Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: YA Fantasy

Review: The Cracks in the Kingdom, by Jaclyn Moriarty

cracksSometimes it is good to be given books you’ve not specifically requested. If I’d seen the first The Colours of Madeline book in a shop or a library, I would’ve picked it up due to Jaclyn Moriarty’s name, but likely put it back down again when I read the blurb and realised it was fantasy. If I’d done that, I’d have missed out on reading an amazing series.

The first novel, A Corner of White, was a lot of fun. ‘Quirky’ is the word that seemed the best way to describe it, and the reviews I’ve read show that I wasn’t the only person to feel that way. With The Cracks in the Kingdom, however, I think the series has developed into something much more than quirky. It’s moving and exciting and intriguing, and I often found myself torn between wanting to rush through the pages to find out what would happen next – and why – and wanting to take things slowly, so that I could really appreciate the language and Moriarty’s great grasp of both character and style.

Although The Cracks in the Kingdom is the second book of a trilogy, it didn’t feel incomplete. There are still things left unfinished and questions left unanswered, but I didn’t feel cheated, because it still read like a complete novel, with enough resolution to counter the loose threads. That said, I’m still going to be grabbing the next book as soon as I can get my hands on it – not only because I want to find out what happens, but also because I’m pretty certain that I’ll be guaranteed a jolly good read.

The Colours of Madeline is an excellent example of just how good YA can be when it breaks away from carbon-copy fads and finds its own voice and concept in the hands of a talented author. It’s nice to know that I don’t have to say goodbye to Cello just yet.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Cinder – Marissa Meyer

Cinder book coverFive Things I Loved About Cinder

1. It is set in a well-constructed and interesting future universe. Marissa Meyer has given thought to the history of her world and to how this history influences the present time and the fears and actions of those who inhabit it.

2. It uses the Cinderella fairytale as inspiration, not as a blueprint. Often, retellings are just that, with no real creativity or innovation involved. Here, you can see the elements of the original story, but they’re used in a way that feels authentic within the setting.

3. It has a strong female lead. Cinder has plenty of insecurities, but she just gets on with her life despite these and despite her less-than-wonderful living situation. She’s a talented mechanic, devoted to the people she cares about and selfless when it matters, rather than as her standard.

4. It’s entertaining and well-plotted. The pacing is good and there is a strong mix of characters who do not feel like unaltered archetypes. Better still, the romantic lead has a lot more going for him than his looks – and he treats Cinder with respect.

5. It’s about a CYBORG OMG. Cyborgs are essentially my science fiction thing.

Two Things I Didn’t Love About Cinder

1. It contains a “twist” that is readily apparent almost from the very beginning of the book. Regardless of whether Meyer wanted her readers to be aware of this before Cinder, I always feel a bit duped when the big reveal is something I’ve known all along.

2. It is not a fully-contained novel, but rather the first quarter of a complete story. This is my biggest gripe with Cinder. I know series are the big thing right now, but every novel within a series should be able to be read and enjoyed as a book in its own right. I didn’t feel that with Cinder. It’s good enough that I will read Scarlett anyway, but the lack of any closure is annoying nonetheless.

Review: Every Other Day – Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Every Other Day book coverEvery Other Day is the very best kind of escapist reading: the type that doesn’t require you to check your feminism – and brain – at the door. Sure, there are a few things here that ask the reader to suspend disbelief for a moment, but it’s paranormal fiction, and it’s no more than you’d expect.

The first thing that struck me about Every Other Day was the fact that this isn’t a novel set in the future. Instead, it’s a present-day alternate universe, with most things left unchanged from what we know. The big difference is that preternatural creatures have been a known part of the world since Darwin’s famous voyage. Our introduction to the book’s protagonist, Kali, sees her hunting hellhounds, and creatures such as dragons, basilisks and zombies also play their role in the novel. I found this AU very clever, and enjoyed it as a change from the usual paranormal settings.

Kali is great. She’s not entirely human herself, and doesn’t understand why or what she is, but that doesn’t stop her from doing her best to keep the true humans around her safe. She’s accused of having a hero complex, and that’s very much the case, but it’s always refreshing to have a female protagonist who’s strong and independent, even if the latter quality does tend to irritate her new-found friends.

Speaking of those friends, Skylar and Bethany add two more fantastic female characters to the mix. Bethany is popular and seems to be your typical mean girl at the beginning of the book, while Skylar is an outcast, who is “a little bit psychic”. Kali resists their offers of help but they pay little attention, meaning that Every Other Day boasts a cast of three likeable, active and three-dimensional female leads. If you’ve read a lot of teen paranormal fiction, you’ll know how big a deal that is.

In another move away from the standard, there is a complete lack of love triangles, controlling boyfriends or, indeed, anything but the slightest hint of romance in Every Other Day. This is not a paranormal romance. It’s straightforward paranormal fiction, with an action-filled plot and pleasing sides of character development, growing friendships and family dysfunction. And it does it well.

My only gripe with Every Other Day was the fact that I found it a little hard to get into, initially. Once the setting-up chapters were over, however, and the main plot began, I had no more reservations. Every Other Day is enjoyable, creative and packs an emotional punch. Recommended for fans of Buffy and strong female leads.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Never Have I Ever – Sara Shepard

Never Have I Ever book coverWith Never Have I Ever, her second instalment in her The Lying Game series, Sara Shepard keeps the positives of the first book and cuts many of the negatives, leaving us with a better book overall. While I enjoyed The Lying Game, its sequel really drew me in and I think I’d now have to call myself a fan of the series.

All of the characters from the first book return for the second, but the big difference here is that the Twitter Twins, Lili and Gabby, play a much bigger role. Initially very annoying, they slowly become more likeable as the novel progresses, much as Laurel and Madeline continue to develop and become more-rounded characters. (Charlotte, in contrast, seems to slip into the background.) Most of all, however, Sutton seems to come into her own in Never Have I Ever. With the back-story out of the way, her strong voice is able to take over, so we find her cheering Emma on and groaning at her mistakes and truly feeling like a real character. Although it’s interesting to see Emma becoming a little more like her twin as the series progresses, it’s Sutton who seems to have the most room for character growth.

Once again, the mystery is at the forefront of the novel, and much of the plot is concerned with the identification of new suspects, along with a few new threatening situations that Emma finds herself in. While there’s certainly a formula to these books, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to watch it play out, even if we do work out the truth long before Emma and Sutton do! Shepard manages to keep the suspense high throughout the novel, which makes this a page turner and a surprisingly quick read.

My only real criticism of Never Have I Ever is that there were a couple of inconsistencies with the continuity. For instance, Emma uses Sutton’s iPhone at a point where it was still confiscated by her parents and, towards the end of the book, Sutton looks at Emma despite earlier stating that she can only see the world through Emma’s eyes. While such mistakes tend to draw the reader out of the action temporarily, however, they don’t detract from one’s overall enjoyment of the book.

Never Have I Ever was a lot of fun and its mystery well and truly has me hooked by this point. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Two Truths and a Lie.

Review: Forgotten – Cat Patrick

Forgotten book coverForgotten is based around a paranormal premise – that protagonist London can only remember forwards, instead of backwards like normal people – but nonetheless reads a lot more like contemporary fiction a lot of the time. London’s memory issues are always central, but there’s also a strong focus on family, romance and the mystery surrounding why London is the way she is.

With a protagonist who cannot remember anything about her past, Forgotten could have easily felt a little distancing, but Cat Patrick made the clever decision to keep London’s personality strong and constant, despite her needing to rely upon notes to feel her way in the world. I would have liked it if London had a few more people around her from her age group, as her complete reliance upon Luke for peer interaction isn’t very healthy, but I do understand that her condition would naturally make it hard for her to maintain many friendships. London is confident, interesting and empathetic – its just a pity she succumbs to Bad YA Name syndrome. London Lane? Oh dear.

Although I’d have liked to see London possess a few more friends, there’s no denying the fact that Patrick has written an extremely likeable love interest in Luke. He’s extremely supportive of London in all of her ventures (and moods!) and seems not to mind the quirks that stem from her memory issues. He’s definitely right up there on the list of non-creepy YA boyfriends. If only that list were a lot longer!

The most important and interesting thing about Forgotten, of course, is the novel’s premise. Patrick has both come up with a great concept and managed to maintain it in a reasonably believable manner, despite the logistical nightmares involved in working out how to allow London to function near-normally in the world. I like that some aspects of London’s abilities are left a little undefined, so that the reader is able to decide for themselves whether things are exactly as London believes them to be.

Towards the end of the novel, things start to be revealed at an increasingly rapid pace, which meant that I was left feeling a little like I could have done with an additional fifty pages worth of book! Some of these revelations were better signposted and supported than others, emphasising the abruptness of the conclusion. Certainly, there is a lot of room here for a sequel, although the absolute ending of Forgotten works well and the book exists comfortably as a stand-alone offering.

Forgotten has a great premise and an interesting mystery and should appeal to paranormal and contemporary fans alike.

Review: The Lying Game – Sara Shepard

lyinggameThe Lying Game has an extremely interesting premise, in that it’s narrated by a dead girl who is watching the action through the eyes of the identical twin sister that she hadn’t known existed. Therefore, while it is essentially told in the first person, it usually reads like a third person perspective, with the ghostly Sutton relating Emma’s experiences as she tries to fit into Sutton’s life and work out what has happened to her sister. It sounds a little confusing when described and it took me a while to adapt to the concept but, once I did, I found it a very clever take on the whodunnit format.

The plot of the novel is very engaging, and I quickly found myself guessing at who might turn out to be Sutton’s murderer. I found Sara Shepard’s mystery writing to be quite reminiscent of Agatha Christie, in that she is very good at ensuring that there are numerous suspects, all with very good reason to want Sutton out of their lives. I certainly have my own strong suspicions about the murderer, but I will most likely be proven wrong!

While Emma is a likeable character, the twin she is pretending to be is very much not, which is one of the most interesting things about The Lying Game. Ghost!Sutton has very little memory of her life, meaning that she discovers just how unpleasant she was at the same time as Emma and the novel’s readers do. I think this helps the character to be a lot more sympathetic than she otherwise would be, which is important in a book that is populated largely by people who aren’t very nice.

There are a few things that aren’t very believable here – like Emma being able to bluff her way as a tennis captain despite only having played the sport on a Wii – but it’s not so bad that it detracts from the plot. And it’s the mystery here that’s the book’s biggest strength. In the end, the characters and Emma’s charade are secondary to the question of who killed Sutton. Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not revealed in this first book of the Lying Game series. Indeed, The Lying Game does not exist very well as a stand-alone novel, lacking as it is in any real conclusions. Luckily, the story is interesting enough that I’m happy to read on to get the answers I need.

Review: Blood Feud – Alyxandra Harvey

bloodfeudThe Drake Chronicles series are marketed as standard YA paranormal romances, but I think that is underselling them a little. Sure, there has been a hint of romance in both of the instalments I’ve read so far, but the focus is so much more on the conflicts between the various vampire groups. This is particularly so in Blood Feud, where the romance between Isabeau and Logan takes a back seat to the negotiations between the Drakes and the Hounds and the ongoing struggles with Montmartre and the Hel-Blar. There’s probably enough tension here to keep paranormal romance fans happy, but there’s also enough action and world-building to interest those who prefer their paranormal without the side of UST and love.

Blood Feud is interesting in that it doesn’t continue the stories of Solange and Lucy, who were the joint first-person protagonists of the first Drake novel, My Love Lies Bleeding. At first, I wasn’t pleased to realise this. I loved Lucy’s strong and feisty voice, and it was sad to find her so little used in this second book. I soon got over my disappointment, however, because Isabeau is just as enjoyable a character. We also get to see things through the eyes of one of the male Drakes for the first time, and Logan does an excellent job of combining loyal, chivalrous and deadly in a manner that’s sure to win him a lot of fans.

Blood Feud also adds a new element to the series, in that it incorporates numerous flashbacks to Isabeau’s life before she was turned. Interestingly, these are told using a third person perspective, which should really clash with the use of the first person for Isabeau’s present-day chapters but somehow doesn’t. I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction, but the sections of the novel detailing Isabeau’s life during the French Revolution held my attention well and definitely increased my appreciation of her as a character.

The action and world development here is great, although the final climax seemed a little rushed and a lot too easy. It’s not a particularly long novel in modern terms, so an extra ten or twenty pages dealing with the final battle could easily have been incorporated. That said, it was very refreshing to finish a book in a series and feel as though it had been properly ended, rather than just cut off mid-scene!

I was pleasantly surprised by the first Drake Chronicles book and Blood Feud has confirmed my initial feelings about the series, producing a strong second instalment that has ensured that I will be reading more from Alyxandra Harvey

Review: Ash – Malinda Lo

ashAsh is a loose retelling of Cinderella, with the addition of a completely new main character (Kaisa) and a completely re-envisioned fairy godmother, who becomes a rather sinister (male) fairy. However, it’s probably best known for its queer content, which is also why I picked it up.

If Ash had been much longer, I’d have put it right back down again after the first ten or so pages and not bothered to finish it. As it was, I figured I might as well keep going, despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy the style of writing at all. Unfortunately, reading to the end just confirmed that Malinda Lo’s writing is just not for me.

It’s not that there’s anything bad here, and Ash‘s legions of fans can attest to that. It’s just that there seemed to be no light and shade, no action or emotion. Ash herself read like a blank canvas that remained blank through to the final page. I didn’t feel anything for her, because I couldn’t find anything about her to feel for. She’s one of the most passive protagonists I’ve ever encountered. Things happen to her or she acts within a dream state and even in the end, when she takes a little initiative, it still feels like the motion is happening behind a veil. At no point did I feel engaged with the text; instead, it was as though I was reading it from a great distance.

I can understand why such a writing style was employed. Most of the original fairytales are narration-heavy with little character development, and Ash slots neatly into this tradition. The difficulty I had with the way in which it’s used here, however, is that it seemed to remove all conflict from the story, which left me feeling like something huge was missing from the book. Lo has an elegant turn of phrase, but there was no fire here and no spirit, so I’m afraid I can’t be counted amongst Ash‘s many fans.

Review: Blue Bloods – Melissa de la Cruz

Blue Bloods coverDespite coming from an old and respected family, Schuyler Van Alen has never really fit in at Duchesne, her exclusive New York high school. But then she starts receiving attention from the ultra-popular Jack Force, and the untimely death of a schoolmate rattles the Manhattan elite. Soon Schuyler is shown the full extent of her familial heritage, opening her eyes to the true nature of the Blue Bloods.

Blue Bloods read to me like Gossip Girl with fangs. It centres around a group of super rich and privileged teens and their phenomenally rich and powerful families, and adorns the plot with generous smatterings of exclusive brands and (already dated) cutting edge technology and fashions. The twist is that most of these people are also vampires – although not the type of vampire you’re expecting. Melissa de la Cruz combines vampire and fallen angel mythology with historical snippets to create a being with an interesting past and form of immortality.

I picked up Blue Bloods thinking it was going to be another paranormal romance series, but it’s actually not focussed on romance at all, even though there are a few minor pair-ups within the book. Instead, it’s really about the history of the Blue Bloods, the inclusion of a new set of teenagers to their number and the danger they are facing from a threat as old as they are. In this sense, it’s an enjoyable novel and I would certainly pick up the next book in the series to see where things go.

Where it falls down a little, however, is with the individual characters introduced in this first book. The perspective mostly follows Schuyler and Bliss, but neither is particularly sympathetic or likeable. I got the impression that Schuyler is supposed to be the character that readers will identify with, but found her a little flat myself. While we are introduced to her life, we are not really led to feel anything about it. The other difficulty with the changing perspectives is that sometimes it switches mid-chapter and it doesn’t always stay with Schuyler and Bliss. There are occasional portions of the plot that are seen through Mimi or Jack’s eyes and the combination of so many limited perspectives ends up feeling a little messy and confusing.

In a more general sense, I felt like there were hints here at characters I might grow to like with more development in later books. We only see snippets of Jack and Mimi in Blue Bloods, but they seem like the most interesting members of the ensemble, especially in relation to the hints given regarding their shared past. In addition, Oliver became a lot more interesting and likeable as the novel went on. I found him quite annoying at first, but began to warm to him once he began to have a purpose of his own, beyond merely being Schuyler’s possessive friend.

Blue Bloods won’t win prizes for great literature, but it is entertaining as escapist reading. The world that de la Cruz has outlined in her novel is different enough to encourage readers to pick up the next book in the series, even if the characters are not yet intriguing enough to pull people in on their own merit.

(Oh, and because I can’t resist – Caligula was not towards the end of the Roman Empire. If you’re going to use real historical figures for effect, you should at least make an effort to use them correctly.)

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