The Haven – Carol Lynch Williams

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The Haven Carol Lynch WilliamsTeenager Shiloh lives at Haven Hospital and Halls where she and others like her are protected from the dangers of the world. They are Terminals and one day they will die from the Disease, but the Hospital keeps them protected, happy, and healthy for as long as they can.  While Shiloh realizes that her world is different than that of the Whole, she struggles to deal with her friend Amelia’s new outlook of their stay in the Hospital and their ability to one day be Whole.

This easily could have been yet another dystopian YA novel, but it manages to elevate itself above the tropes and cliches that have begun to litter the book stores’ shelves.  There are hallmarks of the genre – regimented schedules, little free agency or choice, and a repressive regime.  However, The Haven manages to be creepy and thrilling in its short 200 + pages, and Williams manages to yet again provide deep, well-rounded characters with fewer words.  Watching Shiloh and her transition as she begins to listen to Amelia, for instance, is fascinating as she fights the change and yet fights for her personal change as well.  Not since Matched have I seen a character who felt so realistic for having been raised in their society.

I did feel that the beginning of the book took some getting used to to really understand what was going on, and once the reveal came I had already begun to guess at what the twist to Shiloh’s story might be.  That does not lessen the reveal in any way, though.  I loved seeing how Williams took an idea that is not new and yet made it completely her own, original, and utterly terrifying in how easily we could slip into that way of thinking in the near future.

That is perhaps what is most chilling about The Haven – the realism.  While I do not want to give away the end of Shiloh’s story, Williams manages to bring up some complicated moral issues and questions that are possibly in the immediate future for the human race.  And once we begin to chip at those walls, how far will we go for our own selfish interests?

If you are looking for a new dystopian YA thriller that doesn’t involve love triangles, battles, or the tired plot lines from other books, give The Haven a read.  It’s fast-paced enough that you won’t be able to put it down until you’re done.

Rating: 8/10

Read The Haven: A Novel


Seraphina – Rachel Hartman

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Seraphina Rachel HartmanSixteen year-old Seraphina is the new assistant to the Court Composer, a grumpy old man riddled with gout.  As she tries to navigate her new daily duties and dealing with the royal family, she also hides a secret.  Seraphina lives in a world where dragons and humans have peace based on a tenuous treaty and dragons can take the shape of humans.  Actual humans are still weary of these dragons-in-hiding and the dragons are mostly content to study this unusual culture.  Seraphina manages to get caught up in the middle of the dragon-human relations and must rush to keep the treaty intact.

Seraphina is a great novel that pulls you in, makes you wonder why Seraphina is different, what she is hiding without giving it away too soon.  By the time the reveal came, I sort of expected it but definitely was not sure that was really going to be the answer.  The novel is engrossing from the start and the plot and characters equally keep you involved until the very last page.  I read Seraphina in just a day and a half, the first time I’ve neglected other things to really read for quite awhile.

During the first portions of the novel, I wanted Seraphina to tell me more about herself.  Provide more about how these situations were making her feel.  I felt it was so guarded that when things were happening it was only plot, no character.  That was until a pivotal moment when Seraphina finally breaks, and at that moment I realized the first-person narrative was so guarded because Seraphina herself is guarded.  She opens up more then, sharing more with the reader and more with the others around her.  It is wonderful to watch this scared girl blossom into a far more comfortable-in-her-own-skin adult.

The other thing this book does well is provide a list of rounded characters.  From Seraphina’s father to her tutor to the engaged Prince Lucian and Princess Glisselda, all are written with a surprising amount of depth for being supporting characters.  These characters were probably the strong-poing for Seraphina, driving the story forward not because of plot points but because of the characters’ actions.

My only complaint was the climax; it felt a bit rushed and like Hartman wasn’t sure how to deliver something more compelling.  It was good, but with just a few paragraphs, the “final fight” was over too quickly to create much tension.  But Seraphina was written so well besides that I am desperately hoping there will be more forays into Hartman’s world.

Rating: 8/10

The First Book of Calamity Leek – Paula Lichtarowicz

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The First Book of Calamity LeekCalamity Leek is a young woman who knows how the world works.  All men are demons and she and her chosen sisters will bring the first wave of war against the demonmales and the sun.  But when Calamity’s sister Truly dies after trying to look over their protective wall, the sisters’ world begins to unravel.

In concept, this book felt a bit out there.  The official logline I got was this: “Books tell you what to believe.  Books explain the world around you.  What if a book had been written to explain a world constructed only for you?  What if that world suddenly fell apart?”  When I started reading, I thought I had stumbled onto a very strange, inventive novel.  I was right, but not in the way I thought. The First Book of Calamity Leek is a breath of fresh air in a world filled with the same stories retold.

The execution of the story (which I am going to try and not spoil, because Lichtarowicz is great at letting it unfold slowly) needed to be incredibly well done to work, and it did.  Pieces fall into place, and as Calamity writes, you pick up the tidbits that she is blind to.  The book is written by Calamity, from her own point of view of events.  She was a treasured daughter and niece, and knew everything about the way their world works; Aunty even made sure that Calamity disseminated information to her other sisters.  Calamity’s confidence in her unique place is almost unsettling.

The First Book of Calamity Leek is written in Calamity’s vernacular.  This aspect of the novel, while providing more character insight and depth, did not quite work for me.  Though set in North Wales, Calamity’s voice sounded almost Southern (American Southern), and it’s weird cadences turned me off of the book at first. [I should note here that I strongly dislike most dialectic-narrative books.  They are choppy and I always have a hard time adjusting to the voice, so it’s not really an indictment on Lichtarowicz but more of my own distaste for the style.]  Once I got used to it, however, I could not get enough of Calamity Leek and her sisters, or even of crazy Aunty who watches over them.

There were a few points that I felt did drag the novel down, though.  I could not at all tell you what age Calamity Leek or her same-age sisters were.  When I began the book, I would have said 8-10, based on the context and the naivete.  But later in the book, other hints suggested she is in her teens.  I felt the voice was really too young for a teen, and while I can understand an exact age not being given in this concept, Lichtarowicz could have narrowed it down for her readers better.  The dialect not sounding location-appropriate (North Wales), also bugged me.  There are a few things that might explain it in the book, but I didn’t feel any of that was enough.

Despite its flaws, The First Book of Calamity Leek is an inventive, unique debut novel that will either enrapture you or push you away.  I can easily see this as being one that divides readers; however, if you give it a chance and keep reading, Calamity and her confidence will get you in the end.

Rating: 7.5/10

Available now on Kindle. Buy The First Book of Calamity Leek.

The Office of Mercy – Ariel Djanikian

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The Office of MercyThe Office of Mercy follows 24 year-old Natasha Wiley, a resident of a future utopian society.  Living in an enclosed, mostly underground city, Natasha lives in America Five on the east coast of the once-United States.  She and her other civilians strive for an ethically pure society, where everyone has employment, enough to eat, free will, and the ability to simulate outdoor activities in the Pretends.  Natasha works in the Office of Mercy, where she track and ends the misery of the few Outside surviving humans known as the Tribes.  When her mentor Jeffery puts her on a team that goes Outside, she begins to question her ethical thinking and everything her society has taught her.

It is easy to look at The Office of Mercy as another in the string of dystopian novels (Hunger Games, Matched, Delirium, etc.), but it is much more than that.  While Viking Penguin are labeling it as YA, it really belongs in the emerging New Adult category, and it would be a great entry for it.  It is not too adult that it would not appeal to the same demographic, but the themes are richer and so well thought out.  I would put it on par with 1984 in theme, voice, and overall narrative power.

The Office of Mercy opens with a scene of a tribe on a beach, all hope lost.  The women and children are starving, believing that their men lost on a hunting trip in-land.  With aching bellies and cries from the children, they are overjoyed when the men return with four deer.  They build up the fire and roast one of the deer, dancing and reveling in their good fortune.  What follows next is perhaps one of the most chilling thing I have read in fiction.  From the attention-grabbing opening through to the end, I found the book incredibly hard to put down.  And when I wasn’t reading, I was thinking about the book.

The ethics of America Five balance precariously on the murdering of humans outside, with the idea that they are being killed to prevent their prolonged, inevitable suffering.  When you read the synopsis, you would think it is so easy to argue against it.  And yet, Djanikian is amazing at crafting the thinking behind the ethics.  She is thorough, keeping everything tied up neatly and easily.  Only when Natasha starts to question do you see how well Djanikian and her narrative structure have almost convinced you as the reader that, in their circumstances, America Five is doing what’s best.  Natasha’s slow awakening in this world remind me a bit of Matched, though the key event that kick-starts it makes it far less subtle.

One portion that did strike me was the descriptions of Natasha’s first time Outside.  Even though she wears a biosuit and helmet, the mention of the too-bright colors, the sun burning, and the overt smell of dirt were incredible passages.  In our societies, no one has not been outside, so for Djanikian to nail what would be apt descriptions of the changes was incredible.  I also loved her rich characters, her descriptions of the tribe’s fire and food, and what really makes human humans.  Natasha had been taught that the tribes Outside had an existence akin to animals, but her experiences allow her to question and see how similar many humans really are to each other.  The book also stresses the point of achievable peace, and the methods you would go for to gain that peace.  Djanikian’s thinking is well-rounded, so well mapped out that when you finally put down The Office of Mercy, you will find yourself reflecting on her words for days (I still am, obviously).

I have not read a book so emotionally engrossing for a long time.  With a fast-paced plot, Mercy reads fast and remains enjoyable, even with its far deeper meanings.  I cannot recommend you check it out for yourself.  

Purchase The Office of Mercy on February 21.  Actually, just go pre-order it now. <—-  Click on that link and do it.

Rating: 10/10

Seraphynx – Emily Wilson

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Seraphynx Emily WilsonFifteen year-old Evie is frustrated.  It seems everyone around her is keeping something from her, whether it be her best friend or his brother or even her own father.  With her sixteenth birthday rapidly approaching, she wants to know just what it is that has made everyone nervous around her.  A Seraphim, Evie knows she could be powerful, but she has yet to realize just what fantastic destiny awaits her.

I picked up the sample for this book and could not get enough.  A young adult fantasy, I expected some of the traditional components – secrets, protagonist has special ability, love triangle – but was pleasantly surprised by those things I did not expect.  For one, Evie is a Seraphim, or fallen angel, sent to the world to protect humanity from Drache (the devil?).  In a book-sphere populated by witches, vampires, fae, and now mermaids and zombies, it was nice to get something different.  However, because Seraphim are not a well-known entity, the author’s need to explain the mythos is pretty strong.  While I felt Wilson did a decent job of explaining, I did struggle a bit when it came to the class system that existed at the school, particularly with her best friend Kyla.  Was she a Seraphim, or a human who serves them?  And if she’s Seraphim, why is she merely a servant?  Nitpicky details, however, when for the overall story the message came across loud and clear.

The characters in this book were fantastically complex, particularly the main three of Evie, her best friend and romantic interest Evan, and Evan’s brother Kaidan.  Even Evie’s father, Sir Kendrick, who in most stories would warrant few details felt real by the end.  I thought Evie herself was a protagonist easy for anyone to get behind, and exhibited some pretty realistic reactions for a teenage girl with greatness thrust upon her.  While some of her actions seemed a bit strange (she loves Evan, but goes after Kaidan, too), they did feel like they worked.  My only real complaint is that I wanted more explanation for each character and their abilities, something that would help to piece everything together a little bit better.

The novel has a lot of potential, as does the first-time author Wilson.  One flaw I noticed was that sometimes the narration might make a jump, and not take the reader with it.  It’s a common mistake – forgetting that the reader’s are not inside your head, too – but one that can confuse and turn off readers.  Overall, however, I found Seraphynx to be an enjoyable read, and look forward to getting to finish the rest of Evie’s story.

Purchase SERAPHYNX (Fallen Hosts) from Amazon.com

New Adult Fiction – Marketable Category?

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New Adult FictionAs I have been reading and reviewing for this blog, I have noticed a gap in the book marketplace – college age fiction.  You could either have your book revolve around someone 17 or 18, or you skipped to the 30 year-old adult.  Plus, unless you’re reading fluffy romantic fiction, you’re more likely to find literary works with protagonists that are middle-aged.  Young adult fiction is finally gaining some great critical acclaim in the last few years, and is increasingly marketable to non-teens, but there hasn’t been a lot there for those in the 18-30 market.  Even with the few books released with older protagonists, they often got shoved in YA, perhaps because they were young characters and couldn’t quite be considered adults.

Publishing Crawl contributor Rachel Seigel wrote about this very same gap just the other day, with great news of an up and coming category – New Adult Fiction.  As Seigel puts it, New Adult fiction would encompass those “protagonists [who] are emerging adults who have a broader life experience than younger teens, but not enough experience to be living full adult lives.”  That’s great news for those that are 18-25, and those who read to find common experiences for their age. It could also be a very popular category with juniors and seniors in high school, who might want to find something to look forward to.

Rumor has it that Twilight was originally written with Bella in college, but the publishers had Meyer age it down so they could market it for the lucrative YA crowd.  While the characters’ ages is only a small problem in the popular-but-awful series, if authors are having to make characters younger, the stories can suffer.  The transition out of high school and into college also holds a great deal of possibilities for authors to mine from.  With so many Young Adult books featuring never-there parents (so that the characters can get into as much trouble as possible, thus driving forward plot points), turning the kids loose on college makes the absent parent far more believable.  How many young heroines in recent years have had one dead/out-of-state/absent parent and one parent who doesn’t seem to care that their daughter is in love with a creepy boy/werewolf/fighting to the death?  (Of course, Disney has done the dead-mother thing for over 50 years, and they’re still going.)

What could New Adult fiction mean then, for YA?  Well, for one, there might be some authors “trading up”, as it were.  But frankly, there are already a lot of books in this category, if it were to catch on.  Last summer I reviewed the great Code Name Verity, and wondered at its YA classification when it featured two adult women in their early 20’s.  One of my next reviews will be for The Office of Mercy, a soon-to-be-released YA dystopian that actually features a 24 year-old heroine.  The books are already being written, but there could be a lot of readers missing out on them because of their younger classifications.

I have already talked about on this blog my disdain for those who look down on genre fiction.  What makes little sense to me are those who might not pick up a book because it’s meant for the “teen audience”.  It’s actually something I covered in my review of Code Name Verity, and it still makes me sad that there are excellent books out there that might get overlooked by some readers because they feel they are “too old” for this or that novel.  The great thing about New Adult fiction would be to break down some of those barriers, get some excellent non-YA books out of the binding YA category, and it inspires authors to write those stories and editors to accept them.  Let’s hope that this time next year we will have a ton of new New Adult fiction books.

I’m even going to start tagging appropriate books in my reviews.  Every little bit helps the trend, right?

Reached – Ally Condie

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Reached Matched TrilogyIn the conclusion to Matched and Crossed, Cassia thinks she will finally get everything she wants, but first she and Ky must do their part for the Rising.  While she lives in the Capital and waits for news, Ky works on the outskirts.  Xander, also in the Rising, helps the rebels usher in the one thing that will make those in the Society trust them.  With narration shifting between the three main characters, will the Rising accomplish its goals and will Ky and Cassia find each other again?

One of the things that I found most intriguing about the Matched trilogy was Condie’s narrative style.  In Matched, our only narrator is Cassia.  In Crossed, the narration is shared between Cassia and Ky.  And with Reached, Xander joins the other two in the story-telling.  It’s quite poetic, the 1, 2, 3, narrators in books 1, 2, and 3.  And while I was a bit hesitant about the narration, I found it easy to tell each three apart; they all had their own unique voice.  While Cassia’s voice remains poetic and involves more thinking and less action, Ky’s is antsy, almost pessimistic.  When Xander joined in I figured he would sound a lot like Ky, but instead he is grounded, easily led, and more matter-of-fact in his telling.  It’s tricky enough to balance one voice in a novel, especially across three books, and yet Condie is able to make it with three.

In the dystopian fiction trend, you often see Hunger Games style rebellions, with those same types of consequences and fallout.  I was expecting something similar from Reached, but was pleasantly surprised by the unexpected direction of the story.  It was honest about the implications of a rebellion, and so they went with a route that provided little violence and no grand overtures – just choices.  Considering Condie’s Matched trilogy is about the importance of choice, this rebellion that provides with the people a chance to choose it or not fits right in with the theme.  I also appreciated the theme of love as a choice; Cassia chose who she fell for, who she gave her all to.  She could have easily been happy with either Xander or Ky, but she makes the choice to be happy with one of them.  This mature approach also means there’s a lack of teen love-triangle melodrama.  That is really refreshing in any Young Adult novel, and with one as popular as Matched others might follow.

Over all, Reached was not what I expected, and I loved that.  Condie managed to draw me in within sentences (I picked up the book intending to read only the first chapter and ended up reading several).  It is an engrossing conclusion to a mature trilogy.  With great technical writing and different approaches to a similar problem, Condie and Cassia manage to make you believe in the human race and their ability to choose good when they have the option.

Rating: 8/10