Venators: Magic Unleashed by Devri Walls: Welcome to Eon in this Promising YA Fantasy Introduction

Venators: Magic UnleashedVenators: Magic Unleashed

by Devri Walls
Series: Venators, #1

Paperback, 354 pg.
Brown Books Publishing Group, 2018
Read: April 17 – 18, 2019

Back in 2016, I read and blogged about Venators: Through the Arch, which was later picked up by a new publisher, given a re-write, a spiffy new cover, and was re-born as Venators: Magic Unleashed. I haven’t read that old post in a long time, and won’t until I finish with this one, I’m only linking out of habit. I hate to say it, but I remember very little about the original version of this book beyond a vague grasp of the plot outline, some vague notions of characters and an overall positive regard. Oh, and a strong interest in volume two. This revamped version is stronger, with some of the rough edges smoothed out, and strengths sharpened. Brown Books and Walls made good use of the relaunch. But let’s set aside the comparisons and focus on Magic Unleashed.

This is a portal fantasy about a world called Eon, populated by humans, elves, vampires, werewolves, elves, dragons, etc. There are connections between Earth and Eon, allowing travel between the two — although they’re not as strong as they once were. It turns out some humans from Earth have a certain invulnerability to the kinds of magic employed by the various races (like a werewolf or vampire bite, but not, say, an invulnerability to a werewolf tearing off their head). Thee humans also have other enhanced physical attributes allowing them to go toe-to-toe in combat with members of these races. Which has made these humans a powerful force for good, and a potentially tyrannical force as well. Eon’s known more of the latter lately, which has led to a lack of recruitment.

But now, society’s on the verge of collapse into chaos, warring tribes trying to wipe out other races in a fight for dominance, and the end of law. So some people have taken it upon themselves to reintroduce these humans, Venators, to Eon. Enter Tate, a warrior who is convinced that Venators are the key to Eon’s survival — he’s been to Earth before, and now returns to bring back some people he observed then. Six years ago, he encountered a young teen named Grey Malteer — who was forever changed by their brief encounter. Now in college, Grey is about as well-read in the lore of the supernatural and weird as is possible for someone to be while stuck on Earth and not being known as a crackpot (although he’s regarded as pretty eccentric, probably well on his way to crack-pot status).

An acquaintance of his from childhood, now attending the same college, Rune Jenkins is repulsed by the same things that Grey is focused on (while also drawn to them). Rune is totally unprepared to accept that the supernatural is anything but wild fiction until she’s attacked by goblins and rescued by a large blue man (the aforementioned Tate). Which really can only make her a believer — or drive her to some sort of psychotic break. Thankfully, she goes with the former. Tate brings Rune and Grey into Eon and sets before them the calling of Venator.

To oversimplify things: from here out, the two are introduced to this world, the beings that populate it, the political realities that govern it (and see them only as pawns), and they begin to embrace their new identities, while engaging in a brief battle or two. While Rune and Grey are introduced to all this, so is the reader — and it’s clearly the point of this book — to bring the reader and these two into Eon, give us all a taste of what’s to come and help us get to know the players. There is a clear plotline and definite story here — don’t get me wrong — but the major function is to provide a foundation for things to come.

The book would have to be a lot longer to serve as anything other than an introduction — the ruling council alone is made up of enough characters we’d need a few more chapters to really get to know them and their goals — although they can be summed up in lust for power and influence for themselves and their race to the possible detriment of every other council member/race. Then you throw in Tate; his allies (however temporary) the vampire Veridia and the shapeshifter Beltran; the two humans; and the council’s enemy, Zio — and really, you’ve got enough players that you really can only skim the surface with in 354 pages.

We get to know Grey and Rune enough to see they’re well-developed and three-dimensional, and many of the rest show signs of being that developed, but we don’t get to see that fully displayed — but we see enough to know that given the opportunity, the characters will be easily fleshed out. One thing I noted in particular while reading this is just how many seeds Walls planted in the characters and situations to come back to in future installments. This foundation is built in such a way that several books can be built on it — it’s really impressive to note.

Yes, this is written for the YA market, so there’s a bit more action than others might use. There’s a focus on certain kinds of emotional beats, and that sort of thing. But it’s more of an accent to the storytelling than other writers would’ve made it. For some reason, Mercedes Lackey’s Hunter series and Brandon Mull’s Beyonders Trilogy come to mind as I think about similar series — but the YA-ness of both of those comes through more strongly than it does with this book.

Book Two, Venators: Promises Forged releases today, and I’m hoping to start it in a day or two — I’m looking forward to seeing how Walls takes all these ideas, characters, and potential and develops them. This is a good starting point, and what comes next can’t help but be better when she can focus more on exploring the world she’s created and shown us rather than just establishing it here. This is a good book and I do encourage people to read it, but its foundational nature should be borne in mind.

—–

3.5 Stars

LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

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Dispatches from a Tourist Trap by James Bailey: Jason’s Woes Follow (and Grow) in his new Small Town

Dispatches from a Tourist TrapDispatches from a Tourist Trap

by James Bailey

Series: The Jason Van Otterloo Trilogy, Book 2

Kindle Edition, 253 pg.
2019
Read: April 1, 2019

Sometimes lately I feel like life is a chess match, and no matter how hard I look at the board I can’t see the next move. Or maybe I think I see it, but really I don’t. Like my pawn is sitting there, all ready to put the other king in check, and somehow my queen gets swiped and two moves later I’ve lost the game and my pawn is still waiting there, impotent and useless.

So Jason mother’s Janice continues her bad decisions when it comes to men — she leaves her husband for a new guy, who happens to be the dentist she’s started working for. We met him in The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo, and they clearly didn’t waste time resuming whatever it was they had back in high school. Janice has moved herself and Jason to her parents’ house, enrolled Jason in a school filled with very friendly people, and tried to move on with her life.

Jason realizes full-well that his choices are a life with his grandparents and a much smaller school, hours away from his friends and girlfriend; or life with Rob, near them. As much as he doesn’t want to be in Icicle Flats, he knows it’s the better choice available. But he complains the whole time about it — this is good for readers, Jason complaining makes for an entertaining read. This time, he’s not just complaining in emails, he’s set up a blog, too. I was wondering how the blog was going to work instead of the emails — it’s actually a really good move, allowing Jason to tell longer stories without the emails being too long.

Which is good — because he has long stories to tell this time. There’s a literature club he’s involved with at school that’s discussing books that ruffle the feathers of many, which leads to all sorts of trouble. There’s a flirtation with pirate radio. A camping trip that is fantastic to read about (and probably not a lot of fun to live through). A disastrous experiment with eBay. And basically, a bucket-load of culture shock. Also, after a few short weeks of dating, Jason’s first real relationship becomes a long-distance one. High school relationships are bad enough, throwing in a few hour bus-ride into things is just asking for trouble. So yeah, between emails and his blog — he’s got a lot to write about, and his friends have a lot to respond to. Somehow, they make it through the school year more or less intact.

Jason feels incredibly authentic — immature, self-centered, irresponsible, but he’s got his moments. He can put others before himself, do the right thing because it’s right — not to stay out of trouble; But man, he can be frustrating the rest of the time. There were a lot of opportunities along the way here for him to be a better friend, a much better boyfriend, son and grandson; and he missed almost all of them. He comes through when necessary, don’t get me wrong and he’s not a bad guy — I just wish he’d grow up a bit faster. Which again, means that Bailey has nailed his characterization, this his how people his age should be.

I’m less than thrilled with Bailey’s approach to religious characters in these two books. I’m not questioning that there are people like the characters he depicts running around everywhere and that the situations would’ve played out a lot like they did here (but some of it pushed believability). I just would like a small indication that there were some sincere people trying to do the right thing in the middle of all this.

Having talked about The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo just two weeks ago, it feels hard to talk about this book beyond some of the plot changes — this feels like the same book, just with new problems. Which is pretty much the point, right? I still like Jason (as frustrating as he can be), his girlfriend is fantastic, I want good things to happen to Drew. Jason’s already complicated life is about to get a lot worse, which should prove very entertaining for the rest of us. A strong follow-up in this series.

—–

3.5 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

A Few Quick Questions With…James Bailey

I’ve had some really good Q&A’s this year — which is entirely due to those providing the A’s. Here’s one of the crème de la crème. Now I wrote about James Bailey’s book, The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo a week or so ago, but I didn’t have time to read and post about the sequel by today, its release date. So instead, I’ve got this little back-and-forth with the author to celebrate the release of Dispatches from a Tourist Trap. I’ll try to get something written about it by the end of this week, but I know better than to promise anything.

So sit back and enjoy this before you go to buy the book, which should have downloaded to my Kindle this morning. I’m going to go verify that as you read Bailey’s thoughtful and funny contributions below.

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”? What came first, the choice to go for a YA story instead of your adult novels or the story idea?
I have so many Chapter 1’s on my computer it’s not even funny, so, yeah, I have ideas bouncing around all the time. Some of them never get any further than a few notes jotted down on a scrap of paper. The idea for Jason came to me while re-reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 . I thought it would be fun to try something like that, but more modern. I went with email instead of a diary. I got the image for his parents from my neighbors, who are probably closer to Rob and Janice than most people would want their parents to be. They are prone to fighting, occasionally physically, in their driveway. Any time we see a police car in the neighborhood, we almost expect to see it stop in front of their house. As for Jason, I wanted a likeable (if sometimes mildly self-centered) protagonist. On my last novel, Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed, I started with the concept of a borderline asshole for the main character. He was definitely selfish, sometimes worse. One of my beta readers tabbed him a sociopath. I did soften him a little after that. I wasn’t quite aiming for sociopath. And I think he grew enough by the end that readers wouldn’t throw stuff at him if they met him on the street. But for First World Problems I wanted someone more likeable, and hopefully Jason comes across as a decent kid.

As for the YA angle, I’m not always even sure what counts as YA. I suspect most YA books are read by adults at least as much or more than they are by teens. Is it the protagonist being young, dealing with teen trials and tribulations, or is it the reader being young? Is Nick Hornby’s Slam a YA book? (One of my favorite Hornby novels, btw.) For me, when I read something that falls under the YA umbrella there’s often a nostalgia factor in there somewhere, and sometimes a “man, I’m glad I don’t have to relive all that again” factor. But when you look back on your life, there’s something about those high school years, as good or bad as they were, that never fades. Most of us will remember life as a 14-18 year old much more distinctly than we will life as a 24-28 year old or 34-38 year old, etc. It’s a formative period. Still, once I finish off the series, I’ll probably go back to writing “adult” books. (Though when you say it like that, it sounds like adult films, which have a seriously different meaning.)

I honestly laughed out loud there. Also, I have to confess — I’ve never read Slam. I bought it when it came out, my wife read and enjoyed it. But the Hardcover is sitting on my shelf. I really need to.

Anyway, why did you choose to go with an Epistolary book? What are the specific challenges that come with it — are there specific benefits?

As mentioned in the first answer, I was riffing off Adrian Mole a little when I started this project. The first couple of drafts were all Jason. I didn’t work in replies from the other characters until later. A friend who read an early draft said it was hard to get a feel for anyone else’s personality as it was. I’m really glad I changed course, because it definitely allowed them each to show more of who they are. Drew, especially, but Gina as well. Want a challenge? How about telling your brain to ignore all the spell-checker issues when writing her responses. While I was editing the rest of the book to make sure the spelling and grammar was correct, I had to keep making hers worse. She was fun to write. I only hope everyone can decipher what she said.
Ugh! I meant to talk about Gina’s grammar and spelling — how could I forget about that? It was so nice to read intentional misspellings and atrocious sentences. I’ve read too much of both lately in theoretially edited works.

Why 2003? Why not something more current — or further back? (Feel free to mock any of my rambling about the time)

You answered this one yourself in your review, almost exactly. I had to freeze it back in a time period when it was still realistic that guys like Jason and Drew wouldn’t have had phones. If I had set this in 2018, everything would have been in texts. That would be horrible. As it is, it still requires a minor suspension of disbelief that they would write in complete sentences, but then again, they’re intellectual fellows. I could have gone a little further back in time, but not much beyond the mid-90s. Earlier than that and email would have been a stretch for the opposite reason.
I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I now have a 1-star review on Amazon for each of my four books. Fortunately, those are the minority. I’m not sure about the “worst,” but I do have a stupidest. A guy gave my first book, The Greatest Show on Dirt, a 1-star review. All he said was, “not about baseball. Its a dumb story about people who work at a baseball stadium,” That’s it. Well, there’s a lot of baseball in the book. Not sure what he was looking for. But here’s the kicker. He’s also the guy who left a one-star review on my second book, Nine Bucks a Pound. For that one he said, “only started it. Not very good.” He posted both reviews on the same day. My question for him would be, if you didn’t like one, why’d you bother with the other? But you can’t respond to reviewers. There’s nothing to gain from it and a lot to lose. You have to just try to tune the negative ones out. Not always easy. Then again, if most of the reviews for a book are 4 or 5 stars, and someone posts a 1 star review, to me that says more about them than it does the author or the book.

And try to find a book on Amazon that everyone liked. My favorite novel of all time, A Confederacy of Dunces, has 221 1-star reviews. That book is brilliant. It’s hilarious, creative, the characters jump off the page. How in the world that all came together in one man’s mind just amazes me. But 221 people hated it enough to rip it on Amazon. When I see people saying “This isn’t funny,” about Ignatius J. Reilly, that tells me all I need to know about them. They have no sense of humor, whatsoever.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
If I thought hard enough about this, I’m sure I could come up with a handful, but the first thing that pops into my head is a book called Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers, by Tom Moran. And while I might wish I had written it, if I’m honest there’s no way I could have. It’s just too zany. It’s about a time traveling detective named Walton Cumberfield, who has to solve the mystery of why an old man broke into his house after Walton beats him to death with a Guinness Book of World Records (2008 edition). It’s a bit silly at times, and if you hate puns you might struggle with it, but it’s clever, creative, and fun. Walton reminded me in some ways of Ignatius J. Reilly (two Confederacy of Dunces references in one Q&A; is that a record?). There was a second book in the series, called A Debt to the Universe, that was enjoyable, but not quite as good.

I’ve loved time-travel movies and books since I saw Back to the Future when I was 15. I’ve toyed around with some ideas for writing one myself, but I haven’t quite hit on the right storyline yet. Maybe someday.

You care to give the elevator pitch for Book Two of the Trilogy? (and maybe a hint about Book Three, if you can)
Okay, I’m hardly kidding when I say it’s easier to write a book than it is to write a blurb about that book. I’ve finally finished rewriting the one that’s going to go up on Amazon, and you’re asking for an elevator pitch, which to me connotes something even shorter, so I’m going to hack it down slightly here. If you want the fuller version, you can find it up on Amazon (the book is available now for pre-order). Anyway, here’s my elevator pitch version:

Thanks to his parents’ separation, Jason is starting his sophomore year of high school in tiny Icicle Flats, a quaint Bavarian-themed mountain village three hours east of Seattle. This town has barely changed since Janice grew up there, and she’s only going back because she has a new boyfriend, who is also her new boss.

Leaving his friends is hard, but the worst part is leaving Sian, right when things were getting good. In between visits, they exchange a lot of email and phone calls, but long-distance relationships are always challenging, especially for someone like Jason who forever seems to be digging himself into a hole. Fortunately, Drew is just an email away. If only Jason would ever heed his advice.

Jason joins an after-school book club, where he hooks up with a couple of other students who love to push boundaries. Mayhem ensues, involving the school board, the town Christmas parade, and a pirate radio station. Who ever said life in a small novelty town would be dull?

As for Book 3, I haven’t started writing it yet, but I do have some ideas. Jason’s family will expand when Rob gets remarried and a new bundle of joy appears. Fortunately for his little brother, his stepmother is a competent adult, which brings the grand total to one in Jason’s circle. His relationship with Sian will be strained once more when she heads off to Ireland as an exchange student. Jason will learn how to drive. And Rob may see a UFO. For now, I’m envisioning the book covering the summer before his junior year (picking up where Book 2 leaves off) and running through the school year. But there’s a lot TBD at this stage.

Thanks for your time — and thanks for introducing me to Jason Van Otterloo.
And thank you, for your time and the opportunity to reach some new readers.

Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles by Thomas Lennon, John Hendrix: A Young Irish Police Officer Takes on Leprechauns and other sorts of faerie folk.

Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of RiddlesRonan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles

by Thomas Lennon, John Hendrix (Illustrator)
Series: Ronan Boyle, #1

Hardcover, 286 pg.
Amulet Books, 2019
Read: March 20 – 22, 2019

I didn’t tell Captain Fearnly that I was joining the garda as part of a plot to exonerate my parents and find a four-thousand-year-old mummy — and there is no place to enter this type of thing in the online application, so I just kept it to myself.

Last year, when Thomas Lennon was a guest on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show #371, they spent some time talking about this book. I knew I had to give it a shot almost immediately. When I got home and found it on Goodreads, I was a little disappointed to find out it was for the MG crowd — I didn’t get that impression at all from his description (I may have missed something while driving). Still, I put it on the “To Read” list and kept an eye out for its publication. It still sounded like a good time.

And boy, oh, boy it was.

Ronan Boyle is a young man who watched his parents get arrested (in the middle of a family game night) and put into prison. They’re academics, and were found guilty of selling antiquities that belonged to the Irish government. As noted above, Ronan joined the Irish police as an intern, primarily as a way to . Until one night when he was recruited to help dealing with a leprechaun (he was the only one the right size to get where the leprechaun was keeping something). He did well enough with that assignment that he was immediately recruited for Garda Special Unit of Tir Na Nog — the supernatural division.

We follow Ronan through his training — imagine Hogwarts summarized in a hundred pages or so (although this is a shorter course of training) — what he and his fellow cadets (including a girl who thought she was a log for most of her life, and a medium-sized bear that may or may not have been a fellow cadet) go through is unlike any training program you’ve seen or read about. Yet it’s familiar enough that it feels comfortable. Then we see Ronan and his compatriots begin their garda careers in earnest.

Meanwhile, Ronan makes a little progress with the investigation to clear his parents. He also makes friends — from multiple species — and decides that he really likes berets. He’s a very unlikely hero — not terribly coordinated, skinny, as physically un-intimidating as you can possibly imagine with poor eyesight. He also has a strange obsession with Dame Judi Dench (not that Dench isn’t worth obsessing over, it’s just not someone many teen boys fixate on)

All in all, an entertaining story steeped in Irish lore, myth and culture — all very well-researched and lovingly told. I’d probably recommend it just on these grounds.
But it’s the way that Lennon tells this story that seals the deal. His voice is chatty, whimsical and infectious. The imagery, language, and overall feel is hilarious. Yes, I’d recommend the book just on the characters/plot. But I’d also recommend it for voice and style alone. For example:

It was a mysterious garda officer named Pat Finch, whose ghoulish face is so crisscrossed with bright red veins that it looks like a map of hell drawn by a monk in a medieval lunatic asylum. Pat Finch looks like what a heart attack would look like if it could walk around eating fish-and-chips and saying terrible things about Roscommon Football Club’s starting lineup.

“There’s a leprechaun navy?”

“Yes. Probably the least reliable fighting force in the known world,” replied the captain. “The leprechaun navy is basically a heavily armed musical-theater troupe with two boats.”

If you know Thomas Lennon as a performer, you’ll be able to “hear” significant portions in his voice. I think I saw that he does the audiobook,which is good — because otherwise you’d have to find someone who can do a decent impression of him to really pull of the cadence and rhythms of the text.

Oh, you must read the footnotes. All of them. They’re the best use of fictional footnotes since Lutz’ The Spellman Files or Bazell’s Beat the Reaper — except these are MG appropriate.

Hendrix’ illustrations fit the mood perfectly. Intricate, goofy, and skillful. They’re not essential, but they add a very welcome touch to the text.

This is ideal for MG readers who like early Riordan, but wouldn’t mind a bit more silliness and an Irish focus. Or for those who liked Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant books. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ignore that (or go read them after you read this). It’s just a fun, goofy read with a touch of adventure. Perfect for MG readers or adults who don’t mind reading MG if it’s well-done. This is. At the end of the day, you need to pick up a copy just so you can read the back cover blurbs by Weird Al and Patton Oswalt, really. Of course, then you’ll want to read the thing based on what they say. So just save yourself the effort and get it.

The ending sets up at least one sequel and you can bet that I’ll be waiting for it.

—–

3.5 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge

The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo by James Bailey: This Kid’s Struggles will Bring A Smile to Your Face

The First World Problems of Jason Van OtterlooThe First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo

by James Bailey
Series: The Jason Van Otterloo Trilogy, Book 1

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
2018
Read: March 15, 2019

Subject: New worst day of my life

If you have stock in me, sell it now. Or is it buy? Buy low, right? Then buy, buy, buy, because if JVO shares go any lower it can only mean I’m dead. Nothing is going right and everything is going wrong. Very wrong.

It’s been awhile since I read an epistolary novel (maybe Where’d You Go, Bernadette? — oh, and The Summer Holidays Survival Guide from last year — duh — I should stop thinking before I have to rewrite this whole paragraph), but I’ve always enjoyed them. There’s something about the structure, the conceit, the immediacy of it all that really appeals to me, and has since the day I first cracked the cover of Dear Mr. Henshaw 35 years ago or so.

This particular novel is a collection of e-mails from fifteen year-old Jason Van Otterloo (known by some as Otterpop, others just call him Jason) and his friends over the summer of 2003 in Seattle. This is a good setting for the book — it’s before the ubiquity of cell-phones/texting among teens, but at a time they could be emailing several times a day and it not seem strange (like it would in the mid-90s). I don’t know if that was Bailey’s thought process, but it’s what occurred to me. The emails are primarily Jason’s — not just because he’s prolific, but that’s a lot of it. Incidentally, I only caught one thing that jumped out at me as an anachronism — which is about the best that I can think of in an indie book set in the past (I don’t go looking for them, but they jump out at me. Binge-watching wasn’t a thing in 2003. At least not by that name)

Jason’s a pretty bookish kid who loves classic movies — not just AMC (back when that’s what the station was about), but there’s a theater near his home that shows old movies. His best friend, Drew (the recipient of most of his emails), frequently goes to those with him — they also play video games together, generally at Drew’s. Jason’s parents, Janice and Rob, aren’t in the running for Parents of the Year, to say the least. I’m not sure at what point Jason lost enough respect for the that he started calling them by their first name, but it could have been when he was pretty young. On the other hand, there’s enough venom in it (at least the way it reads to me) that it might be a recent development.

Janice shows the occasional burst of maternal activity or instinct, but it’s rare. Rather than a father, Rob seems like the bullying older brother character in most books I read as a kid. But in general, the two of them act like they’re stuck in their early 20’s — coming home from work long enough to greet each other and Jason, then they leave (not together) to meet up with friends and get drunk. Occasionally, they’ll get into a fight with each other, but nothing too serious. It doesn’t appear there’s any intentional abuse — physical or mental. It’s primarily neglect that they’re guilty of. Over the course of the summer, Rob does say a few things that will likely cause emotional scars when Jason has a few years to think about them, but they’re unintentionally mean (one was said when Rob was attempting to be nice and fatherly).

Generally, Jason’s e-mails are about whatever antics his parents are up to, arranging to meet Drew or whoever else, Jason’s soliciting Drew for advice about a girl he meets (he ignores almost everything Drew says, to the reader’s amusement and Drew’s frustration), and Jason recruiting Drew or someone to get summer jobs together. There’s an ongoing thread about a new neighbor who enjoys sunbathing, and Jason enjoys (hopefully surreptitiously) watching her. Rob enjoys watching her, too, but doesn’t bother trying to be surreptitious.

Jason’s emails are largely self-centered. Most of the stories told are his, not Drew’s. He does seem to care about Drew and is interested when Drew unloads a little. But largely, the relationship seems to be about Drew listening to Jason. Drew gets something out of it, however — maybe offline — because he seems emotionally-centered enough (for a fifteen year-old) to not put up with Jason as much as he does, if Jason just didn’t contribute anything to the friendship. Just don’t ask me what it is. His self-centeredness seems typical for his age, and it doesn’t make him a bad kid — just a selfish one, and a lot of that is because he’s never been parented by anyone who has a clue. Although, really, I’m not sure how many kids who have been well-parented who don’t act like that.

His parent’s (individually and corporately) show a signs of self-improvement — AA, marriage counseling, and others. Jason is openly skeptical about these efforts — perhaps because he’s seen similar things before. Not only is he skeptical, but he seems to actively subvert these efforts. It seems odd for a kid who spends so much time complaining about his parents to complain about them trying to be better — but it’s honest. He doesn’t believe in them, so why get his hopes up that this time will be any different? Sure, from the reader’s perspective it’s easy to say that these reforms might be longer-lived if he supported them. But from Jason’s? Nah.

There is a little character development over the course of the novel — but not a lot, But it’s just a few months, so there shouldn’t be a lot, right? What’s there seems genuine and true to the character — which is great. At the end of the day, you’ll have enjoyed watching Jason struggle and survive — learning enough to keep going.

Jason’s optimistic and amusing — which is says a lot about him. The whole book is told with a light touch –it’s not overly comic, but you grin as Jason recounts his latest embarrassment with Gina, or Rob’s most recent humiliating escapades — or even as he and Drew talk about their mutual astonishment when another friend has some romantic success. Things are bad, but they’re not bleak. They’re even kind of fun.

The cover, by the way, is perfect. It not only reflects a plot point, but it encapsulates the feel of the book. In a figurative sense the world pees on Jason the way this dog literally does. Yet, it’s kinda cute and amusing while it’s happening. Several good things happen to the boy, but overall, the book is about his problems (right?) and his reactions to them.

I don’t know what a YA reader would think of this — I imagine they’d find Jason relatable and likeable, but I’m not sure. But for those of us with enough distance from their YA days, it’s something that can be read with an air of “I remember when life was like that.” Even if it’s set over a decade later than my own teen years, I know people like Jason, I had friends who had a Gina in their life, and I dreamed of a girl like Sian. I’m probably not alone in this. This is a comfort-food kind of read — it’s entertaining and makes you feel good. I get kind of a Thomas Rockwell or 80’s version of Todd Strasser feel from this, very much a Lad Lit starter kit kind of thing, now that I think about it — which is good. Young Adults need something that’s not dystopian. There’s a sequel coming out in a week or two, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, which is what I provided.

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3.5 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

Pub Day Repost: Immoral Code by Lillian Clark: A Heist Novel where the Heist is maybe the Dullest Part

Immoral CodeImmoral Code

by Lillian Clark

eARC, 272 pg.
Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019

Read: January 22 – 23, 2019

It’s their senior year, their lives are stretching out before them, this incredibly close group of five friends are preparing for graduation, college, etc. — even (not that they’ll confront this quite yet) living without each other. They all excel in one or two ways — one’s a hacker/activist, one’s an artist, one’s got a real shot at the Olympics — etc. One is a physics genius (or close enough to a genius to count) who was admitted early to MIT. But there’s a catch. She can’t afford it. Her mom works two jobs to help the two of them barely make it and her dad hasn’t been in her life since he was a poor student and impregnated her mom. Since then he’s gone on to become one of the richest of the rich. The kind of rich that people really can’t believe exists. So when MIT looks at her financial aid, they roll their eyes and move on to the next student.

Not content to shake their heads sadly at injustice, her friends come up with a plan to hack into her dad’s company and skim a little bit of money. Not enough that he’d ever notice — just enough to pay tuition for a year. Their hacker friend is good, but not good enough to break in remotely — she has to be physically in touch with the network — for just a few seconds. Like the tagline on the cover says, “Payback is a glitch.” So over Spring Break they take a little road trip — bigger than their families know — to get access to the network. It’s going to take a lot of nerve, some real disregard for the law, and their combined talents to pull this off.

The question they don’t really consider until it’s too late isn’t what will happen if they fail (although, they all could think of that more), it’s what happens if they succeed?

On the whole, I haven’t seen many people classifying this as a Crime Novel, despite the Heist story at the core. It’s definitely not a thriller. Because the Heist story is just an excuse to talk about friendship, figuring your life out, the pressure on teens to know what they want the next few decades to be about (not the same as the previous item on the list), the complicated relationship that exists between parents and their teens on the cusp of adulthood, and the hugeness of the moment where you leave home/family/friends to start the next phase of your life. Oh, also, morality. Somehow Clark does all that while telling a fast-moving, funny, and heart-felt story.

Which is not to say that the Heist story isn’t important, or well executed. And you can read the book just for the Heist. But you’ll miss out on a lot — and you’ll probably wonder why I rated this so highly. As fun as the Heist/prep for the Heist is, the heart of the book is the rest.

Each chapter jumps between first-person narration from each kid, keeping things moving nicely. There’s plenty to like/identify with in each character. You learn a lot about them as individuals, them as friends, and generally them as children (not that much about them as students, oddly). They’re so well-drawn, I’m sure what I respond to in one character or another will not be the same as what another reader responds to. There is one character who serves as the group’s Jiminy Cricket — their vocal and ever-present conscience. Like Jiminy, the character is ignored a lot and fought against. But I appreciated them — the voice of moral reason, the one trying to save the others from themselves, the only one who demonstrated a sense of right and wrong, not just about what feels right.

The writing is breezy, engaging — no matter whose POV you’re reading. Clark did a fantastic job differentiating the characters, giving them all a unique voice so that you don’t even have to pay attention to the indicator at the beginning of the chapter to know whose voice is telling that particular chapter. Now, as each chapter is told from the Point of View of a teenager, and fairly realistically done, that means you have to check your inner grammarian at the door — so much of this book can drive you around the bend if you don’t.

The novel is engaging, it’s beyond that really — it’s infectious.There were several points during reading that I asked myself why I was enjoying it as much as I was. Not that I thought I should dislike it, but I liked it a lot more than I should have. I don’t mind that I did, I’m just not sure I understand why. I’m just going to chalk it up to Lillian Clark being a very good author — someone you should check out, starting with her debut, Immoral Code.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Children’s Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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4 Stars

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: A wildly imaginative and creative MG Fantasy

The Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin


Hardcover, 523 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2018
Read: January 24 – 25, 2019

Let me start with a hat-tip to Paul at Paul’s Picks for putting this on my radar. Thanks, Paul.

For a MG book, I’m surprisingly intimidated by the prospect of trying to give a synopsis. That’s probably a clue about the book. Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian of moderate renown — when (as far as he knows) an ancient goblin relic is found in his land, he’s dispatched to present it to the goblin’s king. No elf has survived being in — much lest returning from — goblin territories in more than a century, but the conventional wisdom is that a historian should be safe — even if he is also spying.

The goblins and elves have spent centuries fighting each other, and are in a rare season without warfare — and no one expects it to last for long. Each side distrusts the other in ways that make relations between the USA and USSR in the 1960’s seem warm and cordial. So this mission of Brangwain’s is an unexpected and welcome overture of peace. Or so many people think.

Brangwain’s host is a goblin names Werfel — who’s also a historian. Werfel is a very odd, but seemingly pleasant, person living in the midst of pretty odd, and apparently pleasant, people. Every goblin he meets goes out of their way to welcome Brangwain and try to make him feel comfortable, while celebrating elfin culture. Brangwain’s a nervous guy, who has spent most of his life (going back to childhood) being insulted, bullied and overlooked — he doesn’t really see the efforts of the goblins for what it is. Besides, he’s too busy trying not to get caught while spying on his hosts.

Now, how does this elf — who most people expect is on a suicide mission — get his information back to the elves? I’m glad you asked — this is an ingenious move by Anderson and Yelchin — while alone and resting, Brangwain uses elfin magic and imagines what he’s seen which is transmitted to a device in the office of his king’s military intelligence, that takes these transmissions and “prints” them out. These would be the illustrations that make up a significant portion of this book.

Ultimately, things go awry and Brangwain and Werfel are on the run together, trying to survive and hopefully keep the peaceful overtures alive. A friendship will rise between the two as they depend on each other and realize how much they have in common.

There’s some great commentary on the power of perspective when it comes to history. Werfel and Brangwain differ greatly in their understandings of the same event/person, wholly dependent on their backgrounds. It’s all about who writes the history — even if it’s an obscure scholar — when it comes to establishing “fact.”

A little bit more about the art. First, it’s just great. This isn’t a book directed at the picture book crowd, but the art might as well be for people who can’t read the text — it’s as much of the story telling as the text. Yelchin actually saves them a couple hundred pages telling the more dramatic portions of the story in his pictures. Interestingly enough, the events described in the narration and the events depicted in the art/Brangwain’s reports differ significantly, and part of the fun of the book is comparing them. Yelchin’s art reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, which is possibly the biggest selling point for me. Well, except the picture of a spider-creature that makes Shelob and Aragog look tame.

It’s a fun story, a little wry, and it will appeal to grade schoolers who have an off-kilter sense of humor. I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it for middle graders and their parents/older siblings alike.

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3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge