#8 = Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross

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BELLE EPOQUE by Elizabeth Ross

jacket flap blurb

When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.

Monsieur Durandeau had made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil.

Isabelle has no idea her new “friend” is the hired help, and Maude’s very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose.

thoughts

An engaging story that hovers between fantasy and historical fiction, with the fantasy element being the existence of the “Durandeau Agency. I found the beginning a bit hard to get into, mainly because I didn’t quite understand the protagonist’s, Maude’s, motivations as clearly as I did later on. In the beginning, she answers the Durandeau ad without knowing what the work is. She assumes it will be like any other poor, working-class job. Instead, she finds the Agency head and recruit scrutinizing her physical flaws before offering her the job. She learns that the Agency looks for girls who are ugly or plain (like her) so that they may be sold as companions to the rich in order to make those rich clients look better by comparison.

Despite the fact that the pay is much more than she was making beforehand, and despite that the work is less physically demanding, Maude almost doesn’t take the job. Why? Because she can’t stand being seen as ugly. She doesn’t want people searching out her flaws, picking over her like she’s the ugly duckling they want to adopt to turn themselves into a beautiful swan. At first I thought Maude was being very superficial. I mean, in her previous job, she didn’t make enough money for decent meals (or any meals, at times) and could barely scrape enough together to pay rent in the cheapest part of Paris. Why would she take that life over having enough money to buy meals and pay rent, if the only issue is they criticize her appearance?

But the more I moved forward, the more Maude’s reactions made sense, and the likable she became. Maude fled an awful arranged marriage (old, cruel butcher) and a nasty father to go for her and her mother’s dreams of living in Paris. In her old home town, she overheard the other citizens talking about her, about how plain she was and too bad she didn’t inherit her mother’s looks and that butcher’s a piece of work but really she should be thankful ‘cause it’s the best she’s gonna be able to do. Maude’s objection is not being labeled ugly in of itself, but the worthlessness implied from the label. For her, someone pointing out her flaws is near equivalent to them questioning her reason to exist.

There were other characters I liked as well, such as Marie-Josée and Isabelle and Paul. Particularly Marie-Josée (another worker at the Durandeau Agency), who’s as charismatic on the page as she is the story. Maude and Isabelle are the best characters, of course. They are complex and realistic and despite occasionally doing dislikable things, understandable and relatable. The two main good-guy side characters, Marie-Josée and Paul, they were less fleshed-out, as was the Countess Dubern (Isabelle’s mother, one of two main antagonists) and Cécile (worker at the Durandeau Agency, dislikes Maude).

I would have liked to see more of Paul, as he is Maude’s love interest and we learn very little about him. At some points he didn’t even feel necessary to the story, even though he really was as it’s his influence that allows Maude to realize what she finds desirable about the world of the rich is not the money or multitude of things, it’s their access and ability to purchase and surround themselves with art. This revelation is caused in a large part by Paul’s art, and his thoughts on the interconnectedness of art. Isabelle is interested in photography, yes, but she’s interested in the logical, scientific side of it. Paul and Maude both lean towards the artistic, creative side to it. They are less about the magic of the process and more about how the result impacts the viewer.

Considering he’s so important, we see very little of him and obtain even less knowledge. He has a personality, but that’s real all. Either he needs to have more “screentime” (so to speak) or he needs to have less—his role as a love interest needs to be dissolved and his other roles taken over by one- or two-scene background characters. So that Maude’s revelation is not connected to a specific person, and, instead, comes together because of her personal experiences and a few choice words from a random passerby.

I mean, the biggest impact he has on the story his the scene in the museum, where he connects music to painting and talks about the muse. This does not have to be done by the same man she meets earlier, and then later on. Her reason for instigating the talk is that she knows Paul, yes, but it doesn’t have to be that way. He could instigate the talk with her. He could be rambling for herself and she accidentally inserts herself into the conversation because she thinks he’s talking to her. Or something completely different. The point is, Paul’s character is bland. Either he needs some spices, or the size of his portion needs to be cut down.

Marie-Josée felt real despite the limited knowledge shared about her, so even though she isn’t as complete as Maude or Isabelle, I think she fulfills her role in the story in a believable way; she doesn’t seem like a cardboard character.

The plot itself is engaging and complex without being overly complicated. Despite a large portion of the book being about political marriage matches, there is almost no politicking whatsoever. There is some French used, but it’s not distracting and the meaning is generally clear. The climax comes very near to the end of the book, but the resolution was satisfying and well-written, and I can’t think of any subplots that were left hanging.

rating out of five stars

★★★★☆

conclusion

The multi-layered characters and plot make this a book to put on the to-read shelf.

want to read it for yourself?

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#7 = Masks by E. C. Blake

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MASKS by E. C. Blake

jacket flap blurb

Masks, the first novel in a mesmerizing new fantasy series, draws readers into a world in which cataclysmic events have left the Autarchy of Aygrima—the one land blessed with magical resources—cut off from its former trading partners across the waters, not knowing if any of those distant peoples still live.

Yet under the rule of the Autarch, Aygrima survives. And thanks to the creation of the Masks and the vigilance of the Autarch’s Watchers, no one can threaten the security of the empire.

In Aygrima, magic is a Gift possessed from birth by a very small percentage of the population, with the Autarch himself the most powerful magic worker of all. Only the long-vanquished Lady of Pain and Fire had been able to challenge his rule.

At the age of fifteen, citizens are recognized as adults and must don the spell-infused Masks—which denote both status and profession‚ whenever they are in public. To maintain the secure rule of the kingdom, the Masks are magically crafted to reveal any treasonous thoughts of actions. And once such betrayals are exposed, the Watchers are there to enforce the law.

Mara Holdfast, daughter of the Autarch’s Master Maskmaker, is fast approaching her fifteenth birthday and her all0important Masking ceremony. Her father himself has been working behind closed doors to create Mara’s Mask. Once the ceremony is done, she will take her place as an adult, and Gifted with the same magical abilities as her father, she will also claim her rightful place as his apprentice.

But on the day of her Masking something goes horribly wrong, and instead of celebrating, Mara is torn away from her parents, imprisoned, and consigned to a wagon bound for the mines. It is because she didn’t turn in the unMasked boy she discovered over to the Night Watchers? Or is it because she’s lied about her Gift, claiming she can only see one color of magic, when in truth she can see them all, just as she could when she was a young child?

Whatever the reason, her Mask has labeled her a traitor and now she has lost everything, doomed to slavering in the mines until she dies. Not even Mara’s Gift can show her the future that awaits her—a future that may see her freed to aid a rebel cause, forced to become a puppet of the Autarch, or transformed into a force as dangerous to her world as the legendary Lady of Pain and Fire.

thoughts

The idea of magic as a natural resource rather than an all-present force is interesting, and so are the Masks, which is the main reason I picked up the book. Unfortunately, the book is, in a word, predictable. I’m not sure if there was just too much foreshadowing or something, but the book never had me wondering what would happen next. I felt like I already knew. The addictiveness of magic is very interesting, and the only non-predicable part of the book. If I were going to continue with the series, it would be the reason why.

Predictability aside, there were other issues. Mara is a fairly naïve protagonist, and that could have been played up more. The prologue is unnecessary, pointless, and dull, and should definitely be cut. Mara and Katia’s names don’t fit with the established theme. The love triangle was a tiny part, but still too large. I think it would be better of if that particular subplot was cut. The characters can be kept, of course, but the love triangle was aggravating and mundane.

I didn’t understand Mara’s need to save Katia. I felt like I could almost understand, but then the fact that it was overwhelmingly for plot reasons pulled me back out. This could be fixed if Mara is shown to be even more dependent on Katia’s kindness, perhaps even feeling like she owes Katia her life, or sanity, or both. Or it could go another way, where Mara develops a crush on Katia, and thinks that saving her from the situation will save her from herself. Either way would strengthen the story.

Another thing that would improve the book was if the Autarch was less obviously the bad guy. Especially at the beginning, when Mara believes the Autarch is a good guy. One thing that would help, of course, if cutting the prologue, which shows the Autarch as bad and the Lady of Pain and Fire as good. Since I know the Lady of Pain and Fire is good, Mara’s fears of turning into a monster like the Lady of Pain and Fire seem unfounded, pointless, and eye-rolling. It defeats the fear of turning into a monster at all.

If the Autarch did things that were quite clearly benevolent, that would help, too. No one is pure evil or pure good. Yes, the Autarch is an addict, but so what? In his own mind, maybe he realizes he’s doing something bad, and thinks that doing good things will balance it out.

If I were writing the book, I’d start it out with someone Mara knows, such as Sala’s mother or father, being accused of a crime. I say Sala’s parents because if Mara had more connection to her current world in the capitol beyond her own family, that would be a plus. It would make her eventual ties to the rebellion that much more nerve-racking.

But anyway, the crime. Obviously, Sala’s parent is innocent (I’m going to say her father, just because). But the trial is overflowing with circumstantial evidence, and Sala’s father has no real alibi, and its looking like he might be unMasked and thrown to the criminal work camps despite his innocence. Mara and Sala are desperate to find a way to keep Sala’s father from being unjustly unMasked, and eventually Mara decides to write a letter straight to the Autarch (in this story, Mara knows that the Autarch is not all-seeing, but more like the Pharaoh in ancient Egypt—all-powerful and all-important, but someone who leaves day to day comings and goings in the hands of underlings).

The Autarch, being the benevolent individual that he likes to believe he is, replies by sending a High Justice or something (however the system in Aygrima works. Something like a Head Healer but for judges) to inspect and oversee the trial. The High Justice evaluates the evidence and pronounces it circumstantial and thus not solid proof. He writes back to the Autarch and launches his own investigation, which quickly uncovers the truth with the aid of Gifted Watchers. And with that, Sala’s father is saved by the kindness of the Autarch himself, who possibly even attends the trial.

Something like this would, of course, extend the period of time before Mara’s Masking. But I think it would be worth it. Clear cut black and white is bland, particularly when the protagonist doesn’t see it. If Mara initially believes in the Autarch’s goodness, than the audience needs to, as well. And that means something has to happen to prove to Mara, and the audience, that the Autarch is, indeed, good.

It would also be beneficial if the non-rebel bandit groups played a bigger part, and if they were played up as an enemy. If they attacked outlaying towns, or attempted to attack, and were fought off by the Watchers. Another thing that would be good is if there were other cities, and Mara did not live in the capitol. See, in the book, there is one city, which is the capitol, and the rest of Aygrima is towns. While this is not in-of-itself believable, it means Mara lives in close proximity to the Autarch. His kindness in the case of my imaginary trial and his attendance of Gifted Maskings in the book would be more interesting if he were father away and some travel was involved.

More cities is not the only answer. If the capitol had two sections, a walled-off center and the area where the common citizens live, that would possibly work as well. In the book, this is what may be the case, but I’m not sure. There wasn’t very much about it, perhaps a line somewhere, and I didn’t understand if the center was walled off or if there was just a palace or castle there. It sort of sounded like a castle/palace.

Other changes I would make: Mara and Ethelda. In the end, I never understood why Ethelda was present at Mara’s Masking, if she never attended Maskings. I could understand, in the end, why the Autarch didn’t show up, but why was Ethelda there instead of the Healer that was usually present? In my understanding, it was for plot reasons—which is the rationale for a lot of things that happen. Ethelda is there because she’s a main character that needs to have some connection to Mara. Ethelda is there because Mara has to have an unscarred face in order for A) Grute’s plan and B) the continuous fear that she will be raped because of her rare, unscarred face.

If my trial changes were put into place, than perhaps Sala’s father is beaten by angry citizens who believe he committed the crime (something like child murder or something that would rile people up). Because Mara’s father is friends with Ethelda, she comes in to heal Sala’s father from the injuries, and this is where Mara and Ethelda initially meet.

But if Ethelda is not at Mara’s Masking, then she would scarred. Unless she still has one of the rare Healers who can actually heal her face completely. The thing is, while characters say an unscarred face is rare rather than unheard of, there is absolutely no evidence of any other unscarred unMasked whatsoever. Which leaves me to believe that an unscarred face is said to be rare to make it less protagonist-luck-y that Mara ends up unscarred.

There are a couple ways to fix this. One, show other unscarred unMasked in the camps. Or two, make Mara special. Go full out. Maybe her father, the Maskmaker who made her Mask, designed it to fail without badly injuring Mara, and thus even a substandard Healer would be enough to leave Mara scarless. Or, even better, Mara’s father designed it to fail without the subsequent injuring leaving an ugly scar. If Mara was described as very beautiful to begin with, than a faint, flower/snowflake-shaped scar would still leave her exceptional and desirable. If I was writing it, I’d probably go with the interesting-scar angle rather than the unscarred one.

rating out of five stars

★★☆☆☆

conclusion

Lots of potential, but currently disappointing.

want to read it for yourself?

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#6 = The Edge of Nowhere by Elizabeth George

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THE EDGE OF NOWHERE by Elizabeth George

jacket flap blurb

Becca King is on the run. Her ability to hear “whispers”—the thoughts of others—has put her at risk from her stepfather, whose criminal activities she’s discovered.

When she arrives on Whitbey Island, beautiful, wild, and a world apart, she embarks on a life very different from her old one, with new friends that include Seth, a kindhearted dropout turned gypsy jazz musician; Derric, a Ugandan boy adopted by a local family; Diana, with whom she shares psychic powers; and Debbie, who makes a habit of helping runaways.

Blending strands of mystery and romance and a hint of the paranormal in a haunting setting, The Edge of Nowhere is the first in a cycle of books that will take Becca and her friends through their teenage years on the island.

thoughts

There are things I liked about this book, and there are things I disliked. Despite liking more things than I disliked, the dislikes, in the end, overpowered the rest of it and I’m not sure about this book.

For one thing, the prologue starts with a girl named Hannah, and the first sentence is “On the last day of Hannah Armstrong’s existence, things were normal for a while.” While the sentence makes sense by chapter one, I was confused by the end of the prologue, when Hannah is not dead. See, she hears some “whispers” from her stepfather, Jeff, he realizes she hears them, and she runs. End of prologue.

What are these whispers? Well, we find out the full story later, but what we hear in the prologue doesn’t make a lot of sense. Hannah doesn’t hear full thoughts, as such. The things she hears are broken up and often confusing. This is the case with Jeff’s whispers, which seem to imply he killed someone, but it’s sort of hard to tell for certain what the heck is going on. This is made more confusing by the fact that Hannah seems to know exactly what’s going on, which led to me re-reading Jeff’s whispers over and over again to see if I missed something. But I didn’t. Hannah just knows something we don’t.

Then chapter one starts, with Becca King. She can also hear whispers, and her mother is also named Laurel. Becca King is Hannah Armstrong. Later in the chapter, we discover Laurel gave Hannah a new name to go by, and a new past to remember. Becca is going to Whidbey Island to live with Carol, a friend of Laurel’s, until Laurel can get a place for her and Becca set up in Canada.

So on the ferry across, she meets Jenn, who will remain an antagonistic figure for the rest of the book, and Derric. Derric is the love-interest, and Becca has an obligatory cheesy moment when she notices him but whatever. Then Becca gets to Whidbey, and Carol is not there to pick her up. So she takes her bike (her mom left her with a bike, some money, and some bags of clothes and makeup, to try and disguise her appearance, hair dye, for the same reason, and fake glasses) and goes to Carol’s house, taking a ride with another character, Diana, to get there.

And guess what? Carol has just died of a heart attack. Becca approaches Carol’s husband and introduces himself. But when he doesn’t give any indication that Carol has talked to him about Becca, Becca just says she’s sorry his wife’s died and leaves. Long story short, she meets Seth, and later ends up living with Debbie.

Now, the good points. The relationships between this myriad of characters is well-written and engaging. I ended up liking almost all of them, or at the very least understand their motivations. The relationship between Becca and Derric is surprisingly interesting, considering Derric ends up in a coma about a third of the way through the book and stays that way until near the end.

But there were a lot of things I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand when the book switched viewpoint characters to Seth during part two. Not permanently, but for a chapter or so. And then back to Becca. And then later we’re back in Seth, and then later we’re in another character, and while we’re only in the characters of Becca, Seth, and Hayley on a rotating basis, it was still weird. If this is a multiple viewpoint book, why didn’t we start out that way from the very beginning? Sure, things only changed when we hit part two, but it was jarring. It was weird. I see why it was necessary, but I don’t see why Seth and Hayley weren’t viewpoint characters from the very beginning.

So that was a big problem for me. The other was the way the book ended. Aka badly. At the end, the main mystery of the book is finally cleared up, but the reason Becca is on Whidbey—her stepfather—is still going on. The book ends with Becca seeing her stepfather in front of the motel where she’s living, and then running. So, basically, it’s like the end of the prologue all over again. I know it’s the first book in a series—it says so right on the jacket-flap—but it left me feeling like nothing had been accomplished over the course of the entire story. And that left me with a bad feeling for the whole book.

rating out of five stars

★★★☆☆

conclusion

Interesting, but could have been better.

want to read it for yourself?

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#5 = XVI by Julia Karr

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XVI by Julia Karr

jacket flap blurb

Every girl gets one. An XVI tattoo on the wrist—sixteen.

They say they’re for protection.

Some girls can’t wait to be sixteen, to be legal. Nina is not one of them. Even though she has no choice in the matter, she knows that so long as her life continues as normal, everything will be okay.

Then, with one brutal strike, Nina’s normal life is shattered; and she discovers that nothing that she believed about her life is true. But there’s one boy who can help—and he just may hold the key to her past.

But with the line between attraction and danger as thin as a whisper, one thing is for sure…

for Nina, turning sixteen promises to be anything but sweet

thoughts

There were so many problems with this book I’m not sure where to begin. Nina’s personality seemed to change randomly to fit a plot point. There were a thousand-and-one places where I didn’t find her reactions believable. I found her to act stupid whenever it suited the plot, and her views about her world seemed to change depending on the chapter. There wasn’t enough of Nina’s thoughts and feelings to explain her bizarre choices at, really, any point in the book.

Then there’s the love interest, Sal. Besides having a cool name, he’s pretty much pointless as anything but a way to move the story forward, as he knows more than Nina does. But not, really, all that much more. Besides his relationship with the NonCons (the rebellion against the “Media” and the controlling government), the only real reason he was in the story was to be a love interest. And even that kind of sucked, because the romance between Sal and Nina was crappy. It felt rushed at some points, jerky at others, and all together first-draft-y. I didn’t understand Sal’s attraction to Nina, or Nina’s attraction to him. It left me wondering why he even was a love interest.

Of course, there did seem to be some sort of subplot about love and sex. Sandy (Nina’s best friend) is sort of obsessed with sex and everything related to turning sixteen—the age when a girl is legal to have sex (and also the age where girls are often raped or otherwise attacked without anyone caring, because they’re sixteen-year-old girls, and thus all sex-obsessed). Sandy’s friendship was Nina worked; it was one of the few relationships that did. Where Sandy would love to have sex, Nina really, really does not want to. Ever. Why? Well, there’s a plot point for that. When she was little, she accidentally stumbled over her step-father’s (Ed) nasty porn videos. They basically scarred her, which is fine. It makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is that this love’s-connection-with-sex-and-sex’s-connection-with-violence subplot never goes anywhere. It’s left unfinished. She discovers that maybe she kind of wants to have sex with Sal, but the idea of this horrifies her. And that’s it. Neither this subplot, nor her relationship with Sal is completed.

And frankly, I could see the author making Wei as Nina’s girlfriend and fixing up a whole lot. For one thing, it would take Sal out of the picture. Sal’s connection with the NonCons isn’t really central to the story. Yes, he’s friends with Nita, who was also friends with Nina’s mom, Ginnie, but at the end of the book I wasn’t sure why Nita was important.

There are, really, too many characters for the story being told. Nita is extraneous, which makes Sal extraneous, which isnt’ the end of the world. See, Sal doesn’t need to be there. He went from initial stalkerness (why? By the end of the story, we still don’t know) to protectiveness, but this protectiveness is almost laughable. For one thing, she has three other friends who are also never there when she needs them and also feel protective (though for the friendship reason, not the relationship one).

I mean, look at this friend-count: Mike, Derek, Wei, Sandy, Sal. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you read the story, then it’s clear that there’s way too many of them. The only ones really necessary are Sandy, Wei, and maybe Mike or Derek. Actually, Mike and Derek could be combined into a character I’ll call Merek.

Derek is, initially, the friend Nina knows has a crush on her that she doesn’t return. Eventually, his interest moves elsewhere, to Wei. And Wei returns it. Sort of. There isn’t much about the problems or lives of the non-Nina characters, so it’s hard to say for sure. Mike is just a friend at the beginning, but later develops a crush on Sandy, which she doesn’t return. Nina is troubled about how this could mess with their group’s dynamics when Mike realizes Sandy doesn’t love him, but nothing ever happens with that subplot. Or the Derek/Wei subplot, for that matter.

I feel like the only reason Derek and Wei got together was to end the Derek/Nina issue. Of course, Derek switched targets pretty fast, so it wasn’t all that believable. And I was never clear why they liked each other—possibly because there was never very much time spent interacting with the other characters about their lives. So I’m left wondering if Derek and Wei had a relationship going, or just had crushes on each other, or something else entirely. It’s also worth noting that Sandy was interested in Derek.

So if Mike and Derek became Merek, Merek could have the initial crush on Nina, and then eventually move onto Sandy, who either does or doesn’t return his feelings. And Nina’s love subplot, if Sal was cut, could happen with Wei and seem just as realistic, if not more. Wei is a much more fleshed out character and has a lot more to do with the plot than Sal does.

Now that I’m done talking about all the relationships I hated, let’s move on to the good ones. Nina and her mother, Ginnie, were done well. I liked it, I believed it, I could sympathize. Success. Nina and her little sister, Dee, was okay. I believed it. Nina and her grandparents was great. For me, the grandparents were the best part of the story. Gran and Pops are awesome and interesting. Nina and Ed is scary and enthralling. Her relationship with her step-father is the main reason I finished the book instead of ditching it.

I also loved the world-building. The dystopian background of XVI is terrifyingly plausible and provides an exciting, trouble-filled sandbox to play in. And the new terms for things and the new slang words were not explained, but their meaning was clear all the same, which I liked. The one part of the world-building I questioned was the NonCons. I spent the whole book wondering how the word “NonCon” was made and what it stood for, and an answer was never provided. Non-Conditioned, maybe? Non-Connected? I don’t know. I want to know.

In addition, there were a number of punctuation errors that were missed in editing. Heck, there’s even one on the back cover. It says, “Then, with one brutal strike, Nina’s normal life is shattered; and she discovers that nothing that she believed about her life is true.” Excuse me, her normal life is shattered, semicolon, and she discovers???? No. You don’t put an “and” after a semicolon.

All in all, I didn’t feel like I was reading a completed book. I felt like I was reading a draft. And it needed work.

rating out of five stars

★★☆☆☆

conclusion

It needs a lot of revision, mainly with characters and subplots.

want to read it for yourself?

Buy at Amazon Buy at Powell’s

#4 = Wildthorn by Jane Eagland

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WILDTHORN by Jane Eagland

jacket flap blurb

Louisa Cosgrove is Louisa Cosgrove—not Lucy Childs. Or, is she?

A horse-drawn carriage takes her to the wrong place: Wildthorn Hall, an asylum for the insane.

This must be a great misunderstanding. They strip her naked, of everything—undo her whalebone corset hook by hook. They take her identity. But she is still seventeen—still Louisa Cosgrove—isn’t she?

To untangle the mysterious, wretched present, she remembers the past.

I wished I were a boy.

Locked away in the dingy bowles of the hall, she feels a fire burn inside her. She remembers her cousin. She remembers Papa.

I want to be a doctor.

She is determined to escape—and only love will set her free.

thoughts

It was a hard book to read, just because of the subject matter, but ultimately satisfying. It starts with Louisa arriving at Wildthorn Hall, to her confusion. She was under the impression she was to be a companion to the daughter of Mr. Woodville. Almost immediately upon arrival, she realizes something is wrong. But it takes her a while to realize, fully, that she has been committed into an asylum under the name Lucy Childs.

I found her reaction to arriving at the Hall (which she initially believes to be the wealthy Woodville’s home) very realistic. She didn’t put up a big fight, but her unsureness, her anxiety, her fear was well-written and conveyed in a believable matter.

The “memories” referred to in the jacket-flap aren’t flashbacks as such; the second chapter starts “Eleven years earlier.” Afterwards, the chapters alternate between the present and the past (ten years, eight years, six years, one year, seven months, etc) until the past catches up with the present and the recollection chapters stop. This would have been jarring, except for the way the book was organized. The chapters are grouped into four parts and a short epilogue. The memories are only for part one. I liked that, it was well done.

What I didn’t like was that the chapters were not labeled. Each chapter started about a fifth of the way down the page, with the first letter in a fancy chapter-starting font, so it was clear when chapters were. They just weren’t labeled “chapter one, chapter two, chapter three,” and so on. I would have liked some sort of labeling, for easy reference, I suppose, but it wasn’t a huge issue.

Now for the characters. As I said, I liked Louisa. She was compassionate, ambitious, smart, and strong-willed. She was trusting, but not in a naive way. She was also brave without being fearless. She was an excellent protagonist, really, and well fleshed-out.

Surprisingly, so were the other characters. For most of the book, I really disliked Tom. I felt there was nothing redeemable about his character whatsoever. Frankly, I kind of hated him. He felt like the antagonist. But, in the end, he wasn’t The Enemy. He was just a pathetic fool, who I still disliked but—like Louisa—couldn’t bring myself to outright hate. In fact, there were very few characters that felt like straight-up villains, like Voldemort; there only to oppose the protagonist. With the exception of Weeks, I can’t think of a single character that didn’t feel fleshed out and real.

As frustrating as many of them were—particularly Mamma, Tom, and Beatrice—they all had realistic reasons for their behavior and goals they were hoping to achieve through that behavior. Just like people. And sometimes they didn’t act in a logical way, or do what I would think would be the obvious thing (I’m looking at you, Beatrice), but that’s exactly what real people do.

And the romance. The romance between Louisa and Eliza was excellent, I loved it (though I think their names are a bit too similar—or maybe I’m just mis-pronouncing them?). But between Grace and Louisa? I wasn’t so sure. Grace and Louisa’s romance is in the flashbacks, and it’s ultimately ties into why Louisa was sent to Wildthorn. However, I feel that Louisa went too quickly from seeing Grace as a close friend to realizing she’s in love with her. It’s possible this was due to the timing of the flashbacks—the first couple are fairly far apart—or it could have been an effort to let the reader know this was more of a first crush than real love. But for me, it felt too sudden a change from their previous dynamic. I would have liked some more build-up.

To end on a good note, one of my favorite things was the ending. The final chapter ends in a horribly crushing fashion, but then I read the epilogue and it all made since and I was left with a smile when I closed the cover. It was excellent.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★

conclusion

Definitely one for the wish-list.

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#3 = One Eye Laughing, the Other Weeping: the Diary of Julie Weiss by Barry Denenberg

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ONE EYE LAUGHING, THE OTHER WEEPING: THE DIARY OF JULIE WEISS by Barry Denenberg

jacket flap blurb (none on my copy; copied from goodreads)

This special Dear America edition is actually two stories in a single volume. In part one of a two-part story, Julie Weiss’s world is suddenly torn apart by a war that will forever change the face of humanity. Her life as a privileged Jewish girl quickly becomes one of humiliation and terror. In part two, Julie has left Nazi Austria for New York, where she begins a new life with her extended family who she has never met.

thoughts

It’s more middle-school-aged than YA, but I still enjoyed it. The writing was straight-forward, without many metaphors/similes/unique descriptions, but it was interesting. The main character, Julie Weiss, is around twelve during the story, which takes place over the course of the year 1938. It’s historical fiction, based on a real person.

What the story did really, really well was sound authentic. Julie’s voice is strong and realistic. It sounds like a young girl without sounding too young. The characters were all engaging and seemed fully-fledged; even the background characters felt solid and real. The characterization was really the strongest part of the book. Julie, her family, and the people she interacts with (my favorites were Suzie, Mr. Allen, Mr. Heller, and Mr. Esposito) carry the story along.

The second half of the book, I would say, is stronger than the first half, just because there is more going on. The book was easier to get into after about a quarter of the way in. Prior to that, the conflict is very subtle, and I had the impulse to skim some parts.

The book is written as a collection of diary entries, labeled by date. But there are also these breaks, which I think are chapter breaks, but I’m not totally sure. With chapters, the following chapter usually starts on the next page with some sort of opening taking up the first quarter of the page or so. But these breaks weren’t followed by a page break. Most of them came at the bottom of the page, and then a new entry started on the following page. I ignored the breaks, because I have no idea what purpose they served. If they were supposed to break up groups of diary entires, they should have been set up like chapters, rather than…well…whatever they are now. And if they have some other meaning, it clearly wasn’t successful.

rating out of five stars

★★★★☆

conclusion

Not bad. Better for slightly younger readers, but still interesting. Sort of a younger age group’s version of MY FAMILY FOR THE WAR by Anne C. Voorhoeve.

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#2 = Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

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IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Red Suma

jacket flap blurb

Chloe’s older sister, Ruby, is the girl everyone looks to and longs for, who can’t be captured or caged. After a night with Ruby’s friends goes horribly wrong and Chloe discovers a dead body floating in the reservoir, Chloe is sent away—away from home, away from Ruby.

But Ruby will do anything to get her sister back,a dn when Chloe returns home at last, she finds a precarious and deadly balance waiting for her. As Chloe flirts with the truth that Ruby has hidden deeply away, the fragile line between life and death is redrawn by the complex bonds of sisterhood.

Surreal. Captivating. The cover perfectly encompasses the book. Imaginary Girls is…hard to explain. It’s intriguing, it draws you in right from page one and doesn’t let go. For most of the book, we’re led along by curiosity and by the beautiful, eloquent writing.

But I didn’t like the end. And that kind of ruined the book for me. The entire book felt like it was leading up to something, but then that something never really came. It was anticlimactic. So much of the book was strangely, wonderfully subtle, but for some reason the climax was also subtle. And it shouldn’t have been.

That being said, I still loved the writing in the book. It was gorgeous and metaphorical and amazing. And Chloe and her older sister Ruby were such interesting characters, and even though Ruby is, well, Ruby, I think Chloe was more interesting. Her relationship with her mother was background music, yet there was just enough to give you a sense that things turned out okay in the end. I felt like Suma could have done more with Chloe sort of, in a way, becoming Ruby. There was a little of that, a little where I felt like Chloe was filling Ruby’s shoes. Her realizing she really did look like Ruby, her having a tingle of Ruby’s power over others. I think that could have been fleshed out, in a way, and if Chloe grew to take Ruby’s place it would have been even more surreal.

I kept waiting for a supernatural rationale behind the stuff going on with London and Olive (I loved, loved, loved the town of Olive and the reservoir. It was probably my favorite part of the entire book) but that explanation never came. But I don’t think that was an issue. I liked it, actually, and I think the only reason it itched at me when I finished was that the climax was so anticlimactic I started looking for something else to make the book feel complete and landed on finding an explanation, which wasn’t there. If the climax had been more powerful, the lack of explanation wouldn’t have bothered me at all.

Another thing that made it feel incomplete was Chloe’s relationship with her father and her father’s family. I felt like they should have been mentioned again at the end, like some sort of conclusion of their power over Chloe and relationship to her should have been provided. But there wasn’t one, and that’s definitely an issue.

I can’t tell you how much I loved the reservoir and loved Olive and loved all of Ruby’s stories about Olive. I want to rate this book higher, just for Olive and the reservoir, but it just didn’t feel complete when I got to the end.

rating out of five stars

★★★☆☆

conclusion

Worth a read for the language, the reservoir, and Olive, but in the end, not completely satisfying. Lacks the feeling of completeness (not in the way that the first book in a series does, that’s a different sort of incomplete).

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#1 = The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

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THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER by Michelle Hodkin

jacket flap blurb

Mara Dyer doesn’t think life can get any stranger than waking up in a hospital with no memory of how she got there. It can.

She believes there must be more to the accident she can’t remember that killed her friends and left her mysteriously unharmed. There is.

She doesn’t believe that after everything she’s been through, she can fall in love. She’s wrong.

It started off with a weird-ass, confusing prologue written in an almost-but-not-quite indecipherable font. The prologue is written like a journal entry from the main character, Mara Dyer, who tells us that’s a fake name she’s picked to tell us this story. Personally, I dislike books that do the whole “this is totally a real thing it’s dangerous for you to know but I’m going to tell you anyway so sit back and remember this is absolutely true it really happened” shtick. Even the Percy Jackson books. Nope, nope nope nope. Jolts me out, makes me go “uh-huh, really?” and roll my eyes at the page. So not the best start, but intriguing in a “I have no idea what the hell is going on with this” kind of way.

Then we get to chapter one, which is titled with the number 1, and then the word “BEFORE” on the next line, and the location, “Laurelton, Rhode Island” on the next line. Then the chapter starts. I liked the “Before” and didn’t have an opinion on the location. However, second line is “When Claire pushed the heart-shaped piece into my hand, I startled.” You startled? You mean you started. Or possibly, you were startled. But the next couple lines made up for it: “The Ouija board was her favorite present that night, and Claire gave it to her. I got her a bracelet. She wasn’t wearing it.” It sets up the dynamic between Mara, Claire, and Rachel perfectly. Rachel is the leader, Claire is the bestie, and Mara is the want-to-be, possibly the was-bestie, who is now the third wheel.

The rest of the chapter is good. The writing’s clear, but not to the point of boredom or dryness. There’s interesting descriptions; they aren’t watercolor vibrant, twisting off the page, half in your mind and half in ink, weird and exotic and metaphorical, but in this story, that style definitely wouldn’t work. This is the kind of story with a lot of moments where we and the character go “Is that real? Is it really happening?” and can’t say for sure either way. I think if the language was too creative, you truly wouldn’t have any idea what’s going on.

The first chapter grabs you, but the second is a little slower but not by much. It’s titled “AFTER” and the location is “Rhode Island Hopsital [line break] Providence, Rhode Island.” Chapter three doesn’t give a “Before” or “After” because, like chapter two, it’s after. There’s no change in time from the previous chapter. I didn’t like that, however. It’s like in Insurgent, where each chapter has either “Tris” or “Tobias” until suddenly at the end there’s no name. Ugh. No. Stick with the pattern. Chapter three’s kind of dull, too. Four picks up, though and it just gets better from there. Like with the “before” and “after,” we’re not given a location unless the location has changed. I don’t like that. She should keep the pattern going, or take it out completely, since I’m not sure it’s necessary. I like it, but it could be taken out.

I like the various relationships in the book, I think most of them are done really well. I liked Mara and Jamie, and Mara and her brothers, and Mara and her mother. I wasn’t sure about Mara and Anna, though. We’re told that Noah, the love interest, is a playboy-type “sleep with everyone and never talk to them again” guy. And we’re told that Anna, the private school’s most important girl, was Noah’s girlfriend, or possibly lay, and then Noah dumped her and somehow, that translates into Anna’s distaste for anyone who comes near Noah, or anyone Noah goes near. I found that kind of confusing, especially since it wasn’t related very clearly in the book, it seemed like just an excuse to get the school’s top chick to hate Mara.

And Mara’s relationship with Noah was kind of weird, too. For the first part of the book, I didn’t really like him, and didn’t understand Mara’s attraction. Eventually, he grew on me, though, and now I don’t what to think. He takes some getting used to, I guess. I suppose if I could change it, I’d lessen Mara’s initially draw to him. Since Noah is interested in Mara from the get-go, we don’t need Mara’s attraction to him to keep him in the story. Mara could start off with only a little interest in Noah, and then Noah could grow on her as well as us.

But going back to relationships, most of them are done really, really well. Mara and her older brother, Daniel, and Mara and her younger brother, Joseph, are awesomely written. Mara and Jamie make total since, which is hard to accomplish since Jamie dislikes Noah and Daniel dislikes Jamie. Mara and her mom are perfect and I wouldn’t change anything there. Mara and her dad, though. After finishing the book, I hardly remembered there was a dad. I mean, he’s important to the plot. He has some good scenes. But I guess I just would have liked more between Mara and her dad. There’s a couple points where they talk briefly, and her dad says they should have a real conversation, talk about stuff. The book might have been stronger had Hodkin found a way to work in that conversation. I say “might have been” because I’m honestly not sure. What I see of the dad, I like, and I want to know more because he’s such a minor character to have such an important role. But at the same time, I’m not sure how he could be wedged into the story more without disrupting the flow. Perhaps he’ll have a bigger role in the sequel.

At the end of the book, besides the dad, I was also missing the connection to the prologue. I was left wondering why the prologue was even there, since chapter one seems like such a stronger opening. I can only assume it has connections to the sequel, but I think I would have cut it.

rating out of five stars

★★★★★

conclusion

Definitely worth a read. I’ll look for more books by Hodkin.

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