Word Nerd: A Middle Grade Read-It-If Review…

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You know that wonderful feeling when you get a run of books that you’ve just really enjoyed reading?  Well I’ve had that feeling all this week.  Apart from yesterday’s Top Book of 2016 pick, I’ve got some other great reads coming up this week that gave me a cheery glow in the very pit of my stony heart.  Today’s book is one of those glow-makers.  We received our copy of Word Nerd by Susan Nielsen from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ambrose Bukowski is a twelve-year-old with a talent for mismatching his clothes, for saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time, and for words. In short, he’s a self-described nerd. Making friends is especially hard because he and his overprotective mother, Irene, have had to move so often. And when bullies at his latest school almost kill him by deliberately slipping a peanut into his sandwich to set off his allergy, it’s his mother who has the extreme reaction. From now on, Ambrose has to be home-schooled.

Then Ambrose strikes up an unlikely friendship with the landlord’s son, Cosmo, an ex-con who’s been in prison. They have nothing in common except for Scrabble. But a small deception grows out of control when Ambrose convinces a reluctant Cosmo to take him to a Scrabble club. Could this spell disaster for Ambrose?

word-nerd

Read it if:

*you are a kitchen scrabble player looking for ways to step into the big leagues

*you can’t go past a good “dark horse” story

*you enjoy reading about (peanut free) baklava as much as you enjoy eating it

*you’ve ever made a friend that your parents considered to be a bad influence

*you tend to judge books (read: people) by their rotund, malodorous or otherwise unflattering covers

I’ve had Word Nerd on my Book Depository wishlist – you know, that list of 1000+ books that I will buy when I win the lotto – for quite a while so when I saw it come up on Netgalley I jumped at the chance to review it.  After all, how could I, a bona fide, dyed in the stone, word nerd pass up a book about word-nerdery, especially one aimed at a middle grade audience?

Clearly, I could not.

This is one of those middle grade reads that can be enjoyed by older readers mostly due to the fact that it takes place, for the most part, outside the trope-laden school setting.  Ambrose is home-schooled (by the time a few chapters have passed) due mostly to his mother’s overblown anxiety about his well-being and therefore the book is free from the stereotypical child characters one might usually find in books for this age group.  Instead, Word Nerd feels like a book for a grown up (or growing up) audience, as Ambrose is forced by necessity and circumstance to take a look at himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be.

The thing about this book that pleased me the most was the authenticity of the characterisation.  Ambrose is a genuine rendering of a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy, with all the misplaced confidence, anxiety, awkwardness, and interest in pubescent issues that being a twelve (nearly thirteen) year old boy entails.  The author doesn’t gloss over the grown-up issues that Ambrose is confronted with through his interactions with his upstairs neighbour, Cosmo – including, but not limited to, jail time and drug use – but neither are these gratuitously exploited.  Essentially, Ambrose reads like an unfeigned interpretation of a young boy attempting to make his own choices and emerge, flaws and all, from his mother’s protective shadow.

I knocked this one over in only a few sittings because the narrative was both absorbing and undemanding, and peppered with quirky but real-seeming characters.  I’d definitely recommend this for young readers of middle grade who can handle some grown-up issues, or for older readers looking for a charming and memorable pre-coming of age tale that is wordy in all the right places.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

A Love-Note to Secondhand Bookshops…and a Fi50 Reminder…

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imageBefore we crack on with an OzYA ode to bookstores and bookishness, allow me to gently remind you that Fiction in 50 for August kicks off on Monday with the prompt…

squeaky wheel

To participate, just create a piece of prose or poetry in fewer than 51 words, post it somewhere and then link it up to the linky in my post on Monday.  For more information on how to play and for future prompts, just click here.


words in deep blue

Today’s book is a bit of an unusual choice for we shelf denizens, given its high lovey-dovey content, but we absolutely enjoyed diving into its unusual format and premise.  We received Words in Deep Blue by Cat Crowley from the publisher via Netgalley and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

This is a love story.
It’s the story of Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets.
It’s the story of Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie. They were best friends once, before Rachel moved to the sea.
Now, she’s back, working at the bookstore, grieving for her brother Cal and looking for the future in the books people love, and the words they leave behind.

You would be forgiven for assuming that a first-line like that one would cause me to immediately roll my eyes, gnash my teeth and run in the opposite direction, but I will admit to being caught by the second line.  The reference to readers writing letters drew me in and I’m glad it did because this really is a coming-of-age story worth getting stuck in to.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Rachel and Henry, ex-best friends who have drifted apart amidst deliberation (Rachel) and confusion (Henry).  Rachel has spent a recent stint away from the town in which she and Henry grew up, nursing grief for the sudden death of her brother and enmity towards Henry, for falling in love with a someone who isn’t Rachel.  Henry, meanwhile, has remained working at his parents’ quirky, failing secondhand bookstore, Howling Books, being tossed on the winds of love by his on-again, off-again girlfriend Amy, and wondering why Rachel is shunning him so completely.  In an unexpected turn of events, Rachel finds herself back in her home town and back facing Henry over a gulf of grief that she can’t put into words.  Henry finds Rachel just as Amy seems to have finally called it quits for good, and his parents mull over whether or not to sell their beloved bookstore, and with it, it would seem, the family’s one safe port in a stormy world.

There’s a real sense of warmth and innocence underpinning Henry’s parts of the novel.  While obviously a bit of a homebody who still needs the security of family and stability, Henry is thrust into some major life changes that are out of his control.  Rachel on the other hand, is prickly, standoffish, and bizarrely protective of her grief, to the point that she won’t reveal the fact of her brother’s recent death to anyone from her hometown.  Both the main characters (and all the others!) are gently flawed and I found a great appeal in seeing how they slowly move toward embracing or rejecting the new opportunities opening up.

The most fantastic non-human character in the story is, of course, Henry’s family’s bookstore, Howling Books.  The descriptions of it make it sound like the most comfortable, lived-in (both figuratively and literally), enticing little book nook that could ever be, and so the thought of losing it struck me almost as hard as it strikes Henry.  I absolutely adored the idea of the Letter Library – a section in the shop where customers can write letters to friends, lovers, strangers – whoever! – and leave them to be found within the pages of the Letter Library tomes.  There is a clever sub-plot relating to Henry’s sister George that utilises this method, and other characters’ stories are fleshed out through glimpses into the letters left within the pages of the books.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who loves books about bookshops, readers and literature changing lives.  The romance stuff isn’t rammed down your throat, even though it is a main focus of the book, because it feels like an authentic coming-of-age tale rather than a typical YA love triangle type story.  Despite the difficult themes of grief and growing up within the book there is an undeniable charm and geniality that exudes, I suspect, mostly from Howling Books, and keeps the overall reading experience buoyant.  I will think back on this one with fondness and make the startling (for me!) claim that if you only read one book featuring broken hearts this year, you could do a damn sight worse than this one.

Until next time,

Bruce

A Non-Fiction Read-it-if Review: If You Find This Letter…

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Welcome to another Read-it-if review, this time featuring a memoir of sorts, which I received from the publisher via Netgalley.  I’m also submitting this one for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader.  I can’t remember whether I mentioned that I would be doing this challenge, but I signed up at Explorer level, which is 6-10 books.  If you’d like to find out more about the challenge, you can click on the challenge image at the top of this post.

But back to business.  Today’s book grew out of a blog that the author began in an effort to reconnect with herself and find some purpose in her life.  It’s called If You Find This Letter: One Girl’s Journey to Find Purpose Through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers and it’s by Hannah Brencher.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Fresh out of college, Hannah Brencher moved to New York, expecting her life to look like a scene from Sex and the City. Instead, she found a city full of people who knew where they were going and what they were doing and didn’t have time for a girl still trying to figure it all out. Lonely and depressed, she noticed a woman who looked like she felt the same way on the subway. Hannah did something strange–she wrote the woman a letter. She folded it, scribbled If you find this letter, it’s for you on the front and left it behind.

When she realized that it made her feel better, she started writing and leaving love notes all over the city–in doctor’s offices, in coat pockets, in library books, in bathroom stalls. Feeling crushed within a culture that only felt like connecting on a screen, she poured her heart out to complete strangers. She found solace in the idea that her words might brighten someone’s day.

Hannah’s project took on a life of its own when she made an offer on her blog: She would handwrite a note and mail it to anyone who wanted one. Overnight, her inbox exploded with requests from people all over the world. Nearly 400 handwritten letters later, she started the website, The World Needs More Love Letters, which quickly grew.

There is something about receiving a handwritten note that is so powerful in today’s digital era. If You Find This Letter chronicles Hannah’s attempts to bring more love into the world,and shows how she rediscovered her faith through the movement she started.

 if you find this letterRead it if:

* you like reading memoirs by people who have just barely cracked the quarter century in years on this planet

* you like wacky blog ideas that morph into meaningful projects in the real world

* you like your memoirs to deeply explore the author’s relationships and personal reflections

* you enjoy the idea of randomly leaving stuff behind for others to find (or as I like to call it, “guerrilla kindness” or “littering mindfully”)

It was for just this last reason that I picked up this book.  Having featured books about yarn-bombing on the blog before, I am clearly one of those creatures that gets a kick out of people secretly leaving some little treasure (be it letter, crocheted door knob cosy or book) for some unsuspecting passer-by to find and enjoy.  I was really hoping that this book would be something akin to a cross between yarn-bombing in letter format and the worldwide art and connection project begun by one man, known as PostSecret.  (If you don’t know what PostSecret is, please check it out. It’s worth a look, for certain).  Unfortunately, it read more like the developmentally typical learnings of a reasonably sheltered young woman in her twenties.  Not what I was hoping for, by any means.

The actual letter project, in which Hannah puts out the invitation for anyone who wants a handwritten love letter from her to apply via her website, really takes a back seat in this memoir to a whole bunch of other happenings in Hannah’s life.  I suspect that the idea was to show that she herself was reaching out to strangers in this way because of her own sense of disconnection, but a lot of the stuff that she talks about seemed to me to be pretty typical of anyone between the ages of about 18 and 30 who is trying to carve out an adult identity and some existential equilibrium.  I really wanted to read more about the letter project, and let that speak for itself, than find out about her involvement in a volunteer service project, and a whole bunch of Faith related personal reflection.

Did you notice that Faith-with-a-capital-F?  Yes, this is another blurb which I fear has mislead me and caused me to pick up a book that I probably would have passed on otherwise.  That last line in the blurb –  “If You Find This Letter chronicles Hannah’s attempts to bring more love into the world,and shows how she rediscovered her faith through the movement she started” – is not referring to her faith in humanity.  It’s her Faith, as in her personal relationship with God.  Now, I’ve mentioned before, that the fleshlings who own my shelf have a Christian leaning – they are even Catholics (of the rare non-lapsed variety), as is Hannah herself – so we have no objection to religious content per se in a book.  What really gets on my horns though, is when blurbs don’t make this clear.  If they said this was going to be a God book I could have made an informed decision.  But they didn’t.  So I got stuck wading through a whole lot of “Hannah returning home” (in the Catholic sense, not in the literal sense – in the literal sense, we get a nice little story about one Thanksgiving where Hannah is literally not allowed to return home. Not sure why it was included really), when I was really in the mood for “interesting social connection project”.

Now, don’t let my negativity bring you down.  Others have read this book and called it “inspiring” and “captivating”.  I would suggest reading it if it sounds interesting and make up your own mind.  But I suspect that not all blog projects need to be made into a book. At least, not a book in a memoir format.  For my (non-existent) money, I would have liked to have seen a lot more focus on the project and the benefits contained therein for not just the author, but some of the recipients of letters, and a bit less on the life-reflections of someone who seems to be a reasonably typical example of this particular age group.

Until next time,

Bruce

Ghost Moon Night: A Spooky, Accursed YA Read-it-if Review…

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Happy Friday to you all! Today I have an engaging little offering that I snatched up with pleasure from Kathy at I Am A Reader, Not A Writer, through her new website Ebooks for Review.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a nifty little idea that connects authors seeking reviews with readers who might be looking for a new book.  You don’t have to be a blogger to apply to read and review a book – you simply have to have an account on a social media site that welcomes book reviews – Goodreads, Librarything, whatever – and be willing to post a review after you’ve read the book. Simple and brilliant for those who want to get free books and don’t have a blog.  But I digress.

Ghost Moon Night by Jewel Allen is an atmospheric and unusual tale of a village suffering from a long-ago curse, set in the Philippines.  It was entirely not what I expected, but I actually enjoyed it more because of that. So let’s dive in.  Lanterns at the ready? Windows boarded and barred? Sitting comfortably as the undead rage and screech in the night? Then we’ll begin.

Seventeen-year-old Anotonio Pulido is just about to finish high school – the first in his family to do so.  His father wants him to help on the family farm, but Anotonio doesn’t want to be tied to his home when his best friend Jose gets to go to Manila on a basketball scholarship.  When a new priest arrives in the village, Anotonio is sent to escort him to the parish house…and inform him about one of the village’s more unusual events – Ghost Moon Night.  For one night each month, on the new moon, Dasalin village is besieged by creatures from beyond the grave, the langbaun, or flying undead.  Unless the villagers are safe behind locked doors and barred windows, they risk being torn apart or taken by the langbaun, and becoming langbaun themselves.  As Antonio and Father Sebastian are drawn deeper into the terrors of Ghost Moon Night, Anotonio knows that he must face down the langbaun once and for all, or die in the attempt.

ghost moon nightRead it if:

* you’ve ever wondered whether that deceased person you wronged long ago was truly dead…or just waiting for a new moon to turn up at your window, dessicated wings a-flutter and bony claws outstretched

* you’re consider yourself to be a person who honours their commitments…including grudges…and won’t let a little thing like death put you off hassling the person who wronged you

* you’ve ever been stuck a long way from home as night falls, wishing an empty taxi would turn up to ferry you to safety

* you’ve ever repeatedly made a fool of yourself in front of someone you really like
If you’re hoping for a creepy, flying zombie type of horror story then you’ll get what you are looking for from Ghost Moon Night.  If, however, you are looking for a reasonably complex coming-of-age tale that links spirituality, family expectations and choices to be made that will determine one’s character, then you’re in luck – because you’ll also find what you are looking for in Ghost Moon Night!  When I read the blurb of this book, I expected a fast-paced paranormal aventure with a bit of humour thrown in.  I certainly got that, but a whole lot more as well.

Allen has managed to create what is essentially a tale about a young man trying to find his place in a village where everyone has known him, and his family, since … well, since forever.  Punctuating Antonio’s very ordinary travails in finding a job, being a good son and all the rest of it are some genuinely creepy action scenes featuring flying zombies (some of whom are people that until very recently, lived in the village with Antonio!) with an abiding desire to tear flesh from bones.  So instead of just being a zombie, scary book, this is a strange yet satisfying tale with a lot to offer the reader of straight – as in, not paranormal or fantasy – YA fiction.

The Filippino setting and the background themes of religion and cultural tradition running through the book also provide a point of difference for anyone looking for a YA read that isn’t your standard, set-in-a-big-city, sort of a story.  There are lots of Tagalog words and phrases thrown in to keep the reader’s mind working and a glossary of these is included at the back of the book, although most are explained incidentally during the story, so there’s no need to panic if you aren’t a native speaker of Tagalog!

I ended up enjoying this story very much, as much for its sensitive and realistic portrayal of a young man trying to do the best he can and please the people who are important to him as for the freaky langbaun, who have shot up to near the top of my list of “creepiest fictional/mythical monsters”.  Definitely give this one a go if you’re looking for something a little bit different and out of the ordinary in the paranormal department.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

A YA Coming-of-Age Tale with a Beardy Twist: Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf…

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Let it never be said that I don’t give you something different every now and again, because today I have for you a YA fantasy tale that has bearded ladies, high stakes movie action, family drama and extreme sport all wrapped up in a charming little package.  Behold, Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, book one in the Ballad of Mabel Goldenaxe series by Sherry Peters!

Mabel has just been accepted for work in the mines of Gilliam and is now of age to begin looking for a mate and think about settling down to a life of mining and dwarflings.  Unfortunately for Mabel, she’s thin (a liability in Dwarf culture), her beard would need extensions to be considered thick and full, and for all intents and purposes, she would rather be throwing axes with her axe-throwing-champion older brother Mikey, than down the pub trying to win the affections of her male counterparts.  If that weren’t bad enough, Mabel’s best friend Emma seems to attract men like flies to fly paper and if Mabel doesn’t start pulling in the suitors soon, her Da may step in to do the work for her.  As Mabel tries to be true to herself, she is constantly being challenged by unexpected events – secrets about her absent mother seem to impact on her search for a mate in ways Mabel doesn’t understand, and Emma is behaving in an increasingly unfriendly way.  Just when Mabel thinks that things are becoming too much for one dwarf to bear, an opportunity arises that will force Mabel to choose between being her true self and doing what’s expected.

mabel the lovelorn dwarf

Read it if:

*you can’t go past a book with a strong, bearded female protagonist

* you believe that dwarven culture consists of nothing more than digging and drinking

* you’ve ever felt the expectations of a family legacy weighing down upon you like a rocky bed full of emeralds

* you prefer when the common themes of coming-of-age in YA fiction are played out against a backdrop of ale drinking, axe-throwing and the ever-present chip-chip-chip of a community of (mostly) happy miners

I really enjoyed this book while I was reading it – Mabel is an engaging character and the world-building and cultural aspects of Dwarven life were well-developed and added a genuine feel to the overall plot. Peters has played this pretty straight – it’s not a satirical or humorous take on the fantasy genre, but a proper tale of working out one’s identity where the lead character just happens to be a Dwarf.  It was refreshing to experience familiar YA themes in such a different context and the author has done a wonderful job of keeping Mabel’s experiences authentic in a fantasy setting.

The plot moves from episode to episode in Mabel’s life, forcing her to learn new things about herself as she overcomes various challenges that pop up along the way. The ending is nicely hopeful, with the way left wide open for happenings in following books in the series, but readers could be equally satisfied with the ending were they planning to read this as a standalone. So lots of good things to enjoy about the book.

There were a couple of things about this book that either puzzled or irritated me though.  For starters, the title is a bit….bland.  Admittedly, I can’t think of a better one so I really shouldn’t criticise, but after having read the book it seems that there’s so much more to Mabel (and the plot) than just being lovelorn, as well as the fact that Mabel spends a lot of her time not that bothered about how quickly she finds a mate that the title feels to me like it doesn’t quite fit.  A personal qualm, no doubt, but one that irritated me disproportionately to my enjoyment of the book.

Also, I found this book to have a lot of (in my opinion) rambling that slowed down the forward momentum of the plot. Many of Mabel’s thought processes were repetitious both within each particular section of the plot and across different sections. There seemed to be a lot of time spent just going about her everyday business, with not much happening to move the plot forward. I really felt that this book could have done with some serious editing, to chop out the long descriptions of day-to-day existence and overabundance of introspection on Mabel’s part and just let her actions speak for themselves.

As I said though, I really did enjoy this novel – particularly the sections that turn elf and dwarf relations on their head and the theme of gender image that runs throughout as Mabel struggles to fit in as a Dwarven woman when she doesn’t have the right “look” or ambitions. This is that special kind of YA novel that would appeal to a much wider audience than just the typical, targeted age group and lovers of the fantasy genre will find lots to like and plenty of new twists on the expected reading experience.

If you’re looking for a coming-of-age YA novel with a fun, well-imagined fantasy twist then Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf could be the book for you.

Until next time,

Bruce

A quickie for poetry fans: Odeful and Other Poems…

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Today I have for something for the young and the lovers of poetry.  Those two often go together, don’t they?  The image of the youthful, angst-ridden poet railing against the world with wordy weapons is quite easy to conjure up.  Happily though, the poems that you will find in Odeful and Other Poems by Jennifer Recchio are not angst-ridden in the slightest, despite being pitched as poetry about coming-of-age in this crazy, technological world.

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This collection did seem to me to be particularly short, but even given the limited overall length Recchio manages to cover quite a range of content and styles.  A number of poems made me chuckle and chortle, a few had me connecting with a deep and poignant part of my inner self and one or two even had me scratching my head at the oddity of it all.  After These Messages was undoubtedly my favourite of the lot – a bizarrely funny little piece spelling out what might happen for those characters we see every day in the advertising that surrounds us minute to minute.  The stanza:

Maybe these characters

are in group therapy

in commercial land

where they trade secrets

for overcoming hair loss

and cleaning those

hard to reach places

did spark in me a little concern for those commercial-bound characters.  Particularly the singing hamburger.  The Lives of Eris was another one I particularly enjoyed, rich in imagery about the eternal battle between Order and Chaos (who, incidentally, works at a Home Goods store), and the form of Assume This is a Poem will be familiar to anyone who has ever been subjected to maths exams in high school.

I’d recommend this one to anyone wanting a brief respite from the novel and who doesn’t mind dipping their toes into the deep and choppy waters of poetry every now and then.

Until next time,

Bruce’

* I received a digital copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley *

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Ghoulies and Deserts and Smiles, Oh My!: A Trio of YA Indie Titles for your TBR pile…

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Attention YA fans and fiends, strap on your hipster reading monocles, fire up your fancy e-reading devices and carefully pour your beverage of choice because today I have a collection of wonderful indie YA titles from emerging authors to which your attention needs to be drawn.  And for lovers of variety, I have a dystopian, a coming-of-age/first romance and a creepy paranormal fantasy, so hopefully there’s something here for even the fussiest of YA readers.

I received all these titles from the respective talented authors in return for review, so thanks ladies!

First up, we have the coming-of-age story – Edna in the Desert by Maddy Lederman.

This book introduces us to thirteen-year-old Edna as she is being forcibly removed by her parents to the aforementioned desert, to live with her grandparents for the summer.  This exile follows a spate of less-than-becoming behaviour from young Edna, and when she discovers her parents dastardly plot (as they drive away in a cloud of dust!), Edna believes that life as she knows it may just be over.  During a brief and eventful attempt to wander off into the desert to die, Edna is rescued by local good guy Johnny, sparking a crush that has Edna waiting by the gate, so to speak, for Johnny to turn up with the groceries one day each week.  But how is a girl supposed to get a boy to notice her when she’s stuck in the desert with a surly grandma and a zoned out, war veteran grandpa who does nothing but sit on the porch all day staring into the distance?  Is Edna, the queen of the sassy comeback, up to the challenge?

edna in the desertYou know how sometimes you read a blurb or someone tells you something about a book and you think you know exactly how the plot is going to unfold and what the tone of the book will be? Well, I was utterly, utterly wrong in the case of Edna.  After reading the book I am still surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how the characters have left an impact on me.  I actually got so caught up in it that I finished it in one sitting.

I initially thought that the book was going to be focused mostly on the whole “technology-reliant city slicker young person is forced to spend time without modern conveniences and in the process learns important life lessons and connects with their grandparents’ generation” sort of plotline.  While that does factor into the story in significant ways, this book was so much more than a predictable tale of growing up and noticing the world around you.

Edna in the Desert is a relationship-driven narrative and the strength of the story (and I think the reason it stuck with me after reading) is that the characters are completely authentic and believable.  Lederman has perfectly captured the genuine fears and hopes of a young girl who finds herself outside her comfort zone, but determined to become the person that those close to her believe she can be.  Johnny is also a well-rounded character, with an obvious system of values, which is a nice change from more two-dimensional portrayals of the hot guy who rescues the girl and sweeps her off her feet.  Edna and Johnny’s friendship follows a natural progression with all the false starts and challenges that any new relationship may encounter.  The relationship between Edna and her grandparents also emerges organically throughout the story, and the reader is treated to Edna’s experience of gradually coming to understand how the decline of her grandparents’ relationship due to illness has irrevocably changed who her grandmother is.  Grief, loss and growth are key themes of this novel and it was a wonderful surprise that I enjoyed it so much.  I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy the coming-of-age genre with a little bit of romance thrown in.

We recommend Edna in the Desert for:

* YA readers at the lower end of the age bracket looking for a gentle introduction to the romance genre

* veteran readers of YA contemporary who don’t mind a youngish protagonist

* readers who like a funny, gentle coming-of-age tale of any description

Now for the dystopian utopia…Among the Joyful by Erin Eastham.

In Among the Joyful, we are introduced to Alaire, a happy, successful high school senior who is a productive, joy-sharing bringer of happiness in the Golden State – a country that has outlawed the appearance of negative emotions in its citizens.  In Alaire’s town, everyone must have a smile on their face at all times when out in public, lest their sad/angry/otherwise-unjoyful facial expression contaminate others and spread sadness/anger/unjoyfulness throughout the population.  Up until very recently, Alaire hasn’t found maintaining a perpetual smile to be an onerous task, as the joy within her matched the joy projected through her expression.  When Alaire has a short conversation with an Inder – a sufferer of Interpersonal Negativity Disorder and social outcast – during Service Day however, her effortless smile begins to slip.  And when, soon after, she finds and reads a forbidden book in her aunt’s house, Alaire begins to experience an inner turmoil that she has never known.  Brought before the Council, placed on probation, and facing possible classification as an Inder, Alaire must make absolutely certain her smile is fixed, even when no one is looking.  But with new emotions emerging from her forbidden reading, new knowledge about life outside the Golden State, and a mysterious new man posing as an Inder asking Alaire to make a decision that might place the Golden State in jeopardy, is there any way that Alaire can put on a happy face?

Before we go any further, let me say that if you’re looking for a dystopian but you’ve had your fillamong the joyful of young people used in perverse murder tournaments, then this is the book for you!  Among the Joyful is what I’m going to call a psychological dystopian, because while the city is imposing certain behaviours on its citizens, the story really focuses around Alaire and her discovery that not everybody in the Golden State actually feels the joy that they show outwardly in public.  I’ve mentioned in other reviews that books with long monologuing, or a prolonged focus on one character’s actions, generally poke my “tedium” button and are swiftly abandoned, but while Alaire carries the story for probably 80% of the narration, I didn’t find it irritating or that Eastham was forcing the story forward.

This could be because the world building here was extremely solid.  The implications of living in the Golden State are drip-fed to the reader throughout the story, both from the plot and in quotes from certain pieces of Golden State literature at the beginning of each chapter.  This was a very neat way to get some extra detail into the world-building that otherwise would have to have been accomplished through explanations that would have stalled the action.

What I appreciated most about this book was the fact that the premise was original.  Eastham has done a great job of taking a simple idea – “what if people weren’t allowed to frown or cry in public?” – and has executed it well.  The book is also the first in a series, but again, the author has done a great job of keeping the focus on Alaire as she discovers that her world is not what she thought it was, so it feels very much like a standalone.  The other plotline about life outside the Golden State, and how Alaire might have a role in improving it, is revealed at the end of the book and opens up the possibilites for new directions in the plot for the next book.

Oh and there’s also a bit of romance and some interesting appearances from current and past popular novels that pepper the storyline, just FYI.

We recommend Among the Joyful for:

* those with a love of dystopia, but a hankering for a new take on the genre

* those who, like me, are sick of dystopia because of plotlines that have been done to death

* readers who prefer a book focusing on inner turmoil rather than external action

And finally, the creepy paranormal fantasy…Moonless by Crystal Collier.

In Moonless we encounter Alexia, a young woman with…how shall we put this…an unfortunate face.  After being dragged along to a gathering at a neighbour’s estate, Alexia has a vision of the host, dead from an obviously violent altercation.  Later in the evening, Alexia comes across a ghostly-yet-real girl hidden away in a bolt-hole and is led to the entrance hall of the estate, whereupon she discovers that her vision has become reality and a beautiful blue-eyed man is standing over the corpse of her host.  On returning home, Alexia is amazed to discover that she has suddenly become beautiful, but confused by the fact that no one wants to mention her bizarre change in appearance.  On visiting her aunt, Alexia has another vision that ends up coming true and she is certain that the blue-eyed man has something to do with her newfound ability to predict violent death, as well as her sudden beauty.  Things are changing in Alexia’s world and she knows that soon she must make a decision about whether she will accept these changes, and whether she’s prepared for who she might become.

moonlessMoonless is a strange blend of historical fiction, paranormal romance and horror that will certainly appeal to readers of any of those genres.  Collier has adopted a writing style that is a tad affected, but suits the historical setting and adds to the atmosphere of dread-induced mystery that follows Alexia around for the first third of the book.  In fact, the story is heavy with mystery right from the beginning as the reader and Alexia try to work out what is going on with Alexia’s strange visions, and most obviously, her transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan that seemingly goes un-commented upon by anyone in her circle of acquaintance.  These mysteries are slowly revealed though, in a piecemeal fashion that is designed to keep readers turning the pages.

There’s a mysterious, tall, dark and handsome love interest here that will catch the eye of lovers of paranormal romance and this blue-eyed phantom takes up a lot of Alexia’s mental energy as she wonders, fantasises and wonders some more about who he is and how he is involved in the sudden changes that are taking place around her.  On the horror side of things, there are some very frightening wraith like creatures that chase Alexia down, there’s the creepy-as-all-get-out Bellezza (the aforementioned ghostly-but-real girl)and a nice bit of capture-and-torture to round things out.

Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of paranormal romance, because it’s really not my thing, and there is a strong vein of it in Moonless.  That being said, I think fans of paranormal romance will Lap. This. Up.  It has everything a reader of this genre could want and then some, and the pervading twin atmospheres of spine-tingliness and allure will keep people engaged until the end of Alexia’s…transforming…adventures.

We recommend Moonless for:

* fans of paranormal romance who don’t mind a bit of …unpleasantness…in the courting process

* readers who enjoy a historical setting in their fiction

* readers who like a plot to unfold slowly, with the intrigue drawn out

 

So there you are.  Let it never be said that I don’t offer you variety.  And reviewing these three titles has really opened my eyes to the value of giving authors using Indie publishers or smaller publishing houses a go.  There’s a wealth of talent out there for those who are prepared to look (or in my case, those who are prepared to glance at emails offering review copies) and you never know, you might just find your new favourite author tucked away behind the bestsellers shelf, just waiting for your appreciative murmers and word-of-mouth/social media recommendations.

Until next time then,

Bruce

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