Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Secret Side of Empty

Title: The Secret Side of Empty
Author: Maria E. Andreu
Genre: Young Adult
Published: 2014
Rating: 7/10

Disclaimer: An ARC of The Secret Side of Empty was sent to me by the publisher.

Review: The Secret Side of Empty is a story about M.T., a high school senior living in a small town of Willow Falls whose parents brought her into the US from Argentina as a small child. She goes to a private Catholic school, speaks good English, has good grades and close friends. However, her secret status as an undocumented immigrant means she has few prospects after she graduates. And as the school year continues, her future is becoming more and more uncertain.

What attracted me to this novel in particular is the immigrant connection. Having myself immigrated (albeit legally) as a teenager, I was curious to read a novel that would explore this experience. The Secret Side of Empty also touches a number of other topics: poverty, abusive family, first love, and after-graduation choices. The story covers a large range of topics, so many would find something to relate to in M.T.'s story.

I liked M.T.'s character. She challenges herself in school, has a cool best friend, makes money on the side by tutoring, and is pretty self-aware about the problems that she experiences with her abusive father. Everything is going rosy with M.T.'s amazing new boyfriend when she suddenly completely falls apart mid-way through the book. I was a bit surprised and somewhat unconvinced by her sudden depression stemming from her favorite teacher moving away. Maybe I just never had a sufficiently good high school teacher and maybe the teacher moving away is just the final straw, but it felt like a huge over-reaction to me.

The novel keeps a good pace from that point, adding more and more narrative tension until the main conflict is resolved. The writing is pretty typical for YA -- easy to read and gets the story across. I was sufficiently drawn into the plot to finish reading it quickly. I liked the ending, but wasn't particularly surprised by it.

What did surprise me was how much I liked M.T.'s mother. She was pretty amazing throughout and completely unappreciated (in a typical teenage way). Despite being a secondary character, I felt connected to her and wished more of her story made it into the book. On the other hand, M.T.'s best friend Chelsea never actually stepped out of the cardboard for me. She seems more like a prop to M.T.'s story and Chelsea's secret, which comes out at the end, is really a bit of a let down.

Overall, The Secret Side of Empty is a quick and enjoyable read in which many would find something interesting, but not particularly stellar in any given aspect.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Title: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches
Author: Alan Bradley
Series: Flavia de Luce, book 6
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2014
Rating: 8/10

Review: The latest installment in Flavia de Luce mystery series has been waiting for me to read it since January when it got released. Despite being pretty excited about the novel, I didn't get to reading it until a few days back. Then, of course, I gobbled up the whole thing pretty quickly and now I am left with the wait for the next book in the series (which I have learned will have 10 books in total).

This particular installment breaks the mold of the previous stories. In the past, each story contained a murder investigation which Flavia would solve. In this story, the plot circles around the corpse of her long dead mother, Harriet. The body is finally discovered after 10 years of uncertainty and brought back for a funeral at Buckshaw.

The tensions are high in the household. Visitors flood the estate. Flavia's cousin Lena arrives with her daughter Undine. A dashing pilot Tristram Tallis flies in on Harriet's plane. Adam Sowerby shows up, and Aunt Felicia is there too. We even get to see Winston Churchill for a brief moment. And in the center of it all, Flavia, trying to cope, and planning her mother's resurrection.

I enjoyed how The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches finally advances the story line to reveal a number of family secrets. Flavia learns much more about her mother and father in this book than she does in the whole series prior and it changes her relationship with the various members of the family. I am quite excited where the author has decided to take the story and will be looking forward to finding out what happens to Flavia in the next book.

In terms of the mystery itself, this is probably the first time where I figured out the identity of the murderer before Flavia does in the story. I am generally happy to let Flavia explain what happened without trying to figure things out myself -- I enjoy her process of doing so. However, this time around the solution just dawned on me a little bit earlier than usual. Or maybe it dawned on Flavia a little bit later than usual. The ending still contains a few surprises and did I mention I want the next book now? Setting my alarms for next year to look out for more Flavia adventures.

Monday, March 3, 2014

City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons

Title: City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons
Author: Robin Hobb
Series: The Rain Wilds Chronicles, books 3 and 4
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2012 and 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: I've read the first half of this series a few years back and enjoyed it (except for the fact that it was split into two books while being one logical piece of fiction). So I've waited for both of these volumes to get published to make sure I didn't run into the same situation again. I saw them both on sale on Amazon recently and seized the chance to finish the series.

I have forgotten some of the details from the previous two volumes, so it took me a little while to get back into the story again. But once I did, I had no trouble staying with it. I find Robin Hobb is very good at making the reader care about the characters of the story and their lives just kept me captivated in the books.

The books continue telling the stories of the dragon keepers who have discovered the mythical city of Kelsingra and now need to make sure they survive the winter in the Rain Wilds to tell of it. Their dragon's survival is questionable too since the dragons are weak and cannot fly. Many hurdles have to be overcome before the characters can find their way.

Again, the two books were pretty closely plotted. I felt that reading them both one after another was the right way to go -- City of Dragons didn't have a particularly strong ending as a stand-alone book. But at the end of the series I was rewarded with one big wrap-up for all the major story lines. I especially enjoyed the Alise/Sedric/Hest resolution. So very satisfying -- I think the author must've enjoyed writing those scenes. I certainly enjoyed reading them.

This is probably the first epic fantasy I've enjoyed in quite some time. You can always count on Robin Hobb to deliver, so looking forward to her writing more stories in this world.