Belgravia

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Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: I’ve been reading and watching all the Julian Fellowes works I can get my hands on since I finished watching Downton Abbey. When I heard he was writing a new book, I hurriedly placed a hold on the pre-ordered copy from the library. And I must say I’m a little disappointed; it’s not quite the brilliance of Downton Abbey. Still, it makes for a nice, light summer read. I read Belgravia while on a houseboat for a family reunion and I leave for England in a couple days, so it was the prime time for  it to be read, I think.

It’s difficult to summarize this book without spoiling anything, since the first few chapters are sprinkled with enjoyable plot twists. Essentially, the story follows a forbidden love between a young adult of modest upbringing and a young adult of the titled upper class in the mid-1800s. It is more than that, though; it’s also a story of scandal and family. It links two families of very different backgrounds together in a Romeo-and-Juliet sort of style, but their disagreements are more complex than the Montagues and Capulets. Historical accuracy is perhaps the strongest trait of the novel.

The book relies heavily on dramatic irony to build suspense, as Fellowes reveals nearly all to his readers as one of the characters makes a discovery of some kind or another. That said, the pacing is precise and fairly enjoyable. Unfortunately, some of the moments we’ve been waiting for throughout the book–the reveals of long-kept secrets–are lacking in the end because the narrator remains distanced from all the characters. Moreover, some of the characters are flat in that they’re seemingly without faults. This may be an effort to be consistent with Victorian archetypes of characters like the Angelic Woman, but such archetypes were even found tedious in that period and ought to be made more dynamic to allow readers to better relate.

Still more regrettably, the plot is predictable through the end. I have a pretty keen sense for what’s going to happen next (as a writer and avid reader), so perhaps newer readers might be more surprised, but Fellowes wasn’t hiding his tricks very well in my opinion. This made the characters even more difficult to relate to, as the readers could guess what was going on in their lives much quicker than they could, even when they were in possession of all the facts.

But, again, Fellowes’ world-building is a redeeming quality, as he revives the culture of the mid-1800s in 400 pages. The perspective of each family member is also interesting and adds different, more complicated perspectives to the mix.

Recommendation: Fans of Fellowes will probably continue to appreciate his voice and world-building in this novel, though they may be disappointed that it doesn’t live up to the standards set in Downton Abbey. Those interested in learning more about the 1840s will likely also enjoy the plot. And, as I said before, it makes for a good, light summer read. If you’re looking for something to bring with you to the beach or the boat, check Belgravia out. Best yet, you don’t have to worry about reading it in public because there’s not much that will induce tears, though some bits may induce sympathy.

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Ice Like Fire

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: I loved the first book, Snow Like Ashes, and I was psyched to read this sequel, albeit a little wary of middle book syndrome. Turns out, my suspicions were correct; this book exhibits all the symptoms of middle book syndrome: slow plot, poor character development, a focus on romance rather than politics and battle, and a slew of plot conveniences.

This sequel tracks Meira and Theron as they visit other Rythms and Seasons on a sort of political tour, but Meira and Theron are motivated by different causes and this divide threatens to split the couple. As she struggles to draw Theron to her cause, Meira also struggles to keep her powers under control and find a solution that could save not just Winter but her whole world.

In spite of the slow plot, though, I found myself speeding through the novel. Sara Raasch is a great world-builder, and that, at least, was not lost in this sequel.

Part of what slowed the plot down is the alternating perspectives. This technique is used far too often and is often an encumbrance and annoyance, splitting the plot in two and drawing it out longer. In this book, Raasch alternates chapter perspectives between Meira and Mather. While I enjoyed the Meira chapters (lots of world-building there), Mather’s chapters were often slow and more angsty, and they saw little action until the end of the novel. Moreover, the fact that Mather is voiced but Theron is not irks me (#Theira4ever).

The main characters didn’t seem to grow much aside from dealing with their growth in the first book. Raasch did, however, introduce a few side characters who seem to have the spunk and fierceness to quell our thirst for strong characters for the duration of the novel (Feige and Ceridwen come to mind).

This book also took some liberties with the magic part of the world, inventing new rules for the magic as we went and leaving several questions unanswered (why could Meira make it snow in Summer?). While the majority of the plot’s reliance on magic made sense and fit with the previous series, I was confused about some of the additions. Why exactly could the Decay infect other people? If Angra died, wouldn’t the Decay then infect the entire population rather than a select few? Perhaps I missed these details by reading quickly, but I wish Raasch would stick with clear boundaries for the magic and let the plot play out within that world rather than continuing to change the rules.

Recommendation: If you enjoyed the first book in the series, I recommend continuing with it; I have hopes that the last book (Frost Like Night) will make it all worth it. Those who enjoy angsty YA plots where love triangles triumph burden the plot (guilty pleasure, perhaps) might want to start this series just for the second book. I still stand by my opinion that Raasch is an excellent world-builder, so perhaps the book will appeal to you solely for that reason. There is a brothel scene (which the main characters find distasteful) and some violence (beheading, cutting, etc.), so this book is probably best for ages 14+.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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Rating: 4/5

Review: This was the optimal time for me to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs (which is an awesome name). Not only is it Friday the 13th (a notably creepy day for a notably creepy book), but I’m in the midst of researching freak shows for my thesis project (which I’m sure you’ll hear more about on Goodreads). I’ve seen a great deal of odd, even haunting black and white photographs of late, and Miss Peregrine’s seemed like something straight out of my research.

I heard about this book mostly because the movie is coming out in September. It looks like it’s taken quite a few liberties from the book, but Asa Butterfield is starring in it, and I can’t miss that. Naturally, I had to read the book first.

 

I was a little nervous about it because I read other reviews that claimed the book had little plot and was slow in the middle. I did not find this to be true. It was perhaps slow in the middle, but I didn’t see this as a negative note; I mean, what book isn’t slow in the middle? You might say the same thing about Pride and Prejudice or The Count of Monte Cristo or any other of my favorite classics. I think the book needed to be slow in the middle to give the reader a chance to take in the world Riggs built and breathe before the fast-paced ending sucked them back in.

I also believe Riggs builds a unique world. I have read other allegations that his world is too similar to that of the x-men, though you could also say the same of the Percy Jackson series or Avatar: The Last Airbender or even Harry Potter. The people-with-special-abilities-who-attend-training-school/group is a common fictional trope. It’s a popular one, too, because it’s a fantasy people want to buy into. Everyone secretly (0r not-so-secretly) wishes they had some sort of superpower and could go to a school to learn under Dumbledore or Prof. X or just make friends who could teach you. Heck, when I’m sick part of me hopes it’s something the doctors can’t identify and suddenly I’ll be able to do things I couldn’t before. But it’s always just allergies or something normal like that.

Point is, we can’t blame this book for following a fairly successful plot type. Riggs works hard to make his book unique from similar stories, ensuring that the word “peculiar” fits the sort of powers given to the children of the tale. Moreover, he builds a whole world around them, with terrifying beasts and all. Unlike the similar titles I named, Miss Peregrine’s has an unsettling tone. There are happy moments, sure, but even those are darkened with the peculiarity of the children’s powers and somber language and accompanying black-and-white images. This is not a horror tale or a thriller, per se, but it’s a story meant to bother you a while after reading it.

Several reviews have claimed the photos in the book fail to fully fit in the story. While I see where those views are coming from–some of the images of supposedly the same people, for example, seem quite different from one another–I don’t mind it. The pictures set the tone for the novel and differentiate it further from tales of similar worlds by offering a sort of proof in old photographs. It reminds me a little of magical realism, where if you don’t buy into the world of the book, you’re not going to have a good relationship with it.

Though I disagree with many of the negative remarks concerning this book, I find I cannot rate it five stars. I enjoyed the plot, the setting, the language, and the photographs, but I was disappointed in the characterization. I did not feel sympathetic towards Jacob or Emma, and I (ironically) found them to be unbelievable at times. I appreciated some of the side characters, but I wished Jacob and Emma were a little more complex, relatable, and distinctive. Perhaps I will witness their growth through the next books in the series.

Recommendation: This book had some rough language, a bit of violence, and morbid commentary (thinking of you, Enoch). It should be fine for high school students and up, but those sensitive to language and dark scenes might want to hold off a bit. It reminds me a little of the Middle School book Serafina and the Black Cloak, but for a more teenaged audience. If you enjoy reading about freak shows and oddities, you will likely enjoy this read. Fans of Bone Gap interested in a darker novel should check it out, as well. It’s pretty quick to get through, and would make a satisfyingly creepy (yet nightmare-less) Halloween read.

Rutkoski is the Real Winner in The Winner’s Kiss

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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review: It’s always bittersweet to read the conclusion of a series. You want to read it, to have that sense of conclusion so badly, but you’re also afraid of saying goodbye. In the short time it took me to read this novel, I was entranced yet again by the world Marie Rutkoski has built; a world I have not visited in about a year. I’m happy to say the conclusion has left me full of appreciation for Rutkoski.

Kestrel and Arin are just as brilliant as I remember them to be. Kestrel is perhaps one of the most intelligent and tactical characters I have had the pleasure of walking alongside. But she’s not me, and Rutkoski doesn’t try to make her me. That’s where so many YA novels have fallen. They’ve sacrificed their female characters’ originality in an attempt to allow them to reach the reader at their own level. But Kestrel is different than the average reader, I think. She takes risks I don’t think many of us would take. She’s not better than us or worse than us–she’s just different and I love her for that.

I also appreciate Rutkoski’s ability not get lost in the romance. As in the second book of this series, she dedicates proper time and thought to the political and doesn’t force Kestrel and Arin together. I believe the spaces between the romance are when the readers want them to be together most, and this is a plot tactic for which I applaud Rutkoski.

I would have liked to have seen more of the side characters in this novel, as I became close to several of them in the previous book but did not see much of them in this conclusion. I also felt that The Winner’s Crime was superior on a line-by-line basis. Part of what made the second book so good was that I expected little of it, but that just made my expectations higher for this conclusion. Rutkoski certainly met my expectations, but she also has a precedence of exceeding it, which this novel did not do for me.

Nonetheless, the series is brilliant and this book is a fitting conclusion to it all.

Recommendation: Those who have already picked up the first book in the series should certainly not put it down, and should read the series out to its end. I recommend it to those interested in The Hunger Games and The Throne of Glass, as Kestrel is a similarly determined, tactical young protagonist. The series is good for about 14 and up, I’d say.

Winter

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Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: Winter, the finale of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, neatly ties up all the loose ends of the previous three books. The novel effectively concludes the main conflict and follows the four central couples (Cinder & Kai (& Iko), Scarlet & Wolf, Cress & Thorne, and Winter & Jacin) to the end of their story.

Because the tale jumps between four sets of characters and the antagonist Levana, there is not as much room for character growth as there was in the previous books–disappointing because even Meyer’s novellas had strong characterization. I understand that it was necessary to follow all pairings, but this is the same problem I had in Avengers: Age of Ultron; characters were sacrificed for plot.

*spoiler*

Not literally sacrificed, though. Every protagonist survived despite apparent massive casualties in battle. The only character we lost was an adult who was only just introduced to the story. And while the happily-ever-after ending fits the Disney-fied fairy tale feel of the series, it disappoints me–it’s not the ending I expected Meyer to choose. To have one character (or a full pairing) die in the war seems natural and makes the characters more heroic, gives them more to fight for. Moreover, it would resolve the problem of a lack of character growth, shaping the main characters through the loss of their comrade(s). Original fairy tales, after all, often ended in loss.

*end spoiler*

I do appreciate some of the nods to fairy tales, though; Meyer has a knack for subtlety. When Winter eats the poisoned apple treat, for example, she is placed in a stasis chamber which opens into a bed of sorts.

But Winter doesn’t seem like the main character, though the title suggests otherwise. Since the previous three books were titled after their protagonist, this was disappointing. Winter had great potential as a protagonist, but she ends up a sidekick to Cinder, which just made me annoyed with Cinder and anxious to get back to a chapter with the Luna Lovegood-esque Winter. I expected the Lunar sickness to turn her into some sort of oracle. I expected Jacin to sacrifice himself for her. But I suppose I expected too much, and Winter did not become all she could be.

Recommendation: This book is worth reading for those who have come this far–and everyone should come this far because the series is incredibly well-constructed. But be warned that it will likely disappoint readers who have been in awe of Meyer’s strong characterization, which gets lost under the dense plot and large cast.

The series should be safe for advanced middle schoolers and up; it’s enjoyable for all ages.

 

[apologies again for the month-long silence; sophomore year gave me quite a heavy workload! These silences are likely to occur more often as I jump from study abroad trip to a full credit load and four jobs to studying for the GRE, but I will read and review as much as I am able in the meantime.]

 

These Shallow Graves

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Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: I’ve loved Jennifer Donnelly ever since I read Revolution, a book about the French Revolution which has impacted me much more than I expected. When I saw the cover for These Shallow Graves, I admit I felt a little disappointed. It’s a beautiful cover, but I pegged it as less artistic and deep than the covers of her previous novels. To me, the cover makes the book out to be another paranormal thriller type of story, likely featuring vampires. But that’s not Jennifer Donnelly. And that’s not what this book is like.

Set in the 1890s, These Shallow Graves follows Jo Montfort, a young lady who dreams about escaping her duties as an upper-class woman and becoming a reporter like her hero Nellie Bly. When her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she winds up working with Eddie Gallagher, an ambitious young reporter, to try to uncover the truth.

At first, I didn’t buy it. The plot felt predictable and Jo Montfort felt like a familiar character–the typical headstrong young woman stuck in the cage of the upper class.

But then Donnelly threw Eddie Gallagher in the picture, and with him came a slew of unusual characters that brought out a different side of Jo. While I knew the main plot twist from nearly the start of the book, a number of other twists managed to surprise me. Donnelly also managed to capture late nineteenth-century New York in all its depth without overloading me with information. I was a little nervous when I reached the final chapters, as I did not know how the book would end, but that just proves the novel kept me on my toes.

As always, Donnelly understands just how to end things. She doesn’t indulge her readers, but she provides enough information to drive home the meaning of the text and lets the readers guess what happens next.

Recommendation: This novel hits all the right notes. Fans of Donnelly’s previous work should definitely read this one. Anyone interested in catching a glimpse of America in the late 1800s will not be disappointed, either. I think Donnelly is the perfect solution for YA readers who want more than love triangles and shallow messages. I promise this book will both keep such readers enraptured while taking them below surface-level fiction.

The Rose Society

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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review: To be honest, part of me expected Marie Lu to redeem Adelina’s character from villain to hero or to keep Adelina as dark as she was in The Young Elites. I didn’t think Adelina could get much darker–but Lu managed it. By the end of the book, I felt numb from reading Adelina’s violent perspective of the world around her.

In this sequel, Adelina attempts to rise in power and take the throne with the help of her sister and a number of new elites. Her ambition leads her to conflict with old friends and new friends alike, as well as the whispers and illusions her own mind sets against her.

I love that Lu was able to remain focused on the plot rather than the romance without losing the reader’s interest. This quality alone might raise the Young Elites above Lu’s other series, Legend. The only other modern YA series I know that was able to keep its second book afloat without hugging the romance for dear life is Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s trilogy.

Adelina also “trembled” much less in this book than she did in the first (which was a complaint of mine on my Goodreads review of The Young Elites).

Adelina grew in this book to become one of the most powerful female characters I’ve read in YA fiction. I’m convinced that if Adelina knew Machiavelli, the two would’ve gotten along splendidly. What concerns me is that I am led to sympathize with Adelina in a way I would have never thought possible for a Machiavellian character. That’s what makes this series so complex; it attempts to show that even the most fearsome of villains can be relatable or pitiable to an extent.

Of course, it helps that Adelina’s victims are fictional; our reaction would be different if this were nonfiction.

Without giving too much away, I also think the end of this book sets the third book (The Midnight Star) up for greatness. The plot twist reveals something Lu had the foresight to set up in the first book. While my hopes are raised for the third book, I’ll have to pin my feelings about this series as a whole on how Lu concludes it all.

Recommendation: If you read The Young Elites and are debating whether the series is worth finishing–it is. The Young Elites series is original, so anyone interested in reading it should give it a shot, but fans of dark fantasy will likely appreciate it most.

Their Fractured Light

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Rating: 3/5

Review: Their Fractured Light was somewhat of a disappointment (though certainly not in the cover). It’s been a year since I read the last book and two years since I’ve read the first book. From what I remember, Their Fractured Light seems like a very similar romantic plot to the first two novels. *spoiler* Honestly, when I got to see all three couples together, I had a hard time telling them apart. *end spoiler*

I wouldn’t mind that so much–since I loved the first couple books–but I was tired of the characters before they started. I couldn’t buy into the central romantic obstacle of not trusting because the author allowed me to know both sides of the romance and see when both sides were telling the truth. That they didn’t feel like they could trust one another then felt foolish to me.

Maybe I’ve just outgrown this series. I still remember the emotional roller coaster of the first book, but it’s hard to know if my increasing age is why this book felt more like one of those orange and blue slides for toddlers.

Recommendation: This series is best read one after another. Fans of sci-fi, dystopian romances would likely enjoy this series. If you read the first book of this trilogy when it was first released like I did, be warned that you might not enjoy the finale as much as you once hoped.

Bone Gap

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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review: Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap is hard to define. It has a touch of magical realism, which I certainly appreciated, along with some fairy tale, coming of age, and feminist elements, but it has enough of a realistic fiction feel that it’s difficult to categorize, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much (remember my review of a similarly difficult to categorize book).

In the book, Finn O’Sullivan, a quirky teen, tries to find the captor of Roza, a mysterious girl Finn and his older brother Sean took under their wing a while back. The catch? Finn can’t remember the captor’s face, leading the people of Bone Gap to dismiss what he saw as delusional. It’s a book of love, true beauty, and perseverance in the face of obstacles.

While I felt like the plot was hard to keep up with at times, I was able to push past my confusion and enjoy the characters and themes. Ruby has some fantastic feminist characters, and keeps them in touch with real problems like the harm of societal expectations of beauty and sexual harassment. She also tackles other large problems like mental disorders, parental abandonment, and the struggle of living in a small town.

Ruby’s novel performs well on a line-by-line basis, too. The constant referrals to the absurdity of college application essay prompts are humorous and, later on, heartbreaking. More than that, they keep the book relevant to its target audience.

The main flaw in this book is the lack of explanation for certain central problems, but I think that’s always an issue for books with more magical realist qualities. Readers should go into this novel prepared to go along with certain ideas without questioning them.

Recommendation: Those who dislike magical realism should stay away from this book. Teens aged 14 and up would probably appreciate Bone Gap most. There are possible triggers in the chapters covering Roza’s time in college, but Ruby is not graphic. Fans of Magonia will likely enjoy this read (and vice versa).

All the Light We Cannot See

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Rating: 5/5 stars

Review: There’s not much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. It’s beautiful, lyrical, and masterful in its language, imagery, and format. It deserves all the awards it has won.

First I have to applaud Doerr for the amount of research he did to craft this novel. There were some sentences where I had to stop and wonder at the research he must have conducted to make that single sentence, and I know there were other pieces of research so subtly threaded into the text that I didn’t even notice.

Also, this is one of the first books I’ve read where the author successfully jumps between characters, times, and even letters and chapters. It’s organized in two different time frames throughout most of the book and mainly follows Marie-Laure, a blind girl living in Paris with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History as a locksmith, and Werner, a young German orphan with snowy blonde hair and an affinity for electronics and mathematics that leads the Nazis to notice him. Another character, von Rumpel, is an old sergeant major for the Nazis whose job requires him to evaluate and locate treasures for the Third Reich. His search for the Sea of Flames, a gem said to have magical powers to prevent death, leads him to the French town of Saint-Malo, where Werner and Marie-Laure also end up. The way paths cross in this novel–the overlapping of radios, gems, light, darkness, birds, etc.–is gorgeous. I’m still trying to untangle the complicated webs of plot and character that appear here, and I think I will always be trying to untangle them. This is a book that is impressed on my memory.

Consider, for example, this description of characters who never directly come into play:

“[Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel] has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart. He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.” (141)

A later chapter titled “The Simultaneity of Instants” is perhaps the most brilliant chapter of the novel. It jumps from character to character but within the same “instant.” The single paragraph, stream-of-consciousness format of this instant is also brilliant in building suspense.

Letters between Werner and his sister, Jutta, are scattered throughout the book as well. The letters are not important in and of themselves, but the heavy censorship of the letters are interesting and heartbreaking to see.

The jumping between time frames is complicated in that it does reveal certain truths to the audience that the characters themselves are unaware of. We know much early than Marie-Laure, for example, what her father means when he instructs her to look in the house, and I can see how other readers might be bored with this then. Yet the whole truth is never revealed to us. We don’t know what will happen to any of the characters we have come to love until the end of the novel. This is what drove me to continue reading.

Moreover, I think it’s important for this novel to have a non-chronological format. Not only does it build suspense far better than a chronological format and make the novel more unique, but, as historical fiction, it presents a non-linear view of history, which is important. Not everything should be read as a cause-and-effect event. By jumbling the timeline of his plot, Doerr makes history less linear and more circular–or perhaps the more correct term would be “squiggly.” Yes, Doerr’s book is squiggly.

It’s also tragic. Consider this a formal heads up to have tissues ready (if the WWII setting wasn’t enough of an indication). In spite of the tragedy, it ends well–Doerr spends just the right amount of time tying up loose ends.

Recommendation: This strikes me as something fans of The Book Thief would love. I think it’s a good read for anyone with the patience and appreciation for Doerr’s level of detail and an interest in WWII. There is a scene later in the book that may trigger some who have been abused, though Doerr handles the content well.