World After (Penryn & The End of Days, Book 2)

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The World After (Penryn & The End of Days, Book 2)
4 out of 5 stars

Quotes: “You’re naming your collector’s-item, kick-ass sword that’s made to maim and kill, specifically designed to bring your ginormous enemies to their knees and hear the lamentation of their women—Pooky Bear?”

For Readers Who:
(1) Enjoy kick-ass, weapon-wielding heroines who don’t need to be saved.
(2) Like to laugh…out loud…probably at inappropriate times.
(3) Don’t mind plots that bounce from one thread of a story to another (Oh, unraveling romance. Yes, I forgot about that weird angel political campaign. What the…genetic engineering?) It is clear that these will converge later in the series, but right now, these plot lines are tenuously connected.

Review: Susan Ee makes me laugh. I can’t read her books in public because her wry sense of humor elicits sounds from me in which strangers think I am either possessed or need the Heimlich maneuver.

Besides the one above, these are some quotes that I found dry and very witty. Too bad I was drinking water while reading the second one (there should be warning labels on humorous prose):

Penryn finds Angels on Alcatraz: “At least the angels didn’t have the sense of humor to take over the neighboring Angel Island instead.” 

On the damage to San Francisco: “Splinters the size of redwood trees are everywhere. Too bad angels aren’t killed like vampires. We could lure them here and have a field day.” 

I have to agree with some reviewers that noted that the plot of the novel was slow. About a third of the way through reading, I got frustrated and starting paging through the rest of the book to figure out when Rafe made his grand entrance. Yep. This book kept the male protagonist from me for so long that I became the literary equivalent of a peeping tom.

The consolation for this was that Rafe’s sword had its own POV sections. Yes…a sword with a narrative point of view. It’s actually kind of an ingenious move that Ee makes because the sword is emotionally connected to Rafe and has shared almost all his experiences. So while Rafe isn’t with Penryn, the sword is.

Some of my favorite characters are still Dee and Dum. Their banter with each other and Penryn adds a humorous dimension to the narrative to a book whose subject might keep it from being having moments of lightness. I hope that we will see more of the twins (and learn more of their history) in Book 3. 

Verdict: For fans of Angelfall, World After is a must read. Ee’s use of humor and her believable relationships are what separate this series from the many dystopian /apocalyptic novels that have appeared in recent years. She uses fictional conventions in new and interesting ways (i.e. who ever sat down and wrote from a sword’s POV?). Remember, I advise you not to read her books in public…try explaining how a book made coffee come out of your nose.

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Angelfall (Penryn & The End of Days, Book 1)

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Angelfall (Penryn & the End of Days, Book 1)
4 out of 5 stars

Quotes: “Asleep, he looks like a bleeding Prince Charming chained in the dungeon. When I was little, I always thought I’d be Cinderella, but I guess this makes me the wicked witch. But then again, Cinderella didn’t live in a post-apocalyptic world invaded by avenging angels.”

For Readers Who:
(1) Enjoy kick-ass, weapon-wielding heroines who don’t need to be saved.

(2) Are looking for a series in which romance is not the main focus of the plot.

(3) Can keep an open mind to the unexpected mash-up of genres that the novel employs. This book incorporates varying elements of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, paranormal romance, and science fiction (specifically genetic engineering). Surprisingly, Ee makes it work, but only if the reader is able to give her a measure of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “poetic faith.” If you are already reading a novel about an angel apocalypse, is it really that much stranger that the story moves to a 1920’s themed club? I mean, even angels have to have somewhere to unwind after a long day of smiting.

Review: Angelfall has many things in common with YA books that have become bestsellers. For instance, like a number of series, Angelfall is set in a post-apocalyptic or dystopian world. Similarly, the plot of Angelfall revolves around YA’s current obsession with angels and demons.

However, Angelfall is not your usual YA novel. Where it differs from the majority of books that are published today is that, rather than following a formula (plot, genre, etc.) of what is selling, this novel breathes new life into these all too formulaic genres by defying the reader’s expectations.

I struggled over the best way to describe Angelfall because it is so unique. I honestly had nothing else to compare to it. After significant deliberation, I believe I figured it out. This is what I finally came up with:
YA books = Twilight, The Hunger Games, etc.
Angelfall = the appeal of the above + Buffy the Vampire Slayer (more weapons and action, more humor, more female self-sufficiency)

Penryn and Buffy are both strong, female heroines. One thing I loved about the plot (and Penryn’s character) was that Ee did not make her strength purely physical. Before the reader is witness to Penryn’s amazing training at self-defense, the first few chapters show her as a devoted sister to a physically handicapped sister and a schizophrenic mother. Her interactions with her mother are fascinating. Before the apocalypse, her mother’s paranoia about the devil led her to sign Penryn up for as many self-defense classes as she could find. 

While Penryn is now able to protect her family from much of the violence, her mother’s hyper vigilance also helps keep them safe: “In a civilized world where there are laws, banks, and supermarkets, being a paranoid schizophrenic is a major problem. But in a world where the banks and supermarkets are used by gangs as local torture stations, being a little paranoid is actually an advantage.”

The relationship in the book unfolds slowly and is not the singular focus of the novel. Angelfall is plot-driven, although it sets up a romance that offers much promise for the future books in the series.

Verdict: Penryn is a kick-ass heroine with a heart of gold. In a similar vein to Katniss from The Hunger Games, Penryn sacrifices for the good of her family. Likewise, she is used to “saving” herself, and when a man comes along who can save her, she refuses to be cast in the role of the damsel in distress. Rather, she continues to fight. Angelfall is anything but formulaic. Although the romantic element of the novel unfolds slowly, the plot is quick-paced and the novel offers unexpected twists through Ee’s unique combination of elements from a variety of genres (post-apocalyptic, sci-fi, and paranormal romance).

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin #1)

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GRAVE MERCY (His Fair Assassin #1)

3 out of 5 stars

QUOTES: “[He] offers me his arm. As I take it, I wonder what folly decreed that women cannot walk unassisted.”

FOR READERS WHO: (1) Like historical fiction. (2) Enjoy a bit of espionage. (3) Like killer courtesan nuns? (okay, that may be a rather small audience, but nonetheless…) (4) Don’t mind their books to be a little light on the romance.

REVIEW: God was this long. I mean this was really long. I study 19th century fiction as a grad student and I was wondering if she was going for a Dickens vibe. A fourth of this book could have been cut… and the relationship between Duval and Ismae could have received a lot more attention. I felt as though it just started to gain momentum as the book drew to a close.

Okay, the concept was cool. Killer courtesan nuns. Handmaidens of Death. I am still harboring some questions about how one “takes Death as a lover.” This wasn’t answered in the second book, Dark Triumph, either. Really? Part of the reason I kept reading was because I was waiting for a “grasshopper” moment when the secrets of this fictional world were revealed. Ismae and the other daughters of Death are essentially ninja nuns. Origin story please?

Another weakness of the novel is character development. I didn’t feel a connection with the characters.The ratio between political and personal was off. It was similar to getting to know a person and ever time they started to answer your questions, (What’s your favorite color? Pepsi or Coke? How do you become Death’s lover?) someone popped in with “breaking news.” I wanted to get close to the characters, but some spy or newly discovered betrayal was always getting in the way.

I guess I had higher hopes for this book because I believe that I set the bar high by unconsciously comparing it to a book I had read in my early teens, Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel. For me, Crown Duel succeeds where Grave Mercy fails: perfectly balancing the plot of political intrigue with character development.

VERDICT: All I can really say is “Meh.” Give me a backstory (Death’s lover, courtesan nuns…come on! That’s a paranormal tella novella!), focus on people (not politics), throw in a few more smoldering glances, and integrate more psychological character development and this could be a really interesting novel. As it is, it’s just sexy nuns talking politics.

Inescapable (The Premonition #1)

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Inescapable (The Premonition #1)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Quotes:What’s up with hotness? I wonder. He looks like someone definitely broke his crayons.”

For Readers Who: (1) Want a storyline that unfolds over many books. Bartol is a writer of intricacy. There is not a singular “secret identity” (“Bella, I’m a vampire!”) stretched across four books. The Premonition series continues to become richer and her characters more complex with every book. (2) Enjoy epic fantasy. (3) Like fictional worlds that create their own mythology.

REVIEW: Once again, I have no idea when the angel genre hit the YA scene. I do, however, think that Bartol’s series is by far the best example of any series that features angels, demons, or other celestial beings (yeah, not quite sure what the “other” is, but just covering my bases here).

Reviewers have seemed to either love or hate Inescapable. Many of the 2 star-ers on goodreads have called it a Twilight fanfic rip-off. There are, of course, some parallels between Twilight and Inescapable. For example, there is a love triangle. Love triangles and what I like to call other “geometrically amorous relationships” (I feel as though I should trademark that phrase) have become all the rage – a trend as reliable in YA fiction as vampires, werewolves, angels, and (my favorite) weapon-welding heroines. However, Bartol’s series, as I mentioned before, has a complex plot, and the triangle between Evie and the two male characters (Reed and Russell) starts to unfold but also unravel in ways that are anything but formulaic.

Evie is an extremely likable character. I still can’t quite nail down what I like about her, but I think it’s that she sometimes makes remarks that I could see myself saying (and then smacking myself for speaking aloud). She is just starting college, and she tells Russell that she knows she will love Art History: ““Because I’ve never had a class like it. It will be my existential flight from the iron cage of reason,” I reply hopefully, feeling fairly excited about the prospect of something different.” Yeah. She and I would be friends. She is endearing rather than pedantic, but it becomes clear quite quickly that her naivete and optimism are both her biggest asset and her fatal flaw.

Oh, and that geometrically amorous relationship? Don’t get too comfortable with it because the ride has only begun, my friend. As the plot unfolds in the following books in the series, it works because it is woven into the plot. Take my advice and don’t call “foul” and “fanfic” (or a host of other words) because this is perhaps the only YA series I have read in which such relationships work. That Amy Bartol is a clever lady.

VERDICT: This is my least favorite books in the series, and I gave it 4.5 stars. The series only becomes progressively more unexpected, incorporating new characters with old, and weaving in the personal histories of those characters that I had come to love across many books. Over the series, Evie becomes one of the strongest and most clever heroines in contemporary YA fiction, and Bartol is on my short list of recommendations that I give to those who ask.

The Morgesons

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5 out of 5 stars

FAVORITE QUOTES:

(1) “Even drawn battles bring their scars.”

(2) “I became a devourer of books which I could not digest, and their influence located in my mind curious and inconsistent relations between facts and ideas.”

FOR READERS WHO:

(1) enjoy first-person narratives

(2) like the poetry of Emily Dickinson

(3) want a more mature coming-of-age story to add to classics like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre

REVIEW: I am aware that this isn’t a young adult novel, although that is the genre to which I have devoted this blog. I also know that many readers of YA fiction have read or end up reading 19th and early 20th century novels with strong female characters like Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre, precursors to the clever, rebellious, and loyal heroines we see in fiction today. Elizabeth Stoddard’s heroine, Cassandra Morgeson, is only remembered by a handful of academics in literature. She is a heroine that deserves to take her place among her sisters. If Stoddard was alive today, she would probably have to pay me a commission for the lengths I am going to pull her name from obscurity.

The novel also has a notable style. If Emily Dickinson would have written a novel, that novel would have been The Morgesons. Okay, that may be a bit of an overstatement. However, Elizabeth Stoddard’s novel should be far less obscure than it is today; the novel’s prose has a grace and a strength of emotion that mirrors that of her contemporary, Dickinson.

Like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, The Morgesons is a 19th century coming-of-age novel. Many readers discover Austen and Bronte’s novels when they are still quite young and they cherish them throughout their lives. Re-reading them brings a kind of nostalgia for a world of youth, romance, and idealism. The Morgesons is a coming-of-age novel for a new stage of life, when things have become more…complicated than you thought things would ever be at 14 (that was the age when I first read Pride and Prejudice).

The novel is a first person narrative written in the voice of Cassandra (Cassy) Morgeson. She lives on a coastal town near Boston with her parents and her sister Veronica (Verry). As she grows, she is sent away to live in different towns, first with her grandfather, a pious tyrant of a man, then with her cousin and his wife, and then with high society in the novel’s fictional counterpart of Salem.

Cassy is smart and rebellious, and she is intelligent enough to be aware of the limitations of social conventions and gender norms. Like the sea near the coast where she grew up, her soul longs to be free from restraint. Cassy as a character is likable. The character of her sister Verry is the hardest to understand and place within the context of the novel. Verry is meant to represent the opposite of Cassy; her personality is like the endless and unchanging pastures while Cassy’s is the ever-volatile sea. I am still thinking about how to process Verry because she is, well, Verry (yep, that’s a pun) strange.

Like Cassy, Stoddard pushed the boundaries of her era by writing a novel not only about a young woman’s intellectual and emotional maturation, but also about her sexual awakening. Keep in mind, the novel was published in 1862, so today’s readers might not immediately pick up on subtle sexual symbolism: appetite and the sea. However, writing about love, not just as marriage but as desire, is a significant milestone in women’s writing.

VERDICT: This is not what I would call an “easy” novel. Does this mean that you shouldn’t read it? No, it means you should read it. Its ambiguity makes you think and these are often the best kinds of novels. As readers, we are often too used to being told exactly what is happening: what the scene looked like, what a character was thinking, what his best friend ate for dinner that night. I sometimes wonder if this is one reason some of us like the world of books so much: the only thing we really have to guess is the ending. The Morgesons will keep you guessing and it will make you think–not only about the characters, but also about yourself–long after you have finished turning the pages.

Unbreakable

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3 out of 5 stars

REVIEW: Is it just me, or are angels and demons becoming even more mainstream than vampires? Post Twilight, you couldn’t turn around in a bookstore without seeing a fictional tribute to the undead. I’m not quite sure which book or books initiated this current (celestial) trend, but it’s here…at least until the next thing comes along.

Unbreakable reminds me of a mash-up of a lot of things I like. Reviewers have compared it to Supernatural, which is fair. However, it is like the SparkNotes of Supernatural. The show had a story arc that gradually wove together various myths and legends (ghosts, voodoo, vampires, wendigos…and later angels and demons) over multiple seasons. Unbreakable felt as though it smashed together ghosts with heaven and hell without the finesse of a backstory.

 Here are some other elements of the mash-up:

1. Clare’s The Mortal Elements—a bunch of kids are trying to figure navigate a legacy of angels and demons on earth

2. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries, Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy series—sexy twins/brothers/cousins (I can’t think of any other examples of twins, but I am sure there has to be at least one in all of YA literature…)

3. Armentrout’s The Covenant series—a close mother and daughter relationship (that’s all I am going to say because I don’t want to give anything away, even though it is only a few chapters into Unbreakable)

While there was nothing wrong with Garcia’s writing and characterization, the elements of the story felt like a patchwork of novelistic plot points from a handful of other YA works. Unbreakable felt eerily familiar…like a bad case of deja vu. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and while I do enjoy the novels from which  Unbreakable seems to pull elements, I knew as soon as I finished that I wouldn’t remember much after I put it down.

The Dream Thieves

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5 out of 5 stars

RECOMMEND TO: I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys adventure and quest novels. If you enjoy fantasy, you will enjoy the plot. Like the first book in this series, The Dream Thieves is a coming of age novel. This novel, however, is not a cotton candy coming of age story. The novel explores the darker (but more realistic) strands of self-discovery in an often hostile and unfair world. Its tone is reminiscent of the later Harry Potter books (numbers 4 through 7).

PLOT: The novel unravels more slowly and methodically than The Raven Boys. Some reviewers have found fault with the pacing, but I think that they are not taking into account that this is a character-driven book. As a first book, The Raven Boys was focused on framing the story and introducing the characters to the readers. The Dream Thieves can do things that a first book cannot do. It delves more deeply into the personalities of the characters and allows the readers a chance to join Blue and the boys on their continuing journey of self-discovery.

The Dream Thieves is centered around the sudden disappearance of Cabeswater and the discovery of Ronan’s ability to pull objects out of his dreams. It also follows Adam as he tries to come to grips with the effects of his decision to sacrifice himself to save his friends. We also begin to see some of the visions that Blue had of she and Gansey come to pass, which only reminds the readers that Gansey is due to die by the end of the year. The tension of the book does not unravel in a manic, edge of your seat plot like The Da Vinci Code, but its pacing allows Stiefvater to develop the characters’ personalities and relationships with each other (and the relationship the reader has with the characters) in a truly artful way. The characters are not pawns of the plot who are employed only as mechanisms of enacting the events of the novel. The novel’s focus on internal rather than external conflict allows Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah to become believable teenagers with their own hopes, dreams, and fears.

CHARACTERS: Although Ronan played a more minor role in the first book, in The Dream Thieves, we begin to understand how the prickly, impulsive Raven boy is a product of his circumstances. At the same time that we are learning about Ronan’s past, Adam is confronted with questions about his future. Adam’s subplot is one of the weaknesses of this novel. Stiefvater could have used Adam’s voice and viewpoint to elicit more sympathy for both him and his situation. However, I became somewhat apathetic towards him because, rather than coming off as a confused boy trying to break with the legacy of his messy past, he reminded me of the angsty Holden Caulfield.

Stiefvater’s depiction of Blue and Gansey’s budding relationship is masterfully executed. The sections of the novel in their voices beautifully portray the anxious uncertainty of teenage romance. Their relationship is not rooted in infatuation and physical attraction (although it is clear they are attracted to one another). What is wonderful is that their desire for one another is the result of mutual admiration and respect. Blue admires Gansey for his optimism and his ability to see the best in others. Gansey admires Blue for her courage and her down-to-earth nature. In the past decade, teen books have not left behind the unrealistic device of “love at first sight” and have often valorized unhealthy relationships by portraying male characters who are overly possessive. Blue and Gansey’s relationship stands as a model for the kind of romance that contemporary authors should be portraying.

VERDICT: Stiefvater does it again with this second book in the series. Although its pacing is slower than The Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves focuses on on internal conflict which allows the reader to empathize with and become more invested in the characters. Stiefvater’s masterful portrayal of the developing romance between Blue and Gansey is perhaps the book’s greatest accomplishment.