Book Review: The Hundredth Queen

Book Review:  The Hundredth QueenThe Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen, #1) by Emily R. King
three-half-stars
Series: The Hundredth Queen #1
Published by Skyscape on June 1st 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 291
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

Okay, so I have to admit that what initially drew me to this book were the first lines of the synopsis:  “He wanted a warrior queen. He got a revolutionary.” That just screamed kick ass heroine to me so I couldn’t wait to dive into Emily King’s The Hundredth Queen, the first book in The Hundredth Queen series.  The Hundredth Queen follows eighteen-year-old Kalinda, a sickly orphan girl who is a ward of the Sisterhood. Because she has been prone to fevers her entire life, she has not received much of the training that her fellow wards have received.  This makes her a very unlikely candidate for the future that most of her fellow wards wish for – that of being ‘claimed’ by a royal family. Wards who are ‘claimed’ go on to become servants, or sometimes even courtesans or wives.

Kalinda is fully prepared to join the Sisterhood when the time comes and live a life of seclusion and prayer.  In fact, she’d much prefer this over the alternative.  When Rajah Tarek, who has the reputation of being a tyrant, comes to the Sisterhood looking to claim a new courtesan, as well as his 100th wife, Kalinda and her beloved friend Jaya conspire so as not to be chosen by Rajah.  Their plan unfortunately backfires and Rajah chooses Kalinda to be his 100th wife, taking her away from Jaya and the only life she has ever known.

What Kalinda soon learns is that being the 100th wife means she must take part in a Rank Tournament to defend her place among Rajah’s other wives and courtesans and that the Rank Tournament is basically a fight to the death.  Kalinda is horrified by the idea that all of these women are willing to kill each other just to improve their wifely ranking and is desperate to find a way out of her predicament, especially since she has no interest in being Rajah’s wife.  Instead, she has fallen head over heels for one of Rajah’s guards, Captain Deven Naik.  Kalinda wants nothing more than to find a way to escape her unwanted fate and be with the man she loves.  Her best chance for escape comes when she learns that those fevers she has suffered from all her life are actually so much more than just fevers.  Instead, they are a manifestation of a latent power she possesses but that the Sisterhood has kept hidden by dosing her with a “fever” tonic.  Why?  Because the power Kalinda possesses is forbidden and could mean death if the wrong people were to find out about it.

Can Kalinda harness this power while keeping it a secret from those who would harm her?  And can she use it to escape this death match that Rajah has set her up for?

Kalinda was definitely my favorite part of The Hundredth Queen. I always enjoy reading about an underdog that I can root for and with her fevers and lack of training, she is immediately presented in the role of the underdog.  As I was reading about the ‘Claiming’ process and seeing how few options women have in this society, I was completely turned off, so I found Kalinda very relatable as soon as it became clear that she felt the same way I did about the few choices women had. After seeing that all she wanted was to be able to choose her own path rather than have it dictated to her, it was that much more heart-wrenching to see her taken away and therefore separated from Jaya, who is obviously like a sister to her.

I continued to relate to Kalinda once she learned about the Rank Tournament and was horrified to find out what all of these women are willing to do to each other just to compete for Rajah’s attention.  The treatment of women in the book is truly appalling, and Kalinda’s recognition of that, along with those first lines of the synopsis made me perk up once more:  Is Kalinda going to be the revolutionary who changes everything?

As awful as the idea of the Rank Tournament was, I have to admit that the training scenes and especially the combat scenes in the novel are pretty amazing.  Those wives and courtesans are not people you want to end up on the wrong side of.  They are fierce and they’re willing to fight dirty to get what they want.  Lakia, Rajah’s number 1 wife is especially vicious and I feared for Kalinda on more than one occasion because Lakia really seems to have it in for her.

Aside from a relatable underdog main character and some epic action scenes, another aspect of the novel I enjoyed was the forbidden magic.  Those who possess the magic are called Bhuta and they are just fascinating.  Rajah has had many of them killed over the years, but those who have survived are in hiding and hoping to find a way to strike back at Rajah.  We don’t learn too much about them in this book, so I hope they will be explored in more depth in future books in the series.  What we do know is that their powers appear to be elemental, based on earth, wind, air, and fire.

Even though I enjoyed The Hundredth Queen overall, I did have some issues with it. My biggest issue with it lies in the relationship between Kalinda and Captain Deven Naik.  As soon as Kalinda and Deven see each other for the first time, they’re mutually obsessed, and for no apparent reason.  For me, it just felt awkward and forced since there was no build up to it at all.  It was 100% instalove, which never works well for me. What I also didn’t like though was the way Kalinda keeps putting Deven in compromising positions.  She knows full well that Rajah will kill Deven if he suspects Deven and Kalinda are romantically involved, but yet she keeps talking to him in private and otherwise calling attention to themselves when they should be keeping a safe distance from each other.  At one point she even kisses him where anyone could have walked in and caught them.  I just didn’t care very much for her reckless behavior.  Deven of course is equally to blame.  If he wants to stay alive, he needs to stay away from Rajah’s soon-to-be wife.  It’s not rocket science.

I honestly thought Kalinda had a lot more chemistry with a character named Brac.  He is one of the magical Bhuta, and while I don’t want to say too much about him because of spoilers, he actually ended up being one of my favorite characters and I preferred his interactions with Kalinda’s to her interactions with Deven.

One other issue I had was that I didn’t have a clear understanding of the Rank Tournament.  It didn’t make sense to me that these women were really willing to die or to murder someone else in order to reach a higher wifely rank or else to move from courtesan status to wife status.  I would have liked more explanation about why these women were so eager to challenge each other and if there was some other point to it aside from getting more attention from Rajah.  Speaking of Rajah, I also didn’t really understand why he was so obsessed with following some obscure legend step-by-by, especially since it meant his chosen women had to kill each other.  Following this legend is why he instituted the Rank Tournament in the first place and it was unclear to me why it was important enough to him to warrant killing people.  Those areas of the storytelling were a little vague and I would have liked them fleshed out more.

Even though I clearly had some issues with The Hundredth Queen, I still found it to be an entertaining read overall.  I’m definitely invested enough in Kalinda’s story to pick up the second book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

As an orphan ward of the Sisterhood, eighteen-year-old Kalinda is destined for nothing more than a life of seclusion and prayer. Plagued by fevers, she’s an unlikely candidate for even a servant’s position, let alone a courtesan or wife. Her sole dream is to continue living in peace in the Sisterhood’s mountain temple.

But a visit from the tyrant Rajah Tarek disrupts Kalinda’s life. Within hours, she is ripped from the comfort of her home, set on a desert trek, and ordered to fight for her place among the rajah’s ninety-nine wives and numerous courtesans. Her only solace comes in the company of her guard, the stoic but kind Captain Deven Naik.

Faced with the danger of a tournament to the death—and her growing affection for Deven—Kalinda has only one hope for escape, and it lies in an arcane, forbidden power buried within her.

three-half-stars

About Emily R. King

Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the USA, she has perfected the use of “eh” and “y’all” and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and islander at heart, Emily’s greatest interests are her four children. She’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and an active participant in her local writers’ community. She lives in Northern Utah with her family and their cantankerous cat.

ARC Review: Murder Over Mochas

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

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

On to some highlights…

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

 

 

three-half-stars

About Caroline Fardig

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

Alice Hoffman’s THE RULES OF MAGIC is truly spellbinding

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

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

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

 

five-stars

About Alice Hoffman

alice hoffman

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston.

Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.

Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of our most distinguished novelists. She has published a total of twenty-three novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Blackbird House is a book of stories centering around an old farm on Cape Cod. Hoffman’s recent books include Aquamarine and Indigo, novels for pre-teens, and The New York Times bestsellers The River King, Blue Diary, The Probable Future, and The Ice Queen. Green Angel, a post-apocalyptic fairy tale about loss and love, was published by Scholastic and The Foretelling, a book about an Amazon girl in the Bronze Age, was published by Little Brown. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly has chosen as one of the best books of the year. Her most recent novels include The Third Angel,The Story Sisters, the teen novel, Green Witch, a sequel to her popular post-apocalyptic fairy tale, Green Angel. The Red Garden, published in 2011, is a collection of linked fictions about a small town in Massachusetts where a garden holds the secrets of many lives.

Hoffman’s work has been published in more than twenty translations and more than one hundred foreign editions. Her novels have received mention as notable books of the year by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Library Journal, and People Magazine. She has also worked as a screenwriter and is the author of the original screenplay “Independence Day,” a film starring Kathleen Quinlan and Diane Wiest. Her teen novel Aquamarine was made into a film starring Emma Roberts. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest, Harvard Review, Ploughshares and other magazines.

Toni Morrison calls The Dovekeepers “.. a major contribution to twenty-first century literature” for the past five years. The story of the survivors of Masada is considered by many to be Hoffman’s masterpiece. The New York Times bestselling novel is slated for 2015 miniseries, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, starring Cote de Pablo of NCIS fame.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things was released in 2014 and was an immediate bestseller, The New York Times Book Review noting, “A lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances… Imaginative…”

Nightbird, a Middle Reader, was released in March of 2015. In August of this year, The Marriage Opposites, Alice’s latest novel, was an immediate New York Times bestseller. “Hoffman is the prolific Boston-based magical realist, whose stories fittingly play to the notion that love—both romantic and platonic—represents a mystical meeting of perfectly paired souls,” said Vogue magazine. Click here to read more reviews for The Marriage of Opposites.

ARC Review: The Blackbird Season

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

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-half-stars

About Kate Moretti

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

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

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

Book Review: A Perfect Obsession

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

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

LIKES

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

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

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

DISLIKES/ISSUES

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

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

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

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

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

 

RATING:  3 STARS

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

three-stars

About Heather Graham

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

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

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

ARC Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a feminist Snow White retelling

ARC Review: Girls Made of Snow and Glass, a feminist Snow White retellingGirls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust
four-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on September 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Retelling
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

I have to confess that Snow White has always been one of my least favorite fairy tales because I could never get into the idea of one woman deciding she needed to poison another woman just because she might have taken her place as “the fairest of them all.”  That said, as soon as I heard that Melissa Bashardoust’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass was being advertised as a feminist retelling of the Snow White fairytale, it immediately became a must-read book for me.  I just couldn’t wait to find out what a feminist retelling would entail.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass was everything I hoped it would be and more.  It’s a beautifully written, character-driven exploration of the relationship between two women who are doomed to be rivals.  Lynet is the Snow White character in the story.  She is the 15 year old daughter of the King of Whitespring.  Lynet is a free spirit who loves to run, climb, and have endless adventures.  She has no interest whatsoever in politics or in ever becoming Queen.  Much to her frustration, her father constantly reminds her how much she looks like her beautiful dead mother and how one day she will take her mother’s place and become Queen of Whitespring.  Lynet doesn’t want to hear it because she just wants to grow up to be her own person, not a mirror image of a mother she never even met.  If she had to choose to be like anyone else, she would, in fact, choose to grow up to be like her strong and fierce stepmother, Mina.

Mina is, of course, the stepmother/Evil Queen figure in the story, and she also very unexpectedly turned out to be my favorite character.  Bashardoust writes such a rich and intricate backstory for Mina that even though she eventually ends up on a similar path to the stepmother in the original tale, it’s easy to see how she ends up in such a predicament.  We meet Mina while she is Queen of Whitespring, but the story quickly takes us back to when Mina was about Lynet’s age and being raised by her father, a well-known, often feared, magician in the kingdom. Mina’s father is cold, controlling, and sometimes hurtful.  In a particularly spiteful moment, he tells Mina that she nearly died of heart failure at age 4, and that to save her, he used magic to replace her dying heart with a glass one.  He tells Mina that because she has no actual heart, she cannot love and cannot be loved.  He goes on to tell Mina that all she can hope for is to make people love her because of her beauty.

When Mina’s father uses his magic to help the King one day, the King decides to repay him by offering him a place to live on the royal grounds.  Once living there, Mina comes up with the idea that if she can make the King fall in love with her, she can someday become Queen and thus earn the love of all of those in the kingdom.  Mina’s plan starts to fall into place and she and her stepdaughter Lynet actually become quite close, that is, until Lynet becomes old enough to become a threat to the throne.  Even though Lynet swears she has no interest in becoming queen, the threat she presents to Mina, who is so desperate to be loved, still starts to drive a wedge between them.

Are Lynet and Mina truly doomed to be rivals or can they figure out a way for each of them to get what they most want?

 

LIKES

My favorite part of Girls Made of Snow and Glass is the complexity of the relationship between Mina and Lynet.  Their relationship is ultimately the driving force behind this story and it’s no simple battle about who’s the fairest of them all.  These two women, care about one another, and as Lynet grows up, have truly become like family.  When Mina comes to the realization that Lynet may be the greatest obstacle to her finding that love she is so desperate for, it absolutely guts her.  She doesn’t want to have to hurt Lynet in any way to get what she wants.  Their relationship is just beautiful and heartbreaking.

Equally glorious to the complex relationship between the two main characters is the magic!  Okay, so there’s no dwarves, no poison apple, and no kiss from a handsome prince to break a curse.  A bit of a bummer maybe, but the magic Bashardoust has given to her characters more than makes up for it.  It’s just so creative and well, for lack of a better word, magical, haha!

As I’ve already mentioned, Mina’s father used magic to save Mina by giving her a glass heart.  As you probably also gleaned from the book’s title and synopsis, if Mina is the girl made of glass, then there is another girl who is made of snow.  Lynet is of course that girl.  There’s a very good reason why the King keeps telling Lynet she looks just like her mother.  The King had called Mina’s father to him, desperate to save his Queen, who was dying.  Mina’s father was unable to save her, but at the King’s request, used his magic to create an infant girl in the Queen’s likeness.  Using snow, Mina’s father gave the King what he wanted, Lynet.

Mina’s father somehow transferred a portion of his magic to each girl when he used it on them, thus infusing both Lynet and Mina with powers of their own.  That’s all I’m going to say about the magic for now, but trust me, it’s important and it’s awesome and these two young women are just badass, especially when they start using these powers.

Another element of the story that was really a highlight for me was an unexpected f/f relationship between Lynet and a young female surgeon named Nadia.  The romance comes about and develops in such a natural, low-key way and doesn’t at all distract from the rest of the plot, and I just thought it was beautifully written.   

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

I only had a couple of issues with this story, the main one being that the men in it are just so UGHHH.  The King was basically a good man and he meant well, but at a certain point, it really started to bother me how much he kept obsessing on how much Lynet reminded him of her dead mother and how she was destined to take her mother’s place someday.  I know he didn’t mean it in an incestuous way, but it was still a little creepy.

Don’t even get me started on Mina’s father.  If you’re one who likes to have characters to hate, he’s your guy.  Aside from the fact that he did save Mina’s life when she was a little girl, there’s nothing else redeeming about him. He’s just a selfish, manipulative jerk.  He also had a creepy obsession with Lynet since he “made” her.  I have to admit, I spent much of the book wishing something horrible would happen to him.

Aside from the horrid men in the story, I did think the pacing was a little slow early on in the story and that it took me a little while to get used to Mina’s narrative being told from a present-day perspective as well as one from when she was 16.  Once I got used to the way Mina’s story was being presented, it was no longer an issue for me.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Girls of Snow and Glass is a book I’d recommend without hesitation to anyone who enjoys stories that are character driven.  I’d also recommend it to those who love fairytale retelling and even to those who say they’re burnt out on retellings. Even though this story borrows the overall idea of a young girl being in the way of her stepmother, Bashardoust has crafted such a creative story that if I hadn’t known this was a Snow White retelling going in, I don’t know that I would have guessed it.  It’s a uniquely fresh take on a timeless tale.

 

RATING:  4 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Melissa Bashardoust, and Flatiron Books for allowing me to preview Girls Made of Snow and Glass. This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber in this feminist fantasy reimagining of the Snow White fairytale

At sixteen, Mina’s mother is dead, her magician father is vicious, and her silent heart has never beat with love for anyone—has never beat at all, in fact, but she’d always thought that fact normal. She never guessed that her father cut out her heart and replaced it with one of glass. When she moves to Whitespring Castle and sees its king for the first time, Mina forms a plan: win the king’s heart with her beauty, become queen, and finally know love. The only catch is that she’ll have to become a stepmother.

Fifteen-year-old Lynet looks just like her late mother, and one day she discovers why: a magician created her out of snow in the dead queen’s image, at her father’s order. But despite being the dead queen made flesh, Lynet would rather be like her fierce and regal stepmother, Mina. She gets her wish when her father makes Lynet queen of the southern territories, displacing Mina. Now Mina is starting to look at Lynet with something like hatred, and Lynet must decide what to do—and who to be—to win back the only mother she’s ever known…or else defeat her once and for all.

Entwining the stories of both Lynet and Mina in the past and present, Girls Made of Snow and Glass traces the relationship of two young women doomed to be rivals from the start. Only one can win all, while the other must lose everything—unless both can find a way to reshape themselves and their story.

four-stars

ARC Review – Mask of Shadows

ARC Review – Mask of ShadowsMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
three-half-stars
Series: Untitled #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

Sallot Leon, the protagonist in Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows, is out for revenge.  Sal is the sole survivor of the territory of Nacea.  Nacea and all of its people were destroyed when the land of Erlend started a Civil War with the land of Alona.  Erlend was supposed to protect Nacea but when mysterious and deadly shadows were unleashed during the war, the Erlend lords chose to abandon Nacea and retreat to safety.  Completely alone and forced to live as a thief in order to survive, Sal is determined to make those Erlend lords pay for what they did to Nacea.

When Sal steals a poster advertising a contest to become Opal, one of the Queen’s group of elite assassins, it sounds like the perfect way to gain access to the lords and thus begin seeking revenge.  There’s just one catch – the competition to become Opal is basically a fight to the death, the last one alive wins.  So Sal’s plan is ultimately to get revenge or die trying.

 

LIKES

I’d have to say that Sal is definitely my favorite part of the novel. They are charming, witty, and extremely resourceful.  Sal is also the classic underdog in this competition because the majority of the competitors are heavily trained in combat and other lethal skills, whereas Sal is used to getting by on their street smarts.

You’ll also notice my use of ‘they’ as I’m referring to Sal.  Sal is a gender fluid protagonist, and in most cases is referred to as they, although Sal indicates that what gender pronouns are used should be dictated by what type of clothing is being worn. If Sal is wearing a dress, for example, using ‘she’ is perfectly acceptable.  I had never read a book with a gender fluid character in it before so this made for a unique read.  I don’t know much at all about gender fluidity but I thought Miller did a very nice job portraying it here.  I also liked that it was incorporated smoothly into the overall story and didn’t overshadow other plot points.  A few characters inquired about it in terms of how to address Sal, but otherwise they accepted it without question and moved on. It wasn’t treated as an oddity.

Another aspect of Mask of Shadows I enjoyed was the competition itself.  Yes, it was reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but it was still an exciting, action-packed part of the book regardless.  The rules were basically to kill as many of your fellow competitors as possible, but do so without being caught.  Since the competition is to become one of the Queen’s assassins, stealth is one of the most important qualities needed.  Miller does a fantastic job of building plenty of tension and suspense as the reader follows Sal through the competition, playing this ultra-intense kill-or-be-killed game, never knowing when a potential assassin might be hiding around any corner, or up in any tree, looking for the perfect opportunity to take them out. One distinct difference between this competition and The Hunger Games was that all of the competitors were referred to by numbers and wore numbered masks over their faces at all times.  They were only referred to by their numbers, which added an almost-dehumanizing element to the competition. I had mixed feelings about the masks because there were a few competitors I would have liked to know more about, but it was hard to connect with any of them since they were just faceless numbers.

Also somewhat reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but in a good way (for me anyway) is that each competitor is assigned a servant to help them dress, bathe, ensure they have safe, non-poisoned food to eat each day.  Sal’s servant, Maud, was one of my favorite characters in the book.  She’s not allowed to give Sal any kind of advantage during the competition, but behind the scenes, she is hard core in Sal’s corner.  Why?  Because if Sal wins, Maud gets a reward and a huge promotion.  So she’s very excited each day that Sal doesn’t die.  She’s sassy too, so she adds a much-welcomed element of lightheartedness in the middle of what is otherwise just scene after scene of murders and attempted murders.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

My biggest issues with Mask of Shadows had to do with pacing, which was slow at times, especially when the author was detailing Sal’s backstory and the reasons why they wanted to become one of the Queen’s assassins.  I lost interest a few times along the way and only came away with a vague notion of what the world of Mask of Shadows entailed so I would have loved more world building, but without it being in the form of info dumps.

I also had issues with the romance, which I found to be out of place and unfortunately distracting from the main storyline.  Although I thought Sal and Elise had a lot of chemistry when they first met (while Sal was robbing Elise), as the story went on and they are reunited as part of the competition, I preferred them  as teacher and student rather than romantic partners.

Overall, I think more action-packed competition scenes and little or no romance would have better served Mask of Shadows.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While I did have some issues with it, overall I still enjoyed reading Mask of Shadows.  While parts of the storyline are in some ways reminiscent of The Hunger Games, the similarities did not bother me because there are still enough differences to make it a unique and entertaining read.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Linsey Miller, and Sourcebooks Fire for allowing me to preview this book.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book being reviewed.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class and the nobles who destroyed their home. 

When Sal Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen’s personal assassins named for the rings she wears — Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal — their world changes. They know it’s a chance for a new life.

Except the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge. 

three-half-stars

About Linsey Miller

A wayward biology student from Arkansas, Linsey has previously worked as a crime lab intern, neuroscience lab assistant, and pharmacy technician. She is currently an MFA candidate represented by Rachel Brooks of Bookends Literary. Her debut novel MASK OF SHADOWS is the first in a fantasy duology coming in August 2017 from Sourcebooks Fire. She can be found writing about science and magic anywhere there is coffee.

ARC Review: The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

ARC Review:  The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine LockeThe Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
Also by this author: The Spy with the Red Balloon
five-stars
Series: The Balloonmakers #1
Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

MY REVIEW:

Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon is such a gorgeous and moving book that I’m nearly at a loss for words to convey just how good it really is.  I finished reading it a few days ago and just can’t stop thinking about it.   The Girl with the Red Balloon is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination – it deals with weighty subjects like the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, and what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall fell. For the most part, it’s a dark and gritty dual time period read that shows how horrific it was for Jews during World War II as well as how difficult it was to live under the eye of a totalitarian regime in 1980’s East Germany. It’s not all darkness and horror though. Katherine Locke uses a hint of magic and a bit of romance to offset all of that darkness.  You see, not only is this novel historical fiction that deals with more than one time period.  It’s also a time travel novel.

The Girl with the Red Balloon begins in present day Germany where we meet one of our main characters, sixteen year old Ellie Baum, who has traveled there on a class field trip.  She sees a red balloon floating nearby while hanging out with her classmates and asks her best friend to take a photo of her with it for her grandfather.  It reminds her of a story her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, always tells her, about how a girl in a purple dress handed him a red balloon when he arrived at a concentration camp during the war, and the balloon floated him out of the camp and to safety.

When Ellie grabs the balloon, however, the unexpected and unbelievable happens.  She travels back in time to 1988 and finds herself in East Berlin and in imminent danger!  There she is found and led to a safe house by Kai and Mitzi, a Romani gypsy and a German lesbian, who are part of a magical resistance group who uses red balloons to float people over the Berlin Wall and into West Germany.  The catch?  These balloons, while magical, are not supposed to travel through time.  The balloon makers are stumped as to what has happened to bring Ellie to them and are therefore unsure of how to get her back to her own time period.  The resistance group vows to keep Ellie safe from the East German police and to do everything they can to find a way to get her home, but when dead time travelers start turning up with red balloons, it becomes clear that someone is experimenting with forbidden dark magic and time travel.  Why is someone trying to travel back in time and why are they so willing to do it, even at the expense of innocent lives?  If others are dying when they grab these balloons, how was Ellie able to safely travel back in time? It becomes a race against time to stop who is behind this before the bodies start piling up, even if it means Ellie loses out on perhaps her only way back to the future.

LIKES

This is another one of those books where I could just write pages and pages about what I liked.  I don’t want to give anything away though so I’m just going to list a few highlights.

The friendship between Ellie and her two protectors, Kai and Mitzi, was one of my favorite parts of the book.  These three become fast friends while living in the safe house together, and their chemistry is fantastic.  They’re immediately like The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all.  I also loved the diversity that these characters represented – Ellie is Jewish, Kai is Romani, and Mitzi is a lesbian. This diversity further forges a bond between them since all three are considered undesirable in East Berlin during this time frame.  The police would love nothing more than to find a reason to arrest them, so they always have each other’s backs.

As I mentioned, there is also a romance in this book and even though on the surface it might sound like somewhat out of place since we already have time traveling, the Holocaust, magical balloons, etc., the romance actually worked well for me.  First, it’s not instalove, so yay.  No, instead, the relationship develops quite naturally as Kai and Ellie get to know each other better.  Kai is kind of dark and brooding at times and he sees Ellie as this softness and light that he needs in his life.  Ellie becomes attracted to Kai, not just because he is handsome, but because of how he puts himself on the line trying to help as many people as he can get over into West Germany.  Ellie is also touched when she sees how devoted Kai is to his younger sister, Sabina.  He would literally do anything to keep Sabina safe and it’s heartwarming to see.

I was incredibly invested in this relationship not just because I liked that it developed naturally and that their two personalities really complimented each other, but also because it just tugged at my heart strings.  What happens to their relationship if the balloon makers are able to figure out how to send Ellie back to her own time period?  Would she go or would she stay with the man she is falling in love with?

Other highlights for me were the completely unique premise and the major themes of the novel.  Seriously, it doesn’t get much more creative than the idea of using magical red balloons to save people.  In addition to the unique premise, there were also so many themes that resonated me with as I was reading.  With respect to those balloons, I loved the beautiful message that there were heroes everywhere, both during World War II and during the time of the Iron Curtain – people who risked their own safety trying to save as many people as they could.  Another darker message that resonated with me as I got further into the story was more of a question of ethics – if a person’s overall intention is good, does that excuse any unethical behavior he or she may engage along the way accomplishing that goal?  This was definitely food for thought for me as I was reading.

A final highlight for me was the way the story was presented.  It’s presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Kai and Ellie in 1988 East Berlin and from Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, as a young boy during World War II.  I loved how presenting the story this way effectively moves Ellie’s time traveling story forward as well as her relationship with Kai, while at the same time, circling back and showing the origin of the red balloons.  Seeing Benno’s horrific experiences in the Jewish ghettos, surrounded by disease and death, served as a poignant reminder that without that red balloon, neither Ellie nor any of her other family members would exist in present day.  Ellie literally owes her life to that magical balloon.

DISLIKES/ISSUES

The only real issue I had with this book was that it took me a few chapters to acclimate to the three alternating points of view.  I’m not going to call that a dislike because once I got used to it and remembered, I thought it was a beautiful way to tie together what happened with Benno and a red balloon during the war and what happened to his granddaughter when she touches a red balloon over 40 years later.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Girl with the Red Balloon is a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, time travel, romance, and even mysteries.  Not only does it have a little something for everyone, but it’s also just a beautifully written story that will be on your mind long after you read the final pages.

RATING:  5 STARS

Thanks so much to Katherine Locke, Netgalley, and the Albert Whitman Company for allowing me the opportunity to preview an advanced copy of this book. It in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.

five-stars

About Katherine Locke

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a small town outside Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, magic, and time travel. She secretly believes all stories are fairytales in disguise. Her YA debut, THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON, arrives September 2017 from Albert Whitman & Comapny.

Blog Tour: Project Pandora by Aden Polydoros – Review & Giveaway

Blog Tour:  Project Pandora by Aden Polydoros – Review & GiveawayProject Pandora by Aden Polydoros
four-stars
Series: Assassin Fall #1
Published by Entangled: Teen on August 1st 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 372
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

Today I’m participating in the Chapter by Chapter Blog Tour for Project Pandora by Aden Polydoros. It’s my first time participating in a blog tour, so I’m pretty excited to be trying something new here on The Bookish Libra. My stop on the tour is a book review, so without further ado, here are my thoughts on Project Pandora.

MY REVIEW:

Project Pandora, written by Aden Polydoros is the first book in the Assassin Fall series.  It’s a dark and gritty story that focuses on Project Pandora, a secret program designed to create a team of teenage assassins.  Using mind control and psychotropic drugs, the Project Pandora doctors have systematically “programmed” these teens from birth to “activate” when they hear the phrase “Olympus is Rising.”  They could be in the middle of anything – at home, at work, at school, anywhere — but as soon as they hear that phrase, they immediately switch over into assassin mode until the mission they’ve been assigned is complete.  As if that isn’t alarming enough, once they come out of that “activated” state, the teens have no memory of what they have done or the murders they have committed.  Creepy, right?  Why on Earth would anyone want to turn a bunch of teenagers into assassins? What’s their endgame with this project?  And how have they gotten away with it thus far? As soon as all of these questions started swarming around in my head, I knew I was hooked…

 

 

The novel follows the perspectives of four teens who have been trained/brain washed by Project Pandora.  First, there’s Tyler and Shannon who, when they aren’t in full-on assassin mode, appear to be pretty typical teenagers.  They go to high school, do normal teen activities, and they also both happen to live with foster families.  Then there’s Katherine, who is also a fairly typical teen, although she is also the daughter of a senator and has a bit of a rebellious streak because she’s tired of her parents expecting her to be Little Miss Perfect all the time.  Lastly, there’s Hades.  As you can probably guess based on his name, there is very little about Hades that is typical.  Hades is also the only one of the four who is aware of his role in Project Pandora.

So what happens when those who have unknowingly been a part of this project slowly begin to realize they are not fully in control of their minds and bodies and are committing crimes while under someone else’s control? Can they break free?  And most importantly, can they stop Project Pandora, which clearly has been created with a sinister purpose in mind?

 

 

LIKES

There’s so much to love about Project Pandora.  It’s one of the more unique storylines I’ve read and it appeals to both my love of science fiction and my love of fast-paced thrillers.  Here are just a few of the book’s highlights for me:

Multiple Points of View.  Sometimes multiple points of view works for me, sometimes it doesn’t.  In the case of Project Pandora, however, I thought presenting the story through the eyes of several who are under the influence of mind control was truly fascinating.  The reader gets to follow these characters through their day-to-day lives, see what happens to trigger them to flip over into assassin mode, and then watch them flip right back over once the kill has been made.  It does make for a somewhat disjointed narrative at times as characters like Tyler and Shannon start having these almost out-of-body  moments while they’re in the middle of a “job” as if they’re watching themselves kill people.  I think the disjointedness is to be expected though since both you and the characters you’re reading about are simultaneously trying to piece together what is happening and why.  As I was reading scenes like these, I kept thinking what an incredible film this would be.

Hades.  Hades quickly became my favorite character in Project Pandora.  I don’t know if that was supposed to happen, but I always find morally ambiguous characters so fascinating, and Hades is about as morally ambiguous as they come.  He’s definitely what I would consider to be an anti-hero.  Not only is Hades aware that he is participating in this project, he even goes so far as to tattoo notches on his forearm to keep track of how many he has killed.  Even though he’s a hardcore killer who seems pretty content to do what he does, there’s still just something about Hades that made me very sympathetic to him.

Dark and Full of Action and Suspense.  Pretty much everything about this book is dark, twisted, and full of mystery and intrigue.   The idea that a group of people could be twisted enough to turn a bunch of children into weapons was mind blowing, and I just couldn’t stop reading until I knew if these kids would be okay or not.   If they broke free of the mind control, would they be safe or would the others involved with the Project come after them if they suddenly went rogue?  Would the people behind this project be brought to justice for both the murders they’re responsible for and for what they did to these children?  There’s just so much there to keep sucking you into the story and turning those pages!  I literally could not put this book down once I got started.

Unique Format.  In addition to using alternating chapters from the four teens to tell the story, the author has also inserted case files throughout the novel.  In an almost flashback-like fashion, these case files provide insight into each of the main characters while they were going through the ‘programming’ phase of the Project.  I thought it was a creative way to add background information about each character and about the inner workings of the Project itself. It also lent the novel an almost sci-fi feel, which I really liked.

 

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

Overall I really enjoyed the read.  I did, however, have a couple of areas where I just wanted a little more from the story.  I’d classify these as my own personal reading quirks though and they probably wouldn’t faze most other readers.

Not enough connection with the characters.  Even though I had tremendous sympathy for them because of what had been done to them and felt outraged by the whole concept of the project, I just didn’t really feel all that connected to any of the characters on a more personal level.  I feel confident though that this will change now that this first book has laid all of the groundwork for the rest of the series and we can focus even more on the characters.

Needed more information about the Project and its motives.  I really wanted more information about Project Pandora.  We’re given a number of hints to indicate what it’s all about, but I thought a lot of the information was a bit vague and was left with more questions than answers.  Again, I’m sure my questions will be answered in future books, but I’m just impatient, haha!

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a light and fluffy read, this is not the book you’re looking for.  On the other hand, if you like a book that will take you on a dark and twisted, action-packed ride, with a plot that’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream, then Project Pandora will blow you away!

 

RATING:  4 STARS

 

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Entangled Teen, and of course to Aden Polydoros for allowing me the opportunity to preview and review Project Pandora.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Tyler Bennett trusts no one. Just another foster kid bounced from home to home, he’s learned that lesson the hard way. Cue world’s tiniest violin. But when strange things start happening—waking up with bloody knuckles and no memory of the night before or the burner phone he can’t let out of his sight— Tyler starts to wonder if he can even trust himself.

Even stranger, the girl he’s falling for has a burner phone just like his. Finding out what’s really happening only leads to more questions…questions that could get them both killed. It’s not like someone’s kidnapping teens lost in the system and brainwashing them to be assassins or anything, right? And what happens to rogue assets who defy control?

In a race against the clock, they’ll have to uncover the truth behind Project Pandora and take it down—before they’re reactivated. Good thing the program spent millions training them to kick ass…

 

PURCHASE LINKS:

 

Amazon | Amazon.com.au | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Entangled

 

 

FOLLOW THE REST OF THE PROJECT PANDORA BLOG TOUR:

Chapter By Chapter Project Pandora Blog Tour Schedule

 

GIVEAWAY DETAILS:

Project Pandora Prize Pack (US) or a $10 Amazon Gift card (INT)

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

four-stars

About Aden Polydoros

Aden Polydoros grew up in Long Grove, Illinois, the youngest of three children. Aden’s family moved to Arizona when he was in second grade. As a kid, he spent much of his time exploring the desert near his home. When he wasn’t searching for snakes and lizards, he was raiding the bookshelves of the local library. As a teenager, Aden decided that he wanted to be a writer. He spent his free time writing short stories. He was encouraged by his English teacher to try his hand at writing a novel, which inspired him to begin PROJECT PANDORA. The YA thriller is set for publication with Entangled Publishing in Summer of 2017. He is represented by Mallory Brown of Triada US.

ARC Review: Hello, Sunshine

ARC Review:  Hello, SunshineHello, Sunshine by Laura Dave
three-half-stars
on July 11th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Chick Lit
Pages: 256
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own..

 

 MY REVIEW

I was initially drawn to Hello, Sunshine because of its vibrant summery cover but wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I actually sat down to read it.  What I got was a timely, relevant, and thought-provoking exploration of how people present themselves online in this age of technology and social media.

Sunshine MacKenzie seems to have it all – a loving husband, a gorgeous apartment in Manhattan, and a wildly successful YouTube cooking show with millions of followers that will soon transition to an even bigger audience once it starts airing on the Food Network.  As perfect as Sunshine’s life sounds, it soon becomes clear that her life is actually more along the lines of a house of cards just waiting to be toppled over and trampled on.  You see, Sunshine’s entire online persona is just that – a persona.  Everything that her fanbase loves about her and that has made her such a success is nothing but a pack of lies.  A pack of lies that Sunshine and her associates have successfully kept under wraps, or so they thought.  When Sunshine’s social media accounts are hacked and the hacker starts unraveling her life one lie at a time, her entire life and career fall apart right in front of her and no amount of PR damage control can stop the bleeding.  Sunshine loses her show, most of her followers, her husband, and her home, and ends up fleeing to her real hometown and to her estranged sister.

The rest of the book follows Sunshine as she tries to figure out what to do next.  Is there’s a way to get her old life back or will reuniting with her sister and spending some quality time with her family, away from the media frenzy, set Sunshine on a different path?  Will she decide there’s more to life than fame, fans, and the stress of trying to maintain an appealing online persona?

 

LIKES

I think what I liked most about Hello, Sunshine was just how relevant the book’s central premise is, that so many people are not being authentic when they are online.  Just as Sunshine has an online persona that has been crafted and scripted for her, there are many who aren’t even in show business who portray themselves as how they want to be perceived online, even if it’s completely contrary to what their life is actually like.  It’s something I think about whenever I see someone online who just seems like their life is picture perfect in every way.  Life is too messy for things to always appear that perfect, if that makes any sense. Or I might even think of it in terms of myself – how do others know if I’m being authentic or if I’m, in essence, putting on a show for them by being what I think they want me to be.

Hello, Sunshine also made me think about how vulnerable we really are if we’ve put ourselves out there on social media – how easily accounts can be hacked and someone’s life can be turned upside down if they happen to make the wrong person angry.

In addition to being a thought-provoking read about social media and authenticity, Hello, Sunshine is also just an entertaining read as well.  All of the drama that surrounded Sunshine’s fall from grace kept me engaged throughout and I kept thinking what a great movie it would be.  Desperate Housewives kept coming to mind as I was reading.

As fake as her online persona is, the Sunshine we’re presented with is brutally honest and she’s dying to give us a blow-by-blow account of how she royally messed up her own life.  If you like that kind of personality, Sunshine is very likable and you’ll want to follow her journey and see where she went wrong at every step along the way.

 

DISLIKES

My main dislike is that I figured out who the hacker was almost immediately. I kept hoping I was wrong and that there would be a huge surprise revealed, but my first guess ended up being correct so that was kind of a letdown for me.  I also didn’t buy the hacker’s reasoning for doing what they did, so that slightly hampered what was otherwise a very enjoyable read.  Hello, Sunshine was still a solid LIKE for me, but a little less predictability and a little more believability here would moved it from the LIKE column into the LOVE column.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If you’re looking for a quick and entertaining read that still manages to be quite thought-provoking, I’d say Hello, Sunshine fits the bill.  I think it would make for a great beach or vacation read.

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

GOODREADS  SYNOPSIS

From Laura Dave—the author of the “addictive” (Us Weekly), “winning” (Publishers Weekly) and critically acclaimed bestseller Eight Hundred Grapes—comes a new novel about the secrets we keep…even from ourselves.

Sunshine Mackenzie has it all…until her secrets come to light.

Sunshine Mackenzie is living the dream—she’s a culinary star with millions of fans, a line of #1 bestselling cookbooks, and a devoted husband happy to support her every endeavor.

And then she gets hacked.

When Sunshine’s secrets are revealed, her fall from grace is catastrophic. She loses the husband, her show, the fans, and her apartment. She’s forced to return to the childhood home—and the estranged sister—she’s tried hard to forget. But what Sunshine does amid the ashes of her own destruction may well save her life.

In a world where celebrity is a careful construct, Hello, Sunshine is a compelling, funny, and evocative novel about what it means to live an authentic life in an inauthentic age.

three-half-stars

About Laura Dave

Laura Dave is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The First Husband, The Divorce Party, London Is The Best City In America, and the forthcoming Eight Hundred Grapes. Dave’s fiction and essays have been published in The New York Times, ESPN, Redbook, Glamour and Ladies Home Journal.

Dubbed “a wry observer of modern love” (USA Today), Dave has appeared on CBS’s The Early Show, Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends and NPR’s All Things Considered.  Cosmopolitan Magazine recently named her a “Fun and Fearless Phenom of the Year.”

Three of her novels have been optioned for the big screen with Dave adapting Eight Hundred Grapes for Fox2000.