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The Captive Maiden by Melanie Dickerson and Five Things That Made Me Smile

I do enjoy a good fairy retelling, but unfortunately this novel, based on the story of Cinderella, is not quite up to par. The characters—Gisela (Cinderella), Valten (the prince), Ruexner (inserted villain), and other minor characters—all seem rather wooden and dull and obscurely motivated. Ruexner especially is the stock villain, complete with black armor and an evil laugh. Had the setting been the Old West rather than medieval Germany, I’m sure he would have been twirling his mustaches and wearing a black hat. As it was, I never could figure out why Ruexner was so evil and so relentless; maybe that unfortunate name made him grouchy? Gisela repeats the cycle of kidnap, escape/rescue, and recapture, not once, not twice, not even the magical thrice, but rather six times over the course of the novel if I counted correctly, and finally when the villain returns for the fifth or sixth time, Gisela groans, “Not again!” I commiserated with her.

I read to the end, hoping that I would get to know and understand the characters better, but I never did. I would only recommend it to the reader who wants a dull and predictable romance story for the purpose of putting herself to sleep at bedtime.

Five Thing That made Me Smile on February 9, 2015:
1. I am losing my hearing. This bare fact does not make me smile; however, sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh at yourself.
I thought she said, “A stick a day keeps the doughnuts away.” ???
She actually said, “A sketch (drawing) a day keeps the dullness away.”

2. Do you believe in Mother? A parable/thought experiment from the Hungarian writer Útmutató a Léleknek. From Gene Veith’s blog, Cranach.

3. Downton Abbey, Season 5, Episode 6. Of course, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, Lady Grantham had the best lines: “Oh, all this endless thinking, it’s very overrated. I blame the war: before 1914 nobody thought of anything at all.”

4. Beautiful weather in Houston, sunshine, high temperature in the 70’s.

5. Z-baby is reading Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, “an excellent and challenging book.”

What made you smile today?

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Two YA


Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

I read these two recently acclaimed young adult speculative fiction novels over the Christmas break, and I liked one very much, despite its faults, while I hated the other, despite the interesting premise and better-than-adequate writing.

First, I read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Cringe. The protagonist, Glory, spends almost the entire book grousing about how self-centered her best (and only) friend, Ellie, is. However, it’s Glory herself who comes across as self-absorbed and practically narcissistic. Everything that everyone else in the book does or says is all about Glory and how it affects Glory and what Glory wants. Yes, she’s the narrator of the story, but still I never felt for a moment that Glory had any insight into how someone else in the book might be feeling or what someone else might be thinking. Nor did I feel that she wanted to have that kind of insight. Even the one unselfish thing that Glory does toward the end of the book is sort of mixed-up and full of thoughts about how Glory feels about her own unselfish act. The fantasy part of the book, in which Glory and her friend Ellie see flashes of what has happened and what will happen to people they meet, adds to the story as it reveals the possibilities that lie in the future, but the initial impetus for their ability to see the past and the future is rather ridiculous. They drink a shriveled up, powdered bat. Really. And then they can see brief glimpses of other people’s timelines. I thought through about half of the book that someone was going to realize that both Glory and Ellie were simply bat-crazy and horribly, mind-numbingly egocentric.

Belzhar was a much more satisfying read, even though the language and dialog in the book were not as well-written as Glory O’Brien. The difference was that I somehow cared about what happened to Jam (short for Jamaica), the narrator of Belzhar, whereas I just wanted Glory to hurry up and grow up and get over her navel-gazing. Belzhar tells the story of Jam and her classmates who are in a Special Topics for English class at a special school for teens who are having trouble coping with life and regular school. The teens can’t be mentally ill or drug-addicted, but they are all borderline, dealing with issues in their recent past that have made them unable to cope for one reason or another. Jam is at The Wooden Barn because she recently lost her boyfriend, Reeve, and the grief is killing her. When she realizes that the journal that she writes in for English class can transport her to a magical place, Belzhar, where she can reunite with Reeve, Jam is both thrilled and scared. Is she going crazy? Are her interludes with Reeve real, and how can she make sure they will last forever?

Even though I saw the plot twist coming, and even though the pacing of the novel was uneven, and even though the dialog was sometimes clunky, and even though I wanted to excise the minor homosexual subplot, I enjoyed reading Belzhar. I was intrigued to find out what had happened to Jam and her friends to bring them to their school/retreat, The Wooden Barn, and I was even more curious to see how they would succeed or fail in coping with the issues that they brought with them. Unlike Glory, Jam actually retains, or regains, the ability to care about other people, even while coping with her own difficulties. Jam, like all of us, is a flawed character, and we come to see just how broken she is by the end of the book, but I could identify with her in a way that I couldn’t with Glory O’Brien.

So, read Glory O’Brien ‘s History of the Future for flashy writing and empty, self-centered characters.
Or read Belzhar for engaging stories and characters described in slightly more pedestrian writing style and execution.

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12 Favorite Young Adult Ficton Books I Read in 2014

Not all of these YA fiction books were published in 2014, but several of them were.

The Winter Horses by Phillip Kerr. Historical fiction/magical realism set in the Ukraine, winter, 1941. If you like horses or World War II stories, check it out.

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs. If this one were published now, it would be YA since it features teenaged protagonists. It’s not at all like contemporary YA, though.

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. 1950’s New Orleans, on the seamy side of town.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This novel hit way too close to home for me to be able to write an objective, or even subjective, review. However, I found it quite haunting and memorable.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy. As his senior year in high school begins, Mike receives a series of letters from his father who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard. Good Arthurian fiction series, The Merlin Spiral also includes Merlin’s Shadow, and Merlin’s Nightmare.

Always Emily by Michaela McColl. An atmospheric mystery featuring Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

The Extra by Kathryn Lasky. A fictionalization of the true story of how Hitler’s pet film director, Leni Riefenstahl, enslaved Sinti and Roma gypsies to have them work as extras in her movies.

I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora. Borderline between middle grade and YA and lots of fun for bookish types.

The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud. Maybe middle grade, maybe YA, but good anyway.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. Book #2 in the Lockwood & Co. series about ghost-busting adolescents in an alternate history Victorian world.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer. I just read this one yesterday, but I liked it a lot despite some flaws. My review will be posted in 2015.

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The Land Uncharted by Keely Brooke Keith

Shangri-la. Brigadoon. The Village. The setting of a land unspoiled by modern technology or by modern barbarity is not a new device. However, in The Land Uncharted, debut author Keely Brooke Keith uses such a setting to anchor a mystery/romance story that transcends time and place.

Lydia Colburn is the only doctor for her village of Good Springs in The Land. She stays busy caring for pregnant women, delivering their babies, and treating accidental injuries. Sickness is rare in The Land. However, when Naval Aviator Connor Bradshaw parachutes onto the beach near Good Springs, injured and unconscious, it is Lydia who is called upon to treat his injuries.

Now The Land itself and its people are in danger, since in the year 2025 the outside world is in the throes of a world war and a shortage of fresh water. The Land has been uncharted and undisturbed for seven generations, since Lydia’s forbears first settled there in the mid-nineteenth century, but now with Connor’s arrival, their bucolic lives may be threatened.

The Land Uncharted is not only a debut novel for the author, a Nashville musician and mom, but it is also the first novel published by the small Christian publisher, Edenbrooke Press, which “exist[s] to publish books written from a Christian worldview.” The Christian worldview in The Land Uncharted is subsumed under a nineteenth century worldview, which assumes Christian values and beliefs rather than preaching or espousing them. Connor Bradshaw, a child of the twenty-first century and a man of war, seems to have very little trouble stepping into this retro-culture and clothing himself in its old-fashioned mores and thought patterns. I would have expected Connor to grapple a bit more with accepting the ideas and religious beliefs of The Land, but then again those ideas and beliefs are never really spelled out for him or for the reader, just assumed.

Nevertheless, The Land Uncharted is a promising start to a series that I will want to continue reading. The second book in the series, which will focus more on Lydia’s brother Levi, is set to be published in March of 2015. This first book would make a lovely Christmas gift for readers of Christian fiction or general romance readers who like a little futuristic speculative fiction in the mix.

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Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Last year I read Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery story for young adults set in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1846, and featuring a young Emily Dickinson as the protagonist and sleuth. MacColl’s latest novel, Always Emily, features a different literary Emily, Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

Emily and Charlotte are as different in character, personality, and appearance as it is possible for two sisters to be. On the first page of the novel the family is at a funeral. Charlotte sat “stiffly, her back perfectly straight.” Emily “fidgeted unconscionably.” Charlotte is later portrayed as bossy, prim, near-sighted and anxious. Emily, on the other hand, is wild, independent, outspoken, and undisciplined. The two sisters share only three things: a passionate nature, inquisitive intelligence, and a love for writing.

The two young women, ages 17 and 19 in the book, squabble and argue incessantly. And yet they manage to work together to solve a mystery and bring a miscreant to justice. I was impressed with the author’s ability to bring these two famous writers to life, along with their sometimes chaotic home life. The youngest Bronte sister, Anne, doesn’t play a part in Always Emily; she’s away on a visit. But their father the Reverend Bronte is very much present, as an indulgent father and a socially concerned pastor and counselor. The Bronte brother, Branwell, is already headed toward a weak and dissolute life in this story. And Tabitha, the young ladies’ Yorkshire cook, servant, and substitute mother-figure, rounds out the cast of characters who live in the Bronte household.

The mystery itself was somewhat slight, but it served as a vehicle for the characters to shine. Fans of the Brontes will enjoy the book, and some readers might become fans after reading about the two fiery and independent Bronte sisters. For a biography of the Brontes, try The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef, a Cybils finalist from last year. For more Bronte-related fiction, I recommend The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title: The Twelve and the Genii). Of course, if you’re interested in direct exposure to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, I also recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, if you haven’t already read both. Like the sisters themselves, the two books are quite different, but each one is insightful and appealing in its own way.

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This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas

I can’t believe I read the whole thing. I even started the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight. Wikipedia says, “The series has received critical acclaim and appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list.” I am not impressed. And hereafter, be warned that since I didn’t like the book very much, and I don’t recommend it, there may be spoilers in my review.

The protagonist, Celaena Sardothien, aside from having an annoyingly unpronounceable first name, seems to be a failed attempt at creating a forceful, aggressive, feminist Cinderella heroine. Author Sarah Maas said in an interview, “I’d love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered.” Celaena is supposed to be a master assassin who has survived a year in the salt mines of Endevier, a horrific prison/work camp. However, she comes across to me as a frivolous girl who loves food, especially sweets, and clothes and parties and hunky guys. She is an expert with weapons of any make or model, but in the entire course of Throne of Glass, Celaena never actually assassinates anyone. (She does kill a sort of monster demon cat, but no people.) She mostly depends on the guys, a friend from another country named Nehemia, and some kind of goddess ancestor ghost named Queen Elena, to rescue her from the ultimate dangers in which she finds herself embroiled in an assassin’s competition that forms the backbone of the plot of Throne of Glass.

The book includes (of course) a love triangle. Celeana is pursued by both Prince Darian and Captain of the Guard Chaol (another annoying name). She frequently expresses her desire (in her thoughts) to kiss Darien, and eventually she does. But there’s no chemistry or interest to the budding romance between the assassin and the prince. Chaol is more the strong, silent type, and he and Celeana never get to the point of kissing. The verbal sparring and flirting that goes on between Celeana and each of the guys is neither witty nor romantic; in fact, it’s mostly boring. I didn’t really care which man Celeana chose, and at least in the first book of the series, I wasn’t disappointed because she chooses neither, keeping them both on the string.

So many contradictions marred the plot of this Hunger Games wannabe. Celeana is deathly afraid of and hates the King of Adarlan, her employer, but she is sure her skills are so developed that she could assassinate him in a heartbeat. She says she has no choice but to enter and win the competition to become the King’s Champion, but when she finds a way to escape from the castle and the competition, she decides to wait and see what happens. Some of the competitors are being murdered in a particularly gruesome way, but Celaena is worried about whether or not she is invited to the ball and pouts when she is not.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Throne of Glass is poorly plotted and the characters are unbelievably shallow and contradictory. Celaena is a twit, and I would hate to meet the young woman who is inspired by her character. The series doesn’t improve in the first few chapters of the second book, Crown of Midnight, in which our heroine goes on an extravagant shopping trip for ball gowns in between assassination assignments, so I gave up.

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.

Midnight Hour Encores by Bruce Brooks

One of my favorite YA novels is The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks. So, when I found another YA novel by Mr. Brooks at the used bookstore the other day, I snapped it up immediately.

Midnight Hour Encores is about a cellist, Sibilance T. Spooner, not a basketball player. And it takes place in the mid 1980’s (published in 1986) as the aforementioned Sibilance asks her leftover hippie father Taxi to take her to San Francisco to meet her mother. Taxi, despite his love for 60’s music and culture, has been the responsible parent in Sib’s life, the one who took her to cello lessons, gave her a home, and gave her plenty of space to grow up into one of the world’s most promising cellists and a very confident and prepossessing sixteen year old woman.

However, as Taxi and Sib travel across the country in an old VW bus, they find that each of them has been harboring a few secrets. And when Sib finally meets the mom who left them when Sib was a baby, things become very complicated.

This book was not as good as The Moves Make the Man, at least not as good as I remember that book to be. (I haven’t read it in twenty years, but I liked it a lot.) Midnight Hour Encores did have its moments, and the emphasis on the idea that people grow and change and that people are complicated and hard to pigeonhole—that was good. The casual acceptance of kids and adults having casual sex was a minor aspect of the book, but I could have done without the assumptions. The ending surprised me, in a good way.

If you’re interested in the 1960’s or in the world of top-flight teen musicians or in complicated family relationships, you might enjoy Midnight Hour Encores. If you haven’t read The Moves Make the Man, I highly recommend it, even if you have no interest in basketball whatsoever.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

“Varian Johnson lists his inspirations for this book as Ocean’s 11, The Westing Game, Sneakers, The Thomas Crowne Affair, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” I would, guessing, add the movies Star Wars and The Sting, not to mention a few pick-up basketball games along the way, but I could be mistaken about those particular influences.

Jackson Greene has reformed, changed his ways, and sworn off all scheming, finagling, conning, and pranking. When the girl you like (Gaby) sees you brush lips with another cutie and totally misinterprets the situation, and when the principal catches you breaking into his office, you had better call it quits as far as con games are concerned. Even if it’s for a good cause. Then again, maybe if Keith Sinclair, Jackson’s arch enemy and nemesis of all good clubs and organizations at Maplewood Middle School, plans to run for Student Council against that same girl, Gaby, the one Jackson kinda sorta likes—then, maybe, a small benevolent interference, just to keep Keith from stealing the election, is in order. What could it hurt?

Mr. Johnson’s middle grade (upper middle grade since it has lots of tame boy/girl stuff) heist novel got a boost on Twitter earlier this spring and summer with people using the hash tags #weneeddiversebooks and #greatgreenechallenge, the latter tag referring to a friendly competition between independent bookstores to handsell Mr. Johnson’s book. The book does feature “diverse” characters, Asian American, African American, and Hispanic, and it is a a good solid summer read. As far as kid caper books are concerned, I preferred I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, but Acampora’s Mockingbird doesn’t have quite the same “diversity factor”. (Catholic characters and bookish characters don’t count as “diversity” the same way people of color do. Who makes up these rules, anyway?) Still, reading The Great Greene Heist was an enjoyable way to spend a summer evening, and I recommend it to fans of Paul Acampora’s book or of Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society books.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.