Froi of the Exiles: A Review

Froi of the Exiles by Melina MarchettaIt has been three years since the curse on Lumatere was lifted. Three years since the Lumaterans trapped inside the kingdom for ten long years and those exiled during the siege reclaimed their land and tried to make it whole. But memories are long and recovery is slow as the country come to terms with what was lost during the time of the unspeakable and what has changed forever.

During his years as an exile, Froi never imagined he would find a home in Lumatere much less a position in the Queen’s Guard. He could not have guessed that he would one day count Queen Isaboe and her consort, Finnikin among his dearest friends. Even with so much changed, Froi is haunted by who he was during the exile. He has sworn a bond to the queen, and to Lumatere, that he might make up for his past and never stray again.

That bond is sorely tested when Froi is sent to a neighboring kingdom on a secret mission. In Charyn’s royal court Froi finds a princess who may speak prophecy or madness and twins who can offer two halves of the story behind Charyn’s own curse–and secrets of Froi’s past–if only they can learn to speak to each other again. In a barren kingdom where brutality has become more valuable than compassion for most, Froi will have to decide if he can stay true to his bond to Lumatere while also doing what is right in Froi of the Exiles (2012) by Melina Marchetta.

Froi of the Exiles is the second book in Marchetta’s Chronicles of Lumatere which begins with Finnikin of the Rock.

Froi of the Exiles is a sweeping novel that blows the world of the Chronicles of Lumatere open as Froi and readers are introduced to new countries and cultures. This novel brings the strangely barren land of Charyn to life with stark, vivid descriptions. The dangers found in much of Charyn are expertly contrasted with moments of wondrous beauty and tempered by the sharp wit of these characters.

Marchetta offers a thoughtful meditation on forgiveness and recovery in Froi of the Exiles. Every character here has been broken in some way–sometimes by looming curses and other times by the casual cruelty of other people–that damage and those scars are givens. But it never defines them. Each character, but especially Froi, strives throughout the novel to move past that hurt and to take the damaged pieces and make himself into something stronger and better.

Froi of the Exiles is a masterful and well-executed novel where every word matters and the story will completely enthrall readers. Highly recommended. Part of a must-read series for fans of high fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Exquisite Captive by Heather Demetrios, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia A. McKillip , The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

A Thousand Nights: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Thousand Nights by E. K. JohnstonLo-Melkhiin has married many times. He has already killed three hundred girls when he arrives at a village in the desert looking for a new wife. One girl knows he will want only the lovliest girl has his new bride. She knows he will want her sister.

To make sure her sister is safe, she ensures that she will be taken in her place. She knows that she will die soon but it will be worthwhile because her sister will live. In their village she will become a smallgod; a legend to whom her relatives and ancestors will send their prayers.

But she doesn’t die her first night in the palace. Nor the next. Instead, she uses her precious, unexpected time to make sense of the dangers and beauties she finds in the palace.

Everyone agrees that Lo-Melkhiin is a good ruler. Many claim he was a good man once. No one knows what went wrong. No one knows how to change it. His newest bride might have the power to  save Lo-Melkhiin and the kingdom. But only if she can stay alive in A Thousand Nights (2015) by E. K. Johnston.

Johnston stays true to the oral tradition of fairy tales in this retelling of “One thousand and One Nights” complete with the subtle changes and omissions that come from many, many tellings. Because of that it is fitting that most of the characters in A Thousand Nights have no names.

This story is also subverts many fairy tale conventions and gender roles by placing a girl not only as the protagonist but also as the hero and driving force of the story–a theme that is further underscored by this girl at the center of the novel having no name of her own.

A Thousand Nights is a quiet, understated book. Although it lacks the flash and fanfare of high action, it more than makes up for that with thoughtfully developed characters and provocative introspection throughout. The novel includes a strong emphasis on craft–the power that comes from making something both with intangible things like words in stories and also with more physical creations including embroidery, weaving, and sculpture.

With subversive themes and a strong feminist thread, Johnston creates a retelling that impressively transcends its source material to become something new. Lyrical writing and evocative descriptions complete the spell that is A Thousand Nights. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little, Sabriel by Garth Nix, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

*This book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2015*

You can also check out my interview with the author about this book!

The Walls Around Us: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We were alive. I remember it that way. We were still alive, and we couldn’t make heads or tails of the darkness, so we couldn’t see how close we were to the end.”

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren SumaAmber is an inmate at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center. She might have been innocent once but that’s a hard quality to hold onto on the inside. Like most of the girls at Aurora Hills, Amber is obsessed with the regrets inherent in choosing one path over the other; with the moment everything goes wrong.

Violet, on the other hand, is at the start of a promising ballet career on the outside. Violet has never had much use for co-dependence when her own success and future are at stake. She has a singular focus on the future, on what comes next, on endings.

Then there’s Orianna. Her story is inextricably linked to both Amber’s and Violet’s, but it’s only in the gaps and overlaps in both of their stories that anyone can begin to understand Ori’s.

These three girls had lives and dreams and futures on the outside. They have secrets they keep close inside the walls of Aurora Hills and in their own hearts. At some point three girls arrive at Aurora Hills. But only time will tell if all of them get to walk away in The Walls Around Us (2015) by Nova Ren Suma.

Every aspect of The Walls Around Us comes together to deliver a story about contrasts in one form or another, something that often comes across in terms of themes like guilt vs. innocence and perception vs. reality. Even the title of the book and the vines on the cover hint at the dichotomy between what is “inside” and “outside” for these characters whose lives are all defined in some way by arriving at the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center as well as by the secrets that they hold close.

Subtle characterization and Suma’s deliberate writing serve to bring the two narrators, Amber and Violet, to life.

Amber’s narration is filled with short sentences and staccato declarations. She has spent so long defining herself as part of the whole at Aurora Hills that for much of her narration she describes herself as part of a collective “we”; part of a group comprised of her fellow inmates even when she is usually on the periphery as an observer. Everything about Amber’s narration focuses on beginnings and the past. Her chapter titles are always taken from the first words of her chapters. She has an intense and pathological fear of choosing the unknown and having to start again–a motif that is brought to disastrous fruition by the end of the novel.

Violent, despite being on the outside, is a harder character with sharper edges. Her narrative is filled with racing thoughts and run-on sentences. Her chapters are all titled for the final words in her chapters. Throughout the novel she returns, again and again, to what her future will hold. Until the end of the novel when her ever-forward momentum is cut abruptly and permanently short.

Although she is not a narrator and is most often seen in flashbacks or memories, Orianna is the third pivotal character in the novel. Everything Violet and Amber do within the arc of the book is informed by their relationships to Orianna. If Amber is meant to signify the past in The Walls Around Us and Violet is meant to exemplify the future, it’s safe to argue that Orianna is firmly grounded in the present with all of the opportunity and promise that position implies.

Suma’s lush writing moves readers between the past and the present as the story shifts fluidly between Amber and Violet’s memories of what brought them to Aurora Hills and what comes after in this novel that explores the cost of freedom and the power of hope.

The Walls Around Us received 5 starred reviews and much critical acclaim. It is a masterful blend of literary writing, magic realism and a decidedly eerie ghost story. With a layered and thoughtful plot, vivid prose, and skillfully explore themes and characters, The Walls Around Us is not to be missed. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tiny Pretty Things by Dhonielle Clayton and Sona Charaipotra, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, With Malice by Eileen Cook, Bunheads by Sophie Flack, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Birthmarked: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Birthmarked by Caragh M. O'BrienIn a future where the world has been baked dry and the Great Lakes are empty craters, sixteen-year-old Gaia Stone’s world is divided by the walls of the Enclave. The privileged few living inside the walls want for nothing; their lives the stuff of legend with decadence and comfort documented for all to admire at the Tvaltar.

Gaia Stone has always known that her place is outside the walls. The Enclave does not welcome people with scars or burns especially not when they are as visible as the one on Gaia’s face. Like her mother before her, Gaia works as a midwife helping the women in Western Sector 3 deliver their babies. Like her mother, Gaia also fills the baby quota each month by “advancing” a handful of newborns to live inside the Enclave walls.

It is only after her parents are arrested that Gaia begins to wonder about the true purpose of the baby quote and what else the Enclave might be hiding. Gaia knows she has to try to infiltrate the Enclave and rescue her parents no matter the risk in Birthmarked (2010) by Caragh M. O’Brien.

Birthmarked is O’Brien’s first novel and the start of her Birthmarked trilogy which continues with Prized and Promised.

Birthmarked is utterly engrossing and atmospheric. Readers are immediately drawn into Gaia’s world and the complex politics surrounding the Enclave. Third person narration and flashbacks to Gaia’s past lend an introspective quality to this otherwise taut narrative.

Gaia’s arc throughout the story is handled extremely well as she begins to learn more about the Enclave and the politics surrounding it. O’Brien expertly demonstrates Gaia’s growth as well as her changing attitudes throughout the novel.

Every detail in Birthmarked is thoughtfully placed within a complex world and intricate prose where even the vocabulary is often unique and the dialog simmers with unspoken chemistry. Although this novel starts a trilogy, it also offers a self-contained story that leaves room to ponder and to savor. Birthmarked is a fast-paced, vibrant book that is absolutely brilliant. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Eve by Anna Carey, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Wither by Lauren DeStefano, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, Legend by Marie Lu, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

The Rose and the Beast: A Review

The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia BlockIn this collection of nine short stories, Block offers surprising retellings of fairy tales ranging from “Thumbelina” and “The Snow Queen” to “Cinderella” and “Snow White.”

Every story has an eerie, otherworldly quality thanks to Block’s unique writing style that reads more like free verse poetry than traditional prose. Although the interpretations vary, some with elements of fantasy and others grounded firmly in the modern world, each story in The Rose and the Beast is imbued with feminist discourse and strong characters.

It’s always difficult to give a short story collection a proper review, especially in this case when the stories are so similar in style yet also so different in their execution. There are not a lot of happily ever afters here. Princes don’t always come to rescue princesses. Magic isn’t always friendly. And the stories here are rarely kind.

Ideal for readers who enjoy short stories or reluctant readers looking for some quick reads. The Rose and the Beast is also sure to appeal to readers who like twisted fairy tales or fairy tale interpretations with more bite.

Possible Pairings: The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, Poisoned Apples: Poems For You My Pretty by Christine Hepperman, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Curses, Inc. by Vivian Vande Velde

Just Ella: A Review

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson HaddixWhen Ella attends the royal ball and wins the affections of Prince Charming, it should be a dream come true. All of the other pining girls in the kingdom of Fridesia certainly think so. When Ella is whisked to the palace for her engagement, it should be the perfect happy ending.

But life in the palace isn’t what Ella imagined. Instead of being welcomed and accepted Ella is subjected to countless lessons on etiquette and manners, genealogy and protocol. Ella is told how to dress, how to behave and where to go at all times.

No matter what she does, it seems that Ella is wrong or committing some grievous faux pas.

All of that might be bearable with Prince Charming beside her. But after their whirlwind romance at the ball, Ella is beginning to realize that Prince Charming’s beautiful face isn’t hiding inner depths. In fact, it isn’t hiding much at all.

Ella got herself to the ball and into  the palace. She’ll have to trust her instincts and ingenuity again to get herself out in Just Ella (1999) by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

Just Ella is the first book in Haddix’s Palace Chronicles series which continues with Palace of Mirrors and Palace of Lies.

Just Ella is an original retelling of Cinderella that considers what might come after the typical happily ever after ending of the fairy tale. While Ella though marrying Prince Charming would be her dream come true she finds it hard to reconcile the luxury and rigidity of palace life with the common sense she developed while working as a servant for her step-mother and step-sisters.

Although Ella is a teenaged character (and getting ready to marry) her narrative reads much younger making Just Ella a book with crossover potential for middle grade and young adult readers. Colloquialisms in the dialog and Ella’s modern sensibilities also led this story a fractured fairy tale vibe as the original fairy tale is bent and twisted to a more modern atmosphere and tone.

Just Ella is not always a ground-breaking story–the plot and themes here will be immediately recognizable by any fans of “anti-princess” tales–but Ella has her own charms as she struggles to make her own happy ending. Worth a look for any fairy tale readers and especially fans of retellings.

Possible Pairings: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Bone Gap: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Bone Gap by Laura RubyNo one in Bone Gap is surprised when Roza disappears. People have been leaving the O’Sullivan brothers for years and it only makes sense that the girl who appeared out of nowhere should leave just as suddenly.

Finn O’Sullivan knows that Roza didn’t just leave. And he knows that he didn’t do anything to save her.

Months later most everyone in Bone Gap has given up pretending to believe Finn’s story about the man who took Roza. Even Finn’s brother, Sean, is tired of hearing about the man with the unique stillness and the face Finn can never quite describe.

Finn refuses to stop looking. His search will take him deep into the secrets of Bone Gap to places he couldn’t imagine. In trying to find Roza, Finn will learn that sometimes you have to stop looking before you can truly see in Bone Gap (2015) by Laura Ruby.

Bone Gap is a rich and atmospheric novel. The town of Bone Gap is a strange place filled with secrets and magic that most people have forgotten. In a town populated with strange and vivid characters even Bone Gap itself becomes an indelible part of this novel that is firmly grounded with a strong sense of place.

Some would call Bone Gap magic realism but references to fairy tales and magic bring a purer form of fantasy to mind in this story where beauty can be a curse and being blind is sometimes the best way to see.

Bone Gap masterfully blends myth and magic in a contemporary setting to create a thoughtful story filled with unlikely heroes, surprising twists and a plot that expertly subverts traditional fairytale tropes. Bone Gap is a lovely, unexpected novel that is incredibly smart. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby, The Rose and the Beast by Francesca Lia Block, The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, The Weight of Feathers by Anne-Marie McLemore, The Boneshaker by Kate Milford, Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff