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.

 

 

 

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 Raven Boys: Satisfying and Mystical

Between preparing for my last day at work this week and my first day as a homeschooling mom next week, I’ve been busy, but over the Christmas break, I had time to query my book Stranger in my Own Head a little more, and start three new books, even while I was helping my eldest recover from wisdom-teeth-removal surgery. The first book will be a sequel to Stranger. The second is about a young man diagnosed with dissociative personality disorder, possessing 23 different personalities, but convinced that 22 of them are aliens. And the third is about a change in the Earth’s atmosphere that makes everybody immortal, including Laula Quimby, a girl who’s been fifteen for the past five years, perpetually at the beginning stages of cancer, and technically well past adolescence, and her mother, a brilliant volcanologist who might be able to save the world from itself, but at the cost of losing her daughter. All three books are begging for attention; I want to write all of them right now! Tell me which one you’d be most interested in reading in the comments!

In the meantime, I’ve been reading Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys series. I read book one last week, and am halfway through Dream Thieves, the second book, this week. I think I might have found another new favorite author. Raven Boys is magical in both its premise and its style. Let me see if I can articulate why:

What Raven Boys is About

Blue Sargent, a teenager girl, is not clairvoyant, but her mother and all the other women who live at 300 Fox Way with her are. And every year, on St. Mark’s Eve, Blue stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys. Known as Raven Boys, they can only mean trouble. But she’s drawn to Gansey, in a way she can’t entirely explain. He has it all—family money, good looks, devoted friends—but he’s looking for much more than that. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore (from Goodreads).

Why I Liked Raven Boys, and You Might Too

The quest that Gansey is on involves the activating of a ley line to find an ancient sleeping king who will reportedly grant one magical wish to whoever finds him and wakes him. But the king, Glendower, is buried very deeply and the location of the ley line as well as the instructions for activating the line and waking him are almost completely lost to history. One would think, by that description, that this book is merely a fantasy book, but it is so much more than that. Blue, Gansey, Adam, Ronan, and Noah are each full-bodied characters, real, flawed, likable, and deep. What Raven Boys is, more than anything, is an exploration of the dynamics between each of them, with all of the accompanying prejudices, uncertainties, hopes, misperceptions, and dreams. In that sense, it’s more of a contemporary coming-of-age story, just with a little bit of fantasy thrown in.

But more than that, it’s a story told with an enchanting and descriptive style. Take this paragraph, for example:

A second later, the Camaro revved high, and the tires squealed out Gansey’s true feelings. Then the house was quiet. It was a sucked-out silence, like the raven boys had taken all the sound in the neighborhood with them.

Or this sentence:

Something inside him felt like the night, hungry and wanting and black.

They both show something that Stiefvater is really good at: showing reactions, and anthropomorphizing things to make them seem more dynamic and organic, more a part of the world that Gansey and Blue and the rest of them are trying to figure out. Gansey’s search for Glendower is a search not just for a wish but for an identity too, one that is separate from how he knows others perceive him and maybe even perceives himself, one that is closest to who he feels he really is. And, whether they know it or not, the rest of the group—Blue, Ronan, Noah, and Adam—are searching for their own true identities too, just from differently angles. And one really wants all of them to succeed.

Don’t expect continuous, high-paced action, although there is some of that. Do expect a moderate amount of swearing. Do expect that if you start reading book one, you’ll want to read all four books in the series, but since they’re all published, you won’t have to wait for another book to come out to find out what happens. You can binge read!

Book Review: Colorless by Rita Stradling, Messed Up But Beautifully Told

I’m behind in posting reviews because, among other things, I’ve been helping my oldest through a grueling couple of weeks of playing catch-up at school. He was failing all of his 9th grade classes until a couple of weeks ago except for two, but is now only failing two, having brought the rest of them up to A’s and B’s by grinding out homework, staying every day after school to retake tests and fix assignments. We have a meeting on Monday with his principal, counselor, academic coach, etc., to discuss a different plan for his second semester. As happy as I am that he’s been able to rally, and hasn’t had any more migraines recently, I’d really like to help him figure out how to avoid his pattern of getting buried under missing assignments and then rallying just before the term ends. Of course, I’ve also been working, Christmas shopping, querying, going to critique meetings, finding a new home for my writers’ club, helping friends, etc. You’d think I wouldn’t have had time to read, but since it’s my reprieve, I have. In fact, I recently read Colorless by Rita Stradling, a book that reminded me of Stranger Things, a Netflix sci-fi/horror show in its highly intriguing portrayal of people trapped in strange circumstances they couldn’t figure out, no matter what they did. Colorless’ premise is awesome and unique, but the execution of that premise, while very enjoyable in some ways, was quite faulty in others.

What Colorless is About

Colorless is more or less a historical fantasy set in the fictional town of Domengrad, an analog of an early 20th century Russian town. The people of this town have three rules that they live by: fear the gods, worship the magicians, and forsake the iconoclasts. These rules were laid down by some “off-screen” magicians, and are enforced by a group of mute, hive-minded monks. Annabelle Klein, the main character, is heiress to a manor in that town, but the manor’s mortgaged down to its candlesticks, she’s betrothed to her loathsome cousin, and her parents suddenly and simultaneously die at the beginning of the book, and when that happens, all of the pigment drips out of her skin and hair, leaving her colorless. Within moments, Annabelle is invisible and forgotten by all who knew her.  Things are pretty bad for her.

What Wasn’t Great About Colorless

Given that, you would think that her first thoughts would either be to grieve, use her invisibility to solve the mystery of what she suspects is her parents’ murder, and/or try to find out why she turned colorless and invisible. But she doesn’t really do any of those things.  Instead, she just strives to escape the notice of the monks who come to the manor to investigate the possible existence of an iconoclast (someone who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions or a destroyer of images used in religious worship), though they can’t see or remember Annabelle either. As she does so, she meets Dylan, a stableboy on the estate to whose point of view the story then transfers, and thinks about Tony, her “loathsome” cousin, to whom the point of view then also transfers. All this eventually leads in a roundabout way to her meeting some young men who help to shed light on why her parents died and provide speculation about the monks’ or magicians’ connection between that and her invisibility. But they don’t help her solve the mystery or regain her color and visibility. And they even turn out to be connected to the monks in a Jacob-esque way that really makes no sense.

So, plotwise, it wasn’t the best. It would have been a much more powerful story better told if it had only been told from Annabelle’s perspective, and had focused on any one of her possible motives of  solving her parents murder or becoming visible and colored once again. It was confusing. I was frustrated with the lack of substantive information supplied during each chapter to help answer questions brought up in earlier chapters. It seemed like clues were constantly being given about the true nature of the enemy, and none were answered. The reader is constantly held in the dark about the motives behind characters’ actions, and there are a couple of plot twists that made no sense to me whatsoever. And there was a fair amount of swearing, which I thought was totally superfluous, and in fact, took away from the feel of the book. And, by way of “nutrition facts,” there is mention of a hoped-for gay relationship.

What Was Great About Colorless

That being said, I still found myself totally intrigued and drawn in. I would venture to say that, while I wouldn’t give this book any points for plot, and in fact, might even take away points for that (it’s my ten-star system, so I can do what I want with it, right?), I would give it all the points possible for setting and style, and maybe even extra ones. Stradling very deftly tells Annabelle’s tale such that the reader can easily “see” and “feel” where she’s at, even if they can’t understand why or how.

So, I’d probably award Colorless six out of ten stars.

I’m reading Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, the sequel to the wowser YA sci-fi space opera horror Illuminae, as well as Penric’s Shaman, sequel to Penric’s Demon, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Watch for a review of Gemina coming up soon!

Disclaimer: I did receive a free copy of the book through NetGalley, but my opinions are the same as if I would have paid for the book.

Book Review: Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, a Pleasant Read

Some books are wild rides. Others are mountain treks, difficult but well worth it for the beauty and exercise. Others are walks in the park on cool summer evenings, where the sound of children laughing on swing sets and the breeze caressing the back of your neck makes you forget all your cares. Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance: A Novel by Ruth Emmie Lang is one of those walks. It’s such a relaxing read that it borders on boring, but it’s pleasant nonetheless.

What Beasts is About

Weylyn Grey is an orphan boy raised by wolves, and the proud owner of a horned pig named Merlin. He’s not like other people. But one day he single-handedly stops a tornado that threatens the family that takes him in, and he and they realize just how different he actually is. Weylyn’s story as he grows from boy to man is told from from the perspectives of nine different people, seven of whom knew him, one that only heard about him, and from Weylyn himself…for one chapter. It’s less about his powers, which he’s very uncomfortable with, and more about how other people perceive him before and after they surmise that he has unusual abilities but doesn’t want to use them, for good or bad.

What I Thought of Beasts

If I had to give this book a genre, I’d say it’s adult literary paranormal or fantasy. It’s A Man Called Ove meets Twilight. If you like that genre or either of those books, you’ll probably like this one. It’s prose is like soft grass under your feet, the kind that’s slightly cool to the touch and doesn’t contain a sprig of crab grass anywhere.

I’ve admitted before that I can be somewhat impatient when it comes to plot development. In fact, I think my exact words were “I’m an adrenaline junkie.” So, when I say that a book might be boring, you have to keep that in mind. As Beast’s plot moseys back and forth from present day to Weylyn’s growing-up years, and from one character’s point of view to another, one can almost hear the laughs of the children on the swing sets at the park fading and growing louder, then fading and growing louder again, as they swing back and forth.

And the fact that it’s told from so many points of view—which can be quite disorienting, I must say—means you get to know Weylyn only by the reflections made by other characters about him, as if they were all holding up mirrors pointed at him, encircling him metaphorically, and we as readers are standing in the circle right next to Weylyn unable to perceive him directly. This is what’s called a literary foil, and it’s an interesting, artistic technique. If you enjoy books that are more about getting to know the characters than about finding out what they do or what happens to them, you’ll like Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance.

It will release on November 7, 2017.

Stars? Six out of ten.

Visual? Strolling through a park (couldn’t find).

Nutrition facts? A few “grams” of swearing, no violence, no sex.

 

Book Review: The Fifth Doll by Charlie Holmberg: A Rug of a Tale

As if I haven’t offered enough visuals for people to compare certain books to or rate books by (stars, anyone? nutrition facts labels? or how about gifs?),  I offer yet another one:  full-on videos, like the one below:

What book does it describe, you ask? The Fifth Doll by Charlie N. Holmberg. And why a rug? You’ll see.

What The Fifth Doll is About

Matrona, the main character, lives in an isolated village, where her life is centered on pleasing her parents. She’s diligent in her chores and has agreed to marry a man of their choosing. But a visit to Slava, the local tradesman, threatens to upend her entire life. Slava owns a strange collection of painted nesting dolls—one for every villager. Through a series of accidents, Matrona discovers that each doll is connected to its villager in a very real sense, and that gives Slava the opportunity to blackmail Matrona into caring for the dolls. Forced to open one of her own dolls every three days, she falls deeper into the grim power of Slava’s creations. But nothing can prepare her for the profound secret hiding inside the fifth doll.

My Opinion of the Book

In the same way that the woman in the video carefully weaves, through a series of complicated-looking stitches, a relatively simple but beautiful rug, so does Holmberg weave a tale that is both complicated and intricate, yet artistic and wondrous. Each stitch is a detail that Matrona notices, a development in the story, an action she takes to get closer to the fifth dolls’ truths. She is compelled, both by Slava and the desire to rid herself of the spells he casts over the dolls, to unravel another “rug,” an even more complicated and much less beautiful version of the bigger one. That rug looks more like a web, and its woven with the lies and secrets that Slava has cast over Matrona and her whole village.

Indeed, when Matrona gets to the point where she’s gathered as many clues as she can and puts them all together, that’s when she’s able to see Slava’s web for what it is, and that’s when the rug of a tale that Holmberg has woven begins to unravel as well. As Matrona works to unstitch all of Slava’s handiwork, alongside her Holmberg unravels the rug to reveal a long length of incredibly beautiful fabric covered in a sophisticated print but with a feather-soft feel.

The fabric, laid out and looked at in its entirety, represents the story as well as all the backstory that came before it and the opportunities the ending represents. At the core of that story is a magic system that was so complex I feel it will take at least one more read-through for me to fully understand it. When that system started to feel too complicated for my little brain to comprehend, I comforted myself with the softness of Holmberg’s style.

Take this passage, for example:

A shifting of darkness at the window caught the corner of her eye; she turned, but saw nothing in the gap between her curtains. The wood had devoured the last wisps of twilight. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she tugged the curtains completely closed. Then she blew out her candle, bathing herself in darkness, and slid it and a single match into her pocket.

There’s such a sense of place in the simple details she provides, and a subtle way of building suspense through sentence structures that reflect Matrona’s moods. At the beginning of that paragraph, she’s pensive and nervous, which is reflected in the first long sentence. But by the end, she’s purposeful and her actions compound upon themselves: she tugs the curtains, blows the candle out, then slides things into her pocket.

Lest I wax too analytical, though, go back to the video of the rug and imagine running that soft fabric through your fingers. That’s how it feels to read The Fifth Doll, or really, any one of Holmberg’s books.

The Fifth Doll releases on July 25, 2017.  I’ll be reading and reviewing Beyond by Catina Haverlock and Angela Larkin next, and doing a giveaway for a free copy of that, so stay tuned! I’m also doing another giveaway of Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth; it’ll be going until the 24th, so go enter!

I received a free ARC of The Fifth Doll that I’ll soon pass on to another blogger to review. All opinions contained herein are, of course, my own opinions.