Book Review: Dark Breaks the Dawn, a Romantic YA Read

I have to apologize. A couple of days ago, in this post, I said that Sara B. Larson’s book Dark Breaks the Dawn was all about power. I was wrong. While most of the story’s direct conflict revolves around the main character’s struggles to defeat the despotic ruler of a neighboring kingdom, it is actually the romance that develops between the main character and a member of her court that becomes the true underpinning of the book, making it more of a romance than anything. That being said, though, the ending brings the theme back around solidly to power, so if you like speculative books with both romance and battles, you’ll like Dark Breaks the Dawn.

It’s important for me to determine what genre a book is so that I read it with the right expectations. If one reads an adult contemporary thriller with the expectation that it’ll have the magic of a fantasy romance, for instance, one will be disappointed, but not by the fault of the book. I mentioned this in this post about Jenna Welch’s book Love and GelatoIf one reads Dark Breaks the Dawn knowing it’s mostly a romance, then one won’t be disappointed by the lack of detailed battle scenes.

What Dark Breaks the Dawn is About

Most books about queens and kings and magic that I’ve read don’t have much romance in them because the assumption or rule is that monarchs have to marry to form alliances, not for love. That rule is not brought up in this book, presumably because both of the main character Queen Evelayn’s parents were killed in battle trying to fight the aforementioned despotic ruler, and no one else cares who she marries. The young queen’s main conflict is learning to wield the power that only she has, and that she just came into, in time to defeat ruler Bayne, and sort out whether the young lord chosen to help train her likes her for herself or is being compelled to. She thinks he might be wooing her to force a wedding and the production of an heir who can carry on the line of power should she fail.

Who Might Like This Book, And Why

In that this romance is the focus of the book, and the queen is only 18, that makes this a YA speculative book, putting it in the same category as books like Cinder by Marissa Mayer, Unearthed by Amie Kaufman, and Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater. It has the slightly quicker pacing of a YA book, as well as a coming-into-one’s-own feeling, and characters who mature in their understandings and misunderstandings of what truly wielding power, both political and magical, means. Evelayne is less of a fighter than Alexa Hollen, the main character of Larson’s Defy series, which I really enjoyed, but she acts with resolve and benevolence, still making her worthy of respect as a main character and figment of Larson’s imagination.

But…

So, young adults, and adults who consider themselves to be young-at-heart (like me), will like this book…unless they don’t like cliffhanger endings, because this book has one. What is it with the cliffhanger endings? I’ve read a string of them lately, unwittingly, and I’m bugged! I hate cliffhanger endings!

No sex, violence, or profanity. Six stars out of ten. I bought and listened to this book on Audible, where it was narrated by Amy Schiels. Amy has a gentle Scottish brogue that really fits the story, and heightened my enjoyment of it.

 

Book Review: Traitorborn is Mind-Blowing

For some reason, I find myself reading multiple books right now that revolve around the theme of power: mankind’s constant struggles for it, what it does to those who hold it, how it affects those who don’t. The one I most recently finished—Traitorborn by Amy Bartol—is remarkably like Dark Breaks the Dawn by Sara B. Larson in some respects, more like K.B. Wager’s Behind the Throne in others, all built on premises of matriarchal monarchies, magic or magical technology, and infinite political intrigue. Traitorborn is the sequel to Secondborn and is a mind-blowing handful of a read.

What Traitorborn (and Secondborn) Are About

In a kingdom called the Fates Republic, Firstborns rule society. Secondborns are the property of the government. Thirdborns are not tolerated. On every secondborn’s 18th birthday, they’re taken by the government and forced into servitude as soldiers in a bloody war. Roselle St. Sismode is the second-born of one of the most elite families in the Fates Republic, but she’s taken away like every other secondborn. And her elite firstborn mother is happy to see her go. Her mother is paranoid that she’ll kill her older brother Gabriel to gain his status, so paranoid she doesn’t see the love between the two siblings. So paranoid she’s willing to try to have her secondborn child killed while in transit to her servitude.

But Roselle had a privileged, if isolated and abusive, upbringing that has earned her the resentment of her secondborn peers. She survives the attempt on her life only to be forced into battles where her life is threatened constantly. Then she’s confronted with the opportunity to kill or spare an enemy soldier on the battlefield. Killing him means she’s like her mother; sparing him marks her as a traitor to her mother, punishable by death. Though she’s able to keep her decision a secret (you’ll have to read Secondborn to find out what it is), she finds herself almost always fighting for her life…when she’s not being regaled by various secret factions bent on destroying her mother and putting Roselle in her place. She has to constantly defend herself against various foes sent by her paranoid mother, and those who pretend to be her allies while killing her family so that they can put her in a position of power she doesn’t want, to maintain a system of government she doesn’t agree with.

The Good and Not so Good…Intermingled

Both books are set in a world of airships, electronic monikers that track every single person’s actions and movements, skyscrapers built like trees, fusion weapons, and a brutally-maintained caste system. The reason behind this caste system isn’t explained until the end of Traitorborn, and while that explanation fits where it’s placed, I would have appreciated it much earlier (or at least intimations of it) in the storyline because so much of what Roselle decides to do or not do depends upon her understanding of the caste system, which turns out to be incomplete. The world-building in this series is breath-taking; it incorporates highly-imaginative tech with stunning architecture that directly reflects the values of the people that built it.

Both books (the first of which I bought on Amazon, the second of which I got an ARC of from NetGalley) also incorporate a lot of fighting, killing, political strategizing, romance (with three different love interests, no less), and recognition of the value of filial love. If these books were made into movies, they would both be rated-R for the fighting and killing. It was difficult for me to wade through those parts, and I ended up skipping over some of them, as I’m not a fan of gruesomeness. There is a lot of political strategizing, with Roselle constantly trying to figure out who she can trust, who she can be herself—a supremely-skilled fighter who gets panic attacks from all the death she sees—around, between those who would put her in power so that she can maintain the caste system, those who would put her in power so that she can take it down altogether, and those who just want to make everybody stop fighting. If I were a person in the world of these books, I’d be part of that last group. If there’s anything that I’m tired of after reading so many books about what power does to people, and seeing it (I think) play out in real life, I think that no one person should be in charge of any country or kingdom or province, even if there are checks and balances and councils and congresses in place. But that’s just me. I’d be interested in what you think of that.

So, with the fighting and strategizing and romance (i.e., heat – no sex scenes), there’s a lot of action, and both books are fast-paced and intense. That, along with the world-building, I really liked. I also really liked Roselle as a main character: incredibly tough but also very vulnerable.  My big complaint with both books, though, other than they (like the other power-based books I’ve read recently) are based on flat antagonists whose hunger for power makes them stereotypical and one-dimensional, is that they both end with huge cliffhangers. I mean, HUGE. On the one hand, I’m absolutely convinced that I won’t read the third book in this series when it comes out in 2019 because I don’t want to reward the author and publisher for that kind of baiting. On the other hand, the cliffhanger at the end of Traitorborn is so wild and unforeseen and crazy that I might not be able to resist, especially if I can get another free ARC from Netgalley.

So, if you liked Dark Breaks the Dawn, Behind the Throne, The Sin Eater’s Daughter or books about power set in worlds other than our own, you’ll like both Secondborn and Traitorborn. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this ARC, and have provided an honest review.

Book Review: Steal Across the Sky, A Philosophical Read

Nancy Kress is really good at writing hard-core science fiction, and for that alone I applaud her. To do that in such a male-dominated field is brilliant; to do it repeatedly is amazing. I thought her book  After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall  was brilliant. Steal Across the Sky, also by her, was less than she’s capable of, though. Where this book excels in world-building and uniqueness, it falls short in the area of characters with whom one can really relate and who have deep emotional progression.

What Steal Across the Sky is About

The book is about two people who volunteer visit seven planets and “witness” for a mysterious group of aliens that all-of-a-sudden arrived, built a base on the moon, and put an ad on the internet. These aliens claimed to have wronged humanity ten thousand years before, and need some volunteers to visit a bunch of planets seeded with human stock. Italian-English grad student Lucca and waitress Cam are among the twenty-one volunteers chosen, and they visit two planets. Cam encounters a monolithic, brutal and appallingly bloodthirsty culture where a game determines everybody’s destiny. On Lucca’s planet, evidence mounts that the people can perceive and converse with the recently dead, something Lucca rejects. Once all the witnesses return to Earth, a compelling picture emerges: on half of the planets visited, the inhabitants can indeed see and chat with the recently dead. The Atoners explain that those inhabitants carry a gene that allows them to do so. On the other planets, and Earth, the Atoners deleted the gene. (They don’t explain why.) On gene-less Earth, chaos ensues as Kress explores the consequences of that premise.

And, as you might imagine from that description, what ensues–actually what happens throughout almost all of the book–is essentially a philosophical discussion about what that means for humanity.

Why I Didn’t Connect With the Book

While the premise is fascinating (as I tend to find with many science fiction books), and the execution of that premise in line with the expectations of its genre, the emotional quotient is just not there. It would have been neat, I think, to see that chaos play out and then resolve in Lucca’s and Cam’s relationship, for instance. I think that would’ve made for a more intense, relatable book.

Also, because it’s adult sci-fi, the pacing was slower than that of YA. I can’t dock it for that because that wasn’t a fault of the book per se, just a matter of my taste.

Who Will Like Steal Across the Sky

If you’re a serious fan of science fiction, I would dare say that this book should be on your required reading list. If you liked books like A Case of Conscience, which explores the nexxus of science and religion from an other-worldly angle as well, you’ll like Steal Across the Sky. I, for one, am going to continue pursuing my goal of reading all of her books, even though this one wasn’t my favorite.

 

Book Review: Dreamstrider, an Enchanting and Fascinating, if Esoteric, Read

Imagine you have a beautiful pearl necklace, long and made up of many beautifully-iridescent and perfectly-shaped orbs. It’s one-of-a-kind, with multiple strands intricately woven around each other.  You love everything about it except for the fact that the orbs are threaded on a gossamer-thin string that makes it difficult to wear without breaking. Just taking it off the hook of your necklace holder and shaking it a little to make the strands flow instead of bunch has broken the string in the past. But you love it, and you can’t re-string it on a stronger filament, so you keep it on the hook and just admire it. Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith is like that pearl necklace, I think, amazingly rich and beautifully-written, but with too-thin connections between some plot points. Its premise is at once fascinating and grand, even while based on something so intimate as dreams, but it’s that very premise and grandness that makes it a tiny bit too esoteric for me. All in all, though, Dreamstrider is a very worthwhile, fascinating read.

What Dreamstrider is About

Indeed, I dare say that Dreamstrider’s plotthe intricately-woven strands—is complex enough that I feel like I need to read it again at least one more time to fully understand it and fully appreciate it. It’s about the ability of the main character, Livia, to enter other peoples’ dreams, and through that, to don the bodies. Her ability makes her useful as a spy for the Barstadt Empire, and as such, provides her with the means to get herself out of the Tunnels where she was born–out of a life of abject poverty, servitude, and gang violence. While she’s happy to be of use to her kingdom, even though it’s based on a caste system that deprives her of full citizenship because of where she was born, she’s unsure of her real value to anyone else and thus unsure of what she really wants out of life and whether or not she deserves anything more. When she and her spy partner, Brandt, uncover a plot against the Empire that threatens both the dream and waking worlds, Livia is presented with the opportunity to prove herself and earn a new station in society…if she can figure out who the enemy really is and where her value truly lies.

I bought this book because 1) I’m fascinated by dreams and 2) I wrote two books about a girl whose dreams have a certain power, and I’m trying to read every traditionally-published fiction book about dreams to identify ways in which my books are both similar to and different from what’s already out there.

What Are Dreamstrider’s Strengths?

If you’re looking to be enchanted by a book’s writing, then you will love Dreamstrider. Take this paragraph, for example:

An icy breeze whips around us, raking like nails across my exposed skin. His question steers my gaze toward the mountain peaks in the east; try as I might, I can’t help but look at the ancient bones strung across the high mountain ridge, the massive ribs on the mountainside curled like the rusted bars of a cage. The Nightmare Wastes’ words echo in my mind; soft as silk, they slither around me until they tighten into a knot.

Every page of this book is filled with graceful and evocative descriptions like these, carrying the reader easily into Livia’s world, which is rich and emotionally-charged. But Smith doesn’t caught up in descriptions just for beauty’s sake; each one also carries the weight of progressing character relationships and motives as well.

What Are Dreamstrider’s Not-Strengths?

That being said, though, sometimes those beautiful words are wrapped around fragile inferences made about scattered clues along tangled plot strands. Livia and Brandt, for instance, are tasked with finding the source of the threat against the empire, and assume it’s the Commandant of the Land of the Iron Winds, a land south of the Barstadt Empire with a dictatorial commandant. They go on a spy mission, with Livia donning the body of one of the Commandant’s generals, to find out more about the Commandant’s plans. This leads to them cooperating with some operatives from Farthing, a country to Barstadt’s east, which presents a challenge for Livia, as Farthing is acting as an ally, but not one that is close enough that she can reveal her ability to their operatives. She dips into the dreamworld as herself to investigate some research her mentor left behind that might help her push her ability to the extent that it needs to be pushed to find out who’s colluding with the Commandant because, during the spy mission, he alluded to using a mystic and having a great warbeast. Livia’s dreamworld dip leads her to find that something important is missing from her mentor’s dreamworld (one that he created, like the characters of the movie Inception). From that, Livia infers that Marez, one of the Farthing operatives with whom she’s working, is the Commandant’s mystic, and that Marez promised the Commandant a warbeast, which is the resurrection of the giant monster on the high mountain ridge: Nightmare.

Such an inference is crucial for the plot to unfold correctly, and to reveal that Marez is more of a threat, really, than the Commandant, but it seems much too fragile, based primarily on what Livia guesses is missing from her mentor’s dreamworld. I like that Marez turns out to be the bigger threat because the Commandant is much too flat of a character (i.e., just power hungry, with no back story whatsoever). But the plot would have been stronger if there was something to corroborate Livia’s guess. Maybe there was and I was too dumb to see it. If you read Dreamstrider and see that was something else, please let me know in the comments below!

And, as you can probably tell, Livia’s excursions into the dreamworld, either as herself while she’s sleeping or as other people while she’s using their dreaming bodies, add a plot layer that is neat and not bound by the rules of reality, but also confusing, vague, and difficult to determine meaning in the waking world. This layer blends with reality at the climax of the book in a way that deftly ties together many plot strands but also left me scratching my head in puzzlement a little bit. So, if you also like books that tease your brain, you’ll like Dreamstrider.

To sum up, then, Dreamstrider by Lindsay Smith is an enchanting and brain-teasing read, if a little tenuously-constructed and esoteric at times. I’d give it 7 out of my 10 stars. Nutrition facts: no swearing, no sex, some violence, good theme (self-worth).

Book Review: Caraval, A Good Distraction

Oh, you guys, I’m so happy to be not sick anymore, or at least not as sick as I have been! I’m way behind in posting my reviews because I’ve been struggling with the flu. It’s been a bad bug: 104° fever, chills, body aches, gut-wrenching cough, headache, extreme exhaustion, etc. On top of that, my youngest was struggling with the croup. You need to get the flu shot so as not to get this bug; my husband got the vaccination and, while he flirted with getting sick for a day or two, ultimately didn’t, even though he was highly exposed to the germ.

Bur First: My Reactions to the Florida Shooting

Honestly though, I’ve also been struggling with a deep sense of worry, fear, and disappointment after the shooting in Florida. Many of the kids who were shot were the same age as my oldest child. As a mother, my first reaction was to want take my kids out of public school altogether. My second was to start looking into what it would take to move our whole family to a more peaceful country. My third was to make a list of things I felt like I could do immediately to lessen the chances of something like this happening in my community. My fourth was to laugh at my list and myself for thinking that I might have any power to do anything to stem the tide of these awful shootings. My fifth was to stop laughing and break down each of the things on my list into action steps I could do each day, because if I don’t do them, I feel like the only way to truly keep my kids and my family safe will be to move to a different country. And maybe hibernate.

My sixth reaction was to write this post, and by so doing, I hope I can spark some kind of conversation that will inspire people beyond just myself to take action so that the number of shootings decreases.  I can’t imagine continuing to live in a world where it’s entirely possible that someone will walk into my children’s school and start shooting. I don’t want to live with that fear, and I can’t imagine any of you do either. But we’ve become a country so divided, so unable to speak civilly with each other, that resolving this doesn’t seem possible. And so, except for the surviving Florida high school students who are marching on their state legislature and later on Congress, the rest of us seem to be throwing our hands up in the air.

We cannot. We must not. For our own safety, and the safety of our children, we should not. But what can be done, you say? If our elected leaders haven’t been able to figure out a solution to the gun control debate, what hope is there? I say there is a lot. Preventing more shootings isn’t just a matter of guns ( I realize that some of you might say it isn’t a matter of guns at all, but humor me for a bit); it’s far more complex than that. I promise I’ll tie a book or two into this.

Brainstorming Some Possible Solutions to Prevent More Shootings

Here’s what I think we need, and what I’m doing to be a part of the solution:

  • more civil dialogue: we are at a crucial part in our development as a society.  We have the “microphone” of social media to our mouths, and, like children, we haven’t matured in our use of it well enough to use it for much more than idle chitchat, hating, shaming, or the occasional fundraising campaign. One of my favorite nonfiction books— Crucial Conversations Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry PattersonJoseph GrennyRon McMillan— makes several really good recommendations, such as: check your motives, agree before you disagree, establish common goals, and establish mutual respect. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who has a social media account, or for that matter, has a mouth.  I’m trying to teach principles from Crucial Conversations to my kids.
  • less consumption of violence: after the the Florida shooting, I was particularly sensitive to what media my kids consumed on the family screen and desktop and on their own devices. I’ve never let them play any video games with an M rating, or watch any content with an R-rating (and sometimes even a PG-13 rating). It’s a constant struggle to stay on top of that, given the many ways they can get content these days, the fact that violence is so prevalent in so much of what we watch, and the fact that they fight me almost every step of the way, as if they don’t have access to a million other ways to entertain themselves with non-violent media content.  I don’t think I can allow my kids to play first-person shooter video games and not expect them to get desensitized to the act of shooting other people. To a similar extent, same thing with allowing to watch violence in movies, YouTube videos, etc.
  • more empathy/sympathy: over and over again, the academic books and studies I’ve read show how the tendency that we have to commodify other humans, define them as other than us, criticize them or make them seem less than human is a tendency that is growing all too common in our society. Dr. Brent Slife, in his book Frailty, Suffering, and Vice (which I reviewed here), says: “the cultural emphasis on individual separateness is part of the problem.” We tend to abstract others, or view them as a part of the world that is “out there,” and only existing to potentially meet our needs. The internet only heightens this.  “Commodifying people is another kind of self-inflicted wound because it makes it all the more difficult to form the special, committed, caring relationships we so clearly need.” How else could someone justify walking into a school and shooting countless unarmed people, and then go and get a sandwich at a nearby Subway, like the Florida shooter? How else could the Las Vegas shooter justify shooting more than 50 unarmed people from afar? While I’m not saying that anyone who has a hard time empathizing or sympathizing with someone else is going to end up shooting a bunch of people, I am saying that there has to be an association. For my part, I try as much as possible to talk about what other people might be feeling or thinking in ways that my kids can understand. I seek out social media content and engagement opportunities that enables me to understand other peoples’ points of view.
  • encourage better mental healthcare infrastructure: we know now, after so many shootings, that mental illness plays a part in some of the shootings. It was a factor in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Would it be possible to ask our legislators to at least investigate the possibility of requiring psychological evaluations for anyone wishing to buy a gun? Would that help? Do we have data on that? If we were to encourage more people to get degrees in social work, psychology, and psychiatry, provide scholarships for them to do so, expand funding for mental healthcare nonprofits and agencies, and expand funding for research into the causes of and possible cures for mental illnesses, would that make a difference? I want to know!
  • make it illegal for the press to name the shooters: if the motive of a shooter is notoriety, wouldn’t asking our legislators to make the naming of the shooters in press reports about the shootings illegal help to remove the possibility for that notoriety?
  • funding for more protection at schools: if nothing else, would it be possible to provide funding for training of veterans or off-duty police officers to serve as armed guards at schools?

Caraval, a Good Distraction

In an effort to distract myself from my illness and these difficult questions, I read Caraval by Stephanie Garber this past week. It’s about a girl who gets swept up in an all-consuming game, one that involves other players competing for a prize given by a magical but very mysterious host named Legend. She goes to escape her abusive father, rescue her flighty sister, and meet Legend, but finds that nothing in the game is what it seems to be and that she stands to lose much more than she gains, if she can gain anything.

Because almost the whole book is set in the game, in and around an isolated island village that exists solely for the purpose of Caraval, the book’s setting is at once enchanting and bewildering. It’s full of quaint dress shops, evil tunnels, and enchanted bridges. It’s populated primarily by other contestants in the game who are competing against Scarlett (the main character), and the actors in the game, the people Legend sets in strategic locations at certain times to confuse or help the players. It’s like the reality show Survivor meets the movie Alice Through the Looking Glass.

This book’s strengths are its unpredictability and its style. It is rich with both. As a distraction, it was effective. As a depiction of the complicatedness of human nature, it was accurate, even given the outrageous premise. It was a good read, overall.

 

 

 

Have you read Caraval? Did you like it? What are your thoughts about what we can do to prevent more mass shootings?

Book Reviews: Banished and Unforsaken are Rapid-Fire Reads

It’s been an emotionally-draining week, but I still have two books to review! They are Banished and Unforsaken, by Sophie Littlefield.  They’re both YA fantasy, the second one the sequel to the first. These are books you want to read if you want fairly intense, action-based reads, not deep, but compelling.

What Banished is About

Hailey Tarbell lives lives in a run-down neighborhood in Missouri, with her cruel, sickly grandmother who deals drugs out of their basement and her four-year-old foster brother, Chub. He’s the best part of her grim life, and she plans to take Chub far from Gypsum and start a new life where no one can find them the minute she turns 18. But when a classmate is injured in gym class, Hailey discovers a gift for healing that she never knew she possessed—and that she cannot ignore. Not only can she heal, she can bring the dying back to life. Confused by her powers, Hailey searches for answers but finds only more questions, until a mysterious visitor shows up at Gram’s house, claiming to be Hailey’s aunt Prairie.

There are people who will stop at nothing to keep Hailey in Trashtown, living out a legacy of despair and suffering. But when Prairie saves both Hailey and Chub from armed attackers who invade Gram’s house in the middle of the night, Hailey must decide where to place her trust. Will Prairie’s past, and the long-buried secret that caused her to leave Gypsum years earlier, ruin them all? Because as Hailey will soon find out, their power to heal is just the beginning.

I won’t tell you what Unforsaken is about because that would be one big spoiler for Banished.

Why You Should Read Both Books

The first book is definitely an intense, action-based read. I had to go right out and buy the sequel, and then I read it in two days. Hailey’s dilemma was interesting, not just in a how-do-I-handle-my-power way but also in a how-will-it-affect-those-I-care-about way. I felt that the antagonist in Unforsaken could’ve been better fleshed out, but the romance and the well-developed plot compensated. Oh, and there were zombies, which was an interesting touch.

There is a little bit of swearing, and definitely some violence.

 

 

 

Book Review: Love and Gelato, a Sweet, Sweet Read

I realize that I’ve been straying from my focus on science fiction and fantasy books lately, and for that, I apologize. I’m engrossed in book 3 of the Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater, after having raved about book one here, and instead of continuing to rave about books 2 and 3 (which would bore you guys, I think), I’m re-reading some other books as well. Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch is one such book. It’s a sweet YA romance. Interestingly, the main character shares her first name with that of Between Shades of Gray, which I just barely reviewed, but the two books are nothing alike.

What Love and Gelato is About

At the beginning of Love and Gelato, this Lina is just beginning to grieve the loss of her mother, who died from a fast-moving illness. She’s also  confused by her mom’s deathbed wish that Lina go to Italy to meet her father, whom she’s never met. Its quick pacing—skimming through such a big change in Lina’s life—seems to be reflective of Lina’s shock and denial about being in such a difficult, unexpected situation. It isn’t until later in the book that she begins to come to terms with her grief, and that reckoning and increase in maturity is an endearing thing to be a part of.

Indeed, if I could sum up the whole book in just one word, it would be “cute.” But then I would have to clarify that by saying that it is so because of its appeal to teenagers (especially girls), its pacing, and its wonderful voice. The dialogue sounded consistently authentic and humorous. There are rejoinders like this on almost every page:

“Odette grimaced. ‘I’m spending the summer pretending to be somewhere other than Italy.

Ren grinned. “How’s that working out for you? You know, with your Italian husband and children?”

I absolutely loved the humor in this book, as expressed in conversations like that and in Lina’s and her friend’s actions.

And, of course, the romance was fun. If you’re an adult looking to read about a serious, in-depth, marriage-inducing love, you won’t find it in this book, nor should you expect it, except for a smattering in her mother’s backstory. But it was still a joy to “watch” the blossoming of romantic feelings between Lina and a certain male character. The bumps and detours they experienced as their relationship developed made for a good plot.

So, if you have a teenage daughter, get this book for her right now. Keep in mind that there is a little bit of alcohol use, and various references to Lina’s illegitimacy. It does skim over the fact that Lina never knew her father while growing up with her mother, and never really questioned her father’s absence, but that may have been because of her afore-mentioned grief. Even if you’re not a teenager yourself, but are looking for a light summer read, you should read this. Enjoy it in the vein that it was written, with “love” and “gelato” used together in the title, almost as if they’re interchangeable. Because, when you’re young, sometimes they are.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray, A Fascinating But Incomplete Story

Books of historical fiction are not usually my favorite because subject matters in that genre tend to show humanity at its worst (e.g. during slavery, Hitler’s era, etc.), but if a book in that genre is done well, it’s enlightening and enjoyable. Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, for example, is an amazingly difficult story told with skill and hope.  The Help by Kathryn Stockett was full of real-feeling characters who not only fleshed out what it was like to live in 1960’s southern America for both whites and blacks, but also cheered and warmed me through their flawed but hopeful way of dealing with their particular circumstances. It was also told with remarkable voice.  Between Shades of Gray, a book by Ruta Sepetys about a Lithuanian family who experiences torture at the hands of the Soviet secret police under Stalin’s reign, is similar in theme to that of The Hiding Place. In that respect, it’s very enlightening. As a fictional reimagining, it’s fascinating. As a story, though, it fell short.

What Between Shades of Gray is About

The story is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, who is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. At the beginning of the book, Soviet officers barge into her middle-class home in the middle of the night, and, with no explanation, take her, her mother, and little brother captive. They’re crammed into the filthy box car of a train with a number of other Lithuanians they don’t know, and are made to endure a six-week long trip through Siberia, only to end up at a work camp north of the Arctic Circle. Lina and her fellow travelers are taunted and starved along the way, such that many die during the trip, and when they arrive at the work camp, they’re given the bare minimum to survive, meaning a corner of the floor of a shanty to sleep on, showers every six months, and hardly any food. In short, it is a horrible experience.

Lina and her family are fictional, but the things that they experienced happened to actual people, according to Sepetys, who extensively researched the travails of people from Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia who were caught between a despotic Stalin—who considered anyone educated to be anti-Soviet—and a ruthless Hitler. “It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than twenty million people during his reign of terror,” Sepetys says in her Author’s Note. “The Baltic States…lost more than a third of their population during the Soviet annihilation.” By those estimates, the damage Stalin did was more than three times as bad as that done by Hitler.

Those people who survived were freed after ten to fifteen years, but returned to find that the Soviets had occupied their homes, assumed their names, and enjoyed all of their belongings. They were treated as criminals, forced to live in restricted areas, and constantly watched by the KGB. Speaking about their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia. It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s, when Soviet occupation of their countries ended, that they were able to gain their independence, and most chose just to quietly resume their lives as best they could instead of rail against the injustices they’d experienced.

But As a Story…

If a story makes me really feel for the characters—whether fictional or real—and what they’re going through, I like it a lot. If it tells about injustices that have been done in the past that I can’t do anything about, I don’t like it. It frustrates and scares me, and there’s no positive outlet for that frustration or fear. And if a story doesn’t finish, I like it even less. Lina’s tale ends just after (spoiler alert) her mother dies and her little brother comes close to it. The story structure, if one could be plotted, would be: beginning: normal, beginning the descent; middle: getting worse and worse; end: the worst. The epilogue, a short missive penned by Lina some 15 years later, says she survived and things turned out okay for her, but there’s not much more of an arc of change than that for her. Some side characters experience subtle changes of heart, but not the main characters. In these respects, I was very disappointed in the story.

Still…

That being said, it’s still a fascinating and informative read. I would encourage everyone to read it.

 

Five Reasons You Have to Read The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman Right Now

 The Cost of All Things by Maggie Lehrman is the kind of book that so many writers, including me, aspire to write: one that is complex and emotional and eventful and layered and beautiful and painful. In short, it describes life, and it made me feel more alive to read it. It’s brilliant.

 

That being said, it’s based on what some would say is a totally impossible premise, is told from four separate points of view, and shifts back and forth throughout the entire book from present to past and back again. Surely, it would seem to be contradictory that such a story could be described as “brilliant.” I assure you that it is, though. Here’s why:

What Cost of All Things is About

The premise is that there are a group of high-school friends that have available to them the services of a “hekamist,” a witch who can provide them with various potions. In the first few pages, we learn that Ari, one of the main characters, is so distraught over the recent death of her boyfriend Win that she gets a spell from the hekamist to erase his memory from her head. “All spells have side effects,” she’s told, meaning that in order for there to be balance, she must expect an equally powerful but unknown consequence to the gift of getting rid of that pain. Ari takes the spell, forgets Win, and finds out that she is no longer an amazing ballerina, a skill that was to be the basis of her future career.

What Makes it Brilliant?

The things that’s brilliant about this story is that,  as the story progresses through of the eyes of Kay, Markos, and Win, who are all part of the same group of friends, it becomes this amazingly fleshed out emotional roller coaster. Each character has his or her distinct voice and a distinct role to play in the progression of the downward spiral that is The Cost’s plot. It does not spiral downward in quality but towards the revelation of the cause of Win’s death some months before, and as it gets closer to that revelation, more and more spells are sought–or sought but not taken–by different characters, further complicating their lives. Indeed, when I finished The Cost, I had to write out the plot linearly from an objective point of view to make sure I understood what had happened and why. For the two of you who care about that, you can find that description here (caution: spoiler alert).

So, if I were to rank this book according to Amazon’s or Goodread’s five-star system, I would give it a full five stars. On my own 10-star system, it gets all 10 stars, meaning:

  1. the plot is engaging, solidly-crafted, and uniquely-constructed
  2. the characters are interesting, real, and relatable
  3. the premise is cool, unique, and in some way relevant to my life
  4. the style or quality of writing is superb
  5. the setting is described well enough, and is interesting enough to ground me in the story

I’m giving away one Kindle copy of The Cost of All Things! Either follow me on Twitter, retweet about my giveaway if you’re already following me there, or leave a blog post comment (all through the Rafflecopter entry form below) to be entered to win. Happy reading!

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Book Review: The Happiness Curve, a Helpful Book

I’m not embarrassed to say that I just turned 48 years old. It feels good to be in a life place where I’ve had a lot of experiences that help me empathize with other people, and can still look forward to having many more experiences. I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot in my 48 years, and have found and am actively pursuing my passions. That being said, though, I noticed that as I celebrated that birthday, and as my husband approaches his 50th birthday, together we find ourselves in a little bit of a midlife “weird spot.” It’s by no means a crisis, but we’re not feeling the way we thought we’d be feeling at this time in our lives. And according to Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, we’re not alone.

Like a good many others of our demographic, he says, we find ourselves disappointed and restive, and disappointed in ourselves that we’re disappointed and restive, even though we’re exactly where we planned, hoped, and worked to be for many years. We have a lot of hobbies that we enjoy as a family: dirt biking, camping, fishing, snow skiing, water skiing, gaming, etc. We have had a little bit more than our share of health crises in the past year or so, what with my oldest’s vestibular neuritis, etc., but all in all, we don’t really have much to complain about.

“…Contentment is harder to come by in midlife,” Mr. Rauch says.  Across the board—developed or developing countries, genders, income levels, education levels, etc.—there is an almost unilateral decline in self-reported life satisfaction that begins in the mid- to late-30’s and troughs in the early 50’s.  But also across the board, life satisfaction tends to increase from there on out, making a kind of U-shaped curve in the line of satisfaction over time, like this:

That is what he calls the Happiness Curve. Rauch reviews data set after data set, interviews hundreds of people, and cites source after source showing that people in their early 50’s the world over tend to say to themselves: “I’m discontented and I don’t know why,’ and this makes [them] more miserable, and this makes [the error in their forecasts of their life satisfaction] even larger. So [they] keep the circumstances constant, but [they] feel bad about them. Since [they] feel bad about them [they]’re disappointed, [their] life satisfaction decreases and [they] feel even worse about that. [They]’re in a downward spiral. ”

Some of the solutions he recommends are to:

  • adjust your expectations and values, realizing that there is a skill that rises with age of being able to put bad things in context and cherish the good ones
  • realize that older people experience negative emotions just as intensely as young people do, but with less frequency, and for shorter spells
  • live in the present, prioritizing the really important people and relationships in life
  • value yourself for your wisdom, even if others might not recognize it
  • do everything: “All the behaviors and attitudes that are good for you at all times of life are also good for you if you are caught in a midlife emotional trap.”
  • interrupt the internal critics
  • don’t compare yourself to others
  • be mindful
  • share – talk to others. “Being caught in the trough is no small problem, and avoiding self-isolation…can go a long way toward providing stability and preventing mistakes. Outreach can take the form of professional counseling or therapy, which you need not be sick or dysfunctional to take advantage of.”

He makes other research-based recommendations as well, but I don’t want to give the whole book away.

What Makes The Happiness Curve Good

It’s one thing for a self-help book to point out problems. It’s another to do it with a solid and broad research base. It’s then another to provide vignettes of real people who are experiencing or have experienced those problems, still another to provide solutions to those problems, and still another to show real people who’ve implemented at least one of those solutions with success. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s rare to encounter a self-help book that has all of those elements or strengths. Though the vignettes in The Happiness Curve tend to run a little long, and the solutions he provides still comprise a small fraction of the book, this is one of those books that has most of those elements. For those in similar shoes to mine, I highly recommend it.

Note: I received a free ARC of the book through NetGalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. The book will be released May 1st.