Friday, July 27, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Secret of the Rose by Sarah L. Thomson

Dust Jacket Description:

"Rosalind Archer has secrets. Her father is in jail. Her and her brother, Robin, are in hiding. Desperate to survive, she cuts her hair and disguises herself as a boy.

When the popular playwright Christopher Marlowe takes on Rosalind as his servant and scribe, she hopes that she and Robin will be safe, at least for a time. But Marlowe has secrets, too, and he is involved in something more sinister than writing plays for the Rose Theatre. A paper scribbled with mysterious symbols, an urgent warning, and a blood-stained letter all hint at danger that Rosalind is only beginning to understand.

Rosalind's own secrets could lead to her death. But as she is pulled deeper into Marlowe's life, she finds that his secrets are just as deadly, and even more likely to be reveleaed. And when they are, Marlowe isn't the only one who will be in peril..."

Characters: I wanted to like Rosalind more than I did. While she does masquerade as a boy to save herself and carries some great secrets, she was very focused on the immortality of working for a playhouse. This is an understandable perspective, as being a playwright or actor at the time was apparently scandalous and meant for men on the fringe of respectability. As Rosalind was a devout Catholic, her concern with the ethics of working for Marlowe were logical, but I got tired of Rosalind angsting over her duty as a Catholic rather than immediately saving her own skin. I had neutral feelings towards Rosalind through out the book, and that probably greatly reduced the enjoyment of the novel for me.

Marlowe is written as an intriguing personality, and his distanced relationship with Rosalind is once again logical. However, I still wished that I had seen more interactions with him, because he is undoubtedly the most interesting character. The side characters were enjoyable enough, but no one really stood out. Also, I felt that there were too many unnecessary characters within the playhouse.

The characters didn't inspire a lot of emotion or curiosity from me. They're more of a blank slate for the unusual angle and great setting of the book. 3 flowers.

Writing: At the beginning the book, I felt that the Old English dialogue didn't reflect the fairly modern language of Rosalind's internal monologues, but I eventually adapted to the style. Rosalind's voice feels real, and I loved how Thomson describes London. 4 flowers.

Plot: When I read that the book involved Christopher Marlowe and mystery, I assumed that the plot has something to do with the idea that Marlowe was the real Shakespeare. It wasn't, and I'm glad for it. It was nice to see Marlowe get the credit he deserves as a standalone playwright, and seeing that more accurate side of his history delighted me. I also loved the extremely clever resolution of the novel, which made up for the slow rising action of the book. 4 flowers. 

End: Witty and promising. 5 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: I would have written about Rosalind's initial hesitance to be involved with the Rose Theatre, but besides that, the description covers all the bases.  4 flowers.

Cover: I like how it combines several elements of the story in it, and the kid-friendly nature of the illustration. The subtitle seems a little unnecessary, though. 4 and a half flowers. 

Overall: A fun look at Elizabethan England that I would have enjoyed reading when I was younger. If you know someone around the ages of 11-14 with a love of historical fiction, this may be the perfect pick for them. 4 flowers.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

Dust Jacket Description:

"When a vampire asks Sookie Stackhouse to use her telepathic skills to find another missing vampire, she agrees under one condition: the bloodsuckers must promise to let the humans go unharmed. Easier said than done."

Characters: Although I know that Sookie is supposed to be annoying in True Blood, I quite like her strong character so far within the book series. She has strict boundaries and a strong sense of self, and I admire that from a heroine. The side characters introduced in the book are intriguing. As for romance, I have one word to say: Eric. If I have to read anything about Bill ever again I will die of boredom. There weren't any big chances in the characters in this book, and I was happy with the consistency. 4 and a half flowers.

Writing: I like the matter of fact way that Harris writes, but her detailed descriptions of clothes started to irritate me after a while. I either wanted to read about sexytimes or action, not Sookie's outfits. 4 flowers.

Plot: It had many compelling elements without being overwhelming, and this book provided me more curveballs than the first one.  It satisfied me as a breezy Kobo read. 5 flowers. 

End: I want more. And when I say I want more, I mean that I want more Eric. 4 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: It's rather brief and unoriginal, but it certainly gets the message across.  3 flowers. 

Cover: I can't decide whether I hate the Stackhouse series' illustrated covers or find them endearing. Either way, I wouldn't mind owning the paperbacks. 4 flowers.

Overall: It's a quality installment, and I do think I was right when I said that this series would become a great, fluffy treasure of mine. 4 flowers.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Shift by Jeri Smith-Ready

Dust Jacket Description:

"Aura's life is anything but easy.  Her boyfriend Logan died, and his slides between ghost and shade have left her reeling.  Aura knows that he needs her now more than ever.  She loves Logan, but she can't deny her connection to the totally supportive, totally gorgeous Zachary. And she's not sure that she wants to.

Logan and Zachary will fight to be the one by her side, but Aura needs them both to uncover the mystery of her past—the mystery of the Shift.

As Aura's search uncovers new truths, she must decide whom to trust with her secrets...and her heart."

Characters: It seems like my feelings for Aura and Logan shifted in this book: I grew irritated with Aura and found myself liking Logan a bit more. Aura does begin to step up as a heroine after the beginnings of the sequel, but I had a hard time relating to her for a good 150 pages or so. Zachary remained a beloved character, and I can't imagine any readers preferring Aura with Logan over Zachary. The side characters were multi-layered and interesting, but I preferred reading about Aura's struggles more than anyone else's. Well, there was one character that I viewed in a new and exciting light, but I can't spoil the transformation. It was a consistent and lovable cast, and one that made it easy for me to become engrossed in the novel. 4 flowers.

Writing: Smith-Ready is good at world-building and romantic tension. I was pleased from all sides. 4 and a half flowers.

Plot: After a lackluster plot in Shade, tensions grew and conflicts become more intriguing through out Shift. It was well paced and had a sufficient amount of cleverness. At times, it was too predictable, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the story. Shift built skillfully on the structure created in the first book, and so I was very content. 4 and a half flowers.

End: It surprised me in a pleasant way. I look forward to what the next book will bring. 5 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: The plot needed to be intentionally vague in the description, and it captures the romance that is at the heart of the book. That's why it satisfied me more than most dust jackets. 4 flowers. 

Cover: I liked the prettiness of the first book's cover, but I'm not entirely sure of what the girl is doing on this cover. Her actions don't seem to have much of a point. 3 flowers. 

Overall: Shift is a great addition to Aura's story, and I love being able to spot an experienced writer through their novels. If you want a well-crafted paranormal book with a significant amount of romance, choose this one. 4 flowers. 


Monday, July 23, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Burger Wuss by MT Anderson

Dust Jacket Description:

"A comedy of romance and revenge, set in a burger restaurant. Anthony has never been able to stand up for himself — that is, not until his girlfriend is in someone else’s arms. Then Anthony vows revenge and devises a Plan. It begins with getting a job at the fast-food restaurant where his nemesis happens to be a star employee. But when the Plan is finally in place, will Anthony’s hunger for revenge be satisfied? Will he prove he’s not a wuss?"

Characters: Anthony is not exactly an original YA character. In fact, he reminds me of most male protagonists in contemporary young adult novels. Except, he's a touch more non-threatening and irritating. At first, Anthony is an understandable character. After all, he lost his wonderful girlfriend, Diana after she hooked up with the coarse and ridiculous Turner. Anthony seems sweet and proactive, but once readers have a hard time understanding why Diana is such a catch, his insistence on revenge becomes annoying. No one in the book is incredibly likable or easy to relate to, and there's no personality that shines. Turner is a great example of the all-American boy, and how Anderson turns that stereotype on its head is witty and thought-provoking. Besides that, the characterization just didn't do anything for me. 3 and a half flowers.

Writing: Anderson has a great ear for teenage dialogue. Every spoken interaction in Burger Wuss rings true, which was refreshing. There's also a fabulous sense of satire in this novel, and I only wished that Anderson used it more often in the book. The kind of topics he calls attention to deserve more discussion than we usually give them. 4 and a half flowers.

Plot:  Some of the events are clever, but the motivation gets tiring after a very short range of pages. For such a great premise, it's sadly wasted. 3 flowers. 

End: Realistic, and I appreciated that immensely. 4 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: A few more characters and their names could have been introduced, but it covers the limited plot quite well. 4 flowers.

Cover: I like the gross-looking burger and the use of text, but it doesn't seem either simplistic or detailed enough to satisfy my eye. 3 flowers. 

Overall: I look forward to reading more of Anderson's work, as his writing is fantastic. As for this piece itself, Burger Wuss is wholly underwhelming. I wanted more. 3 flowers.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Walls Within Walls by Maureen Sherry

Dust Jacket Description:

"There's much more than meets the eye.

 The Smithfork children hate their new life. After moving to Manhattan from their cozy Brooklyn neighborhood, they suddenly have no friends and parents who are hardly ever around. And then, one day, Brid, CJ and Patrick discover a book and more mysterious secrets hidden behind the walls of their new home by the original owner, the long-dead Mr. Post. Scrambled words and poems become clues that take the Smithforks on a journey through the city in search of the Post family fortune. But New York City is a very big place - how will they ever solve the mystery that begins inside their home?"

Note: This dust jacket description is from an ARC, so it could have been subject to change before publication.

Characters: All three of the older Smithfork children had quirky and appealing personalities that were easy to follow. It was great to see how each one's skills aided in solving the mystery of Mr. Post's treasure. I didn't relate to or adore the protagonists, but they were charming kids that were fun to read about. I also appreciated how their home life seemed both loving and realistic. There were enough side characters to add dimension to book, but not too many too confuse readers. My only real qualm was how irresponsible Eloise was when she took care of the children. I couldn't visualize an adult allowing kids to participate in some of the things Brid, CJ and Patrick do under Eloise's watch. It made me like her less as a character, and diminished the realism of the novel. On a whole, it's a nice ensemble of characters, if not a particularly memorable one. 3 and a half flowers.

Writing: Sherry did a good job at balancing the emotional and action elements of Walls Within Walls, and she wrote about them in a way most kids could relate to easily. Its simplistic, clear prose hit the perfect mark for a middle grade novel. The pacing was natural, and the book never grew dull. It's a solid writing style that's easy to read. 4 and a half flowers.

Plot: This was where the book finally turned interesting. There were obscure architects, mysterious family ties, beautiful poems and confusing motivations. To make it even better, the book was set in the fabulous city of New York. Sherry had an adventurous and clever plot that was a thrill to read. While I had a broad forecast for the ending, I loved learning about the details along the way. 5 flowers. 

End: Predictable, but nice family fun. 4 flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: There are so many fun and sellable elements to Walls Within Walls, this description doesn't utilize them to their greatest advantage. It does make all the important points known, though. 3 flowers.

Cover: I love the intrigue and mysteriousness of the cover, as well as how Patrick is intentionally distanced from Brid and CJ. The tone is perfect for the genre. However, there's something about the layout that makes it too cramped. I don't know if it's the lack of used space towards the bottom of the cover, or how there's a detailed border, city skyline AND a huge eye, but it leaves me unsure of where to look. The font itself looks like it's straining. 3 flowers. 

Overall: If you want a smart and fun book for the zany 10-14 year old in your life, this book will work very well. 4 flowers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Wayfarer by RJ Anderson

Dust Jacket Description:

"In a time of deadly crisis, Linden alone has the power to save her people.

The faeries of the Oak are in danger of extinction, and their only hope for survival rests in fifteen-year-old Linden. Armed with the last of her people's magic, she travels bravely into the modern human world. Along the way she makes a reluctant ally - a human boy named Timothy.

Soon Linden and Timothy discover a danger much worse than the Oakenfolk's loss of magic: a potent evil that threatens to enslave faeries and humans alike. In a fevered, desperate chase across the country, Tim and Linden must risk their lives to seek an ancient power before it's too late to save everyone they love."

Characters: I said in my Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter review that I was looking forward to seeing Anderson develop more as a writer. After reading Wayfarer, I have to say that past me was right to be excited. The sequel has made the Faery Rebels series a definite recommendation to the middle grade kids I know.

I liked Linden's kindness and drive, but I preferred Timothy as a character. Mostly because his inner turmoil was more interesting to read about. Luckily, both protagonists were written about fairly equally, so I got to enjoy both Linden's concrete beliefs and Timothy's evolving paradigm. I also loved reading about grown up Knife and her life with Paul. Sometimes I grew confused by the amount of faeries mentioned from Spell Hunter that didn't have a lot of page time in Wayfarer, but for the most part, the characters of novel had enough dimension to keep me engaged. 4 flowers. 

Writing: Anderson writes with a simplicity that makes me classify this series as middle grade. It's a strong and clear voice that works for the intense plot line, and it hits the perfect mark for the material. Narrative voices adapted well according to character. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by Anderson's ability to capture creepy characters through their dialogue. 4 and a half flowers. 

Plot: I felt that Spell Hunter's pacing was too uneven, but Wayfarer does not make the same mistake. Anderson introduces more compelling aspects of the faery world in a way that felt organic to the story. There was no point in the book that didn't have my full attention - which is probably why I read the entire book in one night. Each moment in the story is plotted precisely, with just enough time for readers to understand the feelings and motivations of the characters before diving into the action again. I love effectively paced stories, and Wayfarer is undeniably one of them. 5 flowers. 

End: A sweet ending that left natural wiggle room for another sequel. 4 and a half flowers. 

Dust Jacket Description: The focus of the description is centered on Linden, and I wished it had focused more evenly on both Linden and Timothy. 3 and a half flowers.

Cover: I guess HarperTeen has been trying to market the Faery Rebels series as more YA than MG from the looks of the cover. Unfortunately, I think the book will be best liked my MG and early adolescent teens, and this cover fails to address that demographic fully. It's not a bad cover, but I can't help but be irritated by how it also alienates MG male readers - a group that I can see liking this series very much. On a whole, it's a publisher miss, which makes me sad for this great piece. 2 flowers.

Overall: If you have an 11-14 year old girl or boy in your life with a love of fantasy, there's a chance they'll really like this series. Wayfarer is a strong and engrossing addition to the Faery Rebels world, and it also has some great messages about honesty and faith. 4 and a half flowers. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru

Dust Jacket Description:

"What's in a name?

Exploring the fascinating stories of more than a dozen authorial impostors across several centuries and cultures, Carmela Ciuraru plumbs the creative process and the dark, often crippling aspects of fame.

Only through the protective guise of Lewis Carroll could  a shy, half-deaf Victorian mathematician at Oxford feel free to let his imagination run wild. the 'three weird sister' from Yorkshire - the Brontes - produced instant bestsellers that transformed them into literary icons, yet they wrote under the cloak of male authorship. Bored by her aristocratic milieu, a cigar-smoking, cross-dressing baroness rejected the rules of propriety by having sexual liaisons with men and women alike, publishing novels and plays under the name George Sand. Highly accessibly and engaging, these provocative stories reveal the complex motives of writers who harbored secret identities - sometimes playful, sometimes with terrible anguish and tragic consequences. Part detective story, part expose, part literary history, Nom De Plume is an absorbing psychological meditation on identity and creativity."

Review: This book on literary pseudonyms has become one of my favourite reads of the year. In fact, I may have stayed up late reading it on more than one occasion.

Maybe it's just because I find writing and the concept of identity so interesting, but this piece completely absorbed me. It provides many fascinating stories about both writers who are household names and ones most of us haven't heard about. While I enjoyed reading about stars such as Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters and George Eliot, I found myself preferring the chapters about authors outside of the English and North American canon. I was able to sate my curiosity about other cultures' literary personalities. Naturally, I have an attraction to the dramatic, and so I also gravitated towards authors who experienced the more drastic effects that nom de plumes could have on lives and publishing careers. Drama and exoticism have always interested me, and so my two favourite stories possessed both traits. I loved reading about the astonishing life of Fernando Pessoa and the integral nature that pseudonyms played in his writing process, as well as the tragic case of Romain Gary's relationship with his authorial identity.

The most compelling element of the book is how it shows the issue of the self in connection to literature, but I also loved learning more about the success of authors during their lifetimes. Reading about George Sand's and Pauline Reage's interactions with literary circles made me visualize the tight-knit artist communities of the past. Nom de Plume has definitely inspired to read more classic novels, and I thank it for that.

Some stories may have felt too tired and familiar, but overall, Nom de Plume enthralled me as both a writer and a reader. As the mysterious component of the artistic self is exchanged for businesslike transparency, I wonder what kinds of creativity will be sacrificed, and how the relationship between authors and readers will evolve because of the loss. That's not a question that the publishing industry seems to be exploring a lot these days, and I'm thrilled that I got to muse over it whilst reading this book. 

Nom de Plume is well organized, expertly written, and it presents some unusual questions that are worth exploring. If you love reading about authors and want to explore an interesting element of the literary world, please read this book. 4 and a half flowers.

Educate Emma: Books: White Cat by Holly Black

Dust Jacket Description:

"Cassel comes from a family of Curse Workers - people who have the power to change your emotions, your memories, your luck, by the slightest touch of their hands. And since curse work is illegal, they're all criminals. Many become mobsters and con artists. But not Cassel. He hasn't got magic, so he's an outsider, the straight kid in a crooked family. You just have to ignore one small detail - he killed his best friend, Lila, three years ago.

Cassel has carefully built up a facade of normalcy, blending into the crowd. But his facade starts to crumble when he finds himself sleepwalking, propelled into the night by terrifying dreams about a white cat that wants to tell him something. He's noticing other disturbing things too, including the strange behavior of his two brothers. They are keeping secrets from him. As Cassel begins to suspect he's part of a huge con game, he must unravel his past and his memories. To find out the truth, Cassel will have to outcon the conmen."

Characters: For a series that hasn't received a lot of attention, I have to say that this work might be my favourite of Black's. Sure, it doesn't possess the same detailed language and powerful tone of her Modern Faerie Tale series, but its plot and characters have been honed by the skills of a seasoned writer. This difference sets White Cat apart as a well-crafted and all consuming read. 

For all of Cassel's self loathing, I rather liked him and the unreliability of his voice. He could be stupidly impulsive, but I related to this trait and found it amusing. The facets and uncertainty of the other characters made me excited to read the other books in the series. The book ensured that Black maintained her reputation for writing fierce and smart female characters. Cassel's brothers always kept me guessing, and I loved the entire family dynamic with the Sharpes. Overall, it's a brilliant cast that highlight the best elements of Cassel's world. 4 and a half flowers. 
Writing: The prose is not quite as rich as Black's usual writing style, but it allowed me to easily enter  the story. It's polished and engrossing, which is everything I want when I'm reading. My only real qualm is the present tense, as I'm just not convinced that it enhanced the novel. 4 flowers.

Plot: The plot is where the book really shines. I've always had an intense affinity for heists and cons, and Black takes it to a new level with the use of magic. I predicted the big reveal pretty quickly, but there were some clever details that made me second guess my confidence. The complex magical powers and political elements of The Curse Workers made me value the setting. The lack of trust amongst characters made this book a page turner, and the compelling nature of the piece made me understand Black's title as the Plot Doctor amongst her circle of writer friends. 5 flowers.

End: A great, rational twist that made me feel for Cassel all the more. It was an intelligent climax that kept me informed and interested, despite the confusing nature of the material. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: A little cliche, but it gets the point across. 3 and a half flowers.

Cover: The model may be too pretty, but I love the use of the gloves and white cat. 4 flowers. 

Overall: If you want a smart, dark fantasy world to lose yourself in for a few hours, pick up White Cat. It's brilliant. 4 and a half flowers. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Educate Emma: Books: The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mademoiselle Odile

Dust Jacket Description:

"After witnessing their parents' murder, Odile and Greluchon Ricau have come to Paris to seek refuge, only to find themselves living in the dank catacombs in a city on the brink of war. Odile seeks comfort in the butcher's son, Julien, who helps her sell rats in the streets in order to survive and take care of her sick brother. But after meeting the successful Doctor Henry Jekyll, Odile discovers he might have the means to help heal her brother, get her off the streets, and discover the secrets of her ancestors. But Doctor Jekyll's help will come at a price. Is Odile willing to take the risk?"

I received this book for review.

Characters: While I haven't actually read the original Doctor Jekyll (though it is on my to-do list), I have read a decent amount of 19th century literature, and The Strange Case is an exceptionally clever and well-written throwback to gothic Victorian texts.

I can't say I felt a true affinity to Odile, but I liked her loyalty to family and her street smarts. Sometimes her illogical emotional motivations irked me, but her rational action plans always redeemed her in my eyes. In fact, I had fairly neutral feelings towards all the characters through out the story. Since the novel is rich in history and fantasy, this didn't bother me all that much. I may have been more forgiving because I am usually absorbed in plot rather than character within gothic books.

The most interesting thing that Reese did with his characters was the tense dynamic between Doctor Jekyll and Odile. I especially loved viewing Doctor Jekyll's posh problems in Odile's eyes, as the idea of being socially disgraced was a hilarious issue in the perspective of a homeless girl. This relationship revealed class issues in reference to Doctor Jekyll - a point of view I have not heard is within the original text. This was a refreshing angle, and I'm glad Reese chose to write the book through Odile's destitute narrative. 4 flowers. 

Writing: Reese has a strong formal voice that made it easy for me to slip into the tone of the content matter. Odile's voice felt true and real, and most importantly, the writing style was believable for the era. 5 flowers. 

Plot: I love that Reese took an event in history that I haven't ever seen within YA - in fact, YA tends to be very American and English-centric, so learning more about French history thrilled me. All the little details formed a vivid setting that made me appreciate the book more. The world building that Reese created to fit into the Doctor Jekyll plot line was delightful to read, and it struck a great balance between believable and enchanting. I have to admit, the traditional lack of direct conflict within this genre didn't always match my mood, but for the tone and original content, the plot is spot on. 4 and a half flowers. 

End: An inevitable stream of events, but the twist was very clever. 4 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description: It's hard to create a description of The Strange Case, but I'm disappointed that the writer of the jacket succumbed to the classic rhetorical question ending. 3 flowers.

Cover: I like the mix of historical and fantastical, but I'm confused as to why Hyde's eyes aren't black. Red eyes were not a part of the piece. 4 and a half eyes. 

Overall: If you've enjoyed books like Frankenstein, and want a retelling of a classic story through the voice of an unusual narrator, go for this one. It's worth the read just for originality. 4 flowers.