Category Archives: Reviews

Blog Tour & Review: THE SHOTGUN ARCANA by R.S. Belcher


I’m very excited to be participating in the blog tour for The Shotgun Arcana, hosted by Jean Book Nerd! You can click that link, or the banner above, to check out the rest of the stops on the tour.

I’m very picky these days about joining blog tours, so when I do, you know it’s for an author that I really want to support. I read the first book in Rod’s series, The Six-Gun Tarot, almost two years ago (my review) and loved it. He doesn’t disappoint in this sequel, and you can read my review below.

The Shotgun Arcana

R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was enthusiastically greeted by critics and readers, who praised its wildly inventive mixture of dark fantasy, steampunk, and the Wild West. Now Belcher returns to Golgotha, Nevada, a bustling frontier town that hides more than its fair share of unnatural secrets.

1870. A haven for the blessed and the damned, including a fallen angel, a mad scientist, a pirate queen, and a deputy who is kin to coyotes, Golgotha has come through many nightmarish trials, but now an army of thirty-two outlaws, lunatics, serial killers, and cannibals are converging on the town, drawn by a grisly relic that dates back to the Donner Party…and the dawn of humanity.

Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies already have their hands full dealing with train robbers, a mysterious series of brutal murders, and the usual outbreaks of weirdness. But with thirty-two of the most vicious killers on Earth riding into Golgotha in just a few day’s time, the town and its people will be tested as never before—and some of them will never be the same.

The Shotgun Arcana is even more spectacularly ambitious and imaginative than The Six-Gun Tarot, and confirms R. S. Belcher’s status as a rising star.

Buy the book:  Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Book Depository

My review:

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: An exciting and worthy sequel, a cast of colorful characters, a brutally violent western, balanced by humor and emotion.

I gleefully devoured The Six-Gun Tarot nearly two years ago, and I was chomping at the bit (hey, this is a western, so that metaphor is apt) to read Belcher’s follow-up. I was not disappointed. The Shotgun Arcana is a wild ride, with a large cast of quirky characters and a fair amount of blood flowing through the dusty streets of Golgotha, the remote desert town where the story takes place. Belcher builds his story carefully and methodically, and even though it started out a bit on the slow side for me, it picked up momentum with each turn of the page.

Although this is technically billed as a sequel, and many of the same characters from The Six-Gun Tarot are part of the story, The Shotgun Arcana can easily be read as a stand-alone, good news for those of you who haven’t read the first book yet. Some story elements are carried over, like the magical jade eye that Jim carries with him, but Belcher smoothly incorporates these into his narrative without confusing the reader.

Just like the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Golgotha acts as an evil hub, drawing in a hoard of nasty serial killers who want to take over the town. (The reason for this relates back to the first book.) But before they arrive, there is another serial killer at large. Someone is murdering girls from the Dove’s Roost and leaving their gruesomely mutilated bodies in the back alleys of town. Sheriff Jon Highfather and his deputies Jim and Mutt have their hands full trying to catch the killer before he claims another victim. They are joined by a trio of brave and feisty women: Kate, a detective who works for the famed Pinkerton; Rowan, a pirate queen; and Maude, a returning character from The Six-Gun Tarot who is about as fearless as they come.

But this killer can’t hold a candle to what’s coming—and it’s going to take every good guy in town to hold back the evil that’s on its way.

This is one crazy story, and I mean that in a good way. A LOT is going on, and Belcher gives us a huge cast of characters to deal with. I’ll admit it was sometimes overwhelming, and in the beginning the multiple points of view seem as if they’ll never come together—but don’t let that deter you from reading this book. By the end, everything fell into place beautifully, and I am already looking forward to the next book in the series.

Some of my favorite parts of The Shotgun Arcana were the humorous exchanges between characters. Belcher has a great talent for capturing the Western sensibility, and the book is dripping with sarcasm, snark and western slang, which gets my hearty seal of approval. There’s nothing quite like a story that can make you laugh one minute, and cringe in horror the next:

“A word to the wise, Jonathan,” [Tumblety] said as he went about his task. “A man in your position must show great care in trucking with adventuresses. Their horrid female sex is replete with disease that can lay a man low faster than any bullet. Beware, I caution you as a physician, beware!”

“I’ve seen better sawbones in a Chinese brothel,” Kate said. Tumblety’s face grew ruddy with rage and he strode toward Kate with hatred glazing his eyes. “Shut your mouth, you haughty bitch! I’m going to beat the sass out of your whore gob!”

Highfather moved to stop Tumblety, but by the time he rested a restraining hand on the blustering doctor’s shoulder, Tumblety was staring into the short barrels of two .36 Colt revolvers Kate had cross-drawn from under her short jacket. Tumblety stopped abruptly and gasped.

“Are you just?” she said coolly, cocking both guns. “Tell me, you pompous gasbag, who’s going to reattach your ugly face when I blow it all over the walls?”

Belcher’s true strength lies in his characters. This story is chock-full of awesome women, who really steal the show and turn out to be stronger and smarter than most of the men. One of my favorite characters from The Six-Gun Tarot, Maude, is back with a vengeance. Maude has serious Ninja skills, which she learned from her grandmother as a child. She can practically sense where a bullet will end up, and she’s fast enough to get out of the way before it hits her. Maude is joined by Kate and Rowan, two other badass women who join in the fight against the evil that is threatening to destroy Golgotha. Kate is a whip-smart detective who’s come to see the supernatural evil for herself, and Rowan is a pirate who shows up to help as well. You may be wondering, what the heck is a pirate doing in a story that takes place out in the desert? In this book, it’s best not to ask too many questions, and just go with it.

And yes, there are bad guys aplenty. One of the most interesting and conflicted is Biqa, a fallen angel (remember, I said not to ask too many questions?) who has created his own empire in Golgotha. It’s hard to tell exactly what side he’s on, which is one of the things I loved about him. And then there’s Clay Turlough, the local taxidermist, whose skills in preserving dead animals evolve into, well, let’s just say Clay is the Dr. Frankenstein of Golgotha and leave it at that. (I’ll leave you, the reader, to discover that gem for yourself!)

The story takes place in 1870, and Belcher fills his tale with references to many historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln, Allen Pinkerton, Edgar Allen Poe and even the infamous Donner Party. I loved the way he weaves these people into the story, and never once does it feel forced. He doesn’t mince words, either, so those of you who may be offended by politically incorrect terms, beware. In this story, “ladies of the night” are “whores” and that’s just the way it is in the old west.

The final battle is bloody and violent, much like the real old west, I imagine—but with Belcher’s unique supernatural elements added in, The Shotgun Arcana is unlike any western you’ve ever read. It ends with a couple of dangling story lines, which leads me to believe (and hope!) that a third book is in the works. (Again, Goodreads ain’t telling me anything about that.) So fellow readers, strap on your pistols and get ready for the bullets to fly. You’re in for a hell of a ride!

Big thanks to Tor for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book (but I hope it doesn’t!)

About the author:

R.S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter. He has been a freelance writer for over a decade. He has written for local, state and international publications.

Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book and game store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has done Masters work on a degree in Forensic Science at The George Washington University, as well as worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly’s State Crime Commission.

Rod has written and edited for magazines like Starlog, Virginia Living, Virginia Business, Verve, and The Roanoker. He was managing editor of The Vinton Messenger newspaper and editor for numerous trade publications. He has done technical writing and has ghost-written political editorials and advertising copy. Both the politics and the advertising greatly honed his fiction writing skills.

He has been a writing guest at numerous conventions and writing conferences for many years. He is available for Bar Mitzvahs…

Rod began writing stories when he was 9 years old, selling stories and self- drawn comics to his mother’s beauty shop customers for a quarter a piece. That first quarter was the start of his road to Hell…

In a creative writing course he was selected for in 6th grade, Rod was told his SF/Fantasy writing was “silly trash” ( kinda true, but hey, I was in sixth grade…) but the lack of support from an adult “expert” made him feel like he couldn’t “really write” and he stopped writing for a few years. Thanks to the love, encouragement and support of his mom, Mabel, Rod started writing again when he got a typewriter for his 12th birthday. Thanks Mom.

You can write. Yes, you. You have a story, maybe a bunch of stories inside you screaming to be let out. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t write, or that your writing is no good. It’s good for you, good for the thing inside you that demands you get that story out somehow. Don’t write for praise, or for money, write for you, only you, and to hell with the rest of them.

He was once told by Elizabeth Taylor, he was “hot” and once told by George Takei he “looked terrible” ( he did). He watched a man die in the electric chair, investigated homicides, pissed off politicians and located missing children. The CIA told him to “clean up his act”- this was one of his proudest moments.

In his spare time ( which he has damn little of these days), Rod enjoys reading, hiking, shooting, gaming ( mostly tabletop RPG or board games, but some console), comics, researching the weird, spending time with his amazing kids, and long, thoughtful, walks in the rain…OK, the last one is crap, but the rest is true.

He lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his children: Jonathan, Emily and Stephanie, Three cats and two dogs.

Find Rod:  Twitter | Goodreads | Facebook


Filed under Blog Tours, Giveaways, Reviews

A Chilly Winter’s Tale: SUBLIME by Christina Lauren – Review

Sublime 3D

Sublime by Christina Lauren
Genre: Young adult paranormal romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Release date: October 14 2014
Source: ARC from San Diego Comic Con/eGalley from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 336

three stars

The nitty-gritty: An atmospheric and creepy tale, written in gorgeous prose, heavy on the romance, but ultimately confusing in the end.

The girl is bent into odd angles when she wakes. It doesn’t seem possible that she could have been sleeping here, alone on a dirt path, surrounded by leaves and grass and clouds. She feels like she might have fallen from the sky.

This is one of my favorite covers of the year, and I was hoping for an amazing story to go with it. Unfortunately, Sublime wasn’t quite what I had hoped it would be. It starts out very strong, as we are presented with a mystery (OK, a mystery you will be quite familiar with if you read a lot of YA): a girl wakes up on a forest path with no memory of who she is and what she is doing there. (Honestly, I can count at least fifteen examples of this premise that have been used in the last couple of years—writers, please come up with something new!)

But despite the familiarity of this concept, I was immediately drawn into the mystery. The authors (Christina Lauren is actually two authors, Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings) have solid writing skills, and they really know how to create an eerie atmosphere and grab the reader with lovely and flowing prose.

Lucy finds herself in the middle of nowhere, wearing odd clothes—a flower-patterned dress and sandals (it’s the middle of winter!)—and completely lost as to what she’s doing there. Even stranger, she doesn’t feel the cold at all. She’s curiously drawn to the nearby Saint Osanna’s Prep School, but when she walks through the hallways, no one seems to notice she’s there.

Until she comes face to face with a boy named Colin. She doesn’t recognize Colin so much as know that he’s important to her, and that she is somehow connected to him. Colin is stunned by Lucy’s perfectly white and clear skin, long white hair, and “mood ring eyes.” In fact, she seems to glow when he looks at her. It doesn’t take long for these two to realize that a) they are completely attracted to each other and b) there is something very different about Lucy: everyone else who sees her thinks she has brown hair. They finally piece together a few of Lucy’s scattered memories and make a startling discovery: Lucy is dead, and she is a ghost.

The rest of the plot—and trust me, the plot is pretty thin—concerns Lucy and Colin trying to spend as much time together as possible. They’re also trying to figure out why Lucy is here. Is she haunting Colin? Does it have something to do with her death? Why is Lucy drawn inexorably to the lake? And how can these two lovebirds possibly manage to do the one thing they’re dying to do: touch each other in every way possible? And then they find a way to do that, but it’s pretty dangerous, not to mention stupid.

Everything you need to know about the story is in the book blurb, unfortunately, so if you plan on reading Sublime, I suggest skipping the blurb. In order to preserve some of the surprises, I’m NOT going to talk about the one element I’d really like to discuss (see above: dangerous and stupid), which frankly shocked and surprised me, since I forgot to read the blurb first. Two stories came to mind as I was reading this book. First, I thought it was going to turn out to be a teen version of The Lovely Bones (it isn’t even close). And later, I was reminded of the 1990 movie Flatliners (and if you’ve seen Flatliners, then you can most likely guess the dangerous and stupid thing I mentioned before).

My biggest reaction after reading Sublime is that it had so much potential to be more. The idea of a ghost girl and a human boy falling in love is a great one, and there was so much the authors could have done with it. Instead, we get a typical YA romance filled with lots of longing glances and angsty drama. The most interesting part of the story was Colin’s tragic past and how he’s coping in the present. His entire family is dead, and he’s become a daredevil on a bike, doing dangerous jumps and stunts on cliffs and such, in an effort to cheat death, or die and join his family, or…I’m not sure I understood why he was so reckless.

The story mostly revolves around Lucy and Colin, and although there are a few other ancillary characters—Colin’s best friend Jay, Dot and Joe, the couple who Colin grew up with after his parents died, and a few two-dimensional students who attend Saint Osanna’s—the story is pretty much Lucy and Colin and the very strange world they inhabit. I very much wanted to learn more about Lucy’s murder, which is barely touched upon. I also wanted more depth to the other characters, because while living in Lucy and Colin’s heads was strange and oddly compelling, the story would have had more depth had the other characters been more developed.

Several too obvious story elements made me roll my eyes. Colin and Jay go out on the FROZEN LAKE and do foolhardy stunts on their bikes. I won’t spoil things by telling you what happens *rolls eyes* And when Colin first meets Lucy, her voice is described as “raspy” several times. I wonder if we can guess how Lucy was murdered? *rolls eyes again*

The writing is lovely, however, and the present tense narrative—which I have to admit usually drives me nuts—does a great job of making everything seem much more intense. I especially loved the descriptions of the way winter affects the characters. Everything is ice and snow and vapor breath, and I loved when these chilly images were contrasted with the heat of Colin’s skin. I could see the glittery, secret world where Lucy and Colin meet, it was so well described, and frankly, I wanted to go there myself!

But while I hoped for an ending that explained all the metaphysical puzzles about why Lucy is haunting Colin, I ended up more confused than ever. The ending was so abrupt, that at first I thought it was a cliffhanger, and that a sequel might be forthcoming. (Not according to Goodreads). Perhaps the authors are leaving their options open? All in all, this isn’t a bad book, despite my review. For YOUNG ADULTS who are looking for an otherworldly romance, a bit of unexpected danger, and more otherworldly romance, this book is for you. Me? I’m beginning to suspect I might be getting too old for YA.

Big thanks to the publishers for supplying a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Filed under 3 stars, Reviews

Welcome to the Seedy Side of Los Angeles: PREMONITIONS by Jamie Schultz – Review

Premonitions 3D

Premonitions by Jamie Schultz
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Roc
Release date: July 2014
Source: Paperback from author
Pages: 333

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A high-octane urban fantasy, full of guns a-blazin’ and dark magic, with plenty of flawed and damaged characters, not to mention a two-hundred-year-old crime lord with a lethal and magical sword.

Something pale shifted, flashed in the water ahead of her, and was gone. Was that actually there? she wondered. The water wasn’t deep enough to harbor much of anything beyond a few frogs and odd billion or so mosquito larvae, or at least she didn’t think so. But if it wasn’t really there, what was the message? What was it trying to tell her?

One way I can tell that a book has really worked for me is that I get so wrapped up in the story, I forget to take notes. This can be a problem when it’s time to write the review, of course, as I tend to forget story details if I don’t write them down. Premonitions was one such book for me. I’m looking over the very sparse notes that I took while reading it, and I’m wondering if I’ll be able to remember everything I want to say. Hey, I’ll do my best! I knew immediately that I was going to enjoy it after reading this self-deprecating statement from the author’s acknowledgement pages:

“…Their input and encouragement helped give me the momentum I needed to spin first-draft straw into final-draft, um, spun straw.”

Ha ha!

Schultz’s characters are on the edge. His motley band of thieves—Karyn, Anna, Tommy, Nail and Genevieve—are more or less living paycheck to paycheck. They are paid to steal magical artifacts, a very dangerous occupation, especially when they have to deal with demons and sorcerers. Karyn is the leader of the crew, and she usually keeps them out of trouble by being able to see glimpses of the future, and thus avoid danger. But Karyn’s “gift” is also her fatal flaw. Without a very rare and expensive drug called “blind,” she is barely able to function, since the visions threaten her sanity if they aren’t kept under control with the drug.

Karyn’s supply of blind is dwindling when the gang is offered the job of a lifetime—one that comes with a two-million-dollar paycheck: infiltrate and steal a jawbone from a group called the Brotherhood of Zagam, a jawbone that is supposedly a piece of a dead god. Crime lord Enoch Sobell wants it for his macabre collection, but Karyn knows that doing business with Sobell could be a huge mistake. But the money is too good to turn down, especially since Karyn desperately needs more blind, and they begin to make plans to steal it. But it turns out that crime lords and folks who worship jawbones are unpredictable, and things don’t go quite as planned. When the bullets start flying, Karyn and her gang will need all their skills to stay alive. And that jawbone? Well, there’s something a little strange about it…

I had so much fun reading Premonitions, and I was thrilled to find out that a sequel called Splintered is coming out next summer (although I couldn’t find it on Goodreads). Jamie Schultz has a great ear for snappy dialog, and his pacing was really good. I especially loved the relationships between his characters, and this is one of those rare books where the relationships are so awkward and uncomfortable that I found myself actually cringing at times. Karyn and Anna are close friends and have worked jobs together for the past ten years. But when things go horribly wrong during a heist, Anna blames Karyn for the mistake, and the two stop talking. Not only is Karyn barely functioning, because she needs her drugs so badly, but she’s also lost her best friend and confidant, at a time when they need to pull together to survive some very bad shit. Schultz doesn’t shy away from these moments, and I thought they felt very real and personal.

Premonitions takes place in Los Angeles, mostly in the seedy and abandoned parts of town where danger lurks in the shadows. In order for Karyn to score blind, she must visit the worst of these places, and I loved the author’s descriptions of the dank, water-filled basement where her drug dealer Adelaide lives. Most of the characters in this book are desperate and nearly broke, and the Los Angeles they live in mirrors their situations.

It wouldn’t be a heist story without lots of violence and double-crossing, and Schultz gives the reader plenty of both. At times I was so caught up in the action, that I forgot I was reading a fantasy. But then the author hits you with characters who use blood magic to cast spells and humans who make deals with demons, and you remember: these characters are not your ordinary criminals packing heat. They are far more dangerous.

Schultz leaves a few threads dangling to entice the reader to come back for more, but the story ends on a satisfactory—and even emotional—note. I rooted for Karyn and her team from page one, and I can’t wait to see what trouble they get into next.

Big thanks to Jamie Schultz for providing a review copy.

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Filed under Reviews

A Big, Bold Series Ending: INTO DARKNESS (Night Prowler #6) by J.T, Geissinger – Review

Into Darkness 3D

Into Darkness (Night Prowler #6) by J.T. Geissinger
Genre: Adult Paranormal Romance
Publisher: Montlake Romance
Release date: October 21 2014
Source: eARC via NetGalley
Pages: 400

five stars

Wow, what a ride it’s been…a six book, two-year wild ride full of big, bold characters, sizzling sexytimes, and first-rate world-building. It’s rare that I ever make it through an entire series these days, and even rarer when the series is six books long. But I’m so happy I’ve stuck with Geissinger’s Night Prowler books, because I’ve enjoyed every one immensely. This is one series that could go on and on, in my humble opinion, because even in this last book I could see plot threads that begged to be expanded upon. But all good things must come to an end, yes? And no matter how much Geissinger must love her characters, I’m sure she’s ready to move on as well.

One big difference with this book is that I wouldn’t recommend reading it as a stand-alone. The previous five books worked well in that respect, because they each encapsulated their own plots and characters. But this time around, you will get more out of Into Darkness if you read the previous five books first.

I know how difficult it can be to read a review of the last book in a series, especially if you haven’t started that series. Will there be spoilers? Will the review make any sense if you aren’t already invested in the characters and world-building? Will you even read this review? I personally tend to skip reviews like this one, for all the above reasons, and so this time around, I’m leaving out spoilers for those of you who may want to start this series, but don’t want lots of plot details. Instead, I’m giving you my top ten reasons I loved Into Darkness, and some reasons in general that you should read the Night Prowler books:

1. Geissinger brings back all the characters from her previous books. This book was, in many ways, like a family reunion. Each couple (remember, these are romances, people!) from each book makes an appearance, and I can’t tell you how much fun I had reacquainting myself with them!

2. We get to see “what happens next” after Darkness Bound‘s startling events. At the time I wouldn’t have called those events “cliff-hangers,” but reading more about them made me jump up and down with glee!

3. Sisters! In this book, we meet twin sisters Lumina and Honor, who were separated as babies and are now reunited for the first time in twenty-four years. Can I just say, this may be my very favorite “sister” relationship ever? These two girls have some baggage to get past before they can really get to know each other, and each time they are in the same scene, the story leaps off the page. And for the first time during this series, I’ve actually enjoyed a sibling relationship more than the romantic one.

4. The Ikati. I’ve grown to love this race of shape-shifters more and more as the series has progressed, and Geissinger makes me love them even more in her final book. They are a race of great power and beauty, but they are also hunted and must stay hidden if they are to survive.

5. The Ikati’s gifts. Each Ikati has special gifts that add to the strength of the group, and in Into Darkness, Geissinger really steps up her game and gives her characters some very unique and cool gifts. Color me jealous! I would love to be able to turn solid matter into dust like Magnus, or foretell the future in my dreams like Demetrius.

6. Into Darkness takes place in the future. I was pleasantly surprised to find out this is more of a post apocalyptic story that I expected, but by setting her story in the future, Geissinger is able to not only show the horrible effects of a certain event from the past, but also to give her characters more devastating problems to overcome.

7. Dragons! I don’t want to spoil the actual reason for dragons being part of the series, but let’s just say I was surprised and delighted by the unexpected way that the author uses dragons, especially in this book.

8. A fast-paced plot that is perfectly balanced with quieter, more emotional moments. You may not equate “romance” with “fast-paced plot,” but let me tell you, Geissinger is a master at pacing, and she really does know how to strike a satisfying balance between action and romance.

9. The relationships. I already mentioned how wonderful the relationship is between sisters Lumina and Honor, but there are other emotional and heartwarming bonds as well, like the one between Lumina and her father. Yes, the romance between Lumina and Magnus is hot, but this time around, I was more interested in the other relationships.

10. Happy endings! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that all ends well at the end of Into Darkness. After all, this is a romance at heart, where such things as happy endings are expected. (And for those of you with smut on your minds, this book has a satisfying amount of that type of happy ending as well!)

And so I bid a fond “farewell” to the Night Prowler series. I can’t wait to see what J.T. has in store for us next! I, for one, will be the first in line. Now please excuse me while I go cry in the corner…

Big thanks to Montlake Romance for supplying a review copy.

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Filed under 5 stars, Reviews

Murder, Mystery & Miracles: CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett – Review

City of Stairs 3D

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Broadway Books
Release date: September 9 2014
Source: Finished paperback courtesy of Blogging for Books
Pages: 464

 five stars

The nitty-gritty: This book has it all: strong but flawed characters, murder, danger, fighting, humor, and a world that will knock your socks off.

Spiral staircases rise up to halt completely in midair, some only ten feet off the ground, some twenty or thirty. There is something faintly osseous about them, resembling the rippled horns of some massive, exotic ruminant. Birds and cats have nested in the top steps of some. In one ridiculous instance, a huge basalt staircase slashes down through an entire hill, sinking a sheer forty feet into the earth in a veritable chasm that has apparently managed to undermine several small houses, whose remains totter unnervingly on the lip of the gap.

After seeing so many gushing reviews of City of Stairs, I was anxious to start reading it myself. And I was not disappointed. Reading Bennett’s multilayered fantasy was like opening presents on Christmas morning as a kid: each surprise was more wonderous than the next. This novel is one you will savor; it’s not what I would call a quick read, although it does have its page-turning moments. Bennett develops his amazing world with care, dropping detail after detail into our laps without resorting to info-dump. (Although some readers may disagree with me on this. There are a few places in the story where the author uses devices such as journals to convey information.) The world-building blossoms slowly, and by the end of the book I was frankly in awe of Bennett’s imagination.

But it doesn’t stop there. Everything about City of Stairs is beautifully done. The characters in particular jumped off the page, and it was hard picking a favorite.  Bennett has a talent for conveying intimate moments between his characters without over-explaining things. His humor is subtle, and each character in the story made me laugh out loud at one time or another. This is one book that I might actually read again, not only to savor the writing, but to catch the things I inevitably missed.

The story is deliciously complex. The city of Bulikov lies in ruins after a bitter war where a people called the Saypur took vengeance and killed the six gods that the people of Bulikov worshipped, at the same time destroying the city and many of those who lived there. When the gods died, the city was destroyed along with them during a phenomenon called The Blink. Now the Saypuri rule, and any form of worship or performing miracles is forbidden.

Shara is a Saypuri diplomat—and a spy in disguise—who is sent to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a Saypuri scholar named Efrem Pangyui. But as she begins to slowly uncover the truth, she also makes some startling discoveries about the dead gods, the city of Bulikov, and even her own shadowy origins. There are many secrets in this strange city, and Shara is determined to find them all, even if it means risking her own life.

One of my favorite characters was Sigrud, who seems to be a favorite of many readers. Sigrud starts out as a silent, hulking brute with murderous tendencies (he’s one of the most awesome killing machines I’ve ever run across!). But as the story goes on, Sigrud’s back-story paints him in a different light, and I grew to love him even more. He’s fiercely loyal to Shara, who helped him out of a tricky situation, and together they make a fantastic team—she’s the brains and he’s the brawn.

Mulaghesh was also a surprising character, a woman who comes across as ballsy and harsh, but ends up being somewhat of a softie, after Bennett peals back some of her prickly layers. And I loved Shara as well, a petite but fierce woman who has a few tricks up her sleeves and isn’t afraid to use them. But what really made the characters shine for me were their interactions with each other. What appears to be one sort of relationship can quickly turn into something entirely different, and I loved how the author kept me guessing.

Which brings us to the world-building. What can I say about the world-building that hasn’t already been said? Here are some things you should watch out for when you read City of Stairs—because I know you’re going to run right out and find yourself a copy, right? The Unmentionable Warehouse; miracles; the Bell Tower; Urav (!!!); Divine objects; old Bulikov; and many more. This story is chock-full of cool ideas that all worked seamlessly together, and that isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. I don’t want to give too much away, because half the fun is discovering each new element for yourself. But I did love that when the gods were alive, they granted their followers “miracles,” small acts of magic that made life simpler for people. For example, Shara finds some notes that Efrem made about old objects with miraculous properties, supposedly destroyed during the Blink:

Small iron key: Name is unknown, but when used on any door the door sometimes opens onto an unidentified tropical forest. Pattern has yet to be determined. Still miraculous.

City of Stairs has plenty of emotional moments as well, since the characters seem to be in danger from the beginning. It’s during these most desperate times that they choose to reveal how they feel about each other, or feel compelled to tell their most private secrets. If it weren’t for these human connections, this book would not have worked nearly as well as it did.

In the end, most everything is resolved, and yet…Bennett leaves us with a glimmer of things to come. Clearly Shara and Sigrud and Mulaghesh have more adventures in store. I have heard he’s writing a sequel, so let’s hope that’s true! Horror story, murder mystery, fantasy tale—City of Stairs is all this and more. Highly recommended!

Big thanks to Blogging for Books for supplying a review copy. All opinions are strictly my own.

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Filed under 5 stars, Reviews

Adventure in the Skies: FALLING SKY by Rajan Khanna – Review

Falling Sky 3D

Falling Sky by Rajan Khanna
Genre: Adult fantasy/steampunk/dystopian
Publisher: Pyr
Release date: October 7 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 255

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A rollicking adventure tale, in the air and on the ground, an unpredictable main character, and lots of humor to keep things grounded.

I stare into a woman’s face. Brilliant blue eyes, A jagged scar across one of them. Black hair spilling down shot through with grey.

“Claudia,” I say. “Your scar is looking good.”

She pulls me up more. “You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re the one who sewed it up.” She flashes me a humorless smile, then throws me back onto the ground.

One of the most interesting—and frustrating—parts of this book was the main character, Ben Gold, who loses his precious airship, and then tries to get it back. Ben is a hot-headed sort of character who acts before he thinks, and often makes terrible choices. For many readers he is the sort of “unreliable character” that one might hope to find, and for this reason he kept the story interesting for me. But he also did some fantastically terrible things (which I won’t mention in this review), and one scene in particular nearly made me put the book down for good. So in the end I would have to say I didn’t like Ben’s character all that much. But did he compel me to keep reading Falling Sky? Yes, he did!

Despite my feelings for Ben, you can tell from my four-star rating that I enjoyed this book, and even though Goodreads doesn’t mention a sequel in the works, Falling Sky ends on a cliffhanger (and not a bad one, by the way!) and I am very excited to see what happens next.

The story takes place in an apocalyptic future, after a terrible virus called the Bug decimates the human population, turning people who catch it into “Ferals” who are deadly not only because they might attack you, but because the Bug flows through their blood and saliva, making it nearly impossible to escape the virus if you come into physical contact with one. Ben is the proud owner of an airship that he inherited from his grandfather, and he keeps to the skies as much as possible, where Ferals can’t go. But he’s taken on a job protecting a girl named Miranda, a determined scientist who is looking for a cure for the Bug. With Ben’s help, Miranda captures Ferals and draws blood samples to take back to her laboratory for study. After discovering something new in her latest sample, however, Miranda realizes that a cure might actually be possible, if only she can capture and bring back a live feral.  Ben disagrees, and after a bitter fight, they part ways.

As Ben is leaving, he inadvertently gets caught between two warring airships, and after setting down on the ground to help, his ship is stolen. The rest of the story is more or less Ben trying to find his stolen ship and take it back, but it’s a little more complicated than that, as he finds himself stuck between two factions: Gastown, a peaceful community of people who have grouped their airships together to form a city in the sky; and Valhalla, an organized group of thugs who are determined to take over Gastown and steal their most precious commodity.

No doubt about it, Falling Sky is a gritty and violent story, but it had many humorous moments as well. Khanna has a great ear for dialogue, something I always appreciate, and Ben, as annoying as he was (to me), has a sarcastic streak that kept me laughing. I especially loved his relationships with the women in his life—notice I said “women”?—and yes, there is a bit of a love triangle brewing, but it didn’t bother me. Although I wasn’t convinced by his growing closeness to Miranda, I did love his interactions with old flame Claudia.

Despite the women who are vying for his affections, Ben’s true love is his beloved airship, The Cherub. Because Ben tells the story in first person, we get some very personal descriptions of the ship. Ben will do anything to find her and get her back, and at times I felt as if he were too single-minded in his quest. But this focused determination gives the story a place to go, and even though I found the first half a bit meandering at times, the story takes off like a rocket once Ben loses his ship.

An oddly sweet side story about Ben rediscovering his religion could have been overly sentimental, but it worked for me, mostly because it gives him a much-needed human side. But most of the best character sketches were the scenes where Ben and Miranda clash over what to do with the Ferals. Miranda is a true scientist and risks her life to find a cure for a creature that she truly believes is innocent. But Ben wants nothing to do with helping Ferals at all. Ben’s fear of getting too close to a Feral and his attitude in general that Ferals are lost causes reminded me of the AIDS scare during the 1980s.

Falling Sky is a solid start to an exciting series (I hope!). The ending was perfect, in my opinion, and leaves us anxious to see what trouble Ben will get into next.

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

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

Victorian Fun in the U.S.A.: JACKABY by William Ritter – Review

Jackaby 3D

Jackaby by William Ritter
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Release date: September 16 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 304

four stars

The nitty-gritty: A quirky yet charming main character, a puzzling mystery, some unexpected supernatural elements, and a lively and humorous story.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way, sir—but that hat is a priceless finery?” I asked hesitantly.

“Silk is more precious than cotton because of the nature of its acquisition, is it not? Fine threads are collected from tiny silkworms over countless hours, whereas cotton can be pulled off nearly any farm in the States, and it ships by the boatload. My hat, Miss Rook, is made from the wool from one of the only surviving yeti of the Swiss Alps, dyed in ink mixed by Baba Yaga herself, and knit by my very good friend Agatha as a birthday present. Agatha is a novice knitter, but she put quite a lot of care into this hat. Also, she is wood nymph. Not a lot of nymphs take to knitting. So, tell me if my hat is not more precious than the finest silk.”

I had such fun reading Jackaby, which wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. This book is definitely geared more towards the young adult crowd, even though all the characters are adults. The story is mostly funny and light and issue-free, with lots of humorous moments, snappy dialogue between the characters, and only a smidgen of blood. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, and takes place in a Victorian-esque time period (although in the United States, not in England). But our clever and slightly off-putting hero Jackaby has a talent that is well suited to his job: he is able to see supernatural creatures that are invisible to other people. This was a great concept that made what would otherwise be a pedestrian murder mystery, something unique and interesting.

The story takes place in the late 1800s in the fictional town of New Fiddleham, a quaint and old-world town somewhere in New England. Abigail Rook has just arrived from overseas on a boat, and is trying unsuccessfully to secure work, when she sees an advertisement for a job as an investigator’s assistant. She answers the ad and meets the unconventional and mysterious R. F. Jackaby, an investigator with quite the reputation (and not a good one, might I add!) Jackaby agrees to “try her out” and immediately takes her to a crime scene, where a man has been brutally murdered. As Jackaby evades the unpleasant Inspector Marlowe, he notices some unusual things at the crime scene that lead him to believe that the murder in question was not committed by a human.

With Abigail in tow, Jackaby scours the city for clues, as similar murders begin to pile up. Jackaby begins to suspect that there may be a political reason behind the killings, and it becomes a race with the clock to stop the murderer before he kills again. In the midst of the action, Abigail is introduced to Jackaby’s very unusual roommates, taught the intricacies of being an investigator, and shown the scary yet fascinating world of the supernatural, all the while wondering whether or not she’s made the right decision in joining Jackaby.

Ritter’s prose was a delight and evokes the Victorian era perfectly. He has a keen ear for dialogue, and I especially loved the banter between Jackaby and Abigail. Jackaby himself was a joy to read, and although I didn’t always like him, I thought he was wonderfully drawn. He always says what’s on his mind, even if he unintentionally hurts others with his words (and he manages to insult Abigail over and over). And while I didn’t care for the way he treated Abigail, I could understand it as part of his personality.

One of my favorite parts of the story were the many supernatural creatures who made an appearance. Everything from banshees to trolls to werewolves crossed paths with our investigators, and without them this story would not have been nearly as fun. Only one creature seemed completely out-of-place in the story (and I won’t say what he is so I don’t spoil it for you), and for me, this side-story left me puzzled rather than charmed, which I think was the author’s intention. Abigail meets this character near the beginning of the story, and I kept waiting for some kind of explanation as to why he was in the story at all. Unfortunately, that explanation never came.

Strangely, Abigail seemed like more of an observer than a participant in Jackaby. Yes, she was part of the action, and yes, she did her part to help solve the murders, but Jackaby’s reactions to her bothered me, for some reason. Honestly, the story would have been just as good without Abigail, as she feels like more of a device to tell Jackaby’s tale than a character in her own right. Jackaby barely tolerates her presence for most of the book, and hardly seems to realize she’s even there most of the time. Their relationship, such that it was, felt stilted and formal, and I never had the sense that Jackaby even liked Abigail very much. A little more emotion between the characters would have gone a long way for me.

Despite this, however, I did enjoy Jackaby quite a bit. William Ritter’s writing alone will make me pick up his next book, and the character of Jackaby—in all his snarky, rude and quirky glory—will be someone I’ll remember for a long time.

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 version of the book.

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews

Survival is Insufficient: STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel – Review

Station Eleven 3D

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Adult Dystopian/Literary Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Release date: September 9 2014
Source:  eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 352

five stars

The nitty-gritty: A luminous, end-of-the-world story full of hope, multiple elements and characters that are skillfully knit together, all written in beautifully spare prose and evocative imagery.

But first there’s this moment, this lamp-lit room: Miranda sits on the floor beside Elizabeth, whose breath is heavy with wine, and she leans back until she feels the reassuring solidity of this door frame against her spine. Elizabeth, who is crying a little, bites her lip and together they look at the sketches and paintings pinned to every wall. The dog stands at attention and stares at the window, where just now a moth brushed up against the glass, and for a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.

I could save you all some time and simply say “Read this book!” But I suspect most people need some convincing when it comes to deciding to invest your scant free time in reading a particular book. This may turn out to be my favorite book of the year, although we still have three-and-a-half months to go. However, I feel certain that Station Eleven will always be a book that I will fervently recommend, even years from now. It’s that good. I’m going to have to compare my reading experience to other wonderful books like Life of Pi, The Secret History, Bel Canto, or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I’m sure most of you are familiar with that feeling, when you finish the last page of a book and time stops. When you’re afraid to breathe or you might break the spell. When you want to run out into the streets and tell anyone who might listen that this is the book they should read next.

Everything came together for me, and I’m going to attempt to tell you why. If you like linear stories, then you may have some trouble with this book, because the story loops around from the past to the present and back again, and at first it isn’t easy to see how the author could possibly make sense of all her separate vignettes. But make sense she does, and it doesn’t take long before you begin to realize just how brilliant this story is.

We begin in the past—or rather, the moment where everything starts to fall apart. On stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, famous actor Arthur Leander is performing King Lear. In the middle of a speech, he drops dead of a heart attack. But this horrible event is only the beginning of what’s to come: a pandemic called the Georgia Flu is about to wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population, and before the week is out, millions have succumbed to this terrible virus.

The survivors, a handful of people who are either immune to the disease or just lucky, begin their tentative steps into a new life, trying to survive in a world that gradually loses everything familiar: electricity, the internet, airplanes, gasoline. How these characters are related is the driving force that propels the story forward. Twenty years after the flu devastates the human population, a travelling band of performers sets out to find the lost members of their troupe, not knowing that their journey will end in a new place with familiar faces. And tying all these people together is a hand-drawn comic called Station Eleven, a comic that eerily mirrors the future.

There are so many wonderful pieces to this complex story, and I certainly don’t want to spoil anything for you. But I will say that this is a much different apocalyptic story that I thought it would be. You won’t find any vampires, or zombies, or cannibals in Station Eleven. The survivors face real dangers: running out of food and water or getting caught out in the elements. One story thread, however, follows a mysterious and sinister man simply called “the prophet,” who has coerced a band of innocent people into following his crazy religious beliefs. Our intrepid Traveling Symphony comes upon them at one point in the story, and things get tense for a while.

But most of the book is filled with quiet and introspective moments written in Mandel’s gorgeous and simple prose, moments that make you feel sad, or grateful, or remind you that the world is indeed full of wonder. I came to care about these characters deeply, even those who appear to only have bit parts. Kirsten, who was only eight when the flu hit, has mostly grown up in a world without technology. She only remembers certain things about “before,” and only in flashes. Kirsten has carried two comics with her ever since Arthur Leander gave them to her right before he died, comics that were written and drawn by Arthur’s ex-wife Miranda. Mandel uses these comics as a device to bind her characters together, as they are passed from hand to hand. I won’t tell you what happens to them at the end, but it was a wonderful moment.

Many of the characters were older than Kirsten when the flu struck, and feel a lingering sadness towards the things they don’t have any more: movies, oranges, television, and especially, electricity. One of my favorite story lines is that of Clark, Arthur’s boyhood friend, who was stranded in an airport when the world stopped. Clark eventually creates the Museum of Civilization, where he collects old artifacts to preserve for the future: credit cards, iPhones, and more. I loved the feeling of nostalgia that the Museum evoked. The characters in this story have lost so much, and there are many heartbreaking scenes that will linger long after you’ve finished reading the book. But there is also a glimmer of hope at the end, and the feeling that all is not lost.

I could go on and on, but I’d rather you simply read Station Eleven for yourself. Emily St. John Mandel has written something very special. She weaves a story where both characters and objects keep reappearing in completely unexpected places, and she never seems to lose track of her many story threads. Station Eleven is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad at the same time, and I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon it.

Many thanks to Knopf for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof, and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Filed under 5 stars, Reviews

A Dazzling World, But a Confusing Story: THE MIRROR EMPIRE by Kameron Hurley – Review

The Mirror Empire 3D

The Mirror Empire (Worldbreaker Saga #1) by Kameron Hurley
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: August 26 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Pages: 539

three and a half

The nitty-gritty: A fabulous and fantastical world, a dense and complex plot, female characters that steal the show, but ultimately a fractured story that left me dazed and confused.

When Lilia was four years old, her mother filled a shallow dish with Lilia’s blood and fed it to the boars that patrolled the thorn fence.

“Nothing can cross the thorn fence,” Lilia’s mother said as she poured the blood onto the hungry, gnarled fence. The boars on the other side licked up the blood. Lilia liked the boars’ yellow eyes and wrinkled, mucus-crusted snouts. They reminded her of hungry babies. The thorn fence kept out the semi-sentient walking trees and conscription gangs who sometimes climbed up from the churning bay that clung to the base of the cliffs. The cliffs and the fence should have protected them forever. Her mother was a blood witch, and never doubted her power. If you fed enough blood to a thing, her mother said, it would do all you asked.

We all know books are subjective. It’s rare to find that special snowflake that EVERYONE agrees is the Best Book Ever. Often, I tend to fall on the side of the masses when reading books like this. Usually the big trade reviewers—Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus Reviews—get it right for me: when they love something, I usually do too. So it’s frustrating to fall on the other side of the fence when a book just doesn’t click. Unfortunately, The Mirror Empire was one such book. The hype, the glowing reviews, the Hugo Awards—all these things spelled out a five-star book, but although the individual elements are truly unique and wonderful, they didn’t come together as smoothly as I would have liked.

It’s hard to even give you a synopsis of the plot, because I lost track of the individual plot threads more than once. But what’s basically happening is this: two worlds, very similar to each other but not, exist side by side. In one world, a star called Oma is about to rise, after being absent in the sky for hundreds of years. Oma’s rise portends tragedy and destruction, and so the people who live in this world want to find a way out, to get over to the “mirror world.” Thus begins a terrible war, and the two worlds begin to destroy each other.

Now this is a very simplistic description of a complicated plot which has many rules that hold the different societies together. There are magic rules: Some people are sensitive to the satellites that rise and fall in these worlds, and when their particular satellite is in orbit, that person can draw power from it. There are social rules: Women dominate in The Mirror Empire, and Hurley has done a great job of turning normal society on its head. And there are political rules: The death of the Kai means that her brother must take up the job, a job he doesn’t want at all.

One of the most interesting things about this book—and there are a bunch of them—is Hurley’s matriarchal society. We are introduced to a character named Zezili, an assassin who is commanded by the Empress of her world to begin systematically destroying the lower caste members of society. Apart from the fact that she willingly does this, she is also married to a man named Anavha, whom she uses as little more than a sex slave. Anavha stays home while his wife goes to war, pining for her while she’s gone. He is kept hidden away from Zezili when she is home, and is only brought to her when she needs him. My reaction to this set-up surprised me. Rather than cheering for the strong female character who doesn’t let men push her around, I felt sympathy toward Anavha, who became one of the most intriguing characters in the book for me. Zezili is also fond of raping and torturing her husband, and this respect I thought Hurley took the role reversal thing too far. Feminists may applaud this decision, but I was mostly left with a sick feeling in my stomach. After all, rape is rape, no matter who does it.

Other male characters were not nearly as interesting to me. Ahkio takes over his dead sister’s role as Kai, the leader of his society, but he isn’t respected at all, and he came across as quite weak. In another part of the world, Roh lives and works in the Temple of Oma, and his story starts out promising. But with so many story threads, I soon lost track of why I found him so interesting in the first place. Hurley was deliberate in the way she created her male characters to be weak and uninteresting. Even a man named Taigan, who seems powerful in the beginning, turns out to be, not just a man, but someone who can change his sex! So in the end, he turns out to be a powerful woman!

If you are squeamish, then The Mirror Empire probably shouldn’t be your next read. Being a horror fan, I can take a fair amount of graphic violence in books, but this story contains a never-ending stream of it. Everything from beheadings to disembowelments to limbs being hacked off was standard fare in The Mirror Empire, and not unusual for a book dealing with war. However, I wanted just a glimpse of something lighter and happier to balance it all out, but those moments rarely came.

There is no disputing the fact that the world-building is amazing. Hurley has intricately crafted a very complex world, with wonderful touches of imagination that I was drooling over. Poisonous sentient plants litter the landscape and are a danger to everyone. (Watch out, or you may be pulled into a bladder trap underground, where a plant’s poisons will start to dissolve your body!) Instead of riding horses, Hurley has her characters riding giant dogs and bears! And the bears have forked tongues! There is blood magic, which although horrifying, I actually loved, and the idea behind the mirror of the title and the way it ties into the two parallel worlds was fascinating.

I also loved her frank approach to sex and sexual relationships. In a society with more than two sexes, marriages often involve five or six people. There’s also no “sneaking around” in this world, because adults often have affairs with people they aren’t married too. It’s just an accepted part of society, and I found it refreshing.

It took me two weeks to finish The Mirror Empire, mostly because I kept putting it down. I actually picked up and read two other books during that time, which tells me that there just wasn’t enough to hold my interest. I wanted to love this book, and at times I did. But the constant back-and-forth between story lines was confusing, and the characters whose stories I really wanted to follow kept being interrupted by other less interesting ones. Kameron Hurley is a supremely talented writer, but this one just didn’t work for me.

(**Tammy’s note: After writing my review, I did have a brief correspondence with the publisher regarding changes that were made from the ARC version to the finished copy of the book. According to editor Caroline Lambe, “…the ARC is quite different.” Hurley also addresses the changes briefly on her  website here. I was surprised to find out that the finished book contains not only a map that explains her world, but a glossary in the back! Neither of these appeared in the ARC (which is not uncommon), and having these tools available while I read the book would have helped me enormously. Although, I’m not sure whether they would have changed my option of the book or not.)

Thank you to Angry Robot for supplying a review copy. Quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may be different in the final version of the book.

Want more insight into Hurley’s method of world-building? Stop back here on Thursday for Kameron Hurley’s guest post, and a giveaway of the book!

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Filed under 3 1/2 stars, Reviews

One Boy’s Unusual Search for Himself: 100 SIDEWAYS MILES by Andrew Smith – Review

100 Sideways Miles 3D

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 2 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 288

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: An unusual but fascinating main character, a unique and touching friendship, and a journey of self-discovery that completely immerses the reader.

How can I ever describe the wordless universe I enter at times like these, and do it on paper, using words?

There’s one for the books.

I know this: First, I smelled flowers. Cade and Julia drifted toward me, down the trash-strewn and swirling corridor, followed by two shadow puppets. Maybe they were just the shadows of my own scattered atoms. The flower smell got thicker, almost sickening. I looked up and saw the outline of a horse lying on its side, suspended in the mesh net of chain-link overhead.

Here I come, Caballito!

This was my first Andrew Smith book. I have his other books, Winger and Grasshopper Jungle, on my reading list, but I just haven’t had time to read them. You can bet I’ll be finding time now, though, after reading 100 Sideways Miles.  Many of you may be looking at the odd cover and wondering what the heck this book is about. And I can tell you the horse on the cover does play a big part in the story, but not in the way you might think. Smith not only immerses us in the mind of a seventeen-year-old boy, but a seventeen-year-old boy with some very heavy baggage. The story is told in first person from Finn’s rambling and desperate point of view, and covers several months near the end of the school year and into the following summer.

Finn Easton is an epileptic, and has occasional seizures, after a freak accident killed his mother and landed him in the hospital with a broken back. Finn has all the problems of a normal teenaged boy: trying to find a girlfriend, wanting to get rid of his virginity (but not really), and trying to figure out what he’s going to do after high school. But he also has another problem: his father is a famous writer, having written a popular science fiction story called The Lazarus Door which describes a boy named Finn, with an odd scar on his back, who is a human-devouring alien. Finn feels trapped in the version of himself that his father has created, and therefore feels as if he doesn’t have an identity of his own. Even his own scars from back surgery look exactly like the scars on book-Finn’s back.

Near the end of the school year, Finn meets the lovely and mysterious Julia, and suddenly his life seems to have new meaning. But as Finn and Julia grow closer, Finn’s seizures start to happen more frequently, and an upcoming trip to a college in Oklahoma means he will soon need to make some choices about his future. But can Finn truly choose his own path when he’s still living under the shadow of his father’s book?

100 Sideways Miles was not at all what I was expecting, and that is a very good thing! Although there isn’t much of a plot, it doesn’t really matter, because what’s important here are the characters. The story centers around Finn, his best friend Cade, and Julia, the new girl in town. Finn is a dreamy sort of boy who lives much of his life in his own head, making excuses for his annoying and unlikable friend Cade and describing the passage of time in distances—based on the theory that the earth moves twenty miles per second, which becomes an equation for everything he does. Finn’s thoughts are all over the place, which may bother some readers. He jumps from subject to subject, often without any transitions, which made for some jarring sections. He also tends to repeat himself, which I found annoying at first. He talks about his “heterochromatic eyes” (two different colors) over and over, for example. But soon I realized it was just the way his character thinks, and this repetition didn’t bother me much after that.

Cade Hernandez is nearly the complete opposite of Finn, although oddly enough, they look as if they could be brothers. Cade is a character than many readers will hate. He’s extremely rude when he wants to be, he has no filter at all, and he embarrasses people whenever he opens his mouth. But despite all that, his peers seem to look up to him, and I was touched by what a loyal friend he is to Finn.

Julia was a quirky character in her own right, but she almost felt like background noise to me, in some ways. She seems to develop the beginnings of a deep relationship with Finn, but she never lost her unattainability, and felt more like a dream than a real character.

Finn has a dog named Laika, named after the famous dog who went to space in the Sputnik 2, but I spent most of the book feeling sorry for poor Laika. I was worried at first that Finn was going to mistreat his dog, at which point I would have thrown my Kindle across the room and called it quits. But luckily I never had to do that, although Finn isn’t very nice to Laika (he calls her stupid and keeps her in a crate at night), you can tell he really loves her.

There are some spectacularly funny scenes between Cade and Finn involving condoms, as Finn worries about whether or not Julia will want to have sex with him, and much of the humor comes from teenage hi-jinks, as the boys discuss girls, sex and erections. But there is also an air of sadness to the story, with its abandoned prison, dry lake, and William Mulholland’s famously failed dam, which reminded me of my own childhood growing up in the Mojave desert.

In the end, I was rooting for Finn to become the person he wanted to be, not the made-up version that his father created. Smith’s characters are definitely going to stick with me for a long time, particularly Finn, whose sideways view of the world gave me lots to think about.

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 version of the book.

You can find 100 Sideways Miles here:

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews