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Emma Maree Reviews: Seraphina

seraphinaBook: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Series: Seraphina, Book 1

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Fantasy

Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend court as ambassadors, and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high.

Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered—in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift, one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.

Why is it that the books I really loved are always the hardest to review?

I usually try to keep my reviews balanced with the good and the bad, but it’s so difficult for books like “Seraphina” when there really isn’t anything to fault with it.

The dialogue was snappy, true-to-life and very quotable. The plot twists were great. The usual issues I get twitchy about (gender equality and representation of different sexualities and races) were comfortingly absent. As for the world building… oh boy, I could gush about the world building for hours.  Every aspect of this book is richly written, from the background religions and cultures to the draconian species.

“Seraphina” is set in a world where, after a massive war between humans and dragons, a shaky treaty has brought peace and dragons now walk among humans in almost-human bodies. But when a member of the royal family is murdered in a draconic style, Seraphina (court musician, secret half-dragon, and generally awesome young lady) decides to help the young Prince investigate and find the murderer before the treaty falls apart.

It’s no secret that I love dragons, and this book handles dragons with style and grace. You won’t ever mix up a dragon character with a human one. They’re inhuman even in their human disguises, lovers of maths, and they avoid our confusing human emotions at all costs along with pointless niceties like saying “hello” or “goodbye”.

If you like dragons, pick this book up. If you like flawless high fantasy, pick this up. This is definitely one of the best YA books to come out of 2012.

A review copy of this novel was provided by Random House in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Random House!

Emma Maree Reviews: Pandemonium

pandemoniumBook: Pandemonium (Delirium #2) by Lauren Oliver

Series: Delirium, Book #2

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Sci Fi/Dystopian/Romance

I’m pushing aside
the memory of my nightmare,
pushing aside thoughts of Alex,
pushing aside thoughts of Hana
and my old school,
push,
push,
push,
like Raven taught me to do.
The old life is dead.
But the old Lena is dead too.
I buried her.
I left her beyond a fence,
behind a wall of smoke and fame.
 
Lauren Oliver delivers an electrifying follow-up to her acclaimed New York Times bestseller, Delirium. This riveting, brilliant novel crackles with the fire of fierce defiance, forbidden romance, and the sparks of a revolution about to ignite.

I love that title, even though I always feel like it needs an exclamation. Pandemonium! It’s such a great word:

pandemonium [ˌpændɪˈməʊnɪəm]

n

1. wild confusion; uproar
2. a place of uproar and chaos

[coined by Milton to designate the capital of hell in Paradise Lost, from pan- + Greek daimōn demon]
pandemoniac , pandemonic [ˌpændɪˈmɒnɪk] adj

I’ve had a complicated relationship so far with Lauren Oliver. While I loved her debut, “Before I Fall”, and the concept of “Delirium”, the actual book left me flat due to it’s confusing ending.  I also get grumpy about the UK cover redesigns, though “Pandemonium” and upcoming final book “Requiem” have much nicer covers and I’ve actually grown to like them and how they fit in with the “Before I Fall” cover.

Thankfully, “Pandemonium” was full of pleasant surprises. It’s a much tighter-written and ambitious book than “Delirium” was, alternating between the past and the present as Lena adjusts to a hard, scraping-for-survival life in the unregulated Wilds outside the city (‘before’) and sneaks into New York City to tail the son of the president of Deliria-Free America, an organisation that viciously promotes the idea that love is a disease and the only safe humans are those ‘cured’ by a lobotomy-like procedure (‘after’).

Lena is a stronger person, even as she deals with her grief over “Delirium”‘s events realistically, and she’s a much more enjoyable character to follow this time round. Oliver also expands the world laid out in the previous novel, taken it from a sketched-out dystopia into a realistic future society with a lot of moral grey areas.

The scenery descriptions are nicely done, though occasionally repetitive (snow seems to crackle a lot in the Wilds), and the new characters introduced are varied and feel like they have a lot of depth to them. The two story lines also alternated nicely, with very little opportunity for confusion, up until the merging point which felt a bit unclearly defined.

I’m very happy with how “Pandemonium” turned out. While a lot of middle trilogy books can be weak and plotless, “Pandemonium” is miles stronger than “Delirium” and restored my faith in Lauren Oliver’s writing. I’ll be looking forward to reading and reviewing “Requiem” closer to its March release date.

I bought a copy of this novel myself for personal reading, but I’ll note that Hodder & Stoughton have previously provided me with review copies of “Delirium” and “Requiem” in exchange for honest reviews.

Emma Maree Reviews: Wonder

Book: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Genre: Fiction/Middle Grade/Children’s/Contemporary

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

When you pick up a book about a primary school kid with an illnesses that’s destroying his face, you’d expect it to be a depressing story. Not quite. Wonder manages to be both heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time, mixing humour and honesty in a way that puts your emotions through a spin cycle.

I didn’t think I’d be tearing up at a novel for primary school-aged readers, but this book managed that. August is a warm, lovable character, and a huge Star Wars fan – he starts school with a Jedi braid in his hair, removing it only after this painful exchange with a school bully:

“Who’s your favorite character?” Julian asked. I started thinking maybe he wasn’t so bad.

“Jango Fett.”

“What about Darth Sidious?” he said. “Do you like him?”

Maybe no one got the Darth Sidious thing, and maybe Julian didn’t mean anything at all. But in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Darth Sidious’s face gets burned up by Sith lightning and becomes totally deformed. His skin gets all shrivelled up and his whole face just kind of melts.

I peeked at Julian and he was looking at me. Yeah, he knew what he was saying.

This story isn’t just about August, either. Auggie’s friends and family all have roles to play in the story, and each viewpoint has a different voice to match it. Wonder could be used as a textbook for great characterisation – it crafts a fantastic villain in school bully Julian while August’s friends and family are all flawed but loveable.

If you’re into children’s or young adult fiction, do yourself a favour and pick up “Wonder”. It’s a fresh, brave concept in the children’s writing world — and a great story to boot.

A copy of this book was provided for review by Random House.

Emma Maree Reviews: “Boys Don’t Cry” by Malorie Blackman

Choosing character names is a struggle for me, but it’s clear author Malorie Blackman has some naming skills. The two main characters of her latest novel “Boys Don’t Cry” are Dante, whose story revolves around being left holding his newborn baby after his girlfriend skips town, has a younger brother named Adam, an openly gay black teenager that Dante’s friends hate.

Dante and Adam. Those are fantastic names. The Christian origin, the dichotomy of it – Adam being the son of God, residing in Heaven, Dante being a famous bard who went down into the depths of Hell in search of his love. Religion isn’t mentioned in the book, but the symbolism here – the opposite meanings – rings true. Dante and Adam are close as brothers, especially when they’re in the house around each other, but they disagree on a lot of things and argue often.

But this story is about a lot more than the two brothers. When Dante is sitting waiting for his A-Level result, his ex-girlfriend appears at the door with a baby she claims is his. Then she disappears, leaving him holding the baby and facing the fact that he might be about to lose everything – a promising university education, his social life, and his current girlfriend Colette.

Told from a rare single father point of view, Dante has to figure out how to be a dad – from changing nappies to worrying about whether it is really his kid. His dad helps him out using his own experience as a single parent – but the help is in true-to-life ‘dad’ form, with lots of grumbling about what a bloody idiot he is for getting into this mess in the first place.

I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this story, but Dante’s strong voice pulled me into the story. He’s very British, and very honest and real – he sounds like a typical English teen guy, it’s great. It’s also a very honest story – it doesn’t skim over any of the harsh realities of being a teen parent. Dante’s friends stop calling round to visit, his girlfriend doesn’t want anything to do with him, his guy friends mock him when they’re not busy taunting his brother.

Author Malorie Blackman

The story unfolds at a quick pace, with chapters from Dante’s point of view showing the child-rearing side of life, and Adam’s chapters showing some of the darker sides of Dante’s circle of friends. By the end of the story, the viciousness of Dante’s friends shows its true colours and has horrible consequences.

The ending left me wanting more – it was realistically done, but I really wanted karma to be served. I also wish they’d mentioned the families skin colour more – the only obvious mention about Dante being black was towards the end. You could argue that this is clever – the ambiguous cover and narrative mean any young guy can relate to the story – but personally I wish this was stated clearly and proudly from the start.

It’s been a long time since I read Malorie Blackman (as a kid I poured over stories like “Hacker” and “Pig-Heart Boy” in my Primary School library), and I’m glad to see she’s as brilliant a writer as ever.

Maybe I should get around to finally giving her “Noughts & Crosses” series a look…

A review copy of this book was provided by Random House.

Emma Maree Reviews “The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove”

If you’ve been reading much Young Adult fiction lately, you’ll be familiar with love triangles. You might even be sick of them. But “The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove”, a standalone contemporary novel by “Fallen” series author Lauren Kate, deals with that problem in an unusual way – the secondary love interest, green-eyed Justin, is dead. Not zombie-dead or vampire-dead. In-the-ground, exit-stage-left dead. This doesn’t stop him haunting every corner of the book, completely outshining Natalie’s own boyfriend Mike.

Natalie Hargrove is Lauren Kate’s smartest and darkest protagonist yet. A small town Southern girl born on the wrong side of the tracks, in the wrong trailer park, she’s spent years plotting her way into the richer side of town. She’s gained a hot, rich boyfriend and a place at the top of elite Palmetto high school’s social ladder. Then she accidentally kills Justin, the gorgeous green-eyed reminder of all her past mistakes. Now her relationship, her social status, and her carefully-crafted life depends on making sure the police don’t find out she’s behind it.

The American high school culture is fairly extreme compared to British schools, but easy enough to adapt into if you’ve seen enough American movies. I wasn’t a huge fan of the plot – it gets off to a quiet start, setting up the stakes well, but the climatic scene felt awkward and unnatural. I’m also getting really tired of conveniently physic friends.

Where this book really shines is as an example of a strong character ‘voice’. Natalie is my favourite of Kate’s characters so far, way above Lucinda Price from Fallen. The first person writing lets you know the reasons behind her occasionally cruel actions, and little details are picked up that only she would pick up: first their fashion sense, then the state of their hair and how it could be improved, then their eyes and make-up or accessories. Lauren’s also good at using her environment to bring out character details – check out how she blends a bit of family back story with a description of Mike’s mother:

“from the seamless skin around Diana’s eyes when she smiled […] it was obvious someone had discovered the perks of having a son with an endless supply of botox.”

Oh, and that cover? Not bad at all, fits perfectly with Lauren Kate’s other books and does a great job working in the main character’s fondness for the colour purple. A huge improvement on the original American cover. The new American cover is better, but I think the UK one fits with “Fallen” and “Torment” much more smoothly.

“Betrayal” is a short read, but definitely worth picking up if you enjoyed Lauren Kate’s other books “Fallen” or “Torment”, or the portrayals of popularity in books like Lauren Oliver’s “Before I Fall” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Invisible Monsters”.

Disclaimer: The copy used in this review was won in a competition run by Random House.

Click here to read my review of Lauren Kate’s paranormal romance, “Fallen”.