Book Review: Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik

Title: Things I Should Have Known
Author: Claire LaZebnik
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcout
Paperback: 320 pages
Source: NetGalley
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

From the author of Epic Fail comes the story of Chloe Mitchell, a Los Angeles girl on a quest to find love for her autistic sister, Ivy. Ethan, from Ivy’s class, seems like the perfect match. It’s unfortunate that his older brother, David, is one of Chloe’s least favorite people, but Chloe can deal, especially when she realizes that David is just as devoted to Ethan as she is to Ivy.

Uncommonly honest and refreshingly funny, this is a story about sisterhood, autism, and first love. Chloe, Ivy, David, and Ethan, who form a quirky and lovable circle, will steal readers’ hearts and remind us all that it’s okay to be a different kind of normal.

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*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review through NetGalley.*

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5

We are not supposed to judge books by covers or at least that is how that platitude goes, however, the cover for this book was a large factor as to why I picked it up.  I found the description of the book to be an interesting one, and adding in another element to a typical YA book of having an autistic sibling related to the main character drew me in.  I thought it was clever playing with the title on the cover to change the tense of when the character should have have/did “know” these important things.  I was a little let down by this idea not coming up more in the book itself.

Let me start with what I think is my really positive takeaway from the book.  I think that the autistic characters in the book were written very well and respectfully.  There is some interesting nuance used both in developing those characters themselves and, maybe more strikingly in the book, the way that family members interact with these characters.  Any time the book was focused on these relationships I was really interested, and I think that it did a wonderful job portraying these things.

Unfortunately, I found the rest of the novel to be a bit boring and predictable.  I did not particularly like the main character Chloe and think that although there is some growth throughout the book she starts off in such a ludicrously stereotypical place that this character growth doesn’t feel satisfactory.  The same can be said about her dating life in the book.  Things are not just telegraphed but explicitly stated at times in the book in a way that makes them feel a bit inevitable and like a slog to get through.  I kept hoping that something would happen to subvert this or at least be propelled forward in an interesting way, but at least in my opinion it did not.

That is not to say the book was entirely predictable.  There were a few moments that genuinely seemed to work against the overly simplistic and predictable nature of the majority of the book which were greatly appreciated.  For that reason, I think the book may be one that high school students would enjoy reading.  The more I think about it, the more I feel my criticisms may come from a place of not being the target audience.  Overall I would say it is decent but definitely not something I would go out of my way to read.

Book Review: Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

Title: Palace of Spies
Author: Sarah Zettel
Series: Palace of Spies, Book 1
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Hardcover: 368 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

A warning to all young ladies of delicate breeding who wish to embark upon lives of adventure: Don’t

Sixteen-year-old Peggy is a well-bred orphan who is coerced into posing as a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. Life is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that the girl she’s impersonating might have been murdered. Unless Peggy can discover the truth, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate. But in a court of shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy—perhaps even the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love…

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through BEA in exchange for an honest review.*

I’m a sucker for orphan stories, especially when they involve spying, intrigue, and Georgian fashion. Peggy is an orphan who is living in her uncle’s house and is completely at his mercy. When he tries to force her to marry a man who assaulted her, she runs away and does the only thing she can think to do: accept the offer of a stranger who promises her freedom from her uncle. This lands her the job of impersonating a lady-in-waiting at the palace who mysteriously died a few months previous. Peggy has to find a balance between doing spy work for her benefactors and finding answers to her own questions about the woman she is pretending to be.

The beginning started off wonderfully, and Zettel shows the stark reality of Peggy’s situation as an orphan. She has absolutely no status as a woman with no parents to protect her. We see this clearly when she is assaulted at a ball, and when her uncle insists that she marries her assaulter for his money. She is completely at the mercy of the men she comes into contact with, and though she runs away from the situation, she finds herself in the same place when she is put under the care of two men to impersonate a lady-in-waiting at the palace. Of course, that simply won’t do for a young woman as independent and clever as Peggy, so she learns to take matters in her own hands, and she does it beautifully.

I can’t think of anything better to say other than it was a fun read and I thoroughly enjoyed the story. It’s funny and a bit silly at times, but Zettel throws in a bit of darkness so that the characters really shine in overcoming all the obstacles that are thrown at them. The spy/impersonation aspect keeps things lively, and I was certainly always in suspense as to whether or not Peggy would be revealed to be an impostor. Peggy is lovely, and the passive hostility between her and another lady-in-waiting perfectly parallels many female-rival conflicts I’ve seen play out in middle school and high school.

As with any story like this, I wasn’t sold on the idea of a sixteen-year-old girl being able to turn into a master spy and impersonator within a few months without raising suspicion. Yes, Peggy is spirited and capable, but if the princess and the ladies-in-waiting are supposed to be as clever as they are described, it would be difficult for that sort of scheme to pass. Despite this, the story was fun and full of drama and intrigue, so I decided to not let myself dwell on how “realistic” this concept really is.

Palace of Spies is an exciting story, with plenty of twists, and characters who are fun to get to know. I am eagerly awaiting the second in the series to see what sort of crazy adventures Peggy gets into next.

Book Review: The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

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Title: The Song of the Quarkbeast
Author: Jasper Fforde
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Series: The Chronicles of Kazam, Book 2
Hardcover: 304 pages
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)

Magic has been in a sad state in the Ununited Kingdom for years, but now it’s finally on the rise and boneheaded King Snodd IV knows it. If he succeeds at his plot, the very future of magic will be at risk! Sensible sixteen-year-old Jennifer Strange, acting manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management and its hapless crew of sorcerers, has little chance against the king and his cronies—but there’s no way Kazam will let go of the noble powers of magic without a fight. A suspenseful, satirical story of Quarkbeasts, trolls, and wizidrical crackle!

 

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher at BookExpo America.*

I love Jasper Fforde’s style of writing, and even though I’ve only read YA and adult fiction from him up until now, this middle grade series did not disappoint. His humor, wordplay, and ability to create likeable characters and put them in ridiculously weird situations has made him one of my favorite authors.

The Song of the Quarkbeast is the second book of The Last Dragonslayer series. I haven’t read the first book, but I had no trouble following the action and the storyline. So, I don’t think it’s necessary to read this series in order, but I’m sure that reading the first book would make this one more enjoyable, since there are probably details and jokes carried over that I didn’t understand. The Song of the Quarkbeast follows Jennifer Strange, an indentured orphan who is acting manager of a magic company. She and her sorcerers have to go up against a rival magic company in a duel of wizarding skill in order to keep their rights to practice magic.

Like all of Fforde’s books, The Song of the Quarkbeast is just plain fun. It has adventure, mystery, suspense, action, and a bit of romance to top it all off. I love the strange-yet-vaguely-familiar world of the Ununited Kingdom, with its inept rulers and brutal laws. The characters are also fantastic. It’s told in first person perspective from Jennifer, who is mature and intelligent, which is unfortunately rare to see in a teenage character. And that’s great, because in addition to being great entertainment, this book teaches the importance of teamwork, and it shows how teenagers are capable of rising to a challenge and overcoming obstacles.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly. If you’ve at all enjoyed Fforde’s previous works, you’ll love this. And if you are a fantasy fan and have yet to delve into Fforde’s wondrously weird worlds, you need to give him a try. I have read quite a few books by him and have yet to be disappointed.