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Book Review: Origin

Book Review:  OriginOrigin by Dan Brown
four-stars
Series: Robert Langdon, #5
Published by Doubleday Books on October 3rd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 461
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW:

I know Dan Brown has a lot of critics who say that his books have become too formulaic, that they follow a predictable pattern.  While I won’t deny that may be true, especially with respect to his Robert Langdon series, I will also be the first to stand up and say “So what?”  I personally LOVE the formula and get ridiculously excited every time I hear that a new Dan Brown book is coming out.  I’m not sure what it is about Brown’s books that consistently draw me in – in some ways, I think they bring out my inner conspiracy theorist – but whatever the draw is, he always sucks me in from the first page and keeps me turning the pages well into the night.  And Origin was no exception.  I devoured its nearly 500 pages in less than two days!

For those unfamiliar with Robert Langdon, he is a professor of symbology and religious iconography at Harvard University.  He has become somewhat of a household name in academic circles as his expertise in those subject areas have helped to uncover and stop some pretty major conspiracies over the years.  In Origin, Langdon has been invited to an event at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain by one of his former students, Edmond Kirsch.  Kirsch, who is now a 40 year-old billionaire and futurist, plans to make an announcement at this event.  He claims to have made a discovery which he believes will change the face of science and will turn all of the world’s religions upside down. Kirsch says that his discovery answers two of the most fundamental questions of human existence:  1) Where do we come from?  and 2) Where are we going?  Because his announcement involves Langdon’s specialty, Religion, Kirsch wanted to have his former professor present at the announcement.

As soon as the presentation begins, Langdon senses that Kirsch’s announcement will be controversial and that it will have the potential to send shockwaves through the religious community.  Prior to the big reveal, however, tragedy strikes and Kirsch is assassinated before he can unveil his discovery.  In the midst of the ensuing chaos, Langdon makes a split second decision that could put his own life in danger –  if someone was willing to kill Kirsch rather than let his discovery see the light of day, then Langdon owes it to Kirsch to not let his secret die with him.  Langdon teams up with Ambra Vidal, the museum director who was most closely working with Kirsch on the details of his presentation and announcement. Vidal knows that Kirsch’s presentation was protected by a cryptic password and that without that password, they have no way of unlocking the truth.  So begins a quest to discover Kirsch’s password that takes Langdon and Vidal on a path marked by modern art, enigmatic symbols, and of course danger once those who killed Kirsch realize what Langdon and Vidal are trying to do.

Will Langdon be able to unlock the mystery of Kirsch’s discovery? And if so, what ramifications will Kirsch’s discovery have on the rest of the world?  Where do we come from?  Where are we going?

 

Okay, so I’m going to start simple here and say that I just love Robert Langdon. There’s not a lot to Langdon in terms of character development because Brown’s novels are primarily plot-driven, but I just really enjoy watching Langdon get his geek on when it comes to following and deciphering religious-based clues. He can find meaning in the most seemingly insignificant symbol and even five books into the series, it never ceases to fascinate me.  I also love that he’s kind of a famous nerd, and that as brilliant as he is when it comes to symbology and religious iconography, he still has this sense of fun and quirkiness about him. I mean, seriously, the guy wears an antique Mickey Mouse watch!  And I know Tom Hanks was cast to play Langdon in the movies, but in my mind, Langdon doesn’t look like Tom Hanks. Instead, he looks like Harrison Ford. So yeah, Langdon is a handsome, nerdy guy with a Mickey Mouse watch. What’s not to love?

Another aspect of the Langdon series I’ve always enjoyed involves the setting.  Dan Brown always places the trail of clues Langdon must find and unravel in such exciting cities.  In Angels & Demons, he took us through the streets of Rome, and in the DaVinci Code, we traveled through Paris and London. The Lost Symbol then took us through Washington, D.C., while Inferno transported us to Florence, Venice, and even Istanbul.  Origin doesn’t slack in the setting department either as it transports us to the glorious cities of Bilbao, Madrid, and Barcelona.  If you want to travel without ever leaving your reading chair, pick up a Dan Brown book and off you’ll go!

I also think that, formulaic or not, Brown does a masterful job of building up the suspense in his novels.  He structures the narrative so that we get alternating chapters between different characters in the story – some of whom are, like Langdon, clearly protagonists, while others are clearly antagonists who are trying to stop Langdon.  I liked not only seeing the story unfold from both sides of the equation at the same time, but also feeling the suspense build as each side inched forward toward their ultimate goal. The question of “Who’s going to get there first?” coupled with the desire to know the truth about Kirsch’s discovery really drives the story forward at a rapid clip.  I just couldn’t put the book down until I knew everything.

Origin also doesn’t disappoint in the action department.  The story is infused with danger and action-packed scenes as Langdon and Vidal try to stay one step ahead of those who are desperate to stop them!

 

The one issue I have consistently had with the Robert Langdon series is that Langdon always seems to end up paired with a beautiful woman on his quest for the truth.  These pairings are never really romantic — the pair is usually just sifting through clues and bouncing ideas off of one another while trying to keep from getting killed by whoever doesn’t want the truth to come out — so that’s not my issue.  But when it happened again in Origin, I found myself wondering why it’s always a woman.  I think it’s time for Langdon to team up and geek out over symbols and religious iconography with another guy.  Langdon needs a bro-mance!

 

I adore Dan Brown’s novels and Origin is no exception to that.  Do I think his works are destined to be considered great works of literature?  No, probably not.  But that said, they are consistently entertaining and intense, and now that I’ve finished the fifth book in the series, I’m already hoping that there will be a sixth.  So, if you’re looking for an action-packed thrill ride that will also make you think about potentially life-changing questions like “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” then I’d definitely say to give Origin a read. And if you’ve never read any of the Langdon series, I’d most highly recommend Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code. Those were both 5 star reads for me.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to attend a major announcement—the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever.” The evening’s host is Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old billionaire and futurist whose dazzling high-tech inventions and audacious predictions have made him a renowned global figure. Kirsch, who was one of Langdon’s first students at Harvard two decades earlier, is about to reveal an astonishing breakthrough . . . one that will answer two of the fundamental questions of human existence.

As the event begins, Langdon and several hundred guests find themselves captivated by an utterly original presentation, which Langdon realizes will be far more controversial than he ever imagined. But the meticulously orchestrated evening suddenly erupts into chaos, and Kirsch’s precious discovery teeters on the brink of being lost forever. Reeling and facing an imminent threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape Bilbao. With him is Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director who worked with Kirsch to stage the provocative event. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Navigating the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, Langdon and Vidal must evade a tormented enemy whose all-knowing power seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace itself… and who will stop at nothing to silence Edmond Kirsch. On a trail marked by modern art and enigmatic symbols, Langdon and Vidal uncover clues that ultimately bring them face-to-face with Kirsch’s shocking discovery… and the breathtaking truth that has long eluded us.

 

four-stars

About Dan Brown

Dan Brown is the author of numerous #1 bestselling novels, including The Da Vinci Code, which has become one of the best selling novels of all time as well as the subject of heated debate among readers and scholars. Brown’s novels are published in 52 languages around the world with 200 million copies in print.

In 2005, Brown was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine, whose editors credited him with “keeping the publishing industry afloat; renewed interest in Leonardo da Vinci and early Christian history; spiking tourism to Paris and Rome; a growing membership in secret societies; the ire of Cardinals in Rome; eight books denying the claims of the novel and seven guides to read along with it; a flood of historical thrillers; and a major motion picture franchise.”

The son of a mathematics teacher and a church organist, Brown was raised on a prep school campus where he developed a fascination with the paradoxical interplay between science and religion. These themes eventually formed the backdrop for his books. He is a graduate of Amherst College and Phillips Exeter Academy, where he later returned to teach English before focusing his attention full time to writing. He lives in New England with his wife.

Brown’s latest novel, Origin, explores two of the fundamental questions of humankind: Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Book Review: Winter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand

Book Review:  Winter Solstice by Elin HilderbrandWinter Solstice by Elin Hilderbrand
three-half-stars
Series: Winter #4
on October 3rd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Holiday
Pages: 262
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

Set primarily on the charming island of Nantucket, Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter series follows the ups and downs of the Quinn family over the course of about four years.  At the heart of this series is a strong focus on the importance of love, family, friendship, and loyalty, but there is also a healthy dose of drama so as to keep things from getting too saccharin-sweet.  I binge-read this series this year as part of a holiday readathon and fell in love with the Quinn family right away.  Everyone in the family is just so endearing and I became invested in all of them from the very first book in the series.

Winter Solstice is the fourth and final installment of the series, so much of this book is about saying goodbye to this family that readers have grown to love over the course of the previous books.  The Winter series was actually originally intended to be trilogy. I thought the third book left too many things unresolved, however, so I was thrilled to find out a fourth book had been added to the series.  I can’t say that I was ready to say goodbye to the Quinns yet, but I think Winter Solstice gives them the sendoff they deserve and gives fans proper closure.

 

What makes this series such a good read for me is how realistic it is when it comes to the Quinn family and the trials and tribulations that they go through.  I don’t want to go into too much detail since it would spoil the earlier books to do so, but what they go through is the same kind of drama that most families go through — the family drama, complicated relationships, cheating, addiction, financial difficulties, the emotional turmoil when a child in the military is deployed and sent thousands of miles from home, and so much more.  Of course some of the Quinn’s drama is ratcheted up Desperate Housewives-style for the added entertainment value, but overall, those ups and downs are very relatable for many readers and so it’s easy to become invested in what they’re going through and to feel tremendous sympathy for them.

In addition to the realistic domestic drama that we get throughout the series, I also loved the characters Hilderbrand created.  Even when they are at their worst and doing things that I want to scream at them for doing, I still couldn’t help but love the Quinns.  I’m a sucker for a well-drawn, flawed, utterly human character and that description fits all of the Quinns to a T.  I especially loved Kelley, the family patriarch.  He’s such a good man and his love for his family just shines through in every book of the series.  That’s not to say he doesn’t make his fair share of mistakes along the way, but I still just adored him. I found it harder to say goodbye to him than to any of the other characters so, in that sense, Winter Solstice was somewhat bittersweet for me.

Another highlight of the series, and especially of Winter Solstice, was watching the journeys of the four Quinn siblings as they navigate their way through the messy world of adulthood.  Many mistakes are made along the way, but if there is an overriding theme in Winter Solstice, I’d say it’s about second chances (or even third and fourth chances) – the idea that no matter how many times you mess up or how badly, you can still recover and move forward.

The setting of the novel is, of course, a huge highlight and also what gives the series its holiday charm.  It’s set in Nantucket and the charming Winter Street Inn during the Christmas holiday season. It immediately made me think of snow and snuggling up in front of the fireplace.  It doesn’t get much more atmospheric than that!

 

Even though I really enjoyed Winter Solstice overall, I still had a couple of issues with it.  One was that sometimes it just seemed like too much was going on.  Since the book was primarily about saying goodbye to the Quinns, I would have liked the book to focus solely on the Quinns and knowing that each of them was going to live happily ever after, so to speak.  There seemed to be a few random subplots running through this novel that distracted a bit from that.

The addition of new character ‘Fast Eddie’ was the biggest distraction.  While Eddie served somewhat of a purpose in Winter Solstice, I didn’t feel like he was important enough to the overall plot to have entire chapters devoted to his messy love life and his real estate endeavors.  In my mind, he was a secondary character and I didn’t care about him aside from what he could do to help the Quinns when they needed his real estate knowledge.  I think the series would have closed much stronger with Eddie’s presence minimized.  Eddie’s huge presence in Winter Solstice was especially frustrating because we actually didn’t have much of a storyline for Kevin Quinn and his wife, Isabelle.  Yes, of all of the Quinn siblings, they were probably the closest to having their act together by the fourth book, but I still would have liked more of them.

 

Even though I had some issues with it, Winter Solstice still provides a satisfying ending to the Winter series. Even though I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Quinns, I’m quite content with the path Hilderbrand has set them on.  If you’re looking for a heart-warming holiday-themed series that focuses on love and family, but that also has plenty of dramatic flair, the Winter series is a good bet.

Thanks so much to Netgalley, Elin HIlderbrand, and Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This in no way shapes my opinion of the book.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Raise one last glass with the Quinn Family at the Winter Street Inn.

It’s been too long since the entire Quinn family has been able to celebrate the holidays under the same roof, but that’s about to change. With Bart back safe and sound from Afghanistan, the Quinns are preparing for a holiday more joyous than any they’ve experienced in years. And Bart’s safe return isn’t the family’s only good news: Kevin is enjoying married life with Isabelle; Patrick is getting back on his feet after paying his debt to society; Ava thinks she’s finally found the love of her life; and Kelly is thrilled to see his family reunited at last. But it just wouldn’t be a Quinn family gathering if things went smoothly. A celebration of everything we love–and some of the things we endure–about the holidays, WINTER SOLSTICE is Elin Hilderbrand at her festive best.

three-half-stars

About Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand lives on Nantucket with her husband and their three young children. She grew up in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and traveled extensively before settling on Nantucket, which has been the setting for her five previous novels. Hilderbrand is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the graduate fiction workshop at the University of Iowa.

Book Review: Depth of Lies by E.C. Diskin

Book Review:  Depth of Lies by E.C. DiskinDepth of Lies by E.C. Diskin
Also by this author: Desperate Paths
four-stars
Published by Thomas & Mercer on September 26th 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 288
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

E.C. Diskin’s Depth of Lies is a gripping, fast-paced thriller that will not only keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time you’re reading, but it will also make you question how much you really know about the people that you consider yourself closest to.

The story opens with a mysterious death.  Shea Walker, a happy, easy going mom, who is beloved by all around her, is found dead in a bathtub at a B&B.  An empty pill bottle is found in her room so everyone believes that she has unexpectedly ended her own life.  All of Shea’s friends are of course distraught because they have lost their friend and because they simply cannot fathom how Shea could have possibly killed herself without any of them realizing she was at such a low point in her life.

One of Shea’s oldest and closest friends, Kat Burrows, takes it a step further.  She absolutely refuses to believe that Shea killed herself and suspects foul play.  She decides to do a little amateur sleuthing on her own, along with their mutual friend Tori.  Kat is also wracked with guilt because on the night she died, Shea had tried to call Kat but Kat chose not to answer the phone.

Once Kat starts digging, she begins to uncover lie after lie, and seemingly endless secrets and betrayals.  More and more details emerge that make Kat realize she didn’t know Shea nearly as well as she thought she did.  Nor did she really know anyone in their circle of friends, for that matter.  What she finds not only makes her question the truth about what happened to Shea that night, but it also makes her take a hard look at everyone around her.

The aptly named Depth of Lies explores the questions of not only what really happened to Shea Walker but also the thought provoking question of ‘Do we ever really know everything about anyone?’

 

I thought the author very effectively used the structure of the novel to unravel the mystery of what happened to Shea.  The story is presented to the reader in alternating chapters from the point of view of both Shea and Kat.  We get to follow the last few months of Shea’s life and see what is really going on with her, while at the same time, we follow Kat as she is investigating Shea’s death.  The two storylines parallel each other until they ultimately merge into one as both Kat and the reader learn the truth about Shea’s death.

I also thought the pacing was fantastic.  I got hooked immediately and with each clue Kat and her friend uncovered, the suspense just kept building and building.  I also liked the added tension of having Kat’s spouse as well as all of her friends start to get agitated because she keeps asking so many questions and won’t let anything go.  Wanting to know if any of them were hiding anything made the story that much more compelling for me and I devoured the novel in less than two days because I just had to know the truth.

Not only is Depth of Lies a well-crafted mystery that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but it also does a wonderfully realistic job of portraying the different relationships between the characters.  We get to see all of the lingering guilt between the friends because they feel like they weren’t there for Shea, but then on top of it, the more the friends talk after her death, the more we start to see little bits of resentment and anger toward Shea come to the surface.  They might be mourning her loss, but a few of them clearly have emotional baggage when it comes to the impact Shea had on their lives.

I also found the relationships realistic in terms of the novel’s central question of how well we really know someone.  I found this idea especially believable and relatable.  Don’t we all tend to keep certain things to ourselves?  I know as much as I love my friends and family, I still don’t tell them everything.  I think it’s normal to keep secrets, especially if those secrets are things that could be really embarrassing if they were to become known.  This aspect of the novel left me with a lot to think about in terms of my own little secrets and in terms of what my friends and loved ones might be keeping from me.

 

The only real issue I had with Depth of Lies was that I would have liked to have felt more connected to the main characters.  I was glued to the book to find out the truth about Shea and whether or not Kat would alienate her entire friend group because she just wouldn’t let it go, but otherwise, I didn’t really feel all that attached to any of the characters.  I usually like to feel some kind of connection to at least one character but instead I just felt like an outsider observing the lives of these women and their spouses.  It definitely didn’t impede my enjoyment of the story, which I thought was fantastic, but I think that’s what makes it a 4 star instead of a 5 star read for me.

 

If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller that will keep you guessing until the end, I’d definitely recommend Depth of Lies.  I enjoyed it so much that I can’t wait to read more from E.C. Diskin.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

When Shea Walker, a sunny, easygoing mom, is found dead in a bathtub with a stomach full of booze and pills, the shocking discovery shatters the complacency of her comfortable suburban community.

Kat Burrows, Shea’s longtime friend and former neighbor, is hit hardest. How could a woman she thought she knew so well come to such a sordid end? What could lead happy, well-adjusted, responsible Shea to accidentally overdose on alcohol and narcotics? Or, worse, drive her to suicide?

Compelled to uncover the truth of Shea’s final months, Kat delves beneath the orderly surface of her familiar world to discover a web of thwarted desire, shameful secrets, and shocking betrayal that suggests a scarier explanation for what happened to Shea. As her carefully constructed reality begins to crumble, Kat must question every reassuring assumption her life is built upon to solve the mystery…and summon the courage and resourcefulness to survive it.

four-stars

About E.C. Diskin

E.C. Diskin studied Radio/TV/Film and English in Texas (TCU), moved to New York to dance with a tap dance company in Soho, and finally became “an adult” when she moved to Chicago for law school. But after several years behind a desk, a drawer full of story ideas, and two little ones at home, she took a break from the law and began writing fiction. Fortunately, the fantasy of living a creative life became reality with the success of her debut legal thriller, The Green Line. Her second, Broken Grace, ventured into psych thrillers, and her latest, Depth of Lies, dives into the veneers and secrets behind the closed doors of suburbia. When she’s not reading, writing, binge-watching Netflix, chauffeuring kids, or at the movies, she likes to play with power tools and build stuff.

Review: THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine Arden

Review:  THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine ArdenThe Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden
Also by this author: The Bear and the Nightingale
five-stars
Series: The Winternight Trilogy #2
Published by Del Rey on December 5th 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Also in this series: The Bear and the Nightingale
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:

Katherine Arden’s The Winternight Trilogy is one of the most captivating series I’ve ever read.  I fell in love with the series last winter when I read the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale.  Filled with lush worldbuilding, a feisty heroine, fascinating Russian folklore, and a touch of the supernatural, The Bear and the Nightingale entranced me from the first pages and I just fell in love with everything about the story.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the second book, The Girl in the Tower, and was thrilled to be approved for an advanced copy to review on my blog.

I didn’t think it was possible to top the gorgeous storytelling in the first book, but Arden proved me wrong.  As much as I adored The Bear and the Nightingale, I thought The Girl in the Tower was even more amazing!  It has all of the same wonderful elements as the first book – the magic, the Russian folklore, beloved characters like Vasya, her horse Solovey, and the Frost Demon.  But then, there’s just also so much more to love.

In The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has really come into her own in terms of character growth.  She is still a free spirit who refuses to bow down and do what society expects young women to do, but now she is also more mature and a bit wiser because of what she went through in the first book.

The Girl in the Tower picks up right where The Bear and the Nightingale left off. Because of what happened to Vasya in the first book, there are rumors swirling around her village that she is a witch.  Faced with the choices before her – either marrying someone she doesn’t love or being sent to live in a convent —  Vasya decides to create her own destiny and runs away from home.  When the story opens, we meet Vasya traveling, disguised as a boy, with only her horse, Solovey, by her side.

The roads she travels on are rugged and unsafe, but Vasya’s journey ultimately takes her to Moscow where she is reunited with her monk brother, Sasha; her sister, Olga, who is now a princess; and her cousin Dmitrii, who is the Crown Prince of Moscow.  Desperately trying to conceal her true identity, Vasya gets caught up in a web of deception, lies, and political unrest and finds herself faced with extremely dangerous choices everywhere she turns.

How will she get out of her predicament and what will happen to her if her true identity is revealed?

As with the first book, the atmospheric quality of The Girl in the Tower was one of my favorite parts of the novel.  As soon as I began reading, I felt as though I had been transported to Vasya’s world.  Arden masterfully paints a medieval Russian landscape and skillfully dots this landscape with a fascinating mix of supernatural elements and Russian folklore.  Her descriptions are so vivid that I could practically hear the snow crunching under Solovey’s hooves as he and Vasya traversed the snowy landscape, just as I could easily envision the tiny magical spirit guardians hidden in each building Vasya entered.

Vasya is of course still a major favorite of mine.  I admire her bravery and her feistiness and the fact that she doesn’t want to be forced into marriage or into a convent.  She has no interest in society’s expectations for women and, instead, wants to be an adventurer and travel the world.  Vasya has a spirit that cannot be tamed, and I couldn’t help but cheer her on, even though I know it’s likely to be dangerous for her.

In addition to Vasya, another favorite character of mine is her stallion, Solovey.  Solovey and Vasya can communicate with each other, and some of their exchanges are truly hilarious.  I love Solovey for his loyalty, his sassiness, and for his fierceness.  You’ll want a Solovey of your very own after reading this story.  He’s the perfect companion for Vasya.

And, of course, I can’t leave out an unexpected favorite character, Morozko, the Frost Demon.  Arden adds layers and layers of complexity to Morozko in this second book and I just fell in love with him even more than I did in the first book.   The details of his history, along with his connection to Vasya, are what truly take this story to the next level, and even though I probably shouldn’t ship Vasya and Morozko, I totally do.  I just can’t get enough of the two of them together!

I also loved that this story seemed a little darker and a little more grounded in reality than the first story because of the focus on political unrest in Moscow. It added a layer of danger and intrigue that really made for an exciting and fast-paced read.

The only issue I had while reading this book was that it started out a little slow for me.  It may have been because it took a few pages to actually get to Vasya’s story, but I’m actually going to chalk it up as a personal issue because I was trying to start the book while riding on a train and was constantly distracted.  Once I got home and continued reading where there were less distractions, I devoured the rest of the book in less than 24 hours.

The Girl in the Tower is a tale that is beautiful yet dark, enchanting yet also horrifying. With its gorgeous prose, memorable characters, and intricate storytelling, it has also secured itself a spot on my Top Reads of 2017 list.  Katherine Arden has truly captivated me with this series and I can’t wait to get my hands on the final installment.  I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves a strong, feisty, independent heroine and good solid storytelling, as well as to anyone who is interested in Russian folklore.  You won’t be disappointed!

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

five-stars

About Katherine Arden

Born in Austin, Texas, Katherine Arden spent a year of high school in Rennes, France. Following her acceptance to Middlebury College in Vermont, she deferred enrollment for a year in order to live and study in Moscow. At Middlebury, she specialized in French and Russian literature. After receiving her BA, she moved to Maui, Hawaii, working every kind of odd job imaginable, from grant writing and making crêpes to guiding horse trips. Currently she lives in Vermont, but really, you never know.

Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

Review:  Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha SilvaMr. Dickens and His Carol: A Novel of Christmas Past by Samantha Silva
four-half-stars
Published by Flatiron Books on October 31st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 288
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:

Samantha Silva’s Mr. Dickens and His Carol is a charming, heartwarming tale that follows Charles Dickens at a difficult time in his life.  Dickens has been a hugely successful writer for years, with each book selling better than the last.  That is, until Martin Chuzzlewit, whose sales have unexpectedly flopped.  Three weeks before Christmas, Dickens’ publishers pay him a visit to tell him the bad news about his book sales and to issue him an ultimatum:  write a heartwarming, best-selling Christmas book in the next three weeks or else face financial ruin.

Needless to say, this does not put Dickens into the Christmas spirit, especially when on top of his bad news, he also has to contend with his family who is expecting the same lavish Christmas that they are used to.  Additionally, one of Dickens’ cousins is lurking about because he wants money for an investment, and Dickens’ deadbeat father is also milling around town racking up debts and expecting Charles to take care of them.

Dickens begins to feel backed into a corner and starts to lash out at those around him, eventually driving his wife and children away from their home.  At first, Dickens flat out refuses to write a novel on demand because it’s not his style, but ultimately realizes he has no choice and sits down to write.  There’s just one problem – he has no inspiration whatsoever and a huge case of writer’s block.  Growing increasingly frustrated, Dickens begins to wander aimlessly around the city of London and eventually finds himself on an Ebenezer Scrooge-like journey that ultimately becomes the inspiration for what ends up being his most beloved novel, A Christmas Carol.

There were so many things I loved about this book, but I think the Dickensian atmosphere was what I loved the most.  I truly felt like I had been transported back to Victorian London while I was reading.  Silva does a marvelous job of capturing all of the sights, sounds, and smells (both the good and the bad!) of the time period and the overall effect was just magical! It was instantly clear that Silva had done her homework, both with respect to Dickens himself and to the time period.

I also loved the way Silva brought Charles Dickens to life for her readers.  She portrays him as likable and charming, and yet so flawed and human at the same time.  His family means everything to him and he’s worried that he may not be able to take care of them because of his lagging book sales.   I really sympathized with what he was going through –everyone wanting something from him because of his success,  his wife telling him that he has changed and that she and the children are leaving until he gets himself sorted out, and then having to write a Christmas story on demand in order to keep from falling into financial ruin.  It’s a lot for anyone to have to deal with and Dickens also feels the tremendous pressure of up-and-coming writers such as Thackeray and begins to doubt that he can compete with them.  Dickens’ frustrations were palpable and so very understandable, as were his feelings of self-doubt.  The writer’s block that follows is something that all of us who write can relate to, and I thought it was brilliant that Silva uses all of these pressures she has piled onto Dickens’ shoulders to take him on a Scrooge-like journey of his own, which is what ultimately inspires his writing of A Christmas Carol.

I’m a huge fan of both Dickens and A Christmas Carol, so every time I was reading and happened across a shout out to either A Christmas Carol or one of Dickens’ other works, it made me smile.  I thought it was especially fun when he came across names he thought would make good character names and jotted them down, or on other occasions when he met someone he didn’t like and vowed to use them in his book to exact his revenge on them on paper.  I also chuckled to myself that Dickens would grumble “Humbug, bah!” when he was in a particularly foul humor and then ended up incorporating the now famous words into his tale, since he obviously modeled Ebenezer Scrooge after himself.  In this sense, I would think the book would be a lot of fun for Dickens fans.

Overall, this was such an enjoyable read for me, but I will mention that there were a few spots that were heavy in description, which slowed the pacing a bit.  Thankfully though, the lulls were brief and the action picked back up pretty quickly.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol is a charming, heartwarming tale that is perfect for fans of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, or even just Christmas itself.  I personally think it would make a lovely Christmas gift for the Dickens fan in your life.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Shakespeare in Love meets A Christmas Carol in this transporting debut novel set during the whirlwind period in which Dickens wrote his beloved classic, as he embarks on a Scrooge-like journey of his own.

For Charles Dickens, each Christmas has been better than the last. His novels are literary blockbusters, and he is famous on the streets of London, where avid fans sneak up on him to snip off pieces of his hair. He and his wife have five happy children, a sixth on the way, and a home filled with every comfort they could imagine. But when Dickens’ newest book is a flop, the glorious life he has built for himself threatens to collapse around him. His publishers offer an ultimatum: either he writes a Christmas book in a month, or they will call in his debts, and he could lose everything. Grudgingly, he accepts, but with relatives hounding him for loans, his wife and children planning an excessively lavish holiday party, and jealous critics going in for the kill, he is hardly feeling the Christmas spirit.

Increasingly frazzled and filled with self-doubt, Dickens seeks solace and inspiration in London itself, his great palace of thinking. And on one of his long walks, in a once-beloved square, he meets a young woman in a purple cloak, who might be just the muse he needs. Eleanor Lovejoy and her young son, Timothy, propel Dickens on a Scrooge-like journey through his Christmases past and present—but with time running out, will he find the perfect new story to save him?

In prose laced with humor, sumptuous Victorian detail, and charming winks to A Christmas Carol, Samantha Silva breathes new life into an adored classic. Perfect for fans of Dickens, for readers of immersive historical fiction, and for anyone looking for a dose of Christmas cheer, Mr. Dickens and His Carol is destined to become a perennial holiday favorite.

 

four-half-stars

About Samantha Silva

Samantha Silva is an author and screenwriter based in Idaho. Mr. Dickens and His Carol is her debut novel. Over her career she’s sold film projects to Paramount, Universal, New Line Cinema and TNT. A film adaptation of her short story, The Big Burn, won the 1 Potato Short Screenplay Competition at the Sun Valley Film Festival in 2017. Silva will direct, her first time at the helm.

Silva graduated from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she studied in Bologna, Italy and Washington, D.C. She’s lived in London three times, briefly in Rome, is an avid Italophile, and a forever Dickens devotee.

Book Review: STARFISH by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Book Review:  STARFISH by Akemi Dawn BowmanStarfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Also by this author: Summer Bird Blue
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
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

MY REVIEW:

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

MY REVIEW:

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.