Uprooted by Naomi Novik

uprooted cover naomi novak“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”

The Dragon protects the entire valley of villages where Agnieska has lived. It’s always been this way her entire life, the Dragon and the Wood dueling. The Wood sending out waves of corruption that the Dragon stopped. And all he required was a girl from the valley, every ten years, to live in his tall tower.

Agnieska’s best friend Kasia was always meant to be taken. Beautiful, strong, and brave – where Agnieska is bumbling, apt to daydreaming, and wandering farther into the Wood than she ever should. Kasia will be chosen, and Agnieska is afraid. There’s no way for her to save her friend.

But when the Dragon comes to choose, it’s not Kasia he chooses. It’s Agnieska.

I loved Uprooted. It was overwhelming and meandering at times, but beautiful and raw as well, with layer after layer of complexity. The mythos of it had Russian origins, which, as I noted with Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, is a refreshing variation.

It reminded me of Beauty and the Beast, right down to magical rose bushes. To be shamelessly honest, I was picturing David Tennant as the Dragon and Anne Hathaway as Agnieska. Whoops. I loved the Dragon’s brittle, curmudgeonly personality, and how he bristled at the unrefined ways of Agnieska. Her stumbling, improvising way with magic made me think that would be the way many of us would go about it

I loved the world Novik built, complete with other wizards and witches, beyond the valley. The man vs nature conflict was like a darker Studio Ghibli movie. Remember kiddies, don’t anger nature.

Kasia and Agnieska’s friendship was realistic and fortunately devoid of unnecessary drama or love triangles. The royalty in this world were also rather realistically depicted, in that they were very fleshed out characters. All of the characters were multifaceted, with hidden depths that slowly, organically were revealed, even as they grew. Well, some of them grew.

I absolutely, positively recommend this book to fantasy fans. It was darker than your typical YA fantasy, funny, and emotive. Like so many of my favorites, I miss the characters already.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: The Two Princesses of Bamarre

The Two Princesses of Bamarre Cover“I was no hero. The dearest wishes of my heart were for safety and tranquility. The world was a perilous place, wrong for the likes of me.”  

I’ve been downsizing and that means I’ve been going through my bookshelves. And it’s something that really makes me pause when I see how well-worn some of the books I have are. There are books I read over and over and over again, so entrenched I was in their stories. And they didn’t even have to be big names.

One of them was The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine. She’s best known for writing Ella Enchanted (which in no way is at all similar to the movie).

The Two Princesses of Bamarre is set in a classic fairy tale kingdom, focusing on two royal sisters. There’s twelve-year-old Addie, who looks up to her courageous sister Meryl. Meryl wants to follow in Drualt, their legendary hero’s footsteps and do the same as he did–go on adventures and rid the kingdom of the evil beasts that lurk in the wilderness.

Addie would be content with staying at home, and not doing any of those things. After all, they already lost their mother, why risk endangering themselves any further?

But Meryl falls victim to another one of the kingdom’s evils—the illness known as the Gray Death. Finding courage she didn’t know she had, Addie sets out into her kingdom to do the impossible and find a cure.

This story reminds me of The Princess Bride because it has everything: adventure, danger, twists and turns, wit, and romance that won’t make you gag. Spectres, ogres, griffins, and even dragons lie in her path, but she keeps going for her sister. She doesn’t have strength to rely on, just her own pluckiness and willpower. As a kid who was athletically-challenged and constantly with my nose stuck in books, this appealed to me. If I ran into danger, I just had to persevere and keep fighting in spite of fear.

Acting as a backdrop against Addie and Meryl’s story is the story of the legendary hero who disappeared mysteriously ages ago. It fleshes out the kingdom’s history, a bit of world building for future readers of A Song of Fire and Ice or Lord of the Rings. 

The novel has a complex ending, one that doesn’t tie things up as nicely as you might expect in a children’s book. Like life, there is both happiness and sadness in the ending. But the one constant through the story is the sisters’ unshakable love and devotion to one another.

This is not one of your “one day my prince will come” fairy tales. Gail Carson Levine has a penchant for taking the fairy tale world and empowering girl characters within her worlds to face their fears and overcome challenges.

Even as a middle grade novel, I am ready to read this book again! And… again. Addie’s quest speaks to the feelings within all of us. About finding our inner strength, and doing what we need to for the people we love.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

cinder marissa meyerI did it again. I started a series that wasn’t finished. I was hesitant. I mean, how many fairytale retellings does the world need? I’ve read Ella Enchanted and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, I’ve watched Once Upon a Time and I’ve played Kingdom Hearts. So when I read the blurb for a book being about a cyborg Cinderella set in futuristic New Beijing, I wasn’t expecting my mind to be totally, completely blown.

Spoiler alert. Mind was blown.

In the world of Cinder, a deadly plague decimates the world’s population, while above the skies, a dangerous race of lunar people watch and wait to take their place as Earth’s rulers. Cinder is a mechanic, a cyborg, and a fifteen-year-old girl. She doesn’t remember her past, just the day-to-day drudgery of dealing with her stepmother’s disdain. But when Prince Kai comes into Cinder’s shop, everything changes. She’s at the crux of an intergalactic crisis, a forbidden crush, oh, and the fate of Earth.

Cinder is a gritty, action girl, generally accompanied by her chipper android sidekick Iko. Cinder’s not your typical fairytale, Disney-fied princess. When she meets the prince, she is grimy, sweaty, and oh yeah: her foot’s been disconnected. But fixing the prince’s broken android becomes the least of her worries when her stepsister contracts the deadly disease, and her stepmother hatred zeroes in on Cinder with a new reverence. Soon Cinder is making choices she never thought she was capable of. Prince Kai doesn’t have it much easier, with the Lunar queen Levana breathing down his neck and demanding a marriage alliance that is sure to bring the moon’s tyranny to earth.

The series grows to encompass quite an ensemble cast, including Scarlet (Little Red Riding Hood), Cress (Rapunzel), the dashing Captain Thorne (questionable morals), and Wolf. Prince Kai is a dreamy prince charming, but he has the weight of the world on his shoulders (and a crush on a certain cyborg we love).

The story continues in Scarlet and Cress, and ends in Winter. Winter is the last book in the series, published this past November, and Winter’s story is reminiscent of Snow White. Plus, there are Marissa Meyer’s short stories between each book. Winter was a deeply thrilling conclusion to this amazing series.

For anyone who’s a fan of fairytales, check out the Lunar Chronicles series. Once upon a time starts stories even in the future.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

shadow and bone coverAlina Starkov is just a mapmaker. Not a good mapmaker, mind you. But it’s what the orphaned teen can do for her country as they prepare to cross the Shadow Fold, a land of darkness and monsters that splits Ravka in two. Plus, at least she has her best friend Mal with her, even if the fellow orphan’s too busy chasing other girls to notice her sometimes.

But everything changes when their ships sets upon the Fold and is attacked. In a display of magic that hasn’t been seen in centuries, Alina saves them all. Sun magic. Her new powers catch the eye of the mysterious Darkling, the all-powerful leader of Ravka’s magicians, the Grisha.

He whisks Alina away to the Ravkan capital, where he tells her that her magic alone could heal the Shadow Fold and war-ravaged Ravka for good. But it means losing herself in the process, as she is swept into courtly life and the rules of Grisha society. Alina misses Mal, and the Darkling’s attentions are becoming what’s she craved from Mal for so long. Plus her powers are hard to control, and Alina feels the weight of her entire nation on her shoulders.

I love that the setting of the Grisha trilogy is based on 1800s Tsarist Russia. So many fantasy stories are based off of Arthurian legends, or Tolkien imitations, that Ravka and its culture was a breath of fresh air. Russian history is nuanced with so much beauty and chaos, that it was incredible to see reinterpreted with a fantasy scope. There are echoes of Eastern Christianity with the saints and churches. And a sharp contrast between how the upper and lower echelons live. Ravka and its neighbors create an intricate world, but not one bogged down with lengthy descriptions or paragraphs upon paragraphs of unnecessary exposition.

The Grisha are part of an interesting magic system, reminiscent to me of the elemental bending system in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Leigh Bardugo said she was inspired to make the Grisha trilogy a literal fight of light and darkness. The Shadow Fold was inspired by the idea of making darkness and the monsters ‘beneath your bed’ into a literal place. Like on Once Upon a Time, magic sometimes comes with a price, but sometimes that price is something worth paying, even at the risk of hurting yourself.

And Alina herself is a great protagonist. She’s scrappy and snarky, but her insecurities and fears make her human. The ensemble cast of characters that emerges throughout the trilogy are equally fantastic (especially one very moody cat).

Shadow and Bone is an engrossing dark fantasy, full of adventure and twists, people who disappoint and people who surprise, and of course, at the heart of it all, is magic. The story continues in Siege and Storm, and the final book is Ruin and Rising. Leigh Bardugo just came out with another book that takes place in one of Ravka’s neighboring lands, called Six of Crows. It takes a lot to stand out as a YA series these days, but the Grisha trilogy does it.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: Underwater by Marisa Reichardt

underwater Morgan wasn’t always this way.

Morgan used to be tan, and in shape, and popular. She used to swim on her school’s swim team and spend weekends at parties with friends. She thrived in the water and she thrived in the sun.

Now Morgan refuses to leave the small California apartment she shares with her mother and younger brother. She spends most of her time on the couch. She finds comfort in grilled cheese and tomato soup. She takes high school classes online. She needs to see a therapist, but she won’t leave the safety of her living room; her appointments take place there instead of in an office.

When a new boy moves next door, Morgan longs to step back into the sunlight, but she knows the path back to “normalcy” will be painful, if it’s possible at all.

I haven’t seen post-traumatic stress disorder addressed in a lot of young adult novels, and Reichardt handles it very well in Underwater. Morgan is suffering after a catastrophe shakes her world, and readers follow along as she faces grief, guilt, anxiety, and fear. The tragedy and themes addressed in this debut are unfortunately very timely, and I think this book can start a lot of important discussions in the classroom or at home.

Underwater by Marisa Reichardt is a powerful, touching debut that is set to release on January 12th by FSG. It’s a book that had me holding my breath for moments at a time. I couldn’t put my Kindle down, and I’ve been thinking of it ever since I finished reading a few weeks ago. Make Underwater one of your first book purchases for 2016; I have a feeling this is a title you’re going to be hearing about quite a bit.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

magnuschase Ever since I started reading, I’ve been a big fan of series. They’re the best. I get more time with my favorite characters than I would reading a stand-alone book, and I don’t have any issues finding my next story. You might think that’s why I started reading Rick Riordan’s novels, but you would be wrong.

Actually, I started Riordan’s books because my cousin refused to read the Harry Potter series.

I know. That doesn’t make sense. How does one person’s refusal to read a series impact another person’s next book? Well, when my cousin refused to read Harry Potter, I decided to go to some drastic measures to correct her error. Since my cousin loved the Percy Jackson series, I struck up a deal. I started reading Percy Jackson, and she took on Harry Potter. I expected my cousin’s eyes to be opened wide to the joys of the wonderful world of Harry Potter, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting much on my end. I was wrong. Our little deal left us both loving our experiences more than we thought we would. And so, my journey into the mythological mind of Rick Riordan began.

As I’m sure many of you already know, Riordan has moved far beyond Percy Jackson and his Greek mythology. You may have even read Riordan’s take on Roman myths in the Heroes of Olympus or checked out his Egyptian endeavors with The Kane Chronicles (Editor’s Note: Gabriele reviewed the series here). If you haven’t read them, give them a shot. They’re great.

Now, Riordan has embarked on a new journey: one filled with Viking war ships and the nine worlds of Norse mythology. He’s done a fantastic job.
When I first began The Sword of Summer, the first book in the new Magnus Chase series, I thought it would be a little weird. I was expecting a lot of POV shifts like the Heroes of Olympus and some pacing issues. But The Sword of Summer is different. Riordan goes back to what he does best and gives us the entire story from Magnus’s sarcastic, wonderful point of view, and his pacing is pretty good (if you ignore the first couple of chapters). Like all of Riordan’s characters, Magnus has an incredibly strong voice. He’s funny and, as an added bonus, he’s really up-to-date on his pop culture references. I mean, who doesn’t love getting a little T.A.R.D.I.S. or Britney Spears on the side of their Norse mythology? Plus, Riordan’s inclusion of pop culture references, especially those surrounding the Thor movie franchise, helps the reader understand the history and myths included in the story. And seeing as Norse mythology is already slightly less popular and more unknown than something like Greek or Roman mythology, it’s important to have a place to start from.

Riordan also gives the readers something to connect his previous stories and new stories together. Having read his other books, I really love that. His connections do get a little over the top at times, like when he titled a chapter using a reference to Jason Grace, who our main character, Magnus, has never met or heard of. But, I still enjoyed those little pats on the back for being one of Riordan’s followers.

Rick Riordan excels at including people of different backgrounds in his novels, as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean he gives a completely accurate representation of the diverse characters in his books, but seeing as, yes, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and Riordan is a white male trying to include diverse characters, I appreciate his efforts.

The Magnus Chase series includes one of my favorite characters in all of Riordan’s books, a Muslim girl named Samirah al-Abbas. She’s strong and smart, and she’s not afraid to do what’s right, making her a really kick-ass character to root for. Also in the story is another one of my favorite characters, a deaf character named Hearthstone. I haven’t read many books that include people who are deaf, so this was a nice surprise. I’ve also always wanted to learn sign language, so it was fun having a character use ASL in the story. I wanted a little more time with him, but since this is just the first book in the series I’ll let it slide for now.

The book is a tad predictable and formulaic, but not in a way that makes me want to put it down. I’m not sure if I could handle another five-book series where I know exactly what’s going to happen and how, but for a trilogy I’m definitely not upset that I can guess the endings. It makes it kind of fun, and when I’m wrong I’m all the more excited to learn how.

The Sword of Summer had some ups and downs, but overall, I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in mythology or comedic adventure stories. If you’re already a fan of Rick Riordan, you won’t be disappointed. If you aren’t a fan yet, you will be after reading this book. The only thing you’ll be upset about is the wait you have until you can read book two.

Hannah Levine is a senior at The University of Michigan majoring in Creative Writing and Literature and minoring in Digital Studies. She grew up in Oakland County, Michigan and loved every second of it, although she would never pass up a trip to travel and see the world. Hannah is most proud of the moment she met J.K. Rowling and didn’t break into tears until after getting Rowling’s autograph. She is least proud of the time she walked past Mitch Albom at Campus Martius and was too nervous to say hi. You can check out more of Hannah’s random thoughts on Twitter at @hannah_levine or on her blog, Just Hannah dot Rose.

Review: Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

dumplin cover“I guess sometimes the perfection we perceive in others is made up of a whole bunch of tiny imperfections, because some days the damn dress just won’t zip.”  

Just a few pages into Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, and I was ready to push it into the hands of several friends. I read it in just a few days, caught up in the life of Willowdean Dickson.

Willowdean Dickson is a fat girl, and she knows it. After all, her mom’s always lovingly referred to her as “Dumplin’,” so she might as well own it. Her best friend Ellen is tall, blonde, and gorgeous, but they’ve always gotten along through their mutual love of Dolly Parton. But things are changing—El has her boyfriend Tim, and… Will has a job at the local fast-food joint, Harpy’s.

But at least Harpy’s has Private School Bo, a super hot jock. Will’s drooling over him, of course, but she’s floored when she finds out the feeling is mutual. But Willowdean starts doubting herself. How could anyone like her for real, when she has thunder thighs and chub all over? She decides to retake her confidence by doing the craziest thing possible–she dares herself to enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant.

Of course, there are a few hitches in her plan. Her mom’s a former winner of the pageant and now runs the thing every year. Willowdean’s already grown up knowing all too well that her mom’s constant diets and weight loss fads are targeted at her. Joining the contest puts not only her mom’s scrutiny on her, but the entire high school and town. Still. She holds her head up high.

“I don’t like to think of my hips as a nuisance, but more of an asset. I mean, if this were, like, 1642, my wide birthing hips would be worth many cows or something.”

Despite her seeming abundance of confidence, Willowdean is flawed. Her relationships with everyone in her life are nuanced. She’s reeling from the death of her morbidly obese aunt, and the chasm between her and her mom left in her aunt’s wake. Her best friend and her are drifting apart. But she’s also profoundly candid about herself and her feelings. She doesn’t let her mom bully her about her weight; this is not a makeover-the-fat-girl transformation book.

“I hate seeing fat girls on TV or in movies, because the only way the world seems to be okay with putting a fat person on camera is if they’re miserable with themselves or if they’re the jolly best friend. Well, I’m neither of those things.”   

The book ends up being fiercely body-positive, about identity and being yourself. It’s about celebrating all of your self-perceived flaws and insecurities. This book is a sucker punch of hilarity and poignancy, backdropped against a Texas small town, and with special appearances from drag queens, Dolly Parton songs, and girl power. There are mean girls and nice girls, and bullies getting some real satisfying comeuppances.  I can already see the movie that this book will inevitably spawn, a mix of Pitch Perfect and My Mad Fat Diary.

It’s such a deliciously satisfying read, I want a sequel! But I’m happy with how it ended. I’m ready to read whatever Julie Murphy comes up with next.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.