Category Archives: Reviews

Our Impact

Tru ConfessionsTru Confessions by Janet Tashjian

When I read a really short book, I don’t feel like I’ve gotten to know the characters well enough to review them. That happened with Tru Confessions. I only spent about an hour and a half of my life with Tru, so I didn’t connect with her the same way I would have with a character I’d spent a week with. But I’m going to try to talk about her anyway, because she’s pretty cool and deserves a special look.

 

Tru wants two things in life: to find a cure for her brother and to host her own TV show. When a local cable channel announces a contest for teens, Tru sees a way she can maybe get both.

Tru’s brother Eddie is developmentally delayed due to asphyxia during birth. But this isn’t his story. It’s Tru’s. We see her move from her longing and a desperate search for a way to make Eddie ‘normal’, to acceptance of who her brother is and will remain. There is never any lack of love, but over time Tru realizes it’s okay if she grows up while her brother doesn’t.

One of the things I really liked about this book was Tru’s voice. She’s snarky and funny while at the same time being painfully honest. Congrats to Tashjian. I’m not sure she could have dealt with these hard issues for young readers in a better way. Tru lays out her guilt over Eddie’s condition, her desire to fit in, and her secret shame, and we move through them with her, coming out the other side in a better place.

This blog normally deals with disabilities from a first person view, whether through fiction or real life. But I think it’s really important to bring in perspective from those who live with disabilities without actually having them. In our own pain or self-righteousness it’s easy to forget that our struggles impact those we love.

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Loving the Small Things

The Blade ItselfThe Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Look I’m having a really hard time writing a summary for this and it’s Nanowrimo, so give me a break and if you want to know what the book is about, go here.

 

Joe Abercrombie does not write my favorite books, but he certainly writes some of the most fascinating. I actually read this for the first time while Justin Landon was doing his re-read over at Tor.com. A happy coincidence. And it was a great way to read such a layered and complex work. I could read it for myself, draw my own conclusions and then hop over to see what Justin had to say about this or that chapter. I’m not an avidly analytical reader so I was surprised and proud to see I actually picked up on a lot of the same themes he was so excited about.

Of those themes, one of my favorites was that of heroism. Abercrombie presents us with three possible heroes: the noble swordsman – literally, not morally; the barbarian – not as popular an archetype as the swordsman but still widely recognized; and the crippled torturer – who’s not on any list as far as I can tell. With two much celebrated archetypes readily available, why would we even notice the third? Well, the swordsman is a self-obsessed bastard, and the barbarian is practical, and well, let’s be honest, just a little boring. So the one we’re drawn to is the third. And despite the fact that he tortures people for a living and all his bitching and moaning (or maybe because of it, he does it so well, after all), Glokta is surprisingly sympathetic.

I’m having a hard time cataloguing Glokta’s disabilities because they’re so creative and so many. He was once a brilliant, arrogant swordsman himself. Then he went to war. The enemy’s torturers left him a different man. Now, I usually associate torture with excruciating pain that lasts as long as it takes to get someone to say what you want them to say. But Glokta’s torturers made sure that the pain they inflicted would last for the rest of his life. He’s missing half his teeth, he barely walks, he’s got some pretty significant nerve damage, and I’m not sure what’s wrong with his back, but let’s just say it’s worse than mine.

And despite all this he is competent. That’s Glokta’s superpower and it’s what makes him one of my favorite characters written. He falls perilously close to the Curmudgeon stereotype, bitterness infusing everything he thinks and says, but he still manages to be the best at what he does. And isn’t that just a fascinating twist. He’s good at inflicting pain because he knows it so well. He hates his own pain, hates the man he is, but he’s excellent at his job, and frankly, no one else will have him, so he keeps going. He’s stuck in this wonderfully perpetual cycle of self-loathing.

Which would be horrible and depressing if not for his inner commentary. Which is hysterical and pointed and can’t be described any better than that.

And here’s the sugar coated knife Abercrombie sticks us with (as if it’s not already buried deep). Glokta is feared by all. Granted some of that is probably similar to The Princess Bride’s “Dear God, what is that thing?” reaction. But most of it is due to the position Glokta holds. This ruined man, the cripple who can’t eat solid food or get out of bed without help, holds power that makes common men tremble. We’ll have to see what he does with it in the rest of the series.

So far this book sounds truly dark, but scattered amongst the grit there are gems like this: “You have to learn to love the small things in life, like a hot bath. You have to love the small things, when you’ve nothing else.” On the surface, just as depressing as the rest, but really, this is how I live my life. This ray of hope in a genre known as grim or dark fantasy (or as Justin says, Grimdark).

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The Knight’s Champion

Freak the MightyFreak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

 

“I never had a brain until Freak came along…”

12-year-old Max is used to having no friends. He’s used to the whispers about his size, about his intelligence. About his father. But when Freak moves into his neighborhood, small and smart as an encyclopedia, the two of them find they are stronger together. For together they are Freak the Mighty.

 

I can’t believe I waited till I was twenty-eight to read this book. I have kind of a thing for big softies and their genius counterparts, like Fezzik and Inigo (The Princess Bride by William Goldman), and Grunthor and Achmed (Rhapsody by Elizabeth Haydon). Their trust and partnerships always make for compelling reading. And Max’s background made him all the more sympathetic. I loved that Freak was never frightened of Max, even when all the adults were nervous. Freak understood him and reached out to him from the moment they met.

As for Freak’s disability, I don’t know much about Moquio Syndrome, but I loved Philbrick’s portrayal of him. We saw Freak through Max’s eyes, and to Max, he was a genius and a hero. Unlike the adults in their lives, we don’t pity Freak because Max doesn’t see anything to pity. Any time someone refers to him as “that poor boy”, Max is there to disabuse them of that notion. If Freak is a brave knight, then Max is his noble champion.

Freak also had an amazing ability to take himself out of his situation into something more exciting. I can totally relate to imagining a future outside of what is possible. It would depress the hell out of me, but I can see how it would give a kid like Freak a way to cope.

And in a way, Max has his own disabilities. The way people judge him based on his looks and family and his performance in school limits him in his day to day life. It’s only Freak who looks beyond the surface and sees Max. And in the end, it’s Freak who changes the way Max sees himself.

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Ingermanson’s Double Vision

Randy IngermansonWhen Dillon Richard helps build a quantum computer that can crack any and all code, he gets way more than the better-privacy-for-everyone that he counted on. Now he’s stuck between those who want to use him and those who want to kill him, and the woman who makes his heart pound and the woman who could give him a future.

 

I really enjoyed this book. When I read the cover copy, I thought this would be a spy novel. Warning: It’s not. It’s more of a cross between Frank Peretti and Michael Crichton. Lucky for Mr. Ingermanson, I love both. The thriller with a Christian/romantic vibe really worked for me, and I’ll admit, I kind of have a thing for nerds (being a huge one myself) and Dillon made a seriously cute nerd. Now, I don’t have Asperger’s, so I can’t really analyze Dillon’s character for accuracy or that gut feeling I get with other books that are closer to my experience, but there were some things that bothered me and some things I thought Ingermanson did well.

Dillon referred to the people around him as “Normals” and to himself as “not-Normal”, recognizing there was something significantly different about him. I don’t know how people with Asperger’s think or feel about themselves vs society, but I do know some people with Autism and they don’t necessarily think in terms of us and them. Accuracy aside, I think this is a dangerous idea for an author to perpetrate. It encourages readers to think of Dillon as “other” which will eventually translate into real life. I felt like that could have been handled a bit better.

I liked watching Dillon try to figure out social cues, fitting them to formulas he can solve. This expression plus these words usually equals this, therefore I should respond thus. His logic and thought process were also well represented in the stripped prose. Dillon’s point of view was clearly different than the others, not just in word choice and backstory, but in the way he viewed the world, and it’s always really interesting to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

There was way too much quantum mechanics for me. I did not sign up for a lecture, and I thought the writing was a bit repetitive in places. Some things were said several times the same way and all I could think was, “Thanks for the recap but I got it the first time.” Also, some of the conversations and character interactions felt forced and unlikely. I’m aware that I’m emotionally reserved when it comes to talking with people, but I’m pretty sure very few others would have been that blunt and candid at such an emotional climax. “Pick me, Dillon.” “No, pick me.” I kept expecting him to wake up from the dream.

With that said, a book is the sum of its parts and this one came out way in the positive on my scale. I’m so sick of love triangles, but I picked it up anyway because Dillon seemed like a great character. I was impressed by the way the women treated him throughout the book. There was some recognition of Dillon’s “weirdness” at the beginning but mostly they treated him like any other character with some specific quirks and pet peeves they can work around. And I’m just glad he picked the right girl in the end. “Roses are red, the multiverse is blue.” Be still my heart.

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A Table All Our Own

Sir Thomas

Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights by Liam Perrin

Usually, I do my own brief synopsis of the book I’m about to review, but I really don’t think I can introduce it better than Liam Perrin did himself. So, here’s a piece of the preface from Sir Thomas the Hesitant and the Table of Less Valued Knights.

“Know that there were three kinds of tables there. The first was the Round Table. King Arthur was companion and lord of this one. The second table was called the Table of Errant Companions, those who went seeking adventure and waited to become companions of the Round Table. Those of the third table were those who never left court and did not go on quests or in search of adventures either because of illness or because they had not enough courage. These knights were called the less valued knights.”

Liam Perrin wrote a guest post over at Bookworm Blues for Sarah’s Special Needs in Strange Worlds series and the premise of his book intrigued me. Knights of lesser value? I am so there. I’ll admit I was hoping Perrin would concentrate more on the illness or the less courageous aspect of these knights. But in the book the less valued knights are placed at their table due to lack of skill or connections, not because of disability or cowardice. So already, I was a little disappointed.

Also, for how fast a read this was, it started slower than a 100 year old Galapagos tortoise. For instance, I’m a completionist, yet I had a hard time getting through the preface, the forward, and the introduction. If you need a preface, a forward, and an introduction before you even get to the first chapter, you’re starting your story in the wrong place. And that’s forgetting that once I got through all three thinly disguised prologues, I still wasn’t interested in the story until page 50. I especially wasn’t a fan of the four pages of backstory about the rock that fell from the bridge Thomas passed on his way to Camelot.

However, everything after page 50 was gold. After page 50, the brief forays into third person omniscient to explain an inanimate object’s feelings actually worked and were a hilarious addition to the story. The Sword of Remarkable Stench was my favorite character in the book, I loved Perrin’s portrayal of Arthur, and the less valued knights might not have been what I was expecting but they were an extraordinarily fun bunch of misfits to get to know.

Also, I fell in love with the idea of a group of knights who were there, not to be flashy or go on quests, but to help Camelot run smoothly. They were there to serve and protect and support. Exactly what a knight should do first and foremost, I think. And I loved the connection Thomas made about Christ being a kind of lesser valued knight, since he taught love and service.

So in the end, I liked it. Perrin made me laugh a lot and that’s a big point in my book. It wasn’t about what I thought it would be about. There were no disabled characters or themes about weakness or injury or heroism. But it was about ordinary people becoming heroes because the day needs saving. And that’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it? Unlikely heroes come from everywhere. I’ll definitely be reading this to my kids someday, though I might skip the three prologues.

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Hard Beauty

Out of My mindOut of My Mind by Sharon M Draper

Eleven year old Melody has never spoken a word. She has never been able to walk or dress or feed herself. But Melody has something to say and with the help of some loyal friends she’s finally going to say it.

 

This book was beautiful. And so so hard. Thanks go to my mom and my little sister for the recommendation. I really admire an author that can keep me that close to laughter or tears for page after page. Maybe if I keep reading books like this some of that perfection will rub off on me and infuse my own words.

I started this with the impression that it was going to be a happy story. I’ll warn you, it’s not. But it is real. I try not to spoil endings in my reviews, but I want to say that bad things happen. Humans can be awful. And sometimes we have to make our own sort of happy ending through all the crap. Sharon Draper recognizes this and doesn’t try to dip it in honey.

I did feel like the story started off slow. It took about ninety pages to establish Melody’s “ordinary world” before things started changing and she could start growing. Still, I was caught by Melody’s voice from her first words. She was brilliant and funny and courageous, and I even found myself wanting to be her at times. Every witty observation, every sharp retort made me appreciate the irony: I loved the voice of a character who couldn’t actually talk.

The same irony was woven through most of Melody’s struggles. She wants to be normal. She doesn’t want to be one of the “special ed” kids. But she also doesn’t want to be the star. She wants to fit in. She doesn’t want to look stupid. She wants the other kids to like her. What “normal” eleven year old hasn’t wished for all of these things? Melody had no idea just how relatable she really was.

My favorite aspect of this book was Melody’s role as an observer and how that changed through the story. She was the ultimate anthropologist, seeing and cataloging the people around her until she finally found the means to affect the world she had been studying. We watched her reach out to change the way people saw her, watched her learn there were some things she’d probably never be able to change. And in the end we watched her decide which was more important.

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Living as an Imposition

Cynthia VoigtIzzy, willy-nilly by Cynthia Voigt

When Izzy loses her leg in a car accident with a drunk driver, she feels like she’s lost her whole life. Her friends can’t relate to her, and her family doesn’t understand what she’s going through. But when another outcast reaches out in friendship, Izzy learns that, despite everything, she hasn’t lost herself.

 

Plot wise this book was a little slow. Not a lot happened. And yet, I loved it. I loved Izzy’s journey, her realizations. I loved the way she learned more about herself and her relationships with her family and friends through her trials than she ever had before. Sometimes it’s only through struggle that we can really know ourselves.

Cynthia Voigt did a fantastic job portraying Izzy. So many of her feelings and her reactions echoed my own. And Izzy is a teenager, only fifteen, so she’s already a mess of uncertainties and crises. She’s still trying to learn who she is and who she wants to be when the process is interrupted by tragedy.

That was one of the things that made Izzy feel so real. Her emotions were not simple or straightforward. Most of the time, she didn’t know what she felt or thought, and that’s so true of life. What goes on in our heads is not black and white. I loved the line: “I was wishing I could leave the table, because – because my being there, in the family, was making demands, and they were acting like I wanted to make them or had no right to make them.” Voigt puts words to a feeling I’ve never been able to properly express. How do I give voice to such a confusing mix of emotions? Even when people try to anticipate your needs and accommodate them, or try to do something nice for you, you still feel like you’re in the way. Even when they’re nice about it and you know it’s no trouble to them, you still feel like you’re an imposition. And being an imposition is not a comfortable feeling.

Although, Izzy was really good at hiding what was going on inside. When someone asks “How are you?”, it’s so much easier to say “I’m fine”, even when you’re breaking up inside and absolutely nothing is right. And that’s where someone like fellow outcast, Rosamunde, makes all the difference. You need someone to counteract both extremes. Someone who won’t pretend that nothing has changed but also won’t coddle you. My someone wasn’t as perfectly tactless as Rosamunde, but he was a lifeline. He knew and acknowledged that my life had changed, and at the same time, he was there beside me the whole way.

Also, I thought Voigt had some interesting things to say on how disability can change the nature of friendships. In reality, disability makes most people uncomfortable on some level. I know. I used to be one of them. Being uncomfortable isn’t a crime, but the real friends are the ones who stick around despite the awkwardness. The ones who try to make the effort, and who occasionally screw up and say the wrong thing. I’ve realized how blessed I was during my recovery to have the friends I did. And do. Thanks guys.

 

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The Blurred Line

BreathBreath by Donna Jo Napoli

In a time of superstition, before modern medicine, Salz struggles to breathe. A strange disease leaves him weak and marked for death. Except… he hasn’t died. And when a plague of madness strikes his town, Salz is the only one left unscathed. But is this a blessing or a curse? Because with the reprieve comes suspicion. Is Salz the source of the plague? Or will he be the salvation of them all?

 

A good book makes me feel the whole gamut of emotions: joy, sorrow, anger, frustration, and shock. A great book does all that, but it also keeps me thinking long after I’ve turned the last past. Breath didn’t have the most engaging plotline or amazing characters, but it had some fascinating things to say about health and illness, disability and heroism, faith and hypocrisy.

I know Donna Jo Napoli for her fairytale re-tellings. I really liked Beast and I’ve got Sirena waiting on my to-read shelf. I’m a huge sucker for fairytales, so when I realized Breath was a retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamelin (one of the more chilling fairytales) and might possibly have something to do with the plague (a subject I find morbidly riveting), I grabbed it without a second thought. Then I realized I had a disability topic in my hands.

Salz suffered from Cystic Fibrosis, something that should have killed him long before, but among the medieval remedies his grandmother dosed him with were some potent pieces of wisdom which kept him alive. Someone suffering from Cystic Fibrosis today wouldn’t necessarily do a hand stand every time they start coughing, but the acrobatics helped Salz clear his lungs and breathe easier.

I loved how intertwined the perceptions of health and illness were in this book. Salz is sick. Really sick. Sick enough that everyone’s surprised he’s still alive and Salz himself hesitates to make plans for his future. His illness is met with derogatory reactions not unexpected in this time period. His family thinks he’s useless, his grandmother is the only one who shows any affection toward him, and when it comes down to a choice between Salz’s life or his older brother’s, his family chooses to throw him under the metaphorical bus without a second thought.

But in the end the Cystic Fibrosis protects him from the disease that ravages the rest of the town. It saves his life even as it threatens to kill him. And of course, being “healthy” puts him at risk again when the townspeople accuse him of being the source of the disease through witchcraft.

There was such an interesting give and take between being healthy and being sick. Salz’s weakness is what keeps him from leaving with the children when the piper demands his due, but it is what leaves him healthy enough to go after them. So the invalid becomes the hero. The line between disabled and enabled blurs.

I read this with the disability and illness themes in mind, but already, I know that it deserves a re-read. I want to go back and look at how Napoli handled faith and hypocrisy as well. I caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of my eye as I barreled through and I can’t wait to revisit them.

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A Sexy Soldier

Embattled HeartsEmbattled Hearts by J.M. Madden

After returning from Iraq in a wheelchair, John is having trouble accepting his new limitations, especially since he has his eye on Shannon, the new receptionist at the agency. He suffers in silence, knowing he’s lost too much to be attractive to her. But John doesn’t know that Shannon has eyes of her own and is determined to prove he’s exactly the man she wants.

Embattled Road

I came across The Embattled Road, prequel to Embattled Hearts, a couple weeks ago and fell in love with the premise. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by its execution. The novella felt like it had been slapped together and could have used a lot more editing before hitting shelves, but – and it’s a big but – it included the first chapter of Embattled Hearts. That one chapter convinced me I needed to give Madden one more chance.

In the end, I was glad I did.

I had a couple big problems with this book and by all rights they should have been big enough to ruin it for me. For example, I was really dissatisfied with John’s growth. I’m not a fan of characters who remain static through a book until three pages from the back cover they have some kind of huge turn around and suddenly they’ve solved their particular problem. I want to see change, I want to see them learning from their mistakes and maturing through the story. John just went in circles. One very, very, small circle.

Also, John’s emotional struggle with his disability seemed obvious and a little shallow. He worried about not being man enough for the woman he loved, not being able to come to her rescue. Completely understandable. These are feelings every disabled man would struggle with, I imagine. I’m not upset that Madden’s character felt something so cliché, I’m disappointed she didn’t explore anything deeper or more specific to John as a disabled veteran and the hero of the novel.

And yet…I loved this book. I really can’t explain it. I don’t know if it was the characters or the plot or even the writing. Maybe I fell in love with John despite his merry-go-round character arc. Maybe it was Shannon’s snark and the way she looked past John’s wheelchair to the man. I felt like the sex was more graphic than it needed to be, but I really liked that John’s sexuality was addressed and explored.

I guess I can’t figure out whether to recommend this one or not. I enjoyed it, but I recognize it had some issues. So, I don’t know. Don’t ask me!

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Finn, Not Finnegan

Darby KarchutFinn Finnegan by Darby Karchut

Finn has been waiting his whole life to become one of the Tuatha De Danaan, magical warriors from Ireland charged with battling monsters called the Amandán, but when he begins his apprenticeship with Gideon Lir, things don’t go exactly as he he’d dreamed they would. His master has a temper to match his own, and his not-so-pure bloodline gets in the way while they search for a legendary weapon that has the power to destroy the Amandán.

 

The problem with being lucky enough to read a book early is that when you finish it you realize there’s still three months before it actually hits shelves. And more importantly, an entire year before you can read the sequel. Impatience and irritation abound. Well, I did y’all a favor and waited to tell you how awesome Finn Finnegan is until you didn’t have to wait so long to read it. It comes out this March so go ahead and preorder a copy.

While I loved the characters and the premise, what made this book was the ending. I was so sure I had it all figured out about a quarter of the way in; smug and a little disappointed Darby couldn’t trick me… I should know better by now. Darby is particularly good at indulging your expectations until the last possible moment when she says “That’s cool, but what about this?” and you’re left with your jaw on the floor.

Another thing I always look forward to is the unique problems her characters face in the normal world. They have unearthly powers to draw on, but more often than not, those very powers earn them more problems than they solve. Finn and Gideon were no exception, and I can’t wait to see how they get out of their new set of complications in the next book. Oh, if only they could tell people why Finn keeps ending up so black and blue. But where would the challenge be in that?

I was a little worried that Finn Finnegan would be too similar to Griffin Rising given the importance of the master/apprentice relationship in both books. But Finn and Gideon had a completely different dynamic than Griffin and Basil. They still had a strong, loving bond but it was fascinating to see Finn and Gideon’s particularities.

All I can say is, write faster, Darby. Write faster.

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