Saturday, May 23, 2015

"Snow Like Ashes" by Sara Raasch

Things have been super busy lately, with finishing finals, moving back to DC, and starting a new job. Luckily, I did manage to squeeze in this enchanting YA fantasy during finals.

Meira is an orphan from the conquered kingdom of Winter, on the run with a handful other refugees, including the heir to the Winterian throne, Mather. They're on the hunt for their kingdom's magic pendant to reclaim their kingdom, while hiding from the Spring kingdom's leader. Meira, Mather, and the other characters that pop up are excellent. Major bonus points for a love triangle where both the interests are interesting, and you can actually understand why Meira would be torn between them!

The world-building in this series is fascinating. There are four season kingdoms and four rhythm kingdoms. I'm not totally clear on why the other half is rhythm, but sure. In the past, all the kingdom's leaders got together and decided to put their kingdom's magic into an emblem they that can use to rule and give their power to their subjects. Each kingdom has a different specialty that affects the way they use their magic. I can't wait to read the next book, due out in October, just to see more of these kingdoms.

But I have a big complaint. SPOILERS COMING, skip this paragraph if you're not interested! Highlight to read the text if you don't mind. So, if you follow me on twitter, you'll know that as I was reading I loved the twists that kept coming throughout the novel. One of the things I was most loving about the book was seeing a main character who wasn't the chosen one, but was supporting the heir & strong in her own right, despite her non-special heritage. Meira's receiving visions from the former Winterian queen that help her understand more of the magic of the kingdoms, awesome! Common people can wield magic and she's going to be a normal person bringing it back! Great! Except, turns out she's actually the heir & was switched with Mather to protect her. Yawn. Maybe this is a case of my wanting the novel to be something it wasn't, but this predictable "twist" turned the thrust of the second half of the novel into a big old trope. Don't get me wrong, the world-building and characters will keep me reaching for the second, but I was pretty disappointed at the predictability, since I had really been digging the normal girl at the center.

Finally, the audio narration is fantastic and really added to the book. Kate Rudd is just the right amount of enthusiastic and engaging. Highly recommend the audio on this!

Verdict: Jury's out - if you're a fan of YA fantasy, it's a solid choice. Not a stand out if you're not already a fan, since the ultimate twist is fairly predictable. I'll definitely be listening to the second!

"Snow Like Ashes" by Sara Raasch, published October 14, 2014 by Balzer + Bray. Audio narration by Kate Rudd, published October 14, 2014 by Harper Audio.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones

I had heard of the opening line of "Silver Sparrow" long before I knew anything else about the book: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." At once it captures everything and nothing about the core of this powerful novel of family, secrets, and trust.

Dana grows up knowing she's the other daughter. In order to keep her father's two lives separate, she must defer to anything Chaurisse wants - Dana can't go to the same school, summer programs, or anywhere she might run into Chaurisse. Meanwhile, Chaurisse has no idea her father has another wife and daughter living in the same city.

The first half of the book is told by Dana as she grows up, navigating the world and figuring out where she can rebel against her father's strict rules of separation and learning as much as she can about her mysterious sister, while resenting all she must give up to keep her father's dual lives. The second half shifts to Chaurisse's point of view. The reader sees Dana pop up, and the dramatic irony and tension is perfect. We know who Dana is and that this can only end poorly, but Chaurisse has no idea. Jones does a remarkable job balancing the two points of view. I thought after reading Dana's section that I would loathe Chaurisse, but her section was every bit as empathetic and earnest and heartbreaking as Dana's. The lives and backgrounds of James and his wives were fascinating and the historical details from Atlanta's history fleshed out the story without feeling the least bit forced.

Verdict: Affirmed, particularly for readers looking for an incredible family drama and/or a solid book club pick. Audio narration was fantastic, for those who listen.

"Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones, published May 24, 2011 by Algonquin Books. Audio narration by Rosalyn Coleman Williams and Heather Alicia Simms, published June 8, 2011 by AudioGO.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Spring Reviews at the Morningside Muckraker

New reviews are up in my Booked column in the Morningside Muckraker's Spring issue, out today. And a good thing, too, since finals have slowed my reading to a crawl! This issue I reviewed:

  • "Boy, Snow, Bird" by Helen Oyeyemi
  • "Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill
  • "The Girl on the Train" by Paul Hawkins
  • "The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters
  • "God Help the Child" by Toni Morrison
  • "The Walls Around Us" by Nova Ren Suma
There's something in there to kick off everyone's summer reading! Check them out here.  While you're there, be sure to read the other contributors' fantastic work as well.

Friday, May 1, 2015

"The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer

This YA book kept popping up in lists of speculative or dystopian books, suggested based on other things I've read and enjoyed. I don't remember what the final article or suggestion was that made me read it, but it fits right into my personal wheelhouse: gripping, fast-paced YA; a new government system that grew out of the present in some way; and clones and the role of genetic engineering in human society.

Matteo Alcaron is a clone in a world where clones have no rights. He is the clone of a drug kingpin so powerful he forged his own country called Opium.  As he grows up, he meets the few other children who also inhabit this world by pure chance. Through the differences between his life and theirs, he learns more about his assigned place in the world and his understanding of his own identity evolves.

Cloning and human genetic engineering makes fascinating fodder for novels exploring the future of human society. How will clones shape how humans see themselves and others? How will societal roles shift with the addition of genetically-engineered or cloned people? What does it mean to be both an individual and a clone? Like many speculative fiction novels, it's hard to discuss in too much detail without taking away the experience of discovery alongside Matteo. Through Matteo's limited view, the reader is slowly introduced to the shape of society, with clarification and new information added as Matt grows up and understands more of what occurs around him. Suffice to say, this novel does not shy away from these issues.

Always the character reader, I was enthralled with the cast of supporting characters - Tam Lin, Maria, Celia, Ton Ton, and Fidelito. Matteo's interactions with these characters subtly shift as he ages and adjusts his own world view in light of new information. His relationships are not static, and that level of realism adds to the book's grit and ability to enthrall. Raul Esparza's audio narration includes different voices for the characters that help distinguish without distracting from the story as a whole.

Verdict: Affirmed for fans of YA or speculative fiction generally. Audio is great, though I think there may have been a few spelling jokes I missed in listening.

"The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer, audio narration by Raul Esparza, published by Simon & Schuster Audio on October 21, 2008. Print originally published by Atheneum Books on September 1, 2002.