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Book/Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diane Wynne Jones

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle

Author: Diane Wynne Jones

Series: Howl’s Moving Castle #1

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl’s castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there’s far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye. -Goodreads

The Review:

I may be the only person on the planet who hadn’t seen the Studio Ghibli adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, but in a way I’m grateful because it gave me the ability to tackle the book with an unbiased opinion. And I’m glad it did because the book was just okay.

And actually, after watching the movie and seeing all the story elements brought to life and enhanced, I found myself looking back on the book with more fondness. What surprised me is how closely the movie kept to the source material. All of the major elements were included, even down to exact quotes on occasion. All save one component: the romance.

In the book there was a connection between the main characters, but their focus was always on others and rarely on each other, lacking any sort of depth. It was kind of odd, and I think that lack of interpersonal connection is the reason I found the story a bit lackluster – it never felt like we were working towards anything meaningful, and so all of the smaller plot points felt, well, pointless. The movie did a brilliant job at adding in what was missing by giving the viewer a through-line to root for (i.e. are they going to end up together?).

I loved the movie. The visuals were stunning, the story components expanded on and enhanced, and the flow and momentum of the pacing perfectly on point.

And the dog. Omg.

In both versions I loved the main character, Sophie. She had a lot of depth and both formats did a great job highlighting certain aspects of her mannerisms. Particularly how her personality changed with different circumstances. The basic premise of the story is this young girl gets changed into an old woman. Watching Sophie deal with the ramifications of that and face her own mortality brought out this beautiful narrative of perspective – where she realizes life’s too short to be held up on petty concerns and starts to speak her mind, not worrying about what others think. It wasn’t a heavy-handed theme, but even so it resonated with me profoundly.

Overall, I think experiencing these two versions in tandem enhanced them both. Because I’d read the book and seen the components the film makers were working with, it make me appreciate their choices on what to adapt and how to make it better. So many brilliant decisions that honored the book and made the movie into the beloved classic it has become.

Recommendations: while the movie was easily my preferred format for the story, reading the book allowed me to appreciate it even more. If you’ve already seen the movie, the book probably won’t add any depth or interest to your experience. However if like me you’ve the new to both, reading the book first will make you appreciate the movie even more.

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by Niki Hawkes

Book Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium

Title: Delirium

Author: Lauren Oliver

Series: Delirium #1

Genre: YA Dystopian

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: In an alternate United States, love has been declared a dangerous disease, and the government forces everyone who reaches eighteen to have a procedure called the Cure. Living with her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Portland, Maine, Lena Haloway is very much looking forward to being cured and living a safe, predictable life. She watched love destroy her mother and isn’t about to make the same mistake. But with ninety-five days left until her treatment, Lena meets enigmatic Alex, a boy from the “Wilds” who lives under the government’s radar. What will happen if they do the unthinkable and fall in love? -Goodreads

The Review:

The book takes place in a reality where love is considered a disease. Making you do things that don’t make sense and go against your better judgment. There are even physical signs – shortening of breath, increased heart rate; it can be dangerous. Don’t worry, though, because luckily, there’s a cure.

When I first picked up Delirium I was certain it would sound like every other YA on the market. No surprise: it does. Here’s the funny thing, though… I really liked it. There’s something incredibly absorbing about the author’s writing. A relaxed quality that makes you feel like you should be in a cozy chair with some tea while reading. I also found this true with her novel, Panic, which is even further away from my preferred reading genre, but I loved it also. Something about her storytelling just works for me.

I’ve heard a lot of people bash Delirium because, even though it’s a dystopian, it lacked the same edge people expect from comparable novels like Divergent and Hunger Games. It’s definitely more of a romance-heavy title (for obvious reasons, given the concept), which didn’t bother me too much in this first book. In fact, I’ve read it twice. The second time was in preparation to continue the series, but I never quite made it around to reading more… again. I think I’m worried it will go the route of most YA trilogies and give me an entire middle book of useless angst and very little plot progression. I also think, aside from a few side enigma characters I’d like to know more about, I probably have a pretty good idea where the story is going to end up, and am not sure I want to commit the time to get there. It’s weird lol. Maybe eventually I’ll finally pick up the rest of the trilogy, but for now I’m content to consider it an open-ended stand alone that I enjoyed immensely.

Recommendations: if you like the more fanciful, romance-driven YA dystopians, this is one of the better ones. There’s a whole sub-genre that I call “girls in pretty dresses in a slightly dystopic world” that I can’t seem to get enough of. This book has the same feel as those.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

Title: The Betrothed

Author: Kiera Cass

Series: The Betrothed #1

Genre: Teen Romance

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: When King Jameson declares his love for Lady Hollis Brite, Hollis is shocked—and thrilled. After all, she’s grown up at Keresken Castle, vying for the king’s attention alongside other daughters of the nobility. Capturing his heart is a dream come true.

But Hollis soon realizes that falling in love with a king and being crowned queen may not be the happily ever after she thought it would be. And when she meets a commoner with the mysterious power to see right into her heart, she finds that the future she really wants is one that she never thought to imagine. -Goodreads

The Review:

A lot of people seem to be aboard the Kiera Cass hate train. I’m not one of them. Her writing is what it is, and that’s okay that it doesn’t work for some, but the projected disgust at a lot of her works seems a little over the top. It almost feels like shaming her books is what it takes to sit at the cool kids’ table. And if that’s the case, I’ll go sit outside by myself and read her books while I eat.

That said, The Betrothed was not a strong installment. I absolutely loved the Siren and the first two Selection books, but this one left a few key elements on the table.

Firstly, she didn’t take the time to establish the main character’s credibility. Her merit as the perfect candidate for the king was just a given, and I think it would’ve gone a long way to start the story earlier and SHOW how she’s different and what circumstances made her that way. As it stood, it was baffling enough to see how vastly opposite she was from her incompetent and overbearing parents, yet she miraculously knew how to perfectly navigate court life and the attentions of royalty. It just didn’t add up. So the only thing left to assume was that all of her success has been based on purely superficial things, which is very much not a satisfying thing to read about… unless it’s intentional and part of the character’s growth arc (it wasn’t). It was mentioned a couple of times that the lady was the only one to make the king laugh, and she wasn’t desperate for the throne or his love, so I suppose those are decent reasons for her to stand apart. But it wasn’t emphasized, the characters even going so far as to discuss how random the first encounter was and how it could’ve been anybody. None of it accounted for the how’s and why’s of it all. I wanted more development.

Second, the character didn’t have to struggle for anything. Wealthy, beautiful, witty – this character entered the picture with the world at her feet and only petty court ladies and her own questionable decision making as obstacles. Skill without having earned it in stories is unrelatable, unbelievable, and a bit of a snore. As conflict is inevitably what drives a story, a character plodding along without anything substantial to overcome was just meh. It was doubly annoying for the character to be given the world on a silver platter only to dash it to pieces without a care. She’d faced some trials by the very end of the book, but it was a bit too late to make up for the lack at the beginning.

Finally, the character didn’t exhibit a lot of emotion. If she didn’t appear to care, why should the reader? A king is fawning over you? Cool! We’ll see how long it lasts. That bitch over there is calling you names? Whatevs, I think I’ll just make friends with her. Your parents are trying to rule your life? Meh, I do what I want anyway. It all sounds rather cavalier, but in execution it led to a character that just appeared to be floating through life without any real drive or desire to contribute to her own future and well-being.

Recommendations: The Betrothed was not one of my favorites. It did not highlight the things Cass does well, and that’s unfortunate. If you’re going to try one of her books, pick either the Siren or the Selection series, but be warned that her works are incredibly polarizing. I, personally, have delighted in a few of her books and still plan on picking up future releases (aside from this series). It just missed the mark. For an adult, anyway. My observations are mostly craft-related and I don’t think my 13 yr old self would’ve cared about any of that, but rather just delighted in the loveliness of the setting, the clothes, the jewelry, and perhaps would’ve even been enamored with the love story. Tame enough for younger eyes, I think this one would be better suited for tweens and early teens.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Book: Starsight

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Series: Skyward #2

Genre: Teen Science Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: All her life, Spensa has dreamed of becoming a pilot. Of proving she’s a hero like her father. She made it to the sky, but the truths she learned about her father were crushing. Spensa is sure there’s more to the story. And she’s sure that whatever happened to her father in his starship could happen to her. When she made it outside the protective shell of her planet, she heard the stars–and it was terrifying. Everything Spensa has been taught about her world is a lie. But Spensa also discovered a few other things about herself–and she’ll travel to the end of the galaxy to save humankind if she needs to. -Goodreads

The Review:

Starsight was a little weaker than the first book, but still brought the fun-factor in abundance.

The first half of the book left me wanting a bit… there were too many “convenient” plot points for my liking. Too many things left up to random chance all happening at once. So it took a great deal of suspended belief to get me through it. The writing also felt rushed. Like Sanderson didn’t have time to get the main character from point A to point B gracefully, so he just manifested a quick fix and BOOM: plot advancement. I think it was disappointing because I’m used to a lot more finesse from him. I can’t think of very many instances in his work where “just go with it” would be my advice, but it definitely applied here.

I also wasn’t crazy about the direction the plot took. The new characters introduced seemed… juvenile may be a little harsh, but the tone of dialogue and overall presentation brought the relative badass effect of the first book down a few notches. It became more fluffy, and I had signed up for a more serious we’re-fighting-for-our-very-existence type of story. Another factor could be due to the character voices the narrator performed for the audiobook, but I didn’t have any struggle with the first book, so something definitely changed, and my bet is on the overall tone of the text.

So with all of those concerns in mind, the first half of the book was… maybe not a struggle, but I wasn’t excited about what I was reading. However, somewhere in the last quarter of the book, Starsight picked up a killer momentum that won me back over. Things got serious, crazy new things were revealed, and the ending left me reeling. It saved the entire experience, and I’m back to being super eager to see what happens next. I’m sure if I didn’t have to wait for the next book, I wouldn’t feel the need to be quite so critical of this installment, but seeing as it’s all we’ll get until the end of 2021, I’m giving myself permission to be picky. ;P

Recommendation: this series is one of those I’d feel comfortable recommending to all members of the family 13+. It has that excellent mass-appeal, really fun characters, and it’s from an author I trust. Personal biases from this second book aside, the series as a whole has been delightful. Give it a go for something that manages to be both light and fun, yet still full of substance.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Lovely and the Lost by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Title: The Lovely and the Lost

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Series: N/A

Genre: YA Fiction

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Kira Bennett’s earliest memories are of living alone and wild in the woods. She has no idea how long she was on her own or what she had to do to survive, but she remembers the moment that Cady Bennett and one of her search-and-rescue dogs found her perfectly. Adopted into the Bennett family, Kira still struggles with human interaction years later, but she excels at the family business: search-and-rescue. Along with Cady’s son, Jude, and their neighbor, Free, Kira works alongside Cady to train the world’s most elite search-and-rescue dogs. Someday, all three teenagers hope to put their skills to use, finding the lost and bringing them home. But when Cady’s estranged father, the enigmatic Bales Bennett, tracks his daughter down and asks for her help in locating a missing child—one of several visitors who has disappeared in the Sierra Glades National Park in the past twelve months—the teens find themselves on the frontlines sooner than they could have ever expected. As the search through 750,000 acres of unbridled wilderness intensifies, Kira becomes obsessed with finding the missing child. She knows all too well what it’s like to be lost in the wilderness, fighting for survival, alone. But this case isn’t simple. There is more afoot than a single, missing girl, and Kira’s memories threaten to overwhelm her at every turn. As the danger mounts and long-held family secrets come to light, Kira is forced to question everything she thought she knew about her adopted family, her true nature, and her past. -Goodreads

The Review:

The Lovely and the Lost was a light YA mystery involving trauma recovery, a missing persons case, and search and rescue dogs in action.

Barnes is exceptional at giving her characters depth (especially compared to other YA writers). There’s always a deeper story of trauma affecting the plot, which adds a lot of cool dynamics. Stuff like that can often make a story feel too heavy, but she balances it out with fun characters who are animated and engaging despite their inner demons, and there’s something deeply compelling about that.

I also loved the search and rescue premise of the book – especially the dogs! It added a bit of fun to an otherwise dramatic story. I don’t believe there are any sequels planned, but I liked it enough to continue the series if there was one.

Lament: I waited (impatiently) for like five months to get ahold of a copy of this book from my library, letting it take up precious space in my holds lineup, only to give it half-assed attention because, you know, life. Even so, I absorbed most of it, and it’s a decent read. But I wasn’t as engrossed as I was with her Naturals series… and I don’t think it was all because of my distractions.

There’s an overall mystery to this story, but the focus is on the close relationships between characters and the personal issues they’re working through. I would have preferred a stronger focus on the mystery itself. Something to get the characters more active and mentally engaged with it. I was enjoying the story well enough, but I never felt drawn to it to see what would happen next. That lack of suspense affected my rating a bit. The Naturals was so phenomenal, it may have ruined me for mystery YA forever.

Recommendations: this is a great read if you like highly character-driven YA fiction. The search and rescue dogs made the story fun, and Barnes’ great writing always delivers a solidly composed story (great mysteries). However, if you’re new to this author, I’d say go straight for her Naturals series and come back to this one later… :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Skyward

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Series: Skyward #1

Genre: YA Science Fiction

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Defeated, crushed, and driven almost to extinction, the remnants of the human race are trapped on a planet that is constantly attacked by mysterious alien starfighters. Spensa, a teenage girl living among them, longs to be a pilot. When she discovers the wreckage of an ancient ship, she realizes this dream might be possible—assuming she can repair the ship, navigate flight school, and (perhaps most importantly) persuade the strange machine to help her. Because this ship, uniquely, appears to have a soul. -Goodreads

The Review:

Skyward is an easy book to recommend. It’s a YA sci-fi adventure filled with great characters, lots of action, and plenty of snark that will appeal to the masses.

Two things about this book made it stand out to me: the abundance of training and battle scenes involving many fun members of a flight team, and how much I liked Spensa. I love learning new things from books that you can’t actually learn in the real world. How to fly spaceships (okay, not totally out of the realm of possibilities, but still…) and how to engage alien fighters in combat. The characters were great – I especially appreciated all the animated profiles and how they worked together as a team. I loved Spensa as a main character. She has an interesting backstory that fuels her determination – a trait that’s really attractive to me. She’s the type of character you can always trust to make things happen, for better or worse (meaning there’s never a dull moment). And she’s also a character willing to grow through each experience despite being incredibly stubborn….

The story is especially good at unveiling mysteries as it progresses. The more you find out what’s going on, the more questions you have. But the trickle of information is just enough to keep you page turning, but not so tight that you get frustrated (Maze Runner series, I’m talking to you). I had a bunch of theories while reading (none of which panned out… so far), but I liked the fact that the book was engaging enough to get me thinking beyond the words right in front of me.

I remember reading that this series is Sanderson’s creative re-imagining of a classic dragonriding story (he didn’t think he could bring anything new to the idea, so he went another direction completely… a direction involving a young girl’s determination to become a fighter pilot, sassy AI spaceships, and lots of alien ship battles. I definitely could see the influence, but everything else was just pure Sanderson awesomeness.

Recommendation: Sanderson books are always easy to recommend – his baseline quality is incredibly high. Yet Skyward is even easier than most because of its wide age-range appeal. It’s very accessible, with a great balance of silly humor, heavier problems, and loads of action to keep most readers engaged. As long as you’re even mildly interested in sci-fi, this is a great pick. I wish it had been around back when I was a bookseller because it would’ve made hand-selling during the holidays a bit easier.

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by Niki Hawkes