& Review: The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue. Publisher: Picador October 2014

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue. Publisher: Picador October 2014

The Book Itself: Definitely looks like a mystery/thriller: stark black backdrop moonlight reflecting off the water, and ghostly letters for the title. No drawings of monsters, but their absence is just as creepy.

My Review: Ever since he nearly drowned in the ocean three years earlier, ten-year-old Jack Peter Keenan has been deathly afraid to venture outdoors. Refusing to leave his home in a small coastal town in Maine, Jack Peter spends his time drawing monsters. When those drawings take on a life of their own, no one is safe from the terror they inspire. His mother, Holly, begins to hear strange sounds in the night coming from the ocean, and she seeks answers from the local Catholic priest and his Japanese housekeeper, who fill her head with stories of shipwrecks and ghosts. His father, Tim, wanders the beach, frantically searching for a strange apparition running wild in the dunes. And the boy’s only friend, Nick, becomes helplessly entangled in the eerie power of the drawings. While those around Jack Peter are haunted by what they think they see, only he knows the truth behind the frightful occurrences as the outside world encroaches upon them all.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters seems to be about a young, rather disturbed boy who draws monsters and the slow, psychological horror his family and best friend sink into when they too start seeing those monsters. What it’s really about is people’s stubborn refusal to accept what is right in front of their face.

J.P. (Jack Peter) is a young boy who, after a near-drowning accident years ago, has withdrawn completely. The simple act of walking from the front door to the car terrifies him. He draws obsessively and seems to barely tolerate the presence of both his parents and his friend, Nick. Gradually both his parents and Nick witness monsters similar to J.P.’s scribbles. His father frequently encounters what seems like an emaciated man running on all fours in the snow and fog. His mother hears voices and becomes convinced they have something to do with an old shipwreck that happened near the beach just outside their house.

What frustrated me most about this book was that everyone played ignorant, or truly was ignorant to J.P.’s correlation to the supernatural threats. It seemed strange that while his father claimed to see a monster, and his mother claimed to hear them, that neither one of them believed each other. Even after seeing J.P.’s drawings, even after asking him about them, no character dawns on the completely obvious fact that J.P. draws these things and then they become real. Not even after J.P. draws monsters, and Nick is woken and horrified by those very same monsters do people put two and two together. It made sense to a point – the book was trying to say something about people’s refusal to accept something that at first seems illogical. But after a while it was just plain obnoxious.

The book also seemed to chase its own tail. Monster encounter after monster encounter occurred with no real headway as to why it was happening. No character dug too deeply trying to figure out what was going on. By the close of the book, when someone actually confronts J.P. about it, you just want to scream, “FINALLY! WHY WEREN’T YOU ALL DOING THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?!”

I will say that the ending, and by ending, I mean literally the last two pages are bone-chilling. I wouldn’t dare spoil it, but it’s a terrific twist, and one I did not see coming. It was the thrill down my spine I had been expecting all book long, and never really got. But the entire rest of the book didn’t work hard enough. There weren’t enough clues or character motivation to properly ramp up suspense. I was just annoyed with everyone and expecting the book to end disappointingly when I was caught by surprise. The ending gets four stars. The rest of the book gets two.

There are some mild thrills for those who like atmospheric novels with occasionally chilling scenes. But I kept wanting the characters to do more, and I desperately wanted the whole book to be more like that ending.

My Grade: C-

& Review: A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Publisher: Razorbill August 2016

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Publisher: Razorbill August 2016

The Book Itself: Simple, with the title dominating the cover. Two people (Elias and Laia, presumably) fleeing through a tunnel. Not a standout cover, but no slouch either.

My Review: Elias and Laia are running for their lives. After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.

But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own—one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.

Note: If you haven’t yet read An Ember in the Ashes, the first book in this series, I reveal a few plot points from that first installment that you might not want spoiled in this review. Proceed at your own risk 🙂

I really like and admire Tahir for writing a sequel that is very different in plot and motivation than the first book. Some series tend to use a plot event or device again and again in later books. In The Hunger Games, the games themselves happened again in Catching Fire, and in a way, yet again in Mockingjay. Plotting and heists feature prominently in both (terrific) installments of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology. In A Torch Against the Night, the stakes are higher and the adventure more encompassing of the book’s world: characters physically travel and accomplish more.

Case and point: the story is now told from three perspectives, from three difference characters sometimes going in three different directions. The book is divided into short chapters from Laia’s point of view, Elias’, and Helene’s. This might have to do with the incredible amount of love that Helene’s character drew from readers after the first book. But it does become a lot of voices and storylines in one book. I remember struggling with the two point of views in the first book: I found Elias’ storyline to much more compelling that Laia’s.

Luckily, all three storylines have high stakes and are written very well in this book. It still feels like a lot is happening, and Tahir is very good (or very bad) at leaving each short chapter on a cliffhanger so that you have to read through the other two characters’ chapters before you find a resolution to the one you’re freaking out about. The chapters were often very short – sometimes only a couple of pages long. This could get frustrating, as you got in deep to one storyline only to be yanked away too soon. But it also kept the pace and tension racing high. I could say that I would have preferred just two points of view, but I’m not sure which point of view I would have cut.

Helene’s POV storyline is heartbreaking, as she is sent after Elias, a man she loves, upon threat of violence against her family and appeasing the Emperor she now works for. The book title is actually in reference to her this time around, and at times her story is emotionally hard to read.

Elias took a turn for me in this book. In the first book, he had been turned into a killing machine for the Empire. He was haunted, complex. Here, he seems almost too good. He is almost too generous and misunderstood and wounded. Tahir tugs at the heartstrings, introducing us to his adopted family, showing how good he is with kids, and how he clearly loves Laia to a fault. On the one hand, who doesn’t want their hero/love interest to have a tough exterior but a heart of gold, but it felt a little too good to be true.

Laia is a very interesting character to me. She’s not your typical badass female heroine. She’s not brave and physically strong or crafty like a lot of authors are trying to make their female protagonists. She’s deeply flawed, and she makes a lot of mistakes. Sometimes this is to the point of annoyance, and she messes up a lot of stuff for a lot of characters. But I identify with her. I feel like she would be me, were I in these situations. I would break down emotionally, lash out, and make rash decisions in the face of such stress. I think she reacts more realistically than most fantasy characters do.

In addition to the added POV, there are also more adversaries this time around. In book one, the Commandant was the Big Bad, harming Laia, her slave, and revealing the kind of apathy and cruelty for her son that only the deepest psychopath would display. Marcus was a close second, being the one contestant you didn’t want to win the bloody contest to become the new Emperor.

And then, of course, he won. So he’s Big Bad #2 in this book. He and the Commandant show almost equal amounts of twisted, evil intent. But those two aren’t enough, apparently. Now we have the Nightbringer, the mythical being merely whispered about in the first book (and whose true identity and promise of a new storyline I didn’t particularly care for). And we have the Warden, a demented torturer of children at the prison where Laia’s brother is kept. It’s a lot of bad against our three good guys. It’s one of those insurmountable odds tales that I am always flipping pages manically to see how it ends. With so many corners backed into, how can they possibly get out again and again?!

It’s a busy book, but a quick and intense read if you were invested in the characters from the first book. I will say that I was just as frustrated with the “love rhombus” (like a love triangle, but with four characters) in this book as I was with the first. I haven’t read a whole lot of love triangles where I could see an equal chance for both pairings. They are so obviously biased towards one couple getting together, with the third person just in there for spice. Add two people for the sole purpose of trying to complicate things, and it just feels forced. I have never felt that Laia and Keenan have real chemistry. While I sympathize and like Helene, I can’t see her character’s personality in a romantic situation with Elias. The secondary relationships aren’t interesting or complex, and therein lies my annoyance with trying to maintain plausibility in a love triangle/rhombus.

But this is a terrific sequel, when all is said and done. I will read future installments and wait for them with bated breath!

My Grade: B

& Review: Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers October 2016

Gemina by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman. Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers October 2016

The Book Itself: Well, they’ve done it again: another incredible cover, full of intricate detail and hints at the story within. I cannot imagine NOT having physical copies of these beautiful books. The question now is: what color will the third installment be? I’m thinking purple…or maybe green.

My Review: Moving to a space station at the edge of the galaxy was always going to be the death of Hanna’s social life. Nobody said it might actually get her killed.

The sci-fi saga that began with the breakout bestseller Illuminae continues on board the Jump Station Heimdall, where two new characters will confront the next wave of the BeiTech assault.

Hanna is the station captain’s pampered daughter; Nik the reluctant member of a notorious crime family. But while the pair are struggling with the realities of life aboard the galaxy’s most boring space station, little do they know that Kady Grant and the Hypatia are headed right toward Heimdall, carrying news of the Kerenza invasion.

When an elite BeiTech strike team invades the station, Hanna and Nik are thrown together to defend their home. But alien predators are picking off the station residents one by one, and a malfunction in the station’s wormhole means the space-time continuum might be ripped in two before dinner. Soon Hanna and Nik aren’t just fighting for their own survival; the fate of everyone on the Hypatia—and possibly the known universe—is in their hands.

But relax. They’ve totally got this. They hope.

I don’t know if you remember, but I read a little book called Illuminae last year and then I gushed profusely in my review and never stopped talking about it. It was also one of the best books I read last year.

So I had Gemina’s release date in my calendar for A WHILE. And come October I was getting stoked. A few days before its release, I retrieved my copy of Illuminae from a friend I had lent it to and I re-read it and loved it exactly as I had the first time. It was just as impressive, just as beautiful and complex even when I knew the characters, the plot, and the twists. Please, please please, let Gemina be just as amazing, I thought.

Good news. It too is amazing. The hardcover has the same detailed panels of the plot, censored as if the government is shielding you from the truth. The translucent dust jacket is a gorgeous blue. I just want to keep it on a shelf and stare at it all day long. But the temptation to re-read it would be too strong.

Gemina takes place minutes after the events in Illuminae, from the perspective of jump station Heimdall, the goal our ragged fleet of ships was striving toward in the first book. There is already a dark cloud surrounding Heimdall, as they never answered our survivor’s distress calls, and rumors flew that BeiTech had already destroyed or taken over the place.

Our couple this time is Hanna, the captain’s daughter, and Nik, a bad boy drug dealer who belongs to a Russian-mob-type family (ooh, edgy). They will, of course, be love interests. But our girl isn’t a snarky hacker with pink hair this time. No, she’s a rather spoiled party girl who just happens to be well-versed in several types of martial arts. Our boy isn’t the quarterback of a space-football team. He’s a prison-tattooed, capital M Misunderstood tough guy. But to be honest, the rest of the book’s premise is similar.

In Illuminae, we had three major adversaries: a fleet coming to destroy any witness to BeiTech’s attack on Kerenza, an artificial intelligence system that seemed to be going haywire, and a zombie-like virus that drove its hosts into a murderous frenzy (never will I hear or read the phrase “Don’t look at me” again and not shudder). Here are Gemina’s Big Three: a fleet coming to take over jump station Heimdall to use it for their own nefarious purposes, a large group of highly trained thugs-for-hire onboard who are there to subdue the populace so BeiTech’s fleet can succeed, and alien parasites resembling those face huggers from Alien.

See any similarities? Three crazy obstacles: check.

Two crazy teenagers who, against all odds and with the help of threat of imminent death manage to come together and fall in lurve: check.

Countdowns to imminent doom every dozen pages or so: check.

Twists abound: check.

I don’t mind the similarities, really, I don’t. I loved Illuminae and its structure and the way it made the concepts fresh and exciting. But it kind of seemed like they were trying to make the same concepts fresh and exciting here. The Phobos virus in Illuminae scared the crap out of me. The alien parasites in Gemina had one creepy scene in the dark and then they were kind of pushed aside. People under the influence of Phobos haunted my dreams. The face huggers here seemed a bit like an afterthought.

I will put my biggest problem with the plotting of Gemina in a spoiler zone below. Overall, it did a lot of the same things Illuminae did, with a slightly different twist. I still ate it up with a freaking spoon, and I will countdown just as hard for the third installment, but I’m a little surprised it stuck with the same formula.

What Gemina did really well is made me care for a third main character: Nik’s cousin, Ella. Ella might be stuck in a chair, but boy is she an active character (and also everyone would be totally screwed without her). It also set up the main structure for the showdown to come in book three: namely, the ultimate takedown of BeiTech. This book is set up as evidence in a judicial trial against BeiTech, and the bigwigs at the company play a bigger role in this book. The cliffhanger ending makes me need the third book like, yesterday.

Overall, this book is again a work of art. It is still wonderfully complex and unpredictable. And again it blows my mind the amount of work that went into crafting this amazing story. I’m hoping the third book strays a bit from the formula the other two have set up, but I am still so, so, SO excited for it!!

Spoiler-gripe below (PLEASE DON’T STRAY IF YOU DO NOT WANT GEMINA SPOILED!)

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They tried to make me believe the male love interest died, and it turned out he didn’t. In fact, they did this twice in Gemina. This is a case of fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Except this time I wasn’t really fooled. Wait a minute…I’ve seen this before, I thought, as the light faded from our bad boy’s eyes. Twice. It didn’t emotionally impact me the way it should have because I knew it wasn’t real. This time it wasn’t an AI lying to our female protagonist to get her to do its bidding, but I knew in some way Nik was going to end up being alive the whole time. If the third installment tries to do this again, I might be forced to roll my eyes.

Also, there’s a page where the names of a few dozen people are artfully arranged, representing a group of people who have died due to something horrible. Except that Kaufman and Kristoff used names of fellow authors for the victims. So instead of an emotional sucker punch, instead of feeling like innocent people, innocent characters, died, I just thought, Oh look, the author of the Grisha trilogy. The author of Beautiful Creatures. And that woman wrote Red Queen. It took a serious moment and almost poked fun at it.

My Grade: A

& Review: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2016

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company September 2016

The Book Itself: The covers of this series have been so clever! The tattered wings of the crow form the spires of a city this time. And the edges of all the pages are dipped in a bright, vivid red. Atmospheric and just plain awesome.

My Review: Kaz Brekker and his crew have just pulled off a heist so daring even they didn’t think they’d survive. But instead of divvying up a fat reward, they’re right back to fighting for their lives. Double-crossed and left crippled by the kidnapping of a valuable team member, the crew is low on resources, allies, and hope. As powerful forces from around the world descend on Ketterdam to root out the secrets of the dangerous drug known as jurda parem, old rivals and new enemies emerge to challenge Kaz’s cunning and test the team’s fragile loyalties. A war will be waged on the city’s dark and twisting streets―a battle for revenge and redemption that will decide the fate of magic in the Grisha world.

I adore books and characters that are cleverer than me. I am drawn to crafty thief-types who have orchestrated something so complex, so diabolical, than just when they’re backed into a corner, and I’m frantically reading pages to find out how they get out of it, they pull something off that I never saw coming. It takes truly talented authors to do that. It makes me both envious as a writer and a very happy reader.

Six of Crows was one of the best examples of that that I read last year. The characters were haunting and witty and so, so clever. Kaz Brekker, the leader of the charming band of misfits, was the epitome of that (although he left most of the snark to Jesper, the sharpshooter).

But the first book let Kaz do the planning, and focused on bringing the disparate characters into a cohesive team. This book backs that team into corner after corner. But this time, they’re unified, closer to one another emotionally, and they hatch plans together instead of relying on Kaz alone.

And it’s not just one heist, either. The team is trying to get back at Van Eck for double-crossing them and stealing Inej in the first book. Kaz has his revenge fantasy against Pekka Rollins. Eventually the ENTIRE city seems against them (as in, there are wanted posters). This isn’t just breaking into the Ice Court. This is getting back at multiple people, simultaneously, all while trying to stay sane, friendly, and oh yeah, alive. The story dragged a bit for me when they started plotting their next moves. In the first book, Kaz did all of that, and he did all of that offstage. Not one person knew everything up his sleeve (which created some understandable tension). So we didn’t see the discarded ideas, the obstacles he had to puzzle through. We see more of that here in Crooked Kingdom. I think it was definitely necessary, and earned, but it took me a bit to adjust.

Leigh Bardugo is also just excellent at banter and dialogue. I wish I were half as verbosely clever as these characters in real life.

Crooked Kingdom was much more emotional, overall. I was rather surprised that all of them emerged relatively unscathed in Six of Crows. Uh-oh, I thought. That means someone’s going to bite the dust in the next one. There’s no way all of them are making it out alive. I would never go so far as to tell you if that’s true. But I will say that the character development throughout the novel, and the resolutions for each of them had me tearing up several times. Wylan, who I didn’t feel particularly attached to in the first book, gets a backstory in Crooked Kingdom. And it’s pretty heartbreaking. And you knew Inej had a terrible past, but now you get to hear more about it and cry the requisite tears. Bardugo had the unenviable task of making you care for, developing, and providing resolution for not one, not two, but three major relationships amidst this cast of characters. I was pulling for every one of them. And while maybe not all of them got the ending I was hoping for, I admire the way I was made to care for them (Jesper and Wylan FOR LIFE, by the way…).

I will say that I wish the ending had…more. There are major moves to wrap up each character’s story. But in the end I felt a little empty. I don’t know whether I truly felt that there were loose ends, or if I just really, really want more books featuring these characters. But you leave with everyone setting off to do some amazing things (MUST…NOT…SPOIL…), and in a way it felt too nicey-nice to me. I need the grit of this world and these characters back! Bring them all back together for one last heist! For FIVE MORE HEISTS! ALL THE HEISTS!!

At the reader’s panel I went to, where Leigh Bardugo was one of the authors, someone asked if her next book would include any these characters, or be in the same world. She, of course, couldn’t say yay or nay, probably because her publisher made her swear a blood oath not to. But she did say, “It’s a big map,” which basically means hold onto your hats, we’re heading back to Grisha land. But can we get everyone here back too? Pretty please?!

It’s a terrific sequel, and an amazing duology. Please, go read it.

My Grade: A

& Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Book Itself: It’s a rather generic cover: thin woman, who we can assume is beautiful although we only see her in silhouette, wearing only a button down that is conveniently see-though so we can see she’s thin, leaning in a doorway. It might be trying to be sexy and mysterious, but it just looked like a cheap mystery novel on first glance. I’d read good things about The Kind Worth Killing before its release in paperback, so I knew I wanted to read it before I saw this cover. Otherwise, I don’t think this would have drawn me in.

My Review: On a flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning Lily Kintner. Over martinis, the strangers play a game in which they reveal intimate details about themselves. But what begins as playful banter between Ted and Lily takes a turn when Ted claims, half-seriously, that he would like to kill his wife. Then Lily surprises him by saying that she’d like to help.

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily forge an unusual bond and talk about the ways Ted can get out of his marriage. But Lily has her own dark history she’s not sharing with Ted. As Ted begins to fall in love with Lily, he grows anxious about any holes in their scheme that could give them away. And suddenly the two are pulled into a very lethal game of cat and mouse, one in which both are not likely to survive when all is said and done.

There’s something about a crime show condensed into a book that is just pure guilty-pleasure for me.

This book is a re-telling/re-configuring of the classic Strangers on a Train situation: two people meet, both people have enemies in their lives that just happen to be their spouses, and they agree to kill each other’s spouse in order to not arouse suspicion. It’s that “perfect crime” lie that can become masterfully suspenseful and interesting to watch unravel.

This time, only our female protagonist agrees to do the killing. Ted Severson witnesses his wife cheating on him. He meets Lily, who says all the right things and sympathizes in just the right way. Then she suggests that she help Ted kill his wife.

Now…if I were pouring out my woes and a stranger I had just met immediately jumped to “let me help you kill someone,” I would maaaaybe lean towards not trusting them or spending so much time with them. But Ted…oh Ted. Ted does not do that. Ted actually falls a little bit in love with Lily. Things do not end well for Ted.

The story slowly becomes more about Lily, who we learn – surprise, surprise – has a past. Her past – surprise, surprise – includes killing someone. Perhaps more than one someone. The story bounces back and forth between present day action and Lily’s past transgressions. We get to see the monster being made. As a sociopath, the way she views things and reacts to people is different, and it makes for an interesting read. It’s also refreshing that she’s not the clichéd Woman with a Torturous Past, meaning that the author didn’t rely on tropes that I’ve seen other authors use: she was abused physically or mentally, she suffers from depression/anxiety/PTSD/schizophrenia, she was raped, etc. Other authors can write this well and make devastatingly good books, but here we have a woman who is just plain sociopathic. She acts on animal instincts alone, and her narrative voice is chilling.

There are a couple of well-timed twists in the book, but I think the best one is the book’s ending. I’m talking the very last couple of lines. As I neared the end of the book, I began to get skeptical – how were we going to get a resolution here?! Is Lily really going to be released on a technicality? Will there be one last surge of evidence, and will they discover all of the killing she’s done? Am I getting a “happy” ending, or a chilling one?

No spoilers, but the last line puts a decidedly ambiguous spin on that decision. I honestly don’t know if Lily gets caught or not. While this might be lackluster or too indecisive for some readers, when I reached the end, I got a little thrill down my spine. I could read it and picture the conclusion either way, and somehow that worked for me.

Overall, it’s a decent crime novel, great for mystery or crime junkies. Lily is a cold hearted killer and one twisted lady. But if you’re not into reading that kind of thing, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

My Grade: C

& Review: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

The Book Itself: The colors are more saturated, but the rich watercolor image here is Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament,” or more closely resembles one in that series of paintings he did, of the Palace of Westminster at different times of day and in different weather. It is moody and ominous as well as rich and beautiful. I’m not sure if Vyleta or his team in charge of the cover wanted to make a political statement with the use of this painting, or just include it because it had to do with the European setting at the time of the story. Either way, it’s striking.

My Review: England. A century ago, give or take a few years.”
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real.
An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they ve been taught is a lie knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn t clear.

This book took me quite a long time to get through. Partly because I got addicted to a video game for the better part of the month when I started reading it, and partly because I found the pacing to be rather uneven…

We start at a Victorian-era boarding school for rich boys. A bully golden-child and some probably-corrupt clergy rule the roost, and Charlie and Thomas – our protagonists and perfect foils of one another – barely eke by. The intro chapters are intriguing and set up the world very well. All of the students travel to London and see what real Smoke is like when everyone around you is doing bad things. Charlie and Thomas, now with a taste of the real world, become restless…

Then come some interminable chapters at a country estate with a stiff, mysterious woman and her even stiffer daughter. Vyleta attempts some mystery here, as the lady of the house has some secrets of her own, but for the most part these chapters are a slog to get through. They almost lose all of the momentum the opening chapters built up…

And then they leave the estate. With a bang. No spoilers, but the tension and action ratchets up again, and I started flipping the pages faster. Finally, I thought I was worried there for a second.

And then things slowed down again. I guess you could say the book was consistent in that regard: I felt it rose and fell rather evenly with action and tension and interest, only to falter with some middling actions that didn’t make me want to pick up the book again at night.

The writing and atmosphere I will say, are beautiful. Descriptions are smooth and inviting, there aren’t any clumsy metaphors or drawn out sections of infodumping. The plot just kind of…slows at points and at other times, soars. And I wish it had soared the entire time, because I liked delving into how each character developed. Thomas, Charlie, and then Livia grow tremendously as people. By the story’s close, they don’t even resemble the same naïve teenagers the story started off with.

At times I felt confused at Smoke’s nature: does it display differently for different people? Sometimes actions or words characters would say baffled me: why isn’t the room filling with Smoke? Or why is the Smoke coming out more, or trickling out less than I think it should? As a metaphysical devise, and as a plot devise, I think it was rather…hazy (pardon the pun) on purpose.

The ending does end on a satisfying note, and possibly opens up things for a sequel, although I’m not sure the book needs one. The last 50 pages or so are gripping and raw, and gritty in their description of pain and conflict.

If you have a soft spot for Victorian history or long, beautifully written but meandering tales, this one is for you. It’s a solid middle-ground book for me. I would only recommend it to specific readers.

My Grade: C+

& Review: We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

The Book Itself: The shiniest cover I’ve ever seen, I could have probably blinded people had I read this in a sunny area somewhere. I like the woman blurred to the point that we can’t recognize her, the title and intricate scrollwork obscuring her face. I think it’s saying something about superficiality, and not wanting to see what’s right in front of you, but that could just be the English major in me, looking for meaning where there isn’t necessarily any.

My Review: Catherine West has spent her entire life surrounded by beautiful things. She owns an immaculate Manhattan apartment, she collects fine art, she buys exquisite handbags and clothing, and she constantly redecorates her home. And yet, despite all this, she still feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, she gets weekly massages, and occasionally she visits her mother and sister on the Upper East Side, but after two broken engagements and boyfriends who wanted only her money, she is haunted by the fear that she’ll never have a family of her own. One night, at an art opening, Catherine meets William Stockton, a handsome man who shares her impeccable taste and love of beauty. He is educated, elegant, and even has a personal connection—his parents and Catherine’s parents were friends years ago. But as he and Catherine grow closer, she begins to encounter strange signs, and her mother, Elizabeth (now suffering from Alzheimer’s), seems to have only bad memories of William as a boy. In Elizabeth’s old diary she finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny that cryptically reads: “We cannot trust anyone…” Is William lying about his past? And if so, is Catherine willing to sacrifice their beautiful life in order to find the truth? Featuring a fascinating heroine who longs for answers but is blinded by her own privilege, We Could Be Beautiful is a glittering, seductive, utterly surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.

I either like books about privileged, upper class people, or I hate them. I don’t love the woe is me I’m so rich but so unhappy message that so many stories seem to bring to light. I do like when the privileged protagonist (say that ten times fast!) learns something from his/her actions, or changes the game somehow. It can be a kind of escapist fantasy, reading about a character who can go out and buy $600 handbags and thousands of dollars of furniture without batting an eye. For a moment, you can imagine doing that too…and then the crippling reality sets in, about the mortgage/rent, your car payment, that credit card payment you’ve been putting off, etc. etc. etc.

ANYWAY. We Could Be Beautiful is a story about a rich woman. Of the trust fund variety. Catherine West (even her name sounds rich) doesn’t worry that her bespoke stationary boutique never turns a profit. She never frets about rent, clothing herself, or pursuing her hobbies. Every month she gets a hundred thousand dollars or so, and that is that.

Enter William Stockton (again: rich-person name). Because Catherine is just not as happy as she feels she should be, and she’s had troubled relationships in the past and here comes this guy who seems just too good to be true. And surprise, surprise: he is. And we spend the rest of the story puzzling out just why he is.

William as a character comes across as very stilted. In a way, this makes sense: Catherine is so blinded by the fact that she is desperate for someone to love her that she can’t see just how hypocritical and downright rude her partner is being. But William is kind of an ass. The whole time. It is hard to see what is appealing about him, what truly draws Catherine to him. He belittles her when she uses foul language, her best friend immediately dislikes him, they have consistently disappointing sex, and he never speaks a word of his past. On their own, these little things are just character quirks. Aspects of a personality that would make a well-rounded character more interesting. But piled up like this, it feels like the author is just trying to bang us over the head with how bad William is. It would have been far more compelling for me if William were more appealing, and this his secrets were slowly and viciously revealed. As it sits, you just see it coming from a mile away.

Overall, the story and character development felt like they were plodding along to me. I’m not sure if it’s the writing style, or the story’s actual events, but although finding out William’s secret is the main hinge of events, I did not feel overwhelmingly compelled to find out what it was. This was partly because I could already see he was Bad News and that this book would come to that conclusion eventually, and Catherine would move on. But it was also because there seemed to be a lack of urgency. Catherine was in no hurry to confront several facts about her life: that there is something wrong with her boyfriend, that there is something wrong with her family, and that money cannot buy everything (especially when that money starts to run out…)

It’s an escapist read, but Catherine doesn’t really learn anything from the story’s events. I don’t feel like she has grown emotionally at the story’s close, and that leaves a lackluster taste in my mouth. It’s a light read, with an intriguing central mystery, but it’s not my favorite beach or summer read.

My Grade: C-

& Review: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens, May 2016

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Childrens, May 2016

The Book Itself: Another illustrated woman, this time in an outfit akin to armor: this book’s getting more serious. No barbed wire this time, but a silhouetted city in the background under a stone archway that foreshadows this book’s new setting…

My Review: Feyre survived Amarantha’s clutches to return to the Spring Court—but at a steep cost. Though she now has the powers of the High Fae, her heart remains human, and it can’t forget the terrible deeds she performed to save Tamlin’s people.

Nor has Feyre forgotten her bargain with Rhysand, High Lord of the feared Night Court. As Feyre navigates its dark web of politics, passion, and dazzling power, a greater evil looms—and she might be key to stopping it. But only if she can harness her harrowing gifts, heal her fractured soul, and decide how she wishes to shape her future—and the future of a world cleaved in two.

Oh boy. This one’s really good, you guys. And I’m saying that coming off of this series’ first installment, which I found to be a little lackluster (review here).

It’s hard to know where to begin. And it’s hard to know how to keep this review spoiler-free. Although if you’ve read any other reviews at all, the rough plot line here will have already been ruined for you.

This is what I will do. The first part of this review will be for those of you who read my review of A Court of Thorns and Roses, maybe even read it as well, and are looking for a reason to continue. I will keep it as spoiler-free as I can. The second half will have all sorts of name dropping and fangirl squealing and itty bitty spoilers that will in no way diminish your enjoyment, I think, but proceed at your own risk, nevertheless.

This book illustrates the emotional aftermath of a traumatic event very well. Tamlin isn’t doing well with what he had to go through Under the Mountain. Feyre is definitely not doing well with what she had to do and who she had to do it to while Under the Mountain. Both of them are beset by nightmares and left directionless in the Spring Court. It feels weird for them to continue on with life as usual when it is so not usual anymore. The way Maas depicted that change, and these complex feelings alone had me knowing that this book was going to be better: better plot and character development, a darker tone, and hints at real action to come.

Also hanging over them is Rhysand’s bargain. Feyre has to honor this bargain while still struggling to maintain the façade that everything is hunky dory, both with Spring Court politics and in her relationship with Tamlin. Add to that her aversion to living life as a pampered princess, coddled in a life full of court happenings and pretty jewelry, and you have yourself some story conflict.

My favorite thing about this book is probably it’s pacing. Yes, it’s over 600 pages long, but I never felt as if it were dragging or wished it would go faster or slower. 600 pages is a lot. It’s enough to change everything in a story’s world, and this book does. I felt like I did when I was a kid and I had a new Harry Potter book in my grasp. I devoured this book in a matter of a couple days – it was so well paced and developed.

The character growth is very well done, too. We definitely get more out of Feyre as a character, and how time and events change her as a person. This book introduces several new, kickass characters as well, and all of them get the perfect amount of development: enough to care about them and flesh out their backstories, but not overdoing it, and making me want to come back for more in future books.

…Is that enough for those of you who haven’t read the second book, and don’t want it spoiled? Yes? Okay, I’ll put some space here between this non-spoilery part and the next part, which might spoil you a bit if you haven’t read A Court of Mist and Fury.

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I accidentally found out only a few chapters into this book that Feyre’s affections would turn towards Rhysand. And when I first heard that, I was genuinely upset. Why spend an entire book putting her and Tamlin together, why have her go through all of that crap, have her be on the brink of death several times, only to remove her from that relationship and have her get into another one? Sure, I liked Rhysand in the first book, and I looked forward to hearing more about him, but she was in love with TAMLIN! How could Feyre be so fickle? How could Rhysand steal her away?

And now that I’ve turned the final page of A Court of Mist and Fury? I don’t know why I even liked Tamlin and Feyre together at all.

But a lot of people took issue with this change. And I can see where they’re coming from.

The issue, I think, is that this book makes Tamlin seem SO controlling and awful, and Rhysand SO inherently good and generous, that it negates everything Maas spent the entire previous book setting up. Why make us fall in love with Tamlin, when he’s going to turn out to be kind of a bad guy? It did seem a little extreme to me, this shift from Tamlin being Mr. Misunderstood, and our leading romantic lead, to someone suffering so badly from PTSD that he physically lashes out to control those around them.

On the flipside of the coin, Rhysand is The Perfect Guy in this story. The façade he had to put on in the first book’s events is shattered during Feyre’s first stay at the Night Court. He’s not manipulative and sneaky and evil anymore. No, that’s all an act: he’s loyal, generous, and conflicted to the bone about the things he has to do and who he does them to. He’s a great foil to Tamlin, and even to Feyre. But his goodness seems a little overdone, like Maas wanted to soothe the rage she knew would come after Tamlin’s fall from grace, saying “No, wait, but look how great I’ve made Rhysand?! He’s perfect.

So it feels abrupt. But them Maas spends 500 pages or so convincing you – and Feyre – that it’s okay to change as a person, and to want and need different things than you wanted or needed before. There’s a maturity in this choice, even though the choice seems abrupt and jarring when you compare it to the first book’s lengthy setup.

I ate this stuff with a spoon. I LOVED it. I haven’t even touched on the plot or secondary characters that we get introduced to at the Night Court (I can’t see me being okay with Amren, Cassien, Azriel, OR Mor leaving the picture. They better all survive this entire freaking series). But if I went into all that, you’d be here for a thousand more words. And I’ve already waxed poetic enough. This book makes the first book’s inanity worth it. My god, is it ten million times better. It does make me fear for the next installment. Where A Court of Thorns and Roses was Beauty & the Beast, A Court of Mist and Fury was the myth of Hades and Persephone. I’ll cringe if the third book is another retelling, or if it’s told from a different character’s perspective (I’m all about it being dual-told from Feyre and Rhysand’s perspectives though. YES PLEASE). The characters are finally in place, and they are all poised for incredible action and story. I hope the next installment (MAY 2017 WHY ARE YOU SO FAR AWAY?!) lets them run with it.

My Grade: A

& Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's, May 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children’s, May 2016

The Book Itself: It comes dangerously close to my pet peeve: using picture of pretty men and women, usually looking like they have no business being in this book, in order to sell a cover, and thus, a book. We get half of a pretty woman, and it’s a drawn picture at that. The dress looks rough, almost feral, which fits with the book. The barbed wire and the title do draw me in.

My Review: She stole a life. Now she must pay with her heart.

When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she knows about only from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

This review is difficult for me because I have already read the second book, which, spoiler alert, is leaps and bounds better. I’m not going to say you should read this book only so you can read the second, but…yes maybe I’ll actually say that.

First, I’ll list my problems with this first installment, and then explain why I stuck around.

  1. It is too much like too many other things
    My (wonderful, beautiful, humble) best friend again recommended this to me. She had just finished the second book as well, and practically threw the book at me to get me to start it. She did warn me that this book “until about halfway through, IS Beauty & the Beast. And it is. Enter Tamlin, the Beast: in this iteration, he’s a faerie, a creature feared in the mortal realm because of a terrible war in the past. He can shapeshift, and his shifted form is literally the Beast. Down to the lion-like body and horned head. Enter our Beauty, Feyre: in order to support her family, she goes out into the woods in secret and shoots food with a bow and arrow. I won’t say who that reminds me of, but it rhymes with Patmiss Nevermean. Beast takes Beauty away (from her terrible family, mostly. Her sisters are literally the ugly stepsisters from Cinderella. Like, in their current situation, who the eff would act like they do?! They were flat, unbelievable characters to me because of their absurd bitchiness). Beast holes Beauty up in a castle and tells her she can’t leave. Beast gets controlling. Beauty gets impatient, and literally does the opposite of everything Beast tells her to do (which, like, good for her, because he’s being controlling, but after the first brush with death with supernatural beings, maybe take a break from being a rebel). Beast sends Beauty away only for her to realize that she loves him. Beauty finds out there is a Curse on Beast. The Curse here is the same exact curse as Beauty & the Beast. There is no surprise here! I take issue with retellings of myth and fairy tales when they feel like they’re not trying to do something different with it: they don’t try to illustrate some new theme or they don’t deviate from the previously written plot at all in order to make it new. A Court of Thorns and Roses didn’t feel new to me. It followed the plot of Beauty and the Beast to a T, and even the addition of faeries improved that for me.
  2. Things get good too late
    After Beauty – sorry, Feyre – finally figures it out, it is her turn to rescue the Beast/Tamlin. Her journey through the place where he’s been taken and the trials she has to face FINALLY pick up the pace in the story. Her relationship with a handful of secondary characters actually has me liking her more, and fleshing them out as people too. We meet Rhysand, who plays an integral part in the second book, and his character development in this book alone is done very well. But all of this takes place in the last third of this book. That seems like a lot of build up for a payoff that only takes up a hundred pages or so.
  3. Tamlin is kind of an ass/his purpose seems purely physical
    Unpopular opinion? Am I being influenced by the second story’s events? I don’t care. There were times in this first book where I didn’t really like our leading man. Yes, he was trying to protect a mortal human from the faeries and other forces in his world that could seriously harm her. But he clearly has some Edward Cullen abusive tendencies going on (yes, I just compared him to a Twilight character. It’s apt). He controls and commands his love interest in the name of affection and his vastly superior physical strength. Even his love and affection for Feyre is displayed only in physical attention. Yes, those love scenes are NOT YA. They’re steamy and hot and I’m not about to complain about them. But a star-crossed love should be based on more than sex, and here it doesn’t feel like it’s more than that.

OKAY. After all that, I liked it enough to read the sequel. Why?

 

 

 

  1. It’s well-paced, and for the most part, well-written
    There are no clumsy metaphors and similes crowding up things. Despite the plot being rather recycled, I still turned the pages to see what would happen to the characters.
  2. Secondary characters piqued by attention
    Rhysand is obviously set up in this story to become the focus in the second. But he’s set up really well. Introduced as a greasy enemy, he slowly becomes someone the reader can see has more depth than that mean façade. He’s helpful, wily, and witty. You inherently want to hear more about him. Lucien, Tamlin’s right hand man (Lumiere to the Beast) also gains a lot of development as the plot thickens. He has a great (sad) backstory, and his family is poised to present a lot of future problems.
  3. I rooted for Feyre and Tamlin as a couple
    Yeah, the Beast was controlling and Beauty was, at times, an idiot. But Feyre goes through a LOT of stuff to get what she wants (Tamlin). All that drive and affection have to mean something.
  4. Dang if that physical romance isn’t HAWT.
    I’m just saying.

 

 

 

 

It may not seem like a lot to go on, seeing as my complaint list is lengthier that my “I Like It” list, but it was good enough for me to see what would happen next. And thank god I did. My review for the second installment, A Court of Mist and Fury will be up soon. Stay tuned!

My Grade: C

& Review: Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, August 2016

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff. Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books, August 2016

The Book Itself: Was this font designed for Kristoff’s new book? Because I’m digging it: intricate and swirly and cool-looking (I’m great at adjectives). Kristoff was one of the co-authors of Illuminae, which I christened the best book I read all of last year. I was looking forward to his new book here regardless of the cover. But the cover is pretty badass: mysterious looming figure with a dagger dripping blood, shadowy wings spread behind her. This looks like it will not be a nice book. It will be a nasty one; bloody. Here there be monsters.

My Review: In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?

I get the question “So what are you reading right now?” several times a week. Either because I a.) currently have a book in hand, or b.) the questioner knows me, and knows that I read, and that I ALWAYS have a book on me at all times. When I got this question while reading Nevernight, I showed them the cover and then exclaimed “it’s like Hogwarts for assassins!”

And then that was either met with “Awesome!” or confused expressions of mixed worry and fear.

And while that sentence: “it’s like Hogwarts for assassins!” is pithy and piques the interest, what it really is is accurate yet superficial when it comes to what this story involves. Nevernight is complex, gritty, dark, suspenseful, and at the same time giddily exciting. That sounds like a weird combination, but bear with me.

The book did lag a bit in the beginning for me, as I got used to the writing style and plot pacing. But I had just come off of an incredible book high from a wonderful book that I’d just finished, and was dreading my next read paling in comparison. Mia Corvere is a sassy, tough-as-nails girl who just happens to want to be an assassin. This is because, you guessed it, she has a score to settle. A chip on her shoulder. A revenge fantasy. She is, of course, more than meets the eye. This is evidenced by the fact that a cat made of shadows follows her around and talks to her, literally feeding off of her fear.

We meet her after years of training under a tutor of sorts, seeking to enter what might be the equivalent of a Graduate School of Killing People – the Red Church. And once she gets there, holy crap, does the story take off. Not only are there classes: poison making, pickpocketing, weapons fighting, and seduction/people skills. But there are other would-be assassins as classmates. Deadly classmates who will do anything to become a Blade – one of the elite assassins of the Red Church.

The story has witty banter, murder mystery aspects, and clever characters who surprised even this reader with well-laid plans that began wayyy back in the story (our protagonist included). The writing style is not for everyone. It’s description-heavy, simile-ridden, and there are pithy footnotes that act as a world-building tool that I admit I found distracting at times. But I got sucked into the story and the setting, and I devoured chapter after chapter like I was getting paid for it (I’m not, I promise). The ending is so well-paced and tense that you’ll want to be able to sit somewhere and read straight through it.

Mia as a character becomes really well-rounded, even though at the end of the story, we really don’t fully understand what she really is or what she can do. I had an emotional response to events that happened to her in the story, and to the characters around her. She is a girl learning to be an assassin, and trying to cling to some humanity.

There is a lot of set up for furthering the series here. The book is bracketed by a prologue and epilogue of the person chronicling Mia’s story: she becomes legendary, and we’re here to witness her become so.

I could draw a lot of comparisons: Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy style, a Hogwarts setting, and characters and shady dealings a la Locke Lamora. But I really do think this story stands alone, and I loved it. I will be counting down the many months until the second installment.

My Grade: B+