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"We read to know that we are not alone." — C.S. Lewis

“Secret” loses a little magic by trying to cover too much ground

“Secret,” the latest installment of the Elemental book series by Brigid ya book reviewsKemmerer, is an ambitious effort to tackle serious issues while continuing a fantasy story. All of the Elemental books have taken on themes of that nature — confronting a range of topics from domestic dysfunction to sexual assault, violence, bullying and questions of self-esteem.

In “Secret,” Nick — one half of the good-looking Merrick twins — must come to terms with his sexuality after becoming attracted to a dancer named Adam. As he begins a tentative and secret relationship with Adam, he struggles with the typical fears that come with coming out to his family. Meanwhile, Quinn — his former girlfriend — is aware of his feelings for Adam, but has made a deal with Nick to pretend to date him.

This book, unlike Kammer’s earlier installments in the series, tries to cover multiple relationship storylines. In “Secret,” you watch Nick’s story play out with Adam, while Quinn meets the Merricks’ enemy, Tyler, and discovers a more humane side to him.

I’m a fan of the series, so of course I enjoyed reading about the continuation of the storyline. But I think stretching “Secret” across two separate love stories did some of the characters a disservice. And it allowed for less development of those crucial issues Kemmerer tried to raise. Though Quinn’s home life — which includes violence and substance abuse — is quite serious, you get only a vague sense of what that’s like.

Her first two books — “Storm” and “Spark” — created love interests for the Merrick boys that were just as developed as the Merricks themselves. The last two books, in an attempt to drive the plot forward and cover more characters, lose a little of that magic.

After reading the novella focused on Nick and Adam — which came just before this new book — I was really looking forward to the story that would evolve from these two. It fell a little short of my expectations.

The series has one more book to go, which will focus on Michael, the oldest Merrick brother. I suspect it, too, will be more plot driven. But at this stage, I’ll read it because I have to know how everything works out.

And even though the later Elemental books don’t touch me quite as deeply as the author’s first two, watching previous characters make appearances and interact in the new stories always bring a smile to my face — much like spotting an old friend after a long absence.

‘Witchfinder’ a grim YA fantasy

Witchfinder, ya book reviewI don’t see “Witchfinder” by Ruth Warburton becoming the next YA blockbuster, but I enjoyed the book for the differences that will potentially make it slightly less popular on the mass market. For one thing, it’s set in London in 1880, giving it an old-fashioned vibe. Secondly, it’s a tad more grim than many of the YA books — even the dystopians — that I’ve read.

The book’s descriptor suggests it would appeal to fans of Cassandra Clare’s “Infernal Devices” series, and I suppose that’s true at some level. It’s the same time period, and it involves an element of fantasy, but that’s where the similarities stop.

Luke is a boy who’s grown up with the burning desire for revenge on the black witch that killed his parents before his eyes. To join a secret brotherhood of men devoted to hunting witches he must pass their tests, the last of which is to pick out a name at random, then hunt down and kill that witch within a month — or face death himself.

Luke, who has thus far worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice, chooses the name of Rosa Greenwood, a 16-year-old witch living in fading grandeur on the west side of town. Luke goes undercover as a stableboy to get close to the family, where it becomes apparent that Rosa is the last bargaining chip in her family’s effort to avoid bankruptcy. She’s about to be married off to a cruel and powerful witch, but Luke intends that she’ll never see her wedding day.

Outside of the fact that the book contains witchcraft themes, it’s almost more of a domestic drama that an adventurous fantasy. The story focuses on Rosa’s difficult position in the family and her ugly relationship with her mother and brother. She misses her father and longs for the way things used to be. Meanwhile, Luke is stressed by the responsibility he’s accepted and working not to give himself away as he pursues options that will bring him close enough to Rosa to kill — if he can make himself do it at all.

The more time they spend together, the more Luke senses the goodness in Rosa and the more he falls for her. In the end, he must decide whether he can kill the girl he’s falling in love with, and Rosa must decide if she can marry a man she detests.

 

Great YA freebies on Kindle

I love free reads. My pocketbook loves free reads. But the library in my small hometown can’t handle my appetite. That’s where I break out my Kindle and go schlepping through free offers like a virtual Dumpster diver. (No offense meant by the simile, but there are some real pieces of trash next to the treasure, if you know what I mean …)

So, this blog is for you. Bypass the sketchy reads and go straight for the freebie gems. (I hold no liability if their pricing status has changed by the time you read this!) And bear in mind that I am recommending these as good free reads, not for Pulitzer prizes for fiction. There will be fluff … but who can say no to free fluff?

ya book freebiesBrightest Kind of Darkness, by P.T. Michelle
I loved this paranormal romance, the first of a series that is followed up by Lucid, also a good read. In this story, Nara is a teenager with the odd ability/disability of dreaming the next day’s events — exactly. But she avoids using her gift to change fate after an ugly incident in her past, but one day she dreams a future she can’t ignore. A mysterious loner named Ethan is the only person who seems on the same wave length, but as their connection gets stronger, the questions about his past become more pressing. After reading the follow-up Lucid, I can tell you that this series only gets more deep and mysterious as it goes on.

Ya book freebiesAurora Sky: Vampire Hunter, by Nikki Jefford

Nikki Jefford is shaping up to be an author I can count on for an entertaining read. Aurora Sky is the second series I’ve found by Nikki — she lures me in with a free first book, and before you know it, I’m buying sequels. Luckily, those prices are generally in the $3 neighborhood. If you like vampire stories, you’ll enjoy the twists and turns of the Aurora Sky books (two so far). Nikki’s not afraid to transform her characters through pain, break hearts or shatter dreams. I’m not sure how long this freebie will last. Aurora Sky: Vampire Hunter is free via other venues as well through Nov. 22. Check out the author’s website to see how to get your copy.

YA Book freebiesEntangled, by Nikki Jefford

I’m jumping right into the other free offering from Jefford. “Entangled” is the first of the Spellbound trilogy about witches. The story is light, and keeps you intrigued as Gray dies, then suddenly finds herself sharing her (evil) twin’s body. Enlisting the help of a love interest, Gray must find a way to return to Earth permanently before her sister decides to purge her for good.

YA book freebiesDelirium, by Susan Kaye Quinn
Delirium is the first in the Debt Collector serial. Although it’s less definable as YA, it’s close enough, and I cannot say enough good about this one! I love Susan Kaye Quinn. The writing is polished and well-paced, and the story is fascinating. Debt Colletor is a gritty, future noir about a society that balances a person’s potential against their debt. It takes you into the world of sex workers, the mob and corrupt officials who snatch life from terminally ill children. It’s deliciously dark! Plus, I got a chance to interview Susan. Check out the interview/review here.

I don’t have time to write about all my finds. But here are a few more you should consider:

YA Book Freebies

Open Minds, Susan Kaye Quinn

YA Book freebies

Glimpse, by Stacey Wallace Benefiel

YA book freebies

The Mind Readers, by Lori Brighton

YA book freebie

Skid, by Doug Solter

YA book freebies

Everblue, by Brenda Pandos

 

Now go forth and multiply … your book downloads!

Dystopian malaise

I have the dystopian malaise.

I’m generally the ideal fan for the dystopian novel. I loved The Hunger Games, and the Legend and Divergent series. I enjoyed the first two books in the Matched series by Ally Condie — I’m sure I’ll get around to book three — as well as The Debt Collector serial on Kindle.

But the market has become so flooded that it’s difficult to find the quality gems mixed in with the wreckage of an over-saturated genre. And right along with the dystopian influx, is the overabundance of books told in the first-person perspective. If done right, both of these methods can still be a big win for authors. Unfortunately, the clutter in bookstores may turn off some readers. I, for one, could use a break.

Here’s a look at a few dystopian novels I picked up in the past few months:

Ya book reviewsContributor, by Nicole Ciacchella
This was one of the better dystopian novels I read — based mainly on the fact that I actually finished it. Not exactly high praise. This first book in a new series introduces the idea of a society that is highly motivated to succeed on a career path. If they do, they are greatly rewarded. If they do not, they are ostracized. And if they cannot contribute due to injury or illness, they are disposable. This type of society encourages brilliance — and also ruthlessness — as young people compete for coveted training spots that will position them for leadership in their fields. There was nothing exactly “wrong” with this book, but there was also no great drama or love interests to keep me really hooked. It felt a little ho-hum. The similarity it bears to a highly competitive workplace in America is an intriguing commentary on our society, though. 

Ya book reviewsAberrant, by Ruth Silver
It’s possible I didn’t give this one a fair shot, but its similarities almost immediately to the premise of the well-known “Matched” series — in which society matches up spouses — bugged me. Also, the writing wasn’t at all on the same level. Almost immediately, our protagonist is being hauled away, for some unknown offense, and I really didn’t care. That’s when I decided to give it up.

ya book reviewsThe Elite (Selection series), by Kiera Cass
The first book of the Selection series drew me in a bit more than the others mentioned here. In this society, families are divided into scores — 3s, 4s, 5s etc. Girls can marry up, but men who marry someone higher than their rank bring their wives down a notch. Each level determines your profession in life — from servants to artists to the very wealthy. When a contest is held, similar to The Bachelor, to select the prince’s wife, America Singer finds herself in the running — despite being in love with a 6 who is below her station. Though the plot, at least in this first book, seems a little thin, it kept me interested — which is more than a lot of books in the genre do these days.

YA book reviewsDelirium, by Lauren Oliver
I’m still working my way through this one. Initially, I was intrigued by the concept: Love as a disease. In this world, the people have a procedure at age 18 that “cures” them of the ailment and ensures a peaceful life. As in other books I’ve read, they are then “matched” with a suitable spouse. There are “invalids” living in the wilds, however, who have never been cured and threaten the stability of their society. As interesting as the premise is, it took me a long time to connect with the main character, and this is one example where the first-person POV grates on me.

Lunar Chronicles a creative series worth exploring

YA book blogA series including cyborgs, androids, wolves, royalty, people of the moon … what more could you ask for?

In February, Marissa Meyer released the second of her series, The Lunar Chronicles. If you’re like me, you’re always in the market for a good series, and you can’t go wrong with this one.

I was hesitant to read it, at first, despite the good reviews the first book, “Cinder,” had received. The series has some decided fairy tale themes I wasn’t sure I would enjoy. For one thing, I’ve come across many other stories using this approach. “Wicked” and “The Ugly Stepsister” are highly successful examples of the fairy tale spin-off, and too many tween movies are the examples of how wrong it can go.

You can guess from the names what fairy tales “Cinder” and “Scarlet” draw from. Yet, I have to say, Meyer surprised me. Who in their right mind thinks, “I want to do a Cinderella spin-off. Hey, I know! I’ll write about a cyborg who meets a prince while there is a massive plague outbreak and enemies from the moon are trying to manipulate their way into a self-serving marriage alliance!” Meyer pulls it off with flying colors.

“Cinder” gripped me from the first line. There was something very real about Cinder, a cyborg who is treated like a second-class citizen by other townspeople, including her own adopted family. She works as a mechanic, fixing androids, to support the family. Prince Kai, having heard that Cinder was the best mechanic in the area, brings an android containing sensitive information to her for repair, and thus begins the saga of Cinder and Kai. They meet again after she is at the palace, having been drawn into a program working to find a cure for the plague.

As you might expect, there is a ball, though it will not go as you might expect. Cinder and Kai’s happily ever after won’t be as neatly foretold as in the classic, and you have to read on in the second novel to find out how their saga plays out as Scarlet and Wolf and introduced into the story line.
YA book blog Scarlet, a young woman desperate to find her grandmother after she goes missing, accepts the help of a stranger in town who goes by the name of Wolf. She knows she shouldn’t trust him, but he seems her only hope in tracking down the gang that stole her grandmother. There’s a larger plot at work, which includes secret lunar agents who have undergone genetic mutation. Meanwhile, the Lunar leader continues to make trouble for Cinder and Kai, unleashing violence on the kingdom in an effort to get Kai to marry her.

Even with the fairy tale parallels, the series never comes close to being anything but original. If you’re looking for a new series to read, I highly recommend it, even though you’ll be left waiting anxiously for the third book’s release.

‘Skin’ delves deep in emotional transformation story

YA book reviews“Skin,” by Donna Jo Napoli, is one of those special reads: One so full of truth and pain a book review simply cannot do it justice.

The book surprised me in its intensity as it pulled me into the heart and mind of a teenage girl on the brink of the biggest, most terrifying change of her life.  Sixteen-year-old Sep wakes up one morning with white lips, as in, completely absent of color. Naturally, she freaks out just a bit. But a bit of lipstick, and she can hide the oddity …until it spreads. Until she’s diagnosed with vitiligo, a rare skin condition for which there is no cure.

Sep is horrified by the news, which has turned her expectations for the world upside down. But ironically, Sep’s new use of lipstick to hide her secret also draws out long-ago close friend Josh, who is suddenly offering her something good to hold onto as she confronts her changing reality. She engages in a whirlwind romance, eager to experience as much as she can before the vitiligo spreads and she has to let him go. Sep prolongs the inevitable as long as she can with concealers, scarves, lipstick and hand-drawn tattoos on her hand, but she knows she’s running out of time before she becomes the subject of ridicule.

Napoli holds no punches as she takes the reader on this journey into a very difficult chapter in Sep’s life. She makes you feel every moment of fear, of grief, of bittersweet love and happiness as biology catapults Sep toward a reality she cannot change. There’s something so real about “Skin,” you’ll be convinced that the searing heartache is your own.

Ultimately, Sep must find the inner strength not only to face her friends with this new condition, but to face herself. Her own hate and disgust is just as virulent, if not more so, than anything her loved ones or peers could ever throw at her. What she doesn’t expect, however, is that she may have underestimated the depths of the people around her, and in her fear of getting hurt, she may end up hurting the ones she loves.

The book is available for $3.99 on Kindle.

‘Notable’ takes YA series on adventurous detour from high school

Notable by Marni Bates“Notable,” a companion novel to “Awkward” and “Invisible” gets off to a slow start, but takes readers of Marni Bates’ Smith High novels on a new, exotic journey with plenty of adventure before they reach the final page. Though “Notable’ is a continuation of a series, it can also stand on its own.

Chelsea Halloway, queen of the Notables and top of the high school social ladder, is misunderstood by many people, including her own parents. When they attempt to give her a wake-up call, while conveniently packing her off to a trip abroad to Cambodia while they deal with their divorce, everyone gets more than they bargained on.

Chelsea is thrust into a totally foreign atmosphere that takes her out of her comfort zone. Rather than adoring high school peers, she’s traveling with college students who don’t take her seriously — and one who seems to hold her in particularly low esteem after hearing about her past indiscretions from her father.

Invisible by Marni BatesWhen their professor ends up on the wrong side of a drug lord, Chelsea discovers what she’s made of — plenty of spunk and a heavy dose of reckless good intention. She’s determined to save her professor from prison — and almost certain death at the hands of angry drug dealers. But it will require all the negotiating power she’s gathered on her climb up the social strata and then some.

“Notable” has a different vibe than “Invisible.” Chelsea is in a pretty dark place when the book starts, and her anger and discontent is a constant companion. Her complaining makes it a little more difficult to enjoy the story. But like “Invisible,” this book is also a story of self-discovery, and as Chelsea learns who she really is — outside of her classmates’ perception and her parents’ projection — she becomes an immensely more likable character. Throw in a little romantic tension with a judgmental college boy, and you’ve got the makings of a good YA read if you have the patience to get there.

“You Are Mine” a beautifully told journey from oppression to expression

You are MineWhen delving into a self-published work, you never know for sure what you’ll get. Books like “You Are Mine,” by Janeal Falor, are precisely the reason I take the gamble.

The beautifully told story of Serena, an oppressed girl in a society where women are the property of warlocks, captured me from Page 1. Serena is a fascinating character: a girl with a spark of independence barely held in check by her restrictive society. The strong voice in her head, and the silence she must hold to avoid painful punishments, are at odds.  Between the two, they form a strong young woman who, when given the chance, will fight for a different life.

Serena is promised to a young, talented warlock who she despises. When he dies during a tournament, with all his belongings going to a winner from a foreign land, the course of her future will change drastically. Serena will struggle to understand her new betrothed —  and whether she can trust his tolerance to last. In her experience, all warlocks are abusive and cruel, but he seems to be the exception. She’s lived her life being told that if she doesn’t follow society’s rules she will be tarnished — spelled to be bald, inked and ostracized. Now, as her warlock ignores her small infractions, Serena begins to explore a new way of life.

Not everyone will like the boundaries she and her betrothed begin to push. As with any society, fighting its restrictions comes with consequences and rewards.

Besides being extremely well-written — I never would have guessed it was self-published based on the high quality — I love the way “You Are Mine” sheds light on what it’s like to experience oppression. Sadly, there are still places in the world today where women’s voices are suppressed and their lives are threatened with violence.

Though “You Are Mine” is a fantasy with romantic undertones, it’s more of a journey from oppression to expression. Serena’s evolution from a fearful girl to the strong-willed, independent woman she is meant to be is beautiful to watch.

The book is the first in a series. It is available on Kindle for $2.99 or approximately $12.99 for paperback through Amazon.

Raven Boys series takes a new twist in ‘Dream Thieves’

The Dream Thieves by Maggie StiefvaterEvery book I read by Maggie Stiefvater is a little better than the last. Characters are livelier, storytelling is more complex, the prose more eloquent.

“The Dream Thieves” is no exception to this pattern, as it takes her “Raven Boys” series to the next level. In this book, we get more insight into the mind of Ronan, an aggressive Aglionby school boy with a whole host of inner demons to overcome.

The first “Raven Boys” book focuses on the quest of a handful of boys – Gansey, Adam and Ronan – to find a legendary Welsh Royal , Glendower, who is said to be “sleeping” and who would grant a wish to his discoverer.  Along the way, they connect with Blue Sargent – who comes from a family of psychics yet possesses no ability of her own other than amplifying mystical powers.

In “Dream Thieves,” the story line continues – but expands a bit to explore Ronan’s special gift: To pull physical objects from his dreams. Most notably, he has a young raven he named Chainsaw, which appeared late in the first book. The significance of Ronan’s abilities is the primary focus of this book, while the core characters continue – slowly – their search for Glendower.

Though it would seem the story line has taken a sharp turn, in truth Maggie skillfully connects all the events.

In “Dream Thieves,” we’re also treated to a few new characters – while also seeing further development of the relationships and challenges of the existing crew. Those include a delightful hit man (yes, I said it) and an antagonist Aglionby boy who blurs the lines between friend and foe.

Each character is fully developed, with their own special traits and their own personal demons. This is particularly remarkable as the cast in Raven Boys continues to grow, including various members of Blue’s large household of psychic women, Gansey’s and Ronan’s family and other side characters.

Maggie has a talent for writing “real” characters, or those who cannot be seen in black and white terms. No one is 100 percent the bad guy, and no one is all good. As such, it becomes more difficult to predict who wills serve the main characters’ interests and who will not. Even with foreshadowing, of which you find a fair amount in Raven Boys , you cannot predict the timing or exact events yet to come, keeping the story fresh and unpredictable.

The “Raven Boys” series is one of the most original YA reads I’ve come across — and not overly saturated with romance – making it a great adventure that can appeal to all readers of fantasy fiction.

‘If You Could Be Mine': A story of love and sacrifice

In the US, the social, political, familial and religious pressures and prejudices can be overwhelming for a gay couple. So imagine, if you will, how much higher the stakes are for two girls in love in Iran — and you’ll have the barest glimmer of what “If You Could be Mine” has in store.

Author Sara Farizan shares the story of Sahar and Nasrin, 17. They’ve shared kisses and romantic promises, but Iran is not like the US. It’s dangerous for two girls in love. Should their relationship be revealed, Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned or even executed. Add in the arranged marriage on the horizon for Nasrin, and Sahar’s heartbreak and desperation will become your own.

If you could be mine

After Nasrin is engaged, she wants to continue her secretive relationship with Sahar, but Sahar cannot stomach the idea of sharing Nasrin or carrying on an affair with a married woman. She wants to love Nasrin openly. Her love is so strong, she begins to consider a radical solution: In Iran, homosexuality is a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as a mistake of nature, and sex reassignment is legal. If she were a man, Sahar would be free to marry Nasrin.

Sahar’s willingness to sacrifice and risk everything for Nasrin is remarkable — and above and beyond what most of us would consider.

“If You Could Be Mine” takes you on a dark journey with Sahar. She can remain true to herself and lose Nasrin, the only girl she’s ever loved, or she can sacrifice her own gender identity to hold on to Nasrin.

As she struggles with the choice — and Nasrin’s more self-centered nature is revealed — there were times i wasn’t sure I wanted to keep reading. I felt as devastated as Sahar, and it wasn’t a pleasant feeling. But like all great books, “If You Could Be Mine” is a journey — and it was worth experiencing Sahar’s downward spiral to also gain an insight into the lessons she learned about herself and the inner strength she finds to move forward, with hope once more on the horizon.

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