Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger

Information

Goodreads: Etiquette and Espionage
Series: Finishing School #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 2013

Official Summary

It’s one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It’s quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to Finishing School.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners–and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, young ladies learn to finish…everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage–in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year’s education.

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Review

I have fond memories of constantly seeing Etiquette and Espionage and the other Finishing School books in the library around the time they came out (2013, for this one), always intending to check them out and read them because the Gail Carriger seemed so popular. . .and never actually doing it. So it is with great interest that, eight years later, I have finally read this book — and realized it’s nothing like I expected it to be. I was expecting something like Kathleen Baldwin’s A School for Unusual Girls, since both novels have the premise that a boarding school for girls is covertly an institution that trains them in espionage, but the similarities basically end there. While Baldwin’s series is immersive, serious, and romantic, Carriger’s is a steampunk tongue-in-cheek take that skews a bit younger.

I have to write as a disclaimer that Carriger and I don’t seem to share the same sense of of humor. While she’s obviously making little winking jokes throughout the entire book that I’m clearly supposed to find amusing, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I also wasn’t expecting the characters in a book about a finishing school (which DOES train its students for polite society, in addition to the darker arts) to talk as they’re Bertie Wooster, straight out of a Wodehouse novel, particularly because I believe the time period is a bit earlier than the Jeeves novels. I’m sure some readers will be tickled by the whole aesthetic, but it wasn’t really what I was expecting and I just didn’t find it that funny.

That aside, the book is fun. I really liked that protagonist Sophronia is 14, and she acts like it — a good reminder that YA was more like this eight years ago, focused on characters younger than 18 who acted more like teens than like grown adults. Sophoronia is silly, rebellious, friendly, and skilled all at once, and though I think I’d share her older sisters’ opinion that she’s a bit annoying if I met her in real life, she’s entertaining to read about, and I do have to admire her heart.

I’m still not 100% sure what the finishing school is for. Whose “side” are they on? What do they do? Are they good? Evil? It seems weird to me this isn’t fully covered in book 1 because I don’t want to have to read the rest of the series to find out. I guess readers are just supposed to expect the story as it is, but I was worried the whole time that, in seeking to do something right, Sophronia might actually be causing harm. And maybe she did, but I still don’t know at the end of the book!

Etiquette and Espionage isn’t my favorite book ever, but I think it’s just a matter of my personal taste. If someone likes this sense of humor, or if someone is looking for a lower YA book, this could be a great choice.

Briana
4 stars

The Lost Sisters by Holly Black (The Folk of the Air #1.5)

The Lost Sisters by Holly Black Cover and ReviewInformation

Goodreads: The Lost Sisters
Series: The Folk of the Air #1.5
Source: Library
Published: October 2, 2018

Official Summary

Sometimes the difference between a love story and a horror story is where the ending comes . . . 

While Jude fought for power in the Court of Elfhame against the cruel Prince Cardan, her sister Taryn began to fall in love with the trickster, Locke.

Half-apology and half-explanation, it turns out that Taryn has some secrets of her own to reveal.

The Lost Sisters is a companion e-novella to the New York Times bestselling novel The Cruel Prince by master writer Holly Black.

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Review

Spoilers for The Cruel Prince

I borrowed this e-novella from the library because a few people told me that it would help explain Taryn’s actions in The Cruel Prince.  While it is, indeed, an explanation (or, more specifically, what Taryn wishes she could tell Jude about her own actions), I’m still not sure I understand.

Taryn’s explanation of why she chose Locke over Jude and why she let Jude suffers seems to come down to her sense (or fear?) of not belonging in Farie.  Interestingly, this is a fear she shares with Jude, and the novella is meant to show how the sisters process this in different ways.  However…this isn’t exactly new.  The Cruel Prince makes it pretty clear that Jude is the bold fighter and Taryn is the retiring peacemaker; it also clearly explains that that Jude wants to “belong” by winning a place as a warrior, while Taryn wants to belong by marrying one of the Folk.  The Lost Sisters might elaborate on this by giving readers Taryn’s point of view, but I’m not sure I really learned anything that I didn’t know already.

There were two things I found interesting about the story, however.  First, the story reminds readers that while we understand Jude and her motivations because we have her point of view in The Cruel Prince, Taryn does not.  It gives readers a sense of what people who are not in Jude’s head might think of her, and it’s a good general reminder that people are often more sympathetic to people they “understand.”  Which is exactly why Taryn is offering this explanation, to make herself more sympathetic by explaining her thought process.  But the second thing I found interesting is that it doesn’t really work.  It’s an explanation, a story.  But Taryn doesn’t come out looking any better than she did before.  Even other characters point out that she’s an awful person, and that the one intriguing thing about this is that she doesn’t see it at all.  She really thinks she’s nice.

Both The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King play with readers’ emotions by refusing to make anyone really good, even when they have good intentions or take good actions.  Everyone is a bit of a jerk; nearly everyone is out for themselves.  The Lost Sisters fits nicely into this theme as we get Taryn’s point of view and learn more about how and why she became involved with Locke, yet the explanation doesn’t do much to absolve her.  Now I just need novella 2.5 to tell me what on earth she was thinking during The Wicked King.

4 stars Briana

The Wicked King by Holly Black

The Wicked King

Information

Goodreads: The Wicked King
Series: The Folk of the Air #2
Source: Purchased
Published: January 7, 2019

Official Summary

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.

The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

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Review

Like most of the blogosphere, I really enjoyed The Cruel Prince, so picking up The Wicked King and seeing how all the court intrigue and drama would play out and how all the characters would develop into their new roles was a given for me.  I actually even preordered the book, which is generally not something I do. (To be honest, I don’t even purchase that many books in general.)  My verdict: The Wicked King is just about as good as The Cruel Prince, though it suffers from basically the same flaws, which I had hoped would be more resolved this time around.

If you like wild, plot-driven stories with plotting and twists and turns and so many moving pieces that you wonder how the political players will manager them all, this series is 100% for you, and this is the primary reason I love it.  I love court intrigue, and I love when authors manage to make it genuinely complex while giving characters believable motivations and actions based on those motivations.  I read The Wicked King in a single day because I just wanted to know what happened next.

The characterization is where the book fails a little, which I also suggested in my review of The Cruel Prince.  I was hoping we’d get more of Cardan here, and we sort of did–but I guess the reality is that the book is from Jude’s point of view and she seems to barely speak to the guy, certainly not in a meaningful capacity.  Black is still playing with the idea that Fae seem are fickle and cruel and perhaps it’s impossible to say they are truly kind, even when some of them have nice streaks.  I appreciate what a balancing act this is, but I also think Cardan’s feelings and motivations need to come more to the forefront.

Jude, on the other hand, was pretty well-developed, and it was fascinating to watch her struggle with her new role.  My one issue with her is that she has this enormous blind spot where she believes that she personally must make every single decision regarding the welfare of the kingdom or everything will fall to pieces.  She hoards information, does whatever she wants, and is convinced that no one can do better than she can.  It’s infuriating (though perhaps intentionally, as it’s clear that Black wrote this as a character flaw and as a viewpoint Jude really needs to overcome).

However, Jude’s belief that she is indispensable and must do everything herself also runs the plot in ways that are occasionally unconvincing.  Particularly, this comes into play at the end of the book, but as I personally DO NOT think Jude must do everything herself, I think some of the drama of the ending was lost on me.  I certainly didn’t see the ending coming, but I don’t think  I was as shocked or emotionally affected by it as a lot of other readers were.

Finally, some of the side characters also got some more character development (for instance, Vivi and Nicasia). Taryn remains a flighty mystery to me. I have no idea what she’s gong to do next and no idea WHY she did it, once she does. Hopefully this gets resolved in the next book, along with Cardan’s motivations.

Basically, if you liked The Cruel Prince, you will be suitably pleased by this second installment. If you haven’t started the series yet but like fantasy with court intrigue and a bit of darkness, I recommend this.

4 stars Briana

Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart

Grace and Fury ebook

Information

Goodreads: Grace & Fury
Series: Grace & Fury #1
Source: Library
Published: July 31, 2018

Official Summary

In a world where women have no rights, sisters Serina and Nomi Tessaro face two very different fates: one in the palace, the other in prison.

Serina has been groomed her whole life to become a Grace – someone to stand by the heir to the throne as a shining, subjugated example of the perfect woman. But when her headstrong and rebellious younger sister, Nomi, catches the heir’s eye, it’s Serina who takes the fall for the dangerous secret that Nomi has been hiding.

Now trapped in a life she never wanted, Nomi has only one way to save Serina: surrender to her role as a Grace until she can use her position to release her sister. This is easier said than done. A traitor walks the halls of the palace, and deception lurks in every corner. But Serina is running out of time, imprisoned on an island where she must fight to the death to survive and one wrong move could cost her everything.

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Review

Full disclosure: I initially wasn’t going to read Grace & Fury because for some reason I was under the impression I would hate it.  It might have had something to do with the cover, which looks kind of like Pretty Little Liars set in an Italian fantasy world. (See below).  Basically, I had a general vibe the book feature petty beautiful sisters doing stereotypical YA things and I wouldn’t be impressed or invested.  I was very wrong.

Pretty Little Liars 6Grace and Fury

I read Grace and Fury in a single day because I just couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. Part of this may be that I had forgotten the book summary (which I’d read months ago and then never again), so I was genuinely surprised by a couple plot points that are right on the cover. I was seriously reading along like The WRONG sister gets chosen as a Grace?! No way!!! This is mildly embarrassing, but I think I enjoyed the book more because of it, so I’m embracing it.

I also became genuinely interested in what happened to the sisters as they experienced different types of hardship.  I was worried by the opening chapters because Serina and Nomi seemed a bit flat, but the challenges they face definitely make them grow–and even though some of the growth is unlikely, the author manages to make it believable.  The relationship between Serina and Nomi is also special, and I love that Banghart was able to convey that, even with the issue that the sisters spend most of the book apart and clearly have some disagreements the few moments they are together.  I still believed they would do anything for each other.

There is the kind of over-the-top feminist narrative I’ve been noticing in a lot of YA books recently (though I get the political climate inspiring this).  It worked better for me in Grace & Fury than it did in Heart of Thorns, at least.  That is to say, there’s probably nothing objectively wrong with it, and a lot of readers will probably enjoy it, but I’ve read a number of books lately focused on “Women aren’t allowed to do anything in society because men are afraid of how dangerous we would be with any rights or power, so let us rise and revolt!” so I can personally go for something a bit new.

…Yet I also want to see Serina and Nomi and co be completely badass in the sequel.

The other weird thing about the book (which also seems to be a trend in the YA books I’ve been reading recently, for reasons completely mysterious to me) is the love triangle where the female protagonist is caught between two brothers.  I actually think both of the brothers are interesting characters, and I enjoyed the nuance with which they’re written, but I also can’t fathom kissing a guy and then prancing off to kiss his brother.

At any rate, you can officially count me as a fan of this book.  It has some YA tropes, but I think the fresh take on them and the complexity of the characters make the book strong overall.  Fantasy fans will definitely want to check this one out, and I will definitely be checking out the next book in the series.

4 stars Briana

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

The Cruel Prince Owlcrate

Information

GoodreadsThe Cruel Prince
Series: The Folk of the Air #1
Source: OwlCrate Box Purchase
Published: January 2, 2018

Official Summary

Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.

Star Divider

Review

The only other Holly Black book I’ve read was The Darkest Part of the Forest, and I didn’t love it, but I was intrigued by the amazing amount of hype and love that The Cruel Prince has received.  Readers seem obsessed, and if there’s one thing that can catch my attention, it’s a well-received YA fantasy novel.  Ultimately, I think the hype is slightly overblown, but not much. This is an engaging read with strong world-building, a fast-paced plot, and some complicated court intrigue.

The court intrigue is the strongest draw for me.  I love watching characters work out complicated plots and try to get the best of one another.  I love characters who are clever and brave or maybe even ruthless.  There were a couple times in the book where I was legitimately surprised by the turn of events, which is always a plus for me; I hate being able to predict the plot starting at page five.

The non-intrigue parts of the plot (if you can truly say that these events were unrelated to court politics) are also engaging.  I admit that the book has a bit of a Sarah J. Maas feel in the sense that I sometimes thought events happened or characters made decisions largely because they seemed dramatic or epic and not because they completely made sense, but I was invested in the book for entertainment, and entertained I was.

However, this does mean I was slightly disappointed in the characters.  They have a lot going on, and most of the characters come really, really close to being amazingly complex and nuanced.  Are they monsters?  Are they kind?  Are they the product of their own choices?  Or of their horrible childhoods?  Yet by the end of the book, I felt they were underdeveloped, especially Cardan.  Possibly Holly Black is dealing with the issue that Fae traditionally have a cruel streak, while she also wants to make them somewhat likable, but I’m not sure she’s found the right balance yet.

However, my wanting to know more about the characters is a good incentive to read book two, The Wicked King.  I also want to know what Cardan is going to get up to because I’m sure it will be immensely entertaining.  I’m not as in love with this book as many readers (but then I suppose that “overly exciting squeeing blogger” isn’t generally my vibe here), but I did like it, and I recommend it.  I particularly thought it was a good take on Fae, as I personally find Fae books hit-or-miss.

4 stars Briana

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Nevermoor

Information

Goodreads: Nevermoor: The Trial of Morrigan Crow
Series: Nevermoor #1
Source: Gift
Published: October 31, 2017

Official Summary

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart–an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests–or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

Review

Nevermoor is one of those magical middle grade fantasies that draw you in from the first pages and never let you go. There’s a bit of darkness to the story, as Morrigan is a cursed child—both for herself because she’s doomed to die at the age of twelve and for her community because a simple look from her can bring bad luck down upon others. Sadly, a lot of people, perhaps including her own family, are not going to be overly distressed by her death. However, the book nicely balances this darkness with whimsy and laughter, and Morrigan eventually finds a place where she belongs.

Morrigan herself is a spunky, determined protagonist whom readers will love to root for as she attempts to earn a coveted place in the exclusive Wundrous Society, a group of intrepid adventurers with unusual talents. Her good points are nicely balanced by some realistic character flaws, such as occasionally doubting her own abilities or getting into spats with other children.

The plot is engaging and ties together several threads, including Morrigan’s quest to pass the tests to enter the Wundrous Society and her attempts to fit into her new home, as well as a more overarching plot about good vs. evil. I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages to see what would happen next, as well as to keep exploring Townsend’s imaginative world.

Nevermoor delighted me the entire time I was reading it. It’s only January (at the time I’m writing the review, not when I’m publishing it!), but I already think this is going to be a contender for one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

5 stars Briana

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

Stalking Jack the Ripper

Information

Goodreads: Stalking Jack the Ripper
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Groomed to be the perfect highborn Victorian young lady, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has a decidedly different plan for herself.  After the loss of her beloved mother, she is determined to understand the nature of death and its workings.  Trading in her embroidery needle for an autopsy scalpel, Audrey secretly apprentices in forensics.  She soon gets drawn into the investigation of serial killer Jack the Ripper, but to her horror, the search for clues bringers her far closer to her sheltered world than she ever thought possible.

Review

Stalking Jack the Ripper takes readers to Victorian England, where protagonist Audrey Rose is learning forensics and flaunting all societal standards.  While the premise of the novel is a unique one, and Maniscalco has put clear effort into creating a world where people dabble with dark deeds and death to write a YA novel that stands out from the crowd, I ultimately thought the plot lagged.

Maniscalco takes an unsolved mystery and puts her own spin on it, but I found the solution to the mystery too obvious to guess too early in the novel, which was disappointing.  There are a limited number of characters in the book to begin with, and both the jacket summary and the snippet on the back of the hardcover give even more painfully broad hints.  Once you note this and account for some popular mystery tropes, it’s not difficult to tie everything together.  I would have liked a more surprising outcome, or at least more of a puzzle.  I also didn’t believe the Jack the Ripper character had particularly believable motivations or actions in many circumstances.

Beyond the mystery, the novel focuses on the life and personal development of protagonist Audrey Rose.  The book jacket calls her a “remarkably modern Victorian girl,” and that’s apt, so modern it’s nearly grating and definitely anachronistic.  I understand a lot of readers like anachronism; they want YA historical fiction heroines who break from the mold and do things they would not have actually been able to do in the time period.  However, Maniscalco simply takes things too far.  Audrey Rose does not only do remarkably modern things; she won’t stop explicitly stating how progressive she is!  The book is speckled with multiple direct remarks about how men cannot control her, how she refuses to dress properly, how she wants women to have rights, how she has her own mind, how women are the same as men, ad nauseum.  She has some decent points, but she won’t stop proclaiming them.  She can’t even put on makeup without thinking,

“I dreamed of a day when girls could wear lace and makeup—or no makeup at all and don burlap sacks if they desired—to their chosen profession without it being deemed inappropriate” (25).

Or attend an afternoon tea without assuming all the other girls must be like her and want to talk about exciting, manly, scientific things:

“As the afternoon wore on, I watched them, noting the role they were all playing.  I doubted any of them truly cared about what they were saying and felt immensely sorry for them.  Their minds were crying out to be set free, but they refused to unbind them” (149).

Indeed, she is disappointed to learn they might actually be interested in the silly conversations they are having…yet remarks multiple times that of course she is allowed to be interested in both fashion and science!  To think they are mutually exclusive would be absurd!

Basically, I tired of Audrey Rose early on, and none of the other characters saved the novel for me.  I have seen other readers swooning over the love interest, but to me the romance was too quick and forced; I didn’t feel any real spark or chemistry.  Audrey Rose and Thomas seem primarily to have their love of examining cadavers in common, and the fact that Thomas never bats at eye at all the supposedly scandalous things Audrey Rose does.  Indeed, I would have liked to see someone be scandalized because Audrey Rose seems to be all talk on this front; she continuously points out how she’s breaking social conventions and destroying her reputation, but hardly anyone seems to notice or care.  That makes it less believable and makes her seem less brave.

I almost DNFed this but carried on simply because I felt I could get through the book quickly, which ended up being true.  My standard for books I want to DNF is two stars, so that’s what this is getting.  Again, the concept is unique, and I think it could have been really great for a dark YA historical fiction, but never in the novel really worked for me.

Briana

Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott

poisoned-bladeInformation

Goodreads: Poisoned Blade
Series:  Court of Fives #2
Source: Library
Published: August 16, 2016

Official Summary

Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives—the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons in her embattled kingdom. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on Jes’s traveling party puts her at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos—the prince she still loves—is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…She must become a warrior.

Review

Poison Blade picks up right where Court of Fives left off, a somewhat rare event in YA series these days.  Because there was no time lapse between the books, I was able to get immersed in the story immediately and quickly recall the major events from the first installment.  Jessamy’s determination and scrappy attitude drew me in as she continued on her quest to save her family.

Admittedly, the pacing slows in the middle, and there were places I was tempted to skim. I’m not one to always be interested in long, drawn-out descriptions of fights, for instance, when what happens in the fight itself turns out to be irrelevant, and only the actual outcome matters to plot or character development.  I think this book could have been shorter and conveyed the same amount of information.  However, I was interested in the overall plot, especially as the stakes continue to get higher for Jessamy and her family.

There’s also just a hint of character development for many of the characters, main and side, which I would love to see more of in book three.  Jessamy’s father’s new wife is particularly interesting to me, though Elliott focuses a bit more on Jessamy’s sisters. (Who, honestly, are still squabbling a bit more than I find charming.  Sisterly fights are of course realistic, but I seriously wonder if these girls even like each other at times.)  I understand that Elliott might be trying to differentiate them and show that Jessamy doesn’t speak for them all, but there are also characters I find more complex and engaging, and I want to see what they do with the revolution that seems to be coming.

Poisoned Blade has its flaws, but I’ve been giving up on so many series recently, that I think any series that keeps my attention is doing something right. I look forward to seeing what Jessamy gets up to next.

4 stars Briana

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (ARC Review)

Thing About JellyfishInformation

Goodreads: The Thing About Jellyfish
Series: None
Source: ARC
Publication Date: September 22, 2015

Summary

After Suzy Swanson’s friend dies on a family vacation to Maryland, the grown-ups tell her that some things just happen.  But Suzy knows the truth: Franny was a good swimmer, the best swimmer, and there is no way she “just died” in the ocean.  A school trip to the aquarium convinces Suzy of the real answer, that Franny must have been stung by a jellyfish.  She sets off to prove her theory in adventures that may lead her to speak with jellyfish experts around the world, or may just lead her to a means of living with her own grief.

Review

The Thing About Jellyfish is one of those rare books that kicked me in the heart and really reminded me of why I love to read.  With a heartwarming ending, hard truths along the way, and a plethora of knowledge, The Thing About Jellyfish is the first middle grade book I have read in a while that made me feel that I learned something new.

It is so good to be able to read a fiction book and come out, not just having learned something about human nature like how to grieve, but having learned fun facts.  As an avid fantasy fan, I usually come out of books knowing something about the best way to joust or to care for a horse, but little of that is new to me anymore.  This book is new, and it is refreshing.  I have never known so much about jellyfish, and I am loving it.  Benjamin also nicely frames the facts, and Suzy’s journey coming to terms with Franny’s death, with instructions on how to do scientific research.  The structure of the book follows Suzy’s purpose, hypothesis, research, conclusions, etc.  Here is a book that makes science seem cool and reminds readers the best research happens when you are allowed to follow your own interests.

Not everything about the book is perfect.  I think the story is somewhat disingenuous about Franny and Suzy’s relationship.  [Minor spoilers ahead in this paragraph.]  Franny stops being Suzy’s friend long before her death, and she does not even simply “drift away.”  Franny drops Suzy intentionally.  She is cruel to her, calls her weird, excludes her from gatherings with her new popular friends.  The book is thus based on the strange premise that Suzy is actually grieving the death of the friend and the type of girl that Franny used to be, and maybe the potential that Franny had to become someone kind and fun again in the future.  But the two are definitely not best friends at the time of Franny’s death, which makes Suzy’s obsession with her death seem a bit delusional.  I know readers are supposed to recognize Suzy’s fixation on jellyfish an unusual manifestation of her grieving, but I think Benjamin skirts the issue that Suzy’s belief she and Franny were still friends at all is also a failure to face reality.

The book itself does not shirk from facing reality, however.  Middle schoolers can be mean, and Benjamin accurately captures what it can feel like to be the class joke for weeks after making a middle school faux pas or how hard it can be to feel like the only girl who does cannot figure out how to dress cool.  Benjamin attempts to lighten the mood by giving Suzy an older brother who empathizes, telling her middle school can be hard and there will be better times ahead.  But, let’s face it, saying “Yeah, it stinks but you’ll get through it in three years” is not that uplifting.  Mainly The Thing About Jellyfish reminded me that I would never want to go back to middle school myself, and I am truly sorry for anyone stuck there now.  I hope younger readers will read the book and take away that, if middle school is difficult for them, they are not alone.

The Thing About Jellyfish is a thoughtful story that tackles middle school, death, and moving on.  I have read several 2015 releases about children struggling to come to grief with the death of their best friend, but this one is by far the best of the batch.

Notable Quote

“But the main thing to know is this: The whole time, from before any of those extinctions, from life’s origins until this minute, jellyfish have been there, pulsing their way across the oceans and back.

“Jellyfish are survivors.  They are survivors of everything that ever happened to everyone else.”

Briana

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

darkest part of the forestInformation

Goodreads: The Darkest Part of the Forest
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: January 13, 2015

Official Summary

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?

Review

Superficially speaking, The Darkest Part of the Forest should be a fantastic book. It is imaginative and bold, willing to talk about tough subjects like sexuality, moral culpability, and parental neglect while immersing readers into a world that is both dark and beautiful. Unfortunately, the book really only touches on most of these hard subjects, telling readers they are difficult, that the characters are struggling with them—but ultimately failing to make it seem as if the characters are truly engaged with them. There is breadth but no depth.

All the characters ostensibly have something to hide. Hazel wants to be a hero but doesn’t know how, and worries she might actually be villain. Her brother Ben has a magical gift he cannot control; he’d rather squash it and just find someone to fall madly in love with, who will take him away. Jack, a changeling, has been adopted by humans but yearns for his faerie roots. Combine this with an entire town, a plethora of adults, who know they are living on the borders of dangerous magic but refuse to acknowledge it, and things are really a mess.

However, for as much as the characters talk about their problems, ponder them, dwell and drown in them—none of them really caught my attention. On the surface, I understand I should be horrified by this town, by the murders the faeries commit and the way the townsfolk ignore them or victim blame. Yet…if no one in the world of the story, people who should be profoundly affected by murders in their town can find it in them to care or worry or grieve, it’s doubly hard for me as a reader to do it. The same is true of so many of the issues raised in the book. Hazel’s and Ben’s parents are guilty of neglect, but Hazel and Ben are over it. The abuse mainly acts as a plot point to explain why the two were allowed to roam the woods and hunt faeries as young children, not as something I’m supposed to see as a real concern. The same goes for Hazel’s and Ben’s romantic issues. The two may throw out some moving lines about how they fear trusting someone or just want someone to love, but as far as I can tell their strings of failed romances also act more as plot movers than character development. I just didn’t empathize with either of them.

And as far as plot goes, enough happens that theoretically the book should be interesting. Hazel, Ben, and Jack tromp all over town hunting monsters, a few people die, a few plot twists are thrown out. Yet, in the end, I was bored. Caring about the action really hinges on caring about the characters. The town in ostensibly in danger, but the journey is in truth about how Hazel and Ben come to find themselves. Fairfield seems small, and one gets the distinct sense that if people were really in danger, the entire town could just pack up and move. I think the faeries would be happy with that. No one would be pursued, and the story would just end.

I wish I could like this book better, but with characters that fail to seem real and a plot that didn’t really need to happen, I found the story disappointing. For those looking for stories about faeries, I recommend The Treachery of Beautiful Things.

Briana