Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

Ink and Bone, by Rachel Caine, was published in 2015 by Penguin.

Rating: 3/5

I first caught sight of Ink and Bone in the hands of a ten-year-old girl. I remember being attracted by the cover, with the title and “The Great Library” written on it. I thought, “Oh, cute. A middle grade book about a library. I may have to pick that up.”

Oh, boy, was I in for a surprise. This book is definitely not middle-grade—and thus probably far too mature for the ten-year-old girl who I saw reading it—and much more intense and serious than I was expecting. The concept is fascinating—a world where books and knowledge are tightly controlled, where people can access the book, but only through the use of the Library’s technology. They’re not allowed to touch or own real books. To be honest, I’m not sure if Caine was trying to create some sort of analogy with e-books or not, but there’s definitely a lot of attention placed on the value of owning and holding and reading bound books. The main message, though, is definitely about imbalance of power and the abuse of those who hold all the knowledge and who control the access of that knowledge.

I also found the conversation between Jess and someone else about taking down monuments of the past particularly interesting. Jess says something about how he doesn’t like the idea about people remaking the world in an image that they like, rather than an image that reflects truth and history, and that certainly resonated with me.

Interesting concept aside, I found the writing a little too lackluster and mechanical for my tastes. And the plot itself is a bit of a let-down—it takes too long for things to get moving, then once they do, the plot stalls and slows down, then finally gets to where it wants to go three hundred pages later. I will say that the characterization is great, with each character really standing out (at least the six that Caine wants to focus on), but Jess fades a bit in comparison. He’s not a particularly memorable protagonist.

Once I got past my initial surprise, Ink and Bone was quite enjoyable, though I felt there were some problems with pacing, writing, and unfortunately the main character. It’s an interesting take on censorship, the control of knowledge, and where its true value lies.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, violence, death, LGBTQ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Steampunk

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2PzUqlE

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart, was published in 2013 by Delacorte.

Rating: 3/5

We Were Liars is a suspense/mystery novel. Cadence Sinclair Eastman has forgotten the majority of her fifteenth summer at her family’s private island and the story is about her struggle to put together the pieces of what happened that caused her amnesia.

Though it’s a suspense novel, it really doesn’t read like one. It’s mostly about teenage life, or what Lockhart assumes is teenage life. There’s familial drama, the close-knit adventures of cousins and friends, the confusion as Cadence struggles to remember and people around her refuse to answer her questions, and some odd fairy tale stories scattered throughout. Odd because they seem out of place, though clearly Lockhart believed they were necessary—I just didn’t get it.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t much read like a suspense novel, the ending is quite shocking. I went into it thinking I knew what was happening, then had to change my mind, then got hit with the plot twist at the end. I literally spoke to the book, that’s how shocked I was. Suddenly I wanted to reread the book, or go back quickly at least, to look and see all the clues and foreshadowing. That’s a good ending of a book, if it makes you want to reread it immediately.

We Were Liars wasn’t the edge-of-my-seat, gripping suspense novel I was hoping, but it still pleasantly surprised me, delivering a seemingly innocent plot with a shocking undercurrent. I thought the fairy stories were weird, and the writing was a little too scattered for me to really like, but overall, I liked my first foray into E. Lockhart’s works.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, kissing, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Mystery, Suspense, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2E8sbsd

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

Stalking Jack the Ripper, by Kerri Maniscalco, was published in 2016 by Jimmy Patterson Books.

Rating: 3/5

At first I wasn’t sure if I would like Stalking Jack the Ripper as the protagonist seemed to be of the rebellious female trope that I don’t really like. However, while that certainly was the case, I actually liked Audrey Rose up to a certain extent. While she did have that annoying “I can do whatever I want” attitude, I liked the fact that she still appreciated good clothing and that she also displayed many feminine characteristics despite her progressiveness.

I also found that the romance, while typical, even cliché, was quite sweet and I liked the chemistry between Audrey Rose and Thomas. I thought Thomas was too Sherlock Holmesian in his deduction skills, but I liked the contrast between Thomas’s deduction and Audrey Rose’s induction—or, basically, reason versus feeling.

The mystery portion was good, though I found that actually “solving” the Jack the Ripper mystery made the novel almost too fictional, if I’m making any sense. It’s hard for a novel to successfully pull off an unsolved mystery and maintain an aura of realism—it screams, more than other fiction books, “the author is completely making this up.” Maybe I take my fiction too seriously, though! I do give credit to Maniscalco for coming up with the mystery and the solution, of course. It just seemed strange to me to read.

The only major criticism I have for the mystery as a whole is that there’s a part near the beginning where Audrey Rose and Thomas are investigating one of the victims and there’s a dramatic scene where tantalizing snippets of dialogue are thrown out to heighten the mystery. Except that the scene was completely worthless, since nothing about it is ever explained. It’s literally a red herring meant to increase the suspense, and it annoyed me that we never got solid answers about it.

Oh, and Audrey Rose’s determination at the end of the novel made it incredibly obvious who the killer was, since it was a moment of “that character is way too fixated on this particular thing; therefore, it must not be true.”

Stalking Jack the Ripper was surprisingly enjoyable for starring a protagonist type that I usually hate. I think I will keep an eye on Maniscalco and see what she cooks up next.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death, graphic descriptions.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2FksSRs

The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

The Hollow Kingdom, by Clare B. Dunkle, was published in 2003 by Henry Holt.

Rating: 4/5

At first, The Hollow Kingdom seemed like a “Beauty and the Beast” type tale, and it does share a few similarities, but the more I read the more there was to the book than just some sort of retelling. I thought the book had a fascinating premise, and though I could tell from a mile away what the end result would be, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

I definitely think this is a book that may lead to a lot of similar complaints that stories like “Beauty and the Beast” get, since it deals with a woman being imprisoned by, in this case, a goblin king, with a romance subplot. But I do think Dunkle frames this much more like an arranged marriage. In addition, Kate isn’t technically forced into marriage—you could argue about Marak’s actions and merits, but she does willingly choose to marry him. So while the idea of a woman being coerced into marriage because there’s no other option for her—and then falling in love with the person responsible—may be dissatisfying to some (if not something stronger), I actually thought it rang true to both the setting Dunkle has established and to real life. Arranged marriages still happen, and people who reluctantly marry (or who are forced to marry) can end up falling in love with each other later on. I’m not saying this happens all the time; it’s just a plausible scenario that I thought fit in the book.

Kate was a great protagonist, exactly the sort of female character I like. While the book does involve a goblin king, he really takes second stage. The entire story revolves around Kate. And, though this may be a little spoiler-y if you’re really picky about spoilers, it’s Kate who saves the day. In fact, we get a reverse Snow White moment at the end (minus a few things) that cements the idea that Kate is the star of the book, even when she’s in a different land.

This book reminded me a little of The Safe-Keeper’s Secret, a book that I wasn’t expecting to like and then was hooked by it the more I read. I loved this book. I can’t say it was fantastically written, but there was some sort of quality to it that grabbed me from the beginning. And that’s one of the most important qualities a book can have.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2T27yD9

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, was published in 2012 by Hyperion.

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoyed Wein’s Black Dove White Raven, and I’ve heard good things about Code Name Verity, so I was hoping for a good story. And the book delivered by giving me a twisty, complex plot all wrapped into a World War II setting (one of my favorites).

I was expecting a straightforward novel, but straightforward is not the word to describe this book. It starts out simple enough, but by the last half of the book Wein has completely turned the tables on the reader, upending everything he thought he knew. There’s spy intrigue, acute danger, friendship, and, of course, lots of piloting, something that shows up again in the other Wein book I’ve read. It completely upended my expectations and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. And it has plenty of girl power, but not in that obvious, in-your-face sort of way that annoys me so much in other novels. This is girl power solidly set in history, which makes it great.

I was rooting for a happy ending the entire novel, but Wein follows through on the historical accuracy and delivers a gutwrenching finale, displaying how sometimes there are no easy choices to make and that the best decision doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want. It’s a solid reminder that moral decisions can be hard to make and that in wartime, sometimes the best thing to do is the last thing you ever wished would happen.

Code Name Verity navigates friendship in wartime, how bonds are made and broken, and courage in the face of danger and death. I could have done without some of the swearing, but it did authenticate the voices of the characters. And the complexity of the plot will always stand out in my mind as an extremely pleasant surprise and a stand-out of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing, violence, death.

Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SLwKgS

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Chalice, by Robin McKinley, was published in 2008 by Putnam.

Rating: 3/5

Robin McKinley is an author who I like to think writes “specialized” fantasies—fantasies revolving around a particular element or thing. For example, Rose Daughter revolves around the growing and cultivating of roses. Chalice is about bees.

Robin McKinley is also an author who really enjoys lengthy, detailed descriptions of that particular element or thing. I mentioned that in Spindle’s End, she got so loquacious it was hard to bear at times. I noticed the same thing when rereading The Blue Sword. Chalice is like that as well, which isn’t a bad thing if you like her style of writing. I’m on the fence about it, but I actually ended up really enjoying Chalice.

McKinley does go on and on about bees and honey, but she manages to meld it nicely into her world. One thing about McKinley is that she does tend to fling you right into her world; it actually took me a few dozen pages before I really got a feel for the world and what Mirasol’s role as Chalice was. Plus, she has a tendency to go forward and backward in time without much warning, which makes details a little harder to fit.

Pacing and other stylistic elements aside, I really liked the characters and the story. Once I understood how the world works, I got very involved in the whole idea of the Chalice—someone who is responsible for keeping things together, basically, merely with a cup and some mixture. The romance sneaks up at the end almost unnecessarily, but at least there’s some background for it. There’s not that much action in the book, at least in terms of fighting, but there are some tense scenes that help disguise the fact that not much actually happens in the book until the very end.

Robin McKinley’s writing is an acquired taste, I think, and though I like the devotion and the time she takes to craft and develop the particular element of her fantasy (like bees or roses), it does lead to uneven pacing. However, once the action of Chalice got started, and I understood the world more, and I grew more attached to the characters, I really enjoyed it. I just wish there had been a little more “oomph” to the story as a whole.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2CIjJPY

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, was published in 1984 by Vintage.

Rating: 3/5

I like the vignette style of writing better than the poetry style of writing, and The House on Mango Street weaves the vignettes together into a (mostly) cohesive story of Esperanza and her neighbors. The stories are mainly about Esperanza and the people around her, though a few of them are more about her feelings or observations.

I say mostly cohesive because the jump from topic to topic, and the seemingly random stories about clouds or trees, break up the overarching story of Esperanza. “But those stories are important to her life and character,” you might say. And you’re probably right. If I were studying this book, exploring it for its literary quality and experience, I might agree. But reading it as I did, to experience it for the first time without really delving into it, some of it seems disjointed.

The vignettes are beautifully written, even some of the more random ones, and Cisnero’s description of a Latina girl growing up in a poor neighborhood and her experiences with her family, her neighbors, the people she meets, are striking and vivid. Many of the vignettes end in a tantalizing way, hinting but never showing, while others reveal a darker side of things that are never further addressed or resolved. This is “slices of life” at its most realistic: the things people notice, day to day, the interesting stories they hear, are highlighted. Perhaps that’s why The House on Mango Street also feels disjointed at times: people’s observations and thoughts aren’t always smoothly connected together.

I can see why this book is put on high school reading lists. It was one of my high school’s picks for summer reading, though I read The Joy Luck Club instead. Though I can’t say I really liked the book, I can complement its beautiful writing, its portrayal of Latino culture, and its insight. The House on Mango Street is a book that should be savored, and while I didn’t have the time to savor it, I can at least see the potential in returning to it and taking the time to soak it all in.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Sexual assault.

Genre: Young Adult, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2yusHNE

Fairy Tale Friday: Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

Spindle’s End, by Robin McKinley, was published in 2000 by Putnam.

Rating: 3/5

I’ve read both of Robin McKinley’s “Beauty and the Beast” retellings, but never her “Sleeping Beauty” retelling, so here I am to tackle this massive book.

Spindle’s End takes the Sleeping Beauty tale and crafts an entire fantasy world out of it, complete with slight references to McKinley’s Damar books (I caught one The Blue Sword reference but there may have been more). The tale itself is also slightly different from the original; without giving too much away, it gives Sleeping Beauty more to do and there really isn’t a prince figure of the sort prominent in the original.

With two Damar books under her belt, McKinley is used to spinning out more magic and details than were present in Beauty, and Spindle’s End is stuffed full of things. It’s almost too much at times—the beginning is ponderously slow, and the book really doesn’t start picking up until it switches to Rosie’s point of view, 150 pages in. The conflict at the end is almost too dense and confusing for the reader to fully grasp; I struggled to get through McKinley’s long sentences and heavy descriptions of magic and animals to understand what actually happened. And now, as I’m writing this review, I’m starting to realize just how little dialogue is actually in this book—there’s bits and pieces, but most of it is description. In fact, the largest sections of dialogue concern the animals, and they talk almost as ponderously as the descriptions.

People who like developed, built-up fairy tales will probably really enjoy Spindle’s End, but I think I prefer the simplicity of one like Beauty more. Perhaps if McKinley had a better balance of description to dialogue, or if the beginning weren’t so hard to slog through, I might have liked it better, because I did quite enjoy the middle bits. “Thoughtful fantasy” is a term I would use to describe this sort of work, though I’m not really sure what I mean by that. Lots and lots of description, maybe; that’s all I’m going to remember about this book in the long run.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tale

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Qyas1o

One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake

One Dark Throne, by Kendare Blake, was published in 2017 by HarperTeen. It is the sequel to Three Dark Crowns.

With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off. Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, needs to figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, the elemental sister thought to be the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent….Fennbirn’s deadliest queens must confront the one thing standing in their way of the crown: each other.

Rating: 2/5

One Dark Throne continues right where Three Dark Crowns left off, continuing the suspense and building the tension between the three sisters (and the three families and cities of the island). It’s a slower book than the first one, with the first 30% being romantic drama and the last 70% being a slow buildup to the final parts of the book.

I can see much more of the flaws of the world in this book that I couldn’t in the first, as the concept I found intriguing covered up a lot of it. However, One Dark Throne reveals just how thin the worldbuilding is—are there only these three cities and these three families that occupy them? There is no sense of scale, no sense of how big the island is or how many people live there, or even a clear sense of each city. Characters switch motives at the drop of a hat to propel the plot; there’s lots of tension between Jacob and Jules because of Mirabella, and while Blake seems to insinuate one thing, the characters ultimately end up doing another. Arsinoe indulges in low magic again, despite the failure in the first book, and it somehow works much better than before despite it being the same exact spell. Blake enjoys building tension with mystery and thinly veiled hints, but then fails to deliver fully, leaving confusing revelations behind.

And there are still way too many names thrown around to keep track of them all.

I heard that this book was supposed to be a duology, but is now a trilogy (or a quartet?). That puzzles me since this book isn’t stand-alone at all, nor does it end things satisfactorily; the decision must have been made before Blake published this book, which might explain why it’s so haphazard and filler-y in terms of plot.

I really enjoyed the concept of the first book, but nothing about One Dark Throne is compelling me to get the third book when it comes out. There are still mysteries to solve and questions to be answered, but nothing happened that made me care enough to find out what they are. The book is a mess of plot, character, and setting, behind a thin veneer of intriguing concept that becomes less intriguing the more you realize the flaws of the book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Nothing explicit, but there’s lots of kissing and obvious sexual connotations.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2MVHn1A

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Choksi

The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi, was published in 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. While Maaya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: as Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherwordly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Rating: 3/5

The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, who, forced into marriage by her father in order to avoid war, accepts the hand of an unexpected, mysterious suitor who then takes her into another realm, a land full of secrets. The plot reminded me of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” but I wouldn’t call this a retelling, as the book is very clearly based on Hindu mythology.

The setting of the book is rich and detailed; I haven’t read many Hindu/Indian settings in literature, and this one is beautiful. There’s lots of mythology thrown about that can get a little confusing, but Choksi integrates it very well. Choksi writes well, too, with great descriptions that stop just short of going overboard. There’s still a bit of polish that needs to happen—details often get lost, contradicted, or are given too brief explanations—but there’s lots of beauty in the writing.

The lack of tightness in the writing is a little more prominent in terms of the plot. Plot details are often sidelined for description; Amar is almost too mysterious and is too inactive (Maya is the one who does most of the work in the novel; Choksi is obviously going for girl power, but makes Amar almost impotent and useless as a character as a result.); and the pacing of the plot seems rushed and imbalanced. Maya wanders through Akaran discovering its mysteries for a long amount of time, then makes several quick, important decisions in the span of a few pages, then wanders around some more. The moments in the last few chapters of Part One, in particular, stand out as particularly poorly delivered: decisions are made and described too quickly, motivations seem thin, and cause and effect isn’t clear at all.

The Star-Touched Queen is an impressive debut, especially in terms of setting and description. The writing, beautiful as it is, could do with more polish, especially in terms of uniting description and plot. There were far too many moments that were covered up by hasty explanations or thin motivations. Maya herself was a good protagonist, with brains rather than strength, which I prefer. However, Amar was cardboard, and he seemed completely unnecessary even in his own role; his sole purpose was only to motivate Maya. I get it, it’s subversion of the damsel in distress trope, but I’ve seen it executed far more effectively than what is given here.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Nf2Phh