Monday, February 26, 2018

The Traitor's Game by Jennifer A Nielsen, 2018

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Nothing is as it seems in the kingdom of Antora. Kestra Dallisor has spent three years in exile in the Lava Fields, but that won't stop her from being drawn back into her father's palace politics. He's the right hand man of the cruel king, Lord Endrick, which makes Kestra a valuable bargaining chip. A group of rebels knows this all too well -- and they snatch Kestra from her carriage as she reluctantly travels home.

The kidnappers want her to retrieve the lost Olden Blade, the only object that can destroy the immortal king, but Kestra is not the obedient captive they expected. Simon, one of her kidnappers, will have his hands full as Kestra tries to foil their plot, by force, cunning, or any means necessary. As motives shift and secrets emerge, both will have to decide what -- and who -- it is they're fighting for.

(400 pages)

Any of you who have followed this blog for long know that I am obsessed with Jennifer Nielsen's books. I've been snapping them up since The False Prince first came out, and I've loved all the series and standalones she's produced since then (especially A Night Divided!).

In some ways, The Traitor's Game is fairly similar to Nielsen's earlier works. She is clearly fascinated by royalty/nobility, unwanted arranged marriages, and unfortunate predicaments brought on by circumstances outside the main characters' control. All of these elements have been in at least one of her earlier works, and make appearances again in The Traitor's Game. I can also see personality similarities between Kestra, the main character of The Traitor's Game, and Jaron from the Ascendance trilogy and Nic from the Praetor Wars series, though my understanding (which is, granted, limited by only having the first book so far) is that Kestra has more brute-force cunning and self-control than Nic, but that she doesn't have the sheer genius that made Jaron's plots always seem so perfectly, and effortlessly, planned out months in advance; she does make cunning choices at times, but it's clear that she is struggling to figure out what she should do as she goes along and that her deceptions are thus much more sponatenous than many of Jaron's.

Did I love The Traitor's Game as much as I love Nielsen's earlier works? Absolutely. In fact, I'd rank it right up there: behind The False Prince (because nothing can beat my first love!), tied with The Scourge, and right ahead of the Praetor Wars. That's right, I ranked it higher than the Praetor Wars. Why? Mainly because of the romance. I always thought that writing romance was Nielsen's one weak spot–I could never really believe the romance between the main character and their love interest because it seemed like they would just look at each other a couple times and then suddenly they were supposed to be suppressing deep feelings for each other. In The Traitor's Game, however, that insta-love vibe was much milder. Things do progress pretty quickly between the main characters (which I struggled with at first, when Simon had so many reasons to hate her), but I grew to love both of them and their beautiful mess of a relationship as the book went on; the romance scenes were done very believably. I think having the narration switch between both Kestra and Simon, showing both of their outlooks, helped quite a bit with this.

Before I end on a positive, I do want to address the only real downside to the book (besides the occasionally cringy romantic subplot): it felt, in parts, like I'd read the book before. A large part of this might just be that I'm very familiar with Nielsen's work and writing style, but I think that the book also borrows quite a few tropes and plot twists from other stories in the genre. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing, in fact I think the whole series could turn out to be an awesome riff on The Sword in the Stone, but I suppose the whole "medieval-type quasi-magical war-torn kingdom with a princess who doesn't know the truth about herself" storyline has been done so many different times that it can never feel completely fresh.

But that's the beauty of a Jennifer Nielsen book: it can take something that's been done to death, like hidden princes or Roman heroes or life in East Berlin, and craft it so perfectly that it becomes one of the best in the genre. And that's what she has done again.

The Traitor's Game is such a gripping, intense read that I couldn't put it down: I literally stayed up until 2:30 am to finish it the night it arrived. I had to know what happened at the end of the book–and I can't go into details, but I absolutely love it. The plotting was awesome because it went through the usual rising action, climax, denouement . . . and then it just kept going, when I was sad because it felt like it was about to end, through a second climax and into a satisfactory, if frustratingly awesome, ending. The set-up for the sequel is amazing, and I simply can't wait to see where things go from here. I don't know how I'll wait all the time until the next book in the series comes out!

Disclaimer: I received an unsolicited ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Loved Journal from Tyndale Publishing, 2015

This beautiful journal offers a lovely space to record your thoughts, prayers, and dreams. Scattered throughout its pages are quotes from Women of Faith speakers and friends, plus encouraging Scriptures to inspire reflections and personal insights. Lined pages make it easy to pen daily blessings, answers to prayer, or love letters to the One who loves you best.
(224 pages)

I have way too many journals. I always seem to get them as presents or pick them up at garage sales and the like, but my average rate of actually filling a journal has been about one per three years. I've already got my next two diaries, and I'm only halfway through the one I'm on now!

So why did I choose to get the Loved journal, you ask? Simple: because it was free. And because I thought it looked cool. It's got this great faux leather vibe to it that I wanted to check out.

Anyway, this is a pretty journal that's about the size of a hardback novel, and has some nice inspirational quotes on the tops/bottoms of some of the pages without sucking up too much of the actual writing space. I brought it on holiday with me over the winter break and my siblings and I scribbled down elaborate shopping lists in it and competed in tic-tac-toe championships (and I may or may not have ripped pages out of the back when we needed paper *cringe*). Not exactly the intended use of the journal, I know, but it certainly came in handy.

My main issue with the Loved journal, however, is that after just a few weeks of fairly heavy use the faux-leather was beginning to peel. It doesn't look nearly as nice now as it did out of the box. That may just be my fault for carelessly throwing it in my backpack a time or two, but I don't think that a journal meant to record your private thoughts and be stored for years should start to go bad that early (if at all).

It's too bad, because I do like journals, but I'm afraid I have to recommend you give this one a pass.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this journal through the MyReader Rewards Club.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Just Friends by Dyan Sheldon, 2015

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From the writer of Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queen and My Worst Best Friend comes this hugely entertaining teen read about falling for the wrong person. The first time Josh sets eyes on Jena he's hooked. He can't stop thinking about her; looking for her wherever he is; hoping to turn a corner and find her there. The problem is she's completely out of his league as his friends never tire of telling him, so Josh decides he will settle on simply being Jena's friend. But the more time he spends with her the more infatuated he becomes, despite the fact Jena only turns to him when she's had a fight with her on-again off-again boyfriend. Finally realizing he can't go on pretending he only wants to be her friend, Josh vows to tell Jena how he feels on Valentine's Day.
(288 pages)

Meh. Too many love triangles/squares for my taste. Sometimes I really love unrequited love stories, when they're well done, but here they're just cringeworthy and pretty dumb. I wanted to reach into the book and smack Josh for being such an idiot: he let Jena constantly take advantage of him, and treated his own friends like dirt in order to be a "good friend" too her (with secret aspirations for more). I don't really like the idea of becoming a girl's best friend to try to become her boyfriend, while letting her think you aren't romantically interested in her, because it just seems emotionally manipulative and dishonest.

I mean, it's one thing to be good friends while keeping the possibility of becoming more someday in the back of your brain; but Josh very explicitly decides that he wants to be romantically tied to Jena, but repeatedly lets her believe otherwise when she brings that very topic up. That's when I think it crosses the line and becomes stupid and unfair.

The characters were fairly well-written, though rather one-dimensional at times (each person basically had one or two traits/interests that defined who they were in the story), and there were a few too many of them–I wound up getting some of the more minor friends confused.

The language is also not ideal; I can't remember specifically what words were used (since I don't have my copy of the book here with me at uni), but I do know that I noticed it was bad in parts. That's not a huge deal for older readers, and it's realistic because the characters are in high school, but that's something to keep in mind for younger readers.

All in all, I was kept entertained by Just Friends but I wasn't wowed by it–rather, I was very frustrated/embarrassed for the characters in parts. I don't really recommend it highly, but I won't actively warn you off it either if you still think it sounds interesting. If you do decide to read it, let us know in the comments what you think of it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher through a LibraryThing giveaway.

Friday, February 9, 2018

R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa B Sheinmel, 2017

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When Eliza Hart, the most popular girl at Ventana Ranch boarding school, is found dead on the cliffs outside her dormitory, Ellie Sokoloff is determined to figure out what happened to her. After all, Eliza was Ellie’s childhood best friend.

Never mind that ever since Ellie arrived at school Eliza has spread terrible rumors about her, calling her a liar and a stalker, when all Ellie wanted to do was rekindle their old friendship. Or that Ellie’s claustrophobia limits where she can go and what she can do. Or that Ellie’s suitemate, Sam, is the only one who will help her . . . because to everyone else, Ellie looks like the top suspect.

Can Ellie clear her name and solve the mystery behind Eliza’s death? Her hunt for the truth will uncover secrets she never imagined, sending her deep into her own memories of her childhood with Eliza Hart.

New York Times bestselling author Alyssa Sheinmel delivers a gripping mystery and a sensitive and moving examination of the secrets that can hold us back—and even destroy us.

(336 pages)


Oof.

I have definitely read more than my share of murder mysteries over the years, many of which had very gruesome deaths and terrible motives, but few if any of those books can match the sheer misery in R.I.P. Eliza Hart.

That's not to say that it's a miserable book to read - on the contrary, Ellie and Sam (who is a guy, by the way) share a sardonic sense of humor that keeps the book from becoming unbearably depressing. But at the same time, Sheinmel creates a suspenseful and gripping story which doesn't pull any punches.

It starts out straightforward enough, with the interestingly flawed protagonist (Ellie) trying to solve the sudden death of a classmate (Eliza) and clear her name from suspicion, but as the story goes on we learn more and more about the dark parts of Eliza's life that she had worked so hard to bury deep away from everyone. Eliza's tale takes many twists and turns, which I really wish I could discuss but won't because I don't want to spoil them. Suffice it to say that this is where the book jumps off the track of most other murder mysteries, and I believe it's better for it.

I can't even pretend to be qualified enough to know whether Sheinmel's handling of mental health was good or not, but from what I could tell it seemed very sympathetic and believable. I did think that her handling of suicide (which many suspected Ellie to have committed) was almost a little too sympathetic, though: I hope that no one actually struggling with suicidal thoughts reads R.I.P. Eliza Hart.

For the rest of us, though, it's a gripping and thoughtful read about life, death, and hiding yourself in plain sight. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in it.

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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Christmas Carol & the Defenders of Claus by Robert L. Fouch, 2017

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Carol really loves Christmas. The decorating and shopping, the Christmas sweaters and music―she wishes it all could be a year-round event. The only downside to the holiday is that she lives in Florida (not exactly the land of snow) and her only family is her Uncle Christopher, who adopted Carol when she was young, after her father's disappearance and mother's death. Her uncle owns a toy company and is super rich―but he's a grinch and a workaholic.

Then, on a magical December trip to NYC, Carol meets her destiny. Santa―the real man with the bag―meets Carol at the top of Rockefeller Center, overlooking the tree. There he explains that Carol is descended from a long line of Defenders of Claus, those who protect and serve Santa. Carol's dad was a Defender. And now Carol has been tapped to fulfill his legacy.

Who would want to hurt Santa? Someone pretty scary and shady, it appears―a masked man who's trying to destroy Christmas! Carol is whisked off to the North Pole on the adventure of a lifetime. Can she help save Santa before it's too late?

(256 pages)

This is a cute book which would be a fun read around Christmas.

It's a fun story, not exactly revolutionary but it does combine the usual Christmas/fantasy story elements in an interesting and relatively unique way. The idea of the Defenders is reminiscent of the Guardians in Rise of the Guardians, but the mortality of the Defenders and their role as active bodyguards for Santa is an interesting twist.

The main characters are fairly straightforward and 2-dimensional, especially Carol–the archetypical happy-go-lucky orphan girl with a depressing parental guardian and unexpected, and incredible, magical powers. Some of the side characters are more interesting, though, especially a fellow Defender from South America Carol gets to know later in the book.

The story takes some interesting twists as it goes along, evolving further away from archetypes, and the plot is not as easy to predict as you would think (though some aspects are still extremely predictable). It goes darker than I expected, but still stays appropriate for younger readers. I think they would enjoy it even more than I did. If you read it, definitely let us know what you think in the comments down below!

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

Friday, February 2, 2018

Kid Alone by Simon Mason, 2017

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Meet Garvie Smith. Good-for-nothing scoundrel, genius, and sometime detective. Right in the middle of exams hell--until now.

A boy from Marsh Academy has been shot, with no clear motive and no clues. Disgraced police detective Raminder Singh is on the case, and he's determined to keep Garvie away.

But Garvie knows he's the only one who has any idea where to look for the answers. Starting with his best friend's girlfriend. And it's going to take more than pointless studying or flunking his tests to stop him getting involved.

Exams. What exams?

(384 pages)

This is the second book in the Garvie Smith murder mystery series. I also received a copy of the first book, Girl Running, when it was first released in the United States; you can read my review here, but the jist of it is that I liked the clever mystery aspect of the story but I didn't appreciate the foul language and came away really disturbed by elements of the murder plotline. That's why I was a bit apprehensive when my copy of Kid Alone arrived.

I needn't have been, though, because it was very different from the first book. There was no sexual assault, for one thing, which made a huge difference. The swear words were a lot less prevalent as well, with one or two f-words (still not ideal), but not nearly as much as in the first book.

The murder mystery itself is still an intriguing one, but not as emotionally impactful as the first one. It was also, frankly, rather more convoluted: there were so many characters and side plots that wound up being important, but I kept getting some of them confused and I didn't really care much about some of the murder's components. The parts I cared most about were the scenes with the victim's grandparents, who were so broken and sad and certain that his death was the result of anti-Polish sentiment.

It was actually also really interesting to learn about this anti-Polish racism that's apparently going on in Britain, since it's definitely not a thing I'd ever heard of before coming here. I have no idea whether the representation was fair or not, since I know absolutely nothing about it in real life, but it added an interesting component to the story. The book's description of autism also seemed well done to me, but I am in no ways an expert on ASD or its representation.

All in all, Kid Alone is an interesting murder mystery. It's not the best one I've ever read (Agatha Christie is hard to beat), but it's an interesting read with an unpredictable mystery story. If you do decide to read it, let us know what you think in the comments section below!

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