Monday, October 25, 2021

Ophie's Ghosts - Justina Ireland

 

Summary: The New York Times bestselling author of Dread Nation makes her middle grade debut with a sweeping tale of the ghosts of our past that won't stay buried, starring an unforgettable girl named Ophie.

Ophelia Harrison used to live in a small house in the Georgia countryside. But that was before the night in November 1922, and the cruel act that took her home and her father from her. Which was the same night that Ophie learned she can see ghosts.

Now Ophie and her mother are living in Pittsburgh with relatives they barely know. In the hopes of earning enough money to get their own place, Mama has gotten Ophie a job as a maid in the same old manor house where she works.

Daffodil Manor, like the wealthy Caruthers family who owns it, is haunted by memories and prejudices of the past--and, as Ophie discovers, ghosts as well. Ghosts who have their own loves and hatreds and desires, ghosts who have wronged others and ghosts who have themselves been wronged. And as Ophie forms a friendship with one spirit whose life ended suddenly and unjustly, she wonders if she might be able to help--even as she comes to realize that Daffodil Manor may hold more secrets than she bargained for. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I love a good Halloween-season book (but I like a good spooky book at any time, really). This is just such a book, and as a bonus, it’s a JFic book so you can read it with your kids and scare them as well! Bonus!

I thought this was a really fun book. A few things I loved:

· The subject matter was interesting and had a great atmospheric vibe. It wasn’t super creepy all the time, so as to scare off young readers completely, but it definitely allows for a ghostly atmosphere that sets the scene and enhances the story.

· I really enjoyed the historical aspect of this novel. Although this book doesn’t take place during slavery, it does discuss the plight of Black people who are forced to take jobs that, although not slavery, pay very little and keep them indentured in a way that definitely echoes slavery not only because they’re doing the same jobs that slaves would have done, but also in that it is very difficult to get ahead and “move up,” so to speak, in the world.

· The story was interesting, and there were a lot of parts to it. It was a good little mystery, and although it seemed fairly obvious to me in some parts, I understand that I am not the target audience. My children would have been surprised, I think, and if they weren’t, I think they would have felt clever to have figured it out.

· The writing was good. The characters faced real life problems, and the main character, Ophie, allowed us to experience even characters who have passed on in a more nuanced manner, understanding that people are not only good or only evil.

· As with many good children’s books, this book gives space for some difficult discussions about tricky subjects. I love that children’s books don’t shy away from difficult things, teaching readers in a way that they understand and are able to internalize.

This was a fairly long read for a JFic book, and I appreciated that. The reading made it approachable, and I’m glad that Ireland allowed enough length in her book to address a complex story and let it move naturally. It didn’t seem long or overly verbose, but it did address a lot of things and have a fairly complex story. I enjoyed it.

I think this is a great read for all the time, but especially for the Halloween season. If you like JFic, you should definitely check this out. If you have kids that like spooky books and are JFic readers, I highly recommend it for them as well!

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a murder mystery, but there are no explicit details of the murder (although I knew what had happened). There is one swear word, “damn,” at the very end, said by Ophie’s mother, and I’m assuming that many children have heard their mothers say such a thing. And possibly worse. 😉

Friday, October 22, 2021

Freeform Friday: White Smoke - Tiffany D. Jackson

Summary: Marigold is running from ghosts. The phantoms of her old life keep haunting her, but a move with her newly blended family from their small California beach town to the embattled Midwestern city of Cedarville might be the fresh start she needs. Her mom has accepted a new job with the Sterling Foundation that comes with a free house, one that Mari now has to share with her bratty ten-year-old stepsister, Piper.

The renovated picture-perfect home on Maple Street, sitting between dilapidated houses, surrounded by wary neighbors has its . . . secrets. That’s only half the problem: household items vanish, doors open on their own, lights turn off, shadows walk past rooms, voices can be heard in the walls, and there’s a foul smell seeping through the vents only Mari seems to notice. Worse: Piper keeps talking about a friend who wants Mari gone.

But “running from ghosts” is just a metaphor, right?

As the house closes in, Mari learns that the danger isn’t limited to Maple Street. Cedarville has its secrets, too. And secrets always find their way through the cracks. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I was excited to read this book because it’s perfect for the season, wouldn’t you say!? If you don’t read a book about a haunted house during Halloween season, you just didn’t do it right. A few thoughts about things I really enjoyed:

· I liked the main character in this book. She has some mental health issues that at times have had pretty severe consequences, and I feel like this is an important subject to address. With more awareness for mental health issues, hopefully we can reduce the stigma and get help to those who need it. I’m hoping that this book will help some teen readers who may have been reluctant to discuss mental health problems.

· The house in this book is super creepy. I loved it. I love a good, atmospheric read, and the house in this book definitely created that. I think that Jackson did a great job creating an environment that was spooky but also dismissible. Good haunted houses have to be able to disguise themselves otherwise people wouldn’t move in and experience it in the first place. Being incognito is key (keep that in mind, all you haunted houses reading this review).

· I liked how this book had a sinister story backdrop, and one that was convoluted and multi-layered and spanned generations. This gave Jackson an opportunity to examine systemic racism and address it in a way that made it clear and understandable as to how it can be perpetuated. I think sometimes this is a hard concept for people to grasp but reading about it in a story is a perfect venue to discuss it.

A few things I would have liked to be different:

· There was A LOT going on in the different facets of the story. For instance, although I liked the back story about the town and how it addressed systemic racism, there were parts that I think were never clearly explained or explored. For instance—there’s a television preacher whose super creepy, but doesn’t do much else. And there’s a whole thing about buying seeds that was super creepy as well, but it never really went anywhere. It was an opportunity, but one that was not necessarily taken. The main character also experiences anxiety over bed bugs, and although this took up a lot of space in the story, it didn’t really go anywhere or seem to serve any obvious purpose other than just to showcase that she had a very real manifestation of her anxiety.

· I would have liked more exploration of the other characters in the town. There were a lot of interesting stories to be had, but we didn’t really get to see any of them. The book was not short, so I understand that Jackson had to make some decisions about what was included and what wasn’t. I think that this is an overall example of maybe some of the difficulties the story faced—there were a lot of ideas, but not all of them were necessary. When they were crammed in and not fully connected or explored, it just felt like they could have been cut. It wasn’t a red herring situation, it was more like too many ideas that never had space to come to fruition.

Overall, I would say this book had a good creep factor. It isn’t an exceptional story or life-changing, but it does have some good social discussions and of course, a very awesomely creepy haunted house. If I were a teen looking for a creepy Halloween read, I would check this out for sure.

My Rating: 3.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some language here and there, discussions of drug use, and some scary horror scenes that are not too excessive for the genre or age group.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The King of Scars Duology (including King of Scars #1 and Rule of Wolves, #2)

The King of Scars duology should be read after 


For those of you who have read both Grisha and Crows
here are our thoughts on King of Scars and Rule of Wolves...
 
_________________________________________________________

Summary:  The boy king, the war hero.  The prince with a demon curled inside his heart.  Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible.  The people of Ravka don't know what he endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way.  Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. 

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to honing her deadly talents and rebuilding the Grisha army.  Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha can't survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary and Ravka cannot survive a weakened king.  Zoya will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne, but she also has new enemies to conquer in the battle to come. 

Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha wiped from the earth forever.  Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that await her on the ice.  

Ravka's king.  Ravka's general.  Ravka's spy.  They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and risk everything to save a broken nation.  But some secrets aren't meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren't meant to heal.

(Summary from book flap - Images from amazon.com)

My Review:  In King of Scars, three powerful individuals battle to save their country -- Nikolai Lantsov, the roguish but well-intentioned Ravkan king, his devoted General and Etherealki, Zoya Nasyalensky, and Nina Zenik, the country's most capable spy.  Technically, the first book in a new series, Scars follows threads left untied in other books in the Grishaverse.  Nikolai is significantly altered by his run-in with the Darkling, trying to handle important affairs of state while wrestling with the beast that rages inside him.  Zoya is still her acerbic self, doing her best to manage Nikolai's inner demon and outwit Ravka's enemies.  Meanwhile, Nina Zenik is deep in enemy territory on a mission for the Crown, grieving the loss of her beloved Matthias, hoping to change closed minds, and occasionally raising hell.  Oh, and she's hearing voices.  To make matters, well, even more interesting, strange miracles have begun to crop up across the map* and a new cult that worships the Darkling is gaining followers.  Ravka is broke, threatened from all sides, Nikolai's demon is getting stronger, and when he and Zola disappear, drastic measures must be taken to hold the throne.  

While King of Scars didn't float my boat as much as other books in the Grishaverse it still had some spectacular moments, beautiful lines, and engaging characters.  The three main narrators -- Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina -- have strong personalities and their own distinctive voice.  Nikolai's is filled with humor and deflection, where Zoya's is all bluster and bite, and Nina's is a mixture of innuendo and sarcasm.  I enjoyed watching each character develop.  Nikolai pretends to be a foppish, unconcerned royal, when in reality he is quite the opposite.  Zoya's cocky, hard-edged fierceness is hard to handle at times, but, as the story unfolds, I found I liked her more and more. Nina's behavior could be considered unseemly, impulsive, and occasionally underhanded, but her moral compass always gets her where she needs to go.   I also loved watching Nikolai and Nina's relationship develop, especially the bantering and bickering that seem to cover their real feelings toward each other.  Both seem to acknowledge (at least to themselves) an attraction but feel called to duty above all else.  It will be interesting to see how things pan out in the next book, but I'm trying not to get too invested.  If Crooked Kingdom taught me anything it's that not all 'ships' in Bardugo's 'verse make it out of the harbor.  

In the last few months I have devoured both the Grisha trilogy and the Six of Crows duology that precede this book and it's no secret that I'm obsessed with Bardugo's work.  However, King of Scars hasn't captured my heart like all the others.  It seemed to move at a much slower pace and just didn't have the same pull as her other novels.  My biggest issue is that I am still morning the loss of a certain stalwart Fjerdan.  Nothing is set in stone at the end of the book, but there were times where it seemed like Nina might be developing another romantic interest and my heart was just. not. having. it.  The other character is female (not my cup of tea) and it is most definitely too soon. And yet, I'm pretty sure it's going to happen anyway. 😐  Consequently, I have been a little 'on the fence' about finishing this duology and seriously contemplating rewriting my personal head cannon to end a few chapters short of the Crooked Kingdom 'finale'.  If you are as well, the final pages drop a bomb might make the decision that much much harder.  At least, it did for me.  Readers hoping for resolution will find very little in King of Scars though I have heard that Rule of Wolves offers some closure to the series.  I'll let you know how it goes.  With any luck, you can just scroll down!

*A very well-drawn map too.

My Rating:   3.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some violence.  Some profanity (under ten instances, I think).  Two women (secondary characters) are in a committed monogamous relationship.  

____________________________________________

Summary: The wolves are circling, and Ravka's time is running out.  

The Demon King.  As Fjerda's massive army prepares to invade, Nikolai Lantsov will summon every bit of his ingenuity and charm -- and even the monster within -- to win this fight.  But a dark threat looms that cannot be defeated by a young king's gift for the impossible.  

The Stormwitch.  Zoya Nazyalensky has lost too much to war.  She saw her mento die and her worst enemy resurrected, and she refuses to bury another friend.  Now duty demands she embrace her powers to become the weapon her country needs.  No matter the cost.

The Queen of Mourning.  Deep undercover, Nina Zenik risks discovery and death as she wages war on Fjerda from inside its capital.  But her desire for revenge may cost her country its chance at freedom and Nina the chance to heal her grieving heart.  

(Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  I have spent a good chunk of this year giddily immersed in the Grishaverse, but I was a little torn about reading Rule of Wolves.  I'd already seen some major spoilers (thanks Instagram) and the previous book hinted at a few things I was hesitant to explore.  And yet, I still wanted to see how things worked out for the King, the General, and the Spy, and I am nothing if not committed.  So here we are....

In Rule of Wolves, rumors of Saints and miracles abound as a strange blight spreads across the land.  Meanwhile Nikolai Lanstov, Zoya Nazyalensky, and Nina Zenik have their hands full, trying to save Ravka from the machinations of the Shu Queen, the looming Fjerdan war machine, and the undoubtedly nefarious intentions of a semi-resurrected Darkling.  Furthermore, Nikolai's attempts to woo a royal wife are not going as well as expected, Zoya is coming to terms with some major changes in her own life, and Nina is still deeply embedded in Jarl Brum's household, gathering intel and trying to sway Fjerdan hearts before its too late.  One thing is certain -- the fate of all Ravka hangs in the balance.  

Rule of Wolves has some truly brilliant moments, a few shocking revelations, and several delightful appearances from certain characters in the Grishaverse.  I'm serious; I practically squealed when a few of them came in to play.  Nikolai and Zoya's relationship is set to 'slow burn' and deliciously star-crossed. I adored their relationship and the tension between them, as well as any interaction between Genya and David, who are just the cutest.  I desperately wish there was a novella that tells more of their story.*  I would read the heck out of it.  

There is a line in Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth is speaking about how her opinion of Mr. Darcy has changed over time, saying "In essentials, I believe, he is very much what he ever was...When I said he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that either his mind or manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood."  That pretty much sums up how I feel about Zoya.  She has sharp edges, to be sure, and underneath her hardened exterior are several other layers of titanium plating, but the more I got to know her character the less all those edges and layers mattered and I began to appreciate her 'as is.'  Deep down, Zoya's pure gold.  

Ultimately, Rule of Wolves had some great moments and fun character interaction, but it didn't knock my socks off.   The dialogue isn't quite as quippy as I have come to expect, I didn't care for certain aspects of the plot (especially towards the end of the book), and I never felt the same pull to read as I have felt reading other books in the series.  I don't know if the previously mentioned Instagram spoilers simply affected my experience or if I am forever mourning Matthias 😭.  Either way, I didn't blaze through this book; in fact, I had fifty pages left, went on a week long backpacking trip, and didn't pick it up again until several days after we returned.  That's pretty telling.  

*C'mon, Bardugo!

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:   Some profanity (less than ten instances, give or take).  There are several romantic threads in this book, though not all of them may be to everyone's taste.  Some kissing, briefly described, between a male and female character.  Brief but passionate kissing and inferred intimacy between two female main characters.  Two female secondary characters are in a committed relationship.  All intimacy is relatively PG-13.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Curses - Lish McBride

Summary: Merit Cravan refused to fulfill her obligation to marry a prince, leading to a fairy godling's curse. She will be forced to live as a beast forever, unless she agrees to marry a man of her mother's choosing before her eighteenth birthday.
Tevin Dumont has always been a pawn in his family's cons. The prettiest boy in a big family, his job is to tempt naïve rich girls to abandon their engagements, unless their parents agree to pay him off. But after his mother runs afoul of the beast, she decides to trade Tevin for her own freedom.

Now, Tevin and Merit have agreed that he can pay off his mother's debt by using his con-artist skills to help Merit find the best match . . . but what if the best match is Tevin himself? (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I’m loving this retelling of fairytales vibe we’ve got going in literature these days, and so I am happy to tell you about this fun retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m thinking it might not be something on your radar, and so that’s fun as well.

When last we met in “Beauty and the Beast” land, I was reviewing a local (to me author) who wrote the retelling Beast of Ten. That was fun and you should check it out as well. This book is completely different. Here are a few things I loved about it:

1. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, there are many parts that are just hilarious and I enjoyed a laugh at the character’s expense in a fun, cleverly written way. It’s always fun to be in on the joke, right?

2. I liked that all the characters had measures of both greatness and weakness. There was variance on this spectrum, of course, but McBride’s character development led to nothing being completely black and white with every character, which is somewhat refreshing. I think fairytales will often veer into the completely good or completely evil character, and that is just rarely the truth in reality. Although this book is far from reality, it is nice to have authentic-feeling characters.

3. I liked the introduction of mythical creatures into the “Beauty and the Beast” realm. Obviously, the original story has quite a bit of mythical creatures going on with the obvious Beast and all, and Disney even takes it next level with the talking tea pots and such; McBride took it a different way. I liked the fairies and curses and alternate explanations to what might have happened to lead to this variation of the story.  Even though the story was a “tale as old as time” (I’m sorry, I had to), it felt fresh and new.

4. The Beast is a female character. Loved it.

5. The writing is smart, witty, and accessible. It isn’t hard to read, and it moves quickly. I think it could impress younger teens with the story as well as be fun for older teens as well, who might appreciate more of the underlying jokes and hilarious hijinks.

I’m giving this book four stars instead of five because I reserve my five stars for books that have a deeper meaning, are exceptionally well written, and teach something just beyond a really good story. They must be fantastic in all aspects—a great story that also changes the reader. Although this is a really fun story, I wouldn’t say that I came away with a profound insight to myself. And that’s fine. I don’t always need a profound insight. I’m telling you this only because I know I gave a super glowing review, and you would think with that I would give five stars. Four stars for me is a “must read,” so go ahead and give it a try! It’s a lot of fun, and a great reimagination of “Beauty and the Beast.”

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean. There is some light teen romance.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Unsettled - Reem Faruqi

Summary: When Nurah's family moves from Kara-chi, Pakistan, to Peachtree City, Georgia, all she really wants is to blend in, but she stands out for all the wrong reasons.  Nurah's accent, floral-print kurtas, and tea-colored skin make her feel excluded, and she's left to eat lunch alone under the stairwell, until she meets Stahr at swimming tryouts.  Stahr covers her body when in the water, just like Nurah, but for very different reasons.

But in the water, Nurah doesn't want to blend in: She wants to stand out.  She wants to win medals like her star athlete brother, Owais -- who is going through struggles of his own in America -- yet when sibling rivalry gets in the way, she makes a split-second decision of betrayal that changes their fates.

As Nurah slowly beings to sprout wings in the form of strong swimming arms, she gradually gains the courage to stand up to bullies, fight for what she believes in, and find her place.   

(Summary from book - Image from goodreads.com)


My Review:  Unsettled is a thoughtful collection of free verse poems that, when read consecutively, tells the compelling story of teenage girl trying to find her way in a strange new country.  Nurah is sad to leave her grandparents and her beautiful homeland of Pakistan for the unfamiliar streets of Peachtree City, GA.  Here is a section of a poem where Nurah expresses how she feels during the family's first few days in America:

Settled is
when your roots are strong
and spread out every which way...
Settled is
when it's hard to pull you up,
when it's easier just to leave you
exactly
how
you 
are.
I am
dandelion fluff
ready to float
away.
If I could,
I would
float all the way back home.
I don't even need a breeze.
 
My roots are anything but settled. 

At first, Nurah doesn't have much that is positive to say about the United States.  She was told they moved for job security and better schools -- but now Ammi is sad all the time, her brother, Oswai, is angry, Baba is working all the time, and the schools aren't better.  Nurah feels conspicuous in her colorful clothing, insecure about her accent, and lonely in the lunchroom.  Eventually, things start to look up.  she makes a friend and finds contentment swimming with her brother in the local pool until a moment of jealousy leads to unintended but devastating consequences.  Ultimately, Nurah learns to accept herself, stand up for others, and finds her own way to shine.

Nurah's story is told in nine sections, each given a heading that has a double-meaning as it relates to both plants and the story (e.g. Uprooted, Replanting, Budding, Wilting, etc.).  Each section also begins with thematic, artful doodles (courtesy of Soumbal Qureshi) in a style that will likely appeal to teen and tween readers.  The story is loosely based on the author's own experiences moving to the United States as a teenager and living in, you guessed it, Peachtree, GA.  According to the author's note, some of the details are straight from the author's own experience.It feels a bit like reading a someone's diary -- their innermost thoughts written right alongside their day-to-day activities.  The poems are the kind of poetry that you don't have to strain your brain to understand, which makes it perfect for middle grade readers.  

I read Unsettled cover-to-cover in one sitting and Nurah's story really tugged at my heart.  I appreciated that she didn't always say or do the right thing, which only made those moments when she (and others) stood up to bullies or reached out in friendship that much sweeter. It would make for a great tween book club pick as it covers many of the topics most kids worry about -- friends, crushes, and school -- but it also touches on a lot of more serious issues, like religious and cultural differences, bullying, racism, and domestic violence, in a way that feels natural, opens the door for further discussion, and encourage readers to be more accepting of others differences.   I will definitely be on the lookout for other Reem Faruqi books in the future.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Any sensitive material (regarding racism, bullying, and abuse) is non-graphic and shown in a negative light.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Library Lion - Michelle Knudsen (Illus. Kevin Hawkes)

Summary: 
Miss Merriweather, the head librarian is very particular about rules in the library.  No running allowed.  And you must be quiet.  But when a lion comes to the library one day, no one is sure what to do.  There aren't any rules about lions in the library. 

It turns out, though, that the lion seems very well suited for the library.  His big feet are quiet on the library floor.  He makes a comfy backrest for the children at story hour.  And he never roars in the library -- at least not anymore.

But when something terrible happens, the lion helps in the only way he knows how.  Could there ever be a good reason to break the rules?  Even in the library?  

Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes offer an affectionate ode not just to rules and when to follow them, but also to that wonderful place -- the library.

(Summary from book flap - Image from youtube.com, edited)

My Review:  In a library, you must follow the rules.  You must not run.  You must be quiet.  When a lion enters the library, people aren't quite sure what to do.  After all, there are no specific rules that prohibit lions, and so the lion stays.  He wanders the aisles, rubbing up against the books, and even sits in on story time, quickly learning that it is not appropriate to roar in the library, even if one is sad that story time has ended. Eventually, the lion makes himself rather useful, dusting the shelves with his furry tail, licking envelopes, and helping children reach the highest shelves, and always providing a comfy backrest during story hour.  One day, the head librarian gets hurt and the lion must roar for help, which begs the question -- Is there ever a time when it is okay to break the rules? 


I am a fan of all things library -- that is where I got this book, after all -- and anything that encourages a love of reading.  Library Lion's creative storyline and adorable illustrations are sure to engage readers of all ages.  The lion is expressive, which is always fun as there is nothing cuter than a sheepish lion. It also carries a useful lesson -- there are times when it is okay to break the rules.  Thankfully, the book is also just the right length to make a perfect bedtime story -- and one that parents won't get sick of reading again and again.  

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: All clear.

Monday, October 11, 2021

The Damned (The Beautiful, #2) - Renee Ahdieh

Summary: Following the events of The Beautiful, Sébastien Saint Germain is now cursed and forever changed. The treaty between the Fallen and the Brotherhood has been broken, and war between the immortals seems imminent. The price of loving Celine was costly. But Celine has also paid a high price for loving Bastien.

Still recovering from injuries sustained during a night she can’t quite remember, her dreams are troubled. And she doesn’t know she has inadvertently set into motion a chain of events that could lead to her demise and unveil a truth about herself she’s not quite ready to learn. Forces hiding in the shadows have been patiently waiting for this moment for centuries. And just as Bastien and Celine begin to uncover the danger around them, they learn their love could tear them apart. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)
My Review: I’m a little nervous to write this because I think it’s going to be an unpopular opinion. However, I have never shied away from what needs to be said. I thought this book was boring. On paper (har har) it should be super exciting—vampires, werewolves, fantasy people; am extravagant world that is dark and mysterious; murder and vendetta and, randomly, a walk through an alternative universe-type situation that had me feel like I’d switched books briefly. It sounds super interesting, right? However, I had a hard time bringing myself to read it. I can usually pound a YA book out like it’s no big thang. A few days, little commitment, it all works out. Not this one. I’ve been reading this thing for weeks. I finally finished.

In its defense, the book does pick up about ¾ of the way through. Suddenly, the story just seemed to hit its stride and the reading went faster. I still wasn’t rushing to finish like I should be, but it was okay, and I got ‘er done.

I’ve been trying to search my soul and evaluate my life and find out what made this so difficult for me, and I’ve settled on the idea that this particular section of the story (because it has four books in the series so far, this is the second one; you can review our review of The Beautiful here) felt like the story was just in a holding pattern. Geographically they all just sort of stayed in their house, and there was a lot of talk about what was happening—back story, people changing, etc., but the real action didn’t come until much later. Also, I don’t think I really liked the characters. They weren’t very fleshed out, and their names were pretentious and hard to keep track of. I get it, this is bougie New Orleans old school vampire stuff, which sounds super cool, but it was actually just lackluster. There was a lot of preening about and flashing teeth but very little actual action and excitement. The story skips around to different characters a lot, which makes it hard to know or care about any of them too deeply. I understand that this is a story about a group of characters—a whole set of vampires, a whole set of werewolves, and then a whole lotta other randos, but it just made it hard to know them and therefore care about them. Being in a holding pattern and not knowing the characters in the holding pattern made for a rather dry experience.

Sometimes it is hard for a series to maintain the level of excitement as it creates in some of the installments. Sometimes things are just happening, and it’s necessary for other parts of the story to just develop the backstory and chill while waiting for things to come. Based on the ending in this book, I can see that this might be the case for this novel, and so I am optimistic for the next one. However, I won’t be rushing out and putting it at the front of my reading pile.

My Review: 2.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is one quite descriptive and steamy sex scene. I found it quite intense for the YA audience this book is intended for.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Freeform Friday: A Chorus Rises ( A Song Below Water #2) - Bethany C. Morrow

Summary: Teen influencer Naema Bradshaw has it all: she's famous, privileged, has “the good hair”— and she’s an Eloko, a person who’s gifted with a song that woos anyone who hears it. Everyone loves her — well, until she's cast as the awful person who exposed Tavia’s secret siren powers.

Now, she's being dragged by the media. No one understands her side: not her boyfriend, not her friends, nor her Eloko community. But Naema knows the truth and is determined to build herself back up — no matter what.

When a new, flourishing segment of Naema’s online supporters start targeting black girls, however, Naema must discover the true purpose of her magical voice. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: Here’s the thing. This is the sequel to A Song Below Water (you can read my review for that book here) and while there’s a lot I love and think are admirable about both books, I’m not sure I’d read another in this series. Let me start with what I liked.

I always like a story about an alternate universe where magic is a thing and everyone is cool with it. This is a cool alternate universe because some Black girls are magical sea creatures, like sirens, and gorgons, etc. It’s pretty fun. I feel like there’s lots of mermaids running amuck in literature but not as many of the fun supernatural sea creatures in this book, which is an exciting addition to the mythical creature books running rampant in YA fic these days.

And I think the subject matter is really important. (Not the siren/gorgon stuff, the real story.) The story itself is a not-so-veiled discussion of race and the expectations society has of Black girls, and how some people claim to be allies when they are anything but. I thought it was complicated and yet a timely and pertinent discussion that was well-done and could easily lead to important discussions. I do wish there was even more outright discussion of race and society; I think this would have given the reader more understanding of how to address it themselves, and maybe even given them some vocabulary to use when doing so.

But all that said, this book was a lot to take. And I don’t mean in terms of subject matter. It’s about girls in high school, but I think Morrow really expects a lot from her readers. For instance, the size of the font is actually pretty small. I know this is a weird thing to comment about, but most YA fiction has bigger font than this book, and it makes the chapters longer and the book deceptively longer than you’d thing a YA book would be. And while I realize that Morrow herself probably didn’t make that decision, it’s an example of the overall issue I had.

The language Morrow chooses is mature. Not mature as in swearing (although there are a few instances of swearing, but not much), but mature as in she uses big words that I think the average teen reader who wants to read about sirens probably doesn’t know. I’ve been around lots of teen girls and have never heard them utter such intelligent vocab. Also, the voice of the characters and the strong voice of the protagonist are a lot. I appreciate the skill Morrow exhibits in creating the feel of the characters. But it’s intense, reading like that. The main character has got a huge personality and is smart (possibly savvier than a girl her age would really be), so I think some intelligent readers will really dig it, and others might be a little put off. It isn’t super smooth and effortless easy reading like so many YA fic books. Now that being said, I’m totally cool with an author bringing the readers up to a higher level. I think a book like this could easily be the type of thing that exposes less-experienced readers to more complicated material and a really positive way. But I personally found these aspects of this particular book a little alienating.

Here’s the bottom line. I’ve read many YA books with challenging subject matter that I feel like I can connect to, and relate to, and some that even bring me back nostalgically. Unfortunately, in spite of it’s other strengths, this is not one of those books. I felt old and although I could definitely see the importance of the discussion, these girls were too cool for me and too hip. I don’t know that I would read another in the series just because I feel like it’s not for me. To be fair—I am old and not hip, so it is what it is.

If you enjoy supernatural books, especially ones with a strong female protagonist and relevant social discussion, this book is for you.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are a swear words, but not many, and the love story is sweet and not too sexual. I’m surprised at how clean this book is.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

I'm a Feel-O-Saur - Lezlie Evans & Kate Chappell (Illustrator)

Summary:  Emotions are inside us all.  Some are big and some are small.  So many moods we all go through...What kind of FEEL-O-SAUR are you?  Whatever mood you're in today, it's all OK!  

- Happy-saurus
- Grumpy-saurus
- Silly-saurus
- Angry-saurus
- Shy-o-saurus
- and more!

I'm a Feel-o-saur helps young readers explore all the different feelings that everyone has!

(Summary from book - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)


My Review:  Kids can be so many things. Happy. Shy. Angry. Sad. Silly. Scared. Excited.  Bored. Grumpy. Brave.  Heck, the toddler set can be all of those things in under a minute.  Unfortunately, it's not always easy for Little Ones to know what to do with strong emotions. I'm a Feel-o-saur is a kid-friendly guide to human emotions, designed to help children identify how they are feeling and how to process those feelings in healthy ways.  The author introduces ten different feel-o-saurs (aka kids experiencing different emotions), using short poems to illustrate how a child may be feeling and suggest ways to work through those emotions.  The cheery marigold cover, colorful characters, and lilting prose are sure to captivate the interest of any young readers (especially dino-lovers), while the meaningful message will undoubtedly appeal to parents.  

So often, children are taught to deny or mishandle their feelings -- to contain their excitement, mask their fear, tame their silliness, and bottle their anger.  I'm a Feel-o-saur teaches children that they don't need to be afraid of their emotions ('Feelings change throughout the day, some up, some down, and that's okay!'); instead, they have the power to choose how to react when they have strong feelings.    I especially loved the final page which contains all ten feel-o-saurs and gives a specific activity for each that might be helpful in that moment.  If we can raise a generation of children that can recognize, acknowledge, and act in healthy ways as they manage their feelings, we will be in a much better place than we are right now.  Thankfully, I'm a Feel-o-saur is an encouraging step in the right direction.

If you look carefully at the cover of this book, you'll see that the 'feel-o-saurs' are actually a group of young children expressing a specific emotion while dressed in a dinosaur costume.  I think it is important that children see themselves somewhere on the page of their favorite books, so I really appreciate the inclusive scope of the book, which incorporated girls (as well as boys) and was ethnically diverse.  More kiddos will be able to point at this book and say 'that's me!'  Hooray!

Long story short, I'm a Feel-o-saur achieves the oft sought after but rarely attained Children's Book 'Trifecta' -- a story that is engaging, meaningful, and the *perfect* length for a bedtime story.  I highly recommend it for your Little feel-o-saurs.  

My Rating: 4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  All clear.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

You Did What? Secrets, Confessions & Outrageous Stories from Real Life - Tova Leigh

Summary:  Have you ever wondered what other people get up to when they think no on'e slooking?  Do you have a mortifying secret of your own you've never dared share?  Don't worry: these funny, sexy, hair-raising and heart-warming confessions will reassure you that you're by no means alone.  They've all been collected by bestselling author and digital creator Tova Leigh, who shares a few shocking stories of her own....   (Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:   I think it's important to let you know from the outset that I didn't finish this book.  I accepted it for review based upon a cover image and the following description:

YOU DID WHAT? A fantastic collection of funny, moving, and outrageous confessions from people from all walks of life, chosen and introduced by popular digital creator & bestselling author Tova Leigh. 

Had I done any research whatsoever, I would have known this book probably wasn't for me.  My naïve little brain thought I was going to read a book filled with embarrassing stories (a la Can you believe my daughter pulled my skirt up in the grocery store) or parenting confessions (a la I lock myself in the pantry to get a little peace and quiet).  That sort of thing.  Stuff I could potentially read out loud and laugh about with my husband or teens.  What arrived in the mail was most definitely not suitable for the kind of dramatic reading I had envisioned.   Long story short, it was exceptionally explicit.  I didn't figure that out right away though, so I'll give you my initial impressions.

You Did What? has four main chapters: Parenting Confessions, Revenge & In the Office Confessions, Sex & Relationship Confessions, and Bodily Fluids Confessions.  Yup, you read that right.  Bodily Fluids Confessions.  I cringe a little just typing it.  Once I saw the chapter headings, I knew I probably wasn't going to read the whole book, but figured I could try to read the Parenting and Revenge/Office sections, skim or skip the Sex section, and tentatively explore the Fluids section unless it became too icky.  Parenting and Revenge/Office contained entries that alternated between hilarious, sad, serious, gross, and just plain genius (parenting hacks!).  While I didn't personally identify with all of the entries, I could see how they might be cathartic for others to read.  My last hope was that all the more explicit entries would be contained in the one section I planned to skip but, unfortunately they were present in all of the sections.  Then, when I got to the Sex section, I was rather surprised to find that it took up most of the rest of the book.  I was sad because I knew that there were probably entries in it that weren't explicit, but I didn't want to wade through all the TMI in order to find them.  Anyway, I flipped to the final section, read a few entries, and quickly decided that my stomach couldn't handle it.  

Ultimately, I decided to protect my own headspace and threw in the proverbial towel.   I am sure that there are scads of people who would 'LOL' their way through You Did What? and never bat an eye at the content -- I'm just not one of them.  

My Rating:  1 Star.

For the Sensitive Reader:   Plenty of profanity and frank discussion of sexual matters.  If you are bothered by profanity or the sexually explicit, this book is not for you. 

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) - Helene Wecker

 

Summary: Chava is a golem, a woman made of clay, able to hear the thoughts and longings of the people around her and compelled by her nature to help them. Ahmad is a jinni, a perpetually restless and free-spirited creature of fire, imprisoned in the shape of a man. Fearing they’ll be exposed as monsters, these magical beings hide their true selves and pretend to be human—just two more immigrants in the bustling world of 1900s Manhattan. Having encountered each other under calamitous circumstances, Chava and Ahmad’s lives are now entwined—but they’re not yet certain of what they mean to each other.

Each has unwittingly affected the humans around them. Park Avenue heiress Sophia Winston, whose brief encounter with Ahmad left her with a strange illness that makes her shiver with cold, travels to the Middle East to seek a cure. There she meets a tempestuous female jinni who’s been banished from her tribe. Back in New York, in a tenement on the Lower East Side, a little girl named Kreindel helps her rabbi father build a golem they name Yossele—not knowing that she’s about to be sent to an orphanage uptown, where the hulking Yossele will become her only friend and protector.

Spanning the tumultuous years from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of World War I, The Hidden Palace follows these lives and others as they collide and interleave. Can Chava and Ahmad find their places in the human world while remaining true to each other? Or will their opposing natures and desires eventually tear them apart—especially once they encounter, thrillingly, other beings like themselves?

In this enthralling historical epic, set in New York City and the Middle East in the years leading to World War I— the long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Golem and the Jinni—Helene Wecker revisits her beloved characters Chava and Ahmad as they confront unexpected new challenges in a rapidly changing human world. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: It has been over seven years since the prequel to this book, The Golem and the Jinni, came out. It has been a long seven years of waiting for this newest addition. At the time, I don’t think that any of us thought we’d be so lucky as to get a sequel to it, and so this was a much-awaited and much-anticipated book that I have personally been waiting for. It wasn’t until I entered the book onto Goodreads that I saw there was a companion book coming out (and that was years ago). Don’t you love when that happens on Goodreads? You find out that a book you loved is one of a series or has another one coming? Man, it’s like a very happy surprise.

One thing that is always a worry for me is that I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up and know what’s going on in the sequel of a book without a major refresher. I don’t usually like to go back and re-read a book (too many new things on my shelf calling my name!) but I actually remembered the first book quite well. However, Wecker did an excellent job of reminding the reader of things that happened, who the characters were, and gently coaxing those memories out. Because of this, I think you could read it as a standalone. However, I don’t know why you’d want to. Being in this world is a pleasure and I felt that The Golem and the Jinni was such a book that warrants a read. I highly recommend it.

I loved The Hidden Palace. It’s long, and I enjoyed every minute of it. First of all, Wecker is an excellent writer. She writes in a way that pulls you in, but still makes the reading accessible. Sometimes writing is beautiful and it requires a lot of mental energy to keep up. Wecker’s is not like that. Her writing is beautiful and present but allows the reader to be immersed in the story and the world. I loved that about the first book as well. It’s truly a delight to read such a talented author.

The strength of this book definitely lies in its character development. The Hidden Palace is written in a way where we can explore each character individually, and then when they come together, we totally understand each of the individual’s thoughts, background, and actions. Many authors aren’t able to switch back and forth from characters so effortlessly. I always knew who I was with and where I was in this book. The characters aren’t written in first person, but Wecker’s writing skills allow us to explore each character in a way that puts us right there with them.

The story in this book is excellent. It is interesting, it moves at a good pace, and Wecker knows when to stop and explore a time and when to move on and allow time to pass. Many years are covered in this book, and yet it doesn’t feel like we’re missing huge chunks of time that weaken the plot.

I am happy to report that there is a satisfying ending to this book. It doesn’t end how I thought it might, but I guess I tried to go in with an open mind and let the story take me where it would. However, when I love a book so much, and have invested many hours in reading it and being with the characters, I certainly want a good ending (and by “good” I don’t necessarily mean happy). This is just such a book. I felt that rush of endorphins when finishing a good book, and feeling satisfied with it. I always have a hope that maybe there will be another one, but if there’s not, I will be okay with that.

If you read The Golem and the Jinni, you MUST read this sequel. It is excellently written with a beautiful story and exceptional character development. If you haven’t read The Golem and the Jinni, I highly recommend it, and you are lucky that you won’t have to wait so long for the sequel.

My Rating: 5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is clean.

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard

Summary:  "Power is the strength to bring about social, political, and economic change....Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."  - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

His speeches stirred a generation to change -- and outlined a practical way to economic freedom and true democracy.  His words would help bring about the end of a brutally unequal system -- and would show a timeless method for achieving fairness and justice for all.

A Call to Conscience is a milestone collection of Dr. King's most influential and best known speeches.  Compiled by Stanford historian Dr. Clayborne Carson, director of the King Papers Project, and by contributing editor Kris Shepard, this volume takes you behind the scenes on an astonishing historical journey -- from the small crowded church in Montgomery, Alabama, where 'The Birth of a New Nation" ignited the modern civil rights movement, to the center of the nation's capital, where "I Have a Dream" echoed through a nations conscience; to the Mason Temple in Memphis, where over ten thousand people heard Dr. King give his last, transcendent speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," the night before his assassination.  In twelve important introductions, some of the world's most renowned leaders and theologians -- Andrew Young, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Mrs. Rosa Parks, among others -- share with you their reflections on these speeches and give priceless firsthand testimony on the events that inspired their delivery.

Expressing a deeply felt faith in democracy, the power of loving change, and a self-deprecating humor, A Call to Conscience is Dr. King speaking today.  It is a unique, unforgettable record of the words that rallied millions, forever changed the face of America, and even today shape our deepest personal hopes and dreams for the future.

My Review:  A Call to Conscience is a collection of several of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most impactful speeches, each introduced by a prominent member of the Black community or well-known ally (think Rosa Parks, John Lewis, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Representative John Lewis, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and Ambassador George McGovern).  Through these introductions, I was able understand the historical context surrounding each speech before I read it and learn more about Dr. King from the perspective of those who knew him.  The actual speeches include both Dr. King's words and the excited commentary from crowd (in parenthesis), which shows how his words engaged and resonated with his audience. As I read, I was blown away by just how much I didn't know about Martin Luther King, Jr. or the history surrounding the Civil Rights movement.  

Though Dr. King's life was abruptly and tragically cut short, he was a truly remarkable individual and a marvelous example of compassion, dedication and moral courage,   In the face of overwhelming and often violent opposition, he displayed a fervent commitment to unity and justice achieved through non-violent protest.  As a preacher and master orator, Dr. King blended his beloved Christian faith with his extensive knowledge of theology, politics, economics, history, and human nature, in such a way that his speeches lifted the hearts of the oppressed and awakened the conscience of the nation.  His words are, sadly, just as relevant now as they were in the 1950s-1960s and his solutions to many of the nation's complex racial and economic issues stand the test of time.  

In many of his speeches, Dr. King applauded the recent strides towards equality, but called on those who are content to sit in the shadows of bigotry and racism to do better.  For those who had not yet committed to the cause of justice, he called for action rather than silence.  I am by no means an expert in what Dr. King would or would not say, but I imagine he would give a similar message if he were alive today.  

In one of the final 'introductions,' I was struck by the words of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, which gave perhaps the most compelling reason to read this book:

 "Unfortunately, much of Dr. King's, broad and powerful message is in danger of being left behind as new generations come to know him only through history and see him as more myth than man.  His life and great works are still relevant to the complex realities of today's social problems, and if we allow the richness of his example to recede, we lose the opportunity to learn from him."

If you don't know much about Martin Luther King, Jr., I challenge you to read this book.  As you come to know Dr. King more fully, I think you'll agree that his call to action is imperative and his example, worthy of emulation.

My Rating:  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Discussion of racism, violence against a Black population, use of the word 'Negro' 

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The One with all the Cross-Stitch: 21 Unofficial Patters for Fans of Friends - Anna Selezneva

 

Summary: Craft with your friends.

Get stitching with this adorable cross-stitch book that combines your favorite TV sitcom with a fun and relaxing craft!  Relive the very best moments of Friends as you stitch together 21 iconic images and quotes, including: The Central Perk sign, "How you doin'?," the chick and the duck, The Thanksgiving trifle, "Pivot!," and more!

Whether you're making fabulous wall art to proudly display your Friends super fandom or one-of-a-kind handmade gifts for your friends and family, this cross-stitch book is a must have for any crafty, die-hard lover of Friends.

(Summary from back of book - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:   A little over eighteen years ago, I was pregnant with my first child and went into early labor, which the doctors were thankfully able to stop.  I quit both my jobs from the hospital and headed home for a few months of solid bedrest.  I was bored to tears until an acquaintance lent me her Friends DVDS which I binge-watched as I worked on an enormous cross-stitch I hoped to hang in the baby's room. Since then, cross-stitch and Friends have always been inextricably connected in my mind.  Even now, as I review this book, I'm watching Season 7 with the very daughter that I was pregnant with during my first binge-session.  Could the timing of this review BE any more perfect?   I think not.  

The One with All the Cross-Stitch is a cleverly-named collection of 21 cross-stitch patterns that follow a Friends theme,  as well as a guide for beginner's on how to read a pattern, do basic stitching, knot thread, and finish a piece.  Here is a complete list of the different patterns, which may not make sense to every reader, but will certainly make sense to fans of the show:

  • Smelly Cat (see right)
  • Doesn't Share Food  
  • Pivot
  • The Chick and the Duck
  • How You Doin'?  (We all read that the same way, right?)
  • Unagi   (Ahhhh... Salmon Skin Roll)
  • I'll Be There for You
  • Moo Point
  • Thanksgiving Trifle
  • We Were On A Break
  • Seven (Yes, that Seven!)
  • NYC Skyline
  • The Yellow Frame
  • Lobster Love
  • Fire Beats Everything
  • Grandma's Taxi
  • Transponsters  (The guess that lost them the apartment)
  • Central Perk
  • The Turkey  (See right)
  • The Couch and the Lamp
  • and even the Friend's alphabet, so you can create your own favorite phrases from the show.  

Each pattern has an assigned difficulty level (11 Easy, 6 Medium, 3 Hard, and 1 N/A) and comes with fabric size and thread color recommendations for just the right look.  Personally, they seemed like great fun and something a focused cross-stitcher could pull together in an afternoon.  

It's important to note that this is an unofficial cross-stitch guide, which means that nowhere in the book are there images of the Friends cast or even direct mention of them. Don't worry, though.  While the author doesn't name names, she makes enough not-so-subtle references to Friends that the connection is hard to miss.  Long story short, The One With All the Cross-Stitch is an adorable tribute to an iconic TV show and would be a fun gift for your favorite crafty Friends fanatic -- even if that happens to be YOU!

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  One cross-stich (SEVEN!) has some rather sexual connotations.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Six of Crows Duology (including Six of Crows, #1 and The Crooked Kingdom, #2)

The Six of Crows duology is comprised Six of Crows (#1) and Crooked Kingdom (#2).  Six of Crows is set following the events of the Grisha trilogy (aka the Shadow and Bones trilogy), also written by Leigh Bardugo.  

To preserve the book timeline and avoid spoilers, it is best to read the Shadow and Bone trilogy (reviewed here) followed by the Six of Crows duology.

I had a lot of time to read this summer (hallelujah) and fell headlong into all things Leigh Bardugo, so I've decided not to torture you and included both books in this review.  You'll find our review of Crooked Kingdom just below our review of Six of Crows.  

Happy scrolling!

___________________________________________

Summary: 
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker.  Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams.  But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge

A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager

A runaway with a privileged past

A spy known as the Wraith

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction -- if they don't kill each other first. 

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

A NOTE:  Although wildly popular in its own right, Six of Crows has found renewed success with the release of Netflix smash hit series Shadow and Bone (2021), which incorporates several of the characters from Six of Crows operating within the Shadow and Bone timeline.  I plan to discuss both story mediums later in my review, but first I'd like to focus solely on the book version. 

My Review:  Have you ever picked up a book and known within minutes that you're going cover-to-cover?  The stars have aligned, there's nothing else on the agenda, and you feel it in your bones; today is the day.  That's how I felt when I picked up Six of Crows.

First off, Six of Crows is literally gorgeous.  The silver-toned hardcover is stunning -- I especially love the font -- but that's really just the beginning.  It's the first book I've ever read where the edge of the paper (the part of the text that is visible when the book is closed) is completely black.  It makes the book look rather sinister, which is entirely fitting.  Open the book, expecting more black, and the inside cover (or endpaper) is a vibrant red, the only color in the entire book if you don't count the subtext on the front cover which reads: Six dangerous outcasts.  One impossible heist.  Throw in a few beautifully rendered maps (I'm a sucker for those) and, I mean, how could I not read this book ?

Six of Crows tells the story of Kaz Brekker, a brilliant but ruthless conman with a skilled crew of cutthroats, sneak thieves, and spies at his disposal.  Kaz and his associates make their own way in a brutal world, trading in secrets, stealing for their own gain, and never looking back. When the Merchant Council hires the crew to retrieve a high-value target from the clutches of the Fjerdan Ice Court, they jump at the chance to earn a small fortune.  As the group attempts to infiltrate the enemy stronghold, problems of the hell-in-a-handbasket variety arise.  Thankfully, if there is one area in which Kaz excels, it's improvisation. 

Where the Shadow and Bone series gave readers access to the upper echelons of Ravkan society, Six of Crows dives deep into the Barrel, the roughest sector of Ketterdam on the isle of Kerch.  Bardugo uses five main characters to narrate the story and, at least initially, doesn't offer much in the way of explanation or character introduction.  I was a little confused at first -- like, am I supposed to know what happened between these two characters? -- but soon realized that Bardugo was weaving backstory into the present predicament, revealing each character more fully as the plot progressed.  I began to look forward to these revelations as they often gave me a greater empathy for the characters and an entirely new perspective on the story.  Overall, Bardugo's writing is strong, brimming with fascinating characters and a thoroughly unpredictable plot that held my attention from start to finish.  

I would give this book 5 Stars based solely on its entertainment value and nothing else.  It never stopped moving -- ambushes and escapes, romance and betrayal, hidden agendas, explosions, trickery, and shenanigans galore. Some books have one plot twist, maybe two; this one had a gazillion.* I never knew what the plot was going to do and I loved it.  Add to that excitement some thoroughly engaging characters with some fairly spectacular chemistry, and you have a book that is nearly impossible to put down.  The main characters -- Kaz, Inej, Jesper, Nina, and Matthias -- are complex and relatable, and I love them all for too many reasons to innumerate here. If I had to pick a favorite, I'd probably land on either Inej or Nina (but probably Inej) because they are just too cool for words.  The character arcs and interactions were an absolute pleasure, often humorous, and for those with a romantic bent, there are plenty of 'ships' to sail on, if you know what I mean.

The list of things I didn't like about Six of Crows is rather short and mostly has to do with things I feel obligated to write about in the 'sensitive reader' section.  Overall, I think it was quite tame for what the genre has become but there are a few situations that contain slightly adult themes that could potentially lead to more adult themes in the next book.  There is also a little bit of profanity, some innuendo and non-graphic discussion of brothels (and the things that happen there).  

Overall, I loved my time with Six of Crows, getting to know the characters and follow along on their adventure.  It was fairly intense and though the ending offered some resolution, it left several loose ends that will hopefully see some tying in the next book.  Readers who are chomping at the bit after having devoured the Grisha trilogy and binged the first season of Shadow and Bone, should definitely put Six of Crows at the top of your TBRs.  I am desperately trying to finish this review so that I can *allow* myself to start the next book, Crooked Kingdom.  I am in line for a hard copy at the library (my preference) but I also checked it out on ebook and audiobook, just in case, because I am not waiting.

*okay, sliiiiight exaggeration.  But you get the idea.

My Rating (of the book):  5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some violence.  A handful of swear words.  Some innuendo, discussion of brothels, and what occurs there.  There is a flirtation between two male characters.  For the most part, everyone's clothes stayed on unless it was absolutely necessary for the conservation of body heat.  

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You can scroll right over this next bit and head straight to CROOKED KINGDOM, if you aren't interested in how the Grishaverse books relate to the Netflix series.

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THE GRISHABOOKVERSE & THE NETFLIX SERIES

As someone who read the Grisha trilogy and watched the first season of Shadow and Bone prior to reading Six of Crows, I wanted to make a few post-review comments about how the story mediums relate to each other and my experience with them.    

In the book series, Six of Crows is set several years after the events of the Grisha trilogy.  Other than a shared history and a few minor characters, the two books don't interact much.  Not so with the Netflix series, which blends the characters from both series together in one season.  Thankfully, people who have seen the show first do not need to be worried about reading the same story in print (which is chronologically impossible anyway); the gang is on a new adventure. The Netflix series does not 'spoil' the Six of Crows experience, nor does the Six of Crows experience spoil the Netflix series.  It's all rather cleverly put together so that each story medium adds to the enjoyment of the other.  I was delighted to see some of my favorite Crow moments from the Netflix show appear on the page in the form of character backstory, but not all of the backstory makes it onto the screen (at least, it hasn't yet), so readers still receive a bigger dish on all the characters.  

As I was reading Six of Crows, I started to recognize aspects of the show that I hadn't realized were nods to the book when I watched it (There are so many).  Now that I've read the book, I've gone back and watched the series again (yup, I did that) and I have found even more, as well as some fore-shadowing that I did not pick up on.  Six of Crows and the Grisha trilogy have vibrant characters and the show honors that achievement with incredible casting (even if the show aged them up a bit) and creative blend of both stories.  Fans of the show will see some of their favorite 'scenes' played out on the page and see some of their favorite Ketterdam characters in a whole new light.  Personally, I plan to keep reading my way through the Grishaverse, but I am also rather excited to see more of the story play out in the Netflix series.  

___________CROOKED KINGDOM____________


Summary
: 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 badly weakened, 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 teams 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 the Grisha world.  (Summary from book - Image from amazon.com)

WARNING:  Six of Crows doesn't spoil much of the Shadow and Bone trilogy (aka Grisha trilogy), but Crooked Kingdom goes a bit further.  Four characters from the original S&B trilogy make an appearance, so it's obvious they don't kick the bucket in the other series.  What can I say?  If you don't want those spoilers, I suggest reading S&B first.

My Review:  After the events of Six of Crows, I was desperate to read the sequel, Crooked Kingdom.  I thought I might read it straight through like Crows, but ended up having to take a break halfway through, partly because I wanted the story to last a little longer and partly because, a certain someone was in imminent peril and I needed to calm down a little. It was so intense! Just when I thought the story would zig -- it zagged.  Just when I though the crew was in the clear -- betrayal, explosion, imminent peril!  And, for a book that isn't really billed as humor, I sure laughed my butt off! 

Crooked Kingdom picks up soon after the events of Six of Crows -- Kaz and the Dregs have been betrayed and the Wraith has been taken.  Kaz is determined to rescue her, recoup the crews lost bounty, and exact bitter vengeance by ruining both Van Eck and his arch nemesis Pekka Rollins. Meanwhile, someone or something is hunting Grisha, Matthias is worried about Nina (who is battling parem withdrawl), Jesper's past comes back to haunt him, Wylan's got a new face, and Inej is, well, busy trying to escape her captors.  On top of that, all the major players are intent on 'acquiring' Kuwei and the secrets he might hold. When the unthinkable occurs and it seems like all is lost, Dirtyhands must decide -- should he cut and run or stay and fight?  

Crooked Kingdom has a lot going on.  Like, a lot a lot.  Kaz's plans usually have a million moving parts and a million contingencies* that require the crew to pair off or split up and go their separate ways.  This means keeping track of who is doing what, where, and why.   Thankfully, this book has a gorgeous map of Ketterdam that makes it all a little easier. The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, including all the main characters from Six of Crows and one familiar addition.  As with her other novels, Bardugo continues to offer illuminating backstory and knows exactly how to end a chapter in a way that makes for riveting late-night reading.  Even though much of the story is action, there's still plenty of time for humorous banter, and some slow burn romance on a variety of 'ships'.  

I probably sound like a broken record by now (if you've read my Crows review), but I don't know if I can adequately convey how much I love Bardugo's characters, so I guess I'm just going to keep saying it -- I love them.  There were so many moments when these characters would say or do something that had me howling with delight and/or proclaiming my adoration of them to all within earshot.  For me, the story is sweet but the characters are golden.  Excuse me while I elaborate.

Kaz is billed as this hard-edged, no-nonsense criminal, who schemes faster than you can say 'Ketterdam,' but under all that sharpness, he's actually incredibly sweet (though he would strongly object to that characterization).  Despite his attempts to be stubbornly unknowable, it becomes clear to the reader (if no one else) that Kaz Brekker actually cares about his crew and what happens to them, especially *ahem* if they happen to have long dark hair and an affinity for knives.  

Speaking of knife-wielding warriors, Inej is equal parts strength and, in this book, vulnerability.  She's incredibly skilled, principled, and devoted to helping others, but is dealing with her own personal trauma and finds herself in a position that makes her question her value to the crew and to Kaz.  Her devotion to Kaz, and his to her, is the stuff of legend.  All I will say is that if certain 'Kanej' moments from this book don't somehow make their way onto Netflix's Shadow and Bone, someone is getting an angry letter.  

Jesper's backstory gets a major boost in Crooked Kingdom and I felt like I got to know his character so much better.  He is infinitely more than a charismatic sharp-shooter or gambling addict and this time around we find out why.  When a figure from his past comes sniffing around, a whole new window into Jesper's world opens up and I loved the insight it offered into his character.

Watching Nina and Matthias interact was one of the highlights of this book.  Bardugo's phrasing made me laugh so hard, my daughter actually came upstairs to ask me why I was, in her words, 'cackling'. Matthias is this intense but honorable guy, utterly devoted to Nina, who is headstrong, intelligent, and, on occasion, wildly inappropriate.  He is nearly incapable of subterfuge and she could sell glasses to a blind man in six different languages.  Together, they are the oddest sort of couple and yet, it works.  

By now, you're used to me singing the praises of all things Bardugo, but there were a few aspects of Crooked Kingdom that fell a little flat for me (hence the lower rating).  Even though I liked his basic storyline, Wylan was the character that I connected with the least.  I always felt like he was on the fringe of the group despite his presence in the narrative line-up.  I was unable to picture Wylan as anything other than a young boy in his early teens, whereas the other characters appear significantly older in my head (thanks to Netflix casting 23-39 year old actors).  This mental 'age gap' wasn't really a problem in the overall story until he ends up kissing someone and then, well, it wasn't my cup of tea. On that note, there were some more 'adult' thematic elements that I could have lived without (see 'sensitive reader' section), a minor villain or two that seemed superfluous, and one devastating event that I am actively attempting scrub from my memory.  Thanks to an accidental Instagram spoiler, I spent the whole book bracing myself for it.  All I will say is, not everyone gets their happily ever after. Prepare yourself for some bitterness amidst the sweet.  

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crooked Kingdom.  The story offers resolution to the main conflict, but also leaves the author room to tell other stories.  As it relates to Netflix's Shadow and Bones series, I'm hopeful I will get to see some of my favorite moments from this book played out on screen.  Although I am forced to wait a while to see if those prayers are answered, I don't have to wait to read more in the Grishaverse.  King of Scars is sitting right next to me, calling my name. It's sequel, Rule of Wolves, will be joining us shortly.

*slight exaggeration

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Violence.  Some profanity (5-10 instances, give or take).   A man and a woman kiss and later make out (clothes stay on).  Some same gender and cross-gender flirtation.  Two men kiss, twice (non-graphic).   Some innuendo, discussion of dead bodies, human trafficking, brothels, and rape (not overly graphic but potentially triggering).

Monday, September 27, 2021

We Were Never Here - Jennifer Gilmore

 

Summary: Did you know your entire life can change in an instant?  For sixteen-year-old Lizzie Stoller that moment is when she collapses, out of the blue. The next thing she knows she’s in a hospital with an illness she’s never heard of.

But that isn’t the only life-changing moment for Lizzie. The other is when Connor and his dog, Verlaine, walk into her hospital room. Lizzie has never connected with anyone the way she does with the handsome, teenage volunteer. However, the more time she spends with him, and the deeper in love she falls, the more she realizes that Connor has secrets and a deep pain of his own . . . and that while being with him has the power to make Lizzie forget about her illness, being with her might tear Connor apart. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I dare you to find a topic that is sadder than a teen with a debilitating, life-threatening illness. Go ahead, I’ll wait. It’s like the saddest thing ever! Seriously. I have read several books on this topic, as I’m sure you have (none of us will ever be the same after John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars). It’s just YA Fic gold, especially when it’s well-written.

I don’t love reading about sick children (because that would be disturbing), but what I do love about a book like We Were Never Here is that it allows the reader to be immersed in difficult topics, and ones that are hard to discuss in a non-organic way. We want our teens to be understanding and sympathetic, and we want them to be able to extend kindness to those who are experiencing difficulties. And, heaven forbid, one of our teens has to go through this. It’s hard to bring it up naturally, though, right? You can’t just be sitting around your meatloaf and potatoes and be like “So what do we do when one of our friends is sick and dying?” I mean, we can, but I firmly believe that one of the things that reading does for a person is allow them to develop and experience an empathy that can’t be achieved any other way. We Were Never Here has a strong female protagonist, and since it is written in first person, the reader can experience the feelings and thoughts of one who has to experience such a thing. I found it to be extremely effective. I also thought that Gilmore did a great job of describing the illness in enough detail that we were able to understand the difficulties associated with it, without having to go too deep into the nitty gritty of it and scaring the reader. There is always a careful balance with this, and I found that Gilmore did a great job achieving that balance.

This book also had the benefit of having some excellent flawed characters and had some very healthy ways that the protagonist was able to deal with it. It’s easy to think that when we meet someone that our first impression is true. I liked that Gilmore allowed her characters to develop and reveal themselves in a realistic way. I also liked that this allowed the reader to explore mental illness as well in a very authentic way. Because of this, the ending was satisfying even though it wasn’t necessarily the fairytale we all want.

I thought this was a really good read. It was a fast read, and easy to get into it. I read it in a very short time. I liked the voice of the protagonist and enjoyed the character development. The topic itself was sad but dealt with in a manner that will help readers develop empathy and understanding, which I think is always important. If you’re a reader of YA fic, and especially if you loved Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, this is a book for you.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There are a few instances of language, some medical procedures that aren’t too graphic, and one love scene that is somewhat detailed.

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