Tag Archives: young adult

Review of With Malice by Eileen Cook

As if often the case I received this book free for the purposes of review. Despite that kindness I’m absolutely candid below.

The summary on this one is pretty typical; we open with our protagonist unsure of where she is or what has gone on for the past six weeks. Her friend is dead and she stands accused. Yet she can’t remember a thing. The novel unfurls as everyone around her tries to figure out what exactly came to pass.

This is a YA novel and I tend to judge those somewhat differently than I do others in the adult genres. The first question to be asked is whether there’s anything in this novel that I wouldn’t want my own kids to read. On that note, it’s a bit rough in the language department. There is a fair amount of profanity and some reference to sex but it’s nothing major or hard core. It’s just something to watch out for. It should be also noted that the overall arc of this story is NOT a lesson that I would want my children to internalize. It’s hard to be more specific without accidentally creating a spoiler but suffice to say that if my kids behaved this way I’d have to shake my head and walk away.

Secondly, is there anything in this book that’s positive that I would consider a positive message for kids. The book demonstrates the creation of a great friendship built between two people in very different layers of society. That is good to see, but unfortunately the rest is a spiraling maelstrom of jealousy and deceit and people just generally being jerks to each other. So there’s not much positive in that.

Lastly, the question is, will readers find it enjoyable. On that count, they just might, mostly on the basis of the complete deficiency of anything positive to say in question two. If you like them dark and beyond any redemption then this is a book for you. It is a very easily consumed little novel that you could swallow in several hours but the question is will you like the taste in your mouth once you eat it?

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Book Reviews: Guardian of the Gold Breathers by Elise Stephens

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I received this book free for review from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review. Despite the privilege of receiving a free book, I’m absolutely candid about it below because I believe authors and readers will benefit most from honest reviews rather than vacuous 5-star reviews.

The nutshell on this book is that it’s a fairly standard one of the genre in which a young person finds that they are somehow special or exceptional and must overcome some set of trials in order to achieve an elevated status in the world. Just think Harry Potter and the like.

This is a YA novel so I consider three simple questions when evaluating it. The first is to ask if I there’s any reason I wouldn’t want my kids to read it. I have a zero-tolerance attitude when it comes to sex and drugs and this one is clean as a whistle in that respect. Kids won’t pick up any negative lessons and they certainly won’t learn any “new” words. For those that are of a deeply religious bent, do know there is magic and the like.

One small word of caution, however, that requires a non-specific spoiler. Our hero goes about his journey and comes to a conclusion that from the perspective of those not in the know, looks exactly like getting burned alive. I would not want readers to somehow get the impression that the best way to escape a troubling family situation has any resemblance whatsoever to actual death. I think the risk is fairly small but it is something to note.

The second question is to ask if there’s any reason I would want my kids to read it. I love when a book teaches a lesson and this one does a fair job of demonstrating the virtues of loyalty and dedication to a goal. While I don’t think these themes are necessarily front and center to the narrative they are present and certainly not overly intrusive to the story.

The last question is to ponder whether kids will actually want to read it. In this case, I think the story is a rich one and it gives the reader plenty to enjoy and look forward to on each succeeding page. My only reservation is that kids might get a tad confused because the book seems to lack continuity in places. I won’t go into specifics but it feels like the book has been cut down from a longer version and sometimes references to previous events creep in that were edited out. I can’t validate this, of course, but a few times I asked myself, “When did THAT happen?”

In summary, reading this as an adult I found it pretty entertaining and it is a solid entrant in the YA market. The aspect that stands out for me most is the ending. The author closed this story in a way that balanced closure and uncertainty brilliantly. I’d be intensely interested in reading a sequel; this could bloom into a wonderful series of books akin to Pern.

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Books: Love and Cola Wars (*****) [YA]

Firstly, and as usual, I received this book free from the author directly for the purposes of review. Despite that kindness I give my usual candid and sometimes acerbic opinions below.

To begin, this is a young adult novel so my criteria for judgement are different than I would tend to apply to an adult novel. The first question to be answered is whether this book contains anything inappropriate for the target audience. On this account, the book is acceptable. There is some mild reference to sex but the characters respond in a realistic and appropriate manner when the topic arises. There’s little of a violent nature and no use of drugs though there is reference to alcohol and attempts to gain such before legal age. There is also a fair amount of sneaking about and lying to adults but this is far from unusual in any book featuring children.

The second question is whether or not there’s anything positive in this book that I would want my kids to read. On the surface this is a modernized Romeo and Juliet with all the usual trappings of young love and obsession. Taken completely at face value the whole thing is rather inane and vapid but there’s a strong undercurrent that’s worth paying attention to. Avoiding spoilers, in this fictional world everything is sponsored from Coke and Pepsi High School to Microsoft University and these affiliations divide the world in a very strict manner. These rigid commercial castes, if you will, are a potent illustration of our own society’s stratified structure. I have no idea if any of this was intentional on the part of the author but I was struck by the way this sociological lesson was presented in a vivid and relateable manner.

The last question I ask is whether the young reader will be entertained. I would have to say that’s a strong possibility among teenage girls. This is an upbeat view of the life of a teenager in love from the inside that’s just modern enough that the readers might see themselves in the main character. I do have my concerns about whether the theme of corporate sponsorship will make these readers turn away since it does at times come across as almost silly, but it’s worth a shot.

In summary, an intriguing little story that at first aroused my strong suspicions but turned out to be more than I expected. Or, at the least, I saw more in it than I expected to. Light, fun and entertaining with a thread of a lesson if you seek it out.

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Today in new Books – 1/28/2014

It’s a big day in new book releases… or more likely it’s a normal day and I just happen to have read more of these than usual. Either way, here’s what I got on this day in book publishing history.


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The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress (****)
As usual, I didn’t pay anything for this book but instead received it for free directly from the publisher. Also as usual, despite that kindness I will proceed to be completely honest about it.

At a high level, this book is the speculative history of the disappearance of Joseph Force Crater in 1930. At the time the story kept the world riveted to their newspapers and was the object of much editorial speculation. This narrative cobbles the story together from the perspective of the women in Judge Crater’s life.

On the positive side, Lawhon’s novel is set in a wonderfully provocative period in history and gives us a story as capable of captivating an audience as it was 80 years ago. Lawhon’s characters are believable and sympathetic and she renders them wonderfully. She also very skillfully weaves her fictional threads through the facts of the case in a way that gives it great credibility. In her ending notes, she describes some of the liberties she took with the story and based on these tiny provisos, she has been very true to the tale which inspired her.

To the negative, despite the above, the novel does seem to take a while to get started. It took a week to get through the first half and a day to get through the last half. This is not the sort of novel that immediately inspires one to long persistent reading, though it does eventually gain momentum. Also, despite the wonderfully entertaining locale and time period, one cannot help but think it was not put to as great a use as it could be. While it was easy to tell we were in the 1930s, the story didn’t take full advantage of that fact. I would have anticipated greater use of the language of the times and a truer rendering of the culture.

In summary, a great story set in a grand part of history. For fans of the historical this is one not to miss. It only falls short in that it fails to full realize the potential of just how colorful such a venue can be to the reader. I liked it but wanted to like it more.


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Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy (*****)
As usual I received this book for free just so I’d review it. Also as usual I’ll give my candid opinions below.

Since this is a child’s book I don’t judge by my usual criteria but explore two basic questions. The first is whether I would want my child to read it. To this I say most assuredly yes. It has a strong lesson to teach about following your own path, bravery and never giving up and being systematic in everything you do. As a fairly logical person I would like every chance to influence my children in that particular regard especially! More importantly, the book contains nothing one could consider even remotely of concern for young audiences. No sex, no drugs, just a bit of adventure, petty theft and lying to one’s parents. OK, maybe not the best example but not like some of the terrible YA stuff I’ve come across.

The second question is whether I think my kids would want to read it at all. This is always difficult to judge but it does have characters that kids can relate to and a pretty entertaining story line. The vocabulary is not especially daunting and the action picks up from the every first paragraph so I think this one has a chance at setting the hook.

So in summary, I was entertained enough reading it and I think kids will be too. I have no concerns about the lesson they’ll get out of it and they might learn something positive too if they’re not careful. Exactly the sort of book I wold have liked as a youngster.


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This Dark Road to Mercy: A Novel (****)
As usual I received this book via the grand courtesy of the publisher through a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that great kindness my candid opinions follow.

The summary of this one is a bit tough because it’s so many things at once. It is, in equal parts, the story of children forced to grow up before their time, dark criminal suspense and sad story of parenthood failed. As if that’s not enough, there’s also a thread of baseball history and doping thrown in for good measure. The narrative is done in a panoramic style as we hear in first person from the oldest child, the hero and the villain in approximately equal parts.

On the positive side, the circumspect narrative style really gives the reader a detailed look at the situation from all sides. The story has a lot to say about fatherhood and whether that title is given by right or must be earned and delves into the complex situations of parenting in an intriguing way that’s not often seen in such an otherwise gritty novel. The author’s female characters are charming and evoke a great deal of pity from the reader and one inwardly roots for them as they make their way through the short span of time portrayed in the book. This one touches a lot of genres at once and never fails to keep the reader guessing.

To the negative, the narrative switches can sometimes be rather jarring and confusing. The first transition comes 35 pages in and I completely missed it and had to go back and reread a few pages to figure out why the eldest daughter was suddenly sitting in a bar. Once primed to expect it things settled down but this wasn’t the best executed thing about the book. Also, the female characters were very lifelike but the villain seemed rather flat and we missed his back story. He and his heroic counterpart lacked “pop” and didn’t quite pull the reader along behind them as the girls did. Lastly, on the topic of language, it’s worth noting that the narrators tell the story in their own distinct southern vernacular and this is not limited to actual dialog. So those who are appalled by “ain’t got no” and “ain’t hardly no” should be steeled for the fact that these characters have uniquely southern voices.

In summary, a very diverse and well executed book with something for everyone. Fans of gritty crime suspense will find a bit of something to tantalize them; those looking for child-welfare drama will be well served and baseball fans can relive a bit of the late-90s doping drama.

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Six Months and 86 Books Later… Part 1

I realized yesterday that it was a bit over six months ago that I opened a GoodReads account and started requesting review copies of books. It’s funny because it feels to me like ages. During that time I’ve learned quite a few lessons, encountered some unexpectedly good (and bad) books and gotten what I hope is a bit of insight into publishing today.

The old adage goes that you can’t judge a book by its cover. While this is mostly true, it’s not a terrible place to start. An author who can’t find at least ONE decent picture to represent his or her book is probably not taking it very seriously in the first place.  I give you as examples two of the very few books that I couldn’t stand for more than about three pages. (Note: Click the book’s cover to visit it on GoodReads)

 

The Bull Mongoni (review here) is a book that resulted in a lot of controversy and sword-waving but it sure was fun to review.  It’s billed as an “adrenaline-pumping adventure novel” but it was totally beyond my ability to tolerate and the cover was the first hint at that.  That is actually a photo of the author holding a sword but it’s so pixelated that it looks quite fake.  As for Votary Nerves… yeah, I have no clue what that’s supposed to be.  I can only guess that it’s a child’s rendering of what it would look like if your heart lept out of your chest and tried to strangle your VCR.

As the weeks have dragged on, I find that I grow increasingly soft in my opinions.  For the first few months I went to great efforts to immolate authors on a pyre made from the pages of their own worthless books.  Even now I’m not afraid to poke a writer in the eye if it’s called for but ultimately it seems to just annoy people if you say anything negative.  Instead I try to lean toward the constructive with phrases like, “unreadable but showing great narrative potential” and “complex and enthralling without actually bothering to say anything.”  There’s much more entertainment to be had in twisting the negative to sound positive than simply being overtly negative.  Sadly, some of these books are already in print so it’s far too late to help them so one need not even bother.

One thing that I didn’t expect was the prevalence and diversity in the “YA” or Young Adult genre.  I found myself primarily judging YA books based on whether or not I’d dare to give it to my own child.  Or, to put it another way asking myself the question of “would I be bothered if my kid started behaving like the kid in the book.”  As expected, these were all over the map but looking back I think that in GENERAL the role models were positive. Whether you like hunting or not, I was pleased by Shawn Buckner. Here you have a story about a kid who had a goal, made a plan to achieve it and then worked his ass off to get it. There’s far too little of that in today’s kids. Evelyn Serrano taught us about the Harlem Riots of the 60s and Frenchie Garcia deals with her grief in a positive way while quoting some great poetry. All good stuff.

As always, there’s a flip side. Escape Theory annoyed me to no end with its depictions of high school freshman having sex and dealing drugs while away at prep school. Do these things happen? Of course. But this book makes that seem acceptable and expected. It’s downright irresponsible. On the other end of the spectrum, Eutopia was just too light and fluffy. My six-year-old even found it too sweet to tolerate. And the Saesshells has become the family’s term for a book that’s just horrible from the start. My thirteen-year-old tried to read it but eventually the whole thing devolved into kids sitting in the back of the car laughing out loud at the absurd illustrations. Point is, there’s plenty of terrible to go around.

In Part 2 I’ll look at some new sci-fi and historical fiction.

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Escape Theory by Margaux Froley

Escape TheoryEscape Theory by Margaux Froley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As is my usual preamble, I received this book through the kind consideration of the people at GoodReads. Well, that, and my tendency to sign up for lots of drawings.

To put the plot in a nutshell, our protagonista is a reluctant entrant into a high-end California prep school. After a couple of years there, one of her intermittent acquaintances commits suicide… or DOES HE…? and the hunt is afoot for what REALLY happened.

So, in judging such a work the first thing I remind myself of is that it’s a book intended for teens. In that light suffice to say that the writing is adequate and appropriate for the age group. The themes are no doubt of interest and the work features all the usual characteristics that youth like to read about: bumbling, clueless adults… exciting intrigue that goes unnoticed by bumbling, clueless adults… kids who solve mysteries that were just too perplexing for bumbling, clueless adults. This is the standard one-upmanship of the genre. As an adult I can’t restrain a certain sense of incredulity at the whole thing but I won’t fault the book for this because it’s one of the charms of kid-lit and one thing that youthful audience loves to see in a book. Sure, the average kid certainly can’t sneak out in the middle of the night without getting caught and have wild adventures until all hours of the morning so they might as well read about someone who does so with regularity.

Also with young adult fiction I always ask myself if I would want my young children to read this book. Perhaps it’s my prudish Midwestern values showing through but I can’t help but come back with a resounding: NO. Sure, I accept that the kids portrayed get away with things and pull one over on the adults. I can roll along with the idea that maybe they’re smarter and more attentive too. What horrifies me is the prolific presence of sex, drugs and alcohol in a book about kids between the ages of 13 and 17. It’s not that real kids don’t engage in these things; they certainly do. The kids in this book though do so with utter disregard. They’re not just drinking at parties, they run a drug cartel and for the most part this is considered just fine and normal. Sure some small subset of kids who “aren’t smart enough to handle it” pay the price by getting pregnant or ending up dead from an overdose, but for the most part everybody does whatever the heck they want and they get away with it. That’s really not an example I’d want to put in front of my children. If they’re going to get into things they shouldn’t then they should bloody well do so with the right and proper respectful fear that accompanies such things, not emboldened by some mythical world where everything turns out just fine most of the time.

Alright, enough rant. In a nutshell, this book is a modernized Nancy Drew. “Those Meddling Kids” as they might say on Scooby-Doo, come to the rescue and solve a mystery. The author draws some interesting characters at times and it’s reasonably entertaining but falls rather outside the bounds of what I’d want to give my kids for reading material.

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