Review: Brightly Burning

Brightly Burning
By Alexa Donne
Published on May 1, 2018 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Adapting a much-loved classic into a modern or futuristic setting can be tricky. So much of the conflict in Jane Eyre is related to the societal restrictions of the time. In a modern world, there wouldn’t be any need to hide your insane wife in the attic. She would hopefully have good medical treatment (the Rochester money would mean probably yes). Maybe modern advances in psychiatric drugs would have helped her. Maybe she and Rochester would never have married in the first place, in a world where people don’t have to marry someone they barely know.

BrightlyBy setting Brightly Burning in the future (how far in the future isn’t clear), Alexa Donne adds back into the mix some social structures that work with the original plot. There’s a dystopian quality to this version. After a new ice age, Earth became uninhabitable, and the remains of humanity took to space, living in large spaceships that orbit around Earth. There is some serious inequality (orphans get shipped off to the worst ships to do jobs like growing food for the other ships, the wealthy get to live on better ships, and the super-rich can afford their own private ships). Resources are limited, and there’s a definite hierarchy of ships. Life expectancy is low, and people get married early. When a ship’s outlives its usefulness, it may be forced to de-orbit back to Earth, but no one knows whether Earth is even inhabitable.

The Jane Eyre character, Stella Ainsley, lived on the Empire, a ship with some luxuries. Her parents both died when she was young, and she was briefly in the care of her aunt. After a virus killed many people on the various ships, the fleet instituted an orphan transfer program, and the aunt sent Stella off to the Stalwart, a much less desirable ship populated mostly by young orphans. The Stalwart grows food for the other ships in the fleet, and living on it is definitely a step down. Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to see why Stella might want to leave the Stalwart. She works as an engineer, but her dream is to be a teacher. Poor orphans don’t have a lot of opportunities, so Stella leaps at the chance to become a teacher on a private ship, the Rochester.

Life on the Rochester is a revelation for Stella. Owned by the wealthy Fairfax family, the ship is large and luxurious. There is ample food, water, and anything else Stella might want or need. Her pupil Jessa is delightful, and the rest of the crew seem nice enough, if a little odd. The swoon arrives in the form of the ship’s captain, Hugo Fairfax, Jessa’s older brother. At just 19, he’s the captain of the ship and in charge of a large family fortune. (Yes, the age difference between Jane and Rochester has been eliminated, but I’m fine with that. The age difference is kind of creepy when it’s not the 19th century.)

Stella and Hugo bond over their shared love of books (the ship is unusual in that it has actual paper books), and an attraction develops, but Hugo is the brooding type and he drinks too much. There’s clearly something odd happening on the ship, and the rest of the crew are tight-lipped when Stella asks any questions. The story begins to play out much as you would expect from a Jane Eyre retelling, but the author has made enough changes to the original tale to keep things interesting.

Brightly Burning is a fast-paced retelling that takes the original story to some interesting new places. Stella in an engaging heroine, and the romance, while not quite rising to the emotional resonance of the original, makes you root for them to overcome their circumstances. I think fans of the original will enjoy it (although purists may have some issues), but you don’t need to have read Jane Eyre to read this book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.
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Review: The Traitor’s Game

The Traitor’s Game
By Jennifer Nielsen
Published February 27, 2018 by Scholastic

There’s a lot that’s familiar in The Traitor’s Game: a corrupt kingdom, an evil ruler, a ragtag group of rebels, and a boy and girl who can’t stand each other forced to work together. But the author pulls all these elements together into a very entertaining story. No, it doesn’t break any new ground, but if you like YA fantasy tropes, you will probably enjoy this book.

Traitor's GameThe kingdom of Antora once had two royal families, the Halderians and the Dallisors. The two clans have fought over the throne for many years, and in a last-ditch effort to defeat their rivals, the Dallisors allied with Lord Endrick, one of a race of people with serious magical powers. With Endrick’s help, the Dallisors won the war, but Lord Endrick took the throne and the Dallisors now serve him, while the Halderians were banished.
Kestra Dallisor is the daughter of Lord Endrick’s right-hand man. She’s been called home by her father after a three-year exile. On the journey, she’s waylaid by group of rebels, the Coracks. They hold her servants hostage and force her to help them find a legendary dagger that is supposedly the only weapon that can defeat Lord Endrick. With two the Coracks, Trina (who loathes Kestra even more than the rest of the rebels) and Simon (who shares a fraught past with Kestra), Kestra returns to her home, where her welcome isn’t exactly warm.

This book is filled with tension. Kestra doesn’t get along with her father and she hates Lord Endrick, but she’s still very conflicted about betraying her family. She’s not at all convinced that the Coracks’ motives are pure and she’s concerned about their connections with the Halderians, who kidnapped and nearly killed her three years ago.

There is a dual narrative with alternating chapters from Kestra and Simon’s point of view. Both narratives felt distinct, and I liked being able to see both sides of the story, since the two characters are working at cross purposes for much of the book. This being a YA fantasy, it’s not exactly a surprise when their mutual antipathy slowly turns to affection. I liked the romance, although I thought that Simon’s hatred turned to love a bit too fast. Kestra’s gradual change in feelings works a bit better.

There are lots of twists and turns, and everyone is keeping secrets. I predicted one of the twists, but then things went in an expected direction. This was a quick, entertaining read and may appeal to fans of The Winner’s Curse series and The Remnant Chronicles.
I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Emergency Contact

Emergency Contact
By Mary H.K. Choi
Published by Simon & Schuster March 27, 2018

I’ll admit that I was first drawn to Emergency Contact by the beautiful cover, but the description also sounded intriguing. I enjoy books about the first year of college, as I think it can be an interesting setting for a coming of age tale.

Emergency ContactI really enjoyed this book. The two main characters, Penny and Sam, are both a little broken. Penny is anxious, and she’s trying to figure things out at college and how to separate from her well-meaning, but very clueless mother, Celeste. (Celeste is very sweet, but she’s young and has no boundaries and wears crop tops. She’s the kind of mom that would make an 18-year-old cringe.)

Sam is 21. He’s just gotten out of a toxic relationship, and his ex doesn’t want to be with him but doesn’t want to let him go either. He’s broke and he lives in a room above the coffeeshop where he works. His laptop is dying, he can barely afford a community college class, and he worries that he’ll never be able to achieve his dream of making films.

Sam and Penny meet through her roommate Jude, who was briefly Sam’s step-niece (his mother was married to Jude’s grandfather) and then they run into each other on the street while Sam is having a panic attack. Penny is no stranger to panic, and she helps him out. They exchange numbers, and they begin a tentative texting relationship, becoming each other’s sounding boards.

Sam and Penny are both the kind of characters you want to be happy (I wanted to hug both of them, but Penny would probably not be down with that). I loved reading about them finding a connection. Yes, there’s a bit of romance, but it’s really about the kind of deep connection people can find. Much of the book is their text chains, and there’s also a lot of being inside their heads (the point of view switches between them in each chapter).

Emergency Contact reminded me a little bit of Fangirl, in that it features a prickly college freshman who wants to be a writer and a slightly older guy. But these are minor similarities, and Emergency Contact stands on its own. Like I said, I like books about the first year of college. This is a quiet sort of book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: The Astonishing Color of After

The Astonishing Color of After
By Emily X. R. Pan
Published March 20, 2018

The Astonishing Color of After is a beautiful and unflinching look at love, loss, and grief. It’s a debut novel, with lovely, lyrical writing.

At 15, Leigh Chen Sanders has just lost her mother, who committed suicide while Leigh was kissing her best friend and long-time crush, Axel. Freaked out by the kiss and what it Astonishingmight mean, Leigh rushes home, only to learn that her mother is dead. Leigh’s father is so wrapped up in his own grief that he ends up taking Leigh to Taiwan to visit her mother’s parents, and then he leaves her there. This is bad enough, but Leigh has never met her grandparents (her mother was estranged from them), and they don’t speak English and she doesn’t speak Mandarin.

Leigh is in her own grieving place. She’s confused and sad and angry. Oh, and she’s convinced her mother has turned into a bird. The book opens with the following passage:

My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.

As crazy as this sounds, Leigh is completely convinced that her mother is a bird. Shortly after her mother’s death, she sees a large red bird, and when she sees the bird again in Taiwan, she believes her mother is reaching out to her. Leigh finds incense in her room at her grandparents, and when she burns a stick, she finds herself inside a memory, sometimes her own memory and sometimes one of her family members’ memories.

Yes, it’s a little odd, and if you’re not fan of magical realism, this book may not be for you, but I absolutely loved it. Leigh’s journey through dealing with her grief, meeting her grandparents for the first time, learning about her family history, and coming to terms with it is beautiful and gripping and lovely.

The Astonishing Color of After is also a realistic look at depression. Leigh’s mother has suffered from depression since Leigh was a young child, and the ups and down of her illness have had a profound effect on her family. Leigh’s father travels a lot of work, and he seems to be using it as an excuse to get away from his family. Leigh ends up having to take care of her mother and herself. The book really shows how difficult it can be for both the person with the mental illness and everyone around them.

Although it’s not the main focus of the book, The Astonishing Color of After deals with Leigh’s identity as a biracial person (her father is white). When she goes to Taiwan, she’s in the weird position of being half-Chinese, but not speaking the language or really understanding much about the culture. She hears strangers say “hunxie” when they see her and her grandmother explains that it means biracial (literally “mixed blood”). Unfortunately, she’s used to people pointing out that she’s different:

Back at home, sometimes people say I look exotic or foreign. Sometimes they even mean it as a compliment. I guess they don’t hear how it makes me sound like I’m some animal on display at the zoo.

This book reminded me a bit of I’ll Give You the Sun, which is also about teenagers grieving for their mother. I’ll Give You the Sun is one of my favorite books, so this is high praise.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: People Like Us

People Like Us
By Dane Mele
Published February 27, 2018 by Putnam

People Like Us is a fun, twisty YA thriller set in a privileged and vicious world. Kay Donovan is a scholarship student at an elite boarding school, the Bates Academy. Because she’s a soccer star and captain of the team, Kay is one of the school’s most popular students, and she’s part of a group of girls who run the school.

People Like UsKay seems to be on top of the world until the night she and her friends try to go skinny-dipping and find a dead body in the school lake. It looks like the dead girl committed suicide, but the police are investigating her death and have a lot of questions for the girls who found the body. The morning after, Kay receives an email from the dead girl, telling Kay that she has to carry out an elaborate revenge plan or her past will be revealed. Kay has skeletons in her closet, and if they come out, her chances for a college scholarship are in danger, so she feels she has to go along with the plot, and she gets caught up in trying to investigate the death. As you can imagine, this doesn’t exactly go well for her.

This book was a lot of fun. I ripped through it, dying to get to the big revelation at the end. It’s really fast paced, and it mostly kept me guessing until the end. There are a lot of suspects, and all of the characters are kind of awful, so it feels plausible that any of them could have done it. Kay is a morally ambiguous character. She’s been a mean girl to lots of her fellow students, and when she begins to fall under suspicion, people are quick to turn on her. She feels terrible about the things she’s done, but she’s also willing to sacrifice her friends to save herself. She’s a mess, and I found myself rooting for her even as she did some really dumb things.

People Like Us has a lot of LGBT representation. The main character is bi, her best friend is gay, and there are other gay and bi characters. It’s refreshing to see this representation, and it’s treated as unexceptional in the book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Tempests and Slaughter (The Numair Chronicles Book One)
By Tamora Pierce
Published February 6, 2018 by Random House

Tamora Pierce is a legend in young adult fantasy, and the release of a new book by her is always cause for celebration. Tempests and Slaughter is the latest of a long line of books set in the world of Tortall. This time, we go back to the childhood of the mage Numair. Once upon a time, he was a boy named Arram Draper.

Arram is one of the youngest and most talented students at the Imperial University of Carthak. He’s a very impressive mage in training, and has been moved up to more advanced classes, which Tempests and Slaughtermakes him a bit of an outcast. But then he meets Ozorne, a prince from the imperial family, and the lovely and charming Varice. The trio quickly become the closest of friends.

Tempests and Slaughter has a delightful old-school quality. Recent Young Adult fantasy often has certain hallmarks: breakneck (and sometimes nonsensical) plotting, instalove, and weak world building. Pierce is a master of the genre, and none of these pitfalls are present in Tempests and Slaughter. Pierce takes her time with the story. Obviously, the fact that this is the latest in a long line of books set in this world means that the world-building is adding on to an existing world, but Pierce doesn’t cut any corners. Every element of the world is well thought out.

There’s not actually a ton of plot. It’s mostly about Arram’s day-to-day life at the school. He learns what he is capable of, he grows in his friendships with Ozorne and Varice, and he begins to formulate his world view. Arram is very aware of the injustices of the society he lives in. He comes from a country that doesn’t have slavery, and he is very bothered by slavery in the Carthaki empire. It’s difficult for him to understand why no one else seems to be bothered by this system. He’s also very aware of the problematic issue of gladiator fights. As part of his mage training, he is called on to help treat the injured gladiators, and he’s horrified by the practice of fighting and the fact that it’s viewed merely as entertainment for so many.

There’s only the barest hint of romance in this book, which makes sense considering that Arram is 10 when the books begins. It covers a 4-year period in his life, and as he gets older, there are attractions and crushes, but they are a very minor part of the book. Given Arram’s young age at the beginning of the book, Tempests and Slaughter may appeal to both middle grade and young adult readers. It has a Harry Potter quality, in that you’re watching a child as he grows older. I enjoyed Tempests and Slaughter very much, and it’s inspired me to go back and finish the Tortall books I haven’t read.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood
By Melissa Albert
Published January 30, 2018 by Flatiron Books

The Hazel Wood has gotten a lot of prepublication hype, and I always wonder if I’m actually going to like hyped books or if the the buildup is too much for the book to live up to. In this case, you can trust the hype, because The Hazel Wood is really good.

The Hazel WoodAlice is a teenager who lives with her mother Ella. Ella is the daughter of a reclusive writer with a cult following, Althea Prosperpine. Many years before, Althea published a book of fairytales about a place called the Hinterland. The book is long out of print and nearly impossible to find, but Althea has some extremely devoted fans. Ella is estranged from her mother, and Alice has never met her grandmother.

Alice and Ella live an odd life. They are constantly on the move, never staying in one place for too long, always trying to stay one step ahead of the bad luck that seems to follow them wherever they go. Bad things happen to and around them: their house is flooded, a wildcat enters their house through an open window, creepy people seem to follow them, and Alice was briefly kidnapped by a fan of her grandmother when she was 6 (she was returned unharmed). But now Althea is dead, they’re living in New York, and Ella has gotten married. Ella is hopeful that they’ve moved on from the bad luck, but one day, Alice sees the man who kidnapped her, and he doesn’t seem to have aged a day. She goes home to find her mother missing, and she turns to a classmate named Ellery Finch for help. Finch is one of Althea’s superfans, and the two set off on a quest for the Hazel Wood, Althea’s estate, which they hope will lead them to Ella.

This book is dark and creepy. Think the Brothers Grimm stories as they were originally written, before they were Disneyfied. Alice isn’t a particularly likable heroine. She has anger management issues and she’s very prickly. But I felt like she was realistic. Her behavior makes sense when you consider that she’s a kid who’s had no stability in her life. She’s had to move every few months, she’s never finished a whole school year in one place, and she has to take care of her mother. Of course, she has some anger issues.

Alice and Finch’s journey is weird and twisty. They start out in New York, looking for clues to the Hazel Wood’s location. Finch once owned a copy of the book, but it was stolen, and tracking down another copy proves problematic. They encounter all kinds of creepy people and it seems as though the Hinterland is coming after them. Finch tells Alice some of the stories he remembers from the book, and I loved this part. The bits and pieces of the stories in the book are deliciously creepy, and I would have liked more.

I really liked that this book had no romance, something that’s rather rare in YA. There’s nothing wrong with romance, and I read tons of YA fantasy with heavy romantic elements, so obviously, I have no issue with it, but this book is really about a mother/daughter relationship, and a romance was unnecessary.

This book has a really perfect ending. I often feel that book endings don’t live up the promise of the rest of the book, but I have no issues here. The resolution was exactly what the story needed.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.