Serena’s Review: “The Witch of Willow Hall”

37007910Book: “The Witch of Willow Hall” by Hester Fox

Publishing Info: Graydon House, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia, and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall. The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

Review: I picked up this book from NetGalley based on a promotional line comparing it to a spooky Jane Austen novel set in the U.S. Well, as we know, about 95% of the time, any comparison to Jane Austen will both A.) lead to me reading the book and B.) leave me massively disappointed. While I’ve definitely read books that fared worse (for one, for all I can tell the only reason this comparison was made was because of the time period and the “manners romance” aspect of it…which, just stop it. It’s a historical romance. There are plenty of those, and they don’t all need to be compared to Austen), this book was a disappointment to me. Maybe not a massive disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.

Lydia, the middle daughter, has always known there is something strange about herself, ever since she mildly blacked out as a child when fighting with a local bully and re-awakened to find him beaten on the street. But at this point, any concerns about scandal she may bring to the family pale in comparison to the mess that her sister, Catherine, has gotten them into. Fleeing to the country, the family now find themselves closed up in a mysterious house with many strange rumors surrounding it. But on the positive side, they have quite a charming neighbor, a gentleman named John.

There were a few strong points of this book that I want to start by highlighting. For one, I’m always going to love a good historical setting. While there were a few anachronisms here and there, nothing was too extreme to really throw me out of the book in any meaningful way. Instead, I still enjoyed the general rhythm of language, emphasis on social callings, and historical setting that were employed. As long as an author doesn’t greatly mess these basic features up, they’re always going to come away with at least a partial win under their belt as far as I’m concerned.

Secondly, as readers of this blog know, Kate is the horror fan. While I’ll read the heck out of dark fantasy novel any day of the week, I tend to steer clear of straight-up horror. And this is probably one of the closest reads to that genre that I’ve wandered into for a while. Don’t get me wrong, horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by this book, since, let’s be real, this is definitely a historical romance at its heart. But I will say that there were elements of the story that legitimately creeped me out. It didn’t help that I was reading this book the one night my husband was out of town. But I think either way, there would have been some shivers.

The other positive note is that, alongside with these legitimately creepy scenes, the book didn’t shy away from going to some pretty grim places with the story. It starts out with a pretty rough scene dealing with animal cruelty and then continues in a story that insists that even main characters aren’t safe from harsh consequences. There was one scene in particular that was lead up to and the entire time I was partially rolling my eyes, expecting the author to pull back at the last minute. Instead, she went full throttle into it and I was honestly surprised and (in a very grim sort of way) pleased that she committed to this particularly story thread.

But, even with these positives in its favor, I still greatly struggled with the story. For one thing, there were a few twists that I found entirely predictable and the story took way too long to finally come out with the “mysterious” truth. And then when this secret does land, it didn’t really seem to have much of an impact. Not only did I already suspects this particular twist, but the revelation doesn’t greatly change the situation. The family is still disgraced; the mystery behind why doesn’t have much impact on the reality of that situation.

I also didn’t particularly enjoy Catherine as a character. As the focal point of said “twisty” family rumor, there was a lot of room to do something interesting with her arc. Instead, she is written as pretty much an awful person with no redeeming qualities. There are a few moments where I thought we would see some growth or some expanded depth of character revealed, but then in only a few short pages, she goes right back to just being plain terrible with very little else in the way of character development to support her. And with this being a fact of her character, many of Lydia’s own struggles are automatically undercut. I couldn’t sympathize with her indecision or naivete when everything that the reader has seen (and we’re only exposed to Catherine for a period of a few short months, when presumably Lydia has a lifetime of experience) would point to a relationship that has been not worth fighting for for quite a while. There were a few moments towards the last third, in particular, where Lydia’s choices are so incredibly stupid that I had to actually put the book down and take a deep breath before continuing.

This same problem, Lydia’s bizarre choices and fixations, lead to my not particularly enjoying the romance at the center of this story. And this is where the Austen comparisons are coming into play, as there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion at the heart of this romance to draw out the moment of happiness until the end. But the thing is, Austen created legitimate stumbling blocks and points of misdirection in her romances. We get why Elizabeth misunderstood Darcy. We understand why Emma didn’t recognize her feelings for Knightly. But here, we have a hero who is actually spelling it out for our heroine and she, instead, is choosing to believe the terrible sister who has mislead her and betrayed her at every turn. Or she simply gives in to crippling indecision and insecurity for no real reason whatsoever.

I have very little patience for these types of heroines or these types of plot points that aren’t based in anything other than an author’s need to follow a typical romance plot storyboard where the main characters can’t get together until the final scene. If you don’t have a legitimate, plot- or story-based reason for keeping your romance in suspense, you might just need to re-think the entire thing. Either flesh out your plot/characters, or just accept that your romance needs to follow a non-traditional path. This type of forced suspense not only kills any real suspense there might be, but also damages the characters at its heart.

In the end, I was ultimately let down by this book. I’m glad I got in at least one sort-of spooky book before Halloween, but it’s too bad that other than the creepiness and general historical setting, this book didn’t have a lot going for it. If you really love historical romances with a dash of creepiness, than you might enjoy this. But if you’re wanting any depth of character from your heroine, hero, and villain, you probably need to look elsewhere.

Rating 5: Some legitimate spooky scenes were let down by a plot and set of characters that were simply too weak to carry the story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Witch of Willow Hall” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Historical Ghost Fiction” and “Autumn Seasonal Reads.”

Find “The Witch of Willow Hall” at your library using WorldCat!

 

 

Bookclub Review: “A Thousand Nights”

21524446We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “B-Sides,” where we pick different books from previous authors that we read in the club.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “A Thousand Nights” by E. K. Johnston

Publishing Info: Disney Hyperion, 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

B-Side Book: “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim”

Book Description: Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next.

And so she is taken in her sister’s place, and she believes death will soon follow. Lo-Melkhiin’s court is a dangerous palace filled with pretty things: intricate statues with wretched eyes, exquisite threads to weave the most beautiful garments. She sees everything as if for the last time. But the first sun rises and sets, and she is not dead. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.

Far away, in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air.

Back at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.

Serena’s Thoughts

Back when we were doing our “A-side” books, I was the one who picked Johnston’s “The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim,” so I was already a bit predisposed to liking this title. On top of that, just based on the book description alone, the story checks off a lot of boxes for me: fairytale-retelling, non-Western setting, sisterhood, and magic. Is it any wonder that I very much enjoyed this book?

There have been a fair number of “1001 Arabian Nights” retellings to come out in the last few years, and I’ve had many mixed reactions to most of them. In its very nature, it’s a rather difficult story to tell. In the original version, our storyteller buys her life with a new story each night. And in the end, her reward is a continued marriage with a murderer. So, how do you twist that story into something worth cheering for? In this area, I think Johnston did several things right.

For one, the central relationship at the heart of this story is not one between our storyteller and her horrible husband. It is instead between her and her sister, the woman she sacrificed herself for and who remains behind in their small village faithfully supporting and working for her sister’s welfare from afar. This a much better focal point for the story itself and takes a lot of pressure off any “romance” that could have come to the forefront. The author’s choices as far as that “romance” goes were also very clever. The biggest challenge, how to make a monster not a monster, is dealt with in a satisfying way, and the biggest trope and pitfall of stories like this, having your heroine fall in love with a monster WHILE HE’S STILL A MONSTER, is avoided.

By also focusing on the relationship with the sister, Johnston centers her story around the role of women in this world, the type of work they do and the largely unnoticed position they hold in society. Through this lens we see how it could become acceptable for a king to go through so many wives without uproar. It’s a subtly feminist story that tackles a lot of bigger points without ever banging it over your head. And the value of typical women’s work is never undervalued in this as well, which is another pitfall that often occurs when trying to make some of these larger points.

I also very much liked the magic system in this book, if you can even call it a “magic system” at all. Like many fairytales, we are given very few explanations or descriptions of where this story is taking place (other than the desert) or how its magic works. Instead, we are allowed to simply immerse ourselves in what is without worrying overly much about the “hows.” There were also a few clever winks and nods to other classic fantasy components at the end of the book that I very much enjoyed.

It’s a quieter, slower moving story, but I think fans of fairytale fantasy will very much enjoy it.

Kate’s Thoughts

Going into “A Thousand Nights”, there were two truths about myself and perceptions in regards to it that I knew: 1) I have never actually read the “1001 Arabian Nights”, and 2) I have had a very mixed experience reading E.K. Johnston. I thought that “The Story of Owen: Dragonslayer of Trondheim” was fine, though I’m far more partial to raising and riding dragons as opposed to slaying them, and I thought that “Exit: Pursued by a Bear” had a good message, but a clunky execution of said message. So picking up “A Thousand Nights” was hard to predict. But I am kind of disappointed to say that it wasn’t really my favorite in terms of fairy tale re-tellings that I have read, and it kind of solidifies that Johnston isn’t an author I would seek out on my own.

I think that a majority of it is the fantasy aspect. As you all know, I have a hard time with that genre, and “A Thousand Nights” wasn’t added to my list of exceptions. There were certainly pros for me within the story itself, which I will try to focus on. The first is that I loved the descriptions of the desert and the different groups of people who lived within it. I am someone who, paradoxically, hates the heat but really loves deserts, so seeing the rich and colorful description of the setting was lovely. I felt like the desert was a character in and of itself, and I had a very clear idea of what it looked like in my mind’s eye. I also really enjoyed the commentary about how women are overlooked within this world, be it through repeated emphasis of women being sacrificed to Lo-Melkiin’s murderous whims because were he overthrown, the economy would destabilize and male traders would lose profits. I think that Johnston paid close attention to how to portray her female characters in an undercurrent lens of feminism, in while they were not named (as this world didn’t place value on them), they were always instrumental in plot points through all kinds of work, both through traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles. And neither gender role was devalued.

All that said, I think that Johnston gets a bit wrapped up in flowery writing and descriptions, and the fantasy elements didn’t pull me in. I appreciate the fact that magic is just a part of this world, but I needed more concrete system behind it. I know that sometimes fantasy novels get TOO wrapped up in the descriptions and the logic of the way magic works, but I needed a bit more in this book beyond the vagueness. I know that Serena was totally fine with not worrying about the hows, and I get that, but as someone who already doesn’t care for the fantasy genre, I REALLY need those hows to explain to me why I should buy into the magic of a world as it is presented to me.

I think that fantasy fans would find a lot to like about this book. I, however, was underwhelmed.

Serena’s Rating 8: A nice fairytale retelling that leans into themes of sisterhood and inner strength.

Kate’s Rating 5: A genre that already doesn’t connect with me is encumbered by a writing and author style that I’ve never totally cared for. Good messages, but an execution I wasn’t fond of.

Book Club Questions

  1. This is a retelling of “1001 Arabian Nights” and features the same basic set up of a young bride trying to outlast a cruel husband. How does this retelling compare to the original or other versions that you have read?
  2. Other than Lo-Melkiin himself, all of the other characters remain nameless. How did this affect your reading of the story?
  3. The story is never clear on a time period or exact location. How did you imagine this land and time?
  4. There is strong emphasis on women and their often over-looked role in this world. What were your thoughts on how this book portrayed its female characters and their relationships with the men around them?
  5. There is a sequel to this book called “Spindle.” Are you interested in reading it and where do you imagine the story could go from here?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Thousand Nights” is on these Goodreads lists: “Scheherazade” and “Desert and Djinni.”

Find “A Thousand Nights” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Damsel”

36260155Book: “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, October 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss

Book Description: The rite has existed for as long as anyone can remember: when the prince-who-will-be-king comes of age, he must venture out into the gray lands, slay a fierce dragon, and rescue a damsel to be his bride. This is the way things have always been.

When Ama wakes in the arms of Prince Emory, however, she knows none of this. She has no memory of what came before she was captured by the dragon, or what horrors she has faced in its lair. She knows only this handsome prince, the story he tells of her rescue, and her destiny to sit on the throne beside him. Ama comes with Emory back to the kingdom of Harding, hailed as the new princess, welcomed to the court.

However, as soon as her first night falls, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems, that there is more to the legends of the dragons and the damsels than anyone knows–and that the greatest threats to her life may not be behind her, but here, in front of her.

Review: Oof, this is going to be a tricky one. Even now, starting out this review, I’m not really sure if my thoughts and feelings on this book are fully formed. I guess we’ll just see where the words take me!

The description of this book lays out a fairly typically fantasy story: a princess is rescued from a dragon by a handsome prince. But something is not right. She doesn’t remember her time before the rescue and the prince may not be what he seems. However, this is as it always has been. Damsels being rescued, going on to be Queens and mothers of princes themselves.

Between the book description that, while fairly typical, does lay the groundwork for some type of subversion of this typical fairtyale storyline, and the beautiful, flowery cover art, I went into this book with a certain set of expectations. While I didn’t expect it to play out along typical lines (I was fairly sure that she wouldn’t end up with said prince, for example), I wasn’t prepared for the level of darkness that was introduced in this book and I do have some qualms about certain topics’ sudden appearances.

But the book did have some steady points in its favor, and I want to cover those before I get into the parts that gave me pause. For one, the writing is excellent and I immediately felt drawn into the story. Ama herself doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters and yet I was still fully invested, which speaks again to the strength of the writing. And once Ama is introduced, she was a very cheer-worthy heroine. I was immediately drawn to her story and felt the same fears, confusion, and bewilderment that she experiences. The reader, too, doesn’t know her history, so while she looks for answers, we’re right there with her. But this same attachment to her made other parts of the book incredibly hard to read.

As I said, the description sets the story up to be a subversion of the traditional tale, however, I was not prepared for how completely dark and mature some of the themes and topics became in this book. The beautiful cover, light and fluffy, also belied these dark and heavy themes. I could probably write an entire post on its own discussing my complicated feelings about trigger warnings for books (I generally feel that this idea has been taken too far given the obviousness of the fact that there are a million people out there with a million life experiences and no novel can anticipate all of their reactions to any given story), but this book does serve as an example of why some type of warning might be necessary for certain topics.

Nothing about the description, cover, or classification (YA) of this book would give an indication that this book would dive so heavily into topics that can be very hard for many readers, regardless of their age. Specifically for this book, the topic of sexual assault. And this is by no means the only dark subject matter introduced. There are some tough scenes dealing with animal cruelty and a weird moment in the end that verges on bestiality? I’m not even sure how to qualify that scene. I’m a librarian, so I am by no means saying that these topics shouldn’t appear in books or even that there is a reading level that should be maintained for exposure to them (that is between any given reader and his/her parents, depending). But I do think that more needs to be done to prep readers in what they are picking up. With its cover and light description, I could see middle grade readers thinking this would be a good read for them and then being very taken off guard with the graphic nature of the tale.

I also struggled with the ending of the story. While Ama’s own tale comes to a satisfying conclusion, it is a very brief scene that I’m not convinced fully balances out all of the awfulness that happened before. What’s more, the world that is set up is one where this type of abuse has been happening forever and is by no means limited to the Damsels, though theirs is a unique version of it. So while Ama gets her revenge in the end, there is really no resolution for the world itself and the other women living in it. This heavily dampened any feelings of satisfaction that came from her act of defiance.

In the end, while I did enjoy aspects of the book, I’m not convinced that the darker topics were completely earned or necessary (at least not as the many times they’re repeated throughout the story). And my larger concern is that the book does nothing to warn readers what they are getting when they pick it up. We all know I love dark fairytales, but if a story is going to get this dark, more needs to be done with the marketing to prep unsuspecting readers. I’m not sure what the real answer to that is, but I know that this book was shocking for me to read, and I’d hesitate to recommend it to others without giving them some fair warnings of its subject matter.

Rating 5: I have to give this book a middle-of-the-road rating. I liked Ama and the writing was strong, but the book was incredibly dark and I’m not sure its graphic nature was either necessary or resolved in the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Damsel” is a newer title and isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”

Find “The Reluctant Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Prisoner of the Crown”

38089433Book: “Prisoner of the Crown” by Jeffe Kennedy

Publishing Info: Rebel Base Books, June 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.

But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…

Review: I picked up this book purely based on the description, not having read anything by the author before or realizing that this was an offshoot of another series. While neither of these things proved to be too great of an obstacle when jumping into this book, I would warn future readers to pay a bit more attention to that book description than I did: monster husband and horrors of life, indeed. It was a bit more and also less than what I was expecting.

Jenna’s childhood was idyllic, but the future before her is anything but. She’s always known what her life’s purpose was, to be the first wife of a powerful husband whom she is meant to serve and provide children. But when she learns that her to-be-husband is a man with a reputation for having his young wives die off on him, she suddenly begins to see this role in a new light. Trained to please, Jenna is unprepared in every way to deal with her new reality, but knows that she must now find an inner strength she didn’t know she possessed to save herself and potentially much more than that.

For the positives, I liked Jenna, overall, as a character. Much of the book is devoted to her slow realization of what her life will be like going forward and what it means to have power in this world. Given the nature of her childhood, its limitations and the forced ignorance that was thrust upon her, Jenna is often naive and frightened, sometimes making very poor decisions. But as the story is told from the perspective of some future Jenna who is recounting her tale, these bouts of ridiculous moments are clearly set up to provide a point of change: she must start out truly struggling to learn to gather what power she can in this world. That doesn’t mean that actually reading through some of these aspects of her character change weren’t a bit cringe-worthy, but I appreciated the reality added to the story that Jenna wouldn’t simply suddenly become POWERFUL WOMAN after what her childhood had been.

That said, while much attention was given to this slow-burn characterization on Jenna’s part, I had troubles with the story as far as world-building and pacing goes. It was one of those strange mixes of a book where the story was too short to truly feel as if the world-building had been flushed out but also read incredibly slowly. Perhaps this world-building wouldn’t have been an issue had I read the other series, but a general criticism for books like this is that they should still be capable of supporting their world on their own, unreliant on a reader’s knowledge of a different series. As for the pacing, it wasn’t until almost 75% of the way through the book before I felt like the action was really beginning to pick up.

And while I liked the slow development of Jenna’s character over that first 75% of the book, I also very much struggled with the subject matter. This book doesn’t shy away from the monstrosity that is Jenna’s husband and the humiliation and objectification that Jenna undergoes at his hands. This is where my biggest issue with the book lay. I wasn’t quite clear on what the author was trying to do with this story. Obviously some level of criticism about the violent patriarchy that makes up this world was present, but it also felt almost a bit too close to torture porn at other time for any seriousness of its message to really get through. The tone was a bit strange, with a fantasy romp somehow being tied into a Margret Atwood-type dystopia ala “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Personally, for me, the violence and misogynism was a bit too much and started to feel as if it was being sensationalized.

I’m still curious about where Jenna’s story will go after this book, and have hopes that a sequel might not include as many cringe-worthy scenes. But I’m also not dying to get my hands on it. We’ll see how it goes, I guess. If you’ve read other books by this author, particularly the “Twelve Kingdoms” series, you might want to check this out, but I also give a strong warning to the casual reader about the darkness that this includes and the fact that it was a bit of a slower read.

Rating 5: Didn’t absolutely hate it, but made me incredibly uncomfortable at times and didn’t do enough to justify the use of that discomfort in a meaningful way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prisoner of the Crown” is a new book so it isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on something like “The Grimdarks.”

Find “Prisoner of the Crown” at your library using WorldCat.

Kate’s Review: “The Elizas”

35297385Book: “The Elizas” by Sara Shepard

Publishing Info: Atria Books, April 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When debut novelist Eliza Fontaine is found at the bottom of a hotel pool, her family at first assumes that it’s just another failed suicide attempt. But Eliza swears she was pushed, and her rescuer is the only witness.

Desperate to find out who attacked her, Eliza takes it upon herself to investigate. But as the publication date for her novel draws closer, Eliza finds more questions than answers. Like why are her editor, agent, and family mixing up events from her novel with events from her life? Her novel is completely fictional, isn’t it?

The deeper Eliza goes into her investigation while struggling with memory loss, the closer her life starts to resemble her novel until the line between reality and fiction starts to blur and she can no longer tell where her protagonist’s life ends and hers begins.

Review: This may come as a surprise to you guys given my predilection for soapy and thrilling mysteries, but I never actually read the “Pretty Little Liars” series by Sara Shepard.

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Shocking, I know! (source)

I DID read the first book in her series “The Lying Game”, but didn’t feel a need to go on for five more books and instead opted to spoil myself thanks to wikis and Internet sleuthing. I think that knowing that there were LOTS of books in each series didn’t bode well, as in my experience having a thriller series with a long drawn out mystery sprinkled with OTHER mysteries isn’t as sustainable as I usually like to see. But since I DO like soap in my mysteries, I was interested in her new adult standalone “The Elizas”. I figured that maybe I could get some fun suds but not have to worry about going on and on and on long past the point of believability and my waning interest. Nor harm in trying, right?

Meh. Wrong, kind of. “The Elizas” on the whole failed to really suck me in, mostly because it falls into too many traps and tropes that we have seen all too many times before in the genre. My first big quibble was with Eliza Fontaine herself, our hot mess of a protagonist. Hot mess protagonists are kind of par for the course with this kind of book, as them being messes and screwed up lends to the unreliability that is needed for this kind of mystery. But as you all know, I have LONG lost my patience with this kind of protagonist, and Eliza checks all the boxes that turn me off. She’s struggles with addiction issues. She has fraught relationships with her family and her friends. She’s managed to be successful with her writing, but as fame and fortune try to fall into her lap she starts to unravel, and may self sabotage her success and happiness. She is an incredibly unreliable narrator because of these things combined with other things. And on. And on. I am willing to give these hot mess protagonists a pass if there is something about them that is relatable or likable, but Eliza is pretty blah, her only redeeming features based in her odd relationship with Desmond, the man who rescued her from her fall in the pool. But even that relationship didn’t quite work because they were thrown together, but you don’t know WHY they are together. Sure, there are some cute quirks that Shepard added in, like their fondness of donning Halloween masks and sitting on the apartment balcony, but even THAT is treading into ridiculously quirky territory. Desmond himself is a bit too quirky too, but at least this time it’s a guy who is fitting the manic pixie dream girl role, so I was more okay with it than I might have been.

The mystery itself was okay in theory. The big questions of the book are 1) who pushed Eliza into the pool (or did she do it herself?), and 2) why is Eliza having these memory lapses. I’m one hundred percent on board with both of those questions, as they add some fun layers to plot points that may have been seen before.  The narrative is told through Eliza’s POV and through excerpts from her novel, “The Dots”, which makes this an epistolary thriller, a thriller genre that I generally like. “The Dots” is about a girl named Dot and her aunt Dorothy, and Dot’s childhood illness (which mirrors Eliza’s own medical history). I actually enjoyed those sections because I enjoyed seeing the relationship between Dot and Dorothy as it went from “Auntie Mame” to disturbing and sour, and found myself excited when we got to another “Dots” section. But the problem with this is that the proof is in the pudding because of the plot summary: “The Dots” gives away a whole lot of the mysteries surrounding Eliza! Whenever a question came up in Eliza’s life, we’d get a plot point in “The Dots” that would at least partly give away the solution. And even though Shepard tries to parse these moments out slowly and evenly between the two, by the time we got to some of the big reveals in Eliza’s story, they were already spoiled because of “The Dots”! Because of this, I didn’t feel terribly invested in finding out confirmation in Eliza’s side of things. And in turn, this book ended up being more of a slog than I wanted it to be. Eliza herself wasn’t likable enough for me to invest, so if the mystery can’t even give me what I need, what is the point?

So outside of an enjoyable side story and a kind of cute relationship, “The Elizas” was a disappointment, showing its cards too early. I will probably give Shepard another chance if she writes another adult standalone mystery, but I’ll have more managed expectations if I do. And they probably won’t be too high.

Rating 5: While there were some elements that worked, overall “The Elizas” didn’t impress me the way I had hoped it would.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Elizas” is fairly new and not on many relevant Goodreads lists yet. But I think that it would fit in on “Borderline Personality Disorder, Insanity, and Related Issues”.

Find “The Elizas” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale”

38739033Book: “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” by Molly Larzer

Publishing Info: Fire and Ice YA, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Nora knows three things: she is a servant, her parents are dead, and she lives in the kitchen house with her adoptive family. But her world is torn apart when she discovers that her birth father has always been right there, living in the house she serves.

This discovery leads Nora to more questions. Why was she thrown in an ash-covered room for asking about her father? Why is a silver-bladed knife the only inheritance from her birth mother? Why is magic forbidden in her household—and throughout the province of the Runes? The answers may not be the ones Nora hoped for, as they threaten a possible romance and her relationship with the adoptive family she loves.

With the announcement of a royal ball, Nora must decide what she is willing to give up in order to claim her stolen birthright, and whether this new life is worth losing her family—and herself.

Review: What? Another fairy tale retelling book review by me? Shocking, I know! It’s like I have some personal mission to read every single one that is ever published! (I don’t, but at this point, does it really make a difference?) As I have a particular fondness for fairy tales that lean in on the darkness that was inherent to many of the originals, I jumped all over this title when I saw it pop up on NetGalley. But, while the darkness and world building did deliver, I was overall left underwhelmed with this new entry to the vast world of Cinderella stories.

For the good: the story delivers on the essentials of what is laid out in the book description above. This is indeed a Cinderella story, but nicely twisted on its head so as to not simply be another rehashing of a very often rehashed story. I enjoyed the tension that was built throughout the story between Nora’s desire to uncover the truth about her family and herself alongside her realizations of the good things that have made up her life as is. As it’s mentioned in the description, the scene early in the book when she is thrown in the ash covered room plays for particularly good effect throughout, and her ongoing struggles with the fallout of this event are repeatedly hit home. She was, after all, a very young girl when it took place.

I also enjoyed much of the world-building, but here also is where my criticisms begin to come to play. The world of Colandaria sounds like an intriguing place, with an interesting magic system and a history of wars between it and its neighbors. However, none of this is fleshed out or explored in any meaningful way. Instead, details are sprinkled here and there on the periphery of Nora’s tale, but never quite enough to give me a solid sense of place or investment in the world’s effect on the plot line that was unfolding.

The plot was another stumbling block. While things do pick up towards the last third of the book, the action itself felt very stilted. It’s hard to really put my finger on what exactly the problem was. The writing is solid enough, but things seemed to simply progress from one event to another and I was just kind of…there. Every once in a while a few pages would grab me, like the aforementioned scene in the ash room, but then the book would fall back to mundane details for pages on end.

Most of my problem probably lies at the feet of Nora herself. She was simply not an engaging protagonist to follow through this story. Her arc is laid before her, but as she moved through it, her character itself wasn’t one whom I became invested in. She felt very flat, and I had a hard time pinning down any attributes to her as a person. Was she feisty? Reflective? Shy? Ambitious? I couldn’t tell you. Instead, she simply moves through the book, and we move with her. But, as we are seeing this story through her eyes, I was never sure how I felt about it because it was never clear what lens Nora was using herself.

This, in turn, colored my perceptions of the other characters. While some of them seemed to have interesting parts to them (Jack, in particular), because Nora read so flat herself, her views of these others also read as fairly flat. A story like this really lives and dies on the strength of its lead, and my lack of investment in Nora spread easily to those around her.

While I did like the twists and turns the story took, particularly the ball itself, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the romance in this. Simply put, there just wasn’t enough of it. This is a very subjective point of view, however, as I can also see how the lack of romance could be a plus for other readers. I, however, always like a solid romance plot line in my fantasy, particularly in my fairy tale retellings that are, often, inherently romantic tales on their own.

Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this read. There wasn’t anything bad about it, per se, but I just couldn’t seem to care. I found myself often putting the book down and having to force myself to pick it up again. If you absolutely love Cinderella stories, particularly ones with less of a romantic subplot, this may be the book for you. But, all in all, my recommendation is a solid “meh.”

Rating 5: A dull main character ultimately polluted what might have been an interesting retelling of “Cinderella.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” is a newer title so isn’t on any Goodreads lists. It should be on “Cinderella Retellings.”

Find “Owl Eyes: A Fairy Tale” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Olivia Twist”

34817232Book: “Olivia Twist” by Lorie Langdon

Publishing Info: Blink/HarperCollins, March 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: Olivia Brownlow is no damsel in distress. Born in a workhouse and raised as a boy among thieving London street gangs, she is as tough and cunning as they come. When she is taken in by her uncle after a caper gone wrong, her life goes from fighting and stealing on the streets to lavish dinners and soirees as a debutante in high society. But she can’t seem to escape her past … or forget the teeming slums where children just like her still scrabble to survive.

Jack MacCarron rose from his place in London’s East End to become the adopted “nephew” of a society matron. Little does society know that MacCarron is a false name for a boy once known among London gangs as the Artful Dodger, and that he and his “aunt” are robbing them blind every chance they get. When Jack encounters Olivia Brownlow in places he least expects, his curiosity is piqued. Why is a society girl helping a bunch of homeless orphan thieves? Even more intriguing, why does she remind him so much of someone he once knew? Jack finds himself wondering if going legit and risking it all might be worth it for love.

Review: I’ve only read the original “Oliver Twist” once and it was quite a while ago, so I was intrigued when I ran across this gender-swapped retelling of the classic tale. However, in the end, I felt a bit misled by the book description and had a few problems with the characterization of our leading lady.

Olivia grew up on the streets and it is only through a chance of luck that she now finds herself leading the life of a society lady. But even here, amidst the gossip and sparkle, she can’t escape her past. Especially when said pasts presents itself polished up in a dashing suit and shooting her wicked grins. Jack MacCarron is more than he seems, and his history with a younger “Oliver” is only the start of what will tie these two’s future together.

What I did enjoy about this book was the writing style and historical setting. I’m particularly prone to enjoying books featuring lords and ladies circulating around ball rooms and snarking wittily at each other. The story was also quite fast paced, jumping into the action mere pages into the story. Olivia and Jack are introduced to each other very quickly, and through some well-placed flashbacks, readers are able to begin putting together their history. What also makes this fun is Olivia’s extra knowledge of their shared past, as she was only known to Jack then as a young boy named Oliver. From what I can remember from the original book, the author also does a good job at tying together the two stories in creative and sometimes unexpected ways.

However, I had a lot of trouble with a few aspects of the book. My biggest problem was not being able to suspend my disbelief about the situation that our two main lead characters find themselves in. Somehow, magically almost, both are raised on the streets but then easily slip into lives as gentry after only a few years. What’s more, they are welcomed in with very little struggle or gossip. Part of my problem with this could be the same fast-paced-ness that I praised above. In the very first chapters we’re introduced to Olivia, a lady now living the life of a society woman. But then in some quick flashbacks, we see the abject poverty and limits of the world she grew up in until she was a pre-teen. And yet, there was no evidence of this in her current manner as a lady.

I don’t want to go all “My Fair Lady” on this, but…really? Not only would I have found Olivia’s story that much more compelling had her arc included more about the ongoing struggles she had to face living this life full of politics and rules, but it was frankly unbelievable to see her navigate the ins and outs of a society that was notorious for confusing and strict rules of conduct. Many other historical fiction works set in this time narrate on and on the challenges that even women who grew up to this life encountered when living life in public society. To simply buy that Olivia, a woman who grew up without an education, without parents, and, what’s more, as a boy, would be able to simply fall into this role was just too much to swallow. The same goes for Jack, to a certain extent, but as the rules are less strict for men of the time, I was able to let this go a bit more.

My second major criticism comes with the first line of the book description and the reality we are given. Right there, in the very first sentence of the summary, we’re told that we’ll be getting a character who is not a damsel in distress. The reality is exactly the opposite. In the first few pages, we get a very unfortunate reference to the “beauty leads to rape” myth when a man instructs a midwife to raise Olivia as a boy since if she turns out to have the looks of her mother, her life will be more rough. That alone is pretty bad. But as the story goes on, Olivia repeatedly makes terrible decisions, finds herself threatened with attack and assault, only to be saved by Jack. This happened repeatedly. Not only do I never appreciate repeated threats of sexual assault as a driving force in any story, but to combine that with the first chapter’s reference to it being at all affected by a woman’s beauty and the fact that we were promised the exact opposite of a damsel in distress in the book summary, makes the whole thing very upsetting.

This all added up to a fairly disappointing read for me. The romance and chemistry between the two leads was charming, and I still enjoyed many aspects of the historical setting. But I couldn’t get past the suspension of disbelief issue or my increasing dismay with regards to the use of assault as a plot point and Olivia’s role as a repeated victim in need of rescue. I do think this book will still appeal to many other readers, perhaps those looking for a bit more of a fluffy romance read, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me.

Rating 5:  The intriguing concept and strong romantic chemistry weren’t enough to distract me from an unbelievable leading damsel who too often found herself in distress.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Olivia Twist” is a new title and so isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it is on “2018 YA Historical Fiction.”

Find “Olivia Twist” at your library using WorldCat!