Clinging to Winter (but not really, because winter’s the worst)

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch (2014)

Opening Line: “Block!”

I’ve been falling behind on my blogging lately, guys. I was doing so well! Sheesh. But here’s another one for next year’s SC Junior Book Award list, and since I’m anxiously reading it’s sequel right now, I feel capable of blogging about it, even though it’s been a while. Plus, it’s one of my favorites so far, and before the list, I had never heard of it, which means you may not have either!

Set in a sprawling fantasy world with eight major kingdoms (complete with a map in the end papers!), Snow Like Ashes gives us our heroine, Meira, one of just eight refugees from the Kingdom of Winter. Meira was an infant when Winter fell to the evil hands of Angra, king of Spring, and all of her fellow Winterians were captured and put into slave labor. Only a handful — including Meira — escaped. Sixteen years later, the refugees are still quietly fighting to recapture the magic emblem of their fallen monarch, Queen Hannah, in hopes that when it is recovered, Winter can be restored, despite the fact that Hannah’s heir Mather (who was also a baby at the fall), does not carry his mother’s female-lined powers. All Meira wants is to help the cause, but she is routinely stopped by Sir, the leader of their pack, forced to remain in the safety of camp while Mather and the others regularly put themselves in danger. When she finally gets a chance, Meira goes way beyond Sir’s expectations — she actually recovers the treasure, Queen Hannah’s locket! Unfortunately, it’s only half the locket, and Meira’s actions send the group on the run again, right into a destiny Meira never expected, one that’s been in the making ever since Winter fell all those years ago.

I got totally wrapped up in Meira’s story. Like Katsa in Graceling (one of my faves), she’s independent, fierce, courageous (feeling her fear and acting anyway), and believable. She doesn’t always understand what’s happening around her or to her, but her determination just makes you desperate for her to succeed. And let’s be honest, the very mild love triangle interest has my heart beating just as fast as any tween reader’s.

So here’s the thing. I feel like fantasies sometimes get a weird reputation — I have a hard time selling them at school, especially to girls, unless they are the Rick Riordan/Harry Potter readers. “I don’t really like magic stuff,” they say. “Percy Jackson was okay when I was like ten,” they say. The set for the older crowd, again especially older girls, seems to somehow be overlooked. But this one, along with GracelingThe Red Queen, and a whole host of others, are oh-so-good, and I think would be devoured by the same readers who love Divergent and Matched and Delirium and Legend. Why is it that dystopians are so much easier to sell than fantasies? Perhaps it’s because they are often more difficult to explain than dystopians. I’m not saying dystopians are all the same (but, come on, a lot of them are), and I’m not saying fantasies are wildly unique, but somehow the typically complex setting and the array of fantastic elements are more challenging to encompass in a 60 second booktalk in the middle of the shelves, than, “Here, this one reminds me of Divergent because of this thing that happens in the future and and this character who has to go against everything she’s ever known to save the world. You want to read it? Okay, great.”

If any one has any tips for me for selling fantasies to middle schoolers, I’m all ears. Because I want this one to be a top contender on next year’s JBA list, and I’m afraid I’m not going to do it justice with getting it in the hands of my readers.

Onto the next one, Ice Like Fire, and anxiously awaiting the third, Frost Like Night, expected September 2016.

2.5 stars



Winter’s the worst…

Shiver, by Maggie Shiefvater (2009)

Riding on the coattails of the Twilight phenomenon, Shiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy has been on my radar for a while. I didn’t know much about it, except that it had an appealing cover and that it was one of those werewolf teenage romances that seem to be so popular. So as I was creating my stack of winter break reads, I added Shiver to the list.

Yesterday, when I was eating dinner with my dear friend and new librarian Laura, I mentioned that I had started reading it. When she asked how it was, I told her it was pretty much like Twilight, except that it was missing that need-to-read quality that unwittingly captured so many of us. I was 50 pages in and not very hopeful.

But. Obviously, as I am writing this today, less that 24 hours later, things picked up. I’m a slow reader, and I tore through those last 340 pages faster than anything I’ve read since the last HP. Oh BOY.

In alternating chapters, we get the story of Grace and Sam. When she was younger, Grace was attacked by a group of wolves, nearly died, until one wolf with golden eyes carried her home, saving her life. Ever since, Grace has watched the golden-eyed wolf who sits at the edge of the woods by her house through the winter months each year. Grace dreads summer, when the wolf disappears.

Sam, however, loves summer. When the weather gets warm, he is able to transform into his true human body. Except each year, the human transformations get shorter and eventually will stop forever. In fact, this year the summer months fade to fall and his wolf body remains.

Then one evening, a group of hunters take to the woods to kill all the wolves, and Sam is shot. Somehow, he shifts and makes his way to Grace’s porch, where she finds him bleeding and naked. When she looks into his eyes, those same golden eyes, BOOM. LOVE. The pair spend the next weeks and chapters navigating their new human relationship while simultaneously tackling complication after complication, including troubling parents, a new rogue werewolf, rocky friendships, and the ever-growing threat of winter.

It sounds a bit formulaic, I realize, but I’m not sure that really matters. Any book that can make me tear through nearly 400 pages in 2 days is okay in my book. And Stiefvater doesn’t stick to the conventional myths of werewolves either, making things more interesting.

Book number 2, Linger, has quickly been added to the winter break list.

2 stars

A new trilogy to obsess over…

Divergent, by Veronica Roth (2011)

It’s another one of those dystopian, YA, chicks-rule, first love, impossible choices books.

But oh, it’s a good one.

Beatrice lives in future Chicago, which has been split into five factions, based on the most valued trait of that community. Beatrice grew up in Abnegation, where the residents are selfless above all else. Then there’s Candor (the honest ones), Amity (the peaceful), Erudite (the smarties), and finally, Dauntless (the courageous). But she and her brother are now sixteen and time has come for them to choose their future. At this stage in everyone’s lives they undergo a ceremony during which they choose what community they want to belong to. This choice cannot be taken lightly, because from this point on, they must commit to “faction before blood.” If Beatrice chooses anything other than Abnegation, she will never be able to go home again. And Beatrice knows that selflessness is not her strong point.

This isn’t giving much of a summary, I realize, but part of the pleasure of reading this, is that there’s a possible spoiler in just about every chapter. Gotta love that.

A lot of reviewers have compared this one to Hunger Games, and I too can see a lot of similarities, the most significant of which is the INTENSE NEED TO KEEP READING. I really couldn’t put this down. I also loved the references to Chicago landmarks (the Bean, the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, the building that “used to be called the Sears Tower”), allowing me to track her journeys across the city.

This is such a hot genre right now, and there are plenty for teens to choose from. But this will be one of the top dystopian novels that I’ll recommend, both for it’s interesting new ideas and its exciting plot twists.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this for days afterward. I haven’t returned it to the library yet, just to keep in around.

Three stars.


The greatest gift of all?

  Delirium, by Lauren Oliver (2011)

PHASE ONE: Preoccupation, difficulty focusing; dry mouth; perspiration, sweaty palms; fits of dizziness and disorientation; reduced mental awareness, racing thoughts, impaired reasoning skills

PHASE TWO: Periods of euphoria, hysterical laughter and heightened energy; periods of despair, lethargy; changes in appetite rapid weight loss or weight gain; fixation, loss of other interests; compromised reasoning skills, distortion of reality; disruption of sleep patterns, insomnia or constant fatigue; obsessive thoughts and actions; paranoia, insecurity

Any idea the disease whose symptoms I’m describing? Some sort of flu? Maybe mono? No? Let me keep going…

PHASE THREE: Difficulty breathing; pain in the chest, throat, or stomach; difficulty swallowing, refusal to eat; complete breakdown of rational faculties, erratic behavior, violent thoughts and fantasies, hallucinations and delusions

Figured it out yet?

PHASE FOUR: Emotional or physical paralysis (partial or total); death.

There’s only one disease this could be describing. Think about it. What makes all of us crazy at some point in our lives?

…. Love, of course.

Or as it is known in Lena Haloway’s society, amor deliria nervosa. Set in a future America, sixty-four years after the American President declared love to be a disease, Lena is one of many teenagers anxiously awaiting their eighteenth birthday, the day when they will receive the surgery that will cure them of the deliria forever. Following the surgery, people live content, non-threatening lives, free from any pain or heartbreak. Lena has 95 days till her surgery, and can’t think of much else but her upcoming examination which will determine her future,  including who she will be paired with for marriage. But on the morning of her examination, Hana, Lena’s gorgeous, happy-go-lucky best friend whispers something outrageous to her: “You know you can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes, right?”

Lena is horrified. Is it possible that her very best friend could be a “resistor”, someone who rebels against the government and, if caught, is executed or at the very least, thrown in the Crypts? To find out for sure, Lena follows Hana to an underground party, where illegal music is pumping, and–horror of all horrors–boys and girls are dancing, touching, laughing together. On her way out of the party, Lena runs into Alex, a strange boy she met earlier that week. Although he’s been cured–making it legal for them to spend time together–he certainly doesn’t act like it, and Lena is suspicious of his friendliness. But for some reason she can’t explain, she’s drawn to him, and when he asks her to dance, she’s unable to say no.

It doesn’t take much to figure out what happens next. Before too long, something in Lena has changed. She’s still counting down the days till her surgery, but soon it’s with dread rather than excitement. Could everything she’s ever known and wished for be one massive lie? Is her community really as peaceful as it seems? What lies beyond the gates surrounding her city? Can one person really change Lena’s life?

Fairly reminiscent of Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, Lena’s story joins a long line of other dystopian novels that encourage readers to imagine what our society will become, to question the norm, and to fight for what is truly important.

It took me a while to get into, but of course, once into it, I could do little else but read. More than 24 hours later, I’m still wishing there were more pages to turn. Luckily, Oliver will eventually fulfill my wish, as she completes the trilogy with two more stories about Lena.

Exciting, though sometimes predictable, 2 stars

Rereading the summer away

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)

As fun as the anticipation of preordering, waiting for, and devouring a new book in a series can be, I have to say that The Hunger Games series can be most appreciated when read consecutively as a set. I’ll admit it, when I first read the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, I left the couch only for food and felt angry, hurt, and depressed when I finished. (You’ll notice that while I reviewed the first first one here, and touched on the second one, the third I left unspoken.) After I talked it over with a group of other readers, I felt slightly better. But I still wasn’t impressed. I mean, really horrible things happen in Mockingjay and there’s very little to smile about.

But I decided I needed to give it another chance, and so this past week, I borrowed the first two from my mom (yes, mom has two of the three, and I just have the one), and spent several hours reading all 1100+ pages. And I have to say, I felt much better. Awful terrible things still happen in Mockingjay, but the story feels stronger as a threesome and I understood the need for all the pain and suffering in a way I didn’t before. I’m once again struck by the amazing ideas and messages that are said through the dystopian genre.

Although none of them separately deserve it, as a whole, 3 stars.

And by the way, my vote’s still for Peeta. Another thing she got right.

Templars and Archers and Assassins, oh my.

The Youngest Templar: Keeper of the Grail, by Michael Spradlin (2008)

The Youngest Templar: Trail of Fate, by Michael Spradlin (2009)

The first book in the Templar series was on my recommended reading list for Children’s Lit last semester because the author, Michael Spradlin, was coming to campus as part of our annual Children’s Literature Festival. We didn’t end up reading it in class, and I didn’t actually see Spradlin at the festival (I was off visiting with authors that I had read), and it wasn’t really high on my summer reading list. I mean, look at the cover. I will be the first to admit that I judge books by their covers ALL THE TIME. There are a lot of books out there. Why should I read the ugly ones? The children’s librarian I had been working with last semester had a similar reaction to it. But as the wonderful librarian that she is, she started it in hopes of encouraging her students to participate more actively in the Festival. And what did she find? She couldn’t put it down and immediately had to read the second one (the third has yet to be published, unfortunately). So I took her word for it. And her word was right.

Fifteen year old Tristan is an orphan who was dropped on the doorstop of St. Alban’s Abbey in England circa late 12th Century. Tristan’s life is changed forever when a group of Templar Knights show up in hopes of a resting place. Soon he becomes the squire to Sir Thomas of the Templars and is whisked away to Dover for battle training. Right from the beginning Tristan finds an enemy in Sir Hugh, a Templar who seems to have it out for Tristan for a reason that Tristan doesn’t understand. Also, he caught King Richard’s special guards following him without cause, leaving him to wonder what Sir Hugh and the King know about him that he doesn’t know.

After a few weeks of training, Tristan boards the ship with the rest of the Templars to head for the Holy Land as part of King Richard’s Crusade. Once in the Holy Land, Sir Thomas gives Tristan his most important task yet: to take the Christian relic, the Holy Grail, out of danger and back to England–and he is to let absolutely no one know that he has it. Yet, Sir Hugh seems to know Tristan’s burden, and the chase begins.

Along his journey, Tristan meets an archer from Sherwood Forest named Robard Hode (Robin Hood?), a deadly Hashshashin assassin named Maryam (Maid Marian?), and a young French princess named Celia (hmm…maybe I don’t know my Robin Hood trivia well enough, but I can’t come up with a connection for this one). Together, these capable youngsters seem to meet trouble at every turn with Sir Hugh constantly on their backs. If I say one thing for Michael Spradlin, it’s that he knows how to work a cliffhanger! Each chapter ends where you want to know more, and each book ends with a mysterious and aggravating “To be continued…” Unfortunately because of this, the books can’t really stand alone and I won’t have any sort of closure until the third book comes out in late October. Grr…

Another reason why I love reading YA books.

2 stars, both.

My vote’s for Peeta.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

I have to admit something. Sometimes I think YA books are just better than grown-up books. I spend serious amounts of time in the kids and YA sections of book stores. There are just as many YA books that I want to read as adult literature. It’s embarrassing sometimes to be sitting in the dentist’s office reading books meant for fourteen year olds, when I’m almost twenty two. And yet, they’re just. so. good.

But I wouldn’t be embarrassed about this one.

Joining the ranks of The Giver, Farhenheit 451, and 1984, The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss, a teenage girl attempting to keep her family alive in the post-apocalytic society of Panem. The Capitol of Panem, in order to remind their citizens who is in control, requires that two tributes (a male and female) from each district (12 districts total) be sent every year to complete in the Hunger Games, a gladiator-style, televised fight to the death. The worst part: the fighters are all children.

When Katniss’s younger sister is selected to be a tribute of District 12, Katniss volunteers to take her place and is suddenly thrust into a fight for her life. Quickly, Katniss must learn how to compete in an arena of killers, some of whom have been training their whole lives for the honor of being victor. Brutal, horrifying, and heartbreaking at times, Collins keeps the pages turning with Katniss’ dark humor and realistic struggles–struggles that all teens go through, despite her somewhat unique situation. OH, and there’s a romantic storyline too (TWO actually), so you’re sure to get your fix of teen angst. First, there’s Gale, Katniss’ best friend from District 12, the guy who has been her companion since childhood. Then there’s Peeta, Katniss’ District 12 partner in the Games, whose affections for Katniss may just be a plot to win. Katniss spends a lot of her time confused about who has feelings for whom and whether she likes anybody. Let’s be honest–when you’re a 16-year-old girl, who cares if 23 people are trying to kill you. What really matters at the end of the day is who you’re kissing.

This is just the first book of a trilogy, so the ending kind of sucks (it’s NOT and ending, in fact), but I’m almost through the second book and I’m loving this one even more. I’m thoroughly bummed that the next one isn’t coming out until the end of the summer. What’s a girl to do?

2.5 stars (I really want to give it a three. But I just can’t quite do it.)