ARC Review – Once, In Lourdes

ARC Review – Once, In LourdesOnce, in Lourdes by Sharon Solwitz
three-stars
Published by Spiegel & Grau on May 30th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A poignant novel of teenage friendship set during a two-week span in the turbulent summer of 1968, in which four friends make a pact that will change their lives forever.

Four high school friends stand on the brink of adulthood—and on the high ledge above the sea at the local park in Lourdes, Michigan, they call the Haight—and make a pact. For the next two weeks, they will live for each other and for each day. And at the end of the two weeks, they will stand once again on the bluff and jump, sacrificing themselves on the altar of their friendship. Loyal Kate, beautiful Vera, witty C.J., and steady Saint—in a two-week span, their lives will change beyond their expectations, and what they gain and lose will determine whether they enter adulthood or hold fast to their pledge. Once, in Lourdes is a haunting and moving novel of the power of teenage bonds, the story of four characters who will win your heart and transport you back to your own high school years.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Once, In Lourdes is a story that, I have to confess, left me scratching my head.  I’m also finding it a little hard to review so I’m basically just going to jump in and ramble for a bit.  In the opening pages of Once, In Lourdes, we meet four teens – Kay, Vera, Saint, and CJ.  They are basically outsiders at their school who managed to find their way to each other and form a pretty strong bond of friendship. When we meet them, three of them are at the park playing bridge while the fourth, Vera, is conspicuously absent.  Once she finally does arrive, there is something amiss with her and her friends pry until she finally confesses that she has just dropped acid for the first time.  After this confession, Vera then announces that she thinks the four of them should all kill themselves in a grand “f*** you” kind of gesture to everyone around them.  After much discussion, the other three agree and they actually draw up a suicide pact where they pledge to live their lives fully for the next two weeks and then on the fourteenth day, they will return to the park at dawn, climb up on the bluff wall and throw themselves off the wall and on to the rocks below. The rest of the novel follows the four teens for those two weeks leading up to the agreed upon date of death.

 

LIKES

 

I have mixed feelings about the story overall, but I would definitely give the author full marks for her recreation of the summer of 1968.  With her inclusion of little details like Bob Dylan’s music, dropping acid, sexual freedom, protests, and discussion of the Vietnam War, Solwitz captured the atmosphere perfectly and makes you feel like you’re experiencing the late 60’s era. It felt very authentic and I did love that.

I also liked how Solwitz was able to create suspense with this story.  Even though I had a few issues with the story overall, I still read this in about a day because I was so curious about why these kids were so eager to end their lives and I really wanted to know if they would actually go through it or not.  Since the story is being told from Kay’s point of view, I knew she had obviously survived but the fates of the others was very unclear.

 

DISLIKES

 

My biggest issue with the story was that I had a hard time connecting with any of the teens, even with Kay even though we probably got to know her the best out of the four.  I don’t know if it’s just because I’m older and too far removed from my teenage years, but I just felt nothing but frustration over the fact that these kids were willing to throw their lives away.  Following them for those two weeks, it was clear to see that they each came from somewhat dysfunctional home lives – there are some instances of abuse, both physical and verbal.  I understood that life was a struggle for them at times, but every step of the way, all I kept thinking was “OMG, you guys are about to be high school seniors. One more year and you’re out of here anyway. Why throw everything away to make some tragic statement?” Maybe if I had connected with the characters more, I’d feel more understanding about their reasoning for making this suicide pact but as it was, I just felt like a curious onlooker watching these kids.  Plus, their version of living life to the fullest and living it for themselves just didn’t really resonate with me either.  For the most part, it just felt like they squandered those moments if they were indeed meant to be their final moments.

One other issue I had with the novel was that it was full of very long paragraphs.  I’m sure this is just a personal quirk with me, but I prefer writing that is broken up into smaller paragraphs.  Turning a page and seeing a paragraph that is over half a page long just makes me sigh and start to skim, especially when the novel is full of them. If long paragraphs don’t bother you, this probably wouldn’t be an issue like it was for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

As I said, even though I had some issues and wished I could have better connected with the characters, their journey and their fate was still compelling enough to keep me reading until the end even if I didn’t fully understand their motives for making the pact. Once, In Lourdes is filled with dark themes – suicide, abuse, even incest – but if you can handle those, it also provides an intimate look at just how far friends are willing to go for one another.

 

RATING:  3 STARS

 

Huge thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest review. This is no way affects my opinion of the book.

 

 

three-stars

About Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz is the author of a novel, Bloody Mary, and a collection of short stories, Blood and Milk, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the prize for adult fiction from the Society of Midland Authors, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Several of her stories have been featured in Pushcart Prize anthologies and Best American Short Stories. Other honors for her individual stories, which have appeared in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Nelson Algren Literary Award, and grants and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council. Solwitz teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.

Book Review – Zenn Diagram

Book Review – Zenn DiagramZenn Diagram by Wendy Brant
four-stars
Published by Kids Can Press on April 4th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 328
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The more I touch someone, the more I can see and understand, and the more I think I can help. But that’s my mistake. I can’t help. You can’t fix people like you can solve a math problem.

Math genius. Freak of nature. Loner.

Eva Walker has literally one friend—if you don’t count her quadruplet three-year-old-siblings—and it’s not even because she’s a math nerd. No, Eva is a loner out of necessity, because everyone and everything around her is an emotional minefield. All she has to do is touch someone, or their shirt, or their cell phone, and she can read all their secrets, their insecurities, their fears.

Sure, Eva’s “gift” comes in handy when she’s tutoring math and she can learn where people are struggling just by touching their calculators. For the most part, though, it’s safer to keep her hands to herself. Until she meets six-foot-three, cute-without-trying Zenn Bennett, who makes that nearly impossible.

Zenn’s jacket gives Eva such a dark and violent vision that you’d think not touching him would be easy. But sometimes you have to take a risk…

MY REVIEW

 

Zenn Diagram follows the story of Eva Walker, who is the ultimate math nerd. Not only is she really great at all things math-related, but she also just flat out loves math. It’s her passion and she’s not afraid to admit it. Eva is a bit of a loner though, not because she’s a math nerd, but more so out of necessity.  She has a condition where when she touches someone or touches something that belongs to them, she gets visions.  The more troubled the person’s life is, the more dramatic and violent these visions are and the more unbearable they are for Eva. They can literally bring her to her knees and so for this reason, Eva tends to limit her contact with others.  She has one close friend, Charlotte, who knows about Eva’s visions, and beyond that, the only real social interactions she has are with the students that she tutors in math.  Eva is a whiz when it comes to tutoring, not just because she has mad math skills, but because she can actually get visions of what exactly a student’s math struggles are just by touching their calculators.  This is probably the only way her “gift” comes in handy.

The visions Eva has have plagued her pretty much all her life and although doctors have no idea what has caused them, Eva is a girl with a plan.  She plans to go to college, study neuroscience, and find the cure herself!  When we meet Eva, she is actively making plans to apply to elite colleges such as MIT and Northwestern and to apply for as many scholarships as she can to make her dream a reality.

Enter Zenn Bennett.  Zenn is a new student who walks into Eva’s life when he needs help with math.  During one of their tutoring sessions, Zenn accidentally leaves his jacket behind and Eva, without thinking, grabs it up to take it to him.  The fractal that hits her is so dark, violent, and upsetting that she literally collapses on the floor.  In spite of this, however, she stills feels herself drawn to Zenn.  He’s cute, funny, appreciates her math nerd humor, and she feels a connection to him that she hasn’t felt with anyone else before.  Is there anyway this can work out for Eva?

 

LIKES

Eva.  I am all about main characters who are a bit nerdy, so I adored Eva.  I mean, seriously, how cool is it to have a girl that’s into STEM as the protagonist?  I also loved that she wore her nerdiness loud and proud and was just downright hilarious at times.  I would have totally wanted to be friends with Eva if I went to her school and the vibe I got from Eva was that if she didn’t have this issue about getting physically close to people, then she probably would have had tons of friends and been actively involved in many social circles.

I think the author did a wonderful job of making Eva a relatable and sympathetic character.  I understood the hurt, resentment, and even jealousy Eva felt when her only friend Charlotte suddenly becomes interested in dating and the two of them start drifting apart because Eva can’t really follow suit and date as well.  It’s very easy to relate to her plight because these visions really are keeping her from living her life the way she wants to.  How can she have friends, boyfriends, etc., if she has to cower away from all physical contact in order to keep the visions (or fractals as she refers to them) at bay?

Zenn.  I loved Zenn as much as I loved Eva.  He’s a gifted artist and he’s also sweet, funny, and super cute.  He also has this tremendous sense of responsibility that’s very appealing and that makes him a character that is easy to sympathize with.  Early on we learn that he is working three jobs while trying to go to school because his father is out of the picture and his mother is a mess.  He would actually love to go away to art school after he graduates but it just doesn’t seem in the realm of possibility based on his current circumstances.

I fell in love with Zenn the moment that he showed that he totally “got” Eva’s math nerd humor.  He totally appreciates her nerdiness and the two of them just instantly click.  Theirs is a relationship that you can’t help but root for, whether Eva and Zenn just become really close friends or if they can actually get past those darn fractals and date each other.  Their chemistry is just so sweet and after seeing what both of their lives have been like up to this point, it’s like “Please just let them be happy together!!!”

The Fractals (or Visions).  While Zenn Diagram would have been a great contemporary read even without Eva’s issue, I loved the little almost sci-fi twist that these visions throw into the mix.  The fractals themselves fascinated me.  They’re not exactly psychic visions, but more along the lines of colored patterns that she sees when she touches a person or something that belongs to them.  The more personal the item, the more intense the visions.  They’re traumatic for Eva because while she can’t necessarily sense actual events that have happened to a person, she senses all of the emotions from the events.  So if someone has been abused or otherwise had something horrible happen to them, it’s all laid bare for Eva just by touching something that belongs to them.  Not only is it overwhelming when it initially happens, but Eva also finds it heartbreaking because she automatically wants to “fix” whatever it is that has happened to the person, but knows she’s can’t.  Eva says that the only people she can really bear to touch are children because they’re still so innocent and their fractals are therefore peaceful and soothing.

 

DISLIKES

The only moment where I felt a little let down was where I guessed what was going to happen regarding a certain scholarship that is mentioned throughout the novel.  I don’t want to give too much away, but as soon as I read about it and then saw who had applied for it, I totally guessed how it was going to play out.  I still love the direction the story took but just wished it hadn’t been quite so easy to guess.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you think you would enjoy a contemporary YA read with a sci-fi twist and if you love nerdy main characters, I’d definitely say to give Zenn Diagram a try.  Zenn Diagram is one of those books that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if not for the recommendations of some of my fellow bloggers.  I’m so glad I listened to those recommendations though because I really loved it.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way affects my opinion.

four-stars

About Wendy Brant

At age ten, Wendy Brant wrote her first book, My Mysterious Double, the story of a girl and an impostor pretending to be her. Years later, after graduating with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and completing the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver, Wendy wrote adult fiction (albeit unpublished) while working as an HR manager and being a mom. But when she started reading the same YA books as her kids, her attention and passion shifted. Now she likes to write about isolated teenagers who somehow find a way to connect with others, and she’s also a sucker for a little romance.

Wendy lives in the Chicago area in the best neighborhood in America (as crowned by Good Morning America in 2010) with her husband, teenage daughter and son, and guinea pigs Mac and Tosh.

ARC Review of The Leavers by Lisa Ko

ARC Review of The Leavers by Lisa KoThe Leavers by Lisa Ko
four-stars
Published by Algonquin Books on May 2nd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant named Polly, goes to her job at the nail salon and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left with no one to care for him. He is eventually adopted by two white college professors who move him from the Bronx to a small town upstate. They rename him Daniel Wilkinson in their efforts to make him over into their version of an “all-American boy.” But far away from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his new life with his mother’s disappearance and the memories of the family and community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging. It’s the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away–and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

This powerful debut is the winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.

 

MY REVIEW

The Leavers is a very compelling and timely read that explores what happens to a Chinese family living in New York when immigration suddenly becomes an issue and one of them is forced to leave the country.  It follows the life of Deming Guo, an eleven year old Chinese American boy who lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He shares an apartment with his mother, Polly, who is an undocumented Chinese immigrant, Polly’s boyfriend Leo, as well as Leo’s sister, Vivian and her son.   Things are a little tight, but they all do the best they can and it’s the only family Deming has ever known so he’s comfortable with the arrangement.

Then one day Polly doesn’t come home from work.  No one seems to know what happened to her.  Days, weeks, even months go by without a word from her.  Deming vaguely remembers his mother talking about wanting to move to Florida for a better job and sadly assumes that she has chosen to do so and just left him behind.  Then Leo disappears as well, and soon after, Vivian decides she can no longer take care of Deming and surrenders him so that he can be adopted by someone who can.  Deming ends up being adopted by an old white couple and thus begins a new life in upstate New York where the couple lives.  The rest of the novel explores how being left behind by his mother shapes basically every aspect of Deming’s life.

LIKES

Deming’s Journey:  I just found Deming’s story so heartbreaking because he seems so lost most of the time, like he has no idea who he really is and just doesn’t really fit in or belong anywhere.  Even as he moves into adulthood, no matter where he goes and what he tries to do – whether it’s attend college or even to pursue his passion, which is music, the question of what happened to his real mother always casts its shadow over him. He grows up feeling it’s somehow all his fault that his mother abandoned him.  In this sense, Lisa Ko has crafted The Leavers into a coming of age story because Deming (or Daniel as his adoptive parents have renamed him in an effort to ‘Americanize’ him) spends much of the story trying to figure out who he even is.  This search for identity is a major theme.

Flawed Characters:  The older Deming/Daniel gets, the more determined he becomes to find out the truth about why his mother left him.  Lisa Ko adds another layer to the story at this point by adding in Polly’s point of view and having Polly fill in the gaps in the original story that we’ve been following.  We learn what really happened to her and what she has been doing ever since and why she didn’t make more of an effort to get back to her son.  It’s a painful story and Polly definitely made some regretful choices along the way that she has been forced to live with, but her flaws are what make her human and what make her story so moving.  Even though I was angry with her at first for not figuring out a way to reunite with her son, by the end of her story, I found myself forgiving her.

DISLIKES

The only reason I haven’t given this novel full marks is that even though seeing the effects of deportation on both mother and son made for a powerful read, I felt like it sometimes made the story too broad in scope, especially when there were alternating chapters between the son as a boy, the same son as a grown man, and then partway through, we suddenly had chapters from the mom as well. It sometimes took me a few minutes to figure out who the narrator was as I began a new chapter. Even though it confused me at times, however, I still thought it was wonderful read overall.

FINAL THOUGHTS

With its poignant exploration of how deportation can rip families apart and ruin lives, it’s very easy to see why Lisa Ko’s The Leavers won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the author, and Algonquin Books for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way impacts my view of the book.

four-stars

About Lisa Ko

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and will be published by Algonquin Books in May 2017. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Apogee Journal, Narrative, O. Magazine, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat, Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

ARC Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray

ARC Review of Defy the Stars by Claudia GrayDefy the Stars (Defy the Stars #1) by Claudia Gray
four-stars
Series: Defy the Stars #1
on April 4th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 512
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Noemi Vidal is a teen soldier from the planet Genesis, once a colony of Earth that’s now at war for its independence. The humans of Genesis have fought Earth’s robotic “mech” armies for decades with no end in sight.

After a surprise attack, Noemi finds herself stranded in space on an abandoned ship where she meets Abel, the most sophisticated mech prototype ever made. One who should be her enemy. But Abel’s programming forces him to obey Noemi as his commander, which means he has to help her save Genesis–even though her plan to win the war will kill him.

Together they embark on a daring voyage through the galaxy. Before long, Noemi begins to realize Abel may be more than a machine, and, for his part, Abel’s devotion to Noemi is no longer just a matter of programming.

MY REVIEW

Wow, what a pleasant surprise this book turned out to be! I’ve never read anything by Claudia Gray and so really had no idea what to expect going into Defy the Stars. I literally spent my entire weekend reading it and I regret nothing.  Such a riveting adventure!

The premise of the story is that Earth has basically used up nearly all of its resources so the planet is dying and its inhabitants therefore need to find another home to move to as soon as possible.  A few other planets have been made habitable, but they are not nearly big enough to hold Earth’s population.  The planet Genesis is the ideal choice for resettlement, but Genesis isn’t having it.  They have seen what the humans of Earth have done to their own planet and have no interest in letting them come, take over Genesis, and do the same thing to their planet.  For this reason, Genesis and Earth are at war when the book opens.

In many ways it’s an unfair fight because Earth has developed an army of what are known as Mechs.  Mechs are incredibly sophisticated robots and humans are just no match against them, especially humans on Genesis because they don’t have nearly the same technological capabilities that Earth does. When the story opens, Earth and Genesis have been fighting for decades and the people of Genesis are in real danger of losing the fight and therefore their planet.

The world building in Defy the Stars is quite fascinating and intricate.  In addition to Earth and Genesis, there are also several other distinct planets, such as Kismet, which is a lush playground of sorts for the wealthy, as well as Cray, which is where all of the great scientific minds have been sent, and then Stronghold, which reminded me a lot of Mars in the way it’s described.  These planets are aligned in a loop and travel between them is accomplished via Gates, which are basically wormholes, and in an act of desperation, the leaders of Genesis have come up with a plan to try to cut off Earth’s access to Genesis by damaging the Gate that lies between Genesis and Earth.  They don’t believe they have the firepower to truly destroy it, but believe that they can disable it enough to buy themselves a few years of peace so that they can regroup and rearm themselves.  The ultimate problem with the plan – the only way the leaders think they can do enough damage to this Gate to render it useless is to send 150 of their soldiers on what is being called the Masada Run, where they will each crash their ships directly into the Gate.  It’s a suicide mission.

When we meet our protagonist, teenager Noemi Vidal, she is training to take part in the Masada Run.  A surprise attack while the Genesis soldiers are making a practice run leaves Noemi’s half-sister, Esther, who was working as a scout, critically wounded.  In an effort to save Esther, Noemi takes her aboard what appears to be an abandoned ship from Earth in search of medical supplies. It is here that Noemi comes face to face with, and is nearly kill by, Abel.  Abel is a Mech, and as it turns out, a one-of-a –kind mech, the most sophisticated Mech prototype ever made, in fact.  By virtue of his programming, he should inherently be Noemi’s enemy, but his programming also requires him to obey his commander, and as Noemi has basically commandeered the ship he is on, by default, she becomes Abel’s commander and he is therefore sworn to follow her every order.  Once Noemi is reassured that Abel is, in fact, loyal to her, she begins to pump him for intelligence.  She learns that Abel was traveling with his creator and a team of researchers who were examining the Gate between Genesis and Earth, looking for deficiencies in it that they could exploit it for their own benefit.  As crucial as this intel is, what Noemi learns that is even more important, is that with a few key supplies that can be secured from other planets, there is another way to destroy the Gate.  A mech could fly in there and destroy it and since a mech isn’t human, there would be no casualties.  Because Noemi is now his commander,  Abel of course volunteers to destroy the Gate and save his commander’s planet.  This knowledge sets Noemi on a new course, with Abel by her side, in which she hopes to not only save her planet but also spare the lives of those who would all die in the Masada Run.  The Masada Run is scheduled to take place in less than three weeks so it becomes a race against time…

LIKES

The Action:  As you can guess by my lengthy lead in, this book is pretty intense in terms of the overall storyline. Pretty much everything I just laid out happens in the opening few chapters and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  That race against time, coupled with the fact that Genesis is not viewed favorably by the other planets in the system because they feel like Genesis abandoned them  to save themselves, leads to a lot of potentially hostile encounters as Noemi and Abel make their way across the galaxy in search of what they need to destroy that Gate.  If you like action and adventure, you should enjoy this aspect of Defy the Stars.

Earth as the “Bad Guy”:  I found it very intriguing that Earth is the one who must be stopped here.  This idea seems pretty timely too, now that we have a U.S. President who apparently doesn’t believe in science.  This fictional scenario could end up being closer to reality than we care to think about.

The Characters:  As exciting as the storyline is, what really captured my attention and made me love the read are the characters themselves.  I loved both Noemi and Abel.  I loved them individually and I especially loved them working together as a team.

Noemi  – I really loved Noemi from the first moment we meet her.  Claudia Gray has created Noemi with this wonderful combination of fierce determination and selflessness that drew me in right away. We learn early on in the story that Noemi has volunteered to take part in the Masada Run, not just to save her planet, but also because the mission will only allow one representative from each household to volunteer to die and she is determined to protect her half sister, Esther, whom she has deemed the more worthy of living.  As much as I was already intrigued by the idea that this teen soldier was willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her planet and to save Esther, her belief that she was somehow less worthy of having a chance to live her life just added a layer of vulnerability to her that made her all the more compelling of a character.

I also love the growth that Noemi undergoes both as she begins to meet citizens from these other planets and as she learns more and more about Abel and realizes that he may actually be more human than robot.  She becomes much more reflective as the novel goes on as she begins to question the actions of the leaders of Genesis as well as her own plans.  Was Genesis right to isolate itself and leave the other planets to fend for themselves against Earth?  Wouldn’t they be stronger and better able to resist Earth if they banded together?  If Abel is truly more human than he is robot, can she really let him sacrifice himself to save Genesis?  So many big questions for such a young person to have to even think about.

Abel – As much as I loved Noemi, I absolutely adored Abel.  Even though he is made up to look like a human, with hair, blood, skin, and even neurons, Abel reminded me so much of C3PO from Star Wars or maybe even Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He’s just charming and funny, and sometimes says things that are so annoying, I half expected Noemi to dismantle him to shut him up.  I found him especially amusing when it became clear that he even has a bit of an ego. He’s proud that he’s the ultimate Mech prototype and that he’s the only one of his kind.  He toots his own horn, so to speak, quite frequently on that subject!

In addition to being such an amusing character, Abel also comes across as so human from the moment we meet him that it’s heartbreaking to learn he has been trapped on this ship for 30 years, just floating around all alone.  He tells Noemi that his creator and the crew were preparing to abandon ship and sent him to the airlock to complete one final task before departure. He became trapped there and they just left without him.  He has no idea what happened to them – if they made it back to Earth or if they all perished – but it never really dawns on him that they didn’t think of him as a life and so thought nothing of leaving him there to try to save themselves.  He even thinks of his creator as his “father” and doesn’t realize that even though he’s one of a kind, he is still viewed as ultimately disposable.

What also makes Abel a truly fascinating character is that he too, even though he is supposedly mostly just a machine, undergoes tremendous growth throughout the story.  Those 30 years all alone caused the neurons in Abel’s body to make new connections and begin to evolve in ways Abel’s creator may never even have thought possible.  Even though Abel still has programming, he is supposed to follow at all times, he has developed the ability to occasionally override that programming. It’s as though he is developing free will or as Noemi starts to wonder, maybe even some form of a soul.  Once Noemi starts to question just how human Abel has become over the years, it takes their relationship to a whole new level and it’s wonderful to watch how loyal they become to each other.

ANY DISLIKES?

I can’t really call it a dislike but there was a lot of information to sift through at the beginning with the different planets, the explanation of the cybergenetics and that Abel was a prototype for 25 other models of Mechs, etc.  I love science fiction so I can’t say that it bothered me too much, although I’ll admit I stopped to take a few notes along the way because there were a lot of details to keep track of, but I could see it potentially making it difficult for some readers to get into the story.  My advice would be to push through the beginning though because once you get past that initial worldbuilding and on to where Noemi and Abel meet, the story just flies along from there and you’ll breeze right through.

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you like a book that is action-packed, filled with compelling characters, and that asks big questions about ethics, religion vs faith, the environment, technology, politics, and so much more, I’d highly recommend Defy the Stars.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, the publisher, and of course to author Claudia Gray for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

four-stars

About Claudia Gray

claudia gray

Claudia Gray in her own words:

“Claudia Gray is a pseudonym. I would like to say that I chose another name so that no one would ever learn the links between my shadowy, dramatic past and the explosive secrets revealed through my characters. This would be a lie. In truth, I took a pseudonym simply because I thought it would be fun to choose my own name. (And it is.)

I write novels full-time, absolutely love it, and hope to be able to do this forever. My home is in New Orleans, is more than 100 years old, and is painted purple. In my free time I read, travel, hike, cook and listen to music. You can keep up with my latest releases, thoughts on writing and various pop-culture musings via Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, Instagram or (of course) my own home page.

If you want to contact me, you can email me here, but your best bet is probably to Tweet me. I don’t do follows on Twitter, but I follow everyone back on Tumblr, Pinterest and GoodReads.”

ARC Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

ARC Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
four-stars
Published by Dial Press on March 28th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 480
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.

Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

 MY REVIEW

 

Do you ever read a book, know that you love it, but yet somehow can’t really put into words why?  That’s how I feel about Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley.  What initially drew me to this book was reading the synopsis and realizing that the book focuses on the relationship between a father and daughter.  I can’t say that I’ve read nearly enough books that explore that dynamic so I was eager to give this book a shot.

Samuel Hawley and his daughter Loo (short for Louise) have spent most of Loo’s life living what can best be described as a transient lifestyle, moving from place to place and never staying anywhere too long.  The only sense of permanence that Loo has experienced all this time is the makeshift shrine that Hawley builds for Loo’s mother in each place.  Loo’s mother, Lily, drowned when Loo was just a baby, so it has just been Loo and her dad for as long as she can remember.  We are given hints early on that the transient lifestyle Loo and her Dad are living stems from the fact that Hawley has a somewhat checkered past.  Although Loo appears perfectly content living the way she and her Dad always have, when the novel opens and we meet Hawley and then 12 year old Loo, Hawley has decided that it’s time for Loo to have a more permanent and stable way of life and thus has settled them back in Lily’s hometown of Olympus, Massachusetts.  As they go about their day-to-day lives in this tiny town, we start to get more and more hints that Hawley’s past is indeed a colorful one and that not even Loo, the person who is closest to him in the world, knows all that there is to know about him.  The extent of Hawley’s past misadventures becomes very apparent when Hawley is coerced into participating in a town event and is required to remove his shirt to take part.  When the shirt comes off, we see that Hawley’s body is riddled with old bullet wound scars.  So many scars, in fact, that it seems nearly impossible he is even still alive.

LIKES

The revealing of so many scars was where things got especially interesting for me because the author then proceeds to use the bullet wound scars as a roadmap to carry us through Hawley’s past.  She alternates chapters that are devoted to explaining how he received each bullet wound with chapters of the new life he is trying to start with Loo.  What I loved about this way of constructing the story was how we see Hawley first as a dad, doing the best he can, willing to sacrifice anything and everything to give his daughter a normal life.  Tinti fully humanizes him before revealing his past where we then see that Hawley has done a lot of awful things in his day.  He has stolen things, hurt people, heck he has even killed people.  But somehow, because I still see him first as Loo’s dad, I love the character in spite of the many questionable choices he has made in the past.  I think if Tinti had revealed the gory details of Hawley’s past first and then tried to move forward and show that he has now reformed himself and become a great dad, Hawley wouldn’t be nearly as endearing as he is.

As much as the story is about Hawley and his past, I would also consider it to be a coming of age story for Loo.  She spends much of the story trying to make sense of this new world she is now living in and what her place is in it, and she is particularly determined to learn more about what happened to her mother.  Hawley has sought to protect Loo from the full truth of her mother’s death because he knows that it will be even more heartbreaking for her than the truth she has been led to believe all her life.  When Loo meets her grandmother (Lily’s mother) for the first time after they settle in Olympus, her grandmother implies that Hawley is in some way responsible for Lily’s death. This makes Loo’s journey to find the truth all the more poignant as Hawley is all she really has in this world. Can she forgive him if he is responsible?   Loo’s story becomes especially moving as we cycle back and forth between her chapters set in the present and Hawley’s chapters set in the past.  In Hawley’s chapters, we see how he and Lily met and fell in love, and then in present-day chapters, we follow Loo as she slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her mom’s death.  Tinti does a beautiful job weaving together the past and present in a heartwrenching journey that ultimately brings Loo to that truth she has been so desperately seeking.

Tinti adds even more complexity to her story by making it a bit of a thriller as well as the ghost of Hawley’s past still lurks and threatens this new life he is trying so hard to make for his daughter.  All of these different layers – the past, the present, the love, the suspense — and how they effortlessly fit together is what makes The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley such an engaging read.

DISLIKES?

I can’t really say that I have any complaints about the novel.  At first I’ll admit I was a little wary about the bullet hole chapters, especially since they were actually named BULLET NUMBER ONE, BULLET NUMBER TWO, etc. I thought ‘Oh boy, this is either going to be hokey or it’s going to be brilliant.’  Thankfully, brilliant won out and it worked fabulously.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a wonderfully intricate read that authentically captures the father-daughter bond, then give The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley a read.  I would, however, forewarn that there is a lot of violence as you can probably guess from the few hints I dropped about Hawley’s past.  Both love and violence are at the core of this tale.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her short story collection, ANIMAL CRACKERS, has sold in sixteen countries and was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway award. Her first novel, THE GOOD THIEF, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, recipient of the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and winner of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Hannah’s new novel, THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY will be published by The Dial Press on 3/28/17.

ARC Review of The Bone Witch

ARC Review of The Bone WitchThe Bone Witch (The Bone Witch, #1) by Rin Chupeco
two-half-stars
Series: The Bone Witch #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on March 7th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.

Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.

Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.

My Review:

The Bone Witch follows the story of a young witch named Tea (pronounced Tay Uh).  Tea wants to train to become an asha.  There are several different kinds of asha, all of whom can weave spells to a certain degree using elemental magic, with the rarest of all ashas being the Dark Asha, or Bone Witches, who have the power to raise the dead.  When Tea accidentally raises her brother from the dead at his funeral, she realizes that she is one of those rare dark asha.  She is then removed from her home and sent to train with an older, more experienced dark asha because she must be trained how to wield the dark asha magic.

 

What I Enjoyed:

What I enjoyed the most about The Bone Witch was Chupeco’s writing and her world building.  – the way Chupeco describes these ashas with their elaborate costumes, their gorgeous jeweled hairpins, their graceful movements, and their painted faces had me envisioning magic-wielding geishas.  The descriptions were just so vivid and beautiful.

I was also really into the story early on because it had such a unique premise.  I loved the idea that there were so many different kinds of ashas, each with their own unique abilities, and I was also intrigued by the idea that the dark asha’s magic was often feared in the various kingdoms, which we witnessed throughout Tea’s training.  I loved the air of mystery it lent to the dark asha.

I was also especially into the story because Tea’s newly resurrected zombie brother now basically follows her around everywhere she goes and is considered her familiar.  It’s totally cute (in a creepy sort of way).

I think my favorite part about the story was how it was structured.  In between the chapters that take us with Tea through her early days of training to be a dark asha, we are given small teasers of Tea in the future.  In these teasers, what we see is that Tea has been exiled to a deserted island and is plotting revenge against those who sent her there.  As part of her revenge, she is also using her dark magic and skeletal remains that are on the island to build herself an army of undead beasts.  These teasers really help to build up the suspense as we’re left to wonder 1) what in the world Tea could have done that was bad enough to yield such a punishment for her and 2) wow, how powerful is her magic that she can build such a monstrous army to unleash on her enemies?  You just know as your reading those teasers that we’re in store for something huge as we continue reading about younger Tea’s training.

What I Didn’t Like:

My biggest issue with The Bone Witch is that even though I loved the descriptive writing, overall there was just too much description and not enough action.  Once Tea found out she was a bone witch and left to begin her training, it just didn’t feel like much else happened. Tea spends what feels like forever working as some kind of indentured servant before she actually even starts training. Then once it is determined she can finally start training, more time is spent describing a shopping spree to buy her the proper robes (referred to as hua) and jeweled hairpins than is spent describing what she’s learning.

Then once the story does start to focus more on the training, we have long descriptions of dance moves she is learning and instruments she is learning to play and we just breeze through other elements of the training, like fighting, that probably would be more interesting.  As much as I loved the descriptive passages early on, I really started to get bored with the lengthy descriptions of the patterns on asha’s hua.  This continued to be an issue for me throughout the book.  Every outfit that each asha wore was described in such great detail, but in comparison, a terrifying attack that kills 20 soldiers is just a blip on the radar. It seemed like, in so many cases, the main action of the story really took a backseat to descriptions of items that didn’t seem nearly as important.

Who Would I Recommend The Bone Witch to?

I think I would recommend The Bone Witch to readers who don’t mind a very slow build to what could perhaps end up being a truly phenomenal series.  Those teasers that we get of Tea on the deserted island hint that big things are going to happen and those big things are going to be pretty darn exciting.  Even though I was disappointed with the lack of action in this first book, I definitely see myself continuing with the series because I feel like the second book has the potential to be a great read.

Thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and Rin Chupeco for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Rating:  2.5 stars

 

two-half-stars

About Rin Chupeco

Despite an unsettling resemblance to Japanese revenants, Rin always maintains her sense of hummus. Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, she keeps four pets: a dog, two birds, and a husband. Dances like the neighbors are watching.  She is represented by Rebecca Podos of the Helen Rees Agency.

ARC Review – Piper Perish

ARC Review – Piper PerishPiper Perish by Kayla Cagan
three-half-stars
Published by Chronicle Books on March 7th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Piper Perish inhales air and exhales art. The sooner she and her best friends can get out of Houston and into art school in New York City, the better. It’s been Piper’s dream her whole life, and now that senior year is halfway over, she’s never felt more ready. But in the final months before graduation, things are weird with her friends and stressful with three different guys, and Piper’s sister’s tyrannical mental state seems to thwart every attempt at happiness for the close-knit Perish family. Piper’s art just might be enough to get her out. But is she brave enough to seize that power, even if it means giving up what she’s always known?

Debut author Kayla Cagan breathes new life into fiction in this ridiculously compelling, utterly authentic work featuring interior art from Rookie magazine illustrator Maria Ines Gul. Piper will have readers asking big questions along with her. What is love? What is friendship? What is family? What is home? And who is a person when she’s missing any one of these things?

* * * * *

 

My Review:

Kayla Cagan’s debut novel, Piper Perish, is what I would consider to be a coming of age story.  It follows high school senior and artist Piper Perish and her best friends, Kit and Enzo, also artists, as they navigate the trials and tribulations of that final year of high school and prepare for what comes next.  As the novel opens, we’re already at the halfway point of their senior year, and we learn that Piper, Kit, and Enzo have devised a plan where they will all leave Texas after graduation and move to New York City to attend art school together.  While it sounds like a fantastic plan in theory, it leaves a lot to chance.  What if they don’t all get into the schools they apply to? Will they be able to afford it, etc.?  All of the ‘What ifs’ weigh heavily on Piper’s mind throughout the novel because moving to New York to study art has always been her dream. She doesn’t know how she’ll cope if things don’t go according to their plan.  I know it sounds like a heavy read at first glance, but don’t let that fool you. It’s actually quite fun.  The bright, artsy cover was what initially caught my eye and,  after reading the synopsis, I picked it up because I was looking for a light contemporary read to offset all of the heavy dystopian fiction I’ve been reading lately and it sounded like Piper Perish would fit the bill.

What I Enjoyed:

I’d have to say that Piper herself is probably my favorite part of the book.  Piper’s passion for art, her obsession with artist Andy Warhol (She’s totally a ‘What Would Andy Do?’ kind of girl), her quirky flair for fashion, among other things, just make her someone that you wish you knew and could just hang out with.  Written in the form of a diary, the novel really lets us inside Piper’s head and heart as she pours all of her thoughts, dreams, and frustrations, into her diary. I thought Cagan did a tremendous job of creating an authentic high school experience and in giving Piper an equally authentic and vibrant teenage girl voice.  As I read Piper’s thoughts, I was transported back to my own high school senior year and could vividly remember going through so many of the same experiences.  Piper is a very relatable character precisely because she does represent so many things that we all went through in high school:  the dreams, the worrying, the self-doubt, and so on. I found myself starting to care about her from that very first page and really wanting her to push through all of the obstacles standing in her way so that her dreams could become a reality.

What I especially liked about Piper was watching her really grow up and mature throughout the second half of her senior year.  She is definitely not the same girl at the end of the novel that she is when we first meet her. Yes, she’s still quirky, fun, and lives and breathes art, but she’s also braver, more willing to stand up for herself and fight for what she wants, and she definitely has a greater sense of who she is and where she belongs.  I really liked the evolution of her character.

Aside from Piper, I also really liked all of the themes that the book covered. In addition to the everyday dramas of high school, it also tackles bigger themes like friendship, family, and love.  Piper spends much of her senior year learning what it means to be a friend through thick and thin as she and her friends each encounter obstacles, some of which put them at odds with each other.  Piper also spends a lot of time reflecting on the different degrees of love as relationships around her evolve and change  – the love of a boyfriend and girlfriend, the love between friends, the love of family members no matter how frustrated you get with them (or in the case of Piper’s sister, Marli, how much they deliberately try to make you miserable).

The discussion of art also fascinated me as I read this book.  I’m about as artistic as a rock, so I loved watching the creative process at work as Piper, Kit, Enzo, and their fellow classmates worked to create their senior projects.  I actually found myself wishing I had a paper copy of the book rather than an e-galley as well because there are little sketches here and there throughout the novel that I’m sure are much cooler in full color.

Anything I Didn’t Like:

I have to say I wasn’t big on the way the book was put together. I did love the first person point of view because I think it really helped me connect with Piper better. The diary style just didn’t really work for me.  It did at first because it really felt like I was reading the diary of a teenage girl, but then it started to feel less like a diary or journal and more just like a standard first person narrative broken up by dates. I never kept a diary or journal myself, but I still just couldn’t imagine that one would contain whole conversations between people quoted verbatim or that it would contain complete emails that Piper was receiving from her friend Silas. I can’t say that it took away from my enjoyment of the story at all, but I did feel like it had me pondering the structure of the book more than I would have liked.

I hate to say it, but I was not a big fan of either Piper’s sister, Marli, or of their parents.  Marli, who has just moved back home because she got pregnant while away at college, spends the bulk of the novel storming around screaming and yelling at anyone and everyone who crosses her path, especially Piper, who seems to be her favorite target.  I found it incredibly frustrating that Piper’s parents basically allowed Marli to verbally abuse Piper on a daily basis and that all of them, including Marli’s baby daddy once he moved in with them, simply tiptoed around her to try to keep the venomous raging to a minimum.  Most of the time their parents just chalked her outrageous behavior up to pregnancy hormones, but every once in a while particularly when Piper was really about to lose it and really go off on Marlie, then they would admit that Marli has been like this her entire life.  My question at this point is then why haven’t her parents done more to get her help – her behavior is clearly not normal.  I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but it seems like Marli is living her life with an undiagnosed mental illness.  I was sympathetic to Marli in that sense and really wanted something to happen to acknowledge that she was going through some kind of mental health issue. Nothing did though so I ultimately just found her very hard to stomach because as she was presented, she was little more than a constant source of over-the-top drama.

As much as Marli bothered me, I think her parents actually bothered me more — not just because of how they let things go with Marli, but also because they were overall so unsupportive of Piper and her dreams.  Throughout the course of the book, they were probably the biggest obstacle that Piper faced because everything Piper wanted took a back seat to Marli and her drama and then to her parent’s poor planning when it came to their children’s college funds.  If you know your daughter has been dreaming her entire life of moving to New York City to study art, and she is clearly a gifted artist, wouldn’t you be doing everything you possibly can to try to make that dream a reality?  I hate to judge, but I was just very disappointed in their parenting abilities.

One other minor quibble I had with the storyline was how conveniently some obstacles were wrapped up in the closing pages of the book.  I can’t say much without giving away major plot points, but I just thought that what happened to Piper was something that would never happen in real life.  Younger readers will probably love it, but the jaded old lady in me was just like ‘Umm no, that would never happen in real life.’

Who Would I Recommend Piper Perish to?

I would most definitely recommend it to teenagers. It’s a fast and entertaining read, and I think teens will easily related to Piper’s journey.  I honestly can’t decide if this is one of those YA books that translates well for older readers though. I could see some older readers finding it a little over dramatic at times and thinking  “Kid, you think your life is stressful now, wait until you’re out on your own.”

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Chronicle, and Kayla Cagan for allowing me to preview this book in exchange for my honest review.

 

Rating:  3.5 Stars
three-half-stars

About Kayla Cagan

Kayla Cagan is from Houston, Texas. Piper Perish is her debut YA novel, with a second novel on the way from Chronicle Books in 2018. Her short plays and monologues have been published by Applause Books and Smith and Kraus. She has also contributed comics and essays to assorted collections, including Girl Crush Zine, Womanthology, and Unite and Take Over: Stories Inspired by the Smiths. Cagan lives with her husband, screenwriter Josh A. Cagan and their dog, chihuahua Banjo L. Cagan, in Los Angeles.

ARC Review of Gilded Cage

ARC Review of Gilded CageGilded Cage (Dark Gifts, #1) by Vic James
three-stars
Series: Dark Gifts, #1
Published by Del Rey Books on February 14th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Not all are free. Not all are equal. Not all will be saved.

Our world belongs to the Equals — aristocrats with magical gifts — and all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world.

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price?

A boy dreams of revolution.

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution.

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberate—or destroy?

My Review:

Vic James’ debut novel Gilded Cage is a novel that I’ve been looking forward to reading for months now.  The premise – that a form of slavery is alive and well in England and that the ruling class uses magic to keep this unfair, dehumanizing system in place – intrigued me from the moment I first read the book’s synopsis and so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.  Thanks so much to Netgalley, the publisher, and Vic James for providing me with an e-galley of Gilded Cage in exchange for my honest review.

So, what did I think of it?  Well, honestly, my thoughts about Gilded Cage are a bit all over the place.  There were definitely plenty of things I liked about the book, but that said, I also encountered a few problematic areas.

Let’s start with the good.

What I Liked:

Slavery vs. Rebellion:  I was intrigued by the class-based society where magic-wielding “Equals” ruled over a non-magical citizen body and where each member of the non-magical citizenry is required to submit to a decade-long period of servitude called ‘Slavedays.’  While serving a Slavedays term, an individual basically relinquishes all of his or her legal rights as a citizen and becomes a slave to the Equals until your ten years are up.  The concept of the Slavedays was quite fascinating because although the decade-long sentence of slave labor is mandatory, each citizen is able to choose when they serve their sentence. Some choose to serve fresh out of high school or college, while others choose to postpone it as long as they can. Families, if at all possible, are also allowed to serve their sentences together, and even if it’s not possible to keep all family members together, young children are required to be kept with a parent.

James’ readers get to see Slavedays up close and personal as we are introduced to some of the novel’s main characters, Luke and Abi Hadley, as they and their family members prepare to enter their Slavedays.  Older sister Abi has deferred her acceptance to medical school to go ahead and serve her sentence and, as part of her deal, has managed to secure her family a pretty decent gig serving out their Slavedays at Kyneston, a magnificent estate owned by one of the most prominent Equal families in England, the Jardines.  Compared to the alternative, a grungy, smog-filled industrial city called Millmoor, Kyneston sounds like a dream.  Things don’t go according to plan on the day they are supposed to depart for Kyneston, however, when what appears to be a clerical error separates Luke from the rest of the family and he is sent by himself to Millmoor.  We thus get to see both Millmoor and Kyneston as we follow both Luke and Abi on their very different journeys into Slavedays.

As expected, Millmoor is pretty much a nightmare filled with cruel supervisors, back-breaking labor, unhealthy food, and just an overall demoralizing atmosphere.  What I liked about seeing the inside of Millmoor though was that the reader is immediately presented with covert signs of rebellion.  I was so glad to see this because up until this point, I had been sitting here thinking “Why the heck are these citizens just voluntarily giving up ten years of their lives, selling off their homes and possessions, just because some uppity ruling class says that’s the way it is?”  It was great to see that some folks weren’t just lying down and taking it without offering any kind of resistance.  As Luke joins the resistance, we get to see more and more brazen acts of defiance and it’s pretty exciting to read and root for this band of underdogs that Luke has joined up with as they are clearly gearing up for a rebellion.

In contrast to the horrendous living and working conditions Luke and his fellow Millmoor inmates are  subjected to, Abi and her family are given fairly nice housing to live in at Kyneston, ample food to eat, and their workloads are quite manageable as well as respectable, especially considering they are serving the same kind of sentence Luke is.  Abi works as an administrative assistant to one of the Jardine brothers, her mother works as a nurse for an elderly family member, her father does maintenance work on vehicles on the property, and little sister Daisy is providing child care for Gavar Jardine’s daughter.  Apparently all Slaveday terms are not created equally.

Politics:  In addition to seeing that Slavedays is quite different depending on where you are assigned, we also get to see the flipside of things as we follow Abi and the rest of the family into the heart of Equal society and all of its political games.  I’m a bit of a political junkie anyway so I found the goings on within the Equals’ ruling body to be quite fascinating. There are apparently a lot of ambitious and ruthless people within the Equals. There are power plays to be Chancellor, a small but vocal faction who supports the abolition of Slavedays altogether, and all sorts of other exciting things at play as Parliament is in session.  If you’re into reading about politics and all of its behind-the-scenes machinations, there’s definitely a lot for you to enjoy in Gilded Cage.

Cloak and Dagger:  I also really liked how James kept me guessing as to what side many of the characters in Gilded Cage were even on.  It was never safe to assume any particular character was pro- or anti- slavery just based on their standing in society.  There were several jaw-dropping surprises throughout the novel as it became clear that the rebels weren’t necessarily who I thought they were.

What Didn’t Work for Me:

Too Many Points of View:  Where I’m somewhat conflicted about Gilded Cage has more to do with how the book is structured and the lack of explanation about certain key elements. First of all, there are so many points of view that without the book’s synopsis singling out three characters, I really had a hard time distinguishing who the main characters were supposed to be. You have the points of view of several members of each class –  Abi and Luke, who are regular citizens beginning their period of servitude, and then you have several points of view from those who are considered Equals, such as Silyen and Gavar Jardine, who are brothers in one of the most prominent Equal families. While it was definitely interesting to see the class dynamic and the rebellion from both sides, it just made for a confusing time trying to keep track of everyone and it also made it hard to really connect with any of the characters.

Why Are Characters Doing What They’re Doing?

Characters’ motivations also weren’t clear to me. Aside from the general wrongness is the idea of mandatory servitude, why is Luke so quick to jump on board with the rebellion? Even though we’re in his head seeing what he’s doing from his point of view, there is still no real explanation for why he starts participating. It’s basically just one minute he isn’t, the next he is.

There were similar instances with the Jardine brothers as well. Silyen is, by far, the most fascinating character in the book and all of his schemes are so intriguing. He almost appears to be playing both sides against the other, but it’s not entirely clear why he’s doing what he’s doing. Is he truly an abolitionist even though he’s an Equal? Is he trying to create chaos and disruption so as to stage a power play and overstep his older brother to become his family’s heir? I’m hoping all of this will be become clear in the next book because I definitely found Silyen to be the most interesting character in Gilded Cage.

Abi’s Inappropriate Flirtation:

So those who regularly follow my reviews know I’m not big on romances randomly being inserted into a storyline where it’s unnecessary.  To James’ credit, it does take a back seat to the rest of the action of the story but it’s still there so I have to comment – mainly because again, her motivations are unclear.  Abi works very closely with one of the Jardine sons and becomes attracted to him. First of all, it’s not appropriate since it would basically be a master-slave relationship. Second, she is supposed to be working diligently to try to get her brother out of Millmoor and back with them, so why is she sitting around letting herself get distracted by a cute boy?

I’m all about strong female characters so in this sense, Abi was kind of a letdown if she really is supposed to be one of the main characters. She does do something risky and heroic at the end of the novel though so I’m hopeful this means she will step up and be the strong character I want her to be as the series continues.

The Verdict:

All in all, I found Gilded Cage to be an entertaining if somewhat confusing read.  With a few of the kinks worked out regarding point of view and starting to explain why some of the characters are behaving as they are, it’s got the potential to be a great series.

Rating:  3 Stars

three-stars

About Vic James

Vic lives in London’s Notting Hill, but her life is more action-adventure than rom-com.

She studied History and English at Merton College, Oxford where Tolkien was once professor. Relocating to Rome, she completed her doctorate in the Vatican Secret Archives (they’re nothing like The Da Vinci Code), then spent five years living in Tokyo where she learned Japanese and worked as a journalist. She now writes full time.

Vic has scuba-dived on Easter Island, camped at Everest Base Camp, voyaged on one of the last mailboats to St Helena, hang-glided across Rio de Janeiro, and swum the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. But there’s little she loves more than lying in bed till midday with a good book and a supply of her favourite biscuits.

Book Review: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney

Book Review:  The Girl Before by J. P. DelaneyThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
three-half-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on January 24th 2017
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life. The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.

Emma:  Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.

Jane:  After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.

* * * * *

My Review: 

The Girl Before is the next big psychological thriller to come along that employs the same ingredients that have made other ‘Girl’ books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train so immensely popular in recent years.  Central to The Girl Before’s plot are the now familiar concepts of the potentially unreliable narrator that keeps you guessing throughout the novel, supplemented by a cast of characters who aren’t especially likable, and a storyline filled with twists and turns and red herrings as the reader is kept guessing as to whether a tragic event is truly an accident or if it is the result of something more sinister.

What I Liked:

The Dual Narrative Perspective:  Even though I have some quibbles about a few other elements of The Girl Before, I did love how the story itself was presented.  It alternates between two women, Emma and Jane, who, 3 years apart, live in the same unusual residence, One Folgate Street. The story alternates between their points of view as they live in this house.  Both Emma and Jane learn that prior to their moving in to One Folgate Place, someone else has tragically died there.  Emma and Jane, in turn, each become obsessed with trying to piece together the circumstances of the deaths because there are so many unanswered questions and so much gossip surrounding each death. In many ways, Emma and Jane’s investigations parallel each other, and I LOVED this, mainly because it just built so much suspense into the story and added so many twists and turns as they follow the various leads they have managed to uncover.  It also had me practically screaming at both women because they seemed so hell bent on putting themselves in harm’s way just to satisfy a curiosity. It was maddening and yet so entertaining to read.

The Danger of Obsession:  This is a theme that runs throughout The Girl Before and it’s a powerful one.  Both Emma and Jane become obsessed with trying to solve these mysterious deaths, in spite of the fact that they may be putting themselves in harm’s way.

You might be asking yourself by this point ‘Why are these women both so hung up on these deaths? Don’t they have anything else more pressing to worry about?’ Well, the basic answer is that during their respective stays at One Folgate House, both Emma and Jane become romantically involved with Edward Monkford.  That probably wouldn’t be an issue in and of itself; however, in both deaths, Edward’s name came up as a possible suspect so each lady wanted to know what role, if any, their lover played in the deaths and if they themselves are now in danger because of another added twist:  Jane and Emma resemble each other, and both of them bear a striking resemblance to Edward’s dead wife.  The man clearly has a type and clearly wants that type living in his perfect house.  Edward is basically the embodiment of the ‘dangers of obsession’ theme.

One Folgate Street:  One Folgate Street is basically Edward Monkford’s pet project and he is extremely selective about who he allows to live in the residence.  The application process is rigorous and asks many probing personal questions, and if an applicant makes it through the initial screening process, which apparently very few do, they then still have to submit to an interview with Monkford before there’s any chance of approval.  The house itself comes pre-furnished, although minimally so, and if approved, you are allowed to bring very few things of your own with you, and you also must adhere to the over 200 restrictive covenants that Monkford has in place to mandate and facilitate the minimalist lifestyle he expects his residents to adhere to.  Eviction will result from the breaking any of those covenants, which include no pets, no children, and no books, among others (No books?  Seriously, what kind of freak doesn’t want any books in their house?!)

I personally couldn’t imagine even wanting to go through the application process to live in this house, much less wanting to live the way this guy demands, but I did find the idea fascinating for storytelling purposes because it got me curious as to the type of person who would want to live there as well as the type of person Monkford is clearly looking for to take part in his little experiment.

The house itself is no ordinary house and in some ways it functions as a character in the story as well.  It is always referred to by its name, One Folgate Street.  It has also been programmed to employ the use of smart technology in the form of a bracelet and some other diagnostics to recognize its inhabitants and basically perform for them accordingly.  If the resident steps into the shower, the water will turn on automatically at the preferred temperature, for example, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The house often seems as though it has a mind of its own, which both Emma and Jane occasionally comment on.  Periodically throughout the residents’ stay there, the house will basically shut itself down until the resident takes an assessment test and answers more probing questions similar to those in the initial application. Once the test is completed, the resident may continue with life as usual.  Emma and Jane each at random times even mention that sometimes they feel like the house is punishing them, especially if they’ve been in a disagreement with Edward.  All of that technology in the house adds a creepy Big Brother element to the story.  Are they being watched? If so, by whom and why?

Anything I Didn’t Like?

The main thing that somewhat disappointed me about The Girl Before was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters.  As those who follow my reviews know by this point, I really like to be able to connect with the characters I’m reading about and that just didn’t happen for me with Emma or Jane.  I just felt like I was only meant to passively observe them in this odd, minimalist habitat rather than truly connect with them in any meaningful way.  Maybe that was the author’s intent because of the nature of the story, but that aspect of it didn’t quite work for me.

Speaking of the characters, I also didn’t like the potentially unreliable narrator angle.  Not because it wasn’t well done, but just because I’ve seen it in so many books lately.  When it started making an appearance here, I actually groaned and said ‘No, not you too. You were doing so well without that.’ I think I’ve just read too many books in this genre in recent years and so what might be a fresh idea for some readers has become a stale one for me.

Who Would I Recommend This Book to?

I’d say if you’re a big fan of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train or are completely new to the psychological thriller genre, you’ll probably love this.  I’ve heard that it’s already slated to be made into a movie with Ron Howard directing, so I’ll be curious to see how the movie compares to the book.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion.

Rating:  3.5 stars

three-half-stars

About J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before is the first psychological thriller from JP Delaney, a pseudonym for a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names. It is being published in thirty-five countries. A film version is being brought to the screen by Academy Award–winning director Ron Howard.

Book Review: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Book Review:  The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
three-half-stars
Published by Random House on January 10th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s PrepThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents’ expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

My Review:

I’ll confess up front that I went into Lindsey Lee Johnson’s striking debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth blindly. I was intrigued by its title and have had such great luck with debut authors lately that I eagerly snatched this one up when I received an email from Netgalley suggesting it as a book that might interest me and saw that it was another debut.  I started reading and was immediately captivated and maybe even a little horrified to find that from this book’s standpoint, the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ is, in fact, high school.

The opening chapters pack an emotional punch.  The story begins with a look at a group of eighth graders in an affluent school district in San Francisco.  We see a socially awkward boy named Tristan Bloch, who has been having trouble fitting in and is basically friendless, decide to write a love letter to one of the most popular girls in his class, Cally Broderick.  This single act sets off a heartbreaking and life changing series of events. Cally decides, for whatever reason, to give this note to her boyfriend Ryan, who then decides to post the note on Facebook for all of their classmates to see and then friends Tristan on Facebook with the sole purpose of humiliating him. Other friends follow suit and they then relentlessly cyberbully Tristan until he tragically ends his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  The rest of the story follows the core group of kids who were ultimately responsible for Tristan’s death.

Johnson presents her story from multiple points of view.  She weaves together a series of vignettes where we hear from each of those students, beginning in eighth grade and then returning to each of them as juniors and seniors in high school.   We watch them all attempt to navigate the various pitfalls of high school and to a certain extent, adolescence in general – peer pressure, pressure from parents, alcohol, drugs, and of course, lessons not learned regarding using social media to humiliate people, even after what happened to Tristan.  Interspersed between those chapters we also hear from a first year (and still very idealistic) English teacher Molly Nicoll who has all of these kids in her English classes, sees all of them struggling to stay afloat, and tries to do everything she can to connect with them.

What I Liked:

I think what I liked the most about The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is how eye-opening it was.  As a parent, reading this story made me all the more aware of the fact that no matter how I raise my child and how active I am in his life, there are always still going to be so many other influences out there shaping him into who he is going to be, in some cases working directly in opposition to the kind of person I’m hoping he’ll grow up to be.  It also has me rethinking my views on the internet and social media.  In the past, I’ve always been primarily focused on protecting my child from online predators.  This book has really made me rethink that stance since apparently cyberbullying fellow students is also a thing now.  Sometimes the people you know can be even more dangerous than people you don’t know.

I also thought Johnson did a remarkable job of making a story told from about half a dozen points of view so easy to follow.  Each of the voices was so distinctive and so authentic – from the class troublemaker to the diehard party girl, all the way to the high school English teacher.  If I was reading from the point of view of an adolescent male, it truly felt like I was reading the thoughts of an adolescent male, and if I was reading from the point of view of a young English teacher, it felt like I was inside that teacher’s mind reading her thoughts.  None of the voices came across as generic or forced.

Another strength of the novel is that Johnson is actually able to portray these teens in a way that I still felt a tremendous amount of empathy for them even after what they did to Tristan.  That’s not to say that I necessarily found any of them all that likeable, but I did feel for them as they struggled to make it through high school and live up to everyone’s expectation.  Whether it’s the pressure to be as successful as their parents expect them to be or the pressure to live up to a certain reputation, or perhaps even live down gossip that is flowing around the internet about them, the pressure is always present in some form or another.  In some cases, the pressures at home are just as bad, if not worse, than the pressures at school.  I don’t want to give away any spoilers so I’m keeping this general, but the way Johnson portrays high school and the dangers of peer pressure, it’s basically a battlefield and you’re lucky if your child makes it out in one piece.  It’s a very powerful read in that sense.

I also thought the portrayal of teachers was pretty realistic.  I don’t know the exact statistics but I know the burnout rate for new teachers is super high and some of the things Molly Nicoll experiences are surely contributing factors to those statistics.  The desire to connect with her students leads her to cross lines that she probably shouldn’t be crossing because she’s so desperate to reach them.  We need good teachers who can make a different in their students’ lives, but one of the older, more experienced teachers points out to Molly, she’s never going to make it long term if she keeps doing things the way she’s doing them.  High school will chew her up and spit her out just like it does the students.

What I Didn’t Like:

As much as I enjoyed the read, there were still a couple of problem areas for me.  One is that I like to be able to connect with characters and relate to them as I’m reading.  Because there were so many different points of view, it was harder to do that in this book. I never really felt like I got close enough to any of them to do that.  Stylistically though, I’m thinking maybe that was intentional. I think maybe getting too attached to any of the characters would possibly make the reader lose focus on the overall bigger picture. Ultimately I think it was the right choice for the book; it just didn’t play into my own personal preference for that connection to the characters.

A second issue I had was that I would have liked to see a more diverse student population.  I know all of the issues highlighted in this book are chronic issues throughout our school systems, both the wealthy and the poor districts, so I would have liked to see more of a cross-section of our overall student population instead of so many rich, privileged kids.  I think having a more diverse population represented would highlight that these problems are widespread, not just localized to the wealthy and privileged of our society. Again, that’s just a personal preference for me and it didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book overall.

Who Would I Recommend this Book to?

Because of its emphasis on the dangers of bullying and especially cyberbullying, I would recommend this book to parents of middle and high school students, as well as to the students in those same age ranges.  Students need to understand the power of their own words, especially the negative words, and parents need to start hammering that into their kids’ heads at an early age.  The wrong words to the wrong person can set into motion life-altering and often tragic events.  In the case of this story, Tristan Bloch chose to end his life, but he could have just as easily come back to school the next day with a gun…

 

Rating:  3.5 stars

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Random House, and Lindsey Lee Johnson for the opportunity to review this book on my blog.

 

 

 

three-half-stars

About Lindsey Lee Johnson

Lindsey Lee Johnson holds a master of professional writing degree from the University of Southern California and a BA in English from the University of California at Davis. She has served as a tutor and mentor at a private learning center, where her focus has been teaching writing to teenagers. Born and raised in Marin County, she now lives with her husband in Los Angeles.