Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen
By Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul
Published October 9, 2018 by Poppy/Little, Brown

I went into Dear Evan Hansen not knowing much about it. I’d heard of the hit Broadway musical, and the book sounded interesting, so I picked it up. I found the book very gripping at first, and I was quickly sucked into the story. But about halfway through, I Dear Evan Hansenbegan to feel very uncomfortable.

The premise is an intriguing one: Evan Hansen, a teen suffering from severe anxiety, gets involved with the family of a dead classmate after a (tragi-) comedy of errors leads the family to think he was their trouble late son’s secret best friend. He gets sucked into their lives and then doesn’t want to leave. He becomes a more confident person and sheds his anxiety. But everything he’s doing is a lie, and I just couldn’t get past that.

It’s a mistake that causes the Murphy family to think Evan was their son’s secret friend, but after that, Evan works hard to maintain the lie. He fakes emails, spins elaborate stories about the dead kid, and worms his way into the family’s lives, all the while telling himself he’s helping them. There were so many points at which he could have told the truth or backed away, but he doesn’t and it made me really dislike his character.

I thought the book was pretty well written, but since the whole premise really bothered me, I think this book just wasn’t for me. The concept probably works very differently on stage and maybe the issues I have with the book wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

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Review: Muse of Nightmares

Muse of Nightmares
By Laini Taylor
Published October 2, 2018 by Little, Brown

Strange the Dreamer was one of my favorite books of 2017, and I was anxiously awaiting the sequel. I had extremely high hopes for Muse of Nightmares, and I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as good as the first book.

Muse picks up right where Strange left off: Lazlo now knows that he is a godspawn, Sarai Muse of Nightmaresis dead, and Minya holds Sarai’s soul in her hands, threatening to unmake her unless Lazlo helps her finally defeat the people of Weep. It’s a devastating position for Lazlo, as keeping Sarai’s soul intact may mean having to betray Eril-Fane and the Tizerkane, the people he’s come to regard as friends and really the only family he’s ever known.

Taylor is such a good writer. Her world-building is astounding. Every part of this complex system is so well thought out. At the beginning of the book, we meet two new characters, Nova and Kora, a pair of devoted sisters who seem to have some connection to the gods, although it’s not until well into the book that it begins to become clear. Every piece of the story fits together so well, and Weep feels like a real city, a place of both horror and wonder.

There are so many unforgettable characters in this series. Lazlo Strange, the underdog dreamer who turns out to be so much more than he could have ever imagined. Eril-Fane, the savior whose guilt is slowly tearing him apart. Azareen, whose love for Eril-Fane never wanes, even as pain threatens to consume her. Even the less noble characters are wonderfully multifaceted. Golden boy Thyon Nero actually begins to feel something other than entitlement. And then there’s Minya, the godspawn trapped in a child’s body, hell bent on revenge on the people of Weep. It’s tempting to see her as the villain of the story, but she’s so much more than that (and the true villain is Skathis, the long-dead god), and getting the chance to see inside her head makes her much more sympathetic (although still pretty terrifying).

There were a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the first book: Who are the gods? Where did they come from? Why did they take up residence over Weep? And the most disturbing question, what happened to all the other godspawn (the gods have been in Weep for 200 years, but there were only a small number of children left in the fortress when Weep was liberated)? Taylor skillfully handles all of these questions, and while this is a devastating book in many ways (a city that is still recovering from 200 years of sex slavery has a lot of baggage), it’s also beautiful and hopeful as well. There’s so much about family (both blood and found), revenge, redemption, and healing, and it’s a truly stunning book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Middle Grade Review: The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone
By Jaclyn Moriarty
Published October 9, 2018 by Arthur A. Levine Books

I’m a big fan of Jaclyn Moriarty’s young adult books. She’s a clever and very funny writer, and I jumped at the chance to read her new middle-grade book. The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is a wonderful, clever, and entertaining book that’s good for kids and adults alike.

I was ten years old when my parents were killed by pirates.

This did not bother me as much as you might think–I hardly knew my parents.

When she was still in a pram, Bronte Mettlestone’s parents left her with her Aunt Isabelle Bronteso they could go off and have adventures. Bronte hasn’t seen her parents since then, so the announcement of their death isn’t as devastating as you would expect. Much more troubling is her parents’ will, which leaves very detailed instructions for Bronte: she has to visit her father’s 10 sisters and bring them each a gift. She has to follow the instructions to the letter, because the will is trimmed in Faery cross-stitch, which means that if she doesn’t complete all the provisions as directed, something terrible will happen. And thus begins a long and adventurous journey.

Bronte visits a farm, saves a baby from drowning, gets caught in an avalanche, learns about dragons, attends a magical convention, and survives a pirate attack on a cruise ship. Her adventures are magical and funny. Moriarty is a master at plotting. Even the smallest detail means something, and I love seeing how all the pieces fit together in a fascinating puzzle.

There’s a lot going on in the book. Bronte’s journey is an adventure and a puzzle to be solved, but she’s also learning all about her father’s family and her mother’s mysterious past. Bronte is a practical child who handles all the adventures she encounters with aplomb:

I suppose I should tell you about the avalanche. I was thinking I could use that short chapter to skip straight over it and onto the next aunt. But no, that would only be annoying of me.

Reading middle grade books as adult can be dicey. What appeals to the younger reader may not work so well for an adult. I was quite pleased to find that the book was so entertaining and never felt as if it were written at too basic a level. Moriarty never underestimates her audience, and I think young readers will enjoy the rollicking adventures and dry wit of this book. It would be a great choice for parents to read along with their kids.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Grim Lovelies

Grim Lovelies
By Megan Shepherd
Published October 2, 2018 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Have you ever wondered about fairytale characters who are turned into animals? Or animals who are turned into people? If you have, Grim Lovelies is the book for you. It’s the story of a group of “beasties,” animals transformed into people who are fighting to stay human.

Grim LoveliesOur heroine Anouk and her fellow beasties were created by Mada Vittoria, a powerful witch living in Paris. Anouk is the youngest of the beasties, as she’s only been human for a year. She is a house servant for her mistress, and she’s never been allowed to leave the house. She watches Paris from the windows and wonders about the world outside. When Mada Vittoria is murdered, Anouk and the other beasties have only three days to find a spell to keep them human or else they will revert to their animal form.

This is a great setup for a fantasy novel, and there were parts of it I enjoyed. The magic world is an intriguing one, with royals at the top of the food chain and witches just underneath. Then there are the witches’ boys, adopted sons who provide blood for their witch mothers’ spells; goblins, who are treated as second-class citizens; and the beasties, who don’t really fit in anywhere. I loved the goblins. They were hilarious, and their fashion choices sound awesome. (I love that the beasties occasionally mistake humans for goblins because Parisian humans have started dressing like goblins.) The stakes were high for the beasties. Going back to being an animal means losing their memories of being human and the found family they’ve made, and this is particularly hard for Anouk, who’s only just begun to live.

There were some things that I was less into. I didn’t find most of the characters very interesting, and the only one I found intriguing wasn’t in the book very much and came to an unsatisfying end. I wasn’t on board with the romantic aspects either. Anouk has a romantic entanglement with a fellow beastie and another character seems to be romantically interested in her. Since Anouk comes across as very young and innocent, two characters being so attracted to her seemed unrealistic (or a little creepy).

This book skews a little more to the younger side of YA, and I think readers in that age range will really enjoy it.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: Light Years

Light Years
By Kass Morgan
Published October 9, 2018 by Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Light Years is a fun and fast-paced young adult sci-fi novel about students training at an elite military academy. The Quatra Fleet Academy trains the best young students to become officers in their military. This is the first year that the academy has opened their enrollment to students from the outer planets of the Quatra Federation, who are known as Settlers. Each planet has sent their best and brightest, but many from the main planet, Light yearsTri, are not happy about the new open policy and regard the Settlers as second-class citizens.

The story focuses on four students. Cormack is desperate to get off his deadly planet, so he takes his dead brother’s identity and place at the academy. Vesper is a wealthy girl from Tri, whose mother is a high-rank military veteran who runs the academy. She’s only there because her mother pulled strings, so she’s desperate to prove herself. Arran grew up on another outer planet and lived a life of privation, but his acceptance to the academy has lifted his mother out of poverty. Orelia claims to be from the outer planet of Chetire, but she’s actually a spy from the Federation’s greatest enemies, the Specters. The Specters want to destroy the academy and wipe out the next generation of their enemies’ military.

Cormack and Vesper antagonize each other when Cormack is made the leader of their practice squadron, a role Vesper has been practicing for her whole life. Arran falls for a handsome Tridian, but wonders if his beloved can actually care about a Settler. Orelia has her mission, but living, studying, and working with her enemies makes her wonder if what she’s doing is right.

I liked all four of the characters, although I felt least connected to Cormack’s narrative (he’s a bit of cocky jerk). Vesper’s desperation to prove herself to her mother makes her very relatable, and Arran is a cinnamon role who you just want to hug. He’s very insecure, and is never sure whether his handsome Tridian actually cares about him. I like that Arran and his love interest Dash being gay is not an issue in their society. The main conflict in their relationship is that Dash’s father is racist and doesn’t approve of the Settlers being allowed to attend the academy.

Orelia was the most interesting character to me. She’s been trained her whole life to fight for her people, but having to live and study with her supposed enemies makes her see them as actual people and not just abstractions. She also learns that the Tridian view of her people isn’t based in reality, and that what the people are told by their leaders may not be the truth (or maybe the Specter leaders are lying to their people?). I found the political aspects of the ongoing war to be potentially the most interesting part of the plot, but this part of the book was pretty underdeveloped and I wanted more. But this is the first book in a series, so I assume we’ll get into more of the politics of the war in the next book.

This was a fast-paced book, and I read it really quickly. I think fans of The Illuminae Files and The Starbound Trilogy will enjoy it.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

 

Review: Sawkill Girls

Sawkill Girls
By Claire Legrand
Published October 2, 2018 by Katherine Tegen Books

I read Furyborn by Claire Legrand earlier this year, and I loved it, so I wanted to check out her other books. When I heard she had another new book coming out this year and that it’s about girls who go missing on an island, I knew I had to have it.

The description made it sound like a mystery with some horror vibes, with maybe a Stephen King vibe. It turned out to be that, but also so much more. There’s feminism and Sawkillmisogyny and a little bit of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe.

On Sawkill Island, off the coast of New England, girls go missing every few years. It’s been happening for decades, but the people of Sawkill seem remarkably unconcerned. Zoey is concerned. Her former best friend Thora went missing a few months ago, not long after Thora was stolen away from Zoey by Val Mortimer, the local teen Queen Bee. Zoey is convinced that there’s something sinister going on and that Val is somehow involved. Because of her suspicions, Zoey has become persona non grata to everyone but her ex-boyfriend Grayson.

A new family comes to live on the island, sisters Marion and Charlotte and their mother. Grieving over their father’s recent death, the family has come to Sawkill to make a fresh start, but both girls come into Val’s orbit. Charlotte becomes Val’s latest BFF, and Zoey and Marion become friends, but Marion is fascinated by Val. Then Charlotte becomes the latest girl to go missing.

I won’t say much about the plot, because I didn’t know much going in, and it made the experience better for me. I will say that this book is creepy and wonderful and empowering. I expected a mystery, but what I got was a dark feminist tale with tangled, messy relationships, a take-down of the patriarchy, and an exploration of the way girls are pitted against each other. It’s spooky and extremely compelling. It’s also got some excellent diversity: two of the girls are queer and the third is asexual and African American.

The three main characters are all interesting in their own way. Zoey is determined to solve the mystery of the disappearances. As the daughter of the police chief and one of the only non-white, non-rich people on the island, she’s a bit of an outcast. She’s tough and tenacious, and she’s struggling to maintain a relationship with her ex-boyfriend Grayson. Val seems awful at first, just a typical mean girl. But there’s much more going on under the surface, and she’s a fascinating character. I just wanted to hug Marion. She’s lost her father, her sister has disappeared, and she starts experiencing strange physical symptoms. I like prickly, difficult girls, and this book gave me exactly that.

This book is just so good, and it’s really perfect for October, with its spooky vibes. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Review: The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker
Published September 11, 2018 by Doubleday

The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the final days of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, a former queen made a slave by the Greeks. A common phrase used by the male characters in the book is “Silence becomes a woman.” In this book, Pat Barker gives a voice to women silenced by history and legend.

The Trojan War may be the stuff of legends, but make no mistake, this is not a glorious, Silence of the Girlsheroic war. It’s a stupid, pointless conflict that drags on for 9 years. The in-fighting and chest thumping among the Greeks is ridiculous, and it’s amazing they won the war.

At the beginning of the book, Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus, watches as her city falls to the Greeks. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, kills her husband and brothers. The city is taken, the men are all killed, and the women are taken as slaves to the Greek camp, a smelly, rat-infested place that’s overflowing with testosterone. And for the women who have been brought there, it’s a rape camp.

Briseis is young, beautiful, and a queen, so she is a great prize and is thus awarded to Achilles. As masters go, Achilles is not the worst, since he’s not deliberately cruel, but he’s not particularly kind and seems mostly disinterested. His best friend (and perhaps former lover) Patroclus is very kind to Briseis, and they become friends of a sort (although it’s obviously an unequal relationship). But then Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, who is jealous of Achilles, demands Briseis for himself.

“None of that gives him the right to take another man’s prize of honor. It doesn’t belong to him; he hasn’t earned it.”

There was a lot more, but I’d stopped listening. Honour, courage, loyalty, reputation–all those big words being bandied about–but for me there was only one word, one very small word: it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earnt it.

The reality of being nothing but a prize is harsh and Briseis has to find a way to come to terms with it and to survive. At the beginning of the book, as they watch the Greeks overrun their city, Briseis’ cousin throws herself off a roof rather than be taken, and Briseis chooses to stay alive. As a high-status prize, she at least has a roof over her head in the camp, but she wonders what happens when her master tires of her. There are older women in the camp who belong to no one. They work all day and at night, they huddle under tents, looking for a place to sleep. Briseis dreads this possible future. It’s a grim life in the camp, even with the best of masters.

There are a few chapters told from Achilles’ point of view. The narrative is very different in these chapters; Achilles is a more slippery character, harder to pin down. He’s neither hero not villain in this retelling. His grief over the loss of Patroclus is very effectively done, both through his narrative and that of Briseis.

The relationship between Briseis and Achilles is thankfully not romanticized in the book. Some of the slaves love their masters, but most of them are just trying to survive. This book is brutal and beautiful, and there are parts of it that are very hard to read. Barker writes entirely in modern language; there’s no attempt to make the language sound period appropriate. I like this choice, as it keeps the reader from thinking of this story as some sort of remote occurrence, rather than what it is, the sort of war brutality that we see repeated over and over throughout history and the present day. It’s a tough read at times, but it’s amazing book and I highly recommend it.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.