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Book Review: STARFISH by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Book Review:  STARFISH by Akemi Dawn BowmanStarfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
four-half-stars
Published by Simon Pulse on September 26th 2017
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, 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:

When I first requested Akemi Dawn Bowman’s novel, Starfish, I didn’t really know much about it other than the fact that it had one of the most gorgeous book covers I’ve ever seen.  I was completely unprepared for the emotional punch this book would pack.  Covering a wide spectrum of heavy subjects such as sexual and emotional abuse as well as suicide, Starfish is not an easy read by any means, but ultimately it is a powerful story about discovering who you really are and what you want out of life.

Starfish follows the story of Kiko Himura, a high school senior who suffers from social anxiety and therefore often has trouble expressing herself and fitting in.  Kiko, however, is also a gifted artist who uses her art to say what she can’t seem to say with words.  One of Kiko’s biggest dreams is to get into the prestigious Prism art school.  She feels like once she gets away from home and can throw herself into her art, her real life can finally begin.

Kiko is also half Japanese and her parents are divorced.  She lives with her mother, who is blond haired, blue eyed and is obsessed with her appearance.  She also constantly makes Kiko feel unattractive and implies that she would be more attractive if she were not of Asian descent. Her mother is also a narcissist and so whenever Kiko tries to talk to her, she always manages to twist the topic around and make it about herself.  On top of that, instead of supporting Kiko in what she is passionate about, Kiko’s mom belittles her art and can’t be bothered to attend Kiko’s art shows at school.

Then, as if Kiko’s mom isn’t bad enough, Kiko’s abusive uncle moves in with them.  After an incident that took place the last time he lived in their house when Kiko woke up and found him in her bedroom, Kiko now refuses to live in the same house as him.  She tells her mother as much, but her mom ignores her and tells her she is being overly dramatic about what happened.

Kiko longs for her mother to believe her and support her and let her know that she cares, but it just feels like that’s never going to happen.  She knows she needs to get away from the toxic environment that she is living in, but her dreams are shattered when she receives a rejection notice from Prism. Having applied to no other schools, Kiko doesn’t have a Plan B.  How will she recover from this unexpected rejection? Will she ever get the support and affection that she so craves from her mother or does Plan B involve starting over alone somewhere new?   What happens next for Kiko?

I fell in love with Kiko right away. As someone who also tends to get very anxious in social situations, I felt an immediate connection to Kiko as I watched her struggle to interact both at school and at parties.  The author did a wonderful job in those scenes of portraying social anxiety and how truly crippling it can be.

Kiko was also a favorite of mine because she’s such a sympathetic character.  In addition to her social anxiety issues, her home life is just awful.  It’s hard enough being a child of divorced parents, but it’s especially hard if you feel like the parent you’re living with doesn’t seem to care about you and either ignores you or criticizes you every time they see you.  I absolutely loathed Kiko’s mother and the way she treated Kiko.  At the same time though, I completely understood why Kiko kept trying to connect with her and kept trying to show her the art she was working on.  It’s completely natural for a child to want their parent’s approval and it was heartbreaking to watch Kiko keep getting rejected every time she tried.  I just wanted to give her a big hug and tell her she deserved better because it was obviously killing Kiko’s sense of self-worth.

Even though Kiko’s mom had no interest in Kiko’s artwork, I sure did.  Some of my favorite scenes in Starfish were where we got to see Kiko immerse herself in her art.  Watching her completely at ease with herself because she’s in her element and then reading the author’s descriptions of what she was actually drawing and painting honestly made me wish the book was illustrated.  The art work sounded so gorgeous and magical!

Aside from Kiko herself, some of the other elements of Starfish I really enjoyed were the overall themes.  There is a huge focus on beauty, with a specific emphasis on the message that there is no set idea for what is considered beautiful.  We’re all beautiful in our own unique way, and someone who is Asian is just as beautiful as someone who happens to be blond and blue-eyed.  To go along with that truth about what is beautiful, there is also a huge emphasis on self-love.  You should love yourself exactly as you are and not let anyone make you feel bad about yourself.

Along the lines of accepting that you’re beautiful just the way you are, Starfish can also be considered a powerful coming of age story.  After she is rejected from the art school of her dreams, Kiko embarks on a journey of self-discovery to slowly but surely figure out who she really is, what she wants from life, and how she can stand on her own two feet regardless of whether or not she has her mother’s support and approval.  It’s an often painful journey for Kiko, but in the end, it’s a beautiful one that is full of hope and promise.

One final element of the story that I liked was Kiko’s reunion with a long-lost friend from her childhood.  There is a romantic element there and I liked the way the author handled the transition from friends to lovers.  I also liked that the romance wasn’t just a way for Kiko to escape her home life, but that in a twist I really liked, it also presented Kiko with some unexpected opportunities and allowed her to make some empowering decisions about her future.

Aside from my utter dislike of Kiko’s mother, I don’t really have anything for this section.  And even though I completely disliked her, she was still an incredibly well drawn character and served an important purpose in Kiko’s story.

I think Starfish is going to be one of those books that I will continue to think about long after finishing the last page.  As I mentioned earlier, it packs an emotional punch and Kiko’s journey is one that I think many readers will relate to on some level, whether it’s the feeling like you don’t belong, feeling like you’re not good enough, or dealing with a less than ideal home life.  For this reason and because the writing and storytelling is top notch, I fully expect to see Starfish on many ‘Best of’ 2017 lists before the end of the year.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.

But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

four-half-stars

About Akemi Dawn Bowman

Akemi Dawn Bowman is the author of Starfish (Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster) and Summer Bird Blue (Fall 2018). She’s a proud Ravenclaw and Star Wars enthusiast, who served in the US Navy for five years and has a BA in social sciences from UNLV. Originally from Las Vegas, she currently lives in England with her husband, two children, and their Pekingese mix. She is represented by Penny Moore of Empire Literary.

The Bookish Libra reviews ARTEMIS, an exciting new sci-fi thriller set on the moon

The Bookish Libra reviews ARTEMIS, an exciting new sci-fi thriller set on the moonArtemis by Andy Weir
four-stars
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on November 14th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 384
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:

Andy Weir’s The Martian was one of my favorite reads from last year, so I was so excited to receive a review copy of his latest novel, Artemis.  I wasn’t convinced that it could possibly live up to the thrill of The Martian because, seriously, how do you top a survival story about an astronaut who is stranded on Mars?  But hearing that Artemis was a sci-fi thriller about carrying out a heist on the moon (!) gave me hope that Artemis would be just as entertaining a read for me as The Martian was.  And I’m excited to report that it came pretty darn close!

Artemis is actually the name of the city on the moon where the story is set.  Aside from the fact that it is covered by domes to compensate for the lack of gravity and to keep out troublesome space dust, Artemis is pretty much just like your average city or town on Earth.  Artemis has touristy areas because of course going to the moon is a huge attraction for those who can afford it.  It also has residential areas for those who reside on the moon full time.  Artemis also has a similar class system to what is on Earth, where the rich live well and the poor do what they can to scrape by.

Jazz Bashara, the main character, is one of those poor residents who does what she can to scrape by.  She works as a porter, delivering goods to residents all over Artemis, but the job barely pays her rent.  Jazz has dreams of a bigger and better life for herself and so she has a side “job” working as a smuggler to bring in a little extra income.  Street smart and incredibly resourceful, Jazz has somehow managed to corner the market on smuggling in contraband goods from Earth.  For those who are willing to pay, Jazz can get them pretty much anything they want.

Jazz is a pretty fascinating character in the sense that she doesn’t really seem to have any qualms whatsoever about engaging in criminal activities. It is this quality that makes her the ideal candidate for a scheme that one of her wealthy regulars is planning.  It’s a dangerous job, practically an impossible one, really, and one that could get her deported back to Earth if she were to get caught.  That said, however, if Jazz can pull it off, the payoff is a truly life-changing amount of money.  It may be “Mission Impossible,” but Jazz would do pretty much anything to secure that kind of income for herself.

She agrees to the job, but quickly realizes that she is in over her head.  What starts out as a challenging heist soon lands Jazz at the heart of a conspiracy to take over control of Artemis itself.  How will she get herself out of the mess she has landed in and what will happen to Artemis if the conspiracy is actually carried out?  It’s a real nail biter!

Jazz was, by far, my favorite part of Artemis.  I just found her so intriguing.  Jazz, who is in her early twenties, has come to the moon from Saudi Arabia. She is living on her own after a falling out with her father over some poor choices she has made in her young life.  Jazz is both intelligent and street smart, and she’s very resourceful.  I loved that even though she was resorting to less than legal means to supplement her income, she totally owned it and was unapologetic about what she was doing.

I also enjoyed the father-daughter dynamic between Jazz and her dad.  Jazz is not a practicing Muslim, but her father is and he’s very religious.  Because of this, some of Jazz’s lifestyle choices have created friction in their relationship.  I thought Weir did a wonderful job of portraying the nuances of this strained relationship:  the awkwardness, the disappointment, the longing to reunite, and beneath it all, the unconditional love.  I loved all of the father-daughter scenes.  They were written very realistically and tugged at my heartstrings.

I also loved the action and pacing of the novel.  Just like with The Martian, I devoured this book in about a day.  Weir does a fantastic job creating an exciting balance between “science talk” and intense, action-packed scenes as Jazz sets out to complete “mission impossible” and then especially once that initial mission goes haywire and spirals into something else entirely.  I always feel like I’m learning a lot while being thoroughly entertained at the same time when I’m reading one of Weir’s books.

Finally, the world-building was fascinating as well. I loved Weir’s vision for what a city on the moon might actually look like and I thought the shout-out to so many famous astronauts by having the different compounds named after them (Armstrong, Aldrin, etc.) was very cool.  As Jazz walked us around the city of Artemis, Weir’s attention to detail was just impeccable.  He really thought of everything when it came to how people could actually eat, sleep, work, shop, and otherwise function as a society on the moon.  As much as I loved Weir’s attention to detail, I will confess I wish he had come up with more imaginative names for their main food staple (“Gunk”) and for their smartphone equivalent (“Gizmo”).  I don’t know why, obviously a personal quirk with me, but those names just irritated me every time they came up throughout the novel.

As much as I enjoyed Jazz’s story, I did have a couple of minor issues with Artemis.

The first is that, at times, Jazz reminded me a little too much of Mark Watney, the main character from The Martian.  It was especially noticeable when I first started reading because their use of humor and sarcasm was so similar. My first thought was “Hey, Mark Watney’s on the moon now!”  Once I got to know Jazz better, it wasn’t as noticeable, but I still wish their voices were a little less similar.  Some of Jazz’s jokes, in particular, sometimes sounded to me more like something a teenage boy would say rather than a 20-something woman.  It didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story, but it did give me pause a few times because it felt like the joke didn’t quite fit the character, if that even makes sense.

Another issue I had was with Jazz and her pen pal from Earth. The main action of the story is periodically interrupted by letters to and from this guy in Kenya.  Aside from establishing that he was her contact for the contraband she’s smuggling, I just felt like they were in the way and didn’t add much to the story.  I’m sure they probably won’t bother others, but that element of the story just didn’t quite work for me.

If you enjoy good science fiction and badass protagonists, I’d definitely recommend reading Andy Weir’s Artemis.  While fans of The Martian might not find it quite as riveting as Mark Watney’s survival story on Mars, they should still find Jazz Bashara’s lunar adventures to be quite entertaining.  I’d also recommend it to those who haven’t yet read The Martian. It might prove to be even more entertaining to those who aren’t tempted to compare Artemis to The Martian.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

four-stars

About Andy Weir

ANDY WEIR built a career as a software engineer until the runaway success of his debut novel, THE MARTIAN, allowed him to pursue writing full-time. He is a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects such as relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. He lives in California.

Book Review: The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso

Book Review:  The Tethered Mage by Melissa CarusoThe Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
four-stars
Series: Swords and Fire #1
Published by Orbit on October 24th 2017
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 480
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:

Melissa Caruso’s novel The Tethered Mage is an engaging YA fantasy that has a little bit for everyone.  There’s incredible world building, an intricate magic system, and lots of political intrigue.  There’s also forbidden love, plenty of action scenes, and a wonderful cast of characters, with badass females leading the way.

Note:  There may be some minor spoilers.  The magic system is so unique that I felt like I had to explain some of it in detail to illustrate just how profoundly it impacts the lives of the main characters as soon as the novel begins.

* * * * *

The novel is set in the world of Eruvia, primarily in the city of Raverra.  Raverra is significant in that the governing body of Eruvia, the Empire, is seated there.  The cities of Eruvia live in relative peace, although that peace is dictated primarily by the fact that Raverra controls the majority of the rare magic that exists in their world and can therefore weaponize it at any moment if any kind of civil war were to break out.

The system of magic in Eruvia is quite intriguing, especially in the sense that those who have the magical powers don’t have free will to use their magic as they choose.  Because those who possess this rare magic are “mage-marked” by a colored ring around their irises, they are identified at an early age, taken away from their families, and conscripted into service for the Raverran Empire as what are called “Falcons.”  The magic of these Falcons is unpredictable and often destructive, so the Raverrans take their control of the Falcons even further by using a bracelet called a “jess” to suppress the magic.  Whoever places the jess on a Falcon’s wrist becomes bound to that Falcon, and thus becomes a “Falconer.”  Each Falconer is then able to control his or her falcon’s magic using special words that unleash or suppress it.  The Falcons themselves are little more than tools of the Empire.

When The Tethered Mage opens, Lady Amalia Cornaro, scholar and heir to one of the seats in Raverra’s governing council, is on her way to purchase a rare book when she encounters a young woman named Zaira, who is being accosted by a group of rough looking men.  Amalia looks to intervene but before she can do anything, Zaira suddenly turns into the equivalent of a human blow torch and starts going after her attackers with a wall of fire.  Recognizing the signs of warlock magic, a Falconer appears on the scene and seeing Amalia, hands her a jess and implores her to put it on Zaira to suppress her magic before she burns down the entire city.  Desperate to save Raverra, Amalia readily agrees and slaps the jess on Zaira, only to fully appreciate the consequences of her actions afterwards.  She is now bound to Zaira for life and is in control of her fire power.

Chaos ensues because no one on the ruling council is supposed to function as a Falconer, as having control over a Falcon’s magic could be perceived as an unfair advantage.  The problem is that once the jess bond has been established, there’s no way to undo it.  Amalia is also the sole heir to her family’s council seat, so she has no choice but to be both Falconer and council person when her time comes.  What was already a political tightrope walk just got even more complicated.  One wrong move and that tenuous peace between cities could go right out the window, especially if others feel threatened by this new fire power Amalia has inadvertently given to the Empire.

What does this mean for Amalia? For her future?  For Zaira’s future?  The two women are destined to stay tethered together until death, whether they get along or not, and Zaira is no trusting young child like the typical Falcons who come in for training.  Will Amalia be able to break through Zaira’s initial defenses and mistrust or are they destined to barely tolerate each other?

 

Zaira was actually my favorite character in The Tethered Mage.  She has spent her life living on the streets as a thief and up until the moment Amalia straps the jess on her, has managed to hide the fact that she is mage-marked and actually a rare Fire Warlock.  She is furious at Amalia for trapping her into serving the Empire against her will and goes out of her way to be difficult.  She’s street smart, feisty, and truly has no filter, which makes for some comical scenarios since Amalia has to take her everywhere she goes, even to court.  I also liked Zaira’s perspective on the laws in Raverra when it comes to the mage-marked.  All of those who were taken as children seem to just accept it for what it is and are used to it, but as an adult being forced into service, Zaira is quick to point out just how unfair it all is, that her life is basically over now aside from serving the Empire.

In addition to Zaira, there are many other fantastic female characters that I also liked.  Lady Amalia of course is fascinating to watch as she attempts to juggle all of the roles she is forced to play throughout the story.  I also enjoyed watching her try to figure out how to break through Zaira’s thorny exterior so they can at least tolerate each other now that they are stuck with each other.

Lady Amalia’s mother, the Contessa, is another fabulous character.  She is one of the most powerful people in Raverra and she is someone you do not want to cross.

In addition to these wonderfully drawn characters, I also thought the system of magic, which I’ve already described above, was very well thought out by the author.  I loved the intricacies of the magic itself – the way some of the powers are more destructive as with fire and storm warlocks, while other magical abilities have more to do with science and alchemy.  I also enjoyed the exploration of the ethics of Raverra with respect to the control of the magic.  Who are they to decide that a person shouldn’t be in control of their own magic and that they have to serve the Empire?

There’s also a budding romance in The Tethered Mage and I liked how the author handled it.  It was subtle and didn’t overshadow the rest of the story, and it was also more interesting than the typical romance:  1) because it’s a forbidden romance because the couple is unevenly matched in terms of social standing, and 2) because the one who forbids it is the Contessa and as I’ve already mentioned, she is not someone you want to cross, if at all possible.

One issue I had with The Tethered Mage was the heavy emphasis on politics and political discussions, particularly in the middle of the book.  I could see this aspect of the book being what will either make or break this story for some readers.  I personally love politics and reading about who may be plotting against who, and what they’re going to do about it, etc. But even as much as I enjoy that kind of plot development, I started to get tired of all of the sitting around discussing and wanted them to just do something.  I had a moment where I thought about giving up on the book, but I pushed through since I had been enjoying it so much prior to the lull in the action, and thankfully, the action picked back up soon after.

With its fascinating cast of characters, incredible world building, intricate magic system, and its emphasis on political intrigue, The Tethered Mage is the perfect introduction to Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series.  I look forward to reading the next installment when it becomes available.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

In the Raverran Empire, magic is scarce and those born with power are strictly controlled — taken as children and conscripted into the Falcon Army.

Zaira has lived her life on the streets to avoid this fate, hiding her mage-mark and thieving to survive. But hers is a rare and dangerous magic, one that threatens the entire empire.

Lady Amalia Cornaro was never meant to be a Falconer. Heiress and scholar, she was born into a treacherous world of political machinations.

But fate has bound the heir and the mage. And as war looms on the horizon, a single spark could turn their city into a pyre.

The Tethered Mage is the first novel in a spellbinding new fantasy series.

four-stars

About Melissa Caruso

Melissa Caruso is the author of THE TETHERED MAGE, first in the Swords and Fire trilogy, out now from Orbit books.

Rockstar Book Tours: Dear Martin Review & Giveaway

Rockstar Book Tours:  Dear Martin Review & GiveawayDear Martin by Nic Stone
four-half-stars
Published by Crown Books for Young Readers on October 17th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: a Blog Giveaway
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today is my stop on the RockStar Blog Tour for Nic Stone’s powerful new novel, Dear Martin.  Please check out my review and then be sure to scroll down and enter the giveaway for your chance to win a finished copy of DEAR MARTIN.  Thanks for stopping by and be sure to check out the other stops on the Dear Martin Blog Tour!

MY REVIEW:

Dear Martin is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and most important books I’ve read this year.  It follows the story of high school student Justyce Mcallister.  Through Justyce’s eyes, readers see firsthand what it’s like to be a young black man in America.  We experience the fear and the frustration of constantly having to worry about being singled out by police, or even shot and killed, because of the color of your skin, the clothes that you’re wearing, or perhaps even the type of music that you’re listening to and how loud you have that music turned up.

Justyce has worked hard all his life in order to secure the best future possible for himself.  He thinks everything is going his way too until one fateful night when he is stopped by a police officer and immediately placed in handcuffs.  It doesn’t matter that Justyce is an “A” student and that he has been accepted to an Ivy League university; the police officer just automatically assumes that Justyce is up to no good.

The racial profiling is blatant and it makes Justyce all the more sensitive to the racism that goes on around him every day.  When he returns to school, for example, one of his white classmates (and someone he thought was a friend) implies that the only reason Justyce got into an Ivy League school was because of his race and Affirmative Action.  Not only does the student accuse Justyce of not having truly earned his spot at the university, but the implication is that Justyce stole the white student’s spot as well.

Justyce is not only frustrated by these comments but also by comments from those he grew up with who accuse of him forgetting his roots and selling out because he moved out of their rough and poor neighborhood to go to a better school.

When the unthinkable happens and someone near to him is killed in an incident involving a white off-duty police officer, Justyce is left feeling caught between two worlds and alone.

Armed with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, (the “Dear Martin” of the title), Justyce takes us on what is ultimately a journey of self-discovery.  His story is raw, gritty, and poignant, but it is still ultimately a hopeful one.

 

Justyce of course was my favorite part of Dear Martin.  He is not only an extremely likable character, but he is also a much needed voice in YA literature.  There aren’t nearly enough books out there with young male protagonists, and especially persons of color.  Nic Stone makes Justyce give a voice to every other young man who has experienced similar kinds of prejudice and/or who has been racially profiled..

Justyce is also a great character because he is so complex and well-developed.  The journey that we go on with him is so poignant, especially experiencing the wide range of emotions he goes through – the initial almost disbelief that such blatant racism still exists, the mounting frustration as he realizes it’s all around him, and the questions that run through is mind about how to deal with it.  Nic Stone does a beautiful job of fleshing out this character from every angle.

I also liked that Dear Martin packed such a huge punch with so few words.  It’s only about 200 or so pages long, which would make it ideal for Required Reading at schools (hint, hint!), and it’s 200 of the most powerful and relevant pages I’ve read this year.  It’s fast-paced and filled with plenty of action and riveting dialogue that I think would keep even the most reluctant reader engaged.

The Dear Martin letters that Justyce was writing throughout the story were another highlight for me.  I loved the balance between those letters and the rest of the action of the story.  The letters Justyce wrote were so reflective and conveyed every emotion he was feeling as he tried to process everything that was confronting him.  They also powerfully illustrated how badly he wanted guidance to know how to survive in such a racist world “What Would Martin Do?”, along with his questions about whether or not the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were still relevant today.

 

I have to admit that at first I was a little down on the romantic relationship in Dear Martin.  (Yes, my usual lament that not every YA contemporary needs to have romance.)  In the case of Dear Martin, while I liked the relationship itself and thought the couple was a great match, I just felt like it was a little distracting from the main themes of the story.  But then Nic Stone did something that changed my mind — she took what was seemingly a distraction and, through a conversation between Justyce and his mother, ended up tying it right back to one of her novel’s most important messages — that no one, white, black, or any other color, should be judged based on the color of their skin.  Taking what could have been a potential distraction and linking to one of the central points of the story made the romance work much better for me than I thought it was going to.

 

Dear Martin is a book that everyone should read.  I really wish this book had been around back when I was teaching high school because I just know Justyce’s story would have resonated with so many of my students.  It not only powerfully tackles important social issues such as racism, racial profiling, and police brutality, but Nic Stone has also delivered a beautifully written story with a captivating and complex main character that you’ll fall in love with.  I look forward to reading more from her and just can’t recommend Dear Martin highly enough.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.

Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

 

 

PURCHASE LINKS:

AmazonAudibleB&NiBooksTBDGoodreads

 

GIVEAWAY DETAILS:

3 winners will receive a finished copy of DEAR MARTIN, US Only.

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

DEAR MARTIN TOUR SCHEDULE:

 

Week One:

10/16/2017- LILbooKlovers Interview

10/17/2017- YA Bibliophile– Review

10/18/2017- Mama Reads Blog– Guest Post

10/19/2017- Here’s to Happy Endings– Review

10/20/2017- Eli to the nth– Excerpt

Week Two:

10/23/2017- Chasing Faerytales– Review

10/24/2017- Omg Books and More Books– Interview

10/25/2017- BookHounds YA– Review

10/26/2017- Novel Novice– Guest Post

10/27/2017- The Bookish Libra– Review

Week Three:

10/30/2017- Never Too Many To Read– Review

10/31/2017- Mrs. Knott’s Book Nook Interview

11/1/2017- Reese’s Reviews– Excerpt

11/2/2017- Novel Ink– Review

11/3/2017- Wandering Bark Books– Guest Post

Week Four:

11/6/2017- Amanda Gernentz Hanson– Review

11/7/2017- Lisa Loves Literature– Excerpt

11/8/2017- Feed Your Fiction Addiction– Review

11/9/2017- Lost in Ever After– Interview

11/10/2017- A Backwards Story– Review

 

 

four-half-stars

About Nic Stone

Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the US to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions, and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.

You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced.

Chapter by Chapter Blog Tour – MARKED BEAUTY Book Review & Giveaway

Chapter by Chapter Blog Tour – MARKED BEAUTY Book Review & GiveawayMarked Beauty by S.A. Larsen
four-stars
Published by Ellysian Press on October 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 305
Source: the Author
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today is my stop on the Chapter by Chapter Blog Tour for S.A. Larsen’s exciting new novel, Marked Beauty.  Please check out my review and then be sure to scroll down and enter the giveaway for a $25 Amazon Gift Card.  Thanks for stopping by and be sure to check out the other stops on the Marked Beauty Blog Tour!

 

MY REVIEW:

 

S.A. Larsen’s Marked Beauty is a fresh and imaginative YA contemporary fantasy that follows high school student, Anastasia Tate, or Ana as she is called. For most of her life, Ana has been carrying around a secret: she’s an empath and can feel the emotions of those around her. Not only can she feel their emotions, but she can actually see them as well. Everyone she meets has colored life energy auras floating around them.  It’s not an ability that she fully understands and so the emotions of others often overwhelm her, so most days she just tries to get by while drawing as little attention to herself as possible.  When she senses a dark shadowy presence stalking her at school one day, it becomes clear that life as she has known it is about to change.

That same dark shadowy presence nearly costs Ana and her best friend, Katee, their lives, but a young man named Viktor Castle intervenes and rescues them.  Viktor, however, is no ordinary young man.  He possesses abilities of his own and is also carrying around a secret – Viktor is the victim of an ancient curse and Ana is the only one who can set him free.  His original purpose for being in the right place at the right time is to retrieve Ana so that he can free himself, but once he sees her, he decides he can’t go through with it and instead vows to protect her at all costs, even if it means he is cursed forever.

From the moment she lays eyes on Viktor, Ana senses that the two of them have a connection that she has never experienced before.  It’s an undeniable attraction.  Ana also senses that he has the answers to questions she has had all her life about her abilities and so she begins to question him relentlessly and gets furious when he evades her questions at every turn.  What Ana doesn’t realize, because she doesn’t know the full extent of her history and where her powers come from, is that by interceding and saving her life, Viktor has actually put her in even more danger.

Will Viktor finally come clean to Ana and answer all of her questions about her powers and about this bond that the two of them clearly share?  Will Ana and Viktor be able to escape the dark forces that threaten both of their lives?

There’s so much to love about Marked Beauty.   There’s mystery, action and adventure,  romance, a lush fantasy world, and ancient curses, as well as characters that will immediately draw you in and keep you invested in their stories.

I especially enjoyed the main character, Ana.  I thought the author did a brilliant job of illustrating her empathic powers and how challenging and often overwhelming they could be for Ana, while still infusing Ana with qualities such as being feisty, determined, and quite often stubborn.  She has these powers that she’s not quite sure what to make of, but once she decides she wants to know everything about them, there’s no stopping her.  That realistic and relatable mix of strong and determined yet somewhat vulnerable had me cheering Ana on from the first pages of the story.

Viktor was also a great character.  I loved the sense of mystery that surrounded him from the moment he enters the story.  I also liked that even though he knew Ana was the only way to free himself from this curse, he chooses the selfless route instead and vows to protect Ana and keep her hidden from those who would love to harness her power and use it for their own sinister purposes.

The unique fantasy world that S.A. Larsen has created was really what kept me so mesmerized by this story.  I really enjoyed how the novel itself is set in a normal high school contemporary setting, but that just below the surface, there’s this rich fantasy world filled with the Lynceus, Rifters, hybrids, the mysterious Sixth, bloodprints, life energy auras, family curses, and so much more.

I don’t want to give too much away about the fantasy world since I think it’s best to watch the details of the mystery unfold for yourself and see how they ultimately tie back to both Ana and Viktor and their families, but it’s definitely one of the most intriguing fantasy worlds I’ve encountered.  I also kept finding myself thinking about what a great film this story would make.  The descriptions of the auras, in particular, were so lush and vivid that I just kept wishing I could actually see them for myself on film.

While the mystery of finding out how this fantasy world relates back to Ana was my favorite part of Marked Beauty, I have to admit that I also enjoyed the romantic aspect of the story as well.  Those who follow my reviews are probably shocked since I’m usually quite critical of romance in YA fantasy and I’ll admit that I had a moment of ‘OMG, no. It’s instalove!’ but I changed my mind.  Yes, Ana and Viktor are immediately attracted to one another, but in this case, there’s a clear reason for it because they’ve been somehow bound together by this curse.  Their destinies were intertwined back before they ever met, so I was okay with them having that instant bond.  The bond is what initially brings them together, but they do end up having enough chemistry that it worked for me.

I can’t say that I had many issues at all with Marked Beauty.  The only thing that dropped it from a 5 star to a 4 star rating for me was that I occasionally had a little trouble following the mystery of the curse and how it related to Ana.  The story itself is fascinating but some of the details were so intricate that they lost me once in a while.  That said, by the end, all of my questions were answered so I was satisfied even though I had that occasional confusion about what was happening and why.

If you’re into fantasies that are filled with action, romance, mystery, and a hint of danger, I’d say give Marked Beauty a chance.  S.A. Larsen has created a unique fantasy world that I definitely wouldn’t mind visiting again.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Uncovering hidden secrets can sometimes kill you . . . or worse, steal your soul.

Anastasia Tate has a secret. She can feel the emotions of others through their life energy auras. Not a welcome gift for a teenager. Especially when a sinister presence begins stalking her.

Viktor Castle also has a secret. He’s tasked with protecting humanity yet cursed by an ancient evil to destroy it.

After Viktor saves Ana’s life, her abilities grow stronger. Drawn together, she senses Viktor has answers to lifelong questions. Only he shuns her at every turn, knowing he has saved her only to put her in more danger. As Ana struggles with her attraction to Viktor, he tries everything to bury his unexpected feelings for her. But they must find a middle ground. For only together can they combat the dark forces threatening both their lives . . . and their souls.

 

Purchase Links:

Chapters | Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks

 

Blog Tour Giveaway:

One (1) winner will receive a $25 Amazon Gift Card (INT)

 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

four-stars

About S.A. Larsen

S.A. LARSEN is the author of the award-winning novel Motley Education, the first book in a fantasy-adventure series for middle grade readers. Her work has appeared in numerous local publications and young adult anthologies Gears of Brass and Under A Brass Moon by Curiosity Quills Press. Marked Beauty is her debut young adult novel. Find her in the land of snowy winters and the occasional Eh’ya with her husband of over twenty-five years, four children, a playful pooch, and three kittens. Visit her cyber home anytime at www.salarsenbooks.com.

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
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:

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

On to some highlights…

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

 

 

three-half-stars

About Caroline Fardig

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

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

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

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

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

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

four-half-stars

About Kate Quinn

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

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

Alice Hoffman’s THE RULES OF MAGIC is truly spellbinding

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

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: Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

 

four-stars

About Julie C. Dao

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