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In the Shadow of Blackbirds

In the Shadow of Blackbirds - Cat Winters It took me a long time to pick up In the Shadow of Blackbirds, despite its positive buzz. Two things made me leery. For one, I found its blurb to be unhelpfully vague. Even the interior cover flap was useless — just six, cryptic sentences in 20 point type. Hate those. Only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can get away with that my-reputation-precedes-me stuff. Reason two, the information that was given sounded unbearably depressing. What was the marketing department for Amulet thinking? "Verge of apocalypse… deadly Spanish influenza… a brutal war… fear and confusion… desperate mourners… her bleakest moment… a boy who died in battle…" Ugh! Who would get excited over that blurb? The only target audience that comes to mind are people who enjoy getting shots. So, I would not have picked up this book but for my library’s excellent, new YA librarian, who saw me looking it over, got very excited, and insisted that I read it. I’m so glad I bit the bullet, because In the Shadow of Blackbirds has a lot going for it.

The story takes place in San Diego, in the autumn of 1918. Cat Winters writes, in her author’s note, that 1918 intrigued her because it was such a dismal year in human history, and the combination of WWI and a global pandemic caused people to go bonkers en masse. In the middle of all that crazy, Winters plants our protagonist, Mary Shelley — that’s a compound first name, like Mary Jane or Ana Lucia. Mary Shelley is stone cold sane, with a scientific, methodical mind, and the mixture of her character with the frenetic, sky-is-falling setting is really fantastic.

Mary Shelley reminded me of April Ludgate. A little cranky and deadpan, and often rude.

Our story starts when Mary Shelley moves from Portland to San Diego to live her aunt, after her father is arrested for assisting draft dodgers. Mary Shelley takes after her departed mother, who was one of the trailblazing women who practiced medicine at the turn of the century. At this time period, being an outspoken, hyper-intelligent female was akin to having a physical disfigurement, so Mary Shelley has only ever had one friend — Stephen Embers, a photographer’s son.

Mary Shelley and Stephen were best friends as children in Portland, but Stephen moved to San Diego when they were still young, so for years their only contact has been through correspondence. Sensitive, artistic Stephen shocks everyone when he enlists, but luckily, before he’s shipped to Europe, Mary Shelley finagles an in-person visit. Naturally, passion erupts between the grown-up soul mates, and Mary Shelley asks if there’s any way Stephen can withdraw his enlistment. But Stephen is desperate to leave the ocean-side mansion where he lives with his reserved mother and moody half-brother, Julius.

Julius and Stephen loathe each other, and one of the main issues between them is Julius’s re-purposing of Stephen’s father’s photography business. Julius has turned the studio into a spirit photography venture, which Stephen insists is fraudulent and immorally preys upon the grief-stricken.

Mary Shelley scoffs at Julius’s business as well, but the tide turns when Stephen is killed in France, and his terrified, disoriented spirit attaches itself to her.

What follows is a coming-of-age tale, a romance, a ghost story, and a murder mystery in a historic setting. Once it gets of the ground, the plot is well paced. From scene to scene, Mary Shelley moves back and forth to different locations and characters,in a manner reminiscent of the board game Clue, trying to unpack the mystery behind Stephen’s torment.

My only complaint with the book is that I would be hesitant to recommend it to older readers. Despite being well written, the book’s language is straight-forward and spartan; the enjoyment of the story comes from its content and not from any beauty of the language itself. This makes the story well-suited for younger readers, but limits its appeal for wider audiences who aren’t normally drawn to Children’s and YA books, even in their adulthood (as I am). Even the print design speaks to immaturity, with wide, childish line-spacing.

Despite these reservations, In the Shadow of Blackbirds was an absorbing, and surprisingly steamy, read, with finely-drawn characters, a forceful heroine, and a truly jaw-dropping, delightfully horrifying conclusion. 4.5 stars.

Phoenix Island

Phoenix Island - John  Dixon Review to come.

Love Letters to the Dead

Love Letters to the Dead - Ava Dellaira YA books that deal with death and grief aren’t exactly thin on the ground. As I write this, I’m looking over one of my bookshelves and picking out the Children’s and YA titles. In almost every one, there is a dead parent, a dead sibling, a dead friend. This frequency of death and absence in literature has registered vaguely in my brain before, but looking over my collection now, I’m feeling some fresh realization.

In regards to Children’s Lit, deaths become a sort of plot aide. Without parents underfoot, children can go on adventures, be resourceful, and express atypical cleverness. This is why Children’s Literature is overflowing with orphans. The trope seems more than a little dark. But, for most children, death is not yet a real thing. I remember, as a child, how death was a comfortable part of my fiction.

In the YA genre, grief makes its appearance. Which makes sense. Unless you are fortunate, by adolescence, you will have experienced the death of a beloved person with the lucidity of a mostly-developed brain. It is your first grief, and this experience has its place in Young Adult literature, along with first loves and first heartbreaks.

Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead is quite blatantly a book about death. It explores the very peculiar and air-taking problem that follows the death of a person who in some way defined you. Who am I now without you? Who do I become without your presence?

Our protagonist, Laurel, comes to us just a few months after her sister May’s death. From the start of the novel, we understand that May was a large part of Laurel’s identity, and her absence leaves Laurel feeling like an utterly blank slate. Laurel decides to construct an identity for herself, and the plot unfolds from there.

On the surface, the narration is entirely epistolary, with Laurel writing notebooks of letters to famous dead people. However, I’d argue that the novel is really diary narration in disguise. To my understanding, Laurel does not know herself, so she addresses her diary to other people. This prominent device helps Love Letters to the Dead stand out from other YA issue-books, but did make for choppy reading at times. For each addressee — Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, River Phoenix, Amelia Earhart, and Allan Lane are the regulars — Laurel writes a little summary of their life and accomplishments, which read, at times, like grade school reports. I met most of them with impatience, wanting to get back to the plot. The two exceptions were Laurel’s breakdowns of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note and River Phoenix’s experiences as a child in a cult known for child sexual abuse. Both of these moments were gripping and enhanced the plot, rather than detracting from it.

Mostly, however, Laurel’s remarks to the dead are entities detached from the storyline, which is populated with characters in supporting roles with supporting problems. Laurel’s parents, aunt, and English teacher make up the only adult presence in the novel; mostly, the story is occupied by Laurel’s band of high school friends. Each of these friends has a clear-cut issue, which often made them seem like case studies of at-risk teens, rather than three-dimensional characters. This is probably the main reason I can only give Love Letters to the Dead 3.5 stars. Excepting Laurel and May — who is vividly present through Laurel’s memories — Dellaira’s characters were flat as playing cards. Perhaps the diary/letter narration is partially to blame. The nature of that style of writing does not allow for the kind of rich description and close detail that can be accomplished when a writer does not have to accurately mimic a 9th grade voice.

This is not to say the book is without successes. Laurel’s characterization was an accomplishment, consistent and complex. Aptly named, she has a strong poetic streak, which only occasionally veers into purple prose territory. She is an earnest, but unreliable narrator — a liar of omission, with a warren of repressed memories. Laurel, the only person present at May’s death, refuses to tell family and friends if her sister’s fatal fall from a bridge was an accident or suicide. She keeps the secret from us as well, only tossing us small clues, until the end of the book, when the full scope of the tragedy is revealed in full.

May’s character was another force in Love Letters to the Dead. She reminded me very strongly of Charlie Kahn from the incredible Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Both May and Charlie are only real to us through the memories of people maddened by grief. They are deified, preserved, distilled, and spiced with nostalgia. Sad and beautiful mysteries to unpack.

Ultimately, Love Letters to the Dead left me conflicted. I did not wholly enjoy this book, nor did I wholly dislike it. It had moments that left me very moved, and shortcomings that left me frustrated. However, I can say definitively that Dellaira was unafraid and admirable in exploring morally complex subject matter, and has given us a thought-provoking, if imperfect, read.


Alienated - Melissa Landers Well, this was a pleasant surprise. Coming into this story, I was expecting something silly and over-romantic on the Twilight level. What I got was a reasonably romantic, frothy, and funny read with the potential to be an interesting series.

So, here’s a breakdown. Very recently, extraterrestrials made contact with Earth. Surprisingly, their DNA is almost identical to homo sapiens’ genetic make-up. Their bodies are human, but their appearance and behavior is still quite foreign. As a gesture of goodwill, the “L’eihrs” have given humans a cure for cancer, and seek to initiate a friendly alliance. Because academics are a very important part of L’eihr culture, they enact a student exchange project. Three lucky human students, from the United States, France, and China will get to host a L’eihr exchange student, and spend the following year as a guest on planet L’eihr.

Cara Sweeny, one of our protagonists, is in the midst of relishing her summer coup d’état of her school’s class valedictorian spot, when she is informed that she’s been selected as one of the three lucky, global valedictorians who will host an alien exchange student. Oops. Cara is more than a little leary of this “opportunity,” but, ultimately, the overachiever in her can’t pass over such a juicy resume-stuffer.

Aelyx, pronounced “A-licks”, is Cara’s L’eihr guest, and the book’s other protagonist and narrator. He is very disgruntled over his new ambassador position, and we soon discover that he and his fellow L’eihr exchange students have their own, insubordinate motives for their stay on Earth. Teenagers.

Aelyx the alien really is the star of this book. For fans of Spock from Star Trek especially, Aelyx will ring your bell. He is amusingly uptight and deadpan, and his initial days on Earth make for the book’s funniest moments. Cara wasn’t a bore by any means, but she did get washed out relative to Aelyx’s vibrant character. Her personality was additionally weakened by her having nothing to do besides think of and react to Aelyx. Fortunately, Cara’s persuasive debate skills and shark-like tenacity are in play for her future development, and the next installment promises a lot of opportunity for Cara to come into her own as a character.

I do have a few quibbles — obviously this story is not to be taken super seriously, but I found certain coincidences to be a little too convenient. For instance, the three most ambassador-worthy L’eihrs all happen to be long-standing friends and roommates? Really? And, Cara Sweeny’s brother just so happens to be the first human to go to L’eihr? How symmetrical. But, really, those complaints are negligible, especially as Landers’ writing is unapologetic about its distance from reality.

On the whole, this was a solid start to what promises to be a fun and entertaining series. This first installment was focused especially on romance, but the second book has the potential for a great deal more world-building, intrigue, and adventure. I’ll be looking forward to it.

Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty - Rosamund Hodge The fairytale retellings just keep coming, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Fairytales are, after all, archetypal — they are perfectly suited for variation and reinterpretation. To the best of my knowledge, Robin McKinley really kicked off the reinterpretation trend in 1978 with Beauty — a Beauty and the Beast retelling. She followed Beauty with other reinterpretations — Spindle’s End, Deerskin, Rose Daughter, and The Door in the Hedge. Gail Carson Levine joined McKinley in the 90’s with Ella Enchanted, a superb book that, frankly, set the standard. Donna Jo Napoli and Shannon Hale must be mentioned as well; they, like Levine and McKinley, jump-started their careers with fairytale retellings.

Undoubtedly, these writers are an inspiration for our current up-and-comers — there seems to be a new wave of fairytale retellings hitting the market. Unfortunately, most of these attempts are falling short. We have Alex Flinn, who is responsible for the monstrosity that is Beastly. She had other attempts, Towering and Cloaked, which aren’t spoken of. Marissa Meyer has met success with her futuristic retellings, The Lunar Chronicles, although many readers agree that the series is bogged down by its fairytale allusions — a gimmick that overcomplicates the plot. Rosamund Hodge’s debut, on the other hand, is moving in the right direction. Ladies and gentlem… well, probably just ladies — Cruel Beauty. is. solid.

While I was reading the book, I was reminded, more than a few times, of the aforementioned Robin McKinley. Like McKinley, Hodge has a pointedly feminist angle. Both authors, with three Beauty and the Beast reinterpretations between them, look to fix various issues with the traditional tale — issues that (hopefully) would offend the modern girl and woman:

Appearances don’t matter. What counts is what’s in your heart. Unless you’re the girl.

You can fix his selfishness, violence, and domination with your sexuality.

Being forcibly locked up and ordered around is a great impetus for romance.

Just because it’s Stockholm Syndrome, doesn’t mean it’s not love.

McKinley navigated these issues by creating skilled, willful, three-dimensional heroines, not hinging the plot solely on romance, and writing unexpected plot twists that shirked the traditional fairytale plot formula. Hodge does all this, with a little twist of her own.

The setting for Cruel Beauty is the island of Arcadia, which was located in the Mediterranean during the Greco-Roman period, but was mysteriously and abruptly removed from the Earth by a curse that no one fully understands. It’s as if the island is trapped under an impenetrable jar, and Arcadia suffers in its isolation. Ever since this schism, the island has endured the tyranny of a man who goes by many names — the Prince of Demons, the Gentle Lord, the Lord of Bargains, and Ignifex, to name a few. He rules over the hoards of demons that prowl around, possessing Arcadians New Testament style. Ignifex does not show himself openly, but anyone desperate enough to bargain with him can go speak with the Lord in his mysterious, ruined castle.

This is where our heroine, Nyx Triskelion, comes into play. Years ago, her father made a bargain with the demon lord — Leonidas Triskelion’s barren wife would have children, but once one of his daughters came of age, she would be married to Ignifex. Leonidas chooses his least favorite twin daughter, Nyx, to be the sacrificial lamb, and raises her as a sort of infiltrator/suicide bomber. I suppose this angle is the justification for the book’s Graceling comparison, but the two stories have very little in common. Nyx waves a knife around a few times in the book, but really she’s been trained to dismantle magical devices. Her mission, and she has no choice in accepting it, is to identify the magical cores of Ignifex’s castle and bring it down on top of them — and survive long enough to do so.

Of course, this is a dark life purpose to have to deal with, and Nyx, when we meet her, is justifiably bitter. This aspect of her character is one of the more interesting aspects of the book. Instead of being a resigned, noble martyr, Nyx is conflicted — she is often enraged, envious, and hateful. She relishes opportunities to be cruel. She is not an unlikable character, but it’s clear that Nyx dislikes herself. It’s a fun angle; many times in the story, the identity of the “beast” character becomes unclear. Is it the demon lord? Or the sacrificed maiden?

In regards to Ignifex, he is a vivid character; every scene is vivacious in which he appears. Hodge builds up some great suspense prior to his introduction, so much so that character is immensely present before his first line of dialogue. She extends this suspense, even after Ignifex is introduced, by drawing out the revelations of his many secrets. All-in-all, the Lord of Bargains is a very enjoyable, three-dimensional romantic lead.

I do have some complaints. I enjoyed the book very much and was impressed by its substance, but I can’t say Cruel Beauty won a spot on my favorites shelf. For one, I thought the character of Shade was deeply extraneous. The secret of his origin was pretty obvious; it had no tension. His subplot — and his character — never fizzed, it was flat, and took up too much of the plot for being so uninteresting. When the book is released, I’ll be interested to see what other readers thought of Shade. He is very arguable.

Another nitpick concerns the book’s pacing. I thought it was A+ until I reached the climax. At this point the story became confusing. All the different subplots, and there are quite a few, slammed into each other. The portion of the book that should have been the falling action, according to my high school English studies, went on and on, and was punctuated with various crises. This made the final portion of the book seem like one enormous climax, up until the final few pages. So. Fabulous routine. Awkward dismount.

Despite these hang-ups, Cruel Beauty is overall a very worthwhile read, and I can see it becoming a favorite for many readers. The book is a can’t-miss for any fan of fairytale retellings, and should be of interest for those who enjoy a feminist romance.

Rating: 4 stars.

Fire & Flood

Fire & Flood - Victoria Scott Instead of Fire & Flood, this book should be named Mish & Mash. Trying to make sense of this story was like unpacking a fever dream...

Why was this person I met five years ago at summer camp escaping the apocalypse with me and my family?

And why were we all so happy and chipper the whole time?

Where did the flock of neon zebras come from when we were crossing the Pacific Ocean?

So how hot was the fever that cooked this story up? Fire & Flood is like a combination of The Hunger Games and The Amazing Race, but with Digimon, narrated by Tessa Altman from Suburgatory, with Jonah Griggs as the love interest. Oh, and there’s no dystopic or futuristic setting. It’s set in the modern world as we know it, only there have been secret advancements in genetic engineering and… elemental magic (???) that the general public is unaware of.

Our narrator is a teenage girl — Tella. Tella’s older brother is bedridden with a mysterious illness that no doctor can identify or treat. So, Tella’s parents have moved the family to a removed spot in Montana. Fishy. The book’s action begins quickly, with Tella discovering a strange, ipod-like device in her room. But instead of blaring My Chemical Romance like it should, the device invites her to compete in a race, horribly titled the Brimstone Bleed, where the prize is the capital-C Cure for her brother’s illness. Brave and irrepressible Tella sets off immediately on this mission, soon receiving her Pandora — an animal with special powers that hatches from an egg, like a Tomagatchi — and embarking on the jungle portion of a four-part, 90-day race.

Now, I don’t require my escapist reading to make perfect sense, but I do have a limit.

My biggest complaint with Fire & Flood comes from the discrepancy between the subject matter and the tone. The deadly stakes of this race are rendered completely unbelievable and the opposite of emotionally resonant by Tella’s sassy, mall-rat narration. On one page, some people die. A few pages later, Tella pines for Nordstrom’s. Then, there's this line: "That's a bald eagle," I say, proud of myself for knowing."

So, obviously not my cup of tea, but I’m sure there are readers who would find enjoyment in this series. I recommend for people who liked Maze Runner.

Into the Still Blue

Into the Still Blue - Veronica Rossi Early reviews of this book had me worried, so the main thing I want to impart to other anxious readers is that reading this book is safe.

I can trace my dislike of YA trilogy finales to Mockingjay, which emotionally devastated me and left me feeling gross and irritated for days after I flipped the last page. I learned my lesson. After being alarmed by the escalating death toll and joyless tone of Insurgent, I severed my investment to the series, which wound up being good foresight. Everything goes to hell.

So, after reading the disappointed reviews of a few respected and trusted bloggers, I considered passing on Into the Still Blue, but, in the end, had to read it. I mean, I must have gone through the first two books at least five times each, AND inhaled every character interview Rossi ever bequeathed on a blog tour. So, I read it.

Having finished Into the Still Blue, I can understand where the initial disappointment is coming from. In my opinion, this final installment is the weakest in the series, overall and in each broken-down category — character development, plot, pacing, setting detail, and the amount of eminently re-readable passages. The upside to this book is that it won’t bum out the fans of the series. The downside lies in how much better the book could have been.

Maybe the difficulty of writing the finale, the challenges of tying up all the loose ends, took its toll on Rossi. The confidence that was present in the writing of Under the Never Sky and burst through the pages of Through the Ever Night, is palpably missing in this installment. The point-of-view shifts are choppier, the dialogue is noticeably blander, and I found myself bored and speed-reading through a large part of book’s middle, when I really should have been on the edge of my seat. I agree with another reviewer who pointed out that the scattered character deaths and key moments of the plot were quickly passed over, holding little emotional resonance or suspense. This, especially, was surprising, as a real strength of Rossi is writing emotionally powerful scenes and bits of dialogue that you can really linger over.

There are a few of these superb moments in Into the Still Blue, when our characters are allowed to catch a breath from the feverish plot. Any scene with Talon in it is priceless, and Perry and Aria continue to be fantastic protagonists and have boiling romantic tension. A particular highlight for me was seeing Aria come into her own as a leader, giving Perry some much needed backup. Her facility with language is a trait that has carried through the series; a prolonged source of humor in this installment is her ability to crumble Soren's fractious uprisings with just a few words. Fans of Roar won’t be disappointed either, although the events of the second book have dampened his spunk.

These thoughtful, more unhurried passages, are where Into the Still Blue gets to shine, but ultimately the book can’t live up to the the delightful Under the Never Sky and the powerhouse Through the Ever Night. As a fan of the series, I’m a little disappointed, but definitely not upset. The best scenario from here, I figure, is for Rossi to release an upbeat, post-finale short story in the next few months. With no Brooke in it.

The Emperor's Edge (The Emperor's Edge #1)

The Emperor's Edge (The Emperor's Edge #1) - Lindsay Buroker I stumbled upon this title in a stroke of good fortune, while trolling through “Best Free Kindle Books” over in Listopia. I started reading The Emperor’s Edge about three minutes later, and three days later, I finished the entire series. It was one of the most satisfying reading binges I’ve ever had, and I’ve re-read the series about five times over since then.

What makes this series so ridiculously good? For one, Buroker does some fantastic world-building. The Emperor’s Edge has one foot in the fantasy genre and the other in steampunk; the story takes place in another world, but its era is reminiscent of the Industrial Age. A race of militant, technologically advanced people called Turgonians are the reigning superpower, although, at the time our story begins, their empire is feeling some stress. Their war atrocities are coming back to bite them. They have a green adolescent for an emperor. They have denied the existence of magic and trampled out its practice in the Empire, which thrills their enemies who still use it. Women have saturated the booming business sector, and are shaking at the yoke of the patriarchy. Modernity looms, and with it, a tipping point.

Our protagonist is Corporal Amaranthe Lokdon, a clever, young Turgonian woman, who gave up a promising business career to become one of the few female law enforcers in the capital. Amaranthe is thirsty for social progress, and wants to become a person of influence — a trailblazer. The plot is kicked into gear when Amaranthe unknowingly gets on the wrong side of a corrupt government higher-up. Before she knows it, she’s an outlaw with a price on her head.

The story really becomes fantastic when the cast of supporting characters comes together. Amaranthe recruits a team of misfits to assist her in saving the floundering and endangered young emperor. Her first recruit, and the break-out star of the series, is Sicarius, a rogue assassin and Turgonia’s Most Wanted killer. Alongside him come an erudite, alcoholic ex-professor, an ill-mannered, teenage street punk who illegally practices magic, and a disowned dandy with a penchant for avant garde hats.

The dialogue that erupts from this ensemble is laugh-out-loud hilarious and only gets better as the series progresses. In an interview, Buroker has mentioned that the conception for the series came from her desire to read an epic, high-stakes adventure with a light-hearted, comedic tone. She succeeds utterly. The series has everything going for it — action, adventure, romance, comedy, magicians, a train heist, beasts, prison breaks, trysts, travel, explosives, law-breaking, disguises, weapons, lorry chases, a kraken, dirigibles, more explosions, and a socially-awkward assassin.

I recommend to everyone.