The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

This fall is just filled with much anticipated YA sequels, and this was one of the tops for me.  I’m happy to report that it totally lived up to my expectations, if not surpassing them.  Trilogies have become so common now that I find when I am reading a book in one I think more than I ever used to about how the book fits into the trilogy as a whole, it’s function, and what role it plays in the overall story arc.  Because I’m a kid of the 70s/80s, I tend to still reference trilogies by comparing them to Star Wars. So in this case Crown of Embers is Empire Strikes Back, thus I expect it to be a little darker, more intense, and unresolved as the characters prepare for an epic and final battle.

I have to admit that as much as I really loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns last year, I couldn’t remember many details.  They did somewhat return to me as I was reading, but it didn’t matter too much.  Elisa is now the queen of the country, but still not fully safe from the magical and mysterious Invierno.  She has her trusted nurse and lady’s maid and Hector, her personal guard with whom she is clearly in love.  There’s a lot going on in this story, so I’m going to boil it down to this: Elisa and a few others go on a secret and dangerous mission, filled with challenges from God, to fulfill her destiny and claim some power that will help her rule and protect her country.   There was indeed lots of danger and excitement and Elisa is a great heroine.  I enjoyed her relationships with the others, and especially when she turns to Mara to talk to about confusing new feelings and intimacy between a man and woman.

What’s really interesting in these books is that although there is a magical or supernatural element to them (her Godstone has powers, the animagi draw fire from the earth, etc.) the stronger presence is actually religion.  Elisa’s Godstone is a direct conduit to God, her relationship with him is a tremendous part of her life, and the made up religion (which seems to be fact-all the populace believe) is thought out and described very fully.

This was a great installment that can totally stand on its own, but taken as the middle of the trilogy has fulfilled my second book requirement–leaving us with the heroine ready to face a final epic battle with critical relationships changed. I’m definitely looking forward to the conclusion!

Wake by Amanda Hocking

I did not love this. I read it all, but found myself skimming entire pages because all I really wanted to find out was the ending and the stuff about the sirens. So, Gemma is a beautiful teenager who loves to swim. She lives with her sister, Harper, and her dad. Her sister is very mothery to her because their own mother is in a group home after a brain injury and is now like a child. There are three new girls in town who give off a creepy, powerful, possibly evil aura. These girls seem determined to get Gemma to spend time with them.  Meanwhile there’s a whole subplot of Harper and a guy named Daniel, and then Gemma and boy next door Alex.  For once I was just not interested in the romance, or even the family story.  It seemed like there were too many stories going on here. I kept thinking “get to the good stuff!”  The good stuff would be-the three girls are sirens-when in water, body of a mermaid, they can entrance men, and they are also monstrous.  I really enjoyed the mythological aspects here and how they have survived for thousands of years.  There need to be four of them at all times and they need a fourth and have chosen Gemma. This is the first in a planned trilogy (Watersong) and I am curious to find out what happens in the next book, but I don’t know if I’ll read it.

Stealing Magic: A Sixty-Eight Rooms Adventure by Marianne Malone

I enjoyed the first book so much I couldn’t wait to read the second adventure. In this sequel the drama is that the key is stolen.  There have also been a string of art thefts and it all seems to be connected.  What was most interesting was the same as before-when the kids go into the little rooms and explore. This time they’ve discovered the special connection that makes some of the rooms be “alive”-that is, they can walk outside the room into the time and place where it is set.  I thought this was a good follow up.

The Sixty-Eight Room by Marianne Malone

When I saw this at the library the other day in the children’s section I had to read it. The premise of the story is that two children are visiting the Art Institute of Chicago and looking at the collection of miniature rooms-the Thorne Rooms.  These rooms are miniature replicas of rooms throughout history from all over the world.  They find a key which shrinks them to a mere 5 inches high-the perfect size to explore these rooms and the magic within them. When I read that I immediately thought of both From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and the little miniature rooms at the Carnegie Museum of Art.  I went to library school at the University of Pittsburgh and spent many happy hours exploring and relaxing in the  art museum and the natural history museum.  In the art museum there was a room that had little rooms-just like the ones in this book! I loved looking at them and imagining myself in them-I found them completely enchanting.  And here’s this book which is basically all about getting to poke around in them! By the way, I wanted to link to the Carnegie’s rooms but I can’t actually find anything on their website, though if you google “Carnegie Museum of Art miniature rooms” you’ll find plenty or images and references to them.

I found this book perfect-it told a story that is exactly the sort of thing I like to imagine and if this book had been around when I was a kid I would have been thrilled.  I’ve put myself on hold for the sequel and let’s hope I remember to tell my kids about it when they are older.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I only got this for the Best of the Best reading challenge, and didn’t even know anything about it.  Sometimes I like to go into a book not knowing too much about it and I’m really glad I didn’t.  It made every plot turn, character, and detail so surprising and exciting and fresh.  This story was so wonderful that I picked it up from the library Tuesday afternoon and by Wednesday night had finished it.  I stayed up late reading and the next day let Tabby watch extra tv just so I could keep reading.  This had adventure, romance, and fantasy all wrapped in one.  It reminded me very much of Shannon Hale and Tamora Pierce novels-a fully imagined and created world that seems historical and bears a resemblance to civilizations in our world, yet has an element of magic, and its own unique history and mythology.  Also like Hale and Pierce’s books, this one has a kick ass strong heroine.  But she doesn’t start out that way!   Although Elisa is a princess and doted on by her nurse and maid, she has always been aware that her thinner, prettier, stronger sister is, frankly, the better princess and will make a great queen.  Elisa’s strengths lie in her intelligence-she has read extensively of war and military strategy, and she is also extremely pious and  is well versed in scripture. In fact, Elisa has a direct connection to God, though she is not yet sure for what purpose.
The story kicks off with Elisa being married to a somewhat neighboring king as a tactical alliance.  En route to his kingdom the adventure begins.  I really don’t want to say anything more plot-wise.  All you need to know is that it’s a wonderful story.  Religion plays a huge part in the story and I’m not sure I’ve really read anything before that has religion play such a large part where the religion is one made for the story.  It’s monotheistic but not Christian, but seems very believable.  It was all very fully realized for the story, which I just thought made it amazingly well written.

Also, I had no idea if this was going to be a series or what, but nowadays everything is a series so I assumed it was and was prepared for an unsatisfactory ending.  I was delighted to find out that the story was stand alone and had a completely satisfying ending. Then when I looked it up on Goodreads to do this post I see that it is listed as “#1”, so I guess it is going to be the start of the series (or, more likely, trilogy.) But that’s ok because like I said, this is completely stand alone and also I really liked Elisa and would love to read more about her.

Absolutely wonderful!!

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

This book got a ton of hype last year, which I totally resisted, then when I did pick it up to read it I could not put it down. I absolutely loved it (5 stars!) There’s a sequel to look forward to, as well. This is a difficult book to categorize-it does have a supernatural element to it (angels, fallen angels, the devil?), but it’s not a lame-o Twilight book.

The heroine is a fascinating teenager living in Prague (which is also fascinating).  Turns out she’s been raised by some supernatural beings that she can always find, but no one else can.  Her father figure carer is a terrifying creature, but caring and nurturing to her and along with some others the only family she’s ever had. She does not know the specifics of his work, but the reader can tell it’s unsavory.

Things start happening around the world and it’s all very good and evil, fire and brimstone, questioning what she knows. Romance, adventure, mythology, religion-all wrapped up in a detailed, exciting package.

Ripple by Mandy Hubbard

Lexi is a siren (sort of). Every night she must swim in the water. She loses track of time and her voice and everything.  She can be underwater a very long time and understands that she has a curse that must be kept secret.  The last time someone found out a boy ended up dead.  That’s why she must be super secret.  But then a new boy comes to town and there’s something about it him….

I wished that this had more siren-mythology stuff and didn’t really love it.  Characters in books–if he seems too good to be true–he is!!

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

I absolutely loved this book. Picked it up at the library just because of the author-I thought Paul would want to read this because he likes Meloy, and indeed he did.  Then I read it and loved it, and passed it on to Mom, who also loved it. There-that’s three people loving this charming adventure-fantasty-interestingly historical novel –wouldn’t you like to read it to?

I found the time period really interesting-set in the early 50s an American girl and her parents abruptly move to London because, as screenwriters, her parents are about to be called up to the McCarthy hearings as possible Communists.  In London they must adjust to British life-cold, a small flat, uniforms, etc.  Janie meets an interesting boy at school and then finds out that he is the son of the local apothecary.  It’s hard to explain what happens next. Basically, the boy and Janie find out his father isn’t just a drugstore owner, but from a long line of true alchemists who can make things happen with the right plants and so on.  Furthermore, this knowledge has been sought by bad people for thousands of years.  In this time of the Cold War the alchemists band together to try to use their knowledge to fight against the development of nuclear war.

It’s a really interesting blend of history and fantasy and I found the whole thing utterly charming, as well as quite exciting.

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Mallilier

wildwood.jpgI adored this fairy tale fantasy. It’s based on The Twelve Dancing Princesses, which was one of my favorite fairy tales as a child (read in those Andrew Lang “color” fairy books-Red Fairy Book, Yellow Fairy Book, etc.), but adds elements of Transylvanian lore, Night People aka vampires, and a bewitched frog. Instead of twelve sisters there are 5, and it’s told from the second eldest’s pov. Gorgeous cover, but the title is not very romantic to those of us from New Jersey! (Wildwood Dancing conjures up images of girls at Wildwood beach partying in the summer.)