Siege and Storm

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

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This series is the kind of thing that makes me want to fangirl all over the place. I loved the dreamy/nightmarish Russian-inspired setting, and the way magic works in this fantastic realm. Mal and Alina’s romance in Shadow and Bone was so sweet, and compared to the way they act in this book, innocent. But in a second book of a trilogy, things have to get complicated. Mal and Alina are clearly made to be together, but they’re bad at communicating, and their circumstances pull them apart. There are petty jealousies and new inequalities of rank. It’s sad to see people who love each other hurt each other, not in spite of their love but because of it. Mal acts both idiotically and with stubborn honor; Alina doesn’t work hard enough to keep him close to her, mostly because she doesn’t quite understand that that is where he wants to be. I love that this heroine has considerable lust for power and darkness within her, in addition to her sarcastic, prickly personality and inferiority complex–she’s not sunshine and roses even though her power is literally summoning light. In this book, Alina and Mal spend a lot of time in the royal palace, and a new character is a very romantic figure–a second-born prince, rumored to be a bastard, who has been away from the capital inventing flying machines while disguised as a privateer. I was afraid he would turn the story into a love triangle, but thankfully Alina is never really tempted by his (and his brother’s) pragmatic proposals.  Though the tone is often incredibly dark, there are also many funny moments. Like many #2’s in trilogies, the ending seems like it’s as bad as it can be–an explosion of violence, the heroine willingly handing herself over to the villain to save her friends. But you know it’s only going to get worse. I can’t wait to pick up the finale.

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The Hidden Gallery

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place Book 2: The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood

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In this second book of the series, Miss Penelope Lumley and her charges, the three  children who had been raised by wolves, visit London and have another series of improbable adventures. The plot thickens with regard to the ongoing mystery of the origins of the children and Miss Lumley herself. That mystery is what’s keeping me reading. I like the style and humor and the way the story introduces vocabulary and historical information and cultural concepts in an interesting, seamless way that makes the stuff stick in a young head. The book makes all these obscure facts seem cool and fascinating, like secret knowledge that makes them part of a club, and that’s a great way to motivate kids to learn without making it seem like work. I’ll keep reading, but for my sake I hope the series gets to the bottom of the Incorrigibles’ identities pretty quickly.

WWII novels

Here are two books concerning WWII and the Holocaust that I’ve read recently. These books are hard to read because of their brutally intense subject matter, but they’re educational, entertaining, and uplifting.

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

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A woman goes to Poland to investigate her late grandmother’s origins and finds that she was a survivor of a death camp and her grandfather was a resistance fighter who rescued her. The story is framed by the grandmother’s retelling her own personal version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which served as a metaphor for her near death experience and was her way of telling her grandchildren about her own history.

When I picked up this book I had no idea it would be about the Holocaust, and thought it was just a fairy tale retelling. However, I thought the fairy tale frame was the least effective part of the story, and the Holocaust narrative was much more compelling. I thought it was interesting how the book highlighted the resistance fighters and some of the less well-known classes of Holocaust victims, like the gay man who narrates much of the story.

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

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This sequel to Code Name Verity is about Rose Justice, friend and bridesmaid of Maddie, the surviving protagonist from that book. Rose is an American pilot who joins the Air Transport Auxiliary. She is intercepted while flying over Germany and is put into a women’s concentration camp at Ravensbruck. There, she befriends the “rabbits,” women who were maimed as part of “experiments” by the Nazi doctors. It’s near the end of the war, and the Nazis are concerned with covering up their atrocities by destroying the evidence, while the prisoners band together to survive so that they can tell the world what was done to them. It’s a satisfying story because Rose and her friends achieve some small victories over the Nazis by hiding to avoid being gassed, causing riots over bread, and eventually even totally escaping. The story ends with the Nuremburg trials, which Rose attends as a reporter. Rose is a poet as well as a pilot, so she makes up some very moving verses about her experiences, with aerial flight as a metaphor. Another remarkable aspect of the book is its inclusion of a former concentration camp employee as a sympathetic character.

A Million Suns

A Million Suns by Beth Revis

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This book is a sequel to Across the Universe, second in the trilogy set on a spaceship bringing colonists from Earth to a new planet. It’s told in alternating chapters from Amy and Elder’s perspectives. Amy comes from Earth and was cryogenically frozen; Elder was born on the ship and is its young leader. They have a budding romance that gets less focus than you might expect in this genre, but so much other stuff is going on that it didn’t bother me.

The structure of the story is a mystery. It begins with Elder directly addressing the crew on the question that was revealed to be crucial at the end of the first book, and he gets an answer that baffled me in all the best ways. Amy and Elder follow clues left by Orion, the first book’s villain, to find out what the ship’s real problem is. The answer was something I didn’t expect, and I love it when books surprise me. Meanwhile, Elder has to deal with increasing upheaval on the ship: people disagree with his rule and are refusing to work and to distribute food fairly. And people are getting killed by overdoses of Phydus, a Xanax-like drug that makes them calm and compliant. The plot depends on things happening very quickly; I kept wishing I could call time out and sit everyone down to talk things out. I enjoyed this book just as much as the first one, and that’s saying something. I’ve already started the last one and it’s as much fun as the first two.

Hollow City

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

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Hollow City is the sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a strange and fun YA fantasy involving time travel and kids with weird talents. In this book, the children travel through England to London on the run from “hollows,” bogeys trying to eat their peculiar souls. They’re also trying to restore Miss Peregrine, who has been frozen in her bird form, back to her human shape.

The book is illustrated by unsettling vintage photos that Riggs found and used as inspiration. Some of these fit better into the narrative than others. There are times when a description of one of the pictures seems wedged into the story with poor transitions. But the pictures do add atmosphere to the story and are really cool to look at. Another criticism is that the various adventures and obstacles on their road seem exaggerated somewhat, so that each one threatens dire failure to the mission, but they are all resolved neatly in their turn without causing as much real trouble as it seemed they must.

The ending gave me a surprise that made sense and yet dismayed me on behalf of the characters. There was a dire cliffhanger that made me wish the third book were already available. This series is a lot of fun for anyone who likes dark, chilling fantasy.

Burn

Burn by Julianna Baggott

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Burn is the last of the post-apocalyptic Pure trilogy, in which the Detonations split people into two groups: the pures, safe in the Dome, and those left outside to suffer the effects of radiation. Partridge is taking his father’s place as leader of the Dome, but he’s being manipulated by his father’s old lieutenants. Pressia, Bradwell, and El Capitan have obtained a weapon to take down the Dome for good. Each of the two couples, Partridge and Lyda, Pressia and Bradwell, have relationship crises they must weather.

One of the most interesting things about this series is the way it examines the concept of privilege. In this novel, Partridge gives a speech about how everyone in the Dome is complicit in the mass murder of the Detonations, sparking a suicide crisis. People can’t take the ‘survivor’s guilt.’ Despite looking healthier, the pures in the Dome are actually less hardy than the fused “wretches,” and if they are exposed to the environment outside, will die in large numbers.

As always, I admired Baggott’s prose, some of the best you can find in YA. I loved how she set up complicated moral questions and showed readers every angle of them using the various point of view characters. I’m still thinking about the ending, because it was kind of open and enigmatic. It seemed like a tragedy, really. I was kind of disappointed that the ending wasn’t happier, but I can see why it had to end the way it did.

Where She Went

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

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This book is the sequel to If I Stay, and I was just as unimpressed with this book as I was with that one. The narrator is Adam, who was the boyfriend of Mia, the girl who was in the coma in the first book. He’s become a rock star, but he and Mia broke up, so he’s really angsty. Most of the book is a kind of mystery about why Mia dumped him, and Adam’s grumpy complaints about his heartbreak and his pitiful rockstar lifestlye. After all that, the explanation isn’t very satisfying, or at least not good enough for so much buildup. The gimmick of the first book, Mia’s floating consciousness during her coma, has to pull too much narrative weight in this explanation.

I picked up the book because I was interested in what a mediocre YA romance would say is the solution to a long distance relationship, and I was unsatisfied with the answer. Mia and Adam break up during their first bout of long distance for reasons that she doesn’t deign to communicate to him at the time. Of course a teenage long distance relationship can’t survive poor communication, much less a freeze out. Duh. Spoiler alert: when Mia and Adam get back together, they don’t even consider touring separately, not even just for a few months. Adam basically decides to give up his insanely successful band to be with her. There’s a lot of stuff about how he doesn’t enjoy music anymore, but then it seems like he gets back into it. This sacrifice seemed so unnecessary. I think it would have been more romantic for a disillusioned rocker to get his groove back after reuniting with a girlfriend, instead of jettisoning his career. After their current tours are over, they could have arranged their future separate concert tours to always play the same cities, or take turns touring and piggybacking, even if they don’t necessarily play music together, which might have been a cloyingly sweet ending.

Another small pet peeve. YA writers sometimes write about teenagers whose lives are much too adult to be believable to me. In this case, before the accident, Mia and Adam had frequent sleepovers and an overnight camping trip while they were in high school. Mia’s parents, it is explained, are super progressive. Maybe I just grew up in a different time (late 90’s-early 2000’s) or my parents were unusually conservative (and Catholic) but this just does not compute for me. It seems to me that writers have a choice either to write teenage characters or to write characters who are leading adult lives, and they can’t have it both ways. They want the characters to be young (close to the age of their readers), but they also want their relationships to have the intimacy and logistical ease of adult relationships. These books are wish fulfillment fantasies, of course, and it makes sense that the teen readers would like to have such permissive parents as well, but I think the books lose something in realism by eliminating all parental oversight. Note: I’m not prudishly saying teenage characters can’t have sex, I’m realistically saying that it can’t be that easy for them to have sex.