Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Wrath and The Dawn - Renee Ahdieh

Title: The Wrath and The Dawn
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Publisher: G.P Putnam's Sons (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 17, 2015
Finished: July 26, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

In a land ruled by a murderous boy-king, each dawn brings heartache to a new family. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, is a monster. Each night he takes a new bride only to have a silk cord wrapped around her throat come morning. When sixteen-year-old Shahrzad's dearest friend falls victim to Khalid, Shahrzad vows vengeance and volunteers to be his next bride. Shahrzad is determined not only to stay alive but to end the caliph's reign of terror once and for all.

Night after night, Shahrzad beguiles Khalid, weaving stories that enchant, ensuring her survival, though she knows each dawn could be her last. But something she never expected begins to happen: Khalid is nothing like she'd imagined him to be. This monster is a boy with a tormented heart. Incredibly, Shahrzad finds herself falling in love. How is this possible? It's an unforgivable betrayal. Still, Shahrzad has come to understand all is not as it seems in this palace of marble and stone. She resolves to uncover whatever secrets lurk and, despite her love, be ready to take Khalid's life as retribution for the many lives he's stolen. Can their love survive this world of stories and secrets?

Inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, The Wrath and the Dawn is a sumptuous and enthralling read from beginning to end.

Review:
This book is surrounded by so much hype, I pretty much had to read it. Although I didn't fall madly, crazy-in-love with it, it was an immensely enjoyable read.

Based on 1001 Nights, you have a king in a middle-eastern/arabian-esque land who takes a new bride every night and kills her by morning. A new wife manages to defy the odds by spinning tales that keep the king intrigued enough to let her live. When Shahrzad's best friend, Shiva, dies in such a manner, Shahrzad volunteers as Khalid's next bride so she might avenge Shiva's death. Shahrzad is great as a character, she gets my stamp of approval. She is fierce and fiery, sharp-tongued, and pretty good with a bow and arrow. She wavers on the whole revenge thing when she realizes she's falling in love with Khalid, which takes her down a few pegs, but they have to fall in love for the story to work, so not much you can do there. Khalid was very nicely developed as well, he's very stoic at times, but then surprises everyone by being incredibly romantic and emotional and a formidable swordsman. I also liked Jalal, especially how he interacted with Khalid. Shahrzad and Khalid make for an incredible couple, and their conversations made me feel like I'd been hit by a 2x4 and then melted in a puddle on the floor, some of the dialogue is amazing.

I wish the magic had been more developed. It felt as if the magic element came out of nowhere towards the end in regards to the reasons why Khalid kills all his brides. I also wish readers could've seen more of the reasons why Khalid keeps Shahrzad alive, we can guess but we never really know. The good thing is that a sequel is coming (the cliffhanger had me going for a while until I saw the preview for book 2), so we'll get a chance to see more development in those areas.

Recommendations:
If you like retellings, you need to give this a shot, if for nothing else than the incredible portrayal of the romance between Khalid and Shahrzad, it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I adore how this was designed. The red cover with gold inlays make for an eye-pleasing colour scheme, and you can see a hint of a portrait of Shahrzad underneath, the full colour version of which you can see on the inside cover. I love how Shahrzad actually looks middle eastern as well (yay for diversity in YA fiction!).

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Yo, Miss - Lisa Wilde

Title: Yo, Miss: A Graphic Look at High School
Author: Lisa Wilde
Publisher: Microcosm Publishing, 2015 (Paperback)
Length: 160 pages
Genre: Young Adult, Adult; Graphic Novel, Realistic Fiction
Started: July 21, 2015
Finished: July 21, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

Yo, Miss - A Graphic Look at High School takes the reader inside John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy, a second-chance high school in New York City, where Lisa Wilde has worked since 1997. A school where all the students are considered at-risk, Wildcat offers these teens a ticket to the middle-class - a high school diploma. With humour and humanity, Yo, Miss challenges preconceptions of who these kids are and what is needed to help them graduate.

Review:
As a teacher who has taught many of the types of students depicted in this book (and yes I have been addressed as "Yo, Miss" and have responded to it), this was a must-read. Many people who aren't teachers have no clue what it's like to teach actual children, especially when you have a class of kids from wildly different backgrounds. You could have one student you're hounding for assignments because they've just come back from a three-week ski vacation, and another you're worried about because they've been working to help support their family and haven't had time to complete their work. Teaching different groups of kids comes with different skill sets, you have separate approaches for teaching in one demographic area than another. This graphic novel takes a look at the unique circumstances that surround at-risk students and the specialized approaches that are required to help them succeed at what most consider to be the bare minimum, like graduating high school.

Lisa Wilde teaches English at Wildcat Academy, a second-chance high school operating as a charter in New York City. All the students are at-risk, and have not been successful at traditional school environments for various reasons (many heavily impacted by poverty). The kids in the novel are fictional composites of the numerous students she's taught over the years, and I think most teachers will be able to see several of their own students in the characters as well. The patience and understanding (and several second chances) offered by Wilde and the other staff in the novel are instrumental in helping these kids succeed, and the genuine concern that comes from the teachers is really heart-warming.

Recommendation: 
A must-read if you're a teacher, or otherwise surrounded by children all day.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how they included the conversation about Oedipus on the left and the cross-section of Wilde's teacher brain on the right, it's very realistic in showing how teachers juggle concerns for their students and their workload, plus their own lives (teachers do have lives outside of school).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Daughter of Deep Silence - Carrie Ryan

Title: Daughter of Deep Silence
Author: Carrie Ryan
Publisher: Dutton Books (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 375 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: July 8, 2015
Finished: July 13, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

In the wake of the deadly devastation of the luxury yacht Persephone, just three souls remain to tell its story - and two of them are lying. Only Frances Mace, rescued from the ocean after torturous days days adrift with her dying friend Libby, knows that the Persephone wasn't sunk by a rogue wave as survivors Senator Wells and his son, Grey, are claiming - it was attacked.

To ensure her safety from the obviously dangerous and very powerful Wells family, Libby's father helps newly orphaned Frances assume Libby's identity. After years of careful plotting, she's ready to expose the truth and set her revenge plans into motion - even if it means taking down the boy she'd once been in love with: Grey Wells himself.

Sharp and incisive, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan is a deliciously smart revenge thriller that examines perceptions of identity, love, and the lengths to which one girl is willing to go when she thinks she has nothing to lose.

Review:
This book has received some hype recently, and I have read some of the author's previous books and enjoyed them, so I decided to give it a go. The premise sounded amazing: a disaster on a cruise ship,  few survivors, a cover-up of what really happened, years of plotting revenge, it all sounds great. However, despite the potential, this book didn't turn out to be all that great after all.

Frances Mace was fourteen when she went on a cruise with her parents, where she also met her new friend Libby, and fell in love with Grey Wells. When men with guns storm the ship, killing Frances' parents, Libby's mother, and the rest of the passengers save for Senator Wells and Grey, Frances and Libby are lucky to escape alive. They drift afloat on a life raft for several days until they are rescued, but Libby is already dead from exposure. Libby's father believes Frances' story about the ship being attacked, which is very different from Senator Wells' account of a rogue wave taking down the entire ship that he and Grey have since given all the media outlets since their rescue. In an attempt to keep Frances safe while they try to uncover the true story, Libby's father suggests to Frances that they claim that she herself died and take over Libby's identity instead. Frances agrees. Four years later, after Libby's father's death, Frances, living as Libby, returns to Libby's hometown in South Carolina from boarding school in Europe. Since the Wells also happen to live in the same town, Frances decides that the time has come to seek revenge.

There were two main factors which really prevented me from enjoying this book: the various unrealistic plot holes, and the romance (also unrealistic). First off, I find it very hard to believe that the Senator managed to orchestrate the plan to have the ship attacked without it being uncovered. You claim it was a rogue wave (really?) and everyone just believes you without checking the various scientific equipment that monitors weather conditions in the Atlantic? Libby's dad suggests that Frances just assume Libby's identity to protect her because it would be easier than try to adopt her the old fashioned way? And no one else attempts to interview or question Frances after the rescue that could uncover the ruse? And she agrees to plastic surgery to try to resemble Libby more than she already does? And nobody pulls up old pictures or otherwise figures out that "Libby" isn't really Libby? And after so many years, Cecil (Libby's dad) doesn't make any headway into uncovering the truth despite being rich enough that he could hire private investigators or have the privilege of being believed by the police if he came forward with the story? And Frances and Shepherd figure out how everything is connected in about 20 minutes of talking to each other?

And as far as the romance goes, Frances and Grey happen to fall madly in love after two weeks on a cruise at the age of fourteen? And they're still madly in love with each other four years after the fact? Most early teen romances are fleeting enough that an eighteen-year-old would cringe at the memory of a fling they had at fourteen, but nope, Frances and Grey are totally legit (yeah, right). And Frances isn't obviously revenge-obsessed enough if she's willing to overlook Grey's involvement in her parents' death long enough to engage in heavy make-out sessions. Sigh.

Recommendation:
Too many plot holes, unrealistic romance, not all that great in the grand scheme of things.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very pretty, I like how they incorporated Frances standing in front of the painting that hangs over Grey's bed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes - Sabaa Tahir

Title: An Ember in the Ashes
Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Razorbill (Penguin), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 446 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: July 1, 2015
Finished: July 7, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire's impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They've seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia's brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire's greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school's finest soldier - and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias only wants to be free of the tyranny he's being trained to enforce. He and Laia soon realize that their destinies are intertwined - and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Review:
This book has received so much hype not only from publishers, but from other authors as well, so I figured I needed to pick it up. It didn't completely wow me like I expected (the danger of too much hype), but it was quite entertaining and well worth the read.

The Martial Empire rules a land that was once ruled by the Scholars, who are now enslaved. Centuries later, prevented from even learning how to read, the descendants of the Scholars are mostly slaves to the Martials. Laia's family is free, but constantly in fear for their lives, especially considering Laia's now deceased parents were the leaders of the Scholar resistance. When her older brother, Darin, is captured, and her grandparents murdered, Laia tracks down the resistance and begs them to help her brother. They agree, but only if Laia agrees to spy on them from within Blackcliff, the military academy where the Martials brutally train children as young as six, where the new Emperor will be chosen from. As Laia tries to uncover the mysteries of Blackcliff, Elias is trying his best to escape it. Son of the Commandant, he is favoured as a candidate for Emperor (something he himself wants least of all), but as the trials continue, Elias struggles to maintain his soul and sense of morality in such a brutal place.

I loved the world building and set up here, the author did a great job with creating a world similar to ancient Rome but quite unique unto itself (I never would've pegged this world as Rome-like until I read the blurb). The book lagged a bit in the beginning until the action moved to Blackcliff, I loved the school setting purely because all the action and blood was there. The Commandant was amazing as the antagonist, and I loved Elias and Helene as characters. Laia fell a bit flat for me as a character, purely because she was really naive and took a while to clue in to things, but she's spunky, so she was redeemed a bit.

I was not a big fan of the love octagon going on here. Not only did we have girls falling over Elias, we had boys falling over Laia, plus crossover, it was a bit much. Males and females can be in contact with each other and just be friends without wanting to rip each other's clothes off, I'm not sure why this fact is so rare in YA books. This next bit wasn't a downside for me personally, but I can see where it could for some readers: there is a lot of violence, gore, blood, plus numerous threats of rape; sensitive readers beware.

Recommendation: 
Very worth the read, plus there is a sequel in the works, so the unanswered questions from this book will hopefully be resolved in the next instalment.

Thoughts on the cover:
It's gorgeous, I'll leave it at that.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Shadow Scale - Rachel Hartman

Title: Shadow Scale (sequel to Seraphina)
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Doubleday Canada, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 596 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: June 26, 2015
Finished: June 29, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Seraphina is tangled amid the grapple for power between the dragon rebels and the human court. The dark secret of her true identity - half-dragon, half-human - has now become her advantage. Only she has the power to unite the kingdom of Goredd, and she intends to use it. She scours the land for the rest of her half-dragon brethren, whose unique gifts may make the difference in the struggle.

But gathering her people is no straightforward task, and the more Seraphina learns, uncovering hidden histories and outright lies, the more she comes to realize that someone is working against her. What hope is there for brokering peace between dragons and humans when one of her own is determined to see both worlds go up in flames?

William C. Morris YA Debut Award-winner Rachel Hartman continues Seraphina's story with an adventure that will chart new frontiers of the soul.

Review:
I read Seraphina years ago and adored it to pieces, so picking this up was a no-brainer. The spectacular writing and amazing world-building that I loved in the first novel is still present here, but (and it absolutely pains me to write this) unfortunately this sequel just doesn't live up to the reputation of its predecessor.

The novel opens up a few months after the first book left off, with Glisselda as queen in the midst of a  burgeoning civil war between humans and dragons after years of peace. Seraphina, with her unique position in the court and being half-dragon, is sent to various areas of the country to locate other half-dragons in hopes of recruiting them to fight the dragons. Jannoula, the villain who can control the minds of other half-dragons, has more of a presence in this novel as she works towards her own agenda. The first half of the novel is concerned with Seraphina travelling and interacting with the other half-dragons. This part, though rich with great characters and world-building, was a bit dull overall. The pattern of searching for the ityasaari, finding them,  then overcoming the obstacle Jannoula presents repeats across several destinations with no real effect on the civil war back home in Lavonadaville. I would've preferred a focus on the war, the spotlight on the ityasaari, while intriguing, didn't hold my interest.

My other issue comes in the second half of the novel when Seraphina comes home and everything comes together. The romance between Seraphina and Lucian Kiggs, while very sweet in the first novel, makes my jaw drop in this one. I understand Kiggs' behaviour (but don't excuse it), he's betrothed to Glisselda and conflicted between his royal duty and his passion. But Seraphina, who never struck me as a naive girl with no spine, sure acts like one in relation to Kiggs, which knocks her down a couple pegs in the "outstanding YA female protagonist" category. I just couldn't believe she was happy to relegate herself to the role of mistress rather than focus on her music and find someone who could actually be dedicated to her as a partner. And the strange proclamation of love from Glisselda was just strange and abrupt with no closure. I felt the whole romance aspect was like a disorienting smack to the face and feel there should have been more novel dedicated to this.

Recommendation:
Still amazingly well-written with a great world to get sucked into, but with a more dull plot and romantic elements that made me shake my head, readers are probably better off sticking with the first novel.

Thoughts on the cover:
Quite nice, and I like how they kept it in theme with the first novel's cover.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Grammar Quiz, Father's Day Style!

Since I'm an English teacher, and many of my friends are teachers too, we love to see how we fare on quizzes like this one. This one is quite appropriate since it's all father-themed in honour of Father's Day, thanks to the folks at Grammarly.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads and father figures out there.


Friday, June 19, 2015

I Am Princess X - Cherie Priest

Title: I Am Princess X
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 230 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction, Thriller, Mystery
Started: June 15,2015
Finished: June 19, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the comics, May wrote the stories, and Princess X fought monsters, ghosts, and other assorted creepazoids from her haunted house high on a hill.

Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom driving across a bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.

Once upon a now, May is sixteen and lonely when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window - a figure in a gold crown, pink dress, red Chucks, and a long katana sword...

Princess X? Suddenly, May sees the princess everywhere: stickers, patches, graffiti - an entire underground world built around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the comic, the more shocking connections she finds between Libby's death and Princess X's adventures. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon - her best friend, Libby, who lives.

Illustrated throughout with the Princess X webcomic, I Am Princess X is a mystery, wrapped in a friendship story, bound up with a cyberthriller...and all-around awesome.

Review:
I picked this up based on the premise and the cover. The book didn't quite end up being what I expected, but that's not really a bad thing.

Libby and May became best friends when they were ten due to boredom. The result of their creative collaboration was Princess X. Throughout middle school they continued to work on their stories and comics, until Libby and her mother were in a car accident. Though Libby's body was eventually found (washed ashore and unrecognizable), May always hoped Libby had somehow survived. Years later, the summer before May turns seventeen, she notices a faded sticker near one of her favourite hang-outs and the image on it is of Princess X. After discovering that Princess X has a cult following, May pores over the websites dedicated to the webcomic. After reading the actual comic, she can't help but feel it includes references to things only she and Libby would have known, and after finding out Libby and her mother's car accident was really a homocide, May is determined to find answers. She gets in contact with a computer hacker named Patrick ("Trick") who helps her navigate the clues in the Princess X webcomic to try and discover what really happened to Libby.

The premise of the story is really promising, it's a cool mystery and a thriller with geek culture thrown in. The whole idea of a childhood creation coming back to you years later to relay information about the whereabouts of a friend is spine-tinglingly awesome. Granted, some details aren't quite plausible: that police wouldn't have had Libby's washed up "body" identified through DNA before declaring her dead, and that a high school hacker could navigate complex online security systems that somehow eluded police detection. The writing isn't as sophisticated as I would have assumed, it reads more like a middle-grade novel as opposed to YA, but that's not a huge detriment in my opinion.

The webcomic pages inserted throughout the book are a nice touch that enhance the story. I really enjoyed the whole "scavenger hunt" where May and Patrick follow the clues in the comic using knowledge only May would know about Libby to uncover what happened to her. It was a fun little ride, even if some of the details weren't realistic.

Recommendation:
A fun mystery/thriller about solving a murder via a webcomic, it's worth the read.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how the cover is recreating the image of the sticker and how May found it, very appropriate.