Book Review: The View from Saturday

Finally, I have read something worth doing a book review, or read something that I was actually interested in doing a book review on. And it happens to be middle grade. Don’t bash those books for younger folks, there are some real gems among them.

Presenting ‘The View from Saturday’ by E. L. Konigsburg.

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How has Mrs. Olinski chosen her sixth-grade Academic Bowl team? She had a number of answers. But were any of them true? (yes) How had she really chosen Noah and Nadia and Ethan and Julian? And why did they make such a good team? It was a surprise to a lot of people when Mrs. Olinski’s team won the sixth-grade Academic Bowl contest at Epiphany Middle School. It was an even bigger surprise when they beat the seventh grade and the eighth grade, too. And when they went on to even greater victories, everyone began to ask: How did it happen? (yeah, not that many people do in the book)

It happened at least partly because Noah had been the best man (quite by accident) at the wedding of Ethan’s grandmother and Nadia’s grandfather. It happened because Nadia discovered that she could not let a lot of baby turtles die.
(well duh, what heartless maniac would let turtles die?) It happened when Ethan could not let Julian face disaster alone. (disaster? what disaster? Oh yeah, eh. It was of small size) And it happened because Julian valued something important in himself and saw in the other three something he also valued.

Mrs. Olinski, returning to teaching after having been injured in an automobile accident, found that her Academic Bowl team became her answer to finding confidence and success.
(piffle, she never thinks that) What she did not know, at least at first, was that her team knew more than she did the answer to why they had been chosen.

This is a tale about a team, a class, a school, a series of contests and, set in the midst of this, four jewel-like short stories
(I wouldn’t call them short stories, they felt more like chapters to me)— one for each of the team members — that ask questions and demonstrate surprising answers.

I have seen this book on list after list of books that you-absolutely-must-read-before-you-die. I finally got around to it, I read it before I died. Yay me.

I don’t think I would have liked it in middle school. At that age I was more about fairies than a thoughtful book about relationships and people.

If you liked ‘Bridge to Terebithia’, you will like this book, and ‘The View From Saturday’ has the bonus of having a much happier ending.

While yes, the Academic Bowl was a big part of the book, it wasn’t about the Academic Bowl. There were no extended scenes of them practicing, nothing said about the nerves of the students before the contests.

Mostly, the book was about the four kids, Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian. Each of their stories was a journey, a deeply personal journey for each of them that intertwined with each others in sometimes unexpected ways.

I really enjoyed seeing each character from the other point of view, and how one character who might be annoying to some, is endearing to another. I also liked the chance to be inside each of the characters heads. It was an interesting study from a writers perspective in how the author made each point of view so distinct. You would never mess up whose point of view it was. They were each so unique.

My favorite character was Ethan. I loved his rich inner world, and the sometimes expected, sometimes unexpected places that his thoughts led him. But while he was quiet, he was not passive. He impacted the world around him whether he liked or not. They all did.

After you get a chapter with each of the kids, you settle into Mrs. Olinski’s point of view. Their teacher and coach in the Academic Bowl who is also on a journey of her own. A long one that started way before the book began. She is a very nostalgic sort of person, and the whole book feels that way. Like the whole story is being told by Mrs. Olinski after she has retired from teaching. She has a wistful smile and a faraway look as she tells you the story, and as she tells it you almost wish you could sit down for tea with the Souls. (Almost? Ha. Totally wish.)

And there were turtles. I love turtles, and therefore enjoyed the book.

Shaina Merrick

Tales of Lunnoor: The Rescue

And we’re back in the dangerous world of Lunnoor. Where faeries aren’t the only thing to lurk in the dark woods…

Run, Lannie, run. Lannie forced her legs to keep pumping. Grass and dirt fell away under her feet as she raced towards the marching army. Her legs screamed at her as she jumped over a hollow log, ignoring the faerie that scowled up at her. She didn’t have time for faerie hunting today. This was more important. She had to get to the king in time. She had to.

Her lungs began to burn. She was accustomed to loping along mile after mile. Not this mad dash through the woods. But still she ran.

The gold and blue flag of the army appeared through the trees. Run, Lannie! One more burst of speed, and she was standing in front of a captain.

“Where’s the king?” she gasped out. He shrugged, and her heart sank. The ones she had left behind didn’t have time for her to go looking.

“What’s wrong?” The general walked up beside her. He would have to do instead.

“Attack on the forward guard, rebel ambush.” Her legs felt wobbly, but she made them be still.

The general’s face tightened. “Where?” he asked as he gestured for the drummer boy.

“Two miles from here, just outside our intended camp.” Finally at their destination, and now this.

The general barked a command to the boy, who began a staccato beat he had to shout to be heard over. “Can you lead the second phalanx to their position?” He gestured to the captain still awkwardly standing next to them. “The rest will join you as soon as we are able.”

Lannie’s breath still came in large gulps, but she nodded. Hurry. They didn’t have much time.

The captain of the second phalanx yelled at his men, then nodded at her. “Lead the way.”

 Lannie was grateful she was still in her messenger clothes. The soft fabric was perfect for running. And cooler than chain mail. The air was hot and close under the trees, or was that just her? Sweat threatened to run into her eyes. But if she blinked, she would lose her gaze on the ground in front of her.

Lannie willed her trembling limbs to keep moving. The advance guard couldn’t hold out for long. She had known that from the moment the rebels appeared from the trees. There were too many of them.

Had she run fast enough? It was hard to keep track of time when your feet thudded against the ground, and your lungs burned for lack of air.

She had to go faster. Dappled shadows hid lumps and hollows in the ground. She had to watch where she was going. Had to keep track of the men behind her. She could hear their clinking armor; were they keeping up? Lannie risked a glance back, her eyes found them even as her feet found a root. Pinwheeling her arms just kept her from eating the dirt. But her momentum was lost and felt impossible to gain again. Her jelly legs screamed at her. Lannie gritted her teeth and ran on, brushing off worried questions. They had men to save.

Jump over a stream, round a stump. The clangs and shouts of a sword fight reached her ears. They were still fighting, good. Run, Lannie. Do not be late!

Lannie reached the edge of the clearing, the edge of the battle, and stopped. The second phalanx streamed around her to aid their friends.

The brown and green rebels had surrounded the blue clad troops, more of which lay still on the ground than up and fighting. But now the rebels were surrounded.

Her body longed to rest, but her work was not done. There was little she could do in the battle in front of her. Small quarters were for men trained for war, not a messenger with small skill in daggers.

Lannie drew her daggers and faded back into the trees. If she could not fight, she would make sure there were no more surprises this day.

She skulked through the trees, keeping one eye on the battle and one on the forest. It was no coincidence the rebels chose the deepest part of the forest for their ambush. The question was whether they had chosen it for the darkness or for what lurked in the darkness.

Halfway around the clearing she found what she was looking for. Two naiads and a dryad giggling to each other as they crept towards the battle. Already men were pausing mid fight, looking around for the siren song of rest. Her men paused. The rebels did not. As Lannie watched one of the king’s men fell to the song and sword. 

Lannie froze behind a bush. The rebels knew, and she was willing to bet her sword there was cotton stuffed in their ears to keep out the song. The faeries came closer, close enough for her to hear their chittering language. Near enough she could see the bloodlust in their eyes. Lannie took a breath and threw her daggers.

One found its mark, the other was knocked off course by the naiad. The surviving naiad and dryad hissed, their dark eyes finding her hiding place faster than any man. Lannie drew her sword and leaped. No more surprises. 

Her leap fell short of the faeries. Her legs screamed at her as she hit the ground. She had done too much, but she still had to lift her sword. A cry wrenched from her lips as she attacked the naiad. Was it from the exertion or the claws gouging her arm? In her hurry she had forgotten how sharp a dryads claws were. She would not forget again. 

Now there was only the dryad left. Lannie gasped for breath as the faeries circled her. Let it think she was exhausted, and attack first. She was exhausted, but she would never, ever let a faerie win. The dryad jumped at her, but it’s attack ended on the tip of Lannie’s sword. 

The men shook off the faerie song and renewed their attack. In the time it took Lannie to retrieve her daggers, the battle was over. The rebels were defeated, either still on the ground or kneeling at sword point.

Lannie found the nearest boulder and sank down onto it with a grateful sigh. She was going to stay put until the rest of the army caught up. Nothing was going to move her until she was able to make a full report to the king. Even then, would he mind if she gave her report from the boulder? 

Lannie took a breath, then froze as a sharp command rang through the clearing. Every soldier who was still able turned to Lannie and saluted. What do I do, what do I do? It wasn’t like she had done anything. Except run. And kill three faeries. All in a day’s work, right? What did father do when this happened? Oh.

“At ease,” Lannie croaked, and breathed out as they relaxed. This was why she stuck to the forest. No one felt the need to thank her afterwards. And thankfulness was awkward. Anyway, she had just done her job. And she would continue to do so until the king was restored to his throne.

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: Midnight’s Curse

Sometimes, you get sick of the inch thick classics and non fiction and just have to read something lighter. Like a retelling of a fairy tale. Thus was the state I was in when I picked up ‘Midnight’s Curse’. I didn’t want to think too terribly much, and I liked the author’s other books, so why not?

I present ‘Midnight’s Curse’ by Tricia Mingnerink.

Midnight's Curse: A Cinderella Retelling (Beyond the Tales, #2)

The glass slippers might be her dreams come true…or her worst nightmare. (definitely nightmare)

High King Alexander rules the Seven Kingdoms of Tallahatchia—a divided nation on the brink of yet another war. When an invitation arrives from the king of Pohatomie, Alex knows it must be a trap, (I mean, duh) but could it also be his opportunity to unite the kingdoms?

Daemyn Rand has lived a hundred years, served an arrogant prince, fallen in love with a princess, and lost himself somewhere along the way. He has already died for his loyalty. (many, many, many times) Will standing at the high king’s side cost him his one chance to truly live? (probably not, his angst might though.)

Elara Ashen is a lowly, miserable servant. (that is what she thinks) All she wants is to spend even one night in a fancy dress dancing with the high king. When she is offered a pair of glass slippers, it seems that all her dreams have come true. (never trust a faerie who hides their face)

But dreams have a price, and gifts can be curses in disguise. What will it cost to stop this curse from tearing Tallahatchia apart yet again? (loooots more angst)

Fairy tales meet the Appalachian Mountains (best part) in this adventurous fantasy retelling of the classic Cinderella story.

Did the book live up to my expectations of being a quick and fun read? Yes, and no.

It was definitely quick. Which I liked, because I don’t have time to read tomes. And I don’t think I could have handled Elara’s POV for a page longer than I had to.

‘Midnight’s Curse’ builds upon the actions and growth of the last book, ‘Daggers Sleep’ and continues to tell the story of High King Alexander’s rise to the throne of Tallahatchia. So we get all the familiar characters that I at least fell in love with, and added in some new ones.

Quick tip to the writers out there, it isn’t fun being inside a jerks head. It really isn’t. I understand the occasional bad guy perspective, I mean, he is supposed to be a jerk. But when the main character is a jerk, or unbelievably selfish, I get tired of it reeaaal fast.

Elara is selfish. Very much so. At the beginning of the book all she could think about was herself and complain about her lot in life. Even though Mr. Perfect was standing right in front of her. Ahem. She had a redemptive arc, and learned her lesson, albeit the painful way. But for a large portion of the book I didn’t like her at all. She didn’t have any likeable characteristics. Which was one way the book felt a tad bit too short. It would have been nice to have at least one scene where she was nice to someone. Or have a character trait that wasn’t awful. But it wasn’t there, and I didn’t like her very much.

Now, I know the author can pull off the selfish POV really well, and still have you like the character. After all, that is what happened in the first book of this series. Alexander has had a major redemptive arc, and was a jerk in the beginning of the series. But even though he was a jerk, I liked him. Because he was trying. Trying to break his curse for the benefit of his country, trying to be a good king even though he was going about it all the wrong way. He was interesting, and he was likeable even though he could be a jerk.

What I did enjoy about the book was the continued unveiling of the world, and the faeries. The setting is really interesting, and I love how Tricia Mingnerink reveals the world. I also find the faeries super interesting, and I loved the more in depth view of what they do and why they do it. World building wise, this book (and series) takes the cake.

The plot was kind of predictable, being a Cinderella retelling and everything. However I did enjoy how she took the familiar elements of Cinderella and twisted them around a bit. So even though I knew what was coming, I didn’t always guess right.

However, sometimes I felt like the plot stopped. That everything stopped, just so a character could go through an angsty thought process, and there were many of those. While I am not against angsty thoughts, usually, I do get bored when I read an entire page of them, and nothing else is happening. Dude, stop thinking and do something already! Like, I dunno, reply to the person that is talking to you!

Another tip to writers, a large chunk of a character just thinking can pull the reader out of the book real fast.

To end this book review on a positive note, I though the side plot of Daemyn and Rosanna was great. And if fit in pretty well with the main plot (which is not always the case with romantic side plots).

I would recommend this series if you like unique worlds and magic systems. Probably don’t read this book without reading the first one, but if you like jumping in the middle of things, go for it. The first one is really good, and I am hoping the third one lives up to its predecessors.

The book is very clean, so I would have no qualms with giving it to any age.

So was this a book review, or a writing how to post? I guess we will never know…

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: The Song of the Lark

So, I had an unforeseen problem in taking a month off of blogging. I can’t remember what the heck I am supposed to be writing about today. *goes to scour notebooks* Aaaah. Got it. Well, before we get to our regularly scheduled book review, I have a couple announcements. (only two, don’t roll your eyes)

I have Instagram!! Why am I acting so excited about it?! Basically, a bit ago I was decided with a loud sigh that I should be more active on social media, and ya know, create an author platform. Woohoo. So now you can find me and either block or follow me with the handle @shainamerrickwriter. I have loooots of book pictures and quotes because, that is what I like! So go, laugh at my picture taking skills! (I will eventually figure out how to put the insta button on my blog side bar, eventually…)

Also, I hate quarantine. Not being able to shop for clothes or hang out with my friends sucks. On the other hand, I have more time to read, and to bang my head on my keyboard while I am pretending to write.

On to a book review!

The Song of the Lark (Great Plains Trilogy, #2)

Perhaps Willa Cather’s most autobiographical work, (isn’t ‘perhaps’ a lovely word?) The Song of the Lark charts the story of a young woman’s awakening as an artist against the backdrop of the western landscape. Thea Kronborg, an aspiring singer, struggles to escape from the confines her small Colorado (finally, a book set in Colorado and it isn’t Denver!) town to the world of possibility in the Metropolitan Opera House. In classic Cather style, The Song of the Lark is the beautiful, unforgettable story of American determination and its inextricable connection to the land. (Uuuh, I don’t know about her connection to the land, she cuts her ties pretty well!)

As much as I love all of Willa Cather’s books, this one imprinted itself on my mind and heart much more than all of the other ones.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is the story of an artist. One who struggles to find herself, and where she fits in the grand scheme of things, throughout her entire life.

The book starts when Thea Kronburg is, like, six, and ends when she is thirty something. Yes, it is a very fat book. And yes, it did take me a while to read.

I thought the beginning was slow. Mostly because it seemed to be more about her life, and her family’s life, than it was about who she was as an artist. Though it does lay the important groundwork about her lifelong friends, and how she develops as a musician at first.

Then we hit the middle of the book, and things pick up a bit! Which seems to be the opposite of how most book are written (hello mid book slump).

Some of my favorite characters are in the middle of the book. Including Thea’s piano teacher in Chicago who realizes that her true gift is singing, and her friend turned love interest who introduces her to the finer things in life.

What I found most interesting about the book is her transition from piano to singing. Thea has been trained for most of her childhood to be a pianist. She had the best piano teacher in her little Colorado town, and she gets the bets piano teacher in Chicago, all to help her become a concert pianist. And she is good. Good enough to teach others, good enough that her piano teacher knows that she could have a future in piano.

But she hates it. The farther she gets, the more she dislikes playing. But even so, she forces herself to practice for hours every day. To conquer every challenge thrown at her, to make perfect every song. And she is miserable for every minute of it.

And singing, well, singing is something she has always done, and while she know she is good at it, piano is what she is better at, right?

Wrong.

The first time her piano teacher hears her sing, he knows better. Her true gift, her soul, is in her voice. Piano is something she could be good at, but singing is something she could be great at.

From that moment, off she tumbles into a world of voice. The work is still hard, but it is a different kind of hard. Singing is so much a part of her that the work has become an extension of who she is, and who she wants to become.

How often do we spend hours upon hours chasing a dream, only to realize that we are better at something else? Or how much money do we spend hoping that we will become someone, only to find out that we would rather be someone else?

I would say that the second half of the book reveals how far Thea is willing to go in pursuit of become a great artist. She is willing to give up just about everything, home, family, health, in order to pursue her dream.

She decides that she will become great, or she will be nothing.

Obsessive? Well, some may say so. One may also say determined. She is determined to get what she wants, no matter what gets in her way. Be that happiness or despair.

And does she get what she wants? Well, I can’t give everything away, can I?

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451

Welcome to my latest review *cough* obsession *cough*. This is the next book I am going to buy if I ever have spare money. *Looks to the future*. That is going to be a while.

In the meantime, I will tell everyone and their cousin that this book is amazing and you should go read it.

‘Nuff said.

Okay okay. Here is the actual review of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

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Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? (Really? This is not the question you should be asking. The answer is given by chapter two, and hinted at right off) The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, (the creepiest thing in the entire book) armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.

The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
(Um yes. And I think a better prophecy than the other two. This is a future that is scarily possible)

Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose
(drool) combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology (less the potential of tech and more the impact of media) to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

First, let’s talk about the fact that this book somehow managed to avoid being a love story. At all. A dystopian book that doesn’t have a love story! Do you realize how momentous this is?

Ray Bradbury crafted a tale of awakening and danger that doesn’t have any romantic love in it at all. *happy dance* Instead, you have father and daughter love, you have the love between two friends, and you have the aching memory of love in a marriage doomed to failure. So it is possible to write a compelling story without a romance side plot. Duly noted and filed away for later use.

The main theme of Fahrenheit 451 is the power of books. And what makes them so powerful. The answer may surprise you.

It begins with a fireman, Guy Montag (can we take a moment to appreciate the fact that his name is Guy?), who is lying to himself. He says that he is happy with his job, his wife, his house. Until he meets a random girl walking home in the dark. This girl, young enough to be his daughter, has interesting ideas about life, and is not afraid to share them. Honestly, she reminded me of a home-schooler, it was great.

She is the one who opens his eyes to what he really feels about life, and she is the one who gives him the courage to open the books he has stashed away in his house.

From there, it is a quick road to disaster. Guy loses everything, his house, his job, his wife, in his quest for knowledge. All he wants is to understand. Why is his job to start fires instead of stop them? Why are books banned? What is so important about these books? I won’t give the answers here, because you need to go read them for yourself. But suffice to say that the answers are not simple ones. They make you think more than the questions do.

I loved how Bradbury spoke/wrote about books. His love for the written word, and the ideas they contain, bled from his heart, onto the pages, and into my heart. This book, about burning books, made me love books even more. And yet, his definition of a book is also not the one you would expect. This is a hint to go read the book.

Guy Montag is the main character of the novel, and the entire thing is from his perspective. We are inside his head, seeing and feeling things as he sees and feels them. Other characters come in an out of the story, but none even come close to the time we have with him. By the end of the book, you know Guy as well as you know any friend, perhaps better.

I would not say that the book is a stream of consciousness, been there, read that, and I am glad Fahrenheit 451 is not one of those books. However, the book is very deep inside his head, and you might need a minute to adjust to normalcy when you come up for air while reading it.

One of my favorite parts of the book was the prose. The beautiful, lyrical prose that swells from one scene to the next. It is really hard to describe that kind of prose, because you can’t quantify it in grammatical rules. It was beautiful, and I would have read the most boring story ever if it was written in that prose.

I would recommend this book without hesitation to anyone who enjoys the dystopian genre. Also if you like classics, if you like beautiful writing, and if you have a love affair with books. So basically, just about everyone.

Though I would hesitate to give it to anyone under fourteen, because of the content. There is absolutely nothing explicit, but the book does deal with things like murder and an overdose of sleeping pills.

If I could give this book ten out of five stars, I would. Five will have to do for now I suppose.

I hope you pick Fahrenheit 451 up and enjoy the read!

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: O Pioneers!

I have to talk about ‘O Pioneers’, or I am going to go crazy. Let me rephrase that. I already have talked about this book to anyone who would listen, now I need to again or I am going to go crazy. Yep. It was that kind of book. I mean, how could you not talk about a book that has these kinds of quotes?

‘People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose that to find.’

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O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. (I think I like it better than ‘My Antonia’, and I really liked that book) No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities (to be honest, there are not that many of these harsh realities when you get past the first couple chapters.) and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself. (have you read the book? Obviously not, because her cost was not love, not really anyway)

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels,
(Yeah, right.) O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

Don’t you love how there is an exclamation mark in the title? It makes the book sound so cheerful and upbeat. To that I say Ha! No no. It was not a tear jerker. But it wasn’t a enjoyable lark through the countryside either.

What I first noticed about this book was how I wanted to write everything. Every quote, every line. I wanted all of it saved forever it my notebook. But if I did that, I would just be copying the whole book word for word, and I already have the book so… The writing was beautiful, no, it was achingly gorgeous. Honestly, I would have read the whole book just for the prose alone.

But the prose wasn’t the only thing worth reading in this book. There were also characters.

This is the book that I want to shove underneath all writers noses and say, ‘This is how you write realistic characters.’

Willa Cather created characters underneath her pen that almost jumped off of the page. I could see them move and breath in my minds eye. Their strengths, weaknesses, foibles and pet peeves. They were all there for the world to see. What I think made each and every character so imminently real was their weaknesses.

While I can not read the authors mind, it seemed to me that Willa Cather did not set out to make you like her characters. She seemed to care less really. It was more like she was focusing on showing you her characters in all of their glorious mistakes. Did it matter that they were all people with blind spots and foibles? No, it didn’t. Despite every failing, I loved them anyway.

The character that the entire story is woven around is Alexandra Bergson. She inherits the farm from her father because he knows that she can run it better than her brothers. And she does. Her farm becomes the most well off in the entire county. She is hard working, diligent, cool headed, and smart. But in the novel what characterizes her most is her love for the land. She loves this Nebraska land that is so hard to farm, and after a while, you wonder if the land knows it, and so blesses her in return. She loves it, and so it loves her.

The other characters in this novel act out a play of love and loss on the backdrop of her steadfastness. She has one love, the land, and one goal, to live on the land. The rest are action to her stillness, the passion to her calmness.

Plot wise, I would not recommend this book to anyone who must have an action plot where things are happening all the time. For one thing, this small book reaches through decades of living to tell its story. For another thing, there is much introspection allowed to the characters. Things happen, and sometimes things happen quickly, but there is always ample time for the characters to think about, and react to, that particular action.

Inside the book events build and become more intense, everything is straining at the seams, until the world snaps in a single moment, and everyone is left stunned.

I will let you read the book to figure out what that event is *evil laugh*

On the whole, I would recommend this book to anyone who liked ‘My Antonia’, and to those who enjoy slower stories with rich characters. Though I would hesitate to recommend to anyone younger than thirteen, because while nothing is explicit, a couple of the things the book deals with are not for the young.

Enjoy!

Shaina Merrick

Favorite Reads of 2019

Fine. Since everyone else is doing it, I will to.

I have been keeping track of what I read, and how much I liked it, since I was… In Middle School? And all of those lists are around here somewhere. Heh. Thankfully, the list for this year is not in the depths of some journal, and easy to get to and finally organized according to month and year. (don’t ask)

I read a bunch of good books this year, so this list is not going to be short. Sorry not sorry.

The Chestnut King by N. D. Wilson

The Chestnut King (100 Cupboards, #3)

The only reason the rest of the 100 cupboards series isn’t on here is because I didn’t read them in 2019, and I had to cut myself off somewhere. This was the finale to end all finales. The perfect wrap up to the series, and a scene at the end that left me crying happy tears. You must read this series. I don’t think I can put into words how much I love all of these characters and the relationships between them. Also, this series is the reason I now like baseball. Thanks Henry.

A Thousand Perfect Notes by C. G. Drews

A Thousand Perfect Notes

This, this is the book that I will fangirl over with anyone, anywhere. I was not expecting this book to bowl me over, but it did. Every scene left an ache in my heart, every word made me fall in love with the main character even more. Beck was so, so wonderful, all I wanted to do was hug him and give him a cookie. Also, there was piano. My other great love in life. This book combined my two favorite things. The way the author explained playing piano was something I knew. This was an experience I could share with Beck because I have done that. Played the song, had the nerves, hoped the soul I was bleeding over the keys would be liked by others. So yeah. It was great.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater

The Scorpio Races

I will shove this book at almost everyone in existence. I will admit, I avoided it for years because it seemed to be a combination of things I didn’t like. Ha! I was wrong, and I have never been so happy about it in my life. Scorpio Races has the most beautiful prose, and her way of describing left me in awe. All I wanted was to learn how to write like that. Well, I also wanted to figure out what happened next. But ya know, priorities.

Romanov by Nadine Brandes

Romanov

I know I have done a review on this book somewhere on this blog. But I am too lazy to look it up and link to it. Anyway. This is one of the few historical fiction I read this year, and it was also a fantasy. Two of my favorite genres! What I really loved about this book was the way she handled the Romanov family itself. I loved the relationships between them all, and how they were compassionate even in the midst of cruelty. The father showed forgiveness in the face of men who hated him, and even though in the terms of the world he ‘failed’. I think the story showed how such acts of compassion and forgiveness change people, and the world. Go read it! And bring a box of tissues with you.

Fireborne by Rosaria Munda

Fireborne (The Aurelian Cycle, #1)

Enter tears, chills of awe, and a stupid grin. I don’t think my heart will ever recover from the emotions of this book. Up and down, and down some more, and then back up we went as I followed the characters around. I literally stopped in the middle of an intense scene and started trying to figure out why I was feeling so much emotion. (yay logic) I might have figured it out. Sorta. I couldn’t believe all the things this book covered when I stepped back and looked at it. Love, friendship, politics, family, this book covers it all. Yet never feels overly full or preachy or that things are going at a breakneck pace. I adored it.

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain, #4)

The best word I would give this book is melancholy. The whole book was melancholy. But I loved it. Every melancholic word of it. Somehow, Taran’s journey became a rippled reflection of mine this year. Trying different things and hoping that one of them will work out. Only to realize that the one skill I ache to have may not be within my grasp at all. Can we discuss the ending for a moment? Where everything is answered and yet nothing is at all? There is inward screaming right now. I wish more books could pull off that kind of ending.

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain, #5)

Yes, I am allowed to have a two books by the same author, and both in the same series, in my list. It’s my blog. Anyway, what would a list of 2019 favorites be without the last/best book of the series that made me rethink everything I thought I knew about fantasy? It wouldn’t be a list, that’s what! This book perfectly wrapped up every loose end in the whole entire series, yet still reminding you that there are more adventures to come. Every question was answered, yet there were still questions. But good questions, the ones that make you think about the book long after it has finished. The characters all came to their poetic justice, though mercy was shown to those who didn’t deserve it, yet you were glad they got it anyway. I better stop while I am ahead.

There you have it folks! A by no means complete list of my favorite reads of 2019! What did you read, and love, this year?

Shaina Merrick

Know the Novel Linkup: Part Two

This is the story of how I died. Also the story of how I can’t remember much about November except the fact that I have written so, many, words. As of at this moment I am at 30k. Whoo! Not totally sure how I made it, but, hey I’m here so why not have some fun.

Christine has posted the next part of her Know the Novel Link up! You should totally join if you are doing Nano, or if you have a WIP you want to showcase! Go check out the details here!

And now for…

Within Valai

1. How’s the writing going overall?

Bwahaha! You mean how the story is actually going? Or how I am feeling about it? Cause… There have been a few days where I wanted to throw my story out the window and never write again!

Confession, I hate writing beginnings. It isn’t the first line that bothers me so much as the first 20 pages. Yup. Writing those few twenty is like pulling teeth. It is awful and it happens every. Single. Nano. I actually ended up completely stopping one day and going to another project altogether because I hated my story so much.

But I did come back. I did make it through those first twenty pages, and I am enjoying my story again! I am suspiciously thinking that my main problem was that I started my story in the wrong place. Namely way too early. Because now that things are actually happening it is fun!

So, I guess overall it has been good, and I like where the story is going so far.

2. What’s been the most fun aspect about writing this novel so far?

Terrence and Kerina! Their interactions are the absolute best. My favorite scenes are when the two of them are together. I have to work really hard to make sure that my whole book is not just the two of them talking…

Their relationship has begun to take on a life of its own. AND I LOVE IT! It isn’t quite what I expected, but it is more than I had hoped. Terrence loves to spend time with her, but while Kerina likes his company, she also spends every moment terrified that he will learn her terrible secrets. So all the subtext behind what they say and the hidden emotions are just so fun! And their banter, and the way Kerina is like the only person able to make him laugh and… Yeah, I should move on now.

3. What do you think of your characters at this point? Who’s your favorite to write about?

Kerina is finally becoming a regular person! Yay!!! Ever since I started this story sooo many years ago, Kerina has always been my trouble child. I found it hard to latch onto her motivations, her emotions, and basically everything about her. She just always felt so flat. And I couldn’t find a way to bring her to life. Now, that is not to say that I have finally found the perfect piece that totally brings her to life, she is still a little flat and totally angsty and girl would you please lighten up?! But it is getting there. She feels more like a real character than she ever has, and I might actually like her now!

Terrence is a bit different than I expected him to be. A little less preoccupied with stuff and more focused on the here and now. I had created him to be a bit more introspective, but he refuses to spend hours thinking about stuff. Soooo. Yeah. He is still my favorite though! I love spending time in his head, and his chapters are always waaay longer than Kerina’s. (oops.) He is so much easier for me to write. I dunno, the words just flow easier. He has also become more fleshed out in this draft, and is more like a living breathing person than this weird ink and paper doll.

4. Has your novel surprised you in any way?

Considering how much planning I have done for this, one would think that nothing would catch me by surprise. Well. I still was.

They have all been little things though. Little nuances of characters here and there are different then the way I expected them to be (looking at you Kerina). My first plot point may have ended up being something different, and an event I thought would be a huge deal ended up not being such a big deal after all. Ya know, normal writer problems.

5. Have you come across any problem areas?

You mean other than wacky characters, plot holes, and terribly slow beginnings? Um. I am beginning to realize that some of my side characters, and all of my side plots, and not as fleshed out as they should be this far along in my novel. As in they have barely made an appearance. Too many characters, not enough brain space.

I am going to try to give my characters some more screen time, esp. the ones who come more into play later. But I have a feeling that all of those are going to have to be fixed during the editing stage. (sorry future self) Ah well, Nano drafts are supposed to be messy, right?

6. What’s been your biggest victory with writing this novel at this point?

Kerina is not a paper doll! After so long with struggling to find this character, I love that I have begun to see into her character. Though less bubbly than I imagined her, she has become more convoluted and interesting, while still keeping to a more artistic personality.

She is less of a puzzle to me than she was before I started. If that is the only thing that happens during Nano, those thousands of words will be worth it.

7. If you were transported into your novel and became any one of the characters, which one do you think you’d be? Would you take any different actions than they have?

I would be Kerina. Hands down. Though I wouldn’t say we are exactly alike. She is the only girl in the novel so… Yeah. (I am still trying to decide if that is a problem) We also share a rather important trait. We both worry waaay too much. Worry about what other think of us for the most part. She is terrified that if anyone else finds out who and what she is they will hate her. So she has built up a mask to show to the world, hoping that they will accept her.

If I was her, I think I would worry less and do more. But maybe I am just kidding myself and I would still worry too much.

8. Give us the first sentence or paragraph then 2 (or 3!) more favorite snippets!

Phooey. Consider yourselves lucky because I never share my unedited stuff. *deep breath* Here we go! (please excuse any weird grammar, I try but…)

‘If they were lost, then Terrence had failed. Again. Or he was reading the map spread out on the table in front of him wrong. He glanced at Colen and Wizard Gyre. If either of them were confused, it wasn’t showing on their faces. Maybe the squiggles and lines made sense to them, while he was wracking his brain trying to remember map class all those years ago. Was that one of the ones he had skipped?’

‘Terrence scrambled up the hill that guarded the end of the valley. The place where mountains made way for the plains. He couldn’t reach the peak fast enough. The rest of his men were far behind, their steps slowing as they reached the extent of their territory. The moment familiarity ended and the unknown began.

A few more steps. He could see his goal. Stumbling over a rock, Terrence reached the summit. There it was. The sight he had been dreaming of. Stretched out before him was the plains of Sunlight. Nothing but grass reaching out towards the horizon. The horizon. The place sky reached down to touch the land, its blue arc glorious to see.

An unfelt wind swept over the prairie, bending the tall grass to show their golden sides to the sunlight. Sunshine from above meeting sunshine from below.

He sighed, this was home.’

‘“When was the last time you saw the plains?” Kerina asked.

“A week after Torroc came to power,” Terrence replied. He had entered the mountains for the first time with Gyre as a mourning boy who dreamed every night of his sister and of flames. Only the smallest hope of coming back kept him going.

Now he was leaving with a battalion of men at his back, and a way to take back his country. Something he had barely hoped for all those years ago.’

9. Share an interesting tidbit about the writing process so far! (For example: Have you made any hilarious typos? Derailed from your outline? Killed off a character? Changed projects entirely? Anything you want to share!)

I have not actually killed off a character as of yet. I have had a bad habit of that lately, so I am very proud of myself!

So, I think I mentioned earlier that I took a day off because I couldn’t stand the sight of my story anymore. Well, during that day off I went a finished a novella that I have been writing for months. I had tried to finish it before Nano, but it hadn’t worked out. I took that day to finish my novella. Finishing that gave me the momentum I needed to get back into Valai and chop half a chapter so that I could get back to the story I wanted to write. Let me just say that there were many, many words written in those two days.

‘Valai’ isn’t actually the title of my story. It doesn’t have one. But since I needed to call it something I decided to give the name of the country the book is set in to the novel. Because to be perfectly honest, the only thing I hate more than beginnings is having to title things. So until further notice, my story is called Valai.

10. Take us on a tour of what a normal writing day for this novel looks like. Where do you write? What time of day? Alone or with others? Is a lot of coffee (or some other drink) consumed? Do you light candles? Play music? Get distracted by social media (*cough, cough*)? Tell all!

I work every morning from 8:00 to 1:30 so needless to say, I don’t write in the mornings. I try to write as soon as I can in the afternoons. But lunch comes first. Then a couple life things like do laundry or something like that. So often I don’t get started until 4ish. (awful I know) I also have to work myself up to a writing session so sometimes I procrastinate a little too much.

I will write for a while, have dinner, then sit down and write some more! I try to finish writing by about 9:00, 9:30. Well, I tend to run out of ideas by then and am ready to wrap up so I can go to bed. Like I said, I work in the mornings so a good nights sleep is really helpful!

I have my water bottle nearby and music going most of the time. Though I might try writing without music today, because sometimes I get more done if I don’t have that distraction. Other than that… I write alone, with my sister, I write at the dining room table, on the couch, on my bed, wherever the mood strikes me that day! I will say that some of the best writing times have come at the dining room table. (don’t ask why I don’t know)

Phew! That was more than you probably wanted to know about my trial and tribulations while trying to write 50,000 words in a month. Unfortunately, I will not be finished with this novel by then. It has decided to turn into a monstrosity that will most likely be around 100k by the time it is finally done. (somebody help me)

How are you all’s Nano’s going? Or if you aren’t doing Nano, how is your lovely stress free November going? 🙂

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: Romanov

I love history, I love books, so when someone decides to write a historical fiction, I grumble under my breath and roll my eyes. My mother lovingly calls me a history snob. Usually with a laugh, because it is right after me ranting about how this movie or that book got some history wrong. I really hate it when books get history wrong. I mean, a detail here or there isn’t so bad, but most of the time authors take the general idea of the era and then do whatever they want. Ugh.

You are probably expecting this to be a long rant on how much I hated this book. Wrong!

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The history books say I died.

They don’t know the half of it.

Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov was given a single mission: to smuggle an ancient spell into her suitcase on her way to exile in Siberia. It might be her family’s only salvation. (might be?!? It is the only thing giving them hope at the moment!) But the leader of the Bolshevik army is after them, and he’s hunted Romanov before.

Nastya’s only chances of saving herself and her family are to either release the spell and deal with the consequences, or enlist help from Zash, the handsome soldier who doesn’t act like the average Bolshevik (heh, later on anyway. At first though? Bolshevik through and through). Nastya has only dabbled in magic, but it doesn’t frighten her half as much as her growing attraction to Zash. She likes him. She thinks he might even like her (one of my favorite romantic arcs ever).

That is, until she’s on one side of a firing squad . . . and he’s on the other.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my opinions on ‘Romanov’ by Nadine Brandes.

I loved it. Review over.

Or not. Because I can’t help myself, and because this is such a lovely book.

For one thing, Nadine Brandes actually did her research! Don’t laugh. You would be surprised how many authors don’t research. And it shows. She, on the other hand, wrote a book that was at the same time fantasy and true to history. It was fantastic. I loved how rich in detail the book was. Everything from the setting down to their clothes had the perfect details. I knew how worn their clothes were, and what the apartments looked like, and she never had to bore me with a long page of description.

It was those details that showed the era and climate the characters lived in far more than the date and place.

That, writers, is why you research.

It can be tricky to write any historical novel, especially one that deals with such high profile people as the Romanov family. Yet once again, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of research Nadine Brandes did. I felt like I knew these people. I felt closer to them that I would have if I had picked up a biography (and believe me, I had). Yet I knew the family had been portrayed correctly. There was no let down later when I realized that she had mussed with peoples personalities and beliefs. Yes, the story was fictional and some of the scenarios. But she had drawn from real life people and events, and did those people and events justice.

I think my favorite part of the book was the characters. Each and every character captured my attention and held it. I miss those people and I have never even met them! Oh, the woes of a bookworm.

Nastya has three sisters, and each one of them has an integral part to the story. Far from being nameless backdrops to her own story, their lives and stories intertwine and intersect with her own. But by far, other than Nastya, my favorite character was her father, Nicholas Romanov. The strong man who loves his enemies and sees the good in people. He is the one who makes friends with his guards, even if his guards hate him. He is the one who strives to understand his captors. Nicholas Romanov is the rock of his family, the one who keeps them all together.

No I didn’t cry. No I am not crying. Be quiet.

I loved Nastya. The precious little person who is trying so hard to help her family. Her struggles with being gracious to her captors and not being bitter tugged at my heart. It was so hard for her to be friendly to those who obviously hated her, but she got up and did it anyway. When anything was hard, Nastya did not back down. She did it. Whether she liked it or not, she did what needed to be done to help her family.

Lets talk plot. This is by no means your typical fantasy novel with epic journies and huge battles with world wide stakes. This is a story about a family put under house arrest. A family trying to come to terms with a country who now hates them. A country they had dedicated their lives to serving.

As a result, the plot does not go swiftly. And I loved it. The long periods of rest and reflection in between the bits of action revealed the characters. You got to know them, their dreams and wishes, and why each one acted the way they did.

This isn’t to say that the book dragged on. Definitely not. Each period of rest was preceded by a tense bit of action where you are holding your breath the whole time hoping against hope that things turn out alright.

That doesn’t even mention the tension through out the whole book as the reader is wondering if the family will escape or not. Will this work? Will it not? Will they ever get out alive!?!

SPOILER ALERT: I have to say that after the Romanov family died, I was a little bit bored. I was mostly reading it for the family, and when they were gone, I felt like quite a bit of the tension leaked out of the story. It did still keep my attention though. SPOILER OVER

The pacing was very well done throughout the book. It didn’t drag at any points, and didn’t rush along helter skelter either. Each point of high stakes and heart pounding chases was tempered by a point of character interaction. Yay for balance!

Oookay, I have to touch on the romance before I leave. When Nastya and Zash meet. He immediately hates her. She is wary of him and frustrated that her attempts to befriend him fall flat. He has preconceived notions of her, she decides very quickly who he is. Obviously, they are both wrong. Here is the thing though. It doesn’t go from enemies to lovers within a chapter. They are friends first. Friends before romance, imagine that!

They talk, laugh, argue, he builds a swing for her, all things that friends do. Well, except maybe for the heated arguments about her parents.

I actually really liked those arguments. Because each of them had a valid point. Neither side had a weak argument. And they both presented them well. You were forced to see both sides of the question they were arguing, and decide for yourself who was right. Because the characters did not necessarily do that for you. Zash and Nastya pushed each other to think, to see another side, and to truly decide for themselves instead of buying into whatever they had been told. And it is out of that friendship that a romance is born.

If you love historical fantasy, and are curious and or fascinated by the Romanov family and the Russian Revolution, definitely pick up this book!

I would recommend it to mid to late teens and above, while nothing is graphic, there are many of tense situations. And one scene with quite a bit of death.

All in all, ‘Romanov’ was one of my favorite reads this year. It most definitely earned its five stars. * * * * *

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: A Foreshadowed Way

Hello hello! The book I have for you today was given to me in exchange for an honest review. May I introduce Jorgan the Sphere by Patrick Lauser. It is a self published novella you can find on Amazon. All opinions on the book are quite mine own.

Jorgan the Sphere: A Foreshadowed Way by [Lauser, Patrick]

It is about a little ball who lived in a flower. (don’t freak out, it is an insanely interesting little ball)

One day he went across the meadow and had many fine adventures. (I wouldn’t call them fine, but they were adventures)

This is not a story for the faint of heart.

A dark fairy-tale, a gray-scale fantasy, a simple, surreal vision. (I have never heard the term gray-scale fantasy before, but it really does fit this little book)

Jorgan the sphere in his hunger follows a shadow into shadows, and seeks an end to his longing in lands full of cruel and indifferent creatures. He meets those who even in the darkest places work goodness, those that are strong, those that are weak, and those that are quite odd. (lots and lots of odd)

From a breathless sky to a bottomless pit he seeks rest, passing through blood and fire, toil and snares, otherworldly wastelands, and the forbidden world of spirits. He finds and loses friends, and makes an enemy that will hunt him through the worlds to draw him lower than death.

Yet in the darkness he finds the shadows of light, and the truth of the hunger that leads him.

First off, let me just say that there had better be a second one. That ending left too many questions for there to be only one! I think there is a second one planned, which makes me feel slightly better. Only slightly.

At first, I thought this book was a picture book. You know, the kind that you find in the children’s section. There were a few words, and then a picture of Jorgan the Sphere. Then a few more words, and another picture. And just as I was thinking how quick and easy this book would be to read, there came a whole page of words. Followed by a few more pages like it. It is not a kids picture book.

Yes, Jorgan is a real sphere. It is not a metaphor. Personally, I tended to think of him as a marble. He rolls through his entire journey and can traverse places others might fear to tread. He also catches things though, and I am thinking it is something like Veggies Tales where things float in the air around them and you just pretend you can see limbs.

I liked the characters, Jorgan was an interesting hero in that he had a very simple goal in the beginning. He is hungry. But that goal, and hunger, morphs into something bigger as the stakes grow larger and larger until they envelop not only him, but his friends and his world.

My favorites were the side characters, the wise hour glass who knows so much but is not allowed to sleep and Sky, the odd bird who always did the opposite of what you expected it to.

Lets talk plot. What started as a simple story about a little sphere builds over the length of the story to a multi faceted story that you begin to realize has a deeper meaning other than a cute story. Okay, cute is the wrong word. But you get the idea.

At first, all Jorgan wants to do is eat. And hey, why not eat that shadow over there? Logical choice. So he follows the shadow into another shadow, a big one. That shadow is hiding a whole world full of strange creatures and people trying to survive.

Creatures that stalk you in the night, birds with maces as heads, and an hour glass that talks, it is all rather odd. Jorgan keeps traveling on, keeps searching for the shadow he followed there.

The search eventually brings him to one of the creepiest characters I have come across yet. The Swan Child. Literally half child and half swan. This particular being claims to heal people, and even be able to raise them from the dead. He does this by sprinkling his own blood on them. Except, there is a catch. And this catch is the death of many.

When Jorgan finally escapes the Swan Child, his search changes. I got the idea that he wanted to go home now, but I was a slight bit confused. I knew he wanted to leave the shadow of the dark side of the sun, but to get there he had to go to the shadow of the dark side of the moon. I think.

He is no longer seeking the shadow, he wants to escape from it. A decision I backed up whole heartedly. Unfortunately, to do so he has to cross even more of this strange and dangerous world.

And that end! Ugh. He gets so close to what he desires, only to realize that he is farther away from it than before he started. And then there is the whole thing about being outside of one shadow, but still inside another… I would have preferred a bit more closure at the end. But I really like tied up endings, where the plot threads are all tied off nicely with nobody missing. It is also a first book so… Other people may like the end. It just was not my favorite.

Also, it would have been nice if a little bit more explanation was offered. There was explanation of what exactly Jorgan was after, and some wise people gave him the way to find it, but much of it was bound up in allegorical riddles, and I am bad at riddles.

However, I did like how the story went from simple to complex in a gradual fashion. There were no sudden jerks or places where the plot dragged. It all went smoothly from one scene to the other with a slow raise in tension and stakes.

What I really liked about this book was the prose. Everything was described beautifully and I especially loved the way he wrote the journey scenes (something I have trouble with). It was almost graceful, the way the prose lilted from sentence to the next. I would pick up the authors next work for the way he wrote alone.

I would hesitate to recommend ‘A Foreshadowed Way’ to any one younger than thirteen because the world that Jorgan passes through is dark. Which you would expect, it being under a shadow and all, buuut. It is definitely a mature book, and I think an older teen and adult would understand the book better and therefore get more enjoyment out of it.

Quick piece of advice, don’t read the part about the Swan Child at night. Just, don’t.

If you like lovely prose and interesting worlds, I would definitely recommend this book. Enjoy your reading!

Shaina Merrick