May 21, 2015

Review: Uprooted

Uprooted By Naomi Novik
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

Naomi Novik has created a lovely fantasy rooted in a strong female friendship.  UPROOTED feels both traditional and fresh, with roots in folklore but a strong perspective of its own.  Agnieszka is a teenage girl in a village where one girl is taken by the Dragon once every ten years.  The girls are released, but always go on to leave the village.  To her surprise, Agnieszka is chosen instead of her lovely best friend Kasia.  (By the way, Agnieszka is the Polish version of Agnes, if you're confused about how to say it.)

Agnieszka's early days with the Dragon are miserable: he is rude and belittling.  But she soon discovers that she was picked because she has magic, and the Dragon must train her.  Unfortunately, Agnieszka is a lackadaisical student.  The Dragon is fastidious and fussy, and clashes strongly with Agnieszka's casual-to-slovenly manner.  Yet when Agnieszka's village and Kasia turn out to be in grave danger, she suddenly has a reason to pay attention to her magic and develop her gift.

UPROOTED is wonderfully creepy.  The antagonist is the Wood, a strange place that has been there as long as anyone can remember.  It is trying to overtake human settlements; being corrupted by the Wood is a horrible fate.  It requires constant vigilance by the strongest magicians to keep the Wood at bay.  It is a canny force indeed.  The horror of the wood contrasts with the warmth of Agnieszka's personality.

Magicians are long lived, and few of the ones living have many ties to other people left.  Agnieszka still cares, still has the optimism that she can save people and make a lasting difference.  She especially has her tie to Kasia, the childhood friend she loved and envied so long.  I love how complicated their relationship is.  Novik doesn't make it all sweet.  She develops the ways the girls resent each other, the secret frictions that happen between even the best of friends.

I don't have much to say about the romance between Agnieszka and the Dragon, which seems a rather obligatory hook up between the hero and heroine.  (It left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, how awful he was to her in the beginning.  I was also disappointed he wasn't actually a dragon.)  I will say that I love how much relationships between women propel the plot.  UPROOTED is a great novel for female heroes and villains.

If you enjoy fantasy novels with a fairytale feel and a genuinely scary adversary, then read UPROOTED.  It is a novel sure to delight fans of Robin McKinley and Patricia C. Wrede.  While an adult novel, it has a lot of young adult appeal too.

May 20, 2015

Review: Feet, Go To Sleep

Feet, Go to Sleep By Barbara Bottner
Illustrated by Maggie Smith
Available now from Knopf (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

When I saw the cover of FEET, GO TO SLEEP, I knew my niece would enjoy the book.  The little girl wearing glasses and doing a headstand would definitely appeal to her.  (My niece is currently working on her aerial and generally terrifying any adult in her vicinity.)  It's also aimed right at my nephew's age group.

Barbara Bottner's text walks that little girl, Fiona, through going to sleep, body part by body part.  Maggie Smith's images work well with the text.  The book has a dual-image layout, where Fiona going to sleep is in a small box and the bigger image shows just how she used that body part on her seaside vacation.  The text and illustrations work very well together.


One touch I particularly loved is that Fiona's cousins (who she chases with her legs) are black.  It's a small detail that isn't commented on, but is appreciated.  Children are great at picking over the details in picture books through multiple readings.

I'm sure any adult who reads kids to sleep is used to the cry of "One more book!"  FEET, GO TO SLEEP makes for a good finish to bedtime reading.  Fiona's method of going to sleep, bit by bit, is very helpful and soothing.  (The details about how Fiona gets up to mischief during the day do keep the book from being a snore.)  FEET, GO TO SLEEP is a good nighttime read.

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May 19, 2015

Review: The Orphan Army

The Orphan Army First book of the Nightsiders series
By Jonathan Maberry
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy

I know Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series is hugely popular, and I might've read the first book of the Nightsiders series for that alone.  But I was truly drawn in by the illustrated cover.  I love how detailed it is.  The swampy background, Milo throwing a stone, Evangelyne using magic, and the shadow of a menacing claw - all pretty accurate to the book contents.  (I cared so much about that sort of thing when I was in the proper age range.)

I do thing THE ORPHAN ARMY starts slow for a book aimed at the middle grade market.  There is lots to set up: this Earth is being attack by Bugs and the humans are losing.  Even the children are fighting in the war.  (This is the justification to make eleven-year-old Milo part of the action, which is likely only believable to younger readers.)  Milo has had strange dreams all his life, but his waking days get even weirder when he runs into a wolf and a girl while on patrol.  However, it takes almost a hundred pages to get to the real action.  The pace is helped along by the short chapters.

THE ORPHAN ARMY combines science fiction (the attacking aliens) with fantasy (the Nightsiders).  As Milo finds out, many of the creatures humans tell stories about are real, and they're coming out of hiding to help fight the Bugs.  Maberry knows how to create a high-stakes situation.  Milo doesn't feel like he's a hero, but his dreams have been preparing him for this.  He not only has to fight the Bugs, but also convince the Nightsiders that humans are worth working with and saving.

THE ORPHAN ARMY ends with a few tantalizing hints about what is to come.  I'm sure those who enjoy the book will be eager to pick up the second volume in the Nightsiders series.  I don't think this one is for me.  It's very middle grade, with little crossover interest for adult readers.  It is written on a simple level, and I just found the age of the protagonist too unbelievable.  I'm getting old.  I do have some younger relatives I think will love it.  Scifi/fantasy with lots of action and no romance is right up their alley.

May 18, 2015

Spotlight on The Predictions

The Predictions By Bianca Zander
Available now from William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Review copy

There was a bit of a shipping mix-up, so I'm still reading THE PREDICTIONS.  But I like what I've read so far.  It starts with a literal bang when Shakti wrecks her car arriving at Gaialand's, the commune where Poppy was raised.

Shakti isn't the only other change in their lives.  Poppy and the other six kids on the commune were raised equally by all the adults, not knowing who their birth parents were.  But when hormones started flying, the adults realized they had to step in and tell.  Shakti reveals more of the cracks between the commune's ideals and reality, but that was the first for the kids.  And as Poppy puts it, "I didn't say any of this to Shakti, but in my opinion if the adults didn't like the way we had turned out, it wasn't our fault. It was theirs (page 58)."

THE PREDICTIONS is a very swift read.  I was interested in it because I thought it would stretch my horizons.  I haven't read much literature from New Zealand, so that peaked my interest.  I also like the idea of a book that spanned both a commune and the fading 80s punk rock scene in London.  The very original settings help this bildungsroman stand apart, and Zander's writing keeps it all from seeming too crazy.  I'm looking forward to finishing the second half of the book!

About The Predictions

Gaialands, a bucolic vegan commune in the New Zealand wilderness, is the only home fifteen-year-old Poppy has ever known. It's the epitome of 1970s counterculture—a place of free love, hard work, and high ideals . . . at least in theory. But Gaialands's strict principles are shaken when new arrival Shakti claims the commune's energy needs to be healed and harnesses her divination powers in a ceremony called the Predictions. Poppy is predicted to find her true love overseas, so when her boyfriend, Lukas, leaves Gaialands to fulfill his dream of starting a punk rock band in London, she follows him. In London, Poppy falls into a life that looks very like the one her prediction promised, but is it the one she truly wants?

The Predictions is a mesmerizing, magical novel of fate, love, mistakes, and finding your place in the world.

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About Bianca Zander


Bianca ZanderBianca Zander is British-born but has lived in New Zealand for the past two decades. Her first novel, The Girl Below, was a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, and she is the recipient of the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary and the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, recognizing her as one of New Zealand's eminent writers. She is a lecturer in creative writing at the Auckland University of Technology.

Check out Bianca's website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

May 15, 2015

Spotlight on Spelled

Spelled I recently finished reading SPELLED, the first book in a new series by Betsy Schow.  It is a rather cracked take on THE WIZARD OF OZ (both the book and the movie - note the princess's ruby and silver heels.)  I look forward to sharing my review of it with you in June.

Until then, you can enjoy this bonus content on Schow's website, read the excerpt below, and enter to win a SPELLED gift basket.

Excerpt:

Most of the crowd had dispersed. The final few stragglers looked at me with the all­too-common look of fear mixed with trepidation. Pix ’em. They were just servants. It wasn’t like their opinion mattered.

Only one remained, watching me with open curiosity. He looked to be in his late teens or was magically enhanced to appear so. He could have been a hundred for all I knew. I’d never seen him before in my life. He was handsome enough, for a commoner, even in his worn leather pants and cracked work boots. A foreigner, his hair was unruly and dark auburn, which complemented his tanned but dirt-smudged complexion, though the tall, dark stranger vibe was ruined by his piercing pale blue eyes.

Well, I’d had enough of being a sideshow for the day. “If you’re the new gardener, the hedges are overgrown and in need of a trim.” I pointed in the direction of my father. “While you’re there, you can help the king with the wisps.”

The young man’s expression clouded over, but he didn’t move.

I stamped my foot and pointed more forcefully. “Off with you. Courtyard’s that way. Be sure to clean those awful boots before coming back in.”

“Someone told me I’d find a princess of great worth here. One with the strength to be the hero this realm needs.” He stared at me with those unsettling blue eyes. They were cold, like ice water—made me shiver from head to toe. Then his gaze seemed to search even deeper. Finally, he looked through me, like I was nothing.

In brisk steps, he strode across the marble to the courtyard. But before crossing the threshold, he turned back to glare at me with his lip curled ever so slightly. “It seems she was mistaken.”

Just like that, I had been sifted, weighed, and found wanting.

I felt my own lip curl in response. How rude! Who the Grimm was this peasant to judge me? I was wearing a Glenda original. Original! Not some fairy-godmother knockoff worn by those servant girls turned royal. I was a crown princess, for the love of fairy, and no one dismissed me.

Before I could put the boy in his place—down in the dirt, where he belonged—a clatter came from behind, making me nearly jump out of my shoes. I checked and was relieved that Sterling had simply dropped his sword. By the time I looked back, the gardener was gone.

After stowing his blade, Sterling held up his shield, not in defense of the entrance but so he could look at his reflection. “Clearly he’s blind and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

I didn’t ask for Sterling’s opinion, but it made me feel better.

Until he opened his mouth again. “Worth, pffft. I mean, look around at all the jewels. Your palace has everything you could ever want. Honestly, I don’t know what you’re fussing about. Why would anyone want to leave?”

Because a cage is still a cage, no matter how big or glittering the bars are. And I would find a way free, no matter the cost.

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