Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A School for Unusual Girls By Kathleen Baldwin

Title: A School for Unusual Girls (Stranje House, #1)
Author: Kathleen Baldwin
Date Published: May 19th 2015
Publisher: Tor Teen

Rating: 5 out of 5 

Goodreads Blurb: 
 It’s 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England’s dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don't fit high society’s constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young ladies. Or so their parents think. In truth, Headmistress Emma Stranje, the original unusual girl, has plans for the young ladies—plans that entangle the girls in the dangerous world of spies, diplomacy, and war. After accidentally setting her father’s stables on fire while performing a scientific experiment, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam is sent to Stranje House. But Georgie has no intention of being turned into a simpering, pudding-headed, marriageable miss. She plans to escape as soon as possible—until she meets Lord Sebastian Wyatt. Thrust together in a desperate mission to invent a new invisible ink for the English war effort, Georgie and Sebastian must find a way to work together without losing their heads—or their hearts...

This book was surprisingly awesome. I totally expected a stereotypical plot (no offense but Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriager was what I was anticipating from reading the blurb) and dull characters but I was so wrong. The genre is historical fiction (one of my favorites) and had three important elements- balls, science, and spies. Ahem, sorry. Diplomats

So when Gerogie (yup we're on a first name basis) was sent to the finishing school by her abominable parents, I was hooked. I totally felt her emotions as my own and her character was extremely endearing, not only because she was incredibly smart, but also because she had a crazy passion for science. That was pretty awesome, since most MCs rarely come off as being blue stockings. She was prodigious but wasn't a super ninja like Tess, or a wonderful diplomat like Maya. She just seemed like an ordinary girl, and that, more than anything else, emphasized the fact that she was absolutely brilliant.

Another well done factor in the book was the finishing school. The peculiar characters, like the headmistress, Madame Cho, Ravencliffe, and the girls were extremely dynamic and all of them clearly had depth. Although the specifics and history of a few characters, like Jane and Maya, weren't thoroughly enough described to satisfy my curiosity, the resulting, enigmatic persona only added to their charm. The General and his nephew, Sebastian (OMG, I think Cassandra Clare has well and truly ruined that name for me. Sigh. I totally forgive her though, her novels were wondrous) were ruggedly noble characters. 

The secret spy vibe going on was too cool, and all the parts of the book (the espionage, the war against Napoleon, Stranje house, Georgie's life, Sebastian's still murky past) were all combined seamlessly and left me wanting to know a looooot more about each and  every character. Especially Headmistress Stranje (what is up with her and the Captain), who I adored. 

This book was uniquely its own and I believe it is easily on my top 25 list for 2015. I recommend it to anyone who is a fan of any of Gail Carriager's novels (either the Finishing School series or the Parasol Protectorate series, which btw is FAB) or a fan of steampunk, Regency London, bluestockings, and teenagers with superpowers (I know that this doesn't seem to fit in with anything I previously described but trust me, this was the most germane description I could think of).

Rook by Sharon Cameron

Title: Rook
Author: Sharon Cameron 
Date Published: April 28th 2015
Publisher: Scholastic Press

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Goodreads Blurb:

History has a way of repeating itself. In the Sunken City that was once Paris, all who oppose the new revolution are being put to the blade. Except for those who disappear from their prison cells, a red-tipped rook feather left in their place. Is the mysterious Red Rook a savior of the innocent or a criminal? Meanwhile, across the sea in the Commonwealth, Sophia Bellamy’s arranged marriage to the wealthy René Hasard is the last chance to save her family from ruin. But when the search for the Red Rook comes straight to her doorstep, Sophia discovers that her fiancé is not all he seems. Which is only fair, because neither is she. As the Red Rook grows bolder and the stakes grow higher, Sophia and René find themselves locked in a tantalizing game of cat and mouse.

To put things into perspective: the ONE about this book that I absolutely hate is that it is a stand-alone. No sequel, trilogy, series, NOTHING. That being said, here's why I absolutely loved this book: 


It was beautifully crafted- the Sunken City and the Commonwealth (the two main locations) were very well written and both had such a historical feel to them, with an abundance of balls, mansions, and elegant, Regency era clothing. The charming country setting where the MC Sophia lived and the gritty slums of the Sunken City (where the villain resided) contrasted each other perfectly and while they were supposed to be loosely based actual locations, they were also wonderfully unique. 

The Guillotine 

I absolutely LOOOOOVE allusions, so I couldn't help drawing parallels to the French Revolution (from the perspective given by the Tale of Two Cities) to the social unrest occurring in the Sunken City, which BTW is the post apocalyptic version of Paris. When I say post apocalyptic I automatically think zombies, DNA alterations, and all that futuristic stuff BUT this is nothing supernatural. At times, I almost felt as if I was reading historical fiction. 
Back to the Revolution.The over-arching plot is a battle against the old and new; technology is considered the bane of humanity and responsible for the division of the rich and poor. So in the country this book was taking place in, all past relics (such as watches, light bulbs, and other tech) were illegal. 
Another startling parallel was that the government/Ministry was made up of wackos who were
1) were fanatical believers in fate, luck, and other nonsense, 2) sadistic murderers, 3) lazy, rich people, or 4) a combination of the aforementioned descriptions. 
These wackos responded very poorly to criticism and... wait for it.... chopped off the heads of thousands of so-called rebels. Similar to its purpose in the French Revolution, the Guillotine was used to consolidate power, instill fear, and keep rebellion to a minimum. 

That being said, the antagonist, who was one of those previously mentioned wackos (number 4, to be specific), wasn't as crazy as he could have been, and luckily there wasn't much psychological warfare going on (which at times, drives me absolutely nutty). 


The two main characters, René and Sophia definitely had layers and different images that were shown in different situations. René especially came as a biiig surprise. Even though I read the blurb before starting the novel, I was waiting for the actual hero/male lead to step in.... I waited until the chess game, and that's when it became obvious to me [SPOILER] René wasn't a silly headed ninny, he was just acting... You guys will probably realize that sooner than I did. But aside from their many, many interesting personas, all the characters were, for the most part, very simple. I don't mean to contradict myself, but the characters seemed too straightforward. There really wasn't much doubt to what each characters motives were (René and Spear being brief exceptions). Sophia's brother was an awesome brother and her "protecter", Spear, also had a strong voice throughout the book, especially near the end, when I couldn't discern his true feelings towards Sophia. I was able to understand and empathize with the characters and I felt their emotions as my own, which for any reader, is a big determining factor in judging a book. 
I also like the the dialogue between René and Sophia, it was refreshingly witty and non-gooey until the second half of the books, where they decided they didn't hate each other anymore. Sigh. Both were strong characters and had spunk, which I definitely appreciated. However, one thing about René I didn't like too much was that he was careless and pirate-like. I didn't see much of his serious side, unlike Sophia who was serious and witty in appropriate measures. 


It wasn't much of a memorable ending BUT I did shed a few tears over a character's death, which was surprisingly devastating. Also, it was near the end when I realized how long the book was and how the author could have stopped this book multiple times, and waited for a sequel to continue the story. I'm really glad she didn't, but with all the action going on, there were plenty of possible cliffhangers. 

VERDICT: This book is a fun, light read that successfully combines multiple genres (historical fiction, post-apocalyptic, fantasy). It was very long, but at the same time packed with action so there was never a boring moment. I recommend this to anyone who's finding the YA fantasy shelf a little lacking this summer/winter (whichever hemisphere you're in) and is ready to have their mind blown away by something that's actually satisfyingly good.