Review of Devils & Thieves

Thanks to Kid Lit Exchange network for this review copy of Devils & Thieves. All opinions are my own.

Devils & Thieves is a YA fantasy about kindleds, people who have magical abilities, who are also in motorcycle gangs. Sort of like the older version of the Harry Potter kids with magic but without the wands joins Sons of Anarchy-lite. Sort of. I know this sounds strange. (It felt a little gimmicky and arbitrary to me.)

Here’s the premise. Jemmie Carmichael is the eighteen-year-old protagonist of this novel. She is a kindled who does not know how to use her magic to its full potential. She is best friends with Alex, whose brother Crowe is the leader of the Black Devils the motorcycle gang that Jemmie’s family has been associated with in the past. In addition, Jemmie has a spotty past with Crowe which causes her significant angst. As the novel progresses, the Black Devils get ready for a festival where rival gangs roll into town and conflict ensues.

This book is standard fare for soapy YA novels with magical beings. (Disclaimer: I love soapy YA novels with an element of magic. Yes, please!) Honestly, in the opening chapters I was ready to put the book down. These chapters were ineffective and disjointed in explaining this unknown world. When I read fantasy like this, I like the setting and the main aspects of the magical world to be clearly explained at the beginning so I can construct the world in my mind. These beginning chapters did not do this–the magical world felt muddled and confusing. I almost abandoned the book altogether.

Devils & Thieves does get more interesting in later chapters. I enjoyed the overarching story, although there is nothing new or inventive in the narrative as it unfolds. It feels pretty formulaic and surface. The characters have little depth, even though it feels like the author is attempting to give them depth with common plot points such as avenging a loved one’s death and battling personal demons. None of these attempts land particularly well, and thus I felt disconnected from the characters.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, this book isn’t bad. I did find myself wanting to keep reading. I also enjoyed the way the magical element is presented in the story. The magic is divided into different classifications with kindleds only being able to naturally perform a particular type of magic. However, they can create ‘cuts’ they can share and/or sell that will allow another kindled to perform bits of magic that is not his or her own. The most complicated element of this book is the magic, because of all the different types with unfamiliar names. I found myself having to look back in the book to reread to remind myself which magical name went which classification.

This is not a ground-breaking YA book, but it is okay. The audience it is intended for will likely eat it up. Crowe, Jemmie’s male counterpart, is mysterious, sexy, and damaged, which creates all kinds of angst that will delight the audience for this book.

One more note about Devils & Thieves: It has a lot of profanity and underaged drinking in it. At times, both feel gratuitous and excessive. So, if you are a teacher or a parent be aware of this. The book is fine for high school, but it would be a complete judgement call for middle school.

Bottom line: For me as a grown-up, I give it a 2/5. Looking through the lens of the YA crowd, I would bump my rating to 2.5/5. There is better YA out there, but I think there is an audience for this book, especially those who enjoyed books like Twilight and the read alikes it inspired.

Review of Girls Made of Snow and Glass

This book was highly anticipated by yours truly. I saw it on Bookstagram (that is Instagram for bookish types), and I could not wait to get my hands on it. In fact, I pre-ordered it, so it showed up on my doorstep the day it was released. I also set up a buddy read with one of my Bookstagram pals.(She is one of the two Priscilla’s at the @2.ps.in.a.bookstagram handle on Instagram.) If you haven’t done a buddy read, I highly recommend it. So much fun!

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. It is touted as a feminist retelling, but I am confused on that point. (More on that later.)

The story is centered around Lynet, the Snow White character, and Mina, the stepmother. The chapters in the book alternate between Lynet and Mina’s perspectives and also alternate between present and past. Lynet and her family hail from the North, a land covered in ice and snow. Whereas, Mina is from the South, a place known for its mild weather and warmth.

Lynet is a precocious, but sheltered youngster, whose father, King Nicholas, will do anything to keep out of harm’s way. Lynet rebels against these constraints, as evidenced in the first few scenes of the book when she is scaling a castle wall to spy on a newcomer to the castle, Nadia, the royal surgeon.  Mina is a southerner, who is hungry for power, and eager to break ties with her cruel magician father.

As the story progresses, both of these women fight to become what they think they ought to be, to find their true selves and finally, to define what their relationship means. The story follows Lynet as she discovers life outside the castle walls and searches for answers about her beginnings. On the other hand, Mina fights to win the love of an unreachable man and maintain control of a kingdom that is not hers.

I have so many thoughts about this book. Some of the bloggers that I respect most have loved this book. And, while I didn’t hate it, I also didn’t love it. Here’s why. First, the characters felt one dimensional. I didn’t feel moved by Mina and Lynet’s relationship for most of the book. At times, I would even describe myself as bored. Second, there is a “relationship” between Lynet and Nadia which seems forced and also one dimensional. The relationship is not developed over the course of the novel, and by the end, it seems odd as to how close the two have become.

The biggest issue for me in this book, is the depth of characters. Even though this is a retelling of a fairy tale, I was hoping for more depth in the characters and the story. There is so much untapped potential in both the characters and the story that it left me feeling unfulfilled as a reader.

That being said, I did not hate this book, and I was invested in the story, and curious to see how it played out. I don’t feel like it was particularly “feminist.” Nor do I think just because there is mention of a relationship between Lynet and Nadia that it is particularly progressive. A lot of the story revolves around the relationships of Lynet and Mina with the men in their lives (King Nicholas and Felix). The story didn’t feel as new and as feminist as I wanted it to, if that makes sense. The last one-fourth of the story was my favorite part, and the section where I felt most invested in the characters and the outcome of the story.

Bottom Line: For me, this was an average book with above average potential. I think fans of this genre will eat it up, and for the young adult audience it is intended for, it will be well received. This is another book that even though I would rate it as average, I would not hesitate to put in my classroom library. My rating is 3/5.

 

Review of Caraval

Okay, time for some honest talk. I have been reading some heavier books lately, and I just needed a YA fantasy book to cleanse my palate and gear me up for more heavy reading I have coming up in the near future. YA fantasy books are my absolute favorite for a good reading “palate cleanse.”

Caraval by Stephanie Garber did not disappoint. It was exactly the read I was looking for to whisk me a away to somewhere fantastical, whimsical, and intriguing. It hit all the right notes for me.

The story is centered around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella (Tella) who live with their controlling, horrible, abusive father, the governor of the fictional, Conquered Isle of Trisda. Caraval is five night magical, mysterious, and adventurous game hosted by the elusive Legend.  Scarlett writes to Legend for many years asking for tickets for herself and Tella in hopes of attending and participating in this mysterious game. Days before Scarlett is scheduled to be married to a man her father has promised her to, she receives a letter from Legend granting her request with three tickets for entry into Caraval, one for her sister, one for her, and one for her fiance, who she has never met and whose name she does not know.

Scarlett is the main protagonist throughout the course of the novel, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. It becomes clear that Caraval is a place where reality blends with magic, and it is difficult to determine what is real and what is part of the game.

There is love (what is a YA fantasy without some angst and love?), there is suspense, there is a magical darkness that felt unique to me compared with other fantasy I have read. I hesitate to say more about this book, because spoilers would be the worst for this story, and it is difficult to say more without spoilers.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you enjoy YA fantasy, it is an interesting story with a dark element that I didn’t anticipate, but enjoyed. The writing is solid, and at times, the descriptions of the world of Caraval are stellar. I like the way the author plays with the time period in this book. Since time is described in ways such as “Year 55, Elantine Dynasty,” the time period is unknown. It feels like the past to me, because of the way the clothing is described and Scarlett’s mannerisms. But that is the beauty of fantasy–time period does not have to be defined. I also really love the way the love between the two sisters is established and developed within the story.

If I could change one thing about the book it is that the characters felt flat and it would have been nice to know a little bit more about some of the major characters to better understand their motivations (again, I don’t want to name character names because EEK! spoilers), but overall Caraval is an engaging read that I would recommend to other fantasy enthusiasts. It is propelled more by its intriguing plot than by its characters, but that is okay with me for this type of story. If I still had my own classroom, I would snap this up in a second, because this is a book that teenage fantasy fans will love (think fans of The Selection Series by Kiera Cass, Sarah J. Maas’s series). And there are characters that teens will love and root for.

Bottom Line: I give it a solid 4/5 (mostly for the unique (to me) storyline). For middle grades, be aware that while there is no cursing and no sexually explicit scenes, there are a few scenes with sexual overtones, but nothing too racy. There are also a couple of scenes that contain violence which may be disturbing for younger readers.

 

Review of How To Disappear

How To Disappear is a YA novel that focuses on social anxiety in a world where social media and popularity are king. Bravo to Sharon Huss Roat for tackling this tough and multi-faceted issue. I haven’t read a book that addresses this particular issue in this way. While Roat could have easily made this an “issues” book, she instead creates a relatable character and a setting that is familiar to most teenagers.

Vicky Decker is a high school student who suffers from severe social anxiety, which is amplified after her lifelong best friend, Jenna, moves away. She is incredibly self-aware; however, she is unable to control the panic she feels in social situations. Enter Vicurious, an Instagram persona that Vicky creates to connect with other people online to avoid connecting in real life. As Vicurious’s fan following grows,Vicky is faced with living in two worlds–her actual life in high school, and the one that is playing out on Instagram.

What I loved about this book is the acknowledgement that social anxiety is a real and debilitating aspect of life for some teens. I also appreciated the social media tie-in, because fan following and ‘likes’ have become such an integral part of daily life for kids (and let’s be honest, sometimes adults). The characters are relatable and believable, and as I read, I didn’t feel like I was reading an “issues” book, or being preached at about the dangers of social media or the perils of social anxiety. The narrative felt authentic which I appreciated.

As the book neared its conclusion, I did feel like Vicky’s social anxiety issues seemed to clear up quickly and that her saving grace was the attention of a love interest, Lipton Gregory. Lipton’s character is likable and quirky, but his relationship with Vicky seemed to help her social anxiety issues a little too quickly which seemed implausible to me. The last third of the book had some inconsistencies that bothered me, one being the storyline between Vicky and her best friend, Jenna (the one that moved away at the beginning of the story.) Without giving spoilers, I would just say that the first two-thirds of the book were excellent; whereas, the last one-third left me scratching my head a bit. The ending seemed rushed and unrealistic to the rest of the story.

Still, I appreciate that there are authors who are willing to tackle this complex issue. Our kids are subjected to similar social situations in real life and on social media and it is important to be aware of this. Readers of YA will like How To Disappear for its fast-paced story and its look into the overlooked issue of social anxiety. Parents will like it for a glimpse into the world their kids are likely a part of in their everyday lives.

Bottom Line: How To Disappear is worth a read by YA enthusiasts and by parents. In general it gives an interesting perspective on social anxiety and the lives of our kids on social media. This book is appropriate for high school AND middle school students. My rating is a 4/5.

A Review of This Is Our Story

This Is Our Story is a YA suspense novel about a group of five privileged young men who go hunting one morning in the woods of Louisiana. By mid-morning, four boys walk out of the woods and one is dead. Grant Perkins is the unfortunate victim, but was his death an accident or was it murder? The four surviving boys are quickly dubbed “The River Point Boys,” and are under investigation for the death of their friend. Kate Marino, the main protagonist in this book, interns at the prosecutor’s office where her mother works, and the lawyer her mom works for, Mr. Stone, is given the case against The River Point Boys. Kate becomes involved in the investigation, and in a unique plot point, becomes Mr. Stone’s eyes when it is revealed that he is losing his eyesight. Kate’s personal connection with the case becomes apparent early in the novel and shapes her actions throughout. As Kate and Mr. Stone investigate more deeply into the events surrounding the River Point Boys’ last hunting trip, they find more questions than answers which are not resolved until the final pages of the book.

Here is another one that I don’t want to write too much about the plot, because who likes a suspense novel to be spoiled? Not me!

Before I get into my thoughts about this book, can we just for a moment discuss the cover art for this book?! I love it! It is one of my covers of the year. Make sure you look closely at it. Can you see the five shadows in the background? How clever is this? I love the strategic placement of the deer head. LOVE!

This Is Our Story is enjoyable, and it is a great choice for young adults looking for a suspenseful novel. The premise is interesting, and I definitely did not want to put it down. The novel flips back and forth in time from before Grant’s death and after Grant’s death. This time switch occurs at chapter breaks, and each regular chapter also begins with a text message sequence that pertains to the story, which is a nice touch. There are also intermittent chapters where the person who is responsible for Grant’s death directly addresses the reader, which gives an eerie touch to the narrative. The first two-thirds of the novel is well-crafted, compelling, and very suspenseful. (More on the last one-third below.)

That being said there are some problems. At times, the dialogue is stilted. For example, occasionally Kate will say “ya’ll,” which is (I am guessing) meant to reiterate that the story takes place in Louisiana; however, it is used very sparingly, and there really isn’t any other indication that they are in the South. In fact, as I read the story, I pictured the characters in New England. Only when, I read the “ya’lls,” did I go back and realize that the setting is Lousiana. Eek–one of my pet peeves!

For me, the problems with the plot came in the last one-third of the novel. There were some liberties taken to move the plot forward that felt unrealistic which in turn, made the resolution of the novel feel contrived. I don’t want to give too much of the specifics here, but would love to discuss with anyone who has read or reads This Is Our Story!

Bottom Line: The plot had some issues for me which affected my satisfaction at the end of the book; however, I enjoyed reading it and think the target audience will definitely find it a satisfying read. My rating is 3/5.