Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart

Serina is headed to meet the Heir where she hopes she will be chosen as one of the three new Graces - women who serve the Heir in every way.  She has been training all her life to be charming, beautiful, and docile to be the perfect Grace.  Her sister Nomi is along as her handmaiden.  If Serina is chosen, it will mean a better life for their entire family.   But when the Graces are announced it turns out that Nomi has been selected by the Heir despite her prickly demeanor.  Serina quickly assumes the position of handmaiden to her sister but just as quickly she is in serious trouble after taking responsibility for the book Nomi had in her possession.  Since women are forbidden to read, Serina is sent to Mount Ruin where tribes of women are forced to survive and fight to the death to get a few extra scraps of food.  With the Heir's birthday coming up, Nomi forms an alliance with the younger prince to try to change the status quo in the kingdom and get her sister back.

I was so captivated with this book the whole way through.  I liked both women and Banghart did a great job of having Serina roll with the punches - sometimes literally - despite the fact that she never expected to be anything other than arm candy.  After they are separated both women are dedicated to finding each other again and doing what it takes to make that happen but I didn't feel that they were all that devoted to each other as the story began so that's a flaw for me.  I totally saw the twist with the Heir coming (because I've read other books) but that just made me wish I was wrong as I progressed to that point.  And I am truly sad that I wasn't wrong.  This is just a fun adventure with some good feminist themes for teens and good characters.

The Beholder by Anna Bright

Selah is the seneschal-elect and expects to be the leader of Potomac one day.  Her path to taking charge hits a roadblock when her proposal to Peter, the boy she believes will be her partner, is turned down. Now her cold stepmother has rallied Potomac's council to send Selah overseas to meet a series of leaders, demanding that she come home engaged to one of them.  Despite her worry over her father's failing health, Selah has no choice in the matter and boards The Beholder with a small crew to begin her mission with England as her first stop.  As she examines the suitors her stepmother has arranged for her to meet, she realizes that all but one of them are the first born sons and would therefore be required to stay in their own country.  Selah knows she has to make a match with one of the first two men or else she will be heading into Imperiya Yotne, a region ruled by a dictator from which visitors don't return.

Once Selah got to England I was reading this book with a search engine open right alongside.  Why?  Because of all the storytelling elements included in this original story.  I started out thinking this was going to be a Cinderella-based story when Selah lost one of her shoes.  Then I was sure it was Snow White with the evil stepmother.  Eventually I worked out that it is all of them, and more.  I was already delighted with the Easter eggs of Perrault and Homer and Andersen but once it came to me that we were dealing with the King Arthur story, I was looking up every new person and event to confirm my suspicions.  And then we moved on to Norse mythology!  I can see some of the flaws in the book - too long for most teens, Selah falls in love too easily, I don't like how her crew is keeping secrets from her - but I was still just enjoying the ride.  If you are not as familiar with mythology and folklore it might not be as much fun for you but I think it's still a good adventure/romance.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer

Rhen is an arrogant prince who has been cursed by a sorceress to relive the same season over and over until he can find a woman who loves him.  Each time he fails, he turns into a monster that attacks and kills everyone around him until the next season starts.  Harper is a young woman who is kidnapped while trying to help another girl.  When she ends up in magical Emberfall with Rhen, she is not only distressed to have been taken from her own world, but she is also worried about her mother who is dying of cancer and her brother who is working for a loan shark.  As she begins to accept that she is trapped in Emberfall, she finds ways to help the people there who are suffering from the absence of a leader and their terror of the monster.  As Harper ventures out into the country, Rhen learns more about his people and comes up with a plan to help them.

This is an elaborate, slightly altered telling of Beauty and the Beast so you can guess the general storyline but there are some other luscious details added.  Harper is a good, strong character who makes impulsive decisions that seem right but sometimes have unintended consequences.  Rhen is swoony pretty much right from the get go but also a little sad and haunted by his past failures and the fact that he keeps eating all his subjects.  I feel like Harper's disability is more token than real representation, but I mostly ignored that.  I also feel like her taming of the beast happened real damn fast but I still liked picturing a big bird-serpent-monster-dragon head-butting her.  What's more, I enjoyed all the supporting cast of characters and watching Rhen become a real leader. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson

In this sequel to Truly Devious Stevie Bell finds her way back to Ellingham Academy thanks to the man she hates, Edward King.  Once there, she continues investigating the crime from the past as well as trying to figure out where Ellie went after she disappeared from a locked room at the end of the first book.  Some parts of the mystery are solved (the identity of the kidnapper/murderer from 1936!) while new questions are raised.

I read a sequel and I never read sequels.  Even more, now I'm going to have to read the third book since I've already invested this much time and brain power to it all.  However, I was not as blown away by this sequel as I was with the first book which had me rapidly turning pages.  In fact, I felt like the first third, at least, was sort of marking time without much happening at all since this has to be a trilogy.  Once the action actually started things moved along fairly well and I was highlighting clues right and left in order to try to solve the many mysteries.  And I DID solve the Ellingham case before it was officially revealed - yay me!  But...
1.  The "always on the staircase" riddle is NOT good, even when you know the solution to it.  Ellingham is supposed to be a master gamesman so he should've come up with something better than this.  And if this is the only clue he left behind as to the criminal's identity...?  I think he would be a lot more obvious than this.
2.  I am very tired of this romance pattern.  Either be together or don't be together but stop wasting my time with stories where they almost connect but then there's some misunderstanding.  And honestly, David knows what a creep his dad is so having him be outraged that Stevie is yet another person manipulated by him doesn't ring true.  Furthermore, why didn't Stevie just say "I wanted to come back here so I used him to make that happen."
3.  Vi.  This is a minor point in the overall story as Vi is nothing but a tertiary character, but the inclusion of Vi feels token and not like real representation.  We know from the first book that Vi is biologically female but prefers to use they/them as pronouns.  That's pretty much it.  Is Vi nonbinary?  Trans?  Just a girl who prefers to support others by using inclusive pronouns?  I have no idea because there is no other meaningful description of Vi in either book.  If the idea is to include some LGBTQ readers into the story, then I wish Johnson had done something more with this character so people could actually see themselves there.

I know I have more quibbles with it but that's all that's coming to mind at the moment.  Despite that, it still has me thinking and wondering how things will tie up when all's said and done.

Come November by Katrin van Dam

Rooney's mom is not worried that she just lost her job because November 17th is not that far away.  Mom is a member of the Next World Society and believes that the family will be taken away by aliens on November 17th to live on a planet that is not affected by climate change.  Rooney is not a believer and has no patience for her mother's beliefs, especially when Rooney's younger brother David seems to be getting on board with the Society's dogma and turning against Rooney.  At a loss for what else to do, Rooney turns to her long absent father.  She just wants some money to help in the short term but he offers other help after the prophesied day comes and goes and the group's charismatic leader disappears with all their money.

Who doesn't love a cult story filled with crazy people following an unscrupulous leader?  On those points, this book didn't disappoint.  Rooney's mom and the other Next World people are so frustrating in their beliefs and in the way Rooney is pushed to ascend with them on November 17.  And watching David slip away from her in his worry about being left behind is heartbreaking.  What's not so crazy about this cult is that the followers are green warriors, hoping to find a world where people actually care about their planet.  I can see how that would lure people in because the enormity of climate change is too much to face sometimes.  So some of the beliefs of this group didn't seem quite as wacko as your typical religious cult.  I think that's a super-smart and intriguing choice that van Dam made there.

But aside from the unusual cult, the rest of this book was not as intriguing.  I wasn't wrapped up in Rooney's day to day life and romance, which quickly faded into the background once they found each other.  In many ways things could've been covered more quickly to keep the pace up, but then the end of the book suddenly jumped ahead at light speed to give us a synopsis of what had been left out.  More consistent pacing would've benefited the overall story.

You Owe Me a Murder by Eileen Cook

When Kim signed up for the educational trip to London it was so she could spend more time with her boyfriend. But now that he has dumped her and is dating another girl also going on the trip, Kim is miserable about the upcoming trip.  At the airport she meets Nicki and the two hit it off right away, spending a few hours together while waiting for their plane.  Nicki shares stories about her awful mother and Kim talks about her ex, Connor.  The two make lists of all the terrible things about the people they hate and Nicki tucks the lists away.  Kim falls asleep and when the plane lands, Nicki is nowhere to be seen although Kim does think she sees glimpses of Nicki as her group travels throughout London.  While the group is on the crowded Tube platform one day, Connor falls onto the tracks and dies after being hit by the train.  Was it a suicide or accident?  Kim can't imagine either one but then Nicki gets in contact with her saying that she took care of Kim's problem and now Kim owes her the death of Nicki's mom.  Armed with Kim's list of reasons she wants Connor dead, Nicki uses everything in her power to blackmail Kim into committing murder.

I knew this was a "Strangers on a Train" knock off and I was fine with that.  Especially since my students are completely unlikely to know what that is so it will all be new to them.  But I ended up so disappointed in the execution of this and with Kim in particular.  I know she has to make some dumb mistakes in order to keep the blackmail plot working, but she couldn't have been more passive in controlling her own fate, starting with keeping it a secret that she ever dated Connor.  That decision didn't make sense no matter how the author tried to explain it.  And then there was just the escalating series of dumb decisions the led to lying to the police over and over.  Again, I know some of this is necessary because if you go tell the police and they solve the crime, the story's over, but I cannot forgive how even in the very end Kim gets out of this situation with no action on her own part.  Again and again she gives herself the "work the problem" pep talk and tries to come up with a solution.  Each time I thought "Okay, NOW she's going to take the reins and turn the tables on Nicki!"  I was primed for some self-empowerment and excited to see Nicki falter when her easy mark turned out to be tougher than imagined.  But it never happened and I felt no relief for the end of the tension other than that I was finally done with the book.  It's okay that Kim has no backbone for the first half of the book because she has to get into a bad place, but please write her a way out of this that is of her own making with some clever thinking.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Just For Clicks by Kara McDowell

Claire and her twin sister Poppy are fashion vloggers on their way to becoming very famous.  They got their start thanks to their mom's very popular blog detailing their lives. Although they are the envy of teen girls everywhere, Claire doesn't love being in the spotlight and is looking forward to slipping away to college in about a year.  When she meets new guy Rafael she is excited to start a friendship with someone who doesn't seem to know her entire past.  Claire's plans for a normal life hit a stumbling block when the girls are offered their own reality TV show which is Poppy's dream.  And then even more pieces of her life come tumbling down when Claire discovers a devastating secret in her mom's private journals.

This book is mostly exactly what you'd think it would be both romance and story-wise except for all the stuff that is tackled and resolved quickly in the last few chapters.  Family fights and misunderstandings - check.  Possible romantic competition - check.  Sacrificing dreams due to unconditional love - check.  Getting over your attitude problem that is causing you to misread situations - check.  And more!  Of course I didn't go into this book looking for a downer so I wanted the happy ending to all of those stories, but maybe not so many stories and not so fast.  Claire's turnaround from disavowing her family to recognizing their worth happens in the blink of an eye and the thing that causes her to change her attitude is also revealed mighty fast.  I feel like that amount of crazy might not be revealed so quickly in real life. 

Despite those ending flaws, there are a few things I liked a lot about this book. 
1. Claire and Poppy's mom is sort of a stage mother but not in a bad way at all.  She totally cares about her daughters and it shows in how she treats them which is a great change from the portrayal of most parents in YA books.
2.  Rafael is a really nice guy and the romance progresses very slowly rather than with insta-love.  Most of their interactions in the book consist of them talking and asking questions of each other.  Like, actually getting to know each other! 
3.  The downside of being internet famous (probably famous in any way at all) is unflinchingly shown.  Of course it appears that these people have perfect lives but the online harassment and the work involved in maintaining that appearance is no joke.
4.  And speaking of work... It is made clear that you don't just get famous by writing a few entries and being discovered.  It's a fulltime job getting your name out there.  It's a good lesson for all those teens who are going to monetize their videos and get rich quick.