Book Reviews

Book Review: EMBER

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author and read multiple drafts of the book prior to its publication. This hasn’t impacted my review at all.

EmberTitle: EMBER
Author: Anna Holmes
Series: Ember of Elyssia, #1
Publication Information: Self-Published, 2017
Format: Paperback
Pages: 341
Source: Purchased
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Warnings: Light violence (swordplay, magic), maiming
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Fans of the enemies to lovers romance trope (told in dual POV!) and witty banter; fans of The Princess Bride.

The war is over. The island of Elyssia has been freed from the clutches of the Rosalian Empire, power restored to the island’s monarchy. However, after leading the Resurgence from the front, Princess Caelin now finds herself sitting and waiting more often than not. When magical prodigy Alain Flynn breaks into her palace to kidnap her, she hears of a secret slave camp—and forms a plan. Under the guise of a kidnapping, she will investigate the camp, expose the secrets, and take control of the fate of her kingdom.

(Summary from Goodreads)

So, I’ve read this book like three or four times and I’m still not sick of it, so it’s already got that going for it.

So many fantasy books are about defeating the bad guy, and then everyone goes to war to take down the aforementioned bad guy, and everyone is happy when the bad guy goes down, but we don’t get to see very often what happens after the war. What sort of rebuilding goes on? How do the new people in charge gain the trust of the people who fought against them? EMBER, refreshingly, is set during this time of rebuilding. The war has ended, and that’s where the story begins. Caelin has to figure out how to rebuild Elyssia, and how to gain the trust of the people who were on the other side in the war – since a lot of people actually supported the Rosalians. Then, there’s also the fact that, as a teenage girl, a lot of people don’t think she’s up to the task of ruling, so she has enemies inside the palace as well as outside. And, inwardly, Caelin is unsure she has what it takes to be a good ruler. SO MUCH CONFLICT.

Our other POV is Alain, a former Rosalian commander (or Prince, as they’re called) who is put into slavery – a thing Caelin’s advisers are doing behind her back – and, upon escaping his slave camp, decides to kidnap Caelin. He is one of the previously mentioned supporters of Rosalia who hates Caelin and doesn’t want to see her rule. But, all he knows is the propaganda fed to him by the Empire, and when he actually meets Caelin, he starts having conflicted feelings about her as he realizes she’s not the evil person he was always told. MORE CONFLICT.

And then, of course, there is a cast of delightful secondary characters. There’s Riley, my precious brooding child, a palace guard and Caelin’s best friend since childhood; Tressa, a centaur bounty hunter who’s got the best attitude in the world; August, who I just want to hug every time he shows up; and Gavroth, who is The Best. Even the villains are a delight to read, even though they’re terrible people.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: UNBELIEVABLE

UnbelievableTitle: UNBELIEVABLE: MY FRONT ROW SEAT TO THE CRAZIEST CAMPAIGN IN AMERICAN HISTORY
Author: Katy Tur
Publication Information: Dey Street Books, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 291
Source: Library – requested after viewing author interview
Genre: Adult – Memoir
Warnings: language, discussion of sexual assault (specifically in the last two chapters)
Rating: 3 stars
Recommended For: People interested in a behind the scenes look at political journalism.

Called “disgraceful,” “third-rate,” and “not nice” by Donald Trump, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur reported on—and took flak from—the most captivating and volatile presidential candidate in American history.

Tur lived out of a suitcase for a year and a half, following Trump around the country, powered by packets of peanut butter and kept clean with dry shampoo. She visited forty states with the candidate, made more than 3,800 live television reports, listened to endless loops of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—a Trump rally playlist staple.

From day 1 to day 500, Tur documented Trump’s inconsistencies, fact-checked his falsities, and called him out on his lies. In return, Trump repeatedly singled out Tur. He tried to charm her, intimidate her, and shame her. At one point, he got a crowd so riled up against her, Secret Service agents had to walk her to her car.

None of it worked. Facts are stubborn. So was Tur. She was part of the first women-led politics team in the history of network news. The Boys on the Bus became the Girls on the Plane–but the circus remained. Through all the long nights, wild scoops, naked chauvinism, dodgy staffers, and fevered debates, no one had a better view than Tur.

Unbelievable is her darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Normally I wouldn’t have picked up UNBELIEVABLE, but I thought this interview Katy Tur did on The Daily Show was interesting enough that I decided to read it. I didn’t learn anything particularly new about the Trump campaign – Tur pretty much confirms what people on the left have been saying for awhile – but it was an interesting look at political journalism. It’s also a fairly quick read, and the writing is engaging and easy to read.

Overall, I thought the structure was effective. Tur alternates between two chronological timelines: campaign events and minor mishaps on the campaign trail, and watching the events unfold at the Trump campaign’s victory party on Election Night. (I will caution that this could potentially be triggering to anyone who weren’t mentally in a great place that night.) On the other hand, there was a chapter in the middle about Tur’s parents explaining how she got into journalism that seemed out of place and probably wasn’t necessary in the context of the larger narrative.

If you’re looking for Earth Shattering Revelations about the Trump campaign, this isn’t the book to read. But if you’re interested in a behind the scenes look at the rallies in a format that’s entertaining (somehow, given the subject matter) and could easily be read in an afternoon, UNBELIEVABLE would be a good fit.

Book Reviews

Blast from the Past: OLD MAGIC

Welcome to Blast from the Past, where I reread books from my past to see how they hold up.

OldMagicTitle: OLD MAGIC
Author: Marianne Curley
Publication Information: Simon Pulse, 2002 (first published 2000)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 317
Source: Purchased
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy/Time Travel
Warnings: mentions of rape; light innuendo and violence (swordplay, magic); bullying; ableism
Rating: 3 stars
Recommended For: People who are really good at suspending disbelief in the name of being entertained by medieval time travel and the defeat of nefarious sorcerers.

Jarrod Thornton is mesmerizing, but Kate Warren doesn’t know why.

The moment the new guy walks into the room, Kate senses something strange and intense about him. Something supernatural. Her instincts are proven correct a few minutes later when, bullied by his classmates, Jarrod unknowingly conjures up a freak thunderstorm “inside” their classroom.

Jarrod doesn’t believe in the paranormal. When Kate tries to convince him that he has extraordinary powers that need to be harnessed, he only puts up with her “hocus pocus” notions because he finds her captivating. However, the dangerous, uncontrolled strengthening of his gift finally convinces Jarrod that he must take Kate’s theories seriously. Together, they embark on a remarkable journey — one which will unravel the mystery that has haunted Jarrod’s family for generations and pit the teens against immense forces in a battle to undo the past and reshape the future.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Okay, so you know how a lot of people are obsessed with Australian YA because it’s really, really good, for some reason, and it makes us wonder what’s in the water down there?

This book isn’t one of those.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining. But if you’re looking for something to fill the aching void left by having no more Melina Marchetta books to read? (I know. I’m sad, too.) Look elsewhere.

I first read OLD MAGIC in ninth grade after encountering it on the bookmobile that hung out on base near my bus stop every week. I was hooked. I ended up using my precious allowance to buy my own copy so I could read it whenever I wanted. It combined three of the things I loved most in my books: romance, history, and magic.

When I picked it up again a couple weeks, it had been at least ten years since I last read it. It didn’t really hold up. I noticed right away that the editing…left a little to be desired. There are a lot of run-on sentences. Marianne Curley LOVES commas. I had a hard time letting that go.

Also, a lot of the things I enjoyed when I was younger just seem illogical to me now. There’s a pretty serious case of insta-love in this book, not to mention Kate telling Jarrod within minutes of meeting him that he has magical powers. And then Kate was confused when Jarrod subsequently didn’t believe her and actively avoided her. In this case, I really need to side with Jarrod. Some stranger telling you you have magical powers, a thing you don’t even believe in? I’d run, too.

One thing that bothered me this go around was the fact that Jarrod kept calling Kate “crazy” and telling her she was “crazy” and “sick in the head.” There are more sensitive ways to bring up concerns about a person’s mental health, my dude. And then later, when Jarrod starts actually believing Kate about the magical powers thing? He doesn’t walk back or unpack his previous comments about Kate being “crazy” at all. They don’t get revisited or examined at all.

If you can suspend your disbelief, OLD MAGIC is entertaining. I liked the section of the book that takes place in the Middle Ages; Curley incorporates a lot of small details that makes the reader feel like they’re there. I actually wish there was more of the book that was set there, because that was more fun for me to read than the parts set in the present day. All of the magical aspects were interesting, too, and again, I wish that had been developed a little more since I’m always a nerd for magical systems.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with this reading since I loved this book so much in high school. It was still entertaining, but there were some things I noticed this time that bothered me that I just wasn’t aware of during previous readings.

Book Reviews

My Favorite 2017 Reads

Despite grad school, working two jobs until Thanksgiving, and crippling anxiety, I managed to read a lot of books this year, and a lot of those books were really good. So today, I’m going to talk about my favorites. Because I didn’t actually get around to reviewing most of them.

The only particular order these are in is chronological:

F&SOF FIRE AND STARS by Audrey Coulthurst: This was one of my favorite fantasy books I’ve read, like, basically ever. It reminded me a lot of Rae Carson’s THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS (one of my favorite books ever). It also so many of my favorite tropes: forbidden magic, enemies-to-lovers, star-crossed lovers. SO GOOD. (Bonus: nary a tragic queer to be found.) [My full review here.]

GirlMoonTHE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill: I took forever to read this book mostly because I didn’t want it to end. The writing was gorgeous. And it was simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking. I could easily seeing this book being one I reread multiple times because reading it felt so much like wrapping myself in a warm blanket.

WhenWeCollidedWHEN WE COLLIDED by Emery Lord: I’ve been raving about this book to everyone since I read it. It combines a sweet summer romance with a look at mental illness that felt authentic. This was another one that made me want to laugh and cry. sometimes at the same time. Also, I loved that it shows that maybe some of us are a little messy on the inside, but we still get love stories, too.

KissingMaxHoldenKISSING MAX HOLDEN by Katy Upperman: First of all, this book made me really, really hungry, so be warned. There are also a lot of country music references, which I always have a soft spot for. But I really loved how Jillian makes some not so great choices (because real, actual teenagers make some not so great choices), and how she grapples with them and tries not to let them define her.

LongWayDownLONG WAY DOWN by Jason Reynolds: I don’t read a lot of books in verse, but multiple people raved about this one and it’s easy to see why. It’s a really quick read, but Reynolds packs so much history and characterization into such a short space. It’s a compelling story, combined with great poetry.

THUGTHE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas: If you only read one of the books from this post, make sure it’s this one. Was it written with black teenagers in mind? Yes. (GOOD.) But if you’re white, this is also a book that will force you to confront your privilege without you even realizing it’s happening. THUG may tackle serious topics, but at its root, it’s also a book about family, community, and figuring out one’s identity. There’s a reason it’s been a bestseller since it came out.

MexicanDaughterI AM NOT YOUR PERFECT MEXICAN DAUGHTER by Erika L. Sánchez: This book was a pretty intense look at anxiety and depression, and I found the anxiety depiction pretty realistic. I think this book does a great job dispelling the idea that mental illness is a ~white issue~ (which is good since, statistically, marginalized populations actually have a higher rate of mental illness). This book covers a lot in not a ton of pages and while the romance didn’t really add much to it for me, for the most part, everything was woven together really well.

DearMartinDEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone: Speaking of packing a punch in a smaller number of pages. This book will destroy your life in the best possible way, and it will happen abruptly, which makes complete sense given that this book is about police brutality. At first I was thrown off by the use of third person present tense, but I got over that pretty quickly, because Stone still manages to get us into Justyce’s head really effectively even without his letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. that show up throughout the book.

TurtlesTURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green: I think the best word to describe this book is terrifying. Aza’s mind is an uncomfortable place, and her thought spirals are so realistic, it was a little hard for me to read at times. Green pretty handily deconstructs the conception of OCD in pop culture as a cute personality quirk by showing us how much it disrupts Aza’s life.

RadioSilenceRADIO SILENCE by Alice Oseman: This is the only book I’ve read that actually uses the word demisexual on the page, spelled out in black and white. And the fact that the demi character has so much anxiety over the fact that he’s ace was honestly one of the most relatable things I’ve read this year. I don’t know if I would’ve picked this book up if not for the ace rep (I WANT TO READ THEM ALL [and the fact that that’s physically possible makes me sad, but I digress]), but I ended up really enjoying it on its own. The relationship between Frances (who is bi, by the way) and her mother is wonderful, as well as her friendship with Aled. And if you like podcasts – particularly weird ones such as Welcome to Night Vale – this would be a good one to pick up.

What books did I miss this year that I need to make sure I read in 2018?

Book Reviews

Book Review: THE IRON TRIAL

IronTrialTitle: THE IRON TRIAL
Authors: Holly Black & Cassandra Clare
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
Series: Magisterium, #1
Publication Information: Scholastic/Listening Library, 2014
Source: Library (Audiobook) – student recommendation
Genre: Middle Grade – Fantasy
Warnings: Mild violence
Rating: 2 Stars
Recommended For: Younger fans of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.

Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial.

Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail.

All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him.

So he tries his best to do his worst – and fails at failing.

Now the Magisterium awaits him. It’s a place that’s both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future.

The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come . . .

(Summary from Goodreads)

THE IRON TRIAL was okay. It was entertaining enough, but I think I would’ve enjoyed it more if it didn’t feel like I’ve read this story before. The characters – a trio with two boys and a girl – and the premise – characters with magical abilities going away to a school for others with their abilities and being “sorted” into “houses” – were too similar to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson for me to really LOVE this story. I think the most exciting part of the book, for me, was the twist at the end because, while I’d sensed while reading that Call was ~different~, I hadn’t managed to guess the nature of this difference.

I listened to THE IRON TRIAL on audio, and I probably enjoyed it more in this format than I would’ve in print. Paul Boehmer is very expressive, and does a great job performing all of the different character roles. As an audiobook to have on while doing other things, I think this one would be a solid pick.

Despite the fact that I personally didn’t enjoy this book, I’d still recommend it to students. I think there are a lot of elements that elementary school students would enjoy, such as adventure and friendship, and fantasy readers will probably eat it up. I think Percy Jackson lovers in particular will enjoy this one – Call is very sarcastic, so the voice is very similar.

Book Reviews

Book Review: THE FAMILY ROMANOV

RomanovTitle: THE FAMILY ROMANOV: MURDER, REBELLION, AND THE FALL OF IMPERIAL RUSSIA
Author: Candace Fleming
Publication Information: Schwartz & Wade, 2014
Pages: 304
Source: Library – author backlist
Genre: Young Adult – Biography
Warnings: Non-graphic discussion of the family’s execution
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People looking for an introduction to the Romanov family and/or the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

Here is the tumultuous, heartrending, true story of the Romanovs—at once an intimate portrait of Russia’s last royal family and a gripping account of its undoing. Using captivating photos and compelling first person accounts, award-winning author Candace Fleming (Amelia Lost; The Lincolns) deftly maneuvers between the imperial family’s extravagant lives and the plight of Russia’s poor masses, making this an utterly mesmerizing read as well as a perfect resource for meeting Common Core standards.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Fleming’s take on the fall of the Romanov dynasty is extremely readable, which would make this an excellent pick for readers who normally shy away from biographies. It would also be an interesting perspective to include, since she is more critical of the Romanovs than some Romanov historians are wont to be. Additionally, the inclusion of numerous “interludes” focusing on events going on outside the palace walls – told from the point of view of ordinary Russians – both provided contrast to the lifestyle of the imperial family and provided important context for the events that unfolded toward the end of the Romanovs’ lives.

THE FAMILY ROMANOV is very much an introductory-level book, though. If you’re at all familiar with the Russian Revolutions – or even if you’ve just seen the animated ANASTASIA movie – you probably won’t learn anything new from reading this book. As an introduction, though, I thought it was fairly comprehensive, and Fleming includes photographs and quotes from multiple family members’ letters and journals. Those more familiar with this particular period in history would be better served reading a different book on the topic.

Book Reviews

Book Review: OF FIRE AND STARS

F&STitle: OF FIRE AND STARS
Author: Audrey Coulthurst
Series: Of Fire and Stars, #1
Publication Information: Balzer + Bray, 2016
Pages: 389
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
Warnings: Light violence, some sexual content
Rating: 5 stars
Recommended For: Tamora Pierce fans, people who like books with arranged marriages and/or forbidden magic, political intrigue lovers.

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I was really excited about this book when I first real the deal announcement, so I’m glad I wasn’t disappointed. It has some of my favorite tropes: an arranged marriage, an arranged marriage being derailed by one of the parties falling in love with someone else, forbidden magic, enemies (sort of) to lovers. And it was all done with characters I loved as well as immersive world building. So, wins all around.

There was INTRIGUE and SECRETS which are two more of my favorite things to read about. Denna has to keep her Affinity a secret, which becomes harder when her powers start leaking out of her control, not to mention people suspect something is up and she has to try even harder to hide them. There were also some shady things going on in regards to diplomatic relations with another country, and someone gets assassinated, and all of it may or may not be related to both each other and to the magic thing. And because of all of this, people spend a lot of time in libraries, which is another thing I am okay with.

I loved the romance (see: sort-of enemies to lovers). Denna and Mare had a lot of chemistry, and I thought their romance developed really naturally. I also loved that the obstacle to the two of them being together wasn’t that both of them were women, since any and all relationships in this world are acceptable and valid; instead, the obstacle was that Denna was already engaged to Mare’s brother. Which, to be honest, was way more interesting, anyway, especially since Denna didn’t actually dislike her betrothed.

I can’t wait for the next book.