Book Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Book Review:  Crooked Kingdom by Leigh BardugoCrooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Also by this author: Six of Crows (Six of Crows, #1)
five-stars
Series: Six of Crows #2
Published by Henry Holt and Company on September 20th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 546
Also in this series: Six of Crows (Six of Crows, #1)
Source: Purchased
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MY REVIEW:

Wow, what a book!  I honestly don’t think I could have asked for a better series ender.  Crooked Kingdom is one of those books that not only lives up to all of the hype surrounding it, but it far exceeded my own super-high expectations for it.  As much as I loved Six of Crows, in many ways I enjoyed Crooked Kingdom even more.  I remember while reading the first book, it took me about 100 pages to really get invested in the characters and hooked on their story.  With Crooked Kingdom, I was hooked from page 1 and captivated by the story because the action picked up right where it left off in Six of Crows, where Wylan’s nasty father, Van Eck, had kidnapped Inej, and Kaz and the team were plotting how to get her back.  Honestly, I fully expected the entire second book to focus on rescuing Inej, so I was thrilled as I was reading to see that it was so much more than that.

Hopefully, I’m not being too vague in the next section but I really don’t want to do anything to spoil the series for anyone who hasn’t yet started reading it.

What really took Crooked Kingdom to the next level for me was how it’s a perfect balance between being plot driven and character driven.  Bardugo delivers an entertaining, action-packed storyline that is equal parts heist and revenge, but also combines it with an in-depth exploration of each of the members of Kaz’s crew.  I remember raving about these wonderfully complex characters when I reviewed Six of Crows, and Bardugo takes us even deeper into the minds of each of them this time around.  Even as they are actively engaged in carrying out Kaz’s plans, each member of the team is also taking their own personal journey, and in many cases, facing their own inner demons.  Going into this book, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about each of them, but I was so wrong.  The more Bardugo fleshes out each character and shows them fighting those personal demons, the more I fell in love with each of them, especially Jesper, Wylan, and Matthias, who all just experience so much growth in Crooked Kingdom.

I don’t want to give away any details of what they all go through in Crooked Kingdom, but I will say that this read took me on an emotional roller coaster ride.  I laughed, I cried (tears of both joy and sadness), I truly feared for Inej’s life on more than one occasion, and I got my heart ripped out in an unexpected plot twist late in the novel.  I honestly don’t know that I’ve ever been more attached to a group of characters so I give Bardugo major props for all of those little details that made me so invested in all of them.

Not only did Bardugo make me fall in love with these characters, she even turned me into a hardcore shipper even though I’m usually anti-romance. I didn’t even just ship one of the pairings; I shipped them all!  Nina and Matthias were my favorites just because they’re such a wonderful combination of sweet and sassy. Every time Nina would say or do something that would make Matthias blush, it would just make me chuckle because they were so cute. I also thought the relationship between Inej and Kaz was fantastic, mainly because of all of the mystery surrounding it. Inej never quite knows where she stands with Kaz – is he attached to her only because she’s useful to him, or does he feel something more for her?  These two badass characters are at their most vulnerable when they are together and I liked seeing past those tough exteriors to what lies beneath. And don’t even get me started on Jesper and Wylan?  They definitely win the most precious couple ever award.  Love them!

I know it sounds like there’s a lot going on with the heist/revenge storyline, the character explorations, and three potential romances, not to mention the story is told from each of their perspectives, but Bardugo does a brilliant job of weaving all of these elements together into an intricate yet easy-to-follow storyline that is incredibly compelling.

 

I can’t think of a single issue or dislike.  It was pretty close to a perfect read for me.  I’m just sad that it’s over because I’m not ready to say goodbye Kaz and his wonderful band of outcasts.

 

I can’t recommend Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom highly enough.  If you enjoy fabulously complex characters, anti-heroes, phenomenal world building, intricate plots, and romances that will make you smile, this is the series for you!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

After pulling off a seemingly impossible heist in the notorious Ice Court, criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker feels unstoppable. But life is about to take a dangerous turn—and with friends who are among the deadliest outcasts in Ketterdam city, Kaz is going to need more than luck to survive in this unforgiving underworld.

five-stars

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.

ARC Review: Murder Over Mochas

ARC Review:  Murder Over MochasMurder Over Mochas by Caroline Fardig
three-half-stars
Series: Java Jive #5
Published by Random House Publishing Group - Alibi on January 1st 1970
Genres: Cozy Mystery, Mystery
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:

I decided I wanted a to take a break from my usual fantasy, science fiction, and psychological thriller reads so I settled on the cozy mystery, Murder Over Mochas by Caroline Fardig.  I have to admit that the title and the cute cover were what initially drew me in, but I was also intrigued by the storyline.  I settled into my favorite reading chair and proceeded to devour the book in just a couple of sittings.  The story, which is book #5 in the Java Jive mystery series, follows Juliet Langley, a coffeehouse manager who is also a private investigator.  Juliet is working at the coffeehouse one evening when her ex-fiance Scott O’Malley shows up unannounced, begging to see her.  Outraged because she hasn’t seen Scott since he dumped her and took basically everything she owned, including all of her money, Juliet immediately punches Scott in the face and has absolutely zero interest in hearing what he has to say.

Finally, she relents, and over a cup of coffee, Scott tells Juliet that he is in deep trouble with some dangerous people who have kidnapped his wife, Mandi (who is of course the woman Scott left Juliet for).  Mid-conversation, Scott suddenly keels over and drops dead right in front of Juliet.  When preliminary test results indicate Scott was probably poisoned, Juliet realizes that her tumultuous past with Scott, along with the fact that she practically attacked him in front of a roomful of people, is going to automatically put her at the top of the list of suspects.  So she sets out, with the help of another ex-boyfreind, police detective Ryder Hamilton, to figure out what has really been happening with Scott and if someone actually poisoned him.

Will Juliet be able to solve the mystery and clear her name or will Scott continue to screw her over from beyond the grave, sending her to prison for a crime she didn’t commit?  And can her budding romance with coffeehouse owner, Pete, survive the chaos and drama that Scott’s death brings into their lives?

* * * * *

Okay, I don’t want to say too much else about the plot because I don’t want to give away any details that would spoil the mystery, so I’ll just say that this was a fun and quick read for me.  It was the perfect read to curl up with in my favorite reading chair and I will definitely keep this series in mind the next time I’m looking for a light and entertaining mystery.

On to some highlights…

 

I really enjoyed the main character, Juliet.  She is feisty, independent, and very resourceful.  I was hooked on Juliet from the opening scene of the book when her ex shows up and she immediately punches him in the face.  Juliet gets herself into several humorous scrapes along the way, but thinks fast enough on her feet, thankfully, to get herself out of trouble most of the time.  In that sense, Juliet actually reminded me a lot of Stephanie Plum from the series of the same name, who is one of my favorite mystery heroines.  They’re both kickass and yet hilarious at the same time.

I loved the author’s writing style as well. It’s very conversational, with lots of witty banter between the characters, and I just found myself effortlessly pulled through all of the twists and turns of the story.

The romance was handled well too.  Those who follow my reviews know that I don’t like it when a romance takes over and distracts from the rest of the storyline.  In the case of Murder Over Mochas, the romance is clearly there but it isn’t heavy-handed at all.  Instead, it is skillfully woven in so as to complement the mystery storyline rather than distract from it.

 

The only real issue I had with Murder Over Mochas was that although the book technically works as a standalone even though it’s part of a series, I just would have liked more information about each of the characters.  I felt like there were details about their backstories that I was missing, and that with those details, it would have been an even more enjoyable read than it was.  I especially would have liked to see more of the early interactions between Juliet and Pete.  That would have made it a solid 4 star read for me.

 

If you’re into cozy mysteries or just want a quick, light mystery with a touch of romance and humor, I’d definitely say Murder Over Mochas is worth a read.  If you’re like me and think you’d want more backstory, maybe consider starting at the beginning of the series and working your way to this one.  I think any of them would make excellent weekend or vacation reads.

 

Thanks so much to Caroline Fardig, Random House Publishing Group – Alibi, and to Netgalley for allowing me to preview this book.  It in no way shapes my opinion.

 

SYNOPSIS:

A blast from the past gets Nashville PI and coffeehouse manager Juliet Langley in hot water in this explosive mystery from the USA Today bestselling author of Death Before Decaf.

As a newly minted private eye, Juliet Langley has sworn to leave homicide to the authorities, limiting the scope of her investigations to cheating spouses and dirty business partners . . . like her ex-fiancé, Scott O’Malley. When Scott shows up unannounced at her coffeehouse, Java Jive, Juliet’s first instinct is to punch him in the nose. Her second is to turn down his desperate plea for help with a case that’s way too dangerous for her liking. But when Scott drops dead before her eyes, Juliet isn’t going to wait around for someone else to clear her name.

It’s only a matter of time before her tumultuous past with her ex-fiancé comes out, so Juliet teams up with her ex-boyfriend, police detective Ryder Hamilton, to figure out who poisoned Scott. They soon confirm that Scott was involved in an illegal scheme that’s definitely grounds for concern.

Just as romance is finally beginning to percolate for Juliet and her best friend, Pete Bennett, she has no choice but to head back to her hometown to seek out the truth. And she’ll need help from the locals to find the real killer—otherwise her happily ever after could easily end up including an actual ball and chain.

 

 

three-half-stars

About Caroline Fardig

CAROLINE FARDIG is the USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR of the Java Jive Mysteries series and the Lizzie Hart Mysteries series. Fardig’s BAD MEDICINE was named one of the “Best Books of 2015” by Suspense Magazine. She worked as a schoolteacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom before she realized that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Born and raised in a small town in Indiana, Fardig still lives in that same town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat.

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

Book Review:  The Alice Network by Kate QuinnThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn
four-half-stars
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 6th 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 503
Source: Library
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MY REVIEW:

I love historical fiction that is set during WWI and WWII, so Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network was the best of both worlds for me as it has a dual time line, one of which takes place during WWI while the second takes place a couple of years after WWII.  What an incredible read this was! And the fact that the story is based on an actual real life women’s spy network that was active in France during WWI?  Amazing!  How did I not even know there was such a thing?

The Alice Network follows the story of two women, Charlie St. Clair and Eve Gardiner, and what happens when their lives unexpectedly cross paths.

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair is pregnant and unmarried.  The year is 1947, so as you can imagine, Charlie’s parents have deemed her situation a “problem” and so are shipping her off to a clinic in Switzerland so that it can be taken care of low-key so as not to ruin Charlie’s reputation at home.  Charlie makes the trip with her mom, and when they have a layover in England, Charlie runs away because she is on a mission of her own:  to find out what happened to her cousin Rose who had been living in Nazi-occupied France and disappeared during WWII.  Her family has presumed she is dead, but Charlie is convinced that she is still out there somewhere.  She only has one lead at this point, an address in London and a name, Evelyn Gardiner.  She has no idea who Evelyn Gardiner is or how she can possibly help her find Rose, but she is determined to follow this lead wherever it takes her.

Enter Evelyn, or Eve as she is known, Gardiner.  I’m not sure what Charlie expected when she first knocks on Eve’s door, but a snarky, stuttering, gun-toting drunk with horribly disfigured hands was probably not it.  At first Eve barely even listens to Charlie’s story about her cousin Rose and has no interest at all in helping her. That is, until Charlie mentions Le Lethe, which was the name of the restaurant where Rose was working at just prior to her disappearance, and Monsieur Rene, the owner of the restaurant.  As soon as Eve hears those names, her whole attitude abruptly shifts and she decides to help Charlie.

As Eve sets out to help Charlie, we are also taken on a second journey, this time back to 1915, where we follow Eve and see how she has ended up the way she is when Charlie meets her in 1947.  In 1915, Eve is working as an administrative assistant at a law firm in England, but she desperately wants to do something more important. Specifically, she wants to join the action in WWI fighting against the Germans.  She unexpectedly gets her chance when a visitor to the law firm, notes that Eve has qualities that would ideally suit her to working as a spy.  Namely, she appears to remain calm, cool, and collected no matter what is going on around her, and she is able to lie with a straight face.  Those qualities, coupled with a horrible stutter that make others assume she’s a bit dim-witted and therefore underestimate her.  Because of these qualities, the visitor recruits her to become a part of The Alice Network, an all-female spy network that was operating in France, right under the German’s noses.  Eve is eager to join and so we follow her through her spy training, to her primary assignment in enemy-occupied France during the war and all of the dangers it ensues, all the way through to why the names Le Leche and Monsieur Rene struck such a chord with her so many years later when Charlie St. Clair mentions them.   Eve’s journey is equal parts riveting and horrifying, and 100% life-changing.

I love when a dual timeline narrative is handled well and author Kate Quinn does a marvelous job presenting both Charlie and Eve’s stories in The Alice Network.  The chapters alternate between the 1915 and the 1947 timelines so Eve’s backstory is presented a little at a time as is Charlie’s mission to find out what happened to her beloved cousin.  Both stories are so compelling that I found myself easily pulled along, particularly because I really wanted to know what happened to turn Eve from spy extraordinaire to a bitter, disfigured woman with a major drinking problem.   I also wanted to see how exactly Eve was supposed to be the key to helping Charlie find Rose, not to mention I really wanted to know if Rose was still alive, and if so, why has she gone two years without trying to contact her family.

I also think that part of the reason the dual timeline works so well in this story is the active presence of Eve in both timelines.  She is such a fascinating and complex character, both in her younger days where she so desperately wanted to fight against the Germans and as we see her in 1947, where she is ready to take her Luger and blow the head off of anyone who so much as looks at her funny.  I adored Eve’s bigger-than-life personality and the way it just fills the pages of this story.  She made me laugh, she made me cry, and she had me scared to death for her at so many points throughout the story.

Charlie is very likeble as well, but in a different way, since we only see her at age 19.  What I liked about Charlie was her spunk and her determination, as well as her absolute devotion to her cousin, who was more like a sister to her.  Charlie’s youthful enthusiasm, combined with Eve’s fierce snark, makes them a pretty formidable team as they journey together to find Rose.

Kate Quinn also does a brilliant job of depicting the settings, both in 1915 with enemy-occupied France and then 1947, with both the French countryside and with London.  The sights and sounds felt authentic, and Quinn’s attention to detail is spot on.  As I read and followed these women, I felt myself transported to each time period and location.

I wouldn’t really call it a dislike, but I do have to admit that I found Eve’s storyline to be a lot more compelling than Charlie’s.  I loved both characters and was invested in both storylines, but Eve’s journey and the life-threatening danger she faced every moment while working as a spy was just absolutely riveting. Charlie’s story just fell a bit short in comparison.

If you’re looking for a well written, riveting read, I’d highly recommend checking out The Alice Network.  It’s sure to be a favorite for fans of historical fiction, but I think anyone who enjoys reading about strong and complex female characters would love this read as well.  Since this was a fictionalized account of the actual Alice Network, I find myself now wanting to go out and learn more about it since I had never heard of it during any of my history courses in school.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.

1915.  In the chaotic aftermath of World War II, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and heads to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1948. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, the “Queen of Spies”, who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. Until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth …no matter where it leads.

four-half-stars

About Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network.” All have been translated into multiple languages.

Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

ARC Review: All the Crooked Saints

ARC Review:  All the Crooked SaintsAll the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
three-half-stars
Published by Scholastic Press on October 10th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 320
Buy on Amazon
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from a Blog Giveaway in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

All the Crooked Saints was my first time reading a Maggie Stiefvater novel so I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.  I’ve read tons of rave reviews about The Scorpio Races and The Raven Cycle though so I expected it to be a fantastic read.  All the Crooked Saints was actually one of my most anticipated fall reads because the synopsis just sounded so unique and intriguing.  With all of that said, it’s safe to say I really wanted to love this book.  While I definitely liked All the Crooked Saints, I unfortunately can’t say that I loved it.  It was a good, solid read with a focus on family that I really liked, but overall it just didn’t blow me away like I hoped it would.

All the Crooked Saints takes place in Bicho Raro, Colorado, which is shrouded in an atmosphere of dark saints, forbidden love, and so much more.  The novel follows the Soria family, a family where each of the members has the special ability to act as Saints and perform unusual miracles.  These miracles have become well known enough that pilgrims travel from all around in hopes of securing a miracle of their own from the Sorias to rid themselves of the darkness in their lives.  What they don’t know is that the miracles are two-fold, the Saint performs the first part of their miracle, which reveals their inner darkness, but then it’s up to the one receiving the miracle to somehow perform a second miracle, which actually rids them of that darkness once and for all.  What has started to happen over the years, however, is that people are having a harder and harder time figuring out the second miracle so the Soria household has started to accumulate an assortment of pilgrims that are caught in limbo between the first and second miracles.

Why can’t they just return to their lives and wait for the second miracle?  Well, because the darkness that is revealed by the first miracle sometimes manifests itself in strange ways.  For example, there is a young woman named Marisita who is wandering around with basically a rain cloud over her head.  It just rains on her all the time – when she sleeps, when she cooks, whatever. There’s also a man walking around that has the head of an animal and the body of a human. Needless to say, these pilgrims would prefer to hide out until their second miracle has been sorted.

So, why can’t the Sorias help them?  Well, that’s the catch.  If the Sorias interfere with any of the pilgrims, they unleash darkness on themselves and end up in exactly the same predicament as the pilgrims, if not worse.  Apparently the Soria darkness can be pretty dangerous and unpredictable when unleashed.

Although the pilgrims and their miracles are definitely a focus of the story, the heart of All the Crooked Saints truly centers around three Soria cousins — Beatriz, Daniel, and Joaquin — and the journey they are all forced to take when Daniel accidentally unleashes his own darkness and flees Bicho Raro to protect his family from it.  As determined as he is to keep them safe from him, they are equally determined to help him by figuring out a way around the rule that says they cannot help to get rid of the darkness. Will they succeed or will Daniel be lost to them forever?

 

Even though this was only an okay read for me, there were still several things about the book that I really did enjoy.  I really enjoyed Stiefvater’s three main characters, the Soria cousins. The relationship between the three cousins was probably my favorite part.  Beatriz believes that she has no feelings and therefore throws herself into science, technology, and examining her own thoughts.  She’s the brains of their operation and has helped Joaquin, who I’d call the Dreamer of the group, try to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a disc jockey.  She has built him an illegal radio station that they run out of the back of a box truck in the desert, and he spins records at night and calls himself Diablo Diablo.  Daniel is the designated saint of the group and so his focus is to grant miracles to all of the pilgrims who come to Bicho Raro.  I just loved each of their personalities.  They were all so complex, unique, and just really likable.  I especially enjoyed reading about how loyal they were to each other and how they were willing to risk everything to try to save Daniel.  Even though they were just cousins, the bond they shared felt like they were truly siblings.

I also enjoyed the overall plot of the story.  Sometimes magical realism is hit and miss for me but I liked how she incorporated it into this story and the way the various miracles manifested themselves with each of the pilgrims.  I liked the direction the story took when we move from showing how the Sorias create these miracles to what happens when they break one of their own rules and bring the darkness down onto themselves.

Lastly, I also thought Stiefvater’s writing was gorgeous, very lyrical and filled with vivid imagery.  Even though this story was just a ‘like’ for me instead of a ‘love,’ I wouldn’t hesitate to try one of her other series.

 

Slow pacing was an issue for me while reading All the Crooked Saints.  The story thankfully picked up a bit once Daniel got into trouble, but for the most part, it was just a slow read for me.

I also had some trouble keeping track of all of the characters. Between the various pilgrims, the three cousins, and all of the other assorted Soria family members, there were just a lot of people to keep straight.  With so many characters, it also made it harder for me to really connect with any of them as much as I would have liked to.  As I said above, I really liked Beatriz, Joaquin, and Daniel, but I still didn’t feel especially close to them because so many other characters were competing for my attention.

 

All the Crooked Saints is a book about love, family, miracles, darkness, and how to overcome that darkness.  Even though I had some issues with the story, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who enjoys magical realism or who just enjoys books that focus on family and the trials they go through together. I would also, of course, recommend it to Stiefvater fans.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Here is a thing everyone wants: A miracle.

Here is a thing everyone fears: What it takes to get one.

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

Maggie Stiefvater has been called “a master storyteller” by USA Today and “wildly imaginative” by Entertainment Weekly. Now, with All the Crooked Saints, she gives us the extraordinary story of an extraordinary family, a masterful tale of love, fear, darkness, and redemption.

three-half-stars

About Maggie Stiefvater

New York Times bestselling author of The Shiver Trilogy, The Raven Cycle, and The Scorpio Races. Artist. Driver of things with wheels. Avid reader.

All of Maggie Stiefvater’s life decisions have been based around her inability to be gainfully employed. Talking to yourself, staring into space, and coming to work in your pajamas are frowned upon when you’re a waitress, calligraphy instructor, or technical editor (all of which she’s tried), but are highly prized traits in novelists and artists. She’s made her living as one or the other since she was 22. She now lives an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with her charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, two neurotic dogs, and a 1973 Camaro named Loki.

Alice Hoffman’s THE RULES OF MAGIC is truly spellbinding

Alice Hoffman’s THE RULES OF MAGIC is truly spellbindingThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Also by this author: Faithful
five-stars
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 10th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 384
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:

Last year I read and reviewed Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic on my blog.  As much as I enjoyed the read overall, I remember that my one disappointment was that I really wanted to know more about Sally and Gillian’s aunts.  The aunts just always seemed to pop up out of nowhere whenever they were needed and were just so mysterious and intriguing, even though they were only secondary characters.  At times I actually found myself more interested in the aunts than in Sally and Gillian.  I had no idea at the time I was writing about my thoughts on Practical Magic that Hoffman was already actively writing a prequel to Practical Magic that would give me exactly what I wanted, a back story for those two aunts.  There was actual flailing on my part as soon as I heard about The Rules of Magic and I was truly over the moon when Simon and Schuster provided me with an advance review copy.

So did The Rules of Magic live up to my expectations?  YES!  It was everything I wanted it to be and even more.  Memorable and loveable characters, gorgeous storytelling, and exquisite prose, The Rules of Magic truly has it all!

The Rules of Magic follows the Owens children, Franny, Jet, and Vincent as they are growing up in 1960’s New York City.  Their mother, Susanna, knows that her children are unusual, perhaps even dangerously so.  To keep them from drawing unnecessary and unwanted attention to themselves, Susanna has a list of rules that she insists they follow at all times:  no walking in the moonlight, no cats, no crows, no wearing black, no red shoes, and no books about magic.  And the most important rule of all, never ever fall in love.  That last rule dates all the way back to 1620, when their ancestor Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.  Ever since then, love has been a curse for the Owens family.  Susanna fights so hard to protect them from the curse because she herself has been a victim of it.

No matter how much Susanna tries to shield them, however, Franny, Jet, and Vincent soon begin to realize how different they really are and want to know more about themselves and about their family history.  Franny discovers that she can communicate with birds, Jet realizes that she can read other people’s thoughts, and Vincent finds he is able to charm anyone and everyone around him without even trying and sometimes whether he wants to or not.  They secretly begin to experiment more to see what other special powers they may have.  A trip to the town in Massachusetts where Maria Owens was charged with witchery leads the children to uncover old family secrets and thus to begin to understand the truth of who they really are.  Once they return to New York City, each of them begins their own potentially dangerous journey of self discovery.  They also learn that there is no way they can escape love and so must determine if there is a way to escape the family curse so that they aren’t doomed to be alone.

The Rules of Magic is a beautiful, heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking story of family, love, loss, acceptance, and finding oneself.

 

The Characters.  Franny, Jet, and Vincent are just such wonderfully drawn characters.  I fell in love with them immediately.  Not only were they fascinating characters individually, but I also adored their sibling bond.  They’re all so loyal and protective of each other.  Watching Franny and Jet, in particular, and just knowing they would grow up to be the aunts in Practical Magic was just thrilling and made what was already a beautiful journey even more captivating.  I don’t want to give away any details about their individual journeys, but I’ll just say that Hoffman is a master storyteller and each journey is equally compelling and unique because each of the children feels differently about what their family history means and what their own powers mean.  I was so invested in each of them and hoping they would find a way to have everything they want.  When they were happy, I was right there cheering for them, and when they experienced tragedy, I grieved right alongside them.

Hoffman’s Prose.  Every time I read one of Alice Hoffman’s books, my immediate thought is “Man, I wish I could write like she does.”  And this book was no exception.  In fact, I was even more enamored than ever before by her writing.  Her prose is truly exquisite and even though I hate to sound cliché, it’s spellbinding.  The words just flow so smoothly and naturally and yet read like poetry all at the same time.  The Rules of Magic, in particular, is full of colors, smells, sounds, and beautiful images.  I felt like all of my senses were engaged the entire time I was reading.

The Setting.  We travel many places during the course of this novel – 1960’s New York, Massachusetts, and even Paris – and Hoffman captures the atmosphere of each location perfectly.  I especially loved the way she captured the lower Manhattan area and gave it such a forbidden, taboo quality.  Equally fascinating was taking us to the street in Massachusetts where the aunts lived in Practical Magic and showing how the Owens history permeates that entire area.  I also thought it was fabulous how Hoffman incorporates details from the Salem Witch Trials into her narrative, and especially her inclusion of John Hathorne, who was an actual judge during those trials.

Works Perfectly as a Standalone.  Even though this is technically a prequel of Practical Magic, the way Hoffman has written it, you don’t need to have read Practical Magic to enjoy The Rules of Magic.  Hoffman does a beautiful job of inserting some subtle nods to Practical Magic, which gave me a few OMG, YAY! nostalgic moments as I was reading, but The Rules of Magic is a beautiful story in its own right even without any ties to the other novel.

I could go on for days about all of the things I adored about this book, so I’m just going to stop now before I give away all of the important details, haha.

 

None! For me, The Rules of Magic is about as perfect as it gets.  It will definitely be on my list of favorite reads for 2017.

 

If you love stories about magic and witches, this is your book.  If you enjoy books about love, family, and finding oneself, this is your book.  And by all means, if you loved Practical Magic, you’re going to want to read The Rules of Magic.  It’s the prequel you probably didn’t even know you needed in your life.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy. 

 

five-stars

About Alice Hoffman

alice hoffman

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston.
Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of our most distinguished novelists. She has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Blackbird House is a book of stories centering around an old farm on Cape Cod. Hoffman’s recent books include Aquamarine and Indigo, novels for pre-teens, and The New York Times bestsellers The River King, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, and The Ice Queen. Green Angel, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale about loss and love, was published by Scholastic and The Foretelling, a book about an Amazon girl in the Bronze Age, was published by Little Brown. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly has chosen as one of the best books of the year. Her most recent novels include The Third Angel,The Story Sisters, the teen novel, Green Witch, a sequel to her popular post-apocalyptic fairy tale, Green Angel. The Red Garden, published in 2011, is a collection of linked fictions about a small town in Massachusetts where a garden holds the secrets of many lives.
Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day,” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her teen novel Aquamarine was made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other magazines.
Toni Morrison calls The Dovekeepers “.. a major contribution to twenty-first century literature” for the past five years. The story of the survivors of Masada is considered by many to be Hoffman’s masterpiece. The New York Times bestselling novel is slated for 2015 miniseries, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, starring Cote de Pablo of NCIS fame.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things was released in 2014 and was an immediate bestseller, The New York Times Book Review noting, “A lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances… Imaginative…”
Nightbird, a Middle Reader, was released in March of 2015. In August of this year, The Marriage Opposites, Alice’s latest novel, was an immediate New York Times bestseller. “Hoffman is the prolific Boston-based magical realist, whose stories fittingly play to the notion that love—both romantic and platonic—represents a mystical meeting of perfectly paired souls,” said Vogue magazine. Click here to read more reviews for The Marriage of Opposites.

ARC Review: The Blackbird Season

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-half-stars

About Kate Moretti

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

 

four-stars

About Julie C. Dao

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

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

five-stars

About Mackenzi Lee

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

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

ARC Review of Warcross by Marie Lu

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

 

five-stars

About Marie Lu

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

Book Review: A Perfect Obsession

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

LIKES

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

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

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

DISLIKES/ISSUES

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

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

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

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

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

 

RATING:  3 STARS

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

three-stars

About Heather Graham

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

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

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