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Early Mini Reviews: SPECTACLE and THE SISTERHOOD

Early Mini Reviews: SPECTACLE and THE SISTERHOODSpectacle by Jodie Lynn Zdrok
Published by Tor Teen on February 12, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

A YA murder mystery in which a young reporter must use her supernatural visions to help track down a killer targeting the young women of Paris.

Paris, 1887.

Sixteen-year-old Nathalie Baudin writes the daily morgue column for Le Petit Journal. Her job is to summarize each day's new arrivals, a task she finds both fascinating and routine. That is, until the day she has a vision of the newest body, a young woman, being murdered--from the perspective of the murderer himself.

When the body of another woman is retrieved from the Seine days later, Paris begins to buzz with rumors that this victim may not be the last. Nathalie's search for answers sends her down a long, twisty road involving her mentally ill aunt, a brilliant but deluded scientist, and eventually into the Parisian Catacombs. As the killer continues to haunt the streets of Paris, it becomes clear that Nathalie's strange new ability may make her the only one who can discover the killer's identity--and she'll have to do it before she becomes a target herself.

Review:

Jodie Lynn Zdrok’s debut novel Spectacle is a book I really wanted to love.  It’s a YA murder mystery set in Paris during the 1880s, and it features a female protagonist, Nathalie, who is a newspaper reporter and who also happens to have supernatural visions that could come in handy when it becomes clear a killer is on the loose in her city, targeting young women.  It sounds great, doesn’t it?

And there are quite a few things I did enjoy about it.  I liked that the novel reads as part thriller, part historical fiction, and that it even has a little supernatural twist.  I thought the author did an especially nice job of capturing 1880s Paris and of filling her murder mystery with lots of creepy twists and turns, many of which kept me guessing until the very end, and I was also very intrigued with the idea of the main character being a teenage girl who writes the daily morgue report for the local newspaper.

My struggles with the book, unfortunately, were many as well.  The pacing felt very slow at times and Nathalie felt rather underdeveloped even though she had several subplots swirling around her. While I felt like some of the subplots helped show how Nathalie ended up working where she’s working, unfortunately, they didn’t offer me anything else to make me feel much of a connection to her.  I also found her incredibly frustrating in that she knew full well there was a murderer on the loose who was targeting young women but yet was constantly out walking about the city by herself and at one point even makes a trip down into the Catacombs.

The ending also felt rather awkward. I think it was meant to be open-ended, but the way it just trailed off, it just felt like pages were missing. Between that, the lack of connection I felt to the main character, the slow pacing, and the fact that I predicted who one of the murder victims would be as soon as the character was introduced, I ended up pretty disappointed.  Hopefully other readers will have a better experience with this since it does have such an interesting and unique premise.  2.5 STARS

 

 

Early Mini Reviews: SPECTACLE and THE SISTERHOODThe Sisterhood by A.J. Grainger
on February 12, 2019
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Seventeen-year-old Lil’s heart was broken when her sister Mella disappeared. There’s been no trace or sighting of her since she vanished, so when Lil sees a girl lying in the road near her house she thinks for a heart-stopping moment that it’s Mella.

The girl is injured and disorientated and Lil has no choice but to take her home, even though she knows something’s not right. The girl claims she’s from a peaceful community called The Sisterhood of the Light, but why then does she have strange marks down her arms, and what—or who—is she running from?

Review:

A.J. Grainger’s The Sisterhood is a dark and twisty tale that centers around two sisters, Lil and Mella, and the fallout that takes place when Mella runs away from home after a fight with Lil.  Lil feels responsible and is heartsick about it, especially after months and months go by without a single sighting of Mella anywhere.  When Lil stumbles across a girl lying unconscious and injured in the road not far from her house, she decides that she needs to do everything she can to help the girl.  When the girl, whose name is Alice, regains consciousness, she confides in Lil that she is from The Sisterhood of the Light, which she claims is a peaceful and nurturing community.  Lil is suspicious, especially considering Alice was clearly running away from this group when she was injured and because she has what appear to be burn marks all over her arm. Lil decides to dig deeper – who is this Sisterhood, where are they located considering she’s never heard of them until finding Alice, could any of this tie in to what happened to Mella?

I found this story to be absolutely riveting.  The mystery of where Mella was had already grabbed my attention, but then from the moment Lil stumbled across Alice unconscious and bleeding in the road, I couldn’t put the book down because I just had to know what happened to her.  Then when Alice wakes up and starts going on and on about what sounded like a cult, I was totally hooked and ended up devouring the book in a single afternoon.

The story is told primarily from Lil’s perspective, alternating occasionally with some wild and sometimes creepy chapters from inside The Sisterhood, which I thought was a very effective way to have the story unfold.  Lil is a very likeable and complex character and the author does a wonderful job of showing all the conflicting emotions going through her head as she is desperately missing her sister, while also trying to put on a brave face for her mom, who is also just falling apart because of Mella’s disappearance.  Lil feels like she failed Mella, and now she’s determined to help Alice as a way to do what she didn’t do for her own sister.  Some of Lil’s choices end up being a little questionable and not well thought out, but those flawed choices made her feel all the more real and relatable.

With its mysteries of what has happened to Mella and Alice, its creepy cult-like group, and its emotional impact as poor Lil puts herself through the wringer worrying about her sister, The Sisterhood is a captivating read from start to finish.  I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.  4 STARS

About A.J. Grainger

A. J. Grainger was born in Reading, where she went to the same school as Jane Austen but not at the same time. She now lives in London with her husband and works as a children’s books editor. She loves writing and editing because it means she gets to talk about books all day. She likes novels with plenty of twists and turns that keep you guessing right up until the end. She is also a total sucker for love stories.

A. J. keeps a blog at www.ajgrainger.com, where she talks about books, writing, editing, making things and procrastinating.

About Jodie Lynn Zdrok

Jodie Lynn Zdrok holds two MAs in European History and an MBA. In addition to being an author, she’s a marketing professional, a freelancer, and an unapologetic Boston sports fan. She enjoys traveling, being a foodie, doing sprint triathlons, and enabling cats. Spectacle is her debut.

Mini Reviews for THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN & MY FAVORITE HALF-NIGHT STAND

Mini Reviews for THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN & MY FAVORITE HALF-NIGHT STANDThe Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson
four-stars
Published by Gallery Books on December 4, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

In this charming romantic comedy perfect for fans of Meg Cabot and Sophie Kinsella, critically acclaimed author Teri Wilson shows us that sometimes being pushed out of your comfort zone leads you to the ultimate prize.

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning.

Review:

After a stressful work week, I was in the mood for a light and fun read to ease me into the weekend. I came across Teri Wilson’s The Accidental Beauty Queen, and as soon as I read the synopsis, I knew this was exactly the kind of story I was searching for. As soon as I started reading about Charlotte, her twin sister Ginny, and their beauty pageant misadventures, I was hooked.  Their story is sweet, heartfelt, and just downright hilarious.

Charlotte was the biggest draw for me. She’s an elementary school librarian, and a huge fan of both Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice. Truly a heroine after my own heart.  I loved that she’s such a huge book nerd and that she’s so completely devoted to her twin.  When an allergic reaction sidelines Ginny with a swollen, blotchy face, Charlotte agrees to switch places and compete in the preliminary rounds of the pageant to keep her sister’s dream of winning this pageant alive.  Charlotte knows that the pageant is important to Ginny, not just for the prestige, but also for sentimental reasons. It’s a pageant that their mom won years ago before she passed away from cancer.  I was touched by Charlotte not wanting to let her sister down, even if it meant doing something that she was completely uncomfortable doing.  Wilson also does a beautiful job of portraying this sisterly dynamic.  I’m a sucker for a good sibling story anyway, and this was realistic and moving, and just everything I wanted it to be.

There were lots of other things to like about this story as well.  I was also a fan of how the actual pageant was portrayed.  Instead of the cattiness I was expecting Charlotte to encounter, it was nice to see that each pageant scene had more of a supportive sisterhood vibe to it.  Another point of interest to me was Grey, one of the pageant judges and someone Charlotte continually bumps into throughout the book.  Grey is super charming and he’s also quite bookish, so I just adored it when he and Charlotte would talk nerdy to each other. Their chemistry was off the charts, and their banter was sprinkled with Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice references.  Pure perfection!

In short, The Accidental Beauty Queen was everything my book-loving heart desired and then some.  4 STARS

 

 

Mini Reviews for THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN & MY FAVORITE HALF-NIGHT STANDMy Favorite Half-Night Stand by Christina Lauren
Also by this author: The Unhoneymooners
four-stars
Published by Gallery Books on December 4, 2018
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Romance
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

By the New York Times bestselling author who “hilariously depicts modern dating” (Us Weekly), My Favorite Half-Night Stand is a laugh-out-loud romp through online dating and its many, many fails.

Millie Morris has always been one of the guys. A UC Santa Barbara professor, she’s a female-serial-killer expert who’s quick with a deflection joke and terrible at getting personal. And she, just like her four best guy friends and fellow professors, is perma-single.

So when a routine university function turns into a black tie gala, Mille and her circle make a pact that they’ll join an online dating service to find plus-ones for the event. There’s only one hitch: after making the pact, Millie and one of the guys, Reid Campbell, secretly spend the sexiest half-night of their lives together, but mutually decide the friendship would be better off strictly platonic.

But online dating isn’t for the faint of heart. While the guys are inundated with quality matches and potential dates, Millie’s first profile attempt garners nothing but dick pics and creepers. Enter “Catherine”—Millie’s fictional profile persona, in whose make-believe shoes she can be more vulnerable than she’s ever been in person. Soon “Catherine” and Reid strike up a digital pen-pal-ship...but Millie can’t resist temptation in real life, either. Soon, Millie will have to face her worst fear—intimacy—or risk losing her best friend, forever.

Perfect for fans of Roxanne and She’s the Man, Christina Lauren’s latest romantic comedy is full of mistaken identities, hijinks, and a classic love story with a modern twist. Funny and fresh, you’ll want to swipe right on My Favorite Half-Night Stand.

Review:

Christina Lauren’s My Favorite Half-Night Stand, which explores the many ups and downs of online dating, is another book I picked up because I wanted a light and fluffy read.  It follows Millie Morris and her all-guy friend group as they try to use online dating apps to find themselves dates to a university function.

My Favorite Half-Night Stand really delivers with the laughs. I honestly lost track of how many times I laughed out loud at Millie and the guys as they bantered back and forth while trying out these apps.  In fact, the dynamics of this group was my favorite part of the whole book.  All I kept thinking while I was reading about them in action using these apps was that this whole premise would make for such a great episode of Friends. Everything about how they interacted with one another actually made me think of Friends, which is a good thing since Friends is one of my favorite shows.

I also really liked Millie.  She’s kind of a mother hen to the guys in her circle of friends, which is funny to watch.  What I liked most about Millie though is how much emotional growth there is with her character throughout the story.  When we first meet her, she’s very closed off about anything personal.  Even her closest friends can’t really pry any personal details out of her.  As the story progresses, however, she starts to have romantic feelings towards her best friend, Reid, and so she does slowly start to open up. She unfortunately makes some questionable choices along the way as she explores her feelings for Reid, but when her choices threaten their friendship, she vows to change her ways.  I liked that Millie was kind of a mess and trying to sort herself out. That made her feel very authentic to me.  I’m also all for a good friends to possible lovers story, so My Favorite Half-Night Stand really hit the spot in that area as well.

This was my first time reading anything by Christina Laurent but it definitely won’t be my last! 4 STARS

four-stars

About Christina Lauren

Christina Lauren is the combined pen name of long-time writing partners and best friends Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. The #1 international bestselling coauthor duo writes both Young Adult and Adult Fiction, and together has produced fourteen New York Times bestselling novels. They are published in over 30 languages, have received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly, won both the Seal of Excellence and Book of the Year from RT Magazine, named Amazon and Audible Romance of the Year, a Lambda Literary Award finalist and been nominated for several Goodreads Choice Awards. They have been featured in publications such as Forbes, The Washington Post, Time, Entertainment Weekly, People, O Magazine and more. Their third YA novel, Autoboyography was released in 2017 to critical acclaim, followed by Roomies, Love and Other Words, Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating, and the Publisher’s Weekly starred My Favorite Half-Night Stand, out in December.

About Teri Wilson

Teri Wilson is the author/creator of the Hallmark Channel Original Movies UNLEASHING MR. DARCY, MARRYING MR. DARCY, THE ART OF US and NORTHERN LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS, based on her book SLEIGH BELL SWEETHEARTS. She is a double finalist for the prestigious RITA Award for excellence in romantic fiction for her novels THE PRINCESS PROBLEM and ROYALLY WED. She has a major weakness for cute animals, pretty dresses and Audrey Hepburn films, and she loves following the British royal family. Feel free to visit and connect with her here at TeriWilson.net, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Backlist Briefs: Mini Reviews for CITY OF BONES & THE CHILD

Backlist Briefs:  Mini Reviews for CITY OF BONES & THE CHILDCity of Bones by Cassandra Clare
four-stars
Series: The Mortal Instruments #1
Published by Margaret K. McElderry Books on March 27, 2007
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 485
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder― much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It's hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing―not even a smear of blood―to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy?

This is Clary's first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It's also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace's world with a vengeance when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know...

Review:

I think I’m probably the last person on the planet to start reading the Mortal Instruments series, but finally decided on jump on the bandwagon as part of this year’s Beat the Backlist challenge.  I was looking for a fun and entertaining vacation read and City of Bones, the first book in this series, really fit the bill.  It’s a bit of a brick at 458 pages, but Cassandra Clare’s writing style is so fast-paced that I breezed right through the book in just a few sittings.

The worldbuilding was probably the biggest attraction for me in City of Bones. It was a fascinating journey to follow the protagonist, Clarissa Fray (Clary), as she learns about the world of Shadowhunters and Downworlders, a fantasy world that has been hidden in plain sight in NYC around her all her life.  The author does a fantastic job of weaving into her tale pretty much any kind of supernatural character you can imagine.  There are vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, demons, and of course the Shadowhunters, who are warriors tasked with ridding the world of demons.

Aside from the fantastic worldbuilding, the characters were also a huge draw.  I was a little slow to warm up to Clary at first (I’m not even sure why honestly), but I immediately became sympathetic to her when her mother goes missing and Clary is attacked by a demon in her own home.  I especially warmed up to Clary as she began to interact with the Shadowhunters, especially Jace, who is handsome but kind of an arrogant jerk at times. (I do have to give Jace bonus points though since he is willing to help Clary find her mom.)  The author writes some hilarious banter between Jace and Clary, as well as between Jace, Alec, and Isabelle, some of Jace’s fellow Shadowhunters.  They were a fun group and I especially liked how they all had each other’s backs even in the most dangerous of situations.  Clary’s friend Simon added some entertaining nerdiness to the dynamic as well.

Even though most people have probably already long since read City of Bones, I still don’t want to give away any spoiler, so I’m just going to say that the mystery of what has happened to Clary’s mother and why Clary suddenly finds herself attacked by demons really takes the reader on a journey filled with wild and crazy plot twists.  There was never a dull moment and I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.  I’ve read complaints that the story borrows from the likes of Harry Potter, Star Wars, and more, and while I did see some resemblance, it didn’t bother me and I still enjoyed the story overall.  The star I took off is primarily because I smelled an unnecessary love triangle brewing.  4 STARS.

 

Backlist Briefs:  Mini Reviews for CITY OF BONES & THE CHILDThe Child by Fiona Barton
Also by this author: The Suspect
three-half-stars
Series: Kate Waters #2
Published by Berkley Books on December 14, 2017
Genres: Mystery, Fiction
Pages: 448
Also in this series: The Suspect
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

‘An engrossing, irresistible story about the coming to light of a long-buried secret.

When a paragraph in an evening newspaper reveals a decades-old tragedy, most readers barely give it a glance. But for three strangers it’s impossible to ignore.

For one woman, it’s a reminder of the worst thing that ever happened to her.

For another, it reveals the dangerous possibility that her darkest secret is about to be discovered.

And for the third, a journalist, it’s the first clue in a hunt to uncover the truth.

The Child’s story will be told.

Review:

Fiona Barton’s The Child is a compelling story about what happens when a long-buried secret unexpectedly rears its head and threatens to shatter lives.  It follows the story of what happens when construction workers who are demolishing a house uncover the skeleton of an infant.  For most, since forensics indicate the skeleton has been there for decades, the tragedy is barely a blip on their radar, but for three women, the discovery practically turns their lives upside down.

Emma is haunted by the discovery of the skeletal remains because she fears her darkest secret is about to be revealed for all the world (and especially for her mother Jude) to see.  Not unlike Emma, Angela sees the infant’s death as a reminder of the worst thing that has ever happened to her but is also somewhat hopeful that the discovery could bring her the closure she has never gotten over the years.  And then finally, there’s Kate, a journalist who makes it her mission in life to find out who this infant is and how she ended up buried in someone’s backyard decades ago.  I thought the author did a wonderful job of fleshing out each of these characters as well as their motivations for paying such close attention to what happens every step along the way as the skeletal remains are investigated in hopes of identifying the infant.

The main issue I had with The Child was the fact that even though I was interested in why each character reacted the way they did to the discovery of the remains, I can’t say that I really connected with any of them.  I felt like a bystander watching everything play out and waiting to see whose life would be the most turned upside down as the events unfolded.  Aside from not really connecting with the characters, I also felt like the plot, although very interesting, moved very slowly at times. It was very easy to set the book down and just come back to it whenever.

Overall, The Child is still a very solid mystery that, even with the pacing issues, I still wanted to know all the answers to.  And if you can hang around until the end, Holy Plot Twist, Batman! I totally did not see the ending coming!  3.5 STARS

four-stars

About Cassandra Clare

Cassandra Clare was born to American parents in Teheran, Iran and spent much of her childhood travelling the world with her family, including one trek through the Himalayas as a toddler where she spent a month living in her father’s backpack. She lived in France, England and Switzerland before she was ten years old.

Since her family moved around so much she found familiarity in books and went everywhere with a book under her arm. She spent her high school years in Los Angeles where she used to write stories to amuse her classmates, including an epic novel called “The Beautiful Cassandra” based on a Jane Austen short story of the same name (and which later inspired her current pen name).

After college, Cassie lived in Los Angeles and New York where she worked at various entertainment magazines and even some rather suspect tabloids where she reported on Brad and Angelina’s world travels and Britney Spears’ wardrobe malfunctions. She started working on her YA novel, City of Bones, in 2004, inspired by the urban landscape of Manhattan, her favourite city. She turned to writing fantasy fiction full time in 2006 and hopes never to have to write about Paris Hilton again.

Cassie’s first professional writing sale was a short story called “The Girl’s Guide to Defeating the Dark Lord” in a Baen anthology of humor fantasy. Cassie hates working at home alone because she always gets distracted by reality TV shows and the antics of her two cats, so she usually sets out to write in local coffee shops and restaurants. She likes to work in the company of her friends, who see that she sticks to her deadlines.

City of Bones was her first novel.

About Fiona Barton

In Barton’s own words…

“My career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.

But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

The worm of my first book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know.

It took the liberation of my career change to turn that fascination into a tale of a missing child, narrated by the wife of the man suspected of the crime, the detective leading the hunt, the journalist covering the case and the mother of the victim.

Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow was published in 36 countries and made the Sunday Times and New York Times Best Seller lists.

It gave me the confidence to write a second book ,The Child, in which I return to another story that had intrigued me as a journalist. It begins with the discovery of a newborn’s skeleton on a building site. It only makes a paragraph in an evening newspaper but for three women it’s impossible to ignore.

The Child will be published in June 2017 and I am embarking on my next novel. My husband and I are still living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Titch, crowing.”

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYES

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYESThe House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker
four-stars
Published by Annick Press on September 11, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 354
Source: the Publisher
Amazon
Goodreads

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

Who can Lena trust to help her find out the truth? Life in East Germany in the early 1980s is not easy for most people, but for Lena, it’s particularly hard. After the death of her parents in a factory explosion and time spent in a psychiatric hospital recovering from the trauma, she is sent to live with her stern aunt, a devoted member of the ruling Communist Party. Visits with her beloved Uncle Erich, a best-selling author, are her only respite. But one night, her uncle disappears without a trace. Gone also are all his belongings, his books, and even his birth records. Lena is desperate to know what happened to him, but it’s as if he never existed. The worst thing, however, is that she cannot discuss her uncle or her attempts to find him with anyone, not even her best friends. There are government spies everywhere. But Lena is unafraid and refuses to give up her search, regardless of the consequences. This searing novel about defiance, courage, and determination takes readers into the chilling world of a society ruled by autocratic despots, where nothing is what it seems.

Review:

Michelle Barker’s gripping new novel The House of One Thousand Eyes is set in the early 1980’s, a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The novel follows Lena, an orphan whose parents were killed in a factory explosion, thus leaving her to be raised by her aunt, who is a devout member of the Communist ruling party.  The bright spot in Lena’s weeks are when she gets to visit her uncle Erich, who is a famous author and who is NOT a devout member of the Communist Party.

In this novel, Barker graphically portrays what it’s like to live under a government that rules with an iron fist.  If the Communist leaders don’t like what they think you’re up to, they have ways of making you disappear so as to quash down any signs of resistance.  Lena learns this lesson the hard way when her Uncle Erich suddenly goes missing and all traces of his existence disappear along with him.  She does everything she can to try to find him or find out what happened to him, but has to do so carefully so as not to put herself on the government’s radar.  Barker increasingly builds up suspense as Lena becomes more and more distraught. Everyone she talks to denies her Uncle’s existence, even her aunt who is Erich’s own sister.  I found the story absolutely riveting as Lena refuses to give up even though there are spies and informers everywhere who would love nothing more than to turn her in and score some points with the Stasi/German secret police.

The House of One Thousand Eyes is a novel about courage, strength, and determination.  The world that Barker paints is often brutal and terrifying and so it becomes very easy to cheer Lena on as she risks everything to resist the East German’s efforts to snuff out both her uncle and free speech.  If you’re interested in seeing what life was like in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, I would highly recommend this book.  4 STARS

 

ARC Mini Reviews for LIES & THE HOUSE OF ONE THOUSAND EYESLies by T.M. Logan
Also by this author: 29 Seconds
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 11, 2018
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 432
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

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

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS:

What if you have the perfect life, the perfect wife and the perfect child—then, in one shattering moment, you discover nothing is as it seems? Now you are in the sights of a ruthless killer determined to destroy everything you treasure.

It’s the evening drive home from work on a route Joe Lynch has taken a hundred times with his young son. But today, Joe sees his wife meet another man—an encounter that will rip two families apart. Raising the question: Can we ever really trust those closest to us?

Joe will do whatever it takes to protect his family, but as the deception unravels, so does his life. A life played out without any rules. And a cunning opponent who’s always one step ahead.

Review:

T.M. Logan’s Lies is an exciting psychological thriller that will take you on the ride of your life.  It follows English teacher Joe Lynch, a loving father and devoted husband who makes what turns out to be a life altering decision – to follow his wife’s car when he happens to see her pulling into a hotel parking garage.  That one decision sets off a chain reaction of events, including a fight with a family friend named Ben who subsequently goes missing, that turns Joe’s entire life upside down and threatens his career, his family, and even his freedom.

Joe was a pretty likeable protagonist.  He’s a bit naïve at times, but I could easily see myself falling for some of the same things he did so, in that sense, I found him easy to relate to.  He’s also a great dad.  Watching him interact with his young son really made me all the more sympathetic to him.  He’s a man who definitely cares about his family above all else.

Lies is an easy read that I binge read in a couple of sittings.  It’s fast-paced and filled with plenty of twists and turns both for Joe and the reader.  The author also effectively builds up suspense with the missing family friend, by way of an active police investigation and also with mysterious messages that Joe starts receiving – messages that threaten to take everything away from him.  Lies also features a messy, and at least for me, totally unexpected, jaw dropping ending.  Kudos to T.M. Logan for keeping me guessing all the way to the end.  4 STARS

four-stars

About Michelle Barker

Michelle Barker was born and raised in Vancouver. She attended Arts One at UBC, studied for a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and graduated with a BA from UBC in English literature. After a short foray into comp lit, she left the Master’s program and worked as a research/editing assistant to Sherrill MacLaren. Sailed across the Pacific from Vancouver to Hawaii, had four children, lived for a summer in Montreal, a year in France, and then the Eastern Townships of Quebec for 10 years. After spending 7 years in the Okanagan, she returned to Vancouver. She received her MFA in creative writing at UBC’s optional-residency program in 2015.

Winner of gold National Magazine award in personal journalism (2002). Finalist for TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award (2016), OLA Forest of Reading Golden Oak Award (2017), Chocolate Lily Book Award (2016). Winner of 2017 Surrey International Writers’ Conference Storyteller Award.

Besides a chapbook of poetry called Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii, a YA fantasy novel, The Beggar King (2013), and a picture book called The Year of Borrowed Men (2016), she has also published poetry, short fiction, and a variety of non-fiction. Her poetry has appeared in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology (2011).

Barker’s newest novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes, will be out in Fall, 2018, with Annick Press.

About T.M. Logan

Tim was born in Berkshire and studied at Queen Mary and Cardiff universities before becoming a national newspaper journalist. He currently writes full-time and lives in Nottinghamshire with his wife and two children. LIES is his first novel – published by Bonnier Zaffre in January 2017. His next thriller, 29 SECONDS, comes out in January 2018 and is currently available to pre-order. For exclusive writing and new releases from TM Logan, sign up to the Readers’ Club: www.bit.ly/TMLogan.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SAVE THE DATE & NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SAVE THE DATE & NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FORSave the Date by Morgan Matson
four-half-stars
Published by Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers on June 5, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 417
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Charlie Grant’s older sister is getting married this weekend at their family home, and Charlie can’t wait—for the first time in years, all four of her older siblings will be under one roof. Charlie is desperate for one last perfect weekend, before the house is sold and everything changes. The house will be filled with jokes and games and laughs again. Making decisions about things like what college to attend and reuniting with longstanding crush Jesse Foster—all that can wait. She wants to focus on making the weekend perfect.

The only problem? The weekend is shaping up to be an absolute disaster.

There’s the unexpected dog with a penchant for howling, house alarm that won’t stop going off, and a papergirl with a grudge.

There are the relatives who aren’t speaking, the (awful) girl her favorite brother brought home unannounced, and a missing tuxedo.

Not to mention the neighbor who seems to be bent on sabotage and a storm that is bent on drenching everything. The justice of the peace is missing. The band will only play covers. The guests are all crazy. And the wedding planner’s nephew is unexpectedly, distractingly…cute.

Over the course of three ridiculously chaotic days, Charlie will learn more than she ever expected about the family she thought she knew by heart. And she’ll realize that sometimes, trying to keep everything like it was in the past means missing out on the future.

Review:

Prior to reading Save the Date, I had never read a novel from Morgan Matson before.  I had always heard great things about her books though so when I was recently looking for a fun summer read and saw this book’s hilarious cover, I knew this was the book I had been looking for.  Everything about that cover just screams fun!  And let me tell you, this book seriously delivered too.  I devoured it in just over a day and was thoroughly entertained from start to finish.

Save the Date follows the Grant family and is set over the course of the three days leading up to daughter Linnie’s wedding.  And wow, what a three days it is!  Seriously, everything that can possibly go wrong with the wedding preparations goes wrong and then some.  The wedding hijinks had me literally laughing out loud and oh so grateful that my own wedding went so much more smoothly than poor Linnie’s.  In addition to the wedding chaos and its ensuing hilarity, however, Save the Date has a heartwarming focus on family that I adored even more than the humor.  The Grant family is what I would call perfectly imperfect and Matson does a beautiful job making each family member so loveable, flaws and all.  I was able to relate to each of them easily, especially Charlie, the youngest Grant.  It is from Charlie’s perspective that we watch the story unfold and it’s such an interesting perspective because she has always seen her family as picture perfect and practically worshipped the ground they all walked on.  Now that she’s older and watching her family reunite for Linnie’s wedding, she has to come to the somewhat painful realization that no one is perfect, not even the family that she idolizes.  It really makes her rethink her own identity and choices in life, and I loved that the novel had that coming of age theme included to really add some depth to the overall narrative.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced read that will make you laugh out loud but also shed a tear or two at a flawed but loving family coming together as a team when it counts, I’d highly recommend Morgan Matson’s Save the Date.  As I said, this is my first Morgan Matson read, but I can guarantee it won’t be my last!  4.5 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SAVE THE DATE & NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FORNot the Girls You're Looking For by Aminah Mae Safi
three-half-stars
Published by Feiwel & Friends on June 19, 2018
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Lulu Saad doesn't need your advice, thank you very much. She's got her three best friends and nothing can stop her from conquering the known world. Sure, for half a minute she thought she’d nearly drowned a cute guy at a party, but he was totally faking it. And fine, yes, she caused a scene during Ramadan. It's all under control. Ish.

Except maybe this time she’s done a little more damage than she realizes. And if Lulu can't find her way out of this mess soon, she'll have to do more than repair friendships, family alliances, and wet clothing. She'll have to go looking for herself.

Review:

I’m a complete sucker for books that center around female friendships, so as soon as I heard that Aminah Mae Safi’s Not the Girls You’re Looking For features Lulu Saad and her best girl friends, I knew I had to read it.  While I did love getting to know Lulu and her friends and watching them go through their ups and downs, I have to say that overall, this was just a good read for me, not a great one.

I thought the author did a brilliant job of accurately portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to friendship dynamics.  I also liked that even though these girls clearly loved each other and would have each other’s backs no matter what, it’s definitely not all sunshine and roses for them.  Some of their fights really took me back to my own high school days and made me think back to my core group of friends back then and all of the ups and downs that we managed to make it through.  Safi perfectly captures all of those messy high school relationships that we’ve all experienced and it made the book so relatable (almost too relatable at times, lol).

Along similar lines, I was also a huge fan of the portrayal of Lulu’s family, both immediate and extended.  Lulu’s family on her father’s side is Muslim and I loved seeing that side of the family interact, both with each other and with Lulu’s mother, who is not Muslim.  The awkwardness is palpable as Lulu is caught in between and then gets herself into hot water when she disrespects one of her relatives.  I have a thing for messy family dynamics so Lulu’s family was a highlight for me.

So, what didn’t I like?  There were a few times in this book where it just felt like I was following Lulu around waiting and hoping for something exciting to happen.  Thankfully, exciting things eventually did start to happen, but for a few chapters there, my attention was starting to wander.  I was also a little disappointed because I found what I think was supposed to be a huge plot twist regarding Emma way too predictable.  I still loved the plot twist and her friends’ reactions to it; I just wish I hadn’t guessed it so early on.  All of that said, however, I still think this is a wonderful read, especially if you’re into realistic and sometimes messy portrayals of families and female friendships.  3.5 STARS

four-half-stars

About Aminah Mae Safi

Aminah Mae Safi is a Muslim-American writer who explores art, fiction, feminism, and film. She loves Sofia Coppola movies, Bollywood endings, and the Fast and Furious franchise. She’s the winner of the We Need Diverse Books short story contest. Originally raised in Texas, she now lives in Los Angeles, California, with her partner, a cat bent on world domination, and another cat who’s just here for the snacks. NOT THE GIRLS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR is her first novel.

About Morgan Matson

Morgan Matson was born in New York City and grew up there and in Greenwich, Connecticut. She attended Occidental College as a theater major, but halfway through, switched her focus to writing and never looked back. She received an MFA in Writing for Children from the New School, and then a second MFA in Screenwriting from USC.

She is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, all published by Simon & Schuster.

She currently lives in Los Angeles with her rescue terrier, Murphy, in a house with blue floors that’s overflowing with books.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKS

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, Henning Koch
four-stars
Published by Atria Books on July 15, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 337
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He's a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn't walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove's mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents' association to their very foundations.

Review:

Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove follows the story of, you guessed it, a man by the name of Ove.  Ove is the quintessential grumpy old man in pretty much every way.  I actually couldn’t stand him for the first few chapters of the book.  He’s set in his ways, incredibly opinionated, and can be downright mean and rude at times.  What we also learn about him early on, however, is there’s a lot more going on with Ove than just your average grumpiness.  Ove is suffering from depression and having thoughts of suicide because his beloved wife has passed away and he’s just completely lost without her.  I felt much more sympathetic to Ove after learning this news and found myself wanting to know more about him.

My favorite part of the story therefore is how the author presents us with such a complete portrait of Ove. In addition to chapters that take us through Ove’s present circumstances, the author also includes chapters that feature life-shaping events from Ove’s past.  The more I learned about Ove, both past and present, the more lovable I found him.  I especially enjoyed the chapters that focused on how Ove met his wife.  This grumpy old man was actually downright adorable as he awkwardly pursued the girl of his dreams.

The secondary characters also added a lot of depth to the story.  The author does a wonderful job fleshing them out and making them feel like people you might actually run into in your own neighborhood. I was an especially big fan of Ove’s new neighbors.  They’re loud, kind of obnoxious, and basically introduce themselves to Ove by nearly mowing his house over with their moving trailer.  This family, especially the wife and her two daughters, are determined to make Ove an extended part of their family, whether he likes it or not, and they are always inserting themselves into his days, shaking up his entire routine.  They bring a lot of comedy and a lot of heart to the story, and they also bring their own brand of chaos to Ove’s way too orderly existence and I loved every minute of it!

If you want an utterly charming read that focuses on family, unexpected friendships, and the evolution of a grumpy old man into a not-quite-so-grumpy old man, then definitely give A Man Called Ove a try.  The humor and sarcasm is sure to make you laugh, and the overriding heartfelt message of compassion will bring a tear to your eyes.  4 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for A MAN CALLED OVE & A BOY MADE OF BLOCKSA Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart
four-stars
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 6, 2016
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 400
Source: Netgalley
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Meet thirtysomething dad, Alex

He loves his wife Jody, but has forgotten how to show it. He loves his son Sam, but doesn't understand him. Something has to change. And he needs to start with himself.

Meet eight-year-old Sam. Beautiful, surprising, autistic. To him the world is a puzzle he can't solve on his own.

When Sam starts to play Minecraft, it opens up a place where Alex and Sam begin to rediscover both themselves and each other . . . When life starts to tear one family apart, can they put themselves back together, one piece at a time?

A Boy Made of Blocks is a beautiful, funny and heartwarming story of family and love inspired by the author's own experiences with his son.

Review:

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I first started reading A Boy Made of Blocks, but what I got was a beautiful, heartfelt story of Alex Rowe, a man who has somehow taken a wrong turn in life and lost his connection to both his wife and their 8-year old autistic son, Sam.  The novel follows Alex’s journey as he is determined to figure out where he went wrong and how he can turn things around so that he can get his family and his life back.

I have to admit that it did take me a while to warm up to Alex.  I couldn’t understand how he couldn’t see what he was doing wrong, that he was either treating everything to do with Sam as a chore or even worse, was ignoring it all together, saying that he was busy at work, and leaving the brunt of raising Sam on his wife.  I kind of wanted to throttle him and tell him to grow up and stop being so selfish.  The more I got to know Alex, however, the more I realized how much he truly did love his son and that he just needed to find a way to connect with him on a real level so that everything else would sort its way out.  And even though I was initially annoyed at Alex for having gotten himself into such a self-inflicted mess with his family in the first place, I grew to admire his effort and determination to right his wrong.  No matter how many missteps and wrong moves he makes, he never gives up on trying to reconnect with Sam.

I thought the author did an especially beautiful job of portraying the vulnerability of a child who has autism, the strain that trying to raise such a child can put on a marriage, and the overall determination of parents to do whatever it takes to make sure their child feels safe and secure and has every opportunity to live a happy and successful life.  Sam was also absolutely precious and I was moved to tears watching his own emotional growth as he and his Dad begin to reconnect in a meaningful way.

A Boy Made of Blocks was an emotional and moving read for me.  I think my favorite quote from the book best sums it up:  “Life is an adventure, not a walk.  That’s why it’s difficult.”  Alex and Sam’s adventure is one you won’t want to miss.  4 STARS

FTC Disclosure: I received A Boy Made of Blocks 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.

four-stars

About Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove (soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, Beartown, Us Against You, as well as two novellas, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer and The Deal of a Lifetime. His books are published in more than forty countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children.

About Keith Stuart

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire, Red and Esquire, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for FAR FROM THE TREE and HUNTING PRINCE DRACULA

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for FAR FROM THE TREE and HUNTING PRINCE DRACULAFar from the Tree by Robin Benway
five-stars
Published by HarperTeen on October 3, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 374
Also in this series: Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1)
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

A contemporary novel about three adopted siblings who find each other at just the right moment.

Being the middle child has its ups and downs.

But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including—

Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties. Having grown up the snarky brunette in a house full of chipper redheads, she’s quick to search for traces of herself among these not-quite-strangers. And when her adopted family’s long-buried problems begin to explode to the surface, Maya can’t help but wonder where exactly it is that she belongs.

And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother. After seventeen years in the foster care system, he’s learned that there are no heroes, and secrets and fears are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him.

Review:

Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree is an incredibly moving and engaging read that grabbed hold of all of my emotions and didn’t let go until long after I reached the final page.  It made me laugh, it made me cry, and sometimes it just really made me sad and frustrated.  Why? Because Far From the Tree isn’t just a book about family.  It also touches on some important social issues that really resonate, such as teen pregnancy and the stigma that seems to follow the teen mom but not the teen dad; the many fears that plague both kids who have been adopted as well as those who are stuck in the foster care system; the impact addiction can have on a family; and so many more.

Far From the Tree follows three teenagers, Grace, Mia, and Joaquin, who are related by blood, but who have never met because their mother gave each of them up soon after they were born.  Grace and Mia were both adopted as babies, but Joaquin was never adopted and has spent his entire life drifting in and out of foster homes.  Grace has lived most of her life knowing that she was adopted, but until a heart-to-heart conversation with her parents, she had no idea that she also had two siblings out there in the world.  She sets out to find them and it’s just such an incredible moment to watch the three of them connect and gradually start to bond with each other, gradually sharing more and more about themselves, including most importantly, fears, whether rational or irrational, that have plagued them for most of their lives.

It’s incredibly easy to fall in love with all three siblings because Benway does such a wonderful job making each interaction feel authentic as she poignantly captures the awkwardness and all of the emotions that Grace, Mia, and Joaquin experience as they realize they’re not as alone as they each thought they were.  If you’re looking for a beautifully written contemporary novel that explores what it truly means to be a family, look no further than Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree.  5 STARS

 

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for FAR FROM THE TREE and HUNTING PRINCE DRACULAHunting Prince Dracula by Kerri Maniscalco
Also by this author: Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1)
four-stars
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #2
on September 19, 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 434
Also in this series: Stalking Jack the Ripper (Stalking Jack the Ripper, #1)
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Following the grief and horror of her discovery of Jack the Ripper's true identity, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has no choice but to flee London and its memories. Together with the arrogant yet charming Thomas Cresswell, she journeys to the dark heart of Romania, home to one of Europe's best schools of forensic medicine...and to another notorious killer, Vlad the Impaler, whose thirst for blood became legend.

But her life's dream is soon tainted by blood-soaked discoveries in the halls of the school's forbidding castle, and Audrey Rose is compelled to investigate the strangely familiar murders. What she finds brings all her terrifying fears to life once again.

Review:

Hunting Prince Dracula is the second installment in Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper series.  I loved the first book in this series so much and I’m happy to report that the second book is just as good, if not better, than the first!

Audrey Rose and Thomas Cresswell were just as fabulous this time around, as they traveled together to Romania to study forensic medicine.  Their witty and flirtatious banter fills the pages and serves as a fantastic counterpoint to the dark atmosphere and the danger that they of course find themselves enmeshed in once they enter the school, which turns out to be a super creepy castle.  I don’t want to give away any details about the mystery itself but there’s blood, bodies, bats, stakes through the heart, and oh so much more, including the threat that perhaps the infamous Vlad the Impaler has returned from beyond the grave.

 While the overall formula for Hunting Prince Dracula is quite similar to that of the first book – there’s a mystery to be solved and Thomas and Audrey Rose get on each other’s nerves as they set out to solve it – what took the second book to a different level for me was the emotional turmoil that Audrey Rose experiences as a result of some of the things she learned about her family at the end of the first book.  It’s a thread that follows her throughout Hunting Prince Dracula and it adds some welcome depth to her character, although I of course already loved Audrey Rose because she’s so ahead of her time and is such a feminist.  I love watching her verbally filet anyone who tries to tell her she shouldn’t be at the school studying forensics.  She just has such a feisty, take no prisoners attitude and I love it (as does Thomas)!  I can’t wait to get my hands on the third book in the series to see what’s in store for Thomas and Audrey Rose next!  4 STARS

five-stars

About Kerri Maniscalco

Kerri Maniscalco grew up in a semi-haunted house outside NYC where her fascination with gothic settings began. In her spare time she reads everything she can get her hands on, cooks all kinds of food with her family and friends, and drinks entirely too much tea while discussing life’s finer points with her cats.

Her first novel in this series, Stalking Jack the Ripper, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It incorporates her love of forensic science and unsolved history.

About Robin Benway

Robin Benway is a National Book Award winner and New York Times bestselling author of six novels for young adults, including Audrey, Wait!, the AKA series, and Emmy & Oliver. Her books have received numerous awards and recognition, including a 2008 Blue Ribbon Award from the Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books, 2009’s ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and 2014’s ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults. In addition, her novels have received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly, and have been published in more than twenty countries. Her most recent title, Emmy & Oliver, was published in 2015 by Harper Teen, and was named one of the best books of summer by the Los Angeles Times, the Houston Chronicle, and Publishers Weekly. Her latest book, Far From the Tree, won the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and was published on October 3, 2017 by Harper Teen.

Robin grew up in Orange County, California, attended NYU, where she was the 1997 recipient of the Seth Barkas Prize for Creative Writing, and is a graduate of UCLA. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she spends her time hanging out with her dog, Hudson, making coffee, and procrastinating on writing.

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SHADOW & BONE and LITTLE & LION

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SHADOW & BONE and LITTLE & LIONShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Also by this author: Six of Crows (Six of Crows, #1)
four-half-stars
Series: Grisha Verse, #1
Published by Henry Holt and Company on June 5th 2012
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 358
Also in this series: Siege and Storm
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.

Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.

Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.

Shadow and Bone is the first installment in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy.

Review:

I originally skipped over Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse Trilogy in favor of reading the much-hyped Six of Crows duology, which is set in the same Russian-inspired fantasy world.  I adored the Six of Crows books so much that I just had to go back and read the Grishaverse Trilogy because I loved this world and wasn’t ready to leave it behind.  I’m so glad I did too because Shadow and Bone, the first book in the trilogy, was a truly wonderful read.

I loved the complex cast of characters Bardugo has created.  First, there’s Alina and Mal, orphans who were raised together and who may or may not have romantic feelings for one another.  Having tested negative for Grisha powers when they were children, Alina and Mal are clearly underdogs in the war ravaged nation of Ravka and I became invested in their journey immediately, especially once their journey takes them across the dangerous Shadow Fold.  A life-threatening incident on the fold changes their lives, however, because it reveals that Alina actually does possess dormant Grisha abilities.  Not only are her abilities powerful, but they could actually be the key to setting Ravka free.

I already knew a bit about the Grishaverse from Six of Crows, but I loved seeing the magical system in more detail and the lavish worldbuilding as Alina and Mal are brought to the Little Palace so that Alina can learn to master her powers under the teachings of my absolute favorite character, the Darkling.  As much as I liked Alina and Mal, the Darkling was really the highlight of the first book for me.  I’m a sucker for a complex, morally gray character and that most definitely describes the Darkling.  On the one hand, he’s quite charming, but on the other, he’s manipulative, deceitful, and basically just flat out horrible.  There are moments when he seems to really care about Alina, but most often, he only seems to be concerned with how he can harness her power for his own needs.  Watching the Darkling go head to head with Alina were some of my favorite moments of the novel.

Shadow and Bone was a quick and highly entertaining read for me because once I got started, and especially once I met the Darkling, I was hooked on trying to figure out what he was really up to and how Alina and her powers fit into his plans.  I’m also glad I waited to read this until all three books had been released because a major plot twist at the end of this first book had me reaching straight for the second book.  Love this series!  4.5 STARS

 

Backlist Briefs – Mini Reviews for SHADOW & BONE and LITTLE & LIONLittle & Lion by Brandy Colbert
four-stars
on August 8th 2017
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 327
Source: Library
Amazon
Goodreads

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

When Suzette comes home to Los Angeles from her boarding school in New England, she isn't sure if she'll ever want to go back. L.A. is where her friends and family are (along with her crush, Emil). And her stepbrother, Lionel, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, needs her emotional support.

But as she settles into her old life, Suzette finds herself falling for someone new...the same girl her brother is in love with. When Lionel's disorder spirals out of control, Suzette is forced to confront her past mistakes and find a way to help her brother before he hurts himself--or worse.

Review:

Little & Lion is one of those books that going into it, you think you’re getting one thing, but what you end up getting is so much more.  Not only did I get the beautiful and moving sibling story that I was hoping for, but I also got a wonderfully diverse story that explored many important and relevant topics, such as sexuality, mental illness, racism, and much more.  In that way, Little & Lion packs a big punch.

I loved how Colbert portrayed the sibling dynamic between Suzette (nicknamed Little by Lionel) and her step brother Lionel (nicknamed Lion by Suzette). They are incredibly close, so close in fact, that Suzette was sent away to boarding school when Lionel was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder because her parents knew Suzette would never be able to focus on her school work and her own life because she would be so distraught watching Lionel suffer.  When she comes home for summer break, Suzette can immediately sense a strain in her relationship with Lionel and wonders how he is really doing.  I loved that Suzette was that tuned in to what her brother was going through.  On the flip side of that, I loved that Lionel, even though he is trying to deal with his illness, still tries to do whatever he can to make things as normal as possible between him and Suzette. Little moments like the two of them hanging out in their old treehouse were just so sweet.  They may be step siblings and only related through marriage, but Little and Lion are truly family through and through.

In addition to this wonderful sibling relationship, Little & Lion is also an incredibly diverse book.  Suzette is black, Jewish, and she is also bisexual.  As I’ve already mentioned, Lionel has bipolar disorder.  Suzette’s childhood friend and potential love interest, Emil, is black/Korean and he is also hearing impaired due to Meniere’s Disease, while another potential love interest for Suzette, Rafaela, identifies as pansexual, and Suzette’s best friend is a lesbian.  I was thrilled to see so much diversity, and I especially liked the way Colbert didn’t make it feel like she was just checking off boxes. All of these characters were complex and authentic.  They didn’t feel like stock characters or stereotypes.

My only complaint is that I would have liked a bit more about Lionel.  Since the story is told from Suzette’s perspective, we only see him through her eyes.  As much as I loved the story as it was written, I think it would have been a 5 star read for me if there were chapters from Lionel’s perspective.  Still a beautiful and relevant read though. 4 STARS

four-half-stars

About Brandy Colbert

Brandy Colbert is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of Pointe, Little & Lion, and the forthcoming Finding Yvonne and The Revolution of Birdie Randolph. Her short fiction and essays have been published in several anthologies for young people. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

About Leigh Bardugo

Leigh Bardugo is the #1 New York Times bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the Six of Crows Duology and the Grisha Trilogy (Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising), as well as the upcoming Wonder Woman: Warbringer (Aug 2017) and The Language of Thorns (Sept 2017).

She was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, and graduated from Yale University. These days, she lives and writes in Hollywood where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.

She would be delighted if you followed her on Twitter, elated if you visited her web site, and fairly giddy if you liked her selfies on Instagram.

Book Review: Caraval

Book Review:  CaravalCaraval by Stephanie Garber
Also by this author: Legendary
three-half-stars
Series: Caraval #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 31st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 407
Also in this series: Legendary
Source: Purchased
Amazon
Goodreads

MY REVIEW

It’s always so disappointing when one of your most anticipated reads doesn’t quite live up to the hype.  Unfortunately, this was the case for me with Stephanie Garber’s CaravalCaraval is a book that was instantly on my radar as soon as I started seeing people comparing it to Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my all-time favorite books.  Based on that comparison and so many glowing reviews from my fellow bloggers, I fully expected Caraval to be a 5 star read for me and ended up so disappointed that it didn’t come close to that.  That’s not to say I didn’t like the novel, because I really did. I just didn’t love it like I had expected and hoped to.

Caraval tells the story of two sisters, Scarlett and Tella, who live on a tiny island with their overbearing father. Ever since their mother passed away, their father has become cruel and abusive to his children and practically holds them both prisoner, never allowing them to leave the island.  Since she was a child, Scarlett has dreamed of attending Caraval, a once-a-year magical mystery and scavenger hunt of sorts, the winner of which is granted one wish. When her father arranges for her to be married to a man she has never met, Scarlett assumes that her dream of attending Caraval is dead once and for all, until her long-awaited invitation arrives.  Thanks to an elaborate scheme concocted by her sister Tella, and with the help of a sexy sailor named Julian, Scarlett and Tella run away for a few days so that Scarlett can finally experience the magic of Caraval before settling into this married life her father has chosen for her. The catch?  Her father has scheduled the wedding date so close to when Caraval takes places that it’s going to be a race against the clock to sail to Caraval, participate in the events, and then sail back home.  Can they make it back in time? And is experiencing Caraval really worth possibly exciting the wrath of their abusive father?

 

LIKES

I’d have to say my favorite part about this novel was the world building itself once the girls actually make it to Caraval.  I loved the idea of the exotic faraway setting and the hints of magic that were everywhere. Garber does a beautiful job of setting the stage for this great adventure and infusing everything with a touch of whimsy. One of my favorite parts was when Scarlett and Julian first enter Caraval and are greeted by a young woman riding a unicycle, immediately invoking a carnival-esque atmosphere.  Another whimsical touch I enjoyed was the outfit Scarlett was given to wear soon after her arrival.  At first glance, it looked like little more than a potato sack, but then it magically transformed into whatever attire the powers that be at Caraval decided Scarlett needed at any given moment, whether it was a gorgeous and daring evening gown or a sexy negligee.  How handy would an outfit like that be?!

I thought the whole concept for the event itself was brilliant too. I mean, seriously?  A magical game of illusion and trickery that will seem so real that you actually have to sign a contract acknowledging that you fully understand it’s all just a game before they will even let you play? How fascinating is that?  I also loved that the game was only played at night.  The participants played only once the sun went down and had to be back in their rooms before the sun came back up the next morning.  This added an extra layer of mystique to the already magical atmosphere.

I also liked the relationship between the two sisters, Scarlett and Tella.  Since their mother died, Scarlett has taken on the role of protector when it comes to her younger sister, Tella, and sometimes she has her hands full because Tella is much more free-spirited and rebellious than she is.  It is Tella’s love of taking risks that makes Scarlett’s dream of attending Caraval possible, and once they get there and Tella is “kidnapped” as part of the game, Scarlett is desperate to find her sister to make sure she’s safe.  That sisterly bond is beautiful – it’s clear either would do absolutely anything for the other.

 

DISLIKES/ISSUES

Okay, so I loved the world of Caraval, I liked the overall premise of the game, and I enjoyed the sisterly bond between Scarlett and Tella.  So where did Caraval not measure up for me?

Characters that weren’t well developed or likeable.  While I felt tremendous sympathy for these two girls because their father was such a cruel beast, I just didn’t particularly like them all that much.  They kind of fell flat.  Even though I loved the bond between Scarlett and Tella, I got so tired of listening to Scarlett constantly whine about needing to find her.  I mean, seriously, she was told by two employees as soon as she entered Caraval AND had to sign a contract stating she was fully aware this was all a game, and she still kept whining about needing to get to her sister like she was truly in mortal danger.  I just found that incredibly frustrating.

I did like Tella more than Scarlett because I did enjoy her sense of rebelliousness, but she disappears for 90% of the book, so yeah, it didn’t really matter if I liked her or not.

I couldn’t stand their father of course because he was a monster, but at the same time, I didn’t understand why he became such a monster.  It’s stated in the novel that before his wife died, he was a much kinder man.  So the love of his life dies and he chooses to grieve for her by abusing their children?  I just didn’t get this at all.

Too many twists and turns.  I never thought I would see myself complain about twists and turns, but in the case of this book, I just thought there were too many. Once Scarlett started playing the game, at first the twists and turns were fun to follow along with, but after a while it felt like every page was filled with lie after lie and plot twist after plot twist.  It just got so convoluted that I often found myself going in circles, and since I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters anyway, after a certain point, I just really wanted it to be over.

Distracting romance.  Julian, the handsome sailor Tella enlists to help them get to Caraval, decides to participate in the game with Scarlett after Tella disappears.  Even though Scarlett at one moment is frantic with worry about her sister, the next moment she’s practically falling all over herself as her attraction to Julian grows.  I wasn’t a big fan of the romance because it seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since in the opening pages, Julian and Tella were mad flirting with one another.  The romance did grow on me a bit the further into the book I got, but for a large portion of it, it just felt cringe-worthy and too ‘love at first sight’ for my taste.

Flowery prose.  I like vivid descriptions as much as the next person, but some of the descriptions in Caraval were just too much for me.  The book is just packed with sentences like this one:  “She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.” I’m sure there are plenty of readers that would love a book written with these types of descriptions, but I like prose that is more simple and straightforward.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

In some ways I think I probably set myself up for disappointment because I had overhyped Caraval so much in my own mind.  Those comparisons to The Night Circus set the bar really high for me.   Even though it didn’t quite achieve the magic and mystery of The Night Circus, I still enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end and will probably continue with the second book when it comes out.  I think for the right audience though, maybe someone who hasn’t read The Night Circus, Caraval would make for a wonderful and imaginative read.

 

RATING:  3.5 STARS

 

GOODREADS SYNOPSIS

Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.

But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.

three-half-stars

About Stephanie Garber

Stephanie Garber grew up in northern California, where she was often compared to Anne Shirley, Jo March, and other fictional characters with wild imaginations and stubborn streaks. When she’s not writing, Stephanie teaches creative writing, and dreams of her next adventure.