Tuesday, January 28, 2014


In Pawn, a young adult dystopian novel by Aimee Carter, Kitty is a girl on the brink of adulthood, getting ready to take the test everyone takes at seventeen, the results of which forever brand you with a number. She just wants a IV so she can have enough to eat and not be separated from her boyfriend. Anything under a IV is bad, the dregs of society, the bumbling idiots. And only the members of one family, the ruling family, get to have a VII. So, when Kitty scores a III and then is given a chance no one else gets to change her number to a VII, she accepts the offer blindly, thus becoming embroiled in a dangerous family feud. It doesn't take long for her to realize that her gift comes at the highest cost, and if she doesn't cooperate, she and those she loves will lose a lot more than numbers.

The premise is interesting, though not unique. Kiera Cass has done something similar in The Selection. What's different about this is that Kitty has to become an entirely new person. She gets Masked, and her whole appearance is made to be the exact replica of another girl, Lila Hart. But she also has to learn to act and talk like Lila. Kitty does this surprisingly quickly, perhaps too quickly, and she never seems to have a solid handle on it, making me wonder how she's supposed to be fooling anyone.

But what kept me reading was the intrigue. Kitty finds herself involved in a battle, and each side wants her for their own. Those on one side want the country to stay as it is. They need Kitty to recant Lila's public viewpoints, and that side is the one Kitty needs to listen to in order to survive. The other side wants the opposite: for Kitty to finish the work of her predecessor (the same work that got her killed) and give hope to the lower echelons of society in order to start a revolution. Though Kitty would love her society to change and be a place of freedom once again, she's not sure whether it's worth the risk.

The back-and-forth pull of right and wrong on a girl who just wanted one number higher is what gives this story resonance (and its title). Morality is part of the package; you can't avoid the discussion. Kitty clearly decides it's worth the deception to live, but is the deception worth killing for, too? There are some shockers, both in plot and morals, but author Aimee Carter doesn't let them go to waste. When morality is at stake, she delves into it, and as far as the twists of the story itself, it's clear the repercussions will continue into the sequel.

Pawn was released in December of 2013. Three stars.

Friday, January 24, 2014


I didn't love Salvage, a young adult novel by Alexandra Duncan, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Ava is a girl who's never touched foot on Earth. In fact, to do so would be to destroy her soul, according to the belief system aboard the Parastrata trader ship. Women are too delicate for Earth and anything requiring brain work, though not too delicate for hard menial labor and bearing children. Ava has it better than some. She's top of the ranks of unmarried girls, daughter of the captain, and of marriageable age. She will be married off in a trade agreement with another crew and ship. Ava only hopes it will be to a more lenient kind of crew where women can do mechanical work, which she has learned in secret. But suddenly her world comes crumbling down around her, and her only hope is to escape to the one place where she will likely die.

This book so cleverly describes a cult without ever using the word. Slowly, Ava discovers that nearly everything she's known was meant to oppress her. That's not to say her life becomes all sun and roses. That's not to say she won't still encounter grief and betrayal. But the story is about coming of age and deciding your own fate in a world where injustice has many faces.

It's science fiction, but the focus isn't on that. It really is about Ava's journey. However, it doesn't try to hammer the reader with a message either. It's simply Ava's story, narrated from her point of view. There's a bit of romance, a bit of adventure and discovery. There's a bit about the dynamics of family relationships and about choosing family when the one that's yours has thrown you out. In some ways, it's heavy stuff, but it never crosses that line into being a self-help guide. It's never preachy. I kept expecting it, but it didn't go there.

I didn't love it for various reasons, most small. (SPOILER follows) The biggest is probably that Ava has sex with a boy when she knows it's taboo. Ava is a minor rule-breaker, but I found it hard to believe that someone who grew up in such a sheltered, rule-laden community would commit one of the greatest crimes for a woman without considering the consequences. And she does consider the consequences somewhat, but it's not enough to stop her, and I think a person in her situation would have stopped before going that far. It just didn't ring true for me. (SPOILER ends)

Other that that, the strangeness of Ava's life and speech just threw me off a bit, and I didn't connect with her right away. A few other plot points seemed abrupt or contrived sometimes.

I did, however, appreciate the Earth settings, including Mumbai. Even though the setting is somewhat futuristic, it still feels authentically like what I imagine India to be like from what I know.

I appreciated the end of the book and Ava's journey to freedom. But minor plot and flow issues in the story keep me from giving this more than a three-star, "liked it" rating. This book will be available in April.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Burning Sky

I wasn't sure at first that I would enjoy The Burning Sky, a young adult fantasy romance by Sherry Thomas, but it didn't take me long to become fascinated, and by the end, I wasn't ready for it to be over. Fortunately, it's just the beginning of a trilogy, but that's also the frustrating part: I can't read the next part of the story yet.

The Burning Sky has some elements that are Harry-Potter-like, particularly as far as magic is concerned. Magic is usually performed with a wand, and certain Latin words must be recited. There is a hidden magic realm, but the kids go to school in Victorian London in the normal world. There is a magical train car that attaches to the regular train to transport one of them to the school. And there's a big baddie that the characters are destined to defeat.

Harry Potter is not the only magic world that seems borrowed from. In fact, the magic elements of the story cross over into something a little like Avatar: The Last Airbender. There's subtle magic, which most people use, and then there's elemental magic, which is direct control over water, earth, fire, and air. And like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the character is supposed to be the greatest elemental mage of her time, which means she should be able to control all four elements; she just can't figure out how to master air. But aside from these noticeable similarities to other stories, the plot of this one veers off into new territory soon enough.

The story itself is intriguing and relatively large-world, though focused narrowly on only two characters. One is Prince Titus, who is basically a puppet sent to school in the normal world so that he can have even less chance of learning magic and gaining the power he might need to overthrow the Bane. The other is Iolanthe, a young elemental mage, struggling to provide for her addicted caretaker through the sale of what she considers to be paltry elemental magic powers. But the prince has been waiting for a prophecy given by his now-dead mother to reveal to him the elemental mage he must help to defeat the Bane. It's a cause he's willing to give his life for, but when Iolanthe shows up, she's anything but what he expected. What's more, she doesn't have the same convictions he has. Iolanthe needs his protection to hide from the Bane. She'll even pretend to be a boy at an all-boys school. But she won't make it easy for the prince.

When I was looking up Sherry Thomas on Goodreads, I was surprised to discover that she is a prolific adult romance writer. From the types of covers her romances have, one might expect this book to be more sensual. But there's no sex at all. Instead, there's the underlying tension of a boy falling in love with a girl who doesn't even like him and not being able to do much about it because of the fact that he's trying to pass her off as a boy to all who know him. It's a fun romance that grows from friendship, or at least a partnership, first. You know the girl is going to come around. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a romance. But the fun is in how it all comes about. Thomas is obviously experienced on that end, and I'm pleased to say she delivers well on all accounts: romance, adventure, fantasy, fairy tale. I cannot say whether future novels in the trilogy will remain sex-free, but at least this first one is a safe and morally sound read for all, without sacrificing an interesting plot.

Four and a half stars.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cruel Beauty

I love fairy tale adaptations. There's just something brilliant and magical about fairy tales themselves (and even those, the way we know them best, are often adaptations), but when you put an unexpected twist on them, the magic is there to discover anew.

Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge, reinvents the tale of Beauty and the Beast, a particular beloved one of mine. Nyx's father made a deal with the devil, and now Nyx must pay, by marrying and killing the demon ruler himself, if she can. It's all she's been raised to do. But Nyx deeply resents it. Why was her twin sister the child her father chose to love? Why did her father seek a bargain with the creature in the first place, if he knew those bargains always had undesirable consequences? When Nyx finally meets Ignifex, he seems as cunning and despicable as she's always heard. But Nyx is no saint herself, and somewhere deep inside, she understands him. And then she kisses an imprisoned shadow...

Though I would dearly love to say more, I hate spoilers. This young adult novel really grabbed me from the get-go. Nyx is far from perfect, and her imperfections made her a character I could identify with all the more. Though I love Disney's sweet and innocent and kind Belle, I don't identify with her as much as I do with someone who is torn between right and wrong, knowing what she should do but feeling otherwise. And I don't think I'm the only one who doubts and struggles. So, while I do like good to triumph in the end, if the journey there is a little more rocky, I appreciate that.

On the other hand, there are some dark aspects to this story, obviously. The Gentle Lord, as the beast is ironically called, rules the demon shadows and keeps them at bay. If they are released or escape to wreak havoc, they make their victims go insane, and Hodge's descriptions are chilling and somewhat graphic, though I admire her ability with words. That, along with some sexuality, make this a book for older teens and other readers.

Overall, though, I wasn't bothered by the books depictions of the depravity and greed of man's heart, and when it matters most, good does triumph. If that's a spoiler, then I'm sorry, but if you know me, then you know I wouldn't like the book otherwise.

The book ends with a twist that I found perfect and another I didn't like as much, so I had some mixed emotions there. Thematically, the end is just right. As for the plot, I wasn't completely satisfied. It ends as you would expect a good fairy tale to end, but it cheapens some of the earlier story. I can't be more specific without spoiling.

Nonetheless, this beautifully written, movingly relevant story is one I won't soon forget. Four stars.

Frozen in Theaters Now

(Review contains minor SPOILERS)

I had little interest in seeing Frozen (PG, 102 min.) until people started talking about the story and saying how good it was. From the previews, I thought it was some silly story about a snowman and a reindeer fighting over a carrot. The movie poster predominantly features this snowman as well. Seriously, who thought that was a good hook for this movie? Actually, Frozen puts a spin on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of The Snow Queen, telling the tale of two sisters growing apart because of the eldest's dangerous ability to turn the world to ice. When they are children, Elsa accidentally injures Anna, and because of this, their parents find a way to erase Anna's memories of Elsa's powers and make Elsa hide her ability. But when it comes time for Elsa to be queen, she is unable to hide the truth any longer, and it will be up to Anna to set the world right.

It's a very well-done Disney princess epic, if you like those kind of things, and I do. Though I'd like to see Disney try something new, I have to say this story is beautiful and fresh in many ways. The biggest way is that the plot doesn't all hinge on romantic love. In fact, the story plays with that a little in what is almost a parody of love at first sight. But when it comes right down to the important stuff, it's about the love of two sisters.

I was so pleased to see that the talking snowman is a rather minor character in the movie. Anymore of him would have been annoying. As it was, I didn't love him, but he does provide a few moments of silly fun, including a song that doesn't talk about what happens to snow in the summer. The scene of the carrot, shown in the previews, is not even in the movie.

Before I saw this, a friend of mine, Tim, was talking about one of the big song numbers from the movie, "Let It Go." Apparently, it's getting a lot of praise and even Oscar nods. It's definitely a beautiful, catchy song, but Tim is right, it's not quite the high point of the story. Elsa has found freedom of sorts, but it's a freedom that comes at the price of everyone else's. Her freedom hurts others. The song celebrates Disney's old, overused mantra: be yourself and be anything you want to be. Though the movie eventually comes around to showing the consequences of being yourself without regard to anyone, I'm not sure we are getting the right message. One is being belted out at the top of our lungs, and one is disguised as a feel-good ending. Which one is going to stick?

Overall, though, I was very pleased with the movie. The characters are lively and original, including the love interest. The music is memorable and worthy to be included among the epic tunes of Disney's greats. The animation is breathtaking and colorful, particularly the ice scenes. The story is not too rote. This is one I would be happy to own.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

These Broken Stars

These Broken Stars is a lovely book I'm so glad I picked up. Written by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, this young adult science fiction novel weaves a tale of love with a gripping story of loss and survival. Lilac is the richest girl in the universe, and Tarver is just a poor young soldier, albeit an honored war hero. For a moment, when everything is normal, they are drawn to each other, but Lilac ends it forcefully and cruelly, knowing anyone she loves will only face the fury of her father. Tarver, humiliated, backs off. But then fate brings them back together when disaster strikes the massive spaceship they are both on, yanking them out of hyperspace and hurtling them to the planet below. Then, all Tarver and Lilac have are each other, and as much as they hate it, they will have to find a way to cooperate and cross this strange planet to a place where they can be rescued. But something on the planet seems to have other ideas for them.

This was a delightful read, with all sorts of conflict and two interesting, multi-faceted characters. First, you throw two characters who hate each other into a disaster from which they come out alone with each other on the opposite side. Then there's the matter of pure survival without many supplies in a hostile and new environment. Once they are as miserable as possible, add a few mysteries that will build on each other like a good ghost story. And then, once your characters are comfortable, throw everything on its head once or twice more. Make sure there's always more trouble they can run into. And throughout, have flash-forwards to when one of the characters is being interrogated about the events. You know he escapes, but at what cost, and why is he lying? And there you have it: brilliant storytelling.

At first, I admit, I was intimidated by the size of the book. It's none too thin, and there are lots of words per page. I noticed it particularly because most young adult books are super fast reads with half as many words per page. I didn't know what I was getting myself into, but I was very quickly hooked. And then I was glad there were so many words because I knew the book wouldn't be over too soon and I could read to my heart's content and know there was always more to come back to. As much as I love those fast reads, I'm always having to start a new one too soon. And starting is the hardest part when you don't know if it will be good or not. Having a good book to return to is always the best.

This was also different from my usual fare in that it was science fiction. I've enjoyed books about characters in space before, so I wasn't thrown off by it. But they are usually few and far between. It was nice for a change of pace.

I have conflicting views on the morals of the book, though I do understand the reasoning behind them. SPOILER ALERT: The characters do end up falling in love and having sex. I'm not a proponent of sex outside of marriage, so I didn't like it for that reason. But on the other hand, these characters are stranded together with no certainty of rescue, and I think that if you don't have a way to be legally married, you can still be married in your heart before God (providing you believe in God). Of course, nothing like that is discussed in the book. As with all young adult books, they are in love, so they have sex. Nothing sacred about it. That's what I don't like about it. I do appreciate that the details are kept simple and vague. If you have to talk about it in young adult books, no need to be graphic.

Morals aside, the story itself bothered me as it led toward the end. To be more than vague about this would definitely be a spoiler, and I don't want to give anything away here. Let me just say that as the characters became okay with how things stood, I became more okay with it. But I was still left a bit unsettled. Though I don't think that it will matter or change the things I'm referring to, this is only the first book of the series, so added books may help the unsettled feeling to go away. In any case, I'm curious about the future of this series. I don't think future books will have quite the same dynamics that made me love this book, but I am still interested in finding out what becomes of the characters. However, this book is a good stand-alone, too, and once you finish it, you'll be fairly satisfied.

This book was released in November of last year. Four stars.


Sovereign is the third book in The Books of Mortals, a series Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee are writing together. It began in Forbidden, and Sovereign wraps things up pretty well but leaves room for future books. (I cannot tell from this book if more will definitely be written or not.) If you have not read the first two books and think you might, don't read this review. SPOILERS from the first two books follow. Instead, start with my review of Forbidden (above).

If you are familiar with Dekker's Circle series, these books are similar. They are fantasy but hint at the modern world we know as being ancient history. This third book focuses on some different characters than the first two books did. Rom, the main character from the first book, is still in play (though others from that book have died), but we don't get into his thoughts. Instead, the story focuses on Jordin, a warrior from the second book, who took Jonathan's blood into her veins and lost her powers but supposedly gained something more, something that seems to be leaving her with the passage of time, filling her with doubt. The story also focuses on Feyn, the Sovereign of the land and the new villain of the story after the preceding Sovereign, her brother Saric, killed Jonathan and then disappeared into the wild.

Jonathan is this world's version of Jesus, in some ways. He's not exactly the same, the most notable difference being that he loves Jordin as a man to a woman while he's alive. But he does sacrifice himself at the end of the second book, and his blood has all sorts of powers, both before he dies and after.

Jordin is one of a group of dwindling believers who received Jonathan's blood in their veins after his death and call themselves Sovereigns. His blood before death gave powers such as quick reflexes and heightened eyesight, invaluable things for a warrior. His blood after death takes those powers away but seems to come with a deeper insight into life and a bit of precognition. Now, however, six years later, Jordin hangs onto her beliefs with dwindling conviction as the powerful Immortals (those who took Jonathan's blood before his death but not after) and the Dark Bloods (warrior slaves of Feyn's, completely loyal to her, fearless, and also powerful to a lesser degree than Immortals) seek the annihilation of those who call themselves Sovereigns.

When a new virus is threatened to be unleashed, one that will kill the Immortals and Dark Bloods and return the Sovereigns to the emotionless beings they were before Jonathan's blood ever touched them, Rom and Jordin know they must go into the heart of enemy territory if they hope to save their people and discover Jonathan's true purpose.

The plot and setting are a little complicated for me to reiterate here in a succinct manner that doesn't sound completely chaotic. Dekker and Lee do a much better job unwinding the details for you. This is not my favorite series of Dekker's, but it's still fascinating. I kept wondering, along with Jordin, who was wrong and who was right. I missed her superpowers along with her, and I thoroughly enjoyed her side of the story as she ventured into the unknown (I can't reveal too many spoilers!). I found it a little hard to buy into the romance at the end of the book. It seemed a bit contrived and forced. Maybe it just needed more time to develop, because I do like the result of it. And don't worry, I haven't given anything away about it in this blog.

Overall, though, the story is not a romance, at least not in the stereotypical sense, though it is a tale of a higher love. It's a dark story of doubt and living on the edge of life, wondering if you missed the point. It's a story of warriors battling an evil so terrible it takes all love and hope from your being. It's a story of death and life and what it really means to live. And it's a story of redemption, even for what seem to be the vilest of souls. Perhaps that, more than anything, separates it from most fantasy battles of good versus evil. But nobody expects Dekker, or Lee for that matter, to do things the normal way.

Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee make a good team, and I give them four stars for a fantasy story that delivers high entertainment with a deep and true message.