Friday, 8 August 2014

review: The Burning Sky

by Sherry Thomas
Balzer + Bray, September 17 2013
young adult fantasy

Summary:
Iolanthe is the great elemental mage destined to take down the Bane... well, that's according to Prince Titus, who takes destiny very seriously. Iolanthe isn't as willing to sacrifice her life for a fate she isn't sure she can accomplish. But the Bane and his Inquisitor are looking for Iolanthe, too, and to save herself, she might just have to save the world.
The cover:

It's a little too bland. A capitalized, grandiose serif font, a dark sky background with a generic castle and an obscure motif... it almost looks like an adult fantasy rather than YA. I also don't feel it conveys the book's tone very well, but then again it's so generic that it couldn't really convey any tone in particular.

The book:

The Burning Sky is made of some of fantasy's best tried-and-true ingredients: from-the-ground-up magical world-building, a large-scale conflict between good and evil and a look into the idea of destiny and fate. Add in a straightforward, earnest romance, and you've got a book that can appeal to most everyone.

The narrative was written from both Iolanthe's and Titus's perspectives, and it's difficult to decide which one I was more eager to read as the story progressed. Their journies and roles, though physically proximate, follow quite different paths; they're not exactly foils, but different in that Titus is initially very exterior-goal-oriented, and Iolanthe is more focused on her own wants and needs. As such, the dynamic between them helps propel the story as much as the actual plot itself and helps develop the two using backstory, banter and moments filled with humour and tenderness alike.

The overall storyline crests, peaks and dips sufficiently to keep the pace tense. Occasionally, time passes in ungainly, unbalanced ways which leaves the reader unsure where in the story they are, a symptom of books that happen over long expanses of time. One definite highlight is how well-balanced the romance and the plot are — they build side-by-side, but one never overwhelms the other. It's worth mentioning, too, that the romantic dynaic between Iolanthe and Titus is far from conventional, which makes for all kinds of fun to read.

This is probably a side effect of the copious amounts of worldbuilding in this novel: Thomas has created a parallel world to historical London with a history of magic that lends it credulence. With ample time spent both in London and the mage world, there's plenty of opportunity to reveal knowledge about magic to the reader. Concepts like vaulting, magic carpets and subtle vs. elemental magic are explored, and different locales are utilized well and filled with secondary characters.

The theme of destiny is touched upon along with the concept of good versus evil; Iolanthe explores to some extent whether she should work with Titus just because he claims it is their fate. This exploration feels a bit stalled, however, as plot gradually takes over the story. Somehow, by the time the climax comes around, the decision to fight the Bane is a no-brainer to Iolanthe, which makes logical sense but feels a bit off. Nevertheless, the final battle is suitably epic, taking place in an almost meta-level piece of magic.

The fast pace, above-par worldbuilding and three-dimensional protagonist duo make The Burning Sky a fun and intriguing read. Oh — and did I mention that Iolanthe cross-dresses and poses as a boy at Eton for a large part of thebook? Yeah, it's worth reading the book just for that. :D

Ethnic balance: 3 out of 5. Kashkari, a (swoonworthy) classmate at Eton, is Indian, and talks about England's colonization of India in a way that makes me hope it becomes a hot topic in the sequel (The Perilous Sea).

Rating: 3.9 out of 5

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

review: Chasing Shadows

by Swati Avasthi; graphics by Craig Phillips
Knopf BFYR, September 24 2013
young adult contemporary thriller

Summary (from Goodreads, b/c it's stellar):
Before: Corey, Holly, and Savitri are one unit—fast, strong, inseparable. Together they turn Chicago concrete and asphalt into a freerunner’s jungle gym, ricocheting off walls, scaling buildings, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.
But acting like a superhero doesn’t make you bulletproof...
After: Holly and Savitri are coming unglued. Holly says she's chasing Corey's killer, chasing revenge. Savitri fears Holly's just running wild—and leaving her behind. Friends should stand by each other in times of crisis. But can you hold on too tight? Too long?
The cover:

The overlay of illustrated graphic on top of the photograph of the girl's face is a wee bit messy, but excellent in that it combines the best aspects of both: the face avoids being nondescript and boring but conveys tone (look at her expression!) and mystery, and the illustration hints at the graphic content and the, well, actual content, freerunning. There's even colour, thanks to the girl's red hair, and the fonts are nice and discreet.

The book:

I read and adored Swati Avasthi's first book, Split, based off of Audrey's recommendation, and so was very excited for this one. Plus, it has sections of graphics, like mini comic strips, which I thought was a wonderful (and brave) decision on the part of the publisher! But I'd seen some mixed reviews, so I went into Chasing Shadows with my expectations mostly tempered.

Chasing Shadows is about the friendship between Holly and Savitri and the people they are, together and apart. Thus, it's good that both girls are well-developed. Chapters alternate between their first-person narrations, and both voices are very unique; Holly uses capital letters that emulate the way she thinks and Savitri makes lists. And once Holly's mental descent begins, things get truly chilling — Avasthi allows her mindset to get murkier and murkier, while Savitri's confusion escalates the eerie atmosphere. It's a rare inside look into a mentally ill protagonist's downward slope, although I'm not sure how accurate the representation is.

However, this also has its downside. Even though the pacing isn't exactly slow, the plot feels trajectory-less, like it's all smoke and no fire. Evidently, the focus is supposed to be on Holly's frame of mind, and it succeeds in this part, but the result is that the murder mystery lacks hook or engagement. Though the eventual revealing of the circumstances of Corey's death are appropriately dramatic, the distance there feels like a flat plane, broken up only by the two protagonists' occasional, wearing fights.

The graphics are a boon in balancing the novel, fortunately. Craig Phillips' sleek black and white illustrations are simple and evocative, helping the reader to visualize the images inside Holly's mind as she struggles with Corey's death. This is also a good time to mention the Hindu mythology which Avasthi weaves in (including Savitri's namesake) which both characters use to reflect upon their choices and themselves, and the theme of superheroes/superheroism becomes a contentious topic for Holly as well.

The denouement, like the overal story arc, is straightforward but not too neat at the same time, a realistic end for an ambitious book. Despite its drawbacks, I would recommend anyone giving Chasing Shadows a try: the fresh format and fascinating mix of topics make for one unique novel.

Ethnic balance: 4 out of 5. Savitri's race is relevant in all the right ways.

Rating: 3.4 out of 5

Thursday, 31 July 2014

summer update: I'm back!

Hello! Half of the summer's over already (whaaat) and I'm finally back in town and here to stay for at least the month of August. Many books were read over the past few weeks, so hopefully Pass the Chiclets will grind back into gear and start rolling. Here's hoping that once I get back into the groove of review-writing, things will get busy.

Books to review:
  1. Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi. I loved her debut novel, Split, and this was an adventurous, ambitious second book, not without its problems.
  2. The Burning Sky by Sherry Thomas. Also a historical romance writer, I was eager to read this one (WoC author! Good ol' fashioned high fantasy!) and it mostly did not disappoint. Excited to review it.
  3. Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem by Mac Barnett, illustr. by Adam Rex. Somehow I'd missed this picture book when it came out, written by the guy who wrote Extra Yarn and illustrated by the guy who wrote The True Meaning of Smekday. All in all, a fun, quirky read.
  4. Spirit's Key by Edith Cohn. [September 9 2014] I had high hopes for this MG magical realism title, enough that I requested an advance copy. Unfortunately, it didn't quite fulfill them.
Rereading books is always interesting because it isn't something that I do very much, compared to the amount of new books that I read; at the moment, I'm in the middle of rereading both The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge, two middle-grades that engage my emotions in resonant, different ways. It'll be fun(/heartbreaking?) to see how I feel after my round through this time. People have postulated before that sometimes rereading is essential for really appreciating or understanding a book, sort of like listening to a song multiple times before deciding whether you like it or not. I'm not in full agreement with this theory, especially considering the ways which we process those two different mediums, but it has merit, I think.

Lately I've been feeling inspired by my friends over at The Sirenic Codex, who not only have redesigned their blog from the back end in a beautiful, Tumblr-inspired theme, but also have fabulous discussion posts like this one. Book blogging is about community and who you know and who you're friends with, and none of those are inherently better or worse, but sometimes I just step back and look at pure, polished content, and think: "That's what I want to produce."

Hope your summer's going well!

<3
Eden

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

review: Shipwreck Island

by S. A. Bodeen
Feiwel & Friends, July 29 2014
middle-grade fantasy
ARC received via publisher (thank you!)

Summary:
Sarah's dad and Marco's and Nacho's mom are getting married, and neither Sarah nor Marco are at all pleased (Nacho is on the fence). When the newlyweds decide to bring the kids on a family honeymoon, Sarah and Marco are sure it's going to be awful. But even they have no idea what they'll find on Shipwreck Island...
The cover:

Illustrations that show entire casts of characters are the best, and the grand scale of the scene depicted here lends a suitably dramatic tone that accurately reflects the genre (if not the actual writing). The neutral font is spiced up with interesting shadow-masking effects, letting the beautiful turmoil of the art shine.

The book:

Well, this was a bizarre read. Shipwreck Island starts out promisingly, with the mostly authentic voices of Sarah and Marco alternating chapters. The built-in tension in their family structure helps move the pace along initially, even though there's no sign of a story arc.

But then it becomes clear that this is the book's major flaw. The action steadily rises, but Bodeen fails to introduce any other stakes, goals or personal engagement beyond life-or-death. All the characters want is to get back to the mainland alive, and dropping hint after fantastical hint regarding the truth of the island ups the tension but not necessarily the reader's engagement. Simply put, the draw of finding out what's going on is not enough when the characters are pratically passive in the actual discovering.

In fact, Nacho is perhaps the only character who is original enough to enliven the story. His interactions with Sarah and Marco not only go a long way toward rounding out our main characters (more than their actual points-of-view do!), they make him fascinating enough to warrant being a protagonist himself. The parents are bland at best, and with such a small cast of characters, it's no wonder this book is startlingly short.

The end is quite, quite abrupt (all the more so for the attempt at a Dramatic Plot Twist by adding a new character), and with the island's secret as yet unrevealed, Shipwreck Island is neither a very good standalone nor a solid first book in the series.

Ethnic balance: 3 out of 5. Marco, Nacho and their mother are presumably Latin@ (though it's never specified), and the new character has "dark" skin.

Rating: 2.2 out of 5