Monday, December 30, 2013

Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals

Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: *****
Pages: 290
The year is 1957. The place: Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, the Jim Crow South. Melba Patillo is one of the first nine black students to enter the school. While the white kids are trying to pass math, she's just trying to walk from one class to another without getting killed.
Though I never knew much about Central's integration, I somehow assumed that the first day was the worst. Things got better as the year went on. The white students would get used to having black people in their classes. That's not at all how it went. The attacks only got worse as time went on.
At the beginning of the year, the governor's tactics to keep them out are so ridiculous, I almost felt like I was reading a dystopian novel. Thousands of civilians turn up to form a mob in front of the school. Then the Arkansas National Guard gets called in. President Eisenhower has to bring in reinforcements. No one should need a jeep convoy, a helicopter, and a thousand trained soldiers to escort them to school.
But it's not an adventure. This was more trial than triumph for the Little Rock Nine. Melba has nails, rocks, rotten eggs, flaming paper, acid, and dynamite thrown at her in the halls. The teachers are worse than useless. When a boy pulls a knife on her during an assembly, the teacher tells Melba to sit down and stop disturbing the other students.
By the end of the book, I was tired. I just wanted Melba's year to be over. And all I did was read about it. This was her life. You have to admire her courage. I know people who switch schools because first graders taunted them on the playground. Melba had death threats. Halfway through the year she considers suicide-until her grandma points out all the white kids would throw a party. That's the point when Melba decides to stop being a victim and become a warrior.
The most interesting thing: Melba never paints herself as a hero. She may be a 'warrior on God's battlefield', but she's the wounded, muddy, battle-weary kind. The people she does heroize are the ones who helped her out. Danny, her bodyguard, who helped her wash acid out of her eyes. Link, a white student who loaned her his car to escape attackers. Marissa, a mentally handicapped girl who saved her from rape. By clubbing her would-be rapist with a metal lunchbox.
Warriors Don't Cry is a searing memoir that will strike anyone who's suffered racism, bullying, or loneliness. It's a book for our generation to learn about the past. It's a book for older people to see what they never could before. It's not a pretty story. But it's one that needs to be read.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends by Shannon Hale

Genre: Fantasy
Rating: ****
Pages: 304
Series: First of a trilogy
Raven Queen's Legacy Year is not going well. Classmates flee from her presence, her counselor signed her up for Kingdom Mismanagement, and all the teachers want her to murder her roommate. At Ever After High, the children of fairy tale characters are groomed to follow their parent's destinies. For Apple White that means dwarves and a daring prince. And Raven? She's supposed to poison Apple.
Raven doesn't want to be evil. But if she doesn't sign the Storybook of Legends on Legacy Day the Snow White tale will be wiped from existence. Poof. Apple can't let that happen.
Then Raven discovers a secret. Long ago, two sisters rebelled against their destiny. They vanished along with their story. What if they didn't go 'poof?' What if there's another option? With Apple's reluctant help, Raven sets off to uncover the sisters' fate and rewrite her own story.
This novel is meant to support Mattel's new Ever After High doll franchise. Expect a description of Apple's outfit every time she walks into a scene. Gotta sell those accessories. The book's loaded with groan-inducing puns. Students eat in the Castleria, read hextbooks, and take Chemythstry class. But never fear, this writer is witty. There are bonuses for those of you who know your stories (Raven has a pet dragon named Nevermore) and pop culture references (students rock out to Tailor Quick and One Reflection). Plus, you'll find lots of sarcastic commentary on the fairy tale genre.

     Princess Darling Charming fainted and was caught by no fewer than twelve boys, who began to kick one another's shins to try to get the others to let go.
     "I've got her!"
     "No, I've got her!"

My favorite character is Raven's friend Maddie Hatter. At first I was reluctant to find Alice in Wonderland included as a fairy tale. It's a novel, people. We know the author. It's not some old story jotted down by a nameless, wandering bard. In Ever After High we meet Maddie, Lizzie Hearts, and Kitty Cheshire, but no Alice, oddly enough. The most intriguing thing about Maddie is her ability to hear the narrator.

     Maddie trolled through her hat, pulling out a pink vial of Embiggen Potion. She cocked her ear. "Yep, the Narrator said this pink vial is Embiggen Potion, so it must be. Thank you, Narrator!"
     Aargh! I did it again!

The Narrator follows both Apple and Raven though this is obviously Raven's tale. Apple strikes me as a very intentional Mary Sue. The girl keeps candy on her balcony in case an adoring crowd happens to wander by. It's easier to root for the Rebels-Raven and Maddie's crew-than the Royals, Apple's band of not-that-heroic princes.
Despite its lighthearted tone, The Storybook of Legends is a spellbinding tale of friendship with a powerful message at its core. What would you risk to take control of your own destiny?

Raven Queen
Apple White
Left to right: Briar Beauty, Ashlynn Ella, Lizzie Hearts, Blondie Locks, Cedar Wood, C.A. Cupid, Maddie Hatter, and Cerise Hood.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Chaos of Stars by Kiersten White

Genre: Fantasy, mythology
Rating: ****
Pages: 279
Isadora is mortal. As the daughter of Egyptian gods, that means most of her relatives can't be bothered to remember her name. After all, she'll only be around for a few more decades. Gods are eternal. She escapes by moving to her brother's in San Diego, where she meets Ry, a boy with the most annoyingly blue eyes she's ever seen. But how can she fall in love when she knows it can't last?
Then Isadora begins having dreams of darkness. Her eternal family is in danger, and she's the only one who can save them.
The great struggle in the book is Isadora coming to accept her mortality. If you weren't raised by Egyptian gods, this can be hard to relate to. I wish The Chaos of Stars went deeper into the mythology. Aside from Isis, most of the gods are background characters. They pop up in Isadora's thoughts and the first and last couple chapters. Mostly, this is the story of Isadora and her friends. Isadora's descriptions of Ry's blue-blue eyes and Greek god bod would be over the top in any other book. The type of mushy books you love to mock. But you don't need to mock them now, because Kiersten White went ahead and did it for you.

     He's in a deep-blue dress shirt, top button undone, and black pin-striped slacks. No one should be able to look equally good in jeans and a tee as they do dressed up.
     "You look," he says, his eyes drinking me in the way I want to drink him in, "absolutely amazing."
     I smirk. "You look rather pretty yourself."
     "And Tyler looks devastatingly gorgeous," Tyler says. "Why, thank you, Tyler!"

Then there's the banter between her and Ry.

     Ry: "What is wrong with being attracted to someone? It's a natural thing."
     Isadora: "Yes, well, cancer is a natural thing, and we try out best to kill it."

While not rich in magic or mystery, The Chaos of Stars is a hilarious, fun-filled tale of one girl's journey to live the normal life she's never dared to dream of.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Genre: Fantasy...ish. We get fictional kingdoms and princes, but aside from an offhand mention of elves, there's no magic here.
Rating: *****
Series: First of a trilogy
Pages: 342
Life as an orphan isn't easy for Sage, but he's learned to deal with it. Then he meets a scheming nobleman named Conner. Three orphan boys have been selected for his plot: Impersonate the long lost Prince Jaron and save the kingdom of Cartyha from civil war. After two weeks, one boy will be chosen. The rest will be killed.
But Sage doesn't want to be a prince. He has his own agenda, one that remains a mystery even to the reader. First, he needs to escape Conner's manor alive. That's no easy feat when Sage's sharp tongue keeps landing him in trouble. Can he trust his opponents? Will they murder him in the night? What is Imogen, the quiet kitchen maid, hiding from them all?
And what really happened to Prince Jaron?
The first thing that drew me to this book was the title. The False Prince. Usually when you read about fantasy royalty, it's all queens and princesses. The guys are lowly warriors or adventurers. I wanted to see what boys would do if they got a chance at the crown.
From the very first page, I cared about Sage and wanted to see what happened next. Who's going to win? Who's going to die? Who's going to cheat? Who else is hiding a secret? The writing isn't brilliant, but it is filled with Sage's snarky comebacks. The characters surprise you just as you think you've figured them out. Especially Sage, who happens to be an unreliable narrator. Usually I don't like those. They lead you in the wrong direction for hundreds of pages, then, BAM, twist ending. Sage isn't like that. He drops hints and skips over blocks of time, leaving you to speculate on what he's really up to. I did predict the twist, but I also predicted several other twists. Sage, you've made me paranoid!
The False Prince is Nielsen's YA debut.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett


My, so many covers.
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: *****
Pages: 375
Series: Part of the mammoth series that is Discworld. I've heard three other books feature Tiffany as a protagonist, but I haven't read them yet.

The Chalk is a patch of rural farm country where girls are expected to become shepherds or farmers' wives. Tiffany Aching wants to be a witch. Sure, the last "witch" was killed by the ignorant townsfolk. But that just means they need someone to stop it from happening again.
Besides, the Chalk has other problems. There's some kind of creature lurking in the river. Something's been carrying off sheep. Another reality is pushing at the border of theirs, letting in more monsters. And Wentworth, Tiffany's whiny, sticky baby brother, has just been kidnapped by elves.
Tiffany teams up with the Nac Mac Feegle-a band of stealing, drinking, fighting, six-inch high blue elves with attitude-to rescue him. She may not be a witch yet, but she's armed with a frying pan and her Granny Aching's wisdom. 
Elves and beasties, beware. You don't stand a chance. 
This is one of the first Terry Pratchett books I've read. That means I need to go find more now. So, why is it so great? Because the Nac Mac Feegle have swords that grow blue in the presence of lawyers. Because one of them's named Not-As-Big-As-Medium-Sized-Jock-But-Bigger-Thank-Wee-Jock Jock. But mostly because Tiffany's in it.
Tiffany Aching is such a wonderful character. She's brave, strong, clever-wait, those all sound like stock hero traits, don't they? Well, Tiffany makes it work. Maybe she is a little bit of a stock hero. But she's so much more. She's practical and curious and very, very angry if you mess with her stuff. She's the kind of girl who reminds you of yourself while you wish you were more like her. 
Best of all, she's a nine year old farmgirl. And she doesn't care. About the nine year old bit, I mean. Cheese making and sheep shearing are very important to her. Tiffany doesn't waste time thinking, "Nobody will believe me when I tell them there's a monster in the river. I'm only nine." Or, "I'm just nine. How am I supposed to fight it?" She just grabs a frying pan and gives it a good walloping. Now that's the way to get things done. 
Alright, enough Tiffany, now for the book itself. The writing's hilarious constantly and beautiful when it feels like it.  The only real flaw I can think of is the Nac Mac Feegle's speech. It's quirky and full of dialect, so sometimes I had to read it aloud to make sense out of it. But that just adds to the charm of the book.
Then there's the dreamworld Tiffany visits. I've read about a few other worlds like that and most of them read like acid trips. Throw out the rules of reality and dazzle you with random imagery. Not Tiffany's. Even though the world follows the fluid rules of dream logic and nothing is as it seems, it still makes sense. And it makes you think. It opens up your mind to a new world of thoughts, hopes, dreams, and ugh, I can't describe this book well enough, can I?
You know what? Just read it yourself. Meanwhile, I'll be looking for the next Tiffany Aching book.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller

Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: ***
Pages: 448, 412 of that being the actual story
Olga, the bookish one. Tatiana, the beauty. Maria, the sweetheart. Anastasia, the clown. The daughters of Tsar Nicholas II have always lived in a gilded bubble of luxury. But that bursts when a gunshot sparks World War I. Now Papa has to leave the family behind to command the military. Their palace is converted to a hospital and the two oldest sisters work as nurses. Meanwhile, Mama turns to a holy man called Grigori Rasputin to cope with their brother Aleksei's illness.
Then Russia is shaken by something more deadly than the war abroad. The people are suspicious of Rasputin and tired of the tsar's rule. Revolution erupts. Now the Romanov family are prisoners in their own home. As war wages all around them, the sisters must rely on their own strength and each other to get them through.
I've always been interested in the OTMA sisters. Anastasia usually gets the most attention, probably thanks to that 1997 Warner Bros. cartoon. I liked seeing the other girls get a chance to tell their story. It does get confusing since it's all written in first person. I kept flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to remember who was talking. Then there's the language. The book is peppered with Russian words and phrases, so I used the glossary a lot until I began to pick up on some of the common ones.

     "I think so." I hear the swish of her short hair against the pillow as she nods, then nothing. "Please try not to worry, dushka. God will watch over us."
     "Konechno, Tatya. But now Lenin is watching too."
Tatya is Tatiana. They all have nicknames. Maria is Mashka. Anastasia might be Nastya or Shvybzik. Their brother Aleksei could be called Alyosha, Sunbeam, or Baby. This can be confusing if you don't pay attention.
The story begins in 1914 and ends in July of 1918. Around 200 of the 400ish pages take place in those last seven months. A single chapter might last a day or two months. Sometimes it feels blurry, like we're gliding over a year and checking in on the girls once a month. Other times it drags on forever. Let's face it, there's not a lot of action when you're under house arrest in Siberia.
But if you can get past that, there's a lot of powerful emotion packed into this book. The sisters don't fight the way you'd expect from a family kept in close quarters. Tatiana in particular misses her nursing duties and finds purpose helping her mother and brother with their poor health. After their lives of luxury are ripped from them they find joy in the little things-an open window, their dogs, fresh baked bread, and the fact that they're still together.
I learned things I never knew about the Romanovs, like how Olga had a small gun she kept hidden throughout their captivity. Or how Anastasia had the honorary title 'Chieftain of All Fireman." Now I want to learn more.
The Lost Crown is a rich, though complex, tale of family, faith, and loyalty. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Going Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

Going Vintage Going Vintage
Genre: Contemporary
Rating: ****
Pages: 310
Mallory was content to be a twenty-first century girl until Jeremy cheated on her with an online girlfriend. Now she yearns for simpler times. A time when boyfriends couldn't hook up with online avatars. A time when families sat down each night for homemade meatloaf dinners. A time like 1962. While cleaning out her grandma's attic, Mallory finds a chic seersucker dress and list of goals Grandma Vivian made back when she was sixteen:
1. Run for pep club secretary
2. Host a fancy dinner party/soiree
3. Sew a dress for Homecoming
4. Find a steady
5. Do something dangerous
With the list as her guide, Mallory swears off technology and begins her quest to go vintage.
Turns out the sixties were more complicated than they seem. Sewing isn't so easy when you can't thread a button. Mallory has to start the pep club before she can proclaim herself secretary. And steadies are  in short supply-until she falls for Jeremy's hipster cousin Oliver.
I was expecting Mallory to whine about not having a phone before a Golly-Gee eye opener where she realized technology is evil and shall corrupt this generation. Actually, she starts out that way. Mallory idolizes the sixties and her grandma calls her on it.

"Looking at your yearbook, it just seemed that was the perfect time to be a teenager, before the sixties got crazy. I wish I could time-travel back to that...You wore gowns to a dance, not skanky dresses. And you went on real dates, not the hang out and hookups that we do. And! You went steady and gave class rings and passed notes, not texts, and-"
"I think I'm going to barf." Grandma crumples the empty beignet bag into a ball. "I wasn't living in Happy Days. We still had issues back then. Communism, Cuban missile crisis, repression, segregation, race riots. But nothing catastrophic like broken cell phones, right?"
-page 111 (paraphrased for clarity)

Going Vintage provides a very realistic take on what would happen if you swore off technology in modern society. It's not just her friends. Her parents and grandma think she's making life more difficult for them. Her history teacher thinks she doesn't appreciate the Industrial Revolution enough because she won't use a computer for a project.
And that brings me to my favorite part. Mallory's friends are so real. They form clubs, worry about college application, and do homework. Homework. Book people don't do that. Oliver's the kind of cute, funny guy you wish you could meet in real life, but at the same time he reminds you of three guys you already know. But he is named Oliver, so thanks to the retro theme, I had the Brady Bunch theme playing in my head every time Jeremy called him Cousin.
My main complaint is Mallory doesn't do everything she could to achieve her goals. Her grandma sews her homecoming dress, her sister Ginnie cooks the soiree food, and Oliver does most of the pep club work. But what she lacks in determination she makes up for in character. Towards the beginning, I felt she was running around with a little sign that said TEEN in sloppy sharpie letters. What do teenagers do? Why, they text. Always. Except when they're making out. Then she ditches the twin evils of teendom and you get to see her personality. Mallory learns that you can't ignore technology in a modern world and the sixties weren't quite so peaceful as she thought.
With an unexpected twist at the end, Going Vintage is a funny, realistic, and surprising read.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

LEGEND by Marie Lu

Genre: Dystopian, action
Rating: ***
Pages: 305
Series: One sequel so far, titled Prodigy
Why I read this book: Because I have a dystopia addiction.
Day and June are from seperate worlds. She's a prodigy. A military genius. The Republic's golden girl. He's the Republic's most wanted street criminal.
While Day's concerned with keeping himself alive, she's tracking down her brother's killer. And all signs point to Day.
The first thing that stands out when you crack open the cover is the ink. Not the words, but the ink they're printed in. Told from both points of view, June's chapters are normal and Day's are written in gold ink. That way you can always tell who's doing the talking. Why don't more authors do this?
June is a butt-kicking, action-packing, cool and ruthless heroine. Yet her character is nearly flat. Same with Day. They have all the skills they need, both physical and mental. They can scale buildings, win street fights, identify and crush all threats. Those should come in handy. The only emotions are when they're concerned for a loved one in mortal peril. Memorable characters they are not.
June's not the only girl in Day's life. There's Tess. For years they've survived on the streets together. Running, fighting, and avoiding the cops. And that makes her...the girl in Day's life. Yes, you read that right. It's possible for a guy to have a girlfriend who doesn't fall in love with him by the end.
Legend is a tense, dystopian adventure with an explosive and bittersweet ending.

Poison by Bridget Zinn

Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 276
Rating: ***
Cover: I haven't seen anything this awesome for a while. Look, there's Rosie in the corner.

Kyra never wanted to be a Seer. She's a Master Potioner and a highly respected one at that. But when she has a vision of her best friend, Princess Ariana, destroying the kingdom, she knows what she had to do.
A failed assassination leaves Kyra alone and friendless. With the help of her potions kit, a handsome rogue named Fred, and a magical princess tracking pig, it's up to Kyra to save the kingdom. No matter what the cost.
Ariana is my favorite character. I expected her a cookie cutter rebel princess.
I don't want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset!
No. She likes adventures and knows how to use a throwing dagger, but she has an actual personality. She's the type of girl who would cut her own hair to make a false mustache just because she can. It's interesting to see the princess as a threat to the kingdom.
Poison is supposed to be set in your typical medieval European fantasy kingdom. They've got swords, queens, castles, and walking is the primary mode of transportation. Kyra stops in the nearest inn whenever she's not walking. One of the inns has a concierge. Another has a full kitchen with pots and pans in Fred's room. The dialogue is anachronistic too. Kyra uses the words guy, mom, and scram. Then they start throwing water balloons.
But hey, I like poison filled water balloons as much as the next girl. And Rosie the tracking pig made up for it. So did Kyra and Fred. Their relationship is so real. When Kyra thinks the smartest thing she can do is ditch Fred, she's right. Ruggedly handsome young rogues aren't the safest company. When she later realizes she's made a mistake, she's right too. Ruggedly handsome young rogues are often the best company you can hope for. He's not Sir Perfect, at your service whenever you need it. He's a real person with his own goal and secrets. Some of them are a threat to Kyra.      
Poison is an intriguing, twisting fantasy novel.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Females, Characters, and Female Characters

I've noticed a lot of buzz in the blogosphere about strong female characters. Most of the posts seem to have a couple of paragraphs devoted to Bella vs. Katniss, so I'll just get that over right away.
Let's see...Bella Swann...seventeen year old female in the first book. Just like Katniss in the third one! Let's see, what else do they have in common? Dark hair, dark eyes, mammals.
Now that's over. Onto the post!
Classic females tend to do this:

Eventually that got boring, so modern females tend to do this:

No fainting allowed until you've been clubbed over the head with a rifle. Nowadays damsels are largely discredited. If I see a cartoon princess in a frilly dress, I expect her to pick up a sword and cause some distress.
But these work too.
Whenever I read modern classics like A Wrinkle in Time or To Kill a Mockingbird, I come off unimpressed. I don't live in a time when girls are taught to be ladies. My school has girls' football with male cheerleaders. The word tomboy has no meaning for me.
Does that mean times have changed? All females are now strong, well developed characters?
Yeah...but no. Swooning and tower-sitting are taboo. But girls who do nothing but blow stuff up and look sexy can be just as flat as girls who do nothing but await rescue and look pretty.
My biggest complaint is how the power trio almost always consists of two boys and one girl (If you want an inverse, I highly recommend the TimeRiders series by Alex Scarrow).

And I'm definitely not posting the movie picture for the next one. Ugh. And now they're making a sequel. At least Clarisse is in this one.

Three's a good number. You can have a hero, his best friend, and his girlfriend, or a girl in the middle of a love triangle. All three of these are good stories. You can't disown a book because it doesn't have enough women in it, but girls will be sure to take note.
In The Lightning Thief, Percy goes on a quest to rescue his mom with Annabeth and Grover. He and Annabeth rescue Grover in Sea of Monsters. When Annabeth's taken in Titan's Curse, Percy saves her not because she's his girlfriend but because she's a valuable member of the team. She's saved his life plenty of other times. Ginny-who's not even part of Harry's trio-gets rescued in the second book. She's just Ron's sister at this point. But by the fifth book, she joins Dumbledore's Army and becomes a love interest. It's okay to let girls tower-sit for a while so long as they carry their own weight for the rest of the story.
There's a difference between strong female characters and female strong characters. The first means she can take out bad guys. The second means she's well developed.  Smart. Grumpy. Manipulative. Witty. Seductive. Funny. Creepy. Anything.
What bothers me most is readers who treat each strong female like a new discovery. If a guy punches a monster, it's an action scene. If a girl does it, she's an action girl. I even saw one book review where the reader praised a certain novel for containing a 'strong female heroine'. Does it also have a woman widow? Or a girl princess? Or a male man? Do they all work for the Department of Redundancy Department?
If you want an action girl, pick a civilization and go through their mythology. They've been around for a good long while. If you want a girl who carries her own story without a male character's help, congratulations. You live in the twenty-first century.
Some books put a strong heroine in, but can't go four pages without reminding you. I don't want to read a chapter long ramble about why Princess Punchalot doesn't tower-sit. Just show her doing something else and I'll believe you.
This excerpt is from Princess of the Silver Woods by Jessica Day George. Princess Petunia is knitting during a long carriage ride when they're attacked by bandits.

     She...tucked all four needles and the yarn into the basket on the seat beside her, pulling out her pistol as she did. She checked the bullets, then cocked the weapon.
     "Oh, Your Highness!" Maria was scandalized, but she had the good sense to whisper, at least. "Put it away!"
   "They aren't taking my jewelry," Petunia said.

Adults seem to be concerned about role models in YA literature for girls. I don't hear this for boys. Apparently they don't need role models.
Have I ever been jealous of girls with awesome monster slaying powers? Yup. Boys too. Do I channel these girls as I slay my inner demons? Yup. Boys too. Do I look up to them as role models? Nope. Boys either.
My favorite characters are the girls who find strength without a gun. Like Risa in Unwind or Anna in The Declaration. Sometimes you don't need to kick butts and take names. Sometimes the boys need somebody to keep them from killing each other every few minutes.
I'm sick of being told we need role models. If I think I need one, I'll find one in the real world. What I want from books is heroes. Reading about killers won't make me a killer. Girls in books usually have good reasons to kill people. I don't. Reading about petty, boy crazy girls won't make me petty and boy crazy. It will make me laugh at them. Reading about weak girls who don't stick up for themselves will make me toss the paperback down and look for something better to do.
Teenagers aren't stupid and sheeplike as most adults believe. We are not 'influenced' by every fictional character. We have our own personalities, motives, and goals. We're pretty strong characters on our own.

“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”
-Natalie Portman

Wings by Aprilynne Pike

Genre: Fantasy
Rating: *** (liked it)
Pages: 290
Series: First of a trilogy
Laurel always knew she was different. She was left on her parents' doorstep at age four, homeschooled for eleven years, and she's a ridiculously light eater. And then a flower started growing out of her back.
With the help of her (only) friend, the geeky David, and a mysterious boy named Tamani, Laurel discovers she's a faerie. She was sent from the Avalon to the human world to save it from a troll invasion. And if that wasn't bad enough, the trolls know where she lives.
David's nothing like typical love interests. He's nice but nerdy, the kind of guy you can actually imagine running into at high school. And what's more, he actually likes Laurel. He doesn't ignore her while she lusts after him. He's not infatuated with her. It's a bonafide, genuine crush.
"Whatever you need, I'll be. If you need the science geek to give you answers from a textbook, I'm your guy; if you just want a friend to sit by you in bio and help you feel better when you're sad, I'm still your guy...and if you need someone to hold you and protect you from anyone in the world who might want to hurt you, then I am definitely your guy. But it's all up to you."
-page 101
David's sweet. I laughed every time he invited Laurel over to study or stare at stuff under a microscope. Education. Sure. Would you two just kiss already? When they finally do, he bills it as an 'experiment' to see if Laurel exhales oxygen.
Pike takes a new twist with faeries by making them sentient plants. It sounds bizarre at first, but she explores this possibility and grounds it into reality. Saltwater is bad for plants, so Laurel won't go swimming in the ocean. She's a light eater because she gets most of her nutrients through photosynthesis. When she does eat, it's bunny food like spinach and peaches.
Faerie cuisine. 
Laurel herself teeters on the brink of Mary Sue territory.
"Adolescence had been kind to her. Her almost translucent white skin hadn't suffered the effects of acne and her blond hair had never been greasy.  She was a small, lithe fifteen-year-old with a perfectly oval face and light green eyes.  She'd always been thin, but not too thin, and had even developed some curves in the last few years. Her limbs were long and willowy and she walked with a dancer's grade, despite having never taken lessons."
-page 7
But again, plant. They don't get acne. It makes sense that faeries are graceful. Wings is a refreshing and intriguing start to a fantasy trilogy.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Slayers by C.J. Hill

Genre: Fantasy, action
Rating: ****
Pages: 373
Tori knows St. George and the Dragon Camp isn't her typical vacation the moment her sister's BMW pulls into the parking lot. The fencing practice and college level medieval history lectures are expected-after all, they're supposed to be learning how to slay dragons. But motorcycle riding and rifle shooting-with your eyes shut? Isn't that a little extreme? Never mind how the "advanced campers", cabins twenty-six and twenty-seven, are two miles off from the main camp and must be kept secret.
Nothing gets easier when she discovers the truth. Dragons are real, the advanced campers, including her, are descended from the fabled dragons knights. Oh, and they're the only ones who can stop the dragon lord Overdrake from conquering Washington D.C. and eventually the world.
Tori didn't sign up to save the world. She not to happy about leaping fifteen feet into tree limbs and getting her hair singed off by the kind, scholarly, flamethrower-wielding camp director. Her fellow campers don't approve of her blonde highlights and trunk full of designer clothing. How can a pampered senator's daughter take down a dragon?
I picked up this book because I've read and several other by this author, all of them contemporary high school fiction or fairy fantasy.
This was not what I expected. Fewer hilariously awkward situations, more machine guns.
The plot is almost perfectly paced, the action intense, the romance kept to a tolerable, practical level for dragon slayers. The way the dragon business was set up stretched my imagination a little. A slayer is created when their pregnant mother goes near a dragon egg. It's not known how this works, only that it has to do with the triangular bumpy thing on a dragon's forehead and the kid's DNA. Their genes are passed down from dragon knights, who altered their DNA by drinking an elixir prepared by alchemists. That's the true goal of alchemy, by the way, not transforming ordinary medals into gold. Then there are dragon lords, who are different than dragon knights.
The main thing that bugged me was the guys. All of male advanced campers are tall and hot. Don't forget the rock-hard muscles. I know they're superhuman, I know this is a novel where dragons can exist in the real world, but having all the guys hot isn't realistic.
With an unforeseen twist, and Slayers is an intense action debut with an ending that will leave you burning for the sequel. Well, if you can call it a debut.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

My Super Sweet Sixteenth Century by Rachel Harris

Genre: Time travel romance
Rating: **
Pages: 260
Series: Sequel in the works
Cat Crawford is not a party animal. Her dad's a famous director, her mom is constantly plastered over the front of tabloids, but she's happy to stay out of the limelight, thank you very much. She's less than thrilled when her stepmom-to-be arranges an extravagant, televised sweet sixteen. Fortunately, the gala's in Florence, the perfect place for a Renaissance art fanatic.
But after a strange encounter with gypsy magic, Cat finds herself thrust into the year 1505, where she runs into some long-lost relatives. Mistaking her for her ancestor, Patience D'Angeli, they welcome her into their elite Italian society lives.
And then there's Lorenzo. He may be a player, but he's also an artist, so what's not to like?
But when Cat's well meaning relatives want to force her into an arranged marriage, suddenly the sixteenth century isn't sweet at all.
My favorite part about this book was Cat's transition from the modern world to the Renaissance. Usually characters switching worlds will spend about fifty pages blaming it on dreams, hallucinations, stress, pranks, movie sets, roleplay groups, drugs, food poisoning, and/or good old fashioned insanity. Cat figures it out in two pages. Instead of freaking out, she decides to enjoy it while it lasts.
Which brings me to my least favorite part. Cat is not proactive at all. If I wound up in 1500's, I'd be just a bit concerned about how I was going to get home. But Cat decides Reyna the Magic Gypsy will take care of it sooner or later. Oh, and it's mentioned that Reyna is a servant of the goddess Isis. And she's Romanian. Because that's the same as Egypt. Okay, I guess the two countries aren't that far apart. Certainly not as far as Italy and California. I'd like to know how Cat's LA classmates can party with her in Florence. Do they all own Italian vacations homes? Did her daddy charter a separate plane for them? They weren't with her on the flight over.
The whole Renaissance Florence thing was a little too good to be true. When Cat sticks her head out the window, all she smells is the aroma of baking bread. Not, say, the scent of an entire city traveling by horse. The food is good, the ballgowns are pretty, and the servants are servants. It's an endless stream of dinner parties and dancing. Poor baby.
I really didn't understand Lorenzo. He's supposed to be a player, but that all changes instantly when he meets Cat. Suddenly he's willing to risk his family, career, and dreams to run off with her. He never plays anyone again. At least, not in the week or so that they know each other. He's a perfect gentleman. With emphasis on the perfect part. And also the gentleman part.
I wish Cat would grow a backbone. She just sorta floats through life, committing the occasional social faux pas, and learning to love.
My Super Sweet Sixteenth Century is light, fluffy, and sweet as the title suggests. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Can You Have A Good Story Without Romance?

I hear a lot of people (mostly adults who take it upon themselves to review YA fiction online) complain that YA has too much romance. There's quite a lot of romance in adult literature too. And while YA doesn't usually go any farther than kisses or prom, a startling number of adult novels end with (gasp) marriage!
So I've started wondering. Can you have a good story without injecting romance?
A lot depends on the genre. Mystery stories don't need it, unless the detective's girlfriend is going to be murdered, because the plot revolves around finding the killer. Books written for anybody below the age of twelve will avert this for obvious reasons.
But most stories will have romance unless there's a specific reason they shouldn't. Maybe it's set in a World War II submarine or a girls' boarding school. But writers can sneak it in anyways. Soldiers carry pictures of  girlfriends with them into battle. Cue the flashback scene. And those boarding schools have to go on summer break at some point.
Mostly of the complaints seem to be about undying love, instant love, and love triangles. Especially that last one. If you bother to read beyond the two figureheads- Hunger Games and Twilight- you'll find they're not as omnipresent as literature trolls make it sound. Most YA books have a boy and girl who believe they shouldn't be together. Because they're from different social spheres, or she's not really into dating, or he has a reputation as a heartbreaker, or they loathe each other. And then they end up kissing anyways.

I can think of a few YA books with absolutely no love whatsoever.

Brian is stranded in the wilderness. The only female around is a moose and that wouldn't work out so well.

There aren't boys Digger's age around for most of the story.
 Novel Nightspell Bookcover
Both of Leah Cypess' heroines are devoted to their goals and don't have time for romance.

Andi has quite a few guy friends. And they're just that. Guy friends. She mentions past boyfriends, but none of them show up in the story.

Brian's mom has an affair and it's on his mind for most of the book.
Digger does have a boyfriend. He dies on the first page.
Mistwood has no romance...until the epilogue. In Nightspell, Darri is arranged to marry a prince, so she spends some time checking him out.
Andi's love for her brother Truman is a driving force in the story.
You know, you can argue about the definition of love. There's no romance in Charlotte's Web, but Wilbur does love Fern and Charlotte. Unless you story is about a guy with amnesia being the lone survivor of the apocalypse, your character will have people they care for.
Love is universal. People expect it. We automatically pair characters in our minds. That's why fan fic exists. Romance can provide motivation, comic relief, and subplots. It can give the audience something to tune in for if most of the story consists of stuff blowing up. Or politics.
But it isn't omnipresent in YA or anything else. You can pull off a story without it. But the majority of stories, regardless of genre or audience, will shove it in to give readers something to coo over.

EDIT: Since doing this post, I've found more books without romance, or so little romance that it might as well not be there.

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miiller
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card