Review: Courvalian: The Resistance by Benjamin Reed

Courvalian: The Resistance Book Cover Courvalian: The Resistance
Benjamin Reed

The teenaged Korza brothers, Matthew, Charles, and Travis, are all avid outdoorsmen, who thrive on mastering punishing wilderness conditions. They don’t know it but these skills will prove invaluable when they are mystically thrust into a medieval, forested world where a violent revolution against a venal monarch is underway. With no real memory of their former lives or even of their own relationships to each other, aside from a sense of unbreakable brotherly bond, the Korzas will have to somehow make their way amidst the turmoil of this new world. Encounters with the despotic king’s army of soulless killers inspire them to join the Resistance against him. As the war heats up to a boil, and new friendships, both human and animal, are forged in blood, the brothers discover reserves of courage and ingenuity that will serve their new comrades well. Epic battles rage through darkest woods, a massive fort hidden in the forest canopy, and finally to a spectacular, winged siege against a forbidding castle keep where unexpected dangers await.

Review:

I get what Benjamin Reed was going for with Courvalian: The Resistance – an epic tale of heroism in a battle against a corrupt, greedy king – but it didn’t really work for me.

The story starts when three brothers – Charles, Travis, and Matthew – set off on a multi-day hiking trip in the mountains. One night the cave the brothers are sheltering in collapses, somehow transporting them to a different place and time. They wake up in a medieval tavern in Ozark with no memory of how they got there, who they are, or where they came from. You might expect this amnesia to be disorienting, troubling, but you’d be wrong. The brothers acclimate to their new surroundings almost immediately, and within an hour of arriving in Ozark they’ve been recruited for the Resistance, a group of citizens fighting against their tyrannical ruler.

If this sounds improbable, that’s because it is. Herein lies my problem with this book.

The key plot points are way too simplistic, to the point of being ludicrous. Charles, Travis, and Matthew have zero memories, but they don’t seem to find this strange or care all that much. Rather than making even the slightest effort to regain their memories, the brothers throw themselves wholeheartedly into working for a Resistance they know next to nothing about, even though it means risking their lives. Surprisingly, no one in the Resistance seems to have any qualms about inviting complete strangers into their midst. Also surprisingly, the brothers are ridiculously easy to recruit.

There’s a passage towards the beginning of the book where Helius, a member of the Resistance, attempts to convince Travis to join the cause, which would mean Travis leaving his brothers (at this point they’ve established that they share a fraternal bond) in the middle of a dangerous, unfamiliar world:

“I don’t want to fight,” Travis said laconically.

“Your bar brawl didn’t exactly indicate to me that you don’t want to fight. Which is why I think I’ve found the guy I’ve been looking for,” Helius exclaimed happily. “There’s no time to waste, we must leave tonight.”

“What about Matthew and Charles?” Travis asked.

“They have their own destinies,” Helius answered.

“As long as squirt doesn’t get hurt,” Travis smiled weakly while motioning towards Matthew.

You sure put up a fight there, Travis. Helius really had to twist your arm.

It’s not just the plot that’s too simplistic; it’s the characterization, too. With the exception of Matthew, who’s the protagonist in the story, you don’t get a chance to develop your own opinions about characters. Instead, you’re simply told how you should think of them: “So-and-so is respected.” “So-and-so is brave.” “So-and-so is wise.” “So-and-so is a hero.” You simply get a brief statement of characters’ personalities instead of getting to see them in action.

I also wish Reed would have focused and expanded on relationships and emotional growth. Instead of simply announcing an emotion, I wanted to see that emotion demonstrated. Rather than saying, “Matthew was anxious,” or “The man’s temper was flaring,” I wanted Reed to show evidence of the anxiety and anger.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It’s a scene where Matthew meets the Resistance’s leader, Kurtax:

“From the very onset, Matthew could see why Kurtax was so highly regarded. The man seemed to spew probity from his every feature. Matthew innately knew that if they were destined to win the war, it would be because Kurtax was their sedulous commander on the battlefield and the sagacious leader of it.”

Matthew met Kurtax all of five minutes ago, yet he inherently knows that Kurtax is a great leader? Um, okay. Just glancing at Kurtax may be enough for Matthew to discern his character, but not for me. I’m not going to believe Kurtax is respected or courageous or a great tactician until I witness him in action. Let me see him making a tough decision, or leading his men into battle, or rallying his troops with a rousing speech or act of bravery. Otherwise, there’s no reason for me to believe he’s all that and a bag of chips.

Here’s another example:

“Wilred’s height gave him credibility, but it was his mannerisms, which were similar to Kurtax’s or Irvin’s that seemed to instantly command respect.”

Again, what does Wilfred being tall have to do with him being credible? And what mannerisms make him command respect? Show me!

Reed may not provide much depth for his characters and plot, but he has no problem supplying plenty of details and examples for other stuff in this book. The unimportant things get the focus: there are long, specific descriptions of the terrain and precise explanations of exactly how the boys pack their bags, shoot arrows, crawl into berry bushes, walk through the woods, etc. The battle scenes are described at length (interestingly enough, small numbers of heroic Resistors can defeat vast armies of smelly, snarling bad guys), and so are the various plants and trees.

The thing that really pushed me over the edge with this book was the cliffhanger ending. When I read the last line of this book, I was FURIOUS. Not in the “Oh my gosh, how am I going to survive until I get the next book?” kind of way; it was more like, “Wow, I feel so cheated.” I usually don’t mind cliffhangers, but this one felt like a cop-out. You can’t just make a random statement at the end of a book – a statement that makes absolutely no sense and has nothing to do with the rest of the novel – and expect it to mean something to the reader when they have no idea what you’re talking about. I was NOT a happy camper when I finished this book.

If Courvalian: The Resistance has a saving grace, it’s Matthew, the youngest of the three brothers. He’s such an endearing character, always willing to help others even when it means putting his own comfort and safety at risk. When undertaking missions for the Resistance, Matthew is resourceful, smart, and uses his time wisely, practicing his dagger throwing and combat skills while trekking through the woods. He saves innocent bear cubs, fights bravely, and is an all-around good guy.

Still, Matthew alone can’t make up for my frustrations with this book. There are definitely readers who will heartily enjoy Courvalian: The Resistance, but it just wasn’t for me.

Review: Random by Alma Alexander

Random Book Cover Random
Alma Alexander

My name is Jazz Marsh.

I am a Random Were, which means I am a Were of no fixed form – like all Random Were, my family can become any warm-blooded creature which is the last thing they see before they Turn. For me, when my time came, that meant… trouble.

I was quite young when I lost my older sister, Celia, and my family never spoke about her. It was only when I found the secret diaries that she had left behind that I began to discover the truth behind her life and her death.

I never understood what drove my moody and dangerous older brother until I began to get an inkling about his part in Celia’s death… and until, driven to the edge of patience and understanding, he finally had to face his own Turn problems… and disastrously took matters into his own hands.

One thing is clear.

Everything I thought I knew about Were-kind was wrong.

Review:

When you read the word “Were-kind,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably an image of a werewolf. This isn’t surprising given the wealth of wolf lore out there, from An American Werewolf in London and The Wolfman to Teen Wolf and Twilight. In Random, however, Alma Alexander introduces a whole different kind of Were and a rich culture to go with it.

There are characters who Turn into wolves during the full moon, sure, but there are a multitude of others who transform into cats, bats, crows – even chickens. There’s also a subset of Were-kind who don’t have a set animal form, instead changing into the last warm-blooded animal they see before the Turn. The novel’s protagonist, almost-13-year-old Jazz Marsh, is one of these so-called Random Were and experiences her first Turn at the beginning of the book.

Jazz’s transformation is premature and…well, let’s just say “unorthodox” so as to avoid spoilers. This early Turn may or may not have been triggered by the stress in Jazz’s life, stress that comes from the heap of secrets and misfortunes that the Marshes have accumulated over the years. To start, there are Jazz’s overprotective parents – immigrants from the Old World where the Were were hunted and persecuted – who keep Jazz sequestered at home. There’s also Mal, her moody older brother who’s still embarrassingly un-Turned at the age of 17. And then there’s Celia, the sister Jazz barely knew who died young and is mourned but never talked about in the Marsh home.

When Jazz stumbles upon Celia’s old diaries, she’s introduced to a version of her sister – and the world – that she never knew existed. Celia describes her family’s experiences as new immigrants, adopting new names, learning a second language, struggling to find employment, and never, ever being allowed to forget they don’t belong. Even worse than being a foreigner is being a foreigner who also happens to be Were; as Celia’s diaries reveal, many Normals – non-shapeshifting humans – are clearly prejudiced against Were-kind.

Strict laws require Weres to carry identification at all times and to be contained in government-approved holding areas during their Turns. The unfortunate Weres without access to a private Turning facility must report to the ghastly Turning Houses, where conditions are bleak, to say the least. Injustice takes place even at school. Celia is bullied by her classmates and discriminated against by her teachers. Life becomes nearly unbearable under their torment, and poor Celia can confide in no one but her diary, which she does until her untimely death.

These diaries open Jazz’s eyes to the plight of Weres in general and her deceased sister in particular. As she describes, “Those diaries sucked me in like a whirlpool; I drank in the poison of Celia’s life in great gulps, and I could feel it changing me as I did that.” Not surprisingly, the diaries raise many questions for Jazz. Why and how do the Were transform? Why don’t they remember the time they spend as animals? How can you hold on to your sense of self when your identity is fluid? Do animals, and therefore the Were, have souls? As Jazz seeks answers to these questions, she discovers that the more she learns, the less she seems to understand about Were-kind, or even her own family.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, Random isn’t just a story about shapeshifters, it’s a story about humanity. It’s about what it means to be a member of a family, a culture, a race. This is an ambitious undertaking, but Alexander handles it with grace and skill. There were times when I found it challenging to keep up with all of the plot points and cause-and-effect relationships, but the story was well worth the effort.

As great as the plot is, what really made me fall in love with Random is the way Alexander writes. There’s a beauty to her language, an intelligence and insight. Take this line, for example: “I looked at her and I saw an ocean; I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw a suburban fishpond with a couple of tired koi swimming around in circles.” Her voice is comforting and warm, like snuggling up in front of a crackling fire with a mug of hot cocoa; if I could wrap her words around myself like a fuzzy blanket, I totally would.

The only downside to Alexander’s writing is that it doesn’t always seem in character for someone Jazz’s age. Many times Jazz comes across sounding more like a college professor than a pre-teen. I don’t know any 12-year-olds who say things like, “[H]e would do so by apportioning blame and justification of ‘defense’ against the encroaching Other that threatened his own world view,” for example. Still, the fact that the writing is so smart and lovely makes this easy to overlook.

Something else I appreciated was the humor in the book. Despite the weighty subject matter, there’s plenty of levity to keep you smiling as you read. Much of this humor comes from Jazz’s attitude, particularly towards her parents and brother. She’s funny, passionate, and mischievous in turns, and I found it very easy to like her.

In fact, all of the characters appealed to me. I really liked Mal, who, though very brooding, sulky, and resentful, is undeniably interesting. I couldn’t get enough of him, nor of the other supporting characters, like Jazz’s friend Charlie and his mother Vivian, who is also the Marsh family’s caretaker while they’re in their Were forms.

The great characters, fascinating Were culture, and lyrical prose all guarantee that I’ll be reading the next book in the Were Chronicles trilogy as soon as it’s available. Alexander is a thoughtful, inventive, and articulate author, and I can’t wait to see what else she has in store for Jazz and her family.

A free ARC of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Check back tomorrow for an interview with Alma Alexander and a chance to win a free copy of Random!

Blog Tour and Review: The Strength of Ballerinas by Nancy Lorenz

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About the Book

All Kendra wants to do is dance for the Manhattan Dance Company. So when her family’s forced to move to California, her dreams of auditioning are shattered. Still determined to dance, Kendra faces social isolation and family pressures in her new home. But when she’s diagnosed with a debilitating illness, Kendra must decide which dreams are worth fighting for.

Review

For aspiring ballerina Kendra Sutton, dance is life. Kendra attends a special school that allows her to leave early for ballet classes, spends hours each day practicing in the studio and at home, and carefully considers the nutritional and caloric value of all her food before she eats it. She’s in training to audition for a coveted apprenticeship at the Manhattan Dance Company, a dream that’s threatened when her father announces that his job is requiring them to move from New York to California.

Despite Kendra’s protests, she and her family relocate to Napa Valley, where she must reconcile her city girl mentality with the new reality of farmland and rural living. She must also adjust to life in public school, where she’s picked on and misunderstood. Most challenging of all, Kendra must figure out a way to keep dancing on a pre-professional level and pursue her dreams of a future on the stage.

While struggling to come to terms with her new life, Kendra’s world is rocked by yet another setback: a diagnosis that jeopardizes not just her career as a dancer, but her life in general. This unexpected diagnosis forces Kendra to reevaluate her identity and think about her life in a whole new way. She’s a ballerina, but is that all she is? Is performing with the Manhattan Dance Company worth fighting for, or is there a different future in store for her?

I have to admit that when I first began reading The Strength of Ballerinas, I wasn’t fond of Kendra. She struck me as being rigid, stubborn, and unyielding. Her view of herself as a Spartan warrior and her mantra of “Endure! Resist! Achieve!” made her feel robotic and unrelatable, and I was convinced I wouldn’t like her.

As the story progressed, however, I began to view Kendra in a different light. The characteristics I’d originally perceived as flaws soon revealed themselves as her greatest strengths. What I’d initially seen as stubbornness and inflexibility were actually admirable dedication and discipline.  Behind the Spartan spirit were the strength to keep forging ahead no matter what and a refusal to give up. I found myself developing a grudging respect for Kendra and her ability to meet any and all challenges she faced.

Readers who are ballerinas in fact, or even just at heart, will appreciate Lorenz’ debut novel. Those who aren’t familiar with the world of dance may find themselves frustrated by the abundance of ballet terminology, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a dancer to enjoy this book. There are a lot of other subplots here, like Kendra’s relationships with her family members.

Kendra’s brother Petey, for example, adds another dimension to the book. Petey is six years old and autistic, and Kendra devotes much of her time to caring for him. This is no easy task – simple acts such as combing Petey’s hair and getting him dressed take a great deal of time and effort. It doesn’t help that Petey shies away from human touch, occasionally throws tantrums, and rarely speaks or displays emotion. Still, Kendra genuinely loves her little brother. She volunteers at his school and guides him through therapeutic exercises to help him function on a higher level. She’s a great big sister, and I really admired this about her.

All in all, reading The Strength of Ballerinas was a great experience, one that I recommend. Kendra’s passion, perseverance, and love for her family make this book a success, as does the realistic and meaningful ending.

A free copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

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The Strength of Ballerinas is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

About the Author

Nancy Lorenz currently teaches as an English adjunct at several colleges. She worked in publishing, public relations and in network television. She studied ballet in New York City at numerous studios, including open level classes at American Ballet Theater in the 1980’s, and continues to study ballet for the sheer love of it. She recommends that you love what you do, but also to branch out to the many subjects out there yet to discover. The more you learn, the more you can bring back into your art.

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Visit Other Stops on the The Strength of Ballerinas Tour:

9/7 Cindy Bennett

9/8 Reading Shy

9/9 Getting Your Read On

9/10 Katie’s Clean Book Collection

9/12 The Things I Love Most

9/13 Inside Ballet

9/14 Spellbindings

9/15 Wonderous Reviews

9/16 Tressa’s Wishful Endings

9/17 Book-Obsessed-Blog

9/18 Mel’s Shelves

9/19 Thoughts in Progress

9/20 Adult Ballerina Project

9/21 Jorie Loves a Story

9/22 Stealing Pages

9/23 The Author’s Hideaway

9/24 YA Storyteller

9/25 Batch of Books

9/26 LDS and Lovin’ It

9/27 Little Light Design Collective

Review: Me, Him, Them, and It by Caela Carter

Me, Him, Them, and It Book Cover Me, Him, Them, and It
Caela Carter

Me: Evelyn, closet good girl turned bad. When she decided to earn herself a bad reputation, Evelyn was never planning on falling in love.

Him: Todd, supposed Friend with Benefits. She just wanted to piss them off. To make people take notice.

Them: the cold, distant parents. She wasn’t planning on ruining her valedictorian status or losing her best friend, and she definitely wasn’t aiming to get pregnant.

It: the baby growing inside her. Now, Evelyn needs a plan. And someone to help with the heart-wrenching decisions that are coming up fast.

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

I originally started writing this review when I was only three quarters of the way through Me, Him, Them, and It. The only positive thing I had to say about the book at that point was that it was well paced and didn’t drag on and on.

Now, after finishing the novel, I feel like I may need to reevaluate. It would be dishonest of me to say that the end of the story made me do a 180 and fall in love with the story, but I can tell you that the last 20 pages or so affected me more than the first 300 pages combined and actually had enough of an emotional impact to bring tears to my eyes.

Evelyn Jones, the story’s protagonist, is a good girl who decides to earn herself a bad reputation in order to gain her parents’ attention. This involves going to parties, smoking pot, and having sex with Todd, a football player at Evelyn’s school. Unfortunately for Evelyn, “Bad Evie” draws no more attention from her unhappily married parents than “Good Evie” did. At least, not until Evie gets pregnant.

Evie’s situation is both sad and infuriating; I simultaneously pitied her and wanted to shake her in frustration. On the one hand, it’s obvious that at her core Evie is just a scared little girl whose cold and lonely home life has made her desperate to be loved. Everyone from whom she seeks affection – her parents, her best friend, her not-quite-boyfriend – lets her down in some way. As Evie so poignantly asks at one point in the story, “Why are all the people who love me so bad at it?”

On the other hand, a good follow-up question might be, “And why are YOU so bad at loving people back, Evie?” Because as sorry as I feel for her, Evie’s messed up life doesn’t excuse how immature, stubborn, and childlike she is for the entirety of the novel. Instead of thinking carefully about the big decisions facing her as a result of her unplanned pregnancy, Evie shuts down and refuses take ownership of her choices or her future. She can’t be persuaded, bribed, cajoled, or forced to do anything but go through the motions of day-to-day life, turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the important things she needs to be doing or thinking about. There are many, MANY times when I wanted to smack her on the back of the head and yell, “Wake up! I know you’re hurting, but you need to think. You need to act. You need to care! This is your life!”

As angry as Evie made me, though, I have to admit that her immaturity and generally bad attitude are part of what gives Me, Him, Them, and It its air of authenticity. This is not a romanticized picture of teen pregnancy in which the baby-mama, baby-daddy, and their families put aside their differences to come together in harmony and support. This is a sad, honest, sometimes hopeful but more often painful account of what it means to bring a child into a world when the parents don’t have their lives and relationships figured out.

Now that I think about it, I realize that the above paragraph sums up the reason I didn’t give Me, Him, Them, and It three stars. The story is well-written, but Carter’s characters might just be TOO real. Real life can be messy and disappointing and full of people who let you down, and reading about this is just as unsatisfying as living it. For that reason, while I’m glad I did finish this book, it isn’t one of my favorites.

Review: Playing It Cool by Joaquin Dorfman

Playing It Cool Book Cover Playing It Cool
Joaquin Dorfman

Sebastian Montero is famous around town as a problem solver of the subtlest kind. Want a date with the girl of your dreams? Bastian can make it happen. Have a friend threatening suicide? Baz can talk him off the ledge. With his elaborate network of favors and debts, Sebastian is calm, composed, and untouchable.

But all of that was before.

Before he left his home turf for the unfamiliar town of Wilmington. Before he switched identities with a desperate and high-strung friend. Before he met dark-haired, cold-shouldered Christina. And before he matched wits with Dromio, the man who has all of Wilmington in his back pocket – and who just might hold the key to the one nagging doubt that Sebastian hasn’t been able to silence.

In a world of quid pro quo, everything comes with a price. And Sebastian’s about to raise the stakes.

Review:

I think I liked this book, but I’m not really sure.

I’ve spent the entire afternoon trying to decide how I feel about Playing It Cool, and that’s the closest I’ve come to a conclusion. The plot is interesting, and I had a hard time putting the book down, but there’s something about this novel that just feels off.

Take the main character, for example. In theory, Sebastian Montero should be my dream protagonist. He’s a schemer, his mind always working a mile a minute. He can solve just about any problem and charm his way out of any situation. He is always wheeling and dealing, always one step ahead of the game.

The problem, though, is that he’s so cool and efficient that he doesn’t feel like a teenage boy – he feels like an unapproachable, high-power CEO. He’s too smooth, too aloof, too crisp, too…much.Rather than swooning after him, as I have other clever scamps in fiction (Eugenides, Locke Lamora, Dodger, etc.), I simply admired him, and only at a distance. I wish he could be both brilliant AND relatable.

There are a few lucky moments when Dorfman manages to make Sebastian feel a little more human, and these moments, combined with an interesting plot, got me through the book.

I liked that there’s little to no down time in this novel. The action starts on page one and doesn’t slow down until the conclusion. There isn’t really an intro in which the characters are formally introduced or the background is laid out; you just get dropped in the middle of the story and figure out the personalities and set-up as you go. It’s very effective.

Something that I didn’t like is that the writing is a little pretentious for my taste. Part of this could be to match Sebastian’s suave demeanor, but whatever the reason it just made me roll my eyes at times. The book reads almost like the narration in an old black and white noir film. When I read certain sections I couldn’t help imagining a smoky-voiced private eye speaking the words while melancholy saxophones played in the background. I think this has something to do with Dorfman’s diction – there are lots of short, choppy sentences and matter-of-fact observations. For example: “Train whistle in the distance. All the deceptive makings of a small town in North Carolina. I got out of the car, shut the door to the passenger’s side. Jeremy got out of the backseat. Headed for the house.” Strange, no?

Something else that bothered me is that I’m not sure what my reaction is supposed to be now that I’ve finished this novel. I feel like there’s a message Dorfman wants the reader to get, but I have no idea what that message is. Am I supposed to admire Sebastian? Be wary of him? Are there characters in the book that I should consider good role models? Bad ones? I’m a little confused, and I don’t like feeling that way.