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Ashen Winter

Ashen Winter Book Cover Ashen Winter
Ashfall, Book 2
Mike Mullin
Juvenile Fiction

More than six months after the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano, Alex and Darla retrace their steps to Iowa hoping to find Alex's parents and bring them to the tenuous safety of Illinois, but the journey is ever more perilous as the remaining communities fight to the death for food and power.



“Ashen Winter” is a solid second installment in the “Ashfall” series by Mike Mullin.  Wasting no time, the book picks up a few months after the first has left off.  Spring, or what can be called spring, has arrived and Alex decided it’s time to set out to find his parents.

Unlike its predecessor, “Ashen Winter” is a page turner from the very first chapter.  I carried it around for a day, reading every second I could, and would have recommended it to everyone I came across if I could have put it down long enough to speak.  In fact, the only problem I have with it is that there is one point that it becomes a bit repetitive, though I even enjoyed those bits.  Anything to get more of Darla and Alex.

Beware, “Ashen Winter” is not for those with weak stomachs.  The attention to detail is incredible and realistic, but that does mean that things are not at all ok in the post-Yellowstone Super-volcanic world.  People under the best of circumstances are capable of horrible things.  Under apocalyptic conditions humanity takes a total nosedive.  Mr. Mullins is not afraid of the gore that ensues.

Along with the gore, I feel like this is a perfect manual for an introduction to Doomsday Prepping. The things that are essential make perfect sense, but I would have never thought of them.  In fact, I am fairly certain I will be one of the first to be flensed.  At least I will have Chapstick now.  (Really. Buy Chapstick.)

The characters are still wonderfully flawed and well-developed, with more being added in seamlessly.  Darla may be my favorite heroine in literature. If this were the Hunger Games, Darla would take out everyone at the Cornucopia and be elected President of Panem before even leaving the arena.  Even Katniss looks weak in comparison to her.


Content Warning:

Language, Violence, Gore, Animal Deaths, Sexual Situations

Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & Park Book Cover Eleanor & Park
Rainbow Rowell
Juvenile Fiction

"Set over the course of one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits--smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try"--



After reading “Eleanor and Park”, I felt an overwhelming urge to write a love letter to Rainbow Rowell.  It was everything my old, nerdy, hipster heart needed and more.

Make no mistake about it, this book is hipster and nerd to the core.  Everything about the 80s that was amazing in terms of pop-culture is here, and everything that needed some good-natured mocking is mocked.  It’s a book filled with nostalgia that can still be appreciated by the young.  In fact, it should be required reading for the new generation of hipsters.

The writing is sparse, but in a good way.  The facts, and only the important ones, are laid out like an outline to a research paper, softened only by the accompanying thoughts and emotions that can only be found in hormonal teenagers finding love for the first time.  It makes it realistic, and also keeps things from becoming overly romantic.  The heaviness of Eleanor’s situation is never overshadowed by the good, and the good is never completely overshadowed by the bad.  Given the subject matter, that balance being so perfectly accomplished is a testament to the author’s talent.

The only reason I am giving “Eleanor and Park” four stars instead of five is the ending.  It seemed rushed, and while somewhat understandable, almost out of character.  Given the easy flow of the rest of the book, it was a jarring awakening from a literary dream.

The ending was not, however, nearly enough to keep me from recommending it to anyone who is old enough to read it.  It is definitely aimed at older readers, with subject matter that is dark and difficult to read.  If given to a younger reader, I would recommend an adult read it and discuss it with them.


Content Warning:

Language, Violence, Sexual Situations, Abuse

Breaking Point

Breaking Point Book Cover Breaking Point
Article 5, Book 2
Kristen Simmons
Juvenile Fiction
Tor Teen

After escaping prison, Ember Miller and Chase Jennings are taken in by the Resistance, but when Ember tops the government's most-wanted list, Chase urges her to run and Ember must decide whether to hide again or fight back.



I really enjoyed “Article 5” and had high hopes for the series.  Unlike many dystopias, this series continued even more strongly than it began, with “Breaking Point” upping the ante on everything in the lives of Ember and Chase.

This book was nonstop from the minute I picked it up, with no lulls to speak of throughout.  I found myself wondering if all of it could happen within the specified amount of time, and much to my surprise, the author answered the question herself in her notes.  Someone was put in charge of making sure their calendar was logistically possible, and they accomplished a herculean test by mapping all of it out.  Though they may be tired, our young protagonists kept it all real.

The writing, which was not bad at all to begin with, noticeably improved with “Breaking Point”.  None of it felt awkward and the flow was good.  The characters developed in important ways,  leaving even the minor characters with fully developed backstories.  It isn’t difficult to care about them and their fate.

I wholeheartedly recommend the series.  It’s a new take on the old dystopian tropes that is both terrifying and thrilling.  I can’t wait to get my hands on the next one.


Content Warning:

Strong Language, Animal Death, Violence, Brief Sexual Situations

No Safety in Numbers

No Safety in Numbers Book Cover No Safety in Numbers
No Safety In Numbers, Book 1
Dayna Lorentz
Juvenile Fiction

Teens Shay, Marco, Lexi, and Ryan, quarantined in a shopping mall after a biological bomb goes off in an air duct, learn that in an emergency people change, and not always for the better, as many become sick and supplies run low.



I began “No Safety in Numbers” with the highest of hopes.  I mean, bioterrorism and a crowded mall?  What could go wrong with that, right?  By about chapter five my entire reason for finishing the book was so I could write a review of it.

That’s right.  I loathed a book so bad that I became obsessed with getting to the end just to be able to share my thoughts on how horrible it is.  Now my moment has come.  Unfortunately, the English language has not yet evolved enough to have words strong enough to describe the complete pile of dung this collection of words creates.

There was one character, the senator’s daughter, who seemed like she was going to be well-developed with an interesting storyline in the first chapter.  Alas, that worked out like a child learning about Santa Claus on the first day of preschool, only to go home and find out being Jewish means no Santa.  Only worse.  Coal in a stocking is a better present than the lack of character development.

The entire plot revolved around being stuck in a mall during a mysterious lockdown, and somehow the author managed to make the book boring without at all conveying any sense of how bored everyone would be, desperate, panicked, or anything else.  The teenagers seemed to want to escape while also having fun like they were Kevin McCalister and their parents went on vacation without them.  Sliding down a bowling lane naked.  Really?

And then there are the complete stereotypes.  We have the jock, the artist, the nerd, the mysterious Indian, the misunderstood kid who is bullied, and more.  There is nothing to create anything deeper than the tropes that come to mind when you think of these tried and true stereotypes.  In fact, the author seemed to just assume everyone already knew those tropes so it wasn’t even really necessary to establish even the most basic aspects of their personalities.

Then we have the writing.  It is written on the level meant for a solid d-level third grader, and yet it discusses some very adult behavior in not-too-subtle ways.  I have not the faintest idea of what age group this is aimed for, but I hope that should anyone ever find out they do not actually put it into that child’s hands.  No child should be exposed to the horribly offensive bad writing, even if they can handle the gratuitous sexual references.

In short: If I die and go to Hell, Satan will be waiting for me with the next two books in the series.


Content Warning:

Strong Language, Violence, Sexual Situations, Horrific Writing


Through the Ever Night

Through the Ever Night Book Cover Through the Ever Night
Under the Never Sky, Book 2
Veronica Rossi
Juvenile Fiction

In this second book in her spellbinding Under the Never Sky trilogy, Rossi combines fantasy and dystopian elements to create a captivating love story as perilous as it is unforgettable.



Aria and Perry continue their quest to escape the tumultuous atmosphere, save the lives of others, and make me question whether or not Perry is supposed to be Fabio in the sequel to “Under the Never Sky”.  Spoiler alert:  Perry has much more access to shirts in this one.

All joking aside, it’s a testament to the author’s skill and style that I neither enjoy this sort of mixed genre nor find myself drawn to the world of rustic, long-haired tribal leaders, and yet I still found myself devouring this book like it was a Big Mac and I hadn’t eaten for a week.  Actually, this book was even more satisfying than the Big Mac would be.  I would have foregone food for another day or two if it meant more of Perry and Aria.

The story is still absolutely ridiculous to me, but the character development is excellent.  All of the actions in the first book make sense as we learn more about each one’s past and become to care about them on a deeper level.  None of them are one-dimensional, even though it would have been quite easy to make them so, and the dialogue is very snappy and witty.  It breathes life into the characters.

My favorite aspect of the book, and I hope I do not live to regret these words when I read “Into the Still Blue”, is that there is an actual, meaningful relationship between characters of the opposite sex that is tender and does not involve any sort of weird posturing and triangle nonsense.  I could faintly hear a chorus of angels singing in the distance as I read about Aria and Roar.  Perfect.

I found this book to be highly enjoyable.  It’s an easy read that isn’t sloppily written and flows in a way only a good author can write.  “Under the Never Sky” has become my guiltiest pleasure outside of “Divergent”.


Content Warning:

Strong Language, Violence, Some Sexual Situations

Vampire Academy

Vampire Academy Book Cover Vampire Academy
Vampire Academy, Book 1
Richelle Mead
Juvenile Fiction

St. Vladimir’s Academy isn’t just any boarding school—it’s a hidden place where vampires are educated in the ways of magic and half-human teens train to protect them. Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a bodyguard for her best friend Lissa, a Moroi Vampire Princess. They’ve been on the run, but now they’re being dragged back to St. Vladimir’s—the very place where they’re most in danger. . . .
Rose and Lissa become enmeshed in forbidden romance, the Academy’s ruthless social scene, and unspeakable nighttime rituals. But they must be careful lest the Strigoi—the world’s fiercest and most dangerous vampires—make Lissa one of them forever.



Don’t read “Vampire Academy” if you’re looking for something to increase your brain-power.  This is a book meant solely for entertainment purposes.  It fulfills that purpose in a fun way.

I’m not normally one for vampire books, but this one grabbed me thanks to the main character of Rose.  She is the protagonist that no mother would want her child bringing home as a friend.  She drinks, fools around, curses, can be volatile, and is yet one of the most loyal book characters I have ever read.

I recommend this for a beach read or sometime when your brain just needs a break from thinking.  The plot is somewhat ridiculous, but if you don’t dwell on that and focus on the humor it’s a good read.


Content Warning:

Language, Violence, Strong Sexual Situations, Underage Drinking, Animal Deaths



Matched Book Cover Matched
Matched, Book 1
Ally Condie
Juvenile Fiction

Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.



“Matched” is the perfect book to introduce younger readers to the world of dystopias beyond “Animal Farm”.  It explores some difficult issues, including trying to control how people live and think, as well as censorship.  Everything is chosen for them.  What choices they do have are limited to a select few.  The government even controls death.

The content is solidly in the PG category, while still holding enough of a love story to get keep the attention of older readers who enjoy that sort of thing.  It is a relief that, while there are two possible love interests, it is not really a love triangle.  Those are overused and tend to feature at least one unhealthy choice.  This does not follow that pattern, which is a relief to me to know younger readers have access to books who present healthy relationships.

Cassia is a fascinating character who the author uses to highlight the challenges of being different in a society that will not tolerate anyone who strays from the norm.  Good lessons throughout the book that can leave children with a sense of empowerment over those telling them the things they “can’t” be.

It’s an enjoyable read for anyone from fifth grade and up.  A perfect choice for reluctant readers.


Content Warning:

Brief Violence


Unwind Book Cover Unwind
Unwind Dystology, Book 1
Neal Shusterman
Juvenile Fiction
Simon and Schuster

In a future world where those between the ages of thirteen and eighteen can have their lives "unwound" and their body parts harvested for use by others, three teens go to extreme lengths to survive until they turn eighteen.



To be honest, I am not sure how to put into words just how profound this book is.  While meant for young adults, I think it presents issues that people of any age should take the time to consider carefully.  It made me rethink many of the views I had that I assumed were firm.

The way the plot evolves is nothing short of amazing.  All three of the main characters are well-developed and come together in a way which is completely plausible.  Their backstories make them feel like real people whose wellbeing is a real concern.  They also are not presented as perfect, or completely imperfect, individuals.  Each is given a complex set of strengths and weaknesses.  The same can be said with all of the secondary characters.  The entire world is brought to life through the vast amount of personalities and intertwining lives.

The author’s writing is superb.  The sentences are structured perfectly to be able to flow smoothly as well as make perfect sense to less advanced readers without losing the gravity of the subject matter.

Be warned:  There is one particular scene in this book that is far more frightening than even the likes of Stephen King has written.  It still gives me the shivers and makes me feel a bit nauseous, and I have a fondness for scary things.  That being said, it is in no way gratuitous, and was a very necessary part of the plot.  If you have a younger reader, be prepared to answer questions.

I love this book enough to give it the rare five stars.  If the rest of his work is like this one, the author will be guaranteed a fan for life in me.


Content Warning:

Language, Violence, Disturbing Imagery, Brief Sexual Situations


Divergent Book Cover Divergent
Divergent, Book 1
Veronica Roth
Juvenile Fiction
Katherine Tegen Books

Paperback features over fifty pages of bonus materials, including a sneak peek of Insurgent, an author Q&A, a discussion guide, a Divergent playlist, faction manifestos, and more! In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her. Veronica Roth is the New York Times bestselling author of Divergent, the first in a trilogy of dystopian thrillers filled with electrifying decisions, heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance.



I want to put this out there right from the start:  I have an extremely intense love/hate relationship with this book.  It’s like some form of reader sadomasochism, a punishment that just serves to make me want more.

The plot has more holes than swiss cheese, the sentence structure is written as if meant for a four-year-old, and don’t even get me started on the faction system.  Actually, let me take that back.  I want to get started on the faction system.  It makes absolutely no sense.  Why would someone completely think one way and not even vaguely have a characteristic of the others?  I can see the idea of balance, but this is the most far-fetched division system I have ever read in a dystopian novel, and I have read a lot of them.  I feel like I need to eat some Amity bread to accept this.

And yet, against all reason, I do.  I love this story.  The completely cookie-cutter misunderstood bad boy meets the secret bad-ass girl disguised as a shrinking violet makes my heart go all aflutter.  I think the idea of rolling off of moving trains sounds like fun.  I made my poor wife read it.  We have already pre-ordered the steelbook blu-ray of the movie, which is worse than the actual book.  I even forgive the typos!

This, my friends, is the value of a good story.  If you have a good enough plot, people will forgive literally almost everything.  I’m not proud of my Divergent weakness, but there it is, for all of the world to see.

Content Warning:

Language, Violence,  Brief Sexual Situations

The Testing

The Testing Book Cover The Testing
The Testing, Book 1
Joelle Charbonneau
Juvenile Fiction
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Sixteen-year-old Malencia (Cia) Vale is chosen to participate in The Testing to attend the University; however, Cia is fearful when she figures out her friends who do not pass The Testing are disappearing. 100,000 first printing.



Cia is a girl from a small colony who is chosen to go, not by choice, to compete for a spot at the only university in her country, located in Tosu City.  Only the best and brightest are chosen for the honor.

The plot does somewhat resemble the Hunger Games, but I can assure you that the author has created a fully fleshed-out world that stands on its own without a reliance on the structure of Panem.  The imagery is vivid, and the scenes are very intense.  Once she arrives at Tosu City there are no real lulls in the action.  It’s a one sitting type of read.

The book is extremely well written with realistic dialogue and flowing sentences. Plot structure is solid with a multitude of elements to appeal to lovers of dystopian, romance, and survival stories.  The characters could have been fleshed out a bit more, but the fact that they were not can be directly attributed to the situations in which they find themselves in.  Cia simply does not have time to get to know her fellow university candidates in much detail.

Speaking of Cia, she is a great character who enters the story somewhat sheltered but not naive.  She learns quickly, and she is not easily pushed around by those in charge.  This is a refreshing change from many dystopias.

Overall, it’s a fun and quick read that will leave you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.


Content Warning:

Violence, Brief Sexual Situations