, and as a coping mechanism, she's made sure that the only way she will continue to have contact with girls is if they seek her out. And who seeks her out? The bullies.

Vicious cycle.

This isn't the only example where Alex, or the other characters, rang true in their shortcomings. It's just one that stood out, because I remember going through a whole circuit of reactions when I read that line. Plus it's toward the end of the book, so it's fresh in my memory. I liked that MG Buehrlen didn't shy away from the less appealing aspects of her characters, but instead explored them and allowed me to see why they'd come to think or act the ways they did. In addition to being a bit prejudiced against her own gender, Alex is impulsive, naive, and kind of shockingly short-sighted at times.

But then these moments of weakness are balanced with strengths. Alex is also clever, inventive, brave, caring, and loyal. Her good points really do outweigh the bad, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her develop and mature throughout the story. And she's not the only one. I loved her family, and how involved they all were in each other's lives. I loved Porter, her middle-aged mentor who teaches her about herself. And I loved Blue, the boy she meets over and over again in each of her lives, and Jensen, the boy on whom she blames her social misfit status.

Outside of the characters, though, I loved the story itself. I loved the creative spin on a reincarnation story, and how each journey into Alex's past highlighted a different point in history. The narrative weaves seamlessly through different eras, jumping from the modern day to Prohibition-era Chicago to a train heist in the Wild West. It kept me constantly on my toes, wondering where I'd be transported to next, and opened the door to endless possibilities in the future. And I followed the logic of the time travel pretty easily, with most of my questions being answered just a few pages after I asked them.

All in all, I loved the timey-wimey goodness that is THE FIFTY-SEVEN LIVES OF ALEX WAYFARE. It was a fun, energetic romp through history with characters I enjoyed following on their various (mis)adventures. It helped me rediscover my love of the genre, and made me excited for what's to come in the series. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and when I turned the final page, I was left simultaneously satisfied and yearning for the next chapter in Alex's story. If you're a fan of time travel and adventure and history and heart, I highly recommend this one.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 11, 2014 9:17 AM PDT


Faking Normal
Faking Normal
by Courtney C. Stevens
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.22
75 used & new from $2.93

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Honest, important, and empowering, February 25, 2014
This review is from: Faking Normal (Hardcover)
FAKING NORMAL is one of those books that sucks you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go. It’s a quiet, introspective story, but the connection I felt with the characters and the truth that radiated from every page made it impossible to put down. Alexi isn’t like me, but her voice rang so true that I practically felt like I was her. No matter your personal experience going into FAKING NORMAL, she is written with such honesty that it’s impossible not to empathize with her. Even when she’s making bad choices. Even when she’s hurting herself. Even when she’s too petrified to speak up, no matter how much she should.

Alexi isn’t strong in the way we often think of “strong characters.” She is broken and she is scared and she is silent. She doesn’t seethe about what happened to her, she doesn’t cast blame on the people who wronged her, and justice doesn’t fuel her. She carries her burden alone, even though it weighs her down, because she feels she has no other choice. And though I spent the book yearning for her to take action and seek justice — because that’s what happens in books, right? — her strength was in her empathy, her selflessness, and her perseverance in putting one foot in front of the other. It wasn’t that her actions (and often, inactions) were right or healthy — arguably, they were neither — but that while some people would completely shut down after an ordeal like Alexi’s, she keeps going.

Then there is Bodee, who also doesn’t fit into the typical YA hero mold. He has his own struggles and fears and doubts, and he needs Alexi just as much as she needs him. He doesn’t swoop in and fix her problems, and she doesn’t fix his. Rather, they help each other find the strength to face the dark marks on their own souls. Readers will love Bodee not for his strong jaw and chiseled abs (neither of which he actually possesses…at least not in my mind), but for his gentle heart and quiet encouragement. I appreciated that Bodee was a friend more than a love interest, and that romance never dominated the story. FAKING NORMAL is a story of friendship and loss and betrayal and hardship and healing, and while there is romance, it is at most a supporting character, never the star.

FAKING NORMAL tackles difficult topics without ever seeming like an “issues” book. It’s not a “self-harm book” or a “sexual assault book” or a “domestic violence book,” even though at the surface, one might assume it is. But at its core, FAKING NORMAL isn’t about events and moments and trauma. It’s about healing and friendship and trust. It’s about finding light in the darkness, strength in unexpected places, and triumph in moving forward. It’s about being honest with yourself, and with the people who love you.

FAKING NORMAL isn’t the easiest book to read — although the clean, truthful prose certainly helps — but it’s worth the pain and the tears. While the events of Alexi and Bodee’s pasts are not universal (although for too many, they are), every reader can find themselves in the pages of FAKING NORMAL. Maybe not in action, but in heart. Everyone has dealt with dishonesty and helplessness and heartbreak, and everyone can use the (not so) occasional reminder to channel their brave.

I’ve read a lot of Contemporary YA fiction that was good, moving, even inspiring. But as I was turning the pages of FAKING NORMAL, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this book was something special. Important. Empowering. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait until this book is in the hands of teenagers and can start changing lives.” Because I really believe it will.


The Unbound (An Archived Novel) (The Archived)
The Unbound (An Archived Novel) (The Archived)
by Victoria Schwab
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.95
66 used & new from $5.63

5.0 out of 5 stars Everything I want and love in a sequel, January 28, 2014
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I expect a lot from sequels. I need them remind me of everything I enjoyed in the first book, but not retread old ground. I need them to give me new likable characters, while allowing me to grow closer to characters I’ve already met. I need the events of the previous books to have consequences, and for the actions of the characters to have repercussions. I need higher stakes, deeper world-building, tighter plots, and more satisfying resolutions. Whether it’s the second or the third or the tenth book in a series, I need each sequel to continue upping its game to keep me invested in the series. It’s a tall order that is hard to fill, which is why I often wind up settling for less.

I’m pleased to report that no settling was necessary in the case of The Unbound. The narrative picks up shortly after the events of The Archived, with heroine Mackenzie Bishop coping with the trauma of a betrayal that nearly killed her, and the fallout of the decisions she made as a result. In the meantime, her world is broadened by the start of the school year. The story is no longer confined to the halls of the Narrows and the rooms of the hotel-turned-apartment-building that Mackenzie calls home. Now she has to deal with a new school and new friends, and must work constantly to keep the ghosts of her past and the demons in her head quiet — while still proving to the Archive that she is a competent Keeper.

Fortunately, she’s not alone. Guyliner-sporting co-Keeper Wesley Ayers is once again by Mackenzie’s side, livening up her life with sass and sarcasm while also providing the grounding and support that only someone who knows her secrets can. Their relationship grows and deepens as it is tested by both the trials of high school and the string of disappearances that seem tied to Mackenzie. His humor and openness provide a much-needed balance to Mackenzie’s seriousness and secretiveness. Mackenzie also makes some friends at school, and it’s fun to see her interact with people her own age who don’t share knowledge of the Archive.

The new setting of Hyde School gives The Unbound a freshness that is much appreciated after the purposefully claustrophobic confines of The Archived. With the move into the world outside the hotel, the scope becomes greater and the stakes feel higher. It’s interesting how the broadened environment plays with the narrowing walls of Mackenzie’s mind, as no matter where she goes, she can’t escape the haunting memories of the History who terrorized her. He even plagues her dreams, which results in nearly crippling insomnia and the concern that she may be suffering a break from reality. Mackenzie’s struggles are compounded by the disappearances happening around her, as the lines between reality and the Archived continue to muddle. It’s a brilliant balance of internal versus external conflict, with both plotlines weaving together and building on each other as they head toward a conclusion that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

As always, Victoria’s prose is lovely, a perfect blend of poetry and suspense. It gives the book a visceral quality that makes it easy to picture and hard to put down. There are some authors who have the gift of stories and some who have the gift of words. It’s clear in Victoria’s writing that she has both. Not only are the tales she crafts smart and imaginative and original, but the ways in which she tells them are beautiful.

The Unbound is everything I wanted in a sequel to The Archived. More mystery. More suspense. A greater sense of purpose and consequence and world. Deeper relationships. Higher stakes. And, of course, more Wesley Ayers. If you read The Archived and are wondering if you should pick up the sequel, wonder no more. Go forth, read, and enjoy.


Winger
Winger
by Andrew Smith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.71
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hilarious, raw, and amazingly real, November 5, 2013
This review is from: Winger (Hardcover)
Disclaimer: This review will be slightly spoilery, but only inasmuch as the back cover copy is spoilery. I won't spoil anything I did not deduce from reading the back cover of the book.

It's been a long, long time since I read a book that made me laugh out loud more than once or twice. It's been even longer since I read a book that made me laugh so hard, I had to stop reading and put down the book in order to compose myself enough to breathe. But with WINGER, I was tears-streaming, snot-flowing, short-of-breath chortling every few pages. Ryan Dean West's self-deprecating (as evidenced by his "I am such a loser" mantra), utterly irreverent and so amazingly fourteen-year-old-boy inner monologue was one of the most refreshing, honest, and hilarious narrations I've ever read.

WINGER is light on plot, heavy on character. Ryan Dean (two words, one name. His middle name is revealed late in the game, and a source of his perpetual shame.) stumbles from one encounter to the next, from a midnight poker game featuring ill-advised drinking, to stolen kisses with a girl who is entirely off-limits, to unexpected friendship and awkward first love. He punctuates his narrative with hand-drawn cartoons and graphs to illustrate life as he knows it, which give even the darker moments a glimmer of light.

When the book eventually does take a turn in tone, as hinted at in the back-cover copy, it is, as promised, heartbreaking. I read the whole book waiting for the heartbreaking part, and was honestly a little concerned that it wouldn't fit with the tone of the rest of the book. I should have had more faith, given Smith's stellar execution of his story.

Much like in life, tragedy is often hard to anticipate. Ryan Dean drifts along assuming his life is most often a farce, occasionally a romantic comedy, intermittently a coming-of-age-drama. Then suddenly, it is none of those things, and he reacts in an utterly real and -- yes, heartbreaking -- fashion. There is a tone shift, but it works, and it heightens the feeling that we are experiencing a very real year in the very real life of a very real teen. It is unpredictable but authentic, raw yet beautiful.

WINGER isn't going to be for everyone. Ryan Dean is frequently foulmouthed (but only in his head) and crude, he objectifies every female he sees, and makes some truly terrible choices, some of which have far-reaching consequences. But if you can handle the sometimes-brutal honesty of Ryan Dean West, and if you enjoy laughing until coffee squirts out your nose over things that are likely inappropriate, and if you like stories that are hard to put into a box because life is hard to put into a box, then I cannot recommend this book enough. Hands down, one of the best books I've read this year. Go forth, losers, and read.


Across a Star-Swept Sea
Across a Star-Swept Sea
by Diana Peterfreund
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.42
64 used & new from $3.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Lovely and imaginative follow-up to FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS, October 17, 2013
The setting for Across a Star-Swept Sea is far removed from the Luddite estate of For Darkness Shows the Stars. The citizens of Albion and Galatea believe they alone survived the Reduction, but the two islands have very different ideas of how to move forward afterward, and each character in the story believes their way is the right one.

There are two main points of view, Justen and Persis, but several secondary characters get a bit of time in the POV spotlight as well, giving us every side of the conflict. The book plunges headlong into the science and politics that propel the revolution in New Pacifica, and the rebellion led by the Wild Poppy. The plot is smart and doesn't coddle -- there's a lot of world-building and political set-up in the opening chapters, and that complex wider conflict sets the stage for the more intimate, personal conflict of the characters.

Though Justen and Persis team up almost right off the bat, Justen has no idea who she is -- not as a spy, and not as a person -- and spends the vast majority of the book believing she's as vapid and shallow as she appears. Meanwhile, Persis has more than a few misconceptions about Justen as well. The false impressions carry us most of the way through the story, which normally I would find galling, but when you are reading a book based on The Scarlet Pimpernel, it's kind of what you signed up for.

I enjoyed the characters in this story, maybe Justen a bit more than Persis simply because her Persis Flake act started to grate after a while. It was the point (and Persis was sick of it, too), but gave Justen a slight edge. As for the supporting cast, I enjoyed most of them, and was glad that we got to see perspectives of people on both sides of the conflict and from all the different social classes. It gave the story a good bit of variety and texture. I have to admit, though, I became the most invested when some familiar faces from For Darkness Shows the Stars showed up midway through the book. It was nice to revisit the characters I'd grown attached to in the first book and see how they interacted with the new characters in this unfamiliar setting.

Across a Star-Swept Sea isn't as heavy on the romance as For Darkness Shows the Stars, though it certainly has its moments. Its plot relies more on intrigue and scheming, and so I found myself invested more in the fate of the people of New Pacifica, and Persis' secret identity as the Wild Poppy, than the will-they-or-won't-they between Justen and Persis. And really, that was enough, because that plot was interesting enough on its own. And I thought that was fitting, because it put my priorities in line with the characters, most of whom put the Revolution ahead of themselves. So the romance became a sweet dollop of icing on an already tasty cake.

If you're a fan of both sci-fi and the classics, or if you read For Darkness Shows the Stars and want to revisit the post-Reduction world Diana Peterfreund created, or if you simply enjoy a smart futuristic tale populated with a variety of colorful characters, I'd recommend you pick up Across a Star Swept Sea.


The Bitter Kingdom (Girl of Fire and Thorns)
The Bitter Kingdom (Girl of Fire and Thorns)
by Rae Carson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.22
75 used & new from $2.20

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Satisfying conclusion to a fantastic trilogy, October 2, 2013
The Bitter Kingdom begins with one of my favorite epic fantasy conventions: The Long Journey Into Unknown Lands. In this case, Queen Elisa and her small band of allies are traveling to the hostile territory of Invierne to rescue Hector, the Captain of the Royal Guard, and also the man who holds Elisa's heart, who was taken captive at the end of The Crown of Embers. Before they can get to Hector, Elisa and her companions must overcome both the harsh winter weather of Invierne and the mysterious, deadly magic wielded by the Inviernos. But in The Bitter Kingdom, we are treated to something we never got in the first two books: Hector's point of view. So we are able to watch as he undermines and sabotages his captors, trying to delay their plans until Elisa comes for him.

I loved how Rae Carson turned the damsel in distress trope on its head by having Elisa be the one to go after Hector. Not only was it fun to watch the queen rescue the soldier, but it evidenced Elisa's tremendous growth since the first book. She was no longer cautious and filled with self-doubt, but finally comfortable in asserting her power as Queen. But although Hector was tied up and weakened, he was not helpless either. It was fantastic to see the two of them work together to secure Hector's freedom, even though neither of them knew what the other was doing. And as expected, I still loved Hector and Elisa. Adding Hector's point of view was brilliant, and it was amazing to witness his cold strategizing coupled with his tender thoughts toward Elisa.

As far as Elisa goes, in The Bitter Kingdom we see her both at her most powerful and her most vulnerable. Just when I thought her character arc may be complete, going from a meek princess with a low self-esteem to a confident queen in control of inconceivable magic, she plummeted back down and had to claw her way up again. I thought it was a stroke of genius, because it not only kept the stakes high and her character vulnerable, but it really let us see how Elisa has grown as a person, even apart from the Godstone.

I also enjoyed the secondary characters. The cast is smaller in this book, and I missed spending time with some of my favorite characters from Crown of Embers (the most noteable being Tristán), but almost every character makes at least a cameo appearance in the second half of the book, where we get some insight into where they wind up. Meanwhile, a couple lovely new characters are added to the cast, and some familiar characters are developed further. My favorite was probably Storm, the Invierno-turned-Joyan that we meet in the second book. He evolves from someone truly unlikable when we first meet him to one of the most fascinating characters in the series. I could read an entire book (or series) just about him and his family and his conflicted loyalties.

After the Epic Journey concludes, it's up to Elisa to stop a war, unite her people, get to the bottom of the magic the Inviernos are using to conquer anyone in their path, and discover her purpose as bearer of the Godstone. It's a tall order, and Rae Carson handles it brilliantly, with lots of action and intrigue interspersed with Elisa's own personal reflection as she struggles to be the person God needs her to be. By the end of the book, I had all of my big questions answered and felt satisfied with where the others were left.

The Bitter Kingdom was everything I want in the conclusion to a trilogy: action, intrigue, smart plotting, fantastic character development, and a satisfying conclusion. I'd wholeheartedly recommend this series to fans of fantasy and adventure, or just someone looking for a masterfully crafted, well-told tale.


Vicious
Vicious
by Victoria Schwab
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.51
70 used & new from $7.66

5.0 out of 5 stars Chilling, dark, and twisted -- in the best possible way., September 24, 2013
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This review is from: Vicious (Hardcover)
I loved Vicious from the first few chilling pages. Vicious is a little grittier, a little bleaker than Victoria's YA novels, but although the prose is more stark than in her other books, it lacks none of her characteristic lyricism. It's obvious from the disturbing opening -- where we meet two of our main characters as they dig up a grave -- that the reader is in for a well-crafted tale spun by a mind that is twisted in the best possible way.

Let's talk for a minute about characters. Vicious focuses around two central characters, Victor and Eli, once best friends, now mortal enemies. Each has his own small band of misfit allies, some with powers, some without. And the best part of every single one of these characters is that each of them chooses sides based on what they believe in their hearts to be right. Maybe not good, but right. The calls they make are difficult, their actions are not clean and the consequences are often messy, but each fully realized secondary character picks the side they think is best not just for them individually, but the world as a whole. Which makes every character think they are fighting for the side of light, when in reality, they all inhabit a world of gray.

Getting back to Eli and Victor, my favorite villains in fiction have always been the ones who were motivated by more than darkness, power, and a desire to watch the world burn. Sure, there's a strange dark beauty in a villain who will stop at nothing to destroy the hero, simply because he stands on the side of good. The Jokers and the Voldemorts and the Moriartys. But an excellent villain is one who can make me root for him, in spite of the fact that he opposes our hero, because in his own mind, he is right. These are the Lokis, the Magnetos, the Dr. Horribles, the Javerts. They're the villains I know need to be defeated, but I keep hoping they will redeem themselves, because they make me care for them. Sometimes even more than I care for the good guys.

Eli and Victor both fall into this second category. Vicious is a book about villains, except none of the characters see themselves as particularly villainous. Certainly neither starts off that way. Eli and Victor begin as college roommates and best friends, whose downward spiral into villainy begins as nothing more than a thesis project and a flight of fancy. This is not a case of characters destined to be evil masterminds. They're simply two guys who were, quite literally, too clever for their own good.

Ironically, the character who is indisputably the more righteous of the pair is probably the closest thing to a pure villain, whereas the one who comes across as more heroic (although even he is far from a hero) sees himself as irredeemable. The character with the stronger moral compass drifts deep into the darkness, while the one with little empathy or remorse holds himself in check right where the light begins to fade into shadow. It's a fascinating dichotomy, and brilliantly executed. Vicious doesn't paint either protagonist in particularly rosy colors, and both characters make terrible decisions and, at one point or another, commit terrible acts of violence with motives that are far from noble. But in this world where nothing is as simple as black and white or good and evil, it's fascinating to see who we root for. I finished the book thinking really, one character wasn't so bad -- surely he wasn't a villain -- until I thought back to what he actually did, and I realized yes, yes he was. He just wasn't as much of a villain as the other character. And I didn't want anything bad to happen to him, because I liked him -- even though in a black-and-white world, I really shouldn't have liked him.

As for the plot itself, Vicious is an intricately woven tale of intrigue and deception, betrayal and revenge. The rules of the world are simple and clear, enough that you find yourself wondering if maybe it is possible to give yourself superpowers through thwarting death. The twists and turns aren't predictable, yet everything makes sense. The action isn't constant, but ebbs and flows in a natural rhythm that keeps the pages flying by. Victoria masterfully builds the tension leading to the final confrontation between Victor and Eli throughout the entire book, slowly ratcheting up anticipation until it's almost unbearable. And when they finally do meet, the result is explosive, bloody, and deliciously satisfying. I was left wanting more, not because any threads were left dangling, but because this world and these characters were so painfully amazing that it hurt to be parted from them.

If you're a fan of sympathetic villains and realistic superpowers and dark, twisty tales brimming with moral ambiguity, make haste to your nearest bookseller and pick up a copy of Vicious. Run, don't walk. Or, if you can, fly.


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