Archive | July, 2012

Birthmarked – Caragh M. O’Brien

25 Jul

Series: Birthmarked, #1
ISBN:  9781596435698
Genre: Dystopian
Audience: Young Adult
Overall Rating: 10/10
Gaia Stone lives outside of the Enclave near the shores of Unlake Superior. Trained as a midwife by her mother, it is Gaia’s job to advance a quota of three babies per month to the Enclave, where they’re given a “better” life. But all is not well within the enclave. When Gaia’s parents are arrested, she must go against everything she’s been taught in order to rescue them. But in doing so, she places what the Enclave so desperately wants straight to their hands. And leaving with her life intact seems to be nothing more than a dream.
I had been thinking about reading this book since seeing it in a catalog used to order books for work. I hadn’t picked it up, though, because it didn’t seem to be quite my style. How wrong I was. The plot was deep and unpredictable, with twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. I found Gaia’s adventures interesting and suspenseful to follow, with the result that I might have set the book down once in order to reapply sunscreen (it was one of my Florida beach reads!) before starting right back in again.
The powerful Enclave made an imposing enemy. The thought of a utopia has kind of terrified me since reading The Giver in eighth grade, and this was no less terrifying. Instead of admitting problems (like chronic anemia due to a small genetic pool), they attempted to cover it up and make it seem like everything was hunky-dory, when in fact, all was not. It showed what a government could be if it became too powerful. And who wouldn’t find the prospect of having a newborn child taken away from them absolutely horrifying?
Chilling. I think chilling is the word I’m looking for—and Birthmarked managed it.
Gaia Stone is one of those characters that confuses me, but I think that means that she was well developed. I tend to prefer characters I can identify with—characters who have some traits that I think I have, too. I didn’t see that with Gaia, but I still liked her as a character. She was likable, but not perfect, and she grew stronger throughout the story.
The cast of supporting characters was varied and eccentric. Each character had their own motives and histories that enriched the story and made me want to keep reading. Good characters are, in my opinion, the number one factor in a story that can make it or break it, and Birthmarked succeeded in making it.
One of the setting points that made me grin was the Unlake Superior. I haven’t figured out if the book is set in Canada or Michigan (or Minnesota or Wisconsin, I suppose!), but I liked trying to visualize that massive body of water where I’ve spent some time just GONE. It might not be quite as daunting to someone who hasn’t seen how expansive the Great Lakes are, but it certainly added to the overall feeling of the book for me.

The rest of the setting—the Enclave, the town outside the enclave, the plight of the people living outside—are all richly described, leaving me wanting nothing more. The mixture of “ancient” technology (read: our modern technology), and the necessity to go back to actually-ancient-technology in order to deal with the lack of resources was executed flawlessly.

Also, the culture of the people, which I’m including in setting for lack of a better place to put it, seemed well developed. I love that—it’s something some fantasy/sci-fi books leave out, developing a good culture for the people they’re living with. It was needed in this book, too, because it showed the reader that taking away people’s children was a matter of course for midwives and the people, which makes it all the more horrifying.

A Spy in the House – Y.S. Lee

25 Jul

Series: The Agency, #1
ISBN:  9780763640675
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
Audience: Middle Grade / YA
Overall Rating: 7/10
In 1850s London, Mary Lang was plucked from the hangman’s noose—almost literally—and offered a place at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls. Finished with her education, Mary is informed that, should she choose to accept it, she may have a future with The Agency—a network of women spies handpicked by the academy who do important investigative work for the Scotland Yard, among others. Mary is placed as a companion to the daughter of a rich family whose father is suspected of dodgy dealings in opium. As the mission progresses and conflicts come to a head, it seems more and more likely that Mary’s first assignment might also be her last.
I like to think of this as an old-fashioned, London-style Nancy Drew mystery (which I hope is taken as a compliment). As a mystery itself, it was a bit predictable, but I think that’s because I’m older than the intended audience. As a twelve year old, I think I would have found it suspenseful and intriguing. As it was, I barely set it down (but I love mystery, London, AND the 1800s, so you know).

The plot was well-executed, with enough hints dropped and a few surprises on the way—though like I said, younger kids might find more surprises than I did. I actually read the sequel as well (The Body at the Tower) and found it just as enjoyable, which I think predicts a good, new series of mystery books for young people.

I loved the characters in this book. They seemed perfect—Mary was strong and eager, but made a lot of mistakes along the way, which she wasn’t too strong-willed to learn from. Her partner in crime(solving), James Easton, is exactly the kind of male character I like to see: he accepted Mary’s eccentricities but still allowed himself to get angry with her. He wasn’t besotted and he wasn’t stupid, either.
The cast of other characters were rich in personality and description, and some had a lot more depth to them than first thought. I enjoyed watching all of the characters grow and change as the story progressed, and it was the characters themselves more than the plotline that kept me guessing and turning pages throughout the story, something I always love.
As far as place goes, I thought the polluted London air and water, the geography, and the city was all described quite well. I found myself reminiscing about my months in London and remembering exactly what if felt like to walk along the Thames (though it wasn’t quite as smelly!), or visit the suburbs described.

In terms of time, though, I think that some more research—or application of research—could have been done. I didn’t feel immersed in 1850. The language sometimes slipped into a more modern tongue. The general feel was off a bit, but I didn’t think that it detracted from the story much. Then again, I read this purely for enjoyment without looking too closely at issues that would usually bother me.

The Pale Assassin – Patricia Elliott

25 Jul

Series: The Pimpernelles, #1
ISBN:  9780823422500
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Middle Grade / YA
Overall Rating: 3-6/10**
Eugenie de Boncoeur is a young French aristocrat swept up in the trials of the French Revolution. An initial encounter with an angry mob at a convent (where she had been sent to be kept safe) leaves Eugenie curious about the revolution. She ends up fleeing Paris for England, where her mother’s family lives, when a plot to rescue the doomed king fails—a plot in which her beloved brother was partially involved. But along the way Eugenie learns that she is fleeing something else: a marriage agreement to the richest, most unsavory man in Paris, which was made without her knowledge. Le Fantome, as the man is called, will pursue Eugenie to the edge of France and will stop at nothing to make her his bride.
The rating is a bit oddly done because of the plot. Personally, I didn’t like this book nearly as much as I thought I should have. It was bogged down with so much description and set-up of the Revolution that the first half of the book went slowly for me. I almost set it down. The first half basically sets up the Revolution and the general atmosphere of France at the time, which is probably needed to really get into the plot—but for a history major like me, who tends to look up random historical events and research them for fun, the French Revolution was old news, and the sort of “watered down” version here didn’t seem quite as exciting. Not to mention, Eugenie wasn’t really involved in much of it, but that’s a discussion for the character section.

However, I believe that you need the French Revolution background to get as much as you could out of the plot, setting, and character. Without the background, it wouldn’t have the same kind of feeling. So for people who don’t know much about history, the background was probably more interesting and faster-paced than I thought it was. And that’s why I gave this book a split rating, because I think it would be much more enjoyable to people who aren’t me.

The latter half of the book was much more exciting, featuring a well-thought-out getaway plan that goes awry, a couple of deaths, a nice boat chase, and endangering kindly people housing runaways. After I got into the action, it actually was difficult to put the book down. At first I didn’t think I’d read the rest of the series, but now I’m definitely considering it. Perhaps the next books won’t have so much history to them.

That said, it didn’t feel like this book was self-contained. I mean, I love a good series, but I feel like each book within the series needs to be more or less self-contained with its own plot, rather than left completely open-ended. For instance, His Dark Materials: to put it very simply, in the first book Lyra sets off to find the Gobblers and free the stolen children. She does this, but it just so happens that doing so opens up a new can of worms. Enter The Subtle Knife. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: the Triwizard Tournament starts and ends, but it just so happens that Voldemort returns, thus making way for Order of the Phoenix. Each plot is completed within the book, but leaves room for a sequel. The Triwizard Tournament doesn’t continue in Order of the Phoenix, and Lyra doesn’t leave in the middle of battling the Gobblers.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it seemed, at the start of this book, that there would be some closure with Le Fantome, but I never got it. It was like the book ended in the rising action without ever reaching the climax. I feel like the first half of the book could have been quartered, leaving room for the exciting end to be an exciting middle, and made way for a satisfying ending. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, which is partially why my personal rating is so low.


Eugenie herself was also problematic for me. On the one hand, she is a very realistic young female French aristocrat from the time: kept safe and unaware of the happenings of the Revolution, pampered and cared for, a bit naïve. What’s great about Eugenie is that she does become curious, and becomes strong enough to lie to a bunch of guardsmen, knock a man over the head with a chair, and fire a gun at an attacking boat. She just wasn’t a favorite character of mine because she was so ridiculously unaware in the first part of the book. And by ridiculously, I mean believably, but it was frustrating as I prefer stronger female characters. But like I said, her character was realistic given the time and place.

I quite liked Eugenie’s brother, Armand, who continuously fought for what he believed in. While he tried to keep Eugenie safe and away from danger (which led me to dislike HER), again, his actions seemed believable to me.

As for Julien de Fortin, I thought his character was fine until a relationship with Eugenie burgeoned out of nowhere. I think the plot was meant to be “there’s a thin line between love and hate” but I just didn’t see it. Perhaps the characters themselves were wrong for it in my head—now, if they were more like Mel and Vidanric, that I could see. They pull it off well. Eugenie and Julien, not so much.

The villain, Le Fantome, was your typical evil-guy-wants-girl. He was suitably creepy and obsessive, and made me hope on every page that he never got his hands on Eugenie. Good villain, then.

As for Guy, I was still a bit confused as to what his game/motive was. But then again, I was reading this with a fever, so that could have been part of it.

Setting was one of the things I didn’t have too much of a problem with. I would have liked more description in places—what exactly do the Tuilleries Gardens look like?—but I admired the author’s ability to sneak in French words into dialogue. Also, the sense of time was well-written, and it was clear she had done a lot of research on the French Revolution, mannerisms of the people at the time, and the like.
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