Posts from the ‘YA Fantasy’ Category

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Sleeper and the Spindle.jpgTitle: The Sleeper and the Spindle
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Chris Riddell
ISBN: 9780062398246
Pages: 69 pages
Publisher/Date: first published in Rag & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, published in 2013 by Little, Brown. c2013, Illustrations c2014. Originally published in the U.K. in 2014 by Bloomsbury. Published in U.S. by HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

The smallest dwarf tipped his head to one side. “So, there’s a sleeping woman in a castle, and perhaps a witch or fairy there with her. Why is there also a plague?”
“Over the last year,” said the fat-faced man. “It started in the north, beyond the capital. I heard about if first from travelers coming from Stede, which is near the Forest of Acaire.”
“People fall asleep in the towns,” said the pot-girl. […]
“They fall asleep whatever they are doing, and they do not wake up,” said the sot. “Look at us. We fled the towns to come here. We have brothers and sisters, wives and children, sleeping now in their houses or cowsheds, at their workbenches. All of us.”
“It is moving faster and faster,” […] “Now it covers a mile, perhaps two miles, each day.” (18)

Three dwarfs tunnel under the mountain range in search of a wedding gift for their queen, returning with news of a horrible sleeping sickness plaguing the neighboring lands and heading closer every day. The queen, having previously faced her own sleep spell, postpones the wedding and attempts to break the spell and save both kingdoms. Although this might sound familiar, Neil Gaiman’s twist ending flips the story, and you question who is really being held captive. The queen’s confidence is obvious in both narration and illustration, and is the most welcome adaptation to the traditional tale. Two illustrations specifically catch my eye, the first has the queen standing with the dwarfs ready to embark, and the second is the full-spread gorgeously rendered drawing of the kiss. It doesn’t seem enough though to warrant publishing a previous short story as its own book, but U.S. fans will enjoy Gaiman’s newest import.

Poisoned Apples

Each month for a previous job, I wrote a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ve expanded that idea to the blog in a feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Poisoned ApplesTitle: Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty
Author: Christine Heppermann
Illustrations: Photographs by various artists
ISBN: 9780062289575
Pages: 114 pages
Publisher/Date: Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

Simon says touch your toes.
Simon says turn around.
Simon says touch your toes again.
Now wiggle a little.
Simon says he is not a pervert. (16)

The quoted poem was the first that gave me goose bumps in this collection that uses fairy tales conventions to remark on the culture of today’s women. Topics include eating disorders, feminism, and sexual rights, either applied to modern-day or as Heppermann sees them within the original tale. “Finders Keepers” talks about virginity, “Red-Handed” paints Little Red Riding Hood as a smuggler with sexual prowess (“Why, Wolfie, what a big…”), “Runaway” portrays Goldilocks as a rebellious runaway, and Hansel and Gretel themed “Weight Watchers” brings a whole new meaning to fudge bars. It features different formats including a haiku and a villanelle, rare in a genre dominated by free verse. While some appear overly didactic (example, naming a poem “A Brief History of Feminism”), rave reviews from Gayle Forman, A.S. King, and Sara Zarr give this debut author the street cred it rightfully deserves. Perfect for transitioning from Women’s History Month to Poetry Month.

Afterworlds

AfterworldsTitle: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Narrators: Heather Lind and Sheetal Sheth
ISBN: 9781442372467 (audiobook),
CDs/Discs: 12 CDs, 15 hours 16 minutes
Pages: 599 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon Pulse, c2014.
Publication Date: Sept. 23, 2014

“The thing is, I want to defer college for a year.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Why on earth?”
“Because I have responsibilities.” This line had sounded better in her head. “I need to do the rewrites for Afterworlds, and write a sequel.”
“But. . .” Her mother paused, and the elder Patels shared a look.
“Working on books isn’t going to take all your time,” her father said. “You wrote your first one in a month, didn’t you? And that didn’t interfere with your studies.” (15)

This is the story of Darcy Patel, a newly graduated high school student who forgoes college in order to move to New York and focus on her publishing career. This is also the story of Elizabeth, a high school senior and the only survivor of a terrorist attack at an airport that leaves everyone else dead and Lizzie seeing ghosts, including a hunky Hindu god named Yamaraj. Elizabeth is the character in Darcy’s story, written over the course of a month-long writing challenge and then rewritten and revised over the next year. Each girl suffers from distractions of their first romance, life’s interference, and their own insecurities about their ability to handle their situations.

First, the negatives. The two stories are told in alternating chapters, which impedes the flow of each story. Elizabeth, or Lizzie, will be running away from a ghost at the end of one chapter, and then readers are flung back to Darcy’s substantially tamer life. If there were parallels between the plots it might have made more sense, but the transitions are disconcerting and seem arbitrary in nature. In one instance, a plot point is portrayed in Lizzie’s story before Darcy finishes the rewrite of it, which makes it all the more jarring when the subject is broached in Darcy’s because we already know what she decides.

I think this may be the first time that the audiobook quality negatively impacts my enjoyment of the book. Each chapter gets only one track, making the tracks close to 30 minutes long, and quite frequently running onto a second disc. That proves frustrating when you’re listening in your car and reach your destination before the track ends. There are also small clicks in one narrator’s enunciation for Darcy’s parts, which may have been included intentionally to emphasize her accent, but are occasionally distracting.

The parts I enjoyed the most are the exposition on the publishing process and the thought-provoking asides as a result. Darcy’s advance, rewrites, edits, marketing efforts, and fearful expectations are all covered, although we aren’t privy to the actual release of her book. There is a well-quoted portion where Darcy’s friend introduces the Angelina Jolie paradox, which forces your mind to really think about how much suspension of belief we have when reading or watching movies. Darcy is questioned about her appropriation of cultural figures for her novel, and she revisits those thoughts again and again. Darcy’s friend Imogen also reveals that some symbolism in a writer’s work may not be as intentional as you might think, pointing things out that Darcy never realized she was doing. There are beautiful turns of phrases throughout the novel that capture your attention.

“Their bodies fit perfectly like this, two continents pulled apart eons ago but now rejoined.” (264)
“The surface of the snow was frozen into glass. Wind-borne flurries uncoiled across it, the high sun casting halos in them, like gray rainbows.”(428)

But the dialogue in places seems stilted and the characters’ reflections make them seem wise beyond their years, even while you’re waiting for character development to happen. Westerfeld even addresses this, when Darcy realizes that her book characters can be boiled down to a few pithy adjectives. It also strikes me as odd that Darcy, on her own for the first time, receives so little parental supervision or inquisition, especially as she keeps stressing the strictness of her immigrant parents. One bright spot is we refreshingly see a character out of school who is forced to make her own decisions and mistakes about budget, including food and living arrangements, no matter how pie-in-the-sky that life may be after Darcy’s six figure advance is paid out.

Personally, I think Westerfeld should stick with the science fiction/fantasy genres. I’ve raved about his Leviathan trilogy several times on this blog, and this seemed like a disappointing departure from what he does well. However, it’s a “chicken and the egg” thought process, because any complaints about the writing style could be attributed to Westerfeld’s portrayal of Darcy’s inexperienced writing and faults, as when someone falls on the ice and claims they meant to do that to show other people the sidewalk is slippery. Tasha Robinson says it better in her NPR Review:

And Westerfeld has an easy out for any flaws in Lizzie’s side of the book: Darcy is a young, inexperienced author. For instance, her relationship with Yamaraj seems insubstantial and heavily romanticized because it’s being written by an 18-year-old who’s just learning about love herself.

If you’re interested in trying your own hand at the National Novel Writing Month challenge, which takes place in November, try visiting their website. For more fulfilling books with a writing themed plot, try Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Through the Woods

Each month for my job, I write a maximum 150 word review of a new book that came into the library during the month. I’ll be expanding that idea to the blog in a new feature I’m calling To the Point Tuesdays. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

Through the WoodsTitle: Through the Woods
Author/Illustrator: Emily Carroll
ISBN: 9781442465954
Pages: unpaged (208 pages)
Publisher/Date: Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2014.

When I was little I used to read before I slept at night. And I read by the light of a lamp clipped to my headboard. Stark white, and bright, I dreaded turning it off. What if I reached out… just past the edge of the bed and SOMETHING, waiting there, GRABBED ME and pulled me down, into the DARK. (introduction)

Less is more in this eerily spooky collection of graphic short stories. Sparse narration and vivid drawings bring the chilling tales to life. There are vague connections to folk tales and fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, but Disney fans will be severely surprised, and possibly horrified. Each story has its own color palette that is used to the fullest extent, with white space (or in most cases black space) conveying the mood. The attention-grabbing blood red pops out of the page. Read it again to appreciate the striking illustrations, and while they “are rendered in ink and graphite on Bristol board and then digitally colored”, the beginning and end papers left me thinking of relief printing. Definitely recommended, just not for those prone to nightmares. This brings horror to a new high and the stories with open-endings will leave behind feelings of “could this happen to me”.

The Shadow Throne

Shadow ThroneTitle: The Shadow Throne
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy, book #3 (sequel to The Runaway King)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Map by: Kayley LeFaiver
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545284172 (hardcover), 9780545640060 (audiobook)
Pages: 317 pages
CDs/Discs: 9 hours, 4 minutes, 8 CDs
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2014 (Scholastic Audiobooks, c2014)

With an unsteady voice, she added, “Jaron, do you expect to die in this war?”
My thumb brushed over hers. Not for the first time, I wondered how her skin could be so soft. Then I said, “With the kind of threat we’re facing, I will fight to the death before I surrender. And I don’t see a path to victory.”
“But you’ll find a way. You always do.”
“Maybe Carthya will come through this. But mine has never been the kind of life that leads to old age.” (20-21)

Jaron has every reason to be defeated. After returning home from the pirates camp with a broken leg, he knows war is on the horizon, and receives word of its arrival at the same time he learns of Imogen’s capture. He saved her once, he can do it again, right? With his friends scattered, his country surrounded, and a possible spy in their midst, Jaron is flung into the deadliest battle yet. While he recognizes that he might not make it out alive, he refuses to admit or believe that fate might fall on one of his friends. But will his efforts force him to choose between his companions, his country, or his own freedom?

I posted reviews to the first and second books in the series earlier this year. I still recommend the audiobook versions as an enjoyable listening experience, with Charlie McWade literally providing a voice to Jaron. But with the amount of movement going on between towns and countries, readers might prefer having the map in the print version readily available as a reference of everyone’s destinations and locations. The other thing that I noticed this time around is that the Jennifer Nielsen presents conversations quite frequently as summaries from Jaron’s perspective. I don’t know if she does this to speed the plot or to avoid writing dialogue. I also don’t know if I noticed this more because I was listening to the audiobook rather than reading it. For instance, here are two examples of times I wish I could have “heard” the conversation:

To avoid any argument, I explained only what was necessary of my plans. Mott’s mouth was pinched in a think line of disapproval and Harlowe didn’t look much happier. Tobias clearly thought I had gone insane during my time in captivity, and as that wasn’t entirely impossible, I didn’t contradict him. In the end, they agreed to all that I asked, and Harlowe made Mott and Tobias Promise to keep me safe. Mott replied that he could protect me from everyone but myself, which I thought was a fair compromise. (122-123)

The more we talked about it, the more I was certain that something was very wrong. (194)

Listening to the audiobook, descriptions like the ones just quoted feel as if Jaron is breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the reader. Readers also get first hand analysis of Jaron’s physical and mental state, such as “I was neither the biggest nor the strongest in this battle. My only hope was to be the quickest.” (205) These comments might have read more fluidly if the book had been presented in the third person or if someone else had told Jaron, but from Jaron’s perspective such self-awareness can be slightly jarring.

At other times, these asides are some of the most beautiful and heart-felt portions of the book. I can’t quote any of them without giving away way too much of the plot. Suffice it to say, you’ll know what I mean when you encounter them. Swoon! Balancing the more heart-felt moments, Jaron’s biting sarcasm is a welcome constant in the series. For instance, after encountering a friend, Jaron claims “I need to smile. Tell me something not awful.” After hearing his companions were “miserable”, Jaron arches an eyebrow and says “This is the worst good story I’ve ever heard.” The story continues with an evening rain, making it “cold and so dark we could barely see our own fingers, and the night seemed to last forever.” Jaron responds “I’m beginning to wonder if you understand what ‘not awful’ means.” (94-95) That’s the Jaron we know and love, and those times always brought a smile to my face.

While the print copy benefited from the map, the one benefit of the audiobook was the inclusion of an “exclusive scene” that was not included in the print copy. This bonus scene transports readers to a mid-point in the story and shows an event which Jaron is not present to witness. It explains the actions of another character, and I find myself comparing it to the Harry Potter epilogue at the end of book seven. Some people might like it, but I would have rather been kept in the dark about this character’s motivations than receive this somewhat loose rational behind their actions. It definitely adds more intrigue to the situation. Just like the second book, Jaron paints himself into one corner after another, with no possibly way to get out (at least to everyone else) until some miraculous foresight is revealed that propels him to the next problem. You can’t help but admire his intense planning, but it is also hard to believe a plan this complicated and hinged on so many factors is going to succeed. Still a highly recommended series, this book is Inception meets Princess Bride, and I think fans of both would appreciate the complexities.

The Runaway King

Runaway KingTitle: The Runaway King
Series: Ascendance Trilogy #2 (sequel to The False Prince)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545497695 (audiobook)
Pages: 331 pages
CD/Discs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 27 minutes
Publisher/Date: Scholastic Audiobooks, c2013.

Newly crowned King Jaron is convinced that the neighboring community of Avenia is set to attack and claim their land, but none of his advisers will listen to the mad king who just resumed the throne after his presumed death at the hands of pirates years ago. When a failed assassination attempt convinces his advisers to hand over a captured traitor in the hopes of placating the group, Jaron fears they will relieve him of his crown in order to send him into hiding. Instead, Jaron puts his own plan into play, which involves sneaking across the border and tracking down the pirates who are trying to complete the unfinished task and collect on the spoils of war. As Jaron’s past catches up with him, he wonders which of his assumed identities he will have to maintain in order to survive. Is he an orphan boy, a street thief, a prospective pirate, or the ruling sovereign of a kingdom in danger? His strength, stamina, and smarts are put to the test in a political game that everyone thinks he will fail.

Jaron is an arrogant, dishonest, insolent, manipulative, overconfident, sarcastic, self-righteous, and stubborn individual, and I can definitely see why his departed father’s advisers would not get along with him. Jaron has his own way of doing things and refuses to listen to anyone’s concerns unless he has no other option. On the other hand, he usually proves himself right by the end of the adventure. I’m not sure if it is maddeningly coincidental that things happen to go his way or just a way for author Jennifer Nielsen to prove his unflappability in the face of obstacles. Scaling a rock wall with a broken leg is not something I would attempt, but he faces it with a determination that you think would ultimately be detrimental to his cause, if not his body. His physical endurance and ability to read his opponent and maintain charades and mind games makes him appear superhuman. And yet, you can’t help rooting for him to succeed and yelling at him to don’t do something stupid that you predict is going to fail.

Jaron’s journey is filled with delays, and it’s a wonder he gets where he needs to be at all. While realistic to the vast distances he needs to cross and the dangers he faces, it does slow down the pace of the plot. In return, you have daring sword fights with his enemies that are over in a manner of minutes at most. A lot of political scheming and plotting is presented, and while I found myself enjoying it more than I thought I would, some readers might want more of the fight and flee action that most fantasies have today. We’re privy to Jaron’s inner thoughts regarding his reasoning, but sometimes only as he tells another character his plans. The audiobook proved slightly problematic, as Jaron’s inner thoughts are sometimes indistinguishable from the dialogue. However, I thought Charlie McWade did an acceptable job distinguishing between the accents and tones of the older advisers, Jaron, the pirates, and his younger friends.

Obviously a set-up for the third novel, with the upcoming conflict revealed in the final chapter of the book, I feel like this suffered the sequel syndrome and didn’t live up to my expectations of the first one. Some readers might remember that I was on the committee that chose The False Prince, the first book in the series, for a Cybils award when it was published in 2012. Knowing who Jaron really is cut down on the tension and intrigue, and the ending, while leaving enough unfinished business for a third book, came about a bit too cleanly. I’m sure Jaron would think privately that it was anything but easy, although he would never voice his frustrations or admit to his limitations aloud. That’s just not his style. It’s a trip of endurance, and many readers might question what they would do in that same situation, never fully understanding Jaron’s motivations or his innate ability to overcome adversity.

2 The Point Tuesday The False Prince

I was on the Cybil’s committee that chose The False Prince as the winner for 2012. I’ve held off on posting a review of this because I didn’t want to tip my hand. Now that I’ve reviewed the sequel The Runaway King, I thought I would post a copy of our summary as a To the Point Tuesday. To the Point Tuesday was formed as a 150 word review of a recent read. It’s slightly over the 150 word limit, which I’m okay with because of how much happens in the novel and also how much I loved the book. If you want to play along, just post a link in the comments and I’ll add them to the post.

False PrinceTitle: The False Prince
Author: Jennifer A Nielsen
Narrator: Charlie McWade
ISBN: 9780545391665 (audiobook), 9780545284134 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 7 CDs, 8 hours 14 minutes
Pages: 342 pages
Publisher/Date: Scholastic, c2012.
Publication Date: April 1, 2012

“You’re a trick to figure out Sage. Would you ever be on my side, even if I chose you above the other boys?”
“I’m only on my side. Your trick will be convincing me that helping you helps me.”
“What if I did?” Connor asked. “How far would you go to win?”
“Th better question, sir, is how far you will go to wine.” I looked him steadily in the eyes as I spoke, although his back was to the fire and his eyes were set in shadow. […] So we know you’re willing to murder to win.”
“I am.” Conner backed up, speaking to all of us again. “And I’m willing to life, to cheat, and to steal. I’m willing to commend my soul to the devils if necessary because I believe there is exoneration in my cause. I need one of you to conduct the greatest fraud ever perpetrated within the country of Carthya. This is a lifetime commitment. It will never be safe to back down from my plan and tell the truth. To do so would destroy not only you but the entire country. And you will do it to save Carthya.” (28-29)

Sage is taken from his orphanage along with three other boys and thrust into an attempt to save the kingdom from impending war. If he loses, it’s certain death, but Sage is very reluctant to win, since the prize at the end means becoming someone’s pawn and living a lie for the rest of his life. The detailed world Nielsen creates is full of life, populated with mystery, twists and turns, and engaging and complex characters. Readers don’t know who to trust, while Sage knows he can trust no one, especially not Connor, the man who stole them away and has aspirations of his own. Sage’s voice is perfection, reading like a medieval Sherlock Holmes. Unreliable and snarky, Sage keeps his observations, assets, and motivations to himself until he knows he can benefit. Readers can’t help but cheer for him, even as he struggles to come to grips with the ups and downs of a fate he doesn’t desire.

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