Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: An Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

An Ember in the Ashes
The Plot: It's been 500 years since the Martials defeated the Scholars. At various times Rebellion has been threatened, but the Martials always destroy it.

Laia, 17, is a Scholar. The once studious and education people are now banned from anything hinting at learning. Laia lives with her older brother, Darin, and her grandparents, until the night their home is raided by the Martials and their terrible agents, the silver-faced Masks. Her grandparents are killed, Darin is arrested, and Laia flees into the night.

She stumbles upon rebels who agree to help her free her brother, for a price. Go into the heart of the Martial training ground and spy on their Commandment. To do so, she'll have to pretend to be a slave. But for Darin, she'll do it.

Elias, twenty, is a Martial who has been trained to be a Mask since the age of six. Except he has a secret, kept hidden and deep. He hates the death and torture and violence of what he his, of what he is trained to do. He doesn't want his face to be forever silver. He dreams of escape, even though it will dishonor his Grandfather, but anyone caught running away is brutally executed. As each day goes by, he finds himself increasingly bound to the Martials and to his friends and wondering if the only escape is death.

The Good: Read this book. Now. The only down side of reading this book ASAP is that the sequel is out next summer, and you're going to have to wait that long to find out what happens next.

Read this book. It is a wonderfully complex setting, influenced by the Roman Empire and other ancient cultures. Sometimes a cultural setting such as the one in An Ember in the Ashes either downplays or ignores the consequences and reality of its setting. This book does not do that; it is a brutal, violent world and both Laia and Elias have been shaped and formed by that brutality. (For those who wonder about the violence on the page, I'll put it this way. A book can describe a death in a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter -- this book goes for the sentence or two. Does it lessen the horror of that death? No, it doesn't drag it on for pages and pages.)

Laia masquerades as a slave, but, no, that's wrong. While Laia is spying, she is actually a slave and all that implies. She is owned by the Commandment, who can do anything she wants to the slaves she owns. Laia is beaten and whipped; her name is taken from her. Other slaves have been scarred, branded, mutilated. The possibility of sexual assault and rape is real. So she has to survive both the change in status from free to slave but also figuring out how to be a spy for the rebellion.

Elias has been trained since the age of six to become a Mask, like his mother and grandfather before him. (His mother is the Commandment.) He has seen children whipped to death; he has been beaten; he has killed. He has followed orders. He has become one of the top soldiers. And he hates it. One of the things I love about An Ember in the Ashes is that while it's easy to hate the Martial class and all that Elias is and represents, the reader can't help but like Elias and root for him. To like his friends and understand his loyalties.

If you're wondering, because there is a girl and a boy and it's a young adult book, whether there is a romance -- well, yes and no. Again, complexity! While Elias may look at Laia and see a pretty girl, Laia looks at Elias and sees a dangerous soldier. Elias also is the type who sees Laia as a pretty girl who is a slave so is someone who for that reason shouldn't be touched (not a sentiment towards slaves shared by others.) There's a young man who is a rebel who Laia begins to have feelings for, and Elias has feelings towards another soldier, a young woman, and he's trying to deny them. So this is more a rectangle than anything else, and very realistically done given the different positions of power people have.

The Martial Empire is HORRIBLE. I wouldn't want to live there. But, again with reasons I like this -- when Laia learns more about the history of the Scholars, she realizes that her history and society is more complex than good/bad, vanquished/conquered. Elias looks around him and doesn't like how the Empire treats people, and he may be alone in this. It's hard to tell, because to confess such things would to betrayal, punishment, torture, death. His friends, though, are also likable, though part of this may be that we only see them in a context where they aren't arresting and killing and torturing, though we know that is what they have been trained to do. And truth be told while the ways of his training are harsh and I'm running out of words that mean "brutal," it's also realistic in terms of what is needed to create the perfect killing machine -- and that appears to be the sole aim of Elias's training and schooling.

The ending -- the ending!!! Don't worry, it's a great ending for a first book in the series in that it both works well as an ending for this book but there is also a great lead in to what will happen in the next book. I don't feel cheated or frustrated; I just feel MORE MORE MORE.

And the plot is so great that I don't want to say a word about it.

One more thing. The women in this story! Of course, there is Laia, who will do anything to save her brother but has been fairly sheltered up to this point. Poor, sometimes hungry, but always loved and protected by her family. Her strength is in her ability to survive, to love, to do what it takes.

Then there is Helene. Female soldiers are only accepted once in a generation, and so she is not just the sole female in her class, she's the sole female in her school. She has to be twice as good, ignore twice as much, as those around her. The friendship between Elias and Hel is one of equality and respect.

And Elias's mother, the Commandant. She was the female soldier of her generation. And as the head of the school that trains and forms soldiers, she is the one that every student fears. She is the one every slave fears. And with good reason: punishments, torture, and death all take place at her whim.

There is the Lioness, a legendary head of the Rebellion, brilliant but ruthless and willing to sacrifice anything for her cause.

And there are Laia's fellow slaves, Kitchen Girl and Cook, who have survived years in the Commandant's house, watching other slaves come and go. (And by "go" I mean die, whether at their own hand or the result of the Commandant's brutality.) There is more to each of them . . . .

One more thing. With this book there is always one more thing. I recognized the ancient Rome references in names and family structure; Tahir's guest post at the Perpetual Page-Turner goes into that research, as well as the research needed for everything from weaponry to the names of the other nations and groups in the book.

ARGH. I want to revisit this world, even though I was so worried about Laia that at times I could read no more than a few chapters at a time. My heart just couldn't take it.

OF COURSE this is a Favorite Book of 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: Kissing Ted Callahan

Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys) by Amy Spalding. Poppy. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys)The Plot: Riley and Reid walk in on our their band mates Lucy and Nathan -- to their surprise, Lucy and Nathan are together. Together-together.

Riley is stunned, especially because Lucy is her best friend and Lucy never said a word. Riley and Reid both resolve to pursue love (and kissing and maybe even sex), and to share each detail, and to help each other out.

The top of Riley's list is her crush, Ted Callahan; Reid's is Jane.

How successful is their plan? Well, there will be kissing. Of Ted Callahan, and other guys.

The Good: This is primarily Riley's story, but because Riley and Reid share notes and progress reports and suggestions in a Passenger Manifest journal, and part of that is written by Reid, it's both their stories.

Kissing Ted Callahan is about Riley shaking herself into action. Oh, she's hardly passive. Her goal is rock star, so her time has been taken up with the band. And her best friend is Lucy, and she's friends with Reid and Nathan, but she's been satisfied, kind of, with that.

Riley isn't satisfied anymore. And confiding in Reid, instead of her usual Lucy, helps push her to do things like offer Ted Callahan a ride home. Or kiss Garrick. Or call the number of the cute boy she met at the CD store. Riley goes from zero love interests to three. Kissing Ted Callahan is about Riley (and Reid) navigating teen age dating, figuring out the difference between like and love and lust and love, wondering just what is right to tell someone if there isn't any real commitment yet.

Reid's story in some ways mirrors Riley's The first girl he pursues turns out to already have a boyfriend, and Riley doesn't really make the connection to her own situation. The next girl is -- well, it's a bit funny, because Reid makes a list of potential girls. Ones who talk to him, ones he likes, who has potential? Unlike Riley, he's not acting on a crush. It's more that he wants someone, and there is something very sweet and likable in how he keeps himself open to any possibility rather than requiring a crush first. It's also very honorable that he pursues a girl he likes being with, ignoring that his friends don't really like her.

At one point, rather late in the story, their Passenger Manifest goes missing and Riley and Reid have to deal with the consequences. For Riley, that ends up being the consequences of not having conversations and not talking. Kissing and sex may create a connection but it doesn't replace talking. Yes, there is a sex scene,  butwhile Riley may be kissing three boys there is only one that she really likes. No, I won't say who.

What's nice about the emphasis on communication is that it is clear from the beginning that Riley's failure at spoken honesty, and desire to not confront, isn't something that just happens with boys. Remember Lucy? Part of what drives the whole book is Riley's continuing inability to talk with her best friend, Lucy. Part of Riley's growth is realizing she has to have the tough conversations, whether it's about the status of a friendship or of a relationship.

I also like how this explores attraction and relationships (both friendship and more), and that Riley (and Tom and Garrick and Milo) is not just about who she is dating or kissing but is about creating real friendships and how those friendships are made. Lucy, Riley, and Reid have known each other since kindergarten and those types of friendships sometimes means someone has a hard time making new friends -- they don't have the skills. Riley is developing those skills, though admittedly mainly because she is seeking a boy. And mainly because she assumes that Lucy's changed relationship with Nathan means that Lucy's friendship with Riley is different.

Finally! It's also about a band, and I loved how being part of the band is used for the story, from being what ties Riley and her friends together, to her passions and interests, and also the time it takes outside of school. Their dedication is clear.

One final thing: this may be a spoiler, so stop reading if any type of spoiler bothers you. This is not the type of book where Riley looks at her good friend Reid and sees him in a different light while he has an unrequited crush. This is about two people who are friends, whose friendship grows stronger but whose friendship remains a friendship.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove)

A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove) by Tessa Dare. Avon. 2011. And sequels. Library copies.

The Plot: 1813, England. Victor Bramwell is a lieutenant colonel in the army, and he's been wounded, and all he cares about is getting back into the army. So he'll do anything to prove that he is fit to return.

The Plot: 1813, England. Victor Bramwell is a lieutenant colonel in the army, and he's been wounded, and all he cares about is getting back into the army. So he'll do anything to prove that he is fit to return to service.

Susanna Finch lives in Spindle Cove, along with her father. Spindle Cove has earned itself the nickname Spinster Cove, because it's so well known as a bit of a dumping ground for ladies who don't fit into society. It's full of spinsters, ha ha ha.

And Susanna wants to keep Spindle Cove that way. She doesn't want people to know the truth about Spindle Cove: it's not a last resort. It's the best resort; a place where women who don't fit into society, or have been excluded, find a home and acceptance.

Bram's mission to start a local militia is going to be tough -- even more difficult because, well, Spindle Cove is full of women. Not military service ready men. Will Susanna be able to get rid of Bram and his soldiers in time to save Spindle Cove?

The Good: Spindle Cove! The shy and the introverted, but also the outspoken. The brainy. They are welcome and embraced and accepted at Spindle Cove -- at least, for now. A Night to Surrender is the first in a series, each about a different woman of Spindle Cove. Each there for a different reason. And, because of these reasons, it means the heroines of the series are each pretty unique, and independent. And it means that the heroes are those who value the unique. Spindle Cove is about women learning to be themselves, to be confident, and finding men who prize that. It's a feminist series, set in a time that isn't very feminist. The combinations are also interesting, because what matters are who the people are not what they are. Examples: a beautiful young woman and the local blacksmith. A Duke and a serving girl from a pub.

Spindle Cove is also very funny. I confess, I didn't see it as much in A Night to Surrender, but the second, A Week to Be Wicked, had me laughing out loud. And after that, I saw a lot to laugh about.

Also: hot and spicy!

While Spindle Cove is about a safe place, it doesn't hide that the world itself can be harsh. There is a reason, after all, why a refuge like Spinster Cove is needed. The backstory in A Lady by Midnight shows what happens to a young woman without resources or family, who has no options, but who still has to live and to provide for her child.

I have really enjoyed this series; so far there are four books and two novellas, with another novella this December and a new book next year. One nice thing about my recent romance reading is finding series like these, in which there are plenty of books in the series so I can power read one right after another.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: Infandous

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold. Carolrhoda LAB. 2015. Review from ARC.

The Plot: It's the summer before senior year, and Sephora Golding is 17. She lives in a one bedroom apartment with her mother, still model beautiful, and young -- only 35.

Seph is figuring out her way to adulthood. She's going to summer school because she failed geometry. She's considering her well off aunt's offer to move across the country for her final year of school. She's working on her art, and has a few pieces around Venice Beach. She's resisting her mother's suggestion that she get a part time job. And she's trying not to think about Felix, the older man she met earlier this year --

Felix. Who she is trying not to think about. Older, handsome, and it was her choice to spend the night with him....

The Good: A terrific book, with so much packed into it.

Sephora is telling us her story, but is also telling us fairy tales and myths, stories of lost girls and terrible things. She is telling us her own story, warning us that in real life fairy tales don't have happy-ever-after endings. She is telling us her own story  . . . . eventually.

Seph's story is of a girl born to a beautiful, single, teen mother who has made her own way in the world. Her own way is this rundown one bedroom apartment, going to night school. But here is one of the great things about Infandous: yes, it's the story of a girl with a beautiful mother. And a family that is living paycheck to paycheck. And it's also the story of a parent and child who love each other very much. There is no jealousy or hatred. And Seph doesn't complain, isn't bitter about where they live or how they make do.

But Seph is trying to figure out herself, her sexuality, her desire, and the person she has to measure herself against is a beautiful mother who still turns heads. And while she loves her aunt and her cousins, she sees what they have and thinks about how, when her mother was pregnant and unwed and disowned by her parents, her aunt picked her parents and didn't fight for her sister or her sister's child.

And meeting Felix -- meeting Felix was a chance for Seph to try out a different persona. So she said her name was Annie and that she was nineteen and a college student, adding years to her age. And she went to bed with him, willing and eager. "No one held a knife to my rib cage," she assures us. "I put myself in that room." And at the time, she thinks how different it is with Felix than with the other boys she'd been with, that there was warmth, that "I was a flower and I opened, I softened, and I ripened and warmed. I felt, I thought, like a woman rather than a girl, and as he found his way inside me, I wondered -- fleetingly -- if this was what sex was like for my mother." But now, with distance and knowledge, she is cold. And wonders about fault.

Seph is figuring out her life, and her friendships, and her own needs and feelings. Things happen, in life, like in fairy tales -- and you can decide what to do with that, with what happens to you. A person can be damaged, but a person can remain whole. And this perhaps is what I liked best about Infandous: that love cannot save one. And that bad things happen, or people do bad things, but one can still have that love that while it doesn't save, it keeps one whole.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Flashback January 2012

I enjoyed doing Flashbacks to what I reviewed in the past, but I got out of the habit, unfortunately.

So, now I'm playing a bit of catch-up. So, I'm concentrating on recaps of what I reviewed two or more years ago.

Here is January 2012!

January 2012

Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monninger. My review. "two teenage girls go on a road trip, and there is no text or subtext that this is something dangerous that girls shouldn’t do; that the girls need to do x, y, or z to ward off dangers, as if it’s the responsibility of the girls not to be victims. When I got to the end of Finding Somewhere and realized this — that Hattie and Delores are not victims, are never victims, are not victimized to make a point or to show their power, I was overjoyed. It may be silly to be happy about what a book is not, but there it is — this is about two girls who are strong and funny and beautiful. And they are that way from start to finish."

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell. My review: "After reading Strings Attached, you’re going to want to some of the great films from the late 40s and early 50s. Blundell recreates that New York world, so well you think you can open a door and step into it. It’s in the little details, of the clothes, the food, the hair. Kit manages to be of her time, but also “modern” enough to be identifiable to the modern reader. She has a dream, she’s chasing that dream, but she also loves a boy. As for the dream chasing, it’s not like she’s doing something unthinkable at the time; many young women went to New York with similar dreams of fame and success."

Across the Universe by Beth Revis. My review: "the ship Godspeed is a world of its own, both as a physical place and as an entirely new culture. While Amy, her parents, and others are sleeping through centuries of travel, others take care of the ship and prepare for the colonization. Amy awakens into this world, a world radically different from the world she (or the reader) knows. She is alone, awake fifty years before she should. It turns out, she cannot be refrozen: instead of waking up with her parents, she will wait, alone, and when they wake she will be older than her parents. Both her mother and father are needed for when the the ship arrives at the planet, so neither can be unfrozen now. Ironically, Amy did not have to go with her parents; she could have stayed back on Earth with family. Instead, she gave up her life as she knew it to stay with her family. Now, Amy doesn’t have them. She is alone; and only Elder offers friendship and understanding."

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. My review: "At the beginning of Lupita’s freshman year at high school, her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Mami has always been the one who held their large family together. Lupita, as the oldest, has always been responsible. Now even more falls on her shoulders. Like the mesquite, Lupita will survive and grow stronger."

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks by Kathleen Flinn. My review: "Cooking! Flinn, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, sees a woman in the foodstore stocking up on preprocessed and frozen meals and convinces her to try a few easy, simple substitutes. This leads her to wondering people don’t cook more and why they rely on prepackaged food; Flinn then puts together a group of people who don’t cook, for various reasons, and conducts a series of lessons starting with the right way to use a knife. Will they be transformed into fearless home cooks? Will the reader be?"

StarCrossed by Elizabeth C. Bunce. My review: "Digger/Celyn is fascinating; a girl who has taken care of herself by being a pickpocket and thief. A girl who hides many things: who she was before she became a thief. Who she is now. Digger has only two loyalties: to Tegen, her partner, who died in that ill fated robbery; and to herself. She is smart, she is talented, she takes care of herself. Meeting up with Meri and her family changes that. Meri, four years younger than Digger, is so trusting, so nice, so sweet. Meri’s family, too, accepts Digger. No; they accept Celyn, and her story of running away from a convent. That should have been a clue, that Meri’s family was willing to take in a runaway from the religious faction controlling the country. I have always had a soft spot for stories about thieves, especially those who turn out to have a heart of gold. Bonus points when the thief happens to be a girl."

The Name of the Star (The Shades of London) by Maureen Johnson. My review: "Rory Deveaux is spending her senior year at Wexford, a boarding school in London. Meeting new people, figuring out a new school system, being in London instead of a small town in Louisiana, should be amazing.  And it is — except for the murders. Murders that are mimicking the infamous 1888 Jack the Ripper murders. Rory and her fellow students try to get on with life and school; all that changes when Rory sees someone suspicious by the school, someone the police think may be their Prime Suspect. Someone only Rory saw. Is Rory at risk?"

Froi of the Exiles: The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta. My review: "The Lumatere Chronicles (Finnikin is the first book, Froi the second): a rich, fully detailed fantasy series where war and elite power games have left scars on both the land and the people. For fans of Megan Turner Whalen. Also, given the ages of the main characters (late teens), these fall into “crossover” territory: bookstores and libraries would serve their readers by putting this in both the YA and adult sections."

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review: Audacity

Audacity by Melanie Crowder. Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

AudacityThe Plot: 1903, Russia. Clara Lemlich is a young teenager, yearning for education, for the words and knowledge on the page, for what they can bring. She dreams of more. Perhaps she could go on to school or university, but those are dreams beyond the possible for a young Jewish girl.

Over the next six years, her life changes in ways she couldn't imagine. A violent pogrom pushes her family to take the long journey to America, and when she hears that education in free she dares to hope for herself. Those hopes are too big: she is from a religious family where the men are scholars and the women work, and so Clara finds herself working in the New York garment trade, in a sweatshop.

Clara's own experiences as a girl told what to do and what to think, combined with the abuses and injustices she sees at the sweatshop, combine to forge a woman who demands change for herself and others.

The Good: This novel in verse is stunning and spectacular, based on the life of the real Clara Lemlich.

I like historical fiction that shares a story I didn't know; and while I was vaguely familiar with the story of the unions in early twentieth century New York, this gave a new and fresh perspective. The story of a young woman who worked in the sweatshops and knew that she and her co-workers deserved better. She knew that being women, being teenagers and young women, being immigrants, speaking English poorly or not at all, were not reasons to treat those women poorly -- to force them to work seven days a week, ten hours a day, with no breaks for the toilet, in unsafe conditions, with clocks manipulated to over-work them, to subject them to sexual harassment and unwanted touching.

And that shows the second thing I like about historical fiction: yes, it shows us a specific time and place in the past but it also tells us something about the present. It's a reminder that the protections in place for employees are not something that happened because employers were generous and kind; it did not happen because individual employees successfully argued for and negotiated terms and benefits for themselves. It happened because of unions; and it happened because people stood together, even at great personal sacrifice.

The back matter in Audacity reminds people that the abuses lived by Clara and others are still being lived by workers. It may also help readers to look at today's news and reports on labor and the workplace and benefits and working conditions, and wonder, what do I want my workplace to be like? What can be done to make that happen?

One last thing: I really liked how Audacity worked as an story in verse. Telling a story in the past requires details and world-building, and I was particularly impressed that Audacity showed me life in a shtetl, in a New York City tenement, in a workhouse, all with just enough words.

Oh, two more things. First, after reading Audacity (which is the story leading up to the 1909 Uprising of the 20,00 strike), read Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (my review), which is the story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Second, this is a Favorite Book of 2015. And I really hope I see it on a lot of best lists.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: The Scorpion Rules

The Scorpion Rules (Prisoners of Peace) by Erin Bow. Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books. 2015. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Our world, about 400 years in the future. For various reasons (wars, water shortage, environmental changes) an AI (artificial intelligence) named Talis seized control of, well, everything, and first forced peace on the world by blasting a few cities.

Then Talis realized there was a better way. That destroying towns wouldn't create world peace. But hostages would. Child hostages, to be specific. It's simple: take a child of each leader. Hold onto them until they are 18. If the leader declares war, the child hostage's life is forfeit.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart is the Duchess of Halifax and the Crown Princess of Pan Polar Confederacy. She has been a hostage since the age of five. She is now sixteen; if she can make it until eighteen....

But her country has water. And others don't. And she knows that one day, sooner rather than later, war may be declared and her life may be forfeit.

The Good: Alright, let's cut to the chase: this is a Favorite Book of 2015. Hell, I'll go on record and say this is easily a top ten book. I'll go even further: I'll be damn disappointed if this isn't on awards lists and best lists at the end of the year.

And to say why this is so, why I am so passionate about this book, I'll be talking spoilers. So fair warning: stop now if that bothers you, read The Scorpion Rules, then come back.

The Scorpion Rules is a dystopia, or, at least, a dystopia for those children of rules and leaders who are sent away to be held hostage, knowing that if their parents pick country over blood they will die. They have been taught history to understand their role and their history, including ancient history to give a broader, perhaps colder, perspective on people and war and violence.

Greta, like her friends and fellow hostages, have been taught about their role; have been taught to accept it; have been taught to not fight back. To not resist. To not escape.

And then a boy comes to their school, a boy whose grandmother just gained power so he's been sent as hostage, a bit older than most, and less royal, so less prepared. Elian.


Yes, it's dystopian; but like I said, at least for this book, it shifts the burden of the dystopia to the upper class, to the privileged. And the Children of Peace, the hostages, realize both their burden and their privilege. And it's grounded in real history -- the exchanging and taking of hostages has historic basis. (Fans of the TV show Reign will remember King Henry saying he and his brothers where hostages in the Spanish Court. That was true.) I say at least for this book, because we haven't seen much of life beyond where Greta lives, so I can't be sure of how others live. There is a hint that Talis controls and meddles with the lives of others, but it's unclear just how much of an impact that has.

This dystopia also makes sense; it's coherent, enough is given to explain why and how this system was accepted and evolved. It's also thoughtfully and realistically diverse. The Children of Peace come from all over the world, from all types of countries. Some, like Greta, are their for hereditary reasons -- she is the crown princess, born into this world, born to be a hostage. Others, like the Children from what was the United States, are there because parents have been voted into/taken charge by other means. They have no titles; they may arrive at the school older, with their status sudden and unprepared for. That is Elian.

And it's also grounded in science fiction, not fantasy -- the AI that controls the world, Talis, and the link between humans and computers is a scientific element of the story, not a fantastical one, and it's not just the push for the story. Talis is present throughout, lurking in the background, moving to the forefront.

Also, the threats are real. The Scorpion Rules starts with a child hostage being taken away because his country declared war. There is a graveyard by the school. There is torture, there is manipulation, not nice things happen again and again.

Now, on to the love triangle. Which isn't. There is new boy Elian and there is some sort of connection or attraction between him and Greta, but more important than that, is that Elian shows Greta another way. That submission and acceptance is not the only path in life. That no matter what, there is choice.

And then there is Greta's best friend and roommate, Xie. Greta has not just accepted the way she has been raised, the future she's been told to expect. She has also buried most of her emotions and feelings, avoiding emotional risk. And yet when Elian helps provide the catalyst for her to open up, and change, and question, it also helps her unlock her frozen feelings for Xie.

See? It sounds like a triangle because there are two people -- but it isn't. It so, so isn't.

One last thing: Greta may have accepted her part in life and politics; she may have tried to avoid certain deep attachments; but she is also a royal. Born to be a hostage, born to live a role, but also born to take her place if she lives past 18. Born to be a leader, and at her school, she is a leader. She's not a follower. She's not passive, even if to someone like Elian, the Children of Peace hostages look passive and accepting.

So, go, read it, and like me, look forward to the next book. Because I have no idea what will happen next -- and that? That is a great feeling to have.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: How to Love

How to Love by Katie Cotugno. Balzer & Bray. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Three years ago, Sawyer LeGrande ran away, leaving behind family and friends. Leaving Serena Montero, his girlfriend.

His pregnant girlfriend.

Reena has put the pieces of her life back together, including making peace with her disapproving father. Instead of her dreams of college, she's raising a two year old, going to the local college, working. She has a new boyfriend, she has good friends.

And Sawyer comes back to town.

The Good: A romance with a lot of appeal.

The story flips back and forth between Sawyer and Reena's intense, high school love three years ago and the present reality of betrayal, hurt, and attraction. So the reader gets two stories, one of first love and one of second chances.

I liked Reena because, well, she was in a tough place and she did what she had to do. When she got pregnant, and decided to have and keep the baby, she reorganized and adjusted her dreams. Though I kept thinking, if she had had more support from the families, if there was less judging and more compassion -- but there wasn't. And she's at a good place when Sawyer returns.

Sawyer, who by leaving town managed to escape the consequences Reena had to face and had to live with, is back. As I said, this is also a second chances love story, with Sawyer and Reena working through their feelings and family complications, as well as learning about who each other is now, not who they were. Not who they remember them as.

With the ages of the main characters, and the two stories at two time periods, this has appeal for both teen readers and New Adult readers.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: The Bunker Diary

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Carolrhoda Books. 2015. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Linus, sixteen, wakes up, alone, in room. No good deed goes unpunished: he was helping a blind guy get some stuff in the back of a van, and, well, turns out the guy wasn't blind after all.

And now he's in this bizarre place, with six bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and an elevator. There is no way in or out except that lift. And there are cameras and microphones. And he's being watched.

And then someone comes down in the elevator: a nine year old girl. And he realizes that there will be more, to fill those bedrooms....

The Good: The Bunker Diary takes place in the secure bunker where Linus finds himself trapped. One of the few things that is there is a journal, and Linus writes in it, and that's what we're reading.

The diary of his days, trapped. His memories of how he got there, his life before.

I'll be honest; this is not usually the type of book I'd read because, well. Sometimes I think I know what I like. But then I listen to other people rave about a book, people I respect, and I say, OK, let me try it. And usually I'm glad I did. This time? So glad I did.

The Bunker Diary is stunning, unforgettable, unpredictable, depressing, sad. While gradually we learn more about Linus's story, at the start he's a runaway who has been living on the streets. So he's a bit street smart, and has guts, and isn't stupid, even if he has been very alone. He's resourceful.

But the person who kidnapped him, and the five others who end up joining him, is also resourceful. And a planner. Because this is always Linus's story, we never find out the motivation of the kidnapper, of the person who put this all together. We can only guess.

In some ways, this is a depressing book. Because these people are trapped, stuck with each other, and with no real hope of escape. Part of the book is just the monotony of these people, in a small space, trying to get back and survive one more day.

And in some ways, it is a book that is not without hope. Which is funny to say, because this is a hopeless book. But Linus, who is no saint, is also no sinner. And he is kind. When nine year old Jenny shows up, Linus looks after her, does his best to protect her.

But there's only so much he can do. About being in the bunker. About Jenny. About the others who join them, who bring their own dangers. About the man who has trapped him there. Who watches. So he writes down what is happening and what he remembers and what he thinks he remembers.

Despite how heart breaking this was (or maybe because of it?), this is a Favorite Book Read in 2015.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Five Best Things...

I went to KidLitCon in October 2015, and had a great time!

I wrote up something about it for School Library Journal: The Five Best Things About KidLitCon.

So if you want to know more about KidLitCon, check out my article.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Film Review: Crimson Peak

This week, my niece and I went to see the film Crimson Peak. (Rated R).

We were both looking for something scary; and we were both quite pleased with the film. She, because Crimson Peak delivered on it's promise of horror and gore; me, because it was a Gothic romance.

It's the early twentieth century, in Buffalo, New York, and Edith Cushing is more interested in her writing than in balls and society. Also, she sees ghosts -- or at least, saw one ghost, once -- the ghost of her dead mother.

These are not shadowy ghosts, wisps of smoke, faded photographs of dead people. These are rotting corpses, blood and muscle and sinew, in the colors of death: the black of rot, the red of blood. They are bony fingers and sharp fingernails, skeletons and skulls of horror.

So Edith is a bit of a modern girl, and in this she is loved and supported by her father and her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael. In the first frames one can almost see how Edith's life is supposed to play out: the doted on child of a rich father, then the friend becoming love interest, both supporting her writing but their love and comfort keeping her in her safe life, her safe town.

And then they come to down: Sir Thomas Sharpe and his sister, Lucille. When Edith hears of Sir Thomas visiting, she is dismissive, looking down on what she assumes is a spoiled aristocrat. But then she meets him and all I can say is : Tom Hiddleston, in full-on dazzling charm mode, with an accent. Dr. McMichael - Charlie Hunnam without beard, tattoos, or bike - is no competition, especially since Sir Thomas is new, and Alan is known, plus Alan's mother and sister are kind of bitchy. Thomas's sister Lucille may be a bit cold, but she's not as bad as Alan's women folk.

Part of what attracts Edith is she is the wallflower, even though it's by choice. She sits at home, reading and writing, rather than going to balls, and her father is happy with that because it protects her. He sees Thomas as a threat. Her father complains to Edith that Thomas is seeking money and investors, has gone to several countries in his quest for funding, yet his hands are soft. Thomas is soft. Edith sees that Thomas wears good but old clothes; she sees him as an impoverished aristocrat, yes, but one who is trying to turn things around. And he - it seems like he sees her as desirable. He wants her. He looks at her like no one else does -- well, except for poor Alan who just can't compete.

Let's cut to the chase. Edith and Thomas marry, and go back to the family's mansion in England, and soon she starts seeing ghosts. And I don't want to give too much away, but it's a ghost story, of course, so who are these ghosts? And what is going on in this mansion, with areas Edith is warned against entering? And it seems like Thomas and his sister have secrets, many secrets -- what are they?

Why I loved this movie: first of all, it's gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful. The clothes, the settings, whether it's a ballroom in Buffalo or the decrepit mansion, it's just stunning. And the mansion -- it's so dark and mysterious and also falling apart, literally holes in the ceiling and red clay seeping through the floors. The red clay! The house is built on red clay and it seeps into everything, seeps up through the ground so it looks like blood. There are barrels full of it, and it looks like barrels of blood. When the mansion first appears, my niece and I were all "OK, I would turn around and walk right out that door."

But Edith stays. She loves Thomas, and sees the romance of it, and has hope. Hope she holds on to, tight, until the ghosts show up. Also -- to be clear -- she is only slowly discovering she is in danger. Things are shared with the viewer that she doesn't see, and I liked seeing how and when Edith would realize.

Edith! Here is the thing: Yes, she was sheltered. Yes, she was blinded by love (or, possibly, lust. I mean, Thomas is dashing and has an accent.). But she's not stupid. She sees things, she puts things together. She is not passive. (It's actually another thing that the niece and I really liked.)

And there is another thing, that the niece liked. Let's just say she appreciates gore in horror movies, and while Crimson Peak is a more a Gothic romance than horror, the deaths (like the ghosts) are gory. Someone is bludgeoned to death, and it's brutal, and bloody, with torn skin and shattered bone. But here's the thing: it was real. And for all the ghosts and dread, there weren't that many murders shown on screen, so there was enough that it made sense and it shocked like it should, it wasn't too many.

Overall? A thumbs up!!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Review: Of Monsters and Madness

Of Monsters & Madness by Jessica Verday. Egmont USA. 2014.

The Plot: It's 1824 and Annabel Lee, 17, has moved to her father's death following her mother's death. The world of Philadelphia, and her role of daughter of a doctor, is very different from a childhood spent in Siam. She lacks the freedom she had there.

There are secrets in her father's house -- including her father's two assistants, handsome Allan and cruel Edgar. Including her father's scientific experiments.

And there are the gruesome murders....

The Good: I'll be honest: I read Of Monsters and Madness about a year ago, when it first came out, enjoyed it, but just didn't get around to writing anything up.

Then I saw the movie Crimson Peak (review tomorrow) and began to wonder about possible read-a-likes for teens who may go see the movie and want a taste of Gothic horror and romance. And I remembered Of Monsters and Madness.

The setting, early nineteenth century Philadelphia, is wonderfully shown; Annabel is a strong young woman who has been raised away from her father and his family. She wants to connect with them and please them, but her desire for independence and to pursue studying is at odds with their perceptions of what a proper young lady is. Plus, Edgar Allen Poe as a hot young man!

And plus there are references / homages to works by Poe as well as other writers. So this can lead to wanting to read more Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde.

Of Monsters and Madness was published by Egmont USA, which, sadly, no longer exists. So when I went to the author's website to write this post, I was very pleased to learn a few things: first, that it's available on Kindle; second, that for a limited time it is $1.99; and third, that Verday has included the sequel, Of Phantoms and Fury, in the Kindle edition so you are getting two books for one.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. Gallery/Scout Press. 2015. Library copy.

In-a-dark-dark-wood-9781501112317_hrThe Plot: Nora cannot believe it when she gets an invitation to Clare's hen do (aka, bachelorette party.) Yes, they had been best friends ten years ago, in school. But that was before, before college, before, well, everything. They haven't even talked since then.

And now, this invitation.

Nora decides to go. She's just too curious, both to see Clare again but also to discover why Clare invited her. And while Nora is happy with her life, part of her thinks she needs to make peace with her own past.

So she goes.

And things go terribly wrong.

The Good: In a Dark, Dark Wood is an updated, modern version of a cozy mystery that isn't that cozy. It's bloody and violent and nasty. Clare's "hen do" (her pre-wedding weekend party) brings together a handful of her best friends in a remote area of the country. They're in a gorgeous, glass-walled modern house in the middle of nowhere, with just each other for company. Perhaps it's the remoteness, but the party is made up of just about six people. It's small and intimate, which makes Nora being there even more weird.

This is the type of book where you want to discover what's going on on your own; that's part of the appeal. So what can I tell?

The atmosphere is wonderful: partly claustrophobic, because they are all in the vacation house together. But even before then, Nora's life is small. She's a novelist, working at home, so there's no workplace and coworkers. She has few friends. Even her flat is small; she can reach the coffee maker without getting out of bed.

It's also an atmosphere of not knowing. It's Nora's story, and she won't share with the reader why she left school and walked away from her best friend. Not yet, anyway. But it's not just what she won't tell, it's what she can't remember. The story starts with Nora running through the woods and then in the hospital and she knows something bad happened during the hen do but she doesn't remember what. Or to who. And even as she starts to tell about the hen do, these are people she has no history with, save one friend, and of course Clare.

This is creepy and scary. And it's also about manipulation and lies. And the masks we wear.

And about a hen do gone terribly, horribly wrong.

So OF COURSE it's a Favorite Book Read in 2015. 

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, November 02, 2015

Review: Harlot

Harlot by Victoria Dahl. 2015. Reviewed from electronic ARC.

HarlotThe Plot: Caleb Hightower went to the California gold fields to earn his fortune; two years later, he's back, to marry the sweet girl he left behind.

And discovers that Jessica Willoughby, the beautiful innocent he left behind is now a notorious prostitute.

A whore.

The girl he barely dared kiss -- the girl who he wasn't good enough for, so he went to earn the right to court her --  is selling her body to others.

Caleb is hurt and furious and angry. And he'll get his revenge. He'll pay for what she's sold to other men. He'll make her sorry.

The Good: So it's Victoria Dahl, so of course it's hot, hot, hot. And hell the title is Harlot; Jessica has sold her body to pay her debts; so you know this, up front. You know what type of hot you're getting.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Harlot; but wowza, it was both what I expected and also not what I expected. And, also, it's a quick read, less than two hundred pages.

So if you're a fan of Dahl's writing, like I am, all you need to know is yes, it delivers.

And if you haven't read her work, this is a good introduction because it's a standalone, and as I said, it's short, so you can fall for Dahl in a couple of hours.

So now that that is out of the way, the observations that I'll add, the particular details that I adored.

Caleb has been gone for two years, but he hasn't really written to Jessica in that time because he's dyslexic. Oh, given the nineteenth century setting, he doesn't have a name for why it's so tough for him to read or write, but that is the issue. And let's just say that the people he is relying on to keep up his connection and correspondence with Jessica are less than trustworthy, for reasons. I think it's a great way to explain the lack of communication between the two, that led to Caleb riding into town not knowing about Jessica, and Jessica thinking Caleb had abandoned her.

Jessica did what people say. But, of course, there are reasons; there is a story. So part of what is explained is why Jessica did what she did. Which, long story short, if you create a society where you don't expect a woman to earn a living, if you have a world where a woman's options to earn a living are extremely narrow and limited, if society says that a woman without a man (no father or husband or brother) is vulnerable and a target -- well, when a woman has nothing and no one and few resources, she sells the one resource she has. Her body.

But Dahl takes this a step further, which is why she's Dahl, and fantastic. Because what Dahl does next is use this story of Caleb and Jessica to examine views toward sex and sexuality, lust and love, and the virgin/whore complex. Caleb isn't excused for his attitudes; Jessica has her own learning curve. And perhaps because her virtue is gone, Jessica -- who had been raised to think good girls don't like sex because of the time and her class --  is now open to the idea that sex can be pleasurable.

Anyway. Trust me. Read Harlot.

And then, if you're like me, get angry that now there is no new Dahl to read. And look at your bookshelf, at those handful of Dahl books that you deliberately aren't reading so that you still always have an unread Dahl book for when you really, really need it. It's like that piece of chocolate you don't eat, because one day, you'll have to have it.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
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