Review: Black Dog

Black Dog Title: Black Dog
Author: Rachel Neumeier
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 443
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Review Copy: Borrowed from roommate
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic and protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs.

Before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them and their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc, who have sworn to protect the Pure.

They must pass the tests of the Dimilioc Master. But, first, they must all survive the looming battle.

Review: This book left me with a lot of conflicting feelings.

Rachel Neumeier does an excellent job with the black dogs, though I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with werewolves in fiction is strictly on the broad pop culture level. Still, having the black dogs’ shadows be…almost demonic was fascinating for me. There is a lot of fire and smoke and “fell”-ness lurking around the black dogs, and the descriptions of how Alejandro loses his ability to understand either Spanish or English or humanity in general when his shadow rises up is delightfully disturbing. The black dogs are terrifying in their violence and their rage—this is a book filled with a lot of vicious battles and gore. When the black dogs fight, everyone else had better be far away, or they’ll be dead. (They still might end up dead.)

I also loved that Neumeier left a lot of the history of this world for us to fill in on our own. There are a few references to a previous supernatural war and how with the vampire magic gone, “normal” humans have started to figure stuff out about the black dogs, but by and large this world is one you have to piece together on your own. This is quite the feat, considering the primary action of the book takes place roughly within a single week in a very small geographical area (memories of Mexico and a quick side-trip to Chicago aside).

Neumeier makes good use of her dual narrators: Natividad, and Alejandro. By giving us POVs from both of them, the reader gets a better grasp on what it’s like to associate with or be a black dog, which is essential to understanding some of the subtler pieces of storytelling. They both spend a lot of time thinking about what their body language conveys on the not-a-threat to definitely-a-threat spectrum, and the small details of whom sits/stands next to whom are important for understanding what’s going on.

(I had one minor annoyance with the narration, and that was how often Natividad or Alejandro explained to the reader—not to another character—what a Spanish word meant. Every time that happened, it yanked me out of the narrative. It even happened sometimes with words I thought were easy cognates or things that could be inferred from context.)

So far as the characters go, there’s a pretty good ensemble cast. There are standouts and there are bit players, but most of the characters are unique enough to be remembered. The three siblings are great, though I wish we had gotten more of Miguel. Grayson and Keziah were also favorites of mine. My one significant complaint in this department was Vonhausel, who despite being the major antagonist, gets very little screen time. So little screen time, in fact, that the only thing I remember about him aside from an end-of-the-book spoiler is that he really likes having his black dogs and shifters kill people.

There were two major things about this book that gave me pause. The first item is 15-year-old Natividad’s status as breeding stock. This is acknowledged frankly in the book—the fact that she is Pure (and oh, how I cringe at that title, even though I know it has nothing to do with virginity) and likely to give birth to black dog sons and Pure daughters is one of the kids’ main bargaining chips to being allowed to enter Dimilioc. And while she’s allowed to pick whichever black dog she wants as a mate once she turns 16, 1) all of them are older than her and 2) one of them outright says that if she picks someone who is not him, he will kill that other person. That squicks me on so many levels that I could probably write an entire essay on that topic alone. The end of the book was probably intended to mollify me a little, but it didn’t do a good enough job at persuading me that this set up could truly be 100% consensual. (Which means it is not.)

The second item is one that I’m not sure was intentional, and that bothers me more. One of the main plotlines of the book is essentially “people of color seek out stronger white people for help (and/or are pressganged into joining them).” Granted, said white people are nowhere near as strong as they used to be, and by the end Dimilioc only survives because of those people of color, but there are some seriously unfortunately implications when it comes to race in this book. Especially considering Thaddeus, one of the black dogs, falls very neatly into the Scary Black Man trope, complete with being the only black dog to fight in half-man form, being huge and rather violent, and being forced into joining Dimilioc (with a bonus of being dragged there in what are essentially chains with his wife and son as hostages).

Recommendation: Borrow it someday or just skip it. If it weren’t for the last two items (and a few small disappointments in the resolution), this would be a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The prose is great, the action gets your heart going, and Natividad and Alejandro are fun characters, but the unfortunate implications left me with an awful aftertaste.

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Review: Control by Lydia Kang

Control Title: Control
Author: Lydia Kang
Genres: Science-fiction, Dystopian/Post-apocalyptic
Pages: 393
Publisher: Dial Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: Set in 2150 — in a world of automatic cars, nightclubs with auditory ecstasy drugs, and guys with four arms — this is about the human genetic “mistakes” that society wants to forget, and the way that outcasts can turn out to be heroes.

When their overprotective father is killed in a terrible accident, Zel and her younger sister, Dylia, are lost in grief. But it’s not until strangers appear, using bizarre sensory weapons, that the life they had is truly eviscerated. Zel ends up in a safe house for teens that aren’t like any she’s ever seen — teens who, by law, shouldn’t even exist. One of them — an angry tattooed boy haunted by tragedy — can help Zel reunite with her sister.

But only if she is willing to lose him.

Review: I think the balance of the science-fiction and dystopian genres in Control was a little off for my tastes. I prefer my science fiction books to have a lot more emphasis on the puzzle-solving part of the science, especially for the reader. I want to be able to piece together clues and spend less time in lab accidents. There was too much time spent on trying to get a good copy of Dylia’s DNA instead of experimenting with the stuff that’s important in the final act. I also prefer my dystopians to focus a lot more on how evil society has become—not that there aren’t plenty of ways in which the government in Control is horrible—but Zel isn’t even really aware that she should be concerned about anything until her sister is kidnapped. The scope of the story was also surprisingly narrow; part of the draw of speculative fiction for me is exploring a different world, and Zel spent much of the book in a single building.

On the other hand, I was thrilled that the driving force of this entire book is Zel’s desperation to rescue her younger sister. Maybe it’s the big sister in me—I’m the eldest of ten children—but any time the older sister or brother is on a mission to rescue her/his siblings, I’m definitely going to be rooting for her/him. I do wish we had gotten to see more of Zel and Dylia in their normal sibling relationship before the death of their father or afterwards in their shared grief. I wanted to miss Dylia as much as Zel did, and for a while I felt more like I missed the idea of her than the actual character. Still, the goal to rescue Dylia (and the multiple deadlines involved in the process) kept the plot moving at a fast pace.

Some of the most memorable parts of the book involved the day-to-day interactions between Zel and the inhabitants of Carus. I took particular delight in her almost-frenemies relationship with Vera, and any of her encounters with Ana were all the right sorts of creepy. Cy, Zel’s romantic interest, was the sort of cold and standoffish hero that I actually cheered for. The two of them made a cute pair, and they had some excellent makeout scenes. The slow-building attraction between Zel and Cy was a lot of fun, and I liked that it took a while for them to open up to each other.

Zel was a clever heroine, but most of all I appreciated that she frequently called people out on their crap. I also enjoyed that Lydia Kang made Zel’s condition—a somewhat fictionalized Ondine’s curse—an important part of the story. It could have easily been handled poorly, but Kang did a great job showing how Zel managed her condition and how it affected her life.

The final act is filled with a few unexpected plot twists (one of which completely blindsided me) and a lot action. It was a great way to show off everything Zel had learned through the course of the book, including some things I hadn’t anticipated would be important to the plot again. I always appreciate it when an author can take something from a romantic scene and turn it into a key part of the action later on, so nicely done.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. If you’re looking for a fast-paced dystopian book with a fun premise and a heroine who know what she wants and goes for it, then you should give Control a shot. It’s an interesting start to a series, and I look forward to the second book, which will be out in 2015.

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Review: Chasing Shadows

chasingTitle: Chasing Shadows
Author: Swati Avasthi
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 320
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Review copy: the library
Availability: September 24, 2013

Summary: Before: Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftops to rooftop. But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof…

After: Holly and Savitri are coming unglued. Holly says she’s chasing Corey’s killer, chasing revenge. Savitri fears Holly’s just running wild—and leaving her behind. Friends should stand by each other in times of crisis. But can you hold on too tight? Too long?

In this intense novel, Swati Avasthi creates a gripping portrait of two girls teetering on the edge of grief and insanity. Two girls who will find out just how many ways there are to lose a friend…and how many ways to be lost. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I can’t say often enough how much I enjoy friendship stories. That being said, Chasing Shadows was a completely different creature than I am used to. Reading Holly and Savitri’s story of friendship, loss and grief was definitely a different experience.

Holly and Corey are twins; Savitri and Corey are dating. The three are a close trio of friends who face risk headlong by freerunning all over the city, off high buildings and through alleyways. When Corey is killed, Holly and Savitri’s friendship is put to the test as Holly seeks closure and vengeance, while Savitri tries to decide her future college path. Both grieve in their own ways, as shown by the two unique perspectives in Chasing Shadows.

Both girls’ grief is affected by more than Corey’s death. Holly’s grief begins to spiral into insanity as her reality begins to blend with the Leopardess comics she loves to read. Savitri’s grief and outlook on life is influenced by her cultural background and the story behind the name Savitri. The blending of influences is illustrated through comic pages interspersed throughout the narrative. While this approach to storytelling felt fresh and different, it also felt at odds with the flow of the story. That, combined with the stylized writing meant to depict Holly’s gradual breakdown, made immersion in the story difficult.

Chasing Shadow‘s innovative approach to storytelling is its main draw and also, at times, its weakness. This is a great book for anyone who enjoys psychological stories, or just wants to read about freerunning.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Review: Fire with Fire

fire with fireTitle:  Fire with Fire (Burn for Burn #2)
Author: Jenny Han, Siobhan Vivian
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 528
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Review copy: the lovely library
Availability: August 13, 2013

Summary: Lillia, Kat, and Mary had the perfect plan. Work together in secret to take down the people who wronged them. But things didn’t exactly go the way they’d hoped at the Homecoming Dance. Not even close. For now, it looks like they got away with it. All they have to do is move on and pick up the pieces, forget there ever was a pact. But it’s not easy, not when Reeve is still a total jerk and Rennie’s meaner than she ever was before.

And then there’s sweet little Mary…she knows there’s something seriously wrong with her. If she can’t control her anger, she’s sure that someone will get hurt even worse than Reeve was. Mary understands now that it’s not just that Reeve bullied her—it’s that he made her love him. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, burn for a burn. A broken heart for a broken heart. The girls are up to the task. They’ll make Reeve fall in love with Lillia and then they will crush him. It’s the only way he’ll learn. It seems once a fire is lit, the only thing you can do is let it burn… [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The Burn for Burn series is the sort of series that people would call a ‘guilty pleasure’ — though why anyone should feel guilty about reading something that makes them happy is beyond me. Fire with Fire is the second book in the Burn for Burn series. The first book involves the three main girls (Lillia, Kat and Mary) getting their respective vengeance on those who have wronged them. It’s probably best to read the first book to follow what’s going on in the second, but it’s not strictly necessary for enjoying the sequel.

The second book, Fire with Fire (a brilliant title!), follows in the wake of Burn for Burn after the girls have gotten their revenge. Instead of being satisfied, the girls are determined to follow through and get revenge on the one guy who hurt Mary. Of course, the revenge plot does not go as planned.

The constantly shifting relationships create a lot of compelling drama and conflict, which is at once Fire with Fire’s strength and weakness. Fire with Fire takes place in the same alternate universe as many tv shows and YA books — you know, that bizarre alternate universe in which every girl is rich/cool/beautiful and the only clique that matters is the popular crowd. The romantic conflict, while highly emotional and interesting to read, definitely threw me. I just can’t get behind any romance that even vaguely follows the path of Irredeemable Hot Jerk Gets Redeemed. More forgiving and romantic readers would definitely disagree with me on this point — so if you like it, read it.

The high drama tone of the series felt heavy handed at times, but what sets the series apart from others is the development of the girls’ friendships and the tinge of the supernatural that creeps in from time to time. Crazy plot twists are this series’ strong point and it only gets better in the second book. Unfortunately, the foundation for these plot twists isn’t laid out clearly, so it’s a little jarring. If you enjoy revenge and romance in the alternate universe setting where everyone is beautiful and cool, then this book will be a pleasure to read.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday if you want a dose of revenge and romance.

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Review: Jane Austen Goes to Hollywood

jane austenTitle:  Jane Austen Goes to Hollywood
Author: Abby McDonald
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 336
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: the lovely library
Availability: April 9, 2013

Summary: Hallie and Grace Weston have never exactly seen life eye to eye. So when their father dies and leaves everything to his new wife, forcing the girls to pack up and leave San Francisco for a relative’s house in shiny Beverly Hills, the two sisters take to their changing lot in typically different styles.
[Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review:  The moment I saw the title of this book, I knew I had to read it. I’m no Janeite, but I’ve got some love for Jane Austen. This book is based on Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility which I haven’t read in a while so… I cheated and reread the summary on Sparknotes. (Shhh. Don’t tell my English professors.)

Jane Austen Goes to Hollywood is a pretty fun modern adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. The 18th century gentry of Jane Austen’s time are replaced by two sisters living the rich life in Beverly Hills. At first, I was put off by the super wealthy lifestyle of almost everyone in this book, until I realized how perfectly it matched Sense and Sensibility. After that, I managed to sit back and enjoy the ride. The light tone of the book reminded me of the movie Clueless (a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma!).

A variety of side characters come and go, bringing humor and color to the story. (My favorite was Grace’s lab partner, Harry the Asian skater boy.) I was pretty impressed by the way each of the characters was updated. The younger sister Grace is sensible and cautious, while her older sister Hallie is a drama queen dreaming of making it in Hollywood. I was also put off by Hallie’s constant dramatics and lack of perspective, but, once I decided to just enjoy the book, Hallie stopped being irritating to me and became hilarious.

Overall, the book was a hilarious read. The Gatsby-esque parties and over-the-top characters did take some getting used to, but I had fun waiting for Grace and Hallie’s respective romances to pan out.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday if you’re planning to swing by the library — especially if you’re a Jane Austen fan or just looking for some light summer reading.

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Review: Shadows on the Moon

Shadows on the MoonTitle: Shadows on the Moon
Author: Zoë Marriott
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 447
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: On my fourteenth birthday when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us. We saw them come, Aimi and me. We were excited, because we did not know how to be frightened. We had never seen soldiers before.

Suzume is a shadow-weaver. She can create mantles of darkness and light, walk unseen in the middle of the day, change her face. She can be anyone she wants to be. Except herself.

Suzume died officially the day the Prince’s men accused her father of treason. Now even she is no longer sure of her true identity.

Is she the girl of noble birth living under the tyranny of her mother’s new husband, Lord Terayama? A lowly drudge scraping a living in the ashes of Terayama’s kitchens? Or Yue, the most beautiful courtesan in the Moonlit Lands?

Everyone knows Yue is destined to capture the heart of a prince. Only she knows that she is determined to use his power to destroy Terayama.

And nothing will stop her. Not even love.—(Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: I went into Shadows of the Moon expecting a revenge-thriller-with-magic-and-Cinderella-elements set in a Japanese-inspired fantasy world…and I only sort of got what I wanted. When I sit down for a tale of revenge, I expect that a good portion of the work in question will center on planning revenge and the attempts at enacting said revenge. Unfortunately, Suzume/Rin/Yue (hereafter referred to as Heroine because she really does use three different given names over the course of the book) doesn’t actually get around to vocalizing, let alone enacting, the grand revenge scheme hinted at in the summary until page 262. That’s quite the delay considering the slaughter in her father’s house is over by page 16 and Heroine discovers who was behind the slaughter by page 112.

Instead, a good portion of the book actually centers on Heroine’s survivor’s guilt, particularly how she deals/doesn’t deal with her mother’s sudden remarriage and other spoiler-ific events. Heroine’s self-destructive attempts at keeping her sanity were actually quite engaging, but it took a long time for her to take control of her own life. I feel as if I spent the first half of the book wishing we could move onto more interesting things, like the revenge.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about this book is its magic. I’m not opposed to magic that’s more about the wonder than strict rules—see my love for N. K. Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series—but I prefer magic that seems consistent. It’s one thing for Heroine to be able to create illusions or hide herself and quite another for her to be able to shape-shift, create matter from nothing, and heal. I could not figure out how those four separate powers went together, and I eventually had to throw up my hands and say I guess I’ll believe it if you really want me to. Heroine also does surprisingly little with her wide array of powers, to the point where in some scenes I wanted to point out other, cleverer things she could be doing with them for the sake of her revenge.

The side characters were a lot of fun, particularly Otieno and Akira. Heroine’s budding romance with Otieno was very cute, provided you’re able to roll with the fairytale-style InstaLove. At least the couple got to spend a lot of time together compared to most fairytale romances, despite the complete absence of Otieno from the summary. Akira brought a nice depth to the book with her history, especially as the ultimate enabler of Heroine’s revenge. I’m always pleased to run into adults who support teenage protagonists and allow them to make their own decisions—even if they don’t agree with those decisions.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday. Shadows on the Moon needed 100 fewer pages spent on being passive, confused, and/or powerless and 100 more pages on revenge, plot twists, and moral quandaries.

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