Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Title: The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new universe by the Hugo Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Redshirts and Old Man’s War.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

It’s been a while since I’ve read John Scalzi — about a year and a half, in fact, since I finished his Old Man’s War series. And I gotta say, it’s great to be back!

The Collapsing Empire is the first book in the Interdependency trilogy, which concludes with the upcoming The Last Emperox, to be published in April 2020.

In this trilogy, humanity has left Earth behind and has settled in a vast collection of systems known as the Interdependency, which functions as an empire ruled by hereditary royalty (the Emperox), with a leadership council made up of representatives of the ruling houses (the nobility), the church, and the parliament. The Emperox is the supreme leader and is also the head of the church. Whew. Kind of complicated.

The planets of the Interdependency are far-flung and without (non-existent) faster than light travel, would be completely isolated from one another. But there’s the Flow, a space-time current that, well, flows between the different system and allows for interplanetary commerce and travel. It’s been assumed that the Flow is stable, but a new, secret study shows that it’s collapsing… and once it collapses, the worlds it connects will once again be isolated. And given how interwoven economically the worlds of the Interdependency are, isolation will likely mean the eventual extinction of the human race, as none of these worlds are capable of self-sustenance.

That’s a lot to take in, right? I actually started this book as an audiobook, as I usually love Scalzi audiobooks thanks to (a) the humor and (b) the awesome narration by Wil Wheaton. With The Collapsing Empire, though, I had to switch to print before I even made it through the prologue. There was simply too much detail to take in, and for me at least, absorbing it all merely by listening just wasn’t going to work.

Thankfully, once I switched to print, I definitely got into the flow (ha!) of the story. It’s not terribly long, but the author absolutely packs it full of people, governmental systems, intricate family relationships, backstory on trade and rebellions, and much, much more.

But beyond how much world-building there is to adjust to, there’s the fun of the characters and their craziness. Scalzi books are always funny, and his characters here are not comic, but so clever and snarky that they made me giggle anyway. There ‘s a lot of scheming and manipulation and threats and bribery and intimidation, and it’s all great fun. Not to mention the fact that the story itself is pretty compelling — I’m going to want to get my hands on the next book, The Consuming Fire, just as soon as I can.

While I really enjoyed this book, I think it was perhaps just a little too packed for my taste. I had to stop and reread paragraphs all the time, just to make sure I was absorbing all the points about the government and the planets and the laws and the houses… like I said, it’s a lot.

Do I recommend this book? Definitely! But just be aware that while it’s mostly light-hearted, it’s not actually a light read. Be prepared to put in a bit of effort, and it’ll be fine.

Book Review: When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk

Title: When You Were Everything
Author: Ashley Woodfolk
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

You can’t rewrite the past, but you can always choose to start again.

It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.

Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.

Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.

Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love. 

It’s refreshing to read a contemporary YA novel where romance takes a backseat. In When You Were Everything, the focus is on friendship — or more specifically, on the end of friendship.

Few things are more traumatic for teen girls that losing a best friend. In When You Were Everything, we witness the pain and sorrow and rage that occurs when besties forever, Cleo and Layla, fall apart.

It happens the way these things do. Friends since age twelve, the girls start moving in different directions at the start of their sophomore year of high school. Layla wants more than anything to join the school chorus, and while the “Chorus Girls” adopt her right away, they have no interest in including Cleo in their elite circle.

Cleo’s feeling are hurt over and over again as Layla spends more time with her new friends than with Cleo, and small slights turn into bigger and bigger betrayals, until there’s a final and irreparable break.

Cleo is also dealing with her parents’ separation, and her new friendless status is made even worse by a stream of bullying and harassment she endures from the Chorus Girls while Layla stands by and does nothing.

Cleo is smart and driven, but she also makes some poor choices, lashing out in hurtful ways when her own feelings are hurt. And while I felt that Layla was more to blame for the friendship break-up, Cleo isn’t blameless either.

When You Were Everything is hard to read at times, specifically because it’s so relatable. My own high school years are way in the past, but Cleo’s feelings as she’s isolated and tormented ring very true, in a sadly timeless sort of way.

I enjoyed seeing how Cleo opens herself up to new friendships and learns to see what’s in front of her instead of living inside her own head so much. There’s a sweet romance too, but it’s less important than what Cleo learns about herself and about friendship.

The cast of characters is nicely diverse, and I liked the way the story includes the importance of family and the impact of parents’ and grandparents’ support, love, and involvement. Despite the sadness of the end of a friendship, the book ends on a hopeful note.

Definitely a recommended read!

Book Review: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird by Josie Silver

Title: The Two Lives of Lydia Bird
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

In this next captivating love story from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of One Day in December, a young woman is reunited with her late fiancé in a parallel life. But is this happy ending the one she really wants?

Lydia and Freddie. Freddie and Lydia. They’d been together for more than a decade, and Lydia thought their love was indestructible.

But she was wrong. On her twenty-eighth birthday, Freddie died in a car accident.

So now it’s just Lydia, and all she wants to do is hide indoors and sob until her eyes fall out. But Lydia knows that Freddie would want her to try to live fully, happily, even without him. So, enlisting the help of his best friend, Jonah, and her sister, Elle, she takes her first tentative steps into the world, open to life–and perhaps even love–again.

But then something inexplicable happens that gives her another chance at her old life with Freddie. A life where none of the tragic events of the past few months have happened.

Lydia is pulled again and again across the doorway of her past, living two lives, impossibly, at once. But there’s an emotional toll to returning to a world where Freddie, alive, still owns her heart. Because there’s someone in her new life, her real life, who wants her to stay.

Written with Josie Silver’s trademark warmth and wit, The Two Lives of Lydia Bird is a powerful and thrilling love story about the what-ifs that arise at life’s crossroads, and what happens when one woman is given a miraculous chance to answer them.

The Two Lives of Lydia Bird starts with tragedy. Driving to Lydia’s birthday dinner, Freddie is in a car accident that takes his life. Lydia’s world is destroyed. She and Freddie, engaged to be married, have been together for over ten years, really ever since meeting as teens. He was her first and only love… and then suddenly, he was gone.

Lydia is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered world, and where this book excels is in its depiction of grief and loss. Lydia’s pain is not pretty or dignified — she’s a mess, and she remains a mess for a long, long time. Grief doesn’t have a timetable. There’s no quick fix or set number of months that the mourning should take. Lydia simply has to go through it, and fortunately, she has an incredibly giving and loving sister by her side every step of the way.

Lydia also has a secret: The unusual pink pills that her mother gave her to help her sleep have a decidedly odd effect: When she takes a pill and falls asleep, Lydia is pulled into a different version of her own life, one in which the accident never happened and Freddie is very much alive. Soon, Lydia is torn between her bleak waking world and the promise of escape into a world that she knows can’t be real — but it’s a world where she gets time with Freddie, gets to plan their wedding and enjoy their promised life together.

Thankfully, there’s no hint that this alternate world is a real option for Lydia. Even while experiencing this time with Freddie, she’s fully aware of what’s happened in her real life, so all the happy moments are overshadowed for her by the knowledge that Freddie isn’t really alive in her world.

Meanwhile, we spend much more time with Lydia in her waking life than asleep, which I appreciated. She has no choice but to begin the long, slow road forward without Freddie, finding a way to keep going without the love of her life.

There’s a lot to like about this book:

  • Lydia has a meaningful and rewarding job working in a community center, which hits very close to home for me and really warmed my heart. It’s refreshing to read about someone with a job that’s important but not at all corporate — a job that’s all about creating programming for the community to bring joy to other people.
  • Her mother is odd, but still supportive, and her sister Elle is the absolute best. She and her husband have Lydia’s back, fuss over her a lot, but also give her space to figure out her own life.
  • Unlike some other books I’ve read, at no point does anything negative about Freddie come to light. I’ve read too many versions of stories where the dearly departed turns out to be somewhat of an ass or a liar or in some other way not really worth the tears. Nope, not here. Even though Lydia eventually becomes open to the possibility of love again, there’s never any doubt that had Freddie lived, they would have had a happy life together.

Of course, I had some quibbles as well:

(And I suppose I should say… some of these are a little bit spoilery…)

  • The sci-fi geek in me (never too far below the surface) wants to know what was in those pink pills! Even though Lydia eventually acknowledges that maybe it was the pills and maybe it was just her brain’s way of helping her deal with her loss, my sci-fi brain wanted a real explanation! Was she in an alternate reality? Was it all in her mind? If it was all in her mind, I have to say, it was a very neatly constructed and chronologically sound set of delusions. (I would have preferred either no alternate reality story, or one that actually happens in a fully fleshed out way — again, sci-fi geek here!)
  • When Lydia picks herself up and goes off to Croatia on a moment’s notice, then stays there for nine weeks to rest and recuperate and find herself, I just could not suspend my disbelief. She goes off with no plan, happens to be approached by a cab driver who happens to have a seaside restaurant and room to rent with his wife, who happens to be smart and supportive and exactly what Lydia needs. Really? What are the odds? Because I’m willing to bet that in real life, the tourist showing up at an airport in a foreign country and trusting someone to drive her to a remote place with no hesitation… is maybe not going to return in one piece. Honestly, this piece of the story made no sense to me.
  • I’m really glad that Lydia grew and changed over the course of the book, which covers close to two years in her life — but part of how I was aware of how much she’d changed was by her constantly thinking about how much she’d changed. Um… show, don’t tell?

Quibbles, aside, I did actually enjoy this book very much, and especially appreciated how well the author conveyed Lydia’s suffering and the emotional rollercoaster she experiences during her mourning process.

You don’t get over losing someone you love in six months or two years or twenty, but you do have to find a way to carry on living without feeling as if everything that comes afterward is second best.

Lydia is flawed and human and feels real. She’s miserable and sad until, eventually, she learns to also start feeling happy again, although in a different way than before. I really liked her as a person, and felt that her journey never sugarcoated the pain of her huge loss. At some point, she finds new ways to participate in life, with her family and friends and work, and it’s pretty glorious to see Lydia find hope again after it all seems gone.

I guess I could have lived without the alternate world pieces of the story, but overall, I liked The Two Lives of Lydia Bird very much, and would happily recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly different take on love and finding meaning in life.

Book Review: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman

Title: The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2)
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: October 3, 2019
Length: 641 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Source: Purchased

⭐⭐⭐

It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

It is seven years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford’s Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

The second volume of Sir Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed.

Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost – a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

How to describe this long, strange book, set in the world of His Dark Materials?

The Secret Commonwealth is very much a middle book. It’s packed with details and characters, most of whom are people on a journey or quest. There’s a lot of travel from here to there… but we leave off before anyone actually arrives at their destinations.

In La Belle Sauvage, the installment in The Book of Dust that precedes The Secret Commonwealth, we see Lyra as an infant. She’s the object of hot pursuit by nefarious agents of the Magisterium, the ruling religious entity, and a person to be protected by an assortment of good guys and heroes, chief among them young Malcolm Polstead, an 11-year-old boy with unflinching bravery and a very steady canoe.

Here, we re-meet Lyra at age 20. She’s a student at St. Sophia’s, and still lives at Jordan College, the Oxford college where she’s been sheltered under rules of scholastic sanctuary since infancy. Lyra’s life is difficult as the story opens. Her comfortable home at Jordan is no longer a safe place for her, the money supporting her has run out, and shady characters are once again intent on tracking her down.

Closer to home, Lyra and her beloved daemon Pantalaimon are not getting along, which is a huge deal, considering that daemons are the external representation of a person’s soul. Daemon and human are two halves of one whole; neither is complete without the other. It’s almost beyond imagining that Lyra and Pan should be so estranged. Pan believes that Lyra has come too deeply under the influence of literary and scholarly works that prize only what’s real and can be seen, discounting completely the value or even existence of subtlety, imagination, and unseen forces and worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s a movement behind the scenes within the Magisterium to consolidate power even further, pushing toward total religious authoritarianism, leading to fear, civil unrest, and a growing flood of refugees throughout Europe. There’s also a quest by the Magisterium to root out a particular type of rose oil that’s believed to have certain properties that are considered threatening and heretical, and the efforts to wipe out all roses is being conducted by force.

As Lyra is forced into a quest across Europe and into the Eastern lands, she faces incredible danger and constant pursuit, meeting some allies and encountering enemies of all sorts. We also see events through Pan’s perspective, as well as accompanying Malcolm and others on their own strange and dangerous journeys.

It’s a little hard to figure out just who the intended audience of this book is. It’s clearly a youth-oriented book, based on the publisher and where it fits into the greater world of His Dark Materials, but this book is different. For starters, it’s the first novel in either series with no children as characters. Lyra, at age 20, is the youngest, and she’s truly a young woman and not a girl any longer.

More than that, though, is the tone and feel of the book. This book is DARK. Really bad things happen. This rarely feels like fantasy-level danger, with mystical forces or supernatural threats. The danger in The Secret Commonwealth is from people, and it’s awful. Lyra suffers through terrible ordeals, and so do many of the other characters in the book.

The pieces that are revealed about human/daemon connections and certain things that can happen (being deliberately vague here) are pretty horrible too, and are really startling in the context of the series as a whole.

Finally, the Lyra/Pan relationship and where it is in The Secret Commonwealth is heartbreaking and demoralizing. There’s really no ray of sunshine in this book whatsoever.

I suppose that the bleakness of the story is appropriate to the political conditions of Lyra’s world, but it makes for a pretty dismal reading experience. Philip Pullman is masterful as always, and I do love the world he’s created.

However, The Secret Commonwealth is so unrelentingly dark and full of misery that it’s hard to consider it an enjoyable read at all. After 600+ pages, it ends more or less on a cliffhanger, with all threads still to be resolved. The book is building toward something, and I hope the final book in the trilogy is successful in tying it all together and, hopefully, bringing back a little of Lyra’s fire and optimism.

I will absolutely want to read the 3rd and final book in The Book of Dust, and hope the conclusion will make all the suffering of the 2nd book worthwhile. Meanwhile, The Secret Commonwealth has left me feeling sad, upset, and worried about Lyra, and that’s not a fun way to be left hanging.

Audiobook Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Title: The Last Wish
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Narrator: Peter Kenny
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: December 14, 2008 (originally published in 1997 in Poland)
Print length: 360 pages
Audio length: 10 hours, 17 minutes
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.

A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia, to be followed by the first novel in the actual series, The Blood of Elves. Note that, while The Last Wish was published after The Sword of Destiny, the stories contained in The Last Wish take place first chronologically, and many of the individual stories were published before The Sword of Destiny. 

For anyone who developed an instantaneous obsession for the Netflix series The Witcher (*raising my hand*), the story collection The Last Wish is an absolute must!

The Last Wish introduces Geralt of Rivia, a solitary man who travels from place to place earning money by fighting monsters on behalf of the humans who hire him. He’s a Witcher, member of a profession of highly trained, magically enhanced people who take on the monsters of the world through their power with spells and swords.

Geralt is gruff, sometimes mean, straightforward, and never afraid of a fight. He has a strict moral code, and uses it to set his own path, even when men of power tried to oppose him or sway him with threats or bribery.

The book is structured as connected tales of Geralt’s adventures, with a through-story between chapters, called “The Voice of Reason”, where we keep up with Geralt after a particularly nasty escapade. Through the interwoven stories, we learn about his past adventures and how he got to this point.

The six stories in The Last Wish seem to be rooted in various fairy tales, but with some pretty big twists and variations along the way. This isn’t too surprising — as Geralt points out, all stories start from a grain of truth.

For viewers of the Netflix series, most of these stories will be at least partially familiar. We see the story of Renfri and the battle at Blaviken — which, by the way, is really a version of a Snow White story, which I totally didn’t get from watching the TV series. There’s also the feast at Cintra where Pavetta’s potential marriage is at stake (a great scene in both the book and the series), a Beauty & the Beast-inspired tale, and the story of the striga.

And, obviously from the title, The Last Wish includes the story of Yennefer and Geralt’s first meeting and the role of the djinn, although in many ways it’s pretty different from the presentation on Netflix.

Overall, I loved this book. There are pieces I missed, like Yennefer’s entire origin story, but so much added detail and explanation of various elements that it all evens out. Also, the fall of Cintra and the introduction of Ciri are not included in this book, but will be important in later books, from what I understand.

Jaskier, the delightful bard on the TV series who is responsible for the ultimate earworm, Toss a Coin to Your Witcher, appears in the books as Dandelion (pronounced by the narrator not like the flower, but as danDElion, which makes it sounds pretty charming). He’s still a totally fun character, but of course, I missed the singing!

Regarding the narration, I got off to a difficult start with the audiobook. I typically listen to audiobooks at 1.25x speed, and it took me a chapter or two to really accept that that just wouldn’t work for me in this case. Between the narrator’s speaking patterns and the heavy accents and rather incomprehensible names of certain characters, I finally realized that I’d need to either slow down the listening speed or give up and switch to print.

Once I took the speed down to 1.0x (normal speed), most of my problems were resolved, and I was much better able to follow conversations and narration. I ended up loving some of the voices, particularly the narrator’s approach to Geralt himself.

Fantasy character names can be tricky, so I ended up having to refer to a print version anyway because it drove me a bit batty not to have a clear idea of how certain names might be spelled. Nivellen, Coodcoodak, Eist Tuirseach, Drogodar, Crach an Craite… see what I mean?

Reading the book made me even more impressed with the Netflix series, because it made me appreciate how well they wove together so many different storylines into one cohesive whole. In fact, now that I’ve finished this book, I may have to watch the series all over again to see what I missed the first time around!

The Last Wish was a really fun, enjoyable listen, and I will absolutely be continuing with The Witcher books, either in print or via audio. After all, what else am I supposed to do with my time between now and whenever season 2 comes around?

Book Review: Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales

Title: Only Mostly Devastated
Author: Sophie Gonzales
Publisher: Wednesday Books
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA meets CLUELESS in this boy-meets-boy spin on Grease

Summer love…gone so fast.

Ollie and Will were meant to be a summer fling—casual, fun, and done. But when Ollie’s aunt’s health takes a turn for the worse and his family decides to stay in North Carolina to take care of her, Ollie lets himself hope this fling can grow to something more. Dreams that are crushed when he sees Will at a school party and finds that the sweet and affectionate (and comfortably queer) guy he knew from summer isn’t the same one attending Collinswood High.

Will is more than a little shocked to see Ollie the evening of that first day of school. While his summer was spent being very much himself, back at school he’s simply known as one of the varsity basketball guys. Now Will is faced with the biggest challenge of his life: follow his heart and risk his friendships, or stay firmly in the closet and lose what he loves most.

Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast.
..Save

Well, you know how it goes.

Two cute teens meet on their summer vacation, fall head over heels, say sad good-byes… and then end up attending the same high school in the fall.

But in Only Mostly Devastated, we’re not talking good girl Sandy and bad boy Danny. Instead, we have two adorable boys, Ollie and Will, who have a magical summer together. They should be thrilled to end up at the same school unexpectedly, right?

The problem is (and of course, there has to be a problem): Ollie is out; Will is not. And while Ollie came out to supportive parents and a chill circle of friends and school acquaintances back in California, Will grew up in more conservative North Carolina, where homophobic jokes are de rigeur for the cool jock crowd and their hangers-on.

When Ollie and his parents relocate to North Carolina to be near his terminally ill aunt and help with her children, he doesn’t really expect to run into Will without some effort. Not to mention that Will appears to have ghosted him right after their final summer good-bye kiss.

So when Ollie tells the group of girls who befriend him on his first day of school about his summer love — and shows them a picture — complications almost immediately crop up. Because of course, Will goes to the same school, and of course, the girls are thrown for a loop by this news that straight hot basketball star Will is maybe not so straight after all.

Ollie is sweet as can be, and it’s so sad and painful to go through all his emotions alongside him. He’s firmly out and will never accept a situation where’s he’s forced back in the closet — but he has to respect Will’s choice, even if it means accepting that Will has to pretend not to know Ollie, and can’t hang out with him too visibly for fear of being teased about turning gay.

The author does a great job of helping us (and Ollie) understand why Will might fear being outed, showing the social environment at school and the not-so-subtle pressure to conform, as well as the scorn reserved for those who don’t fall nicely into socially acceptable gender and relationship roles.

Meanwhile, Ollie forms close friendships with a trio of girls who seem to adore him and take him under their wings. They’re all interesting and varied, not just a generic crowd of high school girls but real people with distinct personalities and conflicts and challenges.

Ollie’s family life is also portrayed sensitively, and it’s quite sad to see Ollie processing his aunt’s decline while also being there for his two little cousins. As if Ollie wasn’t adorable and sweet enough already, he’s also a terrific babysitter and loves his family unconditionally, and it’s heartbreaking to witness his grief when the inevitable finally happens.

The cast of characters in Only Mostly Devastated is nicely diverse without making a big fuss over it, which I really appreciated. The romance at the heart of the story is so well done, and even though it’s almost too sad at times to see how hurt Ollie is, by the end, it feels like a realistic journey that the boys go through to get to where they end up. (Being vague here, so as not to spoil too much…)

If you enjoy sweet, sensitive young adult romances with well-earned happy endings, definitely check out Only Mostly Devastated!Save

Book Review: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers

Title: A Witch in Time
Author: Constance Sayers
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: February 11, 2020
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

A young witch is cursed to relive a doomed love affair through many lifetimes, as both troubled muse and frustrated artist, in this haunting debut novel.

In 1895, sixteen-year-old Juliet LaCompte has a passionate, doomed romance with the married Parisian painter Auguste Marchant. When her mother — a witch — attempts to cast a curse on Marchant, she unwittingly summons a demon, binding her daughter to both the artist and this supernatural being for all time. Juliet is fated to re-live her affair and die tragically young lifetime after lifetime as the star-crossed lovers reincarnate through history.

The demon — who appears to Juliet in all her reincarnations as a mysterious, handsome, and worldly benefactor — has been helplessly in love with her since 19th century France, even though she forgets him each time she dies. He falls for her in 1930s Hollywood, in 1970s Los Angeles, and finally in present-day Washington D.C. — where she begins to develop powers of her own.

In this life, she starts to remember her tragic past lives. But this time, she might have the power to break the cycle…

A Witch in Time is perfect for fans of A Secret History of WitchesOutlander, and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

A Witch in Time is a haunting story of doomed, enduring love. It’s mesmerizing and otherworldly, yet also very much grounded in the here and now.

As the story opens, we meet Helen Lambert, a successful media professional in her mid-30s, recently divorced from a mover and shaker in the museum world, cautiously stepping back into the dating world. But the man she’s set up with on a blind date is both strange and familiar. There’s something about Luke Varner that resonates with Helen. He implies that they’ve met before — in fact, that they share a history. Strangest of all, he takes her to a gallery in her ex’s museum and shows her a 19th century painting of a young girl who looks startlingly similar to Helen.

Helen begins to have vivid dreams of another life, in which she appears as young Juliet LaCompte, a French farm girl in love with the suave painter who lives next door. For Helen, it’s as if she’s living these moments, not just dreaming them. And when she wakes up, she knows that what she’s experienced is true.

As the days and weeks go by, Helen’s connection to Luke is revealed and her entanglement with Juliet and other women across time slowly comes to light through her vivid dreams. As Helen discovers, she, Luke and the artist Juliet once loved are doomed to repeat their patterns time and time again, for eternity — living out a curse placed in anger by an inexperienced witch, condemning them all to a hopeless cycle.

Oh, this book is captivating! I fell in love with the strange lives revealed to Helen through her dreams — 1890s Paris, 1930s Hollywood, 1970s Taos. In each, Helen (or Juliet) takes on a slightly different life, but there are elements that are consistent from lifetime to lifetime. And through these varied lives, Luke remains a constant, there to protect Helen and her predecessors over and over again… but also to love them.

The mood of the book is lush and dreamy. So much happens, and it takes a leap of faith to just go with the story and allow it to unfold at its own pace. And trust me, it’s worth it! The author gives us historical set-pieces that are atmospheric and convey the feel of the their different periods so well. She also manages to connect the dots between Juliet/Helen’s different personas, so that even though we meet four very different women (and their four very different love obsessions), the common threads are very visible as well.

Despite being over 400 pages in length, A Witch in Time goes by very quickly. I simply couldn’t put it down, and didn’t want to! I was very caught up in the story of recurring love and recurring tragedy, and felt incredibly breathless waiting for each new life’s particular patterns to unfold.

Absolutely a must-read! Don’t miss this one.

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Faerie two-fer: Wrapping up the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black

I raced my way through this awesome trilogy during the past week and a half, and loved every moment!

I wrote a review for the first book, The Cruel Prince (here)… but by the time I finished book #2, The Wicked King, there was no way I was going to pause for anything but work and sleep until I finished #3 as well.

So, now that I’ve come up for air, I thought I’d share my take on these two terrific books.

Title: The Wicked King
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 336 pages
Published: January 8, 2019
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

You must be strong enough to strike and strike and strike again without tiring.

The first lesson is to make yourself strong.

After the jaw-dropping revelation that Oak is the heir to Faerie, Jude must keep her younger brother safe. To do so, she has bound the wicked king, Cardan, to her, and made herself the power behind the throne. Navigating the constantly shifting political alliances of Faerie would be difficult enough if Cardan were easy to control. But he does everything in his power to humiliate and undermine her even as his fascination with her remains undiminished.

When it becomes all too clear that someone close to Jude means to betray her, threatening her own life and the lives of everyone she loves, Jude must uncover the traitor and fight her own complicated feelings for Cardan to maintain control as a mortal in a Faerie world.

The story gets much more complicated in The Wicked King. Jude is no longer the outsider, a powerless mortal girl growing up in Faerie. Here, she now wields great power as the royal seneschal, governing Elfhame through Cardan, who seems to resent and hate her for the situation she’s placed him in.

I enjoyed the book so much, although I’ll admit to feeling a bit frustrated early on by what seemed like a shift away from the more delightful, personal elements of the story in favor of court scheming and politics.

Still, the deeper I went, the more wrapped up I found myself, and I loved the ways that the story and the characters grew and changed throughout. There are some pretty horrifying interludes, and it’s impossible not to recognize how far Jude has come and what inner resolve she brings to every situation… even if she is a bit blind when it comes to understanding her own emotions.

The 2nd book in a trilogy can often feel like a bridge rather than a compelling book on its own. Luckily, that’s not the case here. The Wicked King was a truly engaging, magical read.

Title: The Queen of Nothing
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Length: 300 pages
Published: November 29, 2019
Source: Library
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

He will be destruction of the crown and the ruination of the throne.

Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold onto. Jude learned this lesson when she released her control over the wicked king, Cardan, in exchange for immeasurable power.

Now as the exiled mortal Queen of Faerie, Jude is powerless and left reeling from Cardan’s betrayal. She bides her time determined to reclaim everything he took from her. Opportunity arrives in the form of her deceptive twin sister, Taryn, whose mortal life is in peril.

Jude must risk venturing back into the treacherous Faerie Court, and confront her lingering feelings for Cardan, if she wishes to save her sister. But Elfhame is not as she left it. War is brewing. As Jude slips deep within enemy lines she becomes ensnared in the conflict’s bloody politics.

And, when a dormant yet powerful curse is unleashed, panic spreads throughout the land, forcing her to choose between her ambition and her humanity…

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Holly Black, comes the highly anticipated and jaw-dropping finale to The Folk of the Air trilogy. 

Wow! What a way to end with a bang!

The Queen of Nothing is intricately plotted and — even more impressive — lets each character fully demonstrate their own growth and evolution.

There are surprises galore, plenty of dramatic action and heroics, and enough swoony romantic moments to melt the coldest of hearts.

And talk about suspense! There were several moments where I had to remind myself to take deep breaths and calm down. I mean, there was no way things wouldn’t work out in the end… right?

I’m officially in love with the world of The Folk of the Air. I can’t believe it took me this long to getting around to this trilogy! I’m now eager to gobble up ALL of Holly Black’s books, as soon as humanly possible. (Or, you know, after I make a dent in my obscenely huge pile of books already waiting to be read.)

Seriously, I loved this trilogy, need to own copies of all three books once I reluctantly hand them back to the library… and will probably listen to the audiobooks sooner rather than later too.

If you enjoy faerie worlds with well-built magical systems and eerily beautiful and dangerous people and rules that still remain full of human emotion and relationships, absolutely check out these books!

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

Title: The Dry
Author: Jane Harper
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: May 31, 2016
Length: 328 pages
Genre: Crime fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

A small town hides big secrets in this atmospheric, page-turning debut mystery by award-winning author Jane Harper.

In the grip of the worst drought in a century, the farming community of Kiewarra is facing life and death choices daily when three members of a local family are found brutally slain.

Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk reluctantly returns to his hometown for the funeral of his childhood friend, loath to face the townsfolk who turned their backs on him twenty years earlier.

But as questions mount, Falk is forced to probe deeper into the deaths of the Hadler family. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret. A secret Falk thought was long buried. A secret Luke’s death now threatens to bring to the surface in this small Australian town, as old wounds bleed into new ones.

The Dry is a twisty tale of murder and secrets set in a rural Australian community, where drought has dried up farms and rivers and brought the entire town to the brink of natural and economic ruin.

Federal Investigator Aaron Falk is drawn back into the web of gossip and lies in the town of Kiewarra when he returns home for a funeral — the funeral of his former best friend, who appears to have slaughtered his wife and son before turning the shotgun on himself. It’s horrifying and ugly, and the town is roiling with unhappiness.

At the same time, Aaron’s reception by the town is hostile. Twenty years earlier, he was suspected of murdering a classmate and was forced to flee with his father in the face of threats and aggression. The people of Kiewarra have a long memory, and no one — especially the dead girl’s family — wants to see him back among them.

But Aaron and the local police officer both believe something is off about the deaths of Luke’s family. Something about the crime scene just doesn’t add up, so Aaron stays to help pick through the witness statements and other bits and pieces of clues. Meanwhile, his memories of the events of 20 years earlier are coming back strongly, and he’s finding himself plagued by that unsolved mystery as well.

I was very caught up in the story of The Dry and just could not stop reading! The murder itself is gruesome and terrible, and it’s shocking to see how the different pieces fit together. Aaron is an impressive main character, smart and determined, but also flawed and haunted by his past and his regrets.

It was fascinating to get a view of the small-town politics and power plays, and I found the description of the drought-ridden environment and its dangers really powerful. Who knew that a scene with a lighter in it could be quite so scary?

I’m rating this book 3 1/2 stars, because I did enjoy it quite a bit, but also felt certain pieces of the mystery were a little on the obvious side. Given that I don’t normally gravitate toward crime stories, I was surprised that I liked The Dry as much as I did!

In fact, I think at some point I’ll want to read more of this author’s work — my book group friends recommend her books highly! **Save

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Book Review: The Cruel Prince (Folk of the Air, #1) by Holly Black

Title: The Cruel Prince (Folk of the Air, #1)
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 2, 2018
Length: 370 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Of course I want to be like them. They’re beautiful as blades forged in some divine fire. They will live forever.

And Cardan is even more beautiful than the rest. I hate him more than all the others. I hate him so much that sometimes when I look at him, I can hardly breathe.

Jude was seven when her parents were murdered and she and her two sisters were stolen away to live in the treacherous High Court of Faerie. Ten years later, Jude wants nothing more than to belong there, despite her mortality. But many of the fey despise humans. Especially Prince Cardan, the youngest and wickedest son of the High King.

To win a place at the Court, she must defy him–and face the consequences.

As Jude becomes more deeply embroiled in palace intrigues and deceptions, she discovers her own capacity for trickery and bloodshed. But as betrayal threatens to drown the Courts of Faerie in violence, Jude will need to risk her life in a dangerous alliance to save her sisters, and Faerie itself. 

The Cruel Prince is a book that practically everyone but me had already read. But now…

I’m in! I finally read The Cruel Prince, and I can see what all the fuss is about. Call me late to the party, but guys! This book is good!

The book starts off with a horrifying, sad scene: In a normal suburban home, 7-year-old twin sisters Taryn and Jude and their older sister Vivi are lounging about watching TV, when a strange man enters, murders their parents, and steals them away. The man is Madoc, and he is Vivi’s biological father. The mother of the three girls used to dwell in Faerie with him, but she ran off years earlier with the mortal man who became the twins’ father. Now, years later, Madoc has taken what he considers his.

The girls are brought to Faerie and raised among the fae gentry. Vivi, half-fae herself, fits in pretty well, but the twins are always aware of how other they are. They’re mortal, and have no powers. Even worse, they have no innate ability to fight off the magical compulsions and other torments directed at them by their fae classmates.

As the story kicks in, Jude and Taryn are seventeen, still trying to find a way to belong. Madoc has raised them with riches and privilege, but they can never forget that he murdered their parents. Jude wants strength — she wants to prove she belongs in the fae court by becoming a knight. Taryn, on the other hand, wants to secure her place through marriage. And Vivi? She, the one who should belong, wants no part of it at all, instead preferring to sneak back to the human world whenever she can to see her mortal girlfriend and plan a future with her.

Jude and Taryn are constantly tormented by their classmates, especially Prince Cardan and his cronies. But when the king decides to step down and pass along the crown, the intrigue and the danger escalates.

I’m not going to go further into the plot, but let me just say… I was hooked! I could not put this book down once I started. I loved the depiction of Faerie, its beauty and wonders, and how utterly alien and hostile this world would feel to children who didn’t belong.

The casual cruelty of the ruling class is scary and heartless, and I felt awful for Taryn and Jude for having no defenses and no way to stand up for themselves in any meaningful way. And even when some of the crowd appear to be more inclined to be friendly, it seems obvious that no one can be trusted.

Jude is our hero, and she’s awesome. She’s smart and brave, and refuses to scrape and bow, even when that’s the most obvious way to get the bullies off her back. She’s devoted to protecting her family, and doesn’t take the easy way out. I like how she goes through the book having to figure who to trust, and even when forced into pretty bad situations, how to turn those situations to her advantage and achieve her goals.

I definitely want more! I’m really looking forward to reading book #2, and feel pretty safe in predicting that I’ll want to read straight through to the end of the trilogy!

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I also really enjoyed The Lost Sisters, a novella that tells about some of the same events from The Cruel Prince, but from Taryn’s perspective.

It’s really interesting to get the other side of parts of the story, and I’m glad I stumbled across it!

And now, on to The Wicked King!Save

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