Book Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Book Review:  Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
Series: Strange the Dreamer, #1
on March 28th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 532
Source: Library
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Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I finished reading Strange the Dreamer last weekend and have been trying to think of some way to eloquently explain just how much I adored this book.  There’s something so special about this story that words fail me every time I try to write this review.  Everything I write sounds inadequate when it comes to conveying just how much this story completely captivated me. All I can really say, and it doesn’t feel like nearly enough, is that Strange the Dreamer is one of the most beautiful and unique stories that I’ve ever read.

It grabbed my attention from those first harrowing moments where, seemingly out of nowhere, a girl with blue-tinted skin plummets to her death. Who is this mysterious blue-skinned girl, where has she fallen from, and why did she fall?  If that’s not an immediate attention getter, I don’t know what is!  The mystery of finding out what happened to this girl immediately had me flying through the pages.

Rather than delving directly into her story though, we instead begin following the journey of another character, Lazlo Strange.  Lazlo is an orphan who was raised by monks and later becomes a junior librarian.  This is the perfect job for young Lazlo, because you see, Lazlo is a big dreamer and for a dreamer who likely cannot afford to actually go anywhere and make his dreams come true, the next best thing is to immerse himself in books and escape to his dreams that way. Lazlo’s dreams primarily center on one thing, a lost, mythical city.  Lazlo has been nearly obsessed with finding this city for most of his life.  According to legend, something happened there 200 years ago and, when Lazlo was a young boy, the name of the city was somehow stolen from the minds of everyone who had known it, Lazlo included.  He actually remembers feeling the name of the city disappear from his memory, and all that is left behind is the name Weep in its place.  Lazlo devoted himself to figuring out what happened to Weep and spends every free moment in the library researching everything he can about his now unnamed city.  His coworkers and many others in his town think he’s foolish to waste his time following what is now mostly a myth, but Lazlo can’t stop. He’s determined that one day he will set out on his own and try to find Weep.

Lazlo’s chance to find Weep comes along a lot sooner than expected when a gentleman rides into town, declaring himself from Weep and looking to recruit the services of qualified men and women to help him rebuild his city.  Even though Lazlo has no practical skills that could help rebuild a city, he manages to convey just how much a trip to the mythical Weep would mean to him and demonstrates his passion for the city so thoroughly that the gentleman agrees to let Lazlo journey with him to Weep as well.

The rest of the story richly unfolds as we learn about what really happened to Weep, who the blue-skinned girl is and how she fits into the rest of the story, and most importantly, we learn who Lazlo Strange really is because he is so much more than an orphaned junior librarian and his connection to Weep is much more than just a passionate curiosity.

That honestly just barely scratches the surface of what happens in Strange the Dreamer, but hopefully it’s enough to show how easy it is to get drawn into Lazlo Strange’s world without giving away any major spoilers.  I honestly think the less you know going in, the more magical it is as the story unfolds.  Just know that there’s a little bit of everything: action, adventure, a romance, Gods, a God slayer, ghosts, and there are even God spawn (offspring of Gods and humans).

 

LIKES

Again, I don’t want to give too much away because I think it’s better that way, but here are a few highlights of this book for me:

Lazlo Strange.  I loved everything about this character.  The fact that he comes from such humble beginnings gives him that underdog quality that I always sympathize with, and then don’t even get me started on his love for the library.  A boy after my own heart… What I liked most about Lazlo though was his kind heart and his passion.  He’s just such a precious character and, even though I’m not all that much of a romance fan, it warmed my heart when he unexpectedly found someone that he felt that ultimate connection with after having been so alone for so long.

God spawn.  I can’t say too much about these characters, but I will just say that they are fascinating and complex.  Like Lazlo, they come across as underdogs because of the situation they’re trapped in, but then at the same time, they engage in some problematic behaviors of their own.  In many ways they are victims of a past they had no control over, but they aren’t without their own flaws either.  They also each have unique magical gifts that were fascinating to see in use.

The World Building.  Just…wow.  This is one of those places where I have a hard time coming up with the words to describe my love for what Laini Taylor has created here.  The world of Weep and especially the environment the God spawn live in are so rich, lush, vivid, unique…I really need more words here!  It’s just world building at its best, in part because we’re dealing with not just the physical worlds that these characters are actually in, but also dreamscapes.  One of the God spawn possesses the ability to enter the dreams of anyone she wants to and actually alter them as it suits her.  She often uses her gift to induce fear and horror, but when she enters Lazlo the Dreamer’s dreams, she is blown away by the beauty he creates in his mind while he sleeps.  His dreams are so beautiful that she can’t bear to change them.  She wishes she could stay in them forever and it was easy to see why.  As I was reading, the magical quality of those dreams reminded me of childhood stories like Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Taylor’s writing/storytelling.  This was my first experience reading Laini Taylor’s writing so I wasn’t sure what to expect going in.  What I loved about her writing was that it’s both lyrical and poetic, yet it still flows so smoothly and so naturally.  As rich and complex as the storyline of Strange the Dreamer is, it still reads like a simple bedtime story.  It just has that “Once upon a time in a faraway land….” quality about it that really takes Strange the Dreamer from your average fantasy story up to the next level.

Cliffhanger ending. Wow, what an ending!  Everything leading up to the ending took me by surprise and then the actual cliffhanger just left me sitting there with my mouth hanging open desperately wanting to get my hands on the next book.  I normally hate cliffhangers because I hate having to wait so long to see what happens, but just like with the rest of this story, even the cliffhanger is a unique one, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.  My reaction was pretty much “NOOOOOOO….but you know, if it had to be a cliffhanger, that was a pretty cool one.”

 

DISLIKES

There was literally nothing I disliked about this book.  I know there’s really no such thing as perfect, but this book is about as close to perfection to me as it gets.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

There is no doubt in my mind at this point that Strange the Dreamer will be one of my favorite reads of 2017.  I’ve rated it 5 stars but I feel like 5 stars just isn’t even enough because it’s so special.  It makes me want to go back and lower the ratings of some other books I’ve rated 5 stars because there’s truly no comparison in quality.  If you’re looking for a truly unique read, I highly recommend this gorgeous book.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

About Laini Taylor

Laini Taylor is the author of the National Book Award Finalist Lips Touch: Three Times, as well as the novels Blackbringer and Silksinger. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, illustrator Jim Di Bartolo, and their daughter.

Book Review: A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

Book Review: A Conjuring of Light by V.E. SchwabA Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab
Also by this author: A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)
five-stars
Series: Shades of Magic #3
Published by Tor Books on February 21st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 624
Also in this series: A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Witness the fate of beloved heroes – and enemies.

THE BALANCE OF POWER HAS FINALLY TIPPED…

The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.

WHO WILL CRUMBLE?

Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive?

WHO WILL RISE?

Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible.

WHO WILL TAKE CONTROL?

And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.

 

MY REVIEW

I can’t believe we’ve finally reached the end of this incredible series. What a ride it has been and I’m thrilled to say that as fantastic as the first two books were, A Conjuring of Light is just as good as, if not better than those two were.  I loved it so much that I feel like I’ve been flailing about it for days unable to come down from my book high long enough to share why I loved it so much.  I’ve had a week now to calm down though, so hopefully what I write here is coherent and will entice you to pick up this series if you haven’t read it yet.  I can’t express how much I’m going to miss Kell and his many-sided coat, Lila the pirate thief, and Alucard and Rhys, a couple so precious that they made me swoon even though I am not typically one who swoons.  Anyway, here we go…

LIKES

Oh gosh, where to even start?  Basically everything from the first page to the last, but I’ll try to focus on some of the main high points for me and keep my thoughts as spoiler free as I can for anyone who either hasn’t started the series yet or hasn’t made it this far.

The Intensity.  I loved that this finale picked right up where the second book left off, started off with a bang and kept me on a roller coaster ride until the finale pages.  Sometimes the intensity was action related, as different people tried to step up and fight off the Shadow King, and sometimes the intensity was more emotional as everyone desperately tried to come up with a plan of action that could stop him or as they dealt with the fallout of each failed attempt to stop him.  I was fully engaged with the story from start to finish, either because so much was going on or because of what everyone was feeling.

Osaron the Shadow King. A.K.A. my new favorite character that I loved to hate.  I seriously hated everything about this character because OMG, how dare he threaten to ruin my precious and vibrant Red London!  That said, however, I absolutely adored the way Schwab crafted this character.  The shadows, the poisonous fog, and that oily blackness seeping everywhere were just so palpable.  I don’t know that I’ve ever found a villain so mesmerizing.

The Wicked Barbs and Endless Sass – I’m such a sucker for great banter, and Schwab is a master of writing it exactly the way I like it.  Even as these characters are frantically doing everything they can to save their city from dark magic, Lila, Kell, Rhys, Alucard, and Holland are still constantly engaged in these hilarious battles of wit.  They’re nonstop hurling insults at each other, teasing each other, and that constant exchange of wicked barbs and the endless sass is what makes me love these characters so much.  I also especially love the jealous exchanges between Kell and Alucard since Kell is clearly so protective of his brother.  All of that snark just gives me life!

My Ships – Okay, so everyone who follows my blog knows that I’m not usually big on romance, so it’s pretty amazing for me to have not just one, but two ships that I’ve been rooting for throughout this series.  But it’s true, I’ve been rooting for Lila and Kell to get together since they first met in the first book, and I’ve felt the same way about Alucard and Rhys ever since we first got wind that they have a history together.  I loved that as action-packed as this final book was, as my favorite characters fought to save Red London from the Shadow King, Schwab manages to strike what was for me, the perfect balance between action and romance.  We get to see progression in Kell and Lila’s relationship as they work together to try to save Red London, and it appears they could possibly have a future together – that is, if they can survive the onslaught of the Shadow King and the darkness he has unleashed.

The even more compelling ship though is Rhys and Alucard.  Schwab also takes us deeper into their shared history, showing us what exactly happened when Alucard abandoned Rhys before, and she paints such a sympathetic portrait of Alucard, that I think even if you didn’t ship them before, you’ll be shipping them by the time you hear the full story of what happened their last night together.  It was one of the many moments in this book where I shed a few tears when I learned the truth.

The Growth of Rhys – I feel like in so many ways this series was a coming of age story for Rhys.  When we first meet him in A Darker Shade of Magic, he’s this flirty, kind of bad boy prince who is in no way ready to become King.  Everything that he goes through in the series and especially the way he conducts himself in this finale shows that he has undergone a major transformation in terms of his maturity and his fundamental understanding of what it means to lead a kingdom.  I adored his character so much that I felt like I had a proud mom moment watching him and knowing he’s now ready to step up and lead his Kingdom.

The Redemption of Holland –For the first two books in the series, Holland was one of the main characters I loved to hate.  He always fascinated me because he was so different from Kell, even though they were both Antari, but I definitely never felt any sympathy for him.  Well, Schwab got me in this final book.  She gives Holland a rich backstory to explain who he was and how he ended up the way he was when we first meet him in A Darker Shade of Magic.  Not only did his backstory make me sympathetic toward Holland, I actually even shed a few tears for him.  Totally did not see that coming!  I also love that Schwab not only painted him as suddenly a more likeable character, but she also presents him with the opportunity to fully redeem himself to those he has betrayed since we first met him.

 

DISLIKES

Nothing at all to see here. Move along, people.  Seriously though, I have absolutely no complaints about this book.  When I first got my hands on the book and saw how enormous it is, I thought I might end up complaining about it being over 600 pages long.  Not the case though.  A Conjuring of Light is so damn good that I managed to finish all 600+ in about 2 days.  I’m pretty sure I’ve NEVER read such a lengthy book that fast before!

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

As sad as I am to say goodbye to these amazing characters, I don’t think I could have asked for a more satisfying ending to this series.  And maybe it’s just me, but I really felt like it was left open enough at the end of this book for Schwab to continue this journey if she ever wanted to.  I’d totally be down for it too – even a spinoff with one or more of the characters would be fabulous.  But for now, I am okay with bidding “Anoshe” to Kell, Lila, Rhys, and Alucard. May we meet again someday.  ♥ (And yes, Anoshe made me cry too, haha!)

 

RATING:  5 STARS

five-stars

About V.E. Schwab

ve schwab

Victoria is the product of a British mother, a Beverly Hills father, and a southern upbringing. Because of this, she has been known to say “tom-ah-toes,” “like,” and “y’all.”

She also tells stories.

She loves fairy tales, and folklore, and stories that make her wonder if the world is really as it seems.

Book Review: The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

Book Review:  The Inexplicable Logic of My LifeThe Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
four-stars
Published by Clarion Books on March 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 452
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
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Goodreads Synopsis:  The first day of senior year:  Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

 

MY REVIEW

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is a moving story about love and about what it means to be a family.  It follows the journey of Sal, a young man who is starting his senior year of high school.  Sal, who lost his mother at an early age and never knew his real father, lives with his adoptive gay father, Vicente, and has been raised in a loving Mexican-American family.  Up until now, Sal has always been sure of who he is and where he belongs, but when he unexpectedly starts getting into fights at school, he starts to question everything about himself. How can he have these random violent tendencies when he has been raised in such a loving environment and has never known violence?  He feels like he doesn’t even know who he is anymore.  As if questioning his very being wasn’t enough, Sal is confronted by mortality when a beloved family member is diagnosed with terminal cancer. It seems like his whole world is coming apart and Sal feels lost.  Thankfully his best friend Samantha is there to help him try to make sense of what he’s feeling, but when her world is turned upside down too, they are both left trying to make sense of the cards they’ve been dealt in life.  In many ways, this is a coming of age story for them both.

 

LIKES

There’s so much to like about The Inexplicable Logic of My Life. I love the fact that it’s primarily character driven.  Sure, there’s a plot. Lots of things – big things actually – happen throughout the story.  But it’s not really so much about what happens, as it is about how the characters react to and learn and grow from what happens to them.

I really loved the characters and the relationships too.  Sal is a great kid and since we’re getting the story from his perspective, it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic towards him, especially with everything he goes through.  Thankfully he has an incredible support system in the people around him.

This book is filled with incredible relationships, and not the romantic kind.  I’m talking about familial relationships.  The father-son bond between Sal and his adoptive father is wonderful.  Vicente is a nurturing father who always seems to know the right thing to say to put Sal’s mind at ease.  He’s such a great dad that Sal’s friends, Samantha and Fito, have practically adopted him as their dad as well.

Speaking of Samantha and Fito, the friendships in this book are beautiful too.  Samantha and Sal have practically grown up together and are as close as if they were brother and sister.  Samantha has a less than ideal relationship with her mother and so she probably spends more time hanging out with Sal and his dad than she does with her own family. Like siblings, Samantha and Sal spend a lot of time mocking and teasing each other.  Their hilarious banter was actually one of my favorite things about the book.  But even though they constantly pick on each other, also like siblings, they always have each other’s backs no matter what.

Fito is a newer addition to Sal’s circle of friends.  Like Samantha, he has a pretty rough home life and, at one point, even gets kicked out and is living on the streets for a while until Sal and Samantha find out and find him a place to stay.   Fito isn’t used to anyone looking out for him and doing nice things for him so their kind gesture brings him near tears, which made me fall head over heels for this poor kid.

There were many other beautiful relationships too, including that between Sal and his adoptive grandmother, Mima.  Their bond reminded me of my relationship with my own grandmother.  When I was growing up, she was one of my best friends and biggest confidantes and that’s the way it is with Sal and Mima.  Growing up with such nurturing influences as Mima and Vicente in his life, I could understand all the more why Sal was so confused by the violent outbursts he keeps having at school.

Aside from the characters and relationships that drive the story what I also loved about The Inexplicable Logic of My Life is that it’s a book that makes you think.  It unflinchingly tackles big topics like love, family, death, grief, nature vs. nurture, and even homophobia and racism and how all of these things impact Sal and his family and friends.

My absolute favorite thing about this book though is its message about family.  The Inexplicable Logic of My Life beautifully illustrates that family has little to do with biology and genetics and everything to do with who you let into your heart and who lets you into theirs.  Blood may be thicker than water, but love is thicker than blood.

 

DISLIKES

The only real criticism I have of this book is something that is hard to go into without giving away spoilers, but it’s about a loss that Sal, Samantha, and Fito each experience.  Even though it definitely added a moving and dramatic element to the story, I couldn’t help but think “What are the odds that that same tragedy would actually happen to all three friends?”  If you’ve read the book, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t read it, you’ll figure it out.  Other than that one quibble, I was really pleased with this read.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a moving and thought-provoking story about love and loss and what it means to be a family, I’d definitely recommend The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an author of poetry and prose for adults and teens. He is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the American Book Award for his books for adults. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe was a Printz Honor Book, the Stonewall Award winner, the Pura Belpre Award winner, the Lambda Literary Award winner, and a finalist for the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. His first novel for teens, Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood, was an ALA Top Ten Book for Young Adults and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His second book for teens, He Forgot to Say Goodbye, won the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Southwest Book Award, and was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, El Paso.

Book Review: One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Book Review:  One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins ReidOne True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid
four-stars
Published by Washington Square Press on June 7th 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Chick Lit
Pages: 327
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  From the author of Maybe in Another Life—named a People Magazine pick and a “Best Book of the Summer” by Glamour and USA Today—comes a breathtaking new love story about a woman unexpectedly forced to choose between the husband she has long thought dead and the fiancé who has finally brought her back to life.

In her twenties, Emma Blair marries her high school sweetheart, Jesse. They build a life for themselves, far away from the expectations of their parents and the people of their hometown in Massachusetts. They travel the world together, living life to the fullest and seizing every opportunity for adventure.

On their first wedding anniversary, Jesse is on a helicopter over the Pacific when it goes missing. Just like that, Jesse is gone forever.

Emma quits her job and moves home in an effort to put her life back together. Years later, now in her thirties, Emma runs into an old friend, Sam, and finds herself falling in love again. When Emma and Sam get engaged, it feels like Emma’s second chance at happiness.

That is, until Jesse is found. He’s alive, and he’s been trying all these years to come home to her. With a husband and a fiancé, Emma has to now figure out who she is and what she wants, while trying to protect the ones she loves.

Who is her one true love? What does it mean to love truly?

Emma knows she has to listen to her heart. She’s just not sure what it’s saying.

 

MY REVIEW

A book with a love triangle I actually enjoyed?  As much as I usually rage against them, I totally did not see that one coming, but in One True Loves the main character Emma finds herself at the center of what I’d consider to be a pretty realistic love triangle.  When her husband and high school sweetheart, Jesse, is lost at sea in a helicopter crash, Emma is devastated.  His body is never found and after months and months of hoping he’ll return to her, Emma finally decides that she needs to face the fact that he’s gone and move on with her life.  She moves back home and starts working in her parents’ bookstore and runs into one of her good friends from high school, Sam.  Sam was in love with Emma in high school, and even after all these years, he still feels the same way so he asks her out.  They take things very slowly, because Sam really wants to make sure Emma has finished grieving for Jesse before they move forward as a couple.  Emma does fall in love with Sam and, over the next couple of years, starts to build a life with him.  They’re in the midst of planning their wedding when Emma gets an unexpected phone call – it turns out Jesse is still alive and is on his way home to her.

The rest of the novel follows Emma as she tries to figure out what to do.  Does she break Sam’s heart and go back to Jesse, who she always said was the love of her life?  Or does she break Jesse’s heart and tell him that she has moved on without him? 

LIKES

It’s truly an impossible situation to be in and what I enjoyed most about the book was how well Taylor Jenkins Reid captures all of the conflicting emotions that not only Emma is feeling, but also those of both Jesse and Sam.  Both men know how difficult this is for Emma, yet both of them are also completely devoted her to and want a future with her.  Sam even goes so far as to remove himself from the equation for a while to give Emma the space she needs to really think through what she wants.  If she’s going to choose Sam, Sam wants it to be because she truly chooses him, not because she would feel too guilty to dump him and go back to her husband.

I also liked the way Reid structures the novel.  We start out in the present with Emma getting the phone call letting her know Jesse is still alive, but then we go back in time to when they were all in high school and watch Sam and Emma meet and become good friends, and we also watch Emma and Jesse meet and fall in love.  As we work our way back toward the present and see each of these relationships develop over time, it becomes all the more gut wrenching to think about having to choose between these two men because they’re both so great and because both relationships are such healthy ones for Emma and she’s truly happy and deeply in love with each of them.

DISLIKES

The only thing I didn’t care for in One True Loves was that I thought the ending wrapped up a bit too quickly.  It was like once Emma made her choices, we hit fast forward and zoomed to the ending.  I was still happy with the ending; I just would have liked a little more.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even with my issue about the ending feeling rushed, I still thought this was a wonderful read.  Being a married woman myself, I found it very easy to put myself in Emma’s shoes and wonder how I would handle being put in the same situation that she found herself in.  That allowed me to get so absorbed in the story that I devoured the book in a day.  That said, I’d highly recommend One True Loves as a great vacation or beach read.  It’s an engaging read that you won’t want to put down until you find out who Emma chooses.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Taylor Jenkins Reid

TAYLOR JENKINS REID lives in Los Angeles and is the acclaimed author of One True Loves, Maybe in Another LifeAfter I Do, and Forever, Interrupted. Her most recent novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, comes out June 13th. Her novels have been named best books of summer by People, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, InStyle, PopSugar, BuzzFeed, Goodreads, and others.

In addition to her novels, Taylor’s essays have appeared in places such as the Los Angeles TimesThe Huffington Post, and Money Magazine.

Book Review: The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Book Review:  The Upside of Unrequited by Becky AlbertalliThe Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli
Also by this author: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
four-half-stars
on April 11th, 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love—she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful.

Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness—except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny and flirtatious and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back.

There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan with a season pass to the Ren Faire, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

 

MY REVIEW

To be perfectly honest, I went into The Upside of Unrequited assuming that there was no way it could possibly be as great as Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  I’m thrilled to report that I was dead wrong in my thinking and that Becky Albertalli has done it again.  The Upside of Unrequited is every bit as cute, funny, heartwarming, and relatable as Simon and destined to end up one of my favorite reads of 2017.

The Upside of Unrequited centers on 17-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso.  Molly is many things – she’s smart, has a hilarious sense of humor, is super crafty and obsessed with Pinterest, and she’s a twin.  In addition to being all this, Molly is also a hopeless romantic who is infamous within her circle of friends for having had 26 (and counting!) crushes in her life.  The catch with Molly and her crushes is that all of them are unrequited – Molly has never once put herself out there and tried to act on any of them.  She has a major fear of being rejected and somehow ending up the punchline of a joke because she’s overweight and is uncertain as to whether anyone would ever seriously be attracted to her.  In her mind, it’s safer to not even try to find out.  That’s the upside to those unrequited crushes — if you don’t put yourself out there, you can’t be rejected:

“There’s a reason I’ve had twenty-six crushes and no boyfriends. I don’t entirely understand how anyone gets a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. It just seems like the most impossible odds. You have to have a crush on the exact right person at the exact right moment. And they have to like you back. A perfect alignment of feelings and circumstances. It’s almost unfathomable that it happens as often as it does.”

There’s also, however, as Molly has learned, a downside.  You’re left alone on the sidelines while all of your friends, and even your twin sister, are flirting and falling in love.  It feels like everyone is leaving you behind?  The big question of this book:  will Molly stay on the sidelines in the safe zone where she never has to worry about being rejected or will she take a chance in the hopes of finding that special someone who is more than just crush number 27?

 

LIKES

Molly.  I really loved Molly. In addition to being smart and funny, Molly also has anxiety issues and I found the inner monologue running through her head to be so relatable throughout the book.  I just loved the way Albertalli wrote Molly’s voice and could empathize with all of Molly’s insecurities.  If you’ve ever experienced anxiety or felt the fear of rejection, it’s easy to understand where Molly is coming from and why she’s so hesitant to put herself out there.  I also loved that even though Molly is somewhat overweight, she still has a great sense of style and a healthy self image. She isn’t trying to starve herself to make herself more appealing to anyone.  Molly is who she is and makes no apologies for it.  When a boy at a party tells her she’s “gorgeous for a big girl,” Molly’s very candid response is “F*** you.”

I also liked all of the nicknames that Molly gives to the boys she is potentially crushing on.  When Molly’s sister Cassie falls for a girl named Mina, Molly develops a crush on one of Mina’s friends and dubs him ‘Hipster Will.’  Then when she scores a job at a local shop, she meets Lord of the Rings fan, Reid, and dubs him ‘Middle Earth Reid.’  The story takes an especially interesting turn when Molly meets these boys because with each one, there appears to be the potential for more than becoming crush numbers 27 and 28. These two boys both seem genuinely interested in Molly.  Hipster Will would be great in the sense that she could continue to hang out with her sister, who seems to have ditched her to hang with Mina.  But could it be Middle Earth Reid that brings her out of her shell instead?  I have to admit to having a soft spot for Middle Earth Reid.  He’s got that “adorkable” vibe going on and I thought his obsession with Cadbury mini eggs was just too cute for words. It immediately made me think of Simon and his Oreo obsession.

Speaking of Simon?! I thought it was just so cool that Albertalli was able to work in a cameo appearance from Simon and some of the other characters from Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  Best surprise appearance ever!

Sisterhood. One of my favorite parts of this book is the relationship between Molly and her twin sister, Cassie. Albertalli does a beautiful job of realistically depicting all of the nuances of the bond between siblings.  Molly and Cassie each know exactly what buttons to push if they are fighting and want to hurt each other, but they also always have each other’s back if anyone else tries to hurt them in any way.  I liked that one of the major themes running through the story was how sibling relationships change over time.  No matter how close you are as children, you’re going to grow up, move away, and probably start families of your own.  When Cassie meets Mina, her first serious girlfriend, and starts spending almost all of her time with her, it really makes Molly start to think about what it’s going to be like when she and Cassie grow up and start to draft apart.

Diversity.  There is so much diversity in this book.  Molly and Cassie have two mothers, one is white and the other is African American. Molly and her family, as well as Middle Earth Reid and his family, are all Jewish, while Mina’s family is Korean. The sexuality represented in the book is richly diverse as well. There were straight characters as well as gay characters, and Mina considers herself to be pansexual.  The diversity itself was fantastic, but what made it even better was how naturally it was all written in. It didn’t feel like Albertalli was just shoving as much diversity in as she possibly could, for diversity’s sake.  All of the characters and relationships felt realistic and authentic.

 

DISLIKES

I can’t think of a single thing that I disliked about this book aside from the fact that it’s over and I want more.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a book about relationships, being brave enough to take chances, and following your heart, I’d highly recommend The Upside of Unrequited.  It’s just a sweet and warm-hearted book filled with positive message about what it means to grow up and find love.

 

RATING:  4.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Becky Albertalli

Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who has had the privilege of conducting therapy with dozens of smart, weird, irresistible teenagers. She also served for seven years as co-leader of a support group for gender nonconforming children in Washington, DC. These days, she lives in Atlanta with her husband and two sons, and writes very nerdy contemporary young adult fiction. Her debut novel, SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, released from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins on April 7th, 2015.

Book Review: A Tragic Kind of Wonderful

Book Review:  A Tragic Kind of WonderfulA Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom
four-stars
Published by Poppy on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  For sixteen-year-old Mel Hannigan, bipolar disorder makes life unpredictable. Her latest struggle is balancing her growing feelings in a new relationship with her instinct to keep everyone at arm’s length. And when a former friend confronts Mel with the truth about the way their relationship ended, deeply buried secrets threaten to come out and upend her shaky equilibrium.

As the walls of Mel’s compartmentalized world crumble, she fears the worst—that her friends will abandon her if they learn the truth about what she’s been hiding. Can Mel bring herself to risk everything to find out?

 

MY REVIEW

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful follows the story of Mel Hannigan, a 16-year-old who is living with bipolar disorder.  Life with bipolar disorder is not easy, as we witness through Mel’s day-to-day struggles with the disorder, but for the most part, Mel seems to have things under control.  Where Mel really struggles though, as do so many others who are living with mental illness, is with her refusal to let anyone outside of her immediate family know that she has bipolar disorder. She fears the stigma of mental illness — that her friends will start to treat her differently or that she’ll become defined by her illness.  Rather than opening up to her friends and possibly allowing them to be a part of her support system, Mel instead chooses to keep her disorder a secret.

Mel is also living with another secret that is eating away at her.  Bipolar disorder has a genetic component — her beloved older brother Nolan had the disorder as well.  Tragically, he ended up dying because of it and what happened to him is a constant source of fear for Mel.  If she can’t control her disorder, will she suffer a fate like her brother’s? So not only does Mel not tell people about how her brother died, but now that she is starting at a new school, she doesn’t even tell people that she ever had a brother. She pretends to be an only child.

Those are some pretty big secrets for a 16-year-old to be carrying around and much of the novel focuses on how keeping those secrets really starts to negatively impact Mel’s life.  Just before Mel is officially diagnosed with bipolar, she has an episode that results in a huge fight between her and her best friends, Annie, Zumi, and Connor.  Her episode escalates immediately following the fight and she ends up hospitalized and doesn’t return to school for weeks and weeks.  She refuses to contact her friends because of what she’s going through and so they basically turn on her, assuming the worst about her because of some lies that Annie is spreading about her. By the time Mel does return to school, she basically has no friends and chooses not to make anymore because it’s easier to just keep people at arm’s length. She has a couple of casual acquaintances that she’ll chat with, but that’s it. A chance run-in with Connor a few months later clues Mel in that maybe keeping her disorder a secret and refusing to explain why she behaved the way she did during their fight wasn’t the best course of action, but by that point, it’s too late – the damage is already done. It still hurts though because she really misses Zumi, in particular.

Keeping her disorder a secret also impacts Mel’s romantic life as well. One day while working at the local senior center, Mel meets a boy that she thinks she might like to date.  Mel is immediately tormented by her usual concerns – how can I get close to this boy without him finding out about my disorder and, if he does find out, is he going to treat me differently because of it? Along with how she’s feeling about what happened with her friends, Mel ends up on a pretty big emotional roller coaster ride and the main question of the novel becomes how long can she continue to cope with her disorder while dealing with all these mixed emotions and keeping so many secrets.

LIKES

I really liked Mel a lot.  She’s a nice girl and I immediately sympathized with everything she’s going through.  One of the qualities I liked most about her is the way she handles herself at the senior center with the elderly residents.  She loves working with them and cheering them up if they’re having a down day or aren’t adjusting well to living there.  At the same time, however, she is self-aware enough to know when she’s on a downward cycle with her bipolar disorder and isolates herself from the residents because she doesn’t want to bring them down with her.  I was really touched by that level of sensitivity and caring.

I also liked how the author, Eric Lindstrom, accurately portrays bipolar disorder as a disorder that is unique to each person who has it. Not everyone who has bipolar experiences the exact same ups and downs, and some like Mel are what are called rapid cyclers.  I thought he did a wonderful job of capturing Mel’s ups and downs and of showing us that even though Mel has bipolar disorder, there is still so much more to her than her disorder.

My absolute favorite part of the book was the overriding theme that sometimes you need help in life.  Sometimes no matter how independent we think we are or how afraid we might be of being judged, we still need to reach out to others.  There are some problems out there that are just too big to handle alone.  I think that lesson is true not just for someone who is coping with a mental illness, but for all of us.  Sometimes we all have to let people in.

DISLIKES

The only real issue I had with A Tragic Kind of Wonderful was that it felt like Mel’s drama with her ex-circle of friends often took up too much of the story.  While I understood that the drama was meant to show it’s unhealthy for a person to try to hide their mental illness from those who care about them, it still just felt like too much time was spent delving into Mel’s relationships with both Annie and Zumi and seeing what led to the collapse of their friendship.  It’s one of those things that probably won’t bother other readers, but it just started to feel like a bit of a distraction to me.

FINAL THOUGHTS

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful is a beautifully written YA contemporary that paints an accurate and vivid portrait of bipolar disorder while simultaneously breaking down the stigma that is often associated with mental illness.  If you enjoyed books such as Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places and Emery Lord’s When We Collided, I think you would enjoy this read as well.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

four-stars

About Eric Lindstrom

Eric Lindstrom enjoys writing Young Adult novels, including his debut novel Not If I See You First in 2015 followed by A Tragic Kind of Wonderful.

English publication of both in the USA is by the Poppy imprint of Little, Brown for Young Readers, and in the UK and the rest of the world by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

He has worked in the interactive entertainment industry for years as a creative director, game designer, writer, and combinations of all three. As Editor and Co-Writer for Tomb Raider: Legend he received a 2006 BAFTA nomination for Best Video Game Screenplay. As Creative Director and writer for Tomb Raider: Underworld he received a 2009 BAFTA nomination for Best Action Adventure Video Game and a 2009 Writers Guild of America (WGA) nomination for Best Writing in a Video Game.

He also raised children, which led to becoming first a school volunteer, then a substitute teacher, then a part time kindergarten teacher, then getting a credential to teach elementary school, and most importantly the discovery that Young Adult books are awesome. It’s pretty much all he ever reads, and now writes, in his house near the beach on the west coast, with his wife and, yes, cats.

Book Review – Empress of a Thousand Skies

Book Review – Empress of a Thousand SkiesEmpress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1) by Rhoda Belleza
three-half-stars
Series: Empress of a Thousand Skies #1
Published by Razorbill on February 7th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 314
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Crown princess Rhiannon Ta’an wants vengeance.  The only surviving heir to an ancient Kalusian dynasty, Rhee has spent her life training to destroy the people who killed her family. Now, on the eve of her coronation, the time has finally come for Rhee to claim her throne – and her revenge.

Alyosha is a Wraetan who has risen above his war refugee origins to find fame as the dashing star of a DroneVision show. Despite his popularity, Aly struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and the pressure of being perfect in the public eye.

Their paths collide with one brutal act of violence: Rhee is attacked, barely escaping with her life. Aly is blamed for her presumed murder.  The princess and her accused killer are forced to go into hiding – even as a war between planets is waged in Rhee’s name. But soon, Rhee and Aly discover that the assassination attempt is just one part of a sinister plot. Bound together by an evil that only they can stop, the two fugitives must join forces to save the galaxy.  In this exhilarating debut for fans of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, Rhoda Belleza crafts a powerful saga of vengeance, warfare, and the true meaning of legacy.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Rhoda Belleza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies is a novel I picked up because it’s advertised as being for fans of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy.  Since those are two series that I’m currently reading and really love, I thought this would be a fantastic read for me.  For the most part it was, too. I thought it was a very exciting adventure with a lot of twists and turns in the plot and two very compelling main characters. That said, I did have a few issues with it though — mainly that the synopsis is rather misleading. It states that main characters Alyosha (known as Aly) and Rhiannon (called Rhee) will “join forces to save the galaxy.” Sounds pretty exciting, right? And I’m waiting for it to happen with each passing chapter…and waiting…and waiting, and guess what? Rhee and Aly don’t even meet in the first book. You can tell that’s the direction the series is most likely moving in, but I was surprised and a little frustrated to reach the end and the two of them had never crossed paths yet.

LIKES

That gripe aside, I really enjoyed the overall story. It’s an exciting mix of science fiction and politics, deception and betrayal, and it also tackles some pretty big topics that are relevant to our own society such as racial prejudice and scapegoating, as well as privacy issues that can arise because we surround ourselves all the time with technology that can be hacked.

I also really liked both of the main characters and was sympathetic to both of their stories, which were presented in a dual point of view. Rhee’s entire family was killed in an explosion so she’s the last surviving member of the Kalusian dynasty. She thinks she knows who killed her family and has been training for years to seek her revenge against the killer. She plans to exact revenge on her 16th birthday when she will be crowned Empress. All doesn’t go according to plan though because an attempt is made on her life, and presumed dead and not knowing who she can trust anymore, Rhee goes into hiding until she can figure out who has betrayed her and how she can get the throne back and uphold her father’s legacy.

Aly’s story is equally compelling. He is a Wraetan and a war refugee who, like Rhee, has lost his entire family. He lost his when Wraeta was destroyed ten years ago by Kalu during the Great War. Aly manages to overcome the anti-refugee sentiment and rises in status to become a famous TV star. Even though he is a star, however, he still struggles with anti-Wraetan prejudices and is often belittled because of his dark skin color. When Aly finds evidence that Rhee may not be dead after all and attempts to broadcast this news, he suddenly finds himself the prime suspect in her murder. The real perpetrators knew he would make for the ideal scapegoat because of the racist attitudes toward his people. Aly’s journey then parallels Rhee’s as he too must go into hiding until he can figure out his next move and who he can trust.

 

DISLIKES

There was a lot of info dumping in the beginning as the author set out to describe all of the different planets and territories in this galaxy as well as the backstories of each of these characters. It’s to be expected since she’s creating an entire galaxy from scratch, and the world building itself is phenomenal, but it did tend to slow the pace down at the beginning.  Once she got that out of the way, however, the story really took off for me and I read the whole book in less than two days.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Empress of a Thousand Skies is a book I’d definitely recommend to sci fi fans and to anyone who enjoys political intrigue. It’s like House of Cards set in space, and I definitely want to read the second book when it comes out to see how Rhee and Aly finally do join forces to take down their common enemy and stop a war that threatens to tear apart their world.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Rhoda Belleza

Rhoda Belleza was raised in Los Angeles, where she grew up writing XFiles fanfiction and stuffing her face with avocados. When she’s not writing, Rhoda obsesses over nail art tutorials, watches kung fu movies, and sews together crooked things that pass for clothes. She’s a children’s editor at a publishing house and writes from a sunny Brooklyn apartment stuffed far too many bikes and far too many shoes. Empress of a Thousand Skies is her debut novel.

Book Review: You Don’t Know My Name

Book Review:  You Don’t Know My NameYou Don't Know My Name (The Black Angel Chronicles #1) by Kristen Orlando
four-stars
Series: The Black Angel Chronicles #1
Published by Swoon Reads on January 10th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Seventeen-year-old Reagan Elizabeth Hillis is used to changing identities overnight, lying to every friend she’s ever had, and pushing away anyone who gets too close. Trained in mortal combat and weaponry her entire life, Reagan is expected to follow in her parents’ footsteps and join the ranks of the most powerful top-secret agency in the world, the Black Angels. Falling in love with the boy next door was never part of the plan. Now Reagan must decide: Will she use her incredible talents and lead the dangerous life she was born into, or throw it all away to follow her heart and embrace the normal life she’s always wanted? And does she even have a choice?

 

MY REVIEW

 

Kristen Orlando’s You Don’t Know My Name follows the story of Reagan, 17 year old high school student who also happens to be actively training to become a member of the Black Angels, a top secret elite spy organization which both of her parents are also members of.  The Black Angels are such a top secret agency that Reagan has lived under assumed names all of her life and she and her family relocate every year or so if there is a fear that their identities have been discovered.  Reagan has been training to join the Black Angels for as long as she can remember – she’s already an expert marksman and is trained in mortal combat – and her parents fully expect her to follow in their footsteps to serve her country.  As the time gets closer for her to commit to the Black Angels, however, the more conflicted Reagan becomes. Is this really the life she wants for herself?  A lonely life filled with constant danger, panic rooms, secret identities, never staying in one place for any amount of time, etc. What about love, friends, college, a normal job, a family of her own someday?

 

LIKES

Reagan was, by far, my favorite part of this story.  I love that on the one hand, she’s this total badass spy-in-training, but on the other hand, she still comes across as quite vulnerable because she’s so conflicted about her future.  Her doubts are also completely understandable so it’s easy to relate to what she is feeling and to sympathize with her.  I can’t even begin to imagine living the way that she does, having a panic room built into her basement in case someone discovers who her parents really are.  Any time a mission goes wrong and identities are potentially compromised, her life gets turned upside down and she has to start all over again.  It’s very easy to understand why the idea of saying no and making her own way in the world would be so appealing.  In that sense, You Don’t Know My Name is as much a coming of age story as it is a spy novel.

There’s even a bit of romance thrown in for good measure.  Luke is a super hot ROTC cadet who lives across the street from Reagan at her home of the moment. Reagan and her family have actually stayed at this location for a little over a year now and so Reagan and Luke have gotten to know each other.  They’re in the “friends on the way to maybe becoming more than friends stage” when we meet them and I really enjoyed their chemistry.  In many ways, Luke is the impetus for many of Reagan’s conflicted feelings.  She really likes him and wonders what it would be like to have a future with him and it kills her to think she’ll never have that kind of experience if she follows in her parent’s footsteps.  She also worries about getting too close to Luke because what happens the next time she and her parents have to abruptly relocate? She wouldn’t even get to tell Luke goodbye. She would just disappear, never to be heard from again.  I don’t want to give any major plot details away, but I totally fell head over heels for Luke when something happens later in the story and he ends up finding out about Reagan’s family and the Black Angels.  As much of a badass as Reagan is, Luke scores pretty high on the badass meter himself.

Speaking of badass, the action and suspense in this story is off the charts.  From the first pages of the novel when we witness Reagan and her family abandon their house in the middle of the night to escape from a threat all the way through to what can only be described as a heartbreaking, life-changing event when one of her parent’s mission goes terribly wrong, this is a book you won’t be able to put down once you get started.

 

DISLIKES

Only one dislike comes to mind as I’m thinking back on this book and that’s a conversation between Reagan and her mother.  Reagan is slated to visit a college she’s interested in possibly attending.  In Reagan’s parents’ minds, this is just part of Reagan’s cover story since she clearly won’t be going to college.  Even though they were supposed to go with her to visit the college, they back out at the last minute because of something work related.  Upset by this, Reagan breaks down and confesses to her mother everything that she has been feeling so conflicted about. She tells her mom she doesn’t know if the Black Angels is for her, that she might just want to live a normal life and be happy and safe.  What got to me was her mother’s response to what Reagan says.  Her mom basically says that some people are born to be happy but that Reagan isn’t one of them. Reagan was born to serve her country, end of story.  I just found that very off-putting and couldn’t imagine any parent saying something like that to their child. Thankfully her mom reconsiders those words and apologizes later, but boy was she on my bad list for a while there.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

This is my first time reading a YA spy novel so I don’t have anything to compare You Don’t Know My Name to, but that said, what a fantastic read this was for me. I truly loved pretty much everything about it.  The story grabbed my attention from the first few paragraphs and I was glued to the book until I reached the last page, which has left me dying to get my hands on the next book in the series. I highly recommend this book!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Kristen Orlando

 

“Writing is one of the great loves of my life (with bacon mac and cheese, Netflix binges and PJs also in the mix). My childhood in Columbus, Ohio was spent reading every single Baby-Sitter’s Club book ever written and acting out imaginary tragedies in my room (complete with costumes and props) until a really embarrassing age. I started writing plays for my younger cousins as soon as they were all old enough to act (The Spoiled Princess may be a personal favorite) and haven’t stopped writing since. After graduating from Kenyon College with a B.A. in English Literature, I’ve been lucky enough to make writing my career; first as a television producer, then as a marketer and now as a novelist.” (Kristen Orlando, in her own words, taken from kristenorlando.com)

Book Review: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

Book Review:  Swimming Lessons by Claire FullerSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
five-stars
Published by Tin House Books on February 7th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 350
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ingrid Coleman writes letters to her husband, Gil, about the truth of their marriage, but instead of giving them to him, she hides them in the thousands of books he has collected over the years. When Ingrid has written her final letter she disappears from a Dorset beach, leaving behind her beautiful but dilapidated house by the sea, her husband, and her two daughters, Flora and Nan.

Twelve years later, Gil thinks he sees Ingrid from a bookshop window, but he’s getting older and this unlikely sighting is chalked up to senility. Flora, who has never believed her mother drowned, returns home to care for her father and to try to finally discover what happened to Ingrid. But what Flora doesn’t realize is that the answers to her questions are hidden in the books that surround her. Scandalous and whip-smart, Swimming Lessons holds the Coleman family up to the light, exposing the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons, but wow, what an incredibly beautiful and engaging read it was for me.  In fact, I think it’s my first 5 star read of 2017. What I loved about Swimming Lessons was that while it contains a great deal of suspense, it was not at all what I would classify as a typical thriller.  Instead of nonstop, heart-pounding action, this story was a quiet exploration of a troubled marriage and its impact on an entire family.

When the novel opens, Gil Coleman has suffered an accident.  When his two daughters, Flora and Nan, hear of his accident, they rush home to be by their father’s side but are distraught when they hear him say that he hurt himself while following their mother, Ingrid.  Why?  Because Ingrid Coleman was presumed dead in a drowning accident twelve years earlier. The fact that Ingrid’s body was never found has always haunted the family.  Was there any way she could have survived, but if so, why would she then have disappeared for twelve years?  Nan chooses to believe that her mother is dead so that she can move on with her life and chalks her father’s story up to the delusions of an elderly man, but Flora and of course Gil, still seem to hold on to a sliver of hope that Ingrid may be out there somewhere.  At one point, Flora even swears that she sees her mother and starts trying to follow her across town.  The discrepancy in how the family members feel regarding Ingrid’s disappearance introduces a thread that runs throughout the novel – is it better to know the truth even if it’s not the truth we wanted or is it better to keep hope alive even if it means we may spend our entire lives hoping for something that may never happen?

 

LIKES

 

One of the elements of Swimming Lessons that I really loved is that the story is revealed to us in two parts, through alternating chapters – we see the present from the viewpoint of Flora, but then we are also given a rich portrait of the past from the viewpoint of Ingrid.  How? Because unbeknownst to Flora and Nan, and perhaps even to Gil, Ingrid has written a series of letters and hidden them in books strategically around the Coleman house.  In these letters, she lays out for Gil the way she viewed their lives together – from the moment they first met when Ingrid was a student in one of Gil’s writing classes in college through all the years of their marriage leading up to the moment when Ingrid presumably drowned.  Honestly, Ingrid’s letters are the backbone of this story. They add layer upon layer of rich detail and history that, especially with regard to Gil, are often quite different from the present-day version of Gil that we see through Flora’s eyes.  What Ingrid’s letters give us is the portrait of a young woman who wants to be a writer but then gets so caught up in an affair with her charming college professor that she ends up not graduating from college, getting pregnant instead, and settling into what eventually becomes a very troubled marriage.  Gil wants her to be a baby-making machine and little more than that and she resents it.  Since he won’t listen to her, Ingrid resorts to writing these letters to him in hopes that he’ll find them someday in his precious books which fill nearly every room of their house.  What we see as we get to read the letters is that their relationship becomes so stifling to her over the years, it becomes easier and easier for the reader to wonder if perhaps there is any truth to the idea that she may still be out there somewhere.  Could she have faked her death so that she could have a fresh start somewhere else?  Or are we just getting caught up in the same line of wishful thinking that Flora and Gil are in?

Another thread that runs through Swimming Lessons that I loved was the idea that readers bring their own meaning and interpretations to a book.  One of Gil’s favorite pasttimes is to collect books and study the marginalia (i.e. what readers have written or doodled in the margins, what they’ve left behind, while they’re reading).  He believes that those little pieces of themselves that readers leave behind are what give insight into the character of the book and add meaning to the book itself.  It therefore makes it all the more meaningful that Ingrid has chosen to leave behind these little pieces of herself in so many of his books.  I loved the idea that she had left clues right under his nose for years and that if he were to find them all and follow the evidence, he might have a definitive answer as to what happened to her or at least a definitive why anyway.

I think my absolute favorite aspect of this novel was the author’s writing style.  Fuller’s writing is just so elegant and simple – the story felt very organic as it unfolded.  It wasn’t this huge melodramatic event, more just the quiet reveal of a troubled family.

 

DISLIKES

The only dislike I had in this book was Gil himself.  At first I was somewhat indifferent to him or maybe even felt a little bad for him that he was imagining seeing his dead wife. But then once I started reading Ingrid’s letter, I felt a strong dislike for pretty much everything about him.  As much as I disliked him though, I still very much appreciated the rich character portrait we were given of him so hats off to the author for doing such an incredible job portraying him, his warts and all.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

 

Swimming Lessons was a powerful read for me, not just because of the ‘Is she really dead or could she possibly be alive?’ mystery that runs through the novel, but also because it embraces those threads that are woven through it and leaves the reader to interpret what really happened to Ingrid.  We all bring our own meanings to the books we read, and as Gil says, no two of us read the exact same book.  Want to find out what really happened to Ingrid?  Read Swimming Lessons yourself and find your own meaning.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

 

 

five-stars

About Claire Fuller

Claire Fuller trained as a sculptor before working in marketing for many years. In 2013 she completed an MA in Creative Writing, and wrote her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. It was published in the UK by Penguin, in the US by Tin House, in Canada by House of Anansi and bought for translation in 15 other countries. Our Endless Numbered Days won the 2015 Desmond Elliott prize.

Claire’s second novel, Swimming Lessons was published in early 2017.

Book Review: Roseblood

Book Review:  RosebloodRoseBlood by A.G. Howard
three-stars
Published by Harry N. Abrams on January 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

Goodreads Synopsis:  In this modern day spin on Leroux’s gothic tale of unrequited love turned to madness, seventeen-year-old Rune Germain has a mysterious affliction linked to her operatic talent, and a horrifying mistake she’s trying to hide. Hoping creative direction will help her, Rune’s mother sends her to a French arts conservatory for her senior year, located in an opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.

At RoseBlood, Rune secretly befriends the masked Thorn—an elusive violinist who not only guides her musical transformation through dreams that seem more real than reality itself, but somehow knows who she is behind her own masks. As the two discover an otherworldly connection and a soul-deep romance blossoms, Thorn’s dark agenda comes to light and he’s forced to make a deadly choice: lead Rune to her destruction, or face the wrath of the phantom who has haunted the opera house for a century, and is the only father he’s ever known.

 

 

MY REVIEW

 

As soon as I started reading A. G. Howard’s Roseblood, I had a vague sense of déjà vu.  Déjà vu, not because of the obvious expected connection to the original Phantom of the Opera story upon which it is based, but more so because main character Rune Germain’s story starts to follow a predictable pattern that I seem to keep running into when I’m reading YA fantasy.  You know the one – YA heroine has a magical ability that may be a gift or it may be a curse because she can’t really control it.  She is sent away some place where she can be trained to better control the ability, meets a boy along the way, and so on.  Rune’s gift (or curse as the case may be) is that she can’t hear opera without literally bursting into song wherever she is.  She has an angelic, mesmerizing singing voice but truly has no control over this overwhelming draw to opera.  Then as if spontaneously bursting into song isn’t embarrassing enough, she also typically faints once she has finished these little outbursts of song.  Weird, right?

Anyway, so Rune’s mother has been searching high and low for a way to “cure” Rune of this problem and decides to send her to Roseblood, a school for the Arts in France that happens to be located in an old opera house rumored to have ties to The Phantom of the Opera.  I was a little skeptical about the choice of a music school over something a little more medical or psychological in nature, but whatever, I decided to just roll with it and see what happened next since this obviously got her to this old opera house and closer to the Phantom roots of the story.

Where I was a little disappointed was that I didn’t feel like I really connected much with Rune for the longest time and part of that had to do with the pacing of the story.  So much of the first half of the book was devoted to Rune getting settled in at her new school that I really started to get bored waiting for something more exciting to happen.  Thankfully the second half of the novel moves along at a much faster clip.

I think the other reason for my initial lack of connection with Rune was my feeling that her musical gift, curse, whatever was just so odd.  I didn’t really start to feel any connection to her at all until she finally meets the boy that I knew would eventually appear in the story, Etalon (or Thorn as he is called by his adopted father, The Phantom! Yes, you read that right. The Phantom has a son in this story.)

* * * * * *

Now, where Rune’s story didn’t really tug on my heartstrings, A. G. Howard got me hook, line, and sinker with Etalon.  Etalon’s story is just so heartbreaking.  Etalon was orphaned as a young child, sold to the gypsies by his neighbor, and ended up imprisoned and abused by men who were known to sell children to those who wanted them for sexual reasons.  Like Rune, Etalon possessed an angelic singing voice, which annoyed his captors so much that they poured lye into his throat to permanently damage his vocal cords.  He lives at the mercy of these men until the Phantom finds and frees him, killing his captors and setting all of the other children free.  The Phantom takes Etalon in and they live together as father and son, underground and in the shadows of Roseblood.

Etalon lives most of his life feeling indebted to his “father,” which leads to the biggest conflict in the story.  The Phantom is desperate to be reunited with his lost love, Christine, and has actually come up with a pretty shocking way to make this happen.  I can’t go into any details, but what he has come up with is truly O.M.G.  The one catch though is that the Phantom needs Rune and her voice to make it happen. He charges Etalon with the task of getting close to Rune by convincing her that he can help her control her compulsive need to sign.  Then he is to gradually gain her trust so as to eventually lead her to the Phantom so that he can use her to achieve his goal.  As he gets closer to Rune, however, he realizes that they share a connection that he has never felt before, that she is his soul mate.  This puts him in the impossible position of having to choose between the only father he has ever known and the girl that he loves.  For me, Etalon’s internal conflict was what really made the story.  I think I might have given up on the book if I had not found his story so compelling.

* * * * * *

In spite of my disappointment with the pacing and with the somewhat predictable storyline of Rune, there were still some things that I really liked about Roseblood.

Howard does an incredible job of conveying the creepy Gothic atmosphere that you would expect to find in a story about the Phantom of the Opera.  I also liked that Howard stayed pretty true to the original Phantom story, actually using many of the details as a backstory for Roseblood, which seemed more like a sequel to the original Phantom story set in modern times, with the Phantom alive and well in 21st century France. I won’t get into how exactly that is even possible because that would probably be the biggest spoiler of the entire story, but it adds quite a twist and breaks up that predictable pattern that Rune’s story had started down.

I also really liked the chemistry between Rune and Etalon. Their chemistry is undeniable – the intense bond they share actually reminds me a lot of Feyre and Rhysand in A Court of Mist and Fury – and even though I’m not typically big into romance, I was all about hoping that somehow things would work out and these two would end up together.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I went into Roseblood expecting to absolutely love it because The Phantom of the Opera is such an incredible story.  I don’t know if my expectations were just too high, but I have to say I came away a little disappointed.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good solid read that I would still recommend to fans of the original story, but it just didn’t blow me away as much as I thought it would.

RATING:  3 STARS

three-stars

About A.G. Howard

International and NYT best-selling author, Anita Grace Howard, lives in the Texas panhandle. She is most at home weaving the melancholy and macabre into settings and scenes, twisting the expected into the unexpected. She’s inspired by all things flawed, utilizing the complex loveliness of human conditions and raw emotions to give her characters life, then turning their world upside down so the reader’s blood will race.

Married and mother of two teens (as well as surrogate mom to two Guinea pigs and one Labrador retriever), Anita divides her days between spending time with her family and plodding along or plotting on her next book.

When she’s not writing, Anita enjoys rollerblading, biking, snow skiing, gardening, and family vacations that at any given time might include an impromptu side trip to an 18th century graveyard or a condemned schoolhouse for photo ops.