Book Reviews

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

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I pride myself on the fact that I do read a large variety of books, by a variety of authors, in a variety of genres. However, if I were only allowed to read one book genre for the rest of my life (please don’t ever make me do this) it would be Young Adult (YA). If we were getting really particular, I would say specifically fantasy YA. I have great admiration for authors who are able to seemingly conjure everything – languages, countries, characters, history, maps, landscapes, creatures – out of nothing.

One of these fantasy YA epics is the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas.

This series is one that I have only ever heard good things about. In fact, I have never actually heard anything negative about if from anyone who has read it. If that’s not a glowing commendation, then I don’t know what is. And I would be an idiot not to read it in light of this. So I decided to FINALLY pick up the first book, Throne of Glass (after which the series is named), and use my Christmas break to engross myself in the entire saga.

The story centers on 18-year-old Celaena Sardothien, a highly trained and notorious assassin who, having been captured, is serving out her sentence in the salt mines of Endovier. One day, Celaena is forcibly brought before the Crown Prince, Dorian Havillard. He gives her the opportunity of a lifetime – her freedom in exchange for competing to become his father’s royal assassin. If she is successful, Celaena will serve the King for four years before finally being set free.

Under the ever-watchful eye of Chaol Westfall, the Captain of the Guard, Celaena begins her training for the competition; a series of elimination tests, culminating in a final hand-to-hand combat showdown, in which a number of thieves, assassins and warriors will be battling to be crowned the King’s Champion. But there are darker, otherworldly forces at work, and one by one the other contestants start turning up dead. Fearing for her life, Celaena decides to investigate into the deaths, and soon discovers that she has a greater destiny and purpose than she could have ever possibly imagined.

I absolutely devoured this book! Straight off the bat, we are thrown into the thick of it, with Celaena being escorted under guard to her audience with Prince Dorian. And it just keeps getting better from there. Not once did I feel that the story dragged on, or wasn’t keeping a good pace. There is a good mix of adrenaline inducing action, and slightly more passive character and relationship development.

I also adore the character Celaena; she is my favourite thing about this book. I know YA literature is full of feisty, independent females, but I feel like Celaena takes the cake here. Yes, she is feisty and independent, but she is also smart, morally flawed (at least to start with), and incredibly sassy. Bonus, she doesn’t faint at the sight of blood or violence. Let’s face it; she’d be a pretty useless assassin if she did.

I also get a kick out of a good love triangle, and it certainly looks like there is one being set up here between Celaena, Prince Dorian and Captain Westfall. Although there is not too much made of it in this novel, I have a feeling that it will certainly be brought to the fore and explored in the rest of the series. For those wondering, I am definitely #TeamChaol all the way.

To be honest, I really have nothing negative to say about this book – it has everything that I need in a good YA fantasy series and then some. I guess I have converted into one of those people who will rave on and on about how wonderful this book is.

Now to start the next book in the series, Crown of Midnight.

Bring it on.

Rating: 5/5

Book Reviews

Review: The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

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Everyone knows the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”.

And it’s true. Sometimes the best, most memorable stories you read are the ones that did not necessarily have an eye-catching, or aesthetically pleasing cover.

So, in light of this, I feel that I must confess that I do, on occasion, judge a book (and make my decision whether to read it or not) based on its cover.

One such example is The Winner’s Curse. The cover immediately caught my attention, and so I felt I had no choice but to read it.

Kestrel is the daughter of a general in the vast Valorian Empire. Living in a war driven society, Kestrel knows that the law requires her to choose one of two life options: join the military like her father, or get married. Neither idea appeals to Kestrel, whose passion lies in playing the piano – a skill normally only permitted to be practiced by the Herrani slaves of the region.

One day, while in the city, Kestrel finds herself attending a slave auction. Kestrel senses something of herself in Arin, the Herrani slave for sale, and against her better judgement and common sense, Kestrel purchases him for an exorbitant sum. Kestrel starts developing feelings for Arin, and she finds this growing love strange and unnerving. However, Arin has secrets of his own and Kestrel soon discovers that a split second decision at a slave auction may cost her everything she has ever known and loved.

I love the idea behind this book, that of the winner’s curse phenomenon. It is an economic theory that basically states that at an auction, the winner, although having won the item for sale, has also lost because they have paid more for the item than what the majority of bidders have felt it was truly worth. Ultimately though, you never know what value the item may hold in the future, so the idea of the winner’s curse is about that very moment of winning.

I feel like I may have been a victim of the winner’s curse with this book.

While the idea behind this novel was great, the novel itself is a run of the mill young adult (YA) fantasy novel – think, a cross between A Game of Thrones and The Jewel, except less medieval and less dystopian. This book, for me, was okay. It wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible – it was just an average read. There was nothing different, nothing to distinguish it from every other YA fantasy/romance novel around at the moment. It’s a familiar formula that I have seen over and over again in one form or another – rich, elite girl falls for handsome, rogue slave. Their love makes them question their preconceived beliefs of society and the status quo. An uprising occurs which tests their love and their beliefs, and cue book two 12 months later.

I felt it difficult to connect with either Kestrel or Arin. Throughout the course of the novel, they both made decisions that were completely illogical, and made no sense whatsoever, and this is what made it so hard for me to relate to them in any way. Kestrel in particular was a rather frustrating character. She claims to want freedom and to defy social norms when it comes to her own life. However, as soon as anyone else – primarily Arin – wants things to be different, and actually starts to do something about it, Kestrel says it’s wrong, that it goes against societal values, and starts defending the way things are. I felt like yelling at her “You can’t have it both ways!”

In saying all that, the second half of the book was much more interesting than the first, as this is when things really start to kick off. The first half of the novel tended to plod along, and was cluttered with Kestrel’s inner turmoil, and Arin’s brutishness, whereas the second half of the novel is when the action starts to take place as the rebellion begins to get in to full swing.

I think that YA readers 14+ who enjoy this kind of novel will love it, but I felt for me, it just wasn’t as good as it had the potential to be.

Rating: 3/5

Book Reviews

Review: This Is Not A Drill by Beck McDowell

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Even though I work in a bookstore, I still get excited about our post Christmas sale. Quite a few of our books that we haven’t been able to sell and can’t return to the publishers get reduced to bargain prices. So when I saw a copy of This Is Not A Drill sitting in our ‘Bargain Books’ section at a steal, I bought it without even thinking about it.

In this young adult (YA) novel, Emery and Jake are two high school students who are volunteer French tutors in a first grade classroom at the local junior school. One morning they find themselves involuntarily in the middle of a deadly hostage crisis – Brian Stutts, a returned soldier from Iraq, has walked into their classroom with a gun and is demanding to be allowed to take his son. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Stutts is drunk, agitated and highly volatile. Despite their own personal differences, Emery and Jake must work together in order to keep things calm – both the children and Stutts – as well as try and find a way to get help and get everyone out of the situation alive.

This story is told from Emery and Jake’s alternating viewpoints. This allows us as readers to see how each of them deals with the situation in the classroom, as well as providing two differing points of view on their shared, personal history together. Having two main characters, and therefore two main narration ‘voices’, also allows the novel to appeal in equal measure to both a male and female audience. This novel is definitely thought provoking and highly relatable to the YA reader on many different levels.

In this day and age, where gun-related crimes are prevalent in the media, This Is Not A Drill deals with some very topical and very real issues. How many times have we read about a gunman finding his way into a school in America? How many times have we seen footage of law enforcement surrounding a building where a gunman has gone on a shooting spree? Even closer to home for me, this novel made me think of the Martin Place Siege that took place in Sydney the week before Christmas last year. This novel also deals with the issue of PTSD in returned service men and women, and how it can be difficult and damaging, not just to the individual, but also to their loved ones. It leaves the reader thinking that a lot more needs to be done in order to help those who suffer from PTSD.

This novel was both suspenseful and thought provoking, two things that are not often found side by side in many YA novels. It is certainly something I hope to see more of in this genre! At only 222 pages, this novel is an easy read and will likely appeal to even those reluctant readers aged 12+.

Rating: 3/5

Book Reviews

Review: Sway by Kat Spears

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Sway (verb)

to control or influence (a person or course of action).

    “He has a lot of sway over other people.”

     synonyms: influence, affect, persuade, win over, convert

——–

Now, even though this is a young adult (YA) book, I will admit it is probably not one that I would have picked up and read if it wasn’t for our lovely Pan Macmillan rep at work. She gave me a copy of this book without telling me what it was about, other than she thought it was the most underrated YA novel of 2014, and that it’s “like a John Green novel, but better.”

I think what she meant was, that it is like a John Green novel in that a slightly off-beat protagonist goes about their life with a ‘well, what can you do ‘ type attitude, only to have their world turned upside down by a member of the opposite sex, with whom they end up falling in love. And it’s true – Sway is definitely like a John Green novel in that way.

But in every other way it is completely different.

And definitely better.

Jesse Alderman, or ‘Sway’ as he’s known, is a high school student who has a talent of being able to obtain the unobtainable. He is able to get people the things they want, at the right price, naturally – completed essays, fake IDs, alcohol and a date with any girl in school. He does this through a network of contacts, favours and the ability to be able to talk his way into or out of any situation. He could probably sell ice to eskimos. School doesn’t interest Jesse – it is merely the location where he conducts most of his business transactions. He moves through life with an almost clinical coldness in order to avoid getting close to anyone except his best female friend and business associate, Joey.

However, everything threatens to unravel when Kevin, the captain of the school football team (who, to put it lightly, is a bit of a jerk) hires Jesse to get the school’s gorgeous do-gooder, Bridget, to become interested in him. Jesse strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bridget’s kid brother, who has cerebral palsy, and suddenly Jesse finds himself developing a bond him. Then to Jesse’s further surprise, while completing his assignment for Kevin, he begins to learn a lot about Bridget and her life, and finds himself falling in love with her. Maybe, Jesse has kept other people out of his life for long enough.

This is a contemporary and realistically gritty YA novel is written from Jesse’s point of view. As such, it is cynical, straight to the point, and full of truth and sarcastic humour. His views and observations of the world are clinical, harsh and sometimes quite depressing, but always realistic and logical. But as soon as Bridget comes into the picture, he is forced to confront a lot of his own demons and finally see that maybe it is worth feeling something after all.

Our Pan Macmillan rep challenged me not to like this book, and being the person that I am I cried, “Challenge accepted!”

And try I did.

From the first page to the last, I tried to not like this book.

And I failed.

This book has the kind of writing that I felt was missing from John Green’s novels – it’s realistic, smart, funny and brutal in it’s honesty and it’s themes. The character of Jesse is excellently written, and immediately you feel like you have gotten inside his head, seeing things the way he sees them. This is the kind of YA novel we have been waiting for without realising it. Ultimately it is the writing that makes this novel such a compelling read. It is definitely my pick for most underrated book of 2014.

Even though this book is a YA novel, I would definitely only recommend it for ages 16+ due to the nature of some of the themes and references in the novel.

Rating: 4/5

Book Reviews

Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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Holly Black is most well-known for her Modern Faerie Tale series, and her co-authorship of The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi). So, before I opened her latest young adult (YA) offering, The Darkest Part of the Forest, I knew I would be in for a fantasy/paranormal type novel.

Hazel and her brother Ben live in an odd little town called Fairfold, where the local residents live in a peaceful co-existence with the faeries of the forest. Hazel dreams of becoming a knight and vanquishing evil forces, while Ben dreams of harnessing his otherworldly musical abilities. The town attracts many tourists who want to experience the magic, and occasionally one or two tourists will fall prey to a faerie’s tricks. The locals know how dangerous and unpredictable the fae can be, but they know how to guard against them.

The main tourist draw card in the town is a glass casket that lies in the darkest part of the forest. Inside the casket lies a sleeping faerie boy who has been there for as long as anyone can remember. Hazel and Ben grow up imagining what it would be like, and what kid of adventures they would have if he were to awaken.

However, none of the townsfolk, not even Hazel and Ben, are prepared for what happens to Fairfold when he finally does.

The thing I loved the most about this novel was how it completely flips stereotypes around. Ben is the more emotionally driven character, and the one who pines and obsesses over an unattainable love interest, whereas Hazel is the strong, heroic lead character who wants to save the day. I loved the character of Hazel, another strong lead female in the YA genre. Of course it wouldn’t be a YA novel if there wasn’t a bit of romance thrown in as well – Hazel and he brother’s best friend Jack, and Ben and the sleeping faerie prince.

This novel toes the line between Children’s and YA genres, which is really the only issue I have with the book. When I first picked it up, I thought I was going to be getting a great offering in the Children’s genre. The more I read, the more I realised it was definitely a YA novel! However, that being said there were times in the novel where I had to roll my eyes a little at how young and childish some parts were. It’s almost like Black couldn’t decide which audience she wanted to write the book for.

I would recommend this novel for the older readers (14+) who enjoyed Black’s other novels when they were younger.

Rating: 3/5

Book Reviews

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

 

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I know that there are a lot of young adult (YA) books around at the moment that delve into the themes of a hierarchical and unfair society, and rising up against oppression.

So, when one of our publishing reps at work gave me an uncorrected proof for Red Queen, I was sceptical. I fully expected it to be going to be just another YA book that conformed to the current dystopian fad – nothing special, and basically a carbon copy of something already out there.

But Victoria Aveyard’s debut novel (the first in a planned trilogy) has certainly raised the bar for dystopian genre YA novels.

Mare Barrow lives in a world where everyone is divided by the colour of his or her blood – you are either Silver or Red. The life of a Red is not one that is coveted, and it is one that is lived shortly, and in misery. Silvers, on the other hand, live in wealth and luxury, and have different abilities that give them power and position over the Reds – the ability to read minds, the ability to control a particular element, or even the ability to control nature. For the Silvers it is all about power and control.

Mare is a 17-year-old Red and spends her days thieving and pick pocketing to help her family to survive. Reds must have an apprenticeship by 18 years of age, otherwise they are conscripted to the kingdom’s long running war with the neighbouring Lakelanders. This weighs heavily on Mare’s mind, as she is almost 18-years-old with no apprenticeship or job prospects. The war has already taken her three brothers away from her family, and she hates the Silvers for it.

A twist of fate intervenes, and Mare finds herself working at the summer palace for the Silver royal family of her region, and she soon discovers that she possesses a mysterious power of her own. In an attempt to cover up this genetic anomaly, the king forces Mare to pretend to be a lost Silver noble, and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she must decide whether to follow her head or her heart, knowing that one wrong move will lead to her death.

I got totally absorbed in this book. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about what had just happened, and what I thought was going to happen next. It hooked me right in! I will admit that there are elements of the book that reek with familiarity, but the more you read, the more you start thinking that it is actually quite different.

I am a sucker for a strong, downtrodden female protagonist, so I loved the character of Mare – strong, independent, but still flawed and unsure of herself. I also love that there is an element of romance in the book, but it takes a back seat to the overall storyline, which is refreshing in this genre. And the ending! Not at all what I was expecting, which is fantastic! The book has moments of suspense throughout, but the ending takes the cake – not at all what you think is going to happen.

I really did love this book, and considering Universal Pictures acquired the film rights before Aveyard even finished writing it, I’m obviously not the only one who thinks it great! A great read for teens aged 14+, and for adults who enjoy a good dystopian novel.

Rating: 4/5

Book Reviews

Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing

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I am a huge fan of young adult novels.

I also hate the term ‘young adult’ when categorizing – you don’t have to be aged 12 to 21-ish to enjoy reading books in this category.

Quite often in my bookstore, I see adults buying copies of The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divergent for themselves to read, and it really is fantastic to see that they aren’t fazed by categorization. There are some other fantastic stories out there that are deemed ‘young adult’ but which I think adults would really enjoy too. These books also often deal with rather adult themes, and The Jewel is no exception.

This first book in a new dystopian series sees Violet auctioned off as a surrogate to an elite royal family in The Jewel. As with all dystopian heroines, Violet is not one to readily settle for her fate. She meets Ash, a handsome young royal companion, and they begin an illicit love affair, all while being used as puppets in a deadly game of court politics. In a world where these young surrogates are treated as objects, or even ‘pets’, Violet unwittingly becomes the only person able to change the current status quo.

With a cliff-hanger to rival that of any television drama, this books slowly hooks you in and, at times, I forgot that it was a ‘young adult’ novel that I was reading. It did take a few chapters for me to really get into the novel, as it starts with Violet at a training centre where the potential surrogates spend a number of years honing their special skills. It took a while to get to the crux of the story, but once it does, the themes the book deals with are quite adult in nature. There were moments where I did actually feel a bit uncomfortable about what I was reading. I think the best way to describe this book is terrifyingly beautiful. It is beautiful in the gilded and glittering in the clothes, parties and palaces that Violet frequents, but also shockingly brutal when it delves into the (at times) confronting details of Violet’s role as a surrogate.

Overall, I thought this book was quite unique, and therefore an engaging read, despite the sometimes uneasy and graphic scenes. It shares many similarities and tropes of other dystopian novels, but in terms of subject matter, it is quite unlike any other dystopian novel I have read. I would definitely recommend this book for readers aged 16+.

Rating 3/5