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Book Review: You Don’t Know My Name

Book Review:  You Don’t Know My NameYou Don't Know My Name (The Black Angel Chronicles #1) by Kristen Orlando
four-stars
Series: The Black Angel Chronicles #1
Published by Swoon Reads on January 10th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Reagan Elizabeth Hillis is used to changing identities overnight, lying to every friend she’s ever had, and pushing away anyone who gets too close. Trained in mortal combat and weaponry her entire life, Reagan is expected to follow in her parents’ footsteps and join the ranks of the most powerful top-secret agency in the world, the Black Angels. Falling in love with the boy next door was never part of the plan. Now Reagan must decide: Will she use her incredible talents and lead the dangerous life she was born into, or throw it all away to follow her heart and embrace the normal life she’s always wanted? And does she even have a choice?

 

MY REVIEW

 

Kristen Orlando’s You Don’t Know My Name follows the story of Reagan, 17 year old high school student who also happens to be actively training to become a member of the Black Angels, a top secret elite spy organization which both of her parents are also members of.  The Black Angels are such a top secret agency that Reagan has lived under assumed names all of her life and she and her family relocate every year or so if there is a fear that their identities have been discovered.  Reagan has been training to join the Black Angels for as long as she can remember – she’s already an expert marksman and is trained in mortal combat – and her parents fully expect her to follow in their footsteps to serve her country.  As the time gets closer for her to commit to the Black Angels, however, the more conflicted Reagan becomes. Is this really the life she wants for herself?  A lonely life filled with constant danger, panic rooms, secret identities, never staying in one place for any amount of time, etc. What about love, friends, college, a normal job, a family of her own someday?

 

LIKES

Reagan was, by far, my favorite part of this story.  I love that on the one hand, she’s this total badass spy-in-training, but on the other hand, she still comes across as quite vulnerable because she’s so conflicted about her future.  Her doubts are also completely understandable so it’s easy to relate to what she is feeling and to sympathize with her.  I can’t even begin to imagine living the way that she does, having a panic room built into her basement in case someone discovers who her parents really are.  Any time a mission goes wrong and identities are potentially compromised, her life gets turned upside down and she has to start all over again.  It’s very easy to understand why the idea of saying no and making her own way in the world would be so appealing.  In that sense, You Don’t Know My Name is as much a coming of age story as it is a spy novel.

There’s even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  Luke is a super hot ROTC cadet who lives across the street from Reagan at her home of the moment. Reagan and her family have actually stayed at this location for a little over a year now and so Reagan and Luke have gotten to know each other.  They’re in the “friends on the way to maybe becoming more than friends stage” when we meet them and I really enjoyed their chemistry.  In many ways, Luke is the impetus for many of Reagan’s conflicted feelings.  She really likes him and wonders what it would be like to have a future with him and it kills her to think she’ll never have that kind of experience if she follows in her parent’s footsteps.  She also worries about getting too close to Luke because what happens the next time she and her parents have to abruptly relocate? She wouldn’t even get to tell Luke goodbye. She would just disappear, never to be heard from again.  I don’t want to give any major plot details away, but I totally fell head over heels for Luke when something happens later in the story and he ends up finding out about Reagan’s family and the Black Angels.  As much of a badass as Reagan is, Luke scores pretty high on the badass meter himself.

Speaking of badass, the action and suspense in this story is off the charts.  From the first pages of the novel when we witness Reagan and her family abandon their house in the middle of the night to escape from a threat all the way through to what can only be described as a heartbreaking, life-changing event when one of her parent’s mission goes terribly wrong, this is a book you won’t be able to put down once you get started.

 

DISLIKES

Only one dislike comes to mind as I’m thinking back on this book and that’s a conversation between Reagan and her mother.  Reagan is slated to visit a college she’s interested in possibly attending.  In Reagan’s parents’ minds, this is just part of Reagan’s cover story since she clearly won’t be going to college.  Even though they were supposed to go with her to visit the college, they back out at the last minute because of something work related.  Upset by this, Reagan breaks down and confesses to her mother everything that she has been feeling so conflicted about. She tells her mom she doesn’t know if the Black Angels is for her, that she might just want to live a normal life and be happy and safe.  What got to me was her mother’s response to what Reagan says.  Her mom basically says that some people are born to be happy but that Reagan isn’t one of them. Reagan was born to serve her country, end of story.  I just found that very off-putting and couldn’t imagine any parent saying something like that to their child. Thankfully her mom reconsiders those words and apologizes later, but boy was she on my bad list for a while there.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

This is my first time reading a YA spy novel so I don’t have anything to compare You Don’t Know My Name to, but that said, what a fantastic read this was for me. I truly loved pretty much everything about it.  The story grabbed my attention from the first few paragraphs and I was glued to the book until I reached the last page, which has left me dying to get my hands on the next book in the series. I highly recommend this book!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Kristen Orlando

 

“Writing is one of the great loves of my life (with bacon mac and cheese, Netflix binges and PJs also in the mix). My childhood in Columbus, Ohio was spent reading every single Baby-Sitter’s Club book ever written and acting out imaginary tragedies in my room (complete with costumes and props) until a really embarrassing age. I started writing plays for my younger cousins as soon as they were all old enough to act (The Spoiled Princess may be a personal favorite) and haven’t stopped writing since. After graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in English Literature, I’ve been lucky enough to make writing my career; first as a television producer, then as a marketer and now as a novelist.” (Kristen Orlando, in her own words, taken from kristenorlando.com)

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.

Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Book Review:  Swimming Lessons by Claire FullerSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
five-stars
Published by Tin House Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 350
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, but wow, what an incredibly beautiful and engaging read it was for me.  In fact, I think it’s my first 5 star read of 2017. What I loved about Swimming Lessons was that while it contains a great deal of suspense, it was not at all what I would classify as a typical thriller.  Instead of nonstop, heart-pounding action, this story was a quiet exploration of a troubled marriage and its impact on an entire family.

When the novel opens, Gil Coleman has suffered an accident.  When his two daughters, Flora and Nan, hear of his accident, they rush home to be by their father’s side but are distraught when they hear him say that he hurt himself while following their mother, Ingrid.  Why?  Because Ingrid Coleman was presumed dead in a drowning accident twelve years earlier. The fact that Ingrid’s body was never found has always haunted the family.  Was there any way she could have survived, but if so, why would she then have disappeared for twelve years?  Nan chooses to believe that her mother is dead so that she can move on with her life and chalks her father’s story up to the delusions of an elderly man, but Flora and of course Gil, still seem to hold on to a sliver of hope that Ingrid may be out there somewhere.  At one point, Flora even swears that she sees her mother and starts trying to follow her across town.  The discrepancy in how the family members feel regarding Ingrid’s disappearance introduces a thread that runs throughout the novel – is it better to know the truth even if it’s not the truth we wanted or is it better to keep hope alive even if it means we may spend our entire lives hoping for something that may never happen?

 

LIKES

 

One of the elements of Swimming Lessons that I really loved is that the story is revealed to us in two parts, through alternating chapters – we see the present from the viewpoint of Flora, but then we are also given a rich portrait of the past from the viewpoint of Ingrid.  How? Because unbeknownst to Flora and Nan, and perhaps even to Gil, Ingrid has written a series of letters and hidden them in books strategically around the Coleman house.  In these letters, she lays out for Gil the way she viewed their lives together – from the moment they first met when Ingrid was a student in one of Gil’s writing classes in college through all the years of their marriage leading up to the moment when Ingrid presumably drowned.  Honestly, Ingrid’s letters are the backbone of this story. They add layer upon layer of rich detail and history that, especially with regard to Gil, are often quite different from the present-day version of Gil that we see through Flora’s eyes.  What Ingrid’s letters give us is the portrait of a young woman who wants to be a writer but then gets so caught up in an affair with her charming college professor that she ends up not graduating from college, getting pregnant instead, and settling into what eventually becomes a very troubled marriage.  Gil wants her to be a baby-making machine and little more than that and she resents it.  Since he won’t listen to her, Ingrid resorts to writing these letters to him in hopes that he’ll find them someday in his precious books which fill nearly every room of their house.  What we see as we get to read the letters is that their relationship becomes so stifling to her over the years, it becomes easier and easier for the reader to wonder if perhaps there is any truth to the idea that she may still be out there somewhere.  Could she have faked her death so that she could have a fresh start somewhere else?  Or are we just getting caught up in the same line of wishful thinking that Flora and Gil are in?

Another thread that runs through Swimming Lessons that I loved was the idea that readers bring their own meaning and interpretations to a book.  One of Gil’s favorite pasttimes is to collect books and study the marginalia (i.e. what readers have written or doodled in the margins, what they’ve left behind, while they’re reading).  He believes that those little pieces of themselves that readers leave behind are what give insight into the character of the book and add meaning to the book itself.  It therefore makes it all the more meaningful that Ingrid has chosen to leave behind these little pieces of herself in so many of his books.  I loved the idea that she had left clues right under his nose for years and that if he were to find them all and follow the evidence, he might have a definitive answer as to what happened to her or at least a definitive why anyway.

I think my absolute favorite aspect of this novel was the author’s writing style.  Fuller’s writing is just so elegant and simple – the story felt very organic as it unfolded.  It wasn’t this huge melodramatic event, more just the quiet reveal of a troubled family.

 

DISLIKES

The only dislike I had in this book was Gil himself.  At first I was somewhat indifferent to him or maybe even felt a little bad for him that he was imagining seeing his dead wife. But then once I started reading Ingrid’s letter, I felt a strong dislike for pretty much everything about him.  As much as I disliked him though, I still very much appreciated the rich character portrait we were given of him so hats off to the author for doing such an incredible job portraying him, his warts and all.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

 

Swimming Lessons was a powerful read for me, not just because of the ‘Is she really dead or could she possibly be alive?’ mystery that runs through the novel, but also because it embraces those threads that are woven through it and leaves the reader to interpret what really happened to Ingrid.  We all bring our own meanings to the books we read, and as Gil says, no two of us read the exact same book.  Want to find out what really happened to Ingrid?  Read Swimming Lessons yourself and find your own meaning.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

 

five-stars

About Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.

Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons was published in early 2017.

ARC Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake

ARC Review: How to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring BlakeHow to Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake
four-stars
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on May 2nd 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: the Publisher
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

Goodreads Synopsis:  All seventeen year-old Grace Glasser wants is her own life. A normal life in which she sleeps in the same bed for longer than three months and doesn’t have to scrounge for spare change to make sure the electric bill is paid. Emotionally trapped by her unreliable mother, Maggie, and the tiny cape on which she lives, she focuses on her best friend, her upcoming audition for a top music school in New York, and surviving Maggie’s latest boyfriend—who happens to be Grace’s own ex-boyfriend’s father.

Her attempts to lay low until she graduates are disrupted when she meets Eva, a girl with her own share of ghosts she’s trying to outrun. Grief-stricken and lonely, Eva pulls Grace into midnight adventures and feelings Grace never planned on. When Eva tells Grace she likes girls, both of their worlds open up. But, united by loss, Eva also shares a connection with Maggie. As Grace’s mother spirals downward, both girls must figure out how to love and how to move on.

MY REVIEW

How to Make a Wish is a beautifully written heartfelt story that follows the journey of seventeen year old Grace Glasser as she tries to follow her dreams in spite of the many obstacles placed in her path.  Grace’s dream is to move to New York City after graduation and study piano at the Manhattan School of Music. Cost is, of course, an obstacle, so Grace is counting on performing well enough at her upcoming audition to not only be accepted to the school but also to secure a scholarship.   Grace is a gifted pianist so this is well within the realm of possibility.  The biggest obstacle standing in Grace’s way, however, is actually her mother.  Grace’s mother, Maggie, lost her husband when Grace was just a toddler and has never been able to put the pieces of her life back together.  She has no sense of responsibility whatsoever and basically flits from man to man, moving in with them at the drop of a hat, and dragging Grace along with her.  Because Maggie is so unreliable, the roles in the Glasser household have ultimately become reversed, with Grace acting more like the parent and Maggie acting like the boy crazy irresponsible teen.

When the story opens, Grace has just come back from a two-week music camp and learns that in just those couple of weeks she was gone, Maggie has met yet another man and has packed up everything they own and moved in with him.  As if that wasn’t awkward enough, the man has a teenage son – a teenage son who happens to also be one of Grace’s ex-boyfriends.  Her mother is completely oblivious as to how awkward that’s going to be and pretty much tells Grace that she needs to suck it up because this guy could be “the one.”  As much as Grace wants nothing more than to move out and start living her own life, she’s also terrified of what’s going to happen to her mother if she leaves her alone.

One afternoon Grace is out walking on the beach, thinking about how complicated and messed up her relationship with her mother is, and she comes across Eva, a teenage girl about her own age crying on the beach.  Eva is grieving over the loss of her mother, who has just recently passed away. She has come to Grace’s town to live with her legal guardian and is feeling lost and alone.  She and Grace connect immediately and a beautiful friendship and maybe even a little something more develops between them.  The rest of the novel explores their growing relationship, while at the same time, highlighting the messy relationship between Grace and her mom and how it truly infiltrates every aspect of Grace’s life.  Can Grace break free from her mom’s hold on her so that she can follow her dreams?

LIKES

Grace:   Grace is such a complex character and I loved following her as she navigates her way through the obstacles that she encounters throughout the novel.  She’s strong and she’s mature beyond her years because of the situation with her mother, but she’s also simultaneously vulnerable for the same reason.  It’s almost like she has grown up without a mom or a dad even though her mom is right there.  My heart broke for Grace so many times along the way, especially early on when she learns that her mother sold her piano. As a mother, I seriously wanted to grab Maggie and shake her. I mean, seriously, you know your daughter’s main passion in life is music and you also know she has a major audition coming up to get into the school of her dreams and you decide that selling her piano while she’s out of town is a good choice?  What kind of parent does that?

That said, there were moments when Grace frustrated me too though. Most of the time I just wanted Grace to pack her bags and move out because the vibe I was getting from Maggie was that even if Grace didn’t pursue her musical dreams and instead stayed home to play the responsible one and keep her mom out of trouble for the rest of her life, Maggie wouldn’t even appreciate Grace’s sacrifice.  As frustrated as I was, however, I understood why Grace was so conflicted about it.  Maggie is all Grace has in terms of family, so if she walks out on her, she has no one left.  It’s an impossible situation.

Grace’s Relationship with Eva:  This relationship was my favorite part of How to Make a Wish.    Their moments together are just so lovely, sweet, and pure in comparison to the drama that makes up the rest of their lives.  They are the calm in each other’s storm.  I loved their quiet adventures sneaking out late at night and climbing up the local lighthouse together, the stolen moments when Eva would sneak into Grace’s room through the bedroom window whenever she couldn’t sleep, and even their silly moments together snacking on peanut butter straight out of the jar.  As messed up as Grace’s life is because of her mother and as sad as Eva is because of her loss, this relationship cuts through all of that heartache and brings hope for a happy ending with it.

Luca:  Luca is Grace’s best friend and he is seriously the most precious friend a person could have.  He’s loyal to a fault, funny as hell, and just so supportive when it comes to Grace.  He and his mom, Emmy, are really the closest thing to a family Grace has ever had and they would take her into their home in a heartbeat if she ever decided to leave her mom and the drama behind.

Diversity:  Author Ashley Herring Blake does a wonderful job with diversity in How to Make a Wish. Eva is biracial and she also likes girls, while Grace is bisexual.  Blake’s characters are realistically portrayed and do not feel like stereotypes at all. Not only is the growing relationship between Grace and Eva beautifully portrayed, but I also loved how everyone around them readily accepted their attraction to one another and supported them wholeheartedly, no questions asked.   Grace’s mother was completely clueless that her daughter was bisexual, even though Grace had told her before, but this was more a case of Maggie being too wrapped up in Maggie to pay attention to what Grace was saying than her being negative about it.  Once she took a moment to focus on her daughter instead of herself, she got right on board with it too.

DISLIKES

Maggie:  I guess it’s obvious that I didn’t care for Maggie for much of the novel, but even though I didn’t like her, I still think Blake did a marvelous job of  realistically conveying just how complicated a mother-daughter relationship can be.  She captures Grace’s conflicted feelings towards her mom in a way that I think we can all relate to.  No matter how bad things get – how many of Grace’s birthdays Maggie forgets, no matter how many strange guys she brings home, no matter what — Grace still remembers little moments when things were good between her and her mom, like painting their nails together and sitting and talking about wishes. There’s always that hope in the back of Grace’s mind that things will get better and so she gives her mom chance after chance after chance to step up and act like a mother.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I think How to Make a Wish would make the perfect summer read for someone who is looking for a romance but who also likes a story with some layers to it.  The relationship between Grace and Eva by itself made this book worth reading, but I really loved the depth that the mother-daughter relationship added to the overall story.  That dynamic really made the story resonate with me all the more.

RATING:  4 stars

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way impacts my opinion of the book.

 

four-stars

About Ashley Herring Blake

Ashley Herring Blake is a reader, writer, and mom to two boisterous boys. She holds a Master’s degree in teaching and loves coffee, arranging her books by color, and watching Buffy over and over again on Netflix with her friends. She’s the author of the young adult novels SUFFER LOVE and HOW TO MAKE A WISH.

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.

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.

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.

Waiting on Wednesday: THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON

New WoW“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking the Spine, which encourages fellow bloggers to spotlight upcoming releases that we’re excited about.

My “Waiting On” Wednesday selection for this week is The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke.  There’s time travel, someone’s using dark magic to change history, and it’s set in Berlin before the Wall came down?  Count me in for what sounds like it will be a truly unique read.

The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

Publication Date:  September 1, 2017

From katherinelockebooks.com:

Ellie Baum feels the weight of history on her when she arrives on a school trip to Berlin, Germany. After all, she’s the first member of her family to return since her grandfather’s miraculous escape from a death camp in 1942. One moment she’s contemplating the Berlin Wall Memorial amidst the crowd, and the next, she’s yanked back through time, to 1988 East Berlin when the Wall is still standing.

Nobody knows how she got there, not even the members of the underground guild–the Runners and the Schopfers–who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall. Now as a stranger in an oppressive regime, Ellie must hide from the police with the help of Kai, a Runner struggling with his own uneasy relationship with the powerful Balloonmakers and his growing feelings for Ellie. Together they search for the truth behind Ellie’s mysterious travel, and when they uncover a plot to alter history with dark magic, she must risk everything–including her only way home–to stop the deadly plans.

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I’d love to hear what upcoming book releases you’re waiting on this Wednesday? Leave me your link in the comments below and I’ll stop by and check out your WoW selection for this week. 🙂