Book Review: Piratica

Piratica
(Being a Daring Tale of a Singular Girl’s Adventure Upon the High Seas)
By My Queen Tanith Lee

My Edition:
Hardcover, 288 pages
2003, Dutton Children’s Books
ISBN: 0525473246

Art has been banished to the Angels Academy for the last six years of her life, learning deportment and other ladylike qualities that bore her to death. A fall down the stairs and a knock to the head suddenly causes her to remember her childhood, which was spent at her mother’s side on a pirate ship. Art quickly escapes the academy, finds her mother’s old crew and revives their spirits by basically forcing them back into a life of piracy as she lives in the spirit of her legendary mother, Piratica.

-screams- TANITH! Er, ok, so, I’ve read a ton of middle-grade this month and, sadly, none of it has impressed me. It was time for a change and I knew just what would do the trick – Tanith Lee! I’ve been sitting on this Piratica series for FAR too long and I don’t know why. I love how atmospheric her Claidi series is and my semi-recent re-read of The Unicorn Trilogy made me recall the special place her middle-grade/teen (I feel like all these series fall somewhere in between) books have in my crusty little heart.

From the first page, I was giddy at the thought of diving into another of Tanith’s worlds and Art’s didn’t disappoint. Tanith has created a semi-Victorian (Regency? I don’t know time periods, sorry!) world in the year of Seventeen-Twelvety (how awesome is that?!) which somewhat resembles the actual year of 1802. This world primarily differs from our own in how the countries are laid out and there’s a handy map in the front that I actually referenced for once. But because this is Tanith and I am a flappy-handed fangirl for everything she’s written (ugh except Greyglass  -tosses if off a cliff-) I felt there was something subtle about her world that differed from an actual historic period. I can’t explain this further and likely I am crazy.

Art is fantastic. She’s bold and witty and smart and super talented at being a pirate, despite not having been one for the past six years. She could potentially suffer from special snowflake syndrome, but she doesn’t because she has to work to win over her crew and she doesn’t have the shining, sapphire eyes and porcelain doll-like features of your usual heroine. And oh, the sun doesn’t shine out of her ass. Anyway! She’s a great lead, but her crew is small enough that most of them actually (I think I’m saying this word too much in this review, but I’m too lazy to change it) feel different and developed, where they could easily have fallen to the wayside (portside?)

There’s a lot to the plot that I can’t talk about or I’ll spoil the fun, but from the moment Art rediscovers her crew and takes on her new life as a pirate, I had this underlying sense of something more. I knew something else was up and it was a nice feeling, knowing that the plot had another element that wasn’t being revealed, even though the plot was acting like everything had been revealed.

Look, I have a hard time analyzing Tanith’s work because I am super biased. But I can say, if you’re looking for a witty, semi-middle-grade-semi-teen pirate adventure with swashbuckling, a fantastically charming ragtag group of pirates, talented parrot and dog companions, a strong female lead and totally hawt boi, but no love triangles and no breaths being held unbeknownst to the holder, then Piratica may be just what you’re looking for! I can’t wait to read the other two books (even though the third was never published in hardcover and therefore doesn’t match the first two.)

Sadly, Tanith doesn’t really have a website, but her Wikipedia page does a decent job of at least listing out all her work.

Book Review: A Sliver of Stardust

A Sliver of Stardust
By Marissa Burt

My Edition:
Paperback, 376 pages
2015, Harper
ISBN: 9780062291561

Wren Matthews is desperately trying to win the Science Trivia Olympiad, if only the large white falcon swooping around the room would disappear. The falcon does disappear, after dropping off a packet of sparkling papers containing nursery rhymes and an invitation to a place she’d never heard of. Joining her sort-of friend and rival in science, Simon, Wren embarks on a journey into a magical world that’s been right under her nose her whole life. Using nursery rhymes and stardust, Wren and Simon learn to weave the magic of the Fiddlers, but they may be in over their heads when an ancient evil threatens to resurface.

Not gonna lie, I was lured in by the cover of this book (and you can check out my Judging post for more detail). Naturally, the fact that it is also a middle-grade fantasy novel appealed to me as well. Sadly, it didn’t impress me, though I don’t think it’s a bad book.

What I enjoyed most was the way Burt wove familiar nursery rhymes into the story, using them to hint at things to come in each chapter and making them essential in the way Fiddler’s weave their spells. Fiddlers, those with the ability to use magic, use stardust and rhymes to perform all their spells. Some of the rhymes are twists on ones I remember from my childhood and others are crafted to suit specific needs like healing or creating light. Actually, all the rhymes used could be derived from others that I’m just no familiar with. Either way, I liked this part.

I also enjoyed Wren’s insecurities and emotional response to using magic. She takes everything in stride as she finds out about her new life and skills, but once immersed in the world of the Fiddlers she struggles to learn simple spells that Simon appears to master. Paired with strange dreams and little moments of shock about how her life has changed, this made Wren feel more solid than the other characters. One thing I can’t stand in any book is when someone from a non-magical world finds out they’re actually magical, or that magic exists, just says “oh, ok” and instantly adapts to their new surroundings. Simon fell into this category and I thought Wren was headed that way at first, so I’m glad she had a little more depth than that.

Otherwise, the story didn’t grab me and I didn’t feel immersed in the world of the Fiddlers. Many of the adult characters were paper thin (wokka wokka) and when Wren wasn’t having prophetic dreams most of her time was spent doing chores for Fiddlers or in Fiddler magic classes. Even though I don’t constantly read “magic school” type books, I am tired of that plotline.

Rhymes aside, the plot and characters weren’t strong enough to hold my interest and despite the action-packed ending, I won’t be reading the next book in the series.

Here is Burt’s website.

Book Review: Furthermore

Furthermore
By Tahereh Mafi

My Edition:
Hardcover, 401 pages
2016, Dutton Children’s Books
IBSN: 9781101994764

Alice of Ferenwood was born without color. In a world where color is riotous and magic is currency, twelve-year-old Alice often feels like she doesn’t belong. When her father goes missing, Alice loses what might have been her only friend. But when a childhood bully comes to Alice for help and lures her in with the promise of being able to save her father, Alice leaves behind all she knows for a land even more strange and magical than her home.

When Mum sent me a picture of this book and asked if I wanted it, I immediately said yes. I knew it was middle grade and strange and the cover was beautiful so I figured I’d love it. It seemed like it would be a take on Alice in Wonderland, especially considering the main character is named Alice. While this book was just as whimsical as Alice, the silly tone and oddball world building lost me so completely that I couldn’t enjoy the story.

I don’t have much to say about this book because it’s hard to describe and most of the time I had no idea what was happening. If you’ve seen Disney’s animated Alice (a movie I still enjoy to this day), Furthermore is very similar in that up is down and left is right and right is wrong and people eat flowers. Alice’s hair and skin are devoid of almost all color and the world she lives in has something called “rainlight” and townspeople use magic that has somehow been compressed into objects that look like buttons as currency. Alice loves to eat flowers and her mother eats hard to find berries to cure her depression and everyone is a vegetarian. I know it sounds like I’m just naming random things from the book, but that’s sort of what reading it felt like.

The land is magic and somehow gives magic to its people, who are born with different gifts. Alice believes her gift is dancing to the music of the land. She’s been practicing and hopes to win the Surrender, the annual ceremony where all children who turn twelve present their gifts and are then given different tasks that will benefit their society in some way. Alice hopes to win the Surrender and earn a great adventure so she can finally leave town and hopefully find her missing father.

I did actually enjoy the idea of the Surrender and it was one of the few parts of the story that made sense. Alice doesn’t win however, but her old rival Oliver presents her with a chance to leave Ferenwood for Furthermore, a strange land that Alice thought was a myth, and search for her father.

Futhermore is even more wild and nonsensical than Ferenwood and their magic flows more freely. It’s a dangerous place as almost all inhabitants are cannibals – they like to eat visitors with magic in order to gain their magic. I have no idea if they actually physically murder and devour people or just do something to gain their magic that also kills them, but if they are truly cannibals that lends a much darker tone to the story that would be out of place with its general silliness.

Furthermore seemed odd for the sake of being odd. Maybe it was because I was somewhat tuned out and thoroughly confused, but I didn’t understand the point of much of what took place in this alternate world. Alice and Oliver were constantly making blunders that endangered their lives because Alice wasn’t open-minded enough to accept the strangeness of Furthermore and Oliver couldn’t be bothered to explain the rules of the world to Alice because the plot needed him to remain aloof.

My favorite part in the whole book was a deliciously described filet mignon, that, of course, the kids don’t eat because they’re vegetarians and Alice doesn’t even know what filet is. Maybe most twelve-year-olds don’t, but I really wanted to eat that dinner.

The takeaway from this book is to embrace your differences and be proud of your skills and keep an open mind in order to better understand others. While that’s a nice message and an important one for young readers, it was really hammered home at the end and it frustrated me that it was the only clear point in the whole book. Maybe if I’d been younger when I read it I might have enjoyed it more. Perhaps, like Alice was at the start of the story, I was too close-minded to enjoy the strangeness of this book. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t an enjoyable read for me.

Stay tuned for a Judging post though – it is a well-designed book and I’m crazy about the cover art.

Visit Mafi’s lovely website here.

Book Review: Phoenix Rising

Phoenix Rising
By Bryony Pearce

My Edition:
Hardcover, 333 pages
2017, Sky Pony Press
ISBN: 9781510707344

Toby grew up on his father’s ship, The Phoenix, scouring the seas for any bits of their previous society that they can salvage while avoiding the government, who is after several crew members, including Toby’s father. Now they’re questing for near-mythical solar panels that would eliminate their need for fuel. Before they can set follow the coordinates Toby’s father has found, rival pirates from The Banshee attack and jeopardize The Phoenix’s shot at the panels.

A middle-grade book about pirates in a post-apocalyptic setting? Sign me up! When I initially requested this book I thought it would give me Shipbreaker vibes. Unfortunately, I was disappointed on all counts and wish I’d just re-read Shipbreaker.

My biggest issue with this book was my inability to picture most of what was going on. The bulk of the story takes place on the ship and the trash-filled sea and I couldn’t clearly picture either. From what I gather, a series of natural disasters destroyed the society as we know it and knocked out much of our technology. The sun disappeared for a few years, but now it’s back. The ocean has some sort of deadly levels of salt or acid or something and it’s full of trash and old vehicles and all sorts of stuff that pirates could salvage. None of this information gave me a clear picture and it felt like disaster overkill.

The Phoenix is mostly wood, I think, but maybe also had some metal parts and the bridge is made of glass (not sure why that’d be beneficial, but what do I know?) It has two different types of engines, one for traditional fuel and another for combustibles, and it also has paddles. There is a diagram of the ship at the beginning of the book but when it came to trying to imagine the characters navigating the ship, I simply couldn’t do it and just imaged the deck of a basic, ye olde pirate ship.

Pair my confusion with the fact that next to nothing happens for the first 50% of the book and I was ready to call it quits. I primarily kept going because I requested the book and the writing isn’t bad, it just didn’t capture my attention and I think perhaps the book was taking on too much at once. Even with the low level of action at the start of the book, the characters didn’t feel well developed either.

The crew of The Phoenix is forgettable. The captain is kind but firm and dedicated to his ragtag crew of semi-criminals. Various crew members are mentioned throughout the book – some more than others, and they seem to either like Toby or dislike him. There’s a pair of bully brothers, who I think are much too old to be tormenting and threatening the fourteen-ish-year-old son of the captain. Toby feels much younger than his age and is more caring and trusting than I think a child who grew up with a hard life at sea, amidst a ship full of wanted men and women, should be.

There’s even a mechanical parrot who goes by the clichéd name of Polly. She was apparently created by the captain before the world completely fell apart and though I think she’s supposed to add a steampunk feel to the novel, she felt magical instead. She has a metal skeleton and many of her abilities are explained with her “biomass” something-or-other and she has real feathers and looks real, but she needs to vacuum up pellets (of unknown substance) for power. She can store and download information like a computer and her personality is “cares for Toby.”

No one on the rival ship really matters except its captain, Nell, and her daughter and second in command, Ayla. Nell is mean, bent on vengeance and not very violent considering she’s so ruthless and her crew is supposed to frighten the pants off everyone else. Ayla is pretty, smart, good with a sword and doesn’t require her head shaved and a skull tattoo like every other crew member (male or female) likely because she’s the captain’s daughter and Toby’s potential love interest. Despite her purported awesomeness, I didn’t understand why she was chosen as second in command as a fifteen-year-old and I didn’t peg Captain Nell as one for nepotism.

The plot picks up somewhat at the end, but based on the opinion I’d formed of Toby I didn’t find his role in a rescue mission believable. His relationship with Ayla is an awkward back and forth of trust issues and unwarranted care for each other and I kept forgetting they were teens because they behaved more like ten-year-olds. The stakes felt low because I had no connection with any of the characters and there was some info-dumping that could have fleshed out the characters some, but I was too tired to care at that point.

I think Pearce was trying to cram too much into one book and as a result, the world-building, characters and plot all fell flat for me. This book is clearly a setup for the next in the series, but I won’t be continuing.

I received this book for free from Sky Pony Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
Here’s Pearce’s website.

Judging A Book By Its Cover: More Middle Grade

This is my weekly post where I highlight and appreciate cover designs and the general physical appearance of books. We all judge book covers to some extent. I can’t say that I’ve ever decided against a book with terrible cover art if I liked the sound of the plot, but I have purchased special editions of books or multiple editions of books based on their cover art. If book covers didn’t matter, publishers wouldn’t put out so many beautiful editions!

This week I’m showing off two fabulous middle-grade books (that I’ve yet to read) who have a similar feel to their cover art. A Sliver of Stardust has cover design by Michelle Taormina, cover art by Jakob Eirich and lettering by David Coulson. Published by Harper in 2015, ISBN: 9780062291561.

A Pocket Full of Murder features cover design by Sonia Chaghatzbanian and cover illustration by Tom Lintern. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers in 2015 ISBN: 9781481437721.

Top 13 of 2016

Hi friends! I had an excellent reading year and of course want to point out my favorite (and later my least favorite) reads. I picked 13 books because that’s how many I really wanted to highlight and it turns out that’s how many I highlighted last year, so this will be my thing now. These are in no order other than when I read them throughout the year.

Austenland – Shannon Hale
The book and the movie are friggen adorable and I can’t get enough. Plus, as an Austen fan, I’d love to visit a place like that!

The Oversight – Charlie Fletcher
I was drawn in by the fabulous cover and kept hooked by the refreshing gaslight fantasy plot. Eagerly awaiting the third book!

Beastkeeper – Cat Hellisen
Everything I could ever want in a dark middle-grade/fairy tale retelling.

Nimona – Noelle Stevenson
A fun, snarky, beautifully illustrated comic about villains – my favorite!

The Wild Robot – Peter Brown
A book after my own metallic heart! So many feels and illustrations by the author!

Alias Hook – Lisa Jensen
Oh my gourd, talk about a dark retelling. Plus sexiness. Plus villains! I want this Hook so bad.

Wolf Road – Beth Lewis
This book had some unexpected twists and a wonderfully depressing tone.

Pax – Sarah Pennypacker
More heavily emotional middle-grade! Just drown me in it, please. Not to mention an incredibly well-done animal POV.

Dark Matter – Blake Crouch
Another book that pleasantly surprised me. I love sci-fi that gets me thinking “what if?”

Cold-Forged Flame – Marie Brennan
Yes, a novella of only 100 pages made my top list.  In such a short time I was thoroughly engrossed in this world and desperate for more!

The Haunted House Project – Tricia Clasen
Middle-grade was slaying me this year. Emotionally powerful and contemporary, for once.

Ship of Fools – Richard Paul Russo
More sci-fi that had me thinking and totally creeped out.

Liesl & Po – Lauren Oliver
The fifth middle-grade on this list. Magical, emotional, dark and illustrated. Need I say more!?

~

So tell me, do you agree with me on any of my favorites? Or disagree, even? Let’s discuss!

Book Review: Snakes & Stones

Snakes & Stones
By Lisa Fowler

My Edition:
Hardcover, 287 pages
2016, Sky Pony Press
ISBN: 9781510710313

Chestnut Hill travels with her three younger siblings and father selling “elixir” to anyone their father can trick. But Chestnut is working on her own scheme – to get back to her mother, who their father stole the children from. After one of Chestnut’s stunts lands her father in jail, she learns that her life is not quite as it seems.

For some reason, I thought there was a supernatural element to this book – there isn’t, but I wasn’t disappointed by that. This book is set in the south during the early 1920s. Chestnut has a strong, backwoods accent, yet instead of being distracting or hard to decipher, it felt genuine and earnest. She is around twelve and is tasked with caring for her sister and two brothers, seven-year-old triplets, while they travel around the southern states in their father’s caravan selling his lies.

Chestnut hates her situation in life, not just because she knows they’re lying to strangers, or because they never seem to have enough food to eat and that their clothes are falling apart, but because she feels her daddy stole her and her siblings away from their mama one day while she was out of the house. Chestnut is doing her best to leave some sign of where they’ve been and where they’re going, in hopes that her mother, who must surely be searching for her children, will find them.

I loved Chestnut. She is honest and caring and strong-willed. She is realistically annoyed by her siblings (I certainly wanted to smack them), yet does everything she can to take care of them. Her mixed feelings in regards to her father and how she feels about her place in the family lend depth to the story and her character. I don’t think the story would have been nearly as powerful if it had a third person narrator.

My only real issues with this book come from the ending. Without saying too much, we find out more about Chestnut’s father’s way of life and I felt like I was supposed to see him in a new light. In regards to some aspects I did, however, I also thought he was a huge hypocrite. I have issues with the way things concluded with Chestnut’s mother. There’s one quote in particular that felt incredibly unbelievable, but unfortunately, I can’t share it without ruining the end.

While things didn’t wrap up in what I would consider a very satisfying manner, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book and the overall tone. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t also mention what I consider to be a fabulous cover as well! This is a solid middle-grade story and I found the time period refreshing, as I feel like I’ve been reading either modern or complete fantasy reads lately.  I definitely recommend it!

I received this book for free from Sky Pony Press in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
You can check out the book’s Facebook page.

Book Review: Fish Girl

Fish Girl
By David Wiesner & Donna Jo Napoli

My Edition:
Paperback, 192 pages
2017, Clarion
ISBN: 9780547483931
Expected Publication Date: March 2017

A young mermaid lives in an aquarium with who she believes to be Neptune, enticing visitors with mere glimpses of her tail in order to keep the place in business. One day a girl, Livia, explores a little more than she should and discovers the mermaid. Despite their differences in lifestyles, the girls become friends and Livia dubs the mermaid Mira. Mira soon learns there is more to life outside the aquarium than she thought and is desperate to explore the world. She begins her steps to independence, literally, when she discovers her fins become legs when she leaves the water.

This is a light, middle-grade graphic novel focusing on Mira’s journey for the truth and independence. I love Donna Jo Napoli’s work (Zel anyone!? That’s one of my favorite middle-grade novels) and mermaids, so I was excited to receive a copy of Fish Girl.

Art style is a big factor for me when it comes to graphic novels (part of the reason why I don’t purchase too many of them) and unfortunately, Wiesner’s style wasn’t for me (in Fish Girl anyway. I loved Art & Max). However, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story; it just didn’t add to it either.

Mira’s narrative in regards to her life inside the aquarium and her experiences is a bit obvious because, due to the nature of the graphic novel, it’s easy to see what she’s doing and her recap of events wasn’t always necessary. The book is aimed at younger readers though so extra narration might be useful in some cases.

Mira and Livia were likable enough and I found myself liking the octopus despite being seriously creeped out by them in real life. The concept that Mira’s fins transform into legs when outside the water was an interesting one, though I would have liked to know more about why that happens. I was left with many questions at the end, which I won’t raise here because I suppose they’d spoil the story. I’d really love to see this in novel format because I think it would give the characters and the plot more depth.

This is a fun book for mermaid lovers and would make a good tale for younger readers to try out on their own because the dialogue is fairly simple and using sparingly.

I received this book for free from HMH books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.
You can visit David’s website here and Donna’s here.

Judging A Book By Its Cover: Liesl & Po

This is my weekly post where I highlight and appreciate cover designs and the general physical appearance of books. We all judge book covers to some extent. I can’t say that I’ve ever decided against a book with terrible cover art if I liked the sound of the plot, but I have purchased special editions of books or multiple editions of books based on their cover art. If book covers didn’t matter, publishers wouldn’t put out so many beautiful editions!

You may recall I reviewed this book earlier in the week and now I’d like to feature some of the amazing artwork and design that went into Liesl & Po. This was published in 2011 by Harper, ISBN: 9780062014511.

Book Review: Liesl & Po

Liesl & Po
By Lauren Oliver

My Edition:
Hardcover, 307 pages
2011, Harper
ISBN: 9780062014511

Liesl has been locked away in the attic by her stepmother since her father’s death. She is lonely but it gets harder and harder to remember life before the attic, she’s been up there so long. Then one night a strange shadow appears – a ghost, Po, who is inexplicably drawn to her side and who enjoys the artwork she makes by candlelight. What starts out as a request from Liesl to for Po to bring a message to her deceased father, takes Liesl and Po on the adventure of their lives.

Liesl & Po has been on my radar since Richard over at Books and Bullshit recommended it (if you enjoy middle grade recs, foul language and lots of snark, you’ll probably enjoy his channel – he’s one of the few Booktubers I subscribe to.) I was very happy to find it while book shopping on vacation in Arizona – in brand new condition for only a few bucks!

First, let me say, I love the design of this book! The jacket is gorgeous and I was happy to find the cover beneath is fully illustrated in color as well – I won’t be covering this book with my library plastic, as I want to be able to see both designs. There are also very detailed illustrations throughout the book, some taking up two-page spreads (keep an eye out for my Judging post this Friday) and I just think it’s fantastic. I don’t have enough complimentary adjectives to describe this book.

Ok, now on to the story. Liesl is trapped by her ugly, evil stepmother (total trope, but I didn’t mind so much) until she meets a genderless ghost, Po and its strange cat-or-maybe-dog pet, Bundle. Po has crossed over from the Other Side out of curiosity and continues to come back because of its budding friendship with Liesl. Liesl asks for news of her father and Po explains that it may not be able to find him, as not all ghosts stay on the Other Side and it’s a very busy place. But Po attempts the message anyway, which sets them off on their adventure to bring Liesl’s father peace.

It was hard for me to think of Po as an “it” – it’s natural to want to classify a character as what we know, either male or female (or even transgender) and so mentally I kept referring to Po as he, even though I was reading “it”. Bundle was easier to handle, as I just made up a sort of creature in my mind, though I also thought of it as male. I’d be curious to hear if a younger reader struggled to classify Po the way I did; perhaps someone less used to doing it would find it easier to imagine the character as truly genderless.

I enjoyed this aspect of Po however, especially with the way Oliver has it describe itself in the book when Liesl poses the question of whether it is a boy or girl and when it replies with neither she says it must be one or the other:

“I don’t have to be anything. I am what I am and that’s all. Things are different on the Other Side, you know. Things are…blurrier.”

I also enjoyed the way Oliver handled the Other Side – a bustling, shadowy place with a mixture of less defined ghosts like Po and others who look much like their old selves when they first cross over. Po seems to enjoy the Other Side, with no intention of passing to Beyond, yet does not make either choosing to stay or go seem like a bad decision.

The characters in this book were all fairly compelling, especially Liesl and I devoured this book in a day. The plot had plenty of action, a whole lot of darkness and just a touch of nonsense – which is how I prefer my middle grade. The ending was sad but satisfying and overall I think Oliver handles the subject of death and what might come after very well. It is especially touching to read the afterward where Oliver provides insight on why she wrote this book.

I highly recommend this book for all lovers of dark middle grade with a healthy dose of feeling.

You can visit Oliver’s website, Tweet at her, follow her Tumblr and even watch her videos on YouTube!