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.

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.

A Court of Thorns and Roses

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Review: Another book I was so ready to love–but didn’t.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge fan of fairy tales. I love how everything has a purpose even if it seems completely random. I love how they can turn so quickly from romance to tragedy. I love how occasionally–not often, but occasionally–a subtly empowering female figure steps into the fray.

It’s no surprise, then, that I also love adaptations of fairy tales. And, props to Sarah J. Maas, her adaptation draws more from Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast than the Disney version. When “Beauty” (Feyre) mentioned her older sisters, I squealed. That’s how excited I get when authors adapt the original stories. From the first few chapters, I was hooked. I wanted to see this strong, independent hunter girl take down the beast.

But the beast (Tamlin) didn’t need anyone to take him down. In fact, he’s the one who seems to take Feyre down, and even that doesn’t take as much work as I’d like–it’s not so hard to get a human to fall in love with you if you look like a freakin’ god.

Another YA book, another instalove story.

So the first couple hundred pages of the book is that constant “he loves me, he loves me not” questioning where the readers complain about the protagonist’s blindness. Yes, he loves you. We get it. He’s handsome, he thinks you’re beautiful, move on already. In spite of the hostilities and mystery surrounding her, Feyre allows romance to take the central theme of the plot.

And why does Tamlin constantly blame Feyre for being attractive to him? Like he can’t control himself, but he can control Feyre? He tells her “don’t ever disobey me again” and says he “can’t be held accountable for the consequences” even when the consequence is his own lust for her.

I’ve said it. This story doesn’t show love–it shows lust. Aside from one scene where Tamlin notes how easily Feyre understands him, there’s nothing more to their romance than mutual passions. More than lust, it shows the sort of dominant-subordinate roles common in abusive relationships.

And then action happens again and Lucien is amazing and Feyre’s sisters are amazing and Rhysand is amazing and Amarantha is–well, terrifying–and every character seems multi-faceted EXCEPT Feyre and Tamlin and I want to yell at this book because is it really so hard to stick to a strong, interesting female character?

Not to mention the fact that the trials and the riddle are way too predictable.

Why two and a half stars out of five, you ask? Why not lower? Like I said, the rest of the characters are amazing and complex and Maas clearly worked hard to weave the original into the adaptation. The setting is gorgeous and Maas has created yet another fascinating world for this series. I’m hopeful that the second book will focus more on the war in the plot rather than the romance, and from the way the first book ends, it looks like some of my favorite characters will play a larger role in the next book.

Recommendation: Fans of Alex Flinn and Donna Jo Napoli‘s fairy tale adaptations will likely enjoy this read.

I would recommend those interested in fairy tale adaptations to look into Marissa Meyer’s YA sci-fi Lunar Chronicles, Ruth Frances Long’s stand-alone The Treachery of Beautiful Things, or Shannon Hale’s fantasy MS series Books of Bayern instead.