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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: YA reviews, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 207
1. Pandemic, by Yvonne Ventresca

Pandemic, by Yvonne Ventresca (Sky Pony Press, May 2014) is a solid "first disastrous viral outbreak" for the young teen, and in as much as I enjoy a good (fictional) virus, I picked it up with enthusiasm.

Only a few people know why Lil became a withdrawn pessimist, broke up with her boy friend, toke up smoking, and  lost control of her grades in school.  The reader, however, quickly learns that she was sexually assaulted by a teacher (though the details aren't revealed till further along in the book), and though she was able to get away from  him before he could actually rape her, her confidence in humanity, and in herself, is shattered.

One of her coping strategies is to prepare for emergencies, stockpiling food and supplies...just in case.  But nothing can prepare Lil for what's about to happen.   Alone in the house while her parents are both at separate conferences, Lil hears the first news stories about a new strain of flu....and faster and faster the reports of illness and death start coming in.  Lil's New Jersey town is near the epicenter of the new pandemic, and its effects on normal life are devastating.  The death toll rises, looters are on the prowl, and Lil must cope with disaster on an epic scale, while still struggling with her personal demons.

Fortunately, though she misses her parents terribly, she is not alone--a smoking buddy named Jay becomes her ally (and more) as the two of them try to keep going, and to keep the little kids who depend on them alive.

This one, I think, is a good First Pandemic for the younger teen reader.  It's straightforward in writing style and plot, and though various boxes of disaster are neatly checked off, it's not overwhelmingly horrible and sad.  The cumulative effect of the many bad things that happen is balanced by a sense of certainty that Lil and Jay are going to make it.   So this is one I'd give to a 12 or 13 year old, just moving  into medical disaster territory, and then move on to books that carry a more powerful emotional punch, like The Way We Fall, by Megan Crewe, and then books that hit even harder, like Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith.   

The lack of urgency I felt while reading Pandemic comes in part, I think, from the fact that I just didn't find Lil desperately interesting, and was never desperately worried about her.  The sexual assault sub-plot that comprises the cornerstone of Lil's character as presented to the reader felt somewhat gratuitous and distracting--based on Lily's response to it, I was expecting what happened her to have been worse than it was.  Though I don't want to dismiss how horribly traumatic such an experience as hers would be, I never was quite convinced by Lil's months-long withdrawal, especially as she shows herself capable of rising above disaster and functioning competently during the horror of the pandemic.

Still, the pandemic and its ripple effects of disaster make for gripping reading, and readers can cheer for Lil and Jay's nascent romance with conviction.

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)

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2. The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J.A. White

The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J.A. White (Katherine Tegen Books, May 6, 2014, upper middle grade/younger YA), is a gripping fantasy full of fascinating magic, but it is a dark one, not for the faint of heart! 

Generations ago, Kara's people had been led by a charismatic leader to an island far from the rest of the world, to live free of the evil taint of magic.   But thought the words of the leader were dutifully chanted, and all references to magic shunned, the island was far from being free of it.  For on the boundaries of the settled lands loomed the great, magical, horrible wood known as the Thickety, and only the work of the Clearers--hacking and burning at its fringes (and risking death every day from deadly incursions of its magical creatures and vegetation) keeps it at bay.   And though all on the island are taught that witchcraft is the worst evil, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Kara's own mother was killed for witchcraft when she was five.  For the next seven years, she and her little brother have struggled onward, with no help from her deeply depressed father, and shunned by all the other folk.   Kara, well-indoctrinated, won't admit her mother was a witch.  But she was.

And now the Thickety is calling to Kara....and she crosses its boundary line.   There in the strangeness of its shade she finds a magical book, one that lets her make magic of her own.  But magic comes with a price.  Kara must face supernatural and human enmity, and resist the lure of absolute power, or else join her own mother as a character in the stories of evil witches.  But when magic seems the only way to save her brother's life, and her own, can she keep from letting her wild talents run free?

With momentum that builds from a slowish start to an ever faster turning of page, Kara's journey into magic is fiercely gripping.   And I use "fierce" very much on purpose--this is not a "fun with magic in an enchanted woods" book.   The grim beginning, with shunned, neglected Kara struggling to keep her little brother alive, sets the tone, and Kara's discovery that magic is real is not a joyous release.  Rather, she quickly learns of the terror at the heart of the Thickety, and just as quickly learns that power can be horribly addictive (especially for one who has been powerless and ill-used).  

As the story unfolds, all manner of dark injury, torture, and death become part of it.   There is much to make a sensitive reader flinch, from your basic attack of a swarm of magically-controlled rats to flat-out torture.   The book begins with the terrible death of Kara's mother, which I think is useful for weeding out readers who will be bothered!  I wouldn't recommend this to the younger middle grade reader--as a parent myself, there are images I don't want my 11-year-old to have in his head just yet, though I might well offer it to him next year.   That being said, the grimness is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that Kara never succumbs to the selfish misuse of her power, and stays "good," which keeps things from being too terribly disturbing!

My one quibble with the book is that a lot of physically challenging things happen to Kara (no water for three days, torture, a badly injured leg, etc.), but none of these things seem to hold her back--for instance, at one point, after the three days without water, she and her friend are communicating with hand signals because their mouths are so dry, but then have a long conversation the next paragraph down; at another point her leg is badly hurt, but a few pages later she's perfectly mobile.I think if you make your characters suffer terribly, there should be realistic physical consequences! 

In any event, this is a really truly gripping story, which I read (to the extent my circumstances allow) in a single sitting at a very rapid pace.   If you like dark fantasy with young heroines facing formidable obstacles, you might very well like The Thickety very much indeed.  And boy, does it end with a twist that makes the reader want More Now!

Here's the (starred) Kirkus review; they suggest 11-14 as the readership age,which is just about right, especially if the younger readers have a taste for horror.  And here's the starred Publishers Weekly review (which pushes the age down to 8, making my eyebrows raise).

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.

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3. Kissing Shakespeare, by Pamela Mingle

If you enjoy romantic time travel, written for the YA reader, you may well enjoy Kissing Shakespeare, by Pamela Mingle (Delacorte, 2012) .   If, perhaps, you ask for a tad more than time travel back into a love triangle of sorts, such as political/religious tangles of plot, you will get that tad more.  But if you ask for a lot more...not so much.  

Miranda is a young actress, very much conflicted about the whole acting thing because she is the daughter of famous Shakespearian actors.  Stephan is a young Elizabethan gentleman, with the ability to travel through time,  who has arrived in the present, started watching tv to gain an appreciation of cultural norms, and  insinuated himself into the play that Mrianda's currently starring in (The Taming of the Shrew).   Stephan is pretty sure (based on the shows he's watched) that modern teens throw themselves into bed with each other with delighted abandon, and he's reasonable sure that Miranda won't mind travelling back into the past with him so that she can seduce Shakespeare. She does, rather a lot, especially because (with excellent reason) she is furious that Stephan considers her a wanton wench.

(Teenaged Shakespeare is in danger of become a Jesuit, which is convincingly possible as things are presented here.  Being seduced, Stephan assumes, will make him less likely to leave the world and it's pleasures behind....and the world won't loose his plays, which would, Stephan's visions inform him, be catastrophic).

So there's Miranda, back in the past acting the role of Stephan's sister, and rather conflicted about loosing her virginity to Shakespeare (assuming the seduction works).  

And there are a bunch of secondary characters, very much concerned with religion (because many of them are staunch Catholics, which was not as safe as may be under Elizabeth I).

And there is Stephan, to whom Miranda is drawn with passionate intensity....and who is not, in his turn, undrawn to her....

And there's young Shakespeare...working on the first draft of Taming of the Shrew while contemplating religion....

And there are the hunters of Catholics, ready to burn them at the stake etc., closing in on the manor house where all this is happening....

And there are Stephan and Miranda, kissing...and Shakespeare and Miranda, kissing....and Miranda wanting Stephan to kiss her more... (while still Stephan wants Miranda to jump into bed with Shakespeare, which was icky).

Like I said, you have to enjoy romantic time travel to really like this one, and it wasn't quite enough for me, especially since the romance was tinged with ick.   On top of that, my reading experience was rather spoiled by a historical error--  in 1581 you can't pass off a befuddled girl as a servant recently come from the New World.    And so, perforce, I distrusted the historical accuracy of the book from that point on, and though, apart from a reference to leprosy being a thing of the past in England (which, Wikipedia informs me,  it wasn't until two centuries later) I didn't find any thing else that seemed wrong, I never shook off my suspicions.  I was not soothed by Miranda either--although apparently she did a just marvelous job passing herself off as an Elizabethan, I wasn't convinced.

I was glad when the religious element of the plot (Catholics vs Protestants) pushed itself to the forefront of the story about halfway through -- it made a rather slow-moving story more interesting.  And there was the added thought-provoking thread of the role of women in Elizabethan England.  On the down side,  Shakespeare himself barely added any interest--I can't remember him saying anything at all Shakespearean, which was a disappointment.

In any event, read this if you want a bit of historically tangled romance, but not if you want a really satisfying time travel story.

However, you don't have to take my word for it:

School Library Journal, August 2012:
"This novel is definitely a cut above the typical teen romance. A delightful story about star-crossed, time-traveling lovers."

Booklist, September 15, 2012:
"Mingle remains true to the history and events of the era, thus revealing the challenge of living in a time of religious persecution and suppression of women."

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4. Echo, by Alicia Wright Brewster, for Timeslip Tuesday

I love the premise of Echo, by Alicia Wright Brewster (Dragonfairy Press, YA, April 2013).  On an alien planet, settled by two waves of colonization from Earth, the apocalypse has been foretold.   But the council, whose members can control the elements with their minds, is determined to prevent it.  And they are willing to keep trying, even when things don't work out--they simply turn back the clock, rewinding time to give themselves another chance.

When Echo begins, it is the fifth rewind.  The council has tried four times already to avert a disaster whose very nature they were at first uncertain of--and with each rewind, they've gained more information.   And they've determined that what they need this time around is a teenaged girl named Ashara Vine.  This comes as something of a huge, mind-blowing surprise to Ashara, who had no idea that she was one of the very few with the ability to manipulate the ether itself.   And it comes as an additional surprise that the man chosen by the council to train her and a small cohort of other young manipulators is her ex-boyfriend, Loken.

Tension builds as Ashara learns about her powers, and the nature of the threat menacing her planet...and builds as she and Loken rekindle their relationship....and builds still more as information from the previous rewinds is revealed, and plots and machinations within the council, and within her world's society, make it more than somewhat uncertain if this time around, the world will be saved.

Do not, however, expect that because this story takes place on an alien world, it is truly science fiction.  The world building is not such that I felt I was on a different planet, despite the two suns, and the powers of the elemental manipulators read like fantasy. 

Do expect that the romance between Ashara and Loken will sometimes overshadow the end-of-the-world plot, sometimes so much so that I was annoyed (there are times when passionate is appropriate, and times when it is really not to the point).   I would recommend this one to those who like romance books that happen to be speculative fiction, rather than to speculative fiction fans who happen to like a bit of romance.

If you enjoy reading about groups of teenagers being trained together to fight with magical powers, you will enjoy that part of the book.  However, if your mind follows more or less the same trains of thought as mine, you too might find it odd that the fact that there's a coming apocalypse is broadcast to all and sundry, causing rather pointless stress (there's no escaping the countdown clocks).  And you might agree with me that the nature of the threat is ultimately rather unconvincing. 

All in all, it's not possible for me to recommend the book wholeheartedly.  However, I did truly like the premise of time travel being used to figure out how to avert catastrophe, and the interesting ramifications thereof!  And your millage may totally vary; here are some other reviews:

Apocalypse Mama
All In One Place
The Urban Paranormal Book Blog

Final note:  this is one for my multicultural book list--Ashara's father is of African descent, which is made beautifully clear in the front cover picture of Ashara! 

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5. The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer

The Riverman, by Aaron Starmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, upper MG leaning YA-ward, March 2014)

Alistair and Fiona were friends, back when they were little kids, then they drifted apart.  But now, years later in middle school, Fiona shows up at Alistair's door, and asks him to write her biography.

"To sell a book, you need a description on the back. So here's mine: My name is Fiona Loomis. I was born on August 11, 1977. I am recording this message on the morning of October 13, 1989. Today I am thirteen years old. Not a day older. Not a day younger."

Which is of course impossible.

Fiona has spent days of her life far away from upstate New York in a magical universe called Aquavania.  There she reveled in the creation of her own small world, and there she met other kids, living in the worlds of their own imaginings--bright, extravagant places where to wish is to make things manifest.   But Aquavania is not safe- kids, many of them Fiona's friends, are vanishing.  Their stories, their worlds, themselves are falling prey to the sinister Riverman.

And Fiona is afraid she might be next.

Slowly, as Fiona tells the story of Aquavania, and the shadow of the Riverman falls across its wonders, Alistair comes to believe that there is indeed a darkness haunting his friend...But is it a darkness in our world, or is the magic real?  And what can one ordinary boy do?

Alistair is the single point of view character, and the reader learns and thinks and wonders right along with him.  His fears for Fiona are pretty much those that the reader might have, and his difficulty accepting Aquavania perfectly understandable.   Like Alistair, I found myself dismissive of Aquavania at first, but then, dragged inexorably into a story whose reality was undeniable, I read faster and faster, with sparks of metaphoric connections going off in my mind like crazy.  I grew to have genuine delight in the manifestations of imagination that is Aquavania (accompanied by considerable unease as to the addictive nature of these imaginings), and genuine concern for both kids. And I also developed a really (justifiable) conviction that things weren't going to end up all rainbow-unicorny.

This is the first book of a series, but though the ending isn't neatly resolved, I've read stand-alone books that offered less in the way of closure, and so I did not feel deeply bothered (though I am immensely curious to see what happens next). 

So, yes, I liked The Riverman, and now I am thinking hard about what sort of  reader I would give it too.  I think the older middle school kid, the eighth grader who might be a bit of an outlier, who isn't deeply into more traditional fantasy (there are no dragons, swords, or spells), who doesn't mind being puzzled, might well like it very much indeed.   As well as relating to Alistair, who is a character along those lines himself,  there's much that would appeal--Fiona is a character with spark and zing, the mystery is mysterious, and the reader is not forced to believe, if they don't feel like it, in the magical world, which might appeal to young rationalists.

I would be hesitant to give it to the younger reader who is deeply invested in "story" as a source of emotional comfort, because the whole  point of the book (I think maybe) is stories (beloved imaginings as well as the stories people are living) getting twisted out of true.  There's also mature content--the possibility that Fiona is being abused in real life, and some rather disturbing violence--that makes this not one to automatically hand to the ten year old who loves "fantasy worlds."

Though I am glad The Riverman is getting lots of positive buzz for its own sake, I'm hoping that it will lead more people to Aaron Starmer's first book, The Only Ones (my review, with a white-ed out spoiler at the bottom, so be warned).  I enjoyed The Only Ones lots myself (and it has stuck in my mind just beautifully, always a good sign), but I am particularly fond of it because it is one of the very few books that my hideously picky uncooperative-with-regard-to-reading eighth-grader has truly enjoyed.   So far he is resisting this one, which is deeply annoying, since he fits the description above to a tee.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.


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6. Yesterday, by C.K. Kelly Martin, for Timeslip Tuesday

This review of Yesterday, by C.K. Kelly Martin (Random House, YA, 2012), is something of a spoiler by necessity--I am, after all, reviewing it for Timeslip Tuesday.  But the time travel element is pretty obvious, so I don't feel dreadfully bad.

In the world of 2063, shredded by environmental catastrophe, the rich and powerful still manage to live a comfortable life full of virtual enjoyment.  16-year-old Freya is one of these lucky ones...until her life implodes when her brother falls victim to a new and deadly plague.

In 1985, a girl named Freya has just moved back to Canada after her father's death in New Zealand.  Grief and the culture shock of starting at a new school in a new country are enough to make anyone feel that life is vaguely unreal, but for Freya, this feeling is not diminishing with time as it should.  Her memories all feel distant and shallow, and nothing seems right.  And at night, the dreams come, full of vivid horror....

And then she encounters Garren, boy who she thinks, or rather, knows, she once was close too.  Even though he has no clue who she is, she knows there is some link between them.

Turns out, Freya is right, and there were secrets back in 2063 that changed the course of her life, and Garren's too.  And there are people in 1985 who will do whatever it takes for that course, now that it is set, to remain unchanged.  With  Freya, and then Garren,  remembering their real past lives in the future, they are both in danger.

Yesterday is a slow build-up of suspense-even though it's fairly obvious that the two Freyas are one and the same, Freya's own journey to this realization is a gradually accumulating nightmare.  The first half of the book was perhaps a tad too slow--we aren't in any doubt as to Freya's feelings of disconnect because we are told about them plenty--but the whole ensemble works well enough.  Those who enjoy suspenseful speculative fiction involving teens on the run from bad guys, falling in love as they struggle to survive, will doubtless enjoy it. 

That being said, though this is clearly a time travel book, the time travel is to a certain extent a deus ex machine that allows the story to exist.  Although as Freya recovers her memories (in a truly unsubtle information dump), she is struck by the contrast between the two times in which she has lived,  the dislocation between those two lives has been soothed by mind wiping such that there isn't a huge feeling of cultural dislocation (one of my personal favorite elements of time travel).    And the explanation for the time-travel came out of left field right at the end, introducing whole new bits of possible plot.   Only at the very very very end does the time travel set up produce a real ZING!, which made me a bit sad because that whole story that we don't actually get to read about sounded much more appealing than the story I'd just read....

So I didn't mind reading it, and found the premise interesting, and now that we have gotten the slowish bit of realizing what has happened out of the way I'm rather interested in the sequel, Tomorrow --but it just wasn't quite the book I'd hoped it would be.

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7. Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess

I have just read, with much enjoyment, Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess (Greenwillow, March 2014, YA).   It is the story of a teenaged girl, Ileni, who once had prodigious magical ability, and a bright future as a leader of her people, the Renegai.  Now Ileni's magic is deserting her, and soon will be gone entirely.  So her elders send her to teach magic to a clan of assassins, uneasy allies united against a common enemy.  Now Ileni, from a people who abhor violence, must spend the rest of her magic-less life trapped in an all-male world of trained killers, brainwashed to be loyal to their Master (who is fiendishly smart and scary).

Her life, however, might not be long.  Someone murdered her two predecessors, and she might well be next.

She is not sure she cares.

But Ileni refuses to succumb to despair, as slowly begins to unravel the threads of the plot in which she is ensnared.  Though her magic continues to fade, her determination to understand the machinations that surround her grows, and even as she greives for her lost love back home, she finds herself drawn to the young assassin, Sorin, who's been assigned to her as her guide and guard.  And Ileni finds that she can't stop caring about not just her own fate, but about the larger struggle in which she has become embroiled.

And I just ate it all up, because I love character-driven fantasy and really liked Ileni, from whose close point of view the reader sees the story.  I thought her reactions utterly believable, even her feelings for Sorin, which she herself realizes are, uh, complicated by the fact that he is her de facto jailor, and a brainwashed killer.   But Sorin is actually not unsympathetic, and is (possibly) more than just a tool of the assassins' Master....and as the days pass he is shown to be rather likeable (though still, as Ileni reminders herself often, a killer)... and I can understand how a 17-year-old in traumatic circumstances whose life has imploded might not feel like resisting her feelings.  And it is 100% her choice, not his.

The reader does have to make a certain leap of faith viz the whole underground assassin society set up-- it is a wonder that they don't all go more insane than they do, and in retrospect I worry about ventilation and vitamin D deficiency and fresh fruits and vegetables and that sort of thing (presumably the handy underground rivers carry the sewage away, so that's ok).  But I was caught up enough in the story that I refused to let this bother me while reading.

So in any event, I liked Death Sworn lots.

Those who do not like character-driven fantasy set in a rather limited physical environment with only teasing glimpses of the larger political/social point of it all in which there's not much that Happens in an exiting sort of way probably won't like the book as much.  There are maybe forty pages that are Exciting Happenings, but since I have a tendency to skim Exciting Happenings so as to quickly get back to the thinking and feeling part,  this was fine with me.

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8. More Than This, by Patrick Ness

More Than This, by Patrick Ness (Candlewick, Sept.2013, YA)

Seth is drowning when we meet him, smashed against rocks by the brutally cold waves of the Pacific North West.  But then he wakes...and finds himself weak and naked outside the house in England where he grew up, before tragedy drove his family to move to the US.  The house and town seem to have been deserted for years, and he is all alone in a silent world choked in dust.

During the day, he survives on canned goods scavenged from abandoned shops.  And at night, the dreams come, and Seth vividly relives his memories of the recent past, back when he was a high school kid, with a group of best friends, one of whom was a boy who was much more than friend.

He does not know what has happened, he does not know what is real.  All he knows is that somehow, somewhere, there must be more than this...a feeling he has had for years, even before he went down to the ocean.

And there is.  But the answers, such as they are, don't come easily (either to Seth or to the reader).

Um.  Can't say anything more about the story, because it's a book in which the reader should follow Seth's journey with him.    But I can say that this is one with great appeal to readers of speculative fiction that asks hard philosophical questions, readers who enjoy not knowing, and slowly realizing,  readers who value character over easy resolution of plot threads, and, more mundanely, readers very interested in stories of kids surviving sans grownups in abandoned worlds (guess which part I liked best!).

It is both moving and, to me at least, frustrating.  Frustrating is perhaps the wrong word; I want one that conveys the sort of feeling that comes from being in a bad dream that slowly and steadily condenses into something more, taking its sweet time...and then, in true Patrick Ness style, zinging the reader's emotions and ratcheting up the tension, without any hand-holding. 

But it was somewhat frustrating in the more standard sense of the word...I felt I was being asked to accept things that weren't sufficiently supported by the premises and world-building.  For instance, even in the most empty of worlds, I think there would still be insects.   I had just a few too many little bleated "but...." moments for me to truly love this one. 

Which is not to say that this isn't a fine, memorable, powerful book, because it is.

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher

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9. Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr, Review and Character Blog Tour

Ragnarok, the end of the world in violence and freezing winter, fortold in Norse mythology, is coming...but instead of taking place far off in long ago Scandinavia, it's about to take place in the modern US.  And there's just one little problem--the Norse gods, who were fated to fight in the great battle against the forces of darkness, are dead.

But they have descendants.

Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr (Little Brown, 2013), is the story Matt, a thirteen year old boy who's grown up in South Dakota knowing that he's descended from Thor.   What he didn't expect was that he would have to play Thor's part in Ragnarok...and what is worse, the elders of his family are certain that he has no chance of winning.

Guided (cryptically) by the Norns, Matt is determined not to give up, and sets off to gather together descendants of all the gods.  The first kids he meets, though, are descendants of Loki--a boy named Fen and his cousin Laurie, and they've never been friends with Matt.  Far from it.   But though Loki fought with the bad guys in the original story, if Matt can learn to trust these two unlikely allies, maybe they can work together in this new version of the story....

And so the three of them set out, on a quest to gather certain magical items and find the rest of the god-descended teenagers they need--Odin, Fri.   But it's not a walk in the park--already the forces of darkness are beginning to work against them...and, as this first book comes to a close, the stakes are getting very high indeed...

Of course, it's hard not to compare this to the Percy Jackson series, and indeed, fans of those books will welcome this series--more mythological fun and mayhem!  But Loki's Wolves is somewhat different in feel.  For one thing, the focus of the book is on three distinct characters right from the beginning, so there is more character-driven tension, and less immediate mythological mayhem.   And here we are immersed more gradually in the struggle at hand--this first book is more a gathering of characters, setting the stage for the Real Adventures to come (although it is not without excitements).

My own response--a fine start with a great premise, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next.

I'm happy to be a stop on the Loki's Wolves Blog Tour, in which questions are asked and answers given by the authors. My assignment was to ask about two of the god-descended teenagers-- Reyna and Ray, descendants of Frey and Freya.

 He launched into explaining the myths: The twins are Frey and Freya. In the old stories, Freya is the goddess of love and beauty. Frey is the god of weather and fertility. We need to find their descendants, who are apparently also twins. Matt paused. Two for one. Thatll make it easier.

- Loki's Wolves, page 148

Me:  In this first book of the series, the twins Reyna and Ray are somewhat shadowy figures--Fen calls them "Goth Ken and Goth Barbie,"  with good reason--they aren't exactly bubbling over with rich, nuanced demonstrations of personality.  Will we get a chance to know them as individuals later in the series?  Will they get to play a more central role, bringing into the story the characteristic of their ancestral deities, Freya and Frey?  And will we get more insight into their particular powers? 

Kelley: Yes, we definitely don't get a full picture of Ray and Reyna in the first book. They're the most wary of the descendants, unwilling to commit fully to the group and so, unwilling to reveal more of themselves. In Loki's Wolves, the other characters don't have a chance to get to know the twins so, by extension, neither does the reader. Once they become a true part of the team, we'll get to see their real selves. At the same time, they'll learn more about themselves and their powers.

Me:  And why did you decide to make them Goth?  I'm having trouble imaging Freya and Frey, deities of love and procreation and warmth of all sorts, as it were, as morose Goths hanging around a cemetery!   We haven't been told much about their backstory--just that their dad's a  (relatively) rich casino owner, and I'm wondering if there's something that we haven't been told yet….

Kelley: Goth culture is known for its emphasis on morbidity and death, but also seeks to find light and happiness in the dark parts of life. Ray and Reyna are two kids struggling to come to terms with their past and their present--their heritage as gods of light and fertility combined with lives of commercialism and cynicism (as the children of casino owners) They've discovered their affinity for magic and without the proper background regarding their heritage, they associate those powers with the dark arts and have embraced that side of themselves. Like many very young goths, they feel alienated and confused, and they're seeking to find their way.
Me:  I'll look forward to finding out more about them! Thanks very much, Kelley and Melissa!

The other stops on the blog tour are:

Tuesday, May 7 – Bookalicious featuring Ragnarök
Wednesday, May 8 – Mundie Kids featuring Odin
Thursday, May 9 – Novel Thoughts featuring Thor
Saturday, May 11 – Bewitched Bookworms featuring Loki

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)

4 Comments on Loki's Wolves, by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr, Review and Character Blog Tour, last added: 5/13/2013
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10. The Different Girl, by Gordon Dahlquist

The Different Girl, by Gordon Dahlquist  (Dutton Juvenile YA, February 21, 2013, 240 pages) was a lovely character-driven sci-fi  change from my regular reading, and I enjoyed it lots.

It tells of four girls, who have lived all their lives on an isolated island under the attentive eyes of two adults who are their teachers and guardians.   One girl is blond, one brunette, one redhead, and one, Veronika, the narrator of the story, has black hair, but otherwise, they seem identical.  And they never question their routine--it is all they have ever known.

Then a fifth girl comes, the only survivor of a shipwreck.   Veronika's world is forever changed by the differences of this girl, and the questions that her presence brings.   The world of the island is no longer safe--enemies are approaching, death becomes a real possibility-- and Veronika's assumptions about herself and the other three girls are shaken to their core.

Oh goodness, this is a hard one to review, because the reader's assumptions, and the picture of the island that seems so simple at first, all becomes so much more tangled, and interesting, and beautifully thought-provoking, with the arrival of the different girl.  And all these tangles aren't exactly explained, because everything the reader knows is filtered through the lens of Veronika's mind, and her mind is not exactly ordinary.   So we don't see the big picture explaining all the whys of this particular world, because Veronika never finds many answers, but we do see her changing, as her peace, both of mind and of place, become progressively shattered.

Those who enjoy really quirky, occasionally frustrating, stories of what it means to be a thinking being may well enjoy it as much as I did.   (Those who like stories about girls in orphanages/boarding schools might also like it for that aspect of it!).  I myself found it a memorable and gripping character-driven mind-trip.   That being said, those who like their world building actually built, with questions answered and things explained, who like books that have Plot front and central point (as opposed to a book like this, in which the central point is one character's experience of plot-like elements she doesn't understand),  might well be frustrated.  

For those who are curious about the spoilery part of it--it becomes clear pretty early in the book (which I appreciated--it let me in on the whole thought-experiment aspect of the story), and the cover actually shows a rather clever spoiler, and so I will tell what it is (highlight to read)

The four girls are robots.  They are there on the island to be kept safe from those who wish to destroy them, while they are being taught how to be thinking beings.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher.

A sampling of other reviews:  Presenting Lenore, Reading Rants, and Alexia's Books and Such

4 Comments on The Different Girl, by Gordon Dahlquist, last added: 2/8/2013
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11. The Shadow Society, by Marie Rutkoski

The Shadow Society, by Marie Rutkoski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, YA, Oct., 2012) is the most gripping book I've read in 2013.   The pages turned quickly--my 40 minute bus ride home yesterday took me to page 167, and I almost missed my stop, and my poor children were sent to bed late (my husband being out for the evening) as I finished the last 200 or so pages....(and poor youngest child thought it was Friday, and no one reminded him to do his homework...)

The story, summarized briefly up to the point where the spoilers would be too spoilery:

Darcy was found on the streets of Chicago when she was five years old, with no memory of how she got there or who she is.  After being shunted from one foster home to another, she's now a junior, with a foster mother who is keeping her for a second year (a first).   But her expectations of a happy year in the company of her three best friends are shattered when an enigmatic, and beautifully handsome, new boy, Conn, arrives....

(ok--I would have liked it better if Conn hadn't been so beautiful.  I have never, myself, met anyone with chiseled lips.  And it's rather cliched that of course Darcy is going to be strangely attracted to him, and he's going to be all strange to her, in a "what does this beautiful boy want from me way" and I think this part of the book could have been just a tad more subtle.   But, on the other hand, the way Darcy's small cabal of friends react is rather nice.   Darcy's friends are great.  As is the fact that Darcy and Conn spend much time discussing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I liked this).

Back to the story.

So there are hints that Conn is odd, it's quite clear that Darcy is different (I'll go so far as to say Special), and even clearer that something is going to happen.

It does.   It involves an alternate Chicago, where the Great Fire never happened, and where humans are locked in a war against beings known as Shades, who can disincorporate themselves.  It's a war of terrorist attacks, torture of captives, and bitter memories....and Darcy finds herself right in the middle of it.

Things get very interesting indeed.  Loyalty, memory, and guilt.  Past death and present danger.  Questions about whether peace is possible after so much bloody history.  And on the lighter side, a new Jane Austin book, discovered after her death in the alternate universe, and a trip to the alternate Chicago's art museum...

And in the meantime, Conn and Darcy, two people almost broken by past atrocity, must negotiate their relationship under terrible pressure.........(there's me reading reading reading all big-eyed and totally engrossed)......

So yes, I liked it very much!

(Here's a quibble--young people today are so selfish.  If my sons ever found themselves spending a couple of weeks in an alternate Chicago, knowing that it was quite easy to come and go between the two worlds, but Never Bothering to let me know they were all right, I'd be really cross.)

11 Comments on The Shadow Society, by Marie Rutkoski, last added: 2/17/2013
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12. Growing Disenchantments, by K.D. Berry, for Timeslip Tuesday

Anyone in the market for an entertaining fantasy read, one that's lightly fun and amusingly inventive, should consider Growing Disenchantments, by K.D. Berry (2012, Bluewood Publishing, labeled YA, but suitable for adults).  It's not, you know, a World Altering reading experience of Emotional Power, but it is a fine way to spend a snowy day.

It was on such a day that I entered the world of Ragonnard, the new wizard in town, just as the young thief Ganfrey (a girl, and no unskilled) was about to break into his house.  Unfortunately for Ganfrey (although it all worked out in the end), Ragonnard's home proved hard to burgle, and she ended up being caught.  But he made a deal with her--steal a particular portrait from the king's castle, and all would be forgiven. 

That particular portrait, a prison painted to hold a long gone evil wizard, was one Ragonnard had been searching for with a particular passion.  Painted along with with the wizard is an amulet of particular power, and Ragonnard's plan is to extract the amulet, bringing it back to real world while leaving the wizard in painted place.

Things don't work out according to plan, and the evil magician is freed.  Ganfrey finds herself caught up in chaos as his magic take over the castle, sending the optimistically incompetent king out on to the streets, and freeing the stone gargoyles and animating the statues of long dead kings.

But there are things more serious afoot than the deposing of kings and the philosophical conversations of gargoyles.  The magician is bent on revenge on those who imprisoned him 500 years ago, and he won't let time stand in his way.  Unless Ganfry and Ragonnard, with the help of a time travelling agent from the future, the court illusionist, Dewdop, and the head of castle security (who spends his free time reading mysteries, and trying to apply them in real life), can stop him, all of time's coherence will be shattered!

Entertaining stuff.   I found the characters amusing, although not desperately three dimensional, and the more I read, the faster the pages turned as the excitement of the story grew.  The reader has to have a certain tolerance for a bit of slapstick, almost cartoonish in places, and some awful puns (the sentient broom, for instance, is described at one point as a "heaving besom"), and a certain tolerance for plot elements that don't necessarily seem as tidily integrated into the whole as they might have been (time travelling agent from the future, popping up naked every now and then, and not actually doing much that's helpful, I'm looking at you).   But if you just sit back and relax and enjoy the ride, it's lots of fun.  Not quite up to the level of the Discworld books, which are my current gold standard of amusing fantasy, but a good time nonetheless.

The book is the second in a series (the first being Dragons Away), but is perfectly fine as a stand alone.  It's published in New Zealand, but it's available from Amazon as both a book and a kindle edition.  Disclaimer:  I received a copy courtesy of the author (or at least, courtesy of half the author, since this was a team effort).

2 Comments on Growing Disenchantments, by K.D. Berry, for Timeslip Tuesday, last added: 2/21/2013
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13. Spirit's Princess, by Esther Friesner

Spirit's Princess, by Esther Friesner (Random House, April, 2012, middle grade/YA) tells of the childhood of Himiko, daughter of the chieftain of the small Matsu clan.  By around 238 AD, Himiko was a queen, but before she reaches that point (which will presumably happen in the sequel to this book), she has lots of growing up to do....and so this is a book for the reader who has patience, one who is interested in the small things of life, and who doesn't demand happenings (in this, the cover is misleading--Himiko looks like an Action-Oriented princess, but that part of her life is yet to come).  It's also a good one for the reader who likes historical fiction that explores the lives of little known women--the author's note at the end explains that Himiko's story is based on fact, which pleased me very much.

Himiko is the only daughter of her father, and so is the "princess" of her village.  It is a narrow life, as her father distrusts all outsiders, and Himiko is not permitted to follow her dream of become a great hunter like her older brother (and even if she had been encouraged to follow this path, a fall in childhood leaves with a permanently lame leg).   Slowly she realizes that her path lies elsewhere, as a shaman for her people.   And so, interspersed with various family dynamics, we are told of her apprenticeship to the village shaman, which is kept secret from her dictatorial, xenophobic father, who simply wants to see her nicely married off.

There are shadows of a danger to come, which finally does arrive right at the end of the book.  But until then, there's lots of family dynamics, with nicely drawn secondary characters, some interesting descriptions of Himiko's rather restricted life, some magical encounters with spirit world (although not quite enough for my taste), and hints of more story to come.

I myself rather enjoyed it, though at first I was doubtful--- I felt that it wasn't quite necessary to spend so much time with five-year old Himiko (adolescent Himiko becomes more interesting).   But even though I did read it avidly, appreciating the different culture, appreciating Himiko's various dilemmas and her growing familiarity with the spirit world, and hoping that it would all work out, I couldn't help but feel that this story is simply the prologue to a more exciting one to come.

And indeed, this is a good time to have read the book, because I am very much looking forward to its sequel, Spirit's Chosen, which comes out this April, and will not have as long to wait!

note on age: I'd be most likely to give this one to a ten or eleven year old girl, although it is described as being for ages 12 and up.  There is nothing in the book that would give your typical middle grade pause, and I think older readers are more likely to be put off by the fact that Himiko is a little kid!

3 Comments on Spirit's Princess, by Esther Friesner, last added: 2/21/2013
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14. The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna

The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna (Balzer + Bray; August, 2012, YA, 432 pages)

Eva has lived in cozy cottage in northern England all the sixteen years of her life, with her beloved foster mother, and caring guardians dropping in to visit lots.  She looks on the outside like a normal, attractive, Anglo-Indian girl.

Eva has been in danger all her life.  There are people who think she is an abomination, a monster who must be killed.

Because Eva doesn't just look like an Indian girl--she is a direct copy of one.   She was made by a sinister organization of genetic tinkerers to be the exact echo of a girl named Amarra,  a girl growing up in far-away Bangalore.  If Amarra should die, Eva will be sent to take her place, and perhaps, even to serve as a vessel for Amarra's very essence.  Every week the letters from Amarra, full of the details of her life, arrive.  When Amarra gets a tattoo, Eva must get one also, so their bodies match. 

Eva doesn't want to be an echo.  She wants to be "Eva," a name she chose for herself.  But those that created her will kill her if she tries to live a life of her own.

Then Amarra dies.

Eva does her best to be Amarra....but there are things that Amarra never told her.  And even the best echo cannot truly take the place of a lost child, and Eva is much more than a good little shadow....

At which point, things surge from being a fascinating speculative fiction character study to a life or death drama with stakes just as high as they can get! (with bonus  forbidden romance).

Yes, this is one for the lover of character (me).    And the lover of Themes being Explored (identity, and the rights we have to our own lives, and whether the created life is inherently monstrous (with many references in the book to Frankenstein) and how grief and love plays out for different people).  There was action, too, especially toward the end (our girl Eva and her love fighting the Powerful Bad Guys). 

And it was a really darn good read.   An all in one evening, great gulping glass of water on a hot day read.   Three and a half hours of all absorbing prose.  Oh yeah.

It wasn't all rainbows and happy reading, though.  For instance, I would have liked more richness to the Indian part of the setting, when Eva is living Amarra's life--I never felt as though I was there.  

More critically, the actual premise--that echoes can take the place of a real person--is rather ridiculous; I can't imagine an echo ever successfully filling the void of the dead person.  Nor does the whole set-up of the echo creators seem reasonable (even for speculative fiction).  Much salt is required to swallow the central point of the story.  If that's the sort of thing that bothers you, this might not be the right book for you.

(thanks to Margo Berendsen, who's review of the book inpired me to get a hold of it!)

4 Comments on The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna, last added: 3/3/2013
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15. The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer

I enjoyed The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer (Egmont, August 2012, YA) lots.  I don't remember why I decided to request it from the library, and when I saw the cover, and began reading, I was afraid I was in familiar paranormal romance territory--beautiful girl threatened by demonic possession thinks she isn't pretty and admires the prettiness of the boy she's just met.

But I kept going, and was rewarded by a really entertaining story--Mia, now in Milan, is being protected from the demon who had possessed her by her demon-hunting Italian family (demon hunters of Milan since Milan got going).   And the story is mostly:

--lots of Italian food
--a generous cast of Italian family members, with Histories
--some interesting family interactions with demons, etc.
--a bit of conflict between church and demon hunters

with considerable elements of Mia (who seems like she might be kind of special, but who, at this point, isn't all Special in the reader's face) trying to figure out how to:

a. speak Italian
b. go outside without the demon pouncing on her
c. find out more about demon hunting (her family isn't telling her much, because, you know, the demon might succeed in possessing her again and then learn all their secrets).

and a small element of Mia thinking about boys, but not getting entangled in any real romance (she isn't the sultry vixen shown on the cover)

Bonus reference to ancient history (Greeks vs. Persians) which will probably be important in the next book.

So there isn't all that much Action, Adventure, or Excitement (apart from a few possessions of Mia and a few other people), and it's not a Romance, but there is a most enjoyable sense of place and people and family history with enough of the supernatural to keep things very interesting indeed.

And the food is great.  Lots of wine is drunk too.  I want to go stay with Mia's grandparents and eat and drink.

Short answer:  I truly liked it, read in a single sitting (it's only 288 pages, which I appreciated), and am looking forward to the sequel (and though this stops at a good stopping point, many many many things are unresolved, because, you know, five months isn't really enough time to learn how to vanquish a real bad-ass demon once and for all).

3 Comments on The Demon Catchers of Milan, by Kat Beyer, last added: 3/2/2013
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16. Sapphire Blue, by Kerstin Gier, for Timeslip Tuesday

Sapphire Blue, by Kerstin Gier ( Henry Holt and Co, 2012, YA), is the sequel to Ruby Red (my review), and you absolutely have to read the first one first, or you won't have much clue what's going on.  However, Ruby Red is lots of fun, so there's no reason not to read it!

The basics of the plot:  There's a secret cabral of time travellers whose genes whisk them back in time--to prevent surprise temporal whisking, they have to "elapse" in controlled time travel quite often.   Gwen thought that her snotty cousin Charlotte (one of the most objectionable fictional Charlottes going) was destined to be the one who got the gene in her family...an assumption shared by all the other members of the society.  So when it turns out to be Gwen instead, it comes as a shock....

There are lots of secrets to this mysterious organization that Gwen isn't being told, and a backstory of betrayals and intrigues that she's becoming ever more involved with (rather relevant backstory, because the thing with time travel is that the characters can go back themselves and become part of it).   Gwen is supposedly destined to bring about some sort of milestone viz the secret cabral, and there are, apparently, rouge time travellers who left the cabral who don't want this to happen.

And then there's the complication of Gwen falling hard for Gideon, a young time traveller who might, or might not, have been involved with vile cousin Charlotte--incredibly handsome, full of secrets, and kind of a jerk, what with all his blowing hot and cold.

Keeping Gwen sane as she come to terms with all of this, and travels to the 18th century to meet with the sinister head of the cabral, is her good friend Lesley--sharp as a tack, an ace at  Internet searches, and less preoccupied than Gwen (whose mind is full of her Gideon dilemma, she takes on the Mystery Solving aspects of the story.   There's also James, the 18th century ghost lurking around Gwen's school, whose good for a few quick lessons in 18th-century life skills.  And in this book, Gwen is adopted by the demonic spirit of an ex-gargoyle that only she can see-- a useful, though tricksy, companion....

So all this takes place in just a few days, with the result that the books are full of detail and conversation and many happenings, and a tad short on overall plot advancement.  Fortunately, I found it all very enjoyable, so the lack of progress toward actually getting any clear answers to much of anything didn't bother me in the least! 

The time travel, in terms of experiencing the past, is not actually a central element in the book--yes, Gwen travels back to the past, most memorably getting so tipsy at an 18th-century soiree that she entertains the guests with a song from Cats, but the time travel mostly serves to introduce Gwen (and the reader) to various characters and plot elements.   So this is one to read for the entertainment value of its central character struggling to solve the mystery of a. her destiny, and the whole secret society thing and  b. her relationship with Gideon, and not one to read for educational visits to the past....which, of course, is just fine.

(Just as an aside--Sapphire Blue was originally published in German, and translated by Anthea Bell, the go-to girl for German to English YA fantasy translation. I have read a number of her translations, and I think she must be very good, because each different book she's worked on has a different feel....)

0 Comments on Sapphire Blue, by Kerstin Gier, for Timeslip Tuesday as of 3/5/2013 6:40:00 PM
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17. Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith

The field of YA dystopia may be crowded these days, but Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam, March 2013), goes to show that new and powerful stories of young people surviving in the face of disaster can still be told.   It is a heart-twisting story of riveting intensity.

Rita and Katrina were only the beginning.  Storm after storm followed, and the number of survivors in the flood-wrecked delta shrank each time.  Then came the Fever--deadly, and incurable, and a threat to the whole country.  So then came the quarantine--a wall was built around the Gulf Coast area, just until the Fever ran its course, or a cure was found.  Surely, the government reasoned, that wouldn't take long.  Then the survivors could be part of the United States again. 

But the Fever has held its own, and everyone still living behind the wall is a carrier.  Because the Fever affects different blood types differently, some are healthier than others (the O types are less affect).  Tribes, based on blood, have formed, and blood is a commodity.

And a fifteen year old girl, Fen de la Guerre, has just promised a dying woman who was the leader of Fen's tribe of O positives, and who was the only person left to her in the world she truly loves, to save the new born infant her friend died giving birth too.   For a short while, the baby will be free of the taint of the fever, so if Fen can keep herself and the baby alive long enough to get to the wall, the baby has a chance of being smuggled out to safety.

But Fen knows to her cost how hard it is to survive in the Delta.   Her parents are dead, and she herself endured horrors (including rape) before finding a place in the O positive tribe.   War between the tribes is flaring up to an even more deadly level than before, blood slavery, sickness, and human predation are rampant, and Fen has little more than hard won survival skills to keep herself and Baby Girl safe.   But she has hope....

Then a new wrinkle enters the picture.  Daniel, a young scientist from up north illegally enters the delta, obsessed with finding a cure to the fever.   He has no clue what he will find behind the wall...but amidst all the horror and violence, there he meets Fen.   And Fen, because she can't just leave him to die, and because there's a chance he can help her, saves his life....and they journey together, until they reach the wall.

This all too believable future world might sound tremendously dark, and Fen's life on her own has been full of horror.  The story as a whole is gut-wrenching, page-clenching, and not for the faint of heart.  Yet it is not depressing.    Because Fen never lets herself sink at all into any self-pity, because she never gives up, because she never considers any choice other than survival, and keeping true to her promises, I couldn't pity her either, though my heart certainly ached something fierce.   The brutality is not rendered less brutal by the fact that Fen has kept her integrity, but because she has, and because the reader right in there with her,  there's no sense of  emotional manipulation by the author.  There are bad things.  Terrible things.  But there is always hope.

There are still decent people in this world--like the Ursuline sisters, still keeping faith and tending to the dead, hope that the ravaged world of the Delta will heal, and, even when I turned the last page, I still had hope for Fen.

And there is one scene in particular, the All Souls' Day parade, that is a tremendous bit of heart-stopping, numinous-filled testimony to the power of the human spirit.

Don't go looking for Daniel to come in and romantically make things all better for Fen.   He's a tourist, a babe in the woods, a complication in Fen's mission, and though he does end up with a huge part to play, it's not the part of Fen's lover and protector.  Instead, read this one if you want to get to know a girl who is damaged, strong, brave, and sad, who keeps going because there is nothing else to do.

This is one for those looking for multi-cultural sci fi/fantasy--race, but not because it is a story where "race" is important.  In this world, people are defined by blood type, so race isn't something we hear much about.  It is mentioned, and indeed, there's a sociological twist involving race, blood-type, and tribal identity.    Based on the few bits of description of Fen, I pictured her in my mind as black, but skin color is the least of people's worries in this world.

Personal note--Fen narrates her story in the English of the tribes, which doesn't include many verb forms; I was worried that it would bother me, but it didn't.

Read more about Orleans and its creator, Sherri L. Smith, at these other stops on its blog tour:

 Monday, March 4 – The Compulsive Reader
Tuesday, March 5 – The Story Siren
Wednesday, March 6 – The OWL for YA
Thursday, March 7** – GreenBeanTeenQueen
Friday, March 8 – I Read Banned Books
Monday, March 11 – Poisoned Rationality
Tuesday, March 12 – The Book Smugglers
Thursday, March 14 – Literary Escapism
Friday, March 15 – Cari’s Book Blog
Friday, March 29 – A.L. Davroe

(disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher.)

8 Comments on Orleans, by Sherri L. Smith, last added: 3/14/2013
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18. Stung, by Bethany Wiggins

Stung, by Bethany Wiggins

When Fiona went to sleep, she was thirteen years old and had a family who loved her.   Now she's woken up--to a nightmare.  Her home is dilapidated and abandoned, and though she's still young, her body isn't child's anymore.  She has no memory of the years that must have passed....and no knowledge of how the world she once knew has descended into ruin.   And she doesn't know, yet, that the tattoo that's appeared on her arm marks her as one of the infected--a person on the verge of becoming a mindlessly predatory beast. 

In Fiona's new world, there are those who live safely behind walls....and those out on the streets, infected and starving, hunted by the ravaging hoards of humans turned monstrous.  Fiona, marked as she is, must live as one of the later.  Slowly she learns how to survive, with the help of a boy she knew back when they were kids, and slowly flashes of memory return to her.  But it's what Fiona can't yet remember that will change everything...if she stays alive long enough.

I enjoyed it, once I got in the swing of the short, action-packed, first person sentences in which it was told (just about ever sentence seems to have an active verb).  This is one to offer right away to your handy young Hunger Games fan--it has a similar intensity, mixing ruthless violence with the desperate need to hold on to human feelings when everything seems lost.  That being said, I don't think the scenario of Stung is nearly as original, nor as interesting,  and it's heavier on the teen romance side of things (so I won't be giving it to my mother for Christmas, like I did The Hunger Games).

However, Stung is a perfectly fine book.  Fiona is believable and appealing, the supporting characters nicely nuanced, and the romance is very satisfying.  And though I mostly skim through action-packed sequences because, you now, they are so busy, the great climactic Scene of Action at the end of this one was utterly riveting.  Another thing I appreciated--the humans turned monstrous by sickness were actually still humans...not zombies.  It's definitely sci-fi, not zombie fantasy.

Disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher

2 Comments on Stung, by Bethany Wiggins, last added: 3/23/2013
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19. City of a Thousand Dolls, by Miriam Forster

City of a Thousand Dolls, by Miriam Forster (Harper, Feb. 2013, YA)

The City of a Thousand Dolls is a sanctuary for unwanted baby girls.  It is a producer of young women schooled (depending on their talents and temperaments) in various houses as mistresses, healers, musicians, scholars, warriors, and even assassins.   It is the only home Nisha can remember, though she was six when she was left outside its gate.   And though Nisha was too old when she arrived to be placed in one of the city's houses, has a role to file as the matron's assistant, and she has friends, and hopes for her life after she is too old for the City.   In short, the City runs smoothly along, with transgressions punished severely, escape forbidden, and everyone in their proper place.

But now the City of a Thousand Dolls is home to a murderer.  Girls are being killed.

And Nisha, used to moving freely throughout the city, must find out who the killer is.  Her own life is at stake.  As she investigates, she finds that there are secrets both within the City and in her own past...secrets that will change her life forever.

I read it in as much of a single sitting as a person with needy loved ones can.   I liked it for the setting (I have a penchant for books that stay in one place), I liked it for the difficult concept of the City-is it a place of refugee and opportunity for girls who might otherwise be victims of infanticide, or is it a prison?--and appreciated that the people within the city thought about that issue themselves.    I liked the details about small things.  And I appreciated the fact that this isn't yet another medieval European fantasy; instead, it is more South Asian in setting and culture.  So though the world-building wasn't perfect (and I have some niggling questions about the mechanics of the whole city thing), I was happy to keep reading.

However, there's a disconnect that makes me unable to heartily recommend this one.

To wit, The City of a Thousand Dolls is marketed as Young Adult, and indeed, because of the whole premise of (some) girls being trained to be mistresses, it's not one to give a naive younger reader (though the author doesn't spell out what being a mistress is all about, and there is no sex within the book itself).   But it skews young in plot and characterization, and ended up feeling more middle grade than teen.   A teen might find Nisha an incompetent detective (she is no Nancy Drew, but, in justice, she never thought she was), too naive to be credible, and may well find the reveal of Nisha's specialness, her romance, and the denouement of the story, all too much to take (and in fact it was all too much like a kid's wish fulfillment for me to swallow).

And there are cats with whom Nisha has a telepathic bond.  Girls having telepathic bonds with cats always makes me think of 10 or 11 year olds, perhaps because when I was that age telepathic cats would have been my own dream come true....

So, uh, I'd hand this to the 10 or 11 year old girl who already is conversant with the concept of women whose role in life is to provide men with pleasure, who wants an exciting mystery/unrealistic romance with bonus telepathic cats.

But like I said, I did find it a page turner....

5 Comments on City of a Thousand Dolls, by Miriam Forster, last added: 3/26/2013
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20. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, by Yasutaka Tsutsui, for Timeslip Tuesday

My hopes were high.  Yasutaka Tsutsui is one of the most highly regard Japanese writers of sci fi.  The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of his most popular books in Japan.    I had never read any Japanese time travel before, and was tremendously eager to do so.

It's the story of a teenaged girl who acquires the ability to slip back in time.  Just a few days back, but still enough to ensnarl her in paradoxes, mysteries, and sci-fi intrigue.

It should have been great!   When my copy of the English translation (by David Karashima, 2011, Alma Books, 105 pages) arrived, and I saw the beautiful cover, I was even more eager to begin it.

Uh.  Total rats, darn, and whine. 

Sample extract:

"Morning!"  called Kazuo from behind her.
"Oh, morning!" replied Kazuko, considering whether she should tell him all about the incident.  Kazuo was a bright individual after all, and might be able to provide some sort of insight.  But she quickly decided that it might be better to wait for Goro to arrive so they could all talk about it together.
"Is everything okay?" said Kazuo.  "You look a little pale."
Kazuo was always rather attentive, so he often noticed little things like that.
"Oh it's nothing," said Kazuko, shaking her head.  "I couldn't sleep much.  First because of the earthquake.  Then because of the fire!  So I'm feeling pretty sleepy today."  (p 27)

Maybe most of the blame for the clunky writing and wooden characterization can be attributed to the translator.   But the final plot twist at the end, that strained all credulity, must be the author's own, and the way it's presented--future character explains everything at length--is really not sophisticated and sparkling.  Plus the future character turns out to be a. 11 years old  b. the love interest of this teenage girl, and that was just weird and c.  able to conduct mass hypnosis at the drop of a hat on every single person (probably hundreds) with whom he's come into contact in the last few months.

So it was a big disappointment.

The English translation also includes another novella, The Stuff that Nightmares are Made Of.  Not only did I find that story clunky as well, but it made me really dislike Tsutsui, because it is never funny when a mother threatens to cut off a five year old's penis with a pair of scissors so he'll be less girly.

7 Comments on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, by Yasutaka Tsutsui, for Timeslip Tuesday, last added: 4/12/2013
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21. Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel

Yeah for reading books that have been sitting around the house, possibly crying in corners, for far too long! Finally I have read Sarah Zettel's Dust Girl (Random House, middle grade/YA, June 2012), and I found it good.  It is good because although the barest bones of the story are familiar--girl finds out she is half fairy,  the opposing sides of the fairy realm fight over her while she figures out how to use her magic--the particulars are very unique indeed.

Callie's mother won't let her go outside the Kansas hotel she runs, in case her skin gets dark and people suspect her father was black.   But then the dust comes (this is the 1930s) and there's almost no-one left in town to care.  Still her mother won't give up and leave, though the food and money are running out, and Callie is choking her life out on dust, because she's waiting for Callie's musician father to come back.

Then Callie plays the piano for the first time.  And her playing awakens the magic in her, and a dust storm like no other comes, blowing her mother away and bringing into town the first (and most truly horrible!) of the magical adversaries Callie must deal with.   (Just to give you a taste--they are grasshopper creatures in human guise, and they are very....hungry).

So Callie, and Jack, the boy she just rescued from the abandoned jail in town, hit the road, first running for their lives (grasshopper creatures sure are fast!), and then running less fast for their lives while searching for the people they have lost. On their journey they encounter madness and mayhem and magic...all the while moving through the blighted landscape of the dust bowl Midwest.

So yes, I liked it lots--although Callie was Special, she also managed to be nicely ordinary, and her motivations and actions all made sense to me.   Callie also had to think considerably about the fact that her father was black--in the racially charged world through which she moves, she can't forget it--yet this aspect of her story was well integrated with the whole, and though sometimes it was underlined, it never felt overly didactic.  And, on top of that, it was a swinging, exciting adventure, with (wait for it!) no Romance front and center, which was rather refreshing--it's nice to read a book in which people are running for their lives without getting distracted by their Feelings for each other.    Callie and Jack will probably hook up in the future, when they're a bit older, and that's fine.

But what I really loved was the historical part of this fantasy--I don't turn to Dust Bowl fiction for my reading pleasure, and so meeting that historical landscape in my favorite genre was a lovely treat.

Here's what I especially appreciated--America is not treated as a fantasy blank slate, just waiting for the immigrants to arrive with their magics.  Instead, the first magical Person Callie meets is Native American, almost certainly Coyote, and this is what he has to say about it:

"Stupid white people.  Stupid yellow people, or stupid brown people.  Bringing in all kinds of ghosts and little spirits.  Can't even tell who's in the game anymore." (p 31). 

And so even though Callie's magical journey doesn't directly involve the native magic of her place, at least there's this acknowledgement that there is an indigenous presence.  The only other fantasies for middle grade/YA readers set in North American that I can think of simply do not have this (The Prairie Thief, by Melissa Wiley, and Patricia Wrede's Frontier Magic series), and I think they are the weaker for it.

Note on cover:  that's the new paperback cover up at the top; it comes out in June.   Some people thought that the cover of the hardback (at right) didn't show Callie  accurately as half black (although since she's been passing as white, or at least, her mother thinks she has, all her life, she has to look at least somewhat ambiguous, and I think the paperback goes a bit too far in the other direction....).  But in any event, it's nice to have the paperback showing a Main Character of Color, and so good on ya, Random House. 

Note on age:  This one is a perfect tween book, great for 11-13 year olds.  As far as I can remember, there's nothing in it that would be Inappropriate for younger readers (which is to say there's no sex, but I'm not sure how well I do at registering curse words, since I am married to someone from Liverpool and have become hardened), but there are issues of racial and religious prejudice (Jack is Jewish), law-breaking and human unhappiness/human evilness that make it a bit strong for a younger kid.

A few other blog reviews, by people who were reading it ages ago:  Bunbury in the Stacks, Someday my Printz will Come, and alibrarymama

4 Comments on Dust Girl, by Sarah Zettel, last added: 4/1/2013
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22. Fearless, by Cornelia Funke

Yesterday's book (The Menagerie) was one I happily recommended to nine-year olds wanting fantasy fun; today book I can also recommend whole-heartedly, but it is very different...one I think that has as much cross-over appeal to adult readers as it does to the YA readers to whom it is marketed.

Fearless, by Cornelia Funke (Little, Brown, April 2, 2013, YA), is the sequel to Reckless (my review), which told how Jacob, a boy from our world who became a treasure-hunter in a mirrorworld where fairy tales are true, sacrificed himself to save his younger brother.   And now Jacob, waiting for the fairy curse to strike that will end his life, is on the greatest treasure hunt of his life, this time looking for the last thing he hopes can save him.  It is a weapon crafted by an evil witch king long ago, full of powerful (and potentially horrible) magic...and Jacob isn't the only one hunting for it.   Pitted against him every step of the way is another treasure hunter, one of the stone-skinned Goyl, and their race across an alternate Europe of magic come true might well kill them both.

Fortunately, and heart-rendingly, for Jacob, he is not alone--Fox, the shapeshifting girl who almost broke my heart in the first book, is with him, and here in this book they both have come to understand that their love for each other is the bedrock of their lives.  But Jacob is dying...and so desperate fear tempers their relationship.  They have saved each other countless times before, but now they are stretched so painfully thin by this most horrible quest that hope would seem impossible, if the alternative was not so unthinkable. 

Note:  The relationship between Jacob and Fox is so real, so immediate, so beautiful, and so rooted in their complex pasts that I can't think of any other romance that comes close (except that of Eugenides and Irene, in Megan Whalen Turner's books).  But it is not a physical romance (understandable, given the circumstances) so those looking for swoonish kisses should look elsewhere.

Unfortunately for Jacob's opponent, the Goyl Nerron, not all travelling companions are a good thing.  Nerron is saddled with a nasty teenaged prince, along with his ass of a tutor, and a bodyguard--an inhuman Waterman, with motivations of his own, and their internal power struggles add a somewhat grimly diverting second layer of conflict to the story.  Despite the handicaps who travel with him, Nerron pushes Jacob and Fox at every turn....but fascinatingly, though he seems at first to be the ostensible "bad guy" opponent of the piece, and though up to the last minute the suspense is killer, he is still nuanced, and even sympathetic....

So what we have, to summarize, is killer characters in a killer story.  Added to that are episodes of fairy tale-ness that made bright vivid pictures in my mind--for instance, the book includes one of the most memorable Bluebeard retellings ever.

That being said, this isn't a fast read of magical zipping-ness.   The pages turned slowly, not because I wasn't interested, but because I was so absorbed, even when I wasn't in places where I wanted to be.   Those place weren't the dark scary exciting bits, of which there were many, and which I did enjoy, but rather those times when the burning ache of Fox's and Jacob's desperation surfaces.  Though they must be fearless, they can't help but fear.

So no, not happy escapist fun.  Not a book that kids would necessarily appreciate, though many teens might.   I mysef found it a darn good book (mainly because I love Fox so very much!).  I think it has stuck in my mind so firmly that, although I can imagine re-reading it, I won't need to for a long while.

Here's another review, at In Bed With Books

disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher for review

5 Comments on Fearless, by Cornelia Funke, last added: 4/13/2013
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23. Mind Games, by Kiersten White

Mind Games, by Kiersten White, is a book so gripping that it held my attention while I read almost all of it cover to cover while waiting for my car to be fixed--and given that I was in a hideously uncomfy plastic chair, in anxious circumstances viz the fate of the car, this says a lot, I think.

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be "a psychological mystery/thriller, with a smart, fierce heroine,  similar in vibe to The Hunger Games but with a narrower focus viz world-building, cast of characters, and premise." 

But since I generally allow myself three paragraphs, or so, here they are:

Two orphaned sisters, each with a psychic ability, are imprisoned in an institution masking as a magnificent school.   For Annie, the older sister, who is blind, the "school" offered all the educational opportunities she craved.  And so, though every preternaturally honed instinct in Fia's mind screamed that it was wrong, the sisters were enrolled.

Those who ran the school were at first only interested in Annie's ability to see the future.  But when they realized just what Fia's gifts entailed, and how easily she could be controlled by threats to her sister, they knew they could never let her go.  And so Fia is made into a tool of violence, sent out on criminal missions for her mysterious masters...and Annie is a hostage.

If it goes on much longer, Fia will break.  But Fia is about to find out who she can trust...and to finally chose her own path for the first time since her nightmare began.

So the story is told in the present, as Fia is beginning to follow a path that might lead to escape, but there are plentiful flashbacks that tell of violence and tension and really gripping psychological manipulation verging on horror, and some scenes from Annie's perspective as well.  By the time events come to a head, the reader knows both sisters pretty well, and I felt nicely invested in Fia and her situation, curious about the mystery behind the "school," and anxious to know how it all played out.

My one reservation is Annie.   She's the older sister, but her parents set up (with the best of intentions) a kind of nasty dynamic of Fia being the one to look after her, because of Annie being blind.  And Annie has lived her life accepting this, not fighting much against it.  She does have  spurt of being an Active Participant in events toward the end, but mostly she is "passive blind sister,"  and her journey to active participation isn't desperately well-developed.  (In plain English, Annie annoyed me).

Once sentence summary: Gripping, disturbing, and a good one for the YA reader who wants wants a thrilling read, starring a kick-ass heroine, that is neither a Dystopian with a capital D (although the particulars are far from Utopian) or a paranormal romance (although there is a whiff of love story).

Will I read it again?  Perhaps, though it isn't a book I'll keep assuming I will want to.  I can easily imagine, though, being happy to read it again if, in two or three years, I went back to the car repair shop and someone has left a copy of it there....

disclaimer:  ARC received from the publisher, left by accident in car repair shop (I think), finished with the help of a library copy.

Note on cover:  I do not think the young woman on the cover is a good representation of Fia.  Her eyes look a tad to limpid, and it is not clear that you are about to read a book about a teenage girl who is forced to kill.  However, the UK publishers of Mind Games decided to make sure there was no ambiguity:

8 Comments on Mind Games, by Kiersten White, last added: 4/15/2013
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24. The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price, for Time Slip Tuesday

The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price (Scholastic, 1998).

Imagine that, round-about our present time here in the 21st century, capitalist entrepreneurs have discovered how to travel in time.  The thought of all the natural resources back there in the past, waiting to be exploited, makes them happy.

One of the time tunnels they have constructed leads to the sixteenth century in the wild boarder lands between England and Scotland.  The Sterkarm clan who rule the patch of this land are fierce, treacherous, loyal to each other and not giving a damn about anyone else, and they are cognizant that the time travelers have much to offer (the aspirin tablets are a hit).

Andrea is a young anthropologist, embedded back in time among the Sterkarms.  Literally--she and Per, the son of the chief are passionately involved.   For Andrea, deemed unattractively large by her own society, it is nice to be lusted after, and Per does genuinely care for her....it might even be love (although I couldn't help but wonder about how much her emotions were colored by her new desirability, and this made me uncomfortable).

But all is not well.  The problem with greedy exploitation is that often the people being exploited fight back, and things go sour.   The trouble in this case begin when Per, gravely wounded fighting off raiders (all in a days work for the Sterkarms), is taken by Andrea to the 21st century.  The director of the company, a nasty piece of work, wants him as a hostage.  Per escapes, makes his way through the tunnel home, and then he and his people declare war on the 21st century, burning what they can of the tunnel.

It is rebuilt, and the 21st century comes to make war in the past.  It seems as though its an uneven match--heavy artillery against bows and arrows.  But arrows can kill, and the Sterkarms have years of experience with treachery and guerrilla warfare...

So it basically stopped being fantasy neo-colonialism (interesting), and became a military sci fi story (not my cup of tea), and by the last hundred pages I was skimming because everyone was running around bashing each other etc., and I ws really tired of hearing about Andrea's predicament (torn between two conflicting loyalties, and not wanting any one to be killed, and not wanting the boy she's been sleeping with to be a ruthless killer even though he clearly is etc).

And did Andrea, intelligent anthropologist, save the day with intelligent anthropologizing?  No.  She went to pieces, and was all "Oh Per if you love me you will be kind and do something and not kill the people from the 21st century." Disappointing.

What it needed was more characterization and less fighting, in my opinion.  The bad guy was one dimensional, and so uninterestingly bad that there was little point to him.  Per and Andrea are two dimensional at best.  In as much as they are already sharing a bed by the time we meet them, there is no subtlety to their relationship, and I never believed that they were actually in love with each other as people, as opposed to fond bedmates (I have nothing against affectionate lust enjoyed by both parties, but it's not as interesting as the tension of love being realized), and like I said, I didn't need Andrea's dilemma drummed into my head quite so much.  A few minor characters come to interesting life, most notably Joe, a homeless Sterkarm descendant of modern times, who travels back to find a better life for himself--his is a fascinating little side-story.  But this wasn't enough to actually make me care all that much.

Final thought--loved the premise, and thought the story was fascinating.  If the book had been about 150 pages shorter, I might well have enjoyed it lots.  As it was, it kind of oozed over the edges of its central story, and I lost interest. 

However, don't necessarily take my word for it---The Sterkarm Handshake won the Guardian's Children's Prize, and got lots of critical acclaim, and is pretty much a classic of military/capitalist time-travel.

5 Comments on The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price, for Time Slip Tuesday, last added: 4/24/2013
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25. Hammer of Witches, by Shana Mlawski

Hammer of Witches, by Shana Mlawski (Tu, 2013, upper middle grade/YA).

Young Baltasar has grown up in late 15th-century Spain, a time when the Spanish Inquisition was going strong, listening to the stories told him by his uncle Diego--many of which were drawn from the Jewish heritage Diego and his wife ostensibly renounced when they chose to become nominal Christians (it was either that, or living in terrible fear of discovery--Ferdinand and Isabel did not want any Jews in Spain).    But of all his uncle's stories, Baltasar thrills most to those of the brave warrior Amir al-Katib, who fought for the Christian kingdoms of Europe, was betrayed by them, and ended his life fighting on the side of the Moors who were being driven from Spain.  Or so Baltasar has always believed.

But that's not actually how Amir al-Katib's story ended.  When a sinister oranization, known as the Hammer of Witches, dedicated to fighting witchcraft with any means deemed necessary, imprisons Baltasar, he is questioned under threat of torture about Amir.   And he intensively responds with a gift for magical storytelling he didn't know he had--and raises a golem, who carries him home.

Where, of course, the nice folks (not) from the Hammer of Witches know where to find him.

Now his aunt and uncle are dead, and Baltasar is on the run.  But he's not alone for long--his uncle has passed on a slim golden chain that belonged ot Amir al-Katib himself, and, much to Baltasar's wonder, it summons an Ifritah--a girl who is have spirit, half human, and full of magic.  And when the Ifritah, Jinniyah, takes him to Baba Yaga for advice, Baltasar finds that a great evil is about to head west from Europe across the sea...and that he might be able to thwart it.

And so Baltasar and Jinniyah sail off with Christopher Columbus....a journey wherein the little fleet is beset by magical enemies.   But Baltasar can answer each magical creature with one of his own; the real evil (obviously to the modern reader) doesn't come until land is reached, and the Columbian consequences begin.

So. It is tremendously exciting, what with magical adventures, the voyage of exploration, the fact that the Hammer of Witches has a spy embedded in the voyage, the mystery of Amir al-Katib (which plays a large part in the story), and Baltasar's own growing control of his storytelling magic.  In particular,  Baltasar's time spent with the Taino people, who are describe in rich detail, and who seem much saner than the Europeans, is worthwhile reading.

Just about any reader who likes excitement will appreciate the high-stakes, fast-moving story; those who are Readers to begin with will especially appreciate the strong link here between magic and storytelling.   It is a fascinating take on the story of Columbus' voyage, one that respects the Taino and gives them equal agency to the Europeans.  There is a strong young female character, too, to round things off gender-wise, and to my surprise it wasn't Jinnyah but someone else....

I didn't find it a perfect read, though, primarily because Baltasar is a very distant first-person narrator.  He's awfully good at describing (his words made beautifully clear pictures in my mind), but not so good at sharing enough of his feelings to make me care deeply about him as an individual.  And, in fact, at one point I actively disliked him--after the aforementioned girl character witnessed the rape of Taino women, it was creepy of Baltasar to kiss her uninvited, and then, a few pages later, jokingly say to her that "we both know you're dying for another kiss" (page 286). 

I was also disappointed by the fact that Jinniyah, the Ifritah, doesn't end up having much of a role in the story--I kept expecting her to be responsible for some major twist in the plot, but she never took center stage, and was often shunted off onto the sidelines. 

Still, there was much to enjoy, and it was refreshing to read a book whose main character not only embodies the clash of cultures in 15th century Europe between Judiasm, Christianity, and Islam, but offers an unflinching look at the horror Columbus' voyage unleashed on the native peoples he encountered.

For another perspective, here's the Kirkus review.

Note on age:  This one felt rather tween-ish to me, which is to say for readers 11 to 14.  Baltasar himself is fourteen (though, I think, a rather young 14), and a few specific instance of violence, including what happened to the Taino women, pushes this beyond something I'd give to a ten-year old.

disclaimer:  review copy received from the publisher

3 Comments on Hammer of Witches, by Shana Mlawski, last added: 4/28/2013
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