Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Jennifer's Book Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo


Alina and Mal have been together since they were children, orphans of war gathered by a duke known for his altruism. Now grown, they hold positions in the First Army of Ravka. When their regiment makes a trip to the Fold, an unnaturally darkened swath of land littered with strange beasts, they are attacked. With lives in the balance, Alina reveals a dormant power, shocking those around her, especially the Darkling. 

A powerful man and second only to the king himself, the Darkling takes Alina away from Mal and her unit, saying that she may be the key to saving the kingdom from the darkness of the Fold. But Alina learns that her troubles have just begun as she begins to navigate her new magical world, learning more about herself in the process.

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo portrays a wonderful fantasy world based (very, very loosely) on Russian culture. (Russian purists may be a bit upsets at the extreme liberties she took with her language and descriptions, but since I’m not familiar with it at all, it didn’t bother me one bit.) The main character is flawed, lacking self-confidence and a bit too concerned with outer beauty, but she speaks her mind and is persistent in the face of adversity. Her confidence grows as she finally learns about the magical part of herself that was hidden for so long. 

Yet while Alina’s feelings about herself, as well as those toward her lifelong friend and love, Mal, and the powerful, mysterious Darkling, do play a central role in the novel, Shadow and Bone really should be about the struggle of power and the intrigue of court. Bardugo would have done well to have expanded a bit more on both of these themes, and less time on Alina’s fascination with beauty and her turmoil over her love interests. Hopefully Bardugo will expand more upon the wars with the neighboring countries and the history and consequences of the Fold in future novels.
Ultimately, Shadow and Bone is a fast-paced, beautifully created fantasy world. It’s difficult to put down once begun, and readers will be eager to find out more.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bronwyn's Book Review: The Agency series by Y. S. Lee

What if more women of the Victorian era stepped out of their “proper” places? What if men weren’t the only ones allowed to have real jobs and get their hands dirty? What if, somewhere, women decided that they could prove their intelligence and hold the same places in society as men?


These questions are what The Agency series is based on. Mary, a convicted pickpocket, is saved from hanging by two mysterious women who run a school for girls. Their mission is to train women for jobs such as governesses and teachers; to give them the option of supporting themselves instead of ending up in a loveless marriage.  A few years after attending the school, Mary’s instructors decide to entrust her with becoming a member of The Agency. The Agency is a secret organization that runs under the cover of the school for girls. The amazing thing about the Agency is that it’s comprised only of female private investigators. The school for girls acts as a cover for the organization, and Mary soon finds out how difficult being a member of The Agency actually is.


In A Spy in the House, the first assignment Mary is given is to act as a female companion to the daughter of one of London’s richest businessmen. It is suspected that Mr. Thorold is involved in money related crimes, and it is Mary’s job to listen around the household for any information that might lead to solid evidence.  Set in both high society and the underbelly of Victorian London, these books show the sharp contrast of two opposing social classes by having the protagonist be someone who can swiftly move between the two. Mary frequently disguises herself as a boy in order to access grisly parts of London a lady never would be able to enter alone. She also meets a man, James Easton, who will later become the love interest of the books.


In the second book of the series, The Body at the Tower, the Agency disguises Mary as a builder’s apprentice and sends her to work on a construction site to dig for information about the owner. Since Mary is disguised as a boy for most of the book, she has many more escapades and adventures than she does in A Spy in the House.  James Easton reappears, and he and Mary begin to fall in love with each other.


In the third book, Traitor in the Tunnel, Mary is again disguised as a lady’s maid, this time at the royal palace. This book might possibly be the best of the three. The tension between James and Mary is high, as her assignment and his job quickly become focused on the same case. They decide to work on the case together. As Mary falls more in love with investigation (and with James), she must make a decision that will affect her future as an agent and as an independent woman.


I thoroughly enjoyed the Agency trilogy, both as mysteries and as historical fiction. The author’s research is impeccable, and I learned many things about Victorian England that I didn’t know before. Mary is not just a female character who breaks out of a confining society; she is a revolutionary who doubts herself, makes mistakes, and fails, but has the courage to make a place for herself in a world ruled by men. She is by far one of my favorite teen protagonists, due not only to her spunk, courage, strength and determination, but to the fact that she has weaknesses, failures and doubts.  There are rumors that a fourth book is being released next year! I will be keeping my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Susan's Book Review: Hourglass by Myra McEntire


Emerson Cole went a bit crazy her freshman year and had a screaming match with what appeared to be no one in the school cafeteria (she was actually yelling at a ghost that only she could see, but that doesn’t help her case). That little episode landed her in a mental hospital, and from there she moved onto heavy meds and boarding school. Now there is no boarding school money, she’s off the meds (but don’t tell her brother, her legal guardian), and she must return to her hometown high school for senior year. Emerson has seen ghosts since she was about 13, right before her parents died in a tragic accident. Problem is, the ghosts look like real people and it’s almost impossible for her to tell them apart, which can lead to some uncomfortable situations. Then Emerson meets Michael, a representative her brother hired from an organization called the Hourglass that he thinks can help her with her visions. Michael considers the visions a gift and knows more about them than she does. He tells her that she doesn’t see ghosts necessarily, but images from the past that are superimposed on the present, and that it’s an ability only time travelers have.

I didn’t like the first 15 or so pages because I thought Emerson was cliché and snarky and nothing much was happening. I’m glad I stuck with it though, because it gets super interesting once Michael shows up. The story is paced well and the plot goes much deeper than I anticipated (A sequel, Timepiece, released just recently). I’m usually not a fan of paranormal romance books, and technically that’s what this book is, except it’s time travel (which I love when presented in a smart way) and the chemistry and relationship between Emerson and Michael is so well-developed. The story also features many worthy side characters: her brother and sister-in-law, her barista best friend, and a group of teens associated with the Hourglass, all with their own time-related ability. Hourglass is a fast, enjoyable read with characters that I care about and look forward to meeting in future books (pun totally intended)!

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Heather's Book Review: Trapped by Michael Northrop

At the beginning of Michael Northrop’s Trapped, snow has begun to fall on Tattawa High School. Scotty and his pals, Pete and Jason, know a snow day is impending, and when the inevitable happens, they use the wait for their rides to work on Jason’s shop class labor of love, a go-kart. The three of them expect nothing more than a typical harmless snow day. What actually occurs is anything but. The roads leading into the school are rendered impassable within the hour, trapping not only them, but four other students and a teacher inside. And this is fine, if slightly scary. Until the power goes out. And the emergency generator goes with it. And then the cell towers. And then the structure of the building itself. Within the space of a few days, they’ve become encased in a school so dark and cold that it might as well be a morgue, and not all of them will make it out alive.

Clearly, none of the characters in this novel have had experiences with snow like those we in the South have. If they had, they would have instinctively known that the first sighting of one or two snowflakes means that you pack up for the day, stock up on three weeks worth of milk and bread, lock yourself in your house and play board games by candlelight until the weather lets up about a day later. Then again, if they had, Mr. Northrop would not have had much of a novel to write. Also, compared to people up North, where the story is set, Southerners are snow pansies, which is why the main characters in this story watch a foot of snow fall around their school and think nothing of it. It is also one of the reasons why I found this such a truly frightening story.
Northrop sets up an appropriately somber mood by page two of this disaster novel, letting readers know up front that not everyone’s going to survive this killer snow day. This reminder persists throughout the first chapters of the novel, which, admittedly, quickly grows annoying. In fact, there were several moments where my reader-brain wanted to shout “YES WE KNOW THAT CHARACTERS ARE GOING TO DIE CAN YOU JUST GO AHEAD AND START KILLING THEM ALREADY SO THAT WE CAN READ ABOUT IT PLEASE?” However, this sense of impending doom contributes heavily to the layers of suspense that bear over the characters, and as the story progresses, it only grows. As disaster stories go, this is a realistically rendered narrative. Despite having several chances to take a turn for the sensational—for example, by trapping the two hottest girls in Tattawa High with five teenage boys. You fill in the possible blanks.— the novel makes an effort to depict teens acting as they might act in a similarly disastrous situation. Cliques and social prejudices remain among them. The teens who thrived in the academic or athletic tiers of school hierarchy suddenly find themselves displaced by the previously invisible teens that thrive on survival challenges. Power struggles ensue because of that. These tensions are only heightened by the fact that the teens have no chance to fight them out, verbally or otherwise. By the middle of the novel, they’re stuck a setting where they physically can’t blow up at each other, in a building where a single angry shout can disturb tons of precariously supported snow drifts and bring them crushing down through the weaker points of their school’s structure. If they don’t keep their heads cool, they could be crushed by their own voices. This is what renders Trapped such a gripping novel. It is a novel in which the absence of mundane things—of easily accessed food, of heat to cook it with, of the ability to use a cell phone, of the ability to talk at all—becomes a significant factor in whether a character survives or not. You know what’s more terrifying than knowing you’re likely to die? Waiting for it to happen in a place where you formerly felt safe, but where you’re now frozen and starving and at the mercy of elements that usually don’t get a second thought. That harmless little snowball that you threw at your sister last winter? Now it’s back to kill you, with cousins.
The dialogue in the novel is also believably written, contributing to the credibility of the characters. However, the plot itself seems to lack this same credibility at certain points. Much of the setup of the plot seems to rely on convenient coincidence. How likely is it that a trio of high schoolers would enthusiastically opt to stay at school longer than required, given the free no-work pass that is a snow day? I was even the overachieving nerd daughter of a teacher and I never took up that offer. How likely is it, too, that a teacher, even a crotchety old rebel like the shop teacher in question, would grant students unsupervised after-school access to a room with loads of fun, dangerous power tools in it? Lots of odd little details had to pass for the story in this novel to even happen. The end comes abruptly, too, and though readers are given enough details to figure out what likely happened after the story’s end, it is still unsatisfying that there’s no concrete resolution. It feels like watching the apocalyptic comet smash into Planet Earth without being shown how humanity pulls together and rises from the rubble. For all I know, all the other characters in this novel were never rescued, but rather ran out of food and ate each other before the blizzard ended, which is the sort of conclusion that I automatically jump to when I read a disaster book/watch a disaster movie that features no equivalent of Morgan Freeman trying to convince the viewer on the other side of the screen that humans really are capable of pulling together to do awesomely inspiring things in the face of environmental doom. I don’t believe these things about people unless someone like Morgan Freeman says them. In short, Mr. Northrop, your novel needed some Morgan Freeman in it. Only then would its ending not have been flawed.
Despite its bumps and incomplete end, though, Trapped is a novel worth reading, especially if you’re looking for something to break up your paranormal romance/dystopia/[ insert other YA trend here ] sprees. It’s a fairly quick read, too, despite its seeming length. So the next time you have some unexpected free time, give it a try. Maybe on your next snow day.