Family Reads: The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

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Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Alexandra Oliva’s The Last One

Jenna with The Last OneAsh with The Last One

We had both independently seen it at Chapters and found the mash up of a reality TV survival show with an actual dystopia happening beyond the show intriguing.

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She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far.

It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens—but how widespread is the destruction, and has it occurred naturally or is it human-made? Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game.

Alone and disoriented, Zoo is heavy with doubt regarding the life—and husband—she left behind, but she refuses to quit. Staggering countless miles across unfamiliar territory, Zoo must summon all her survival skills—and learn new ones as she goes.

But as her emotional and physical reserves dwindle, she grasps that the real world might have been altered in terrifying ways—and her ability to parse the charade will be either her triumph or her undoing.

Our Discussion

You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve already read the book (spoilers ahead).

Ash gave this book ★★, while I gave it ★★½. Ash says it wasn’t quite a 2.5 or a 3 but it’s silly to say 2.75 (She says she would borrow it from the library, though.) I don’t think it’s worth recommending, though it wasn’t painful to read.

We felt The Last One fell short of the promise of an intriguing story. Our main criticism is that the before (TV show) and the after (Zoo on her own) felt too disjointed. The reality TV narrative didn’t do much to inform Zoo’s actions on her own, aside to create a context in which it might be believable that Zoo doesn’t know there’s be an apocalyptic disease breakout. We would have liked to see more blurring between the TV show’s ‘reality’ and actual reality.  Time wise, the reader doesn’t see a lot of the TV show story line – it takes place over one week and includes only one dramatic incident (the show is apparently meant to be different from your average Survivor, as Reddit commentary in the book informs us – there are supposedly going to be some dark, twisted scenarios for the contestants to encounter). It was so obvious for the reader which of the two narratives were which; maybe if the TV part had gone on longer the line between the two would have been more blurred, making it more interesting for the reader. The TV show didn’t get to its intense, controversial part until far into the book and then it was just one incident, which admittedly was pretty fascinating, but we would have liked to have that scene near the beginning and then more of the characters getting twisted up by the show’s scenarios, because then when she finds the blue house, you would more easily believe that it was part of the show. Admittedly, this would significantly change the story…but we think it would change it into one that we’d be more interested in, haha.

One question I had was, would this story have been more interesting if the reader didn’t know the dystopic premise before hand? Ash pointed out that would make Zoo much more of an unreliable narrator, because (in the book) eventually the reader realizes how much she had actually been in denial and wasn’t just oblivious. Zoo would be better informed than the reader, if they didn’t know about the disease going into the book. I thought it was a bit boring that we (the readers) knew what was going on and she kept trying to play the game, even though it was obviously not the game for so long.  Ash is undecided about whether that would have been more interesting. I admit unreliable narrators stress me out, but Zoo wasn’t lying about anything, she just wasn’t accepting the  context.

Another aspect that fell short for us was the characters. Zoo was alright, but we would have liked more about her relationship with her husband. We felt there were some echos of Annihilation, where the main character the biologist has a notable relationship with her husband, but there was very little about Zoo’s husband. The focus was more on Zoo’s fears of having children (which did make for some interesting dream commentary) and less about her relationship with her husband. There are tiny hints that she might have had  sparks with Tracker but they were only together for a week.

The other characters on the TV show, who we actually read more about, weren’t interesting or memorable. They felt  very archetypal, even when the descriptions of their actions tried to go beyond the TV show’s stereotyping.  The Exorcist, for example, was mostly just a basic asshat.

The pacing also wasn’t what we expected. Ash found the story felt slow due to Zoo’s inner monologues and some parts that felt irrelevant being described in too much detail (for example, she mentioned one part where Zoo was trying to decide whether to eat something). We also talked about the ending being pretty blah and predictable. Ash would have preferred an abrupt, unresolved conclusion in this case. I didn’t care anything about her relationship with her husband so the conclusion wasn’t interesting to me. So they’re both alive – I don’t really care.

 Final Thoughts

While we both thought The Last One had a promising premise, too many factors were lacking to make it a great read for us. Does The Last One‘s story line appeal to you? What do you think of the portrayal of reality TV in a novel?

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Middle Grade Castle Fantasies: Wednesday in the Tower + The Castle Behind Thorns

Here are two books I would have loved as a kid. They would have been an appreciated change from the unicorn fantasy books I devoured.

Wednesdays in the Tower (Castle Glower #2) by Jessica Day George

Wednesdays in the Tower coverStrange things are afoot in Castle Glower: new rooms, corridors, and even stables keep arriving, even when they aren’t needed. Celie’s brother Bran, the new Royal Wizard, has his hands full cataloguing an entire storeroom full of exotic and highly dangerous weapons, while Celie has her hands full . . . raising the creature that hatches from a giant egg she finds! Will they be able to find out what’s making the Castle behave this way in time?

  • A fun follow up to the first volume, which I had read exactly two years prior (a good series for Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon!).
  • I loved the inclusion of a magical creature. I haven’t read about many traditional fantasy creatures in middle grade, apart from dragons.
  • Unlike the first book, the plot cracks open at the end, leaving plenty of room for further story growth in the next volume. I like seeing Celie’s universe expand. I get the impression that this wasn’t a planned series, but perhaps came about due to the success of the first book. This second book introduces questions about the castle’s origins and the lands beyond what Celie knows.
  • The Bottom Line: A must read for fans of the first book, Tuesdays at the Castle

The Castle Behind the Thorns by Merrie Haskell

When Sand wakes up alone in a long-abandoned castle, he has no idea how he got there. The stories all said the place was ruined by an earthquake, and Sand did not expect to find everything inside torn in half or slashed to bits. Nothing lives here and nothing grows, except the vicious, thorny bramble that prevents Sand from leaving. Why wasn’t this in the stories?

To survive, Sand does what he knows best—he fires up the castle’s forge to mend what he needs. But the things he fixes work somehow better than they ought to. Is there magic in the mending? Or have the saints who once guarded this place returned?

When Sand finds the castle’s lost heir, Perrotte, they begin to untwine the dark secrets that caused the destruction. Putting together the pieces—of stone and iron, and of a broken life—is harder than Sand ever imagined, but it’s the only way to regain their freedom.

  • The Castle Behind the Thorns has a unique premise in that it features only two characters for most of the story. A slow beginning for the first 50 pages, as it’s just Sand trapped by himself in the castle, but I liked reading about how he explored his new situation.
  • I could have done without hints of romance *insert eye roll here*. I read MG so I don’t have to deal with that sort of thing. (My complaint is disproportionate to what’s actually shown in the story…it is really just a small thing).
  • This is only the second book by Haskell that I’ve read, so maybe I would have expected this, but I didn’t realize that the story would be set in our world. There are French words and names, and references to Paris. There’s a lot of stuff that I called ‘the practicalities of history’ – stuff like Latin, crucifixes, chapels, features of a castle, etc. At times, it felt a bit technical, with all the historical details and realistic considerations, but I would have loved that as a kid – grounding fantasy in my world.

    Sand threw open the man-size night portal to find himself in a dark tunnel pierced by arrow slits and larger openings that he’d heard called “murder holes.” In theory, if an enemy entered the castle, he could be trapped between the inner and outer gates and simply killed by raining death down through these openings. Sand shivered, thinking how glad he was to be alone in the castle – alone, he knew for sure that he couldn’t be trapped in this tunnel.  He reached the outer gate and opened its night portal – and stopped. The portcullis was down, but he could raise a portcullis. What he could not raise was the nasty snarl of thorns beyond the portcullis gate. (13)

  • I found the idea of magic routed in faith and saints rather than purely magic for its own sake a new idea that I hadn’t encountered in MG fantasy.
  • In addition to the world building, I also really liked Sand. He seems to be a genuinely good kid, willing to keep his promise even though it isn’t what he wants. I like stories that cross generations, so I enjoyed watching the backstory of Sand’s father unfold.
  • The Bottom Line: A middle grade fantasy with some of the usual trappings, but with a plot that shakes things up.

Have you enjoyed any books, middle grade or not, featuring a castle? 

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A Delightful Early Chapter Book: Yours Sincerely, Giraffe

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe written by Megumi Iwasa and illustrated by Jun Takabatake

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/library
Published: March 2017 (Originally published 2011 in Japan)
Publisher: Gecko Press
Length: 104 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction – early chapter book
★★★★½    Add to Goodreads button


I came across this wonderful little book while browsing new children’s books at the library. The discovery made me fondly recall those days when library browsing was my primary way of finding hidden gems and growing my TBR… Anyway! I enjoyed everything about this book.

Giraffe, feeling bored, writes a letter to which he instructs Pelican to deliver as far away as possible. Giraffe’s letter ends up in the hands (flippers?) of Penguin. The two exchange letters in which they try to figure out what the other looks like, culminating in a humorous meeting. In addition to Giraffe and Penguin, there are cute supporting characters like Whale and Pelican, who have their own independent motives and personalities.

“Pelican was a little nervous. After all, this was his first customer.” (p. 15)

“There were two reasons that Professor Whale was a teacher. Because he was extraordinarily big and because he was extraordinarily old. In other words, because he was, quite simply, extraordinary.

And he was especially extraordinary at spouting. No one could spout like him.” (p. 34)

This book is for young readers and doesn’t have a lot of text. The writing is simple yet creative. Though this is primarily a funny story, there are one or two poignant moments contained within. The doodle-like illustrations enhance the story’s mood.

The Bottom Line

Yours Sincerely, Giraffe is the kind of creatively clever story that can delight young and old readers alike.

Further Reading

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Cybils 2017 Finalists

Today the 2017 Cybils (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards) finalists are announced! I’m ready to kick into gear in my role as a round two judge in the middle grade speculative fiction category. Mark @ Say What?, Halli @ The Winged Pen, Rosemary @ Mom Read It, Brenda @ Log Cabin Library and myself will deliberate to decide which of the following finalists will be named the category winner:

  • The Girl with the Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
  • A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
  • The Countdown Conspiracy by Katie Slivensky
  • Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson
  • A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander
  • Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
  • Miss Ellicott’s School For the Magically Minded by Sage Blackwood

You can read more about each book in blurbs written by the round one judges on the Cybils website. Winners will be announced on February 14. There are 12 other categories (including picture books, young adult, and audiobooks) so be sure to check those out too.

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Brief Thoughts: Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

Wild Beauty coverFor nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

  • #OwnVoices for Latinx representation, also features bisexuality representation, which was one of my favourite aspects of the story – I love how McLemore describes the Nomeolvides girls’ feelings and how they are and aren’t influenced by their family’s history.
  • My early impression of Wild Beauty was that it is lovely but slow, especially the first 100 pages or so. The story is very introspective, more so than When the Moon Was OursI felt.
    • (I read Moon earlier this summer. That was one of my best reads of 2017, so I can’t help but compare Wild Beauty to it.)
  • I didn’t connect with Estrella until about 150 pages in and overall, I didn’t feel much regarding her romantic story line, certainly not like I felt about Miel and Sam in Moon. Fel I found a bit dull, though his role in the story and his relationship with the Nomeovildes was different from anything I’ve read before.
  • A key part of the story focus on identity – my favourite parts were about personal identity, about defining and shaping your own identity and about not rendering someone invisible by imagining them as you want them to be, rather than as they are.
  • The writing is just as lush and evocative as in Moon, but I personally preferred the imagery in Moon. The concept of flower magic is gorgeous, though my knowledge of flowers is lacking so I felt I wasn’t able to fully visualize what McLemore was describing.
  • The Bottom Line: A different reader may connect more with this story than I did. Even without that connection, Wild Beauty is still worth your time if you’re a fan of magical realism.

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