Posts tagged ‘350-399 pages’

Steelheart

SteelheartTitle: Steelheart
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Series: Reckoners #1
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
ISBN: 9781480569133 (audiobook), 9780385743563 (hardcover)
Pages: 386 pages
Discs/CDs: 10 CDs, 12 hours 20 minutes
Publication: Brilliance Audio, c2013. (Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc. c2013.)

Eventually the Reckoners led me around a corner that looked like every other one–only this time it led to a small room cut into the steel. There were a lot of these places in the catacombs. […]
I took a hesitant step backward, realizing I was cornered. I’d begun to think that I was on my way toward being accepted into their team. But looking into Prof’s eyes, I realized that was not the case. He saw me as a threat. I hadn’t been brought along because I’d been helpful; I’d been brought along because he hadn’t wanted me wandering free.
I was a captive. And this deep in the steel catacombs, nobody would notice a scream or a gunshot. (48-49)

Ever since his father was killed by the Epic Steelheart, David has been spending the last decade studying these super powered people who inevitably battle each other for control over the cities and populations of the dystopian United States. They all have a weakness, and David knows he holds the key to Steelheart’s, if he could only figure it out. David’s not the only one fighting the Epics, and he’s been following the Reckoner’s efforts for years. After intentionally stumbling into an assassination attempt and helping (sort of) he’s able to convince the team of Reckoners to let him join them on their quest. But convincing them to go up against the most powerful Epic ever is going to take a lot more than hunches and guesswork. It’s going to take stealth and strategy, neither of which David is particularly good at imbuing.

Think of the X-Men world, but only with the Magneto team and not Professor Xavier’s humanity; then add Superman’s obscure weakness, only it’s different for every Epic, and you’ll have a good approximation of the world Brandon Sanderson has created for his Reckoners series. And what a world it is, with adaptations to the culture while still maintaining enough recognizable references to modern day to orient readers. It’s a bloody existence being a Reckoner, surrounded by war and death. The opening scene of David’s father’s death is also gritty and gruesome in it’s realism, which might turn off some more sensitive readers. I was somewhat disappointed that we didn’t see more of the day-to-day life during an Epic’s reign, but what we do glimpse is impressive. With only one or two chapters of info-dumping back story, readers are submerged into David’s internal monologue.

David’s life after his father’s death is like those of kids during the Industrial Revolution, working grunt jobs due to his size and ability to be exploited, although he doesn’t mind as it guarantees him a roof and food. Much has been said about David’s horrible yet humorous metaphors, and they definitely are memorable and add to his personality.

I tried not to stare, but that was like trying not to blink. Only . . . well, kind of the opposite. (48)
Megan’s eyes could have drilled holes through . . . well, anything, I guess. I mean, eyes can’t normally drill holes through things, so the metaphor works regardless, right? Megan’s eyes could have drilled holes through butter. (103)
“It’s like . . . a banana farm for guns.”(142)
They looked so dangerous, like alligators. Really fast alligators wearing black. Ninja alligators. (149)

But there is also depth and incredible insight from David. He objects to being called a nerd because not only does he make a distinction between smarts and persistence, but he also realized that the smartest students lost their freedoms by being scrutinized and under surveillance working for an Epic. He recognizes he’s been living a life motivated by revenge and death, but isn’t quite sure how to focus on anything else.

Not just David, but all the characters are multidimensional, and readers focus on what little information they can gleam from the narrative about everyone. MacLeod Andrews has been added to my list of top narrators. David’s youthful and playful but committed demeanor, Cody and Abraham’s back-and-forth banter, the more serious and solemn tones of Prof, the skeptical and scholarly Tia, and Megan’s sarcastic quips are all captured with precision and excellence. Cody is the spot of humor, with his southern accent, Scottish vocabulary, and intentionally insane side-comments. He throws you off guard leaving both readers and David wondering just how much of this is an act and how much of what Cody says does he actually believe, but rest assured he is much more than the village idiot. Abraham is a mystery, with Andrews alluding to a James Bond character with his clipped accent, but Abraham’s personality is probably the most predictable and stable out of all of them. Megan is the stereotypical unrequited love interest for David, who hasn’t had much past experience with girls. But Megan is anything but stereotypical, as David realizes when she turns out to be an extremely capable point-man with an astonishing knowledge of weapons. She challenges him, which is good for both of them. Rounding out the team is Tia, the typical brains of the bunch who holds information and her cards close to her chest, and the esoteric and reclusive leader Prof, who leads with equal parts discipline and democracy. The whole cast is memorable, not just because of Sanderson’s writing but Andrews’ portrayal of them.

Like the movie Saving Private Ryan, team members share only the basics about their life in an effort to avoiding tipping off the Epics if one of them ever gets captured. Prof actually asks David how old he is and if he would have anyone who would come looking for him if he were to disappear. By the end of the book, we’ve realized not everyone is as they appear, and it’s questionable where and how the story will continue. We know more about all the members of the team then we did when we started, but there is one big question that needs answering, and hopefully will be resolved in the sequel.

Vicious

Vicious.jpgTitle: Vicious
Author: V. E. Schwab
ISBN: 9780765335340
Pages: 364 pages
Publisher/Date: A Tor Book, published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, c2013.

Victor perched on the tub, clutching a drink as he stared down at Eliot Cardale’s corpse.
Eli hadn’t screamed. Pain had been written across every one of the forty-three muscles Victor’s anatomy class taught him twined together in the human face, but the worse Eli had done was let a small groan escape between clenched teeth when his body first broke the surface of the icy water. […]
Victor took another sip of his drink. Eli was a very unhealthy shade of whitish-blue.
It hadn’t taken as long as he’d expected. (75)

Roommates Victor and Eli are also rivals, playing leap-frog with the top spot at competitive Lockland University. Eli’s fascination with the possibility of superheroes influences his science thesis research, which begins to overlap with Victor’s research on the causes and effects of adrenaline on the body. What if becoming a superhero resulted from the application of stresses on the body, specifically those found with life and death situations. That’s when their hypothetical becomes experimental, and ends in tragedy. Ten years later, one young man is hunting other super-powered individuals while being hunted by his former friend. They are both aided by women with extraordinary powers of their own, and both vow that this will only end when one of them is dead.

Flipping back and forth from when events began in college to ten years later, details are doled out sparingly, slowly, without any urgency. Even when death is happening, you sense a remoteness and detachment from the narrative. Factoring the repercussions of Eli and Victor’s experiments, this choice feels successfully intentional. Does personally experiencing death detach the instigators from another’s death? Is humanity lost when you become superhuman?

Readers never really discover much about any of the characters’ lives and histories, just cursory details and snippets of everyone’s past. Their complicated thought processes are alluded to in telling off-handed remarks. Someone remarks they feel cold after using their talent, and they prefer holding a cold drink over a warm drink because “I like knowing at least I’m warmer than the can.” (181) One pair (I’m trying really hard to intentionally keep things vague until you read the story and find out who is who) bonds over their mutual disgust for what they have become and their efforts to rid the world of others like them, who they see as monsters, and it’s horrifying at how far they take this crusade. Eli’s assistant’s motives could have definitely used some more development in order to make her motivations more understandable. More than one person I spoke with was left wondering about the one non-extraordinary person in the bunch. That character could have also benefited from some additional development, explaining why he was so unfazed by the events around him and his almost instant connection with a little girl, who ends up playing a bigger role than initially assumed.

As a result of debate between the boys, there’s a bit of talk about God, and whether they are playing God, and multiple questions are raised. There’s the question of souls and whether people maintain their souls after death or a near-death experience. There’s the question of what makes a hero and a villain. The amount of religious discourse included was surprising, as one extraordinary seems to fashion himself as a modern day crusader. It reminded me of Hitler, who was said to have had Jewish ancestry and yet hunted and killed so many Jews.

It’s a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) nod to this discussion that scenes are separated by a simple black outline of an eye mask. One character towards the end even dons a mask, when methods and habits change, and assumes the costume of a superhuman, although I’ll leave it to readers to discover if it’s the villain or the hero. I guess that depends on your own personal opinion of what qualifies as humanity, death, and survival. The ending is stereotypical of the superhero genre, where the foes may be destined to continue the fight, and it leaves enough niggling uncertainty that makes readers wonder if there aren’t some future unknowns that will influence events.

The Book of Secrets

Book of SecretsTitle: The Book of Secrets
Series: Mister Max #2
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Illustrator: Iacopo Bruno
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
ISBN: 9780804122078 (audio), 9780307976840 (hardcover)
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 10 hours
Pages: 355 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2014 (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.)

He asked, “You’ve heard about the recent vandalism?”
Max nodded. “There have been fires as well.”
The Mayor nodded. “I suspect—I strongly suspect—that something is going on. For one thing, it’s always some small shop that gets broken into, or where a fire breaks out. Greengrocer, cobbler, newsagent . . .” He looked out over the water, recalling. “A bakery, a milliner, a fishmonger. Is that eight?”
“Six,” said Max, who had been counting.
“There are two more.” The Mayor thought. “A butcher and—there was one that surprised me, you’d think that would be the easiest to remember . . . Yes it was a florist.”
“What was surprising about the florist?”
“The shop was outside the gates, not in the old city. Granted, it’s only four steps beyond the West Gate, but still . . . All the other victims are in the old city.” […]
“What do the police say?” he asked.
“That’s the problem. The police don’t have anything to say.” The Mayor sighed and told Max, “They’re suspicious, of course, but nobody will talk to them. Nobody has filed a complaint. Not one.” (71-72)

Secrets are surrounding Max as word spreads about his reputation as a Solutioneer, a detective or investigator of sorts who tries to solve people’s problems. A small boy wants to know where his father disappears to at night. A mysterious woman appears that no one knows anything about. And the Mayor of Queensbridge has enlisted Max’s help in uncovering the identity of an arsonist on the loose, without jeopardizing the upcoming visit of the king. However, he’s made little progress on his own problem, discovering how to get his parents back from their forced extended stay overseas, especially after he and his grandmother are informed they have become monarchs in the foreign, civil war-torn country of Andesia. Now his own grandmother may be keeping secrets from him. Instead of his own intuition and disguises, Max may find himself relying on his expanding number of accomplices, as the Mayor’s problem is the most dangerous yet, risking his own life in the hands of the criminals.

Another engaging novel from author Cynthia Voigt. Readers will have to be as attentive as Max to keep track of the ever-expanding cast of characters. Voigt doesn’t skimp on realistic details, including filling the town with a variety of townspeople. I appreciated the efforts to flush out the setting, which you don’t often see in stories. Most frequently in books, you’ll only interact with the main cast, but this isn’t the case here. The back stories, especially involving some of the secondary characters, are more told than shown, which can get tiring, especially when paired with heavy-handed and thinly veiled discourse about moral quandaries. Those questions about right and wrong could pair well with discussion questions, but most of the discussion has already occurred in the novel. The laying-out of these details comes in handy when attempting to come up with a solution, and the solutions come in clever unexpected twists that readers might be surprised by. The arsonist plot line does get slightly more violent than previous cases that the Solutioneer had worked on, which previously involved lost dogs and missing heirlooms. I’m curious to see if this progression in seriousness will continue in the final volume as they take their show on the road, which we get a glimpse of in an included excerpt.

The audiobook is just as well done as the last one. An even pacing lays out the thoughtful and introspective nature of the story. Paul Boehmer distinguishes between the major characters, not so much with different voices, but with different pacing. The minor characters have slightly less distinction, but Pia’s parts invoke the impatience and distracted energy necessary, Grammie has some English school-teacher inflection, Tomi has a more know-it-all and scratchy staccato quality, and Ari has a slower and rounder, stretched out vowel sounds. Fans of the series won’t be disappointed by this latest installment, and the sequel, The Book of Kings was just released last month.

All the Bright Places

All the Bright PlacesTitle: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyer
ISBN: 9780553552195 (audiobook), 978038575587 (hardcover)
Discs/CDs: 9 CDs, 11 hours
Pages: 388 pages
Publisher/Date: Listening Library, c2015. (Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2015.)

”Ladies and gentlemen,” I shout, “I would like to welcome you to my death!” You might expect me to say “life,” having just woken up and all, but it’s only when I’m awake that I think about dying. I am shouting in an old-school-preacher way, all jerking head and words that twitch at ends, and I almost lose my balance. I hold on behind me, happy no one seems to have noticed, because, let’s face it, it’s hard to look fearless when you’re clutching the railing like a chicken.
“I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind, do hereby bequeath all my earthly possessions to Charlie Donahue, Brenda Shank-Kravitz, and my sisters.” […]
Then his head turns away from me and points at the sky. At first I think he’s pointing at me, but it’s at that moment I see her, the girl. (4-5)

It just so happens that Theodore Finch and Violet Markey have chosen the same day in January to climb the bell tower at their school and contemplate suicide. Finch, aka “Freak” to all his classmates, has caused trouble before, has a violent school history, and sees the counselor on a regular basis, coming from a home where his father has left him, his two sisters, and his mother, for a new family. Violet’s family isn’t much better, as she is still trying to recover from the death of her older sister in a car accident less than a year ago. Not minding casting Violet in the hero role, as if she was only up there to save his sorry life, Finch in fact wants to prolong this instant connection he feels, and volunteers himself to be her partner in a geography project. A reluctant Violet slowly starts to open up to Finch as their relationship evolves, but Finch has difficulty expressing his deepest thoughts to even Violet. Does the world ever offer enough to live for?

It was a good choice to alternate narrators between the characters/chapters. Kirby Heyborne has an appropriately anxious and gravelly voice for Finch, and Ariadne Meyers has a youthful sounding voice filled with trepidation. Niven includes a heartbreaking author’s note discussing the inspiration for the story, and it’s after hearing her story that you realize why certain aspects of the end sound so realistic. The highlights of the novel are the scenes where she focuses in on the emotions and the little details, and the dialogue is both relatable but also disconcerting. For example, Finch’s interaction with his counselor has the counselor asking him “Do I need to call your mother?” and his response is “’No. And again no.’ And again: no no no. ‘Look it was a stupid thing to do. I just wanted to see what it felt like to stand there and look down. I would never jump from the bell tower.” (14) Finch’s nickname for Violet, the Facebook messages back and forth, the endearing flowers scene and the Purina Tower expedition all lead credibility to the relationship and make him so endearing to Violet and to readers, encouraging hope for the best.

In the beginning though I wasn’t thrilled with how the relationship with Finch and Violet evolved. He struck me as similar to Edward Cullen in Twilight. He obsessed over Violet, who originally has no interest in hanging out with him, investigating her Facebook page and website. While eventually the changes he forces upon her are good for her growth and recovery from her sister’s death, the way he went about it grated on my nerves. He did have his moments though, especially his patience and protectiveness of Violet. He knows how to project charm and respect, but as we get to see him both when he is and isn’t with Violet, we’re left asking the same questions he asks himself about his own authenticity and that of her feelings toward him. I thought he was too assertive, too sure of himself, too brash and too phony, although this was probably the author’s intent. He reminds me of a modern-day Holden Caufield, with his attempts to remake himself with a complete disinterest about how anyone else feels about him, except Violet. His dependency on her scared me, and those fears were ultimately validated.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Impossible Knife of MemoryTitle: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Narrators: Julia Whelan and Luke Daniels
ISBN: 9781480553569 (audiobook)
Pages: 391 Pages
Discs/CDs: 8 CDs, 9 hours 13 minutes
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014.
Publication Date: January 7, 2014

Hayley Kincain is starting school for the first time in years in her father’s home town, after spending time on the road with him. Both Hayley and her father suffer memory issues, her father from PTSD after serving time in Afghanistan, and Hayley from the traumatic events following his return. Hayley knows that her unpredictable father is just one small step away from the breaking point, but she’s never quite sure what will set him off. One day he’s shooting hoops, the next day he’s shooting his gun at the television. She hides her situation from everyone, trying to avoid the pitying looks and their inevitable separation. But when a classmate begins showing an interest in her and her circumstances, Hayley wonders if there is a future, or if it’s just one more complication in a world causing her and her father so much hurt.

As always, Laurie Halse Anderson weaves readers into a spell of a story. On more than one occasion I found my heart in my throat as we see Hayley struggle to stitch her life together. You can see that Hayley and her father aren’t bad people, but don’t know how to handle their situation. The title is applicable, as Hayley continuously refers to memories as slicing through her system, and her father would probably describe them in the same way as they spring upon both of them unbidden, altering how they look at the world. You get the sense that they are balancing on a knife point, just waiting for their family to get sliced in half.

A slight spoiler, but Hayley’s classmate Finn has entered my top five list of perfect boyfriends. He pushes for more information, and comforts and aids Hayley as he can, but he recognizes that they are both in over their head at the climatic ending. Their sarcastic, witty back-and-forth banter is the comedy relief that such a serious topic needs, and you anticipate their relationship long before it is formalized. There’s an ongoing gag about their involvement with different covert operations and Finn’s slow driving and derelict car. Hayley’s jaded voice is offset by Finn’s down to earth disposition. His persistence pays off, and their first date is swoon worthy. With all the complications that their families bring to the table, they struggle, and the real question is if they will stay together or not. Can I bring him to life?

Julia Whelan does an excellent job bringing Hayley’s anguish and uncertainty to the narration. She does an admirable job distinguishing voices, and listeners will get caught up in the story. Luke Daniels adds some intermittent insights into Hayley’s father’s head. While I wish there were more, I can understand what the author is doing. We never get a full picture of what is going on in a wounded veteran’s head, so it’s unfair that we would get more information than Hayley has on her own father. The slow drawl and anguished distance that Daniels conveys through those short interludes is terse, tense, and timely to the plot. I’m glad they choose to have two narrators.

Counting By 7s

Counting by 7sTitle: Counting By 7s
Author: Holly Goldberg Sloan
Narrator: Robin Miles
ISBN: 978162406902 (audiobook)
Pages: 380 pages
Publisher/Date: Penguin Audio, c2013. (audiobook)
Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c2013. (print book)

I’ve got some toddler memories, but my first sequence recall is kindergarten; no matter how hard I’ve tried to forget the experience. […]
I can still hear Mrs. King, spin straight and shrill voice booming:
“How does this book make you feel?”
She then made a few exaggerated yawns.
I recall looking around at my fellow inmates, thinking: Would someone, anyone, just shout out the word tired? […]
So when the teacher specifically said:
“Willow, how does this book make you feel?”
I had to tell the truth:
“It makes me feel really bad. The moon can’t hear someone say good night; it is two hundred thirty-five thousand miles away. And bunnies don’t life in houses. Also, I don’t think that the artwork is very interesting.” […]
That afternoon, I learned the word weirdo because that’s what I was called by the other kids.
When my mom came to pick me up, she found me crying behind the Dumpster. (16-18)

Willow Chance, adopted into a loving family, has an obsession with the number seven, medical conditions (particularly skin disorders), and plants. She is analytic, reserved, and highly gifted and lacks social skills, which makes it difficult to make friends but easy to memorize complex languages and scientific concepts. She finds an ally in older student Mai, who visits with her brother Quang Ha the same slacker school counselor that Willow is forced to see after being falsely accused of cheating on a test. These three unlikely companions, along with Mai’s mother and brother, are thrust together upon the sudden death of Willow’s parents. Forming a bond from secrets, everyone’s lives begin to change as they struggle to help Willow. What will come of quiet girl who has now lost her family for a second time?

Full disclosure: I have not yet read Wonder R.J. Palacio, which everyone I’ve talked to keeps comparing this book too. I will soon, I promise. I found myself comparing it to Rules by Cynthia Lord or Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine. In any case, Willow is an instantly intriguing character. Narrated by Robin Miles, Willow’s voice is given the subtle nuances that it deserves. She is self-assured when dealing with numbers, details and scientific facts, but quiet and reserved when faced with making decisions affecting her own life and social interactions. Miles distinguishes between the characters well, even realistically portraying the counselor Dell Duke’s stutter, but it’s Willow who readers are understandably drawn to, as she tries to make sense of things.

Mai’s brother Quang Ha is understandably upset by the new living situation, as the family has few resources to begin with and they are essentially taking care of a stranger. There’s little explanation behind Mai and her mother’s immediate acceptance of Willow’s circumstances and instant claim to her, and I find Dell Duke’s passiveness and eventual involvement in the lies hard to reconcile, but the whole situation changes everyone for the better. This is a story of a whole community coming together to aid in a girl’s recovery, and becoming a very nontraditional family in the process. I don’t think this would be the outcome in real life, but if readers are willing to suspend belief they will be richly rewarded with this engrossing tale.

Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things

Mister Max Book of Lost ThingsTitle: Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Illustrator: Iacopo Bruno
Narrator: Paul Boehmer
ISBN: 9780375971235
Pages: 367 pages
Publisher/Date: Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., c2013.

“No Flower of Kashmir is presently berthed in my harbor. What’s her country of registration?”
“India,” Max guessed confidently.
“Nor are there any Indian registered vessels. We have, presently, one American, one Moroccan, one Dutch, one Canadian, and that’s all of them.”
Max considered this. “Which vessels sail at noon?” he asked.
“None, as it happens. Though three left their berths by ten-thirty this morning, so as to catch a favorable tide out of Porthaven.”
Something was very wrong here. (32)

Max’s parents are owners and actors in a renowned theatrical company that has just been invited by the Maharajah of Kashmir in India to establish a theater company for him. But when Max arrives at the designated dock to take the trip with his parents, there is no boat and no parents. Returning to his home, he alerts his Grandmother of the problem and the worrying begins. What is Max going to do for income to take care of himself? Max starts using his acting and observation skills and markets himself around the neighborhood as a problem solver, being hired to find a missing dog, a lost spoon, among other things. But the question he really wants to answer is where are his parents? Are they safe?

Max’s grandmother is the voice of reason among the excitement of the invitation to India, but of course no one listens until it’s too late because their egos are so inflated that dissenting opinions can’t reach their ears. The mysteries are lightly intertwined, and the clues are all there for listeners to discover the answers before being revealed by Max in flourishes that mimic his father’s theatrical style. Max’s independent thinking and unique problem solving skills make me think of an earlier Encyclopedia Brown or a younger Sherlock Holmes. His ideas are complemented by a young girl named Pia’s insistence at being his assistant, a much more loquacious version of Holmes’ friend Watson. Max ascertains “whatever she might claim for herself, her real talent was for asking questions. The girl was always asking questions, and some of them were just what Max needed to hear in order to discover his own ideas.” (259) We’ll have to keep asking more questions as this story continues.

Paul Boehmer’s booming voice serves Cynthia Voigt’s descriptive text well, setting the vivid scenes for listeners. His fully voiced narration distinguishes between Max, each of his parents, his grandmother, and the colorful cast of characters that Max interacts with as he searches for his parents and the things he is hired to find. But like so many of the audiobooks I’ve recommended recently, if you pick the audiobook you’ll miss out on the illustrations by Iacopo Bruno. I’ll be recommending this series whole heartedly, and the second book in the trilogy, Mister Max: The Book of Secrets, will be released in September 2014.

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