Blog Tour, Review, and Giveaway: Counting Wolves by Michael F. Stewart


About the Book

Counting Wolves
Michael F. Stewart
Publication date: August 14, 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

The Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the lair of an adolescent psych ward.

Milly’s evil stepmother commits her to a pediatric psych ward. That’s just what the wolf wants. With bunk mates like Red, who’s spiraling out of control; Pig, a fire-bug who claims Milly as her own—but just wants extra dessert—Vanet, a manic teen masquerading as a fairy godmother with wish-granting powers as likely to kill as to help; and the mysterious Wolfgang, rumored to roam for blood at night; it doesn’t take long for Milly to realize that only her dead mother’s book of tales can save her.

But Milly’s spells of protection weaken as her wolf stalks the hospital corridors. The ward’s a Dark Wood, and she’s not alone. As her power crumbles, she must let go of her magic and discover new weapons if she is to transform from hunted to hunter.

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Review:

Four-star rating

I received a free copy of this book from Xpresso Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the review copy!

Counting Wolves was a pleasant surprise for me. When I requested an ARC of the book, I was anticipating a dark fairy tale set in a creepy psych ward with sadistic nurses and tormented teenagers who aren’t crazy but can’t convince anyone of that fact. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved a book like that, but I ended up loving what Stewart actually delivered – a look at mental illness and recovery through the lens of a fairy tale – even more.

Fifteen-year-old Milly Malone, the book’s protagonist, knows that fairy tales are more than mere stories – after all, she’s being stalked by a creature from one of the tales, a ravenous wolf that’s out for her blood. The only way to keep the wolf at bay is a magic spell, which requires Milly to count to 100 every time she wants to speak, enter a doorway, take a bite of food, etc. Although Milly knows the spell’s necessary to keep herself and her loved ones safe from the wolf, no one else understands her motivations, and she ultimately finds herself locked away in a pediatric psychiatric ward.

Stewart does a fantastic job of imbuing his novel with symbolism, and the role fairy tales play in Counting Wolves is one of the things that appeals to me most about this book. Milly’s mother raised her on these tales as a way to teach her important lessons, and so fairy tales are how Milly views the world. There are myriad references to these stories – “What big teeth you have, Doctor” – and several of the fables Milly’s read over the years are interspersed throughout the book. The people she meets in the ward are the embodiment of various stories, like the comatose “Sleeping Beauty,” and it’s fascinating to see all of the fairy tale threads woven into the tapestry of this novel.

“This is how every fairy tale starts. With the storyteller explaining to the reader just how it is. There once was a girl named Milly who was the wolf’s coveted meal. Whose father left her in the clutches of an evil stepmother. Whose stepmother imprisoned her with monsters.

At first, Milly’s compulsions are exasperating to read about, in that waiting for her to count all the time can be frustrating and tedious. Her counting consumes her and alienates her from everyone, including the reader. After a while, though, as I grew used to Milly and more information was uncovered about the root of her battle with the wolf, I found myself less annoyed and more intrigued/sympathetic. I was especially enthralled by the sections of the story that focus on Milly’s respective relationships with her deceased mother and new stepmother.

I really appreciate how Stewart approaches mental illness in this book. As much fun as I admittedly have reading psychological thrillers and books about eerie asylums, it’s gratifying to see a positive portrayal of mental healthcare. It’s so rewarding to watch Milly gain strength and courage and to watch her personality emerge once she stops letting her fears define her. The progression of her treatment strikes me as believable and realistic, though I’m not an expert and can’t say for sure.

One of the only negatives about this book for me was Milly’s fellow patients. It’s not that they’re poorly written; it’s just that I didn’t really connect with them. They’re very intense, and while they’re memorable, they’re not especially likable. The times when they exhibit endearing traits are overshadowed by really bizarre, off-putting behavior, like masturbating in plain view or mentioning that they once slit a goat’s throat as part of a Satanic ritual. The characters did grow on me a bit by the end of the novel, but I still wouldn’t say that I felt comfortable around them.

That aside, I greatly enjoyed Counting Wolves and will likely seek out more of Stewart’s work. While this story wasn’t the dark, twisty psychological thriller I originally anticipated, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve read those kinds of books before and will almost certainly read them again, but I haven’t come across many books about mental illness that use fairy tale symbolism effectively.

Author Bio

Michael F. Stewart is winner of both the 2015 Claymore Award and the 2014 inaugural Creation of Stories Award for best YA novel at the Toronto International Book Fair.

He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. In addition to his award winning Assured Destruction series, he has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights are published by Scholastic and early readers are out with Pearson Education.

For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS–a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next.

Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s first Writer in Residence. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.

Michael is represented by Talcott Notch.

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Giveaway

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Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch Book Cover Akata Witch
Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a "free agent" with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she's finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin’s First to Read program for the review copy!

Unfortunately, Akata Witch just wasn’t for me. It didn’t hold my interest, and I spent much of the book compulsively checking how many pages I had left and hoping that I was almost at the end.

I’ve seen Akata Witch hailed as “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” but the book fails to live up to the hype. There are similarities between Akata Witch and the Harry Potter series – both star a preteen misfit who discovers they possess magical abilities and must be taught to wield that magic in order to fight an evil wizard – but Akata Witch lacks the richness and the “wow” factor that made me fall in love with Rowling’s novels.

Okorafor’s book stars a 12-year-old albino girl named Sunny who doesn’t feel she belongs. She’s picked on at school, and at home she has to deal with annoying older brothers and a father who doesn’t appreciate her “otherness.” Everything changes, though, when she learns she is a Leopard Person, or someone who possesses magic juju. She also finds out that she’s fated to be one fourth of a coven that’s purportedly destined for a great purpose. Like Sunny, her fellow coven members are very young – the oldest is about 14 or 15 – but they do their best to train and make ready for their ultimate battle with an evil Leopard Person who’s gone rogue. Much of the book focuses on the four coven members honing their juju, going to lessons and field trips, and teaching Sunny about the world of the Leopard People.

As much as I love fantasy stories, this particular one didn’t resonate with me for some reason. I was incredibly bored and didn’t feel the sense of wonder, delight, or amazement I usually experience when I read fantasy. Part of my problem is that I wasn’t enamored of the plot or the characters, who were flat at best and annoying at worst. I had a tough time connecting with them, and I partially blame this on the third-person point of view. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had a lot more personality if the story had been filtered through Sunny’s first-person viewpoint.

That said, there are a few interesting and creative bits of magic in the book now and then, like masquerades – spirits that enter the world through termite mounds; tungwas – balls of hair, flesh, and teeth that float around and explode at random; and wasp artists that build spectacular creations out of found household objects but are notoriously melodramatic if they feel their work isn’t valued:

“‘It’s a wasp artist,’ Orlu said. ‘They live for their art. If you want it to live for a long time, make sure you let it out like you’ve been doing, and show it that you appreciate its work.’

‘I’d smash the thing,’ Sasha said. ‘My sister had one when she was small , and when she forgot to give it praise once, it got pissed and stung her. Its sting paralyzes you for ten minutes so that you can do nothing but watch it build its ‘final masterpiece’ and then keep watching as it dramatically dies. The damn things are psychotic.’”

By far the most positive aspect of this book is that it opened my eyes to just how narrow my worldview is; it wasn’t until I read Akata Witch that I realized how rarely I read books that are set in a country and culture very different from my own. Growing up in the U.S., reading American books, and watching American movies and TV shows, my understanding of the world has been admittedly limited. I so infrequently venture outside of my comfort zone when it comes to books and other media that I was – stupidly – unprepared for Akata Witch’s descriptions of foods, expressions, residences, etc. that were so very unfamiliar to me. Sometimes this led to confusion (I still don’t understand what a “rapa” is, and what on Earth is a chewing stick?), but for the most part it was a humbling reminder that “my” way of life isn’t “the” way of life. This book showed me that there is so much I don’t know, and so much that I don’t even realize I don’t know.

One thing that really struck me was the fact that there are so many people speaking so many different languages in many scenes of the book. There’s no guarantee that everyone who needs to interact with one another in a given situation will speak the same language, which leads to a constant need for translation. This is viewed as the norm, as nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a stark contrast to what I’m used to in the U.S., where some people can sadly be rude – and downright ugly – when they hear people speaking anything but English. There’s even a reference to this in the book, which is, again, quite humbling:

“The toucan man scoffed. ‘They don’t teach them to understand others, they teach them to expect others to understand them,’ he said in English. He humphed and said, ‘Americans.’”

Bottom line? Much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of Akata Witch, I really struggled with staying invested in the story and characters. It just didn’t hold my attention, and I can’t say I’ll be reading the sequel when it comes out later this year.

Book Haul: June 2017

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Book Haul post, but June brought so many great reads that I couldn’t resist writing about them. Below is a list of the various novels I received, bought and borrowed last month.

Received

Book cover for Ivory and Bone by Julie EshbaughBook cover for Akata Witch by Nnedi OkoraforBook cover for Counting Wolves by Michael F. Stewart

Book cover for Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

  • Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh: In exchange for participating in a survey, I received a copy of this prehistoric retelling of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice from Epic Reads Insiders.
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor: Sadly, this Nigerian fantasy just wasn’t for me. That said, I’m still grateful to have been granted a chance to read it through Penguin’s First to Read program.
  • Counting Wolves by Michael F. Stewart: This novel, described as “the Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s fairy tales,” is set in a psych ward and sounds darkly intriguing. I can’t wait for my stop on the book’s blog tour through Xpresso Book Tours in August.
  • Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller: I’m very excited about this Netgalley ARC, which features thieves, assassins, and courtly intrigue.

Borrowed

Book cover for Lord of Shadows by Cassandra ClareBook cover for The Song of the Current by Sarah TolcserBook cover for When We Collided by Emery Lord

  • Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare: Though I wasn’t enamored of Lady Midnight, the first book in the Dark Artifices series, this sequel was a vast improvement. This has a lot to do with the characters of Mark, Kieran, and Kit, who more than made up for my lack of interest in the rest of the book’s cast.
  • Song of the Current by Sarah Tolcser: This book ended up being a bit of a letdown. It’s touted as a swashbuckling, river-pirate adventure, but I confess I was bored throughout most of the book.
  • When We Collided by Emery Lord: I started out loving this story’s quirky characters, but by the end I was furious with one of the protagonists and dead set against the romance.

Bought

Book cover for Here Without You by Mia KerickBook cover for Chance Assassin by Nicole Castle

  • Here Without You by Mia Kerick: This book is the sequel to Us Three, which I bought back in May and, surprisingly, adored. I say “surprisingly” because a) it’s a male/male/male menage romance, which I don’t usually read, and b) I wasn’t a fan of the first book I read by Kerick, In A Gilded Cage (read my review here).
  • Chance Assassin by Nicole Castle: THIS. BOOK. It’s crazy, messed up, and so, so bizarre, but I really did enjoy it. It’s not for the faint of heart, with lots of sex, violence, and crime, but boy, is it entertaining.

Have you read any of the books above? What books did you receive, borrow or buy in June? Drop me a comment to let me know!

Titanic Fans, Rejoice – A Review of The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The Midnight Watch Book Cover The Midnight Watch
David Dyer

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.

Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew, but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found. The Midnight Watch is a powerful and dramatic debut novel--the result of many years of research in Liverpool, London, New York, and Boston, and informed by the author's own experiences as a ship's officer and a lawyer.

 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy!

The Midnight Watch, David Dyer’s account of the sinking of the Titanic and its aftermath, is one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve read in years. Dyer’s ability to bring history to life with his beautiful writing and poignant attention to detail, coupled with his talent for heightening dramatic irony, make this book a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the Titanic disaster.

One of the most tragic and compelling things about the Titanic, aside from the staggeringly high death toll, is that the catastrophe could and should have easily been avoided. There were so many opportunities to avert disaster: If only the ship hadn’t been traveling so fast in the dark ice field…. If only there had been enough lifeboats for all passengers…. If only another ship could have arrived on the scene sooner, and saved more lives….

This last “if only” is the focus of The Midnight Watch. History tells us that the Californian, another steamer, was only six miles away from the Titanic when she struck the iceberg. The crew saw the distress rockets and were close enough to save hundreds of lives – yet they did nothing. 

The Midnight Watch delves into the mystery behind what happened that fateful April night, and man, is it fascinating. The point of view jumps from the crew of the Californian, trying to cover up their failure, to a young girl on board the doomed ship, to an intrepid reporter who won’t rest until he gets to the bottom of the Californian’s dirty little secret:

“People tell me there’s no such a thing as love at first sight. I don’t know about that. But I do know that there’s such a thing as a story at first sight. And there was something about these men – their stillness, perhaps, or maybe their unimpeachable solidarity – that told me at once that something strange had happened on this ship, something more than ‘a nice little story.’”

Dyer does a brilliant job of setting all of the pieces in place and building the reader’s anticipation and sense of dramatic irony. I had goosebumps for the duration of this book and was in a constant state of helpless dread. Modern-day readers know how the story of the Titanic plays out, but the characters in the book do not, and that’s what makes The Midnight Watch so heart-wrenching. All you can do is sit and watch as the events unfold.

You’ll shiver when, on the night of April 14, the captain of the Californian casually tells the officer on duty that “it should be a quiet watch tonight.” You’ll cringe when you listen to the White Star Line’s spokesman naively ensure the media, shortly before the ship sinks beneath the waves, that “his understanding was that [the damage] was slight and the ship was making her way to Halifax under her own steam.” You’ll silently, futilely plead with the characters to pay closer attention to the warning signs, and chills will go down your spine when the unwitting crew of the Californian watches the “mysterious ship’s” lights finally blink out in the wee hours of the morning on April 15.

Dyer has a gift for choosing descriptions and details that bring this story to life in excruciating vividness. He immerses you in the sounds of foghorns calling in the night and Morse code tapping in the wires room, and paints a picture of sailors “lying in their bunks with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside.” He writes a scene from the perspective of a passenger on board the sinking Titanic who spots the Californian‘s lights and waits patiently, but in vain, for rescuers to arrive. His reporter reveals the horrifying statistic that “fifty-eight first-class men had found their way into the lifeboats but fifty-three third-class children had not.” Every sentence Dyer writes cuts straight to your heart.

One of the things that I found fascinating about The Midnight Watch is that it focuses not just on the night of the Titanic disaster, but also on the fall-out that takes place afterwards. Dyer shows the reactions of the world as they learn the ship’s fate and describes the U.S. president’s grief at the loss of his friends who were on board. He depicts the moment when the ship Carpathia semaphores the number of dead to the Californian – 1,500 lost – and goes into detail about the U.S. Senate’s investigation into the the causes of the tragedy.

My only complaint about The Midnight Watch is a minor one: it’s tough to keep all of the characters straight. There are lots of people to remember, and trying to keep track of all of their names and jobs and why they’re significant to the story is challenging at times.

All things considered, I couldn’t be more impressed with Dyer’s debut novel. It’s so good it hurts, a rich, fascinating book that does what all great historical fiction should: sparks curiosity in its reader and inspires them to discover more about the subject matter. Highly, highly recommended.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Retellings I’ve Recently Added To My TBR List

toptentuesday (1)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s topic is “Books in X Genre I’ve Recently Added To My TBR Pile.” Because I’m a retelling fanatic, I’ve chosen to focus on books that put a new spin on well-known stories.

1) Marian by Ella Lyons: Robin Hood retellings will always be my favorite retellings, which is why I was so excited to find this LGBT take on my favorite hero(ine).

2) My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen by David Clawson: In this contemporary reimagining of the Cinderella fairy tale, poor, downtrodden Chris falls for his wicked stepsister’s charming boyfriend.

3) Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George: Although I’m not very familiar with the plot of Much Ado About Nothing, this retelling of the Shakespearean play intrigues me because it’s set in New York City in the Roaring Twenties.

Book cover for Marian by Ella LyonsBook cover for My Fairy Godmother is a Drag Queen by David ClawsonBook cover for Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

4) Bull by David Elliot: Written in verse, this retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, from Greek mythology, is supposedly hilarious and twisted.

5) Sway by Kat Spears: My only knowledge of the play Cyrano de Bergerac comes from watching the children’s TV show Wishbone, but that’s all it takes for me to want to read this modern spin on the classic about a guy who falls in love with a girl who he’s charming on another guy’s behalf.

6) Ensnared by Rita Stradling: This sci-fi retelling of Beauty and the Beast comes with a warning that the book contains “adult situations.” Color me intrigued.

Book cover for Bull by David ElliottBook cover for Sway by Kat SpearsBook cover for Ensnared by Rita Stradling

7) The Humming Room by Ellen Potter: This is the first book I’ve found that’s claimed to be inspired by The Secret Garden, which was a childhood favorite of mine.

8) Ivory and Bone by Julie Eshbaugh: I’m not sure if it’s intended to be an actual retelling, but Ivory and Bone‘s synopsis touts it as “a prehistoric fantasy – with allusions to Pride and Prejudice,” which catches my attention.

9) Black Paper Mask by Lauren Gattos: I confess to being kind of confused by this novel’s synopsis, and I’m not certain if it’s meant to be a retelling or a sequel, but I’ll give any book a try that’s related to The Phantom of the Opera. Especially since this particular book’s synopsis calls it a “feminist revision” and a “gothic romance.”

Book cover for The Humming Room by Ellen PotterBook cover for Ivory and Bone by Julie EshbaughBook cover for Black Paper Mask by Lauren Gattos

10) The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson: I’m somewhat wary of Dickerson’s fairy tales – the ones I’ve read so far have been too light and innocent for my taste – but this Swan Lake/Robin Hood mash-up has piqued my curiosity.Book cover for The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest by Melanie Dickerson

 Are you a fan of retellings? If so, what are your favorites? Let me know in the comment section below!