Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

genre: young adult fiction

This is the third and final book in the Winner's Curse Trilogy, so lots of spoilers ahead, obviously.

First, I have to say something.  When I first saw the cover of the first book, I assumed it was some kind of Gilded Age gambling book.  I ignored it, until a friend I trust told me the books were really good.  When I saw the final cover (and even title) I was sad because they give you absolutely NO sense of how awesomely intricate and dark these books are. It looks like it would be trashy and dumb.

It's not.

As punishment for treason, Kestrel is taken to a workcamp on a tundra wasteland and Arin is left to prepare for battle against the empire.  Her heart broken, questioning every choice she's ever made, Kestrel knows she must escape but even if she does - what then?  She's given away Arin's trust and because of the path she chose, there is no one else left to mourn her.  The lull between battles is only the deep breath before all-out war and even if Kestrel survives, is there any way for Arin's counrtry to still exist when east and west collide on its beautiful shore?

I drank this in one greedy gulp.  While sometimes dragging out a romantic conciliation bothers me, this felt really right - with two very broken people trying to sort through the damage and find where to find kernels of truth and feeling that will last.   I believed it.  The romance is heady and lovely. This is a battle-heavy book and during the final battle, in particular, I actually found myself with a hand-over-mouth-tears-in-the-eyes moment.  I tend to skim over that stuff a bit but this had some powerful moments about choice and the-greater-good and things-worth-dying-for.  I liked the secondary characters in this installment, they provided some comic relief as well as some needed compassion in a book that is heavy with grief and death.

I am so glad I waited until all the books were out so I could just read all three in a rush - as one long story, the trilogy flows really well and with an ending that settled just right.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Winner's Crime by Marie Rutkoski

genre: young adult fiction

This book is the second in the winners curse trilogy so for sure there are spoilers if you read ahead.

Living in the palace is one giant game of intrigue and deception. Kestrel is engaged to the future emperor but her traitorous heart cannot let go of thoughts of her former slave Arin. While war rages in the east, Kestrel has to decide what side she is on - will she be loyal to the emperor, his empire and her father, whatever the cost, or is the price of that loyalty going to require her to rewrite her own sense of right and wrong? Is it worth it?

In some ways this is a typical middle-of-a-trilogy novel. Our love interests have completely misunderstood each other and the plot is moving forward from two viewpoints. But despite its predictable form, I really was engaged in what was happening to the characters and didn't want to put it down. Ever.  Even while it's not romantically resolved, there is still momentum that keeps it interesting.  The writing is tight and believable, with only a few plotholes that were easy to forgive. Kestrel is just complicated, trying to figure out what it is that she actually wants to do - and while all the flipping and flopping was sometimes frustrating, it felt realistic.  It is still a violent story set in an ancient-type world I am dying to find out how it ends.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski

Valorians are warriors. Conquerors.  Herranis are the conquered. Enslaved. For the last ten years, this has been the way of life. For Kestrel, the daughter of a Valerian general, she knows the role her father expects her to play: she can either join the military or get married. But then one day, in a sympathetic moment, she makes a choice that leads her and her people on a path that she could've never anticipated.

In a world of slaves and military prowess, Kestrel's intelligence and depth of feeling make life more complicated than necessary and I liked her struggling through the conflict between what she has always known and what her heart is beginning to tell her is right. I liked that it is a deeper book, not shying away from the violence or tragedy of the situation - and letting ethical issues settle uncomfortably so that both the character and the reader have to sort it out.   I liked this alternate (not fantasy) world that reminds me of Ancient Rome, with an empire, its growing pains and two rivaling classes of people sharing a space that formerly governed itself.

The idea that just because you win what you wanted doesn't mean you haven't paid too high a price - this thought is an intriguing one. The romantic thread, while vaguely predictable, is still very well done and has me ready to read the next book now!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

genre: middle grade non-fiction

Probably you have heard of Typhoid Mary: the woman who shed and shared her typhoid bacteria with all the people she cooked for as a housekeeper. She's infamous, that Typhoid Mary. But who was she? And what were the circumstances that led to her infamy?

I didn't know this was the middle grade novel when I checked it out from the library but I will say that as an adult, I learned a lot. The book does a good job of not only fleshing out the details of what we know about Mary but also gives a substantial social history of the time, especially focused on public health departments, the emergence of epidemiology and the ethical and moral issues of contagious disease. Did they have a right to lock Mary away when she wasn't sick? Should a judge trust laboratory results enough to make huge life-changing decisions for people who have otherwise committed no crime?

While not condescending, the tone is very much eager to teach readers and I think middle school students interested in the subject or studying any of these topics in school would find this a great resource.

Friday, November 18, 2016

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

genre: young adult historical fiction mystery

Jo Montfort is a model daughter on the outside.  Living among New York City's high society in the late 19th century, she goes to finishing school, never leaves home without a chaperone and answers questions just as a proper daughter should.  But on the inside, Jo is yearning for a bigger life - she wants to write, to investigate, to dig into the lives of those who don't have the privilege to live in Gramercy Park.  And then tragedy strikes and Jo's life is shattered - her father is killed in a horrible accident.  When the curious part of her brain cannot be stilled, the answer's to Jo's questions start leading her to even more dangerous questions.  Soon, she knows she can't stop until she has answers - even if they lead her into a past that might not stay safely buried.

I like Jo.  I like her spunk and I believe her struggles.  My problem is that I had the whole mystery figured out in the first third of the book and that bothers me on a personal level.  However, the writing is good and it has to mean something that even though I guessed what would happen that I still finished this not-short (nearly 500 page) book.  Some pieces were TOO coincidental but most of the smaller plot plots were intricate and I liked the contrast between Jo's Gramercy Park life and how the rest of New York lived at the time and the romance is believable.   I also liked learning about early post-mortem work and the beginnings of forensic science.  This book would appeal to young lovers of Downton Abbey or other books of turn of the century wealth and privilege in the big city.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye (audiobook)

genre: historical fantasy

In post Napoleonic-Wars Russia, the Imperial Enchanter has died. And while the Russian populous is unaware that there is magic in the land, the czar knows. And when Russia needs a new imperial enchanter, then the Crown's Game must begin. A duel of magical skill, the Crown's Game will determine who is deserving of the right to advise and help the czar to protect Russia from all the outside forces threatening the balance of power.

Vika has been studying and honing her magic her whole life. With her father as her guide, she can manipulate the elements and ward off dangers. She is prepared for the role of imperial enchanter but when she finds out that there is another contender, everything certain in her life disappears. There is no way to be sure if what she knows and what she can do will be enough to win.

This audiobook really hit the spot. While I was sometimes a bit frustrated with how much it paralleled The Night Circus, the reality is that I loved The Nights Circus so I appreciated it in all its differences. I appreciated the Russian setting and the time period, I liked the complicated romantic plot and even was okay with how it resolved and appreciated that the author didn't try and somehow force things to end perfectly, because if she had I would've had a very hard time believing it.

Truth be told, I probably most loved the book because the reader was so very good. Steve West does a phenomenal job of bringing characters to life especially with all the Russian names and places.  I loved being able to hear them pronounced correctly and in an accent no less.

 My sister had recommended this to me and I am glad that I took a chance on it.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

With Malice by Eileen Cook (audiobook)

genre: young adult thriller

When Jill wakes up in a hospital room, injured and sore, she has no memory of what happened. No memory not only of the accident itself, but even the weeks that came before that are blank. As she is slowly told the details of an event so unknown to her that it might as well have happened to someone else, an even greater tragedy takes her to the breaking point. What in the world happened to Jill and her best friend Simone on a trip to Italy that Jill doesn't even remember taking?

I don't typically read murder mysteries but this one intrigued me. Unreliable narrators make for an interesting unraveling and I even was ok with how this ended. I liked the format of the novel - with letters and transcripts and blog posts. There were some things I didn't guess ahead of time and Jill rang true as an 18 year old female protagonist. Her voice and feelings were spot on, most of the time. Annoying, but spot on. I'm not dying to read more of the same genre but this held my attention and the reader was good with the different accents - even her Chicago accent was good.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

genre: young adult historical fiction

As the Russians advance near the close of World War Two, those left in Germany have little choice but to flee west if they wish to avoid tremendous fighting and the ravages of the Soviet troops.   Salt to the Sea follows four teens in very different circumstances who have ended up separated from their families. While being alone has its advantages, there is also safety in traveling among a group of other refugees and soon three of these four find themselves with the same goal: passage aboard a ship that will get them across the Baltic as quickly as possible.

Why have I never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff? From the beginning of the book, I felt a sense of dread, it's clear that something not good is going to happen and the tension builds nicely. I really liked the multiple-narrator narrative, it nicely rounds out the characters to see them from different points of view and one particular secondary character added a lot of depth and humanity to the story. I appreciated the different bits of specific historical references to Nazi art crimes, there is a nice romantic thread and the ending, while tragic and upsetting, did resolve in a way that left me hopeful. 

I appreciated how you truly get a sense of the fact that in a war, NO ONE is left unaffected, no matter what side you are on.  It made me think of the Syrian refugee crisis and the desperation of humanity in the face of wartime terror.  This is an excellent piece of historical fiction that I would hand to an older teen to offer up a view, specifically, of the way the war affected civilians of non-Jewish ancestry in Eastern Europe as well as a compelling account of a modern maritime disaster.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh (audiobook)

genre: historical fictionish

Kol's clan are settled on a bay in the North.  They hunt and fish, use pelts and skins for their clothing and homes - his people are a tight-knit group.  Sticking together is how they survive and with Kol's father as the High Elder, he knows what his role is.  But when three strangers arrive in their camp, suddenly the world is an even bigger and more astonishing place.  When one mistake comes between Kol and one of these strangers, a girl named Mya, Kol can immediately tell that there will never be closeness between them.  Circumstances keep throwing them together, however, as other local clans reemerge and the stakes get ever higher.  In a land where your clan is your family and the world is a dangerous place, trust is a gift very sparingly given.

This is like a early-man Pride and Prejudice-type story. Not that it follows the plot in any way, but there are interesting elements if you pay attention.  I haven't ever really read a young adult novel set in the time when man is just beginning to turn from being nomadic hunters and gathers to settled peoples.  I liked the storytelling and while sometimes too wordy, scenes are vividly described the plot is thick enough to keep me interested in what happened next.  Sometimes it felt very formal in its language in a way that didn't super seem to fit in my head with the kind of people I was imagining (i.e. hunter-gatherer types) but eventually I liked the story enough that I let that go.  The romantic thread left me vaguely unsatisfied at the end but now that I've looked it appears that there will be a sequel so maybe that was intentional.

The reader did a good job pulling me into the text and I was always anxious to turn this on and listen. 3.5 stars.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

genre: ya historical fiction

In medieval Southern France, a holy war has recently slaughtered thousands of the so-called heretics who have no need for the conventions of Catholicism. Rooting out the few remaining sinners and their sympathizers is the focus of Holy Men up and down the coast. When word of a girl who does miracles reaches the ears of the Fathers, she is brought in for questioning. Unable to deny her connection to her Savior, Dolssa is willing to be burned if that is the sacrifice that’s required.

Botille is nothing like a believer. Living with her two sisters and drunk of a father, a hand-to-mouth existence whose only reward is the relationships she’s made in her village, she is content enough with her lot. But when paths cross and fortunes told become reality, Botille’s life will never be the same. 

While all the names at the beginning confused me (there is a list at the end! OH how I wish I’d noticed that BEFORE the end of the book!) and the ending confused me a bit, I really liked this historical story. Dolssa is a powerful character and her weaknesses outshone her strengths as she solidified her relationship with her God and found where the well of her faith resided. I loved the sisters and the town – frustrating though each member could be, there is a very communal feel in Botille’s village and it felt very real. I liked the religious overtones in this book – the miracles and the differences between the faith of the “holy” men and that of a simple believer, seeing miracles and attributing them to God.

I also always appreciate an appendix that fleshes out the history for me –I am embarrassed that I know so little about the time period or the factual events the story is based around. Well written book, if the ending had felt less ambiguous to me I would give it 4.5 stars but it’s still a solid 4 star story.
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