Friday, July 22, 2016

THE FEARLESS


Review of THE FEARLESS by EMMA PASS
(based on a review copy)

It seems like a good thing when someone invents a drug that supposedly cures PTSD, but then come the side affects. Those given the drug not only feel no fear, they feel…nothing. And it doesn’t take long for these weaponized humans to take over the world, turning everyone in their path into more Fearless. Cass manages to flee with her family to an island prepped as an escape route, but a few years later a Fearless takes her little brother Jori. He’s all she has left and Cass will do whatever it takes to get him back. While the premise of this book is certainly an overdone trend (yes, another post-apocalyptic survival story and the ‘drug gone wrong’ angle isn’t new either), the author executes her specific story so well that I would encourage you to read this one anyway.

I enjoyed this book from the start and found myself riveted by the second half. It’s a quick read with short chapters switching between three character perspectives:  Cass, Myo (a boy who came to the island around the same time Jori was kidnapped), and Sol (Cass’s childhood friend turned bitter by unrequited feelings for Cass). There’s absolutely no boring parts in this book.

Cass is a tough chick without being cliché. Her life has taught her to bottle her emotions, at least until she’s handled a situation, and she’s certainly above average in the fitness category. That being said, she meets people on her search who make her feel like a weakling, all her training on a tiny island incomparable to the horrors they’ve had to survive. She’s likably single minded: Jori is the center of her shrinking world. Minor spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. The Fearless caught Cass’s father when they first fled and her mother killed herself not long after they settled on the island. Life on Hope island is a small flicker of what it used to be, focused more around survival than any kind of happiness. As long as Cass has Jori, though, everything else feels worthwhile. She won’t let anything steer her away from protecting him, or in this case saving him.

I found the perspective shifts confusing, mostly because the author uses first person for everyone’s perspective. A name at the start of the chapter tells you whose perspective we’re in, but it’s easy to forget along the way when it’s all first person.  

The ending also cuts off more abruptly than I wanted. I can’t tell if this is intended as a standalone or the first in the series, but regardless I would have liked a little more denouement.

I had very mixed feelings on Sol. Sometimes I felt his character seemed too flat. From the first chapter in his perspective, he’s not a likeable person and as we keep experiencing his viewpoint he’s a clear villain, close to evil. I kept waiting for more layers or development to his character, but what you see if what you get with Sol. That being said, I also argued with myself that his particular brand of “evil” is actually quite realistic and believable. Maybe my issue is actually more with the book following a bad guy. The typical style is to follow the hero. George R.R. Martin subverts this in his popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, but that aside there’s a reason we prefer to follow the hero. We can relate more. We care more. My interest sometimes waned when in Sol’s perspective, because I found little redeeming to him and couldn’t see other sides to his personality.

My few criticisms aside, I enjoyed this book beginning to end and certainly wouldn’t mind to discover it’s the first in a series. I do know I’ll likely be reading Pass’s debut novel ACID soon and keeping on the lookout for her next publication.

Friday, July 15, 2016

COLD BURN OF MAGIC


Review of COLD BURN OF MAGIC by JENNIFER ESTEP
(first in the BLACK BLADE series, based on a review copy)

I have criticisms aplenty for this book and yet I enjoyed it nonetheless, because the characters won me over. Lila lives on the streets, or rather squatting in a library, and earns a living running odd theft jobs. In a world run by powerful, magical Families, she does what she can to stay out of their squabbles. After all, the same can’t be said for Lila’s mother and that’s why she’s dead. Then Lila does the honorable thing and saves an important Family boy when he’s attacked right in front of her. Before she knows it, she’s roped into being his bodyguard and that position hasn’t ended well for the last few people who held it.

As far as my many criticisms, I’ll list a few. For starters, I couldn’t root myself in the setting for several chapters. It took me a while to figure out what time period this was supposed to be. (Answer: today.) While the language seems modern, everyone’s using swords. We later get an explanation for that...but the explanation makes no sense. Supposedly everyone uses swords, because they’re made of a special magical metal, but then why can’t they use that same magical metal for guns or more modern weapons? In general, there were a lot of logic gaps that kept distracting me from the actual plot. The beginning also opens with a big information dump explaining how magic works and despite these explicit explanations I still had so many unanswered questions. An important lingering confusion was that I didn’t understand Lila’s unique transference magic and exactly how it works. It doesn't actually seem that useful based on what I read, but everyone acts like it’s incredibly powerful. There’s also a lot of speculating about what others are thinking as well as characters talking to themselves as Lila walks into a room, which seems a kind of clunky way of getting around the fact that we’re only in Lila’s viewpoint. The last criticism I’ll throw out is that the book’s depiction of mobsters feels very cheesy and cliché. 

Obviously, I found a lot to nitpick, but despite it all I like Lila. She’s spunky and resourceful and had a direct way of thinking I admire. For example, plenty of books feature characters bent on revenge for a death of a beloved one. Lila addresses that the thought of avenging her mother’s death is tempting, but “I liked living a little too much to throw my life away on some suicide revenge mission.” I’ve read so many characters that don’t think any farther past the urge for revenge that I admired Lila’s maturity in understanding the consequences of seeking vengeance and whether it would really be worth it.

I also liked Devon, despite being the kind of moody and sulky love interest that can usually drive me crazy. I saw to his good heart as did Lila and he seems too sweet and caring for the lifestyle he’s living. I loved Felix, Devon’s outrageously chatty and flirtatious friend. Some of the other characters - Mo, Claudia, Oscar - feel a little more flat, but these three ringleaders had enough nuanced layers to make me really care what happens next to them.

Though this novel has enough closure to the main plot thread, there are lots of other allusions to additional secrets and clear plans being prepped for future books. In all honesty, I likely won’t read on. There are already too many books and too little time and the negative here outweighed the positive too much for me to go seeking out sequels. That being said, for anyone who’s curious if this book is for you, it’s an easy, fast read and won’t take much time to decide.

Friday, July 8, 2016

WILDTHORN


Review of WILDTHORN by JANE EAGLAND

Louisa Cosgrove doesn’t belong in her time. Victorian England simply can’t tolerate young women like her, women who won’t behave as a proper woman should. Louisa reads far too much for one thing. (If that’s a sin, I’m quite the rebel myself!) And this unhealthy obsession with knowledge has encouraged some ridiculous ambitions: Louisa wants to be a doctor.

As I mentioned in last week’s review, I did keep mixing this book up with another I read at the same time - THE GATHERING STORM - only because, in terms of personality, the two protagonists seem interchangeable: a desire to be a doctor in a society that forbids that for women, a mother who discourages such controversial ambitions, and a doting father who admires them. While Louisa lives in a world without magic, I bet you could plop her down in Katerina’s world of Russian balls and vampire princes - or vice versa: send Katerina to Victorian England - and each would behave exactly as the other did.

But back to WILDTHORN. Non-conformity can be dangerous in certain company and, unfortunately, it turns out to be such for Louisa. While she has always argued with family and strangers alike about the merits of her goals, she never anticipated that someone would have her sent to an insane asylum. I will say right off the bat that thematically this book was sometimes simply too depressing for me. I have already read plenty of others that feel similar, essentially about how poorly society treats the mentally ill, now and in the past, as well as using these broken systems to force someone back into their place.

I did invest more and more in the book as I kept reading, though, for several reasons. For one, for the first half or so I occasionally found myself bored because I was so convinced that I could predict everything. Then I discovered that the author had deliberately distracted me with “obvious” answers only to reveal more surprising twists later. For another, I found the characters flat at first, but then came to see that’s how Louisa is interpreting them. As she looks closer, so does the reader, and we both see a more nuanced portrait than we did initially.

This next paragraph contains a minor spoiler so skip if you don’t want anything revealed. I felt a little annoyed when Lou turned out to be gay. I would have preferred knowing that sooner rather than it being withheld as a big revelation. In particular, I dislike when I’m reading about a character who isn’t conforming to gender roles and then there’s a big reveal that they’re gay, because it implies that’s the only reason one wouldn’t conform to gender roles. Now if we know earlier on she’s gay, that’s simply another aspect about her that doesn’t conform - rather than an explanation.

I also found the story a little slow at times and think I would have enjoyed it more as a slimmer novel. I often suspected the author could have accomplished the same in terms of both plot and character development in much less space.

I love how the author “wraps things up” in this novel. Rather than the typical rushed ending after a dramatic climax, a good chunk of the book is devoted to aftermath. As someone who cares primarily about character, I adored that, because I don’t only care about the most dramatic moment but actually care more about how that dramatic moment changes the characters going forward. Louisa has always been spirited and the book’s resolution demonstrates how strong personalities can channel negative experiences into further personal growth.

Friday, July 1, 2016

THE GATHERING STORM


Review of THE GATHERING STORM by ROBIN BRIDGES
(first in THE KATERINA trilogy)

Young duchess Katerina lives in a glittering world of balls, etiquette, and, yes, magic. Only Katerina hides her power, ashamed of her disturbing gift. She’s a necromancer, and a powerful one at that. Even with her best efforts not to use her dark magic, sometimes it happens almost by accident. However, when a vampire prince threatens her family unless she marries him, Katerina doesn’t see a lot of other options.

Yes, vampire. My committed readers will know how I loathe all things undead, be they vampire or zombie or some attempt at a creature more unique. However, THE GATHERING STORM held my attention primarily because the focus isn’t on the undead (and, by the way, there are both vampires and zombies...and creatures more unique). This is a historical fantasy at its heart about Russian society and how to be yourself in an environment that pushes you hard to be something else.

My only complaint about the vampire element is that, as usual for me, I found there to be abrupt, erotically toned scenes that just seem random and out of place. I guess it’s supposed to allude to vampires’ seductive powers, but I’m at a loss to understand the appeal of these scenes where all of a sudden a guy you don’t like is stroking your neck.

I did keep mixing this book up with another one I read at the same time. (Review to come next week.) While I always read several books at once, I rarely do that, confuse them. However, these two featured protagonists so eerily similar as to be almost interchangeable. Both want to be doctors in a strict society that limits women’s options and laughs at such ambitions. Both have rule-abiding mothers who want only for their daughter to be good, normal, and feminine. Both have progressive fathers who encourage, even admire, their daughter’s controversial aspirations. From there, the books become so incredibly different that it’s funny I would confuse them: this one about the undead in late 19th century Russia and the other about an insane asylum in Victorian England. However, Katerina Alexandrovna and Louisa Cosgrove could easily be the same person.

The book opens with a disclaimer about all the names and will confess that I didn’t truly invest until well over halfway through because I couldn’t keep track of everyone. Also age was very unclear for me. It significantly changes things to know whether Katerina is talking to a teenage boy her own age, someone more her father’s age, or an elderly gentleman - and same goes with the women. I often couldn’t root the scene until I figured out age and sometimes I would discover later that someone was much older or younger than I thought and had to re-frame past scenes. I did find the villains enjoyably complex. Most seem more spoiled and entitled than “pure evil.” And, once I could keep track of everyone, I loved the large cast.  

I also found the novel slightly too gender roled for me. Now Katerina is certainly no damsel is distress. However, there is a sense of women being the brains and men the brawn. When wit is needed, she will step forward to help, maybe even be the foremost problem solver. However, when the situation calls more for a sword or a punch, she seems to stand around waiting for someone male to take action. In short, her self-sufficiency comes and goes.

I knew going in that this is the first in the trilogy and it definitely feels that way, more like the beginning to a bigger story. The climax is quite chaotic and the ending a little abrupt. While I’ve listed plenty of criticisms in this review, I did feel myself sucked in (sorry, couldn’t resist the vampire pun) and can’t wait to discover how Katerina grows into her own strength.

Friday, June 24, 2016

SHARK GIRL


Review of SHARK GIRL by KELLY BINGHAM

Fifteen-year-old Jane loses her arm in a shark attack, but she’s lost more than that: her innocence, her privacy, and most crushing her artistic talent (dependant on her good - now gone - hand). To friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike, she is now known as Shark Girl, as a story rather than a person. SHARK GIRL is simultaneously an affecting tale about healing as well as a convincing portrayal of the intrusive nature of media. 

I loved this book and, to be honest, I wasn’t even sure I would like it. I’ve mentioned before that I have a lower standard for books I listen to on audio rather than read. I also have a lower standard for books I borrow from the library rather than buy. If I pay for it and have a physical copy that I’ll likely keep, I better like it. However, I’m much more willing to take chances on borrowed books. I took a chance on SHARK GIRL and am immensely grateful that I did.

And it wasn’t love at first sentence either. Initially, I balked at the lyrical style of prose. This book is written in verse. Don’t worry; it doesn’t rhyme. However, it does utilize line breaks for adding rhythm to the words that puts one more in mind of poetry than a novel. However, I’m a big believer in the idea that first you need to understand the rules before you can break them. The reason I shy away from novels written in verse is that usually, well, it’s terribly done, something the author thought would be a unique idea but it’s only a poorly executed distraction from the story. I’m relieved to say that SHARK GIRL is one of the exceptions. Once the story hooked me enough, I moved past my prejudices and actually began to admire how deliberately the line breaks add beats between thoughts, pauses within a sentence.

Of course, the writing style also makes this an extremely quick read. If you are remotely interested in this book, you have no excuse not to read it; it will take you hardly any time at all. I finished in three days, and those are days I worked eight hours, wrote, worked out, socialized, and read chunks of other books. My point is that I think had I focused on SHARK GIRL alone, I could read it in maybe 2 hours. 

I also admire the author for how succinctly she crafts her characters. With minimal words, she creates a complex and believable cast, only telling us as much as we need to know and often revealing quite a lot with only a little.

First there’s Jane and how can’t you sympathize with her? She resents all the media attention and the book includes an assortment of letters from strangers that demonstrate the wide range of compassionate to insensitive (not to mention unsolicited) feedback drowning this poor girl. In particular, Jane hates the idea of herself as some kind of showcase for survival. She isn’t ready to be grateful that she’s alive; she wants some time to be bitter. Most of all bitter about the loss of her spectacular artistic talent.

Then there’s all of Jane’s family and friends. I challenge anyone not to fall for the little boy Justin who Jane meets in physical therapy. Then there’s Jane’s mother with her admirable support but also relentless pushing her ideas of how Jane should move on. (Like switching to digital art, which wouldn’t be as hard with her non-dominant hand, but Jane wants a pen and paper.)  Jane’s brother, like many siblings, is at once her hero and arch-nemesis. He saved her life and does his part to shelter or challenge her as needed, but sometimes the challenge part isn’t welcome and his blunt honesty can be merciless. Even Jane’s friends mostly understand, but she still encounters some callous comments and efforts to mold Jane into the post-trauma heroine they want in their lives.

Like all good books, the core of this story is universal. It’s about being yourself. When the whole world is crushing down in an effort to shape you to other people’s image for you, the most heroic thing you can do is shape yourself.

Friday, June 17, 2016

ENDERS


ENDERS by LISSA PRICE
(second in the STARTERS series)

For those of you who need a refresher, in the first book of this series our protagonist Callie agreed to essentially “rent out” her body to rich elderly people eager to experience youth again. I don’t mean rent in a sex trade type of way, but rather in reference to the science fiction technology in this novel that allows someone to experience life through another person’s eyes, even controlling that person’s body. Horrible as it sounds, Callie needed the money to save her sick brother.

Callie may have overthrown one harmful system in the first book, but if she’s trying to make the world a better place her work is far from done. Now that Prime has been disbanded, people are still going around collecting Metals, the new term for anyone who has the chip allowing them to be controlled by another. And it’s not like Callie can just have the chip removed, since it explodes if you try.

This series features that invisible kind of good writing where you don’t even think about the sentences and the words and simply keep reading, reading, reading. Price uses simple, active sentences and avoids much decoration or style in her prose.

In general, this is another fast paced book, chock full of suspense and action, twists and turns. The rapid progression of events combined with easy sentences and short chapters make it a very fast read, too. While plenty of people will love this about the book, I did find the story a little more plot focused than character focused for my taste.

My only other criticism is a bit of spoiler so skip this paragraph if you want. I’ll avoid specifics, but how Callie accomplishes her victory at the end of this novel feels too arbitrary for me. I know this series is much more soft sci fi than hard sci fi, but the technical description of how she does what she does feels closer to fantasy than anything science.  

However, I’m pleased to say that the ending leaves this series open for further novels. And Price does have a real knack for writing satisfying endings that resolve all essential plot threads while leaving a few interesting doors open inviting us in for more story. Fingers crossed!

Friday, June 10, 2016

STAY WITH ME


Review of STAY WITH ME by GARRET FREYMANN-WEYR

Leila has an unusual family. Her father has two other daughters from a previous marriage, both much older than her. Though Leila wants their affection, she’s not convinced they see her as much as a sister as she does them. Leila also had a surprisingly close relationship with her father’s ex-wife, before she died. Unusual or not, this is Leila’s normal...until her half-sister Rebecca commits suicide. Then, due to complicated circumstances, Leila finds herself living with her other half-sister Claire while her parents leave the country. Leila calls all these changes her “new now,” because she knows nothing will ever be the same again.

I adored the voice of this novel. From an objective point of view, I suspect critics would say there’s far too much interior monologue, but it works. This is Leila’s story and her thoughts drive the story as much as her actions, especially when we’re treated to a shift in her outlook.

I also enjoyed reading about Leila’s struggle as an ambitious dyslexic teenager. Though hardly the focal point of the book, the story opens with Leila mentioning her dyslexia as she worries she’s probably not starting this tale at the right place. This shortcoming pops up throughout the novel and what struck me was how much others dismiss Leila as stupid because she struggles with reading. There are plenty of other ways to be smart. I present Leila as evidence, since she’s unusually - but believably - mature for her seventeen years.

Speaking of seventeen, my only real issue with this story is that Leila’s primary love interest is thirty-one. Before you write off this book at that, I will add that the author handles it impressively well. However, stop reading this paragraph right here if you don’t want to read any specifics about the plot that might count as spoilers. Due to height and maturity, people often mistake Leila for older than seventeen. When Eamon first meets her, he thinks her in her twenties and probably too young for him, but when he learns she’s actually seventeen he backs off immediately, telling her they shouldn’t be more than friends and really probably shouldn’t even be that. They do become friends, though, friends with a lingering romantic undertone. It’s obvious they both want more, but know the taboos of their age difference. I commend the author for also working in another important theme here: everyone will judge you and you need to do what’s right for you despite all those voices. Both Eamon and Leila recognize how odd their relationship looks to outsiders and that most people assume he’s the predatory older creep leering after a naïve and gullible young body. To the reader it’s clear that Leila is far more than a body to Eamon. He admires and respects her ways of thinking and wants to hear what she has to say. They both bristle at what people imply (and state explicitly) about them, but resign themselves to the fact that they don’t get to control what other people think and should focus more on whether they think there’s any truth to the comments or not.

I rarely re-read books, but I have the sense that STAY WITH ME would be well-worth reading again and again. Especially as someone who primarily loves stories about characters, I cherished this up-close portrayal of a dynamic young woman coping with her new now.