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October Book Reviews

Happy Halloween! This month I read some scary good books from a variety of genres (thriller, YA, and adult contemporary), including one from a 15-year-old teen author.

5 Star Reviews:

Change of Heart (Legacy of Loyalty #1) by James Clifton

The premise: To what lengths would you go to ensure that your family can afford a good life? Would you commit a crime? Would you trade your life for their future? These are not academic questions for John Cooper. After losing his business and reaching the brink of bankruptcy, he decides that he’s worth more dead than alive and attempts suicide so that his pregnant wife will have the insurance money.

Two thousand miles away, another man contemplates a different question. He’s dying and needs a heart transplant. And he needs it soon. Where can he get the new heart that he so desperately needs?

What connects these two men is an extremely rare blood type, a type that only one-in-a-million share. John Cooper has the heart that Jimmie Regan needs. And, as one of the biggest drug lords in the world, Jimmie Regan has what John Cooper needs—lots of money.

5/5 stars: I received a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Wow, what a great read.

I initially loved the premise of organ donation meets self-sacrifice meets second thoughts. I didn’t realize the tension would be so compelling- I read the book in less than a day. Thriller type books aren’t my usual go-to, but I’d highly recommend Change of Heart. The plot is dynamic and intriguing with just enough twists to stay interesting without becoming unrealistic or over-the-top. Perhaps more impressively, the plot doesn’t sag as plots and subplots weave an almost constant, but not exhausting, tension. There’s also a great undercurrent of themes about morality and legality, privilege and power that adds depth.

Somehow, even with multiple main characters, each is round with clear motivations. Even with the complex plot and subplots, it’s easy to see how everything comes together as each character acts according to their nature. Overall the writing is excellent, making scenes immersive and tension palpable.

The ending is great- satisfying and complete, taking time to wrap up. I was skeptical it would drag on since much of the climax stopped about 80% of the way through, but each conclusion felt necessary and important.

The Apology Box by Naomi Ulsted

The premise: When sixteen-year-old Tessa's small mountain community is ravaged by a forest fire, people come together to heal. Except Tessa. Because she set the fire. This debut YA novel by Naomi Ulsted follows Tessa as she tries to pull a new life from the ashes of a big mistake. When the judge hands out a sentence of massive fines, community service and 227 apology letters - one for every person whose life she's ruined - Tessa wishes she'd been sent to prison, that life behind bars might be better than the one she's forced to live. Suffocated by shame and resentment, and shunned by her friends and neighbors, the only person she can lash out at is herself. An unlikely friendship, a painful discovery, and a box full of letters may be the only chance Tessa has at redemption.

5/5 stars: I received a copy in exchange for an honest review. This is an awesome story that deals with a lot of important issues like mental health, mistakes, expectations around college and growing up, friendship, and more. Because of this, note that the content may be triggering for some (ie mention of miscarriage, car accident, depression, minor self harm). Tessa clearly has flaws, but feels genuine and likable. Her coping mechanisms are so common among those with depression and other mental health issues (ie hopelessness, minor self harm, etc) and are normalized without being glorified. Perhaps more importantly, her character and story are MORE than just her mental illness journey. Effeby was delightful, and integral to both the plot and Tessa’s characterization and growth. I also loved Diego’s dog, both on the surface and for what he comes to represent. What could have been better: I wished Diego was more of a complex character, and I wished I could see his connection with Tessa more than just being told it existed. That being said, I appreciated that him/his love didn’t “fix” Tessa and that she didn’t “need” him.

The First 50 by Natascia Mallin

The premise: A proudly humanist portrayal of sexual impulse and impropriety in the City of Angels, The First 50 is a chronological recapitulation of fifty sexual encounters that take place between the ages of thirteen and thirty-three. Columbine, 9/11, The Iraq War, and The Great Recession set the stage as a young woman navigates the ambient decadence that has long defined Los Angeles. From hot tubs in Santa Monica mansions to bar bathrooms on Venice street corners, this book inverts Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero by replacing Gen X ennui with a Millennial zest for living. Meet "The First 50", but not the last...

5/5 starts: I received a free copy in exchange for a review.

Wow. The First 50 is incredibly well written and moving, built solidly around powerful prose. This was the first story I've read in a while that made me cry (as well as laugh, and everything in between). I had to take a few days before writing this, because I couldn't stop thinking about it. I don't always love books that read like a collection of short stories, but this format added to the charm, both practically and literarily. Anyone looking to better their writing should look at this as an example of how to beautifully balance sentence structures to create movement and emphasis, to tackle common but tough themes in a creative way, and how to build complex characters who are perfectly imperfect.

Note that this is definitely not a light read, especially for those who may resonate with any of the described anecdotes (including toxic relationships, sexual misconduct, etc).

4 Star Reviews:

Without Flaws by Diane Asther

*Teen Author

The premise: Zach has been trapped in a torture facility since he was a child and his father abandoned him there. But when he notices that his mom is close to her breaking point, he realizes it's time to plan a daring escape. A bizarre bond with a strange girl from the outside world might be the key he needs to escape.

Zara is a mutant with the ability to look into the future. One day has a grave vision where she loses everything, but she can't remember the vision. Will she be able to connect the dots and save everyone? Or will everything and everyone she has ever cared for be taken away from her?

4/5 stars: I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

This is an impressive debut, especially for a 15-year-old. The story is compelling and emotional, compounded by vivid descriptive detail. While I was skeptical of the common science fiction premise of a lab facility and twins, Asther makes it a captivating exploration of family and other themes.

As others have mentioned, there are points where the writing is less clear (especially at the beginning), but this is 1. more of the failing of an editor and 2. clearly something that will improve as the author continues to write.

All in all, Asther is clearly talented with a bright future as a writer.

As you likely know, reviews are incredibly important for authors like me. If you haven't reviewed my book, Starvation, on Amazon and/or Goodreads, please do so!

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