Review: SKY IN THE DEEP by Adrienne Young

Review:  SKY IN THE DEEP by Adrienne YoungSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
four-stars
Published by Wednesday Books on April 24, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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:

As soon as I realized Sky in the Deep was about Vikings, it immediately became one of my most anticipated reads of 2018.  (Have I mentioned that I love Viking stories?)  I was hoping for an exciting, action-packed read, and I’m thrilled to say that I got that and so much more.  Sky in the Deep opens with our main character, 17 year old Eelyn, and her Aska clan engaged in battle with their lifelong enemies, the Riki clan.  The fighting is fierce and the energy is electric, but all of that fades away when Eelyn sees something on the battlefield she never expects to see – her brother, who she watched die in battle five years ago, apparently alive and well and fighting for her enemy.  It’s a total WTF moment and I was immediately hooked and, like Eelyn, I had so many questions that I wanted answers to.

How is it possible that Eelyn’s brother is there if she actually saw him die?  And why in the world would he be fighting against his own people and for his sworn enemy?

During one of the clashes between the Aska and Riki, Eelyn is captured and taken up into the mountains to the Riki village.  If she can survive winter in the mountains surrounded by all of her enemies, she has the opportunity to confront her brother face to face and demand answers.

But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan who has also attacked the Aska village in the past – the same clan who killed Eelyn’s mother — Eelyn becomes desperate to get back to her family.  It becomes clear that if the Aska and the Riki are going to survive, they’re going to need to work together to defeat their common enemy.

Can Eelyn convince her father that the Riki are not their enemy and that they need each other?

Eelyn was such an epic main character. I really loved her.  She’s a fierce and proud Aska warrior and her loyalty to both her family and her clan knows no bounds.  Some of my favorite scenes from Sky in the Deep are those scenes where Eelyn is out there fighting like a total badass on the battlefield.  What I also loved about her character though is that she’s not all fierceness and badassery – she’s also a vulnerable and conflicted sister who fears that her brother is a traitor to her people and doesn’t know what to do about it or how to feel about it.  I thought the author did an incredible job of conveying every emotion Eelyn was feeling.  Her pain was palpable, as was her anger, her initial hatred of the Riki, her feelings of betrayal, etc.  Everything about Eelyn was so vividly depicted that it was just very easy to feel a connection with her.

Sky in the Deep is one of those books that I would consider to be the best of both worlds – if you enjoy action-packed battle scenes, you’ll love it, but if you enjoy character and relationship-driven stories, you’ll love it too.  The battle scenes were truly thrilling.  There were axes and swords flying everywhere and I was on the edge of my seat each time Eelyn fought, hoping that she would make it through unscathed.  The scenes were vivid and somewhat graphic but didn’t really veer over into outright gory territory, which worked well for me.

As if those action-packed scenes weren’t fabulous enough, the book is also filled with relationships that just really got to me.  I’ve already mentioned the conflicted relationship between Eelyn and her brother.  That one just broke my heart because Eelyn was so crushed to think her brother was a traitor. I really wanted to hate him for hurting Eelyn with his betrayal, but then we hear his side of the story, and everything I initially thought of him got turned on its head and I just wanted brother and sister to reconcile so badly.

The brother-sister relationship takes center stage when it comes to relationships, but it’s not the only relationship by far.  I thought the author did a beautiful job depicting the evolution of the relationship between the Aska and Riki clans once they realize they face a common threat and need to band together if they hope to survive.  I loved the range of emotions that she has the various Aska and Riki clanspeople, Eelyn and her captor Fiske in particular, move through – the long-standing hatred, the mistrust, the curiosity, tentative acceptance, friendship, etc.  These relationships were all so messy and so realistic and I just ate them up!

And yes, there is a romantic relationship as well. And guess what?  I didn’t hate it!  Why?  Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that it was a subtle relationship that gradually developed over the course of the story and I never felt like it took over the story or distracted from anything else that was going on.  There’s no insta-love at all – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  It’s enemies to lovers all the way, which apparently I’m a huge fan of!

Even though I loved Sky in the Deep overall, I did have a bit of an issue with uneven pacing.  Those action-packed battle scenes had me absolutely flying through the pages, as did the scenes where Eelyn confronted her brother or where she clashed with her captors. But then I would hit the occasional lull when the story focused more on the day-to-day life of the Riki and Eelyn’s thoughts as she watched them and did chores for them.

These domestic-focused chapters were still beautifully written– let me be very clear on that– and they definitely served a purpose, which was to show Eelyn that her sworn enemies are normal people just like she and her fellow Aska are.  My issue was mainly that reading about sewing and gardening and other chores just felt a little mundane in comparison to the adrenaline rush that goes along with reading about someone slashing and hacking their way across a battlefield. I think this would have been a 5-star read for me if there had been fewer passages that dealt with household chores.

Sky in the Deep is a fantastic read that has something for everyone.  If you’re into character-driven books that feature fierce females and plenty of complicated relationships, then this is a book for you.  However, if you’re into action-packed stories that feature warring Viking clans, this is a book for you too.  And finally, if you’re into a slow-burn romance featuring enemies who suddenly don’t hate each other quite as much as they thought they did, then yes, Sky in the Deep is for you as well.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

OND ELDR. BREATHE FIRE.

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother’s betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.

four-stars

About Adrienne Young

Adrienne Young is a born and bred Texan turned California girl. She is a foodie with a deep love of history and travel and a shameless addiction to coffee. When she’s not writing, you can find her on her yoga mat, scouring antique fairs for old books, sipping wine over long dinners, or disappearing into her favorite art museums. She lives with her documentary filmmaker husband and their four little wildlings beneath the West Coast sun.

Review: SCHOOL FOR PSYCHICS

Review:  SCHOOL FOR PSYCHICSSchool for Psychics by K.C. Archer
three-half-stars
Series: School for Psychics #1
on April 3, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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:

K.C. Archer’s School for Psychics is the first novel in a new urban fantasy series of the same name.  I was initially drawn to this book because I have a thing for books that are set in boarding schools for young people with special abilities or skills and when I read the synopsis for this book, I immediately got vibes of the Harry Potter series and Nevernight.  Those are two of my favorites so the idea of a similar book but that focuses on training psychics instead of wizards or assassins had me totally on board.

School for Psychics follows twenty-something Teddy Cannon, a bright and resourceful young woman who has an uncanny ability to read people.  Even though Teddy is smart, however, she has apparently made some questionable decisions in her life and is currently living in her parents’ garage in a make-shift apartment.  When the story opens, we learn that Teddy has also been banned from nearly every casino in the Las Vegas area.  She has been using her ability to read people to win money in the casinos and also gotten into some trouble with some unsavory individuals that she now owes a lot of money to.  We meet Teddy as she is dressed incognito trying to sneak into a casino with money she has “borrowed” from her parents in hopes of turning it into major winnings so that she can pay back her gambling debt. Teddy’s plan goes awry, however, and she tries unsuccessfully to make a fast getaway. A stranger intervenes and gets her out of trouble, only to then tell her that he has been watching her.  He informs her that she can read people the way she can because she is actually psychic.  He then invites her to come to the School of Psychics where she can train with others like her in areas such as telepathy, telekinesis, investigative skills, and SWAT tactics.  Upon graduation, she would go on to serve the U.S. government, using her skills to protect America, and the world.

Teddy is of course skeptical but ultimately agrees to come to the school.  In her mind, she has been a screw up for most of her life and would love to finally be able to do something to make her adoptive parents proud of her.  At first the school is pretty much what Teddy expected it to be. She slowly begins to settle in, get used to her classes, and for the first time, actually make real friends.  But then strange things start happening – there are break-ins, students go missing, and more.  It leads Teddy to become part of a dangerous mission, one that will ultimately cause her to question everything she thought she knew – her teachers, her friends, her family, and even herself.

 

Teddy was definitely a big draw for me.  I liked her character from the first moment I met her, trying to scam her way into that casino.  She was the ultimate underdog so I immediately found myself in her corner.  She’s also one of those complicated, messy characters that I so adore.  I saw that right away  when she demonstrated street smarts and tremendous confidence with just a hint of guilt about what she had done to her parents.  I liked how conflicted she was and wanted to not only learn more about her, but I also wanted her to succeed, not only in the short term when it came to getting herself out of trouble but also in her desire to finally do something to make her parents proud.

She’s also a very realistic character in the sense that she is in no way perfect and tends to make questionable choices quite often.  One that immediately comes to mind happens almost as soon as she arrives at the school. She shows up late to one portion of her entrance exam because she got drunk and hooked up with a guy.  I just sat there like “Whhhyyyyyyy? How are you supposed to turn things around and make your parents proud if you get kicked out before you even start?!”  She frustrated me to no end with decisions like that, but it made her character growth as I moved through the story that much more satisfying.  She’s still not perfect by any stretch by the end, but she has come so far.

On a slightly different note, I also found her psychic abilities quite fascinating.  All of her classmates had interesting abilities as well, but Teddy’s abilities were quite rare and apparently were inherited from her birth parents who died in a car accident when she was very young.  Her rare abilities make her of particular interest to those in change.

The setting also really appealed to me, both the Las Vegas setting where Teddy starts out and then the island off the California coast where the school is set.  I was especially intrigued by that since at one point, it’s mentioned that some students can see Alcatraz prison from their windows.  I just thought that was cool.

Finally, I liked the mystery that comes into play by about the halfway point of the book.  It moves the story to a whole new level by having it be about more than just this group of young people attending classes and honing their skills.  I don’t want to go into any details about what the mystery is about, other than to say it basically turns Teddy’s entire life and everything she has ever thought she knew about herself and her birth parents upside down and it also opens the door for this series to take an exciting and possibly darker turn as we have to consider what the government could be using people with Teddy’s abilities for.  Is it all solely for the common good?

 

While I did end up enjoying School for Psychics overall, I do have to admit that my reaction to the early chapters was mixed.  The opening scene with Teddy running her scam in the casino hooked me immediately but then surprisingly enough, once Teddy got to the school, I found myself less interested and actually more confused than anything else.  Why? Mainly because Teddy and her new classmates are supposed to be young adults, with Teddy in particular being in her twenties, but most of them seem so immature.  Teddy confused me the most in this respect because while she was running her scam at the casino, she came across as very street smart and worldly, but then as soon as she stepped onto the campus of the school for psychics, it’s like her personality changed and she became obsessed with every cute guy she came across.  It was a little off-putting how immature she suddenly seemed and I thought about giving up on the book at that point, but thankfully Teddy quickly settled in and began to focus more on her classes and less on the guys.

One other issue I had, which was also early on in the book was what I considered to be a case of flawed logic.  It made no sense to me why this school would recruit students, have them pack up all their belongings and fly to California, only to tell them once they arrive on campus that they have to pass a series of tests in order to determine whether or not they would be a good fit at the school. In Teddy’s case, she is recruited and told that if she gives them four years of her life, they’ll settle her gambling debts and make sure her parents are safe from the guys who were threatening Teddy when the novel opens.  Why make a promise like that to her but then have her take these tests to see if she can stay at the school?  Again, I was glad I persevered since I ended up enjoying the rest of the story, but for a few chapters there, it had me wondering what I was getting myself into.

 

Even though I got off to a slightly rocky start with School of Psychics, the story definitely got stronger and stronger as it went along.  I think it’s a solid first book for this new series and I look forward to seeing what’s in store for Teddy and her classmates in the next installment.  I’d recommend School of Psychics for anyone like me who enjoys books set in boarding schools, as well as for anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and/or mysteries and has any interest in psychic abilities.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

An entrancing new series starring a funny, impulsive, and sometimes self-congratulatory young woman who discovers she has psychic abilities—and then must decide whether she will use her skills for good or…not.

Teddy Cannon isn’t your typical twenty-something woman. She’s resourceful. She’s bright. She’s scrappy. She can also read people with uncanny precision. What she doesn’t realize: she’s actually psychic.

When a series of bad decisions leads Teddy to a run-in with the police, a mysterious stranger intervenes. He invites her to apply to the School for Psychics, a facility hidden off the coast of San Francisco where students are trained like Delta Force operatives: it’s competitive, cutthroat, and highly secretive. They’ll learn telepathy, telekinesis, investigative skills, and SWAT tactics. And if students survive their training, they go on to serve at the highest levels of government, using their skills to protect America, and the world.

In class, Teddy befriends Lucas, a rebel without a cause who can start and manipulate fire; Jillian, a hipster who can mediate communication between animals and humans; and Molly, a hacker who can apprehend the emotional state of another individual. But just as Teddy feels like she’s found where she might belong, strange things begin to happen: break-ins, missing students, and more. It leads Teddy to accept a dangerous mission that will ultimately cause her to question everything—her teachers, her friends, her family, and even herself.

Set in a world very much like our own, School for Psychics is the first book in a stay-up-all night series.

three-half-stars

About K.C. Archer

K.C. Archer is a pseudonym. School for Psychics is the first book in a new series.

Review: STARRY EYES by Jenn Bennett

Review:  STARRY EYES by Jenn BennettStarry Eyes by Jenn Bennett
four-half-stars
Published by Simon Pulse on April 3, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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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:

Starry Eyes is a young adult contemporary novel that follows teens Zorie and Lennon.  Zorie and Lennon used to be best friends but, because of something that happened at the homecoming dance, they are now sworn enemies and do everything they can to avoid one another at all costs.  I had never read a book by Jean Bennett before and knew absolutely nothing about these characters, but as soon as I read that in the synopsis, I was dying to know what happened at that dance to drive them apart.

I then read further down the synopsis and saw that these enemies somehow not only end up on a camping trip together, but somehow they end up stranded in the wilderness together.  It sounded like a recipe for disaster, but also a recipe for a fantastic read!

As if the mystery of what happened between Zorie and Lennon and whether or not they would kill each other on this camping trip wasn’t compelling enough, the synopsis goes on to describe their parents as modern day versions of the Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet.  That right there was more than enough to have me dying to read this book.  I mean, seriously…bffs who now hate each other and who have families who are also feuding?  Does that not just scream “READ ME”?  Well, it did for me anyway…

And I loved every page of it.  Jenn Bennett delivers a moving story filled with characters that I fell in love with.  Even though on the surface, Starry Eyes is a book about a camping trip gone wrong, it’s also about family, love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and so much more.  It captured all of my emotions and was just everything I hoped it would be.

 

Zorie.  I just loved everything about Zorie.  I found her addiction to planning and organization, along with her sense of humor and her fondness for astronomy, so endearing. I also found her incredibly relatable at times, especially when she first encounters Lennon.  They’re enemies at this point and she would rather do just about anything than have to come face-to-face with him.  Haven’t we all been in that position before?  Equally relatable was her questionable taste in romantic interests.  Zorie has a crush on a guy named Brett, and I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I’m just going to say this guy is just the worst.  I couldn’t figure out what in the world she saw in him. But again, haven’t we all been there at some point?  I think what I liked most about Zorie, however, was how much she matured throughout the story.  Again, no spoilers, but between what happened with Lennon and what has been going on within her own family, Zorie has a lot of issues that she is dealing with and I think she shows tremendous growth as we move through the story, In many ways, it’s actually a coming of age story for her.

Lennon.  Even though I thought going in that I would side with either Zorie or Lennon, I found myself equally attached to both of them.  Lennon is just this cool guy.  He’s a little dark and emo at times, but he loves reptiles and he loves camping and nature so he’s a pretty well rounded and interesting individual.  He really won me over though in an early scene where he’s working in a pet shop and showing reptiles to a young child.  He was just so great with the child that it warmed my heart and made me all the more curious about what happened between him and Zorie.  I mean, how could you not want to be friends or even more than friends with such a great guy!

Zorie and Lennon together.  Yes, you read that correctly! Even though I almost always whine and moan  when there is a romance in a book, I adored watching Zorie and Lennon together as they attempted to rebuild their relationship.  Their chemistry felt real because they already had so much history together, and I loved how authentic the awkwardness felt when they first start trying to talk to each other again, and because I liked them both so much, I just really wanted them to have a second chance, either as friend or hopefully as more than friends since they seemed so perfect together.

Great secondary characters.  Bennett does a fantastic job with most of the parents in this story.  I loved Lennon’s moms and their Toys in the Attic sex shop.  They were hilarious and also two of the best parents I’ve come across in books in a long time. I especially love how protective they are of Zorie, even though they’re supposed to be feuding with Zorie’s dad.  Zorie’s stepmom is wonderful too.  The bond she has with Zorie was lovely, especially since they aren’t related by blood.  Zorie’s dad is a different story in that I loathed him, but I will say he was not a flat character either.

Glamping.  I confess that I completely related to Zorie’s aversion to going camping because I don’t do the outdoors either, especially the whole sleeping in a tent with nothing but some canvas between you and whatever else it out there in the wild, lol. That said, however, I could totally get down with glamping.  It sounded fabulous, especially the wonderful sleeping accommodations, the showers, the chef, and the cocktail hours.  Sign me up!

I could literally go on and on about what I loved, but you get the idea…

 

Aside from wanting Brett to get eaten by a bear, I didn’t really have any issues with this book.

 

This may have been my first Jenn Bennett read, but it will most certainly not be my last.  If you’re looking for a heartwarming read about family, friendship, and first loves, I’d highly recommend Starry Eyes. 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Ever since last year’s homecoming dance, best friends-turned-best enemies Zorie and Lennon have made an art of avoiding each other. It doesn’t hurt that their families are the modern day, Californian version of the Montagues and Capulets.

But when a group camping trip goes south, Zorie and Lennon find themselves stranded in the wilderness. Alone. Together.

What could go wrong?

With no one but each other for company, Zorie and Lennon have no choice but to hash out their issues via witty jabs and insults as they try to make their way to safety. But fighting each other while also fighting off the forces of nature makes getting out of the woods in one piece less and less likely.

And as the two travel deeper into Northern California’s rugged backcountry, secrets and hidden feelings surface. But can Zorie and Lennon’s rekindled connection survive out in the real world? Or was it just a result of the fresh forest air and the magic of the twinkling stars?

four-half-stars

About Jenn Bennett

Jenn Bennett is an award-winning author of young adult contemporary romance books, including: Alex, Approximately; The Anatomical Shape of a Heart; and Starry Eyes. She also writes romance and urban fantasy for adults (the Roaring Twenties and Arcadia Bell series). Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, won the Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award, garnered two Reviewers’ Choice awards and a Seal of Excellence from RT Book Reviews, and been included on Publishers Weekly Best Books annual list. She lives near Atlanta with one husband and two dogs.

Review: THE BELLES

Review:  THE BELLESThe Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
four-stars
Series: The Belles #1
Published by Disney-Hyperion on February 6, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 440
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Dhonielle Clayton’s gorgeous novel The Belles immersed me in one of the most unique fantasy worlds I’ve encountered in a long time.  I was captivated from the novel’s early pages as we are introduced to the legend of a curse that hangs over the heads of the people of Orleans.  The land of Orleans itself is exquisite, but its residents live under a terrible curse that causes them all to be born gray with red eyes.  Because of their cursed appearance, they think of themselves as anything but beautiful and, in fact, become downright obsessed with doing whatever they can to improve their appearance.

The curse is where the Belles come into play.  The Belles control beauty and have the ability, through magical gifts called arcana, to transform the gray-skinned, red-eyed citizens of Orleans into the most beautiful people in the world.  They can change skin tones, hair color and texture, eye color, and can even use their magic to sculpt bodies as though they were plastic surgeons.  Beauty is therefore a big deal in Orleans and the Belles are cherished by the citizens because of what they can do for them.  Whatever look they wish to have, the Belles can make it happen for them.  Well, for those who can afford it anyway.  Beauty is quite literally a big business in Orleans and appointments with the Belles do not come cheap.

This life of making others beautiful is all the Belles know. It’s what they were born to do and as we see with Camellia, the main character, and her Belle sisters, initially they’re happy to do it because they think they’re doing a public service…until they realize all that it entails. Once selected to work either at the royal palace or at one of the selective teahouses and effectively removed from the public’s eye, all of that cherished behavior goes away and the Belles are treated little better than prisoners or slaves. They work long hard hours, until they’re practically collapsing from exhaustion and overuse of their powers, and those in charge don’t care as long as the money keeps rolling in and the customers keep lining up.

Camellia is especially disappointed because she expects to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become ‘The Favorite’ and work in the royal palace, but once she finally gets there, she realizes that being ‘The Favorite’ isn’t nearly as wonderful as she thought it would be.  In fact, it’s downright awful as she encounters nothing but deceit, dark secrets, betrayals, and just so much ugliness in general. She finds herself at the mercy of Sophia, a particularly sadistic princess who constantly commands Camellia to use her arcana for revenge, to make people she doesn’t like ugly.  Camellia is horrified by just how cruel and twisted Sophia is and becomes even more horrified when she realizes Sophia is in line to become Queen unless her ailing older sister can be cured of the mystery illness that has left her in a coma for years.   The Queen, who is also ailing but is desperate to keep Sophia off the throne, begs Camellia for her help.

Even though it’s never been done before, can Camellia somehow use her arcana to heal the eldest royal daughter?  The future of Orleans rests on her shoulders and Camellia must decide if she’s willing to take a risk that could cost her her own life…

Camellia.  I found Camellia to be a compelling main character. She’s not perfect by any means, as we witness early in the book when she throws a near tantrum over the choosing of ‘The Favorite’, but she shows tremendous growth and compassion throughout the book, especially when she realizes the truth about The Belles and how they are treated, as well as once she sees firsthand just how sadistic and cruel Princess Sophia can be to those around her.  I immediately began cheering Camellia on and hoping she would find a way to rebel against the evil Sophia.

Speaking of Sophia, if you’re into characters you love to hate, Sophia is definitely your girl.  There is truly nothing redeeming about her personality that I could find.  I cringed every time I turned the page and her name was there because I just knew she was there to inflict her cruelty on yet another innocent person who had done nothing to her.  She may be exquisitely beautiful on the outside, thanks to the work of the Belles, but she is rotten to the core ugly on the inside.

The Worldbuilding and Magic System. I found everything about this world to be utterly captivating.  Orleans itself is opulent and beautiful, and I loved the author’s attention to detail as she described it.  Even more fascinating though was the actual legend that the book opens with, which explains how the curse came to be and how the Belles were then created to offset the curse.  It was all just so inventive and the magical system of arcana and how they could be used to create beauty was mesmerizing.  The author’s attention to detail as she described the process was truly exquisite and just so easy to visualize.

Beauty as a Veneer.  I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going into The Belles, but it really struck me how much ugliness the author exposes in this beauty-obsessed world.  It was a much darker read than I was expecting and I appreciated the added depth as Clayton rips that surface layer of beauty off and exposes what lies beneath, and in the case of the palace and the teahouses, it’s lies, betrayals, greed, unspeakable cruelty, and so much more.

The only real issue I had with The Belles had to do with pacing.  Once I saw a few demonstrations of what the Belles could do with their arcana to transform and sculpt peoples’ bodies, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what their powers entailed.  Unfortunately though, the book doesn’t stop at just one or two beauty transformations. I understood that Camellia’s position required her to have regularly scheduled appointments throughout the day to make people beautiful, and even though I initially loved reading about how the process worked, there were just so many detailed, step-by-step accounts of these appointments that I started to get a little bored and skimmed through them to get to the more exciting parts.

The obsession with beauty brings out a lot of ugliness in people and The Belles powerfully explores and exposes this ugliness.  The first book ends with a pretty big cliffhanger so I look forward to reading the second book in the series to see how that turns out.  Is rebellion on the horizon for Camellia and the Belles?

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

four-stars

About Dhonielle Clayton

Dhonielle Clayton is the co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things series. She grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs on the Maryland side and spent most of her time under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. A former teacher and middle school librarian, Dhonielle is co-founder of CAKE Literary—a creative development company whipping up decidedly diverse books for a wide array of readers—and COO of the non-profit, We Need Diverse Books. She’s got a serious travel bug and loves spending time outside of the USA, but makes her home in New York City, where she can most likely be found hunting for the best slice of pizza.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for DARK MATTER and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for DARK MATTER and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOWDark Matter by Blake Crouch
five-stars
Published by Crown on July 26th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction, Thriller
Pages: 342
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

“Are you happy with your life?”

Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious.

Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits.

Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”

In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor, but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable. Something impossible.

Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

From the author of the bestselling Wayward Pines trilogy, Dark Matter is a brilliantly plotted tale that is at once sweeping and intimate, mind-bendingly strange and profoundly human—a relentlessly surprising science-fiction thriller about choices, paths not taken, and how far we’ll go to claim the lives we dream of.

Review:

Dark Matter is a fast-paced sci-fi novel that, at its essence, explores how far a man will go to get back to his loved ones.  It follows Jason, a man who has a pretty decent life.  He’s got a wife who loves him, a great teenage son, and a job as a science professor at a local university in Chicago.  One night Jason goes out to buy ice cream and his entire world turns upside down.  He is abducted at gunpoint, drugged, and wakes up in a world that he doesn’t recognize.  It’s still Chicago, but it’s not his Chicago.  In the version of Chicago Jason wakes up in, not only does he not have a wife and child, but he’s also an award-winning physicist who has been working on and apparently testing a way to travel in the multiverse.  His theory is similar to time travel, except that instead of actually traveling through time, you can travel to an unlimited number of parallel universes, each of which were created at key moments in one’s life when choices had to be made.  Jason quickly realizes that someone has used his invention to steal his life and deposit him here in this alternate version of his world and begins a desperate race to find his way back home to his family.

I loved pretty much everything about this book.  I thought the premise was unique and I thought the author did a brilliant job of incorporating many complex scientific ideas like string theory, while still making the storyline entirely accessible to even a reader who isn’t into science or science fiction.  I thought the pacing of the book was fantastic as well. It was an incredibly suspenseful read and the pacing never lagged.  It actually just got faster and faster until it reached a breakneck pace each time Jason tried and failed to find his way back home.

It was definitely a plot-driven read, although I thought it also posed some very deep philosophical questions, the main one being how far would you go to be reunited with your loved ones…Would you kill someone if it meant you could have your family and your life back?

I’m probably the last person on the planet to read this book, but if you’re looking for a wild ride that will keep you turning pages way past your bedtime, Dark Matter will not disappoint!  5 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for DARK MATTER and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOWThe Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
four-stars
Published by William Morrow on January 2nd 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 427
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.

Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.

What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.

Review:

The Woman in the Window is a riveting psychological thriller that follows main character Anna Fox, a child psychologist who has been forced to retire because she was recently diagnosed with agoraphobia and is afraid to leave her home.  Because her whole world is now confined to her house, Anna has minimal contact with actual people.  She has standing appointments with her psychiatrist and a physical therapist, who are willing to make house calls, but aside from that, Anna spends much of her time online playing chess, taking French lessons, and taking part in an online agoraphobia forum where she, ironically, counsels others who are suffering from her condition and helps them move forward with their lives even though she has been trapped in her home for 10 months now.  When she’s not online, Anna spends the rest of her time either drinking wine, popping prescription pills, or standing at her window with her camera observing her neighbors. She knows all of the comings and goings of her neighbors, and takes a special interest in the new neighbors that move in across the street.  When she accidentally witnesses what appears to be a crime one night while staring at their house and no one believes her when she tries to report it, it turns her entire world upside down to the point where she doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore.  Did she imagine it?  Is there danger across the street?

One of the mysteries of the book that I found most compelling was that there are hints that Anna has suffered some kind of horrific trauma that has led to her agoraphobia, but we must follow the clues throughout the story to get to the truth about what has happened to her.  I actually guessed this plot twist fairly early on, which on the one hand, was a little disappointing, but on the other hand, it also made me feel tremendous empathy for Anna, which I might otherwise not have felt.  This also helped me to better accept why she is such an unreliable character and it made me very invested in wanting to see her get better.

The story of what happened to Anna, coupled with getting to the bottom of what actually happened across the street, made for such a gripping read. I literally could not put this book down.  At one point, I even had my Kindle propped up next to the stove while I was cooking so that I could sneak in a few more pages.  It’s always such a treat to find a book that grabs my attention like that, so with that said, if you’re looking for a suspenseful and twisted thrill ride that will have you questioning what is real vs. what is imagined, I’d highly recommend The Woman in the Window. 4 STARS

five-stars

About A.J. Finn

A.J. Finn has written for numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Times Literary Supplement (UK). A native of New York, Finn lived in England for ten years before returning to New York City.

About Blake Crouch

Blake Crouch is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of the novel, Dark Matter, for which he is writing the screenplay for Sony Pictures. His international-bestselling Wayward Pines trilogy was adapted into a television series for FOX, executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, that was Summer 2015’s #1 show. With Chad Hodge, Crouch also created Good Behavior, the TNT television show starring Michelle Dockery based on his Letty Dobesh novellas. He has written more than a dozen novels that have been translated into over thirty languages and his short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Crouch lives in Colorado.

The best way to stay apprised of new releases is to follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Review: THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIE

Review:  THE ROOM ON RUE AMELIEThe Room on Rue Amélie by Kristin Harmel
three-half-stars
Published by Gallery Books on March 27th 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
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:

Kristin Harmel’s The Room on Rue Amelie takes place in Nazi-occupied Paris in WWII and follows the lives of three people whose lives unexpectedly cross paths during the course of the war:  Ruby Benoit, an American woman living in Paris, Charlotte Dacher, a Jewish teen who lives next door to Ruby, and Thomas Clark, a British RAF pilot who is flying missions over France.

As the novel opens, Ruby meets and marries the man of her dreams, Marcel, a handsome Frenchman.  She and Marcel move to Paris and Ruby dreams of walking hand in hand in the most romantic city in the world.  Her dreams are soon shattered, however, as the Nazis invade France and everything changes, including Marcel, who becomes secretive and who also disappears for days at a time, only to come back and refuse to tell Ruby where he has been or what he is up to.  The tension and the secrecy begin to take a toll on their marriage.  When Marcel is unexpectedly killed, Ruby discovers what he has been so secretive about.  Her discovery is life-changing…

Next door to Ruby and Marcel live Charlotte Dacher and her family, who are Jewish.  They have been hearing rumors about what the Nazis are doing to Jews throughout Eastern Europe.  Sure enough, as soon as the Nazis enter Paris, they begin imposing restrictions on the Jewish people, forcing them out of work and also requiring them to sew yellow stars on all of their clothing.  Soon after, Charlotte and her family realize that all of the rumors they’ve been hearing about Hitler and the Nazis are true, as mass deportations begin and their lives are torn apart.

Thomas Clark is a British Royal Air Force Pilot.  He has joined the RAF because he wants to protect England from Hitler and the Nazis but when his mother is killed in the Blitz, Thomas begins to doubt that anything he is doing is making a difference and questions whether it’s worth it to keep fighting.  That is, until he meets Ruby and Charlotte.  The unexpected connection he makes with them reignites his will to fight and he’s more motivated than ever to defeat the Nazis.

The Room on Rue Amelie is a riveting story about resistance, courage, and defiance in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and it’s also a moving story about love, fate, family, and the sacrifices we’re willing to make for those we love.

I was drawn to The Room on Rue Amelie primarily because the synopsis indicates it would be a great read for fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s The Lilac Girls and in many respects, I was not disappointed with the comparison.

My favorite part of The Room on Rue Amelie was its focus on all of the regular citizens of Paris and surrounding areas and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they defied Hitler and the Nazis.  The spirit of those people were what really made the book for me, especially those who worked on the “Escape Line” that is featured prominently throughout the novel.  The purpose of the Escape Line was to locate downed Allied pilots before the Nazis could get them and then provide them safe passage over the mountains and into Spain where they could then be sent back to rejoin their units and continue the fight against Hitler.  In many ways the Escape Line reminded me of the Underground Railroad with its many stops at different safe houses along the way and I just found it so inspiring that so many citizens were willing to risk their lives to work as part of the Resistance.

In addition to that, I also really loved the characters of Ruby and Charlotte.  They are fiercely, independent women who want to do their part to fight Hitler in any way they can, even though all of the men they encounter want to push them aside and tell them it’s too dangerous and that it’s man’s work.  I was especially drawn to Charlotte since, as a Jew, she was taking even more of a risk than Ruby was by putting herself out there.  I also loved how close Ruby and Charlotte became as the novel progressed.  They go from being mere neighbors to practically being like sisters, and their bond is wonderful to watch, especially since it contrasted so much with all of the tumult and danger that surrounded them.

The way Harmel structured the novel also appealed to me.  It’s told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas so it allows us to watch the war progress from three very different perspectives, which I thought really gave the story a lot of depth.

As much I enjoyed the story overall, I still had a few issues with it. The first is that it was more focused on romance than I expected it to be based on the comparisons in the synopsis to The Nightingale and The Lilac Girls, which don’t really rely on romance at all.  There were a few times while I was reading when it felt like the events of WWII served merely as a backdrop to Ruby and Thomas’s thoughts about each other.  Along similar lines, I was disappointed in the character development of Thomas.  At first I enjoyed following the story from his perspective as he joined the British Royal Air Force, hoping to do his part to defeat the Nazis.  It was interesting following along through his training and as he began to fly missions in the war.  I thought Harmel did a wonderful job of showing all the conflicting emotions Thomas was feeling while in the sky shooting down other men, and then especially after his mother is killed during the Blitz, when he begins to doubt that his efforts are even making a difference in the war.

 But then he just fell sort of flat for me.  Once he meets Ruby, it seems like she’s all he ever thinks about.  He only thinks about the events of the war in terms of how they can get him back to her.  If he gets shot down again, it’s a way back to her.  If he doesn’t go back and fight this time, he can stay with her, etc.  It was a little disappointing how one-track minded he became, especially since it was insta-love between he and Ruby in the first place, which was my final issue with the story.  I guess I just don’t believe in love at first sight because I was not at all sold on the idea that such an all-consuming romance could convincingly take place between two people who interacted for only a few days before parting company.

Even though I had a few issues with The Room on Rue Amelie, I’m still glad I read it because I very much enjoyed reading about the pockets of resistance throughout France and how big of an impact that they had on the war.  Based on its focus on the relationship between Thomas and Ruby, however, I’m not sure I was really the ideal audience for this book. I think fans of romance would easily find this a 4 or 5 star book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

For fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale and Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls, this powerful novel of fate, resistance, and family—by the international bestselling author of The Sweetness of Forgetting and When We Meet Again—tells the tale of an American woman, a British RAF pilot, and a young Jewish teenager whose lives intersect in occupied Paris during the tumultuous days of World War II.

When newlywed Ruby Henderson Benoit arrives in Paris in 1939 with her French husband Marcel, she imagines strolling arm in arm along the grand boulevards, awash in the golden afternoon light. But war is looming on the horizon, and as France falls to the Nazis, her marriage begins to splinter, too.

Charlotte Dacher is eleven when the Germans roll into the French capital, their sinister swastika flags snapping in the breeze. After the Jewish restrictions take effect and Jews are ordered to wear the yellow star, Charlotte can’t imagine things getting much worse. But then the mass deportations begin, and her life is ripped forever apart.

Thomas Clarke joins the British Royal Air Force to protect his country, but when his beloved mother dies in a German bombing during the waning days of the Blitz, he wonders if he’s really making a difference. Then he finds himself in Paris, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and he discovers a new reason to keep fighting—and an unexpected road home.

When fate brings them together, Ruby, Charlotte, and Thomas must summon the courage to defy the Nazis—and to open their own broken hearts—as they fight to survive. Rich with historical drama and emotional depth, this is an unforgettable story that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.

 

three-half-stars

About Kristin Harmel

Kristin Harmel is an international bestselling novelist whose books have been translated into numerous languages and are sold all over the world. A former reporter for People magazine, Kristin has also freelanced for many other publications, including American Baby, Men’s Health, Glamour, Woman’s Day, Travel + Leisure, and more.

Her latest novels — The Sweetness of Forgetting, The Life Intended, How to Save a Life, and When We Meet Again — are out now from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster. Her latest, The Room on Rue Amélie, a tale of three lives that collide in Paris during World War II, is due out in March 2018 from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster.

Kristin grew up in Peabody, Mass.; Worthington, Ohio; and St. Petersburg, Fla., and she graduated with a degree in journalism (with a minor in Spanish) from the University of Florida. After spending time living in Paris, she now lives in Orlando, Fla., with her husband and young son.

Review: NOTHING LEFT TO BURN by Heather Ezell

Review:  NOTHING LEFT TO BURN by Heather EzellNothing Left to Burn by Heather Ezell
three-half-stars
Published by Razorbill on March 13th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 320
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:

Heather Ezell’s Nothing Left to Burn is a captivating debut novel that spoke to me on many levels.  On one level, it’s a compelling story about growing up, falling in love, family, and the lengths that we’ll go to in order to protect those we love.  In addition to being a coming of age story, however, it’s a suspenseful tale about a community fighting wildfires that threaten to destroy their homes and lives.

The novel follows the story of sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper and opens with her reflecting on the fact that she lost her virginity the prior evening.  Her thoughts are interrupted by firefighters pounding on her door. The firefighters inform her that the wildfires they’ve been monitoring are now dangerously close and Audrey’s entire neighborhood is therefore under mandatory evacuation.  Audrey’s parents and sister are out of town so it’s up to Audrey to gather up any precious belongings and get them out of the house in the twenty minute window she has been given.  Pushing her thoughts about the prior evening aside, Audrey rises to the occasion, packs her family’s belongings, and heads for safety.

While she is waiting for her family to join her, Audrey spends much of the next 24 hours worrying about how she may lose her family home. The current dangerous situation also has her thinking back to happier, more carefree times such as the previous summer when she first met and fell in love with her boyfriend, Brooks. As she relives some of the memories of their budding relationship, however, she is also forced to recall that not all of their times together were great and that there’s more to Brooks than meets the eye, and not necessarily in a good way.  He has a dark past that is slowly revealed to Audrey over time, and even though she loves him and wants to protect him, she fears she may be in over her head and realizes she has to make some hard choices.

Audrey is my kind of main character.   She’s not perfect by any means and doesn’t always make the best choices, but her heart is always in the right place and she will clearly go to the mat for those that she loves.  Her devotion to her younger sister Maya is especially touching as we see when after she evacuates, Audrey learns from a friend that Maya was secretly keeping a kitten stashed in her bedroom closet. Horrified by how distraught Maya would be if her kitten were to die in a fire, Audrey heads back into the danger zone to try to retrieve Maya’s pet. The idea that she would possibly risk her own life for her sister’s happiness was just so touching.

It was very easy to become invested in Audrey and her well being after that, and I was especially concerned for her well being as she reflected on her relationship with Brooks – how wonderful it had begun and then how increasingly troubled and dark it became as Audrey learned more and more about Brooks’ past.  Ezell did a beautiful job of portraying not just the budding romance but also the many internal conflicts raging in Audrey’s mind as she thinks about the dark secrets she has learned about Brooks. There’s a lot going on in Audrey’s head and Ezell really captures that complexity and makes the character leap off the page.

Aside from Audrey, I was also a big fan of how the book is structured.  The story is presented to us from Audrey’s perspective in chapters that alternate between the present and the past.  The present chapters focus on the life-threatening wildfires and all that is happening regarding evacuation and fire containment efforts, while the other chapters focus on Audrey’s backstory and some internal conflicts that she is clearly experiencing regarding her new boyfriend.  As the narrative flips back and forth between past and present, we are slowly fed key details that reveal what is causing Audrey so much distress and how it relates to the events of the present.  The author does a brilliant job creating suspense by telling the story this way and I loved watching everything unfold.

Finally, I was captivated by the overall atmosphere of the novel.  It’s a bit dark and dangerous, both in terms of Audrey’s thoughts regarding Brooks and in terms of the threatening wildfires that are looming all around Audrey’s community.  Ezell really made me feel like I was right there in the middle of the action and danger, which made it a real page turner for me as I waited with bated breath to see what would happen.

My biggest issue with Nothing Left to Burn was that I found a couple of the plot twists to be predictable. I think I would have enjoyed the story much more if I hadn’t guessed those so early on.

Even though I did predict a couple of the plot twists, I still really enjoyed reading this book.  Between the story of Audrey and Brooks and the tense story of the encroaching wildfires, Nothing Left to Burn is an engrossing story that kept me thoroughly engaged from start to finish.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

The autumn morning after sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper loses her virginity, she wakes to a loud, persistent knocking at her front door. Waiting for her are two firemen, there to let her know that the moment she’s been dreading has arrived: the enormous wildfire sweeping through Orange County, California, is now dangerously close to her idyllic gated community of Coto de Caza, and it’s time to evacuate.

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, as Audrey wrestles with the possibility of losing her family home, she also recalls her early, easy summer days with Brooks, the charming, passionate, but troubled volunteer firefighter who enchants Audrey–and who is just as enthralled by her. But as secrets from Brooks’s dark past come to light, Audrey can’t help but wonder if there’s danger in the pull she feels–both toward this boy, and toward the fire burning in the distance.

three-half-stars

About Heather Ezell

A Southern California native, Heather Ezell was evacuated for a fire at the age of three and subsequently grew up with an obsessive fear of wildfires. She has been chasing reprieve from California’s heat ever since–from the Rocky Mountains to Interior Alaska. Heather graduated from Colorado College with a degree in English literature and creative writing, and she currently lives in the Pacific Northwest where she writes, practices amateur ballet in the forest, and obsesses over the weather.

Heather’s debut novel, NOTHING LEFT TO BURN, was published by Razorbill Penguin on 3/13/18.

Review: I WAS ANASTASIA by Ariel Lawhon

Review:  I WAS ANASTASIA by Ariel LawhonI Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon
four-stars
Published by Doubleday Books on March 27th 2018
Genres: Historical 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:

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the subject matter of Ariel Lawhon’s I Was Anastasia.  One half of the novel chronicles the imprisonment and subsequent assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire royal family following the Bolshevik Revolution.  Even if you don’t know all of the details, you’ve probably at least heard the name Anastasia Romanov, who was one of Tsar Nicholas’s daughters and who was rumored to have survived the assassination attempt.  Whether or not Anastasia survived is the focus of the other half of I Was Anastasia, as we follow a woman named Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia for 50 years until her death in 1970.

Is it possible that Anastasia survived?  If Anna isn’t really Anastasia, what would lead her to so desperately claim that she is for so many years?

Even though those of us who are familiar with the Anna/Anastasia story know how it ends, it’s still quite compelling to see how it all unfolds in this incredibly well researched retelling.

 

What fascinated me most about this novel is the way Lawhon captured both Anna and Anastasia.  Whether they are one in the same or two different people, I was completely invested in both journeys I was reading about.  Anastasia’s story of course immediately had me sympathetic, just knowing the history of how her family suffered at the hands of first, Alexander Kerensky after he forced her father to abdicate, then later the Bolsheviks after they overthrew Kerenksy’s provisional government.   Lawhon chronicles these painful events in great detail, making the reader want, all the more, for someone from the Romanov family to have survived the brutal massacre.

Anna’s story, however, was equally compelling as Lawhon shows how she spent much of those 50 years trying to prove her identity — being shuffled from place to place, having no real home or financial security of her own.  Some are sympathetic to her cause and believe she truly is Anastasia and want to help her prove her case in a court of law, while others don’t care who she is but just want a piece of the spotlight that is bound to come from being associated with possible royalty.  And still others pursue her relentlessly, trying to do everything they can to prove that there’s no way she can be Anastasia.

Even though I was already familiar enough with the story to know how it all ends, what I loved about I Was Anastasia is that the author focuses more on showing us how the story began and she does this using a unique dual timeline structure where she alternates the chapters between Anna’s story and Anastasia’s, presenting Anastasia’s timeline in chronological order, while presenting Anna’s timeline in reverse chronological order.  It was fascinating to watch these two timelines on a collision course and I couldn’t wait to see how the author would have them crash into one another to give us the truth about whether Anna Anderson and Anastasia Romanov are one in the same.

 

Even though it was fascinating watching each of the timelines unfold and waiting to see how the author would merge them in the end, I have to admit that I found Anna’s timeline much more difficult to follow than Anastasia’s.  Where Anastasia’s is a straight forward chronological rendering of events in the months leading up to the Romanov family facing a firing squad in 1918, Anna’s journey is actually presented in reverse chronological order, working backwards from 1970 to 1918.  That wouldn’t have been an issue in itself, but the way her story unfolded it meant that sometimes she would be referring to someone in earlier chapters but who that person is and how they came to be connected to Anna and her cause isn’t really revealed until later chapters as we continue to travel back in time.  It took me a few chapters to get used to this structure and slowed me down a few times throughout my reading as I tried to remember what I had read about a certain character in later years now that I was meeting him for the first time as I continued to journey back in time.

 

 

If you’re not at all familiar with Anastasia Romanov and Anna Anderson, I’d definitely recommend reading I Was Anastasia.  Lawhon has crafted together a suspenseful mystery that will keep you guessing as to whether or not Anna is Anastasia, and at the same time, will have you hoping against hope that she really is.  And even if you do know the story, as I did, I’d still recommend it because it is a powerful and emotional retelling and because the journey to 1918 and the “birth” of Anna Anderson makes for an engaging read.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Countless others have rendered their verdict. Now it is your turn.

Russia, July 17, 1918 Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.

Germany, February 17, 1920 A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal in Berlin. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.

Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.

As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened.

four-stars

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is the critically acclaimed author of THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS, FLIGHT OF DREAMS, and I WAS ANASTASIA. Her books have been translated into numerous languages and have been Library Reads, One Book One County, and Book of the Month Club selections. She is the co-founder of SheReads.org and lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, four sons, and black Lab—who is, thankfully, a girl.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SIEGE & STORM and GEMINA

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SIEGE & STORM and GEMINASiege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
Also by this author: Six of Crows (Six of Crows, #1)
four-half-stars
Series: Grisha Verse #2
Published by Henry Holt and Company on June 4th 2013
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 435
Also in this series: Shadow and Bone
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Darkness never dies.

Hunted across the True Sea, haunted by the lives she took on the Fold, Alina must try to make a life with Mal in an unfamiliar land. She finds starting new is not easy while keeping her identity as the Sun Summoner a secret. She can’t outrun her past or her destiny for long.

The Darkling has emerged from the Shadow Fold with a terrifying new power and a dangerous plan that will test the very boundaries of the natural world. With the help of a notorious privateer, Alina returns to the country she abandoned, determined to fight the forces gathering against Ravka. But as her power grows, Alina slips deeper into the Darkling’s game of forbidden magic, and farther away from Mal. Somehow, she will have to choose between her country, her power, and the love she always thought would guide her--or risk losing everything to the oncoming storm.

Review:

Siege and Storm, the second installment in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse trilogy, is a much darker book than its predecessor, Shadow and Bone, and I loved every page of it.  The Darkling is back and he has a few new tricks up his sleeves with which to terrorize Alina and anyone else who resists him.  He’s more determined than ever to bend Alina to his will.

Speaking of Alina, she faces many challenges in this second book, the Darkling playing a starring role in many of them, and she faces each challenge head on, becoming ever more powerful along the away.  I found Alina to be a much more appealing character in this second installment, not just because she rises to the occasion and becomes a total badass but also because her character develops a bit of a dark side along the way.  She is really feeling the allure of her growing power, and the more she has, the more she wants.  The plus side is that her power could possibly be strong enough to defeat the Darkling, in spite of his new tricks. The downside is that her hunger for power, as well as her growing obsession with defeating the Darkling, puts a tremendous strain on her relationship with childhood friend and potential love interest, Mal.  Things get awkward, to say the least.

The awkwardness between Alina and Mal was a bit of a drag, but thankfully the addition of a fabulous new character kept me from getting down too much.  Sturmhond is a pirate and an inventor of sorts and he is just the most charming character ever!  Imagine Carswell Thorne from The Lunar Chronicles in pirate form.  He’s full of fun stories and witty banter, and just when you think you have him figured out, he springs an entirely new and unexpected identity on you.  I thought the Darkling was my favorite character, but I have to rethink that now that Sturmhond is in the mix.

Siege and Storm takes us from the lavish worldbuilding and the set up of Alina versus the Darkling straight into full-on adventure, dangerous mind games, and epic battle scenes, all of which culminate in a jaw-dropping cliffhanger. I’m so glad I already have a copy of the final book in the series because I need to know who comes out on top!  4 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SIEGE & STORM and GEMINAGemina by Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff
Also by this author: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files, #1)
four-stars
Series: The Illuminae Files #2
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers on October 18th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 659
Also in this series: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files, #1)
Source: Library
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GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.

Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

Review:

Each time I start reading a book from The Illuminae Files, my initial thought is that I’m not going to like it.  I always worry that I’ll find the book’s structure to be gimmicky and that it will distract me from what is actually taking place in the story.  And each time I’ve been dead wrong.  I love everything about this series and not only does the book’s structure not distract from the story, but it actually enhances it and makes it feel all the more authentic, like you really are sitting there reading a case file about an incident aboard a space station.

When Gemina opens, we meet our two new main characters, Hanna and Nik, polar opposites with seemingly nothing in common aside from the fact that they both live on Jump Station Heimdall.  Hanna is the pampered daughter of the ship’s captain, while Nik is a member of a prominent crime family.  Although they have nothing in common, one view Nik and Hanna share is that they are on the “most boring” space station in the universe.  But all that is about to change… Heimdall is the station Kady Grant and what’s left of the Hypatia crew are fleeing to after the events of Illuminae, the first book in the series. The Hypatia is trying to get news of an invasion that killed most of the residents on the planet Kerenza, including proof about who was behind the invasion.

Once we meet Hanna and Nik, it’s off to the races on a heart-pounding adventure as those responsible for the deadly invasion have dispatched an elite strike team to attack Heimdall.  Their mission:  to ambush and destroy the Hypatia, thereby destroying all evidence of their murderous actions on Kerenza.  Once they get aboard Heimdall, they immediately round up all of the station’s residents and lie in wait for the Hypatia.  Guess who they missed though?  You guessed it, Hanna and Nik.  The burden of saving their station, the Hypatia, and possibly the known universe falls on the shoulders of these two young people.  Nothing like a race against the clock to help two people bond…

Oh and did I mention the snake-like alien predators that have somehow gotten loose aboard the station who are picking off residents one by one?  No?  Well, yes, as if they didn’t have enough to contend with, there’s that too. So needless to say, Gemina is an action-packed, thrill ride full of danger and suspense and I thought it was absolutely brilliant!  4.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Amie Kaufman

Amie Kaufman is the New York Times bestselling co-author of Illuminae (with Jay Kristoff) and These Broken Stars, This Shattered World, and Their Fractured Light (with Meagan Spooner.) She writes science fiction and fantasy for teens, and her favourite procrastination techniques involve chocolate, baking, sailing, excellent books and TV, plotting and executing overseas travel, and napping.

She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband, their rescue dog, and her considerable library. She is represented by Tracey Adams of Adams Literary.

About Jay Kristoff

Jay Kristoff is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of THE NEVERNIGHT CHRONICLE, THE ILLUMINAE FILES and THE LOTUS WAR. He is the winner of four Aurealis Awards, an ABIA, nominee for the David Gemmell Morningstar and Legend awards, named multiple times in the Kirkus and Amazon Best Teen Books list and published in over thirty countries, most of which he has never visited. He is as surprised about all of this as you are. He is 6’7 and has approximately 13030 days to live. He abides in Melbourne with his secret agent kung-fu assassin wife, and the world’s laziest Jack Russell.

He does not believe in happy endings.

About Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo is the #1 New York Times bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the Six of Crows Duology and the Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising), as well as the upcoming Wonder Woman: Warbringer (Aug 2017) and The Language of Thorns (Sept 2017).

She was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from Yale University. These days, she lives and writes in Hollywood where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.

She would be delighted if you followed her on Twitter, elated if you visited her web site, and fairly giddy if you liked her selfies on Instagram.

Review: EVERY NOTE PLAYED by Lisa Genova

Review:  EVERY NOTE PLAYED by Lisa GenovaEvery Note Played by Lisa Genova
four-half-stars
Published by Scout Press on March 20th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
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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:

Lisa Genova’s compelling and poignant new novel Every Note Played gives her readers an intimate and in-depth look at how a debilitating disease can impact not just the one who is suffering from the disease but also the family and caregivers as well.  For those who are familiar with Genova’s writings, she takes readers on a similar journey in Still Alice with Alzheimer’s Disease as her subject matter.  In Every Note Played, she tackles ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it is sometimes called).

For those unfamiliar with ALS, it is a devastating disease in which a person’s neurons start to die off, basically paralyzing the person a little at a time until they can’t walk, can’t use their arms, can’t chew and swallow food without choking, and eventually cannot even speak and must communicate through the blinking of their eyes.  By this point, an ALS patient is typically also struggling to even breathe on their own and usually have to have breathing assistance machines.

As horrific as all of that is, perhaps the cruelest part of the disease, however, is that while the person’s body is rapidly failing them and becoming a prison, the disease doesn’t impact their mind at all. So they are fully aware that they are trapped and dependent on those around them for even the most basic of needs. As of my writing this review, scientists haven’t figured out a definitive cause or cure, and have developed very few options for treatment, so ALS is unfortunately a death sentence.  In rare cases there are people like Stephen Hawking who successfully lived with the disease for decades, but the typical lifespan is about 3 years after diagnosis, sometimes even less.  (Sorry for going overboard on the medical details of ALS, but I lost a family member to this disease and so this book hit me really hard on quite a few levels).

Every Note Played follows Richard Evans, a gifted and world-renowned pianist who suddenly loses the use of his right hand and is subsequently diagnosed with ALS.  Richard, whose entire life has revolved around playing the piano – to the detriment of both his marriage and his relationship with his now grown daughter – cannot fathom what kind of life he can possibly have if he can no longer do the one and only thing he loves to do, play music.  As the disease progresses and takes away so much more than just his ability to play the piano, Richard starts to reflect more and more about his life and all that he has thrown away for the sake of his career.  He knows he’s going to die and starts to wonder if there’s time to make amends and make peace with those he has forsaken for most of his life.

Richard’s ex-wife Karina is paralyzed in her own way.  She and Richard split up three years ago and yet she has refused to move on with her life.  When they were first married, Karina, also a gifted pianist, gave up her dreams of becoming a jazz pianist to follow Richard to Boston so that he could become a classical pianist.  Now that she and Richard have split, it would be easy enough for Karina to move back to New York and its jazz scene, but she chooses not to, always finding excuses and always blaming Richard and their failed marriage for every chance she refuses to take.

When Karina finds out about Richard’s condition, however, and knows there’s no way Richard can afford the ‘round the clock care he needs, she reluctantly offers to become Richard’s caregiver.  Will Richard and Karina be able to put their differences aside and make peace with each other before it’s too late?

 

The complex characters and their even more complex relationships were what I found especially compelling about Every Note Played.  In Richard Evans, Genova creates a man who, pre-ALS, was not an especially likable guy. In many ways, he was selfish, arrogant, and self-important.  His career was the most important thing in his life, and nothing else mattered.  His passion for the piano eclipsed everything else, including his relationship with his wife and daughter.  After Karina and Richard divorce, in fact, his daughter rarely ever even bothers to try to communicate with him because he has done so little to ever cultivate any kind of a relationship with her. So yeah, the guy’s kind of an ass.

That said, however, Genova paints the portrait of what ALS does to a person so vividly and gut-wrenchingly that you can’t help but feel tremendous sympathy for Richard anyway.  ALS is a disease you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.  This is why his ex-wife Karina, even though she swears she hates Richard, can’t help but offer to take care of him once she realizes what this disease is going to do to him.

I love that Genova keeps it real here though.  The dynamic of their relationship doesn’t magically change just because Karina feels sympathy for Richard and wants to help him.  The hostility and resentment are still bubbling just below the surface.  Karina still hates Richard and he doesn’t particularly care for her either so their interactions are often strained and awkward, as one would imagine a divorced couple would be around one another.  They need to have some serious conversations if they are ever going to forgive each other and make peace, and those conversations aren’t the easiest to start.  Then there’s the added pressure that they’re on the clock.  Unless there is a miracle cure, Richard’s days are numbered…

In addition to this messy ex-couple and what they each bring to the table in this story, I also thought Genova did a tremendous job of teaching her readers a lot about ALS, especially about its progression and how it impacts both the patient and the patient’s family.  She presents the story in alternating chapters from both Richard’s and Karina’s perspective so we are presented both with the details about how the disease is progressing as well as each of their thoughts about it.

As I mentioned above, I lost a family member to ALS and reading Richard’s journey brought back a lot of sad and painful memories because Genova’s depiction of the disease is so spot-on.  I very much appreciated her attention to detail and really hope that people will read her book, learn more about the disease, and will want to donate money to help find a cure or at least some more viable treatments for ALS.

 

I could see some readers getting somewhat bored with the story if they don’t connect with Richard or don’t want to see a step-by-step progression of a debilitating disease.  This was not an issue at all for me, but I just wanted to mention that so that people understand what they’re getting when they pick up this book.

 

Every Note Played is a powerful and poignant read that is sure to make you shed a few tears.  Although it’s predominantly a story about how devastating ALS is, it also has its uplifting moments when it comes to family, forgiveness, and redemption.  I would definitely recommend this to anyone who was a fan of Genova’s Still Alice but also to anyone who wants to know more about ALS.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

From neuroscientist and New York Times bestselling author of Still Alice comes a powerful exploration of regret, forgiveness, freedom, and what it means to be alive.

An accomplished concert pianist, Richard received standing ovations from audiences all over the world in awe of his rare combination of emotional resonance and flawless technique. Every finger of his hands was a finely calibrated instrument, dancing across the keys and striking each note with exacting precision. That was eight months ago.

Richard now has ALS, and his entire right arm is paralyzed. His fingers are impotent, still, devoid of possibility. The loss of his hand feels like a death, a loss of true love, a divorce—his divorce.

He knows his left arm will go next.

Three years ago, Karina removed their framed wedding picture from the living room wall and hung a mirror there instead. But she still hasn’t moved on. Karina is paralyzed by excuses and fear, stuck in an unfulfilling life as a piano teacher, afraid to pursue the path she abandoned as a young woman, blaming Richard and their failed marriage for all of it.

When Richard becomes increasingly paralyzed and is no longer able to live on his own, Karina becomes his reluctant caretaker. As Richard’s muscles, voice, and breath fade, both he and Karina try to reconcile their past before it’s too late.

Poignant and powerful, Every Note Played is a masterful exploration of redemption and what it means to find peace inside of forgiveness.

four-half-stars

About Lisa Genova

Lisa Genova graduated valedictorian, summa cum laude from Bates College with a degree in Biopsychology and has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University.

Acclaimed as the Oliver Sacks of fiction and the Michael Crichton of brain science, Lisa has captured a special place in contemporary fiction, writing stories that are equally inspired by neuroscience and the human spirit. She is author of the New York Times bestselling novels, STILL ALICE, LEFT NEGLECTED, LOVE ANTHONY, and INSIDE THE O’BRIENS.

STILL ALICE was adapted into a film starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and

Hunter Parrish. Julianne Moore won the 2015 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Alice Howland.

​In 2015, Lisa was named one of the U.S. Top 50 Influencers in Aging by Next Avenue. She has appeared on Dr. Oz, the TODAY show, CNN, PBS Newshour, and NPR.

Her TED Talk, “What You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer’s” was seen by more than 2 million viewers in its first few months.

She received The Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square, for “distinguished storytelling that has enriched the public dialogue,” The Sargent and Eunice Shriver Profiles in Dignity Award, The Global Genes RARE Champions of Hope Award, and The American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Media Award for “informing the public about Treatment and ongoing research in medical illness.”

In 2016, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Bates College, The Alzheimer’s Association’s Rita Hayworth Award, and The Huntington’s Disease Society of America Community Awareness Award.

​Her fifth novel, EVERY NOTE PLAYED, is about ALS and will be published on March 20th, 2018.