Beat the Backlist Book Review: When We Collided by Emery Lord

Beat the Backlist Book Review:  When We Collided by Emery LordWhen We Collided by Emery Lord
four-stars
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on April 5th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen year-old Jonah Daniels has lived in Verona Cove, California, his whole life, and only one thing has ever changed: his father used to be alive, and now he is not. With a mother lost in a deep bout of depression, Jonah and his five siblings struggle to keep up their home and the restaurant their dad left behind. But at the start of summer, a second change rolls in: Vivi Alexander, the new girl in town.

Vivi is in love with life. Charming and unfiltered, she refuses to be held down by the medicine she’s told should make her feel better. After meeting Jonah, she slides into the Daniels’ household seamlessly, winning over each sibling with her imagination and gameness. But it’s not long before Vivi’s zest for life begins to falter. Soon her adventurousness becomes all-out danger-seeking.

Through each high and low, Vivi and Jonah’s love is put to the test . . . but what happens when love simply isn’t enough?

MY REVIEW

Emery Lord’s When We Collided is a beautiful and moving story that follows teenagers Jonah Daniels and Vivi Alexander as they meet and fall in love in Verona Beach while on summer vacation.  What makes When We Collided such a standout novel for me, however, is that it’s so much more than just a contemporary romance.  It also offers up fully fleshed out, flawed and therefore realistic characters that I immediately connected with and wanted to know more about, has a strong focus on family, and most importantly, it gives the readers an honest and poignant look at what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and depression.

 

LIKES

Emery Lord does an incredible job of crafting a dual point-of-view story where each point of view is distinct and equally compelling.  From the moment we meet them, we learn that each character has a secret they’re trying to hide – Vivi is trying to hide the fact that she has a mental illness while Jonah and his siblings are hiding the fact that their mother has been practically catatonic since their dad passed away seven months ago.  It’s easy to see that Vivi and Jonah’s decision to keep these facts hidden probably isn’t the best course of action in the long run, but at the same time, I can see where they’re coming from and why they’re not ready to let anyone know what they’re going through.

Jonah Daniels – I fell in love with his character from the first moment we encounter him as he’s walking his little sister down to the pottery shop so that she can paint a mug.  He’s such a sweet and devoted brother and son and he’s incredibly mature and responsible for his age, almost too responsible honestly.  His father’s death and his mother’s subsequent depression has forced Jonah to become an adult and the head of their household even though he’s only 17 and the third of six children.  It should be his summer vacation, but instead of enjoying his summer like his classmates are doing, Jonah spends every waking moment juggling work and taking care of his three younger siblings.

Vivi Alexander – Vivi has this vibrant, larger than life personality and so she blows into Verona Beach like a whirlwind and makes it her mission to spread her love of life all over the town. She is a free spirit who wants to see and experience everything that life has to offer.  As light and buoyant as Vivi seems, we do learn early on that there was some drama back at home and she and her mom are spending their summer at Verona Beach as a way to basically give Vivi a fresh start.  We also learn, when we witness Vivi make a production about tossing a pill out into the ocean, that she is supposed to be taking medication for something and has clearly chosen not to do so.  Seeing her do this so early on let me know right away that there’s way more to Vivi than meets the eye and I felt that things would not be all sunshine and rainbows for her during the course of the story.

Exploration of Mental Health – One of the things I really liked about When We Collided was that even though on the surface it looked like it was going to be summer romance story, it’s really so much more than that. Emery Lord explores many aspects of mental health, including bipolar disorder, grief, and depression.  Her exploration is thorough in that it not only allows us to see what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and/or depression, but it also shows us what it’s like to live with and/or love someone who has either bipolar or depression.

In my mind, Vivi and Jonah aren’t so much in love with each other in this story as they “collided” at a time when each had a void in their lives that they needed filled.  For Jonah who has barely been living his own life since his dad died and his mom got too depressed to really function, Vivi arrives and brings much needed excitement, fun, spontaneity, and romance, giving Jonah somewhat of an escape from his all too serious life.  For Vivi, Jonah is someone she can focus her attention on this summer – she can have a fun summer fling with someone who isn’t watching her like a hawk for signs of mental illness and who knows nothing of the drama that her illness apparently created back home for her.  Since no one in Verona Beach knows of her history, everyone just assumes that her over-the-top enthusiastic personality is just that – her personality.  They don’t see it as a sign of untreated mental illness and so Vivi can live her life with a clean slate… well, as long as she can keep her disorder in check anyway.

Focus on Family – I loved Jonah’s whole family just as much as I loved Jonah.  Each sibling is well drawn and even though the story is mostly about Jonah and Vivi, Jonah’s family members don’t just function as a backdrop.  Lord really does a wonderful job of fleshing out the complexities of the Daniels family dynamic and I especially loved seeing Jonah’s relationship with each of his siblings.  He really does have a special bond with each of them, especially the older siblings that share the burden of trying to keep their family together.  While it was a little frustrating that they didn’t just go to someone to get help for their mom, I did admire how they all banded together to take care of each other.

The Setting:  Verona Beach is this charming small town on the California coast. I fell in love with the town because it reminded me so much of my own hometown.  It’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else and there’s just a real sense of community.  There are also lots of quaint little shops all over town, like the pottery studio where main character Vivi ends up working and the diner where the waitress calls everyone nicknames like sugar and honeybun.  Everything about Verona Beach is just picture perfect.

DISLIKES

Because I saw this novel as more of an exploration of mental illness, I kind of wish it didn’t have a romance in it. What Jonah and Vivi each really needed was a good friend to confide in more so than they needed someone to flirt with and date.   Their relationship was still cute at times, but I think the story could have been even more powerful and memorable than it already is if it had been more about friendship.  Just a personal preference though and the romance didn’t diminish my love of the story.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a fun summer read, I’d honestly say that this probably isn’t the best choice.  Even though that romance is there, it’s definitely not the focus of When We Collided.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful read that gives an honest look into what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and/or depression, then When We Collided would be a great choice.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Emery Lord

Hi! I’m Emery. I’m the author of four novels about teenage girls:  OPEN ROAD SUMMER, THE START OF ME & YOU, WHEN WE COLLIDED, and THE NAMES THEY GAVE US.  I was born near a harbor on the East coast and raised near a beach, an ocean, a great lake, and the Ohio River. I’m a longtime Cincinnatian, where we love good beer, good music, and our public library.   I’m married to a scientist who shuts down every wedding dance floor, and we are owned by two rescue dogs.  I believe in the magic of storytelling, Ferris wheels, and you.” – Emery Load, in her own words

Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

Book Review:  Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida CordovaLabyrinth Lost (Brooklyn Brujas, #1) by Zoraida Córdova
four-stars
Series: Brooklyn Brujas
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 324
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

MY REVIEW

Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost is the first book in the Brooklyn Brujas series and it follows sixteen year old Alex, who is just trying to live her life as an average teen in Brooklyn, New York.  Alex, however, is anything but average.  She comes from a long line of magical brujas and brujos, which are witches, so everyone in her family is eagerly anticipating the moment when her magical powers finally awaken.  The problem is that Alex doesn’t want her powers. Her family doesn’t realize it, but Alex’s magic has long since awoken and she thinks she accidentally caused something bad to happen with it since she couldn’t control it.  Because of that, she wants to parts of this magic and so has hidden her magic from others  for as long as she could.

Eventually, however, her family finds out and they throw her the traditional Deathday celebration. This celebration is a family blessing of sorts, including both living family members as well as the spirits of those who have died, which ensures every bruja and brujo’s magic works as it should.  As they are preparing for the Deathday celebration, Alex meets a new friend, Nova.  She is immediately drawn to Nova, although she’s not sure she trusts him because he acts so mysterious.  She confides in him that she doesn’t want her powers and he suggests a spell she can use to eradicate them during the Deathday ceremony.  Alex attempts the spell during the ceremony and, much to her horror, it backfires and banishes her entire family to another realm, an in-between world of sorts, called Los Lagos.  The rest of the book focuses on Alex’s quest to travel to this other world and to right her wrong and save her family.

LIKES

There were so many things I loved about this story that it would take me all day to list them, but here are some standouts for me.

Unique WorldbuildingLabyrinth Lost feels like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Orpheus’ journey to the underworld to save Eurydice, and then on top of that, it is also filled with a rich history of Spanish and Latin American legends.  Córdova uses this unique combination of ingredients to create one of the most incredibly original worlds I’ve encountered since I started reading fantasy novels.  It’s equal parts creepy and magical and you can’t even begin to guess from one moment to the next what Alex will face on her journey across Los Lagos.  There’s a portal to the other world that must be traveled through, then there’s a ferry that must be taken across a river of souls where souls actually try to grab at the ferry’s passengers, not to mention fierce monsters that are prowling around just waiting to attack, and there’s even a random a tea party, complete with little toad stool chairs, in progress.  I really flew through these pages because I just couldn’t wait to see what Alex would encounter next.

DiversityLabyrinth Lost scores high marks in diversity. In addition to use of Latin folklore, the main character is a person of color and she is also bisexual.  (For those who are fans of love triangles, there’s one in this book and it’s f/f/m).

Family Relationships – I loved how Labyrinth Lost had such a huge focus on family and how important one’s family is.  Even though their relationships tend to be complicated, as most families are, Alex is so close to both her mom and her two sisters and it kills her to think they are suffering because of what she did.  She is willing to risk everything, including her own life, to do whatever she needs to do to free them from Los Lagos.

Coming of Age Story – I love reading journeys of self-discovery and Alex’s journey definitely fits the bill.  When the novel first opened, I honestly didn’t even really like Alex that much. She came across as very selfish and spoiled, and so in many ways, she was my least favorite character. That said, however, she shows such tremendous growth as she devotes herself to saving her family and learns to embrace her magic and all it entails along the way.  By the end of the novel, I ended up loving Alex.

DISLIKES

I won’t really call this a dislike because it’s more “Man, I really wish there was more of this” and that involves Alex’s friend and eventual love interest, Rishi.  Rishi is so devoted to Alex that when she sees this random open portal in Alex’s backyard and can’t find Alex anywhere, she dives into the portal without hesitation because she wants to make sure Alex is okay.  Beyond the fact that she’s totally devoted to Alex, however, we don’t really learn that much about her.  I loved the little glimpses of her personality that we did get and really wanted more.  I’m glad this is just the first in the series so there’s hope for more about Rishi.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Labyrinth Lost is such a unique and memorable read. I loved learning about the Latin folklore and look forward to exploring it further when the next book in the Brooklyn Brujas series is released.

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Zoraida Córdova

Zoraida Córdova is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and Labyrinth Lost. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.

Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Book Review:  The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
five-stars
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 28th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:   Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.  But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

MY REVIEW

The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr Carter, a teenager who is basically caught between two completely different worlds, the economically depressed community she has grown up in and the affluent, mostly white high school that she attends.  In Starr’s mind, these two worlds are incompatible and so she has compartmentalized each and crafted two separate identities for herself so that she can exist in each world.  Although she switches back and forth between these identities with relative ease, she still spends the majority of her time pretending in an effort to fit in.  The end result is that she can’t really be herself and, at the point we meet her, has begun to question if she even knows who the real Starr is anymore.  What brings Starr’s struggle to figure out who she is to a head is when she witnesses her childhood friend Khalil being killed by a police officer during what appeared to be a routine traffic stop.  Protests erupt and soon the shooting garners media attention.  Everyone wants to know what happened that night and some are starting to fill in the blanks themselves, maligning Khalil’s character and referring to him as little more than a drug dealing thug.  Once the media begins reporting on the shooting, Starr’s two worlds collide because now even her rich, privileged schoolmates are talking about it.

Starr, as the sole witness, is the only one with the power to speak up and secure justice for Khalil, who was unarmed and did absolutely nothing to warrant being shot.  Will she remain silent and continue to hide who she really is because it’s easier that way or will she be brave enough to find her voice, step up into the spotlight, and try to get justice for Khalil?

LIKES

The Hate U Give is, by far, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in recent years.  It’s powerful not just because it’s inspired by and shines a light on the the importance of the Black Lives Matter Movement and because it exposes the systemic racism that continues to pervade our society, but also because it does so much more than that. It’s a beautifully crafted coming of age story as well, and it’s also a book about the importance of family and community.  Angie Thomas beautifully weaves all of these elements together into a compelling story that hooked me from page one and that I can’t stop thinking about now that I have finished reading it.  I don’t even think I really have the words to do justice to how wonderful a read this is.  All I can say is that it’s one of the few books I’ve read in my life that I wish I could hand out copies of to everyone I come across and encourage them to read it and then share it with someone else.

I tend to measure how good a book is by how many emotions it makes me feel while I’m reading and The Hate U Give is off the charts in that respect.  It made me sad and brought me to tears several times, it made me frustrated and angry, and it even managed to make me smile and laugh a few times along the way as well. I also felt the love between Starr and her family, as well as the love that held her community together.  What I say it’s a powerful read, that’s what I’m talking about.  This book is just so real and honest and raw that you feel EVERYTHING the characters are going through.

I fell in love with Starr right away.  She’s immensely likeable right from the start – funny, smart, sassy, and also a wonderful daughter and sister — and it broke my heart to watch her feel like she always had to hide half of herself in order to fit in.  It also broke my heart to learn that she has already witnessed so much violence and death in her sixteen years.  I mean, seriously. She is 16 years old – her biggest concerns in life at that point should be where she’s going to college, who she is going to date, what color dress she is going to wear to the prom.  Having to decide whether or not to speak out to defend her friend who was shot by a policeman should not be a part of her reality.  The fact that it is the reality for some young people makes Starr’s journey all the more poignant.

Speaking of Starr’s journey, I loved watching her change and grow throughout the novel.  She has some hard decisions to make.  I don’t want to give away any specific details here but I’m just going to say that watching her decide what she’s going to do and then finding her own voice and true self was one of the most beautiful parts of the story for me.

It wasn’t only Starr that I fell in love with though. I loved her family too and I loved how important their role in the book was too.  Her parents are so supportive of her every step of the way and vow to stand by her no matter what choice she decides to make.  Their love, support, and the lessons they have taught Starr and her siblings are what ultimately help Starr make her choice:  “Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr. It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.”

In many ways I connected with the parents even more than I connected with Starr, I guess because I’m a parent too.  I cried when I read the passage about how there are two important lessons that Starr’s parents taught her and her siblings: 1) the birds and the bees, and 2) how to behave if you are stopped by a police officer so that no harm comes to you.  As a parent, it just ripped my heart out to think there are fellow parents out there who have to teach their kids that second lesson.  As a mom, I have always taught my son that the police are who you go to when you need help.  No parent should live with the fear that their children are in danger if they come into contact with the police.

I also connected with the parents because even when they were at odds with each other about how to best raise their family, I understood exactly why they each felt the way they did.  Starr’s mom desperately wants to get her babies out of this community and into a safer one.  She’s a momma bear protecting her cubs all the way and I was right there with her.  That said, however, I was also right there with Starr’s dad, Mav.  What he said make perfect sense too.  He doesn’t want to abandon his community.  His view is how is anything ever going to change for the better if everyone just leaves and he has made it a crusade to save the community one child at a time.  If he hears of a teen who has gone down the wrong path and ended up in a gang but then wants out, Mav makes it his mission in life to get them out of that life and back on the right path.  I thought Angie Thomas did an amazing job of bringing these real parental fears to life and making it so easy for any parent to relate to and to sympathize with.  Every parent can understand that fierce need to keep their babies safe, whether it’s by moving them somewhere else or by trying to change the community itself so that all kids are safe.

DISLIKES

I have absolutely no complaints about The Hate U Give.  My only dislike is reading the character of Hailey and knowing that there really are people out there in the world like her, who are either racist or just completely oblivious about how hurtful and stupid some of the things they say are.  I cheered when she finally got the smackdown she deserved, although she clearly still learned nothing from it.  I really hope that everyone will read this book and learn from it and that we’ll end up with a few less Haileys in the world going forward.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve barely scratched the surface on why I think this book is so incredible.  All I can say at this point is GO READ THIS BOOK!  It’s eye opening and sobering, honest and raw, riveting and sometimes painful, but it’s also filled with love and hope, and I promise you that it’s one of the most important books you’ll ever read.  Its message will stick with you long after you’ve finished the last page.

RATING:  5  STARS

five-stars

About Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi as indicated by her accent. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was an article about her in Right-On Magazine with a picture included. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Belhaven University and an unofficial degree in Hip Hop. She can also still rap if needed. She is an inaugural winner of the Walter Dean Meyers Grant 2015, awarded by We Need Diverse Books. Her debut novel, The Hate U Give, was acquired by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in a 13-house auction and will be published in spring 2017. Film rights have been optioned by Fox 2000 with George Tillman attached to direct and Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg set to star.

#BeatTheBacklist Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

#BeatTheBacklist Book Review:  A Storm of Swords by George R.R. MartinA Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3) by George R.R. Martin
four-half-stars
Series: A Song of Fire and Ice #3
Published by Bantam on March 4th 2003
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 1177
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Here is the third volume in George R.R. Martin’s magnificent cycle of novels that includes A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Together, this series comprises a genuine masterpiece of modern fantasy, destined to stand as one of the great achievements of imaginative fiction.

Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, victim of the sorceress who holds him in her thrall. Young Robb still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world. And as opposing forces manoeuver for the final showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost limits of civilization, accompanied by a horde of mythical Others—a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords…

MY REVIEW

A giant review for a giant book!  Wow, where to even start with this 1,100+ page beast of a book?  First of all, I’m ecstatic that I finally finished it because A Storm of Swords has been sitting on my bookshelf begging me to read it for nearly two years.  I kept looking at all of those pages and putting it back thinking of how many other books I could read in the time I knew it would take me to tackle that many pages.  I’m so glad I finally gave in and decided to tackle it in 2017 because HOLY COW, what a book this is! Definitely my favorite of the series thus far!

It’s so hard to write reviews of books midway through a series because there’s just so much to gush, rant and rave about, but I don’t want to spoil anything for someone who is just starting the series.  Here’s my attempt to lay out what I loved about A Storm of Swords as close to spoiler free as I can make it. If you’re truly worried about spoilers, just stop here knowing that the book is phenomenal and incredibly important in terms of character growth.  Otherwise, keep reading…

As always, the level of intensity of this story is off the charts as each of our major players continue their quest for the Iron Throne.  This installment of the series is filled with betrayals, epic action scenes, and more deaths than I can even begin to count, including one death that is sure to leave readers jumping for joy!  There are also ill-fated weddings, a trial by combat, and much, much more.  And don’t even get me started on the world building!  Martin’s description of the Seven Kingdoms is, without a doubt, some of the best world building I’ve ever read. He is right up there with J. R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series.

 In spite of all of that, however, what makes A Storm of Swords such a stand out for me are the characters and how Martin shapes them in this book.  I keep telling myself not to get attached to any of these characters because George R.R. Martin has no qualms about killing any of them off.  Even knowing no characters are off limits in this deadly ‘game of thrones’, Martin just creates such realistic, complex, and utterly flawed characters that you can’t help but become invested in them anyway.  With this third book, I found myself growing even more attached than ever to Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Stormborn Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, and Jaime Lannister (Yeah, I know. I can’t believe Jaime is on my list either, haha!)

LIKES

Arya.  Even though she’s still basically just a little girl, Arya is tough as nails, able to hold her own against pretty much anyone out there, and has learned to handle a sword with the best of them.  She has a long to-do list of names of people she plans to kill in revenge for what has been done to her family. I love that she periodically recites the list, just to make sure she doesn’t forget anyone, and my money’s on Arya to actually kill everyone she wants to kills and to somehow beat the odds and make it through to the end of the series alive.  My favorite moment of this book is the unexpected moment when she actually teams up with her nemesis, the Hound, and they fight together and then end up traveling together.

Sansa.  Sansa shows growth as well in the sense that she has become worldlier and less naïve, especially when it comes to King Joffrey and the Lannisters.  Even though at one time she thought she would be married to him, she knows all of that is over now and that she is nothing to the Lannisters but a pawn in this game they’re all playing.  In this book, she finds herself wed to another man, one who is probably the last person she would have chosen for herself and then ultimately on the run, accused of a crime she did not commit.  As much as I like Sansa, I feel differently about her than I do Arya.  Where I think Arya is a kick ass warrior in the making, with Sansa, I just always end up feeling pity for her because she seems to go from one bad situation to the next, with little or no reprieve.  I fear that she may end up a casualty unless she continues to grow stronger and stand up for herself more.

Jon Snow.  In a lot of ways, Jon Snow really comes into his own in this book.  After spending much of the first two books lamenting about how he isn’t worthy of anything because he’s just the bastard son of Ned Stark, Jon rises to the occasion and does big things here. My favorite moments for him were when he took the lead in defending the Wall by first infiltrating the barbaric Wildlings to spy on them for the Night’s Watch and then later returning to the Wall and leading the Night’s Watch in their defense of it .

(Speaking of the Wall, there are some absolutely epic battle scenes here as forces converge on the Wall and try to break through.  You’ve got the Others, who are basically the supernatural equivalents of the Walking Dead, and they are nearly unstoppable. Then you’ve also got Wildlings attacking, and Giants riding on mammoths barreling through.  It was never entirely clear to me just how serious the Night Watchmen’s oath to defend the Wall was until this book and these scenes.    What lies beyond the Wall is truly terrifying!)

Tyrion Lannister.  Tyrion, or the Imp as he is known, has always been somewhat of a sentimental favorite of mine.  Even though he’s a Lannister, who are probably the most hated out of all of the families in contention for the Iron Throne, Tyrion has always been somewhat of an outcast in his own family simply because he’s a dwarf.  He tries to protect Sansa when he sees Joffrey and others abusing her, and overall he just seems to have a good heart.  What really stood out for me in this book though is that Tyrion finally seems to have had enough of being shamed and name-called by his own family, by those people who should love and care for him even if everyone else is against him. And he snaps, revealing a much darker nature to his character than we have seen up until this point.

Daenerys.  There’s not much to be said here other than, like Arya Stark, Daenerys, the exiled Queen, goes full on badass in this book.  She’s coming for her throne and she has dragons(!) and an army, so everyone in her path had better watch out!  This was particularly exciting to me because I thought her story was kind of lame in the second book.  Martin more than makes up for it here though. Talk about strong female characters!

Brienne of Tarth.  God, I love this character so much! I love her strength and her fierceness and that she defies gender stereotypes. Most of all though, I admire her loyalty.  In a series that is so full of betrayal and deceit, Brienne is just so refreshing in that if she swears an oath, she is determined to keep that oath no matter the cost.  In this installment, she has sworn to Catelyn Stark that she will take their prisoner, Jaime Lannister, and journey to King’s Landing to return him to his family in exchange for Catelyn’s daughters, whom they believe the Lannisters are holding.  This journey doesn’t quite go according to plan and they face many unexpected obstacles, but Brienne never gives up.  As Jaime says on numerous occasions, she is the most stubborn woman he has ever known.  Brienne’s exchanges with Jaime are some of my favorites in the book.  They are humorous at times, but ultimately Brienne earns Jaime’s respect. And Jaime showing Brienne the respect she deserves actually serves to humanize Jaime quite a bit as well (although it did bother me how much he focused on her looks and couldn’t stop thinking about how ugly he thought she was).

Jaime.  Speaking of Jaime, how brilliant is George R.R. Martin that he actually turned one of my least favorite characters into one of my favorites this book?  If you had told me after the first book when Jaime throws a young boy out of a window and cripples him, that he would go on to become a character that I liked, I would tell you that you had bumped your head, but yet here we are.  Martin introduces Jaime’s point of view in this third book and as we see things from Jaime’s perspective, we suddenly understand that many of his actions along the way have not been as ruthless and unjustified as they initially seemed.  What he did to the boy is still unforgivable, but he has a lot more honor and integrity than we were originally led to believe.

DISLIKES?

My only complaint about this book is the length. Yes, the world building is incredible, but Martin does spend a lot of time describing details that probably could have easily been left out (i.e. bodily functions and whatnot).  I caught myself a few times along the way contemplating ways that the book could have been shortened without losing any important details.

FINAL THOUGHTS?

Just because these books are such a time investment, it will probably be a while before I move on to the fourth book in the series. That said, A Song of Fire and Ice is still one of the most brilliant fantasy series I’ve ever read and one that I would recommend to any mature reader.  I would not recommend it for younger readers because of the levels of graphic violence and sex.

 

RATING:  4.5 stars

four-half-stars

About George R.R. Martin

George R.R. Martin was born September 20, 1948, in Bayonne, New Jersey. His father was Raymond Collins Martin, a longshoreman, and his mother was Margaret Brady Martin. He has two sisters, Darleen Martin Lapinski and Janet Martin Patten.

Martin attended Mary Jane Donohoe School and Marist High School. He began writing very young, selling monster stories to other neighborhood children for pennies, dramatic readings included. Later he became a comic book fan and collector in high school, and began to write fiction for comic fanzines (amateur fan magazines). Martin’s first professional sale was made in 1970 at age 21: “The Hero,” sold to Galaxy, published in February, 1971 issue. Other sales followed.

In 1970 Martin received a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, graduating summa cum laude. He went on to complete a M.S. in Journalism in 1971, also from Northwestern.

As a conscientious objector, Martin did alternative service 1972-1974 with VISTA, attached to Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation. He also directed chess tournaments for the Continental Chess Association from 1973-1976, and was a Journalism instructor at Clarke College, Dubuque, Iowa, from 1976-1978. He wrote part-time throughout the 1970s while working as a VISTA Volunteer, chess director, and teacher.

In 1975 he married Gale Burnick. They divorced in 1979, with no children. Martin became a full-time writer in 1979. He was writer-in-residence at Clarke College from 1978-79.

Moving on to Hollywood, Martin signed on as a story editor for Twilight Zone at CBS Television in 1986. In 1987 Martin became an Executive Story Consultant for Beauty and the Beast at CBS. In 1988 he became a Producer for Beauty and the Beast, then in 1989 moved up to Co-Supervising Producer. He was Executive Producer for Doorways, a pilot which he wrote for Columbia Pictures Television, which was filmed during 1992-93.

Martin’s present home is Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is a member of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (he was South-Central Regional Director 1977-1979, and Vice President 1996-1998), and of Writers’ Guild of America, West.

Book Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Book Review:  Homegoing by Yaa GyasiHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on June 7th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 305
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

MY REVIEW:

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read and it’s also probably one of the most ambitious.  Homegoing begins by introducing the stories of two half-sisters who are destined to never meet each other due to forces beyond their control.  One sister, Effia, is married off by her family to an Englishman and whisked away to live in a castle in Cape Coast.  Unbeknownst to Effia, her new home is actually a “slave castle” and thousands of her fellow countrymen and women are imprisoned in dungeons right beneath her feet, where they will soon be sold into slavery and transported across the Atlantic.  Included among those prisoners, the half-sister Effia has never met and never will, Esi. The rest of the story then traces the family lines of both Effia and Esi from the 1700s up to present day, demonstrating just how deep the scars of slavery run even today.  While the story is beautifully written – Gyasi is a brilliant storyteller – the journey itself is raw, honest, and often painful.  Gyasi powerfully captures the brutality of the slave traders, the dehumanizing aspects of slavery, as well as the pervasive racism that has continued long after abolition.

STRENGTHS  OF HOMEGOING:

I was completely impressed that Gyasi was able to cover so much ground historically in just 300 pages, but not only does she do it, but she does it beautifully and intimately.  She accomplishes this by using alternating chapters to trace each family line forward in history.  She starts with a chapter on Effia, then follows with one on Esi, and then continues this alternating pattern with each new chapter giving us the perspective of one of Effia’s or Esi’s descendants.  Each chapter is a standalone story, a vignette basically, that serves to provide both an intimate portrait of a descendent and show us how that descendent connects back to either Effia or Esi, and then goes on to provide a vivid snapshot of the racial history at that particular period in time.   In this manner, we are taken through the 300 years of racial history from 18th century tribal wars in Africa, colonialism, and slavery, to the Fugitive Slave Act, abolition, Jim Crow law, Harlem in the 20th century, continued racism, and so much more.

What truly blew me away was how Gyasi was able to craft such vivid characters in so few pages.  Only about 20 pages, sometimes even less, are devoted to each descendent, but in each 20 page segment, Gyasi paints such a rich and vivid portrait of the descendent  that I easily became invested in all 14 characters whose stories we are presented with – their hopes, their fears, their pain, everything.  I actually found myself becoming sad at the end of each chapter because I wanted to follow the characters further, but knew I probably wouldn’t encounter them again because of the way the novel was structured.  But seriously, 20 pages to make me that attached to a character?  Wow. That’s powerful writing!

WEAKNESSES:

Aside from me wanting to keep following each character beyond his or her allotted chapter, I can’t think of anything I would consider to be a weakness.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I honestly think Homegoing is destined to become a classic and I’d love to see it make its way into high school and college classrooms.   It’s an important book because of the history that it covers, and it’s also a beautifully written book, that I think everyone should read.

I very much look forward to reading more from Gyasi because she is truly a gifted writer with a bright future.

RATING:  5 STARS

About Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in African American Review and Callaloo. Her debut novel, is the Homegoing (Knopf, June 2016).

Book Review: Scarlet by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles #2)

Book Review:  Scarlet by Marissa Meyer (The Lunar Chronicles #2)Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, #2) by Marissa Meyer
four-half-stars
Series: The Lunar Chronicles, #2
Published by Feiwel & Friends on February 5th 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 454
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison—even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive.

Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother is missing. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother’s whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

My Review of Scarlet:

The Lunar Chronicles series is definitely one of the most original and entertaining retellings I’ve come across in recent years.  As was the case when I read Cinder, I totally flew through the 450+ pages of Scarlet in just a couple of day because the story being told is just so darn good!  I also love that even though this series is a fairytale retelling, it doesn’t really feel like we’re just rehashing a story that has already been told.  Meyer may use those fairytale characters as the jumping off point for her story and may incorporate a few elements here and there — like little shoutouts to those fairy tales – but her story is truly an original.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before and I love that freshness about it.

As you can probably guess from the title, Scarlet is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, with Scarlet in the Red Riding Hood role (complete with fiery hair and a little red hoodie that she loves to wear).  As with the original Red Riding Hood tale, there is also a grandmother who is in danger, as well as a wolf (well, a character named Wolf anyway).  From there, as I said, the story takes off on a completely original path that eventually ties it in to Cinder’s story from the first book in the series.

Things I Loved:

Strong Women:  I have to say I loved Scarlet every bit as much as I loved Cinder.  They’re quite different from each other in the sense that Scarlet tends to be more brazen and rash than Cinder, but bottom line, they’re both fiercely protective of those they love and are determined to stop anyone who means them harm.  It’s great to have these two strong, smart females leading the series.

The Plot Thickens:  I especially loved how effectively Meyer begins this second book with a whole set of new characters and a whole new storyline.  Scarlet is trying to find out what has happened to her grandmother, who has mysteriously gone missing early on in the book.  Along the way, Scarlet meets this odd Wolf character and enlisted him to help her.  As their story unfolds, Meyer weaves the tale in such a way that it seamlessly entwines with the storyline from the first book in the series, and all of the major players in both books end up working together.

Chemistry:  Let me start here by saying that I think The Lunar Chronicles series so far has been, for me anyway, the perfect mix of action and epic adventure with a hint of romantic potential thrown in to spice things up.  I found Scarlet and Wolf to be just as likable as a potential pairing as I did Cinder and Prince Kai from the first book.

What kind of surprised me though was how much I LOVED newcomer “Captain” Carswell Thorne. who was charming in his own roguish, kind of clueless way and who often provided a bit of comic relief throughout the story.  I think he’s meant to be a minor player, but in many ways, he steals the show as soon as he appears in the story when Cinder comes across him trying to download porn in prison.  He and Cinder accidentally cross paths after Cinder is imprisoned at the end of the first book, and they decide to break out of prison together.  Adventure ensues (as well as a great deal of chemistry, in my opinion).  Even though Cinder clearly has feelings for Prince Kai, I actually have to confess that I found myself shipping her a bit with Thorne.  I’m probably the only reader on the planet who did, but I just loved their banter and found their interactions to be a lot more natural and realistic than I found those between Cinder and Kai in the first book.  I’m curious to see who, if anyone, Cinder ends up paired with, but at this point, I’d be cool with either Thorne or Kai.

Plot Twists:  I don’t want to give any important plot details away, so I’m just going to say that If you like plot twists, you’ll love Scarlet then because it’s full of them!  All I’ll say is that if you thought the idea of Cinderella as a Cyborg was WOW!, wait until you see how Meyer pays homage to the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood.  It’s mind blowing!

Anything I Didn’t Love:

Queen LeVana:  Ugh, I also didn’t think it was possible to loathe Queen LeVana anymore than I did in Cinder, but yep, it’s definitely possible.  She is just pure evil and I can’t wait to read the next book in hopes that Cinder, Scarlet, and their companions finally take her down once and for all.

 

Final Thoughts?

If you’re looking for a truly unique read, definitely give The Lunar Chronicles a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

 

Rating:  4.5 stars

four-half-stars

About Marissa Meyer

meyer

“One of my first spoken words was “story” (right along with “bath” and “cookie”), my favorite toy as an infant was a soft, squishable book, and I’ve wanted to be a writer since I first realized such a job existed.

When I was fourteen my best friend introduced me to anime and fanfiction—over the years I would complete over forty Sailor Moon fanfics under the penname Alicia Blade. Those so inclined can still find my first stories at fanfiction.net. Writing fanfic turned out to be awesome fun and brought me in contact with an amazing group of fanfiction readers and writers. As Alicia Blade, I also had a novelette, “The Phantom of Linkshire Manor,” published in the gothic romance anthology Bound in Skin (CatsCurious Press, 2007).

When I was sixteen I worked at The Old Spaghetti Factory in Tacoma, Washington, affectionately termed “The Spag.” (Random factoid: This is also the restaurant where my parents met some 25 years before.) I attended Pacific Lutheran University where I sorted mail that came to the dorm, carted tables and chairs around campus, and took writing classes, eventually earning a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Children’s Literature. Knowing I wanted a career in books, I would also go on to receive a Master’s degree in Publishing from Pace University (which you can learn more about here). After graduation, I worked as an editor in Seattle for a while before becoming a freelance typesetter and proofreader.

Then, day of days, someone thought it would be a good idea to give me a book deal, so I became a full-time writer. CINDER was my first completed novel, though I have an adorable collection of unfinished ones lying around, too.

I married my husband in 2011, two months before the release of Cinder, and we adopted our two beautiful twin daughters, Sloane and Delaney, in 2015. Reading lots and lots of bedtime stories is most definitely a new favorite pastime.”

Marissa Meyer in her own words, from www.marissameyer.com

Book Review: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

Book Review:  A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. MaasA Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #2) by Sarah J. Maas
four-half-stars
Series: A Court of Thorns and Roses #2
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on May 3rd 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 624
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Feyre survived Amarantha’s clutches to return to the Spring Court—but at a steep cost. Though she now has the powers of the High Fae, her heart remains human, and it can’t forget the terrible deeds she performed to save Tamlin’s people.

Nor has Feyre forgotten her bargain with Rhysand, High Lord of the feared Night Court. As Feyre navigates its dark web of politics, passion, and dazzling power, a greater evil looms—and she might be key to stopping it. But only if she can harness her harrowing gifts, heal her fractured soul, and decide how she wishes to shape her future—and the future of a world cleaved in two.

With more than a million copies sold of her beloved Throne of Glass series, Sarah J. Maas’s masterful storytelling brings this second book in her seductive and action-packed series to new heights.

My Review:

I have to confess I’ve been putting off reading A Court of Mist and Fury, partly because I loved A Court of Thorns and Roses so much that I just didn’t think the second book could possibly live up to the impossibly high expectations I had for it.  I finally broke down and read it this week for the Beat the Backlist challenge I’m participating in and all I can say at this point is WOW and OMG, how long do I have to wait to get my hands on the third book?!

I had actually managed to avoid spoilers for ACOMAF so I had no clue what to expect going in and man, was I shocked! Based on the events of ACOTAR and the direction I was anticipating the series moving in, in my mind, this entire book was a giant plot twist.  And what a glorious plot twist it was! I truly loved pretty much everything about it.

Here are a few of the biggest highlights for me:

 

Rhysand!

Rhysand was actually one of my favorite characters from the first book and I remember lamenting that I wished there had been more of him in that story. Well, I got my wish in A Court of Mist and Fury because Rhysand and the Night Court feature prominently in this book.  As much as I adored him as the handsome but amusing rogue we met in A Court of Thorns and Roses, my love for him grew tenfold as we got to actually learn more about him and the sacrifices that he has made for his people.  He may present himself as a devilish figure, but there’s really just so much more to him than that.  He’s a fierce warrior, a loyal friend, and a compassionate ruler.

Theme of Female Empowerment:

The theme of female empowerment really resonated with me in this book.  As much of an epic romance as Feyre and Tamlin seemed to have in A Court of Thorn and Roses, they are clearly not the same two people they were after everything they went through “under the mountain” at the hands of Amrantha.  After nearly losing her, Tamlin becomes so overprotective of Feyre that their relationship takes a very unhealthy turn and he basically imprisons her in his home, perhaps the worst thing he could have done to someone who is already reeling from having been imprisoned and forced to do things she never thought she would have to do.  As sad as it was to see their relationship fall apart, I liked that Maas had Feyre make a conscious choice to walk away from the unhealthy relationship that is practically suffocating her.  I thought that was a positive message for Maas to send out there to her female readers.

And even though she does end up in another relationship, this time it’s a healthy relationship where she is allowed the freedom she needs and where she is treated as an equal, not as some pretty plaything that needs to be protected and sheltered.  Plus, it wasn’t as though she just rushed from one to the other; it took nearly the entire book for her to embrace the idea of beginning a new relationship.  I found the way the relationship developed to be very realistic and I really loved Feyre that much more once she evolved into an even fiercer version of the Feyre we met in the first book.  She’s a real badass by the end of A Court of Mist and Fury!

Rhysand’s team:

OMG, I love these guys so much!  One of the things that really makes a book work for me is when the author creates a fantastic group of secondary characters and Maas really outdoes herself here. ACOMAF probably has one of the best I’ve read in recent years with Mor, Cassian, Aziel, and Amren.  I loved the dynamic between them.  They could laugh and poke fun at each other in one breath, but when it mattered, they would clearly fight to the death to protect one another.  They are so much more than just the High Lord’s chosen team; they are his family.  Each character was so unique, fascinating, and so well fleshed out that I found myself wishing Maas would give each of them spin-off series of their own.  I’d totally read them if she did!

So Much Action!

I don’t want to give away any details, but this book clearly isn’t just about Feyre recovering from what happened to her in the first book and finding love with a different man than we were expecting her to.  If you like lots of action, epic battle scenes, unexpected betrayals, and lots of plot twists, you’re going to love this book because it’s all here.  The book starts off at a fairly slow and steady pace as we watch Feyre begin her recovery, but once she leaves Tamlin, the pace really picks up and by about the halfway point, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

Anything I Didn’t Like: 

As I said, I loved pretty much everything about the book. That said, however, I was a little disappointed in the direction that Maas chose to take Tamlin in.  He wasn’t my favorite character by any stretch in the first book, but it bothered me that he was made so unlikeable in this one.   I kept wondering if that was really necessary.

Who Would I Recommend A Court of Mist and Fury to?

I’d recommend this book to pretty much anyone who enjoys fantasy that is filled with action, adventure, and complicated relationships.  I’d personally probably only recommend it to older readers of YA fiction just because it does contain some pretty graphic sexual encounters.  It’s a great read though so I’d highly recommend it to anyone else.

 

Rating:  4.5 Stars

four-half-stars

About Sarah J. Maas

Sarah J. Maas is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Throne of Glass series and A Court of Thorns and Roses series, as well as a USA Today and international bestselling author. Sarah wrote the first incarnation of the Throne of Glass series when she was just sixteen, and it has now sold in thirty-five languages. A New York native, Sarah currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and dog. Empire of Storms, the fifth Throne of Glass novel, will release on September 6th, 2016.

She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Hamilton College in 2008 with a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Religious Studies.

Re-ReadIt Challenge: Review of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Re-ReadIt Challenge: Review of Invisible Man by Ralph EllisonInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison
four-stars
Published by Vintage on February 1st 1995
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 581
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:

First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison’s nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.

As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying “battle royal” where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.

My Review:

I chose to re-read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as my January entry for the ReReadIt Challenge hosted by Ashley at Inside My Minds.  I wanted to re-read this literary classic because I originally read it when I was a teenager and I don’t think I fully appreciated it on that first reading and so wanted to give it a second look.  I was also curious to see how relevant its themes still are today.  I’m glad I did choose to revisit Invisible Man because it truly stands the test of time as a literary classic and I actually believe its themes are more relevant than ever.

At its heart, Invisible Man is a powerful coming of age story.  An anonymous black man tells the story of his journey to adulthood as he tries to discover who he is and what his place is in an American society that makes no attempt to even hide its racist tendencies.  What kind of identity and sense of self-worth can he have in a society that refuses to see him and acknowledge that he does in fact, have any worth at all?

What I think makes Invisible Man such a powerful read is that the story is told in first person by the Invisible Man himself.  Seeing firsthand what he sees and experiences as he tries to make his own way in a society that is often hostile, at best confusing, and quite often filled with betrayal, really drives home the message of how dehumanizing life can be if those around you refuse to acknowledge that you are a human being and that you matter just as much as they do.

One vivid example that sticks out in my mind is when our unnamed narrator is a senior in high school and is chosen to give an important speech. Word gets out into the community about his oratory skills and about what a stellar student he is, and so he is invited to give his speech in front of an important group of white men in the community.  When he arrives, he is blindfolded and thrust into a ring with many other similarly blindfolded men where they are forced to fight each other like animals until the last one is standing.  This is of course pure sport for those white men who have organized this “entertainment” for themselves and completely humiliating and degrading for our young narrator.  It is especially heartbreaking seeing it from his perspective because he naively has no idea what they have in store for him, has come to the event all dressed up, and is diligently practicing his speech in his head right up until the moment he’s blindfolded and tossed into the fighting ring.  Afterwards, the white men excuse away their behavior by then allowing the narrator give his speech and then awarding him with a scholarship to an all black college.  What a painful and confusing message to give a young man!  “Here, we recognize that you are one of the best and brightest, but we we’re still going to go out of our way to put you in your place.”

We follow the narrator from his hometown and his university in the Deep South until he gets expelled from university.  His crime?  He was tasked with driving one of the school’s white trustees around while they were visiting the campus.  One of the places the trustee asked to visit turned out to be an unsavory part of town that sits right on the outskirts of the university.  According to the headmaster, our narrator irreparably damaged the school’s reputation and therefore had to leave.  The headmaster decides not to be completely heartless though and sends the narrator up north to Harlem, armed with a handful of sealed recommendation letters, to secure a job with someone connected to the university.  The narrator arrives in Harlem and starts dutifully dropping off the recommendation letters, determined to find a job as soon as possible because he is hoping to make the most of this opportunity for a fresh start since he can’t return to school.  The narrator’s bubble is quickly burst, however, when it is ultimately revealed to him that the letters he is handing out are not, in fact, recommendation letters at all, but instead, they are letters condemning him so as to sabotage his job searching efforts.

The rest of the novel tracks him as he continues to try to make his way in the world.  Every step of the way he encounters either hatred and bigotry or else people like the self-serving “Brotherhood” who recognize his oratory gift and want to use him to make speeches that advance their own causes. They promise they’re going to turn him into the next Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. DuBois, but then proceed to change the rules at every turn and use him as a scapegoat each time things don’t go according to plan.  Each experience only serves to strip away a little more of his innocence and his self-worth until he ultimately flees and turns to life underground, off the grid, which is where we find him when the story begins.

Invisible Man is not an easy read, by any stretch.  I won’t even classify it as entertaining because there’s nothing entertaining about racism and bigotry. I will classify this as an incredibly important read though because it gives a voice to those in society who have no voice. This is echoed in the final lines of the novel:  “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak to you?”  The idea of giving voice to those who have no voice is just as relevant today as it was when Ellison wrote the book, especially when considered in light of the immigrant ban in the U.S.  It seems like more groups than ever are being made to feel invisible.

Note:  If you do read Invisible Man, I highly recommend reading it with the audible narration by Joe Morton from TV’s Scandal. I listened to this narration while I read and thought it really added a lot to the overall story.  Morton delivers a powerful reading that really highlights the nuances that might otherwise be missed – the initial innocence followed by increasing sarcasm and biting humor that develops as the narrator becomes further disillusioned with life.

 

Rating:  4 stars

four-stars

About Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison was a scholar and writer. He was born Ralph Waldo Ellison in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, named by his father after Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison was best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act (1964), a collection of political, social and critical essays, and Going to the Territory (1986). For The New York Times , the best of these essays in addition to the novel put him “among the gods of America’s literary Parnassus.” A posthumous novel, Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left after his death.

Ellison died of Pancreatic Cancer on April 16, 1994. He was eighty-one years old.

Book Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

Book Review:  Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer NivenHolding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
four-stars
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on October 4th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 391
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  From the author of the New York Times bestseller All the Bright Places comes a heart-wrenching story about what it means to see someone—and love someone—for who they truly are.

Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for EVERY POSSIBILITY LIFE HAS TO OFFER. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything in new and bad-ass ways, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel. . . . Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

Jennifer Niven delivers another poignant, exhilarating love story about finding that person who sees you for who you are—and seeing them right back.

My Review of Holding Up the Universe:

I read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places last year.  It took me on such an emotional roller coaster ride and immediately became one of my all-time favorite reads.  Because my opinion of that book is so high, I was a little apprehensive going into Holding Up the Universe because surely there was no way this new book could begin to compete with All the Bright Places in terms of grabbing me by the heartstrings and not letting me go.  I’m happy to say, however, that my hesitation was completely unwarranted as Holding Up the Universe is every bit the emotionally poignant read for me that All the Bright Places was.  It made me laugh, cry, feel every emotion in between, and it also made me really examine how I view the people around me.  Am I really seeing them? Am I putting myself in their shoes and trying to imagine what they might be going through? I love when I can connect with a book on that kind of level and use it for self-reflection.

What I Loved about Holding Up the Universe:

Libby Strout:  When Libby Strout, one of the novel’s main characters, is just ten years old, her mother tragically and unexpectedly dies.  A grieving Libby feels understandably lost, sinks into depression, and ultimately turns to food as a way to comfort herself.  Her lifestyle unfortunately becomes unhealthy for so long that she actually ends up housebound and has to therefore be home-schooled. When Libby’s unhealthy lifestyle ultimately leads to a medical emergency, she literally has to be cut from her house by rescue workers.  This event of course ends up captured on video and goes viral on the internet, the end result being that Libby is dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.”  The whole experience is a wake up call for Libby who begins to see a therapist in order to sort herself out and get back on the road to both physical and mental health. When we meet Libby, she has lost enough weight that she feels ready to rejoin the world and so is starting her first day of high school.

I fell in love with Libby immediately.  Hell, I didn’t just fall in love with Libby; I wanted to BE Libby because she is just such a rockstar.  She’s courageous, resilient, confident, has a wicked sense of humor, and just this all around kickass personality.  She knows exactly who she is and she totally OWNS it. Some of her classmates stare and, gawk at her and make juvenile mooing sounds at her when she walks by, but it is not her size that defines who Libby is, it’s her larger than life personality.  Libby is not a character that you feel sorry for because she is mocked by her classmates; Libby is a character that you live life to the fullest with and revel in her ‘coming out’, so to speak.  If anything, you end up feeling sorry for the losers who mock her because they are the ones missing out on a friendship with a truly remarkable young woman. I really loved that Jennifer Niven painted Libby in such a refreshing way instead of having her be someone that should be pitied throughout the story.

I think my absolute favorite Libby moment in this book is when she decides to try out for the school dance team.  The captain of the squad, Caroline Lushamp, has been snide and nasty to Libby ever since she came back to school.  Libby gives the audition of her life, because as Libby herself says, “the dance is in me.”  This girl has serious moves and her spirit is just so infectious that if you’re with her and she starts dancing, you won’t be able to stop yourself from joining in. When Libby finishes her audition, Caroline immediately starts in with her nasty questions.  She wants to know how much Libby weighs and would she be willing to lose over 200 pounds in order to be considered for the team.  Libby takes one look at her, says “Absolutely not”, leaves, and promptly starts her own school dance team.  Oh, to have had that kind of chutzpah when I was in high school!

Jack Masselin:  Jack is the other main character in Holding Up the Universe, and Jack has a secret – he has something called prosopagnosia and, because of it, he cannot recognize the faces of those around him, not even his friends and family.  He can literally be sitting there talking to someone and if they look away and then look right back at him, he doesn’t know who they are.  He has never been formally diagnosed, so not even his parents realize what is going on with him.  He has been hiding his condition since he was a child and has been somewhat successful keeping track of people by memorizing other identifiers about them.  But as he has gotten older, he has found himself in more and more awkward and embarrassing situations because of it – once accidently kissing the cousin of his girlfriend because he couldn’t tell the difference between the two girls, and then another time he accidentally flirted with a substitute teacher because he didn’t realize that she wasn’t a fellow student, and so on and so on.  His primary coping mechanism has been to develop a certain persona – he constantly plays it cool, tries to laugh the awkward moments off like he has done them intentionally, but ultimately he keeps people at a distance because it’s when they get too close that they start to realize that Jack isn’t as carefree and happy go lucky as he initially comes across.

I really liked Jack’s character because this secret that he is carrying around makes him so complex.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to never recognize the faces of those around me and then on top of that, trying to hide it from everyone around me.   In some ways Jack frustrated me because of this – I kept thinking ‘Oh my gosh, if you would just tell people, your life would be so much less complicated because people would understand why you do the things you do.’ But at the same time, I could totally understand wanting to not make yourself stand out if at all possible in a world where, as Libby Strout sees every day, some people can be jerks. When a stupid, insulting game called ‘Fat Girl Rodeo’ throws Libby and Jack together, an interesting and very complicated relationship begins to develop between them and Libby quickly begins to see through Jack’s carefully constructed (as he calls it) ‘Super Douche’ persona down to the real Jack, the one he lets no one see.

 I liked the contrast between these two characters.  Where Libby is all sass and brass, Jack, even with all his attempts at playing it cool, comes across as very vulnerable and in need of someone to basically save him from his own stubbornness about his condition. Libby to the rescue!

Seeing and Being Seen: The major theme of Holding Up the Universe is about seeing – it’s about not only seeing people for who they really are, but also about you yourself really being seen by those around you.  It’s about getting past those snap judgments that get made based solely on appearance or by one encounter.  I think Niven tackles this theme beautifully with both Libby and Jack.  After an initially bumpy start, Jack and Libby eventually come together and a beautiful friendship begins to develop.  Even though she actually punches Jack in the face the first time they encounter each other, as they both land in detention/after school therapy and are forced to spend quality time together, Libby quickly begins to see that Jack is not nearly the horrible person she initially thought he was.  And Jack, just as quickly, realizes that he feels more comfortable and more himself around Libby than he does around anyone else.  Once he realizes he can’t deny this connection he feels to Libby, he drops the doucheboy act and gets as real with her as she has been with him– even confessing the secret about his prosopagnosia to her.

Anything I didn’t like?

Overall I thought this was a fabulous read. I stayed up until well past midnight last night to finish it because I just had to see how it ended. I did have one small quibble with the events of the story though and that was when Jack states that he really could recognize Libby just because he loved her.  I’m probably just being nitpicky but it seems like if loving someone is enough to recognize and remember them, then shouldn’t he have been able to recognize and remember his family members?  I don’t know. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around the logic here but it didn’t make me like the book any less than I otherwise would have.

Who Would I Recommend This Book to?

Because of its ultimate message that ‘You Are Wanted’ no matter who you are, what you look like, what size you are, etc., I’d recommend this book to anyone, and especially to anyone who needs to hear that message or who needs to realize the importance of putting oneself in the shoes of another and trying to understand what they may be going through: be a Libby Strout to those around you, don’t be Caroline Lushamp.

 

Rating:  4 stars

 

four-stars

About Jennifer Niven

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Niven has always wanted to be a Charlie’s Angel, but her true passion is writing. Her most recent book, All the Bright Places, is her first novel for young adult readers and tells the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die. All the Bright Places was the GoodReads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction of 2015, and named a Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine, NPR, the Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly, YALSA, Barnes & Noble, BuzzFeed, the New York Public Library, and others. It was also the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Book for Winter ’14-’15 and SCIBA’s Young Adult Book of the Year, as well as being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and longlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. As of today, the book has spent over thirty weeks as a New York Times bestseller, and foreign rights have sold to forty territories. The movie rights have been optioned with Elle Fanning attached to star and Jennifer writing the script. As a companion to the book, Jennifer has created Germ, a web magazine for and run by girls (and boys) — high school and beyond — that celebrates beginnings, futures, and all the amazing and agonizing moments in between.

With the publication of her first book, The Ice Master, Jennifer became a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer. A nonfiction account of a deadly Arctic expedition, The Ice Master was released in November 2000 and named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, and translated into multiple languages, including German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, and Icelandic. Jennifer and The Ice Master appeared in Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Talk, Glamour, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Book Review, The London Daily Mail, The London Times, and Writer’s Digest, among others. Dateline BBC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel featured The Ice Master an hour-long documentaries, and the book was the subject of numerous German, Canadian, and British television documentaries. The Ice Master has been nominated for awards by the American Library Association and Book Sense, and received Italy’s esteemed Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002.

Jennifer’s second book, Ada Blackjack — an inspiring true story of the woman the press called “the female Robinson Crusoe” — has been translated into Chinese, French, and Estonian, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, and was named by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Top Five Arctic books.

Her memoir, The Aqua-Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, was published in February 2010 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and was optioned by Warner Bros. as a television series.

Her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (based on her Emmy Award-winning film of the same name), was released July 2009 by Penguin/Plume. It was an Indie Pick for the August 2009 Indie Next List and was also a Costco Book of the Month. The second book in the Velva Jean series, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, was released by Penguin/Plume in August 2011, and the third book in the series, Becoming Clementine, was published in September 2012. The fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde, is available now.

With her mother, author Penelope Niven, Jennifer has conducted numerous seminars in writing and addressed audiences around the world. She lives in Los Angeles.

Source: www.jenniferniven.com

Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab

Book Review:  A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. SchwabA Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic, #2) by V.E. Schwab, Victoria Schwab
five-stars
Series: Shades of Magic #2
Published by Tor Books on February 23rd 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 509
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  It has been four months since a mysterious obsidian stone fell into Kell’s possession. Four months since his path crossed with Delilah Bard. Four months since Prince Rhy was wounded, and since the nefarious Dane twins of White London fell, and four months since the stone was cast with Holland’s dying body through the rift–back into Black London.

Now, restless after having given up his smuggling habit, Kell is visited by dreams of ominous magical events, waking only to think of Lila, who disappeared from the docks as she always meant to do. As Red London finalizes preparations for the Element Games–an extravagant international competition of magic meant to entertain and keep healthy the ties between neighboring countries–a certain pirate ship draws closer, carrying old friends back into port.

And while Red London is caught up in the pageantry and thrills of the Games, another London is coming back to life. After all, a shadow that was gone in the night will reappear in the morning. But the balance of magic is ever perilous, and for one city to flourish, another London must fall.

My Review:

What an incredible read! I could seriously kick myself for waiting so long to pick it up, especially considering how much I loved A Darker Shade of Magic, the first book in the series.

A Gathering of Shadows picks up about four months after A Darker Shade of Magic and what I really loved about it was how character driven the entire book is.  Of course it has an incredibly entertaining plot as well, with the Element Games tournament as well as a darker subplot which follows a character we thought we had left behind in the first book, but even with those storylines at play, what drives this book and makes it such a fabulous read are the psychological journeys of these characters and how much we get inside of their heads as they each deal with the fallout from the events of the first book.  The struggle of each of our favorite characters is palpable in A Gathering of Shadows as they are each desperately trying to figure out who they even are anymore because everything has changed for each of them.

What I Loved:

The Bond between Kell and Rhy:  The fallout from Kell binding his life to Rhy’s to save him in the first book really permeates through everything that takes place in A Gathering of Shadows.  Kell doesn’t regret saving Rhy for a single moment, but he is also miserable because he can’t live like he normally would for fear of harming Rhy in the process. In the early chapters, Schwab paints him almost as a restless tiger pacing in a cage.  He longs for action and adventure but is terrified of harming his brother in the process.  As we learn right away, this magical bond between Kell and Rhy is so strong that if Kell takes a punch, for example, Rhy can actually feel the pain as if it’s happening to him as well. Kell is also miserable because he can feel that the King and Queen, his “parents”, no longer trust him because of what happened in the first book.  Rhy, in his own way, is equally miserable because he knows the sacrifice Kell has made for him and he hates it because he can literally sense how trapped and miserable Kell feels.  Schwab has so vividly described this bond between the brothers that I just felt so horrible for both of them but also really appreciated that these two men, even though they are not brothers in blood, would truly sacrifice anything and everything for the other.

Speaking of Rhy, I also loved that we got to see so much more of him in this book.  His father is grooming him to take on more of a leadership role and so has him hosting the Element Games.  As much as I adored Rhy as the fun brother who often served to lighten the mood in A Darker Shade of Magic as he bantered with Kell, I loved seeing this more mature and responsible side of him as he represents  his country.

Delilah Bard: There’s no way I can talk about what I loved about this book without mentioning Lila.  I didn’t think it was possible to love her more than I did in the first book, but she really blew me away in this one and has become one of my favorite female characters of all time.  I actually found myself chuckling at her antics quite a bit in the opening chapters as we see that she has, in fact, realized her dream of becoming a pirate.  Lila has earned her spot on Alucard Emery’s privateer by proving — in typical Lila style – that she is the best thief around.  On a bet with a couple of Alucard’s crewmen, she actually scams her way aboard a rival pirate ship and then promptly attacks and takes it over.  I love that she’s such a badass and that she does whatever she needs to do in order to survive, even if it’s a bit morally questionable.  She has always been a survivor and a risk taker and in this book, she takes that to a whole new level as we learn that she has somehow managed to start mastering the elements of magic, which by most accounts, she should not have been able to do.  In many ways Lila is shocked at her own magical abilities and so she has somewhat of an identity crisis. Who or what am I and why can I do all of these things that I shouldn’t be able to do?  She spends much of the novel testing the limits of her abilities, including, securing by somewhat shady means, a position for herself as a competitor in the Element Games.

Alucard Emery:  What a fun new addition to the series Alucard Emery is.  Alucard is the captain of the ship Lila has ensconced herself on and the two of them have bonded tremendously as they’ve traveled the seas together.  Alucard is also quite the charmer. His banter, both with Lila and then later with Rhy, who it turns out he has a bit of history with (to Kell’s dismay), is just so much fun to read.  In many ways he becomes the mood lightener that Rhy was in A Darker Shade of Magic.

The Element Games (or Essen Tasch):  Just wow! In some ways this magical tournament reminded me of the Triwizard Tournament from the Harry Potter series – with its magicians visiting from two other countries to participate.  Rather than quests for each of the competitors, however, the Essen Tasch is more about using magic in combat.  Schwab does a magnificent job of bringing this tournament to life – each match is so vividly described that I felt like I was right there watching earth, air, fire, and water springing to life as commanded by each magician.  I also loved how meticulous Schwab is about developing the rules, disqualifiers, and other minute details of this tournament such as the costumes, masks, and props.  No details were left to chance and the whole tournament felt that much more authentic because of her efforts.  It was incredibly entertaining to read!

That Cliffhanger Ending!  OMG! I don’t want to give anything away here, but let’s just say that that dark subplot that has been lurking throughout the novel finally rears its ugly head at the conclusion of A Gathering of Shadows. I have to applaud Schwab’s ability to craft a masterful cliffhanger that has me desperately wanting to get my hands on the next book to make sure my favorite characters are going to be okay.

Anything I Didn’t Like?

That I don’t already have the third book in my hands because of that insane cliffhanger?! No, seriously, I cannot express how much I LOVED this book.  As annoyed as I am at myself for putting off reading it for as long as I did, in a way I’m grateful because now I only have to wait about a month for A Conjuring of Light.  I think I would have lost my mind if I had read this months and months ago and had such a long wait.

Who Would I Recommend A Gathering of Shadows to?

I would recommend this to anyone and everyone.  If you’re looking to get into the fantasy genre for the first time, I think this series is a fantastic place to start.  The world building is just so vivid but also relatable since it’s grounded in London, a city that is so familiar to most of us.  The characters are badass and yet also charming and fun and sometimes vulnerable.  Seriously, if you don’t fall in love with Kell, Lila, and Rhy, I’d be very shocked.  I’d also highly recommend this series to readers like me who tend to be somewhat cynical when it comes to romances.  So far this series has done a marvelous job of just hinting at potential relationships without having it take over the rest of the plot.  It’s very well-balanced in that sense, and so it earns extra high marks from me.

 

Rating:  5 Stars

 

 

five-stars

About V.E. Schwab

ve schwab

Victoria is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. Because of this, she has been known to say “tom-ah-toes,” “like,” and “y’all.”

She also tells stories.

She loves fairy tales, and folklore, and stories that make her wonder if the world is really as it seems.