Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: January Black by Wendy S. Russo

January Black
by Wendy S. Russo
Release Date: January 15th, 2013
2013 Crescent Moon Press
Ebook Edition; 295 Pages
ISBN: 978-1939173010
ASIN: B00B0I176M
Genre: Fiction / Dystopian
Source: Review copy from author / Kathy

4 / 5 Stars

Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn has never fit in on The Hill, an ordered place seriously lacking a sense of humor. After his school’s headmaster expels him for a small act of mischief, Matty’s future looks grim until King Hadrian comes to his rescue with a challenge: answer a question for a master’s diploma.

More than a second chance, this means freedom. Masters can choose where they work, a rarity among Regents, and the question is simple.

What was January Black?

It’s a ship. Everyone knows that. Hadrian rejects that answer, though, and Matty becomes compelled by curiosity and pride to solve the puzzle. When his search for an answer turns up long-buried state secrets, Matty’s journey becomes a collision course with a deadly royal decree. He's been set up to fail, which forces him to choose. Run for his life with the challenge lost...or call the king’s bluff.

My Thoughts
January Black is one of those pleasant surprises whereby I had little expectations going into this novel, and came out quite pleasantly surprised and delighted by what I had just read.  First of all, to discover a dystopian novel within all the various layers of this story was quite interesting and fascinating, and not only that, but to have a dystopian novel that featured more of a life journey rather than a completely corrupt government that one had to fight against was rather nice and completely unexpected.

Matty is a young man sought out by the king to discover the answer to the question, "What was January Black?"  As he searches for the answer to what he discovers is a rather difficult question, he discovers some secrets about his people and his government that had been kept hidden from everyone for centuries.  As he delves further into the truth, and more revelations come into his hands, he is left with the rather large decision of deciding what to do with the information he has found.  What I really enjoyed about Matty's journey was that it was not only a search for the truth about his people, but it was also his journey into who and what he was.  Matty was forced to learn some startling truths about himself and those around him, and the reader went along on Matty's journey as he grew up and matured and learned to open his eyes to how things really functioned in the world.   

Matty's girlfriend, Iris, is another character whom I enjoyed very much.  I liked how their relationship progressed and found it to be rather sweet.  There were none of the dramatic scenes that are often prevalent in other novels, but there were two people who liked each other and the reader got to see how the relationship developed over the course of a couple of years.  Naturally, the two of them argued over certain research that Matty was doing as Iris was afraid for him when he delved too deeply, thinking he was going to get himself arrested, but other than that, it was sweet and nice.  At the same time, as some of the scenes will show, Iris is definitely not a push-over, and I rather liked that too.  I think she was more aware of how things functioned politically and had her eyes more open to what was really happening in their society than Matty did; she didn't live in as big of a bubble as did Matty.

January Black is one of those novels that I enjoyed quite a bit and would recommend to anyone interested in a different flavour of dystopian.  There are some clear messages in this novel that relate to our own society today and I found myself comparing them quite a bit.  Themes about sacrificing values and morals and liberties in pursuit of certain ideals of peace; how many laws do we have to put in place in order to have a functioning society?  Avoiding the truth in order to pretend that we live in a peaceful society, controlled by the media and the government, history expunged from the curriculum to prevent ideas from being passed to the next generation.  It certainly gives the reader a lot of food for thought, all the while giving you an interesting story that manages to blend history, civics, politics, and social discourse into one neat package. 


Friday, April 19, 2013

Review: Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley

Pretty Girl-13
by Liz Coley
Release Date: March 19th, 2013
2013 Katherine Tegen Books
Ebook Edition; 352 Pages
ISBN: 978-0062127372
Genre: Fiction / Young Adult
Source: Review copy from publisher

3.5 / 5 Stars

Angie Chapman was thirteen years old when she ventured into the woods alone on a Girl Scouts camping trip. Now she's returned home…only to find that it's three years later and she's sixteen-or at least that's what everyone tells her.

What happened to the past three years of her life?

Angie doesn't know.

But there are people who do — people who could tell Angie every detail of her forgotten time, if only they weren't locked inside her mind. With a tremendous amount of courage, Angie embarks on a journey to discover the fragments of her personality, otherwise known as her "alters." As she unearths more and more about her past, she discovers a terrifying secret and must decide: When you remember things you wish you could forget, do you destroy the parts of yourself that are responsible?

My Thoughts
Pretty Girl-13 is one of those novels about which I had some major conflicting emotions when I was finished.  First of all, it was the story of a girl dealing with some pretty traumatic events in her life, an examination of what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, now called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), but it was also the story of what happened to Angie in the three years she disappeared without a trace during a camping trip.  My biggest problem with this novel is how she seemed to just walk back into her life as if nothing had happened in the previous three years and just took up her life as normally as possible.  Is that even possible?

What I liked:  I have to admit that I found the story to be engaging and the writing style was captivating.  I did stay up late to finish this novel so I have to give credit where it is due and I did enjoy the story very much.  Reading about the various personalities was entertaining and I did enjoy the different ways in which the personalities came 'out', and the predicaments in which Angie found herself were sometimes entertaining (ie; coming to school with a see-through white shirt with no bra was kind of funny even if she didn't know about it until afterwards).  But as a teacher, she would have been stopped right away and told to put a sweater on to avoid embarrassment as well as to avoid breaking the dress code.  It also presented a lot of questions that I am currently discussing with my son who is almost finished the novel about abuse and speaking to strangers and what to do if...situations.  It's been interesting seeing it through his eyes rather than through an adult's. 

It was interesting to see how Angie dealt with the normalcy of her life after dealing with her traumatic events, and I was glad it wasn't a police procedural novel, but more about Angie.  It was one of the things I definitely liked about this novel.

What bothered me:  While I found Angie's situation to be quite engaging and interesting, there were many problems with her therapy and the investigation that bothered me.  Everything seemed to be too easily resolved while DID can take years to investigate and diagnose.  Even today it is quite controversial, as DID is often discovered during psychoanalysis using hypnosis, leading professionals to question whether patients are being led to believe they have DID.  And Angie was diagnosed in her very first therapy session with Dr. Grant!  I think a novel that showed the difficulty of DID would have been better, and more interesting to read, even if the ending was less succint and less 'happy', but it would have been far more realistic.  Happy endings are for Disney movies, not for real life.

I also found the novel to be quite predictable, but to be fair, my son found it to be full of twists and to be shocking.  The amount of crime and mystery novels I have read compared to him is exceptionally high, so perhaps I have a big advantage on him and I could predict the big twists in this novel.  It didn't make it any less enjoyable, but there were some things that didn't sit right in my mind. Angie went for a doctor examination as soon as she walked through the door, and some of the 'shocks' and 'twists' would have been discovered immediately upon her examination.  I even double-checked with a friend who is a doctor to be sure and she confirmed my suspicions.  I don't want to give it away, but it definitely bothered me. I also had a hard time believing the press didn't catch on to Angie's return for almost two months.  With all of the students knowing about it, you'd think someone would have alerted the press, but two months?  This I had a hard time swallowing.

Pretty Girl-13 is a disturbing story of a girl dealing with the aftermath of abduction and abuse.  I wish the author had spent more time dealing with Angie's actual situation as it made me feel detached from her somewhat and not as empathetic as I could have been from her plight.  Maybe too much focus on the DID?  I also found the resolution to be too pat as even the author acknowledged that it takes years to treat somebody for DID and not the time frame that was used in her novel.  I did however, find the story to be engaging and it did hold my attention as the author's writing style is quite flowing and easy to read. Even though it does contain a number disturbing references to rape and abuse, there are no graphic descriptions and could be read by all YA readers.  Just be prepared to field those questions that I have been fielding and to throw in some 'mommy-isms' at the same time such as "Don't talk to strangers..." and "If any does anything inappropriate..."


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen

The Tutor's Daughter
by Julie Klassen
Release Date: January 1st, 2013
2013 Bethany House
Ebook Edition; 412 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-764-21069-3
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4.5 / 5 Stars

Emma Smallwood, determined to help her widowed father regain his spirits when his academy fails, agrees to travel with him to the distant Cornwall coast, to the cliff-top manor of a baronet and his four sons. But after they arrive and begin teaching the younger boys, mysterious things begin to happen and danger mounts. Who does Emma hear playing the pianoforte, only to find the music room empty? Who sneaks into her room at night? Who rips a page from her journal, only to return it with a chilling illustration?

The baronet's older sons, Phillip and Henry, wrestle with problems--and secrets--of their own. They both remember Emma Smallwood from their days at her father's academy. She had been an awkward, studious girl. But now one of them finds himself unexpectedly drawn to her.

When the suspicious acts escalate, can the clever tutor's daughter figure out which brother to blame... and which brother to trust with her heart?

My Thoughts
The Tutor's Daughter is another delightful novel by Julie Klassen, an author whose novels I absolutely adore.  With a wonderful combination of suspense, romance, and intrigue, this novel kept me up late reading into the night as I had a difficult time putting it down.  As with most of her novels, the intrigue built up slowly, but definitely has a way of gripping you with complex and intriguing characters, and as the action picks up, it is certainly difficult to put down.  

One of the things I've always rather enjoyed about Ms. Klassen's novels is that they are clean fun, but intriguing nonetheless.  I've always thought this author was rather good at giving the reader exactly what they want, a novel that has a mixture of romance, a touch of menace, with a cast full of characters who are hiding something, and this is what I have always found interesting.  While at first I was worried that the plot would turn into a 'ghost' story, I needn't have worried as what happened was delightful, even if I figured it out before it happened.  One of the themes running through the novel was the difference between the upper class and the servant class, and the differences were often made abundantly clear in a variety of scenes as Emma and her father were quite often put in their place.  It was quite clear that the author wished to demonstrate how the upper classes treated the lower classes during this time period, and I thought this novel certainly highly those differences quite well.  I often felt bad for Emma on numerous occasions as well as Henry as he was often reminded of the way he was supposed to act towards her.  

The wilds of Cornwall was a perfect setting for this story and I enjoyed the many descriptions of the both the environment as well as the history.  In fact, I wish more discussion of the shipwrecks has been made as I find that to be quite fascinating and would have liked to have learned more.  The dark and wild weather that was constantly surrounding the characters sort of suited the story and I love settings like that.  

The Tutor's Daughter is another one those Klassen novels that I felt was quite well done and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  While I did not enjoy quite as much as The Lady of Milkweed Manor, it was still a delightful romp, full of mystery and romance.  The only thing I find after having read all of her books, is I am finding them somewhat predictable in nature, and the twists and turns aren't quite there as much for me anymore as I am getting used to her writing style.  I also thought the first third of the books was a bit slow compared to the rest of the book.  Otherwise, if you are looking for a fun and enjoyable romance, with a bit of mystery thrown in, you will definitely not be disappointed in Ms. Klassen's newest novel, with her signature-style ending, one that is both satisfying and ties up all the loose ends.
Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: The Tale of Lucia Grandi by Susan Speranza

The Tale of Lucia Grandi
By Susan Speranza
Release Date: November 2012
2012 Brook House Press
Softcover Edition; 428 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-944-65701-0
Genre: Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

4 / 5 Stars

When an old woman is asked to tell the story of her life, she tells is an intense and poignant tale about growing up in and surviving an irrational, warring suburban family during the 1950s and 60s. The narrative is told from Lucia’s perspective as the second child where she and her siblings are caught in the middle of a lifelong war between her mother, Ruth, an overbearing, unhappy homemaker, and her father, Leonard, a manipulative, sometimes violent New York City cop. Lucia is the silent, thoughtful eyewitness to her parents’ constant and sometimes life-threatening battle.

My Thoughts 
The Tale of Lucia Grandi is one of those books whereby I really wasn't sure what to think afterwards.  Don't get me wrong as I liked it very much, but I can't say that it left me with that hopeful feeling that things will work out for Lucia or that the future will be better than her childhood; rather the novel left me feeling rather disturbed in the sense that I couldn't really get some of the images of Lucia's childhood out of my mind afterwards.

What I really liked about this book is that me really appreciate the kind and loving family in which I grew up.  Of course there were problems in my family as there are in every family, but I was never mistreated or abused, and I spent a lot of the time comparing my life with Lucia's and how different they were.  I think as children we never truly appreciate the fact of a great home life until we are much older and don't always pay attention to what is happening in other home situations; I felt for Lucia and the suffering and pain she must have felt each and every day of her life.  The several scenes where she was physically abused were very painful to read and the author was so adept as getting Lucia's pain, embarrassment and mortification across to the reader.  There were times when Lucia also felt detached from what was happening around her, and I thought the author also did a great job in these scenes showing how an abused child would distance themselves in these situations in order shut out the pain and the violence that is happening around them.  It was sad to read and to experience as a reader.

One of the things that was depressing about this novel is that I never felt that Lucia actually triumphed over her situation.  One of the reasons I like to read fictional biographies, and biographies in general, is to appreciate how a person can triumph over their situations and become motivated to succeed no matter what life has thrown at them.  Of course I am a realist and understand that many people do not necessarily succeed when life is tough, but I imagine that many do have many successes in life and many triumphs.  I'm not sure if Lucia really did triumph so far and still continued to let her parents rule her life and her emotions even at the end of the novel, and perhaps even her boyfriend.  However, I did really love the relationship between Lucia and her grandfather Bernard as he reminded me so much of my own grandfather that I was continuously taking trips down memory lane as I was reading this with a big smile on my face during those scenes.  The one scene that stands out in particular is the one where he fed her too much chocolate as I had a similar experience with my 'pepere'. 

The Tale of Lucia Grandi is one of those novels that is a bit difficult to describe to another reader.  While I did enjoy it, it was somewhat depressing reading about Lucia's abusive childhood and some of the descriptions of her early life did have a tendency to be a bit long-winded (perhaps because it was being related by a hundred-year-old woman).  I would have liked there to be a bit more of a relationship between the woman writing down the narrative and Lucia as an old woman as I think that would have been interesting.  Although we don't necessarily see Lucia triumph in this novel, which is a bit of a letdown, it is the early years of her life, and perhaps the sequel will be a bit more uplifting than this one. The story did end rather quickly and abruptly, so I am curious as to what happens next; therefore, I will probably read the sequel when it is released.
Sunday, April 7, 2013

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

Three Graves Full
by Jamie Mason
Release Date: February 12th, 2013
2013 Gallery Books
Hardcopy Edition; 307 Pages
ISBN: 978-1-451-68503-9
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

"There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.”

But it could always be worse. . . .

More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the undeniable reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property—neither of which is the one Jason buried.

Jason races to stay ahead of the consequences of his crime and while chaos reigns on his lawn, his sanity unravels, snagged on the agendas of a colorful cast of strangers. A jilted woman searches for her lost fiancé, a fringe-dweller runs from a past that’s quickly gaining on him, and a couple of earnest local detectives piece it together with the help of a volunteer police dog — all of them in the wake and shadow of a dead man who had it coming. As the action unfolds, each discovers that knowing more than one side of the story doesn't necessarily rule out a deadly margin of error.

My Thoughts
Three Graves Full had a lot of promise and potential, and the blurb was quite interesting, which is what drew me to this book in the first place.  And for a man who is terrified that someone might discover Jason's secret body buried in his yard, to hire a landscaping company to fix one's yard doesn't seem like the brightest decision in the world, especially as said landscaping company discovered two more bodies in the yard.  And up to the point where the police investigation begins, this is sort of where I thought the novel began to lose its steam from a rather fascinating and interesting beginning.

Jason Getty is one of those men who just doesn't seem to have a lot of luck in his life.  He's the kind of character that you want to dislike, but end up liking just because you feel sorry for him and the horrible things he did sort of slip away into the background and you don't really think about them too much.  He is a loner, desperately looking for people to like him for who he is, and can therefore be easy pickings for those who can see his desperation.  It would also be quite easy for someone more manipulative to use him for their own wants and needs and for Jason not to see it until it was too late, which is exactly what happened to him.  Then in an act of desperation is forced to act violently in order to get himself out of a difficult situation. I wanted to dislike him for his actions, but I just couldn't as he seemed so pathetic and he didn't just run off and leave others in a difficult position in the end.  However, I don't feel he deserved the absolution that he got either and should have received some consequence for his actions. It just didn't make sense to me, but you will have to read the novel in order to understand what I am talking about.

I definitely liked the first half of the novel better than the second half as I found myself skimming over paragraphs in the second half rather than truly reading them.  This is when Leah and Jason meet up and we have a car chase and desperate runs in the woods after a killer that really didn't seem to fit with the atmosphere of the novel and I didn't enjoy as much as the first half.  It's not that I don't enjoy these 'action' scenes, but they seemed so out of character for this novel and I really can't explain it better than that.  

Three Graves Full showed a lot of potential and promise and definitely had levels of brilliance on the author's part in her writing skills although some of the descriptive devices to tend to wander, and there were some elements that I didn't enjoy or didn't quite buy into in this novel.  The end result was a novel that was at times suspenseful, and quite interesting, giving us quite fascinating glimpses into the human psyche, and the 'whys' of the characters and the paths they have chosen.  I would really like to see another novel featuring Tim Bayard and Ford Watts as the primary characters as they investigate a crime as I think that would be pretty interesting as I enjoyed their characters quite a bit.  Ms. Mason definitely has a gift as a storyteller and you should read this novel for that fact alone.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prisoner of Heaven (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Book #3)
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Release Date: March 12th, 2013 (Reprint Edition) -  originally published July 10th, 2012
2013 Harper Perennial
Hardcover Edition; 279 Pages
ISBN: 978-0-062-20629-9
ASIN: B00851M39S
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from TLC Book Tours

3.5 / 5 Stars

Barcelona,1957. It is Christmas, and Daniel Sempere and his wife Bea have much to celebrate. They have a beautiful new baby son named Julian, and their close friend Fermín Romero de Torres is about to be wed. But their joy is eclipsed when a mysterious stranger visits the Sempere bookshop and threatens to divulge a terrible secret that has been buried for two decades in the city's dark past. His appearance plunges Fermín and Daniel into a dangerous adventure that will take them back to the 1940's and the dark early days of Franco's dictatorship. The terrifying events of that time launch them on a journey fraught with jealousy, suspicion, vengeance, and lies, a search for the truth that will put into peril everything they love and ultimately transform their lives.

My Thoughts
The Prisoner of Heaven is one of those books that seems to be a filler for previous novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game, and the next one that is coming.  Don't get me wrong however, I enjoyed the trip back to familiar and loved characters, gothic Barcelona, the excitement of learning more secrets and mysteries that have shaped these characters' lives, and the promise of new and interesting developments.  Despite all of this, I still felt like something that was in the previous two novels was missing.  It felt like this was a novel to fill the space and give us a bit more information before the dramatic conclusions and story lines occur in the next novel.

The style in this one seemed so different from the gothic atmosphere of the previous two novels and I really missed that atmosphere.  This story gave us a bit more information on Fermin's background and his stink in prison and his interactions with the other prisoners, including David Martin.  I found that to be quite fascinating as it was certainly a dark period in Spain's history even though the author touched upon it through his literary writing and we were left to our imaginations as well as our historical knowledge to fill in the missing parts.  It made it that much creepier than having the descriptions right in your face, although what was described was awful enough.  I think if I hadn't read the previous two novels, I might have enjoyed it a bit more, but I know what this author is capable of when it comes to atmosphere, technique, and style, I felt that something was lacking in the writing.  It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the novel, I just felt that it wasn't his best work. That being said, I definitely enjoyed Fermin's character much more in this novel as I now have a better understanding of his past.

The Prison of Heaven is one of those novels that should be read in order, otherwise a reader could miss some of the nuances that are sometimes mentioned in the novel.  The story still has a nice rhythm and flow and I did enjoy it very much, just not as much as The Shadow of the Wind.  As I already mentioned, I felt like it was a filler and some information needed to be given to readers before they can indulge in book four when it is released.  The novel definitely ended on a cliffhanger so it didn't really feel complete to me, and I do have a lot of unanswered questions that will hopefully be answered in the following book.  I would definitely recommend it to those who have read the first two in the series, but I don't believe this one is the best place to start if you have not read the others.