Windwitch by Susan Dennard

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Summary (from goodreads.com): After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.

SPOILERS FOR TRUTHWITCH ONLY
Having only finished the first book in this series, Truthwitch, a couple of weeks ago, I started this second installment already fully invested in the characters. At the end of Truthwitch, all of its leading players have found themselves split up, and Windwitch sends them out on their own personal journeys, whether they be to seek revenge, escape the law, or find that which has been lost. In the first book, we were introduced to characters bound to each other by lifelong relationships, but now they have been split up and forced to ally with strangers at best and enemies at worst. Now, three pairs of “odd couples” roam the Witchlands, unsure of whom they can trust and whom they should fear.

The great thing about a second book in a series is that a lot of the groundwork has already been laid. We’ve already gotten to know the landscape, the politics, and a lot of the characters. In the case of the Witchlands series, we know a good bit about how the magic works and what the legends of this place are. Still, Dennard continues to build her world in Windwitch, adding depth and history, along with a growing sense of awe at just how far-reaching and dangerous the magic of the Witchlands may really be.

Besides delving into the mythology and cultural heritage of the Witchlands world, Dennard also takes the time to reveal new layers of complexity in her characters. The stars of Truthwitch are now tested until they begin to question everything they think they know, even about themselves. Previously minor characters step forward, challenging the reader to consider how exactly someone becomes an enemy and who decides which of us are the “good guys.” Adding to an already racially, ethnically, and culturally varied cast, Dennard introduces in Windwitch even more relatable characters, not as stock “diversity” quota fillers, but as well-developed, complicated humans with stories that cannot be read in a single glance.

To really describe all the things I loved about Windwitch would be to give too much away. So please, read this beautiful thing for yourself, and then hit me up on any of the platforms below so we can really get into the details of what makes it shine.

Favorite Line: “No more tiptoeing around a room because women oughtn’t to run. To shout. To rule.”

Rating: 5/5

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The Graces by Laure Eve

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(Photo from goodreads.com)



Summary (from goodreads.com):
Like everyone else in her town, River is obsessed with the Graces, attracted by their glamour and apparent ability to weave magic. But are they really what they seem? And are they more dangerous than they let on?

 

Ephemeral and mysterious–just like magic–The Graces fuels that simultaneously exciting and nauseating feeling that we can never fully understand our own world. The story’s landscape, dotted with ancient standing stones and beat upon by a relentless and violent sea, is especially effective in casting doubt as to humanity’s place in nature and in history. Meanwhile, the protagonist looks for a sense of belonging on a smaller scale, struggling with more immediate problems such as social isolation and self-confidence. For River, the Graces represent a chance to discover the secrets not only of magic, but of her own self-worth, and the intricacy with which these concepts are tied into her identity elevates Eve’s novel from “interesting” to “important.” In this article, Eve discusses the function of witchcraft as feminine power, a prevalent theme in The Graces. River’s growth from observer to reactor to agent is shrouded under the guise of the power conferred on her by magic, but in reality it is the development of self-awareness and the recognition of her own individuality that gives her real power–along with the ability to control it.

I will grant that this book has quite a long build-up. In my opinion, though, the payoff is well worth the wait. And Eve uses the time well, creating a mystique around the titular family while ramping up a sense of unease with regard to the narrator. River’s caginess in revealing details about herself (she won’t even tell the reader her birth name) is amplified by the tension between her and the surrounding characters, until the reader begins to doubt her reliability. And in my mind, a subversive narrator is one of the best kinds.

Finally, I cannot close without praising Ms. Eve’s writing style. Her prose is straightforward and grounded–except when it isn’t. Glimmers of poetic, ethereal language elicit the thrill of incantation, weaving magic over the reader in subtle moments that catch us by surprise. The mixture of realism and otherworldliness is confusing and tantalizing, and it draws the reader–you guessed it–under its spell.

Favorite Line: “Inside, buried deep down where no one could see it, was the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.”

Rating: 5/5

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

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Summary (from goodreads.com): This is a world divided by blood – red or silver.
The Reds are commoners, ruled by a Silver elite in possession of god-like superpowers. And to Mare Barrow, a seventeen-year-old Red girl from the poverty-stricken Stilts, it seems like nothing will ever change.
That is, until she finds herself working in the Silver Palace. Here, surrounded by the people she hates the most, Mare discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy the balance of power.

Let me start by listing the things I loved about this book:

  • Political intrigue
  • Class struggle
  • Rebellion (the life-and-death kind, not the staying-out-past-curfew kind)
  • SUPERPOWERS
  • Military strategy
  • Crazy fashions
  • Bitch-Queen/Mother-in-law
  • Oedipus complex
  • Am I the only one who saw bits of Hamlet?
  • Arena fighting (magic gladiators?)
  • There’s so much more, but I’m trying not to be too spoilery!

Okay, now the characters. Mare is a great protagonist. She’s snarky, but in a self-deprecating way. She’s resilient, creative, stubborn, and like most people, she has a strong sense of right and wrong, which she has to tweak as she learns more about the world. She loves her family, but her relationship with them isn’t perfect. Also—and this might just be me—whenever she uses her ability, I picture her as the Emperor from Return of the Jedi (but, you know, not old and creepy). The supporting characters are just as intriguing and three-dimensional, each with their own complexities and motivations. The love interests all have their pros and cons, and while Mare is subject to the same cocktail of hormones and emotions as any other teenage girl, she does her best to make logical, objective decisions. I also appreciate that her romantic situation is more of a complication than a main plot point, but of course we’ll see how that develops throughout the subsequent books in the series.

Besides the characters, another of my favorite things about Red Queen is that there are so many wonderfully visual aspects to it. The red blood versus silver blood thing, obviously; the vivid colors of the noble houses; the violent and fantastical fight scenes; the variety of settings—metropolis, slums, the Stilts, the river, forests, gardens, etc.; the way the building structures literally shift like Transformer pieces; the sparkling glass and the shining metal armor. I can’t wait to see this adapted into a movie (which I understand is in the works), but it does bring up the question of casting. While reading Red Queen, I didn’t notice very much emphasis on skin tone other than the difference between the pallor of the Silvers and the flush of the Reds. (I will admit that one of my weaknesses as a reader is my limited ability to fully visualize characters in my head.) Upon further review, I found that two so far minor characters, Ara “the Panther” Iral and her granddaughter Sonya, are specifically described as having a “coffee-colored” complexion (pg. 123, paperback edition). However, Aveyard has discussed the racial landscape of the Red Queen world, and it seems that racial diversity is both prevalent and, in this future, a nonissue:

“Being set so far in the future, particularly a future where the divisions of race aren’t really a social construct anymore, it would be almost impossible to realistically have an all-white cast.”

Of course, the big division is between blood color, so we still get a struggle reflective of current issues in society while allowing for representation of many and diverse people of color. I think this would be great to see played out on the big screen, and I hope the film’s creators will take great care with it. I also look forward to further explicit representation of POC in Glass Sword and beyond, as I understand is the case.

Overall, this book was delightful, exciting, and thoughtful. Reminiscent of The Hunger Games in its political scope, Red Queen thrusts readers straight into the middle of the ruling class and asks us whose life is worth risking in order to fight its oppression. It also begs the question of what crosses the line from political protest to terrorism, another highly relevant issue in the world today. I am excited to read the follow-up books and to meet Victoria Aveyard in Charleston this November.

Favorite line: “This world is Silver, but it is also gray. There is no black-and-white.”

Rating: 5/5


Victoria Aveyard quote from victoriaaveyard.com

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

wp-1476151407125.jpg(Photo by Carla Rennick)


Summary (from goodreads.com): In Crank, Ellen Hopkins chronicles the turbulent and often disturbing relationship between Kristina, a character based on her own daughter, and the “monster,” the highly addictive drug crystal meth, or “crank.”

I am going to start by saying: this wasn’t as hard to get through as I thought it would be. I have a friend who is a big fan of Ellen Hopkins, and she warned me that none of the books in this series could exactly be called “happy.” I actually ended up finishing it in a single day–partly because I was on a deadline for school, and partly because each poem had me eager to read the next one. This is only the second novel in verse that I have read (the first was Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson), but I think it was really well done. I do have a lot of experience in reading poetry (I was an English lit major in undergrad), and I found Hopkins’s writing to be artful without sacrificing directness. She uses metaphor and other figurative language to enhance the experience of the reader, but she doesn’t hide behind these techniques to avoid brutal truths.

Hopkins also uses structure to great effect. One of my favorite things about this book is that the “title” of each poem is also usually the opening line. This basically prevents the reader from simply skimming over the titles while also helping to maintain the flow of the overall book. Hopkins also toys with the arrangement of the stanzas and lines on the page, allowing her words to convey multiple meanings simultaneously. I will say that the compact size of the book means that some of the poems are interrupted in inopportune places. This is especially unfortunate when the “shape” of the poem is relevant to its message. The reader has to sort of “cut and paste” it back together in their head in order to visualize the completed form.

With regard to characterization, I though the duality of Kristina/Bree was a very interesting approach. I have to admit that she (Hopkins or the protagonist, however you want to look at it) got me with the fifth poem (“More on Bree”). I was halfway to my psychoanalysis when she shut me right up. Bree, who is Kristina’s expression of her wilder side, did seem a bit extreme to me, but I suppose that is because my own wild side has never involved anything more exciting than that time I smoked cigarettes for like a week. So I had a little trouble relating to Bree, but I think everyone can understand that itch to let go of your inhibitions. I also deeply respect Hopkins’s portrayal of addiction and the domino effect it can have. She made me see Kristina as a very sympathetic character even while I thanked my stars that I have never found myself in her position.

Finally, although I really liked the direction Hopkins took the conclusion of the novel, it felt quite rushed to me. I would have liked to see at least one detailed instance of Kristina’s relapses so that the ending didn’t feel so much like an abrupt shift to a wrap-up montage.

Favorite line: “I could always say ‘no.’ / Couldn’t I?”

Rating: 4.5/5

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

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(Photo by Carla Rennick)


Summary (from goodreads.com): For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is only the second book by Laurie Halse Anderson that I’ve read, and while it shares some elements with Speak, I found it much more difficult to get through. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and most of the reasons for my struggle are very personal, so I don’t necessarily count it against the book.

I loved the opening of the novel. It gives immediate insight into Hayley’s unique personality, which Anderson later unpacks through revelations about her family and her past. Like Melinda in Speak, Hayley uses sarcasm and wit to force her emotions and memories into hiding. However, she does this to such an extreme that I found her character a bit more difficult to relate to. She closes herself off from the reader in much the same way that she closes herself off from her friends. This means that, like Gracie and Finn, we have to be patient and observant in order to get to know her.

One of the things I most admire about this book is the way Anderson treats drug use. Instead of decrying it from a distance, she gives Hayley a close-up view from two different sources–her best friend and her father. We see what could be a stereotypical angle of (very minimal) peer pressure, but Anderson takes the time to develop Gracie’s character and background so that we can understand the motivations behind her choices. The circumstances surrounding Andy’s drug use are even more layered. Hayley understands why her dad smokes weed, for instance, but she hates how it affects his attitude and the people he associates with. She also knows that there are different ways to use drugs and alcohol–as a coping mechanism and as a weapon against oneself.

I also loved the inclusion of Andy’s memories amidst the rest of the narrative. They are incredibly jarring and difficult to read, but I think they are an excellent way to temporarily thrust the reader into the mind of a traumatized war hero without making the story entirely Andy’s. They also help to mitigate some of  the disgust the reader might feel when he treats Hayley particularly badly. I would have liked to see a few more instances of this viewpoint, though, to round out Andy’s development.

Overall, I think this is an inspiring and important book. The light that it sheds on mental illness, military life, drug abuse, and other issues will support teens as they examine their own struggles and will help them to be understanding of their peers who, like Hayley and Anderson herself, come from families affected by PTSD.

Favorite line: “I closed my eyes, pretended I was twenty thousand feet in the air, high enough to be able to see where we came from and where we were headed.”

Rating: 4/5

Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

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(Photo by Carla Rennick)


Even if you just skim my review, I beg you to take a look at this interview with Malinda Lo in which Levithan discusses the inspiration for the novel, the cover art, and YA publishing in general.


Summary (from goodreads.com): New York Times bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS.

I cannot possibly overstate how much I loved Two Boys Kissing. Still, of the countless laudable elements in this book, I will try to limit myself to naming just a few. Most outstanding is Levithan’s choice of narrator–more accurately, narrators. I have never read a book, YA or otherwise, written in the first person plural, and it does take some getting used to. But what it provides–a view of the present through the lens of the past–is a uniquely eye-opening gift. A generation of men whose lives were cut short, largely due to the neglect of the government and the society that should have had their backs, watches over with parental concern the newly maturing generation of gay boys trying to figure out how their sexuality fits into their lives and the world. In this way, without sugarcoating the present, Levithan teaches the reader how far the world has come.

It may be almost redundant to say that David Levithan has written a diverse book, but I still want to highlight some of the amazing representation in Two Boys Kissing. The focus of the story is on gay teen boys, of course, and among this group Levithan includes a transgender boy, delicately portraying how he experiences being both an insider and an outsider among his gay peers. The main cast also includes a beautiful and realistic array of races and ethnicities. The characters are male and female, old, middle-aged, and young, and of varying ideological positions. All of this variety allows the author to explore multiple intersectionalities and to demonstrate that looking at a person from the outside alone is actually not seeing them at all.

Finally, I have to talk about the title of this book. David Levithan is a strong force in the world of LGBTQ literature, in part because he doesn’t hide his writing behind ambiguous titles (his first book was called Boy Meets Boy). Two Boys Kissing raises the stakes even more while charmingly providing the briefest synopsis in the world. I love how straightforward it is because it sends the message to LGBT teens that their ideas of love, romance, and attraction are just as worthy of being in the spotlight as those of straight teens. How many books and movies have a picture of a heterosexual couple kissing or embracing on the front? Proudly covering the jacket of a book with the words and image of Two Boys Kissing normalizes it and adds one more check to the “you are valid” column. I also love that simply mentioning this book to friends at work means adding to the number of times that gay romance is casually–but non-metaphorically–acknowledged out loud.

Favorite line: “…he knows that the story is going to spread, and he hopes that maybe it’ll make people a little less scared of two boys kissing than they were before…”

Rating: 5/5

If I Stay by Gayle Forman 

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Summary (from goodreads.com): In the blink of an eye everything changes. Seventeen year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall what happened afterwards, watching her own damaged body being taken from the wreck. Little by little she struggles to put together the pieces- to figure out what she has lost, what she has left, and the very difficult choice she must make.

I always claim to be the kind of reader who prefers lighthearted escapist literature, but here I am following my review of Speak with the heartwrenching If I Stay. While I don’t often seek out emotional or angst-ridden novels, I’m discovering that they can be infused with a certain soul-expanding beauty that just cannot be found in other genres. Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, which I am probably the last of my circle of YA-obsessed acquaintances to read, is full of such beauty. What surprised me, however, is that it is not only the obvious, life-or-death scenes which bring the emotions so close to the surface. Honestly, I got more choked up over Mia’s love and devotion to classical music than I did over her relationship with Adam. And the combination of both? That really got to me. Forman uses Mia’s passions–her family, her best friend, her cello–to introduce the reader to Mia’s relationship with Adam and to amplify its emotional impact.

The other thing that really struck me is the fact that, even though the entire premise of the narrative–that a person could exist outside their comatose body and make the drawn-out decision to survive or not–could be seen as a spiritual or supernatural construct, Mia’s thoughts and memories are so solidly grounded in the living world that I have to consider this a realistic piece of fiction. Mia’s character, even in it’s in-between state, is too human to be called simply a “ghost” or a “soul.” The topics Forman manages to cover–from the day-to-day problem of feeling like an outsider among your peers and family to the painful topics of death and loss–are extremely relevant and relatable. I would definitely recommend this book to teens. Besides excellent prose and characterization, it offers the chance to consider some very intimidating issues within the safe environment of fiction.

Favorite line: “Then, in third grade, I’d wandered over to the cello in music class—it looked almost human to me. It looked like if you played it, it would tell you secrets, so I started playing.”

Rating: 5/5

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Image of the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson(Photo by Carla Rennick)


Summary (from goodreads.com): “Speak up for yourself–we want to know what you have to say.” From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her.

I never thought I would be able to call a book about such a serious topic “a joy to read,” but that’s what this was. Melinda’s snarky commentary on the farce that is the public high school experience moved me to laughter over and over again. Anderson writes her protagonist with such strength and personality that–even as it becomes increasingly clear that something awful has happened to her, and even though her relationship with her parents becomes more and more tense–I forgot to feel sorry for her. She teeters on the edge of a depression and isolation that so many people–teenagers and adults–find overwhelming, but she is not crippled by it. Anderson’s supporting characters are just as well-crafted and captivating. Melinda’s parents, teachers, friends, and even her enemies, surprise Melinda and the reader with their humanity, their imperfections, and their growth. Finally, I really appreciated the symbolism and imagery throughout the book, literary tools used incredibly effectively even while the author pokes fun at the English class tradition of force-feeding interpretation to skeptical freshmen. Overall, I recommend this book to both teens and adults, even those who–like myself–tend to shy away from depictions of the more painful realities of life.

Favorite line: “[Maya Angelou] must be a great writer if the school board is afraid of her.”

Rating: 5/5