Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Abbreviations #22: March Minis

March was an interesting reading month for me, because I had so many stops and starts. I'd fly through books (most in a day) for a little while. And then, all of a sudden, I'd not feel like reading and would turn to TV for entertainment. Plus, I got sick somewhere in the middle of this month, which put a bit of a dent into my reading plans. Still, I did read quite a few books, and I have some thoughts!

Salt to the Sea book cover
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Source: ARC from ALA Midwinter 2016 (Thanks!)

Ruta Sepetys writes about the biggest maritime tragedy in the history of the world, an event that remains unknown by many (myself included, before I read this story), in her latest novel, Salt to the Sea. Following four points of view – a Lithuanian nurse named Joanna, a Polish girl named Emilia, a Prussian boy named Florian and a German recruit named Alfred – Sepetys successfully weaves a tale of heartbreak and hope as their paths cross in an attempt to flee the Russian occupation for the safety of Germany’s shores on the boats meant for just that purpose. It was really great to get to learn more about something I had never read or learned about before, though it was admittedly hard to read about the tragedy and hopelessness that these characters experience. And Sepetys certainly has a way of weaving fact and fiction together that makes her story feel like a recounting of an actual person’s experience! While I can objectively attest to the characters being well-crafted, I found myself not particularly able to connect to any one of them. And while using multiple points of view was smart in terms of offering a variety of perspectives, it definitely took some time for me to get used to how quickly the shifts came. Still, it’s undeniable that this story is important. It brings to light a tragedy in a way that’s accessible to younger readers, and it certainly will serve as an excellent way to educate them about a part of history they may not have heard about before.

Out of Frame book cover
Out of Frame by Megan Erickson
Series: In Focus #3
Previous Books in Series: Trust the Focus, Focus on Me
Publisher: Intermix
Publication Date: March 15, 2016
Source: ARC downloaded from NetGalley (Thanks!)

I have yet to read a Megan Erickson novel that I failed to enjoy (and I doubt that is ever going to happen). She always writes stories that are entertaining, unique and filled to the brim with charm, sass and swoon, and Out of Frame was certainly no different! Basically, this is about Quinn, who goes on a cruise with his best friend for spring break. But it’s not just any old cruise; they’re actually spending a week sailing around the Caribbean with the cast of their favorite reality TV show. Obviously, there are spring break shenanigans, cruise ship moments and a really cute romance involved. It sounds like a made-for-TV movie that could potentially be cheesy, but I promise you, it’s not. It was fun to read about the cruise (and had me wishing I could go on one too), as there were so many fun activities on offer to the people on board. But more than the setting, I really liked the characters! Quinn was sweet, Jay was lovely, and the secondary cast made me laugh, groan and fist pump. I also enjoyed reading about the individual struggles both Quinn and Jay were going through, as they were portrayed pretty damn realistically. All in all, this was a really cute story (and closer in feel to Trust the Focus)! (P.S. Some favorites from previous novels may or may not show up in this one…)

Longbow Girl book cover
Longbow Girl by Linda Davies
Publisher: The Chicken House
Publication Date: February 23, 2016
Source: ARC from ALA Midwinter (Thanks!)

I have really mixed feelings about Longbow Girl. I didn’t hate this story, but I didn’t quite love it either; it was basically very middle of the road. It’s about a girl named Merry Owen, of the Owen clan who are famous for being expert longbow wielders, and she happens to be just as skilled as her ancestors. She’s best friends with her next door neighbor James, a relationship strained because of the feud between their families. When Merry is desperate to find a way to save her family from losing their home, she discovers a very old book with a very important (magical) secret and decides that she needs to follow its instructions in order to make things right. Now, based on the premise, there are plenty of elements that I could have really enjoyed. I’d say that it delivered on the Welsh lore, the time travel back to the time of Henry VIII and the idea of a longbow girl. But I had issues with the writing style, particularly the author’s penchant for foreshadowing at the end of most chapters and her jumps in character narration. It really affected my entire experience with this novel, particularly as I was constantly thinking that this would be a better tale for younger readers. While I was able to finish it, I was left feeling rather unimpressed overall.

Behind the Canvas book cover
Behind the Canvas by Alexander Vance
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: February 23, 2016
Source: ARC from publisher (Thanks!)

Behind the Canvas is about Claudia, a young girl with a passion for art. On a school field trip to a museum, she encounters a Dutch boy named Pim in a painting who inhabits the magical world behind the canvas – and who believes that Claudia is the only one who can help him escape it. Fueled by friendship and love of art, Claudia finds herself traveling to the world behind the canvas, where she makes unexpected friends, encounters terrifying enemies and learns more about what she’s capable of. If this premise sounds amazing to you, let me assure you that this story delivers – for the most part. Why do I say this? Because the first fourth of this story dragged along. It’s odd because the pacing immediately shifts once Claudia learns more about the world “behind the canvas” and travels there. Apart from my issue with how it starts off, I actually quite liked this one! Vance really does his homework, integrating real artists and paintings into the tale and including some cleverly worded footnotes (that are mostly factual and made me grin). He does an excellent job narrating a middle grade adventure, complete with funny companions, unexpected twists and some good ol’ magic (though I do wish that I had gotten even more invested in the main character). All in all, it’s a fun middle grade read – and something quite special, in my humble opinion.

The Beast book cover
The Beast by J.R. Ward
Series: Black Dagger Brotherhood #14
Publisher: NAL
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
Source: Hardcover from the publisher (Thanks!)

Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. What does this mean? It basically means that any novel that will come out featuring the men and women I love so much in this family is one that I’m going to read and likely enjoy. That was 100% the case with The Beast, which I so generously received early from the publisher (thank you, thank you, thank you) and proceeded to devour immediately. This novel, the fourteenth in the series, focuses on Mary & Rhage, as both of them deal with some personal issues that arise in their lives because of their current circumstances. I didn’t know what the conflict was going in, so I’m not going to spoil it here either. But I have to say that I was not expecting a story that would be so moving! Rhage’s perspective, in particular, is what slayed me as I was reading, and I couldn’t help loving him even more than I already did. And while Mary is still not my favorite gal, I definitely felt like I got a better grasp of her personality and sympathized with most of her feelings. Apart from these two, there’s still plenty going on with the rest of the gang – and I laughed, and I worried, and I teared up, and I basically just fell head over heels in love with everyone all over again. I’m loving the way Ward is revisiting some of the couples she’s already written about, as it feels so organic and gives us readers more time with the people we adore. I’m seriously hoping she writes more in this vein as her series continues!

In the Shadow of Blackbirds book cover
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication Date: April 2, 2013
Source: Hardcover borrowed from the library

I finally read my first ever Cat Winters novel last month. And I’m seriously kicking myself in the butt for waiting so long to try out her stuff! (It definitely had something to do with how creepy her covers are.) In the Shadow of Blackbirds is set in the year 1918, when war and influenza threaten the lives of many people. Mary Shelley Black is no stranger to these circumstances, as the boy she loves goes to war, her father is arrested and she is forced to go live with her widowed aunt in San Diego. Because of the death hanging over everyone’s heads, spiritualism has become a craze and everything from photography to séance has become quite popular. Mary doesn’t believe in any of that nonsense – until she experiences her bleakest moment and her first love returns as a spirit, begging her to help him. It’s an eerie premise, honestly, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it. To my surprise, I really enjoyed it! Admittedly, it took me a while to adjust to the pacing, but once it clicked, I couldn’t set it down. Winters really combines historical facts, paranormal occurrences and a compelling mystery into a really good tale. While I wasn’t overly fond of any of these characters (Mary included), I really thought it was something really different from anything I’d ever read before. It certainly didn’t play out the way I expected it to either, which was another pleasant surprise. All in all, it was an immensely satisfying reading experience, and I look forward to reading more from Winters.

The Uninvited book cover
The Uninvited by Cat Winters
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 11, 2015
Source: Paperback borrowed from the library

When I got this particular Cat Winters book out from the library, I only really associated one fact with it: The Uninvited was my girl Alyssa's favorite of all the Winters books. Admittedly, that had a lot of bearing on my expectations going into it. Fortunately, my expectations were not let down by the reality: it is a really good book. Really, really good. I honestly didn't know much more than just the premise of main character Ivy having the ability to see ghosts of her loved ones before someone close to her dies, and I think that really played a part in enhancing my reading experience. Okay, so, the actual premise for you: Ivy sees her grandmother's ghost and right after, she learns that her father and brother have killed a man. Simple, and yet there's more to it than I could have imagined! Winters has a way of writing that just eases readers into her stories. You slip into a world that excellently painted with just the right amount of details to really immerse you in it. You meet characters that are vivid and interesting personalities that pop off the page. I honestly let the novel take me by the hand and lead me through the plot - and it was great. I would definitely endorse reading this adult novel!

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl book cover
The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil (illustrated by Mike Lawrence)
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Publication Date: April 1, 2016
Source: ARC from the publisher (Thanks!)

After enjoying Life in Outer Space, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of this one! So, Alba has lived in Eden Valley all her life, and everything is comfortable and familiar. But things are on the verge of change; people are planning to leave for college or work, and Alba doesn't know how she feels about all that. Top it off with a doomsday prediction from some person on YouTube, and now people are flooding into Eden Valley pre-apocalypse. What's a girl to do? The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl does have a fair amount in common with the other book: small community with a tight knit group of pals, who happen to be described in a quirky way. But it's the difference - the impending apocalypse, the setting, the plot - this novel felt wholly unique. I enjoyed reading about Alba, who has a love for comics and graphic novels and aspires to draw them for a living. Her mind and the way she described things was so much fun; her family, friends and hometown were all so vibrantly depicted. I found it so charming! It's a very simple coming of age story during a summer of change, complete with larger than life characters. The heart and humor translated so well, and I liked this a lot.


Wink Poppy Midnight book cover
Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: March 22, 2016
Source: ARC borrowed from Lili (Thanks!)

Odd, yet magical - that's honestly the only way I can think of to sum up what I thought of Wink Poppy Midnight. It's even hard to describe what it's about, but I shall try: a villain, a hero, a secret. It might not sound like much (or at least I'm confident I failed in summarizing it), but trust me on this: it's good. Well, it's good if you like books where you actively suspend any preconceptions you might have and just simply go with the flow when it comes to what the author writes. And I apparently do! It was ever so fascinating, disturbing and compelling. The unique writing style, and the way Tucholke described things, all just made it impossible for me to not see this through till the end. While it's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea, it worked out really well for me.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison book cover
A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
Source: e-galley on Edelweiss (Thanks!)

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is the story of a boy named Lucas, who summers in Puerto Rico every year. It is also the story of girls who disappeared, of a house said to be cursed, of a mysterious girl named Isabel. I was drawn in by the promising (and unique) premise and setting; I ended up staying for the prose. The prose is lovely, and it's undeniable that Mabry knows how to tell a tale. I was swept right up into a lusciously written novel, curious about what was going to happen and how everything would play out. While I did wind up enjoying how it unfolded, I also felt rather like something was missing - perhaps that connection to the characters I read about that I always crave in my books. Still, objectively, this novel is good, and well worth taking the time to read.

Masks and Shadows book cover
Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
Publisher: Pyr
Publication Date: April 12, 2016
Source: e-galley on Edelweiss (Thanks!)

I feel like Masks and Shadows fell short of its full potential. This is an adult historical fantasy romance novel, set in 1779 in the Habsburg Empire (which is a setting I've never read about, at least as far I can recall, and I found it utterly fascinating). The novel is centered around Charlotte von Steinbeck, a young widow and sister to the mistress of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer of that time. These two find themselves swept up in the court intrigue, power plays, secrets and romance of the Esterháza Palace, and I'll say no more on what actually happens. To be honest, the plot is predictable, though that didn't deter me from flying through the pages. The characters were also unremarkable, though they were described well enough to give me a clear mental image of who they were. Overall, this novel averages out to a well-constructed tale that lacked something to make it really stand out. (Personally, I think it might have been the writing itself that didn't really work for me in the end.)

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