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.

Book Reviews: Odd Thomas is Awesome, but Forever Odd Isn’t Quite

As I understand it, Dean Koontz is a prolific author who writes suspense thrillers that contain elements of the paranormal, horror, science fiction, and other genres. The Odd Thomas series, containing seven books and five novelettes, is only one of many he has written. It has a definite paranormal/horror bent, as well as a strong “literary” feel to it, being grounded more in the “odd” gift of the titular character, and the consequences of that gift, than in the pace of those consequences. It is, in my mind, an odd combination. Forever Odd is the second book in the Odd Thomas series, the first book being named Odd Thomas.

I read the first one a couple of years ago. I listened to, rather than read, Forever Odd during my commutes (yay for audiobooks!) about a year ago.   Both books follow a young man named Odd Thomas (yes, that’s actually his name) who is able to see dead people and feel a kind of “psychic magnetism” toward them or toward people that are in trouble.

The First Book: Odd Thomas is Awesome at Being Odd

Goodreads describes the first book’s plot as follows:

“A mysterious man comes to town with a voracious appetite, a filing cabinet stuffed with information on the world’s worst killers, and a pack of hyena-like shades following him wherever he goes. Who the man is and what he wants, not even Odd’s deceased informants can tell him. His most ominous clue is a page ripped from a day-by-day calendar for August 15. Today is August 14.”

Sounds pretty ominous, right? It was. I highly enjoyed Koontz’s somewhat lyrical style and unique characters–his gun-toting girlfriend Stormy Llewelyn, and his morbidly obese, famous writer friend Little Ozzie–among others. I also really enjoyed the plot, which was tightly-woven, suspenseful, and intense.

The Second Book: Forever Odd Falls Flat

This second book, though, I didn’t enjoy nearly as much. This is its synopsis:

“A childhood friend of Odd’s has disappeared. The worst is feared. But as Odd applies his unique talents to the task of finding the missing person, he discovers something worse than a dead body, encounters an enemy of exceptional cunning, and spirals into a vortex of terror.”

The first half of the book is Odd’s discovery of the disappearance of his childhood friend and the brutal murder of the friend’s stepfather. He searches for his friend Danny, thinking the murderer and kidnapper is Danny’s biological father, a convict. He discovers (warning: start of a semi-spoiler) halfway through the book that the blame, in fact, lies with a different culprit, and spends the rest of the book trying to figure out how to defeat her.

It is out of this structure that my main complaint arises. The villain, Detura, is evil, sadistic, and bloodthirsty to the core. She seeks out ghosts and  the ability to see them. She revels in causing pain. In short, she is a flat character. She has no intriguing backstory, redeeming motives, or even moments of uncertainty; she’s just horrible (end semi-spoiler). This flatness, or simpleness, is a great exception to the many other utterly unique and delightful, oxymoronic and relatable, complex characters that inhabit Koontz’s books.

And, without a complex, truly interesting villain, the conflict and plot of the book fall flat. It becomes simply a struggle for Odd to keep his friend, who has brittle-bone disease (a handy plot device) and himself alive. While propped up occasionally by bursts of action as Odd fights off Detura’s henchmen, the plot mainly consists of him trying to outthink his way out of the maze of problems she creates for him.

In my ten-star system, I would only give this one a four.

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!

Top Eight Ways to Get Custom YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book Reviews

So, say you’ve been reading my posts for a while now, and have gained an appreciation for science fiction and/or fantasy books (yay!). Say you want to read more of them but aren’t sure where to start, other than subscribing to my blog.  You can go to the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of Barnes & Noble, but how do you know which books you’d like best, other than the blurbs on their backs or inside covers? Physical library books aren’t sorted by genre. You can search by genre on Amazon (although there is no YA sci-fi/fantasy subgenre, which I think is unfortunate), or even look up books that you’ve liked or heard about and then check out the books listed below them in the “customers-who-bought-this-item-also-bought” section.  And, of course, you can check out the reviews on either Amazon or Goodreads. But did you know there are other ways to find recommendations for books, recommendations more customized to your tastes that won’t take forever to find? Let me tell you about a few.

  1. mybookcave.com – I love this site because you specify what genre(s) of books you like and what your preferred price point is and they email you whenever something comes up in those genres and at or below your price point. You indicate whether you’d like books with or without gay/lesbian characters,  and the retailers you prefer. It’s only for ebooks.
  2.  Tor.com – Tor is a publisher of speculative, science fiction, and fantasy books, one that I dream of getting published with one day. I recommend looking at their books list, which links to sites where you can buy the books.
  3. thebooksmugglers.com – because they review a lot of speculative, science fiction, and fantasy. Their tastes run a bit more liberal than mine,    but I’ve bought several books that they’ve recommended and agreed with their ratings every time. The thing I like about their newsletter,        which I signed up for, is that it doesn’t fill up my inbox. They only send me something when they have something important to say.
  4. On Amazon, search for “Nebula award showcase.” You’ll get a list of anthologies of winners of the Nebula award, one of the top honors for        any science fiction or fantasy book to receive. Each one contains a collection of excerpts and short stories of the winners. Reading one of          these (something I don’t normally do) was how I discovered Nancy Kress, one of my favorite “hard” sci-fi writers.
  5. Facebook – I highly recommend searching for book club groups such as Science Fiction Book Club, and asking to join them. You’d think that GoodReads.com would be a good place to get recommendations, but I’ve found it much easier to ask for recommendations in the Facebook book groups that I belong to.
  6. On Pinterest, if you search for “science fiction book reviews,” then click through on interesting titles, and then on “read,” you can find some reviews.
  7. Twitter: if you search on #scifibooks, you’ll find some reviews, although there’s also a lot of promo, and self-published authors doing promos. I recommend following publishers of science fiction and fantasy books, such as @Tor.com, @TorTeen, @Tor Books, and @IReadYA  (associated with Scholastic), as well as your favorite authors.
  8. Instagram is a surprisingly good place to find talk about books, given its picture-centered format. Discussions are usually centered  around the hashtags #bookstagram, #book, and #booknerdigans. There aren’t many hashtags that are specific to sci-fi or fantasy or that link to reviews that tell you why people liked the books they post about. I’m thinking of starting the hashtag #scifibookster.

 

 

 

Book Review: Gemina is Both Brilliant…and Not

There is a sub-genre of science fiction that is perhaps lesser known for its name—space opera—than it is for the books and movies that comprise it. Star Wars, for example, is arguably the most well-known and epic space opera set of movies, but I don’t know many people (even writers) that would think to call it that. Yet it’s a very exciting sub-genre, I think, typified by space warfaremelodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalrous romance, and risk-taking. There is no singing. Well…usually. In Amie Kaufman’s and Jay Kristoff’s Gemina, the most recent book in their Illuminae series, there is plenty of singing, albeit of the pop-wormhole-station-PA-system variety, and plenty of warfare, adventure, romance, and risk-taking. In fact, there may even be too much; if it were a movie, it would be R-rated for its violence. But as a book, it’s brilliant…in a convoluted way.

What Gemina is About

The short, spoiler-free version? It’s about a ruthless special-ops team that tries to take over a space station called the Heimdall, a wormhole-manning waypoint, and the few teenagers who must fight ruthlessly to stay alive. The full, spoiler-rich version you can find on this lovely new site I found called BookSeriesRecaps.com. It’s a graphic novel, meaning it’s told through a collection of chat room transcripts, surveillance footage summaries, autopsy reports, radio transmission transcripts, etc.:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good Things About Gemina

In some ways, I think this format is brilliant. It’s definitely not something I’ve seen before in the genres of space opera or YA. It makes for a much quicker read than you’d think the book’s 659 pages would necessitate. You don’t get a lot of heavy internal dialogue or emotion to slow down the plot. For an adrenaline junkie like me, this is great.

Some Not So Great Things About Gemina

On the other hand, though, missing those things almost completely means it’s much harder to connect with the characters. It makes the book seem like nothing more than a written version of the Alien movie, except with teenagers as the main characters. To a certain extent, every book, no matter how action-packed it is, needs to show the characters experiencing some strong emotion in order for the plot to move forward; they go on a rampage, for instance, if they get angry in reaction to something the antagonist(s) did. This book moves forward quite frequently on a revenge cycle, with Hannah (the main character) seeking to avenge (start: tiny little spoiler) the murder of the father at the beginning of the book (end spoiler).

And, as mentioned before, there is ALOT of violence. I shouldn’t have read as much as I did of it, but there’s something about reading it in a book that seems to make it a little less horrible than viewing it on a screen. But it’s still depictions of human-against-human violence, which I think there’s plenty of in the news these days. I don’t want to read it in my fiction too. And ALOT of swearing, although most of it is blacked out, as they’re in records that will ostensibly be reviewed in a court of law.

Who Would Like Gemina

If you liked the first book in the series, Illuminae, which I reviewed on Amazon, you’ll definitely like this one. Gemina’s story is connected to that of Illuminae‘s, so it’s kind of a sequel, but centered on different characters in a different setting. Also, if you liked These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, you’d like Gemina; both have high-society-debutante-turned-toughie-girl main characters. K.B. Wager’s Behind the Throne also comes to mind, although the transition from debutante to toughie is reversed in that book. It’s also got a high-octane plot.

 

 

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 Reviews and Giveaways: Penric’s Demon and Curse of Chalion are Must-Reads

I haven’t read many novellas in my time, and when I have it’s either been by accident or because it was a filler between releases of books in series that I loved. I happened to read a novella this past week, though, by accident and it happened to become not so much a filler between book releases but a bandage to cover the hole that the preceding books in this series, which have no impending sequels, have left. Penric’s  Demon is a novella set in the Kingdom of the Five Gods, a setting created by master science fiction and fantasy writer Lois McMaster Bujold. It was written fourteen years after the first book set in that Kingdom, Curse of Chalion, but takes place roughly a hundred years before it. I read Penric’s Demon purely on the strength of Curse of Chalion, which was a phenomenal book, I thought, and while I found the former book weaker (possibly due to it’s novella status), it was still a must-read.

What Penric’s Demon is About

In the Kingdom of the Five Gods, people’s souls belong to one of five gods: the Father, the Mother, the Daughter, the Son, and the Bastard. Some people become scholars and high-ranking religious officials by choosing one of those deities and committing their lives to studying them. The magical elements of this speculative fiction series come from the influence of these five deities. Some of those scholars, in fact, take on embodiments of them. The main character Penric, for instance, somehow inherits a “demon” from a learned female priest he encounters on the road as she dies, the demon being a collection of the spirits of animals and people that previous learneds assembled and put into her. It inhabits Penric’s body with him, carrying on conversations with him and occasionally bestowing him with minor gifts of magic for protection. Most people who receive such demons–called such because they are believed to be associated with the Bastard, who is the deity of disorder–are able to work great magic because of the spirits that possess them. Penric is none of those things and possesses no great magic, so he causes the people who discover that he’s got a demon in him to react in alarm, confusion, disbelief, and derision. Therein lies the central conflict of the book.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Penric’s Demon

The most enjoyable part of reading Penric’s Demon was Bujold’s writing. It’s dense with meaning and history, while also flowing and evocative. Take this passage for example:

Nothing much to see, now, in the dawn damp; nothing much to feel, though Pen extended all his exacerbated senses. He bowed his head and offered a silent prayer, the wording haltingly remembered from services for his father…. The grave returned no answer, but something inside him seemed to ease, as if pacified.

The other is the sweet Kung Fu Panda feel of the premise, where the protagonist finds himself thrust into a place of honor having done nothing to earn it and enjoying it while at the same time feeling wholly unworthy of it.

The conflict, however, or the reactions and actions of people that find out he has a demon in him, doesn’t really set in until two-thirds of the way through the book. Most of the book is Pen getting to know his “rider,” if you will. While pleasant and mildly interesting, it really should have been much shorter.

How That Relates to Curse of Chalion

That being said, I highly recommend Penric’s Demon to anyone who loves any kind of speculative fiction or is a fan of any of Bujold’s other works. It familiarizes you with the Five Gods Kingdom, so that you can then go read Curse of Chalion with a little bit of understanding. Curse is about Lupe dy Cazaril, a man who, at the beginning of the book, returns home to the Kingdom of Chalion (what used to be called the Kingdom of the Five Gods) a broken man, though he is only 35 years old, after having defended a castle during a long siege, only to be ordered to surrender it and then sold into slavery and eventually rescued. He gains a position as the secretary-tutor of the Princess Iselle and her companion,  Lady Betriz..

Despite his ardent desire to live a safely low-profile, peaceful life, Caz finds himself drawn into a strange and dangerous journey when Iselle and her younger brother Teidez, heir to the childless King Orico, are ordered to join their half-brother’s court.  Caz is driven to defend them from Orico and the kingdom from the civil war he’s fermenting.  Through all this, Caz comes to realize that the five gods have chosen him to act for them, though his mission is not made clear. With the second sight he is given, he discovers that a black curse hangs over the royal family of Chalion, one that he seeks to dispel for Iselle’s sake.

Like Penric’s DemonChalion is full of enchanting language and charming main and supporting characters. Because it’s longer, though, its plot is more substantial, and the conflict is well-developed from the beginning. It’s a “page turner,” not because of break-neck pacing or multiple plot convolutions, but because one comes to care for Caz and want to know what happens to him and those he cares for.

I’m giving away one Kindle copy each of The Curse of Chalion (it is only $2.99 on Amazon right now) and Penric’s Demon to one of my blog subscribers or Twitter followers. Enter here for The Curse and here for Penric’s Demon.