Challenge: Flights of Fantasy Reading Challenge 2015

Flights of Fantasy
                    reading challenge 

My goal for this challenge is 25 fantasy books!  

Although, given my list, it's likely to be more around . . . a bit more than that.  I'll add some here that I know I'll definitely read, but others are to-be-decided!  I'm going to be strict and not include sci-fi or horror, things on the edge.  

Keep up with my Challenges page to see where I'm at.  

And don't forget to check out the hosts, Alexa Loves Books and Hello, Chelly!  They're both amazing bloggers.  

Go sign up!  


1.  The Darkest Part of the Forest  -  Holly Black 
2.  Exquisite Captive  -  Heather Demetrios 
3.  The Cure for Dreaming  -  Cat Winters

To Read

Red Queen  -  Victoria Aveyard
Magonia -  Maria Dahvana Headley 
Hellhole - Gina Damico 
Woven - Michael Jensen 
Dreamstrider - Lindsay Smith 
Ink and Bone - Rachel Caine 
The Storyspinner - Becky Wallace 
A Wicked Thing - Rhiannon Thomas 
The Sin Eater's Daughter - Melinda Salisbury 
Snow Like Ashes - Sara Raasch 
The Girl at Midnight - Melissa Grey 
Shadow Scale - Rachel Hartman 
An Ember in the Ashes - Sabaa Tahir
Becoming Jinn - Lori Goldstein 
Truthwitch - Susan Dennard 
Princess of Thorns - Stacey Jay 
Midnight Thief - Livia Blackburne 
Winterspell - Claire Legrand 
The Queen of the Tearling - Erika Johansen 
Crimson Bound - Rosamund Hodge 
The Orphan Queen - Jodi Meadows 
The Winner's Curse - Marie Rutkoski 
The Glass Casket - McCormick Templeman 
American Gods - Neil Gaiman 
Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman 
The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman 
Thief - Megan Whalen Turner 
The Princess in the Opal Mask - Jenny Lundquist 
Ensnared - A.G. Howard 
Illusions of Fate - Kiersten White 
Sabriel - Garth Nix 
A Court of Thorns and Roses - Sarah J. Maas
Shiver - Maggie Stiefvater 
Vicious - V.E. Schwab 
The Unbound - V.E. Schwab 
Evertrue - Brodi Ashton 
These Broken Stars - Amie Kaufman 
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman 
Queen of Shadows - Sarah J. Maas


Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven


title:  All the Bright Places

author:  Jennifer Niven

pages: 384 

format: Hardcover

isbn/asin: 978-0385755887 

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 5/5 [in the genre] or 9/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of John Green, Jay Asher, and other character-driven contemporaries.  

will i read this author again?:  Absolutely  
will i continue the series?:  N/A, but I will re-read this again and again. 
My Ratings Explained

The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park in this exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die.

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning!

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

the basics
All the Bright Places is a devastating, derailing book that shook me to my knees.  It's the kind of book I wanted to reread as soon as I finished, the kind I'll return to years from now and remember as a dark night of the soul.  I read it in a whirlwind two days.  I couldn't start another book right after; I was still trapped in it, affected so deeply that the my first post-book act was to paint, because it was the only way to process.  The characters invaded my head and took up residence there.  Finch is remarkable from his first moment atop the bell tower.  I fell for him, recognized myself in him in beautiful and terrifying ways.  He's exaggerated enough to be literary, real enough to be recognizable.  Violet didn't draw me as much, not at first, but her quiet suffering and flickering hope is a perfect complement to Finch's violent extremes.  Their romance grows slowly, then all at once; it's achingly beautiful and complicated.  Just as important is each character's inner battle.  They fight some of it together, but in the end, it's a war they must win or lose alone.  Told in arrestingly gorgeous prose, All the Bright Places is an artwork of a novel that tackles the most wonderful and brutal dimensions of love, mental illness, and growing up.  Whether it leaves you with a clutching grief or a restless yearning to wander, it's a book that demands to be felt.  

Ignore the comparisons to Green and Rowell; this is a book that stands alone, a book by which the genre of young adult contemporary can be measured.  

plot . 5/5
Boy meets girl rarely enjoys such a refreshing presentation.  Finch and Violet meet atop the school bell tower, each struggling with hopelessness and contemplating the freedom of the fall.  Spoiler alert: they don't jump.  Instead, Finch becomes intensely fixated on Violet and determined to connect with her.  Violet just wants to forget and nurse her grief for her dead sister, but Finch is not a voice to be shut out.  Their becoming acquainted is forced and awkward, demanded by their school project, but you can feel the ties loosening in spurts of witty banter and moments of uncertain connection.  Their adventures to strange Indiana places are entertaining, but the story gains just as much traction in their quiet conversations and inner monologues.  Ever present are the unavoidable demands of family and the looming specter of an uncertain future, always with the undercurrent of Violet growing stronger, and Finch unraveling.  It's a plot that enthralls and sneaks up on you, and doesn't let go.  

concept . 5/5
Mental illness has become a hot topic in young adult fiction over the last several years, but rarely have I seen it portrayed so accurately and poignantly.  Finch and Violet are heartbreakingly recognizable--in myself, in people I've known.  Their pathways of salvation and disaster are layered and all too realistic.  This is not a transparent book.  Niven doesn't offer platitudes on the power of love to conquer all or the ability of lovers to save each other.  Her portrayal is raw, real, and whole.  Her characters and their romance do not live in a microcosm of bliss.  She explores the complicated family dynamics that shape Violet's and Finch's selves.  She creates checkered portraits of well-meaning adults and clueless friends.  She also unflinchingly explores the lies that people tell themselves and each other, and how these lies can turn deadly.  In all of this, there's no obvious placing of blame or praise.  Niven presents mental illness as it is: an affliction shaped by the people who witness it and the people who suffer it.  She doesn't insult you with morals; she lets the readers make their own judgments.  

characters . 4.5/5
I'm only partly joking when I say that I want to marry Finch.  He's exactly the kind of character I can fall for and feel kin to.  He's a mix of frenetic joy and withering depression, a supernova light bulb trying to blow its own fuse.   He's infinitely bizarre.  His energy drives the plot, setting events in motion and jerking them along a crooked path.  But he's not some manicpixiedreamFinch.  His layers emerge over time, revealing a complex, tortured individual at war with himself.  I could read a dozen books about him and never know him completely.  Then there's Violet, whom, admittedly, I found a little boring at first.  She's largely reactive--to Finch, to her parents--or purely avoidant.  She feels inactive.  The quality is important to her character's situation, but it also made it difficult for me to connect with her at first, particularly in comparison to Finch's easy knowable-ness.  However, Violet does come into her own as the book evolves, as she demands control of her life and Finch becomes unknowable.  I only wish there was a little more pure Violet-ness in Violet's sections, rather than Violet-with-Finch or Violet-with-Eleanor.  

Don't expect much of the side characters here.  Violet and Finch are isolated in their own ways, and the few others are simply satellites circling their sun.  Though part of me wished to know more about these people, particularly on Finch's end, the peripheral quality of the minor characters fit so well with the all-consuming universe that was Finch-and-Violet.   

style . 5/5
I know I say this often, but I always truly mean it, and that is this:  Niven writes the way I wish I could write.  Not in exact wordings or idiosyncrasies, but in the beauty and energy injected into every phrase.  The voices of her characters come through in a way that is real but amplified, an expression of teenage-ness stretched to its limits.  Perhaps not many teenagers will quote Virginia Woolf or speak in the complexities that Finch and Violet do, but at the same time, I never doubted their authenticity.  I also found myself lingering over Niven's words, re-reading immediately after I had just read, and dog-earring enough that my book doubled in width.  She has a way of expressing a thing in words you'd never expect, perfectly, poignantly.  She also uses her silences and her spaces as powerfully as her text.  It's a wonderful example where story and craft are perfectly aligned.  

mechanics . 5/5
I think I'd given this a 4 originally, but now I can't remember why.  The format of Niven's novel, alternating sections narrated by Violet or Finch, is an excellent method.  It not only tells her story, but visually embodies it--there is Finch, and there is Violet, and there are pieces, important pieces, that occupy only one world.  It never falls into the repetitive habit of some romances--he comments on a scene, she comments on a scene.  You do get the multiple perspectives, but the story is always flowing, and there's always something new that you wouldn't find in the other narrative.  And it makes the turning point of the story that much more brutal.  

take home message
A devastatingly gorgeous novel that will haunt its readers, All the Bright Places has the potential to be a classic.  

Note: I purchased this copy.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  


Musing: On the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz


I won't clutter up the airways with my thoughts, when so many others have been there, have said it better and more truly.  What I will say is: 

Someday, as a world, we will say "Never again" and we will mean it. 

Art: Cracked Wall thing, Work in Progress, Oil Painting

art: painting

So, not painting in oils for like four years and then going back to them is very much not like riding a bike, but I'm working on it. 

This was meant to be more realistic, but I think I like the way it's turning out now.   

Still not entirely sure where the rest is going . . . 

If anything looks wonky, let me know so I can fix it.  :P 


P.S.  I think I'm going to read the entire Shiver series this week.  Maggie Stiefvater inspires me! 


ARC Review: Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle


title:  Vivian Apple at the End of the World

author:  Katie Coyle

pages: 272

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-0544340114

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 8/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of John Green, especially An Abundance of Katherines and Paper Towns.  Cynics and romantics.  

will i read this author again?:  Absolutely  
will i continue the series?:  Yes!  I can't wait.  
My Ratings Explained

Seventeen-year-old Vivian Apple never believed in the evangelical Church of America, unlike her recently devout parents. But when Vivian returns home the night after the supposed "Rapture," all that’s left of her parents are two holes in the roof. Suddenly, she doesn't know who or what to believe. With her best friend Harp and a mysterious ally, Peter, Vivian embarks on a desperate cross-country roadtrip through a paranoid and panic-stricken America to find answers. Because at the end of the world, Vivan Apple isn't looking for a savior. She's looking for the truth.

the basics
If you're looking for irreverent adventure with a smidge of romance, a lot of friendship, and a whole helping of existential crises, then look no further than the Rapture.  Vivian's hook reeled me in: a fundamentalist Christian cult, a seeming Apocalypse, a ragtag team of Rapture orphans searching for answers.  Um, yes, please.  It's a timely exploration in a world threatened by religious extremism.  Coyle resists the urge to be heavy handed, however.  Her Church of America is a tongue-in-cheek parody of rampant capitalism and backward gender roles.  There's the terrifying threat of being shunned and murdered by Believers; there's also the cheery billboards advertising Li'l Ronnie Reagan's Heavenly Jelly Beans and tasteful Rapture-wear.  The snarky-serious tone spoke to the cynic in me, and amped up what was already a touching adventure story.  It's a book of wandering, which could get boring except that the characters are so immediately endearing, the journey so fraught with emotional tension, that even quiet moments of lost-ness become enthralling.  I was, dare I say, enraptured (har har) but Coyle's smart writing, tight plotting, and attention to shades of gray.  

Although I still kind of like the British title better.  

plot . 5/5
Vivian is a road trip story with a lot of big and little twists.  This isn't just about quirky teenagers trying to "find" themselves.  There's an undercurrent of yearning and hopelessness that gives every scene tension and motion.  It starts with two holes in Vivian's roof; her parents gone, her friend's parents gone, the entire country going mad with Rapture fear.  Vivian is quickly faced with the choice of avoiding the Rapture with her atheist grandparents, or joining her friends and finding the truth.  It's not a huge spoiler; she picks road trip.  What follows is a sprawling search for truth fraught with danger: fights with murderous Believers, sojourns with hippy drum circling orphans, fumbling romances, family skeletons leaping out of their closets.  There's always excitement.  It ends with a bombshell that had me nearly, very nearly buying the British version of the sequel so I wouldn't have to wait.  

concept . 4/5
Imagine the fundies were right.  Imagine that, suddenly, as predicted, hundreds of cultists simply disappeared.  Imagine this happens in the wake of global natural disasters and the decaying of Earth.  Would you cast aside your doubts and believe, or stay strong in your cynicism?  What would you do with your last three months on Earth?  Coyle is genius in that she doesn't give up easy answers.  Vivian and her friends are always struggling with questions of whether the Rapture is real, and the world is doomed, or whether this is some kind of sick joke.  And so is the rest of the horrified American populus.  The left-behind Believers become murderous in their fear and rage; quasi-Believers jump on the bandwagon, bolstered by the seeming miracle; non-Believers form extremist groups, hide in drum circles, or stolidly march on with their semi-normal lives.  It's a mystery that makes you unsure yourself--is this real, or is Coyle playing tricks with you?  That's cool enough, but even more interesting, you have all of these children like Vivian whose Believer parents have abandoned them.  As much as Vivian struggles with the truth or lies of the Rapture, she also struggles to understand how her parents could have left her behind.  

characters . 4/5
I love them.  I love them all.  Mostly.  Vivian, our protagonist, is a wonderfully waffling good girl whose completely lost and torn between easy comforts and difficult, dangerous pursuits of truth.  She's the perfect narrator because she's struggling with the same questions I had throughout the book.  She's also quietly brave and clever, which I admire.  Harp, her best friend, is the definition of feisty but not in a brash, uncomplicated way.  She's struggling with her own demons; they're just harder to see.  Then there's adorable, rational Peter, who just begs to be hugged.  Coyle treats the slew of side characters as real people more than props, giving each enough flavor to feel like real people with their own stories.  The most enigmatic, however, are Vivian's parents.  You see them after conversion, but you don't see enough of them beforehand to understand their transition, to understand their relationship with Vivian, to understand their later actions.  They're so important to the story that it was disappointing not to really know them.  

Also, I love what she did with Beaton Frick and Adam Taggart, even though Frick is the last name of a researcher I really love, which is odd.  

style . 5/5
Coyle's style emphasizes some of my favorite tricks of young adult writing.  It's always a balancing act, writing something that will be accessible to teens without being patronizing, that will be complex and literary without being arcane.  Coyle's a master of the tightrope.  Her writing, first person, is believably teenaged.  It's layered with a mix of sarcasm and wonder, and sprinkles with the simple, unexpectedly profound.  There were parts that I actually laughed at, aloud, like a maniac.  She manages to make the emotions felt.  Her dialogue is also snappy and believable.  Some favorite bits:  

It's odd now to remember the old ways in which families used to fracture.   

"Oh, hey," I say. "I'm Viv.  I think this Rapture business is a complex and nuanced phenomenon, but probably this isn't the best environment for me to explain my many intelligent thoughts about it.  If I had to sum it up flippantly, though, I'd say it's a downer."  

mechanics . 4/5
We're going to talk a little bit about religion here, since this is my catchall category.  Coyle does a really great job of poking fun both at the fundie religious right and the incompetent disorganized far left, leaving all the rest of us staggering in between.  What she misses, though, is an opportunity to draw lines between extremist Believers and the normal, everyday believers who love God or a god but don't buy into the sectarian, bigoted crap.  She gets into this a little with a clever, clearly sympathetic Catholic character, but only for al itte and only at the end.  Especially given the climate of religious extremism in the real world, it would have been great to add some of that nuance.  I hope to see more of that in the sequel.  

take home message
A simultaneously quirky and poignant adventure about the end of the world, and the choices we make in the face of terror.   In a sea of dystopian romances, it's a fresh and highly original plot.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  Many thanks to Rachel Fershleiser, who sent me this copy.  


Art: "I am in pieces", inspired by All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven


I posted this on Twitter a while back, but I figured I'd put it here for posterity, and people who don't stalk my tweets and such.  Just because I'm proud of it.  

After reading All the Bright Places, which crushed me, I couldn't really read anything else or sleep, so I decided to paint, and this is what happened.  Enjoy.  


ARC Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black


title:  The Darkest Part of the Forest

author:  Holly Black

pages: 336

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1616203535

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Cruel Beauty by Rosamunde Hodge, fairy tales, and whimsical adventures.  

will i read this author again?:  Absolutely  
will i continue the series?:  N/A, I think.  
My Ratings Explained

Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking.

Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down, Hazel tries to remember her years pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?

the basics
This is the kind of magical, atmospheric, fantastical, exciting book that keeps me reading and fills me with the urge to write.  Black's Fairfold is a believable fantasy town where humans coexist with faeries and look the other way when the faeries wreak sometimes deadly havoc--as long as it's on tourists, of course.  A place where a little girl and boy can slay monsters in the woods.  A place with a boy in a glass coffin--and this part alone gave me that sense of mystical darkness that chills and excites.  The rich world is bolstered by Black's sharp, gorgeous writing and intriguing characters.  Hazel is a spitfire haunted by a bargain from her past; Ben is the tortured romantic.  Their love for the coffin boy thrusts them into the heart of a battle that has faeries pitted against humans and against each other, all against the frightening monster in the forest's heart.  It's a plot straight out of a fairy tale but entirely new, packed with enough battling, romance, and endearing teenage awkwardness that it's nearly impossible to stop reading.  It's a book that filled me with wonder, kept me up past my bedtime, and made me love young adult fantasy all over again.   It's a fairy tale with an edge, darkly humorous; it takes no prisoners.  

plot . 4/5
Black doesn't work with dead space.  There's no fluff.  She opens on the oddly familiar scene of a teenage party in the woods, with all the usual suspects: beer, brawling jocks, debauchery, a boy in a glass coffin.  Oh, you didn't have those?  It's a clever way to introduce the strange betweenness of Fairfold.  Hazel is at her usual tricks, kissing random boys because she feels like her time is running out.  Then strange things keep popping up.  Notes in walnuts.  Creatures out of place.  A horrifying message on Hazel's wall.  And a broken, empty coffin.  Hazel, Ben, and their friend Jack are suddenly warriors in a fight they don't understand, and the plot races forward as they investigate the strange secret messages--and seek to keep their own secrets from each other.  The chilling presence of the monster lurks at the edge of every page, creating a taut, tense feeling that doesn't let up.  Sprinkled throughout are lies and friendships, uncertain romances, angry mobs, and the thin line between a blessing and curse.  Black packs a lot into a short book without making it feel overstuffed.  I was trapped from the first page.   My only complaint is the monster.  For some reason, I was expecting something different and more psychologically chilling.  

concept . 5/5
Black takes a cheeky approach to the fairy story.  She doesn't just give us a town where the residents are aware of the fay folk.  She gives us a town where the residents' awareness of the fay is blase, almost commonplace.  Where it's shocking if someone goes around without wearing charms and protections; where the biggest gossip is who bargained poorly at the wishing tree.  Where the townspeople are happy to leave the faerie folk alone, and to turn a blind eye when the occasional tourist disappears or shows up headless.  Because magic isn't superstition or even secret, it allows for a much different tact than your usual fairy story, where only the heroine is privy to the secrets of the underhill.  Black's execution is perfect.  She blends the two worlds so seamlessly that the fay all at once seem both mystical and mundane.   

characters . 4/5
The characters really carry this book.  It would stand on plot and style alone, but the characters distinguish it and make it memorable.  Hazel is so different from your typical insecure loner meek type.  She's fierce.  She's a little bit of a mess.  She kisses boys but doesn't date, and she longs to relive her childhood, when she chased monsters with a golden sword.  In short, she is a certified badass--with enough insecurities to keep her endearing.  Ben is difficult not to love.  He's adorable, conflicted, melancholy, obsessed with true love, and haunted by the power he was given unasked.  As siblings, they play off of each other; their bond is clear in the text, and the secrets they keep from each other drive the plot as much as the magic does.  My issue was with Severin and Jack. I love them both, but I found myself filling in elements of their personalities, especially for Jack.  There was so much potential to explore Jack's torment as a fairy raised by humans, but Black didn't take it far enough.  Still, I wanted to hug him so very much.  And Severin, while thin, is hysterically impish.  

style . 5/5
Black writes in the way I've always dreamt of writing.  It's some of the prettiest I've read in young adult fantasy, and works perfectly for urban fantasy.  Her prose is somehow both simple and lavish at the same time.  Her dialogue is snappy, and her descriptions of even the modern and mundane afford a sense of magic.  There are no wasted words here, no flowery interludes or notes of dullness.  There's also a note of whimsy and sarcasm that runs through the text, and this tone really enhances the book's eerie fairy tale wonder.  An example:

No matter how many parties had been held around the horned boy—generations of parties, so that the grass sparkled with decades of broken bottles in green and amber, so that the bushes shone with crushed aluminum cans in silver and gold and rust—and no matter what happened at those parties, nothing could wake the boy inside the glass coffin.

mechanics . 4/5
Everything was pretty much in order except or the points of view.  It's Hazel, all Hazel, for almost the entire way through, and then suddenly we start getting Ben.  Just a few chapters when it's needed, and then back to Hazel.  It's really useful to have Ben's perspective, especially since he and Hazel are keeping so much from each other.  But it seems abrupt.  It would have been nicer to have a Ben section or two up front, to establish his voice.  

take home message
A darkly humorous fairy tale that mingles magic, romance, and and a thrill ride of a plot.   

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.


Book Blurb Breakdown: Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

book blurb breakdown

Book Blurb Breakdown is a Sarcasm & Lemons feature where your anal English degree-holding author (gently) rips apart jacket blurbs to pin down what makes her want to pick up the book instantly--and what makes her want to throw it at the wall.  See the original post for more detail.  

today's blurb

Status:  Unread

the blurb: as is 
from Goodreads

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in this fantasy about a girl caught between two worlds…two races…and two destinies.

Aza Ray is drowning in thin air. 

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. 

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea, something goes terribly wrong. Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia. 

Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming. Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning. And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?

the blurb:  shredded 

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust meets John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Okay, we're making some strong claims here.  Stardust!? TFiOS?  I mean, I get that Neil blurbed it, but...still.  I get a little eyebrow raisy.  Also, please explain to me how tongue-in-cheek fantasy meets heartwrenching contemporary cancer book?  If it's because of Aza's lung disease only, I will be pissed.) in this fantasy about a girl caught between two worlds…two races…and two destinies.

Aza Ray is drowning in thin air. (Nice, catchy.  I am interested.)

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease (Why is it mysterious? This makes me think it was inflicted magically, which makes me wonder, why would you inflict a lung disease?  Seems pretty cold, man.) that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live.  (This is a pretty cool set-up.  I'm intrigued.  Definitely sets up an immediate conflict with the universe.)

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky (So Stardusty!  Cool!), her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. (Aw. I now feel bad for her and want to hug her.) But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.  (This is great.  Really succinct, sets up a conflict and a mystery without going into too much detail.) 

Only her best friend, Jason, listens. Jason, who’s always been there. Jason, for whom she might have more-than-friendly feelings. (Yeah, yeah. Heard this one before. Is it even necessary to mention the feelings part? I'd pretty much assume.) But before Aza can consider that thrilling idea (Jason? The ship? Jason on the ship? I'm confused), something goes terribly wrong (This is kind of vague. What was supposed to happen if it went right? It doesn't grab me.). Aza is lost to our world—and found, by another. Magonia. 

Above the clouds, in a land of trading ships, Aza is not the weak and dying thing she was. In Magonia, she can breathe for the first time. (This is pretty cool. It reminds me a lot of Trial by Fire, where the main character was deathly allergic to pretty mcuh everything on Earth, but this turns to magic powers in the alt world.  But that book was meh so I hope to see it done better here.)  Better, she has immense power—and as she navigates her new life, she discovers that war is coming.  (This is an "and?" Isn't it more of a "but?" It's like, YAY SHE HAS POWER, YAY WAR!) Magonia and Earth are on the cusp of a reckoning (Why? Is there a history here?). And in Aza’s hands lies the fate of the whole of humanity (How come she has this power?  Does she become super special?  Is she caught up with a rebel faction?)—including the boy who loves her. Where do her loyalties lie?   (Um, maybe with her family?  I don't like this last sentence at all.  It's kind of a weak ending for a pretty big set-up.  Obviously we expect she'll have to decide, but this wishy-washy sentence about loyalties isn't strong enough.) 

the verdict 
4/5 stars

would i read it?:  yes 

Claims of grandeur aside (I'm looking at you, first sentence!) it's a pretty good  blurb.  The first half definitely is.  It starts out with very pithy, concrete details that set up a unique conflict.  I mean, potential hallucination ship?  Desperate girl with a deadly disease?  It's the perfect place for some magic, and the blurb also describes it in a very compelling way.  Then we get to the second half and it kind of waffles.  We have the typical best friend love feelings OMG sparkly bit, yeah, yeah.  And then that's sort of lumped in with "Oh, yeah. Something happens. She's in Magonia, yay!"  Which I'm sure does not do justice to what actually happens.  Then it gets better again.  We have this bit about her disease being gone, her strange and amazing power, and it's nice and succinct again.  But then we go back to the wishy washy vagueness.  There's a war!  For some reason!  Loyalties!  It's just kind of meh.  But there's enough meat here aside from the vagueness that I'm really intrigued, so overall, it does the job.  

your thoughts

Does this blurb grab you?  
Do you agree with my thoughts?  If not, how so?  
Do you have any recommendations for blurbs I should shred?  

previous breakdowns 

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira
Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Dangerous by Shannon Hale
She's Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgewick
Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine


ARC Review: Jackaby by William Ritter


title:  Jackaby

author:  William Ritter

pages: 299

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1616203535

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3/5 [in the genre] or 5/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of Sherlock Holmes and quirky British-y writing. People who enjoyed Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper or The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp. 

will i read this author again?:  Maybe.  
will i continue the series?:  Possibly, at some point.  
My Ratings Explained

“Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,” Jackaby said. “I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.”

Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny.

Doctor Who meets Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

the basics
Imagine if Sherlock Holmes could see ghosts, and you have Jackaby.  I don't really get the Doctor Who bit.  It's a reach.  This book is far more Supernatural than timey-wimey.  But I'll blame the marketing team for that.  On its own merit, Jackaby is a fun, fanciful story that demands the word "caper."  It benefits from very sharp writing that manages to be period-sensitive and also very accessible and not stuffy.  At times it's really witty, too.  Being fairy tale-obsessed, I also loved the inclusion of old folklore and myth.  However, the plot was a little too draggy to enrapture me and I had a difficult time truly loving the characters.  Abigail is clever and feisty, Jackaby is adorably absentminded and a little cocky, but they just struck me as a bit thin.  So it ended up being an enjoyable read, but not one that electrified me to the point of stalking the next book.  On the whole, I think it'll really appeal to fans of period pieces and snappy writing, or anyone obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch.  

plot . 3/5
The plot itself is pretty fascinating, but something about the pacing is off, or the arrangement of things.  When I first started reading, I was convinced it would be a sort of episodic thing, with a bunch of little adventures culminating on some huge mystery.  I don't know why I had this sense.  Everything started to clarify and catch my interest when the murders cropped up.  There's a lot of interesting investigating, breaking-and-entering, and encounters with whimsical creatures that I really enjoyed.  The fisherwoman, the troll, the ghost--pure gold.  But I think I was missing a real sense of urgency.  I just never felt frantic to read on, which I see as rather important for a mystery.  The reveal was also a little unsatisfying, but I have no idea why.   

concept . 3/5
I love the idea of a supernatural detective.  Jackaby is one-of-a-kind, a rare human who can see through the veil to the illusions beyond--ghosts, demons, kobolds and other strange things.  His matter-of-fact way and the fact that everyone thinks he's crazy was pretty amusing.  It opened up the way for a lot of skulking around the authorities.  Like I said, I also loved the inclusion of fairy tale and folklore elements.  It gave the book a sense of being grounded in the real world without being quite real.  Ritter also did a good job with Abigail as an assistant.  Amusingly, Jackaby prizes her because she notices the useful but ordinary things that he overlooks.  I can see this being an interesting team for a series.  What I found a little odd, though, is the way that Jackaby is supposedly the only one in the world with these supernatural powers.  Just seems farfetched, and his explanation is anything but clear.  My main problem is that Jackaby is so Sherlock that it doesn't feel terribly original.     

characters . 3/5
I liked the characters but I didn't love them.  As with much of this book, I found them enjoyable but I didn't find myself invested in them as I am with characters in books I truly love.  Jackaby was probably my favorite, because I'm a sucker for the witty, slightly arrogant, socially inept, absentminded type.  He's also just a little silly, which is a plus.  Abigail is the narrator, but I felt less connected to her.  She felt a little samey as far as feisty breaking-the-Victorian-mold women go, and her little romance seemed thin, considering it was from her perspective.  The supporting characters are pretty stock but they work.  You have the curmudgeonly but noble police chief, the misty wise old woman, the snarky ghost.  Okay, the snarky ghost is pretty cool.  

style . 4/5
Ritter's writing style was quite good.  I'm a huge fan of Victorian writing, so it's always exciting to see modern writers keeping it up.  Of course Ritter doesn't go as ornate or flowery as the Victorians, but that's to be expected, given his audience.  And it still works.  His language is very tight, his dialogue is snappy and amusing, and his exposition is laced with a sense of silly humor that gives the book great atmosphere.  

mechanics . 4/5
Everything here is pretty tight and polished.  Ritter doesn't go overboard with extra explaining, which is always impressive for fantasy.  There are many times Jackaby will just mention this creature or that with no explanation and then run off; it helps to make the world feel big and real, somehow.  The pacing could have been improved; the middle got a little trudgy, I think.  

take home message
A whimsical supernatural detective adventure with sharp writing and an admirably off-the-wall hero.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.


ARC Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer


title:  Belzhar

author:  Meg Wolitzer

pages: 608

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1481422345

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 3.5/5 [in the genre] or 6.5/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who enjoyed Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Porter, The Breakfast Club, or boarding schools.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.

But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.

Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.

From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.

the basics
I found that I loved this book less than I had expected; then by the end, I appreciated it more than I had been.  It's a divisive book.  I loved the twist and found it absolutely believable in the context of mental health.  But I know that same twist will make it difficult for some readers to empathize with Jam.  In my mind, Jam was very relatable.  She's an extreme, but an extreme of something that we've all felt.  Really, I thought the plot was well paced and clever.  The characters and writing disappointed me.  The writing was simplistic and often overly straightforward or overly repetitive.  The side characters didn't have distinguishable voices and, for the most part, received very little substantive attention.  It was like The Breakfast Club without the deep connections I felt to those characters.  In Belzhar, I felt like Jam was real and the others were sort of types.  So for most of the book, I found my interest flagging.  Then the twist happened, and I appreciated everything so much more.  But it's unfortunate that the specialness of the book hinges on the twist, because it was relatively average until then.  Still, if you enjoy boarding school reads, it's a quick and enjoyable book.  

plot . 5/5
In general, the plot is fairly interested.  We know that Jam's boyfriend has died.  We know that Jam and Reeve had only a forty-one day relationship.  We know that Jam has been sent off to a school for emotionally damaged teenagers.  It's a compelling plot, especially if you're obsessed with the boarding school dramas like I am.  Enter Special Topics in English, an invite-only class that turns out to be more supernatural than academic.  The story did a great job of alternating between Jam's trips to see Reeve in Belzhar and her real-world encounters with other students.  As the story goes on, you see Jam struggle between embracing the fantasy world and finding happiness in the real world.  This includes the obligatory but adorable budding romance between Jam and an unlikely soul.  It's a plot of self-discovery, a Breakfast Club-esque drama manifest in heart-to-hearts and unfulfilled wishes.  The struggles of Jam's classmates become as compelling as Jam's, and manage to complement each other. (Yes, the tragedies are objectively uneven, but let's not play a game of Whose Problems Are Bad Enough to Deserve Compassion, yeah?)  The Big Reveal of Reeve's death was pretty explosive--in a good way, I thought.  It was absolutely unique and gave the story an entirely new dimension.  I was captivated.               

concept . 5/5
I'll admit something horrendous: I've never read The Bell Jar.  I've been about five pages in for the last year, and other things keep insinuating themselves between us.  However, I'm quite familiar with Plath, and Wolitzer gives you enough context that you don't need to have read it.  That said, it's a great background for a class in a school for mentally troubled teenagers.  They can all relate to Plath's loneliness and anguish.  Not to mention, a bell jar is itself an encapsulated space, much like the fantasy land of Belzhar to which the students travel when they journal.  It's a place of the mind, where they can relive the happy events before their tragedies.  But it's not forever.  The supernatural element adds a twist to the familiar story of teenagers coming to terms with the tragedies of their past and seeking out a better future.  

characters . 3/5
The characters in Belzhar were good starts, but for me, they were missing just a smidge of vibrancy.  Jam herself had her moments; she was insightful, sometimes compassionate despite her self-absorption, and creative.  But sometimes she felt a little too much like the stereotypical emo kid.  Casey, Marc, Griffin, and Sierra varied in their presentation.  Sierra was quickly declared Jam's best friend, but her ferocity and personality didn't come through clearly until the second half.  Marc and Casey were clearly secondary and had a typecast feel.  Griffin was probably the one I connected with most, because he gets a lot of page time and he clearly evolves over the book.  Then there was Ms. Quennell, their professor.  She's enigmatic but it works for her; she's meant to be.  And I could easily imagine loving her.  There are also some great side characters, like Jam's roommate D.J.   I just wanted more substance.  

style . 3/5
A lot of readers have said how much they love Wolitzer's writing.  I actually found it a little blah.  Not bad, but not as punchy or poetic as I'd expect for a book based on The Bell Jar.  True, it's in Jam's perspective, and she's only a teenager.  But I didn't expect something fancy, just something more uniquely Jam.  I can't really express what's missing; there's just a thinness to some of the writing.  Like it could be any teenager.  Like Jam's voice doesn't differ much from the dialogue of her classmates.   

mechanics . 4/5
The big device here is the secret.  You know from the outset that Jam dated Reeve and that Reeve died, but you don't know how.  What exactly happened.  What was the aftermath.  Problematically, the lack of the reveal early on made Jam and Reeve's relationship feel somewhat shallow.  However, the twist was such a great AHA! moment that I'm not sure how else Wolitzer could have done it.  

take home message
A unique story of teenagers struggling through love and loss, with a supernatural backdrop that allows Wolitzer to explore the temptations of fantasy and the thorniness of reality.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

You have reached the end of the spoiler-free section.  The following contains spoilers.  You have been warned. 

the big reveal
I can't review this book thoroughly without mentioning this, because it was, by far, the most divisive issue in the book.  The whole time, you're waiting for Jam to talk about the big issue: how Reeve died.  Then, in a moment of psychic clarity, it all comes crashing through: how Reeve never loved her.  How their relationship was a fabrication of Jam's fragile mind, moments given delusional importance and misunderstood interactions.  How the realization that Reeve didn't love her sent Jam into a depressive spiral so painful that she convinced herself that he was dead, rather than accept it.  

This has led many readers to conclude the following:  Jam is petty.  That's so unrealistic, no one gets depressed over a 41 day long non-relationship.  Get over yourself, girl; other people have real tragedies!  

As someone who's struggled with depression, I can't really say I'm surprised, but nor can I easily express how insulting that is.  Mental illness doesn't conform to the bounds of reason or reality.  Yes, some people get depressed because something terrible happens to them; other people just get depressed.  Go check out Hyperbole and a Half on this topic, because she perfectly describes the guilt that depressed people feel.  Aka, "I'm depressed but I don't deserve to be because my life is okay, therefore I hate myself more because I'm depressed before reason, therefore I'm now more depressed."  Newsflash, it sucks.  And the response you get from other people ranges from "But nothing bad happened to you, right?" to "Just try to be happy. You're not trying hard enough" and all you can do is smile and nod when inside you just want to throw yourself into a wood chipper.  

So, yes, losing your legs like Casey is more objectively tragic, but becoming depressed is also pretty freaking bad and not something you can just pull yourself out of, kthxbye.  

Now, to the other part.  Jam's delusion of love with Reeve.  "But she's so stupid, she's petty, she should just get over it."  One, we've established that some people become depressed about things that other people think are silly or small.  Now, here's another shocker: some people with mental illness operate under very strong, debilitating delusions.  Maybe you've heard of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (yes, some people with bipolar disorder have delusions).  Where people are convinced that the CIA is after them, so they refuse to leave their house.   Or maybe you've heard of John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan because he believed that it would convince actress Jodi Foster to love him.  True story.  

Guess what?  Not all the examples are as extreme as that.  For certain emotionally unstable people, it's easy to create a fantasy world that feels as real to them as reality does to the average person.  Think of stalkers, some of whom are so convinced that the person they stalk loves them that they'll kill for it.  It's a kind of erotomania.  Check out the psychological perspective.  It's not common, but it happens.  And the people who suffer these delusions truly believe that their fantasies are real.  They construe innocuous events as secret signals; they see personal meaning in meaningless encounters.  This is what we see with Jam.  She was vulnerable and Reeve gave her enough attention that her mind did the rest, and concocted a fantasy world in which they were in love.  When that fantasy was blown, it compromised Jam's firmly-held worldview and she had a breakdown. 

So I, for one, sympathize a lot with Jam.  Maybe I've never suffered from delusions, but I can imagine what it would be to do so.  And it hurts just as much to lose someone you believe you were in love with as it does to actually lose someone you were in love with--and in the first case, no one is going to offer you a shoulder to cry on.