Serena’s Review: “The Weight of a Soul”

43517326Book: “The Weight of a Soul” by Elizabeth Tammi

Publishing Info: Flux, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Lena’s younger sister Fressa is found dead, their whole Viking clan mourns—but it is Lena alone who never recovers. Fressa is the sister that should’ve lived, and Lena cannot rest until she knows exactly what killed Fressa and why—and how to bring her back. She strikes a dark deal with Hela, the Norse goddess of death, and begins a new double life to save her sister.

But as Lena gets closer to bringing Fressa back, she dredges up dangerous discoveries about her own family, and finds herself in the middle of a devastating plan to spur Ragnarök –a deadly chain of events leading to total world destruction.

Still, with her sister’s life in the balance, Lena is willing to risk it all. She’s willing to kill. How far will she go before the darkness consumes her?

Review: I’ve read a few Vikings stories in the past year or so and largely enjoyed them all. Mythology is always a win for me, so it’s been fun to see Norse mythology getting its day in the sun after Roman and Greek had staked out the genre for so long. Combine those things with a story about sisters and this book was a no brainer for me to request. Sadly, all of those things together still somehow didn’t prove to be enough for me to really enjoy this book.

Lena and Fressa have grown up together to be as close as sisters can be. But while Lena is set out to lead a quiet, predictable life as a healer, it is Fressa who draws people to her with the sheer force of her vitality. So it is a shock when Fressa is suddenly found dead. But the life of a Viking is one of violence and sudden endings, so life moves on, for everyone but Lena. Driven to discover not only what happened to Fressa but to bring her beloved sister back, Lena sets out on a mission that will test the boundaries of life and death and draw her into the dark places of the world and herself.

So, as I said, this book wasn’t a hit for me. Even the things I liked are couched between things I disliked. For example, I liked the sisterly relationship. However, the story jumps through plot elements so quickly in the beginning that I was never able to feel fully connected to Fressa, thus lessening the impact of her death and my own commitment to the lengths (some pretty bad) that Lena went to in her attempts to bring her sister back.

I also enjoyed the mythology aspect of the story. However, again, there was really very little of it and only two god characters played a part and even then were more plot devices than anything else. The goddess, in particular, I felt was underwhelming and non-threatening, not something you want from an all-powerful being.

The pacing of the story also felt very off. As I said, the beginning of the book rushes through many important plot points. It’s attempting to not only set up the relationship between the sisters, but between them both and Fressa’s fiance, the girls’ parents, and  a few of the other village members as well. Between this and the brief attempts at history and world-building, the story feels like it’s simply jumping from one plot point to another. And then, suddenly, when Lena begins her journey, the brakes are pumped, hard. The rest of the book felt plodding, meandering, and frankly, rather boring. This left the overall pacing of the story feeling jarring and mismatched.

Beyond this, Lena was simply not a very likable character. The story is all set up to explore some deeper themes with regards to grief and the morality of choosing who lives and dies. And Lena, being a young woman presumably studying to be a healer, seems like a character primed to interact with these tough situations and choices in a compelling manner. Not so. While her descriptions of grief were at times beautiful and touching on some good ideas, the morality of her decisions was pretty terrible. And, even worse, she seems to think nothing of the terrible things she does.

It’s all well and good to have a character get so caught up in their own sorrow that their worldview becomes myopic to the point of a loss of their own morality, but the interesting part there is having the character explore this topic in some meaningful way. Or simply be from there after written as a villain. But Lena is unquestionably the hero of the story and yet she never seems to really care about the things that she does. As I said, it seems even more questionable when paired together with the empathy that it would have taken to be a healer. I was also not a fan of the romance of this story. It felt unnecessary at best and at worst it made Lena even more unlikable.

The idea of balancing a lost soul with the “weight” of another equal soul is a very interesting idea (though the end result is fairly predictable for fans of the genre), but much its potential was wasted behind choppy pacing and an unlikeable main character. Frustratingly, it seems like only a few minor tweaks could have really improved the story. Flashbacks, for example, would have worked better for the scenes before Fressa’s death and would have broken up some of the more plodding bits of the last half of the book. Ah well, what could have been alas was not! Fans of Norse mythology may like this book, but I think in the end it doesn’t live up to its own potential.

Rating 5: The unlikable main character was the last nail in the coffin for a book that unfortunately wasted several good aspects.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Weight of a Soul” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle-Grade Norse Mythology” and “YA Vikings.”

Find “The Weight of a Soul” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “To the Waters and the Wild”

45440239._sy475_Book: “To the Waters and the Wild” by S.C. McGrath

Publishing Info: Seanchie Press, May 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: BookishFirst

Book Description: Shrouded in mystery, ancient Eire nurtured a people both eloquent and fierce. Scholars and warriors were honored with like reverence and women were recognized as equals to men. Within this isolated world of poetry and warfare, Keelin, a fearless chieftain’s daughter, struggles to understand her fate. Gifted by the gods in the arts of healing and telepathy, and destined to become a priestess, she nonetheless rails against such a solitary and self-sacrificing life. She chafes under the strict tutelage of the austere priestess, Nuala, who demands unerring scholarship and dedication. Torn by conflicting emotions, Keelin imagines a life possible only in her dreams.

Keelin’s troubles are soon overshadowed by a dire threat to her island home: the most powerful civilization in the ancient world has turned a covetous eye toward Eire and an invasion is imminent. Rife with clan rivalries and blood feuds, Eire and its defiantly independent people seem doomed, forcing Keelin to resolve her internal strife and quickly hone her extrasensory powers to help defeat the invader. So, too, Eire’s clans must unite their warriors to battle the forces of the Roman Empire. Among these warriors is Brian, who Keelin has alternately hated and loved for as long as she can remember. The approaching battle will irrevocably seal their fate.

Review: I was excited when I snagged a copy of this title from BookishFirst. The description and short synopsis that I had early access to made it seem like just the kind of book that would be up my alley being in a similar vein as many of Juliet Marillier’s works (which we all know are my favorite). When I received my copy I dove right in, but sadly it didn’t live up to these, perhaps too high, expectations.

Set in an alternative ancient Ireland, Keelin has her future before her. Destined to be one of the wise women, valued for their gifted abilities, Keelin brings to the table her own abilities as a healer and a variation of telepathy. But any fears she has about the restriction placed on her in this role are suddenly done away by the very real threat of war on her people’s doorstep. Now she, and a warrior who has always inspired strong feelings, both good and bad, find themselves with the fate of their people in their hands.

As I mentioned above, this was a pretty easy book request for me to place. On paper it had everything I liked: a historical setting mixed with a dash of fantasy, romance, and a lyrical style of writing ala one of my favorite authors. But also as I mentioned, it ended up not being for me. For most of the book, this boiled down to my feeling rather “meh” about the entire thing. And then we got to end and while a stronger feeling was drawn forth, it was definitely not a positive one.

The biggest thing that stood out to me throughout the story was the fact that I simply didn’t feel connected to the main character. Either through the presentation or the fact that she was simply not that compelling, I never truly cared about Keelin’s arc. And she was still the best drawn character of the batch. Part of my struggle to connect to her could have had to do with the numerous time jumps in the story. They seemingly struck out of nowhere and left the story feeling disjointed and choppy. Because I was always off-balance due to this, I struggled even more to connect to Keelin herself and the events taking place around her.

I also found the romance to be much less of a factor than I had expected. Obviously this wasn’t presented as a romance novel, and I didn’t want it to be one, but my own personal preference would have been for this aspect of the story to have been given a bit more attention. There was also only a scattering use of the fantasy elements, which read as kind of strange given Keelin’s own abilities.

With both of these elements taking a back seat, the story was left mostly focusing on the war itself. Again, it’s not that I don’t enjoy stories that focus on warfare and action; I very much do! But combined with the weaker characterization and the lack of balance between the other story elements, the focus on the war itself and the larger battle scenes left little effect. Because I wasn’t wholly invested in Keelin herself or those around her, I didn’t care as much about the outcome.

And then the ending was not something I enjoyed. I don’t want to spoil it, but I feel like it’s the kind of ending that will frustrate many readers, coming out of nowhere and effectively undercutting its own story. My own personal preferences also played a part in my frustrations here, so some readers may have less of a problem with this. But I do want to put out a general warning that the ending is noteworthy, at the least. Overall, this book was a disappointing read for me. At best I wasn’t as invested as I would have liked, and when I did become invested, it was in regards to a strongly negative reaction to the choices made in the end.

Rating 5: A lackluster character and weaker fantasy elements leaves a story with a war at its heart that I didn’t particularly care about.

Reader’s Advisory:

“To the Waters and the Wild” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be one “Popular Celtic Fantasy Novels.”

 

 

Bookclub Review: “An Ember in the Ashes”

20560137We 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 ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

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: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Publishing Info: Razorbill, April 2015

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Laia is a slave.  Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

Kate’s Thoughts

I like to think of myself as a good sport when it comes to my willingness to read genres that I’m not too keen on. Be it in an effort to stretch my reading wings or going off a recommendation from a close friend, I will try and be open minded about a book even if I wouldn’t really pick it up on my own or of my own volition. This happens a lot of book club with YA fantasy fiction, and I will be the first to admit that I’ve found some pretty good books this way that I wouldn’t have normally read. But when it comes to “An Ember in the Ashes”, it HAD been on my list in spite of the genre, it just never came up in my reading rounds. So when it was the selection for the month, I went in apprehensive but hopeful. YA fantasy, sure, but based on Roman history! That’s something I could enjoy, right?

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(source)

“An Ember in the Ashes” does have strengths that I did like about it. For one, as mentioned, the Roman influenced world was unique for me and fun to see, as I’ve had a fascination with Ancient Rome (specifically the Julio-Claudian Emperors) since college. I liked that Tahir took influence from the culture in terms of not only the way the characters were, but in the way that world was built. While it’s been tweaked to fit the story, there were definitely aspects of the society that felt familiar, and the society itself was definitely interesting enough that I wanted to know more about it. On top of that, the story itself was engaging and filled with enough conflict and stakes that I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to see what was going to happen to Elias and Laia, and wanted to know how their fates were going to tie together, as promised. We get two narratives within this story, of Laia and Elias, and of the two I liked Elias’s narrative more. One of the reasons for that is that I thought that his voice was more interesting to me as someone who is incredibly good at what he does, though he secretly despises it and plans to abandon it as soon as he can. The other reason, and the far more pressing one, is that while I liked Laia and was interested in what she was doing her ‘reluctant but willing rebel who has devoted everything to avenging and saving her family’ is a theme we have seen in YA for a very long time now, and it didn’t feel all that new or unique, nor did it stand out from the other narratives out there. Throw in some awfully cartoony/not terribly well fleshed out antagonists, and you have a story that has promise, but doesn’t quite land.

I thought that “An Ember in the Ashes” was an entertaining read, but I don’t think that I’m going to go on in the series. Should someone tell me that I should give it a chance, I will happily be a good sport and do so. But as it stands now, I am parting ways with Elias and Laia where we left them.

Serena’s Thoughts

I…wasn’t a fan of this book. I’ll also admit that right out of the gate I wasn’t feeling super hopeful about this one, as I remember it coming out and then looking into it at the time and choosing to pass. It then blew up into a huge read of the year, and I still didn’t read it. I can’t remember now why I didn’t read it, but I’m guessing that some of the trusted reviewers I follow must have flagged it and I had enough other things on my plate (a perpetual non-problem!problem) to write it off as likely not for me. But, like Kate said, bookclub is super handy in that it pushes me to read books that I otherwise wouldn’t, for whatever reason. And as I said, this was a huge fantasy novel, so really, it’s good that I read it so I could form my own opinion.

Most of what I liked about the book, Kate already covered. Though, even there, I had some pretty big qualifiers to my enjoyment of most of them. First off, the world-building. I did enjoy the Roman aspects that were being used and the unique world that was built around it. However, having read a lot of YA fantasy, these elements also didn’t standout as breaking some huge mold. Roman society and influences are at the heart of a lot of second world fantasy. I did find it interesting, however, that the rebellion seemed to be stemming from a different cultural background. Irish, I would guess, based on the naming conventions. One of our booklcub members had a theory that the world here was essentially the Roman empire shrunk down to a more manageable size. So some of the nearby cultures could be representing other place in the world that Romans expanded out to, like Ireland. It’s an interesting theory, and one that I think would be super clever. However, this is never explicitly said in the book itself, and I’m not sure there’s enough to conclusively say that that was the purpose behind some of these choices. If it was, I wish the author had made it more clear, because it is a very interesting idea.

The other thing that stands out as notable about this book was the violence of it all. I think that this was one of the aspects of the story that made it stand-out when it was first published, that it went further than other YA fantasy. But this is also where I started having major problems with the book. Primarily, the violent, serious nature of the world that our characters are living in didn’t match up with the often frivolous and silly nature of their thoughts and priorities, especially with regards to their romances. In other words, the book was trying to walk an unnatural line. It wanted to be “Game of Thrones,” but still have “Twilight” level romances. This simply doesn’t work. “Game of Thrones” is known for having teen characters involved at the heart of the story. The difference here is that when presented with the dire and very serious nature of the world around them, their thoughts and actions appropriately reflect that.

Laia and Elias have grown up in a world where violence and the threat of violence is around every corner. Beyond this, sex is used as a weapon and prostitution is a fairly normal thing for soldiers to participate in. Yet, Laia and Elias don’t reflect this as characters. Instead, right next to rape threats and horrific deaths, we have two characters who read so PG as to be almost laughable. It also weirdly worships the purity of these two characters. Elias is not like other boys and while he is constantly admiring the beauty of the women around him, he’s never engaged in anything himself. They both talk about physical attraction and love in the same way that teenagers today would. But that doesn’t work in a world where they would have grown up past this type of purity quickly (if they ever had it in the first place). You just can’t convince me that a character whose family has been murdered and is a spy for an evil queen would be so caught up in this love square or whatever it was.

I also didn’t appreciate the repeated rape threats made to Laia and Elias’s near constant worry about rape happening to the women in his life. It felt like the topic was used to further darken the world but was never explored further on how it would shape the lives of these women. Attempted rape has its own horrific aftereffects and yet none of this is explored with Laia.

Perhaps if this book had been written for adults I would have appreciated it more. There were some strong bones with the world and the political nature of the story. Elias and Laia, if aged out of their teenage swooning, could have also been good characters. But as it stands, the book seems to be presenting a weird position where tons of violence and rape threats are a totally ok topic for teen readers, but consensual sex between characters would be too “adult” so Laia and Elias must weirdly fixate the belly flutters. It’s a strange position to take and I don’t think it fits well.

Kate’s Rating 6: An engaging read to be sure, though a lot of the themes and characterizations we’ve seen in this genre over and over again.

Serena’s Rating 5: Not for me. I don’t think it did enough to address some of the serious topics it throws around and the romance didn’t mesh with the world that was created.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the world building in this novel? Did you think that it took accurate aspects from Ancient Rome and applied them well?
  2. There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
  3. This book is labeled as a YA fantasy, though some would argue that it doesn’t have as many fantasy elements as other fantasies do. What do you think of this genre classification?
  4. What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
  5. Do you think that the romance aspects of the book lined up with the world that the characters lived within? More specifically, can people still be fixated on potential romance or attraction when they are surrounded by darkness and horrors?
  6. This is the first in a four book series. Do you have predictions on where the plot is going to go? Do you think you’ll keep reading?

Reader’s Advisory

“An Ember in the Ashes” is included on the Goodreads lists “Free Range and Morally Complex YA”, and “‘High Fantasy’ With Female Leads/Protagonists”.

Find “An Ember in the Ashes” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Serena’s Review: “Tiger Queen”

42281646._sy475_Book: “Tiger Queen” by Annie Sullivan

Publishing Info: Blink, September 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: In the mythical desert kingdom of Achra, an ancient law forces sixteen-year-old Princess Kateri to fight in the arena to prove her right to rule. For Kateri, winning also means fulfilling a promise to her late mother that she would protect her people, who are struggling through windstorms and drought. The situation is worsened by the gang of Desert Boys that frequently raids the city wells, forcing the king to ration what little water is left. The punishment for stealing water is a choice between two doors: behind one lies freedom, and behind the other is a tiger.

But when Kateri’s final opponent is announced, she knows she cannot win. In desperation, she turns to the desert and the one person she never thought she’d side with. What Kateri discovers twists her world—and her heart—upside down. Her future is now behind two doors—only she’s not sure which holds the key to keeping her kingdom and which releases the tiger.

Review: I requested this book based purely on my curiosity to see how an author would transform the short story “The Lady or the Tiger” into a YA fantasy novel. The rest of the book description sounded fairly familiar, but I was hopeful that the unique source material would propel it beyond your typical fare. Alas, no.

In Kateri’s world, water is life. Her city and her people suffer for its lack and have fought for years to continue to thrive in a city that is barely getting by. Conditions are only made worse by a group of rebels who defy the water limits and steal the city’s supply for themselves. But Kateri’s father has developed a clever deterrent: if a thief is caught, they much choose between two doors, one of which allows them to return to their home and the other that releases a deadly tiger onto its prey. As Kateri continues to fight for her place in the royal line of succession, she begins finding more and more secrets behind other doors. And soon enough she finds herself questioning everything she’s come to know.

Honestly, take out the bit about the tiger/lady door thing and I feel like I’ve just typed out the same description that I have for so many books before. Substitute “tiger” for “dragon” and you pretty much have the plot of “The Last Namsara.” And that’s just the first one that comes to mind. I’m pretty sure anyone whose read a decent amount of YA fiction could read that book description and give me the entire outline of this book. And you’d be right.

It’s really hard to rate and review books like these. Is this book any worse than the million and one that came before it with the same plot and the same main character? Was I in a less forgiving mood when I read this one as compared to them? I’m not sure. But I will say that this book made me mad. It took what could have been a clever concept and instead of exploring the unique opportunities available there, it twisted it to fit the exact same “write by numbers” mold that we’ve seen forever now in YA fantasy fiction.

I knew I was in for trouble in the first chapter when I read about Kateri’s experience watching a caught thief go through the process of choosing a door. At first she’s sympathetic to the thief who is so young, to show that she’s caring. But then, for no reason, she must show that she’s ruthless and rage against his option for freedom. He should die now for what he’s done! It flip flops as easily as I’ve just written it. There is no explanation or developed rational behind this. It’s clearly there just to get to two basic character traits, at the expense of the character’s overall development as a believable person. The author clearly just wants to get through this whole “character building” bit as fast as possible. This mode of character “development” holds true throughout the rest of the book. Beyond that, Kateri was only the “warrior woman” she’s touted to be on the most superficial level. Other than her fighting skills, her entire plot line is in reaction to the men around her: her father, the men she fights, the man she loves.

In that same chapter we’re introduced to the king, her father, who is OF COURSE not hiding any secrets and OF COURSE is telling her the full truth about this whole water/thief thing. And there’s the nefarious dude she might have to marry and the rumored young, hot leader of the rebels and…man, I’m so bored even typing this out. It’s all exactly as you’d expect.

Frankly, I have very little to say about this book. I’m having a hard time even filling out this review to the word count that I usually hit. There’s just so little new here to even critique. Anyone who is passingly familiar with YA fantasy can see every twist and turn coming from a mile away. All of the characters dutifully follow the scripts laid out for them in books like this, with nary a unique trait to be found. It was incredibly disappointing. Maybe someone who hasn’t read a bunch of YA fantasy would enjoy this, or those who are not worn out by this basic storyline yet. But anyone looking for something fresh or new should beware.

Rating 5: The book itself is like opening the door and getting the tiger instead of the lady.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Tiger Queen” isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Books Based on Myths, Legends, Fairytales and Folklore.”

Find “Tiger Queen” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “A Stranger on the Beach”

41150430Book: “A Stranger on the Beach” by Michele Campbell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: There is a stranger outside Caroline’s house.

Her spectacular new beach house, built for hosting expensive parties and vacationing with the family she thought she’d have. But her husband is lying to her and everything in her life is upside down, so when the stranger, Aiden, shows up as a bartender at the same party where Caroline and her husband have a very public fight, it doesn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary.

As her marriage collapses around her and the lavish lifestyle she’s built for herself starts to crumble, Caroline turns to Aiden for comfort…and revenge. After a brief and desperate fling that means nothing to Caroline and everything to him, Aiden’s obsession with Caroline, her family, and her house grows more and more disturbing. And when Caroline’s husband goes missing, her life descends into a nightmare that leaves her accused of her own husband’s murder.

Review: Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

I kind of stumbled upon Michele Campbell’s books a year or so ago, picking up “It’s Always The Husband” on a whim and listening to it on eAudiobook. I was immediately taken in by the suspense, the plot twists, and the complex characters. I also enjoyed “She Was The Quiet One”, and at that point I decided that Campbell was going to be one of my go to requests when it comes to authors. I was lucky enough that NetGalley granted my request to read her newest novel “A Stranger on the Beach”. The plot enticed me straight away. A scorned woman decides to get revenge against her potentially cheating husband by having one night stand with a handsome younger man, and it goes terribly awry with secrets, sex, lies, and murder?

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Go on. (source)

It became pretty clear that Campbell had more in store for her readers than the simplicity of this tried and true plot line. The problem is that with “A Stranger on the Beach” she didn’t do a good enough job of keeping her cards close to her vest.

I’ll start with what did work for me, as there was a fair amount that did. I am a huge sucker for lurid and soapy thrillers, and “A Stranger on the Beach” is definitely that. The elements of a wealthy woman getting caught up with a man from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ has a lot of potential for fun and quick thrills, and because of that I breezed through “A Stranger on the Beach” pretty quickly. Caroline’s chapters were first person, and gave you a sense of what was inside her head and what was driving her emotions, and while Aidan’s were from a third person perspective you still knew who he was and what he was about. I also liked the power dynamics that Campbell brought into the story, with Caroline being part of the wealthy tourist population that spends summers in beach houses, and Aidan being a townie struggling to make ends meet and having to see the entitled hoi polloi throw their weight around. This made it so their interactions always had an added tension to them, beyond the tension that is already there because of their uneven affections for each other. It also brought in the questions of who is more trustworthy to the reader, Caroline or Aidan, based on gender, class, and what you know about the two of them and their personal lives. You know that Caroline is a potentially scorned wife, and you know that Aidan has had past run ins with the law. But what do you actually know about them when it comes down to it? I will say that it was fun seeing things get turned sideways.

That said, unlike Campbell’s previous novels, I found pretty much no one to root for in this story, as everyone was pretty much terrible, even if they were all pretty complex. In previous works by Campbell I feel like while there are rotten characters, there are at least some people to root for, and even some who buck the trend. But in “A Stranger on the Beach”, I couldn’t find one character with any redeeming qualities, and that made it very hard to connect to any of them. They weren’t even terribly fun villains that you love to hate, just unpalatable and frustrating to follow. Even the law enforcement officials who are trying to see the best in everyone came off as complete rubes. On top of that, while the plot was well paced and kept me going, I figured out almost all of the big surprises and plot twists very early on, far earlier than I should have been able to do so. I’m not sure if it’s another instance of knowing the clues and the devices and what to look for, or if it was a little too obvious. But even if it was an instance of being a huge thriller reader, given that I imagine thriller readers would be one of the main demographics for this series, it’s not a huge leap to say that I probably wouldn’t be the only person with this problem.

“A Stranger on the Beach” was a bit of a let down. I’m not about to write off Michele Campbell as an author, but I do hope that whatever she comes out with next is a return to form that we saw in her previous novels. 

Rating 5: While I found the read to be addicting and pleasantly fast, I didn’t care for many of the characters and called the big twists a long time before the reveals.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Stranger on the Beach” is included on the Goodreads lists “So You Love An Unreliable Narrator”, and “Down By The Sea”.

Find “A Stranger on the Beach” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Solving Cadence Moore”

36585390Book: “Solving Cadence Moore” by Gregory Sterner

Publishing Info: Aperture Press, November 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a copy from Book Publicity Services

Book Description: How much will one man risk to solve the unsolvable?

Ten years ago, famous young singer Cadence Moore disappeared without a trace on a remote highway in western Pennsylvania. To this day her fate remains unknown. Was she kidnapped or murdered? Or did she simply run away in search of a new life, leaving behind the abuse and heartbreak that haunted her?

Charlie Marx, host of the popular conspiracy radio show “Underground Broadcast,” is obsessed with Cadence. Desperate to find her after deceiving his boss to save his job, he launches an investigation of his own, digging deep into the missing woman’s past and uncovering her darkest secrets. Working feverishly for weeks, he claims to have solved the mystery and promises to reveal Cadence’s fate at the end of a groundbreaking podcast series and live radio special.

But is it all a lie? As years of twisted details slowly unravel, Charlie races to solve the biggest mystery of the decade. If he succeeds, it will mean closure for Cadence. If he fails, his entire world will come crashing down live on air–and the truth may be lost forever.

Review: Thank you to Book Publicity Services for sending me a copy of this book!

There are two types of true crime podcasts that I find myself listening to, and I think that they span the majority of the genre. There are the stand alone or limited series episodes, like “My Favorite Murder”, “Casefile”, or “Last Podcast on the Left”, which cover a wide array of cases over time and don’t have one central focus, nor do they do any deep investigating. Then there are podcasts like “Serial”, “In the Dark”, and “Dirty John”, which either focus on one case for each season, or just have the one series with the one case, and do involve themselves in the investigations, or at least connect with those involved. I’m more inclined to listen to the shows that cover many cases, but definitely have dabbled in the latter. As podcasts become more popular, it’s no surprise that we see fiction books that hope to tap into the theme and use it as their structural narrative. “Solving Cadence Moore” by Gregory Sterner is one such book, which follows the latter kind of podcast: a radio host finds himself investigating a missing girl and dedicating an entire series to it. It’s a plot that I figured with hit all the checkboxes in terms of things that I’d like, but unfortunately “Solving Cadence Moore” didn’t click in the way I hoped it would.

I will start with what I did like and what did work. The disappearance of Cadence Moore is definitely a compelling mystery, similar to other missing women stories like the case of Maura Murray that have garnered podcast and intrigue. Cadence is young, she’s beautiful, she’s tragic, she’s talented, and she disappeared without so much as a trace after a fight with her boyfriend. Sterner knows all the right beats to hit and all the qualities that would make a convincingly tantalizing show that would gain a huge following. The host, Charlie Marx, is also convincing as someone who has a lot on the line when it comes to how successful the show is. There are definitely building blocks in place that have a lot of potential in terms of plot and story progression. But ultimately, the big reason that this didn’t work is because we didn’t get to see much of the investigation aspects that Marx was participating in. The majority of the book is transcripts from each podcast episode, but written not as transcripts but in a long form narrative. We read what’s going on in the episode, and we read how the story slowly unfolds, and while that is fascinating to a point I didn’t feel like there were many stakes when done this way. There are some parts that take place in ‘real’ time, for lack of a better word, but most of that was Charlie fighting with his boss about whether the podcast was going to garner results. I think that since we didn’t get to see much of the actual investigating on Charlie’s part, I didn’t find myself terribly invested in whether or not he was going to solve it by the end. In turn, I also didn’t find it terribly suspenseful, for either Cadence OR Charlie. At the end of the day I didn’t feel like we got to know very much about Cadence outside of her superficial qualities that are parsed out because of her victim status, and by the time the ultimate solution came around I was feeling less satisfied or wowed and more ‘well, okay then.’ It went very slow overall, and the part that had me MOST intrigued had less to do with Cadence’s story and more to do with two characters who get put on the hot seat for their popular, but problematic documentary about the case. Hell, that part had the most passion for me, and I really enjoyed seeing the breakdown of an ego clash. But that was one part of a long book.

“Solving Cadence Moore” definitely has some good and bright aspects to it, but overall it didn’t take me in the way that I had hoped that it would. Try this mystery out of you are fine with a mystery without fast paced thrills. Ultimately, I need a little more oomph.

Rating 5: While the foundation was there and I found the premise and set up of the story’s podcast believable, the pacing was slow and I didn’t feel like the stakes were very high.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Solving Cadence Moore” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Fiction Books Featuring Podcasts”.

“Solving Cadence Moore” isn’t listed on WorldCat, but you can find access information HERE on the publisher’s page.

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!