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+.

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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.

The Heart Goes Last

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: Margaret Atwood’s new dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last, while initially well-designed, fails to make a lasting impression.

The book follows Stan and Charmaine, a young couple living in the midst of an economic crash. Desperate for safety and normality, they sign up for the Positron Project, a clean, structured town where inhabitants live and labor in the gender-separated prison of Positron for a month and stay in the fifties-esque town of Consilience the next. Atwood manages to patch together a world like that of 1984 and The Stepford Wives mixed with her own developments. When both Stan and Charmaine become involved with their “Alternates,” the people who live in their home the months the couple is in prison, the story becomes more complicated.

The novel focuses on the relationship between Stan and Charmaine, which becomes increasingly tangled as the plot progresses. Atwood does a fantastic job adding depth to the couple by revealing their candid, often disturbing thoughts. Even more hauntingly, the dystopian world Atwood describes so well could easily fit into the next few years.

Though unsettling, the book is, at least, an enjoyable read. Stan’s prison side job as chicken pimp, a woman romantically attached to a teddy bear, and the growing absurdity of the main couple’s situation prompt a few smiles.

Atwood’s voice is also impressive. Some of her lines provoke deep thought while others aim to entertain, and she writes so smoothly there is never a clash between the two. She is even able to catch me off guard with a couple plot twists that stomp my initial predictions away.

In the last quarter of the book, though, the story seems to get out of Atwood’s hands. The stitches that pull the novel together become more obvious and start to fray. The plot gradually loses its realism, pieces don’t match up quite right, and secondary characters lose their depth. Worse yet, the dystopian clichés that Atwood initially appears to use jokingly become more serious and groan-worthy. Near the novel’s end, the story’s humor fades and takes on a more moralistic tone.

Atwood crams the last few chapters with events meant to drive the main themes home, but, though interesting, these events seem too much like an afterthought. The final chapters don’t drive the main themes home as much as they pull these themes to the surface. By the end, Atwood bares the story’s already thinly veiled meaning to readers as though they are incapable of jumping to interpretations themselves.

Still, the central meaning is designed better than similar stories, and it is an enjoyable read.

The problem with The Heart Goes Last is not a matter of enjoyment, though. The problem is that the heart of the novel goes before the Atwood is finished, but she keeps working at it anyway, hoping a frenzy of shocks will keep it alive until the end. In truth, the story flat-lines before Atwood is willing to wrap it up.

Recommendation: Fans of Atwood might be able to overlook these issues and appreciate the author’s intent. I think fans of The Stepford Wives and more mature fans of The Giver may also value this novel. It is a likable read for a general audience, but those unable to enjoy books featuring extramarital affairs, customizable prostitute robots, and “Big Brother” settlements should stay away.

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book–even if I didn’t review it until it was published.

The Pros and the Cons of The Wrath and the Dawn

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: I was so ready to love this book. I mean, it’s an adaptation of one of my favorite fairy tale collections. One Thousand and One Nights may be the most misogynistic story I’ve read, but in spite of everything I love Scheherazade.

In a brief summary, the original story is about a king who discovers his wife is cheating on him with slaves and decides to wed a new girl each night (and, yes, that also means consummating the marriage) and kill her in the dawn. Because, you know, all women are evil. Then the clever Scheherazade volunteers to marry this mass murder in order to prevent more deaths. She tells him a story each night and leaves it on a cliffhanger so he has to let her live until she finishes the story the next night. Many of the fairy tales are familiar (like this somehow less sexist version of Sleeping Beauty) and *spoiler* the king pardons her in the end. So though I don’t like the depiction of women as evil creatures, I love that Scheherazade steps up for her fellow women and is clever enough to come up with a plan to postpone her death day after day after day.

From Renee Ahdieh’s adaptation of the book, I think she is equally fascinated with the character Scheherazade (whom she calls Shahrzad or Shazi). I love this main character Ahdieh has recreated; she’s just as brave, cunning, and sharp as I had hoped. Her sharp tongue made me smile more than once and I find her individuality refreshing.

I’m also really glad this adaptation didn’t try to make the story white. Ahdieh paints ancient Middle Eastern culture beautifully.

BUT I can’t base my rating off just the protagonist and the story concept.

While I love Shazi and think Tariq, Jalal, Khalid, and Despina are well-defined characters, many of the other characters lacked development. It would have been better, for example, if Ahdieh wrote more between Shazi and Shiva. As it is, I know very little about Shiva aside from the fact that she was kind and much loved. But what about this girl would lead Shazi to put her life on the line to avenge her death? Shiva is Shazi’s main motivator (at least to start) but I don’t know enough about her to relate to Shazi.

Also, I know absolutely nothing about Shazi’s sister, Irsa. Perhaps she will play more of a role in the second book, but I don’t see the point of her now.

Shazi’s father, Jahandar, is a bit of a mystery, as well. I only know what motivates him but it doesn’t seem to fit together well for me. The image I have of him in the beginning changes very quickly. Without giving anything away, I feel like his character should’ve changed when he heard Shazi’s vengeance plans, not after, when it would’ve been too late. It’s too convenient for the plot as it currently stands.

Tariq’s friend Rahim isn’t well-defined, either. He doesn’t have much of a purpose other than to agree to whatever Tariq suggests (or disagree and provide friendly banter to further define Tariq). I hope to see him play a larger role in the second book, as well.

Tariq’s rebellion isn’t fully-formed, either. Shiva’s father’s involved, which is made out to be important, but he doesn’t really do anything. Tariq wants to rally support but *spoiler* he doesn’t even use that support. Maybe it’ll make sense in the next book, but I didn’t see the point of bringing it up in this book–just save it for later if it’s important then.

While I love that the plot changes the character of the king into less of a jerk (and women to be less unfaithful), I can’t help but wish it had more. More magic, more wit, more royalty.

And perhaps my wish for more will be granted in the sequel. Regardless, this book could’ve had more in places. Magic, for example, is really only important for Jahandar’s role, but *spoiler* it’s revealed that Shazi has magic. And that reveal could’ve packed a punch, but it felt more like a poke. Like, oh, cool I have magic. Oh, cool, I can make this rug fly. It’s not like that would be useful to kill this guy I want vengeance on or visit my family and tell them I’m okay or explain everything to my ex. Nope. Not at all. 

Moreover, Khalid, though well-defined, was not the burdened, intelligent heartthrob I hoped he would be. For someone who’s supposedly a good strategist, Khalid doesn’t let his wife know his big secret, which *spoiler* isn’t even his fault. He could’ve done more, yes, but it’s not like he killed her or caused the miscarriage.  For all the hype, I hoped Khalid’s reason for killing so many women was his own fault. As it stands, I don’t think he would be so protective of something–especially when Shazi’s the one asking (and when she has death on her mind).

I can overlook a couple plot holes–it is based on a fairy tale, after all–but unreasonable or underdeveloped characters and misused suspense? That’s something I can’t ignore.

Recommendation: It doesn’t give readers a play-by-play of Shazi and Khalid in bed, its implications are clear. Not explicit, but certainly not a family read-aloud and probably best fit for ages 15 and up.

This book is best for anyone who loves fairy tale adaptations, Middle Eastern culture, romance, and sassy female leads. While it’s not as deep as I’d hoped, it makes for a good light read.

A Review of Serafina and the Black Cloak

I had the privilege of reading an advanced review copy for a middle school novel! Spread the word if you know anyone else looking for advanced reviewers; I love reviewing novels. Plus, free books are always nice.
Here’s my review:
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty blends fantasy, historical fiction, mystery, and thriller.
The novel is set at the Biltmore estate in late 1800s America. When twelve year old Serafina discovers a dark secret behind the recent disappearances of local children, it’s up to her (and her unlikely friend) to figure it out.
When I say it like that, this story sounds similar to a thousand other tales I’ve read, but trust me when I say it’s not. Summarizing just isn’t my strong suit.
In addition to telling an intriguing story, the novel looks at what it means to be evil or good, teaches the values of observation and courage, and emphasizes the importance of those labeled unimportant.
I recommend the book for ages 11-14 in particular, but sensitive readers might want to wait until they’re at the end of that age group. There was no issue with language or sexuality and the violence wasn’t too graphic, though there were a couple good vs evil battles. As my 12-year-old brother put it, “It’s not scary, but it’s creepy.” That said, fans of Tim Burton especially will enjoy this novel.
Though I’m out of my recommended age group and I’m not a big fan of Tim Burton, I enjoyed this novel. Admittedly, I didn’t get into it until chapter 6, but after that chapter, I couldn’t put it down. My recommendation, then, is just a suggestion for who I think would enjoy it most.
Also, in response to the question I would have asked when I was within the recommended age group, yes, there is a bit of romance in this novel.
For those interested, the novel will be released July 15, 2015.