Review: George

George
George by Alex Gino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the most important book I’ve read this summer-maybe the most important book since Speak. George is certain of her identity but uncertain about all her family and friends’ reactions. With the help of her friend Kelly, she is able to navigate letting the world know that she is a girl. There are so many students who need this book and families who could benefit from the insight provided by the 1st person narrative. While George is a 4th grader, any age reader could read and appreciate this book, making it an excellent crossover novel and invaluable resource. George is lucky that her best friend is so understanding and the revelation provides clarity to her brother Scott’s confusion about George’s personality. George’s “village” is slower to understand, which is realistic, and as George’s mother says, there is a long road ahead of all of them. But what a powerful message to kids that owning your identity is ok and speaking out and making oneself heard is the best way to understanding those we live with. I can’t wait to offer this book to my students and POSSIBLY help them discuss and understand that no matter how differently we are all made, it is truly important to BE WHO YOU ARE.

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Review: Scarlett Undercover

Scarlett Undercover
Scarlett Undercover by Jennifer Latham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m torn with my rating. Basically, I gave it two stars because there were too many times during my reading when I thought Oh, C’mon! Really? The really crappy thing is that the book has a female Muslim main character and introduces several characters of color. I had such high hopes, but the diversity and the atypical mythology were not enough to overcome the issues with the writing and the plot.

I was really confused at the beginning of the book. I thought maybe I was reading a second or third book in a series because Scarlett, as narrator, seems to be working on the assumption that readers know about her history as a private detecive. Farther into the story, missing pieces are provided about Scarlett’s age and how she is running this “business”, but I wanted that information earlier.

Perhaps Latham is going for a bit of a “film noir” feel, providing the backstory in catchy asides as the initial action develops, but it didn’t come fast enough to feel organic. The other bit that fits the “film noir” piece are the truly cringe-worthy metaphors and similes Scarlett uses during narration. A grungy, middle-aged man with a cigar in his mouth MIGHT be able to get away with “her comment was as blunt as a billy club” but a barely 18 year-old black Muslim girl? No. It was not believable that this type of girl would speak or think that way. Another unbelievable element is Scarlett’s client: a nine year-old girl (Gemma) who find Scarlett’s business card in her private school bathroom. Gemma comes to Scarlett’s office alone to retain her services, and while the wad of cash she pulls out of her backpack for Scarlett’s fee rings true to how a nine year-old would attempt to pay, I kept wondering How the hell did she get there all by herself?

Finally, there are the truly incredible coincidences that pile up from page one. The “villain” happens to have body markings that match a pattern on a mysterious flask that belonged to Scarlett’s father. Scarlett’s love interest happens to have a tattoo of the same markings. Love Interest’s dad just happens to show up (they thought he was dead) and seems to be involved in this secret plot. Scarlett’s dad’s murder from years past seems to be connected to this completely random case brought to her by Gemma. Adults seem to wilt and follow Scarlett’s orders despite basic common sense: the whole scene with Delilah recanting her earlier safety admonitions to Scarlett rings false.

Having said all that, I would DEFINITELY recommend it to readers of color who are looking for themselves as narrators. The black, famale Muslim perspective is unique and the theology/mythology surrounding King Solomon provides a nice change from the white Anglo-Saxon, Christian female heroine. Overall, I was really rooting for this book, but in the end there is just too much coincidence and contrivance to overcome.

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Review: The Girl at Midnight

The Girl at Midnight
The Girl at Midnight by Melissa Grey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was excited to get this book as a galley from NetGalley. I drug my feet getting started and I really with I hadn’t! This book is so good. I described it to a friend as Grisha meets Seraphina meets Daughter of Smoke and Bone (DoSB). It’s the most appropriate description I can think of. And while there are eerie similarities, the book does not come over trite or cliche. While some might call these similarities weaknesses, I see them as

Echo (besides having an awesome name) is an orphan who has been taken in by a race of creatures who live somewhere between the human world and the realm of magic. They are part human/part bird and pass in and out of our world (hence the DoSB comparison). There is an ancient feud between Echo’s adoptive bird-race, the Avicen, and the ancient Drakharin race of dragon-like beings (enter Seraphina-esque characters and abilities). Members of both races are searching for the mythical firebird which is supposedly the key to creating a lasting peace between the two warring cultures (shades of Grisha here). It seems all plot similarities between these books have been consumed so I’m anxious to see what Grey will have Echo do next.

Somehow, despite the rather obvious similarities between these four titles, Grey manages to make Echo’s story unique. In the beginning I even thought that Echo and Ivy might be lovers, which would have added a pleasantly unexpected twist, but other flairs of originality made Echo’s heterosexuality less of a disappointment than it might have been. Echo is spunky and a little rash, making her another in a line of strong female leads in recent titles (Celaena Sardothien, Mare Barrow, and Meira). She is deeply loyal and fiercely protective of her friends and her heart.

Echo travels through parts of the world that are rarely mentioned in YA bringing fresh scenery to the readership. The Avicen and Drakharin worlds are interesting and I would like to see more of them and learn more of their histories in the coming titles. I wonder at the fate of a mortal human girl in a world of quasi-immortal, magical creatures with whom her life has become inextricably connected. Jasper and Dorian provide just the right note of romantic realism with which to temper Echo’s own entanglements. And Echo’s story follows a traditional Hero’s Journey fairly well to lend this book to lots of comparisons.

Grey has created distinct characters, an explorable world, and a plot that seems to be at a dead end. I can’t wait to see where Echo takes us next. And she responds to tweets, which is awesome.

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Review: Red Queen

Red Queen
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mare’s story seems a typical rags-to-riches story until Mare discovers her own power that could topple the strict caste system in the world Aveyard has created. The Silvers are the ruling class blessed with powers and the Reds, of which Mare is one of many, are the oppressed and (literally) powerless. While the downtrodden Reds are not just taking their lumps (there’s a rebellion brewing), the Silvers still clearly hold and wield all the power. Mare’s ability has lain dormant and the plan to pass her off as a Silver seems possible until one realizes that she would have had to never bleed in her life prior to this revelation in order for it to work. And yet it does – which lessens the collective intelligence of everyone involved that none of them thought of this.

Mare is one of a string of strong female leads that I have read lately. She is opinionated, stubborn, and clever. She refuses to accept the status quo and will battle to the end of her strength for those she loves. While I love the influx of strong female characters in recent publishing, that’s about all Mare is. She doesn’t make any real discoveries about herself and the other characters are cardboard cutouts of their types.

The intensity of the situation kept me reading: Will Mare be able to wriggle out of the ruse the royal family are perpetrating? The potential for romance on two different fronts creates more tension, but love triangles complete with the longtime guy best friend who secretly carries a torch for her are cliche and Aveyard does nothing to make this one original. The plot twist at the end is not necessarily predictable, but it’s still tired.

With a series in the works, I’m hopeful that Aveyard will take this interesting world she’s built and eventually populate it with 3-dimensional characters and deeper plot development. There’s a core of originality within the story that I hope will become stronger through the series.

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Similar books with less problems: Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch, Sea of Shadows by Kelley Armstrong, and The Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski

Cover Reveal: FIREBOLT by Adrienne Woods

FIREBOLT_E-BOOKTitle: Firebolt

Author: Adrienne Woods

Series: The Dragonian Series

Publisher: GMTA Publishing Mythos Press

Release Date: Nov 20 2013

Dragons. Right. Teenage girls don’t believe in fairy tales, and sixteen-year-old Elena Watkins was no different.

Until the night a fairy tale killed her father.

Now Elena is in a new world, and a new school. The cutest guy around may be an evil dragon, a prince wants Elena’s heart, and a long dead sorcerer may be waking up to kill her. Oh and the only way Elena’s going to graduate is on the back of a dragon of her own.

Teenage girls don’t believe in fairy tales. Now it’s time for Elena to believe in…herself.

SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman: A New Twist on Dragons

Seraphina-Rachel HartmanBOOK: Seraphina

AUTHOR: Rachel Hartman

PUBLISHER: Random House Books for Young Readers

LENGTH: 512 pages

SUMMARY: In her New York Times bestselling and Morris Award-winning debut, Rachel Hartman introduces mathematical dragons in an alternative-medieval world to fantasy and science-fiction readers of all ages.Eragon-author Christopher Paolini calls them, “Some of the most interesting dragons I’ve read in fantasy.”

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

REVIEW: For years, fantasy has been populated with dragons. Most classic fantasy has dragons performing the typical dragonish deeds: hoarding, torching villages, terrorizing local kingdoms; you know, the usual. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina is a new twist on the old dragon tales. Seraphina is the title character in this reimagined feudal society of Gorredd where dragons can take on human form. While their Draconian brains function much more analytically than their human counterparts, they walk among humans without notice until closely examined in behavior and mannerisms.

Hartman chooses to have the kingdom of Gorredd locked with the Draconians in a treaty  that neither side trusts completely. With their mathematical and analytical minds, the dragons have agreed to send  members of their community to Gorredd  to serve as teachers for the local pupils, ambassadors and advisors to the king. This is an interesting dynamic to create among traditionally opposed species. Hartman has placed the humans in need of the dragons skills while prejudice and distrust of the entire species is still quite prevalent. This dependency creates even more animosity between the races even while celebrating the brokered peace between them. It is an interesting look at how prejudice evolves, how tolerance can be mistaken for acceptance, and how communication is really the only way to promote understanding.

Seraphina is a spunky character who seems to be discovering her pluck along with the reader. She feels intrinsically that the relations between her people and the dragons should be better and is searching for a way to make that happen. She is terrified that someone will discover her secret but also somewhat subconsciously hoping that it will happen so she doesn’t have to hide anymore. Her musical talent makes this an even more real threat when one of her performances earns her a place at court. Her quick mind and tongue get her involved with Kiggs in the investigation of a member of the royal family’s death. Seraphina’s unique perspective on the Gorreddian/Draconian relations helps uncover a plot to undermine the peace. Her fear of discovery, need to do the right thing, and desire to tell the truth war with each other convincingly.

*SPOILER ALERT*

It seems a little too easy for everyone to accept when the truth does finally come out. With the distrust of each race so deeply sown in the other, it seems too convenient that most parties involved just seem to accept Seraphina’s secret. And while it was easy to see the relationship between Kiggs and Seraphina growing, romance fans will be content with the avowals between them at the end.

*SPOILER COMPLETE*

With incredible writing and an impressive world creation, Hartman stands poised to have birthed the next big YA fantasy series. There are so many questions left to answer: How will Orma fare? What about Lars and Abdo and the other grotesques? Will Seraphina’s relationship with her father continue to improve? I look forward to more of Hartman’s impeccable attention to detail and fantastic sense of fun with her own writing. (Don’t miss the appendices in the book!) The only caveat to add is one related to pacing. Here’s hoping that now that the world is built and readers are familiar with it, the next book(s) will move more quickly. I look forward to seeing where Seraphina’s mind and heart take her next.

Gifted by Annalise Hulse (The Evangeline Devine Series)

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TITLE: Gifted

AUTHOR: Annalise Hulse

PUBLISHER: Annalise Hulse (ebook, amazon.uk.co)

LENGTH: 341 pages

SUMMARY: (via amazon.co.uk) What really happens when we die?
It wasn’t a question that seventeen year old Evangeline Devine – Evie to her friends – had ever thought about much. There was no reason why she should – her life on the small island of Jersey with her family and best friend Seth was untouched by tragedy, idyllic even.

Until the day that Evie nearly dies herself. When Seth pulls her from the watery depths that nearly claim her life, Evie is no longer the carefree girl she was. For now she is the recipient of an unwelcome supernatural gift. Now the dead are all around and impossible to ignore.
But when someone close to her dies mysteriously, Evie is forced to embrace her new power, for she may be the only one that can prove that it was no accident. Someone is getting away with murder.

With only the spirit world for guidance, Evie sets out to uncover the truth and find the vital evidence she needs to get the case re-opened. Soon she finds herself torn between her feelings for best friend Seth, who she’s begun to see in a whole new light since he saved her life, and the powerfully charismatic Piers Du Pont, who she finds herself inexplicably drawn to, even though he might just be the killer that she seeks.

As events unfold, dark secrets are revealed, loyalties are tested to their limits and Evie discovers that the path that Fate has chosen for her is more terrifying than she ever could have imagined.
Life, should she survive, will never be the same again……….

REVIEW: Always leery of self-published books that are immediately ebooks, this review was accepted with misgivings; however, Hulse’s debut turns out to be a pleasant surprise. There are few editing mistakes which are typical in self-pubbed ebooks and the writing is impressive.

But…on to the meat of the issue. The main character and the other characters’ stories are what really drives this book. Evie is confident, if even headstrong, and readers will admire her pluck. Her shining qualities are her loyalty and dedication to sincerity. The interesting thing is that while she never says something she doesn’t truly mean, that doesn’t mean that she’s always truthful. It’s difficult to create a character with principles who is also human but Hulse has accomplished just that. Seth is a loyal friend to Evie but his own story isn’t glossed over and readers will feel Seth’s struggle clearly as a subtle compliment to Evie’s conflict. Piers, too, is a fully fleshed-out character and Hulse does a great job of making the reader feel just as pulled toward Piers as is Evie. It is also refreshing to see parents play an actual role in the story. So many times characters’ parents are marginalized as uninvolved or struggling with their own demons in order to give the adolescent main character free reign. Hulse manages to capture the right balance between parents who are involved and in tune with their child while allowing interactions between characters to take place in realistic, sans-parents settings.

The plot itself is a treat. Hulse infuses a tired, talking-to-the-dead scenario with twists and turns that make it fun to read. Every time it seems the ending is predictable, Hulse throws in another twist that makes readers rethink their predictions. Ultimately, the plot is not so different than other paranormal romances but Hulse is able to craft the story in such a way that it never seems tired or cliche.

Hulse is one to watch and with three more installments in the Evangeline Devine series, there is much to look forward to with this author. Much like her small but spunky home of Jersey, Hulse is an ebook author who packs a punch. Teen fans of paranormal romance should definitely include this series on their To-Be-Read lists.