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Mask of Shadows – Review

“There was no room for gods in a world of monsters and monstrous men, but tradition endured.”

Mask of Shadows is  an amazing book. Hands down, amazing! Full of adventure, court intrigue and most of all, revenge, this is the first in a duology.

Sal Leon is just a thief trying to survive in a world that has forgotten their people. Killed by monsters knows as shadows, an entire nation of people destroyed and forgotten. Except for Sal, who survived.

When a robbery reveals that the Left Hand of the Queen is holding auditions for the next Opal, Sal knows an opportunity has been presented.

The audition is more than it appears and turns out to be a fight to the death. Sal has to face soldiers and nobels, circus acrobats with built in alliances and deadly apothecaries, all who have trained for moments like this their entire lives. Sal is just a thief, a forgotten child who only knows survival. But they know to survive the auditions is to become an assassin, so they become the assassin first.

I had such a good time reading this book! From the very first pages, I was drawn to Sal, who is such a riveting character. They are sassy and bold, but are also frightened and fiercely cling to life. Rather than cower in fear, Sal faces those fears head on. Sal is a character who embodies bravery. Because even though they are afraid of dying, never once do they back away from doing what is right.

“Regret does nothing but soothe your own guilt.”

I will confess, that this is the first novel I’ve read where the main character is gender fluid. As I write this review, I am realizing how often we present with he/she pronouns. If I get it wrong, please let me know so that I can better review future novels, especially as I plan on completing this duology.

The author does a fantastic job not only explaining the gender fluidity, but also in highlighting how often Sal is frustrated by living in a society that doesn’t always respect this.

“Rath had asked once, a while after we’d met and been living together, and I’d not known how to explain it yet. I didn’t have the words. He always felt like Rath, and I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always. Rath not understanding that had hurt the most, but at least he accepted it.”

Miller writes amazing characters. Honestly, I loved them all. They were full of mirth, and sass, and sarcasm, but also vivid and full of depth. Even though everyone was trying to kill each other off, and the judges were also masked assassins, this is a crew I would enjoy hanging out with, Ruby most of all.

“We were discussing fashion and murder. Join in.”

That actually sounds like a text I would have equal odds of sending or being sent.

Elise, the nobel girl tutoring Sal, and Maud, the maid assigned for the audition, are both extremely smart and strong women. Even though Maud can’t help, she always finds a way to circumvent the rigid rules in order to help Sal. I loved how at first every relationship Sal had was simply a transactional one. They tolerated or tried to use people as it suited their needs. But Elise and Maud quickly show Sal that people aren’t always who or what they appear, and that transformation was delightful to read.

“I don’t flirt with people who could kill me as easily as they could kiss me.”

Miller builds this world gradually through her narration, so we learn about the past through Sal. Their need for revenge helps guide us into this world, and the past that built it.

“This is what Erland had done to us — stolen us, torn us away from what we were, ripped children from their homes and souls from their bodies.”

We get a very real sense of how personal this war is to Sal. How it shaped them, changed them, focused them. This is why becoming Opal is so important. So that they have a chance to ensure justice is done. Justice, though, is always more complicated than initially we imagine, and this hard truth isn’t any easier for Sal.

Even though we unravel the full glimpse of the world Sal lives in, along with the past slowly, the detail or realism involved isn’t lessened. It also doesn’t feel slow paced. Each page reads with urgency. Sal is constantly in life and death situations, never knowing when death may come, and you feel that as you read. Even in the slower moments, the moments stolen with Elise or simply training, you feel the constant pressure they face.

And yet, for all it’s intensity, it’s a fun read. Funny and heartwarming. Because while the world building is solid and the history richly written, it is the characters that breathe this entire novel to life.

This book has all the intrigue of Game of Thrones, the brutality of The Hunger Games and the sass of Six Of Crows. You will laugh as often as you climb the walls in suspense. I am very much looking forward to reading the conclusion to this story. I need to know what happens next, and definitely need more of these characters!

Thank you Sourcebooks for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Chatting with Val – The Reminders

Some of you may remember that in early summer I won the chance to chat with Val Emmich, author of The Reminders, from Little, Brown. I was lucky enough to be able to include a few of the women from my book club (@pnwbookworm, @trissinalovesbooks, @thepagesinbetween), and through a series of scheduling snafus and hilariously trying to figure out how to group Skype (at the last minute of course!) we successfully connected!

I took notes, but by no means is this a detailed transcription of what we discussed. Any errors are mine, and mine alone. And rather than type out an interview style article, I wanted to rather relay our chat in snapshots and impressions, because let’s be honest, my note taking skills aren’t that accurate.

As I recap, please be aware that there could be spoilers in this conversation. Please stop reading if you are planning on reading the book, as I would hate to ruin the experience for you. That said, be sure to check out my Instagram page for a Reminders related giveaway!

Outside of signing events and meeting authors at conference, this was my first actual one on one interaction with an author, and I am so glad it was with Val.

First, let me start by saying, we ended up talking on Skype for over an hour and a half! And, honestly, I think we probably could have gone on longer. It didn’t hurt that we all, author included, adored his book. But beyond that, Val is such a genuine person that it felt natural and easy to talk to him.

Obviously we talked about the book. We talked about the characters, and his process and everything in between! To give you an idea of how kind he is, he asked us questions about ourselves, wanting to include us in a conversation, and not just focus on his book or himself.

If you need a reminder, HERE is my review of the book.

To begin, we jumped right into how this book came to life.

The Reminders is actually the third book he wrote. He had gone through the writing, and querying and attempted selling of the first novels with no luck. After going through some artistic soul-searching, similar to what Joan’s dad goes through, (and an incident with his daughter, but we’ll get to that) he sat down and began writing a short story. This short story was about a girl named Joan and her rare memory disorder. From there the story grew.

He talked a bit about how in his first two books he was trying to write what he thought would sell. When the idea for Joan came, and he started writing, he changed his tactics and started to write something that he would want to read. He wanted it to be joyful and pleasant. To do that, he simply worked against our trained assumptions to assume the worst.

I found the way he wove these assumptions into the story in such a subtle way to be brilliant. There were multiple moments when my heart sank, only to be buoyed up by an unexpected turn in the story. These aren’t dramatic plot twists, or predictable outcomes, and yet the impact of being wrong works so beautifully. Hearing this insight after reading the book is amazing. Not just as a reader, but also as an aspiring writer.

We spent a lot of time talking about music. Music, as you know, plays a huge part of this book. Joan is trying to win a song writing contest, her dad has a music studio and Gavin and her dad were in a band in their college days. So, it is probably not surprising to learn that Val is a musician.

The music in the novel developed organically, the story coming to life as he wrote. This is an example of the adage, “Write what you know”. There are a lot of his own struggles brought to life in the novel. The struggle of being an artist, of living in New Jersey and not New York, of deciding to stay in art or change careers, and then there’s the struggle of being a parent. This honesty makes the novel so relatable. The characters and their struggles feel more real.

Even though the details of the music came organically, there was a moment when he realized he would have to write a song that would be good enough to actually enter and possibly win a contest. The experience he’s had as a musician and song writer really helped with this, and he said it was a lot of fun to write and create a song that has both Gavin and Joan in it.

Everyone always asks, where do ideas come from. Sometimes this is a tricky question for an author. But in this case, Val knew.

He talks about this moment on his YouTube channel, and elaborated with us. He was shopping in a Home Depot (sound familiar?) and his daughter fell out of the cart. After the terror of the accident calmed down, and everything turned out to be okay with his daughter, a special came on TV discussing memory and these rare disorders. An “AHA” moment transpired.

Some of the questions we asked were about details of the book. How did he track all the details of Joan’s memory? This is one of my favorite things in the book, how Joan remembers things so vividly and specifically. Val confessed to not having a great memory, so he printed calendars and filled them out with things that Joan experienced. It became a way for him to write, but it also ended up being a way for him to connect with the character.

How did he pick the age? His wife is a teacher. She teaches 4-6th grade gifted kids, and he spent some time observing them. From there it became a matter of figuring out what was too old (pre-teen) or what was too young for Joan. Her age had to be realistic to achieve certain details in the plot, but also to be able to think and rationalize like a child. He knew it was right when he landed on ten.

Where did the details for the characters come from? The characteristics for all the characters are an amalgamation of different people. Mostly these are unknown, so we won’t be revealing secrets here. But, like with anything, he watched people he knew, people he didn’t and the characters began to come to life. No matter how they started, or who provided the inspiration, it was fun to add personality and give them dimension.

The idea of music being intertwined with memory fit together fluidly. As a society we remember music. It makes sense, that for someone like Joan, where memory is such a vivid part of her life, that music would be a relatable way to showcase that importance.

Writing about such a specific memory problem was also a challenge. In some ways, he said it was easy, and in others it was difficult. The calendars he created helped him visualize her reality. He read books on people who actually have this condition so that he could understand it. The details about her clothing came from this research. While he didn’t come across that specific detail in an account, other details sparked the idea. Memories are so vivid for these people, that a shirt can pull them into the past. They often keep journals, which Joan does as well.

And finally, we talked about book tours.

Many publishers aren’t sending authors out on book tours, especially new authors. But since he already had a network and a fan base, he set up a tour anyway, or an exchange of sorts. He played music in exchange for a book discussion. I think given the nature of the book, this sounds perfect! These tour events also ended up being more personal and intimate than a traditional book store event. They were in people’s homes and so it prompted more intimate discussion and interaction. Again, if you’ve read the book, I think you agree, it sounds like a perfect setting!

One awesome detail: the drawings are his but the handwriting in those pictures are from his ten year old niece! How cool is that?!

Val has already started writing his next project, and should have an announcement coming soon! I for one, cannot wait to hear what is next.

If you’re interested in winning a copy of the soundtrack for the book, hop on over to my Instagram page for details!!!

Please visit his YouTube channel HERE

You can buy your copy of The Reminders HERE

Thank you so much Little, Brown and Val Emmich for giving us the chance to spend time getting to know you and your book!!! It was an experience we won’t forget.

 

 

Finding My Badass Self – Review

“As adults, most of us have forgotten how to be silly. The first rule of going outside our comfort zone is learning to laugh at ourselves.”

Finding My Badass Self: A Year of Truths and Dares is a novel in which one woman, Sherry Stanfa-Stanley, undertakes a year of pushing her limits in order to discover who she is and what she is capable of.

To really appreciate and understand this book, it’s important to know that this book is a series of blog posts from the authors blog. When she turned 52, she created the 52/52 project. 52 experiences as a 52 year old woman, all designed to test her limits and really push her outside her comfort zone.

As a reader newly discovering this author, the book did feel choppy and was hard to read as a book. I can see the appeal as a weekly blog, as each piece focuses on one task from her list. In book format though, there’s nothing to tie the pieces together. She even mentions that she often interacts with her Facebook group, so the weekly experience of discovering what she is planning and experiencing would be far more satisfying than reading in this format.

Formatting aside, the entries themselves were fun to read. Stanfa-Stanley is funny and I can picture my mother doing these things with much of the same commentary and horror. Who wouldn’t simultaneously laugh and cringe at the prospect of taking your elderly mother to a nude beach?! Or to the shock of getting a brazilian wax for the first time?

It might be easy to dismiss some of these challenges as tepid or fairly modest. It’s not as if everyone will find zip-lining or going for a hot air balloon ride as thrilling or limit pushing. And some women may even think a wax is an easy Tuesday appointment. Again, I do think having the context of the blog and Facebook page is helpful in relating to the author in these cases.

She does give context at the beginning of the book, explaining what sparked this journey. And it does help to remember this while reading the posts.

“Regardless of our motivations, at some point we decide to either continue sighing at the status quo of our lives or else we open our minds and our arms to embrace change. I chose change, albeit with trembling hands and a wavering mindset.”

Not every challenge was necessarily frivolous. Getting a colonoscopy, for example, is probably something most people are hesitant or fearful over. Being able to admit to this fear, and to complete the task anyway, perhaps can help someone else do the same.

And, not every challenge was accomplished, or accomplished the way she thought. Her plan to sing onstage with a band happened. But rather than the well-practiced and rehearsed version she was planning, it ended up being spontaneous. And, her attempt to complete a ropes course ended before it began. I did like that there was still a lesson to be learned, even in failure.

“Perhaps acknowledging our limitations is an essential part of self-discovery. Maybe we learn just as much about life and about ourselves by discovering our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Maybe we succeed in growing even as we fail.”

In an age where social media encourages us show only our success, it is important when someone is able to be honest and show the failure as well. And maybe that’s what makes this journey, and these posts as relatable as they are. Some things were fun and funny. But even when they are cringe-worthy or humiliating, Stanfa-Stanley shows us anyway. She lets us laugh with her and cry with her, and honestly, this is the bravest thing of all.

Overall, the book was entertaining. However, I think it could have been a little more compelling if, instead of simply compiling these blog posts, the author gave us more context into each post instead. Who helped come up with these challenges? What limits specifically was each designed to push? Were any chosen by other people, and if so, who? These types of thoughts and explanations would have added more dimension and depth. While the book was a fast and funny read, I would have really enjoyed it if it offered more than what I could get from already published posts.

This book did make me curious to find her blog and her Facebook page, as they do seem like an interactive group of people willing to push boundaries and find themselves. It sounds like a lot of fun.

Thank you to BookSparks and She Writes Press, for sending me this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

 

 

The Salt Line – Review

“The burn was the first rite of passage.”

Man! Strap in when you open this novel, because you are in for an intense ride! The Salt Line is everything a solid dystopian novel should be.

We learn that the burn referred to in the first sentence, is the burn of a Stamp. A small device that kills the lethal female miner tick and any disease or eggs she has implanted in your body. Kills it, as long as it is administered in time.

This is presented to us through a class, given by an outdoor extreme trainer, getting ready to take a small group of wealthy adventurers beyond the Wall and out of their safe zone. Exciting right?

As the training unfolds, we get to know the characters and through them a picture of the society we are in begins to emerge. We know that what was once America is now divided into zones. Currently, we are in the Atlantic zone, one of the more stable and thriving zones. We learn that other zones are not faring as well. These zones were put into place after this miner tick and the outbreak of a deadly disease began to run rampant.

“The thing was, you hoped like hell to be in a zone as clean and safe as Atlantic, and if by birth or luck or talent you got in one, you stayed put — because the rules kept changing, the quarantines and security measures kept getting revised.”

There is an art when writing dystopian, to drawing your reader into the new world while also giving them some idea of why it emerged. Sometimes books can get too bogged down in the history, making them feel clunky and bloated. And other times, we don’t get enough of a sense of the past to make sense of the future. This novel; however, gets that balance absolutely right.

Jones gives us the history of the society while also introducing us to each character. And some pieces of information are done within dialogue, so the effect is so subtle, I found myself flipping back to make sure I didn’t miss these details. While I can appreciate that perhaps this isn’t a style some readers enjoy, for me, it added a rich texture that made the novel completely suck me in. Each character was able to add context through their own experiences, and so Jones was able to really provide a lot of depth to not just their individual past, but the overall zones as well.

The other thing I loved about this novel is that there are so many strong women! Evie and Marta are the first main characters we meet, and though they are presented as a rockstar’s girlfriend and a mobster’s housewife, their strength and vibrancy go far beyond their societal descriptions. We also meet Wes, a young CEO, arguably the wealthiest and most influential man in the Atlantic zone. He seems to be at odds with himself to participate in this excursion, and yet is driven to succeed. It is through their eyes that we see the training and the initial moments of the excursion unfold.

This isn’t simply a dystopian where a group of adventurers has to survive the harsh wild. It isn’t a typical things go wrong and they have to make it through. Even though they deliberately set out beyond the Wall to attempt to survive a three week adventure, the things that go wrong are all provoked and planned by humans. The group is taken hostage by a group of people who have been waiting for a group like this to fall into their hands for a long time.

The political undertones written in the plot are very smart, and add a touch of realism. It is easy to imagine a group of people operating like this, both in zone and out. And as each hostage faces shifting alliances and new information, they have to decide which truth they believe, if any.

“There’s this assumption that most people, if you strip society and its laws away, are capable of evil.”

If I had a complaint, it would be in June, leader of Ruby City. I wish I had gotten to see a little more of her and what she was capable of. We saw glimpses, but never the in depth reveal that would have made her character more satisfying. She was a complicated character, impossible to tell if she was a victim of circumstance caught up in a game she lost control of, or a very tightly controlled manipulator who knew exactly what she was doing. I have my opinions, but they are built on shaky ground, and I would have really loved to have been given more in either direction.

In all, there is so much to like about The Salt Line. In all directions, there is danger lurking. You get the sense that there is more to the story in any direction you look. And, for a dystopian, thats exactly how you should feel. Uneasy. A society that has changed for logical reasons into something illogical. And we get that here.

Beyond Marta and Evie, we get June and Violet, all strong female characters that are so varied in not only age, gender and race, but in personality and motives as well. We are given things to like and things to dislike in each of them, but they are true to themselves throughout it all. And yet, it isn’t a book that forgets the men. We get to know Wes, and Andy, their guide and betrayer. They are just as flawed and varied and diverse as the women. In all, each character, no matter how large or small their role, is balanced and real.

I don’t know if there is a sequel to this book. The ending was satisfying as a stand alone, but could lead to future books. I would really enjoy more from these characters and this society. In fact, I will be reading previous books from this author, I enjoyed her writing so much.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves dystopian fiction. There is intensity and mystery and suspense, and refreshingly, no romance or other silly distractions to take away from the heart of the plot. Very enjoyable.

The Salt Line goes on sale TOMORROW!!! Don’t miss it!

Thank you to Penguin Random House and Putnam Books for approving me through the First To Read program in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

 

Beautiful Animals – Review

“Morality was nothing more than paying attention to the chain reaction while not causing another one.”

Beautiful Animals is simply stunning. This novel is not just thrilling in plot, but beautiful in prose. Osborne writes about the complexity of the human psyche in such a way that the vividness and absolute truth in some sentences took my breath away.

We follow two girls, Naomi and Sam. Naomi has had a summer home on the island with her father and stepmother all her life. Even though she can’t stand her stepmother and seems to harbor deep-rooted resentments against her father, she finds herself fleeing from her freedom, unsure of what direction her life will take next.

Sam is staying with her family in Hydra for the summer. First time visitors, her mother especially, is anxious to emerge themselves into the routine of expats and locals. Sam’s mother encourages the friendship, knowing that this could lead to more social connections. Sam is drawn to Naomi right from the start. She sees in her someone so different from all the other girls she’s known.

“The girls her own age were tiresomely uniform, as if a human-production plant in the center of the country had churned them out according to an approved paradigm. Suddenly, she had found someone different.”

Right away, the two find themselves inseparable, and Sam is endlessly enamored with how easily Naomi accepts and includes her. She is swept away in the glamour of it all.

Until the two of them stumble on a man, clearly a refugee, stranded and struggling in the isolated wild of the island. Naomi, immediately wants to help and charms the more reluctant Sam to her aid.

Naomi comes up with a plan to help Faoud. Sam doesn’t like it, but finds herself drawn in and is complacent to stop it. Even when things take a drastic and irreparable turn, Sam still is unable to tangle herself away from Naomi.

“She supposed that, speaking for herself, she had been mentally preparing for it for days and it was, she imagined, the way people evolved: they gravitated toward the most pleasing and dangerous idea.”

This book had me on the edge of my seat. It isn’t simply the way the writing lulls the horrifying nature of the plot into something eloquent and beautiful. It’s more that Osborne takes us into the heart and soul of each of these characters. We feel their desire to do good, even if this leads to very flawed logic and actions.

The thing I liked about this book the most is the flawed characters. They make bad choices, but one could argue that sometimes there are only the best of bad choices to be made. You can understand how Naomi, Sam and Faoud, each ended up being able to rationalize their decisions and how they were led to them. As humans we are all flawed in similar ways, and Osborne doesn’t flinch away from exploring these flaws. Rather he embraces them and creates incredibly compelling characters.

The quote at the beginning is such a beautiful summary of this novel. We are given an introduction to the girls and the plan without knowing much of Faoud. He is the catalyst, the beginning event that triggers the rest. And the girls are left to try and minimize these events from exploding into far larger ones that could quickly spiral out of control.

It’s interesting to try and frame the girls as the morality of the novel, and yet, strangely enough they are. They are not justice warriors out to save the planet, they are simply trying to find their place in it. And it is this effort that creates the catalyst and also minimizes the chain reactions.

Even as we get to know Faoud, in the days after the plan goes awry, we develop a sympathy and an understanding of him too. He isn’t easy to shove in a box and explain in terms of good or evil. He is an amalgamation of events in his life, leading to justifications and rationalizations built upon the last.

“Because you either act or you are shipped back in a cage to face an anonymous fate that no one will care about anyway.”

As the novel reaches its final chapters, I found that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I also found that, strangely, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen. Often when reading we pass judgement or pick sides, rooting for one outcome over another. In this novel, the line between right and wrong is so blurred, I didn’t know where it was, or even where I thought it should be.

In a time when we find ourselves facing overwhelming discussions on the politics of refugees, on the morality of helping other countries, this novel is impeccably timed. It throws you in the middle of the conversation, but with such an intimacy to both sides that it will make you pause and consider them equally. The politics is kept subtle and the tone is not heavy-handed. It is a fictional story that simply makes you aware of the larger discussion in the world. And while it is timely, this novel could take place in any number of times or any number of places, so beautifully is it written.

One thing is for sure, if you like dark, gritty and morally ambiguous novels, this book is definitely for you. It is haunting and beautiful and will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

Thank you Blogging for Books and Hogarth Books for sending me a copy to read and review in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Gather The Daughters – Review

This review is going to contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read this book and are interested in it, please be warned. This book is also heavy with trigger issues, specifically, sexual abuse and violence, along with domestic abuse.

“Laughter for a boy, tears for a girl.”

That one sentence summarizes the horror of living as a girl in this disturbed society. Even calling this society disturbed doesn’t feel like enough. It is horrific and beyond understanding.

I went into this novel expecting creepy. I expected something bad and disturbing to happen. What I didn’t expect was the entire thing to be creepy and disturbing.

Gather The Daughters takes place on an island. This group of people live by the word of their ancestors, “The Ancestors”, who have rigid rules in place to keep everyone in line. They’ve been on the island, isolated from the rest of the world for generations.

The rest of the world is called, The Wastelands, and they are raised believing that fire and disease have eradicated the land. The Wanderers, a small group of men, are the only ones allowed to travel beyond the island and collect items from the wasteland. The Wanderers are also the enforcer of these rules from the Ancestors, although they can add to the rules as they wish. But they are in complete control of everyone’s life on the island.

We hear only from the viewpoint of a handful of daughters. Vanessa, Caitlin, Amanda and Janey. Vanessa is a wanderer’s daughter and so seemingly has it better than the rest. Caitlin is physically abused by her alcoholic father. Amanda is recently a married woman, having just finished her “summer of fruition” and is pregnant with her first child. And Janey, the small incredibly strong willed girl who starves herself in order to make sure she never turns into a woman.

All of this sounds like typical dystopian fiction, right? Yeah, until you realize that the reason it’s horrible to be a girl in this society is that fathers lie with their daughters. Yes, you read that right.

Okay. So, I’ve read some pretty dark and disturbing books in my life as a reader. And sometimes they deal with really icky issues like incest and rape and abuse. But in every book that I can recall, there was a point. A plot driven point that makes it understandable why the author chose to dive into these awful subjects. I wish I could say the same for this book. Sadly, I can’t.

Here are the main inconstancies that bother me. First, we are never given any information regarding the wasteland to really understand how this society emerged. We get hints and clues, but even more disturbingly, it seems that most of the facts regarding the devastation of the wastelands appears to be made up to keep everyone compliant. All I can gather is that the ancestors were a bunch of pedophiles that wanted to sleep with their daughters.

But even that doesn’t make sense because they came to the island with families! So how does a mother, growing up in a society that even somewhat resembles the one we live in, get on board with this?! How do TEN??? It’s beyond comprehension, and even more frustrating is that the author doesn’t even attempt to explain! For me, I could have stomached this society a little more if I had been given any explanation of how they were created. Or understand why the men continue to go along with it, when clearly The Wanderers know full well what is happening in the rest of the world. It feels incomplete and inadequate.

My other problem is there is zero redemption in the end. We are given the seeds of discontent through the discovery that women who are unhappy or perhaps a little too opinionated frequently “bleed out” and die. Except no one ever sees the body. However, this community is so controlled that it has never been raised or questioned. Until Janey wants justice for her friend.

Janey begins to rally the girls and forms a rebellion of sorts. But right when you think something will happen, something will spark a change or force this society to reveal details it doesn’t want revealed, a mysterious illness conveniently sweeps through and kills almost everyone. The Wanderers force everyone to remarry and decide to bring in more families from The Wastelands. To add to the genetic line. Which the ancestors wrote a warning about, needing to add to the gene pool.

But even the rebellion is problematic. If this is a society that has been bred in such tight control for so many years, and trained to believe that this is normal and natural, why would the girls feel it was wrong. The mother’s are sometimes described as being jealous of the father-daughter relationship, which feels more real in this sense than being horrified by it. So, where does the sense of “wrong” come from? I suppose the author is saying that there is an innate knowledge of wrong behavior, but coming from someone who works intimately with abused children, I’m a little surprised at that belief. Usually abused children aren’t aware that the abuse is wrong, unless they’re told to keep a secret, or some other indicator is given. But there have been plenty of cases where that behavior wasn’t given any morality and it was simply accepted. So where would these girls or fathers have learned any wrong-doing?

I didn’t understand what the point was. This novel was completely horror for horror’s sake. Trauma for trauma’s sake. We are fully immersed in this cult-like society where sleeping with your daughter is “cherished”. It is sick and twisted. Yet, we aren’t given any background to this society and in the end, nothing changes.

Vanessa’s father finds out that The Wanderers were behaving in ways that concern him, and he ends up taking his family away from the island in the dead of night. But even this isn’t redemption or closure. First, we never see what happens, or where they go. But mostly because he didn’t leave because he was remorseful of regretted sleeping with his prepubescent daughter. He left because he was afraid something might happen to her if she stayed. So he loves her. Abusers love their victims in their own way. It doesn’t excuse or forgive the abuse.

I don’t understand what the point of this novel was. I felt traumatized reading it. There was no helping these girls, or saving them from future horrors. Perhaps she meant to make art mimic life in that sense, but the result is simply tragic and horrific.

The novel felt incomplete to me. Whenever an author takes on issues of this magnitude, I do feel that they have an even greater obligation to be sure to handle the subject matter appropriately. First, there was no warning regarding the content of the book. I felt that was misleading and dangerous. Second, the subject is so extreme, that it needed more. It needed a history of the Wastelands, a more solid idea of what that world was like to at least attempt to explain this society. Or, it needed to be more honest about the nature of the men. That they simply were predators relishing this power they held. By trying to make Vanessa’s father sympathetic, even though he is an abuser, is dishonest and misleading. It needed a point to the rebellion or at least some catalyst for change.

I did not enjoy the book. It was a weird glimpse into a sick society.

Thank you to Little, Brown for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

 

 

The Reminders – Review

“That’s how it is with people’s brains. There’s only enough room for the most important memories and the rest gets thrown away.”

Joan Lennon Sully is a ten year old girl, normal in every way except one. She was born with a rare ability to remember most days of her life. It isn’t photographic memory where she can recall every little thing. But most memories and days are as easy to recall in her mind as playing a video on YouTube. Her dad is a musician and her mom is a teacher, and to Joan, nothing is more important than writing a song so that the world remembers her the way she remembers the world. That and saving the family studio.

Gavin Winters is a long-time family friend to the Sully family. When tragedy strikes his partner, all Gavin wants to do is burn everything that reminds him of Sydney. So he does. In the backyard. In front of the entire country.

Needing an escape, he flees across the country and finds refuge with the Sully’s. But refuge isn’t exactly what Gavin thought it would be. Because he finds that while he wants nothing more than to forget everything about Sydney, he also can’t stand how much he misses him. So when Joan offers him a bargain, her memories for his song-writing help, an alliance is born.

“And I hardly noticed that somewhere along the line, I had adopted a trusted sidekick.”

I cannot capture how much I loved this novel. It is so sweet and heartfelt and genuine. I was moved to tears multiple times by the raw honesty that Emmich captures in his characters. Parents struggling to find their way, not just as parents but as adults moving through their careers and life. A little girl trying to figure out how to fit in when her ability makes it so hard. And a man, struggling through the pain and heartache of grief, so intense you feel the loss of his partner in every page.

As Gavin relives each Sydney experience through Joan, he also faces a hard truth. What if his quest for more uncovers something he doesn’t want to know? Grief takes us on strange journeys. We want to relive our memories, and hear everything everyone has to say. But at the same time, we want to close that piece of ourselves off, because it’s too painful, too big, too hard.

“He seldom opened his mouth at home and yet he managed to take so much sound with him when he died.”

People in our lives leave so much more than a physical absence when they die. They close the door to possibility. This sentence to me is so bittersweet and beautiful, because it captures that gaping hole and the silent slam of that door. No more will he walk in the room, or answer the phone, or snore. The emptiness isn’t only emotional, it’s visceral and physical and real.

But rather than end up with a novel that is heavy with grief, Emmich added Joan. Her chapters are full of the vibrancy that a ten year child would have. She is smart and capable and so funny.

“I’m learning that when Gavin says something nice, there’s always something else that comes after it, so I think from now on, I need to listen to only the first thing he says and then quickly run out of the room.”

Her sharp observations about what adults do will have you laughing, not just at her, but often at yourself. It is this exact vibrancy that Gavin sees and can’t stay away from. She is his gateway to a view of Sydney no one else can give him, but she is also a window into the world beyond grief. She helps bring him back to life and reminds him that life does go on.

The blend between aching grief and lighthearted tenderness is so well done. Everything is this book is so raw and honest, and yet written in such a way that you find yourself smiling throughout, even in the hardest moments.

My other favorite thing about this book is that it isn’t cynical or bitter. That isn’t to say that Emmich doesn’t dive into some deep topics, or that he shies away from exploring heavy emotion. But it is so well balanced that you don’t feel burdened or bought down by it. After reading several thrillers, this book was exactly what I needed, and I am so happy I got to know Joan and Gavin.

Ok, so I lied, I actually have another favorite thing: the music. Watching the lyrics to the song Gavin and Joan write together was amazing to read. And to get the different perspectives and thoughts on music and how it impacts our lives was so interesting.

Gavin’s struggle is one that is more relatable on the surface, grief has impacted us all on some level in our lives. But even Joan is written so well that her struggles becomes easy to identify with as well. Joan’s memory makes her stand apart, and while people think that she’s special, this ability actually makes her life difficult. She takes memory incredibly personally and gets frustrated that people don’t remember things as vividly as she does, if they remember the event at all. And this is what makes music so important to Joan. The fact that it makes people memorable. It’s long lasting and survives the frailty of people’s memories.

“To win the contest I’ll need a song that make people want to dance or cry. Those are the two strongest feelings music can give you. When people dance they forget and when they cry they remember.”

She is terrified that she’ll be forgotten, and to her, that is the worst fate.

The author, Val Emmich, is actually a musician, and you can feel and hear that throughout the novel. He even wrote the actual song that Gavin and Joan write. If you listen to the audio version, you get to hear it. And no worries! If audio books aren’t your thing, you can find it HERE Listening to the song makes the book come alive in such a beautiful way, I encourage everyone to listen after they’ve finished!

This was easily the most beautiful book I’ve read in 2017. It is tender and loving and so full of life, these adjectives simply can’t do it justice. I really think this is a book that will find it’s way into your heart and you won’t regret reading it!

Thank you so much to Little, Brown for hosting the contest to chat with the author! I won and that interview, along with a chance to win an awesome prize, will be up SOON!!!!!! Stay tuned…..

Slipsliding by the Bay – Review

“We can’t stay locked in the past. That’s one of the temptations of the ivory tower, to fall into the trap of complacency.”

Slipsliding by the Bay was a fun, quirky read. The book follows the trials and tribulations of a struggling Lakeside University in the 1970’s. Lakeside has been struggling for a few years, and a new President, John Gudewill, is determined to set things right. But no matter what he does, it seems that both students and faculty alike are determined to have things go their own way. Even if their way leads to the continued failures of Lakeside.

“Do you ever have the feeling we’re merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”

Each chapter is short and follows one of the characters. We hear from Eliot, the snobby English professor determined to Unionize the University, regardless of the consequences. Lucy, the sexy librarian who has her own agenda regarding Lakeside. Stein, Gudewills assistant, who does his best to keep tabs on all the plots and scandals. Along with a handful of students, some of which aren’t really worried about the future of Lakeside or the dysfunctional happenings of the campus.

Setting the book in the 1970’s gives it a unique flavor, and really makes the politics of the campus interesting to read. After the rebellious 60’s, there are many people, faculty and alumni alike, who are hoping that the protests and social justice movements become a thing of the past. But the students realize that going backwards isn’t the answer, and do everything they can to help move the campus forward.

I really liked the way McDonald framed the larger social issues of society at the time within the framework of the college campus. The book actually covers a lot of ground and gives a good perspective of the social unrest of the time. It also gives a good feel for how the issues and ideals that triggered the sixties formed the framework for larger change.

McDonald captured the contentious relationship that every generation faces with the past. Here, you have young idealists, who see the power of social revolution, wanting only to have a voice in their own futures, battling an older generation who simply wants to go back to the way things were when they themselves were young. While previous generations may not remember their youth as being quite as rebellious or contentious, I think in their own way, youth always rebels against the norms of their parents. The seventies were no different.

With the short chapters and the diverse cast of characters, this book reads like a fun caper. Each miscommunication and mishap unfolds like a comedic tragedy. The comedy isn’t just in the quirky characters, but in the irony of the results. McDonald captures the stubbornness of human nature, and our sheer refusal to sometimes step back and see the bigger picture. Lack of willingness to communicate leads to an outcome that could have been avoided. The lesson is that this is true in many facets of life and continues to unfold in similar ways over and over and over again in current events.

The politics of academia was also really well done. It wasn’t surprising to read that McDonald had been employed by a University, because she does seem to really understand the dynamics that each individual and collective group brought to the campus. Reading on the impact that Unionization could have, and the arguments for and against the changes were interesting and very well done.

“There comes a time in the economic life of an institution when it must become pragmatic and ruthless.”

I found that quote to be at the heart of not just the politics of this campus, but probably many campuses everywhere. Where do you draw the line between providing a good education and maintaining profit? Looking back on how colleges have changed over the years, it was compelling to read about a campus in the midst of that transition and crisis.

Slipsliding by the Bay was a joy to read. I read the book in a day. Again, it was a fast and fun read. My one downfall with the book is the ending felt a little abrupt and several characters were sort of quickly faded out, so it felt rushed. But, I suppose that in the spectrum of life, the ending wasn’t the point. This book was more about the journey than the destination.

Thank you to BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending me a copy of this book to read and review as part of their pop up blog tour!

After Life – Review

“To learn the true value of something, all you had to do was lose it.”

After Life is a stunning book, that was so unexpected I am still reeling from it. If you want to read a novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat and constantly surprise you, this is a MUST READ!

Will Brody is an FBI agent, tracking a sniper wreaking havoc in Chicago. Claire McCoy worries he takes too many risks on the job, worries one night he won’t make it home. Her concern even more complicated because more than just his lover, she is also his boss.

Claire, running on no sleep and intense pressure to catch the sniper who is wreaking havoc and terror in Chicago, feels herself on exhausted and on edge. She wants to stop the madness. Brody in the field, focused on finding the same sniper no matter the risk, no matter the cost, doesn’t help. The city is wrapped in panic, the fear so intense it is a living, breathing thing.

“Maybe there was no bottom to fear. Maybe that was what made it fear.”

Yet, somehow amidst all this chaos, all this fear and panic and terror, Claire and Brody found each other and fell in love.

When this chase ends in an explosion, Brody wakes up, not a scratch on his body. But, the Chicago he wakes up in is dark, seemingly abandoned and eerily quiet. The relief he feels when he spots other people is short lived when they chase him with weapons. Whatever world he woke up in, it wasn’t the one he lived his entire life in.

Claire mourns Will, feeling the loss of him harder than anything she’s known before. Already running on empty, she can’t face her empty apartment. Strange dreams in an anonymous hotel room lead her down a path she can’t walk away from.

To quote the jacket, “What if death is just the beginning.”

And this is all THE BEGINNING of the novel! Worried I put spoilers in there? NOPE! That’s all in the description and the jacket. This my friends, is the beginning of a novel that throws all the rules of plot out the window and does whatever the hell it wants!

I’m going to try and wrap my thoughts on this book, nice and neat, without giving away any spoilers.

I opened this book expected a thriller. A standard suspense novel where an FBI agent tracks a serial killer. Sure, it says on the cover, “the love story from the film Ghost dropped into The Matrix.” I figured there would be some supernatural elements. Fine, great! Not even close. You really have to forget everything you think you’re expecting and just go along for the ride with this one. After Life will push the boundaries of your imagination and demand your full attention.

Claire and Brody are chasing more than just a serial killer. This novel is more than suspense, more than a supernatural thriller. It is an exploration of life and death, fear and love.

“It turned out that there was a difference between knowing you’d never see someone again and knowing they were dead.”

If you have problems with the idea of any sort of afterlife that deviates from any strict religious doctrine, this probably isn’t the book for you. After Life takes you into a world of life after death. A world where things are both familiar and unfamiliar.

I reference the cover earlier, where this book is described as a cross between Ghost and The Matrix. It is, but it isn’t. To me, this book felt much more a result of Dante’s Inferno meets The Odyssey. It is bold and iconic and epic. Brody and Claire journey farther in their duty to restore peace in the world we all know, and fight hard to ensure that their love doesn’t simply fade away and die out.

I highly recommend this book and am not surprised that Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have already embarked on making this into a movie. The plot is masterful, the emotions intense and palpable, and the characters scream with vivid life. If I had one piece of advice to give a reader, it is this: suspend what you think you know. Stop trying to figure it out. Simply let yourself be taken on the journey Sakey has written.

There are many books that examine the war between life and death. That showcase battles between good and evil. Books that take us on love stories that fill our hearts and ones that break them. But none are like this.

“Two lovers in the path of destruction they could not avoid.”

And for all that Sakey has written, all that he has created and plotted, he somehow manages to write an ending that allows for each reader to draw their own conclusions. Not of the story, we are left with a satisfying end. But to decide what it means. What the journey meant, what the future holds. He gives us the end of a story that is still ripe with possibility.

Beyond the existential debate on death and what it means, or life and what it means. Beyond the discussion of fear and terror, of good and bad, of right and wrong. Beyond all that, After Life is a love story. Two souls bound together, and the power of what that sort of love can achieve. What ends it can reach, what boundaries it can push. Life is a power. Death is a power. Fear is a power. And love is a power that can break through them all.

Thank you Amazon Publishing and Little Bird Publicity for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review. I can’t wait to see this brought to life!

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined – Review

“This whole trip could have been set up to prove it to me once and for all. Life isn’t fair, and anything is possible.”

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined is a stunning book. It so fully captures the heartbreaking nature of living. The depth and warmth and aching beauty of this book will stay with me for a long, long time.

Ingrid grew up listening to her mother sing. They traveled throughout Europe and her mother always encouraged her to follow her dreams and believe in herself. Until that career came to an unexpected end, and they moved into a smaller, more normal life.

“We believed in hard work, but we also believed in magic.”

Somehow, years later, Ingrid finds herself thrown into a summertime wilderness survival trip, made in a strange negotiation with her mother in order to go to the school of her dreams. The magic her mother believed in, that she taught Ingrid to believe in, had disappeared. To have to prove her determination to follow her dreams, to her own mother, is unbelievable to Ingrid. She treks into the wilderness feeling alone but simmering with an anger that makes her more determined than ever.

I adored Ingrid. Adored her! If I had known her as a teenager, we probably would have been friends. She is smart, and funny, and quirky. But she also has had an artist for a mother. An artist who wasn’t always as stable and reliant and motherly as she needed. As a result, she is a very adult teenager. But still a teenager. She swings between emotions whiplash quick at times. She feels the magic of first love and finding her passion, but also feels the fear children feel when parents behave in odd and unpredictable ways.

It’s hard sometimes to capture the tumultuous nature of adolescence. Or, at least to capture an aspect of it that can be relatable to a wide audience. Not everyone lived an unstable life growing up. Or had emotional issues. Or problems with the law. And often, we find main characters struggling through some sort of extreme in many YA novels.

And don’t get me wrong. Ingrid is struggling through some heavy issues. But the way Young-Ullman draws us into the story, through a series of journal letters, flashes to the past and narration of the current story, we get to know Ingrid before we understand what happened. I really liked that, because especially in a situation like a wilderness survival trip, that is how we get to know people. True, this is more intimate, but it is still a relationship that develops slowly. With each letter, with each flash to the past, you can’t help but feel for Ingrid. She may have grown up in a glamorous setting, in a privileged way, but that doesn’t mean it has been easy for her.

I haven’t specifically been through a trip like Ingrid’s. But I have been through plenty of therapy, group included, and these often included group interaction in activities like ropes courses and problem solving and other similar activities that Pat and Bonnie lead this group through. If the author hadn’t been through some sort of similar experience, I would be shocked because she absolutely nailed it. The frustration, and embarrassment, and fear, and even the close friendships that can develop.

These types of therapies are popular for a variety of reasons. And sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I happen to agree with Ingrid in many of her assessments and reactions, but not everyone will. However, even if you don’t agree, or haven’t been through any similar activities, I think everyone will relate to Ingrid, on some level. The author did an excellent job of balancing this piece of the novel; however, and the result shows you the good and the bad.

I also loved how the author used Pat and Bonnie to demonstrate the fine line therapies like this can walk. They represent the different theories and approaches that these programs can take. I loved the other participants in these programs. They were all very vivd characters, full of refreshing depth. Writing a variety of at-risk youth in a way that makes them feel well-developed and real isn’t easy, and was done incredibly well. Honestly, everything was solid and realistic.

Everything Beautiful is such a beautiful book. We all struggle through heartbreak and grief in our lives. Sometimes we are young, sometimes we are old, and while each experience is unique to the circumstance, the raw power of those emotions are so similar in us all. We feel Ingrid’s pain, her anger, her stubbornness. We watch as the solitude of this experience forces her to face the things she doesn’t want to face.

Nature has always been a source of centering and a way to find yourself. Getting lost in the balance of nature forces us to face ourselves in the most raw way. I loved how this setting was used to peel away the layers of Ingrid and her own stubborn nature. Sometimes we need extreme measures to face extreme emotions, and this novel captured every detail of this extremeness perfectly.

“In your eyes you look better. Fast rivers and slow forests seem to agree with you.”

Ingrid isn’t cured, or fixed, or healed by the end. Nothing about this novel was cliche or predictable or boring. I felt the entire time that I was experiencing the life of a teenage girl, struggling through a difficult time, and finding some understanding but no real answers. Which I absolutely loved.

By the end, my heart ached for Ingrid. Not in a heartbreaking way, although there is heartbreak on many levels in this book. But heartbreaking in the way growing up always is. Our hearts break a million different tiny ways in our lives, and a handful of big ways. They break and they heal and we are stronger for it.

“Instead I stand under the giant sky counting stars, feeling scared and raw, but at the same time full, fierce, open.”

I highly, highly recommend this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began, and flew through it. Ingrid found her way into my heart. Danielle Young-Ullman is an author I will definitely be reading more of!

Thank you to Xpresso Book Tours for sending me this book to read and review in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.