Shelf Reflections

VIII by H. M. Castor

“VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family’s violent past and once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII.”

I have an odd fascination with British history, and especially with the Tudor era.  So much was changing in the world at that time that much of the historical record reads like the most fantastical novel you could ever hope to pick up.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge where documentation is slim or nonexistent.  One of those periods is the childhood of King Henry VIII.  Never meant for the throne, he was forced into the role of ruler due to the death of his older brother Arthur.

I’ve read many novels about this time period, most notably ones by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.  Most of what I’ve read has also focused on the women, so outside of the non-fiction that I’ve also read, I didn’t ever get a feel for what we do know about Henry’s early years.  Castor attempts to imagine some of those details, extrapolating from what we do know, and also tries to account for how a shining paragon of English royalty turned into the tyrant that we all know and love to hate.

The author’s success at this endeavor is mixed, to say the least.  Castor set herself a hard task: show Henry as a bright, intelligent child and get us to care about him despite what we know he will do, and then show his descent without losing the characterization that she already set up.  In this, she succeeds.  Henry as a boy is shaped by those around him and by the circumstances in which he finds himself.  Castor takes an interesting tack in painting Henry VII as a cruel and domineering father, and although there’s no evidence of this historically, it does play pretty well into Henry’s character makeup.

The author also excels at giving readers a sense of the world as it existed in the late 1400s to mid-1500s.  The author has obviously done a ton of research, and even state in an author’s note that just about everything she described in the novel was found in the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his time of death.  Knowing that lends a strong air of historical reality to the narrative.

What I didn’t think worked all that well was the pacing.  Henry’s life before his father’s death takes up just a few pages shy of half the book.  Another 120 pages cover from his coronation to his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  His tempestuous marriage to Anne Boleyn lasts for around 50 pages.  The final 52 pages cover his last four wives and his death.  By the end, the author is omitting major chunks of time, and wives three through six are hardly mentioned.

The greater missed opportunity here lies in what the author said was her goal: to not only explore Henry’s younger years, but to show his progression from favored youth to cruel dictator.  And if you know anything about history, you know that it’s not just his treatment of his wives in which he shows his colors.  Castor missed some golden opportunities to delve into his general callousness.  The executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More only get a brief mention, and yet they shook the world when they happened.  The Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion in which Henry promised to pardon the participants and then executed the leaders, isn’t even mentioned specifically—just a few words about the north being filled with rebellion that needs to be constantly put down.  Henry’s cruelty cut across all aspects of life, and confining it to his treatment of his wives is, in my opinion, too narrow.

I could have done without the supernatural element, because it wasn’t handled very well.  From a young age, Henry sees visions of a boy with straw-colored hair who is often crying with pain and obviously suffering.  Henry continues to see this specter throughout his life, usually right before some of his most traumatic losses.  Its first appearance is in the Tower of London, where young Henry has just found out about the “Princes in the Tower”, the young princes who were imprisoned there and vanished, presumably murdered.  The story sort of leads you to believe that the apparition is one of the princes, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.  Since the author said that she wanted to show how Henry was haunted by the demons of his family’s past, the way things play out didn’t make sense to me.

There was a lot to like in this novel, especially the attention to historical detail.  I did, however, feel that the author could have tightened her pacing and really explored Henry’s character.  He’s a deliciously cruel, terribly controlling man, and his actions form a tale that could give a sensitive reader nightmares.  I went through this book in a single day, but I kept having the nagging feeling that it could have reached even higher.  VIII might be a good introduction to Henry’s character, but the meat of his reign is ignored.

This review was originally posted on September 3, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

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The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

“It starts with an itch you just can’t shake. Then comes a fever and a tickle in your throat. A few days later, you’ll be blabbing your secrets and chatting with strangers like they’re old friends. Three more, and the paranoid hallucinations kick in.

And then you’re dead.

When sixteen-year-old Kaelyn lets her best friend leave for school without saying goodbye, she never dreams that she might not see him again. Then a strange virus begins to sweep through her small island community, infecting young and old alike. As the dead pile up, the government quarantines the island: no one can leave, and no one can come back.

Cut off from the world, the remaining islanders must fend for themselves. Supplies are dwindling, fatalities rising, and panic is turning into violence. With no cure in sight, Kaelyn knows their only hope of survival is to band together. Desperate to save her home, she joins forces with a former rival and opens her heart to a boy she once feared.

But as the virus robs her of friends and family, Kaelyn realizes her efforts may be in vain. How can she fight an enemy that’s too small to see?”

Placing this story in a very small community had the interesting effect of intensifying the action.  It turns it into a true microcosm of what the entire world might be like under these conditions, but it doesn’t have the backdrop of huge sweeping disaster to contrast it with.  Instead, the isolation keeps the reader’s attention focused in a different way than most other novels, and it also makes what happens all the more chilling.  The author also touches on many of the elements that you’d expect in a disaster story—hoarding food stores, lack of medicine, houses with bodies inside—so that you don’t need the epic proportions of a typical book to get the feel for how horrible things are.

Even in the midst of all of this death, the author shows you some glimmers of hope.  While there are certainly a few troublemakers in the novel, most of the island’s inhabitants band together to take care of each other.  The best part is that it’s not in the fatalistic way that you see in many apocalyptic stories, where there’s safety in numbers and cooperation is a matter of necessity; rather, these characters help each other out of kindness and out of a real sense of community.  This may be a novel with disease and death, but there is much that is uplifting as well.

I found that I really liked Kaelyn.  She has a strong narrative voice, and although she’s young and often scared, her resilience shows a quiet strength of character.  The author makes a wise choice in having the tale told as a series of journal entries to an absent friend.  It not only allows her to believably set up her own backstory and give us information on herself, but it also lets readers into her thoughts in a raw and immediate fashion.

Of course, there is also the almost obligatory love story that nearly all teen novels have these days, but I think it makes sense in terms of the context.  Kaelyn is in a situation where friends and family are falling ill around her, and it’s natural to want human contact in the face of these events.  It’s occasionally just a bit clunky, but like I said, I can forgive it in light of how it fits into the story.

The novel is very effective in charting the progress of a rampaging disease.  And I’ll admit that after finishing it, I felt a little paranoid about people around me who might be sneezing and coughing a lot.  This is not a useful emotion to feel in the midst of allergy season, but it does illustrate the power of this comparatively lesser-known teen novel.  The Way We Fall doesn’t have the non-stop action of some of its contemporaries, but instead it quietly and insidiously walks you through a disaster that claims people one by one without mercy.  I’ll definitely be watching for the next in this series.

This review was originally posted on March 27, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Brazen by Katherine Longshore

“Mary Howard has always lived in the shadow of her powerful family. But when she’s married off to Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, she rockets into the Tudor court’s inner circle. Mary and “Fitz” join a tight clique of rebels who test the boundaries of court’s strict rules with their games, dares, and flirtations. The more Mary gets to know Fitz, the harder she falls for him, but is forbidden from seeing him alone. The rules of court were made to be pushed—but pushing them too far means certain death. Is true love worth dying for?”

One of my random interests is British history, especially the Tudor era. There was so much going on during that time period that it’s as good as any novel—the conflicts, the romances, the backstabbing, all contribute to a portion of history that’s nearly unbelievable. A lot of fiction has been written about the Tudor court, and with good reason. I feel that it’s an especially good subject to get teens interested in history, and Longshore’s novels are among the best contributions to that genre.

The seed of this particular book comes from the Devonshire Manuscript, which is a book of poetry written in many different hands, including that of Mary Howard, the young wife of Henry Fitzroy. The rules at Henry VIII’s court were strict, especially for women, and Longshore does an excellent job of using the Devonshire Manuscript as the backdrop for some of the young women pushing the boundaries of what’s expected of them.

I found Mary an easy character to like. While she is definitely a product of her era, the struggles that she goes through in trying to find her identity and make a place for herself in the world are ones that anybody can relate to. There’s not a lot of information about her life and activities, but we do know that she fought to retain the title that she got from Fitzroy, so she was obviously a strong-willed woman. The author invents a wonderful early history for Mary, setting her character up to become the individual that is known in history.

We may not know much about Mary, but there is a lot of available research on the Tudor court, and the author weaves details about daily life and cultural norms seamlessly into the story. You get a lot of fascinating information without even realizing it, and I’m willing to bet that it will spark some readers to investigate more on their own. Far from being dry and dusty, Longshore’s version of history is vibrant with color and activity and energy. Henry VIII in his early years was something of a “rock star”, handsome and magnetic, and readers will get the full sense of what that era was like.

It’s too bad that Longshore won’t be writing any more Tudor novels for the foreseeable future, because I’ve greatly enjoyed her forays into the lives of the women who helped shape England during one of its most tumultuous time periods. Brazen brings history to life in a way that few young adult novels manage, capturing the allure and dangers of life for the women in Henry VIII’s court.

This review was originally posted on June 30, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

“When Cat Novak was a young girl, her father brought Finn, an experimental android, to their isolated home. A billion-dollar construct, Finn looks and acts human, but he has no desire to be one. He was programmed to assist his owners, and performs his duties to perfection.

His primary task now is to tutor Cat. Finn stays with her, becoming her constant companion and friend as she grows into adulthood. But when the government grants rights to the ever-increasing robot population, Finn struggles to find his place in the world. As their relationship goes further than anyone intended, they have to face the threat of being separated forever.”

When I picked up this book, I expected to find something with a higher science fiction quotient—after all, the synopsis makes it sound like robot rights are a central issue.  What I got, though, was something far better: a love story that transcends the way we think about what is human and what isn’t.  Of course, it’s impossible not to compare this novel to The Bicentennial Man, but this story comes out ahead in that particular contest.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, the movie was about how many years you live, and The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is about how much life you allow into your years.

The love story takes center stage over the other plotlines concerning robot sentience and the state of the world in which this novel takes place.  It still feels like a fully fleshed out setting, though.  In fact, I hope that Clarke writes more in this world, because I would like to have seen a broader picture of the landscape and the people.

Much of the novel is achingly poignant.  As Cat grows up and grows older, her contact with Finn decreases and her life takes a turn for the worse.  Clarke’s writing at these moments is extremely evocative, and I felt genuine sorrow at what Cat goes through.  I wouldn’t necessarily call Cat a completely sympathetic character, as she doesn’t always treat Finn as well as she should, but believe me, you will feel for her by the novel’s end.

This book is a great Valentine’s Day present for the science fiction aficionado in your life.  It hits all the right notes and delivers a tale that is often heartbreaking but always has that element of hope that love will conquer all.  The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is a lovely and moving story, and I highly recommend it.

This review was originally posted on February 12, 2013.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon

“When you’re studying to be exoveterinarian specializing in exotic, alien life forms, school… is a different kind of animal.

Zenn Scarlett is a resourceful, determined 17-year-old girl working hard to make it through her novice year of exovet training. That means she’s learning to care for alien creatures that are mostly large, generally dangerous and profoundly fascinating. Zenn’s all-important end-of-term tests at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars are coming up, and, she’s feeling confident of acing the exams. But when a series of inexplicable animal escapes and other disturbing events hit the school, Zenn finds herself being blamed for the problems. As if this isn’t enough to deal with, her absent father has abruptly stopped communicating with her; Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, is acting unusually, annoyingly friendly; and, strangest of all: Zenn is worried she’s started sharing the thoughts of the creatures around her. Which is impossible, of course. Nonetheless, she can’t deny what she’s feeling.

Now, with the help of Liam and Hamish, an eight-foot sentient insectoid also training at the clinic, Zenn must learn what’s happened to her father, solve the mystery of who, if anyone, is sabotaging the cloister, and determine if she’s actually sensing the consciousness of her alien patients… or just losing her mind. All without failing her novice year….”

This novel begins with a bang—quite literally—with a scene involving her mother and a disastrous procedure on a massive alien life form. After that, though, the book slows down considerably. Much of what follows is focused on Zenn’s training and the evaluation of her fitness to become an exovet. The author has definitely cooked up some interesting procedures and some intriguing alien animals, but I feel that this part of the story went on too long. Mostly it’s just that there’s not a lot of tension to be found in the mundane activities of taking care of animals.

There’s a secondary story that perhaps should have been pushed into greater prominence: the political situation between Mars and Earth. It’s this conflict that lies at the heart of a lot of what takes place with regards to the clinic and its inhabitants, but it seems like Schoon is too focused on creating weird creatures to give this plotline the time and space that might help it to shine. It also would have made it easier to draw on the question of what constitutes an alien, which was touched on here with thought-provoking results.

That said, Schoon does an excellent job at creating those aliens, especially the more intelligent ones. Zenn has a little cat-like creature called a rikkaset as a pet, and they communicate with each other via sign language. The other notable character is Hamish, a giant insectoid alien who is scrupulously polite and gets some funny moments while trying to understand human culture.

The last third of the book picks up the pace, and eventually dramatic things start happening. It feels a little rushed, given that it starts so late in the story, but Schoon manages to pull things together and make the final chapters memorable. All in all, it makes for a fairly solid story, and I think I would have liked it even more if the pacing had been evened out a little more.

Overall, this is a good novel for teen readers. There are plenty of alien beings, some mystery, some politics, and some adventure—there’s something for everyone. It takes a little while to find its momentum, but it gets its footing eventually and starts turning into a very interesting science fiction saga. Zenn Scarlett has a few hiccups, but the author shows enough promise that I’ll probably pick up the next book when it comes out.

This review was originally posted on July 11, 2013.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Sexual Assault is Not a Vehicle for Character Growth: Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford

For the first time ever, I’m doing a book review as a feature, because I feel strongly that this book has issues that should be addressed.  I got so angry after reading this that I decided to sleep on it and see how I felt in the morning.  My anger has not abated.  If you check out this title on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll see a bunch of good reviews for it.  You’ll also see some passionate one-star reviews, and they all focus on much the same thing: this novel uses sexual assault to promote character growth.  In my opinion, this is a dangerous trope that needs to be dealt with.  Worse, the author himself has no understanding of what he has done and actively refuses to consider that what he wrote was non-consensual.  We’ll get to that later, but first, let’s start from the beginning.  And, by necessity, this review contains major spoilers.

“Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up on New Year’s Day to find himself in the hospital—specifically, in the psychiatric ward. Despite the bandages on his wrists, he’s positive this is all some huge mistake. Jeff is perfectly fine, perfectly normal; not like the other kids in the hospital with him. But over the course of the next forty-five days, Jeff begins to understand why he ended up here—and realizes he has more in common with the other kids than he thought.”

Okay.  I’m not sure where to begin with all the things that bothered me about this book, but I’ll try to do this in some kind of logical order.  Let’s start with Jeff.  If you’ve read past reviews of mine, you know that I’m not averse to unlikable main characters.  You don’t always have to like the person you’re reading about, as long as their story is well told.  In this case, I deeply disliked Jeff, and there really wasn’t anything in the story that–for lack of a better word–redeemed him in my eyes.  He comes across as an unrepentant jerk for much of the book.  He backs that off a little towards the end of the novel, but for me, it was too little, too late.  There are scenes of him making fun of other teens in his ward, and although the author tries to counterbalance those with his kindness towards a young patient named Martha, it didn’t work very well.  Basically, I didn’t believe Jeff’s change of heart, as he isn’t show experiencing any real growth–he just gets tired of fighting the people who want to help him and gives in.  To me, there’s a big difference.

My next complaint concerns the depiction of the hospital.  There are several things about it that are not true to real life.  I have had occasion to visit someone in a psychiatric ward, and I can tell you for a fact that, in a facility with teen suicide risks, other patients would not be allowed to possess or use a razor unsupervised.  The teens would not have had such lax supervision as to allow them to sneak into each others’ beds.  And when you’re given medication, you have to swallow it in the presence of a nurse, so building up a stash of pills with which to commit suicide wouldn’t happen.  If by some extreme event that did occur, the aforementioned supervision would have that patient down in the ER and their stomach pumped within a short period of time.  Staff would not leave patient files in a patient’s room, nor would it be tolerated for security guards to gossip about patients with other patients.

In this story, Jeff forms a friendship with another patient named Sadie.  He sneaks into her bed one night and they fool around, but he realizes that he’s not sexually attracted to her and leaves the room.  Later, after some other events happen (which we’ll get into later), Jeff’s psychiatrist blurts out in the middle of a session that Sadie killed herself.  The manner in which he broke the news was just… no.  Doctor finds out that patient fooled around with another patient, and then feels that it’s imperative to immediately tell him that said other patient offed herself?  What the hell?

And now we get to the big thing that made me scream “Oh hell no!” at this book, and the thing that forms the title of this post.  A patient arrives named Rankin.  One night, Jeff catches Rankin masturbating in the shower.  (Showering without supervision?  Nope.)  Rankin notices Jeff watching and isn’t fazed.  He sneaks into Jeff’s room, gets into bed with him, and start masturbating Jeff.  Jeff says “Don’t,” but Rankin continues.  They eventually pleasure each other, although Jeff is disgusted by the whole thing.  The next time they meet in the bathroom, Rankin has obviously twigged into the fact that Jeff may be gay and disrobes in front of him and beckons Jeff into the shower with him.  Jeff, rather confused by everything, goes.  Rankin pushes Jeff to his knees and orders him to perform oral sex on him.  He doesn’t ask Jeff what he wants, he just does it, and again he’s disgusted.  And then, one night, Rankin sneaks into Jeff’s room, and Jeff wakes up with Rankin trying to penetrate him from behind, and when Jeff seems about to say something, Rankin covers Jeff’s mouth with his hand.  Jeff is portrayed as struggling to get away when they are interrupted by the staff.  Later, the encounter makes Jeff come to terms with the fact that he is gay.

Now, I can understand sexual confusion.  I imagine many gay teens go through a period of confusion and possibly even disgust as they come to grips with their sexuality.  But there are two major issues here: one, that last scene is definitely rape and is never characterized as such, nor does Jeff ever come to that realization; two, it is dangerous to portray a sexual assault as a way for a teen coming to grips with their sexuality to make that leap and admit who they are.  This is a damaging trope that shows up in far too many books.  An author that I read, Seanan McGuire, has received e-mails from fans asking when her female main character is going to be raped, because too much fiction portrays this act as crucial for someone to grow in strength and understanding.  In this book, Rankin is transferred to a different facility, presumably with no warning that he’s a rapist.  Jeff doesn’t deal with the trauma at all.  It’s glossed over as just an unfortunate sexual encounter or something.

And somehow, this manages to get worse.

After reading this book–and wanting to throw it against the wall–I hopped onto Amazon to look at the reviews.  I didn’t think I could be the only one to feel this way.  Sure enough, there were other reviews pointing out what I’ve talked about above.  One of those reviews was graced by comments from… the author himself!  And may I just say, it would have been much better for him to do the traditional author trick of ignoring the comments.  He accuses “I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that you haven’t actually read the novel and the so-called ‘rape scene’.”  He continues, “It might interest you to know that the industry review journal including PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and BOOKLIST–both of which have a deep understanding of young adult literature and its readers–have given the novel rave reviews.”  He doesn’t stop there, and goes on to address the scene in question: “[s]omething happens to Jeff that he wants to happen (in the sense that he longs to experience sex with another boy) but that he’s afraid of because it means accepting who he is.  He can’t express what he wants.  He’s not violated.  He’s not raped.”  As evidence to the contrary, I offer the following excerpt:

“I was sleeping, and then I felt something pressing against my back.  Rankin had pulled my shorts down, and he was pushing himself against me.  I was still only half awake, so I didn’t realize what he was doing at first.  He put his arms around me and pulled me closer.  I could hear him breathing in my ear.

Believe it or not, that’s not even the bad thing.  If that was all, I could probably handle it.  Probably.  But that was just the beginning.

Like I said, Rankin was holding on to me and trying to… I don’t think I can even say it right now.  But he was getting close.  As soon as I realized what he was doing, I woke up fast.  I even opened my mouth to tell him to stop.

And that’s when the screaming started.

At first I thought it was me screaming.  Then I realized it was a girl’s voice.  I don’t know what Rankin thought was going on, but he pulled me closer to him and put his hand on my mouth.  Maybe he thought I was the one screaming too.”

That right there?  That’s sexual assault.  It doesn’t matter if Jeff is scared of admitting that he’s gay, it doesn’t matter if can’t accept that part of himself.  The simple facts of this scene are as follows: Rankin initiated sex with Jeff while he was asleep, and therefore, unable to consent.  When Jeff woke up, he didn’t want the encounter to be happening and he tried to say no, but he’s prevented from doing so by Rankin physically muffling him.  None of those facts are overshadowed by what Jeff does or does not think about his sexuality.  What matters is Rankin’s actions.  What also matters, in this case, is the author’s attitude towards this scene.  He implies that, because Jeff is curious about having sex with a boy,  he must necessarily be ready for sex with any convenient boy, regardless of circumstance.  No, he doesn’t say that, but that’s the implication of his statement that Jeff “wants to happen”.  Also, implying that teenagers can’t “express what they want” strips them of a lot of agency.  None of this is in the book itself, of course, but it does provide some backdrop to how the author was thinking about this situation while writing it.  And I firmly believe that thoughts like that will inform an author’s writing.  Mr. Ford is conveying a skewed and dangerous view of consent.

Then, to make matters worse, it’s that encounter that appears to be the catalyst for Jeff accepting that he’s attracted to men and beginning to accept himself.  Jeff even states that he realizes that he wants to have sex with men, just not with Rankin.  That scene I quoted is not just a case of deciding that you aren’t attracted to a particular person.  That scene is assault.  Jeff never realizes that and never deals with it.  His psychiatrist is never shown giving Jeff any assurance that he believes Jeff when he says that he didn’t invite what happened to him.  Nor does the doctor do anything to help Jeff deal with the event.  It just… gets glossed over in Jeff’s acceptance of his sexuality.  I’m sorry, but that’s just not something that teens need to be integrating into their worldview.

I freely admit that after reading this novel, I was angry.  After reading the author’s views on what he wrote, I was incandescently angry and disgusted.  I laid in bed for two hours fuming over the whole thing and woke up not much cooled down.  Mr. Ford, if you ever read this, I sincerely hope that you have educated yourself on rape, sexual assault, and consent and can better convey any such scenes you may write in future books.  I don’t fault you for defending your work, but please, please, listen to people who come away with different views of what you think you wrote.  You can learn something.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

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Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

“Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.”

I picked this one up at the start of the year when I was going through a mild superhero phase–I’d found some interesting novels on Amazon and decided to delve a bit deeper into the genre.  I hadn’t gotten around to this one until now, though, and I finally read it because the sequel just came out and I was reminded that I had this in my e-book library.  (These are the perils of e-books–your TBR pile grows exponentially when you’re not looking, and you have no clue how big it actually is.)  Anyway, I breezed through this one in a couple of days and found it to be a pleasant read.  It’s most definitely YA, edging a bit towards a slightly younger audience, although the subject matter keeps it firmly in the young adult section.

What gives it the mildly younger feel is some of the writing and plotting.  There were some dialogue quirks that didn’t ring quite natural to the reading “ear” at times–mainly characterized with sentences that were a bit stilted or came across as a little flat.  Plot-wise, there’s nothing really surprising about this story, and most of the major revelations are ones that most readers will see coming far in advance of the actual reveal.  But I’ll also say that those reveals are set up nicely throughout the novel, as you can go back and see the clues being worked into the narrative from fairly early in the book.  So the author knows her craft, but I think she just needs to work a bit more at weaving things in so that they don’t stand out quite as much.

With all that being said, though, I did enjoy the book.  It’s a quick, lively read with likeable characters and lots of action. Lee put some thought into her worldbuilding and came up with some good solid rules for how things work.  Heroes and villains are ranked not by how powerful they are, but by how long they can use their power before needing to rest and recharge.  That leaves room for characters to have some really cool abilities but still be considered “less than” others because of how long they can utilize their strengths.  Also, I found it interesting that villains don’t necessarily come about because of a bent towards chaos–sometimes they’re steered that way, and then it’s up to them what they do with their powers when they get designated as villains.  Andover’s villains, for instance, are mostly just pranksters, never inflicting any real damage or mayhem, although they could if they wanted to.

One of the book’s best aspects is how it includes a wide array of diversity.  The main character, Jess, is Chinese/Vietnamese heritage and often uses terms that are (I think) Vietnamese.  Her parents are immigrants, and there are some interesting sections where Jess’s mother talks about what it was like to leave her home country forever. There were also some intriguing hints about how Jess sometimes feels like she’s neither Chinese enough nor Vietnamese enough, and although that’s not the subject of this book, I would have been interested to see more of how that plays out.  Hopefully that can sneak into the future books in this series.

Jess is also bisexual and one of her friends is transgender.  Lee shows the relationships among these characters–both friendships and romances–with realism and candor, not sensationalizing them, but not downplaying them either.  They’re just teenagers, and their sexuality and/or gender orientation is just part of who they are.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the novel doesn’t make a big deal out of who they are, nor are those aspects of themselves turned into plot points.  That’s not what the book is about, but there are people who are non-straight and non-gender-binary and they deserve to be in stories without having an issue made of their gender/sexuality.  Lee does an excellent job of doing just that.

This would be a great book to bring teens to reading via the pervasive love of superheroes in our culture today.  I’ll definitely be going on with this series to see what Jess and her friends get up to next.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard

“Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about.

Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper:

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor . . . from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including the maddeningly stubborn yet handsome Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.”

I was impressed with the character of Eleanor—she’s a high society girl thrust into a situation that would try the strength and will of anybody, and yet she doesn’t turn into a quivering mass of terror as the world goes to hell around her.  The author writes her with great believability, and her reactions are in tune with how I think a sheltered girl would act when confronted with zombies and ghosts.  She’s balanced between the understandable fear and disgust at what she sees and the courage that allows her to seek out her brother no matter what.

I also liked that, despite the location and time period, the author worked in some people of different ethnicities.  I especially liked Jie, the Chinese girl who bucks tradition by dressing in a boy’s clothes and who isn’t afraid to wade into a fight.  And I liked that she wasn’t just a token character, but participates heavily in the story’s action.

The mystery presented in the novel was well written and had some twists and turns that I didn’t expect.  Dennard scattered numerous clues throughout the book that all come together in the last part of the story in a climax that has some truly heart-stopping moments.  There are confrontations in a cemetery and in a massive exhibition hall.  There are explosions and chases and baseball bats wielded in self defense.  If you can’t find something to like in this book, you’re probably reading it with your eyes closed.

This novel is funny and serious by turns, hilarious and hideous in equal measure.  Something Strange and Deadly is a wonderful thrill ride through armies of the dead and the perils of choosing the right dress for an afternoon’s carriage ride.  I’ll be looking for the sequel with anticipation.

This review was originally published on July 24, 2012.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library, Davis branch.

(Description nicked from

Release by Patrick Ness

“Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.  At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.”

Well, I have to hand it to Ness–the man does not shy away from playing merry hell with genres and story structure.  And I mean that in the best possible way.  One half of this story is a form of coming-of-age, coming out, family oriented story.  Adam Thorn is a preacher’s son, youngest of two, and has always felt as though he didn’t belong in his own family.  He’s much closer to his chosen family: Angela and her parents, his boyfriend Linus, and other friends with whom he works and hangs out.  Through the course of one day, a lot in his life changes, not for the better or for the worse, but simply changes.

In the other half of this story, Ness focuses on a young girl named Katie who was recently murdered and dumped in the nearby lake.  Her part of the tale, however, lands firmly in the realm of magical realism when her dying spirit bonds to that of a powerful Queen.  We don’t know if this Queen is an elemental, or a faerie, or exactly what, but the two become more closely entwined as the day goes on and Katie/the Queen seek Katie’s murderer.  Following them is a faun, desperate to save his Queen, for if the sun goes down and the two are still tangled up, Katie’s spirit will die, and the Queen with her.

Now, I can see what Ness was trying to do with this juxtaposition.  Adam and Katie have parallel journeys, both learning to let go of the ties that bind them that aren’t doing them any good.  They face pain, grant forgiveness, and reach out for healthier relationships.  The problem is that I don’t feel that the two storylines have enough of a relationship to each other.  Practically the only time they really coincide is at the very end of the novel, and then for only a page or so.  There are a few hints in the text that the events you see happening around Katie/the Queen are actually happening in the real world, but in many ways, the reader may not be sure if that’s true or not.  The language of those portions is highly stylized and could be read metaphorically, so that may add a bit to the disconnect.

That being said, each of the storylines is well written and often heartbreaking.  Adam’s eventual conversation with his father about his sexuality is simultaneously hopeful and fraught with judgement.  Katie/the Queen faces her murderer and must struggle with what to do now that she’s in front of him.  Heck, if nothing else, I have to once again admire Ness for making such an audacious choice with his story structure.  He certainly never shies away from trying something new!  For that creativity alone, I give him points.

It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but Release is unique, heartfelt, and well written.  I continue to be excited about Ness’s books and will keep recommending his work as examples of what good things can come of daring to do something different.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from


Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

“Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?”

I was surprised to find that this novel is classified as young adult.  I think it ended up being based on Ismae’s age, but much of the subject matter is much more advanced than I normally see in a teen novel.  It features assassination, physical abuse, marriage for political gain, and more court intrigue than you can shake a stick at.  I’m honestly not sure if most teenagers will get drawn into this book due to its slower pace and the lesser amount of sheer action.

The one thing that I felt the novel didn’t do all that well was the assassination aspect—and that’s unfortunate, because the entire premise revolves around Ismae’s status as a budding assassin.  Ismae doesn’t get traditional assignments, per se; instead, she has general instructions and looks for signs from the god of death to guide her further.  This means that she goes through most of the novel staring at people to see if they are marked for death.  Only rarely does she see anything that gives her the freedom to act, and if she had been given more of that earlier in the book, the changes to her beliefs at the novel’s end would have worked a little better.

That’s not to say that this is a bad novel.  I enjoyed it quite a lot.  I initially had some trouble getting involved in the plot and getting into the rhythm of the story, but once I did, I found the political maneuvering to be well thought out and solidly plotted.  As the novel progresses, and as events get more complex, I found the book difficult to put down.

One of this book’s strengths is in the minor characters.  Two of the warriors that Ismae is acquainted with don’t get much page time, but LaFevers packs a lot of characterization into what space they do get.  By the end of the story, readers will care about these men, as well as about the princess and others who spend less time on stage than Ismae.  This provides some much needed variation in what could have been a one-person show, but with all the politics and backstabbing, a breadth of personalities helps hold the story together.

While I’m not sure that this novel is really young adult material, it does have a lot going for it.  Older teens and adults will enjoy the rich and intricate plotting, as well as the diverse cast of characters.  Grave Mercy, first in the His Fair Assassin series, packs a lot of punch into a satisfying package.

This review was originally posted on April 4, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from

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