Tag Archives: good books

“The Serpent King” Book Review

The Serpent KingEvery high school has those kids that don’t fit in. In The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, three teens from Forrestville, a small Tennessee town named after the founder of the Klu Klux Klan, are bound together as misfits and as best friends. Lydia comes from loving and prosperous parents; she’s got a popular fashion blog and is on her way to college in New York City. Travis escapes his father’s drunken beatings in the fantasy world of knights and noble quests. Dillard Early Jr. can’t escape his name: his snake-handling, poison-drinking preacher father was incarcerated for child porn and his grandfather went around wearing snakeskins and killing every snake he could.

Written in third person, this novel alternates among the three characters. The story covers the characters senior year of high school and is filled with poverty in the rural South, enduring friendship, heartbreak, clinging to faith at all costs, fear of the unknown, and learning the courage it takes to survive and to thrive.

While it took me several chapters to get sucked into the story, I ended staying up way too late to finish the novel. The book covers the harsh reality so many outsiders have to live in. And while parts of the novel did showcase that this was a debut, it’s a phenomenal coming-of-age story about hope and courage, of salvation and betterment, of surviving and flourishing when life seems too bleak to continue.

(Photo courtesy of myself.)

A Badass Hidden Gem: “Wool” Book Review

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A breathtakingly creative and horrifyingly disturbing post-apocalyptic novel! Hugh Howey’s “Wool” is one hell of a ride. Starting as a short story, this tale grew into a novel due to popular demand, and then, once it became an online sensation, was picked up by Simon & Schuster and became a New York Times bestseller.

In a twisted futuristic world, where everyone lives underground in a silo because the surface was horribly poisoned hundreds of years ago, and where the levels of the silo are split into different social classes, mistrust breeds rampantly and the worst thing a person can do is ask to go outside. Because, while there’s a sheriff and a mayor, the true power lies with the highly secretive and malicious IT department, and they are more than willing to grant your request.

Howey created a phenomenal aura of dread and desperation. Claustrophobia claws at you, begging you to ask the same forbidden questions those who take a one-way trip outside do. Told from multiple characters, this story is rife with suspense and contains so many plot twists that I couldn’t guess the end!

I can’t say it better than Kathy Reichs, bestselling author of the Temperance Brennan series, “Wool is frightening, fascinating, and addictive.” “Wool” is flooded with a highly detailed and authentic world, realistic and relatable characters, and a terrifyingly believable story. A compulsive read.

(Photo courtesy of Sam Cox.)

When Beauty Destroys the Beast: “Uprooted” Book Review

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Before I began Uprooted by Naomi Novik I had high expectations. With over 50,000 ratings and nearly 9,500 reviews, this young adult novel has over a 4 star rating (out of 5). This book had to be phenomenal! At least, that’s what the overwhelming majority of the reviews indicated.

The first pages—almost the entire first chapter—grabbed my attention. This book is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast is a magician known as the Dragon and Beauty is a village girl about to discover that she has a much larger role to play than she’d ever imagined.

However, after the first pages, I had a difficult time reading the first third of the book. It didn’t seem any different than most of the young adult books out there. The protagonist Agnieszka is a seventeen-year-old brown haired, clumsy girl, whose best friend is beautiful and talented and brave. The Dragon is a one hundred fifty year old guy, who looks like he’s not much older than Agnieszka and is a jerk. (Where have we heard that scenario before?)

In the original Beauty and the Beast, the Beast was also a jerk, but I felt that there was a reason behind it. (He did look like a monster, after all.) The Dragon seemed to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk.

I felt like the Dragon being terrible and incredibly rude to Agnieszka for no reason, and she reacting like some exceedingly self-conscious, mumbling, and messy girl, was a story plot I’d seen before. One where the jerk of a guy was going to be the love interest. A story plot I’ve never liked.

But that all changed when I entered the second half of the book. Basically, I liked the book better when the Beauty and the Beast retelling ended and the story took on a life of it’s own.

Agnieszka started growing as a character. She began standing on her own two feet. As the world, characters, and plot built layers and layers on itself, I was pulled back into the story. I ended up not being able to put the book down. Some of the my favorite scenes were when Agnieszka and the Dragon were separated, because then I got to see what Agnieszka could do and what her personality was truly like, without the Dragon’s shadow looming over her.

While the final third of the book made me late a few mornings to work—I ended up reading longer than I should have—there was one scene that chucked me headfirst out of the story. Normally, a scene like this one wouldn’t have bothered me, if it were in an adult novel. However, this scene was in a young adult book that is intended for thirteen to seventeen year olds. This scene is a detailed sex scene between the Dragon and Agnieszka. Detailed enough that I could picture everything that was happening. I wouldn’t have wanted my fifteen-year-old cousin reading this scene. When I was fifteen, I read books that had sexual content, but never anything that I’d describe as soft Harlequin.

Other than that scene, the final section of the novel was extraordinary. The creativity and imagination fueling the rising action, climax, and resolution was brimming with excitement and depth. When the ending finally came, it was satisfying, mature, and realistic. It was a perfect ending to a book that turned out to be an incredible fairy tale.

Have you read any good books lately?

(Photo courtesy of Chris Alcoran.)

Reading Challenge 2016: Top Book So Far

At the beginning of this year, I joined Goodreads’ 2016 Reading Challenge. In this challenge, you pledge to read a certain amount of books during the year. While some of my friends stated they’d read 50 or even 200 books, I challenged myself to read 30. For me, this is a lot…it’s about a book every two weeks. I’m two books away from my goal, and I’m happy that I’ll complete this goal.

5518988345_9ef6af4df9_oI wanted to share one of my favorite books so far this year:

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

If I could give this book more than five stars, I would.

At first, I was put off by the amount of cursing within the opening chapters (heads up there’s several f-bombs), but I quickly became engrossed with the protagonist Henry’s personality, trauma, and, most importantly, story.

This novel engages readers, and forces them to witness bullying, mental illness, and come to understandings that they would normally otherwise rather not think about. Shaun David Hutchinson uses Henry to send some very important messages to readers: “Remember the past, live the present, write the future” and that we do matter; maybe not to the universe or in the grand scheme of things – all of us will be forgotten in time – but we do matter and because we live the present, we’ll keep on.

After all, we’re the ants. And what do ants do? They keep marching one by one.

There’s a deepness to this story that isn’t initially apparent, but then showcases itself brilliantly through the pain of loss, the presence of new love and the guilt and fear that sometimes accompany that love, and much more.

This novel begins with Henry telling readers about how he’s been abducted by aliens multiple times, and that they’ve now given him a choice: press the button and save Earth or don’t press the button and on 29 January 2016 the world is going to end. The question remains: will Henry press the button?

Though there is a love story within this book, this novel is so much more complex than a YA romance between Henry and Diego. Henry’s ex-boyfriend Jesse – the love of his life – committed suicide. Henry’s mother is a chain-smoking waitress, who cannot stand her one-time dream of being a chef because that dream reminds her too much of Henry’s dead-beat, door-slamming father, who abandoned them. Henry’s brother is a college dropout. The most popular boy in school alternates between bullying and making out with Henry. Henry’s grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s. The list goes on, and it is dark and amazing and heartfelt, and at times when readers need it most, comical.

Insight abounds in this novel, and what’s more is that the insight is conceivable. Usually in YA books, the protagonist possesses an awareness other characters miss, and often that insight is too deep or advanced for that character. However, in this novel Henry struggles with the big life questions. He asks others for answers, and the answers they provide create a well-rounded and realistic picture, with each of their answers reflecting the events that have occurred in their lives and how those events have impacted them. This story and its characters are believable to the point I imagined it as real life. That’s a big part of what makes this novel so engrossing, and what had me smiling, crying, and feeling all the emotions throughout the tale.

This book left my mind reeling with thoughts long after I closed the back cover. Definitely take the time to read this.

I’ve read some fantastic books this year, others that weren’t so great, and one that I would have been happy never picking up. Currently, I’m reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’m only 10 chapters in, but so far this novel has impressed. It’s reminiscent of 19th century gothic novels and is a novel rife with subplots and breathtaking twists and turns. I can’t wait to finish it.

What’s your favorite novel of this year?

(Photo courtesy of Sweetie187.)

“Orphan Train” Book Review

Molly never expected to find any commonalities between her foster-child self and the ninety-one year old Vivian living in a mansion in Maine, but when Molly must complete community service or go to juvenile prison, she ends up helping Vivian clean out her attic. Except, what she discovers up there ties the two women together in a way neither of them could have imagined.5026748369_8700f4a169_b

Orphan Train covers a piece of history that very few people know about – a piece of history that is beyond unnerving, where orphans from overcrowded Eastern United States cities were packed onto trains and delivered to the rural Midwest. Families selected these orphans to take home with them. Some were lucky; they were adopted into loving homes. Most were not.

If you weren’t an infant, chances were you ended up as a farm hand, a servant- a child laborer. No adoption. No love. Only a means to an end.

This novel transitions between the modern day (2011) and the later 1920s to 1930s/early 40s. Readers learn about Molly’s life as a foster child, while also reading about Vivian’s childhood as an orphan train rider. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer how similar Molly and Vivian are, not only with their stories, but also with their personalities.

While I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, I thought Vivian’s storyline was much stronger than Molly’s. After reading the acknowledgements, I understand why. The author, Christine Baker Kline, did a lot of research into the orphan trains, even interviewing surviving members. However, it seems that she didn’t do the same level of research for the foster system, and that Molly was more of a vehicle for Vivian’s storyline than anything else.

Despite this issue, I found myself drawn into the story, and after I finished the novel, I researched orphan trains. I’m astonished that orphan trains aren’t mentioned as part of U.S. History, but as occurs most often with history, only bits and pieces of the truth are stitched together to give the appearance of a whole picture.

Orphan Train is worth reading, even if to only familiarize oneself with one of the darker aspects of American History.

(Photo courtesy of Jeremy Keith.)

What Makes a Book Good?

Ah, the ultimate question for writers. We spend so much of our time crafting our writing: plotting, character sketches, writing that first draft, editing and revising, rewriting, getting our work critiqued…the list goes on.5780584814_b5b11f73d8_z

Yet, say two people, Person A and Person B, have spent equal time working on their writing, why does one story come out better than the other?

Let’s rule out different genres and say that both Persons A and B are writing adult science fiction, and that both of their stories take place in space. Their story plots may even be very similar.

Let’s go with the premise of a young woman, stranded in space, who runs across an ascended being. This being winds up as part of an ancient race that has acted as various gods throughout human history, and who is now bored and feels like it’s time for the human race to end and another life form to rise to prominence.

Both stories sound interesting, however after reading the stories, Person A’s is the clear winner.

Why?

For both objective and subjective reasons.

Let’s go with some of the more objective ones:

  • 3086655956_201ab2b89e_zAttention to detail plays a huge role in how well a story turns out. It’s basically an umbrella phrase for the following reasons, because if you don’t pay attention to the small things, your readers won’t be able to picture what’s going on, and then they won’t be invested in the story.
  • World building is an aspect of writing that I’m seeing less and less of in fiction, especially young adult fiction. This is tragic, because the environment in which your story takes place is vital. It’s where everything happens. Some of my favorite books have such detailed environments that the place becomes a living, breathing character.
  • Internal Consistency is a key component as well. You can’t have a plot that jumps all over the place. I once read a book, where, on page 100, Character 9 was one of my favorite characters of the story, and then suddenly, on page 101, Character 9 was a complete jerk, who ended up being the villain of the piece. This switcheroo made no sense. I felt that the author realized readers liked Character 9 more than the main characters, and so the author had to make Character 9 evil. That novel lost all credibility.

Another example (and this one happens to be popular in young adult fiction): the main 4496975747_1e0b661a31_zcharacter is supposedly the chosen one/the one to save everyone, however the protagonist trips over her feet during every fight and must be saved by the handsome, yet jerk of a romantic interest. This is ridiculous because, unless you’re writing a comedy, how can someone be elite or the epitome of something, if she constantly needs saving?

  • Well-developed characters can make a story. As I stated earlier, world building is utterly important to the story. However, sometimes you can get away with poor world building, if you have phenomenal characters. There are multiple books I’ve read, where I knew the world building was awful, but it didn’t matter because I was invested in the characters. Granted, most of these novels were in first-person, so that the view I had of the overall story was narrowed to one character.

A problem with these type of stories, is that if you don’t like the main character, then nothing is holding you to the book, and you’ll most likely put it down and never look at it again.

  • No little misspellings or poor grammar. Readers will notice a lack of editing. They’ll pick up on all the bad punctuation, poor spelling, and grammatical mistakes. If there are too many linguistic errors, readers may get pulled out of the story. They may not return. (I once saw a novel with a misspelled title; I didn’t go past the title page.)
  • Originality. While it’s difficult to be completely original, you can take a well-used premise and make it your own. It’s too often that I see one book or book series get popular and suddenly there’s a flood of copy-cat novels, and each one seems to be worse than the predecessor.

Back to Persons A and B. Now, while most people preferred Person A’s story, a few liked Person B’s more. Though Person A’s work had better world building and more developed characters, not everyone liked Person A’s story for subjective reasons. Let’s say that one person didn’t like the story because the protagonist reminded him too much of an ex-girlfriend he had back in college. Another individual enjoyed Person B’s writing style over Person A’s.

There’s nothing Person A can do about these reasons. It’s like asking someone if contemporary art is really art. The answer will vary according to each individual.

I’ve read novels where, if I hadn’t been in the right mood, I would have greatly disliked them. I probably would have ranted to my friends about them, because, in reality, they were horribly written. But since I was in the mood for some light fluff that would make me laugh at the ridiculousness of the story, I thoroughly enjoyed those novels.

Ask me to read them today and the answer would be “no.”

What makes a good book to you?

(Photos courtesy of Stefano CorsoRob, and David Urbanke.)