Princess of Thorns: A Review

 “Once upon a time there lived a prince and princess with no happy ever after . . . “

Princess of Thorns by Stacey JayIn the kingdom of Norvere, two briar-born children are forced into hiding when their father is murdered and their mother–the Sleeping Beauty–is imprisoned by the ogre queen. Eventually Aurora and Jor escape. Thanks to her mother, Aurora is blessed with enhanced strength, a brave spirit, a merciful mind, and a heart no man she loves will dare defy. It will take Aurora nearly ten years to understand the full weight of that; to understand that fairy blessings can be gifts as easily as they can be curses.

The immortal king of Kanvasola cursed his eleven sons so that no heir might live to challenge his claim to the throne. But the immortal king found a gentle witch who doomed the sons to change into swans on their eighteenth birthday instead of death. As the years passed, ten sons were transformed. The eleventh, Niklaas, hopes to break the spell and change his fate by journeying to Norvere to find and marry the princess Aurora.

When her brother is captured by the ogre queen, Aurora disguises herself as a boy to try to raise an army and reclaim her kingdom before it’s too late. Niklaas agrees to help, thinking it will bring him closer to Aurora and the end of his own curse.

It will take trust and sacrifice from both prince and princess if they hope to save Norvere and rescue Aurora’s brother before all is lost. With so much at stake, Aurora and Niklaas will have to try to survive before they can even consider their happy ending in Princess of Thorns (2014) by Stacey Jay.

Dual narration from Aurora and Niklaas offer a balanced story in this action-packed high fantasy fairy tale that references the stories of “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Swan Princess.” Jay takes both stories in unexpected directions as Aurora and Niklaas embark on a cross-country journey to try and save Aurora’s brother Jor.

In addition to action and humor, Princess of Thorns is a fantasy with feminist elements as Aurora struggles to reconcile who she is (capable, single-minded, strong) with what is typically expected of a princess. Niklaas faces similar moments of doubt and confusion in his narration. While both characters begin the story flawed–Niklaas’ views are often primitive or reductive while Aurora is painfully reckless–their growth is obvious over the course of the narrative. Even knowing more than both narrators, readers will find a few satisfying surprises here–particularly in the final act.

Brief scenes from the ogre queen Ekeeta’s perspective add another layer to this story and make Ekeeta a complex character of her own rather than merely a stock villain. Although there is often a fundamental lack of communication between the two protagonists, it is a plot device that is used well throughout the story in combination with the alternating narration to create a story that is an absolute page-turner.

Working within the confines of both Aurora and Niklaas’s curses, Jay offers a thoughtful story with as much external plot as there is internal character development. With magic, adventure and romance Princess of Thorns is a story that is as enchanting as any fairy tale.

Possible Pairings: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Girl Who Never Was by Skylar Dorset, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Hero by Alethea Kontis, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Chasing Power: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Chasing Power by Sarah Beth DurstKayla had planned to spend her summer lazing about the beach in Santa Barbara with her best friend Selena and occasionally stealing things here and there to keep her mind sharp. After all, a sharp mind is very important when you can use it to move things.

Her plans for the summer are effectively derailed when a boy named Daniel appears out of nowhere. Literally. Because Daniel has a power of his own–the ability to teleport anywhere instantly. Threatened with blackmail, Kayla agrees to help Daniel steal a set of three ancient artifacts to help Daniel rescue his kidnapped mother.

As Daniel and Kayla travel around the world to collect the artifacts, Kayla soon realizes that the secrets she has been keeping, the kidnapping, and the artifacts may all connect back to each other–and to her own family–in a shocking act of betrayal that could change everything in Chasing Power (2014) by Sarah Beth Durst.

While Kayla is a willful and often impulsive character, she is also an honest one who is willing to own up to her mistakes. Kayla’s own rash behavior is balanced well by best friend Selena who offers a down-to-earth foil to Kayla’s magical powers. Kayla’s mother is another a great addition to this story with her own charms–both magical and otherwise.

Chasing Power is a streamlined blend of magic, romance and page-turning action. This story is part urban fantasy and part treasure hunt in a satisfying blend of adventure and suspense.

Possible Pairings: White Cat by Holly Black, Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, Rampant by Diana Peterfreund, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Companions of the Night by Vivian Vande Velde, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

*A copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2014*

Clariel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Clariel by Garth NixClariel is the daughter of one of the most renowned goldsmiths in the Old Kingdom. With ties to both the Abhorsen and the king, she also is part of a powerful family line. Despite the supposed prestige, Clariel wants nothing to do with her mother’s goldsmith work or the city of Belisaere which will apparently further her mother’s ambitions.

While Clariel plots her escape back to the Great Forest near Estwael, she finds herself drawn again and again into political machinations within Belisaere. The more she tries to escape, the more problems (ranging from a Free Magic to a decidedly unwanted marriage proposal) appear to keep Clariel in the city.

Clariel knows her own mind better than most and is determined to choose her own path no matter who or what might try to stop her. But with so many temptations and obstacles, can Clariel ever truly be free? More importantly, how many times can a passion be thwarted before it goes horribly, irreparably astray in Clariel (2014) by Garth Nix?

Clariel is a prequel to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series. It is set roughly 600 years before the events in Sabriel (the first Old Kingdom book).

Readers of the Old Kingdom books will know that Clariel eventually becomes Chlorr of the Mask–a villain who features in first three Old Kingdom novels. Beyond that fact, Clariel is its own story. Free of spoilers for the rest of this series, this book can serve as an equally good entry point for readers looking to discover the world of the Old Kingdom.

Clariel is a brusque, singular protagonist. For most of the novel she cares little about others or anything beyond her immediate desire to return to the Great Forest. In a lesser narrative these attributes might have made for a self-absorbed heroine and little else. Clariel, however, is much more than that. Even though her agency is undermined again and again, even while she is constantly manipulated, Clariel remains her own woman.

In Clariel, Garth Nix presents a nuanced story about choice and redemption featuring a capable heroine. Even knowing what Clariel eventually becomes, Nix has delivered a story that is as taut as it is heartbreaking. A must-read for fans of high fantasy.

Possible Pairings: Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Fire by Kristin Cashore, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

*A copy of this book was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2014 for review consideration*

The Unbound: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The UnboundMackenzie Bishop is a Keeper for the the Archive–a library where the dead rest on shelves like books–where she works to keep violent Histories from escaping their shelves.

Last summer she almost lost her life to one such History.

In the intervening months Mac has tried to get her life back together–as much as it can be when she spends so much time lying to everyone she knows and lurking in shadows. But with nightmares that feel real, a new school, and members of the Archive who would sooner see her removed than recovered, Mackenzie isn’t sure how to get back to normal.

When people in town begin to disappear, Mac’s doubts about herself and her safety grow. The disappearances don’t seem to have anything in common. Except Mackenzie herself. Solving the disappearances could help Mac keep her freedom and reclaim some modicum of safety as she truly puts the past behind her. Failure could mean losing her memories, her place in the Archive and her life in The Unbound (2014) by Victoria Schwab.

The Unbound is the sequel to Schwab’s novel The Archived. This book continues several weeks after the conclusion of The Archived with handy flashbacks and recaps to explain key events from the first book. The Unbound works well as a standalone however it does contain mild spoilers for The Archived.

Flashbacks and dreams lend an otherworldly quality to this eerie novel as Mackenzie tries to make sense of her life in the wake of fighting an escaped History. Despite her strong face, cracks are beginning to show in Mac’s carefully constructed armor; it is becoming harder to keep her life at the Archive separate from the life she pretends to lead.

While readers got a sense of Mac in the first book, they really get to know her in The Unbound. Mac’s unflinching loyalty to the Archive was already shaken but now it is shattered as much of what she knows about the Archive is thrown into question. Mac’s friends, a blend of familiar faces from book one as well as some new characters, add another dimension and levity to the story.

Schwab once again delivers a dazzling blend of mystery and fantasy in an entirely unique world in The Unbound. Vivid characters and breathtaking prose guarantee readers will be clamoring for a third book.

Possible Pairings: The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, Blackfin Sky by Kat Ellis, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones Drawing the Ocean by Carolyn MacCullough, Vibes by Amy Kathleen Ryan, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

The Space Between Trees: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Space Between Trees by Katie WilliamsSixteen-year-old Evie is always ready to share a good story. The problem is that sometimes those stories start to look a lot like lies. Especially when Evie tries to claim the story as her own in the telling.

That’s how things start with Jonah Luks. Before she knows it, Evie is spinning out a largely imagined relationship with the older college dropout she encounters every week on her paper route. It’s a harmless story and an even more harmless crush. Nothing else.

Until Evie sees Jonah report the dead body he found in the woods. Until Evie watches the body being pulled out of the woods in a bag.

In her efforts to write herself into this new, worse, story Evie’s lies become bigger; harder to contain and impossible to ignore. Everything changes after the body is found in the woods and people begin to wonder what sort of violence has come into their secluded community. What Evie doesn’t realize, at least not right away, is that in the wake of this story she might change too in The Space Between Trees (2010) by Katie Williams.

The Space Between Trees is an expertly told story with flawless pacing. The mystery surrounding the murder unfolds in a natural and believable way that makes for a seamless plot. Evie is a fascinating narrator. She is unreliable on a very basic level with everyone she interacts with during the story. Nothing Evie says can be taken as the exact, full, truth. Yet to readers Evie is achingly honest as she shares her observations and hopes in equal measure.

This is a deceptively short story with layers upon layers of interpretation and a nice bit of substance under the mystery elements. Williams raises interesting questions here about what it means to tell stories versus the truth as well as pondering along with Evie how experiences (both told and lived) can shape a person.

The Space Between Trees is literary and thoughtful in a way that feels effortless. Evie is a strong and utterly original narrator who is as flawed as she is insightful. Like its heroine, this mystery that will stay with readers long after the final story is told. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, All Fall Down by Ally Carter,The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Imaginary Girls: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“It sounded impossible, something no one would believe if anyone other than Ruby were the one to tell it. But Ruby was right: The body found that night wouldn’t be, couldn’t be mine.”

Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren SumaChloe’s older sister, Ruby, has said a lot of things over the years. She’s said that Chloe would never drown. She said she was there when Chloe first opened her eyes. Sometimes she would say that Chloe was her baby when Ruby herself was only five years old.

Everyone always believes Ruby. Believing her is easy.

Loving her is easy.

Anything Ruby wants, she can get. Until one night a party by the local reservoir goes horribly wrong and a dead girl is found floating in the water. The body of London Hayes does the unthinkable driving Ruby and Chloe apart when Chloe leaves.

Returning two years after that horrible night, Chloe finds that nothing is how it used to be in town anymore. Nothing, in fact, is quite right. Soon secrets, and even some lies, stack up between Chloe and Ruby that threaten to tear them apart. But bonds like theirs–like sisters who love each other better than anyone else–are not easily broken in Imaginary Girls (2011) by Nova Ren Suma.

Imaginary Girls is an eerie blend of suspense and magic realism. Suma’s prose is taut and filled with tension as narrator Chloe works to unravel the lies and secrets surrounding her larger than life big sister. Suma also weaves elements of a local legend into the story as Ruby (and by extension Chloe) become fascinated by the town of Olive–a town supposedly buried underwater when the area was flooded to create a new reservoir.

Filled with subtle writing that is equal parts vivid and razor sharp, Imaginary Girls is a surprising mystery that will keep readers guessing. There is a constant struggle here as Chloe works to determine what is real and what is something else. By creating a character like Ruby with so much power and charm throughout the novel, Suma offers a powerful commentary on the limits of both belief and persuasion in this story.

Imaginary Girls is a sophisticated book, a slow burn of a read that will linger. It’s impossible to say what, exactly, happens over the course of the novel. The entire plot lends itself to multiple interpretations and discussions. What is certain is that Imaginary Girls is filled with wit, humor and love. As much as this story can be a mystery or a thriller, what remains at the end of the novel is an ode to the enduring strength of sisterly love.

Possible Pairings: The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst, Golden by Jessi Kirby, Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

You can also read my exclusive interview with Nova about this book.

Blank Confession: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Blank Confession by Pete HautmanBlank Confession (2010) by Pete Hautman

Shayne Blank doesn’t expect to make friends or even really get to know anyone when he comes to town. Then he walks into the police station to confess to a murder. Shayne’s confession is woven with a narrative from the perspectives of Shayne’s newest (most well-dressed) friend Mikey and the world weary detective interviewing Shayne.

The story here has good writing as well as an intriguing premise. Unfortunately that does not make for a good book in this case. Mikey, who narrates most of the story, is a caricature at best with his pipsqueak persona and suit-wearing style. The phrasing throughout the novel verges on the absurd with motorcycles being referred to as “crotch rockets” at least three times, among other atrocities.

Shayne is an under-developed character. Readers learn more about him in the last chapter than they do in the entire rest of the novel. While the idea is sound, and the story is short making it potentially great for reluctant readers, the characters drag this book down. The premise of a high school bully having the capacity to menace an entire town quickly wears thin as do the stunningly flat female character (because yes, there is only one).