New Books Roundup: Spring 2018
I am so behind in book reviews this year it’s not even funny, but let’s see if we can make a dent!
The Rose Legacy by Jessica Day George
I usually love Jessica Day George (case in point), but I didn’t love this one. It started strong: Orphaned Anthea Cross-Thornley is horrified to be shipped off, yet again, to another family member — this time an uncle whose home is even outside the walls of the civilized world she’s always known. But her uncle turns out to have a secret: He raises horses, which have been outlawed inside the kingdom for centuries, and Anthea has the gift of understanding horses, too. It’s a whole new world and a world that calls into question everything Anthea has believed to be true for her entire life — including that both her parents are dead.
Then … I’m not really sure what happens? Anthea is bonded to a horse named Florian, who narrates part of the book — and while it feels rude to criticize a horse’s writing style, a lot of it was so weird and stilted I found it hard to get through. There’s (obviously) a whole big horse-related conspiracy going on in the main part of the kingdom, which Anthea is the only one who can resolve, and which she decides to tackle in what honestly seems like the most ridiculous and complicated way possible. I don’t know — things keep happening, but the second part of the story feels like it’s missing a plot. And it’s the first in a series, but the end feels tacked-on and unsatisfying in a way that didn’t really make me excited to read the next book.
This could be a Horse Girl thing. I was not a Horse Girl, and that could be the thing that creates my disconnect with this story.
Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All by Candace Fleming et al
I think this collection of stories — each section pairs a first-person story from one of Henry’s wives with a first-person account from Henry himself — would be a lot of fun if it were your introduction to the wild and wacky world of the Tudors, but if you are already a big Tudor nerd, it’s going to feel flat and superficial.
Henry VIII married six fascinating women, and his justifications for loving, leaving, marrying, and occasionally executing them are fascinating. Having a different author tackle each wife’s section was a good approach because it helped make each wife’s voice sound unique (Jennifer Donnelly’s Anne of Cleves story was particularly nice, I thought, though I kind of love Anne of Cleves, so I may be biased. I felt like Lisa Ann Sandell’s section on Jane Seymour was the weakest link.), but I didn’t think the Henry sections had the oomph they needed to transition between the wives’ stories. Henry was a bigger than life character as a husband and a king, and not having him take over the story must have been a challenge, but I think it erred too far in the other direction. It might have made more sense to eliminate Henry’s sections entirely and have no transition between stories or some kind of historical scene as a transition.
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
Oh, I really liked this one!
Lucy was struck by lightning, resulting in superpower-level math skills — and OCD that manifests in rigid routines and patterns. Her grandma, whom she lives with, has homeschooled her ever since, and Lucy’s academically ready to head to college — but her grandma insists she needs to experience middle school for at least one year first. (I don’t love the whole “unsocialized homeschooler finds friends and fulfillment when forced into traditional school” trope and that is definitely A THING in this book.) So Lucy finds herself in a 7th grade classroom, pretending to be “normal.”
The plot of this middle grades book is not going to surprise you (new friends! middle school bullies! becoming comfortable with who you are!), but it’s a charmer nonetheless. I’m especially fond of how well the author wove Lucy’s math-iness throughout the book — so often, being good at math is an entry point to a character that never really gets mentioned again or a substitute for character development. In The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, math is part of how Lucy experiences the world throughout the story. (I think it also manifested as the author using the number 1 instead of the word “one” at some places in the text, which totally matches up to Lucy’s brain but which threw me off occasionally.)
I also appreciated the treatment of Lucy’s OCD, which is also a part of how she experiences the world and not just a problem that she can magically solve by finding a friend or getting a prom makeover.
City of Bastards by Andrew Shvarts
I started reading this without realizing that it was the second in a series — and while I was able to follow the plot fine, I kept thinking I was going to get a big flashback to explain some of the events and people the main characters kept referring to.
It was fine. I mean, it’s action-packed. Tilla and her friends have returned to the capital Lightspire after some serious action defeating — at least for the moment — her traitor father. (That all happened in the first book.) But they haven’t left trouble behind: More than one plot is afoot in the glittering city of magic, and while Tilla’s life is luxurious and pampered, it’s also under constant observation. When one of her friends is murdered in the room they share, Tilla gets pulled into a mystery that may be even deadlier than the one she’s just managed to escape. There’s romance (pretty standard YA stuff), violence (actually A LOT of violent violence, so be aware), and so many twists and turns that you may need a yoga session when you’re done. The author is definitely not afraid to go dark, and while some things are predictable, there are plenty of surprises. (Sometimes the surprises seem to exist just to surprise the reader with no textual logic behind them, but it certainly did keep me turning pages.)
Nothing but Wayside School will ever be Wayside School, but this collection of interconnected stories has a definite Wayside-adjacent vibe — and I mean that in the best possible way.
Davy’s the new kid in Topsea, where dogs are mythical and mermaids are real, gravity is turned off once a year for routine maintenance, and sometimes you get the locker at the bottom of the swimming pool. Just watch out for the tides and stay clear of the shady PTA, and you should be okay. It’s silly and odd, and it totally works. Alternating stories with newspaper articles, school newsletters, and excerpts from a town guidebook and — like Wayside — telling lots of student stories, this book has a quirky rhythm that makes it feel like a super-speedy read. I found it the perfect mix of whimsy and action — I think if you add one book from this post to your library list, it should be this one.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi
When I got this book, I was thrilled — “It’s Percy Jackson with Indian mythology!” And while I enjoyed reading it, I was less thrilled when I finished reading because it was almost exactly Percy Jackson with Indian mythology.
Prickly, unlikable hero(ine) who discovers she’s actually a descendant of a god? Check. Unleashed evil ready to take over the world? Check. Plucky sidekicks who assist hero(ine) and also illuminate the value of friendship? Check. Secret mythic world hidden in plain sight? Check? Hero(ine) the only one who can put things right? Check.
I mean, it’s a good story. And there’s a lot of Indian mythology here, which requires the author to both explain the basics and specifics of Indian myth (challenging since a lot of readers might not come to the story with a working knowledge of Indian mythology) and to do it well enough so that people will get all the jokes and real world connections. I think Chokshi does that really well, and I love that the book gives voice to a whole world of literature that kids might be inspired to go and explore. Some of the descriptions are lovely (“There was a Night Bazaar where you could purchase dreams on a string. If you had a good singing voice, you could use it to buy rice pudding dusted with moonlight.”), and the incarnated pigeon is often hilarious. There’s a lot to like — but it really ends up feeling like a badly dubbed movie version of the first Percy Jackson book sometimes. And I couldn’t shake a dislike of Aru’s character, which probably didn’t help.
I’ll definitely read the next book in the series — there’s a lot of set-up in this book for what comes next — but I’m hoping it finds more of its own voice and style. If it does, this could easily become a favorite.