Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: Ella Enchanted

Author: Gail Carson Levine
Publisher: Scholastic Books
Release Date: January 1, 1997
Pages: 240
Source: Purchased
Why I read it: I saw the movie many years ago, and because I love fairy tale retellings, I figured it was time for me to read it.

Summary (from Goodreads): At birth, Ella is inadvertently cursed by an imprudent young fairy named Lucinda, who bestows on her the "gift" of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey. Another girl might have been cowed by this affliction, but not feisty Ella: "Instead of making me docile, Lucinda's curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally." When her beloved mother dies, leaving her in the care of a mostly absent and avaricious father, and later, a loathsome stepmother and two treacherous stepsisters, Ella's life and well-being seem to be in grave peril. But her intelligence and saucy nature keep her in good stead as she sets out on a quest for freedom and self-discovery as she tries to track down Lucinda to undo the curse, fending off ogres, befriending elves, and falling in love with a prince along the way. Yes, there is a pumpkin coach, a glass slipper, and a happily ever after, but this is the most remarkable, delightful, and profound version of Cinderella you'll ever read.

Gail Carson Levine's examination of traditional female roles in fairy tales takes some satisfying twists and deviations from the original. Ella is bound by obedience against her will, and takes matters in her own hands with ambition and verve. Her relationship with the prince is balanced and based on humor and mutual respect; in fact, it is she who ultimately rescues him. Ella Enchanted has won many well-deserved awards, including a Newbery Honor.

I was really looking forward to this book, because I read so many good reviews of it, plus I love fairy tale retellings. However, while I loved the concept and the characters, the execution was not the greatest.

I loved the character of Ella. She was cursed with the "gift" of obedience, but at the same time, still had her own agency and was independent. I loved how she fell in love slowly with the prince and there was no "instalove" which is one of my huge pet peeves. I even liked the minor characters. At first, I was worried that the stepmother and stepsisters were really one dimensional, and in many ways they were, but they had underlying insecurities. I noticed this particularly with Olive, the youngest stepsister, who feels lonely and while she is greedy and wants money, she also wants someone to listen to her. I thought all of the characters were interesting, and I think this is the highlight of the book.

However, the execution, particularly the pacing and some plot details were confusing to me. I felt that the book jumped around in little episodes and the pacing was not as fluid as it could have been. I also felt some elements in the plot came out of nowhere, like the boarding school and the magical book that Ella's fairy godmother gives her. I felt that the boarding school didn't really add anything to the plot, except giving her a best friend, Areida, who is sadly lacking in the rest of the book. The magical book was a little creepy, and seemed to be as a crutch to move the plot forward.
I also felt the resolution, where Ella is able to stop being obedient, while it did show that Ella had the power all along, it was also fueled by the prince, which seemed a little bit like a cop out to me.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with the execution, but I did like how the author used the traditional Cinderella tale and turned it upside down. Ella was obedient, but she struggled against it and had to find her own way to crush this obedience.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday: The Diviners

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly feature at Breaking the Spine.

My pick this week is The Diviners by Libba Bray. This will be released in September 2012. I've read other books by Libba Bray and I have liked them, but the description of this one sounds just like something I would love. I love the name of the museum, "The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult." Can't wait!

Summary (from Goodreads): Evie O'Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City--and she is pos-i-toot-ly thrilled. New York is the city of speakeasies, shopping, and movie palaces! Soon enough, Evie is running with glamorous Ziegfield girls and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is Evie has to live with her Uncle Will, curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult--also known as "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies."
When a rash of occult-based murders comes to light, Evie and her uncle are right in the thick of the investigation. And through it all, Evie has a secret: a mysterious power that could help catch the killer--if he doesn't catch her first.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Review: The Mastermind Plot

Author: Angie Frazier
Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
Release Date: March 1, 2012
Pages: 240
Source: Library
Why I read it: I read the first book in the series.
Summary (from Goodreads): A new, exciting Suzanna Snow adventure!Suzanna "Zanna" Snow can hardly believe her luck: She's just arrived in Boston, the city she's wanted to visit for as long as she can remember. Think of all the mysteries waiting to be solved here! Her grandmother and cousin, Will, welcome her warmly, but her famous detective uncle, Bruce Snow, seems anything but pleased. He doesn't want Zanna meddling in his current case involving a string of mysterious warehouse fires along the harbor front. But Zanna can't help herself. Is someone setting the fires? Just when she thinks she's on to something, a strange man starts following her. Is he a threat? Zanna needs to solve the case before she has the chance to find out.

What I thought: This is the second book in the Suzanna Snow series of mysteries. I feel like these books barely get mentioned on the internet, and I wish more people read them. I read the first one a while ago, so I can not remember all the plot details, especially the mystery, but I do remember the characters. Zanna is a great character. She's very plucky, curious and resourceful, very much an Edwardian Nancy Drew. While she is very plucky, I think she is also true to the time she lives in. She realizes that she is restrained by being a girl, but manages to work within these boundaries, even though she is forced into a girl's school along with other social restrainments she experiences. 

I also like, in this book and in the former, the dynamics between Zanna and the adults around her. While Zanna is obviously the most memorable character, I think her Uncle Bruce is the second most memorable character. He obviously does not think highly of children and is very dismissive of Zanna, which frustrates Zanna, as well as many other characters. And it frustrates me! Especially when Zanna was originally a big admirer of her uncle. An underlying theme to the series is the interaction between adults and children, and how children are easily dismissed and not believed. This is a typical theme for children's books, especially middle grade. Middle grade readers, and Zanna are frustrated by the adults, but the readers can see how Zanna is able to deal with this.

I enjoyed the book. It is a quick, light read, but I found the mystery a little easy to figure out, which is also how I felt about the first book in the series. I rarely am able to "figure out" the mystery while reading mystery books, but with both of these books, I figured it out pretty quickly. These are middle grade books, and I do not think they should be or are dumbed down, but I think this has made the mystery a little too simplistic for me. Maybe Nancy Drew was this way, too. It has been so long since I've read them that I cannot remember!

I read another review that commented that Zanna stumbled onto the solution of the mystery in comparison to the first book. As I wrote before, I don't remember all the details of the mystery from the previous book, but I find the other reviewer's comments to be true. I feel like Zanna did not put all the pieces of the puzzle together and was almost there when she walks into the resolution. I wish she had figured it out on her own, before being told the who, what and why.

I was a little surprised by the big twist at the end involving the strange man who was following Zanna. I don't want to reveal the twist, but I am interested to see where the author goes with this twist in subsequent books. It could add a very interesting dynamic to the story.

Overall, I find this series to be enjoyable, and I like the characters. I will continue reading the rest of the series

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A-Z Challenge

I found this challenge in a group on Goodreads. The goal is to read 26 Young Adult books in 2012. Each book's title or author must start with one letter from the alphabet. So my shelf on Goodreads looks neat, I am trying to read books alphabetically by title. This is proving hard for the letter Q. I also have a couple of non YA books on my list, but most of the list is YA.

So far I have read half of my list, which is pretty good, I think! This list may change and has gone through many changes, but here is what I have read/will read:


A - An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire (finished June 15, 2012)

B - Blackwood by Gwenda Bond

C - Cinder by Marissa Meyer (finished April 24, 2012)

D - Divergent by Veronica Roth (finished May 3, 2012)

E - Ella Enchanted by Gail Levine

F - Fury by Elizabeth Miles

G - The Girl Who Owned a City by O. T. Nelson (finished January 8, 2012)

H - Heist Society by Ally Carter (finished February 15, 2012)

I - Impossible by Nancy Werlin

J - Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

K - The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

L - Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor (finished February 29, 2012)

M - Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (finished January 17, 2012)

N - The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson (finished May 9, 2012)

O - Open Minds by Susan Kaye Quinn

P - Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

Q - The Queen of Kentucky by Alecia Whitaker

R - The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman (finished June 30, 2012)

S - Struck by Jennifer Bosworth (finished April 13, 2012)

T - Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore (finished June 27, 2012)

U - Unholy Ghosts by Stacia Kane

V - The Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins

W - The Wednesdays by Julie Bourbeau (finished April 3, 2012)

X - XVI by Julia Karr

Y - The Year of the Beasts by Cecil Castellucci (finished June 18, 2012)

Z - Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (finished March 15, 2012)


Book Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

Author: Maureen Johnson
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers
Release Date: September 26, 2006
Pages: 319
Source: Library
Why I read it: I had read another book by this author and the concept intrigued me.
Summary: (from Goodreads)  When Ginny receives 13 little blue envelopes with instructions to buy a plane ticket to London, she's soon on an adventure that will change her in more ways than one.

What I thought: I have mixed feelings about this book. I loved the concept. A European/traveling adventure is my dream come true, especially one that involves a little mystery and discovering one's self. But I did have some issues with the book.

The concept, though I liked it, was very unrealistic. I can't believe that Ginny's parents, especially her mother, who seem to dislike Ginny's aunt, would let Ginny run off to a foreign country with only her backpack and some money. I think if Ginny had been a little older, maybe had just graduated or was in college, I would have found this more believable.

I felt that Ginny's characterization was not very well developed. She just seemed to let things happen to her, instead of propelling herself forward. Granted, her instructions were sometimes not clear, but she seemed passive in a lot of cases. I can see how the author intended the letters and her adventure to be a sort of coming of age story, but I felt that Ginny was sometimes a little stupid about her actions, especially when she went to Rome and her traveling with a family in the Netherlands.

I did like the characterization of Ginny's Aunt. I loved Aunt Peg at first, but as the novel wore on, she angered me with her flightiness. I liked how Johnson showed Peg as both admirable and also very irresponsible. Ginny obviously idealized her, and I wanted to idealize her, too, but Ginny was able to see how Peg was a deeply flawed person and easily ran away from her commitments. I think this understanding about her aunt was the most compelling part of the story.

That seems to be the whole point of the story to me, Ginny is bland and seems numb until she moves outside of her comfort zone. Aunt Peg's letters helped her to come alive and run off and have an adventure, but also, unlike Aunt Peg, Ginny is able to understand that personal connections are very important. Aunt Peg doesn't seem to learn this lesson until she is dying. I was touched when I learned that Peg and Richard (the first person Ginny stays with in London) had fallen in love, even though Richard doesn't learn this until after Peg dies. I teared up a little at the end, especially when Ginny writes the final letter to her aunt.

I also liked the travel parts of the novel, and Johnson clearly did her research. I have not visited all the places, but I think Johnson made them come alive in the novel. I like how Johnson sets books outside of the United States and they seem to be well researched.

Overall, I enjoyed the book with some reservations, especially in regards to the believeability of the plot. It was a nice, quick summer read.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Retro Friday: The Ruby in the Smoke

I first heard of this book over at Angieville. Phillip Pullman also wrote the more well known series His Dark Materials. I have never read the His Dark Materials series, but after hearing about this book, I wanted to give him a try. This is an older book, obviously, because I'm reviewing it for Retro Friday, but it's a new book for me.

The plot centers around Sally Lockhart, who has been orphaned after her father is killed after his ship sank. She is living in London and accidentally kills a man after uttering the words "the Seven Blessings." This pulls her into a mystery involving India, a ruby, opium and various characters, both kind and despicable.

The book is very Dickensian, and I will admit to not having read any Dickens, but the characters in this book remind me of some of the more famous characters from Dickens. The setting is also Victorian London, which I loved. Pullman also uses written dialect to convey the characters. Sometimes this can go horribly wrong, but I thought he pulled it off well without insulting the characters, some of which come from the lower classes of London

As for the characters, I liked how Sally was both unusual and typical for her time. Sometimes when I read historical fiction, the characters are so modern as to be unbelievable. I thought Sally was a nice balance. She obviously lives in the Victorian era where women did not have the same rights, but she is able to function independently, but Pullman also makes note the struggles that unmarried women with no family had to face. I thought it was a nice portrayal of being a woman in the Victorian era, especially showing how women were beginning to gain equal rights. I did like Sally, but sometimes she seemed too trusting. She automatically trusts a messenger boy, Jim, because he has an honest face. Luckily, Jim is honest and becomes devoted to Sally, but I think Sally's judgement is lacking, especially considering that people are out to kill her. I thought this was her major flaw and I'm amazed it didn't get her killed. Speaking of Jim, I liked him and his love of penny dreadfuls and his devotion to Sally. And of course, the book sets up Frederick and Sally, and they seems to meet on an equal level. That is one thing I liked about the the characters that befriend Sally, they view themselves as equal and readily accept Sally and each other.

As for the villains, Mrs. Holland was a very old fashioned, terrifying villain. Unfortunately, her motivations aren't shown until the ending, but she is brutal in the best. And despite being an old lady, she is terrifying.

I was confused by some plot points while reading the books, especially why the man at the end wants to kill Sally. Maybe I read too quickly, but it felt a little jarring to me and didn't make sense. I would have liked more back story with that man, because I felt that part was explained too quickly.

I posted three different covers I found. The middle is the cover of the version I bought, but I do like the current cover on the left. The one on the right feels a little dated to me, plus I don't like the hat Sally is wearing in the illustration.

I am currently reading the second book in this series, The Shadow in the North. I like this one so far, too, but it's jumped 6 years into the future and I am still trying to get my grounding. I think I will finish out the series. The best way I can describe these books so far is cozy.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Texas Gothic

Author: Rosemary Clement-Moore
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Release Date: July 12, 2011
Pages: 416
Source: Library
Why I read it: I've had this book on my to read list for a while, because I loved the title and premise. I'm originally from Texas and my family has a ranch in Texas. I like the idea of mixing the paranormal with a Texas ranch.

Summary: (from Goodreads)  
Amy Goodnight's family is far from normal. She comes from a line of witches, but tries her best to stay far outside the family business. Her summer gig? Ranch-sitting for her aunt with her wacky but beautiful sister. Only the Goodnight Ranch is even less normal than it normally is. Bodies are being discovered, a ghost is on the prowl, and everywhere she turns, the hot neighbor cowboy is in her face.
This was a fun read! It's a mystery with elements of romance and the paranormal, well, actually, a lot of paranormal, because Amy is a Goodnight. And the Goodnights attract the supernatural and they and other label themselves as witches. Amy has been trying to avoid the supernatural all her life, but when a ghost attaches itself to her, she can't ignore it.

My favorite parts were the characters and the mystery, even though I had figured out the culprits towards the middle of the book. I liked the mixture of paranormal and mystery and good old fashioned sleuthing. It's obvious that the author really likes Nancy Drew (not a critique, I remember loving Nancy Drew!) and she is name dropped several times in the book. I started reading another one of the author's books and it also name dropped Nancy, so it seems to be an author thing! The plot moved beyond Nancy Drew with magic and real supernatural.

I found the plot a little confusing at first. Well, confusing is maybe not the right word. I felt that it was a little plodding at first and I was trying to distinguish between the different ghosts and histories. It wasn't until towards the middle of the book that I was starting to distinguish between the "Mad Monk" and the ghost that was haunting Amy. The resolution felt pretty predictable, but I'm glad the mystery and the resolution do actually involve the supernatural. It wasn't just a case of Scooby Doo with the villain using a ghost story to commit crimes.

I found the characters compelling and interesting. Amy and her sister, Phin, were a nice contrast with each other. Amy being uptight about her family, while still caring about them and Phin off in her own little world, but surprisingly more street smart than she seems at first.

However, at first, I was disappointed in the romance, because I wanted to focus on the mystery and the paranormal, but as the romance blossomed between Amy and Ben, it grew on me. Ben is a jerk, but underneath he is a caring person. I think Clement-Moore did a good job of balancing the two sides of Ben and made him a sympathetic character and showed his motivations for first clashing with Amy. I did start to like Ben towards the end of the book. He does redeem himself.

As I said before, I'm from Texas and I really appreciate the world the author creates without resorting to stereotypes. No one is really redneckish and besides some peripheral characters, the personalities are fleshed out. I was worried that Ben would be a cowboy stereotype, and he IS, but he also has another side to him.
I'm generally very sick of YA books always being made into sequels, but this is one of those cases where I wish there would be a sequel! The author seems to set it up to be a sequel, with Amy embracing her paranormal abilities, like the paranormal Nancy Drew, and a vague ending. I hope she does revisit these characters, because I am fascinated by all of the characters. I've also heard good things about the author's other books and have already checked them out from the library. I do hope she continues writing about Texas.