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.

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.

Blog Tour: Project Pandora by Aden Polydoros – Review & Giveaway

Blog Tour:  Project Pandora by Aden Polydoros – Review & GiveawayProject Pandora by Aden Polydoros
four-stars
Series: Assassin Fall #1
Published by Entangled: Teen on August 1st 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 372
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.

 

Today I’m participating in the Chapter by Chapter Blog Tour for Project Pandora by Aden Polydoros. It’s my first time participating in a blog tour, so I’m pretty excited to be trying something new here on The Bookish Libra. My stop on the tour is a book review, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on Project Pandora.

MY REVIEW:

Project Pandora, written by Aden Polydoros is the first book in the Assassin Fall series.  It’s a dark and gritty story that focuses on Project Pandora, a secret program designed to create a team of teenage assassins.  Using mind control and psychotropic drugs, the Project Pandora doctors have systematically “programmed” these teens from birth to “activate” when they hear the phrase “Olympus is Rising.”  They could be in the middle of anything – at home, at work, at school, anywhere — but as soon as they hear that phrase, they immediately switch over into assassin mode until the mission they’ve been assigned is complete.  As if that isn’t alarming enough, once they come out of that “activated” state, the teens have no memory of what they have done or the murders they have committed.  Creepy, right?  Why on Earth would anyone want to turn a bunch of teenagers into assassins? What’s their endgame with this project?  And how have they gotten away with it thus far? As soon as all of these questions started swarming around in my head, I knew I was hooked…

 

 

The novel follows the perspectives of four teens who have been trained/brain washed by Project Pandora.  First, there’s Tyler and Shannon who, when they aren’t in full-on assassin mode, appear to be pretty typical teenagers.  They go to high school, do normal teen activities, and they also both happen to live with foster families.  Then there’s Katherine, who is also a fairly typical teen, although she is also the daughter of a senator and has a bit of a rebellious streak because she’s tired of her parents expecting her to be Little Miss Perfect all the time.  Lastly, there’s Hades.  As you can probably guess based on his name, there is very little about Hades that is typical.  Hades is also the only one of the four who is aware of his role in Project Pandora.

So what happens when those who have unknowingly been a part of this project slowly begin to realize they are not fully in control of their minds and bodies and are committing crimes while under someone else’s control? Can they break free?  And most importantly, can they stop Project Pandora, which clearly has been created with a sinister purpose in mind?

 

 

LIKES

There’s so much to love about Project Pandora.  It’s one of the more unique storylines I’ve read and it appeals to both my love of science fiction and my love of fast-paced thrillers.  Here are just a few of the book’s highlights for me:

Multiple Points of View.  Sometimes multiple points of view works for me, sometimes it doesn’t.  In the case of Project Pandora, however, I thought presenting the story through the eyes of several who are under the influence of mind control was truly fascinating.  The reader gets to follow these characters through their day-to-day lives, see what happens to trigger them to flip over into assassin mode, and then watch them flip right back over once the kill has been made.  It does make for a somewhat disjointed narrative at times as characters like Tyler and Shannon start having these almost out-of-body  moments while they’re in the middle of a “job” as if they’re watching themselves kill people.  I think the disjointedness is to be expected though since both you and the characters you’re reading about are simultaneously trying to piece together what is happening and why.  As I was reading scenes like these, I kept thinking what an incredible film this would be.

Hades.  Hades quickly became my favorite character in Project Pandora.  I don’t know if that was supposed to happen, but I always find morally ambiguous characters so fascinating, and Hades is about as morally ambiguous as they come.  He’s definitely what I would consider to be an anti-hero.  Not only is Hades aware that he is participating in this project, he even goes so far as to tattoo notches on his forearm to keep track of how many he has killed.  Even though he’s a hardcore killer who seems pretty content to do what he does, there’s still just something about Hades that made me very sympathetic to him.

Dark and Full of Action and Suspense.  Pretty much everything about this book is dark, twisted, and full of mystery and intrigue.   The idea that a group of people could be twisted enough to turn a bunch of children into weapons was mind blowing, and I just couldn’t stop reading until I knew if these kids would be okay or not.   If they broke free of the mind control, would they be safe or would the others involved with the Project come after them if they suddenly went rogue?  Would the people behind this project be brought to justice for both the murders they’re responsible for and for what they did to these children?  There’s just so much there to keep sucking you into the story and turning those pages!  I literally could not put this book down once I got started.

Unique Format.  In addition to using alternating chapters from the four teens to tell the story, the author has also inserted case files throughout the novel.  In an almost flashback-like fashion, these case files provide insight into each of the main characters while they were going through the ‘programming’ phase of the Project.  I thought it was a creative way to add background information about each character and about the inner workings of the Project itself. It also lent the novel an almost sci-fi feel, which I really liked.

 

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

Overall I really enjoyed the read.  I did, however, have a couple of areas where I just wanted a little more from the story.  I’d classify these as my own personal reading quirks though and they probably wouldn’t faze most other readers.

Not enough connection with the characters.  Even though I had tremendous sympathy for them because of what had been done to them and felt outraged by the whole concept of the project, I just didn’t really feel all that connected to any of the characters on a more personal level.  I feel confident though that this will change now that this first book has laid all of the groundwork for the rest of the series and we can focus even more on the characters.

Needed more information about the Project and its motives.  I really wanted more information about Project Pandora.  We’re given a number of hints to indicate what it’s all about, but I thought a lot of the information was a bit vague and was left with more questions than answers.  Again, I’m sure my questions will be answered in future books, but I’m just impatient, haha!

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a light and fluffy read, this is not the book you’re looking for.  On the other hand, if you like a book that will take you on a dark and twisted, action-packed ride, with a plot that’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream, then Project Pandora will blow you away!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Entangled Teen, and of course to Aden Polydoros for allowing me the opportunity to preview and review Project Pandora.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Tyler Bennett trusts no one. Just another foster kid bounced from home to home, he’s learned that lesson the hard way. Cue world’s tiniest violin. But when strange things start happening—waking up with bloody knuckles and no memory of the night before or the burner phone he can’t let out of his sight— Tyler starts to wonder if he can even trust himself.

Even stranger, the girl he’s falling for has a burner phone just like his. Finding out what’s really happening only leads to more questions…questions that could get them both killed. It’s not like someone’s kidnapping teens lost in the system and brainwashing them to be assassins or anything, right? And what happens to rogue assets who defy control?

In a race against the clock, they’ll have to uncover the truth behind Project Pandora and take it down—before they’re reactivated. Good thing the program spent millions training them to kick ass…

 

PURCHASE LINKS:

 

Amazon | Amazon.com.au | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Entangled

 

 

FOLLOW THE REST OF THE PROJECT PANDORA BLOG TOUR:

Chapter By Chapter Project Pandora Blog Tour Schedule

 

GIVEAWAY DETAILS:

Project Pandora Prize Pack (US) or a $10 Amazon Gift card (INT)

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

four-stars

About Aden Polydoros

Aden Polydoros grew up in Long Grove, Illinois, the youngest of three children. Aden’s family moved to Arizona when he was in second grade. As a kid, he spent much of his time exploring the desert near his home. When he wasn’t searching for snakes and lizards, he was raiding the bookshelves of the local library. As a teenager, Aden decided that he wanted to be a writer. He spent his free time writing short stories. He was encouraged by his English teacher to try his hand at writing a novel, which inspired him to begin PROJECT PANDORA. The YA thriller is set for publication with Entangled Publishing in Summer of 2017. He is represented by Mallory Brown of Triada US.

ARC Review: Hello, Sunshine

ARC Review:  Hello, SunshineHello, Sunshine by Laura Dave
three-half-stars
on July 11th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Chick Lit
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

I was initially drawn to Hello, Sunshine because of its vibrant summery cover but wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I actually sat down to read it.  What I got was a timely, relevant, and thought-provoking exploration of how people present themselves online in this age of technology and social media.

Sunshine MacKenzie seems to have it all – a loving husband, a gorgeous apartment in Manhattan, and a wildly successful YouTube cooking show with millions of followers that will soon transition to an even bigger audience once it starts airing on the Food Network.  As perfect as Sunshine’s life sounds, it soon becomes clear that her life is actually more along the lines of a house of cards just waiting to be toppled over and trampled on.  You see, Sunshine’s entire online persona is just that – a persona.  Everything that her fanbase loves about her and that has made her such a success is nothing but a pack of lies.  A pack of lies that Sunshine and her associates have successfully kept under wraps, or so they thought.  When Sunshine’s social media accounts are hacked and the hacker starts unraveling her life one lie at a time, her entire life and career fall apart right in front of her and no amount of PR damage control can stop the bleeding.  Sunshine loses her show, most of her followers, her husband, and her home, and ends up fleeing to her real hometown and to her estranged sister.

The rest of the book follows Sunshine as she tries to figure out what to do next.  Is there’s a way to get her old life back or will reuniting with her sister and spending some quality time with her family, away from the media frenzy, set Sunshine on a different path?  Will she decide there’s more to life than fame, fans, and the stress of trying to maintain an appealing online persona?

 

LIKES

I think what I liked most about Hello, Sunshine was just how relevant the book’s central premise is, that so many people are not being authentic when they are online.  Just as Sunshine has an online persona that has been crafted and scripted for her, there are many who aren’t even in show business who portray themselves as how they want to be perceived online, even if it’s completely contrary to what their life is actually like.  It’s something I think about whenever I see someone online who just seems like their life is picture perfect in every way.  Life is too messy for things to always appear that perfect, if that makes any sense. Or I might even think of it in terms of myself – how do others know if I’m being authentic or if I’m, in essence, putting on a show for them by being what I think they want me to be.

Hello, Sunshine also made me think about how vulnerable we really are if we’ve put ourselves out there on social media – how easily accounts can be hacked and someone’s life can be turned upside down if they happen to make the wrong person angry.

In addition to being a thought-provoking read about social media and authenticity, Hello, Sunshine is also just an entertaining read as well.  All of the drama that surrounded Sunshine’s fall from grace kept me engaged throughout and I kept thinking what a great movie it would be.  Desperate Housewives kept coming to mind as I was reading.

As fake as her online persona is, the Sunshine we’re presented with is brutally honest and she’s dying to give us a blow-by-blow account of how she royally messed up her own life.  If you like that kind of personality, Sunshine is very likable and you’ll want to follow her journey and see where she went wrong at every step along the way.

 

DISLIKES

My main dislike is that I figured out who the hacker was almost immediately. I kept hoping I was wrong and that there would be a huge surprise revealed, but my first guess ended up being correct so that was kind of a letdown for me.  I also didn’t buy the hacker’s reasoning for doing what they did, so that slightly hampered what was otherwise a very enjoyable read.  Hello, Sunshine was still a solid LIKE for me, but a little less predictability and a little more believability here would moved it from the LIKE column into the LOVE column.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a quick and entertaining read that still manages to be quite thought-provoking, I’d say Hello, Sunshine fits the bill.  I think it would make for a great beach or vacation read.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

GOODREADS  SYNOPSIS

From Laura Dave—the author of the “addictive” (Us Weekly), “winning” (Publishers Weekly) and critically acclaimed bestseller Eight Hundred Grapes—comes a new novel about the secrets we keep…even from ourselves.

Sunshine Mackenzie has it all…until her secrets come to light.

Sunshine Mackenzie is living the dream—she’s a culinary star with millions of fans, a line of #1 bestselling cookbooks, and a devoted husband happy to support her every endeavor.

And then she gets hacked.

When Sunshine’s secrets are revealed, her fall from grace is catastrophic. She loses the husband, her show, the fans, and her apartment. She’s forced to return to the childhood home—and the estranged sister—she’s tried hard to forget. But what Sunshine does amid the ashes of her own destruction may well save her life.

In a world where celebrity is a careful construct, Hello, Sunshine is a compelling, funny, and evocative novel about what it means to live an authentic life in an inauthentic age.

three-half-stars

About Laura Dave

Laura Dave is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The First Husband, The Divorce Party, London Is The Best City In America, and the forthcoming Eight Hundred Grapes. Dave’s fiction and essays have been published in The New York Times, ESPN, Redbook, Glamour and Ladies Home Journal.

Dubbed “a wry observer of modern love” (USA Today), Dave has appeared on CBS’s The Early Show, Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends and NPR’s All Things Considered.  Cosmopolitan Magazine recently named her a “Fun and Fearless Phenom of the Year.”

Three of her novels have been optioned for the big screen with Dave adapting Eight Hundred Grapes for Fox2000.

ARC Review – Final Girls by Riley Sager

ARC Review – Final Girls by Riley SagerFinal Girls by Riley Sager
four-half-stars
Published by Dutton on July 11th 2017
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
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.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout’s knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media’s attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy’s doorstep. Blowing through Quincy’s life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa’s death come to light, Quincy’s life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam’s truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.

MY REVIEW

After seeing more than one comparison to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, I’ll admit I was a little hesitant about whether or not I wanted to read Final Girls.  That just seemed like hype that few books could live up to. That said, however, when I then saw that Stephen King had dubbed Final Girls “the first great thriller of 2017,” my entire perspective changed. I mean, seriously, when Stephen King says I should read a book. I’m darn well going to read the book.  And let me tell you, that man knows a great thriller when he reads one.  It took me a few pages to really get into Final Girls and connect with the main character, but once I did, I literally could NOT put this book down until I reached the end.

Final Girls is a psychological thriller that follows Quincy Carpenter, a young woman who is known as a ‘Final Girl.’  A ‘Final Girl’ is a young woman that is the sole survivor of a mass killing.  Sounds like something out of a horror movie, right? Well, it basically is.

Ten years ago, Quincy and five friends went to Pine Cottage, cabin in the woods, to celebrate her best friend, Janelle’s, birthday.  Instead of the weekend of fun they had planned, however, their time at Pine Cottage quickly turns into the stuff nightmares are made of as all of Quincy’s friends are brutally murdered.  Quincy remembers little or nothing of what happened the night of the attack; all she knows is that she was being chased through the woods, while drenched in blood, and thankfully was found by a police officer, who killed the man who was chasing her.

Although Quincy is the primary focus of this novel, she is actually one of three ‘Final Girls’ who have a presence in the story.  There’s also Lisa, who was the sole survivor of an attack on her sorority house that left nine sisters dead, and there’s Samantha, who survived a late night, massacre-style attack at the motel where she was working.  Dogged by the press and a cult-like following, as well as haunted by survivor’s guilt (Why did they survive when no one else did?), all these three women really want is to pick up the pieces of their lives and move on.

When we meet Quincy, she appears, with the help of a Xanax prescription, to have mostly moved past this traumatic incident in her life and now has a successful baking blog and a devoted live-in boyfriend named Jeff.  She has also maintained a somewhat friendly relationship with Coop, the officer who rescued her that fateful night.

Quincy’s life is turned upside down once again, however, when she learns that Lisa, one of the other two Final Girls, has apparently taken her own life.  Quincy had occasionally been in contact with Lisa because of their shared bond as survivors of such terrible attacks, and so she really can’t believe that after all she went through to survive, that Lisa would then commit suicide.  And then when the third Final Girl, Samantha, suddenly shows up on her doorstep, even though she had dropped off the grid and disappeared years ago, Quincy’s life is yet again rattled especially because Samantha seems intent on forcing Quincy to confront and relive that night at Pine Cottage.  The more Samantha pushes, the more Quincy questions what her real motives are for seeking her out after all these years. And then when new information comes to light about Lisa’s death, all bets are off.  Quincy has no idea who she can trust, who she can turn to, and especially no idea if she can handle possibly remembering the details of what really happened the night her friends were murdered.

And believe it or not, all of that barely even scratches the surface in terms of what happens on this wild ride!

LIKES

Flawed and Complicated Characters.  Just by virtue of what they have been through, both Quincy and Samantha are flawed characters.  Sager does a fantastic job of fleshing them out, adding more and more layers to each character the further we move into the story.  I was especially fascinated to watch Quincy’s seemingly together life practically crumble around her the more Samantha kept trying to push her out of her comfort zone and confront her past.  Even though Quincy seems to have her act together, it becomes clear pretty quickly that it was more of a façade than anything else and that without that healthy daily dose of Xanax, she would be a real mess.

Samantha is such an enigmatic character.  It’s impossible to tell what’s going on with her, what her motivations are for seeking out Quincy after all this time, and what her end game is. She’s also very evasive about where she has been for all these years – “here and there” and what she has been doing – “this and that.”  It becomes a little unnerving that she won’t offer up any real information about herself, especially when she’s pushing Quincy like she is.

Endless Twists and Turns.  Final Girls is one of those wonderfully well-crafted thrill rides that constantly keeps the reader guessing about where the story is going and who the bad guy really is.  Every single time I thought I had things all figured out, I ended up being dead wrong.  Sager is an incredible story teller and takes you on a journey that is full of suspense and twists and turns, and never once, even remotely predictable.

Past vs. Present.  Sager has structured the story so that most of what we see comes from Quincy’s perspective.  The chapters basically alternate between Quincy’s present day life and what happened when she and her friends went to Pine Cottage.  So while we’re following Quincy’s day-to-day life in the present – how she’s coping, especially in light of the new interest in “Final Girls” following Lisa’s death, etc., we’re also being fed bits and pieces about what happened at Pine Cottage.  It added so much suspense to have both stories, – the past and the present – unfold this way. I thought it was very effective storytelling.

The Ending.  All I’m going to say here is OMG, I never saw it coming. Wow.

DISLIKES

This is so random and nitpicky, but the constant mentioning of the grape soda drove me a little crazy as I was reading.  I have no idea why it bothered me so much, but by about the halfway point, I just kept thinking “No More Grape Soda!”  This is obviously a quirk with me and I’m sure thousands of other readers will have absolutely no issue with the soda, haha!

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a well written thriller with a unique and unpredictable storyline, this is your book.  And if you don’t believe me, you can believe Stephen King since he is the master when it comes to thrillers.

 

RATING:  4.5 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Riley Sager, and Dutton Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

four-half-stars

About Riley Sager

Riley Sager is a pseudonym for an author who has been previously published under another name. A native of Pennsylvania, Riley is a writer, editor and graphic designer who now lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

In addition to writing, Riley enjoys reading, movies and baking.

Riley’s first novel, FINAL GIRLS, will be published in July in the United States, the United Kingdom and twenty other countries around the world.

Book Review: Saints and Misfits

Book Review:  Saints and MisfitsSaints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
five-stars
Published by Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers on June 13, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 336
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.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.

There are three kinds of people in my world:  1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.  2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.  Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.  But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?  3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  Like the monster at my mosque.  People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.

MY REVIEW

S.K. Ali’s debut novel Saints and Misfits is a beautifully written coming of age book about family, friendship, love, religious faith, and so much more. It’s also a book that focuses on the importance of not judging people, of not making assumptions about people you don’t even know based on how they look or how they’re dressed, or maybe even how religious or not religious they may seem.  Saints and Misfits tackles all of these important themes and allows us to explore them through the eyes of a hijabi teen, Janna Yusuf, as she navigates her way through life in her high school, at home, and in her Muslim community.

For the most part, Janna’s life is just like many other teens.  Her parents are divorced and Janna shares an apartment with her mother and her older brother, Muhammad.  Janna, a sophomore in high school, is fairly popular at school, works hard to get good grades, and is also starting to become interested in boys. Outside of school, Janna keeps herself busy with a part-time job taking care of her elderly neighbor Mr. Ram and also by pitching in as a photographer and website maintainer at the mosque where her uncle serves as Imam.

Janna is also a young woman with two very big secrets that she is trying to keep hidden from her loved ones and her community: 1) that she is attracted to Jeremy, a cute non-Muslim boy from school and she’s afraid that her family will not approve, and 2) that while attending a party at her friend Fizz’s house, Janna is nearly raped by Fizz’s cousin, Farooq.  Janna is traumatized and ashamed about what happened with Farooq but is afraid to tell anyone because Farooq is a very well- respected member of their close-knit Muslim community.  She doesn’t think anyone will believe her.  Janna’s experience is made all the more traumatic by the fact that Farooq seems to turn up nearly everywhere she goes, lurking in the background, almost as if he’s stalking her.  Janna’s two secrets drive much of the book’s storyline as she must decide what to do about each of them.  Will she choose to pursue her attraction to Jeremy and perhaps have to deal with the disapproval of her loved ones?  And will she find her voice and speak out against Farooq, to let her community know that he’s not a man to be revered and respected, but instead, he’s really a monster?

 

LIKES

There’s so much to love about Saints and Misfits, but I’d have to say my favorite part is the wonderful cast of characters.

Janna.  I adored everything about Janna.  She’s super smart, hilarious, a little bit snarky, and just an all-around likeable character, probably one of the most likeable characters I’ve read so far this year.  As if all of that wasn’t cool enough, Janna is also a Flannery O’Connor loving book nerd! If I had gone to school with Janna, I totally would have wanted to be friends with her.  I also found her voice to be authentic and I loved seeing the events of the story unfold from her perspective.  Her journey to find herself and to ultimately decide what kind of person she wants to be is such a compelling one.

Muhammad.  Janna’s older brother Muhammad is a great character too. He’s a typical annoying older brother at times, but he’s also just an all around good guy.  He’s protective of both his mother and his little sister, and he’s also adorably head over heels in love with his girlfriend, who Janna has dubbed “Saint Sarah” because the girl appears to be perfect in nearly every way.  (Janna learns that she’s wrong to make such a judgment about Sarah—that Sarah is human and has a past just like everyone else — but I’ll leave the details about that for you to discover on your own).

Sausun.  After Janna, Sausun is probably my next favorite character.  I loved Sausun because she comes across as kind of a badass. She’s tough, not easy to impress, and she wears a niqab accessorized by Doc Martens.  She also hosts a hilarious YouTube show called Niqabi Ninjas, which she says she does to “lighten things up” so that people won’t be afraid of her and of other Niqabi (girls who cover their faces, in contrast to hijabis like Janna who just cover their hair).  What I loved most about Sausun though was how she steps up and gives Janna the metaphorical kick in the pants that she needs to try to stand up to Farooq.

Nuah.  Nuah is such a loveable character. I loved this guy so much.  Janna meets him at the senior center where she takes her neighbor, Mr. Ram, every week.  Where Farooq’s presence suffocates and overwhelms Janna, Nuah’s presence puts her at ease and whether she realizes it or not, she’s more herself around Nuah than she is around any another male we see her with in the story.  Nuah is super sweet, always sees the bright side of things, and loves to tell jokes and be silly.  He’s a big hit with all of the seniors at the center, and he also clearly likes Janna even though she doesn’t seem to realize it. As we learn during the course of the story, Nuah also is truly devout as opposed to the fake Farooq, who may have memorized the entire Quran but clearly has no interest in what it actually means.

There are also tons of really likeable secondary characters as well, like Janna’s uncle, who runs an advice column as part of his duties for the mosque.  He sends his answers to Janna so that she can edit/proofread them, so we get to see them as well.  He always has such warm and witty responses to the questions that are asked of him. You can’t help but chuckle when reading them.

In addition to the fabulous cast of characters, I also loved the realistic representation of the Muslim community.  Janna’s community is close-knit and supportive, with everyone pitching in and helping wherever they can.  I loved the positive depiction, which is so important these days when there are those who constantly try to demonize Muslims.  Ali does a wonderful job of illustrating that the Muslim community is just like almost every community out there, and she does it in a realistic way.  Yes, the community is positive overall and filled with caring people, but also like any other community out there, it has its issues as well, in this case the issue being Farooq.

Diversity.  Saints and Misfits is overflowing with diversity in the most wonderful way.  As I’ve already mentioned, the novel is set in a Muslim community and most of the main characters are Muslim, with both Hijabis and Niqabis being represented.  On a side note, while I’m thinking about the different types of coverings that can be worn, one of the things I really loved about the book was how Ali illustrates that just like with any other religion, different people interpret the Quran in different ways and thus their practice of the religion is very individualized. Just like not all Christians are the same, not all Muslims are the same either.

But the diversity doesn’t end there.  In addition to being Muslim, Janna is also half-Egyptian and half-Indian. Mr. Ram, the neighbor Janna cares for, is Hindu, and Ms. Kolbinsky, another elderly neighbor (who happens to have a crush on Mr. Ram!) is newly arrived from Poland.

 

DISLIKES

That it’s over?  Seriously. I adored Janna and her friends so much and would definitely be up for reading more about them, especially some of the characters that we just barely scratched the surface on. I’d totally be up for a standalone book on Sausun, Nuah, or even Janna’s brother Muhammad.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Saints and Misfits is an important novel because of the themes it explores and because of its realistic depiction of a Muslim community.  What makes this book even more special though is that it’s not just an important read, it’s a beautifully written and engaging read as well, one of my favorites of the year so far.

I read an article in Entertainment Weekly this week about books that should be made into TV shows and Saints and Misfits was one of the books on the list.  I actually really hope it happens because I think it with such a diverse and vibrant cast of characters, it would make for a very entertaining show.

 

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to S.K. Ali, Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and Netgalley for the opportunity to preview this book.

five-stars

About S.K. Ali

S.K. Ali is a teacher based in Toronto whose writing on Muslim culture and life has appeared in the Toronto Star. Her family of Muslim scholars is consistently listed in the The 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World, and her insight into Muslim culture is both personal and far-reaching. A mother of a teenage daughter herself, S.K. Ali’s debut YA novel is a beautiful and nuanced story about a young woman exploring her identity through friendship, family, and faith.

Book Review: No Turning Back

Book Review:  No Turning BackNo Turning Back by Tracy Buchanan
three-half-stars
Published by Crooked Lane Books on June 13th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Contemporary 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.

Goodreads Synopsis:  Anna Graves’s whole life has recently been turned upside down. A new mother, she’s just gone back to her job as a radio presenter and is busy navigating a new schedule of late night feeding and early morning wake ups while also dealing with her newly separated husband. Then the worst happens. While Anna is walking on the beach with her daughter, she’s attacked by a crazed teenager. Terrified, Anna reacts instinctively to protect her baby.

But her life falls apart when the schoolboy dies from his injuries. The police believe Anna’s story, until the autopsy results reveal something more sinister. A frenzied media attack sends Anna into a spiral of self-doubt. Her precarious mental state is further threatened when she receives a chilling message from someone claiming to be the “Ophelia Killer,” a serial killer who preyed on the town twenty years ago—and who abruptly stopped when Anna’s father committed suicide.

Is Anna as innocent as she claims? And is murder forgivable, if committed to save your child’s life? Internationally bestselling author Tracy Buchanan takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride filled with heart-stopping secrets and hairpin turns in No Turning Back, her U.S. debut.

 

MY REVIEW

Tracy Buchanan’s No Turning Back is aptly named because once you get started reading this heart-pounding roller coaster ride of a novel, there’s no turning back and no putting this book down until you’ve made it through all the twists and turns that this story throws at you.  If you like a mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end, this book is for you.

Anna Graves is a popular local radio host who is just returning to work after maternity leave.  She is also going through a divorce and so has a lot on her plate living the single mom life.  As if she didn’t have enough drama in her life, one day while strolling along the beach with her infant daughter, Joni, she is accosted by a teenage boy with a knife.  With no one around to help her, Anna desperately searches for something to protect herself and her child with.  She finds a comb with a long, pointed handle and points it at the boy to fend off his attacks. He slices her face with his knife but then loses his footing and falls on the handle of the comb Anna is holding.  It punctures his neck and he ultimately dies from the wound.  Anna is of course horrified by what has happened since she was only trying to protect herself and Joni and didn’t mean to harm the boy.

At first, the police believe Anna’s story and deem the boy’s death an act of self-defense.  But when the autopsy results reveal that he was poisoned shortly before his death, questions start to arise and the police start to question whether this was a straight case of self-defense or not.  Public reaction is also mixed with some hailing Anna as a heroic mother, while others proclaim her to be a murderer.  The media doesn’t help matters either, as they try to sensationalize the story from every angle, first seeming like they are on Anna’s side but then turning on her and trying to dig up anything they can to tarnish her reputation. Then Anna starts receiving taunting email messages from someone claiming to be The Ophelia Killer, a serial killer from 20 years ago who was never caught.  The Ophelia Killer targeted teenage boys who looked like the boy Anna killed and used the same poison that was in Anna’s victim’s system. When another teenage boy goes missing, the story takes on a whole new level of creepy suspense.  Is the original killer back? Or is it a copycat? Or is it just some sicko playing mind games with Anna?

 

LIKES

Anna Graves.  I really liked Anna.  I think being a mom myself, I found it very easy to put myself in her shoes while she was standing on that beach trying to do whatever it took to protect her infant daughter.  I could also empathize with the challenges of being a new mom and trying to juggle that with a career.  In all of these ways, she was a very relatable character.  I also tend to root for the underdog in stories so when the media, the community, the police, her soon-to-be ex-husband, and even her so-called friends started turning on her and questioning her actions and her mental state, I found myself in her corner that much more.

The Suspense and the Plot Twists.  Buchanan does a phenomenal job of weaving together an intricate mystery that will keep you guessing who the real killer is all the way to the end. Lots of dirty little secrets come to light throughout the course of the story, each of which seemed to lead either directly to Anna, much to her dismay, or else toward a suspect who could plausibly be The Ophelia Killer. I lost track of how many times I was sure I knew who was behind the murders only to end up being completely wrong.

The Portrayal of the Media.  Even though I was not at all a fan of the media in this story, I thought Buchanan portrayed them in a very realistic manner, especially in terms of the power the media wields.  With one positive or negative story, they can make or break a person’s reputation.  And when tabloid style journalism gets in the mix, all bets are off as to how they’ll choose to cover a story. Any shocking headline that is guaranteed to get the public’s attention seems to be fair game.  As we were given glimpses of some of the stories that were being written about Anna, all I could think of was a certain President running around yelling “Fake news! Fake news!”

The Big Question.  What I really enjoyed about No Turning Back was that in addition to being a wildly entertaining mystery, it’s also a book that made me think.  That big question that was out there from the early moments of the book – How far would you go to keep your children safe? Could you take a life? I bet it’s a question that stays on every reader’s mind, whether they have kids or not, long after they finish reading this story.

The Jaw Dropping Ending.  I can’t say anything else about it without giving away the story, but just WOW! I didn’t see it coming at all and it blew my mind!

 

DISLIKES

Overall, I loved the novel but I did still have a couple of issues with it.  The main one was that I didn’t like how the police were portrayed.  While it made Anna’s journey that much more of a roller coaster ride to have it seem like even the police were out to get her, I just couldn’t imagine a police force conducting itself like the one in this book did.  They didn’t really seem to care much about evidence or about Anna’s safety when she was receiving threats from the dead boy’s family.  They had little to no interest in finding evidence that would exonerate Anna.  Instead, they seemed to look at everything only insofar as to see how they could use it to prove Anna was guilty.

The other aspect of the novel that bothered me was that some events just didn’t seem plausible, the biggest one being right at the beginning of the novel when the boy falls on Anna’s comb and gets fatally stabbed in the neck. What are the odds of that actually happening?  I think it would have made for an even more compelling story than it already was to have Anna make a conscious choice to stab him in self-defense rather than having it be more like a freak accident.

 

 

FINAL THOUGHTS?

If you like a good mystery that will keep you guessing up until the final pages, I’d highly recommend No Turning Back.  With all of the twists and turns this plot has to offer, there’s never a dull moment!

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

three-half-stars

About Tracy Buchanan

Tracy Buchanan is a full-time author who lives in Buckinghamshire in the UK with her husband, their little girl and their puppy, Bronte. Tracy travelled extensively while working as a travel magazine editor, sating the wanderlust she developed while listening to her Sri Lankan grandparents’ childhood stories – the same wanderlust that now inspires her writing.