Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Time of the Fireflies - Kimberley Griffiths Little

Title: The Time of the Fireflies
Author: Kimberley Griffiths Little
Publisher: Scholastic Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 356 pages
Genre: Children's Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Started: September 26, 2014
Finished: September 28, 2014

From the inside cover:

When Larissa Renaud starts receiving eerie phone calls on a disconnected old phone in her family's antique shop, she just knows she's in for a strange summer. A series of clues leads her to the muddy riverbank, where clouds of fireflies dance among the cypress knees and cattails each evening at twilight.

The fireflies are beautiful and mysterious, and they take Larissa on a magical journey through time, where she learns the secrets of her family's tragic past - deadly, curse-ridden secrets that could endanger the future of her family as she knows it. And when her mother suddenly disappears, it becomes clear that it is up to Larissa to prevent history from repeating itself, and a fatal tragedy from striking the people she loves.

Critically acclaimed author Kimberley Griffiths Little brings her signature lyricism to this thrilling tale of unexpected friendship, haunting mystery, and dangerous adventure.

I picked this up purely for the cover and the title, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book.

Larissa is twelve and summer has just begun in the Louisiana bayou. Her mother is expecting a baby in a few weeks, so Larissa is helping out her parents in their antique shop that doubles as their home. One day, after getting a mysterious phone call from one of the old phones in the shop that isn't even hooked up, Larissa finds her way to the dock where swarms of fireflies transport her to the same patch of land in 1912 where she witnesses her ancestors come under a curse that would haunt their family for generations. After several more trips back through time seeing subsequent generations of her family, Larissa discovers the source of the curse and needs to end it before it affects her mother and unborn baby sister.

I loved the atmosphere of the book, it felt like I was transported to a summer in the south. The author did a really good job with the 1912 scenes too, I was getting a total "Gone With The Wind" vibe from them (and yes I know GWTW was Civil War era), particularly the scenes with Anna and her Uncle Edgar. I especially liked how the author included southern dialect complete with French and Creole references, it added to the authenticity.

The book has some good themes too, such as giving someone a second chance like Larissa does for Alyson after the accident, and about how wrong it is to take something that doesn't belong to you.

I really appreciated the ending, it went exactly how I felt it should.

A wonderful read with excellent atmosphere and setting; plus who wouldn't love a kids book about time travel via fireflies and cursed dolls?

Thoughts on the cover:
I love the illustration and the blue and purple colour scheme, very eye-pleasing.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Graduation Day - Joelle Charbonneau

Title: Graduation Day (Book Three of The Testing series)
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 19, 2014
Finished: September 25, 2014

From the inside cover:

With the United Commonwealth teetering on the brink of all-out civil war, this is the moment to lead that the gifted student and Testing survivor Cia Vale has trained for.

Having discovered the brutal truth behind The Testing, she has vowed to end it once and for all. As Cia plunges through layers of deception and danger, she must risk the lives of those she loves most and gamble on the loyalty of her lethal classmates.

The stakes are higher than ever - lives of promise cut short or fulfilled; a future ruled by fear or hope - in this electrifying conclusion to Joelle Charbonneau's epic Testing trilogy.

Ready or's Graduation Day.

After reading The Testing and Independent Study, this quickly became my new favourite trilogy. Now that it's ended, I can safely say I was impressed by every book in the series, including this final one, even though the tone and pacing of this last book is very different from the first two.

Graduation Day picks up where the last book left off, Cia knows that the leader of the rebels who are trying to stop the Testing isn't really interested in stopping the Testing, and that the whole plot is a rouse to eliminate the opposition. So when Cia uses her connection as the President's intern to relay this news, the President charges her with a new task: to kill those who are responsible for the Testing in order to make sure she will succeed where the rebels will not. So Cia goes about formulating her plan, angsting over whether she can actually kill someone (but realizing it needs to be done or else the Testing will never end), recruiting classmates to help her, testing the loyalty of those classmates, and executing the plan, all while avoiding detection by the university officials.

The Testing and Independent Study were very action-packed books, there's the anguish of the demanding school tests and homework, and the back-breaking physical tests. Graduation Day is very much a slower paced book because it focuses on a psychological battle of wills. The ending is very much a mind-screw where Cia questions everything she had been made to believe and her father's words of trusting no one ring true.

The only thing I have issues with is the notion the book puts forth that leaders need to be prepared to make 'difficult decisions' (aka kill people) to do what ultimately needs to be done. Spoiler alerts ahead!! Although Cia only kills in self-defense and another character does the outright killing for her, the only way to stop the Testing was for Cia to kill someone (to prove they don't need the Testing to see if a candidate can make difficult decisions since Cia was recommended to fail but they passed her as a test). I'm all for presenting the idea that leaders need to make 'difficult decisions' such as putting the needs of the many over the needs of the few when it comes down to it, but to go so far as to advocate killing first over say, exposing the offending party to the public and letting the legal system have a crack at punishment, or at least trying other methods before just saying "yup, so and so needs to die", just doesn't sit right with me. So if what I wrote above doesn't sit right with your moral code either, you might want to think twice about recommending this particular instalment.

Good ending to the series, but I had issues with some of the moral points raised in the book.

Thoughts on the cover:
Keeping with the theme of the previous two book covers, this one uses Raffe's symbol of the double lightning bolts with a purple colour scheme.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Beast Within - Serena Valentino

Title: The Beast Within: A Tale of Beauty's Prince
Author: Serena Valentino
Publisher: Disney Press, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 215 pages
Genre: Children's/Young Adult; Fantasy, Fairy Tale
Started: September 18, 2014
Finished: September 19, 2014

From the inside cover:

The tale is as old as time: a cruel prince is transformed into a beast. A lovely maiden comes into this monster's life. He is transformed by her compassion, and the love he feels for her in return. The two live happily ever after.

But any tale, especially one as storied as Beauty and the Beast's, has been told many different times, and in many different ways. No matter which version one hears, the nagging question remains: what was it that transformed the prince into the beast we are introduced to?

This is one version, pulled from the many passed down through the ages. It's a story of vanity and arrogance, of love and hatred, of beastliness, and of course, of beauty.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows I'm a huge Beauty and the Beast fan. From the original fairy tales, to the Disney version, to creative retellings; I love them all. So of course, when I found out that Disney was making a book that explores the Beast's past as the Prince before the curse, I was all over it. The author is seemingly writing these in a series examining the untold tales of Disney villains (though the Beast doesn't exactly fit the villain motif), she previously did an instalment on the evil queen from Snow White that was well received. That is why reading this particular book was so incredibly painful; her other work received praise, which made me wonder what the heck went wrong here.

The story begins with Belle imprisoned in the Beast's castle as he reflects on his sorry state, wondering if he is even capable of the kind of love Belle showed towards her father by taking his place as prisoner. Then by a series of flashbacks we see the man the Beast once was. The Prince is friends with Gaston, and the way the author worked this in actually made it believable that they grew up together. The Prince is engaged to Circe, the youngest of a group of four witches. When Gaston realizes that Circe is the daughter of a pig farmer and informs the Prince, the engagement is cancelled. Heartbroken, Circe and her sisters curse the Prince and his household, but contrary to the film the Prince doesn't immediately change into the Beast physically. The novel examines more of the psychological changes that occur as he continues on with his 'beastly' behaviour, paranoid that what Circe cast upon him will come to fruition. As the curse slowly becomes apparent with every horrible act the Prince commits, his household changes as well. Here is another difference from the film: where servants turn into household objects that everyone else can still see and interact with, the Prince sees them merely as inanimate objects, leaving him incredibly isolated. The ghastly statues in the castle seen in the film, while harmless to everyone else, actually come alive to torment the Prince. These are details that I actually enjoyed, and if the rest of book had simply kept up with these I would've had a different impression.

The writing is poor. The word 'butt-chinned' is used to describe Gaston; I'm shocked that appeared in a formal novel, especially one set in Romance-era France where a contemporary word like that wouldn't be used. The plot is disjointed and half the time I couldn't tell what the author was trying to focus on. First there's the Beast agonizing over Belle, then backstory on the Prince and Circe with lots of Gaston, then a lot of focus on Circe's sisters trying to sabotage everything between the Prince and the annoying Princess Tulip, then talk of Ursula (obviously the focus of the next book), and then bam back to the Beast and Belle falling in love and breaking the curse. Belle is not given much focus at all, which is fine if the book only examined the Beast's story, but then to talk about how the curse is broken without Belle's character development is misguided. There are inconsistencies between the book and the film that don't make sense. If Gaston and the Prince were friends, does he not recognize the castle he spent so much time in? How does Belle attend the Prince's ball at the castle pre-curse and not put two and two together later on when she's back there? If the Prince was cursed around 11-ish according to the film, then why is he seen pre-curse as a late teen trying to woo all the ladies?

Overall a disappointment, which is sad since I saw potential here.

Thoughts on the cover:
A very cool thing they did was to put the Prince's face on the actual cover underneath the Beast's on the dust jacket.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling - Erika Johansen

Title: The Queen of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 434 pages
Genre: Adult; Fantasy, Dystopian Fiction
Started: September 10, 2014
Finished: September 17, 2014

From the inside  cover:

An untested young princess must claim her throne, learn to become a queen, and combat a malevolent sorceress in an epic battle between light and darkness in this spectacular debut - the first novel in a trilogy.

Young Kelsea Raleigh was raised in hiding after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa, far from the intrigues of the royal Keep and in the care of two devoted servants who pledged their lives to protect her. Growing up in a cottage deep in the woods, Kelsea knows little of her kingdom's haunted past...or that its fate will soon rest in her hands.

Long ago, Kelsea's forefathers sailed away from a decaying world to establish a new land free of modern technology. Three hundred years later, this feudal society had divided into three fearful nations who pay duties to a fourth: the powerful Mortmesne, ruled by the cunning Red Queen. Now, on Kelsea's nineteenth birthday, the tattered remnants of the Queen's Guard - loyal soldiers who protect the throne - have appeared to escort the princess on a perilous journey to the capital to ascend to her rightful place as the new Queen of the Tearling.

Though born of royal blood and in possession of the Tear sapphire, a jewel of immense power and magic, Kelsea has never felt more uncertain of her ability to rule. But the shocking evil she discovers in the heart of her realm will precipitate an act of immense daring, throwing the entire kingdom into turmoil - and unleashing the Red Queen's vengeance. A cabal of enemies with an array of deadly weapons, from crimson-caped assassins to the darkest blood magic, plots to destroy her. but Kelsea is growing in strength, her steely resolve earning her loyal allies, including the Queen's Guard, led by the enigmatic Lazarus, and the intriguing outlaw known simply as "the Fetch."

Kelsea's quest to save her kingdom and meet her destiny has only just begun. Riddled with mysteries, betrayals, and treacherous battles, Kelsea's journey is a trial by fire that will either forge a legend...or destroy her.

This book received oh so much hype, mainly due to its kick-butt heroine, so I knew I had to check it out. There were a few things that bugged me, but overall the hype is well-deserved.

First off, I liked how the world-building was set up as a fantasy, but not quite. The founders of the Tear and the surrounding lands (collectively called New Europe) originally fled from our modern-day North America and Europe, escaping decimated lands. So this book is actually set in the future and meets a lot of the criteria of a dystopian novel as well as a fantasy. William Tear felt his society's downfall was due to technology, so he founded the Tearling without the use of technology. Unfortunately, that also meant the Tearling had a lack of trained medical professionals as well, and combined with the influence of God's Church (a thinly veiled reference to Catholicism) and the lack of mandatory education, the Tearling is an overly poor, illiterate, feudal society.

This is the world Kelsea finds herself inheriting. After being sent away as an infant and raised by Barty and Carlin Glynn in a remote cabin in the woods, Kelsea receives a balanced education and develops into a resourceful young woman quite the opposite of her late mother. She finds the Queen's Guards waiting to escort her back to the Keep on her nineteenth birthday, but most suspect she will be assassinated before she even gets there.

Kelsea is a great female protagonist: she's not drop-dead pretty or super skinny, she can wield a knife to defend herself (granted her weaponry skills can use some improvement), she sticks to her own moral code, she's a book nerd with an awesome library, and she's quite witty. The only thing that doesn't quite make sense to me is how amazingly well she adjusts to society after being exposed to only two people growing up. I know she read a lot and Barty and Carlin had different personalities, but there's no way she could seamlessly integrate the way she does, there would have to be bumps along the way...

I do appreciate the allusions to the consequences of a society that values religion above education.  God's Church in the Tearling is a powerful influence that forbids contraceptives and doesn't say anything against the degradation of the education system or the immorality of the monthly caravans of Tear citizens sold as slaves to Mortmesne. Printing presses aren't used, so all books from the pre-Crossing era are rare. One of the most touching scenes for me was when Kelsea retrieves all Carlin's books from the cabin and fills her mother's empty bookshelves in the Keep. The children of Kelsea's female workers and her guards are all sitting around reading, and Kelsea gets the inspiration to create libraries again. And props to the author for references to Tolkien and Harry Potter in Kelsea's library.

Excellent start to what seems like a great new series. Will definitely be picking up the subsequent books.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like the black and gold colour scheme, other than that it looks like your typical fantasy cover with your token castle.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ruin and Rising - Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ruin and Rising
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2014 (Hardcover)
Length: 417 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Fantasy
Started: August 24, 2014
Finished: September 1, 2014

From the inside cover:

The Darkling rules Ravka from his shadow throne. Now the nation's fate rests with a broken Sun Summoner, a disgraced tracker, and the shattered remnants of a once-great magical army.

Deep in an ancient network of tunnels and caverns, a weakened Alina must submit to the dubious protection of the Apparat and the zealots who worship her as a Saint. Yet her plans lie elsewhere, with the hunt for the elusive firebird and the hope that an outlaw prince still survives.

Aline will have to forge new alliances and put aside old rivalries as she and Mal race to find the last of Morozova's amplifiers. But as she begins to unravel the Darkling's secrets, she reveals a past that will forever alter the understanding of the bond they share and the power she wields. The firebird is the one thing that stands between Ravka and destruction - and claiming it could cost Alina the very future she's fighting for.

I read both Shadow and Bone and Siege and Storm last year and quite enjoyed the first and second books of the trilogy, so of course I was excited to get the conclusion. And then my excitement turned to deflated anger...

The story starts out well enough with Alina, Mal, and the rest (Tamar, Tolya, Genya, Nikolai etc.) managing to escape from the clutches of the Apparat and his followers underground due to the resurgence of Alina's powers. Then they go in search of the firebird to try to harness its powers before the Darkling can. Then towards the end after the firebird is found (not giving spoilers on that), things just come apart in the most spectacular fashion. Spoilers ahead, so a fair warning for everyone.

The Darkling is one of my favourite types of characters. A villain/antagonist that is a perfect mix of good and evil where you don't hate them to the point where you want them to die, but you know they need to be stopped or else everything is doomed. Plus, the scenes between him and Alina are just plain delicious dialogue-wise. So when he died in a pretty mediocre way it was disappointing, mostly because I thought the plot would've worked better if he and Alina just embraced their god-like powers together. And then Alina loses releases her powers to the citizens and Mal loses his amazing tracking skills, so they're both horribly boring and essentially go back to where they were before the first book even started. So here's a female protagonist with amazing powers greater than a god, and what happens? She reverts to mediocrity to end up with the annoying boy who had issues being there for her when she was at her best but no problems being with her when she's no better than him.

I enjoyed the series but the conclusion was disappointing, especially coming from a feminist perspective.

Thoughts on the cover:
The continuity goes on in the third cover, this time in red hues with the castle and the firebird.