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

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

 

four-stars

About Julie C. Dao

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

ARC Review of Warcross by Marie Lu

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

 

five-stars

About Marie Lu

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

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.

ARC Review: The Library of Fates

ARC Review:  The Library of FatesThe Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana
three-half-stars
Published by Razorbill on July 18th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 354
Source: First to Read
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW

 

Aditi Khorana’s The Library of Fates is a beautiful coming of age story that follows the journey of Princess Amrita of Shalingar as she sets out to save her kingdom from the grips of the power-hungry emperor Sikander who is looking to expand his Macedonian Empire by invading and conquering Shalingar.  Shalingar is a prized territory for Sikander because it is where the mystical Symballines are hidden.  The Symballines produce a rare and powerful substance called chamak that Sikander is dying to get his hands on.  Why?  Because when given to Oracles, chamak substantially increases their ability to predict the future.

When the novel opens, Amrita’s father and Sikander have worked out a tentative arrangement to appease Sikander and hopefully keep him from taking control of Shalingar.  Amrita is at the heart of this agreement because Sikander is determined to take her for his bride.  Amrita is not especially excited about this match because 1) who wants to marry a power hungry Emperor and 2) she is already in love with someone else, her childhood friend, Arjun. But she’s willing to make the sacrifice if it means her people are protected.

When Sikander arrives at Amrita’s palace, however, things do not go according to plan and Sikander’s men go on a rampage, killing or imprisoning anyone who gets in their way.  Amrita manages to escape from the palace, along with an Oracle named Thala that Sikander had been keeping as a prisoner but had offered up to Amrita as a wedding gift.  Together Amrita and Thala set off on a journey to find the Symballines and warn them that Sikander is coming for them.  At Thala’s suggestion, they also set out to find The Library of All Things, a library where according to legend, contains a book about every person.  Thala tells Amrita that if they can get to this Library, then they can locate their books and edit them to change their destinies.  Amrita can save her people, while Thala can go back and rewrite her history so that she was never imprisoned and taken away from her family as a young child.  While the journey starts out as a physical one, however, it becomes so much more.  It becomes a journey of self-discovery for Amrita as she begins to find clues that indicate she may not be who she thinks she is and that with her true identity, she possesses the power to change the course of history and save her people.

 

LIKES

 

Amrita.  I found Princess Amrita to be a very likeable character and one that was easy to sympathize with.  Her life up until this point has been very sheltered, so when she first escapes from the palace under siege, she really has no idea how to fend for herself.  In that sense we see tremendous growth from her throughout the course of the story.  She also didn’t really believe any of the stories about magic she had been told all her life.  In her mind, they were just that, stories.  So I enjoyed watching her make this journey and begin to understand and embrace the stories from her childhood and the magic they describe, and what they mean for her.  It’s a lot to take in, especially learning that you aren’t who you thought you were, but Amrita shows great maturity

My one disappointment with Amrita though was that I had hoped she’d be a bit feistier.  Reading the book’s synopsis and hearing that she spends most of the book on the run as a fugitive had me envisioning lots of kickass scenes where she keeps evading Sikander’s men, but her journey ended up being much more subdued than that. My fault for building it up in my own mind to be so epic, but it was a little disappointing.  She’s still a great character though and I especially enjoyed her growing friendship with Thala, especially considering how they are initially just thrown together by circumstance and forced to work together to get away from Sikander.

Varun.  I think Varun actually ended up being my favorite character in the story.  I can’t say much about him without giving away too many details about the overall storyline, but I will say he ends up being a very important character, way more important than he initially seems to be.  Amrita first meets Varun while she and Thala are on the first leg of their journey, a pilgrimage to a temple.  Varun pops up out of nowhere and self-appoints himself Amrita’s traveling companion as she hides among others who are making the pilgrimage to pay their respects to the goddess Maya.  Varun is a charming young man who keeps Amrita entertained with stories about Maya.  He seems pretty determined to educate her as much as possible and, in spite of herself, Amrita feels herself drawn to this boy.  Even though my brain was screaming “No insta-love!” and “What about your childhood love, Arjun?,” I could see why she felt an instant connection to Varun.  He’s immensely likeable and I loved his enthusiasm regarding the temple and the goddess and all of its history, especially once his connection to it all is made clear.

World Building and the Mythology.  Khorana does a beautiful job painting a vivid portrait of both Shalingar, the Macedonian Empire, and all points in between.  I also loved how she seamlessly wove in so many mythological elements to create a truly unique and incredible landscape for her characters to journey through.  I found the Symballines and their world fascinating, as well as that of the vetala spirits, and so much more.  It was like nothing I had ever read before so it made for such a magical reading experience.

Folklore.  One of my absolute favorite parts of The Library of Fates is the parable that prefaces the story.  It’s called the Parable of the Land of the Trees and it’s an enchanting story about self-sacrifice that features trees who used to be able to communicate with humans.  It caught my attention immediately and had me wanting to know how it related to the rest of the story.

 

DISLIKES

My main issue with The Library of Fates was that I felt like so much ground was covered in this one book that the author only scratched the surface on many areas that I would have loved to have read more about.  I would have loved to see more of the folklore and mythology since that was probably my favorite part of the book and I loved the way the author integrated it into the story so smoothly.  I also wanted more details in the various plots and subplots along the way because some of them could have used a little more detail to better elaborate what was happening and why.  And while I know the book was meant to focus on Amrita and her personal journey of self-discovery, I still wanted more exploration of Amrita and her relationships with all of the characters she interacts with.  As is, it was a lovely read but I was just left wanting so much more, either a longer book with all of these areas fleshed out more or maybe even a series.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

Even though I had a few issues with it, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Library of Fates to anyone who enjoys a coming of age story and who wants to learn more about Indian folklore and mythology.  I haven’t read The Star Touched Queen or The Wrath and the Dawn yet, but after reading this story and seeing that this book is recommended for fans of those, I’m more interested than ever in reading those as well.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

Thanks to Penguin First to Read, the author, and the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

 

A romantic coming-of-age fantasy tale steeped in Indian folklore, perfect for fans of The Star-Touched Queen and The Wrath and the Dawn

 

No one is entirely certain what brings the Emperor Sikander to Shalingar. Until now, the idyllic kingdom has been immune to his many violent conquests. To keep the visit friendly, Princess Amrita has offered herself as his bride, sacrificing everything—family, her childhood love, and her freedom—to save her people. But her offer isn’t enough.

The unthinkable happens, and Amrita finds herself a fugitive, utterly alone but for an oracle named Thala, who was kept by Sikander as a slave and managed to escape amid the chaos of a palace under siege. With nothing and no one else to turn to, Amrita and Thala are forced to rely on each other. But while Amrita feels responsible for her kingdom and sets out to warn her people, the newly free Thala has no such ties. She encourages Amrita to go on a quest to find the fabled Library of All Things, where it is possible for each of them to reverse their fates. To go back to before Sikander took everything from them.

Stripped of all that she loves, caught between her rosy past and an unknown future, will Amrita be able to restore what was lost, or does another life—and another love—await?

three-half-stars

About Aditi Khorana

Aditi Khorana spent part of her childhood in India, Denmark and New England. She has a BA in International Relations from Brown University and an MA in Global Media and Communications from the Annenberg School for Communication. She has worked as a journalist at ABC News, CNN, and PBS, and most recently as a marketing executive consulting for various Hollywood studios including Fox, Paramount and Sony.

Mirror in the Sky (Razorbill/Penguin, 2016) was her first novel. The upcoming Library of Fates (July 2017) is feminist historical fantasy, set in ancient India, and tells the story of a louche, misogynistic dictator overthrowing an idyllic kingdom, and the women who fight to wrench it back from his hands.

Aditi lives in Los Angeles and spends her free time reading, hiking, and exploring LA’s eclectic and wonderful architecture.

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.

ARC Review: The Party by Robyn Harding

ARC Review:  The Party by Robyn HardingThe Party by Robyn Harding
four-stars
Published by Gallery/Scout Press on June 6th 2017
Genres: 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:  In this stunning and provocative domestic drama about a sweet sixteen birthday party that goes horribly awry, a wealthy family in San Francisco finds their picture-perfect life unraveling, their darkest secrets revealed, and their friends turned to enemies.

One invitation. A lifetime of regrets.

Sweet sixteen. It’s an exciting coming of age, a milestone, and a rite of passage. Jeff and Kim Sanders plan on throwing a party for their daughter, Hannah—a sweet girl with good grades and nice friends. Rather than an extravagant, indulgent affair, they invite four girls over for pizza, cake, movies, and a sleepover. What could possibly go wrong?

But things do go wrong, horrifically so. After a tragic accident occurs, Jeff and Kim’s flawless life in a wealthy San Francisco suburb suddenly begins to come apart. In the ugly aftermath, friends become enemies, dark secrets are revealed in the Sanders’ marriage, and the truth about their perfect daughter, Hannah, is exposed.

Harkening to Herman Koch’s The Dinner, Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, and Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, The Party takes us behind the façade of the picture-perfect family, exposing the lies, betrayals, and moral lapses that neighbors don’t see—and the secrets that children and parents keep from themselves and each other.

 

MY REVIEW

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I started reading Robyn Harding’s The Party.  I was looking for what I liked to call a guilty pleasure or indulgent read, and when I saw this book advertised as something fans of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies would enjoy, I knew The Party was the book I was looking for.

And wow, what a ride it took me on! It actually surprised me how much I enjoyed it because, truth be told, none of the characters are especially likeable and they all made such bad choices throughout the story that I found myself literally wanting to scream at them.  But still, there was just something almost intoxicating about watching this domestic drama play out.

The story begins on a simple note when Kim and Jeff Sanders, a wealthy couple who have what appears to be a picture perfect life in an affluent community in San Francisco, decide they want to throw their daughter, Hannah, a Sweet Sixteen party.  Their version of a Sweet Sixteen party, however, is Hannah being allowed to invite a few of her best girl friends from school over for pizza and a sleepover.  Sounds innocent enough, right?  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, Hannah’s parents have no idea that she is desperately trying to climb her way up the social ladder at school and wants to be a part of the “Mean Girls” crowd.  Hannah knows that if she’s going to be accepted by the coolest girls in school, she is going to have to step up her party game. Pizza and a slumber party just isn’t going to cut it.  Once the girls arrive and Kim lays down her list of rules – no alcohol, no drugs, no boys, etc., the girls are left to their own devices, which includes breaking pretty much every house rule that was laid out for them.  The next thing Kim and Jeff know, it’s the middle of the night and Hannah is standing in their bedroom, crying and covered in blood. There has been a terrible accident…

The rest of the novel follows the Sanders family as their lives are laid bare in the wake of this accident, which has left a girl, Ronni, permanently disfigured.  Ronni’s mother goes on the attack, determined to make Kim and Jeff pay for what has happened to her daughter, and their friends take sides as some think they are culpable for what happened regardless of having laid down the house rules prior to leaving the girls unattended.  In the wake of an impending lawsuit, family secrets and mistakes from the past resurface to haunt them, and as the layers are peeled away from the façade of the Sanders’ lives, it appears that Kim and Jeff’s perfect life isn’t nearly as perfect as it seemed on the surface.  It also appears that many in the community are taking great pleasure in watching them, especially Kim, fall.

Ironically though, even though everyone is basically ganging up on them, it’s still nearly impossible to feel any sympathy for the Sanders because as if the party itself wasn’t a bad enough situation, they continue to make horrible decisions from that point forward.  Kim walks around acting self-righteous and denying that they are in anyway responsible.  Some of the things she says about Ronni and especially her mother are just completely out of line, considering the circumstance.  And Jeff is no better.  He spends his time trying to hide the fact that after Kim laid down the house rules the night of the party, he snuck back to the party and gave the girls a bottle of champagne so they could properly celebrate Hannah’s milestone birthday.  He begs all of the girls involved not to rat him out and somehow accidently leads one of them on so that she starts sending him inappropriate texts, etc., all of which would make him look awful if it were to ever come out because of the lawsuit.  Every time he responded to her, I just wanted to yell at him to stop being such an idiot.

I almost got to the point where I thought they deserved whatever happened to them because they were both such annoying characters.  On the flip side though, although I felt sympathy for the girl who was disfigured, I was only semi-sympathetic to the way her mother went on the attack, determined not just to do what she could to take care of her daughter, but also hell bent on doing whatever she could to actually ruin the Sanders in every way possible.

 

LIKES

Okay, so if I didn’t like any of the characters, what did I like about The Party?  As I said, I was looking for a guilty pleasure read when I selected this book and I got exactly what I wanted. The story reads like a mashup of Big Little Lies, Mean Girls, with a side of Desperate Housewives thrown in for added flavor.  It’s a truly fascinating look at just how ugly and mean people can be.

And even though I didn’t like any of the characters, I still liked the way they were written.  They were all flawed and therefore utterly human. I also found everything that happened to be pretty relatable and realistic in the sense that all of the things that went wrong – the party, the accident, and all of the ensuing drama and meanness, etc. — could easily play out in any community, as could the bullying that took place at Hannah’s school once Ronni was deemed not pretty enough to hang around with the “cool” kids anymore.

I loved the pacing of the story too. There was never a dull moment because there was constant drama unfolding from all sides as I waited to see if the Sanders would ultimately be held legally responsible for what happened at the party and regardless, how they would begin to put their lives back together after the character assassination they faced from the victim’s mother and her attorneys.

I also liked that the story was told from multiple points of view, including Hannah, Jeff, Kim, as well as others in the community.  Seeing what was driving each character really fleshed out the story and made the drama that much juicier.

 

DISLIKES

The only real dislike I had was the ending.  I can’t say much about it without giving it away, but it was not a satisfying ending for me. I wanted lessons to be learned from what had happened, and while I think some of the characters did learn and grow, the one I wanted to learn and grow the most apparently learned nothing. The ending was shocking and unexpected so in that sense was highly entertaining, but I was still a little disappointed.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re a fan of domestic dramas like Big Little Lies or Desperate Housewives and don’t mind characters who aren’t especially likeable, I’d say The Party is well worth a read.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

four-stars

About Robyn Harding

Robyn Harding is the author of several books and has written and executive produced an independent film. She lives in Vancouver, BC with her husband and two children.

ARC Review – Once, In Lourdes

ARC Review – Once, In LourdesOnce, in Lourdes by Sharon Solwitz
three-stars
Published by Spiegel & Grau on May 30th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
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:  A poignant novel of teenage friendship set during a two-week span in the turbulent summer of 1968, in which four friends make a pact that will change their lives forever.

Four high school friends stand on the brink of adulthood—and on the high ledge above the sea at the local park in Lourdes, Michigan, they call the Haight—and make a pact. For the next two weeks, they will live for each other and for each day. And at the end of the two weeks, they will stand once again on the bluff and jump, sacrificing themselves on the altar of their friendship. Loyal Kate, beautiful Vera, witty C.J., and steady Saint—in a two-week span, their lives will change beyond their expectations, and what they gain and lose will determine whether they enter adulthood or hold fast to their pledge. Once, in Lourdes is a haunting and moving novel of the power of teenage bonds, the story of four characters who will win your heart and transport you back to your own high school years.

 

MY REVIEW

 

Once, In Lourdes is a story that, I have to confess, left me scratching my head.  I’m also finding it a little hard to review so I’m basically just going to jump in and ramble for a bit.  In the opening pages of Once, In Lourdes, we meet four teens – Kay, Vera, Saint, and CJ.  They are basically outsiders at their school who managed to find their way to each other and form a pretty strong bond of friendship. When we meet them, three of them are at the park playing bridge while the fourth, Vera, is conspicuously absent.  Once she finally does arrive, there is something amiss with her and her friends pry until she finally confesses that she has just dropped acid for the first time.  After this confession, Vera then announces that she thinks the four of them should all kill themselves in a grand “f*** you” kind of gesture to everyone around them.  After much discussion, the other three agree and they actually draw up a suicide pact where they pledge to live their lives fully for the next two weeks and then on the fourteenth day, they will return to the park at dawn, climb up on the bluff wall and throw themselves off the wall and on to the rocks below. The rest of the novel follows the four teens for those two weeks leading up to the agreed upon date of death.

 

LIKES

 

I have mixed feelings about the story overall, but I would definitely give the author full marks for her recreation of the summer of 1968.  With her inclusion of little details like Bob Dylan’s music, dropping acid, sexual freedom, protests, and discussion of the Vietnam War, Solwitz captured the atmosphere perfectly and makes you feel like you’re experiencing the late 60’s era. It felt very authentic and I did love that.

I also liked how Solwitz was able to create suspense with this story.  Even though I had a few issues with the story overall, I still read this in about a day because I was so curious about why these kids were so eager to end their lives and I really wanted to know if they would actually go through it or not.  Since the story is being told from Kay’s point of view, I knew she had obviously survived but the fates of the others was very unclear.

 

DISLIKES

 

My biggest issue with the story was that I had a hard time connecting with any of the teens, even with Kay even though we probably got to know her the best out of the four.  I don’t know if it’s just because I’m older and too far removed from my teenage years, but I just felt nothing but frustration over the fact that these kids were willing to throw their lives away.  Following them for those two weeks, it was clear to see that they each came from somewhat dysfunctional home lives – there are some instances of abuse, both physical and verbal.  I understood that life was a struggle for them at times, but every step of the way, all I kept thinking was “OMG, you guys are about to be high school seniors. One more year and you’re out of here anyway. Why throw everything away to make some tragic statement?” Maybe if I had connected with the characters more, I’d feel more understanding about their reasoning for making this suicide pact but as it was, I just felt like a curious onlooker watching these kids.  Plus, their version of living life to the fullest and living it for themselves just didn’t really resonate with me either.  For the most part, it just felt like they squandered those moments if they were indeed meant to be their final moments.

One other issue I had with the novel was that it was full of very long paragraphs.  I’m sure this is just a personal quirk with me, but I prefer writing that is broken up into smaller paragraphs.  Turning a page and seeing a paragraph that is over half a page long just makes me sigh and start to skim, especially when the novel is full of them. If long paragraphs don’t bother you, this probably wouldn’t be an issue like it was for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

As I said, even though I had some issues and wished I could have better connected with the characters, their journey and their fate was still compelling enough to keep me reading until the end even if I didn’t fully understand their motives for making the pact. Once, In Lourdes is filled with dark themes – suicide, abuse, even incest – but if you can handle those, it also provides an intimate look at just how far friends are willing to go for one another.

 

RATING:  3 STARS

 

Huge thanks to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for providing me with an e-galley of this book in exchange for my honest review. This is no way affects my opinion of the book.

 

 

three-stars

About Sharon Solwitz

Sharon Solwitz is the author of a novel, Bloody Mary, and a collection of short stories, Blood and Milk, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the prize for adult fiction from the Society of Midland Authors, and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Several of her stories have been featured in Pushcart Prize anthologies and Best American Short Stories. Other honors for her individual stories, which have appeared in such magazines as TriQuarterly, Mademoiselle, and Ploughshares, include the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Nelson Algren Literary Award, and grants and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council. Solwitz teaches fiction writing at Purdue University and lives in Chicago with her husband, the poet Barry Silesky.