Friday, May 1, 2015

Book Review: My Name is Bryan by Stacy Lynn Carrol

Title: My Name is Bryan
Author: Stacy Lynn Carrol
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: A clean read

Bryan is a recent high school graduate with his whole life ahead of him when he's paralyzed in a cliff jumping accident on a church-sponsored camping trip. Despite these challenges, Bryan forges ahead with his life, marrying, going to college, having children and a successful career, all while bound to a wheelchair with diminishing use of his hands.

Stacy Lynn Carroll says that My Name is Bryan is "based on a true story," but the book includes photos of Bryan (who is Stacy's father-in-law) and his family. It feels a lot more like a biography in narrative form than something that is "based on" a true story. I remember being in my MFA classes and my professors saying that writers who try to write fiction based on real life have a hard time changing how things really happened, even when it makes a story better. This is a case where I feel like the author is too close to the source. She doesn't take risks with the story or the narrative and seems to have the audience (family) in her sights at all times. This story is inspirational and the mechanics of her writing are fine, but I think it would have been a better read for me if I knew what it was (a family story) when I went into reading it.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: Time of the Fireflies by Kimberley Griffiths Little

Title: The Time of the Fireflies
Author: Kimberley Griffiths Little
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: a little scary for true middle graders

Larissa Renaud isn't afraid of her family's antique shop, in a big old Victorian house in Louisiana, but she is creeped out by the doll case, which houses a doll that seems to follow her with its eyes. Then, antique phones start ringing, and every time Larissa answers, a girl is there to give her directions about something she needs to do. Larissa soon realizes that she needs to right a wrong from deep in her family's past in order to save the life of her mother and infant sister in the present.

The Time of the Fireflies is a well-crafted, engrossing story. It was one of the Whitney books that really captured me this year, and kept me reading for pleasure rather than duty. She does a lovely job capturing the bayou setting of the novel, and of tackling the challenges of writing in multiple time periods. It's interesting to me that this book was considered middle grade. Larissa is twelve, but could just as easily be fourteen, and the book felt more like a YA Speculative novel (and would have been my clear favorite if in that category). This book, with it's dark magic and incredibly scary doll, would scare the freaking pants off of either of my middle grade readers. As an adult reader, I loved the story and Larissa, but still had to fight the urge to look deeply into the eyes of the dolls all around my house.

Book Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Title: Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive #2)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Violence

An assassin is taking out the leaders of Roshar, and Kaladin is charged with protecting his king from meeting a similar fate. The world is on the brink of war from many fronts, and Shallan works her considerable skill to prevent the return of the Voidbringers.

While fans of The Way of Kings, fans of Sanderson, fans of high fantasy, fans of good writing will probably enjoy Words of Radiance, whenever I read a book with lots and lots of world building and hundreds of names to keep track of, I feel the same kind of panic that I feel when I go to see the symphony. I have an appreciation of the parts, but it doesn't move me-- I recognize that there is great writing, great description, great storytelling going on here, but I feel like I'm looking at it through a thick pane of glass-- it's hard for me to engage, like it's written in a different language. I can appreciate on an intellectual level that this book is undoubtedly the most skillfully crafted speculative novel this year, and likely the best novel of the Whitneys, but it's one that I appreciate distantly rather than embrace.

Book Review: This Darkness Light by Michaelbrent Collings

Title: This Darkness Light
Author: Michaelbrent Collings
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence and gore, swearing

John should be dead. He's been shot through the heart, then nearly assassinated again while recuperating in the hospital, when the killer left a trail of bodies in his wake. The only survivors are John and Serafina, who escape on a cross-country journey to outrun death. But gradually they realize that John is anything but normal, and death seems to be following them.

This Darkness Light is faced-paced and interesting. Collings knows how to move the action forward, and includes lots of minor characters and different voices in a way that allows readers to retain a sense of momentum in the novel. You know how a Dan Brown novel is almost impossible to put down, even when the reader recognizes that the story is totally implausible? This Darkness Light has a bit of the same quality. It reminded me quite a lot of Justin Cronin's The Passage, with many narrators and some characters who seem immune to worldwide apocalypse. The book is quite gory, but also pretty entertaining.

Book Review: The Accidental Apprentice by Anika Arrington

Title: The Accidental Apprentice (Accidental Magik #1)
Author: Anika Arrington
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Some violence

Redzin the magician wants to prove himself to the king, but his access has been limited by his boss, the Baron von Dappenshien. When von Dappenshien finds himself on the wrong side of the law, Redzin relies on Tommy, a street urchin, to help him lie low. In exchange, Tommy becomes his apprentice.

Honestly, I had a really hard time with this book. I read about 50 pages, then got sidetracked by something else, and when I came back to it, I was completely lost. There are a lot of voices in the novel, multiple characters, even minor characters, narrate, all in first person, and I had a hard time keeping the characters straight. Furthermore, although the protagonist is an adult, this felt like a YA novel. Maybe it was something to do with the dialogue or the magical fantasy setting, but it felt more like a confusing Harry Potter with Dumbledore as the main protagonist.

Book Review: Pretty Little Dead Girls by Mercedes M. Yardley

Title: Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Tale of Murder and Whimsy
Author: Mercedes M. Yardley
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Violence

This year the Whitney finalists in the speculative category included two novels by Mercedes M. Yardley. Her other novel, Nameless, was published first and therefore also eligible for the Best Novel by a New Author award. As I read both novels (and the rest of the books in the "new author" category), I kept lamenting that Pretty Little Dead Girls wasn't published first, because it was a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Everyone knows that Bryony Adams is marked for murder. The people in the small desert town in which she grew up all knew that one day the desert would come out and claim her. But somehow, she lives. She lives through childhood and adolescence and college, and then moves to Seattle and starts her life. Whenever it seems like she might just be on the cusp of being murdered, someone else seems to step in to take her place.

The best thing about Pretty Little Dead Girls is the voice. Yardley writes in a third person "Dear Reader" voice reminiscent of Charles Dickens. I also really enjoyed the fact that although the book was in the speculative category and there was a degree of magic involved, the book really didn't feel like a speculative novel, since the action was based on relationships and characters. Speaking of characters, the serial killer who stalks Bryony in the second half of the novel is more interesting than the husband, whose backing out at the last minute seemed flimsy.

Book Review: Nameless by Mercedes M. Yardley

Title: Nameless: The Darkness Comes
Author: Mercedes M. Yardley
Enoyment Rating: **
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: violence, some mild language

In the room right in front of you, you may see humans, you may see no one. If Luna Masterson were with you, chances are good that she would see demons. For as long as she can remember, these demons have followed her everywhere, trying to get her to make choices to advance their demony agenda. As a result, Luna is prickly. The only people she's truly close to are her brother and his one-year-old daughter, and when that daughter goes missing, Luna won't stop until she's found her, no matter where the demons lead her.

Luna is a really engaging protagonist. She's very flawed but has a good heart, which makes her relatable. She's also funny, tough, and brave in her actions even if she's scared on the inside. She's also quick to judge and impulsive. I enjoyed her budding relationship with Reed Taylor (a guy who could see angels, and therefore an interesting foil), but didn't like the feeling that we were moving from one big action movie scene to the next. If this book were made into a movie, they'd have to have a big budget for demonic fight scenes-- Nameless is chock full of them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe

Title: Death Coming Up the Hill
Author: Chris Crowe
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Difficult subjects (war and family dysfunction) but a clean read

The year is 1968 and the war in Vietnam provides a backdrop for the domestic struggle going on in Ashe's home. His mom is a peacenik who buys him "Hell no, we won't go" t-shirts, and his dad is a hawk who takes every word that drops from Walter Cronkite's mouth as gospel truth until the moment Cronkite suggests that America might want to retreat from the war. As the year progresses and Ashe's own views on the war start to solidify, events that are outside of his control threaten his future. This is a story about family, fear, love, growing up, and facing responsibility.

That's a book you might want to read just based on the synopsis, right? Now, what if I told you the entire book is written as a series of haiku. There are 16,592 syllables in Death Coming Up the Hill, one for each American killed in Vietnam in 1968. That might scare some readers, and if I'd known that was how the book was written before I got home with it, it might have scared me off. But these are not your average haiku. The book reads like a novel, and also like a beautiful poem. At one point, Crowe says that it's what's in the gaps that are important in Death Coming Up the Hill, and he does a great job telling the story while leaving gaps for us to fill in. I love literary fiction that experiments with form when it doesn't detract with from the narrative, and this form works to enhance the narrative. The book is a remarkable achievement, one that captures what it feels to be seventeen in 1968 (as my mother was), what it feels like to face a war, and what it feels like to be in a family that's falling apart. All in all, this is a beautiful, startling, sad, and immensely readable book.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry

Title: Blood on the Water (William Monk #20)
Author: Anne Perry
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Violence

Captain William Monk of the London River Police and his deputy are on the Thames one night, enjoying the sunset and the view of a pleasure cruise boat when the boat suddenly bursts into flames, and Monk springs into action, rescuing as many survivors as possible. But when the night is over, nearly 200 people are dead. Within days, the case has been taken from Monk, and he smells a conspiracy that he, his wife Hester, and his disgraced friend Oliver Rathbone work to uncover.

Initially, I thought that Blood on the Water did a nice job doing what so few sequels do well-- introducing the regular characters in a way that got new readers up to speed without bogging down the story for regular readers. However, as the story wore on, I found that I was so bored. Perry spends a lot of time with Monk and Hester, but not much time at all with the potential villains. The story quickly becomes bigger than just finding a bad guy, because there are many bad guys, but none she makes me care about. And I'm going to be a spoiler here, so don't read the rest of this if you want to read the book and be surprised, but it turns out that the major villains are people that dedicated William Monk fans already know-- they already care about them. But me? Not at all. And if I don't care much about the villain, and there's not a lot of character development going on for the heroes, then it's not a book I care much about.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Almost Super by Marion Jensen

Title: Almost Super
Author: Marion Jensen
Enjoyment Rating: **** (if I were a ten-year-old)
Source: Library copy

Rafter and Benny Bailey are sure of two things: 1) on the first leap year after their twelfth birthday, they will get a super power (just like everyone else in the Bailey family), and 2) they will use this superpower to fight the Johnsons, the supervillains who live in town. But when February 29th rolls around, Rafter and Benny are disappointed to receive (ahem) underwhelming powers-- Rafter can light matches on polyester and Benny can change his belly button from an innie to an outie. When they return to school, the find an unusual ally in Juanita Johnson, and together they learn that there are bigger fights, manipulations and subterfuges going on than the skirmishes between the Baileys and the Johnsons.

Almost Super is everything a ten-year-old reader would love. It's funny, with plenty of action. But as an adult reader, I appreciated the deeper themes of the novel. Rafter, Benny and Juanita come to realize that there's more in life to being super, and that the way a story has been framed for them their whole lives might only represent a partial truth. They also discover something I think kids might both embrace and fear-- the idea that adults don't have all of the answers. Almost Super was an entertaining read for me, and one that I'm sure my kids will enjoy as well.