Sunday, August 16, 2015

April 2015 Book Review: Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty

Rosamund Hodge

~Book Review~

ONE OF MY FAVORITE DISNEY MOVIES from childhood was Beauty and the Beast. Besides the slow and lovely development of Belle and the Beast’s romance, the house was a character in its own right, full of mysterious rooms, singing silverware, and an enchanted rose.

Cruel Beauty is Beauty and the Beast retold with Greek mythology, and it is also reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle and Meredith Ann Pierce’s Darkangel. Both smart choices. Although Nyx and Ignifex are not quite as iconic as Sophie and Howl, and the novel’s atmosphere does not achieve the brooding, haunted feel of Darkangel, it is still magically delightful and a breath of fresh air in YA fantasy these days. For one thing, Cruel Beauty doesn’t forget that it has a plot. The romance is very central to the mystery of how Nyx’s world, Arcadia, came to be cursed, and the urgency for Nyx to unravel the secrets behind the demon lord Ignifex is always present.  

Long ago, Nyx’s father made a deal to sell her to the demon lord Ignifex as the latest in his succession of wives. Nyx grows up bitter toward her family, who have raised her to be an assassin who is expected to end the life of the man Arcadia holds responsible for imprisoning their world within a purgatory of sorts.

However, Ignifex is not the demon lord Nyx expects, and his mysterious house may just hold the secrets to saving the world. I loved all the little chambers Nyx would stumble upon, where she would experience both wonder and horrors— “Demons are made of shadow. Don’t look at the shadows too long or a demon might look back” (p. 1). The romance between Nyx and Ignifex was very well-done, full of witty banter and deepening affection. I also appreciated that this is a YA fantasy book that attempts to go deeper and ask some philosophical questions; there is also the inclusion of Greek mythology, which is always welcome and gives this tale a timeless quality. While the civilization didn’t feel too reminiscent of Ancient Greece to me besides incorporating the myths and prayer rituals, common themes in Greek mythology like pride and self-righteousness were well-tied in.

I am pleased as punch that there is a second book in this series as well! Cruel Beauty is well-worth investing your time in, because it takes risks and develops its plot. Bring on Crimson Bound!

Recommend for fans of: Dianna Wynne Jones, Meredith Ann Pierce, Leigh Bardugo
Upcoming Book Review: An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

March 2015 Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic


V. E. Schwab

~Book Review~

Warning! This review contains major spoilers! Read at your own risk!

THIS FANTASY NOVEL began full of whimsical phrases and magical delights! I was instantly captivated by the wondrous world V. E. Schwab created in A Darker Shade of Magic, its clever banter and vivid world-building reminding me Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and perhaps most applicable, Roger Zelazney’s The Great Book of Amber. Long ago, people used to be able to travel between worlds using magic. Not in present day. Now the worlds have been sealed off, and only the magicians known as Antari can travel between them.

Kell is one of these Antari, identifiable because one of his eyes is entirely black. He inhabits a world known as Red London, where magic still thrives and everything smells of flowers. Kell is both royal messenger to the rulers of the two other Londons and a smuggler, selling artifacts to the highest bidder. There is Grey London, which is the equivalent of our world, “magic-less.” There is White London, which smells like blood because its cruel and pitiless rulers, the Dane twins, control all magic and brainwash their soldiers into serving them. Finally, there is Black London, a warning to the other worlds, because its inhabitants grew too greedy for magic and it consumed them all.

While the fantastical concept behind Schwab’s storytelling was superb, unfortunately I felt that the main characters failed to become more than stereotypical archetypes. Kell throws jabs at the royals, reminiscent of time traveler Corwin from The Great Book of Amber, but he doesn’t quite have Corwin’s instantaneous and endearing charm. I liked Kell, but he wasn’t a memorable stand-out. Kell as a smuggler seemed a shadow of Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard Series; while both play the stereotypical smuggler with a heart-of-gold character, Locke Lamora’s morals conflicted the reader as much as his charm enchanted, and he became progressively more complex throughout the series. Sadly, I did not feel this investment in Kell; he failed to stand on his own alongside these two  similar literary characters.

The same is true of the other lead, “Lila.” She was introduced much too late in my opinion, and plays the typical thief who forces Kell to accept her as a sidekick, and then also falls for him entirely too fast. The biggest disappointment for me was at the end of the novel, when Lila fails to kill Astrid and Kell steps up to kill both Dane twins. Although entirely believable, because Lila has never faced sorcerers of such power before, I do hope she develops her own powers and takes down a main baddie without Kell’s help. Prince Rhys was nice and jovial, but also didn’t stand out to me as a unique and complex character I would continue to read the series for.

There were also some random third-person viewpoints which seemed very unnecessary like Parrish, when more time could have been spent developing Kell. However, the villains were very strong. The Dane Twins Astrid and Athos were delightfully evil, like something out of Alice and Wonderland, and I also enjoyed reading about Holland as well. However, overall this book felt original, and the idea of four different Londons is wonderfully enchanting to explore. I just wish the main characters felt as original as well.

Recommended for fans of: J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

Upcoming Book Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hawaiian Islands Travel Series: Eastern Maui: the Hana Highway

Day 4: The Hana Highway

IT'S AN INFAMOUS 64.4 miles of winding, twisty road with one-lane bridge crossings. Drive fast at your peril: huge tour buses can swoop around the bend with no warning, and there are hairpin turns galore. The Hana Highway stretches from Kahalui to the small town of Hana on the far eastern rim of Maui, and then circles about the southeast end of Haleakalā National Park, where one large gravel section still remains. Once you exit Paia and head east toward Hana, it’s time to wake up and stay alert. You will want to have your eyes prepped for any oncoming vehicles, as well as enjoy the stunning jungle and the large number of waterfalls you’re apt to see.

 The Hana Highway is almost completely paved. However, when we visited, the foliage was intent on taking back the road. Many ferns and trees overhung in the way ahead, making it difficult to spot oncoming vehicles. The locals who live out this way will whip around the road so fast that it’ll make your head spin. Pull over to let them pass. Also, be mindful of bicyclists. We followed a cyclist for nearly a mile, unable to pass because the road was too narrow to pass safely, and we couldn’t see far enough ahead to see if anyone was coming. We had to wait for the cyclist to signal that it was okay for us to pass him.


The bamboo forests that surround you are utterly magical. I’d never seen so much bamboo in my life. Also, if you’re in the passenger seat, then prepare to be dazzled by the sheer number of waterfalls at every bridge and along pull-outs. It may be possible to get tired of waterfalls, you’ll see so many (unless it’s been dry lately). There are rest spots along the way where you can buy fresh fruit and pastries from local stands, as well as use the restroom. It usually takes around 2.5 hours to navigate the entire highway to Hana. 

We, in our wisdom, decided to spend the second half of our trip in Wai'anapanapa State Park,  a wondrous black sand beach and volcanic field a mere ten minutes from Hana. That meant that we got to drive the Hana Highway. A lot. While we gradually acclimated to craning our heads around turns to see who was coming, and endured the stops at the bridges to let oncoming traffic pass, it was very tiring. The scariest part was driving the Hana Highway at night. There weren’t many cars, but there was a man walking down the middle of the street who could have been easily hit, and around one blind turn, we slammed on the breaks to keep from hitting a dog. Because of the poor visibility along the Hana Highway, if at all possible, avoid driving it at night. During the day, drive slowly and courteously, but don’t be too hesitant. Let others know you’re present and embrace the beauty of the legendary Hana Highway.

Upcoming Day 5: Wai'anapanapa State Park

Read more in the Hawaiian Travel Series:
(0) Intro: Welcome to Maui
(1) Day 1: Northwest Maui: Lahaina

Disclaimer: The above is presented as fiction, not fact.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

February 2015 Book Review: Silvern

I am so far behind in book reviews...yikes! Here to make up for it: 


By Christina Farley

~Book Review~

~Warning! Contains spoilers!~

SILVERN is the second book in new author Christina Farley’s Gilded series about young teenager Jae Hwa, who moves to South Korea to live with her father and gets embroiled in a battle between the Korean gods of light and darkness. I saw that this book has been recommended for Common Core educators on, and I agree: it is a safe, culturally interesting tale that will hopefully spark middle schoolers’ curiosity about South Korea. Jae Hwa is quite a memorable heroine and the plot is engaging. Unfortunately, the supporting cast doesn’t shine as brightly as Jae Hwa does, and the mythological explanation for Korea’s split into North and South Korea is questionable.

Jae Hwa’s world has turned upside down since she defeated Haemosu, the devious sun god who tried to make her his bride. Her aunt is gone, and now Haemosu’s master, Kud, the god of darkness, is trying to bring Jae Hwa to his cause…or kill her and those she loves. Kud is trying to find a mythical artifact, the White Tiger Orb, and Jae Hwa must stop him along with her lackluster friends: Marc, her boyfriend; Michelle, her chatty school friend; and Kang-dae, one of the guardians of Shinshi.

It sounds action-packed, and the plot definitely flies along. I loved Jae Hwa’s blossoming relationship with her estranged grandfather, and her lost aunt still had a distinct influence in her life. However, I continue to remain disinterested in Jae Hwa and Marc’s relationship. Marc feels incredibly out of place in the otherwise lavish world Farley has created, and I have a hard time buying that he is so effortlessly assimilated into Korean culture; likewise, he has a rather bland personality. Kang-dae could have made things interesting, but it was always clear that he was never a real contender for Jae Hwa’s heart. Michelle is probably the most endearing of Jae Hwa’s companions, but she needs to be able to contribute more directly to the action. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, it’s always difficult to include non-magical human characters into a paranormal world without them becoming boring.

One of the biggest faults is the handling of North Korea’s existence. Jae Hwa and her friends must infiltrate North Korea to find the White Tiger Orb, and are able to do so by bringing medicine to a village on an approved school field trip. The idea that a high school would approve such a high stakes trip on short notice is laughable, but the more pressing issue is how the Korean state split is described as being due to Kud, the god of darkness. American and Soviet forces are not mentioned at all, despite their considerable agendas for the region. North and South Korea have since developed their own ideologies and ways of life. The idea of reconciliation is still highly controversial, and too complicated a topic to attribute to “Korea will reunite once Kud is defeated.” This speaks to how this book keeps things safe for a middle school audience, but if the book is going to recognize the split, then more care should have been paid to addressing why it did so and not explain it away as an ancient battle between gods.

Despite some shortcomings, overall Silvern is a truly enjoyable read, and I loved the appearance of the mythical white tiger and anything to do with Korean lore! This is too rare of a featured culture in YA fiction, and it’s incredibly fresh and exciting to read about in a genre overrun by angsty vampires and horny werewolves. The ending was incredibly well-done, and I look forward to how Jae Hwa’s choice plays out in the third and final (?) book of the series, Brazen. 

Recommended for fans of: Julie Kagawa, Rick Riordan, Colleen Houck
Upcoming Book Review: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab