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Review: THE FAMILY NEXT DOOR by Sally Hepworth

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

None at all!

 

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

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

four-half-stars

About Sally Hepworth

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

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

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

Review: THE BEAUTY THAT REMAINS by Ashley Woodfolk

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

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

four-stars

About Ashley Woodfolk

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

Review: MORE THAN WE CAN TELL by Brigid Kemmerer

Review:  MORE THAN WE CAN TELL by Brigid KemmererMore Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer
Also by this author: Letters to the Lost (Letters to the Lost, #1)
four-half-stars
Published by Bloomsbury Children's on March 6th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

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

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

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

four-half-stars

About Brigid Kemmerer

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

Review: DAUGHTERS OF THE STORM by Kim Wilkins

Review:  DAUGHTERS OF THE STORM by Kim WilkinsDaughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins
Also by this author: Sisters of the Fire
three-half-stars
Series: Blood and Gold #1
Published by Del Rey Books on March 6th 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 448
Also in this series: Sisters of the Fire
Source: Netgalley
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:

The first novel in an exciting new fantasy series by Kim Wilkins, Daughters of the Storm follows the story of five very different royal sisters who must put aside their differences and come together to save their kingdom.

These sisters are so different from one another, at times, it’s hard to believe that they share the same blood.  There’s Bluebell, the eldest, a fierce warrior who has been trained by her father to rule the kingdom of Thyrsland someday.  She is feared by all and actually rumored to be unkillable in battle.  Then there’s Ash, a gentler soul than Bluebell.  Ash is studying to be a healer but has discovered she has the ability to see the future.  As she struggles to learn more about and control this ability, she becomes more and more torn about whether being a seer is a gift or a curse.  The third sister is Rose, and Rose is ruled by her passion.  Her father married her off to the ruler of a neighboring kingdom, as a way to form an alliance and keep the peace.  Rose, however, does not love her husband and is willing to risk peaceful relations between the kingdoms by pursuing a forbidden love.  And finally, there are the twins Willow and Ivy, who have been living with a distant relative for a while and left to their own devices. For Willow, being left to her own devices translates to her joining a new religion and behaving as though she’s a brainwashed member of a cult.  For Ivy, it means being vain and flirtatious and trying to bed any man she desires.

When their father, the King, is stricken by a mysterious illness that appears to have magical roots, the sisters, led by Bluebell who appears to be the most devoted to their father, come together in a desperate attempt to save his life and their kingdom.  Not only do they need to track down a powerful witch who can cure the King, but they must also do so while not letting word get out that the King is near death. They have enough trouble on their hands trying to keep their treacherous stepbrother from stealing the throne; the last thing they need is to alert the rest of the King’s enemies that he is vulnerable should they wish to mount an attack.

 

What an exciting and fast-paced read this was!  I originally picked it up because I liked the idea of these sisters who would normally have little to do with one another being forced to come together to save their father.  But in many ways, it was so much more than that.  Not only are these sisters different from each other, but they also differ in their devotion to their father.  Bluebell, even though she would become ruler of the kingdom if her father were to die and is clearly ready to rule, is desperate to save his life at all costs.  Ash appears to be similarly devoted, but the younger three seem almost indifferent as to whether they save him or not.  They are annoyed they have been summoned from their lives to be a part of this rescue mission.  That was quite unexpected and added a layer of depth to the story I wasn’t expecting going into it and I wanted to know more about why each of them felt the way they did.

I got my opportunity to learn much more about each sister too as the story is presented to us from the alternating points of view of all five sisters, not to mention a few chapters from the stepbrother’s point of view as well.  At first I thought so many POVs would be too confusing and would bog down my reading experience, but Wilkins does a great job of incorporating each POV in a way that wasn’t confusing while still advancing the overall plot. I think the sisters being so different probably helped with that.  I never got one mixed up with another.  I also really loved getting inside of each sister’s head because wow, they are each holding on to some secrets that if they got out, could easily bring down their kingdom whether their father lives or not.

I also really liked the complicated family dynamic with the Queen as stepmother to the five sisters instead of their birth mother.  In many ways the Queen sets most of the drama into motion because of her assumption that Bluebell and the girls hate her and will expel her from the castle if their father dies.  Because of this fear, instead of sending word out to the girls first when their father falls ill, she summons her son instead. She wants him there in case they try to throw her out.  This just opens up a whole can of worms as Bluebell finds out elsewhere that her father is ill and thus immediately suspects that her stepmother and stepbrother are up to something.  Getting on Bluebell’s bad side from the get go probably wasn’t the smartest move.

As far as the sisters themselves, my reaction was a bit mixed.  Bluebell and Ash were, by far, my favorites. I admired the fierceness of Bluebell and the fact that people truly were scared to death of her.  I chuckled a few times throughout when people referred to her as Princess and then practically fell over themselves apologizing after receiving a death glare from her.  It becomes clear that it’s well known throughout the kingdom that she hates the term Princess and wishes only to be addressed as My Lord.  I found Ash to be equally as interesting as Bluebell, and I liked that they did appear to be pretty close unlike the other sisters. I also enjoyed the subplot involving Ash’s seer abilities that ran alongside the main storyline of the book.  It was fascinating to watch her learn more about and control her abilities, which are apparently a bit more than being able to see the future, to help on their quest to save their father, and I liked the self-sacrificing side of Ash that comes out whenever she thinks her abilities may cause others to be hurt.

Strangely enough, in many ways, however, the most interesting character was the stepbrother, Wylm. I think what I liked about him was that he was such a complicated character and kept me guessing throughout the story as to how much of a villain he really was.  At first I was okay with him, but then I hated him.  Then a bit later, something else happened and I thought “Hmmm, maybe he does have some redeeming qualities” and so on.  If you enjoy complicated characters, he’s definitely the one to keep your eyes on.

 

I didn’t have a lot of issues with this book, but I did have a couple.  The first of which is the name Bluebell.  I know it’s shallow and nitpicky to get hung up on a character’s name, but I just found it distracting, especially every time she was referred to as Bluebell the Fierce.  It’s hard to think of a character as a fierce warrior with a name like that.  So yeah, shallow nitpick from me because I loved everything about Bluebell except her name, but there it is.

The other issue I had was that I didn’t like the other three sisters at all.  Aside from the drama they added to the plot with their secrets and their willingness to betray one another and their kingdom, I just didn’t find them nearly as compelling as Bluebell and Ash. I’m wondering if they’ll play more important roles in later novels in the series, but for this one, most of the time they just felt like background noise to me.

 

Even with the couple of issues I had, I still thought Daughters of the Storm was an exciting read and I look forward to seeing where Wilkins takes the story next.  If you’re into strong female characters, with a side of secrets, lies, and betrayal, this is a fantasy world you’ll want to immerse yourself in.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Five very different sisters team up against their stepbrother to save their kingdom in this Norse-flavored fantasy epic–the start of a new series in the tradition of Naomi Novik, Peter V. Brett, and Robin Hobb.

FIVE ROYAL SISTERS. ONE CROWN.

They are the daughters of a king. Though they share the same royal blood, they could not be more different. Bluebell is a proud warrior, stronger than any man and with an ironclad heart to match. Rose’s heart is all too passionate: She is the queen of a neighboring kingdom, who is risking everything for a forbidden love. The twins: vain Ivy, who lives for admiration, and zealous Willow, who lives for the gods. And Ash, who is discovering a dangerous talent for magic that might be a gift–or a curse.

But when their father is stricken by a mysterious ailment, they must come together on a desperate journey to save him and prevent their treacherous stepbrother from seizing the throne. Their mission: find the powerful witch who can cure the king. But to succeed on their quest, they must overcome their differences, and hope that the secrets they hide from one another and the world are never brought to light. Because if this royal family breaks, it could destroy the kingdom.

three-half-stars

About Kim Wilkins

Kim Wilkins was born in London, and grew up at the seaside north of Brisbane, Australia. She has degrees in literature and creative writing, and teaches at the University of Queensland and in the community. Her first novel, The Infernal, a supernatural thriller was published in 1997. Since then, she has published across many genres and for many different age groups. Her latest books, contemporary epic women’s fiction, are published under the pseudonym Kimberley Freeman. Kim has won many awards and is published all over the world. She lives in Brisbane with a bunch of lovable people and pets.

Review: THE HUSH by John Hart

Review:  THE HUSH by John HartThe Hush by John Hart
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 27th 2018
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

MY REVIEW:

I’ve been a fan of John Hart’s novels for years, ever since I read his gripping thriller The Last Child so I was beyond excited to get approved for an ARC of his latest novel, The Hush.  My excitement grew even more once I started reading and realized that The Hush actually revisits the characters and landscape that I fell in love with in The Last Child.

The Hush takes place ten years after the horrifying events that rocked the lives of both thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon and the rest of the folks who lived in Johnny’s hometown.  Over the years, even though he has shied away from the spotlight, people have written books and tried to exploit Johnny’s story, so whether he wants the attention or not, he has become somewhat of a local celebrity and is both feared and revered by those around him.  When the novel opens, Johnny is now 23 years old and, desperate to retain some element of privacy in his life, is living as a recluse in the middle of 6,000 once-sacred, wooded acres known as The Hush.

Johnny’s only real connection to his former way of life is his childhood friend, Jack Cross, who has just finished law school and landed his first job as an attorney. I don’t want to spoil anything from The Last Child so I’ll just say that what these two boys went through in that novel has made their bond of friendship stronger than ever.  Jack would literally do anything and give up everything for Johnny, and I think Johnny feels the same way about Jack.  Even though I’d classify this book as a mystery/thriller, it is a moving story about friendship as well.

There is something strange and ominous about the place Johnny now calls home, however, and Jack senses its hidden dangers.  He tries to talk to Johnny about it but Johnny doesn’t want to hear anyone speak ill of his beloved Hush.  It becomes more and more clear that what happens in The Hush is not normal.  Most people cannot navigate the wooded, swampy land.  Landmarks seems to disappear or flat out move about, strange mists appear and lead to people getting disoriented.  In fact, many who attempt to travel into The Hush don’t come out alive.  Because he lives there, Johnny of course is immediately considered a suspect every time something happens.  Jack knows his friend is innocent and makes it his mission to prove Johnny’s innocence, but big questions remain:  What the heck is really going on in The Hush? Who else is interested in it and why are they willing to pay so much money for it?

One element of the story I liked right away is that, without completely rehashing the plot of The Last Child, Hart provides his readers with just enough background information to remind us why Johnny would choose such a secluded way of life.  In that sense, The Hush works quite well as a standalone novel.  You don’t need to have read The Last Child to follow along with this story.  (I definitely recommend reading it though, just because it’s a fabulous read.)

I loved The Last Child so much, so it was also just a thrill for me to revisit this story, and especially the characters, Johnny Merrimon and Jack Cross, who were both just such compelling characters.  It was wonderful to meet these boys again and see what kind of young men they have grown up to become and that Johnny has attained an almost mythic quality in the years since we left him.  The mysterious events that are taking place in The Hush also have Johnny pitted against local law enforcement, who seem eager to pin something on him, so legendary as he is, Johnny is also cast in the role of underdog in this story, and I’m always one to root for the underdog.

Hart drew me into this story, not just by revisiting some of my favorite characters, but also with the mystery of The Hush.  Johnny loves this place so much that even though he is on the verge of losing it if he can’t come up with the money to pay his taxes, he still won’t part with a single acre of it, not even when someone offers to pay him 10 times what it is worth.  The connection between Johnny and The Hush is almost surreal – Johnny is literally one with the land, and the land is one with him.  This intense connection captivated me immediately and had me zooming through the pages because I wanted to know how and why Johnny could have such a connection to the land, especially since it seemed to literally chew up and spit out anyone else who tried to venture onto it.

I’m also a huge fan of Hart’s writing style.  It’s a given that it’s filled with exciting twists and turns by virtue of the fact that it’s a mystery, but what I love about Hart’s writing is his gorgeous prose.  His descriptions, in particular of the landscape, are so lush and vivid that it’s easy to feel that you are right there with the characters.  What I love most is that he achieves this without making it feel forced or flowery; the descriptions are fluid and effortless.  I know he’s a writer so duh, but John Hart just really has a way with words.  His descriptions of The Hush were especially well done and just so atmospheric, especially when someone besides Johnny ventured in.  It was so beautiful and yet so creepy and ominous; I literally had goosebumps on my arms and felt like I was looking over my own shoulder for signs of danger.

Lastly, because I really don’t want to give anything away, I just want to say that I also love that Hart is willing to challenge himself by trying something different.  Whereas most of Hart’s novels are straight mystery/thrillers, The Hush actually ventures over into magical realism territory and is infused with a bit of the supernatural.  This was new and unexpected since that’s not what I’m used to with a John Hart novel, but I thought he did a fantastic job with it overall.  It kind of felt like a mashup of a typical John Hart novel and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and since Beloved is a favorite of mine, it was a great fit for me.

There was only one time when I had any kind of an issue with The Hush and that was towards the end.  I can’t really go into any detail without spoiling the plot, so I’m just going to say that it revolved around the supernatural aspect of the story.  It’s hard to even explain what my issue really was except that it’s along the lines of me being willing to suspend disbelief and see where the author wants to take the whole supernatural thing, but then reaching a point where I’m like “Nope, too far.  Reel it back in.”  If you read The Hush, you’ll probably know the exact scene that I’m referring to as soon as you get to it.  Aside from that one moment, I thought it was a fantastic read.

With his memorable characters and gorgeous prose, John Hart continues his streak of well-crafted stories with The Hush.  If you’re looking for a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end and can open your mind to supernatural possibilities, The Hush should be right up your alley.

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

The only writer in history to win consecutive Edgar Awards for Best Novel, New York Times bestselling author John Hart returns to the world of his most beloved novel, The Last Child.

Building on the world first seen in The Last Child (“A magnificent creation” —The Washington Post), John Hart delivers a stunning vision of a secret world, rarely seen.

It’s been ten years since the events that changed Johnny Merrimon’s life and rocked his hometown to the core. Since then, Johnny has fought to maintain his privacy, but books have been written of his exploits; the fascination remains. Living alone on six thousand acres of once-sacred land, Johnny’s only connection to normal life is his old friend, Jack. They’re not boys anymore, but the bonds remain. What they shared. What they lost.

But Jack sees danger in the wild places Johnny calls home; he senses darkness and hunger, an intractable intent. Johnny will discuss none of it, but there are the things he knows, the things he can do. A lesser friend might accept such abilities as a gift, but Jack has felt what moves in the swamp: the cold of it, the unspeakable fear.

More than an exploration of friendship, persistence, and forgotten power, The Hush leaves all categories behind, and cements Hart’s status as a writer of unique power.

four-stars

About John Hart

John Hart is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, THE KING OF LIES, DOWN RIVER, THE LAST CHILD, IRON HOUSE and REDEMPTION ROAD. The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John has also won the Barry Award, the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Award for Fiction, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, the Southern Book Prize and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty languages and can be found in over seventy countries. A former defense attorney and stockbroker, John spends his time in North Carolina and Virginia, where he writes full-time.

Review: When Light Left Us by Leah Thomas

Review:  When Light Left Us by Leah ThomasWhen Light Left Us by Leah Thomas
Also by this author: Wild and Crooked
three-stars
Published by Bloomsbury USA Childrens on February 13th 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Netgalley
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 Light Left Us by Leah Thomas is one of the more unique books I’ve read lately.  At its heart is the Vasquez family, in particular, siblings Milo, Ana and Hank, who are reeling from the fact that their father has just walked out of their lives without so much as a goodbye.  They are all trying to cope with the loss as best as they can, until one night something happens that changes everything…a shimmering alien figure named Luz appears in the canyon behind their house. Luz fills the void left by their father, bonding with each of the siblings in his own way.  Until Luz disappears without a word too…taking something vital from each of them.

Struck by the sense of loss all over again, Milo, Ana, and Hank are left to pick up the pieces and attempt to go about their lives as normal. It’s much easier said than done and all three siblings flounder, filled with questions about why their father left them, why Luz left them, and how can they ever feel close to or trust anyone again.

Will the Vasquez kids get their lives back on track?  What were Luz’ motivations for coming into their lives and then leaving them so abruptly?  What did he take from them when he left?  All of these questions and so many more began filling my head as soon as I started reading this moving story about family.

 

I thought the focus on family was the highlight of When Light Left Us. Even though the book itself centered a lot on the alien Luz and the impact he had on each of the Vasquez siblings, it was the family itself and how the siblings dealt with the losses they experienced that really kept me reading.  Their struggles to function on a daily basis, their hesitation to trust and connect with others, and even their own now-awkward interactions with each other at home all felt so realistic as was their mother’s reaction.  First, Maggie’s husband walks out on them, then her children experience something together that can’t really even be explained but obviously continues to haunt them many months later, to the point where they can barely function.  Maggie loves her children more than anything in the world and is overwhelmed and frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be anything she can do to help them.  All of the pain this family experiences is just so palpable. I ended up really caring about them and wanting to know that they could make it through this.

 

Expected the unexpected.  I’m kind of a sci fi nut, so I was also a big fan of the twistedness of the whole Luz storyline. I loved how original this part of the storyline was and I loved how I initially felt a bit of an E.T. vibe from Luz with the way he came into these children’s lives and filled the void left by the father who abandoned them.  The E.T. vibe didn’t last long though as Luz ultimately ends up being a much more complex character than I was expecting and a bit more of an ass if I’m being truly honest.  I won’t go into any more details so as not to spoil anything but definitely if you like complex characters like I do, keep your eyes on Luz.

 

A final element that I thought was very well done was the way the story was presented from multiple points of view.  Thomas gives us the perspectives of each of the three Vasquez siblings, as well as a few chapters from their mother, and even as we move further into the book, a few chapters from Luz himself. Since I was so invested in this family, I liked being able to have a glimpse directly into each of their thoughts to get an honest look at how they were each doing.  The Luz chapters were especially illuminating since we finally get a look at what is driving his actions with respect to this family.

 

As much as I enjoyed When Life Left Us overall, I have to admit that it started out super confusing and I almost DNF’ed it about a quarter of the way through the story.  I like reading and putting together the pieces of a mystery as much as the next person, but in this case, for the longest time it didn’t feel like any of the pieces were fitting together at all. I just kept getting more and more pieces and setting them aside, waiting for them to finally make sense.  Once they did start to make sense, it was very satisfying, but I just thought it took way too long to get to that point.  I’m glad I pushed through and made it to the end, but if I hadn’t become so invested in the family so quickly, I’m pretty sure I would have given up on the book.

 

When Light Left Us is a beautiful story about how a family has the power to overcome their struggles if they stick together.  I’d obviously recommend it to anyone who loves stories that focus on families and relationships, but any science fiction fan would probably enjoy this as well.  If you’re impatient and like for the stories you read to make sense from the get-go, this might not be a good fit for you.  Even though I had issues with that, however, I still very much enjoyed the story overall.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

When the Vasquez siblings’ father left, it seemed nothing could remedy the absence in their lives. . . until a shimmering figure named Luz appeared in the canyon behind their house.

Luz filled the void. He shot hoops with seventeen-year-old Hank’s hands. He showed fourteen-year-old Ana cinematic beauty behind her eyelids. He spoke kindly to eight-year-old Milo. But then Luz left, too, and he took something from each of them. As a new school year begins, Ana, Hank, and Milo must carry on as if an alien presence never altered them. But how can they ever feel close to other people again when Luz changed everything about how they see the world and themselves?

In an imaginative and heartfelt exploration of human—and non-human—nature, Leah Thomas champions the unyielding bonds between family and true friends.

three-stars

About Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas once wrote from a house in the woods, and now an apartment more or less by the sea (well, less). Her debut novel BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME was a 2016 Morris Award finalist, and its sequel, NOWHERE NEAR YOU, is out now from Bloomsbury. Her third YA science fiction novel, WHEN LIGHT LEFT US, hits shelves in early 2018.

A graduate of Clarion 2010, her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Black Static, Ideomancer, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, among others. She’s mostly a dork and always feels uncomfortable about author bios. If she’s not writing, she’s likely teaching or cosplaying. Follow her on instagram (@fellowhermit), or on tumblr (cuttoothom).

Book Review: Into the Black Nowhere, An UNSUB Novel

Book Review: Into the Black Nowhere, An UNSUB NovelInto the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner
Also by this author: UNSUB
four-half-stars
Series: UNSUB #2
Published by Dutton on January 30th 2018
Genres: Thriller, Mystery
Pages: 384
Also in this series: UNSUB
Source: Netgalley
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 read the first book in Meg Gardiner’s UNSUB series earlier this month and absolutely devoured it. It was a 5-star read for me that was filled with suspense, memorable characters (including a badass heroine), a disturbing yet riveting storyline, great action scenes, and just an overall fascinating look at the psychology of a serial killer.  Because I enjoyed UNSUB so much, I began reading its follow-up Into the Black Nowhere with very high expectations.  And thankfully, I wasn’t at all disappointed.  Just like its predecessor, Into the Black Nowhere hooked me from the first page and didn’t let me go until I reached the nail biting conclusion.  I think I’ve found myself a new favorite series!

As in UNSUB, Into the Black Nowhere follows Caitlyn Hendrix, only now, instead of working as a police detective in California, she has taken a job as a rookie FBI agent in the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia.  Caitlyn is still adjusting to her new job and life in Virginia, as well as trying to make a long distance relationship work with Sean, whom we met in UNSUB, but ultimately she is dedicated to her career and ready to catch a predator.

Caitlyn’s team is called to a town in Southern Texas where blonde women have been disappearing – one from a movie theater, one from a car that was stopped at a traffic light, and one from her own home.  Local law enforcement suspects they have a predator on their hands and so Caitlyn’s team is called in to help build a psychological profile of the UNSUB so that a suspect can hopefully be identified before any other women go missing.  When the bodies of two of the women are found in the woods, dressed in white nighties with heavily made up faces and slashed wrists, it becomes clear that they are looking for a serial killer, one that was likely inspired by Ted Bundy.  What’s even more disturbing is that not only has the UNSUB posed the bodies of these victims, but he has also surrounded them with Polaroid photos of other blonde women, potential victims that law enforcement hasn’t identified yet.  It becomes a race against the clock for Caitlyn and her team to catch this UNSUB before he hurts anyone else.

They are quickly able to get inside of their killer’s head and build a profile of the suspect, and with the help of a phone tip, they actually think they’ve found their guy.  This guy is a piece of work too. He’s arrogant, cunning, and manipulative, but is also charming enough to get almost anyone around him to let their guard down so it makes sense how he’s so easily able to accumulate so many victims.  Even though Caitlyn and her team are sure they have the right guy, the problem is that all they have on him so far is a lot of circumstantial evidence and so he keeps eluding them.

It seems like it’s almost a game to him, like he thrives on this game of cat and mouse, trying to stay one step ahead of law enforcement, but then he even manages to get inside of Caitlyn’s head. He finds and exploits her weaknesses, bringing things from her past up that she had hoped would remain buried and leaving her feeling vulnerable and exposed.  This of course makes her all the more determined to bring him down.

Can Caitlyn keep the UNSUB out of her head so that she can effectively do her job?  And can she and her team find the evidence they need in order to stop this monster once and for all?

 

I’m still loving Caitlyn Hendrix in this second book.  She’s just as fierce and focused on tracking down killers as she was in UNSUB, but still has that slightly vulnerable side as the killer manages to get inside of her head and make her face some demons from her past.  I like for the characters I’m reading about to have those layers of complexity so they don’t just come across as cardboard cutouts, which can often happen in thrillers because the characters take a backseat to the case at hand.  Not Caitlyn, she is fully-fleshed out and shows a lot of growth from the first book to the second, and even within the second.

In addition to adoring Caitlyn, I also thought her partner, Rainey, was amazing.  Rainey is the other female agent on her team, and Rainey is even more of a badass than Caitlyn.  Together the two of them make a formidable team and so I loved every scene that paired them together.  I hope to see them work together a lot more in future books in the series.

Gardiner not only writes fantastic characters, she is also a master at writing suspense.  I love following along with Caitlyn and the other agents as they uncover detail after detail about the killer and get ever closer to nailing him.  I was literally on the edge of my seat watching them frantically search for any clues that could help them take him down.  The added detail that he only takes his victims on Saturday added an extra layer of suspense and tension because the agents know they’re on a race against the clock and know exactly what their deadline is before another woman goes missing. The tension and sense of unease is so real in this book that I found myself looking over my own shoulder while reading.  It was just that creepy.

With all of that tension and suspense building up, I guess it goes without saying that this is a fast-paced book.  I read it from cover to cover in two days and found myself irritated every time I had to put the book down because I was so invested in the story.

 

My only real issue with Into the Black Nowhere was that rather than address the cliffhanger that we were left with at the end of UNSUB, Caitlyn and her team instead move on to a new case, and it’s one that doesn’t appear to be at all related to the case from the first book.  In my mind, it does makes sense not to immediately revisit that case. Based on the way the first book ended and how soon the second book seems to follow the first, it’s probably too soon, but I’m just impatient and really want to know how that cliffhanger is going to play out!

I also would have liked a little more interaction between Caitlyn and her boyfriend, Sean.  They worked the first case together and I loved their chemistry together, both personally and professionally, so I missed that this time around since their relationship was relegated to the occasional phone call.  There were some hints along the way in this book, however, that lead me to believe they may end up working together on a future case, so I definitely look forward to that possibility.

 

Considering that I’m already anxiously awaiting the third book in this series, it’s safe to conclude that I recommend Into the Black Nowhere just as highly as I recommended UNSUB earlier this month.  Meg Gardiner has blown me away with the first two installments of this series and is now on my list of auto-buy authors.

 

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Inspired by real-life serial killer Ted Bundy, an exhilarating thriller in which FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix faces off against a charming, merciless serial killer.

In southern Texas, on Saturday nights, women are disappearing. One vanishes from a movie theater. Another is ripped from her car at a stoplight. Another vanishes from her home while checking on her baby. Rookie FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, newly assigned to the FBI’s elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, fears that a serial killer is roaming the dark roads outside Austin.

Caitlin and the FBI’s serial crime unit discover the first victim’s body in the woods. She’s laid out in a bloodstained, white baby-doll nightgown. A second victim in a white nightie lies deeper in the forest’s darkness. Both bodies are surrounded by Polaroid photos, stuck in the earth like headstones. Each photo pictures a woman in a white negligee, wrists slashed, suicide-style–posed like Snow White awaiting her prince’s kiss.

To track the UNSUB, Caitlin must get inside his mind. How is he selecting these women? Working with a legendary FBI profiler, Caitlin searches for a homology–that elusive point where character and action come together. She profiles a confident, meticulous killer who convinces his victims to lower their guard until he can overpower and take them in plain sight. He then reduces them to objects in a twisted fantasy–dolls for him to possess, control, and ultimately destroy. Caitlin’s profile leads the FBI to focus on one man: a charismatic, successful professional who easily gains people’s trust. But with only circumstantial evidence linking him to the murders, the police allow him to escape. As Saturday night approaches, Caitlin and the FBI enter a desperate game of cat and mouse, racing to capture the cunning predator before he claims more victims.

four-half-stars

About Meg Gardiner

Meg Gardiner is a bestselling, Edgar Award winning author. A former lawyer and lecturer at the University of California, she’s also a three-time Jeopardy! champion. Born in Oklahoma, she grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and lives in Austin.

China Lake won the 2009 Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Paperback Original. The Nightmare Thief won the 2012 Audie Award for Thriller/Suspense audiobook of the year. Phantom Instinct was named an O, the Oprah magazine, “Best Books of Summer.”

Meg’s latest novel, UNSUB, has been bought for development as a major television series by CBS.

Find Meg on Facebook: Facebook.com/MegGardinerBooks Twitter: @MegGardiner1 and Instagram: @Meggardiner1.

Book Review: NEED TO KNOW by Karen Cleveland

Book Review:  NEED TO KNOW by Karen ClevelandNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland
four-half-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on January 23rd 2018
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
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:

If you’re looking for a gripping thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, look no further than Karen Cleveland’s debut novel Need to Know.  Not only it is an incredibly timely story with its focus on Russian operatives and sleeper cells in the U.S., but it’s also a well crafted one that takes us through one mother’s journey to see how far she will go to protect her family when she feels they are being threatened.  And as if that isn’t enticing enough, I’ve read that Need to Know is also being made into a movie with Charlize Theron in the starring role so there’s that as well!

Need to Know follows the journey of Vivian Miller, a counter-intelligence analyst at the CIA. Incredibly skilled at what she does, Vivian has risen through the ranks and has landed a coveted job in the department that investigates all things Russia.  When the novel opens, Vivian and her department have been looking for Russian sleeper cells in the U.S. and Vivian has developed an algorithm that can identify Russian operatives who handle the sleeper cells.

One morning, while remote accessing the computer of a suspected operative, Vivian locates a secret dossier containing information about deep-cover Russian agents who are currently living in the United States.  What she finds makes her realize that, if true, most of her life has been a lie, and it threatens not only her job but also her husband and even her children.  Vivian has taken a vow to defend the U.S. against all enemies, whether foreign or domestic, but now she finds herself in an impossible situation, one that could get her imprisoned and even charged with treason!

What will Vivian do? How far is she willing to go to protect her family? Is there anyone she can trust to help her or is she on her own?

 

This is another one of those stories where I feel like I’m going to be vague in what I say so as not to give away any spoilers.  Because giving away any spoilers at all would ruin it, please bear with the vagueness.

In a book like this, I need a likeable main character that I can relate to and I liked Vivian right away.  She’s smart, savvy, good at what she does, and she’s a great wife and a devoted mother to her four children as well.  I found her job at the CIA fascinating and so I enjoyed following her as she accessed the operative’s computer and sifted through his files looking for useful information.  That said, I think where I found her the most relatable was her reaction once she uncovers this threatening information and realizes her family could be in danger.  As a mom, I completely related to her need to do whatever it took to make sure her children were safe.  Even though I didn’t necessarily agree with what she did every step of the way, I understood that the information she found put her in a no-win situation. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t so the only course of action that made sense was to at least protect her children at all costs.

Need to Know is presented to the reader from Vivian’s point of view, which was probably my favorite part about the novel.  Seeing the story unfold through her eyes and having a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in her head as each new detail unfolded and the threat to her family grew just made the story all the more engaging for me.  Her thoughts and fears and her frantically trying to find a way to make everything in her life okay again are what really kept me turning the pages. Her desperation is palpable as is her growing paranoia as she doesn’t know who, if anyone in her life, she can trust.  I found myself right there alongside her, questioning everything and everyone and wondering if she would ever be able to find a way out of the mess she was in.

I also think having the story told from Vivian’s point of view added to the suspense and the tension in the novel.  As I mentioned, that’s what kept me turning the pages and unable to put the book down once I got started.  The suspense builds throughout and keeps the pacing of the story quick.  I was easily able to read the book in less than two days and even found myself getting ready for work with my Kindle on the bathroom counter trying to squeeze in a few more pages whenever I could.  That’s impressive for any book in my opinion but is truly impressive for an author’s debut novel, which this is.

A final area that really impressed me with Need to Know was how well researched the CIA portion of the novel seemed to be.  It felt like I really was watching the inner operations of a counter-intelligence department, and I realized that I basically was once I checked out the author’s bio and learned that she herself had actually worked as a CIA analyst for 8 years, 6 of that specifically in counterterrorism.  Karen Cleveland is definitely writing from experience here and I appreciated the authenticity it brought to the story.

I don’t want to say much about this, but if you’re a fan of “Long Cons,” you’ll love this story.  It takes the long con to a whole new level!

 

I did have one issue with the story and that was that I thought there was a little too much focus on the day-to-day family activities in Vivian’s life. I loved that she was a fierce mom who would do anything to keep her children safe, but I felt like I got a little bogged down a few times along the way while I was reading.  I’m dying to know what’s going to happen next on the Russia front, but instead I’m sidetracked reading about one of the kids running a fever and needing to be picked up from daycare.  As a parent I recognize that those kinds of things are part of life, but as a reader, I was just sitting there like “Hurry up and get back to the juicy stuff!”

 

Even if you don’t typically enjoy spy thrillers, I’d still highly recommend Need to Know.  Even though there is a heavy spy thriller element with the focus on the CIA and the sleeper cells, the story is still basically a story about how far a woman will go to protect her family.  That added layer is what really made this a phenomenal read for me, and as much as I enjoyed Need to Know, I look forward to reading more from Karen Cleveland. I’m hopeful that the way the novel ends has left the door open for a sequel because I would love to read more about Vivian.

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In pursuit of a Russian sleeper cell on American soil, a CIA analyst uncovers a dangerous secret that will test her loyalty to the agency—and to her family.

What do you do when everything you trust might be a lie?

Vivian Miller is a dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst assigned to uncover the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States. On track for a much-needed promotion, she’s developed a system for identifying Russian agents, seemingly normal people living in plain sight.

After accessing the computer of a potential Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders. A few clicks later, everything that matters to her—her job, her husband, even her four children—are threatened.

Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she’s facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust?

 

 

four-half-stars

About Karen Cleveland

Karen Cleveland spent eight years as a CIA analyst, the last six in counterterrorism. She has master’s degrees from Trinity College Dublin, where she studied as a Fulbright Scholar, and from Harvard University. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two young kids.

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
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.

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
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.