The Hero Code – Admiral Willian H. McRaven

Humor is one of the most important qualities for any hero. If you want to show courage, laugh in the face of danger. If you want to show humility, laugh at yourself.

This is exactly the kind of book that I needed right now, a book that would encourage me to be stronger, to be moral and to choose happiness every day. I can be quick to anger, sensitive and sometimes it’s just really hard to choose happiness, to smile, to forgive, especially when the other person never apologized and never asked for me to forgive them. It’s been especially hard during this pandemic. It felt like before there were so many distractions, and if I wasn’t studying or working, then I was reading and so I rarely took the time to think about my actions and wonder if I am who I aim to be and if I do any good in this world.

Admiral William H. McRaven challenges us to be strong, to not give in or give up. He is spot on on a lot of things, especially when he discusses what drives us and motivates us. It’s true that in some cases, anger, resentment and other negative emotions can push us to do something, to act, and the things we accomplish with those emotions can sometimes be good, but these feelings will not do us any good in the long run. Change, action, has to come from a good place, a positive place, and we need to let ourselves be motivated by things like hope, faith, love, kindness. It’s a hard thing to do. I wholly believe that happiness is a choice, as is goodness, as is love and everything else. As the author said, sometimes it’s easier to let ourselves be led by our negative emotions and our impulses but if we follow his established Hero Code, we might just become stronger and lead a more meaningful life. We might become heroes ourselves.

One thing that I really like about this author is that he doesn’t distinguish between heroes. Yes, some people have qualities that allow for greater change, but it doesn’t mean that this person is better than any other or a stronger hero. There needs not be a hierarchy of heroes. Like the Avengers, there are many of them, and individually they can all make quite a lot of noise and turn things around, but they act together for a reason, and the people who do the administrative tasks, in the background, are heroes too. I used to think that to make an impact on this planet I needed to go to the best school, get the highest of degrees and the best of jobs and volunteer at the best of organizations, but maybe I need to rethink all of that and remove some of that pressure I put on myself. The one thing Admiral McRaven mentions that’s probably the hardest to accomplish is the idea of giving without expecting anything in return. Because, truth is, over time, not receiving anything can be frustrating and lead to resentment. But there’s also the chance that we might not receive exactly what we’ve given, but something else entirely. Above all, the truest of heroes acts out of a sense of duty.

Here are the themes he discusses which make The Hero Code:

1. Courage

2. Humility

3. Sacrifice

4. Integrity

5. Compassion

6. Perseverance

7. Duty

8. Hope

9. Humor

10. Forgiveness

Absolutely recommended, unless for some reason you cannot stand war stories.

You Will Know Me – Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is scary. It’s not usual for me to be scared of a writer—a person—after reading their work, but Abbott has such a way—a natural way—of creating an ominous atmosphere in her novels that I have no idea how it would feel to be in her presence and that’s scary. I’d probably be super nervous and still and captivated… and more.

Abbott is also scary because she doesn’t care about doing what is expected, making her characters feel what would be socially acceptable for them to feel—or say, or do. The good thing about this is that she cannot be predicted, and her stories make you a little obsessed. Not the kind of obsessed that makes you feel like you simply have to read this in one sitting, and cannot let go of it, but the kind of obsessed that, whether you’re reading it or not, you’re thinking about it still.

I have this theory that the best way to create atmosphere in your stories is to try to feel yourself what the characters do and picture in your mind the sort of vibe you want any scene to have and really feel it, conjure it inside of you in some way. So, if I’m happy, I won’t write about unhappy characters, or if I’m self-conscious I’m not going to write about confident heroines. Maybe there’s no correlation between our own mood, personality, demeanour and the characters we write about, but if there is then let’s just say that if I’m ever in the same room as Megan Abbott, I’ll seriously take note of the nearest exit. Just in case.

This is my second book from her – after Dare Me – and I am very excited about reading more. Thank goodness there is more! The good thing about being familiar with someone’s writing style is that you know what to look forward to (and not) and when is the best time for you to pick up their books. For instance, if I’m feeling particularly nervous about something in my life, perhaps I would do best to pick up a light contemporary romance from Kasie West. Megan Abbott’s books are for when you want to feel, when you don’t mind being in a sort of trance and when you’re okay with being aware of your blood crawling inside of you.

I mean, Stephen King blurbed this book, what did you expect? Have fun.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

Trinkets – Kristen Smith

I love it. I love when a book that seems not to work for a ton of people ends up being the right fit for me. This book has pretty low ratings on Goodreads, and yet I could not help myself from requesting it. Normally, low ratings would discourage me from doing that, but the premise and TV show tie-in cover gripped my interest. Not to mention that this is a Little, Brown Books for Young Readers publication and in the past very few of those have let me down. Fun fact: I hope to get a book published by them in the future. I don’t know who edits these stories but they are doing a great job.

With this particular title, it’s definitely the original execution that kept me engaged the most. The plot is not necessarily new—though I certainly liked the idea of three girls befriending each other in a Shopaholic Anonymous group. Other than that, it deals with basic high school, boy and friendship drama. It’s not the most self-aware book either, with aggression, bullying and disrespect being made light of at times. I’m still on the fence about Moe’s love interest, who gives her attention when they’re alone but completely disregards her when they’re in public. That’s some shitty behavior right there and not something I felt Moe should have put up with at any point.

At the same time, it’s a very readable book. There are three narrators: Elodie expresses herself through poetry, Tabitha through blog posts-type chapters and Moe through diary entries. It’s a fast-paced story, and as cliché as it can get at times, it does deal with realistic issues that teens may go through in their daily lives. Frankly, I’ve never read a story about teen shoplifters before, and yet they do exist. Similarly, the concept of rehabilitation isn’t given a lot of attention in YA and doesn’t have the best reputation, and yet the author managed to make it seem worthwhile and… exciting. A rehab-centered group can become a place where you not only get to discuss something that others may judge you for in the outside world, but also to make friends and generally connect with people who are going through the same thing you are—thus making you feel less alone in the process.

I was taken by surprise by one of the three girls’ secret, which I absolutely did not see coming. Now it makes me want to watch the Netflix series as well, see how the girls and their addiction translates to the screen. TRINKETS is at times fun, at times dramatic, or sad, but never a bookish regret.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

My Last Summer with Cass – Mark Crilley

I love a story told through good art. I love it even more when the story is as good as the art. Such is the case here. Megan and Cass are two childhood friends who share a passion for making art. They meet every summer, along with their families, at a cottage, where they unleash their creativity in different ways. But Cass’s family falls apart, and those summers are no more. The girls grow apart for a bit, then reunite in New York, the place where dreams come true and every artist can find a home. While Cass seems to have figured out the type of artist she is and where she belongs and with whom, Megan is still unsure of who she is meant to be. Terribly afraid of disappointing her parents, especially her dad, she holds back and plays it safe. Cass can see through her friend, can see her buried need to express her true self, and pushes Megan to dig deeper and be braver. All is well… until she pushes too far, too soon.

I related to this story a lot, especially to Megan’s character. I think we’re all forced to grow up one day or another, but for some of us it takes time. If Cass hadn’t been there to introduce her best friend to new things and show her a side of the world she hadn’t seen before, who knows when Megan would have had the chance to experience these new things. Or maybe she would have, but with the wrong crowd, someone who doesn’t have her back. Cass’ aggressive way of throwing new things at Megan did rub me the wrong way, because I wonder, can you really force growth? Isn’t it supposed to happen naturally, over time? More importantly, should you force it? Too much, too soon can be overwhelming for someone who has lived a fairly sheltered life and has only just recently started voicing her own opinions and standing up for herself. The truth is that, whether you agree with Cass’ actions or not, and Megan’s responses to these actions, you are at least sure to be emotionally affected by them because the author and illustrator draws with intent and meaning. I was glued to this graphic novel until the very end. Con: I finished it in 15 minutes. Pro: Those were some intense 15 minutes that I wouldn’t mind repeating.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

The Last Beautiful Girl – Nina Laurin

After reading Horrid by Katrina Leno (whom I’ll be interviewing soon on my blog) I was ready for more gothic stories. Unfortunately, Nina Laurin has nothing on Katrina Leno. There certainly are gothic elements in this story, such as a dark, secluded mansion, ghosts, creepy hidden rooms, disappearances and deaths. BUT, one cannot solely rely on elements pertaining to a theme or genre to make the latter come alive. The main reason why, even though there is creepiness in this story, it never truly feels CREEPY to the reader (or to me) is because there is very little atmosphere.

Don’t get me wrong. I was mildly entertained and I was certainly happy to be reading a novel by an author living in Montreal and who went to Concordia (whose Webster Library, by the way, is *chef’s kiss!). I really was looking forward to seeing what Nina Laurin had to offer and went into this book with the best of intentions and attitude. Nina Laurin has a very accessible writing style that I find appropriate for teens and engaging as well. She wrote here a fast-paced story that, despite lacking atmosphere, did include enough mystery content and drama to keep me want to keep reading. If you like super dramatic stories, this one can be for you.

I think one of the main reasons why it lacked atmosphere was because of the characters. They all pretty much seemed to be one-dimensional, and while that’s appropriate in this case when considering the storyline—a girl dying to be someone and have more attention creates an Instagram account with the help of an aspiring photographer and together they take lavish, glamorous, mature, sexy pictures that generate the account lots of followers—I think the author could have gone deeper. Could have made us understand the depth of Isa’s pain and Alexa’s skill better, so that even if they remain selfish and vain, we understand where those weaknesses come from better. I also think that this story could have benefitted from some slowing down. As I mentioned, it is pretty fast-paced and that’s basically always, even during moments that would have impacted me better if they had had more slow-burning intensity.

To recapitulate, I was entertained by this fast-paced novel that did have some engaging elements, but overall it’s a story that I will forget in a few weeks and whose characters have not managed to steal my heart in any way. If everyone had died at the end, I would not have shed any tears.

Thank you Raincoast Books for the copy in exchange for a review. On sale September 2021!

Creatures of the Night – Grace Collins

I have diaries. I’ve been writing them since middle school, on and off, and I took a 5-year break from sharing my most personal everyday thoughts on paper. But I got back to it a year ago and it’s been helpful. A few days ago, I started writing about things that I’m grateful for every single day. When I started this book, I wrote this: ‘‘I’m grateful for stories that I think I won’t enjoy but that end up surprising me.’’

There’s little very enticing about this book. I almost didn’t request it, because come on. Look at that unoriginal title, cover and premise. Hunters. Creatures. Secrets. Been there, read that about a hundred times.  The more I looked at it, the more I considered getting rid of my copy without even finishing the first page. But then I remembered that I’m a book blogger and that nothing and no one can force me to love a book or even finish it, so I opened it with the idea in mind that I would read enough of it to be able to review its negative aspects and then donate it.

Talk about pre-reading judgement. But admit it, we’re all guilty of it. Skipping over a cover that isn’t attractive enough or reading a premise and finding it too similar to past stories we’ve read and deciding that this thing is not worth our time. Well, I’m grateful for this book because it has reminded me that some people are able to surprise me and that sometimes the content of a book is much, much better than the way it is presented, marketed, publicized.

Grace Collins writes with a lot of intensity. This is as much a character-driven story as it is an action-driven one, my favourite combination in the entire world and something Sarah J. Maas excels at. Grace Collins may not be Miss Maas but she has delivered here a sympathetic and relatable heroine whose character-development is felt and makes me want to see what she’ll do next. The world-building she has created relies on its creatures – hollowers, wispers and shifters, oh and humans – more than its environment. The politics of the world are not heavily nuanced, but what Collins does share about the world is accessible. There is a war brewing between the hollowers and the others, who have been in conflict for a long time, mainly because hollowers kill stuff to stay alive. They ‘‘hollow’’ people out.

Milena thought they were the good guys, but she had no idea who she was living with until her 20th birthday, when her family and friends decided to murder her. She was rescued by shifters who enlightened her on the world she lives in and its real ‘‘creatures of the night.’’ What I like most about this story is that there is a lot going on. Milena doesn’t spend 5 chapters not doing anything. She’s constantly thinking, planning and moving forward. At first on her own, then with friends she’s made. The worst element is the romance, which confused the hell out of Milena. Her love interest is dealing with some stuff and does not have the capacity to be open and honest – two important qualities if you want a long-lasting and healthy relationship. But if you just want something dramatic to entertain the reader, sure, let your heroine and her love interest enter in some unhealthy push-pull type of dynamic.

So in some ways it is a cliché story, but in other ways it is surprising, super entertaining and simply a decent addition to the YA fantasy genre with a heroine who has a lot of growing up and learning to do.

Thank you Raincoast Books for the copy in exchange for an honest review.

Series Review: Fence, Vols. 1-4 – C.S. Pacat & Johanna the Mad

Of course I was going to read this one. First of all, it was written by C.S. Pacat, the author of one of my all-time favourite series ever: Captive Prince. Second of all, I’ve read an original story based on the series, in novel format, by Sarah Rees Brennan titled Fence: Striking Distance and really enjoyed getting to know the characters. Finally, it’s just been a long time since I’ve read a comic, so it was simply pleasurable to get back to the genre.

I’m reviewing the entire series at once because I basically read the four volumes in one sitting. I couldn’t help myself, I was addicted and my (sub)conscious was waiting for something specific and romance-related to happen. (It never did, unfortunately, but the wish pushed me to keep reading and that’s not a bad thing.) So this is the story of Nicholas, a newbie in the world of fencing, but he’s got potential that the Kings Row coach notices after he fences against one of the country’s best fencers, Seiji.

I thoroughly enjoyed Nicholas and Seiji’s rivalry, especially since both have such different personalities and ways of seeing the world around them. Their rivalry doesn’t end on the fencing court because they must share a room together. I have to say that watching them slowly get to know one another was one of the main reasons why I read this series with such fervour. The other main reason was Aiden, because his character story is very important in Sarah Rees Brennan’s Fence: Striking Distance so I was very interested in seeing him again in the comics. I do recommend getting to the comics first and then the two novels, because you will understand the novels so much better that way.

As interesting as these comics were, the fourth volume was a letdown for me and I actually have no idea what the future comics (should there be more) will look like. The reason why I was so let down is that there seemed to be too many similarities with previous issues. I understand that this is a sports-themed comic and that fencing matches will be a big deal throughout, but I wanted more of the characters’ pasts, emotions and interactions with one another. I will, however, keep an eye out for the rest as I did get attached to Nicholas and Seiji quite strongly. I do recommend this series if you like to see underdogs succeed.

Burn It All Down – Nicolas DiDomizio

I knew I would love this, and not just because James Patterson blurbed it, raving about its addictiveness. It is, by the way, super addictive. It’s the type of story that you start and finish deep into the morning. Forget about getting your beauty night sleep, which likely won’t happen when it comes to this book. In my particular case though, I’m simply typically a night owl and prefer to fall asleep when I just can’t keep my eyes open anymore and fall into slumber the moment I close my eyes. This book will make it hard to close your eyes, but hey, I’m not complaining.

I also knew I would love it because after I finished watching the movie French Exit, I was subconsciously dying for another mother-son story. This is very different from the movie mentioned above, but it does feature that strong mother-son connection that I really liked from the movie and touched the part of me that adores seeing strong familial connections. Joey and his mother Gia Rossi certainly have that connection, especially when it comes to men. They both get their hearts broken by jerks and handle the heart breaks together. This time, however, they both got their hearts broken at the same time and they decide to get their revenge on. It’s cathartic for them and entertaining for the reader.

The first 100 or so pages of this book are thrilling, the rest are a bit calmer. I do admit that I prefer when it’s the other way around—when stories start in a chill way and gain energy the more I read—but for Joey and Gia Rossi, the storm never really dies. After completing their revenge plans, exteriorly they might seem okay-ish and certainly the environment they are in is more peaceful, but both mother and son are actively dealing with the aftermath of what they’ve done and how they feel, sometimes together and sometimes on their own. Of course, as interesting as it was to see Joey and Gia interact, more like friends than mother and son, it is not necessarily a very healthy type of dynamic, and both have to grow up in their own ways.

It’s part thriller, part literary, part romance and almost all coming-of-age. There are secrets and revelations, beautiful and dark moments, tears of happiness and despair and a lot, lot, lot of love. I adored it. If you like unconventional stories, this one is for you. Enjoy.

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.

Blood Like Magic – Liselle Sambury

I am so proud of Liselle Sambury. Not just because she wrote a wonderful dark debut novel here, but also because it’s so nice and motivating to see Canadian authors publishing fantastic stories. I’m Romanian-Canadian and one of my dreams if to one day publish a story that is meaningful to me as well. So reading this and taking in Liselle’s words felt particularly important to me.

This is not a commercial book. I think of those as stories that are written to be sold, written because that’s what’s trending and that’s what readers want to read. Though there is more emphasis on diversity in YA and stories with POC do sell more than 10 years ago from my understanding, everything in this book felt like it came from a place that truly believes that this content is worth sharing and has a place in the world.

It’s a big book—close to 500 pages—and it is slower than most fantasy books I read. I won’t deny that there is too much description for my usual liking. However, and this is important, Liselle does take the time to lay down the foundation for our understanding of the world-building, magic system and characters themselves. It quickly became clear to me that the author spent a lot of time thinking of and developing her characters—bringing them to life. They are each peculiar and human in their own way, even the magic-wielding ones. I especially enjoyed Voya’s interactions with her cousin Keis, whose magical ability is to read thoughts, and Luc (the love interest) certainly intrigued me.

Voya will only earn her powers if she completes a task given to her by one of her ancestors. The problem is that there is more at stake than just her power ascension, and she is not used to making decisions on her own. She must learn to trust herself better and embrace the path that her instincts direct her towards. It’s hard not to feel for Voya, since she is vulnerable and insecure but also caring and determined. She does not exist to entertain or please the reader. She really does have a story to tell, and I for one felt honoured to be privy to her storytelling.

Thank you Simon & Schuster for the copy in exchange for a review.

WolfWalkers: The Graphic Novel

I am not normally a fan of movie novelizations. I like original works. If a book came first, I like to start with that and if I really, really enjoyed it or want to know more about the characters and world, then I watch the movie and vice-versa. But in this case, I tried to watch the movie and that did not work out. While the graphics were absolutely stunning and unique besides, I simply could not take the slow-pacing. Perhaps it does pick up, as it does in the graphic novel, but I had to force myself to watch it and that never feels quite good. All of that to say that I was very pleased to learn that the movie was turned into a graphic novel, as I did genuinely want to know more about the story.

This is a very beautiful graphic novel. Unsurprisingly, the illustrations are gorgeous. Because I did watch a bit of the movie, I was already a little acquainted with the characters and was able to imagine their voices while I read, but it still felt very nice to learn more about them through paper. It’s quite convenient, I’d say, because with books you can generally read slower or faster. Of course, every story has its own pacing, but you can cheat a little if that allows you to have a better reading experience. With movies, not so much. I guess, in some cases, one can change the speed but it doesn’t feel that good or natural to me. So I absolutely loved being able to follow the story at a pacing more suited for me. It allowed me to feel comfortable reading this graphic novel and get through the storyline much quicker and easier.

To briefly summarize, this is the story of two girls – one human and one half-wolf. One lives in town and the other in the forest near the town. The new ‘‘protector’’ of the town wants to eradicate the forest and the wolves in it, but this puts the half-wolf and her family in danger. Robyn, the human girl, decides to help Mebh, the werewolf, be safe from human danger. The two are quite the pair. Robyn’s goal proves itself to be particularly challenging, since people of the town are scared and angry and think that they will only feel safe if they kill the wolves. Also, Robyn’s father is a hunter and he is especially hard to convince that wolves must be protected. It’s an emotional story with a touching beginning, middle and end. I do admit that I did not find the ending all that realistic, even for a fantasy story, and it was pretty quick besides, but the rest as they say in French chapeau!

Thank you Hachette Book Group Canada for the copy in exchange for a review.