“The Potion Diaries” by Amy Alward

I fell in love with this book the minute the princess of Nova’s love potion turned indigo instead of pink. There’s a lighthearted, whimsical feeling in the details right from the get-go. The princess poisons herself with said indigo potion instead of her crush, and causes a national crisis by falling in love with herself. And now Samantha (Sam) Kemi, an alchemist’s apprentice, is summoned with the rest of the kingdom’s alchemists to compete to find a cure.

Sam has to travel the world to find ingredients for this cure, from the deepest jungles to the highest mountaintops. The world-building in exotic locals and the mythical ingredients from plants to animals always felt well-developed and real. In fact, after reading this book before bed, I sank into a dream full of unusual pink-tinged winged creatures in the forest where Sam found the eluvian ivy. The settings stick with you for awhile.

I also enjoyed the competition between Sam, an alchemist trained in the old ways, and the ZoroAster megapharma company with their synthetic, modern compounds. It reminded me of “Witchworld” by Emma Fischel, which has a similar conflict between ancient and modern magical technology. Of course, in “The Potion Diaries” the conflict wasn’t black and white, mainly because of Sam’s wish to try out the modern laboratory of her rivals and the CEO of ZoroAster’s hot teenage son who greatly admires Sam himself.

“The Potion Diaries” blends magic and romance in a competition that lets one girl try to prove her abilities and help her country. It’s a great read.

“Witchworld” by Emma Fischel

I’ve had a soft spot for middle grade novels about witches ever since I was eight. At that age, I read “The Witch Family” by Eleanor Estes and decided the witch life was for me. Now that I’m older, nothing has changed. I love witches with their unusual potions, and tendency to veer towards evil, and pride in ugly appearances. They’re great. So when I saw “Witchworld” on the shelves of my local library, I knew it was my kind of book.

“Witchworld” describes a modern family of witches: a single mum and her two daughters. The story follows the youngest daughter Flo. The world of witches has evolved from the last time I visited, and now has modern devices like a spellstick instead of a magic wand, and a skyrider instead of a broomstick. However, when Flo’s grandma comes to stay with her ancient techology and cooks up a potion in Flo’s mum’s spotless kitchen, well, things are bound to get interesting. Flo’s grandma is convinced Witchworld is in danger from ghouls.

Only one problem: everyone in Witchworld knows ghouls are extinct.

Or are they?

“Witchworld” is hilarious. I loved the intragenerational familial bantering. I loved the parallels with young people and technology in our world. And the main character Flo with her obsession with pixies and concern about doing the right thing is a relatable and fun  voice to follow. This is a great read for younger readers.

“Daughter of the Burning City” by Amanda Foody

I’m not sure what it is about YA fantasy books taking place during carnivals, but I’ve been reading a lot of them lately. There’s something seductive about a dark dangerous carnival where magic thrives and mysteries abound. In the past little while I’ve read Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” and Melissa Marr’s “Carnival of Souls.” So what makes “Daughter of the Burning City” different from the others?

First, the magic in “Daughter of the Burning City” is more subtle perhaps than other fantasy books. The heroine Sorina has an unusual power of illusion-work. Although other people in this novel’s carnival have more flashy kinds of magic such as mind reading and fire abilities, the main focus is on Sorina and her illusion-work which allows her to create illusions that are people with their own personalities. These people become her family. Since this kind of illusion-work requires a lot of skill, Sorina doesn’t ever create a family member in the novel. Her family shows up in the novel already made. Instead of magic, most of the plot revolves more around the mystery, which we’ll get to later.

Another thing that makes “Daughter of the Burning City” stick out is that Sonia’s family is really, really bizarre. There is a life-like tree man, a dude with fingernails growing out of his head, and a half-fish half-man. Together with Sorina, they form a Freak Show. Even though the characters are grotesque and unusual, they are given fairly likeable personalities, although admittedly the tree man doesn’t have much to say. Because he’s a tree. These characters are unlike any that you’ve ever seen before.

The final component that differentiates “Daughter of the Burning City” from other carnival YA fantasies is the plot. When one by one, Sorina’s family members are murdered, Sorina needs to find the killer to protect them. In itself this isn’t that groundbreaking, however the way in which the killer is found is pretty unique. Sorina enlists the help of Luca, a gossip-worker. Although some twists were easy to pick up on, one of most major twists in the novel I did NOT see coming and it was a biggie. Amanda Foody has an unusual creativity that makes this novel worth a read even if you’ve read other carnival YA novels. It’s exciting and mysterious and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

“Rebel Mechanics” by Shanna Swendson

“Rebel Mechanics” takes place in an alternate history where British magic prevents the American Revolution from ever occurring. Verity Newton arrives in New York to find a job as governess and winds up working for one of the most powerful magical families in the city. Concerned about toeing the line in such a household, she discovers that not everyone in the family is as they seem. Although this magical family has held power for years, many members sympathize with the rebels, a group in the city reliant on engineering and machines instead of magic.

Verity finds herself swept away by the rebel group she encounters in the city. She agrees with their cause to bring equality to the non-magical people and decrease reliance on magic. It also helps matters that Verity starts falling for a rebel inventor. But will her magical employers mind the company she’s keeping? Although some of them are opened minded, Verity isn’t sure if they’ll be opened to all her secrets.

This book had a rollicking steampunk feel. The characters wore strange clothing and made quirky inventions and had unusual gatherings. As a reader you can’t help but like Verity who struggles as a bookish outsider to New York. I love authors who make their characters avid readers – a sure way help the readers of their own books identity with their characters! Although I caught many of the plot twists before they happened, a quite a few of them I didn’t see coming.

Swendson does a good job creating morally grey situations where the truth is stretched with good intentions and characters who seemed likeable display their dark sides. In all, “Rebel Mechanics” is a fun read.

“The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco

This book had an epic fantasy feel where the world building is intense and distinctly different. Tea is a girl whose magical powers differ from the norms. Instead of being able to harness the elements to do her bidding, she can raise the dead. She discovers her powers when she raises her older brother from his grave. Despite the centre of this book being rather grisly – my husband took one look at the title and went “are you reading that isn’t it scary?” – this book is really pretty tame compared to what’s on the YA shelves these days. Even though death is present, Tea’s brother gets to come back as a shadow from his early demise.

Then, Tea is forced to move away from her family for her training under an older bone witch, where she learns how to become an Asha. Asha are some sort of witch and geisha hybrid and although how the women entertain the men besides clean music and dancing is never divulged, I began to wonder “Are they prostitutes?” Again, this wasn’t revealed and the book is very clean, but due to the gendered nature of the work I was unsure.

This book moves slowly and the description is dense and detailed. Usually this would be con for me, however I enjoyed living in this strange world for a few days. I inhale books, so it was nice to encounter one that took me more than a night to read. Since there are two narratives at once – an older, stranger, more sinister Tea and a younger, apprentice Tea it was interesting to wonder when the two narratives will converge. I found it hard to keep track of all the various kingdoms and cultures, however something about the book just works.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a heartglass, where people wear their hearts on a necklace with their emotions for all to see. Perhaps it was the world of the ashas and Tea starting her apprenticeship as a servant which reminded me of a newfangled “Spirited Away.” Perhaps it was the creepy nature of Tea’s powers which could bring skeletons to life from the earth. Perhaps it was the suggestion of romance with a prince. I’m a huge sucker for romances with princes.

Anyway, “The Bone Witch” is a highly original fantasy. I look forward to seeing how the series will conclude.

“Caraval” by Stephanie Garber

Scarlett has always longed to attend Caraval, a far away week-long magical performance that occurs once a year. However, she and her sister live on a far away isle with a controlling and abusive father and Caraval remains an impossibility. Until the impossible finally happens.

The sisters receive an invitation in the mail. They manage to escape their home and travel to the island with the help of a sailor. However, as soon as they reach the show, Scarlett’s sister vanishes. It soon becomes to Scarlett that her sister’s disappearance is this year’s theme for the show. This performance gives the audience a choice: they either watch or participate in the show. For Scarlett the choice is obvious. She has to participate to help her sister.

It isn’t easy.

Scarlett has to find her sister in the chaos and magic of Caraval. She has to decide who to trust and what is fabrication and what is real. She has to question what she desires out of life and how to achieve it.

This book had many strengths, the strongest perhaps being Scarlett’s character development. The Scarlett at the beginning is drastically different than the Scarlett at the end of the novel. Her decisions during the plot change her at a pretty fundamental level and it was fascinating to watch her grow.

However, undoubtedly fantasy fans will be drawn to the world-building in “Caraval,” which is also excellent. Think about the unpredictable and wondrous atmosphere of a theme park and then add in a healthy dose of magic and mystery and then raise the stakes with the threat of losing someone you love. The descriptions in “Caraval” accost the senses with sound, with colour, with vibrancy. It’s a world that is both dangerous and intriguing.

Even though “Caraval” has a cast of relatively few characters, the interactions between the characters are well done. Scarlett’s love interest will satisfy the need for romance. And Scarlett’s bond with her sister, even though her sister remains missing for much of the book, is complex and real.

“Caraval” is a fun read with lots of cliff hangers. You won’t regret it.


“Gilded Cage” by Vic James

“Guided Cage” is a fantasy book with an intriguing structure. I’m still thinking a lot about it even after turning the final page.

The story follows two families in an alternative Britain. One is a family of commoners without magical ability. The other is a family of magically skilled aristocracy. When the common family is forced to serve their ten year sentence of labour in the household of magically skilled aristocracy, their worlds overlap. And when one of the common children is separated and forced to work in a brutal labour camp, he has to decide whether to fight or accept the system.

The two families with their differences are fascinating. Especially since the story is told from multiple points of view. And when I say multiple points of view I mean multiple. Each chapter is told in third person limited, but which person you get to follow through the story is not obvious and switches a lot. Be prepared for intense cliffhangers where you have to wait many chapters to return to the character’s viewpoint you desire! However, Vic James pulls this off well and I found the different viewpoints added to the story.

This is a highly plot driven novel between the settings of the aristocratic estate and the labour camp. In some sense the overall plot is more focused on how the two groups – the magical elite and the commoners – interact, instead of character-character interactions. However, the macro doesn’t entirely overtake the micro.

There are strong and complex character-character interactions as well. The elite character Gavar with his creepy hold over the commoner child Daisy in addition to a rather tense and unpleasant relationship with his financé comes to mind. This character has a lot going on. Silyen is equally as strange with his creepy magical powers and unclear alliances. However, I found the girl in the labour camp Renie to be more unbelievable. Also the romance in the book (between who I shall not say) wasn’t very swoon-worthy.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. I wish the ending wasn’t as open as it was, but since this is a trilogy I look forward to reading the rest of the series and learning more about the characters.

5 Things I Learned about Writing from Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s “Raven Cycle Series”





















Before I read “The Raven Boys” I’d been in a terrible writing slump, where I was working away at my draft in a dull monotony. I’d forgotten why I liked reading. I’d forgotten why I liked writing. And then, when I read the first page of the novel I was hooked on the entire series. Stiefvater is a master of her craft and you can learn so much about what makes a novel work by reading it.

1) The opening lines are brilliant. Stiefvater chooses to start each book with a prologue, and although there is plenty of conflicting information out there of whether to prologue or not, this choice works so well for her novels. The prologues set the mood for the novels and serve as seductive promises of the intrigue to follow.

Take the first sentence of “The Raven Boys.”
Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.

BAM. The reader needs to know more. How can someone tell Blue with certainty that she will kill her true love? And why so frequently? And will this even happen? If so, how? And more importantly, who IS her true love anyway? Does she have a true love yet?

The rest of the prologue expands this theme and by the end, the reader is committed to reading the rest of the book. The entire series answers the questions raised by the very first sentence of the book.

The first sentence of the second book in the series, “Dream Thieves” is equally as brilliant.
A secret is a strange thing.

Simple, but effective. In this prologue, Stiefvater breaks into an essay of the different kinds of secrets and how they apply to one of her characters. It. Is. Amazing. The theme of secrets immediately brings intrigue to the novel and promises that the reader will understand her characters like no one else will.

Which leads me to the next point.

2) The books are incredibly character driven. Forget about flat sucky characters that drift around aimlessly and only jump to the plot because the author tells them to. Stiefvater’s characters have so much depth they seem like real people. Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Blue have their own hopes and fears, secrets, families, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Although Noah isn’t as well developed, that’s for other reasons.

In each of the books, the personal motives of each of these four characters are made perfectly clear. Each of them is different. Each of them drives the plot in their own way. And the way they interact together is magical. So much yes.

By the end of the series, I felt a physical ache inside that I would be leaving the characters behind forever. It felt like losing old friends. Fortunately, Stiefvater’s writing a new book about Ronan so I won’t have to say goodbye just yet!

3) The brand of magic is distinct, unusual and kind of quirky. The magic doesn’t fall into typical YA fantasy clichés and is refreshing. Obscurely Old Welsh Kings in the Virginia Hills and Lee Lines are awesome. The novel revolves around Glendower’s burial, a king whose refreshingly not Arthur of the famous legend. There’s an arcane historical element, which I loved and the Latin never gets old.

However, the medieval historical magic doesn’t make this a dry read. In fact, Stiefvater balances this unusual topic with aspects the YA readership loves. Namely one girl hanging out with four hot private school boys in cool cars exploring the countryside. What high school girl doesn’t want to do that? If there’s some weird magic going on, why that’s just a bonus.

Basically, the reader doesn’t have to like history to like this book. The history just sort of slips in.

4) Stiefvater has a clear, concise way of writing. Nothing rambles. Every sentence has a purpose and leads to the next one. The descriptions usually highlight character or the setting and use the perfect words to do so.

I learned so much just by checking out how she starts each of her chapters. There are three main ways she does this:

a) A opening sentence telling you the character and the setting where the action will take place for the scene.
e.g.: Gansey woke in the night to find the moon full on his face and his phone ringing (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 9).
Clearly, the character is Gansey.
The setting is at night and the reader probably can assume that he’s in his room at Monmouth since he just woke up.

b) A topic sentence that reveals an aspect about the character or setting we’re going to follow for the chapter, almost like the start of an essay.
e.g.: Mornings at 300 Fox Way were fearful, jumbled things (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 3).
This is a topic sentence about setting.
e.g.: Blue wouldn’t really describe herself as a waitress (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 6).
This is a topic sentence about character.

c) Or she starts the chapter with Dialogue, often asking a question.
e.g: “Mom, why is Neeve here?” Blue asked (“The Raven Boys,” Chapter 13).

The first two ways demonstrate how to start a scene without ambiguity. It’s helpful to be precise and tell us who, what, where, and why as quickly as possible. Ways b and c also promote intrigue for the reader. These three ways to start a chapter work well.

5) Authentic dialogue. Each character has a way of speaking that’s uniquely their own and showcases their personality. I’ve read before that for good dialogue, the tags aren’t entirely necessary. You should be able to tell without tags that there are different people conversing. Stiefvater’s dialogue definitely meets this goal.

Also, the dialogue is humourous. This in turn, makes the characters more likeable even if they are difficult people.


Thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

Let me tell you about my Harry Potter activities of the past year:

1) I attended a Harry Potter party that coincided with the beginning of the school year at my local library. There was a wide range of ages from students of Hogwarts to Alumni. We drank butter beer (caramel soda with syrup and ice-cream), made crafts (wands, spell books and tote bags), and watched a local improv comedy group preform themed skits.

2) I read “Beedles the Bard,” the collection of Wizard Fairytales written by JK Rowling.

3) I listened to “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” on audio book. Let’s just say that Voldermort still scares the crap out of me. I barely slept the night after listening to the final chapter. Funny how my bathrobe on the back of my chair looks exactly like Voldermort with the lights out. Oh my god.

4) Sometimes I wear a Ravenclaw pin on my button-down shirt. I know it’s more trendy to be Hufflepuff or Slytherin, or some weird combo like Griffinpuff, but. I just can’t. I’m a Ravenclaw thorough and thorough.

5) I’m rewatching Harry Potter movies 4 (Daniel Radcliffe has the best hair in this one), and 7 parts 1 and 2 just for the feels.

I tell you guys. The magic’s still going strong even with the muggles.

But I wanted to talk about another item on the list entirely.

5) I read the play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Yep. I did it. Out of peer pressure from my YA book club.

Harry Potter has always been a franchise, but this latest creation really demonstrated how low it could go. People tell me “Scorpius! Such an original character!”

I say, “Puh-lease. The whole thing’s a rehash of book 4.” (And I just listened to book four, so I know.)

It didn’t knock me off my broomstick to say the least. And I was disappointed. Very disappointed.

There were so many directions the play could’ve gone in. A whole new year at Hogwarts, a whole new threat to conquer, a whole new cast of characters that didn’t involve the golden trio. And some of this happened, but it wasn’t exploited to the fullest extent. Instead, the writers relied on one thing above all others: fan service.

Fans want more official Potter in any shape or form. It doesn’t matter about the quality, it just matters that it exists. It doesn’t matter how many times people joke about Voldermort’s lack of a nose. It’s still funny… or is it?

Let me just say it: Watching Harry, Ron and Hermione in office jobs with greying hair, parenting problems, and developing guts is not magical. It’s *bloody* depressing.

“But they’re just like us!” You cry. “There’s nothing wrong with offices, aging, parenting, and obesity!”

No, there’s nothing wrong with it, but I like Harry Potter to stand for hope. For light in the midst of darkness, for extraordinary among the mundane. And to see the hero of my youth reduced to someone more muggle than wizard, that was very depressing indeed.

As for the plot involving the kids, it was a tired rendition of the plot from the fourth book. Bringing the threat of Voldermort back in the running killed the satisfaction of the seventh book’s resolution. Can’t there be other dark wizards? Must we always rely on Voldermort? Why can’t Voldermort stay dead where he belongs?

Harry Potter is the Iliad and Odyssey of our time. We know the myths inside and out. We don’t need a rehash, because the original work is timeless onto itself.