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SeraphinaSeraphina by Rachel Hartman

A rich, absorbing fantasy world. The whole experience reminded me of Robin McKinley‘s work – a bit of a slow build, with plenty of character development and a fantastic setting, self-deprecating humor, and some action that is essential to the story but not really the point. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, plot-driven novel, look elsewhere. If you want complex but lovable characters and a world that feels familiar yet alien, dig in.

Dragons alone won’t sell me on a book, but I love what Hartman has done with them here. She uses them both for the thrill of their fantastical qualities, as well as to explore an extreme concept of “other.” These aren’t just another culture, another race, or another belief system (although they’re all of that, too) – dragons are another species entirely.

In Hartman’s world, they’re capable of taking human form, which in turn seems to let them experience human emotion. This, of course, is forbidden – dragons are meant to be rational, scientific creatures and emotions like love are thought of as particularly dangerous. The story deals with the aftermath of a relationship between a human and a dragon, and with the way Seraphina must naviate the world as someone who should not exist.

With so many YA books recently featuring instant attraction romances, I enjoyed the slower burn here, as well as the way she (doesn’t) wrap things up. I loved many of the side characters – Orma, the princess, all of the creatures in Seraphina’s mind. They all felt real and tangible, the kind of characters who could hold up their own novel if positions were switched.

Things are wrapped up at the end, but the door is left open for sequels – best of both worlds!

Source: ARC from NetGalley.
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Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin, #1)Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers

So yes, I’ll admit that this was pretty much a total fun book – it’s got a dash of the supernatural, poison, assassins, court intrigue, and romance. It’s a thick book, but nicely paced so that it doesn’t feel long. Ismae is an intriguing character with a satisfying arc and a believable balance between feeling powerless and impowered.

While it’s billed as the first in a series, I get the impression that each book will focus on a different character. There’s a blurb at the end saying that book two will feature Sybella, a mysterious side character from book one, and I’m guessing that book three will follow Annith, another side character with potential for a good story. If this is the case, it’s a refreshing break from the typical series mold. While another book about Ismae would certainly be entertaining, her story feels complete enough in this first book that I don’t see the need for a traditional sequel.

While the book features an atmospheric historical setting that’s crucial to the plot, it’s the light kind of history that doesn’t dwell too much on exact details and facts from history. Instead, it seems to incorporate the mood and setting without hitting the reader over the head with information.

However, as a historical fiction fan I was disappointed in the lack of historical note – I wanted to know, without having to look it up myself, which of the character actually lived and what liberties were taken with the facts. I wanted to know more about Mortain and the other old gods, and whether LaFevers invented them or used existing lore.

All in all, a very engaging story that I’d recommend to fans of books like Graceling as well as medieval historical fiction.

Source: my public library

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The ApothecaryThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy

I almost wish I’d read this one in print instead of listening to it – the narration is competent, but it never quite added anything to the story. I suspect the illustrations in the print version might have added more. My only quibble with the narration was that her accents occasionally crept over into the narration.

The story itself is a promising blend of historical fiction and fantasy, with the potential to explore larger political themes. I loved the bits of the book that set the stage – the shift from California to London, the weather and food and cultural differences. The fantastic elements were nicely done, explained within the context of the story and with a bit of fun to balance out the serious parts.

I think the primary thing that stopped me from loving the book more was a disconnect between the age of the characters and the tone of the story. I was so surprised to find that Janie was in high school – my first impression of her was that she was much younger, maybe 10 or 11 or 12, tops. She never rang true as a high schooler – and the whole story just felt younger. Perhaps Meloy did that to make her independence more plausible, but I either wanted the characters to be younger or the tone to be more sophisticated.

At any rate, I enjoyed this and would recommend it to kids who enjoy stories that are a mix of reality and fantasy.

Source: my public library

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Death Comes to PemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

I must have read a glowing review somewhere that inspired me to pick this up, but I no longer know who to blame. I don’t often read books that sound like Austen fan-fiction, but the beginning felt promising. James takes us through a recap of Pride and Prejudice from an outsider’s point of view, then catches us up on the events of the last six years, which is amusing and manages to entice. Then the mystery plot takes over – murder pollutes the shades of Pemberley! – and before you know it, you want to unravel the clues and find the solution.

Unfortunately, at this point in the game, hooked by the mystery, you realize that James’ prose isn’t nearly as diverting as Austen’s. You realize that she hasn’t done anything amusing or intriguing in terms of character development, and that the characters are still internally rehashing the events of P&P six years later. The mystery is intriguing, but because neither of the Darcys takes an active role in crime-solving, the reader is distanced from the action and is merely a spectator to the action. Indeed, the way the mystery is solved is not at all due to clue hunting or detecting, which really took the fun away from the resolution. By the time the mystery was good and solved, I was so impatient for the story to end that I could barely stand Darcy and Elizabeth’s wrap-up discussion.

I was left wanting to refresh my mind with some actual Austen prose and find some cutting remarks that might apply to James’ pale imitation of style.

Source: my public library

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Howl's Moving Castle (Castle, #1)Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is there to say about Sophie and Howl and Calcifer? What is there to say about Diana Wynne Jones, except that she had some spark of genius, some way of writing books that don’t feel like they could have been written by anyone else? Books, and characters, and marvelous little bits and pieces – objects and places that are infused with the best kind of magic.

Before this, I’d only read Fire and Hemlock, which is completely unlike this book in some ways, but also clearly from the same pen. Somehow, that book convinced me that I would enjoy anything she’d written, but for whatever reason I didn’t rush out to read them, knowing I had a nice large body of work waiting for me.

My kids’ bookgroup chose this as their April selection, based on the recommendation of one girl who’s recently become a DWJ convert. I owe her a debt of gratitude, because it jump-started me.

Sophie had me hooked from the beginning – she believes herself to be completely subject to fairy tale conventions, based on her birth order. As the oldest of three girls, she’s bound to fail at any quest or pursuit, and it’s best for her to just stay home and work at the hat shop and leave it to her youngest sister to successfully make her way in the world. Of course, that’s not how it goes at all, and Sophie turns out to be possessed of a marvelous kind of magic, the kind where she can persuade or harass others (people and things) into doing as she asks. I do love a good stubborn heroine.

Added to the cast of fabulous characters (hilariously vain Howl, grouchy Calcifer) is the moving castle itself. I suppose you can’t quite separate Calcifer from the castle, but it does feel like a another character, and its ability to be in four places at once is the kind of thing I love in fantasy novels. In fact, Jones manages a perfect balance between seriousness and humor in the whole book – I cared deeply about the characters at the same time that I was laughing and enjoying the ride.

Source: my public library

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Shortly after finishing the book, I watched the movie adaptation. While I was a bit distracted by analyzing differences between book and movie, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. They’re completely different animals in some ways, but they still have a core similarity in tone and feel. I recommend both, but maybe not back to back.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire!Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

This is the sort of comedy that is either side-splittingly funny or falls flat, depending on the reader. I found it completely hilarious – the whole bunny world, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny’s marriage, the hippy world of Madeline’s parents, the general dry humor, and of course Sophie Blackall’s illustrations.

 

As a mystery, it doesn’t quite succeed – this is really the only flaw. Nothing much happens for a long time, the bunny detectives sort things out completely by accident, and the reader knows the answers all along while the characters remain in the dark. I’d recommend it more to fans of funny talking animal stories than I would to young mystery fans – I also think it would make a fun read-aloud for sharp young listeners.

Source: my public library

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The Humming RoomThe Humming Room by Ellen Potter

This is a story that could easily be described as sweet, but that doesn’t quite get to the heart of it. Being a story inspired by The Secret Garden, the potential sweetness of the story is balanced by the prickliness of the characters. Like Mary, Roo has been stifled by a hard life, but fortunately she lacks Mary’s dislikable sense of entitlement. Roo lives a very internal life, preferring small, enclosed spaces and rarely feeling the need to interact with other people.

Instead of an isolated country setting, The Humming Room is set on an island in the St. Lawrence River, and the setting, and nature in general, are extremely important to the story and to Roo’s opening up. There is, of course, a secret space, walled off and neglected, and another neglected child. It never feels like Potter is slavishly imitating The Secret Garden – instead, it feels like she’s completely absorbed the tone and mood of the original and poured them out into a new story.

It’s been years since I reread The Secret Garden, so some of the details are fuzzy, but there were so many evocative moments and turns of phrase in this book that reminded of it. It’s a joy to read, both as an homage to a classic and as a distinguished story in its own right. Strongly recommended to readers who enjoy the original or who seek stories that connect them to the natural world.

Source: my public library

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Previously, The Kneebone Boy.

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

This is the kind of book that you love from the beginning, where you worry about where the characters will end up, where you love every twist and turn and revelation, and where you trust that no matter how gut-wrenching the ending, you’re in good hands with the author. Knowing and loving Wein’s series that begins with The Winter Prince, and knowing the basic premise of the story, I had faith from the beginning, despite some knuckle-biting about wondering how bleak the story would get. I don’t want to describe the story too much and spoil anything, but suffice it to say that while the world is very different from Wein’s earlier books, her grasp of character and story and mood is as distinguished as ever.

I was wondering, before I got very far into the book, what is is about WWII stories that captivates our imaginations so much. They’re everywhere – kids books, teen books, adult books, movies and TV shows and all kinds of storytelling formats. Part of the reason, I think, is that there are so many stories to be told, so many countries involved, so many types of work that needed to be done. There’s the battlefield and the political arena and the homefront for so many different countries. We know certain stories very well – soldier’s stories and Holocaust stories especially – but there are still seemingly infiniate variations on those.

This one has a bit of the soldier’s story, but these are women who weren’t and couldn’t be regular special agents or pilots, so there story has a bit more mystery. It’s also partly the story of the homefront, and partly of occupied France, and partly of codes and secrets and spies. It may sound cheesy, but it is also, above all, the story of a friendship – one that wouldn’t have happened without the war. It’s rare to read a YA book without romance being a significant plot point, but this certainly fit the bill.

Source: ebook from NetGalley.

Publication date: May 15, 2012. Worth the wait.

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Blood Red RoadBlood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

1st try in print: This came recommended, but the first 100 or so pages didn’t grab me – or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. It had holds at the library and I didn’t feel like getting even further in and risk feeling like I needed to finish it just because I’d read so much. Maybe another time.

2nd try on audio: The moral of this story is to trust your gut. If a book doesn’t grab you, it’s okay to quit even though people you trust rave and it wins awards like the Cybils. The premise was intriguing, and the beginning of the story sets up lots of potential themes. The father with his star reading, the heartstone, the complicated family relationships, midwinter twins, kids raised in near-isolation thrown into a rough world. But one after another, Young drops the ball on all this potential. The story becomes action-driven, rather than character-driven, which is fine if the action manages to hook you. It sure didn’t hook me – the cage fighting was the first thing to put me off, and by the time the big showdown at the end arrived, I was only interested in seeing whether she’d leave us with a cliff-hanger or a neater resolution.

The characters had great potentional – Saba’s adoring attitude towards her twin Lugh and her near-hatred of little sister Emmi could have had some great nuance, but other than a predictable build-up of affection for Emmi, nothing much happened. Like another reviewer pointed out, Saba has an incredible ability to fight and interact with the wider world considering her isolated upbringing. Others have compared her to some awesome kick-ass heroines, but she lacks their prickly likableness. The romance is dull and the heartstone’s role painfully predictable. I kept expecting various intrigues – I wanted Lugh to turn out to be a huge jerk, just because Saba idolized him. I wanted the king to be more interesting, but he was simply bizarre. I wanted more.

The audio version is nicely done, though, all things considered. The dialect that comes across as distracting on the page feels natural when spoken aloud, and Heather Lind does some good voices, nicely distinguishing characters.

Source: both versions from my public library

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Liar's Moon (Thief Errant, #2)Liar’s Moon by Elizabeth C. Bunce

The good news is that you don’t need to have Starcrossed fresh in your mind to enjoy this one, although if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The (slightly) bad news is that this one didn’t feel as tight as the first.

The good! Bunce creates a fantasicaly realized world, complete with complex politics and religions and social structures. Nothing startlingly original, but well-crafted. The large cast of characters is fantastic and nuanced, with plenty of people you love and plenty of people who are flawed and potential suspects. The story is a combination of fantasy and mystery, with a flavoring of historical fiction.

The not-so-good – despite my interest in the world and the characters and the plot, things slowed down majorly in the middle. I enjoyed reading it but had a hard time really sinking in and losing large chunks of time with the book. It’s a smart book, and I love that, but it needed a tad more zip. Nonetheless, the ending has a nice zinger.

Source: my public library

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