Review: Outrun the Moon

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  • Release Date: May 24th, 2016
  • Author: Stacey Lee
  • Website: http://www.staceyhlee.com/
  • ISBN: 9780399175411

Review:

San Francisco, 1906. On the eve of one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, racism against Chinese immigrants is at an all-time peak. Strict, prejudicial laws work to keep the city’s non-white citizens in drudgery even as they work harder and harder to break out of poverty and segregation. A bold teenager named Mercy Wong hatches a daring plan to earn a place in a prestigious school for girls — a school for white girls. Despite the odds, her plan works, but her success is soon overshadowed by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Now Mercy may be the only one who can help the people who revile her the most.

I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction, but Stacey Lee brings the turn-of-the-century city to life. You can feel the hot California sun on your face and see the bustle skirts and ridiculous hats as if you were there yourself. The emphasis on the social issues of the time brought to mind A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray or Lee’s other excellent historical drama, Under a Painted Sky. Readers hoping for an idyllic glance at history won’t find it here: Lee doesn’t smooth over the blemishes. The everyday racism Mercy faces hits like a slap, and it hits often.

However, the book does not take a melancholy tone. Mercy is a determined, driven young woman with a big heart and a fierce sense of justice, and the narrative allows these qualities to shine. Readers will have no trouble connecting to Mercy and cheering for her triumphs, even if they also weep for her losses. The message of the novel is positive: people can overcome their hatred and band together in times of crisis, and that might be enough to enact change. That said, I’m not sure that message worked for me. Without spoiling anything, it felt like some of the tragedies in the second half of the novel soured the hopefulness of the conclusion. Maybe that was the point, but either way, it didn’t sit well on my stomach and I found it hard to rejoice with the characters on the last few pages.

Nonetheless, we need more YA that focuses on historical voices that are all too often forgotten. We can’t move forward as a society if we forget the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and Outrun the Moon reminds us of those mistakes through a thrilling, heartfelt story. Readers looking for a unique voice in an exciting historical setting will adore this novel.

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Review: The Crown’s Game

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  • Release Date: May 17th, 2016
  • Author: Evelyn Skye
  • Website: http://www.evelynskye.com/the-crowns-game/
  • ISBN: 9780062422583

This review was originally written in January, 2016, after receiving and advanced reader’s copy.

Review:

I’ve been eager to get my hands on the advanced copy of this title for some time now. Evelyn Skye is a local author, a delightful host of many of our YA events, and a lovely person.

That said, a good heart doesn’t guarantee a great writer. I was cautious about The Crown’s Game even though the premise tugged at all the parts of me that loved fairy tales and The Night Circus and the animated film Anastasia. My coworkers who had already read it had spoken highly of it, but I wanted to see for myself.

I cracked it open when I got home from my closing shift around 10:30pm. Four hours later, at a bit past 2:30am, my roommates were sleepily asking if I planned to turn off the living room lamp and go to bed any time soon. It was, after all, a work night.

I did, but reluctantly. I was enthralled. I woke before my alarm the next morning and toddled out to finish the book over my coffee, which was quickly forgotten.

The story follows a fiery young enchanter named Vika and her counterpart, the reserved and gentlemanly Nikolai, as they are drawn against their will into a deadly contest to decide which of them shall become the next Imperial Enchanter of Russia. Neither can afford to lose: only the winner is allowed to survive the Crown’s Game. But, because all the best 19th-century stories are about forbidden love, Nikolai begins to fall for Vika — as does his best friend, the future tsar, Pasha.

Now, I don’t typically like romance, especially not in YA. The mention of a love triangle put me on guard immediately. Triangles are too often a source of cheap interpersonal drama to liven up dull characters, usually at the expense of whatever interesting motivations or traits they had in the first place. So, naturally, I was pleasantly surprised when I found my heart racing at each new spark of attraction that flew between the characters. Skye found the golden ratio between making the characters individuals and developing their group dynamic, and she doesn’t pull her punches.

My favorite aspect of the novel, though, was the world it inhabited. Setting is hard to pull off: I’ve read too many historical novels that drown the reader in details of a cityscape and forget to let them come up for air through a plot. Not so here. At every turn, I felt I was walking the streets of Saint Petersburg in 1825, but I never felt disconnected from the story. The characters inhabited their world as if it were a living, breathing thing, so as a reader, I could, too.

And the magic. Oh, my word, the magic. Perhaps not as eerie as the circus acts in The Night Circus, but every ounce as lush and opulent and marvelous as the Russian court it is meant to impress.

In short, this is an engrossing, charming novel with the bones of a bestseller. It strikes the perfect balance between historical fiction, fantasy, and romance, and I highly encourage fans of any of those genres to mark their calendars for the release date.

Review: Places No One Knows

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Review:

Brenna Yovanoff is a seasoned author at this point, but Places No One Knows is going to be her break-out hit.

People who know me in real life know what a fan I am of the Merry Sisters of Fate, a trio of authors comprised of Tessa Gratton, Maggie Stiefvater, and Brenna Yovanoff. All three write a particular brand of eerie, unconventional modern fantasy that draws me in like nothing else. Although I’ve read most of Stiefvater’s work and am working my way through Gratton’s, so far I have only had the opportunity to read one of Yovanoff’s novels, The Replacement. Its blend of personal drama, fairy intrigue, and horror prepped me to expect (and enjoy) more of the same from Yovanoff. You can imagine my surprise when I got a copy of her newest novel, Places No One Knows, and realized it was primarily a high school drama. But oh, was I delighted when I delved into it and realized it was so much more than the stereotypical school angst I have — perhaps wrongly — come to expect from contemporary YA.

My first thing to say about this novel isn’t a criticism, but a caveat. I love lyrical prose, the slow burn of good character development, and watching a story unfold a piece at a time. Not everyone does. If you’re looking for something with snappy action and a quirky premise, this one probably isn’t for you — it takes its time getting to the end, though I think it’s a better book for it.

The heroine, Waverly, seems ordinary to her peers: high strung, maybe, but aren’t they all? Yet inside her head, she is a calculating, marvelous wonder, just one accident of birth away from being a great political or military strategist in another era. She reads The Art of War and Machiavelli to understand how to navigate the interpersonal complexities of high school. She plots with her best friend to carefully dethrone and replace other girls in the social hierarchy as ruthlessly as she might plan a coup. And, gripped by nightly insomnia, she runs through her suburban neighborhood every night like a person possessed. I’ve never encountered a heroine like Waverly in contemporary fiction, and she is so deliciously startling that you can’t help but love her, flaws and vicious streak and all.

Meanwhile, our troubled hero Marshall would be easy to fumble in another author’s hands. He parties, drinks too much, and makes out with girls he doesn’t really care about to cover up the stresses of his home life. He doesn’t care about school and school mostly doesn’t care about him. He is, by our academic-driven standards, a failure. It would be easy to loose him in stereotypes about dark, brooding love interests, but Yovanoff plucks him from his wallowing and gives him something few YA love interests have: personality. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t help loving him, too.

Star-crossed lovers are always a fun plot to play with. How do they meet? Why should they care about one another? These two in particular have no reason to know each other’s names, much less to become friends. So what happens when Waverly starts dreaming herself into Marshall’s bedroom at night?

It would be wrong to label Places No One Knows as an urban fantasy. “Magical realism” would be closer. The splash of fantasy that drives the premise is a clever, dangling “what if?” that comes to life on the page with both dream-like prose and a cutting look at the characters at their most vulnerable. It doesn’t stop at the heroes, either. The entire novel is an excruciatingly beautiful portrait of life in a modern high school, with all the anxieties and triumphs it encompasses. It’s no secret that this is what grips me most in novels: the ability to take any setting, any plot, and crack it open to show us what the people are really like inside, as if they breathed the same air we do. At this, Yovanoff excels.