The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

The Beauty that Remains

Information

Goodreads: The Beauty That Remains
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: March 6, 2018

Summary

Sasha, Logan and Autumn used to be bound by their love of music and one special local band, Unraveling Lovely. Now UL is broken up, and all three teens are dealing with recent deaths and their separate griefs.  They soon find, however, that music can still move them and grief doesn’t need to be borne alone.

Review

I don’t read a lot of contemporary YA, so these books are often hit-or-miss for me.  I’m also not much of an “issues book” person, so reading a novel focused almost entirely on grief was a risk.  I was drawn in by the beautiful cover, however, and the promise that music would play a large role. (That sounds fun and uplifting, right?) My first impression upon finishing was “That wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.” Further reflection, however, revealed that I actually liked many parts of the book, almost against my own self-destructive assumption that I probably wouldn’t.

There are a few nit-picky things about the book that bothered me:

  • None of the band names seemed that great to me, including the focus of the book, “Unraveling Lovely.”
  • The music featured/referenced was basically all made-up local bands and their songs, which made it harder to relate to or get invested in.
  • For some reason people at this high school didn’t know someone at their school had died in a car crash. Those things are BIG NEWS at most schools, with assemblies, memorials, offered counseling, etc.
  • The author was probably actually sincere, but sometimes the book just seemed trying a little too hard with the “therapy is good” and “we all deal with grief in different ways” messages. I like the message, but it could have been more subtle and less like a public service announcement.

However, none of these things are big enough to say that the book as a whole isn’t good.  In fact, I think the book is rather good. There are other places where I could almost see the seams of the book, the places where I imagine Woodfolk sitting down and thinking “I will now make this character have a character arc by doing x and y.”  However, that’s a sign of thoughtful writing, if not flawless writing, and it’s something most authors tend to iron out as they continue writing, so I think Woodfolk’s future looks very bright.

And, on the whole, I did think the book had great, complex characterization. This is a book where I realize I don’t need to “relate to” or “approve of” or always even “like” the characters to appreciate them as characters. I mean, a good third of the book is premised on people being cut to the core by the death of a guy who cheated on them (yes, cheated on multiple people, who are ALL sad about losing his love). I don’t get it, but I’m sure it happens.

Ultimately, whatever failings the characters in the book may have, part of the point is that these things do not define them.  People are complicated, multi-faceted.  We all have flaws, but we also have good parts—and it’s possible for us to pick ourselves up and move on after both our own failings and after external tragedies.  I kind of wanted the book to work in the title “The Beauty That Remains” into some profound statement about all of this because I think it would have been perfect and not actually heavy-handed, but it never did. The point was made a bit more subtly.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  I admit I don’t think it’s going to be one of my favorites of the year, but it was different and thoughtful, and I had a good time going on different journeys with the large cast of characters.

Content Note: We’ve been talking on the blog recently about whether YA is maturing, so for people looking for recs for teens, I would say this book is probably for older teens. It features sex, drugs, alcohol abuse, suicide, and a leaked sex tape—which people in the high school seem to think is kind of no big deal.

4 stars Briana

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Zenith by Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings

Zenith

Information

Goodreads: Zenith
Series: The Androma Saga #1
Source: City Book Review
Published: January 16, 2018

Official Summary

Most know Androma Racella as the Bloody Baroness, a powerful mercenary whose reign of terror stretches across the Mirabel Galaxy. To those aboard her glass starship, Marauder, however, she’s just Andi, their friend and fearless leader.

But when a routine mission goes awry, the Marauder‘s all-girl crew is tested as they find themselves in a treacherous situation and at the mercy of a sadistic bounty hunter from Andi’s past.

Meanwhile, across the galaxy, a ruthless ruler waits in the shadows of the planet Xen Ptera, biding her time to exact revenge for the destruction of her people. The pieces of her deadly plan are about to fall into place, unleashing a plot that will tear Mirabel in two.

Andi and her crew embark on a dangerous, soul-testing journey that could restore order to their shipor just as easily start a war that will devour worlds. As the Marauder hurtles toward the unknown, and Mirabel hangs in the balance, the only certainty is that in a galaxy run on lies and illusion, no one can be trusted.

Disclaimer

I had no idea there was some controversy surrounding this book until after I had read it.  I had no idea who either of the authors were; I don’t watch Booktube and didn’t even know Sasha Alsberg has a large following there. I have no opinion on whether she “deserves” her book deal or the positive reviews from other Booktubers who “probably know her.” My review is my own impression of the book.

Review

This is one of those reviews where I start out by saying “the premise is great, but the execution just wasn’t there.” It’s a book about a protagonist called “The Bloody Baroness” and her band of all-female space pirates. This should have been action-packed, badass, overall fabulous. However, uneven pacing and unconvincing characterization left me thinking the best word to describe the book is simply “meh.”

The book opens with a prison break of an impossible-to-escape prison as a key plot point. I believed this was going to be awesome, something in the vein of Six of Crows. However, the characters succeed so easily and move on with the plot so quickly that I just wasn’t convinced the feat was particularly impressive.  In my opinion, this prison should have been THE point of the book, and it should have been hard to get in, hard to get out.  As it stands, it’s almost an ancillary plot point, and that makes it boring.  In fact, all of what Androma accomplishes seems to come to her so easily that I never could buy into her persona as the Bloody Baroness.  People kept telling me she’s badass and dangerous, but I never really saw it.

The characterization went that way for most of the book.  The narrative voice kept telling me things—that people were great friends, that the crew was really loyal, that the love interest was in love, whatever.  But I was never convinced or invested. It’s often hard for me to explain why I’m not invested in a character (beyond the lack of showing, I guess), but despite all the work I could clearly see the authors putting in, despite the fact that I know exactly what they wanted me to think of each character, it just didn’t work for me.  (And that’s ignoring the fact that the romantic relationship is just generally bizarre—but I’ll pass on details to avoid spoilers).

Finally, this book has the same problem of “politics that don’t really make sense” that Krysta and I have been picking at on the blog recently. The great initial crime that got Androma banished from her home planet in the first place seems like an accident that could have occurred to anyone, plus she was a minor. The line of succession on these planets also seems strange and inconvenient (but, again, I want to avoid spoilers so won’t be too specific).

So why am I giving this three stars? I focused on the negatives of the book, but the fact is that I don’t think it’s “actively bad,” so to speak. Mostly I felt neutral about the whole thing while reading it. I wouldn’t bother recommending it to someone, but I could see some people enjoying it, and it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve read.

3 Stars Briana

The Mirror King by Jodi Meadows

Information

Goodreads: The Mirror King
Series: The Orphan Queen #2
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

Wilhelmina has revealed her identity to the Indigo Kingdom.  They know now that she was both a criminal and a false duchess.  But now she lives as an honored guest of the kingdom, waiting for the day she will peacefully retake Aecor from its current foreign overlord.  If only Patrick Lien would stop killing people in her name!

Review

Spoilers for both books ahead!

Sometimes a book is so bad, it’s good.  This one starts with Wilhelmina living as an honored guest of the Indigo Kingdom, now that she has revealed herself as the cause of the Inundation and the leader of the group who has killed the king.  Her actions have resulted in a great many deaths as well as the destabilization of a nation and the possibility that the wraith, thought to be years away, will devour the Indigo Kingdom far more quickly.  Fortunately, the engaged prince is in love with her, so everyone is willing to overlook how terrible Wil is at doing anything right, and even willing to pretend that one day they might politely hand back to her the kingdom they conquered.  With a premise this ridiculous, how could the book be anything but great fun?

I had thought that The Orphan Queen had a nonsensical plot driven by characters who make only nonsensical decisions.  The Mirror King makes the first book look like a serious and well-researched depiction of political intrigue.  Because now that Tobiah’s father is dead, the Indigo Kingdom can be run entirely based on Tobiah’s personal feelings instead of any logic or regard for laws or citizens.  But just in case the drama still is not great enough, the book introduces an increasingly random series of situations and characters who are there solely to make plot twists happen.  They might flatly contradict everything we know about the laws of magic, but that is okay.  This book never pretended to care about logic. It’s all about the action and the romance.

Part of the charm of this book is how much I get to laugh over everything that happens.  However, I have to admit that I still enjoyed every ridiculous moment.  I recognize that the premise is inherently flawed, that the characters do not do anything that makes sense, and that the story contradicts itself.  And I don’t care.  I still read it, wanting eagerly to know what bizarre plot twist would happen next.

4 stars

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

Tempests and Slaughter

Information

Goodreads: Tempests and Slaughter
Series: The Numair Chronicles #1
Source: Library
Published: February 6, 2018

Official Summary

Arram. Varice. Ozorne. In the first book in the Numair Chronicles, three student mages are bound by fate . . . fated for trouble.

Arram Draper is a boy on the path to becoming one of the realm’s most powerful mages. The youngest student in his class at the Imperial University of Carthak, he has a Gift with unlimited potential for greatness–and for attracting danger. At his side are his two best friends: Varice, a clever girl with an often-overlooked talent, and Ozorne, the “leftover prince” with secret ambitions. Together, these three friends forge a bond that will one day shape kingdoms. And as Ozorne gets closer to the throne and Varice gets closer to Arram’s heart, Arram begins to realize that one day soon he will have to decide where his loyalties truly lie.

In the Numair Chronicles, readers will be rewarded with the never-before-told story of how Numair Salmalín came to Tortall. Newcomers will discover an unforgettable fantasy adventure where a kingdom’s future rests on the shoulders of a talented young man with a knack for making vicious enemies.

Review

I’m going to start out by saying that I have never particularly cared about Numair as a character from Pierce’s other Tortall books. That is, I have nothing against him, but he’s never been up there in my unofficial list of favorite characters or anything, so I’m not a fan who was interested in this book specifically because it’s a Numair origin story. I’m interested in the book because I’ve been a Tamora Pierce fan since I first discovered her Protector of the Small series in middle school and I wanted to see what new fantasy adventures Pierce would serve up. I was not disappointed. Tempests and Slaughter is an engrossing, richly imaginative story that reminded of why Pierce is such a pillar of the young adult genre.

Tempests and Slaughter really has everything Pierce fans have come to expect of her work: complex characters, rich world building, dazzling magic, and a cute animal sidekick. The only real difference may be that the protagonist is a man, which stands out only because Pierce is also known for her badass female characters. However, there are still badass female characters here as side characters, and I was kind of intrigued to see that Pierce put the same thought into representing the male experience of puberty that she puts into the female experience of puberty in her other series. I can’t say I’ve really read a book where a boy wonders about waking up with an unprompted erection before.

I think I may have been most captivated by the world building in the novel, however. Obviously Pierce has several stories set in this universe, primarily in Tortall, so the in-depth exploration of Carthak is fascinating. I also enjoyed the look inside a mage university, a change from the knight training in the Alanna and Keladry books, and the look at subtle politics that are probably applicable to any type of academia (for instance, the general academic dismissal of traditional tribal magics and gods).

The plot is admittedly a bit meandering, but on further reflection I decided that many of Pierce’s books have a tendency to just sort of portray the day-to-day lives of the characters, and I like it because it’s interesting. Numair’s “thing” at school is that he’s the youngest mage at the university and has to deal with feeling out of place and facing jealousy from other students. There is sort of an overarching plot tied to the Carthaki political situation (readers learn more about Ozorne in this book!), but I think it’s really going to play out more later in the series.

Bottom line: I loved this book. It reminded me why I love Pierce and why I love YA fantasy. Sometimes my YA reading choices disappoint me, even though I am very fond of YA, but novels like this show just how good YA can be. Tempests and Slaughter is definitely going to be a contender for my favorite books of 2018 list at the end of the year. Also, if you’re not a Tamora Pierce fan yet and wondering if you need to have read her other books to understand this one, the answer is no; you can start right here.

5 stars Briana

Victoria: Portrait of a Queen by Catherine Reef

Information

Goodreads: Victoria: Portrait of a Queen
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: November 2017

Summary

Crowned queen at the age of eighteen, Victoria went on to rule for sixty-three years.  She survived several assassination attempts, fell madly in love with her cousin Albert, and watched as the United Kingdom industrialized.  Catherine Reef provides an overview of the life of one of history’s most popular monarchs.

Review

Catherine Reef titles her book Victoria: Portrait of a Queen.  That alone should have indicated to me that the book would be a brief overview of Victoria’s life and reign.  Though I had hoped to learn more about some of the events shown in the Victoria mini series and to delve  more deeply into Victoria’s personal life and relationships, I found myself disappointed.  The book glosses over incidents, covering events like the Chartist revolt in a few paragraphs and only vaguely mentioning some of the assassination attempts on Victoria’s life.  I could not help but feel that the book would be vastly improved by increased historical background, as well as by more quotes from primary sources.

Perhaps Reef desires to keep the focus on Victoria, and that is why she does not really delve into events as she might.  Wars, uprisings, and industrialization all get a few paragraphs–a few pages if we are lucky.  But I cannot help but think that such events could easily warrant an entire chapter that examines their historical roots, their impact on the culture, and so forth.  It seems almost dismissive to note that the Chartists’ attempts to gain such rights as a secret ballot or annual elections failed and then to move blithely on from the concerns of the working class.  Perhaps Victoria moved blithely on–perhaps she really did not care for the working class.  But then at least tell us something more of that!

I also wanted to learn more about Victoria’s relationships.  Her romance with Albert is famous, but I did not feel readers received a very intimate look.  And other figures such as Gladstone seem important, but do not seem to receive as much attention as they deserve.  At times Reef quotes from Victoria’s diaries.  Why not more often?  And why not more quotes from other people living through the events?  Primary sources really make history come alive–and I wanted more.

If you are looking simply for an overview that covers Victoria’s life in bite-sized pieces, this is the book for you.  You can easily read it in maybe two days and close it feeling like you have a bit of a grasp on the life of a queen everyone seems to know about–at least to reference.  But if you really want to dig deep into the history, past being able to answer some trivia questions, you might wish to look elsewhere.

3 Stars

Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough

 

Alexander Hamilton Revolutionary

Information

Goodreads: Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary
Series: None
Source: City Book Review
Published: September 5, 2017

Official Summary

“Complex, passionate, brilliant, flawed? Alexander Hamilton comes alive in Martha Brockenbrough’s exciting biography Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary, which is an essential read for teen fans of Hamilton the musical.

Discover the incredible true story behind the Tony Award-winning musical – Hamilton’s early years in the Caribbean; his involvement in the Revolutionary War; and his groundbreaking role in government, which still shapes American government today. Easy to follow, this gripping account of a founding father and American icon features illustrations, maps, timelines, infographics, and additional information ranging from Hamilton’s own writings to facts about fashion, music, etiquette and custom of the times, including best historical insults and the etiquette of duels.”

Review

I enjoy nonfiction, but when I picked up Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough, I wasn’t expecting it to be quite as engaging as it is.  With a lively narrative voice and a text design seemingly geared to keep people even with short attention spans reading, the book offers a quick but fun and informative look into one of America’s Founding Father’s.

Brokcenbrough begins with Hamilton’s early life in the Caribbean and follows him to his death, exploring especially his actions during the Revolutionary War and his role in founding the country after the war was over.  She also offers glimpses into his private life, looking at his friendships, his relationship with his wife, and his affairs. The pacing of the book sometimes seems a little fast, but I think it works for readers who just want to learn about Hamilton and his life; I wasn’t expecting an in-depth tome geared towards stolid history buffs who want every little detail.

And though the book focuses on Hamilton’s accomplishments and his merits—his integrity, drive, and intelligence—it does not shy away from pointing out his faults.  The book is a celebration of Hamilton in many ways, but it also strives to be balanced.

Most surprising, however, may be how beautifully designed the book is. The cover under the jacket has an intricate design embossed in gold foil. The interior has illustrations of key players in the novel and sketches of key places.  Quotes are featured in the middle of the page, breaking up the text so it doesn’t look like an imposing block of words.  This is a great book to buy if you like owning beautiful books.  It’s not just pretty, though, because it’s also a fascinating read.

4 stars Briana

House of Ash by Hope Cook

House of Ash by Hope Cook

Information

Goodreads: House of Ash
Series: None
Source: Publisher (ARC)
Published: September 26, 2017

Official Summary

After hearing voices among an eerie copse of trees in the woods, seventeen-year-old Curtis must confront his worst fear: that he has inherited his father’s mental illness. A desperate search for answers leads him to discover Gravenhearst, a labyrinth mansion that burned down in 1894. When he locks eyes with a steely Victorian girl in a forgotten mirror, he’s sure she’s one of the fire’s victims. If he can unravel the mystery, he can save his sanity . . . and possibly the girl who haunts his dreams.

But more than 100 years in the past, the girl in the mirror is fighting her own battles. When her mother disappears and her sinister stepfather reveals his true intentions, Mila and her sister fight to escape Gravenhearst and unravel the house’s secrets—before it devours them both.

Review

House of Ash is the story of two teens: Mila, a Victorian girl stuck in her stepfather’s creepy, sentient mansion and Curtis, a modern-day teen trying to hold his family together through his bipolar father’s outbursts.  Ostensibly, the book is about how these two characters bond over feelings of being trapped and then seek for ways to help each other, but I found the connection forced, and without a clear connection their stories seem too divergent to quite belong in the same book.  Basically, Mila’s story is trying to a Gothic tale about an evil house and Curtis’s is an issues story about family and mental illness, and the author doesn’t succeed in making them come together.

I admit I didn’t much care for their stories separately either.  I like actual Gothic literature, and though some of it can also tend towards the silly and overdramatic rather than actually scary (I’m looking at you, Ann Radcliffe), Mila’s story is not a compelling modern take.  There’s a lot of telling rather than showing, particularly in the beginning when Mila and her family first enter the mansion; the author basically insists that the place is wrong, creepy, mocking, etc. without taking the time to fully convince me that this is so.

Curtis’s storyline interested me a bit more, though a lot of it features him having angry outbursts and driving dramatically throughout town in his car or on his motorbike, cursing the world.  The sentiment is certainly understandable based on his life circumstances; I just personally wasn’t completely invested in reading about it.

My favorite part was the end of the book, but that was because I was suddenly semi on the side of the “bad guys.”  Though their ends might not have justified their means, I think they had a good point about needing to stop the continued influence of the cursed mansion on their town, and the author missed a prime opportunity here to add some nuance to the story of good vs. evil because she was more fixated on building a flimsy, unconvincing romance between Mila and Curtis.

I was hoping to get a good Gothic tale out of House of Ash and enjoy some strong YA fantasy, but the book fell completely flat for me.  I don’t give a lot of very low ratings, but I was tempted to DNF this book the whole time I was reading, so it’s going to have to get one star from me.

1 starBriana