Guest Post: Review of The Leviathan Trial

The Leviathan Trial by Oliver Madison

Reviewed by Cathy Smith

In his novel, The Leviathan Trial, Oliver Madison takes readers on a journey into the lives of 12 siblings by adoption. When their father unexpectedly dies, the brothers and sisters soon learn that only one can inherit the family fortune. However, the conditions to walk away with the inheritance are as eccentric and twisted as their father. Locked in the family mansion, the youths are told there can only be one survivor that will hold the keys to their freedom, and by only using their special talents and skills can they become the victor.

Trapped in their individual prisons of psychological horror, each sibling soon discovers their true natures and just how far they will go to end the nightmare in which they have been forced to participate. As the mystery unfolds, more and more family secrets and surprises are unveiled, adding to the conflict and tragedy that becomes a very real part of the characters’ lives. Although the story is fictional, the struggles each child faced can easily be reflective of real-life issues challenging children in today’s world.  

Madison has done an excellent job weaving together a mystery that keeps readers on edge as they experience the stories of each sibling, discovering their strengths, and realizing the darkest sides of their hidden natures. The basic human needs of survival of the fittest, and flight versus fight push the mystery through to the end, keeping readers on edge wondering, “What could possibly happen next?”

Girl in Translation

Girl in TranslationGirl in Translation by Jean Kwok (Website, Insta)

Genre: Contemporary / YA

Setting: Brooklyn, NY

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Grayce Wey

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:05:00

Published by: Books On Tape (4 May 2010)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Girl in Translation is the debut novel from bestselling author Jean Kwok. It tells the story of young Kimberly Chang, who immigrates with her mother to Brooklyn from Hong Kong just before its return to Chinese rule. Kimberly’s aunt, Paula, had married a Chinese-American years before and was the one who got them their passports, visas, and immigration assistance. To pay off the monetary debt this created, Kimberly and her mother both have to work in Paula’s sweatshop making skirts and shirts. They are impoverished and live in a condemned apartment building that is full of roaches, mice, and has no heat. At school, Kim is a star and does her best to assimilate into teenage American culture. She dreams of performing well enough in school to earn a full ride scholarship to college, thus getting herself and her mother out of poverty.

Spoilers below the cut!!Read More »

Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

23866536Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: contemporary/YA

Setting: Atlanta, GA

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Michael Crouch

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 6:45:00

Published by: Harper Audio (7 April 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Simon Spier is a gay high school junior who isn’t out yet. He has been having an online flirtation for the past several months with another boy he knows only as Blue. Simon is usually really careful with when and where he emails Blue, but one day he got careless, accessed his email from a school computer, and before he knows it, Martin, one of his classmates, has screenshots of his emails. Martin says he won’t share the emails with the whole school IF Simon helps him get a date with Simon’s friend, Abby. Blackmailing – what can go wrong?

This was an absolutely delightful novel. I admit I don’t read a lot of LGBTQ+ literature – not because I have a problem with it at all. I don’t. It just isn’t on my radar as much, which I think is ok since I’m not really its intended audience. That said, I am actively trying to add more LGBTQ+ books into my literary diet. I also very rarely read anything remotely resembling romance, and when I do, it’s either an accident that I somehow missed in the summary that a book is a romance, or it’s for a reading challenge. But this book got so much hype that when it was the Audible daily deal, I decided to get it. It only took me like 2 years to actually get around to listening to it.

Simon reminded me of a couple guys I went to high school with. He’s friendly and witty and in the theatre club. He’s not the most popular guy in school but is far from the least popular. His best friend Nick is on the soccer team. His other best friend Leah is a kick-ass drummer. They’re the typical teenagers – generally excitable, think their parents are lame, and hyperbolic about the events of their lives. Except for Simon, he has reason to be hyperbolic. Not only does he have to worry about getting outed by Martin, but Blue’s identity is also on the line. 

When I really look at this plot, not a whole lot happens. It’s a bunch of teenagers doing teenagery things and having all the feels about it. But it is really so much more than that. The underlying theme is to challenge the status quo, to undermine the assumption that straight is the default. Simon wonders why everyone doesn’t have to come out, whether they come out as straight or gay or bi or anything else. And he’s right. Straight shouldn’t have to be the default. Cisgender shouldn’t have to be the default. We badly need a shift in the way we think of sexuality and gender identity because being so narrow in our mindset and definitions is causing real harm to real people, not just characters in a fictional book. 

If I have any gripes about this book, it’s that everything all turned out very neatly. It seemed kind of unrealistic. Simon is a good kid. Leah, Nick, and Abby are all good kids. Blue turns out to be a good kid. Even asshole Martin turns out to be a good kid in the end. Basically everyone gets the HEA ending. So it was a little too cute for me in that regard. I like dark and twisty stories, which seem more real than the perfect ending. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad things turned out well for all the kids. It just seems like it was too easy. But it didn’t stop me from giving this a 5 star rating or it being among my favorite book I read in 2020! Even with all the cuteness and teenagers.

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos (Insta)

Genre: contemporary YA

Setting: New Jersey

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: library

Length: 310 pp

Published by: HMH (5 March 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Dr Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets is the story of a boy, James Whitman, who, like many of us, deals with anxiety and depression. Hi beloved older sister, Jorie, got expelled from school and kicked out of the house and now struggles to afford her shitty apartment, which is better than homelessness, which is still better than living at home with their abusive parents. James knows he needs therapy but his parents won’t pay for it and he can’t afford it. So he has Dr Bird, a pigeon that lives in his head who he talks to. 

At its core, this book is just another coming of age book with angsty teens front and center. Under its surface, there are layers of thought and troubles and the need to lean on others for help. When James’s friend/crush asks him to help her find some of Jorie’s poetry for the school journal, James discovers that Jorie’s pain was deeper than anyone knew. The Brute and The Banshee, as he thinks of his parents, seemed determined to blame Jorie for everything bad about their family. James feels a load of guilt for that because he knows some of the things that happened were his fault and he never stepped up to admit it. He feels he let Jorie down and didn’t protect her. He misses her and gets anxious when he doesn’t know where she’s living. The administrators at their school are fairly stereotypical boors, morons, or outwardly stern but inside fluffy and sweet and just want to help. I found them fairly irritating and largely irrelevant. 

James himself is weird, a social reject who likes to hug trees and recite poems. His favorite poet is Walt Whitman, in part because they share a surname. When I started reading this book, I was not at all sure I would like it because – and I cannot stress this strongly enough – I fucking HATE Walt Whitman. Hate him. What a weird, arrogant, self-important old man. I’m glad he’s dead so he can’t write ANY. MORE. So I started reading this with some trepidation because I just hate Walt Whitman. The only thing he wrote that I don’t mind is “Oh Captain, My Captain,” and that is literally only because of the movie Dead Poets Society. Hate him.

So I was surprised that I actually enjoyed this book as much as I did, considering that James is always rattling off Whitman quotes, or making up his own poetry that is Whitmanesque. Or yawping. He fucking yawps. Just no. But whatever gets you through the day. It worked for James and for this book, so whatever you gotta do, I guess.

I cheerfully confess that I picked this up from the library only because I read somewhere that it is supposedly becoming a movie and it has Jason Isaacs and I will watch anything with him in it, even if there’s a lot of Whitman. I couldn’t find a release date for it which makes me sad. I want to see a new Jason Isaacs movie. But it is also sadmaking since there can really be no other role in this story he could play except the abusive asshole dad. I suppose he could be one of the boorish asshole school admins, but it doesn’t seem likely. Regardless, I hope the film comes out soon. 

I would recommend this to folks who are really into YA. I liked it well enough but at the end of the day, it was just another YA book to me. Nothing really came as a surprise, though it was very nicely written.

On the Come Up

On the Come UpOn the Come Up by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta, Facebook)

Genre: YA/contemporary literature

Setting: Garden Heights, a fictional neighborhood

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 11:43:00

Published by: HarperAudio (5 Feb 2019)

Her Grace’s rating:  out of 5 stars

Bri Jackson is a 16 year old who wants nothing more than to be a rapper like her father was before he died. People call her Lil Law, an homage to her father’s stage name Lawless. But Bri is very much her own person with her own style and ideas, not a copy of her father. When she wins a rap battle in the ring, Bri finds herself suddenly in the spotlight, and not always in a good way. Navigating her way through a fledgling career in the music industry and helping/worrying about her mother’s unexpected job loss, Bri has to figure out how to be on the come up in a way that is true to herself.

Initially, I was hesitant to read this because how could it possibly be as good as The Hate U Give? I went ahead and bought it when it was an Audible daily deal, but I didn’t work up the nerve to listen until now. Am I ever glad I did! This was a fantastic novel! Thomas does such a good job of bringing readers inside the heads of her characters. You can really feel the anger, disillusionment, disappointment, and fear of the characters. Frankly, anyone who reads a book like this and doesn’t feel rage at all the injustice must have something wrong with them. Bri is angry, yes. She’s got an attitude and can be rude. But she was doing nothing wrong and got thrown to the ground by two grown male security guards at her school. That’s a whole lot of bullshit. I’d be furious if that happened to me, too. I’m furious just reading about it happening to a fictional character. 

I felt Bri’s pain and worry when she saw her mother and older brother trying to scrape together enough money to pay the utility bill AND also buy food; her shame when her shoes fell apart and she couldn’t afford new ones; her embarrassment at having to go with her mother to the food bank. Children shouldn’t have to worry about things like this, and it hurts and is shameful that children anywhere, let alone one of the richest countries in the world, deal with food insecurity and poverty daily. 

The references to various rap and hip-hop artists throughout the book made me want to listen. I’ve never been much of a fan of rap, but I know that some artists use it to highlight social injustice. This story made me want to educate myself better. 

I listened to this on audio and Bahni Turpin’s performance is fire. She is one of my favorite narrators anyway, but she really went above and beyond in bringing these characters to life, especially Bri and her music. Also, here is Angie Thomas rapping one of Bri’s songs. 

I can’t wait to see what Angie Thomas writes next, and I hope Bahni Turpin narrates it. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Jay’s a people person. I’m more of a “yes, people exist, but that doesn’t mean I need to talk to them” person.
  • There’s only so much you can take being described as somebody you’re not.
  • That’s when I learned that when people die, they sometimes take the living with them.
  • But it’s kinda like saying one side of the Death Star is safer than the other. It’s still the goddamn Death Star.
  • Not everything deserves your energy.
  • All these flavors out here, and you choose to be salty.

 

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA, possibly a little younger

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: my own collection

Length: 3:59:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (23 Sept 2011)

All the spoilers below!

Connor O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy whose mother is battling cancer, only no one really calls it that. She is also dying, but no one talks about that, either. Every night since his mother started her treatments, Connor has had the same nightmare. One night, he wakes up and finds a monster outside his window. He had expected the one from his dreams but it wasn’t; it was an actual monster that comes from ancient British folklore. It tells Connor that he himself summoned the monster because he wants something from it. With each encounter Connor has with this creature, the closer he comes to the truth, painful and bright. 

I confess I bought this audiobook purely because Jason Isaacs narrates it and, since it’s a kid’s story, I figured I could just put it on and not pay much attention to it beyond being delighted to hear Isaacs’s lovely, gravelly British voice reading to me. I never expected that I would actually like the story, which I did, immensely. The story was not about cancer or illness so much as a study in grief from both a young boy’s perspective and his mother’s. It is about how childhood friendships shift during times of tragedy and how we learn who our true friends are. 

I really loved the theme of stories taking on lives of their own. The monster tells Connor that ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ I like this passage because it shows how stories can be interpreted differently by different people, how each person might take a wholly new meaning from it or react to it in an unexpected way. They may not even anticipate how they themselves will react until the story is told. Connor reacts more and more violently with each story the monster tells. If his situation had been different and he heard the same stories, undoubtedly his reactions would not have been the same. Similarly, when writing a story, I’m sure many authors don’t know exactly where their story will go, how it will end up. I can’t be the only writer who is often surprised by what my characters decide to do. Stories weave themselves into the fabric of culture and inform society at many levels; the monster is just highlighting that fact in ways Connor doesn’t always appreciate. 

Another big theme is truth. Connor’s mother has cancer. Truth. She is going to die. Truth. No one comes out and directly says any of this, beating around the bush about it, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. The monster helps Connor to see that the truth, though often painful, is the only way he can be healed, and that that is why the monster came. Not to heal Connor’s mother, but to heal Connor himself. Connor has to learn that the truth is the only way he can learn to let his mother go and also the only way to live through it. And he has to learn to forgive himself. Everyone lies to themselves sometimes, and to others. It is a human trait to ward off pain and to comfort themselves. But ultimately, facing the truth is the only way to relieve that pain, no matter how pleasant the lie is. 

Learning a little bit of woodlore is always an added bonus. There was a lot of discussion about the yew tree, which is what the monster is. Yew trees are what the dreaded English longbows were made from in the Middle Ages. The tree is symbolic of death, rebirth, and immortality likely because old yew branches that droop to the ground can take root and grow new yew trees and they are incredibly long-lived. There are a lot of churches in Britain that have yew trees around them, particularly in cemeteries. They are highly toxic and their needles can produce fatal results if ingested. The berries are also hallucinogenic and lethal. The tree can also symbolise silence, introspection, and aloofness, possibly because they’re very twisty trees with lots of nooks and crannies for solitary creatures to live in, or for ways to the Underworld in Celtic mythology. The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford would make an interesting companion read, at least her chapter on yew. 

As for the audiobook element, yes, I got it for Jason Isaacs. However, he honestly is an excellent narrator, doing various voices and accents with great facility. His performance draws listeners into the story swiftly and seamlessly. He is one of my favorite narrators, right alongside David Tennant, Simon Preble, Davina Porter, Wil Wheaton, and Simon Vance.

Strongly recommended, especially the audio version. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
  • Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 
  • Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.
  • Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” 
  • You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.” 

 

 

 

Fence, vol. 1

Fence vol 1 coverFence vol. 1 by CS Pacat (website, Twitter); illustrated by Johanna the Mad (Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary literature/YA

I read it as a: graphic novel

Source: public library

Length: 112 pp

Published by: BOOM! Box (31 July 2018)

Nicholas Cox is something of an outcast, the illegitimate son of a retired fencing champion. He wins a scholarship to Kings Row Boys School, where he will fight to earn a place on the fencing team. Failure to make the team will result in losing his scholarship. To his horror, he discovers that not only is his half brother Seiji Katayama attending Kings Row for fencing as well, he is also his assigned roommate. Nicholas and Seiji have only met in competition, where Seiji defeated Nicholas by a huge margin. Volume 1 leaves off with the tryouts for the fencing team still ongoing.

I really enjoyed this one. I don’t often read graphic novels, but I picked this one because it fits the bill for two Read Harder tasks, and I like fencing. Not that I’ve ever done it myself, but I think it’s cool, and I have a friend who used to be a competitive fencer. It is maybe one of a handful of sports I can watch without wanting to scrape my eyeballs out of my face through my ears. I generally hate sports. 

I liked the diversity in this book, though it seems that every student at Kings Row is queer, which kind of throws the stats off a bit, I think. But still, I love  the way they all interact with each other. Seems believable for a boarding school. Also, there are lots of kids who are people of color, not just all rich white snots. 

I loved the tidbits of fencing information scattered throughout. I know nothing about it at all, so that was just interesting to me. An educational graphic novel, this. 

There is a lot of simmering romance between several characters, mainly members of the fencing team. I saw that a lot of people ship Nicholas and Seiji, but unless there’s something I missed, they are half brothers so that totally grosses me out. Pair them up with anyone else, but I’ll skip the incest, thanks. 

I plan to read all the rest of this series. It was a delightful surprise for me. 

The Book of Essie

The Book of Essie34503571._sx318_* by Meghan MacLean Weir (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA/ contemporary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 336 pp

Published by: Knopf (12 June 2018)

Seventeen year old Esther Anne Hicks, known as Essie, is the youngest child of a famous TV preacher, similar to the Duggars. Essie has grown up with cameras always on, hair and makeup having to be done Just So all the time, most of the family’s conversations scripted and rehearsed. Everyone who watches their show of course thinks the Hicks family is perfect and a model of Christian whatever. The issue, though, is that Essie is pregnant. Her mother has a meeting with the show’s manager, excluding Essie from the discussion, about what to do – do they sneak her out of the country for an abortion? Does Essie’s mother fake a pregnancy to be able to claim it as hers? Essie convinces her mother to marry Roarke Richards, a boy at her school. Roarke’s parents are deep in the hole and are about to lose everything they have. An ‘arrangement’ with the Hicks wherein Roarke marries Essie will ensure that the Hicks will pay off all their debts and allow them to be comfortable for life. Against all odds, they talk Roarke into this plan. But he and Essie each have secrets that they fear to share with anyone. 

*Spoilers below cut!*Read More »