Review: Charm & Strange

charm and strangeTitle: Charm & Strange
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 216
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: When you’ve been kept caged in the dark, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees. It’s impossible to see anything, really. Not without bars . . .

Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.

He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.

He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.

Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.

Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: Charm & Strange is a difficult, disturbing read. I can’t say much about it without spoiling the story, but I’ll do my best.

The bio on the dust jacket says that the author is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology, and it’s clear that Kuehn has used her education to her advantage in this book. Charm & Strange combines two narratives in alternating chapters: Drew’s traumatic childhood and Win’s reluctant party attendance, which eventually turns into a mental health crisis. Both narratives leave you with a mounting sense of dread the closer you get to unraveling the mystery of what happened to Drew/Win. There are enough clues that a discerning reader can figure out the key points of the trauma before the official reveal, but that won’t lessen the emotional impact of the events. I spent the time before the reveal desperately hoping that I was wrong and the time afterwards being extremely upset that I was right.

While the book remains tightly focused on Drew/Win, Lex (a former roommate) and Jordan (the new girl) are scene-stealers at school. The failure of Win and Lex’s pseudo friendship is a painful but necessary way of highlighting just how messed up Win is. Jordan’s attempts to befriend Win are equally hard to read, especially since I wanted Win to reach out to someone for help. Lex and Jordan are two decent people caught up in the life of a very broken person, and I admire them for how they deal with Win. They also keep the present narrative from being completely soul-crushing.

Unfortunately, the past narrative is completely soul-crushing. It’s clear from the start that some pretty terrible things had to have happened to Drew in order for him to grow up to be Win, and I had to mentally prep myself for every new chapter. These chapters are the most powerful, especially when the reader starts picking up clues about what is going on with Drew and his family. His brother, Keith, features prominently in this part of the story. The relationship between Keith and Drew (and to a lesser extent, their younger sister, Siobhan) is a heartbreaking one. Keith often acts as a parent for Drew, despite only being a few years older, and watching him struggle to be an adult when he shouldn’t have to be is emotionally draining.

Recommendation: Get it soon, but only if you think you can handle disturbing subject matter. Kuehn wrote an excellent book, but I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to reread it. The book is short and powerful, and it leaves you reeling.

Review: Prophecy

prophecyTitle: Prophecy
Author: Ellen Oh
Pages: 312
Genre: fantasy
Publisher: HarperTeen
Review Copy: library
Availability: January 2, 2013

Summary: Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope… Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king. [Summary and image via Goodreads]

Review: When I read the little blurb on the cover (“One girl will save us all.”), I couldn’t help hearing Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender’s voiceover. Prophecy, like Avatar, is pretty epic. And like Avatar, world-building is definitely one of its strengths.

The fantasy setting of Prophecy is a refreshing change from the usual dime-a-dozen medieval European setting. Prophecy is set in Hansong, which is inspired by ancient Korea. Hansong, as one of seven kingdoms, is drawn into conflict with other nations such as Yamato when the demons begin to invade. With the heroine Kira as cousin to the prince of Hansong, you get to see the royal court at work. The only issue I had was with the politics, which was a little overwhelming at first, but once I got into the story, I figured it out.  From the setting to the tone, Prophecy has a rock solid setting for Kira’s journey.

Kira herself is fantastic. It’s always great to see a heroine at the center of an epic fantasy. The plot — fulfill the prophecy! find magical treasures! — is nothing new, but Kira brings it to life with her spirit and determination as she fights to protect the prince and the kingdom. And I love the addition of the trusty dog Jindo. Every quest needs an adorable (and surprisingly clever) dog along for the ride.

With its tightly written fantasy setting and fierce heroine, Prophecy is a great addition to the fantasy genre. I look forward to reading the sequel next year.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you love fantasy.

Review: The Eternity Cure

eternityBefore I get to the nuts and bolts of my review, I must give a loud Thank You to Julie Kagawa. Thank You Julie for making vampires scary again. Your vampires are ruthless and deadly and snarky and a reminder of why vampires have always been popular. Also, Thank You for having a female Asian character in Allison who completely kicks butt. And lastly, Thank You for making her the vampire, hereby ending the “vampire guy/human girl love story” trope.

Obviously, based on my praise for Julie’s vampires, specifically Allison, I loved The Eternity Cure. I ended up reading the first book of the series in order to understand Kagawa’s world, and really loved “The Immortal Rules”, hence my expectations for “Eternity Cure” were very high. Kagawa didn’t disappoint in this sequel of what I believe will be either an amazing trilogy or an intense series. In fact, I hope it’s a trilogy because I don’t know if my heart can take another punch like it did at the end of Eternity Cure…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What makes Eternity Cure such a fantastic read is primarily the work Kagawa puts in creating her characters. Allison Sekemoto is a tough, Katana wielding heroine who has learned to fight for survival. In this second book, the readers continue with Allison as she learns how to balance being a vampire yet still hold on to her humanity. Kagawa’s world is very dark, very self-serving, yet Allison manages to be a bright spot, showing compassion towards both humans and vampires. She is easy to relate to as she makes some hard decisions and struggles with her loyalty to her sire, Kanin, and her desire for Zeke. Speaking of Zeke, the romance between him and Allison does not overpower the main storyline, but is understated, given weight at appropriate moments, specifically when they are not fighting for their lives. Another plus I have to give Kagawa in writing the romance between Allison and Zeke is the fact that Allison is not a passive participant in the relationship – at all. She doesn’t always wait for Zeke to make the first move, many times initiating affection. I found the portrayal of their relationship realistic instead of the passive girl/aggressive boy trope that pervades some many novels. More YA novels need to have this healthy view of relationships and I’m thankful that Kagawa was able to weave such a portrayal in an otherwise dark story.

If you haven’t read either “The Immortal Rules” or “The Eternity Cure”, stop what you are doing (after leaving a comment below first) and run to your nearest bookstore (support your local bookstore) and buy these books! I promise, you will not be disappointed.

Mini-review: What’s Left of Me

what's left of meTitle: What’s Left of Me
Author: Kat Zhang
Pages: 343
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Publisher: Harper
Review Copy: library (that beautiful place)
Availability: September 18, 2012

(image from Goodreads)

Instead of a book summary, have a book trailer!

Review: Though science-fiction/dystopian isn’t really my cup of tea, I’ve been trying to read more of it lately — and enjoying it. What’s Left of Me is a fast-paced story with a sort of Golden Compass feel to it, what with the double souls and the dark hospital experiments. The world-building in the book is tight and fascinating. The book’s treatment of foreigners in the non-hybrid Americas was interesting, and reminded me of the controversy around immigration reform that’s happening today. It’s easy to fall into the world of Addie and Eva, though I wish some more of the national history had been elaborated on. I got the feeling that the history that was hinted on in the book was only the tip of the iceberg. Overall, it was an entertaining read and definitely worth the time.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re a big fan of The Golden Compass.

Annnd here’s a video of the author (!!) Kat Zhang reading from her book:


Review: Summer of the Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas Title: Summer of the Mariposas
Author: Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary
Pages: 355
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: On shelves now

Summary: When Odilia and her four sisters find a dead body in the swimming hole, they embark on a hero’s journey to return the dead man to his family in Mexico. But returning home to Texas turns into an odyssey that would rival Homer’s original tale.

With the supernatural aid of ghostly La Llorona via a magical earring, Odilia and her little sisters travel a road of tribulation to their long-lost grandmother’s house. Along the way, they must outsmart a witch and her Evil Trinity: a wily warlock, a coven of vicious half-human barn owls, and a bloodthirsty livestock-hunting chupacabras. Can these fantastic trials prepare Odilia and her sisters for what happens when they face their final test, returning home to the real world, where goddesses and ghosts can no longer help them?

Summer of the Mariposas is not just a magical Mexican American retelling of The Odyssey, it is a celebration of sisterhood and maternal love. (Summary and image via Goodreads)

Review: There are a lot of things I liked about Summer of the Mariposas, and chief among them was the magical realism. The world that Odilia and her sisters find themselves in is a fascinating blend of modern life, Odyssey checkpoints, and Mexican folklore. I wish there were more YA fantasy books focusing on Central and South American cultures. (If there are any good ones, please let me know. I want to read them!) The lechuzas were delightfully terrifying, and McCall did an excellent job of redeeming the character of La Llorona. Her story was one of the two points in the book where I teared up.

For as much as I loved the magical realism, the true heart of this story is the familial bonds between Odilia with her sisters and the sisters with their mother (and even grandmother). And despite saying that, I wish that either the book had been longer so that I could get to know the sisters better or that there had been fewer sisters to devote time to. As it stands, I don’t feel as if I got to know anyone besides Odilia very well. There was a lovely moment between Juanita and Odilia where Odilia got to subtly remind her younger sister that she doesn’t always know what’s right and that sometimes older sisters have useful things to contribute (buying sodas at the gas station, for those who have read the book), and that was a conflict I wish McCall had spent more time on. While I’m generally fond of the fire-forged-friends trope, I wish there had been slightly less physical peril with the girls and more emotional peril to draw them together.

That said, Part III: The Return, was everything I wanted it to be. If you’re familiar with the Odyssey, then you know about the ousting of the suitors. The ousting in this book involved a great deal less blood, but it was still a crowning moment of awesome. I loved how Odilia was able to reconnect with her mother and that the journey she and her sisters went on really did make their happily ever after possible—and believable.

Recommendation: Get it soon, especially if you’re interested in Mexican folklore, have a fondness for road trip stories or the Odyssey, or want to read books that focus on sisters or mother-daughter relationships. I’m going to have to check out McCall’s Under the Mesquite sometime soon to see if it is just as good.

Review: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass

yaquiTitle: Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Author: Meg Medina
Genres: Realistic fiction, contemporary
Pages: 260
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Review copy: friendly local library
Availability: March 26, 2013

Summary: One morning before school, some girl tells Piddy Sanchez that Yaqui Delgado hates her and wants to kick her ass. Piddy doesn’t even know who Yaqui is, never mind what she’s done to piss her off. Word is that Yaqui thinks Piddy is stuck-up, shakes her stuff when she walks, and isn’t Latin enough with her white skin, good grades, and no accent. Is there any way for Piddy to survive without closing herself off or running away? In an all-too-realistic novel, Meg Medina portrays a sympathetic heroine who is forced to decide who she really is. (image and summary from Goodreads)

Review: Right from the get-go, I loved this book. It starts out with a memorable opening line — “Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass” — and keeps right on to the end without losing momentum. Piddy Sanchez tells her story with a unique, genuine voice. The immediacy of the narrative kept me hooked for the two hours it took for me to finish the book.

I love funny books of any kind, so this book was right up my alley in terms of humor. At the same time, it deals with pretty serious subjects — bullying and, indirectly, abuse. The way these issues were handled was pretty well done. The book manages to stay away from being grimdark in tone while keeping things relevant.

What I loved most about the book was the family and friends of Piddy Sanchez. Piddy picks up a motley assortment of friends — friends who are stuck-up, geeky or cool. They all have their flaws and Piddy doesn’t gloss over them, which makes the friendships in the book seem all the more realistic. On top of that, the family around Piddy are just as complex and fascinating as her friends. Her mother’s best friend Lila is like the cool aunt I always wanted. She’s sassy, beautiful, and dispenses wisdom like she’s giving out candy — here, try it and you’re welcome. Piddy’s relationship with her mother is what really gets me. Her mother reminds me of my mother — snippy, full of strange advice, and strong. The story isn’t just about bullying. It’s about the mother-daughter relationship that is growing and changing. Strong female relationships are front and center in this book.

This was a fantastic book that I wouldn’t hesitate to put on the reading list of everyone in high school.

Recommendation: Get it soon.