Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Escape From Syria by Samya Kullab, Jackie Roche & Mike Freiheit

genre: middle grade graphic novel

Amina has led a solid, comfortable and happy life in Syria - until rebel groups begin trying to overthrow the Syrian Goverment and Amina's neighborhood becomes a literal war zone.  Fleeing for their lives to Lebanon, Amina's family ends up in a refugee camp, making heart-breaking decisions - Amina has to grow up quickly as the world around her constantly shifts and reminds her there she no longer belongs anywhere.

This book made me cry.  Based solidly on fact, this fictional account brings into great detail the sorts of experiences that thousands upon thousands of families had to make.  The illustrated panels and sparse text allow us as readers to really feel the depth of the sorrow and confusion.  Truly, I wished for Amina's story to have a happy ending.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Bright Burns the Night by Sara B. Larson (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

Bright Burns the Night is the sequel of Dark Breaks the Dawn, which should for sure be read first.

Evelayn is a queen without power and without a kingdom, a kingdom without the Light to help its’ earth and forests stay healthy and alive. Stuck in her swan form nearly all year long, she is only allowed the smallest snippet of time as a DraĆ­olon, and that’s when the usurper, that dark king Lorcan who stole the conduit stone from her chest, that’s when he demands that she bond with him.

Um, no thanks.

But on one of these visits, something has changed. Not only is she able to continue to stay a DraĆ­olon after refusing him, but some balance of power has shifted, something deeper and more sinister is at work. Evelayn will have to find a way to trust Lorcan if she wants any answers - trust him and find a way to keep fighting for a time when her land and people can live in harmony again.

At the beginning there were some interesting plot twists. Evelayn is a changed woman - older, wiser, less naive and more world-worn. But her heart is still full of love for her kingdom and as a character she has a solid arc throughout the two books. I like the brothers relationship here and Lorcan is a suitably handsome and brooding love interest. As much as I was engaged in the story, the last quarter of the book felt super full and fast, almost frenzied with new creatures and backstory and so many injuries and healings that after a while I nearly wanted to roll my eyes. I also have to say, and I acknowledge that this is nit picky of me, but the author uses the words “male” and “female” so often when referring to characters we know (or don’t) that it sorta drove me bonkers. It jarred me out of the story every time because it felt so incongruously formal and stiff. That and some pretty large plot holes bogged me down.

Overall, it’s fairly fast paced and the romantic thread kept things fun, I’m not sorry I finished the story, I just found that I had to work too hard to suspend my disbelief for me to love it.

(note regarding the audiobook version - the narrator is really quite good except she drove me crazy with how she would slow wayyyywayyy dooowwwnnn on the last sentence of a chapter, trying to give it more emphasis but it somehow just made whatever the author wrote feel silly instead of powerful.  It's still worth listening if you prefer that to reading, just be aware :)

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Rule of One by Ashley Sauders and Leslie Saunders

genre: young adult science fiction/dystopia

In a world whose resources have been completely exhausted, Ava and Mira survive by hiding one huge piece of illegal information: they are identical twins.  Living life every-other-day, always pretending to be each other,  the challenges of that life were nothing compared to what happens after they get caught and have no choice but to live on the run.  Once they have the freedom of being TWO, they can't even stop to take a breath and enjoy it - where will true freedom lie?

Meh.  I have twins so the idea of this intrigued me.  It didn't bore me, per say, I just wanted more.  The world-building had a lot of flaws and I had to suspend my disbelief way too hard.  So many coincidences, so many times I questioned in my head if something was plausible. It just distracts from a book that is actually pretty well written with a plot arc that isn't that far fetched in a larger sense.  My only other big gripe is that we're always switching between Ava and Mira and they are so dang alike, even in how they think and act that unless they were together, I had a really hard time remembering whose point of view I was reading.  I don't think I'd continue the series but I might someday read a spoiler review just to find out how things end up for Mira and Ava.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

Princess Evelayn has come of age in a time of war.  With the plotting King Bain of the Dark kingdom pushing ever closer, now that she has turned 18 and has access to her full power, she knows that her ability to wield the power of light could mean life or death for both her and her people.  With the help of the handsome Lord Tanvir and, hopefully soon (if she can just make it happen!), her ability to shapeshift into a swan, Evelayn can't help but hope that peace in her lifetime could be a real reality.

I got a bit frustrated from the start because some of the details in this story are so like those in my beloved Girl of Fire and Thorn series, that I felt a little frustrated at the beginning.  There's also very little world building - we get a tiny bit of backstory but where does the idea of "Draiolon" come from?  That's the name for the race of Evelayn's people but I never figured out if there are people in that land that AREN'T Drailon?  Does everyone have either light or dark powers?  I like the idea of having different kinds of magic but it wasn't explained particularly well.  Also, sometimes there was just too much sharing about how people looked. To tell me once, maybe three times that someone has lavender-streaked hair or dark eyes or copper skin is fine. But to mention it every time they look at your or walk in the room?  It started feeling repetitive to me.  Ugg.  I also sorted hated that the "dark" powered people had dark skin and the "light" people had light skin.  Wouldn't it have been intriguing if it had been swapped?  

It sounds like I hated it and I actually didn't.  There are enough elements to the "Swan Lake" story that are different that I didn't always know what was going to happen, and I liked that.  While we jump around from point of view to view a lot, I also liked being able to see the story from the various characters.  I just had to suspend my disbelief more than I like to and while I care enough to listen to the sequel, three stars feels like as much I can can give it.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Girl Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

genre: self-help/memoir

I read this one because I know two people who have been very positivity affected by it - and I respect these ladies and the changes they are trying to make in their lives.  So, whether or not I personally loved it I want to acknowledge that for some people, it's super powerful and the exact motivation they needed to take charge of their lives in a real way.

For me, though, parts of it rang very shallow and self-congratulatory.  Each chapter is based on a lie that Rachel has told herself during her life and how she found ways to create truth, how to live a better, more authentic life.  Apparently, at her age (nearly 8 years younger than me), she has figured it all out.  Don't get me wrong - there are some important ideas here, but it really grated on me that her privileged and wealthy experience isn't acknowledged as a huge piece of why she can go out and do everything she wants to do.  Yes, I get that she had to work to get there - but I feel like she never stepped back from her OWN perspective and validated the fact that some women may NOT actually be able to just GO MAKE THEIR GOALS HAPPEN just because they WANT to. Some of us have financial/family obligations that just make our big dreams not really a thing right now unless we want to shirk responsibilities that are a really big deal. 

Mostly I felt like it was a giant YAY RACHEL fest that we got to join in.  I did really appreciate a few take away ideas that I found (i.e. being serious about keeping promises that I make to myself, truly being in charge of what I allow to be a part of my life) but other than that I mostly got the impression that  Rachel felt like I should know her and her awesomeness better. And now I do :)

Friday, October 26, 2018

Enchantress From the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl

genre: young adult science fiction

Elana is from an advanced society that has created an interstellar society that helps protect younger worlds from being invaded by other, not quite as advanced, civilizations.  When she sneaks onto a mission to a medieval world on the brink of a disastrous colonization, her presence creates the kind of turmoil that is hard to undue.  But try to undo it she does, along with two other agents, and together they create a plan involving the native man Georyn, whose real belief in magic and superstition might just be the key to everything.

OH my goodness this was a surprisingly great read.  There is so much depth beneath the story, which is interesting in and of itself. Teens are introduced to some pretty intriguing topics in a way that's really accessible - the idea of colonizers viewing native populations as "lesser than" or that anyone who is less technologically advanced is somehow beneath you.   I loved how often Elana is forced to recognize that one individual's choice, even just ONE choice, can have implications for better - or especially worse - that you could've never imagined.  There is a sweet romantic plot and I liked how we got to see the story from both Elana and Georyn's points of view.  The way that the author took a situation and could show it from both of their perspectives, which are so very different (i.e. magic vs science), was masterfully done.  I loved the father-daughter relationship here and I loved the idea of there being endless worlds to explore.  Just a lot of stuff I liked, apparently :)

I would love to hand this to a teen and see what they can take away from it - and it would be a great introduction to science fiction for teens who think they don't like the genre.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

genre: fiction

A father and a son.  A land and its people.  Cry, the Beloved Country is about both the one and the many.  Our story follows Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo, a humble man from a very humble place who travels to the city of Johannesburg to try and find his son Absalom.  In the South Africa of the 1940s, the friction between "native" and "white" is a murmur with the volume increasing, terrifying to those both in power and to the natives who know who will truly suffer whenever there is violence.  Pastor Kumalo's journey is an emotional one and what he learns and how he processes it is at the crux of this novel.  His love of his son and of his people, his introspection and his choices - they are what make this novel so unbelievably beautiful.  The writing is exquisite - sparse in some ways but so deep in others.  The word choice, the images, it made me feel so much compassion both for the pastor as well as for all the non-Europeans who were trying to eke out a life for themselves in a land that was dying and under the thumb of the white man who claimed that dying land. 

I love that there are good and bad choices made by people of both races.  Here is humility. Here is compassion and devastation and a love for something bigger than yourself.  Here is trying to find peace in a world that does not favor you.  It is hard and it is heavy.  But it is beautiful, too.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (audiobook)

To appreciate this in any way, you need to read Strange the Dreamer first.  She does a great job of reminding you of important bits but Strange is SO DANG GOOD you should just read it first anyway.

Lazlo and Sarai.  God and ghost.  Both are on the brink of a calamity inside the citadel, at odds with the ferocious Minya and with Weep in chaos below.  How in the world can Lazlo save everyone, as his heart can't help but want to do?   With his new-found power over mesarthium, Lazlo should be able to help all the godspawn get the answers they crave but how can he when Minya is frantic with the need for vengeance?   Sarai, who has died but is not gone, will have to use both the gift she was given and the experiences she's had to navigate this battlefield between the horrors of the past and the unknowns of the present.

What both Lazlo and Sarai need to know is a path through hate to forgiveness and compassion, but such a path is fraught with so much pain and trauma. One thing that I really loved about this book is that we find sympathy for both victim and perpetrator, which is an astonishing thing.  We see how both what happens to us AND the decisions we make can break us in such a way that our souls are in pieces that will sometimes take a miracle to put back together.   I loved watching tiny bits and threads from early in the book start to tie their way into the narrative, Laini Taylor is SUCH A MASTER of this and it's something that gives me IMMENSE joy as a reader - to see a situation and think OH OH OH!! ! I KNOW!!!  THAT THING!   FROM LONG AGO!  IT MATTERS FOR REAL!  Even though it was a thing that you can't have imagined would matter at all.  I LOVE THAT in my books.  I also LOVE how she can write her characters into redemption - what an incredible journey to take, to watch someone go from either broken or detestable to repaired, restored and whole, at least more so?  All while all kinds of other action is happening and a plot is moving forward in such a way that you can't help but listen to the story every moment you can? 

**(maybe a spoiler below, just use caution if you super HATE any spoilers of any kind ;) **

AND, for the LOVE!  If you can just toss in another whole completely huge and mind-bending-but phenomenal twist that rings so familiar and beautiful that, as an avid Laini Taylor fan, you smile so big you sit in your car and know you look like an idiot but can't help it?  Yeah.  That. 

**end possible spoiler**

This book.  It's to the point where I am an obnoxiously obsessed fan of Laini Taylor.  Take it for whatever it's worth. What she does, is what I adore.  The end.

note to sensitive readers: there is some sexual situations here with anatomical words used :)

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Fragment of Water by Ben Hale

genre: young adult fantasy

The first thing we learn about Draeken is that when he was created, his magic was so powerful that it split him into five fragments: Fire, Shadow, Mind, Light and Water.  Each has their own strengths and weaknesses in a world that doesn't know it is about to be under attack.  The ancient race of Krey has found Lumenia - and its designs could bring nearly everyone on this magical planet to their knees.  With the Huntress as their trainer and companion, the fragments have been prepared for centuries to fight - but the Krey will prove to be the greatest foe they have have to face.  

Hale has created a vivid and complex world.  The fragments have unique abilities that make them excellent weapons and much of the story is battle and violence.  Each fight's twists and turns are guided somewhat by the abilities of whoever is fighting so that although I tend to be a bit bored by too much combat, the Fragments and their companions kept things interesting.  I like the strong females that work side by side with the Fragments and the ending definitely sets up a sequel without being an annoying cliffhanger, which I appreciate.

For me, though, this story is way too much telling.  The dialogue tended to feel dry and a bit obvious and I would've appreciated more editing.  I am a stickler for word choice and on many different occasions, words and phrases are repeated in a way that made me want to hand our author a thesaurus.  I can tell that the huge scope of this world and the story Hale is trying to tell are a long range, multi-book experience but I still feel like, as a reader, I deserve attention to detail.  The plot moved along fast enough that I don't feel I wasted my time but I don't think I'll be picking up the next book.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Spinning Silver (audiobook)

genre: young adult fantasy

Miryem is the daughter of a moneylender and while her father is content living on the meager scrapings of what borrowers choose to repay, Miryem is done with dire poverty.  When her mother's sickness threatens to take her from Miryem, she makes a choice. She will collect the accounts.  MIRYEM will learn how to make money.

And make money she does.

And someone notices.

And in this phenomenally rich and textured retelling of Rumplestiltskin, Miryem and two other young women are at the crux of a battle between dark and light, good and evil, a winter that won't stop and a fire that won't be quenched.  Only their choices, their decision to find their own power, will save a kingdom on the brink of destruction from the foes that are lurking just beyond their sight.

There are so many reasons why this book is amazing.  Don't be fooled by the slow start - it takes a while for the action to start because there is so much groundwork that has to be laid in order for the story to take shape.

*All of our main protagonists are young women, from very different backgrounds, all of whom have to claw their way into the power within them.  I love how this book is very clear about how sometimes we have to do hard things BEFORE we know we are able to do them.

*The magic is both light and so heavy - sometimes it feels like whisps of magical realism: trees that can comfort you and huts with wool that can spin itself while you sleep.  But also you'll find magical creatures that can give you nightmares and an ability so powerful that it gets the notice of a king.

*The time and place - while obviously partially fantastical, is also grounded and real, a rural Eastern Europe with peasants who hate the Jews even while needing to borrow their money.  Czars that can rule with terror or benevolence, changing on a whim.  I loved the Jewish threads in this tale, woven so seamlessly into the magic.

*While I always love romance in my books - the lack of an overpowering romantic storyline here actually made it more powerful, I think.  These girls aren't doing hard things for the love of a boy.  They are doing hard things for their family, their people, their way of life.  Love might come or it might not but duty first.  That feels really empowering.

I want to note that while the audio is VERY well done, when you listen it might sometimes take you a few minutes to recognize that you've changed storytellers - the story is told (superbly) from many different points of view and while some of the voices the narrator uses are very different, some are not and it sometimes takes a few minutes of context to figure some of the transitions out.  Usually once I figured it out I would just rewind a minute and listen again, knowing who was talking again.  I'd imagine in the paper book it wouldn't be a problem to figure it out.

While this story is really only loosely based on the old story of a little man with a secret name, it's certainly one I'll be thinking about for a while.
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