Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Unnaturalists

The Unnaturalists by Tiffany Trent is one of those books that sat on my TBR for a long while that I wished I had read sooner. It is a creative look at a parallel world and such a fun story.

Vespa Nyx loves working on the exhibits in The Museum of Unnatural History where her father is the curator. Unlike most girls her age, Vespa is not at all concerned about making a good marriage. She wants to be a Pendant and study the world around her and all the Unnaturals she can find. There hasn't been a female Pendant since the first Emporer's daughter, Athena, and she is not remembered well. In addition to being a Pendant she was also a witch. She was executed. When Vespa discovers that she too has powerful magic, her entire world is turned upside down and everything she thought she believed in shattered.

In the rail yards on the outskirts of New London, Syrus Reed lives with his family of Tinkers. Closely bound to the magic of the land, the Tinkers are shunned and looked down upon by the residents of New London. But when the Unnatural who is keeping the world's magic in balance demands Syrus bring her a witch, his search leads him to New London, Vespa, and a young man who is a member of a group bent on breaking the Empire's tyranny on the Unnaturals and the world. The three must band together and their choices may save-or break-the world.

The Unnaturalists is told in alternating first and third person perspectives. The first person is from the point of view of Vespa and the third follows the adventures of Syrus. I enjoyed both of them as characters. Vespa is very much trapped by the constraints of her society and the expectations of others, but I like how she managed to work her own will within those restraints. She knows she wants something different than the life planned for her, but also recognizes this is not a part of her reality. She tries to adjust as much as she can, but as her magic begins to make itself known, she is imperiled and has to make rather difficult decisions with little guidance. Syrus is also a wonderful character. A few years younger than Vespa, he is more impetuous. He is also angry. Angry at what is being done to his world and what has happened to his family. These traits cause him to run into a lot of trouble, but he is wily and capable. Vespa and Syrus do not get off to a great start as he steals form her on their first meeting. Eventually the learn to work together and respect each other though, bound together by their mutual respect and friendship with a mysterious wizard who is acting as a Pendant at the museum. (Honestly, Bayne aka. Hal is my favorite character and I would have really liked it if we had some chapters form his perspective too.)

The world Trent created in The Unnatrualists is a fascinating one in which people traveled from our world into a parallel realm of magic led by Tesla through a portal. Here they recreated much of what they left behind and built up a strict religion around science. All magic is heresy. The original Emperor enslaved the world's magic in order to make himself immortal. Not an original concept of villainy as far as fantasy goes, but that is actually only a small step to explain how the magical forces came under the tyrannical rule of the government. Through her world Trent explores themes of fanaticism, propaganda, the plight and exploitation of the marginalized, and the corrosive power of manufactured fear. She does all this while maintaining a quick pace. The book is hard to put down and is such a fun read. I'm very much looking forward to reading the sequel,  The Tinker King.

The Unnatrualists is considered YA and is shelved in the Teen section of my library, but is a book perfect for older MG readers too. (My daughter is reading it now.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

TTT: Books I'd Want to Read With a Book Club

This week's TTT topic: Books with a Book Club (In my case this is an imaginary book club as I'm not in one.)

Here are the books I would want to force on everyone else:

Books I would want others to choose because I'm not sure if I will make them a big enough priority otherwise (even though I really do want to read them):

What books would you want to read in a book club?

Monday, January 26, 2015


I love "Beauty and the Beast" in all its variations and have a difficult time passing up retellings of it. When I discovered Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen, I was elated that it was not only a retelling of my favorite fairy tale, but also gender swapped. A girl beast. Family secrets. Magical forest. Creepy castle. Check all my favorite things off right there, and Hellisen does some interesting things with her story.

First: Two thumbs way up for the cover designer on this one. It is beautiful.

Sarah has spent her entire life moving. Her mother seems to be running away from cold. Her father seems desperate to keep her mother happy. Until one night when her mother stops running with them and runs away from them. There's nothing her father can do to stop it. In the days that follow Sarah notices  her father turning in more and more, becoming a little wild around the edges. Then he takes her to live with the grandparents she never knew she had and Sarah discovers secrets and lies twisted through her family's history. They are cursed. Cursed to turn into beasts when they fall in love, unless the person they love loves them back. But the curse, born of jealousy and hateful revenge is more twisted than any fairy tale Sarah has ever read. It doubles back on itself and entraps everyone into a hideous future they can't break free from making her realize stories may not always have a happily ever after.

Sarah is so determined. She is determined to help, to fight, to break the curse, to never fall in love, to remain true to herself, to save every member of her family. She tries so hard. She fails at so much of it. Yet she keeps getting back up and trying again and again. Her determination wavers occasionally but it never dies. It drives her. She is the ultimate heroine as a result. Sarah is active in her own story. Many parts of her life are beyond her control, set into motion long before she was born and propelled by forces out of her control. Despite that, she makes her own choices and works within the parameters of the curse to enforce her own will. I loved that so much. I think that it is important to have books where we see a bit of failure but not for lack of trying, and then also get to see how the characters deal with that failure. How they try to make the best of the situation given them. Sarah's relationship with almost every other character in the book is tragic in some way, but she fights for all of them as much as she fights for herself, and it is a beautiful thing to see. I also really enjoyed what Hellisen did with the character who inflicted the curse in the first place. She is a horrible person, but Hellisen gave her depth too. I think the way the situation between her and Sarah resolved was absolutely perfect. I think the conclusion for every person touched by the curse was done exactly right.

Beastkeeper does what the best retellings do and thoroughly twists the tale and adds new dimensions. What Hellisen did with the original story is intriguing and profound. The fear of loving someone beastly, knowing that you are the only thing keeping them from being a hideous shadow of themselves-that's a terrible burden to carry. What might it possibly do to a person? I was throughly impressed with the how intricate Hellisen made the curse, and how completely and utterly it trapped every single person connected to it in the most terrible of ways. I love that she was unafraid to go to the darker places the story required and that it isn't all sunshine, daisies, and happily ever after in the end. There is tragedy. There is uncertainty. But there's also hope.

I loved everything about Beastkeeper and highly recommend it.

I read an e-galley made available by the publisher, Henry Holt and Co., via NetGalley. Beastkeeper is available for purchase on February 3.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper is an engaging and excellent work of historical fiction that perfectly captures the time prior to the beginning of the Civil Rights movements, but that shows its beginnings. It is more than that too. It is a story about community, family, and one girl who dreams by starlight and yearns to make her world bigger and better.

Stella's world is changed one night when her brother wakes her up to show her a scary sight. Across the pond they can see the eerie light of a cross on fire. This can mean only one thing. The Klan is again active in their town of Bumblebee. Fear makes its way across the black community and Stella is questioning all the injustices around her. Why do she and her friends go to a smaller different school? Why do they have less books and older supplies? Why do they all have to live in fear and keep their heads down? But things are changing. The Depression has started and people are longing for a change. Three of the men, including Stella's father, want to vote for that change and go to register. They pass their test on the Constitution and this brings consequences to the community. Stella can still see hope though in the way the people around her along with many of the white residents in her town come together to make things better for those who are hurt. Stella longs to put the things she is in the world around her into words like a true reporter if she could only find the right ones.

Stella is such a great heroine. She is smart, but struggles with writing and needs to work hard. She questions everything. Her enthusiasm to learn as much about life as she can is contagious. Her vulnerability and fear is heartbreaking. She is the sort of character who makes the reader feel all of her triumphs and defeats. The narrative is broken up with examples of Stella's writing, which she is trying desperately to improve, including all her mistakes and corrections. This is a brilliant move because it shows readers what a struggle good writing really is and how much work and thought goes into it. Revision is hard.

The story Stella is telling and living is a gripping one. This is a snapshot of one small community in one part of the country. I liked how Draper showed all the nuances of that community too. There are terrible small people living in her town. There are also generous helpful good-hearted people who know right from wrong.

Stella by Starlight is a wonderful and crucial addition to any library, classroom, and home. Buy it for the young readers in your life.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Moonpenny Island

Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb is a book about family and friendship that is perfect for MG readers who enjoy quiet introspective reads.

Flor and Sylvie have lived on Moonpenny Island all of their lives and are the best of friends. Living on a small island in the middle of a great lake, the girls are really each other's only option for friends. The summer people come and they go and there are not that many island residences. But they have a deep and strong friendship bonded by more than just convenience. Everything is about to change for the girls as Sylvie is being sent to the mainland to live with her aunt and uncle so she has better opportunities at school. Flor is devastated. Before her world can right itself, Flor's mother then leaves to help take care of her sick mother. But is that just an excuse? Flor knows how bad things are between her parents. They are always fighting. Flor is determined nothing else in her world will change and focuses on keeping her teenage sister, who is acting odd, from doing anything stupid and leaving too. In the midst of all this turmoil, a geologist and his daughter come to the island and Flor discovers that it is possible to allow for new and different people into her heart and life.

Flor's story is one that many MG readers will be able to identify it. Despite the almost magical setting of the small island which most readers won't relate to, the other aspects of the story are universal. Flor's search for stability and her fierce opposition to change despite it being the best thing for those involved is one that will resonate. Readers who have ever feared their parents' separating or have experienced it will find much in this book to identify with. Anyone who has ever lost a friend to a move will likewise be able to understand and feel Flor's pain. I enjoyed the developing friendships Flor discovers once Sylvie leaves and the community of the small island. I think that Springstubb did a great job bringing all the characters to life and making the island feel real. I particularly enjoyed the the tension and relationship between Sylvie's older brother and everyone else on the island. There was a lot of nuance and depth to that whole storyline that is incredibly well done. Exactly enough to show the complexities of it, but without so much detail that it will confuse young readers.

Moonpenny Island is fairly typical realistic MG fiction. It's about a bookish girl who has to come to terms with changes in her family and friendships. It will be a familiar set-up to anyone who reads a lot in the category. There isn't really anything in it that will surprise those readers. but it may hit exactly the right sort of mark because of this familiarity and predictability. There is comfort in the known. These books aren't exactly my favorites, but I recognize that those who love these sorts of books will also love this one. It is deserving of it. One quibble I have is in the narrative voice. The narration is third person, but it is so limited to Flor and sounds so much like her that it is easy to slip into believing it's first. It happened to me. Then the narrator would refer to Flor in third person and it was so disruptive that it pulled me out of the story every time. Eventually it really started to annoy me and had me convinced it would have been so much better in first person.

I read an e-galley provided by the publisher, Balzer & Bray, via Edelweiss. Moonpenny Island goes on sale February 10.