November 28, 2012

Uncommon Criminals: A Close-Up Review

"Katarina Bishop has worn a lot of labels in her short life. Friend. Niece. Daughter. Thief. But for the last two months she’s simply been known as the girl who ran the crew that robbed the greatest museum in the world. That’s why Kat isn’t surprised when she’s asked to steal the infamous Cleopatra Emerald so it can be returned to its rightful owners.

There are only three problems. First, the gem hasn’t been seen in public in thirty years. Second, since the fall of the Egyptian empire and the suicide of Cleopatra, no one who holds the emerald keeps it for long, and in Kat’s world, history almost always repeats itself. But it’s the third problem that makes Kat’s crew the most nervous and that is simply… the emerald is cursed.

Kat might be in way over her head, but she’s not going down without a fight. After all she has her best friend—the gorgeous Hale—and the rest of her crew with her as they chase the Cleopatra around the globe, dodging curses, realizing that the same tricks and cons her family has used for centuries are useless this time.

Which means, this time, Katarina Bishop is making up her own rules.
" (from Goodreads)

Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter


Kat and Hale: I found Kat insufferably stuck-up at the beginning of Uncommon Criminals. Her ego's inflated from accomplishing all of these jobs that give her an adrenaline high, and all I could think was, "Pride goeth before a fall..." It makes me cringe when characters act like that! Hale also bugged me initially because he was all cranky and grumpy at Kat all the time. Admittedly, he probably had some right to be, but it wasn't fun. However, then she ends up getting conned and realizes she's not the world's most genius, undefeatable thief, and is humbled...which leads to Hale becoming nicer and their relationship turning more amicable, thankfully.

Still, the Kat/Hale dynamic frustrated me more in this book. They just couldn't seem to get their act together! Hale wasn't as charming as in the first book, either. In Heist Society he had this cocky, confident attitude, whereas in this one he was always worrying and saying things like, "We don't have to do this!" And then Kat would reply, "Yeah, but I want to!" They seemed to have this same argument several times throughout the book. Eventually, they do kind of resolve things, as Kat recognizes how important it is to have people on her side, helping her out. But things were tense between them most of the time (and not in a good way), and I wanted more romance. Plus, I found it a little annoying how Hale was always telling Kat, "You can't do that!" Yes, Kat does take risks, but they're all kind of comes with the territory.

Also, I don't know if there was as much soul-searching going on here as there was in Heist Society. Or perhaps Kat just annoyed me a little more, with her inability to make a decision in terms of her emotions and love life. She just seemed to keep wavering back and forth between "Hale" and "thieving" and not seeing that she could have both in her life.

Everyone else: We get to see the whole team again here, but we still don't get to know some of them that well (a complaint of mine about the first in the series, Heist Society.) I liked Gabrielle's feisty attitude, and I also enjoyed meeting Charlie, this gruff but lovable hermit in the mountains. Nick wasn't my favourite character in the first one, but he's kind of grown on me — he's a good guy to have around.

Maggie was a well-written addition to the cast of characters. She was a really horrible character — she totally used people and enjoyed it, very manipulative. Spoilers, highlight to read: Although she seemed pretty clever to begin with, at the end she was just rather pathetic. I think she could have been a creepier villain than the Mafia dude from Heist Society, but she didn't turn out to be that evil. Still, in a way I prefer her as a villain, because she was such a low, underhanded user.


Uncommon Criminals was a lot more creative in structure than its predecessor. I thought it would follow the standard pattern with the heist at the end, but instead the first heist occurs pretty soon on, and then there are all these new twists and turns throughout as obstacles pile up. I enjoyed all the surprises and found it less predictable than Heist Society. Pacing-wise I think it moved a little faster than the first one, too.

However, there are some parts in the climactic scenes where the reader is led to believe one thing when really, that's not the case at all. While I'm okay with that most of the time, it has to be written in such a way that it's not actually lying to the reader about the character's intentions/emotions. I understand that the author is trying to make the reader believe that this is why a character is doing something. But if it's not why they're doing something, you shouldn't say that it is. If it's a mere matter of a reader interpreting the words a certain way, that's acceptable. But when you're telling the reader "he was angry", when he wasn't really, then you're just lying to the reader — and that's not cool. A few instances in Uncommon Criminals could have been written more cleverly to avoid this.

This may be one of those books that you have to read a few times to figure out exactly what happened, because the ending really confused me. I wish there'd been more explanation — I like being tricked in a book as long as I figure out how it happened! And honestly, I was reading through pretty carefully, and I was still left with a whole lot of questions. I suppose there could be several explanations, but I'd like to know which one the author intended.

Writing style:

The writing style was basically the same as in Heist Society. Every chapter starts out sort of slow and then builds. Since I brushed up on the first book before I read this one, I was pretty much used to that. The spy talk is well-done, just like the previous book; Ally Carter writes like she's part of an inner circle of experts who know all about agencies, spies, and detectives, so it feels authentic. I enjoyed all the names given to the different types of heist methods, like "Cinderella" or "Mary Poppins" or "Anne Boleyn."

Final verdict: 3.5 shooting stars. In some ways it impressed me more than Heist Society, particularly in terms of having a different, less predictable, pattern of plot points. However, in other ways — the relationship, the "lying" to the reader, the somewhat abrupt ending that lacked a satisfying explanation — it bugged me.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher for review.

This book counts towards my goal for the Just Contemporary reading challenge.

U-Pick: Most Endearing Animal Sidekick?

Here's how this feature works: each week I'll post a categorical superlative (e.g. "most sadistic villain" "crankiest father figure" "protagonist you would most like to slap some sense into" etc.) and list a few choices of characters from YA books in a poll. You get to pick! The poll will run for a week, and then in the following post I'll update with the name of the winning character. 

Last time the title of YA character Most Likely to End Up in Prison was up for grabs, and I am pleased to announce that the winner is...

...Rose from Vampire Academy!

Apparently she is just too impulsive for her own good.

This time around, the question is: who is the Most Endearing Animal Sidekick in YA?

There are lots of choices here, so vote below! (If the book is part of a series, I've just listed the series name. You can decide which book you want to base your vote on.) There's also an option for a write-in vote if your pick isn't listed. If that's the case, please choose "other" and then leave the character's name and book title in the comments :)

November 23, 2012

Rants & Raves: You LIED to Me?

This is a feature that appears sporadically on the blog, whenever I have a bookish issue I need to rant or rave about. Feel free to comment with your thoughts!

Suppose I was telling you a story. Suppose I said,

"Once upon a time, there lived a young girl with hair black as coal, skin white as snow, and lips red as apples. She lived with a wicked step-mother who happened to be queen of all the land, and one day the step-mother discovered that her step-daughter had surpassed her in beauty. So the step-mother sent her huntsman to rip out the young girl's heart. But instead the huntsman let her go, and the young girl ran away and stumbled onto a small dwelling where there lived seven vertically-challenged men." 

And then I asked you to tell me what fairy tale this was.

Well, naturally, you'd respond, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," right?

And then suppose I went, "Hah! I lied. This isn't about a young girl with hair black as coal who finds herself keeping house for seven small men. No! It's actually about a young girl with hair bright as gold, who finds herself falling asleep in a house belonging to three bears. Fooled you!"

You'd be a little annoyed, wouldn't you? You might say, "That wasn't a fair guessing-game, you gave me all the wrong information! That doesn't count! You cheated."

Yeah, you'd be right. I totally cheated. And that's how I feel every time an author pulls a similar stunt with the narrative of their story.

This is one reason unreliable narrators are so difficult to pull off. Because to the reader, it feels like a deception, perhaps even a betrayal. Readers take what they're told at face value most of the time. I've heard it described kind of like an unwritten contract between the reader and the storyteller: you're going to tell me something fantastical, and I'm going to go along with it. You can't immerse yourself in the story if you're questioning the truth of every word on the page.

So when all of a sudden, the writer informs you that, Whoops! Actually that's not at all what happened, it can feel as though your trust in them has been violated. You think to yourself, "Well if they lied to me before, what's to say they won't do it again? How much of what they're telling me is the truth, and how much is just more lies?"

And really, that's no way to go about reading a story.

I find unreliable narrators particularly odious when they are used in mysteries. Because in mysteries, the whole point is for the reader to try to solve it, to piece together the puzzle before the characters do. And how can you possibly do that if the narrator is withholding information from you (or worse, giving you false information)? Say you're told that the protagonist is going to be interrogating a suspect and you know this will lead to a very important clue...and then the protagonist doesn't mention the outcome of this interrogation. All they'll say is, "I'd learned something that took my breath away. And now I knew where to place the blame." You'd be a little ticked off, wouldn't you?

The way I see it, this is just not playing fair. It's sort of a quick-and-dirty method of stringing the reader along so that when the big reveal happens, they'll be surprised.

Well, OF COURSE they'll be surprised. You didn't give them enough information to have them be anything other than surprised! (And annoyed, frustrated, and just about ready to throw in the towel, but I digress.) I'd say this is a very poor use of the unreliable narrator technique. It's a way to cover up sloppy mystery writing, and frankly, it's a bit of an insult to a reader's intelligence. Good mysteries are difficult to guess because the clues are so clever or well-hidden, not because you've flat-out lied to the reader or conveniently "forgotten" to mention something.

A distinction should certainly be drawn between playing on a reader's assumptions — which is perfectly acceptable, and indeed can be a very crafty way of fooling the reader — and outright lying to them (either by giving false information or by omission). And there are certain circumstances where unreliable narration can be used to good effect. It may be very important in revealing something about a character's personality or mental health (for instance, in All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin or Holding On To Zoe by George Ella Lyon.)

But using it as a plot device to keep the reader turning the pages? In my opinion, it's a cheap trick.

Rely on your writing talent to create a diverting, suspenseful, twisty read. Don't rely on a technique that will only try the reader's patience. You might just find that they run out of it before they finish the book.

In which case, your "big reveal" will all be for nothing, anyway. Meanwhile, your reader will be reacting like this:

Tell me truthfully, now: is that really what you want?


November 21, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday: The Symptoms of My Insanity and Ink

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine and features books that we just can't wait to get our hands on!

The theme of this week's WoW picks appears to be books with illustrated covers (a rare breed in YA!):

The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf

Goodreads' description: 

"A laugh-out-loud, bittersweet debut full of wit, wisdom, heart, and a hilarious, unforgettable heroine.

When you’re a hypochondriac, there are a million different things that could be wrong with you, but for Izzy, focusing on what could be wrong might be keeping her from dealing with what’s really wrong.

I almost raised my hand, but what would I say? “Mr. Bayer, may I please be excused? I’m not totally positive, but I think I might have cancer.” No way. Then everyone at school would know, and they would treat me differently, and I would be known as “Izzy, that poor girl who diagnosed herself with breast cancer during biology.”

But Izzy’s sense of humor can only get her so far when suddenly her best friend appears to have undergone a personality transplant, her mother’s health takes a turn for the worse, and her beautiful maybe-boyfriend is going all hot and cold. Izzy thinks she’s preparing for the worst-case scenario, but when the worst-case scenario actually hits, it’s a different story altogether—and there’s no tidy list of symptoms to help her through the insanity."

I have the feeling Izzy and I would get along awesomely, just from this description! Her sense of humour sounds like just my style :)

Ink by Amanda Sun

Goodreads' description:

"I looked down at the paper, still touching the tip of my shoe. I reached for it, flipping the page over to look.

Scrawls of ink outlined a drawing of a girl lying on a bench.

A sick feeling started to twist in my stomach, like motion sickness.

And then the girl in the drawing turned her head, and her inky eyes glared straight into mine.

On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they'll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive."

I suspect this one will bring back many memories of Japan (both fond and not-so-fond!) for me. And I'm interested to see how the Japanese mythology is incorporated into the story.

What books are you waiting for?

November 17, 2012

Secret Letters: A Panoramic Review

"Inquisitive and observant, Dora dreams of escaping her aristocratic country life to solve mysteries alongside Sherlock Holmes. So when she learns that the legendary detective might be her biological father, Dora jumps on the opportunity to travel to London and enlist his help in solving the mystery of her cousin's ransomed love letters. But Dora arrives in London to devastating news: Sherlock Holmes is dead. Her dreams dashed, Dora is left to rely on her wits--and the assistance of an attractive yet enigmatic young detective--to save her cousin's reputation and help rescue a kidnapped heiress along the way. 

Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this gripping novel heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in young adult literature." (from Goodreads)

Secret Letters by Leah Scheier

My reaction: 

I had a lot of issues with Secret Letters, but it was still an enjoyable, entertaining enough read. 

To start off with, you have to take the whole book with a grain (or perhaps several) of salt. The entire premise is somewhat far-fetched; even the idea that Dora would be assisting on a mystery case requires a suspension of disbelief. She's so overconfident in her abilities, especially in the first half of the story, and really manages to bungle things up sometimes. There was more than one occasion where I'd go, "Dora, you idiot! Why are you doing this???" in my head. This makes for some very cringe-worthy scenes where you're embarrassed for her because you know she's doing or saying something stupid and it's not going to end well. (During some of these I was quite tempted to skip ahead rather than sit there thinking, "Oh no, she didn't just say that...")

There were also some moments that just seemed too preposterous to be believable. For instance, some of the climactic scenes took on a comedic tone at times that I didn't feel was really appropriate. I wanted to be submerged in this dramatic setting, and instead the villains would be chuckling! Or there'd be people pointing guns all over the place and it just seemed farcical instead of full of tension, and I'd be going, "I just don't buy this, it's too ridiculous."

I will acknowledge that Dora did grow on me as the story progressed. Thankfully, I think she learns a bit of humility by the end (helped along by Peter Cartwright, who is only too willing to help her realize she can make mistakes), so that was good to see. I like that she was able to recognize her failings (to some extent, anyway). And she certainly doesn't lack curiosity or chutzpah. However, I thought — for a book set in 1891 — that she sounded a little too modern-minded; a bit much was made of the fact that she didn't do what everyone expected of her. It was kind of like these points were being thrust in the reader's face, as though to say, "You'll like Dora, because she's spunky and she doesn't conform to societal standards, and she enjoys solving mysteries just like her dad!"

In terms of side characters, some of them weren't very well fleshed-out at all, and I had trouble keeping track of the details — who was who, who knew what, who was related to whom, etc. Also, I found the characterization inconsistent at times. Peter has wild mood swings and is very unpredictable; in one scene, he'll be overly protective, in the next he'll be joking around. It's difficult to know how he's going to react to something. I liked him when he was teasing, but other times he seemed to be a completely different person, showing off his moody, broody side. I'm not sure if that's just his personality or if it's a reflection of the writing quality. Then there's Agatha, who is a young, pregnant girl who gives off a bit of a "lost sheep" sort of vibe. Towards the end, though, she starts sounding much older, saying things that don't seem authentic for her age and character.

Best aspect: the interactions between Cartwright and Dora, which were pretty darn adorable sometimes. They've got the whole bickering-but-secretly-we-kind-of-like-each-other thing going on. It didn't reach the level of "romance" but there were certainly hints in that direction. Cartwright was probably my favourite character — he gets most of the amusing lines!

I also really liked the personal stories of Cartwright and Dora that we find out towards the end, and thought they were handled quite sensitively and effectively.

If I could change something... I'd make the mystery itself a whole lot easier to follow. While I appreciate the fact that it wasn't easy to guess in its entirety, it ended up being very convoluted. I got mixed up in all of the details and forgot what the characters were actually trying to solve. When it comes to mysteries, a nudge from the author in one direction or another is often helpful, even if it turns out to be a red herring (as is frequently the case). Instead, I was mired down in all the complexities

This confusion was compounded by a writing technique the author employed a few times (especially towards the end, during the climactic scenes) in which information is conveniently withheld from the reader for a while, resulting in something like the "unreliable narrator" device. I find this incredibly frustrating, especially considering this book is written in 1st-person POV. In other words, we should be on the same page as the narrator — and in some scenes I was most definitely not. More than once the reader is not told ahead of time what the plan is, and then the characters go somewhere or do something and you have no idea what their motivations or intentions are. For instance, at one point several of the characters, including Dora, end up in the cemetery for no apparent good reason, and I was left going, "Why are they in the cemetery??? I DON'T UNDERSTAND." (To be perfectly fair, I'm not sure Dora really knew exactly why everyone was hanging out in the cemetery either, but unlike me, she didn't seem particularly concerned about that fact.) Sure, we find out later what they're doing there, but for several pages the reader is left in the dark! If you're going to confuse the reader, fine — but make sure the narrator is confused too. Otherwise it makes for this odd disconnect between the narrator's reaction and the reader's. 

Also, the full explanation for the mystery wasn't particularly satisfying either — it felt like several different secrets got connected together in a really implausible way, instead of having been thought out well at the beginning. The blackmailing storyline, which is one of the main reasons Dora goes to London in the first place, ends up taking a spot on the sidelines; I thought this was a shame since I would have liked to have gotten more of Adelaide's story, particularly about her (somewhat troubling, from the sound of it) relationship with her husband.

If you haven't read it: you're not missing that much. But sure, if you like books set in the Victorian era and couples who bicker, and you don't mind being unclear about what's going on at any given time, you might enjoy Secret Letters.

If you have read it: were you as confused as I was in trying to follow the plot?

Just one more thing I want to mention: It doesn't surprise me that this is a debut novel. It's pretty easy to read and some of the dialogue is quite charming, but overall the writing style is a little amateur-ish. Tell-tale signs like cliched expressions, overly dramatic metaphors, and an odd 3rd-person perspective that occasionally sneaks in there all point to the fact that this book could have used more editing, or — to be frank — a stronger, more experienced writer. Hopefully that will come with time and practice, and the next in the series (I'm assuming there will be one...) will have a higher quality of writing.


"Oh, and if, by chance, I haven't yet returned," he added with a little smile, "please try to wait for me in the study, or on the sofa, like a normal girl. Not beneath my bed, or inside the chimney, or hanging like a kitten from the curtains. Please."

Final verdict: 3 shooting stars. 

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.

This book counts towards my goal for the Debut Author reading challenge.


November 12, 2012

The Space Between Us: A Close-Up Review

"From the author of Virtuosity, a novel about two sisters and the secrets they tell, the secrets they keep—and the secret that could tear them apart.Amelia is used to being upstaged by her charismatic younger sister, Charly. She doesn’t mind, mostly, that it always falls to her to cover for Charly’s crazy, impulsive antics. But one night, Charly’s thoughtlessness goes way too far, and she lands both sisters in serious trouble.

Amelia’s not sure she can forgive Charly this time, and not sure she wants to . . . but forgiveness is beside the point. Because Charly is also hiding a terrible secret, and the truth just might tear them apart forever." (from Goodreads)
The Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez
*Note: I've whited out the most major spoilery bits, but there are some general mild spoilers in this review.


Amelia: I had trouble liking Amelia at some points because of her dismissive, condescending attitude towards Charly. While she does change her attitude partway through — and I have to respect her for trying to be more positive and treat her sister better — I feel like it shouldn't have taken knowledge of a certain fact to get Amelia to realize she'd been treating Charly badly (spoiler, highlight to read: the fact that Charly was date-raped changes Amelia's perspective, but I feel like she shouldn't have had the attitude she did towards Charly even if it had all played out the way Amelia had initially thought, without any instance of date rape). Amelia's behaviour towards Charly wasn't helping anything — not Charly, and not Amelia's mental/emotional health either. All it was doing was creating a negative environment and relationship between the two girls.

However, Amelia actually acknowledges that she'd gotten into the pattern of nasty behaviour towards Charly and that it was difficult to get out of the habit of making fun of her. I thought this was quite realistic — perhaps not something a lot of people would recognize or admit, but something that's very true of human behaviour (old habits die hard and all that). Also, I enjoyed Amelia's sarcastic attitude in some ways. Yes, she's pretty bitter about everything at the beginning, and she slowly mellows out (Ezra helps with that), but it was fun to hear her take on things. I kind of had to admire her for being so self-contained and self-reliant; she wasn't afraid to tell people what she thought, and she ate lunch by herself in the library and didn't care.

Charly: Even though Amelia was far from perfect, I preferred her to Charly. Charly just didn't seem like the kind of person I'd like very much — she's pretty self-centered (although really, Amelia is too) and shallow. We don't get to know her that well, though, and our perspective is admittedly biased since Amelia is the narrator, and so we see Charly through a negative lens through most of the book. I wish we'd been shown more of their relationship both before the book starts (i.e. through flashbacks) as well as once it gets patched up (spoiler: there's one scene where they basically make amends, and then we really don't see much more of them together. It just seemed like a "quick fix" sort of resolution.) The full explanation for Charly's situation makes it easier for us to feel sorry for her, yes, but I never felt that bad for her because she seemed rather annoying through most of the book.

Ezra: he was pretty awesome. He's got a good sense of humor and he's funny — he gets a lot of great lines — but he cares about Amelia too, and the way he tries to win her over is sweet. He presents an interesting mix of geekiness and self-confidence (two attributes you don't see being paired together that often!) Ezra is not without his own issues and flaws, though; he's somewhat guarded, and doesn't like to share information about himself, which really irritates Amelia. It seemed like his family had a lot of issues, but that these issues were being used as more of a plot device, or perhaps a device to explain his character, rather than existing in and of themselves. I feel like we should have seen more of his mother or brother, instead of hearing about them offhand as part of an explanation for Ezra's behaviour.

The romance reminded me of Anna and the French Kiss in style — enjoyable banter between the characters, a sweet progression of the relationship, and a few dollops of drama.


The Space Between Us takes a cliched and generic premise (pastor's daughter gets pregnant) and then makes it significantly better with one simple change — the fact that Amelia and Charly go to Canada. All right, I'm Canadian, so I'm a little biased, but let's face it: Canada gets short shrift in the YA department. We're just north of the U.S. but for some reason it's oh so much more glamorous to set a novel in New York or California than Toronto or B.C.

But lo and behold, Amelia and Charly pack their bags and head for...Banff, of all places! I say "of all places" because it's not the first location in Canada I would have imagined choosing to stay for an indeterminate period of time. Banff is a tourist hot spot for the skiing, but not much else. And as the sisters soon find out, it's cold there. (Um, it's Alberta. In the mountains. Of course it's cold.)

So basically, the funny comments and jokes alluding to all things Canadiana (food, customs, weather, etc.) were fantastic. Seeing it from an American perspective was quite amusing at times (Amelia hates some aspects of Canada!) And happily, it was clear that the author understands the cross-border dialogue that occurs. Jessica Martinez has lived in both Canada and the U.S. and obviously gets both sides of the coin.

Moreover, I'm very happy to see Canada getting featured in a book published in the mainstream North American market. Usually we're lucky to even get one or two mentions in a story — generally something along the lines of, "He's escaping to Canada" or "that frozen wasteland to the north" — so it was really cool that almost all of The Space Between Us was set in Canada. I would love to see this more often in YA, where I get a lot of the references and it feels like it means something more to me because it's set in my country.

The teen pregnancy plotline didn't do much for me, and doesn't stand out amongst all the similar stories out there. Spoilers: the storyline involving the date rape wasn't explored enough in my opinion. However, Martinez does touch on the important point of women who are date-raped thinking they are at fault, and feeling buried with guilt and shame even though logically they know that's not the case. I wish we'd seen more of Charly herself, coming into her own. But Amelia's romance with Ezra is cute — I adored the scene where Amelia gets mild hypothermia and heads into the library where, of course, Ezra is working — and I liked how the book ended for the two of them. We're given a glimpse into the near future for Amelia and Ezra and it looks promising.

There's also a small subplot involving a guy back home (Will) that never really gets resolved; the whole thing seemed complicated and unnecessary. Amelia could have had enough sister envy issues on her plate without dragging Will into it. Either that or something more should have happened back in Florida to bring in the characters (like Savannah and Will) that we saw at the beginning, rather than having them just stay on the sidelines.

Writing style:

The writing style is a little bland, but quite relatable and realistic. Martinez has a good ear for dialogue between teens; her characters can have emotional conversations with each other and still remain authentic.

Final verdict: 3.5 shooting stars. While the central premise is hardly fresh, Jessica Martinez skilfully capitalizes on her knowledge of Canada-U.S. differences to provide a good dose of humor, and also demonstrates some astute perceptiveness of human emotions and reactions through Amelia's and Charly's characters and situations.

Disclaimer: I received this as an ARC for review from the author.
This book counts towards my goals for the Just Contemporary reading challenge and the Sophomore reading challenge.

November 10, 2012

The Book Lode (9)


There are quite a few memes to choose from now for showing the books we've gotten recently, so I thought to be fair I'd link my posts up to a different meme each month. I'm grouping the posts under the name "The Book Lode," and this month I'm linking up to Stacking the Shelves, hosted by Tynga's Reviews.


For review:

Perry's Killer Playlist by Joe Schreiber
Blind Spot by Laura Ellen
Will Sparrow's Road by Karen Cushman
The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne by Catherine Reef
London Eye by Tim Lebbon

Thank you Thomas Allen & Son and Pyr Books!


Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson
Wake by Amanda Hocking
Fated by Alyson Noel

Thanks very much to Angela from Reading Angel and the bloggers at Girls Just Reading for these giveaway prizes!

Must-haves for the Christmas Wishlist? Recommend Away!

That's right, it's that time of year again: wishlist-making season. I'm going to try not to put too many books on the list this year, because frankly, I already have a horrifyingly large amount of books that still need to be read...but of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without books, so I have to have some sort of list.

Which brings me to you guys. What books are topping your list this year? Which ones have you read that you think need to be under everyone else's trees? What books absolutely blew you away and you want to give them as gifts to all your friends? I would love to see your recommendations, and maybe get a few ideas for my own wishlist!

And if you're more or less familiar with my reading tastes and have a book in mind you think I absolutely need to read, I am doubly interested in hearing about it. Recommend away!


November 4, 2012

Grave Mercy: A Panoramic Review

"Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?" (from Goodreads)

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
My reaction: 

I ended up getting really, really into this book. It took me a few chapters, but partway through I was totally sucked into it. While I didn't like Ismae very much at the beginning (I was all, "I don't know if I'm really going to like this girl who just wants to kill men all the time"), she definitely grew on me. At first I couldn't get into the assassin side of things — Ismae was basically a killing machine for the convent, more or less — but she grows a will of her own, which was important to win me over to her side. She's pretty rigid, hard, and untrusting at the start, but as the book progresses she develops a softer side. I liked Ismae's spirited determination and her protective, almost sisterly nature towards the duchess. We also see an interesting conflict in Ismae between loyalty to the convent, loyalty to the religion itself, and loyalty to her own instincts and her heart. She's obviously getting torn in at least two (possibly more) directions about what her purpose is and how she should act.

I really liked the duchess as well; she's one of those pure characters you can't help but root for. She's quite young, and scared in some ways, but still determined to face up to all the threats being made. I had to feel bad for the poor girl because she's between a rock and a hard place, and basically her best option to save her country is to marry someone without any guarantee of love. The duchess' younger sister isn't really fleshed out much, but I think she has the potential to be an interesting character, so maybe we'll see more of her in the next book?

There is a large cast of characters here, but Robin LaFevers handles the characterization fabulously. It's tough to keep track of who's who, yes, but not as difficult as one might expect, because LaFevers gives the characters distinctive features and personalities. There's also a character list at the beginning you can flip to if you're having trouble. What's more challenging is trying to picture geographically what's going on; while there is a map provided, I didn't find it very helpful (in fact, I still can't figure out why the label "France" is in the middle of the ocean?)

I found the idea of Ismae's calling/religion and her devotion to the convent quite interesting, and for the most part well-executed (pardon the pun!). It's something that's not very tangible, and yet LaFevers doesn't take it into the really supernatural zone. The fantasy elements don't scream "paranormal" but are instead kept to a minimum, just a part of Ismae's gifts and ability. There was one plot point relating to the fantasy/religion aspect that I was of two minds about (spoiler, highlight to read: Death appearing to Ismae on the battlefield). I thought it was rather convenient and a little cliched, but it worked to give Ismae's powers and the magic system more validity as well as help Ismae make an important resolution, so I saw the point of it.

LaFevers demonstrates ambiguity in the religious system, and how interpretations can differ; I appreciated that this wasn't portrayed in a clear-cut manner (although I hope we get some more answers as the series continues!). Spoilers: I liked that we're shown the convent is fallible — the abbess ends up being pretty vicious! I always thought Ismae placed too much trust in the convent anyway, so I'm glad she finally realizes it (although it takes her a long time...she's quite dense in some ways).

Best aspect: the Ismae/Duval relationship, especially all the simmering, stretched-out tension before they end up getting together (the tension is often the best part of a romance!). They just can't help themselves, they're drawn to each other and there's this attraction and chemistry there that they both keep fighting. The progression of their relationship plays a significant role in Ismae's character development as well. She puts up a wall for so long, coming up with all these excuses and denying to herself that she cares about Duval, but then it finally breaks down as she lets herself love him. I always find that very rewarding to see as a reader, when characters slowly begin to trust others (although frustrating at times, too! I wanted to conk Ismae over the head and say, "You're in love! Admit it already!")

Once they do become involved, it thankfully doesn't get very sappy between them (a common pitfall of romances, I find. I actually could have used more emotional declaration from both of them!). Still, it's very much implied in everything they do for each other.

If I could change something... I would make the climactic scenes more dramatic and eventful. I thought this was the weakest aspect of Grave Mercy — there's a lot of build-up in terms of intrigue, deaths, and political maneuvring, but then not that much pay-off at the finale. The villain (who wasn't a big surprise — I began to suspect this character was up to no good partway through) was overcome rather easily, the confrontation being disappointingly anti-climactic. (Although it should be noted that thankfully, the villain was motivated by something other than a desire for power, giving the character very good reasoning for their traitorous actions.) I thought all the political maneuvring would tie together somehow, but some of the big-picture storylines are left unresolved; hopefully, they'll be tackled in the next book(s) in the series. Still, I'd have liked to have seen more of a complete internal plot arc within Grave Mercy itself.

And while I liked the idea of a battle — most of the book involved intrigue around the palace, so it was good that we got a bigger-scale event — it wasn't epic enough. They're saved rather easily and I thought the threat to the duchess' life could have been greater. I just wish there'd been more kick at the end; it seemed to lose that gripping quality that most of the book had. There wasn't one heart-pounding, everything-hanging-on-a-string, incredible moment where you wonder if everyone is going to make it.

If you haven't read it: and you'd like to check out an absorbing, stay-up-late-at-night-reading YA fantasy in the vein of Mistwood by Leah Cypess, Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn, Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, and Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder (I've seen Grave Mercy likened to that one in particular, and it is a good comparison), then I strongly suggest you pick this book up!

If you have read it: what are your hopes/expectations for the next in the series? (I know the next doesn't focus on Ismae, but I'm hoping she at least gets a cameo appearance!)

Just one more thing I want to mention: I really enjoyed the initial stages of the Ismae-Duval relationship, but I thought the last part of the book didn't handle it as well. There was one scene in particular that had me going, "Okay, that's kinda...weird...just how does that work, exactly?" Spoilers: Ismae has sex with Duval to take away the effects of the poison on him. This seemed to come out of nowhere and I felt like perhaps the author was just using the poison-removal as an excuse for them to have sex. (Plus, I have to wonder, is Ismae going to have to do that every time she wants to save someone who's been poisoned? Could get awkward...).


Feeling miserable, although not sure why, I wrap my arms around myself. "I am sorry, my lord. I did not wish to harm you." The truth of my words surprises me, for it seems as if I have done naught but long to be rid of him.

His smile flashes, quick and surprising in the darkness. "When one consorts with assassins, one must expect to dance along the edge of a knife once or twice. I bid you good night." 
Final verdict: 4.5 shooting stars. The first 3/4s were fantastic, but the ending didn't quite live up to the rest of it. However, it was an awesome read in terms of the reading experience, and I'm definitely going to be picking up the next one!

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Note: This book contains some mature (violent and sexual) content.

Related Posts with Thumbnails