Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mask and Shadows

Masks and Shadows I have wanted to read Stephanie Burgis' Masks and Shadows ever since I found Stephanie was working on a novel set at Eszterhaza, in Hungary (a pivotal setting in my debut!). That might have been even before the book was announced. In any case, I've loved Stephanie's Kat, Incorrigible books, and was hoping for more of the same with this.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Though considerably darker than the Kat books (not surprisingly, since this is adult and those were middle grade), Stephanie shows her same deftness with character and setting. Though this book rotates through several POVs to convey the complex political and magical conspiracies, it remains grounded around two POVs, those of Charlotte, widowed sister to Prince Nikolaus's mistress, and Carlo, the Italian castrato invited to attend the grand estate. For those unfamiliar with Eszterhaza, it was known as the Hungarian Versailles--the fabulously wealthy Eszterhazy family (here, Anglicized to Esterhazy) built the estate on what was essentially swampland. For years, Haydn lived her while he composed operas exclusively for the family. In the 19th century, the estate was later abandoned, and while it has been restored and you can visit it, it's not exactly on the beaten path. But even today it's a gorgeous estate with a fascinating history.

But I digress. Charlotte was my favorite of the characters--I loved that she was subdued and understated and just beginning to find herself as an adult, having spent most of her adult life caring for an ailing (and significantly older spouse). Life at the estate is not at all what Charlotte envisioned, as the estate fills with a variety of characters, all visiting with ulterior motives: a Prussian spy; dangerous alchemists with questionable allegiances; the Princess Eszterhazy, who takes a liking to Charlotte despite Charlotte's relationship to her husband's mistress; young lieutenants making rash promises, and much more. Though it took me a while to untangle the different allegiances, the plot builds to a fast-paced, dark climax.

Worth reading for the setting alone--a criminally neglected place and time--but more so for the fascinating cast of characters, a stirring romance, and heart-pounding excitement.

Last spring, I was sitting at an outdoor table across the street from Eszterhaza when I saw Stephanie tweet something about her book. I responded saying I was currently *at* Eszterhaza, which led to a further exchange and eventually, to me emailing the pictures we'd taken at the estate. I was happy enough to do that--it was fun talking to an author I admired, and I like being useful. But I was touched to find my name in the acknowledgments for those pictures, and having read the book, am even happier to think I contributed (in a very small way!) to a story I loved.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

My Lady Jane

My Lady Jane I was thrilled to get an advanced review of My Lady Jane at the RT Booklover's convention. I grew up on the Princess Bride (movie and book) and have always loved the pathos of Lady Jane's story--the nine-days queen, a sixteen-year old girl caught up in the wrong politics at the wrong time. How could I resist a story that promised the spirit of the Princess Bride while rewriting Lady Jane's tragic history? My only worry going in was that the story wouldn't live up to the hype.

Luckily, it did so. This is not a short book (three fully fleshed out POVs will do that), but it read like one. And the three main characters are each distinct and adorable. Jane, of course, who would rather read books than get married--particularly not to a handsome, aloof lord with a secret (and the rather dreadful name of Gifford). King Edward, who signs the decree ordering his cousin Jane to marry, to protect the succession since he is clearly dying and his sister Mary, next in line, is equally clearly an unthinkable candidate, given the growing tension between the Verities (who advocate blood purity) and the Ethians (a d with a cross through it), who transform into animal shape. King Henry was a notorious Ethian, known to transform into a lion and the original source of "don't eat the messenger" (because the king, of course, did). And Gifford, better known as G, who is an Ethian himself, unable to control his ability, and spends his days as a horse. When the course of history brings the three of them together, they'll have to use all the wits and skills at their command to outfight Mary--or history may repeat itself, after all, and the story will end with their deaths.

I loved each of the three characters (though I related to Jane the most). The story has a light-hearted historical touch--enough to know the authors have done their research, but the novel mixes historical settings and customs with occasional contemporary lingo in a way that shouldn't work, but totally does.

Fun, funny, adventurous and romantic, this story has something in it for nearly everyone. 

Monday, May 2, 2016


Summerlost Ally Condie's middle-grade debut is a distinct departure from her Matched trilogy and Atlantia--no dystopian world here, though Cedar Lee feels as though her life has cracked wide after the accidental death of her father and brother. On a visit to her mother's childhood home, her mom falls in love with a house and buys it for the summer. As the summer goes on, Cedar falls "in like" with a new friend and takes a job working for a Shakespeare festival (and giving unauthorized tours in the early mornings about one of the festival's most famous actresses).

The story is driven by the characters, particularly by Cedar, who is still coming to terms with her loss and her tangled relationship with her brother Ben, who died (Ben has autism, like one of Condie's sons, though this is never spelled out in the book). I thought it was a lovely meditation on family, friendship, and grief. I loved Cedar's relationship with her surviving brother and her new friendship, and the resolution of the story made me cry (in a good, cathartic kind of way).

Mostly, though, the story reads as a love letter to the town where Condie grew up (and the town where I now live), and for that alone I would have loved the book. The house Condie describes is a real house, some four houses down the street from me, and the university campus where the festival takes place is the same campus where I teach, where my husband teaches.

A sweet, tender, must-read middle grade. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies

Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies I was lucky enough to get an early review of Laura Stampler's debut, and it's just the kind of fun, light-hearted contemporary YA that I love. Harper Anderson is dying to escape life in her quiet California suburb, where she knows exactly what to expect from her summer. So when she wins a coveted spot at a trendy teen magazine, she jumps at it. She doesn't mind that she's the second choice pick (the first got pregnant)--she's in. So what if she doesn't exactly have the experience to cover the dating beat she's assigned (there's the small matter that her application essay was based entirely on her best friend's experience, not her own)? Harper's pretty sure she can do this.

That is, until some unfortunate run-ins with a neighborhood dog walker, encounters with her crazy boss and stand-offish/super-competitive colleagues make Harper question what it is she really wants--and what it will take to succeed at her dream.

The story read a bit like a teen version of The Devil Wears Prada, in some of the best ways. Harper is smart, determined, and her story is fast and funny.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Love that Split the World

The Love That Split the WorldThis book broke my brain--in a good way. Pitched as Friday Night Lights meets The Time Traveler's wife, the story follows Natalie as her senior year winds up and heads into a last, long summer. On the football field where everyone she knows is celebrating, something happens. Time blinks out, and she sees Beau, a boy she's never met before, but who she feels drawn to in a way she can't explain. But Natalie's working against a ticking clock: a mysterious figure she calls "Grandmother" tells her she has only three months to save "him"--and if Natalie can't figure out what's wrong or why she keeps things that don't exist, her world may come undone.

Natalie is a smart, warm, character that I liked immediately--and I loved how Henry didn't shy away from tricky questions, as Natalie is Native American, adopted by a white family. Interwoven through the book are beautiful stories, told to Natalie by Grandmother as a way of learning about her heritage, but also of explaining the world around her. Her relationship with Beau is intriguing, and her friendships are quintessential teen friendships: that is, strong, loyal, heart-breaking, infuriating, and very human.

I'll admit that I didn't always follow the theoretical explanations of what was happening to Natalie--but it didn't matter, because the end of this book is so powerful and mind-bending that it transformed everything about this book into something astonishing.

Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes

The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes Wade Albert White's debut, THE ADVENTURER'S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES, is the perfect new series for fans of Christopher Healy's League of Princes and Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. Blending madcap adventure with a delightful sense of humor, this is the kind of adventure story kids of all ages will adore.

The Adventurer's Guide stars Anvil (known more commonly as Anne) in a futuristic world where the round globe of our world no longer exists and everyone lives on island-like levels suspended in the sky. Anne is eager for the ticket that will release her from a miserable life in an orphanage for adventure in the world--except her ticket never arrives, and she seems fated to live the rest of her life in a narrow, confined existence. Until, that is, she finds a book (The Adventurer's Guide to Successful Escapes) that conveniently changes to fit the situation, encounters a dragon, and lands herself in a middle of a quest that will take all of her smarts, savvy, and courage to fill--and that of her friends as well.

The story was a fun, fast-paced, mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy. Best of all, it's funny. The book was chosen as one of five middle grade novels for the BEA buzz panel for this summer, and it's easy to see why--I predict readers will come away wishing they had an adventurer's guide of their own.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Star-Touched Queen

The Star-Touched Queen I've wanted to read Roshani Chokshi's THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN since I read one of her short stories online, a story so full of magic and whimsy and jaw-dropping prose that I couldn't wait to read her book.

And the novel didn't disappoint: a Persephone and Hades story inflected by Indian folklore, the story follows Maya, outcast among her father's many daughters because of a dark horoscope fortelling a marriage to death. Maya doesn't mind (much): she's happy to pursue her studies and eavesdrop on her father's court. But then her father arranges a marriage to settle outside rebellions--the betrothal goes terribly wrong--and Maya finds herself fleeing with Amar, as his wife, to a world she's only heard of in stories.

I loved Maya from the beginning: for her honesty, her clear-eyed voice. And then I fell in love with the world Roshani creates here--so vivid and dream-like and beautiful and deadly all at once, like the very best fairy-tales. My heart ached for Maya and for Amar and for the betrayals that plague them. This is the kind of book that deserves to be savored, no less for the characters than for the prose, which rivals some of my favorite YA writers (Laini Taylor, Maggie Steifvater).