#Review: The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien #YA #ScienceFiction

Look! A review… finally!

I know, I know, I have been far too quiet lately. But, it’s been one heck of an adjustment with the new job and being on a computer almost all day that I’ve had a hard time sitting down in the evenings to write reviews. So today I am delighted to present my 5 star review The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien, and absolutely gripping YA read!


dreamerTitle: The Vault of Dreamers

AuthorCaragh M. O’Brien

Publisher: Roaring Book Press

Publication Date: September 16, 2014

Genre: Fiction, YA, Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction, YA Romance

Themes: Family, Friendship, Boarding School, Reality TV, Medical Testing, Consent Romance

Features: N/A


My Rating: 5/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

WELCOME TO THE PRESTIGIOUS Forge School of the Arts, where every waking moment of the students’ lives is televised. For twelve hours a day, every class, conversation, and gesture is broadcast to millions of viewers. And for twelve hours each night, the students undergo an induced sleep, proven to maximize creativity.

Rosie Sinclair has staked all her dreams of becoming a filmmaker on succeeding at Forge. But when she skips her sleeping pill one night, she discovers an insidious world behind the cameras. As she navigates the Forge landscape of art and manipulation by day, Rosie finds it increasingly difficult to trust either her instincts or her mind. The only thing she knows for certain is that she must unearth the ghastly secret that the Forge School is hiding.

From the author of the Birthmarked Trilogy comes a fast-paced, psychologically thrilling novel about what happens when the dreams you follow are no longer your own.


My Review

Where do I begin with this book? Normally I would say something like ‘this might listed as YA, but can be enjoyed by all.’ And while that might be true, straight up this is some seriously kick ass YA lit! I shouldn’t have expected anything less from Caragh M. O’Brien as I adored the Birthmarked trilogy, but with The Vault of Dreamers I was completely blown away.

The whole concept of high school as reality TV, 24 hour monitoring, advanced arts school had me hooked from the blurb. In all honesty, it sounded exactly like the kind of school that I would have applied to as teen and I simply couldn’t stay away. The execution of the concept far exceeded my expectations, so much so that I have already gone out and purchased the other two books in the trilogy! But more than anything, I loved how O’Brien balanced relevant and contemporary issues with page-gripping fiction. These included the high suicide rates of contestants, discussions on bodily autonomy, consent, poverty, abuse and so much more.

The Round of 50 cuts was something that I found to be particularly brutal. I couldn’t imagine having my entire future determined by public opinion and yet it seems to be something we crave as a society. It hurt to see Rosie’s good intentions used as ammunition against her, but it hurt even more to see the impact that constant public scrutiny can have on a person. And while the majority of teens won’t be on nationally televised reality shows, the constant pressure of social media combined with the drama of high school is sure to be relatable. Huge props to O’Brien for tackling the persistent issues of high suicide rates amongst former reality TV contestants, I can only hope that works like this get people thinking, or better yet, get them talking.

I really appreciated how the romantic aspects of this story were handled as well. The fire was there, but in an innocent almost toned down way that left the focus squarely on the interpersonal dramas and the psychological warfare being waged. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the whole Rosie/ Linus storyline, but it was subtle enough and healthy enough of a relationship that it didn’t inspire any rage (which is rare for me, as I normally hate romance in teens novels for many, unrealistic reasons).

And the mind games! SO WELL WRITTEN. Take note my friends, I don’t use all caps often. But the way in which everything presented felt so real, and the gaslighting got me so wrapped up that I too began questioning whether or not Rosie was dreaming for some of the more fantastical elements and whether or not all of her breakthrough ideas were truly her own. But in the face of all it, I adored how Rosie stayed strong and convicted in spite of the challenges thrown her way.

I got lost in the sense of fear, of game play, and of the all-encompassing politics as the story progressed. And even though Rosie gathered herself quite the team to help her through, she is a fierce female character who plays one hell of a game. I appreciated her strength and tenacity, her dedication to her family, and her unwavering commitment to finding the truth even when it looked like she had been completely beat.

My only complaint was that I felt there were some threads of the story left that weren’t wrapped up at the end, like whatever happened to Linus and Burnham. But this was just the first book in a trilogy and there had to be something juicy enough to pull you along into the next instalment right? And let’s not forget what happened to Rosie! I’ll avoid spoilers here, but if you’ve read the blurbs for the other books chances are good you have an idea. But that final chapter! Oh man, I just had to know where she went and how.

Altogether this was a fun, engaging, and well written story that is sure to grip the attention. Sure, Rosie’s a little on the teenaged girl mindset, but her behaviour is right in line with her age and situation. Honestly, I liked that she wasn’t mature beyond her years but know that some might find her annoying. Regardless, this is one of my favourite reads of the year because it had it all – drama, suspense, romance, and intrigue. Would I recommend it? Oh hells yes!

Now pardon me while I disappear again to read the rest of the series.


 

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#Review: Alone at War by A. M. Brussel #HistoricalFiction #WWIFiction

Today I am delighted to share my review for A. M. Brussel’s WWI novel Alone at War. While I normally lean towards WWII fiction, this one hit me in the heartstrings and simply wouldn’t let go. It’s dark, real, and sure to please lovers of historical fiction and war fiction alike.


aloneTitle: Alone at War

AuthorA. M. Brussel

Publisher: Gatekeeper Press

Publication Date: December 16, 2017

Genre: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction WWI Fiction

Themes: Family, WWI, Survival, Discrimination, Trench Warfare

Features: N/A


My Rating: 4/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Sara, a religious fourteen-year old Jewish girl, is orphaned in a small town on the Western Front in 1914, and is left alone to take care of her nine-year-old sister. They live above a cafe and the ex-prostitutes who work there become their new family. She feigns madness after abuse, and struggles to maintain her sanity and the religious values of her sister during the First World War. Together with a Jewish medic who she idealizes and comes to love, she befriends a young volunteer who is traumatized by battle and is found barking like a dog on a train station bench. Thoroughly researched, Alone at War depicts the struggle to maintain spiritual integrity during one of the darkest epochs of European history.


My Review

This book ain’t pretty, it isn’t clean cut, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. But guess what? It’s utterly fantastic.

This is the kind of gritty, visceral read that leaves little room for doubt when it comes the realities of war. Given the anti-Semitic focus it could have easily been set in WWII, but in taking it back to WWI and the trenches near Passchendaele everything slows down. The challenges for all parties become painfully clear – for the families of those left behind, for the soldiers in the trenches, and for the officers trying to make do with undertrained men and too few resources. But more anything else, it depicts the polarized depths of humanity and the lengths that people will go through to maintain their convictions in the most trying of circumstances.

While there is a central group of characters the majority of Alone at War revolves around, and is told through the eyes of, a the young and devoutly religious Sara. I found her to be a highly sympathetic character, especially since she not only had to grow up fast after the loss of her parents but also managed to maintain an innocence and naivety that can be too easily lost in the face of conflict. I loved how her dedication to her sister never wained, even when Anna begin to reject both Sara and their religion, and how Sara’s generous heart found room for the all of the other traumatized and ostracized souls she encountered along the way.

It seemed fitting that she found employment and refuge at both the chateau and the hospital, as both places provided a sort of refuge for those in need of healing. In each location we get to see a different side to her character, and with every chapter we get to see her grow as her eyes are opened wider and wider to the atrocities of the war. I understood completely her choice to appear mentally unstable and unattractive to the soldiers, however I did question as to whether or not that would have been enough to prevent assaults for two whole years as war causes desperate men to take desperate measures. While the topics of prostitution and rape were addressed through Alice, I was left with the feeling that it didn’t quite receive as much attention as it should have. But, this is also a love story and given that Isaac spends all of his time on the front rescuing others it was refreshing that he didn’t have to rescue Sara as well.

Isaac, or the Jew as he’s referred to throughout the book, is another character that I  instantly loved. As a Hacksaw Ridge style conscientious objector, idealist, and constant support it seemed only fitting that he would be the man that caught Sara’s eye. The care and effort that he put into protecting Henry, combing no-man’s land for survivors, and to visiting all of his patients when off the front made him a compassionate and easy to like fellow. I respected how he at first refused Sara’s advances, but treated the situation with a wholistic approach that saw beyond the war and their immediate circumstances. It was because of all of this that his final actions left me absolutely aghast – and because of them I ended up respecting him even more.

And despite Antoinette’s prickly exterior, she was another one that I found myself drawn too. Sure, she’s crass, she talks too much, and she was truly out of her depth when she took the girls in, but she was another character that put on an incredible display of integrity. Despite the frequent protests that she wasn’t a mother, she was perhaps the most maternal figure presented throughout the entire book. There are so many who would have taken advantage of the sisters and the young women working in the chateau, but Antoinette goes out of her way to ensure that these women don’t have to debase themselves in order to survive. She’s unpredictable, taciturn, and constantly self deprecating but at the end I felt that she was more courageous and heroic than many of the men shown fighting in the trenches.

Finally, the writing itself is absolutely exquisite. Brussel presents an emotive blend of imagery and historical fact that creates a tapestry so expertly woven that it’s difficult to determine where history ends and fiction begins. The characters are not only believable but also relatable, the mood is expertly set, and there is no shying away from the cruel atrocities that war provokes. I could feel the constant dampness and frustration that pervaded the trenches, the blistering of gas blowing back after improper deployment, and the despair that must have been experienced when shell shock was initially denied. I cried (often) and I had to put the book down and walk away because it was too overwhelming, but I couldn’t leave it unfinished. Despite the dark and almost awful nature of the story it was one that commanded competition.

Would I recommend this book? I think you already know the answer to that! It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but it’s absolutely worth the read. Just don’t go in expecting a tidy and uplifting romance, Alone at War is for more gritty and much more real. Get out your tissues baby, this one will make you ugly cry.


Many thanks to A. M. Brussel and Gatekeeper Press for providing an ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

#Review: Beetlebrow by Ben Parker #YA #Fantasy

Today I am delighted to share a review for Ben Parker’s LGBTQ YA novel, Beetlebrow. This little adventure is jam packed with action, has just enough romance to pull at the heart strings, and that hint of magic to blur the lines between fiction and fantasy.


beetlebrowTitle: Beetlebrow

AuthorBen Parker

Publisher: The Conrad Press

Publication Date: April 27, 2016

Genre: Fiction, YA, Fantasy, Adventure

Themes: Family, Friendship, Abuse, Poverty, Class Stratified Society, Survival, Epic Quests

Features: N/A


My Rating: 4/ 5


Synopsis

From Goodreads…

Two sixteen-year-old girls are struggling to survive in the poverty-stricken streets of Stellingkorr. Beetlebrow – devastated by the death of her mother – meets Pook – newly escaped from her drunken parents.

The two girls scale the walls of the royal palace in search of work. King Ancissus – impressed with their ingenuity and skill – tasks them with delivering a cryptic message to the distant eastern city of Dalcratty. Success could save Stellingkorr; failure could mean starvation for its people.

Beetlebrow and Pook are forced to lie, fight and steal to keep heading east. Through the violence and squalor of towns and arid plains, army camps and prisons, they have only each other to depend upon.

“Beetlebrow”, the first book of “The Beetlebrow Trilogy”, is the gritty debut novel from Ben Parker. In this epic coming-of-age fantasy, two bold and fearless young women find a love they could never have imagined.


My Review

I’ll begin this review with a huge shout out to Ben Parker, for not only getting in touch with me through MiniMac Reviews but also sending a paperback all the way to Canada. You see, Canada post is reeeeaaaalllyyy slow, so most of my book love comes in the ePub and Mobi format (which is love as well), so it was a special treat to get a nice, crisp, new book in the mail! Thank you Mr. Parker, your generosity and patience has been greatly appreciated!

And after all of that effort, I am ashamed to say that this baby languished a little longed than  I had anticipated on the TBR pile. Now, I love me some fantasy and adventure books, but I have to be in the right frame of mind to truly enjoy certain themes and genres. As a result, the first two times I picked Beetlebrow up I had that ‘not yet’ feeling and placed it back on the TBR for when the timing was right. But the third time I picked it up, everything just seemed to click and I simply couldn’t stop reading!

Beetlebrow is the kind of character that you can’t help but feel for. Not only is she young, impoverished, and later homeless but her family circumstances and societal restrictions made her predicament exponentially worse. But despite these setbacks, I was drawn to her kind heart, quick wit, and even her street urchin tendencies. I really expected her to be the kingdom’s underdog hero because she had all the right stuff for it, but the ways in which she lived up to that title were completely unexpected and left me cheering out loud.

The premise of the quest isn’t all together new, but the benefit to that was that I knew that I would enjoy the book from the outset. And let’s face it, it’s a tale as old as time and yet it’s still relevant – the elite of a kingdom are bleeding it’s people dry, the common folk are in revolt and have engaged in a full scale rebellion, and two orphan children have set out to change their lives and end up changing the world. If that isn’t the foundation for a modern fairy tale I don’t know what is! Now add in a healthy dose of adventure, a love that has to be hidden from the world, and evil half brother, and a nearly impossible task and you’ve really got something.

I had a much harder time connecting to Pook as I found her to be a rather passive character. But as this story revolves around Beetlebrow I was willing to let her have a damsel in distress without too much complaining, especially since Pook’s character ending up getting me in the feels when her back story finally came out of the woodwork. Once I understood a little about her history, Pook’s decisions and reactions were a lot easier to understand. I look forward to seeing how her character will grow and develop in books two ad three of the trilogy as I think there are a lot of interesting places she can go!

I really appreciated how it wasn’t an easy process for the girls to complete there quest. The faced censure, stigma, and some serious repercussions from their families and law along the way. And I would have to say this applies equally to delivering their message and their romance. While we have come a long way in terms of acceptance, I am sure that the fear of repercussion is something that will resonate with young readers who are facing, or have faced, similar situations in their own lives. And for those that haven’t, I hope it helps to open their eyes to some of the challenges faced every day by young people in the LGBTQ community.

I enjoy that the girls enjoyed a happy ending, but that their relationship wasn’t without trials and tribulations. I appreciated too, how some of the drama stemmed from the fact that one of the girls was more experienced than the other, which is often an issue in many relationships regardless of age. And as a cis reader, this really made their story relatable and easy to engage with. And that fairytale feeling is bolstered by the fact that the girls ran away with one another after a chance encounter. Like all good fairytales there isn’t any time for a proper courtship, and the details of the love story get hammered out after the adventure is well under way.

Finally, I really loved the variety of villains in Beetlebrow. From Alder and Joe for being entitled manipulators, Prince Tyvan for locking away his wife rather than divorcing her, the King for being greedy and disinterested in his people, and Gregory who pursues the girls across the land but turns out to be something else all together. I was constantly surprised by little twists that I never saw coming and absolutely loved being kept on my toes.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely! It’s well written, engaging, and offers plenty of adventure. I know that it won’t appeal to everyone, but if you like adventure and plucky heroines you should definitely give this one a try! And while Beetlebrow stands nicely on it’s own, I can’t wait for the next to books in the trilogy to be released!


Many thanks to Ben Parker for providing a hard copy in exchange for an honest review, and also for his unending patience in getting that review posted when my life got a little crazy!