A First Time for Everything

by Dan Santat
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Content: There is some smoking by European teenagers, as well as beer drinking (the legal age is different in Germany!). There is also some kissing. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

In the summer of 1989, right after 8th grade, Santat had the opportunity to go with classmates to Europe and spend three weeks there. They spent a couple of days in Paris, and then in Austria, Germany, and finally to London. This is the story of his experiences. There’s more to it than that: it’s about Santat finding his voice again after being bullied in Middle School. it’s how he figures out how to be in a relationship and make friends. But mostly, it’s about having great experiences and making great memories.

The art, obviously, is fantastic – I love the way Santat captures not only the grandness of European towns but also the silliness of being a 13/14-year-old IN Europe, mostly unsupervised. It’s a charming book, because Santat is a charming guy, and it’s a great travel book; he made me feel like I was there in Europe. It’s a good story, it’s one of growth and learning and having experiences. It’s one that I think kids will really like, but one that I could apreciate as an adult, too.

Mortal Heart

by Robin LaFevers
First sentence: “For most the bleak dark months when the black storms came howling out of the north is a time of grimness and sorrow as people await the arrival of winter, which brings death, hunger, and bitter cold in its wake.”
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Others in the series: Grave Mercy, Dark Triumph
Content: Like the other two, it has death (though no murders, I think), some sex (off screen) and more mature themes. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Annith is the one who was always left behind. Quiet and dutiful, the Abbess always passed her over when it was time to go on missions. First Ismae left, and then Sybella. And Annith is the one to babysit the new novices. However, when the resident seer gets ill and Annith overhears the Abbess say that Annith would be perfect for the position, Annith panics. And takes off in the middle of the night: dang it if she isn’t going to get her adventure.

She ends up being overtaken by hellequins — servants of the God Mortain, like Annith herself — and their leader Bathazar, takes it upon himself to protect her from the, shall we say, less savory of the bunch. They ride around together — nominally to get Annith to some city I can’t remember the name of right now — for a couple of weeks, falling in love. And then Annith — and this is what I liked most about the book — decides that she really wants to be Independent and Have and Adventure, so she takes off. And she does. She never really becomes as Awesome as Ismae (who is still my favorite) or Sybella, but she holds her own.

Of course there are twisty twists and swoony swoons, and over it all is some very interesting (if only vaguely) historical setting. At some point, though, the twists made my eyes roll, and the swoons stopped being swoony, and I was predicting things right and left, which is never much fun for me.

It’s not my favorite in the trilogy, though it does wrap things up nicely. Even so, it’s a good series, and one worth reading.

Loot: How to Steal a Fortune

by Jude Watson
First sentence: “No thief likes a full moon.”
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Content: The only think I can think of is that it’s a bit intense, action-wise. Probably on par with the Percy Jackson books. There’s no swearing, no romance. It’s happily in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

This book — combined with The Great Greene Heist (it’s a trend! Does two books make a trend?) — has gotten me thinking about the implausible versus the impossible. It is implausible that Jackson Green could have thrown together a crew to scam less-than-intelligent adults into exposing a blackmailing scheme. It is highly impossible, however, that 12-year-old March McQuin could have gotten together a crew in order to steal back 7 Moonstones that his illustrious thief father, Alfie, stole 12 years before. (Granted, the premise behind the Heist Society books by Ally Carter is also impossible.)

Impossible, however, doesn’t mean “bad”.

In fact, Watson has put together quite a ripping tale. After Alfie’s death during a heist in Amsterdam, March discovers he has a 12-year-old twin sister, Julia, that he didn’t know about. And then, at Alfie’s funeral, March and Julia are confronted by the woman from whom the moonstones were stolen. She’s offered them $7 million in order to steal them back. In a week. They’re up against incredible odds: Alfie’s old partner, who has just recently gotten out of jail, are after the stones as well.

Even though the premise is impossible, Watson does a fantastic job keeping up the pace. The chapters are short, the pacing quick, making it a perfect read for reluctant readers. Plus, it’s action-packed with chases (both in the car and on foot) and rooftop falls as well as planning and executing some pretty amazing heists.

No, it’s not a story that could actually “happen”. But it was still a lot of fun.

Audio Book: Daughter of Smoke & Bone

by Laini Taylor
read by Khristine Hvam
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Content: There is some talk about sex (though all the actual sex is off screen), a lot of violence, and some mild swearing. Is in the teen (grades 9 and up) section of the bookstore, though I didn’t have any problems with C (now 14) reading it.

I’ve been wanting to reread this (and Days of Blood & Starlight) in anticipation of Dreams of Gods & Monsters coming out. And so, when I saw that this one is out in audio, I snatched it up. (You should have seen me; I was fangirling all over the place. Kind of like when a customer came in to preorder Gods & Monsters. We were just gushing.) Anyway. I don’t have much to add about the story that I didn’t already say when I first read this.  But the audio was glorious. Hvam captured all the voices perfectly. To a spunky Zuzanna (love her best still) to Akiva and Karou, to the various chimera and seraphim that run throughout the book. (Brimstone is EXACTLY like I heard him in my head.) It was a joy to listen to. And one of those books that made you want to sit in the car, listening for hours on end.

If you haven’t had a chance to experience Taylor in all her awesomeness, you need to. And with the third coming out, take a weekend and splurge and read all three. You won’t regret it.

Just One Year

by Gayle Forman
First sentence: “It’s the dream I always have: I’m on a plane, high above the clouds.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a half-dozen f-bombs in addition to a handful of other milder swear words. Also there’s off-screen sex and some drug use. For these reasons, the book is in the Teen (ages 14+) section of the bookstore.
Others in the series: Just One Day

The book opens with Willem de Reuter, Dutch actor and playboy, waking from a coma. For those who have read Just One Day, you know exactly what point in the overarching story of Willem and Allyson that this picks up. The question is: where does Willem go from here?

While I’ve known that this book was coming out since reading Just One Day, I have to admit that I’m not sure it needed a companion book, or that Willem’s side of  the story needed to be told. That said, I was curious about Willem as a character, and the path that he took over the year that Allyson was trying to figure herself out. It turns out that while Willem’s path was more adventurous than Allyson’s, it essentially was the same: he needed to figure himself out.

However, it was Willem’s adventurous lifestyle that made the book for me. He couldn’t shake the memory of Allyson — or Lulu as he called her — and the searching for her (and, inadvertently, the healing from the grief of his father’s death three years before) took him to Mexico and India as well as through rural Netherlands and Amsterdam. I’m a sucker for books like these, ones where the main character gets to travel the world, giving himself over to the experience of seeing things.

And even though Willem is uncertain about his direction and, admittedly, a bit angsty (or in a funk a we’d call it around our house), he’s a pretty amiable character to be traveling the world with. I love how he picks up friends as he wanders from place to place. And how he just falls into experiences. It seems so… effortless.

I do understand that in many ways this is a fantasy. Not only the love-at-first-sight thing, but also the Fate/Kismet/Karma thing. No one’s life is that effortless, that charmed, that fate-driven. But, it was a nice fantasy to immerse oneself in for a while to get away from the drugery of “real” life.

The Lucy Variations

by Sara Zarr
ages: 12+
First sentence: “Try harder, Lucy.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.

Sixteen-year-old Lucy is a has-been. Ever since she walked off the stage at a piano competition in Prague, she hasn’t touched the keys. Her grandfather — who holds the money, therefore the power — told her if she walked off that was it. Finis.

Lucy has mostly accepted it, until her younger brother Gus’s teacher died and — because Gus has a high-profile charity benefit concert coming up — their grandfather and mother hire a last-minute replacement: Will. He’s young(ish), talented, and — possibly most importantly for Lucy — interested in helping her rekindle a love of playing. Not for competition, not for an audience. For herself.

I think the thing that spoke to me most about this book was the idea of how music speaks to a person. As a pianist (though not a brilliant pianist), I know about finding peace, finding beauty, finding a sort of… love, in the act of playing, and I think Zarr captured that perfectly. That moment when Lucy realizes that playing the piano is part of who she is: perfection.

It’s not a perfect, easy ride for Lucy, and I appreciated that Zarr didn’t make it easy for her. She’s struggles with readjusting to school. Her best friend’s parents are going through a divorce, and there is drama there. Lucy develops a crush on Will, which Zarr uses most effectively. I was gratified that while Zarr brushed up against the line (Will’s happily married), she never crossed over to affair territory. That would have been creepy, and I spent a good while hoping she wouldn’t. Thankfully, she told the story — expertly, simply, beautifully — without needing to go there.

It’s a moving story about a girl trying to find her path in a family, in a world where she thought she’d lost a part of herself. One which touched me.

Bonus: there’s a playlist of songs Lucy loves at the end. Which made a nearly-perfect book that much better.

Days of Blood & Starlight

by Laini Taylor
ages: 14+
First sentence: “Prague, early May.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

First off: if you haven’t read Daughter yet, you need to. Unlike other books, even though Taylor (thankfully) includes information to remind you of what went on in the first book, to really, fully understand what’s going on in this one, you have to have read the first. (Not that it’s a chore to do that.) (And you should probably do so before continuing on here because there will be spoilers.)

We last left Karou and her angel love Akiva, they weren’t on good terms. Karou discovered that she was formerly Madrigal — a chimera, an enemy to the seraphim — and that while she was Akiva’s lover, that didn’t end well. And Akiva didn’t bounce back happily; being the Beast’s Bane for the seraphim emperor, he waged war on the chimera, killing off everyone Karou loved.

That’s something you don’t forgive easily.

So, Karou has thrown herself in with the chimera, becoming the resurrectionist — the person who brings souls back to live in new bodies — for the rebellion army, headed up by the White Wolf, Thiago. Getting it out of the way here: there are some despicable male characters in this book. Horrible isn’t a strong enough word. And the things they do to innocent people are, well, contemptible. Taylor doesn’t hold back on the horrors of war, the terrible things power-hungry men (always men; though there’s a couple of — I’m running out of adjectives — loathsome women, too) will do to gain their power. And the pitiable state of their victims. It’s one of the reasons why this book is so dark and, as a result, so powerful.

Akiva, on the other hand, is trying to reconcile the horrible things he’s done with his feelings for Karou, searching for some way to get her forgiveness. He starts saving chimera from the angel attacks, which leads him — and by extension, his brother Hazael and sister Liraz — directly on a path of conflict with their father, the emperor Joram, and their uncle Jael.

I’ll leave the plot summary there, because there’s so much more going on. Zuzana and Mik show up (happily) and not everyone gets out of this one alive. It’s a trilogy, so don’t expect a conclusion — much like the first one, it comes to a stopping point, but there’s so much left unresolved, and so much happens in the last quarter that I’m anxious for the next one. (A year is so long to wait!)

But, I do have to  mention this: as far as second in a series books go, this one is phenomenal. Taylor’s such a gifted writer and storyteller, that she was able to take a middle book that’s mostly about revenge and war and make it into something grander. Every character was fully dimensional — even the horrid ones — and I was fully invested, emotionally as well as intellectually, in where the story was going.

I’m starting to think, however, that I’m going to be sad when this series ends. It really is that good.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

by Laini Taylor

ages: 14+

First sentence: “Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.”

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Review copy provided by a friend of a friend who got it from the publisher.

Release date: September 27, 2011

As an art student in Prague, 16-year-old Karou tries to keep up the appearance of a normal life. Except her life (not to mention her azure hair and myriad of tattoos, including the hamsa eyes on her hands) is anything but normal. She lives with a group of monsters called chimera, who have been her family for as long as she can remember. She runs errands for her father-figure, Brimstone, collecting teeth. It’s a lonely life, but she finds comfort in knowing that while she has many unanswered questions about who she is, she has a family (of sorts).

And then things take a turn for the, well, interesting. The seraphim — other beings from the same world as the chimera — attack Brimstone, closing all the magic portals in our world. As they are doing this, one of them, Akiva spots Karou and is inexplicably drawn to her.

There is more to the story, obviously, but it’s best left for you to discover on your own. I will say this: I adore Taylor’s storytelling. It’s dark and sinister and yet so very lovely all at the same time. It’s a twisting, meandering sort of story, and yet nothing superfluous or out of place. Her characters are captivating, drawing you in with humor and affection; you can’t help but love Karou and all the people she loves in her life. (As M said when she finished: “I want to be an art student in Prague and have blue hair.”) Added to that, Taylor plays with fantasy and religion and myth in wild, fascinating ways. Yes, there are angels and monsters in this book, but in playing around with themes of tolerance and prejudice — there’s a war going on between the chimera and the seraphim, and Karou is, for many reasons, caught in the middle — Taylor takes the simple myths, and mythological creatures, to a new, higher level.

The only quibble I have — and it’s not really much considering this is the sort of haunting, beautiful story that will stay with you for a long time — is that while the story comes to a natural stopping point, it doesn’t fully resolve (infuriatingly!). Which means, we’ll need to wait until Taylor’s imagination works its wonders again, and she comes out with a sequel. Which is sure to be as wonderful as everything else Taylor writes is.