2017: A Year In Review

Reading challenge: 139/75

So back when I first began this blog, one of the challenges I wanted to do was set a goal in Goodreads, and then NOT CHANGE IT! I set my goal of 75 books based on how I did in 2016, and I ended up reading 139.

It felt strange to me after I hit the 75 goal mark to keep adding to my challenge without changing the number, but I did. Maybe it seems strange, but keeping the goal the same was a reminder of how different this year was compared to the last, and continued to remind me that it isn’t about the number, but about focusing on the reading itself.

Favorite reads by month:

There were some amazing books in 2017. And some not so amazing. I also reviewed a majority of the books I read, and that experience was better than I expected. Reviewing books changed the way I read. Rather than simply zoning out into the book, I became a more active reader. I payed attention to the things I was enjoying and the things I wasn’t. It made me notice writing techniques in a different way, and I think it made me not just a better reader, but a better writer as well.

This discovery was surprising, as I didn’t expect writing reviews to change the way or read or the way I write. It was a pleasant discovery. And while reading books I don’t enjoy wasn’t exactly a pleasurable experience, I also found value in completing those books. Again, it made me focus more on why I wasn’t enjoying it. Which helped make me aware of things to avoid in my own writing.

So whether I loved a book, or felt blah about a book, each one was an experience worth having. Here’s a breakdown of my favorite read by month, and some notables. I couldn’t just choose one!!! I’ve also linked each title to my review, if you’re interested.

January – 9 books read

How to Build a Girl

Notables: Girl on a Train, Tony & Susan

February – 6 books read

How To Murder Your Life

Notables: Red Queen

March – 6 books

Female Of The Species

Notables: All The Ugly & Wonderful Things, Carve The Mark

April – 11 books

Strange The Dreamer

Notables: Me Before You, Simon vs The Homosapien Agenda

May – 15 books

Six Stories

Notables: Follow Me Back, The Last Neanderthal, 10 Things I can See From Here

June – 15 books


Notables: Block 46, Lost Boy, Women No 17, Crowns of Croswold

July – 14 books

The People We Hate At The Wedding

Notables: Spoonbenders, Arena, The Address

August – 13 books

The Reminders

Notables: Fitness Junkie, Emma in the Night, Afterlife

September – 16 books

Wonder Woman: Warbringer

Notables: The Salt Line, Good Me Bad Me, Mask of Shadows, Final Girls

October – 19 books

Hearts Invisible Furies

Notables: The Creswell Plot, Beneath the Trees, Blades Edge, Daughter 4254

November – 12 books read


Notables: Turtles All The Way Down, The Nine, Exquisite

December – 14 books read


Notables: Godsgrave, The Wife Between Us, Gunslinger Girl, The Wolves of Winter

The other reading challenge I signed up for was the Book Riot Read Harder challenge. This one I didn’t do so well at.

Of the 24 challenges, which range from “read a book about sports” to “read a book published by a micro press”, I completed 10 of those challenges. Which is disappointing, so I will be trying this one again in 2018.

It wasn’t listed in my goals, but I did sign up for a few other challenges throughout the year and several read-a-thons. They were a lot of fun and got me into different reading patterns.

2018 Goals

For 2018 I want to do several things with my reading.

First, I plan on doing another Goodreads challenge, which I will update once I’ve set it in stone.

Second, do another challenge like BookRiot’s, to add more diversity to my reading.

Third, read more of what is on my shelves, and only request what I really want to read. Mediocre books have taught me a lot, but they are also a chore to get through. I need less of that this year.

Fourth, review everything, even if it is a book just for me.

Of course, I will have other goals, namely in writing, and hope to get more writing posts into this space, but that will be another post in the New Year!

I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Year!!! Tomorrow the entire year opens up to us, blank with enormous possibility. Let’s cheer each other on and make it the best one yet!!!

Everless – Review

“‘Time is for burning, girl.’

It’s a familiar expression in the village – why hoard time when every day is dully brutal, the same as the one before and the one that will come after? To hear it from a man who’s never known hunger or cold makes my fingers twitch toward a fist.”

Welcome to Sempera. A land where time is bound to a person’s blood. It can be taken out, turned into iron and is used as currency. The wealthy take it from the poor, tax it, use it to live lives hundreds of years long. While the poor are bled, literally bled dry, until their time runs out.

Jules Ember lives a quiet life with her father. They used to live in Everless, the estate of the Gerlings, a family so wealthy they are nearly royalty. Jules’ father was the blacksmith for them and her childhood was a happy one. Until an accident forces them to flee for their lives.

Now, her father is dying, his debts too large for the time he has remaining in his veins, and Jules knows that returning to Everless is the only chance she has to save him.

“I smile at him, wishing I could tell the truth – that the idea of returning to Everless sickens me and fills me with dread, but I’m going to do it anyway.”

But if Everless was dangerous before, it’s even more so now. And Jules quickly finds herself wrapped in temptation, deadly secrets, and violent consequences. Beneath all that terror, though, Jules finds she isn’t as powerless as she believed, and maybe she has the power to change the fate of time.

I seriously don’t know where to begin with this review. This book is amazing. One of the best I’ve read this year. The writing is simply gorgeous. If you are a fan of the beauty and lyrical prose of Laini Taylor, you will fall in love with Sara Holland’s writing.

“A strange feeling flowers in me, like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff, looking out to the green and blue sea, which I’ve only ever seen drawn in books, it’s waves sloshing and endless – and from this height, deadly.”

You will highlight passages simply for the beauty of the words written.

“That she prefers to travel at night is a message, tied up in brown paper, desperate to speak.”

Beyond the beautiful writing, the world building is stunning in it’s execution and epic in it’s scope. Holland has created this entire land, where blood is valuable. Time can be taken from or added to a life. And the detail in which she applies this currency is fantastic. You get a sense of the desperation of the poor, and the reckless luxury of the wealthy. How much more personal would wealth be if it was literally your life?

“My hand trembles as I take the coin – the pulse in my own fingers feels as if it’s coming from with the coin, all the life this little thing could give me. Give Papa.”

And Jules Ember. This girl will quickly become one of your favorite female protagonists! She is smart and bold, daring and brave. But she is also stubborn and makes plenty of mistakes along the way. But at her heart, she is good. She tries. And she is willing to make mistakes in order to keep her morals intact. She is willing to do what is right, not what is easy, and you will adore her for her moxie and her bravery.

There is some romance in this book, but like everything in these pages, it is not what you expect. And it isn’t the focal point. Which I loved. I loved that while Jules craved the connection and intimacy romance brings, she isn’t willing to give up her focus to chase it. She also doesn’t let it shape her or change her, she remains true to herself, which I LOVE!!! Especially in a YA! Girls can be strong and fierce and independent without a man helping her or taking the lead, and we definitely need more female leads NOT focused on romance. The romance may take a larger focus in future books, but I absolutely loved that it wasn’t the priority in this one. ESPECIALLY since she has her hands full as things are.

“All of these things are tied together in shifting and complicated ways, yet still nothing is clear.”

Oh the twists! Holland weaves a complicated spell in this world, where nothing is at it seems, even Jules own memories. The more Jules begins to understand what happened when she was a child, the more she learns about who she is, the more danger she finds herself in. Characters you thought you knew and understood change. The ending floored me! There are plenty of surprises packed within these pages.

In all, Everless is a stunning journey. I think it will easily be one of the best books of 2018. Sara Holland has made my auto buy author list, and I will be waiting anxiously for the sequel to be released.

Thank you to BookSparks for sending me an early copy to read and review!

The Nine – Review

“It was a bloody awful way to die. It had been a bloody awful way to live.”

The Nine is a debut fantasy novel and what an incredible debut it is!!! Townsend has built an incredible world, full of interesting species and a plot with enough twists and turns to make the read feel like you’re on a roller coaster. And the characters!

Rowena Downshire is a young girl trying to make it in a cutthroat world. Her mother, and only living relative, is locked in a debtors prison. Everything she earns, and most of what she steals, goes to paying down that debt. But, with new charges always being added, the battle feels never-ending to her. Her job as a courier for a black market delivery boss is the best life she can hope for, even if he is cold and brutal and unforgiving.

When Rowena is robbed delivering a mysterious book that seems to write itself to the even more mysterious and feared Alchemist, Rowena is terrified Ivor is going to kill her for the blunder. Deciding to risk going straight to the Alchemist instead, she finds herself in the middle of a complex and deadly mystery.

“It was the question Rowena had been dreading. She’d been under the Alchemist’s roof for nearly an hour and barely had anything been said of the package.”

Revered Phillip Chalmers didn’t intend on being part of anything historical or groundbreaking. His research with his partner Doctor Revered Nora Pierce was exciting, but he should have known she would push boundaries. Now, days before they are give the keynote speech in front of their peers, Nora has gone missing. When a young girl courier delivers a note from Nora making him fear the worst, he insists on giving the girl the book that started it all. Except, when the door to his office shatters later that night, he realizes that he should have known it wasn’t going to be that easy.

Rowena and The Alchemist, also known as The Bear, turn to Anselm Meteron, former mercenary and all around nefarious character for help. They have a history extending far back, though how exactly they are intertwined comes much later in the book.

“Something in the cold calm of Anselm Meteron’s voice told Rowena there were very few games he played that were at all fair to his opponents.”

Rowena, The Alchemist and Meteron must figure out who took the book and why, and how the missing Reverend Chambers fits into the puzzle. Of course, that isn’t easy with bribed officials trying to put you in jail, along with the deadly aigamuxa hunting down anyone even loosely associated with the book.

There is a lot happening within these pages. It isn’t just the primary mystery driving the plot forward, but also the smaller mysteries within the characters. The Nine is an amazing blend of both plot and character driven momentum and each page demands to be turned so that you can be closer to unraveling the answers to all the questions presented. It is complex in all the very best ways!

The world building is fascinating. It feels as if it could be our own world propelled far into some distant future, but the addition of the species the lanyani and the aigamuxa makes it clear it is a world far different from ours. With nods to steampunk, this world is detailed and unique.

One of the most fascinating parts of the plot was the blending of religion and science. In fact, this is one of the key tenets of the plot, the book that God wrote to keep track of his experiment, The Nine.

“Magic was just what the ignorant called systems they couldn’t understand in an organized universe.”

It was very interesting to read how they veered from the Old Religion to incorporate religion and all it’s tenets into a pillar of science. The tenets of the science was well done as well. Not overly explained, but not vague and uninteresting. I actually really liked how it was presented, examined and how it tied into the plot. Not to mention the Grand Experiment, which I won’t get into for fear of spoilers.

We get many more characters sprinkled throughout these pages, and even the more minor characters are very fleshed out. Rare was one of my favorites, although, she did drive me crazy with some of her decisions. City Inspector Gammon, Beth and Lord Regenzi were some of the more notable side players, and it was very interesting how their importance was woven in. But none of them quite weaseled their way into my heart the way Anselm did.

“My name is Anselm Meteron, and I’m a villain with a penchant for self-aggrandizement and a portfolio of maladjusted habits.”

I mean, come on! How can you NOT love someone who introduces themselves like that?! I want to be friends with Anselm and all his maladjusted habits. Also, is it bad form to steal that line for all future introductions?

In all, this was a very fast, very enjoyable read. The Nine is a first in a series, and I know I am dying for book two! The ending isn’t quite a cliff hanger so you do feel satisfied, but there are enough loose ends that when you start thinking about the book, you get questions bubbling to the surface. Amazing debut and I am thrilled I was able to read this!

The Nine is released TODAY! If you love complex fantasy with amazing characters, awesome world building and a ton of mystery, this book is definitely for you!

Thank you Prometheus books for sending me a copy to read and review!

Ocean’s Fire – Review

“Your beliefs shape the world we see. Change your beliefs, change your world.”

Ocean’s Fire follows the journey of Skylar Southmartin picking up the pieces of her life after her mother’s death. Choosing to stay closer to home to finish her degree, Skylar wants to figure out why the plan to resurrect her mother didn’t work. She did everything right, and still it didn’t work.

The good news is that her position at the local University reunites her with her childhood love, Argan, and their connection from childhood graduates to a far more adult relationship. Unfortunately, local rockstar, Joshua, also has an alluring connection to Skylar that she can’t seem to fight. To top it all off, there is a powerful force working to ensure a centuries long prophecy comes true.

“Everyone is capable of great love and great destruction. You feed one flame or the other.”

I am decidedly on the fence about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the supernatural premise and mysticism that the author created. On the other, there were so many side plots and rushed character development that I spent most of the book very confused.

I’m not against romance, or love triangles, or even a steamy sex scene in books. However, they have to serve a purpose in driving the plot forward. The triangle between Joshua, Argan and Skylar just felt like it was there to write a few sex scenes (a few that bordered on abusive in nature), and nothing else. I understand what the author was trying to do with these characters and the tension, but I just didn’t feel it.

The pacing of the story also lends to the rushed feeling. We jump forward in time quite a bit, so we are told that dramatic things are unfolding, but we don’t really feel it. The emotional connection to the entire story, and specifically to Skylar’s struggle wasn’t there for me at all, which made the book feel very flat and one-dimensional to me. Insane things happen but rather than build into these discoveries, we are presented them in a sentence or two and everyone accepts it and moves forward. It’s a case of too much “telling” and not enough “showing”. We are told a lot, but the depth of emotion just isn’t shown so that we feel it along with the characters.

There were a lot of great moments in the book. And for those parts I was swept away into the reading. But there was just so much happening in this plot, it was hard to stay in that swept away feeling.

It’s difficult to give examples of what I liked and what I didn’t, because they are so mixed together and intricate to the plot, that I feel I would be giving away massive spoilers if I tried. I really think this is an example of why Stephen King famously says, “Kill your darlings”. There is a lot to process, in terms of plot, unnecessary characters and side interactions that don’t drive the overall story forward or help with individual character development. This book could have been so much better with those moments removed and the plot line tightened up so that we felt this tension and stress and more of the supernatural feel of the novel. Too much of it felt like a contemporary novel with the characters playing at mysticism, rather than actually being about the mysticism.

Ocean’s Fire is the first in a trilogy, and perhaps the second and final book will help develop the characters to be more in depth so that all the details in the first book make sense. I am curious about how the story progresses, and what happens next. Especially that with the ending we are given, who is good and who is bad seems a little undefined. I’m not sure if that’s to set up for future redemptions but would like to find out. I hope the original disaster that we are presented with gets more explanation too, as I really have no idea what happened there.

Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending a copy to read and review.

Berserker – Review

“She was a Berserker, cursed to fly into action whenever anyone she loved was in danger. A killer who would be compelled to murder elegantly, viciously, and without remorse.”

Berserker is the story of a family blessed with the Nytte. Or cursed with it. It depends on who you ask.

The story is told through the alternating narration of Hanne, Owen and Rolf. Hanne is the oldest daughter in her family. Her older brother Stieg, and her younger brother Knut all have a variation of the Nytte. The youngest, Sissel, shows no sign of the Nytte. Owen is a cowboy in America trying to find his way in the wild frontier; with plenty of his own demons to fight along the way.

After an incident forces the siblings to pack up and flee their home in Norway. They head to America, where they have family living in Montana. They hope to be able to find someone with the Berserker gift to help Hanne keep her gift under control.

“Embrace the Nytte,” Aud said, as Hanne scrambled backward in the pine needles and dried leaves. “Open your heart to it, or it will be the ruin of you. And your siblings, too.”

Rolf is an interesting character, and I won’t say much about him though to avoid spoilers. His is mission finding the Nytte in children and ensuring that the gifts do not die out. The role he plays with Hanne and her siblings brings a richer understanding of the legend of the Nytte, and it keeps some of the mythical elements entwined in the plot.

“Rolf kept his eyes trained on the faces of the crowd. Despite the hectic and daunting landscape that presented itself, what Rolf saw again and again, on all manner of faces, was hope.”

Once the family gets to America, they manage to make it through immigration and onto the train that will take them to Wolf Creek where their uncle lives. But they have been pursued from Norway and fleeing the men who chase them causes their path to collide with Owen’s. Literally. Owen agrees to take them the rest of the way.

“It was a strange spell that had been cast. Disaster had been so narrowly averted, and by such sudden heroics. No one could think of quite what to do next.”

The relationships between the siblings was written well. Sissel goes from being a bratty younger sister, jealous of her older siblings, to quite loving and doting when necessary. There were a few times when her tantrums felt a little shallow, but overall, it felt natural. Tantrums and jealousy aside, it was nice to read how they all worked together as a team and really only wanted the best for each other.

Owen and Daisy, his dog, were great characters. It is through them that we get a real sense of the frontier, and how hard life could be back then. In his agreeing to be their guide, we also get to read details about what travel was like then too. He is teaching them at the same time he is teaching us. I thought that was really well done.

“Perhaps even the most friendly town might seem hostile when you were on the lookout for it.”

This book is a mix of western folklore and mythology. The blend was unique and refreshing to read. It was a very fast read, at only 288 pages, and they all flew by. Laybourne does a really good job mixing enough information to really submerse us deep into both the reality of the frontier with the legend of ancient mythology, all while driving the plot forward.

What I rally liked was how each of the characters all struggled with acceptance in some way. Owen, to accept that he was good enough, even if his family thought he wasn’t. Hanne’s struggle for acceptance is a little more complicated. Her impulse to kill when her loved ones are in danger must be controlled, so she isn’t necessarily looking to ‘accept’ that aspect of herself. Sissel and Rolf both struggle with acceptance as well, though I don’t want to give anything away. And acceptance means different things for each of the characters, some leading to tragedy and others to triumph. I really enjoyed the complexity of each of these characters and how their journeys were both internal and external.

“Feelings didn’t seem to care if they made sense.”

We read books to get lost in a story, but the best stories teach us something as well. Legends and folklore often had morals to them. Endings to help us see a bigger truth either about ourselves or the world at large. So, it felt right that a book based on legend and folklore would have a moral wrapped up in it as well.

Overall, this was a fun read with a good story. It did feel a touch on the younger side of YA to me, so some of the conversations and plot pacing felt a little simplistic to me. But, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

Thank you NetGalley and MacMillan for approving my request to read and review this book!

We All Fall Down – Review

“I stay in the car because I’m not welcome at the door.”

From the very first sentence we see the tension built into the backstory of this YA thriller. Theo and Paige have been friends forever. Paige battles anxiety and Theo battles ODD, ADHD and a number of other disorders. Together they can face anything.

Except Paige’s parents think Theo is a negative influence. Except Paige has had a crush on Theo forever, and has decided to leave the unrequited feelings in the past. Except, they aren’t unrequited.

“Paige checks her phone and teeters in her pretty sandals, and my mind is popping and buzzing, but there’s not a thing I can do. I’ve had all the time in the world. If she likes this guy, I need to suck it up and deal.”

Theo doesn’t deal with things though. He gets drunk. The party is at an old bridge, and Paige is pushed to climb the bridge by her date. When she starts to have an anxiety attack, Theo is too drunk to help. Instead he gets in a fight. But when he hauls his fist to take a swing, it isn’t her date’s face his fist collides with. It’s Paige.

Talk about an explosive opening act.

When we meet Theo and Paige again, several months have gone by. Theo is back near the scene of the crime, so to speak, working for his Uncle, trying a new assortment of meds and living in a pit of regret. Paige is attending a summer Science program on the opposite side of the bridge for college credit. She is working on forgetting Theo, accepting that he is bad news like her parents told her all along.

They both want to forget. They both want to move on. But something keeps bringing them together. Something keeps reminding them of the one night they both want to forget. Something won’t let them move on.

The representation of mental health issues in teens is phenomenal in this book. It isn’t just how accurate and relatable Richards makes Paige and Theo. It’s the details. How Paige’s parents are typical helicopter parents, constantly hovering and interfering. How Theo’s have simply written him off as too much trouble and too much work. Both are very real reactions from parents when dealing with adolescents who struggle with disorders.

Even though we don’t see a lot of Paige’s parents, their influence is felt throughout the entire thing. I think this is also very accurate and was well done. Whether it’s the over involvement or the complete disappearance, these reactions shape both Theo and Paige and how they react to various situations. It is also extremely well written because it is these small details that build the tension and suspense within Paige.

“Alarms flare in my mind. I shouldn’t have said his name. Shouldn’t have talked about his at all. What if she says something to my parents when they pick me up?”

As far as Theo goes, we see very little even in the background of his parents. Rather it is his Uncle Denny who is his main parental figure for the summer. Denny has a construction business and is letting Theo live with him and work, to keep him out of trouble. Denny is actually a decent Uncle. He tries, but is clearly in over his head with Theo. He doesn’t even know where to begin. But you can tell he cares, and Theo cares about what he thinks as well.

“He nods slowly, still ruminating whatever armchair-therapist crap he was about to spit out. He must think better of it, because he adjust his cap on his thinning hair and sighs.”

But no matter how many meds Theo forces his therapist to prescribe or how many times he promises to stay away from Paige, some force seems to be pulling them together. Whether it’s mysterious noises drawing them to the bridge, or remnants from the party long thought discarded mysteriously appearing; something is happening. And it always leads back to the bridge.

This part of the novel was especially enjoyable for me because I think bridges are creepy in general. Yes, they are beautiful from a distance. And romantic. And historical. But really. Driving a car over something that could collapse at any moment is terrifying to me. So I completely get the anxiety and trauma associated with this bridge. Throw in some weird supernatural nonsense. I would be out of there super fast!

But what I really enjoyed was how Richards was able to weave the supernatural in to play against both Theo and Paige’s natural dispositions. If you constantly question everything, how do you know when you’re being haunted or going crazy? It’s a fine line, and the suspense both of them felt at legitimately not knowing the answer was brilliant.

“The arsenic is there because rivers are full of icky things. And because no matter how deep you bury them, they find their way to the surface.”

This is excellent YA suspense. It deals with relevant issues and, perhaps, gives a new light and perspective on how kids dealing with those issues feel. It also is a bloody good haunting novel. Whether real or imagined, the ghosts we believe to be real will always be as powerful as we allow them to be. I absolutely loved how this was handled, and explored and ultimately, how this story ended.

I won this book in a giveaway from Teen Reads and am thrilled I was able to read it!



Slipsliding by the Bay – Review

“We can’t stay locked in the past. That’s one of the temptations of the ivory tower, to fall into the trap of complacency.”

Slipsliding by the Bay was a fun, quirky read. The book follows the trials and tribulations of a struggling Lakeside University in the 1970’s. Lakeside has been struggling for a few years, and a new President, John Gudewill, is determined to set things right. But no matter what he does, it seems that both students and faculty alike are determined to have things go their own way. Even if their way leads to the continued failures of Lakeside.

“Do you ever have the feeling we’re merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?”

Each chapter is short and follows one of the characters. We hear from Eliot, the snobby English professor determined to Unionize the University, regardless of the consequences. Lucy, the sexy librarian who has her own agenda regarding Lakeside. Stein, Gudewills assistant, who does his best to keep tabs on all the plots and scandals. Along with a handful of students, some of which aren’t really worried about the future of Lakeside or the dysfunctional happenings of the campus.

Setting the book in the 1970’s gives it a unique flavor, and really makes the politics of the campus interesting to read. After the rebellious 60’s, there are many people, faculty and alumni alike, who are hoping that the protests and social justice movements become a thing of the past. But the students realize that going backwards isn’t the answer, and do everything they can to help move the campus forward.

I really liked the way McDonald framed the larger social issues of society at the time within the framework of the college campus. The book actually covers a lot of ground and gives a good perspective of the social unrest of the time. It also gives a good feel for how the issues and ideals that triggered the sixties formed the framework for larger change.

McDonald captured the contentious relationship that every generation faces with the past. Here, you have young idealists, who see the power of social revolution, wanting only to have a voice in their own futures, battling an older generation who simply wants to go back to the way things were when they themselves were young. While previous generations may not remember their youth as being quite as rebellious or contentious, I think in their own way, youth always rebels against the norms of their parents. The seventies were no different.

With the short chapters and the diverse cast of characters, this book reads like a fun caper. Each miscommunication and mishap unfolds like a comedic tragedy. The comedy isn’t just in the quirky characters, but in the irony of the results. McDonald captures the stubbornness of human nature, and our sheer refusal to sometimes step back and see the bigger picture. Lack of willingness to communicate leads to an outcome that could have been avoided. The lesson is that this is true in many facets of life and continues to unfold in similar ways over and over and over again in current events.

The politics of academia was also really well done. It wasn’t surprising to read that McDonald had been employed by a University, because she does seem to really understand the dynamics that each individual and collective group brought to the campus. Reading on the impact that Unionization could have, and the arguments for and against the changes were interesting and very well done.

“There comes a time in the economic life of an institution when it must become pragmatic and ruthless.”

I found that quote to be at the heart of not just the politics of this campus, but probably many campuses everywhere. Where do you draw the line between providing a good education and maintaining profit? Looking back on how colleges have changed over the years, it was compelling to read about a campus in the midst of that transition and crisis.

Slipsliding by the Bay was a joy to read. I read the book in a day. Again, it was a fast and fun read. My one downfall with the book is the ending felt a little abrupt and several characters were sort of quickly faded out, so it felt rushed. But, I suppose that in the spectrum of life, the ending wasn’t the point. This book was more about the journey than the destination.

Thank you to BookSparks and She Writes Press for sending me a copy of this book to read and review as part of their pop up blog tour!

Counting Wolves Blog Tour

This week, I am happy to be a part of the blog tour for a new book, Counting Wolves. Thank you to XPresso Book Tours for the review copy!

“Most secrets we hide even from ourselves.”

Counting Wolves is a book exploring what fear can do to us. How it can impact us and effect us in ways we don’t expect.

Milly has to count to one hundred to walk through doorways. And speak. And take a bite. Which is a problem to everyone. But they don’t understand that Milly does it to keep the wolf at bay. If she doesn’t, the wolf will be unleashed and hurt everyone.

Her step-mother has her committed to an adolescent psych ward after Milly faints in her gym class. Here, she is surrounded by other fairy tales come to life, and is forced to deal with witches and toads who run the floor. Milly realizes that counting here isn’t as strong, and has to learn how to use new weapons to fight her wolf.

The story is a unique take on mental illness. Sometimes when we envision how an illness manifests, or what can trigger certain behaviors, we see it from the outside. Here, we are thrown into Milly’s mind and have to work to unravel the real from the fantasy along with Milly. While it wouldn’t happen as quickly in real life, the message is still effective.

We also are able to see how mental illness can develop in an adolescent. At that age,  trying to figure out what’s real and what’s in our head is a struggle without trauma, or compulsions, or outside stressors impacting us. Milly doesn’t quite capture everything right about OCD or trauma induced compulsive behavior. Personally, I feel that the short timeline made it feel more unrealistic and forced than the author intended. No one can stop behaviors in a week that have been reinforced and reenacted for years. It simply isn’t realistic. However, in terms of facing the fairy tale, it works.

As far as other characters, I absolutely adored Vanet. I think his depiction of manic behavior was accurate and his personality added some humor to the heaviness and darkness of the subject matter. I would have liked to have seen a down episode, as manic-depressive behavior is never all ups, but the timeline of a week made that difficult from a plot perspective.

“Maybe he is the fairy godmother. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who actually seems to believe anything is possible.”

The one problem I had with the novel, was the psych ward didn’t seem realistic. I do have some knowledge in this area, and the behaviors of the staff just wouldn’t happen, in my experience and opinion. Some of the details regarding the other patients, also didn’t ring quite true, but they were minor and I understand their relevance to the story.

Overall I did enjoy the story. The depiction of mental illness wasn’t 100% right in detail, but the feel of how terrifying it is was right. Having thoughts you can’t control and compulsions you can’t stop is overwhelming and frightening at any age. Our minds always try and create an explanation, and using fairy tales was a good way to show that.

I also really enjoyed how Milly’s parents were depicted. They were set up to be uncaring, or even part of the problem, and really the author did a nice job showing their support. Even more, Dr. Balder was depicted as a caring psychiatrist, with Milly’s progress as his priority. I think that having Milly surrounded with this love and support is important in talking about mental health. It removes the idea that getting help has to be problematic, and sends a fantastic message about relying on others and accepting help.

For anyone looking for a way to understand how mental illness can sometimes look and feel, this book gets the panic and the fear right. Counting Wolves sends all the right messages about not just what fear and the spiral into compulsive behaviors can look like, but also about getting help and accepting support.

“Fear is the mind-killer.”

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Counting Wolves is available now. Synopsis and links are below! Once again, thank you to Xpresso Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book!

Counting Wolves
Michael F. Stewart
Publication date: August 14th 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

The Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the lair of an adolescent psych ward.

Milly’s evil stepmother commits her to a pediatric psych ward. That’s just what the wolf wants. With bunk mates like Red, who’s spiraling out of control; Pig, a fire-bug who claims Milly as her own—but just wants extra dessert—Vanet, a manic teen masquerading as a fairy godmother with wish-granting powers as likely to kill as to help; and the mysterious Wolfgang, rumored to roam for blood at night; it doesn’t take long for Milly to realize that only her dead mother’s book of tales can save her.

But Milly’s spells of protection weaken as her wolf stalks the hospital corridors. The ward’s a Dark Wood, and she’s not alone. As her power crumbles, she must let go of her magic and discover new weapons if she is to transform from hunted to hunter.

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Author Bio:

Michael F. Stewart is winner of both the 2015 Claymore Award and the 2014 inaugural Creation of Stories Award for best YA novel at the Toronto International Book Fair.

He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. In addition to his award winning Assured Destruction series, he has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights are published by Scholastic and early readers are out with Pearson Education.

For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS–a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next.

Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s first Writer in Residence. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at http://www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.

Michael is represented by Talcott Notch.

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Light Radiance Splendor – Review

This is a difficult review to write. I need to preface by saying, I don’t know much, if anything about Kabbalah. And while I know some of the basic tenets of Judaism, again, this is not a subject I am well versed in.

I preface my review with that disclaimer simply because I am not sure if some of what confused me in this novel was this lack of knowledge. It is entirely possible that a lot of my misunderstanding is a result of this. This review may contain spoilers.

Light Radiance Splendor is a story about the Divine Shekinah tasking a family of Kabbalists with a sacred mission. Beginning with Jaakov, a young rebbe living in a shtetl in Poland in the early 1900’s.

The mission is to decode a scared manuscript beginning with Jaakov. His life’s work is focused on this task, though he isn’t given much to go off of, except the initial decoding notes from his mentor and the previous mission keeper.

His obstacle in completing his task, is being able to find peace and forgiveness in his heart. The person he needs to find this with, is the man who raped his daughter and subsequently fathered his grandson. It is only when he is able to forgive these crimes, along with later attempts at kidnapping and other vague misdeeds, that Jaakov can fulfill his duties.

When his contribution is completed, the work is passed to his grandson, Benjamin. Benjamin faces his own struggles and challenges in his journey as mission keeper. Although his are layered on many levels. Having to endure the cruelty of the Third Reich, from the very beginning is terrifying and heartbreaking on so many levels. Rather than face a crime committed against one person, he witnessed his entire people segregated, persecuted, tortured and in many cases, executed. Simply for existing.

All of that would be heavy and difficult, but his specific struggle is forgiving a Nazi Officer who helped him survive and ultimately saved him, although for his own purposes. Again, it is only when he lets go and allows forgiveness into his heart that he is able to complete his piece and pass the manuscript on to his own son, the third and final mission keeper, Raphael.

Raphael has grown up in Jerusalem. Born in the war, his father not even knowing he existed, Jerusalem was supposed to be a life of peace. But political turmoil divided the Palestinian people and the Jewish people, increasing the tensions until they turned violent. When the son of his close friend turns radical and kills Raphael’s son, he cannot fathom forgiveness.

The main message of this novel is the universal nature of love and the importance of forgiveness. I don’t know if the quotes given by the Divine are tenets of Kabbalah, or if this how the author is trying to frame a general belief to the reader. Essentially, we all come from one people, one belief, one spiritual plane and love heals what hate divides. This is an extreme paraphrasing.

While I appreciate what message the novel was attempting to convey, it did come across, to me, as preachy. I felt as if I was in a religious class being told certain doctrine rather than reading a novel.

I also felt that the author chose to tackle some seriously heavy and deep issues. Rape, war, genocide, hatred, racism, terrorism, extremism. These are topics that libraries have been filled with. They are incredibly complex and difficult, and I just didn’t feel that she did a good job really exploring how heavy they can be. At least not in terms of forgiveness.

Chyten spent a lot of time immersing us in the horror of these topics, but when the time came for forgiveness, the only one I really understood was Raphael. Page after page of suffering and at times outright evil, and very little time was spent on the journey towards how they landed in the capacity to forgive. Jaakov and Benjamin felt forced and unrealistic. It would take someone with an extremely pure heart to reach that level within a conversation, and obviously these men spent lifetimes struggling with forgiveness. It didn’t ring true.

I didn’t understand the manuscript piece. It was given to Jaakov, but was already partially decoded, or he had a decoded key from the first mission keeper? I’m unclear, but then Zeff (the rapist) comes seeking forgiveness so he doesn’t carry debt to the afterlife (um, what?) and decodes the manuscript as payment. But then Benjamin and Raphael work on decoding the manuscript? Why, if it has already been decoded?

Benjamin spent significant time in Auschwitz, and we only hear about him working on the manuscript at the very end. Raphael also spends little time with it. I didn’t understand this piece of the novel. It felt like a way to keep the Divine in it, which felt like pushing the religion, rather than taking a more neutral tone. I could be wrong, but it was very confusing.

Finally, I didn’t understand the ending. For all the trauma I was inflicted with, the ending felt unfulfilling. The manuscript “served it’s purpose”?! I’m not sure I understood the purpose.

For me, this was a miss. I don’t think I understood some of the tenets of the religion for the plot to make complete sense. The book is described as spiritual not religious, so I did feel that was a touch misleading. I think that the author tried to fit too much into the book, and it felt stretched thin. For the heaviness of the subject matter, it needed a much deeper examination. Too much time was spent on the horror, and not enough on the journey back.

Overall, the message of love and forgiveness is a good one, but I didn’t think the author did enough to convey the difficult journey to get from tragedy to forgiveness, if you take faith out of the equation. If normal people don’t have the Divine guiding them, how would they reach these same conclusions?

If religious tones appeal to you, this book may make more sense, and be more appealing.

Thank you BookSparks and She Writes Press for giving me this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

The Wildling Sisters – Review

“It’s not the dead who suffer. It’s the living, you see.”

The Wilding Sisters is an exceptional book that spans the lives of two families separated by decades.

In the 1950’s, we are introduced to the Wilding sisters. A group of four girls, raised by a bohemian mother in London. The highlight of their summers used to be visiting their cousin in the country and losing themselves in the magic of Applecote Manor. But tragedy strikes, and those summers come to an end. Until several years later, when their mother decides to send them back for one final summer.

Over 50 years later, Jessie, a young mother and struggling step-mother, sees the magic in Applecote Manor. She sees the crumbing estate as the chance to escape London, where her husbands deceased ex-wife holds them all hostage, especially her teenage daughter, Bella. In Applecote, she sees the chance to heal, to escape, to rebuild.

We flip back and forth in time. Margot tells us her story from the past, and Jessie from the present, but the mystery and tragedy around Audrey refuses to disappear, intertwining and impacting both womens lives. Margot wants desperately to know what happened, thinking that the answer will somehow save them all, especially her Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry.

“For the first time since she went missing, I realize I desperately need to know the truth.”

Jessie wants the mystery and rumor of Audrey to simply go away. She is terrified that the truth will taint Applecote, thereby making the idea of uniting her family impossible. Bella clings to this mystery, obsessing over every small artifact she finds in the yard or buried within the house. Even worse, she has turned her room into a living shrine to her mother, Mandy, shocking Jessie with the totality of it. Mandy on every space on the wall. Mandy’s clothes. Mandy everywhere. Between clinging to her mother’s memory and her determination to uncover the mystery of Applecote, Bella is farther away from accepting Jessie than ever before.

“Bella’s face simply empties, and she runs upstairs, slams her bedroom door in the way only Bella can slam it, like an act of war.”

This book is quite a powerful discussion on the relationships women have with each other. Sister. Mothers. Daughters. They are all complicated and complex.

At the beginning of the summer, Margot, Flora, Pam and Dot, are a tightly knit unit. They are united against the world. But the more time they spend at Applecote starts to introduce small divisions. Secrets and unspoken changes. When two young men stroll through the meadow, the divisions become more pronounced as each sister, except Dot, see each other as competition for the first time.

The summer continues, driving the sisters further apart until a shocking turn of events forces them to decide: will they go their separate ways, or unite together again?

For Jessie and Bella, their timeline isn’t over the course of a summer, but rather a winter. The symbolism of the corresponding seasons is striking and appropriate, and I felt really highlighted the differing tensions between the relationships. Hot and passionate, versus cold and indifferent.

“She had no idea that trying to love Bella, let alone parent her as she grew into an angry teen, would be like trying to hug an animal that wanted to sink its teeth into her neck.”

The tension between Jessie and Bella is different. Bella does not want Jessie or her step-sister around. She would rather have her mother back, but in absence of that, would much prefer to simply have it be just her and her father. She is resentful and cold. But some of her behavior with her peers in London and then to her younger sister Remy are concerning to Jessie. Distrust blooms, which puts significant strain on Jessie’s marriage.

“There’s something in Bella’s gaze that is just not sisterly sometimes, not even particularly human.”

Even though there is an element of mystery, in regards to the mystery of Audrey woven between the two narratives, this really isn’t a mystery. There are parallels set up for comparison, or maybe even to simply observe, the complexity of love.

Margot and her sisters have a mother, but she is flighty and irresponsible. She is not someone seen as deserving of four daughters. In contrast, Sybil, a woman where motherhood is more natural, lost her only daughter Audrey to mysterious circumstances.

Jessie is Remy’s mother, but Bella’s mother died, unexpectedly and tragically. There is no mystery to the loss, but it doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Unlike Sybil though, who tries to find Audrey in Margot, Bella doesn’t want a replacement in Jessie. She wants less while Sybil, and even to some extent Margot, wants more.

There is also the contrast between the sisterly relationships. Margot and her sisters are an intimate tribe when they first arrive at Applecote. A unified front against the world. An oasis that they know they can always rely on. At least they were. But Harry and Tom bring out a competition never before known, and words from their mother suddenly begin to make more sense.

“Brothers always want to murder each other, Ma would shrug, It’s sisters you need to look out for. They’re the ones who can break your heart.”

It’s interesting that men are the divider in both relationships. Between the sisters, because they all want the attention that only two will win. With Bella and Jessie, they both are vying for Will’s attention. Even though Jessie still wants to mother Bella, Bella’s rejection sets the stage for them to compete. Men, both knowingly and unknowingly, are the catalyst for division.

Tragedy and shocking events also shake Jessie’s world, but it is Bella who has to decide whether she will accept Jessie or not. This acceptance is pivotal in determining the future of this small family.

Secrets and betrayals and heartbreak unfold slowly as we come to the end. And even though the timelines are decades apart, the resolution fits them all succinctly together. Questions are answered, and while some leave you reeling, they are all satisfying.

I really enjoyed reading this book. The pacing was perfect. Each chapter ended with just enough momentum that you felt the mystery building. Each story was framed to be solid on it’s own, but left enough clues that you knew they tied together, but you weren’t quite sure how. It was suspenseful without being terrifying.

The writing is breathtaking. Some sentences and passages are so beautiful they hurt.

“The dusk sky is aflame, volcanic and otherworldly, like something might actually be about to happen.”

There is magic in her descriptions. Chase captures the struggle to be a sister, a mother, a wife, in all it’s difficulty with the same lyrical precision. There is heartbreak in love. And in letting go.

Finally, I think the examination of death is one of the most captivating pieces of this novel. Not actually knowing makes Sybil and Margot hold on to Audrey. What begins as hope turns unhealthy and obsessive. A refusal to mourn and grieve. Yet Bella is dealing with the opposite. Knowing her mother is dead and refusing to move on anyway.

Life and death. Love and loss. These are complex issues that we all can relate to and identify with. I loved the story and how these issues were framed and explored. And I absolutely loved the writing. It was gorgeous. Very well done.

This book comes out July 25. Pre-Order link for Amazon is below:

The Wilding Sisters

Thank you so much to the First to Read program through Penguin Random House, and to Putnam books for allowing me to read this beautiful novel.