Monday, August 2, 2021

Loaded M&M Oreo Bars

Yikes, where did May, June, and July go?? I told myself I was going to post at *least* once a month and now here I am. 3 months later. No posts. As compensation for this truly heinous crime, I've decided it's time to share one of my top secret recipes with you. One of those "so good, people think you're a baking goddess when it's really like 5 ingredients mixed up and slopped in a pan". AKA the best kind of recipe. Thank me later.

A couple of important notes on this one. 1) Rumor has it you can use just about any add-ins you can dream up, you'll just need to adjust the cooking time accordingly. I have never done this because you can't change perfection, but it's supposed to be one of those "clean out your pantry leftovers" type desserts, so feel free to go crazy. 2) This is probably the only time you will ever hear me say this, but when it says to let it cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes... let it cool in the pan for at least 30 minutes. I made these in a rush last night and didn't have time to wait for them to cool, so I made the foolhardy decision to just go ahead and cut and store them after a few minutes. Bad idea. As it turns out, baked goods consisting of primarily butter and sugar come fresh out of the oven as semi-molten globs worthy of consuming Anakin Skywalker's legs and his delusions of power. And then they smush when you try to put them in a container. You have been warned.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), melted
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 18 Oreos, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup M&M's

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line an 8x8 baking pan with aluminum foil, spray with cooking spray, and set aside. 
  2. In a large, microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter, about 1 minute on high.
  3. Allow butter to cool for about a minute so the egg doesn't scramble, then add egg, brown sugar, and vanilla. Whisk until smooth.
  4. Add in flour and stir until just combined. Don't over-mix!
  5. Stir in the Oreos, then turn batter out into the prepared pan and carefully smooth with a spatula.
  6. Evenly sprinkle M&M's over the top, then lightly press them into the batter so they don't fall off when you cut the bars.
  7. Bake for 20-22 minutes or until top is set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow bars to cool in pan for at least 30 minutes before slicing and serving.


Source: Averie Cooks

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Clockwork Angel - Cassandra Clare

Tessa Gray and her brother, Nate, are orphans who live with their aunt in New York. An avid reader, Tessa is content with her life as long as she has books to which she can escape. Money is tight thanks to Nate's drinking and gambling habits, but she and her aunt always manage to make ends meet. When Nate secures a job in London at the same firm their father worked at, things start to look up. But then Aunt Harriet becomes deathly ill and Tessa is once again alone. Left with no other option, she sells everything to pay for the funeral and hops a steamer to England to live with her brother. Upon arrival, however, she's met not by her brother, but by the sinister Mrs. Black and Mrs. Dark. A note from Nate helps dispel her fear about the aptly named Dark Sisters and she hesitantly agrees to go with them.

The second she arrives at their home, Tessa discovers that (shockingly) the Dark Sisters aren't actually Nate's landladies at all; instead, they claim to be holding him prisoner and will only release him if she accedes to their every demand. Now their prisoner and desperate to see her brother again, she does what they ask, everything from drinking strange potions to concentrating on seemingly random items while the sisters scream at her to Change. Despite having no idea what they expect to happen but too scared to disobey, Tessa continues to follow their instructions until, one day, something does happen. While focusing on an item they've given her, she is shocked to find herself changing into the item's previous owner, even able to access their memories. Suddenly she is immersed in a world she never knew existed, one with warlocks and magic and a mysterious figure the Dark Sisters reverently refer to only as the Magister. Even the servants are more than they appear to be, automatons that are frighteningly lifelike and merciless in carrying out orders. Forced to change into different people to collect information, Tessa begins to despair of ever being free again, especially when she learns that she's a crucial part of the Magister's mysterious plan. Enter the Nephilim.

Half human and half angel, the Nephilim are peacekeepers, ensuring that the supernatural population, called Downworlders, follow the Accords that keep their existence a secret from ignorant mortals. Already endowed with enhanced attributes thanks to their angelic predecessors, Nephilim are further assisted by runes permanently tattooed on their bodies that give them increased abilities and iratzes, temporary runes used for all manner of purposes. While investigating a string of mortal murders, the London branch of Nephilim follows the clues to the Dark Sisters, who have a notoriously unsavory reputation in Downworld circles. Intent on justice for the murder victims, typically sarcastic and irreverent Will Herondale makes plans to infiltrate the house and see what he can find. Helped by his parabatai, or sworn blood-brother, Jem Carstairs, Will breaks into the house and is surprised to find Tessa locked in a room upstairs. After a harrowing escape in which one of the Sisters is killed, the Nephilim bring Tessa to the London Institute to stay while she recovers from injuries sustained in the escape.

Although she's now free from the clutches of the Dark Sisters, Tessa finds that she's traded one uncertain situation for another, albeit a more pleasant one. Despite promises from Charlotte, the head of the London Institute, that they have no desire to use her unique power against her wishes, Tessa is unwilling to trust anyone after the ordeal she's been through. Soon, though, it becomes apparent that she'll have to if she's ever going to see Nate again. As hard as it is at first, she finds herself more and more at ease the longer she spends with the Nephilim. Charlotte is a capable leader, but is also kind and compassionate. Her husband, Henry, is a brilliant inventor, if somewhat absentminded. The other Nephilim in the house are all trainees and Tessa begins to develop a tentative acquaintanceship with each of them. Jessamine, the high-maintenance social butterfly who dreams of a normal life; Jem, a Shanghai native with a devastating illness, the cure for which is slowly killing him; and Will. Frustrating, maddening Will, who has a book quote for every situation. Will, who intentionally keeps everyone at arms-length except Jem, the man to whom he's sworn a lifelong oath even though Jem's life is likely to be much shorter. He's the one she finds most interesting when she arrives, but he's also the one she has the most trouble getting to know. As her bond with the others steadily grows, some even past friendship, Tessa struggles to understand her feelings for Will while simultaneously being unable to interpret his attitude towards her. Meanwhile, the hunt to rescue her brother gets them into increasingly dangerous situations and a plot is uncovered that could spell disaster for her and the Nephilim. Will Tessa be able to overcome her fear of her newfound ability and save them all? 

Before I do reviewing of any sort, I feel obligated to put a disclaimer in here. When I picked up this book for the first time, I'd never heard of Cassandra Clare and I'd certainly never heard of the Mortal Instruments (the sequel series to the Infernal Devices, although it technically came first). My understanding now is that 1) Cassandra Clare is in some hot water over plagiarism accusations and 2) there are a lot of mixed feelings about the Mortal Instruments that cause people to have a premeditated, negative opinion about the Infernal Devices. I can't speak for any of that because a. I don't know enough about the scandal and b. I still haven't read the Mortal Instruments and, quite frankly, I'm leaning towards not doing so based on things I've heard about it and the fact that she's released roughly 187 spinoffs off of it. That being said, this review is 100% based on nothing but the actual book. Which is what I try to do anyway, but hey now you have confirmation.

Y'all already know that I have a soft spot for Victorian fantasy and, in my humble opinion, this series is Victorian fantasy at its finest. The first time I read this series, I was reading them so fast that I had to keep running to Walmart to get the next one because I couldn't wait for the next scheduled trip. Like you know it was a good book when you find yourself on Etsy 5 minutes after you finished the book looking for character themed candles. And soap. And t-shirts. It's got magic. It's got adventure. It's got romance. It's also got a unique world wrapped in the familiarity of Victorian London, the occasional beheading, and the kind of slapstick humor that'll have you randomly snorting like a pig in public. It's all of these fabulous things and then some, but it's also so much more. 

Each character is real in heartbreaking detail. There's literally not a single character that hasn't been shaped by some traumatic event in the past that's still affecting them in the present and, especially later in the series, it's enough to make you bawl your eyes out. For realsies. Even though I've read it before, my nails were so chewed up after re-reading all of them because they're just that good. There are very few things to which I'll say "that's one of my favorites", but this is absolutely very close to the top of my favorites list and if you ever asked, I'd recommend it before you even had the whole question out. The fact that I haven't read it for years and still love it this much should give you some idea of it's undying fabulousness. But just so we're clear, if you do decide to read it, prepare yourself for a LOT of the following because it's basically the entire series:

Pros: 

  • Heart-pounding, mile-a-minute action
  • Incredibly immersive
  •  Complex characters that aren't just *all* good or *all* evil

Cons:

  •  If you've read the Mortal Instruments, I've seen a lot of critique that these are almost formulaic plot-wise and character-wise, which is one of the reasons I don't want to read the other series.
  •  Not this book specifically, but man the series ending will TEAR. YOUR. HEART. OUT. Just a heads up.
  •  There's not enough time in the day to read these fast enough once you get started. SO. GOOD. MUST. READ.

Final rating:

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Beauty and the Beast - K.M. Shea

Welcome back from what was apparently a 3 year (?!) long hiatus! A lot has happened since I dropped off the face of Blogger in 2018, but I knew it was time to come back when I realized that there was one very important thing that hasn't changed - I still love reading and sharing recommendations with people, so I have returned from the Land of Abandoned Blogs to bring you more fabulous book recommendations! I might play with the format a bit so everyone is getting the most out of it, but I pinky promise it won't be anything *too* crazy. Probably. However, at this specific second, we now return to your regularly scheduled content!

When Elle, an indentured servant to the Crown, is sent on a routine errand, she has no reason to expect that it'll turn out differently than any of the other times... until a single, miscalculated step sends her plunging through the roof of Chanceux Chateau, enchanted home of the cursed Prince Severin and his equally unfortunate staff. Faced with a broken leg and other injuries from the fall, Elle has no choice but to accept the hospitality of the disgruntled prince until she's well enough to return to her post. Unsure of her tenuous situation, Elle allows them to believe she's nothing but an ignorant peasant from the nearby village. Naturally, rumors abound where the chateau and its occupants are concerned, but Elle soon discovers that  reality is a far cry from the chitchat around the village. The servants, voiceless and forced to wear masks to hide their disappearing faces, are the very image of kindness, tending to her injuries and going out of their way to help her. Prince Severin, on the other hand, is exactly what she expected: arrogant, a cunning tactician, and merciless when it comes to fulfilling his duties as the realm's Commander under his half-brother, Prince Lucien. Cursed with the body of a beast but spared his mind, Severin has neither the time nor the patience to deal with an unwanted intruder in his chateau. But deal with her he must; as the only other person that can communicate verbally in the chateau, he's often wheedled by the staff into relaying information to Elle since they believe her incapable of reading the chalk slates they use to communicate with each other.

As time goes by and her injuries begin to heal, Elle finds herself becoming more and more acquainted with the inner workings of the household and the people who run it. Emele, her closest confidante in the chateau, loves all things fashion (and the gardener, although neither of them will admit it) and is determined to teach her to "read". Bernadine, the cook, is strict and always ready to crack her ladle on the heads of unsuspecting layabouts. Duval, the barber-surgeon, is compassionate and knowledgeable. Much to her surprise, Elle finds that even moody Prince Severin isn't all he first appeared to be; beneath the gruff exterior, he clearly cares about the well-being of his staff and his cold treatment of her thaws as her stay stretches on. Despite both of their best attempts to avoid each other, the staff connives to push them together and Elle soon learns why; a loophole in the curse allows it to be broken if the prince can find love. After multiple failed attempts, he's given up hope of ever being free of the curse, but his servants aren't so willing to spend the rest of their days voiceless and faceless. In spite of her affection for the household, including brooding Severin, Elle knows love isn't in the cards; her distaste of the royal family that holds her bond and Severin's lowly opinion of peasants like her don't make for a good fairy tale. Regardless, she promises to at least attempt a friendship with the chateau lord and when Elle agrees to do something, it's 110% effort. 

Suddenly the pair are spending more time together than ever: reading in the library, tending to the horses in the stable, even working to help Elle regain her strength. As they get to know each other, each comes to the realization that their surface assumptions about the other couldn't be further from the truth. But still, a prince and a lowly born village girl could never fall in love with each other... could they? When a plot is uncovered to destroy the Crown and hidden truths begin coming to light, they have no choice but to confront their feelings before it's too late. 

Okay first things first, I know what you're thinking: "ugh *ANOTHER* Beauty and the Beast knockoff, will she ever stop??" I've written the following poem to answer your question: 

"Roses are red, I like oldies bands, YOU CAN PRY THESE FAIRY TALE RETELLINGS OUT OF MY COLD, DEAD HANDS."

I have at least 4 sitting on my shelf right this very second and that's not counting anything other than Beauty and the Beast riffs. The good news for you is that since I've read so many, I'm in a good position to inform you about their quality. Does it have a complex plot and completely reimagine the original? No. Is it a fabulously great read even though you can probably guess what's going to happen? 

In spite of that, this rendition manages to add some great twists while still putting in fun little Easter eggs from the original. Elle is super quirky, the staff are very well-fleshed out, and it's much more than just your average fairy tale love story thanks to some complications I've done my best to keep hidden in the summary. Some of the scenes are positively swoon-worthy and there aren't many books I'll say that about. If I have one complaint, it's Prince Lucien. Literally all the man does is whine. Every. Time. He. Appears. 

"Father wants me to marry a princess from the neighboring kingdom and HEAVEN FORBID, the woman reads!!"

 "If only we could attack our ally next door for absolutely no reason." 

"Why is it so cold all the time? I never should've left the castle."

 Happily, he's not really a major player, so we're only forced to endure his presence for a few (very patience-testing) instances. The long and short of it? READ THE BOOK.

Pros:

  • Beauty and the Beast, obvs, but not just a trashy, thrown-together attempt to recreate something popular in hopes that it'll become popular by extension
  • Unique plot devices with a few nods to the original
  • Well-developed characters

Cons:

  • Prince Lucien
  • Ending felt a *little* rushed compared to the rest of the book, but not enough that I'm mad about it
  • You have to finish the book eventually and then you'll be sad there's not more to read :(

Final rating:

Friday, April 6, 2018

Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine

On the day of her birth, Ella of Frell received a very unfortunate gift. Lucinda, a well-meaning (but slightly dimwitted) fairy with a reputation for bad gifting, helped Ella's parents celebrate the new addition to the family with the gift (hereafter known as "the curse") of obedience. Whatever Ella is told to do, she must do, even if it's the exact opposite of what she wants. Parents want her to clean her room? Consider it done! Mandy the cook needs help doing the dishes? Easy! Sworn enemies want her to chop off her own head? Hypothetical, but still possible. Ella grows up with this terrible curse, and it only takes one bad incident with a friend to make her realize she must keep it a secret. After that, she couldn't tell anyone anyway - her mother forbids her from disclosing it for her own safety. Since she has no siblings and struggles with the curse, she's somewhat of an oddball around town, taking after her free-spirited mother. Ella spends her days bonding with her mother, playing outdoors, and learning from Mandy... until her mother falls ill and dies unexpectedly. Heartbroken and uncertain about her future with her shrewd father, a traveling trader who is often less than honest with his clients, Ella is wandering around after the funeral when she meets Prince Charmont, heir to the throne of Kyrria. The two connect almost instantly, each recognizing a kindred spirit. From then on, the two are steadfast friends, even going so far as to drop the prince's title and go by the informal and totally inappropriate nickname Char. Unfortunately, the funeral also heralded another new acquaintance, that of the wealth-obsessed Dame Olga and her despicably selfish daughters Hattie and Olive. Believing them to be only passersby on the stage of her life, Ella is more than happy to see them leave after the funeral reception. As if losing her mother, becoming friends with a prince, and running into the world's worst family weren't enough, Ella is shocked yet again by the revelation that Mandy, her long-time companion, is actually a fairy. Even worse, she couldn't take Lucinda's curse off even if she wanted to (and boy, does she ever).

Not long after Ella first meets Char, her father decides he can get much more use out of her if she stops acting like such a wild child and learns the traits valued by society in a real lady. Much to her horror, she finds herself being shipped off to finishing school with Hattie the Horrible and Olive the Overbearing with not so much as a "fare you well". Mandy, however, gifts her with a storybook that will allow her to see what's going on at home while she's away. Despite their less-than-average intelligence, it doesn't take long for Hattie and Olive to realize that Ella can't disobey orders. Soon they've got her jumping through hoops, doing everything from giving up her mother's necklace to acting as their maid. Ella's only reprieve from the torture is her new-found friend Areida, an Ayorthaian who is also an outcast in the social structure of the school. Then, Hattie finds out about their friendship and orders Ella to stop being friends with her. When her magic storybook shows a letter her father wrote describing his upcoming journey to a giant's wedding, she decides it's as good a place as any to get out of Dodge. Hoping to exact a little revenge on Hattie, she snatches her wig and heads off to see the wonders of a giant's wedding.

Along the way, she ends up in the realm of the elves, who gift her with a valuable piece of pottery she was drawn to. They give her a pony and send her on her merry way, wishing her the best of luck on her journey. Unfortunately, when you've spent your entire life in servitude thanks to an overly hasty fairy, luck really isn't on your side. Such is the case when she wakes up next to the remains of her pony and realizes she's become the prisoner of a group of ogres who are debating how to evenly split her up for dinner. Completely fed up with her lot in life, Ella decides to take matters into her own hands, using the persuasiveness of the ogre's voice against them. She manages to lure them to sleep but still can't escape because they told her not to. Enter Char, who (very luckily) happened to be in the area with a band of knights. They congratulate her on a job well done and Char inadvertently gives her permission to leave, allowing one of his knights to escort her to the giant's wedding. Finally, they arrive at the wedding just in time for the ceremony. The whole affair was going off without a hitch... until Lucinda showed up with a "gift" for the newlyweds. After she gives them the "gift" of not being able to go anywhere without each other, a new meaning was given to the phrase "not a dry eye in the house" as the horrified onlookers bemoan yet another victim of Lucinda's foolishness. Ella approaches Lucinda to try to get her to remove the curse, but Lucinda takes a different approach, commanding Ella to be happy to be in servitude to others. And so, of course, that's what she must be. She returns home with her father, happy to hear that he's decided to marry her off to the next rich dude that happens by.

After a brief incident involving some Elvish justice mushrooms and Ella's future husband, Mandy realizes what's happened and enters a fit of righteous fury. She commands Ella to stop being happy about serving, but now there's a new problem; Sir Peter has decided to mend his situation by himself and has found a rich wife. That sounds like the opposite of a problem, until we learn that said rich wife is Dame Olga. Now THAT is a problem. One very boring wedding, another Lucinda gift, a magical glass slipper discovery, and some stair-rail sliding with Char later, Ella finds herself alone in the house with her new step-family while her father goes off on yet another business trip. Once Hattie leaks Ella's secret, she's demoted to a position equivalent to that of scullery maid, but with none of the respect. With no one but Mandy and a parrot for company, Ella turns to writing Char, who's off on a diplomatic trip to Ayortha. As it turns out, Ayorthaians' primary focus is inner contemplation; Char is bored to death, and corresponds with Ella as much as he can, still completely oblivious to both her curse and her demotion to living doormat. Things start heating up pretty quickly, and soon it's apparent that Char and Ella are hopelessly in love with each other. Marriage is brought up several times, but Ella realizes that she could put the whole country in danger by being married to Char; state secrets could be leaked, or even worse, someone could order her to kill Char. Heartbroken, she sends a letter to Char under Hattie's name saying that she had run off with the first rich man she could get her hands on. With literally nothing left, Mandy decides to set Lucinda straight once and for all, but she still refuses to take the curse off and let Ella be reconciled with Char. Ella receives word that Char will be holding a ball to find a wife, and realizing this might be her last chance to see him, she decides to go in disguise. Will she be forced to witness the love of her life marry another, or will she be able to break the curse and live happily ever after?

First of all, if you can't stand annoying characters, put the book down and walk away. You will not like this book. Dame Olga and Hattie (and Olive, in her own way) are evil incarnate. Witches. Bad. 900% can't stand them. How can you treat someone like they're the literal dirt you walk on?? I get waaaay too into this stuff. But if you can manage to look past these admittedly crucial story pieces, the story will pull you in and not let you out until you've finished. Usually, I read a couple chapters on the bus ride to/from school or in between classes, but once I was a few chapters into this one, I took it with me everywhere until it was done. Aside from that, despite the fact that it's technically a children's book, some of the plot elements work for an older audience. (I'm looking at you, eaten-by-ogres pony and jerky Sir Peter who used mushrooms to coerce Ella into liking her future husband).

One of the main things that bugged me was the large number of coincidences that drove the plot. For example, Ella just happens to get lost where the elves live who just happen to know her father and happen to have a pottery piece like the ones they wouldn't sell her father. And then Char just happens to show up when she's been captured by ogres. And please don't get me started on the way they happened to find a magical glass slipper that happened to fit Ella (and only Ella's) foot. Especially in a fantasy novel, coincidences are probably an important plot driver, so maybe I'm being too harsh. But man are there a lot of them.

Pros:
  • New take on the Cinderella fairy tale
  • Engaging, edge-of-your-seat read
  • Enough mature plot elements to keep older readers entertained
Cons:
  • REALLY annoying characters (How can Lucinda be THAT dumb? Why is Dame Olga such a witch? Why is Hattie such a witch and why does she need a wig? I HAVE QUESTIONS)
  • Lots of coincidences eventually start to make you suspicious
  • My perverted sense of justice would've been way happier if something nasty had happened to Dame Olga and Hattie at the end, Grimm brothers style
You probably won't be surprised to learn that there's a movie version of Ella Enchanted, with one of my favorite actresses. They change the plot quite a bit (*cough cough* musical numbers *cough cough*), it's incredibly corny, and you can tell it's more of a kids movie, but I'll leave the trailer here and let you decide for yourself. At least it's funny?


    Wednesday, November 8, 2017

    and then you're dead - Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty

    If you're like any normal human being, chances are that you've worried about a window popping out of a plane mid-flight, what would happen if the cable snapped on an elevator you were riding in, whether or not you can really survive a trip over Niagara Falls, and a host of other macabre but slightly practical issues. The good news: this book takes a large amount of these suppositions and analyzes them for your reading pleasure. The bad news: most of them involve you dying. Hence the name of the book. But there's (more) good news. Despite the fact that you're reading scenarios in which you almost certainly die, it's done in a humorous but informative manner. Accidentally jump into a black hole? At least you'll know what to expect. (Hint: spaghettification.) Wanna break the world skydiving record by going from the International Space Station? Here's a list of pros and cons for you to consider. The back cover describes the novel as "gleefully gruesome", and frankly, I really can't think of a better description.

    Just so you can get an idea of what kinds of scenarios we're talking here, here's my top 10:
    What would happen if...
    1. You were attacked by a swarm of bees?
    2. You skydived from outer space?
    3. You jumped into a black hole?
    4. You were killed by this book?
    5. You just stayed in bed?
    6. You toured the Pringles factory and fell off the catwalk?
    7. You dug a hole to China and jumped in?
    8. You became an actual human cannonball?
    9. You ate as many cookies as Cookie Monster?
    10. You were swallowed by a whale?
    Now, admittedly, some of these are more speculation than they are based on experience; after all, once you've been atomized inside a black hole, it's going to be a bit difficult to report on what happened, even after you make it past the event horizon in a few million years. Despite this minor obstacle, Cassidy and Doherty do their very best to science their way to a logical analysis for every scenario in the book (45 in case you were wondering). I picked this book up on a whim from the library, and I went online and bought it before I'd even finished the whole thing! In case you haven't gotten the idea yet: READ IT!

    Pros:
    • You will likely spend at least 89% of the book laughing
    • There actually is some quality science-y information provided
    • Carefully put-together answers to all those weird questions you always wondered about
    Cons:
    • WAY too short. Seriously, I'd read a dictionary sized book of this stuff.
    • A wee bit graphic if you're squeamish (but really, what did you expect going into space without a suit?)
    •  See item 1. For reals, I NEED more.

    Friday, October 13, 2017

    The Glass Arrow - Kristen Simmons

    In a world where women are property and their numbers are carefully managed, Aya is a rebel. Her mother escaped from the city when she was pregnant with Aya, and, even after her death, Aya managed to avoid detection in the mountains for 16 years with her cousins. Then, in a moment of hesitation, she is captured by Trackers and taken to the city. In the city, women are herded into a facility where they are primped and molded into ideal candidates to fetch a high price at the monthly auction. Those who are unfit for sale, whether for impurity or otherwise, have X's slashed into their faces, leaving them permanently scarred for all to see. Thanks to the synthetic nature of virtually everything in the city, local girls lack something that free-ranging Aya has; fertility, a trait that can bring a coveted boy to the highest bidder. At least, it would if Aya had any intention of letting herself be sold on the auction block like an animal or houseware. Unfortunately for the Governess, the woman who orchestrates the sale of the girls to rich Magnates, Aya's greatest goal is to escape and return to the only family she's ever known in the mountains. Failure after failure, botched auction after botched auction, she is unable to escape her merciless captors. Her only reprieve comes when she's sentenced to solitary, where she makes friends with a scraggly wolf pup she names Brax who becomes her sole companion. The Governess' patience with Aya is running out, and so are her chances to escape. Enter the Driver, stage right.

    When Aya first meets the Driver during one of her stints in solitary, she's sure he's going to kill her. A shouted warning from her pen startles him and an excellently aimed knife is his reflexive response. Luckily, years of hunting have honed her reflexes too, and she manages to avoid the knife. Next thing she knows, he's jumping over the poisoned river into her space. Like all of his kind, he can't speak, and she struggles to understand why he's being kind to her. Night after night, he returns to the solitary pen and sits there as Aya pours her heart out to him. It's not like he could ever tell anyone what she says anyway. She decides to name him Kiran because of the unusual color of his eyes. And then comes auction day, but this time, Aya can't get out of it. Surprisingly, Kiran appears and distracts the guard and she flees. Desperate for a disguise, she helps a young boy at the market steal a piece of candy in return for his cape. But the ruse fails and she is recaptured and forced onto the auction block. As she looks onto the crowd, she sees the boy with a creepy looking man. She thinks nothing of it until she learns that she has been purchased by the man, who is the brother of the mayor. The boy, Amir, is the mayor's son and she discovers that she is going to be his playmate until he grows older, when she will become something far worse.

    In the mayor's household, Aya quickly finds out that Amir is spoiled, cruel, and difficult to please; the slightest sign of obstinance on her part results in pain. A moment of laxity presents an opportunity to escape not long after she arrives, and she takes it. On the way out, she runs into Kiran, who had apparently been mounting a rescue attempt himself. They sneak out together and return to the barn across from the solitary pen where Kiran houses all of his supplies, planning their escape back into the mountains. While there, Aya learns a surprising secret; Drivers can talk, but their silence helps ensure the safety of their women. Another problem arises when Aya sees one of her ex-fellow-inmates being punished by a Watcher in the solitary pen and takes action. Now, Kiran must suit the escape plan for the three of them instead of the original two. They make it out of the city in disguise, but they are joined by yet another companion: Brax, unwilling to be left behind by his master. They may have escaped the city, but they are still being followed by the Mayor's men. When Aya discovers her family is missing, shocking realizations begin to come to light that threaten her understanding of who she is. With her future in the balance, she must commit to a plan of action or risk losing everything she loves.

    Man, talk about a heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat read. I love the main characters ,  I love the plot, I love the way it's written... I just really love this book. The characters are really well developed so you can almost tell what they're going to do before they do it. The plot calls up anger, heartbreak, strength, determination, and a host of other traits I'm leaving out. Additionally, it addresses the divide between men and women in society; it may not be that men are buying and selling women for pleasure or their child-bearing abilities, but the problem is present nonetheless. For another thing, it steers clear of typical dystopian tropes (TDT). If this was a TDT book, Aya would (1) realize she's stuck in an unfair system, (2) meet a boy she falls in love with, (3) decide to escape with said boy, and (4) break the system on the way out, freeing everyone from the tyranny of the corrupt power group. Admittedly, the book does have some of these twists, but the timeline and motivations are vastly different.

    If there's one thing that really bugged me about the book, it's how there were a couple of loose ends that never got tied up. Unfortunately, if I listed the primary one, it would kinda give away a huge plot point, so I'll remain silent. Aside from that, there were a few points in the book that seemed to drag on. I'll give you an example of a loop that really started to get me: attempt escape, get recaptured, get punished, attempt escape, get recaptured, get punished, repeat until your head spins. I get that Aya spends most of her time plotting escape and that's one of the reasons we love her, but do we need to hear about it every single time?


    I really tried to avoid the temptation of the Simon Cowell meme, but it was stronger than me. I regret nothing. Anyhoo, despite these little issues, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

    Pros:
    •  Good character development and no huge story gaps (e.g. A meets B, they fall in love, and get married in one chapter)
    •  Say buh-bye to typical dystopian tropes
    •  SO. MANY. FEELS.
    Cons:
    •  Wee plot inconsistencies, but nothing hugely distracting
    •  Occasionally slow; how many escape attempts can we read about before we get bored?
    •  SO. MANY. FEELS. 
    And yes, I did just use feels as both a pro and a con. Don't judge. As with most books I read, there was a line that really stuck out to me, and, as with most books, there was already a graphic for it on Google images. My work here is done. 

    Saturday, September 30, 2017

    Convicted - Jameel McGee and Andrew Collins

    Jameel McGee lives in Benton Harbor, a backwards, crime-ridden town in Michigan. Located across the water from a ritzy white tourist town, Benton Harbor is inhabited primarily by blacks and is policed by an almost entirely white force. Racial tension is high in the town, but Jameel's greatest wish is to open a car wash in a nearby area and put his exceptional work ethic to good use. Unfortunately, he also has a penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in several arrests despite doing absolutely nothing wrong. When Jameel's ex-girlfriend contacts him to bring over the son he's never gotten to see, he rushes to the grocery store to stock up on supplies to make a good impression. Because of his record, he's unable to drive himself and hitches a ride with a cousin who happened to be going the same way. Unbeknownst to him, his cousin had set up a drug deal and was delivering the goods. When he comes out of the store, he's immediately approached by Officer Andrew Collins, who accuses him of setting up the deal. Despite blatant evidence to the contrary, Jameel is arrested and charged with drug possession with intent to distribute. Shocked that he's managed to get himself into yet another situation like this, Jameel fights back against the charges, but the false testimony of the corrupt cop and the biased judicial system result in a 10 year stay in federal prison, all for a crime he didn't commit. He won't get to see his son and he certainly won't be able to open a car wash now. Angry and hurt at the injustice, Jameel swore that if he ever saw Collins again, he'd kill him. While in prison, though, Jameel underwent a serious transformation; he found God, and with it, he lost a lot of the hate he harbored towards Officer Collins. After serving 3 years of his 10 year sentence and being told that all of his appeals had been rejected, Jameel is released from prison.

    Andrew Collins always knew that he wanted to be a police officer, and that's exactly what he did. When he graduated from the police academy, he submitted dozens of resumes but eventually ended up in Benton Harbor. With all of the drug activity in the town, Officer Collins saw an opportunity to gain his peers' respect, so he made it his goal to take down the big names on the street. Somewhere along the way, a case came up where he had to make a decision; lie to incriminate someone he knew was guilty or let them go free. Believing the ends justified the means, he chose to tell a little white lie. Once he had done it the first time, it became easier and easier to twist the truth to get bad people off the streets. Before he knew what was happening, he was embezzling money meant for confidential informants, keeping drugs from busts to plant on suspects, lying to obtain search warrants, and falsifying reports. With this newfound power, it was easy to label Jameel McGee as a major drug lord, even without evidence tying him to the actual drugs. But he had promised an arrest that day, and there was going to be one whether there was a guilty party or not. After this incident, things started going south for Officer Collins; his stash of drugs was found by a superior and the falsified reports were brought into question. As if that wasn't bad enough, his partner in crime threw him under the bus to save his own skin. Now, instead of taking bad guys off the street, Andrew is a bad guy, one facing serious charges and a lengthy prison term. Thanks to months of cooperation with the FBI, he spends only 18 months in prison, but his case has another side-effect; the charges against people arrested by Andrew are dropped, resulting in the early release of Jameel McGee.

    When Andrew and Jameel next meet, a lot of things have happened. Andrew has gotten involved with a local church and now holds a regular day job, going home every day to his wife and daughter. After 3 years in prison, Jameel has had to start over, struggling with finding a job thanks to his record, but more involved in his son's life. The situation comes to a head when they encounter each other at a local church function. Jameel remembers the promise he made while he was still in prison and struggles to give the situation over to God. Andrew prepares himself for a beating when the unthinkable happens; Jameel and his son walk away. After this, life moves unexpectedly for both men. Soon, Jameel is homeless and unable to work and Andrew is the manager at a cafe run by the church. As they both struggle to define their new lives, they find themselves being drawn together in miraculous ways. Guided by the power of God and forgiveness, the two men are able to come to terms with their past and each other.

    I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review. Even though this really isn't in my normal vein of reading, I found this to be a roller coaster ride from start to finish. The blurb on the back says it all: "It reads like a gripping crime novel... except this story really happened". The novel honestly addresses the racial and power divides in towns like Benton Harbor and demonstrates how faith can bridge even the greatest gaps. I love how the chapters alternate between Jameel's and Andrew's narratives because you get to see both sides of the story. It did seem to drag on a little sometimes, but being that it's a narrative, I guess that's not totally unexpected. Overall, this was a great, motivational read!

    Pros:
    • Intense, thrilling read
    • Based on a true story
    • Demonstrates the life-changing power of faith
    Cons:
    • Sometimes a little too much detail
    • Emotional roller coaster (not necessarily bad, but here we are)
    • I can't actually think of another con, so I'll just make it look like there's something here
    Check out this awesome CBS interview with the two. It sums up the book perfectly!