Kate’s Review: “The Missing Season”

39937609Book: “The Missing Season” by Gillian French

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from Edelweiss+

Book Description: Whenever another kid goes missing in October, the Pender kids know what is really behind it: a horrific monster out in the marshes they have named the Mumbler.

That’s what Clara’s new crew tells her when she moves to town: Bree and Sage, who take her under their wing; spirited Trace, who has taken the lead on this year’s Halloween prank war; and magnetic Kincaid, whose devil-may-care attitude and air of mystery are impossible for Clara to resist.

Clara doesn’t actually believe in the Mumbler. But as Halloween gets closer and tensions build in the town, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there really is something dark and dangerous in Pender, lurking in the shadows, waiting to bring the stories to life.

Review: Thank you to Edelweiss+ for sending me an eARC of this novel!

I’ve been racking my brain, but given that I lived in a fairly large metro area when I was a kid (and still do for that matter) I can’t think of any ‘urban legends’ that were prevalent in my hometown during my childhood. The closest I can come is when two mean girls in first grade tried to convince me that at midnight if you looked up at the sky you’d see a star that would automatically kill you and everyone you loved, and yes, I totally fell for it. But in terms of rumors turned folklore, I can’t recall any. But I’ve always been fascinated with localized urban legends, even back then, so finding books that have those themes are always going to grab my interest. That’s why I was so eager to read “The Missing Season” by Gillian French, a YA mystery thriller that includes tales of a mysterious figure called “The Mumbler” that supposedly snatches teens up during Halloween season. I went in expecting a mystery thriller with ambiguous horror elements. But instead, I got… a mishmash of themes that didn’t work for me.

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Me as I was reading this book and I still wasn’t clear in regards to its intent… (source)

“The Missing Season” takes place in the smallish town of Pender, and our protagonist Clara has just moved there due to her father’s somewhat nomadic career in construction. As our main character, I will say right off the bat that I liked Clara and I liked following her story and point of view. She lacks the luxury of being able to make connections because of the chance she might be moving again, so when she does make these connections there is a palpable fear of losing them, even if it isn’t outright said. The biggest conflict of this kind is the friendship between her and a girl named Bree. Bree, along with another girl named Sage, takes an immediate shine to Clara, and their friendship is a mix of the rush of having a girl pal, and the angst of competing with that girl pal in ways that were unanticipated. I know this familiar feeling all too well from my adolescent years, and I thought that French did a great job of showing it instead of telling it. The conflict in this case is the competing affections for local mysterious outsider Kincaid, who is the deepest in The Mumbler mythology of all the friends that Clara makes. The underlying tension and hurt between the two friends was the strongest aspect of this book, and the ways that Clara did, or in some cases didn’t, deal with that conflict felt very realistic.

But here is the problem with “The Missing Season”: it is very much marketed as a mystery thriller, and the description makes it sound like a new missing kid case is the center of the novel. But it’s very much not. The center of the novel is Clara’s relationships with the kids in town, and how she navigates her friendship with Bree and her need to fit in as those things come in conflict with the relationship she wants with Kincaid. Sure, another kid goes missing, and sure, there’s a question of what happened to her, but it wasn’t focused on nearly as much as I thought it was going to be. Instead, most of the conflict was Clara worrying about what Kincaid’s deal was, and what was going to happen to her new friendship with Bree if Clara and Kincaid did pursue their mutual feelings for each other. It wasn’t until the last fifth of the book that a full conflict with another child kidnapping raised the tension and thriller stakes, and even by then it was wrapped up VERY quickly, so quickly it almost felt like the author realized that oh yes, this was supposed to be a mystery thriller, better toss in a climax and wrap it up as quickly as possible. Even the ultimate solution felt tossed in there, with a couple of hints and clues scattered early on in the book, but not in a way that felt cohesive to a mystery. I kept waiting for the mystery and tension to build, but it plateaued very early at a level that wasn’t terribly high. I would be more inclined to call this book a contemporary realistic YA fiction book with some mysterious elements, but not enough for it to be considered an actual ‘thriller’. And because of that, I was totally let down by “The Missing Season”. If I had gone in with the expectations of this  being about a teenage girl’s bildungsroman I think I would have enjoyed it much more than I actually did, but as it was I couldn’t enjoy the story. I felt too duped.

I hesitate to write off “The Missing Season” for everyone, because my expectations were in a completely different place than they should have been. If you go in without the supposition that it’s a thriller, it may be more appealing. But, given that it’s trying to portray itself that way, I don’t feel comfortable recommending it as it’s presented.

Rating 5: While I liked the protagonist, the description of this being a ‘thriller’ did not fit the content of the story, and because of that I was pretty disappointed with “The Missing Season”.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Missing Season” is included on the Goodreads lists “Halloween in YA and Middle Grade Fiction”.

Find “The Missing Season” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Living God”

40006251Book: “The Living God” by Kaytalin Platt

Publishing Info: Inkshares, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: The Living God is foretold to bring about the destruction of the world in order to rebuild it into a paradise. Some worship and welcome His coming, other’s fear Him and would do anything to stop it. “The Living God” follows the internal struggle of two mages, Saran and Keleir, as they confront their fears and attempt to find meaning in the hand that life has dealt them. Saran seeks to overthrow her crazed father and salvage what is left of her country before it falls into complete ruin. Keleir is cursed with a Rauke’s soul, an ancient creature who is only able to survive by merging with an unborn child upon entering our world. Saran and Keleir are touched by fate, gifted with the ability to sense each other, and destined for a future that neither care to know. When Saran’s magic is stolen, she must confront a life without the ability to manipulate time, struggle to see the rebellion finished, and keep Keleir from becoming The Living God.

Review: Other than the gorgeous cover, I really didn’t know much about this book when I placed a request for it on NetGalley. There seemed to be a lot of interesting magical tidbits peppered throughout the book description, so that was a point in its favor. But, unfortunately, none of those little tidbits added up to a book I enjoyed.

Saran is a Time Mage, and as the name suggests, she has the ability to manipulate time. She is also a princess and the daughter of a tyrannical king whose violence is taken out on his family and his country. Saran is joined in her fight for her country by her love, Keleir, a Fire Mage who has his own internal demons, quite literally. Together, they work to overthrow Saran’s father in a rebellion, made only more difficult when Saran loses her time manipulation abilities.

This was…a weird read. Not having a whole lot of expectations going in, it seems weird to now write that it surprised me, but somehow that’s still the case. Most of those surprises weren’t of the good variety, but I’ll start with a few things I did enjoy.

As characters go, I did like Saran and Keleir, though he could veer a little too far into overprotective at times. But, overall, they were both interesting and  complex characters, each dealing with their own traumas: Saran, with the challenging tightrope she walks trying to pull off a rebellion under her vicious father’s nose, and Keleir working to contain a demon that lives within him and had, in the past, forced him to do terrible things before Saran saved him. I also really liked their romance (though some of descriptions of intimacy were awkward at best). It’s not that often that you come across a fantasy novel with an established couple at its heart, so I thought that read as a breath of fresh air.

But other than the basic outlines of those main characters and the novelty of the established romance, I struggled with this book. For one thing, it’s very slow. I’m often ok with slow books, too, so I feel like there was something in particular about this book that made this stand out to me. I think it comes down to two things. One, for a story about a time mage and a fire mage, after the initial first chapter of action, there’s a lot of planning and talking about plans and truly very little action. If action was never going to be at the heart of this story, fine. I can get behind a political fantasy. But this doesn’t feel like that, instead spending an inordinate amount of time talking about plans of action instead of carrying them out.

Two (and I think this is the real issue), there were a lot of references to past events that read as really important, eventful, and potentially more worth reading about than what we got in this book. It was really strange, to the point that in the second or third chapter of this book, I actually set it down and went on Goodreads because I was convinced that this must be the second book in a series, and I should check out the first one first, since man, it looks like some cool stuff happened there! But no. There was no first book and these awesome and important past events are just dropped in casually. I don’t know how to describe it or think of a time I’ve come across something similar. If anything, I think the author has a huge missed opportunity on her hands here as it seems that she missed out on writing a really cool book in lieu of writing a fairly bland one with references to said awesome, but nonexistent, book.

And then there was the sudden introduction of other worlds, including our own. This just hit me out of nowhere and not in a good way. Maybe it’s worth blaming the cover art, but I felt completely blindsided by this twist and it ultimately threw me out of a story that I was already either bored by or confused with.

I was really disappointed not to like this book more. Like I said, I can get behind slower fantasy fiction. Indeed, half the time I read fantasy, especially YA fantasy, I feel like the stories could benefit by being slowed down, giving more attention to fleshing out characters and worlds. But here it didn’t work out, mostly I think because there were so many references to really cool past events that we never got to actually see. And then the established romance was also a pro, but not enough to counterbalance these other issues. If you like slower-moving fantasy novels, you may like this. Especially if you go in prepared, unlike me, about the fact that this will read as if there should have been a prequel and yes, there are alternate worlds involved.

Rating 5: Why oh why didn’t we get a first book before this first book in this series?!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Living God” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists. But it is on “Indie Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal.”

“The Living God” isn’t yet listed on WorldCat, but check our your local library to find a copy!

 

Kate’s Review: “Bombshells United: Taps”

40996636Book: “Bombshells United (Vol.3): Taps” by Marguerite Bennett, Sandy Jarrell (Ill.), David Hahn (Ill.), and Aneke (Ill.)

Publishing Info: DC Comics, March 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The Batgirls are back…but some will be called to leave Gotham City behind. Alysia and Felicity head for Hawaii to investigate the mysterious radio signals causing trouble across the world, but they find a new voice for the revolution!

However, their findings leave the Bombshells divided! The Batgirls are determined to track down the source of their friends’ misfortunes, and their investigation leads to an eerie spit of land, where a lone radio tower projects a deadly signal that curses all who hear it.

Spinning off of the hit DC Collectibles statue line, Marguerite Bennett (Earth 2: World’s End) concludes this alternate reality where super-powered women are on the front lines fighting for justice!

Review: We’ve come to the point that I have been dreading basically since I first picked up the “Bombshells” books: the end. At first I dreaded the end because I loved the stories so very much. I remember the absolute joy I felt when reading the very first collection, “Enlisted”. I was blown away by the creativity, the feminism, the diversity, and the optimistic spunkiness, all being showcased in an alternate WWII universe. But once we got into “Bombshells: United”, and the series was abruptly cancelled by DC, my dread became less about missing the stories, and more about how much they had to wrap up in a short amount of time. And, unfortunately, my fears were not unfounded. “Bombshells United: Taps” was an unfocused and rushed mess of an ending.

But first, as always, let’s look at the positive. And there is a good amount of positive before I get to the negative, specifically the entire first half of this collection. The second to last arc of the series not only brings back The Bat Girls, but it also ropes in The Suicide Squad, Black Canary, and introduces Bumblebee! When a mysterious signal is going out over a pirate radio station, it turns listeners into violent, hypnotized automatons. The Batgirls, specifically Alyssa and Felicity, just want to know who has incapacitated their friends. The Suicide Squad has orders to take out Black Canary, as it’s her radio station AND her lover Oliver Queen has gone missing. Two scrappy side teams with very different ethos converging in Hawai’i was a very fun and suspenseful storyline, and anything that is going to showcase Dinah Lance is going to get positive snaps from me. Both the Batgirls and The Suicide Squad have different approaches on how to handle this situation, but as they all start to lose friends to the mysterious radio waves they have to find a way to work together to try and take it down. This side story was a fun one, and the solution harkened back to an older storyline, which I quite enjoyed seeing wrapped up in such a way. It felt like an appropriate send off for The Suicide Squad and The Bat Girls before this series has it’s final farewell, and a nice arc for Dinah Lance that fits her at times morally ambiguous personality.

But the last half, which is the final wrap up of the entire series, was confounding. I want to make clear that I do NOT completely fault Bennett and the other creative minds behind “Bombshells: United” for how this all went down. After all, to be cancelled so suddenly with so many open storylines and brand new ideas had to be not only devastating, but daunting. How could they properly wrap up so many things with such limited time left? It’s a monumental task no matter how you slice it. But instead of perhaps focusing on the core group of women and characters who started out the story, and giving them proper, well thought out send offs, instead it was decided that EVERYONE needs to be addressed, and that we need to wrap up the ENTIRE WAR in spite of the fact we left off in 1944, and we’ve barely addressed much outside of the Western Front! So the final wrap up jumps from Wonder Woman and her gang in one place, to Harley and Ivy in another, to Supergirl and her gang in another, AND YET STILL FEELS A NEED TO INTRODUCE NEW CHARACTERS AND THREATS, in the forms of Parademons, The Black Lanterns, and Lena Luther who happens to be an ALIEN (oh and so is LEX). Oh, and guess who else decides to show up? THE JOKER. As if it wasn’t already a bit nuts that Joker’s Daughter, whom we haven’t seen since the original Bombshells series, pops back in in hopes of snatching up Zatanna AGAIN. No, we also have to throw in THE JOKER, just so Harley can have her ‘I REJECT YOU, YOU BAD BOYFRIEND!’ moment that didn’t feel at all necessary, especially since her relationship with him was barely touched upon AND didn’t seem to have any kind of baggage remaining until this very moment. Why are you wasting time with this when there are so many Bombshells that need addressing? Oh, and The Flash even shows up for a couple of frames, and gets her own wrap up at the end for some reason in spite of the fact she for real pops in, and pops out, and everyone is like ‘who was that?’ So we are STILL introducing new Bombshells when I feel like the focus really ought to be on trying to do justice to the ones you already had, especially when you only have a couple issues to wrap up an entire war and a plethora of storylines. And so unfortunately, when you have a lot of characters and a lot of storylines that need to be wrapped up, none of them feel like they get their due, and a number of them get killed off in unceremonious berserker ways like Family FREAKIN’ Tyrell in “Game of Thrones”. But even there at least they got a send off; for some of our Bombshells that we’ve been following since the first arcs, it happens off page and barely gets a note of acknowledgement.

bombshells
This is one page. The next page does the same thing. Constant action. (source: DC Comics)

And then we get an “American Graffiti’ style wrap up with a ‘here is how they all ended up’ montage. It’s fine, but it’s a bit twee, and it is another reminder that there was so much going on, and so many characters who were barely given anything to do in the last story. It’s Selina who wraps everything up for us as she’s prepping Bruce Wayne to become a ‘space age’ superhero, while reminding him that, essentially, he ain’t shit compared to the ladies she’s seen in her day (oh and since his parents aren’t dead  he was raised with hope and love, because remember, there is nothing more powerful in this universe than the power of LOVE).

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It was too much. (source)

Look, ultimately I am going to have fond, fond memories of “Bombshells” as a whole, because while the ending was rough, I can’t place all blame on the creators. And the entire first series was so inspirational and important. Hell, the “United” series has some solid moments as well, some of which are in this issue. I think that the unbridled ambition came back to bite it in the ass, as nothing is guaranteed in this very unfair world where you can keep rebooting tired male superheroes/villains over and over, and women characters need to be ten times more interesting to be even given a shot to keep going. It’s unfair. It’s frustrating. But it doesn’t change that the ending to this series was lackluster, and that isn’t just on the injustice of it being cancelled too soon. Goodbye, Bombshells. You will definitely be missed.

Rating 5: A muddled and frenzied end to a series that I will legitimately miss, “Bombshells United: Taps” was a bit of a mess. I can’t fault it completely, but I was very disappointed that this is how we left my beloved Bombshells.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Bombshells United: Taps” is included on the Goodreads lists “2019 Queer SFF”, and “Upcoming 2019 SFF With Female Leads/Co-Leads”.

Find “Bombshells United: Taps” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed:

Serena’s Review: “The Sword and the Dagger”

39863306Book: “The Sword and the Dagger” by Robert Cochran

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, April 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: During the time of the Crusades, an unlikely trio—a Christian princess, her affianced prince, and a Muslim assassin—embarks on a quest to the court of the most fearsome warrior the world has ever known, Genghis Khan.

A rousing tale of adventure and romance about three young people who must grapple with fundamental issues of loyalty, friendship, faith, honor, and courage against the backdrop of conflicts that still resonate today.

Review:  I placed a request for this book based on the strength of its plot description and the beautiful cover. Even though there was a massive red flag telegraphed to me with the love triangle set up, I thought “Sure, why the heck not? Who doesn’t like a good ole fun trip into the time of the Crusades?” Alas, right off the bat I struggled to get into this book, and by the last page I was more confused by the editing (or lack thereof?) of this book than anything else.

The story follows our three intrepid adventureres: Princess Elaine, her betrothed Conrad, and Rashid, an assassin sent to kill Elaine. All three are made up of a complicated mixture of the best and worst aspects of their respective belief systems, be those religious or cultural, as well as a myriad of other aspects that go to prove that no person can be defined so simply. While journeying together through various trials and tribulations, they all must learn that their fellow travelling companions are just as complex as they themselves.

As I said, I didn’t love this book. But before I get into its challenges for me, I want to highlight some aspects of the book that I did enjoy. Firstly, I liked the historical setting and the way that was tied into the book. I also really liked a lot of the broader concepts about prejudice and tolerance that our three main characters explored throughout the story. There were the obvious debates about religious disagreements came to by the Christian Conrad and the Muslim Rashid, but the story also explored gender roles with the limitations placed on Elaine as a woman growing up in a time where very little was expected, or permitted, of women. Overall, there was a nice combination of action and adventure mixed in with these larger debates in a way that allowed the book to explore some pretty big topics without coming across as overly preaching. The fast pace of the story also helped in this regard.

So those are my pros. But mixed within some of those same things that I enjoyed were also the parts of this book that I struggled with. As I said, I liked the historical setting of this book and the fast paced nature of the adventure made for a snappy read. But mixed together, it also left the book feeling oddly light and surface-level as far as its world. Our main characters jump from place to place and action piece to action piece so quickly that I never really felt like I had time to really sit back and examine the intricacies of the setting in which these events were taking place. For a book that covers of settings and ground, I never felt like I was really given any time to appreciate that fact. The plot was too busy getting from point A to point B to allow for this.

The fast paced nature of the story was also fun, but it also felt like it undercut some of the more somber moments in the story and restricted some of the character development. While overall I did like the three main characters, I also never really felt overly attached to any one of them. They often felt like the standard, expected characters for a story like this. So, too, the story they were travelling through also felt pretty expected. There weren’t any big surprises, and the few twists that there were, were exactly the ones you’d come to expect. I don’t need huge surprises around any corner, but at a certain point a sense of newness does help.

But my biggest problem came down to the writing itself and one very specific thing: the POVs would change without any indication or warning. Even in the middle of paragraphs! Even to characters who weren’t one of the main three. In the very first chapter, we’re introduced to Elaine, but then random sentences come through from the perspective of those around her commenting on Elaine herself. There’s no explanation for why we’re suddenly in this new character’s mind and then just as suddenly, we’re back to Elaine. It was incredibly distracting and quickly started to drive me crazy as we went on. I’m not sure what was going on there, but this specific aspect is where I think a good editor was needed. This is the kind of writing tic/flaw that a good editor will flag and help an author work through during the revision process. For some reason that didn’t happen and what could have been a better story suffered for it.

Ultimately, this writing issue was really the nail in the coffin of my enjoyment of this book. There are some good bones here, but for me, I couldn’t get past the distraction of this. That, plus the light descriptions of setting and sometimes too-fast nature of the story, ended up outweighing the parts of the story that I did enjoy. This could be good for fans of historical fiction, especially those interested in this time period. But we warned that if you’re sensitive to writing quirks, this one might be a struggle.

Rating 5: It had some good things to say about prejudices and tolerance, but the weird POV issue was too much for me.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“The Sword and the Dagger” is a newer title so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2019 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “The Sword and the Dagger” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe”

36039614Book: “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” by Lauren James

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, July 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: The daughter of two astronauts, Romy Silvers is no stranger to life in space. But she never knew how isolating the universe could be until her parents’ tragic deaths left her alone on the Infinity, a spaceship speeding away from Earth.

Romy tries to make the best of her lonely situation, but with only brief messages from her therapist on Earth to keep her company, she can’t help but feel like something is missing. It seems like a dream come true when NASA alerts her that another ship, the Eternity, will be joining the Infinity.

Romy begins exchanging messages with J, the captain of the Eternity, and their friendship breathes new life into her world. But as the Eternity gets closer, Romy learns there’s more to J’s mission than she could have imagined. And suddenly, there are worse things than being alone….

Review: I had heard great things about this book both from the general online book community, as well as from some of my friends in person. And the fact that when I went to request it from the library list I found myself at the back of a very long waiting list also spoke to the general popularity of this title. So, patiently, I waited. A few weeks ago, my name finally came around and I immediately checked out the audiobook and dove in. Sadly, this entire story ends with the fact that I once again fell victim to a combination of over-hyped books and, probably, my own science fiction snobbery, resulting in me not loving this book.

For the past several years, teenage Romy has lived alone on her spaceshift. Born aboard to the two astronauts originally selected for this first mission to a far off planet, Romy has known nothing but life in space. Her only connections to humanity have been through media and communications with a NASA councelor who has helped her manage her anxiety. With years still ahead of her before she reaches her destination, Romy’s life is one of boredom and loneliness. That is until she hears that another, faster ship is coming. Aboard is J, her first contact with humanity. But their close friendship, developed through messaging back and forth, quickly begins to highlight questions about Romy’s own time on her ship and J’s ultimate mission.

I really, really wanted to love this book. It’s been a while since I’ve read a really good science fiction story, and the premise of this one sounds fantastic. Seriously, full marks to whomever wrote the book description and designed the cover art: this book has serious “hook” value. But then I started reading it and pretty much had immediate problems.

First things first, as I said above, some of this comes down purely to my own science fiction snobbery. I think that perhaps general YA fiction fans would have a lot fewer issues with this book than I did, especially if science fiction isn’t a go-to genre for them. But if I’m going to read a science fiction/space novel, I want that: science fiction. The story starts out with a bang, and after a short action scene, we’re immediately into a character introspection from Romy herself and her thoughts on anxiety. As a discussion on mental health, sure this is good. But there simply wasn’t enough about the science/space angle of things for me. We barely hear anything about the ship itself, or how it was set up to complete its mission, or what specific skills Romy has developed having lived her entire life on this ship. Instead, again, in that very first scene, we see Romy barely avoiding a disaster and then setting out to “read the manual” on the ship so she knows better what to do next time. What? You’re telling me this girl has lived her entire life on this ship, the last several years all alone, and she’s somehow not a complete expert on everything going on here? This starts to get into my character problems, but to summarize this section, this book simply didn’t have enough of the details about life in space and the ship itself to meet my higher expectations for science fiction. There were also a few things that legitimately don’t make any sense for space travel which left me questioning how much research the author really put into this (Romy uses scissors to open food…pretty sure they have tear-off packets of food rather than packing scissors into space for stuff like this).

Now, the characters. As I alluded to in the previous bit, I had some immediate issues with Romy right from the get go. For one thing, I had very mixed feelings about the discussions about Romy’s anxiety and mental health. I get that these are important topics, and it’s great representation to have them included. However, sometimes it starts to feel like these aspects of a character/story are added simply to check some nebulous box, and this works to the detriment of the story. I wanted a science fiction action/thriller story, and instead was getting a lot of character details that were both too much and yet also never quite enough to carry my interest. Beyond that, I found Romy to be very hard to find believable as a character who has grown up in such a unique environment.

We have the weird lack of knowledge of her own ship, yes. But on top of that, she reads just like your average, every day teenage girl. And I just couldn’t get on board with that type of characterization for a protagonist whose entire existence would be shaped by events so out of the ordinary. She hasn’t had human contact in years, and before that, only ever her parents. She’s lived her entire life on a very small ship. And yet she reads like “Jane Doe Teenager” in almost every way. Not only did this not make her interesting, but it actively rubbed wrong against what we know about her life experience. It felt like such a missed opportunity, really.

As for the story itself, I also had a few problems. Romy writes fanfiction as a pastime. Sure, this makes sense for the character. But that doesn’t mean I want to read pages of said fanfiction. It honestly felt like the author was essentially trying to recreate Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl” but in space! And that didn’t work for me. Especially when I couldn’t help but mourn the page time devoted to this aspect of the story in place of more science fiction details.

I will say that the twists of the story were interesting. But interesting in the way that they read as exciting, but if you stop and think about them very hard, they also start to fall apart pretty quickly. J’s backstory, motivation, and actions never made much real sense to me, and some of the twists required huge portions of the book to read as strange before the answers are revealed. I spent a good portion of the book questioning the basic premise of the entire mission in a way that was ultimately more distracting than beneficial when the reveal finally put together the pieces in the end.

So, sadly, in the end this book wasn’t for me. I think general YA fiction fans would quite enjoy it (indeed, obviously they  have!). But if you like science fiction in particular, I think there are a lot of elements of this story that will read as more frustrating than intriguing. I also feel like the character work was lacking throughout. It’s no fault of the book’s, but when you have similar titles like “The Martian” hanging around out there, that succeeded so well based on the great scientific aspects and, more importantly, incredible main character at its heart, this book feels even more flat than it would in a vacuum.

Rating 5: Some science fiction snobbery on my part, and I think a legitimately weak main character left this book not quite hitting the mark for me.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists for some reason, but it is on “YA Space Operas.”

Find “The Loneliest Girl in the Universe” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely”

43204703Book: “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” by Brigid Kemmerer

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury YA, January 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: Fall in love, break the curse.

It once seemed so easy to Prince Rhen, the heir to Emberfall. Cursed by a powerful enchantress to repeat the autumn of his eighteenth year over and over, he knew he could be saved if a girl fell for him. But that was before he learned that at the end of each autumn, he would turn into a vicious beast hell-bent on destruction. That was before he destroyed his castle, his family, and every last shred of hope.

Nothing has ever been easy for Harper Lacy. With her father long gone, her mother dying, and her brother barely holding their family together while constantly underestimating her because of her cerebral palsy, she learned to be tough enough to survive. But when she tries to save someone else on the streets of Washington, DC, she’s instead somehow sucked into Rhen’s cursed world.

Break the curse, save the kingdom.

A prince? A monster? A curse? Harper doesn’t know where she is or what to believe. But as she spends time with Rhen in this enchanted land, she begins to understand what’s at stake. And as Rhen realizes Harper is not just another girl to charm, his hope comes flooding back. But powerful forces are standing against Emberfall . . . and it will take more than a broken curse to save Harper, Rhen, and his people from utter ruin.

Review: So, as always, another “Beauty and the Beast” retelling comes out and I line up obediently to read it. This, if anything, is proof that I am an eternal optimist, as I’ve had pretty poor luck with this particular fairytale and the versions I’ve read. Yes, “Beauty” is and likely will always be one of my absolute favorite fairytale retellings, and I loved “Uprooted.” But from there…maybe a few middling titles, but then it’s straight down to versions that I highly dislike.  So the scale is pretty heavily weighted on both sides of the extreme. Sadly, “A Curse So Dark and Lonely,” while not my least favorite version, joins the ever expanding ranks of disappointments for this story.

In the fairly standard layout of the story, Rhen is our cursed prince, doomed to relive one season over and over again, attempting to win over a new girl every three months. But, what’s worse, his failures don’t simply reset things, but end with his transformation into a terrible beast that kills all those in his path. Harper, a girl growing up in D.C. and with struggles of her own, suddenly finds herself pulled away from her life (one full of its own strife with her ill mother and a brother caught up in crime rings in an attempt to pay off the family debt) and thrust into the middle of this curse, the most recent would-be curse breaker. To make matters worse, this will be the last season and Rhen’s last chance to break the curse and avoid a life ever after as a monstrous beast.

This book has received a lot of positive reviews, so I just want to say right away that there’s a good chance much of what bothered me with this book wouldn’t hold true for others who enjoy YA fairytales. There have been comparison to “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” for example. Which, given the massive appeal of that series, means many will ultimately really like this. I hated ACOTAR, on the other hand, so that comparison might be even more apt. I didn’t hate this book, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

The good thing about this book is that it does what it sets out to do. We have a unique (ish) take on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale that leans into its darker elements (beast!Rhen is truly destructive and dangerous). A heroine who represents those with disabilities in a really great way (she has what seems to be a high functioning version of cerebral palsy). And a story that delivers both action and romance (eventually).

But, for me, it did all of these things in a very “meh” way. The world-building, for one, was an immediate let-down. Emberfall is simply “such and such, generic fantasy world with magic.” There is no real explanation or true creativity behind any of it. The castle itself has some of the standard magical elements that we expect to see (ooooh, musical instruments that play themselves) and even those that we are given are too few and far between. It’s just enough to set the stage as a fantasy land, but not enough to make it stand out in any way from the millions of other fantasy lands we’ve seen.

And when juxtaposed against the “real world,” this lack of world-building is made even more stark. It’s one thing to set a book entirely in a fairly bland fantasy world, but when you have the “real world” as an element in your book and characters from that world, it’s inevitable that the “hows” and “whys” of it all should come more to the forefront. If everyone lives in this fantasy world, there’s more of a “get out of jail free” card in that, naturally, everyone (and thus the reader) would take things at face value. That’s simply not the case when you have “real world” characters who should be asking these questions.

Beyond that, while there was nothing overtly objectionable with Rhen or Harper, neither of them were particularly intriguing either. Obviously, the inclusion of Harper’s disability is an interesting take and, not having any experience with this of my own, seems to be represented well. But that is not enough to make her a fully-fleshed out character. Rhen, too, was just kind of…fine. I just never felt fully invested in either of them, and there wasn’t enough given to either to make them feel like much more than the fairly standard “beauty” and “beast” cut-outs we’ve come to expect.

And, from the get-go, the story set off on the wrong foot. Pretty early in the book, right after Harper is kidnapped and brought to the castle, we start in on the “she’s so different than the other girls” lines of thought. I almost just put the book down at this point for how much I hate this way of writing. For one, it’s lazy. If you can’t make Harper look good without including negative comparisons to “other girls,” than you have a character problem on its own. Beyond that, Rhen is something like 300 years old at this point. So, how many seasons would that be? You’re telling me that in that entire time, girls have been kidnapped from the modern world and ALL of them have only ever been interested in dresses and NONE of them wanted anything to do with daggers or, I don’t know, trying to escape? Not only is this incredibly insulting (especially when it’s linked to another comment about how originally Rhen would ask for beautiful women in particular, so of course they’re also frivolous and, I don’t know, scared of weapons??), but it’s also beyond the point of belief. These women have been kidnapped. There is no way that they all simply got distracted by sparkles and sat around meekly adoring their wardrobes. It’s as if to say that, for women, the standard reaction to kidnapping is complacency, especially if your kidnapper is rich and handsome. And that Harper’s reaction of immediately trying to escape is somehow unique and note-worthy. I could go on and on with my frustrations with this, but I think I’ve made my point and any more would just be indulging myself in ranting.

So yes. This book wasn’t my favorite and sadly joins the list of “Beauty and the Beast” retellings that I won’t be recommending. Like I said, a lot of people have liked this book, so there is definitely an audience for it. But, for me, the world-building and characters were simply too bland to hold my interest and the early introduction of “other women shaming” into the story was an immediate turn-off.

Rating 5: Not for me, alas. Maybe check it out though if you liked ACOTAR?

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Curse So Dark and Lonely” is a newer book, so it isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It is on this one (though I disagree about the “best” in this title): “Best retellings of Beauty and the Beast.”

Find “A Curse So Dark and Lonely” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling”

36443576Book: “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” by Jessica Cluess

Publishing Info: Random House BFYR, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: It’s time for war.

After suffering terrible losses, Henrietta and Lord Blackwood have led their warriors to Sorrow-Fell, a vast estate where only those invited by a Blackwood may enter–and the ideal place to plan a final assault against the Ancients.

It’s time for a wedding.

Henrietta nervously awaits her marriage to Blackwood, but when the ritual to become his bride reveals a dark secret, she realizes that Sorrow-Fell is not a safe haven; it’s a trap. Convincing the sorcerers of this, however, is not easy. So with Maria, the true chosen one, and Magnus, the young man who once stole her heart, at her side, Henrietta plots a dangerous journey straight into the enemy’s lair. Some will live. Some will die. All will be tested.

In this stunning conclusion to the Kingdom on Fire series, Henrietta must choose between the love from her past, the love from her present, and a love that could define her future. While battles rage, the fate of the kingdom rests on her decision: Will she fall or rise up to become the woman who saves the realm?

It’s time for Henrietta to make her stand.

Previously reviewed: “A Shadow Bright and Burning” and “A Poison Dark and Drowning”

Review: This trilogy has traveled an odd trajectory as far as my feelings for a book series go. I was underwhelmed by the first book, a bit put off by the sheer number of love interests who were introduced. The second one fared better, expanding the world out by quite a bit, upping the ante with the villain, history, and Henrietta’s true role in all of this. And then this one…just kind of threw out a lot of different things and saw what stuck, essentially? I’m not even sure! I’m still experience a bit of whiplash from it all, but I don’t think I liked it, in the end.

Events had been coming to a head at the last book, not least of which saw Henrietta agree to marry Blackwood. However, now, as events continue to spin out of control, Henrietta is forced to re-examine all that she thought she knew about those around her. And with new revelations come new choices, each with their own prices to be paid. Surrounded by her friends and facing new and terrible dangers, Henrietta must face her final challenge.

So, as usual, I’ll try to start with some things I enjoyed about this book. The one consistent thing throughout this series that I have liked has been the general writing style. There’s a nice mixture of interesting turns of phrase alongside stark, to-the-point writing that solidly carries the story along. For the most part, purple prose, of the like that can all too often pop up in YA fantasy that has a strong emphasis on romance, is largely avoided. I also listened to this one on audiobook again (which I did for the second book, too) and enjoyed the narrator’s interpretation of characters. I remember thinking that my increased enjoyment of the second book could have something to do with this change of format. And I now have to think that continuing my read of this series using this format was a wise choice, as I’m not sure I would have made it through this one without the increased enjoyment of the audio narrator.

I also generally still enjoy the world-building. There have always been a plethora of creative ideas at the heart of this story. And I’ve also appreciated the way the author has walked right up to the horror line with many of her villains, making them truly horrible. Much of that still continues here, though it did start to feel overly crowded and muddled at times. It’s only been a year since I read the last book, but there were times where I was still struggling to remember how some of these elements worked together and what there histories were.

However, other than those points, I really had a hard time with this book. I’ve never loved Henrietta as a character, but I also didn’t have any overt issues with her. I was particularly intrigued by the second book where we were introduced to Maria, the “real” chosen one. But here, Henrietta went from blandly ok to outright unlikable. We’ve had three books now to witness her making mistakes as she discovers herself and her role in this conflict. And that’s fine. But by this point, we need to start seeing the growth that comes out of those mistakes. Instead, if anything, Henrietta becomes more indecisive and makes even more nonsensical choices than we’ve seen in the past, often to disastrous results. It makes her not only a frustrating character to read, leaving the reader feeling like the character hasn’t grown at all over two entire books, but this weakness of character was necessary to drive much of the plot, as it revolved around said poor decision making and the results therein.

And, lastly, the romance was a huge problem for me. This has been the biggest question mark for me throughout the entire series. From the very beginning I had huge red flags going up regarding the sheer number of love interests that were introduced. We were way past love triangle and into the realm of love square or even more. It was always too much. As the story progressed, I was mostly able to distract myself from my concerns in these areas. But not here. To finally resolve all of the dangling romantic threads, several characters had to be almost completely re-written. One in particular became almost unrecognizable and the change came out of left field. Beyond this, Henrietta’s reaction to this change was not appropriate, as the character essentially became abusive. There are so many layers of problems with this that I’m tired even thinking about it. Ultimately, it felt like the author didn’t know how to resolve (or even decide!) all of the romantic plotlines that were introduced. So instead of making her main character progress along a natural arc of self-discovery throughout the series that would result in her forming a realistic attachment to one character over the others, the author just got to the last book and decided to write off at least two of the choices, leaving Henrietta with only one viable option anyways. It felt lazy and like a slap in the face to readers. What exactly were we wasting our time on before this point if this is how it’s going to be ultimately resolved?

So, while the book did have some creative ideas with its world-building, in the end that’s all it felt like: a collection of ideas. Looking back over the trilogy as a whole, it looks like the work of an author badly in need of an editor. Everything and the kitchen sink went into this series and it shows worst of all in this last book when you can see the wheels coming off as the author frantically tries to resolve all of the elements that have been introduced (most poorly in the romance arena, perhaps). If you’ve enjoyed this series up to this point, I’m not sure how you’ll feel about this one really. It’s the kind of thing where some readers may really enjoy it and others will hate it, but it’s going to largely come down to what each reader was getting out of the series before and how they wanted things to turn out in the end. For me, it didn’t work and almost retroactively lowered the first two books as well, as it seemed to highlight that there was only ever a shaky overall plot from the very start.

Rating 5: A disappointing conclusion, most especially in the lazy resolution to the multiple love interests that had been introduced.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” is fairly new and isn’t on any very relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “YA Releases of October, 2018.”

Find “A Sorrow Fierce and Falling” at your library using WorldCat.