Character Driven

Book Review: Warchild: Pawn by Ernie Lindsey

Being a mom on a tight budget, I don’t have a lot of money to spend on books, despite my love for them. So, I tend to gravitate both out of need and desire towards Indie titles, which are often much cheaper in electronic format that mainstream titles. This allows me to save for my must reads throughout the year. The self publishing scene can be fraught with pitfalls for readers. Amazon makes it so easy to publish, that some simply throw their book up for the world to see with only cursory editing. I have picked up and put down many titles that sounded promising. “Warchild: Pawn” is proof that there are amazing stories in the mix and that it is worth digging for the jewels.

The premise does not at first seem unique, and in truth, it isn’t. “Warchild” is set in a post-apocalyptic society where the original government, in an attempt to crush the rebellion of its people, turned super humans labeled Kinders loose on society. Years later, these super human are thought to be gone and America is reduced to two governing bodies that maintain a delicate truce. The environment has turned on surviviors. Rain pours from the sky more days than not. If you are unlucky enough to be born on the fringes of the People’s Republic of Virginia food and shelter is scarce. Our protagonist, Caroline Mathers, spends her days scouting the woods around her settlement to protect it from would be looters, and worse, war.

What “Warchild: Pawn” lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in the strength of its protagonist and the overall feel and pacing of the text. The story opens at the very beginning of the action with the dreaded drums of war banging in the distance, and does not stop from there. It is breathlessly quick paced. I did not feel bogged down by exposition or superfluous descriptions. The reader is left to quickly follow the protagonist and her hodgepodge group of lost souls and rebels on their journey, discovering the world right along side the characters.

Caroline was a believable, though I felt she acted a bit older than her given age of fourteen years. She lives in a realistic world of destruction, death, and hardship. Saddled with a mantel of power that does not want and did not ask for, she struggles with what is best for herself, and what is best for the people who now look up to her as their leader. She makes mistakes. She is a child who misses her home. She is confused by the role that has been given to her. She doesn’t understand her past and her role in the future, or even what is happening to her internally and externally. Most of all, she wants to trust, but has difficulty knowing who to put her trust in. As a reader, I could understand the challenges that faced Caroline and the reasons behind her decisions.

At first, I was concerned that there would be an obvious political overtone with government names like Republicons, The People’s Republic of Virginia, and the Democratic Alliance. Thankfully, the story was not overtly political. I am not even sure if the subtle hints I picked up were intentional. It seems that all three societies/groups has dings against them. The Republicons are portrayed as vile disgusting and self absorbed people in the beginning, but redeem themselves somewhat as the story progresses. Caroline’s people, the Republic of Virginia, are incredibly naive. The Capitol, unbelievably, does not do much to protect the people, complacent in the relative safety they have lived in for generations. The Democratic Alliance is blood thirsty and greedy. The story makes a point to show the gray areas through well placed characters ally themselves with Caroline and help her along the way.I felt that, overall, there was a hopeful tone to the interactions and an ingrained message that nothing in politics and history is strictly black and white.

I highly recommend this deeply layered and fast paced post apocalyptic journey to fans of the genre. I can’t wait to read book 2 when I have some extra time.

warchild pawn

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Castaway on Mars, how is that going to work? Pretty well, actually. I knew “The Martian” was highly acclaimed. I knew it was considered one of the best Indie books to come out in the last five years (it was originally self published before being picked up by its current publisher), and it was on a Goodreads list of top reads for 2014. Still, it took me several months from when I added it to my ‘To Read’ list to the time I actually picked it up. Perhaps the summary didn’t sound as exciting as the other books in my virtual pile. Perhaps I was worried about how well I would like a book that contained one voice. I don’t really know why I put it off, but I am glad I finally read it.

It takes a gifted author to keep the reader entertained when a story is absent of any other voice, as “The Martian” is for a large chunk of the book. Eventually the point of view changes and you get a glimpse into what his crew, NASA, and even the world is thinking as astronaut Mark Watney fights for survival on the red planet. Mark’s voice is so incredibly entertaining that even when he was rattling off paragraphs of heavy scientific explanations, I could not help but keep reading. He has an unrelenting sense of hope and an ability to laugh at himself and his horrifying situation that makes him feel like a real person. His resourcefulness actually feels like a product of his intelligence as a well education botanist and electrical engineer, and not some magical deus ex machina contrived to get him from point A to point B. Because he felt so real, I was fully invested in the story, feeling both fear and relief as obstacles were met and overcome.

The narrative changes quite a few times from Mark Watney’s logs on Mars, to the inner offices of NASA, to NASA worker bees, and even small expository asides that explain how Mark Watney became the first man left behind on Mars (with so many other firsts to come), and what people are willing to do to get his feet back on terra firma. I could have kept reading Mark’s narrative and not been upset, but I truly appreciated the fullness of story that the introduction of supporting characters brought.

If you are looking for a smooth and easy read in the hard science fiction genre, I would definitely recommend this. “The Martian” illustrates the strength of the human spirit and shows us how one person’s life can bring a world of people together, how one man’s struggle can cause millions to hold their breaths and send their prayers and well wishes into the sky. In some ways, the hopeful tone reminded me that most people are in fact good people and that our strength as human beings is in our creativity, our spirit, and our ability to love. It is hard to believe that this is Andy Weir’s debut novel and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Note: I read the self published version of this book. There are differences, though not too many from what I understand.

the martian by andy weir

Book Review: Nest by Nancy Ehrlich

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

This isn’t a book review, per say, as I was not able to finish the story, but I could not think of a better category to place my commentary. Why would I post about a book I did not finish? Because I think it has the makings of a classic and I want as many people to know about it as I can. It might sound strange, but there is an explanation. Tagging a book as “Did Not Finish”, especially an advanced reader copy, tends to have a negative connotation, and in nearly all cases that is true. In this case, perhaps instead of saying “Did Not Finish,” I should say “This was not the season for this book.” Nancy Ehrlich has written a beautiful and emotional middle grade novel that deals with the theme of coming of age in the shadow of illness and depression. It is so powerfully emotional that I could not finish, because as I read, I began to draw parallels between the protagonist, Chirp’s, story, and my own.

When I was 12 going on 13 the grandparents who raised me took my sister and I to the Northern California coast just a few weeks before summer’s end. I would be entering the 7th grade. Middle school. It seemed so exciting back then. It was morning when my grandmother fell ill. We were in a hotel room only a short walk away from Pismo Beach, a beautiful and rocky shore with sand crabs that pinched when you unknowingly sat on their nests. The past few days had been wonderful, building sand castles, swimming the day away, watching as my grandmother’s teacup poodle, Dolly, chased the receding waves and then ran away when they inevitably came back. Sure, we got kicked out of our first hotel because Dolly was technically not welcome, but that was not enough to ruin our day. We found a room where she was, and continued on our merry little way. We were due to go home in another day, but instead my grandmother woke up screaming and dry heaving into the ice bucket.

It happened quickly. The memory is just flashes. The sounds of sirens and waves mixing. Stuffy hotel room. Cool ocean breezes that smelled of seaweed and sand. The heat of the summer sun on the concrete outside the emergency room. Red lights flashing. Patients in and out. Feet wrapped in stiff white sheets. My sister and I wondering if everything would be all right– hungry, tired, and afraid to ask for anything for ourselves. Then came the diagnosis; a burst aneurysm. Prognosis? Not good.

I would lose my grandmother nearly six months later. That day was the last day we would see her eyes and hear her voice. She had an operation. It was successful in that they repaired the burst blood vessel, but the bleeding had already done its damage. On my first day of middle school, she was in a hospital an hour and a half from my home, stuck in a coma she would never come out of. I started out awkward, sad, and somewhat broken. But there was joy, too.

“Nest” captures the fear, joy, and awkwardness of 12 year old Chirp whose summer ends much like mine did. Erhlich captures the fear and sadness so well. She captures the beauty of every day life and the resilience of children who must go on with their life, despite everything they know falling down around them. She understands how those in pain reach out to other aching souls for comfort, friendship, and camaraderie. I could sympathize so well that my heart was heavy while reading, and I needed to put the book down.

I will one day return to “Nest”. Maybe when my son is older and he starts to learn the sad truth that illness exists and that bad things happen to good people. Perhaps when he is 12-years-old, all arms and legs, and squeaky voice. When he needs to know that no matter what, life goes on, and it is beautiful. I know it is odd to recommend a book you have not finished. Almost as odd as it is to put down a book you find so well written because you simply can’t finish, but I truly feel that “Nest” should be in every middle school and high school library. Go ahead and give it a try. I think it is worth it.

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Book Review: The Winter Boy by Sally Wiener Grotta

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

I have been holding on to this review for several days because I am having difficulty finding the words to properly express my feelings towards “The Winter Boy”. The story embodies so many things. It is a coming of age tale. It is post apocalyptic. It is fantasy. It is not romantic, but it is full of love. It is somehow both a story of political intrigue and personal conflict. It is sensual, beautiful, and emotional. It is an empowering story of female strength and loyalty. It is far more than should be able to fit between two covers and a few hundred pages. “The Winter Boy” could have easily become tangled with so many threads running throughout, but Sally Wiener Grotta’s expert wordcraft instead created a wonderfully intricate tapestry for the reader to explore. Very few stories have had this sort of affect on me, and among them are “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, and “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant.

The word Allesha, used to describe the widowed mentors and peacekeepers of this world, means “Every Woman”. To the boys she mentors, she is teacher, lover, and friend. She is their entire world… for one season. She fulfills all roles a woman can fulfill. The name is more than a name, it is a metaphor, because “The Winter Boy” is everyone’s story. The Valley of the Alleshi could exist in any part of the world. It is a culture that could have sprung from any people. The unnamed cataclysms that destroyed the advanced societies from the “before times” and the times of chaos and war that followed before the Alleshi secured peace could have happened to any society in our past or our future. There is more diversity found within the pages of “The Winter Boy” than in many fantasy series.

It is not the diversity or portability of the story that is its true strength. That lies in the relationships. There are many types. Teacher and student, lover, wife, parent, and friend. All are strong and authentic, even in moments of danger or betrayal. Grotta writes beautiful female friendships, something that is difficult to find in the worlds of fantasy. The characters interact as real human beings, right down to struggling with prejudice and a sense of fear for “The Other” or “The Outsider”.

“The Winter Boy” is an amazing character driven story with excellent world building and plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader interested. I highly recommend it. It has not even been released yet, and I can hardly wait to get my hands on the next installment.

Note: For sensitive readers, there are a few detailed sex scenes scattered throughout the book.

the winter boy

Book Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

I received a copy of this novel for free in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my opinion.

I would not like the narrator if I met him in person. He is self righteous, bitter , and jaded. He constantly makes jabs about modern society, revering the good old days of the 90s, before cell phones and digital libraries. There were points in which he was on a soapbox, and I desperately wanted him to step down and continue with the story. The truth is, I would not like half of the characters in this crazy story. And yet, I loved this book. I have never enjoyed a book so much when I disliked the characters so immensely. I almost gave up, but I didn’t. Garth Stein must have a gift, because even as the characters’ actions put me on edge, I kept reading. I wanted to know. No… I needed to know the secrets locked away in Riddel house. “A Sudden Light” is less of a ghost story than it is a portrait of a horribly broken and dysfunctional family, and the secret lies within the haunting. It is a coming of age story that resembles a train wreck. And. like I would continue to stare in horror as a train jumped its tracks and crashed, I could not take my eyes off the words on my screen.

There isn’t much I can say about this story without giving away the secrets within, so I will leave you with some impressions. My heart ached for these family members who hurt, lashed out, manipulated, and belittled one another even as those same interactions goaded me into anger. You can understand, as the story unfolds, what brought them to this point in their lives. Trust me, I felt like I needed counselling by the time I has swiped past the final page. The setting, so beautiful, and so depressing was a perfect fit for this tale.

Those who are looking for a straight forward haunted house story might be disappointed. “A Sudden Light” is character driven and full of lengthy poetic prose that call up the works of authors long dead. It contain powerful messages about love, duty, and conservation. What does a promise mean to the living? What does it mean to the dead? Is there a such thing as a truly happy ending?

“A Sudden Light” toes the line between young adult and adult books with a 34 year old narrator looking back on his fourteenth year, a time full of turbulence and change. I have no doubt that it will appeal to both audiences. It is also LGBTQ friendly. It is rare to find a young adult book that has a realistic and authentic gay relationship. I thought that Garth Stein handled it as he would any heterosexual relationship. It added to my enjoyment not to read a caricature of a gay couple as I have in other books. If you are a fan of character driven dramas, I would suggest you give this one a try, even if you don’t normally read ghost stories.

a sudden light garth stein

Hugh Howey’s Half Way Home

3.5 Stars out of 5

Howey strikes again with a unique futuristic world colored with shades of dystopia. In this world, life is cheap. Interspatial exploration is driven by corporate needs, and patents are are so highly valued that they are worth killing for. His world is engrossing and unique. I don’t think I have seen one quite like it before. And there, I think, is the biggest problem I had with this book. I found “Half Way Home” to be an easy read. I sped through it. But, I wanted more. I wanted to intimately understand the motivations of a society who would spend millions of dollars mounting an expedition that more often than not would result in the total and deliberate destruction of all equipment and human capital associated with the mission. Instead, the story focused mostly on the main character, Porter, and his group of friends as they struggled to find  the reason for their existence.

I normally love a good character driven space drama. Unfortunately, the characters in “Half Way Home” fell a bit flat for me. I never felt connected to Porter or his cohorts. Their vocabulary and actions were at odds with circumstances of their birth and creation as explained at the beginning of the novel. They seemed almost too contemporary. There was also some uncomfortable gender stereotyping peppered throughout the novel that also did not seem to fit into the world Howey created.

Overall, the problems I had were not enough to completely diminish my enjoyment of the book. I wanted to keep reading. I wanted to know what happened in the end. Most of all, II wanted an answer to the mystery. I enjoyed the setting. And, as usual, I enjoyed Howey’s writing style. Fans of Wool and Sand might be underwhelmed. Young adult readers, and those looking for a quick and enjoyable sci-fi that they don’t need to think too much about will find it right up their alley.

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