Monday, July 29, 2013

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

Note: I thought I'd posted my gushing afterglow regarding this amazing book when I finished it a few weeks ago and, come to find out, I never did. How this escaped me until now, I don't know, but I wanted to share this because, not only is the story a great one and Katja's voice beautiful, but what happened with TSOT is the perfect example that self-publishing can lead down paths you never could have dreamed about (you can read about her story, here). And now, here's my review--copied and pasted straight from Goodreads. As usual, my excitement makes me sound a bit annoying, but that's the fangirl going on... the afterglow, if you will. ;)

The Sea of Tranquility

Blurb:

I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

The Sea of Tranquility is a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.


***

“I know at that moment what he's given me and it isn't a chair. It's an invitation, a welcome, the knowledge that I am accepted here. He hasn't given me a place to sit. He's given me a place to belong.” 

It's official: I have found my readerly niche. The past few books I have absolutely loved are in the style of The Sea of Tranquility, and now I know why. There's something about a narrative where the MCs tell things like they are; where they let you in on their thoughts and their experiences without filtering or sugar-coating it or sounding completely unrealistic. This is the kind of writing that grabs me. (It's what I enjoy writing most as well, so maybe it's just a me thing, but when it comes to reading and loving books, that's a good enough reason.)

Because I am at a loss for words and there is so much that happens (and I'm sure others have already done a wonderful job of explaining that), I'm going to simply point out a few things I loved.

1) Neither MC was perfect. Neither claimed to be. Neither made all the right choices and, aside from one choice that I wanted to scream about, nothing annoyed me. (And you know how that is, when the MC drives you nuts because you cannot figure out what ON EARTH they are thinking and you want to knock them upside the head!) 

2) The secondary character/s (Drew especially) were made of gold, too. They had heart, they cared, they had reasons for being who they were, and I truly was just as invested in them as I was Nastya and Josh (oh man, JOSH!). That doesn't always happen for me. With TSOT, it *so* did.

3) Katja's writing is beautiful and perfect without overly trying, which is my favorite kind of writing. When things flow and move and ebb and you see and feel and hear it all, yet aren't so caught up in the prose that it keeps you from appreciating the experience, I know for sure that I will be reading the book again. And again. And begging everyone I know to read it. And that is definitely true for TSOT. Like I said. It is now on my favorites list. 

4) There are questions not being answered immediately as you read, but this never bothered me. I didn't feel strung along with meaningless events and conversations that kept me from getting somewhere. I was fine with it, because I didn't want the book to rush. I wanted to be in their lives. I wanted to stay there and help them. Some readers might think of TSOT as somewhat slow, but I didn't. I loved it. I feel that Katja played everything out very well. 

5) Did I mention that I loved this book? :)

If you want to read something that's quick and light, TSOT may not be for you. But if you want to get to know two souls who've dealt with way more than they should at their age, who have to learn how to love and accept things they cannot change (including themselves), and if you want to think about them days later because you felt so much of what they felt, then I highly recommend The Sea of Tranquility. I cannot wait to read what Katja writes next.

One last quote (because I'm a sucker for good quotes): 

“Josh isn’t in love with me and I’m not in love with him.”
“Sell it to someone who’s buying, Sunshine. Have you seen the way he looks at you?” I’ve seen the way he looks at me but I don’t know what it means. “Like you’re a seventeenth-century, hand-carved table in mint condition.” 


*Note: considering some situations and language, I would say The Sea of Tranquility is high-end YA


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Katja Millay on Twitter and Facebook

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Couple's Review)

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Synopsis: 

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen woke up and started hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumed he was losing it.

He wasn’t.

He now has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Now split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet, and the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

Meanwhile, Roen is having to train to be the ultimate secret agent. Like that’s going to end up well…



Afterglow by Bill:

Using the combination of action from a James Bond movie and the dialogue of an Adam Sandler movie, Lives of Tao is one of the most unique spy books you will ever read in your life.  The book tells the story of a man named Roen who never thought much of his life until an alien named Tao takes over his body after Tao's previous host dies during a mission.  The rest of the book shows the conflict between Roen and the voice in his head (Tao) who gives him the direction and the confidence to better his life and condition himself to become a spy in the fight to safe the human race.

The dialogue between Roen and Tao, which sometimes can turn serious, is mostly funny as they bicker with one another, as Roen complains about how he will never be a good agent and Tao, who continues to tell about all the men through human history that he was actually controlling.  The book contains action when you least expect it and an ending that you would never see coming.

Afterglow by Katrina:

A perfect date book! Action, comedy, romance, cool factor. Bill and I read this one together over the course of a month. Though we tried to pace ourselves, by the end we couldn't put it down. In my mind, Roen Tan is Kung Fu Panda, all gooey and lovably funny throughout. There's a stark difference between his first attempts at training and the missions he executes near the end. His personal transformation is incredible, yet believable.

The Lives of Tao is science fiction, but I'm seeing it called a mash-up because it reads a little like a spy thriller in parts. My favorite part, though, is what you can easily see in the synopsis: the funny.

Whether it's trying to escape a bar fight unscathed by his best friend's arm candy, or watching alien Tao maneuver a large, sleeping human Roen around the living room, the visual comedy is sublime. As Bill mentioned, the dialogue happening inside Roen's brain is also a treat to overhear. You'll end the book wishing you had a wise (and wise-cracking) alien like Tao in your head.

Who should read it? Teens to adults who like spies, which is pretty much everyone, right?

READ AN EXCERPT at TOR.com  

Buy on Amazon: The Lives of Tao

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Snark and Circumstance by Stephanie Wardrop



Snark and Circumstance

Blurb on Goodreads: One superior smirk from Michael Endicott convinces sixteen-year-old Georgia Barrett that the Devil wears Polo. His family may have founded the postcard-perfect New England town they live in, but Georgia’s not impressed. Even if he is smart, good looking, and can return Georgia’s barbs as deftly as he returns serves on his family’s tennis courts. After all, if Michael actually thinks she refuses to participate in lab dissections just to mess with his grade, he’s a little too sure that he’s the center of the universe. Could there be more to Michael Endicott than smirks and sarcasm? If Georgia can cut the snark long enough, she just might find out.

Example: He shakes his head and his mouth is quirked at one corner. I can't tell if he thinks I am sort of amusing or truly pathetic. It's especially hard to tell because we are both looking resolutely at the teacher so she can't accuse us of not paying attention. We talk out of the sides of our mouths, like gangsters in those old movies my dad likes to watch.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Stephanie's Snark and Circumstance (enovella) but let me tell you, I enjoyed myself. I also laughed. A lot. Georgia, the main character in S & C, rocks. She's a smart girl who knows how she feels about things and what she wants and isn't embarrassed to say it at all. I had seen a few comments on reviews about people not liking Georgia (George, Georgiana... all of the above)'s personality and get that her snarky nature might tug on a few people's nerves, but here's the thing: Georgia is a black t-shirt kinda girl at a school full of girls wearing only sparkly designer camis. (Okay maybe that's not the best description, but she herself says she's the "black sheep" and this is what came to me to describe how she stands out.) She's got attitude and is adamant about the things that matter to her because well, she... cares. Her personality IS snark, hence the title of the novella. It fits her perfectly.

Regarding the similarities of S & C to Jane Austen's work, I'm going to be honest here: I haven't read much of it, so for me, the connections weren't there. This isn't to say it changed the experience; the set-up was perfect and I didn't need to know anything about that to enjoy myself. (I think knowing the history behind everything Stephanie based this series on would only enhance it so for those of you who "get that", you'll appreciate what she did.)

I loved how Stephanie's writing swept me up. I'm talking, as I read it I was thinking about her tie-ins and the way paragraphs melted into paragraphs and how her descriptions were so great and visual and still so "Georgia" and at times I was like, man I'm so jealous about how well she does this! I am not a quick-witted person so the way Georgia spouts off all the time makes me think I would have really enjoyed being her friend in high school. (Again, every time she spouts off, it's because she's got a serious emotionally charged reason for doing so.) I also thought about how likely it is that my 13 year-old daughter will really enjoy this series.

When I read Stephanie's bio and saw that she teaches writing and literature I thought, WELL THERE YOU GO. She knows her stuff and, she does it well. (This is the writer in me speaking now, of course.)

Another example: "Your powers of observation are formidable," Michael says and Darien giggles behind one perfectly manicured hand, like some sort of preppie geisha. (This is the kind of description that had me a) in stitches and b) seeing the scene perfectly.)

So that's my review. Snarky, funny, enjoyable, a light read and, like others have commented, way too short.  I can't wait to see what happens to Georgia and Michael in Charm and Consequence (the next novella in the series, coming out this May).

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Stephanie's blog


Thursday, April 4, 2013

CHASERS (Alone #1) by James Phelan

On goodreads

BLURB:

Jesse is on a UN Youth Ambassadors camp in New York when his subway carriage is rocked by an explosion. Jesse and his three friends, Dave, Mini and Anna, crawl out from the wreckage to discover a city in chaos.
Streets are deserted. Buildings are in ruins. Worse, the only other survivors seem to be infected with a virus that turns them into horrifying predators... 

AFTERGLOW:

During the first half of this book, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to love it. Like it, yeah. Like 4 stars like. But then I read this:

We are all storytellers.
We write our stories
where and when we 
can.
This is mine.
I have nothing. 
I have everything.
I am alone.

Maybe you have to have context for this to hit you as hard as it hit me, but it was at this moment that I understood the theme, appreciated the series title, and fell in love with the book. It's a little less than 3/4 into the book.

I wrote this earlier in the day, at the 40% mark:

"I read the first half in a few hours last night and had trouble sleeping. Yay for prayer! It was only after some hardcore praying that I was able to go to sleep. I think I'll try to read the rest of it during the day and then wash it down with some My Little Pony or something. It's just scary and way too realistic-feeling. There are slow parts, which I appreciate in a zombie-esque post-apocalyptic book, and those real survivor parts make it feel a little like Castaway. Castaway with zombies. So yeah. I gotta say, though, the writing is surprising in a good way. The beginning bit has normal dialogue just like any other book, but after the event happens, the quotation marks all disappear and you get this feeling like it's all happening in Jesse's head, almost. Very interesting mechanism there. I'd say it makes the dialogue feel more urgent, and like it's being processed through the fog of trauma. As a writer myself, I always love to see the ways authors pull off something like that. James Phelan has done a fantastic job on his first YA novel. I'll be reading the whole trilogy. The books are shortish, and take place over only a matter of weeks. I'll keep you updated."

Time to update you. :) I would definitely keep the Castaway comparison from my comments above, but the chasers aren't quite zombies. They're something else. A couple of times they're compared to grazing cattle, and in the end the way they evolve from the beginning is very surprising. I guess if I were pitching this I'd say it's 28 Days Later meets Castaway for teens with an Aussie narrator.

The character arc of Jesse, our main guy the Aussie, works really well throughout the story. By the last page, I feel like his twelve or so days post-event have done their work. He's changed for the better. Honestly, that's a tricky feat for a post-apocalyptic book. There's so much going on, the need for so much world-building and explanations, that authors sometimes fudge on the character growth a bit.

Not James Phelan.

This book truly was about Jesse. I guess if he fudged anywhere, it was on the world-building and explanations. You only learn as much as Jesse does, and he's pretty scared so he doesn't take more risks than he has to, which means your information will be limited, too. Other reviewers complained that we didn't see more of the chasers, more action, more thriller.

I felt the suspense during the quiet moments sustained me well. I did not need more chasers. Not at all. In fact, without the thoughtfulness of this book, it wouldn't have made it to Afterglow. It would have been just another zombie book. It was only in getting to know Jesse and his friends that I understood the major themes, came to see the chasers as more than zombies, and got that cathartic feeling of personal growth for myself.

Last few pages = pure gold. Loved them.

I will just say... read during the bright, noisy, happy day. Do not read this at night.

Or if you disregard my admonition, at least keep My Little Pony queued up for emergencies.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A BANDIT'S STOLEN HEART by Michelle McLean

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Released April 1, 2013

Blurb: 

Under the persona of the bandit Blood Blade, Cilla Richardson robs from the corrupt and gives to the poor. When an accidental kidnapping leaves her with a handsome captive named Leo Forrester, Cilla finds she has the perfect ally at her side to aid in the fight against the town’s corrupt sheriff. 

Leo reluctantly agrees to help by marrying Cilla’s older sister but the more time he spends with Cilla, the more determined Leo is to steal her stubborn bandit’s heart. However, Cilla is just as determined to keep her heart to herself. Then innocent people are murdered, and the sheriff blames Blood Blade. With their allies now their enemies, Leo and Cilla must convince the town of her innocence before she ends up on the wrong end of a hangman’s noose.





Afterglow:
One word can pretty much sum up Michelle McLean's latest offering: Exciting.

How else do you describe a book with a train chase, Robin Hood-esque sister bandits, bounty hunters, brazen cattle theft, an evil sheriff, fire, murder, a forgotten mine, and a good old fashioned lynching? 

I finished it in one night, up until 2am. Where To Trust A Thief  (Afterglow review here) brought me back to regency romance, A Bandit's Stolen Heart made me want to pick up another western immediately after. Michelle uses expert characterization and rich setting together to root the reader firmly in the ground of her story. To Trust A Thief  rooted me in Victorian times, and A Bandit's Stolen Heart rooted me in the Wild West. I thoroughly enjoyed both rides, though they are vastly different stories. 

The only similarity is the spunkiness of the characters. I don't think Michelle has it in her to write a boring character, which is fine by me! Cilla became the breadwinner of her family (at least in her own mind) at the ripe old age of sixteen. Her devotion to her family, her sense of guilt and duty to help a town besieged by her half-brother the sheriff, and her insistence on doing everything by herself made Cilla a heroine to cheer. 

The colorful language had me stopping every few pages to share an excerpt with my husband, even though he was doing some reading of his own and this must have been kind of annoying. I couldn't help myself. Writing this good, writing this fun, was meant to be shared. From paragraph one, page one, my relationship with Cilla--and with her horse Maynard--was cemented as one of respect and amused appreciation. The opening scene is a Blood Blade bandit jewelry heist from a moving carriage. And the driver turns out to be kind of a key player in Cilla's/Blood Blade's life (understatement). 

It is one hell of a meet-cute

Leo came to town looking for his missing brother, but instead found the butt of a gun to his head. To his incredible credit, he still chooses to be noble to his captors when he sees the unrestrained evil they're dealing with in the sheriff (this is no spoiler, as you can learn as much from the goodreads blurb). He is like Cilla in many ways, which is part of what makes their lumpy, broken road romance so fun and infuriating as they insist on misreading each other and at times out-martyring each other. I had to cheer when I realized Cilla was as determined to rescue Leo as Leo was to rescue Cilla. No wilting damsel here.

Then there is the swearing. Something about cowboys swearing is rather endearing, but when Cilla does it, it's just downright hilarious. I loved that each of the Richardson sisters has a fiery temper all her own, though the oldest, Brynne, has the ability to moderate herself. At different points in the story, all three sisters have an opportunity to showcase their stubbornness, whether it's in loyalty, personal determination, or pride. You just gotta love spunk, especially when it comes in threes. 

Even better, this is a planned trilogy, a book for each Blood Blade Sister:

The Blood Blade Sisters trilogy (Entangled Scandalous 2013) - 
In a time when women are supposed to be seen and not heard, the Richardson sisters go to criminal lengths to take control of their own destinies.

This historical romance series will follow Cilla, Brynne, and Lucy Richardson, three sisters in post-Gold Rush California who become “Robin Hoods of the West” in order to right the wrongs committed by their corrupt brother against the townspeople and themselves. When their identity is discovered and they are framed for murder, the sisters must cut a deal with one of their victims, a man who may just prove to be their savior – and the love of Cilla’s life.

Each book will follow a different sister - Book One will introduce the sisters and their bandit ways with Cilla being front and center. Book Two will follow Brynne, while Book Three will tell Lucy's story. 

I'm looking forward to the stories of Brynne and Lucy in Books 2 and 3, though it was with the customary sadness of goodbyes that I turned the last page on Cilla's and Leo's story. I came to love them for the ridiculously feisty, family-loyal martyrs they are. 

If you haven't read a western in a while, this is the one you want to dive back in. If you haven't ever read a western, start with the Blood Blade Sisters trilogy. It'll be fun!


For more from Michelle McLean:
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Disclaimer: author is an Afterglow contributor and provided this reviewer with a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

17 AND GONE by Nova Ren Suma

The blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Lauren is having visions of girls who have gone missing. And all these girls have just one thing in common—they are 17 and gone without a trace. As Lauren struggles to shake these waking nightmares, impossible questions demand urgent answers: Why are the girls speaking to Lauren? How can she help them? And… is she next? As Lauren searches for clues, everything begins to unravel, and when a brush with death lands her in the hospital, a shocking truth emerges, changing everything.

The review:

Nova Ren Suma has quickly established herself - to me, at least - as a writer of the unexpected. As with her last book, IMAGINARY GIRLS, the impression I got from reading the summary was a very different one than I came away with at the end. I would have still loved the story had it played out as a straightforward supernatural mystery, but in Suma's hands, the story becomes something else entirely, and the reader is pulled along with breathtaking, nightmarish urgency.

I think that building tension is one of the hardest skills for a writer to master, as it's so easy to pull that trigger just a little too soon. Suma is a master at letting each scene build to its own crescendo, and knows how to keep the reader just as unsettled and off-kilter as Lauren is. Her talent for creating atmosphere only amplifies the effect, and I could perfectly picture each lonely setting, whether it was the shuttered, off-season summer camp where Abby disappeared all those months ago, or the darkened house Lauren visits in her dreams.

My favorite part, though, was the economy with which Suma characterizes each of the missing girls. Whether it was Abby, Erica, Shyann, or Yoon-mi and Maura, I was riveted to each of their stories, and just as interested in learning their fates as Lauren. Some of them get chapters, and some of them get just a few paragraphs, but with each one, the details Suma leaves out are just as compelling as the ones she includes

To learn more about the story, visit Nova Ren Suma's blog, which is running a fascinating series of posts in which authors talk about the things that haunted them at age 17.

PITY ISN'T AN OPTION by Jessica Brooks

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I am just... moved. Touched. Changed. Which is exactly what Afterglow Book Reviews is here for, to give us a chance to share these book-induced feelings with the world. There's something different about Jessica Brooks' debut novel, Pity Isn't An Option. It's more contemplative than I'm used to, and the writing is just gorgeous. It doesn't gimmick or formulate. It just goes. It just journeys. That's how I feel, like I just went on a journey that changed me.

Have you ever been on an adventure like that in real life? When I was a kid I went on a hike with my family and some friends. It was horrible and wonderful. Our friends got motion sick in the car on the way there. We hiked too slowly. The sun blazed overhead. We ran out of water at the halfway point and still had a long way to get back to the cars. The mother of the other family collapsed with heat exhaustion. We prayed. We walked along a dry riverbed looking for water. And we prayed. And we sucked on Juniper berries. Did I mention we prayed? When we discovered water, we went crazy, jumping all over in it, soaking our hot skin and our clothes, drinking it where it ran down the rocks. Best day of my childhood. I don't even remember the hike back. Just that incredible moment when our prayers were answered and we could fill out canteens for our friends waiting up the trail. One day, one simple adventure. Life defining.

That's how it feels to read PITY ISN'T AN OPTION.

It's the first of a series. The author classifies it as YA contemporary with dystopian elements. I'd classify it as near-future YA dystopian. It's a five-years-down-the-road-if-the-economy-keeps-going-downhill-and-our-political-system-gets-even-more-corrupt kind of thing. President Kendrick refuses to relinquish the presidency, and he's forcibly conscripting a civilian army for some unknown purpose. All the citizens know is that when their fathers and sons are taken, they are never heard from again. The Union holds meetings and talks about fighting back, but everyone is scared and nothing ever really happens. Hattie and Jonas experience a day-to-day tension that finally reaches a boiling point and forces them to action. The pace of this novel is slow suspense in the beginning and gets super intense at about the 60% mark. By that point, I felt a bond with the characters that wouldn't let me go. Wanless, their town, just feels all too real. (It doesn't help that I just read the part in Gone with the Wind when the land around Tara is desolated.)

The theme of the book (from my perspective) is Luke 12:27 "Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

Dark, yet marbled through with streaks of hope, PITY ISN'T AN OPTION reminds us we're not in control of anything except our own choices. And Jonas and Hattie do not disappoint on that score.


The blog tour for PIAO has ended, but you can still read excerpts and get to know the author:

Le Blog Tour Stops
Full disclosure, Jessica Brooks is one of our reviewers.