Kingdom of Ash and Briars

28554825by Hannah West
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars
Debut novel: September 15, 2016

The summary and cover are so dark and seductive; I desperately wanted to love this story. Unfortunately, this didn’t live up to its potential for me.

Bristal discovers she is an elicromancer—powerful immortals with different abilities that guide the three kingdoms of Nissera and attempt to maintain peace between them. Bristal’s special talent is shape-shifting, a unique power that would be especially useful to keeping treaties intact. When the elicromancer Tamarice curses all the royal families in an attempt to build a nation ruled by the immortals, Brack and Bristal take measures to protect two princesses betrothed to unify the kingdoms.

What follows are loose retellings of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, with Bristal acting the part of village aunt and fairy godmother to the two princesses over the years. I loved the world and the magic, and I even loved Bristal’s behind-the-scenes role in arranging affairs. There are some interesting rituals and side characters, and each chapter I expected the story to take flight. I just had such a hard time connecting to her. When her wishes are so forcibly subsumed by the needs of the island’s nations, she lost most of her vitality, and although the pacing is fast, I felt distant from it all. Ultimately I expected a story about a girl struggling to choose good or evil with her powers (as the jacket hints) but I ended up reading about a girl who chooses good from the outset and fades into the background of her own life.

I’ll be on the lookout for the next book by this author though, as her imagination promises dark and sultry tales to come!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Kingdom of Ash and Briars is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake – I was strongly reminded of this while reading Kingdom because they both feature islands with three nations that struggle to get along. In this case, triplet sisters raised apart in the three kingdoms each fight for the crown once they turn 16. There can be only one queen of the island. See my review here.
  • Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst – A cute romance between two princesses set against the backdrop of political skirmishes and nefarious plots. See my review here.
  • Lirael by Garth Nix – Another protagonist stuck with guiding and protecting a kingdom skeptical of her powers. Lirael is an assistant librarian to the Clayr, women who see the future and try to help the king govern the Old Kingdom. But Lirael is destined to leave her library to fight against a darkness no one wants to acknowledge.
  • A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan  – A sci-fi retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Rosalinda Fitzroy awakens from 62 years of stasis to find out her family is dead and she is the missing heiress to a global conglomerate. The acting CEO is not pleased to hear she was found, and Rosalinda must come to terms with her past if she is to survive the fight for her future.
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer – A sci-fi retelling of Cinderella. The famed princess is a lowly cyborg mechanic in New Beijing who has a chance encounter with a prince in disguise that changes her life. See my review here.

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

1383168by John Truby
Nonfiction
3 of 5 stars

This came highly rec’d from many YA authors and I was excited to dive in! Especially since I hadn’t read a craft book in far too long. (If like me, you are not familiar with the author, here is more about him). What I found was a book that rang truer to the 1970s than today, despite being written in 2008…

Personally, when I am studying the mechanics of storytelling it helps me to have a broad range of examples, especially ones that subvert known patterns. Show me a variety of settings or characters or plots that take the basic principles and explore them in new ways. For a book about coming up with original stories, I found this to be very unoriginal itself, which was disappointing.

There are some good tips and nuggets of wisdom here, but the scope of “good storytelling” is so narrow it becomes distracting. Aside from a couple of Jane Austen’s works, the examples you study in each chapter are mostly white male-centric stories from the ‘70s or older. Tootsie, Casablanca, The Lord of the Rings, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, Star Wars…these are all good stories, yes, but they begin to blend together when you are discussing character arc. How many rising king/wise mentor/bromances do we need? This would bother me less if the critiques of poor storytelling were not confined to female authors (i.e. Jane Austen and Emily Bronte let their emotions get in the way of satisfying endings). Or if the only character not assigned an archetypal role in Star Wars was Princess Leia – deemed “The Princess,” which was not an archetype on Truby’s list, when it arguably could be, feminism aside. (Even R2-D2 – who does not speak – was designated a prince-magician-warrior archetype).

The eponymous 22 step process is a little muddy, mainly because 22 steps is a lot of steps, and because they can be moved around in nearly any order. (Again, I would have liked a few more examples of this bit). Studying the 22 steps individually and reviewing the prewriting exercises are the most useful things in this book. It is easy to see where your own manuscript might be lacking when you look at the key points, and there are some excellent brainstorming tips for each step.

I read this as I was beginning revisions on my rough draft, and I didn’t feel that I missed out too much. I tend to discover themes and connections through writing the first draft that I can’t plan in advance – this is a book that I think you can approach for prewriting work on a story or while you are revising to get some fresh ideas, depending on your own approach.

I found myself drawn to the key points called out in the text, and the helpful exercises at the end of each chapter and skimming the rest. Overall this was very similar to my college courses in writing. I guess I just expect a little more now!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Anatomy of Story is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Pocket Muse by Monica Wood – A collection of photos and prompts to help you scribble down a scene or short story whenever you feel like writing but do not have a guide. I love this little book!
  • The Positive / Negative / Emotion Thesauruses by Angela Ackerman – These are three invaluable guides to psychology and character motivations! Also a good way to find the most accurate and interesting way of writing your characters’ emotions and plans as they try to survive your story’s plot.
  • The Anatomy of Curiosity by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, Brenna Yovanoff – This presents several short stories in various states of revision with notes from real-life critique partners, so you can see how a story goes from draft to finished product.

The Hundred and One Dalmatians

16650024by Dodie Smith
Classics / Children’s Lit
3 of 5 stars

This little book is probably better known as the Disney film, but I picked it up last year and loved it, and I enjoyed reading it again this year.

There are some big differences between the two, for instance the fact that Pongo and Missis have the 15 puppies, and Perdita is a lost dog the Dearlys take in to help nurse them all. There are characters removed from or changed for the film (Cruella’s white cat, Perdita’s husband, the puppy Cadpig was combined with Lucky, the two nannies were combined into one, and the farm cat Tibbs is female in the book, to name a few).  They have a series of adventures both searching for and bringing back their puppies, and its charm is irresistible. There are fresh surprises here even if you’ve seen the film.

The best part of this story is the author’s knowledge of dogs. She owned seven Dalmatians during her lifetime and this cute story is packed with facts, jokes, and tips on how to have a happy Dalmatian in your home. It’s also quintessentially British in its descriptions (Mr. Dearly is “not handsome but has the sort of face one does not grow tired of” and Pongo “chewed the wicker on his basket as a man might smoke a pipe”) and each interaction Pongo and Missis have with other dogs is ruled by etiquette and manners.

This is a fun read for a night by the fire in December! If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Hundred and One Dalmatians is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd – Another Christmas tale about a girl in the countryside during WWII. She and the other children are sick, but she is the only one who can see the winged horses in the mirrors of the mansion-turned-hospital. See my review here.
  • Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman – A silly story with fun illustrations about a father explaining to his young children why it took him so long to get the milk.
  • The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo – A brave little mouse is sure his destiny is to become a knight, and when the Princess Pea is endangered, he sets out to save the day. I love this story! It’s so cute and such a good representation of the light and dark in us all.
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – A winter tale about two sisters, a family of fox kits, and the way their lives intersect after a terrible accident. See my review here.

Empire of Storms

28260587by Sarah J. Maas
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

Get ready for an unpopular opinion – I did not enjoy this book. I think I have good reasons for this, but I’ll lay them out and you be the judge. I rate this 2 stars for overall experience, an extra star for Manon because she has the only chapters I liked.

I did read the whole thing, so these are the reasons I kept pushing through:

The witches! I love the witch covens. I love Manon.  I love the witch lore and mythology and history. I would read an entire spinoff series with Manon, prequel or sequel, I don’t care! She is all the fun and sass and savvy that Aelin used to be when she was Celaena.

The cameos! We aren’t done with characters from previous books reappearing and without spoilers I’ll just say that I always enjoy this. It really makes the world and the saga feel more well-rounded and complete.

Lysandra! Officially part of Team Aelin, she gets a lot more page time and a lot more agency. Love her! Plus she and Aelin seem to have an actual friendship.

What made this installment drag for me?

It’s just too long (like 200-300 pages too long). There are large swaths of wandering through forests with nothing much happening. Or wandering over the sea with nothing much happening. Or wondering about where to wander next with nothing much happening. This is a slow book. I know the best writers can get caught in the woods of losing the plot (the camping scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, anyone?) but these chapters should have been trimmed or cut.

For being a slow-moving plot, the character changes seem to leap out of nowhere constantly! There are sudden romantic pairings that made no sense to me. There are also several characters that come out as gay or bi but those relationships are all in the past–the only relationships given page-time in this tome are very hetero. Within that, I take issue with the sex scenes leaning toward erotica more than YA. I don’t mind sex in YA but there’s a difference in presentation (or there should be) from YA romance and hardcore erotica. And there’s a lot of biting and blood and male-dominance that makes me uncomfortable–but maybe that’s just not my cup of tea…

And not that this is a departure from the series but there are still only cishet white characters. Where are Nehemia’s people, at least??

Finally, almost moreso than in Queen of Shadows, Aelin plays everything so close to the vest that the big reveals almost feel like author ex machina to me. There’s not much sense of buildup–we muddle along on mysterious quests until the last 100 pages or so. And although I recognized the few hints throughout, the payoff just wasn’t there for me.

I’m pretty sure I’ll stick around for one more book to finish the series. I just wish this series could reach its potential.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Empire of Storms is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski – The final book in this trilogy that will give you the emotional roller coaster of your life! Kestrel and Arin are separated once again, as Kestrel works to escape from the labor camp in the north, and Arin struggles to forget everything about the girl he thought he knew. See my review here.
  • Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor – The immensely satisfying end to this trilogy brings the war between seraphim and chimaera to a spell-binding conclusion. The stage and stakes are bigger than ever for Karou and Akiva as they work to dispel darkness and rekindle their relationship. See my review here.
  • Winter by Marissa Meyer – The end of Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress’ stories brings them to Luna and Princess Winter, the forgotten royal slowly losing her mind because she refuses to use her gift against others. They have to work together to defeat Queen Levana’s plans to conquer Earth, and they have little time to do it. See my review here.

The Girl Who Fell

girl fellby Shannon M. Parker
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 1, 2016

The concept of this book grabbed me from the start, and when I read about the author’s background and experience, I was sold. There are plenty of YA books about the magic of falling in love, but this one is about what happens when you fall for the wrong person–when you fall for someone who isn’t what they seem, who doesn’t treat you right, who controls your every move.

Zephyr Doyle is on track for her life plan: graduate and attend Boston College. Play field hockey there. Generally be a success in life. Her friend Lizzie teases her about not having time for a boyfriend. But then Alec comes along, sweeps her off her feet, and Zephyr finds herself in a place she never thought she would be. Love isn’t supposed to scare you, isolate you, change all your plans. Or does that just mean it’s the kind of crazy intense love everyone wants?

There were many things I liked about this story. First of all, Zephyr’s best friend Lizzie. A true best friend, who sticks around even when Zephyr becomes too absorbed with Alec to be a good friend. Even when Zephyr blows her off. Because Lizzie knows Zephyr will need her when it all falls apart, and she is going to be there for Zephyr. Their friendship is the strongest relationship in this book and I loved it!

I love a main character who is good at sports–there are too many bookish ones!

Zephyr’s world feels concrete–the ordinary home scenes, the school scenes, the dates–all of it well-written and it feels like you’re there, experiencing it with her (including her adorable dog)!

Finally, Zephyr’s relationship with her father. Her father has walked out on her and her mom when the story starts, and as the months pass her mother begins seeing her father to see if they can patch things up. The way Zephyr deals with his absence and his re-entry to her life is emotional and a perfect balance between hope and wariness.

A couple of things bothered me, though. First of all, the story opens and closes like a horror movie, and some of the drama took away from the serious subject matter for me. Second, Zephyr’s long-time best guy friend Gregg. He’s the “good” guy, the foil for Alec’s controlling, abusive behavior. Except Gregg has no respect for Zephyr either! He repeatedly kisses her and flirts with her despite her repeated lack of interest. It was as if because he’s a “good guy” it’s okay for him to kiss a girl knowing she doesn’t return his feelings, when she has said no, you shouldn’t do that–and that’s not okay with me. For a book about control and consent in relationships, his actions were very uncomfortable yet never addressed.

Overall this is a good story and definitely needs to be out there. It has good intentions and I think Zephyr will connect with a lot of readers.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Girl Who Fell is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter – Cassie is ready to start college with her past behind her. No more thinking about her mother or the fact that she locked Cassie in an asylum for two years against her will. But then her mother shows up, promising all the love Cassie always wanted, and she wonders if they can start over. See my review here.
  • The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes – This harrowing story of a girl who escapes a cult is incredibly well-done. Minnow is arrested when the Kevinian cult’s village burns down–despite having no hands, they believe she knows something about what really happened. The police aren’t wrong. See my review here.
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – This is a moving story about a girl who must learn to speak up for herself in the wake of a traumatic event. A classic that has stuck with me for years.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Gabi is a Mexican American girl just trying to survive her senior year with one best friend pregnant and the other one coming out to unreceptive parents, her father’s meth habit, and the poetry that feels like an escape. See my review here.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

29056083by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

This was both a hard book to read and a hard book to review. I avoided most of the hype about the play because pfff, I couldn’t afford to go to London, tickets are impossible to get anyway – and then this bound version of the script was announced. And I still avoided the hype because…it’s not canon, right? Not really? But then it came out and I bought it on release day because dammit I couldn’t resist the magic of nostalgia! Did it live up to my mostly-resisted hype?

…eh.

I guess if I can’t shriek “yes” the answer is “no” – but again, I am just so conflicted! There’s nothing wrong with the story. There’s nothing wrong with the writing. It’s just…did I imagine Harry working for the government? Being kind of an ass? Did I imagine such a…realistic future for the beloved characters? Of course not! After all the drama and trauma and horror of the series, the whole point was imagining a happily ever after for the ones left alive! (Or you know…a somewhat somber version of that). But this play puts a wrecking ball through that idea.

This story centers around Harry’s tense relationship with his Slytherin-sorted middle child, Albus (the cute one from the HP7 epilogue). Albus doesn’t like being famous Harry Potter’s very average son. Harry doesn’t like that Albus is pretty much a puzzle to him (he doesn’t share all Harry’s own likes and prejudices). Enter time-travel, for reasons to bring back the old crew in bizarre ways.

Sure, the play centers on coming of age and parenting and finding yourself, but a few platitudes aside, it’s basically some of the stranger fan-fiction theories thrown together. Certain events that hold weight in the previous 7 books seem cheapened in this play. Most of the characters wouldn’t be recognizable from their actions alone. We’re told how we should really feel about side characters from the original series. Everything seemed disjointed and I’m not sure if seeing it on stage would help this or not.

A few moments tugged at my heart, but for the most part I just couldn’t figure out what I was reading. The mood and the messages were all over the place to me. I’m hoping this is something I can revisit later to enjoy it more, because I was underwhelmed this time. Again, the writers didn’t make the choices I would have made, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad–and I couldn’t really tell you what I was expecting! It just wasn’t this. I think I’ve waffled on this enough now!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – The play strongly reminded me of this story! (A fanfiction story from a novel–pretty meta). Simon and Baz are roommates who have hated each other for 6 years. But now it’s finally time for Simon to face the Insidious Humdrum and fulfill his Chosen One destiny. Baz is pretending he doesn’t care about anything–the Humdrum, finishing school, or the fact that he’s been in love with Simon for years and may want to do something about that. See my review here.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Cath and her twin sister Wren write Simon Snow fan-fiction (see Carry On) but now they are off to college and Wren declares they aren’t rooming together, and she isn’t writing anymore. Cath isn’t sure how to cope–so she writes some more, and tries to ignore the cute boy trying to ask her out. This is an adorable story!
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – I love this story! Carolina’s family spends a summer on her estranged grandfather’s sheep farm as they prep it for sale. Her grandfather, Serge, has dementia, and is going to move into an assisted-living home. Serge tells Carolina that “the bees will bring back the rain” and at first she thinks he’s confused and telling random stories about a magical tree in the desert. But then bees begin following her around too, and she wonders if Serge has been telling the truth all along. See my review here.
  • Passenger by Alexandra Bracken – If you want more time-travel, look no further! This lovingly researched book will take you from New York City all over the world from the 1700s to the 1900s as Etta searches for an astrolabe so her grandfather will give her mother back. See my review here.

Deep Blue

18601430by Jennifer Donnelly
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

I feel I need to start by saying I am so conflicted about this book! There is nothing inherently “wrong” with it…but it didn’t grab me until almost 75% in, and there were a few reasons for that. But I feel conflicted about my reasons! It’s not often a book leaves me just scratching my head, unsure what to say (especially since we aren’t talking about philosophical or physics theories here)!

For the most part, the issue I had was the pacing. The first quarter of this book is an info-dump about the world, the characters, side characters that play no role in the story, mythology, and magic. So many names—so many factoids—my head was spinning. From there, we move on to a plot that stutters and stops between crazy action sequences, leaving little room for character development or time to process events. There’s a lot of telling vs. showing. The dialogue is dramatic. Finally, the 10-page glossary in the back is to help you understand more sea-puns and made-up vocabulary than I could handle, but that is entirely a matter of taste! I will say that this more than anything made it seem like a middle-grade story instead of YA, with the exception of a few violent scenes.

Why did I finish this book then? Because there are many things I actually liked!

The mythology is addictive. There are six (SIX!) female heroines teaming up and becoming friends and working together. The central relationship of this book is not a romantic one—despite dealing with a betrothal, and several princesses— it’s the best friendship between Serafina and Neela. By the way, each of the six mermaids hails from a different country—female teens handling alliances, politics, different cultures, and finding common ground as they represent entire nations! The wise figures in this story providing prophecy and wisdom are all older mermaids. There’s also a light exploration of how humans are affecting the sea’s population and ecology and I’m betting this will continue to play a role in the series. Yes, the themes throughout the book are presented in a slightly cheesy, very Disney manner (which makes sense since Disney is the publisher), but these are good themes all the same.

The last quarter of this story is the best by far. I’m disappointed that most of the book felt like set-up for the remaining story, but I would not be surprised if the rest of the saga is much better. Be warned, major cliffhanger ending!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Deep Blue is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Emerge by Tobie Easton – A California mermaid stuck on land due to a curse affecting all the mer is just trying to blend in—until another girl sets her eyes on Lia’s crush, Clay. This girl is dangerous, and Lia must save Clay, despite her parents’ disapproval and the dangers of getting involved. I haven’t read this yet but Tobie is an amazing person and I’m sure this will be great!
  • Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon – A retelling of the fairy tale with both a mermaid and a princess in love with the prince. Lenia is a mermaid who saves a prince’s life. Margrethe is a princess who see a mermaid pull a man to shore, and realizes he is the son of her father’s greatest rival. Margrethe nurses him back to health, hoping for an alliance and true love. Lenia makes a deal with a witch to sacrifice everything for the chance to meet and win over the prince she loves. An interesting take on the traditional fairy tale.
  • Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli – Sirena is a siren whose voice lures sailors to their deaths during the Trojan war. But after one shipwreck, she defies Hera and nurses the only survivor back to health. They fall in love, but does he truly love Sirena, or just her voice? And defying the gods brings its own price. I read this a long time ago and I’d probably appreciate it more now!
  • Tides by Betsy Cornwell – Not mermaids, but selkies, seals that can take on the form of humans but must hide their sealskin in order to change back. Whoever holds their skin controls them. Siblings Noah and Lo spend the summer at their grandmother’s lighthouse, and begin to suspect that a girl Noah rescues from the sea might be a selkie. An atmospheric mystery with excellent writing! See my review here.

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