The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)

The Hazel Wood

New Release 1-30-18

This is a YA novel. The main character Alice is 12 years old. She and her mother Ella move around three times a year to escape what they call bad luck. Her grandmother Althea is a world-renowned author of a collection of fairy tales calls Tales from the Hinterlands. Copies are rare and hard to come by and Alice has never read them. She has also never met her grandmother, but hopes she will reach out.

Suddenly her mom receives a letter that Althea has died, and makes a statement about how they are finally free from the bad luck. Ella marries quickly and attempts to give Alice a normal life. After about a year of supposed normalcy the bad luck returns, and after school one day Alice finds herself in her new home that now smells terrible, is missing all the people that are supposed to be there, and an envelope containing a single paper from Tales of the Hinterlands has been left on her pillow: the title page to the tale “Alice-Three-Times.”

She runs to her newfound friend Finch, who happens to be a fan of the stories, and he helps her search for clues. They decipher that characters from the stories have leaked into their reality and are very dangerous. He agrees to help her to stay safe and to try to find her mom and the Hazel Wood, where her grandmother lived.

This book is an absolutely riveting mystery. In terms of familiar things it seems to combine elements of Stranger Than Fiction with Jumanji-type suspense. During parts where the story gets a little flat the suspense from earlier parts kept me reading because I had to know what was going to happen next. Is she in the book or is the book out to get her? Is she the personification of one of the characters from the books or is she the hero that needs to save the world from them? What lies in wait for her and Finch in the Hazel Wood?

Melissa Albert wraps you around her pen so tightly and subtly that you are trapped in the story before you realize it and you must continue on to the finish. To do otherwise would be to deprive your senses and curiosity of the rich adventure which is laid out, ripe for the taking. Go get you some.

The Sky Is Yours

The Sky is Yours

New release review: 1-23-18

I did not finish this book. I even broke my rule about getting to 30% before passing judgment. This book was so bad in the first 20% that I had to force even that, but then I just had to stop.

I’m not sure how Chandler Klang Smith managed to make the dragons the most boring part of the book. They just swirl above the metropolis burning random stuff and it’s SO. BORING.

There is a prison complex in the middle of the city that is locked and surrounded by a huge wall and generations of people have lived and died inside. It’s basically its own society and it’s also where the dragons burn the most. That could be like Batman: Arkham City cool, and honestly it should be a little depressing, but overall it just read as…normal? Which made it lacking in interest, what’s the word? BORING.

There is an immature rich boy who is engaged to a “duchess” with endless teeth(?), and he runs away and finds a girl and her dead mom (?) on the central garbage island and fucks her even though she’s childlike and doesn’t even know what having sex is (and neither does he so he doesn’t even make her feel good – I think he actually says “oh yeah, I probably hit your G-spot, definitely.”). She thinks that robots have taken over the city and are waiting to kill her if she goes back.

This book is confusing, unnecessarily obscene, kind of rapey, and the fun parts are somehow boring and ancillary AND THAT’S JUST THE FIRST TWENTY PERCENT. 80ish PAGES.

To be fair I’ll include the description from Goodreads here too. I think it’s a little extra but hey, you gotta try to sell the book, right?

Read this book if you want, but I say skip it because it’s gross and boring and there are SO MANY GOOD BOOKS TO READ THIS YEAR. I added some of my own commentary for flavor. Enjoy.

***

A sprawling, genre-defying epic set in a dystopian metropolis plagued by dragons, this debut about what it’s like to be young in a very old world is pure storytelling pleasure. (NO IT’S NOT OMG DID WE EVEN READ THE SAME BOOK)

In the burned-out, futuristic city of Empire Island, three young people navigate a crumbling metropolis constantly under threat from a pair of dragons that circle the skies. (This makes it seem like it’s suspenseful. IT ISN’T) When violence strikes, reality star Duncan Humphrey Ripple V, the spoiled scion of the metropolis’ last dynasty; Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, his tempestuous, death-obsessed betrothed; and Abby, a feral beauty he discovered tossed out with the trash; are forced to flee everything they’ve ever known. (This sure sounds like a neat journey, right? I DIDN’T GET HERE BECAUSE THE BEGINNING WAS SO BAD) As they wander toward the scalded heart of the city, they face fire, conspiracy, mayhem, unholy drugs, dragon-worshippers, and the monsters lurking inside themselves. (Oh my god no one wants this) In this bombshell (REACHING) of a novel, Chandler Klang Smith has imagined an unimaginable world (with dragons and horny dudes? Oh my goodness I can’t even imagine that kind of world…WAIT…): scathingly clever and gorgeously strange, The Sky Is Yours is at once faraway and disturbingly familiar, its singular chaos grounded in the universal realities of love, family, and the deeply human desire to survive at all costs. (Honestly I think we’d all be better off if these characters died. Especially the stupid dude whose nickname is, I shit you not, THE DUNK.)

The Sky Is Yours is incredibly cinematic, bawdy, rollicking, hilarious, and utterly unforgettable, a debut that readers who loved Cloud Atlas, Super Sad True Love Story, and Blade Runner will adore. (This is all false advertising, don’t be lied to.)

***

An Ember in the Ashes (#1)

An Ember in the Ashes

When I begin reading this book I knew I had read something like it before. It took me a couple days, but I remembered that the Legend series by Marie Lu is almost exactly the same as this series, just with Patriots instead of “the Resistance” and the military brat is a girl and the from-the-slums character is a guy.

My Marie Lu reviews are here:

Legend (Legend #1)

Prodigy (Legend #2)

Where this book is concerned there are some magical elements added into the mix on top of the class distinctions and rebellion themes. To be honest I wasn’t totally smitten with the story but it was good enough that I’ll give the next one a chance (it’s already waiting for me at the library).

How do I explain what this book is even about? The Scholar class is enslaved by the Military class after an ancient war where the jinn (a mystical creature) are wiped out. The current dynasty has an Emperor that has issued no male heir, and so the immortal prophets the Augers have declared the trials of Aspirants to choose a new emperor, starting a new dynasty.

Laia is a Scholar slave whose parents used to run the Resistance but were killed, and whose brother is captured by a Mask and sent to prison for suspected collaboration with the Resistance. She escapes capture and begs the Resistance to fulfill a debt to her dead parents and help her rescue her brother. They agree and send her to the military academy to be the personal slave of the Commandant. They agree to help her as long as she spies for them and gets good intel.

Elias is a top military student in his last year of study and training to become a Mask, the most deadly assassin in the Military class of people. When the trials are declared, he is one of the 4 chosen to be an Aspirant for the throne. His mother, the Commandant of the military academy, is basically a bitch who hates her son and abandoned him as a baby in the desert, but he was discovered by the Tribes and raised apart…oh my god just go read the book. It’s so fucking convoluted but it’s pretty good so just save me some time and go read it. It’s one of those books that is impossible to summarize effectively.

Don’t rush to it, but definitely add it to your TBR if you like fantasy-themed, semi-dystopian YA.

The Fellowship of the Ring (LOTR#1(and#2))

I have never read the Lord of the Rings series. I have read the Hobbit (back in 8th grade!) and I have seen all the movies more times than I can count, but the books just never made their way into my circle.

It was time to change that.

This isn’t so much a review of whether the book is good or not as it is going to be me providing you with a roadmap and strategies for getting through this series yourself. It is daunting, and the language is DRYYYYYY, but it’s still beautiful so I have a few tricks and tips.

Trick 1: WATCH. THE. MOVIES.

Please, we live in 2018 and they are on tv at least once a week. Check your listings. Also they have to be somewhere across Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, HBO – either free or for rent. I promise, if you watch the movies first you will have an easier time getting through the books. I PROMISE. BELIEVE ME PLEASE.

I am not saying the movies are better. I am saying they are gorgeous and are an amazing mental crutch for the books.

Trick 2: SKIP BORING SPOTS

In this first book (which is actually the first two books, or so Tolkein says in the prologue) there is a LOT of hobbit journey nonsense happening between when Frodo leaves the Shire for Rivendell and when he gets to Bree and the Prancing Pony Inn where Strider/Aragorn is and Gandalf is supposed to be. The movies rightly cut it out and the story stands without it.

So if you find yourself super bored in the first 30%, page forward until you see them walking into Bree. If you read this a second time you can be more patient, but what you don’t want to do if this is your first time reading is to give up. These books are worth it. I promise.

I also skipped over most of the songs. I read them in my head like limericks (same rhythm) and I ended up irritating myself enough to just skip them.

Trick 3: KEEP A LIST

Whether you watch the movies first or dive into the books, I would recommend a small notebook to keep track of who the people are and what their purposes are. There are some characters in the books that were not in the movies, and it’s these people that I am writing down to remember if they pop up later.

***

Try out these 3 easy tricks that THEY don’t want you to know about and see if you can’t get through one of the most iconic book trilogies of all time. I’ll see you at the end! Long live the king! (Spoilers!)

Everything Here is Beautiful

Everything Here is Beautiful

New Release: 1-16-18

Mira T. Lee’s novel Everything Here is Beautiful is a Viking title that was provided to me by Penguin Group as a digital review copy ahead of publication via Netgalley.com in return for an honest review.

One of my best books of the year in 2017 was Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong. I liked it because it was equal parts sad and happy. Reading it made me sad, but it also taught me things about love, family, and coping with mental illness. The book left me with a smile that a tear passed through as it fell. It was beautiful and uncomplicated.

Lee’s novel Everything Here is Beautiful takes that idea to the next level. Miranda and Lucia have been brought to the US from China by their mother and they live in New York. The central concern in the book is that Lucia has a combination of bipolar disorder and schizo-affective disorder among other things. Miranda grows up being forced into the role of caretaker for Lucia, because their mom dies of cancer, and this power imbalance affects their relationship and the relationships that they find themselves in throughout their lives.

At first this book felt like it lacked focus, but as I continued to stick with it I began to see the pattern. Lee explores immigration issues, misunderstanding of mental illness and how that exists across cultures, and most importantly of all, agency – when someone has a debilitating illness of any kind, who gets to say what that person gets to do? When is it their life and when is it the caretaker’s? How do we allow freedom while taking care of someone who cannot always take care of themselves?

Miranda’s inability to step back and allow Lucia to make her own decisions about her life was both damaging and life-saving to Lucia. If you walk away from reading this novel with one pondering, it should be to explore the relationship between self-care and obligation, between when to help and when to let go, and maybe more than knowing that difference is thinking of how you would do what was necessary should the situation present itself. Everything Here Is Beautiful does a wonderful job of helping us all to understand that this conflict is never as easily resolved as we might think.

This was a wonderful yet challenging read. It will ask you to feel things that might be uncomfortable, and that can be tough. This read is so necessary to expanding our understanding and acceptance of mental illness in general, and more specifically how families can effectively manage and assist when someone they love is struggling. if we all read more books like this, maybe we can all learn to support each other and survive together.

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

The husband and I have an agreement. He goes to play Dungeons and Dragons with his friends, and I get a day alone to do what I want. One of my favorite things to do is to go to the movies, buy the food I want, and watch something that he might not necessarily want to see. This past week that movie was Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

Who allowed this much fun to be smushed into one movie? Where do I even start? All of the combinations were absolutely spectacular. I usually detest and avoid movies with Jack Black in them but he was fucking brilliant in this movie. How did they hold it together long enough to film any of his scenes? I wouldn’t have been able to stop laughing long enough to say my lines.

To whom in the casting department do I address the Edible Arrangement in appreciation for casting The Rock and Kevin Hart together? Aggressive Kevin Hart and shy/timid The Rock interacting throughout was just…comedy gold. It was golden. It was everything.

I would also like to send up a #blessed for Amy Pond’s abs and legs as well as whoever decided the most beautiful Jonas brother should be involved. The gift of Hanks the Lesser at the end was also a delicious surprise.

What makes this movie is the idea that the teenage characters discover how to be better people by inhabiting their opposites within the video game Jumanji. The challenges of the video game allow them each to believe that they can be more than what they are, and they become fast friends as a result. This could have been SUPER corny or obvious, but the movie handles it in a way that we see the lesson, but the dance fighting makes it a funny and enjoyable lesson to learn and can reach both adults and teens alike.

So when the husband got home that evening after playing his lawful-evil paladin I said that the movie was so fun, and that I would be willing to go see it again if he wanted to go. You should head out and see it too; you will have such a good time. Come back and let us know what you thought!

 

Two Girls Down

Two Girls Down

Release: 1-9-2018

I almost did not request this book as an ARC. I am not usually a fan of mysteries or thrillers. But it’s 2018 and I could stand to experience something new, so I took the chance on Louisa Luna’s new novel and I was not disappointed. This ARC was provided by Doubleday Books via Netgally and Edelweiss+ in return for an honest review.

Two girls are taken from a Kmart parking lot and their mother is frantically looking for them. There seem to be no leads and the overworked, understaffed police are at a standstill, when the grandmother calls in a famous face from California. Alex Vega has found every person she has ever searched for (although the condition they are in when she finds them varies) and is now being paid to work either with or around the police in order to find the children. In addition to a tech genius called “the Bastard,” Vega enlists the help of a local, disgraced cop, Cap, who is also very skilled at solving cases and is now retired from police work because he took the fall for another cop.

Something remarkable about this book is how it bends your expectations, especially in regards to gender. Our famous, tireless investigator Vega is female, and Cap is a single dad who maintains an excellent relationship with his daughter Nell, who is no slouch in the intelligence department herself. The characters in this story are very interesting and you will worry about and care for them as the story moves forward.

There is a very important reason I like to give all books with a relatively slow start until about 50% on the ol’ Kindle; often something goes down by that point that picks up the pace and begins the race to the end. And a seemingly out of place murder starts our investigators on a trail that will end even more disturbingly than you might imagine. I was absolutely on the edge of my seat right until the end and it was just perfect.

If you’re a lover of mysteries and crime novels, you should definitely pick up Two Girls Down, out today at a bookstore near you!

The Last Jedi

It can be a difficult task to write a review about something which expands on a source of childhood joy. When I thought about going to see this movie, the one thing I braced myself for was the idea that Luke would die as Obi-Wan did, or worse yet, as Darth Vader did. I couldn’t take an unfair death for Luke, I couldn’t accept it. It was my only worry heading into the theater.

Here is where the spoilers start, so if you’ve managed to get this far without experiencing any, please stop reading and go see the movie.

I needn’t have worried. To be honest the movie, which I expected to feel like The Empire Strikes Back, felt more like a Disney cartoon mini-series where we all learn lessons and are hopeful for the future. A bit early in this trilogy for that feel.

Poe learns a lesson about leadership!

Rey learns a lesson about balance!

Finn learns what matters!

Rose becomes a hero!

The children are our future!

Do you guys even remember how The Empire Strikes Back ended? Luke’s hand was sliced off, Han was frozen in carbonite, the rebellion was suffering, we’ve learned some very important information and been betrayed, we’ve met Yoda, we’re worried about Luke. I can only imagine how people cried out for episode 6. WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT OMGWTFBBQ!!!

This movie was all over the place. The side quests were distracting and confusing. Why is Brienne even in this series if we only see her like 3 times and is in that shiny suit the whole time? Is she even a villain? Who cares? Also who cares about Rey anymore? I 100% figured there was going to be a “my father is also your father” reveal in this movie and I was disappointed. Rey is 100% a Solo, whether she is Ben’s twin or younger sibling I’m not sure  yet, but that knowledge has to be given to me in the next movie or I’m gonna be real mad. There is no cliffhanger in this movie like Empire. Everyone is together, everyone is safe, Luke’s story has come to a conclusion. What am I looking forward to in the next episode, the directors and writers dealing awkwardly with Leia? No thank you.

The brilliance in this movie is not in the new. To be honest none of the new characters stayed with me, and without seeing the movie again I would be unable to recount their antics with any reliable detail. The brilliance in this movie is in the old favorites. Mark Hamill provides us with some of his best acting here. I loved the conflict in him in dealing with his failure. He’s not only failed Ben, Leia, and Han, but he’s failed all the Jedi that came before him. He cannot live with this, and so he exiles himself, cuts himself off from the Force, and resolves to die angry and alone. I see you Luke.

Rey comes, of course, but her persistence isn’t what wins Luke over as we expect. She leaves to help her friends and face Kylo Ren, much like Luke does in The Empire Strikes Back after they escape from Hoth. What changes Luke’s mind is a visit from Yoda. This encounter is hands down the best part of the entire movie. Yoda’s wisdom, his reminder to Luke that failure is the best teacher, his recognition that yes, Luke did mess up, but he should have learned from it and continued to do, for there is no try – all of it just washed over me as clearly as a sermon in a church might. I cried because it was like Yoda was talking to me. Sometimes to move forward, we just need someone to look at us and say “It’s gonna be okay, everybody fucks up. It’s whether or not you learn from it and move forward as a better person that matters.”

Luke’s re-acceptance of the Force and his journey to face Kylo Ren, protect Leia, and the rebellion is everything. It was just everything he was capable of and more. He was the Jedi I dreamed he would become after Return of the Jedi. He was strong and clever and finally one with the Force. And I cried again when he disappeared into the wind, having cemented his legend and the fact that the Jedi may be gone, but the spirit of that old religion lives on. I left the theater wanting nothing more than the requisite amount of midichlorians in my system so I could be a Jedi. I left wishing that Luke and I had been given more time.

This movie was a mixed bag with gems hidden throughout that were bright enough to make up for the parts that were dull. Go and see it because you have to, it’s Star Wars for crying out loud, but when you’re done ask yourself, “Do I really need an Episode 9”? The answer might surprise you.

 

A State of Freedom

AStateofFreedom_CvrWithSpine_rev0705.indd

There is a rule that I hold to in all of my reading that if I reach anywhere between 30 and 50% complete with a book and I am not “feeling it,” I have permission to put it down and move onto another read. A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee was a DRC provided by W.W. Norton and Company via Netgally for an honest review, and while I gave it a good faith effort, I had to set it aside.

Each section of the book is a story set in India, and it’s meant to slowly expand upon different cultures and experiences that exist in the large, diverse nation while keeping you grounded in a set of connected characters. The first section is about a man who takes his young son sightseeing, only to eventually witness him die at the hotel where they are staying? To the casual reader, the first section would be enough to go back to Barnes and Noble for a refund. I, however, pressed on to give the next section a chance.

The second exploration is much more relatable. A son has moved away to go to school and to work in London, but returns home to his well-to-do parents’ home once a year for a month. They think he doesn’t come home enough, he thinks that their treatment of the servants is inhumane and unkind, and so the generations clash as only modern and older generations can. The themes in this second section really spoke to me, and the additions of uniquely Indian issues helped me relate my experience to one with which I am not familiar, and so I learned some things! Hooray for learning!

The third part of the book is where Mukherjee completely repulsed and lost me. A baby bear is found abandoned in a small, rural, poor town in India and a man decides to keep it, break it, and teach it to dance so that he can make money by entertaining people. The descriptions of the treatment of the bear made me tear up and become very uncomfortable, and the overly academic writing made the story feel disjointed. The bear is beaten, starved, tortured, mangled, and eventually it dances but, since my Kindle informed me I had reached 40%, I could say “that’s enough!” and put it down.

It may be a literary triumph, as many reviewers have already decreed, but for a casual reader looking to travel through literature, this is not the book to pick up. It’s more of an academic journey through Indian culture, working with layered characters (one story references a character from another story while expanding on another character from yet another section) in order to show how such different pieces of the Indian puzzle are interwoven to make one nation. It’s the kind of book that a very cultured book club might read and pat each other on the back for understanding each of the complex themes and messages while drinking a very dry chardonnay. It’s definitely not a fun or easy read, and while I enjoy a challenging read, this one just wasn’t worth the effort. It’s cruel in parts, obtuse in many others, and you should probably choose a different book to spend your time with.

On to the next one!