Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Review Previously Published, Updated October 16th with Laura’s Review!

Salt to the Sea first came into my hands as an ARC (advanced reader copy) shortly after I was introduced to Ruta Sepetys’ writing when I picked up a copy of Between Shades of Gray at a not-so-little hidden gem of a used book store in center city Philadelphia. When I met Ruta at Winter Institute in 2016, I just knew I would love her books.

Synopsis

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies… and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Review

Laura’s Review

Salt to the Sea quickly became one of my favorite books even as I was in the middle of reading it. I was nervous about reading about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, thinking that the subject matter would be too depressing. Even though I knew Salt to the Sea is a work of fiction, I was also aware that nearly all of the events depicted actually happened.

I do not think I could have read this book if it had not been in the structure that it is. The chapters are all very short and the perspective shifts with each one between four very different teenagers, all of whom end up on board the Wilhelm Gustloff. The reason being that the subject matter is so intense (and since I am particularly prone to nightmares) that if it had not switched perspectives every few pages, I think I would have felt overwhelmed trying to comprehend all of the atrocities that happened to just these four people as World War II was drawing to a close. Despite shifting perspectives so frequently, every character was well-developed and I had strong feelings, both positive and negative, about all of them.

The experiences of these four teenagers was different than any other World War II historical fiction novel that I had read, and yet it was also very similar. Three of the four, Joana, Florian, and Emilia are attempting to escape into Nazi Germany, since for them, Nazi Germany was less dangerous that waiting for the Soviets to overtake their lands and ship them to the Gulag camps. The fourth, Alfred was a Nazi officer who had sociopathic tendencies. Ironically, I felt the most sorry for Alfred. He was barely an adult and yet his mind had been corrupted to believe that anyone who was not an Aryan German was inferior, and that it was his duty to enforce the superiority of the Aryan race. He had become highly dangerous, and yet he was essentially still a child. The sections of the book from his perspective were my least favorite because they caused me to feel a mixture of revulsion and pity at the same time. I was much more invested in the fates of Emilia, Florian, and Joana and was desperately hoping that they would survive the torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

While trying to escape into Nazi Germany made the experiences different than other characters in the other World War II historical fiction novels I have read, it was also heartbreakingly similar. All they wanted to do was survive, just as the British, French, Americans, and many others. The difference being that their best chance of survival was in Nazi Germany away from the Soviets, whereas the Allies’ best chance was if Nazi Germany was defeated with the assistance of the Soviet Union. Overall, this is one of the best World War II historical fictions books that I have read and would recommend it to anyone at all interested in the genre.

Sarah’s Review

Salt to the Sea is a beautifully written and moving book, written in four alternating points of view, three of whom are refugees fleeing the Soviet advance across East Prussia who are trying to get into Nazi Germany – a new perspective for young adult World War II fiction. The fourth character to offer his take on the situation facing the Germans in January 1945 is a complete and terrifying sociopath and his actions, relayed in his chapters and the others, creates the most friction and anticipation int eh story for those who already know the fate of the Wilhelm Gustloff (go on, I dare you not to Google it if you don’t already know). These alternating points of view are woven together with expert hands and for those who already know and love Ruta’s storytelling, Salt to the Sea does not disappoint.

I flew through Salt to the Sea very quickly and would have read it even quicker if I didn’t have to take breaks to sleep and work (I read straight through meals) and for those two days it was all I could think about. Our three refugees, Emilia, Joana, and Florian, are traveling with a cast of characters including an elderly gentleman affectionately referred to as the Shoe Poet, an endearing little boy who has lost his entire family, a salty older woman who views traveling with the group as nothing more than a necessary step to freedom, and a blind young girl who quickly proves to be the bravest and most intuitive member of the rag tag collective.

Ruta (she told me I could call her that in person!) alternates quickly between her protagonists’ viewpoints which leads to anxious reading, wondering furiously what is going to happen next. And while the final action regarding their escape is known to history, the fate of the individual characters and the challenges they face along the way are unknown and I believe that is the true power of Ruta’s storytelling. One can quickly look up what happens in history, but that event is really just that, an event, but it becomes so much more when conveyed as part of the complex and interesting lives of all of Ruta’s characters.

While for many, this is a five/ten star book, and is, by right, a five/ten star book, I still hold all of WWII fiction up against the harsh judgment of my love for Code Name Verity and The Book Thief and while Salt to the Sea is absolutely wonderful, it still falls just a touch behind my two pillar of great YA WWII fiction.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780142423622 • 448 pages • first published in February 2016, this edition published August 2017 by Penguin books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

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Salt to the Sea

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Falconer by Elizabeth May

The Falconer came into the bookstore one day with a blurb from Sarah J. Maas on the cover and it was a pretty quick decision about whether or not I would be taking it home to read it.

Synopsis

She’s a stunner. Edinburgh, 1844. Eighteen-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, the only daughter of the Marquess of Douglas, has everything a girl could dream of: brains, charm, wealth, a title – and drop-dead beauty.

She’s a liar. But Aileana only looks the part of an aristocratic young lady. She’s leading a double life: she has the rare ability to sense the sithichean – the faery race obsessed with slaughtering humans – and, with the aid of a mysterious mentor, has spent the year since her mother died learning how to kill them.

She’s a murderer. Now Aileana is dedicated to slaying the fae before they take innocent lives. With her abilities and her knack for inventing ingenious tools and weapons – from flying machines to detonators to lightning pistols – ruthless Aileana has one goal: destroy the faery who destroyed her mother.

She’s a falconer. The last in a line of female warriors born with a gift for hunting and killing the fae, Aileana is the sole hope of preventing a powerful faery population from massacring all of humanity. Suddenly, her quest is a lot more complicated. She still longs to avenge her mother’s murder – but she’ll have to save the world first.

Review

The Falconer took me over a month to finish. Typically, a young adult fantasy takes me less than a week, if not just two or three days. Why it took me so long, I honestly can’t put my finger on it, other than to say that I didn’t love it as much as I thought and hoped I would. All the pieces were there that usually equate to literary obsession for me: fierce female heroine, faeries, a Scottish setting, steampunk elements, etc, but I just wasn’t hooked.

Protagonist Aileana is likeable enough, though difficult to relate to, and her prowess in fighting killer Scottish faeries of lore is explained reasonably enough. The love story is pretty obvious and predictable and the love triangle contrived and unbelievable. The cliffhanger is terrific, but a little mean, so now I must keep reading a trilogy I might have otherwise abandoned.

But, and it’s a big but, Elizabeth can write, and write very well. Any potential plot and character development shortcomings are more than compensated for with exquisite writing. May’s knowledge of Scottish lore is beyond compare and she weaves such knowledge (and vocabulary) expertly into her fantastical story. Here’s to hoping the second book is just as well written and the character’s more developed.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781452128771 • 392 pages • first published May 2014, this edition published December 2015 by Chronicle Books • average Goodreads rating 3.75 out of 5 • read in February 2016

Elizabeth May’s Website

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Falconer

Fiction, Historical

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

A former co-worker first recommended Cinnamon and Gunpowder to me when I told her of my love of pirate tales. It then became a book that sat on my shelf for far too long until I decided it should be a book selection for my book club, the Modern Readers!

4 - March 2016 - Cinnamon & Gunpowder

Synopsis

The year is 1819, and the renowned chef Owen Wedgwood has been kidnapped by a beautiful yet ruthless pirate. He will be spared, Mad Hannah Mabbot tells him, as long as he can conjure an exquisite meal every Sunday from the ship’s meager supplies. While Wedgwood attempts to satisfy his captor with feats such as tea-smoked eel and pineapple-banana cider, he realizes that Mabbot herself is under siege. Hunted by a deadly privateer and plagued by a saboteur, she pushes her crew past exhaustion in her search for the notorious Brass Fox. But there is a method to Mabbot’s madness, and as the Flying Rose races across the ocean, Wedgwood learns to rely on the bizarre crew members he once feared: a formidable giant who loves to knit; a pair of stoic martial arts masters, sworn to defend their captain; and the ship’s deaf cabin boy, who becomes the son he never had.

Review

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is an incredibly fun book that is not particularly funny. Narrator Owen “Wedge” Wedgwood is press-ganged into “Mad” Hannah Mabbot’s rag tag crew of pirates with the express purpose of cooking a fine meal for pirate captain Mabbot every Sunday from whatever happens to be available in the middle of the open ocean as she continues on her journey to hunt down the elusive Brass Fox, who has been plaguing the shipping lanes in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Told from the staunchly anti-pirate Wedge’s perspective through makeshift journal entries on whatever scraps of paper he can find, Cinnamon and Gunpowder focuses on his relationships with the crew, the Fox, a mute cabin boy, and the captain herself. Despite constant escape attempts, Wedge’s opinion of his fellow shipmates changes, practically against his will, and he gradually finds himself enjoying the company of his compatriots on board.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder was not the book I thought it would be and, for once, it was a very pleasant surprise instead of a disappointment. Eli Brown’s storytelling is superb and his cast of characters are richly developed and thoroughly intriguing.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781250050182 • originally published June 2013, this edition published June 2014 by Picador USA • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read March 2016

Cinnamon and Gunpowder on Goodreads

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Cinnamon and Gunpowder

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Royal We by Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

Yesterday a book came into the bookstore that I could not believe my coworkers did not show me immediately – a new biography of Prince Harry! I freaked out so much my boss just gave it to me… I should probably tone down my royalist tendencies. But it reminded me of another book that I read a few years ago that I loved that has now made its way around the staff at the bookstore – The Royal We! Laura first sent me a picture of the cover when it was first released expecting me to mock it, and instead I told her I wanted it. It has been a favorite ever since. After Laura read it, we decided it should be a book club pick.

16 - March 2017 - The Royal We

Synopsis

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it’s Bex who finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain’s future king. And when Bex can’t resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick’s sparkling ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he’s fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she’s sacrificed for love – her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself – will have been for nothing.

Review

I completely adore this book. Even though I am a diehard (American) royalist, I never entertained princess fantasies after the age of 9 (other than hoping I’d run into Prince Harry while on a London vacation when I was 16), but I am a sucker for a well-written and convincing royal love story. Thankfully, The Royal We delivers on both counts. I’ve been burned by terrible royalist fanfiction over the years, drivel full of simpering and annoying characters that made we want to gag (you can be royal and still have a personality you know…) and the last time I read a decent royal princess book was when I read Ella Enchanted and Just Ella back to back and over and over again when I was in the 4th grade. That was 16 years ago and I’d been searching ever since. Finally, my search is over!

Bex is a modern American young woman (props to the authors for writing awesome college characters!) who jumps at the chance to study art at Oxford as an exchange student from Cornell – yep, she’s witty and brilliant too! She thoroughly embodies what I think of when I think of a model New Adult protagonist – like Mary Poppins, she’s practically perfect in every way! And by practically perfect, I mean she’s real, she has flaws, she can be impulsive and indecisive and questioning but also strong and fierce and proud to be herself. Nick is charming, and also particularly perfect in his flaws as well. To the point where I questioned whether or not Heather Cocks and/or Jessica Morgan knew Prince William and if he was anything like Nick in his early twenties.

Beyond the two main characters (as The Royal We is told from Bex’s point of view, clearly it’s mostly about her and Nick and their relationship), the supporting cast are equally intriguing (oftentimes more so than B & N) and never fall flat, unless they’re literally falling flat on their faces, which might happen occasionally… Prince Freddie behaves in what I imagine to be a very Prince Harry like fashion, their father is cold and cruel (which does contrast to the image of slightly goofy Charles) and the addition of a mother character on the royal end is fascinating. Bex’s family is charming and clearly love her unconditionally, but it’s her twin sister that readers see the most of, and, well, Lacey’s not too thrilled to be giving up the spotlight. A good bit of sisterly drama unfolds which, having a sister, I could thoroughly appreciate, and it a strong point of the story to see their relationship change, evolve, and, eventually, deteriorate, though there is hope for future reconciliation!

I could read The Royal We over and over again and probably not get bored, for at least the first three re-reads. Though now, Laura has read it so given that she had at first hoped I’d mock it, we’ll have to see how she weighs in in her review in a few weeks!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9781455557110 • 496 pages • first published April 2015, this edition published April 2016 by Grand Central Publishing • average Goodreads rating 3.8 out of 5 • read in August 2015

Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan’s Website

The Royal We on Goodreads

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Royal We

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Over the past few years I have read my fair share of novels set during World War II including my absolute favorite Montmaray Journals, the splendid Salt to the Sea, and the “pull-on-your-heartstrings” Letters to the Lost. So when Sarah told me that if I read Code Name Verity it would break my heart like no other book I was not going to read it. But I reconsidered, and armed with the knowledge of what would happen to each of the two main characters, I dove into the story and fell in love with all of it.

Synopsis

Oct. 11th, 1943-A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?

Review

Let me just say I’m a little shocked that this book is stocked in the YA section of bookstores. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle reading this when I was in high school. The book is split into two distinct parts – the first is from “Verity’s” perspective, the second, from her best friend Maddie. “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo after parachuting into Nazi-occupied France and looking the wrong way before crossing the street. She has been given the opportunity to write down her story and extend her life for as long as it takes to satisfy her Nazi jailers with the information she supplies. However, “Verity” chooses to tell them the story of Maddie, her best friend, and the pilot of the plane from which she parachuted.

“Verity” explains how the young women met, trained together, and became best friends. But as she tells that story, she also details the events and torture that transpire while she is held prisoner. It is a powerful tale, and while fictional, is likely to be the truth for somebody. The second part is Maddie’s story and what she has lived through during the time that “Verity” has been held prisoner. After crash-landing her plane, Maddie spends the next few months trying to escape from France and get back to England. However, when she learns of “Verity’s” fate, she decides her foremost goal is to help her friend. Both women face deadly obstacles, and the heart-breaking, nail-biting conclusion will leave you in a puddle of tears.

Code Name Verity is one of the best books I have ever read. I loved the characters and I experienced just about every emotion possible while reading this book. Personally, I preferred “Verity’s” part of the story more than Maddie’s, but it was all worth reading.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423152880 • 368 pages • first published May 2012, this edition published May 2013 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

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Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman

This book was recommended to me by a customer at the bookstore – and when I realized the illustrations were done by one of my favorite graphic novel artists, Skottie Young, I was sold.

Synopsis

“I bought the milk,” said my father. “I walked out of the corner shop, and heard a noise like this: thummthumm. I looked up and saw a huge silver disc hovering in the air above Marshall Road.” … “Hullo,” I said to myself. “That’s not something you see every day. And then something odd happened.”

Review

The elementary school teacher in me loves this book – it would make the absolute perfect read-aloud for any class from 2nd to 4th grade. The artist in me loves this book for Skottie Young’s illustrations. The reader in me? Well, I’m getting kind of tired of Neil Gaiman. My coworker would probably faux-smack me for saying it, but alas, I think it’s true.

This book is, by all accounts, hilarious. Young children will find it absolutely hysterical. But I didn’t laugh. Not once. I’m not sure why, I felt like I was in the right mood/mindset to do so, but for some reason, I just didn’t giggle, not once. Fortunately, the Milk is the story a dad recounts for his two children as an explanation of why it took him so long to pick up milk for their breakfast cereal one morning. It’s full of adventure, time traveling dinosaurs, pirates, a talking volcano, ponies, all sorts of mischief and mayhem.

But for some reason, I didn’t enjoy the adventure. Maybe that’s a commentary on the book, maybe that’s a commentary on me, I honestly don’t know. So if you love a book that is adventurous and exciting, if you are between the ages of 8 and 12, then please, take a look at Fortunately, the Milk, I bet you’ll enjoy it more than me.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $5.99 • 9780062224088 • 101 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Harper Collins Publishers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Neil Gaiman’s Website for Young Readers

Fortunately, the Milk on Goodreads

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Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor

When I first saw the cover of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I fell head over heels – love at first sight. Blue hair, dynamic fonts, intriguing synopsis, Prague as a setting, fantasy world. I was just coming off the high of finishing City of Dark Magic and was very excited to find something that might be similarly fantastic. 

Synopsis

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky. In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grows dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she speaks many languages – not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

Review

I didn’t know much about the Seraphim/Chimaera trope until I finished reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Ben had to correct my pronunciation of “chimaera.” So for the majority of the book, I was greatly intrigued by the seemingly unique fantasy world – it was just new to me. That being said, Karou discovering of her place in that world and stumbling upon the unending conflict was revealed marvelously and magnificently as she rediscovered her past – and her past love, Akiva, a seraphim.

The “modern day” fantasy retelling of Romeo and Juliet and the star-crossed lovers is common in most young adult literature, it can even be viewed as the ultimate love story, the tragic fated love of those who were never supposed to be together in the first place. Karou is brave and resilient, unapologetic for who she is (as soon as she discovers the truth) whereas Akiva is a spineless sniveling coward who just irks me to no end. Yes, he’s gorgeous. No, that’s not what you base an entire relationship on, give young adults a bit more credit. There is nothing other than wanton lust pulling these two towards each other and honestly, I’m tired of reading about hot people falling for other hot people just because they’re über-attractive. Nothing sells their relationship, nothing anchors the fantasy world of the second half of the book in reality and even the most wildly outrageous fantasy still has some sort of foot hold into reality – it’s the only way it can be relatable.

I’m not entirely sure what it was that made me decide to finish this series, given my lack of insta-love for Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but I am certainly glad I did. I enjoyed Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters infinitely more than I enjoyed the first book.

Days of Blood & Starlight and Dreams of Gods & Monsters take place immediately after the first book and Dreams of Gods & Monsters is set only over the course of a handful of days. They chronicle the renews war crimes committed by the chimera and the seraphim in the name of Eretz, their homeland, though further backstory reveals that the Seraphim were not always native to Eretz. As Karou takes up Brimstone’s mantle of creating new bodies for the slain chimera souls, Akiva is saving chimera in an effort to ingratiate himself with his blue haired love. The story is a rollicking adventure and the secondary characters, particularly Ziri and Liraz, and Zuzana and Mik, make the story worth reading.

Unfortunately, my lack-luster feelings for Karou and Akiva, our woeful star-crossed lovers, remain. I really struggled to connect with either of them and found their moping and whiny incredibly irritating and I really wanted to rush through their parts. But, with an audiobook, not possible, so thankfully Laini Taylor at least wrote those parts very well, even if the characters didn’t sell it for me. I tried to understand, I tried to appreciate the Romeo and Juliet nature of their relationship, but at that point, I would have realized that life is short (particularly theirs, being that they’re in the middle of  war) and therefore one shouldn’t waste any time going after the things they want and the things that will make them happy.

So overall, can I recommend the trilogy? Sure, why not. But that’s only half-hearted and rides more on the fact that Laini Taylor is a gifted wordsmith than anything else.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition (Daughter of Smoke & Bone): Paperback • $12.99 • 9780316133999 • 418 pages • first published September 2011, this edition published June 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.04 out of 5 • read in May 2013

Laini Taylor’s Website

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Daughter of Smoke & Bone (2)

Fiction, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Warcross by Marie Lu

Marie Lu is officially now the most reviewed author on this site! This may be due in large part to a very exciting event that took place at the bookstore I work at two weeks ago when I had the great of fortune of moderating a discussion between the lovely Marie Lu and her friend and fellow author, Alex London. 

Marie Lu

It was an absolutely delight to discuss everything from diversity in books to fan art with Marie, and I am happy to report that she is a genuine kind and compassionate human being. And while I wanted to record the interview and post the transcript here, in all my excitement I completely forgot to do so! So please settle for my review of her newest book, Warcross!

Synopsis

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty-hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight success.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire, Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem… and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation will uncover a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Review

This is my favorite of each of Marie Lu’s books and I almost didn’t read it. First, it was pitched to us by the publisher as being a middle grades novel (definitely not the case), and second, as my husband often says, I didn’t have a “real childhood” because I never once played a video game. The gaming aspect didn’t appeal to me. For those who might hesitate to pick this up because you think it’s a gaming novel, let me put your mind at ease. Virtual reality is a closer description of Warcross and it is part of the plot, but most of the book does not take place in the world of Warcross, most of it takes place in the “real world,” in Tokyo.

For the number of books I read each year, I’m always amazed a, that I remember any of them, and b, I can still be wholeheartedly surprised to love a book that I didn’t expect to. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I would certainly like Warcross, but I didn’t expect to love it on a level close to that which I love the works of my favorite author, Sarah J. Maas. Emika is now one of my all-time favorite leading ladies, and she is, like her creator, quite the magnificent lady. She is brave, she is compassionate, she is driven to do what is right. And unfortunately, there are those in the story who would like to take advantage of those qualities. Well, not quite unfortunate because without other character’s motivations, there would be no story!

I don’t want to go into too much detail because I feel like just about anything I might say would lead into spoiler territory, suffice to say that if you have read Legend or The Young Elites, you will recognize Warcross as another book in Marie Lu’s catalog that is witty and enjoyable with just the right mix of adventure and a little romance. But it’s way better than Legend and The Young Elites and I enjoyed both of those very much.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.99 • 9780399547966 • 368 pages • published September 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in September 2017

Warcross Website

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Warcross

Contemporary, Fiction

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson

One random day in January 2016, shortly before I was due to head to Denver for a bookseller’s conference, a book arrived at the bookstore for me – a copy of Be Frank with Me. Needless to say I was incredibly intrigued and discovered that I was due to have dinner with the author while in Denver and the publisher sent me the finished copy to read beforehand!

Synopsis

Reclusive literary legend M. M. “Mimi” Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme, she’s flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress. The prickly Mimi reluctantly complies – with a few stipulations: No Ivy Leaguers or English majors. Must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she’s put to work right away – as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer’s eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, a wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth graders.

As she gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who his father is, how his gorgeous “piano teacher and itinerant male role model” Xander fits into the Banning family equation – and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

Review

Admittedly, I was very hesitant to start reading Frank as I had the dreaded “required-reading-and-exams” flashback each time I looked at it, so I didn’t actually start reading it until I was sitting on the plane to Denver. Instantly, though, I found myself drawn into Alice’s experience as a publishing assistant trying to keep Mimi on track to finish her second novel (sort of like Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman) and her efforts to keep an eye on Frank.

Alice is a twenty-something know-it-all, just like me, and, like me and most other childless twenty-somethings, thinks she knows a hell of a lot more about parenting than she really does. While she is not outwardly critical of Mimi’s decisions regarding Frank’s upbringing, as the story is told in first person and exclusively from Alice’s point of view, readers are acutely aware of how she really feels, not only about Mimi as a single mother, but also about Frank, whom she comes to love as if he were her own.

While Alice is the narrator, the story is not really hers to tell – it is Frank and Mimi’s. Like the reader, Alice is an interloper, a stranger, being forcibly inserted into a very delicate, sensitive, unfamiliar and precariously perched family unit, and she must learn to accept that role, and later embrace it if they are all to survive their summer of forced cohabitation. Alice and Frank’s relationship is the heart of Be Frank with Me, but Frank’s relationship with his mother and the world around him is really the soul of the story. Frank is, by far, one of my favorite children in literature and I would love to see more of him if Julia Claiborne Johnson plans to continue his story.

The only part of the story that fell flat is the role of Xander, who serves as Frank’s sole male role model, and he’s not a very good one by the standards of keeping promises, holding a job, and general maturity (despite being well into middle age), but he loves Frank, and for Frank, that really is sufficient. His relationship with Alice feels contrived and their romance is superfluous and unnecessary when viewed next to the strength of each of their relationships with Frank.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062413727 • 320 pages • first published February 2016, this edition published September 2016 by William Morrow and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.9 out of 5 • read in February 2016

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Be Frank with Me (2)

Fiction, Historical

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I enjoy a well written WWII narrative as much as the next person – there’s a reason there is a whole sub-genre of historical fiction dedicated to the time period – 70+ years later it still holds the world’s attention, particular in the current world climate that seems to threaten WWIII. I picked up The Nightingale not only because it’s a WWII story, but because it is the story of two sisters and as an older sister, it is a character relationship I can relate to well.

Synopsis

France, 1939 : In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France… but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can… completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and time again to save others.

Review

The Nightingale is a tale of the women’s war. With few resources and even fewer allies, the women of France fought back against the Nazis, oftentimes right under their noses. The Nightingale is a tale of remarkable courage and bravery and impossible decisions. Impossible decisions that, more often than not, only make things worse.

Our two protagonists, sisters Vianne and Isabelle, could not be more different. Ten years apart in age, their lives could not be more different. Vianne is mother and wife, steadfast in her ways in her small village and Isabelle is rebellious student, constantly moving and finding new directions, new paths, to follow. But The Nightingale does not start with their differences. It begins fifty years later, in the 1990s, with one of the sisters, we do not know which one, narrating and beginning to tell the story of the sisters’ experiences in France.

It begins with an exploration of family and love and how crucial such things are to surviving unbelievable adversity and hardship. The story quickly jumps back to the “beginning” of the story in 1939, and the decision making begins. Really, what is life, besides a constant stream of decision making? Over the course of 500+ pages, Vianne and Isabelle are forced to make decision after decision, the outcome of each and every one having incredible effects on the trajectory of their lives.

The sisters’ love for each other is constantly put to the test, and they do not always respond to such challenges with love and compassion. More than once, their arguments are of the strength that one or the other walks away doesn’t look back or come back for quite some time. But The Nightingale is not, at its heart, a book of regret, but a book of hope. A book of hope that no other family is put through the trials and tribulations that faced the women, and these two particular women and their families, of France ever again.

Over the course of the coming months, there will be a number of reviews of World War II fictional works populating this space. They are all unique and different, but certainly with many similarities. I have enjoyed each one, and I have bawled my eyes out while reading each and every one. As the granddaughter of a German woman who survived growing up in Nürnberg during such a difficult time and has had to live with the stigma of being a German of that generation, it is important to me that I hear as many voices from that time as possible to try to do my part to make sure that the world does not experience such horrors again.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250080400 • 592 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published April 2017 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Nightingale