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Book Review: Caraval

Book Review:  CaravalCaraval by Stephanie Garber
three-half-stars
Series: Caraval #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 31st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 407
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW

It’s always so disappointing when one of your most anticipated reads doesn’t quite live up to the hype.  Unfortunately, this was the case for me with Stephanie Garber’s CaravalCaraval is a book that was instantly on my radar as soon as I started seeing people comparing it to Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my all-time favorite books.  Based on that comparison and so many glowing reviews from my fellow bloggers, I fully expected Caraval to be a 5 star read for me and ended up so disappointed that it didn’t come close to that.  That’s not to say I didn’t like the novel, because I really did. I just didn’t love it like I had expected and hoped to.

Caraval tells the story of two sisters, Scarlett and Tella, who live on a tiny island with their overbearing father. Ever since their mother passed away, their father has become cruel and abusive to his children and practically holds them both prisoner, never allowing them to leave the island.  Since she was a child, Scarlett has dreamed of attending Caraval, a once-a-year magical mystery and scavenger hunt of sorts, the winner of which is granted one wish. When her father arranges for her to be married to a man she has never met, Scarlett assumes that her dream of attending Caraval is dead once and for all, until her long-awaited invitation arrives.  Thanks to an elaborate scheme concocted by her sister Tella, and with the help of a sexy sailor named Julian, Scarlett and Tella run away for a few days so that Scarlett can finally experience the magic of Caraval before settling into this married life her father has chosen for her. The catch?  Her father has scheduled the wedding date so close to when Caraval takes places that it’s going to be a race against the clock to sail to Caraval, participate in the events, and then sail back home.  Can they make it back in time? And is experiencing Caraval really worth possibly exciting the wrath of their abusive father?

 

LIKES

I’d have to say my favorite part about this novel was the world building itself once the girls actually make it to Caraval.  I loved the idea of the exotic faraway setting and the hints of magic that were everywhere. Garber does a beautiful job of setting the stage for this great adventure and infusing everything with a touch of whimsy. One of my favorite parts was when Scarlett and Julian first enter Caraval and are greeted by a young woman riding a unicycle, immediately invoking a carnival-esque atmosphere.  Another whimsical touch I enjoyed was the outfit Scarlett was given to wear soon after her arrival.  At first glance, it looked like little more than a potato sack, but then it magically transformed into whatever attire the powers that be at Caraval decided Scarlett needed at any given moment, whether it was a gorgeous and daring evening gown or a sexy negligee.  How handy would an outfit like that be?!

I thought the whole concept for the event itself was brilliant too. I mean, seriously?  A magical game of illusion and trickery that will seem so real that you actually have to sign a contract acknowledging that you fully understand it’s all just a game before they will even let you play? How fascinating is that?  I also loved that the game was only played at night.  The participants played only once the sun went down and had to be back in their rooms before the sun came back up the next morning.  This added an extra layer of mystique to the already magical atmosphere.

I also liked the relationship between the two sisters, Scarlett and Tella.  Since their mother died, Scarlett has taken on the role of protector when it comes to her younger sister, Tella, and sometimes she has her hands full because Tella is much more free-spirited and rebellious than she is.  It is Tella’s love of taking risks that makes Scarlett’s dream of attending Caraval possible, and once they get there and Tella is “kidnapped” as part of the game, Scarlett is desperate to find her sister to make sure she’s safe.  That sisterly bond is beautiful – it’s clear either would do absolutely anything for the other.

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

Okay, so I loved the world of Caraval, I liked the overall premise of the game, and I enjoyed the sisterly bond between Scarlett and Tella.  So where did Caraval not measure up for me?

Characters that weren’t well developed or likeable.  While I felt tremendous sympathy for these two girls because their father was such a cruel beast, I just didn’t particularly like them all that much.  They kind of fell flat.  Even though I loved the bond between Scarlett and Tella, I got so tired of listening to Scarlett constantly whine about needing to find her.  I mean, seriously, she was told by two employees as soon as she entered Caraval AND had to sign a contract stating she was fully aware this was all a game, and she still kept whining about needing to get to her sister like she was truly in mortal danger.  I just found that incredibly frustrating.

I did like Tella more than Scarlett because I did enjoy her sense of rebelliousness, but she disappears for 90% of the book, so yeah, it didn’t really matter if I liked her or not.

I couldn’t stand their father of course because he was a monster, but at the same time, I didn’t understand why he became such a monster.  It’s stated in the novel that before his wife died, he was a much kinder man.  So the love of his life dies and he chooses to grieve for her by abusing their children?  I just didn’t get this at all.

Too many twists and turns.  I never thought I would see myself complain about twists and turns, but in the case of this book, I just thought there were too many. Once Scarlett started playing the game, at first the twists and turns were fun to follow along with, but after a while it felt like every page was filled with lie after lie and plot twist after plot twist.  It just got so convoluted that I often found myself going in circles, and since I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters anyway, after a certain point, I just really wanted it to be over.

Distracting romance.  Julian, the handsome sailor Tella enlists to help them get to Caraval, decides to participate in the game with Scarlett after Tella disappears.  Even though Scarlett at one moment is frantic with worry about her sister, the next moment she’s practically falling all over herself as her attraction to Julian grows.  I wasn’t a big fan of the romance because it seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since in the opening pages, Julian and Tella were mad flirting with one another.  The romance did grow on me a bit the further into the book I got, but for a large portion of it, it just felt cringe-worthy and too ‘love at first sight’ for my taste.

Flowery prose.  I like vivid descriptions as much as the next person, but some of the descriptions in Caraval were just too much for me.  The book is just packed with sentences like this one:  “She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.” I’m sure there are plenty of readers that would love a book written with these types of descriptions, but I like prose that is more simple and straightforward.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

In some ways I think I probably set myself up for disappointment because I had overhyped Caraval so much in my own mind.  Those comparisons to The Night Circus set the bar really high for me.   Even though it didn’t quite achieve the magic and mystery of The Night Circus, I still enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end and will probably continue with the second book when it comes out.  I think for the right audience though, maybe someone who hasn’t read The Night Circus, Caraval would make for a wonderful and imaginative read.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.

three-half-stars

About Stephanie Garber

Stephanie Garber grew up in northern California, where she was often compared to Anne Shirley, Jo March, and other fictional characters with wild imaginations and stubborn streaks. When she’s not writing, Stephanie teaches creative writing, and dreams of her next adventure.

Book Review: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

Book Review:  A Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom
four-stars
Published by Poppy on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length. And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.

As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst—that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?

 

MY REVIEW

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful follows the story of Mel Hannigan, a 16-year-old who is living with bipolar disorder.  Life with bipolar disorder is not easy, as we witness through Mel’s day-to-day struggles with the disorder, but for the most part, Mel seems to have things under control.  Where Mel really struggles though, as do so many others who are living with mental illness, is with her refusal to let anyone outside of her immediate family know that she has bipolar disorder. She fears the stigma of mental illness — that her friends will start to treat her differently or that she’ll become defined by her illness.  Rather than opening up to her friends and possibly allowing them to be a part of her support system, Mel instead chooses to keep her disorder a secret.

Mel is also living with another secret that is eating away at her.  Bipolar disorder has a genetic component — her beloved older brother Nolan had the disorder as well.  Tragically, he ended up dying because of it and what happened to him is a constant source of fear for Mel.  If she can’t control her disorder, will she suffer a fate like her brother’s? So not only does Mel not tell people about how her brother died, but now that she is starting at a new school, she doesn’t even tell people that she ever had a brother. She pretends to be an only child.

Those are some pretty big secrets for a 16-year-old to be carrying around and much of the novel focuses on how keeping those secrets really starts to negatively impact Mel’s life.  Just before Mel is officially diagnosed with bipolar, she has an episode that results in a huge fight between her and her best friends, Annie, Zumi, and Connor.  Her episode escalates immediately following the fight and she ends up hospitalized and doesn’t return to school for weeks and weeks.  She refuses to contact her friends because of what she’s going through and so they basically turn on her, assuming the worst about her because of some lies that Annie is spreading about her. By the time Mel does return to school, she basically has no friends and chooses not to make anymore because it’s easier to just keep people at arm’s length. She has a couple of casual acquaintances that she’ll chat with, but that’s it. A chance run-in with Connor a few months later clues Mel in that maybe keeping her disorder a secret and refusing to explain why she behaved the way she did during their fight wasn’t the best course of action, but by that point, it’s too late – the damage is already done. It still hurts though because she really misses Zumi, in particular.

Keeping her disorder a secret also impacts Mel’s romantic life as well. One day while working at the local senior center, Mel meets a boy that she thinks she might like to date.  Mel is immediately tormented by her usual concerns – how can I get close to this boy without him finding out about my disorder and, if he does find out, is he going to treat me differently because of it? Along with how she’s feeling about what happened with her friends, Mel ends up on a pretty big emotional roller coaster ride and the main question of the novel becomes how long can she continue to cope with her disorder while dealing with all these mixed emotions and keeping so many secrets.

LIKES

I really liked Mel a lot.  She’s a nice girl and I immediately sympathized with everything she’s going through.  One of the qualities I liked most about her is the way she handles herself at the senior center with the elderly residents.  She loves working with them and cheering them up if they’re having a down day or aren’t adjusting well to living there.  At the same time, however, she is self-aware enough to know when she’s on a downward cycle with her bipolar disorder and isolates herself from the residents because she doesn’t want to bring them down with her.  I was really touched by that level of sensitivity and caring.

I also liked how the author, Eric Lindstrom, accurately portrays bipolar disorder as a disorder that is unique to each person who has it. Not everyone who has bipolar experiences the exact same ups and downs, and some like Mel are what are called rapid cyclers.  I thought he did a wonderful job of capturing Mel’s ups and downs and of showing us that even though Mel has bipolar disorder, there is still so much more to her than her disorder.

My absolute favorite part of the book was the overriding theme that sometimes you need help in life.  Sometimes no matter how independent we think we are or how afraid we might be of being judged, we still need to reach out to others.  There are some problems out there that are just too big to handle alone.  I think that lesson is true not just for someone who is coping with a mental illness, but for all of us.  Sometimes we all have to let people in.

DISLIKES

The only real issue I had with A Tragic Kind of Wonderful was that it felt like Mel’s drama with her ex-circle of friends often took up too much of the story.  While I understood that the drama was meant to show it’s unhealthy for a person to try to hide their mental illness from those who care about them, it still just felt like too much time was spent delving into Mel’s relationships with both Annie and Zumi and seeing what led to the collapse of their friendship.  It’s one of those things that probably won’t bother other readers, but it just started to feel like a bit of a distraction to me.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is a beautifully written YA contemporary that paints an accurate and vivid portrait of bipolar disorder while simultaneously breaking down the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.  If you enjoyed books such as Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places and Emery Lord’s When We Collided, I think you would enjoy this read as well.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Eric Lindstrom

Eric Lindstrom enjoys writing Young Adult novels, including his debut novel Not If I See You First in 2015 followed by A Tragic Kind of Wonderful.

English publication of both in the USA is by the Poppy imprint of Little, Brown for Young Readers, and in the UK and the rest of the world by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

He has worked in the interactive entertainment industry for years as a creative director, game designer, writer, and combinations of all three. As Editor and Co-Writer for Tomb Raider: Legend he received a 2006 BAFTA nomination for Best Video Game Screenplay. As Creative Director and writer for Tomb Raider: Underworld he received a 2009 BAFTA nomination for Best Action Adventure Video Game and a 2009 Writers Guild of America (WGA) nomination for Best Writing in a Video Game.

He also raised children, which led to becoming first a school volunteer, then a substitute teacher, then a part time kindergarten teacher, then getting a credential to teach elementary school, and most importantly the discovery that Young Adult books are awesome. It’s pretty much all he ever reads, and now writes, in his house near the beach on the west coast, with his wife and, yes, cats.

ARC Review of Iceling

ARC Review of IcelingIceling (Icelings #1) by Sasha Stephenson
two-half-stars
Series: Icelings #1
Published by Razorbill on December 13th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: First to Read
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Lorna’s adopted sister, Callie, is part of a mysterious group of non-lingual teens, Icelings, born on a remote Arctic island, who may not be entirely human. Now Callie wants to go home.

Seventeen-year-old Lorna loves her adoptive sister, Callie. But Callie can’t say “I love you” back. In fact, Callie can’t say anything at all.

Because Callie is an Iceling—one of hundreds of teens who were discovered sixteen years ago on a remote Arctic island, all of them lacking the ability to speak or understand any known human language.

Mysterious and panicked events lead to the two sisters embarking on a journey to the north, and now Lorna starts to see that there’s a lot more to Callie’s origin story than she’d been led to believe. Little does she know what’s in store, and that she’s about to uncover the terrifying secret about who—and what—Callie really is.

* * * * *

My Review:

As a lover of books, it pains me to read a book and not completely fall in love with it.  The only thing worse than reading a book and not loving it is to then have to sit down and write a review explaining the lack of love I feel.  But that’s unfortunately where I am with Iceling.  Let me start by saying that I don’t think I was anywhere near the target age for this book so that should definitely be taking into account if you’re trying to decide if you should give this book a shot.

What I Liked About Iceling:

  • Originality:  The premise of the story is totally unique.  So many books that I read immediately remind me of three or four other books that are similar in storyline or themes.  The originality of Iceling’s storyline is what initially drew me to request the book in the first place. I was very intrigued by the idea of this Arctic-born mysterious group of non-lingual teens who may or may not be human.  It definitely didn’t sound even remotely close to anything I’ve ever read before.
  • Message:  I enjoyed the relationship between Iceling Callie and her big sister Lorna.  Even though they cannot communicate verbally and Callie demonstrates no signs of even understanding English, Callie and Lorna still share a strong sisterly bond. In fact, Callie is closer to Lorna than she is to anyone else in her family.  I thought the author’s message that being family isn’t necessarily about blood was a powerful one.  And then she takes it a step further to show, as Lorna even learns at one point, that just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean they won’t betray you or lie to you.
  • Action:  Although the beginning half of Iceling moves along at a somewhat slow pace as we get to know Callie and Lorna and start to see what sets Callie apart from everyone else around her, by about the halfway point, the story really takes off and it’s non-stop action from then on out.  You’ve got government conspiracies, rogue soldiers, betrayal, explosions, murder, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (pardon the icy pun!)

Sounds pretty good so far, right?  So why didn’t I rate it higher?  Well, unfortunately, what I didn’t like about Iceling far outweighed what I enjoyed about it.

What I Disliked About Iceling:

  • The  Narrator:   For much of the novel, we are in Lorna’s head, following her thoughts about everything that is taking place around her – with Callie, her boyfriend, her parents, etc.  The problem with it for me was that there were so many long, rambling, and often repetitive internal monologues.  I understand wanting to get inside of a character’s head to understand where they’re coming from and that’s usually something that helps me really relate to a main character, but there was just so much rambling that it actually hindered my warming up to Lorna.  I didn’t really become invested in her at all until over halfway through the book when she, Callie, and her friends suddenly become underdogs caught up in a major conspiracy.

There was also a tendency by the narrator to over explain things that were fairly self-explanatory, like Lorna and her friend Mimi driving around “dog-calling” boys.  A couple of examples of said “dog calling” made it completely apparent that “dog calling” is their version of males and their “cat calling.”  I didn’t then need what was basically a textbook definition of “dog callng” to make sure I understood what they were doing. It felt like being spoon fed.

That, on its own, probably wouldn’t have bothered me all that much, but when it was coupled with minimal elaboration on what I considered to be crucial elements of the plot – like, for example, what is going on with Callie and these conniption fits that periodically have her rushed off to the hospital for mystery “treatments” that family members aren’t allowed to witness.  Or how about the mysterious adult Iceling they encounter on their journey to the Arctic who pops up out of the ice and then disappears without a trace? Who or what was that? That’s not really something to toss out there and leave hanging with no real explanation or follow up.

  • Plot Holes that required too much suspension of belief:  I knew by its classification as science fiction that I should expect a few far-fetched events to take place, like the mystery Iceling I just mentioned, but even so, there were just some things that I found a little too hard to swallow.

Now let me say up front that I had issues with Callie and Lorna’s parents leaving them alone for weeks while they traveled to the Galapagos Island.  You know your one daughter is prone to these weird fits and sometimes has to go to the hospital, but you’re cool with leaving teenage Lorna in charge.  Bad Parenting 101, but okay, fine. Bad parenting happens so I can roll with it.

I also struggled a bit with this journey that Lorna and Callie, accompanied by Stan and his Iceling brother Ted, take north to the Arctic.  The trigger for this trip is that both Callie and Ted, even though they were nowhere near each other at the time and had never communicated with one another before, had both simultaneously crafted models of what Lorna and Stan assume is their Arctic homeland.  Again, seems a little odd to pile your Icelings in the car and go on a road trip to the Arctic of all places, but again, stranger things have happened, so I was still hanging in there.

What I could not just roll with, however,  was the fact that it wasn’t just Lorna and Stan who came to this conclusion.  As they get further north, they encounter dozens and dozens of cars containing Icelings, each holding models of the same Arctic island.  So, we’re supposed to believe that every single family that had an Iceling simultaneously came up with the same perfect solution to this odd event:  ROAD TRIP TO THE ARCTIC!

I can’t say too much more about plot holes without spoiling major elements of the story but there  were several other similar plot holes that just left me shaking my head the further I got into the story. Much of the story felt like trying to put together a puzzle that has several missing pieces. You kind of get the whole overall picture, but there are still nagging missing details.

Who Would I Recommend Iceling to?

Even though it wasn’t really for me, I still think it could have the potential to be a great sci-fi read for younger readers. I’m thinking freshmen or sophomores in high school,  being much closer to Lorna’s age than I am, might more readily relate to her —  and especially to what’s going on in her head  –  than I could.

 

My Rating:  2.5 stars

 

* * * * *

two-half-stars

About Sasha Stephenson

Sasha Stephenson holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is his first novel.

Book Review – The Red Queen

Book Review – The Red QueenRed Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Also by this author: Glass Sword
three-half-stars
Published by HarperTeen on February 10th 2015
Genres: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 383
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

 

 

 

My review:

At its heart, Red Queen is a story about oppression. Reds are deemed inferior to Silvers, not because of the color of their skin, but rather, because of the color of the blood that flows through their veins. Reds live in poverty, while Silvers live as nobles who deem it their right to treat all Reds as dirt beneath their feet.

And I guess it’s pretty easy to keep another group of people under your thumb when it’s not a fair fight because these Silvers are not your average, everyday nobles. Not only do the Silvers have silver blood running through their veins, but each one of them is also born with X-Men like super-human powers. It might be the ability to harness fire, water, or even metal, or it might be the gift of mind reading, just to name a few. From an early age, they are trained to understand and master these special talents, not so they can use them for good, but so as to effectively wield them as weapons. The irony here is that even though the Silvers possess all of these super-cool and destructive powers, they still force Reds to fight and die for them in a war against other Silvers that has been going on for generations.

Enter Mare Barrow, a Red girl who accidentally discovers she has super-human powers that rival the Silvers. She teams up with the Scarlet Guard, a group of Red rebels who have decided it’s time to fight back against the Silver’s oppression of their people, and you have the makings of an epic David vs. Goliath- style matchup.

What I liked about Red Queen:
The Superpowers! – The superpowers were, by far, one of my favorite things about the book. The author’s descriptions of these characters, both in training and in actual combat, were so vivid that all I kept thinking while reading was “Wow, this would make for such a cool movie!” The action-packed ending in particular was spectacular, probably the highlight of the story for me.

The Plot Twists – The lies and endless betrayals kept me guessing every step of the way and I love a book that is unpredictable. The lies were convincing enough that I fell for all of the same tricks that the characters did and was just as shocked at the betrayal as they were.

Strong Women – From Mare and Farley on the Red side to Evangeline and Queen Elara on the Silver side, this novel is filled with some pretty fierce female characters leading the charge on both sides of the rebellion.

Read more

three-half-stars

About Victoria Aveyard

In her own words:

“I’m a writer repped by Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. I split my time between my hometown East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and Los Angeles. After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California, I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. My debut RED QUEEN came out of the terrifying, unemployed year after college. The sequel GLASS SWORD released in February 2016.

Currently I’m working on the third book in the RED QUEEN series, along with pursuing other projects in literature and film. My proudest achievements are riding a horse in the mountains of Montana and navigating from London to Edinburgh without GPS.”