Review: CARAVAL

OMG. This book! I was just dying to have it in my hands, and the moment I started I couldn't put it down. Which, side note, is NOT the best way to go. I tend to devour books like a starving wolf instead of taking my sweet time, and slowly enjoy every word. No matter how many times I tell myself to slow my roll, it just doesn't happen. Le sigh. 

But back to this amazing book. 

First, the premise. It's exciting and original, a story about sisters and creepy in a good way.  The book is full of twist and turns, the writing is spot on and echoes the vibrancy of its setting. By that I mean, it's hard not to imagine COLOR as you're reading. Stephanie Garber nailed the prose and told the story beautifully—it's SO descriptive! As a writer, I tip my hat off to you. I LOVE the feeling you get when you're diving into a new book, and immediately you get the sense that you're in good hands. You can trust this author to deliver, to transport you so deep into the story that you're feeling everything the characters are. And holy crap, does Stephanie put you through the ringer! I experienced a wide range of emotions while reading. Like Scarlett, you just don't know who to trust. 

I loved everything about it—ESPECIALLY the epilogue. OH. EM. GEE. I can't wait for the next one. Please already be writing it, Stephanie! 

CARAVAL has so much going for it (and the romance is super sweet, too!), I highly recommend you pick this one up! 

And, here's the official description:

Whatever you've heard about Caraval, it doesn't compare to the reality. It's more than just a game or a performance. It's the closest you'll ever find to magic in this world . . . 

Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.

Review: HUNTED

My sweet friend lent me HUNTED because she knows I'm a sucker for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST retellings, and I'm so stinking happy she did. 

I have read my fair share of retellings, especially about Beauty and her grumpy friend, Beast. My favorite version to date is BEAUTY by the indomitable Robin McKinley. If you haven't read it, stop what you're doing and get thee to the library. You're welcome. 

For reference, here's the official description of the book:

Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones—and in her blood. Though she grew up with the city’s highest aristocrats, far from her father’s old lodge, she knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering them. 

So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas…or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman. But Yeva’s father’s misfortune may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance. 

Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva’s only heard about in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin or salvation. Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?

When I started HUNTED, I have to admit I was super nervous. I love retellings, but I find that I'm drawn to the stories that flesh out the tale in a unique way, but still keep the essence of the original. When Marissa Meyer wrote her Lunar Chronicle stories, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them (except for WINTER, but that's me personally. I have such a hard time reading about a character who turns evil. I had the same issue with THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY and BREAKING BAD). 

HUNTED was able to show me a fully realized world, while still keeping with that whimsical, vintage and historical tone I love from the original tale. It felt fresh, but familiar at the same time. I was hooked by the end of chapter one.

Our heroine is headstrong and brave, adept at hunting thanks to her Papa, and it was a joy getting to know her. I'm also drawn to stories about sisters—I think it's because I don't have any, and I want to adopt them all. Their relationship was portrayed in a realistic and sincere way, which I appreciated. The three of them rang true, and were all fully developed. And they had journeys of their own—KUDOS to the Meagan Spooner. It's amazing to read about characters who aren't props for the MC. They each had their own story, own desires and disappointments, separate from our Heroine. 

As for the BEAST...Yes, please and thank you. He's a great character and when he's on the page, he steals the show. The romance absolutely worked—no instalove here! 

In this book we have wonderful writing, adventure, a sweet love story, sisters, and a dog! Seriously, I highly, highly recommend the read! 

Review: WINDWITCH

My time back in the WITCHLANDS...

Full disclosure: I am in love with this book. A sweet friend lent her ARC to me, and I could barely contain my delirium I was that excited to read the sequel to WINDWITCH. I had fallen in love with the friendship story at the heart of these books. In the first book, we meet Safi + Iseult. Two witches from the Witchlands who each have a specific power. From the get go, their dynamic pulls you in. It's the trust that exists between them that makes a refreshing change to see a book center around a friendship as they are tested and tried. 

For reference, here's the official description of the book: 

Sometimes our enemies are also our only allies…

When an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.

When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first? 

After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Marstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

In the sequel, the story still feels like it's about Safi + Iseult, even as the book follows the heels of Merick, Safi's love interest from book numero uno. The undercurrent of their romance is still there but it's not main drive of our hero—he has much bigger fish to fry, since you know, he survived an explosion and he'd like some answers. 

In this one, despite being miles apart, you'll still feel how much Safi + Iseult deeply care and miss each other. The book hops from one POV to another, and it never feels jarring, managing to check in with its growing cast consistently and at a solid clip. Which is why Safi and Iseult not reuniting isn't a bad thing. You're still seeing slices of their lives—and it is thrilling.

It's amazing how deftly Susan weaves in the subject of family. Safi and Iseult feel like sisters (they aren't), and Merick is at odds with his own flesh and blood, but ends up relying so much on another character. It's interesting to read how these characters honor the relationships in their lives who feel like family, even if they aren't. 

So, let's talk about my favorite character Iseult. Out of everyone, her story intrigues me the most and perhaps it's because I relate to her more. She's the character who hasn't fully stepped into who she is or knows what she's really capable of. Her best friend is nobility, beautiful and a fighting machine, never mind that Iseult can hold her own in a battle. If I were Iseult, I'd start to feel like a shadow. It would be hard not to question what role you're meant to play, if you're even meant for something more and bigger and special. I just love Iseult because she's not afraid of confronting her insecurities. She thinks she just might be the lesser half in her friendship with Safi. She might be the ordinary one. She's totally wrong but that's for her to discover as her arc continues. 

And Aeduan. OMG. This man. If you've got a wee crush on this character, can I direct you to this post

YUP. GUESS WHO'S UP NEXT, FOLKS. 

All right, one last thing. The WORLD BUILDING. There's something about stepping back into a world after having left it for a year or more, and everything feeling so comfortingly familiar. That's the mark of a great writer. The world feels it's own, concrete and though it offers surprises, it feels recognizable. Like a friend you haven't seen in a really long time. Like that old friend, you remember certain ticks of theirs, you remember how they take their coffee or how they don't like to wear sneakers. This felt much the same. You remember who doesn't like who, you remember the allies and their enemies and those who put a sour taste in your mouth when you first met them in the previous book. 

All that to say, I highly recommend that you get thee to a bookstore (shop small, ya'll!) and pick up this gem. And maybe harass Susan to hurry up with the next one. Speaking of...if you need a beta reader for that one, you just let me know! ;)

 

Query Critique Numero Tres

Hello! This is last of the query critiques! It has been SO fun seeing these. Thanks so much for everyone tuning in! 

Let's jump in! 

ORIGINAL QUERY

A visit to Santa’s workshop is supposed to be fun, but all Angela gets is a global conspiracy and a lousy candy cane.

Twelve-year-old Angela Xue has believed in Santa her whole life. After all, he’s been one of the most loved public figures in the world ever since he revealed his existence to humanity twenty-two years ago. And who cares if Santa’s probably—okay, definitely—keeping some secrets underneath his red and white hat? You just don’t question the guy handing out free stuff.

But when an off-course tour tram on a school trip to the North Pole leads to a jaunt through a restricted area, Angela begins to question how nice Santa really is. And if seeing live stream of spy cameras and audio bugs hidden in the homes of supposed naughty kids isn't enough to arouse her suspicions, their tour guide also tells them to forget what they saw—and everybody in the class except her mysteriously does two hours later.

And all that’s before Santa’s elite elven hit squad shows up on her doorstep.

Joined by her friends Grace and Jehan, Angela launches an investigation that takes her from the suburbs of Edmonton to the North Pole, into the paths of flying reindeer, sleeping sand, secret bunkers, and magic bullets. But when her dogged search for the truth starts turning into an obsession, destroys her reputation, and gets her friends hurt, Angela must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to bring Santa down. And how bad are Santa’s tactics—spying, lying, and drugging people—really? Because she’s started to use them herself. But one thing is clear—she needs to decide what she really wants before Santa Claus comes to town on Christmas eve, or he’ll decide for her.

THE CANDY CANE CONSPIRACY, complete at 84 thousand words [I know this is high for MG, and I swear I will cut it down before the PW submission deadline], is an upper middle-grade adventure with fantasy and sci-fi elements and some light satirical undertones. It is written in a metafictional journal format with frequent fourth wall breaks, in a similar style as Rick Riordan’s THE KANE CHRONICLES series, but with a journal instead of an audio recording. It has a strong series potential, but can also stand alone. Its magical elements and retake on classic folkloric figures should appeal to fans of THE GUARDIANS OF CHILDHOOD series by William Joyce, it’s blend of science and magic to lovers of ARTEMIS FOWL, while its snarky, spirited protagonist should appeal to Rick Riordan fans. It is my first novel, and an #ownvoices story.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

BREAKING IT DOWN

A visit to Santa’s workshop is supposed to be fun, but all Angela gets is a global conspiracy and a lousy candy cane.        

So this query has a hooky first line and I think it works and sets up the tone for both the query and story.

Twelve-year-old Angela Xue has believed in Santa her whole life. After all, he’s been one of the most loved public figures in the world ever since he revealed his existence to humanity twenty-two years ago. And who cares if Santa’s probably—okay, definitely—keeping some secrets underneath his red and white hat? You just don’t question the guy handing out free stuff.    

This is a great first paragraph. Here's what is working:

  • Intro the main character and age
  • Secondary Character—Santa Claus
  • Setting up the world. The story takes place in a world where Santa Claus is real. 
  • Great voice! 

But when an off-course tour tram on a school trip to the North Pole leads to a jaunt through a restricted area, Angela begins to question how nice Santa really is. And if seeing live stream of spy cameras and audio bugs hidden in the homes of supposed naughty kids isn't enough to arouse her suspicions, their tour guide also tells them to forget what they saw—and everybody in the class except her mysteriously does two hours later.       

This is a great second paragraph. We have school trips and restricted areas which sets up intrigue and tension. Here's what else is working: 

  • Angela is beginning to question Santa—which creates tension since the world believes him to be, well, wonderful. 
  • This paragraph sets up Angela to have agency in the story. What is SHE going to do with the information she has?

The only thing I will say that's tripping me up is the last sentence. It's a long sentence and I think it can be shortened. Aim for some punchy and short lines. They will stand out amongst the longer sentences. 

And all that’s before Santa’s elite elven hit squad shows up on her doorstep.            

Normally, I strictly adhere to the three paragraph rule but I think having the above sentence on its own works. 

Joined by her friends Grace and Jehan, Angela launches an investigation that takes her from the suburbs of Edmonton to the North Pole, into the paths of flying reindeer, sleeping sand, secret bunkers, and magic bullets. But when her dogged search for the truth starts turning into an obsession, destroys her reputation, and gets her friends hurt, Angela must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to bring Santa down. And how bad are Santa’s tactics—spying, lying, and drugging people—really? Because she’s started to use them herself. But one thing is clear—she needs to decide what she really wants before Santa Claus comes to town on Christmas eve, or he’ll decide for her.      

There is some great details in the above sentence and it's clear this is an adventurous story! As I'm reading, I'm intrigued by the premise and the writer does a great job of giving enough details for the reader to connect with the main character and the plot of the story. 

Since this query is for Middle Grade, I would strongly recommend tightening up the sentences since most tend to run long. There is enough here to break up the longer sentences to create stand out lines. 

I also LOVE that the main character's arc will have to address all the tactics she's using against Santa. This sets up internal tension and a deep character change. There's stuff happening around the character and stuff happening internally, too. Perfect. 

THE CANDY CANE CONSPIRACY, complete at 84 thousand words, is an upper middle-grade adventure with fantasy and sci-fi elements and some light satirical undertones. It is written in a metafictional journal format with frequent fourth wall breaks, in a similar style as Rick Riordan’s THE KANE CHRONICLES series, but with a journal instead of an audio recording. It has a strong series potential, but can also stand alone. Its magical elements and retake on classic folkloric figures should appeal to fans of THE GUARDIANS OF CHILDHOOD series by William Joyce, it’s blend of science and magic to lovers of ARTEMIS FOWL, while its snarky, spirited protagonist should appeal to Rick Riordan fans. It is my first novel, and an #ownvoices story.        

Bio section: Holy word count! For MG this is a bit high. Here's a great source on word count! The next thing I'd say is to take out any advertising you're doing on behalf of the book. The writing should speak for itself. Just state the genre, and leave it at that! Lastly, no need to mention this is your first novel. 

EDITED QUERY

First paragraph: 

A visit to Santa’s workshop is supposed to be fun, but all Angela gets is a global conspiracy and a lousy candy cane. 

Twelve-year-old Angela Xue has believed in Santa her whole life. After all, he’s been one of the most loved public figures in the world ever since he revealed his existence to humanity twenty-two years ago. And who cares if Santa’s probably—okay, definitely—keeping some secrets underneath his red and white hat? You just don’t question the guy handing out free stuff.       

Second Paragraph:

But when an off-course tour tram on a school trip to the North Pole leads to a jaunt through a restricted area, Angela begins to question how nice Santa really is. Her suspicions are aroused when she sees live stream of spy cameras and audio bugs hidden in the homes of supposed naughty kids. Their tour guide tells them to forget what they saw. Everybody in the class—except her—mysteriously does two hours later.

And all that’s before Santa’s elite elven hit squad shows up on her doorstep.     

Third Paragraph: 

Joined by her friends Grace and Jehan, Angela launches an investigation that takes her from the suburbs of Edmonton to the North Pole. Her dogged search for the truth turns into an obsession, destroying her reputation, and putting her friends in danger. Angela must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to bring Santa down. And how bad are Santa’s tactics—spying, lying, and drugging people—really? Because she’s started to use them herself. But one thing is clear—she needs to decide what she really wants before Santa Claus comes to town on Christmas eve, or he’ll decide for her.     

Bio:

THE CANDY CANE CONSPIRACY, is an 84,000 upper Middle Grade Fantasy. It was written to stand alone with series potential and will appeal to fans of William Joyce's THE GUARDIANS OF CHILDHOOD, ARTEMIS FOWL, and Rick Riordan fans. 

OK! That's it for the query critiques! I hope this series has been helpful. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below or give me a shout out on twitter! Thanks!