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The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

Title: The Summoning

Author: Kelley Armstrong

Series: Darkest Powers #1

Genre: YA Paranormal

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Chloe Saunders used to have a relatively normal life. But now she finds herself in the middle of some really strange situations because:
~She suddenly starts seeing dead people.
~She gets locked up in a group home for unstable teens.
~The group home isn’t what it seems.

“My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again. All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me. Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House… before its skeletons come back to haunt me.” –Goodreads

The Review:

Well, color me surprised, this book was great!

I’ve been such a grinch with YA over the last few years because they’re just not singing to me like they once did. A small part of that is poor title selection, but the bigger part is that I’m tired of all the repeating tropes and weak writing that gets forgiven as long as the book has a love story and a trendy theme. But hallelujah, The Summoning had some real substance and depth.

I went in with high expectations because Armstrong is an author I’ve read (Women of the Otherworld) and enjoyed (mostly… the series is hit or miss). My success rate with YAs written by adult-genred authors is much higher. But even here I was surprised at how off the beaten path the story took me.

For starters it’s dark, taking place in a group home / asylum for disturbed teens. The main character is young but seems to have a good grasp on common sense and how to take care of herself (a rarity), but still gets the benefit of the doubt for human error. Also, it contains some not so typical characters, including (gasps!) a few somewhat unattractive ones. In the spotlight!! Wow. That alone gets kudos.

And finally, what impressed me the most was how much the book creeped me out. I listen to most YA before bed to help me fall asleep (because I don’t have to pay as close attention as I’d need to for an adult fantasy), and there were a few scenes that had me staring at the dark ceiling in the middle of the night, trying to ground myself back into reality so I could sleep. Granted, I’m a total, unapologetic wimp when it comes to scary stuff (can’t do it. Nope.), so take my marveling with a grain of salt. However, it did ding my creep-o-meter a lot more than almost all of the adult urban fantasy / paranormal books I’ve read, so either it appealed to my personal scare triggers or it was just exceptionally done. Either way, for a YA, it blew expectations out of the water.

Recommendations: I’m not sure where the story is headed, so I’m still reserving final judgement, but overall this is a strong read and I recommend it to paranormal fans who are tired of the same old YA tropes. It was well written, creepy, and a totally unexpected delight of a read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson

Into the Bright Unknown by Rae Carson

Title: Into the Bright Unknown

Author: Rae Carson

Series: Goldseer Trilogy #3

Genre: YA Fantasy

Rating: 1/5 stars

The Overview: Leah is poised to have everything she ever dreamed of on the long, dangerous journey to California’s gold fields—wealth, love, the truest friends, and a home. Thanks to her magical ability to sense precious gold, Leah, her fiancé Jefferson, and her friends have claimed rich land in California Territory. But their fortune makes them a target, and when a dangerous billionaire sets out to destroy them, Leah and her friends must fight back with all of their power and talents.

Leah’s magic is continuing to strengthen and grow, but someone is on to her—someone who might have a bit of magic herself. The stakes are higher than ever as Lee and her friends hatch a daring scheme that could alter California’s history forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

I finished this book in October 2017. It’s October 2020 and I’m just now sure enough of my thoughts to write a small review.

I was very disappointed in this installment.

It didn’t add anything of value to the series. The first two books had so much substance and depth, it could’ve ended strongly at a duology. The plot here felt unnecessary and forced, as if it were written purely for the sake of publishing a third book (the main arc of the story was resolved completely in the second novel, so everything beyond that seemed contrived just to extend word count). Perhaps it added a bit of “where are they now?” but an epilogue could’ve covered the same ideas in a couple of pages had the same amount of substance.

I have the first two books prominently displayed in my library because they were awesome! I keep stalling on buying this one. I’m such a completionist, it bugs me not having the full set, but my disappointment in it was so strong, I almost think it would make me more unhappy having to designate shelf space to it. Harsh, I know. But Carson is such a good writer, I’d prefer to continue on pretending my precious duology is all she wrote for this series.

Recommendations: the first two books were top-notch – some of the best YA I’ve read to date. This third book did not add anything of value to the series. I’d recommend enjoying the first two, then pretending that everything worked out at the end of the second book. I don’t say this often, but skip this one.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Author: Suzanne Collins

Series: Hunger Games #0

Genre: Teen Dystopia

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: It is the morning of the reaping that will kick off the tenth annual Hunger Games. In the Capital, eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow is preparing for his one shot at glory as a mentor in the Games. The once-mighty house of Snow has fallen on hard times, its fate hanging on the slender chance that Coriolanus will be able to outcharm, outwit, and outmaneuver his fellow students to mentor the winning tribute.

The odds are against him. He’s been given the humiliating assignment of mentoring the female tribute from District 12, the lowest of the low. Their fates are now completely intertwined — every choice Coriolanus makes could lead to favor or failure, triumph or ruin. Inside the arena, it will be a fight to the death. Outside the arena, Coriolanus starts to feel for his doomed tribute… and must weigh his need to follow the rules against his desire to survive no matter what it takes.
-Goodreads

The Review: 

I’ll start with the burning question: is TBoSaS worth reading? The answer to that really depends on what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re looking for that same fast-paced, in-your-face, heart-stopping excitement from experiencing the games with Katness, you’re in for sever disappointment. Ballad is drawn-out, introspective, and 95% about the character, Snow. It does a decent job illustrating what life was like in the Capitol after the war ended, and provided some insight as to how the Hunger Games were shaped by influencers at the time. But it’s definitely not going to bring you the same feels as the trilogy. What it does do is show a mastery of craft and immersive character construction… but exciting it is not.

Call me a genius, but it wasn’t until the last 5% of the book where I figured out the main character is a sociopath (although in hindsight it was pretty evident from the start). Those few pages of insight were enough to rock me on my heels, putting in to new perspective everything I had just read. What was going to be a lackluster rating definitely improved, as I think what Collins did here was quite brilliant. It just won’t appeal to the masses.

I found it brilliant because of how precisely Collins stuck to her character design. Telling the whole story through the eyes of a sociopath takes a lot of subtlety and careful thought. She couldn’t emphasize her scenes with extreme emotions (which is how she appealed to me while I was in the games with Katniss), but instead had to convey the story through a creepy, impartial evaluation. Then she took it one step further by introducing a “love” interest. Only, nothing about it sat right. The relationship was just too weird. Snow viewed love as someone to be possessed. “She’s mine!” but not for any emotional appeal, but rather because possession equals power. He treated those around him with a “what can they do for me” mentality and eliminated them from his life when they could not longer offer him anything. One thing I’ve recognized about Collins is that she’s a very deliberate writer. Everything has a careful purpose and she’s brilliant at cutting the crap and getting right to the meaning of every event and scene. This stripped down story was a perfect exhibition for that skill, which I didn’t have a chance to pick up on during the main trilogy because I was too busy feeling things.

The Hunger Games themselves were a veritable shit show, and understandably so, considering the timeframe in which they were happening. However, as the competition aspect was my main draw to the series, I was disappointed it didn’t claim a little more of the page count. But I suppose it fit in with the theme and mood of the book anyway.

Recommendations: don’t pick this up for any of the action and excitement that made the HG trilogy so addicting. It’s a very introspective novel that displays exceptional writing and character construction, but it won’t leave you feeling great (not that HG was all roses (ahem…pun)), but this one’s even worse. It would be difficult to recommend, but not because I didn’t like it. Rather, because I don’t think it has what everyone’s expecting.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

The Betrothed by Kiera Cass

Title: The Betrothed

Author: Kiera Cass

Series: The Betrothed #1

Genre: Teen Romance

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

The Overview: When King Jameson declares his love for Lady Hollis Brite, Hollis is shocked—and thrilled. After all, she’s grown up at Keresken Castle, vying for the king’s attention alongside other daughters of the nobility. Capturing his heart is a dream come true.

But Hollis soon realizes that falling in love with a king and being crowned queen may not be the happily ever after she thought it would be. And when she meets a commoner with the mysterious power to see right into her heart, she finds that the future she really wants is one that she never thought to imagine. -Goodreads

The Review:

A lot of people seem to be aboard the Kiera Cass hate train. I’m not one of them. Her writing is what it is, and that’s okay that it doesn’t work for some, but the projected disgust at a lot of her works seems a little over the top. It almost feels like shaming her books is what it takes to sit at the cool kids’ table. And if that’s the case, I’ll go sit outside by myself and read her books while I eat.

That said, The Betrothed was not a strong installment. I absolutely loved the Siren and the first two Selection books, but this one left a few key elements on the table.

Firstly, she didn’t take the time to establish the main character’s credibility. Her merit as the perfect candidate for the king was just a given, and I think it would’ve gone a long way to start the story earlier and SHOW how she’s different and what circumstances made her that way. As it stood, it was baffling enough to see how vastly opposite she was from her incompetent and overbearing parents, yet she miraculously knew how to perfectly navigate court life and the attentions of royalty. It just didn’t add up. So the only thing left to assume was that all of her success has been based on purely superficial things, which is very much not a satisfying thing to read about… unless it’s intentional and part of the character’s growth arc (it wasn’t). It was mentioned a couple of times that the lady was the only one to make the king laugh, and she wasn’t desperate for the throne or his love, so I suppose those are decent reasons for her to stand apart. But it wasn’t emphasized, the characters even going so far as to discuss how random the first encounter was and how it could’ve been anybody. None of it accounted for the how’s and why’s of it all. I wanted more development.

Second, the character didn’t have to struggle for anything. Wealthy, beautiful, witty – this character entered the picture with the world at her feet and only petty court ladies and her own questionable decision making as obstacles. Skill without having earned it in stories is unrelatable, unbelievable, and a bit of a snore. As conflict is inevitably what drives a story, a character plodding along without anything substantial to overcome was just meh. It was doubly annoying for the character to be given the world on a silver platter only to dash it to pieces without a care. She’d faced some trials by the very end of the book, but it was a bit too late to make up for the lack at the beginning.

Finally, the character didn’t exhibit a lot of emotion. If she didn’t appear to care, why should the reader? A king is fawning over you? Cool! We’ll see how long it lasts. That bitch over there is calling you names? Whatevs, I think I’ll just make friends with her. Your parents are trying to rule your life? Meh, I do what I want anyway. It all sounds rather cavalier, but in execution it led to a character that just appeared to be floating through life without any real drive or desire to contribute to her own future and well-being.

Recommendations: The Betrothed was not one of my favorites. It did not highlight the things Cass does well, and that’s unfortunate. If you’re going to try one of her books, pick either the Siren or the Selection series, but be warned that her works are incredibly polarizing. I, personally, have delighted in a few of her books and still plan on picking up future releases (aside from this series). It just missed the mark. For an adult, anyway. My observations are mostly craft-related and I don’t think my 13 yr old self would’ve cared about any of that, but rather just delighted in the loveliness of the setting, the clothes, the jewelry, and perhaps would’ve even been enamored with the love story. Tame enough for younger eyes, I think this one would be better suited for tweens and early teens.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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DNF Q&A: Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Title: Raised by Wolves

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Series: Raised by Wolves #1

Genre: Teen Paranormal Romance

Rating: DNF

The Overview: Adopted by the Alpha of a werewolf pack after a rogue wolf brutally killed her parents right before her eyes, fifteen-year-old Bryn knows only pack life, and the rigid social hierarchy that controls it.  That doesn’t mean that she’s averse to breaking a rule or two. But when her curiosity gets the better of her and she discovers Chase, a new teen locked in a cage in her guardian’s basement, and witnesses him turn into a wolf before her eyes, the horrific memories of her parents’ murders return. Bryn becomes obsessed with getting her questions answered, and Chase is the only one who can provide the information she needs. But in her drive to find the truth, will Bryn push too far beyond the constraints of the pack, forcing her to leave behind her friends, her family, and the identity that she’s shaped? -Goodreads

Did you really give Raised by Wolves a chance?

Yes… after saving it for a rainy day for nearly 10 years, I made it to about the 85% mark before setting it aside.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre?

Kind of. I’ve certainly read others in the YA Paranormal genre that I thought were better. For the most part though, I tend to lose patience quickly with this type of story, preferring instead adult urban fantasy. These YA books tend to lack grit and are usually more focused on the love story than anything else. That said, they can be fun reads and I’ve read a few I really enjoyed:

 

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

JLB is responsible for one of my absolute favorite YA series – The Naturals. I was nervous picking up some of her earlier works, but figured the same basic quality would be there… no comment.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

We all have a few things that drive us absolutely bonkers in books. Two of my most prominent ones are endless dialogue/explanations and characters who make stupid decisions solely for the sake of advancing the plot. This book had those two things in abundance, and they effectively killed any interest I had in the other components. You would think with all the time the character spent explaining to the reader and other characters how things work, she would be bright enough to reason through her own decision-making. But the removal of common sense would put her in danger and, as that’s the only thing the plot relied on, it had to happen or there would be no book. I thought her reasoning behind hunting for the killer felt contrived and didn’t have the proper substance behind it to drive an entire plot.

It also suffered from a consistent lack of forward plot progression. What happened overall could’ve been condensed into a short story (which might have actually been quite good). But instead it was a long, drawn out novel of endless dialogue and info dumps. I think I dropped it around 85%… that’s harsh. It probably would’ve only taken me another 20 minutes to get through it.

I’m not even going to start ranting about the whole “the boy is my everything” trope that was also present because we’ll be here forever.

Was there anything you liked about Raised by Wolves?

Nothing. Usually I can set aside personal tastes and find some silver lining that might make it recommendable to certain types of readers, but not in this case.

Would you read anything else by this author?

An emphatic YES!!! All of the things I’ve criticized about this book were non-existent in her Naturals series. Nowadays, she’s such a proficient writer and so good at creating characters with substance and meaningful motivations that I’ll devour anything else she decides to publish. Every writer worth their ounce of ink improves on their craft with each novel. Quite frankly, the leap from this book to The Naturals is so extreme, I can hardly believe its from the same author. She teaches psychology at Yale (or at least, she did several years ago when I first discovered her), and her later works are always infused with fascinating tidbits from her field of study. It’s awesome.

*This nifty Q&A format is one I borrowed (with permission) from Nikki over at There Were Books Involved – thanks Nikki! 

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Honor Among Thieves by Rachel Caine and Ann Aguirre

Title: Honor Among Thieves

Authors: Rachel Caine & Ann Aguirre

Series: The Honors #2

Genre: YA Sci-fi

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Petty criminal Zara Cole has a painful past that’s made her stronger than most, which is why she chose life in New Detroit instead of moving with her family to Mars. In her eyes, living inside a dome isn’t much better than a prison cell. Still, when Zara commits a crime that has her running scared, jail might be exactly where she’s headed. Instead Zara is recruited into the Honors, an elite team of humans selected by the Leviathan—a race of sentient alien ships—to explore the outer reaches of the universe as their passengers. Zara seizes the chance to flee Earth’s dangers, but when she meets Nadim, the alien ship she’s assigned, Zara starts to feel at home for the first time. But nothing could have prepared her for the dark, ominous truths that lurk behind the alluring glitter of starlight. -Goodreads

The Review:

Honor Among Thieves started brilliantly, but eventually derailed into a very familiar YA relationship-focused story… I really wish I’d liked it more.

I’ve had good experiences with Caine’s Morganville Vampires and Weather Wardens series, but Ann Aguirre is one of my all-time favorite authors, so to say my expectations were high is an understatement.

The book is separated into three parts, and I had vastly different experiences with each one. Here was my progressive thought process, followed by some positive notes.

Part 1: [4.5/5 stars] Wow!! I was hooked from the first page. It set the framework for a fantastic training-driven plot. And it included one of the first female MCs I’ve liked in ages. Her story wasn’t typical, and reading about her struggles before being pulled into the Honors was gripping. I thought for the first time in as long as I can remember that I was going to passionately enjoy a YA novel.

And then Part 2 happened.

Part 2: [1.5/5 stars] The story devolved into a dialogue-heavy exploration of a relationship between the main character and the alien. It was page after page of endless conversations of the characters explaining things to each other with absolutely nothing to break it up. You know those YA books where the girl meets a boy and the entire book shifts gears to focus on only their love story? Yeah, replace the boy with the Leviathan, and you have a book that was, in essence, a cookie-cutter YA romance trope. Ugh. I think the authors did themselves a huge disservice isolating these characters, especially when considering how many other cool elements introduced in the first part could’ve been expanded on. Overall, it was a huge disappointment for me. I expected so much more with the premise – I wanted a sci-fi adventure novel. What I got was a non-sexually driven love story. The connection between the characters was done really well, so I can see why readers who rate higher on character development were pleased with the book, it just missed the mark for me.

Part 3: [2.5/5 stars] This is where they pulled back in some other characters and briefly yanked the story out of its laser-focus on the relationship. Some cool stuff happened, and it happened with a lot of energy and excitement. Had I not just suffered through part 2, I probably would’ve rated this section higher. However, I still think the plot went in a weirder direction than it needed to. While reading part 1, I quickly reserved the next two books in the series, but after finishing the book I’m not sure I liked the direction of the story enough to invest time in the sequel anytime soon (if at all).

Some positives: Here’s the thing, a lot of the things I love about these authors made an appearance here. They’re both good at creating characters with compelling personalities and difficult back-stories (Aguirre being a bit grittier of the two). They’re also proficient at dialogue (Caine being the most adept, IMO). And Aguirre has written some of my favorite relationships to date – some of which were between aliens and humans (it’s always about the CONNECTION and chemistry rather than the romantic aspect). All of these things were present here, so I think my overall issue with the story has more to do with plot decisions and the general focus of the novel (as it differed from my expectations) rather than any lack of craft or execution.

Recommendation: if you like character-driven stories and don’t mind a disproportionate focus on a relationship, you’ll probably like the sci-fi twist the book adds to that plot structure. If, like me, you were cravings something more akin to Sanderson’s Skyward, it’s a bit of a letdown. I had conflicting thoughts between every section of this book, mostly based on plot decisions, but still recognize the quality of what was presented (it’s coffee. I wanted tea). I think most YA fans will love it.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes