Undeniable Good and the Evil it Falls Prey To: The Project by Courtney Summers

So, let’s not add ‘join a cult’ to our bucket list. But then again, I guess no one really plans to join a cult, do they?

Who, What, Where?

Following the death of her parents in a car wreck, thirteen-year-old Lo Denham was left in the care of her great aunt when her sister, Bea, mysteriously joined The Unity Project, a religious charity organisation working across Upstate New York. Now nineteen and alone, Lo hasn’t heard from her sister in years and spends her days working as an assistant to the head of SVO magazine. One day a stranger recognises her by name shortly before throwing himself in front of a moving train. The man’s father blames The Unity Project for his son’s death. Lo has always believed there’s more to the organisation and its charismatic leader, Lev Warren, than meets the eye and sees this as the perfect opportunity to not only expose the group and find her sister but to make her name as a journalist. To her surprise, Lo is granted permission to write her story and full access to both The Unity Project and Lev himself, the organisation hoping to prove once and for all that they have nothing to hide. Yet, the more Lo begins to investigate, the more she starts to question who to trust and what the truth is. But is the truth really what she’s looking for?

Lo

One of the things Courtney Summers is known for is her unlikeable but complex leading ladies, and Gloria ‘Lo’ Denham definitely fits the mould. I started out somewhat unsure about Lo. She’s acerbic, ambitious, stubborn, and because of the loss, rejection and trauma in her past, it often feels as though she walks around with a giant rain cloud hovering over her head. My connection with Lo is complicated in that while I never grew to “like” her as a person, with time I did come to care about what happened to her and to appreciate her emotional depth. Seeing other characters take advantage of her loneliness, fears and insecurities was difficult to witness and I hoped that she would find some level of peace by the end.

Having A Sister is a Promise

Like Sadie, at its heart The Project is a novel about the bond between sisters. The story is told effectively in dual timelines between Bea in 2012 and Lo five years later. Early on, I found it difficult to invest in Bea and Lo’s relationship as their scenes together are limited and mostly take place either when Lo is a baby or not fully conscious after the car accident. Yet, Summers managed to successfully build the connection over time through the intensity of the girls’ thoughts and actions to create a messy, raw and painful depiction of unconditional love.

There’s a beautiful contrast between the progression of Lo and Bea’s stories that I really enjoyed. Both girls start out with vastly different attitudes towards religion, The Unity Project, and themselves, and it’s interesting to see Bea’s eyes slowly open to the issues around her whilst Lo simultaneously seems to close hers for want of family, safety and belonging.  

Hidden Monsters

The Project is not a twists galore, drama-filled book. It’s a very slow build that takes time to get into, and as I was reading there were several points at which I wondered where it was all going. I later came to understand that this pacing is crucial to the story it’s trying to tell. As an Average Joe, it’s difficult to grasp the psychology behind people who willingly join and remain parts of religious cults. More so, how cult leaders can hold such power and sway over their members. The Project takes the time to illustrate this in a believable way. Through both Bea and Lo’s stories we’re able to see just how much influence a person can wield over those who are isolated, lost and broken by making them feel seen and valued, and giving them hope and purpose. The manipulation, control and gaslighting within The Unity Project is subtle and insidious. By the time the darkness underneath starts to reveal itself, the reader (like Lo) has been led into such a false illusion of peace and comfort that it’s difficult to recognise or process the acts of abuse so casually mentioned.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Something I’ve come to realise about Summers’s books is that while they’re classified as YA and the writing feels like YA, her stories, characters and themes are much more mature and adult in essence. After Sadie, I expected The Project would be dark, especially considering the premise. And dark it was. This is a book which isn’t afraid to delve into the bleaker sides of humanity and religion. It deals with child abuse, suicide, grief, murder, torture, manipulation, PTSD, and intimate partner violence, just to name a few topics. Some of these elements take a while to creep up and rear their ugly heads, but eventually they do. While I enjoy these types of grittier narratives for their gravity and realism, I know a lot of other readers prefer to steer clear. However, I should note that despite its tough subject matters The Project manages to retain a strong underlying sense of hope and goodness in the world that will somehow shine through no matter how dark circumstances may seem.

Mixed Bag Ending

I have mixed thoughts on the ending for this one. There are parts that I liked, but there’s certainly one major component I wasn’t fond of at all, largely because there’s no explanation for it. Over the course of the novel there are several instances of events which characters interpret as being miracles but each of these have alternative real-world explanations. The sequence of events at the end of the book, on the other hand, does not appear to have any sort of non-miracle reasoning. My issue with this is that not only does it make the ending feel too neat but it has caused me to rethink the book’s overall scepticism towards religion as truth, leaving me confused as to how to interpret some of its overarching ideas.


While The Project may not have been as completely immersive and devastating an experience as Sadie, I enjoyed this book and feel as though it mostly succeeded in what Summers was trying to achieve. If you’re looking for a well written, strong and emotionally grounded story, and are willing to be patient for a pay-off, you’ll likely enjoy The Project.

3.5 Stars

Summer Romance with Depth: Beach Read by Emily Henry

I think it’s time that I list adult contemporary romance as one of my favourite genres. They’re just so enjoyably bingeable. The banter, the sweetness, the steam – it’s the perfect little package I can’t resist. Almost like wiggling a Mars Bar in my face. And that’s pretty much what hearing the premise for Beach Read was. Two authors, living in beach houses, engaging in some friendly competition to see if they can write a book in the other’s genre, bouncing off one another until they eventually crack and rip each other’s clothes off… You see what I mean, right?

January & Gus

The two leads in this book are great. They’ve got complexity, great chemistry and, most importantly for romance, appropriate levels of personal baggage to dramatically bring up at opportune moments. January is a romance writer who after the death of her father and discovery of his mistress has been suffering from severe writer’s block. In the hopes of finally getting something written and recovering her sunny, hopeful disposition, she moves into her dad and his girlfriend’s empty beach house. To her surprise, her new next door neighbour is her former university classmate, and now successful literary fiction author, Augustus Everett.

Unlike January, Gus is cynical, broody, and more than happy to murder fictional characters. But he’s also sweet, funny and somewhat mysterious. Also, to my immense joy, he has none of that Alpha male type bullshit typical of romantic leads these days. Look romance writers: Proof that you can be nice and still have sex appeal!

Banter-ific!

As you can probably tell, this is an opposites attract kind of relationship and it works really well on that level. January and Gus’s interactions are perfectly balanced between fun banter and get-things-off-my chest emotional. Even when there’s not much happening plot wise, the book is enjoyable simply by having them be around each other, whether they’re terribly line dancing or writing notes Taylor Swift style through their windows. These interactions make up the bulk of the novel so thank goodness their exchanges work as well as they do.

Battle of the Authors

I really enjoy books about authors and writing so the idea of a competition between two writers involving them producing work vastly outside their comfort zones was a massive draw card here. Yet, while the competition is present and does result in January and Gus doing several research activities, it isn’t as prominent as I would have liked. Mostly because it tends to take a backseat to their romance and dealing with past troubles, particularly in the middle. It does, however, pop more to the forefront toward the end of the novel.

In Cheesy Territory

Beach Read is cute, okay. It is. It’s fun and sweet and mostly enjoyable. But it’s also kind of… cheesy and over the top at points. There were certainly a few lines of dialogue (“I don’t need snowflakes.” He kissed me. “As long as there’s January.”) and moments I could have done without to avoid the cringe factor. This is especially so considering the seriousness of some of the plot points. The book also frustratingly leans into the age old complication of failure to communicate properly. I could see it coming and resigned myself to the fact, but I really wish it hadn’t been done twice. There were also a few points at which I feel January behaved somewhat annoyingly irrational but hey, you can’t have everything.

Deceptively Fluffy Covers

I feel I should mention that because of the genre, blurb and cover imagery, this is a book people will go into expecting fluff, levity and laughter but, like me, will probably be surprised to find there’s a heaviness to it, too (something that’s become common in romance reads lately). Infidelity is a big theme in this book but there’s also the death of January’s father, Gus’s research into a cult, and both our leads’ somewhat fractured outlooks on love and life to contend with. In other words, be prepared for things not to be constantly sunshine and daisies.


As far as contemporary romance goes, this is a good choice. It’s got more emotional gravity than you’d expect from something titled Beach Read, but that’s perhaps what makes it more memorable. While I wouldn’t count this among my favourite romance reads, it’s definitely a good way to spend a few hours. If this seems like something you’ll like, there’s probably about a 90% chance that it is.

3.5 stars

Lock Your Doors, Latch Your Windows: The Whisper Man by Alex North

One of my bookish resolutions for 2020 was to read more broadly than my constant marathon of fantasy and YA contemporaries. Cue: The Whisper Man by Alex North, a crime/thriller novel with an intriguing premise, rumoured to be a little bit creepy, and featured on quite a few people’s top ten lists of 2019.

Who, What, Where?

“If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken.
If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home.
If your window’s left unlatched, you’ll hear him tapping at the glass.
If you’re lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you.”

The novel is set in the small town of Featherbank in which a young boy named Neil Spencer has recently been abducted after hearing whispers at his bedroom window. The kidnapping is deeply unsettling for police as twenty years ago a serial killer with the same MO named Frank Carter, and known as ‘The Whisper Man’, was arrested. The body of his final victim was never found and at the time, the lead inspector on the case, DI Pete Willis, believed Carter might have an accomplice. Shortly after Neil’s disappearance, Tom Kennedy and his seven-year-old son, Jake, move to town, hoping to find a new start following the death of Jake’s mother, Rebecca. However, to Tom’s dismay, Jake soon begins acting strangely – talking to invisible children, sleepwalking, and spouting information he shouldn’t know. But then Jake, too, begins to hear the whispering.

More Than Your Standard Police Procedural

While TWM is marketed as a fantastic crime novel, and its mystery elements are definitely solid, where this book excels is its focus on themes like parenthood, specifically the relationship between fathers and sons, grief and trauma.  The key relationship here is between Tom and Jake. Several months after Rebecca’s death, Tom and Jake are both grieving in different ways and struggling to understand one another. Tom loves his son and desperately wants to connect with him but at the same time he’s also learning to be a single parent and dealing with the complex emotions associated with his loss. He worries about Jake fitting in and dealing with finding Rebecca’s body but more that he’s doing the right thing by Jake in terms of his parenting. His struggles also inevitably make him think about his problematic relationship with his own father.

Well-Rounded Characters

The characters in TWM are fleshed out and feel like real people, with all the flaws and failings that come with it. As a reader, we genuinely feel and understand Tom’s conflicting emotions of sadness and anger over his wife’s death, Jake’s guilt in being what he feels is a disappointment to his father, Pete’s struggles not to give in to his alcohol addiction, and DI Amanda Beck’s desperate need to do the right thing by Neil Spencer and his family. The book shifts perspectives between each of these characters, and later the killer, in a very fluid and easy to follow way.

Enjoyable but Not Gripping

In terms of the mystery itself, I found it mildly enjoyable but not to the level hype had set my expectations. However, I feel as though this is likely more a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. As I mentioned above, TWM is about more than just an investigation. In order to facilitate this (and because there are points where the police are low on leads), the pacing is slower for large sections. It’s almost as though the mystery takes a back seat to character development and exploring the book’s overall themes, which is fine but not what I was anticipating.Something I also really enjoy in my thrillers/mysteries are intense moments and big/smart reveals. TWM does have a few creepy and dramatic moments, and the later chapters are certainly fast paced, but the majority of the reveals didn’t really encourage a reaction from me more than, ‘Okay, I’m cool with that. That makes sense’. Overall, I can say I was consistently interested in what was happening but not necessarily glued to the page, on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what would happen.

I See Dead People (Maybe?)

TWM also includes a potential paranormal plotline. Having gone into this book expecting a gritty murder mystery grounded in reality, this was a surprise for me, but one I really enjoyed. This part of the story revolves around Jake and his tendency to see and speak to children which no one else can. Jake also often says things that make Tom wonder where he would have picked up the information. This complication added an extra dimension to Jake and Tom’s relationship and really enriched the sections of the novel from Jake’s perspective. They also tie in nicely to the overall mystery narrative, making certain moments that little bit more emotional and dramatic.      


All things considered; I liked this one. It was well written and I’d probably read another book from the same author in the future.

3.5 Stars

Loose Ends, Faerie Cannibalism & a Giant Freakin’ Snake: The Queen of Nothing by Holly Black

I don’t know how it’s possible to be disappointed and happy at the same time, but that’s how I feel about The Queen of Nothing. Perhaps it’s because even a not so great The Folk of the Air book is still a The Folk of the Air book. As I’m going to spend a lot of time ranting and whinging, I better outline some positives first. Let’s get cracking and BEWARE, SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Things I Liked

Time Flies

One of the things I worried about going into QoN was pacing. I was especially concerned it would spend ages stuffing around at the beginning before reaching any action. As it turned out, because the novel was so short, there wasn’t time for that. The book has a reasonable introductory section in the mortal world before quickly throwing Jude back into Faerie and lots of drama. After this the plot moves very quickly (perhaps a little too quickly in the second half), easily transitioning from each stage or ‘act’ with little downtime for the characters. Without even intending to speed through the book, by the time I checked my place I was shocked to find I was already two-thirds of the way in! In other words, it’s extremely readable and you definitely won’t be bored.

Queen Jude

On my first read of TCP, Jude was a character I wasn’t sure I liked much but after the second read, the love affair set sail. Unlike the previous books, QoN was more of an emotional journey for Jude. She was heavily pressed to weigh her feelings and personal connections with others against the practical concerns of the kingdom and her own ambitions. Her experiences in this book also allow her to realise that even though she may have been taught to avoid weakness, it’s okay to be vulnerable sometimes. While I do miss a little bit of the bloodthirsty, plotting Jude from the other books, I appreciate the character development in comparing her decisions at the end of TCP to the climax of QoN.  

Grima Mog

A badass general who eats other faeries. Need I say more? Where have you been all my life?

Things I Didn’t Like

Where’s the Death & Stabbing?

After two books of scheming, backstabbing, alliances and political machinations, I think it’s fair to assume we were expecting this series to end with a battle. High stakes, death, and a final conflict between Jude & Madoc. It just made narrative sense. But did we get that? Not really. Madoc has consistently been built up to be a mentally and physically challenging adversary for Jude and Cardan, one who would eventually need to be permanently defeated. As it turned out, he was as much of a threat as a fluffy kitten. All we’re given is a teensy bit of background fighting and before you can blink, it’s over. No real stabby-stabby, no dramatic death scenes, nothing. Hello, disappointment.

Covering Conflicts with Band-Aids

Heading into QoN there were a lot of plot threads still in need of development and resolution. When I saw the size of this book, I wondered how Holly would be able to deal with them all, and satisfyingly at that. In the end, she didn’t. So many of the plot points from previous books were either left hanging entirely (e.g. Lady Asha, Jude’s mortality, secrets about Jude’s mother) or resolved in a quick fix, brush it off sort of way, lacking the weight and complexity they deserved. For example:

  • Taryn’s betrayals – Taryn has repeatedly screwed Jude over for selfish reasons. By the end of TWK she’d basically aligned herself with Madoc and even impersonated Jude to further his ends. In QoN she turns up pregnant, apologises, asks for help, decorates a couple of rooms and suddenly all is well. I’m sorry but, what? Where’s the ambition, the intent? What a waste of a character’s potential.
  • Locke – For the last two books Locke has been a low key, in the shadows sort of villain. After his attempt on Jude’s life in TWK, there was always a sense of to-be-continued with their conflict. So, the fact that he dies before this book even begins is, again, a bit of a ‘what?’ moment. Considering the additional malice added to his character in QoN, colour me very unimpressed.
  • Cardan’s banishment of Jude – For me, the explanation for this was underwhelming & illogical. At the end of TWK Jude’s been through a hard period of captivity and Cardan has not only just averted a war but found out she murdered his brother. And yet, we’re supposed to believe that his first thought was, let’s play a game with Jude. Cardan can be a little immature but no. Just no.

Reported Missing: Plot Twists

There are a lot of reasons why I love this series but one of the biggest is the plot twists. In the past, Holly has not only been able to pull one over on me once, but MULTIPLE TIMES. As a reader, I live for those dramatic, ‘oh my god, what the hell just happened’ moments. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get much of that at all in QoN. Worse, the one major twist-ish moment of the book, Cardan’s transformation into a giant snake, ended up feeling not only silly but distracting from the direction of the main narrative.

Endgame Jurdan

I am unashamedly a Cardan & Jude shipper. Despite its toxicity, I adore their hate-love relationship with all its conflict and sexual tension, and I’ve loved seeing it slowly evolve over the series. In QoN, however, they weirdly transitioned into this overly lovey-dovey, can’t live without you couple which I find odd when I think about their interactions up to this point. I knew that they loved each other but somehow I never expected it to look like this. It’s almost like we missed a stage somewhere (including Cardan’s missing letters to Jude would have helped). Still, part of me is like *throws hands up* because I love Jurdan so damn much and get excited any time their names even show up on the same page as one another. I got a love scene, confessions of love, and endgame. What else could I ask for? Okay, maybe a little more page time for Cardan – the boy got shafted here.


Despite having a lot of problems with this book and it being my least favourite of the series, The Queen of Nothing is far from a bad novel and I can still say I enjoyed myself. I’ll continue to love this series and the characters, and I’m sure I’ll return to them at some point in the future.

3.5 Stars

Love and Witchcraft: Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

A witch and a witch hunter fall in love. That was all I needed to know about Serpent & Dove to race out and buy it as soon as possible. Throw in a stunning cover and a heap of absolutely fantastic reviews, and I let this bad boy waltz its way right to the front of my TBR queue. But did it live up to expectations?

Not quite.

Who, What, Where?

Serpent & Dove is set in a vaguely historical French-ish land called Belterra characterised by a longstanding conflict between witches and the royal family/church. The witches argue that humans have taken over their lands and so, continue to use aggressive magic to get them to leave. Meanwhile, the church believes the very existence of witches goes against religious doctrine and use an army of witch hunters, called Chausseurs, to capture and burn them at the stake. Enter our leading lady, Lou, a thief and witch in hiding from her own coven. After a public stunt designed to help her avoid capture backfires, Lou ends up wed to Reid, the archbishop’s star pupil and golden boy of the Chausseurs. Hi-jinks and eventual romance ensue.

Spunk & Stubborness

As far as lead characters go, I really enjoyed Lou. While she might be similar to a lot of other ballsy female leads we typically find stuck in chauvinistic fantasy worlds, she’s too much fun for me to care. She’s spunky, snarky, flirty, independent and strong. Any woman who can hold her own in a conversation as well as a fight immediately has my heart. I will say though that I do feel she lost a lot of her spark by the climax of the book. It was almost as though her affection for Reid smothered her personality – a big no-no.

Reid, although not nearly as likeable for me as Lou, was still an okay character. Stubborn, religiously devout, and conservative, I get the feeling he’d probably verge on boring without Lou to bounce off. He’s a tad thick and frustrating at points, especially early on when trying to control Lou, but as the book progresses he does have his sweet and romantic moments.

Slow Burn…Up to a Point

One of the main reasons I was so keen to read S&D was because it was said to have a great slow burn romance. And it does…for the first two thirds. I really enjoyed the development of Reid and Lou’s relationship for most of the book as there’s a gradual build up from annoying the hell out of each other to enjoying one another’s company. I had a fantastic time with their verbal sparring, usually involving Lou in a bathtub or singing crass pub tunes, but also the softer moments like going out for cinnamon buns or discussing Reid’s favourite book.

Then we reach a point where, all of a sudden, Shelby Mahurin becomes every impatient romance reader screaming, JUST KISS ALREADY. I was more than fine with this, especially as it involves a definitely not YA appropriate scene in a theater *waggles brows suggestively*. What I was NOT fine with was the immediately following ‘I Love You’s. And not just the regular kind, the desperate, I can’t live without you, you are forever part of my soul kind. *sigh*. Shelby, girl, why you gotta give me this lovely slow burn only to put foot to pedal as we’re approaching the finish line?

Plot & Pacing

Let me say this straight – the first two thirds of Serpent & Dove were enjoyable, even with a few silly plot elements. The last third, not as much. The book starts out really well – there’s heist vibes, an action scene involving Chausseurs vs witches, and Lou & Reid’s version of a meet cute. I was hooked quickly. After Reid and Lou get married (for reasons I’m still very much like: well, hello, plot convenience) things slow down a lot to focus on relationship and character development. This goes on for a good while so if you were wanting your romance with more external conflict, you’ll be disappointed. Personally, I was going, yes, give me that slow burn!

Then I hit the climax/ending. Behold my disappointment:

  1. The romance reached melodrama levels
  2. Our heroine lost her lustre
  3. Our villain turned out to be nothing more than a cackling “evil” witch without proper development
  4. I was hit with several trope-y and contrived plot twists
  5. AND what should have been a difficult and gradual change in thinking for Reid was thrown out the window because PLOT WAITS FOR NO WITCH HUNTER TO BELIEVABLY PROCESS ENORMOUS CHALLENGES TO HIS ENTIRE LIFE’S BELIEF SYSTEM.

Magical Patterns

A big tick for me on this book was the approach to magic used for Lou’s category of witches, la dame blanches. For Lou and her coven, magic is an exchange and every use must be bargained for/balanced. There are multiple approaches to reach a specific goal but it’s up to the witch to determine the most suitable “pathway”. For example, at one point Lou uses magic to pick a lock and in exchange breaks a finger.  I loved this ‘use and consequences’ design and that there was a degree of skill involved in working out non-debilitating pathways. I also like that this system factored into the plot in both small and significant ways.

Where Are We?

Magic aside, the world building in this book is not one of its strongest qualities. While it’s technically fantasy, there isn’t much time devoted to building up a decent fantasy world. If not for the inclusion of magic and certain location names, I would have said it felt more like a French historical setting. Or, well, a very watered down version of it with a bunch of out of place elements thrown in. There’s no real sense of politics, customs or geography (beyond a couple of towns and features) and, weirdly enough, the Catholic church exists complete with bible, archbishop and mass. Colour me confused. 


Despite Serpent & Dove not exactly living up to expectations, for the most part, I enjoyed this book and expect that I’ll have forgotten the ending enough by 2020 to give the sequel, Blood & Honey, a go. Would still recommend.

3.5 Stars

Mutant Crabs, Body Horror and Lots of Questions: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

Like a few of the other books I’ve read in recent months, Wilder Girls is another example of a novel with a great premise which manages to get a few things right but ultimately isn’t as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be. Being classified as feminist horror by a lot of people, the story is a little bit Lord of the Flies in an Annihilation like setting with some added lesbianism, gore, friendship and a military cover up.

Who, What, Where?

Our story takes place at Raxter School for Girls, a boarding school located on an island off the coast of Maine. The school has been quarantined for the past 18 months following the outbreak of a mysterious disease referred to as the Tox. Over time, the Tox has killed most of the teachers and some of the students. The infected that remain suffer as the disease continues to mutate their bodies in gruesome and painful ways. The creatures in the surrounding woods have been similarly affected, leaving them aggressive and a constant threat. Facing difficult weather conditions and minimal food supplies, all the students can do is wait and hope for the speedy arrival of the promised cure.

Creepy & Mysterious Vibes

The atmosphere and setting for Wilder Girls are spot on. It’s bleak but works perfectly for the story being told. A decaying boarding school, population constantly dwindling, buildings gradually being torn apart for whatever resources the girls need to stay alive, and surrounded by expansive forest areas inhabited by mutated, vicious animals. Power provides us with just enough detail about her world to visualise it and still be intrigued to find out more. There are some serious Annihilation-like vibes here – it’s fascinating, mysterious, ominous and, at times, downright horrifying.

Aside from setting, Power’s novel also excels where it comes to the body horror elements – something she shows a clear talent for. The book doesn’t shy away from the pain and suffering the girls experience at the hands of the Tox which affects them in a variety of terrifying and sometimes awfully gruesome ways. Scaled hands, second spines, gills, sealed eyes, extra organs, blistered skin, mouth sores that spontaneously burst, the outlook is bleak. It’s bloody and bound to make those with weaker stomachs’ skin crawl. However, I do have to say that I feel as though Power could have made better use of the Tox as an allegory for women’s struggles in society and done more with the Tox mutations as a take on puberty (or at least, that’s how I interpreted it).

Just Answer My Questions

By and large, Wilder Girls is not something I’d describe as fast paced or action packed. The story spends a fair amount of time establishing the current state of things – the disease, the student’s systems for survival, the world itself, etc. before eventually moving on to something more plot oriented and even then, these plot points aren’t exactly numerous. It took me a while to engage with the story and mostly out of an intense desire to get my questions about the disease answered. However, the answers themselves ended up being either unsatisfying, vague or non-existent. If you’re looking for something with a clear sense of closure like me, this won’t be a good pick for you. The ending itself feels rushed, incomplete and confusing, and I’m left with a frustrating amount of questions.

The Trio

There are three main characters in Wilder Girls – Hetty, Byatt & Reese, the first two of which serve as the story’s narrators. The girls are close friends and have learnt to have each other’s backs to ensure their survival. These relationships are important as it’s Byatt’s disappearance which causes Hetty and Reese to go out looking for her, setting off a chain of events. Each of the girls are what I’d consider capable and strong. Power has given them different personalities and I have no problems with their characters from what I saw of them. Yet, at the same time, I still don’t feel as though I really know them and would have appreciated some more depth, development and backstory, especially with Byatt who was the least clear to me.

Poetic & Artsy?

One of the things I found myself thinking about a lot while reading was Power’s writing style. The reason being that it’s a little odd at times and frequently adopts the kind of sentence structure that would send any grammar check program into panic mode. For example, ‘Over my shoulder, the gloom thickening, and every sound an animal prowling through the trees’ or ‘Here the beginning of a path, there an open patch of grass, rubble scattered like gravestones’.  When you consider that the book is written in first person from the POV of 16-year old girls, it does make you wonder. While I wasn’t as keen on the use of this approach during quieter moments, it works well in dramatic scenes, helping to emphasise the tension and get across the tendency of the brain to process things very quickly.

Power plays around with style a lot more during Byatt’s segments of the novel – fragmented sentences, run-ons, etc. This in combination with choppy memory flashbacks can make these sections confusing at times but, for the most part, it effectively reflects Byatt’s current state of mind.  

Romance Light

As a book featuring almost an entirely female cast of characters, it’s the perfect set up for a sapphic romance. Wilder Girls starts out well on this front and lays the building blocks for a lovely and complex relationship between Hetty and Reese. Following Byatt’s disappearance, the two start to understand each other and communicate better, they have some sweet and intimate moments, and then…poof. It’s gone. Okay, not gone, but any further development does seem to halt. While I’m not someone who needs massively dramatic romance storylines to be happy, as far as side plots go, for me, this one was underdeveloped.

While Wilder Girls may not have given me the answers I wanted and could have benefited from greater depth to some of its story elements, it was certainly an interesting read and its world building and mysteries kept me engaged until the end. If you’re after something quick, slightly darker in tone, with strong female characters and a more open ending, this should be right up your alley. Added bonus: An absolutely stunning cover to add to the bookshelf.

3.5 Stars

Murder at Magic School: Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey (ARC)

Magic for Liars is a book with both a solid and fun concept – I mean, a murder mystery at a magic school? – but somehow, it never really manages to scratch either your crime or fantasy itch in quite the way you’d hoped.

Noir Meets Magic

The story centres around Ivy, an alcoholic PI who has difficulty getting close to people. While Ivy herself is a regular Joe, her estranged sister Tabitha is a mage and teaches at a secret academy for magical teens (think American high school that just happens to teach magic subjects alongside the regular). When one of the teachers dies under mysterious circumstances, the headmistress hires Ivy to investigate. A murder case seems like the perfect opportunity for Ivy to test her skills and pick up some well needed cash, but it also means facing Tabitha and somehow getting a bunch of adolescents to tell it to her straight. She has her work cut out for her.

Ivy Gamble, P.I

As a protagonist, Ivy is basically how you’d imagine a standard noir private investigator to be – never far from a bottle, a loner, unresolved family problems, and accustomed to dealing with unsavoury types. However, she’s also very unsatisfied with who she is and because of this, she’s spends a lot of the novel acting out different (alternate universe) versions of herself e.g. flirty/giggly Ivy or Mage Ivy. At first, it’s fine, as it shows just how much Ivy wishes she could be like the image she has of her sister, attractive, free and special. After a while, it does start to get repetitive and annoying, especially when it predictably blows up in her face. On the upside, the plot does give Ivy a lot of opportunities to showcase that she’s very good at working out people – when they’re lying, what they want, and how best to manipulate them for information. I really enjoyed this side of her, mostly because it showed just how great of an investigator she is.

Let’s Solve a Murder

The murder mystery storyline takes a while to properly warm up. The first part of the novel deals with Ivy taking her time to learn the lay of the land (working out who the main players are & their stories, and attempting to understand relevant magical principals). Aside from a couple of tense moments during character interviews, there isn’t a heap of excitement during the first half. However, once we get over the mid-way hump, some of the little things Ivy picks up on earlier start to show greater relevance and the plot moves along more briskly. By the time events start coming together at the end, the momentum has vastly increased and everything gets dramatic FAST. You’ll likely be able to guess where things are heading, but as it’s both emotionally charged and makes sense within the context of the story, that’s not such a bad thing. I will say, though, that the ending itself does feel somewhat rushed and incomplete in that some big choices are made, especially by Ivy, and we have no idea what the consequences will be.

Red Herrings (Aka. Side Plots)

Magic for Liars involves several side plots. These weave in and out of Ivy’s investigation to varying degrees. There’s Ivy’s flirtation with the hot physical magic teacher, her fractured relationship with Tabitha, a prophecy about a chosen one, and a mysterious student relationship with a potential pregnancy. For the most part, these are designed to provide the overall book with extra colour and the investigation with some red herrings.

  • Ivy’s relationship with Rahul is a cute addition, even though it ends in a rather unsatisfying way. It’s somewhat awkward but sweet to see Ivy try to connect with someone, even if she goes about it very badly.
  • The teen pregnancy story is the most relevant to the overall mystery, but I do wish it had felt a little deeper considering it was dealing with something so emotionally heavy.
  • I really enjoyed the sections of the novel devoted to trying to repair Ivy’s damaged relationship with Tabitha. It’s interesting to see them attempt to overcome their issues with one another and realise that many of them stem from incorrect ideas about the other or a lack of communication. More importantly, this groundwork ended up being essential to the emotional impact of the book’s ending.
  • Of the four, the chosen one plotline is the one I could have done without. It not only feels unnecessary but has a predictable outcome from the moment it’s introduced.

Scientific Magic

Unlike books like Harry Potter, for instance, Magic for Liars tries to take a slightly more scientific approach to magic. In a way, it’s more akin to something like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians but less complicated or fully explained. While I didn’t always understand the terms and principles being thrown around, I still enjoyed the use of magic here and found that it served to ground the story by making the world building and plot events seem more realistic. Yet, I do wish that we’d gotten to see more of the magical elements instead of having them mostly relegated to the background.

While Magic for Liars wasn’t the epic crossover between the mystery and fantasy genres that I’d hoped for, it still possesses some solid character moments, a mildly intriguing mystery, and a decent approach to world building that’ll be enough to entertain some readers.

3.5 Stars

Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was easily one of the best books I read in 2018 (my number one pick, to be exact). When I heard that Reid’s next release was to be another historical fiction novel, this time focusing on a rock band during the 70s, I was just a little bit excited. After having finally got my hands on Daisy Jones & The Six, it wasn’t everything I was hoping for, but a fairly enjoyable ride all the same

Who, What, Where?

In the mid-70s, The Six were steadily growing in fame to become one of the biggest music acts in the world. However, it was only after they were joined by free-spirited, up & comer, Daisy Jones, that they reached true superstardom. With sold out arenas and their music on every radio station, the band seemed like they were on top of the world. Until in the summer of 1979, they suddenly split. Told in the style of a music documentary, the book details the band’s rise, success, and everything behind the scenes that eventually led them to go their separate ways.

He Said, She Said

As I’ve already mentioned, DJ&TS is not told in traditional style. Instead, it’s written as an intermixed set of interviews with all the players relevant to Daisy and the band’s story. A few people will likely find this approach choppy. While the novel does jump around from person to person, what they’re discussing is chronological and always links to common topics, events and people. For this reason I found that, for the most part, it managed to maintain a decent sense of flow. Something else I enjoyed about this approach was that, as a reader, we get to experience a variety of different perspectives on the same characters and big moments. Seeing just how differently one character interpreted or remembered something to that of another is one of the most interesting things about the story and really makes you wonder what the truth is. 

Raw Honesty

DJ&TS features a large roster of characters, but there’s only a couple that you reach more than surface level with and care about. However, Reid really does go all in on her chosen few – Daisy, Billy (singer/songwriter) and, to a lesser extent, Karen (keyboardist), Graham (lead guitarist) and Camila (Billy’s wife). The rest often feel like mere plot devices or, worse, parts of the scenery. With the novel’s interview approach, the ability to connect with the characters rests heavily on how important each character is to the overall events (which explains the list of characters above) and what they’re willing to tell the “interviewer” about their thoughts and feelings during those events. Reid’s “interviewees” are completely honest and raw about their experiences. The novel gives the impression that they’ve been sitting on all of this for a long time and it’s almost cathartic for them to finally speak about it. I may not have always liked each of the characters, Billy in particular, but I can’t deny feeling deeply for them at certain points.

The characters in DJ&TS deal with some heavy things – addiction, infidelity, abortion, loneliness, toxic relationships, being overlooked and undervalued, and they dive into all of it head on. Despite this, there are moments where I can understand some readers’ difficulties connecting with the story emotionally. However, there are also many others where it really shines with just how beautifully it describes ideas above love, trust, and being your own worst enemy.

Not a Muse, The Somebody

This is a story with three major female characters. They’re completely different and yet, all of them are strong and empowered. You’ve got:

  • Camila: a mother who believes in her family and is willing to fight to keep it intact
  • Karen: a musician who, despite pressure, rejects traditional women’s roles because she wants her career to be her greatest achievement
  • And Daisy: a performer who knows exactly what she brings to the table, does what she wants, and refuses to accept anything less than what she deserves.

Even better, all the female characters in DJ&TS, including Daisy’s friend Simone, are extremely supportive of one another. *claps* YES TO WOMEN SUPPORTING AND UPLIFTING WOMEN. For a book featuring a sort-of-almost-ish love triangle, that’s a pretty amazing thing. Don’t understand how it’s possible? Just read the final conversation between Camila & Daisy.

Go Your Own Way

One of my biggest issues with this book was the lack of a twist or big, dramatic moment. Going into the story, we know that the band broke up, but we don’t know why. As we progress through the narrative and watch the characters start to implode, there’s the expectation everything will finally culminate in a bang. As it turns out, DJ&TS isn’t that kind of story – something I wish I’d known going in, because I would have viewed it quite differently. This is a book about characters dealing with personal dramas whilst trying to be a part of something supposed to be a team effort and, in the end, failing.

Other Thoughts

  • Just like with Evelyn Hugo, the sense of place in this book is great. The feeling of 70s LA with all its shifty undertones comes across perfectly and it’s easy to get caught up in the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll vibes.
  • The story feels extremely genuine and believable – it’s so easy to forget these aren’t real people and that DJ&TS wasn’t running around, making music in the 70s.
  • The book has song lyrics scattered throughout and full songs from the band’s final album at the end of it. I am so damn impressed TJR wrote these. Talk about going the extra mile.

Daisy Jones & The Six isn’t Evelyn Hugo, but that’s okay. While the book certainly has its flaws, there’s many things to appreciate about it as well. If you’re a music fan looking for something deep, a little dark, with slower pacing, and the feel of non-fiction, this might be one to check out.

3.5 STARS

Old-School Mystery in Quirky YA Packaging: Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

And we’re back with another episode in Ashley’s quest to find a satisfying and great YA mystery. My latest victim (ha, murder mystery joke) is Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson. This review is not at all behind on the times. I mean, it’s not like the sequel was just released right? Oh, wait…

Who, What, Where?

Sixteen-year-old Stevie has an obsession with all things crime. Podcasts, mystery fiction, cold cases, you name it – Stevie is the expert and she dreams of one day becoming a great detective like her literary heroes. When she’s accepted into the exclusive, and extravagantly funded, Ellingham Academy, Stevie is surprised but also excited. Founded in the 1930s by business tycoon, Albert Ellingham, the school is famous for its troubled past involving two murders and the kidnapping of Ellingham’s family, all still unsolved. The only clue in the case: a morbid poem sent by someone known only as ‘Truly Devious’.  When given the opportunity to choose a personal project, Steve’s choice is simple – solve the Ellingham murders. But when one of the students in her class dies mysteriously, Stevie begins to realise that perhaps real-life detective work is different from what she’d expected.

Weird but Fun

Although Truly Devious is a murder mystery and it’s obviously dealing with the darker side of human nature, Johnson’s style has this wonderfully quirky tone which I find really refreshing. It’s in the plot, the setting, the characters, everything really. It’s almost as though I recognise the fact that everything about the book is a little bit too odd to ever happen in real life – a school with a dark past, full of secret passageways, hidden in the mountains and inhabited by bizarrely talented teenagers. Yet, at the same time, because it’s so fun and eccentric, almost a tongue-in-cheek look at famous mystery books, I’m more than willing to invest in the idea of all of this happening for the purposes of a good story.

Kooky Characters

Truly Devious is full of distinct and interesting characters. Because Ellingham Academy accepts such a wide range of students, similar only in the fact that they’re unique and talented, this creates a great cast for Johnson’s mystery. Aside from Stevie, there’s Ellie, the fruity artist, Nate, a moody & writers’ blocked author, David, the shifty and scruffily attractive video game designer, Hayes, the charming YouTube star, and Janelle, the genius metal sculptor, just to name a few. Seeing them all interact is rarely boring, sometimes even funny, and I look forward to spending more time with them in the sequels.

I found Stevie, herself, to be a likeable protagonist. She’s just so enthusiastic and determined. The girl has gumption, and I can’t help but admire that. I also love the fact that she has this deep vulnerable side to her in terms of her difficulties with people and anxiety attacks, but at the same time, she still maintains this great degree of sass and confidence.

Slow Start

The opening chapter of TD was great and grabbed me right away, but once we were introduced to Stevie, I found that it took a while for me to really get into the story. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling like there was a lot of introductory stuff – Stevie coming to school, dealing with her parents, getting the tour, introducing Stevie’s classmates, etc. Some of this info is necessary but I do wish it had been condensed somewhat. What didn’t help is that the modern mystery doesn’t start until a fair way into the book and we’re fed info about the Ellingham affair very slowly throughout the story.

No Resolution

One of the things traditionally expected from a good ‘who dunnit?’ is an exciting but logical resolution to the big mystery. Truly Devious, yeah…it doesn’t have that. There are two overarching mysteries in this book – the Ellingham affair and the death of Hayes. With this being the first in a series of three books, I went into it knowing we wouldn’t get closure on the 30s mystery this early. However, what I didn’t expect was that we’d only get a partial solution to Hayes’ death. I. am. Offended. Agatha Christie would never have pulled this crap. Still, I have to give Johnson credit for quite a good character based twist in the last few lines of the book which should create some great tension in the sequel.


Despite the slow warm up and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, I had a lot of fun with Truly Devious and greatly enjoyed its interesting blend of vintage mystery with contemporary YA fiction. I’ll definitely be reading the sequel to find out what happens next.

3.5 Stars

Let’s Steal a Magical Artefact: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The Gilded Wolves was one of my big anticipated releases for 2019. ASix of Crows-esque squad pulling a heist in post-revolution France with some magic thrown in? How could I possibly resist?

Complex World Building

I don’t know if I’m not paying enough attention, just obtuse, or it’s the book itself, but either way, I was massively lost on a lot of the world building elements of TGW because there’s just so much to process.

There was once the Tower of Babylon which God broke up into a bunch of smaller pieces. These fragments were then hidden in different parts of the world. Through their presence, some members of the population developed special abilities. Known as ‘Forging’, these abilities are either physical or mental and involve altering objects in unique ways (forged objects). Forging affinities are also highly specific e.g. manipulating stone.

To protect the fragments, the Order of Babel was created and is made up of powerful houses spread across the globe (there were once 4 French ones each led by a patriarch or matriarch, now only two remain). The members of the order are responsible for moving the Babylon fragments every few years and ensuring the location isn’t discovered. This is to avoid someone attempting to misuse, destroy or reunite them. 

Still following? Because I haven’t even mentioned anything about:

  • The special rings the house heads wear
  • The forged objects designed to locate Babylon fragments
  • OR the branches of forging that somehow allow you to transfer souls (…what?)

In one word, it’s overwhelming. As the book went on, despite the author’s attempts to explain, I just found myself getting more confused, especially during the climax. The frustrating thing is that I’m so impressed by the amount of work and creativity that’s gone into crafting this world and I feel as though it has so much potential for awesomeness, but at this point, I AM CONFUZZLED. SEND HELP.

It’s Heist Time

The plot of TGW revolves around a heist. It’s Paris, 1889 and Severin Montagnet-Alarie is the denied heir to one of France’s two now-extinct houses of the Order of Babel. When he and his associates come across something that may lead them to an object Severin believes could force the Order to give him his rightful place as patriarch and resurrect his house, he jumps at the idea. That is, until he finds out the object is locked inside the protected vaults of House Korre. Deciding to let it go, plans change when he’s soon forced into a magically sealed deal by the head of House Nyx, the charismatic Hypnos –  deliver him the object and he’ll give Severin exactly what he’s always wanted.

The plot of TGW is intricately linked with its world building and because of that, I had trouble understanding (or even just avoiding zoning out during) some of the technical parts of the story. However, because the pacing is so spot on and the narrative has such a great balance between action-packed/tense scenes and quieter character moments, it actually managed to distract me from this fact on numerous occasions.

Me: I have no idea why Zofia & Enrique broke into this museum but OH MY GOD, THAT DUDE JUST THREW A BLADED HAT!

As you’d expect, there’s also some romantic drama which I quite enjoyed because we got both the cute, awkward flirting pairing and the intense I-love-you-but-we-can’t-be-together pairing.

The End

I have to give Chokshi points for her ending. I was on the fence about reading the sequel for ages and then…we got to the last few chapters where she dumps a whole bunch of teasers for future character drama and THEN wham, hits us with a solid twist in the last line. *sigh* I think she may have got me.

Diversity & Commentary

This book has such an ethnically diverse cast of characters and it makes me ridiculously happy. We have Algerian-French, Indian, Filipino-Spanish, Polish, Haitian-French and…Tristan.

Through the use of her cast and setting, Chokshi also makes some great commentary on some of the darker issues associated with France during this period in history such as:

  • Cultural appropriation and exploitation – Laia is pushed to perform a traditional Indian dance for mere entertainment
  • Racism & Discrimination – Severin is denied his place as head of House Vanth because the Order refused to have two mixed-race patriarchs, Zofia is harassed for being Jewish
  • Slavery & Human Trafficking – the existence of human zoos
  • Colonialisation – The occupation of the Philipines by the Spanish & Enrique being of mixed race is considered part of neither population.

A Loveable Family

My favourite part of TGW, hands down, was the characters. Severin’s team of quirky, adorable and brilliant associates are all likeable and distinct. They also interact with one another in ways that feel real, familiar and humorous.

Severin: Owner of the L’Eden Hotel , Severin is calculating, good at recognising the talents of others and using them to his advantage, and generally tries to hide his emotions behind a calm exterior. However, deep down, he thinks of his team much like a family and would protect any one of them at all costs.      

Laia: Exotic dancer & hotel baker. Laia is wonderfully confident, cool-headed, mysterious and always trying to feed everyone. She has the unique ability to read the history of objects by touching them and can go toe to toe with Severin.

Enrique: The team historian and a massive nerd for all things scholarly. He’s bisexual and possesses that cocky bravado thing which pretty much assures I will fall in love with you. Also, will turn up to parties to get first dibs on chocolate covered strawberries.

Zofia: A Jewish, Polish engineer with autism who’s great with numbers, patterns, and chemicals. Zofia’s not so good with people or humour and tends to count things when she’s nervous. She has a love of sugar cookies and is basically an awkward, little cinnamon roll. 

Tristan: A botanist with forging abilities centred around plants. Tristan is like a little brother to Severin and he’s pretty much an overexcited puppy who spends most of his time in the greenhouse working on his inventions with his pet tarantula, Goliath. 

Hypnos: Charming, ostentatious, and flirts with anything that moves. Hypnos is smarter than he seems, adept at getting what he wants and swears by using alcohol as a thinking asset. If there’s one thing he needs, it’s friends. He opened his mouth, and I fell in love.

The Gilded Wolves showcases solid writing, good momentum, and diverse, interesting characters. However, due to the overly complicated nature of the world building and it’s inextricable links to the plot, I found myself unable to enjoy the story as much as I wanted to. Still, with an intriguing ending, the chances of me reading the sequel remain high.

3.5 stars