15 June 2021

That Weekend by Kara Thomas, 2021

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Three best friends, a lake house, a secret trip - what could go wrong?
It was supposed to be the perfect prom weekend getaway. But it's clear something terrible happened when Claire wakes up alone and bloodied on a hiking trail with no memory of the past forty-eight hours.
Three went up the mountain, but only one came back.
Now everyone wants answers - most of all, Claire. She remembers Friday night, but after that... nothing. And now Kat and Jesse - her best friends - are missing.
That weekend changes everything.
What happened on the mountain? And where are Kat and Jesse? Claire knows the answers are buried somewhere in her memory, but as she's learning, everyone has secrets - even her best friends. And she's pretty sure she's not going to like what she remembers.
(336 pages)

I just set down That Weekend and I'm speechless. It's stirred up a lot of emotions and bad memories, that's for sure. When I was a college freshman, a classmate of mine disappeared on a night out drinking with friends. I helped the searchers for a while, distributing flyers and giving food and drink to the search and rescue people. It was a terrible time, and I'm still haunted sometimes by those memories.

That's why the first half of this book hit me really hard. Claire's desperation when she realizes her friends are missing, and the frenzied ever-shifting search effort to find them, hit too close to home. The crazy conspiracy theories, the stacks of "missing" posters. The latching on to every shred of evidence that might lead somewhere. I was less invested in the mystery portions, just because they didn't strike that nerve quite as much (plus I was more just frustrated with the authority figures more than anything), but I think they were still well done. And overall the early part of the story just hits a very true-to-life desperate, chaotic energy.

I can't speak first-hand to Claire's mental health struggles after the accident, but they seemed pretty realistic to me at least. The smaller touches, like the way she lashes out at her mother when she's most frustrated and the way she obsessively googles every aspect of the case every single day, are exactly the sort of things I think I'd do in her situation.

The narrative shifts in the second half of the book as things pick up speed again. Not gonna lie, I was less invested in the second half. And in many ways it felt a bit less grounded and realistic as it went along. But things definitely stayed interesting, and I genuinely never had any idea what was going to happen next.

I think if I could change one thing about this book, I would get rid of at least one love interest for Claire. It feels like every single guy in Claire's life either is, or used to be, an object of romantic infatuation. After a while it just got a bit distracting.

This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart. Most of the plot twists are deeply disturbing, and that's on top of a baseline level of foul language and references to teenagers having sex. I can't discuss the rest of the mature content without getting close to spoilers, but I can say that the last few chapters make me a bit nauseous. I can tell That Weekend is going to stay with me for at least a few days, and not necessarily in a good way.

If this is a genre you're into, then I recommend this book. I think it's a good book. It just isn't necessarily for everyone and you have to be aware of that going in.

08 March 2021

War Bound by Tara Grayce, 2020

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Marriage to an elf is complicated…especially bringing him home to meet the family.
Princess Elspeth of Escarland married the elf prince and achieved peace between the elves and her human people. But after a recent ambush by the trolls, it is clear the trolls are trying to start a war between the elves and humans once again. To keep their peoples at peace, Essie and Farrendel travel to meet Essie’s family and negotiate peace.
Yet in Escarland, not everyone is happy with peace. Traitors lurk in both Escarland and Tarenhiel, and it will be up to Essie and Farrendel to flush them out. The consequences of failure might be more personal and deadly than they fear.
(326 pages)

I recently reviewed the first book in this series, Fierce Heart, where I waxed poetic about how much I love this series and all of the characters in it. I also mentioned I've reread all three published books in the series several times since I discovered it about six months ago.

All of this gushing holds true for War Bound, and then some. Frankly, this is the one I've reread the most. It's just such a delightful book.

There are two big changes to the story this time around. The first is the addition of chapters from Farrendel's POV. While we lose the advantage of viewing the world solely through Essie's head - getting to know Farrendel alongside her - this is more than made up for by the joy of entire scenes from his point of view, where we not only get to see him internally fawn over Essie but we also get a deeper understanding of his thought process, culture, and psychology. A great example of this is the scene where Farrendel, Essie, and Farrendel's sister Jalissa are playing a board game on their way to Escarland. The elves have an interaction that Essie doesn't even notice. When Jalissa silently laughs at Farrendel for how much he is staring at Essie (a breach of elven propriety), he shrugs her off, reasoning that "as Essie would probably curl up and fall asleep on his shoulder once she wound down for a nap, Farrendel being unable to take his eyes off Essie would not be the worst offense against propriety."

The second big change is the change in scenery! This time around our couple is visiting Essie's family in the human country of Escarland. They're there to stop a war, but to be honest I must admit I mostly skim the political parts. What I don't skip? All the scenes with Essie's family! Continuing the long list of things I have in common with Essie, I also come from a large, close-knit family. So I especially loved getting to know her three brothers, her mother, and even her sister-in-law and nephews. Their initial coldness toward Farrendel, and rather bumpy road to getting to know him, is a lot of fun to read.

This book really shines when Essie and Farrendel are dealing with their demons, getting to know each other better (after all, they really haven't been married for that long), and exploring their cultural differences. The part where they go to the market and Essie introduces him to hot chocolate, and they start joking around, may be my absolute favorite scene from the entire series so far.

Before ending this review I should address the negative aspects of the book, because of course no book is completely perfect. I really wasn't interested in the political aspects of the story, beyond the impact of looming war on our protagonists. I didn't really keep track of the politicians, so the plot twist at the end didn't do much for me. Also when I reread the book I always stop a couple chapters early because it gets super stressful right at the end. Be warned that there's a particularly painful cliffhanger at the end of this book, so you should have ready access to Death Wind before you finish War Bound. Finally, while I love Essie and Farrendel's relationship, there were one or two places where I felt its development could have been a bit subtler. They'd be doing something together and then everything would stop for a couple paragraphs while Essie internally processed a realization about how "this is love - not just the big moments, but the small ones like right now." On one hand, I feel like those realizations weren't really necessary: we can already tell their relationship is developing! On the other, not gonna lie, those passages do still make me smile every time I read them so I really can't complain too forcefully.

At the end of the day, War Bound is great because it's got fun characters, a sweet story, and clean romance without ever getting too cloying. I've binged a lot of romance novels over my six months of living alone, and this is the one series I return to the most. Highly recommend for when you need a pick-me-up.

08 February 2021

A Dance in Donegal by Jennifer Deibel, 2021

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To fulfill her mother's dying wish, Moira Doherty moves from Boston to the rolling green hills of 1921 Ireland to teach in a village school. She doesn't expect to fall in love--or to uncover a scandalous family reputation her mother left behind years ago.
(352 pages)

Oof. Not going to lie, this was painful.

I went in expecting a light and fluffy read set in the gorgeous country of Ireland, and I suppose I got that but it was so cringey to read that I truly struggled to get through it. I wound up skimming through the later parts, but I read enough that I feel pretty qualified to at least list my pros and cons. I'll alternate between those, in no particular order.

Pro: the vocabulary is really good, and some of the descriptions of settings are clever.

Con: A lot of the dialogue is very cringe. There are quite few info dumps, and the characters always seem to say exactly what they're thinking.

Pro: the food is spot-on. Made me hungry for a big Irish breakfast. The British bacon that looks like American ham is very accurate (and a constant disappointment every time I order bacon here in Scotland).

Con: The romance is excruciating. So much insta-love it gives me physical pain, plus a brief enemies-to-lovers plot (and the briefest, least suspenseful love triangle I've ever seen). Here is a quote from literally her third interaction with the love interest, at a point where he's been nothing but really unpleasant to her:
Heat seeped across her cheeks. Why was she so shaken by this man? Until a moment ago, he'd done nothing but give her a hard time. He'd practically insulted her. And now she was blushing?

Pro: I liked learning about some Irish traditions, like their superstitions and some traditions I can't go into for fear of spoilers. I assume they're relatively accurate, since the author has apparently lived in Ireland for quite a few years.

Con: God literally talks to the main character throughout the book. Like He literally speaks in her head, giving her pep talks and reminding her that she is under His wing, and sends her dreams sometimes. I never enjoy storylines that use God as a plot device, because it feels weird for authors to assume they know how God would behave in any specific situation. But this psychic link was just next-level, and I really wasn't a fan.

Pro: The love interest gets better as the story goes on until I actually almost root for him. Which doesn't sound very positive, I know, but he's horrible at the beginning. Like he grabs her when she's running from a creepy old guy, won't let her leave, and keeps trying to engage her in conversation (granted, he doesn't know about the creep, but he still has no right to demand her attention!). And then he later makes her feel guilty for being rude to him in that scene! Like, seriously? But like I said, by the end of the book I kind of root for him (though I still think he's way too controlling/overprotective).

Con: There's this whole plotline later in the book (minor spoilers) where she cares for a schoolboy who is very sick. Like, almost dying. And I have two issues with this storyline. First, she initially doesn't want to help him because he has been horrible to her. Her friends frame it as an ethical dilemma where she is the only one with the power/responsibility to save him when she literally has no more moral responsibility for his health than they do (and helping him would mean completely abandoning her teaching responsibilities). Second, when she starts nursing him the entire town turns on her. Their motives are a bit vague, jumping back and forth between slut-shaming (you know, because she's spending so much time alone with a teenage boy!), moral admonishment (I think they wanted her to let this clearly neglected boy die because he'd acted out?), and genuine fear of catching the Spanish Flu from her (this one I'm on board with - she spends way too much time hugging people for me to be comfortable in 2021). I hate how this whole "town turns on her" storyline is resolved, too. I hated most of the townspeople and how shallow and judgemental they were, and I was rooting for Moira to ditch them all and just get out of there.

Pro: I like the little touches of cultural differences, like how Moira and her new friend Sinead get confused because the Irish call staple products messages. I have had so many arguments with my Scottish friends about stupid vocab differences, so this is very realistic and was a fun inclusion.

Now I have a few more cons left on my list, and no more pros. So let's finish this.

Con: How on earth does Moira not have any aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. either in Ireland or America? The Irish are not known for their tiny families.

Con: I don't like the plot twist at the end. I think it's a bit silly and anticlimactic and honestly a bit obnoxious.

Trigger Warning (sexual assault)
Final (and, perhaps, biggest) con:  There is way too much assault in this book. Not something I enjoy reading, and sometimes it seems to basically just be included as a plot device.

So there you go. I don't really recommend this book, but you've got the list of my thoughts on it to help you decide for yourself. If you do read it, I'd love to know what you think in the comments. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

02 February 2021

The Wolf Gate by Hanna Sandvig, 2021

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My...what big teeth you have…
Have you ever wondered if something was up with your boyfriend? Distant. Moody. Never texts you back. Turns into a wolf at nightfall?
No, just me?
When a wolf chased me through a faerie portal in the forest, the last person I expected to see on the other side was my ex-boyfriend Gavin. Turns out, he’s a fae, and everything I thought I knew about him was a lie. Now we’re on the run from his Alpha, the minion of the Unseelie Queen, through the mountains and forests of Faerie.
But our deadly pursuers may be the least of my worries.
Because the longer I stay in Faerie with Gavin, the harder it is to remember why I’m so mad. I can feel my defenses crumbling, but how can I give him another chance when he’s proven he can break my heart? Am I strong enough to discover if this is true love? And will I survive long enough to find out?
(125 pages)

I read the first book in this series, The Rose Gate, during a reading phase where I was reading nothing but fairytale retellings. I had gotten pretty sick of Beauty & the Beast retellings by that point, but I was glad I tried The Rose Gate because it was a lot of fun and an interesting new take on the story.

That's why I was recently excited to learn that there were a couple other books in the series. My excitement dimmed a bit when I learned they were novellas, but I decided to give them a go anyway. I started with The Wolf Gate because it's the most recent release, and I just finished it. And I have to say that it stays pretty true to form: just like The Rose Gate it's a fun, unique take on a traditional fairytale. I love how modern and independent the protagonist is without being obnoxiously so. She's a teenager who knows her own worth, respects herself and her emotions, and refuses to let anyone treat her poorly. I love how snarky she is throughout the book, too. I also love that she's so assertive about the fact that she won't sleep with anyone before she's married, which is a decision that you don't often see treated so respectfully in novels, though I should put in a content warning that there are a couple conversations about sex and whether or not people had/will have it. So parents might want to keep that in mind if considering this for younger kids.

Obviously things aren't as fleshed out as they would be in a full-length novel. Things move a bit quickly toward the second half of the story, and honestly feel a bit rushed in places. But that's to be expected. I liked seeing the lore of the series being built out, and I was able to follow along with all of the fantasy elements reasonably well despite having forgotten most of it from The Rose Gate. I was disappointed not to catch more glimpses at how the characters from The Rose Gate were doing after that book's events, but since this story is basically taking place at the same time as that one I guess that's kind of inevitable. I did have some issues with the ending (for a pretty sensible girl, Audrey's decision seem very much not thought through). And some unexplained magic convenience. But to be honest I didn't let it get me too frustrated.

All in all this was a fun couple of hours and a great addition to the series. I'll definitely be checking out The Lily Gate very soon, and keeping my eye out for another full-length novel in the future.

27 January 2021

Fierce Heart by Tara Grayce, 2019

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Essie would do anything for her kingdom…even marry an elf prince she just met that morning.
When a diplomatic meeting goes horribly wrong, Essie, a human princess, finds herself married to the elf prince and warrior Laesornysh. Fitting in to the serene, quiet elf culture might be a little difficult for this talkative princess, but she’s determined to make it work.
With impending war and tenuous alliances, it will be up to Essie to unite her two peoples. And maybe get her hands on elven conditioner while she’s at it.
(219 pages)

I won't beat around the bush here. This book is good. Really good. Probably my favourite book discovery of 2020. The entire series is such a gem, and I have revisited all three of the published books many times since I first read them in September. Sometimes I reread the entire books; other times, I redownload them just to skim through a couple favourite scenes.

The first reason I fell in love with this book (and series!) was because of Essie. She feels like a genuinely real person from the very beginning, someone I could meet in real life and with whom I definitely would have become great friends. She honestly reminds me of myself in many ways, from her large family to her red hair and talkative nature to her sometimes clumsy desire to do the right thing in any given situation. I love that she is given layers and agency. She isn't forced into this marriage by some archaic patriarchal ruling; she offers herself up for a royal alliance in order to save lives by staving off war, and while she's often nervous about her new situation she never stops fighting to carve out a place for herself in her new home. Much of this involves reaching out to her emotionally distant new husband.

And that brings me to my second favourite thing about this series: Farrendel! I've read (and DNF'ed) way too many fantasy novels with elves in them, where the main elven lead is a charismatic, confident warrior with incredible combat skills and lots of attitude. I can't put into words how refreshing it was to be introduced to Farrendel and to learn more about him alongside Essie throughout the book. He is a fierce warrior, yes, but he is also painfully shy and suffers from severe PTSD. He struggles to open up with Essie and is basically clueless about what he's supposed to do with this human suddenly constantly in his space. Watching him get to know Essie, and watching her come to understand him and his past, is a truly lovely experience and my one main complaint about this book is that we don't get more of those scenes (there's an unfortunate time jump of about two months which I'd have loved to explore in more detail!).

I also love the worldbuilding Grayce has done. The culture of the elves is fairly classical, with long-lived and pointy-eared elves living in cities built in massive trees. The details she adds are a lot of fun, though, like the obsession with propriety. Elven couples don't even clasp palms in public: they intertwine their first two fingers so that the backs of their hands are touching. They portray their emotions with subtle twitches of their faces, so humans struggle to pick up on what they're feeling - and the elves are slightly appalled at the amount of emotion humans are constantly displaying. The way elven aging works, they mature very slowly so that their childhoods last around a hundred years. This is a neat way of keeping the difference in elven and human lifespans without making Farrendel's and Essie's marriage kind of gross.

Basically, this book is amazing and the entire series is awesome. This is the perfect clean, enthralling romantic story to read in lockdown, and I highly recommend it. I read it with my Kindle Unlimited subscription, and it's just a couple pounds on Amazon (not affiliated, just eager to share!). If you do read it, I want to know! Tell me what you think, and what your favorite part is.