Cruel Winter

Cruel Winter

Cover image for Cruel Winter
Cover image for Cruel Winter

I hesitated to read this book (despite it being shoved into my hands by someone I like a whole heck of a lot) because I’m a wimp, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yet, despite its horror designation, it reads more like a kid’s adventure movie from the 80s, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself not scared at all (okay, except for like, one part).

“Jack Harding and his friends feel sorry for the new kid in town. His name is Ronnie Winter, and he’s a bit of a weirdo. So when the local bullies try to beat him up, Jack and his friends step in to protect Ronnie — and that’s their first mistake. Because Ronnie Winter is not like any other kid they’ve ever known. He lives at the old Steadman place, in the big creepy mansion that used to be a mental hospital. And his young, beautiful mother has a strange way of making Jack promise to be Ronnie’s friend…forever.

The closer Jack and his friends get to Ronnie, the colder it gets. The town is plunged into a wave of brutal snowstorms — and plagued by a series of gruesome murders. And as the grisly death toll mounts, Jack realizes that Ronnie is surrounded by something far more powerful than a mother’s love — he’s guarded by a force of unspeakable evil that will torture and destroy everything in its path…” —Goodreads

This book is pulpy in a big way. It’s mostly cheese, with a little suspense and some decent character development thrown in. It’s pleasant in the way reading sometimes should be: it allows you to switch your brain off and just become engrossed in a silly story. I was told that the book’s intended audience is young adults, but nothing I’ve found online suggests that. I think it’s just a not-very-scary first attempt at horror. Mostly it reminds me of every episode of Scooby-Doo: about things that are scary in theory, but this particular execution is not.

Do you know that trick that authors have of giving a juvenile voice to a third person narrator? We see that in this novel, and I wonder if that’s what renders this less scary than it might be otherwise. The novel is about children, and for most of the novel, the narrator describes the thoughts and actions of children. They’re not very imaginative kids, and the novel is set in a time that seems quaint compared to what we’re living now. Some of the expletives the kids use made me laugh out loud, and it’s cute because they think they’re really tough. That bully though…he’s something else.

The plot did what it was intended to do: kept me engrossed and entertained. I’ve trained myself out of the bad habit of trying to guess what’s going to happen next so I couldn’t tell you if you’ll be able to guess what comes. In all honesty, there don’t seem to be many plot twists. Just a series of events that follow one another. That’s not a criticism, however. We’ve become used to plot twists in recent years, but there was a time when we could read books without them. Try it! It’s not so bad.

A more practiced author, I think, would have given us a little more in the way of character development. Jack is the most fleshed-out, followed by Cassie. Ronnie and the rest of the gang seem a little flat, though they fulfill their purpose well. I enjoyed Emma as a character, and I would have liked to see more of her, though her storyline and ultimately heroic dénouement, despite being almost entirely separate from the rest of the story, was nonetheless entertaining.

This book belongs more in the category of speculative, urban fantasy, rather than horror. Regardless of where you shelve it, definitely save this title for a pool day or a day at the beach, when you need one eye on the page but you can save most of your brain for other activities. It’s a funny, quick read if you want something that doesn’t demand much more from you than simply allowing yourself to be entertained.

Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything

Cover image for Everything, Everything
Cover image for Everything, Everything

With all the buzz surrounding this book, I expected a good novel, but just how good was entirely out of the realm of expectation.

“My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black–black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.
Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.” —Indiebound.org

First of all, I love Madeline. She is an incredible protagonist. She’s a positive and vibrant kid, despite all the adversity that she’s faced, and she makes a little joy go a long way. So when the pretty teenager next door moves in, this reader, at least, had a lot of feelings. Excitement, because yay, maybe she’ll finally have a little extra dash of joy in her life. And apprehension, because knowing how sick she is, and knowing how difficult love is and how difficult it is to be a teenager, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the whole thing.

Olly is a wonderful character, too. Both of these kids have their share of heavy burdens that seem too difficult for kids to bear. Unfortunately, sick and abused kids are all too common in our messed up world. It’s no wonder that they are drawn to, love, and support each other. I thought, perhaps, that I could predict exactly where this love story was going, but I was wrong.

Perhaps that’s what I loved most about it. It seems as if it’s going to go in one direction, but despite Madeline being trapped in her own house for literally her whole life, this novel still manages to be full of adventure, suspense, and excitement. I would argue that there is a villain, and that villain is found in the most unexpected place.

The relationships between characters are perhaps the most moving part of the novel. Obviously, the reader is simply smitten with Olly and Madeline, but the relationship between Madeline and her mother, or Madeline and her nurse are equally, if not more, moving than Madeline’s romance with the boy next door. I found myself really wanting to play Phonetik Scrabble because it sounds like a lot more fun than regular Scrabble.

This has to be one of the best YA books I’ve read in a really long time. It’s full of heart, full of adventure, lots of soaring highs and devastating lows. There’s probably more emotion packed into these 300 pages than many entire series have in them. I highly recommend it, for those few people who haven’t read it yet!

Three Anticipated Reads

Three Anticipated Reads

The Young Elites
The Young Elites

The first of my three highly anticipated reads is The Young Elites by Marie Lu. Unlike many of you (probably), this was my first of her novels. I haven’t read Legend or any of that series. I was really excited to read this one, though, and I wasn’t disappointed. It was good YA.

“Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a ‘malfetto,’ an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars–they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.
Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.
‘It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.'”

This is a good work of young adult fiction. It had great characters. Some were a little formulaic, but I enjoyed others immensely. Also, I feel like maybe Marie Lu has read the Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey. Sometimes it felt like she took some details straight from there. It’s a great adventure and pretty dramatic, with some really unforeseen twists and surprises. I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars because it’s close to perfect, but not quite.

Slade House
Slade House

Slade House by David Mitchell was the perfect mix of suspenseful, creepy, and beautiful. I truly am amazed by his writing and I highly recommend his work to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I have several more of his older titles still to read and I’m glad I still have some of his stories left to read. I digress.

“‘Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door.’ 

Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents–an odd brother and sister–extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late. . . .

Spanning five decades, from the last days of the 1970s to the present, leaping genres, and barreling toward an astonishing conclusion, this intricately woven novel will pull you into a reality-warping new vision of the haunted house story as only David Mitchell could imagine it.”Indiebound

This novel was shorter and smaller than I expected, a very light hardcover easily held with one hand. I devoured this book in a day. I could barely put it down. I read it while I cooked, I read it while I ate, I read it outside with my coffee, I read it in the bathtub, and I ignored my family to read it. David Mitchell once again has created a story that completely absorbs its reader and leaves them scrambling for more. Beautiful prose, engaging story: 5/5 stars for darling Mr. Mitchell’s latest.

Bats of the Republic
Bats of the Republic

Bats of the Republic is an illuminated novel of adventure, featuring hand-drawn maps and natural history illustrations, subversive pamphlets and science-fictional diagrams, and even a nineteenth-century novel-within-a-novel an intrigue wrapped in innovative design.

In 1843, fragile naturalist Zadock Thomas must leave his beloved in Chicago to deliver a secret letter to an infamous general on the front lines of the war over Texas. The fate of the volatile republic, along with Zadock’s future, depends on his mission.When a cloud of bats leads him off the trail, he happens upon something impossible…

Three hundred years later, the world has collapsed and the remnants of humanity cling to a strange society of paranoia. Zeke Thomas has inherited a sealed envelope from his grandfather, an esteemed senator.When that letter goes missing, Zeke engages a fomenting rebellion that could free him if it doesn’t destroy his relationship, his family legacy, and the entire republic first.

As their stories overlap and history itself begins to unravel, a war in time erupts between a lost civilization, a forgotten future, and the chaos of the wild. Bats of the Republic is a masterful novel of adventure and science fiction, of elliptical history and dystopian struggle, and, at its riveting core, of love.”

I was very excited to read Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson, but I think perhaps it was written for people much smarter and more artistic than I am. Visually the novel is very beautiful and stimulating, with sketches, handwritten letters, maps, diagrams, and other media besides written words that really brought the story to life. I really liked to concept of this novel. However, something about it felt disjointed to me, and the reading was not as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be. It built and built to what promised to be a brilliant ending, but to me the ending felt gimmicky and not as big as it was made out to be. I know plenty of people who loved this book, but sadly it was a somewhat disappointing read for me.

 

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

Two Books Read Simultaneously (Because One Scared Me And I Couldn’t Read It After Dark)

I have mentioned in a previous post that I am very suggestible. Even the hint of something scary is enough to set my mind whirring into all sorts of horrifying possibilities. So when I tried to read Night Film by Marisha Pessl, I was spooked pretty much constantly.

Night Film
Night Film

“On a damp October night, beautiful young Ashley Cordova is found dead in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Though her death is ruled a suicide, veteran investigative journalist Scott McGrath suspects otherwise. As he probes the strange circumstances surrounding Ashley’s life and death, McGrath comes face-to-face with the legacy of her father: the legendary, reclusive cult-horror-film director Stanislas Cordova—a man who hasn’t been seen in public for more than thirty years. For McGrath, another death connected to this seemingly cursed family dynasty seems more than just a coincidence. Though much has been written about Cordova’s dark and unsettling films, very little is known about the man himself. Driven by revenge, curiosity, and a need for the truth, McGrath, with the aid of two strangers, is drawn deeper and deeper into Cordova’s eerie, hypnotic world. The last time he got close to exposing the director, McGrath lost his marriage and his career. This time, he might lose even more. Night Film, the gorgeously written, spellbinding new novel by the dazzlingly inventive Marisha Pessl, will hold you in suspense until you turn the final page.”–Indiebound

This book is supposedly a thriller, but I would argue it’s slightly scarier than that, although what do I know about true horror? I can’t read it. Books like this are difficult to talk about without giving too much away, so I will just say a few things about it. First, I liked the characters a lot, especially McGrath’s two “sidekicks.” Each main character, even the deceased girl, Ashley, is nuanced and detailed in a way that few authors achieve without seeming to show significant effort. McGrath, though unlikable, is an excellent, flawed protagonist whose mission to prove himself ends up driving the story. My only complaint is that he is not tremendously believable as a father.

There are almost two endings to this story, and I enjoyed that immensely. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.

And again, this book scared the daylights out of me. I could only read it during the day. It’s so spooky, and it hints at some really dark and even perhaps demonic dealings that go on in shadowy locations around New York. There are also pictures in this novel, so you never know when you’ll turn a page and come face to face with something weird and startling. Because of this, I had to have something to read that was definitely less scary, and less adult:

Deep Blue
Deep Blue

“Deep in the ocean, in a world not so different from our own, live the merpeople. Their communities are spread throughout the oceans, seas, and freshwaters all over the globe. When Serafina, a mermaid of the Mediterranean Sea, awakens on the morning of her betrothal, her biggest worry should be winning the love of handsome Prince Mahdi. And yet Sera finds herself haunted by strange dreams that foretell the return of an ancient evil. Her dark premonitions are confirmed when an assassin’s arrow poisons Sera’s mother. Now, Serafina must embark on a quest to find the assassin’s master and prevent a war between the Mer nations. Led only by her shadowy dreams, Sera searches for five other mermaid heroines who are scattered across the six seas. Together, they will form an unbreakable bond of sisterhood and uncover a conspiracy that threatens their world’s very existence.”–Indiebound

All I really want to say about this book (so I can forget about it quickly) is that it is stupid. The plot is stupid, the characters are stupid, and the world-building is stupid. The stupid “mermaidisms” drove me insane (example: their money is called “currensea.” Stop.)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! The lines between the world we know and the fantasy world where mermaids exist are not well-blended, and it comes off rushed and sloppy. This book is about at the quality level of a made-for-TV movie. I’m not interested in the rest of the series. I’m totally disappointed because I think there is a lack of good mermaid literature in the book world, and I was hoping this would make up some ground. It didn’t. Even for children’s level reading, it was bad.

Queen of Shadows — THRONE OF GLASS SPOILERS

Queen of Shadows — THRONE OF GLASS SPOILERS

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Queen of Shadows was yet another brilliant installment in the Throne of Glass series. I can tell that Sarah J. Maas is building to a truly explosive finale in the final volume. I only hope it means that we don’t have to say goodbye to any major players we love. Knowing books, I fear this may be a vain hope, but I’ll keep hoping until I close the last page on the last book.

At this point, there really isn’t any way to write about this book and not spoil the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t read up until this book, STOP READING NOW.

“Everyone Celaena Sardothien loves has been taken from her. But she’s at last returned to the empire-for vengeance, to rescue her once-glorious kingdom, and to confront the shadows of her past…She has embraced her identity as Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen. But before she can reclaim her throne, she must fight. She will fight for her cousin, a warrior prepared to die just to see her again. She will fight for her friend, a young man trapped in an unspeakable prison. And she will fight for her people, enslaved to a brutal king and awaiting their lost queen’s triumphant return.

Celaena’s epic journey has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions across the globe. This fourth volume will hold readers rapt as Celaena’s story builds to a passionate, agonizing crescendo that might just shatter her world.”Indiebound

In Queen of Shadows, Celaena returns to Adarlan as her true self, and she is out for blood. It seems there is only so much abuse one young woman trained as a ruthless, deadly assassin can take before she snaps. This novel is just as emotionally charged as the rest of them, with perhaps a little more satisfying revenge than we have seen before. The story moves at a brutal pace, and I think my favorite part of this novel was the interesting alliances she forms to achieve her ends (and to replenish her depleted ranks of friends–it’s dangerous to get close to this girl.) The novel also takes some really interesting, surprising twists and turns, as we have come to expect from Maas. I was absolutely thrilled by the ending, and I cannot wait for the fifth book.

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However, there are some things I have my doubts about, too. Celaena’s thirst for violence seems unnecessarily high in this book. In this world so filled with brutality, violence, and killing already, it’s nice to read about an assassin who doesn’t necessarily enjoy her work. She shows compassion and spares those who do not deserve to die. The reader sees very little of that compassion here. In much the same way action movie “heroes” leave a trail of bodies in their wake, Celaena kills ruthlessly and indiscriminately. I realize that her victims are working for a tyrant and standing between her and what she wants, but this gives the impression that there are important humans, and unimportant “stock” humans who can be killed without remorse or second thoughts. Sadly, this is not true in reality, and it disturbed me how our noble heroine becomes so hell-bent on destruction and revenge that she forgets she values life and once despised killing.

Along the same lines, while I truly enjoyed reading Queen of Shadows, and I couldn’t put it down, I feel like I read an entirely different series. Celaena has become a completely different character from herself in Throne of Glass. The people she surrounds herself with are different. Even the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, and people we thought were firmly in the evil camp turn out to surprise Celaena and her biases. While I enjoyed the truly epic nature of the narrative, I almost miss the comparatively quaint simplicity of the first novel.

I know it seems as if I have more negative things to say than positive, but it’s not true! I don’t really want to give away the good stuff, though. For those who haven’t read it, but have read the rest of the series, I say: what’s wrong with you?! Get moving! This novel was mostly stuffed to the brim with really good things, and I really recommend finishing the series.

The World of Leigh Bardugo

The World of Leigh Bardugo

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I read Shadow & Bone several weeks ago because I had a special $1.99 e-book deal on it come to my email. I had heard good things about it and wanted to read it anyway, but hadn’t given it a very high priority.

Holy. Shit.

Shadow & Bone is one of those books that reminded me why I continue to read YA books well into my adulthood. Leigh Bardugo is brilliant. In a genre heavily inundated with fantasy stories based on Celtic mythology and vampires, this author has constructed a world that is entirely new. With its strong themes of eastern-European nomenclature and mythology, yet possessing its own unique twists, I’ve never read a story like Shadow & Bone.

“Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life–a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.” –Indiebound

This book has everything you love about a YA novel. Danger, romance, a powerful female trying to find her own way separate from the men who would influence her. Darkness. Creepy creatures. Tragedy. Heartbreak. Betrayal. Nothing about this novel is predictable or boring. It kept me engaged from start to finish. When I finished this one, I had to read the rest of the series, too.

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The rest of the series was very strong, too. At the risk of giving away what happened in novel one, I won’t give synopses for two and three. Be satisfied knowing that I simply devoured this series and was completely obsessed. In fact, I wasn’t happy when it ended, and bought all of the short stories and novellas associated with the world in these novels.

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I love this series. I love everything about it. The plot. The characters. The setting. The darkness. The suspense. The intensity. The fearlessness of Bardugo’s writing. I highly recommend all of these novels. It never slows down. From start to finish, it is beautiful and intense, and I believe you will love it as much as I did.

The “Throne of Glass” Series

The “Throne of Glass” Series

Ladies and gents, readers of all ages, you have got to read the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. If you’re a fan of fantasy, assassins, young adult books, or general female badassery, these books are for you.

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Throne of Glass begins the series and opens with Celaena Sardothien being pulled out of the mine where she’s been enslaved for a year as punishment for her crimes as her kingdom’s most notorious assassin. The King offers her a choice–compete for the title of King’s Champion against a score of nefarious opponents, or return to a life of slavery and die in the mines. Throughout the competition, oddly dark events occur around the castle that lead Celaena on a twisted trail of intrigue, danger, and potential rebellion.

This book is packed to the brim with action, wit, humor, emotion, and suspense. It’s one of the most magical, creative, and engaging novels I’ve read in a long time, and the series just gets better.

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Crown of Midnight is a punch in the gut. I remember a friend of mine reading it first, and she looked at me and said, “Courtney, just wait.” A few days later, I reached the part she was talking about and screamed out loud. Being a kind book reviewer, I’m not going to tell you what this novel is about, as that would spoil the end of the first. Be satisfied knowing that it has some new characters that are just as loveable (or hateable) as those in the first novel. Celaena is her usual self, which is to say: awesome.

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The end of Crown of Midnight left me breathless and I couldn’t wait to read Heir of Fire. Celaena’s journey takes a turn that I could not have possibly foreseen. I am so impressed with Maas’s ability to take her readers completely by surprise over and over and over again. Heir of Fire brings Celaena away from everyone and everything she knows, to a part of her world that the reader has never seen before. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and I think this may have been my favorite of the trilogy. I cannot wait to see what Celaena does next, in Queen of Shadows!

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The Assassin’s Blade is a prequel collection of novellas that tell the story of how Celaena became the fierce and gifted assassin she is, and how she was betrayed and enslaved in the mine where Throne of Glass began. This book absolutely broke my heart. For such a young girl, Celaena endures and feels so much. She is a master of her art, and yet at heart she is just a teenager who, in addition to the unique problems associated with her profession, experiences the growing pains of becoming an adult human being.

In all, this is an incredible, beautiful series that I absolutely love. I tore through these before I left for Peru, and I will be purchasing Queen of Shadows as soon as it is released on September 1.