All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)All Fall Down Ally Carter Scholastic 2015

Ally Carter
Scholastic
January 20 2015

I love Ally Carter and she’s one of the few authors that I consider an autobuy thanks to her wonderful Gallagher Girls & Heist Society series. Sadly, this new series started out not with a bang but a pretty disappointing whisper. Its lead, Grace, is a sixteen-year-old Army brat and granddaughter of the most powerful ambassador in world. She goes to live with her grandfather in the fictional nation of Adria where she tries to solve the mystery of her mother’s death which causes her to stumble onto an international conspiracy.

The secondary characters were flat and underdeveloped. It felt like some of them were there just to be planted as a seed for the rest of the series but ultimately held the story back. In fact, the Rosie character could have easily been absorbed into another character since she was nothing more than plot device when called upon. There was a lot of telling rather than showing, and the flashbacks were poorly used. I would have liked to see more of Adria and for that fictional city to be built up a lot more. As I got into the book more and more, it felt like there was more and more dead space. Maybe if scenes were shortened, or cut out, or even shifted around this would help with more showing through actions. That was another thing that annoyed me throughout: Grace constantly telling how she’s feeling rather than having her actions tell us.

Like I said, I was very disappointed. I don’t plan on continuing with the series since I wasn’t really incentivized to do so by the end of this first book. However, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the fourth Heist Society novel.

*Disclaimer: Received Advance Reader’s Copy from Publisher for honest review

— Ardo

The Winner’s Crime (The Winner’s Trilogy #2)The Winner's Crime  Marie Rutkoski Macmillan 2015

Marie Rutkoski
Farrar Straus Giroux
March 3 2015

The Winner’s Curse took the young adult community by storm last year and it got to the point where everyone I knew was singing its praises. Everyone. All kinds of bloggers who would rarely see eye to eye on a book given their very different tastes. Of course, this had me hesitant since hyped books fall from their pedestal the hardest but a few months ago, I took the plunge. I LOVED it. A lot. Right after, I started an advance copy of its sequel, The Winner’s Crime, and I loved that too.

What Marie Rutkoski does so well is not only give us a story about two young people finding their place in the world and navigating love, family, duty etc that are recurring themes in YA but does that all within the politics between nations. Rutkoski explores idea of savagery vs. civility in this book and that who fits these concepts are different depending on who you ask. The stakes here are even higher which I didn’t think Rutkoski could do but she does! Her heroine, Kestrel, reminds us that strength doesn’t just mean physically kicking ass and taking names but also about doing AND committing to the right thing despite outside pressures stating otherwise. By the end of the book, I hungered for more but will sadly have to wait another year to read the third book. I strongly suggest picking up the first two books. Trust me. You will want to binge read it. Also, prepare for some feels.

*Disclaimer: Received Advance Reader’s Copy from Publisher for honest review

— Ardo

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Neil Patrick Harris Choose Your Own Autobiography Neil Patrick Harris Crown 2014Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris
Crown
October 14 2014 

Oh NPH, your first attempt at hosting the Oscars may not have been very entertaining, but at least your autobiography is.

When I first heard the man who gave life to Barney Stinson would be writing an autobiography I was a tad skeptical. Not because I don’t like Neil Patricks Harris. I adore Neil Patrick Harris. But I often worry when younger celebrities write memoirs. It always feels like they’re jumping the gun a bit. But I needn’t have feared. He’s quite private and rather low key, so you may not realize it, but Neil Patrick Harris has lived an eventful and complex life.

Particularly enjoyable and informative were the chapters on his time as a child star and how that shaped him. Doogie Howser M.D. was a huge hit, and Neil Patrick Harris could have easily let that go to his head and gone the way of so many child stars before him (i.e. scandals and obscurity). But through this book you see some of the reasons why that didn’t happen, such as his family and the other actors he was lucky enough to work with at such a young age. Being exposed to so many positive role models seemed to bestow upon him a strong work ethic and a sense of humility that you see reflected throughout the rest of his career.

Equally notable was his story about coming out and his current attempts to be a positive source of inspiration for the LGBTQ community. He really opens up about how he struggled with the fact that he was gay when he was younger and I think this could have a strong impact on teen fans that may pick up this book.

The only real flaw with this autobiography is the format. It’s a Choose Your Own Autobiography, set in the same style as those Choose Your Own Adventure books we read when we were young. At the end of every chapter there are options like “To continue reading about your life as a child star turn to page…” or “To host your first Tony awards turn to page…” And it’s fun at first. It’s fun to jump ahead to your favourite moments in his career, and it’s funny when you run into a dead end and have to flip back and try again. But eventually it begins to feel gimmicky and all I wanted to do was read his story straight through, from beginning to end.

*Disclaimer: Received Review Copy from Publisher for honest review

— Christa

Trial by Fire Trial by Fire Josephine Angelini Feiwel & Friends  September 2, 2014

Josephine Angelini
Feiwel & Friends
September 2 2014

In 2014, there was a bit of a mini-trend surrounding the Salem Witch Trials. It felt like every publisher had a book coming out that was a “re-imaging of” or “inspired by” the events of Salem Massachusetts. So when Trial by Fire first came out I decided I should wait to read it. I was feeling a little burnt out on that particular trend and none of the books I had read so far had really worked for me either. I figured myself, and Trial by Fire, would be better served by waiting.

And we were…to a point.

This book didn’t need to have anything to do with the Salem Witch Trials. The similarities are almost all surface level and feel more like a wink and a nudge at the reader, rather than significant elements to the story. But nevertheless Trial by Fire is a fun read. Lily Proctor is pulled from her world into a parallel one. The parallel Salem she ends up with is a place where magic not only exists, it’s a part of everyday life. And if that weren’t enough, it’s a place where her own alter-ego is the villain she needs to take down. I appreciated that  Josephine Angelini created such a complex magic system. It feels like this book has only scratched the surface and I’m looking forward to subsequent installments in this series to explore it further.

Lily’s character arc however was a tad too cliché for my liking. You know that trope when the nerdy girl takes off her glasses and then all the boys realize how amazing she is and fall all over themselves for her? Well Lily’s character development is that but amplified. In our world, Lily has severe allergies, a whole host of health problems and as a result she’s rather secluded from her peers and doesn’t have a lot of friends. However, when she finds herself in the parallel Salem those health problems go away and she becomes a whole new person and she’s suddenly someone everyone would do anything for. It wouldd be ok if this development was internal, but I was disappointed that so much of Lily’s personality was wrapped up in what other people (mainly boys) thought of her.

This is not my favourite Young Adult book about witches, but it may very well be one of the best offerings from the Salem Witch Trial boom of 2014.

*Disclaimer: Received Advance Reader’s Copy from Publisher for honest review

— Christa

Howl’s Moving Castle 

Howl's Moving Castle Dianne Wynne Jones Greenwillow 1986

Diana Wynne Jones
HarperCollins
1986

This month I finally read a fantasy classic that’s been on my TBR list for years, and found myself wishing I’d read it sooner.

Sophie, the oldest and therefore unluckiest of three sisters, has resigned herself to crafting hats for those in her home town of Market Chipping. She is rather plain and unambitious, due in part to her belief that, were she to try anything new, she would be doomed to fail. It is not until she is forced to leave her home after being cursed into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste that she discovers the well of magic, strength, and character within herself.

I was immediately charmed by the world that Jones had created, one of magic and fantasy that overlaps with the world we know. Jones’ pleasantly meandering prose plants clues and foreshadowing throughout the novel, making the results of the climax seem like  a natural progression if you know what you’re looking for. This of course means that if you don’t pay attention, the conclusion can feel rushed and thrown together.

Unlike other characters, like Hermione Granger or Nita Callahan from Diane Duane’s So You Want to Be a Wizard, Sophie’s discovery of her magical abilities is a gradual one. Though Jones suggests her power from the beginning of the novel, it is not until she encounters another benevolent witch that Sophie realizes she can “talk life into things.” She slowly begins to develop her power, and realizes that her fate is not a result of her birth but is wholly within her grasp.

As with most Young Adult literature there was a romantic subplot, but it was quite refreshing to see the development of that relationship take a backseat to Sophie’s personal discovery. I enjoyed watching the romance between Howl and Sophie slowly bloom as a result of their extended time together; at no point does it overshadow the plot or become a defining trait of either character, yet it feels natural when they declare their love for each other at the end of the novel.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading this series, I highly recommend it!

— KM

The Blue Castle 95693

L.M. Montgomery
Starfire
1926

Published in 1926, The Blue Castle is one of two of Montgomery’s adult works and the first non-Anne Montgomery that I have read. My interest was piqued when over at Forever Young Adult, Jenny Bird called this one of Montgomery’s most explicitly feminist books. And, oh it is truly radical, for its day, hell even today in some ways.

The Blue Castle stars 29-year old Valancy Stirling, unmarried and already a spinster living with her deplorable keeping-up-appearances family who endlessly mock her. After receiving a deadly medical diagnosis, Valancy finally finds the liberation she needs and rebels, and it’s delicious. She flouts social protocols, flouncing around town with a roughish male and not wearing a hat! Valancy even proposes in this book – a woman proposing to a man – still somewhat scandalous even today.

Reading The Blue Castle, which was intended for an adult audience, it feels like Montgomery had her own sort of liberation alongside Valancy, or maybe it’s just because the book was written for an older audience. Regardless, witnessing Valancy’s liberation and rebellion is a joy. She’s an agent in her own story, but there is still, of course, Montgomery’s romanticism and nature celebrating prose, but there’s an edge that runs through the book. The author is not generous towards Valancy’s hypocritical family, though Valancy actually is. The Blue Castle has that middle-class social critique that I love in Jane Austen’s work, but frankly is less subtle especially in this book.

The Blue Castle is the kind of book that after you finish it, you press it to your chest with a dreamy smile on your face which is exactly how I imagine Montgomery intended it. It’s got feminism, romance, and an incredible female lead. What’s not to love? Having finally branched out from Anne, I can’t wait to add more of Montgomery’s work to my never-ending reading list.

— Ginnis