Undertow by Michael Buckley

Undertow is an interesting animal: Part social statement full of big ideas and part teen YA urban fantasy, the book changes greatly in tone from the first to second part. What started original and a bit gritty quickly devolved into a frothy pilot for a CW Network tv show, prepared to air between Vampire Diaries and Arrow. It’s an easy read and engaging, though, and certainly it is one of the few palatable mermaid stories.

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Growing up in inner city New York is never going to be easy; but when thousands of mer people show up on the shores of Coney Island as illegal immigrants, the whole situation gets a lot more real. For the US is divided: integrate the prickly refugees into society or force them back into the sea. 16 year old Lyric Walker is at the center of the problem: her school is chosen as an experiment in integration and she is forced to shepherd the Alpha people’s young prince, Fathom, around her school. The problem is, the anti-Alpha are quite militant and willing to kill any who interact with the mer people. Combined with a terrible secret Lyric’s family is hiding, things are about to get a whole lot worse for Lyric and Fathom than simple school harassment.

The first half of the book was inspired by the 1960s rational tensions of the Little Rock Nine – integrating blacks into a white high school. Think Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “The Problem We All Live With” and you’ll get an idea.  Angry mobs, grandstanding politicians, harassment and threats – a typical New York day, perhaps? Author Buckley smartly keeps the action focused around Lyric – her past of drugs and partying, teen rebellion and just fitting in. If that doesn’t jive with the wholesomeness of the cop father and artistic mother in a very loving family, one can let it go for the smoothness of the storytelling. The plot is very much biting social commentary about the world in which we live and simple acceptance of one another.

Then the second half of the story kicks in and it is pure YA urban fantasy romance. Girl staring at glistening pecs at a pool, hormones out of control, hunky main lead prince (saving her), unique snowflake heroine, and a lot of posturing and deus ex machina to keep them apart even though they are so in love with each other. It felt like I was reading a different book; the grounded realism and big ideas of the first half morphing into over the top ‘feels’ and questionable logic of a mid level YA romance. It felt like two different authors wrote each portion of the book.

Yet, despite the schizophrenic plotting, it was an enjoyable book to read. The language is simple and writing easy to follow. Lyric’s flawed tough NYC girl persona is engaging and the mer people story, if a bit less interesting, is different in that they show up as refugees and not invaders. The author has spent time well in creating the mer people world and making it distinct. But admittedly, the characters felt a bit flat – more ideas than grounded people with realistic emotions. The mer people especially were walking boards with very two dimensional thinking processes. Add in a snarky best friend, perfect parents, and you recognize the CW TV show formula quickly. Veronica Mars Lyric isn’t, however.

So yes, I am a bit ambivalent on how much I liked the story. I can easily give it a 4 star rating because the first half was strong (I was greatly reminded of another gritty urban fantasy set in NYC, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera). It was great to see a YA title not set in the urban suburbs. But at the same time, the inexplicable change in the second half of the book to mustache twirling bad guys, misunderstood hero, heroine needing to be rescued, and a rather silly romance was a bit of a let down. It didn’t feel real at all. I expect the next book will be consistent in tone however – with the emphasis on this book’s second half.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan

I put off reading The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter; despite my love for everything steampunk, the title alone felt like a cliche with all the recently released books titled “The [fill in the blank]’s Daughter” out there. But upon reading, I was greatly surprised and impressed; this is an very well written alternate universe using a successful Luddite revolution as the basis for the change in history. It’s an interesting premise and author Duncan weaves an engrossing story within.

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Story: Elizabeth Barnabus grew up in the Circus – her father eked out a small living for his family with illusions and shows. But a Duke takes an interest in 14 year old Elizabeth and forces the family into bankruptcy in order to own her for the debts; she flees Imperial London and heads into the Republic to start a new life. Using the skills she learned from her father, she subsists in a male dominated society by masquerading at twins – a ‘brother’ Edwin (an informer) and herself. When a case brings her up against the all-powerful Patent Office (the only authority bridging a divided Britain), she runs the risk of losing all that she has worked so hard to achieve. For one can only tread water so long before the only choice is to move or sink.

The writing is strong but really the star of the book is the world building. Although set in contemporary time, the Luddite revolution pretty much restricted inventions to steam powered only. As a result, there are airsheaps and trains but no cars or electrical tech. It’s a Victorian Britain that never ended though the changes were great. I really liked the whole idea of the Quaker/Luddite Republic and their more grounded and realistic society in contrast to the more bombastic Imperials. Most of the story takes place up in Leicester, the Republic side, and the author has mined the history of the area well for the story.

The characters are distinct, thoughtful, logical, and engaging. I was worried that the circus aspect of the story would be over the top and silly but I was quite wrong. The circus elements are woven into the story but don’t overwhelm or overtake it; what we have is more a mystery/detective story. Elizabeth has what should be a simple ‘find the missing brother’ case but as with the best writers, nothing is truly as it seems.

I was fortunate to read this book and the sequel, Unseemly Science, right after each other. I can say that the second book is just as good and continues the story/characters smoothly. As such, this book is highly recommended for its unique story, strong characterizations, imaginative worldbuilding, and engaging read.

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Defiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

The first book in the Towers Trilogy, Radiant, topped my best of 2014 list. Intricate storytelling, nuanced characters, distinct magic system, and an exquisitely written story of an unusual friendship made for a very satisfying read. With this second book, Defiant, we are once again plunged into the world of the floating towers. Where the first book explored the radiant aspect of magic, here we delve more into Xhea’s history/background and the terrible price of her unique magic. But the beating heart is the beautiful friendship of the two girls, Xhea and ghost Shai.

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Story: Xhea and Shai are living an uneasy peace within one of the Earthbound towers. They will let Xhea stay as long as Shai’s radiance powers their machinery; but the political situation is unstable, both within the tower and also amongst all the ground towers. When hostilities escalate, Shai and Xhea will find themselves thrown into a war with the fate of the people who live on the ground in the balance. For it turns out Xhea may just be as valuable as Shai to the floating towers. And each will have to develop their own magics to not only survive, but to save their friend.

Shai and Xhea remain very distinct characters through both books. Shai’s idealism and hesitancy counterbalanced by Xhea’s grounded realism and nihilism. It’s a reflection of their magic as well, one made of light and air and the other death and shadows. And although the girls are separated for a good part of the book, we learn a lot about both. Xhea will be forced to rely on others and Shai will have to mature and develop her own resilience. Both will come to understand their own magic much more as well.

All characters (major and minor) remain conflicted and real. Each has complex motivations and emotions, will fail and succeed, and surprise as well as intrigue. The strength of the Towers trilogy really is the psychology as the counterbalance to the pathos. It all feels so devastatingly real.

This is going to top my 2015 list. I am greatly looking forward to finishing the trilogy at the end of the year. It’s a book that is so good, I never feel I can do it justice in my review. Highest recommendations.

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The Alkaline 5 Diet by Laura Wilson

The diet pendulum swings every few years – someone new comes with a surefire way to get people healthy and to lose weight. Alkalinity management and gut biomes seem to be the diet catch words of 2015.  With The Alkaline 5 Diet, author Laura Wilson presents a strict vegan diet approach – drawing upon her own experience with managing her own health. But the emphasis is more on holistic than it is on what you eat; from breathing to balancing rest. It pretty much condenses to live better and eat vegan.

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The basis of the ‘diet’ is Wilson’s framework: a positive mindset and emotions through 1) Sunlight and deep oxygenation; 2) Pure hydration; 3) Sleep and balancing rest; 4) Living alkaline foods; and 5) Movement and posture. Within that framework, she’ll recommend some very radical changes: e.g., from not eating fruits before meals, drinking only well before or well after meals, wi-fi and internet connections turned off at night, getting rid of most store-bought shampoos/conditioners/beauty products (parabens); stop gossiping or negative behaviors, buy special filtration devices for your faucets and sinks, avoid cooking most of your food, drink a LOT of green juices, and eating a lot of dates and bananas. This is a true lifestyle change that some will likely find restrictive and perhaps a bit too nitpicky.

The author also makes strong statements about everything from superfoods, supplements, to nearly all processed foods (including olive oil or hemp oil) as being government or corporate hype and not healthy. She suggests avoid all but wheat grass, sprouts, and probiotics. This works with the diet’s emphasis on uncooked whole foods.

The diet breaks down into the following: Raw foods, seeds and nuts, natural condiments, easy preparation, and a vegan lifestyle. The meals themselves break down into types: 1) Blood Cleanser (BC), 2) Vitamin Vitality Meal (VVM); 3)Fat Loss Sugar Meal (FLSM); 4) Raw Alkaline Mineral Meal (RAMM); 5) Healthy Cooked Fibre Meal (HCFM). In other words, each day will have a combination several of the five above. Typically, each day starts with lemon water as a BC, some fruit as a VVM, a smoothie as a RAMM, some medjool dates and a banana as an FLSM, then ending the day with Bulgur wheat cabbage wraps as the HCFM.

For me personally, I kind of checked out somewhere around the holistic areas. It’s a very confining diet, without a lot of variety, and didn’t grab me as other diets have done. I found myself reading to see the author’s point of view on health and lifestyle but not really engaging or ‘clicking’ with either her personal story or the whole approach. She’s clearly done research on the topic but that research seems to be more to support the decisions she’s made on her own life rather than a scientific analysis of a large population to find a cure or root cause of obesity/unhealthiness. The diet worked for her and made her life richer and I’m sure it will likely do the same for others. But for me, I wasn’t engaged.

There are some very intriguing statements made here and again, though the book didn’t work for me, I don’t doubt that it would work for others. Certainly, author Laura Wilson is friendly and engaging, encouraging and motivational.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ferals by Jacob Grey

Ferals is a very atmospheric and engrossing middle grade read full of mystery and intriguing world building. Yes, a story of a boy with special ability and no parents, link to a big bad guy who wants back into the mortal realm, and a bit of magic will likely draw parallels to Harry Potter. But what we have here is a smooth integration of urban fantasy with post apocalyptic nihilism. Ferals is good enough to stand on its own merit and keep young (and older) readers engrossed.

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Story: Caw lives in the park, abandoned by his parents and with only crows for companions. The crows, with whom he can communicate, have helped him to survive since he was six; but when he witnesses mysterious criminals escape the local prison, he is bound inexorably with the events of the Black Summer a decade previous. A time that saw his parents killed and the town nearly destroyed. For the city of Blackstone is home to the Ferals – those who can communicate with animals. And one particular Feral isn’t satisfied with staying in the shadows.

The plot involves Caw understanding his past, learning more about what it means to talk to the crows, and the world around the City in which he lives: Blackstone. There is a strong post apocalyptic flavor but the bigger picture is eschewed in favor of a tight focus on fourteen year old Caw. Admittedly, I would have liked to know more of the bigger picture, it was just a bit too nebulously defined. But that nitpick aside, the story is very well drawn.

Ferals also has a great cast of characters – from people to animals. Caw, although a loner for most of his young life, will be drawn to prison warden’s daughter Lydia, a girl his age who has everything Caw does not – home, hearth, and parents. Together, they explore the mystery of Caw’s family and heritage. Since the perspective is from Caw only, we get a cast of crow personalities as well – some mysterious and others persnickety.

The ‘magic’ system is very intriguing. The titular group, Ferals, each communicate with one type of animal/insect. How each use their gift and their animal familiars provide quite a bit of the fascination in the story. From centipedes to squirrels, foxes to rats, there is a lot to explore. A gothic, almost Dickensian feel despite the modern trappings provides much of the flavor in the story. Author Grey deftly avoids anachronisms and keeps the story fully on Caw’s struggle to discover himself. It makes for a good middle grade read as a result.

In all, I greatly enjoyed the story and look forward to passing it on to my 12 year old next.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy.

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Lying Out Loud by Kodi Keplinger

If you liked the DUFF, or any of Keplinger’s other teen books, then you’re bound to really enjoy Lying Out Loud as well. It takes place at Hamilton High, brings back cameos from characters in previous books, is another of Kody’s literary retelling (Cyrano De Bergerac), and has all the snappy dialogue and pathos one expects from her work. The book is easy to read, has some genuinely funny moments, and balances the darker aspects of teen life with witty observations. Fans of the movie will enjoy that Wesley and Bianca are in several scenes throughout the book since one of the main characters is his little sister, Amy.

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Story: Sonny and Amy have been inseparable friends since they were little. While Amy comes from the well-to-do Rush household, Sonny’s family was less stable: father is in prison and mother is very flakey. Because of her situation, Sonny has learned to lie convincingly to protect herself from hurt. But when lies get in the way of (and between) her friendship with Amy, Sonny is going to have to face some hard truths and come clean. Because pretending to be Amy so she can secretly communicate with the cute new boy in class (who has a crush on her best friend) is never going to end well for anyone. If only it didn’t feel so right in the moment!

A chunk of the book is the very cute instant message communications (via phone and computer) between Sonny (pretending to be Amy) and Ryder. Most everyone thinks he’s either pretentious or a hipster (he complains constantly that Hamilton High is beneath his old school in DC). But Sonny ‘gets him’ (and his situation with divorced parents) and he ‘gets her’ (she can finally tell someone the truth about her frustration with her mother – even with the irony of the lie pretending to be Amy). But Amy is too honest to let this go on and their fracturing relationship mirrors the one in the DUFF between Bianca and her friends. Amy is both jealous and frustrated; Sonny wishes for once Amy realized how much she has, even Ryder.

The cover image is an accurate representation of the story. Each character looks like they are supposed to – with Ryder (who is half African American) on the left, Sonny with blond curls in the middle, and Amy on the right. Their personalities are very well portrayed as well – from Ryder’s hipster roots (his parents are politicians) to Sonny’s limited basic wardrobe. I always appreciate when the cover gives us an accurate visual representation of the story.

Characters from other Keplinger books: from a funny scene with Whitley and Nathan from A Midsummer’s Nightmare to Lissa and Cash from Shut Out. But it is Wesley (Amy’s older brother) from The DUFF who gets several scenes in Lying Out Loud.  He grew up with Sonny always being around so he can give his own observations to the situation with Ryder and Amy – and help bring the girls back together.

In all, it was an enjoyable ready and I did laugh out loud in several places. Great for fans and also for those who are just starting out with Keplinger as well (no advance knowledge of the other books needed).  Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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The Shattered Court by M.J. Scott

The Shattered Court ended up being a difficult book for me.  What appeared to be a YA/NA type of fantasy romance (just look at that cover!) instead read much more like the graphic sex fantasy books of the late 1970s/early 1980s (Sharon Green’s Jalav series comes to mind). But the slow pacing, passive ingenue heroine, bodice ripper romance aspects, and lack of development in both characters and plot made this more than a bit daunting to slog through. I ended the book feeling like nothing really happened and that this was more of a prologue than the first in a new series. In all honesty, I was bored.

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Story: Lady Sophie Kendall is about to come into her witch powers when the capitol is attacked and the king killed. She is saved by dashing Lieutenant Cameron Mackenzie, who whisks her away to safety. But then her powers manifest – powers which cause her and the captain to engage in urgent sex. Now, unable to be bound to the Goddess since she is no longer a virin, the princess/Queen-to-be requires Sophie to marry Cameron. She’s quite happy to – but soon discovers that with the attack on the capitol (and with her strong witch powers that extend beyond what’s permitted to royal witches since she couldn’t be bound) she’s a target for political conspiracy and murder. Can Cameron save his new bride? And does he love her for her or is it just her witch powers that attract him?

From what I can ascertain, the world is loosely based upon Renaissance England and France. E.g., the country is named Anglion, is an island, has northerners with Scottish sounding names, and has princesses, kings, and nobility like Earls and Marquis, just spelled phonetically. It felt lazy to use British history nearly wholesale, just throwing in the trappings of magic on top.

We’re promised a fantasy but honestly, there was little magic in the story. There’s a lot of tell about battle mages and royal witches and how powerful they are – but other than stepping through a portal and one magical punch, we don’t really see any of it. Instead, the magic is an excuse for sex, with the power making each gender seem much sexier and interesting, as well as making them horny.

The premise of the story is that the magic is waning, fewer witches are born and each is subsequently weaker, and for some reason, those who guard/watch over the witches don’t have a clue about the witch powers (really odd). There is a religion that is hinted to be there to control the witches and force them into subservience to the men; the female head of the order is called a “domina”, which gives the impression we’ve got a bad guy here. But I found it odd that supposedly Sophie and Cameron have a relationship that will make each stronger (a synergy), yet no one knows anything about that or suspects it. Sophie is simply considered a threat to the church because she couldn’t be bound by the Goddess to constrict her magic to earth chores only. But she’s useful, so she’s allowed to live. But it does beg the question why royal witches who *have* to be virgins to be bound are allowed to go into the city to buy baubles, escorted only with a hunky and horny lieutenant (and on the day before their powers manifest). You’d think the country would long ago have created a law sentencing sex with pre-witch women as beheading/

Since this is a Renaissance/medieval type of fantasy, the women at court are objects and subservient to the men. Sophie is rather innocent but balks at the lack of freedom and idea of forced marriage. Which is fine but by the next few pages, she’s quite happy with an arranged marriage and looking forward to using her husband’s money on trivialities. She’s quite passive, ends up most of the book being saved by Cameron, so her earlier chafing seems more like a petulant child rather than the will of a strong character. I had a hard time liking Sophie or wanting to follow her. She just wasn’t interesting and spends most of the time wondering what’s going on around her (or pondering necklaces, fancy dresses, etc.).

Lead Cameron, who begins the book having a sexual encounter with the princess who is apparently irresistible because her witch powers are strong, then decides that he could do worse than marrying Sophie. He pretty much becomes a rather bland and malleable Prince Charming, running around saving his future wife from unwanted advances at balls and other nebulous threats. His only purpose in the book seems to be as a boy toy for the witches and as such, doesn’t feel like a real person at all. As an example, when Sophie gets jealous and starts berating him for having slept with the princess, he thinks it is cute and nicknames her ‘wildcat’ (what a misnomer – ‘wet kitten’ would probably be better). I just didn’t buy it that a supposedly manly guy in a patriarchal society would think his wife upbraiding him as cute rather than just resorting to physical violence to shut her up.

We have the typical bodice ripper elements: forced/arranged marriage, graphic sex with the virgin that is perfect, a cast of side character females that all fall into the nun or whore category, the ‘big misunderstanding’ scene that causes the heroine to doubt her lover, the drunken lout who makes advances on the heroine so the hero can save her, unhinged rantings of jealousy and suspicion by the heroine that the hero thinks is cute and doesn’t upset him, unique snowflake ability (or ancestry), and more. I kept tripping over the cliches and felt there was too much bodice ripper and not enough fantasy.

Since the story is pretty much told from Sophie’s point, and she’s a sheltered (I assume) simple creature, there wasn’t a lot of interest for me in the story. There’s sex, an explosion, more sex, a lot of traveling, balls, pretty dresses, fancy necklaces galore, overheard secrets, and a lot of shallow machinations. There were also oddly anachronistic terms; e.g., for a story that felt very Elizabeth Rex renaissance, the hero suggests Sophie go get his cravats to tie up an intruder.

The story hinted at a lot of world building but never delivered. I kept waiting for the plot to kick in but the focus was on Sophie and Cameron’s relationship but with a story arc pretty much about things in court destabilizing. The problem is that the destabilizing pretty much took place ‘off camera’ since the couple went on the run. Similarly, Sophie’s witch powers are hinted at being complex and there is the suggestion of a conspiracy to control the witches over the centuries – but there are no reveals at all. Just overheard conversations that leave Sophie even more confused than usual. The whole story just lacked a ‘catch’ for me – a reason to continue other than that witch powers make men horny for the special women.

What I had hoped for in this type of story is a girl using her wits as the only power she has in a male-dominated society and navigating court politics (e.g., a Queen Elizabeth 1). What I got was a romance between a bland and innocent girl and a fairly one-dimensional hero. And pages of magic-induced graphic sex.  Reviewed from an advance reader copy.

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