Also Known As – Robin Benway // Once Every Never – Lesley Livingston // The Enchanted – Rene Denfeld

One and a half of these books I read last week but never blogged about; the third, I just finished.

Also Known As:

“Being a 16-year-old safecracker and active-duty daughter of international spies has its moments, good and bad. Pros: Seeing the world one crime-solving adventure at a time. Having parents with super cool jobs. Cons: Never staying in one place long enough to have friends or a boyfriend. But for Maggie Silver, the biggest perk of all has been avoiding high school and the accompanying cliques, bad lunches, and frustratingly simple locker combinations.

Then Maggie and her parents are sent to New York for her first solo assignment, and all of that changes. She’ll need to attend a private school, avoid the temptation to hack the school’s security system, and befriend one aggravatingly cute Jesse Oliver to gain the essential information she needs to crack the case . . . all while trying not to blow her cover.”

I’m a big fan of Robin Benway (I’ve talked about Audrey, Wait! many times), and I was really excited to read her spy novel that came out over a year ago but that I kept forgetting to buy until earlier this fall. So it pains me to say this but…it was good. It just wasn’t great.

I liked Maggie, I loved Angelo, even Roux was pretty swell. But I feel like I’ve read these characters before. And not just in my frequent forays into YA, I mean in another Robin Benway book. Maggie was a more socially awkward Audrey (and, by being so, was automatically May from The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June), Roux was Victoria x 3. There’s a scene where Maggie’s getting ready for a date that reads almost identically to the scene where Audrey goes out with James for the first time (incidentally, that’s one of my favourite chapters, which is probably why I have most of it memorized).

“You’re being awfully nitpicky”, you might say, and I’d agree. I draw these comparisons because I’ve read Audrey, Wait! a thousand times, and April, May, and June at least half that. I make these connections because I admire and respect Robin Benway, and I desperately don’t want her to fall into the Cassandra Clare “all my characters in one series are basically older versions of all my characters in the other series” trap.

I also didn’t love Jesse Oliver, but that’s because I compared him to James, Henry, and even Julian (from Benway’s other books), and found him lacking whatever spark I liked in the other guys. He was very sweet, but sort of “meh”. Which is not to say I didn’t like the book; I liked the plot, the pacing was decent, the dialogue was (as always) hilarious. And Angelo was far and away the best character – I’ll read the sequel if only to spend a little more time with him.

Once Every Never:

“Clarinet Reid is a pretty typical teenager. On the surface. She’s smart, but a bit of a slacker; outgoing, but just a little insecure; not exactly a mischief-maker … but trouble tends to find her wherever she goes. Also? She unwittingly carries a centuries-old Druid Blood Curse running through her veins.

Now, with a single thoughtless act, what started off as the Summer Vacation in Dullsville suddenly spirals into a deadly race to find a stolen artifact, avert an explosive catastrophe, save a Celtic warrior princess, right a dreadful wrong that happened centuries before Clare was even born, and if there’s still time— literally—maybe even get a date.

This is the kind of adventure that happens to a girl once every … never.”

Apparently this week I was just disappointed by normally beloved authors.

I’ve read (most of) Lesley Livingston’s other books. I’ve yet to finish the Starling series (just waiting to pick up Transcedent when I have the time), but I liked them all. This one…this one bothered me for some reason.

First of all, I couldn’t figure out why it took Clare so long to understand who Connal was. Like, pay attention, girl! It’s slap-in-the-face obvious, but it took her 100+ pages to be all “OH, I GET IT NOW”.

There were “romantic aspects” that annoyed me beyond reason. She falls through time and the first thing she thinks is “hey, that guy holding a sword is pretty hot…I wanna see him again”. Even though there’s a hot nerd living in London who’s madly in love with her (of course).

I could forgive that, but the thing that bothered me the most was the frequent messing-with-time-without-any-real-consequences. When she goes back and messes with things, the people who know what’s she’s doing still remember the original series of events. When she literally changes history, everything is still hunky-dory at home. With that much of time travel, I expected one – or more – of her loved ones to cease existing because she accidentally set off a chain of events that altered her life as she knew it. As Ron Stoppable once said, “Time travel…is a cornucopia of disturbing concepts”. You’d think that someone would disappear and raise the stakes, but no. Not yet, anyway.

I almost want Al (Allie, Clare’s best friend) to be the heroine because at least she’s smart and more likely to catch on quickly compared to Clare’s rather delayed reactions.

The Enchanted:

“This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it, but I do.” The enchanted place is an ancient stone prison, viewed through the eyes of a death row inmate who finds escape in his books and in re-imagining life around him, weaving a fantastical story of the people he observes and the world he inhabits. Fearful and reclusive, he senses what others cannot. Though bars confine him every minute of every day, he marries visions of golden horses running beneath the prison, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs with the devastating violence of prison life.

Two outsiders venture here: a fallen priest and the Lady, an investigator who searches for buried information from prisoners’ pasts that can save those soon-to-be-executed. Digging into the background of a killer named York, she uncovers wrenching truths that challenge familiar notions of victim and criminal, innocence and guilt, honesty and corruption—ultimately revealing shocking secrets of her own.”

On a completely separate (i.e. non-YA) note, I read The Enchanted.

One thing I loved about this book was the writing: it was lyrical, poetic, and sometimes disturbing. Our nameless narrator often talked about books and reading in general; as a life-long book lover, it was lovely to read his descriptions of how the act of reading was soothing, how the books transported him to a different place, even when he was stuck in his cell.

This was also a book that can give you pause: on the one hand, you’re reading about death row prisoners, men who have committed unspeakable, disgusting crimes. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for them, especially the narrator (so that, even though I guessed halfway through which inmate was telling the story, the revelation at the end still punched me in the stomach in a “how can you sympathize with someone like this” way). It was also fascinating to see York’s story unfold, told by such an unconventional narrator.

Overall, it was an excellent read. It definitely fell out of my usual comfort zone (in terms of subject matter), but it was very well done.

Coraline – Neil Gaiman // Descendant – Lesley Livingston // When Did You See Her Last? – Lemony Snicket

Three books again! I’m on a flippin’ roll…

Coraline:

“When Coraline steps through a door to find another house strangely similar to her own (only better), things seem marvelous.

But there’s another mother there, and another father, and they want her to stay and be their little girl. They want to change her and never let her go.

Coraline will have to fight with all her wits and courage if she is to save herself and return to her ordinary life.”

This was the first Gaiman book I ever read, when I was about 12 or so. I didn’t remember much of it, apart from the fact that it’s deliciously creepy as heck, but I do quite enjoy the movie version (sidenote: I spent the first half of the book wondering where Wybie was until I figured out he was just a movie character).

I can see why this is a “cross-over” book: some children (like me, the first time around), will enjoy being scared, and some adults (like me, the second time) will appreciate how dark it is. The Other Mother is definitely in the running as the most terrifying villain in children’s literature (sorry, Voldemort, you’re big and bad, but SPOILER ALERT your dismembered hand never skittered down a hallway between worlds). That plot point and the button eyes stayed with me the first time I read it…which is why, even though I like LaLaLoopsy dolls (they have some funny names), their eyes sort of freak me out.

Descendant:

“In this pulse-pounding sequel to Starling, Mason Starling is alone after having crossed over into the realm of the Norse gods, and her only way out—the Bridge of Asgard—has been destroyed. Already traumatized after seeing Fennrys shot, Mason is further shocked to find herself in a place that she thought existed only in myth—Hel. So when she is greeted by a mysterious woman who introduces herself as the queen of Hel and Mason’s long-dead mother, things quickly go from bad to strange.Mason needs to return to her old life in Manhattan—and more importantly, she needs to find Fenn. In her quest to leave Hel, Mason learns she must find the Spear of Odin, a powerful magickal object and the only thing that can get her back home. What Mason doesn’t know is that if she takes up the Spear, she could set forth a series of events culminating in the end of the world . . .”

A couple of weeks ago, I read Starling, and liked it…so naturally when I read Descendant, I liked it too. Mythology – Norse, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian – is further explained and developed in this one; since I don’t have a big mythology background, it feels like I’m learning something new! Even if some of it has been tweaked to fit this particular story.

I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s a sequel, but again, the major problem was the amount of emphasis put on Mason’s physical attributes: midnight hair and super blue eyes. It’s constantly mentioned, and, unless it’s going to be a Harry Potter situation (where having his mother’s eyes makes for a devastating moment), it’s really not necessary.

My other issue – and I felt the same way with the first one – is that the beginning starts of strong, then there’s a lag in the middle, and finally the end explodes all over your face with a crazy cliffhanger. Which makes sense, and is typical of books in general, but you hit a certain point and sort of barrel through to the end so that by the time you’re done, there’s a moment of “Wait, what?”. Of course, that just makes you anxious for the next book, so it’s really quite effective.

When Did You See Her Last?:

“In the fading town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, young apprentice Lemony Snicket has a new case to solve when he and his chaperone are hired to find a missing girl. Is the girl a runaway? Or was she kidnapped? Was she seen last at the grocery store? Or could she have stopped at the diner? Is it really any of your business? These are all the wrong questions.”

I’ve been a Lemony Snicket fan for a really long time, and I just had to pick up his next series, if only for some closure (I was perplexed for months after the end of A Series of Unfortunate Events). This series focuses on a young Snicket (pre-Baudelaire children) and his many adventures after joining the “organization”.

I don’t really remember what happened in the first book, Who Could That Be at This Hour?, but there’s enough description in this one that you at least have a vague idea of what happened previously. And since Snicket is a pro at being vague, you can’t really ask for anything more.

I love the various literary allusions (even if I don’t catch all of them), and I absolutely love how one of Snicket’s associates shows up at the end, a childhood version of an adult character from ASOUE. If you’ve read the previous books, it’s very easy to pick up on who this associate will grow up to become, well before Snicket reveals their name.

Large font (and even larger margins), a handful of illustrations, and a fast-moving story line make it easy to finish a book in a day. Quick and easy reading that’s satisfying yet leaves you asking all the (probably wrong) questions.

Starling – Lesley Livingston // The Book of Dead Days – Marcus Sedgwick

One week, two books.

First up, Starling by Leslie Livingston:

“When Mason Starling rescues an unconscious young man from the ravages of a terrible storm, little does she know her whole life is about to spiral dramatically, mystically out of control. Someone is trying to kill her, someone else is trying to use her, and the only one who seems willing to help her is the tantalizing, dangerous stranger who can’t even remember who—or what—he is. All he remembers is his name: Fennrys Wolf.

What Fennrys doesn’t know is that, thanks in part to his past actions, a crack has appeared in the barrier between the mortal world and the Beyond Realms. As a result, a long-standing truce involving the members of several ancient underworld cartels is now in jeopardy. Mason, Fennrys and the students of elite Gosforth Academy soon find themselves caught in the crossfire as the servants of the warring pantheons fight to see whose gods come out on top and whose demons go down in flames.”

First of all, Livingston is Canadian (from Toronto, no less!) so yay for Canadian YA authors!

I’ve read her previous trilogy (Wondrous Strange, Darklight, and Tempestuous) and enjoyed them. I originally read them at a time when I was reading a lot of fairy books so a lot of authors kind of blurred together, but after re-reading them recently, I remembered why I liked them. To be honest, it was one of the only series where, once the almost-inevitable love triangle plotline came in, I was actually rooting for the second guy, the one I knew the protagonist wouldn’t end up with. The Fennrys Wolf was just so much more attractive to me than Sonny (I also have name-issues, but that’s irrelevant).

So when I found out she was writing a new trilogy about Fennrys, I was pretty stoked. It took me a while to finally pick it up, but I started reading it in New York this past weekend (which I did on purpose because it takes place in NYC so it was fun for me to visualize the places she mentioned while being in the same city).

The book starts off very quickly and with tons of action. It felt like there was a time in the middle where not much was going on apart from the usual “there is a hot, probably dangerous, stranger talking to me. I should be scared, but I’m not” moments, but, as I mentioned, I like Fenn so it wasn’t as terrible as it could have been. The last quarter of the book took the story to another level (literally) and ended on one heck of a high note.

One thing that bothered me a little was the amount of times Mason was described as having “midnight hair”. I’m all for character descriptions, but like…you don’t have to tell me on every other page.

I really liked the part when – SPOILER ALERT – Fennrys regained his memories, but I feel like it could have been fleshed some more. I also couldn’t tell if he remembered everything or just the basics.

And I love how Livingston combines so many different mythologies. Her other series was greatly influenced by Shakespeare, which was fantastic, and this time around, she mixes Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology (and that was just in this book! There are still two other books in the series!). You don’t often find Norse mythology in YA books.

My second book of the week was The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick:

“The days between 27 December and New Year’s Eve are dead days – days when spirits roam and magic shifts restlessly just beneath the surface of our everyday lives. There is a man, Valerian, whose time is running out, who must pay the price for the pact he made with evil so many years ago. His servant is Boy, a child with no name and no past; a child he treats with contempt, but who serves his master well and finds solace in the company of his only friend, Willow. Unknown to any of them it is Boy who holds the key to their destiny. Set in dark threatening cities and the frozen countryside in a distant time and place of the author’s making, ‘The Book of Dead Days’ conjures a spell-binding story of sorcery and desperate magic as Valerian, Boy and Willow battle to stop time and cling to life. Beautifully evoked, dramatic and emotionally powerful, this is a real page turner.”

As you may (or may not) recall, a couple of weeks ago I read Midwinterblood and mentioned wanting to re-read the other Sedgwick books in my collection. Naturally, I started with the first Sedgwick book I ever bought (or perhaps Ro bought it for me, I don’t remember. It was ten years ago).

I had the most basic memory of this book: the fact that it took place December 27-31 and there was a book needed to stop someone from dying. That was it.

So re-reading it basically felt like I was reading it for the first time!

Sedgwick has a very descriptive way of writing; he seems to prefer straight narration with dialogue thrown in only when necessary. Atmospheric, I guess, is the right word. Or gothic, but like 19th century gothic (if that makes sense).

He’s also adept at creating worlds/times/places that are both similar and very different from our own. This was set in the past – in his author’s note, Sedgwick explains it as taking place “with one foot in the superstitious ancient world and one in the rational modern one, when science […] must have appeared to be magic”.

The ending was a little rushed – the climax of the book took all of five pages – but there’s a sequel (The Dark Flight Down) which I conveniently already own (Thanks, 14-year old me, for buying it as soon as it came out in paperback) and I remember ever less of that one, so it will be a real adventure!