The Way We Fall by Megan Crewe

“It starts with an itch you just can’t shake. Then comes a fever and a tickle in your throat. A few days later, you’ll be blabbing your secrets and chatting with strangers like they’re old friends. Three more, and the paranoid hallucinations kick in.

And then you’re dead.

When sixteen-year-old Kaelyn lets her best friend leave for school without saying goodbye, she never dreams that she might not see him again. Then a strange virus begins to sweep through her small island community, infecting young and old alike. As the dead pile up, the government quarantines the island: no one can leave, and no one can come back.

Cut off from the world, the remaining islanders must fend for themselves. Supplies are dwindling, fatalities rising, and panic is turning into violence. With no cure in sight, Kaelyn knows their only hope of survival is to band together. Desperate to save her home, she joins forces with a former rival and opens her heart to a boy she once feared.

But as the virus robs her of friends and family, Kaelyn realizes her efforts may be in vain. How can she fight an enemy that’s too small to see?”

Placing this story in a very small community had the interesting effect of intensifying the action.  It turns it into a true microcosm of what the entire world might be like under these conditions, but it doesn’t have the backdrop of huge sweeping disaster to contrast it with.  Instead, the isolation keeps the reader’s attention focused in a different way than most other novels, and it also makes what happens all the more chilling.  The author also touches on many of the elements that you’d expect in a disaster story—hoarding food stores, lack of medicine, houses with bodies inside—so that you don’t need the epic proportions of a typical book to get the feel for how horrible things are.

Even in the midst of all of this death, the author shows you some glimmers of hope.  While there are certainly a few troublemakers in the novel, most of the island’s inhabitants band together to take care of each other.  The best part is that it’s not in the fatalistic way that you see in many apocalyptic stories, where there’s safety in numbers and cooperation is a matter of necessity; rather, these characters help each other out of kindness and out of a real sense of community.  This may be a novel with disease and death, but there is much that is uplifting as well.

I found that I really liked Kaelyn.  She has a strong narrative voice, and although she’s young and often scared, her resilience shows a quiet strength of character.  The author makes a wise choice in having the tale told as a series of journal entries to an absent friend.  It not only allows her to believably set up her own backstory and give us information on herself, but it also lets readers into her thoughts in a raw and immediate fashion.

Of course, there is also the almost obligatory love story that nearly all teen novels have these days, but I think it makes sense in terms of the context.  Kaelyn is in a situation where friends and family are falling ill around her, and it’s natural to want human contact in the face of these events.  It’s occasionally just a bit clunky, but like I said, I can forgive it in light of how it fits into the story.

The novel is very effective in charting the progress of a rampaging disease.  And I’ll admit that after finishing it, I felt a little paranoid about people around me who might be sneezing and coughing a lot.  This is not a useful emotion to feel in the midst of allergy season, but it does illustrate the power of this comparatively lesser-known teen novel.  The Way We Fall doesn’t have the non-stop action of some of its contemporaries, but instead it quietly and insidiously walks you through a disaster that claims people one by one without mercy.  I’ll definitely be watching for the next in this series.

This review was originally posted on March 27, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

“You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten…

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”

The mixing of Regency and Victorian literature with fantasy has become more popular in recent years.  Some authors choose to emulate the “voice” of those periods, while others simply use them as inspiration.  Brennan goes the former route by writing her novel as a memoir, which I personally haven’t seen before.  I enjoyed seeing a Victorian-style alternate world through the eyes of one of its residents.

I think I know too much about that time in British history, though, because I’m not sure that I found Isabella believable as a character from that time.  I can certainly see how she got to the point that she’s supposedly at while writing the memoir, but she also seems to have not been as invested in the cultural strictures that were so prevalent.  I would have believed it more if she had taken more part in the society that she was brought up in.  I did admire her spirit—women in that culture didn’t have a lot of freedom, and Isabella took what was the likeliest path to being a scientist.

I also thought that the novel moved a tad too slowly.  The story hints at all of these exciting adventures and discoveries, but the book only covers Isabella’s childhood and her first outing after getting married.  This outing doesn’t bring her into a huge amount of contact with dragons, which are (of course) what we’re waiting to see Isabella deal with.

On the plus side, Brennan’s worldbuilding is top-notch.  She obviously has a grasp of not only what life would be like her alternate England, but also how things would be in the world at large.  Dragons aren’t merely fantastic creatures dropped into the scene for the sake of effect; there’s a real sense that they play a larger role in the narrative, and thus Isabella’s role in the overall story will be large as well.

While I do think this novel’s pace could have been a bit more brisk, A Natural History of Dragons is a complex and cultured tale of a young woman defying social norms to pursue her passion.  The fact that her passion is the study of dragons adds the happy twist to this tale of Victorian science and exploration.

This review was originally posted on April 9, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

A Higher Education by Rosalie Stanton

It is a truth universally acknowledged that first impressions are a bitch.

In a sea of college freshmen, Elizabeth Bennet feels more like a den mother than a returning student. She’d rather be playing Exploding Kittens than dodge-the-gropers at a frat party, but no way was she letting her innocent, doe-eyed roommate go alone.

Everything about Meryton College screams old money—something she and Jane definitely are not—but Elizabeth resolves to enjoy herself. That resolve is tested—and so is her temper—when she meets Will Darcy, a pompous blowhole with no sense of fun, and his relentlessly charming wingman, Charlie.

Back at school after prolonged break, Will Darcy is far too old and weary for coeds. Yet even he can see why Charlie spontaneously decides the captivating Jane is “the one.” What throws Will is his own reaction to Jane’s roommate.

Elizabeth’s moonlight skin and shining laugh hit him like a sucker punch. And he doesn’t like it. Elizabeth Bennet is dangerous, not only because she has a gift for making him make an ass of himself, but because she and her razor-sharp wit could too easily throw his life off course, and he can’t afford for that to happen again.

Yet he also can’t seem to stay away.”

Okay, I feel like I shouldn’t have enjoyed this as much as I did, but damn, it was a fun read.  I’ve been a little hard on people who try to re-write P&P, especially when they change the characters beyond all recognition (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  Because of that, I was a bit hesitant going into this book.  But I can happily say that my fears were unfounded.  This is a deliciously naughty, incredibly snarky, skillfully modernized retelling that had me laughing out loud.

What really impressed me was how the conflicts in the original novel were translated for the here-and-now.  For example, instead of Jane being scorned by the Bingley sisters for her bad connections, in this story the problem lies in the fact that Jane is Black.  It’s a bold choice, but one that resonates strongly, especially in the racially charged climate of today.  In another example, Wickham tells everyone that Darcy framed him for possession of cocaine and got him thrown out of school, instead of denying him a lucrative position in the church.

The one thing that wasn’t in this novel that I really missed was the inclusion of the smarmy Mr. Collins.  I can see that it would have been difficult to put him in this version of the story, though, and shoehorning him in just for the sake of having him present would have been worse.  His wife Charlotte makes a brief “on-screen” appearance, but Collins himself is never seen.  He’s one of my favorite comedic character portrayals and in some ways, the story of Darcy and Lizzy isn’t the same without him.  The tension that he provides the tale is expressed in different ways, and it works pretty well, but I do miss him.

One warning: there are some pretty explicit sex scenes in the book.  They’re well done, and don’t come across as unnecessary to the narrative, but I know that such things aren’t for everyone.  If the thought of reading about Darcy and Lizzy getting it on in a janitor’s closet freaks you out, you should probably skip this one.  Otherwise, read on and have fun!

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Dead Iron by Devon Monk

Genre classifications are getting a little more fluid of late, I think.  There are so many books that defy categorization that it can be a challenge to describe what kind of book I’m reading at any given time.  Obviously, not all mash-ups work, but Devon Monk’s Age of Steam series has welded several disparate story styles together into one smoothly working whole.  Dead Iron introduces readers to Cedar Hunt, a man struggles with his inner beast as he navigates an America of gears and steam.

“In steam age America, men, monsters, machines, and magic battle for the same scrap of earth and sky. In this chaos, bounty hunter Cedar Hunt rides, cursed by lycanthropy and carrying the guilt of his brother’s death. Then he’s offered hope that his brother may yet survive. All he has to do is find the Holder: a powerful device created by mad devisers-and now in the hands of an ancient Strange who was banished to walk this Earth.

In a land shaped by magic, steam, and iron, where the only things a man can count on are his guns, gears, and grit, Cedar will have to depend on all three if he’s going to save his brother and reclaim his soul once and for all…”

When I first saw the mishmash of genres that make up this novel, I really wasn’t sure it would work.  However, Monk has been clever in not only the story’s setting, but also its time period.  Having the novel take place on the west coast gives it the rugged feeling of people living in closer proximity with nature and working hard to eke out a living.  It also seems to allow for the presence of magic a little more easily—there are many tales of odd creatures on this side of the country, as well as Native American myths and legends.  By having the story take place during the height of the railroad expansion, the author has seamlessly introduced the concept of steam, metal and rails.  Because of this, the mechanical aspects of steampunk fit right in.

While I liked Cedar’s character, I found myself more drawn to the women, Rose and Mae.  I think that they were a little more interesting as people, and their role in the story was a little more complex.  While the townspeople may not have warmed up to Cedar, he’s still a man and is likely to be left to his own devices.  Women in this time period, especially ones who seem to be “witchy”, face another set of challenges that can escalate and become deadly.  Mae’s situation is further complicated by her marriage to an African American man, something that adds a level of social stigma to her life.  Cedar may be balancing the needs of man and beast, but the women are balancing their natures in a completely different way, and it’s a way has a firm basis in historical fact.  We may not like to think about women being persecuted as witches, but unfortunately it did happen.

The one thing that I occasionally had trouble with was the descriptions of the machines, or “matics”, as they’re called here.  Sometimes I wasn’t able to visualize them very well.  The author spends a decent amount of time describing the things, but after a while they started to run together somewhat.  A few stood out, like the clockwork dragonfly that shows up a few times, but most of them didn’t stand out very well for me.  Maybe there was just too much description at times—and a few battles have several matics in the scene at once—and it all ran together.

For all that, the book moves at a reasonably fast pace.  The narrative moves between several different viewpoints, so readers always have a sense of the story’s motion, the direction in which it is flowing.  Moments that could have slowed the story down become merely short pauses, as Monk smoothly changes from person to person, following all the various plot elements and simultaneously getting you to care about this cast of characters.

It took me a while to get around to reading this book, but I’m glad that I finally picked it up in advance of the release of its sequel, Tin Swift.  Devon Monk is an author who combines unique settings with interesting characters and then adds a dose of strangeness to the mix—or in this case, Strangeness.  Dead Iron is the start of a tale that combines the best of the Wild West with the mystery of lycanthropy and the mechanized realism of steampunk.  I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

This review was originally posted on July 5, 2012.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Embassytown by China Mieville

Science fiction has a reputation—sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly—of being little more than space opera.  But it’s also true that all science fact must begin as science fiction, and thus the genre is a prime vehicle for exploring ideas and concepts.  China Mieville has previously confined himself mostly to fantasy novels, but with Embassytown, he makes his first foray into true science fiction.  And what a debut!

In the city known as Embassytown, humans live in an uneasy alliance with the Hosts, aliens who speak with two mouths.  Thus, they can only understand paired human ambassadors who have been raised to think and speak as one.  These aliens also have an inability to lie, and an inability to talk about concepts that they haven’t already experienced.  As a result, they need humans to help with their similes, carefully staged scenarios that, once acted out, allow the Hosts to incorporate the concept into their Language.

Avice was turned into a simile while she was a child.  She spends years off planet but returns with her husband, a man intrigued by the nature of Language.  But two events—one taking place at the annual Festival of Lies, and one taking place when an extraordinary new Ambassador arrives—will change the shape of alien/human relations and Language itself forever.

I’ll say up front that I am fascinated with language and how it works.  It’s been an interest of mine since I was in college and took a course in the history of the English language.  Thus, this novel is right up my alley, as it deals in large part with the questions of how language impacts thought and action, and vice versa.

A good chunk of those questions revolve around lies and lying.  I find it amusing that aliens with two mouths represent unwavering truth, as “doublespeak” is a traditional symbol of falsehood.  But with them, a lie produces a kind of cognitive disconnect that they simply can’t handle.  This may sound like a wonderful and innocent way to exist, but Mieville takes it a step further and begins to play with the notion that similes and metaphors are also forms of lying.  Because of this, they’re more difficult for the Hosts to deal with, unless they’ve actually witnessed a scenario that they then use as a linguistic trick.

But this novel has more layers than just this.  Readers are presented with questions about what it means to speak with intent, how far a species can progress without a true symbolic language, and what the consequences of falsehood can lead to.  And what I liked the most was that Mieville doesn’t shove these concepts in your face.  Instead, he just tells his story and weaves in all manner of intriguing ideas and thoughts.  It’s up to readers to ferret them out and take away as much or as little as they can.  While this does make the novel challenging at times, it’s a good kind of challenge.

I’m put in mind of an idea that I read a long time ago.  I don’t remember exactly where it came from, but I think it was in an essay by Jane Yolen.  In it, she asserts that a novel is a dialogue between the reader and the author.  Each will put something into the experience of the words and take away something at the same time.  I think that this concept is gloriously illustrated by this book.  I’m sure there are things that I missed on first reading, and I hope to find some time soon to re-read it and possibly discover more that the author and I can communicate about.

As a science fiction story, the author excels at worldbuilding, and he manages to include little details that are never explored but nevertheless enhance the tale.  On this world, the aliens live in a landscape that is alive—literally.  The buildings, the vehicles, the everyday objects—all are of bio-material and, to a certain degree, alive.  Little animals and insects move through the background.  The Host/human relations are fraught with mystery and uncertainty.  And it’s all wonderful.  You don’t need to know all the answers about these things.  While some novels can’t pull off having unexplained phenomena, Mieville makes it work in this book.  Some of it may just be that the story is compelling enough to make such details negligible, but that’s probably a matter of personal opinion.

My only complaint about Embassytown, and it’s a small one, is that the story takes a little while to really get moving.  I don’t have any idea how Mieville would have moved things along, because what he’s included in the opening chapters is needed for later sections.  I just know that the action takes a bit to get moving and really draw readers into the tale.  My recommendation is to stick with this novel, because the payoff is well worth it.

This novel was recommended to me by the publisher rep at Random House, and his praise was not overstated.  Embassytown is a multilayered work of art.  It challenges readers, pushing them to really think about the language that we as readers find so fascinating.  If a book really is a dialogue between writer and reader, then this conversation is one of the best ones that you’ll have the privilege of participating in.

This review was originally posted on May 23, 2011.

This title was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Blood Red by Mercedes Lackey

“Little Red Riding Hood’s real name is Gretchen Schwarzwald, and she is from the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) in Germany. Ten years ago, she was orphaned by an evil Earth Master who wanted her parents’ land and killed them all with the werewolves he created. She was rescued by a Fire Master, a member of the Woodsman’s Lodge, and taught how to use her own Fire Powers. Now another werewolf pack is ravaging Exmoor, and she has come to help London’s White Lodge eradicate it and find and destroy the Elemental Master behind it.”

Well, I’m happy to see that the Elemental Masters series has bounced back after a couple of sub-par books. It’s not that the writing has been bad, it’s just that the plots have been a bit, shall we say, meandering. With Blood Red, Lackey has done something a bit different: the original fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood”, is merely the jumping-off point to the novel. It’s an origin story for the main character, if you will. By establishing Rosa’s genesis in the prologue, the author is then free to spin her tale from there, far beyond the restrictions of the classic story.

Another welcome change is the setting. Most novels in this series take place in cities, or at least in more populated areas. The only real exception was Home From the Sea, which was one of those entries in which nothing really happened. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Lackey certainly changed things up by putting her characters in theaters and London backalleys. This time, our main character does spend some time traveling through cities, but ultimately ends up in the forests of Eastern Europe.

And that’s another change that I approve of: this story has moved beyond the bounds of Western Europe for what I think is the first time. It puts the story squarely into the lands that spawned vampire mythology and the places where werewolves were said to roam. It gives the characters the opportunity to encounter foreign cultures and unfamiliar customs and superstitions. I have no clue about the accuracy of anything written about in the book, but it was nice to see something different.

Rosa herself is one of the stronger female heroines in this series. She defiantly refuses to conform to gender norms and is eventually appointed a Hunt Master, and this is a time where a woman wielding a weapon would send most people into apoplectic shock. She habitually wears breeches and boots, has no trouble in the wilderness, and has earned the respect of men for whom a competent female hunter is something like a unicorn—heard of but never seen. Refreshingly, there’s really no romance at hand either. Oh, Rosa occasionally has thoughts like “Wow, that guy is cute!” or “Dresses aren’t my thing, but this is actually kind of nice”, but they’re less rather than more prevalent. I like Rosa just as she is—no nonsense and tough.

With its strong female main character and some welcome deviations from other books in the series, Blood Red is a fairy tale adaptation that I can heartily recommend. Lackey seems to have gotten her spark back with regards to this series, and I find myself looking forward to future installments more than I have in a while.

This review was originally published on June 4, 2014.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Wide Open by Deborah Coates

“When Sergeant Hallie Michaels comes back to South Dakota from Afghanistan on ten days’ compassionate leave, her sister Dell’s ghost is waiting at the airport to greet her.

The sheriff says that Dell’s death was suicide, but Hallie doesn’t believe it. Something happened or Dell’s ghost wouldn’t still be hanging around. Friends and family, mourning Dell’s loss, think Hallie’s letting her grief interfere with her judgment.

The one person who seems willing to listen is the deputy sheriff, Boyd Davies, who shows up everywhere and helps when he doesn’t have to.

As Hallie asks more questions, she attracts new ghosts, women who disappeared without a trace.  Soon, someone’s trying to beat her up, burn down her father’s ranch, and stop her investigation.

Hallie’s going to need Boyd, her friends, and all the ghosts she can find to defeat an enemy who has an unimaginable ancient power at his command.”

This is the second fantasy novel that I’ve read that features a female soldier returning home from overseas.  Hallie is a combat veteran, traumatized by what happened in Afghanistan and presenting an incredibly tough exterior to the world.  I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman in the army, so I can’t judge if this is an accurate portrayal, but sometimes Hallie comes across as too stubborn for her own good.  She often hares off on her own to do what she thinks needs doing, and there were a couple of times that I got frustrated at her actions.  Most of the time, though, I appreciated her no-nonsense handling of some pretty serious stuff.

The setting is what really drew me into this book.  The wide plains of South Dakota seem particularly suited to a ghost story, with their isolation and loneliness, and the sense of space that never ends.  That much open land makes you feel insignificant, and some of that creeps through into Hallie’s dealings with the ghosts.  Just as the setting emphasizes the starkness of the land, Hallie’s interactions with the spirits emphasize the existential terror of dealing with the other side.

On the opposite end of the spectrum setting-wise is the small town of Prairie City.  Coates really pulled together the kind of details that make the town feel like an actual place that you can visit.  It’s not that she describes everything in minute detail; rather, she captures the feel of a small town, both its good points and its bad points.  It’s good to have that to set against the miles of open space surrounding it.

As for the plot, I liked that it wasn’t just a case of “I see dead people” and having to deal with it.  There are other strange things going on in her small town and Hallie gets drawn into events far beyond anything she could have dreamed of.  There was a bit of contrast shown between the things going on in South Dakota versus what she went through in Afghanistan, in the sense that she always feels like she’s measuring herself against an invisible foe.  This gives her the gumption to really dig into the mystery inherent in the plot and try to deal with it proactively.

Finally, I liked that the possible love interest with Boyd, the sheriff, was kept to a minimum in this first novel.  It’s enough to establish their separate characters at this point without tangling them up together.  Adding in a romance would have pushed the novel into the trap of trying to do too much at once.  There’s plenty of stuff going on already!

Wide Open is not a typical supernatural novel.  The setting is unique, and the main character is tough and unapologetic about who and what she is.  If you like your ghost stories eerie instead of shocking, this is the book for you.

This review was originally posted on June 19, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Night Owls by Lauren M. Roy

“Valerie McTeague’s business model is simple: provide the students of Edgewood College with a late-night study haven and stay as far away as possible from the underworld conflicts of her vampire brethren. She’s experienced that life, and the price she paid was far too high for her to ever want to return.

Elly Garrett hasn’t known any life except that of fighting the supernatural beings known as Creeps or Jackals. But she always had her mentor and foster father by her side—until he gave his life protecting a book that the Creeps desperately want to get their hands on.

When the book gets stashed at Night Owls for safekeeping, those Val holds nearest and dearest are put in mortal peril. Now Val and Elly will have to team up, along with a mismatched crew of humans, vampires, and lesbian succubi, to stop the Jackals from getting their claws on the book and unleashing unnamed horrors.”

Okay, any book that takes place in a bookstore has my attention.  Boy, I wish there had been a store like this when I was in college—I’d have definitely worked there!  The setting is guaranteed to appeal to all book-geeks like me.  Night Owl Books is open extremely late, carries all kinds of cool books, and even has a rare book room.  Plus, it’s run by a friendly vampire.  What’s not to like?

There are some fairly typical fantasy elements at play here: super-secret organizations that fight monsters; books that hold magical secrets in strange languages; kindly professors with esoteric interests; and so on.  I’m not saying that these things make the book trite or boring, but you’re sure to see some familiar tropes here that are combined in a way that’s fun to read.

I would have liked some more background on the Jackals (or Creeps, as Elly calls them).  Most of the other creatures are common enough not to need explanation, like vampires or succubi, but Creeps are something new.  I’m certainly willing to grant an author the right to make up their own things that go bump in the night, but I do want them to have some reason for existing.

Something that amused me was a running reference to Sacramento.  Apparently, Val was part of a hunting group in Sacramento where something went horribly wrong, and the details are dangled in front of us for most of the book.  We do eventually get the gist of the tale, thus saving it from becoming like the Calvin and Hobbes “noodle incident”, and it both explains why the story takes place back East and also seems to sow the seeds of maybe heading out West in a future novel.

Night Owls was a decent read with some unique monsters and a good dollop of action.  I’ll be curious to see what the author does with this story next, and very curious to see if her characters head out our way.

This review was originally posted on April 7, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

Not Your Sidekick by C. B. Lee

“Welcome to Andover… where superpowers are common, but internships are complicated. Just ask high school nobody, Jessica Tran. Despite her heroic lineage, Jess is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect (paid!) internship—only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own. Then there’s the budding attraction to her fellow intern, the mysterious “M,” who never seems to be in the same place as Abby. But what starts as a fun way to spite her superhero parents takes a sudden and dangerous turn when she uncovers a plot larger than heroes and villains altogether.”

I picked this one up at the start of the year when I was going through a mild superhero phase–I’d found some interesting novels on Amazon and decided to delve a bit deeper into the genre.  I hadn’t gotten around to this one until now, though, and I finally read it because the sequel just came out and I was reminded that I had this in my e-book library.  (These are the perils of e-books–your TBR pile grows exponentially when you’re not looking, and you have no clue how big it actually is.)  Anyway, I breezed through this one in a couple of days and found it to be a pleasant read.  It’s most definitely YA, edging a bit towards a slightly younger audience, although the subject matter keeps it firmly in the young adult section.

What gives it the mildly younger feel is some of the writing and plotting.  There were some dialogue quirks that didn’t ring quite natural to the reading “ear” at times–mainly characterized with sentences that were a bit stilted or came across as a little flat.  Plot-wise, there’s nothing really surprising about this story, and most of the major revelations are ones that most readers will see coming far in advance of the actual reveal.  But I’ll also say that those reveals are set up nicely throughout the novel, as you can go back and see the clues being worked into the narrative from fairly early in the book.  So the author knows her craft, but I think she just needs to work a bit more at weaving things in so that they don’t stand out quite as much.

With all that being said, though, I did enjoy the book.  It’s a quick, lively read with likeable characters and lots of action. Lee put some thought into her worldbuilding and came up with some good solid rules for how things work.  Heroes and villains are ranked not by how powerful they are, but by how long they can use their power before needing to rest and recharge.  That leaves room for characters to have some really cool abilities but still be considered “less than” others because of how long they can utilize their strengths.  Also, I found it interesting that villains don’t necessarily come about because of a bent towards chaos–sometimes they’re steered that way, and then it’s up to them what they do with their powers when they get designated as villains.  Andover’s villains, for instance, are mostly just pranksters, never inflicting any real damage or mayhem, although they could if they wanted to.

One of the book’s best aspects is how it includes a wide array of diversity.  The main character, Jess, is Chinese/Vietnamese heritage and often uses terms that are (I think) Vietnamese.  Her parents are immigrants, and there are some interesting sections where Jess’s mother talks about what it was like to leave her home country forever. There were also some intriguing hints about how Jess sometimes feels like she’s neither Chinese enough nor Vietnamese enough, and although that’s not the subject of this book, I would have been interested to see more of how that plays out.  Hopefully that can sneak into the future books in this series.

Jess is also bisexual and one of her friends is transgender.  Lee shows the relationships among these characters–both friendships and romances–with realism and candor, not sensationalizing them, but not downplaying them either.  They’re just teenagers, and their sexuality and/or gender orientation is just part of who they are.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that the novel doesn’t make a big deal out of who they are, nor are those aspects of themselves turned into plot points.  That’s not what the book is about, but there are people who are non-straight and non-gender-binary and they deserve to be in stories without having an issue made of their gender/sexuality.  Lee does an excellent job of doing just that.

This would be a great book to bring teens to reading via the pervasive love of superheroes in our culture today.  I’ll definitely be going on with this series to see what Jess and her friends get up to next.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Release by Patrick Ness

“Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart.  At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.”

Well, I have to hand it to Ness–the man does not shy away from playing merry hell with genres and story structure.  And I mean that in the best possible way.  One half of this story is a form of coming-of-age, coming out, family oriented story.  Adam Thorn is a preacher’s son, youngest of two, and has always felt as though he didn’t belong in his own family.  He’s much closer to his chosen family: Angela and her parents, his boyfriend Linus, and other friends with whom he works and hangs out.  Through the course of one day, a lot in his life changes, not for the better or for the worse, but simply changes.

In the other half of this story, Ness focuses on a young girl named Katie who was recently murdered and dumped in the nearby lake.  Her part of the tale, however, lands firmly in the realm of magical realism when her dying spirit bonds to that of a powerful Queen.  We don’t know if this Queen is an elemental, or a faerie, or exactly what, but the two become more closely entwined as the day goes on and Katie/the Queen seek Katie’s murderer.  Following them is a faun, desperate to save his Queen, for if the sun goes down and the two are still tangled up, Katie’s spirit will die, and the Queen with her.

Now, I can see what Ness was trying to do with this juxtaposition.  Adam and Katie have parallel journeys, both learning to let go of the ties that bind them that aren’t doing them any good.  They face pain, grant forgiveness, and reach out for healthier relationships.  The problem is that I don’t feel that the two storylines have enough of a relationship to each other.  Practically the only time they really coincide is at the very end of the novel, and then for only a page or so.  There are a few hints in the text that the events you see happening around Katie/the Queen are actually happening in the real world, but in many ways, the reader may not be sure if that’s true or not.  The language of those portions is highly stylized and could be read metaphorically, so that may add a bit to the disconnect.

That being said, each of the storylines is well written and often heartbreaking.  Adam’s eventual conversation with his father about his sexuality is simultaneously hopeful and fraught with judgement.  Katie/the Queen faces her murderer and must struggle with what to do now that she’s in front of him.  Heck, if nothing else, I have to once again admire Ness for making such an audacious choice with his story structure.  He certainly never shies away from trying something new!  For that creativity alone, I give him points.

It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but Release is unique, heartfelt, and well written.  I continue to be excited about Ness’s books and will keep recommending his work as examples of what good things can come of daring to do something different.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from Goodreads.com.)

Save

1 2 3 4