September 18, 2014

Review: The Witch's Boy

The Witch's Boy By Kelly Barnhill
Available now from Algonquin Young Readers
Review copy

Ned and his twin brother build a raft, but it is not seaworthy, and Tam dies.  Ned survives only through Tam's soul and his mother's magic.  But the villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived, especially because the experience left Ned without words.  Meanwhile, practical Áine lives in the forest with her bandit father, who is being overtaken by a strange force.

THE WITCH'S BOY is a lovely book.  Ned and Áine are both hugely likeable in different ways.  Ned has had to struggle with himself his whole life, and struggling with an external force for once (magic) helps him gain better control of himself.  Áine is super practical (it bears mentioning again), but hurt by her father abandoning her for greed.  She's cold and reluctant to trust, but a good person to have on one's side.  I quite enjoyed that their parents were a crucial part of the story.  Ned's father and Áine's mother aren't mentioned much, but do have actual personalities.  The Bandit King and Sister Witch are much bigger figures.  Especially Sister Witch, whose moment of weakness sets most of the plot in motion.  (But how could she let her other child die too?)

The mythology of the world is very interesting.  There are nine Stones, three sources of magic - most gone from the world - , and wolves.  There's a little provincial kingdom with a tough and benevolent queen, and a bigger, more worldly kingdom with a young tyrant.  It all comes together quite smoothly, each bit having its place in a tale about the importance of words and of firmly doing good.  And, well, I was a huge fan of the magic having a personality and voice of its own.  The concept of it was not just interesting, but well executed.

There's a speech at the end that's a touch too didactic for me, but I think it is well suited to the middle grade age group.  It's not so didactic as to be condescending.  Much of the rest of the book isn't particularly subtle, but it is not like being hit over the head with the message either.  It is just every present.  THE WITCH'S BOY isn't quite a fairytale, but it has a bit of that atmosphere, with few extraneous details, a foreboding tone, and a logic that works more strongly for the story than the real world.

THE WITCH'S BOY is a terrific little fantasy.  The violence is non graphic and most of the tyrant's cruelties are just hinted at, so I think this will appeal to the younger MG crowd as well as the older.  The length and complexity do push it more towards the older side.

September 17, 2014

Review: The Whispering Skull

The Whispering Skull Book two of the Lockwood & Co. series
By Jonathan Stroud
Available now from Disney Hyperion
Review copy

I talked to a friend lately who was afraid to read the Lockwood & Co. series, because it might tarnish her memories of the Bartimaeus trilogy.  I understand the impulse.  You don't want to suddenly realize that the things you loved in childhood were stupid and silly and subpar.  But I tried to reassure her that there was no fear.  THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE was a wonderful ghost story that very much deserved its Cybils win.

THE WHISPERING SKULL picks up shortly after THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE leaves off.  It's been just long enough for Lucy, Lockwood, and George to get in a spot of trouble.  They might have resolved a major haunting and, in Lucy's case, made unprecedented contact with a Visitor, but they still have to pay the bills.  And there's always a chance of things going wrong when you're a group of kids facing off with the restless dead.

I liked how THE WHISPERING SKULL further developed the world of Lockwood & Co.  The divergence from our world goes on to before the dead started rising, as proved by a paranormal artifact that begins wreaking havoc.  I also felt like THE WHISPERING SKULL was much clearer about when it was set, something I had trouble with in THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE.

My main problem with THE WHISPERING SKULL is that it focuses quite a bit on George, who I find least interesting of the main trio.  I normally adore bookworm characters, but I have little patience for how he has a tendency to put others in danger.  At the same time, I like that Stroud isn't afraid to have his main characters be abrasive.  You don't have to like someone to enjoy their story.

THE WHISPERING SKULL, like THE SCREAMING STAIRCASE, leaves off with a major revelation.  It looks like the third book will explore the mysteries of Lockwood's past.  I'd be sure to read it even without that hook.  I thoroughly enjoy the spooky world of these books and Lucy's wry narration.  She's one of the practical heroines of my heart.

September 16, 2014

Review: Broken Monsters

Broken Monsters By Lauren Beukes
Available now from Mulholland (Little, Brown)
Review copy
Read my review of The Shining Girls

This cover (reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk's INVISIBLE MONSTERS) doesn't do justice to the strange cornucopia of imagery within.  There is a killer stalking Detroit, and he's leaving behind mutilated bodies.  Bodies that he sees as art.

BROKEN MONSTERS switches between a number of point of views including  Detective Versado, who is hunting the killer; Layla, her daughter; Jonno, a videoblogger looking for his big break; TK, a homeless man who works at a church; and Clayton Broom, a homeless artist looking for a break.  At first their lives seem completely separate, but they intertwine as the case goes on.  It's a technique I always enjoy, seeing the pieces come together.

It took me a touch longer to get into BROKEN MONSTERS than Lauren Beukes' other novels.  It's quite grotesque, and many of the characters aren't that likeable.  They're well rounded, but they're selfish and self deluding and the kind of human that is sometimes hard to spend time with.  But I was drawn into the case, which just keeps getting stranger, until a surreally frightening climax.

One particularly fun twist of the procedural (beyond the supernatural elements) was the use of the internet.  There are small passages of subreddits, police-line phone calls, and other ephemera of modern life.  (Some of it reads a little off, but most is pretty accurate.)  The population's reactions to a bizarre serial killer seemed quite authentic, scared and unhelpful and sometimes unjustly ignored.

I recommend BROKEN MONSTERS to fans of Stephen King.  Lauren Beukes is continuing to expand her genre-bending prowess, and BROKEN MONSTERS takes on many elements of horror.  The how isn't always answered, which just makes it scarier.

September 15, 2014

Diversiverse Review: Gates of Thread and Stone

Gates of Thread and Stone First in a series
By Lori M. Lee
Available now from Skyscape (Amazon)
Review copy

Kai lives with her brother Reev in the Labyrinth, a poor part of Ninurta.  She delivers messages, he bounces, and somehow they make ends meet.  But one day Reev disappears, apparently pressed into service for an outlaw.  Kai heads out with her best friend Avan to rescue him.

I loved GATES OF THREAD AND STONE.  There were small things here and there that bothered me, but I was really swept away by the novel.  Kai can manipulate time, which is a very dangerous secret indeed.  It's a power she has trouble resisting using, because who hasn't wanted to make time slow down or speed up at times?  But as amazing as it is, it can't help her rescue Reev.  The devotion between the siblings was very sweet, and definitely part of what drew me in.

I liked that GATES OF THREAD AND STONE was a bit ambivalent about their co-dependance.  Avan is clearly interested in Kai, but unsure of how much room she has in her life for anyone but Reev.  Kai's not good at giving him positive signs.  Of course, she's wary because she knows she's a homebody and Avan is a partier.  He has a reputation, well known for sleeping around to secure places to stay and escape his abusive father.  Kai, who is utterly devoted to her family, has trouble understanding that Avan does not want to go home even if his father no longer actually physically abuses him anymore.  It was a pretty realistic flaw, even though I wished at times she would understand Avan better.

I also really loved the world.  I liked getting a sense of the city, and the division between the poor and rich.  When Kai and Avan leave the city, it really broadens her world (and not just geographically).  The true nature of the despotic ruler was quite a reveal, and really opened the way for much of what happens in the rest of the novel.  I'm very intrigued about what will happen next in this series, given the upheaval the main characters cause and go through themselves.  There are a lot of powerful forces at work behind the scenes of their lives.

I recommend GATES OF THREAD AND STONE to fans of desperate siblings, desperate best friends, slow burning romance, girls rescuing boys, and people forging new lives for themselves against the odds.  I think the style will appeal to fans of Robin McKinley.

Diversiverse is hosted by Aarti of BookLust.  It is all about finding new authors, from a whole range of backgrounds, to read.  Quoting:
Reading diversely may require you to change your book-finding habits.  It ABSOLUTELY does not require you to change your book reading habits.
Lori M. Lee, the author of GATES OF THREAD AND STONE, is a debut author and lives in the United States.  She was born in Laos and immigrated to a Thailand refugee camp before immigrating to the US.  Fun fact from her website: "She doesn’t know her real birth date. Her legal one was given to her in the refugee camp. Apparently, the mountain villages don’t keep birth records. This means she is allowed to lie about her age."

September 12, 2014

Review: No One Needs to Know

No One Needs to Know By Amanda Grace
Available now from Flux (Llewellyn)
Review copy

I've enjoyed books by Mandy Hubbard (Amanda Grace is a psuedonym) and I try to read and review as much LGBTQ+ YA fiction as possible.  But I must admit, I found the synopsis of NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW somewhat off-putting.  Basically, Olivia falls for Zoey, who is dating her twin brother Liam.  I am not a fan of cheating stories, and it seemed like it would be a huge betrayal.

Surprisingly, Grace pulled it off.  The attraction between the girls grew in a subtle, organic way and there wasn't crazy hurtful drama.  I would've preferred no cheating at all, but I didn't find it terrible.

When NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW starts, Zoey and Olivia are fiercely arguing with each other after being paired together for a school project.  Olivia thinks Zoey always believes the worst of people, that they remember and care deeply about the rumors about her.  Zoey thinks Olivia is a mean girl, along with her best friend.  As the story goes on, both girls learn how wrong their impressions about each other were, because there's a lot more to people than the surface.  At the same time, they each realize that the other girl was pretty right about their faults, and they both take steps to grow.

There are lots of other traits to Zoey and Olivia, often opposing.  Zoey has a tight-knit but poor family.  Olivia and Liam are rich, but their parents are never home and Liam is drifting apart from Olivia as he grows up and tries to find himself.  It's a bit simplistic, but it works because NO ONE  NEEDS TO KNOW is really short.  The balance gets the themes across elegantly.

I thought NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW was a sweet little read.  It's a lovely YA romance with two likeable heroines and great character growth.  There are a bunch of cliches, but Grace does a good job of finding the depth beneath the surface, just like Olivia and Zoey.


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