Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Review: Out of the Easy by Ruta SepetysOut of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel Books, Puffin
Pages: 352
Genres: Young Adult
Source: Received for review from publishers
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It’s 1950, and as the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets, seventeen-year-old Josie Moraine is silently stirring a pot of her own. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer.

She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street. Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

Thoughts: I really thought I would love Out of the Easy. I thought it would be an eerie, atmospheric novel, filled with intrigue and southern charm. Let me tell you now: it was none of those things.

Everyone raved about Between Shades of Gray, Ruta’s first book, but it never appealed to me. Out of the Easy sounded like it would have everything I’d want in it – and that was one of its problems. All of the content for a great book was there – New Orleans, a girl fighting the system, murder and intrigue, even a used bookstore – but there was no life in any of them.

Let’s deal with the main source of that lack-of-life: our leading lady, Josie. Ignoring all the upstairs-downstairs crap that was supposed to make this book “insightful”, Out of the Easy is based on two basic premises:

  1. Josie is brilliant. She’s a genius who deserves All. Good. Things.
  2. Life is so hard for poor Josie. Woe is Josie.

Seems simple, doesn’t it? If only.

Let’s start with that first point. For someone who is supposed to be so smart, she makes many, many stupid decisions. She trusts the wrong people, lies to the wrong people, and rolls over passively when a simple phone call could get her out of a bad situation.

Namely, it’s Josie’s passivity when dealing with her mother that was one of my biggest problems. This is a woman who – at every available opportunity – treats her horrendously. She beats Josie, she lies to Josie, she steals from Josie, she treats Josie like she is beneath her contempt. And it’s not as if Josie even excuses those things… she just doesn’t do anything about it. It’s as if the plot required Josie to do things “because that’s her mother”, and no thought was given to thinking about how Josie should react to her mother’s actions. Not to mention that, though she hates the stigma of being a prostitute’s daughter, she doesn’t seem to connect that stigma with her mother. I don’t think that’s how a

Maybe she has book smarts, because she sure wasn’t gifted any emotional intelligence.

Then there’s the “Woe is Josie” premise. Huh?? So many people in this book treat Josie like an absolute star, like she is the best thing since sliced bread and could well be the second coming. Which is great and everything, but it makes the “Woe is Josie” core of the story virtually impossible to buy into. Yes, her life isn’t what she wants, but whose isn’t? In all honesty, the life of a madam in New Orleans actually didn’t look to bad from where I was, so why was it so terrible for Josie? Other than her mother, Out of the Easy‘s prostitutes and chauffeurs all seemed rather content with their lot in life. Why wasn’t Josie? I have no idea.

Actually, “talking” it out now, I can see what really irked me about this book: Out of the Easy is a book about getting out of New Orleans, but it should have been a book about learning to love the “New Orleans” you’re dealt.

As if that weren’t enough, all the intrigue promised by the summary was not at all delivered. The mystery took a back seat to Josie’s angst and its resolution was met with a shrug. And as for New Orleans? The book could have been set in Harlem for all the effect the city had. Not cool. Not cool.

Bottom line? If you aren’t a reader who spends far too much time nitpicking characters, you’ll probably enjoy Out of the Easy a hell of a lot more than I did.

Review: Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

Review: Sweetly by Jackson PearceSweetly by Jackson Pearce
Series: Fairytale Retellings #2
Published by Hodder Children's Books, Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 310
Genres: Fairytale Re-tellings, Paranormal YA, Young Adult
Source: Received for review from publishers
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As a child, Gretchen's twin sister was taken by a witch in the woods. Ever since, Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, have felt the long branches of the witch's forest threatening to make them disappear, too.

Years later, when their stepmother casts Gretchen and Ansel out, they find themselves in sleepy Live Oak, South Carolina. They're invited to stay with Sophia Kelly, a beautiful candy maker who molds sugary magic: coveted treats that create confidence, bravery, and passion.

Life seems idyllic and Gretchen and Ansel gradually forget their haunted past -- until Gretchen meets handsome local outcast Samuel. He tells her the witch isn't gone -- it's lurking in the forest, preying on girls every year after Live Oak's infamous chocolate festival, and looking to make Gretchen its next victim. Gretchen is determined to stop running and start fighting back. Yet the further she investigates the mystery of what the witch is and how it chooses its victims, the more she wonders who the real monster is.

Gretchen is certain of only one thing: a monster is coming, and it will never go away hungry.

Thoughts: About a billion years ago (read: 2010), Jenny from Wondrous Reads told me I absolutely had to read Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. “No way,” I cried. “Wolves suffer from enough stigma already – I’m not supporting an author that villainizes them, even if they are the fairy-tale versions.” I was about to start my Masters dissertation on the non-scientific, fallacious beliefs society has of wolves – and how that has translated into our fairy-tales. “Wolves as bad guys? That’s so 1812.”

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to understand how skeptical I was about starting Sweetly. As companion-novel-of-sorts to Sisters Red, I went into it with my finger already hovering over the eject button. One sign of iffy wolf-ness and I was off.

There was none… OK, yes, the word “wolf” was used in connection with a few unsavoury characters but it was just slang (albeit, slang I would rather done without). So, in spite of myself, I really, really enjoyed Sweetly. In fact, I thought it was rather brilliant.

Sweetly is a play on the Hansel & Gretel tale – while the inspiration is clear, the plot is not. While there is a lot of “action” in this novel, Sweetly really felt more like a mystery. Instead of there being a clear good-guy/bad-guy plot, most of Sweetly is spent uncovering precisely who knows what, who is guilty of what and wondering just how much Pearce would stick to the original tale. It kept me on tenterhooks, to be perfectly honest.

Along with the fabulous mystery-vibe was the lovely, brilliant, fantastic protagonist, Gretchen. (I quite liked her, in case you couldn’t tell.) Having lost her sister years ago under circumstances so unreal even she doesn’t believe them, Gretchen is an appropriately scarred individual. But while she is full of fear, she doesn’t let that stop her. I absolutely loved how as soon as she got the chance to find out the truth behind what happened to her sister (and other girls) she grabbed it head on. She didn’t shy away or give up, and that’s something I think every YA heroine should have.

Bottom line? This is an utterly unique novel that pulls no punches. It’s got mystery, betrayal, romance, candy and good ol’ fashion shoot outs. Read it!

Review: Perfect Scoundrels by Ally Carter

Review: Perfect Scoundrels by Ally CarterPerfect Scoundrels by Ally Carter
Series: Heist Society #3
Published by Hachette Children's Books, Hyperion
Pages: 352
Genres: Contemporary YA, Young Adult
Source: Received for review from publishers
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Also in this series: Heist Society, Uncommon Criminals

Katarina Bishop and W.W. Hale the fifth were born to lead completely different lives: Kat comes from a long, proud line of loveable criminal masterminds, while Hale is the scion of one of the most seemingly perfect dynasties in the world. If their families have one thing in common, it's that they both know how to stay under the radar while getting-or stealing-whatever they want. No matter the risk, the Bishops can always be counted on, but in Hale's family, all bets are off when money is on the line. When Hale unexpectedly inherits his grandmother's billion dollar corporation, he quickly learns that there's no place for Kat and their old heists in his new role. But Kat won't let him go that easily, especially after she gets tipped off that his grandmother's will might have been altered in an elaborate con to steal the company's fortune. So instead of being the heir-this time, Hale might be the mark. Forced to keep a level head as she and her crew fight for one of their own, Kat comes up with an ambitious and far-reaching plan that only the Bishop family would dare attempt. To pull it off, Kat is prepared to do the impossible, but first, she has to decide if she's willing to save her boyfriend's company if it means losing the boy.

Thoughts: Perfect Scoundrels is very nearly perfect – which is still ruddy brilliant.

One of my main issues with the Heist Society series (up till now) had been that there was not enough character development on the Hale side. To be honest, I still hadn’t quite forgiven him for getting Kat kicked out of boarding school in Chapter 1 of Heist Society (I hold a long grudge). But in Perfect Scoundrels we get Hale back story, front story and side story – it’s Hale-a-palooza. And finally I can say that not only do I forgive Hale for the aforementioned Chapter 1 incident, I also rather like him!

Now, along with the Hale-a-palooza, Perfect Scoundrels is still very much a Kat story. She doesn’t have Hale to rely on and every single decision she makes affects him somehow: not easy to choose what is right when it hurts someone you care about.

As for the cons, the heists and whatnot, some of my favourites yet were pulled in Perfect Scoundrels. Heirs returned from the dead, documents were hidden in secret drawers and honest-to-God death-defying stunts were pulled. There was one (which I don’t want to spoil you for) that was slightly obvious, but the rest were just as brilliant as I’ve come to expect from Ally. A-mazing.

On one last character note, I was surprised by how happy I was to see Marcus developed in Perfect Scoundrels. As Hale’s man-servant/butler/back-up, he’s been part of the team since the first book and yet we hardly ever heard a peep out of him. I didn’t know I wanted to know more until Ally Carter suddenly delivered it. Now? I would devour a novella from his POV (in case anyone is listening!).

Bottom line? I’ve loved every one of the Heist Society books – but if you put thought Uncommon Criminals wasn’t quite what you were hoping for, then Perfect Scoundrels will be your come-back book. Pick it up!  you’ll be wanting to pick it back up now. Ever

Note to those of you who think this is the last book in a trilogy: It’s not. Don’t believe me? Ally confirmed it when I interviewed her. Can anyone else say YAY?

Review: Quantum Drop by Saci Lloyd

Review: Quantum Drop by Saci LloydQuantum Drop by Saci Lloyd
Published by Hodder Children's Books
Pages: 276
Genres: Science Fiction YA, Young Adult
Source: Received for review from publishers
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Anthony Griffin is an ordinary kid caught up in a dangerous world. The boundaries between real and virtual are more and more blurred, and when Anthony’s girlfriend is taken out in a gang hit, he has to venture into the underground world of the Drop to flush out her killer and bring him to justice.

Thoughts: Let me just start off that Quantum Drop was exactly what I want in a YA novel. Saci Lloyd doesn’t shy away from real-life issues, she doesn’t consider the status quo sacred, and she sure as hell isn’t afraid of calling out our species for, well, sucking. I love that, because she’s so right, but no one ever seems to want to say it. The fact that she not only does, but puts it into a kick-ass book? Brilliant.

But, I have to admit that Quantum Drop is probably not the book for everyone. If you aren’t in the mood for a book that needs your brain to be “on” the whole time (which I totally get, by the way), then wait for a while before you pick up Quantum Drop. Otherwise you just won’t enjoy it as much.

Now, apart from Saci Lloyd’s oh-so-accurate insights into humanity, I also really enjoyed the setting of Quantum Drop. Anyone who has been round the East End will recognize the familiar-yet-futuristic “Debtbelt”. Saci Lloyd has kept the verse just post-modern enough to be recognizable – so much so, I barely felt the sci-element of the book. That said, the characters spend a huge part of the novel in a virtual world known as “the drop” (which, if I had to describe it, I’d liken to The Matrix). Super futuristic stuff that, for some reason, felt totally normal.

The characters in Quantum Drop were complete stand-outs. They aren’t the middle-class, worried-about-prom lot that we typically see in YA – instead, they have grown up with the odds stacked against them, and they know it. They are swimming against the tide, trying to do what is right while staying afloat. The main character, Anthony, wants justice for his girlfriend, but he also has a legitimate fear for his life and the life of his family. It’s easy to just give up – so when many of the characters do, it’s also easy to forgive them. This made Anthony’s struggles all the more impressive.

Bottom line? Quantum Drop is one of those books that makes you think (about life, the universe and everything) while telling a hell of a tale along the way. Pick it up if you are looking for something different in your YA.

Review: Breathe by Sarah Crossan

Review: Breathe by Sarah CrossanBreathe by Sarah Crossan
Series: Breathe #1
Published by Bloomsbury, Greenwillow
Pages: 384
Genres: Science Fiction YA, Young Adult
Source: Received for review from publishers
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When oxygen levels plunge in a treeless world, a state lottery decides which lucky few will live inside the Pod. Everyone else will slowly suffocate. Years after the Switch, life inside the Pod has moved on. A poor Auxiliary class cannot afford the oxygen tax which supplies extra air for running, dancing and sports. The rich Premiums, by contrast, are healthy and strong. Anyone who opposes the regime is labelled a terrorist and ejected from the Pod to die. Sixteen-year-old Alina is part of the secret resistance, but when a mission goes wrong she is forced to escape from the Pod. With only two days of oxygen in her tank, she too faces the terrifying prospect of death by suffocation. Her only hope is to find the mythical Grove, a small enclave of trees protected by a hardcore band of rebels. Does it even exist, and if so, what or who are they protecting the trees from? A dystopian thriller about courage and freedom, with a love story at its heart.

Ahead: BAD SCIENCE, characters who go off the rails and a good premise.

Thoughts: I really wanted to love Breathe. Really, I did. It had an extraordinary premise with an environmental message I fully approve of. I mean, how many YA books deal with deforestation and mass climate change?

The first half of Breathe was really rather good. Sarah Crossan bounced back and forth  between three well-developed characters – all teens, but all radically different. There’s the cold resistance member who seems horrid, but is really just trying to stay alive. The scholarship girl who is brilliant but will never get anywhere because of her birth. And the rich-but-mostly-kindhearted boy who doesn’t stand up to the system, but doesn’t lie down in front of it either. Three kids who are pretty much on their own, and who all learn to fight the status quo in their own way.

As I said, pretty good stuff – and while I wasn’t over the moon about the characters, I could see myself starting to connect with them. But then, about half way through the book, things started going downhill. The chapters started getting shorter, yet covered twice as much action. Characters were introduced who were supposed to be leaders but were genuinely psychotic – but no one dealt with or acknowledged this. And badda-bang instalove! I was kinda shocked.

But it was about to get worse… bring in the bad science.

OK, I understand that most people are not scientists – but there were mistakes in this book that were the equivalent of writing, “the island of France” or “Earth’s second moon”. Things so blindly obvious, someone should have noticed them. I don’t necessarily think Sarah Crossan should have been responsible for spotting her scientific faux-pas, but someone. Anyone.

*Minor Spoilers*

For those of you who are doubting me, here’s an example. Breathe describes a world where, as the oxygen levels decrease, people start dropping like flies. Suddenly, graveyards are full, mass burial sites aren’t enough, so… people start burning the bodies.

*head desk* You cannot burn people in a low oxygen environment!! Flames need oxygen!! Human bodies are not super combustible! It’s basic chemistry that we worked out in the stone age.

I told two people this specific example, and both of them spotted the mistake immediately. Why didn’t an editor? I can only pray that that line did get cut from the final version… but doubt it.

*Even More Spoilery*

Another thing that made no scientific sense whatsoever was the rebel’s miraculous ability to breathe in a low oxygen atmosphere. It’s true that people who live in high-altitude areas develop higher red blood cell counts and can cope in less oxygenated atmospheres… but not the 6% oxygen levels of Breathe. This becomes even more unbelievable when you find out that all the rebels had to do to breathe like this was practice and throw in a few meditation sessions.

What’s sad is that science in Breathe didn’t need to be bad science. If a one-line explanation had been tossed in saying that humanity had evolved genetically to require less oxygen, I could have bought this. It’s science fiction, for goodness sakes! That Breathe masquerades as a scientifically sound novel is rather… off-putting.

*END Spoilers*

So, after all that, am I going to read the sequel Resist? Maybe. I know that Sarah Crossan is capable of writing a good book – there’s half of one right here in Breathe.

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