Book Description: In the violent urban jungle of an alternate 1828 Paris, the French Revolution has failed and the city is divided between merciless royalty and nine underworld criminal guilds, known as the Court of Miracles. Eponine (Nina) Thénardier is a talented cat burglar and member of the Thieves Guild. Nina’s life is midnight robberies, avoiding her father’s fists, and watching over her naïve adopted sister, Cosette (Ettie).
When Ettie attracts the eye of the Tiger–the ruthless lord of the Guild of Flesh–Nina is caught in a desperate race to keep the younger girl safe. Her vow takes her from the city’s dark underbelly to the glittering court of Louis XVII. And it also forces Nina to make a terrible choice–protect Ettie and set off a brutal war between the guilds, or forever lose her sister to the Tiger.
Review: Like every YA fantasy that has came out in the last couple of years or so, this book was marketed for fans of “Six of Crows.” Now, typically, that’s almost a warning off sign for me these days, as it seems this strategy almost always leads to disappointment when the book either turns out to be nothing like that one or, perhaps worse, way too similar. But this was also listed as an alternative history of the French Revolution and a retelling of “Les Miserables,” so I thought it was worth checking out.
After the failure of the French Revolution, the divide between the nobility and commoners has only gotten worse. In in the wake of much disorder, new points of power have risen in the form of nine crim guilds. Nina, a talented thief, works for the Thieves Guild, scraping together a life for herself and her adopted sister. But no one can stay hidden forever, even a master thief, and soon enough Nina finds herself thrust out of the comforts of her criminal underworld life and instead in a glittering and even more dangerous royal court.
Just to get it out of the way right away, I didn’t enjoy this book. I’m sure there are readers who will, but for me, it failed to deliver on any of the promises it set out for itself: It had no connection to “Six of Crows” that I could identify (other than ridiculously broad strokes in that they both deal with criminal underworlds); As a retelling of “Les Mirables” it pick and chose to such an extent that I’m not sure I would have made the connection between the two stories on my own; And as an alternative history, I found it to be wildly anachronistic and shallow in its world-building. So, yeah.
These were all issues on their own, of course, but the book isn’t helped by weak characterization and chopping storytelling. Many of the characters who were pulled from “Les Miserables” can be reduced to one trait descriptions that seem to serve as the entire foundation for their character. We’re given very little more than “This person is a revolutionary!” “This person is a thief!” Readers are either supposed to be satisfied with these bare minimums or superimpose more characterization onto these individuals from their comparative characters in the original story.
And the story itself is very choppy and includes several large time jumps. And during those time jumps, you guessed it, all the necessary character development has already occurred! Readers are just informed of the improvements in main characters without seeing any progression or natural development for themselves. Motivations are laid down in a clinical, info-dumping manner, and the story continues on.
Lastly, I really hated the “romance” in this book. I add the quotes because tehre really is no actual romance laid out. But there are so many possibilities of it that it began to feel ridiculous. I counted at least three love interests that were introduced over the course of this book. And while Nina didn’t devote any crazy amount of time towards any of them, it was still pretty annoying to be given the impression that everyone/anyone who came into contact with her was immediately attracted to her and has the potential of becoming a more serious love interest in the future. I’m so tired of this trope, and while it does seem to be slowing down in general, I’m always still disappointed when I see it pop up again.
I’m unclear who to really recommend this book to. It’s not like it was absolutely abysmal, but I also don’t think that it’s the kind of book that would appeal to the people it most seems to be trying to attract. Super fans of “Les Miserables” for sure will be disappointed. And fans of “Six of Crows” at this point know to be wary of most books that promote themselves as readalikes. I guess if you’re at all intrigued by the alternative history angle and have a fairly flexible approach to what history means, this may be worth checking out?
Rating 5: Not for me. It fails to live up to its own promotional tactics and fell into the trap of introducing too many love interests all at once.
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: Eighteen-year-old Trinity Marrow may be going blind, but she can see and communicate with ghosts and spirits. Her unique gift is part of a secret so dangerous that she’s been in hiding for years in an isolated compound fiercely guarded by Wardens—gargoyle shape-shifters who protect humankind from demons. If the demons discover the truth about Trinity, they’ll devour her, flesh and bone, to enhance their own powers.
When Wardens from another clan arrive with disturbing reports that something out there is killing both demons and Wardens, Trinity’s safe world implodes. Not the least because one of the outsiders is the most annoying and fascinating person she’s ever met. Zayne has secrets of his own that will upend her world yet again—but working together becomes imperative once demons breach the compound and Trinity’s secret comes to light. To save her family and maybe the world, she’ll have to put her trust in Zayne. But all bets are off as a supernatural war is unleashed…
Review: This book had been hanging out on my audiobook holds list long enough that I had forgotten completely why I put it on there! Which can be a good and bad thing. For the good, it was a complete surprise, as I typically don’t read this type of book and probably wouldn’t have prioritized it if I had known that it was a modern YA fantasy. For the bad, I didn’t realize that this was a companion series to another, already finished series. Not that it had a huge effect on this read, but it was a factor. But, overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this book.
Trinity has been raised by the Wardens, taught to fight demons, and hidden from humans. But she is not any of them. Though going blind, Trinity’s unique abilities, aided by her excellent combat skills, have made her a force to be reckoned with. Her future, however, is anything but clear. It is made all the more murky when a group of stranger arrive with ill-boding news. And soon that news strikes closer than home than any of them would like. Now Trinity, with the help of the oddly appealing but supremely frustrating Zayne, must venture outside her home and put her true powers to the test.
So, as I said, this is the beginning to a companion series that had already completed. I will give props to the writer, however, for making this one feel pretty approachable all on its own. I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of the world and various players in it fairly early on. Once the main character and her love interest from the previous story showed up, I did feel like some background on their story and, particularly, their histories with Zayne would have been helpful. But even there, as they are all new to Trinity, it wasn’t hard to be introduced to them the first time through her eyes. If anything, I was more fully in her boat than I would have been otherwise, also not knowing what to believe between the various histories being told.
I also liked Trinity’s voice well enough at the beginning. She was funny and only ridiculous at times. Unfortunately, these traits swapped as the story went on, and she quickly became less funny and more ridiculous. Surprising no one, this change corresponded with the increased page time devoted to the romance. Again, not knowing the history between other characters and Zayne, it was all too easy to have to be mired in the nonsense of insecurity and drama alongside our main character.
The romance itself was everything I hated. First off, we have instalove or instattraction. Tons of mentions of how Trinity felt an inexplicable draw and interest in him. And he, too, with very little true development, is of course interested in her as well. Then you add in the forced drama in the middle. And then you get to the end and find out it was all just kind of pointless? I don’t want to spoil it or anything…but it’s another of my least favorite tropes. So the book strikes out three for three in the romance department.
The story is also incredibly long, something like 500 pages? Much of this is devoted to witty repartee and smaller character moments. Some have value, others not so much. And the few action scenes we get are brief and over before you really realize what’s going on. Overall, the story probably could have lost about 200 pages worth of filler and been a tighter, more compelling story for it.
I also really, really disliked the “reveal” at the end of the book. It wasn’t so much that I could see it coming, as that it just didn’t make that much sense. We get a bland, villain speech as an explanation, but no groundwork or character development had been laid down beforehand to make any of it feel earned or believable.
Yeah, so not much about this book worked for me. I was mildly intrigued by the characters who were introduced from the other book, but I also don’t trust this author anymore as far as developing an interesting, trope-free romance. So, I think I’ll probably skip those and not continue this either. If you’re a fan of her other series, this may be worth checking out. But if you’re new to this author, I can’t recommend this. If it sounds like your thing, probably just read the other series first and go from there.
Rating 5: A cringe-worthy romance really killed the mood on this one.
Book: “Into the Crooked Place” by Alexandra Christo
Publishing Info: Feiwel and Friends, October 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: The streets of Creije are for the deadly and the dreamers, and four crooks in particular know just how much magic they need up their sleeve to survive.
Tavia, a busker ready to pack up her dark-magic wares and turn her back on Creije for good. She’ll do anything to put her crimes behind her.
Wesley, the closest thing Creije has to a gangster. After growing up on streets hungry enough to swallow the weak whole, he won’t stop until he has brought the entire realm to kneel before him.
Karam, a warrior who spends her days watching over the city’s worst criminals and her nights in the fighting rings, making a deadly name for herself.
And Saxony, a resistance fighter hiding from the very people who destroyed her family, and willing to do whatever it takes to get her revenge.
Everything in their lives is going to plan, until Tavia makes a crucial mistake: she delivers a vial of dark magic—a weapon she didn’t know she had—to someone she cares about, sparking the greatest conflict in decades. Now these four magical outsiders must come together to save their home and the world, before it’s too late. But with enemies at all sides, they can trust nobody. Least of all each other.
Review: I never got around to reading Christo’s “To Kill a Kingdom,” but I heard a lot of good things about it. So when I saw she had another book coming out this fall, I was eager to jump in and see what the fuss was about. I’ll admit, I was a bit wary when reading the book description, because I think these ensemble/gang/YA fantasy stories ala “Six of Crows” have become the number one genre to regularly burn me recently. But I thought I’d still give it a go based on the recommendations for the author herself. Unfortunately, my wariness was deserved, and this book wasn’t the hit I was hoping for.
Creije is both a wondrous and dangerous place. But whether if is dangerous or wondrous depends largely on one’s own abilities. And four different individuals know that with the right combination of magic, wits, and guts, the streets are where you make a life for yourself. Each with their own role to play and their own proficiency, a simple misunderstanding will quickly draw them together in an adventure where no one can be trusted.
Confession: I read this book back in the fall closer to when it was actually published. But I had also just reviewed (rather negatively) several other books that were very similar to this (ensemble, YA fantasy novels that centered around gangs/heists) and was, frankly, too tired out to want to right up yet another review. But as I did receive this book from a publisher, I thought better late than never. Alas, all of that leads to the obvious point: this book was not my jam and was way too familiar to a million other books that I’ve read just like it.
Look, I loved “Six of Crows.” But in retrospect I’m starting to hold a serious grudge against the deluge of similar YA titles that have now flooded the market. I swear, there was a point where I read about five of these in a row and was beginning to confuse them all (there’s at least two others that I’ve read and *sigh* will get around to reviewing at some point). I mean, the genre has always had trends that come and go, but for some reason this one seems worse than others. I think its because, other than “Six of Crows,” I’ve yet to come across a version of this trope/subgenre that I’ve actually liked.
I hate love triangles (a previous trope found all too often), but I can name at least two books I’ve read in the last year that had this trope and were still good! Because the authors still managed to make it their own and add new and interesting twists to the concept. But for some reason, with these ensemble, YA gang stories…they’re all almost literally exact copies of each other. To the point that some of the staple characters could be interchanged between books with a simple name change and not much would alter. Their personalities are the same. Their relationships are the same. The general mood/banter in the group as a whole is the same. It’s just…exhausting. I don’t know if there’s just not enough to plum with this this particular subgenre or whether “Six of Crows” just set too high of a bar. But something has gone wrong here, and it needs to stop.
And look, I’ve written two entire paragraphs without even talking about this book itself. And that’s because it’s just the same as all of the others. The characters feel like bland re-imaginings of characters we’ve seen before. The dialogue was tired and familiar. The relationships were…ok, I liked that they added the relationship between the two women, but the other was super familiar and predictable. The plot did pick up about half way through the book, but it never felt like it was really coming into anything of its own. Instead, it feels like the author just cobbled together a bunch of things that have been popular in other stories and whipped this one out there as fast as she could. There’s really not much to say in reviewing this book that I haven’t said before about similar books in the past that have tried and failed at this plot.
Eventually, I guess, I’ll have to get around to reviewing the other two books like this I’ve read. One I won’t be continuing and the other I already have the sequel to (though this more a case of “not as bad as the others” than anything else). But I have to space them out so my poor readers don’t have to just re-read the same review from me over and over again. I’m sorry! I just seem to keep reading the same book over and over again, and this is the result!
Rating 5: Adds nothing to a tired and needs to be put to bed subgenre of YA fantasy.
“Into the Crooked Place” isn’t on any relevant lists (other than ones having to do with the year of its publication), which I think is telling. But it probably should be on “Villain Protagonists.”
Book: “Something She’s Not Telling Us” by Darcey Bell
Publishing Info: Harper, April 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description:She’s on the verge of having it all…
But one woman stands in her way.
Charlotte has everything in life that she ever could have hoped for: a doting, artistic husband, a small-but-thriving flower shop, and her sweet, smart five-year-old daughter, Daisy. Her relationship with her mother might be strained, but the distance between them helps. And her younger brother Rocco may have horrible taste in women, but when he introduces his new girlfriend to Charlotte and her family, they are cautiously optimistic that she could be The One. Daisy seems to love Ruth, and she can’t be any worse than the klepto Rocco brought home the last time. At least, that’s what Charlotte keeps telling herself. But as Rocco and Ruth’s relationship becomes more serious, Ruth’s apparent obsession with Daisy grows more obvious. Then Daisy is kidnapped, and Charlotte is convinced there’s only one person who could have taken her.
Ruth has never had much, but now she’s finally on the verge of having everything she’s ever dreamed of. A stable job at a start-up company, a rakish, handsome boyfriend with whom she falls more in love with every day—and a chance at the happy family she’s always wanted, adorable niece included. The only obstacle standing in her way is her boyfriend’s sister Charlotte, whose attitude swerves between politely cold and outright hostile. Rebuffing Ruth’s every attempt to build a friendship with her and Daisy, Charlotte watches over her daughter with a desperate protectiveness that sends chills down Ruth’s spine. Ruth knows that Charlotte has a deeply-buried secret, the only question is: what? A surprise outing with Daisy could be the key to finding out, and Ruth knows she must take the chance while she has it—for everyone’s sake.
As the two women follow each other down a chilling rabbit hole, unearthing winding paths of deceit, lies, and trauma, a family and a future will be completely—and irrevocably—shattered.
From its very first page, Something She’s Not Telling Us takes hold of readers’ imagination in a harrowing, unforgettable thriller that dives deep into the domestic psyche and asks the question:
Is anyone ever really who they say they are…?
Review: Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
When the movie “A Simple Favor” came out I was interested in seeing it, but knew that I should probably read the book first. So I listened to the Darcey Bell thriller while driving in the car, and while it was fine, I ultimately liked the movie version better. Scandalous, I know. But I did like it enough that I wanted to see more from Bell. So when I saw that her newest novel, “Something She’s Not Telling Us”, was up on NetGalley, I requested it, hoping that I would get to read it. There’s definitely something about Bell and the way she writes and crafts a story, in that it can suck you in and be unrelenting.
What I will say about “Something She’s Not Telling Us” is that, once again, I got sucked in pretty handily. It’s told from (mostly) two perspectives of two different women. The first is Charlotte, a high stung and privileged wife and mother living in New York City. She has a loving husband, a darling daughter named Daisy, and a job that she enjoys, though she is constantly fretting about Daisy’s well being and judging her younger brother Rocco for his poor taste in girlfriends. The other perspective is that of Ruth, Rocco’s current girlfriend who is desperate to impress Charlotte and hoping that Rocco is The One. As the two women interact we are treated to two unreliable narrators in their own ways, one seemingly wearing her heart on her sleeve while the other is trying to control a narrative. As we switched between their perspectives, the pacing was such that I felt like it was very easy to keep going between the two. It was incredibly readable, and I devoured the book in a couple of sittings in a weekend.
But ultimately, “Something She’s Not Telling Us” had the same pitfalls that “A Simple Favor” did. The first is that the mystery was perfectly fine and one I was invested in, but I kind of figured out a number of aspects to it quickly. It was clear from the get go that both Charlotte and Ruth were going to be unreliable in their own ways, but it wasn’t very difficult for me to tell which one was the one to be keeping my eye on. On top of that, there were very few actually likable people in this book, which was the same problem I had with “A Simple Favor”, the book. None of them felt particularly complex in their characterizations, so their nastiness didn’t really have any sort of softened blow. Sure, some tragic childhood stuff was tossed in, but not enough exploration or depth was done to make it feel like much more than a catch all. And the problem with unlikable or unrelateable characters at the end of the day is that ultimately, you aren’t invested in what happens to them. I did want to keep reading, but it wasn’t because of any of the characters that I was following. And frankly, when it gets down to it there wasn’t really anything unique or new about the various reveals and twists that we saw here. Readable, yes, but not exactly unique or memorable.
I’m still interested in reading what Bell may come out with in the future, mainly because there still continues to be a certain something that kept me going and reading. But “Something She’s Not Telling Us” didn’t stand out from other run of the mill thrillers that are coming out at the moment.
Rating 5: A very readable thriller, but not one with a lot of new things to say, “Something She’s Not Telling Us” has some okay twists, but not many interesting characters or plot developments.
We 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 “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.
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: “It’s Not The End of the World” by Judy Blume
Publishing Info: Macmillan, 1972
Where Did We Get This Book: The library!
American Girl Book: “Meet Julie” by Megan McDonald
Book Description:Can Karen keep her parents from getting a divorce? This classic novel from Judy Blume has a fresh new look.
Karen couldn’t tell Mrs. Singer why she had to take her Viking diorama out of the sixth-grade showcase. She felt like yelling, “To keep my parents from getting divorced!” But she couldn’t say it, and the whole class was looking at her anyway.
Karen’s world was ending. Her father had moved out of the house weeks before; now he was going to Las Vegas to get divorced, and her mother was pleased! She had only a few days to get the two of them together in the same room. Maybe, if she could, they would just forget about the divorce. Then the Newman family could be its old self again—maybe. But Karen knew something she didn’t know last winter: that sometimes people who shouldn’t be apart are impossible together.
Okay, literary confession time. Before Book Club picked “It’s Not The End of the World”, I had never read anything by Judy Blume. I don’t really know how I missed that, as I was almost certainly in the target demographic of her books, and I know that various classrooms at my grade school had her books on the shelves. But this was my first experience with Blume, so I was glad that one of our members picked it! I know that Blume is a queen of kid lit, so finally reading one of her books seemed far past due. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy “It’s Not The End of the World” as much as I thought I would.
I do want to say that first and foremost, I definitely understand the significance of a book about divorce being written in 1972. Especially a book that shows how toxic and terrible an acrimonious marriage and split can be for a family, without the promise of a happy moment of Mom and Dad reuniting because they do still love each other. As the 1970s brought more lenient social mores and changing ideas of values, divorce became more commonplace, and I think it’s so important that kids going through such a thing had a book like “It’s Not The End of the World” to turn to. It’s important to be able to see yourself in the media you consume, and so kids who had to go through that having this reflection of themselves and a reassurance that it is, in fact, not the end of the world, must have been resonant. On top of that, it was very easy to read and Blume’s skills as a writer are on full display.
But all that said, I think that now that more books have been written about divorce as time has gone on, they would be better options to explore than this book. I thought that a lot of the characters were two dimensional, including Karen who seemed quite a bit younger in her voice than the twelve year old she was supposed to be. On top of that, every single adult in this book was just awful, and while I think it’s probably pretty realistic that parents going through this kind of thing won’t always be on their best behavior, they were almost flat out abusive. And it felt to me like this was almost excused by Blume, or at least written off as typical and what to expect from divorcing parents. I don’t know what the 1970s were like, but this seemed unrealistic and histrionic.
I get and appreciate “It’s Not The End of the World,” but I don’t think it holds up as well as I’m told other Blume stories do.
So I’ll try to keep my half of this review from just repeating everything Kate said. But somehow, even though we grew up in completely different states and both loved books obsessively, I, too, missed the Judy Blume train. Part of this I think has to do with the fact that I was pretty solidly a genre reader from the get-go and my forays into contemporary fiction have always been few and far between, even as a kid. The only other Blume book I read was “Forever” and that was just because I was assigned it in library school (Kate and I were in this same class, but she wisely chose a different book option for this assignment.) I didn’t particularly enjoy that book. So it was with some skepticism that I started this book, knowing that I hadn’t been the target audience pretty much ever and didn’t loved my only other experience with her work. And, alas, it held true here.
Like Kate said, this book definitely had its time and place, and there’s no arguing with the general popularity of Blume’s work with many middle graders. Still today libraries circulate many copies of her more popular stories. That said, I think this one shows its age and in ways that make it particularly less approachable to modern kids reading it than others. Books dealing with how kids deal with divorce are still needed today, but this one’s approach is heavily cemented in the idea that Karen is experiencing a socially rare event, one that is distinctive enough from her peers’ experiences that she stands out. Not only are attitudes around divorce markedly different than they were in the 70s, but it is simply common enough that Karen’s situation wouldn’t have likely made her stick out in a crowd.
Beyond this, the adults in Karen’s life are almost uniformly letting her down in massive ways. So much so, that at times both parents read as cartoonish in their villainy. There are also elements in their parenting strategies that would fall under a much harsher lens than they might have at the time this was written. Like Kate said, their actions in today’s views could be seen as borderline abusive. But the parents weren’t the only one-dimensional characters. Sadly, I didn’t connect with Karen at all either. She felt largely like a stock character around whom this “afternoon special: divorce!” topic was being framed.
I see how Blume’s work can be highly readable, as I did manage to get through the book quickly. But between this book and “Forever” (a book where I had a lot of similar complaints, particularly around the flat characterization), her writing is definitely not for me. I’m hesitant to throw a beloved author for many under the bus, but…I ain’t seeing it. With this topic specifically, I think there are better books being written now that I would direct readers to before this.
Kate’s Rating 6: Definitely an important work for it’s time and honest in many ways, but now it feels a bit over the top with histrionic moments and pretty two dimensional characters.
Serena’s Rating 5: More interesting as an artifact representing a very different time period with regards to divorce than as an actual story.
Book Club Questions
This book was one of the first children’s novels that had divorce as a main theme. Do you think that it holds up today?
What did you think of the adults in this novel? Did you find them realistic?
What were your thoughts on Val, Karen’s new friend and supposed divorce expert?
Did Karen’s voice feel authentic?
Do you think that “It’s Not The End of the World” is still a book that you might recommend to kids whose families are going through a divorce? Why or why not?
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.
Book Description:Elle and her friends Mads, Jenny, and Summer rule their glittering LA circle. Untouchable, they have the kind of power other girls only dream of. Every party is theirs and the world is at their feet. Until the night of Elle’s sweet sixteen, when they crash a St. Andrew’s Prep party. The night the golden boys choose Elle as their next target.
They picked the wrong girl.
Sworn to vengeance, Elle transfers to St. Andrew’s. She plots to destroy each boy, one by one. She’ll take their power, their lives, and their control of the prep school’s hierarchy. And she and her coven have the perfect way in: a boy named Mack, whose ambition could turn deadly.
Foul is Fair is a bloody, thrilling revenge fantasy for the girls who have had enough. Golden boys beware: something wicked this way comes.
Review: Thanks to Wednesday Books and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!
When I was in ninth grade my English class read “MacBeth”, the Shakespearean tragedy involving assassination, witches, torment, and revenge. I loved it from the very start, from reading the book itself to when our teacher showed a group of fourteen and fifteen year olds the Roman Polanski film adaptation, which is horrendously bloody and disturbing. I remember turning to my friend Blake at one point and both of us clearly thinking ‘whaaat the fuuuuuck?’ By the time my younger sister got to that class they’d replaced Polanski’s version with the offbeat “Scotland, PA”, a retelling of the classic story set in the world of fast food. It’s hilarious and dark, and I had been waiting for a long time to see another retelling of my favorite Shakespeare play. You can imagine how excited I was when “Foul is Fair” by Hannah Capin was in my email box. A YA retelling of “MacBeth”, from the female point of view, as a revenge story? On paper, this seems like everything that I would want for the Scottish Play. And yet, it became pretty clear pretty early that this wasn’t really going to work for me as much as I’d hoped it would.
Okay, let’s start with the good. Frankly, these days given the repeated reminders of the misogynistic and sexist culture that we live in, and the prevalent stories of abuse and trauma that have been exposed due to the #MeToo movement and powerful abusers falling from grace, I am all for a story that wants to tackle these issues with unrelenting rage. Catharsis is important, especially when it feels like some things never change and that privileged abusers will never see any true consequences (or sometimes hold high places of power, be it a Supreme Court seat or the Oval Office). So the fact that “Foul is Fair” is a power fantasy in which a rape victim is taking out all of her rage and revenge against her rapists and taking her power back does give it lots of points. Especially since justice in the real world can be so hard to come by. Plus, I really did like the writing itself, as it’s vivid and visceral with a raw power that makes it almost burn off the page.
But when it comes to the characters within this book, I was supremely disappointed. One of the things about “MacBeth” is that while there are clear heroes and villains, each hero and villain has some complexity and nuance to them. MacBeth and Lady MacBeth in particular have moments of ruthlessness and vulnerability, and you understand the motivations for both of them even if you don’t necessarily agree with them, like the whole regicide thing. In “Foul is Fair”, all of the characters feel like two dimensional beings that aren’t defined by much else beyond their scumminess, or their unrelenting rage, or their weirdness. Can this be entertaining? Sure. But I didn’t feel like I really got to know our protagonist, Elle/Jade, outside of her understandable anger about what the golden boys at St. Andrews did to her. Effective plot? Absolutely. But it does not characterization make. Her interactions with her ‘coven’ (I’m also a little confused here, as she is clearly the stand in for Lady MacBeth, but she’s hanging out with Jenny, Summer, and Mads, who are the stand ins for the Weird Sisters. I don’t want to be a purist to the original material, but why was this a choice?) always felt a little ‘2edgy4me’ as they always, ALWAYS talk with coolness and malevolence, and even when they start turning on each other it still comes off as trying way too hard to be badass when all I wanted was to see some relatability amidst the badassness. And on top of all that, sure, there are some “MacBeth” aspects to it, but it definitely felt like it picked and chose the themes that would work best for the story at hand as opposed to actually trying to make it a “MacBeth” retelling. You take away the character names that reference the characters they’re based upon, and it’s not so easy to find the “MacBeth” aspects, it was shifted and changed so much. You can definitely adapt old texts to modern times and do it in ways that still give the original intent and feel of the source material (one of the best moments of this is in “Clueless” where Josh gives summation of Knightley’s dressing down and scolding of Emma with ‘you’re such a brat’. PERFECT!). “Foul is Fair” did not achieve this.
(and as a side note, poor Lady MacDuff gets thrown under the bus in this ‘reimagining’. The poor woman and all of her children are brutally slaughtered because MacDuff is a threat to MacBeth. In this she’s turned into a bitchy queen bee who is complicit in rape. It’s like ya didn’t even TRY to adapt that character! There were other instances of pick and choose feminism, but whatever, I don’t need to get on a soap box.)
There is something to be said for the ultimate rage message of standing up against violent misogyny, and that maybe it needs to be beaten over the head to get the point across. But I had hoped for a little more vicious and biting satire with Shakespearean flair.
Rating 5: The beat down of misogyny and the overall power fantasy was cathartic, but “Foul is Fair” had two dimensional characters and a grasp on the source material only when it suited.
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.
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.
We 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.
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?
“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.
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
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?
There are two narrative POVs within this book. Did you connect more with Laia’s storyline, or Elias’s storyline?
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?
What are your opinions on the antagonists of this story, specifically Marcus and The Commandant?
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?
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?
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.