Thursday, August 18, 2011

Drink, Slay, Love - Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Drink, Slay, Love
Author: Sarah Beth Durst
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry (Simon & Schuster), September 13, 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 11, 2011
Finished: August 18, 2011

Pearl is a sixteen-year-old vampire... fond of blood, allergic to sunlight, and mostly evil... until the night a sparkly unicorn stabs her through the heart with his horn. Oops.

Her family thinks she was attacked by a vampire hunter (because, obviously, unicorns don't exist), and they're shocked she survived. They're even more shocked when Pearl discovers she can now withstand the sun. But they quickly find a way to make use of her new talent. The Vampire King of New England has chosen Pearl's family to host his feast. If Pearl enrolls in high school, she can make lots of human friends and lure them to the King's feast -- as the entrees.

The only problem? Pearl's starting to feel the twinges of a conscience. How can she serve up her new friends—especially the cute guy who makes her fangs ache—to be slaughtered? Then again, she's definitely dead if she lets down her family. What's a sunlight-loving vamp to do?

Sarah Beth Durst is one of my favourite YA authors. I've read her more recent books Ice and Enchanted Ivy (Ice which I liked with some reservations and Enchanted Ivy I just loved), and knew she was one of those authors that I would just read anything they wrote. When I found out what her new book was about, I was kind of hesitant, mainly because it was a vampire story, and vampire stories automatically seem cliched to me now (thank you Twilight). However; Drink, Slay, Love pleasantly surprised me in a few areas and reassured me that it was not your average YA vampire book.

Pearl comes from a prominent vampire family who's hosting a once-every-hundred-year feast for the Vampire King of New England, which to say the least is a big deal. At the same time, Pearl is being stalked and gets staked by a unicorn...yup, a unicorn. After surviving said attempted murder by the unicorn, Pearl discovers that she can walk around in daylight without being burned to a crisp. In response, her family assigns her the task of finding a food source for the feast...requiring her to attend human high school, which makes Pearl begin to see humans as more than just a food source. Drink, Slay, Love portrays vampires in a more traditional sense: gritty, cruel, bloodthirsty (forgive the bad pun); and Pearl only deviates from this when she develops a conscience. This portrayal was refreshing compared to the sparkly, almost too-human way that vampires are portrayed in YA novels today, I grew up with vampires being frightening, and I expect vampire characters to invoke fear, or at least be bad-ass, not sparkle like cheap glitter makeup. Aside from the obvious digs at Twilight in the book and the traditional portrayal of vampire characters, I also liked that although it did include a romance, the supernatural character was female and the romantic interest (Evan) was human. So often I find the female characters are put in a passive role in supernatural romances by being the human in the relationship, but Pearl is the opposite: spunky and hard-edged with a chip on her shoulder, but still vulnerable in her own way (just not physically so) due to her changing mental perspective on humans. I also love how it shows Pearl transitioning to the world of high school, it's like watching a documentary about an anthropologist studying indigenous peoples in some remote land, that's how Pearl analyzes and adjusts to the human world.

One downside of the book for me was its pacing. Things dragged on and didn't happen nearly fast enough for me, although they did pick up, but not until past the midpoint. I had real issues sustaining my reading for this reason, but granted I have pregnancy-induced brain-drain, so it could be just me.

Not my favourite book by this author, but definitely worth the read. It's a unique vampire novel, which is hard to pull off in YA these days, which I think alone makes it worth reading.

Thoughts on the cover:
I love it. The fact that the face is hidden so you can only see the lips with blood-red lipstick, and the blood in the red bottle with the straw is a nice touch.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Unwanteds - Lisa McMann

Title: The Unwanteds
Author: Lisa McMann
Publisher: Aladdin (Simon & Schuster), August 30, 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Children's Dystopian Fiction/Fantasy
Started: August 6, 2011
Finished: August 10, 2011

From the publisher's website:
Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths.

Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret--behind the mirage of the "death farm" there is instead a place called Artime.

In Artime, each child is taught to cultivate their creative abilities and learn how to use them magically, weaving spells through paintbrushes and musical instruments. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it's a wondrous transformation.

But it's a rare, unique occurence for twins to be separated between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron's bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artime that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate, magical battle.

I love dystopian stories, and finding ones written for middle grade readers are harder to come by (as opposed to YA), so I was happy to preview this title. Unfortunately, the book didn't meet the expectations I had for it, though it was still a decent little read.

The book is being marketed as a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and granted, on the surface this seems quite appropriate. Quill is a dystopian world where children are divided into three categories at the age of thirteen: Wanted, Necessary, and Unwanted. The Wanteds are skilled in math, science, engineering etc. and are destined for university and spots in the government or military (cutely called the Quillitary). Necessaries are just that: necessary workers that make up the majority of the population. The Unwanteds are those that excel in creative arts: writing, drama, music, dance, and visual arts...they are sentenced to death. Children are sorted into said categories based on their skills and "infractions" they commit (merely drawing in the sand with a stick will doom a child to an Unwanted fate). Alex has potential as an artist and is therefore sentenced to die with all the rest of the year's Unwanteds, but soon discovers that the "death farm" is really an alternate dimension/world called Artime, where the Unwanteds are rescued each year to hone their talents and learn to use magic (ergo the Harry Potter reference). That's where the references end sadly.

The book seemed rather rushed to me in some areas. I felt that there wasn't enough world-building established before rushing into the main plot, which was a shame because the premise of Quill had lots of potential (it was amazingly brutal and cruel, which I love to see in my dystopian worlds) and I would've loved it if the author delved into it more. Once the kids get to Artime they're thrown right into their creative lessons and magical training and even that passes by comparatively quickly, I would've loved to get more detail about the spells, the community of Artime itself, the creatures, and the arts lessons (to the kind of detail that the Harry Potter books delve into). The spells especially were extremely creative (turning paper clips into lethal scatterclips, enchanting origami dragons to actually attack and breathe fire), and I was dying to get more detail on other spells, but was left hanging. I think this rushed feeling could be contributed to the fact that this is a middle grade novel (and therefore things are sped up to accommodate younger readers with shorter attention spans that need things moving at a quick pace) and not the first in a series by the looks of things, so it could be excused thusly, but I think this could've benefitted from being either longer with more detail in the appropriate areas, or as a series.

There were a couple of areas in the book I felt could've been delved a bit deeper, but got what I thought was a "cop-out" resolution to these areas. First off, the idea that creative children are punished by death in an authoritarian dystopian world is awesome, but rather than explain to readers that creative people in all disciplines question the status quo and are a threat to governments that demand blind obedience, the author instead sticks to the idea that the label of "creative" only applies to the arts, and that maths and sciences are exempt from this designation. I hate this idea personally, I think it does a disservice to kids to perpetuate that you can only be "creative" if you write stories or draw pictures, I've seen creative minds in science classrooms as well as in math, and I always tell kids that creative means that you produce or contribute something by thinking outside the box no matter what subject you're working in. I think the whole "creativity only belongs to the arts" is a major cop-out, and would've preferred to have seen the idea explained as I have above, I don't think such a concept is something that middle grade readers couldn't understand. Another thing that bothered me was the point in the plot where Mr. Today and Alex's teachers hold back his magical warrior training because they think he'll use it to reunite with Aaron. They've got the kids under surveillance and see that the lack of magical warrior training is making Alex miserable and therefore thinking more about his twin than if he had been allowed to do his training with the others, which makes no sense if you think about it, so I think it was just put in unnecessarily to create conflict in the plot, which was just dumb in my opinion, if you're going to create conflict, do it in a way that's realistic. Last thing in this area...the whole idea of an actual war with Quill and Artime could've been prevented in a very simple way (won't say more for fear of spoilers), but it's so stupidly simple, you'll want to smack the characters upside the head for not doing it in the first place, which just frustrated me as a reader, I felt the whole battle and everything was just completely pointless.

Also, although the characters did have distinct personalities I would've liked to see them developed a little more, especially the girls Meghan and Lani (Alex and Samheed I felt had some pretty decent development throughout the book). The secondary characters like the adults and the creatures (I loved Simber) were pretty interesting as well, another area that could've been better explored if this had been a series instead of a one-shot.

I wanted to like this, I really did, and it has a lot of potential in some areas: the premise, the spells, the arts lessons, the magic of Artime itself, and the characters. However, the feeling of being rushed through what good parts there were and being dragged through a climactic battle that didn't need to happen in the first place really affected my enjoyment of the book (again, perhaps my expectations were a bit too high). Also that whole "creativity only belongs in the arts" idea really bugged me, but that irked the teacher in me, so that might not bother all readers. It's a decent middle-grade novel, but I think there are definitely better ones out there that don't dumb down things for kids and assume that middle grade readers can indeed have some sophisticated stuff in their books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I do like the cover, I think it's nice and dynamic, a perfect fit for a middle grade novel. I like how Simber is the main focus of the cover, with the kids at the bottom as well as their origami dragon spells (I loved those!).

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Hidden - Jessica Verday

Title: The Hidden (Book 3 in The Hollow Trilogy)
Author: Jessica Verday
Publisher: Simon Pulse, September 6, 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 3, 2011
Finished: August 5, 2011

Abbey knows that Caspian is her destiny. Theirs is a bond that transcends even death. But as Abbey finally learns the full truth about the dark fate that links her to Caspian and ties them both to the town of Sleepy Hollow, she suddenly has some very hard choices to make. Caspian may be the love of her life, but is that love worth dying for?

Beautifully spun, emotionally gripping, and irresistibly romantic, The Hidden will leave you breathless.

I fell in love with The Hollow and The Haunted when I read them last year, so I was literally on the edge of my seat waiting for The Hidden to come out. Thankfully I had the opportunity to read it early thanks to the publisher's Galley Grab program, so I am a very happy bookworm right now ^_^

After the events of The Hollow and The Haunted, Abbey is faced with a decision after finding out exactly what Caspian's deal is: accept her destiny and follow through with what must occur to allow her and Caspian to be together forever, or decide to stay alive without Caspian. With Vincent Drake stalking Abbey to make certain that she and Caspian are not completed (for reasons which are revealed later), and Caspian beginning to fade, Abbey and the Revenants have their work cut out for them in this installment. Although nothing earth-shattering happens in terms of the plot until closer to the end when all the plot threads come together and are resolved, the author has this wonderful way of writing about seemingly mundane slice-of-life events (Abbey at school, Abbey and Caspian interacting) that just sucks you in and keeps you reading. It could be because of the author's writing style or it could just be that I fell in love with these characters from the very start, but I loved The Hidden just as much as the previous two books.

Abbey and Caspian are adorable as ever, and although they had instances reminiscent of Twilight's "I love you but I don't want you to die and give up your wonderful mortal life just to be with me" argument, I think Abbey and Caspian handled it rather well. Abbey was actually introspective and gave some serious thought about what her choice would mean for everyone involved, and once she made her choice Caspian actually respected her decision and didn't try to interfere or change her mind; and I respect the author a lot for having her characters make such mature decisions. I love how the author handled the romance between these two, although I still think the sensual scenes from The Haunted are my favourite, there were some definite contenders in The Hidden.

There were a few things I wish were explained a little better; like Vincent's motivation seemed a little too super villain-y superficial to me, and I wondered how exactly they pulled off that thing with Kristen at the end, and how I really really wanted a little more to that epilogue than what we got (but was still satisfied with what was there), the series wrapped up quite well in my opinion, and I'm sad to see one of my favourite series come to an end. I can't wait to see what else this author decides to produce in the future, because I will gladly read whatever that might be.

Pick up The Hollow, The Haunted, and The Hidden (when it comes out in September) and read them all if you haven't already, this series is truly addictive and satisfying.

Thoughts on the cover:
My copy of The Hollow is the domestic release, The Haunted is the UK release with the same cover elements just executed differently, and although I'll probably pick up the paperback release of The Hidden to match my paperbacks of the previous two, I have to admit I really like the domestic cover for The Hidden. The colour blends are awesome, and the ring isn't such a cliche image as the necklace was in The Hollow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Tale of Two Castles - Gail Carson Levine

Title: A Tale Of Two Castles
Author: Gail Carson Levine
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2011 (Hardcover)
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: July 28, 2011
Finished: July 31, 2011

From the inside cover:
Elodie journeys to the town of Two Castles to become a mansioner-an actress-but the master of the troupe turns her away. Brilliant dragon Meenore takes her in, then sends her on a dangerous mission within an ogre's castle. There, disguised as a kitchen maid, she plays the role of a lifetime, pitted against a foe intent on murder.
Black and white cats, a handsome cat trainer, a greedy king, a giddy princess, a shape-shifting ogre, a brilliant dragon...Elodie must discover which of them is kind, which is cruel, and, most of all, which is the one who deserves her trust.
Newbery Honour author Gail Carson Levine weaves an entrancing tale of a fearsome ogre, a dragon detective, and a remarkable heroine who finds friendship where she least expects it, learns that there are many ways to mansion, and discovers that goodness and evil come in all shapes and sizes.

I hadn't read a Gail Carson Levine book since Ella Enchanted ages ago, but I remember liking the author's style, so I decided to give her newest book, A Tale of Two Castles, a try.

Elodie is a 12-year-old farmer's daughter, and leaves her home for Two Castles to apprentice herself to a mansioner (actor). Unfortunately, free apprenticeships have recently been abolished and Elodie cannot afford to pay the troupe leader to take her in. Thankfully, the dragon Meenore takes Elodie in as ITs apprentice (only dragons know their own gender, so they are referred to as IT by everyone else), and sends Elodie to the castle of the ogre Count Jonty Um to help uncover who is stealing from him. Eventually they both discover that the Count's life is at stake, and Meenore and Elodie must work through the mystery of who is at fault before the ogre meets a gruesome fate.

I loved this book, mainly because it is so incredibly charming and engaging. The author draws you in to the world-building quite quickly and then gets on with the plot at hand, all the while building up the character development until you fall in love with the main players. Elodie is typically pure of heart and spunky, but it's hard not to like her because she's just so endearing. Meenore stole the show for me, the author portrays IT as kind yet not obviously so, like an old master grooming an heir to take over their trade, and the interactions between IT and Elodie were funny and cute at the same time. Jonty Um is the ogre who everyone in town hates but is so incredibly sweet you forget that he's an ogre. He can shape-shift at will, but surrounds himself with dogs to ward off the town's cats, the only thing that can force him to shape-shift against his will (usually into a mouse so he could be eaten). The shape-shifting element is what makes the murder plot so creative; nobody's sure if the Count is still alive or not (since he could have shifted into another animal since then), or who was responsible for setting the cats on the Count in the first place. I liked the mystery focus of the book; Meenore teaches Elodie to think like a detective and not be duped by people who appear to be sweet and innocent, which leaves Elodie questioning everyone, including Meenore ITself.

Excellent plot and premise, great world-building, and incredibly charming characters. A Tale of Two Castles is a wonderful read that I thoroughly enjoyed, so read this!

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Elodie is portrayed, and how you get to see the detail in Meenore's wings. I really like the way the title font is symmetrically displayed on the bottom of the cover, it's very eye-catching.