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book review

17

Apr
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

On 17, Apr 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

This one took my by surprise. I really, really enjoyed it. So much that I didn’t really want to start another book after it, actually. And I’m hoping there will be a sequel.

Normally I am not a huge fantasy reader. At least not high fantasy and I would probably shy away from anything with dragons. I can’t really say why. Maybe because the world building gets a bit complex or intricate? Maybe because I start thinking of people who dress up to play Dungeons and Dragons? But Seraphina was so effortless to read and the characters are all so engaging. It’s just a well written story with well-fleshed-out characters and a world that is easy to slip into. Plus the mystery and intrigue is very captivating. I appreciated that the ending didn’t come abruptly and didn’t work out exactly how I would have expected. It definitely left me wanting more.

As a side note, this book made me think a bit of the Patricia Wrede series Dealing With Dragons which I read in middle school and absolutely loved. This was a bit darker and quite a bit more complex, but satisfied me in the same kind of way.

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29

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

On 29, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Oct. 11th, 1943–A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.
When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.
As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

I chose this book because it was getting such good press and I will allow that it was a good book. And there is one scene that keeps playing over and over in my mind; a scene that really shook me because I know I have a friend like that. But ultimately, I went against my nature reading this book.

I do not like World War II books. There I said it. I’m sorry, I just don’t. I don’t find it to be an overly interesting time period. The whole war was a fiasco and a tragedy of epic proportions and we have a lot to learn from it, but that doesn’t mean I need to enjoy reading lots of upsetting fiction. It’s not even that I am against fiction that upsets me, it’s just that I’m not into WWII upsetting me.

All that aside, this was a good book. It took me awhile to really like the two narrators, but I did eventually come around. They’re plucky girls with very different personalities, but they are good girls and I liked them in the end. It was also a rather “astonishing” story about friendship (as the cover blurb says). The girls don’t really spend that much time together and at first I found myself questioning, well how good of friends can they really be if they only spent a few months together and then spent a couple years writing to each other? Then I realized that that, in a nutshell, is a description of my best friend and me. (Trish, are you reading this? This is you and me.) And after that little revelation, I had a whole new appreciation for this book. It reached out to me in a way that I wouldn’t exactly expect it to for all readers, but most people have a good friend. Plus there are spies and bombs and planes and women’s rights to recommend the book too. Something for everyone. Even people who don’t like WWII.

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27

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

On 27, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Scheduled to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Titanic, a topic that continues to haunt and thrill readers to this day, this book by critically acclaimed author Deborah Hopkinson weaves together the voices and stories of real Titanic survivors and witnesses to the disaster — from the stewardess Violet Jessop to Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia, who came to the rescue of the sinking ship. Packed with heartstopping action, devastating drama, fascinating historical details, loads of archival photographs on almost every page, and quotes from primary sources, this gripping story, which follows the Titanic and its passengers from the ship’s celebrated launch at Belfast to her cataclysmic icy end, is sure to thrill and move readers.

I was not originally going to read this book for the YALSA Hub reading challenge, but after I read their interview with Deborah Hopkinson here, I immediately put in a request for the book at the library. I was not disappointed. As terrible as it is to take delight in such a tragedy, this was a fascinating book. I recently came to learn a lot of the details and events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic through a research project I helped put together in the library, but I think Hopkinson made a wise choice focusing on the people on board. It made the disaster much more horrific. While I wanted to keep reading I had to keep putting the book down to take a steadying breath.

It was funny for me to think that even though I knew how the book would end (the boat sinks!), it didn’t make it any less exciting, riveting, or nerve wracking. There were a lot of characters to keep track of, but as the book wore on I got into the swing of it and could hardly put it down. Even if you aren’t especially interested in the sinking of the Titanic this book is worth the afternoon it will take to read it.

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25

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Flight of Angels

On 25, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

The diverse mythology of angels is explored in this lushly painted graphic novel from high-profile fantasy authors including Holly Black (The Spiderwick Chronicles) and Bill Willingham (FABLES).Deep in the woods outside of a magical kingdom, a strange group of faeries and forest creatures discover a nearly dead angel, bleeding and unconscious with a sword by his side. They call a tribunal to decide his fate, each telling stories that delve into different interpretations of these winged, celestial beings: tales of dangerous angels, all-powerful angels, guardian angels and death angels, that range from the mystical to the mysterious to the macabre.

I had a hard time with this one from the get go. It starts out with a really contrived “voice over” narrative that I found nearly impossible to get into. It got worse when the stories began reading like an exercise in angel lore rather than a fluid story. Quite frankly, it all felt like it was trying a little too hard.

That being said, I’m not much of one for angels so I was probably predisposed to not click with this book. I think the idea of stories within stories is really interesting and the ending has quite a twist to it. I can certainly see why this might appeal to the reluctant reader who likes fantasy, especially fantasy with darker undertones. The differing art from story to story was also an interesting concept.

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22

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

On 22, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.

In deciding whether I wanted to read this book or not I read a number of reviews on GoodReads and found a lot of people complaining about mermaid fiction. I was totally unaware this existed (for the most part). I was sort of vaguely aware of mermaid lore from the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie and from a couple other books that had them in it, but, whoa, have I been missing out. Mermaids are awesome! And rather creepy!

For me this book fell into the category with The Diviners. It’s totally awesome, I wanted to read it in one sitting, but didn’t want it to end. But it’s not a serious-coming-of-age-with-heavy-themes kind of awesome and I always feel funny grouping those books together in the you-must-read-this category. But that’s just me.

I kind of felt like the general mystery was predictable, but the details really didn’t come together until I had read it all the way through which kept me turning the pages. Switching back and forth between the present and the past was also a great way to keep the tension building and Fama did it without ridiculous cliff hangers.

The characters are also interesting. Hester is afraid to throw herself into a relationship where she might get hurt and I think this is a very relatable fear for teens, even if they aren’t cursed. Syrenka is kind of complex. Clearly she’s in love and is willing to do what she needs to to be with Ezra, but as the story continues you realize some things about her, her past, and about mermaids that I felt made her a lot more sympathetic. I think the male characters could have been a bit more fleshed out, but I didn’t really notice that fact detracting from the story in any way.

I should warn you there is a rape in the book. It isn’t overly violent or described in detail, but it’s a rape nonetheless.

 

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20

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: The Silence of Our Friends

On 20, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

This semi-autobiographical tale is set in 1967 Texas, against the backdrop of the fight for civil rights. A white family from a notoriously racist neighborhood in the suburbs and a black family from its poorest ward cross Houston’s color line, overcoming humiliation, degradation, and violence to win the freedom of five black college students unjustly charged with the murder of a policeman.

For some reason the Civil Rights Movement is really popular right now, which has meant that a lot of quality fiction and nonfiction is being published in the YA arena. I find the time period very interesting largely because the sentiments of the era are so foreign to me despite it being very recent history and because I know a segregated and racist world is the world my parents grew up in. I’m a little older than the intended audience for these books, but I wouldn’t be surprised if young adults had parents and aunts and uncles who were around both during the Civil Rights Movement and even before, giving them a close connection to the events.

The best thing about The Silence of Our Friends is that it gives a little slice of the story of the Civil Rights Movement. So many of the fantastic books that have been published on the subject lately are nonfiction books about more sweeping portions of the movement. This humanized those nonfiction books in a very different way than the anecdotes nonfiction tends to contain. The choice to have the book in black and white was also smart. Not only did it highlight the racial tension, but it also allowed the book to feel very dark in appropriate places.

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18

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Saenz

On 18, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

This was a rare book for me. I actually put it down after about 60 pages. I never do that. Especially with YA where I can usually say that I personally am not interested but can see a books merit for its intended audience. Aristotle and Dante was not one of those books for me, despite what the Printz Award committee might say.

Mostly I found the book to be incredibly boring with copious amounts of terse dialog that was hard to follow in a lot of places. The story and secondary characters seemed very implausible to me too. I also found the names of the characters to be incredibly pretentious and unlikely.

 

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15

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: In Darkness by Nick Lake

On 15, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

In darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me. One: I am alive. Two: there is no two. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake a boy is trapped beneath the rubble of a ruined hospital: thirsty, terrified and alone. ‘Shorty’ is a child of the slums, a teenage boy who has seen enough violence to last a lifetime, and who has been inexorably drawn into the world of the gangsters who rule Site Soleil: men who dole out money with one hand and death with the other. But Shorty has a secret: a flame of revenge that blazes inside him and a burning wish to find the twin sister he lost five years ago. And he is marked. Marked in a way that links him with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian rebel who two-hundred years ago led the slave revolt and faced down Napoleon to force the French out of Haiti. As he grows weaker, Shorty relives the journey that took him to the hospital, a bullet wound in his arm. In his visions and memories he hopes to find the strength to survive, and perhaps then Toussaint can find a way to be free …

I loved this book so much I’m not even really sure I can write a review that would do it enough justice. It didn’t help that I was caught totally off guard. I mean the last Nick Lake book I read was about ninja vampires. It was awesome, but it was still ninja vampires. In Darkness was so dark, brooding, sickening, saddening, and hopeful. Shorty is not a hero, he admits to doing some really awful, unforgivable things. He may have done them for the right reasons, but even he confesses that he should never have gone down that path. But all that doesn’t make him any less sympathetic or make you want him to live any less either.

This was an interesting book, for me, to read after finishing a chapter in another book about how exposure to a variety of people, cultures, and ways of living can essentially combat prejudice. I think there is a real lack of exposure in the U.S. to a mix of cultures (ancient and modern), histories, and viewpoints and this makes people blind to much of the world.

When I was in college I came to know a much broader world through my anthropology classes. I was fed a steady diet of history books and ethnographies.  It was incredibly eye opening and also maddening that my friends’ worlds were not opening up in the same way. In my junior year I spent six months studying in Cairo, Egypt which was a far cry from the England and France study abroad programs my peers were doing. Those six months were pivotal for me in that I suddenly realized how lucky I was to live in the U.S.; how lucky I was to have running water and a toilet; how lucky I was to live in a real neighborhood; how lucky I was to live in a country with social services; how lucky I was to live in a country that didn’t station its military on nearly every street corner (this was pre-Arab Spring); how lucky I was to live in a country and in a society where women were, comparatively, treated equally.

I think short of having such an eye-opening experience like that young adults can read widely and read a variety. I know not everyone will and I certainly wouldn’t expect it, but I do encourage it. In Darkness gives such a vivid and heart-wrenching picture of living in absolute, abject poverty. Site Soley is hell on Earth and I can’t imagine how the people trapped there manage to get up every morning and face life. The book was also incredibly informative about the history of Haiti and how it came to be the poverty-sticken, corrupt place it is. I was unaware of Toussaint L’Ouverture but found his story to be incredibly inspiring and fascinating.

But despite being didactic In Darkness never felt like preaching. It was an exciting story laced with tension, war, voodoo, and some very interesting characters. I could really see it appealing to boys, which is another plus.

 

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13

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: Girlchild by Tuppelo Hassman

On 13, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

Rory Hendrix, the least likely of Girl Scouts, hasn’t got a troop or a badge to call her own. But she still borrows the Handbook from the elementary school library to pore over its advice, looking for tips to get off the Calle—the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.

Rory’s been told she is one of the “third-generation bastards surely on the road to whoredom,” and she’s determined to break the cycle. As Rory struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good, she finds refuge in books and language. From diary entries, social workers’ reports, story problems, arrest records, family lore, and her grandmother’s letters, Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild crafts a devastating collage that shows us Rory’s world while she searches for the way out of it.

I thought I would enjoy this one a lot more than I did. Probably because I found the description a bit misleading. Girlchild was certainly a tragic and touching story about poverty in the U.S. And Rory is at least a very insightful (may a little too insightful for her age?) narrator. However, I never got an overwhelming impression that Rory saw her life outside the trailer park; at least not until the last page. Her stream of consciousness narration in certain chapters was not only a unique way to tell parts of her story, parts that are very, very dark and troubling, but they were also reminiscent of what adult recollections of childhood memories are- disjointed impressions with flashes of clarity.

It was certainly an enjoyable book to read, if you can use the descriptor “enjoyable” for a book about loss, extreme poverty, molestation, abuse, and stereotyping. Fictional or real these kinds of stories need to be told both to raise awareness and to comfort those with similar stories. I found it to be incredibly moving despite my initial misconception and a few minor irks along the way.

As a side note, hooray for the sympathetic librarian! Rory may not have explicitly recognized her quiet kindness, but she is a lovely character the few times we meet her.

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11

Mar
2013

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Review: October Mourning by Leslea Newman

On 11, Mar 2013 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

From GoodReads:

On the night of October 6, 1998, a gay twenty-one-year-old college student named Matthew Shepard was lured from a Wyoming bar by two young men, savagely beaten, tied to a remote fence, and left to die. Gay Awareness Week was beginning at the University of Wyoming, and the keynote speaker was Lesléa Newman, discussing her book Heather Has Two Mommies. Shaken, the author addressed the large audience that gathered, but she remained haunted by Matthew’s murder. October Mourning, a novel in verse, is her deeply felt response to the events of that tragic day. Using her poetic imagination, the author creates fictitious monologues from various points of view, including the fence Matthew was tied to, the stars that watched over him, the deer that kept him company, and Matthew himself. More than a decade later, this stunning cycle of sixty-eight poems serves as an illumination for readers too young to remember, and as a powerful, enduring tribute to Matthew Shepard’s life.

This was such a beautiful book. I wouldn’t exactly call this a novel in verse, but the poems weave together to paint such a haunting and vivid picture of the events surrounding Matthew Shepard’s murder, I think you can call it one. And the sparse language of the poems really highlight the emotion and feeling of the events.

I do not consider myself a person who is particularly drawn to poetry, although I have occasionally read and enjoyed some novels in verse, but this collection of poems is so evocative, eloquent and heartbreaking that I was drawn in. Some were better than others, but as a whole the book was incredibly powerful. The poems are tender and moving, which really make this seem like the only appropriate medium for telling the stories behind the tragic event.

 

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