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 ROOM ON RUE AMELIE

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

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

 

three-half-stars

About Kristin Harmel

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

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

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

Review: I WAS ANASTASIA by Ariel Lawhon

Review:  I WAS ANASTASIA by Ariel LawhonI Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon
four-stars
Published by Doubleday Books on March 27th 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

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

four-stars

About Ariel Lawhon

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

Review: EVERY NOTE PLAYED by Lisa Genova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

He knows his left arm will go next.

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

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

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

four-half-stars

About Lisa Genova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally Hepworth

Review:  THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally HepworthThe Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth
four-half-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on March 6th 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW:

“Do you ever really know your neighbors?”  This tagline from the cover of Sally Hepworth’s The Family Next Door is what initially drew me to this book and I think it very accurately sums up the overall premise of the story.  No matter how long you’ve lived next door to someone, how well do you really know them?  The Family Next Door’s answer to that question is quite simply:  “Not nearly as much as you think you know.”

At its core, The Family Next Door is a book about secrets.  Some secrets are, of course, more scandalous than others, but really – is there anyone out there who truly shares everything about themselves with everyone they meet?  I know I sure don’t.  And, let me tell you, any secrets I may be keeping to myself pale in comparison to those the ladies of Pleasant Court are each trying to keep under wraps.  Boy, do these ladies have some dirty laundry!

First of all, especially after reading that tagline, I had to chuckle as soon as I saw that their neighborhood is called Pleasant Court.  On the surface it sounds lovely, but it immediately made me think of Desperate Housewives and Wisteria Lane, which also sounded lovely and was a huge hotbed for secrets and scandals.  Pleasant Court is a very family-oriented community.  Most of the residents have been in Pleasant Court for years and are all raising young families.  Main characters Essie, Fran, and Ange all fall into this category.  Essie’s mother, Barbara, also lives there and she helps Essie out by babysitting her grandkids.  The only character who doesn’t fit the typical mold of a Pleasant Court resident is the mysterious Isabelle, who is new to town, and who is also unmarried and has no children.  It was almost comical to watch the “radars” of the Pleasant Court women perk up as soon as Isabelle moved in:  Why would she move here? She doesn’t even have a family, etc.  These ladies become thoroughly engrossed in trying to figure out the scoop on Isabelle.  It was especially funny to me once I realized these ladies were the last people who should be casting stones and making judgements about someone they don’t even know.

That all sounds pretty vague, right? Well, since this is a book about secrets, there’s not much I can say about the plot without spoiling it.  I think it makes for the best reading experience to go into The Family Next Door knowing as little as possible and letting the secrets these characters are hiding unfold naturally.  Bottom line though:  No one in Pleasant Court is as innocent as they would have you believe.  Everyone, even Grandma Barbara, is lugging around a dirty secret or two!

 

Domestic dramas like The Family Next Door seem to be emerging as the latest trend in fiction and I have to say I enjoy these so much more than I enjoyed the unreliable/unlikeable narrator trend that books like Gone Girl started a few years ago.  Even though I enjoy them, I have had one consistent complaint with so many of the recent domestic dramas I’ve read and that’s that even though the actual drama in the story is deliciously scandalous and makes for a great page turner, I usually don’t feel very invested in any of the characters.  What made The Family Next Door head and shoulders over those books for me is that Hepworth actually made me care about the families in Pleasant Court.

She presents the story from the perspective of five very complicated female characters, but she fully fleshes out each character and infuses them with so much heart that even though each of them is clearly flawed, I still liked them and wanted them to be able to get past the deep, dark secrets that threatened to bury them.  When each of the secrets were revealed, instead of just sitting there waiting to see whether or not the secrets destroyed lives, I was sitting there like “OMG!  Damn girl, you need to fix this before it rips your family apart!”

In addition to giving me characters that I felt fully invested in, Hepworth also gave me everything else I love in a good domestic drama.  The secrets were scandalous and juicy, the pacing was quick and even – no lulls at all, and Hepworth wove enough twists and turns in the storylines of each of these characters that I stayed equally interested in all five accounts all the way through the book.  Even with so many characters to keep track of, there was no point along the way where I felt bored or distracted.  I really wanted to know everything about all five of these characters and their secrets, and that need to know really kept me turning the pages.  There were many characters and secrets to juggle, but Hepworth juggled them perfectly and crafted them into an incredibly well written and satisfying read.  I easily breezed through the book in less than two days.

 

None at all!

 

If you’re into stories that have a Desperate Housewives, Big Little Lies kind of vibe, I think this book would be a good fit for you.  This was my first time reading a novel by Sally Hepworth but it definitely will not be my last!

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A gripping domestic page-turner full of shocking reveals, perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty, Amanda Prowse and Kerry Fisher.

The small suburb of Pleasant Court lives up to its name. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows their neighbors, and children play in the street.

Isabelle Heatherington doesn’t fit into this picture of family paradise. Husbandless and childless, she soon catches the attention of three Pleasant Court mothers.

But Ange, Fran and Essie have their own secrets to hide. Like the reason behind Ange’s compulsion to control every aspect of her life. Or why Fran won’t let her sweet, gentle husband near her new baby. Or why, three years ago, Essie took her daughter to the park – and returned home without her.

As their obsession with their new neighbor grows, the secrets of these three women begin to spread – and they’ll soon find out that when you look at something too closely, you see things you never wanted to see.

four-half-stars

About Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Midwives (2015), The Things We Keep (2016) and The Mother’s Promise (2017), and The Family Next Door (Feb 2018). Sally’s books have been labelled “enchanting” by The Herald Sun, “smart and engaging” by Publisher’s Weekly, and New York Times bestselling authors Liane Moriarty and Emily Giffin have praised Sally’s novels as “women’s fiction at its finest” and “totally absorbing”.

Sally’s novels are available worldwide in English and have been translated into 15 languages.

Sally lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and three children.

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.

Review: MORE THAN WE CAN TELL by Brigid Kemmerer

Review:  MORE THAN WE CAN TELL by Brigid KemmererMore Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer
four-half-stars
Published by Bloomsbury Children's on March 6th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
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:

Although set in the same universe as her popular book Letters to the Lost, Brigid Kemmerer’s latest novel More Than We Can Tell is a standalone story that follows two teens who are each carrying around a heavy burden of secrets.  Eighteen-year-old Rev Fletcher was raised by an abusive father until he was removed from his home at age 7 and placed with foster parents who eventually adopted him as their own.  Even though he now lives in a loving and supportive environment, Rev is still occasionally haunted by the horrors of his past and by the fear that he will somehow grow up to be like his father.  Rev lives a normal life and gets by most days without dwelling on his fears too much, but when an unexpected letter arrives from his father, all of those fears rise to the surface and threaten to pull Rev under.  He doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t want to upset his adoptive parents, so he keeps the letter a secret even though it is eating him up inside that his father has somehow managed to find him after all these years.

Rev is not the only one in More Than We Can Tell living under the burden of secrets and fears.  High school junior Emma Blue is also battling some demons of her own.  Emma is a gamer and a gifted coder, so gifted in fact, that she has designed an entire video game from scratch.  Coding and designing video games are what Emma wants to pursue as a career, but her father, who actually designs video games for a living, is never around to support her, while her mother, who is a doctor, thinks all of this gaming is just a waste of time.  Because she feels they don’t really support her, Emma works on her video game in secret and doesn’t even try to show her parents what she is doing or how good at it she really is.  Things get messy, however, when an online troll starts sending her threatening messages through her game.  The comments escalate to the point where Emma is basically being sexually harassed through the internet, but because Emma fears her parents will just tell her to delete the game she has worked so hard on, Emma decides to shoulder the burden of this harassment herself and doesn’t tell anyone what is going on even though she is actually afraid of the troll by this point.

Rev and Emma meet by chance one night while Emma is out walking her dog, and the two of them hit it off immediately and are able to open up to one another in ways that they don’t feel like they can with anyone else.  Will their new found friendship turn into something more?  Can they help each other deal with the secrets that are wearing them down?

 

Wow, where to even start with this book?  Honestly, I loved pretty much everything about it.  It’s filled with wonderfully complex characters, relevant themes, beautiful relationships, and so much more.  It made me laugh at times, and it also made me tear up a few times, and I’m a sucker for a book that grabs all of my emotions like that.

I fell in love with both Rev and Emma right away, for very different reasons.  Rev was just such a beautiful soul and it hurt my heart to watch him struggle with the memories of what his awful father did to him.  It especially got to me that he was so worried that he would turn out just like him, when everything about his personality screamed that he would be the exact opposite.  I hated the way his father kept getting into his head and dragging him down, but at the same time, I could easily understand how it kept happening.

I loved Emma because of her independence.  I didn’t necessarily agree with her keeping things from her parents, but at the same time, I admired her strength and her determination not to give up on her dream of designing games for a living.  My inner geek also loved that she was so passionate about STEM and that she was a pretty badass gamer as well.

The relationships in More Than We Can Tell were beautifully written as well.  Rev’s loving relationship with his adoptive parents, Geoff and Kristin, was especially moving to read about, knowing how awful his life had been prior to coming into their home.  I teared up several times just watching them love and support him even when he, at times, tried to push them away.  My love for this relationship also extended out to them all for inviting another troubled teen into their home.  Even though he wasn’t exactly central to the overall storyline, I loved the character of Matthew for many of the same reasons I loved Rev and so it was lovely to see him find a home, even if it’s only temporary, with a family as great as Rev’s  (On a side note:  I would love to see another book set in this universe that follows Matthew.)

The friendship between Declan and Rev was probably my favorite part of the entire book. I’ve actually not read Letters to the Lost yet, but I’ve heard this friendship plays a role in that book as well, so I fully intend to go back and read that.  These young men are about as close to brothers as they could possibly be.  I enjoyed the ease of their banter, which is just so funny at times, but most importantly, I loved that Declan always seems to just “get” Rev.  He’s tuned in to what Rev needs, even if Rev doesn’t know it himself.  There’s one scene where Rev loses it at school and throws a punch at Declan.  Instead of getting mad about it, Declan shows up at Rev’s house right after school and, to paraphrase, says “Come on.  If you need to punch it out, let’s go find you a better target than my face” and takes him to work through his frustrations on an actual punching bag.  That’s friendship right there.

The growing relationship between Emma and Rev is lovely too.  I loved their little meetups on the lawn outside the church and how easily their conversations flowed from the silly and casual to the more serious things that were on their minds.  Kemmerer does a beautiful job here of advancing their relationship from strangers to acquaintances to friends to maybe a little something more without it feeling like insta-love.

I could go on and on about all the things I adored about More Than We Can Tell but I’m going to close by saying that in addition to the beautifully drawn characters and relationships, what really pulled me into this story were all of its themes.  This is a story about love, family, friendship, forgiveness, and trust.  It also serves as an important reminder to give your family a chance to have your back and that you don’t always have to shoulder your own burdens.

 

I can’t think of a single issue I had with More Than We Can Tell. It’s just a wonderfully crafted story on every level.

 

Brigid Kemmer’s More Than We Can Tell is a beautifully written and moving story that will grab you by the emotions and won’t let go.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll fall in love with Rev and his family and friends.  I look forward to reading Letters to the Lost soon because I’m ready for more from the universe.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Rev Fletcher is battling the demons of his past. But with loving adoptive parents by his side, he’s managed to keep them at bay…until he gets a letter from his abusive father and the trauma of his childhood comes hurtling back.

Emma Blue spends her time perfecting the computer game she built from scratch, rather than facing her parents’ crumbling marriage. She can solve any problem with the right code, but when an online troll’s harassment escalates, she’s truly afraid.

When Rev and Emma meet, they both long to lift the burden of their secrets and bond instantly over their shared turmoil. But when their situations turn dangerous, their trust in each other will be tested in ways they never expected. This must-read story will once again have readers falling for Brigid Kemmerer’s emotional storytelling.

four-half-stars

About Brigid Kemmerer

BRIGID KEMMERER is the author of LETTERS TO THE LOST (Bloomsbury; April 4, 2017), a dark, contemporary Young Adult romance; THICKER THAN WATER (Kensington, December 29, 2015), a New Adult paranormal mystery with elements of romance; and the YALSA-nominated Elemental series of five Young Adult novels and three e-novellas which Kirkus Reviews calls “refreshingly human paranormal romance” and School Library Journal describes as “a new take on the supernatural genre.” She lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and four sons.

Review: THE WICKED DEEP

Review:  THE WICKED DEEPThe Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw
three-stars
Published by Simon Pulse on March 6th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW:

I’ve always been drawn to books that feature witches, so as soon as I saw its alluring synopsis promising “Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic meets the Salem Witch trials,” Shea Ernshaw’s debut novel, The Wicked Deep, quickly became one of my most anticipated reads of 2018.  So, did it live up to expectations?  Well, yes and no.  The Wicked Deep is an atmospheric and engaging read — I read it easily in about a day.  That said, however, it was also the kind of read that had me yelling at the characters as I was reading because I just couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading.  I’ll try to elaborate on that without giving away any major spoilers…

Set in the cursed town of Sparrow, Oregon, The Wicked Deep is a story of revenge.  Two centuries ago, beautiful sisters Marguerite, Aurora, and Hazel Swan moved to Sparrow.  They were disliked immediately because of the way the townsmen fawned all over them and eventually they were accused of being witches and drowned in the town’s harbor.  Every summer since the drowning, on the anniversary of their deaths, the spirits of the three sisters wait for teenage girls to enter the water and then they inhabit their bodies until the summer solstice.  Their goal?  Revenge.  Like sirens, the sisters use the bodies they’ve stolen to then lure unsuspecting teenage boys into the harbor where they drown them.  No one ever knows whose bodies have been taken over and once the summer solstice comes, the spirits go back to the bottom of the sea and those who were inhabited have no recollection of what has happened. Everyone in Sparrow seems to just accept that this is their fate and they have even gone so far as to morbidly exploit the curse, even referring to it as “Swan Season.”  The curse has made Sparrow quite the tourist attraction and people come from miles around to see if what they have heard is true.  The town throws ‘Swan’ parties and then just passively waits for the ritual to play out each year, with no hope of ever stopping it.

Things change this year, however.  A young man named Bo arrives in town on the same night the Swan sisters are set to return.  Bo meets 17-year-old Penny Talbot, a local who like most others, has just accepted this as her way of life.  Penny fills him in on the curse and warns him that as a teen boy, he’s likely to be a potential target.  The two of them start to bond and, instead of passively riding out the ritual like she does every other year, Penny becomes determined to keep Bo from falling victim to the sisters.  While Penny is busy trying to keep Bo safe, seeds of discord are being sown in the town and some of the boys decide it’s time to end this curse once and for all.  Someone comes up with the idea that perhaps if they can figure out which girls are inhabited by the spirits, they can kill those girls and thus prevent the spirits from returning to the sea, thus breaking the curse.  This leads to a modern day witch hunt with the girls now in just as much danger as the boys.

Can the townspeople stop the curse?  Can they even justify taking the lives of three innocent girls to possibly stop the curse?  Can Penny protect Bo from the curse?  Why did Bo conveniently show up in town that night anyway?  So many questions….

I absolutely loved the atmosphere that Ernshaw creates in her novel.  It’s an enchanting recipe of quaint small town quirkiness combined with the haunting and creepy vibe that this two-hundred year old curse casts over everything.  Small details like the sisters using song to lure teen girls into the water to steal their bodies just added to the overall sensory experience of reading.  If I was rating on atmosphere only, this would be five stars for sure.

The legend of the Swan sisters was fascinating as well.  I really liked how Ernshaw allowed more and more details about their story to unfold as we’re watching the curse play out in real time.  The Swan sisters were actually interesting enough that I would have loved an entire book devoted just to them, but Ernshaw does a nice job of seamlessly weaving together the past and the present to show us how the curse began and why the sisters are so bent on seeking revenge against the people of Sparrow.

Out of all the characters, Bo was probably the character who intrigued me the most.  He was so mysterious and it felt like he was hiding something when he first arrived, especially the way he claimed to not be a tourist yet conveniently showed up on the first night of “Swan Season.”  I felt like I was watching him most closely while I was reading, trying to figure out if he had ulterior motives for arriving in Sparrow when he did.

Okay, so let me reiterate that I enjoyed reading The Wicked Deep.  As I’ve already mentioned, I read it in a day and literally could not put it down until I knew how it was going to end.  That said, there were some things about the story itself that just drove me crazy and had me yelling at the characters (a lot!) while I was reading…

 

  1. I could not understand, for the life of me, how an entire town of people could continue living in a place where they know the same thing is going to happen every year. You know young men are going to drown and yet even if you are the parent of said young men, you’re cool with staying in this town?  I couldn’t get past this because I just can’t fathom staying in a place like this.  It should be a deserted ghost town.

 

  1. Speaking of being a tourist haven – Even if you have accepted your fate as some kind of “collective guilt,” why would you exploit this tragedy by bringing more people to your town? Are they hoping to lure in other families so that maybe non-local kids drown instead of their own?
  1. The teenagers’ cavalier attitude toward the entire curse. Again, you know as a teen girl in a small town, you have a very high chance of being one of the three who are “chosen” by the sisters and that if chosen, they, using your body, will murder young men.  And you know as a teenage boy, that you stand a pretty good chance of being lured out to a watery grave.  So why the heck do these idiots have a huge party down on the beach the first night of “Swan Season” every year and  dare each other to drunkenly wade out into the water to see what happens?

 

Aside from not understanding why the people of Sparrow do what they do, I also guessed what was supposed to be a huge plot twist very early on, so that was a little disappointing. I will say it’s a great twist though, a total game changer, so if you don’t guess it early on, it will blow your mind when you get there.

One other area where I felt things were a bit lacking was in the area of character development.  You’ll notice that aside from Bo, I didn’t really mention any other characters and that’s because I didn’t really feel all that invested in any of them.  It felt like they were just there to advance the plot regarding the curse.  Penny probably had the most development out of any of them but I still didn’t really feel any connection to her.  Since I’m one who likes to connect with the characters, I’m reading about, this was a little disappointing.

While in many ways The Wicked Deep lived up to expectations – it’s one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read in a while and I definitely enjoyed the unique premise of the cursed town and the three sisters’ quest for revenge, the book fell a bit flat for me in other ways just because I couldn’t get past the unrealistic behavior of the people in the town and didn’t feel much of a connection to the characters. I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a haunting and creepy witch-themed read.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Hocus Pocus and Practical Magic meets the Salem Witch trials in this haunting story about three sisters on a quest for revenge—and how love may be the only thing powerful enough to stop them.

Welcome to the cursed town of Sparrow…

Where, two centuries ago, three sisters were sentenced to death for witchery. Stones were tied to their ankles and they were drowned in the deep waters surrounding the town.

Now, for a brief time each summer, the sisters return, stealing the bodies of three weak-hearted girls so that they may seek their revenge, luring boys into the harbor and pulling them under.

Like many locals, seventeen-year-old Penny Talbot has accepted the fate of the town. But this year, on the eve of the sisters’ return, a boy named Bo Carter arrives; unaware of the danger he has just stumbled into.

Mistrust and lies spread quickly through the salty, rain-soaked streets. The townspeople turn against one another. Penny and Bo suspect each other of hiding secrets. And death comes swiftly to those who cannot resist the call of the sisters.

But only Penny sees what others cannot. And she will be forced to choose: save Bo, or save herself.

three-stars

About Shea Ernshaw

Shea Ernshaw is an Oregon native and YA author. She often writes late, late, late into the night, enjoys dark woods, scary stories and moonlight on lakes. She drinks loads of tea and believes sunrises are where unicorns hide.

She lives with her two cats, a dog, a husband, and a stack of books beside her bed she still needs to read.

Her debut THE WICKED DEEP will be published by Simon & Schuster/Simon Pulse in 2018.