Challenger Deep: A Rapid Fire Review

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

Challenger Deep by Neal ShustermanIn a year when we have books like All These Bright Places with deeply damaging portrayals of mental illness, the literary world needed this honest portrayal of one boy’s struggle with schizophrenia. (Although it has to be said that the inclusion of illustrations from Shusterman’s own son felt a bit indulgent.)

Sadly, because I have a heart of stone, this book left me deeply unaffected. It’s one of those where I can tell it’s Important but I also can’t bring myself to Care on a personal level as a reader. I think Challenger Deep is a great book to recommend to readers; the way in which Shusterman weaves everything together clearly demonstrates his talents as an author. This book definitely and completely deserves the praise its been getting solely for what its done to get more people talking about mental health and mental illness.

The one flaw here is having Caden’s medications leave him numb. I don’t know where to begin with the fact that in his author’s note Shusterman says he experienced that effect himself when he accidentally took two pills. That’s not how treatment with medication works. At all. Why would his reaction to the pills be at all indicative of how someone who actually needs the pills would react to them? No. Just no.

Challenger Deep won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That says a lot about the level of skill in Shusterman’s writing while handling a difficult topic and wrestling with some complicated material. The way in which this story weaves together Caden’s reality with his hallucinations–seamlessly moving between moments of madness and clarity, as it were–is fascinating and intricate and handled very, very well. An interesting and important addition to the ongoing conversation about mental illness.

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Briar Rose: A Rapid Fire Book Review

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen (2015)

Briar RoseRebecca and her sisters were always fascinated by their grandmother’s stories. Especially Sleeping Beauty. Although her sisters eventually lost interest, Rebecca never did. Years later, when Gemma is dying, Rebecca is the one who sits and listens to her tales. Rebecca is the one who hears Gemma claim that she was Briar Rose. And it is Rebecca–now a twenty-three-year-old journalist–who will follow her grandmother’s claims from their home in the US to Poland.

Yolen delivers an unlikely retelling of Sleeping Beauty in this haunting novel that blends fact with fiction. The story of Sleeping Beauty weaves together with details of the Holocaust and the brutality and horrors suffered by so many in Nazi Concentration Camps.

Originally published in 1988, parts of this novel are dated with outmoded technology and pre-Internet research. The tense and tone of Briar Rose build distance into the story as well effectively keeping readers at a remove for most of the novel. Although ultimately a story with a happy ending, Briar Rose is also imbued with sadness from the beginning even as Gemma tells her Sleeping Beauty story in flashbacks.

This isn’t a story for everyone and not a conventional retelling although elements of Sleeping Beauty do come into play with Gemma’s history as Rebecca investigates it. Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction or are interested in World War II.

A Little in Love: A (Rapid Fire) Review

A Little in Love by Susan Fletcher (2015)

A Little in Love by Susan FletcherA Little in Love is a retelling of Les Miserables which focuses on Eponine’s story. In reading this book I discovered that, despite seeing the musical in college, I had retained very little of the story. Worse, I realized I had very little interest in reading a new retelling.

In retrospect this should have been obvious to me, but A Little in Love is not a fun story. One might even go as far as to say that it was, well, miserable. Eponine has a hard life which Fletcher aptly fleshes out in this story. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough to hold my attention.

The characters, particularly Eponine’s cruel parents, came across as thinly-drawn caricatures while the story lacked much forward momentum and demanded little investment from me as a reader. The writing also felt stilted with florid descriptions to no particular purpose.

I could see this appealing to fans of Hugo’s original novel or the musical. It would also work well for readers who enjoy reading sad stories. For me, however, this one largely missed the mark.

*An advance copy of this book was acquire from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Dreamstrider: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith (2015)

Dreamstrider by Lindsay SmithLivia is the only dreamstrider in the Barstadt Empire. Thanks to her special ability to travel into Oneiros, the dream world, Livia can inhabit the bodies of others and access their memories. Both of which make her uniquely suited to work as a spy for her country. Livia’s work also gives her the chance to earn her freedom and leave her past as a lower-class tunnel dweller behind. But trouble is lurking and with only her partner Brandt by her side, Livia is uncertain who she can trust as the stakes climb higher.

Dreamstrider is Smith’s third novel and a standalone fantasy adventure.

There is a lot to like in this novel. Smith delivers a high-octane novel filled with action, spies, intrigue, and more action. From the prologue on the story is fast-paced with a sense of urgency even before the main plot gets rolling. In terms of creating tension and urging the reader on, Dreamstrider is an absolute winner.

The premise here is also fascinating. Unfortunately, because of the action! and the urgency! throughout the story, many aspects of Livia’s world are never properly explained. Why is Livia the only dreamstrider in Barsadt? How can other people show her the world of Oneiros but not do what she does? What kind of world is it that readers are visiting in this novel? All of those questions are answered in only superficial ways throughout the narrative. While moments are evocative and strong, the world building never feels entirely cohesive or complete despite Smith’s obvious vision and utterly original fantasy elements.

Another downside of the story starting so fast and the action being so relentless is that it’s often hard to get to know Livia and the other characters in the novel or to understand their motivations.

Readers who are able to go along with the basic conceits of the novel without too many questions will be rewarded with a thrilling spy story unlike anything else.

Dreamstrider is a solid spy fantasy that has a lot of unique qualities. It is guaranteed to appeal to readers who like their stories more action-driven than character-driven as well as fans of supernatural espionage, fantasy with a faith-based element (as Barsadt holds dreams sacred), as well as readers who like stories about the dream world. Fans of The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson or The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien should take special note and pick up this title.

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration*

Magonia: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Magonia by Maria Davhana Headley (2015)

Magonia by Maria Davhana HeadleyMagonia is a debut novel and the start to a series. It has been getting enough buzz and attention this year that it hardly needs an introduction. This book does a lot of things well. I like that, although it shifts when the story gets rolling, that Aza starts the story with a serious illness that she has to navigate. She does so admirably and capably. Her first person narration is breezy and conversational. The characters and story are incredibly well-drawn.

Unfortunately, none of that gets a chance to shine in the beginning of the novel because Aza’s narrative is structured more as a stream of consciousness with a lot of bluster and almost no relevant information or plot development. Aza’s voice also never felt quite authentic enough instead it felt like reading a character who was trying very, very hard to sound like a real teenager.

Because of the narrative style, the novel is very slow to get to any element of fantasy which probably makes Magonia a good choice for readers who tend to gravitate toward contemporary stories. With a style and voice reminiscent of Jude in I’ll Give You the Sun, Aza and Magonia are sure to find their fans and possibly even introduce new readers to the fantasy genre.

Mr. Samuel’s Penny: A (Rapid Fire) Review

Mr. Samuel's Penny by Treva Hall MelvinMr. Samuel’s Penny by Treva Hall Melvin (2014)

When 14-year-old Elizabeth Landers arrives in the small town of Ahoskie, North Carolina, she fully expects to have a boring vacation. Things turn out very differently that summer in 1972 almost as soon as Elizabeth and her sister arrive.

A grisly car accident catches the town’s attention and Elizabeth is at the scene when the bodies of Mr. Samuel and his young daughter are recovered. Mr. Samuel is clutching an unusual 1909 wheat penny in his hand—a penny that is stolen from the sheriff’s office.

Already interested in pennies herself and haunted by the crime scene, the protagonist decides to use part of her summer trying to find the penny for Mr. Samuel’s widow.

Melvin walks the line between adult nostalgia and the authentic voice of a teen throughout this novel that is set to start a new series. Unfortunately, the narrative never seems entirely comfortable with either tone.

Numerous biblical analogies and references to Christianity lend a decidedly non-secular tone to the entire novel. Elizabeth is still an approachable narrator, who will find her fans in certain readers.

*A slightly different version of this review appeared in an issue issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

A Court of Thorns and Roses: A (Rapid Fire) Review

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas (2015)

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. MaasI’m not going to bother with a summary here because Sarah J. Maas has already taken the world by storm with her bestselling Throne of Glass series. A Court of Thorns and Roses is the start to a new and highly anticipated series by Maas that blends elements of Tam Lin with Beauty and the Beast in this retelling.

There are two things you should know about me before I get into this review. The first is that I am not a fan of the Throne of Glass series. I read the first book and thought it was okay. Not great and not a series I needed to continue reading. I have much respect and love for Maas as I do for any other who gets people excited about reading but that series just isn’t my bag. When I heard Maas had a new series starting set in a different world, my interest was piqued and I decided I did want to check it out to see if it was more up my alley. (I have since concluded that Maas’ writing style just might not appeal to me personally which does happen.)

What I did not realize when I started reading A Court of Thorns and Roses is that it was also Maas’ new New Adult (NA) series. There are several definitions floating around for what NA means and what NA books look like. In my (limited) research, I’ve concluded that NA books are generally romance novels featuring twenty-something-ish characters. While that is a simplified explanation, it is one that I have found to be largely accurate. I don’t enjoy reading romance novels and as a result have tended to also avoid NA titles. Unfortunately I did not see the marketing keywords marking A Court of Thorns and Roses as NA until after I had read it.

Keeping in mind that A Court of Thorns and Roses is NA, it’s worth noting that some of my issues might stem from the genre rather than the book itself. Often, in my reading, romance novels have relationships predicated on unequal power dynamics. Often, in my reading, romance novels have uneven plots as the story is working harder to fit in romance elements over other aspects of story/plot.

Spoilers ahead.

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