YA Review: Blanca & Roja

Title: Blanca & Roja
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore 
Edition:
Audiobook
Rating:
3/5

A modern-day retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, this book focuses on the relationship between sisters Blanca and Roja Del Cisne, and their attempts to break their family’s curse. Every generation of the family is destined to have two daughters, and one of them will always be taken as a teenager and turned into a swan. Other sisters have tried and failed to break the curse, but Blanca and Roja have devoted their lives to protecting each other.

The relationship between the sisters is the centre of the story. Blanca has blonde hair and paler skin, while Roja’s black/red hair and darker skin more closely represent their Latina heritage. They are equally different in temperament – Blanca is the older sister, obedient and helpful, while Roja is rebellious, with a fiery temper. Blanca follows her mother, learning to cook and keep the house, while Roja follows her father, reading books from his library and staying out of the kitchen. Blanca makes friends at school, and is accepted by the popular students, while Roja is an outcast.

The sisters have a plan. They decide to become so similar that the swans, when they come, will not be able to tell them apart. They reason that, if the swans cannot choose between them, maybe they can break the curse. Roja eats sweet berries, and ties a blonde ribbon in her hair, while Blanca eats bitter herbs and wears a red ribbon. Neither sister knows whether their plan will work, but they are determined to protect each other.

When a prophecy suggests that Blanca could protect herself if she wins the heart of a blue-eyed boy, the relationship between the sisters begins to fall apart. Blanca decides to use the information to protect Roja, but when she starts making decisions without consulting her sister, Roja assumes that Blanca has given up on her, and chosen to save herself. The sisters begin to work alone, trying to protect each other but without understanding each other’s motives.

I loved the relationship between Blanca and Roja, and the way they spent their lives trying to confuse the swans. I loved the way they cared for each other, and knew each other completely. When they stopped communicating, and stopped sharing their lives, I was shouting at the book.

The story is complicated by the arrival of a blue-eyed boy, and a non-binary character who is comfortable using both male and female pronouns. Both characters are trying to escape from the their families, and both find themselves drawn to the sisters as they wait for the swans. The romantic aspect of the story adds depth to the characters, but the focus is always on Blanca and Roja.

It’s an engaging story, told from four points of view in alternating chapters. Blanca, Roja, Barclay the blue-eyed boy, and non-binary Page provide different pespectives on the unfolding story as they each try to escape from the influence of their families. The sisters want to free themselves from the curse, while Barclay needs to hide from his violent cousin, and Page seeks to define his/herself away from the expectations of his/her parents. Their distinct personalities develop throughout the book, but the threat of the swans hangs over everything, and the focus is always on Blanca, Roja, and their fear of losing each other.

I enjoyed reading a book that put the relationship between sisters at the centre of the narrative. My frustration when their relationship started to fracture is a measure of my investment in their story, and while I enjoyed the interactions between the girls and their love interests, it was the sisters who kept me listening. It’s an interesting retelling, successfully combining the magical realism of the curse with the realities of modern life (a conversation about ice-cream flavours provided wonderful insights into two of the characters) while retaining the threat and the fear of the swans. Barclay’s abuse at the hands of his cousin, and Page’s search for an authentic identity, act as interesting parallels with the magical plot, anchoring the story with their real-life concerns.

I listened to the audiobook edition of Blanca and Roja. Initially, the use of four different narrators felt unnecessary, but as the plot progressed, and the characters became more developed, their individual voices added depth to the experience of listening to the story. There’s a haunting quality to the narration that keeps the magical side of the book in focus, even during real-world events. It’s a very effective technique, which succeeds in bringing a complex story to life.

Have you read Blanca & Roja? What did you think of the story? Did you enjoy the focus on the sisters and their relationship? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Shadow and Bone

Title: Shadow and Bone
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

We chose this novel to read at YA Book Club because the Netflix adaptation is coming to our screens in April, and we wanted to read the book before watching the series. This is the first of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, and having read Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom last year, I was eager to go back and see how the story began.

The Six of Crows duology felt more grown-up than Shadow and Bone. Where Six of Crows features members of a criminal gang, the main characters in Shadow and Bone are younger and much more innocent. Alina, the narrator, and Mal, her best friend, are orphans. They grew up together under the care of a duke and his family, and both joined the army as young adults – Alina as a map maker, and Mal as a tracker. In the first chapter, we discover that there are two levels of military service. The First Army employs ordinary people like Alina and Mal, and the Second Army is made up of the Grisha – people with magical powers who can manipulate matter, summon the elements, and heal or harm the people around them. While Alina and Mal live as ordinary soldiers, the Grisha live like royalty, even while marching with the First Army.

A deadly encounter with dark magic brings Alina and Mal to the attention of the Darkling, a powerful Grisha and commander of the Second Army. As Alina learns more about herself, and about Grisha powers, she must decide where her loyalties lie. With Mal, the Darkling, and the Grisha she meets all competing for her attention and affection, she has to learn quickly how to navigate her new life without losing herself.

There’s plenty of excitement, danger, and political intrigue in the story, which provides a colourful introduction to the Grishaverse. The system of magic is consistent and interesting, with practitioners perfecting their skills in a single discipline, and working together to accomplish larger tasks. There’s a price for pushing the limits of Grisha powers, and for using power for personal gain. The settings for the story are well drawn and believeable – the cities feel busy and real, and as the characters travel the roads and mountains of Ravka the reader can feel the ground under their feet and appreciate the scenery around them.

Alina is an interesting narrator. She thinks of herself as plain and ordinary – she’s not even a particularly good map-maker. She was tested for Grisha power as a child and rejected, so she knows she is not worthy to be part of the Second Army. Her insecurity follows her through the story, and she constantly rejects any suggestion that she might be valuable or special – a belief that brings her into conflict with the people around her. It’s frustrating at times, but her ever-present imposter syndrome also makes her easy to relate to. Her relationship with Mal develops through the book as they discover more about their feelings for each other, but their history and the events of the story throw up constant obstacles to their happiness. Both characters feel real and complex, and it is easy to care about what happens to them.

This is an exciting introduction to the Grishaverse, and an interesting setup for the rest of the series. I’m glad I have the second book on my shelf!

Have you read Shadow and Bone? What did you think of the story? Who was your favourite character? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: This Winter

Title: This Winter
Author: Alice Oseman
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

This is a sweet, emotional novella in the Heartstopper series, following Charlie through a difficult Christmas Day. Big sister Tori, little brother Oliver, and Charlie himself narrate sections of the story, as Charlie faces his first family gathering after spending several weeks on a psychiatric ward being treated for an eating disorder. It’s a short slice-of-life narrative that gives meaningful insights into the lives of the narrators, their relationships with each other and the rest of their family, and Charlie’s relationship with boyfriend Nick. There are illustrations at key points in the story, bringing the author’s instantly recognisable artwork into the novella and reinforcing the emotional beats of the narrative.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming at once, this is a short, punchy read that showcases love – between the siblings, within families, and between Charlie and Nick. A lovely addition to the series.

Have you read This Winter? What did you think of the story? Who was your favourite narrator? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: The Girls I’ve Been

Title: The Girls I’ve Been
Author: Tess Sharpe
Edition: Paperback ARC
Rating: 5/5

Probably my favourite read of the last twelve months, this book has everything. A fast-paced, thrilling plot; interesting, engaging characters; a clever and intriguing back story for the protagonist; and some genuine, how-are-they-going-to-get-out-of-this peril.

The setup is simple. Nora is seventeen. She’s spent most of her life helping her con-artist mother to target rich criminal men in a succession of scams, but now she’s trying to live a normal life with her sister. By page two of the book she finds herself held hostage in a bank heist, along with her best friend (and ex-boyfriend) Wes, and her new girlfriend Iris. She’s used to running cons with her mother in charge, and there’s always a plan and an escape route – but there’s no plan for escaping from the bank, and nothing in place to protect the people she cares about.

The bank heist turns into a battle of wits between the men with guns, and Nora and her friends. There’s a running tally at the start of each chapter of the plans that have worked or failed, and a list of the items they’ve collected that might help them, building the tension as the story progresses. Running alongside the chapters set in the bank are flashback chapters detailing the scams Nora has taken part in, and the girls she’s had to become to con the targets.

Nora’s experiences as the smiling Rebecca, demure Samantha, religious Hayley, smart Katie, and athletic Ashley have taught her how to read other people, how to understand what they want, and how to manipulate them. They have also taught her to be brave, daring, and protective of her friends. If she can figure out what the bank raiders are looking for, maybe she can save herself and the other hostages.

There isn’t a wrong step or a weak chapter in this book. The danger keeps coming – both in the bank chapters and the flashbacks – and Nora needs all her experiences and determination to stay calm, and look for a way out. Without the flashback chapters, the bank heist would be an exciting story. Without the bank heist, Nora’s backstory would be harrowing and traumatic. Bringing the two plotlines together is a genius move, keeping the reader’s attention on Nora while the hostage situation plays out around her. Both plots are utterly gripping, and together they build Nora’s complex character, explaining who she is and how she got there.

I loved every minute of this book, and I couldn’t put it down. I’m going to be recommending it everywhere!

The Girls I’ve Been will be published on January 26th. Thank you to Hachette for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read The Girls I’ve Been? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself sympathising with Nora? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: When The World Was Ours

Title: When The World Was Ours
Author: Liz Kessler
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

I’m not sure how to review this book, which follows three friends during the Second World War. Leo, Max, and Elsa live in Vienna, and when the book opens in 1936 they have no idea how the next few years will change their lives and their relationships. Leo and Elsa come from Jewish families, while Max’s father is a high-ranking Nazi officer. The book guides the reader through the slow process of dehumanisation of the Jewish characters, alongside an ordinary boy’s journey into fascism. There’s nothing new here if you’ve seen ‘Schindler’s List’ and read around the subject, and I was disappointed that I didn’t feel more connected to these characters as they grew up, and grew apart.

The protagonists are nine years old at the beginning of the novel, and Leo and Elsa’s first-person narration understandably feels more like a mid-grade story than a YA novel. I hoped that their voices would change and develop as the story moved through the next nine years, but the language remained at the mid-grade level even while describing the horrors of the Holocaust. It is an odd juxtaposition, reading graphic scenes about concentration camps and the Hitler Youth, spelled out with such simple words. It might help some readers to identify with the characters, and keep them connected to the three happy children from the first chapter, but I found it alienating and lacking in emotional impact. Leo’s story is based on a real-life event, which I found genuinely moving when the author explained this at the start of the book. However, when this was translated into a fictional setting, I couldn’t connect with the characters at all.

It is possible that this approach will work well for a YA audience coming to the subject for the first time. The characters feel young throughout the story, even when terrible things are happening, which gives them an innocence and a connection to younger readers that I may have missed. The book doesn’t shy away from showing the inhumanity of the Nazi regime – there is a content warning at the start – and maybe this is the right way to tell these stories. Knowing the subject of the book, I wanted to be moved. I wanted to feel something for the characters, and understand how it felt to have their lives transformed over such a short time. I was disappointed, but I can see that for a younger audience this could be a very powerful read.

When The World Was Ours will be published on January 21st. Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read When The World Was Ours? What did you think of the story? Did you find yourself connecting with the characters? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Lore

Title: Lore
Author: Alexandra Bracken
Edition: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

The gods of ancient Greece walking the streets of Manhattan, a seven-day Hunger-Games style fight to the death, and the descendants of Greek heroes warring against each other to harness the powers of the gods – this book has all the ingredients of a gripping urban fantasy, and I couldn’t put it down.

Lore is the last survivor of the House of Perseus. She’s opted out of the fighting between rival families, and she’s trying to live a normal life in present-day New York City. But Zeus is punishing the gods, sending them into the mortal world once every seven years to kill or be killed, and Lore is about to find herself dragged back into the fighting.

For one week every seven years, the gods can be killed, and their killer takes on their powers. All the families want a god on their side, so everyone is hunting, and everyone is hunted. The author doesn’t pull her punches – this is a violent book with plenty of blood and gore. The stakes are high, for the gods and the hunters, and Lore’s involvement puts her in serious danger.

She’s a great protagonist. Strong, intelligent, and fiercely protective of the family she’s built for herself. When we first meet her, she’s fighting in an illegal underground boxing match, finding the weakness in her male opponent, pushing her advantage, and playing to the crowd who are betting on the result. Her strength is physical as well as emotional, which gives her the advantage she needs. As a teenage girl surviving alone, the other houses have discounted her from the fight, and she’s going to need all her strength to prove them wrong.

She has the support of her best friend Miles, who knows nothing about her background. Add in her childhood training with the House of Achilles, a mysterious benefactor, an injured god, and the return of someone she thought was dead, and Lore’s plans to survive the week take a dangerous turn. The story unfolds alongside flashback chapters, filling in important details as necessary.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the plot isn’t always clear. Lore and her group of supporters make plans to trap gods and trick their rivals, but the story feels repetitive as plan after plan is thrown off-course by the warring factions. It’s not always clear what they are trying to achieve, and why they make their decisions. The complexity of the setup can be off-putting at times. Trying to remember which characters are allied with which families and which gods is not always easy, and while there is a list of people and their affiliations, it’s at the end of the book, so I didn’t notice until I had finished reading!

It’s an exciting, constantly moving story. I’m a fan of urban fantasy, and this ticks all the boxes: supernatural fights in recognisable New York locations, high stakes, a reluctant hero, and real danger for the characters and the residents of the city. It’s an inventive idea and an engaging story. Definitely worth a read.

Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read Lore? What did you think of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Black Ice

Title: Black Ice
Author: Julia Blake
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 5/5

Buckle up – this one’s a wild ride! Think you know the story of Snow White? Think again. This adventurous fairytale retelling begins with the attempted murder of Princess Snow, heir to the throne of House White, and builds the drama from there. Instead of seven dwarves, the protagonist’s companions are the last seven survivors of the Dwarvian people, living in secret in the Great Forest. There’s a steampunk theme to the story, but technology, and the magic that powers it, is forbidden in the Kingdom of House White – a rule enforced by the powerful Contratulum. Princess Snow is the only person standing between the Contratulum and absolute power, and she’s going to need all the help she can get to claim the throne.

The Dwarvians are engineers with magic in their blood. They are masters of forbidden technology – and they know how to build airships. Snow might stand a chance after all …

This is a fairytale with a difference: kick-ass female leads, dark family secrets, evil plots, a dose of magic, a sprinkling of romance, fabulous parties – and epic airship battles. Hold on to your corsets and goggles, and prepare to fight for House White!

Black Ice is published as adult fantasy, but it is suitable for a YA audience.

Have you read Black Ice? What did you think of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Darkness, Be My Friend

Title: Darkness, Be My Friend
Author: John Marsden
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 5/5

Book Four in the Tomorrow series continues the story of seventeen-year-old Ellie and her friends as they strike back against a foreign invasion of Australia. This time they have help from the New Zealand army, but they quickly learn that their new friends can’t guarantee their success, or their safety.

I adore the Tomorrow series. I love Ellie’s narration. I love the characters, and the setting. I love the relationships between the school-friends-turned-fighters, and the way they develop through each book. I love the bravery of the teenagers, and their creativity in standing up to the people who have invaded their country, their town, and their homes.

Hiding out in the bush and launching guerrilla attacks is the only way for Ellie and her team to resist the invasion, but sneaking into their heavily guarded town, even under the cover of darkness, is far from safe. Darkness, Be My Friend brings the group into increasingly dangerous situations, with revelations about the state of the town, the strategic importance of the airfield, and the fates of their families. Expect heart-stopping scenes, real danger, and adrenaline-pumping excitement as the teenager’s daring plans meet the reality of strangers in their homes, and enemy soldiers on the streets.

There are obvious parallels between these books and my own Battle Ground Series, but I only started reading the Tomorrow series after my books had been written. I love reading John Marsden’s take on teenagers as reluctant fighters, and the characters’ practical approach to making a difference against the invading forces. There are three more books in the series, and I’m trying to decide whether I want to binge-read them all now, or save them so that I don’t have to say goodbye to Ellie too soon!

Have you read the Tomorrow series? What did you think of Darkness Be My Friend? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: Deeplight

Title: Deeplight
Author: Francis Hardinge
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

Fourteen-year-old orphans Hark and Jelt scrape a living on the streets of Lady’s Crave, one of the islands of The Myriad. Life on the islands used to be dominated by the gods – giant sea monsters who swallowed ships and fought each other in the surrounding waters. But the gods are dead, and their bodies yield powers beyond the imaginations of the islanders. Hunting for godware is a dangerous profession, and when Jelt convinces Hark to help him dive to search for fragments they can sell, their lives are changed forever by their discoveries.

‘Deeplight’ is a gripping adventure story, set in a world that feels real and dangerous. Hark is a believable protagonist, and it is easy to sympathise with his dilemmas. He wants to build a better life for himself, but he can’t resist being drawn again and again into his best friend’s risky schemes. Hark and Jelt have been each other’s families for so long that Hark finds it impossible to walk away, and both boys pay the price for his decisions. Add in an engaging cast of supporting characters – ageing priests, ruthless gangs, strong women, and a genius scientist with questionable morals – and you have the ingredients for a nail-biting story. Part fantasy, part dark folklore, and part atmospheric horror, the book delivers chilling revelations, surprising plot twists, and touching moments of friendship, along with a spine-tingling sense of wonder.

A highlight of the book is the treatment of its deaf characters. Loss of hearing is a common injury among the Myriad’s under-sea scavengers, and deaf islanders are honoured for their bravery. Many of the characters in the book speak using sign language, and their status means that hearing characters learn the signs in order to communicate with them. Sign language is presented as a standard method of communication, and while characters from different islands are described as having regional accents, the signs also have regional variations. The author consulted members of the National Deaf Children’s Society, and the result is a diverse, inclusive narrative where no one feels like a token character, the use of sign language is seen as a strength and an honour, and everyone is important to the story.

Have you read Deeplight? What was your favourite part of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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YA Review: The Night Country

Title: The Night Country
Author: Melissa Albert
Edition: Paperback
Rating: 4/5

I read The Hazel Wood in 2018, so I’ve been waiting a while to read the sequel. The Hazel Wood is a fascinating urban fantasy, where several of the characters are stories in the fairytale world of the Hinterland, created by the controller of the world, and living out their tales over and over. Alice and Ellery cross into the Hinterland, with the help of a book of fairytales collected by Alice’s grandmother, and their presence disrupts the world, and the stories living there.

The Night Country drops the stories from the Hinterland, with their magical powers and repeated trauma, into present-day New York. Alice finds herself drawn to the other stories as they try to survive in a place without the narrative structure they were created to serve. They find ways to stay hidden, and protect each other – until someone starts murdering stories, and Alice is the most likely suspect. There’s a pattern to the murders, and if Alice can piece together the evidence she might be able to save herself – and everyone else.

I enjoyed The Hazel Wood, but I found it hard to connect with Alice as a character. I found The Night Country much more engaging. The story is much darker, the stakes are higher, and as the plot develops there is real peril and edge-of-the-seat action. In contrast with her dream-like path through The Hazel Wood, Alice has a clear plot to follow in this book, and plenty of opportunities to make the wrong decisions – with disastrous consequences.

This is a very effective sequel to a highly unusual book, and I’m very glad I picked it up.

Have you read The Night Country? What did you think of the story? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.


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