Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Princess in the Opal Mask - Jenny Lundquist

Title: The Princess in the Opal Mask
Author: Jenny Lundquist
Publisher: Running Press Teens, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: April 16, 2014
Finished: April 17, 2014

Summary:
From the back cover:

Orphaned as a child in the crumbling village of Tulan, Elara is determined to learn her true identity, even if it means wielding a dagger. Meanwhile, in Galandria's royal capital, Princess Wilha stands out as someone to either worship or fear. Though no one knows why the king has always made her conceal her face - including Wilha herself.

When an assassin attempt threatens the peace of neighbouring kingdoms, Elara and Wilha are brought face to face...with a chance at champing new identities. However, with dark revelations now surfacing, both girls will need to decide if brighter futures are worth the binding risks.

Review:
The premise of this book sounded interesting, so I picked it up. I figured out the plot almost immediately (think Man in the Iron Mask except with girls), so I assumed it was going to go downhill as soon as I realized what was going to happen. Thankfully, the author has created enough character development in Wilha and Elara to carry the story even after I essentially called it on the plot.

Wilha took a little getting used to since she starts out as very meek, but thankfully she gets a bit of a spine as the book progresses. Elara is fiery and prickly but softens slightly towards the end of the story. There is a sequel planned for later this year, so I'll be picking it up to see where this story is headed.

Recommendation:
Very similar to Man in the Iron Mask, so if you liked that story but always wanted female protagonists, then give this a shot.

Thoughts on the cover:
Very pretty. I appreciate how the colour scheme of the blues and purples match the royal colours of Wilha's family the book.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In Mozart's Shadow - Carolyn Meyer

Title: In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story
Author: Carolyn Meyer
Publisher: Harcourt Books, 2008 (Hardcover)
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: April 12, 2014
Finished: April 15, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

There were once two musical prodigies in the Mozart family: Wolfgang and his older sister, Nannerl. Their tremendous talent could not be confined to their hometown of Salzburg, Austria, so the Family Mozart spent years touring the royal courts of Europe, entertaining  kings, queens, and nobles with the music of the delightful brother-and-sister duo. But as Wolfgang's genius bloomed, his gifted sister was pushed out of the spotlight.

This is the story of Nannerl, "the other Mozart," a passionate musician who never stopped dreaming. While Wolfgang tours the world and forges ahead into a celebrated musical career, Nannerl is left behind in dreary Salzburg. Through romantic turmoil, family strife, and frustration over her derailed ambitions, Nannerl's only comfort is her music. It may not bring her fame as it does for her brother, but can it bring her happiness?

Review:
I knew Mozart had a talented sister, but never knew anything else about her, so I decided to pick this up. The book chronicles Maria Anna, aka Nannerl, from about age 11 to age 40. At first when they were young, Nannerl and Wolferl would play together; but when Wolfgang's talent began to be much more impressive, their father insisted on Wolfgang performing on his own. Then their father would leave for European tours with just Wolfgang, leaving Nannerl and their mother at home. When her father refuses to allow her to pursue a musical career of her own (or advocate for her), Nannerl's only prospect left is marriage. When she finally does find a man she loves, her father will not approve the marriage. Settling for a match that pleases her father between a man she does not love, Nannerl lives out her life as such until her brother's death at the end of the book.

If nothing else, this is a great piece of historical fiction about the lack of options for women. Nannerl is a wonderful musician, but must be asked to go away to study and be appointed to a position in order to actually have a career in it, and is overlooked because she is a girl. Even when her only option is marriage, her father rejects the man she actually loves that treats her well because he isn't rich enough for her father's taste. She is forced to settle for a man she doesn't love because his status is satisfactory. All the while, her brother is allowed to indulge his talent and flits around irresponsibly. Women were at the mercy of their fathers, then husbands, barely even able to even earn money of their own, and cornered into marriages of convenience to save themselves from destitution.

Recommendation:
A good glimpse into the life of Mozart and his sister and the unfortunate circumstances that surrounded their life.

Thoughts on the cover:
Slightly dark and foreboding, it almost looks like a Gothic romance novel.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things - Cynthia Voigt

Title: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 367 pages
Genre: Children's Mystery
Started: April 11, 2014
Finished: April 14, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Who is Mister Max? That boy on the squeaky old bicycle. The one with eyes so strange you have to look twice.

Is he an artist or an actor? A student? A spy? Is he a rather surly gardener, or an over-ambitious dog catcher? Some say he's a harried city official. Others say he's just a little kid who's lost his parents. Perhaps he is all of these things - or none of them.

One thing is certain: he is a master of disguise. And nobody - nobody - can solve a mystery like Mister Max.

From Newbery Medalist Cynthia Voigt comes a quirky whodunit with a "detective" like no other.

Review:
This looked like a quirky little read, so I decided to give it a go. Twelve-year-old Max's parents are actors and own a theatre in a British Victorian-era town. When the family receives an invite from the Maharajah of Kashmir to start-up a theatre company in India, Max's parents jump at the chance. When the day to board the ship comes, Max arrives at the docks separately from his parents to find them gone; and worst of all, that the ship they were supposed to sail on doesn't even exist, let alone the person known at the Maharajah of Kashmir.

So Max strives to survive by himself in his parents' absence, but thankfully he has his grandmother who lives in the house behind his, so he has a back-up plan. But he needs to be self-sufficient, thus he needs a job. He quickly becomes what is later coined a solutioneer, a jack of all trades detective who, thanks to his parents' large collection of costumes and his own experience acting in the theatre, can fit himself into any role and any scenario. All these little cases come together in an over-arching larger mystery, in addition to the search for his parents.

Recommendation:
A quirky read for middle-grade mystery lovers.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the old-style illustrations here, and the red/yellow/dark green colour scheme is pleasing as well.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Scarlet in the Snow - Sophie Masson

Title: Scarlet in the Snow
Author: Sophie Masson
Publisher: Random House Australia, 2013 (Paperback)
Length: 318 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fairy Tale, Fantasy
Started: April 5, 2014
Finished: April 10, 2014

Summary:
From the back cover:

When Natasha is forced to shelter from a blizzard, she is lucky to see a mansion looming out of the snow. Inside, it is beautiful - except, instead of paintings, there are empty frames on every wall. In the snowy garden, she finds one perfect red rose in bloom. Dreamily she reaches out a hand...

Only to have the terrifying master of the house appear, and demand vengeance on her for taking his rose.

So begins an extraordinary adventure that will see Natasha plunged deep into the heart of a mystery, as she realizes she has stumbled upon a powerful sorcerer's spell of revenge.

But even if she can break the spell, the Beast she has come to love will be snatched from her. Natasha will have a long journey ahead before there can be a happy ending.

Review:
I'm always up for fairy tale retellings, and Beauty and the Beast ones are my favourite. This retelling is set in an alternative-world Prague (early 20th century perhaps), where magic is known and used. I appreciated the Russian and Eastern European influences in the story, it's a nice change from the French or general Romance-era settings that dominate these stories.

The one thing I felt was lacking in this story was how quickly Natasha fell in love with the Beast/Ivan. It was almost as if she was compelled to love him through fate or magic, not that she gradually fell in love with him on her own. I really would have liked to see that part fleshed out a bit, since admittedly that's one of my favourite parts of the traditional story.

On the other hand, one thing I really did enjoy about this story was that it goes beyond where traditional Beauty and the Beast stories usually end, where the heroine professes her love and the Beast returns to human form. In Scarlet in the Snow, that's just the beginning of the story. After Natasha declares her love for the Beast/Ivan, he is spirited away by the sorcerer who originally cursed him; and it is up to Natasha to find him, uncover his true identity, and break the hold of the sorcerer. This part of the book, while unique and engaging, does drag on at points; but being able to explore the marvelous world the author has created here more than makes up for that, the details she includes are amazingly in-depth.

Recommendation:
A unique retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in a wonderful world that is painstakingly detailed.

Thoughts on the cover:
Could be better, seems fairly generic.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Bitter Kingdom - Rae Carson

Title: The Bitter Kingdom (conclusion to The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy)
Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 433 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: April 4, 2014
Finished: April 9, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

The Champion must not waver.
The Champion must not fear.
The Gate of Darkness closes.

Elisa is a fugitive.

Her enemies have stolen the man she loves, and they await her at the gate of darkness. Her country is on the brink of civil war, with her own soldiers ordered to kill her on sight.

Her Royal Majesty, Queen Lucero-Elisa ne Riqueza de Vega, bearer of the Godstone, will lead her three loyal companions deep into the enemy's kingdom, a land of ice and snow and brutal magic, to rescue Hector and win back her throne. Her power grows with every step, and the shocking secrets she will uncover on this, her final journey, could change the course of history.

But that is not all. She has a larger destiny. She must become the champion the world has been waiting for.

Even of those who hate her most.

Review:
I'm a bit sad to see this series go, it was one of my recent favourites. The Girl of Fire and Thorns and The Crown of Embers were excellent books that have coveted spots on my bookshelf, the second book even moreso than the first, which is unusual for a trilogy (usually the first book rocks and the second book is a bit of a let-down).

The Bitter Kingdom picks up where The Crown of Embers left off, with Elisa headed off to Invierne to rescue Hector after the Invierno attacks. This book is packed from the beginning with Hector's rescue and the journey to Invierne for negotiations, to the journey back to Joya D'Arena to reunite the kingdoms. The section on the journey back to Joya D'Arena dragged a little, but that was pretty much my only complaint about the whole book.

Elisa proves herself even more the strong heroine than she already is, managing to rescue her lover yet again, unite several kingdoms and halt a war, and improve relations between two races while she's at it. She really is the best protagonist I've seen in a while: intelligent, strong, cunning, independent, and loyal; while having enough vulnerabilities to remain realistic. Storm gets a lot more character development in this book, which I love; and we're introduced to spunky Mula who tags along with the group after Elisa rescues her from slavery.

I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but trust me that this is an appropriate end for the series.

Recommendation:
A satisfying conclusion to a well-loved series, I'm sad to see it end.

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping the continuity with the first two books, this time we have a wintery background to reflect the Invierne setting, with Elisa's face reflected in the Godstone at the bottom with a blue, white, and silver colour scheme.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

She Is Not Invisible - Marcus Sedgwick

Title: She Is Not Invisible
Author: Marcus Sedgwick
Publisher: Indigo, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 354pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: April 1, 2014
Finished: April 2, 2014

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Two dried mice, a fluffy raven called Stan, a suicidal Austrian biologist...

Is it coincidence or something more sinister that draws them together? Many strange things collide in Laureth Peak's life one hot August weekend.

Perhaps strangest of all is the way her dad had been acting lately. And now he's disappeared. It looks as if his obsession with coincidence might have fatal consequences.

As Laureth sets off for New York with her strange younger brother, Benjamin, she has little faith in herself. But she has a burning determination to find her missing father. She has just one clue to follow; his notebook. Does it contain salvation, or madness?

Review:
The reason I picked this up is because the blurb I initially read was different from the one above, it mentioned right off the bat that Laureth was blind.

Laureth's dad is a writer, and even though he's away a lot, she has noticed his recent behaviour: that he hasn't called or texted in the past few days, and one of his infamous notebooks turns up halfway around the world from where he told his family he was staying. After getting the run around from her mother, Laureth decides to take matters into her own hands and travels from London to New York City to track down her father. However, since she is blind, she takes her 7-year-old brother along to act as her eyes, especially since he is an advanced reader. Getting to New York was relatively easy, but finding their dad is more of a challenge. Using the notebook to look for clues to his whereabouts, Laureth discovers that her dad's preoccupation for coincidences has lead to near obsession: researching scientists that themselves researched coincidence and realizing they all committed suicide. As she goes through clue after clue without results, Laureth reluctantly begins to believe that something serious might have happened to her dad.

This is a really engaging story, it starts off with Laureth narrating on how she 'abducted' her little brother and how she managed to navigate the process to get to New York as a blind person. Benjamin, her little brother, is precocious and adorable and steals a lot of the scenes, especially when he brings Stan the stuffed raven along. The descent into their dad's 'madness' was really well handled, just creepy enough to keep you interested but not crazy enough to turn you off. I especially liked the theme that Laureth wants to prove herself capable since she feels people treat her as if she's invisible due to her condition, and that she gets a little over her head and has to admit to it.

Recommendation: 
A wonderful exciting story with a great protagonist in Laureth.

Thoughts on the cover:
A little too much text around Laureth's head, but a good choice with the silhouette in profile.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blood Family - Anne Fine

Title: Blood Family
Author: Anne Fine
Publisher: Doubleday UK, 2013 (Hardcover)
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: March 30, 2014
Finished: March 31, 2014

Summary:
From Amazon.ca:

A dark and gripping tale of a young boy's struggle to escape the horrors of his childhood - and the violent destiny he fears must await him.

Edward is four years old when he is locked away with his mother by her abusive, alcoholic partner, Harris/ By the time an elderly neighbour spots his pale face peering through a crack in the boarded-up window and raises the alarm, he is seven.

Rescue comes, but lasting damage has been done. Sent to live with a kindly foster family, and then adopted, Edward struggles to adapt to normal life. Even as a teenager it's still clear to his new family and schoolmates there's something odd about him. 

Then one fateful day, Edwatd catches a glimpse of himself in a photograph. What he sees shocks him to the core - a vision of Harris. Was this monster his father all along? And does that mean that, deep down, another Harris is waiting to break out?

Every step of progress Edward has made swiftly begins to unravel, and he has to decide whether his blood will determine his future. 

Review:
The summary caught my attention so I decided to give this a go. It pleasantly surprised me; the plot was predictable enough once Edward turned to drugs and alcohol (thinks he's destined to be like Harris due to genetics, self-medicates to the point of near-annihilation, hits rock bottom and asks for help, recovery begins), but up to that point I was hooked wondering what happened to Edward. The addition of Mr. Perkins (the Mr. Roger's character that provides all of Edward's early learning) was much appreciated as an old-school Mr. Rogers fan. 

The best feature of this book, in my opinion, was the differing points of view. The book is divided into 4 parts according to the major turning points in Edward's life, and in each section the narration and point of view constantly changes amongst various characters: Edward at various ages (it was cool watching the narration change gradually from a seven-year-old to a teenager), police officers, social workers,  his foster parents, his adoptive parents and sister, psychologists, teachers, etc. Amazingly, the different points of view don't get confusing at all, everything is clearly marked so you know who's speaking, and each voice is different enough to show a clear difference from one character to the other. 

The glimpse into the foster care and adoption systems portrayed here were fairly accurate from my experience. I was kind of irked that the adoptive family was portrayed as distant as they were (especially the mother), but in other ways they were very realistic and appreciated that. 

Recommendation:
A very engaging story about the effects of early trauma on a person's psyche and how that effects almost everything that comes after. 

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it, the model chosen actually looks like Edward is described in the book, and the way is face is hidden reinforces how he tried to make himself invisible in his early interactions.