Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers – Book Review

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This is the first book in the His Fair Assassins series.

The scars on Ismae’s body mark her as something different, something to be feared. Leftover from the failed abortifacient taken by her mother before her birth, the scars also mark Ismae as a daughter not of a human man, but instead sired by St. Mortain, otherwise known as Death. The fear induced by her heritage keeps her safe – barely – from her turnip farming father, but enrages the man she is sold to in marriage, a man who promises to see her killed. Luckily, there are many who are still loyal to the old gods of Brittany, gods who must now be called saints to avoid conflict with the Catholic church and these priests and herbwives smuggle Ismae to the convent of St. Mortain. In the convent, Ismae becomes a handmaiden of Death, trained in the art of killing those marked by St. Mortain, those enemies of Brittany.

Brittany has many enemies these days. The Duke is dead, and his daughter the Duchess Anne is only 12, although she is a wise and mature young woman. France is hungry to expand its borders and it seems that she must marry to ensure the safety of her country, but her most ardent suitor is a man not remotely suitable. Ismae, who grew up a peasant, finds herself sent to Anne’s court with a courtier and member of the Privy Council, Duval, to protect the Duchess and Brittany, and to ensure that Mortain’s will be done.

LaFevers has created in Grave Mercy a wonderful and engaging world that is particularly effective for being set against true historical events, such as Anne’s ascension to the Duchy of Brittany, and the ensuing Franco-Breton War. Whether Brittany the veneration of ancient pagan gods as saints continued in 15th century Brittany I do not know, but LaFevers certainly made it ring true, particularly when setting this veneration against the close relationship between Brittany’s enemy France and the Pope. In addition, Ismae is an incredibly captivating heroine, naive and damaged at the same time she is brave and strong. Her reactions and emotions are entirely consistent with her character as LaFevers develops it.

Perhaps best of all is the way that LaFevers ended this, the first book in the series. Although there is a question of what will happen in Anne and Ismae’s futures, the story that is being told is also completely wrapped up. I would be thrilled to read about Ismae’s continuing adventures, or in learning more about some of the other girls from the convent, and yet Grave Mercy completely satisfies in and of itself.

This series shows much promise, and I can’t wait for the next installment in 2013. Highly recommended.

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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner – Book Review

Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner
Published by Dial Press Trade Paperback, an imprint of Random House

Vaclav and Lena are both the children of Russian immigrants, as well as being best friends. Vaclav and his parents are the closest thing Lena has to family; although she lives with her aunt, she barely meets Lena’s basic needs, let alone any of her emotional ones. Vaclav, though, has promised her that one day they will be married, no matter what. For now, she is the beautiful assistant in his magic act – until, at least, the day before their big performance at Coney Island. That day, Lena doesn’t show up at school, nor at Vaclav’s house in the afternoon. When she even fails to meet him at Coney Island, Vaclav knows that something is terribly wrong and, indeed, she will be completely out of his life for the next 7 years, when they are 17.

Vaclav & Lena is, in the beginning, somewhat underwhelming. Vaclav and Lena have a cute relationship and Vaclav’s passion for magic is endearing, but for the first 50 pages nothing is moving the story along. Once Vaclav and Lena have been separated, though, Tanner’s story really takes off. Vaclav and Lena each becomes their own, more fully-developed person, without ever forgetting what it was that held them together all those years ago. By the end, Tanner has created a beautiful and very moving story of a love encompassing both friendship and romance.

Although it starts slowly, Vaclav & Lena ends brilliantly. Recommended.

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* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault – Book Review

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault
Published by Bantam, an imprint of Random House

Billy Webb is somewhat aimless after graduating from college, but at least he has a decent job as an editorial assistant at Samuelson Company, helping to create the next edition of the Samuelson dictionary. Honestly, it is a pretty boring job, even if it does seem to have a certain nerdy glamor. Or, at least it is boring until Billy begins to find a series of puzzling citations, citations that claim to be from a book or publication called The Broken Teaglass, a work which does not actually exist. It becomes clear that someone at Samuelson must have placed the citations in the cit files in order to tell some sort of story, but what? And why? Billy and his equally bored coworker Mina are determined to solve the mystery.

Perhaps I’m a huge dork, but my first reaction when I saw that this is a dictionary mystery was excitement. Of course, I worried that it might end up being incredibly boring, but the concept was intriguing enough that I went for it anyway, and I’m extremely glad that I did.

The Broken Teaglass is a very smart novel, there is a mystery, but that is simply part of the plot. Billy is a fascinating character, as he falters in his post-collegiate life. He doesn’t know where he wants to be, or how he wants to get there, all he knows is that Samuelson will pay his bills for now. He is searching for purpose, and for companionship, and he finds both when he discovers the mysterious citations. Suddenly, he has a reason to spend time with Mina, whom he likes both as a person, and as a potential girlfriend. More than that, though, he has something to do with his life beyond simply dragging himself to and from work.

That being said, Aresnault did not skimp on the mystery while making Billy an in-depth character. The citations come together in an extremely appealing way, creating a feeling of excitement and anticipation as Mona and Billy gather together the pieces to the puzzle. Still, the reader cares about the mystery largely because Billy and Mona do, and Arsenault gives us a stake in their lives.

A very smart and (literally) literary mystery. Highly recommended.

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* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Populazzi by Elise Allen – Book Review

Populazzi by Elise Allen
Published by Harcourt Children’s Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Ever since Cara peed her pants in kindergarten, she has never stood a chance of being one of the cool kids, the Populazzi. Now, in her junior year of high school, she might have the chance to change all that. Cara is moving to a new school, and her best friend, Claudia has the perfect plan for how Cara can move up the Populazzi ladder. Things start out well: meet a guy, date him, leap from his social group to the next one up. Soon, though, feelings get involved and things become complicated.

Okay, I loved Populazzi so, so, so much. It might have been easy not to, the picture of high school was totally cliche and I could spot the ending a mile away, but honestly, none of that mattered. Allen’s writing is engaging to the point of being infectious, and she has a gift of creating characters that you can’t help but love, even when they are doing incredibly stupid and even hurtful things. Also, I love Archer, the first guy Cara meets, so incredibly much it wasn’t even funny. He is just adorable beyond words.

Beyond her fun writing and lovable characters, Allen is not afraid to discuss issues of teen sex, lying, drug use, and eating disorders. She walks a perfect line between neither glamorizing nor overly moralizing these realities of teenage life, which is incredibly refreshing.

All in all, Populazzi was an incredibly addictive book that I simply could not put down. Highly recommended.

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Source:Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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You Are My Only by Beth Kephart – Book Review

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart
Published by EgmontUSA

Baby is the only bright spot in Emmy Rane’s life, until the day she vanishes. Emmy runs into the house for but a moment, and when she comes back, Baby is nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found. Mad with grief and suspected in the disappearance of her child, Emmy soon finds herself institutionalized. Fourteen years later, Sophie is in yet another new house in yet another new town; not that moving makes things so difficult, since her mother homeschools her and rarely lets her leave the house or talk to anyone else. This time is different, though, because this time Sophie surreptitiously makes friends with the next door neighbor and the aunts who are raising him. As she begins to break out of the shell her mother has concocted, Sophie begins to learn things about her life that will change it for good.

I generally adore Beth Kephart’s poetic writing style, but her lovely prose does also have a tendency to put the reader at a remove from her story and characters, as I discovered in Dangerous Neighbors. This problem is exacerbated in You Are My Only by the fact that there are two main characters, who each have their share of narration and who are split by place and time. Emmy is a particularly difficult character to get a handle on. Is she supposed to be of below average intelligence or mentally ill even before Baby disappeared? If not, why is she so odd even from the beginning? Why is it so easy to paint her as crazy and have her institutionalized? What is with the fact her child didn’t seem to have a name, other than Baby? Sophie is a more robust character, and one who is easier to identify with, as she begins to break out of the constraints her mother has put on her life, and begins uncovering the secret of her past.

I think my biggest issue with You Are My Only is that it is written as a young adult book at all. There’s nothing I would particularly worry about in giving it to any teenager, but with half of the story told from Emmy’s point of view, it seems it might have worked better as an adult novel. Perhaps had it been written as an adult novel, the mother’s pain of losing her precious child could have been written in a way that was more immediate and less removed. I assume it is because this is a young adult novel that Sophie is the better developed character, but that seriously weakens the story as a whole. I would have liked to see them developed equally well, tapping more fully into both the woman and the teenager. That could have been an immensely powerful book, whereas this is somewhat disappointing – especially because the connection between the two stories is painfully obvious. If this story had to be young adult, Emmy should have been given an even smaller role, or none at all; as it is she simply detracts from the emotional charge of the novel.

I really like Kephart’s young adult writing when the story she is telling makes sense as a young adult book, and I think I would enjoy her writing for adults as well, but You Are My Only is neither fish nor fowl and simply doesn’t work for me. Try Nothing But Ghosts or Undercover instead.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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