Category Archives: Fiction Reviews

Emma Maree Reviews: Insurgent

US Cover

UK Cover

Book: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Series: The Divergent Trilogy, Book 2

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Sci-Fi/Dystopian

One choice can transform you–or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves–and herself–while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris’s initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable–and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

This review will contain spoilers for Divergent. You can view my original spoiler-free Divergent review here.

Back when I reviewed Divergent I was quite unhappy with the book, and not for the normal reasons — the writing was flawless, and the action was gripping. I kept the review free of a lot of that annoyance, thankfully, but the issue still weighed on me…

It was about Al. Al’s this big, bullied Dauntless trainee from a troubled home who falls for our main girl Tris. Tris is happy being good friends with him, but his romantic feelings make her uncomfortable and she tries to avoid facing them. Then Al messes up and helps some of the more popular guys attack her in the middle of the night. He leaves when he realizes things are getting serious, but not before he’s smashed their friendship to smithereens.

Afterwards, Al tries to apologize. He’s clearly in a bad way, and Tris sees this, but she refuses to forgive him even when he shows that he’s really torn-up and desperate. At this point, I’m seeing all the warning signs and making a face a bit like NoNoNo cat.

Al kills himself. Tris doesn’t react to this with any kind of sympathy, in fact, she gets outright annoyed when they hold a service honoring him. And this angered me. I’m touchy about how mental illnesses and suicide is handled in fiction, and I felt like the book was deliberately taking an anti-suicide viewpoint completely opposed to my own feelings as a reader. It alienated me from Tris, it even made me uneasy about the author and hesitant to pick up the second book.

But I picked up Insurgent, and you know what? It made me feel so much better.

The two big issues I had with Divergent where Tris’ apathy over Al’s suicide and some confusion over the worldbuilding, and Insurgent really digs into both of these. Tris’ realizes she messed up by not forgiving Al when he begged for it, she regrets her actions, and we get to explore some of the deeper, more problematic elements of a world where everyone’s divided by their strengths.

Insurgent really is fantastic: the combat is well-researched, the injuries play out realistically, the politics and strategies are interesting without getting boring, and the main pair Tris and Four have this powerful argument-fueled relationship where they both have to try and balance out each other’s differences. This is the first book in the series where I’ve really, truly liked Tris as a character, and supported her actions, and it was great fun watching the story unfold.

Insurgent was a great example of how to improve on a first novel without slowing down the action. Now I’m really looking forward to the third book in the series.

Emma Maree Reviews: Good Omens

Book: Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

An angel (who owns a bookstore) and a demon (who owns a Bentley) work together to try and stop Armageddon, while a witch hunter and a witch do the same, using prophecies that are hundreds of years old. The Anti-Christ grows up in a small English village. That’s about the size of it.

Just in case you’re new to this blog: Hi, I’m Emma. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are two of my favourite authors. My review of this book is unlikely to surprise you. Okay, now that’s over with…

I loved this book.

The entire cast is amazing, from the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (with a badass, redheaded journalist starting wars everywhere she steps), the book-loving angel Aziraphale (“gayer than a treeful of monkeys on nitrous oxide”) and the demon Crowley (“An Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”).

Strangely enough, my favourite character wasn’t the dark-humored but kind-hearted demon Crowley. It was a much more minor character, the humble package delivery man who loyally brings packages to help bring about the end of the World.

If you’re a fan of either or both author, pick this up ASAP and find out what you’ve been missing.

 

Emma Maree Reviews: Heart-Shaped Bruise

Book: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Psychological/Crime Fiction

They say I’m evil. The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who shake their heads on the six o’clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me. And everyone believes it. Including you. But you don’t know. You don’t know who I used to be.

Who I could have been.

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.

“Heart-Shaped Bruise” is the diary of young criminal Emily Koll, written from her prison — a young offender’s institute in England.

This book has some balls: we’ve got a hard-to-categorise story (is it crime? mystery? psychological? contemporary?) with a hard-to-like protagonist who’s in jail for something horrible. It’s a daring book, and I love it.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to relate to Emily, who’s bitter about her imprisonment, difficult to talk to, and cold to her fellow inmates. But how can I not like a girl who talks about her grief like this:

“It was like a blackness that crept into the corners of my life until everything was grey and dirty. My insides felt burned out, like if you cut me open, all you would find would be smoke. No heart. No bones. There was nothing left, just the anger.”

I spent my time reading it and highlighting lines that resonated: Yes, Emily, I know that blackness. I know your pain. Your betrayal. Your black, unstoppable fury. If I’m being honest, I think it’s difficult to be a woman and not know exactly how she feels. She makes it so easy to understand her story.

Even though what Emily does might be unimaginable to some of us, the pain she goes through to reach that breaking point is something most of us can relate to.

If you’ve ever tried to write an unlikable character, it’s worth picking up this book as an example of how to do it right without losing your character’s edge.

Emma Maree Reviews: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Book: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Series: Chaos Walking, Book 1

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Sci Fi/Dystopian

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee — whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not — stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden — a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?

If you’re a reader: prepare to have your heartstrings torn apart. This is a fast-paced story, with a vivid dystopian world, plenty of action and dangling plot reveals galore to keep you reading even when you want to give Todd a good kick in the shins.

“You’re tearing me *apart*, Patrick Ness!”

If you’re a writer: prepare to have your heartstrings torn apart, and your writer-brain given a good education. Want to know how to make a difficult-to-like (ignorant, bull-headed prejudiced, angry) character loveable? Want to know how to write a convincing male character, from teenage mood swings to some words being misspelled cuz he ain’t had much of an educayshun? Want to know how to reveal information slowly without frustrating your readers? Step right up and get reading.

There are so many secrets in this story that you want to find out the answer to. You know the secrets are there because Todd is constantly doubting and second-guessing his info and other characters are fighting not to spill the beans.

So Ness keeps feeding you important information, big shocking reveals, while putting obstacles in the way to stop you finding out the whole picture all at once. For instance: in a world where everyone can hear your thoughts, knowing too much is a liability so a lot of info is kept from Todd so that it can’t be overheard.  And a lot of the important  info is in a book Todd carries everywhere, but he’s illiterate and too proud and defensive to admit he can’t read it.

Patrick has an impressively strong grasp of how to withhold information without it feeling forced or unrealistic, and how to ‘drip-feed’ important information to the readers without overwhelming them.

Either way: This is an interesting and dark dystopian that breaks out of the genre box and takes a lot of risks. While these risks (the misspelled narration, the constant dangling of plot info in front of your face) might lose it a few fans, it’ll earn Patrick Ness many, many more.

I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, though after the emotional throat-punch that was this book I might have to take a break in-between.

Emma Maree Reviews: Blackbirds

Book: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Series: Miriam Black, Book 1

Genre: Fiction/Adult/Urban Fantasy

Miriam Black knows when you will die. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.

But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim.

No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

I absolutely adored this book, and here are a few reasons why:

  • A likeable, vivid lady protagonist with a foul mouth and a brutally honest tongue. If anyone’s a fan of Chuck Wendig’s brilliant TerribleMinds blog and his ‘dubious writing advice’, you’ll feel right at home: they’re different people, but they hold a lot of common ground when it comes to creative swearing.
  • Really well-done present tense and timelines. The story moves between two timelines with short, snappy scenes without getting confusing, and the present tense keeps us right there for every moment of the action.
  • I haven’t read adult fiction in a while, since my main reading focus is YA, and there was something refreshing about the gritty no-holds-barred violence and sex in this story. But it’s not for everyone, of course: I know some of you aren’t a fan of (very gratuitous) gore or profanity, so this might not be the book for you.
  • Balanced, likeable characters. Everyone has a strong visual design (Louis looks like Frankenstein’s monster, and Miriam describes herself as “like something blown in off a dusty highway”) and glimpses of backstory that make even the cruel villain’s sympathetic.
  • That cover! You have to admit, that if some fiiiine, eye-catching artwork.

I’ve embedded the first few pages of the story below, which should give you a good feel for the story:

 

A review copy of the novel was provided by NetGalley/Angry Robot.

Emma Maree Reviews: Smoulder


smoulder coverBook:
Smoulder by Brenna Yovanoff

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Dark Fantasy

Being the youngest daughter of the Devil has never been easy. Daphne’s father has no time for her, her mother no interest, and her status in the upper echelon separates her from the working-class demons that populate Lucifer’s metropolis. When her brother and only confidante goes missing, life in the restrictive city of Pandemonium becomes intolerable. Now, in an attempt to find him, Daphne sets out for Earth – and finds it larger and more chaotic than she imagined: a dazzling expanse of noise, dirt and random violence. Despite her bewilderment, she navigates the mortal world with growing fascination, gaining an ally when she saves a dying boy from her father’s minions. For Truman Flynn, the last year has been one long downward spiral, but when Daphne arrives just in time to save his life, he finds himself unexpectedly glad to have another chance. Together, Daphne and Truman go in search of her brother, braving the hazards of Las Vegas and the perils of first love, even as it becomes increasingly clear that her brother might have had a secret and compelling reason for leaving. Lucifer’s agents aren’t the only creatures on the prowl, and Daphne soon finds herself the target of a plan to rid the world of demons for good. Now she must evade a demon-eating monster, rescue her brother from an angelic zealot, and save the boy she loves from his greatest enemy – himself.

Known in the US as ‘The Space Between’, Smoulder is The Replacement author Brenna Yovanoff’s second novel. I picked it up after reading this great review by my critique partner, and I wasn’t disappointed

In Smoulder, Hell goes up in flames every night when the furnace at the heart of the city opens. Everything is made to withstand the fire: metal gardens filed with iron flowers, museums with blast-proof vault doors to protect Earth items, and the nearly indestructible demons themselves.

The story had me hooked from the very first chapter, where we meet Lilith: bold, defiant, and unapologetically female, the Prologue shows her rejection by Adam and her exit from Eden, to the night-time beach where she first meets Lucifer. Chapter 1 cuts us to the future, where we meet Daphne: one of Lilith’s many daughters, with the metal teeth and Lucifer’s blood in her veins.

Daphne and Truman are chalk and cheese: Daphne’s detached and withdrawn, reacting very little to some of the horrific things she witnesses. Truman is a damaged, self-destructive young guy, but he’s powerfully open in his reactions. I absolutely love how Yovanoff brought this suicidal, alcoholic chain-smoker to life without watering down his issues.

And there are plenty of other interesting characters hiding in Smoulder’s world: a soul-collecting demon with a red mohawk, the suave and charming Lord of the Flies Beelzebub, and the angelic servant and demon killer Dark Dreadful — a monstrous woman built to kill the almost unkillable.

This was a unique, dark read with an expertly crafted world. If you like dark, fast-paced YA be sure to pick it up.

 

Emma Maree Reviews: Wonder

Book: Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Genre: Fiction/Middle Grade/Children’s/Contemporary

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

When you pick up a book about a primary school kid with an illnesses that’s destroying his face, you’d expect it to be a depressing story. Not quite. Wonder manages to be both heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time, mixing humour and honesty in a way that puts your emotions through a spin cycle.

I didn’t think I’d be tearing up at a novel for primary school-aged readers, but this book managed that. August is a warm, lovable character, and a huge Star Wars fan – he starts school with a Jedi braid in his hair, removing it only after this painful exchange with a school bully:

“Who’s your favorite character?” Julian asked. I started thinking maybe he wasn’t so bad.

“Jango Fett.”

“What about Darth Sidious?” he said. “Do you like him?”

Maybe no one got the Darth Sidious thing, and maybe Julian didn’t mean anything at all. But in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Darth Sidious’s face gets burned up by Sith lightning and becomes totally deformed. His skin gets all shrivelled up and his whole face just kind of melts.

I peeked at Julian and he was looking at me. Yeah, he knew what he was saying.

This story isn’t just about August, either. Auggie’s friends and family all have roles to play in the story, and each viewpoint has a different voice to match it. Wonder could be used as a textbook for great characterisation – it crafts a fantastic villain in school bully Julian while August’s friends and family are all flawed but loveable.

If you’re into children’s or young adult fiction, do yourself a favour and pick up “Wonder”. It’s a fresh, brave concept in the children’s writing world — and a great story to boot.

A copy of this book was provided for review by Random House.

Emma Maree Reviews: Divergent

Book: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Series: The Divergent Trilogy

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Sci-Fi/Dystopian

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Divergent is set in a world where Society has divided into five factions in order to avoid war in the future. This is a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it concept, and I’m on the side of the room that loves it and the way it slightly echoes Harry Potter houses.

I particularly loved that Dauntless, the daredevil faction designed to protect the city from an unknown enemy, is visibly falling apart and straying from its roots. It did push past believability at times, though. Jumping from a moving train across a drop that actually kills a new initiate on your first day felt unrealistic. Punching each other into unconsciousness to prove you’re brave felt unrealistic. Blatantly ignoring a murder felt unrealistic.

A possibly fatal jump (with a net at a bottom) and computer simulations forcing you to face your fear made sense. They tested initiate’s nerve while still being in a controlled environments for trainees. But if you’re taking actions that are going to kill your new members, your system is broken.

It takes a lot for me to actually stop and say ‘this feels unrealistic’. It means the world-building isn’t holding up enough for me to believe life could be this bad, and it makes it harder to relate to the world and the characters. It didn’t stop me from enjoying the book, but it frustrated me.

The story is loaded with action and adventure, and the main character Tris is a really awesome, strong young woman whose struggles and conflicting thoughts are clearly shown as she tries to adapt to a very different new life.

The smart ways Tris dealt with people being harsh and cruel towards her was brilliant, and she’s refreshingly different from other YA protagonists in that she can be self-centred, manipulative, and cold. To the point where her viciousness towards a genuinely nice, but troubled character made me want to put down the book.

But on the flip side, there were so many things I loved. The book is very ‘clean’ – it’s hugely violent, and filled with action and romantic tension, but there’s no swearing or sex. I think this might be due to the author’s religion, hinted to be Christian in the acknowledgement, but the book has only minimal subtext and I really like how well the book managed to stay within the lines.

The romance is sweet and slow-moving, with no love triangle in sight, and the plot had more than enough twists and turns to keep me on the edge of my seat.

Despite all the conflicting feelings I had about the story, I was hooked from start to finish. I love the action, the adventure, and the world enough that I can look past my issues. It’s far too easy to overthink a story when you get that wrapped up in it, I think.

I’d recommend this book to any fans of YA dystopian fiction who like the concept of the world being split into factions, and who enjoy action-packed plots like The Hunger Games and City of Bones. I’m looking forward to picking up the second book in this trilogy, Insurgent, which comes out this year.

Top 10 Covers of 2012

After seeing this idea up on Jaime’s blog from The Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday, I had to join in.

“Throne of the Crescent Moon” by Saladin Ahmed

Just look at that cover by one of my favorite artists, Jason Chan. It’s beautiful.  Such a variety of awesome looking characters.

‘Mockingbird’ by Chuck Wendig

Loved the Blackbird cover, and love this one as well. Both remind me pleasantly of Death from The Sandman. I still need to read these.

“Shadow and Bone” by Leigh Bardugo

Beautiful, Russian-inspired cover art.

‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

Deceptively simple, but instantly recognisable. Click the link above to read a review.

“Article 5” by Kristen Simmons

An all-round wonderful sci-fi YA cover.

‘Tempest’ by Julie Cross

There’s something wonderfully tense and dramatic about this scene. I adore the colour of the sky as well, and the slight “Hush, Hush” style to the poses.

‘The Statistical Probability of Love At First Sight” by Jennifer E. Smith  

Super-cute, love the restricted colour scheme and how neatly they worked in such a long title.

“Wonder” by R.J. Palacio 

This is the story of a boy with an abnormal face. What a tricky book to think up a cover for, but this simple image really blows the concept out of the water.

“What’s Left Of Me” Kat Zhang

This is a brilliantly illustration – it captures the title perfectly.

“Thief’s Covenant” by Ari Marmell

To finish things off, another Jason Chan – and this time it’s the story of Widdershins, a young thief. This is another cover which uses a restricted set of colours to beautiful effect, as well as negative space. I really like how confident and intelligent the young thief looks.

A few runner-ups that didn’t make the cut:

“Cinder” by  Marissa Meyer. The cover sums up the story perfectly: Cinderella, with cyborgs.

“The Way We Fall” by Megan Crewe. The bright, bold yellow really grabs me here — and I’m a sucker for image-inside-text covers like the original Delirium cover.

“A Million Suns” by Beth Revis. “Across the Universe” had a fantastic cover, and it’s sequel is just as artistically well-off. This spells out the sci-fi and romance clearly, and the covers fit well with the previous book’s cover.

Emma Maree Reviews: Shiver

Book: Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Series: The Wolves of Mercy Falls

Genre: Fiction/Young Adult/Paranormal Romance

For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—is a chilling presence she can’t seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human… until the cold makes him shift back again.

Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It’s her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human—or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever.

One thing that surprised me about Shiver was that I really liked the protagonist, Grace. She’s a beautiful blonde, oblivious to her own good looks – but she’s also clearly, visibly smart, and not just because she talks about reading books. She knows Sam’s a werewolf about three chapters in, she works out what happened to a recently changed ‘victim’ on her own, she even works out a few of Sam’s secrets before he gathers up the guts to tell her. After reading so many YA romances with female leads that leave me wanting to scream at the stupid girls, this was such a refreshing change – and the surprises didn’t stop there.

There’s no drawn-out waiting for Sam to ‘reveal’ his supernatural secret – she works it out, the story moves on. After so many books with drawn-out “Say what you are.” “Vampire”-style reveals, slow-to-happen first kisses that shake the heavens, and heavy hints to mysteries that main characters can’t work out, it all feels very fresh. I don’t have any problem with these tropes (I like working out the mysteries, and slow lead-ups to first kisses can be done well) but it’s nice to have something different.

I also love the way Stiefvater does chapters – they’re scenes, as long or short as they need to be, swapping between characters with a temperature reading to hint at the ever-so-important outside temperature during the chapters. The short scenes add a lot to the pacing, and they help the story to zip-along even in the mundane day-to-day moments.

There are a few slower moments in this book – family drama, school drama, day-to-day life. It gives the book a nice touch of reality, but it can slow down the pacing a bit. About half-way through the story I got a little tired of the constant romantic drama and wanted some action – this is a werewolf story, damn it, give me epic wolf fight scenes or even just ominous confrontations.

In the end, the slower pacing was all that stopped me making that jump from enjoying this book to loving it. I really wanted more action, but this series’ is focussed on the romance first, then the characters, and the action last of all. I went into it with the wrong expectations, but if it’s a paranormal romance you’re after, this book will tick all of your boxes.