That’s what she said

The Branch Office by Rook Winters

312 pages

Self-published on January 15, 2018

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

There’s a story in every cubicle.

A novel that is part tribute and part lampoon of office life. You’ll nosedive into absurd behavior, quirky personalities, Silicon Valley excess, 80s nostalgia, personal loss, frustration, unrequited infatuation, company softball, and, of course, doughnuts.

Luke is young and stuck at the bottom of the career ladder but he doesn’t intend to stay there. The grizzled programmer in the next cubicle has been working on the same software for decades and just wants to stay off the radar of the executives.

Unfortunately, the corporate agenda is at odds with their hopes and dreams.

Introducing Working Class Hero: The Novel.

I love a good underdog story, and The Branch Office is a heartwarming tale of everyday heroics in a setting that wouldn’t seem to lend itself to intrigue and revolutions. Rook Winters hides mystery and cutthroat office politics among these cubicles – picture The Office, but with a Michael Scott who’s actually competent. The corporate tension is supplemented by some lovable and genuinely relatable main characters, and I enjoyed seeing them develop throughout the story.

I do have one complaint, though – this book took a good little while to get going. The central conflict didn’t really come in until about halfway through the book, which means the first part of the story was essentially a slice-of-life with a couple of subplots thrown in. Still enjoyable, but not as strong as it could’ve been, in my opinion.

I never thought I’d peg an office drama as a fun bit of escapism, but hey – there’s a first time for everything. 🙂 I loved The Branch Office, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who loves to root for the little guy.

Drowning in beautiful prose

Mr. Galaxy’s Unfinished Dream by R García Vázquez

350 pages

Published on October 31, 2017 by Spinning World Press

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

When Callie is whisked away to Paris for two weeks by her affluent and subtly contemptuous mother and sister–before the newlyweds have had a chance to settle into their new life together–Lucas Amado, a distracted working class romantic and part-time graduate student, is overwhelmed by doubt and a sense of foreboding.

Into the breach steps Marla Tupo, a cheerful and attractive, though at times mystifying older woman he meets at his new job. What at first appears to be a harmless affinity between a disillusioned and conflicted young man, and a sympathetic middle-aged divorcée, soon deteriorates into a complicated mutual dependence that leads to devastating consequences.

Lucas tells the story of his desperate battle to save his marriage, family and sanity. Unexpected events over the course of three and a half years, between 1977 and 1980, drive him across real and imagined borders, both at home and abroad, where the lines between reality and dream, and belief and unbelief, are often blurred, and where saints, psychopaths, and everyday people invite glimpses into the darkness and light of the human mind and heart.

Throughout his exhausting odyssey the young husband and father faces choices and perils he could never have imagined, and encounters, through the most unlikely of circumstances, his moment of truth and self-discovery.

I’m not sure how to describe this book other than “delicious hipster lit fic fever dream,” which seems to hit all the high points.

I love books like this. Vázquez’s writing is utterly captivating and often closer to poetry than prose. It’s writing to sink into, and I enjoyed the sheer texture of the words about as much as the story itself. Mr. Galaxy’s Unfinished Dream is an exploration of life, death, love, and guilt through the eyes of the main character, Lucas Amado, blurring the borders between reality, imagination, and dreams. Like I said, fever dream: vivid and shiny, familiar yet strange, faintly confusing but so pretty you don’t really care.

The ending, unfortunately, went sailing directly over my head.

I mean, I saw the themes, I understood the character development, but the last couple of chapters really felt like they were leading up to something that the final few pages just didn’t deliver. It’s a case of literary it’s-not-you-it’s-me – maybe on a future reread things will snap into focus and I’ll feel like a dunce for not getting it the first time, but until then, that’s where I’m at.

Regardless, I enjoyed every second of the trip even if the destination left me a little lost, and I still highly recommend this book to lovers of Lauren Groff, Ramona Ausubel, and dreamy literary fiction in general.

I was left a(snow)drift

Origin of Legends and the Secrets of the North by Adison Runberg

~120 pages

Publishing on March 2, 2018

A beautiful snowy adventure, and a stunning glimpse of the near future in the frozen north.

When their parents died beneath the surface of a frozen lake, brothers Baldr and Thor began new lives as orphans. The loss of their parents gutted them both, but years later, with comfortable homes and good friends, the brothers were thriving.

Their world is upended when they notice green lights flashing like a beacon from a mountaintop that overlooks their sleepy Canadian town. They set out on a thrilling journey with friends Sophia and Nala, to reach the top of the mountain. Along the way, they gain a trusted canine companion, but soon the group is in over its head as they fight the arctic conditions and an ancient power.

I love retellings of Norse mythology. You got a Thor? I’ll take him. Bring me all your Thors. So it’s no surprise that I was excited to pick up this novella. The further I got into it, though, the less I wanted to continue.

First, the cast. The four main characters are basically indistinguishable. None of them had a unique voice or a motivation, and their personalities were limited to a few quick characteristics. Thor eats like a horse. Nala is writing her thesis. That’s about all I’ve got. They didn’t have any flaws or backstories or desires to make me care about them. Sure, the two brothers lost their parents, but that’s only mentioned from time to time in the narrative. The characters themselves don’t seem to be dealing with any grief or loss.

And then there’s the plot. I have a rule – if the central conflict hasn’t appeared by the 30% mark, I’m putting the book down. Sadly, this book was one of the ones I had to put down. Absolutely nothing was at stake for these characters. They were curious about a flashing light on a mountain and went on a trek to find it. There was no tension, no personal stakes in the mystery, no danger – just a casual curiosity, which wasn’t enough to hold my interest.

The near-future world that Runberg sketches is intriguing, but the rest of her novella needs a bit of work. I’d be interested in giving it another try after a thorough rewrite.

Wrapping up January

Despite getting a late start in January – kind of an “ohwaitshitit’salready2018what” moment – I’ve still managed to get some solid reading in between this blog and my forays over at OnlineBookClub. Here, have a wrap-up. That’s what the cool kids are doing, right?

If anything strikes your fancy, click the cover to see the full review. <3

The Hermit of Blue Ridge

Gorgeous, vivid romance perfect for snugglin’ weather.

Twisted Threads

A steamy murder mystery that left a bit to be desired.

Rapture

Wonderfully full-bodied sci-fi that asks a lot of hard questions.

And Then I Met Margaret

Good as a self-help book, not so much as a memoir, but I liked it.

Raven's Peak

Absolutely delicious paranormal horror.

Admit to Mayhem

Awesome until the ending. :c

Requiem for Riley

A heaping helping of odd.

Jacob's Orb

Lush setting! Character development! Emotional impact! 😀

Wingbound

Lovely YA fantasy even if the protagonist left a little to be desired.

A Good Boy

Very satisfying in its Hallmark-y wholesomeness.

Rescuing the Prince

In which the princess does her own thing. Super fun!

Asper

Cinematic, well-crafted YA fantast. Dee-freaking-licious.

You know what they say about multitasking

The Art of Fully Living by Tal Gur

264 pages

Self-published on October 8, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

In this stirring book, author, blogger and lifestyle entrepreneur, Tal Gur offers his own transformational journey as an inspiring example and practical guide to implementing the art of fully living to its fullest potential. You’ll learn how to actualize your potential by forging all aspects of your life through the process built into your life goals.

Once you discover “the art of fully living,” there is no going back; it will feel unacceptable to settle for less than your dreams—and what’s more, you’ll dream even more wildly, aspiring to action with greater clarity of purpose, broader horizons of possibility, and holistic vision across all areas of your life.

Tal Gur in two words: intimidatingly cool.

The Art of Fully Living is a blend of memoir and self-improvement manual. Tal gave himself 100 goals and ten years to complete them, and his book not only chronicles his successes, but also shares the techniques he used to overcome the failures. Each chapter focuses on a single year – the Year of Socializing, the Year of Freedom, and so on – and follows his journey from Israel to Australia to New Zealand to South America and just about everywhere in between.

Tal’s a good storyteller (especially considering English is not his first language) and The Art of Fully Living is a super enjoyable read. That said, I think the book itself had a couple too many goals. If you read it with an eye to self-improvement, you’ll find plenty of good advice – immerse yourself in your goal, meditate, give more than you take – but nothing extraordinarily groundbreaking. The self-help scene runs rife with these same pointers, and The Art of Fully Living didn’t add a unique angle or spin.

On the other hand, you could read it as a memoir, but it falls a little flat on that count as well. Tal doesn’t go into a ton of detail about his many and varied exploits (presumably to save word count for the self-improvement stuff) and I found myself wanting more. The full list of 100 goals – the main draw of the book, in my opinion – isn’t even included.

Again – I really enjoyed reading this book and I definitely felt inspired and energized after turning the final page. I just think it’s trying to be too many things at once. Your mileage may vary.

Just go pick this book up, seriously

Asper by Rhonda Smiley

254 pages

Self-published on May 4, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

16-year-old sorceress, Milla, loses everything in an instant—her father, her home, her life as she knows it—over a sacred scroll that can merge Asper with Earth.

Ignited by grief, she sets out for vengeance, but discovers she’s no match for the murderous queen who seeks to rule both worlds.

Determined, Milla flees through a portal to Earth where she can master her craft without being hunted, and return for the kill. While there, she bonds with 17-year-old Parker who, despite his conniving ex-girlfriend, believes in her.

But when a spell her father cast to bury her memories begins to wane, glimpses of a past she never knew start surfacing. A past so unthinkable, it derails her future.

Should she still do what she set out to? Or risk everything—Earth, Asper, Parker—for the sake of hope?

I haven’t been this enamored of a YA fantasy for a good while.

Asper is beautifully written. Although it’s Rhonda Smiley’s debut novel, she’s done plenty of screenwriting in the past, and it shows. The book is positively cinematic, richly described, and just about impossible to put down. The author really knows how to crank up the suspense, and there were more than a few moments that left me with my heart pounding and my fingers desperately flipping the page. (Or something like that. Swiping. eReaders, you know.)

The sheer depth of this novel is what launched it to the top ranks of my list of favorites. The characters are rich with conflict and indecision, but my true favorite was the villian – or, better yet, the fact that it’s really hard to tell who the villain is. The main conflict of Asper (no spoilers, no spoilers) is so layered and well-crafted that it really did leave me pondering. Who’s in the right? What even is ‘right’? It’s fun not knowing if the hero will succeed, but not knowing if they’re even fighting the right battle? It was captivating, refreshing, and not something I find often in the YA shelves.

There is a slight snag, though it didn’t come until the very last page. The ending. The book doesn’t feel unfinished, but it does feel like there’s a chapter missing – the denouement is just a little too abrupt, a little too open for that sequel which may or may not follow. All I’m asking for is an epilogue. 😉

That quibble is nowhere near enough to dissuade me from wholeheartedly recommending Asper to any and all lovers of fantasy looking for something a bit different.

Heck yeah princess power

Rescuing the Prince by Meghann McVey

262 pages

Self-published on February 3, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads

During the afternoon fantasy parade, a dragon swooped down and carried off my boyfriend. I am not making this up.

So begins Leah’s adventures that lead her to another world. At home in California, Leah’s boyfriend Gerry is her rock and motivation. Now, trapped in another world without him, she must find her own courage. During her quest, Leah impersonates a missing princess, learns magic, and meets new friends and allies, including the shy, handsome Tolliver. But in the end, does she have what it takes to defeat Gerry’s fearsome captor, the Dragon Rider?

Oh, this was refreshing. One minute, Leah is happily playing the role of Cinderella at Disneyland Portalis. The next, she’s not only impersonating a real princess in a world she knows nothing about, but she’s got a boyfriend to save – not to mention a cluster of nobles and royalty that need wrangling. Oh, and magic. Let’s not forget the magic.

Rescuing the Prince is super duper fun. Leah is a strong character – though she has her occasional moments of brattiness, she’s a determined and resourceful kid, fighting her fears and anxieties to save the boy she loves. The plot itself was wonderfully unpredictable. I was surprised and thrilled to realize that McVey had staunchly refused all the usual fantasy tropes. The main character is not blessed with unbelievable power. There’s a stunning lack of “Oh, which big strong man will I choose!?” love-triangulation. The Big Bad isn’t a faceless epitome of evil, but a proper character with motivations and history. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole ride, especially the ending – while it feels like a sequel might be forthcoming, the book doesn’t end on a huge cliffhanger. I really do love a good standalone.

If I had one complaint, it’d be that I wish the magic system was explained a little more, but in the grand scheme of badass princessing and daring rescues, I’ll let it slide. I highly recommend Rescuing the Prince to anyone who has a soft spot for YA fantasy.

Great takeoff, rough landing

Wingbound by Heather Trim

231 pages

Self-publishing on March 23, 2018

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

Ledger is supposed to fear and despise the Sky People of Ellery, but then he meets an Ellerian girl, named Alouette and does the wrong thing. With his village at war with the winged people who live on a floating island that circles their world, he befriends her.

In Ledger’s seventeenth harvest, Ellery returns empty. The Sky People are gone, Alouette is missing, and Ledger must make a difficult choice — continue life as usual in the blacksmith workshop or board the island against the elder’s wishes and find her.

Look, I was hooked from the mention of a fantasy world orbited by a mysterious floating island inhabited by winged strangers. Heather Trim has some serious world-building chops – she deftly sketches sprawling castles and desolate oceans in a soft, simplistic fairy-tale writing style, creating an atmosphere that felt like an old fable, or something deserving of watercolor illustrations.

Unfortunately, the people in those settings didn’t enthrall me quite as much. At the beginning, I really liked Ledger. He’s a compassionate, resourceful dreamer that doesn’t fit in, and his struggle between upholding tradition and doing the right thing was super endearing. But as the story progressed, his character development stalled. Instead of facing the new obstacles in front of him and rising above his flaws, he seemed to lose agency as time went on – by the climax, he struck me as rather whiny. I was far more interested in the supporting cast. Hollis, in particular: the wild and sometimes immature spitfire who just wants to be closer to Ledger. I loved Kava, the wise-beyond-her-years healer that takes it upon herself to wrangle the unruly group of adventurers. I would have loved to see the story unfold from their points of view. Ledger did a great job getting them all into trouble, but when it came time to get back out, I don’t think he added all that much.

In addition, there are a few dozen punctuation errors scattered through the book – not terribly many, but enough that I think another pass by a proofreader would be helpful.

To sum this all up, your mileage may vary. Wingbound is a great concept done fairly well, and I still think it’s worth a read if you’re prepared to roll your eyes at the leading man every once in a while.

I needed a good romp

Jacob’s Orb by James L Mayor

425 pages

Self-published on January 14, 2018

Amazon | Facebook | Author’s Website

Step into the forest with Jacob and discover the forgotten power of the white orb.

“The sign in the sky is nothing more than a moving star, Jacob. Don’t be so foolish as to believe in magic.”

Jacob would have normally listened to his father, but the strange orb that he discovered with his friends had caught the attention of his adventurous spirit. Jacob is soon forced to embark on a terrifying quest to rescue his family from a power that they had refused to believe in.

Jacob’s Orb reminded me why I love YA fiction.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Mayor has a knack for vivid writing that doesn’t bog down the action – I felt like I was 15 again, joining Jacob and his friends on their harrowing quest to save their village. The storyline was well-paced, keeping the stakes high as the characters faced obstacle after obstacle, and I flew through the entire book a single sitting. I couldn’t help myself! There were some truly thrilling twists that I never saw coming – a refreshing feeling after reading perhaps more than my fair share of rather predictable YA novels.

The main character, Jacob, was my favorite part of the whole story. The book not only gives him plenty of external conflict to fight against, but also gives his internal conflict a good bit of screen time. I loved seeing his character development unfold in such a well-written and organic way. Jacob’s Orb touches on themes of working together and making sacrifices, which makes it a book I’d be happy to plop in front of a young reader.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’d be that it really needs one more pass by a proofreader. There are an unfortunate amount of misplaced punctuation and word choice issues that look like they might be the work of autocorrect. The story drew me in enough that the errors didn’t put me off, but fixing those issues would take this book from good to great.

Still, I highly recommend Jacob’s Orb to young adults and the young at heart. It’s a lightning-fast romp that you won’t want to put down.

This one’s a thinker

Rapture by Alex P Wu

269 pages

Self-published on December 28, 2017

Amazon | Goodreads | Author’s Website

In the year 2067, followers of The Pure are vanishing from Earth. It’s rapture, as predicted in their scriptures. At least that is what the religion’s faithful believe.

To conspiracy theorists, the disappearances are a nefarious government plot. To the government, they’re merely human foul-play. To Reiko Liebenstadt, a disgraced agent at the Federal Protectorate, the mystery is her obsession. On the case that sank her career, she alone witnessed a Purist vanish from a canoe in the middle of a lake.

Reiko’s investigation of The Pure leads her to a world ravaged by disease and war. She uncovers the real reason she was chosen for the assignment, the hidden meanings in the prophecies of the scriptures, and the ultimate fate of those raptured.

The truth is far from heavenly.

{Be forewarned: I’ve tried to keep things very vague, but this review does give away a little more about the plot than the blurb does. Potential spoilers ahead.}

Political intrigue, religious fervor, and the fate of humanity – Rapture is the darkest, heaviest sci-fi action epic I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. Our main character, Reiko, has to live through her own twisted version of the trolley problem, facing tough decision after tough decision as she’s thrust into the center of a spiderweb of factions and agendas she had no idea even existed.

Even better, that spiderweb has been woven with amazing depth and obvious attention to detail.  Wu has created a universe that’s remarkably plausible (obligatory suspension of disbelief aside), which is always a bonus point in my book when it comes to sci-fi. There are no villains-for-villainy’s-sake – every conflict is layered with reasoning and history, making Reiko’s life all the harder as she tries to navigate the minefield.

Wu sketches this conflict in a writing style that’s sparse and clean. It’s a change for me, as I usually prefer denser, more character-focused writing, but it really worked for Rapture. Despite the heavy themes, the pace is punchy and quick, and I devoured it all in just a couple of sittings.

Moral quandaries abound in Rapture, so if you enjoy books that test your core beliefs, look no further. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy hard-hitting fiction that makes you think.