Witchcraft, Murder and Demon Princes from Hell: Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco

After a disappointing and frustrating experience with Stalking Jack the Ripper back in 2019, I was extremely hesitant to read Kingdom of the Wicked. But, in the end, there were just too many of my favourite buzz words associated with it to resist.

Who, What, Where?

The story follows Emilia, a Sicilian witch who has grown up being told terrifying stories about the demon princes of the underworld. When she finds her twin sister, Vittoria, murdered, Emilia vows to track down the culprit and get revenge. However, Vittoria is only the latest in a string of dead witches. Desperate for answers, Emilia summons a demon. To her shock, it’s no lower level lackey who answers her call but one of the princes, Wrath, with his own reasons for wanting to investigate the murders. And so, Emilia and Wrath come to an agreement to work together. However, Wrath isn’t the only demon, or member of the royal family, who’s recently appeared in Palermo.

Too Fast, Too Slow

One of the main issues I had with KotW was Maniscalco’s writing style. First up, there’s quite a lot of telling vs showing going on, especially in the first half of the book, and often in the form of Q&A type conversations. Second, there were points where I couldn’t help feeling as though certain scenes/developments were slightly rushed and would have benefited from greater build up or descriptive detail. This would have enhanced the sense of drama and better helped the reader follow what was happening. Prominent examples include the discovery of Vittoria’s body and the book’s end sequence, during which I was muddled as to what exactly was going on. Then, on the other hand, there were other scenes where it felt like we lingered too long. Did I really need to read about Emilia preparing what I’m sure was a lovely bruschetta? Probably not.

All About that Atmosphere

The atmosphere in this book is great. The descriptions of the buildings, food, markets, sounds and smells of Palermo worked wonderfully in not only creating lush Sicilian settings but varying the story’s tone from chapter to chapter. One minute we’re in a sunny, bustling, seaside city with the characters enjoying tasty cannoli, the next Emilia is rushing around ominous, darkened streets with demons potentially around the corner. Yet, I do have to mention that as I was reading I had trouble placing when the story was set. Had I not gone back to check the blurb before writing this review, I still wouldn’t be sure. While KotW is a fantasy, it takes place in a real part of the world and aside from a few references to clothing, there aren’t many era indicators which would have better helped immerse me in the story.

Witch/Detective/Chef

As a heroine, Emilia is a mixed bag. While I appreciated her tenacity, love for her sister, and passion for food, she has a habit of making annoyingly naïve, rash and bad decisions. At first, I was willing to let these slide but there comes a point where you wish you could just shake some common sense into her. She gets fixated on illogical theories despite there being a valid explanation to counteract them and often charges into danger without a proper plan. Here’s hoping for some improvement in book two.

Not So Fairy Tale Prince

In comparison, Wrath is a more interesting and less frustrating character. Mysterious, slightly dramatic, kind of a flirt, and I enjoyed Maniscalco’s somewhat dry approach to his humour. The only problem is that even after a whole book, I still know barely anything about him, which is very disappointing, but I expect that will change drastically in the next book. The interactions between Emilia and Wrath take some time to properly get going but I really enjoyed their conversations and seeing them slowly learn to trust one another, despite their opposition to the other’s species. Plus, the sexual tension is definitely something I’m keen to see more of *winks*.

No Rest for the Wicked

When it comes to the actual plot, KotW took a good while to grow on me. After the original set up, the earlier chapters deal mostly with Emilia attempting to investigate the murders on her own. This isn’t exactly a bad approach, but considering my issues with her as a character, it wasn’t the most exciting time. There’s also the fact that Emilia starts out with very little to go off which results in a lot of her poking around in a somewhat aimless fashion, just hoping a clue will land her in her lap (which it does). The other thing that dampened my enjoyment somewhat is I expected Emilia to team up with Wrath far earlier than she did and this delay was mostly out of stubbornness.

Following approximately the halfway mark, I began to enjoy myself a lot more! The investigation became more focused, Emilia and Wrath were pleasantly bouncing off one another, the interactions with the different demon princes representing the seven deadly sins was fun, and the bigger impending threat of the story was introduced. By the time I reached the climax, I was genuinely disappointed the book was about to be over. While I wasn’t a fan of certain elements of the ending, I’m really looking forward to the exciting change of scenery it creates for the sequel.


As far as a final verdict goes, there were things I liked about this one and others that missed the mark. Still, it’ll likely appeal to a lot of other readers, especially if you enjoyed the Stalking Jack the Ripper series. I will say though, I do feel like it’s set things up for a really good sequel and I’ll be eagerly picking that up later this year.

3 stars

How to Survive a Magic School Full of Monsters 101: A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

Magic, monsters, and dark academia. Did I need further reasons to read this book? NOPE.

Who, What, Where?

In A Deadly Education, our lead is Galadriel ‘El’ Higgins, a teenage witch with a talent for destructive magic. El is currently in her penultimate year at Scholomance, an international school for young mages with a frightening survival rate. Dropping out isn’t an option so students have little choice but to push through their coursework whilst trying to avoid getting eaten by one of the many monsters lurking throughout the school’s corridors and crevices. And even then, they still have to make it through graduation.

A Prickly Heroine & Bland Hero

El is far from your traditionally likeable heroine. She’s snarky, rude, foul tempered, frequently annoying and has a doom-filled prophecy about her to boot. This, among other things, made the early parts of the book a struggle for me to get through, particularly as it’s told in first person. However, as the book went on, I got to learn more about El’s history and came to understand why she’s so bitter and angry at the world and acts the way she does. After a while, I found that she’d grown on me, like a stubborn mould, and I was genuinely happy to see her build up some genuine connections by the end of the novel with people who saw past her prickly exterior.

Aside from El, the other major character is Orion Blake, golden boy and protector of students everywhere. While I didn’t dislike Orion, I did find him somewhat bland and it massively frustrated me that there was no explanation for his apparent “specialness”. This aside, I did really like his and El’s bizarre friendship. It’s mainly El telling Orion what an idiot he’s being and him simultaneously being frustrated by it and liking it because nobody else treats him like a normal human being. I can get behind that.

The Supporting Cast

There are quite a few side characters in this book. Although they’re ethnically and linguistically diverse, for the first half I found them to be vague and flat. Much like with El though, a few of the more prominent ones did improve as the story progressed, namely Liu, Chloe and Aadhya, who each developed their own traits and minor side plots. By the end I had a much greater appreciation for these three and really enjoyed seeing their relationships with El evolve.   

Tell, Not Show

Good news: the world is good. Bad News: We get told about it in ridiculous amounts of info dumping. And we’re not talking easy to follow stuff, we’re talking complicated world building necessary for understanding much of the events and dynamics between characters – magic sources, specialisations, languages and their relationship to magic, the structure of magical society, etc. It’s especially prominent in the first couple of chapters. After the opening hook I kept waiting around for an actual scene or conversation to take place for a good while.

Info dumping aside, I just don’t think I’m much of a fan of Novik’s writing style. This is something I noticed while reading Uprooted a few years back. It’s dense and wordy (unnecessarily so), there’s a large amount of inner monologuing, and a tendency to spend time on things that aren’t important to the story or the reader’s enjoyment, e.g. the history of a spell El uses at a high intensity moment. While I was interested in the general gist of the book, I found myself bored and skimming chunks of it from time to time.

Wanted: More Plot

Another thing I see people having problems with is the plot. Or the lack of one until about 70% of the way through. Most of A Deadly Education feels like a collection of small subplots happening as El goes through her day-to-day school life. These include El figuring out what to do after graduation, her relationship with Orion, the resulting antagonism with the New York kids, Liu’s struggles with malia (dark magic), etc. For the most part though, it’s just El and the other students trying to avoid being killed by a variety of determined and crafty creatures which Orion regularly saves them from. Once a larger plot become apparent it did provide some context to a few of the earlier events and I quite enjoyed where the story ended up climax and ending wise.

Racial Controversy

Over the last few months there’s been discussion online about certain elements of this book being racially offensive (e.g. a problematic passage about locs). As a white, Australian reviewer, I don’t feel I’m the right person to comment on these, especially as others who are better qualified than myself have already done so at length. You can find three different posts here, here and here. I should also mention that Naomi Novik has apologised for some of these inclusions and vowed to do better in future.


A Deadly Education gets some things right and others, not so much. If you’re already a dedicated Novik fan, you’ll probably enjoy this latest offering. Despite the book not living up to its full potential in my eyes, with how things ended I’ll probably give the sequel a go when it releases in 2021.

3 stars

The Marks We Leave Behind: The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue by V. E. Schwab

I wanted to love this book. I was prepared to love this book. In the end, I…liked this book.

The only way I can describe what I’m feeling is to say that it’s like meeting someone with the qualities that should make them your soulmate but no matter how hard you try, the chemistry is missing. So, as much as it pains me, I’m friend-zoning The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue.

Who, What, Where?

The premise of TILoALR is great. Even after being disappointed in elements of its execution, I maintain that I love the concept of this book. The story follows a girl named Adeline who grows up in a small village in 15th century France. Not content with simply being married off, birthing babies, and never seeing anything of the world, Addie makes a deal with a mysterious god of darkness. Immortality in exchange for her soul. The catch, however, is that no one retains their memories of her once she leaves their sight. As you can imagine, this creates a freeing yet difficult and lonely existence. Things take an unexpected turn when in 2014 she meets a bookseller named Henry who somehow remembers her.   

Whimsical Prose

Schwab’s writing in this novel is beautiful. Sure, she repeats some details more times than she should (e.g. Addie’s freckles, Henry’s curls) but, by and large, the prose is stunningly poetic and lyrical. Had I been reading this on my kindle the pages would have been covered in highlights. Yet, while I admired the style, I feel as though it also distracted me and contributed to feelings of disconnect at times.

A Not So Love Triangle

TILoAL is a love triangle and yet, it’s not. If you were looking for a great love story, you won’t find one here. It’s just not that kind of book, it’s far more complex. The two main relationships are between Addie & Henry, and Addie & Luc (the dark God). Neither is deep, romantic love in a traditional sense but they’re as close to it as Addie feels she will get within the parameters of her existence.

Due to the nature of their deal, Luc is the only constant in Addie’s life, and he understands her like no-one else ever will. The book features numerous run-ins between the two over the centuries and although I enjoyed the adversarial nature of their relationship, these exchanges did become repetitive over time. They also largely lacked the deep, personal conversations necessary to support the book’s claim of them having an intimate, special connection. Things do evolve eventually, which I really liked, but I wish it had been a more gradual shift and started far earlier.

Henry is Addie’s first, and perhaps only, opportunity at pursuing a normal-ish, human relationship without the power imbalance involved with Luc. Their relationship is sweet and I really enjoyed the beginnings of it. However, once Henry and Addie get together, it does feel as though not a lot happens until late in the book. It won’t be difficult to guess the “twist” in their story, but I don’t feel that it affected my enjoyment at all.

A Girl, A Boy & the Devil

Confession: I never really warmed up to Addie. I sympathised with her desire to make her bargain and efforts to leave a mark on the people and world around her in spite of her curse, but I think my main issue was stagnancy. Although Luc claims Addie is learning and changing, I didn’t see this beyond the early chapters. Despite living over 300 years, travelling, meeting people, experiencing the world’s good and bad, Addie always felt like the same person in the present as she did in the past. Describing her, I could say she’s stubborn, streetwise, attracted to artists, and desires to see the world, but overall, her personality just seemed…flat. There was never anything that pushed me to either like or dislike her.  

Henry seems like another one of those boring, nice-guy characters but underneath he’s a lot more than that. As someone who, just like Henry, is currently in their late twenties and stuck in a low paying, uninspiring job because they can’t decide what they want to do with their life, I really related to and was unexpectedly comforted by his character. Henry’s struggles with depression and feelings of being lost or never enough will definitely resonate with a lot of readers. His story reinforces the idea that everyone deserves to be seen, loved, and appreciated for exactly who they are and even if you don’t know what your future holds yet, you’ll find your way eventually.

Luc is the character I’m most disappointed with. So much untapped potential! The reader’s time with him is mainly limited to his conversations with Addie and because of his unwillingness to provide her with information about himself, it really weakens his character development. With how compelling and mysterious he is, this frustrated me a lot. While I understand that limiting the reader’s exposure helps to put us in Addie’s shoes and understand the toxic, manipulative nature of their relationship, I can’t help feeling like I missed out on something big.

Then & Now

The narrative flicks back and forth between 2013/2014 New York and different moments from Addie’s past. I really liked this structure but considering the fascinating parts of history that Addie has lived through and places she’s been (few of which we actually see), I was expecting more interesting anecdotes from her past. I feel as though the book shows us little of her experiences during big historical moments where she would have been directly impacted and the stories that we do get start to seem the same as time goes on. The 20th century is also dealt with very quickly, something I found odd with how important it was to Addie’s relationship with Luc and the book’s climax.

The End

While I have a lot of praise for the ending, I get the feeling that many people won’t be so keen on it. For one, it’s quite open but it also reinforces the idea that the novel is not meant to be happy or a love story. It’s intriguing and really fits the trajectory of the story well.  

Slow Pacing and Thoughtful Themes

Unlike Schwab’s previous books, TILoAL is much slower in pace. It’s less about action or drama and more about character journeys and exploring themes. I’m not normally averse to gradual narratives, but there were stretches during this where I found myself switching off due to inactivity or repetition. Themes wise, though, I need to give Schwab credit. This is a story about loneliness, memory, personal legacy, the beauty in living despite life’s ugliness, and it handles them all quite well. For example, Addie, Luc and Henry are all completely different characters but who experience similar feelings of loneliness and isolation. They present distinctly for each of them and their responses are equally unique. This is a book you need to think about and process as you read and I can easily see why it’s taken Schwab so many years to feel as though she’s told her story right.


Ordering my thoughts and feelings to write this review was not an easy task. I’m still questioning whether my final rating is an accurate reflection but, in the end, while there are things I enjoyed about this book, I can’t help feeling that it never reached its full potential. I know TILoAL will be a favourite for plenty of others out there. Unfortunately, it just isn’t for me.

3 Stars

Overcoming Adversity and Falling in Love: ‘100 Days of Sunlight’ by Abbie Emmons

It’s summer – the season for fluffy and adorable YA contemporaries, and if any cover has ever screamed summer, it’s 100 Days of Sunlight by Abbie Emmons.

Who, What, Where?

After a car accident, 16-year-old poetry blogger Tessa Dickenson is left temporarily without her eyesight. Worried that her condition may be permanent, Tessa isolates herself in a state of despair. Attempting to help her, Tessa’s grandparents place an ad in search of a typist to allow her to continue her writing. What they don’t expect is Weston Ludovic to show up at their door – adrenaline-loving, optimistic, and missing both his legs. His only condition: don’t tell Tessa about his disability. Despite her attempts to get rid of him, Weston is determined to help Tessa and even relishes their interactions, grateful to be treated like a normal person. Slowly Weston begins to show Tessa that there’s more than one way to experience the world and while she may have a disability, it doesn’t have to prevent her from living life to the fullest.

Tessa & Weston

100 days of Sunlight is told in split POVs between Tessa and Weston. For a large portion of the book, I wasn’t a huge fan of Tessa. While I understood that she was having a rough time, I couldn’t get on board with her using her condition as an excuse to treat people terribly and wallow in her own misery, especially as she’d been told by multiple doctors it would only be temporary. She does improve with time, but I feel as though this change wasn’t as gradual as it should have been. Something I would also have appreciated, and could see the potential for, was some more depth to Tessa’s character. With all the detail devoted to Weston, I couldn’t help but find Tessa’s characterisation weaker in comparison.

I really liked Weston. He’s a wonderfully warm, positive and lovely character with an admirable sense of strength and determination. Flashback chapters can sometimes go very wrong in books, but I enjoyed the ones here in that they provided great insight into how Weston lost his legs and chose to handle it in the months following. These segments really added to my understanding and appreciation of who he was as a character, and getting to spend time with Weston’s brothers and best friend, Rudy, was nice as well.

5 Senses

Once I got past the idea of Weston randomly turning up at Tessa’ house and continuing to do so despite protest, I thought the general gist of the story was really sweet, even with the slow pacing during large sections. Weston spends a lot of time trying to get Tessa to realise how senses other than vision can be used to gain impressions of the world around you. They ride rollercoasters, smell flowers, play music, and eat waffles – all of which is super adorable. Later in the book we get a very small snapshot of how these experiences have changed Tessa’s perceptions. However, I really wish Abbie had gone that extra bit further and given us a greater sense of how they also impacted her poetry (which was very visual based prior to her accident) as it was so important to the story.

In terms of structure, the book is broken up into different sections named after each of the five senses. I question the necessity of this as several of the activities Weston and Tessa did, such as watching The Sound of Music, took place outside the section for the sense they would have been associated with.

Climax/Ending

I’ll admit, I found the climax/ending of this book slightly frustrating. The fact that Tessa & Weston had feelings for each other was very clear but at the same time, after less than three months together, I felt like them being in love and to such a ‘what is life without you’ degree was too much for the timeframe. I also found Weston’s actions to be a little out of character with what we’d previously seen of him and the fact that it was drawn out in the way that it was grated on me. Still, there’s no denying how cute and aww worthy the final scene is.


100 days of Sunlight is an easy, sweet and quick read. If you’re after something comforting and cute to fill a lazy afternoon, this is a solid choice.

3 Stars

Ghosts, Dark Magic, and Murder: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Now, this is a tough one.

Ninth House was easily one of my more anticipated releases for the second half of 2019. Magic, dark themes, secret Yale Societies and Leigh Bardugo. Why, hello there, irresistible combination. As Leigh’s first adult novel, I was also super intrigued to see how it would be different from her YA works. And yes, it’s definitely different. But good different or bad different? In the end, it’s a bit of both.

Who, What, Where?

Ninth House is set at a fictional version of Yale University. Here, the rich and powerful members of eight secret societies regularly engage in dangerous occult rituals dealing with everything from necromancy and portal magic to shape-shifting. These societies are kept in check by a smaller ninth house, Lethe. Every three years Lethe recruits a freshman to join its ranks, opening their eyes to the uses and potential dangers of magic. Twenty-year old Galaxy ‘Alex’ Stern is a high school drop-out from LA with the ability to see ghosts or ‘Greys’. After somehow surviving an unsolved multiple homicide, Alex is mysteriously offered a scholarship to Yale and the freshman position within Lethe.

The book largely flicks back and forth between two time periods – Winter & Spring. The Winter chapters take place shortly after Alex’s arrival at Yale and deal with her starting to learn about magic and the societies through the assistance of a Lethe senior named Darlington. The Spring timeline occurs following Darlington’s bizarre disappearance, with Alex now largely handling the duties of Lethe on her own. When a young woman turns up dead on campus with several unexplained connections to the societies, despite being told to do otherwise, Alex decides to follow her gut and look into it.

Dark & Mysterious

If I were grading Ninth House on a lettered scale, it’d easily get an A for atmosphere. Leigh’s version of Yale is dark, dangerous and full of secrets. Ghosts roam the streets, magical substances exist to charm people and remove their free will, and wealthy, privileged students abuse dark magic for pleasure and power. It’s an intriguing setting and grounded well by Leigh’s ability to mix her own knowledge of the real Yale with her fantastical take on it. This twisted depiction of the University is further aided by the fact that it’s also populated by a multitude of morally grey, and sometimes black, characters – people willing to do whatever it takes to better themselves regardless of the costs to others. Even Alex, herself, is not so morally clean cut, but necessarily so to be able to survive in this kind of environment.

A Trigger Minefield

As I said above, Ninth House is not a young adult novel, by any means, and it won’t be for everyone. This book goes to some dark places and the trigger warnings list for it is lengthy. Drug addiction & overdose, murder, self-harm, child rape, forced consumption of human waste, toxic and abusive relationships, sexual assault involving video and date rape drugs, and more. For the most part, these things do tie into important plot elements and character development rather than being simply thrown in for extra colour, but it’s important to be prepared if any of these are things you’re sensitive to.

Connecting with Characters

One of the things I love about Leigh’s previous books is her ability to write interesting and loveable characters. With Ninth House, however, I had great difficulty connecting with them. Alex is a complex character with clear personality traits and a detailed backstory but at the same time, it just never really clicked for me. In terms of the other characters, Darlington was easily my favourite and yet, he’s only in a small portion of the book. Then we have Lethe’s support staff and perpetual PhD student, Dawes, and Lethe’s police liaison, Detective Turner, both of which I thought were okay, but was again missing that spark with.

There are a lot of side characters in this book and at some points it does feel crowded. Society members, Alex’s roommates, Yale faculty, ghosts/historical figures, people from Alex’s past, etc. Some are better fleshed out and more important than others, but I do feel as though there could have been a slight cut back to reduce messiness and confusion.

Stop & Start Plot

The plot of Ninth House is a lot like a dying engine, stopping and violently starting at a moment’s notice. This book could definitely have been shorter than 458 pages and there are a lot of sections in which the pacing is very slow, especially early on (& the info dumping doesn’t help). Momentum on the murder investigation takes a while to kick in and even when things do start to pick up, after every new puzzle piece discovered or dramatic moment that unfolds, there’s a long, drawn out pause. This is usually to shift to character backstory or something else. If you find these side-plots interesting, you’ll get by okay but if not, there’s likely to be some periods of boredom. While I wasn’t gripped in a constant state of excitement, I will say that, for the most part, I did remain consistently intrigued in how things would turn out, even though the ending wasn’t the satisfying conclusion I’d hoped for.


Overall, for one of my most anticipated releases of the year, Ninth House was somewhat of a disappointment for me. However, despite its flaws, I can still say I found it a mildly enjoyable, if bleak and at times confusing, reading experience. As to whether I’ll read the follow up, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

3 Stars

Intense, Raw & Emotional: The Quiet You Carry by Nikki Barthelmess (ARC)

The Quiet you Carry is a little different from the YA books I normally read which generally tend to fall into one of two categories – fantasy or cute, romantic contemporary. But sometimes it’s good to branch out. I didn’t entirely know what to expect from this one other than the fact it would deal with some heavy subject matters and because of that, I went into it without making any assumptions. In the end, some things worked and other things didn’t.

Who, What, Where?

Image result for the quiet you carry

Nikki Barthelmess’ debut novel centres around seventeen-year-old Victoria. One night. Victoria’s father mysteriously throws her out of the house and as a result, she winds up in foster care. The events of that evening are a blur for Victoria. She believes that there must have been some kind of misunderstanding because if there’s one thing she’s sure of, it’s that her father’s account can’t possibly be true. To her frustration, she’s quickly denied all contact with her family, including her stepsister, Sarah, and moved to an entirely new town and school. With less than a year until graduation, Victoria is forced to adjust to her circumstances and rework her plans for the future. At the same time, she also has to come to terms with the events that led her there if she wants to protect Sarah.

Topics & Triggers

As I mentioned above, the plot of TQyC deals with quite a few difficult topics. Basically, break out those trigger warnings – sexual assault, paedophilia, suicide, eating disorders, children in foster care, and domestic violence. It was interesting to read about a character stuck in a foster care situation written by an author who, herself, grew up in the foster system. Because of this, Victoria’s experiences in the system and those of the kids living with her felt genuine and realistic but also gave me a lot of sympathy for children placed in similar or far worse situations.

Plot

Deciding where I stand on the plot is a little tricky. The book starts out fairly well, if a little confusingly, and does manage to hook you out of interest in finding out what happened the night Victoria was thrown out. After this, as it’s a character-focused story, the plot does meander a lot without much of an obvious point other than to simply showcase Victoria’s experiences and growth. There were certain sections of the book where I was really engaged, especially during some of the big emotional or dramatic moments which were well written and ended up hitting me harder than expected. Then again, there were also long sections, often involving Victoria’s internal monologue, during which I found myself getting bored and checking out, particularly around the middle.

Melodrama & Cheesiness

Something that frustrated me a lot as we got closer to the end, especially during the climax and ending itself, is that the writing quickly veered into being extremely melodramatic and even corny. The dialogue seemed sappy and the tone felt so over the top and manufactured that I even found myself rolling my eyes. I mean, there’s literally a moment of, “At least we have each other” and even an unnecessary and forced flashback section. As a reader, it’s hard to get starry-eyed when everything that’s happened is over a period of only about 3 months.

Characters

As a protagonist, most of the time Victoria is fairly likeable and sympathetic. She makes the best of a crappy situation and doesn’t give up. However, at times she can be snappy and her attempts to isolate herself against interactions at her new school for so long do become annoying. Still, considering what she’s been through, it’s understandable.

In terms of side characters, Victoria’s new friend Christina is enjoyably spunky, while her love interest Kale is adorably charming. I also appreciated the fact that Barthelmess developed Victoria’s foster mother, Connie, into a deeper and more complex character, even if it was a bit sudden. One character I really wasn’t on board with was Victoria’s father. Not because he’s awful (he is) but because he just never felt real to me – he’s just a really bizarre character – and this had a big impact on how I saw Victoria’s family history and experienced the overall story arc.


The Quiet you Carry is an honest and raw read. Even with its weaknesses, I consider this a solid debut with a lot of room for Barthelmess to grow. If you enjoy emotionally complex YA stories which deal with harsh, real-world issues, this may be a good pick for you.

3 Stars

Doin’ it for the Girls: To Best the Boys by Mary Weber (ARC)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Who, What, Where?

To Best the Boys is set in the province of Caldon in which every year an epic competition hosted by the mysterious Mr Holm is held for eligible aged boys to compete for the chance to win a scholarship to the prestigious Stemwick University. Only one can win, and the competition is not for the faint of heart as contestants have died in previous years.

Our lead is Rhen Teller, a sixteen-year-old girl with a talent for biological science. Alongside her father, Rhen has desperately been trying to devise a cure for the deadly disease spreading through the lower classes and slowly killing her mother. Rhen concludes that in order to gain access to the resources and technology she needs to do her research, her best option is to attend university by winning the scholarship. The only problem? It’s an all-male institution. And so, along with her cousin Seleni, Rhen devises a plan to disguise herself as a boy to not only take home the prize but show the boys what an intelligent young woman can do.

Why You Should Read this Book:

A Solid Lead

From as early as the dedication, To Best the Boys sets itself up to be a female empowering story and if there’s one thing you need for a book like this, it’s a strong central character. Rhen was one of my favourite components of the book. She’s certainly strong, but also smart, hardworking, quick thinking, confident in her abilities (despite others’ attempts to discount her), and a little bit sassy.

“Miss Lake, I’d heard your cousin would be a fun one, but I’d no idea how pleasurable. You must bring her around, more often. I think I’d enjoy getting to know more of her…spirit.”

…I lower my voice and flick my gaze down his body. “Mr Germaine, I assure you – were you given the opportunity to know more of my spirit, I believe I’d find the whole experience wholly unsatisfying.”

Whilst possessing these bolder traits, Rhen does have a gentler side, too. She’s kind, empathetic, and extremely passionate about using her skills to try and help others in her community. The fact that she isn’t squeamish and starts the novel off at the morgue rooting around a dead body additionally makes for a great first impression.

Feminist Themes

I can never resist a good YA with feminist undertones and To Best the Boys does well on this front. The world itself is designed around forcing women into very traditional mother/wife roles with very little activities beyond things such as sewing and baking. By having intelligent female leads actively pursuing what they want in such a setting, the theme of female empowerment shines through very clearly and as a young woman, it’s hard not to feel great reading it.

“You win this thing, Rhen Teller. Enough to make Vincent and Germaine regret they weren’t born women”.

I really enjoyed the fact that despite the more historical kind of setting, Weber still manages to make quite a few comments on equality issues that apply even in today’s society, and in doing so she really emphasises just how stupid they are. For example, girls as distractions for boys in educational settings. The other thing that I massively appreciated was Weber’s attitude towards equality and feminism. It’s about women having the freedom and opportunities to choose what to do with their future, even if, like Seleni, their choice is to be a wife and mother. You do you, Seleni!

Cute Romance

“If I go, you go with me.”

“I’ve already won,” he whispers.

Can I once again just say, thank god for authors who know how to write romances that don’t take over the rest of the story. The romance in this book is a nice, little subplot. It pops up now and again and the exchanges between fisherman, Lute, and Rhen are pretty sweet, even if Rhen spends a lot of time commenting on Lute’s luscious lips. Girl, we’ve all been there. However, the best part of this relationship, very much fitting with the overall gist of the book, is that Lute is completely supportive of Rhen being her intelligent, beat all the rest, best self and has absolutely no issues being with a woman who is smarter and more successful than he is. Basically, I am totally here for it.

Diversity

I have to give points to Weber for trying to include some aspects of diversity in terms of learning disabilities into the novel. They’re not extremely prominent but they’re there. Rhen, herself, is dyslexic and it was great to see a heroine showcase the fact that having a learning difficulty does not make you stupid or mean it’s impossible for you to excel academically and in life. It may require additional time and effort, but you can get there.

Why You Might Want to Skip It:

Unmemorable & Lacking World Building

One of the things that I often find gets choppy in fantasy standalones is the world building and, unfortunately, it’s also the case with this book. When the novel starts out, the setting is reminiscent of a seaside town in historical England. We’re given a couple of geographical details and some facts about gender roles, the class divide and the fact that fishing is a big industry, but otherwise, it all feels a little bland and also entirely non-magical. That is, until suddenly *poof*, we find out the world has magical creatures – ghouls, sirens, basilisks, oh my. I love magical creatures, don’t get me wrong, but the problem I had with their use here is that they don’t feel properly integrated into the rest of the world. Aside from some elements of the competition, for the most part, they seem like the only magical element in it. As a result, I just ended up largely disinterested in the setting and, at times, a little mystified.

Rushed Competition

I feel as though my expectations may partially be to blame for this one, but it is what it is. When I went into this, I expected that, after some time setting the scene and introducing the characters, the majority of the story would take place in the labyrinth. To my surprise, the book builds up to it only for the actual competition to consist of probably only a bit over a third of the story. Although the novel is around 350 pages long, as I was reading through, I couldn’t help feeling like the tasks were rushed and some lacking in excitement. While I’m aware this isn’t The Hunger Games, I expected slightly more.

WTF Ending

The final challenge is certainly not lacking in drama (even though that drama is not of Mr Holm’s making). Yet, even after having flicked back and re-read through this scene, colour me confused. Everything happens very quickly and although I’m aware of the outcome, how in the world did we end up there and why was it allowed? What was even the point of the entire last challenge if someone could “win” this way. Trying to avoid spoilers here is extremely difficult but I feel as though the way the competition ends isn’t consistent with the idea of besting the boys. While I was on board with the result and everything that followed was great, it always felt somehow…tainted by how it was gained.

To Best the Boys is a reasonably entertaining read with some strong female empowerment themes and a likeable lead. However, due to its plot flaws and lack of a distinctive world, unfortunately, for me, it’s unlikely to be highly memorable or encourage a re-read.

3 Stars

Prepare Yourself for a Headache and Some Heartache: Wildcard by Marie Lu

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After reading Warcross back in March, I had high hopes and major excitement going into Wildcard. I mean, after that ending, how could I not? But the big question is, did Marie Lu’s latest sequel manage to live up to expectations?

Unfortunately not.

Focus & Direction

I found Wildcard to be a big change of pace to Warcross in terms of its approach to plot. In book one, while the story centred around Emika hunting down the mysterious hacker, it was also filled with other elements such as the fun Warcross matches, memories to develop Emika’s backstory, and lightweight interactions to create friendship or romantic links between characters. Wildcard is different in that every scene feels focused and purposeful. There isn’t a lot of extraneous material and if you do get it, it’s often because the scene was also necessary for the main plot. That is, until the end sequence, in which character details about the Phoenix Riders are thrown at the reader in succession a bit like a tennis ball machine.

This approach wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I did miss some of the more light-hearted parts of Warcross, especially considering how dark sections of Wildcard became. However, if there’s one thing I can say it’s that after a slower start, the rest of the book maintains a constant, and good degree, of momentum.

No Warcross

I’ll be blunt: There are no book-one type Warcross matches in Wildcard. We get a one on one match between Emika and Zero and then a slightly Warcross-esque section at the end of the book, but neither fully reaches the excitement of the book one matches. Admittedly, these wouldn’t really fit into the plot of Wildcard, but my whiny, irrational brain just can’t help but feel sad about it.

Emika, Where Are You?

I really enjoyed Emika as a protagonist in Warcross. She was bold, curious, quick thinking, and given a good degree of emotional backstory. In Wildcard, however, I feel as though she wasn’t used to her full potential. Emika spends most of this book either being shuffled around by other big players or simply trying to find the answer to the next question in what seems like a never-ending line of questions. She’s not sure who to trust or what to do which leaves her in a largely passive position until late in the game.

My other problem is that Wildcard adds almost nothing to Emika’s character and backstory except for her starting to rely more on others. We get a few mentions of her father but the only new info we’re given is one fragmented memory sequence. The memory is one Emika considers to be her worst, but it’s never explained why and the context surrounding it is almost non-existent. Because of this, I found its inclusion out of place and confusing.

I won’t even talk about just how problematic the whole Emika-Hideo relationship is in this book. Good lord. Essentially Emika: Hideo, you created a mind control algorithm with the potential to kill people or turn them into mindless slaves, but I love you and keep dreaming about you, so let’s just forget all that. 

Complicated & Heavy (My Head Hurts)

Wildcard is a lot more complex than its predecessor and full of big moral dilemmas regarding technology. I admired Marie’s ability to take on these massive ethical questions and look at different sides of them, to the point where even I wasn’t sure where I stood at times. Although in order to deal with some of these ideas, the book does require you to suspend a degree of belief. For example, only 2% of the world’s population doesn’t use Hideo’s new contact lenses, the villain of the story can physically do what they’re supposed to have done to Zero, Hideo’s algorithm does have the power to turn people into walking zombies, etc. Because of this, I reached a stage late in the book where it started to verge into almost silly for me. To my relief, Marie managed to course correct this with her action-packed climax.

On the smaller scale, there are a lot of layers of mystery in this book. Each answered question led to another and another, causing me to jump back and forward between confusion, immense engagement, and just plain frustration. But, I can’t deny, I still powered through, determined to finally see the bigger picture (if only to stop my brain hurting in the attempts to force everything to make sense).

My Heart Hurts

For me, the Zero/Sasuke storyline was both the best and worst part of Wildcard. The more grounded and human moments of this plot, such as Emika watching records detailing the years after Sasuke’s kidnapping, are extremely heartbreaking and beautifully written. The conclusion of this storyline was also so well done that I found myself almost on the verge of tears reading it – it’s just that good. However, where this story connects into other elements of the novel is where the book started to lose me a little.

Climax & Ending

Following a turn in the Zero plotline, Wildcard delves into an action-packed, although too drawn out, almost-Warcross like sequence involving Hideo, Emika and the Phoenix Riders. This section was well done in that it managed to showcase the magic between the characters we saw in Warcross and some of the excitement of the original book, just with higher stakes.

Without giving much away, there were components of the ending that I thought worked very well and others, far less so. I liked the positive idea the book expressed regarding our relationship with technology, the sense of duality between the ending and Warcross’s beginning, and the resolution of the Zero story. BUT, the end also felt slightly rushed, as if certain complications were tied up too neatly and other elements weren’t given a proper degree of consequence at all – I’m looking at you, Hideo.

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While Wildcard may excel beyond Warcross with regards to its bold subject matter and high emotional impact, it’s let down by an at times messy and unbelievable plot, lack of lighter moments, and a weakened protagonist. There are certainly a number of things to like about the second instalment in this duology but at the same time, I can’t help wishing certain things had been different. Overall, mildly entertaining but largely disappointing.

3 Stars

Short and Sweet: A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas

3 stars

ACOFAS

I know this one is going to be massively popular on the review circuit and originally I’d planned not to post about it but (a) I’ve written something for every other book in the series and (b) thoughts kind of started spewing out of me right after I finished the novella so why not share them.  Here goes. Short and sweet. A bit like the novella, really.

I’ve tried to keep spoilers very minimal, but be prepared for some small details.

PLOTTING ALONG

This book can be adequately summed up as the Inner Circle does their version of Christmas with a side of emotional trauma. Most of it feels like fan service, and by that I mean it reads a lot like fan fiction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does seem somewhat fluffy and uneventful. It’s almost like those fan made conversations people post between the characters on Tumblr or Instagram except a whole book. You get to have some fun with your favourite characters as they eat, get drunk, buy & receive gifts, have snowball fights, and so on. However, I do feel like there could have been more room for substantial character drama had we sacrificed a few shopping trips (there’s a lot) or Feyre’s painting dilemmas. 

This aside, the book does dangle the smallest (bare minimum) of threads on a few future plot points. There isn’t much in the way of development on them (at all) but there’s still clear indications of their looming importance in the series to come. We might not be able to say much at this point, but there’s some definite conflict a brewin’ on the horizon. This book is merely the calm before the storm.

THE GANG

SJM’s characters really are the focus of ACOFAS – their relationships with one another, memories, and war scars (both recent and older). As usual, Feyre and Rhys take up a lot of the focus of the book and most of the chapters are written in first person flicking between the two. We occasionally get a third person perspective from other characters such as Cassian, Mor and Nesta, but our main couple remains center stage. The problem is that by this point Feysand has almost become a bit too overexposed. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still one of my favourite fictional pairings but did we really need pages and pages of them once again going on about how much they love one another? Probably not. Did we need the constant sexual innuendo (please stop. No, really) and that extended smutty scene? Nope. We get it. They love each other. Perfect together. Willing to die for one another. While some of the scenes are certainly nice, a lot of that time could have been better spent on more compelling characters with stories still to tell.

Speaking of which…

ACOFAS suggests some great character arcs to come in the new series and I’m actually now really looking forward to seeing inside some other characters’ heads. I adore Cassian, for example, and the novella has given me a strong indication that he’ll be featuring a lot more prominently from here on in. Nesta, too, will be getting a chance to shine and while I don’t much like Nesta viewed through other characters’ eyes, this book has shown me that I really enjoy reading from her third person POV. There’s just so much emotional complexity and potential there. It also doesn’t hurt that I’m a Nessian shipper. Without saying too much on that point, I struggled with the believability of where that relationship was in this book after where we left it at the end of ACOWAR. Still, I know there’s good things in store after the last few pages of the novella.

Mor is short changed in this book. The woman remains a goddess and there’s clearly a big plot arc coming her way, but I do wish we’d gotten more time with her, especially after the heaviness of her early third person chapter. I’m looking forward to seeing her grow and develop, and more importantly, find acceptance in herself.

Elaine’s dilemma remains the same as before and while she’s starting to come out of her shell, I can’t help but find her a bit boring. I do want her to be happy but at the same time, more drama needs to happen soon or I’m going to lose interest entirely. She bakes and gardens. Woooo… so much fun. Have a vision already, or at least semi-deal with this maybe forming love triangle.

Ah, Tamlin. I didn’t expect you to make an appearance at all. You certainly did some very bad things mister, but I feel so, so sorry for you here. At this point, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for a damn good redemption arc, for the Lord of Spring to get his ass into gear once the shit hits the fan again. I really want him to find some happiness because these scenes just broke my heart.

WAR & CONSEQUENCES

I also have to note that I continue to be impressed with SJM’s unwillingness to skate over the emotional and physical effects of conflict and trauma. Throughout the novella we’re exposed to the damage the war has done to not only the city but the population as well. Past events aren’t simply forgotten, they carry a great deal of weight and influence a lot of what can be considered the plot of this book, whether it be Feyre picturing her sister holding a severed head or the conversation with a war widow as she recounts the depth of her grief. It’s gut wrenching but it’s real and we can’t ask for much more than that. Yet, Sarah also successfully manages to balance out the tone of the book with her usual humour.


Overall, I had a good time with this one and for what it was, it does okay. While I’ll admit that I wish certain plot points and characters had been focused on or expanded more, and there were some things that occasionally got on my nerves, I’m excited to see where the new series will go.

3 Stars

The Bleak Soul of America: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

3 stars

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Where do I even begin to start with this one? American Gods is a book that I’ve wanted to read for quite some time now. If you’ve seen the novel, you’ll know that it’s definitely not a short read (640 pages!) so after experiencing a sudden burst of motivation to tackle something chunky, I grabbed it off the shelf and got down to it.

Just as American Gods isn’t a short read, it’s also not a simple book. If you’re looking for a fun story in which a bunch of gods engage in humorous hijinks in modern day America, this isn’t the story for you. What it is, is a highly ambitious novel which tackles some very significant and complex themes, and in doing so Gaiman doesn’t hesitate in discussing the uglier sides of them. Love, redemption, sacrifice, religion/belief, people’s relationship with technology, death, American culture, power, I could go on, and on and still wouldn’t be able to cover everything captured by the scope of this novel. In essence, it’s a literature student or book club’s dream – you could spend forever analysing and discussing its various components and still not have scratched the surface. If you enjoy reading things that have deeper philosophical undertones and force you to question things about the world, this will likely be a winner for you.

PLOT

The plot of American Gods can be a little hard to narrow down, especially since, as I said, it’s not really about the plot or the characters. The story centres around Shadow Moon, who at the novel’s start has just been released from prison early for good behaviour. This just happens to be the same day that he finds out his wife has been tragically killed in a car accident. On the plane trip home he meets a man who introduces himself only as ‘Mr Wednesday’ and offers Shadow a job. As I’m sure you already know, Wednesday is a god, one of the old gods (*spoiler* Odin, in fact), who believes the time has come for those of his kind to rise up against the new gods (e.g. television, technology, media) to avoid being rendered powerless entirely – I think. Shadow is to come along and perform tasks as Wednesday requires them in order to convince various gods to join his cause.

For the first two hundred pages, I was really engaged by the story and tore through it, excited to see which gods would show up and how they would be represented. Most importantly I wanted to find out where this was all heading (hopefully toward an epic battle). However, somewhere around the middle my mind started to wander…a lot, and this is largely because there were more and more scenes which didn’t seem to obviously contribute to the broader plot. For example, Shadow’s time in the town of Lakeside increasingly bored me with its monotony (almost freezes to death, buys a car, has a conversation with some towns person…blah, blah) and only served to introduce some minor subplots which weren’t given any resolution until after the main storyline was over. The novel has a couple of other rough patches but it does manage to get back on track somewhat toward the end.

The end is satisfying to a degree and does involve a plot twist however I can’t seem to shake several large questions. The biggest one is what the gods hoped to achieve by killing each other in the first place. Does killing a god erase them from the minds of human believers? Does the belief that was fuelling that god then redirect to other gods? Was there any guarantee that by getting rid of the opposing class of gods people would believe more in the winning side? If not, the whole reason this war actually comes about makes absolutely zero sense. Then again, large parts of the plot are a bit on the weird and muddled side, which often gives the impression that it’s very much secondary to the themes and ideas that Gaiman wanted to address. It’s probably why the book didn’t successfully manage to float my boat.

Characters

Character wise, American Gods is full of diverse and interesting individuals – god, human and everything in between. Shadow himself is a reasonably likeable central character with his sense of loyalty and desire to do right by people. Yet, I do have to say that even after over 600 pages I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the major characters in the novel. Surprisingly, the characters I enjoyed the most were found in the small interlude chapters scattered throughout the book, detailing events largely separate from what’s going on in the main story.

Writing

This was my first experience with Neil Gaiman and going in, I was definitely curious considering how highly he’s regarded in fantasy circles. If there’s one thing I can say about him with complete certainty, it’s that he’s an extremely creative and intelligent author. However, I get the feeling that his writing style may not be suited to me. His descriptions are extensive and the product of clearly immense amounts of research. Consequently, I found myself skimming a great many paragraphs devoted to describing bars, landmarks, and other environments. His dialogue can also be a little on the clunky side sometimes, although I will admit that he does have some good moments. For a great example, look up Sam Black Crow’s speech about what she believes and doesn’t believe in. Personally I believe in the power of cake and that pixies steal one of my socks every time the laundry gets done, but that’s just me…

American Gods is the kind of novel that will definitely appeal to a particular kind of reader but it’s also one that will just as easily turn off someone else. In my case, it’s a book that I can admire for what it seeks to discuss and achieve, and although I did enjoy particular sections it’s not something I would ever seek to re-read or rave about.

3 stars