A Note About Categories

Hello and welcome to the Literate Meerkat! Feel free to browse around and check out all the categories, but first here’s a little guide to point you in the right direction:

Literacy
I love books, and I wish that everyone else did too. Some people just don’t like to read and other people never really get the foundation for it. I’m new to the whole literacy scene, but I’ll be looking into what the facts are about this topic and how I can help. If you want to learn along with me, or if you have your own expertise that you’d like to share, this is the spot for you.

Reviews
If you’d like to read my reviews of books I’ve read recently, here they are. My rating system is completely arbitrary, though I do try to make allowances for books that I think are well written, even if I didn’t enjoy them all that much. Almost all of these titles will be new (published within the past year). I try to avoid spoilers, but sometimes a few slip in, especially when I’m discussing a book in greater detail. If you’d like to go completely spoiler free, stick with the recommendations.

Recommendations
These posts are for spoiler-free opinions. As such, I’d appreciate it if you could keep your comments in this section spoiler free as well. (Yes, even for the really old books. They’re still new to people who haven’t read them yet.) I’ll make recommendations for books that I’m also reviewing, as well as including some old favorites that I think everyone should read.

If you want to help the Literate Meerkat grow, subscribe to new posts, leave comments, and spread the word to all your friends. It’s greatly appreciated. Cheers!

Breath of Fire Falls a Little Flat

After reading Amanda Bouchet’s debut A Promise of Fire, I was determined to wait until all three books in the Kingmaker Chronicles were published to continue reading.

I made it until about a week ago and then decided that I  had to read the next one, Breath of Fire. I really could have waited.

On the romance side of things, Griffin and Cat’s relationship is pretty stable. Griffin does lose his temper when he discovers Cat’s true identity. As far as the principle of the matter goes, I understand that Griffin is upset about Cat lying to him. On the other hand, it was obvious, Griffin. So, so obvious. You really should have figured it out way before you did.

As far as Cat and Griffin’s efforts to take over the world, I wasn’t all that impressed. For one thing, Cat’s improbable series of near-death experiences continues. The methods of keeping her alive are getting equally improbable as we go, up to and including Kato regurgitating a magic snake. I’m no longer the least bit concerned for her well-being, just slightly curious what monster is going to chew her up next and how Bouchet is going to work around it.

The main cast of characters is great, but there seemed to be a lot of emotional weight tied to secondary characters who hadn’t been developed enough. For example, when the sixth person on their team gets murdered in the hallway right before their competition in the Games. This is really just an elaborate set up to give them no other choice to than to enter Jocasta in the fights. And I understand that this would shake up the rest of the team, but I can’t even remember the poor woman’s name. As happy as I am that Beta Team is thus far intact, if you want me to resonate with the loss of a character, it’s going to have to be a little more meaningful than that.

What with all the build up to fortifying Sinta’s borders so that the team can compete in the Games to sneak into Tarva, I thought the climax was very anti-climactic. They make it to Alpha Tarva, find out he’s much more powerful than they anticipated, and then get saved by another previously unknown character making the ultimate sacrifice. It left me more confused about what just happened than anything else.

I still love these characters and I’m still looking forward to book three, but this book did not live up to the expectations set by book one. 3 out of 5.

Caraval: Can It Be Real?

I usually dislike books that confuse me. I just want to know what’s happening, or at least to have it figured out by the conclusion. Three days after I’ve finished Stephanie Garber’s Caraval and I’m still not sure exactly what happened.

But whatever it was, I loved it.

It had it’s weak points. Like most young adult novels (and lots of adults ones too) the romance felt rushed. On the other hand, Scarlett went through a very emotional and disorienting week with Julian her only touchstone throughout the process, so it makes sense that she has intense feelings for him, even if she has only known him for ten days. Also, I loved how he insisted on calling her Crimson.

I still can’t decide if Tella is the greatest sister ever or a selfish jerk. If you’ve read this book, let me know what you think, because I honestly don’t know.

And is magic real? How much of the book was real and how much was just the game? Was the warning at the entrance to Caraval about not taking the game too seriously a genuine warning, or was it a way for Legend to do whatever he wants by telling the people who question him that they’ve gotten too deep into the game? What was scripted and what was real?

As I said, I don’t usually like books that leave me with this many unanswered questions, but I’m making an exception for Caraval. The unanswered questions aren’t just lazy writing or plot holes but meant to echo Scarlett’s own confusion as she is drawn further into the game.

Also, I’m hoping she answers some of those questions in the as-yet untitled sequel which is due to come out in 2018.

So, to recap, this is a fairly typical young adult novel character-wise. You’ve got your selfless heroine falling in love with the scoundrel who is helping her find her sister. But the setting of Caraval makes you question everything, which means it’s nice to have something solid to ground your reading on, like a predictable relationship.

This makes for an excellent summer reading book. Throw it in your vacation back and whip through it when you have a couple days off. You should probably throw a couple extra books in there too, though, in case you get unexpectedly caught up and end up zooming through the whole thing in one day like I did.

Four out of five. Eagerly anticipating book 2.

 

Missing, Presumed is Missing Something

I have always had this belief that everyone has a great story to tell. That normal, everyday life is a fascinating series of adventures that deserve to be told.

Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed is making me question whether or not that is true.

DS Manon Bradshaw is a very realistic character. She’s good at her job, not on the best terms with her family, and bearing down on 40 with a growing sense of desperation over her single status. I thought her story was believable and at times touching. But it really didn’t leave me wanting more, which is not a good sign for a novel that is supposed to be launching a series.

Part of the problem for me was my American-ness. Thanks to my love of Bones, Castle, and J. D. Robb novels, I can follow American police lingo fairly well. The British detectives were losing me at every turn. I was almost halfway through the book before I realized that a “misper” is a missing person. It was hard for me to really feel invested in the case when half the time I had no clue what the characters were talking about.

Also, I don’t know why realistic so often has to mean depressing. I realize that life is not a bed of roses and hard things happen and dreams do not always come true, but in an entire unit of cops not one of them is really happy with their life.

The high point of this story is Manon’s relationship with Fly, a young boy whose older brother has recently been killed. Manon investigates his death while trying to make sure that Fly is well fed and cared for, now that his only family is a dying mother. It humanizes Manon, which is something that she desperately needed.

Maybe I missed something, because this book got incredible reviews across the board, but I would give it a 3 out of 5. Though I won’t be rushing out to snatch book 2 as soon as it comes out (Persons Unknown, coming out on July 4th) I would be willing to give Manon another shot. Perhaps I’ll crack the British police code, become more invested in Manon’s character, and finally figure out what everyone else is so excited about.

 

Revisiting Neverland: Peter Pan Retellings

Months ago, I downloaded Kindle’s sample of UnhookedI really liked the direction the story was going with this girl whose parents had some mysterious connection with Neverland, but the sample ended right about the same time the story moved out of England and into the world of make believe. As I said, I really liked it, but not enough to buy the book to read the rest.

Months pass, I remember that public libraries exist, and I finally get my hands on the full copy of Unhooked. It was such a disappointment. I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. I felt like the beginning of the story set up a lot of unfulfilled expectations. But overall I couldn’t put my finger on what I didn’t like about the book. And then I read Alias Hook.

It was so much better. The books are very similar. Both make Captain Hook into a sympathetic character. By extension, this makes Peter Pan the bad guy. But how they go about doing that is very different.

In Unhooked, the protagonist and Hook are both teenagers, just like Pan. Pan wants to control Neverland and will stop at nothing to gain more power. He is unquestionably a villain. Hook is a former Lost Boy who has turned against Pan now that he knows the boy’s true nature. While I thought it sounded like a promising premise, it was ultimately unsatisfying.

Alias Hook focuses on a woman who has arrived in Neverland under mysterious circumstances, desperate to escape war-torn Europe and recapture her lost childhood. Hook, a full grown man, has been cursed to stay in Neverland, but with Stella’s reappearance, he learns that there may be a way to escape his prison. And it’s a fantastic character journey that I really want to discuss with you, but not until after you’ve read the book. So read it, get in touch, and we’ll chat. Seriously, I would love it if you did that.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’m not going to go into more detail of the plot of either of these books, but I will talk about why I think Alias Hook works so much better. The idea of eternal childhood is central to the original Peter Pan. Hook isn’t a villain because he’s a pirate, but rather because he’s an adult. By putting Hook and Pan in the same age bracket, Unhooked loses that central conflict.

Alias Hook turns that conflict around by challenging whether eternal childhood is really such a good thing, but the same idea remains at the heart of Neverland. Pan is not the hero of the story, but he isn’t a true villain either. Because he’s still just a young boy, his ideas of right and wrong have not fully developed. He’s still cruel, but the point is that children have no grasp of the consequences of their actions, which is why they can be so heartless. Cutting off Hook’s hand is still a despicable act, but Pan has no notion of what it means to permanently maim someone.

If you want to read a Peter Pan retelling, I highly recommend Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen. If you decide to read a different one, I still really think you should find one that maintains the age difference between Pan and Hook. As with any retelling, fiddling with the details is what makes it new and fun, but the heart of the story has to stay in place.

 

Jane Steele: Retelling Gone Right

When I reviewed Eligible, I admitted that I didn’t like it, but I thought that retelling someone else’s story was hard. After reading Jane Steele, I might have to change my opinion.

The basis of any retelling is a “What if” question. Most authors ask “What if (insert classic story) took place in a modern setting?” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, most often it doesn’t do much for me. Lyndsay Faye asks, “What if Jane Eyre was a serial killer?”

A question that had never crossed my mind, but once it did, I had to know the answer. And that answer is Jane Steele. I have never been a big fan of Jane Eyre, partially because I don’t care much for Jane herself. I don’t know what it says about me that I liked her so much better as a serial killer, but I loved Jane Steele. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself in difficult situations, starting at a young age. When life gets hard, Jane Steele doesn’t fall apart, she finds solutions. Usually her solutions involve killing someone, but trust me, these people had it coming.

Mr. Rochester also gets a much needed upgrade in this retelling. Charles Thornfield loves his ward, is dedicated to helping his friends, and completely unperturbed by the fact that his governess can wield a knife and swear like a sailor. Sounds like my kind of guy.

Jane Steele is shipped off to boarding school, away from her childhood home of Highgate House, after her cousin dies. What no one knows is that Jane killed him. Accidentally, kind of. She pushes him into a ravine when he tries to rape her. She decides she is a wicked girl for killing someone and embraces her fate. She’s quite happy bypassing heaven as she’s told that her mother, a depressed widow who committed suicide, has no doubt been sentenced to hell.

With this rather inauspicious start to life, Jane finds herself in an abusive school, which leads her to London, which eventually circles her back around to Highgate House, where she plans to kill the man who inherited the house when her aunt died and so claim her own inheritance. There’s only one problem.

She really likes Charles Thornfield and his household. So do I. I’ve already hit Thornfield’s highlights, but the rest of his household is just as good. The most prominent features of this unorthodox English estate are the Sikh butler, Sardar Singh, who seems like a great guy but is obviously hiding something, and Sahjara, Thornfield’s ward who is delightfully wild.

Unraveling the mystery of this odd household becomes more urgent after Jane kills a nighttime intruder. The answers lie in the Sikh Wars in India, but Jane’s investigation is further hampered by Mr. Sam Quillfeather, an Inspector who may be able to tie Jane to at least three deaths.

Even more complications arise when Jane discovers that her aunt was not her father’s sister-in-law, but rather his legitimate wife. He married Jane’s mother under false pretenses with an assumed name.

To top it all off, Jane can’t just fall back on her usual method of un-complicating things, because she has fallen in love with Charles Thornfield and doesn’t want to admit to him that she is, in fact, a murderess.

The way Faye weaves all of these storylines together along with seamless character development makes for a very enjoyable read. The fact that Jane most often kills to protect other people makes her a downright heroic figure. The way the people around her react to her protection often made me judge them more than her.

If there was one thing I disliked about the book, it was the way Jane blamed herself for her cousin’s death. She saw that as her downfall from grace, when anyone else would clearly label it as self-preservation. But the book is redeemed when Jane finally comes clean to Thornfield about the people she has killed and he quickly sets her straight on her view of herself.

Jane and Thornfield’s relationship is everything a literary romance should be. They are remarkably well suited for each other, becoming good friends rather quickly. Their banter is endlessly entertaining, and the obstacles to their relationship genuine problems and not contrived issues. It’s true strength is that the romance is not the center of the story, but rather a thread that runs underneath the plot and helps to tie it all together.

Not only did I love reading this book, I’m already looking forward to re-reading it. 5 out of 5 stars, no question.

Uprooted: Magic that Works

I really loved Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel Uprooted. In addition to being an author she is also a computer game designer. Much of her novel echoed aspects of the old Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest and Quest for Glory. So maybe part of it is just my 90’s nostalgia, but I loved it.

Her characters were great, her world was well-developed, and her folk story foundation was rock solid. But the crowning masterpiece of this book is the magic.

It’s hard to come up with a workable magic system for a fantasy world. If you’re not careful, you end up with the solution to all of your characters’ problems being right at their fingertips. Then you need to come up with some convoluted reason why magic can’t fix this particular problem. This is compounded when your main character is the most powerful wizard to be seen in hundreds of years, which is another fantasy staple.

So the question becomes, how do you make your character special without giving them unlimited power? Naomi Novik has found the answer in Uprooted.

Agnieska lives in a region protected by a Dragon (not a real dragon, just a wizard known by that name). Every ten years he picks a girl to be his servant. Everyone knows that he will take Agnieska’s best friend Kasia, who is beautiful and graceful and everything that Agnieska is not. But then choosing day comes and Angieska is the one taken.

Once back at the Tower, the Dragon tries to teach Angieska magic, but she is a horrible failure at it. Then she finds a little book full of spells that all work for her. The Dragon is stymied, as no one considered those spells any good, and eventually it all comes out. Agnieska does magic differently than other wizards do.

This is a brilliant move on Novik’s part. Agnieska is not more powerful than everyone else, but she can do things they can’t. On the flip side, things that come easily to them are hard for her. And when she works with someone, combining their two forms of magic, they can accomplish even more.

This gives them their best chance yet to beat back the Wood, a malevolent power that corrupts everyone that comes in contact with it. But it also creates even more problems. Working magic together is kind of intimate. What if no other magic user is around to work with you? What if the only one available isn’t someone you’re comfortable forming that type of connection with?

Novik’s magic system sets up a framework that allows her characters to break new ground while still providing limits. When you combine this with a world-weary sorcerer with a dry sense of humor, a determined heroine who makes things up as she goes along, and a sinister villain whose power reaches farther than anyone ever guessed, the resulting story is simply magical.

Nimona

I don’t like graphic novels. I procured a copy of Nimona for my sister with no intention of reading it myself. She loved it so much I had to at least crack the cover and it had me from page 2.

The story of supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart and his shape-shifter sidekick Nimona is heartwarming and gory and horrific and hilarious. I don’t quite know how it manages to be all of those things at the same time, but it is. And I loved every second of it.

I’m not entirely comfortable with loving this book. Nimona is a bloodthirsty little savage. She straight up murders people on a regular basis. The established supervillain has higher morals than she does.

Getting the story from the villain’s point of view automatically makes the hero suspect, but Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin is shady. He blew off Blackheart’s arm after losing a jousting match to him, supposedly  by accident but most of us make it through life without accidentally maiming our best friend. Said maiming leads Blackheart down the path of villainy, but I’d say being named Blackheart kind of did that long before the jousting incident.

As it turns out, the entire thing was orchestrated by the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, who wanted Blackheart out of the way so that Goldenloin could be their champion, since he’s so easily duped.

Blackheart is not duped at all, and so launches a mission to reveal the true nature of the supposed good guys. He doesn’t make a whole lot of headway on that, but then Nimona shows up and makes herself his sidekick. Her shapeshifting powers come in very handy, but as she slowly reveals more and more powers, Blackheart begins to wonder just what he’s teamed up with.

All of the characters are delightfully three dimensional. Blackheart is a self-proclaimed villain, but he’s really not a bad guy. Goldenloin looks like the most heroic of heroes, only to be revealed as weak and susceptible. The Institution, which stands for all that is good and right, is power-hungry and corrupt. Nimona, the entertaining sidekick, is a horrifying blood-thirsty fiend.

Noelle Stevenson manages to raise and address heavy issues with a lighthearted tone. The book is rated at a third grade reading level, but it will keep any adult entertained.

I give it 5 out of 5 stars, and I don’t do it lightly. This book earned every single one.

The Dry

Jane Harper’s The Dry has gotten insanely good reviews. And I just don’t know why. It’s a fine book but there’s nothing outstanding about it.

Murder mysteries, like most established genres, have a pretty set formula. The Dry follows this formula almost to the letter. The mystery itself isn’t predictable (I didn’t figure it out), but the novel is.

Brutal murder shocks small town…check
Main character return to hometown for funeral intending to leave asap…check
Main character doesn’t leave asap…check

Aaron Falk was forced to leave town quickly as a teenager after being suspected of murder. Now he’s returned for his former best friend’s funeral, and is literally counting the hours until he can get back to Melbourne. Everyone believes that Luke murdered his wife and son before killing himself, but Luke’s parents beg Aaron to stay in town a few extra days and prove that Luke didn’t do it. Aaron reluctantly agrees, joins forces with the local cop, and faces his past while solving the mystery.

Harper does a good job of laying a trail of clues that keeps the reader guessing until the truth is revealed. It’s a solid case and the murder from Aaron’s past keeps rearing its ugly head to keep things interesting. There’s a satisfying conclusion, though it’s a bit depressing, which is only to be expected from a crime that includes the murder of a little boy. The weak point of the story was the budding romance between Aaron and Gretchen, which I really didn’t care about.

All in all, I’ll give it 3 out of 5 stars. As I said, solid but not spectacular.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

This book had me at super-powered female assassins. Or, really, it had me at THE REGIONAL OFFICE IS UNDER ATTACK!, which is kind of hard to overlook when its sprawled in giant letters across the cover of a book covered in asterisks and lightning bolts. It looks like a fun book and it sounds like a fun story.

It lies. This book disturbed me on a rather deep level. I finished it the day after I read Nimona, which didn’t help since they both have startling similar premises. What do you do when an organization dedicated to doing good turns out to have corrupt leaders? Who do you cheer for when the splinter group fighting back against the corruption turns out to be kind of corrupt itself?

Who do you cheer for when both sides and right and both sides are wrong?

Manuel Gonzales wrote a fantastic book. The characters are well done, the story is well paced, the prose is well-written. And yet I kind of wish I hadn’t read it. I want a hero to cheer for. I want a villain to hate. I don’t want to feel torn between two heroines who are remarkably similar and both duped by their respective leadership.

I like books that make me happy. Books that affirm that good always wins and that things have a way of working out in the end and that people have a natural tendency to do the right thing. But we need books like this. As unsettling as I found The Regional Office Is Under Attack! I think everyone should read it.

Because our world is very gray. We like to think that we are the heroes and those who don’t agree with us are villains, but it doesn’t really work like that. Most of us are just trying to do what we think it best and hope we don’t hurt too many people in the process. If you’re a super-powered assassin, that’s a but harder to do, but most of them still try.

Manuel Gonzales makes you see both sides of a battle where nobody wins and you realize how much better it would have been if people had just been honest with each other and become friends and joined forces to fight against the real villains.

Sarah and Rose never got that chance. It’s kind of depressing and I don’t really like depressing books. But it makes you think, and more people need to take some time to think about how their story looks from the opposite point of view. To realize that the world is not black and white but full of all kinds of murky gray areas. To look beyond the person who doesn’t agree with you and try to find the real villain and discover a way we can settle our differences peacefully and then go after them.

The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is not the fun book I thought it would be. It’s pretty bloody and light on the humor and dissatisfying in its resolution. Somehow it still gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Reckoning of Dragons

Rob May’s epic fantasy trilogy made for a quick and entertaining read. Even though there were things about it that I didn’t love, one thing made it some of the best fantasy I have ever read: Kal Moonheart is the epic heroine I never knew I wanted until I found her.

We’re all familiar with the character who is living a quiet life and only wants to be left alone until some cataclysmic event forces them to take action and save the world. It’s noble of them, really. But as they hope from danger to danger, it gets harder to believe that they’re doing everything they can to avoid excitement. The lady doth protest too much.

And then there’s Kal. She will leap headfirst into trouble for no other reason than to see what happens. She’s largely motivated by money, though she does have enough of a conscience to help a friend out. Strangers can fend for themselves. Kal isn’t looking forward to finishing one last dangerous task and then retiring to the quiet life. The quiet life bores her silly and has her investigating dangerous intrigues just to break up the monotony.

May’s other characters are equally three-dimensional and interesting. I highly encourage aspiring writers to read this series as an example of how to develop good characters. They all have positive and negative traits, making me like all of them, even if I kind of hated them too.

The one thing I did not like about this book: the ending left me wanting more. There are many more stories to tell with this world. As far as I can tell, Rob May isn’t working on any new books with these characters at the moment, but a girl can hope.