Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Redd Becker Book Review

I picked up Chuck Wendig’s book, Under the Empyrean Sky, because I liked the sci-fi inspired cover. His reputation precedes him as the author of many Star Wars books, however, so it shouldn’t have taken me the cover to delve into his books.

by Chuck WendigAs the first in The Heartland Trilogy, the story focuses on farmers resisting the government, because they are forced to grow a modified corn plant that is taking over the land. A timely idea. 

Chuck Wendig writes prolifically and has a huge following. He wrote this book in third person in a uniquely personal style. Although the style didn’t motivate me, his books appeal to thousands. His name appears on the NYT Best Seller list often.

Wendig’s blog Terribleminds reflects his prolific creativity and varied interests. His books sit front and center as we expect, but he also writes about game design, food, pop culture, his family and anything else he chooses. Warning: his language may not be for everybody.

Chuck Wendig Controversies

Wendig’s Star Wars novel, Aftermath, created a lot of controversy in 2015 over the inclusion of a gay character. The Guardian wrote a review that included Wendig’s response to the complaints.

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck WendigUnder the Empyrean Sky (The Heartland Trilogy, #1) by Chuck Wendig
Published by Skyscape on July 30th 2013
Genres: Dystopian, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 354
Goodreads

Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It's the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow. And the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael's tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He's sick of the mayor's son besting Cael's crew in the scavenging game. And he's worried about losing Gwennie, his first mate and the love of his life, forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry, angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn't seem upset about any of it. Cael's ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.

Remember Yesterday by Pintip Dunn (Forget Tomorrow #2)

Redd Becker Book Review

Pintip Dunn fills every chapter of Remember Yesterday with driving action.  by Pintup DunnWe quickly learn our heroine’s sister, Callie, committed suicide to stop future memory research. The nation’s leader pushes on, however, with her vision to mold a society with precognition. A society that already knows its future because future selves send information backward in time. The chairwoman’s plans include winnowing out anyone who doesn’t have precognition. The young Jessa commits herself to fulfilling her sister’s wish to stop the project.

Jessa makes an intriguing heroine. She’s dynamic, conflicted and opinionated. Since she and her twin possessed the power of precognition, she believes she has a chance of stopping the research.

The tension of romance muddles Jessa’s perspective, however, when she collaborates with the young scientist, Tanner, to save her sister. Jessa is both aroused and ethically repelled by what Tanner represents to her. But the twist at the end puts their relationship in new light.

Pintip Dunn’s story comes full circle by the conclusion. Fresh imagery make this a fun read. This is the second book of the series, and Dunn leaves plenty of room to continue to story.

Pintip Dunn Wins the  RITA

Although Goodreads readers didn’t classify Dunn’s book in the Romance genre, Dunn won the RITA Award from the Romance Writers of America for Forget Tomorrow in 2016. Dunn placed in many other award lists as well, which recognizes her fresh writing style, intriguing heroines and driving plots.

For a list of 25 great paranormal romances, check out the  Best Fantasy Books website.

Remember Yesterday by Pintip Dunn (Forget Tomorrow #2)Remember Yesterday (Forget Tomorrow, #2) by Pintip Dunn
Published by Entangled: Teen on October 4th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Dystopian, Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 400
Goodreads

Follow-up to the New York Times bestselling novel, Forget Tomorrow!
Would you change the past to protect your future?
Sixteen-year-old Jessa Stone is the most valuable citizen in Eden City. Her psychic abilities could lead to significant scientific discoveries, if only she’d let TechRA study her. But ten years ago, the scientists kidnapped and experimented on her, leading to severe ramifications for her sister, Callie. She’d much rather break into their labs and sabotage their research—starting with Tanner Callahan, budding scientist and the boy she loathes most at school.
The past isn’t what she assumed, though—and neither is Tanner. He’s not the arrogant jerk she thought he was. And his research opens the door to the possibility that Jessa can rectify a fatal mistake made a decade earlier. She’ll do anything to change the past and save her sister—even if it means teaming up with the enemy she swore to defeat.

salt to the sea by Ruth Sepetys

Redd Becker Book Review

The brutality of war from the civilian refugee perspective comes to life in Ruth Sepetys’ historical fiction novel salt to sea, the story of refugees evacuating Germany during WWII.

by Ruth SepetysRussia’s invasion of Germany comes alive through four refugee’s perspectives. While they flee, the atrocities behind their struggles and the secrets they carry haunt them. Joanne struggles to protect her travel companions, while nursing everyone she can. Alfred, a german soldier stationed on a ship, writes letters in his head. His love back home destined not to receives them.  Emilia, a fifteen year old polish girl who lost her family, fights the demons trapped in her mind. And Floria, a German civilian who saved Emilia’s life, distrusts everyone, especially himself, as he runs from the country he once honored.

Written in first person point-of-view, Sepetys’ story focuses on  individual refugee’s perceptions and internal struggles.  Short dialogue sequences capture interactions between them.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Sepetys’ plot, but she manages to create a story that touches the cord of humanity so deeply that the historical components of the story support the characters, rather than the other way around. It would do us well, however, to remember this harrowing piece of history lost in common knowledge.

Ruth Sepetys Writes for Writers

Beyond the integration of history in Sepetys’ story she offers much to learn for any writer. She uses every means she can to develop character. Note the sparse language used to create settings and establish emotions, while still driving the story forward.

Instead of each chapter telling what that person did, Sepetys often choses to develop characters through others’ observations. An example from Emilia’s chapter follows. “The shoe poet woke early, rapping our feet with his walking stick.”

Another example from Joanne’s perspective: “I had woke in the middle of the night and imagined I saw the German standing above me in the dark. When I blinked he was gone and I realized it was a dream.” or was it?

The climax wraps around the converted cruise ship Wilhelmina Gustoff. For pictures and a history of the Cruise Liner Wilhelm Gustloff check out feldgrau.com

salt to the sea by Ruth SepetysSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel Books on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Adventure, Historical Fiction, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 393
Goodreads

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

 

 

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a Cinderella story

Redd Becker Book Review

Ella Enchanted retells the fairytale of Cinderella, but Levine adds several twists. At birth a fairy castes the ‘gift of obedience’ on Ella, thus burdening her with the drive to do as sElla Enchanted, a Cinderella storyhe is told by anyone who orders her. Ogres and a boarding school, where Ella meets her future step-sisters, spice up the tale further.

I found the first part of Levine’s rendition of Cinderella captivating. Toward the end of the book the magic of the read waned. The ball,  pumpkin coach, dancing and losing the glass slipper scenes, although well told, held no mystery or intriguing caveats to amuse me, like the first parts of the book did. For that reason I wouldn’t have considered it a Newberry Honor Book Finalist, but it was.

Still, Ella Enchanted is fun and Gail Carson Levine writes many popular teen books with female heroines.

A Cinderella Tale

As well as originating in multiple cultures this classic fairytale boasts a history of 1000 years in some form. Interesting Literature wrote an article of fun facts about it. And Refinery 9 wrote ‘Nine Stories You Might Not Know about Cinderella’.

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, a Cinderella storyElla Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Published by Scholastic Books on September 1st 1998
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 232
Goodreads

Also see: Alternate Cover Editions for this ISBN [ACE]
ACE #1

At birth, Ella is inadvertently cursed by an imprudent young fairy named Lucinda, who bestows on her the "gift" of obedience. Anything anyone tells her to do, Ella must obey. Another girl might have been cowed by this affliction, but not feisty Ella: "Instead of making me docile, Lucinda's curse made a rebel of me. Or perhaps I was that way naturally." When her beloved mother dies, leaving her in the care of a mostly absent and avaricious father, and later, a loathsome stepmother and two treacherous stepsisters, Ella's life and well-being seem to be in grave peril. But her intelligence and saucy nature keep her in good stead as she sets out on a quest for freedom and self-discovery as she tries to track down Lucinda to undo the curse, fending off ogres, befriending elves, and falling in love with a prince along the way. Yes, there is a pumpkin coach, a glass slipper, and a happily ever after, but this is the most remarkable, delightful, and profound version of Cinderella you'll ever read.
Gail Carson Levine's examination of traditional female roles in fairy tales takes some satisfying twists and deviations from the original. Ella is bound by obedience against her will, and takes matters in her own hands with ambition and verve. Her relationship with the prince is balanced and based on humor and mutual respect; in fact, it is she who ultimately rescues him. Ella Enchanted has won many well-deserved awards, including a Newbery Honor.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

Redd Becker Book Review

A. S. King gives us a well written coming-of-age story in Please Ignore Vera Dietz. Vera struggles with more than any teenager should. Her mother abandoned her, her father struVera Dietz by A.S. Kingggles with life, her best friend’s father beats his mother and love seems always out of grasp for Vera. Pressures from the gang at school demean Vera and when her best friend and love of her life rejects her, her world implodes.

A difficult story for me to read, because everyone makes bad decisions, one after another. They never seem to make a good decision. No reprieve appears in sight. Even King’s ending laid a heavy hand on the heroine.

Undoubtedly, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is an important depiction of how life for many teens works. For those more fortunate, the story depicts issues some teens face, however, it hurts to visualize such a bleak life as completely as King depicted Vera’s.

Vera Dietz comes to life with style

King writes in a familiar first person perspective that suits the story well. Written in Vera’s voice, the style is believable and carries you into her world.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. KingPlease Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
Published by Ember on April 10th 2012
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 326
Goodreads

Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything. So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, even the police. But will she emerge to clear his name? Does she even want to? Edgy and gripping, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is an unforgettable novel: smart, funny, dramatic, and always surprising.
From the Hardcover edition.

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Redd Becker Book Review

Sara Zarr takes us into the world of classical piano competitions in The Lucy Variations.  At the beginning of the story, we find  that Lucy walked off stage at a high level competition. Her Sara Zarrfamily did not take it well. From there, Lucy must navigate within her new world, a world without playing piano.

Although her family pushed Lucy beyond her emotional limit, her passion for music remains clear. Her life doesn’t feel complete without it. While struggling to make her own decisions among the adults who control her life, she befriends her brother’s teacher. His affect on her life is questionable.

By placing Lucy in the world of competitive music, Zarr creates a coming-of-age story that takes you out of our everyday world. Although such high-stakes competition is foreign to most of us, it is understandable. We can all relate to the pressures Lucy feels, the betrayals she confronts, and her struggle to do what she knows is right for herself. Lucy works through her issues like a true heroine, someone we’d like to emulate if we were in a similar situation.

Accolades for Sara Zarr

Sara Zarr writes stories with strong female heroines. She received the National Book Award Finalist award for Story of a Girl. The National Book Foundation conducted an interview with her after the award that provides insights to the writer as well as the story.

The Lucy Variations by Sara ZarrThe Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
on May 7th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages: 309
Goodreads

Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. The right people knew her name, her performances were booked months in advance, and her future seemed certain.
That was all before she turned fourteen.
Now, at sixteen, it's over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. That leaves her talented ten-year-old brother, Gus, to shoulder the full weight of the Beck-Moreau family expectations. Then Gus gets a new piano teacher who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy rekindle her love of piano -- on her own terms. But when you're used to performing for sold-out audiences and world-famous critics, can you ever learn to play just for yourself?
The Lucy Variations is a story of one girl's struggle to reclaim her love of music and herself. It's about finding joy again, even when things don't go according to plan. Because life isn't a performance, and everyone deserves the chance to make a few mistakes along the way.

EarthSea: The Other Wind by Ursula LeGuin

Redd Becker Book Review

The Other Wind (Earthsea Cycle, #6)

The Earthsea series by Ursula LeGuin enchants many readers with well reason. The addition of The Other Wind follows suit. This story evolves around Alder, a young sorcerer who dreams of his dead wife. He becomes tempted to breach the wall entrapping her in the world of the dead, but fears the consequences. 

Alder’s dreams of his wife’s ghost persist. He wants to break down the wall between the dimensions, but tearing it down may cause a riff in Earthsea by freeing all dead souls, not only his wife. To find a solution Alder goes on a journey to see Ged, once Archmage of EarthSea. Then he travels to Havnor to find the king who  takes Alder to talk to a dragon in the form of a woman. Only she can mend the riff in the wall caused so many years ago, when dragons and humans parted ways. 

EarthSea

In many of LeGuin’s books, including the EarthSea series, she creates characters with humane issues, then she places them in a strange and wonderful fantasy world. She takes us on journeys where people are tempted, ache to do the right thing, but fear the consequences of their actions. Humane themes drive LeGuin’s stories. In The Other World she deals with issues of the death of those we love.

The Other Wind stands on its own as a story, although reading earlier books in the series definitely fill in references made in this book. A tale with dragons, wizards, kings and a journey woven within very humane challenges. What more could I ask in a fantasy story?

Ursula LeGuin’s written many short stories and five novels based around her fictional world of EarthSea. Wikipedia lists them all.