Review: The Breaking of Liam Glass by Charles Harris

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I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Breaking of Liam Glass
by Charles Harris

Marble City Publishing, 2017

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The verdict: Poignant and biting satire that brings laughter, sadness, and—most importantly—a strong call for change.

Going in, I knew The Breaking of Liam Glass was a satire, but for whatever reason, I expected an over-the-top detective spoof. What I found instead was a tight and suspenseful noir, featuring sharp wit and spot-on social commentary. Harris dives into London’s underbelly without the story ever feeling seedy or unfair, and as a result, he creates a brilliant novel on the press and perception, a tale of “fake news” that’s all too rooted in reality. I can see Harris’s background as a screenwriter in the close third-person narration hopping from character to character without ever breaking the action. Without giving any spoilers, I’ll say that after racing to the finish line I felt more lost than found. Maybe that’s the point. Liam Glass entertains and unsettles, and, as a society, we have to fight against the current.

It’s the spring of 2010 in London. Fourteen-year-old Liam Glass disappears while making a late-night ATM run for his mom, and the authorities soon find him stabbed and barely hanging on to life. Small-time journalist Jason Crowthorne catches a whiff of the story and decides this could finally be his big break. When a major sports agent offers his support, Jason crafts a heartwrenching narrative that will finally earn him professional recognition and his daughter’s approval—never minding whether or not the story has any ounce of truth to it. Yet as rumors circulate and actual facts come to light, Jason discovers the sea’s full of sharks, and he’s not the only one willing to use a fabricated headline to skyrocket his career. In a race against the deadline, Jason’s willingness to risk it all soon shows he has more to lose than he ever thought possible.

Home was a small studio flat in an old conversion; four very basic rooms reached by a fire escape. Jason ran up the steps, slammed the front door shut behind him. Then he pulled out his camera and looked again at the picture of the kid under the oxygen mask. He had a nose for stories, a good one. Maybe it hadn’t been twitching much recently, but he knew what worked and what didn’t.

As a character, Jason’s crafty and desperate, but sometimes his internal deliberations grow a bit tiresome. He’s neither horrible in a way that’s delightful nor hapless in a way that’s endearing. Much of what happens really is his fault, and it took a long while before I was ever on his side. Harris delivers the story over an improbably action-packed 24 hours, unfolding a domino effect of one bad choice after another. Nearly every character is self-seeking in some way or another, but nobody’s all bad. It’s a cast of people doing the wrong things for the right reasons, or maybe the right ones for the wrong reasons, or maybe real life’s as gray and sloppy as London in the rain. The Breaking of Liam Glass holds the tension of our sensational tabloid addiction alongside a bitter apathy toward progress. Recommended for anyone with a passion for current events, or anyone brave enough to hold a mirror to society, if only to find a way to break it.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Charles Harris’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Curses of Scale by S.D. Reeves

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Curses of Scale
by S.D. Reeves

Riversong Books, 2017

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The verdict: A well-paced, mystical epic packed full of surprises—something different in all the right ways.

Just from the author’s quirky sense of humor on the acknowledgments page, I had a feeling I’d like this book. Curses of Scale will by no means be every reader’s cup of tea. It’s mysterious and odd, full of surreal sequences and shifting points of view. Yet it’s also original and well written, featuring clever dialogue and immersive imagery without breaking the pace. From the action-packed opening to the gradual unfolding of the narrative, Reeves achieves what he sets out to accomplish. I tip my hat whenever an ambitious fantasy writer actually pulls it off, and Reeves delivers a mystical tale about finding purpose, forging one’s path, and time’s relentless pursuit of us all.

The story opens with the druid Calem racing to uphold a bargain with the wisecracking fairy Oberon. Calem’s wife, Niena, is cursed to become a dragon, and only the fairy’s ritual can reverse her fate. Meanwhile, the aspiring musician known as Squirrel wants nothing more than to attend bardic college but must contend with her militant, overprotective grandfather, Marny. Squirrel plots to run away until a surreal experience in a tavern one night transports her off course. When a fire-breathing dragon threatens Marny’s post, he barely escapes with his life. Across the wide path of destruction that follows, Marny seeks his granddaughter just as she discovers her true identity. With fairy magic at hand and a terrifying dragon on the move, Niena must race against time to escape her destiny and break the cycle of the curse.

“They who taught us the three chords.”
The quartermaster clutches his chest. Light begins to creep back into their ruin. But it is queer and evil; flames spread over the great sprawl of Kimbesh in the distance, rolling across the rooftops of the urban menagerie and setting upon them as fast as sunlight in the quiet of the dawn.
“They who gave us music to keep back the silence of the night.”

The first few pages feel a bit like an out-of-body experience, but the story untangles as it goes. Calem’s internal conflict pairs well with the fairy’s cynical quips, although Calem’s magical abilities remain somewhat undefined. He has healing spells, can transform into animals, and sometimes his magic fails due to his own dwindling energy. Niena’s own musical spellcasting feels similarly opaque, which might bother some fantasy aficionados in it mostly for the world building. At points I felt disoriented with the timelines, wondering if a subsequent chapter happened before or after the one before it, but Reeves eventually pieces it all together once all his cards are on the table. In fact, there’s a certain elegance to the disorder, like a song with strikingly different verses that come back to the same refrain. Reeves brings twists and duplicity; he unfolds the story in discrete moments instead of blurring his characters across the years. One must read this novel with eyes open and brain turned on. Curses of Scale works for me, but I can see others not fitting this niche. Recommended as an intelligent, engaging read for those looking for something fresh in fantasy.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out S.D. Reeves’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

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by Andy Weir

Crown, 2017

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The verdict: With his trademark nerdiness, Weir delivers a well-imagined, entertaining thriller. Sometimes that’s all I want.

As a fan of Weir’s smart wit and geeky science in The Martian (after all, who isn’t?), I was glad to see more of the same in Artemis. It doesn’t have the full-scope problem solving or human-forces-that-join-us-together grandeur of Weir’s earlier novel, which won’t bother the genre fans but might disappoint some who jumped on the bandwagon after seeing the movie. Weir continues to nerd out with technical discussions and detailed asides, offering somewhat plausible, real-science sci-fi. The engineering and economic angles make this otherworldly science fiction surprisingly down to earth, and the voice has the same snark and humanity that makes The Martian so lovable. It’s not a sequel to his breakout title by any means, but I at least enjoyed the tighter setting and change of pace in the plot.

In the not-so-distant future, humans have a colony on the moon. Divided between ultra-rich tourists and the working class residents, the city of Artemis makes the perfect escape from earthly problems, or so at least its residents hope. Lifelong moon-dweller Jasmine Bashara wants to graduate from her career as a bottom-rung porter to one of the lunar elite, and she doesn’t mind the dishonest path to the top. Not only that, but Jasmine has a serious debt to pay off and needs cash more than anything. So when her side job as a small-time smuggler drags her into a much larger criminal operation, Jazz takes the risk in hopes of a life-altering payout. Her plans backfire, however, and soon Jazz is in way over her head with literally nowhere to run outside the protected bubbles of Artemis. Yet as Jazz turns the tables to investigate what went wrong, she finds that lunar politics go far beneath the surface. Jazz’s one shot out of this mess will jeopardize everything she holds dear, and she’ll need some help to pull it off.

No. I was a smuggler, not a saboteur. And something smelled off about the whole thing.
“I’m sorry, but this isn’t my thing,” I said. “You’ll have to find someone else.”
“I’ll give you a million slugs.”

Weir mixes the fast-paced heist story with intriguing discussions about the near-future aluminum industry on the moon and the implications of a colony in lunar gravity. Even more so, he makes social considerations alongside the scientific. Refreshingly, it’s not just Americans running the moon’s economy. (It’s Kenyans, actually, and for logical reasons explained in the novel.) Alongside the brilliant creativity about the practical benefits and horrors of moon life, Weir throws in a few poignant observations on race and class, reminding readers that progress isn’t just about technology.  In terms of writing style, Artemis features a sassy, wisecracking first-person narrator with some lazy information dumps, but the delivery’s forgivable when the content’s this enriching. Although definitely recommended more for the engineering puzzles than the character development, Artemis celebrates both scientific and human achievement, seeing our weaknesses and triumphs. It’s a smart, enjoyable read, and sometimes that’s all I want from a book. Recommended for anyone who loves science fiction, crime thrillers, or dreaming about the world’s near future.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Andy Weir’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.
I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

The Hazel Wood
by Melissa Albert

Flatiron Books, 2018

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The verdict: Strange and captivating—as grim as advertised, and absolutely worth the ride.

I’ll be honest: The Hazel Wood hooked me on page one. Readers definitely have to know what they’re getting into here. Albert’s novel is not a fairy tale in any conventional sense, and the plot strays from the typical safety nets of “young adult.” Disclaimers aside, however, Melissa Albert delivers a deliciously refreshing fantasy adventure, managing powerful commentary of our age without feeling forceful or pedantic. It’s creepy and dark but still soft enough to swallow. The story molts a few times, widening the premise and pulling the reader into deeper and more dangerous territory. Well crafted and rewarding for readers who like to follow breadcrumbs and pick up hints, The Hazel Wood makes a worthy destination for those willing to take the journey.

Seventeen-year-old Alice has only known a life on the road with her mother, always outrunning an unpaid lease or long streak of bad luck. When her enigmatic grandmother Althea, the once-famous writer known for her rare and gruesome book of fairy tales, passes away, Alice’s life in New York takes further unwelcome turns. After her mom goes missing from her new husband’s high rise apartment, Alice’s only ally is her classmate Ellery Finch, a lonely, misfit rich kid who happens to be an obsessive cult-follower of her grandmother’s book. The story spirals inward as Alice pieces together each new clue, all with some connection to Althea’s fairy tales and her isolated estate, the Hazel Wood. The bad luck of earlier feels more and more like a curse, and what Alice finds at the Hazel Wood is far stranger than she could have ever imagined.

“Then I got my hands on Althea’s book. And it was perfect. There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic…They’re set in a place that has no rules and doesn’t want any.”

Notably, Albert has a sincere eye for story and shows patient, methodical craft. Like a modern Through the Looking-Glass (could that Alice be this character’s namesake?), The Hazel Wood plays with time and space, including some delightful quirks and turns. The narrative form intersperses some stories from Althea’s book as readers slowly uncover the origin and context of her bizarre tales. Lines between real and fictional become increasingly blurred as Alice moves forward in her search for her mother. At a certain point, I realized there are no rules in this novel. Nothing’s given, nothing’s expected, and I could take absolutely nothing for granted. This fact will sit better with some readers than with others, especially those who prefer the security of traveling with a roadmap. The last act of the book wanders pretty far from the beaten path, but somehow Albert sticks the landing. Most impressive are the fantastic themes on who writes our stories—and who tells them once written. Dark, eerie, and addicting, The Hazel Wood succeeds in fighting for our power to forge our own futures and voice our own identities. Recommended for lovers of fantasy and magical realism, especially readers willing to step outside their comfort zones.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Melissa Albert’s writing, or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.


by R.J. Palacio

Knopf, 2012

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The verdict: A memorable portrait of human dignity—children’s literature that knows kids are smart enough to understand the world they live in.

So why add another review to the internet of this already smash-hit, critically-acclaimed novel? Wonder the movie is hitting theaters next month, in case people haven’t heard of it. I wanted to read it, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to review it. That changed once I started. As a middle school teacher—as a human being—I must champion R.J. Palacio’s timeless message. Some books deserve the hype, and Wonder lives up to its name. Parents, your kids must read this book. Read this book with your kids even, then discuss it as a family. It’s rare to find literature that distills the complicated themes of life into such simple truths, and a novel that does so makes a powerful treasure.

Born with a facial deformity, 5th grader August Pullman enrolls in a private school to attend classes outside his home for the first time. While adults do their best to not notice and students make no secret of their curiosity and horror, Auggie wants nothing more than to just be ordinary. Soon Julian, a teacher’s pet when instructors are looking and a horrible bully when they’re not, leads a charge to ostracize the new student, and even the friends Auggie thinks he can count on wear masks of their own. Meanwhile, Auggie’s sister Via struggles to adjust to a new high school and the pains of growing up. The point of view changes as the narrative unfolds, allowing the voices of Auggie’s classmates to intersect and craft a heart-wrenching tour of empathy and human dignity. Written at the middle-grade level, this beautiful coming-of-age story speaks to kids and adults alike.

“Like a lamb to the slaughter: Something that you say about someone who goes somewhere calmly, not knowing that something unpleasant is going to happen to them. I Googled it last night. That’s what I was thinking when Ms. Petosa called my name and suddenly it was my turn to talk.”

Told in short vignettes with a relatable middle school voice, Palacio’s novel captures the rapid change-of-subject and constant ups and downs of life from a kid’s point of view. Readers hear first from Auggie, then from his sister Via—whose section beautifully depicts the mess of compassion and resentment that comes with having a sibling who needs special care—and then from the perspectives of two of Auggie’s schoolmates, Via’s boyfriend, and her ex-best friend. Some expanded editions even include the ebook known as The Julian Chapter, giving voice to Auggie’s main tormentor.

Nothing about the story feels forced or contrived. Palacio builds her narrative on ordinary conflicts: shifting friend groups, arguments with parents, a sick family dog. Put together, the chapters touch on all aspects of identity from race and class to which lunch table a student belongs. At times I wanted a bit more pep in the plot; nothing terrifying or particularly unusual happens, especially when compared to other classic novels of its type. Yet the pedestrian tour of Auggie’s universe works to extend its humanity. While one might think Wonder is just a metaphor for how we all feel like the outcast sometimes, it bravely goes beyond that expectation by featuring themes about kindness and courage. The other narrators see just as much transformation as August does, and at times they’re even more likeable. Creative in form and content, Wonder is a twenty-first-century tale that bridges gaps across generations, fighting for every kid to take a turn in the spotlight. Recommended for middle school and high elementary school readers, especially for class or book reports.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out R.J. Palacio’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

by Rachel Hartman

Ember (Reprint Edition), 2014

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The verdict: Original, stirring, epic in scope and intimate in nature, Seraphina pushes beyond the frontiers of dragon fantasy tales.

A friend recommended this book and promised it wasn’t just a typical YA novel, and after diving into the fantasy kingdom of Goredd, I admit that I’m a fan of Seraphina. Hartman’s novel is a true labor of love, showing years of her dreaming and patience in the complex world building and thorough characterization. What struck me even more so was Hartman’s lyrical prose, creating a story that’s not just intelligent but actually beautiful. Seraphina’s musical talent features prominently in the novel, and the chapters themselves contain a sort of melody, adding layers of emotion to a plot already ripe with tension and conflict on many levels.

In a world where dragons can blend into society by taking human forms, Seraphina is a rare half-breed—and she closely guards the secret of her dragon lineage. Her position as a palace music assistant places her in view of numerous characters, including Princess Glisseldsa, sincere yet naive in her entitlements, and her cousin, Lucian Kiggs, a closeted intellectual betrothed to the wrong woman and not quite belonging in the regal world. When a murder in the royal court presents potentially disastrous implications for the long-standing peace treaty with the dragons, Seraphina finds herself teamed up with Kiggs to solve the mystery, and they find more commonalities than first meet the eye. In a strict caste system where the scaly beasts are forbidden to relate too closely with humans, Seraphina’s very existence risks upending the societal detente, but staying silent may be more dangerous still. It’s a story about dragons, royalty, and romantic adventure, but it’s also a story about identity, forgiveness, and the necessary challenge of loving oneself.

“Sometimes the truth has difficulty breaching the city walls of our beliefs. A lie, dressed in the correct livery, passes through more easily.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Hartman’s novel is Seraphina’s “garden,” a mind palace of sorts where she mentally retreats to sort—and contain—the emotions and memories passed down from her dragon mother. In a land steeped in religious traditions, rituals, and moral rigidity, Seraphina’s struggle to belong starts off a bit run-of-the-mill, and readers could quickly tire of sharing her burdens. In the early pages, even her musical talent manages to make her a misfit. Yet several unexpected elements—including the mind palace—save Seraphina from whining too much about her self-imposed isolation, and a strong supporting cast keeps the narrative moving forward. Seraphina’s father is progressive yet cynical; her uncle is peculiar yet instructive. In several clever scenes, dragons must adjust to having not only human bodies but also human emotions, for better or for worse. Where Seraphina soars is in how the reader senses a clear right and wrong while at the same time hesitating to name any one character as all good or all bad. The action slows down enough for readers to form opinions as varied and complicated as the figures in Seraphina’s mind garden, and the challenge of knowing one must act but not quite knowing how to act summarizes the plight of human existence. Thankfully for fans, Hartman already has more in the series. A marvelous exploration of the sacred and profane, the dignified and the ugly, the truth of knowledge and the truth of experience, Seraphina should be on every fantasy lover’s reading list, human, dragon, or otherwise.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out Rachel Hartman’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.

If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.

Review: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Disclosure: This review contains Amazon affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell

Random House, 2006

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The verdict: Heartfelt, accessible, and deeply compelling, Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel is an all-around triumph.

Let me start by saying I’m a huge David Mitchell fanboy. I’m consistently blown away by his raw talent, endless creativity, and sheer ambition as a writer. Having read other titles prior to this one, I knew I’d be predisposed to love Black Swan Green, but it still managed to surprise me. I didn’t grow up in 1980s England, but I had no trouble relating to the protagonist or seeing the world through his eyes. Some have compared Mitchell’s coming-of-age novel to Catcher in the Rye, and I’d dare to say it’s better. I found it more approachable, more universally appealing, and, frankly, more entertaining than the classic American Bildungsroman (I’m an English literature teacher, so I don’t say that lightly).

The novel follows 13-year-old Jason Taylor for one year (13 months to be exact—each chapter is its own episode that contributes to the larger narrative) in the small town of Black Swan Green. Jason worries about his rank in the social hierarchy of his school and how to fit in despite his stammer. He writes poetry but hides it under a pseudonym; he fears failure, exposure, and rejection, yet through a nonstop whirl of adventures must learn to experience and overcome all three. The scenes range from a tense family dinner with visiting relatives to a bizarre afternoon spent hiking down a horseback riding trail, with everything from the nighttime hazing of a secret club to a life-changing occurrence at a town fair in between. Jason accidentally breaks his grandfather’s treasured watch and then seeks to replace it before his parents find out. As the story progresses, Jason himself must break, sometimes forcibly and sometimes by choice, wondering if anything in life can ever be put back to the way it once was.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.'”

Mitchell’s achievement comes in how brilliantly he interweaves events of personal and global significance—Jason’s parents’ impending divorce, the growing conflict in the Falklands—without ever breaking the enchantment of the narrative. The slang fits without being distracting, and the reader stays just enough ahead to appreciate the joys and horrors of being a kid without exactly knowing how the story will end. Each of the chapters absorbs in its own way, from the ugly brutality of school bullies to the shy awkwardness of a first kiss, and the final tapestry is a timeless portrait of adolescence. Poignant throughout and a little bizarre in some parts, Black Swan Green is empathetic without sacrificing action and thought-provoking without sacrificing wit. To offer a criticism, I might say that the ending doesn’t pack a mind-blowing punch that will fundamentally change the way readers see the world, but I still found it satisfying. The subtlety provides a different kind of thesis. A 13-year-old doesn’t figure life out in a year, and that’s okay. Mitchell assures that, in the end, everything will be alright—but we’re still on the journey, and it’s not the end yet. I don’t have to be 13 to agree with that. Best suited for advanced teen readers and adults who appreciate literary prose, Black Swan Green is a rich depiction of a season of life and well worth the visit.

Jimmy Leonard is the author of The Evangelist in Hell.
Be sure to check out David Mitchell’s writing or see more book reviews on this site.
If you’ve written a book you’d like me to consider for a review, find out more information and follow the submission guidelines here.