The Last Of Her Name by Jessica Khoury

Sadly, this fell into so many cliches and was so shallowly written as to be a real slog to have to get through (especially without rolling my eyes every few pages). Loosely based on the Russian Revolution, the setting is sci fi: cue boys falling all over our heroine for no particular reason, a mustache-twirling 2-dimensional bad guy, and a lot of side characters who really needed to be fleshed out more (in one case, literally). Last of Her Name is not a terrible read but I have to wonder if perhaps it is time we really ask for more from YA authors these days.

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Story: Anya has been running wild and free on a vineyard in a remote part of the jewel belt of planets. She’s happy to fix space engines (oddly enough) and play with her childhood friends Pol (from a genetically mutated set of humans) and Clio. But then the quasi-Stalinist leader Direktor Eminent shows up on their doorstep and accuses her of being the lost princess of the deposed ‘czar’. Not only that, but that her family has a secret mutation themselves that has allowed them to rule the galaxy until the Direktor took control. Anya must flee with her friends to save her life and discover her power.

The parallel to the Russian revolution is that hereditary rule is replaced by the emperor having a genetic mutation that allows the family to control the mysterious crystals that power the entire jewel belt – from ships to everything on the ground. There is a very far fetched plot that the emperor killed his family to protect the secret from someone less ethical taking control of it – while at the same time spiriting his infant daughter out of the palace. Anya is believed to be the key to unlocking that genetic code and so will be hunted across their galaxy.

The cliches come hard and fast:

– girl with mysterious hidden power that she suddenly discovers in her teens. No one tells her anything about it, natch, even though it is very important to the galaxy and could have made the difference between her surviving by using it or dying.
– girl is rude and obnoxious and kind of dumb. Yet everyone falls all over themselves to protect her.
– boy love interest is madly in love with her and spends a lot of time either saving her from her own stupid actions or trying to sacrifice himself for her.
– villain is an evil megalomaniac.
– girl uses a lot of modern phrases – such as “As if!”
– girl spends most of her time rushing into danger and making decisions without consulting anyone. Too much TSTL syndrome.
– boy is perfect in every regard. Overidealized to the extreme.
etc. etc.

The book is mostly a series of chase scenes and they do alleviate a lot of the more simplistic elements of the plots and characters. There is a very shallow discussion of the genetic mutations, some elements of prejudice against them, and a rulership loosely based on the Russian Czars. There are also a lot of Russian names, in case you didn’t get the parallel.

In all honesty, I didn’t really like Anya. There is so much tell and not enough show – and the plot felt loosely defined and ended rather pat. The big surprise was easy to guess early on and so much felt shoe-horned in order to make the surprise somewhat legitimate. But I think the biggest issue is that YA is so starved for intelligent heroines who use their brain and not their impulses. I want to see a book where the heroine really thinks through all her actions and doesn’t react on every single impulse, just so she can be saved. And mostly I want to read about a heroine who inspires the single-minded love of the hero through actions/deed and not just because she’s pretty or has ‘spirit’. Too many heroines are written to show spirit by being rude, impulsive, and aggressive. I want more Elizabeth Darcy rather than Ariel, the Little Mermaid. Written from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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31-Day Food Revolution by Ocean Robbins

It is hard not to like Ocean Robbins – he’s a modern day hippie on a quest to make the world better and ‘get off the grid’, so to speak. All the same, there is not a lot new here for those who have embraced a simpler-food lifestyle. He’s more of a motivational speaker than a chef or nutritionist and the book reads very evangelical in that regard.

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Where this differs from most nutritional books is that there is a heavy emphasis on the environmental, nature, and human impact of the foods we eat. From child slavery producing chocolate to the impact of foods like milk on the animals, the land, etc. It can be very heavy at times – even considering it’s hard not to appreciate that the author has a better world view with that focus. But be prepared for a message as heavy as a lead brick.

Author Robbins balances the heavy messages of the book with a writing that is intimate and personable. The grandson of ice cream giant Baskin-Robbins founder, his family turned their back on the fortune and the business to leave a healthy life (hence the very hippie first name). He will tell you he has a weakness for potato chips, even knowing they aren’t healthy. That, of course, brings him right down to Earth and makes the proselytizing much easier to swallow (pun intended).

The recipes aren’t fancy but they are very simple and easy to follow. And that is the focus of the book – bringing life back to a simple balance and away from the evils of modern civilization and mass production.

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Miss Winthrope’s Elopment by by Christine Merrill, Riho Sachimi

It’s interesting how different a manga adaptation can be from a book.  In Christine Merrill’s original version, we have a much kinkier, more amusing, and much darker Regency Romance.  Mangaka Sachimi, however, makes everything lighter and fluffier, a carefree and sanitized version of a more robust novel.

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Story:  As long as she lives under his roof, heiress Penny Winthrope’s brother has forbidden her from reading her beloved books. In desperation, she sets out to find a husband willing to leave her to her studies in exchange for part of her inheritance.  Adam Selkirk, meanwhile, has lost everything in a desperate gamble and decided to end his life so his brother can take over the title of Duke and hopefully do a better job. When they meet after a carriage accident, Adam and Penny come to an understanding – the commoner heiress will get a title and privacy while Adam will get his debts paid off.  But Adam has a dark past and Penny her own secrets standing in the way to happiness.

The story is a redemptive arc: Adam regretting his past philandering and Penny hiding from a society that shunned her for being plain and intelligent.  The story should be a slow burn as they come to know each other better but Sachimi keeps the book light and fluffy.  No sex, just a chaste kiss, and a Duke who seems both clueless and hapless at the same time.  The alpha male with a heart of gold is somehow transformed from book into a brainless manga handsome guy who is led along by our heroine.  As such, it was a bit hard to really like him or get into him – we never got a chance to see what Penny might have seen in him.

The illustration work is, as always, quite lovely.  It’s the older, 1970s “Rose of Versailles” type of drawing that, while incredibly historically inaccurate and muddled, is still lovely to look at (though I like the female character designs much more than the male).  In all, a lot of the heart (and heat) of the original book are gone and so characters appear much more vapid and honestly kind of silly.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Promised Neverland Volume 9 by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu

With volume 9, we get a second pivotal book in the series. The first milestone was the children escaping from the orphanage. This book is a big reveal about William Minerva and sets a new arc up in the near future. As well, there is a huge surprise at the end that while not unexpected, is definitely welcome.

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Story: Lucas and Emma have made it to the door they were directed to find by William Minerva. When the pen unlocks it, they learn so much more about the resistance to the demons and their own place in the world. Meanwhile, the survivors of the Goldy Pond hunts decide it is time to stand up to the hunters and take out the duke once and for all. How many will survive?

There is a lot of action in this volume since we have quite a few interesting fights as the children go after the demons one by one. They’ve done their homework, they know the weaknesses of each of the hunters, and they also know that it will be one tough battle, especially when they go after the mastermind of the whole ‘game.’

There are additions of several new characters including a new nemesis. In all, the story is rolling out nicely and expanding in an organic and unexpected direction that should continue to provide great storylines. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Middle-Earth by Donato Giancola

This book lives up to the promise: stunning artwork of various types (drawings, paintings, several mediums) and a true passion for Tolkien’s works by the artist. It is obvious he has delved deep into the texts and produced images that are very sympathetic to the original vision. Each scene is described in detail and the book is 90% images with just enough caption wording to explain the concept of the art and the tools used.

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Most of the images are smaller drawings but the full page, full color illustrations are breathtaking. The artist has a command of light that is inspiring, infusing each image with high contrast brightness/darkness values that make the subject(s) of each work pop. Then the colors are as vivid as the lighting, making for truly commanding images.

This is a great book for LOTR fans – very different from the movies but all the better for it as well. It’s a book to savor and perhaps even remove pages to frame. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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It’s Never Too Late To Look Great! by Maggie Cox

Of note, this is a very British-focused book, providing quite a few stores/places to find the fashion featured in the book. Style transcends location, of course, but the thoughts, references, and voice of the book was very British.

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The author starts with a simple premise to help guide older women to finding their own look: STAR (Surprise, True to yourself, Artistry, and Reinvention). Using this principle, she guides women to avoid common mistakes (wearing tents, trying to hide under huge hats, or hoping a garish pattern will distract from the face) while giving examples of styles that always transcend fashion. Most of the book is easy-to-digest motivational or educational passages with an occasional photograph to illustrate a point. I could wish for more photographs, of course, since once the book is read, the reread value is in looking at the images again before shopping. There just aren’t enough of them; certainly, not enough body types or different models/looks.

The photographs themselves are surprisingly low quality; snapshots of the author or one of her friends/acquaintances in candid poses. Many were with hair blowing in the face or standing in full sun outside the house, with little definition of the face or features (despite a large section on makeup that had no photographs or illustration tips). The fashion was clear, yes, but the cover was the only image that was professionally shot. It’s a shame, really, but it does create a more friendly (and perhaps realistic) spotlight on the clothing itself.

In all, I did find inspiration here. Granted, all but one of the women was on the slim side and hadn’t ‘filled out’ like so many of us in later years. There were few pear or apple shapes and only one woman over a size 12 that I could see. I would have liked to see more diversity in the shapes – what works for one woman likely will be problematic on another. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Through The White Wood by Jessica Leake

With a mix of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Russian myth and mythology, and the typical YA heroine and bland insta luv hero, this is an ideal Summer read when you don’t want to be challenged. The book travels between medieval Kiev and Constantinople, with a nice and simplistic milieu that is easy to digest. If the characters are paper-thin and heavily cliched, the book makes up for this with some charm. The bad guys are punished and our good-hearted heroes triumph in the end.

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Story: Katya lives in a poor village and is tormented for his ability to control ice. When her grandfather tries to protect her from the bullying, he is assaulted and she loses control of her power, killing many of the villagers and her grandfather in the process. Arrested and taken to the prince of Kiev Rus, she fears for her life. But the prince needs her help to save the principality from earth elementals. Can the two work together to save the Kiev Rus?

Yes, the usual cliches are here: girl with unknown powerful mother, instaluv perfect prince, misunderstandings to cause drama with the prince but she’ll learn he’s not evil but actually good hearted, road trip to discover her heritage, secret uber-powerful mysterious inherited magic she hates but has to master, returning lovey-dovey characters from previous book, mustache twirling bad guys, etc. The plot is the usual as well – ‘oh, I have a power, but I don’t know how to use it, so it’s lucky this uber handsome and perfect prince will help me! Oh noes, bad guys, I must learn to master my power and zap them or they will hurt my prince!” But even though we’ve read this before, Through the White Wood doesn’t hit any sour notes and at least has a more interested fantasy setting in old Russia.

So yes, an enjoyable if undemanding read with your usual energetic and moody heroine, cute and virtuous prince who dotes on her every breath, a cast of disposable side characters, and some super-evil villains (they capture villagers to enslave them!) that need to be triumphed over for the story to end. There are also some questions left open for more books future as well. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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