Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

Vassa in the NightInformation

Goodreads: Vassa in the Night
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: September 20, 2016

Summary

Everyone knows not to go to the BY’s convenience store. Shoplifters are beheaded there, and it seems that everyone who enters leaves a shoplifter.  But BY’s is the only store in Brooklyn open throughout the night, which has been getting longer and longer.  Just one minute feels like an eternity.  So when all the light bulbs in Vassa’s home go out one night, her sister asks her to pick up a pack at BY’s; waiting for the morning and another store to open will take too long.  Against her better judgement, Vassa goes, but she finds herself caught up in a much bigger plot than she expected–and sentenced to work three nights at BY’s before she can go home.

Review

Vassa in the Night is…an interesting book. It’s something like magical realism set in an alternative Brooklyn, so readers should expect some things to be taken for granted and never explained. That seems to be the way of magical realism in general. However, my personal struggles with the book weren’t really because I couldn’t follow it–but because I was following it, and basically nothing the characters said or did make sense.  Magical realism should mean that magic just is in the universe, that there’s no explanation of magical rules and such, not that the characters are also completely baffling in terms of actions and motivations.

So, sure, the book is confusing at times, as many readers have pointed out.  For instance, there are several characters who speak in Alice in Wonderland-esque dialogue, which sometimes Vassa can decipher into something reasonable and sometimes she cannot.  When Vassa doesn’t get the message, she ignores it, so I decided to do so, as well.  There’s also the confusion of the world-building.  Vassa implies that there’s a decent amount of magic in the world (and that Manhattan has cool, good magic and Brooklyn has annoying magic?), but all readers really see is the magic convenience store that’s the focus of the novel.  It’s actually not clear what other magic exists in Brooklyn that humans are aware of.

Mostly, however, I was irritated by the fact that practically every character in the story makes big, life-changing decisions apparently on a whim.  Sure, explanations are given for a lot of the characters’ actions, but the motivations never seem solid or believable.  The most obvious example of this is that Vassa herself goes to a convenience store known for beheading its customers simply because her sister suggests she go–and Vassa delights in the idea that if she dies, her sister will have to live with the guilt of it all. That’s right, she’s willing to die in order to stick it to her bratty sister.  This is a passing fancy, a gut reaction, something someone would think in the heat of a moment but not actually go through with! Yet Vassa does.  And several other characters takes similarly large risks based on thoughts that should have just been passing, not acted upon. (I won’t name them to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve read the book, you probably know whom I’m talking about.)

I did like some of the characters, sometimes.  Vassa is undeniably brave.  She basically has the same moment of revelation as Moana–that sometimes there’s no big hero coming to save you, so if you want something done, you have to pick yourself up and do it yourself.  That’s pretty admirable.  However, her wooden doll sidekick has a bit of an attitude I found obnoxious rather than quirky or charming, and a lot of scenes are colored by her snide remarks.  The nicest person in the book is perhaps Vassa’s older stepsister, but she’s mostly absent.  I wish I had more people to root for and connect with.  Instead, I just felt as though I were watching people I only mildly cared about.

The book is original. I give it points for not really being like any other YA book I’ve read. Ultimately it just wasn’t my taste.  Porter has suggested there might be a sequel, and I think that’s great for her, but I have no desire to read a series in this world, which is one of my primary tests of how much I enjoyed a book.

2 stars Briana

Fire Color One by Jenny Valentine

fire-color-oneInformation

Goodreads: Fire Color One
Series: None
Source: For review
Published: January 31, 2017

Official Summary

A father and daughter reconnect after a life spent apart to find their mutual love of art isn’t the only thing they share.

Sixteen-year-old Iris itches constantly for the strike of a match. But when she’s caught setting one too many fires, she’s whisked away to London before she can get arrested—at least that’s the story her mother tells. Mounting debt actually drove them out of LA, and it’s greed that brings them to a home Iris doesn’t recognize, where her millionaire father—a man she’s never met—lives. Though not for much longer.

Iris’s father is dying, and her mother is determined to claim his life’s fortune, including his priceless art collection. Forced to live with him as part of an exploitive scheme, Iris soon realizes her father is far different than the man she’s been schooled to hate, and everything she thought she knew—about her father and herself—is suddenly unclear. There may be hidden beauty in Iris’s uncertain past, and future, if only she can see beyond the flames.

Review

Fire Color One introduces readers to a teenage girl who finds calm in lighting fires.  While her mother and her mother’s boyfriend keep searching for their big break in the entertainment business, Iris is just trying to keep going and enjoy life.  So when her mother declares they’ll be visiting her estranged father to make a stab at the inheritance, Iris is less than pleased at being pulled into her mother’s latest scheme, until she she realizes her father isn’t quite the man she expected.

Although the book is ostensibly focused on family, and I was looking forward to a story about a father and his daughter reconnecting and forming a bond, I actually thought the book was more invested in plot than character development.  The book is mostly told out of chronological order, with Iris reflecting on her life and the events that finally brought her to her estranged father’s estate as he lies on his deathbed.  The moments when Iris and her father speak are moving but relatively few.  It’s perhaps more about just Iris than Iris and her father.  Additionally, the book really wants to get readers to the ending. I don’t want get into the realm of spoilers, but the end, the point of this all, seemed to be really about action and plot and not about family relationships.

The characters themselves are interesting, but sometimes flat–some of them seem more like scenery for the plot than like actual people. Iris’s mother and her mother’s boyfriend are perhaps the worst offenders.  I believe there are extremely shallow people in the world who make terrible parents as they focus only on themselves, so that’s fine. (Well, it’s sad.)  However, these two characters are over-the-top.  Iris describes them as people who literally can’t move two steps in a room without finding the patch of floor with the best lighting for their faces and striking a pose.  They can’t leave the house without taking five centuries to prepare.  They can’t last more than two and a half minutes before they call someone to talk about themselves.  This is all entertaining, but they don’t necessarily seem like realistically fake people to me.

However, I’ll take it.  Everyone in the book is larger-than-life with a wild backstory and personality.  It’s fun. Iris’s friend, a mysterious performance artist who spouts wisdom about the world, is particularly compelling.  But even Iris’s father, who self-describes himself as a boring homebody, has had some interesting adventures in life.  So this book isn’t about average people. But it’s about interesting people, and that’s a good feature of a story any day.

Bottom line: I liked it.  It’s unique.  The story combines several unusual elements–art, arson, family secrets–into one and becomes utterly engrossing.

3 stars Briana

Roseblood by A. G. Howard

rosebloodInformation

Goodreads: RoseBlood
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: January 10, 2017

Official Summary

In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

Review

I haven’t read anything else by A. G. Howard, but I’ve heard a lot about her “lyrical prose.” Because of this, I had high expectations, but I’m not sure they were met. I admit that I think a lot of prose in YA literature is unsophisticated (Sorry! I do still love YA!), so Howard’s stands out as pretty solid.  Yet she has a tendency to pile on adjectives in a way I don’t personally find either interesting or convincing. I love descriptions of nature from authors like L. M. Montgomery because I can believe that Montgomery knew a lot about plants and spent a lot of time outside observing and loving nature.  Howard, on the other hand, is the type of author who seems to think that calling a rose lush, vibrant, breathtaking, etc. (all in the same sentence)  is a substitute for making me think she really knows or particularly cares about roses.  I don’t really have issues with her prose, but I wouldn’t say it’s a primary draw of the novel.

I found the plot semi-interesting as I was reading, but ultimately cliche.  Or a bit ridiculous.  I admit I may have laughed at some points.  I guess I was expecting something different after seeing many readers rave about Howard’s Splintered series, but I feel I got a very typical YA book in RoseBlood, starting with the protagonist with unique magical power going to an elite boarding school abroad (which, of course, she does not want to attend) and going downhill from there.  The climatic reveals were often the most cliche and funniest (but I won’t get into spoiler territory).  Finally, I thought the  fantasy elements were not very cohesive.  It was like reading a book where you think the world is mostly normal.  But then there are unicorns. But also elemental magic. Oh, but reincarnation. And also some gods.  But maybe vampires, as well.   (These are just examples and not actually what happens in the book.)  I just wanted a better overarching view of how the world works and how all these things go together.

The characters may be the best part of the novel.  (And the cat.) While Rune does have a lot of YA protagonist tropes going on, I think she’s interesting and ultimately likable.  She’s overly dramatic at times, but one can see where she’s coming from, and she tends to have a good heart.  The other characters at the school have a range of personalities: mean girls, swoonworthy guys, girls with thieving tendencies.  Watching Rune’s friendships blossom was very nice.  The only oddity is that this elite French school apparently accepts only American students.  I guess I was hoping for some more international diversity, since that seems like a large point of anyone bothering to study abroad.

I do not, however, think the Phantom aspects of the novel were particularly well-done.  Now, I admit that adaptations of classic literature mean that authors can take liberties with their inspiration.  I think that Howard did her research and knows a lot about The Phantom of the Opera–book,movie, musical, etc.  I just didn’t buy her interpretations of the Opera Ghost character or her insistence that he and Christine actually had a really amazing relationship of true love that only ended because of youth and Christine’s naivete.   I mean…the Opera Ghost, in the novel and even the romanticized movie, was clearly manipulative, abusive, etc. so the true-love narrative is a bit cringe-worthy to me.

I also think it’s hard for RoseBlood to really have any mystery or Gothic feel when Howard is giving readers two points of view, Rune’s and Thorn’s.  The thing that makes Gothic novels actually suspenseful is the not-knowing.  What’s happening?  Who’s causing it?  Is any of it even real, or is the protagonist imagining things?  The space between thinking something truly supernatural is going on or thinking that there must be a “reasonable” explanation is where you hook readers.  RoseBlood has none of that because Howard basically tells us what’s going on the whole time by giving us the phantom’s side of the story intertwined.

My ultimate thoughts about the book are a little complicated. Parts were great and other parts were not.  I think my overarching feeling is satisfied indifference. I think this is a solid YA book. It’s fun, entertaining, and has a romantic love interest. It also has a cute cat.  I just don’t think it’s particularly original.

3 stars Briana

We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen

We Are Still TorndoesInformation

Goodreads: We Are Still Tornadoes
Series: None
Source: Book Boyfriend Box
Published: November 2016

Official Summary

It’s the summer of 1982, and for Scott and Cath, everything is about to change.

Growing up across the street from each other, Scott and Cath have been best friends for most of their lives. Now they’ve graduated high school, and Cath is off to college while Scott stays at home trying to get his band off the ground. Neither of them realized that their first year after high school would be so hard.

Fortunately, Scott and Cath still have each other, and it’s through their letters that they survive heartache, annoying roommates, family dramas, and the pressure of figuring out what to do with the rest of their lives. And through it all, they realize that the only person they’ve ever wanted to turn to is each other. But does that mean they should think about being more than friends? One thing is clear: Change is an inescapable part of growing up, and we share unbreakable bonds with the friends who help us navigate it.

Review

We Are Still Tornadoes is a moving epistolary novel that chronicles the lives of two best friends after they graduate from high school and go on to different paths: Cath to college at Wake Forest and Scott to work at his father’s clothing store–and start a band.

I enjoyed this book while I was reading it.  It was, at times, hilarious, saddening, and angering. Cath and Scott experience a lot in this one year of their life, and the book is extremely eventful. Unfortunately, though I (generally) liked the characters while spending time with them, I don’t think I’ll find them memorable.  While some of their escapades should be relateable to many readers–Cath’s short-term college boyfriends and her potentially crazy first-year roommate–so much of it just seems…passing.  I have more memorable stories of weird college roommates from my actual college friends.  Because the book chronicles a full year, and readers only see it through letters, I think some of the events don’t quite come alive the way one would wish.  I particularly found the end of the book a bit of let-down, in terms of how readers experience certain major events.

I did appreciate that Cath and Scott are uniquely mature. I’m not sure I’ve read another book (or have met living, breathing people), who just say what they mean and point out problems and then solve problems. When Cath or Scott thinks the other one said something hurtful or mean, they say so. And the other person apologizes!  If you’re tired of YA books that rely on characters miscommunicating and/or refusing to speak to each other in order to build drama, We Are Still Tornadoes will be a refreshing read.

As for the 80’s soundtrack, which the official summary alludes to, I will say that the protagonists frequently talk music and bond over music with each other as well as with new friends.  (Perhaps not surprising since Scott starts a band in the book.) However,  personally I am not a big fan of 80’s music, so I can’t say I connected with or was excited by the references in a way that other readers might be. I recognized some of the song  and band names, but I was essentially indifferent towards them, and I think I would have enjoyed the book just as much if the characters were into country or classical or 90’s pop music.

We Are Still Tornadoes is a solid book. It’s not at the top of my list of YA contemporaries because I don’t think I’m going to really remember the book or characters a few months from now (It’s not a contender at all for my “best books read in 2017” list in December). However, it’s fun.  It’s unique. I enjoyed reading it, and I think a lot of other people will, too.

3 stars Briana

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

march-1INFORMATION

Goodreads: March: Book One
Series:  March #1
Source: Library
Published: 2013

SUMMARY

Congressman John Lewis shares his life story, beginning in book one with his youth in Alabama and his activity with the Nashville Student Movement as they protested segregation through lunch counter sit-ins.

Review

March is a powerful book that tells the story of Congressman John Lewis’s life, beginning with his childhood in Alabama and continuing through his participation in the Nashville Student Movement.  No doubt many educators will find this a useful tool to discuss civil rights in the classroom, but general readers will also find themselves by turns saddened, shocked, and inspired.  The book truly makes history come alive, and reminds readers of just how tenuous civil rights can be.

Perhaps one of the more striking aspects of the book is Lewis’s willingness to engage with the nuances of the Civil Rights movement.  The story makes quite clear that, just because a law has been passed, that does not mean all citizens are treated equally.  Brown v. the Board of Education passed, and yet Lewis could not go downtown and be served lunch.  Nor could his white friends if they were with him.  And the local political leaders tried to walk the line by giving verbal support to the law while also maintaining stores had the right to serve whom they liked.

Lewis furthermore digs into the nuances of the responses given by the Black community.  While he and his friends attended training workshops on peaceful protests, were arrested for trying to integrate lunch counters, and refused to pay into the system by posting bail, some Black leaders suggested that simply being arrested was to make enough of a point–they should post bail and go.  Furthermore, some called for the dismissal of James Lawson from his grad school because he led lunch counter sit-ins.  Lewis saw it as a division between the older and the younger generations, and their approach towards reaching equality.  History is more complicated and less linear than the textbooks sometimes suggest.

So whether you’re hoping to learn more about the Civil Rights movement or simply looking for a powerful and moving read, you’re sure to find something in March.  It’s just as eye-opening as I expect Lewis hoped it would be.

5 starsKrysta 64

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee

thousandth-floorInformation

Goodreads: The Thousandth Floor
Series: The Thousandth Floor #1
Source: Library
Published: August 30, 2016

Official Summary

A hundred years in the future, New York is a city of innovation and dreams. Everyone there wants something…and everyone has something to lose.

LEDA COLE’s flawless exterior belies a secret addiction—to a drug she never should have tried and a boy she never should have touched.

ERIS DODD-RADSON’s beautiful, carefree life falls to pieces when a heartbreaking betrayal tears her family apart.

RYLIN MYERS’s job on one of the highest floors sweeps her into a world—and a romance—she never imagined…but will this new life cost Rylin her old one?

WATT BAKRADI is a tech genius with a secret: he knows everything about everyone. But when he’s hired to spy for an upper-floor girl, he finds himself caught up in a complicated web of lies.

And living above everyone else on the thousandth floor is AVERY FULLER, the girl genetically designed to be perfect. The girl who seems to have it all—yet is tormented by the one thing she can never have.

Amid breathtaking advancement and high-tech luxury, five teenagers struggle to find their place at the top of the world. But when you’re this high up, there’s nowhere to go but down….

Review

When I started The Thousandth Floor, I expected it to be a “guilty pleasure” type read, light but engaging with its portrayal of the lives of rich, glamorous teens in a futuristic Manhattan.  That’s pretty much what it is, though I’m not entirely sure about the “engaging” bit.  While brainstorming this review, I realized I have to very little to say about the book.  It’s about rich teens who spend their time shopping, drinking, and plotting petty revenge on the people who are ostensibly their friends.  The entertainment is supposed to come from watching their sordid little lives fall apart, I suppose, since even the rich and powerful have dark secrets.

The real problem with the novel is that, since everyone is petty and vengeful, they’re very difficult to like.  I can get behind flawed, realistic characters, but these characters are, by and large, really horrible people.  It’s hard not to feel they half-deserve anything bad that happens to them.  I wasn’t really rooting for any of them to solve their problems, and I’m not very interested in reading the sequel.  I’m also not a fan of casual use of hard drugs or underage drinking, and there’s a lot of that in this book. Basically, I would have avoided these people like the plague if I’d known them in high school, and I have the same gut reaction of dislike reading about them in a book.  There are maybe two characters who border on “likable” for me, and that’s not enough to make me emotionally invested in the novel or a whole series.

I did somewhat enjoy the world-building. Who doesn’t want to read about the lives of the ultra-rich 100 years in the future, where practically anything seems possible with technology?  However, I did get the impression that the setting was chosen mostly to add glamour to the story.  Since it wasn’t really “the point” in some sense, it wasn’t fully fleshed out.

The series is being billed as futuristic Gossip Girl (and like Gossip Girl, comes from Alloy Entertainment). I think it’s fair to say that if Gossip Girl-esque stories are your genre, this novel might be for you.  If you’re not into watching the lives of rich teens crash and burn, the novel doesn’t have much else to offer you.

3 stars Briana

Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley

worlds-of-ink-and-shadowINFORMATION

Goodreads: Worlds of Ink and Shadow
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2016

SUMMARY

Charlotte and Branwell Brontë possess the secret of literally jumping into their imaginary world of Verdopolis, and their sister Emily is tired of being left behind.  Once all three of them, along with Anne, travelled there together as the all-powerful Genii, but now the elder Brontës keep that power to themselves.  Charlotte and Branwell, however, pay a price the others do not see.  Will the four of them ever be able to escape the mysterious hold that Verdopolis has on them?

Review

Worlds of Ink and Shadow works very well as a fantasy novel, but will probably appeal most readers who possess some knowledge both of the Brontës’ literary work and of their biographies.  Inspired by their juvenalia, full of references to their later works, and grounded in the tragedy of the sisters’ mistreatment at a boarding school, the book’s resonances fully come alive only for those who have the ability to catch all the references.  Even without them, however, the story is an engrossing and somewhat spooky read, the kind that will haunt readers as they devour it through the night.

Coakley expertly weaves biographical details of the Brontës’ lives into this fantasy, playing most with their juvenalia but also alluding to Branwell’s alcohol problem, the death of the elder Brontë sisters (Maria and Elizabeth), Emily’s penchant for wild things and dangerous men, and Charlotte’s dismal expectations as an impoverished woman.  I could easily imagine that much of this would make little sense to the uninitiated, especially because we do not now associate the Brontës with fantasy writing and Charotte Brontë receives most of the general populace’s attention.  However, it’s an incredibly fun read for people who love the Brontës, and it never seems stretched or far-fetched. Coakley seamlessly merges the fantastical with real life.

The fantastic side of this story is highly engrossing, featuring the Brontës jumping into the literary world of Verdopolis that they have created.  There the villain Alexander Rogue dissolutely drinks, kidnaps women, and duels with his rival, the heroic Zamorna–a perfect man if he were not such a womanizer.  But it takes much strength for the Brontës to continue to guide the story and at times it seems that the characters might be breaking free.  Might even suspect that they are being played with like puppets.  And soon the world the Brontës thought of as their own threatens to turn on them.

So whether you enjoy the writings of the Brontë sisters or a good fantasy or a good historical fantasy, this may just be the book for you.  It feels fresh and original, avoiding the usual tropes of YA to focus instead on the power of stories and the bonds between siblings.  Hopefully we’ll see much more of Coakley’s work.

5 starsKrysta 64