City of Ghosts (CBR10 #61)

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I read a bit of YA, but middle grades is not something I usually think to pick up, or even necessarily think of as a distinct genre. But as is often the case in my reading diet of the past few years the Read Harder Challenge had a task that needed sorting. Enter Leedock and her review of City of Ghosts – the perfect book to fulfill the “read the first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series”.

Now is when I admit to having never read a Victoria (or V.E. as she is sometimes known) Schwab book before.  She’s relatively well-reviewed around Cannonball Read and now that I’ve been initiated I can see why. Her writing is inventive and immediately sets the reader into her world. In the case of City of Ghosts we’re joining Cass and her best friend Jacob (who is a ghost, by the by) as the easy summer vacation at the beach away from the tap tap tap of ghosts on the otherside of the Veil is replaced by a family trip to Edinburgh, Scotland so Cass’s parents (writers of a series of books about paranormal happenings and ghost myths) can host a new travel show about the most haunted places in the world (an easy series maker, that).

The only thing keeping this from having been a one sitting read is that I was falling asleep the first night I picked it up and no amount of page-turning writing was going to keep me awake. The next time I sat down with the book I was however sucked in, and since this is a book aimed at 8 to 12 year olds (although I think Schwab slightly missed the mark on this, it reads more 12 to 14 to me edging into the YA zone) I plowed through the adventures Cass and Jacob get into and the new friends they meet, and new dangers they find. The book was both a good story and a good book for building a reader’s skills – truly what I’m looking for in books aimed at this age range.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. You can join our bunch of ragtag readers and reviewers and help us raise money for the American Cancer Society. Every little bit helps, and goals of 13, 26, or 52 are available!

The Dire King (CBR10 #55)

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While I have a couple of series underway, there was only one where the final book was the only one I had left to read, so the This Is The End square was a simple choice. The Jackaby series is comprised of four books, Jackaby, The Beastly Bones, Ghostly Echoes, and The Dire King. I have absolutely enjoyed my time with the series over the past few years, but the fourth book was unfortunately the weakest.

The Dire King continues the story of the Seelie and Unseelie War that is enveloping New Fiddleham. Abagail,  an independent, self-assured, feminist, and delightfully sarcastic lead character and assistant to Jackaby, the Seer, who is just kooky enough to be interesting without being off-putting are gathering the forces of good to battle the forces of evil as led by the Dire King we met in Ghostly Echoes. As is often the case in series closers The Dire King takes the status quo and turns it on its head. While there were some tropes that I was happy to see, there were several others that left me wishing that William Ritter had chosen something else. A hero’s journey is expected, but the end game of that journey doesn’t have to look so similar to other journeys out there in the world of YA. But, just as I was feeling the need to roll my eyes Ritter breaks out a few tricks he had hinted at along the way and I was won over again.

My only major complaint (which honestly didn’t keep me from reading the book in two nights) was that this book is very clearly part two of Ghostly Echoes. One of the things I loved about Jackaby was that while it left the door open for more stories in the world, that it was self-contained and complete. The three other books in the series are much more tightly linked and while it didn’t bother me in Ghostly Echoes, it absolutely did in The Beastly Bones and this one.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

One of Us is Lying (CBR10 #10)

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Five students walk into detention, they have little in common, other than that they were all caught with phones in class, and all five claim that they were framed and that the phones weren’t theirs. But only four walk out of that detention alive. Number five is dead and the other four all have motive and opportunity. Who is guilty? What really happened? That is the story which unfolds in One of Us is Lying.

However, it isn’t the only story that Karen McManus is telling. The book is told from the four perspectives of the suspects and the plot naturally expands from dealing exclusively with the murder to each character’s personal lives.  Here, instead of providing differing perspectives of the same scene, as many contemporary whodunits do the story lines simply separate as each character deals with the notoriety as well as the pressures after their deepest secrets are revealed.

We begin with each character in their stereotype: a princess, a jock, a brain, a criminal, and the self-described omniscient narrator.  But they don’t stay there, McManus builds these stereotypes out and deals with the pressure to succeed, having to survive on your own too young, coming to terms with your sexuality, dealing with unhealthy relationships, notoriety, mental illness, and addiction all get dealt with on the page, which makes it for an even more believable jaunt into a high school setting. It had its faults, but as a debut I can already see what McManus’s potential looks like and I’m cautiously excited in that regard.

I was able to piece together what really happened without too much difficulty, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. In fact I read this book in big gulps, it reads fast. I found myself absorbed in the goings on, interested in the various perspectives, and waiting (impatiently) for the next shoe to drop. The way that this book is structured it could translate to visual media quite easily, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it on the big screen or small screens via a streaming service limited series.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (CBR9 #36)

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*Note: These reviews were completed in 2017 before the author’s hateful views towards our trans siblings was widely known. My reading experience was what it was and these reviews will remain up, but it should be noted that I find her TERF values abhorrent and will no longer be supporting her through further readings or reviews. 

I have been waiting expectantly for book five in the Harry Potter series ever since I embarked on this re-read. I’ve alluded to this story’s previous place as my favorite in the series. I don’t know any more if that’s true. But I’m also not comfortable naming another one my favorite (it is a competition between this and Prisoner of Azkabanif you’re wondering). Taking a step back from the experience of reading it, I can say that the transitional nature of this story – we are most definitely at war by the end – as well as moving towards the more adult stories in the series (books six and seven as memory serves are much more A than YA, while books 3-5 are YA, and books 1 and 2 are safely Childrens, in my opinion) are the underlying strengths of this novel. Rowling balances the interior and exterior forces at play and produces an entirely unique book, which is simultaneously firmly within the structure of her series.

But I’ll take even another step back. When I reviewed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I spoke about how expertly woven that book is. There’s not an ounce of fat on it and every chapter propels the central mystery of that book forward until we get to the climax chapters and the revelations of the truth in the Potters’ history. But, that book doesn’t scratch the same itch as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which, while not as concise and taut as its predecessor, was the sort of long rambling book that I often enjoy. It is that rambly, world suggesting and building aspect that is found in  Order of the Phoenix. In this way, Order of the Phoenix takes the tapestry plot weaving skills of Rowling and applies them to world building and setting up the final two books and moves away from a central mystery structure which has been the standard of the previous four books. At the very end of this book Dumbledore unveils the real mystery and battle to come: neither can live while the other survives.

While I love that there’s not a part of this book that is wasted, it is not in the same way as Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s exciting, dramatic, and dark. But it is also – and this is incredibly important – wickedly funny in places and the humor is balanced exquisitely with darkness and fear of feeling truly helpless against the forces that would do us harm, another component carried over from Goblet of Fire.

The set pieces are wonderfully realized, specifically the growth of the roster of characters to fill in those spaces. Some characters who had only previously been name-checked, or had flitting appearances are now active players in the larger story. A personal pet peeve of mine is what I like to call the Friends party problem. On the show we only really know the core six (for many seasons) but whenever there’s a party its full of strangers to the audience who we are supposed to believe are integral to these peoples’ lives. While a perfectly practical part of production, it sucks from a storytelling standpoint. Rowling never does this to us. The D.A. has a few completely fresh faces, but they are linked to previously mentioned and developed side characters so that having a group of 25 students doesn’t feel in any way strange to the reader, no “where have these people been the entire time?” reaction. Which leads us to perhaps most importantly we have the introduction of Luna Lovegood and Dolores Umbridge who are equally remarkable characters, especially as they are polar opposites in their personal ethos, and thus our estimation of them.

We also now have a wizarding world which feels truly and epically cohesive. The introduction of the interior of The Ministry of Magic as well as St. Mungo’s settles us even more firmly into the world and the story. Every new place feels narratively woven together: think of how important Grimmauld Place and Kreacher become later in the series.  On re-reading, and knowing the endgame, I was hyper focused on Sirius telling Harry about his extended family  and the ways that most pure-blood wizard families are all interconnected, which only strengthens Dumbledore’s  and the Sorting Hat’s “We’re All in This Together” spiels we have heard along the way. Harry has to think beyond his comfort zone of Ron, Hermione, and Sirius if he is going to succeed, and Ginny, Luna, and Neville step to the forefront.

We have also learned as readers that Rowling wastes nothing and the reader needs to be on the lookout. What could have been a throwaway detail:  Sirius had a younger brother named Regulus and he was a Death Eater, instead becomes a major plot point in the final book. Regulus was killed, presumably because he had grown uncomfortable with what Voldemort and the Death Eaters were doing and tried to quit. In the short term this is meant to teach Harry and the rest of us once again that the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters. But it isn’t just that. It is a truth that is going to snowball into a crucial part of the endgame.

Rowling’s themes in this book are slightly more intimate, but no less crucial to our lives and times. The reader isn’t placed on a mystery to solve (I couldn’t have cared less by the end that Umbridge sent the Dementors, I had simply assumed that they had gone rogue much earlier in the story as that is a plausible explanation given by Dumbledore) but instead sinking into life in a tremulous time. The themes and the subject matter explored in Order of the Phoenix resonate with me now in a way that is both powerful, yet uncomfortably familiar. I feel exhausted after reading; it’s not the same thrill and a rush  as I remembered it, which has left me unsure of how to rate it, and where to rank it.

Just a few of these themes, and the ones that warm my heart, are as follows. Our lovely trio, and their friends, learns the power of actually doing something to change things makes a world of difference. In that we have the parallel stories of the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army. The adults are reforming the group which fought Voldemort the first time, and are actively working against the misinformation coming out of the Ministry. Dumbledore is bringing together a disparate, but equally effected, group of magical creatures and persons, and doing his best even though they are struggling against the media machine. By being left out of the adult group, and forced to sit on their hands in their Defense Against the Dark Arts classes, brings another Hermione genius idea to the forefront: they can train themselves. This subversive group serves to unite members from three of the four houses and prepare them for the battles to come, unwittingly in the Department of Mysteries before long.

We also see various arcs of Character Growth, and I’ll focus on three of my favorite boys in the story and Ginny. Ron, my favorite, has self-esteem issues. His best friend is the most famous wizard of their age, their other best friend is the brightest witch of their age, and he’s Ron. Just Ron, not the best in any subject, not particularly handsome, not particularly known for his humor. He’s just Ron. He is also the sixth son in a family of rather successful wizards as far as Hogwarts goes at least, and is constantly in the shadow of Fred and George and their outsized antics. It is for these reasons why Ron’s Quidditch success and the reclamation of “Weasley is Our King” is so important to the story. It’s not just about Quidditch. It’s about Ron finally getting out of his own way and seeing himself as more than an appendage to someone else’s story. It is important for all of us to see ourselves as the hero of our own life.

Which also leads to Harry’s letting go of Quidditch. It isn’t permanent, we know, but he does not. He loses his broom and his ability to play, which is the only thing he truly feels confidant doing. But instead of sulking he supports his best friend, his team, and finds something else to pour his passion into. He becomes focused on doing his best to support the fellow members of the D.A. so that they can grow, always focusing on their achievements over his own. It is Harry at his best, and certainly a nice break from the emotional upheaval that is the connection to Voldemort and being fifteen.

And finally, we are brought to Neville finding a way to let others in to his pain, and overcoming his shortcomings. Neville, throughout four books, has been the poor student, the shy one, the afterthought. Ron has Harry, and Seamus has Dean, and no one has Neville. We find out at the end of the book that Harry’s story could so easily have been Neville’s, if only for a slightly different reading of Trelawny’s prophecy. Neville has suffered, and suffered alone. Yet, he is a warm, friendly boy who is inquisitive and wants to please. In some of my favorite chapters in the book (22-23 or so) we discover so much more about Neville (including that he has been using his father’s wand, and of course that is going to affect his magical ability. Not using your own wand lessens your effectiveness, as we’ve seen before when Ron had to use a wand that wasn’t his). We also see him focus on improving his skills in the D.A. and fighting with all he has in the Department of Mysteries and literally carrying Hermione out of harm’s way once he establishes that she is still breathing. Our Neville has grown up right before our eyes and uses his newfound truths – that he is worthy and competent – to finally open up honestly to his friends about his life.

Ginny is also growing into the powerhouse we need and want her to be. While Harry is suffering alone, Ginny reminds him that she has suffered similarly, she can be a friend to him through this time. She, much like the rest of her family, is no nonsense and supportive. (As a very sidenote, Mrs. Weasley continues to be a delight to me. Her love for Harry is on easy display – in a rough chapter – as his dead body is also used in the littany of dead bodies the boggart shows her. It is a supremely sad moment, living with Mrs. Weasley in her fear.)

Like narfna, I’m a huge fucking nerd and Order of the Phoenix is a nerd’s paradise. There are exams, stress, new and rare areas of study, medical mysteries…  This book paints a clearer picture than any other of what it’s like to truly be a student at Hogwarts, not just using Hogwarts as a physical location away from the muggle world. Maybe it’s that the 5th years have more homework than ever, but the way that Harry and Ron have to juggle everything, and often don’t while Hermione seems to have a handle on it, (even though she loses her cool at exam time) really portrays Hogwarts as a real place, with its own particular rules and rhythms. We also see these rhythms disrupted by Umbridge in Inquisitor mode.Watching all the students go through O.W.L. testing as Rowling brings back the greatest hits of these characters accomplishments and all they have done over the past five years puts everything into larger perspective. She has grown these characters to match what is yet to come, and we are able to sit and enjoy the ride. As long as enjoying an academic tumult is your jam.

There is so much more I could talk about, the return of Lupin (something about his struggle always speaks to me), the introduction of Tonks (surprisingly less badass in the book than I remembered), Sirius’ death and how it destroyed me (still not okay), all of the ways Rowling laid in for that death to be avoided (never forget what your going-away presents are, folks), and Dumbledore’s admission that all he has done for Harry, and the way he has structured his interactions were because of his selfish desire to let Harry have a normal life, even though that was never going to be in the cards for long. McGonagall continuing to be a bad ass (Have a biscuit, Potter) and surviving four stunning spells to the chest (life goals right there), and the sheer terror that is Umbridge (I hate child abusers, I hate abusers of the system, and I hate power demons. I’m not sure I could hate a character more than I hate Umbridge, I hate her more than Voldemort). But I will not continue, I will return to my own thoughts about The Order of the Phoenix, and wonder what else it still has to teach me, and all of us.

This book review is preceded by The Goblet of Fire.  In due course it will be followed by The Half-Blood Prince.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (CBR8 #52 – Cannonball!)

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Normally I have my Cannonball book picked out in advance. I know what my goal book is for the big reviews. 2016 hasn’t really worked out that way, so as I was packing my bags for a quick 48-hour trip to visit my family I had just finished book 51 and knew the next one would be *the* cannonball book. I of course grabbed Cannonball Book Club’s pick, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Can I just say that you all rocked this choice? It was great.

It’s my policy to do pretty vague/non-spoiler reviews of book club choices. Know that I really loved this book and it made my nearly 5-hour flight delay bearable (I probably finished this book in three hours).  Junior is great, Alexie writes him with such clarity, honesty, and truth. And in turn, Junior is able to relate a year in the life to us in precise, genuine, and emotional ways that suck you in. Also, it includes one of my favorite things… a list of favorite books (even if I worry about Junior’s taste).

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Here’s a summary for those of you still on the fence: Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from one life and replace it with another.

The discussion topics and reminder post will go up later this week and we’ll meet over at Cannonball Read on September 1 to chat about the book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Curtsies & Conspiracies (CBR7 #30)

I admit that I had no immediate plans of reading the rest of the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger when I finished Etiquette & Espionage. Sure, the book contained all of the wit and witticism one would expect from a Carrier steampunk novel, but it just didn’t grab me the same way Soulless had a few years ago. Well, my friend Crystal Clear had the book the second ready and waiting and dropped it off for me to read. I’m really rather glad she did.

Curtsies & Conspiracies picks up almost immediately after E&E. Sophronia and her friends are in the middle of their first year at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, and it’s time for exams. Some do very well, some less well, but all are being put to further tests. These various plot threads all come to a head when Sophronia learns that there may be more to a field trip to London than is apparent at first. There is a conspiracy afoot-(as the title of the book would have you be ready for) However, this conspiracy may have dire implications for both supernaturals and humans.

It’s this part of Carriger’s novels that I really enjoy, the solving of plots. Carriger weaves in old standbys from the novels of manners and overlays them with the idea that since so much of a woman’s life was and is about subterfuge; wouldn’t they make the best possible spies? Sophronia is certainly proving herself up to the task, but being a girl of 14, there are certain consequences she doesn’t foresee and Carriger doesn’t shy away from them. This was certainly an improvement in tone from the first outing in this series.

I find myself looking forward to the third book, Waistcoats & Weaponry whenever it finds its way to my door.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Paper Towns (CBR7 #22)

The longer I sit with my reactions to Paper Towns by John Green the more and more it grows on me. Normally I would have finished this book and had the review up within 24 huors, but life was not cooperating this weekend so instead its been nearly three days since I finished the book before I’ve sat down to examine my thoughts. They are many, and they are varied, which is why I think I’m sticking with a 3.5 rating rounded down to 3. Let’s discuss why:

Paper Towns  is built around the last few months of senior year for Quentin and Margot. Q is your average kid from high school. He has his people (the band kids), he has his best friends (Radar and Ben), he has his weird parents (psychologists!), and he has the girl he pines for (Margot). What John Green excels at is taking characters like these and infusing them with the pathos of the young, without coming across as maudlin or whiny, or worst of all – fake. These characters, as a group, are perhaps Green’s best foray into a full cast of well-developed characters.

Plot wise, there were fits and starts. I hated the introduction. I put the book down for nearly a week after reading it. I don’t know that pulling the information that Q and Margot found a dead body together when they were very young is important as our first data point for these characters. We certainly don’t need several pages of Q explaining how this was the defining moment of what came after. At least not up front. What does come after is Margot going on a revenge campaign and then disappearing, first with Q and then without, we’re along for the ride of watching Q sort out who Margot is to him and their friends, and more importantly who Margot is to herself.

Empathy is the crucial piece of this novel. As we spend time with Q he is learning to empathize with his friends, his parents, and even the bully a few blocks over. He’s also learning that its incredibly difficult to truly know anyone, and if you don’t make the attempt, then you have nothing but an empty place holder where that person should be. The best part, the happiest reading was Margo and Q’s night of adventure. But the pacing of the book struggled after Margot took off and we’re left with Q as he struggles with these big questions.

Other things that Green did that I thought were good was using some heavy hitters of the artist world as big portions of the story, Whitman, I’m looking at you. I also appreciated greatly that the ending wasn’t afraid to be real and true to the characters’ intent. There was no 11th hour change of personality, just discovery and understanding.

Narfna spoke eloquently in her review of how books like Paper Towns are so important for the work they do in teaching us NOT to create Manic Pixie Dream Girls/Boys in our own lives. As much as Margot can be argued to fit into that category, it’s a superficial reading of the narrative, at best. In many ways Paper Towns has the same basic plot points of Green’s earlier works:  a character missing from the narrative through line while being its catalyst (Looking for Alaska) and a road trip story (An Abundance of Katherines), both with a young, male, protagonist. And for that reason, and some stumbling in the beginning, I can’t quite convince myself today to rate this book a 4, but I might later. Reading this book also had me dropping my rating for The Fault in Our Stars down to a 4 from a 5, so I’m obviously up for changing ratings.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Fangirl (CBR6 #26!)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Rainbow Rowell is one of my two favorite new authors of the past few years. She and Lyndsay Faye have been rocking my literary world, and I am so glad for it. I saved Fangirl to be my 26th book this year, and timed it to coincide with my vacation. I had planes and beach ahead of me, so the timing was perfect.

And there is so much to love about the story of Cath. So much that is good, and interesting, and superbly executed. Really, I’ve come to expect that I will simply fall in love with Rainbow’s characters because they are so real, and I do. Every. Single. Time.  I love Rainbow Rowell, and it’s easy to see why.

But, (and there is a but) several days after finishing the book I’m still hung up on the ending that wasn’t. I follow Rainbow on Twitter, where she is just as lovely as you could hope, and there are a lot of people who tweet at her about those three words at the end of Eleanor & Park. I have never understood those people. Until I got to the last 5 pages of Fangirl. And then I just wanted more. I wanted more Cath and Levi, more Simon Snow and the Eighth Dance, and more Carry On, Simon.  I wanted more of all of it. I wanted more than just the signposts pointing me in the direction of the resolution; I wanted to see it there, on the page, right in front of my nose.

I am apparently very needy.

I think I’m needy because in oh so many ways, I am Cath. I was the girl who wouldn’t go down to the cafeteria because “all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t Google.” I’m the person who doesn’t understand how people are naturally ‘on’ all the time and don’t need time alone to recharge. Writing can feel like running downhill towards the thing that makes sense, while real life seems to be out on the edges. I need my own Wren or Reagan to pull me back in from the outside edges. Heck, I want to be as quippy as Reagan.

So, what am I trying to say? That I loved this book. That I wanted to live in it some more. That I get fanfiction now more than I did before. But I just can’t seem to round this one up to a 5 star book. (until I did, after reading Landline.)

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Eleanor & Park (CBR5 #29)

I love Rainbow Rowell’s characters. Even when we aren’t meant to like, or agree with them, she manages to fully flesh them out in a way that at the very least makes them relatable. Which, to me, is something to aspire to as a writer. I can only hope that the characters I scribble can someday become so fully fleshed out.

The two main characters, as the title suggests, are Eleanor and Park. Eleanor is the new girl in town. She moves back in with her mother and stepfather after a year’s separation from them in which she lived with friends of the family, her mother has convinced her stepfather to let her return to the family. While having to navigate rebuilding relationships with her younger siblings, she also must navigate a new high school filled with people who – in the way of high school – are always looking to attack the new and different.

Which brings us to Park. He is different .He is different from his brother, from his parents, and from the other kids at school. But he grew up in the neighborhood and his Korean mom, whom his dad met while deployed in the military and everyone has become accustomed to his family. He has perfected the level of friendship and interactions which allow him to fly under the radar. Until Eleanor gets on the bus and the only open seat is next to him.

This is a YA book, and our protagonists go through a pretty typical high school plotline. But, there’s more depth to Eleanor and Park, and to their lives, than you might expect. Unless, of course, you’ve read Rainbow Rowell’s work before.

Read it.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.