Forecast: Delightful, with intervals of nail-biting

United States cover art for A Brief Histry of MontmaryTitle: A Brief History of Montmaray

Author: Michelle Cooper

Publisher & Release Date: Alfred A Knopf, 2009

The Hook: Confession time: “Montmaray” has been on my TBR shelves for four years. Every time I’d try to clear out some books, I’d read the jacket copy (see below) again and say, “I really need to read this.” And then recently I was tipped over via a reader’s advisory session. Thanks Seattle Public Library! (And all the other people who told me to read this – you were right.)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Sophie FitzOsborne lives in a crumbling castle in the tiny island kingdom of Montmaray, along with her tomboy younger sister Henry, her beautiful, intellectual cousin Veronica, and Veronica’s father, the completely mad King John.

“When Sophie receives a leather-bound journal for her sixteenth birthday, she decides to write about her day-to-day life on the island. But this is 1936, and the news that trickles in from the mainland reveals a world on the brink of war. For Sophie, the politics of Europe seem far away from their remote island – until two German officers land a boat on Montmaray. Then suddenly politics becomes very personal indeed.”

Overall Impressions: This is a gem of a novel. I’m mentally kicking myself a bit for not having read it sooner, but I’m mostly just delighted with the storytelling.

Sophie has a fantastic narrative voice – appropriately 16 and caught up in the idea of being presented in London, her crush on the housekeeper’s son, and the realities of everyday life.  The 20th century has not been kind to the tiny kingdom of Montmaray, a rocky island halfway between Spain and England. World War I, the Spanish Influenza and the Great Depression have reduced the population to less than 10 when the story opens in 1936. The royal family raises chickens, has sold off most of its treasures, and tries to keep what’s left of the castle habitable.

I hesitate to call Sophie and Veronica (also fantastic) plucky, but they just… adapt to what needed doing. Not a great deal of complaining, just get it done as best as they can. Life proceeds apace, interrupted by arguments between Veronica and Simon when he visits, slowly building until the two Germans arrive. And then the story moves quite quickly. No longer are Sophie and Veronica reacting to news that trickles in – events are now happening to them, their home and family are in danger.

(The two men are essentially searching for a McGuffin, because the story is more about the chain of events that unfolds. As you can probably guess, many of these are not happy things.)

It’s a fascinating view of the build-up to World War II from a very physically isolated perspective.

The Highs: Did I already mention how charming Sophie is? She’s delightful and earnest and trying to figure herself out, and she’s there for family, even if it means crawling through dark tunnels that probably have rats while carrying out a horrible mission. Anything more I say would be spoilers.

The relationship between Sophie and Veronica and how they rely on each other.

How Cooper incorporated all the different feelings in the air in 1936 – all the passions and hopes and fears – while staying on the island until the very end.

Veronica and her fierce love of Montmaray.

Buzzkills:  There was a really tense part, which of course I reached at the end of my lunch break and then I had to wait until the end of  the work day. I spent the afternoon rather distracted. So try to pick a time when you won’t be interrupted reading the second half of the book.

The Source: Advance reading copy provided by publisher at a library conference.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor visits with royalty were provided in exchange for this review.

ETA to fix image link.

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The teen Ocean’s Five calls in the family

Title: Perfect Scoundrels (Heist Society #3)Cover of Perfect Scoundrels

Author: Ally Carter

Publisher & Release Date: Disney Hyperion, 2013

The Hook: It’s a heist with talented cons and crooks. Banter. Plus, I enjoyed the heck out of Heist Society (first in the series).

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Katarina Bishop and W.W. Hale the Fifth were born to lead completely different lives: Kat comes from a long, proud line of loveable criminal masterminds, while Hale is the scion of one of the most seemingly perfect dynasties in the world. If their families have one thing in common, it’s that they both know how to stay under the radar while getting-or stealing-whatever they want.

“No matter the risk, the Bishops can always be counted on, but in Hale’s family, all bets are off when money is on the line. When Hale unexpectedly inherits his grandmother’s billion dollar corporation, he quickly learns that there’s no place for Kat and their old heists in his new role. But Kat won’t let him go that easily, especially after she gets tipped off that his grandmother’s will might have been altered in an elaborate con to steal the company’s fortune. So instead of being the heir-this time, Hale might be the mark.

“Forced to keep a level head as she and her crew fight for one of their own, Kat comes up with an ambitious and far-reaching plan that only the Bishop family would dare attempt. To pull it off, Kat is prepared to do the impossible, but first, she has to decide if she’s willing to save her boyfriend’s company if it means losing the boy.”

Overall Impressions: I love a good heist story – all clever sleight of hand and plans within plans – and this one fits the bill. Kat’s an engaging heroine and her crew of “loveable criminal masterminds” are great fun. They band together to do the impossible. Again. The main villain’s identified by the crew pretty quickly and realizes it, so then you have the chess match aspect as well.

The story pulls you along at a quick pace, counting days after one big event and then days until the next major deadline/looming crisis, dashing back and forth across the Atlantic. Unexpected obstacles, new plans.

The tension between Kat and Hale is interestingly done. Hale’s grandmother’s will (Hazel seems to have been the only other worthwhile Hale) names Hale her heir, and he sees that as her continuing to believe in him and the close relationship they had. When Kat is given reason to believe the will might be fake, she doesn’t want to tell him because he’s holding onto what he sees as the message of the will to help him deal with his grief. Both of them are emotionally compromised, and while I did want to say “Talk to each other already!” it’s believable.

The Highs: The story starts with a flashback to Kat and Hale’s first meeting. She broke into one of the family home’s to steal a Monet but instead steals Hale. (For the record, he threatens to scream if she doesn’t.) I was charmed.

All the charming, clever, talented criminals using their skills for good.

Buzzkills: The main villain felt a bit one-dimensional. He was definitely smart and ruthless, it’s just that beyond his selfishness I wasn’t entirely sure what was motivating him. (Quite possibly someone else who reads this book will tell me that I am oblivious. This will not be the first time I have heard that.)

The Source: Public library

Disclaimer: No chocolate or artwork (priceless or otherwise) were provided by the publisher for this review.

First love is always the sweetest

eleanor and park

Title: Eleanor & Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Publisher & Release Date: February 2013, St. Martin’s

The Hook: Two outcasts fall in love against a backdrop of comic books and New Wave music in this bittersweet romance.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.”

Overall Impressions:  This is Rainbow Rowell’s YA debut, and reading it, I found myself wondering, again and again, “Where was Rainbow Rowell when I was a teenager??”.  This is one of the most heart-poundingly romantic, gut-wrenchingly sad stories that I’ve ever read, and it place Rowell firmly in the ranks of John Green and Laurie Halse Anderson as one of the best authors of realistic YA fiction writing today.

When we first meet Eleanor, she is struggling.  She has just moved back in with her mother, siblings and stepfather after spending a year sleeping on a neighbor’s couch.  Her family is poor (due more to her abusive stepfather’s desire to control everyone than to an actual absence of funds), and Eleanor has virtually nothing that she can call her own.  If these factors weren’t enough to make her an outcast at her new school, her plus-size frame, wild red hair and eccentric sense of style do the job.

Park hasn’t suffered as much as Eleanor, but he is still distinctly out of place in his blue-collar community.  Half-Polish, half-Korean, with a penchant for New Wave music and guyliner, his appearance sets him apart, and he is content to keep his head down and avoid attracting the kind of attention that would mean trouble.  When too-big, too-bold Eleanor shows up on the school bus one day, he takes pity on her and gives her a seat, but he wishes that she was smaller, less conspicuous, less of a target, and he doesn’t want her problems to become his own.

Eleanor keeps sitting with him, and over time, he starts to share his comic books and music with her.  Despite their differences, they find common ground.  Park learns to respect Eleanor’s fiery strength and intelligence, and Eleanor comes to appreciate Park’s wit and kindness.  A fierce and tender love blossoms between them, but with the barriers of family and prejudices that threaten to separate them, can their love possibly survive where most first loves fade?

The Highs: Where do I begin? This is one of those rare books that I appreciate more the more I examine it.  To start with, Rowell’s writing is like poetry.  The amount of pulse-pounding lust, love and tenderness that she manages to inject into a description of hand-holding, for instance, has to be read to be believed.  This is, hands down, one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read, and it manages to avoid almost all of the usual pitfalls of YA romance.

The characters are marvelous.  Eleanor is someone I’d want as a best friend, a teacher, a mother, a confidante.  She is strong without being invulnerable, prickly but affectionate, smart and so brave.  The abuse that she faces from her family and classmates would destroy me, but she perseveres in a way that it both remarkable and realistic.  Park is also delightful, and the way his love for Eleanor grows is so touching and believable.  Park’s parents are possibly the best YA fictional parents EVER; at first they came across as kind of overbearing, but they ended up being so wonderful in their decisions to support Park, even when they didn’t understand him or his motivations.

Most of all, I loved this book for making me feel ALL THE FEELINGS.  Rowell manipulated my emotions so deftly, and made me care so deeply about the fate of the dual protagonists.  It’s rare that I find a book that engages me on this level.

Buzzkills:  This book is a hard read, emotionally speaking.  Abuse, neglect, racism and body image issues are all touched upon. The level of cruelty that Eleanor faces at the hands of her stepfather had me crying with rage at several points in the story.  Possibly worse than her stepfather’s abuse is her mother’s emotional neglect, her unwillingness to recognize what she is putting her children through just so she can be “loved”.  Even the more positive relationships, like Park’s with his parents, are tinged with that mutual lack of understanding that characterizes so many teenage transactions.  Being a teenager is tough business, and this book brings back all of the pain, awkwardness and despair of those years.

The Source: ARC from Indiebound

Disclaimer: No chocolate or mixtapes were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Death comes calling… and then death is gone

Cobweb Bride coverTitle: Cobweb Bride

Author: Vera Nazarian

Publisher & Release Date: Norilana Books, July 2013

The Hook: The premise of Death seeking his bride.

The Lowdown: Death waits for his bride and until she presents herself, no one and nothing shall die. And so people are trapped on the edge of death or beyond it and young women begin struggling through winter to reach Death’s keep as possible brides.

Overall Impressions: The premise – Death essentially holding death hostage – intrigued me so much that I just jumped in and missed that this is the first of a trilogy. So the internal and external political intrigue in this book really just lays the groundwork for the rest of the story.

Nazarian very effectively explores what it could mean for death to go absent, and it does not mean living happily ever after forever. People in pain, people who should be dead, the food supply…

The story itself is tragedy piled on tragedy with characters resolving to overcome or press through the tragedy. Betrayals. Which would generally not appeal to me, but it’s so beautifully told through such fascinating characters that I needed to know what would happen next. And in the end (of this part of the story), there is hope.

It felt Russian* to me with a slightly otherworldly flavor reminiscent of Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. (Both of which are excellent books.)

The Highs: Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, lush language. Perfect for a fairy tale.

Meeting the young women trudging to the forest looking for the Keep and seeing their journeys. The undistinguished, fat, plain middle daughter (Percy) becoming a hero. The sickly emperor’s daughter and heir growing into a strong, capable person. The complexity of relationships and loyalties.

Buzzkills: It’s the nature of the story, but as Matilda said about The Chronicles of Narnia: There are no funny bits. Or at least very few. I think I cracked a smile once.

More of a consideration than a buzzkill, but Nazarian made me feel the snow coming down until I felt blanketed, and this was in spring. I don’t know that I would want to read this book in the cold of winter.

Another consideration: When Death says there will be no death, he’s serious. And that impacts the food supply in a way that may make a person consider vegetarianism.

The Source: eGalley from the publisher via NetGalley.

*Personal bias: Fairy-tale like stories set in wintertime in a pre-industrial time often feel Russian to me. Especially when they’re sad.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or promise of chocolate (hot, cold or room temperature) was provided by the publisher for this review.

Pass the Butter, please

Title: Butter

Author: Erin Jade Lange

Publisher & Release Date: Bloomsbury, September 2012

The Hook: Multiple positive reviews encouraged me to get familiar this “issue book” dealing with teenage obesity, popularity and cyber-bullying. Then I couldn’t put it down because of the wry comedy and honesty in the voice of Butter – a high school junior, wicked sax player, unrequited internet lover and generally smart cookie.

The Lowdown (From jacket copy): A boy everyone calls “Butter” is about to make Scottsdale High history. He’s going to eat himself to death live on the Internet – and everyone will watch.

He announces his deadly plan to an army of peers and expects pity, insults or even indifference. Instead, he finds morbid encouragement. When that encouragement tips the scales into popularity, Butter has a reason to live. But if he doesn’t go through with his plan, he’ll lose everything.

Overall Impressions: Ironically, Butter’s world is very small – food, TV, practicing his saxophone, school, more food… and messaging Anna, who has no idea that the mysterious “SaxMan” she’s been flirting with online is the 427 lb. boy who sits in her composition class. After two crushing interactions, including one with Anna, and after reading some horrible comments in from his schoolmates, Butter has had enough of the lifetime of disappointment. Twenty minutes later, http://www.butterslastmeal.com is born… and after 24 hours, Butter is getting more attention, online and in real life, than he has in years.

Even with this new, morbid popularity, Butter is still a rational and fairly decent guy – he knows that this is short-lived. He’s frank with himself, even as he gets pulled deeper into the mess. Anna finally knows who he is, and even talks to him, and he’s invited with the group just like they’re his actual friends. The pull of popularity is easy to understand, even as you wince at the reason.

The real issues with his family and his weight are baldly outlined, and I got a well-defined snapshot of the reasons behind Butter’s obesity without the story dwelling on it too much. Butter “sees everything through mud-colored glasses”, a succinct illustration of the frustration and depression he’s going through, that only he can break himself out of. I think the psychology will resonate with anyone who’s ever had weight issues, and might help very overweight teens see what other teens in the same situation are dealing with.

The Highs: Though the story focuses on one major issue, there’s a ring of truth to Butter’s story that sucks you in and makes you want to find out more about everyone. The characters are well-developed and believable, with their own personalities and lives that it feels like we’re just getting a glimpse of.

I appreciated that there were realistic consequences of everything that happens – this is not a fairy story, or a morality tale, or anything that simple. The fears and struggles of these characters are complex, and made me root for them to find the best path out of a set of hard choices.

Buzzkills: Possible triggers: attempted suicide, some pretty ugly bullying, and underage drinking and drug use. Consequences are realistic.

The Source: Borrowed from public library.

Disclaimer: No chocolate, hotdogs, pecan waffles, fried chicken, peanut butter, onion, prime rib, diet soda, strawberry jam, or butter were provided by the publisher for this review.

Go on and take it

Title: Another Little Piece

Author: Katy Karyus Quinn

Publisher & Release Date: Harper Teen, June 2013

The Hook: When a teenage girl stumbles out of the woods hundreds of miles from her home and a year after she was last seen, all she knows is that she is not the person everyone believes her to be.

The Lowdown: Annaliese Rose Gordon was last seen at a party, screaming and covered in blood. She disappeared moments later.  When she turns up in an Oklahoma trailer park almost a year later, with a horrible scar and no memory of what happened to her, her loving parents do their best to to make things as normal as possible for her.  But nothing feels normal to Annaliese.  She feels no connection to the people who are supposedly her parents.  Her home is unfamiliar, her favorite foods don’t appeal to her, and she feels no attraction towards the boy who she was once crazy over.  The memories that slowly begin to come back to her seem to belong to a different person altogether.  With the help of a neighbor, poems written by the old Annaliese, and an ominous presence from her past, she begins to piece together a picture of the horrific, violent act of dark magic that shattered her previous existence, and that threatens to destroy even more lives if she doesn’t stop it in time.

Overall Impressions: I didn’t know what to expect from this book.  I picked it up on a whim, and was almost dissuaded by the atrocious cover (which, incidentally, has approximately NOTHING to do with the story).  But oh, was I ever pleasantly survived.  The story was well-paced, creepy and wonderfully original, despite borrowing elements from myths and fairy tales.  The terse, present-tense narrative kept me engaged, and the tough-as-nails protagonist quickly won me over.  Although some of the pieces of the puzzle that is Annaliese’s disappearance and return fall into place quickly, there were plenty of details that kept me guessing till the end.  I really liked the way Quinn paced her reveals; this was one of those books that I couldn’t put down because I simply HAD to know what question would be answered next.  I also love the mythology that Quinn created for this book.  The comparisons she’s gotten to Stephen King, while a bit premature, are not entirely unfounded; she seems to have some of his talent for pulling together bits and pieces from numerous sources and doing something new and interesting with them.

The Highs: In addition to all of the above details, there’s a strong streak of feminism in Quinn’s writing that I really appreciated.  This is not a damsel-in-distress story.  This is a damsel-kicking-ass-and-taking-names story.

Buzzkills: *sigh* There’s poetry in this book.  It’s not awful, as poetry in YA novels goes, but that’s not saying much.  Although it serves to further the story, I just don’t want to read poetry written by fictional teenage girls.  Ever.  Poetry written by real teenage girls is plenty bad enough.

Also, I would have loved to have seen some of the invented mythology developed a little further.  I recognize that the pace and perspective didn’t always leave room for all the details that I might have wanted, but I really hope that Quinn writes a sequel or companion novel that delves a little deeper into the forces at work in the story.

The Source: Advance Copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or love spells were provided by the publisher for this review.

No one here has even heard of Kansas…

Cover art for The ArrivalsTitle: The Arrivals

Author: Melissa Marr

Publisher & Release Date: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins), July 2, 2013

The Hook: A small band of people pulled from throughout time struggles to fight for justice in a strange land.

The Lowdown (from GoodReads): “Chloe walks into a bar and blows five years of sobriety. When she wakes, she finds herself in an unfamiliar world, The Wasteland. She discovers people from all times and places have also arrived there: Kitty and Jack, a brother and sister from the Wild West; Edgar, a prohibition bootlegger; Francis, a one-time hippie; Melody, a mentally unbalanced 1950s housewife; and Hector, a former carnival artist.

None know why they arrived there–or if there is way out of a world populated by monsters and filled with corruption.”

Overall Impressions: I love the premise – people from Earth pulled from different time periods into a mystery land. There’s a definite Western flavor to it all, partially due to the leaders of the band being from the American West; he’s a cowboy, she’s a jill-of-all-trades, but also due to the desert setting, the small towns, the mining resources, the weaponry, etc. Combine it with magic, monsters, demon-summoning monks and sort-of-vampires, and you get a fantasy western!

There’s also the matter of how people from Earth don’t always stay dead; they die and then they “wake up” again within a week. Unless they don’t, in which case someone else from Earth shows up.

The story description gives the impression that the book is Chloe-centric, and Chloe’s important, but the book opens with Kitty and Jack – Chloe doesn’t arrive until the fifth chapter. Jack and Kitty have been in the Wasteland for 26 years and tried their best to make sense of it. They’ve formed a band that fights corruption, most often traced back to the villainous Ajani, who also recruits newly arrived humans to join him. They’re about to find out they missed some really important information. In a way, Chloe really serves as the catalyst to resolve the uneven détente between Jack and Kitty’s group and Ajani.

Marr builds strong and engaging main characters – Kitty, Jack, Edgar, Chloe and Garuda are well-fleshed out. However, secondary characters were not always so well done, though Marr does a nice job with the team dynamics. Garuda is a bloedzuiger and really the only native being important as an individual to the story. (Bloedzuigers share some characteristics of what we would describe as vampires, but they’re not undead. They do live a very long time and their blood has restorative powers. The glimpses of bloedzuiger pack culture are fascinating.)

I have mixed feelings about the climatic clash between Our Heroes and The Villain. The lead up to it was engaging, but there were some unexpected twists in the big showdown that felt overly tidy. It does set up a new power balance, one that invites readers to tell their own stories on the canvas Marr creates.

The Highs: Fantastic world-building and intriguing characters. Part of me wishes we had gotten more of Melody and her backstory, but her character’s focused bloodthirstiness -so incongruous in a 1950s housewife-  might be a case of a little goes a long way.

I really rooted for Kitty and Edgar.

Buzzkills: The villain is from Victorian era and fully believes in imperialism – the Wasteland is just another place to claim for the Queen and exploit. He is thoroughly icky, generally believes in having his dirty work done for him, and has some now-repugnant views about native races and women. Really, about everyone else in general. So, he’s a very effective villain. However, I don’t really understand how he first rose to a position of power in the Wasteland.

More of the Wasteland and the different races and how they interact could have been explored.

The relationship between Jack and Chloe seems a little fast-placed as Jack has kept himself fairly closed off for 26 years and Chloe is aware of her tendency to make bad relationship choices; of course, the first time they begin acting on their mutual attraction, they’re both hyped up on Verrot, which gives a drinker enhanced speed, strength and healing but doesn’t necessarily do a lot for higher reasoning skills. (For the record, they do stop themselves.)

The Source: Galley from publisher, obtained at BEA.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or trips through space and time were provided by the publisher for this review.

Antici… pation (July 2013)

July titles we think sound fascinating!

Title: Ink (The Paper Gods #1)

Author: Amanda Sun

Publisher & Release Date: Harlequin Teen, July 1.

The Hook: After her mother dies, Katie moves to Japan to live with her aunt. She feels lost, alone. Then one day she notices Tomohiro, kendo team star, drawing, and his drawings come to life. Not in a Disney kind of way.

Title: The Arrivals

Author: Melissa Marr

Publisher & Release Date: William Morrow, July 2

The Hook: People snatched from throughout history who awake to find themselves in the Wasteland, where they may or may not stay dead when they die. They can try and make order in this place of monsters and corruption or they can seek power.

Title: The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

Author: Connie Willis (oddly enough)

Publisher & Release Date: Del Ray, July 9

The Hook: Um, it’s Connie Willis? If you have read Doomsday Book, what more do you need to know? And if you haven’t, go read it! And then read all her other amazing books and short stories about time-traveling historians, alternate histories and possible futures.

Title: Magic Rises (aka “New Kate Daniels!)

Author: Ilona Andrews

Publisher & Release Date: Ace, July 30

The Hook: The next book in one of Julie’s favorite series! Kate and Curran have an opportunity to get medicine needed to help the Pack children survive to adulthood. They know it’s a trap, but they have to try.

Title: 45 Pounds (More or Less)

Author: K.A. Barson

Publisher & Release Date: Viking Juvenile, July 11th

The Hook: I’m a sucker for books with spunky heroines who learn to love themselves just the way they are, and this sounds like a delightful variation on a story that never gets old.

Cover art for Ink  Cover art for The Arrivals         Cover art for The Best of Connie Willis        Cover of Magic Rises         45 pounds