The Amplified by Lauren M. Flauding

Don't Give In!

The Amplified by Lauren M. Flauding, 204 pages, Blurtery Publishing, March 15th 2016, Genre: Dystopian/Young Adult. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

Review by Leigh Holland.

The Amplified is a young adult, dystopian novel set in a world where physical prowess is what determines social status. It explores themes such as peer pressure, societal conditioning, choice and freedom versus security, and forsaking ethics for status. It draws a parallel between our world of image over substance and this fictional world of status based strictly on physical condition. This theme is starkly evident when one of the Amplified characters, Liam, saves Mari’s life, only to have everyone laugh at him for being overweight. Liam is willing to risk death in order to transform his body into one more accepted by others.

Mari Quillen is a fifteen year old girl, living in a society divided into three groups: the Regulars, the Amplified, and the Restrainers. Everyone is born into the Regulars, although the children of the Amplified are of higher status than those born to other Regulars. Mari’s parents were Regulars; in school Mari was bullied for being of lesser birth. She has an older brother and a younger brother. Her father passed away because of a virus and her mother is blind. Her mother picks beans, which are sent away for processing by the government. Nobody eats food anymore; everyone eats capsules which have varying effects. Regulars get only the regular capsules; but Amplified get a variety. Mari’s older brother returns home after four years’ service as an Amplified, fighting against their enemies, the Dissenters, who are made out to be nothing more than savages with pitchforks. Mari doesn’t like how different her brother has become.

Mari decides to go through Amplification regardless, since this is the way to succeed in their society. An amplifier is surgically placed inside her head. Whenever an Amplified issues commands to their amplifier, they are able to perform at superhuman levels in order to achieve the command. As she continues in her training, Mari discovers that not only can they not resist a command they’ve issued to their amplifier once it has been made, but that their are ways for their handlers to override their Amplification units. Indeed, the Override command is used to control them on the battlefield. They kill whether they like it or not. As she uncovers more sinister machinations of the governor, Mari begins to regret ever having chosen to become Amplified.

My favorite character was Mari. She was the only one to see that something was wrong and resist the temptation to forsake her personal values for the sake of societal status. Despite this, Mari, like all of us, is flawed. When her friend clearly was in need, she failed to notice and only managed to be there for her after the crisis had passed. I also liked Liam; I’m holding out hope we’ll see Talina rebel against the governor once and for all in future installments.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading The Amplified. The first chapter started off a bit slow, but once past it, I couldn’t put the book down. The plot was original and the characters were developed; the writing was engaging. Flauding does a masterful job of subtly weaving this dystopian tapestry, crafting a compelling tale and fascinating world. I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys dystopian or young adult novels.

This book is the first in a series. It can be found at Amazon at The Amplified.

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The Birr Elixir by Jo Sparkes

The Birr Elixir by Jo Sparkes, 196 pages, Oscar Press, May 31st, 2013, Genre: Young Adult/Fantasy/Adventure/Sword and Sorcery. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

The Birr Elixir is a Young Adult Fantasy novella that has wider appeal. Jo Sparkes masterfully draws together elements of action, adventure, sports, fantasy, and sorcery in a likeable, exotic world. The Birr Elixir is the first installment in “The Legend of the Gamesmen” series. It is the winner of the Silver Ippy award and the BRAG Medallion.

Marra’s mentor recently passed away, leaving her a book containing potion recipes. When the sportsman Drail spies the recipe for the Birr Elixir in the book, he must have it. Marra makes a batch for Drail and his team. They win the Comet game against the Skullan team, a feat which has never been accomplished.  The team takes Marra with them and they head to the main tournament at the port city. Marra awakens a stranger, Tryst, from an enchanted slumber. He, too, is anxious to get to the port city. As a master of the sport Comet, Tryst mentors the team. It will take more than magical elixirs to win the tournament: they’ll need skill, too. However, evil men offer Marra a rare herb she needs to make the Birr Elixir. In exchange, she must give another sleeping potion to Tryst and allow the men to recapture him. If she fails, they promise to harm her. What will Marra choose?

Jo Sparkes weaves timeless themes into this magical tale, such as good versus evil, the importance of loyalty, and refusing temptation for the greater good. My favorite character was Marra. She is quiet, keeping her thoughts and opinions to herself. Marra has lived a rough life, yet secretly dreams of being so much more. Marra feels affection for Drail; she regards him as the man who redeemed her from a life of near-slavery under a cruel shopkeeper. She is a genuinely good person at heart.

I enjoyed reading The Birr Elixir. I was whisked away to a land that was at once both imaginative and believable. The characters were interesting and unique.  The plot is well designed and unfolds quickly while creating an atmosphere of suspense. The fictional sport Comet is dynamic, fun, and energetic, much like a Quidditch match. The Gamesmen storyline creates a mood much like the Heath Ledger film “A Knight’s Tale”. I’d recommend The Birr Elixir to readers who enjoy Fantasy and Action Adventure genres.

This book can be found at The Birr Elixir.

View the amazing book trailer at Jo Sparkes’ site.

Uncle Herbert Time is Running Out by Philip C. Elrod

Fun, Quirky Adventure!

Uncle Herbert: Time is Running Out (Sand Mountain Tales) by Philip C. Elrod, 310 pages, March 10th, 2017, Genre: Young Adult/Adventure/Romance/Coming of Age. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

by Leigh Holland

Uncle Herbert Time is Running Out is the latest “Sand Mountain Tales” novel by Philip C. Elrod. It is loosely related to Elrod’s Mylean Universe Chronicles books. Suitable for young adults, it tells the story of one man’s romantic adventure to try to avert global disaster.

Andrew Benson dreams of going to college and escaping his small-town Alabama life. His hopes are dashed when he fails to acquire any scholarships. Andrew accepts his fate as an auto mechanic; a member of the same small community that has shunned his Uncle Herbert for years. His eccentric, quirky uncle appears out of the blue one day to repay a loan he owed to Andrew’s dad. Uncle Herbert does more than that: he pays for Andrew’s Master Degree and vastly enriches Andrew’s parents. However, his chickens come home to roost when Uncle Herbert places his vast resources into Andrew’s hands and requires Andrew to do the unthinkable. Andrew does as is needed, only to discover Uncle Herbert is more brilliant and sly than he ever imagined.

The story is told in first person narrative style through the perspective of Andrew Benson. The characters are well-developed with unique traits and quirks. At the start of the story, Andrew is a simply, small-town lad. By the end, he’s experienced adventures that take him around the globe and into harrowing situations. Andrew also finds love. The most interesting characters were Uncle Herbert and Dr. Qureshi. I found Dr. Qureshi’s bad jokes endearing and amusing. The plot was fast paced through most of the book. During the middle twenty percent of the book it slowed down but regained pace.

Uncle Herbert Time is Running Out is an interesting story with memorable characters. Elrod weaves together elements of science fiction and action adventure into a fun coming of age tale. I’d recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys young adult action adventure novels with a twist.

This book can be found on Amazon at Uncle Herbert Time is Running Out.

Dragonsoul by Kayl Karadjian

A Struggle for the Soul of Dragon and Man Alike

Dragonsoul by Kayl Karadjian, 265 pages, October 18th, 2016, Genre: Young Adult/Science Fiction/Fantasy/Coming of Age. Warning: May contain spoilers.

by Leigh Holland

Dragonsoul is a tale of two worlds: Evenar, the land of color and vibrancy; and Hainabal, city of gray shades and gloom. The world each character is born into shapes their worldview, informing their actions. However, each is much more than the world that shaped them. Each of them must deal with their internal struggle and rise above for the sake of all.

After running away from his abusive father, a masked child known only as Zero is rescued from the streets by the king. Zero works hard to become a seasoned knight, serving his king. He and his men destroy all things within the gloom-covered landscape with any hint of color, such as books and dragons. Believing his king honorable, Zero never questions whether or not his orders are truly in the best interest of the kingdom.

Outside the city yet within the Gloom, a fourteen-year-old farm boy named Denyth discovers an egg. Taking it home, he is shocked when a baby dragon emerges. Raising the colorful Littlehorn becomes the most wonderful experience of Denyth’s previously colorless young life. Their bond is genuine and eternal. As Zero and his men are in pursuit to slay the last dragon, Denyth and Littlehorn flee with the aid of the Evenarian shapeshifter Nelai and enter Evenar seeking the help of the Wind Queen. By the end of the tale, these characters must come together to save the realms.

Two major themes throughout the book are good versus evil and the struggle within. “Color” represents the positive forces, including inspiration, wisdom, compassion, hope, and paying kindness forward. “Gloom” represents the negative forces within and around us, such as hopelessness, despair, anger, vengeance, and acceptance of these forces without struggle. Even so, the Gloom is comprised of shades of gray, not absolute darkness, therefore anyone can redeem himself. Another theme is that leaders and their choices affect the destiny of their people.

The story is told through shifting perspectives in a narrative style. The characters are well developed and the plot well-constructed. Descriptive devices conjured interesting settings without lengthy exposition. The writing style is reminiscent of beloved young adult fantasy books from my childhood such as “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle and “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys young adult fantasy fiction.

Dragonsoul can be found at Dragonsoul on Amazon.

The Revolutions of Caitlin Kelman by Matthew Luddon

Intrigue-Oriented

The Revolutions of Caitlin Kelman (The Kelman Chronicles Book One) by Matthew Luddon, 171 pages, Zoe Rose Books, 2nd Edition, October 18, 2016, Genre: Dystopian/Young Adult. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

by Leigh Holland

The Revolutions of Caitlin Kelman is the first installment in a young adult dystopian series set in a fictional place known as the Empire. Much like ancient Rome, the Empire features a prime city, Dominion City, which serves as the seat of central government and political intrigue. Surrounding Dominion City is “the Interior”, a land of second class citizens and foreigners. Beyond the Interior are the Border lands, where the foreigners dwell. Dominion City contains wealth and power. The further one gets from it, the worse living conditions become, as policing soldiers take financial advantage of and torture innocent townsfolk. Conquered foreigners residing within the Empire are “the Stateless”, accused of terrorism and treason under a government they didn’t choose.

The novella opens with scenes depicting Caitlin’s entry into Dominion City. The imagery and feel of a stealth operation in the open is reminiscent of Peter Chung’s MTV animated series Aeon Flux. However, instead of an acrobatic spy, we’re following the journey of fourteen-year-old Caitlin Kelman across Dominion City. No longer an innocent, hopeful girl, Caitlin feels intense anger born from the Empire’s unjust slaying of her parents. Caitlin’s ultimate goal is not made plain. Her transitional goals are clear throughout the book and as each one is met, a new one replaces it. The tale is fast paced and Caitlin can trust no one, as everyone has a motive to use her for their own ends. By the end of this installment, Caitlin is on the run once more, a fugitive from the Empire’s brand of justice.

This novella ends leaving us with questions about why Caitlin made her life-altering choice and what her plans are as the series progresses. While sympathetic to Caitlin for her losses, her fear in the face of danger, and her struggles inside the city to survive, Caitlin demonstrates she has no difficulty killing, betraying others, or doing anything else she feels she needs to do to further her mysterious agenda. Caitlin exhibits a cold practicality. While it seems easy to judge Caitlin, we are reminded that the citizens of Dominion City have traded their morality for comfort and status, allowing foreigners and the poor to be cruelly mistreated and tossed aside by their society. The seemingly kind, honorable citizens tolerate and perpetuate an unjust Empire for their own benefit.

I enjoyed reading The Revolutions of Caitlin Kelman. It’s an action filled, intrigue-oriented dystopian that sends a message about wealth disparity in modern societies and how far a government will go to hold onto power. It left me wanting to discover more about Caitlin’s motives and plans and the direction the city would take in the future. There were a couple of punctuation errors in the digital edition but these did not interfere with the overall enjoyment of the book. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction.

The upcoming installments are entitled The Burning Cities of Caitlin Kelman and The Ghosts of Caitlin Kelman. The first installment may be purchased at Revolutions of Caitlin Kelman.

Cease and Desist by Stephen David Hurley

An engrossing read!

Cease and Desist by Stephen David Hurley, 327 pages, September 23rd, 2016, Genre: Young Adult, Paranormal and Urban. Available in Kindle, Print, and Audible. Warning: May Contain Spoilers.

by Leigh Holland

The author of Cease and Desist, Stephen David Hurley, knows that while my reading tastes are eclectic and varied, I absolutely adore a good dystopian novel. Dystopian literature holds up a mirror to our society. It reveals to us who we are in danger of becoming if we go too far.  Above all, it makes us examine our values and choices, so we can make better choices both as individuals and as members of our communities. Although this novel has paranormal elements, it is equally dystopian in nature.

All too often today, we see news stories about teenagers publishing their crimes to social media for the world to see. We live in an over-connected world, where to be heard, to be seen, is a shouting match. That which shocks, humiliates, and disturbs is the quickest way to win the match, to stand out, to get noticed and gain fame. Ironically, we often feel less human connection as a result. Adults ask how these teenagers could do such things. Cease and Desist shows us how and why they would do such things.

We are immersed through first person narration in the life and struggles of Cecilia “Cease” de Menich, a teenage girl with an interesting pedigree, a troubled past, and the charisma of Sarah Bernhardt. Cease is playing the role in a live reality-drama television series of Jeanne d’Arc, the patron saint of France. However, this is no ordinary role and no ordinary show. Other teen actors play the roles of strong females from history, such as Catherine the Great and Susan B. Anthony, in a contest to win first place at the podium, fall in love with one of the hunks on the show, and fulfill the destiny of saving the world. The show is driven by the audience’s ever increasing demand for more nudity, more sex, and even more violence for their entertainment. The actresses are highly competitive, willing to go to ever furthering lengths to win the ultimate prize: Fame. As the sex and violence becomes all too real, Cease must confront her family’s past, and make an all too adult decision about how far she is willing to go for fame.

In school, we were given an assignment to pick a historical figure and give the class a presentation. Drawn to Jeanne d’Arc, she was the subject of my presentation. She was a strong teenager, chosen by God to fulfill a destiny that surely must have overwhelmed her. How did she deal with the trials and eventual horrors she would face? What wisdom could I glean from her life and example? In Jeanne, I saw my 16-year-old self, standing at the precipice of adulthood, struggling with the meaning of life, of love, of identity, of destiny. I immediately found Cease relatable. Cease, an actress, tries to become Jeanne for the screen.  She begins receiving emails from a fan who claims to be the Maid herself. Cease begins engaging in conversations with the saint, first in emails, then in her own mind. Cease feels as though Jeanne is with her, throughout her struggles on the show and in her real-life quest to resolve her past and understand what kind of love can save the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cease and Desist. The characters and plot line were original and well developed, and the writing was excellent. It transported me back to a time when I was a girl on the verge of becoming a woman, identifying with Cease’s internal conflicts and difficult choices; and remembering that teenage boys, going through their own struggle to transform into men, may mistake sexual conquest for manhood.  Its message was relevant; the mirror it held up showing us a phenomenon in danger of becoming all too real today.

Cease and Desist by Stephen David Hurley can be found at Cease and Desist.