Tag Archive: book review

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Ages 16 & up

steelheart coverTen years ago, Calamity appeared in the sky and granted ordinary men and women superhuman abilities. For nearly as long, eighteen-year-old David Charleston has devoted his life to one purpose: finding a way to kill Steelheart, the epic that murdered his father. When the Reckoners—an underground group dedicated to taking down epics—finally come to Newcago, David knows this is his chance. He’s spent his whole life studying the epics and their powers and now, with the Reckoners’ support, David thinks he can finally crack the secret of Steelheart’s weakness—David knows he has one because he’s seen Steelheart bleed.

My brother—who happens to be a huge Brandon Sanderson fan—recommended this book (I know, I have excellent taste in siblings). Can’t say that I blame him. From what I’ve read of Sanderson, his world-building is intricate in a way that hasn’t resonated with me since I read Lord of the Rings. He impressed me with The Way of King and didn’t fail in Steelheart or its sequel Firefight, though I found the story more accessible in the last two. The minute my brother gave me Steelheart’s, I knew I had to read it.

Steelheart’s premise combines two of my favorite things: super powers and reversal of expectations. In this book, the super-powered beings are far from virtuous. When Calamity appeared in the sky, it didn’t create a race of benevolent protectors. Power corrupts and all that. Clearly, these epics lacked an Uncle Ben or a Pa Kent to guide them down the right path. Sanderson could have stopped right there and I would have been happy, but of course, this is a young adult novel and in young adult novels we like making people questions things. Towards the end of the book (and through all of the second) we see David question his original “down with all epics” stance—not everything is as it seems. Although it’s clear these powers can bring out the worst in a person, David begins to wonder if some epics could be saved. After all, if the Reckoners are ever going to truly stand up to the epics, they need a few who are able to use their powers without giving into the darkness.

I loved how surprisingly diverse and well-defined Sanderson’s characters are in Steelheart. David’s obsession with metaphors was hilarious—especially considering how bad he is at them—and refreshing, I haven’t seen that character quirk before. But Sanderson doesn’t stop with his point of view character, all of the characters I came across were distinct and I connected with them easily (This is really noticeable in book two, when some of David’s old friends get exchanged for new ones). Among the characters Sanderson trots out we have a female rocket scientist, a former fifth-grade teacher, a teenage assassin, and a Tennessee cop with the vocabulary of his Irish ancestors.

Of course, no book is perfect. While I love Sanderson’s world-building and how seamlessly it enhances the story, I was a bit off-put by some of his replacements for cuss words. His characters favored “sparks” and “calamity” as expletives and while the first wasn’t too distracting, I found myself hating the latter. I understand the thought process behind using the word, but I felt calamity a bad fit for this futuristic, dystopian society. It made it hard to stay in the—often serious—moment. I’m usually all for made up expletives (Big fan of D’Arvit from the Artemis Fowl series), as long as they add rather than take away from the dialogue. Perhaps “calamity” might have worked for me in a different setting, but I found myself wishing the characters had chosen silence instead—or just used a more familiar expletive (I doubt humanity would have moved away from all the familiar ones).

I also wasn’t a fan of the number of times David made a big deal about being distracted by the female lead. I understand that he’s a teenage boy, but when your narrator mentions distracting she is multiple times in just the first few pages it becomes redundant. You are straight and male, we get it, can we move on now please? (This was handled much better in Firefight).  Granted, I am not a teenage boy, I’ll take my brother’s word that this is pretty accurate, but still hitting the reader over the head with an idea often ends with their head aching.

Still, despite the few drawbacks, I really enjoyed the first two books and look forward to the release of the trilogy’s final installation, Calamity (there’s that word again). If you like dystopians, comic books, or stories that defy conventional expectations, give this series a try.

This is a good example of:

  • Plot twists
  • Character quirks
  • World-building
  • Dystopian society

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Ages 16 and up

Hazel Grace Lancaster’s final chapter was written when she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. A miracle drug has bought her time, but she is still sixteen and living with cancer. Hazel knows her time will run out. That is enough to give anyone a perpetual bad day. And so she is sent to Cancer Kid Support Group, a weekly ritual that she barely tolerates. The only high point of this ritual is her friend Isaac. Until Augustus Waters shows up. In Augustus, she finds someone who not only gets what she’s going through, but also gets her. With him, Hazel goes on what will probably be the first and only adventure of her life.

The Fault in Our Stars. The Fault in Our Stars. The Fault in Our freaking Stars.

Seriously, where can I even start with this book? It …wait…can’t say that it’s full of spoilers. That is probably the hardest part of this review. Everything I loved about this book is tied to a spoiler. But I’m going to try. So, if you’re super spoiler-sensitive, just take me at my word: Read this book.

I loved this book. I shouldn’t have loved this book. But I loved this book.

I’ll start with the characters. Spot. On. Hazel is a teenager, but she also feels jaded and world-weary (nothing makes you feel world-weary like constantly struggling to breathe). She’s cynical without seeming dark. And she’s obssessed with a book called The Imperial Infliction, which I would totally read if it wasn’t completely made up. Augustus is fun and more. These are real kids having to live through the real consequences of a disease that can cripple families.

John Green could easily have created a novel with a sad and depressing narrative. Or written a story that was all happy and hopeful and possibly unrealistic (the usual method for cancer kid stories). But TFIOS has this great balance in its tone. It’s serious. It’s real. Hazel’s life is drastically impacted by her disease. But Green also allows moments of light-heartedness. TFIOS is neither mopey, nor sappy. It’s lifelike. Hazel goes through ups and downs, just like any teenager (just like any human, really), her ups and downs are just often dictated by her disease. One of my favorite things about these Hazel and Gus is their irreverence (the main vehicle for the book’s light-hearted moments). These two have confronted death and live. Yes, death might eventually come back to claim them, but they’ve been there. They’ve done that. And they don’t mind poking fun at the specter that terrifies them.

And can we talk about how beautifully Green covers description. The descriptions could easily have become heavy-handed and overdone. But Green shows the physical toll and complications of living with cancer with deftness and brevity. The reader is given just enough to get a picture of what is happening to Hazel, but now so much they are overwhelmed. And then it’s back to the story.

Now, this paragraph should be as spoilery as it gets, but I want to assure any people who might dismiss this book because it could end badly.

I’ll admit, I was hesitant at first. I’m good with death and destruction and general badness happening to characters, but there is a part of me that expects a happy ending. Or at least the possibility of a happy end. By all accounts I should not have loved the ending of this book. But I think it might have made my list of books with perfect endings. Currently, there are two books on that list. When it was all said and done and I turned the final page, I felt like I’d gotten exactly the ending Green had promised from the beginning of the book and it was a good ending. An ending that will stick with me for a long time. I’ve never felt such hope and sadness mix after finishing a book. And I’m a fan of Dickens.

My only issue with this book (and if you know me, you’ll have seen it coming) was how it deals with sex. Now, I know that not everyone shares my more conservative opinion. So this may not be an issue for you. But I know some of my readers are like me. So they might also be bothered by the idea that dying a virgin makes a person’s life less full. I disagree with this. However, this is a book about teenagers and death and that means it’s going to deal with sex at some point. For my more conservative readers, just know that it’s in there and make your choices accordingly. I don’t think it should be a reason not to read the book, but do know it’s in there and do be willing to talk with your kids (or parents, if you’re a kid) about it.

All in all, I am glad I read this book. It made me laugh. It made me sad. It made me think. And it made me grateful. You should read it. And then you should go sit outside and be thankful that you can breathe easily.

Also, I’m pretty sure I want to be a shorter, prettier version of John Green when I grow up. So basically, I am never going to grow up. Which sounds pretty awesome.

This is a good example of:

  • First Person POV
  • How to Handle Sad Subjects
  • Characterization
  • Endings

If you’re looking for a happier book, but still want to experience the made of awesome that is John Green, might I suggest An Abundance of Katherines.


Septimus Heap #1: Magyk by Angie Sage

Ages 9 and up

The beginning of young Septimus Heap’s life started out with promise. He is the seventh son of a seventh son. A child guaranteed to be very magykal. That is, until he dies only a few hours into his short life. With no time to mourn his family must take in a foundling infant girl, whom they name Jenna. Ten years pass and Jenna is revealed to be the long lost princess,  born on the same day as the Heap child’s birth and her mother, the Queen’s, death. Her life of hiding with the Heaps, is thrown into upheaval when the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, Marcia Overstrand, arrives to divulge the secrets of her birth and to whisk her away before the Supreme Custodian’s Assassin can find her. Fleeing with Marcia, her brother Nicko, her father, Maxie the wolfhound and the mysterious Boy 412, Jenna and her family find themselves in hiding from DomDaniel. DomDaniel, ex-ExtraOrdinary Wizard and practicer of Darke Magyk wants Jenna dead so that he will have no contest for the rule of the small kingdom. If she is to live, Jenna must outsmart the Assassin, the Hunter, DomDaniel’s Apprentice and even DomDaniel himself. And if that wasn’t enough to deal with, her long “dead” brother may still be alive. Is Septimus really alive? And if he is, is he really who he claims to be?

The Septimus Heap series is one that has been taunting me for ages. Every time I would go to my library I’d see book two or book three, and I knew I wanted to read them. The covers were just too much fun to pass them up (I don’t usually read a book specifically because of the cover, I believe this is a first). But try as I might, I could never find book one at my library. And then I got my Nook e-reader. Among my favorite features is Free Fridays. Guess what book was the first Free Friday book the week I go my e-reader.

Right off the bat, things were interesting. I mean, the main character was pronounced dead by page 12. Which meant one of two things: this was a ghost story (unlikely because ghosts don’t age and a story about an infant doesn’t promise to be interesting) or not everything was as it seemed. And then there is the death of the queen and the (quickly solved) mystery surrounding Jenna’s real parentage. All-in-all there were the makings of a good story. And it was a good story.

Sage tells the story using a host of characters. All of whom have at least one or two traits that define them. The multitude of the characters doesn’t get confusing, which is the tendency in books with a lot of minor characters. And part of that is because she uses her minor characters just as well as she uses her main characters. They get integrated into the plot. They get reused at least once. And some of them, like Boy 412 and Stanley the Message Rat, end up becoming major characters (okay, maybe Stanley wasn’t a major character, but he was important).

The world of the book and the way the book is written are also tied together. Of course it’s a world with magic–I mean, “Magyk”. But that magic is ornery and doesn’t always do what you think it will do. So too with the plot. You kind of know where the story is going, but it doesn’t take you straight there. It’s more like the wizards described in the book. It like to go on tangents. It kind of reminds me of me telling a story to a friend. I’m constantly stopping to explain important things. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because you it’s fun to learn about this little world. It’s a bad thing because the story tends to ramble, heading every which way until it sort of focuses for the climax.

There was, unfortunately, a lack of urgency for me when I read the book. Don’t get me wrong, it was good and never boring, but it never grabbed me. I never got to that point where putting the book down was painful. Part of that might have to do with the fact that I am an adult reading a book written for middle-schoolers (actually, now that I think about it, it probably has a lot to do with it). The expected reveal of Sepitmus’ identity was probably the most compelling reason to read (cause I wanted to see if I was right…I was). The way each big bad was taken care was also slightly anti-climactic, something  I hope changes with the next five books. It kind gave Magyk the feeling of  being an intro book, with the real action to come in subsequent books.

By far, my favorite part of the book was how the narrative was handled. It was unabashedly an omniscient narrator. A great deal of the book was from Jenna’s point of view, however, it often broke off to another person’s viewpoint. We get a sense of the whole story. We’re shown all the pieces that we need to understand exactly what the stakes are. One minute we’re with Jenna in her aunt’s cottage, the next we’re watching the Supreme Custodian or DomDaniel as they plot how to get their hands on her. Usually changing viewpoint in the way that Sage does (sometimes in the middle of the chapter) is a big no-no, but in this book it just works. It flows.  And it’s clear. You are always aware of when the character focus shifts, but it’s not jarring.

This is definitely a book aimed at preteens. The way the book is written, the constant shift in point of view, the myriad of absurdly quirky characters, and the comical bad guys all land Magyk in the 9-12 age range. It’s good, clean fun that would a make a great read-aloud book with the whole family (hey, the younger you start, the more likely they are to become book addicts). It’s even suitable for the younger children in the family if they have someone who will read it to/with them. I look forward to discovering the next few books.

This is a good example of:

  • Omniscient narrative
  • Use of minor characters
  • Middle school fiction
  • World building
  • Tying world’s history into the plot
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