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
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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
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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.

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.

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
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SHADOW & BONE and LITTLE & LION

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SHADOW & BONE and LITTLE & LIONShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Also by this author: Six of Crows (Six of Crows, #1)
four-half-stars
Series: Grisha Verse, #1
Published by Henry Holt and Company on June 5th 2012
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 358
Also in this series: Siege and Storm
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

Shadow and Bone is the first installment in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy.

Review:

I originally skipped over Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse Trilogy in favor of reading the much-hyped Six of Crows duology, which is set in the same Russian-inspired fantasy world.  I adored the Six of Crows books so much that I just had to go back and read the Grishaverse Trilogy because I loved this world and wasn’t ready to leave it behind.  I’m so glad I did too because Shadow and Bone, the first book in the trilogy, was a truly wonderful read.

I loved the complex cast of characters Bardugo has created.  First, there’s Alina and Mal, orphans who were raised together and who may or may not have romantic feelings for one another.  Having tested negative for Grisha powers when they were children, Alina and Mal are clearly underdogs in the war ravaged nation of Ravka and I became invested in their journey immediately, especially once their journey takes them across the dangerous Shadow Fold.  A life-threatening incident on the fold changes their lives, however, because it reveals that Alina actually does possess dormant Grisha abilities.  Not only are her abilities powerful, but they could actually be the key to setting Ravka free.

I already knew a bit about the Grishaverse from Six of Crows, but I loved seeing the magical system in more detail and the lavish worldbuilding as Alina and Mal are brought to the Little Palace so that Alina can learn to master her powers under the teachings of my absolute favorite character, the Darkling.  As much as I liked Alina and Mal, the Darkling was really the highlight of the first book for me.  I’m a sucker for a complex, morally gray character and that most definitely describes the Darkling.  On the one hand, he’s quite charming, but on the other, he’s manipulative, deceitful, and basically just flat out horrible.  There are moments when he seems to really care about Alina, but most often, he only seems to be concerned with how he can harness her power for his own needs.  Watching the Darkling go head to head with Alina were some of my favorite moments of the novel.

Shadow and Bone was a quick and highly entertaining read for me because once I got started, and especially once I met the Darkling, I was hooked on trying to figure out what he was really up to and how Alina and her powers fit into his plans.  I’m also glad I waited to read this until all three books had been released because a major plot twist at the end of this first book had me reaching straight for the second book.  Love this series!  4.5 STARS

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SHADOW & BONE and LITTLE & LIONLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert
four-stars
on August 8th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 327
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn't sure if she'll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new...the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel's disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself--or worse.

Review:

Little & Lion is one of those books that going into it, you think you’re getting one thing, but what you end up getting is so much more.  Not only did I get the beautiful and moving sibling story that I was hoping for, but I also got a wonderfully diverse story that explored many important and relevant topics, such as sexuality, mental illness, racism, and much more.  In that way, Little & Lion packs a big punch.

I loved how Colbert portrayed the sibling dynamic between Suzette (nicknamed Little by Lionel) and her step brother Lionel (nicknamed Lion by Suzette). They are incredibly close, so close in fact, that Suzette was sent away to boarding school when Lionel was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder because her parents knew Suzette would never be able to focus on her school work and her own life because she would be so distraught watching Lionel suffer.  When she comes home for summer break, Suzette can immediately sense a strain in her relationship with Lionel and wonders how he is really doing.  I loved that Suzette was that tuned in to what her brother was going through.  On the flip side of that, I loved that Lionel, even though he is trying to deal with his illness, still tries to do whatever he can to make things as normal as possible between him and Suzette. Little moments like the two of them hanging out in their old treehouse were just so sweet.  They may be step siblings and only related through marriage, but Little and Lion are truly family through and through.

In addition to this wonderful sibling relationship, Little & Lion is also an incredibly diverse book.  Suzette is black, Jewish, and she is also bisexual.  As I’ve already mentioned, Lionel has bipolar disorder.  Suzette’s childhood friend and potential love interest, Emil, is black/Korean and he is also hearing impaired due to Meniere’s Disease, while another potential love interest for Suzette, Rafaela, identifies as pansexual, and Suzette’s best friend is a lesbian.  I was thrilled to see so much diversity, and I especially liked the way Colbert didn’t make it feel like she was just checking off boxes. All of these characters were complex and authentic.  They didn’t feel like stock characters or stereotypes.

My only complaint is that I would have liked a bit more about Lionel.  Since the story is told from Suzette’s perspective, we only see him through her eyes.  As much as I loved the story as it was written, I think it would have been a 5 star read for me if there were chapters from Lionel’s perspective.  Still a beautiful and relevant read though. 4 STARS

four-half-stars

About Brandy Colbert

Brandy Colbert is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of Pointe, Little & Lion, and the forthcoming Finding Yvonne and The Revolution of Birdie Randolph. Her short fiction and essays have been published in several anthologies for young people. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

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 – THE CRUEL PRINCE by Holly Black

Review – THE CRUEL PRINCE by Holly BlackThe Cruel Prince by Holly Black
five-stars
Series: The Folk of the Air #1
on January 2nd 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I’m always a little hesitant to start reading a book that is surrounded by intense hype.  Am I going to enjoy it as much as everyone else seems to be or am I going to be the one person who feels let down by all of the hype?  Such was my fear going into Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, which is a much-anticipated read for almost every blogger I know.  Thankfully though, my fear was unfounded and I devoured this book in a couple of days.

The Cruel Prince follows Jude, a mortal who is growing up and trying to find her place in the immortal realm of Faerie.  Jude, her twin sister Taryn, and their older sister Vivi are living in Faerie even though they are mortals because their parents were murdered in a fit of rage by Madoc, their mother’s former lover, who also happens to be a General in the High Court of Faerie.  Because he loved their mother, Madoc brings her daughters to live with him and raise as his own.

The novel then fast forwards ten years to a 17-year-old Jude, who along with her twin, is attending classes alongside the fae children of the High Court. Jude wants nothing more than to feel like she belongs in Faerie and especially in the High Court, but it’s difficult for her since she is not immortal and many of the fae do not like mortals.  Jude and her sister are frequently subjected to mockery and bullying by her classmates, who include Prince Cardan of the High Court.  He is particularly ruthless when it comes to Jude.  His mission in life appears to be to make Jude as miserable as possible.  The more Cardan bullies Jude, the more determined Jude becomes to follow her dream, which is to best everyone in a combat tournament and earn a place as a Knight on the King’s Council.

As Jude pursues her dream, she unexpectedly finds herself up to her ears in palace intrigues and deceptions, and she also discovers that she isn’t opposed to spilling blood if the occasion calls for it.  Jude’s original plans ultimately come unraveled, however, as chaos erupts and the Courts of Faerie suddenly find themselves under eminent threat of a civil war.  Desperate to do whatever she can to save her family and her beloved Faerie, Jude makes the choice to risk her life and enter in a dangerous alliance with someone she isn’t sure she can trust.

Will Jude be able to save her family and her home?  Or is she in way over her head?

What I loved most about The Cruel Prince was how complex all of the characters are.  They’re all flawed, some more so than others, and even the most likeable of characters aren’t always likeable.  They all felt very real and it was very easy to become invested in their lives.

Jude, of course, was the most relatable character of the bunch.  As a mortal striving to become a Knight in the King’s Council, she is clearly an underdog so she caught my eye and my sympathy right away.  My sympathy for her only grew as I watched her suffer at the hands of the fae who were so determined to make her life hell.  I also admired her spunk and determination.  The more Prince Cardan tried to humiliate her — and boy, was he relentless! — the more Jude fought back and refused to let him get the best of her. It also made her crave power of her own, which added another layer of depth and a bit of a dark side to her character and made her all the more fascinating to follow. Jude’s need to secure power for herself becomes so great that she allows herself to make a somewhat shady deal with one of Prince Cardan’s older brothers, who is in line to ascend to the throne.  If she does his bidding (in secret of course), he will give her whatever she wants once he is King.  Jude readily agrees, even though it means lying to her family and leading a life of deception.

Speaking of Prince Cardan…this guy was seriously an ass.  He’s drunk most of the time, is completely unfit to ever lead his father’s kingdom, and of course he’s just awful to Jude.  I spent the majority of this first book loathing everything about him, and yet, the farther along I got, the more intrigued I became by him.  I’m not sure what’s there yet, but there certainly appears to be much more to Cardan than originally meets the eye and I want to learn more about him.

Vivi was another character that I found intriguing. Among other things, she has a much more complicated relationship with Madoc than either Jude or Taryn do.  Plus, also unlike Jude and Taryn, Vivi has absolutely no interest in trying to find her place in Faerie.  She refuses to attend classes and looks for every opportunity to slip back over into the mortal realm and go shopping at the mall, hang out with her girlfriend, or whatever else her heart desires.  Pleasing Madoc and trying to be a good ‘daughter’ are at the bottom of Vivi’s priority list.

Aside from how complex and realistic they all felt, I also loved that I never knew which characters, if any, could be trusted since they’re all embroiled in such a high stakes political game.  In that sense, The Cruel Prince actually gave me a major Game of Thrones vibe.

I don’t want to give anything else away, so I’m just going to say in addition to the cast of complex characters that I just couldn’t get enough of, The Cruel Prince is also jammed packed with so many of my favorite things to read about. There’s drama and excitement, deception and betrayals, conspiracies and political intrigue, spies and assassinations (yes, plural!), and even a hint of possible romance.

The pacing is perfect too.  It got off to a slightly slow start when Jude and her sisters first ended up in Faerie and the author was setting the stage for what it was like to live in Faerie as a mortal, but as soon as the stage was set, the story took off and I just couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

I also loved how Black ended the first book. I wouldn’t call it a cliffhanger because I was very satisfied with the stopping point, but at the same time, the story is so good that I’m truly bummed to have to wait until January 2019 to continue with the book two.

As I mentioned early, The Cruel Prince started a little slow for me and I was worried that I wasn’t going to like it.  As you can see from my 5 star rating, I was dead wrong about that so if it starts out a little slow for you, give it some time.  By about the 10% mark, you won’t be able to put the book down, I promise!

If you’re looking for a hyped book that actually lives up to the hype, I’d definitely recommend Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince.  I don’t feel like I’ve written the words here to fully do it justice, but it’s truly one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

Jude was seven years old when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

In doing so, she becomes embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, discovering her own capacity for bloodshed. But as civil war threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself.

five-stars

About Holly Black

Holly Black is the author of bestselling contemporary fantasy books for kids and teens. Some of her titles include The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), The Modern Faerie Tale series, the Curse Workers series, Doll Bones, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the Magisterium series (with Cassandra Clare) and The Darkest Part of the Forest. She has been a a finalist for an Eisner Award, and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award and a Newbery Honor. She currently lives in New England with her husband and son in a house with a secret door.

Review: LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS by Samira Ahmed

Review:  LOVE, HATE & OTHER FILTERS by Samira AhmedLove, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
four-stars
Published by Soho Teen on January 16th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 281
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

Samira Ahmed’s debut novel Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a powerful coming of age story about a young woman caught between wanting to follow her dreams wherever they may take her, but also not wanting to disappoint her parents who have their own hopes and dreams for her.  Indian American teen Maya Aziz is a seventeen-year-old high school senior with a mad passion for filmmaking.  It’s her dream to move to New York and study film making at NYU.  Film making and boys (specifically her longtime crush, Phil) are pretty much all Maya ever thinks about.  Unfortunately, Maya’s passions are at odds with what her parents want for her, which is to go to college close to home and study something practical like medicine or law, and then settle down with a suitable Indian husband.  Love, Hate, and Other Filters follows Maya as she tries to navigate the many obstacles that are in the way of her getting what she wants most.

Then, as if Maya’s personal life wasn’t filled with enough obstacles, her life is completely thrown into turmoil when there is a terrorist attack in her state’s capital, just a few hundred miles away from her home.  The prime suspect in the attack shares the same last name as Maya and even though she and her family have lived in the same community for all of Maya’s life, they suddenly become targets of those around her who are consumed by fear, hatred, and bigotry.  The Islamophobia is so rampant that Maya’s parents become even more determined that Maya go to college as close to home as possible.

Is there any way Maya can convince her parents to let her go away to NYC for school?  Does she have any chance of being with Phil who is starting to finally show some interest in Maya as well, even though he is neither Muslim nor Indian?  Can Maya find the strength to confront her parents so that her dreams aren’t sacrificed because of their fears?

Maya was definitely my favorite part of Love, Hate, and Other Filters.  She’s such a likable teen and I loved her passion for film making and all of her references to classic films that she loves.  I especially liked the way she often looked at scenes unfolding around her in the real world, imagining how she might create a film from them.  I thought that made for such a fun and unique perspective.  I also liked that Maya is independent and a bit sassy at times, even though she still wants to be a good daughter and not upset her parents.  Sometimes she can be a bit rude to them when they keep trying to push their own agenda when it comes to her future, but even though I would sometimes cringe at her comments, I still admired her for trying to stand her ground with them.

I also really enjoyed the secondary characters such as Phil, Maya’s longtime crush.  He’s just a super sweet guy and I enjoyed all of his interactions with Maya.  The scenes where he teaches her to swim were some of my favorites in the book.  So fluffy and sweet!

My favorite secondary character was actually Maya’s aunt, Hina.  Hina is probably Maya’s biggest role model and is proof that there is more to life than just doing what your parents want you to do.  Hina is unmarried, living on her own in the city, and she’s a very successful graphic designer.  She is one of Maya’s biggest supporters when it comes to following her own dreams and offers to run interference on more than one occasion when Maya is having a particularly difficult time communicating with her parents. I adored Hina so much. Heck, I’d love a whole book just devoted to Hina and her life. She was fantastic!

Another great secondary character was Maya’s best friend, Violet.  There wasn’t nearly enough of her in the book, but what was there was wonderful because she and Maya have such a strong bond.  I love books that feature strong female friendships.

In addition to loving all of these characters and how they fit into Maya’s coming of age journey, I also liked that this book was so much more than just a simple coming of age story.  It’s also an important book that tackles the very relevant topic of Islamophobia and how Muslims are so unfairly targeted by people who can’t get past their fear, hatred, and bigotry.  I felt so awful for Maya and her family and for anyone else in the world who experiences anything like what they went through in this book.  Seeing from Maya’s perspective all of the fears that she has for her loved ones because of the way Muslims are unfairly targeted packed such an emotional punch and it made me all the more angry that our President continues to push his hateful Muslim ban.

I have to admit that I was torn about how much focus there was on romance in this story.  Those who read my reviews know I almost always whine about romance taking over the plot of books that have so much else going on in them, and that was my issue here as well.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved Phil and I thought he and Maya were super sweet together, but there were several times throughout the book where it felt like Maya was more interested in boys than she was in her film making.  That’s fine – people are allowed to be interested in whoever or whatever they want to, but at the same time, I thought she was kind of at that point where she really needed to pick and choose her battles with her parents carefully since there was a good chance she would not win them all.  What does she want more – a non-Indian boyfriend or the chance to go away to NYC for college?  It didn’t really make me enjoy the story any less, but it did have me shaking my head a couple time and saying “Keep your eye on the prize, Maya!”

I also wish there had been a little more emphasis on the fact that Maya and her family are Muslim.  There were a lot of wonderful details about their Indian culture and customs and especially about their delicious foods, but there wasn’t much mention at all about their religious beliefs and how those beliefs figured into their day-to-day lives.  I obviously still enjoyed the story even without it, but especially since the book’s synopsis even emphasizes that the main character is Muslim, I think a little more focus on what their religion is like, would have just really rounded out the story well and would have pushed it closer to a five-star rating from me.

Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate, and Other Filters is a coming of age story that I think many young adults will be able to relate to on a personal level.  Being torn between wanting to follow your own dreams while at the same time, not wanting to disappoint your parents is a pretty universal journey that most of us take.  Ahmed takes her story to another level by also tackling tough and all too relevant issues like Islamophobia that can make this journey even more difficult for teens like Maya.  If you’re in the mood for a read that is both light and fluffy, yet also powerful and hard hitting, I’d definitely recommend Love, Hate, and Other Filters.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A searing #OwnVoices coming-of-age debut in which an Indian-American Muslim teen confronts Islamophobia and a reality she can neither explain nor escape–perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Jacqueline Woodson, and Adam Silvera.

American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City—and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.

four-stars

About Samira Ahmed

SAMIRA AHMED was born in Bombay, India, and grew up in Batavia, Illinois, in a house that smelled like fried onions, spices, and potpourri. She currently resides in the Midwest. She’s lived in Vermont, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango.

A graduate of the University of Chicago, she taught high school English for seven years, worked to create over 70 small high schools in New York City, and fought to secure billions of additional dollars to fairly fund public schools throughout New York State. She’s appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Fox News, NBC, NY1, NPR, and on BBC Radio. Her creative non-fiction and poetry has appeared in Jaggery Lit, Entropy, the Fem, and Claudius Speaks.

Her writing is represented by Eric Smith of P.S. Literary.

Review: THE BEAUTY THAT REMAINS by Ashley Woodfolk

Review:  THE BEAUTY THAT REMAINS by Ashley WoodfolkThe Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk
four-stars
Published by Delacorte Press on March 6th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW:

Ashley Woodfolk’s The Beauty That Remains is one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time.  It is a story about love and loss and how overwhelming the grieving process can be.  In some ways because of its subject matter, it was a difficult book to read.  I felt my heart absolutely breaking for the characters in this book over and over again because their grief was so palpable. At the same time, however, I thought it was a beautiful read with an important message about how we all grieve in our own way and in our own time, and I thought Woodfolk did a beautiful job of exploring that as she takes us through the grieving process of three teenagers who have lost someone close to them.

The book follows Autumn whose best friend Tavia recently died in a car accident, Shay who is dealing with the loss of her twin sister Sasha to leukemia, and Logan, whose ex-boyfriend Bram has committed suicide.  As soon as we meet each of them, it becomes clear that they are really struggling to cope with the loss of their loved ones.  Autumn spends more time at Tavia’s home than she does her own now and also sends emails to her dead friend’s Gmail account almost every day because she doesn’t feel like she can talk to anyone else about how lost she feels.  Shay is struggling, not just because looking at her own face in the mirror every day is a constant reminder that she has lost the person closest to her in the whole world, but also because she just doesn’t feel like she knows how to live or where she fits in without Sasha by her side.  She feels awkward around their mutual friends, and then there’s the music review blog she and Sasha ran together.  Shay can barely imagine trying to move forward with that without Sasha, whose reviews were the heart and soul of the blog.  Logan is not only mourning the loss of Bram who he’s pretty sure he was in love with, but he is also wracked with guilt because he and Bram had a huge fight and Logan said some awful things to him that he never got the chance to apologize for.  Logan is barely hanging on and starts drinking to cope with his emotions.

As Autumn, Shay, and Logan withdraw from their friends and family and bottle up their emotions, we see firsthand just how messy and ugly grief can be.  Woodfolk takes us deep into the psyche of these grieving teens and shows us exactly what they won’t share with those around them:  all of those haunting ‘what ifs’ –  what if we hadn’t fought, what if I hadn’t said those awful words, what if I had gone to the party with her, what if….

 

Powerful and authentic presentation.  I think what I liked most about this book is the way Woodfolk presents three completely different journeys of grief and healing to show just how truly individual the grieving process is.  Autumn, Shay, and Logan each experience their own unique array of emotions and develop their own mechanisms for coping with their loss.  Some of the emotions and coping mechanisms are of course healthier than others, but what each of them goes through just feels so authentic.  At times I felt like I was right there either grieving with them or wishing I could say something to take away their pain.

An emotionally devastating book that still manages to have a beautiful and positive message.  Even though this book was at times emotionally draining just because its subject matter is so difficult and intense, I still thought it radiated such a positive message overall.  Woodfolk shows us that no matter how dark a tunnel you find yourself in after losing a loved one, there is still light at the end of it.  You just have to keep pushing through at your own pace until you get there.  And you can’t do it alone.  You need the love and support of the ones you keep pushing away.  And of course you’ll always miss the person that you lost, but you can still heal and move forward.  Your loved one would want that for you.

The healing power of music.  Even though all of the teens in this book expressed their grief in different ways, they still had one thing in common on their journey to healing…music.  Music in the form of a local rock band called Unraveling Lovely is the thread that connects these three individual journeys of grief.  I’ve always found music to be cathartic and healing so I loved that it played such a central role in this book and helped these teens find their way through the darkness.

 

I had a couple of small issues with The Beauty That Remains but nothing so big that it took away from my enjoyment of the overall story.

Autumn has a budding romance with Dante, the brother of her deceased best friend, and I was torn about that.  On the one hand, it was nice to see Autumn and Dante talk to each other about the loss of Tavia, especially since they weren’t really talking to anyone else about it.  At the same time, however, every time their meetings took a romantic turn, the romance just felt out of place.

I also occasionally had trouble keeping all of the character’s names straight and kept mixing up who the survivors were and who the deceased were.  I’d have to refresh my memory each time I picked the book up again.  I think that was my own fault though because the book got to me so much emotionally.  I happened to be reading The Beauty That Remains the same week that 17 students and faculty members lost their lives at a high school in Parkland, Florida.  The book just hit me all the harder as I thought about what the students, parents, and administrators at the school must be going through and so I could only read a little at a time before I just needed to take a breather.  I think if I been able to read it straight through without stopping so much, keeping the names straight wouldn’t have been an issue.

 

Through her characters and their experiences in The Beauty That Remains, Woodfolk gently reminds us all that there isn’t a right or a wrong way to grieve when you lose someone you love.  We all grieve in different ways and some of us take longer to heal than others, but as long as we keep moving forward, eventually there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Music brought Autumn, Shay, and Logan together. Death wants to tear them apart.

Autumn always knew exactly who she was—a talented artist and a loyal friend. Shay was defined by two things: her bond with her twin sister, Sasha, and her love of music. And Logan always turned to writing love songs when his love life was a little less than perfect.

But when tragedy strikes each of them, somehow music is no longer enough. Now Logan can’t stop watching vlogs of his dead ex-boyfriend. Shay is a music blogger struggling to keep it together. And Autumn sends messages that she knows can never be answered.

Despite the odds, one band’s music will reunite them and prove that after grief, beauty thrives in the people left behind.

 

 

 

four-stars

About Ashley Woodfolk

Ashley Woodfolk graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in English and her life-long love of books led her straight to the publishing industry. She’s a member of the CBC Diversity Committee and markets books for children and teens. In her abundance of “spare” time, she writes contemporary YA. Indie movies, beer, books, and burgers are a few of her favorite things. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and pit bull puppy, Winnie. THE BEAUTY THAT REMAINS is her debut novel.