ARC Review of Frostblood

ARC Review of FrostbloodFrostblood (Frostblood Saga, #1) by Elly Blake
three-half-stars
Series: ,
on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Seventeen-year-old Ruby is a fireblood who must hide her powers of heat and flame from the cruel frostblood ruling class that wants to destroy all that are left of her kind. So when her mother is killed for protecting her and rebel frostbloods demand her help to kill their rampaging king, she agrees. But Ruby’s powers are unpredictable, and she’s not sure she’s willing to let the rebels and an infuriating (yet irresistible) young man called Arcus use her as their weapon.

All she wants is revenge, but before they can take action, Ruby is captured and forced to take part in the king’s tournaments that pit fireblood prisoners against frostblood champions. Now she has only one chance to destroy the maniacal ruler who has taken everything from her and from the icy young man she has come to love.

Fast-paced and compelling, Frostblood is the first in a page-turning new young adult three-book series about a world where flame and ice are mortal enemies—but together create a power that could change everything.

 

My Review:

Elly Blake’s exciting debut novel Frostblood tells the story of a young woman named Ruby Otrera.  Ruby is what is known as a Fireblood, which means that she possesses unique magical abilities that center on fire and heat.  Rather than celebrate her powers and use them as she would wish to, however, Ruby has been raised to conceal and suppress her fire.  Why?  Because the land Ruby lives in is ruled by Frostbloods.  Frostbloods possess similar magical abilities to Firebloods; their powers are just ice rather than flame-based.  The Frostbloods also have a king who has a fierce hatred of Firebloods and wants to see them all destroyed.  Thus it is for Ruby’s own protection and survival that her family has never encouraged her to use her magic.

That all changes, however, when the Frost King sends men to Ruby’s village because they suspect a Fireblood is living there.  When someone betrays Ruby and reveals her to be the Fireblood, the King’s men end up killing Ruby’s mother when she stands in their way to protect her daughter.  In her anguish, Ruby unleashes her fire power on those who murdered her mother and ends up arrested and taken to prison.  Her stay in prison, however, is short-lived because a band of rebel Frostbloods come and break her out on the condition that she join them on their mission to kill the ruthless Frost King.  They believe that she alone, with her unique fire powers, can successfully complete this mission.  Because she desperately wants revenge against the man whose orders got her mother killed, Ruby agrees to be their assassin.  The rest of the novel follows Ruby as she first learns to master her powers in preparation for her mission and then later as she finds herself captured and imprisoned by the Frost King and forced to participate in his deadly tournaments, all the while biding her time and hoping for an opportunity to destroy him before he destroys her.

 

What I Loved about Frostblood:

One of the favorite parts of Frostblood was the use of Fire vs Ice.  Fire and ice imagery has always appealed to me so as soon as I saw that the magic in Frostblood was based on these elements, I knew I had to read the book.

As  soon as I started reading and watching the Frostbloods and Ruby the Fireblood wield their magic, I was immediately captivated.  The magic Elly Blake has created in her Frostblood world is not only mesmerizing and darkly beautiful, but it also vividly brings to mind one of my all-time favorite poems (quoted below for those who haven’t read it):

“Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire. I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate.

To say that for destruction ice. Is also great.

And would suffice.”

–“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Aside from the incredible use of the fire and ice imagery, I also loved the epic fight scenes that Blake gives  us when the Frost King captures Ruby and forces her to participate in his tournaments.  The competitions are truly badass.  They are basically death matches between Firebloods and Frostbloods, but really can be between anyone or anything the King sees fit to pit against each other for his own amusement because at various times, we see him pit champions against ferocious animals and other assorted beasts.  The fights are sick and often pretty graphic, but they are also a pure adrenaline rush to read.  When I read them, especially the fights where Ruby was a participant, I kept envisioning gladiators fighting in the Colosseum in Ancient Rome.

 

Where I was Conflicted:

As much as I enjoyed these elements of Frostblood, there were still a few areas where I was conflicted.  Surprisingly enough, the main character Ruby is one of them.  I really did like Ruby.  She’s spunky and shows great determination against seemingly impossible odds, and I also had tremendous sympathy for her since her mother was murdered right in front of her.  As much as I liked her though, I did think she was a little cliché at times.  The feistiness and fiery temper seemed a somewhat predictable description for someone who basically has fire running through their veins.

I also found her frustrating.  She’s supposed to be mastering her powers and admittedly isn’t making great progress with her training, but yet she keeps letting herself get distracted by the mysterious Frostblood named Arcus.  I won’t go so far as to call it love at first sight since they seem to hate each other when they first meet, but considering what she is preparing to risk her life to go do, there is definitely way too much flirtation going on.  In that sense, she reminded me of Mare from Red Queen, who I also wanted to throttle for being more focused on her potential love interest than on her mission.

Speaking of Arcus, in some ways I actually found him to be a more compelling and less predictable character than Ruby.  Although he starts out as seemingly cliché with his frosty and arrogant manner, we soon learn (and so does Ruby) there’s a lot more to Arcus than initially meets the eye.  He’s much more human and vulnerable than the rest of his Frostblood counterparts seem to be.  I don’t want to give too much away about Arcus since he does play a major part in the novel’s climax, but I will say that as much as I disliked the flirting at inopportune moments early in the novel, the more I got to know more about Arcus, the more I liked him and the more supportive I felt toward his budding relationship with Ruby.  The gratuitous flirting definitely still irritated me, but overall I was very intrigued by the idea of the two of them together, especially since he’s a Frostblood and she’s a Fireblood and they should be mortal enemies.

I think where I was actually most conflicted about this book is that while I thoroughly enjoyed it, I still wished it had been more of a unique read.  Maybe I’ve just read way too many YA fantasy novels recently, but throughout my reading of Frostblood, I kept thinking “Wait, didn’t Mare in Red Queen go through that too?  Wait, this reminds me of Britta in Ever the Hunted who is scorned because of her magical powers”, etc.  It’s still a great read that I would recommend to pretty much any YA fantasy lover; I just wish Ruby had been more of a standout from all of the other YA heroines.  To Blake’s credit though, she does start to introduce a more unique element towards the end of the novel – the fact that Ruby does seem to have a bit of darkness within her.  We start to see it early on in Frostblood in her intense need for revenge against those who killed her mother, but that darkness takes on an entirely different dimension in the closing chapters of the story.  I thought it was fascinating to see a heroine grapple with such an inner darkness and I’m really hoping that Blake will continue to explore this aspect in the second novel of the series. I think that’s the more unique angle that would really take this series to the next level for me.

Who Would I Recommend Frostblood to?

I’d recommend Frostblood to anyone who likes a fast-paced YA fantasy read.  Frostblood was a quick and easy read for me. I was able to knock it out in just a couple of days and, even though, I wished for a little more originality at times, I was still entertained by the story the entire time.  I think readers who are newer to the genre would especially enjoy it, especially if you enjoyed books like Red Queen or Ever the Hunted.

Rating:  3.5 stars

 

three-half-stars

About Elly Blake

Elly Blake loves fairy tales, old houses, and owls. After earning a BA in English literature, she held a series of seemingly random jobs, including project manager, customs clerk, graphic designer, reporter for a local business magazine, and library assistant. She lives in Southwestern Ontario with her husband, kids and a Siberian Husky mix who definitely shows Frostblood tendencies.

Her work is represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary & Media.

ARC Review: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia

ARC Review: Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy MejiaEverything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia
four-stars
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on January 3rd 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:   Full of twists and turns, Everything You Want Me to Be reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman, during which a small town’s darkest secrets come to the forefront…and she inches closer and closer to her death.

High school senior Hattie Hoffman has spent her whole life playing many parts: the good student, the good daughter, the good citizen. When she’s found brutally stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of her small town community. Local sheriff Del Goodman, a family friend of the Hoffmans, vows to find her killer, but trying to solve her murder yields more questions than answers. It seems that Hattie’s acting talents ran far beyond the stage. Told from three points of view—Del, Hattie, and the new English teacher whose marriage is crumbling—Everything You Want Me to Be weaves the story of Hattie’s last school year and the events that drew her ever closer to her death.

Evocative and razor-sharp, Everything You Want Me to Be challenges you to test the lines between innocence and culpability, identity and deception. Does love lead to self-discovery—or destruction?

My Review:

I love a good murder mystery and Everything You Want Me To Be really fits the bill.  Although it started out like a fairly straightforward CSI/Rizzoli and Isle’s style murder investigation story, it ultimately ended up being a lot more complex and fascinating than I was anticipating.  Everything You Want Me to Be is a fast-paced psychological thriller that took me on a wild and unexpected ride.  The main character is high school senior Hattie Hoffman who is found brutally murdered in the opening pages of the novel.   Hattie lives in a small, close knit town where not much of anything ever happens so her murder completely rocks the community.  The pressure is on local law enforcement to find out what happened to Hattie and to bring the murderer to justice, which is the focus of the bulk of the novel.

Highlights of Everything You Want Me to Be:

Hattie Hoffman:  Hattie is a complex and well-drawn character.  I never could decide if I actually liked her or not, but regardless, I found her to be a truly fascinating young woman.   Even though the novel begins with her death, we go back about a year before that to follow the events that lead up to her murder.  In taking that journey, the reader learns that Hattie is basically an actress in every sense of the word.  She of course acts on the stage in plays, but the more we learn about her, the more it becomes apparent that she has no real sense of who she is and sees herself as acting out various roles all her life trying to make other people happy – the good daughter, the model student, the doting girlfriend – even if it’s at the expense of her own happiness. I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, but it is unfortunately when she finally decides it’s time to figure out who she really is that Hattie sets into motion the chain of events that lead to her death.

Plot Twists:  I love a mystery that is filled with plot twists, especially when the plot twists make sense and don’t seem contrived.  In Everything You Want Me To Be, the author has woven together so many twists and turns that I was kept guessing the entire novel as to who the murderer was and what exactly had transpired the fateful night of Hattie’s death.  I loved that I not only guessed wrong once or twice – I actually guessed wrong three times and each time was sure I had the right person.  Every time I thought I had it all figured out, a new and equally plausible suspect would turn up.

Three Narrative Points of View:  The story of Hattie’s murder unfolds from three different viewpoints through the eyes of Hattie, through the eyes of Del Goodman, the town sheriff and also a friend of Hattie’s family, and finally through the eyes of Peter Lund, Hattie’s English teacher and also one of the prime suspects in her murder. I know sometimes having so many different points of view can be confusing, but in this case, I thought seeing the story play out through these three sets of eyes really added a lot of layers to the tale.

MacBeth:

Hattie and her classmates are working on a production of William Shakespeare’s MacBeth at the time of her murder.  When she turns up dead, one of her classmates claims that her death is a result of the so-called “MacBeth Curse,” where historically, people have often met with misfortune during productions of the play.   While I didn’t believe for one moment that Hattie had lost her life because of a supposed curse, I did love the added mystique that the “MacBeth Curse” cast over the events especially once the news media got wind that the curse had been mentioned during the police investigation.

Themes:  Speaking of MacBeth, it served a dual purpose in this novel. Not only is it the play Hattie was starring in when she was killed, but more importantly, it also shares major thematic elements with Everything You Want Me To Be, particularly regarding the dangers of acting on one’s desires without regard for the potential consequences. I won’t go so far as to call this a retelling of MacBeth, but there are definite similarities in that sense. Hattie going after what she wants no matter the fallout is very reminiscent of Lady MacBeth.

Anything I Didn’t Care For:

The only real complaint I had throughout the novel was that sometimes it felt like the whole “Hattie is playing a part” angle of the story was laid on a little thick.  I guess it was because we’re reading the three different viewpoints coming to the same conclusion, but at a certain point, I just kept thinking “Okay, that’s enough. I get it.”  That’s probably just me though. I tend to prefer story threads like that to be a little more subtle so that I can connect the dots myself and so reading it several different times was a little heavy-handed for me.  That said, it didn’t remotely take away from my overall enjoyment of the story.

Who Would I Recommend This Novel To?

Everything You Want Me To Be is a well-crafted “whodunnit.”  If you like a suspenseful read that will keep you guessing from start to finish, I would definitely say to give this one a shot!  I probably would not recommend it to younger audiences since the discovery of the body and the murder itself are pretty graphic, but other than that, I think most audiences would enjoy it.

 

Rating:  4 stars

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

four-stars

About Mindy Mejia

mindy mejia

Mindy received a BA from the University of Minnesota and an MFA from Hamline University. Apart from brief stops in Iowa City and Galway, she’s lived in the Twin Cities her entire life and held a succession of jobs from an apple orchard laborer to a global credit manager.

She’s currently working on a project set in Duluth and the Boundary Waters that may or may not be a trilogy.

Mindy is available for readings, workshops, and book group discussions. Contact her at mindy(at)mindymejia.com.

Book Review: Ever the Hunted by Erin Summerill

Book Review: Ever the Hunted by Erin SummerillEver the Hunted (Clash of Kingdoms, #1) by Erin Summerill
four-stars
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers on December 27th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 400
Source: the Publisher
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the Publisher. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:   Seventeen year-old Britta Flannery is at ease only in the woods with her dagger and bow. She spends her days tracking criminals alongside her father, the legendary bounty hunter for the King of Malam—that is, until her father is murdered. Now outcast and alone and having no rights to her father’s land or inheritance, she seeks refuge where she feels most safe: the Ever Woods. When Britta is caught poaching by the royal guard, instead of facing the noose she is offered a deal: her freedom in exchange for her father’s killer.

However, it’s not so simple.

The alleged killer is none other than Cohen McKay, her father’s former apprentice. The only friend she’s ever known. The boy she once loved who broke her heart. She must go on a dangerous quest in a world of warring kingdoms, mad kings, and dark magic to find the real killer. But Britta wields more power than she knows. And soon she will learn what has always made her different will make her a daunting and dangerous force.

 

My Thoughts:

What a fun read this was! Erin Summerill’s Ever the Hunted is one of those books that has something for everyone.  There’s fantasy and magic, there’s political intrigue and a King who is acting as though he’s gone mad, there’s adventure and danger, and yes, there’s even a bit of romance thrown in there as well. I don’t want to give away too many plot details but let me just say that you should only read Ever the Hunted when you don’t have any pressing real-life responsibilities to attend to – I made the mistake of starting it while getting ready for Christmas. I got so thoroughly sucked into Britta’s story that I ended up way behind in my Christmas preparations.  Cookies almost didn’t get baked, gifts were bought last minute, and I was down to the wire with getting all of my decorations up. Very stressful.  That said, it was totally worth it. Ever the Hunted is just that good!

Highlights for me:

The World Building and the System of Magic:   Summerill has set her novel in the kingdoms of Malam and Shaerdan.  These neighboring kingdoms are on the brink of war with each other, so tensions are running high all around when the novel begins.  Summerill does a wonderful job of conveying that sense of tension every step of the way. You can just feel that war is about to break out at any moment.  At the center of all that tension is magic.  The kingdom of Shaerdan embraces magic and has among its citizens women who are called Channelers.  Channelers possess magical powers that enable them to manipulate certain elements in nature – water, for example.  While Shaerdan and its citizens accept this magic and the belief that Channelers use their gifts for good, the kingdom of Malam and its people, on the other hand, scorn and shun Channeler magic as well as those who practice it.

Britta Flannery:  Britta is, by far, the highlight of Ever the Hunted for me. Britta is the protagonist and right from the start, Summerill creates in her a character that readers will immediately connect with. When we meet Britta, she is mourning her father, a respected Malam bounty hunter, who has been murdered.  As if that wasn’t tragic enough, Britta is also basically homeless due to circumstances beyond her control.  Britta’s mother, who is also deceased, was a Shaerden citizen who was also believed to be a Channeler.  Because the magic passes from mother to daughter, Britta is ostracized by the people of Malam because she could possibly be a Channeler, and she is prohibited by Malam law from inheriting her father’s land as well. Britta is therefore completely alone and desperately seeking both shelter and food when we first meet her.

While I felt that immediate sense of empathy for Britta because she’s in such a vulnerable state, what really attracted me to her was her resourcefulness, her intelligence, and her sense of independence.  It’s very clear that her father has taught her well in the time they had together, probably anticipating that there would come a time when Britta would need to fend for herself.  She therefore doesn’t just roll over and accept her situation as a death sentence. No, she grabs her dagger and her bow and sets out to track and secure food not only for herself, but also that she can trade in town for a place to stay.  And she does this knowing all the while that the penalty for poaching is death. I loved that she was willing to take such risks and make the hard choices. She’s the ultimate survivor.

I have to admit that I admired Britta’s resourcefulness so much that I was actually a bit excited when she got caught poaching because I wanted to see how she was going to get herself out of such a predicament. My excitement did wane a bit once her way out was revealed:  Britta could have her freedom and her father’s land if, using her tracking skills, she helped to track down his killer.  Sounds like a fair deal, right? Well, there’s a bit of a catch.  The suspected killer is a young man by the name of Cohen McKay, who was Britta’s only friend in the world as well as her father’s apprentice.  Britta doesn’t believe for an instant that Cohen is guilty, but has no choice but to go along with this deal if she wants to live.

When she tracks Cohen and they escape together, they quickly realize that the only way they’re really going to ever be free is to find the real murderer.  This is where the real action of the story actually begins as they embark on a dangerous quest across these two warring kingdoms following clues and searching for the killer. It is also while on this quest that Britta learns that, like her mother, she too possesses a kind of magic and must learn how to understand and control her power.

Fabulous Secondary Characters:

Enat:  Enat is a Channeler who helps Britta to better understand who she really is.  After Britta, Enat is definitely my next favorite character. She’s this feisty old lady who is truly a force to be reckoned with.  Enat, like Britta, knows how to wield a bow and arrow and isn’t afraid to use it, whether it’s to hunt or to fire warning shots at people she thinks are creeping around too close to her home.  She’s just a real character in every since of the word.

Leif:  Leif was a surprise favorite character for me.  He’s actually one of the prison guards who attends to Britta when she is captured for poaching and who is assigned to escort her on her mission to track her father’s killer.  While the other guards are just rude and nasty, Leif shows Britta a lot of kindness at every opportunity and tries to help her whenever he can.  The friendship that grows between them is just really sweet.

Subtle Handling of the Romance:  Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of romance, especially love at first sight or when the characters are so obsessed with each other that they lose sight of what they’re supposed to be focused on.  (Mare from The Red Queen comes to mind.)  Therefore I was a little apprehensive when I started to sense some attraction between Britta and Cohen.  Summerill thankfully, however, does a very nice job of keeping the romantic element subtle, and most importantly, believable.   As I’ve already mentioned, Cohen and Britta grew up together, becoming the best of friends while Cohen apprenticed for Britta’s father.  They clearly have history together and now that they’re both grown, their friendship is becoming something more.  It’s a natural progression for their relationship and it doesn’t overshadow the action/adventure/danger element of the story.

The Unexpected Twist at the End! I can’t really say anything at all about it without giving too much away, but as soon as I read the last few pages, I immediately wanted to get my hands on the next book in the series.

Anything I Didn’t Care For:

I would have liked a little more insight into the Channeler magic, especially Britta’s specific kind of magic since it apparently is quite rare even among Channelers.  I guess since she was just learning about it herself, it’s to be expected that we would just get the basics, but I definitely hope that the second book will more fully explore it as Britta hones her skills because what she is able to do is really quite fascinating!

Who Would I Recommend Ever the Hunted to?

 As I said, this book has something for everyone so I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to.  If you like resourceful heroines and plenty of action and adventure, I think you’d like this one. I also think this is one of those YA books that would appeal to a wide range of ages, from teens on up through adults.  It’s just a wildly entertaining read!

 

Rating:   4 Stars!

 

Thanks so much to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and of course to Erin Summerill for allowing me to preview this wonderful book!


four-stars

About Erin Summerill

Erin Summerill was born in England. After spending years bouncing between Air Force bases in Hawaii, England, and California, her family settled in Utah, where Erin graduated with a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University. She had aspirations to write the next great American novel, but writing proved tougher than she first thought. So she grabbed a Nikon and became a professional photographer while crafting manuscript after manuscript. The scenic detour of shooting weddings across the United States, as well as internationally, provided world-building inspiration. It gave her the vision to draft her debut YA fantasy, EVER THE HUNTED. Now when she isn’t writing, or shooting a wedding, she’s chasing her four kids, two dogs, one cat, and five chickens. This could be why she downs massive amounts of Coke Zero and Hot tamales.

ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

ARC Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine ArdenThe Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Also by this author: The Girl in the Tower, The Winter of the Witch
four-half-stars
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #1
Published by Del Rey on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 336
Also in this series: The Girl in the Tower
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:  A magical debut novel for readers of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman’s myth-rich fantasies, The Bear and the Nightingale spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent with a gorgeous voice.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Review:

The Bear and the Nightingale is, by far, one of my favorite reads of 2016.  I had high expectations for as soon as I read the synopsis comparing it to Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my all-time favorite reads, and I’m thrilled to say that The Bear and the Nightingale far exceeded my expectations.  A tale steeped in Russian folklore, mythology, and fairy tales, it’s pure magic in every sense of the word!

I personally think the story is best appreciated going in with as few spoilers as possibly so I’m not going to expand too much beyond what is already in the synopsis, but I do want to hit some high points of what made the book so special for me.

What I Loved:

The Setting and Atmosphere:  Not since visiting Narnia when I read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe have I felt so immersed in another place and time as when I began reading The Bear and the Nightingale.  With her rich and vivid descriptions, Arden transports her readers to Medieval Russia. The atmosphere feels so authentic that the snow, the bitter cold, the wilderness, and the dangerous mountainous terrain are almost palpable as we follow Vasilisa and her family through the story.

I also loved that the whole story had this oddly cozy yet often creepy vibe to it – I felt like I was actually taking shelter from the cold in front of the fire with Vasilisa and her siblings and listening to nurse Dunya tell the old Russian fairytales of Frost the blue eyed demon.  It made it especially creepy when the story takes a very Game of Thrones “Winter is Coming!” turn that makes it feel like Dunya’s chilling tales are coming to life right before the characters’ (and our) eyes.

Vasilisa (or Vasya as she is more affectionately known):  I fell in love with Vasya right away. Vasya is an utterly charming free spirit.  She has no interest whatsoever in conforming to anyone else’s preconceived notions of how women should behave. Vasya much prefers to spend her days frolicking outside in the woods and, much to the dismay of her parents, often disappears for hours at a time to go off adventuring.  Vasya is obviously headstrong and a bit defiant, but she’s also smart, brave, and when it comes down to it, would sacrifice anything to protect her family.  Everyone around her has suspected since she was a small child that there was something different about her, and it soon becomes clear that she has a gift and a connection to the spirit world that few others do. In harnessing that gift, she clearly demonstrates later in the novel that she is a force to be reckoned with.  When it becomes clear that extreme danger is closing in on her village and that she is the only one who can stop it, Vasya displays incredible inner strength that men twice her age and size probably couldn’t muster in her situation.

Christianity vs. Tradition/Ritual:  While this story is perfectly entertaining as a magical fairytale retelling, I loved the extra layer of depth that was provided by this religious conflict.  For generations Vasya and her fellow villagers have relied on their traditions of honoring the spirits of house, yard, and forest to keep them from harm.  They consider it to be a symbiotic relationship where they take care of the spirits with offerings of food to keep up their strength and the spirits reciprocate by protecting the villagers from harm.  Then suddenly Vasya’s new stepmother, who may or may not be mentally unstable, comes into the picture, bringing with her Christianity and a priest, suddenly the villagers’ old ways come under attack. The offerings to the spirits are deemed foolish and the priest tells the villagers they must abandon their old ways and turn to God for protection instead.  I found it especially interesting that the least likable characters in the novel are those who profess to be the most Christian.  The priest, in particular, is portrayed as quite arrogant and as having questionable, even egotistical motives, for trying to “enlighten” these villagers.  He doesn’t consider for a moment the possibility that there might really be protective spirits out there or that the danger closing in on the community could be beyond the realm of his wildest imagination.  When he convinces the villagers to abandon the spirits and the spirits abandon them in turn, it becomes clear that perhaps he and Christianity are not the answer.

Any Complaints?

About the only complaint I had was early on I thought the pacing was a little slow at times, mainly the part where Vasya’s father travels to Moscow in search of a new wife.  Once he brings his new wife home, however, the action picks up immediately as the wife is the catalyst for much of the rest of the story’s dramatic events.  If you find it a little slow like I did, stick with it. I promise you won’t regret it!

Who Would I Recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to? 

I’d definitely highly recommend The Bear and the Nightingale to anyone who loves fantasy, historical fiction, and folklore, but honestly, because the story is so wonderful, I’d recommend it to pretty much anyone.  In fact, I wish this book was already out because I can think of at least half a dozen people who I’ve love to give it to for Christmas. Put The Bear and the Nightingale on your must-read list for 2017. It’s truly a magical read!

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Katherine Arden, and Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine/Del Rey for the opportunity to preview this beautiful book!

Rating:  4.5 stars!

four-half-stars

About Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

Review: The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg

Review:  The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie FlaggThe Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg
four-stars
Published by Random House on November 29th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Humor
Pages: 402
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:  From the beloved author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe comes another unforgettable, laugh-out-loud, and moving novel about what it means to be truly alive.

Elmwood Springs, Missouri, is a small town like any other, but something strange is happening out at the cemetery. “Still Meadows,” as it’s called, is anything but still. Funny and profound, this novel in the tradition of Flagg’s Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town deals with universal themes of heaven and earth and everything in between, as Flagg tells a surprising story of life, afterlife, and the mysterious goings-on of ordinary people.

 

My Review:

What a wonderful read this was! I’ve read so many books with dark and dystopian themes this year that it feels good to close out the year with such a lighthearted and humorous look at life, death, and everything in between.  In a way that only she can, the legendary Fannie Flagg takes us on a historical journey that chronicles the birth and evolution of the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving too much away so I’ll be brief, but the primary storyline follows Elmwood Springs and its residents over the course of approximately 100 years.  The story begins in the late 1880s as we watch Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom build the little town from the ground up with the help of his fellow immigrants.  Because they understand that they’re all in this together, these founders work together and lovingly cultivate their town into a thriving and wonderful community.  Once the founders’ initial work is done, we then follow the town and its residents for decades and see important historic and political events, technological discoveries, and much, much more through their eyes.  Some highlights include the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the flight of the first airplane, the Great Depression, World War II, the first landing on the moon, and of course, all of the TV and pop culture icons from each decade.

I also won’t get into the strange happenings out at the Still Meadows cemetery mentioned in the book’s blurb aside from to say that Fannie Flagg will definitely give you food for thought about what happens when you die.  While what goes on at the cemetery may pay homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, it’s definitely got that charmingly quirky twist that only Fannie Flagg can give it.

What I Loved about The Whole Town’s Talking

The Characters:  Fannie Flagg is a master when it comes to creating realistic and endearing characters and she does just that in The Whole Town’s Talking.  Aside from the founders, it’s actually hard to really state who the main characters are, but they’re all just such an endearing group of folks.  Since everyone I know has been binge watching the Gilmore Girls reunion, think of the residents of Stars Hollow and that’s the kind of wonderful assortment of well-rounded characters you’re dealing with in Elmwood Springs.

Some, like Elner, the crazy cat-loving lady who has a chance encounter with the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, are just oozing with personality and will keep you laughing out loud, while others like the hardworking Lordor Nordstrom will just grab your heart and won’t let go.  I fell hard for Lordor in those early pages as he first meets Katrina, the woman he falls in love with.  He’s so charmingly awkward that all of the women townsfolk come to his aid to help him woo Katrina.  It’s just so sweet, but yet not too sweet, because I found myself chuckling at all of their antics throughout those early days.

The Book’s Tone:  I know I keep referring to it as light, sweet, charming, heartwarming, which it totally is, but what I also liked about it was that it wasn’t so saccharine as to be off-putting.  There was such an infusion of classic Fannie Flagg humor that I constantly found myself chuckling a bit, even at what could be considered the sweetest moments of the story.  In that sense, it’s quite well balanced.

The Suspense:  Yes, even in a novel that I’m describing as lighthearted and humorous, there’s a bit of suspense built into the story.  Now I’m not talking suspense in the sense of a thriller. If you’re looking for that kind of suspense, you’ll definitely want to look elsewhere.  No, what I’m talking about are the highs and the lows and the curveballs that life throws at all at the residents of Elmwood Springs.  It’s that kind of realistic suspense we can all relate to because we all experience the same types of highs and lows – it’s just part of being alive.

And then, of course, there are the mysterious happenings down at the cemetery…

Anything I didn’t care for?

The only complaint I really had with the novel was that I would have liked a more in depth look at some of the characters and their lives.  The characters, for the most part, are just so lovable and quirky, that I couldn’t help but want to know a little more about them.  That’s just personal preference with me though because I always want to know as much as possible about characters that I love to further my connection to them.  I don’t think that lack of depth in any way detracts from the overall quality of the storytelling though since its focus is the whole town rather than just a few select characters anyway.

Who Would I Recommend The Whole Town’s Talking to?

I would definitely recommend The Whole Town’s Talking to anyone who already loves Fannie Flagg’s novels.  If you loved Welcome to the World, Baby Girl or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, then Fannie’s latest work will be right up your alley.

I would also recommend it to anyone else who likes a light-hearted and humorous read that also makes you think about your life and all of the people in it.

 

Rating:  A strong 4 stars

Question:  Have you ever read any of Fannie Flagg’s novels?

 

four-stars

About Fannie Flagg

Fannie Flagg’s career started in the fifth grade when she wrote, directed, and starred in her first play entitled The Whoopee Girls, and she has not stopped since. At age nineteen she began writing and producing television specials, and later wrote and appeared on Candid Camera. She then went on to distinguish herself as an actress and a writer in television, films, and the theater. She is the New York Times bestselling author of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man; Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe; Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!; Standing in the Rainbow; A Redbird Christmas; and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. Flagg’s script for the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was nominated for an Academy Award, and the Writers Guild of America Award and won the highly regarded Scripter Award for best screenplay of the year. Flagg lives happily in California and Alabama.

Book Review: Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

Book Review:  Girl in Pieces by Kathleen GlasgowGirl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow
five-stars
Published by Delacorte Press on August 30th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

 

Goodreads Synopsis: 

Charlotte Davis is in pieces. At seventeen she’s already lost more than most people lose in a lifetime. But she’s learned how to forget. The broken glass washes away the sorrow until there is nothing but calm. You don’t have to think about your father and the river. Your best friend, who is gone forever.  Or your mother, who has nothing left to give you.

Every new scar hardens Charlie’s heart just a little more, yet it still hurts so much. It hurts enough to not care anymore, which is sometimes what has to happen before you can find your way back from the edge.

My Review of Girl in Pieces:

Girl in Pieces is one of those books that I literally could not put down once I got started. Kathleen Glasgow shows us a raw and unflinching look inside the world of those who self-harm.  Girl in Pieces centers around Charlotte Davis (or Charlie as she is known).  Charlie has been through more in her short seventeen years than most of us go through our entire lives. Both her dad and her best friend have died, she has ended up homeless for a year, been exposed to drugs, alcohol, and witnessed sexual abuse while living in what was basically a sex house, and that merely scratches the surface of all that she has experienced.  Reaching the breaking point and attempting to end her life lands Charlie in a hospital where she finally gets much needed help and begins her road to recovery.  Most of the novel focuses on Charlie’s journey to recovery and all of its ups and downs.

* * * * *

What Did I Love?

  • Charlie:  My love for this book centers directly around Charlie.  I was drawn to Charlie from the moment we meet her in the hospital, where she is so traumatized that she can’t even speak.  I felt an immediate connection with her and was just so heartbroken by the state she was in.  Once she began to speak and talk about what was going on in her mind and then especially when she is released from the hospital and subsequently handed a bus ticket to Arizona by her mom who basically washes her hands of Charlie, I just loved Charlie all the more and wanted her to succeed in her recovery efforts.  I mean how can you not feel sympathetic towards someone who is basically abandoned by their mom when they probably need them the most?

Charlie is an immensely likeable character that I think most everyone will relate to.  Either she’ll remind them of themselves or of someone they know.  Because she’s so familiar and so relatable, her journey is all the more real and all the more shocking because it makes you realize that anyone around you at any time could be going through a similarly rough time, fighting inner demons that you can only begin to imagine.

What I really liked about Charlie was her determination.  She gets off the bus in Arizona and immediately sets out to make her way in the world, taking things one step at a time, one day at a time.  Sometimes it takes everything in her to fight the fear of being alone so that she can function, but she does it. She secures a job at a coffee shop, finds herself a low budget room to rent, and slowly but surely begins to build a life for herself.  Now that’s not to say everything is sunshine and roses for Charlie just because she has a job and a place to life.  There are still plenty of ups and downs, especially once Charlie begins a relationship with a coworker named Riley, who has a drug problem and whose behavior is becoming increasingly erratic the longer Charlie knows him.  Because Riley is so caught up with his own issues, he’s not exactly the ideal support system for Charlie and her dependence on someone who cannot be relied on leads to some occasional dark moments for her.

But as I said, Charlie has a lot of determination to make it through the darkness.  She is not just a girl in pieces, as the title indicates, broken by all that has happened to her. She’s also a girl who is seeking to discover all of the pieces that make her who she is, both the good and the bad, so that she can fit them all together and better understand who she is so that she can make peace with it and move forward.  Charlie is an artist and ultimately it is through her drawings that she finally begins to find her sense of self and to feel more whole.

  • The Book’s Messages:  The book is filled with important messages that really resonated with me as I was following Charlie on her journey.  Like Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, it’s a book that seeks to remove the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.  If you know someone who self-harms, I think this book will allow you to come away with an idea of what the person is going through — what is driving them to harm themselves — so that you can better understand what they’re up against.

Perhaps its most important messages are for those who self harm.  Girl in Pieces lets those who self-harm know they aren’t alone – that others are going through what they’re going through.  We see it first in the hospital where Charlie encounters many other girls like her and then throughout the book, Charlie meets a few other people she would never have guessed were self-harmers until she sees their scars and realizes that it’s not just her.  Girl in Pieces also conveys the message that there are also people out there who care and who want to try to help.  Even though Charlie’s mother is no help at all, Charlie has many friends, both old and new, who genuinely care about her and want to see her succeed.

Girl in Pieces also shows that the path to recovery is a long and sometimes never-ending journey and that it will have ups and downs.  When Charlie relocates to Arizona, finds herself a job and a place to live, for example, she still brings along the kit that she uses to cut herself with, just in case she needs it.

Even if you’re doing great one moment, something could happen that triggers a relapse.  The message of the book is to realize that setbacks are normal and that they are just that – setback.  They are not failures, and they do not define you and no matter how many setbacks you have, you should never lose hope of someday reaching a point where you no longer feel the need to engage in self-harming behavior or to keep that cutting kit with you – just in case.

  • The Writing.  Not only is this an important book, but it’s a beautifully crafted book as well.  The subject matter is dark, but the writing is gorgeous, almost poetic at times and as painful as Charlie’s journey is at times, the story is still so captivating that you won’t be able to put it down. I also think Glasgow does a wonderful job of handling such a sensitive subject matter with a great deal of respect, and I commend her for that.

* * * * *

Anything I Didn’t Like?

At first, I had Charlie’s relationship with Riley in the “Don’t Like” category.  Riley is a former musician who is very charming and charismatic, but whose life is in just as bad a place as Charlie’s is.  Because of that, their relationship is pretty toxic and I constantly wanted to scream at Charlie to just get away from him.  Ultimately, however, I came to terms with the fact that toxic relationships are quite likely to occur when someone is on the path to recovery.  Looking at it from that perspective, I think Charlie’s experiences with Riley therefore only further add to the authenticity of Glasgow’s story.  While Riley himself may initially be considered somewhat of a negative, he ultimately ends up being a very important part of Charlie’s journey and so I’m going to pull him out of the “Don’t Like” category and let’s just leave it at “It’s complicated.”

 * * * * *

Who Would I Recommend Girl in Pieces to? 

Honestly, I think Girl in Pieces is one of those books that everyone should read.  It’s raw, honest, brave, haunting, and without a doubt, one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year.  I would temper my recommendation just to say that I’m sure some of the topics covered would be considered triggers to those who self-harm, so they’d have to determine for themselves if the book is a good fit for them.

 * * * * *

Rating:  5 Stars

five-stars

About Kathleen Glasgow

Kathleen Glasgow is the author of the New York Times best-selling novel, Girl in Pieces.

She lives in Tucson, Arizona and is a researcher for The Writer’s Almanac. Girl in Pieces has been named to “best of lists by Goop, TeenVogue, BN Teen, Refinery29, EW.com, TeenReads, and more.

ARC Review of Iceling

ARC Review of IcelingIceling (Icelings #1) by Sasha Stephenson
two-half-stars
Series: Icelings #1
Published by Razorbill on December 13th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: First to Read
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from First to Read. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Lorna’s adopted sister, Callie, is part of a mysterious group of non-lingual teens, Icelings, born on a remote Arctic island, who may not be entirely human. Now Callie wants to go home.

Seventeen-year-old Lorna loves her adoptive sister, Callie. But Callie can’t say “I love you” back. In fact, Callie can’t say anything at all.

Because Callie is an Iceling—one of hundreds of teens who were discovered sixteen years ago on a remote Arctic island, all of them lacking the ability to speak or understand any known human language.

Mysterious and panicked events lead to the two sisters embarking on a journey to the north, and now Lorna starts to see that there’s a lot more to Callie’s origin story than she’d been led to believe. Little does she know what’s in store, and that she’s about to uncover the terrifying secret about who—and what—Callie really is.

* * * * *

My Review:

As a lover of books, it pains me to read a book and not completely fall in love with it.  The only thing worse than reading a book and not loving it is to then have to sit down and write a review explaining the lack of love I feel.  But that’s unfortunately where I am with Iceling.  Let me start by saying that I don’t think I was anywhere near the target age for this book so that should definitely be taking into account if you’re trying to decide if you should give this book a shot.

What I Liked About Iceling:

  • Originality:  The premise of the story is totally unique.  So many books that I read immediately remind me of three or four other books that are similar in storyline or themes.  The originality of Iceling’s storyline is what initially drew me to request the book in the first place. I was very intrigued by the idea of this Arctic-born mysterious group of non-lingual teens who may or may not be human.  It definitely didn’t sound even remotely close to anything I’ve ever read before.
  • Message:  I enjoyed the relationship between Iceling Callie and her big sister Lorna.  Even though they cannot communicate verbally and Callie demonstrates no signs of even understanding English, Callie and Lorna still share a strong sisterly bond. In fact, Callie is closer to Lorna than she is to anyone else in her family.  I thought the author’s message that being family isn’t necessarily about blood was a powerful one.  And then she takes it a step further to show, as Lorna even learns at one point, that just because you’re related to someone doesn’t mean they won’t betray you or lie to you.
  • Action:  Although the beginning half of Iceling moves along at a somewhat slow pace as we get to know Callie and Lorna and start to see what sets Callie apart from everyone else around her, by about the halfway point, the story really takes off and it’s non-stop action from then on out.  You’ve got government conspiracies, rogue soldiers, betrayal, explosions, murder, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (pardon the icy pun!)

Sounds pretty good so far, right?  So why didn’t I rate it higher?  Well, unfortunately, what I didn’t like about Iceling far outweighed what I enjoyed about it.

What I Disliked About Iceling:

  • The  Narrator:   For much of the novel, we are in Lorna’s head, following her thoughts about everything that is taking place around her – with Callie, her boyfriend, her parents, etc.  The problem with it for me was that there were so many long, rambling, and often repetitive internal monologues.  I understand wanting to get inside of a character’s head to understand where they’re coming from and that’s usually something that helps me really relate to a main character, but there was just so much rambling that it actually hindered my warming up to Lorna.  I didn’t really become invested in her at all until over halfway through the book when she, Callie, and her friends suddenly become underdogs caught up in a major conspiracy.

There was also a tendency by the narrator to over explain things that were fairly self-explanatory, like Lorna and her friend Mimi driving around “dog-calling” boys.  A couple of examples of said “dog calling” made it completely apparent that “dog calling” is their version of males and their “cat calling.”  I didn’t then need what was basically a textbook definition of “dog callng” to make sure I understood what they were doing. It felt like being spoon fed.

That, on its own, probably wouldn’t have bothered me all that much, but when it was coupled with minimal elaboration on what I considered to be crucial elements of the plot – like, for example, what is going on with Callie and these conniption fits that periodically have her rushed off to the hospital for mystery “treatments” that family members aren’t allowed to witness.  Or how about the mysterious adult Iceling they encounter on their journey to the Arctic who pops up out of the ice and then disappears without a trace? Who or what was that? That’s not really something to toss out there and leave hanging with no real explanation or follow up.

  • Plot Holes that required too much suspension of belief:  I knew by its classification as science fiction that I should expect a few far-fetched events to take place, like the mystery Iceling I just mentioned, but even so, there were just some things that I found a little too hard to swallow.

Now let me say up front that I had issues with Callie and Lorna’s parents leaving them alone for weeks while they traveled to the Galapagos Island.  You know your one daughter is prone to these weird fits and sometimes has to go to the hospital, but you’re cool with leaving teenage Lorna in charge.  Bad Parenting 101, but okay, fine. Bad parenting happens so I can roll with it.

I also struggled a bit with this journey that Lorna and Callie, accompanied by Stan and his Iceling brother Ted, take north to the Arctic.  The trigger for this trip is that both Callie and Ted, even though they were nowhere near each other at the time and had never communicated with one another before, had both simultaneously crafted models of what Lorna and Stan assume is their Arctic homeland.  Again, seems a little odd to pile your Icelings in the car and go on a road trip to the Arctic of all places, but again, stranger things have happened, so I was still hanging in there.

What I could not just roll with, however,  was the fact that it wasn’t just Lorna and Stan who came to this conclusion.  As they get further north, they encounter dozens and dozens of cars containing Icelings, each holding models of the same Arctic island.  So, we’re supposed to believe that every single family that had an Iceling simultaneously came up with the same perfect solution to this odd event:  ROAD TRIP TO THE ARCTIC!

I can’t say too much more about plot holes without spoiling major elements of the story but there  were several other similar plot holes that just left me shaking my head the further I got into the story. Much of the story felt like trying to put together a puzzle that has several missing pieces. You kind of get the whole overall picture, but there are still nagging missing details.

Who Would I Recommend Iceling to?

Even though it wasn’t really for me, I still think it could have the potential to be a great sci-fi read for younger readers. I’m thinking freshmen or sophomores in high school,  being much closer to Lorna’s age than I am, might more readily relate to her —  and especially to what’s going on in her head  –  than I could.

 

My Rating:  2.5 stars

 

* * * * *

two-half-stars

About Sasha Stephenson

Sasha Stephenson holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn, New York. This is his first novel.

ARC Review of The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker

ARC Review of The Animators by Kayla Rae WhitakerThe Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
four-stars
Published by Random House on January 31st 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:  She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen. It was enough to indebt me to her forever.

At a private East Coast college, two young women meet in art class. Sharon Kisses, quietly ambitious but self-doubting, arrives from rural Kentucky. Mel Vaught, brash, unapologetic, wildly gifted, brings her own brand of hellfire from the backwaters of Florida. Both outsiders, Sharon and Mel become fervent friends, bonding over underground comics and dysfunctional families. Working, absorbing, drinking. Drawing: Mel, to understand her own tumultuous past, and Sharon, to lose herself altogether.
A decade later, Sharon and Mel are an award-winning animation duo, and with the release of their first full-length feature, a fearless look at Mel’s childhood, they stand at the cusp of success. But while on tour to promote the film, cracks in their relationship start to form: Sharon begins to feel like a tag-along and suspects that raucous Mel is the real artist. When unexpected tragedy strikes, long-buried resentments rise to the surface, threatening their partnership—and hastening a reckoning no one sees coming.

“An engrossing, exuberant ride through all the territories of love—familial, romantic, sexual, love of friends, and, perhaps above all, white-hot passion for the art you were born to make . . . I wish I’d written The Animators.”—Emma Donoghue, author of Room and The Wonder.

* * * * *

My Review:

 

Buckle your seat belts because Kayla Rae Whitaker’s debut novel The Animators is one wild ride!  The novel follows the lives of Mel and Sharon, two art students who meet in college, become fast friends when they realize they have a shared passion of making cartoons, and who eventually become business partners as well. Whitaker weaves together a compelling tale as Mel and Sharon navigate the ups and downs of their personal and professional relationships, as they experience success, conflict, frustration, family drama, love, loss, tragedy, and pretty much everything in between.  Their lives become so entwined that they become more like family than just friends.  Whitaker does a beautiful job of realistically portraying the many layers of their relationship, while also exploring such themes as using art as catharsis, loss of innocence, addiction, dysfunctional families, and more.

What I Enjoyed:

Mel and Sharon – I immediately fell in love with Whitaker’s main characters.  They are basically yin and yang and it’s fascinating to watch the balancing act that is basically their relationship.  Mel is outspoken with a larger than life personality. She’s brash and unapologetic and you literally just never know what’s going to come out of her mouth next.  Sharon, on the other hand, is more the wallflower type.  She’s a small town girl who spends a lot of time trying to figure out how in the world she has even gotten to this point in her life.  As she and Mel experience major success with one of their cartoons and embark on a press tour to promote their work, Sharon often seems awkward and out of place, especially when compared to Mel and the way she just seems to eat up the spotlight and the attention.  Mel comes across as the driving force behind their projects, with Sharon being relegated to more of a workhouse role.  Because Sharon is deemed the more responsible of the duo, it often falls on her to try to reel Mel in and make her act more professionally as they make their required public appearances. Whitaker very realistically portrays the emotions that this kind of situation would easily generate – the jealousy, the resentment, the growing tension as Mel turns more and more to drugs and alcohol thus increasing her erratic behavior, and of course, Sharon’s feeling of not knowing if she even really belongs in this world that they’ve been thrown into.  Is she really talented in her own right or is she just riding Mel’s coattails?

I got so attached to these two ladies and became so invested in their friendship working out that I found myself wanting to yell at them whenever either one of them did something to upset the balance:  “OMG, get your act together, Mel!” or “Snap out of it, Sharon! You know you’re better than this!”

I actually almost lost faith in Mel at one point because she goes so far off the rails with the drugs and erratic behavior, but then when an unexpected medical incident almost kills Sharon and leaves her with a daunting recovery ahead of her, it is Mel who shows up to help — even though they aren’t even on speaking terms at the time of the incident. Mel is there with her every second of every day as she fights her way back from near death. That’s friendship.

Themes:  This novel is just so rich in themes.  Aside from tackling the dynamics of Sharon and Mel’s friendship, another theme that really struck me was the exploration of how living in an unsupportive environment can shape who you grow up to be.  Sharon and Mel both come from the land of dysfunctional families. Mel’s mother is actually in prison and her influence on Mel is the focus of their first successful cartoon, Nashville Combat.  Sharon’s childhood was a little more stable than Mel’s, but coming from a small town where no one EVER went away to school, her family basically never acted as though they were proud of her accomplishments and acted as though they resented her for going away to school.  These feelings clearly contributed to her sense of self-worth or lack thereof.

Another theme that I found interesting was the use of art as catharsis.  In the novel, Mel and Sharon decide to use their passion for art as a way to take control over and work through some traumatic events that shaped their lives.  While on the one hand, this is clearly cathartic for them and an incredibly brave act because they are basically putting their lives, and specifically their pain, on view for the world to see, the act also comes at a cost.  As one of Sharon’s childhood friends points out when he objects to being included in their project, it’s not just their lives on display, but also the lives of everyone else who played a role in the events being depicted. Sharon and Mel dismiss his objections, but it really got me thinking about how Mel’s mother, in particular, must have felt seeing herself exposed to the world as some kind of monster.  Is using your art to work through your own painful experiences worth the cost, which is potentially causing others pain?  I love a book that leaves me with something to think about afterwards and this question has been on my mind a lot since I finished The Animators.  I imagine this is a question that many artist have to weigh in their minds if considering this kind of personal artistic expression.

Was there anything I didn’t like? 

One potential pitfall for some readers could be all of the animation/cartooning talk.  Since the novel does explore, to a large extent, the professional lives of Mel and Sharon, and therefore their creative processes, there is a lot of information about the cartooning/animation process.  Much of it was over my head since I know nothing about art, but thankfully Whitaker doesn’t just do a huge info dump — instead, she weaves it throughout the novel, giving the reader just a little at a time so it’s not overwhelming or dry and boring.

One area I would have liked a bit more detail on was Mel and Sharon’s time in college together.  The beginning of their friendship was so touching and engaging as they bonded and realized that they had this shared passion.  I wanted to read so much more about that, so I felt a little cheated when I turned the page and realized we were jumping ahead in time.  I got over it of course since I clearly enjoyed the book, but it was still a little disappointing.

Who Would I recommend The Animators to?

I would recommend The Animators to anyone who enjoys a realistic portrayal of a dynamic friendship.  It’s not a light read by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a rich and compelling story with layer up on layer.  I think The Animators will end up being a popular book club read next year because it explores so many issues that are perfect for in-depth discussions.

The book does deal, in part, with addiction and some other darker themes of a sexual nature, so I wouldn’t recommend it to younger readers.

* * * * *

Rating:  A solid 4 stars

four-stars

About Kayla Rae Whitaker

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, BODY, Bodega, Joyland, The Switchback, Five Quarterly, American Microreviews and Interviews, and others, and she is a regular contributor to “American Micro Reviews and Interviews” and “Split Lip Magazine.” She holds a BA from the University of Kentucky and an MFA from New York University. After many years of living in Brooklyn, she returned to Kentucky, her home state, in 2016 with her husband and their geriatric tomcat, Breece D’J Pancake.

ARC Review – We Are Still Tornadoes

ARC Review – We Are Still TornadoesWe Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun, Susan Mullen
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Griffin on November 1st 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Goodreads
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Goodreads. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Growing up across the street from each other, Scott and Cath have been best friends their entire lives. Cath would help Scott with his English homework, he would make her mix tapes (it’s the 80’s after all), and any fight they had would be forgotten over TV and cookies. But now they’ve graduated high school and Cath is off to college while Scott is at home pursuing his musical dreams. During their first year apart, Scott and Cath’s letters help them understand heartache, annoying roommates, family drama and the pressure to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. And through it all, they realize that the only person they want to turn to is each other. But does that mean they should be more than friends? The only thing that’s clear is that change is an inescapable part of growing up. And the friends who help us navigate it share an unshakable bond. This funny yet deeply moving book–set to an awesome 80’s soundtrack–captures all the beautiful confusion and emotional intensity we find on the verge of adulthood…and first love.

 

 

My Review:

We Are Still Tornadoes follows a year in the life of Scott and Cath, lifelong best friends who are now separated because Cath has gone off to college, while Scott has chosen to remain at home, where he works at the family business while simultaneously trying to pursue his own passion, which is to be a singer/songwriter in a band. Set in the early 1980’s, the story is told through alternating letters that Scott and Cath are mailing each other throughout their time apart.

What I Liked:

I have to say I really loved this book. It was cute and entertaining, even laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it was also quite moving as well as Scott and Cath each experienced highs and lows throughout the year. We Are Still Tornadoes is also one of those books where once you get started, you really can’t put it down so it made for a quick read as well, which is often nice (especially when your “To-Bo-Read” stack of books is becoming mountainous!)

What appealed to me most about this book is the authentic quality of the friendship between Scott and Cath. I’m a big fan of books that portray beautiful friendships and Scott and Cath’s friendship perfectly fits the bill here. The authors skillfully capture all the little nuances that make up the special bond that best friends share – the constant poking fun at one another that only best friends can do, those long-running inside jokes that no one else could possibly understand, and also, most importantly, the steadfast devotion and loyalty. Even though they’re hundreds of mile apart, Scott is always there for Cath when she needs him and vice versa. Whether it’s a death in the family, parents getting divorce, a bad breakup, or anything in between, they have each others’ backs. Looking at Scott and Cath, I could easily see similarities between their relationship and my own relationships with my best friends.

The letter writing format was a lot of fun to read as well and really took me back to my own college days back in the dark ages before we had email, smart phones, and all of those other forms of instant communication. I could very easily relate to the reality of having to rely on snail mail and shared hall phones as the only way to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. Reading We Are Still Tornadoes brought back a lot of good memories from college for me and so the nostalgia factor was very high.

The discussion of music throughout the novel was entertaining as well. Scott loves music, knows almost everything there is to know about every popular singer of the time period, and loves to let Cath know how utterly clueless and in need of a musical education she is. Their discussion of music was hilarious at times, but more importantly, the songs chosen by the authors were so iconic – just thinking about them transported me right back to the 1980s. I swear I was singing Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean for days after I finished reading!

Anything I didn’t like?

My only real complaint about the story lies in the ending. I didn’t particularly care for the direction the story took in the closing pages and felt like the ending wrapped too quickly and therefore a bit awkwardly. I understood why the book had to end the way it did based on the direction the story took; it just wouldn’t haven have been my first choice for an ending. It may not bother others though so please don’t let that deter you from what is otherwise an awesome book.

Who Would I Recommend this to?

I would highly reccommend We Are Still Tornadoes to pretty much anyone from high school age on up. I think high school and college students would enjoy the friendship and the fact that Cath and Scott are so relateable, while readers like me who are older, would enjoy the story because of the nostalgic quality.

If you’re looking for a quick and entertaining read, I’d say give this book a shot.

 

Rating: 4 stars

 

 

four-stars

About Michael Kun

Michael Kun lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife Amy and their daughter Paige. He practices law when he is not writing, or vice versa.

About Susan Mullen

Susan Stevens Mullen lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband, Kevin, and their two daughters, Hannah and Haley. She practices law in the Reston office of Cooley, LLP. Sue was born and raised in Chicago. Her family relocated to Northern Virginia when she was in the 7th grade. A graduate of Langley High School, Duke University, and the University of Virginia School of Law, Sue loves reading fiction and running with the family and their dog, Griffin the Boxer.

Book Review: Transcendent by Katelyn Detweiler

Book Review:  Transcendent by Katelyn DetweilerTranscendent by Katelyn Detweiler
three-half-stars
Published by Viking Books for Young Readers on October 4th 2016
Pages: 448
Source: Press Shop
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Press Shop. All opinions are my own.

Goodreads Synopsis: 

A beautiful work of magical realism, a story about a girl in the real world who is called upon to be a hero.
 
When terrorists bomb Disney World, seventeen-year-old Iris Spero is as horrified as anyone else. Then a stranger shows up on her stoop in Brooklyn, revealing a secret about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Iris’s birth, and throwing her entire identity into question. Everything she thought she knew about her parents, and about herself, is a lie.

Suddenly, the press is confronting Iris with the wild notion that she might be “special.” More than just special: she could be the miracle the world now so desperately needs. Families all across the grieving nation are pinning their hopes on Iris like she is some kind of saint or savior. She’s no longer sure whom she can trust—except for Zane, a homeless boy who long ago abandoned any kind of hope. She knows she can’t possibly be the glorified person everyone wants her to be… but she also can’t go back to being safe and anonymous. When nobody knows her but they all want a piece of her, who is Iris Spero now? And how can she—one teenage girl—possibly heal a broken world?

 

My Review:

Katelyn Detweiler’s Transcendent is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read this year.  I’ll admit that I almost changed my mind about reading the book once I saw that it was about terrorists bombing Disney World and killing tens of thousands of people, many of whom were children.  I just didn’t know if my heart could handle going there.  I’m glad I gave it a chance thought because Transcendent turned out to be an incredibly thought-provoking read that resonated with me on many levels – both as a parent and as someone who has occasionally questioned my own faith when horrific events happen in the world.

What really intrigued me was that the terrorist attack itself is not really the focus of the novel.  Instead, Transcendent focuses on the power of hope – what it takes to move people past grief and despair when tragedy strikes so they can begin the healing process and start to live again.  In the case of Transcendent, that sense of hope comes in the form of a young lady named Iris Spero.

Seventeen year old Iris is living in Brooklyn at the time of the attack and, like the rest of the world, is going through the motions of her day-to-day routine, but all the while trying to wrap her head around what has happened – what kind of monsters would choose a target like Disney World, where the bulk of the casualties would clearly be innocent children?

Then as if the world hasn’t been thrown into chaos enough by what has happened, a stranger named Kyle Bennett enters the picture and drops a bombshell on Iris.  Kyle and his family were at Disney World when the terrorists struck; one of his children died there and his remaining child was critically wounded.  Desperate to save his daughter, Kyle has latched onto an old story from his hometown about the “Virgin Mina”, a young woman who turned up pregnant even though she claimed to still be a virgin.  Though he didn’t believe the story at the time and gave Mina and the rest of her family a hard time because of it, Kyle has had a change of heart and has searched far and wide looking for Mina.  He shows up on Iris’ doorstep, proclaiming that Iris is the “Virgin Mina’s” miracle baby and that she has the power to heal his daughter.  Even though Iris’ family tells him he is mistaken, Kyle becomes more and more insistent that Iris is the miracle he needs, and when he doesn’t get what he wants, he outs Iris to the world and turns her world upside down as the media and every other person seeking a miracle begin coming at her from all sides.

What shocks Iris even more than Kyle Bennett and his seemingly ridiculous claim, however, is that Iris’ parents actually confirm Kyle’s story.  Iris’ mom is, in fact, the famed “Virgin Mina” and they’ve been in hiding for Iris’ entire life in an effort to protect her identity and allow her to live a normal life.  The bulk of the novel deals with the psychology of what Iris goes through as she tries to cope with, not only the issue of learning that her entire life up until this point has been a lie, but also the pressure of having so many people desperately clinging to the idea that she is some kind of miracle worker.

What I Liked about Transcendent:

Iris:  I loved Iris and was immediately drawn to her kindness and her compassion.  This is a girl who volunteers at the local soup kitchen to feed the homeless, plays her violin in the park for anyone who wants to listen – strangers, children, and yes, even homeless people.  This is a girl who can’t stand to hear people spew hatred toward the Disney attackers, not because she doesn’t believe that they should be punished, but rather because she doesn’t think more hate is the answer. Hate won’t heal what has happened to their world.  In some ways Iris almost seemed too good to be true, but regardless, she was very likeable and therefore I felt very sympathetic for her when Kyle spilled the beans about her.  I thought the author did an amazing job here of conveying all of the conflicting emotions Iris experienced as she tried to make sense of what has been dropped in her lap – the initial denial, followed by the feeling that her parents have betrayed her, and ultimately her confusion about who she even is anymore.

Even if you’re hesitant to buy into the whole ‘immaculate conception’ scenario itself, Iris’ reaction to it is easy to relate to since she herself starts out skeptical. I was especially sympathetic to her need to disappear for a few days so that she could have some private time to come to terms with what she has learned about herself and decide what she wants to do about it.  I mean, seriously, who can think when, through no fault of your own, the media and basically everyone in the world are suddenly standing there with their hands out wanting a piece of you and trying to make you into something you don’t think you are.  Talk about pressure!

It Poses Big Questions:  The power of Hope is a big theme in this novel, and a powerful one.  Is hoping that someone or something is a miracle enough to actually bring about a kind of miracle – or in the case of this story – enough to heal those who are suffering so that they can live again?  This is one of the questions that Iris ponders as she tries to decide what the right answer is – flee again as her parents did before she was born, or stand up and try to actually help people.  Although I was very skeptical about the virgin birth angle initially, and like Iris, was wondering what a DNA test would show, by the end of the novel, I started thinking about the bigger picture – just because something seems to be impossible based on accepted laws of science, is it really impossible?  Or can miracles actually happen? Should we be open-minded to that possibility?  I always enjoy a book that gives me something to think about afterwards and, with these kinds of big questions, Transcendent did just that.

Magic or Religion?  I really liked that although the idea of the virgin birth has obvious religious connotations, Detweiler seems to leave it open to interpretation as to whether this is a religious event or if something magical or supernatural has taken place.  It seems like readers are free to interpret it in whatever way makes it best align with their own beliefs.

Issues I had with Transcendent:

Iris’ Family:  Since I mentioned my skepticism earlier, let me go ahead and elaborate on that here.  What nagged at me for most of the book was that I found it a little hard to believe how easily Iris’ grandparents and aunts bought into the whole idea that Mina was a pregnant virgin.  I know my parents would have been like ‘Yeah, okay, whatever.  Who did you sleep with?  Tell us the truth.”   What I learned after receiving this book from Press Shop, however, is that Transcendent is actually the second book in this series.  The first book Immaculate, deals entirely with Mina’s story and how her family and her town reacted to the idea of a modern day virgin pregnancy.  Although I think Transcendent works fine as a stand-alone novel because enough detail about Mina’s story is given so that you’re not lost, I still would have liked to have read it first so that Mina’s family’s lack of reaction and suspicion wasn’t an issue for me while I was trying to read and appreciate Iris’ story.   I definitely enjoyed Transcendent enough that I do plan to go back and some point and read Immaculate.

Who Would I Recommend Transcendent to?

I would recommend Transcendent to anyone who enjoys reading uplifting books that make you think.  I also think you have to have an open mind to the possibility of miracles, in particular, of a modern day virgin birth.  If you’re not even remotely open to that idea, I think you would find the story so far-fetched that you wouldn’t enjoy it.

I read somewhere that the target audience for Transcendent is ages 14 and up and I agree with that assessment. I think the themes presented and the questions raised are on a level that high school students can appreciate.

 

Rating:  3.5 stars

 

Thanks so much to Viking Books for Young Readers, Katelyn Detweiller, and to Press Shop for allowing me the opportunity to preview Transcendent.

three-half-stars

About Katelyn Detweiler

Katelyn Detweiler was born and raised in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, living in a centuries-old farmhouse surrounded by fields and woods. She spent the vast majority of childhood with her nose in a book or creating make-believe worlds with friends, daydreaming about how she could turn those interests into an actual paying career. After graduating from Penn State University with a B.A. in English Literature, emphasis in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies, she packed her bags and made the move to New York City, determined to break into the world of publishing. She worked for two years in the marketing department of Macmillan Children’s Group before moving in 2010 to the agency side of the business at Jill Grinberg Literary, where she is currently a literary agent representing books for all ages and across all genres.

Katelyn lives, works, and writes in Brooklyn, playing with words all day, every day, her dream come true. When she’s not reading or writing, Katelyn enjoys yoga, fancy cocktails, and road trips. She frequently treks back to her hometown in Pennsylvania, a lovely green escape from life in the city, and her favorite place to write.