Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

The set-up: An airplane carrying Miss Teen Dream Beauty Pageant contestants crashes on a deserted island.

Main characters’ goals: I think a better question here would be “Who are the main characters?” because there are SO MANY. I’m not knocking it – it’s unusual and fun. But it’s hard to give specifics. Basically, the girls’ initial goal (collectively) is to get off the island and get home.

My reaction: In all honesty, I will admit this was not a fast read for me. There could be a number of factors here – revisions on my own work-in-progress, being sick, and whatever. But I think the main reason is my personal preference for singular point-of-view stories. I don’t generally enjoy dipping into the heads of many characters; I don’t like how it interrupts the flow of the story.

That said! Bray writes this story VERY WELL. The multiple viewpoint works for the book. We are expected to be torn out of the story line periodically, because this narrative has commercial breaks – yes, commercial breaks! – scripted into the book. So even though multiple (or is this omniscient?) POV isn’t something I always embrace, the approach works here.

Also, as the cover promises, it is very funny, very satirical, and overall enjoyable.

Of interest to writers: Again, commercial breaks! Satire! This is a unique story, told in a unique way (there are also footnotes, which I love). Even if you don’t want to read the whole 390-page book, it’s worth a peek just to see how Bray presents the story. The writing and plot are surprising, and “surprising” is a very refreshing thing in YA literature.

I always read Acknowledgements pages, and must also say, the Acknowledgements in Beauty Queens are hilarious.

Bottom line: Commercial breaks!

Reminds me of: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (because of the utter bizarreness of the premise)

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

The set-up: Aria comes from an enclosed city, protected from the Aether and harsh environments (and people) on the outside. Perry’s had to fight for survival his whole life.

Main characters’ goals: Aria’s goal is to find her mother (even if it means lying to her ally); Perry’s goal is to find his nephew. Their goals are pretty constant, although their methods change throughout the story as the two of them, ahem, get to know each other better.

My reaction: WOW. This is a whole new world, and, honestly, one I only want to encounter between the covers of Rossi’s books. It’s a scary place, filled with scary people – and the people in Aria’s home-pod are just as frightening as those inhabiting Perry’s world on the outside. Beyond the bad guys, though – some of the supporting cast are memorable wonderful people, and I can’t wait to read more about them! (Hellllooooo, Roar!)

Of interest to writers: Personally, I find alternating points of view difficult – not just to write, but to read. In Under the Never Sky, though, the alternating POV was really smooth. So why does it work so well here? Check out how Rossi has expertly differentiated between her characters – not only their personalities, but the differences in their diction, style, and tone.

(Third to) Bottom line: The concept alone will blow your mind. The concept coupled with great writing make this book a total winner.

Reminds me of: Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

For more on Under the Never Sky and Veronica Rossi, you can visit her personal blog here, and her blog with the YA Muses here.

Last thing, I promise: While looking for a good image of the cover, I found some of the international covers on Veronica’s blog (click here to go there). Seriously cool. I think the Dutch cover may be my favorite. Which is yours?

Gilt by Katherine Longshore

First, disclaimer: Katherine and I are friends in real life. Second: even if I weren’t friends with her, I’d be reviewing this book anyway because it totally rocks. Like, stay-up-way-past-bedtime-reading rocks. And I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction.

The set-up: The year is 1539. Kitty Tylney and Catherine (Cat) Howard are best friends…or as close as best friends can be when one is kind of a jerk, like Cat.

Main character’s goals: At first, Kitty just wants to go to Court, and wear fine clothes and be somebody. But then her goals change, and I don’t want to risk spoilers, so I’ll just say maybe these new goals have to do with a dude, and maybe the new goals have to do with Cat’s marriage to the king, and maybe both. Or, you know, neither.

My reaction: The writing is so pretty! When the book comes out and I read it again (because I’ll have my own sparkly copy with its beautiful cover…probably signed by the author, hint, hint) I’m going to do a better job of savoring the beautiful prose. On the first read, savoring was nearly impossible because I just wanted to freaking find out what happened already. It was tense, and dangerous, and sexy, and just all around marvy. If I could write historical fiction (as in, stomach the research involved), I’d want this to be my book. As it is, Katherine enjoys research (see her interview here) so she gets to do it for me.

A second reaction: sometimes in historical fiction, I don’t feel entirely “there” in the setting. But in Gilt, I was there, and I was loving it.

Of interest to writers: When Katherine wrote this book, historical YA was not a big thing at all. In fact, many agents weren’t even interested in it. I keep coming back to the advice she gave in her interview: “Don’t second-guess whether or not your concept will sell.  If a story and character come to you, write them down.  That passion will come through in your writing…Passion sells.  And in the long run, writing what you love is the ultimate reward.”

Bottom line: Beautiful story, believable and compelling characters – it’s a total win. I’m just sorry you have to wait until the May 15th release date to read it!

Reminds me of: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers (Gilt takes place a century later, but life-and-death court intrigue is still a focal point).

For more on Gilt and Katherine Longshore, you can visit her personal blog here, and her blog with the YA Muses here.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

This book is awesome! Sorry to give you the bottom line first, but, well, there it is.

The set-up: The year is…a long time ago. 1845 (just cheated on The place, Brittany, which is still as yet independent of France. Ismae, a daughter of the god Mortain (also called St. Mortain, the god of Death) has been abused by her father her whole life, until a mysterious convent takes her in. She trains to be an assassin, skilled in the arts of death.

Main character’s goals: Ismae’s assassin skills are required at court, where she must discover who is betraying the Duchess. And, of course, mete out a swift vengeance. Ismae needs to work with hottie Gavriel Duval, but her convent suspects him of treachery. Of course, because he is a hottie, Ismae begins to fall for him, and her secondary goals change throughout the course of the story.

My reaction: LaFevers has done so much that I want to do with my own manuscript! And she makes it look easy! So I’m jealous and impressed at the same time. Plus just plain entertained. The love-hate relationship between Ismae and Gavriel is wonderful, as is her character arc over the course of the story, and the doubts she begins to have about…ahem…certain things (no spoilers!).

Of interest to writers: Again, that character arc. Also, that relationship between Ismae and Gavriel – when is it NOT a good idea to pit the goals of the heroine directly against the goals of the romantic interest? Answer: never. Their conflict is so rich, and their attraction so great, it’s just yummy.

Bottom line: I already said it above. It’s awesome. Good news: it’s the first in a trilogy. It appears the second book features a heroine who is not Ismae, but she sounds just as fascinating and possibly even more complex.

You can click here to read the first chapter on Amazon.

Reminds me of: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

This book was recommended by Katherine Longshore over at the YA Muses, and there wasn’t a single thing about it I didn’t enjoy. I’m not usually drawn to middle grade novels, which is surprising, because I’ve loved many (Ida B. by Katherine Hannigan is still one of my favorites, along with To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie Pickard Fawcett).

The set-up: Texas, 1899. Calpurnia is eleven years old, has six brothers, her parents, and a gruff grandfather. She lives on a farm/pecan orchard and dodges the chores usually reserved for females. Instead, she’d rather explore. Early on in the book she befriends her grandfather and together they gallivant around the property studying and documenting the natural world.

Main characters’ goals: More than anything, Calpurnia wants to learn about and study nature. This is made difficult by her mother’s increasing pressure for her to learn “womanly” skills such as embroidery, cooking…and whatever else it is women are supposed to do (I don’t actually know because, like Calpurnia, I worked hard to avoid those things). She yearns to go to college so she can continue studying.

My reaction: When her grandfather listed off famous women scientists, I wanted to cry tears of happiness for Calpurnia, because suddenly her dream seemed possible to her, and it was glorious.

Of interest to writers: I know it’s done more in so-called “literary” fiction, but Calpurnia’s struggle is more internal than external. This is hard to do while keeping tension in the story,  but Jacqueline Kelly does it fabulously. Another curiosity is the plot doesn’t seem driven by the conflict. Rather, we experience a year with Calpurnia, and each chapter feeds into the central conflict. But it isn’t that “goal-scene-sequel-new goal” sequence I’ve gotten so used to. The structure is, quite honestly, refreshing.

Bottom line: You want to read this book. You totally do.

Reminds me of: To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie Pickard Fawcett (another book you totally want to read)