ARC Review of Gilded Cage

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

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

Goodreads Synopsis:

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

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

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

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

A boy dreams of revolution.

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

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

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

My Review:

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

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

Let’s start with the good.

What I Liked:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Didn’t Work for Me:

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

Why Are Characters Doing What They’re Doing?

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

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

Abi’s Inappropriate Flirtation:

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

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

The Verdict:

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

Rating:  3 Stars

three-stars

About Vic James

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

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

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

Book Review: Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Review of Holding Up the Universe:

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

What I Loved about Holding Up the Universe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything I didn’t like?

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

Who Would I Recommend This Book to?

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

 

Rating:  4 stars

 

four-stars

About Jennifer Niven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: www.jenniferniven.com

ARC Review of Frostblood

ARC Review of FrostbloodFrostblood (Frostblood Saga, #1) by Elly Blake
three-half-stars
Series: Frostblood Saga, #1
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.

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
Series: Clash of Kingdoms #1
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.

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 – 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.

My Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

My Thoughts on Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildHarry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne
three-stars
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books on July 31st 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 327
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads
* * * * *

Goodreads Synopsis:   Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage.  The play will receive its world premiere in London’s West End on July 30, 2016.

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

My Review: 

I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a few weeks ago and it has taken me this long to decide how I feel about what I read.  Conflicted is probably the best way to describe my reaction.  There were definitely a few elements that I loved, but at the same time, there were a number of things that were rather disappointing.

As with all play scripts, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is clearly meant to be watched rather than just read.  The written text and descriptions are sparse and somewhat bland because they are waiting for the director and the actors to work their magic and breathe life into it.  I actually wish I could see the play because I’m sure it’s wildly entertaining and my review of that would be glowing; however, since I only have the written text to go on, here are my relatively spoiler-free thoughts on the story.

I thought it was very exciting to see a whole new generation of witches and wizards heading off to Hogwarts.  It was especially interesting to follow Harry’s son Albus and see how he fared as he tried to live up to his father’s tremendous legacy.

As much I liked Albus, though, and I NEVER thought I would ever say this, but the character who really stole my heart in this story was Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius.  I can’t really go into details without giving away too much of the play, but the friendship that he forges with Albus Potter when they meet on the way to Hogwarts was just so wonderful to see, probably, in part, because it’s just so completely unexpected to anyone who has read the original books and is familiar with all of the bad blood between Harry and Draco.

* * * * *

That said, one of my biggest disappointments of the story is how little time was actually spent at Hogwarts. Perhaps the timing/pacing works better on stage than it does on paper, but the play breezed through entire years at Hogwarts in the span of just a couple of scenes.  This bothered me because, for me, it meant that the most enjoyable parts of the Harry Potter series were stripped away.  When I read the books, I always loved all of the normal day-to-day happenings — Harry and his friends going to class, playing Quidditch, their interactions with Hagrid, McGonagal, Snape, the ghosts that roamed the halls, etc.  Pardon the pun, but for me, that’s the magic of the Harry Potter series and what makes it so special.   To be mostly finished with Hogwarts less than a third of the way through the story left me feeling out of sorts.

Speaking of feeling out of sorts, while I felt very nostalgic about revisiting Harry and the gang all grown up, I have to say the experience wasn’t what I hoped it would be.  I don’t know if it was because I was reading a script rather than a novel, but Harry, Ron, and the others just didn’t seem quite like the characters I had grown to love over the years. They just seemed stiff and stilted and several of their personalities, Ginny’s in particular, just seemed off. I know they’re adults now rather than children, and that people grow and change, but it still just seemed a bit off.  In considering the way they came across, I can understand why some have said it reminds them of fanfiction.  And this is probably a bit shallow on my part, but I was also a little disappointed in the career paths most of them were on. I guess I was expecting bigger and better things for them after having defeated Voldemort all those years ago, but as I read what each of them were up to, I just kept thinking to myself: “Really? That’s it?” Ron, in particular, was a disappointment, as he is just working in the Weasley’s joke shop.

With the exception of enjoying watching Albus and Scorpius becoming friends, I was disappointed enough early on that I actually considered giving up on the story around the halfway point. I’m glad I chose to push on though because I really did enjoy the second half much more than I did the first.  It finally started to feel more like a Harry Potter story as the action really picked up and as events from the actual series, such as the Triwizard Tournament from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, were revisited and incorporated into the play’s narrative.  It took me about 4 days to read the first half of the play, but I flew through the second half in just a few hours.

* * * * *

Overall, I’d have to say that I liked Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but I had some issues with it.  I would still recommend it to any fan of the original series though because I do think it’s an interesting take on where they might be as adults.  I also think if you keep in mind that it’s a script rather than a lengthy and descriptive novel like we’re used to reading and adjust your expectations accordingly, then you’ll have a more pleasant reading experience and can just bask in the nostalgia of seeing your favorite characters in a new way.

 

Rating:  Tough to rate, but I’m going to say 3 stars (1-2 stars for the beginning, closer to 5 stars for the second half).

 

 

three-stars

About J.K. Rowling

From Goodreads:  Although she writes under the pen name J.K. Rowling, pronounced like rolling, her name when her first Harry Potter book was published was simply Joanne Rowling. Anticipating that the target audience of young boys might not want to read a book written by a woman, her publishers demanded that she use two initials, rather than her full name. As she had no middle name, she chose K as the second initial of her pen name, from her paternal grandmother Kathleen Ada Bulgen Rowling. She calls herself Jo and has said, “No one ever called me ‘Joanne’ when I was young, unless they were angry.” Following her marriage, she has sometimes used the name Joanne Murray when conducting personal business. During the Leveson Inquiry she gave evidence under the name of Joanne Kathleen Rowling. In a 2012 interview, Rowling noted that she no longer cared that people pronounced her name incorrectly.

Rowling was born to Peter James Rowling, a Rolls-Royce aircraft engineer, and Anne Rowling (née Volant), on 31 July 1965 in Yate, Gloucestershire, England, 10 miles (16 km) northeast of Bristol. Her mother Anne was half-French and half-Scottish. Her parents first met on a train departing from King’s Cross Station bound for Arbroath in 1964. They married on 14 March 1965. Her mother’s maternal grandfather, Dugald Campbell, was born in Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. Her mother’s paternal grandfather, Louis Volant, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for exceptional bravery in defending the village of Courcelles-le-Comte during the First World War.

Rowling’s sister Dianne was born at their home when Rowling was 23 months old. The family moved to the nearby village Winterbourne when Rowling was four. She attended St Michael’s Primary School, a school founded by abolitionist William Wilberforce and education reformer Hannah More. Her headmaster at St Michael’s, Alfred Dunn, has been suggested as the inspiration for the Harry Potter headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

As a child, Rowling often wrote fantasy stories, which she would usually then read to her sister. She recalls that: “I can still remember me telling her a story in which she fell down a rabbit hole and was fed strawberries by the rabbit family inside it. Certainly the first story I ever wrote down (when I was five or six) was about a rabbit called Rabbit. He got the measles and was visited by his friends, including a giant bee called Miss Bee.” At the age of nine, Rowling moved to Church Cottage in the Gloucestershire village of Tutshill, close to Chepstow, Wales. When she was a young teenager, her great aunt, who Rowling said “taught classics and approved of a thirst for knowledge, even of a questionable kind,” gave her a very old copy of Jessica Mitford’s autobiography,Hons and Rebels. Mitford became Rowling’s heroine, and Rowling subsequently read all of her books.

Rowling has said of her teenage years, in an interview with The New Yorker, “I wasn’t particularly happy. I think it’s a dreadful time of life.” She had a difficult homelife; her mother was ill and she had a difficult relationship with her father (she is no longer on speaking terms with him). She attended secondary school at Wyedean School and College, where her mother had worked as a technician in the science department. Rowling said of her adolescence, “Hermione [a bookish, know-it-all Harry Potter character] is loosely based on me. She’s a caricature of me when I was eleven, which I’m not particularly proud of.” Steve Eddy, who taught Rowling English when she first arrived, remembers her as “not exceptional” but “one of a group of girls who were bright, and quite good at English.” Sean Harris, her best friend in the Upper Sixth owned a turquoise Ford Anglia, which she says inspired the one in her books.

About Jack Thorne

Jack Thorne (born 6 December 1978) is an English screenwriter and playwright.

Born in Bristol, England, he has written for radio, theatre and film, most notably on the TV shows Skins, Cast-offs, This Is England ’86, This Is England ’88, This Is England ’90, The Fades, The Last Panthers and the feature film The Scouting Book for Boys. He currently lives in London.

About John Tiffany

John Tiffany trained at Glasgow University gaining an MA in Theatre and Classics. He was Literary Director for the Traverse Theatre, Associate Director for Paines Plough and a founding Associate Director for the National Theatre of Scotland. He is currently an Associate Director for the Royal Court Theatre. During 2010-11 John was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.

Work for the Royal Court includes: THE TWITS, HOPE, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THE PASS.
Work for the National Theatre of Scotland includes: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, MACBETH, ENQUIRER, PETER PAN, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, TRANSFORM CAITHNESS: HUNTER, BE NEAR ME, NOBODY WILL EVER FORGIVE US, THE BACCHAE, BLACK WATCH, ELIZABETH GORDON QUINN and HOME: GLASGOW. For BLACK WATCH, John won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Director and a Critics’ Circle Award.

On Broadway, John directed THE GLASS MENAGERIE (also A.R.T.), MACBETH, and ONCE, which won 8 Tony Awards in 2012, including Best Musical and Best Direction of a Musical.

Other work includes: THE AMBASSADOR (Brooklyn Academy of Music), JERUSALEM (West Yorkshire Playhouse), LAS CHICAS DEL TRES Y MEDIA FLOPPIES (Granero Theatre, Mexico City and Edinburgh Festival Fringe), IF DESTROYED TRUE, MERCURY FUR, HELMET and THE STRAITS (Paines Plough), GAGARIN WAY, ABANDONMENT, AMONG UNBROKEN HEARTS, PERFECT DAYS and PASSING PLACES (Traverse, Edinburgh).

John is also working on the stage play of HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD with J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne, which opened in the West End in June 2016.

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Book Review:  Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Also by this author: The Upside of Unrequited
four-stars
Published by Balzer + Bray on April 7th 2015
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 303
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

My review:

I have to say that going in, I had no idea what to expect from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. I had never heard of the book and the cover just happened to catch my eye as I was browsing at the library – bright red with a headless guy on the front and a stack of what appeared to be OREO cookies on the back. Say what?! Curious and quite amused by this combination of images, I decided to check it out and give it a go.

I’m so thrilled that I did too.  I kid you not – I don’t think I have ever smiled so much while reading a book as I did while reading Simon vs. the Home Sapiens Agenda.  Even now, just thinking about the book again while writing this review, I’m sitting here grinning.

What made this book such a wonderful read for me is that it’s a light and humorous story about love, family, friendship, high school life, and coming out as gay that, at the same time, conveys such an important message regarding the LGBTQ community – namely, that people who identify as LGBTQ are just like everyone else.

Highlights of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for me:

Simon Spier, of course!  Simon is this Oreo-obsessed high school junior who is in the drama club, knows pretty much everything there is to about Harry Potter, has a golden retriever named Bieber, and who is just all around adorable.  Simon also has a bit of a crush on a fellow student who calls himself ‘Blue’.  This budding relationship serves to add an extra layer of depth to Simon’s character.  In what way? Well, because in spite of their growing mutual attraction, Simon and Blue have never actually met face to face and don’t even know each other’s real names.  They met via the school’s tumblr and only communicate with via email using aliases.  Why all the secrecy? Because as much as they like each other, neither Simon nor Blue are quite ready to come out publicly as gay.

Aside from his just overall cuteness and his humor, what I loved most about Simon was the honest and relatable way in which Becky Albertalli portrays him. The first person point of view was key here.  From the first page, you feel like you’re inside the mind of a teenage boy – how Simon can’t wait to rush to the nearest computer and read his next email from Blue and how his brain is on such overload when it comes to Blue that he walks off and absentmindedly leaves his emails to Blue open for the world (or at least for class clown Marty Addison to see).  Once Simon realizes that Marty has the power to expose his biggest secret, and Blue’s as well if anyone were to figure out what Blue’s true identity is, we then go inside of Simon’s mind as he has to decide how to handle Marty.

I really enjoyed how realistically and convincingly Albertalli writes the internal struggle that Simon faces.  There are so many factors to be considered and we get an up close look as Simon goes through all of the pros and cons in his mind. Does he beat Marty to the punch and go ahead and come out as gay?  But how will his family, friends, and other students react? Will they treat him differently? Will he be mocked and bullied?  And himself aside, there’s Blue to consider.  What if Blue isn’t ready to come out?  He’s tormented by the idea that Blue could suffer because of his own carelessness.

Simon and Blue as a couple.  In addition to being inside of Simon’s head while he tries to figure out what to do about this whole blackmail situation, I also adored being able to follow his thoughts when it comes to his attraction to Blue.  It’s a budding high school romance and Albertalli portrays it exactly like any other budding high school romance would be portrayed.  Their flirtations are no different than if the two characters were male and female and I just thought this was so wonderful and so important.  There are still too many people in the world who consider the LGBTQ community as deviant, and this book helps to dispel that mistaken impression.  With Simon and Blue, there is absolutely no sense that they are in any way deviant.  They are just two people who feel a connection and want to explore that connection, and the progression of their relationship is lovely to watch unfold.  Not only are they portrayed as completely normal teens in love, but they are completely adorable.  Even sight unseen, relying on nothing but emails to slowly build their relationship, Simon and Blue are seriously the cutest couple ever.   I loved reading their silly flirtatious conversations, as well as their deeper and more meaningful conversations as they are each trying to decide how, when, or if they should come out as gay.  Albertalli has made these two characters so likeable together and the progression of their relationship so completely natural that I think reading this book could be a mind-opening experience for a lot of people.

Simon’s Squad.  Okay, I’m all about a great cast of secondary characters and let me just say that this book has them in spades.  I simply adored all of Simon’s friends – Nick, Abby, and Leah, and heck even Marty, the blackmailer, grew on me the more I got to know him.

Another quality I really liked about this book is that Albertalli so vividly and fully captures the high school experience, that no matter how long you have been out of school, she transports you right back there.  She is especially effective at portraying the often messy dynamics of high school friendships – when long-time friends suddenly become more than friends, when new friends join a peer group and others feel threatened or jealous because they worry they’ll get squeezed out, etc.   Each time Simon’s circle of friends got shaken up by one of these things, I felt like I was being transported right back in time to my own messy circle of friends. It was very nostalgic for me in that sense.

The Search for Blue:  I had a lot of fun following Simon around and trying to guess which of his classmates might be Blue.  And again, because Albertalli has portrayed every character as typical, average high school kids, Blue really can be anyone Simon encounters throughout his school day.  I loved exploring all of the possibilities, especially as I got to know a little more about each character. And like Simon, I made several incorrect guesses before Blue is finally revealed.

Themes:  I love that, in addition to being such a fun and entertaining read, this book is also filled with so many positive messages in it about love, friendship, family, and community.  I also wish this book had been around when I was in school because I think a lot of LGBTQ students I went to school with would have found this book helpful : 1) in letting them know they’re not alone in what they might be feeling, and 2) in helping them realize that family and friends might be way more supportive than they might otherwise expect.

Anything I didn’t like?

The only thing that comes to mind was that it did take me a while to get used to reading the emails between Sam and Blue. Not because of the subject matter or anything like that, but just because at first, it didn’t feel like they flowed well with the rest of the novel.  Once I got a little more used to the style, it stopped bothering me though.

Who would I recommend this book to?

This is one of those books I would recommend to pretty much everyone from high school age right on up through adulthood, and I’d especially recommend it to parents.  Why?  1) Because it’s a super cute and fun read that I think everyone can enjoy, and 2) Because it’s an important book that has a lot to teach you, if you let it.  Maybe you’re not a student yourself, but you might be a parent with a child who might be LGBTQ and who might go through something like Simon and Blue did.  This book can only help to increase your understanding of what your own child might go through.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that Simon could easily be my own son.  So yes, just such an important book on many levels.

 

Rating:  A very strong 4 stars!

 

four-stars

About Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who has had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers. She also served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children in Washington, DC. These days, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, and writes very nerdy contemporary young adult fiction. Her debut novel, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, released from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins on April 7th, 2015.