Book Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black (Folk of the Air #1)

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Review 2.21

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. [Source]

 

I first heard about Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince last year, and had been meaning to check it out for ages, but wanted to finish Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series before embarking on another journey into YA fantasy. I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it; I was almost surprised by how much I liked this novel. It manages to avoid a lot of the more glaring tropes that have become disappointingly commonplace in YA fantasy.

The Cruel Prince immediately pulls away from the cluttered pack with its heroine. Jude is a mortal who has grown up in constant fear and danger; she dreams of becoming a knight in order to gain a stable position in the Faerie court. The best thing, she isn’t an archer. I am so tired of women being assigned the bow again and again as their weapon of choice; it’s become a tired and overused cliche. But Jude fights with sword, dagger, and crossbow. And poison. And subterfuge. She never stoops quite low enough to enter “antihero” territory, and her motives are generally honorable, but her actions are decidedly less so, which made for a refreshing change of pace.

The world of the Fae has been described in detail by countless authors, and the immortal lands are limited only by the creative limits of the writer. Is it a dreadful and haunted land of twisted and depraved individuals, like in Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call? Or is it an eternal land of beauty and impossibly gorgeous men, like A Court of Thrones and Roses? Holly Black has taken aspects from both interpretations; her Faerie Court is beautiful and deadly, where immortals live a life of luxury but humans are often bewitched and enslaved. It is also filled with one of the most diverse group of Faeries I can recall. Their skin is in every shade from cerulean to sienna; they have horns or tails or goat’s hooves in place of feet. I particularly liked the figure of Jude’s stepmother, whose cold demeanor covers hidden secrets.

I also enjoyed that Black stayed away from yet another overused cliche; Jude is not motivated by romantic love. She isn’t pining after a lost love, or sacrificing herself to save a lover. She also is not driven by any kind of familial duty. Her relationship with her sisters is largely unexplored, something I hope is remedied in the recently released sequel.

Jude is motivated purely by ambition.

She wants to become a knight simply because she wants to be acknowledged as the best. She has been powerless her entire life, and when the opportunity for power presents itself, she seizes it without hesitation.

Ambition is a heady thing, and I will be interested to see where Jude’s ambition leads her.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Cruel Prince here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow by Alyssa Palombo (2019)

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Review. 2.20

Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; two hundred years after it’s publication and I doubt there are many grade school children who are not at least passingly familiar with the story of Ichabod Crane and his ill-fated midnight ride. The tale has been told and retold in so many different iterations that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that nowhere in Irving’s original source material was the ghost of the Headless Horseman actually witnessed. The reason for the sudden disappearance of the luckless schoolmaster is left open to interpretation. Did he slink away in shame after his proposal for the hand of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel was denied by her father? Was he only after her wealth the entire time, venturing to the next village in search of a more hapless heiress? Or, as the townspeople whisper to themselves, was he taken to the depths of hell by the Headless Horseman, who is said to haunt the woods around Sleepy Hollow?

All of these questions and more are answered in this historical romance novel by Alyssa Palombo. Set in the very early days of the American republic, just a few years after the defeat of the British soldiers, Palombo does a wonderful job of setting her scene. She captures the revolutionary attitude of New England with her heroine, Katrina Van Tassel. No longer the mostly nonverbal plot device of Irving’s story, here Katrina holds the same optimistic attitude and hopeful fervor that would have defined the young nation under Washington’s presidency. Palombo paints a romantic but realistic view of New England life. The community of Sleepy Hollow represents a community that is extraordinarily close-knit, and for a good reason. Any group of people that did not come together during the long New England winters would not have lasted long.

The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel has the setting. And it has the characters, with its outspoken and forward-thinking heroine. Palombo also takes a bit of narrative license with Ichabod Crane, making him less of a painfully awkward but still capturing his shy, gentle spirit and nerdy appearance. When the current TV series Sleepy Hollow depicts him as dreamy beardy eye candy:

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it’s a nice message to send that a man can be attractive due to a generosity of spirit, or a creative imagination rather than just a chiseled jawline.

Anyway, Palombo gets all of these really great characters together in this really great setting and then…

She doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.

For nearly two hundred of it’s three hundred and fifty page running length, we are treated to chapter after chapter of Katrina pining after Ichabod. She yearns. She craves. She longs from afar. Sometimes there are snatched moments of joy and pleasure with her beloved, but these moments are fleeting and then it’s quickly back to pining.

Another fifty or so pages is dedicated to Katrina attempting to use “witchcraft” as she seeks out answers to the mystery behind Ichabod’s disappearance. I put witchcraft in quotes because she mostly consults tarot cards, or stares into fires after drinking some herbal tea. The reveal of the eponymous “spellbook” was such a disappointment that I actually groaned aloud.

On an unrelated note, the tagline for this book is nonsense. Love is a thing even death won’t erase? What does that even mean? No shit Sherlock. We don’t just stop loving someone the moment they die. But that is an issue for the publishers of this novel, not the novel itself.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Guest Review: Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop (2010)

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by Elizabeth Schlueter

 

After yet another terrible argument, fifteen year old Elizabeth slams the front door, having to get away from her mother who obviously has no clue what it’s like to be a teenager. Her mother, Laura, begins to pen a letter to her daughter, explaining that she does indeed know what it’s like to be fifteen years old. Laura’s letter details many of the questions that her daughter has quizzed her about over the years. Why did you get that tattoo? Was Daddy your first love?

As day fades to evening and evening well into the night, Laura focuses all her pent-up tension on writing an open and honest letter about being fifteen. She remembers her first time, being the outsider at school and losing her first love in an unpopular war. Paragraphs become pages and pages become chapters as Laura anxiously awaits and prays for Elizabeth’s safe return.

I enjoyed this novel. As a mom, our children pepper us with questions about our past, some we are hesitant to truthfully answer, and some questions that will remain secret. This novel made me reflect on my own child-rearing. How much should we really tell our children? Is it possible to be too open and honest about your own past? There are some moments and memories that we cling to and want to be just ours, not willing to share with anyone.

The author did a surprisingly good job of narrating from a mother’s point of view, but perhaps that is not all that difficult as a father. Raising children regardless of sex, the job itself is very similar, only the details may differ.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Letter to My Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (1986)

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Review 2.16

 

A Door into Ocean is the novel upon which the author’s reputation as an important SF writer principally rests. A ground-breaking work both of feminist SF and of world-building hard SF, it concerns the Sharers of Shora, a nation of women on a distant moon in the far future who are pacifists, highly advanced in biological sciences, and who reproduce by parthenogenesis–there are no males–and tells of the conflicts that erupt when a neighboring civilization decides to develop their ocean world, and send in an army. [Source]

Unlike many genres, science fiction and fantasy writers often face the uphill task of world building. If the story is set anywhere other than the planet Earth, and concerns any characters that aren’t human, it’s the author’s arduous task to make this place have weight and meaning in our imaginations.

This can be a difficult balancing act, because instead of jumping right into the plot, science fiction first requires that the reader understand the “rules” of this particular universe. I say this because some critics (including some in my book club) became frustrated by A Door into Ocean due to its rather slow exposition. And it does take more than fifty pages for the planet of Shora to even make an appearance. First, Slonczewski has to establish the two worlds.

A Door into Ocean will draw inevitable and accurate comparison to novels such as Dances with Wolves, or films like Avatar and Disney’s Pocahontas. Often called the “white savior” trope, these stories all share a basic narrative structure. An outsider from a more “advanced” culture will come to a world populated by “savages”. Over time the outsider will become more and more drawn to the natural and pure ways of the natives, and in the process will betray his own people, who are often ruthless, violent, and mercenary. This is not a criticism. There are only so many stories to be told in the world; what separates good novels from the merely mediocre is the author’s ability to bring an old story to life in a new and interesting way.

Joan Slonczewski succeeds in this area by making her novel a sort of philosophical thought experiment on the nature of pacifism. Populated solely by women and daughters, the ocean world of Shora has been left untouched for millennia. The “Sharers” have a disorganized, almost anarchist society that has no concept of obedience, and therefore no concept of resistance. As the invading “malefreaks” attempt to impose martial law on the planet, the questions remains if the Sharers will remain true to their nonviolent history, turn to a violent future, or be wiped off the face of Shora entirely.

Even though it takes awhile to get there,  the planet of Shora is a fascinating and dangerous place. It is no idyllic paradise, and the dangers faced by the Sharers by their own natural environment gives the narrative a surge in excitement once it finally sets down on the ocean world.

The thing I love about good science fiction is the interesting discussions it can spark. I’ll enjoy chewing over the ideas presented by A Door into Ocean for the next couple of days to see what I uncover.

My rating: 4/5

You can find A Door into Ocean here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (2016)

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Review 2.15

Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she’s studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life—but it is also so much more. 

Lab Girl is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren’s stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done “with both the heart and the hands”; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. [Source]

If you’re lucky, outside your window you will be able to see at least one tree. What kind of tree is it? How old is it? When was the last time you really paid any attention at all to the goings on of this tree?

In LabGirl, noted biogeologist Hope Jahren asks us to take a closer look at the plants that share our Earth. In part, her memoir is a love letter to the grasses, flowers, and trees which are so necessary to life on this planet and yet are so often overlooked or disregarded. These sections, in which Jahren speaks with an enraptured voice on the many fascinating aspects of the botanical world, are what works about LabGirl.

From the introduction, Jahren makes the case that anyone who observes something interesting about the natural world is officially a scientist. Children are born scientists, exploring and cataloging their environment with every sense they possess. It’s only as we get older that science becomes an intimidating, closed-off world with its own secret rules and language. Girls in particular often feel discouraged when entering STEM fields because they are given little respect or acknowledgement. Jahren’s struggles trying to scratch out a niche for herself in the scientific community are some of the funniest and more infuriating part of this book.

What doesn’t work so well is Bill. Bill is Jahren’s closest friend, valued colleague, and general right-hand man. A large portion of the novel is given over to how important Bill is, what a good friend he is, and how Jahren just couldn’t survive without him. The problem was I just didn’t get it. I could not for the life of me figure out why she is so enamored by Bill. Far be it from me to say that two friends are mismatched, but I almost felt like Jahren forces my hand by focusing so much of her narrative on how impossibly wonderful this person is. It started to feel less like a working relationship between scientists and more like two codependent people clinging together for no other reason than that they know no other way to exist.

I’ve always loved science in a “stars are pretty” kind of way, though I readily admit that the technical aspects go right over my head. I would recommend LabGirl for anyone interested learning more about plants and the scientists who study them.

A quick note on the Audible version. The audio book for LabGirl is narrated by the author, and makes for an uneven listening experience. Jahren is obviously going to be personally moved when detailing her own past experiences, but one more than one occasion she sounds as if she is going to burst into tears. During other sections when she is waxing romantic about her relationship with her colleague, her voice takes on a soporific effect that had me nodding off. A large portion of the book deals with Jahren’s ongoing battle with bipolar disorder, so perhaps the tone was an intentional choice made by the author and publisher. Either way, I found it jarring.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find LabGirl here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.  The Audible version is narrated by the author and can be downloaded here.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Homegoing by Ya’a Gyasi (2018)

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Review 2.14

How far back can you trace your ancestry? I can go back four generations on my mother’s side, to my great-grandmother whom I was lucky enough to know for twenty-five years before she passed. On my father’s side, I can go back only three generations to my grandfather, who fought on the side of the Allies during World War II and passed away when I was in high school. I imagine this is more or less normal. People can trace their ancestry back somewhere between three to five generations before the trail becomes difficult to follow. Of course you always have outliers, like the haughty New Englanders who can prove their ancestors came over on the Mayflower, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.

How interesting would it be to know the full story? How did your family come to be your family? What strokes of luck and trials of fate determined their lives and hopes and happiness? At least I can say that my family came to the United States deliberately, in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families. This is part of my privilege.

Homegoing seeks to tell just one story among millions of people whose ancestors had had no say in their own futures, and were instead torn from their home countries and thrust into a life of labor on faraway shores. It also tells the story of those who stayed.

This debut novel by Ghanaian author Ya’a Gyasi will draw inevitable comparison to Alex Haley’s groundbreaking Roots. Both tell a generational story, one that stretches over four hundred years and the span of an ocean. Both highlight the injustices of slavery, and the constant backsliding struggle for former slaves to succeed under Jim Crow and segregation. The one huge difference is that while Roots focused solely on the lives of the slaves taken across the Atlantic,  Homegoing keeps half of its plot on the shores of Africa; and also tells the story of the changing political landscape of the region as it is torn apart and knitted back together again and again by war and colonization.

Gyasi does something else very striking with her novel. She acknowledges that the tribes of Africa were actively complicit in the slave trade. Warring tribes often kept captured rivals as slaves in their own villages, and they began selling these prisoners for a profit to the white slavers who came to the shores of the Gold Coast. Homegoing sugarcoats none of these unpleasant details, and presents its characters as flawed and fallible, and they are all the more memorable for their flaws and fallacies.

Every chapter of Homegoing is set from a different perspective in a different time period and setting, generally following the story of the previous character’s offspring. Gyasi shifts her narrative from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and tells the story of concurrent generations as they face the problems dealt either by being African or by being African-American. These stories are sometimes filled with sorrow, sometimes joy. Sometimes I would need a few pages to remember the characters from the previous “generation”, so that I could place myself in history.

If I read this novel again, I will begin by writing the two names of the supreme matriarchs of this generational tale, and draw a family tree as I explore the different members of this one very, very extended family.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Homegoing here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrated by Emily Carroll

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Review 2.8

“Speak up for yourself-we want to know what you have to say.” 

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless–an outcast–because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. Through her work on an art project, she is finally able to face what really happened that night: She was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. [Source]

Apparently I live under a rock, because I had never heard of Laurie Halse Anderon’s award winning 1999 novel, Speak. It only came to my attention when I learned that Emily Carroll had done the illustrations for the graphic novel edition of the book, which was released last year. Carroll wrote and illustrated the fantastically creepy Into the Woods, which was among the favorite books that I read last year. I immediately ordered a copy from my library and brought it home.

It sat on my desk for six weeks.

I could never bring myself to actually begin reading Speak. I knew it was going to be one of those books that left me feeling wrung out and exhausted, and I just couldn’t commit myself. A few days before the book had to be returned to the library, I finally decided to make myself a giant cup of hot chocolate, top it off with a dash of brandy, and curl up on my couch to finish the book.

I’m so glad I did.

I haven’t read the original source material, but Anderson’s writing style adapts itself perfectly to the graphic novel format. Her narrative has a lyrical, almost poetic quality; it bounces from subject to subject in a continual train of thought that carries us into Melinda’s mind. The mind of the average high school girl is a swirling maze of pressure and anxiety: pressure to fit in, to get good grades, to be popular to have boys like you, pressure from parents, from peers, from boys. Melinda, who is dealing with more anxiety and pressure than any ninth grader should ever have to experience, is teetering on the knife’s edge between crippling depression and debilitating stress. Her experiences are as tragic as they are tragically ordinary, and Melinda’s journey to find her voice is a powerful one.

Emily Carroll is a tremendously talented artist, and her illustrations heighten and define Melinda’s experiences in so many ways. Notice the way Melinda is nearly always depicted with her hair covering part of her face as she seeks to hide from staring eyes. Or how certain characters are drawn with horribly exaggerated features. Carroll has a tendency towards the macabre that I love, and it suits the dark material presented in Speak.

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I put off reading this book because I thought it was going to leave me feeling bitter and upset. Instead, I found Speak to be empowering. As Melinda journeys out of the darkness and finds her voice, there were a series of small victories. A new friend. A helping hand. A sympathetic teacher. Small reminders that a person is never really alone. I’ll take this as a reminder that the most difficult stories to read are often the most important to tell.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Speak: The Graphic Novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Guest Review: All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (2016)

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by Elizabeth K. Schlueter

In the small, affluent town of Fairview, Connecticut everything seems picture perfect.

Until one night when young Jenny Kramer is attacked at a local party. In the hours immediately after, she is given a controversial drug to medically erase her memory of the violent assault. But, in the weeks and months that follow, as she heals from her physical wounds, and with no factual recall of the attack, Jenny struggles with her raging emotional memory. Her father, Tom, becomes obsessed with his inability to find her attacker and seek justice while her mother, Charlotte, prefers to pretend this horrific event did not touch her perfect country club world.

As they seek help for their daughter, the fault lines within their marriage and their close-knit community emerge from the shadows where they have been hidden for years, and the relentless quest to find the monster who invaded their town – or perhaps lives among them – drive this psychological thriller to a shocking and unexpected conclusion. [Source]

The concept of this novel was extremely interesting.  God forbid that you had experienced a terrible physical assault or were the lone survivor of an horrific attack while serving your country.  Doctors came to you or met with your loved one’s to inform you that they were able to erase those horrible memories.  Keep in mind that only the memories were erased, the physical scars remain.
That’s what Jenny’s family  decided to do, but the erasing of the memories only seemed to make things worse, the psychological trauma was with her, even to the point of wanting to commit suicide.
A therapist steps in to help Jenny go back and attempt to remember the memories of that horrible night, but while treating her finds that her memories may threaten his own family.
Should the therapist continue helping Jenny to remember the events of that fateful night, or could he plant false memories that would take the eye’s off of his own family.
I highly recommend the book!
My rating: 4.5/5
You can find All is Not Forgotten here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.
Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman (2017)

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Review 2.5

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys. [Source]

Only someone who has played as part of a sports team can describe the seemingly psychic connection that exists between well-trained players working towards a common goal. A good coach can pull astounding results out of a talented player, but not without pain and sacrifice both mental and physical. Complete and total devotion is required if the unit as a whole is to succeed. The character traits born by playing sports: loyalty, determination, selflessness, and stamina can serve children well into adulthood. But there is a darker side to those sterling qualities: arrogance, recklessness, and a disregard for authority also breed when star players are told from a very early age that they are perfect and invincible. Beartown tells the story of one youth ice hockey team as they prepare for the semi-final championship and bear the entire weight of a community on their shoulders.

Beartown is a novel about the power of competitive sports to bring people together and to tear people apart. The introspective, omniscient language used by Fredrik Backman (translated here from Swedish by Neil Smith) is simultaneously haunting and joyful. We delight in the vitality and joy that the boys of the Beartown junior league find out on the ice, while never forgetting that those shining moments are few and fleeting. Backman manages to capture the almost addictive hold that these sports have, both on the players and the people in the community who place all their hopes on the slim shoulders of seventeen-year old boys. The pressure that these students are under would buckle the knees of most adult men, and game-day nears, the cracks begin to show.

Halfway into Beartown came an event that I definitely did not expect, but in retrospect I should have seen it coming a mile away. Another side effect of sports culture is the attitude instilled in the members of a winning team that they are entitled to whatever rewards they desire and that “winning” is something that must be obtained at all costs. This event sets off a series of repercussions that wind through the remaining half of the novel until building into a tight, page-turning conclusion that had me glued to the screen of my Kobo.

I loved that this was a novel about sports culture that didn’t require me to know or care anything about ice hockey going in. It’s a novel about sports that will appeal to people who don’t like sports very much. And people who love the game. Probably because Beartown isn’t about ice hockey. It’s about teamwork. Friendship. Sacrifice. Loyalty. Honesty. Bravery. And a little bit ice hockey.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Beartown here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.