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.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Anastasia and Her Sisters - Carolyn Meyer

Title: Anastasia and Her Sisters
Author: Carolyn Meyer
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 310 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: June 8, 2015
Finished: June 9, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Thirteen-year-old Anastasia Romanova lives the extravagant life of the Russian princess that she is, dressing in beautiful clothes and traveling from palace to palace. As she grows up, she sees unrest in the streets of Saint Petersburg and feels more and more unsafe. In 1917, when Anastasia is sixteen, her way of life is threatened when her father, Tsar Nicholas II, is forced to abdicate the throne. Anastasia cannot understand how her father, who always seemed so kind, could have enemies. Suddenly, instead of living a fairy-tale existence, Anastasia is trying not to show how afraid she is.

Revealed in the voice of the strong  and mysterious Anastasia Romanova, Carolyn Meyer's story of Russian revolution is told through invented diary entries that capture the drama of this fascinating time in history.

Review:
We're big history buffs in our house, as evidenced by the piles of books on our shelves, and the fact that we named our daughter after the same Russian grand duchess in the title. So of course, any books on the historical Anastasia are sought after and read voraciously.

This book is similar in style to Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess, also by the same author, except this newer novel is geared toward YA readers as opposed to middle grade, and is more detailed.

The book is narrated by Anastasia, beginning from age ten in 1911 to age seventeen in 1918. Interspersed are diary entries written by her eldest sister Olga (the premise being Anastasia discovers her sister's alternate diary and reads it every so often for years). The novel opens at the height of Romanov rule and details the opulence of their lives traveling from their palaces to vacation areas and yachts, and continues along through the events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

I need my historical fiction novels to be well-researched, which this one definitely is, the author even included things I wasn't previously aware of, and that's saying something regarding this subject area. I liked the little details in the sisters' relationship, it made them very relatable, which is hard to do with historical figures, especially royalty.

Recommendation:
Well-researched and engaging account of the Romanov sisters.

Thoughts on the cover:
Although the picture on the cover isn't of Anastasia at all, the pose and the colouring and the sliver of light down her face comes together to make an impressive cover.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - Jacqueline Kelly

Title: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Author: Jacqueline Kelly
Publisher: Square Fish (Henry Holt and Company), 2011 (Paperback)
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Children's Historical Fiction
Started: June 4, 2015
Finished: June 5, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

The summer of 1899 is hot in Calpurnia's sleepy Texas town, and there aren't a lot of good ways to stay cool. Her mother has a new wind machine, but instead, Callie's contemplating cutting off her hair, one sneaky inch at a time. She's also spending a lot of time at the river with her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist. But just when Callie and her grandfather are about to make an amazing discovery, the reality of Callie's situation catches up with her. She's a girl at the turn of the century, expected to cook and clean and sew. What a waste of time! Will Callie ever find a way to take control of her own destiny?

Review:
I've seen this title for years and have finally picked it up. It turns out I missed out on a very charming book all these years.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate, called "Callie Vee", is about to turn twelve in 1899 in Fentress, a small town in Texas. With six brothers, she is the only girl in a fairly well-off family (they harvest cotton and pecans) with a cook and a housekeeper. The story opens in the beginning of the summer, with a brutal heat everyone is trying to seek shelter from. When Callie becomes interested in Darwin's book The Origin of Species and tries to ask her grandfather why they have two different types of grasshoppers on their land, he tells her to discover the answer herself. Prevented from borrowing Darwin's book from the closest library, Callie eventually figures it out on her own, which leads her science-minded grandfather to take an interest in her education. They spend much time together over the summer, even discovering what they believe is a new plant species. This is all done to the dismay of Calpurnia's mother, who would prefer her only daughter show some interest in the feminine arts that she must one day master. But as Callie becomes more and more fulfilled by her explorations and discoveries, she realizes her options are severely limited as a girl in her time period.

Callie is a great character and role model, she's curious and intelligent, and not afraid to follow her own desires instead of bending to the whims of others. Her grandfather, a captain in the Civil War, though surly at first and barely knows Callie exists, eventually becomes bonded to her through their shared interests to the point where he lets it slip that he considers her his only true grandchild. Callie's brothers are quite cute and have a couple of their own side stories, like Harry courting girls and several of the boys developing a crush on Callie's friend Lula.

I really liked the exploration into the idea of gender roles and women's rights in relation to this time period. Callie is relatively privileged in that she is the only girl from a well-off family so she is educated and able to get away with more being surrounded by boys, but even she is still reminded of the injustice of it all. She is expected to sew, cook, and clean, and do all those things well if she expects to get married and have a family, but Callie really wants to go to the university and study science, which was rare for women at the time. I love that her grandfather, seemingly someone who would balk at her interests, actively encourages them and proves himself quite the turn-of-the-century feminist. The novel doesn't really give any closure to this idea, it ends on a positive note but I would like to see what happens to Callie in the future. There is a sequel coming in July, so I will have to pick it up to continue the story.

Recommendation:
Wonderfully written, with great characters and themes, a joy all around.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Callie is silhouetted in black with the branches and all the insects and animals around her, very appropriate given the content of the story.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Becoming Beauty - Sarah E. Boucher

Title: Becoming Beauty
Author: Sarah E. Boucher
Publisher: Streetwater Books, 2014 (Paperback)
Length: 248 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fairy Tale
Started: June 3, 2015
Finished: June 3, 2015

Summary:
From the back cover:

Self-centered Bella focuses her attention on beautiful dresses and fabulous balls rather than helping her family earn a living. And her siblings have finally had enough! To pay off their father's debt, they send Bella to a far-off castle where the owner is more like a beast than a man.

As their personalities clash, Bella comes to realize that there's more to the Beast than she could have ever dreamed - if she's willing to look beneath the surface. And then there's Jack, the kind servant who helped Bella adjust to her new life, someone Bella could easily fall in love with. But pursuing true love may cost Bella her dreams of wealth and beauty. And that's not a price she's willing to pay.

Becoming Beauty is an imaginative retelling of the classic fairy tale that's sure to entertain readers of all ages.

Review:
I'm a sucker for all things Beauty and the Beast, so when I saw this new retelling, I had to pick it up. There are a lot of parallels to the original tale, but with quite a few unique twists.

Bella is not what you'd expect as the "Beauty", she's spoiled and manipulative, but also clever and refuses to be ordered around. When her requests for shiny, pretty things lands her father in debt to a beastly sort of man, her siblings force her to return as a servant in their father's place. The "Beast" as Bella calls him is surly and berates Bella in her role as his scullery maid. After Jack convinces Bella not to run away, Bella encourages the Beast to recover from his grief. As the three spend time together, the Beast (later known as Philip) falls in love with Bella, while Bella falls in love with Jack. All this while Bella has dreams of a girl named Rosalind who is connected to both Philip and Jack.

I was not a big fan of Bella at first, she's not the type of character I root for, but she does feel guilt over her actions and goes fairly willingly to the castle, so she does have some redeeming qualities. Philip is fleshed out fairly well as a character, as is Jack, but the relationship aspect left me hanging a bit. I thought Bella and Jack's relationship wasn't explored enough to be believable, but Bella and Philip's was done quite well. There were some parts that had me laughing so hard, particularly the section where Bella tries to get Philip back into regular hygiene practices and has to clip his fingernails, toenails, and matted hair with hedge clippers. The writing is generally great, and the interactions between the characters were well done and quite witty. I like how the author wrapped everything up in the end, it's a very sweet ending (not saying more for fear of spoilers).

Recommendation:
A very quick retelling of Beauty and the Beast but quite satisfying.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Bella is posed on the settee against the decrepit background.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things - Ann Aguirre

Title: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things
Author: Ann Aguirre
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan), 2015 (Hardcover)
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Started: May 29, 2015
Finished: June 2, 2015

Summary:
From the inside cover:

Sage Czinski is trying really hard to be perfect. If she manages it, people won't peer beyond the surface or ask hard questions about her past. She's learned to substitute causes for relationships, and it's been working just fine...until Shane Cavendish strolls into her math class. He's a little antisocial, a lot beautiful, and everything she never knew she always wanted.

Shane just wants to be left alone to play guitar and work on his music. He's got  heartbreak and loneliness in his rearview mirror, and this new school represents his last chance. He doesn't expect to be happy; he only wants to graduate and move on. Though he never counted on a girl like Sage.

But love doesn't mend all broken things, and sometimes, life has to fall apart before it can be put back together again.

Review:
I picked this up purely for the title, I won't lie.

Sage is sixteen and trying hard to be as good as possible so her aunt won't be tempted to send her back to a group home or foster care. Since moving in with her aunt Gabby three years ago, Sage has managed to project a completely different persona than she was during her difficult past. No one would guess that the "Post-It Princess" that leaves encouraging notes for people on their lockers would have the kind of record Sage has. She does a pretty good job at it, though at the expense of a well-rounded social life. When her best friend betrays her and she meets Shane for the first time, it sets off an effect that allows Sage to blossom. Her grades improve through Shane's tutoring, she forgives her friend Ryan, and she makes more friends and actually socializes. Sage is incredibly happy, until she stands up against a bully and both parties threaten to expose secrets about the other. When everything is falling down around them, will Sage and Shane survive?

Sage is incredible as a character, she's very down-to-earth and realistic with her troubled background, but still adorable and quirky that you can't help falling in love with her. Shane is troubled too, but easily opens up to Sage and allows her influence to soften his edge. Their relationship together is really quite sweet and almost gave me cavities, but it's quite a good model for a teenage relationship: They communicate and compromise, are caring and considerate of each other, and really are each other's rock in everything. Most of the book is purely character-driven, with Sage and Shane at the wheel, so if you get hooked on these two, you'll have a great ride. The writing is well done, the supporting characters are great as well with good personalities, and the author did a really good job with Sage and Shane's back stories, I was almost on the verge of crying when everything unraveled.

Recommendation:
An coming-of-age romance that is just amazingly awesome, you need to read this...right now.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love how they incorporated Sage's trademark post-it notes into the cover, and the black and white pics of Sage and Shane are a nice added touch.