Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

I’ve really loved Stiefvater’s other works. She allows the plot to unfold gently and organically and populates her worlds with a wide assortment of colorful characters. With Shiver (and later book Sinner), I found the characters to be flat, uninteresting, and far too self absorbed. Ultimately, with Shiver I found there to be no room left for me in the narcissistic needy bubble of a world created by the narrowly focused characters. This is one series where Stiefvater’s usually seamless prose turns the story leaden and the characters completely unrealistic.

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Story: When Grace was a child, she was attacked by wolves. Every Winter since then, a strange wolf with golden eyes appears in her back yard and haunts her dreams. When she meets a boy with the same golden eyes at a bookstore one Spring, she becomes obsessed. That boy, Sam, involuntarily changes into a wolf with the cold – and has been obsessed with Grace since he saved her from death that fateful day so long ago. Together, the two will navigate their obsession with each other as well as the tricky politics at Grace’s high school and the wolf pack. Neither is happy with the lovers and it will result in deadly consequences.

Shiver should have been a slow burn of a novel. But Stiefvater’s usual conflicted and nuanced characters in this series become atypically unlikeable. I found I wasn’t rooting for or even liking Grace or Sam. That’s problematic in a book that is essentially a romance with a few subplots meant only to add some angst into the relationship (but failing to add a spark at the same time). And as much as I loved Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races and Raven Boys, there just wasn’t enough meat to the plot to make me want to continue reading.  I was bored half way through and found myself skimming the last half just to get it over with. I later received an advance reader copy of Sinner (#5 in the series?) and actually liked that book even less – the characters were completely self obsessed. Clearly, this wasn’t the series for me.

I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did a decent job.

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Manipulate by Corrie Garrett

Manipulate is a decently written story with enough pathos and engaging characters to keep readers invested to the end. Though a bit too long and with whole sections that could be removed to streamline the story, I found myself interested enough to want to finish. At heart, we have a cautionary story on race relations and understanding what it means to be human. And the soul is very much the very likeable protagonist, 19 year old Sam.

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Story: When a supercollider explodes in Switzerland and causes widespread environmental and economic disaster, aliens appear and clear up the radiation and save millions. But the price is that children are taken from all over the world and sent to the alien homeworld for training. 13 year old Sam was abruptly removed from his home and now returns 7 years later, for the first time, to a very different Los Angeles. There is unrest at his home planet and his charisma is needed to keep people calm. But that undercurrent of unrest poses a huge problem for the humans: they are about to be judged by a council of alien species – and if proven unfit, they will be open to annihilation. Can Sam find a bridge between the humans and the aliens before it is too late?

Despite my enjoyment of the characters, it wasn’t a perfect book. E.g., sloppy writing or poor research was distracting (i.e., Sam walks out of the Chinese Theater onto Hollywood “Avenue” and then went to Disney World (Disneyland is in LA, Disney World is in Florida). Anyone from Los Angeles would never mix those up and Sam hadn’t been gone that long. And as already noted, the book really is too long. It would have been an excellent book with about 1/4 excised.

But those quibbles aside, this is really a character piece. Sam is very much an everyman and straddling two very different cultures. The insectoid type aliens who raised him to manhood and the family who had to give him up.  Sam was chosen by the aliens because of his ability to ‘manipulate’ (read: charisma) and speak the right words at the right time. But the unrest means that the cadets who return are targeted for violence by the humans and by other aliens hoping to take advantage of a poor council ruling. Most of the plot involves the machinations of the different aliens and how Sam and his cadet friends deal with the situations that arise.

The ‘bad aliens’ were fairly one-dimensional and probably should give up their villain cards since their plans were so incredibly bad and unproductive. Their POVs really weren’t needed and just made them seem even sillier than their plotting. I was always relieved when the story came back to Sam again since his was the most compelling POV.

The story is YA – this isn’t hard hitting sci fi but it isn’t insulting YA, either. Author Garrett’s strength is in characterizations and therein lies the charm of Manipulate. You want to see how Sam will handle every situation and if he will figure out the evil plans of the aliens in time to save the Earth. It’s a very easy and fluid read.

I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did a decent job. I could have wished for different ‘voices’ among the characters – sometimes the dialogue blended. But in all, a decent narration.

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Assault Troopers by Vaughn Heppner

About 25% into the Audible Narration, I began to feel that the song, “America, f$ck yeah!” was written as a spoof of this book. Super macho, lone wolf, bad a$$, bullet proof, survivor battles aliens in the face of defeat – and takes names while chewing bubble gum. It was so over the top, I felt hair growing on my chest – and I’m a woman. But at the same time, it also elicited grunts of disgust interspersed with giggles at the silliness. If there is an antithesis to a bodice ripper, this is it. What Johanna Lindsey does for women’s fiction, Vaughn Heppner exuberantly does for men’s fiction.  Can you enjoy either if you are the opposite gender? oh sure.  Will you enjoy it?  That’s another question.

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Story: Creed (because one word names with double meanings are much more macho) survived a decimating alien attack on the Earth by virtue of being in the arctic babysitting  some scientists. When he stumbles upon an alien ship, he decides to save the Earth by jumping on board and nearly single handedly killing anything that moves. Because, hey, NO ONE destroys America (oh yeah, and the world), and lives!!  Throw in a bunch of stereotypes (even a sexy Russian-accented rocket scientist super model with ‘great t*ts’) and you get the idea of what happens next. Carnage ensues.

I’m sure many would argue not to take it so seriously and just enjoy the ride. For me, I’d happily do so if the writing wasn’t so annoying. Unrealistic stereotypes of macho manliness and objectified women aside, the very first bit of the story started to annoy. E.g., we get a rambling prologue where the narrator finally ends by saying he’ll start at the the day he met his first alien. But when the next chapter starts, he starts rambling about his WHOLE HISTORY forever until FINALLY we get to meeting the alien. Seriously – editing anyone?  By the time we get on the alien ship and meet the rocket scientist super model, all he notices is her abundant chest area.  In detail. Because, hey, a girl with a great rack is ALWAYS going to be more interesting than worrying about dying from the aliens after him. I figured right then that if the author isn’t going to take the story seriously, then neither would I.  And so it was time to find something else to read.

I’d tried the Fenris series with no luck either – so I’m guess I lack the sense of humor or y-Chromosome needed for these books. I’m sure there are a lot of readers screaming, BOO YEAH!!! and pumping fists in the air while reading this book. Me, I was thinking that a South Park version of this story with Stan and Eric shooting up the ship might have been more realistic (and more fun). The phallic ships on the kindle version should have given me pause before purchasing, I guess, since they are indicative of what’s inside.

I listened to the Audible version and the narrator did a decent job (with what he had – not one snicker in there).

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Deserter by Mike Shepherd

Admittedly, it took a good Audible sale to entice me to read this second in the series. The first had failed to impress – it felt rough around the edges and not thought out enough. But I found that I enjoyed this second book and even looked forward to the next in the series. A lot of the issues of the first had failed to materialize in the second and the story was both different and a lot more solid.

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Story: Time away from the military means Kris must deal with her family obligation. It’s hard being a princess. But when a friend needs help, she races across known space to save him. What she finds, however, is an elaborate trap with her as the intended victim. But someone has greatly underestimated the “damned Longknife.”

The story builds from the first book but takes a different direction: no military this time and all Kris’ personal life. Nelly the computer is given a huge upgrade that greatly changes her and how she interacts as well. Meanwhile, Kris has begun to recognize the effect her position in society has on others – and just how dangerous it is to be her friend.

New characters join familiar ones from the previous books. I found the new characters to be even more interesting and certainly Kris is developing quite a support system. It will be interesting to see where the story goes from here.

I listened to the audible version and the narrator did an excellent job.

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Glory by Maureen McGowan

As much as I enjoyed the previous two books in the series, this last one fell a bit flat.  The writing remained consistent but the plot sort of petered and died – and most of the book felt like filler. As well, many of the characters did things that were, well, out of character or simply illogical, mostly to create drama or angst. I was bored through a lot of the flabby middle and then when I woke up at the end, it was over.

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Story: Glory finds she has an Aunt – only to learn she is a shredder. When her father goes missing, Glory must stage a rescue operation that might also rescue her Aunt. But does her Aunt want to come with her?  New revelations about the Shredders – and how Outside ‘cures’ them – will challenge all that Glory has been led to believe about the world outside Haven. At the same time, fear that Burn will turn into a monster if they touch has separated the pair. Cal isn’t moving in, even when Burn wants him to do so.  Glory will have to choose between the two boys before she can ever hope of overthrowing Haven. For Haven has turned on its employees and begun experimenting on them in very ugly ways.

There were several plot reveals and author McGowan did a great job of revealing them organically. Glory remains as likeable a character as ever though Burn became more annoying in his endless insistence that he is a monster. The introduction of Burn’s mother proved interesting but was ultimately wasted in useless plot machinations. Not a lot happens to further the plot for most of the book – either rescuing from Shredder camps or mooning over interrelationship issues (Glory gets mad at her father, brother, Burn, Cal – nearly everyone). As well, this moody Glory wasn’t as interesting as the intrepid one from previous books. It wasn’t character growth so much as character atrophy.

All the same, I was glad to read the final book in the series, even if it was missing the spark of the previous books. I’ll definitely want to check out McGowan’s next series.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

Note: I listened to the audible version and the narrator did a decent job.

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Starship Blackbeard by Michael Wallace

Starship Blackbird is, admittedly, silly. An amusing sci fi romp that you really shouldn’t take seriously and just enjoy it in all its B-movie DNA glory. For what we have here is the world of the Pirates of the Caribbean transplanted to space: replete with doubloons, grog, pirate women in low cut garments and gold hoops, incompetent aristocrats, sugar plantations and even slaves to work there (in the form of aliens who are addicted to sugar) , and ships with the names Captain Kidd and the titular Blackbeard. At 200 pages, it’s a short read that ends just as it starts to get going.

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Story: Uptight aristocrat Drake, captain of the HMS Ajax, is falsely accused of a crime and sent to two years hard labor in the mines. But his loyal crew stage a mutiny to save him – something he doesn’t want to happen. He feels he can do the two years, survive, and then come back to clear his name. But if he allows the mutiny to happen, he’ll be branded a traitor forever. But his crew has been doing research on his crime – and have found startling evidence that Drake’s framing is part of a greater conspiracy that could topple the Albion empire. Can Drake survive long enough, especially since he is being hounded by his best friend to recapture him (a la Logan’s Run)? Can Drake assemble a new crew in time?

Pretty much most of the swashbuckling era is lifted wholesale. Albion is England, there are colonies in the form of planets, aristocrats protect their slave trade and the income it generates, and the pirates pick off the privateers and merchants while the navy hounds them. A clever idea was to make the slaves aliens – aliens who are addicted to the sugar they are forced to make in order to addict more aliens.

It all makes for grand fun but ironically I found the characters to be cliche, stereotypes, or just plain unbelievable.  Drake as the uptight aristocrat captain was a plank of wood – the loyalty he inspired in the crew inexplicable. It made for a lot of telling but not enough showing to make us believe the crew would throw away their careers and possibly lives on a mickey mouse mutiny. Tolvern, as the first mate, spends too much of the book mooning over her captain – it made her whole mutiny seem like the act of a school girl crush. The evil aristocratic admiral was lifted wholesale from Georgian romance bodice rippers – he should have been twirling a long mustache while cackling over his own incompetence. And the aliens were completely inscrutable (and did stupid things – to say what they were would be too spoilery).  But it made for a lot of unlikeable characters. E.g., the alien people are conquered and enslaved by sugar but there might be a way to end that – and Drake has the key. So he and Tolvern ponder whether it would be a good thing to free the slaves – in front of the alien they supposedly call friend who says nothing (and did a LOT of things to try to free his people just previous).  I supposed author Wallace was channeling the period – but were people really that stupid?

Since this was a quick 6 hour audible reading, it went fast. If I shut off my brain to the bad physics (people use miles?!?), it felt like the Pirates of the Caribbean movie in space.  Enjoyable but empty – the sci fi version of a Twinkie.

Note: I listened to the audible version and the narrator did a decent, if not great, job.

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Twin Star Exorcists 1 by Yoshiake Sukeno

Twin Star Exorcists is not a bad title at all; however, admittedly it did feel very ‘been there done that’.  The artwork is interesting, if a bit odd in places (our protagonist has triangular teeth instead of square). The combination of stupid impulsive guy and tsundere (aggressively mean to the boy but secretly in love with him) girl is a familiar trope and needs a very unique story to make it work these days. But Twin Star’s plot of generic monster of the week failed to excite or impress.

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Story: Rokuro lives at an exorcist compound; he lost most of his family and friends on a savage demon attack years earlier and wants out of the whole exorcist business. Problem is, whether it is soccer star or singing idol, he pretty much sucks at it all. As well, instead of being a chick magnet, he repels them with his shortcomings. Enter Benio – a ‘princess’ of a highly esteemed exorcist family, she can enter the demon world and fights fiercely. When the two become embroiled while saving some kids from a demon capture, the two enter a love-hate relationship. And Rokuro is dragged kicking and screaming back into becoming an exorcist. For while Benio has fox-like craftiness, speed, and skill, Rokuro is all raw power and strength. They make an unbeatable combo – if only they liked each other.

From the odd Exorcist leader (whose entrance was off putting rather than funny) to the upbeat if somewhat flat friends, I kept looking for a reason to be drawn into the story. I really enjoyed the artwork with Benio – her fox mask when she ‘transforms’ to fight the demons is quite cool. Rokuro’s drawings, however, were just odd – especially the teeth thing.  Perhaps coming from a Western view, it was too much like a kid’s drawing of a ”scary’ Halloween pumpkin mouth.

Rokuro as a character is quite over the top in his idiocy. That ‘everyman’ can be endearing or it can get old fast. Unfortunately for me, I kept wishing the author had toned him down just a bit so he wasn’t so ‘off the hip’ with every reaction. Benio, meanwhile, with her control, contrarily ended up being a bit too contained.  I expect we will see the two balance each other out later but I’m not sure if I want to wait for that to happen if we’re just going to get monster of the week. There was the hint of a ‘big bad’ at the end; but again, big bad wasn’t all that interesting.

So yes, a manga about two 14 year olds who are told they have to marry and have a kid who will one day become the ultimate exorcist. Lots of evil demons and even more spats between the couple as they learn to work together.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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