Antici….pation January 2015

January means lots of exciting new books on the menu! (And a new year means trying to get back in the habit of reviewing books again…) As always, summary information comes from Edelweiss.

 Cover art for All the Bright Places    Cover art for The Darkest Part of the Forest    Cover art for X: A Novel

The book:  The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

Publisher & date:  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Jan. 6

Publisher description: “Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

“At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

“Until one day, he does…
“As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?”

The book:  X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz, Kekla Magoon

Publisher & date:  Candlewick, Jan. 6

Publisher description: “Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s a pack of lies-after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer. But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion-and that he can’t run forever.

“X follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.

The book:  All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Publisher & date:  Knopf Books for Young Readers, Jan. 6

Publisher description: “Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

“Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

“When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself-a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.”

The book: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

Publisher & date:  Atheneum books for Young Readers, Jan. 6

Publisher description: “Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more—and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down—in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

“Just when seventeen-year-old Matt thinks he can’t handle one more piece of terrible news, he meets a girl who’s dealt with a lot more-and who just might be able to clue him in on how to rise up when life keeps knocking him down-in this wry, gritty novel from the author of When I Was the Greatest.

“Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died-although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness-and who can maybe even help take it away.”

The book: Promise of Shadows by Justina Ireland

Publisher & date:  Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Jan. 13

Publisher description: “Zephyr Mourning has never been very good at being a Harpy. She’d rather watch reality TV than learn forty-seven ways to kill a man, and she pretty much sucks at wielding magic. Zephyr was ready for a future pretending to be a normal human instead of a half-god assassin. But all that changed when her sister was murdered—and Zephyr used a forbidden dark power to save herself from the same fate.

“On the run from a punishment worse than death, an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend upends Zephyr’s world—and not only because her old friend has grown surprisingly, extremely hot. It seems that Zephyr might just be the Nyx, a dark goddess that is prophesied to shift the power balance: for hundreds of years the half-gods have lived in fear, and Zephyr is supposed to change that.

“But how is she supposed to save everyone else when she can barely take care of herself?”

The book: The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson, Christine Larsen

Publisher & date:  Simon Pulse, Jan. 20

Publisher description: “Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night, just like the rest of his family.

“Now he lives in the hospital, serving food in the cafeteria, hanging out with the nurses, sleeping in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him. His only solace is in the world of the superhero he’s created—Patient F.

“Then, one night, Rusty is wheeled into the ER, half his body burned by hateful classmates. Rusty’s agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together though all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside of the hospital, and away from their pasts.

“But to save Rusty, Drew will have to confront Death, and life will have to get worse before it gets better. And by telling the truth about who he really is, Drew risks destroying any chance of a future.”

The book: All Fall Down by Ally Carter

Publisher & date:  Scholastic Press, Jan. 20

Publisher description: “This exciting new series from […] bestselling author Ally Carter focuses on Grace, who can best be described as a daredevil, an Army brat, and a rebel. She is also the only granddaughter of perhaps the most powerful ambassador in the world, and Grace has spent every summer of her childhood running across the roofs of Embassy Row.

“Now, at age sixteen, she’s come back to stay–in order to solve the mystery of her mother’s death. In the process, she uncovers an international conspiracy of unsettling proportions, and must choose her friends and watch her foes carefully if she and the world are to be saved.”

The book: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars mystery) by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham

Publisher & date:  Vintage, Jan. 20

Publisher description: “The Neptune Grand has always been Neptune’s ritziest hotel, despite the shady dealings and sensationalized events that seem to follow its elite guests. When a woman claims that she was brutally assaulted in one of its rooms and smuggled out and left for dead by its staff, the owners know that they have a problem on their hands. They turn to Veronica Mars-instead of her father and new partner, Keith-to help disprove the woman’s story. It’s true that something doesn’t add up. While security footage clearly shows the woman entering the hotel, there is no evidence that she ever left; how did she end up in that field? And why? As Veronica digs deeper, and exposes a clientele that the hotel would rather not advertise, she finds herself on the trail of a mystery man known only as “Mr. Kiss and Tell.””

The book: Fairest (The Lunar Chronicles – Levana’s Story) by Marissa Meyer

Publisher & date:  Feiwel & Friends, Jan. 27

Publisher description: “Fans of the Lunar Chronicles know Queen Levana as a ruler who uses her “glamour” to gain power. But long before she crossed paths with Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress, Levana lived a very different story – a story that has never been told . . . until now.”


We all wear masks…

Title: The Iron TrialIronTrial

Author: Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Publisher & Release Date: Scholastic Press, September 9

The Hook:  Holly Black doing another middle grade series. ‘Nuff said. (No disrespect to Clare, but I would have read this regardless of the co-author.)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial. Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail. All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him.
So he tries his best to do his worst – and fails at failing.
Now the Magisterium awaits him. It’s a place that’s both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future. The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come…”

Overall Impressions: So right from the prologue, his murdered mother’s cryptic message to “KILL THE CHILD” doesn’t bode well for infant Callum Hunt. At twelve years old, father Alastair’s ambivalence toward his child – protectiveness mingled with fear – come out in erratic ways through his attempts to prevent Call’s inclusion into the Magesterium, the magical ruling faction that is waging battle against the Chaos-obsessed Constantine and his minions. Unfortunately for Alastair, Call’s magic is strong enough that his attempts to conceal it backfire spectacularly.

Training at the mountainous Magesterium focuses on controlling and using elemental forces, including deadly elemental spirits.  Of the Mages of the Magesterium, we get the clearest sense of Rufus, Call’s master; the other masters are minimally involved in this first story. The students are drawn in broad strokes – the Friendly Classmate, the Surly Competition, the Bullied One – except for the two fellow students under Rufus, Aaron and Tamara. Their interactions with Callum and each other with the best detail in the book – the three of them navigate rocky personal issues and misunderstandings, as well as dealing with the frustrating and sometimes scary training, with cautious hope in their growing friendship. That more than anything is what I am interested in watching in the rest of the series.

Mind you, the Chaos-Ridden, with the very really possibility of them blending in like  normal, make for an excellent Big Bad; the twist at the end isn’t quite what you think it will be, I will tell you (without further spoilers).

The Highs: A new world of magic to explore, with dangerous elemental spirits! A exploration of destiny, inborn “goodness”, and the circumstances of birth! Secrets and friendship! I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of the series goes; Black and Clare clearly have a thoughtful trajectory for their trio of student wizards.

Buzzkills:  Sneaking a wolf pup outside several times a day for walkies without being caught was, in a weird way, the most unbelievable part of the book. Dogs are loud and noticeable, and every other time they walked around it seemed like the halls are full of people.

Since any story written with the “boy wizard joins secret magic school” is going to beg comparison to Harry Potter, I was mentally comparing plot and character development the whole time I was reading. Rowling’s superb skill in characterization casts a long shadow, though the Iron Trial does do well in pulling you along quickly and building a unique mythology. I’d like to see more of the backstory of Tamara and Aaron – clearly, they have a great deal of their own baggage to deal with. Tamara’s family angst and her parents’ politics, and Aaron’s lack-of-family angst, speak to deeper issues than the characters can deal with in a single book.

The Source: Galleys from my fellow librarians.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a wolf pup was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

It’s not global warming you need to worry about – it’s dragons

Cover art for The Story of OwenTitle: The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim

Author: E. K. Johnston

Publisher & Release Date: Carolrhoda LAB, March 2014

The Hook: Musician becomes bard to a dragon slayer-in-training.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Listen! For I sing of Owen Thorskard: valiant of heart, hopeless at algebra, last in a long line of legendary dragon slayers. Though he had few years and was not built for football, he stood between the town of Trondheim and creatures that threatened its survival.

“There have always been dragons. As far back as history is told, men and women have fought them, loyally defending their villages. Dragon slaying was a proud tradition.

“But dragons and  humans have one thing in common: an insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. From the moment Henry Ford hired his first dragon slayer, no small town was safe. Dragon slayers flocked to cities, leaving more remote areas unprotected.

“Such was Tronheim’s fate until Owen Thorskard. At sixteen, with dragons advancing and his grades plummeting, Owen faced impossible odds – armed only with a sword, his legacy, and the classmate who agreed to be his bard.

“Listen! I am Siobhan McQuaid. I alone know the story of Owen, the story that changes everything. Listen!”

Overall Impressions:  Loved it, loved it, loved it. I loved the narrative voice, the family units and friendships, the world Johnston created.

Siobhan (our narrator) spins and weaves the story so well. I was fascinated by the bits of history -the ones that have become part of the cultural narrative- the tragic story of Michigan, the unrelenting persistence of Queen Victoria, the beginning of the Oil Watch, the tragedy of the burning oil wells of Kuwait. The decline of the bardic tradition.

You see, fossil fuels may be a tasty treat, but dragons need protein as well, and people and livestock hanging out near delicious dessert – that’s just handy. Hence, dragon slayers. Who don’t actually seem to have any special slaying powers but come from family lines stretching back as far as human records go. It’s all in the training. (And probably good genetics?)

The title of the book says this is Owen’s story. But Owen does not really change during the book. He is a Dragon Slayer (technically an apprentice to his father and aunt) and believes in his aunt’s vision, and his future is essentially set. The person who changes, well, the people who change are Sadie and the other students, the people around the Thorskards, as dragon incidents grow more and more in number.

Lottie’s vision is for dragon slayers to begin returning to the smaller towns and rural spaces, and to slay dragons to protect their communities rather than for a big contract. And for the people who live in the communities to stand with their dragon slayer rather than considering her or him a celebrity to applaud, constantly critique, and follow like paparazzi.

Dragon slaying is not without cost. So begins and ends the book.

The Highs: The partnership between Lottie and her wife, the smith Hannah, in everything from dragon fighting to helping raise and train Owen to cooking to their dream of what dragon slaying could return to.

Siobhan and Owen’s friendship, the easy rapport they develop, and the friendships they form with other students, including Sadie. And I love how Sadie evolved, how she was never what I expected.

The long history of male and female dragon slayers.

The closeness of the various families – Siobhan and her parents; Owen and his father and aunts; Emily and her father.

For such solemn cover art, this book made me laugh a lot.

In an American book, I expect football references. Since it’s a Canadian book, we get hockey references and soccer and track participation. It’s awesome.

Buzzkills:  None.

Well, I’m not sure if this is a buzzkill or not, but Siobhan hints at a greater story for Sadie, but it isn’t told here. On one hand, I’d like to read it. On the other, this book felt like a complete world, and I don’t know that more needs to be told.

(And I did wonder why this world hadn’t explored renewable energy options more, though some people did drive hybrids. Maybe it just didn’t fit into the story? Or maybe I was so into the story that I read right over it?)

The Source: Library book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a broadsword was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Be wary of lidded teacups

Cover artwork for Vodník.Title: Vodník

Author: Bryce Moore

Publisher & Release Date: Tu Books, 2012

The Hook: We Need Diverse Books rec’d this book as a read-alike for Lish McBride’s excellent “Hold Me Close, Necromancer.” Naturally, I went looking for “Vodník.”

The Lowdown (from Library of Congress summary): “Sixteen-year-old Tomas and his Roma family left Slovakia because of mysterious attacks on his life when he was a child, but when they return, the same creatures of folklore begin to strike again and Tomas, aided by his cousin, will have to bargain with Death herself to set things right.”

Overall Impressions:  I zipped through this engaging story.

Moving back to his mother’s hometown in Slovakia after their house burns down was supposed to make things easier for Tomas’ financially-strapped family. This does not exactly work out. It’s a familiar story: Awkward teen, kind of a loner, gets caught up in something bigger than himself, in over his head, finds out he has some special abilities. And it works. It works in some interesting ways, partially because I enjoyed my introduction to Slovakian fairy tales, and a lot because Tomas is so far out of his depth but does not give up despite all his very believable fears. And he’s got a little bit of snark, which is always fun.

Tomas has to adjust to living in a country he barely remembers, making Slovakian his primary language, and realizing that his olive skin, mostly unremarkable in the United States, identifies him as a mostly unwanted Roma in Slovakia.

He also has to adjust to the fact that he can see creatures other people can’t, and they all seem to want something from him. Maybe his help. Maybe his death. It’s a tough call.

Knowing who to trust was bewildering, as Tomas received conflicting and/or oblique warnings and information from several supernatural creatures. “The vodník is trying to kill you.” “We were friends – the fire witch lies.” “Don’t mess with my deaths.” His cousin Katka is his one consistent ally, but she also has a brain tumor – one with a nearing expiration date, according to Death. I really felt all his frustration, confusion, fears and increasing desperation.

I expect at least one sequel – and I look forward to reading it.

The Highs: How the family really comes together as a team as the story goes on.

The descriptions of Trenčín Castle.

I really enjoyed the relationship Tomas developed with his uncle and how it complemented his relationship with his father.

Tomas first thinking “friendly attractive girl not repulsed by my burned arm” when he first meets Katka and then making the mental switch to “awesome cousin” and the friendship they develop.

The conversational tone of the excerpts from “Death in the Modern Day” at the beginning of each chapter. For example, from chapter 14: “Humans like to make deals with Death. It comes with the territory. And while you might be tempted, we discourage you from entering into such pacts. Unless they involve really good dark chocolate. Because some deals are just too good to pass up.”

Tomas’ dad is a librarian and his awesome librarian skillset plays an important role near the end of the book.

Buzzkills:  I wish Tomas’ mother played a more proactive role. She has a number of traumatic experiences in her life -particularly the mysterious disappearance/death of her mother- but her refusal to talk about (or let other adults do so) or even acknowledge various things proves dangerous for Tomas and Katka. She and Tomas love each other but her role sometimes seemed peripheral (other than silence) where Tomas’ father and uncle play larger roles in supporting him. Possibly I’m over-reacting?

The Source: Bought the e-book.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a trip to Slovakia was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Summertime and the living is easy…

This One Summer. Art by Jillian Tamaki.

Art by Jillian Tamaki

Title: This One Summer

Author: Jillian Tamaki (art) and Mariko Tamaki (text)

Publisher & Release Date: First Second, May 2014

The Hook: Gorgeous, gorgeous artwork. Two friends spending summer at the beach.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Rose and her parents have been going to Awago Beach since she was a little girl. It’s her summer getaway, her refuge. Her friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had, completing her summer family.

“But this summer is different.

“Rose’s mom and dad won’t stop fighting, and Rose and Windy have gotten tangled up in a tragedy-in-the-making in the small town of Awago Beach. It’s a summer of secrets and heartache, and it’s a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.”

Overall Impressions:  I already mentioned the amazing artwork, right? Because I had to pause and just stare at some of the pages – walking through woods, racing into the ocean, Windy’s body movements as she’s showing off her new dance skills. It’s beautiful. I want to attach so many scans in this post.

This story made me remember family trips – weeks at my great-grandparents and family camping – spending time with cousins and the activities that become traditions.

Tamaki and Tamaki (cousins) capture that uneven transition between childhood and teen in Rose – the year and a half she has on Windy really shows in their reactions and interests. They giggle over words for breasts as they discuss their developing figures, watch local teens warily from the sidelines, and Rose develops a crush on one of the older boys who works at the local video/everything store. They spend practically every day together happily, but the two girls also fight and get touchy about various topics. At one point, Windy wants to dig a giant hole in the sand and Rose has to readjust her thinking and remember that can be fun too.

They also capture that painful feeling of knowing something is wrong in your family, something you don’t know, and not knowing how to respond to it. And how easy it is to lash out when you’re hurting

The Highs: Rose and Windy’s expressions as they watch horror films – at one point, they’re both hiding under a blanket and the reader can just make out the screen of the laptop through the fabric. The first one they rent kind of by accident, but after that, it’s deliberate.

The four pages (spreads?) showing the range of activities Rose and Windy have during the day, from the remains of a lazy breakfast to standing up in swings, mini-golf to racing bikes to shucking corn.

I love that Rose’s body is tall and tomboyish and Windy is shorter and rounder; both are very comfortable with their bodies and very active. Nobody is the book is a supermodel, not even the older teen girls or the young man Rose has a crush on.

The adult female friendships.

Buzzkills:  I understand why this happens -it’s effectively done and it makes sense- but it saddens me that watching the horror films and drama of the older teens, Rose decides the bad situations people are in are the fault of the females’ actions.

Also for possible trigger warnings (spoilers!), highlight the next bit: Miscarriage, potential drowning, 

The Source: Copy provided by publisher at library conference.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a summer cabin near the beach was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

The Ultimate Filler

Title:  Hungryhungry

Author: H. A. Swain

Publisher & Release Date: Feiwel & Friends, June 3

The Hook: Another dystopian tale with romance; this one pretty convincing in how the circumstances came about – a corporation manipulating the government to agree to its demands in ‘feeding’ the population as climate change destroys great swathes of the ecosystem.

The Lowdown (from jacket): In Thalia’s world, there is no more food and no need for food, as everyone takes medication to ward off hunger. Her parents both work for the company that developed the drugs society consumes to quell any food cravings, and they live a life of privilege as a result. When Thalia meets a boy who is part of an underground movement to bring food back, she realizes that there is an entire world outside her own.

Overall Impressions: Thalia and her family live inside a bubble of privilege,  one so well-constructed that Thalia and her friends have no inkling of the second-class that are starving beyond the walls of the city. Thalia rebels in small ways, but it’s only when her hunger pangs, ineffectively suppressed by her formulated Synthamil, drive her away from her “our medicine will cure anything” parents that she really cracks the carefully constructed facade of corporation-created perfection.

She does have emotional support in the form of her more traditional (pre-Synthamil) grandparents and a friend, who’s also a little deeper than she appears. After discovering the attractive Basil with (essentially) a magic box of delicious smells, Thalia and Basil venture outside the walls and quickly careen from anarchist protests groups to angry riots to opportunistic scavenger – and finally a commune that is far less idyllic than it first appears.

The Highs: I most enjoyed the world-building in creating a dystopia that had a very clear cause and cascading effects; many that I’ve read leave it to a sort of “ultimate war” or simply “previous events” that aren’t terrifically clear. The mega-corporation One World is an effectively intimidating Big Bad, one with Big Brother-esque control over most of the inner city and tendrils of power that catch our heroes by surprise.

The social construction is also food for thought (ahem) for teens thinking about current society – the more stark separation of inner and outer city residents was very plausible, when you look at how parts of American society are today, and how it could get much worse in times of crisis. (I would love to see this talked about in a book club, actually.)

Buzzkills:  “Privy” is short for privilege in this context – but is also an antique word for toilet, which is hard to ignore.

The ending doesn’t leave the reader with a great deal of solutions – clearly there’s a future trajectory (to be explored in later books?), but for now the heroes are very much still on their journey.

The Source: NetGalley

Many apologies for the late post!

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor Synthamil was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Mars needs mercenaries with a heart of gold

Cover artwork for Invisible Sun Cover art for Black Hole SunTitle: Black Hole Sun, Invisible Sun, Shadow on the Sun

(Surprise, it’s the trilogy!)

Author: David Macinns Gill

Publisher & Release Date: Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 2010-2013

The Hook:  For me, the hook was Book Riot post on Tin Star readalikes, saying series was like Firefly. Two things I love? Sign me up!

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Mars stinks.

“The air reeks of burning fuel; the rivers and lakes seethe with sulfur. In the shadows, evil men plot terror and beasts hunt the innocent. Out on the barren crags of the terraformed planet, there is nowhere to hide. No one to heed a call for help.

“No one except Durango.”

Overall Impressions: Telling me something is like Firefly is like waving chocolate in my face, and when I checked the catalog and saw the first book was on the shelf at the library branch where I was working… Let’s just say I devoured the first book that night and immediately wanted the next book. And at 9:30 p.m. in a town that pretty much shuts down at 8 on weeknights, that meant ebooks – yay library ebooks!

I agree wholeheartedly that the series has a Firefly flavor – the feel of the society, former military protagonists who were on the losing side of a great war, the importance of made family, snappy banter and snarky commentary, living on the fringes. Also crazed cannibals. (Who have a diabolical queen.) But it’s not a slavish imitation. And it’s flat-out awesome. The first book opens with Durango, a 16-year-old disgraced soldier turned mercenary, high above Mars, preparing for a space jump to rescue two kidnapped children, and the action really never lets up. He and his partner Vienne assemble a crew to save a settlement of miners from cannibals, catch on to a bigger conspiracy, and spend the next two books getting in ever deeper. I think every time he’d try to catch a little sleep, someone would interrupt because they were under attack or they’d gotten some new bad news.

I just want to infodump his background:

Durango, once known as Jacob Stringfellow, the son of one of Mars’ wealthiest and most powerful men, carefully educated and trained to be a “prince of Mars.” But his dad’s push to take over the planet fails, and Durango (not in on that plan) has to survive in the aftermath. And a soft heart, as much as he tries to hide and/or ignore it. Good thing he’s quick-witted and has the advantage of Mimi, an AI flash-cloned in his brain, and the amazing Vienne.

Vienne, Durango’s second in command / partner, is thoroughly fantastic. Her strength of character, her all-around massive competence, her no-holds-barred driving, her disinclination to suffer fools… she’s just impressive. Loyal, but not blindly so.

And yes, Durango and Vienne do have some sizzling chemistry, which has no time to go anywhere in the first book. But Durango’s also got a giant streak of self-sacrifice and self-denial, and Vienne has her own angstly backstory. She just also has family who loves her.

Mimi, cloned from his former commander (also awesome, but dead, boo), helps run the augmented parts of his body and senses, and is extremely snarky. She’s his secret ace-in-the-hole, and utterly vital in the third book. I love her.

The story expands in scope in books two and three. Vienne bears the brunt of horrible things happening to her in the second, Durango in the third. Wonderful new characters do not all make it.

The Highs: Honestly, the whole trilogy was a rush. One I raced through in about two days. I loved pretty much every moment of it.

Buzzkills: The one thing I really would have liked from this book was opportunities for Vienne – Mimi interactions. Mimi was Vienne’s original crew chief as well, and Gill does an excellent job of showing how much she meant to both Durango and Vienne, and I wish there was a way for Vienne to have that connection with Mimi again. But since Mimi’s living inside Durango’s head….

I spent a fair amount of time trying to decide if this book passes the Bechdel Test, which the first one does in a minor way, but mostly off-stage. However, I attribute that to the narrative style rather than a lack of wonderful female characters. Durango is the primary narrator of the first book with occasional sections from the diabolical queen of the cannibals – who is gleefully, strategically advancing her plans. In the second book, it’s Durango and a new deranged villain. So we don’t really see a conversation without him present. In the third book, we finally get Vienne POV, and it definitely passes the Bechdel test.

I’m not that crazy about the cover art. I’ve included the original hardback cover art for the first book and the second book in the current style.

The Source: Public libraries.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor an awesome AI was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

This post is full of lies

Title: We Were Liars

Author: E. LockhartCover art for We Were Liars

Publisher & Release Date: Delacorte, May 2014

The Hook: Something happened two summers ago, something Cady doesn’t remember.

The Lowdown (from jacket):A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

Overall Impressions:  “Wow.”

Emily and Julie both read this one and it left us feeling shell-shocked.

We shall now attempt to describe the book without actually telling you anything. We may have already told you everything you need to know, in which case, we simply recommend you read this book. Then make your friends and co-workers read it so you can discuss it with them. You will want to.

“We Were Liars” is a powerful, well-crafted tale about the effects of privilege, an illustration of why having money does not exempt people from human misery. It’s one generation looking at another, falling in line or standing firm. It’s passionate, romantic love clashing with family ties, threaded through with fairy tales. Love can build. It can also destroy. It glosses over ugliness and holds up mirrors.

Once upon a time, a man married, grew rich and had three daughters. The daughters grew, beautiful and special, and they married and had children…

The Highs-

Emily: “I love an unreliable narrator because I love the mind-warping. I love not knowing what you’re getting into.”

Julie: Gorgeous, compact writing. I loved the structure of the book, the patterns, sinking into it, the stories Cady writes as she tries to remember. It stands up just as well on second reading.

Both: Strong, full characters. The family dynamics and how they twist around the four groups. How you’re left wanting more, wondering about the characters’ futures, and yet the story feels complete.

The island so isolated, the family so insulated. Emily noted a similarity to a micro-dystopia.

The cover art and how it looks not quite real; summer but dreamy, foggy, out of focus. Perfect.

Buzzkills: We did differ somewhat on how we felt about the layout of the writing. Some parts looked similar to free verse, which Julie liked and Emily does not generally care for.

The Source: Galleys provided by publisher at an ABA event.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a private island was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Country brother, city brother

Title: Steering Toward Normalsteering

Author: Rebecca Petruck

Publisher & Release Date: Amulet Books, May 13

The Hook: Honestly, the cover sucked me in right from the start – and it actually gives a great snapshot of the family tensions inside: two half-brothers who aren’t necessarily loving the new situation, but still with a little cheeky humor.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Eighth grade is set to be a good year for Diggy Lawson: He’s chosen a great calf to compete at the Minnesota State Fair, he’ll see a lot of July, the girl he secretly likes at 4-H, and he and his dad Pop have big plans for April Fool’s Day. But everything changes when classmate Wayne Graf’s mother dies, which brings to light the secret that Pop is Wayne’s father, too. Suddenly, Diggy has a half brother, who moves in and messes up his life. Wayne threatens Diggy’s chances at the State Fair, horns in on his girl, and rattles his easy relationship with Pop. What started out great quickly turns into the worst year ever, filled with jealousy, fighting, and several incidents involving cow poop. But as the boys care for their steers, pull pranks, and watch too many B movies, they learn what it means to be brothers and change their concept of family as they slowly steer toward a new kind of normal.”

Overall Impressions: The boys have parallel abandonment issues: Diggy’s mother left him as an infant on Pop’s doorstep and then left town on a tractor, the ignominious mode of travel just salting the wound; and Wayne has lost both his mother and then very shortly after the man that he thought was his father, who in an alcoholic rage also dropped Wayne on Pop’s doorstep. Wayne’s obsession with Diggy’s mom, who’s never returned or contact her son, is a constant sore spot between the two of them – neither boy truly understanding why the other feels like they do. There’s a blowup at the end that makes things clearer, but Petruck does a great job of showing how time and perseverance is the biggest factor in healing tempers and family problems. Nearly a year passes as the boys and their respective families fight, find common ground, and deal with life as it comes.

The Highs: Petruck does an excellent job of creating a believable set of characters with very human problems and setbacks. The inclusion of the steer raising details and even rocket-building were interesting without being an info dump; it tied everything together really well in building the relationship – and tension – between Diggy and Wayne. Diggy gets to be the knowledgeable one in teaching the less farm-savvy Wayne, but when Wayne starts to succeed on his own (and attract July’s attention) Diggy starts having second thoughts. Their final competition, and Diggy’s crush on July, were resolved in a way that made total sense – not quite a happy ending, but one that will leave readers happy and rooting for them in the future. 

Buzzkills: By the end, I still was concerned about the level of rage that Mr. Graf exhibited even when he was sober. He finished on better terms with Wayne and his in-laws, but I kept thinking that Pop should be making regular visits to the Graf house to make sure that his son is safe. There was a lot of story on the parents’ side that we didn’t see much of, though, so maybe it’s implied that he went to some sort of counseling.

The Source: Galley from publisher.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor hay was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Fallen from space

Cover art for These Broken StarsTitle: These Broken Stars

Author: Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Publisher & Release Date: Hyperian, December 2013

The Hook: Richest girl in the galaxy and a decorated soldier have to find a way to survive when their escape pod crash lands on a deserted planet. (Also a cover with a ridiculously gorgeous dress.)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “It’s a night like any other on board the Icarus. Then, catastrophe strikes: the massive luxury spaceliner is yanked out of hyperspace and plummets into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive. And they seem to be alone.

“Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a young war hero who learned long ago that girls like Lilac are more trouble than they’re worth. But with only each other to rely on, Lilac and Tarver must work together, making a tortuous journey across the eerie, deserted terrain to seek help. Then, against all odds, Lilac and Tarver find a strange blessing in the tragedy that has thrown them into each other’s arms. Without the hope of a future together in their own world, they begin to wonder—would they be better off staying here forever?

“Everything changes when they uncover the truth behind the chilling whispers that haunt their every step. Lilac and Tarver may find a way off this planet. But they won’t be the same people who landed on it.”

Overall Impressions:  Titanic meets wilderness survival with a long-hidden secret buried underneath it all. (Or to put it another way, Titanic plus Shards of Honor plus Firefly. Want to read it yet?)

For me, this book took off when the ship went down. Lilac and Tarver’s introduction and initial meeting onboard felt believable but familiar – attraction, conscious and then reactionary rejection because Important Reasons – but once they’re on the planet, they only have each other. And it’s kind of hard to put on a shell to hide yourself when all your energy is on survival. The description as they trek from the downed, damaged pod to the site of the fallen ship and slowly realize that the planet has no human inhabitants and no one else escaped the Icarus sucked me into the story. They face the mounting terror of first Lilac and later Tarver hearing whispers they can’t quite make out. And then they start seeing people, people who died and people who can’t possibly be on the planet.

Spooner and Kaufman tell the story in alternating chapters between Lilac and Tarver, interspersed with short chunks of Tarver being interviewed/interrogated by rescuers. The latter are dialog-only and become increasingly intimidating.

I love that both characters contribute to their survival and figuring out what to do as it increasingly looks as if rescue will not be coming. The relationship between the two becomes frighteningly intense.

The secret I did not expect and definitely didn’t anticipate some of the effects of its discovery.

The Highs: The reserves Lilac finds when Tarver is injured and his wound gets infected, leaving him delirious.

Great creepiness factor with the whispers and hallucinations/mirages – I had to quit reading at one point because it was late and no one else was home!

The description of the Icarus falling. (And really, naming a ship Icarus? Just asking for trouble.)

World-building. Both the beautiful, empty planet with its secret, and the central worlds – terraformed colonies power and resources imbalance, which will no doubt be explored in further books.

Tarver’s voice during the interrogation.

Buzzkills:  I found the relationship between Lilac and her father rather baffling. Does he love her? Does he have dreams for her? He’s obviously very protective in terms of what he considers appropriate exposure. Is it a possession-type of love? I expect that will get explored more in books two and three.

Really, Lilac and Tarver are so intense, so very front and center, very few other characters made much of an impression.

Pro and con – Did I mention this is not a stand-alone?

The Source: Public library.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a galactic cruise was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.