Category Archives: Reviews

High School is Not For Wimps: HIGH & DRY by Sarah Skilton – Review

High  Dry 3D

High & Dry by Sarah Skilton
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Publisher: Amulet Books
Release date: April 15 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 272

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A tantalizing mystery, an unreliable narrator, high school hijinks, and one of the worst fictional high schools I’ve ever run across.

When you find yourself tied up in the chem lab supply closet, surrounded by jars of formaldehyde, about to be maimed by a microscope-wielding thug, it’s a pretty good indication that something in your life has gone wrong.

High & Dry was not at all what I expected. I knew from reading Sarah’s first book Bruised that I would most likely love it, but I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the story synopsis before I started reading. This is always the best approach that I’ve found to reading if you don’t want to have your expectations squashed. In any event, I was surprised and delighted by this book and the sarcastic narrator whose life is more or less falling apart. High & Dry is a comedy of errors, as one unfortunate event escalates to another. Skilton’s dialog is some of the best I’ve ever read. Not only does she really understand the way teens talk, but her dialog is snappy and natural. The most surprising thing about this book, however, was the way the author depicts high school. Now, I understand that this is a fictitious school, set in a fictitious town, but I hope places like this don’t really exist. More about that later, because I have lots to say on the subject.

It’s Charlie Dixon’s senior year of high school, and his future is set. He’s planning on attending the local college where his father works, so he’s not scrambling around stressing out about college applications like his friends are. But Charlie’s life is less than perfect at the moment. His girlfriend Ellie has broken up with him, for no reason that he can see, and it’s ruining his life. He can’t concentrate on school and he’s been drinking more than usual.

One evening he decides to crash a party to talk to Ellie about their break-up, but after drinking way too much, a girl named Bridget insists on driving him home. The next morning Charlie finds out he’s been framed for the near-overdose (LSD) of a girl who was at the party. Now he has to prove that someone else dropped the girl off at the hospital (someone who “borrowed” his car). Not only that, but Bridget has blackmailed Charlie into helping her find a lost flash drive. With a large cast of characters who are also looking for the flash drive, it’s all Charlie can do to locate it first, try to get Ellie back, and graduate from high school before his life implodes.

High & Dry was a fast-paced caper with so many twists and turns it made me giddy. Skilton really knows how to pace her story, and just when you think you know what’s happening, she turns the tables on the reader and takes things in another direction. This book could also be called “The Journey of a Flash Drive,” because much of the plot concerns various characters trying to find the flash drive first—obviously there is something very important on it.

Charlie is a difficult character to love—at first. But I quickly grew to appreciate his snide remarks and sarcastic approach to looking at the world. His entire world is shaped by the fact that Ellie has broken up with him, and he’s suffering terribly because of it. He drinks all time—clearly he’s an alcoholic—mostly to dull the pain of being rejected. But he puts on a stoic face at school. He’s a star on his soccer team, or at least he’s developed a reputation for being aggressive and sometimes violent on the field. And because of soccer, he’s a well-respected senior. But Charlie has a vulnerable side, and it turns out he’s also got scruples. When he catches an old friend breaking the law, he manages to step up and do the right thing.

One of my favorite side-plots involves Charlie’s friend Ryder. Charlie and Ryder have drifted apart over the years, but they are forever bound by a poignant moment during a baseball game when they were younger. I loved the emotional impact their relationship had on the story, and how Charlie is unable to see Ryder as anyone other than the boy who helped him that day on the field.

I also loved Charlie’s grandfather, who is unfortunately the person who has taught Charlie how to drink (by giving him a flask for his birthday and offering to fill it up for him whenever Charlie visits), but who is also one of the few people in Charlie’s life that understands him and accepts him as he is.

But as much as I loved this book, I was completely thrown off guard by Skilton’s portrayal of Palm Valley High. I’m sure there must be schools like this somewhere, but I fervently hope my own kids will never have the terrible experiences that these kids have. The school’s social structure seems to be built on a bullying system, where freshmen who don’t belong to one of the groups on campus are fair play for upper classmen attacks. (And when I say “attacks,” I mean they beat the shit out of the freshmen.) Groups like the “songbirds” (choir kids), “poms” (cheerleaders), “beckhams” (soccer players) or “chekhovs” (lit freaks who study Chekhov) are safe havens, but if you don’t have a group, watch out. Worst of all, the adults at this school seem to be either oblivious to what’s going on right under their noses, or they simply don’t care. Comparing this to my own kids’ school district, where something as innocent as shoving another student in the hallway can get you kicked out of school, you can see why I find this educational environment hard to wrap my head around. And don’t even get me started on why none of the teachers seem to notice that Charlie shows up at school drunk.

But as much as I hate the thought of bullying, I couldn’t help but love the story and the characters anyway. There is a tinge of noir to High & Dry—mostly in the way Charlie narrates—like these favorite lines of mine:

“I glanced down to where her curves seemed to be inviting my hands on a date.”

and

“She looked like a sad girl in search of a tragedy. I could steer her toward mine, but it would cost her a finder’s fee.”

Skilton’s California desert setting plays nicely with Charlie’s feeling of always being thirsty—both literally and figuratively, and when the play-on-words of the title hit me, all I could think was, BEST TITLE EVER! We eventually find out exactly how Maria, the girl at the party who winds up in the hospital, was dosed, and I have to say I learned more about LSD than I ever wanted to know! High & Dry ends on a reflective note rather than an action-packed ending, but I thought it was perfect. If you love quirky, multi-layered stories, High & Dry will surprise you too—in a good way.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

Find High & Dry here:

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Beware the Monsters: MAZE by J.M. McDermott – Review

Maze 3D

Maze by J.M. McDermott
Genre: Adult science fiction/fantasy
Publisher: Apex Publications
Release date: January 2014
Source: Finished paperback from publisher
Pages: 205

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A mind-bending journey through a terrifying landscape, a violent survival story, filled with monsters both hideous and wonderful.

There are deer here, and they’re very tasty. They all have horns along their heads and backs. White roses sprout from their tails. It’s hard to tell where the plant-like thorns end and the bone-like horns begin. They taste a little sour, but if you pour their own uncooked thorn sap upon them, they taste sweet and sticky.

There are oranges that are very tasty, too. They scream when you bite them.

Reading Maze was a little like being stuck on an out-of-control merry-go-round after dropping acid (or at least that’s what I imagine it to be like!). I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading, and some of the reviews on Goodreads made me wonder if I would enjoy this story. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed it. Erm, maybe “pleasant” isn’t the correct adjective to use to describe my reaction to Maze, since most of the things that occur are decidedly not pleasant at all. McDermott fills the walls of his maze with disturbing and horrifying creatures, creatures that will eat you if you don’t eat them first. As I read, I was reminded of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, the famous Dutch painter:

The story is written in a very spare style, and despite all the horrors the characters face, it was strangely devoid of emotion. For many readers this will be an immediate turn-off, as most of us love to experience the highs and lows and have “all the feels” that go with an emotion-packed story. But oddly, this lack of emotional storytelling didn’t bother me. It just worked somehow, and even though the characters relate their various experiences in the maze in deadpan prose (see above for an example), when I finished the book I had to take some time to process everything that had happened. This is the first book I’ve read by McDermott and it definitely won’t be the last.

So, the story is a bit on the convoluted side, but let me lay it out for you. Certain people, in different time periods and places, find themselves in the maze. They might go to sleep and inexplicably wake up there, or as in the case of one little boy, end up in the maze after falling off a bike. The maze is hard to describe, because it seems to act as a hub that connects different dimensions, a hub where the lost wind up. This fairly short novel is broken down into six or seven sections, and each one is the story of one of the characters, told in first person almost as if they are recounting the events for posterity. Some of the characters overlap and make an appearance in more than one section, but you see what they’re going through from someone else’s point of view. As far as a story arc goes, it’s there if you read carefully, but it’s only at the very end that I felt as if things were coming full circle. Each character’s section is a tale unto itself, and can almost be read as a short story.

Most of the action takes place in the maze, but one character’s life in the “normal” world is much more detailed than the others. Joseph lives in a post-apocalyptic city before he comes to the maze, and I felt his story was one of the strangest. He “births” a Djinni out of his side and she becomes a tiny woman that he calls Jenny Ghost. Jenny is the one who drags him into the maze, and his journey there was truly one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever read. (It involves maggots. Enough said.)

One of my favorite characters was a girl named Julie, who is born in the maze, and so she knows no other life. Her story is very familiar: she marries a man but then has an affair with another man. When their tryst is discovered, they are cast out of their tribe to survive in the maze on their own.

The most unusual parts of Maze were the endless descriptions of monsters and other odd creatures that live there. Trolls, gargoyles, cavemen, and animals that exist only in the pages of this book—like the rose deer, an animal that grows in the ground, looks like a deer, and has roses growing from its antlers—are only some of the strange things you’ll encounter. I loved the gargoyles, stone creatures who can only move when no one is looking at them. A sense of creepy dread hung over me the entire time I was reading Maze, and it lingered long after I had finished.

I must warn any squeamish readers out there that this book has lots of gore in it. At its most basic level, this is a survival story, and the people who come to the maze are always hungry, always thirsty, and always trying to find something to eat or drink, even if it means cooking the leather of a troll and chewing on it. In the maze, it’s kill or be killed, and so there is quite a bit of killing! People here learn to place the bodies of their dead on top of the walls, so that they will draw scavengers which can be killed for food.

I’m not sure I would ever read this book again, but I do applaud McDermott’s skillful writing and his brave sense of imagination, which I rarely see in fiction these days. I have to say that Apex did it again: they have published an unusual book that is impossible to categorize. And that’s why small presses like Apex are so important. Anyone can follow a formula and write a trendy story, but not everyone can write outside the lines like McDermott has in Maze. For the brave souls among you, I hope you will give this one a shot.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find Maze here:

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

Magic & Trolls: STOLEN SONGBIRD by Danielle L. Jensen

Stolen Songbird 3D

Stolen Songbird (The Malediction Trilogy #1) by Danielle L. Jensen
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release date: April 1 2014
Source: ARC from Publisher
Pages: 436

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A perfectly paced and thoroughly engaging fantasy, two main characters who may just be my all-time favorites, and a magical underground world that I want to visit someday.

There was only one way to lure Tristan into my company, and that was to sing. As often as I could, I would go out into the glass gardens and do battle with the thunder of the waterfall, my voice echoing through the cavernous hall of Trollus, knowing that no matter where Tristan was in the city or what he was doing, he would come to listen.

After reading many glowing reviews of Stolen Songbird, I was so excited to dive in and see for myself what all the hype was about. And I was not disappointed! Jensen’s debut is skillfully written and beautifully imagined, and the fact that it’s only the beginning of a trilogy is good news for fantasy lovers. For me, everything came together to make this a fantastic read: the stunning world-building, the likeable but flawed characters, the romance, and the suspenseful plot. The magic elements at times reminded me of the magic in the Harry Potter books, so fanciful and original that I felt the same sense of wonder while reading Stolen Songbird that I did when I first read Harry Potter. (However, please understand that I am not comparing this story to Harry Potter at all—I simply mean that I had some of the same feels.) And then there is Tristan, who captured my heart with his sarcastic humor, steadfast loyalty, and growing love for Cécile.

Cécile is a singer who is about to leave home for the first time to move to the city where she can study music with her long absent mother. But on the eve of her departure, she is kidnapped and taken to a secret underground world called Trollus, where trolls live and rule. They aren’t happy about it, however, because centuries ago, a witch cursed the trolls and imprisoned them under a mountain, where they are stuck until the curse can be broken.

Enter Cécile, who has been captured with just that in mind. The trolls believe she is destined to set them free, and so they force her to marry a troll prince named Tristan, hoping their bonding union will break the curse, thus allowing the trolls to leave their underground prison. But—well, you know how it goes. Things don’t quite go the way the trolls expect them to, and before you know it, Cécile is knee-deep in troll politics and palace intrigue, and even though she would do anything to get out of Trollus, she’s beginning to make friends there. Before too long, she will be forced to make some tough decisions—stay and help her new friends, or go back home to the life she’s comfortable with. Nothing in Trollus is easy for Cécile, especially when her growing feelings for Prince Tristan start to complicate things.

I absolutely fell in love with the world building in Stolen Songbird. Jensen has created one of the best underground worlds I’ve ever read about. When I think of trolls living in tunnels and caves under the earth, I think of dark and dank spaces, shadows and low ceilings. But the world of Trollus is magnificent and magical. Yes, it’s dark, but the trolls have their own brand of magic that allows them to light up spaces whenever they need to. They also each have their own magical ball of greenish glowing light that hovers over their shoulders and lights their way wherever they go. When Cécile arrives in Trollus, she is devastated by the lack of light, but she eventually gets her own glowing artifact that acts as a personal flashlight.

One of my favorite parts was when Cécile goes down into the mines—yes, there are mines below the underground city! Trolls mine gold and use it to trade for various things above ground, and in Jensen’s world it’s the half-breed trolls who are forced into this dangerous job. I also loved the glass gardens, where Cécile goes to sing and be alone. Because nothing green can grow in Trollus, the trolls created a magical garden made of glass roses and hedges (hence the rose on the cover of the book).

Both Tristan and Cécile are wonderfully drawn characters, full of complicated personality traits, who grow and change throughout the story. I loved Cécile’s determination and grit, and her fierce loyalty to the downtrodden half-breeds who are little more than slaves. Even though she knows she will never be able to escape Trollus on her own, she tries anyway. She’s the kind of girl who isn’t content to sit around and do nothing, while those around her are suffering.

Tristan, well, I simply adored him! In the beginning, the reader isn’t really sure whether he’s good or bad. He puts on a show for his father, the king (a truly evil character that I hated!), but when he’s alone with Cécile, his actions become tender. Even though he has married Cécile against his will, he swears to protect her no matter what. And Tristan’s sense of humor is what really drew me to him. He is snarky and sarcastic, and you can tell he’s much smarter than everyone around him (except for Cécile, of course.)

I only have one small complaint with the book, but it’s most likely personal and other readers may not have an issue with it. I felt the book went on a little too long, and after one scene that felt to me like the natural ending, I was surprised when the story kept going. It almost reminded me of The Hobbit and its multiple endings that seem to go on forever. But it didn’t detract much from my enjoyment, and when the book did end, I could look back and understand what Jensen had done.

Stolen Songbird was such a joy to read, an exciting story full of action, fully developed characters, and yes, even romance. Jensen fills her world with wonder upon wonder, and by the end of the book I wanted to live in Trollus myself. The ending was a crushing blow (in a good way!), and I can’t wait for the next book in the series to find out what happens. This book is for people who love great stories, no matter what your preferred genre is, and I highly recommend it.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find Stolen Songbird here:

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

“The rules are simple…” PANIC by Lauren Oliver – Review

Panic 3D

Panic by Lauren Oliver
Genre: Young adult thriller
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Release date: March 4 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 416

three stars

The nitty-gritty: An odd mix of an exciting thriller and a sobering “issue” story, an intriguing page-turner of a plot, which ultimately made me feel too old for this book.

He grabbed the handle and pulled, but nothing happened. Tried again. Nothing. For a second, he thought maybe he was still asleep—in one of his nightmares, where he tried and tried to run but couldn’t, or swung at some assailant’s face and didn’t even make a mark. On his third try, the handle popped off in his hand. And for the first time in the whole game, he felt it: panic, building in his chest, crawling into his throat.

Panic was an odd book for me. It started out with a very firm four stars, but somewhere along the way it fell off the tracks and turned into a puzzling pile of pieces that just didn’t mesh well. There is no doubt that Oliver has the necessary skills to write in whatever genre she wants, and I loved the way she sets the tone of the story with her spare descriptions that immediately make you feel like you’re right there with the characters. I definitely felt a sense of panic during certain parts of the story, and Oliver came up with some very creative and fear-inducing challenges for her Panic players. But often the danger was undercut by the author playing safe and offering everyone an easy way out. After a couple of these “easy fixes,” I began to doubt that the characters were ever really in any danger at all. Teenagers will love this book, which makes me think that, once again, I am just too old for young adult fiction!

In case you don’t know what the book’s about, here’s a quick recap. In the small economically challenged town of Carp, the graduating seniors have come up with a game to ease the boredom of their lives. Any senior can enter the game of Panic, as long as they have the money to throw into the pot, and a heap of bravery to go with it. The game consists of a number of challenges that get harder and harder, and players are eliminated as the game progresses. Only one person can win the pot, the last player standing, so to speak, and that person gets all the money.

This summer the pot is a huge $67,000, and Heather, Dodge and Nat are all anxious to win it. Each one knows that kind of money could change their lives forever. But when things get really dangerous, will the cops get involved and threaten to shut Panic down before someone can win? The chapters alternate between Heather and her friend Dodge and give us two completely different glimpses into the mechanics of the game.

Let’s talk about the challenges. No, I’m not going to tell you what they are, because that would definitely spoil the book for you. Half the fun is gasping each time the players face a new one. But I will tell you the first one, which isn’t really a spoiler. In order to join the game, each contestant must jump off a cliff into a lake. Now as far as stunts go, this one is fairly tame. Believe me when I tell you they get riskier and riskier. Unfortunately, instead of being swept up in the danger and suspense of what they were attempting to do, my reaction was to curse the characters for being stupid enough to participate in Panic.

One of the unexpected parts of this story was an emotional subplot about Heather’s unhappy home life. When a woman named Anne gives her a job on her farm, tending to her animals and doing chores around the house, Heather’s life becomes suddenly more hopeful. But things at home aren’t any easier with her alcoholic and neglectful mother. One day, her mother goes too far and locks Heather’s younger sister Lily out of the house while she “entertains” a man inside. When Heather realizes what has happened, she steals her mother’s car and runs away with Lily. I did love the way the author shows how hard life can be in a small town where jobs are hard to come by and many people are just looking for a way out.

I guess the most puzzling thing about Panic is that although it’s realistic contemporary fiction, many plot points just didn’t make sense to me. First of all, the game is *supposed* to be a secret from all the adults in town. How this is possible is anyone’s guess. And even though the cops show up and break up the fun during one challenge, the kids keep right on playing. The judges of Panic are teens, who send text messages letting the players know when the next challenge is and also leave cryptic clues about the nature of the stunts (which Heather and her friends always seem to figure out—obviously they are smarter than I am, because my reaction to these clues was “whaaat?”)

Although I did like Heather and her desire to change her life for the better, some of the other characters didn’t work that well for me. Dodge is only in the game for revenge, and although I understood the reasons why he’s so angry, his plan to get back at the boy who injured his sister in a previous game of Panic just seemed ridiculous. Heather’s bestie Nat is also playing Panic, but I honestly couldn’t stand her. She clearly didn’t belong anywhere near the game, and she spent the entire book whining about one thing or another.

And Heather calls her sister Lily, “Billy.” I still don’t understand why she did that.

Panic clearly wasn’t my ideal story, but for some readers it will be. If you’re willing to suspend—and I mean really suspend—your disbelief and just go with the emotional wave of teen angst and outrageous choices that these characters make, you’ll probably have a blast reading this book. Buried under the crazy stunts is a message of hope: that once you admit to yourself that you’re scared, only then will you learn how to be brave.

Many thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find Panic here:

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Sweet Insect Love: THE OPHELIA PROPHECY by Sharon Lynn Fisher

The Ophelia Prophecy 3D

The Ophelia Prophecy by Sharon Lynn Fisher
Genre: Adult Science Fiction Romance
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: April 1 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 336

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: An imaginative future, a sizzling romance, and a complex plot full of constantly shifting alliances.

A buzzing cry ripped through the air just above her, and something grazed the top of her head. She yelped and Pax fired a shot. Glancing up, she saw a dark insect the size of a man dropping toward her—gleaming black torso like armor and eyes like gold pearls, oblong and soulless. Huge mandibles clicked with menace as a pair of too-human arms extended from the wasp’s midsection, grasping her shoulders and dragging her off her feet.

Last year I inhaled Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet, an exciting science fiction romance with a unique concept, and so I was very excited to dive into The Ophelia Prophecy, another stand-alone novel. Once again, Fisher has written a hard-to-put-down adventure story that seamlessly combines romance with everything I love about science fiction. And her romances tend to be on the, um, unusual side. In Ghost Planet, the romance is between a human and a ghost (sort of—it’s hard to explain). And now in The Ophelia Prophecy, Fisher throws together a human and a creature that has a combination of human and insect DNA. If you’re envisioning bulging eyeballs, wings, and stingers, well, you would be partially correct. Most of the insectoid characters in this novel are more human than insect, but that simply made them easier to relate to, and ultimately easier to imagine them having sex with a human. For you male readers out there who might shy away at the mere mention of the word “romance,” not to worry. There is plenty of political intrigue, attacks by giant mutant wasps, and a healthy dose of betrayals and lies. In other words, something for everyone.

In The Ophelia Prophecy, humans have been all but wiped out. There are only a handful left in a colony called Sanctuary, after a new species called the Manti, a cross between humans and insects, decided to get back at the humans who created them. The Manti developed and let loose a virus that was deadly to humans, and now they are, more or less, in charge. Asha is a pure human living in Sanctuary with her parents, working as an archivist to try to preserve the past. Her father has taught her to stay within the walls of Sanctuary, or the Manti who patrol the skies around the perimeter might capture her and take her away to the Manti city of Granada.

But one day, Asha awakens just outside Sanctuary, with no memory of how she got there. Even worse, a Manti male named Pax is lying beside her, equally confused. Pax immediately kidnaps Asha and takes her on his ship, certain that she is a spy of some sort. Confused and scared, Asha struggles to remember what she was doing outside of Sanctuary, while trying to convince Pax that she is telling the truth. The two grow closer, but they are both in for some surprises when Asha’s memory returns.

One of the things I loved most about this book was that I was never really sure what the characters were going to do. I thought Asha was one kind of person, but then she would surprise me and make a decision that I didn’t see coming. I mentioned before that the characters form alliances with each other, and then they pull the rug out from under you by switching sides. Humans and Manti are enemies, but the Manti allow the humans that have survived the Bio Holocaust to live safely in Sanctuary, as long as they don’t try to leave. So they are basically prisoners, although Asha certainly doesn’t see herself as such, at least in the beginning of the story. But after she is taken away from her home, she begins to understand that her parents have been lying to her about many things, and I loved the way she became a stronger person because of that.

I really liked Pax as well. In typical romance fashion, Pax has an unquenchable desire for Asha as soon as he meets her—he literally wants to mate with her (I’m assuming that’s his insect side at work!). But luckily he holds back and the two get to know each other before they finally allow their libidos to take over. Pax’s sister Iris, who helps pilot the ship, is not fond of Asha at all, and I liked the way her character tried to keep them apart during their journey to Granada.

One of my other favorite characters was Banshee, Pax’s ship—yes, I said ship. Banshee is the AI persona who interfaces with Pax and Iris, and she eventually becomes a trusted friend to Asha. I loved the way the author described the interior walls of the ship as being flexible and even warm, almost as if Banshee were human.

Probably the most interesting part of the book was the world building itself. I love the idea that the world has gone to hell because of DNA experimentation. And I loved the rebel factions that are trying to hide from both the Manti and the humans. Fisher adds plenty of twists and turns to her story, and yes, there is an “Ophelia Prophecy” that is eventually explained. The author keeps the suspense going up until the very end, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen until literally the last few pages. The Ophelia Prophecy was exciting, sexy, and kept me guessing. I don’t know if there’s a sequel planned, but I sure wouldn’t mind diving back into this fascinating world.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Be sure to check back here on April 6th, because I’ll be on the blog tour for The Ophelia Prophecy!

You can find The Ophelia Prophecy here:

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Ridiculously Absurd: THE WEIRDNESS by Jeremy Bushnell – Review

The Weirdness 3D

The Weirdness: A Novel by Jeremy Bushnell
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Melville House
Release Date: March 4 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 288

four stars

The nitty-gritty: An unexpectedly hilarious story about making a deal with the Devil, full of quirky characters and situations.

He’d return to having sex in the back seat of cars except neither he nor Denver own a car. He has considered, on more than one occasion, signing up for a Zipcar account just to have a place to furtively fuck, but he never gets far enough in this plan to actually propose it out loud. Something about imagining that hundreds of other people around the city had also come up with this idea, and that he might end up fucking Denver in some car that somebody else had just used as their own roving fuckatorium…he envisions clenching buttocks, or a woman’s greasy footprint stamped on the window, and queasily dumps the whole idea.

The Weirdness was indeed weird—in the best possible way. I enjoyed this book immensely and I can’t wait to read more by this very talented debut author. What makes this novel stand out is the voice of the main character Billy, a shy wannabe writer whose lack of self-confidence leads him down the wrong path. The novel is written in third person present tense, a style I usually can’t stand (I prefer past tense), but it works here, and I can’t imagine this written any other way. Bushnell sets up his story by explaining just what a loser poor Billy really is. He lives with a roommate and his bedroom is a loft, hence the quote above where he ruminates on how he can possibly have a private moment with his girlfriend. He works in a sandwich shop while trying to bang out a novel and jump-start his career as a famous writer, and that isn’t going very well either. The author infuses his story with lots of sly observations about the life of an unpublished writer, which, one might think, come from real-life experience. All these elements are mixed together with the actual plot, which is that Billy is about to make a deal with the Devil. And boy, things just don’t go the way you expect them to.

When the story begins, Billy is living in Brooklyn, agonizing over his (non)writing career and trying to figure out why his girlfriend Denver hasn’t called in a while. One morning, he wakes up in his apartment and discovers a strange man sitting in his living room. The man tells Billy his name is Lucifer Morningstar, and he has a task for Billy. If Billy agrees to help him recover a dangerous item that was stolen from Hell and is now being held somewhere in Manhattan, Lucifer promises to get Billy’s book published. What follows is a delightfully twisted tale, as Billy discovers the supernatural underbelly of New York, tries to plan an uninterrupted evening of sex with Denver, and attempts to save the world, all while wondering whether or not the Devil will take him to Hell when all this is over.

The Weirdness is ridiculously funny and well written, and Bushnell’s punchy writing style kept this story humming along. It’s not a long book, and it flew by even faster because I was so engaged in the story. I think it was the quirky elements that I loved the most, which made it feel fresh and contemporary, like Lucifer’s penchant for really good coffee (Starbucks plays a part in the story), and a character named the Ghoul who is constantly on his smart phone, usually on Twitter.  One of my favorite elements was an outrageous contraption called the God Detector, a machine that will supposedly light up if God were to ever make an appearance.

The plot does take a hard left turn near the end, which threw me off a little. Usually I love it when stories are unpredictable, but this particular element was one of those “WTF?” moments that took quirkiness to a new level. Let’s just say this book is called The Weirdness for a reason—there is a lot of weirdness between the pages.

I loved most of the characters, and the relationships between the characters in particular. Billy’s best friend Anil is really his only true friend, and they have some wonderful moments together. I also enjoyed Billy’s relationship with his “girlfriend” Denver—and I put that in quotes because throughout most of the book, Billy isn’t really sure where they stand. At one point he tries to plan the perfect evening with Denver, an evening that includes a bottle of wine and (hopefully) the apartment to themselves so they can have uninterrupted sex. Like most of Billy’s plans, this one never materializes. I felt sorry for poor Billy, but I have to say in the end I was happy to see him develop some backbone, after all the crazy experiences he goes through.

And I’ll bet you’re wondering what’s up with the lucky cat on the cover, am I right? Trust me, that cat is pretty important to the story. (But you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out why!)

Full of musings on what it’s like to want to be a writer in New York City and how far one might go to achieve one’s dreams of fame, The Weirdness hits all the right notes. When Billy asks the question “Since there’s a Devil, does that mean there’s also a God?” we’re right there with him, pondering the question as well. If you’re ready for a laugh-out-loud story, full of crazy action and yes, weirdness, get yourself a copy of this book right away.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

You can find The Weirdness here:

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

Zaniness & Adventure in Space! UNDER NAMELESS STARS by Christian Schoon

Under Nameless stars 3D

Under Nameless Stars (Zenn Scarlett #2) by Christian Schoon
Genre: Young adult science fiction
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Release date: April 1 2014
Source: e-ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 368

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: An exciting and worthy follow-up to Zenn Scarlett, with an assortment of loveable new characters, and lots of scientific facts that make this a believable story.

“Zenn Scarlett, can you hear me speaking?” It was Jule’s voice. She was coming back, falling down, or rising up, from wherever she had gone, returning to herself to land with a shudder in her own body. How small it now seemed, this body of moist, heated flesh and brittle bone, what a tiny, fragile thing to carry one through the merciless universe and all its worlds.

**Mild spoilers ahead if you haven’t read Zenn Scarlett!

Zenn Scarlett truly is one of my favorite young adult characters. I was so happy to get back into her story and find out what happened after she ended up on an orbital ferry in the atmosphere above Mars at the end of Zenn Scarlett (you can read my review here). Zenn has many fine qualities: she’s brave, smart, and kind, but she’s also an awkward teenager who has spent most of her life without the normal socialization most kids are used to. Therefore, when a boy comes into the picture, she really doesn’t know what to do with him. Schoon once again proves how inventive he is by adding a plethora of alien critters to his story, lovingly described and fantastically imagined. Add in a hefty amount of adventure and you have a winning combination.

Zenn and her friend Liam have left Mars and stowed away on a ship in order to find Zenn’s father, who has been kidnapped by a Skirni, one of the many “Ascents,” or alien sentients that populate Schoon’s world. When the story opens, they are trapped in a crate with a vicious sandhog boar, and things only get stranger from this point on. When they arrive at the space liner called the Helen of Troy, Zenn is unprepared for what awaits her. Along with a rag-tag band of new friends, Zenn must find her father, avoid the Skirni, and try to figure out the mystery behind the strange disappearances of the Indra fleet before time runs out. And use her exovet skills to save some alien animals while she’s at it!

I thought Under Nameless Stars was a perfect blend of action and adventure, character development, and humor. I was happy to see that Schoon doesn’t take the usual romantic path with this book. At the end of Zenn Scarlett, Zenn and her “towner” pal Liam seem like they might become an item, but the two are separated soon after they arrive on the Helen of Troy, and Zenn is forced to figure stuff out on her own until they meet up again. Luckily she has some awesome new friends to help her, including a dashing young soldier, and my favorite, a dolphin named Jules who wears a “walksuit” and walks around on land. I adored Jules, who quickly burrowed himself into my heart and didn’t let go. Jules says the funniest things at the most inappropriate times, especially when he and Zenn find themselves in dangerous situations. He’s also a reader of paperback novels (although where he gets them in this future society is anyone’s guess), and frequently compares his present situation to those in stories:

“A secret and hidden passage,” Jules said to Zenn. “This is an element of paper-novel mysteries! Although generally there is a moving bookcase activated by a handle on the fireplace.”

Zenn ScarlettHis walksuit was one of the craziest inventions I’ve ever seen, and although it seems ridiculous—a dolphin walking around on mechanical legs—somehow it worked.

We also meet an old man named Charlie who has been hiding from the bad guys for years and helps them out of a scrape or two. Charlie has an unfortunate relationship with an artificial intelligence on the ship, and his scenes were so funny.

Once again, Schoon often takes time out from the action to describe his alien animals. I know some readers might not appreciate these detailed descriptions, as they do tend to slow things down, but I was constantly amazed at his imagination. I want to see pictures of these creatures! Because Zenn is an “exovet” in training, a veterinarian who cares for alien lifeforms, and the story is told from her perspective, these details make sense. There are several passages of dialog where the author gets some of the world-building out of the way by having Zenn explain things to another character. These scenes didn’t quite work for me, because I could clearly see the mechanics of what Schoon was trying to do. But in the long run, this device was overshadowed by the engaging story and quirky characters.

The world-building parts that did work were the endlessly fascinating descriptions of the Indra, mysterious creatures who are responsible for interstellar travel. I’m still not certain I fully understand how it all works, but I don’t care. Schoon seems to have really researched the science and physics behind his ideas, and he gives us plausible explanations about the mechanics of space travel. Tied to these ideas is the philosophical notion of whether or not we  really want to find out who else is out there in the universe.

Zenn’s story wraps up neatly at the end, because I suppose technically, this is the end. I am wondering, however, what will happen next. A well-written story does that: it keeps going, even after the final page.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

Check back here on March 17th for my stop on the Under Nameless Stars blog tour! I’ll have an interview with Christian and there’s a fun giveaway as well!

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Two Journeys, One Future: THE BOOK OF THE CROWMAN by Joseph D’Lacey

Book of the Crowman 3D

The Book of the Crowman (Black Dawn #2) by Joseph D’Lacey
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: February 25 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 468

                                                                 four stars

The nitty-gritty: Violent but compelling, heartbreaking yet hopeful, the harrowing journey of two characters finally comes to an end.

There had once been industrial parks and truck stops on both sides of the road. Over the years people had dumped rubbish alongside the verges and the black refuse sacks were caught forever in the barbed grip of the hedgerows. Shredded by thorns, the ribbons of black plastic fluttered and shivered in the constant wind. They made a sound like prayer flags, though what the words of the prayer might be, Gordon couldn’t imagine. The bags would still be caught there, dancing to the touch of the wind in a thousand years, whether the people of this land survived or not.

The Book of the Crowman is the second book of D’Lacey’s duology, The Black Dawn. Last year I read and really enjoyed Black Feathers (you can read my review here), and I was looking forward to finding out the fates of the characters. Crowman is constructed in much the same way as Black Feathers, with two main characters alternating chapters, as the reader sees what’s happening through their very different points of view. Gordon is still on his quest for the elusive Crowman, a bird-like man who may possibly be able to save the world from destruction. Megan’s story runs parallel to Gordon’s, but she exists in a different place and time. The tension from the last book mostly came from the knowledge that their two paths would eventually cross, and in this final book, that does happen, but not in quite the way I expected. D’Lacey once again brings so much skill to his story: gorgeous prose, Gordon’s dangerous and exciting survival story, and the drawn-out mystery of who the Crowman really is.

Gordon’s story takes place in a sort of dystopian future London, where a group called the Ward are trying to take control of the population and eradicate the peaceful Green Men who want to live in harmony with the land. Gordon is on the run from the Ward, who want to stop him from uniting the people against them. Gordon has been told that he must find the Crowman, a possibly mythic creature who is the key to a future free from the Ward’s control.

Megan is studying with Mr. Keeper and learning to walk “the black feathered path.” She has been chosen by the Crowman to be the chronicler of Gordon’s life. By going into the “weave,” she can cross time and space and observe Gordon and write about his adventures.

Both narratives move inexorably toward a final showdown between the Green Men and the Ward, but it’s uncertain up until the end who will emerge the victor.

Just as I did in Black Feathers, I preferred Gordon’s story over Megan’s. Most of the action takes place while Gordon is trying to stay one step ahead of the Ward, and I loved the sense of desperation as Gordon and his friends are forced to run for their lives. Along the way, he meets a girl named Denise and her precocious daughter Flora, and for a while, they team up to try to stay alive. I adored Flora, a girl who is more than meets the eye and who has an interesting connection to Megan. Gordon is a very complex character, and even though I didn’t like all his decisions, I loved his sense of duty and justice. He’s driven by his love for his family, who have been taken by the Ward (and may even be dead), and he feels a need to follow through with his mother’s request to search for the Crowman.

Interspersed throughout the story are letters written by Gordon’s little sister Jude, who is in fact still alive but has been captured and is being treated horribly. These passages were so heartbreaking, especially since Jude is never sure whether or not Gordon is actually getting her letters. I thought this was an excellent way for the author to refer back to the events that happened in Black Feathers.

Megan’s story, however, was much more slow and dreamy, and seemed completely removed from what was happening to Gordon. Megan is on an emotional journey, rather than one of action, so her chapters had a completely different feel to them. I did love her relationship with Mr. Keeper, especially when she discovers one of his secrets.

What shocked me the most in this book was some over-the-top violence that I wasn’t expecting. Gordon had a dual personality that just didn’t seem to fit his character. On one hand he’s trying to defeat the enemy and bring peace back to the land. But then he turns on his enemies and gruesomely eviscerates them, and does so with a smile on his face. D’Lacey clinically describes each thrust of the sword, exactly how long a man’s intestines are and how they look draped at his feet. Now don’t get me wrong: I love horror and I rarely shy away from the gory bits. But for me, graphic violence works best when tempered with humor. I happen to like some comedy along with my beheadings! The Book of the Crowman has very little humor, and so for me the violence was sometimes gratuitous.

Black FeathersThe other thing that didn’t quite work was the heavy-handed religious allegory. I don’t want to spoil things by explaining it, but as the story goes along, it becomes clear that Gordon is a messiah figure, and his actions become almost predictable by the end.

Although D’Lacey clearly has some messages to impart to the reader—that technology might be destroying us and that humans are not taking care of the land as we should be—they mostly take a backseat to an exciting adventure tale. If you enjoy a well-told story that makes you ponder the possible fate of the human race, The Book of the Crowman is a must read.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Next week I have an interview with Joseph, so make sure to check back soon!

You can find The Book of the Crowman here:

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

History & Mystery: THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS by Alice Hoffman – Review

The Museum 3D

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scribner
Release date: February 18 2014
Source: e-ARC via Edelweiss
Pages: 384

five stars

The nitty-gritty: A magical history of Brooklyn, filled with mysteries and monsters, written in Alice Hoffman’s incomparable style.

It was hard to believe that the teeming streets of lower Manhattan were less than a day’s walk from what was still a sort of wilderness. The wild tulip trees were two hundred feet tall. There were said to be bear here, come down from the Palisades in the winter, crossing the Hudson when it froze, along with wild turkeys, fox, muskrats, and deer. I thought of the forests of the Ukraine, where cuckoos sung in the trees and owls glided through the dark. My father and I had stopped to make camp for several nights on our travels. I was only a small child, but it was there, listening to the voice of the forest, that I had lost the ability to sleep.

Alice Hoffman used to be one of my favorite authors before I started blogging. I’ve read many of her books (although not all—she’s written over thirty!), but as book bloggers know, once you start accepting books for review, many of your favorite authors fall by the wayside. But when this one came up on Edelweiss, I knew it was time to make time for Hoffman again. And I’m so glad I did. Reading The Museum of Extraordinary Things was like a balm on my soul. Hoffman’s familiar writing style is so comforting, and even though this book lacked the magic realism that she’s known for, I found myself loving every word.

The story takes place in Brooklyn, New York in the year 1911, but flashes back to the early lives of the two main characters, as we get to know more about their family histories. Coralie is eighteen and has been part of her father’s Museum of Extraordinary Things as a sideshow attraction for nearly half her life. She is the “human mermaid,” forced to wear a fake mermaid tale and swim in a tank of water for hours a day. At night, Coralie practices swimming in the freezing Hudson River in order to increase her lung capacity, while dreaming of an easier life that doesn’t include being exploited by her strict father.

Parallel to Coralie’s story we meet Eddie, a refugee from the Ukraine who has become adept at taking journalistic photographs of crime scenes. When Eddie is hired by a stranger to find a missing girl named Hannah, Eddie’s and Coralie’s lives become linked through a series of events. As Hoffman reveals bit by bit what happened to Hannah, the paths of Eddie and Coralie slowly come together, before the mystery is solved.

Hoffman has clearly done tons of research for her book. One of my favorite things about the story was the amount of historical detail she wove into the narrative. Clearly 1911 was a great year for story fodder, because a lot of horrific (but interesting!) things take place. Focusing her writer’s lens on Brooklyn, and in particular on Coney Island, the author includes such historic events as the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the opening (and closing!) of the ambitious amusement park Dreamland, and the battle of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to secure safe working conditions for girls and women in factories. Let’s just say I learned a lot reading this book! You can tell that Hoffman loves New York and is passionate about the dangers young factory workers faced near the turn of the century. Some of her descriptions of the city are so detailed, it’s almost as if she herself had stepped back in time to take notes.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced book, however, you need to keep looking. And this is not a criticism by any means. One of Hoffman’s skills is her ability to develop her plot and characters slowly in such a way that the reader never gets bored, but instead savors each discovery, knowing that the mystery will eventually be revealed.

The story construction was hard to get used to at first, I’ll admit. Each chapter focuses on either Coralie or Eddie, and switches back and forth between the two. The first part of the chapter is told in first person, as the character tells us about his or her past, and the second part switches to third person and takes place in the present. This jumping around confused me at first, but once I understood what the author was doing, it all made sense.

Museum UK

Check out the cool UK cover!

Hoffman is brilliant at introducing small details, and then pulling them through the story. For example, when Eddie is a boy working as a tailor in a factory, he steals an expensive pocket watch from the factory owner’s son. This watch pops up again and again during Eddie’s story, as he struggles with the idea of whether or not to return it. Hoffman is such a seasoned writer (she’s been writing books for over forty years!) that it’s no surprise that nothing in this story is random. Every item, every detail, and every character is there for a reason.

As with most of Hoffman’s novels, romance eventually blooms between Coralie and Eddie, but it’s agonizingly slow (until they actually meet—then it almost feels like instalove!) and things don’t go quite the way you expect them to. The author often writes about love and how it can be found in the most unexpected of places, and this novel is no exception.

There are so many things to discover in this book, and I’ve barely scratched the surface with this review. Simply put, The Museum of Extraordinary Things was a treat to read. It made me happy—despite the unhappy moments—and I am anxiously awaiting Hoffman’s next book. Don’t miss this one!

And here are several other Alice Hoffman books I highly recommend:

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final book.

Don’t forget to stop back here in the beginning of March to enter my February Review Giveaway, where you will have a chance to win a copy of one of the books I reviewed this month, including this one!

Find The Museum of Extraordinary Things here:
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Don’t Ask Questions, Just Read It: RED RISING by Pierce Brown – Review + Giveaway!

Red Rising 3DRed Rising (Red Rising Trilogy #1) by Pierce Brown
Genre: Adult science fiction
Publisher:  Del Rey Books
Release date: January 28 2014
Source: ARC from San Diego Comic Con & e-ARC via NetGalley
Pages: 382

five stars

The nitty-gritty: This book has it all: kick-ass action, mind-blowing world building, characters with depth, tear-inducing emotional moments, oh god just GET THIS BOOK AND READ IT RIGHT NOW!!!

On Mars there is not much gravity, so you have to pull the feet to break the neck. They let the loved ones do it.

Soon, there is no sound, not even the creaking of the rope.

My wife is too light.

She was only just a girl.

Then the thumping of the Fading Dirge begins. Fists on chests. Thousands. Fast, like a racing heartbeat. Slower. A beat a second. A beat every five. Every ten. Then never again, and the mournful mass fades away like dust held in the palm as the old tunnels wail with deep winds.

And the Golds, they fly away.

So I could just cut out 900 or so words from this review and reiterate what I said above. Simply put, this is my favorite book of the year so far. I’ve had this sitting in a pile of books since last July. July, people!! It sat there gathering dust as I read other, less worthy books. I told myself I might read it at some point, but since it wasn’t a review book, I may not have time to get to it. Then I saw it on NetGalley and requested it, thinking that a NetGalley approval might light a fire under my ass and get me to read it. And that worked. I read it, THANK GOD. Mr. Brown is quite the writer, and at the tender age of twenty-five he’s got a hell of a career ahead of him.

You may have heard about the comparisons this book is garnering, most notably to The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones. I can’t vouch for the latter comparison, because I may be the only person on the planet who hasn’t read A Game of Thrones (or watched the TV show for that matter), but yes, there are similarities to The Hunger Games. I was also reminded of The Matrix and The Six Million Dollar Man while reading Red Rising. But you should not let these comparisons color your opinion of the story before you read it. Comparisons are simply handy tools that publishers use to entice a certain audience. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Pierce Brown may have incorporated some of these ideas, but he’s done so in a completely unique way, and the end product is like nothing I’ve read before.

I really don’t want to give too much of the story away, but here’s a quick synopsis: Darrow is a  sixteen-year old boy who is a Helldiver, someone who mines the deep tunnels of Mars to find helium-3, a precious substance that is necessary in order to terraform Mars, whose surface is uninhabitable.  He’s also a Red, the lowest color in an intricately devised social system. His entire life he’s been told that his job is a noble one, and that the hardships he and his family endure are for the greater good.

But one day Darrow discovers something terrible: the hardscrabble life he and his friends and family have been living down in the tunnels is all a lie. Mars has already been terraformed and is being ruled by the Golds, who have been enslaving Reds for hundreds of years. After several twists of fate, Darrow finds himself removed from the tunnels by a resistance group who wants to use him to topple the Golds from their lofty perch. But first Darrow will have to convince everyone that he’s a Gold himself. What follows is a series of tests to see just how convincing he can be.

Wow, where do I start? The first thing you should know about Red Rising is that there is a fair amount of graphic violence in its pages. Some of the most horrific passages occur not while the students are doing battle with each other, but before Darrow even gets to the command school. In order for him to become a weapon to take down the society, he must be transformed into a Gold, and when I say transformed, I’m not talking about magic. I’m talking about surgery. Lots of it, graphically described. (This is where my Six Million Dollar Man comparison comes in.) It also reminded me of another favorite book of mine, The Scar by China Miéville, where a character undergoes surgery that will give him gills so that he can live underwater. Just think about that for a moment, and you’ll have an idea of what’s in store for Darrow.

But violence aside, Red Rising has a surprising amount of humor and emotion in it as well. Darrow’s love for his wife Eo is a constant thread that pulls us through the book and ultimately keeps him going, even as his life is falling apart. Some passages even brought tears to my eyes. I grew to love so many of the characters in this book, and since not everyone makes it out alive, well, yes, I cried. Damn you Mr. Brown! You made me cry with your gorgeous prose and your heartfelt emotional moments and your lovably flawed characters.

And the humor, it came just at the right times, just when you think everything’s headed to hell, the author lightens the mood and throws in dialog like this:

Sevro shrugs. “We’ll take Minerva’s standard.”

“W-wait,” Cassius says. “You know how to do that?”

Sevro snorts. “What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time, you silky turd? Wanking off in the bushes?”

Cassius and I look at each other.

“Kind of,” I say.

“Yeah, actually,” Cassius agrees.

I’m also happy to have stumbled upon the Red Rising website, because it gives readers a chance to delve into the fantastic world that Brown has created, in an interactive way. The best thing I found there was this wonderful graphic that shows the hierarchy of the society:

pyramid-allcolors

Each piece of the pyramid is the symbol for a particular color. I encourage you to visit the site and learn more about it here. You can also figure out which color best describes you and download the symbol here.

Honestly, I could go on and on (and on and on…) about Red Rising, but wouldn’t you rather be reading the actual book yourself? If you love great storytelling, finely nuanced characters, and writing that pierces your heart and makes it bleed, then please don’t let this one slip past you. Go buy, borrow or steal it, or better yet, enter to win a copy right here!

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the finished book.

Find Red Rising here:

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And now, I’m happy to say I have an extra ARC of Red Rising to give away to one U.S. reader! All you have to do is fill out the form below to enter. I’ll give you extra points for tweeting about the giveaway and leaving a comment on this post. U.S. only this time, folks. Sorry! I have to mail it myself.

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Filed under Bones & Buffy Hall of Fame, Five stars, Giveaways, Reviews