Book Review – The Good Neighbor

Author: A.J. Banner

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

Release Date: September 1st, 2015

Pages: 206

Rating:

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Sarah McDonald lives a comfortable life as a successful children’s author and wife to a handsome dermatologist, Johnny. Living in a quiet suburban area of Washington state, there are few complaints Sarah has about her life. Until the night Sarah wakes up to realize her neighbors house is on fire, with their entire family, two parents and their four year old girl trapped inside.

Sarah and the rest of the neighbors rush to help the family escape their burning home while the fire department is en route. Knowing there is little time to save anyone inside, Sarah rushes into action. Sarah’s determination saves young Mia’s life. The last thing Sarah remembers is seeing debris falling from the sky just as she gets the preschooler to safety.

the good neighbor

Sarah wakes up in a hospital bed with her husband, Johnny. While only suffering a concussion and non life threatening injuries, Sarah’s life is changed when she learns that young Mia was the sole survivor of the fire, and that her own home was destroyed when the fire spread across the adjoining trees.

As Sarah tries to hold herself together in spite of her losses, she realizes just how much of her identity was tied up in her home. Her home work studio is gone ,and her neighbors are offering cryptic messages that only add to Sarah’s sense of loss.

How well does Sarah know her neighbors? Does she even know those she loves and trusts the most?

Banner’s short chapters and quick pacing make The Good Neighbor a fast paced, attention grabbing read. It’s easy to empathize with her loss, anyone would feel derailed by the loss of their home.

While Sarah is not a materialistic or vain person, losing her entire home challenges both her identity and her sense of security. As the details of how the fire started come to the surface, Sarah has to piece together who she can trust. Unlike the stories she writes, Sarah’s choices could have life altering affects.

The Good Neighbor keeps a steady pace with an unnerving sense of doubt seeded in Sarah from the beginning. Where the novel falters is in it’s character depth. While we get a fair amount of character development in both Sarah and some other key characters, it can be challenging to empathize with them at times. Sarah’s decisions and thought process do work well in building her growing unease and sense of uncertainty, there are times when her actions are frustrating and seem to contradict the intelligent, capable woman we know she is.

A strong debut from Banner, this psychological thriller warns readers that while the physical aspects of a home are insignificant, the loss of a home can expose truths that have the potential to shatter a person’s entire identity.

A.J. Banner’s second novel, The Twilight Wife, was released in December, 2016 under Touchstone (Simon & Schuster).

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Book Review – Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale

Author: Holly Black

Publisher: Simon Pulse

Published: May 31st, 2005

Pages: 331

Rating:

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Seventeen year old Kaye has had a particularly challenging life. From not fitting in (and even her best friend thinking her head is always in the clouds), to moving around often and having a fairly dysfunctional family life, Kaye has to balance undue adult responsibilities with being a teenager who no one quite understands. Kaye’s mom is a struggling musician with a creep for a boyfriend. A fight with the boyfriend causes Kaye and her family to uproot from the city and go back home to grandma’s house in New Jersey.

tithe cover

Kaye tries to fit in with her old best friend Janet again, though it’s been years since they’ve seen each other. As Kaye mingles with Janet’s new crowd of friends, she discovers that there’s still something about her that is a bit off kilter from the rest of the group. Janet remember’s Kaye’s fascination with the fairy (fae) friends (Gristle, Lutie-Loo, and Spike) that occupied much of Kaye’s free time. Because Kaye wasn’t even a teenager when she first left Jersey, she doesn’t doubt it when her friends and family suggest her fae friends were simply a part of her active imagination. Still, upon returning to Jersey, Kaye couldn’t help but think about her old fairy companions.

Now years older, Kaye learns that her ability to talk to and see the fairies is no mistake, she has a true connection to their world. Kaye is a changeling, an immortal who was swapped at birth with a human baby. Kaye’s role in the fairy world is significant, she is to be a sacrifice, the “tithe” that will allow the Unseelie court to bind solitary fae folk to the Unseelie court’s queen.

Through Black’s Fae world, we explore the ideas of the Seelie and Unseelie courts. While these historically accurate titles are adapted to Black’s world, the sense of light vs dark is noticeable. While the Seelie Court is not perfect, the Unseelie Court is downright scary. Black’s descriptions of the Unseelie are brutal and eerily mysterious. Many scenes read like something out of a Tim Burton film.

Tithe explores friendship, personal growth, and fantasy in a fast paced package. Kaye is in no way perfect, she has troubling family issues, yet she always seems to keep her head above water. From her unique appearance to her complicated friendships and the weight of knowing her role in the fae world will affect everyone.

Fans of Amanda Hocking and Marissa Meyer (read my review of Meyer’s Cinder here) who haven’t read Black’s work should enjoy this novel. While Tithe was published years before Hocking and Meyer’s popular works, the same light hearted, fun fantasy and paranormal elements are here. Like so many other fantastic female leads in YA novels, Kaye is the type of character we NEED in YA novels. She doesn’t always know how she’s going to accomplish her goals, but she marches forward, determined to succeed.

I’m curious to see what Tithe’s follow-up novel Valiant (Modern Faerie Tales #2) has to offer. (John Green’s reference to this second novel played a large part in peeking my interest in reading Tithe in the first place.)

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Book Review – Reconstructing Amelia

Author: Kimberly McCreight

Publisher: Harper Perennial 

Release Date: December 3rd, 2013

Pages: 400

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15 year old Amelia Baron is dead, but her mother Kate knows there is more to Amelia’s death than her school, or the police are letting on. Kate carries a tremendous amount of guilt for not being there more for her daughter during her life, but now, she’s determined to find out what actually happened to her Amelia. In Reconstructing Amelia, we see Kate’s  search through Amelia’s life for clues about her death, the day to day life of a 15 year old girl that despite all her efforts, Kate knew so little about. Altering points of view between Kate, Amelia, and a harsh anonymous blog about the social goings on of her school, it quickly becomes clear that Amelia’s last few months of life were anything but simple.

ReconstructingAmelia

Wading through the grief of losing her only real family, her only child, Kate knows that nothing about the story fits. Amelia was a model student at her prestigious Brooklyn private school Grace Hall. She was studious, kind, and an asset to her school’s field hockey team. Amelia was quiet and had only one true friend, her lifelong best friend Sylvia, but she wasn’t completely miserable about her life.

Kate knows there is more than what the school is letting on about what happened to her daughter. Amelia was accused of plagiarizing a paper for her favorite class, a paper on To The Lighthouse by her favorite author, Virginia Woolf. Kate, Sylvia and the school staff knows that Amelia didn’t need to cheat on the paper, that she knew the novel by heart. Amelia was never one to contemplate suicide no matter how grim her situation may have been.

Kate begins to search through Amelia’s text messages and emails to try and uncover more about what could have lead up to Amelia’s suspension and death. With the help of a new police detective, Kate beings to learn that Amelia’s troubles were far greater than a school paper. Secret clubs, code names, young love, jealousy, intense bullying and friendship all culminated in Amelia’s life just before her death.

The back and forth between Amelia, Kate, the past, emails, texts, and the anynoumously written school gossip blog make Reconstructing Amelia a heartbreaking page turner. Amelia is the kind of kid that would make any parent proud. The level of pain she endures in the name of friendship, respect, and love among her peers is equally astonishing and heartbreaking.

While Kate uncovers what Amelia was dealing with in her own world, she is forced to face truths about her past, about Amelia’s father, and the role his identity plays in their lives.

Reconstructing Amelia is heart wrenching because it reads like a true account. While the story isn’t based on actual events, hazing, lying, and struggling to find acceptance happens daily in schools everywhere. Kate is flawed but strong, she isn’t afraid to admit to her past and yet, she tries so hard to protect her daughter from the consequences of her own mistakes.

McCreight’s story is haunting, imaginative, raw, and almost too realistic. This story is so well structured, the secrets keep coming. Just when you think it can’t get any more heartbreaking, any more shocking, this book sweeps you off your feet.

Consistently thrilling and never pretentious, Reconstructing Amelia is everything a novel should be — creative, emotional, and impactful. Amelia’s story is one that quietly digs it’s way into your mind and takes residence, refusing to let go after you’ve finished the story.

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Book Review – The Orb of Wrath (The Merchant’s Destiny Book 1)

Author: Nic Weissman

Publisher: Self Published

Release Date: June 17th, 2015

Pages: 318

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The Orb of Wrath strives to combine classic fantasy elements with popular storytelling styles and unique fantasy creatures. The story follows Erion, a looter who is masterful at creeping quietly through most any area and also has the foresight to understand when he is in the company of friends or foes. Early on, Erion is contracted to complete work for a somewhat regular customer, a dark elf named Phoroz. As Erion and his assumed brother Mirthir travel, readers are introduced to Samar, an elf who is a skilled archer and as wise as an elf is expected to be. The cleric Ithelas and his father, a knight named Thost are all summed by Phoroz to create a team and retrieve the Orb of Wrath from a distant land.

While Phoroz does not tell the newly formed team what the orb is for or why he wants them to retrieve it, he promises them a handsome monetary reward in addition to whatever rewards they may find in the castle where the orb is hidden. Going into the mission, the group knows they will likely face a powerful Vampire who’s lair houses the orb.

As the team travels together and meets various creatures and obstacles on their way to retrieve the orb, another group of men, Urlabus, Vargarr and Sathudel have their own mission involving the orb. While these men are much more military oriented, it is clear that they too make up a team that is not as familiar with working together as a team and must rely on trust to push through to their objective.

While The Orb of Wrath makes good use of standard fantasy elements like orcs, elves, vampires, and other fantastic creatures, the story suffers from some odd phrasing and gramatical errors that can quickly take the story from engaging to distant and confusing. While this story is a great example of constructing a fantasy arc, there are moments where the plot connections are all too obvious. Spell descriptions and some explanations were overly generic or even unnecessary, further breaking the immersive qualities of the story itself.

Where this story shines is in it’s generous character descriptions. While the character development (and overall writing) could be more polished, Weissman takes the time to give readers a fair amount of back story for each of the main five characters in the team. Most of the action heavy scenes are also well paced and balanced in there descriptions. While Weissman introduces some interesting new creatures (like the Tugrins) and clearly has a good understanding of standard fantasy roles, the story is more generic than it is unique. The Orb of Wrath could be a good read for someone who is new to fantasy and therefore may not understand some of the terminology, however the inconsistently in the plot speed and the overuse of excessively descriptive language could be a turn off for those who prefer characters show how something works rather than describe it word for word.

The Orb of Wrath is currently free on Amazon for the Kindle ereader/Kindle app and on Smashwords. You can learn more about Weissman’s work on his website.

Review Note: This review was originally published on Word of the Nerd, republished with permission.

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Review – Joe Golem Occult Detective #1

Writers: Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden

Illustrator: Patric Reynolds

Colors: Dave Stewart

Cover: Dave Palumbo

Letters: Clem Robins

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Release Date: 11/4/15

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Joe Golem Occult Detective #1 opens with an introduction to the drowning city (lower Manhattan) in April 1955. We are introduced to Private Detective Simon Church though his journal writings. Church is plagued by guilt over the death of fellow associates while he remains alive and somewhat healthy. The panoramic and wide views of these early panels is a wise choice, allowing readers to take in the eerie visuals of the city and Church’s office while he describes his concerns. Images of Chuch at his desk while contemplating his actions are eerie, not to mention the large, upright coffin that sits open and occupied behind him. In these early panels, Reynolds makes great use of the page giving just enough detail to portray the dark-lit scenes while maintaing that hazy visual that poorly lit situations require. Stewart’s colors are a beautiful compliment to Reynolds compositions, the wide range of shading in these black and white images make for great shadows while also helping to keep the reflective, past-tense vibe going strong.

When Church realizes things may not be as he suspected, everything shifts into color. While still muted, this shift is quite effective and breaths life into the scenes that you didn’t realize were purposely absent in the previous panels.

Here, Mignola and Golden jumps ahead ten years to 1965 where the Drowning City is in color, but Stewart still makes wise choices for shadows and muted tones (with pops of color here and there). In the city below Church’s office, a young thief Eddie lifts a purse from a woman before jumping off the bridge to his boat of a getaway car that is just passing under the bridge at the perfect time. At times, Robins letters are a bit obtrusive here, but they aren’t too detracting from the imagery. After the young men make away with the purse, the thief Eddie soon finds out how quickly karma can catch up with you when he is suddenly pulled off the boat by what looks to be a swamp-like creature.

The story then cuts to new scene where some flying, deranged looking creature takes a baby from a woman in a rural Slovenia (as noted by translated text). From here things escalate quickly. Towns people are attempting to flee from this creature while other various monster-like beings attack towns people and local priests alike. The violence here is tempered well. Reynolds presents enough impact, gore, and blood to give the impression that these attackers are fierce, but it isn’t so intense that it detracts from the details of the people’s faces or scenery.

Mr. Church still alive thanks to his various methods of maintaining his life. His companion Joe is sent to investigate the disappearance of three young children in town. Joe goes to investigate at the Hudson Home for Children and meets the attractive Lori Noonan who introduces Joe to the boys who were with Eddie when he went missing. The issue concludes with Joe taking the boys out to retrace their steps where Eddie went missing, only to make himself look like a rookie at keeping others safe. While the cliffhanger ending is a bit predictable, the consistent tone throughout the story, strange paranormal activity and beautifully muted tones make up for the slightly stalled plot.

While Dark Horse notes on their website that this series is a tie in to the  graphic novel Joe Golem and the Drowning City, it works well as a stand alone. Crime and horror fans alike can appreciate the nods to classic crime novels and television with an intriguing yet unforgettable streak of horror based creates abound. While the story seems to end somewhat predictably, Joe Golem Occult Detective #1 is a promising first issue.

Book Review — The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #1)

The Queen of the Tearling

Author: Erika Johansen

Published: July 2014

Length: 448 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins

Rating:

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I first mentioned my excitement at finding The Queen of the Tearling in this post. I have been on a big fantasy kick lately and was excited by the premise of this book despite my recent desire to distance myself from Young Adult a bit.

The first novel in a new YA fantasy series, The Queen of the Tearling follows 19 year old Kelsea, a girl who is heir a throne she’s only known through her studies. For her protection, Kelsea has been raised by foster parents since she was a baby and has never had any interaction with other people. When her 19th birthday comes, her time in hiding is at an end and Kelsea must travel back to her rightful kingdom (Tear) with a Queens Guard she’s never met. Along the way, Kelsea finds herself in plenty of trouble and learns that her problems are much greater than just regaining the throne from her greedy and misguided uncle of a reagent. Along her journey, Kelsea meets Mace, a formidable warrior and devoted member of the Queen’s Guard. Mace is helpful yet guarded. Kelsea isn’t sure what to make of Mace, but she knows he is irreplaceable. The Fetch is a mysterious man who has a legendary reputation but who’s identity is constantly concealed. Early on in her journey to the kingdom, Kelsea is rescued by the Fetch and finds herself instantly intrigued by his mysterious nature.

One of Kelsea’s greatest challenges is dealing with the Mort Queen—an almost mythical Queen from the neighboring kingdom. The Mort Queen is known for her lack of kindness and stern expectations. Kelsea must carefully negotiate how her kingdom interacts with the Mort Queen in order to ensure the safety of her people. Within her own kingdom, Kelsea learns that she must battle with religious leaders, corrupt members of the upper class and the overwhelming weight of her people who have grown fearful and restless with the current affairs of the reagent.

What sets Kelsea apart and makes her the rightful heir of the kingdom is a unique scar on her arm and two beautiful sapphire jewels. While the jewelry initially appears to be a formality, Kelsea quickly learns that the jewels have a more direct purpose.

This book was pleasantly surprising for me. I hadn’t read any of the reviews prior to reading the book myself, though I instantly saw where people would compare this novel to George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I enjoyed that the world was a unique blend of medieval style living with a post apocalyptic sort of world. All we know is that the world Kelsea lives in is that her world was shaped by a revolutionary named William Tearling who abandoned what we would consider modern day America/European society for a utopian setting. For a Young Adult title, this book had a fair amount of violence, sex and crude characters. While this strays a bit from the norm, it was refreshing to read a YA title that pushed the boundaries of the genre. While the writing style and plot are quite different from Martin’s GoT, I can see where this could be marketed to readers who are curious about GoT but don’t want as violent or massive of a read. Johansen writing skill is not as masterful as Martin’s (few writers are), but the story moves along quite well.

My one major criticism of the story is that Kelsea seems to adapt to being around other people rather quickly for someone who has grown up in seclusion. She does struggle to make decisions, but it seems unlikely that someone would take on such a huge responsibility as regaining a throne without some sense of anxiety or fear. Still, I appreciated that Kelsea has a take charge attitude and that she isn’t afraid to take on responsibilities.

The next installment in the Queen of the Tearling series continues with The Invasion of the Tearling due out in July 2015.

The Darkest Minds (The Darkest Minds #1) by Alexandra Bracken Review

The Darkest Minds Cover via Goodreads

The Darkest Minds Cover via Goodreads

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Published: 2012

Publisher: Disney Hyperion

Length: 528 pages

Rating:

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Ruby Daly awakes on her tenth birthday to find that her parents have no idea who she is. Ruby lives in a world where children ages ten to seventeen are often inflicted with an incurable disease that gives them unbridled power. No one knows what brings about the condition and there is no apparent cure. Ruby’s parents fear that she is a run away and therefore dangerous, calling in the government’s special forces to take her away to a rehabilitation camp for ill children in her native state of Virginia.

Ruby spends the next six years in the worst camp in the United States. Classified by colors to identify each camper’s type of ability, Ruby and all her fellow campers are treated as prisoners and are kept under strict watch. They are unable to voice their opinions, to learn about the outside world, or to interact with family members. They are told that their powers make them freaks and that they should under no circumstances attempt to control or use their powers, that they will simply be killed as using such powers puts everyone at risk.

When Ruby has a once in a life time chance to escape her fate, she takes it. Not knowing how much she can trust her rescuer she knows this is her only true chance at survival. The outside world is desolate and barren. People are rarely seen, and those that are become agitated quickly. Everyone is defensive and fearful.

Ruby quickly learns that her rescuers may not be as truthful as she once thought and again, finds a way to escape them. It is then that she finds Zu, Chubs and Liam other camp escapees who traveled across state lines in hopes of finding a rumored Slip Kid. The Slip Kid is supposed to provide a safe haven for kids like Ruby, Chubs, Zu and Liam. The only problem is, the location of the Slip Kid’s camp is secret.

As Ruby and her new found friends venture to find others like them, to reconnect with their families and to find some sort of stability in a crumbling world, the kids each learn about themselves, their abilities and each other. They find that appearances are often not as they seem and they must constantly make choices between what is stable and what is right.

The Darkest Minds does not hold back on action, brutality or intrigue. While Ruby battles with learning to accept who she really is and what her powers allow her to do, she must also learn to adapt to those around her, to understand that there can never truly be a normal life after her experiences at camp. That a family is something she will likely never know again.

While The Darkest Minds is like a mashup of the Xmen and The Hunger Games. The power struggle and abilities provide unique opportunities to their owners, but the landscape and environment of the world presents dire consequences for exposing yourself or trusting others too lightly.

The Darkest Minds is the first book in the Darkest Minds Trilogy. The second novel, Never Fade and the conclusion to the trilogy, In the Afterlight are available at major book retailers. The Darkest Minds trilogy also boasts two novellas, In Time (which takes place between books 1 and 2) and Sparks Rise (which takes place between books 2 and 3). You can learn more about Alexandria Bracken’s works on her website.