Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Not What Your Were Expecting” Edition…

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Welcome to another Reading Round-Up, wherein I skilfully lasso some of the wily beasts that have been lumbering across the plains of my shelf of late. Today’s edition should probably be retitled the “Not What I Expected” edition because all of these books were surprising and, well, not what I expected. Saddle up readers – let’s ride!

Twisted Dark, Volume 3 (Neil Gibson)

I received this title from the publisher via Netgalley.

Two Sentence Synopsis:  twisted dark

A collection of graphic short stories that are linked by a theme of twisty darkness. The stories are illustrated by a range of artists and broach a diversity of content.

Muster Up the Motivation because:

If you enjoy stories that lean towards the dark side of human nature and have a twist in the tail, you should find something to appeal to you in this collection. The stories range from the consequences of crossing a torture-loving drug lord to the inner anguish of body image distortion and pretty much everything in between. A few of the stories left me a bit underwhelmed by their endings, but overall this is a gripping and gritty collection with some stunning artwork to flesh things out. I’d recommend this to horror and short story lovers looking for something new to surprise them.

Brand it with:

Twist in the tail, tortured souls, eye-popping artwork

World of Shawn (Jordan M. Ehrlich)

I received this title as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers giveaways.

Two Sentence Synopsis:  world of shawn

Shawn’s attempts to create a fantasy sandbox game using a map-rendering program go disastrously wrong when he discovers that the program seems to be creating its own reality. With his two good friends by his side, Shawn must go into the game to try to tame the beast he’s created.

Muster Up the Motivation because:

This is a nicely original take on the whole “falling into a parallel universe” tale with a definite skew toward the young adult gamer community. I found the plot to be reasonably tricky to follow at some points as multiple versions of characters are spawned from the malfunctioning program, but overall the story is a fun read, featuring all the banter and humour one would expect from young lads attempting to kill the (virtual) dragon and win the heart of the princess. The author does take some pains to explain various bits of the programming to the uninitiated (ie: me), which I appreciated, but if you are into that sort of thing to begin with, this book should provide a light, non-digital diversion from the gamersphere.

Brand it with:

Weird science, create-your-character, role-playing in the real world

normalisedNormalized: The Complete Quartet (David Bussell)

I received a digital copy of this title from the author for review.

Two Sentence Synopsis:

The once mighty Captain Might has to come to terms with living an ordinary life after his superpowers are snuffed out. Fortunately, he has documented this process in a journal for any other aspiring supers who may fall victim to similar villainy and be forced to return to the anonymity of normal life.

Muster Up the Motivation because:

It’s quite nice to see a superhero – and an arrogant one at that – get a bit of comeuppance. This is the complete collection of four novellas tracing the demise of Captain Might. If you are a fan of the superhero genre and have been waiting for a tale that is prepared to go no-holds-barred into that good night, then this will probably tickle your fancy. The books are replete with (fairly male-oriented, it must be said) humour and a bunch of supercharacters who are remarkably similar to common-or-garden a**holes that you’d find in any social circle, were you to discount their super abilities. I suspect that Bussell’s writing style won’t be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a brash, unflinchingly politically incorrect character on an inner journey of identity renewal, then you couldn’t find better than the travails of Captain Might (and his infinitely less talented brother, Birdy).

Brand it with:

“Oh no he di’n’t!”, super-narcissism, men in lycra

As I said, this round up ended up being a collection of books that came out of left field, so if you’re looking for something that deviates from the norm, genre-wise, I’d recommend having a look at these three titles.

Until next time,

Bruce

An Indie MG Double Dip: Mystery, Humour, Amateur Detectives and Ice Cream Entrepreneurs…

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Ahoy my Literati-hearties!  For today’s double-dip review you will need to select a snack that evokes youthfulness and responsibility, coupled with a dipping agent that is equal parts mystery and levity because the middle-grade indie titles that I now present to you are the perfect blend of the aforementioned qualities.  Personally, I’m going for chocolate-coated, ruffle-cut, salted chips paired with a marshmallow and avocado dip, but I trust that you’ll make the right choice for you.  Let’s dive in!

22066928Frankie Dupont and the Mystery of Enderby Manor by Julie Anne Grasso (Australian! Woo!) follows a snippet in the life of Frankie Dupont, young aspiring detective.  Upon noticing that his cousin (and good friend) Kat has not made her daily pre-school phone call, Frankie soon discovers that Kat is missing from her parent’s room at Enderby Manor.  Knowing that the chances of the police assigned to the case, and in particular the incompetent Inspector Cluesome, finding Kat are less than that of a wet tissue in a wind tunnel, Frankie immediately springs into action, questioning the staff at the Manor and finding very interesting clues and suspicious characters aplenty.  But as Frankie uncovers more pieces of the puzzle, things just don’t seem to fit and it looks like Kat may in fact be stuck in a place that’s beyond the help of an ordinary boy (or even an extraordinary one like Frankie).  With Kat’s time running out, Frankie and his new friend Lachy must work together to outwit and outmanoeuvre some of the Manor’s quirky residents who definitely do not want this mystery to be solved.

Dip into it for…

…a fun and fast-paced mystery adventure that will be right up the alley of any budding detectives in the middle grade age bracket.  There’s plenty of off-beat and silly humour here that is pitched perfectly for the intended age-range and the characters are also of the slightly cartoonish sort that are reminiscent of the characters found in the works of Roald Dahl and David Walliams.  There’s the chef with a pet parrot that inevitably contradicts everything he says, a remarkably unhelpful little person (or is he?) who hangs about around the gardens and then, of course, there’s Inspector Cluesome fulfilling the role of annoyingly pompous know-nothing know-it-all.

I could not predict the fantastical twist that is at the heart of the mystery and I was both surprised and pleased at the turn of events that saw a bit of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey science fiction injected into the plot.  The ending was quite satisfying really, because it came out of the blue and really gave the plot a bit of a boost just as the mystery was being solved.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re looking for a plain, garden variety mystery story.  A little bit of bending of the laws of time and space is at the heart of solving this mystery, so if you’re just into your standard, all-laws-of-the-universe-are-obeyed, I-can-guess-the-ending-before-it-happens sort of detective story I can imagine that you will be heartily disappointed with this one.

I suspect that this story will also appeal much more to the target age range than those outside of it.  I enjoyed it as an adult reader, but it is very much pitched at middle-graders, so don’t expect anything too deep going into it.

Overall Dip Factor

I would recommend this book to anyone in the middle grade age bracket who likes a good puzzle or two, is enamoured by the thought of a manor house with a garden maze (and a few secrets hidden away inside the walls), and likes a surprise twist in their reading.  The cartoon-style  illustrations scattered throughout the book also add kid-appeal and provide a nice visual element to the story.  This is the first in a new series about Frankie and his detective work and for that reason this should also be a great choice for kids whose reading appetite is insatiable once they find a character they like.

Now, onto book number two in this double dip!

22589546The Secrets of Ice Cream Success by A. D. Hartley introduces us to Carlo Leodoni, your typical fourteen year old boy who, as it turns out, is about to inherit his family’s ice cream factory after the untimely (but unrelated) deaths of both his parents.  From spending his summer holiday trying not to make a fool of himself in front of the cute girls who visit his dad’s ice cream van, Carlo is suddenly catapulted into the cutthroat business of ice cream production and has to deal with his dad’s business partner Mr Randolph, who thought the factory would be left in his capable hands, and the local competition, Mr Hill, who is doing all he can to keep Leodoni’s from reaching the top of the ice cream trade. 

With the help of his best friends, and with a bit of supernatural assistance, Carlo decides that he will do his best to bring Leodoni’s back to the top of its game – but he hasn’t reckoned with the tyranny of sabotage, the unexpected resurfacing of someone Carlo thought was out of the picture, and a rumour that threatens to change everything Carlo has ever thought about himself.  Unless Carlo can find some answers and take control of the factory, specks in the ice cream might be the least of his worries.

Dip into it for…

…an original story packed with humour, believable characters and a bit of the ol’ supernatural charm.  This book is probably going to appeal most to the high end of the middle grade bracket and the lower end of the YA audience and along with a fantastic friendship and adventure tale, it features some cracking mysteries to solve and red herrings to trick the reader into complacency.  The story moves at a steady pace and there are enough twists here and enough paranormal elements to keep the reader guessing to the very eventful and emotional ending.  The great thing about this book for me was the depth of the characters and the banter that goes on between the group of friends – it gave the book a light, fun atmosphere that nicely balanced the darker aspects of the plot.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t prepared to suspend your disbelief in a big way in the first few chapters of the book.  This paragraph might contain a few spoilers, so skip to the next one if that offends you…Hartley’s got gumption, I can tell you that, because in the very first chapters of the book he reveals a quite shocking secret about Leodoni’s ice cream – all the more so if you work in any part of the food safety and regulatory business! – and then kills off Carlo’s father in possibly the most ridiculous death ever penned.  While it turns out that this death is necessary to the plot, the manner of the death was so bizarre and unexpected (to me, anyway!), that I nearly put the book down.  I’m glad I didn’t though, because I would have missed a fun and original story.  But heads up, anyway.

Overall Dip Factor

The plot of this book really stood out to me as something different for the target age-bracket.  A thoughtful mix of summer adventures with friends, ghostly goings-on and coming of age tale, Hartley has done a great job at creating a book that is both engaging and light-hearted while at the same time featuring grittier elements of grief, family secrets and the ugly side of getting ahead in business.   This would be the perfect read for young people who want something a bit out of the ordinary, that embraces the paranormal without a single vampire/werewolf/human love triangle in sight, and features ordinary kids in an extraordinary situation.

So there you have it – two more reasons to get some indie into you!  I was lucky enough to be offered copies of both of these books by the authors in exchange for honest reviews.  I’m sure the authors would also love it if you visited them on Goodreads or Twitter to tell them how intriguing you find their books.  Here are some links for you to do just that:

Julie Anne Grasso:     Goodreads    Twitter

A. D. Hartley:     Goodreads     Twitter

Until next time,

Bruce

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Indie YA Double Dip Review…and a Fi50 reminder!

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Afternoon all! Before we launch into the tasty goodness of an indie YA double-dip, I’d like to remind all comers that June’s Fiction in 50 challenge will open on Monday the 30th.  This month’s prompt is…

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If you’d like to play, all you need to do is create a piece of fabulous fiction (or crappy fiction…we’re not fussy) in 50 words or less and then link it up to the linky in my post on Monday.  For more detailed info just click on the large button at the top of this post.  See you on Monday, mini-narrative-maestros!

Now onto the double dip! First up we have Small Town Witch (The Fae of Calaverasmall town witchs County #1) by Kristen S. Walker.

Rosamunde is your average teenage witch.  She attends school with a bunch of human and non-human friends, she gets stuck with her grumpy, non-witchy sister, and she does her best to be a good daughter.  Taught to always be careful with her fledgling powers and to adhere to the law of the magical community, Rosa is more than surprised to discover some odd spells hidden around her bedroom. 

With friendship dramas unfolding, and a possible new love interest moving into the picture, Rosa must begin to unravel the mystery of who placed the spells and why.  As she delves deeper into the problem, Rosa discovers that her mother may be using her powers to keep Rosa’s family compliant in psuedo-happiness.

In order to free herself and her family from the spells, Rosa must decide whether she should step up against her own mother – the witch who has taught her everything she knows – and risk tearing her family apart.

Dip into it for…

…a nicely imagined urban fantasy in an unusual setting.  Most of the urban fantasy that I have read is set in big cities, like London, so it was interesting to read a book set in a small town.  It gave the action a more homey feel and I think it’s a new and different way to approach the genre.  Walker has also done a great job of bringing in a whole range of different magical creatures but keeping the mythology in the story contained.  In urban fantasy that embraces a diverse range of magicality, there’s always the risk that the author will have to spend endless passages explaining the whys and hows of the world they’ve created, but Walker has allowed the setting to speak for itself and the “rules” of her world are easily picked up through the story.  Another unusual facet to this book is the emphasis placed on the general teen angst experienced by Rosa and her sister Akasha – despite living in a community that embraces magic, they also fall prey to the kind of friendship and relationship issues that non-magical teens deal with, and I think this will appeal to your average YA reader of that age bracket.

Don’t dip if…

…you like your urban fantasy tight and action-packed.  There is an enormous amount of detail around Rosa’s family and friendships here that I found a bit tedious to be honest.  I felt that the editing could have been a lot tighter to keep the action flowing, and to create a few more peaks in the narrative.  Having said that, this book might be better categorised as YA chick lit with magic thrown in, as the relationship detail did give the book a very distinctive feel.  I think that the book would certainly have appeal to a wider range of readers if the book was categorised this way, because it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from an urban fantasy, but it was an interesting and worthy read nonetheless.

Overall dip factor…

This is going to appeal to readers of YA contemporary first and foremost, I suspect, rather than your hard core urban fantasy purists (if there is such a thing!).  With a bit of judicious editing, Small Town Witch has the potential to bring a whole different audience into the world of urban fantasy, which can only be a good thing.  And book two in the series has already been released, so readers who lap this one up don’t have to wait around for the sequel – bonus!

Next we have another YA urban fantasy in a slightly different vein – Salted by Aaron Galvin.salted

Lenny is one of the Salted – a slave who lives in an undersea colony, with the power to transform into a Selkie.  Lenny works as a chaser, hunting down escaped slaves and bringing them back home to face their gruesome punishment.  When Lenny is charged with hunting down famous escapee Marisa Bourgeois, he knows this is a chance to prove himself, and possibly win his own freedom.

While being nearly drowned on purpose by a classmate, Garrett Weaver discovers that he has the ability to transform into a sea creature.  As no one else seems to notice Garrett’s odd affliction, he begins to think he’s going mad until one day at the aquarium, Garrett discovers others like him.

Lenny and Garrett are about to cross paths in spectacular fashion, and when they do, it could spell major danger for both the boys, and the people they care about.

Dip into it for…

…an urban fantasy that features mythical creatures we haven’t seen before.  No vampires or werewolves here!  Galvin has created an interesting world in which the power to transform into a Selkie comes, for some, with the price of slavery for themselves and their families.  It’s a unique take on the genre, with the mythical creature aspect twinned with a sort of dystopian society in which slaves can’t escape their underwater prison without dooming their loved ones to a horrific punishment.

There’s plenty of action to satisfy the thrill-seekers among us, mostly fueled by the thrill of the chase as Lenny and his crew hunt down the wiley, elusive and intriguing Marisa.  The male protagonists also give the book a rough sort of tone that complements the action and the dystopian aspect nicely.  The dual story lines featuring Lenny and Garrett provide a point of difference and allow for some changes in the pacing that give the reader time to take a breath.  There’s also plenty of unanswered questions to puzzle over – why can Garrett suddenly transform? Why do the Selkies hate the escapees so much? What is Marisa hiding and how does she manage to evade capture for so long?

There’s a lot to like here, but again, it’s not your average urban fantasy.

Don’t dip if…

…you like to have your hand held when you dip into a new fantastical world.  The first few chapters really throw you in at the deep end (pardon the pun) as the reader is plunged (pardon, again) straight into Lenny’s underwater world.  The Selkies have a peculiar turn of speech and the context isn’t spelled out in a detailed way so I did feel like I was floundering (SORRY!) a bit.  In fact, when the story flipped to Garrett’s point of view for the first time, I was quite relieved to be back in the realms of something I didn’t have to work to understand.  There are quite a lot of characters that get introduced early on and I did have a little trouble keeping them straight, although this lessened as time went on.

Overall dip factor…

If you enjoy the type of urban fantasy that features shape-shifters and societies with their own rules, you’ll probably enjoy Salted.  Selkies are a nice change from the standard vampire/werewolf dichotomy and I like that Galvin has chosen to branch out from the magic + sea = mermaid formula by choosing a lesser known creature.  Salted is heavy on action and mystery and low on romance (hurrah!), and is focused more on the fantasy than the urban.

So that’s all from me. If your appetite has been whetted, get your dipping hand warmed up, grab your savoury snack of choice and scoop up some  YA indie goodness!

Until next time,

Bruce

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A YA Fiction Double-Dip: Bobby Ether and Drawing Amanda…

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G’day folks and welcome to my YA Double-Dip.  I’ve got two YA indie fiction titles for you today (obviously) – Bobby Ether and the Academy by R. Scott Boyer and Drawing Amanda by Stephanie Feuer.  I received a digital copy of both books from the publisher (Bobby via Netgalley and Amanda via Hipso Media) in return for an honest review.  So let’s get cracking!

One minute Bobby is shooting the miraculous winning basket at his school’s basketball match and the next hebobby ether‘s being whisked away by a mysterious woman named Cassandra, with two large men in suits in hot pursuit.  It seems Bobby has a hidden talent – an ability to manipulate the energy in himself and in the outside world, in order to do extraordinary things – but this is the first Bobby’s heard of it!  Before he knows it, Bobby is stolen away from Cassandra by the suited men and taken to The Academy – a boarding school hidden high in the mountains of Tibet, run by monks and teachers with extraordinary abilities.  Bobby tries to blend in and slowly makes a few good friends, but the snooty Ashley and her thuggish sidekicks immediately begin to make Bobby’s life difficult.  And making friends with Ashley’s younger brother Jinx sure doesn’t helped that relationship.

As Bobby learns more about the Academy, he and his friends discover that there is something sinister going on that may reach all the way to the headmistress.  But can Bobby stay out of trouble long enough to uncover the secret? Or will Ashley and her friends always be there to get in the way?

Dip into it for….

…a very original premise.  I’ve not read anything much like this before in YA – the book has a real focus on power coming from the natural energy available within ourselves, as opposed to a paranormal type of talent.  There’s  a bit of focus on meditation and how to unlock the potential within and the monks in the book are a really interesting addition to the overall makeup of characters.  Master Jong, one of Bobby’s teachers, turns out to be quite the (metaphorical) ass-kicking, supermonk by the end of the story and ended up being one of my favourite characters.  The plot is also pretty complex, featuring a shady agency (the Academics) whose motives and intentions for the talented young people they educate isn’t exactly clear, and there are a lot of characters whose true loyalties are shrouded, making it difficult for Bobby (and the reader!) to know who to trust.

There is also a clear (but not cheesy) theme of the strength of friendship and the power inherent in knowing oneself that runs throughout the book, freshening the whole plot up a bit and helping it avoid descending into a teen version of a politico-psychological thriller.

Also, there’s a creepy bald kid with a malevolent ferret. You’ve got to admit, you don’t see that every day.

Don’t Dip if…

…you’re not into plots that take a while to unfold or plots that have a lot of twists and turns and red herrings thrown in.  I also felt that a lot of the mean-girl type bullying from Ashley and her goons was a bit contrived, given the setting (would super-talented kids trained in mindfulness and meditation locked away in the Himalayas (some since birth) really bother with petty schoolyard antics to such a degree?).  Some of the initial action which results in Bobby’s arrival at the Academy, and his responses afterward also didn’t ring true to me.  I can’t really elaborate much, due to potential spoilers, but Bobby’s behaviour didn’t seem in character for someone who had been through a recent personal trauma.

Overall Dip Factor:

Take a risk on something different.  Despite a few flaws, I was drawn in and despite feeling that I should put it down in a few places, I didn’t and was quite satisfied that I stuck with it because I ended up enjoying the adventure of the resolution.  Plus, Jinx is a cool character.  And of course there’s the malevolent ferret.

In Drawing Amanda we follow “Inky” Kahn as he struggles on entering high school afteDrawing Amandar the recent death of his father in a plane crash.  His mother has left him to his own devices and to manage his grief, Inky turns to his artistic abilities.  Amanda is new to school following her family’s migration from Nairobi to New York, and is finding it more than difficult to fit in amongst the various groups at the international school.  When Inky’s best friend Rungs gives him the link to a website developing a new video game, Inky thinks he might have a chance to show his art to a wider audience. Unbeknownst to Rungs and Inky, Amanda manages to copy the link and also logs in to the game-in-development, Megaland.  When Inky starts submitting his drawings for the game, based on his classmate Amanda’s looks, things start to get  complicated.  And when Rungs delves a bit deeper into the makers behind Megaland, it becomes apparent that things are about to get very tricky indeed.  Unless he can convince both Inky and Amanda of what he has discovered, both his friends may be exposed to more danger than either can handle on their own.

Dip into it for…

…a contemporary tale about fitting in, growing up and facing your demons.  This was a nice change of pace from my usual fare because I don’t often read books in the YA category that don’t have some kind of paranormal or fantasy or psychological twist.  This was a very straightforward plot and I enjoyed the simplicity of the story, while also appreciating the various trajectories of character development for the main four characters.  The setting of an international school gave rise to a diverse range of characters and I loved how Feuer managed to seamlessly work cultural and religious backgrounds into the story without making it sound contrived.  I even learned not to show the soles of my feet to a Buddhist if I wish to remain in their good karmic books!

Central to Inky’s character development is the idea of grief and bereavement, and the pressure that can be placed on the bereaved to “move on” and regain one’s former pace of life after a particular period of time has passed.  It was interesting to see this played out with both a male and female character simultaneously in the book, as Inky’s ex-friend Hawk is also recovering from the death of a parent.  The theme of creating one’s identity is also quite strong as Amanda attempts to find a new way of being in a context in which everyone else seems to have already cemented their place.

The underlying plot point about internet safety is played out with a fair amount of realism and Feuer manages to avoid preaching about it, instead demonstrating how easy it is for those who feel emotionally vulnerable to be taken advantage of by someone they think they know.

Don’t Dip if…

…you’re looking for anything particularly fast-paced or with a focus on action or romance.  It aint’ here.

There is however a fair chunk towards the end of the book that deviates from the main story arc and focuses on the main characters’ major assignment for the year.  While this section was interesting in itself, I felt it popped up at a weird place in the story because Rung’s investigation into the Megaland maker had just become exciting and this deviation slowed the pace a little bit.  This wasn’t reason enough to abandon the book by any means, but you might want to watch out for a few asides now and then.

Overall Dip Factor:

This will appeal greatly to kids in the younger YA age group, say 12 to 15 years, because it features very relatable characters and deals with the issues that many kids face when trying to stake out an identity in a crowded social arena.  Also, the story is simple and relevant to anyone who uses the internet for social activities – so I suspect this story will appeal to parents and teachers of readers in this age bracket as well.  In fact, it would probably make a great launching point for discussion in lower secondary classrooms about mindful internet usage amongst young people.

Until next time,

Bruce

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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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