Review: All the Crooked Saints

All the Crooked Saints
Maggie Stievater
Published October 10, 2017
Scholastic Press

I loved Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books, so I had high hopes for All the Crooked Saints. I’m happy to say that I loved it.

The Raven Cycle books had magical elements, but this time, Stiefvater has gone full magical realism. All the Crooked Saints is the story of the Soria family. The Sorias live in the Colorado desert in 1962. They have the ability to perform miracles, and in each generation, there is a Soria saint who is responsible for the miracles. Pilgrims come from all over in need of a miracle, and the saint provides them. Of course, these miracles aren’t exactly the Virgin Mary appearing at Fatima. The miracles cause the pilgrim’s Saintsinner darkness to manifest physically, which leads to some very bizarre things, such as a priest with the head of a coyote and a woman who is constantly rained on. There’s a catch to the miracles: once the first miracle happens, the Sorias can’t interfere or advise the pilgrims on how to progress to their second miracle, because that will trigger the Soria’s inner darkness and Soria darkness is much worse than normal darkness. This means that the pilgrims come to the Sorias, and many of them don’t leave.

The younger generation of Sorias includes three cousins: Daniel, the current saint, Beatriz, a girl supposedly without feelings, and Joaquin, a pirate radio DJ. The three are very close, and when Daniel breaks the rules and his darkness manifests, Beatriz and Joaquin are desperate to save him, despite family opposition.

This book is really wonderful. I was captivated from the first line: “You can hear a miracle a long way after dark.” Stiefvater’s writing is really beautiful and strange and imaginative. For example:

“Here was a thing Beatriz wanted: to devote time time to understanding how a butterfly was similar to a galaxy. Here was a thing she feared: being asked to do anything else.”

At just over 300 pages, this is a fairly short book, but it packs so much into those pages. There are a lot of characters, and although some of them are only seen briefly, they’re all very distinctive (see the above-mentioned coyote-headed priest) and Stiefvater’s evocative writing makes them come alive. The focus is on the three cousins, and Beatriz is my favorite. She’s known as a girl without feelings, but she actually has many feelings. It’s just that she processes those feelings a bit differently than everyone around her. What seems to others to be a lack of feeling is actually Beatriz analyzing every aspect of her feelings before deciding how to react. She’s a fascinating character, and although this is a stand-alone novel, I’d love a book about her.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: The Hearts We Sold

The Hearts We Sold
Emily Lloyd-Jones
Published August 1, 2017

The Hearts We Sold had an interesting blurb, so I took a chance on it because I haven’t read a good demon book in a while. I was expecting a YA urban fantasy and hoped it would be entertaining, but this deceptively simple book really blew me away.

The Hearts We SoldDee Moreno attends a posh boarding school. Because her home life is awful, Dee found herself a scholarship and got a ticket out of her house. Then her scholarship is revoked because of budgetary issues, and a desperate Dee makes a deal with a demon so she can afford to stay in school.

Dee’s parents are both alcoholics. Her mother is kind, but ineffectual, and her father is a cruel jerk who belittles her attempts to get a good education. She avoids them as much as possible, but she occasionally has to go home, and every encounter with her parents makes it clear why she is desperate enough to make a deal with a demon.

The demon of Dee’s world aren’t scary, fire-breathing monsters. They’re human looking, albeit beautiful, and they mostly blend in, except that there’s something just a bit off about them. They’ve announced their existence to the world, and they say they mean no harm. Not everyone believes in their existence, despite the announcement, and there are lots of internet conspiracy theories floating around about what they really are. Rumors abound that people can trade a body part to demons in return for what they want most, and when Dee meets a teenager with a prosthetic arm, she learns that the rumors are true. She seeks out a demon, hoping for a solution to her financial issues.

But this demon, known as the Agathodaemon, is different than all the others. He agrees to a deal with Dee, but he doesn’t take an arm or a leg. He deals in hearts: you give him your heart for two years and serve him, and you get money or power or whatever you request in return. A desperate Dee agrees to the deal without much thought, and the demon pulls her heart out of her chest and gives her a heart made of yarn as a replacement.

Dee soon learns that she may have made a bad bargain. The demon has a crew of heartless teens, and he sends them into strange voids that open up to something, perhaps another dimension, to close them up. The true nature of the voids is a mystery to the team, but they do as they’re told because they all want their hearts back and because the voids are apparently a threat to both the demons and humanity. The voids are terrifying places, and going inside one to close it up comes with the risk of being trapped there forever.

Dee starts out as a very closed off character. While she’s at school, she has acquaintances but no close friends. She gets along with her roommate, Gremma, but they’re not close. Dee doesn’t want anyone to know how bad things are at home, and by not getting close to anyone, she avoids having to reveal much about her life. She is entirely focused on the future and making a life away from her family, and there’s no room for anything else.

But losing her heart has the unexpected affect of opening the now empty space in her chest to other people. She and Gremma grow closer, and she begins to develop feelings for another member of the crew, James, who is a talented artist. There’s none of the dreaded insta-love here; Dee’s connection to James is a slow-building one. Dee’s gradual thawing toward the possibility of friends and romance is a wonderful journey.

I really enjoyed the authors’ take on demons. They’re scary, but in a cold, sinister sort of way, not in a red-scaled, horned, demon beast of yore kind of way. I found the demons all the more frightening because they are so seemingly normal.

The book has a diverse cast of characters. Dee is half-Latino, Gremma is gay, and other members of the heartless crew are African-American and trans. They’re all fully realized characters, and the author did a good job of having a diverse group of characters who are more than just labels.

I highly recommend The Hearts We Sold. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.





Review: Sparks of Light

Sparks of Light (Into the Dim #2)
Janet B. Taylor
Published August 1, 2017 by Houghton Mifflin

Sparks of Light is the sequel to Into the Dim, a book about a secret society of time travelers. I really enjoyed Into the Dim, and Sparks of Light is a worthy sequel.

Our heroine, Hope Walton, is recovering from her terrible experiences in 12th century London. She’s found a home with her mother’s family in the Scottish Highlands, and Sparks of Lightshe’s taken her place in the Viators, the group of time travelers. He mother and baby sister are safely back in the 21st century, although her mother is suffering from PTSD from the trauma she experiences while stuck in the 12th century. Hope’s love interest Bran shows up to alert the Viators that his mother, the Viator’s evil nemesis Celia, is plotting to get her hands on a device from 1895 that could give her enormous time-traveling power, something the Viators want to prevent.

The book gets into the action very quickly, and Hope and friends are soon on their way back to 1895 in New York City, at the height of the Gilded Age. Hope poses as a wealthy heiress and stays at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she meets such real-life socialites as Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt and the inventor Nikola Tesla. The author has clearly done her research, and I really enjoyed her descriptions of 1895 New York, where the Viators see everything from dire poverty to unimaginable splendor.

Things quickly go wrong, and some of the party are trapped in a mental institution. This part of the book is particularly harrowing. Mental health care in the late 19th century is not for the faint of heart, and the “treatments” are horrible. Some of the patients are genuinely ill, but many of them seem to be perfectly healthy people who have been shut away for being “inconvenient.” Mental health care in the 21st century still has a long way to go, but it’s light years ahead of the supposedly scientific treatments of the late 19th century. As awful as the hospital is, it’s a private hospital with some semblance of luxury. I can only imagine how awful a public hospital would have been at this time. The book really makes it clear that being a woman at this time was pretty awful (and it’s also not a good time for the one POC member of the team, Doug, who experiences some virulent racism).

I did have a few issues with the book. A new character is introduced, Gabriella. She’s an old friend of Bran’s, and although Bran show nothing beyond friendly feelings for her, Hope is instantly insanely jealous of her. Gabriella shows up at the beginning and the end of the book, and she’s really underdeveloped. Also, Hope is still mad at her mother for keeping so many secrets from her during her childhood, but this isn’t really explored. I would have liked to see a scene where Hope and her mother has things out. The villain from the first book, Celia, is spoken of often, but she never appears on the page, and we meet some new villains instead. The new villains only show up near the end, and we don’t know much about them, so they felt a little weak compared with Celia in the first book. But these are all minor complaints, and I imagine these issues might be resolved in the next book.

Overall, I really enjoyed Sparks of Light, and it made me feel very happy that I wasn’t a woman living in 1895.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review of Once and for All by Sarah Dessen

Once and for All
Sarah Dessen
Published June 6, 2017

Sarah Dessen is one of the queens of YA contemporary books, with loads of best-sellers. I tend to read more fantasy YA than contemporary, so I’ve only read one of Dessen’s books in the past. But Once and for All sounded like the perfect summer read, so I decided to give Dessen another try.

Once and for AllOnce and for All is a great beach read. In one sense, it’s a light read, but it also has a lot of depth. It’s the story of Louna, who doesn’t believe that love can last. She had a perfect romance, but it ended tragically and she doesn’t think she’ll ever find another lasting love. She works for her mother Natalie’s wedding planning business, and Natalie and her business partner take bets after each wedding about whether the marriage will last. All this cynicism about lasting love isn’t exactly helping Louna’s attitude toward love.

Then along comes Ambrose. He’s the charming, but disaster-prone brother of one of Natalie’s clients. To keep him occupied and out of his sister’s hair, Natalie hires him, and Louna is stuck working with him all summer, the firm’s busiest season. Ambrose is the opposite of Louna. He believes in love, so much so that he finds a new love every day. He’s all about the chase and is not interested in the follow-through. Louna finds him very annoying at first, but they grow closer as they work together and Louna begins to question whether it’s possible she can find love again. (I also found Ambrose annoying at first, but he grew on me, just as he does with Louna.)

I really enjoyed the behind the scenes look at the wedding industry. Natalie runs a tight ship, and no detail is too small for her planning services. They deal with last-minute wedding cancellations, jittery brides, and annoying relations. (There’s a really funny bit with a mother of the bride from hell who tries to walk off with anything that isn’t nailed down.) Louna and Ambrose have to work together on all kinds of weird tasks, and it’s a nice way to watch their relationship grow.

There were two things that I found a little annoying about this book. One is that Louna’s best friend, Jilly, is constantly trying to get Louna to date new people. This seems like bad best friend behavior when she knows all about the horrible way that Louna lost her first love (no spoilers, but it’s very sad). It’s been less than a year–let the girl grieve. The other issue I had is that there’s a wrench thrown into the romance in the third act that felt unnecessary, as if it were just there to extend the book another 50 pages.

Despite these issues, I really enjoyed Once and for All, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a light beach read. It’s a solid 3.5 stars.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review of Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Strange the Dreamer
Laini Taylor
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers March 2017

Strange the Dreamer is a beautiful, spellbinding book. It’s one of those books that’s hard to describe. It’s the story of Laszlo Strange, an orphan raised by monks, who is obsessed with the mythical lost city of Weep, an obsession he researches tirelessly through his work as a librariaStrange the Dreamern. Laszlo thinks that his obsession is just a dream and that he’ll never leave the library, but one day, a chance to fulfill his greatest dreams comes along and Laszlo is off on the adventure of a lifetime.

This is such a dreamy, beautiful books. It’s filled with gods, goddesses, heroes, monsters, magic, and one wonderful librarian with a magnificent dream. Laini Taylor has a unique, wonderful writing style and every word feels rich with meaning. I’m usually a very fast reader, tearing through books, but I took my time with Strange the Dreamer, wanting to savor it for as long as possible. Taylor builds an incredibly rich, multilayered fantasy world. I didn’t realize when I started the book that it’s not a stand-alone, so I was a bit surprised when it ended on a cliffhanger, but I’m very glad there will be a second book and I can’t wait to see where Taylor takes the story. This is a world I want to revisit.

Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

I’m really behind on writing about the many children’s books I’ve read over the past few months, and I will get to them soon, but in the meantime, I’ll be posting the occasional review of a new (or at least not vintage) book.

Defy the Stars
Claudia Gray
Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers April 2017

I tend to avoid books that take place in space, but I loved Claudia Gray’s Firebird trilogy, so I jumped at the chance to read Defy the Stars. I’m glad that I did, because I loved it.

Defy the Stars is the story of Noemi, a young soldier from the planet Genesis, a former colony of Earth. Genesis won its independence years earlier, but now they’re in a protracted war with a dying Earth, who wants to reestablish control over the former colony. Noemi has volunteered for what is basically a suicide mission to help save her planet, when she’s separated from her fleet and ends up on an abandoned Earth spaceship. The ship is empty except for Abel, a very Defy the Starsadvanced “mech,” which is basically a human-looking robot. Now that Noemi has taken over the ship, Abel’s programming requires him to view her as his commander and they begin a desperate journey across the stars to try to fulfill her mission and save Genesis.

Defy the Stars may be a young adult book, but it deals with some big issues, like immigration and what it means to be human. Genesis is something of a utopia, an egalitarian society living in harmony with nature and strictly conserving resources. But this utopia has been built on isolation and they feel that the people of Earth have screwed up their own planet, so why should be allowed onto Genesis, where they may do the same thing. On the other hand, Earth is dying and its citizens need somewhere to go. Many of them have already spread out to other planets, but most of those planets are barely habitable and can’t take many people. Gray’s take on these issues is nuanced. Noemi is firmly on her planet’s side at the beginning, but her travels through the planets cause her to question her beliefs.

Abel’s creator was also responsible for many other models of mech, all of which are built for specific purposes (combat soldiers, sex workers, etc.) and thus their programming is limited. Abel is the only one of his model, and he has very special abilities and in many ways, he is almost human. Noemi has encountered mechs before, but only in a combat capacity, so she has prejudices against them, but Abel’s abilities and emotions cause her to question her beliefs, while all of the feelings that Abel experiences during his journey with Noemi are new and exciting and he starts to wonder why his programming allows him to feel so much. Both Abel and Noemi have to rethink their concepts of what it means to be human.

Besides the big issues, there’s a romance, but it’s not the central focus of the book. It’s an important plot point, but it’s not the only thing going on and that was a refreshing thing to find in a YA book. There is going to be a sequel, but this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger and it can stand on its own.

(I received an ARC to review from Amazon Vine.)