The Traitor’s Game

traitorsgameby Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: “The truth of where I’d been for the past three years wasn’t what anyone believed.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some intense situations and violence. It’s in the young adult (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kestra Dallisor is the daughter of the second most powerful person in the land. Which makes her highly valuable. She survived a kidnapping attempt three years ago, and has been in exile ever since. Now, as she is summoned back to Antora by her father, she is faced, yet again, with an impossible situation: she’s been kidnapped by rebels, her beloved guard held hostage, and they’ve laid before her an impossible challenge: recover the Olden Blade, the only thing that can kill the immortal dictator of Antora. And do it in three days.

She complies, of course, but not willingly. And the things she discovers as she searches for the Blade are going to turn her world upside down.

I thought this one was a lot of fun! I enjoyed Kestra’s determination and stubbornness and her desire to receive affection from her father. She’s smart and capable and it was quite delightful reading her banter with the other characters (no one was safe from her sarcasm). And there were a couple of twists in there that caught me off guard (happily so) and led the story in interesting directions. It’s the first in a series, so while it has a conclusion, it leaves it open for the story to take off in intriguing directions.

Highly recommended.

Audiobook: Flawed

flawedby Cecelia Ahern
Read by Aysha Kala
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Review copy provided me by the publisher rep.
Content: There’s a somewhat graphic branding scene, some teen drinking (but the main character doesn’t) and an uncomfortable scene where I was afraid there would be a rape (there wasn’t). It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

First a story: our Macmillan rep is an older gentleman, whose tastes run towards history and thrillers. But, being a good rep, he does read some of the kids stuff (he does both). And, every once in a while, he finds a YA he really likes.  This is the second time I’ve kind of said “yeah, yeah” to one of his recommendations (the first time was Cinder). I was going to get around to this one. Eventually. But then, he was kind, and sent me the audio version (which he REALLY liked) and I figured I should give it a shot.

I just need to learn to trust him: this was really good.

The problem is that it doesn’t really have a good hook. It’s a society (loosely based in England, or that may just have been the narrator’s English accent) in which they’ve developed a court system to judge people’s morality. If they find anyone to be morally or ethically wanting, they deem them Flawed, brand their skin and impose a whole ton of rules on them. They aren’t allowed to have children, they have restricted diets and a curfew, they aren’t allowed to congregate in more than groups of two. They have different restrooms, assigned seats on the bus… you get the picture.

Our main character, Celestine, on the other hand, is perfect. She has the perfect boyfriend (the son of the Flawed Court’s head judge), she has the perfect grades, the perfect family, the perfect clothes, the perfect life. Then, her next door neighbor gets hauled into the court for adhering to her mother’s wishes to be euthanized. Which gets Celestine thinking: maybe there’s something not quite right about the Flawed Court? And so, when she encounters an older Flawed man on the bus having a bad asthma attack, but doesn’t have a place to sit, Celestine helps him. Which lands her in the Flawed Court for aiding a Flawed.

And that’s just the beginning of Celestine’s journey. This is really just a set up for a bigger conclusion (due out in the spring), but it’s a fascinating one. I do have to admit that I was often annoyed with Celestine, especially her dependence on boys, but other than that, it was really good. I loved the comparisons to racism, from the segregation to a riot that broke out near the end of the book. I really liked the world that Ahern built; while it’s vaguely dystopian, it isn’t futuristic or mystical.

It’s definitely worth reading.

The Grimjinx Rebellion

by Brian Farrey
First sentence: “Of all the wisdom passed down through the generations of the Grimjinx clan, the bit I think about most came from Jerrina Grimjinx, wife of Corenus, our clan father.”
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Others in the series: The Vengekeep Prophecies, The Shadowhand Covenant
Content: There’s some action, and a few intense moments. The length will probably deter less confident readers, but (aside from the made up words) it’s really a page-turner. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Jaxter thought, after he defeated the Shadowhand, that his troubles would be over. But, the High Laird has been raising taxes, and the population of the Five Provinces are getting restless. None of this bothers Jaxter very much, until the mages kidnap his sister. Who happens to be a powerful seer.

Jaxter, of course, can’t let this happen. So he, his parents, and some of his friends, head off to rescue Aubrin from the power-hungry mages and discover that they’re plotting to overthrow the High Laird and take over the provinces. Once again, Jaxter (and the whole Grimjinx clan) is in over their heads. But, true to form, they rally and figure out a way to Save the Day.

This is such a solid series: a great overarching story (elements of the first book came back again in this one), that involves themes of freedom and who has the right to rule. But it’s also grounded in family: I love the whole Grimjinx clan (even the wayward uncle) and how they pull for each other. They can do things individually, true, but as a family unit, they’re unstoppable. And I love how Jaxter’s friends got adopted into the family: they’re as important to him as his actual family. I especially like his relationship with Callie: you can tell he’s concerned about her, but there’s no romance. They’re just friends, and that’s great.

I also loved how this wrapped up, but didn’t tie everything up in a nice, neat bow. Farrey chose to leave things hanging; and I appreciated the ambiguity. Anything could happen, and that’s just great.

It’s a fantastic end to a fantastic series.


by Lisa Fielder, illustrated by Vivienene To
First sentence: “The young rat prince knew he was taking a monumental risk.”
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Review copy given me by our Simon & Schuster rep, via my boss.
Content: There are some mild scary parts, and some mild violence, but really, it’s quite happy in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

I have to admit that I was a little turned off by the cover. It just looks so…. I don’t know. Juvenile, maybe. Or lame, perhaps. But, either way, I was completely unprepared for the awesome found inside.

I do have to qualify the word “awesome”: if you don’t like fantasy or talking rats, you may not find this awesome at all. The thing is: usually I don’t either. I liked  The Tale of Despereaux well enough, and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH okay, but I didn’t like Redwall, and I have studiously stayed away from the Warriors series. So, talking animals, not exactly my thing.

But the story of a pet-store bred mouse, Hopper, who — ends up beneath the subways of Brooklyn in the sewers — got to me. Perhaps it was his insecure optimism that won my heart over. Or the fact that his sister, Pinkie, was a bully and my mom-sense (kind of like Spidey-sense) kicked in. Or perhaps it was that he found a civilization of rats underground that has a tentative peace with feral cats. Or maybe it was the prophecy of the Chosen One, and the complications that brings.

What I really enjoyed was the way that Fiedler had the rats interact with the human world. How they taught themselves to read, and how Hopper figured out the subway system. How they used cast-off items (and some scavenged ones, too) to furnish their world. It was fantastic.

Maybe, too, I was just in the mood for a straight-up fantasy adventure with talking rats and a mouse with a heart of gold. I didn’t know that I was, but I found I couldn’t put this one down.

The Inventor’s Secret

by Andrea Cremer
First sentence: “Every heartbeat brought the boy closer.”
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Content: There’s a couple of intense romantic moments, and the characters talk of “wanting” each other, but no actual physical contact takes place other than kissing. There is talk of an affair a character’s dad had, and there is quite a bit of violence. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8th) but I wouldn’t blink at giving it to a savvy 5th grader.

It was the cover that caught my eye. The steampunk dragonfly with the explosion in the background promised really cool things. And since I hadn’t read any Cremer before (she of the Wolf series), I wasn’t really expecting anything.

So, I was more than blown away when I was pulled into an alternate history where the American Revolution failed, Boston converted to a maximum security prison, and the “traitors” were hanged for their crimes against the crown. And they were the lucky ones. In the years since the failed revolution, the Empire has just become stronger and more stratified. The elite live in the Floating City, New York City, in levels rising up into the sky. The lower you are, the worse off. There’s still a rebellion, out in the woods outside of the city, where the adults are trying to topple the Empire. And the children? They’re in the Catacombs, underground, safe from harm until they turn 18 and go to join the rebellion.

The Catacombs is all Charlotte remembers. She and her older brother, Ash, have been there since they were 5 and 7, respectively. And now, at nearly 18, Ash is in charge. This is where the plot gets a bit tricky to describe. Too much, and it sounds silly. And maybe it is.  I do know there was more romance than I was expecting, and it was a bit hackneyed and overwrought as well. But I loved the world. I loved the combination of history and mythology and technology. I loved how the class issues were at the forefront. I loved the imagination that Cremer put into the book, the cool little things — like mice bombs, or Pocky the gun — she littered everywhere.

No, it’s not perfect. Far from it. But it IS fun. And that’s exactly what I needed right now.

We Were Liars

by E. Lockhart
First sentence: “Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.”
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Release date: May 13, 2014
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There were multiple f-bombs and some mild swearing. It’s also a very intense book, emotionally, so be prepared for that. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9 and up) of the bookstore, but I think a mature 13-year-old could handle it.

There is a problem with writing a review for this book. It’s best if you know absolutely nothing going in. Nothing. Nada.

In fact, the back of the ARC says “If anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.”

I will tell you this. Cady is one of the Beautiful Sinclairs, an old-money family in Boston that vacations every summer on a small island near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandfather is the patriarch of this family but her mother and her two sisters have not really lived up to the family name. Cady is also one of the four Liars: she, her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and Johnny’s mother’s boyfriend’s (Indian) nephew, Gat. Something happened two summers ago, and Cady lost her memory. No, the summer that she’s 17, she needs to figure out what happened.

I will also tell you this: read it. Just read it. Lockhart is amazing. This book is haunting and so gorgeous in its simplicity and so powerful.

I promise that’s not a lie.


by Teri Terry
First sentence: “I run.”
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Content: It’s a pretty intense book, and I think the plot would be a bit difficult for younger readers to understand. But there’s nothing “objectionable” it. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kyla has no memory beyond the past six months she’s been in the hospital in London. See, she’s been Slated by the government: a process done to criminals and terrorists to remove their memories. It’s most effective the younger you are — Kyla is only 16 — and after the process, they tie your consciousness to a device called a Levo, which monitors your endorphin levels. If you get too low, you black out. And die. Obviously, it’s supposed to reform the people who have it done, make them happy, productive members of society.

Except it didn’t quite work on Kyla.

While she doesn’t have any memories of her former life, she has nightmares. And she’s not as compliant as she should be. And so, back with her “Mom” and “Dad” in their small village outside of London, she starts noticing things. Noticing things which leads to questions. And we all know that in books like this, questions are never good.

This is a much less futuristic dystopian fantasy than most, and that’s one of the things, I think, that make it stand out. (The other being that it’s set in London. It’s nice to know that Big Brother is happening over there, too!) Sure, it’s set in the future — roughly 30 or 40 years — but there’s a lot that ties it to contemporary culture. The anti-terrorism movement, which leads to a really broad definition of “terrorist”. A government that seeks to control their population. The other thing that made this one unique for me is that Kyla wasn’t (for this book, at least; it might change) a lynchpin on which the Revolution of the Evil Government resides. She’s a girl who’s lost her memory but retained her consciousness. And it’s not until her friends start disappearing that she feels she needs to take action.

That lack of action is also a downside. I’m hoping that this is mostly just a world-building book, and that there’s more going on in the next one. While I did find the situations Terry put her character in fascinating, by the end of the book, there was more unanswered questions then there were answered ones. Additionally, I think the love interest was a bit forced; there was no need for her friendship to end up as a romance, and because of that, there was no underlying chemistry between the two of them.

That said, it was unique enough to hold my attention, I am curious to see where the next book goes.

The Winner’s Curse

by Marie Rutkoski
First sentence: “She shouldn’t have been tempted.”
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Review copy pilfered from the ARC shelves at the bookstore.
Content: There is some violence, an attempted rape scene, some mild swearing, and a lot of politics. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8th) of the bookstore.

Ever since I finished this book, I’ve been trying to think up a book talk about it. Some 30-second summary that I can give to entice people to want to read it. But I can’t. It’s partially because I’m enthralled with the book and once I start talking about it I just want to keep going and tell everyone ALL the good bits. And it’s partially because this one is REALLY hard to sum up.

I’m going to try, though.

It’s set in the fantasy world of Valoria, an empire of warriors loosely based on ancient Rome. Ten years ago they conquered Haran and enslaved all the people (they didn’t kill, of course). This is the world that Kestrel has grown up in. Her mother died when she was a young girl and her father — the general who led the invasion of Haran — has mostly raised her. He wants her to join the army — one of the two choices a Valorian girl has; it’s either that or get married — but Kestrel has resisted. Partially because she’s devoted to her music (taboo in Valorian society; music is for the slaves) and partially because she’s no good at it. What she is good at, however, is gambling.

I’m going to stop here and say that Kestrel is one of the more interesting characters I’ve read about, and one of the reasons I really liked this book. She wasn’t a “kick butt” heroine in the “traditional” fantasy sense of the word; she sucks at swordplay, is more interested in protecting her hands than learning how to slit a throat. But she is cunning. And observant. And willing to take risks and use what she knows (or deduces) to win a hand, whether that be in her game of choice, or in her life.

In fact, watching her strategize and manipulate the people around her was one of the most enjoyable aspects of this book. She’s not cruel — she’s actually sympathetic to the Haran rebellion that comes up — but she has her priorities, and she will do anything (anything!) to fill them. And even though it’s the first in a trilogy, this story line wraps up quite nicely.

The only weak leak is the Haran slave, Arin, that Kestrel falls in love with. He’s pretty much a one-dimensional character, and the love story felt, well, weak. Thankfully, there’s some nice twists near the end that fill it out much nicer. And maybe Arin will become more complex and fleshed out in later books.

Even with that minor quibble, I more than thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. I’m hooked.