Secrets at Sea by Richard Peck

Goodreads: Secrets at Sea
Source: ARC

Goodreads Summary: Helena is big-sister mouse to three younger siblings, living a snug and well-fed life within the ancient walls of the Cranston family home. When the Cranston humans decide to sail away to England to find a husband for one of their daughters, the Cranston mice stow away in the name of family solidarity.  And so begins the scamper of their lives as Helena, her siblings, and their humans set sail on a life-changing voyage into the great world of titled humans . . . and titled mice, and surprise endings for all. The masterful Richard Peck brings all of his talents to this tale of two branches of an American family, set on the eve of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. There are plenty of laughs and thrills, and of course there’s a ship’s cat too. Will our Cranston heroes squeak by, or will they go entirely overboard?

ReviewSecrets at Sea is a cute and whimsical tale, charmingly enhanced by the details of the illustrations.  The story told is one of family and adventure, enlivened by run-ins with cats and snakes and the novelty of life on the dangerous sea.  But the details of daily life are visible beyond the action in the pictures, where one may see the charming inventions scattered through a mouse’s home, such as a comb that serves as a ladder or the thimbles we are assured have myriad uses.

All these things—the big and the little—are told through the voice of the caring if sometimes overbearing oldest sister Helena.  She has been responsible for the family since her mother and older sisters met a tragic end in a rain barrel, but such are the realities of life.  Mice, we learn, are always running out of time.  And Helena does a good job as a leader. She is the perfect narrator because she is the one who tries to see and be in control of everything, even if such a goal is impossible.

This book is full of secrets, surprises, and pure cuteness.  A must-read for anyone who likes mice or just a good story about looking out for those you care about.

Published: 2011

The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Frances Long

Goodreads: The Treachery of Beautiful Things
Source: ARC

Goodreads Summary:  A darkly compelling mix of romance, fairy tale, and suspense from a new voice in teen fiction
The trees swallowed her brother whole, and Jenny was there to see it. Now seventeen, she revisits the woods where Tom was taken, resolving to say good-bye at last. Instead, she’s lured into the trees, where she finds strange and dangerous creatures who seem to consider her the threat. Among them is Jack, mercurial and magnetic, with secrets of his own. Determined to find her brother, with or without Jack’s help, Jenny struggles to navigate a faerie world where stunning beauty masks some of the most treacherous evils, and she’s faced with a choice between salvation or sacrifice–and not just her own.

Review: The beginning of this story leaves a bit to be desired.  My notes on it are basically scattered words to the effect of “weird,” “ridiculous names,” and “wow.”  Essentially, I thought it was a little cheesy.  And, really, the main character “shines with innocence?”  That just made me laugh.

But I am glad I continued.

Quickly enough, I became truly captivated by the main characters.  Jenny is obstinate, but it makes her endearing rather than annoying.  She is absolutely determined to rescue her brother, and no man and no strange land is going to stand in her way.  She’s brilliant.  Jack is more complicated.  Is he good?  Is he bad?  Does he truly care for Jenny or is he just playing for his own rewards?  The constant questioning of his loyalty was really tugging at my heartstrings, and in fact was almost too stressful for something I was reading for fun, but it did keep me on the edge of my seat!  This is a case where you will be pretty sure you know what is going on, but you will never want to bet on it.  There is true suspense.

The world itself is also intriguing.  It is (you guessed it!) both beautiful and treacherous.  But, actually, it is.  No need to worry that the title exaggerates!  And although Long draws heavily on folklore, I found my very general knowledge of her sources was enough to give me grounding in the book.  I have no idea if other YA books use these elements “better,” but they work here.

The plot, after the slightly silly beginning, is truly exciting.  In addition to the ever-looming question of who is on whose side, there is simply a lot of action, a lot of running, and a lot of plotting.  And it is worth noting that there is a climax truly deserving of the name.  Yeah, things go down.

The ending is a little neat, but after the trauma of the preceding pages, I personally would not want it any other way.  It makes me happy to think that things might finally fit together in Jenny’s life, my life, the world at large.  Long brings an idealized fairytale ending to a fairytale that had previously been bleak.  So, readers get the best of both worlds, and that is satisfying.

Published: August 16, 2012

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Goodreads: Bitterblue
Series: Graceling Realm #3

SPOILERS FOR GRACELING
(Fire is safe.)

Summary: King Leck has been dead for years, but Queen Bitterblue is still struggling to bring happiness back to her kingdom.

Review: Cashore continues her streak of writing marvelous, imaginative, and character-driven fantasy in her third Graceling book.  This one features Bitterblue, about eighteen now and queen of Monsea.  Of course, she has been queen of Monsea for years (she announced the fact herself after her father’s death), but the story reveals that she is still learning her way around the job.  Her uncle and her advisors have been handling much of the kingdom’s business for years, and she is looking to learn more about the people and take on a greater responsibility for herself.  The combination of her youth and feelings of inadequacy combined with her heart and strength make her a realistic and compelling character.  Here is a teenager who can rule but knows she still has much to learn.

Cashore has once again put all her effort into creating Bitterblue as an individual.  Though her thoughts are suitably progressive, Bitterblue is neither Katsa nor Fire when it comes to relationships. She is a little more mellow than the two, but still has enough iron to make her admirable and a convincing queen.  Of course she has her own habits and mannerism, too.  The only fault is that sometimes one is tempted to think, “Oh, look! One of Bitterblue’s mannerisms that establish her as a character with a unique personality!” So although Cashore is paying extreme attention to detail, it is possible some of those details could be better integrated.

As promised, Katsa and Po return in this novel, and it is quite interesting to see them years later.  It is the sensation one gets seeing Tamora Pierce’s Alanna appear in the Protector of the Small quartet—grown-up and different but still very much the same.  Other wonderful characters also make guest appearances.

Parts of the plot are nothing new to fantasy fans.  The story opens with Bitterblue’s sneaking out into her own city disguised as a commoner so she can learn more about her people and the state of the land.  Yeah…we’ve all seen that before.  However, Cashore makes it work, and it certainly is not the overriding point of the book.  In fact, the plot is so convoluted that most of it is wildly unpredictable.  Only at the very end does it begin to make some sort of sense, though the degree to which it is satisfying in its logic is debatable.

Readers should be warned that much of Bitterblue’s job entails unraveling what her father King Leck did before her—and readers of Graceling will know that King Leck was a sadistic man.  Bitterblue is not recommended for the faint of heart.  There is a fairly wide difference between suspecting what Leck was doing and having the facts of it described.  The effects of his actions are almost as catastrophic, and in many ways Bitterblue is an issues book confronting how his subjects cope with the violence and lies he inflicted on them.

On happier note, there is a touch of romance to give light to the book—not as much or as strong as in Cashore’s previous work, but very fitting to the story.  There is also some interesting subtext which doubtless falls under the category of questions Cashore will not answer, but it begs to be interpreted happily.

An incredibly solid and magical work, and a worthy addition to the series.

Published: May 1,  2012

Cascade by Lisa T. Bergren

Goodreads: Cascade
Series: River of Time #2

Summary: Gabi and her sister Lia return to fourteenth century Italy, where Gabi feels she has left her heart.  But she must find a way to convince both Lia and their mother that staying in the past would be the right decision for them all.

Review: Cascade is a fun read following very much in the footsteps of Waterfall in both plot and style. Readers who enjoyed the fast-paced, somewhat episodic nature of Waterfall, in which Gabi repeatedly finds herself in danger and in need of rescuing by her attractive Italian suitor, will find a plethora of similar scenes here. On the bright side, Gabi is starting to show a little more sense and occasionally follows Marcello’s advice, thus keeping herself out of what would clearly be even more trouble.

Zita wrote the review for Waterfall and did not mention what I find to be very unrealistic “teen” dialogue. Gabi uses numerous idioms such as “the whole enchilada” in the first book, and continues to do so here, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. I have decided to find this amusing, and so will continue to read the series ready to chuckle at what are apparently Gabi’s attempts to sound cool. Interestingly, her thoughts are in this “teen lingo,” while her actual dialogue is pseudo-medieval, and she rarely gives a sign of what must certainly be a struggle to translate her modern thoughts to medieval words. She may have to change “breakfast” to “break my fast,” but she never lets slip any of the slang that frequents her head.

In terms of Christianity, the themes are also as light in Cascade as they are in Waterfall. Gabi prays a little more, but I think she still have a little way to go until her words become entirely sincere. She often gives the impression that she is talking to God because, hey, it’s the Middle Ages and everyone is doing it. Or she is just always facing the constant threat of death, so she might as well give asking an almighty God for help a try. It will be interesting to see how her faith progresses.

Overall, I think this series is enjoyable. It has lots of action, two attractive guys, and a great setting. A fun summer read.

Published: 2011

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott

Goodreads: Living Dead Girl

Goodreads Summary: “Once upon a time, I was a little girl who disappeared.

Once upon a time, my name was not Alice.

Once upon a time, I didn’t know how lucky I was.”

When Alice was ten, Ray took her away from her family, her friends — her life. She learned to give up all power, to endure all pain. She waited for the nightmare to be over.

Now Alice is fifteen and Ray still has her, but he speaks more and more of her death. He does not know it is what she longs for. She does not know he has something more terrifying than death in mind for her.

This is Alice’s story. It is one you have never heard, and one you will never, ever forget.

Review: Living Dead Girl is a quick, but certainly not an easy read.  The chapters are short, which will keep readers turning the pages, but the strongest pull is the desire to see something good finally happen to Alice.  Will she escape?  Will she be okay?  Is it possible to be okay?  The questions beg to be answered, and the format of the book suggests to readers that they can find out everything in just a single sitting.  And there is nothing else to be done; no one will want to stop and leave Alice still under the power of her captor.

Because this is a horrible story.  It is disturbing and, though not necessarily explicit, there are enough details to make the sexual acts forced from Alice clear to readers.  This book will be better suited to older teens and adults.

Unfortunately, the inevitable horrified reactions from readers has the potential to keep them from pondering the deeper aspects of the story.  Alice’s mental state, especially while she is watching talk shows with women who had been in situations like hers, is quite interesting.  Her thoughts about Ray’s wanting to find a new girl are troubling, yet understandable.  And, of course, there is the matter that no one ever noticed something was wrong.  There is a lot to wonder about human nature in this book.

An unforgettable read, but not one that should be picked up lightly.

Published: 2008

Fire by Kristin Cashore

 

FireInformation

Goodreads: Fire
Series: Graceling Realm # 2
Source: Gift
Published: 2009

Note

Fire is a companion book and can be read without reading Graceling first.

Official Summary

She is the last of her kind…

It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. In King City, the young King Nash is clinging to the throne, while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. War is coming. And the mountains and forest are filled with spies and thieves. This is where Fire lives, a girl whose beauty is impossibly irresistible and who can control the minds of everyone around her.

Exquisitely romantic, this companion to the highly praised Graceling has an entirely new cast of characters, save for one person who plays a pivotal role in both books. You don’t need to have read Graceling to love Fire. But if you haven’t, you’ll be dying to read it next.

Review

Kristin Cashore proved with Graceling that she has an incredible talent for giving characters voices.  She does not fail readers in Fire, giving the titular character her own voice that sounds nothing like Katsa’s.  Furthermore, her worries, talents, mannerisms, and thoughts are also very much distinct.  And if readers are in the mood for some more quotable sentences, they are here, too.  Fire presents some fascinating musings about the nature of war.

The same creative treatment given to the protagonist is given to the Dells. Though located in the same world as the seven kingdoms of Graceling, the Dells is distinct, but off so thoroughly from the other kingdoms by a mountain range that the people have never heard of the other countries or of Gracelings.  Which means, vice versa, that readers have never heard of anything quite like the Dells until now—a world where rainbow monsters stalk, both animal and human.  Cashore essentially starts from scratch here, and gives readers a setting just as detailed as her first.

Unfortunately, the entire premise of Fire can be hard to relate to.  Literally every person who sees Fire fall immeasurably into love or lust with her.  Heterosexual females are insanely jealous.  She is just that beautiful.  And the monster animals?  They all want her, too.  One look at the hair that earned her her name, and they all go wild in their desire to kill and possess her.  Don’t even ask what happens when Fire is on her period and they can smell her blood.

Fire does her best to reject all this attention and exude a “woe is me” attitude, and, truly, it must be annoying to be stared at wherever you go and have men constantly trying to touch you and propose marriage.  But most readers will have experienced nothing like this and will find it difficult to sympathize deeply with Fire.  Cashore might have made Fire’s attractive power more effective if she had toned it down.  Also, her weariness of being so admired occasionally leads her to sound a bit whiny. “I’m tired and sad, but I still look beautiful when really I want to look a mess so that my outside reflects my inner turmoil!” The troubles of being gorgeous.

Fire’s (and really everyone’s) acceptance of casual sex is also somewhat concerning.  Katsa is almost irrationally against marriage in Graceling, but she appears to see sex as something to be shared with someone she loves.  Fire sees sex as a comfort she can get from her friend Archer.  Archer sees sex as something to do with every woman he ever comes across.  His attitude on this topic can make it hard to like him as much as Fire does and as much as Cashore apparently wants readers to.  By the end of the story, readers know far more about who slept with whom than they might have ever wanted to.  And, of course, there is the convenient fantasy herbal version of (infallible?) birth control.  So nice all of this can happen without too many consequences (sort of).

On a side note here, Fire spends an awful lot of time thinking about how much she wants babies and being jealous of any woman who does have a child.  This would have been fine, except that it often reads like some sort of response to Katsa’s aversion to having children.  Cashore’s hand in making Fire different from Katsa is a little too evident here, even though Fire does have some very legitimate and moving reasons for her feelings.

Fire is well-written and fast-paced.  The characters are complex and the world is absolutely magical.  In many ways, however, it is very different from Graceling.  Readers will have to decide which one they like better, or if they like both.

Briana

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

Goodreads: A Face Like Glass

Summary: Beneath the earth in Caverna, the people practice True Crafts, making Jellies that taste like music, Wines that can alter memory, and Perfumes that ensnare the mind.  The one thing the people cannot do is naturally change their facial expressions, and so Facemaking is also a Craft.  When a Cheesemaster finds a young girl in his tunnels whose face changes with her emotions, a girl clearly from outside but with no memory of her past, he calls her Neverfell and hides her.  He knows the Court would use her face and her inability to lie if they ever found her.  After she runs from his tunnels, this is exactly what happens. Neverfell is swept into a world of intrigue, with courtiers plotting against her each and against her because someone is afraid she will finally regain her memories and ruin a plan seven years in the making.

ReviewA Face Like Glass is a strong, imaginative fantasy that strives to bring the readers into the magiv of the world that Hardinge has created.  This is a book that is as much about the experience and the atmosphere as it is about the characters or the plot; readers are to sit and marvel at the strangeness that is Caverna—an underground place where nothing and no one is what they seem.  Imagine a book that is in intention somewhat like The Night Circus, although closer to traditional high fantasy.

Yet there is a plot here, and it is one of Court Intrigue.  Readers who like Grave Mercy or The False Prince will be equally gripped.  The courtiers’ plans may not be as convoluted or complex as it other books, but this is just a logical result of the world-building.  In a society where using the wrong fork at a banquet can get one executed, plots do not always have to be complicated.  Yet surprises are brought by the one outsider working against the Court in general, who has decided to use True Wine to erase and reinstate his memories, so that even he himself has no idea what his next move will be.

The pacing of all these plots is a little on the slow side.  The bulk of the book is spent in setting up Caverna and all her quirks, so the schemes directly involving Neverfell and her mysterious past start moving late.  It takes Neverfell, who is understandably yet occasionally annoyingly naïve, an equally long time to undergo some true character development and get some backbone and commonsense.  Around page 350, she starts to realize that not everyone she meets in her life is her friend.  She is a fantastic choice of protagonist for what Hardinge is trying to do in A Face Like Glass, but she is unlikely to make many “Book BFF” lists due to her unrelatability.

Interesting themes of the book include how to see the world as if it is constantly new instead of being blinded by familiarity, how to prevent/begin a revolution among the working class, and whether it is more worthwhile to see beauty or to own beauty. The questions are slipped lightly into the book and are not heavy-handed lessons.  Think of Lauren Oliver’s books and how memorable quotes or ideas are scattered quietly throughout the pages.

A must-read for strong fans of fantasy.  (Meaning if you love fantasy, you will love this book, but you have to be interested in magical world-building because the plot alone does not carry the book.)

Published: May 2012 (UK)

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Goodreads:Walden

Summary: Thoreau’s reflections on life and the natural world, after living for two years in a cabin he built himself on the shores of Walden Pond.

Review: Walden is a thoroughly digressive work.  Thoreau intended readers to take what they would from the book, perhaps rereading parts, skipping others, and not even going in order.  For although the book does progress in the order of the seasons, there is no particular plot or logic that gives structure to it.  This makes reviewing the book uniquely difficult.  Thoreau’s tendency to contradict himself, and often not come to any clear conclusion, also presents challenges.

Yet a few things are obvious, the foremost being Thoreau’s love of nature.  Although there may be some justification in criticizing Thoreau for not “really” living in nature (He was about two miles out of town and apparently visited every two or three days for the latest news, regardless of whatever statements he makes about not needing other people and their gossip), his detailed descriptions of the beauty around him, in day and night and in every season, demonstrates that he paid far more attention and reverence to natural beauty than most people ever do.  His writing about the sounds of pine needles falling or the texture of ice on the pond can be truly inspiring.

Counterintuitively, Thoreau does not always come across as a pleasant person.  One might expect that contemplating nature and coming to some sort of spiritual understanding of the world would make person friendlier.  Instead, Thoreau dedicates at least a chapter to outlining the types of people he does not like and why.  He explains why he does not believe in philanthropy.  He refuses to buy chairs for more than two guests and certainly never feeds visitors.  He rants about how uneducated everyone is and how they read the all the wrong books, and of course never understand the classics if they do pick them up.  Basically, Thoreau has moments of sounding completely conceited.

Still, one can also see in him, not just misanthropic tendencies, but simply introverted ones.  He does not like to be surrounded by large amounts of people for large amounts of time.   Fair enough.  Fellow introverts can sympathize with how such occasions might make Thoreau tired or grumpy.  And there are people he likes—railroad workers, surprisingly, being high on the list.  Does Thoreau comment on how the train is a hissing, steaming monster that cannot be prevented from rolling through the countryside?  Yes.  But he admires the courage of the railroad employees and understands how it can be important—sometimes—to connect people and products.  His ability to see both sides of every issue is a prominent characteristic of much of his writing.

Walden is a unique reading experience, perhaps not suited for those with little patience, particularly for contradictions.  Yet this is fine.  Thoreau admits that his style of living might not be right for everyone—he decides it is not even right for himself as a permanent arrangement.  His time at Walden was enlightening for two years, but he had other things to try and experience in life.  So if a reader is willing to look for gems, little bits of wisdom floating about, they are certainly there for taking.  In fact, one of my favorite quotes is from this book:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Published: 1845

Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink

Goodreads: Prophecy of the Sisters
Series: Prophecy of the Sisters #1

Goodreads Summary:

One good…

One evil…

Who will prevail?

Twin sisters Lia and Alice Milthorpe have just become orphans. They have also become enemies. As they discover their roles in a prophecy that has turned generations of sisters against each other, the girls find themselves entangled in a mystery that involves a tattoo-like mark, their parents’ deaths, a boy, a book, and a lifetime of secrets.

Lia and Alice don’t know whom they can trust.

They just know they can’t trust each other.

Review: Prophecy of the Sisters sounds as if it should have an interesting premise, yet somehow a book that promises a major clash between good and evil in which the fate of the entire world is at stake ends up being somewhat dull.  Ultimately, Zink ends up relying on  the fact that she has pitched twin sisters against each other in this epic battle to carry the story—and it can’t.  Making characters twins does not automatically make them fascinating.  Also, the characterization of the two is so general that it does not matter whether they are twins or related or not.

Zink has cast Lia as the good sister and Alice as the evil one.  They rarely interact, except when arguing over things pertaining to the prophecy. As readers, we only have Lia’s word that Alice and she used to be friends; we see little of that relationship in the book.  And it is disconcerting to see absolutely none of Alice’s character arc.  She is cruel and almost stereotypically evil except for a few brief moments when something in her breaks.  What would be interesting is an explanation of how Alice became this way.

The paranormal elements are also not as interesting as one might expect.  Lia and the other are able to “travel the Plane,” which means there are a lot of interludes that sound very much like dream descriptions.  If one is not fond of dream sequences (even if what is occurring is technically real), then this book has a number of boring interruptions.  A couple of séances also fail to be as creepy or powerful as they could be.

The romance is somewhat original in that it has already begun before the book starts.  James and Lia are already a couple, so readers get to see them from the beginning drawing on each other’s strengths.  The romance is unoriginal in Lia’s reluctance to draw James into her problems and her subsequent decision to push him away. (Readers can probably guess how this tactic will work out.)  I personally am not excited by the set-up of what promises to be a twin struggle over the guy in the following books.  Lia and Alice are fighting enough without adding a guy, who is clearly interested in one girl and not the other, into the mix.  This plot line cannot possibly go anywhere surprising either.  No one really expects the evil girl to steal the nice girl’s boyfriend.

Bottom line: I will not be reading the remainder of the series.

Published: 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Goodreads: Graceling
Series: Graceling Realm #1
Source: ARC

Summary: In Katsa’s world, a select few are born with Graces, an incredible skill in one area.  Unfortunately, Katsa was born with the Grace of killing, and her uncle the king uses her talents to terrify his subjects.  Then Prince Po comes to court, looking for his kidnapped grandfather, and Katsa goes on a journey with him that will change her forever.

Review:  Graceling is an extremely refreshing and innovative addition to the fantasy genre.  The story is told in a unique voice (Katsa’s thoughts mainly, though the narration is third person) that is truly half the fun of the book.  The writing is lyrical, simple, and original—and though I would love to see a movie version of this, much would be lost in the translation from text to screen.

Along the same lines, Graceling is just filled with excellent quotes, made memorable by the combination of the voice and the thoughts that it presents.  Readers may find themselves stopping often just to reread or ponder Katsa’s thoughts.  One that struck me: “When you’re a monster, she thought, you’re thanked and praised for not behaving like a monster.  She would like to refrain from cruelty and receive no admiration for it.”

The plot is exciting and contains a number of twists.  Both Katsa’s personal growth and the main action are full of surprises.  Even seasoned readers used to predicting the outcome of any novel will be hard pressed to know exactly where Graceling is heading.  The ride is certainly a pleasure.

My one reservation comes from the type of feminist philosophy presented in the book. [Minor spoilers.] Katsa is very set against marriage, convinced that it will be the end of her freedom.  Even if a husband were to let her be free, he would be allowing her freedom, so she would never actually be free.  Therefore, she refuses to marry, even if she loves someone.  Having sex with someone, however, is fine.  Apparently being so intimate with a man that way is not giving part of herself away. So, paradoxically, sex is special, but really it is not. [End spoilers]

The line between Katsa’s independence and her selfishness is sometimes blurry because of her opinions on men and marriage.  In her mind, being strong means you can never be in a committed relationship because then you might have to be bothered thinking of the other person instead of your own desires.  I personally feel that her decision at the end of the book is completely selfish and an indication that she did not really love at all.

That said, Katsa’s philosophy did not spoil my reading of the book.  In fact, I loved it. So while we may disagree on some extremely important life issues, Katsa and I would probably agree that she went on an extraordinary journey that is a story worth telling.

Published: 2008

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