Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grades

Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Millennials, my generation, are defined in some small part by their relationship with Harry Potter. Almost all of us have a story about when we were first introduced the the boy wizard who changed our reading lives. I was 10 years old, in 5th grade, and it was shortly before Thanksgiving when my friend Brendan brought a book and a letter into school. He had found this book and had liked it so much, he wrote a letter to the author, and SHE WROTE BACK. He shared the letter with the class, and asked if the book could be our next classroom read aloud. Needless to say, Mrs. Kluck agreed, and when we left for Thanksgiving break, I made my mom hunt down a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for me. The rest, as they say, is history.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Synopsis

Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley – a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry – and anyone who reads about him – will find unforgettable. For it’s there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him… if Harry can survive the encounter.

Series Review

This is a difficult review to write as I grew up with the Harry Potter books and characters. I was 10 years old when I was introduced to 10-year-olds Harry, Hermione, and Ron. When I was 10, my life was challenging – my parents were getting divorced and I just wanted an escape and the wizarding world presented itself to me at the perfect time. I would spend hours reading and rereading the books in my bedroom, trying not to think about the challenges of my young life. Because of this association, the tales of Harry Potter and his friends’ adventures will always hold a special place in my heart, but it was only for Harry’s friends that I finished the series.

As I grew up, I wanted Harry and his friends to grow up with me. I camped out at midnight for books 5 through 7, I dressed up as Hermione for more Halloweens than I care to admit, but the moment I was waiting for never really came. Harry never convincingly grew up with me. We were both supposed to be 17 when the final book was released – I had just graduated from high school and was excited to see Harry finish school and get excited for life after the final battle with Voldemort. However, while I was ecstatic for the next chapter in my life, Harry doesn’t have goals, he doesn’t have any direction in his life. Now granted, his primary focus was survival so that pushed some other dreams and ambitions out of focus, but I would have latched on to them – I would have latched on to my hopes of the future, for a world without Voldemort.

At 10, Harry and I had so much in common. At 13, this was still the case, but at some point, during the fifteenth year of my life/the fifth book, our paths completely diverged. I quickly grew to loathe Harry and his whiny, moody tendencies. While Harry “grows,” he doesn’t ever mature and that made it exceedingly difficult to remain engaged with the stories for any length of time after I finished reading them initially. By the time the seventh movie (split into two) came out, I was so disenchanted with Harry and his misanthropic tendencies that I didn’t even want to see it in theaters. I wanted to see an older Harry, a Harry that I could relate to, instead of a character that was stuck in middle school, stuck at thirteen so that he would be more accessible for later generations. In a way, this makes sense, no other generation will be waiting for years between books – years in which they grow up and expect Harry to grow up as well. Is it fair to tell my 10-year-old step-brother he must wait until he’s 17 to finish the series? No. But I feel like it pulled my fellow millennials away from Harry. It led some of us to abandon him in the dark basement of our minds because he didn’t keep up. Like Peter Pan, he didn’t grow up.

Hermione, on the other hand, was always the brains of the operation, the logically minded one keeping Harry and Ron on track and explaining the ways of the world, and girls, to them, as they remained stuck in their world of perpetual early adolescence. Hermione and her books and knowledge and love of school helped me express my own love of intelligence and learning. Hermione ensured that the stories of Harry Potter would be relatable for boys and girls. And that is, to me, the real magic of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. He brought so many kids into the magical world of reading and books and that, regardless of the quality of the books being read, is always a good thing. Reading the adventures of Harry will always be a rite of passage. If I ever have kids of my own, I will read them the stories of Harry Potter as my mother and teacher did for me. And I will be incredibly offended if they dislike them, but will be equally offended if they obsess over them blindly and refuse to read anything else as I had done.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780590353427 • 312 pages • originally published 1997, this edition published 1999 by Arthur A. Levine Books • average Goodreads rating 4.45 out of 5 • read in January 2000

J. K. Rowling’s Website

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Harry Potter (2)

Biography, Non-Fiction

Kick Kennedy by Barbara Leaming

Review Previously Published, Updated October 30th with Laura’s Review!

Ever since I was introduced to Kick Kennedy as a character in the Montmaray Journals (review to come!), I have been fascinated by her life and her experiences as an American in England during the Second World War. When the ARC for this biography arrived at the bookstore, I got ridiculously excited, so happy was I for a contemporary account of her life.

Synopsis

Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy was the incandescent life force of the fabled Kennedy family, her father’s acknowledge “Favorite of all the children” and her brother Jack’s (JFK!) “psychological twin.” She was the Kennedy of Kennedys, sure of her privilege, magnetically charming, and somehow not quite like anyone else on whatever stage she happened to grace.

The daughter of the American ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Kick swept into Britain’s aristocracy like a fresh wind on a sweltering summer day. In a decaying world where everything was based on stultifying sameness and similarity, she was gloriously, exhileratingly different. Kick was the girl whom all the boys fell in love with, the girl who remained painfully out of reach for most of them.

To Kick, everything about this life was fun and amusing – until suddenly it was not. For this is also a story of how a girl like Kick, a girl who had everything, a girl who seemed made for happiness, confronted crushing sadness. Willing to pay the price for choosing the love she wanted, she would have to face the consequences of forsaking much that was dear to her.

Review

Laura’s Review

Wow. Kick lived for only 28 years, but what a life. Happy, tragic, disappointing, thrilling, and frustrating could all be used to describe her rather short life. Kick grew up as a member of the famed Kennedy family, but by the end of her life, they had practically disowned her for daring to follow her own heart and not tow the family line.

Kick Kennedy arrived in England when it was on the cusp of war with Germany in 1938. Exposed to the elite set of British aristocrats through her father’s role as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Kick quickly came to love her life in England. It did not take her long to fall in love with William “Billy” Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. Sounds like a dream, right? The only problem was that Billy was a Protestant and Kick was member of a strict Catholic family, and neither family would consent to their marriage. The years that followed Kick’s 1938 debut in English society brought her both pure happiness and devastating heartbreak.

Reading about Kick’s life made my heart break for her and everything she endured. It seems silly, she was a member of one of the wealthiest and prominent family in America, her father could pull strings and buy her pretty much anything she wanted, and yet when her wants went against the family’s wishes, they cast her out. Kick was 24 years old (the same age as me) when she married Billy Hartington, and the only member of her family to attend was her eldest brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. To come to terms with the fact that your own family was rooting against your happiness seems like something no one should have to endure. And when that happiness was so quickly taken away and that same family offers no sympathy seems unconscionable.

The story of Kick’s life was a fascinating read, and provided as much insight into her forgotten life as it did into the politics of the time. Kick Kennedy was a feminist, and her story should never have been forgotten; so thank goodness Barbara Leaming took the time to write it all down for us.

Sarah’s Review

Oh Kick. Barbara Leaming’s biography is really Kick’s coming of age story and while her last name allowed her to grow up in a family full of wealth and privilege, her story is that of what happens when Kick decides she is no longer content being one of the nine Kennedy children, but wants to be one of one, just Kick, defined on her own terms. One of the things that I’ve discovered that I really love about ARCs is that I get to read a book without my view being, even unwittingly, skewed by the thoughts and opinions of other readers and I can judge the merit of the book on just that: it’s own merit, and I can make my own decisions, without any outside influence, about how I connected with Kick’s life story.

Kick Kennedy was truly an early feminist, though I’m not entirely sure she’d admit it, just like twenty-somethings today. And like modern twenty-somethings, Kick’s life goal was really quite simple: do things that bring happiness into life. The things that brought Kick happiness included debating politics and current events with both her brothers and the young aristocratic men of England, dressing up and enjoying parties, and falling in love. But unfortunately for Kick, she went from bride to widow in under six months (not a spoiler, it’s history), due to the violence of the Second World War. Understandably, her life changed dramatically, as did her attitude towards how she lived it.

While contemporaries of Kick may have seen her as an impulsive and naive young woman, in reality she was just doing what every young woman has tried to do since the beginning of time – figure out who she is as a daughter, sister, friend, wife, and ultimately as an individual.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250115935 • 320 pages • first published in April 2016, this edition published April 2017 by Thomas Dunne Books for St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 3.56 out of 5 • read in March 2016

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Kick Kennedy

Graphic Novel, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis had been on my TBR list for a very long time, probably since I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation (which I still haven’t seen) at an art theater in the town I grew up in. When Emma Watson, one of my personal heroes, decided to make it a selection for her Goodreads’ Book Club, Our Shared Shelf, I decided to make it a pick for my book club, The Modern Readers, as well.

2 - January 2016 - Persepolis

Synopsis

Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming – both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of  girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her county yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Review

Persepolis sheds a great deal of light on a time and place with which most Americans are terribly unfamiliar. Satrapi’s memoir makes the situation more relatable for international audiences through her use of comic strips and content material relating to her childhood and the challenges facing every young girl trying to grow up. Her journey into adulthood is one is equal parts familiar – the desire to listen to music, hang posters in one’s room and have space of their own – and unfamiliar – family members are taken by the revolutionaries, having to live a completely different life with family and in public, and fearing for one’s life on a daily basis.

Overall, the content material was very eye-opening, not just in regards to what life was like in the 1980s in Iran, but also in regards to the role that Iran has played in recent world history both before and after the revolution. We had a very lively discussion at our book club meeting about the difference between a true revolution and a devolution masquerading as a revolution and came to the conclusion that the latter was a more apt description of the situation in Iran described by Satrapi. It is not difficult to understand why both the book and film has become staples of modern world history classes in high school and college alike.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $24.95 • 9780375714832 • 341 pages • published October 2007 by Pantheon Books • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in January 2016

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Persepolis

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray

I first read A Great and Terrible Beauty shortly after it was first released many moons ago… in 2003 when I was a freshman in high school. I loved it from the very beginning – it was one of the first young adult fantasy books that was widely available after the release of Harry Potter. 

Synopsis of A Great and Terrible Beauty

Gemma Doyle isn’t like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who will lie back and think of England when it’s required of them.

No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to the Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She’s not completely alone, though… she’s been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions.

For it’s at Spence that Gemma’s power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school’s most powerful girls and discovers her mother’s connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It’s there that her destiny waits… if only Gemma can believe in it.

Review

A Great and Terrible Beauty

I have loved A Great and Terrible Beauty for over a decade now, which seems crazy and makes me feel so old. But as one of the first young adult fantasy books to hit the market and stick as a popular favorite, I’m so happy that I’ve been recommending this book series to all of my friends for half my life.

Gemma Doyle, protagonist of the trilogy by the same name, set the bar for all young adult, and adult fantasy books, I’ve read since the fateful day back in 2003 that I first picked up Gemma’s story. She’s full of spunk and self-determination and she’s completely normal. I absolutely love to read about characters who doubt themselves in all things and Gemma has plenty to question about herself, her actions, and her motivations. Gemma’s story begins with the death of her mother and Gemma’s introduction into the shadowy world of the mysterious Order and her discovery of the Realms, a magical, but troubled land, that was once the playing ground of not only the Order, but other magical creatures and beings as well.

As Gemma starts to learn about her (and her mother’s) connection to the Order and the Realms, she must also deal with life at a prestigious Victorian finishing school, and the bullies and privileged girls she meets there. It doesn’t take long, however, for Gemma to make some decent friends and she quickly discovers that appearances are oftentimes deceiving and it is worth getting to know people better before passing judgment on them. There are so many incredible lessons to learn from Gemma and her journey and Libba Bray’s story telling is absolutely exquisite. I can’t wait to reread Rebel Angels so I can finally finish the series with The Sweet Far Thing!

Gemma Doyle trilogy

Finally I have finished the Gemma Doyle trilogy! After reading the first book nearly thirteen years ago and seeing all three books starting at me from my bookshelf for the better part of seven years, I figured it was about time I finished Gemma’s story and learned how it all turned out.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, to this day, remains one of my favorite books that I read during high school. Gemma is a strong and formidable heroine and her adventures into the magical realms she discovers prove that she is worthy of being added to the ranks of great female protagonists of literature. Her friends and fellow characters are fully developed and have personalities of their own that are not defined by their relationship with Gemma.

In Rebel Angels, Gemma and her friends are on holiday from Spence Academy, where they met and first entered the realms, to spend the Christmas seasons with their families. It is in Rebel Angels that were learn more about each character and their motivations in life. And like any good middle book, it ends with a battle, twist and cliff-hanger.

Sweet Far Thing, however, drops the ball that has been rolling on beautifully in the first two books. It tops 800 pages when only about 300 were truly necessary to conclude Gemma’s story satisfactorily. The pacing is slow going and I wanted to give up hope of ever finishing it multiple times during the last month and a half that it took me to read it. Sweet Far Thing felt like Libba Bray didn’t want the story to end, but wasn’t sure what the best way was to draw it out without going overboard. But in the end, Gemma’s story comes to a close with a fairly realistic (for a fantasy book) ending and her story feels complete.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for series

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385732314 • 403 pages • first published in December 2003, this edition published March 2005 by Delacorte Press • average Goodreads rating 3.79 out of 5 • read between December 2003 and January 2016

Libba Bray’s Website

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Gemma Doyle - Great and Terrible Beauty

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)

Biography, Childrens, Non-Fiction, Picture Book

She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton

Growing up, I loved any and all books about women who did amazing things. It’s not often, now in my adult years, that I go through the picture book section of the bookstore, but with lots of young ones joining my family (not my own, but nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.), I want to be sure that I give them books as they grow up the inspire them to be thoughtful and persistent young people.

Synopsis

Throughout American history, there have always been women who have spoken out for what’s right, even when they had to fight to be heard. In early 2017, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to be silenced in the Senate inspired a spontaneous celebration of women who persevered in the face of adversity. In this book, Chelsea Clinton celebrates thirteen American women who helped shape our country through their tenacity – sometimes through speaking out, sometimes by captivating an audience. They all certainly persisted.

She Persisted is for everyone who has ever wanted to speak up but has been told to quiet down, for everyone who has ever tried to reach for the stars but was told to sit down, and for everyone who has even been made to feel unworthy or unimportant or small.

Review

The bookstore that I work at is in a republican stronghold. Despite Philadelphia’s perpetual blue status, the suburbs are usually blood red. While I try to keep politics out of my reviews, I did decide that the first review on here, ever, would be Pantsuit Nation, so my inclusion of a book by Chelsea Clinton should not come as any surprise.

This year, a young female family member is turning five years old – the perfect age for picture books and she devours them. As I thought about which book to pick out for her for her birthday, only one came to mind – She Persisted. She has terrific parents who have read probably every book under the sun to her already, and I know they want her to know that regardless of any adversity she might face, she will always find the strength within herself to persist until she achieves every goal she sets for herself.

She Persisted includes both well- and little-known women in America’s history. Clinton forgoes including Rosa Parks and instead includes her predecessor, Claudette Colvin. She chooses Clara Lemlich over Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Chase Smith over any other female politician. Her choices are diverse and inclusive, not just in terms of heritage and skin color, but also in occupation and the obstacles the women had to overcome. I adore each and every women included, particularly the inclusion of Sonia Sotomayor over Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Sandra Day O’Connor.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781524741723 • 32 pages • published May 2017 by Philomel Books • average Goodreads rating 4.48 out of 5 • read in July 2017

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She Persisted

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Royally Matched by Emma Chase

I’m a hopeless royalist, so when the sequel to Royally Screwed was announced, and that the main female lead would be named Sarah and the prince, Henry (FYI, did you know Prince Harry’s real name is Henry?), my seventeen year old self emerged after a decade to jump up and down excitedly.

Synopsis

Some men are born responsible, some men have responsibility thrust upon them. Henry John Edgar Thomas Pembrook, Prince of Wessco, just got the mother-load of all responsibility dumped in his regal lap. He’s not handling it well. Hoping to help her grandson rise to the occasion, Queen Lenora agrees to give him “space” – but while the Queen’s away, the Prince will play. After a chance meeting with an American television producer, Henry finally makes a decision all on his own.

Welcome to Matched: Royal Edition. A reality TV dating game show featuring twenty of the world’s most beautiful blue bloods, all gathered in the same castle. Only one will win the diamond tiara, only one will capture the handsome prince’s heart. While Henry revels in the sexy, raunchy antics of the contestants as they fight for his affection, it’s the quiet, bespectacled girl in the corner – with the voice of an angel and a body that would tempt a saint – who catches his eye.

The more Henry gets to know Sarah Mirabelle Zinnia Von Titebottum, the more enamored he becomes of her simple beauty, her strength, her kind spirit… and her naughty sense of humor. But Rome wasn’t built in a day – and irresponsible royals aren’t reformed overnight. As he endeavors to right his wrongs, old words take on new meanings for the dashing Prince. Words like, Duty, Honor and most of all – Love.

Review

Today the world is remembering a particularly tragic royal story. And while I’ve been reading every Prince Diana in memoriam magazine, I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that for the vast majority of us, it’s just a story. We didn’t know her – she inspired us, but we didn’t know her. But to her sons, to her family, even to the Windsors, she was vibrant and full of life. And we, the common folk, the Americans who wish the Windsors were ours as well, still cry over the person we’ve lost.

This might seem like a very strange way to start a review of a new adult romance. But I think it’s the fact that the princes of Wessco, the shirtless men on these two covers, are thoroughly based of of William and Henry, and call it what you will, but Emma Chase uses their own loss in her stories to inform their actions in her stories. And while the first in the series, Royally Screwed, was enjoyable, it didn’t really stick with me for long after reading as Royally Matched has.

The reason, I believe, is the way Chase created and wove together the story of Henry and Sarah. Yes, as a new adult romance, it has it’s fair share of bedroom romps, but there’s actually a well thought out plot, one that is far more complex than the synopsis on the back would lead one to believe, and the characters are richly developed and remarkably well-rounded. Both characters feel they have a greater purpose, a responsibility to help those around them and to lead productive lives. And if you’re going to use the loss of a real figure and the lives of the British princes to influence your storytelling, I’m so glad that Chase decided to give one of her Wessco princes a desire to use his title and influence in a positive way.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781682307762 • 276 pages • published February 2017 by Everafter Romance • average Goodreads rating 4.2 out 5 stars • read in August 2017

Emma Chase’s Website

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Royally Matched

 

History, Non-Fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Every month, the Modern Readers discuss what types of books we collectively would like to be reading. In February 2016, one of our number mentioned that Erik Larson would be doing a talk in a nearby town, so we figured Dead Wake would make a great book club choice!

5 - April 2016 - Dead Wake

Synopsis

On May 1, 1915, with World War I entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “greyhounds” – the fastest liner then in service – and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game. As the Lusitania made her way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small – hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more – all converged to produce one of the greatest disasters of history.

Review

Novelistic nonfiction is the moniker attributed to Erik Larson’s particular brand of history writing, meaning, he chooses what to write about based on his ability to find a narrative embedded naturally in an historic event, and Dead Wake is no exception. The “narrative” found in Dead Wake is really a blend of about ten narratives, switching between the passengers on the ill-fated Lusitania, its captain, the commander of the U-boat that sank it, the employees of the mysterious Room 40, as well as Churchill and President Wilson.

Through alternating narratives (not to be confused with points-of-view), readers are able to come to an understanding of the intricate details of the sinking of the Lusitania in Larson’s account of the disaster. And therefore, invariable, every reader, regardless of their previous knowledge and study of the event and circumstances, will learn something new. For most, the shocking and new information centers on the Germans and new revelations of The Sound of Music‘s well known male lead, Captain Georg von Trapp, or discovering the existence of the Royal Navy’s Room 40 which decoded German transmissions. However, as a student of German history, of these two narratives I was already aware and it was therefore simpering, lovesick Wilson that befuddled me. The leader of isolationist America was alternatively heartbroken and lovestruck and not particularly focused on the war going on in the world around him, which was news to me. I had always defended the visionary of the League of Nations to his critics, but I need to revisit my position…

I had reservations about Dead Wake, but after reading it, and hearing Erik Larson speak, they were quickly squashed. I highly recommend Dead Wake to anyone who truly enjoys a compelling retelling of historical events.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9780307408877 • 480 pages • originally published in March 2015, this edition published March 2016 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in April 2016

Erik Larson’s Website

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Dead Wake

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

First : Marie Lu is coming to the book store that I work at in less than a month!!! Second : At BookCon in the spring of 2015, I listened to a bunch of teenage girls tell Marie Lu during a panel how much they loved her books and how her characters were so relateable. As the go-to girl at the store for YA fantasy recommendations, I figured it was my responsibility to find out what these girls loved so much about her work. it was also the first book chosen for the short-lived YA book club.

Synopsis

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Review

I loved the idea of The Young Elites, the story of the villain, or in this case, the eventual villain. Marie Lu marketed the story of Adelina as that of the anti-hero, and anti-hero she certainly is. I was first introduced to Marie Lu’s writing, and subsequently The Young Elites when I attended BookCon in the spring of 2015, it just took me quite awhile to finally start reading.

My coworker Kim and I decided to make The Young Elites the first book in our short lived Young Adult Book Club at the book store because of the idea that the main character is not, by definition, a good person, as so many protagonists, especially in YA, often are. And the book has stayed with me far longer than the members of the YA book club.

Marie Lu is a wonderful world builder and character creator, but the plot oftentimes takes a second seat to those two things. While detailed and intriguing, the progress often felt forced and jilted, and I personally would have rather gotten to spend a whole lot more time inside Adelina’s head. The constant questioning of good versus bad and where exactly she fell is a question that I think all young adults ask themselves on a regular basis – am I a good person, or am I just doing what society expects of me?

In a political climate where it has become essential to stand up for each other and the rights of those who are not the straight while males who run our political environment, a discussion like that which Adelina puts forth is an important one to say the least. So while I cannot call myself the biggest fan of this book in particular, the role it plays in YA literature is far too large to ignore.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780147511683 • 384 pages • originally published in October 2014, this edition published August 2015 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 3.93 out of 5 • read April 2016

Marie Lu’s Website

The Young Elites on Goodreads

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Young Elites (2)

Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Clearly I’m on a YA fantasy role here with reviews… Sometimes I get so thoroughly immersed in a genre it can be hard to pull myself out to switch to something else, something new and different. As I get to the end of a genre jaunt, however, my reviews tend to become a bit skewed, so take them all with a grain of salt.

Synopsis

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood – those with common Red blood serve the Silver-blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court.

Before the king, princes, and all the nobles, she discovers she has an ability of her own. To cover up this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks everything and uses her new position to help the Scarlet Guard, a growing Red rebellion, even as her heart tugs her in an impossible direction. One wrong move can lead to her death, but in the dangerous game she plays, the only certainty is betrayal.

Review

Red Queen is part of a long line of YA fantasy books that have been written in the last five years or so to feature varying takes on power and poverty, haves and have-nots, and each primarily female author’s take on a strong, feminist, protagonist. The books that stand out are those that are spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Red Queen is neither.

It is an enjoyable book with a serviceable plot and intriguing characters. Were it published at a different time, I would call it unique and original. However, it came out halfway through the present YA fantasy boom and the influence of previous works is evident in Aveyard’s storytelling. Similarities to GracelingThe Hunger GamesThrone of Glass and Shadow and Bone are easy to pick out if you are as well versed in the world of YA fantasy as most of Aveyard’s target readers.

The writing is decent, the twists and turns of the plot and the effort into world building that Aveyard puts forth are not missed, this review would be much more scathing if Red Queen lacked in any of these areas, but it doesn’t have the ineffable “stand-out quality” that makes me remember years down the road, makes me anxiously await the next book in the series. Red Queen is at it’s best, another decent YA fantasy debut, and at it’s worst, another YA fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780062310644 • 416 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published June 2016 by Harper Teen • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in May 2016

Victoria Aveyard’s Website

Red Queen on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Red Queen

Red Queen