ARC Review: The Blackbird Season

ARC Review:  The Blackbird SeasonThe Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
three-half-stars
Published by Atria Books on September 26th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Kate Moretti’s The Blackbird Season takes place in Mt. Oanoke, Pennsylvania.  Mt. Oanoke is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else and where pretty much nothing ever happens.  That is, until one day when a thousand dead birds plummet from the sky and land on the local high school baseball field.  Since most of the town was there to watch their baseball team and beloved teacher and coach, Nate Winters, play, the rumor mill starts running rampant right away, as everyone tries to make sense out of what has happened.  Some assume there is a logical explanation for the birds, while others see it is a bad omen, a sign of trouble to come.

Pretty soon, however, the mystery of the birds take a backseat when a news reporter prints a story alleging that Nate Winters is having an affair with one of his students, troubled teen Lucia Hamm.  Without giving him a chance to prove that the story isn’t true, everyone in the town immediately turns on Nate. He goes from being the hometown hero to the town outcast and ultimately loses his job over the alleged affair.  Lucia doesn’t help matters when she corroborates the story and tells everyone that she and Nate are in love, thus breathing even more life into this small town scandal and causing even Nate’s wife to question his innocence.

When, soon after, Lucia goes missing, all eyes turn to Nate as the most likely suspect and the reader is filled with questions:.  Is Nate actually guilty of having an affair?  If not, can he prove his innocence?  What has happened to Lucia? Did Nate have anything to do with that since she made him look so bad?  If the affair isn’t true, why would she lie about it?

 

One of my favorite parts of The Blackbird Season is the way in which the story is presented.  It’s a character driven mystery that is told from the alternating points of view of Nate, his wife Alecia, troubled student Lucia, and perhaps the only person in town who believes Nate is innocent, his friend and colleague Bridget.  I liked watching the story unfold in this way because as each piece of the puzzle is revealed, you get to see not only how Nate keeps getting himself into situations that make him look bad, but then you also get to watch those who are closest to him, his wife and his best friend, and their changing reactions when more and more details unfold about Nate and Lucia.  Then finally, you also have the perspective of Lucia and see some of her motivations behind her actions and why she keeps approaching Nate.

If you enjoy a suspenseful read, you’ll probably enjoy The Blackbird Season.  Moretti writes suspense very well and so there are lots of twists and turns along the way as we seek to unravel both the truth behind the alleged affair and the mystery of what happened to Lucia.  I liked that the story kept me guessing, so much so that I changed my mind about whether Nate was innocent or guilty every few chapters.  From that standpoint, it’s a wild ride and a solid read.

 

My biggest issue with The Blackbird Season was that this ended up being another of those books where none of the characters are very likeable or sympathetic.  Since I typically enjoy books more when I can connect with at least one character, this made reading The Blackbird Season somewhat challenging.  Nate Winters, in particular, just flat out got on my nerves.  As a teacher, he should know better than to be creeping around on the internet keeping an eye on his students.  Whether he means well or not, there’s no way that’s going to turn out well for him if other adults in the community find out.  He’s one of those characters that just constantly makes bad choices and does stupid things that make him look guilty even if he’s probably completely innocent.  If you’re being accused of sleeping with a student, for example, you don’t keep randomly meeting up with the student.  The man just had no common sense and was infuriating because of it.  I actually screamed at the book a couple of times because he was just so frustrating, lol.

I also wish the author had done a little more with the actual blackbird theme that runs through the book.  The opening scene with all of the dead birds plunging onto the baseball field was fantastic and set an ominous tone for what I thought was going to be an atmospheric and creepy read, maybe even a bit supernatural, but then it just kind of fizzled and was mentioned occasionally in passing – that scientists were investigating the bird deaths, etc.  Since more wasn’t made of it, it ended up just feeling unnecessary to the rest of the storyline and somewhat out of place, for me anyway.

 

If I hadn’t had the issue with not liking any of the characters, The Blackbird Season would have easily been a 4 star read for me.  Even with not liking any of the characters, I was still drawn in enough by the mystery of the dead birds, the small town skewering the town hero over his alleged affair with a student, and that student’s subsequent mysterious disappearance that I just had to keep reading to find out what happened.  If you enjoy a good mystery, I’d say The Blackbird Season is a good choice.  If, like me, you just really need at least one likeable character, this book may or may not be a good fit.  I hate to make the comparison since it’s so overdone, but if you enjoy books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you’d probably like this one too.  If not, I’d probably say to pass on it.

 

Thanks to Netgalley, Kate Moretti, and Atria Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book for review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Known for novels featuring “great pacing and true surprises” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and “nerve-shattering suspense” (Heather Gudenkauf, New York Time bestselling author), New York Times bestselling author Kate Moretti’s latest is the story of a scandal-torn Pennsylvania town and the aftermath of a troubled girl gone missing.

“Where did they come from? Why did they fall? The question would be asked a thousand times…

Until, of course, more important question arose, at which time everyone promptly forgot that a thousand birds fell on the town of Mount Oanoke at all.”

In a quiet Pennsylvania town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a high school baseball field, unleashing a horrifying and unexpected chain of events that will rock the close-knit community.

Beloved baseball coach and teacher Nate Winters and his wife, Alicia, are well respected throughout town. That is, until one of the many reporters investigating the bizarre bird phenomenon catches Nate embracing a wayward student, Lucia Hamm, in front of a sleazy motel. Lucia soon buoys the scandal by claiming that she and Nate are engaged in an affair, throwing the town into an uproar…and leaving Alicia to wonder if her husband has a second life.

And when Lucia suddenly disappears, the police only to have one suspect: Nate.

Nate’s coworker and sole supporter, Bridget Harris, Lucia’s creative writing teacher, is determined to prove his innocence. She has Lucia’s class journal, and while some of the entries appear particularly damning to Nate’s case, others just don’t add up. Bridget knows the key to Nate’s exoneration and the truth of Lucia’s disappearance lie within the walls of the school and in the pages of that journal.

Told from the alternating points of view of Alicia, Nate, Lucia, and Bridget, The Blackbird Season is a haunting, psychologically nuanced suspense, filled with Kate Moretti’s signature “chillingly satisfying” (Publishers Weekly) twists and turns.

three-half-stars

About Kate Moretti

Kate Moretti lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, two kids, and a dog. She’s worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years as a scientist, and has been an avid fiction reader her entire life.

She enjoys traveling and cooking, although with two kids, a day job, and writing, she doesn’t get to do those things as much as she’d like.

Her lifelong dream is to buy an old house with a secret passageway.

ARC Review: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

ARC Review:  Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. DaoForest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao
four-stars
Series: Rise of the Empress #1
Published by Philomel Books on January 1st 1970
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Goodreads
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Julie C. Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is an engaging Snow White retelling that focuses on the Evil Queen and her rise to power.  The story is set in a lush East Asian fantasy world and follows the journey of eighteen year-old Xifeng, a peasant girl who has been told by her aunt Guma, a witch who has the ability to read tarot cards and predict the future, that she is destined to become Empress of Feng Lu someday.  While Xifeng finds the idea of becoming Empress enticing, her aunt has also told her that her path to the throne can only be secured if she is willing to embrace and use the dark powers that apparently lie within her.  She also must be willing to abandon all that she knows from her current life, including the young man she has loved since she was a young girl.  Xifeng must decide what is most important to her: Does she want power so badly that she is willing to give up on love?  And if so, does she have it in her to embrace this dark magic and whatever may come from unleashing it?

 

Xifeng, the “Evil Queen” character, was definitely my favorite part of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns.  Wow, what a character! I can’t say that Xifeng was an especially likable character, but she was a complicated one and for me anyway, there’s just something so compelling about complex characters. Xifeng is conflicted between following her heart to be with the man she loves and following her ambition to become the next Empress of Feng Lu.  Because she has grown up poor all her life, the idea that greatness lies in her future is a huge temptation.  However, to become Empress and achieve this greatness that she appears to be destined for means that she must give up all that she has known from her former life, including the love of her life.  Dao does a beautiful job of depicting how this inner conflict plagues Xifeng throughout the novel.  Even as Xifeng seems to have made her choice and be firmly moving in the direction she has chosen, thoughts of what she’ll be giving up if she continues down that chosen path linger in her mind.

As I’ve said, Xifeng isn’t always a likable character and I’ll admit right now that I didn’t always agree with the choices she made, I do have to say that I admired her sense of cunning and her resourcefulness.  Once she makes her choice and is committed to it, Xifeng is determined to let nothing and no one get in her way.  I don’t want to give away any specific details, so I’m just going to say she’s not afraid to get a little blood on her hands if the situation calls for it.  This is a story about the rise of a villain, after all!  As I was reading and watching Xifeng hatch plan after plan to advance her objective, I just kept thinking “Okay girl, if you want it that badly, you go for it!”

A fabulous cast of secondary characters also rounds out this book nicely.  There’s Ambassador Shiro, a kind, elderly gentleman of dwarfish stature, who takes a liking to Xifeng and becomes a confidante and mentor of sorts. Then there’s the dashing and ambitious Emperor Jun, who Xifeng must use her beauty to win over if she is to become Empress, and the mysterious eunuch, Kang, who seems to be overly eager to become Xifeng’s bff when she starts working in the palace, which left me wondering throughout the story if his motivations were sincere or was he up to something?

We also have the delicate and nurturing Empress who Xifeng is also conflicted about, because at times she feels like the Empress is like the mother she never had, but then at other times, she knows the Empress must go if Xifeng is to follow her destiny and take her place.  And finally, there’s another of my favorite characters, Lady Sun, the Emperor’s favorite concubine and perhaps the biggest obstacle in Xifeng’s path to become Empress.  Lady Sun would love nothing more than to gouge out Xifeng’s eyeballs and send her packing.  Their rivalry makes for some very entertaining reading and those were the sections of the book that I really flew through.   I found all of the secondary characters to be so interesting; not one of them fell flat for me, which made for a wonderful reading experience.  I especially wanted to see more of Shiro

The world building in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is also rich and beautifully crafted, especially once Xifeng leaves her hometown to begin her new life at the palace working as a lady-in-waiting.  The story is steeped in Asian folklore and the overall effect was dark and mysterious and pure magic.  The Asian influences played such a predominant role in the story that I almost forgot at times that it was meant to be an Evil Queen retelling.  The world Dao creates is just so lush and unique that it doesn’t feel at all like a rehash of another story.

 

The only real issue I had with Forest of a Thousand Lanterns was that the pacing was a bit uneven at times.  I breezed through the first 50 pages or so, but then the next 50 were a much slower read.  This happened a couple of times as I was reading.  Thankfully the story itself was still so interesting that I kept pushing through and never felt the urge to give up on the book even when the pacing lagged.

 

Forest of a Thousand Lanterns is a wonderful read that I think would be enjoyed by fans of both retellings and anti-hero stories.  While it does borrow the basic premise of the Evil Queen’s story, it still reads as a fresh and unique story on its own even without thinking of it in terms of the Evil Queen.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

An East Asian fantasy reimagining of The Evil Queen legend about one peasant girl’s quest to become Empress–and the darkness she must unleash to achieve her destiny.

Eighteen-year-old Xifeng is beautiful. The stars say she is destined for greatness, that she is meant to be Empress of Feng Lu. But only if she embraces the darkness within her. Growing up as a peasant in a forgotten village on the edge of the map, Xifeng longs to fulfill the destiny promised to her by her cruel aunt, the witch Guma, who has read the cards and seen glimmers of Xifeng’s majestic future. But is the price of the throne too high?

Because in order to achieve greatness, she must spurn the young man who loves her and exploit the callous magic that runs through her veins–sorcery fueled by eating the hearts of the recently killed. For the god who has sent her on this journey will not be satisfied until his power is absolute. 

 

four-stars

About Julie C. Dao

Julie C. Dao is a proud Vietnamese-American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS is her debut novel. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

Book Review:  The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and VirtueThe Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
five-stars
Series: Guide #1
Published by Katherine Tegen Books on June 27th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 513
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Who knew historical fiction could be laugh out loud funny?  I had no idea what I was expecting when I picked up Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, but I was certainly not expecting to devour 500+ pages of historical fiction in just over 24 hours, chuckling to myself the entire time.  But that’s exactly what happened.  What an absolutely brilliant read this is!

Set in 18th century Europe, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue follows Henry Montague, or “Monty” as his friends call him.  Monty, for lack of a better description, is a hot mess.  As the son of an English lord, Monty has been raised with every imaginable privilege – money, education, endless connections.  His path to a successful future shouldn’t even be in doubt, except that Monty is unfortunately his own worst enemy.  In spite of being educated in the best boarding schools and raised by the strictest of fathers, Monty is a free spirit who cannot be tamed.  He lives the life of a rogue, his days and nights filled with endless partying and drinking, gambling, and even seducing both men and women.  When Monty gets kicked out of Eton, one of the most prestigious schools in England, his father has had it.  He sends Monty on a Grand Tour of Europe with the expectation that Monty returns to England a mature young man ready to assume the responsibilities of taking over the family’s estate.  Knowing his son’s ways all too well, Monty’s father adds in the stipulation that if he does one more thing to embarrass the family name, particularly if it involves jumping into bed with one more young man, Monty will be disinherited and will henceforth have to fend for himself in the world.

Monty sees the Grand Tour as his last hurrah.  He has resigned himself to the fact that he is stuck taking over the family estate, even though it’s not what he really wants.  But he has been beaten down enough by his father’s chronic disappointment over the years to assume that he’s pretty well useless when it comes to anything else.  He plans to go on this tour, engage in as much pleasure and vice as he can, and then come home and take his place by his father’s side.

There are just a few hitches in this plan, however.  First, he’ll have his younger and obnoxious sister, Felicity, in tow for much of the tour, who is sure to put a damper on his plans for “entertainment.”  Second, he will be accompanied on this tour by his best friend, Percy.  While that shouldn’t be an issue in itself, the problem lies in that Monty has a mad unrequited crush on Percy and has felt this way for years.  This tour sounds like the perfect time to try to find out if there’s any chance of Percy feeling the same way, but to pursue his attraction to Percy, means Monty is also flirting with the idea of being disinherited.  And finally, third, a Mr. Lockwood will be traveling with Monty as well, serving as a guide and of course as a witness to any and all of Monty’s antics.

Will Monty change his ways and finally conform to what his father and what proper 18th century English society expects of him, or will Monty choose another path for himself?

This is just one of those stories where there’s so much to like, I could go on forever so I’m just going to pick a few highlights, most of which revolves around the wonderfully, unforgettable characters Mackenzi Lee has created.

Let’s start with Monty.  Monty is the one who tells the story and I have to say he is one of the most entertaining narrators I’ve read in a long time. I mean, seriously, laugh out loud funny.  And I loved everything about him.  Even when he was behaving like a complete train wreck or an insensitive brat, there was still somehow just this lovable quality about Monty.  One of Monty’s best (and worst) qualities is his big mouth.  He spends much of his time running his mouth and getting himself and his friends into scrapes they probably wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise.  By the same token, however, he is also a smooth talker and his big mouth has often gotten them all out of scrapes that they’ve managed to get themselves into.  So even when you want to throttle him, you still find yourself cheering him on and chuckling at his antics.

It’s also not just all fun and games with Monty though, which is another reason why I adored this character.  Even though he’s this privileged young nobleman, somehow Monty still manages to have this underdog side to him that makes you root for him in spite of himself.  I thought his crush on Percy was just so adorable and was really cheering for him to do something about that.  I also had tremendous sympathy for Monty because his father was so awful to him and was really hoping that he would stand up to his father and realize his own self-worth.

Monty’s sister, Felicity, was another of my favorite characters in the story.  At first she comes off as this obnoxious girl who just wants to have an attitude and annoy her brother at every turn.  But then the more we get to see and learn of Felicity, the more likeable she becomes.  It turns out she’s a brilliant girl who is ahead of her time and wants to be a doctor.  She has been studying medicine on the sly and those skills come in more handy on the Grand Tour than any of them could have possibly anticipated. Felicity’s attitude and general sassiness stems from her general frustration with being prevented by society’s expectations from doing what she wants to do.  Once I saw that, all I could think was ‘Girl, you be as sassy as you want to be.”

And then of course, we have Percy. Percy is just one of those people who have a beautiful soul and that you can’t help but be attracted to.  Unlike Monty, Percy does not live a life of privilege. Percy is biracial at a time in society where it is not widely accepted and so he has to constantly deal with the ugliness of racism.  He also has the added difficulty of suffering from epilepsy at a time when few understood what it was and assumed that it was some kind of mental deficiency.  His father has sent him on this Grand Tour with Monty as his own kind of last hurrah before he is locked away in an asylum because of the epilepsy.  Even though he has all of this going on in his own life, he still manages to be there for Monty every step of the way, the best possible friend.  He’s just the sweetest person and it’s so easy to see why Monty has been in love with him forever.

Okay, let’s talk about that romance.  Those who regularly read my reviews know that romance is generally not my thing. Usually I find it just unrealistic, in the way, etc.  Well, not this time!  I cannot even express how hard I was shipping Monty and Percy together.  Their chemistry was just off the charts sweet and sexy, and the constant tension of “Will they or won’t they move past the friend zone?” just kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire story.

The Grand Tour itself.  While the Grand Tour itself probably should have been a fairly standard affair, since many young adults made similar trips after university, there was absolutely nothing standard about Monty and Co’s tour.  They left England and traveled to Paris, Barcelona, and Venice along the way, and what was meant to be a trip to give Monty some much needed culture and refinement to help him change his ways, instead becomes a dangerous and fast-paced rollicking adventure that includes highway robbers, pirates, and much, much more.  Some might say that their adventures were a bit over the top, but I didn’t care because it was all just so thoroughly entertaining!

I really can’t think of anything I disliked.  The ending perhaps felt a bit rushed, but I was so happy with the ending overall that I won’t complain about that.

Equal parts adventure story and coming of age story, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a book I think pretty much anyone would enjoy.  It’s an entertaining read with such delightfully memorable characters that even if you don’t typically enjoy historical fiction, I think Monty and the gang could change your mind.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores. 

five-stars

About Mackenzi Lee

Mackenzi Lee holds a BA in history and an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults, and her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Crixeo, The Friend, and The Newport Review, among others. Her debut novel, This Monstrous Thing, won the PEN-New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery Award. Her second book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, a queer spin on the classic adventure novel, was a New York Times bestseller (what is life?), and ABA bestseller, earned five starred reviews, a #1 Indie Next Pick, and won the New England Book Award.

She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home, where she works as an independent bookstore manager.

ARC Review of Warcross by Marie Lu

ARC Review of Warcross by Marie LuWarcross by Marie Lu
five-stars
Series: Warcross #1
on September 12th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Blog Giveaway
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Prior to Warcross, I had never read anything by Marie Lu before so I wasn’t sure what to expect going in.  Reading the synopsis and seeing that it involved virtual reality, I thought and hoped it would be similar to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which is a book I really enjoyed.  I’m thrilled to say that Warcross was even better than I hoped it would be and that it was actually even better than Ready Player One.  Warcross has absolutely everything I love in a book – a wicked smart, kickass heroine, an engaging action-packed plot, intriguing secondary characters, and truly some of the most phenomenal world building I’ve ever read.  This may have been my first experience reading Marie Lu, but it will most definitely not be my last!

So, what is Warcross anyway?  It’s a virtual reality combat game that has taken the world by storm.  Literally millions of people play Warcross every single day because they just can’t get enough of it.  It has become such a phenomenon that there are even televised International Warcross Games, kind of like the Olympics, where players from around the world come to Tokyo to compete against one another.  Hideo Tanaka, who created the game when he was just 13 years old, has already achieved billionaire status because the game has been so successful.

Warcross also attracts its fair share of criminals who seek to illegally exploit different aspects of the game for profit.  Emika Chen, the main character in the novel, actually works as a bounty hunter in New York City.  Her job is to locate and apprehend Warcross criminals.  Unfortunately for Emika, the bounty hunter business has become so competitive that she’s having trouble making ends meet and is facing eviction when we first meet her.  Emika is also a talented hacker and decides to hide from her problems for a while by trying to hack into the opening ceremony for this year’s International Warcross Games.  She successfully manages to hack her way into the ceremony, but instead of remaining hidden as she intended, a glitch makes her visible to everyone at the games as well as to everyone who is watching the ceremony on television.

Expecting to be arrested at any moment for hacking into the game, Emika is surprised when, instead, she receives a job offer from none other than Hideo Tanaka himself.  He is so impressed by her hacking skills that he wants to hire her to work as a spy throughout the International Warcross Games because he believes there is someone out there planning to disrupt the games and so he needs eyes everywhere to discover any security flaws in the game.  Emika idolizes Hideo Tanaka because of all that he has already accomplished in his young life (not to mention the fact that he’s also super cute!) and agrees to take the job and packs for Tokyo.  As soon as she arrives Emika is entered into the competition as a wildcard so that she can freely move around in the game and look for signs of trouble.  Emika’s investigation uncovers a sinister plot, one that is much more damaging than just disrupting the game, one that has major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.  Can Emika stop those who are plotting against Hideo and Warcross, or is she in way over her head and in possible danger?

As I’ve already mentioned, Warcross features a major kickass heroine in Emika Chen, and I really adored everything about her.  She’s an orphan who struggles every day to make ends meet, which has made her incredibly resourceful and also gives her that underdog quality that immediately had me in her corner cheering her on and wanting her to succeed.  I also think it’s fabulous that not only is she a hacker, but she’s also a brilliant one, which is what gets her noticed and subsequently hired by Hideo Tanako. I also enjoyed watching Emika grow and evolve throughout the story.  Ever since her dad died, she has been on her own and, as a result, is pretty much a loner.  She’s used to doing things alone and not relying on or working with others.  When Hideo places her on one of the Warcross teams, she really has to get used to the idea of working together and being a part of a team.

Speaking of teams, I thought Emika’s teammates were great as well. We don’t necessarily get to know too much about them since Emika is just part of their team as a cover, but it’s fun to watch them work together and strategize as they train for their Warcross matches and as they live together under the same roof while the games are going on.  They’re just awesome secondary characters, kind of like Friends but with a bunch of gamers. They’re such a likeable bunch that I think they make all of the gaming scenes entertaining even if you’re not really into gaming.

As I’ve already mentioned, the worldbuilding in this novel is just incredible.  Marie Lu has created this amazing virtual reality landscape that, on the one hand, seems completely futuristic out of this world, but yet from a technological standpoint, somehow still well within the realm of possibility of being something we could see in our lifetimes.  I loved the layers of virtual reality that could be superimposed over every day ordinary cities, turning them into something extraordinary.  When you’re connected to Hideo’s invention, the Neurolink, everything is brighter, more intense, and almost other worldly.  That is, unless you use it to visit the underbelly of Warcross society, yet another brilliant layer that Marie Lu has added to her world.

The amazing worldbuilding also extends to the game of Warcross itself.  The attention to detail that Marie Lu puts into this game is truly incredible, especially when it comes to the landscapes of each arena, as well as the power ups, and the different moves that players are able to make in order to achieve their objectives.  The game was so well thought out and so exciting that by the time I finished reading the book, I wanted to play Warcross!

I also love an action-packed, fast-paced read and Warcross was a pure adrenaline rush for me.  From the opening scenes when Emika is whizzing around the city on her hoverboard trying to apprehend a criminal, to the wild and exciting matches within the Warcross tournament, to following Emika as she tries to stop those who are plotting against Hideo, I felt like I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.  It was a heck of a ride, filled with plenty of plot twists, including a jaw dropping one at the very end that had me practically screaming for the next book in the series!

There’s also a romance in Warcross, and guess what? I didn’t hate it! It flowed well with the rest of the story, the characters involved have very believable chemistry, and I also especially enjoyed the way they used the virtual reality technology to communicate so as to keep their relationship private.

I love it when I have nothing to put in this section! J

 

If you like smart, badass heroines, Warcross is definitely a book you should read.  I highly recommend it to fans of science fiction and gaming, but I also think it’s such a great book that readers would enjoy it even if they’re not usually into either of those.  Warcross is probably one of the most hyped books of 2017 and it most definitely lives up to the hype.  Go read it!

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

 

five-stars

About Marie Lu

Marie Lu is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Legend trilogy and The Young Elites trilogy. She graduated from the University of Southern California and jumped into the video game industry, working for Disney Interactive Studios as a Flash artist. Now a full-time writer, she spends her spare time reading, drawing, playing Assassin’s Creed, and getting stuck in traffic. She lives in Los Angeles, California (see above: traffic), with one husband, one Chihuahua mix, and two Pembroke Welsh corgis.

Book Review: A Perfect Obsession

Book Review:  A Perfect ObsessionA Perfect Obsession by Heather Graham
three-stars
Series: New York Confidential #2
Published by Mira Books on March 28th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 333
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Heather Graham’s A Perfect Obsession is the second book in her New York Confidential series.  In this book, FBI special agent Craig Frasier is investigating a case that appears to involve a serial killer.  Someone is murdering beautiful young women and leaving them carefully staged and displayed in mausoleums and underground tombs around New York City. Craig’s girlfriend, Kieran Finnegan, a forensic psychologist and also part owner of her family’s pub, is also consulting on the case to try to help them get inside the mind of the killer in hopes of narrowing their field of suspects.  Although Craig and Kieran have worked together before, this time Craig is somewhat uncomfortable having Kieran on the case.

Because the killer is targeting beautiful women, Craig fears for Kieran’s safety, especially if she puts herself out there actively trying to help find the killer.  Craig’s nerves with respect to Kieran are especially on edge because the first body that was discovered was found in a catacomb under a two-hundred-year-old church, which has been deconsecrated and renovated into a nightclub.  The former church/nightclub is located directly behind Finnegan’s Pub in lower Manhattan, thus right at Kieran’s back door.

As more bodies are found, all staged in similar ways, it becomes clear that they are, in fact, dealing with a serial killer and that they are in a race against time to stop him or her before more beautiful women are killed.

LIKES

The Mystery and Suspense.  The case itself was my favorite part of A Perfect Obsession. The killings themselves and the way the bodies were so carefully and artfully staged in the graveyards and mausoleums was just so darn creepy! It literally made my skin crawl every time they discovered a new body. In addition to the awesome creepy factor, it’s also just a great mystery story filled with plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing about the killer’s identity and motivations until the very end. I thought I had it all figured out a few times along the way but got thrown a curve ball each time that sent me looking in another direction, so I enjoyed that it wasn’t at all predictable.

The FBI Investigation.  The story had a very CSI/Criminal Minds feel to it since there was so much emphasis on forensics and the crime scenes and also because they were clearly dealing with a twisted individual.  I’m a big crime show junkie so this aspect of the story worked very well for me.  I loved following the actual FBI investigation as they discussed suspects and possible theories, as they followed leads, and as they traveled to interview law enforcement and witnesses in other locales as more and more bodies were found.  I thought the author did a fantastic job showing every angle of the investigation as it unfolded.

The New York City Setting. Another highlight of the book for me was the historical/archaeological aspect.  New York City has always been one of my favorite cities.  I love its rich history and I especially love those old churches in Lower Manhattan, especially Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel.  I found it thrilling to be immersed in so much of New York’s history while following the FBI investigation as they search, not only for the killer’s lair, but also for potential crime scenes that could fit the killer’s apparent criteria.  It was clear the author had done her homework when it came to researching the history, especially when it came to what might be buried beneath the city.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

My biggest issue with A Perfect Obsession was that even though the story itself was entertaining, the characters themselves were not well-developed and so I had a hard time connecting with any of them.  For that reason, the story definitely reminded me of a procedural crime drama.  I don’t know if it’s a case where these characters are more fleshed out in the first book of the series, which I haven’t read, but in the second book, what I found was a riveting criminal case but unfortunately forgettable characters. (That said, even though this is the second book in a series, overall it still works well as a standalone.)

Kieran and Craig, as the main characters, stood out from the rest of the pack.  Unfortunately, the main reason they stood out for me was because I often found them annoying.  I appreciated Craig’s concern for Kieran’s safety, but after a while, his whole “Oh no, my girlfriend’s so pretty, she might become a victim of the serial killer. I must constantly tell her not go to anywhere alone” routine just got old.  And as if he wasn’t irritating enough, Kieran was so stubborn about going out alone and going to places she has no business going, that it almost seemed like she was deliberately trying to put herself out there as a possible target.  By about the halfway point of the book, I just wanted to knock both of their heads together.

Another issue I had was that there were just too many times where Kieran and her family members conveniently came across things that could help the FBI investigation.  New York is a huge city filled with millions of people. What are the odds that it would always be Kieran or one of her brothers who would come across valuable clues?

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even with the issues I had with it, I still thought A Perfect Obsession was a solid read.  If you’re looking for memorable characters that you can connect with, this may not be your book, but if you love a good mystery and want to immerse yourself in some New York history, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book.

 

RATING:  3 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Heather Graham, and Mira Books for allowing me to preview a copy of this book. This in no way impacts my review.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Someone is murdering beautiful young women in the New York area and displaying them in mausoleums and underground tombs. The FBI is handling the case, with Special Agent Craig Frasier as lead.

Kieran Finnegan, forensic psychologist and part owner of Finnegan’s, her family’s pub, is consulting on the case. Craig and Kieran are a couple who’ve worked together on more than one occasion. On this occasion, though, Craig fears for the safety of the woman he loves. Because the killer is too close. The body of a young model is found in a catacomb under a two-hundred-year-old church, now deconsecrated and turned into a nightclub. A church directly behind Finnegan’s in lower Manhattan.

As more women are murdered, their bodies discovered in underground locations in New York, it’s clear that the police and the FBI are dealing with a serial killer. Craig and Kieran are desperate to track down the murderer, a man obsessed with female perfection. Obsessed enough to want to “preserve” that beauty by destroying the women who embody it”

three-stars

About Heather Graham

New York Times and USA Today best-selling author Heather Graham majored in theater arts at the University of South Florida. After a stint of several years in dinner theater, back-up vocals, and bartending, she stayed home after the birth of her third child and began to write, working on short horror stories and romances. After some trial and error, she sold her first book, WHEN NEXT WE LOVE, in 1982 and since then, she has written over one hundred novels and novellas including category, romantic suspense, historical romance, vampire fiction, time travel, occult, and Christmas holiday fare. She wrote the launch books for the Dell’s Ecstasy Supreme line, Silhouette’s Shadows, and for Harlequin’s mainstream fiction imprint, Mira Books.

Heather was a founding member of the Florida Romance Writers chapter of RWA and, since 1999, has hosted the Romantic Times Vampire Ball, with all revenues going directly to children’s charity. She is pleased to have been published in approximately twenty languages, and to have been honored with awards from Waldenbooks. B. Dalton, Georgia Romance Writers, Affaire de Coeur, Romantic Times, and more. She has had books selected for the Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild, and has been quoted, interviewed, or featured in such publications as The Nation, Redbook, People, and USA Today and appeared on many newscasts including local television and Entertainment Tonight.

Heather loves travel and anything have to do with the water, and is a certitified scuba diver. Married since high school graduation and the mother of five, her greatest love in life remains her family, but she also believes her career has been an incredible gift, and she is grateful every day to be doing something that she loves so very much for a living.

ARC Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a feminist Snow White retelling

ARC Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a feminist Snow White retellingGirls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
four-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on September 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Retelling
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

I have to confess that Snow White has always been one of my least favorite fairy tales because I could never get into the idea of one woman deciding she needed to poison another woman just because she might have taken her place as “the fairest of them all.”  That said, as soon as I heard that Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass was being advertised as a feminist retelling of the Snow White fairytale, it immediately became a must-read book for me.  I just couldn’t wait to find out what a feminist retelling would entail.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass was everything I hoped it would be and more.  It’s a beautifully written, character-driven exploration of the relationship between two women who are doomed to be rivals.  Lynet is the Snow White character in the story.  She is the 15 year old daughter of the King of Whitespring.  Lynet is a free spirit who loves to run, climb, and have endless adventures.  She has no interest whatsoever in politics or in ever becoming Queen.  Much to her frustration, her father constantly reminds her how much she looks like her beautiful dead mother and how one day she will take her mother’s place and become Queen of Whitespring.  Lynet doesn’t want to hear it because she just wants to grow up to be her own person, not a mirror image of a mother she never even met.  If she had to choose to be like anyone else, she would, in fact, choose to grow up to be like her strong and fierce stepmother, Mina.

Mina is, of course, the stepmother/Evil Queen figure in the story, and she also very unexpectedly turned out to be my favorite character.  Bashardoust writes such a rich and intricate backstory for Mina that even though she eventually ends up on a similar path to the stepmother in the original tale, it’s easy to see how she ends up in such a predicament.  We meet Mina while she is Queen of Whitespring, but the story quickly takes us back to when Mina was about Lynet’s age and being raised by her father, a well-known, often feared, magician in the kingdom. Mina’s father is cold, controlling, and sometimes hurtful.  In a particularly spiteful moment, he tells Mina that she nearly died of heart failure at age 4, and that to save her, he used magic to replace her dying heart with a glass one.  He tells Mina that because she has no actual heart, she cannot love and cannot be loved.  He goes on to tell Mina that all she can hope for is to make people love her because of her beauty.

When Mina’s father uses his magic to help the King one day, the King decides to repay him by offering him a place to live on the royal grounds.  Once living there, Mina comes up with the idea that if she can make the King fall in love with her, she can someday become Queen and thus earn the love of all of those in the kingdom.  Mina’s plan starts to fall into place and she and her stepdaughter Lynet actually become quite close, that is, until Lynet becomes old enough to become a threat to the throne.  Even though Lynet swears she has no interest in becoming queen, the threat she presents to Mina, who is so desperate to be loved, still starts to drive a wedge between them.

Are Lynet and Mina truly doomed to be rivals or can they figure out a way for each of them to get what they most want?

 

LIKES

My favorite part of Girls Made of Snow and Glass is the complexity of the relationship between Mina and Lynet.  Their relationship is ultimately the driving force behind this story and it’s no simple battle about who’s the fairest of them all.  These two women, care about one another, and as Lynet grows up, have truly become like family.  When Mina comes to the realization that Lynet may be the greatest obstacle to her finding that love she is so desperate for, it absolutely guts her.  She doesn’t want to have to hurt Lynet in any way to get what she wants.  Their relationship is just beautiful and heartbreaking.

Equally glorious to the complex relationship between the two main characters is the magic!  Okay, so there’s no dwarves, no poison apple, and no kiss from a handsome prince to break a curse.  A bit of a bummer maybe, but the magic Bashardoust has given to her characters more than makes up for it.  It’s just so creative and well, for lack of a better word, magical, haha!

As I’ve already mentioned, Mina’s father used magic to save Mina by giving her a glass heart.  As you probably also gleaned from the book’s title and synopsis, if Mina is the girl made of glass, then there is another girl who is made of snow.  Lynet is of course that girl.  There’s a very good reason why the King keeps telling Lynet she looks just like her mother.  The King had called Mina’s father to him, desperate to save his Queen, who was dying.  Mina’s father was unable to save her, but at the King’s request, used his magic to create an infant girl in the Queen’s likeness.  Using snow, Mina’s father gave the King what he wanted, Lynet.

Mina’s father somehow transferred a portion of his magic to each girl when he used it on them, thus infusing both Lynet and Mina with powers of their own.  That’s all I’m going to say about the magic for now, but trust me, it’s important and it’s awesome and these two young women are just badass, especially when they start using these powers.

Another element of the story that was really a highlight for me was an unexpected f/f relationship between Lynet and a young female surgeon named Nadia.  The romance comes about and develops in such a natural, low-key way and doesn’t at all distract from the rest of the plot, and I just thought it was beautifully written.   

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

I only had a couple of issues with this story, the main one being that the men in it are just so UGHHH.  The King was basically a good man and he meant well, but at a certain point, it really started to bother me how much he kept obsessing on how much Lynet reminded him of her dead mother and how she was destined to take her mother’s place someday.  I know he didn’t mean it in an incestuous way, but it was still a little creepy.

Don’t even get me started on Mina’s father.  If you’re one who likes to have characters to hate, he’s your guy.  Aside from the fact that he did save Mina’s life when she was a little girl, there’s nothing else redeeming about him. He’s just a selfish, manipulative jerk.  He also had a creepy obsession with Lynet since he “made” her.  I have to admit, I spent much of the book wishing something horrible would happen to him.

Aside from the horrid men in the story, I did think the pacing was a little slow early on in the story and that it took me a little while to get used to Mina’s narrative being told from a present-day perspective as well as one from when she was 16.  Once I got used to the way Mina’s story was being presented, it was no longer an issue for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Girls of Snow and Glass is a book I’d recommend without hesitation to anyone who enjoys stories that are character driven.  I’d also recommend it to those who love fairytale retelling and even to those who say they’re burnt out on retellings. Even though this story borrows the overall idea of a young girl being in the way of her stepmother, Bashardoust has crafted such a creative story that if I hadn’t known this was a Snow White retelling going in, I don’t know that I would have guessed it.  It’s a uniquely fresh take on a timeless tale.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Melissa Bashardoust, and Flatiron Books for allowing me to preview Girls Made of Snow and Glass. This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything—unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

four-stars

ARC Review – Mask of Shadows

ARC Review – Mask of ShadowsMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
three-half-stars
Series: Untitled #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Sallot Leon, the protagonist in Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows, is out for revenge.  Sal is the sole survivor of the territory of Nacea.  Nacea and all of its people were destroyed when the land of Erlend started a Civil War with the land of Alona.  Erlend was supposed to protect Nacea but when mysterious and deadly shadows were unleashed during the war, the Erlend lords chose to abandon Nacea and retreat to safety.  Completely alone and forced to live as a thief in order to survive, Sal is determined to make those Erlend lords pay for what they did to Nacea.

When Sal steals a poster advertising a contest to become Opal, one of the Queen’s group of elite assassins, it sounds like the perfect way to gain access to the lords and thus begin seeking revenge.  There’s just one catch – the competition to become Opal is basically a fight to the death, the last one alive wins.  So Sal’s plan is ultimately to get revenge or die trying.

 

LIKES

I’d have to say that Sal is definitely my favorite part of the novel. They are charming, witty, and extremely resourceful.  Sal is also the classic underdog in this competition because the majority of the competitors are heavily trained in combat and other lethal skills, whereas Sal is used to getting by on their street smarts.

You’ll also notice my use of ‘they’ as I’m referring to Sal.  Sal is a gender fluid protagonist, and in most cases is referred to as they, although Sal indicates that what gender pronouns are used should be dictated by what type of clothing is being worn. If Sal is wearing a dress, for example, using ‘she’ is perfectly acceptable.  I had never read a book with a gender fluid character in it before so this made for a unique read.  I don’t know much at all about gender fluidity but I thought Miller did a very nice job portraying it here.  I also liked that it was incorporated smoothly into the overall story and didn’t overshadow other plot points.  A few characters inquired about it in terms of how to address Sal, but otherwise they accepted it without question and moved on. It wasn’t treated as an oddity.

Another aspect of Mask of Shadows I enjoyed was the competition itself.  Yes, it was reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but it was still an exciting, action-packed part of the book regardless.  The rules were basically to kill as many of your fellow competitors as possible, but do so without being caught.  Since the competition is to become one of the Queen’s assassins, stealth is one of the most important qualities needed.  Miller does a fantastic job of building plenty of tension and suspense as the reader follows Sal through the competition, playing this ultra-intense kill-or-be-killed game, never knowing when a potential assassin might be hiding around any corner, or up in any tree, looking for the perfect opportunity to take them out. One distinct difference between this competition and The Hunger Games was that all of the competitors were referred to by numbers and wore numbered masks over their faces at all times.  They were only referred to by their numbers, which added an almost-dehumanizing element to the competition. I had mixed feelings about the masks because there were a few competitors I would have liked to know more about, but it was hard to connect with any of them since they were just faceless numbers.

Also somewhat reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but in a good way (for me anyway) is that each competitor is assigned a servant to help them dress, bathe, ensure they have safe, non-poisoned food to eat each day.  Sal’s servant, Maud, was one of my favorite characters in the book.  She’s not allowed to give Sal any kind of advantage during the competition, but behind the scenes, she is hard core in Sal’s corner.  Why?  Because if Sal wins, Maud gets a reward and a huge promotion.  So she’s very excited each day that Sal doesn’t die.  She’s sassy too, so she adds a much-welcomed element of lightheartedness in the middle of what is otherwise just scene after scene of murders and attempted murders.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

My biggest issues with Mask of Shadows had to do with pacing, which was slow at times, especially when the author was detailing Sal’s backstory and the reasons why they wanted to become one of the Queen’s assassins.  I lost interest a few times along the way and only came away with a vague notion of what the world of Mask of Shadows entailed so I would have loved more world building, but without it being in the form of info dumps.

I also had issues with the romance, which I found to be out of place and unfortunately distracting from the main storyline.  Although I thought Sal and Elise had a lot of chemistry when they first met (while Sal was robbing Elise), as the story went on and they are reunited as part of the competition, I preferred them  as teacher and student rather than romantic partners.

Overall, I think more action-packed competition scenes and little or no romance would have better served Mask of Shadows.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While I did have some issues with it, overall I still enjoyed reading Mask of Shadows.  While parts of the storyline are in some ways reminiscent of The Hunger Games, the similarities did not bother me because there are still enough differences to make it a unique and entertaining read.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Linsey Miller, and Sourcebooks Fire for allowing me to preview this book.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book being reviewed.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home. 

When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen’s personal assassins named for the rings she wears — Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal — their world changes. They know it’s a chance for a new life.

Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge. 

three-half-stars

About Linsey Miller

A wayward biology student from Arkansas, Linsey has previously worked as a crime lab intern, neuroscience lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is currently an MFA candidate represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary. Her debut novel MASK OF SHADOWS is the first in a fantasy duology coming in August 2017 from Sourcebooks Fire. She can be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.

ARC Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

ARC Review:  The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine LockeThe Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
five-stars
Series: The Balloonmakers #1
Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon is such a gorgeous and moving book that I’m nearly at a loss for words to convey just how good it really is.  I finished reading it a few days ago and just can’t stop thinking about it.   The Girl with the Red Balloon is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination – it deals with weighty subjects like the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, and what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall fell. For the most part, it’s a dark and gritty dual time period read that shows how horrific it was for Jews during World War II as well as how difficult it was to live under the eye of a totalitarian regime in 1980’s East Germany. It’s not all darkness and horror though. Katherine Locke uses a hint of magic and a bit of romance to offset all of that darkness.  You see, not only is this novel historical fiction that deals with more than one time period.  It’s also a time travel novel.

The Girl with the Red Balloon begins in present day Germany where we meet one of our main characters, sixteen year old Ellie Baum, who has traveled there on a class field trip.  She sees a red balloon floating nearby while hanging out with her classmates and asks her best friend to take a photo of her with it for her grandfather.  It reminds her of a story her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, always tells her, about how a girl in a purple dress handed him a red balloon when he arrived at a concentration camp during the war, and the balloon floated him out of the camp and to safety.

When Ellie grabs the balloon, however, the unexpected and unbelievable happens.  She travels back in time to 1988 and finds herself in East Berlin and in imminent danger!  There she is found and led to a safe house by Kai and Mitzi, a Romani gypsy and a German lesbian, who are part of a magical resistance group who uses red balloons to float people over the Berlin Wall and into West Germany.  The catch?  These balloons, while magical, are not supposed to travel through time.  The balloon makers are stumped as to what has happened to bring Ellie to them and are therefore unsure of how to get her back to her own time period.  The resistance group vows to keep Ellie safe from the East German police and to do everything they can to find a way to get her home, but when dead time travelers start turning up with red balloons, it becomes clear that someone is experimenting with forbidden dark magic and time travel.  Why is someone trying to travel back in time and why are they so willing to do it, even at the expense of innocent lives?  If others are dying when they grab these balloons, how was Ellie able to safely travel back in time? It becomes a race against time to stop who is behind this before the bodies start piling up, even if it means Ellie loses out on perhaps her only way back to the future.

LIKES

This is another one of those books where I could just write pages and pages about what I liked.  I don’t want to give anything away though so I’m just going to list a few highlights.

The friendship between Ellie and her two protectors, Kai and Mitzi, was one of my favorite parts of the book.  These three become fast friends while living in the safe house together, and their chemistry is fantastic.  They’re immediately like The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.  I also loved the diversity that these characters represented – Ellie is Jewish, Kai is Romani, and Mitzi is a lesbian. This diversity further forges a bond between them since all three are considered undesirable in East Berlin during this time frame.  The police would love nothing more than to find a reason to arrest them, so they always have each other’s backs.

As I mentioned, there is also a romance in this book and even though on the surface it might sound like somewhat out of place since we already have time traveling, the Holocaust, magical balloons, etc., the romance actually worked well for me.  First, it’s not instalove, so yay.  No, instead, the relationship develops quite naturally as Kai and Ellie get to know each other better.  Kai is kind of dark and brooding at times and he sees Ellie as this softness and light that he needs in his life.  Ellie becomes attracted to Kai, not just because he is handsome, but because of how he puts himself on the line trying to help as many people as he can get over into West Germany.  Ellie is also touched when she sees how devoted Kai is to his younger sister, Sabina.  He would literally do anything to keep Sabina safe and it’s heartwarming to see.

I was incredibly invested in this relationship not just because I liked that it developed naturally and that their two personalities really complimented each other, but also because it just tugged at my heart strings.  What happens to their relationship if the balloon makers are able to figure out how to send Ellie back to her own time period?  Would she go or would she stay with the man she is falling in love with?

Other highlights for me were the completely unique premise and the major themes of the novel.  Seriously, it doesn’t get much more creative than the idea of using magical red balloons to save people.  In addition to the unique premise, there were also so many themes that resonated me with as I was reading.  With respect to those balloons, I loved the beautiful message that there were heroes everywhere, both during World War II and during the time of the Iron Curtain – people who risked their own safety trying to save as many people as they could.  Another darker message that resonated with me as I got further into the story was more of a question of ethics – if a person’s overall intention is good, does that excuse any unethical behavior he or she may engage along the way accomplishing that goal?  This was definitely food for thought for me as I was reading.

A final highlight for me was the way the story was presented.  It’s presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Kai and Ellie in 1988 East Berlin and from Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, as a young boy during World War II.  I loved how presenting the story this way effectively moves Ellie’s time traveling story forward as well as her relationship with Kai, while at the same time, circling back and showing the origin of the red balloons.  Seeing Benno’s horrific experiences in the Jewish ghettos, surrounded by disease and death, served as a poignant reminder that without that red balloon, neither Ellie nor any of her other family members would exist in present day.  Ellie literally owes her life to that magical balloon.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

The only real issue I had with this book was that it took me a few chapters to acclimate to the three alternating points of view.  I’m not going to call that a dislike because once I got used to it and remembered, I thought it was a beautiful way to tie together what happened with Benno and a red balloon during the war and what happened to his granddaughter when she touches a red balloon over 40 years later.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, time travel, romance, and even mysteries.  Not only does it have a little something for everyone, but it’s also just a beautifully written story that will be on your mind long after you read the final pages.

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to Katherine Locke, Netgalley, and the Albert Whitman Company for allowing me the opportunity to preview an advanced copy of this book. It in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

five-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.

Book Review – This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab

Book Review – This Savage Song by Victoria SchwabThis Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
Also by this author: A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)
five-stars
Series: Monsters of Verity, #1
Published by Greenwillow Books on July 5th 2016
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Victoria Schwab’s Shades of Magic series was such a glorious read that I was actually a little hesitant to move on to This Savage Song.  As good as its synopsis sounded, I was just convinced that nothing could top the adventures of Kell, Rhys, and Lila and the 4 Londons.  Well, my concerns were completely misplaced because while it may not have topped Shades of Magic, This Savage Song is equally brilliant in its own way and easily one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year.

This Savage Song is an urban fantasy set in the war-torn city of Verity.  Not only is the city practically destroyed by war, but the violence that has taken place has actually led to the creation of actual monsters who threaten to overrun what is left of the city.  A treaty has divided Verity into two halves, one run by the ruthless Callum Harker, a crime boss who controls the majority of the monsters.  Being the “nice” guy that he is, Harker offers his services to protect the citizens on his side of the city from the monsters – for a fee.  Cross him or don’t pay your protection fee, and you’re the monsters’ next meal.  The other side of the city is run by Henry Flynn, a much more fair-minded individual who just wants to honor the terms of the treaty, keep the peace, and most especially, keep the monsters at bay so that his people are safe.

The story doesn’t actually focus on these two men, however, but rather on their children.  Kate Harker and August Flynn, and what happens when two children of powerful men become desperate to prove themselves to their fathers. But if you’re familiar with Schwab’s stories, you can guess that this is not your typical coming of age story.  Why?  Because August Flynn is a monster…literally. Yes,  Henry Flynn has monsters of his own, a rare breed that Kate’s father would love to get his hands on.  When August is finally given the opportunity to prove himself useful – by posing as a student at Kate’s school in case the Flynn resistance needs to grab her to use as leverage against her father, he actually ends up befriending Kate. He has to be careful though because if Kate finds out what he really is, what better way for her to prove herself to dear old dad than by capturing and bringing home one of Flynn’s rare monsters?

If you’re not familiar with Schwab’s writing, all I can say is be prepared for a ride that is dark, intense, creepy, and thrilling!

 

LIKES

I could go on for days about what I loved in this book, but here are some highlights to give you an idea of how amazing this book is.

The Monsters! I never thought I would hear myself gushing about a collection of monsters, but Schwab does a brilliant job of coming up with some of the most unique monsters I’ve ever encountered, and the idea that these monsters are “born” from violent acts committed by humans is just pure genius.  Schwab gives us the flesh-eating Corsai, who appear mainly as shadowy figures; the Malchai, who look like corpses and drink blood, and then finally the rarest form of monster, the Sunai.  The Sunai can actually pass for humans and they are the soul stealers.  The Sunai are, by far, the most fascinating of the three types, primarily because whereas Corsai and Malchai will attack anyone at any time, the Sunai seek justice and will only attack those who have committed heinous crimes.  They’re even more fascinating in terms of how they actually “attack” – each of the three Sunai uses music as their weapon.  They play music and draw the human’s soul to the surface and then feed on it.  It’s beautiful and awful all at the same time.

Complex Characters.  Kate Harker and August Flynn are the definition of complex characters.  Kate is a young woman determined to prove herself to her father by behaving like a monster, while August Flynn actually is a Sunai monster who wants nothing more than to be human.  August constantly fights against the Sunai instinct to feed on souls and just wants to prove himself to his “father” by being an active participant in the resistance.  In this sense, This Savage Song is as much a coming of age story as it is a dystopian story.  Both Kate and August have to make some difficult decisions as they decide what kind of people (or monsters) they want to be.

Action-Packed.  This Savage Song is set in the middle of a city that is already war torn and where the monsters are getting restless. There are monster attacks, assassination attempts, resistance missions, and so much more.  If you like action, this is your book.

The Overriding Theme.  The central idea that runs through This Savage Song – that human beings can be monsters may not be a unique one, but the way Schwab presents it – contrasting the behaviors of humans with actual monsters — totally is. It’s also a theme that seems very relevant these days with everything that is going on in the world.  There’s just so much hate and division out there.

 

DISLIKES

I thought the book was fantastic and had no issues with it at all.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

While it is a very different kind of read from what we saw in the Shades of Magic, This Savage Song is still a powerful read.  If you’re into dark, gritty narratives that make you think about human nature and the tough choices we all have to make in difficult times, This Savage Song is a great choice.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from author Victoria Schwaba young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. 

five-stars

About Victoria Schwab

ve schwab

Victoria “V.E.” Schwab is the NYT, USA, and Indie bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and This Savage Song. Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured by EW and The New York Times, been translated into more than a dozen languages, and been optioned for TV and Film. The Independent calls her the “natural successor to Diana Wynne Jones” and touts her “enviable, almost Gaimanesque ability to switch between styles, genres, and tones.”

She is represented by Holly Root at Root Literary and Jon Cassir at CAA.
All appearance and publicity inquiries should be directed to either her agent, or one of her publicists:

Harper: Gina.Rizzo@harpercollins.com
Tor: Alexis.Saarela@tor.com

Book Review: Caraval

Book Review:  CaravalCaraval by Stephanie Garber
three-half-stars
Series: Caraval #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 31st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 407
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW

It’s always so disappointing when one of your most anticipated reads doesn’t quite live up to the hype.  Unfortunately, this was the case for me with Stephanie Garber’s CaravalCaraval is a book that was instantly on my radar as soon as I started seeing people comparing it to Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my all-time favorite books.  Based on that comparison and so many glowing reviews from my fellow bloggers, I fully expected Caraval to be a 5 star read for me and ended up so disappointed that it didn’t come close to that.  That’s not to say I didn’t like the novel, because I really did. I just didn’t love it like I had expected and hoped to.

Caraval tells the story of two sisters, Scarlett and Tella, who live on a tiny island with their overbearing father. Ever since their mother passed away, their father has become cruel and abusive to his children and practically holds them both prisoner, never allowing them to leave the island.  Since she was a child, Scarlett has dreamed of attending Caraval, a once-a-year magical mystery and scavenger hunt of sorts, the winner of which is granted one wish. When her father arranges for her to be married to a man she has never met, Scarlett assumes that her dream of attending Caraval is dead once and for all, until her long-awaited invitation arrives.  Thanks to an elaborate scheme concocted by her sister Tella, and with the help of a sexy sailor named Julian, Scarlett and Tella run away for a few days so that Scarlett can finally experience the magic of Caraval before settling into this married life her father has chosen for her. The catch?  Her father has scheduled the wedding date so close to when Caraval takes places that it’s going to be a race against the clock to sail to Caraval, participate in the events, and then sail back home.  Can they make it back in time? And is experiencing Caraval really worth possibly exciting the wrath of their abusive father?

 

LIKES

I’d have to say my favorite part about this novel was the world building itself once the girls actually make it to Caraval.  I loved the idea of the exotic faraway setting and the hints of magic that were everywhere. Garber does a beautiful job of setting the stage for this great adventure and infusing everything with a touch of whimsy. One of my favorite parts was when Scarlett and Julian first enter Caraval and are greeted by a young woman riding a unicycle, immediately invoking a carnival-esque atmosphere.  Another whimsical touch I enjoyed was the outfit Scarlett was given to wear soon after her arrival.  At first glance, it looked like little more than a potato sack, but then it magically transformed into whatever attire the powers that be at Caraval decided Scarlett needed at any given moment, whether it was a gorgeous and daring evening gown or a sexy negligee.  How handy would an outfit like that be?!

I thought the whole concept for the event itself was brilliant too. I mean, seriously?  A magical game of illusion and trickery that will seem so real that you actually have to sign a contract acknowledging that you fully understand it’s all just a game before they will even let you play? How fascinating is that?  I also loved that the game was only played at night.  The participants played only once the sun went down and had to be back in their rooms before the sun came back up the next morning.  This added an extra layer of mystique to the already magical atmosphere.

I also liked the relationship between the two sisters, Scarlett and Tella.  Since their mother died, Scarlett has taken on the role of protector when it comes to her younger sister, Tella, and sometimes she has her hands full because Tella is much more free-spirited and rebellious than she is.  It is Tella’s love of taking risks that makes Scarlett’s dream of attending Caraval possible, and once they get there and Tella is “kidnapped” as part of the game, Scarlett is desperate to find her sister to make sure she’s safe.  That sisterly bond is beautiful – it’s clear either would do absolutely anything for the other.

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

Okay, so I loved the world of Caraval, I liked the overall premise of the game, and I enjoyed the sisterly bond between Scarlett and Tella.  So where did Caraval not measure up for me?

Characters that weren’t well developed or likeable.  While I felt tremendous sympathy for these two girls because their father was such a cruel beast, I just didn’t particularly like them all that much.  They kind of fell flat.  Even though I loved the bond between Scarlett and Tella, I got so tired of listening to Scarlett constantly whine about needing to find her.  I mean, seriously, she was told by two employees as soon as she entered Caraval AND had to sign a contract stating she was fully aware this was all a game, and she still kept whining about needing to get to her sister like she was truly in mortal danger.  I just found that incredibly frustrating.

I did like Tella more than Scarlett because I did enjoy her sense of rebelliousness, but she disappears for 90% of the book, so yeah, it didn’t really matter if I liked her or not.

I couldn’t stand their father of course because he was a monster, but at the same time, I didn’t understand why he became such a monster.  It’s stated in the novel that before his wife died, he was a much kinder man.  So the love of his life dies and he chooses to grieve for her by abusing their children?  I just didn’t get this at all.

Too many twists and turns.  I never thought I would see myself complain about twists and turns, but in the case of this book, I just thought there were too many. Once Scarlett started playing the game, at first the twists and turns were fun to follow along with, but after a while it felt like every page was filled with lie after lie and plot twist after plot twist.  It just got so convoluted that I often found myself going in circles, and since I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters anyway, after a certain point, I just really wanted it to be over.

Distracting romance.  Julian, the handsome sailor Tella enlists to help them get to Caraval, decides to participate in the game with Scarlett after Tella disappears.  Even though Scarlett at one moment is frantic with worry about her sister, the next moment she’s practically falling all over herself as her attraction to Julian grows.  I wasn’t a big fan of the romance because it seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since in the opening pages, Julian and Tella were mad flirting with one another.  The romance did grow on me a bit the further into the book I got, but for a large portion of it, it just felt cringe-worthy and too ‘love at first sight’ for my taste.

Flowery prose.  I like vivid descriptions as much as the next person, but some of the descriptions in Caraval were just too much for me.  The book is just packed with sentences like this one:  “She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.” I’m sure there are plenty of readers that would love a book written with these types of descriptions, but I like prose that is more simple and straightforward.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

In some ways I think I probably set myself up for disappointment because I had overhyped Caraval so much in my own mind.  Those comparisons to The Night Circus set the bar really high for me.   Even though it didn’t quite achieve the magic and mystery of The Night Circus, I still enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end and will probably continue with the second book when it comes out.  I think for the right audience though, maybe someone who hasn’t read The Night Circus, Caraval would make for a wonderful and imaginative read.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.

three-half-stars

About Stephanie Garber

Stephanie Garber grew up in northern California, where she was often compared to Anne Shirley, Jo March, and other fictional characters with wild imaginations and stubborn streaks. When she’s not writing, Stephanie teaches creative writing, and dreams of her next adventure.