Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking jack the ripperTitle: STALKING JACK THE RIPPER
Author: Kerri Maniscalco
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 326 (on Kindle it’s 276?)
Publisher: Jimmy Patterson
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆(2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

Despite being such a short book (my Kindle says 276 pages!), Stalking Jack the Ripper took me a remarkably long time to read, which tell you a lot about its pacing. For a murder mystery set in Victorian London, this book sure is a predictable snooze-fest. That’s essentially my main issue with it; I could have overlooked all the other flaws if the book had been as fast-paced as it promised. Instead, it dragged and dragged, with a lot of totally pointless scenes, which is some kind of accomplishment for a book this short.

It’s a shame, because I did like the atmosphere here; it was compelling enough to keep me reading. Unfortunately, a genre thriller set in 19th century London inevitably had me drawing a comparison so the infinitely more compelling Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman, which was the best book I read last year. Perhaps if I hadn’t had Goodman’s book to compare this to, I would have been less disappointed.

I’m likely also thinking too critically here. The heroine, Audrey Rose (what is with that name! seriously, I know Audrey is a historically accurate name and all but I cringed every time I read it), reads like a 21st century teenager transplanted to 19th century London, and she keeps talking all about how she can be smart and pretty at once. I know, I know, this isn’t a treatise on feminism, who cares about anachronism in a genre thriller, this is probably really empowering for teen girls, etc. I know. I just wish the author had been a bit more subtle about it rather than banging us over the head with it constantly. Again, I can’t help but think of The Dark Days Club – the heroine in that novel is strong and eschews certain aspects of traditional femininity, but she does it realistically, within the bounds of how a 19th century woman would think.

As for the killer’s identity, it was pretty obvious by the mid-point of the book, especially when the writing started laying it on really, really thick with a red herring. Red herrings are not supposed to be that obvious! You may as well have said “this is exactly the opposite of what the truth is.” It made very little sense to me, character-wise, and it seemed like it was just done for shock value. The character seemed to do a complete 180.

The romance is actually the least terrible thing in this book? Usually I detest the Inexplicable Heterosexual Romance, but in this novel it was neither inexplicable nor detestable. The love interest, Thomas Cresswell, is kind of unique when it comes to male YA love interests, and I found him oddly charming. So he was fine. There were basically no other characters, though? The only other female character was Audrey Rose’s cousin Liza who was…fine, I guess, but I really thought that Audrey Rose would use her gender to talk to the prostitutes and other disreputable ladies of the East End. That’s my own fault for having that expectation (this actually happens in the sequel to The Dark Days Club, and goddamn I really need to stop comparing these two books!).

After all this I’m still kind of tempted by the next book in this series though? There was definitely something compelling about this book despite all its flaws. Perhaps it’s just the setting. This one was Victorian London, the next book is a boarding school in Romania, the third book is a cruise ship…it’s like the author is pulling ideal settings out of my brain. But can setting and atmosphere really be enough for me to keep going? Who knows. Tune in soon to find out.

What do you guys think? Does the sequel get better? Should I invest my time and energy or nah?

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Book Review: The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

24790901Title: THE ABYSS SURROUNDS US
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 273
Publisher: Flux
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads

Unfortunately this book did not turn out to be as mind-blowingly awesome as I’d been led to believe, but I did still enjoy it. There were a lot of aspects to it that I absolutely loved, but there was also plenty I did not like. I can’t help thinking this book would make an incredible film or TV series, but as a book it just didn’t click with me. Which I know is a weird thing for a book blogger to say, but I it’s so rare that I feel this way about a book that I’m gonna say it anyway.

What I Liked:

→ There’s a f/f romance! This is the main reason I picked up this book. The main character, Cassandra, is gay, and this isn’t harped on about, it’s just something that is what it is. Same with her love interest, Swift.

→ The worldbuilding. The book is set in the near-future, in world ruined by climate change, a world where floodwaters have eaten up most coastal cities. The United States has split into smaller governments to better take care of their people (in theory). Also, there’s freaking sea monsters! They are genetically engineered and bred specifically to defend ships and I though this was super cool and creative.

→The book is certainly engaging! It’s a light, quick, easily digestible read, and so I was able to get through it quickly and I certainly thought it was fun!

→The protagonist. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Cassandra Leung at first, but now I think she’s the best thing about this book. She starts out pretty quiet and unassuming, mostly reacting to things around her, but she quickly goes from an ordinary morally upstanding character to the fringes of moral complexity. I really enjoyed watching her go through the stages of that moral development. Her ruthlessness just seemed to increase and increase, and I think she has it in her to be a pirate queen of her own.

→The villain. I use the word villain loosely, but Santa Elena, the pirate queen, is pretty damn cool. She took over a ship with her baby son strapped to her back and now everyone is terrified of her. She rules with an iron fist, she’s vicious and ruthless, she’s selfish and cunning, and I absolutely loved her. In fact, I would have liked this book a lot more if Cas had been aged up and Santa Elena had been her love interest, because I found her a hell of a lot more intriguing than Cas’s actual love interest. I also thought they had way more chemistry. I realize things would have been even more dubious in terms of consent and healthy relationships, but this book already veers towards the dark, and I think this would have made it more interesting.

What I Didn’t Like:

→ The romance. Ugh, I hate that I didn’t ship these two, but I hated Swift. She’s a fine character, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like her. She’s a jerk most of the time, and she’s volatile and just…I don’t know. I didn’t like her at all and so I had trouble shipping her. And I just couldn’t feel any chemistry between Cas and Swift that wasn’t contrived.

→The worldbuilding could have used a little bit more meat. This is the start of a series so I won’t harp on about this too much, but I would have liked to know a little bit more about the international world and more about the damage climate change as wrought. Just some more context would have helped.

→The writing. This book is written in first-person present tense, which is one of my least favorites, so I found it kind of jarring. Plus the writing is YA, and by that I mean there’s a lot of “something dark rose inside me” or “I felt a storm rising inside me”, that kind of thing, and it got annoying after a while. The writing is also quite bare, very straightforward, yet somehow often melodramatic.

→The action scenes and jargon. This is probably just a personal thing, but I get really put off by intense action scenes that feature a lot of jargon. In this book, there’s a lot of futuristic ship jargon and techy stuff that I found myself glazing over, which led to me being confused later on. Again, more of a personal hangup than anything.

→ Minor characters. First off, there’s really only four minor characters who even get names, and these are the ones vying with Swift for the chance to inherit the ship. The rest of the pirate crew is faceless and nameless; they’re just there. Even those four characters were barely developed. And in the case of one character in particular, he does something that gets him in trouble but it’s never really explained why he does it? What his motivations were? It just seemed like something thrown in to add more excitement to the plot.

→The ending. I won’t spoil it, but I just could not understand Cas’s decision in the end. She had the chance to take charge of her own fate but she didn’t. At all. And if we’re meant to believe she did this for ~love~ then I’m gonna need the relationship to be a little more convincing.

Overall I did have a fun time reading this book, but I didn’t enjoy the romance as much as I had hoped to, and I doubt I will be picking up the sequel. However, I will definitely be checking out other things this author writes!

Book Review: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

15993203Title: THE DARK DAYS CLUB
Author: Alison Goodman
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 482
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★★★(5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I. Love. This. Book. You know when you’ve come to enjoy a book so much you don’t want it to end? I was torn between finishing this book quickly to find out what happens, and reading it slowly to savor every scene. I was hooked from the very first chapter, where the setting is quickly and fastidiously established as Regency England. A fascinating time period, and the skill of Alison Goodman’s research shines from every page! I truly felt like I was in Regency London; Goodman pays close attention to fashion, smells, common foods, popular dances, weather, locations, and so on. It all lends the book an extreme authenticity that makes it an absolute pleasure to read. I feel like I’ve just received an intriguing history lesson on Regency London! When I say this I don’t at all mean to indicate that this felt dry or textbook-like! On the contrary! But as a history nerd I do enjoy all the little details that popped up.

In The Dark Days Club, Lady Helen Wrexhall discovers that there is more darkness in the world than she first thought, and that she is inextricably bound to it. As she is introduced to this underbelly she discovers her new powers and abilities, all under the guidance of the mysterious and detested Earl of Carlston, a man who shares Helen’s powers but is also suspected of killing his wife. He and Helen share a budding but unresolved romance – in true Regency fashion, it is quite a slow burn and for the most part remains within the bounds of propriety. I think he’s a little bit of an asshole, but for me that’s what makes him interesting, that he’s so imperfect – he’s a good person, but he doesn’t have great bedside manner, so to speak.

Helen is a much more pleasant character – bright, curious, kind, but also not the stereotype I expected. She is more realistic than that: not quite rebellious, not quite so eager to shirk the boundaries of normal life and society, merely tiptoe around them. She’s a modern day women magically inserted into a Regency-era world to be the ~Exceptional Woman~. Rather, she is a realistic Regency-era woman who is heavily shaped by the customs of her time and place. She also shares a camaraderie with her maid (who becomes her partner in crime in a way), which was so refreshing to see! Female friendship is always appreciated.

The mythology here is fantastic! Not supremely original, but executed brilliantly, in a way that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too many details. Goodman created such an interesting world here, one with suitably high stakes that kept the tension high throughout the novel. By the 80% mark I was walking around my house doing things with my Kindle in my face because I simply could not put the book down! I absolutely love books that turn into compelling page-turners, and I love books that feel like home, which this book did. I’m a sucker for period drama set in England, and this book hit on everything I ever wanted: high-society drama, historical accuracy, the supernatural, loads of gory murder, sardonic dialogue, and nail-biting mystery!

I’m going to stop babbling because this review is long and effusive enough, but hopefully it has managed to convey the depth of my enjoyment of this book!

Book Review: And I Darken by Kiersten White

27190613Title: AND I DARKEN
Author: Kiersten White
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 475
Publisher: Delacorte Press
My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4/5)
Review on Goodreads

And I Darken is a clever gender-bent retelling of the tale of Vlad the Impaler. I actually hadn’t realized this when I started the book, so it was a pleasant surprise!

Lada Dragwyla, Daughter of the Dragon, is introduced to us as a fierce, ferocious young girl who grows into an even fiercer teenager. Her character was a joy to behold: she is truly ruthless and pragmatic to a fault. At her core is her intense loyalty to Wallachia, her country of birth, and her desire to one day reign there.

And I Darken starts at the very, very beginning: with Lada’s birth, quickly followed by her younger brother Radu’s birth. After a few chapters of adjusting to the setting and character, the story quickly moves on to the main plot: Lada and Radu are delivered to the Ottoman sultan as hostages by their father to ensure Wallachia’s loyalty. Teeming with fury at her father’s betrayal, Lada, unlike her brother Radu, never comes to see the Ottomon Empire as home, despite her love for Mehmed, the young sultan.

This book is unusual in a lot of ways, the first being the plot itself. The author accurately follows the thread of history, for the most part, bringing to life a largely unknown chapter in the lives of Vlad the Impaler and Radu the Handsome. Another unusual aspect is the various relationships in this book, which are intriguing and complex. Lada and Radu care for one another, but their relationship is fraught: Lada hates Radu’s timidity, and Radu is put off by Lada’s viciousness. At the same time, they are both in love with the same man, Mehmed, though Mehmed seems to only have eyes for Lada.

Something else I thought was wonderful was the portrayal of Islam. Upon coming to the Ottoman Empire, Radu almost immediately falls in love with Islam. Eventually, he converts, and his appreciation of Islam’s beauty was really refreshing to see. He talks often of the peace he finds in prayer and the call of the athan, while at the same time he worries about Lada perceiving him as a traitor because he embraced this aspect of their captors. It’s an intriguing personal struggle.

I absolutely loved Lada, an unapologetic and unlikable protagonist, but I also found Radu a fascinating character whose growth was deftly done. Though Radu starts out as naive and weak, he eventually grows into a skilled politician, able to navigate treacherous court politics in the subtle way Lada lacks. In the midst of it all he retains his loyalty and kindness; he actually reminded me a lot of Sansa Stark. He also struggles with his sexuality (insomuch as it is understood in such a way back then) as he comes to terms with his love for Mehmed.

The book also features some wonderful nuanced discussions of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a world of men. Lada struggles constantly with the contradiction of who she is and how people want her to be because of her gender. She does not embody traditional femininity in any way and scorns this in many other women. However, this stops short of “I’m-not-like-other-girls” because of the way the narrative interrogates the various ways women carve space for themselves in the world. Lada muses on the ways in which women wield power, whether with a sword or with their femininity. She doesn’t necessarily come to any particular conclusion, but her confusion is sure to ring true with many young women who read this book.

One of the things that may perhaps be considered a weakness is the somewhat plodding pace. Personally, I didn’t have too much of an issue with this because I really enjoyed and connected with the characters, but it is not an exaggeration to say this book moves very slowly. Again, it begins with Lada and Radu being born, and the author does not spare details about their childhood. Pacing was odd as well; I couldn’t really identify any one particular moment of plot climax, but I think that might be because this book is very, very character driven. It is focused mainly on Lada and Radu’s growth and development and how they affect the history of the Ottomans and the reign of Mehmed. And of course the plot is constrained by history, which doesn’t follow traditional plot structure.

In short, I’m very excited to read the sequel!

Book Review: Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova

27969081Title: LABYRINTH LOST
Author: Zoraida Cordova
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 324
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I wanted so badly to love this book, but I couldn’t. From the very beginning I couldn’t get into it, and completing it was a struggle. I literally had to force myself to keep reading. And it sucks, because there is so much to love about this book! Unfortunately, I found it was overwhelmed by the negatives, which mostly encompass two things: the writing and the oddly paced plot.

So, the plot. This may have more to do with my own tastes than anything else. I’m really not a fan of Alice in Wonderland style tales, where heroes journey through a strange land. I suppose some authors could do it justice, but in Labyrinth Lost I was just bored to tears. The plot was formulaic and unoriginal. There were few surprises or twists, and the ones that were there were either predictable or contrived. It was so, so boring.

The writing is my other main issue. I don’t normally comment on writing styles, but here it was just awful. I just could not get past how clunky and juvenile it was. Sentences were all so simplistic and repetitive; I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. It was so jarring and uncomfortable.

I’m disappointed, because this book had the potential to be excellent. There are some incredible things here!

Latina witches in Brooklyn! Already the concept is intriguing and fresh and comes with the promise of rich traditions and lengthy histories. With the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, I was reminded strongly of the Sweep series, one of my favorites. This book was so close to coming alive with magic.

Then there’s the characters. Despite the stilted writing, the characters were all endearing and believable. The author managed to give each and every one of them their own authentic personality; the characters came to life on the page. Even the Devourer, the villain of the story, was intriguing, with a fascinating past.

There’s also a really neat subversion of a common YA trope along with a f/f relationship! You expect Alex to fall in love with the “mysterious brujo boy” but instead she is in love with another woman, which honestly blew me away.

But…all of it ultimately falls short because of the writing and plot. The plot would have worked better had it taken place in our world rather than a secondary fantasy one (never thought I’d hear myself saying that). And the writing…man, I am drawn to the characters and would be interested in seeing them have an adventure in our world, but…is it enough to get me to suffer through this writing again? Probably not.

Book Review: The Graces by Laura Eve

28818369Title: THE GRACES
Author: Laura Eve
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 336
Publisher: Amulet Books
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I really wanted to give this a higher rating, because I truly enjoyed it, but unfortunately it also had a lot of issues. I think it had plenty of potential, but it just couldn’t quite get there. A lot of people are comparing this book to Twilight, but I have to say I don’t agree. The basic plot is this: a new girl who calls herself River moves to a new town after a mysterious incident with her father. She becomes obsessed with Fenrin, Thalia, and Summer Grace, a family everyone else is obsessed with as well. She becomes their close friend and things escalate. On the surface, there are some middling similarities with Twilight, but I honestly wouldn’t have even thought of Twilight at all if I hadn’t seen it mentioned so often in reviews. So while I did like this book, I think it could have been better.

A book like this needs atmosphere. You would think that would come easy. New girl moves to a small, seaside English town, meets mysterious people who may be witches. But none of the atmosphere came through. I could never really picture the town, when it should have been a character in its own right (especially considering the Graces have lived there forever). Then there’s the Graces – the author kept trying to make them seem witchy and New Age, but they just…weren’t. I’m a diehard Sweep fan, you see, and those books were ALL atmosphere. That’s what drew me to this book. I thought I would be getting Sweep again, but it wasn’t as rich and colorful as that series, not at all.

The pacing in this book is way off. It’s not that this book isn’t interesting, it is, but there is very little plot. The entire story hinges on an anticipated twist that comes with finding out what happened to River’s father, but that’s not enough. There were a lot of scenes I thought were kind of extraneous. This book should have been tighter, faster-paced.

The only person of color in this book is demonized, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Niral, a South Asian girl, is made out to be a homophobic bully. You know, this is Writing Cross Culturally 101. If you’re going to only include a single person of color, they shouldn’t be a villain or a trope. Otherwise, I would say don’t even include them. The rest of this book is white people – which, fine, small English village, blah blah, I’ll buy it – but then why include Niral? What is the point? It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

The major “twist” in this book involves the reveal of a character’s bisexuality. If that is literally all your book hinges on…and to comment on the pacing again, after this twist is revealed, things move at a wickedly fast pace, as opposed to the rest of the book.

There were other things that really bothered me, but they make sense given the progression of the plot. For example, River is self-centered, arrogant, pretentious, seems to hate other girls…take this oft-referenced quote:

“But I was not like those prattling, chattering things with their careful head tosses and thick, cloying lip gloss. Inside, buried down deep where no one could see it, was the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.”

Yeah, it’s gross. It is. Worse, it’s cringey and cliched, a tired trope that I’m really sick of seeing. Given the fact that River is revealed to be a nightmare of a person, I guess it’s intentional, but I wish it had been more subtle, especially as it is said in the very beginning of the book, when readers are still finding their feet.

Another issue is some of the dialogue. God, talk about emo teens. I’m sure this was intentional, to make it seem like River and the Graces were special and different from other teens their age, but it was just unrealistic and jarring. I rolled my eyes a lot when I first started reading this book, so much so that I almost considered giving up on it. It was that cringey.

I really enjoyed the path this book ended up taking, though. I thought it was rather unexpected and it made me understand River a lot better. I still think she’s a terrible person, but now I enjoy her villainy (and she is a villain, this book totally reads like an origin story). However, the end of the book should have come way sooner. I hear this book has a sequel (which I’ll probably read), but I think a single book would have been much better paced and more enjoyable. Since we wouldn’t have had to meander through so much of River being an obsessive weirdo without really understanding why, we probably would have enjoyed her way more.

River is such a fascinating character. She’s so fascinating, all on her own, that this book really did not need the ridiculous subplot of having her be obsessed with Fenrin. The reveal at the end provides a much better reason for her to be obsessed with the Graces, a reason that makes total and perfect sense and makes me actually empathize with River. I mean, yes, her crush on him does play a significant part in bringing about the book’s climax, but I’m certain the author could have written around that and come up with something much better. But anyway, back to River: she is…something else. Not particularly likeable, she is selfish, narcissistic, manipulative, a committed liar, and an unreliable narrator. In other words, just the sort of character I love. And I did like her, especially by the end, but I just think she could have been more, certainly more than her crush on Fenrin.

Another issue I had was with the Graces themselves. The entire town is obsessed with them, but like…why? They’re all so completely ordinary. The only interesting thing about them is that people think they’re witches, but even the Graces aren’t sure of that. They’re not bad characters, they’re just ordinary. River blows them all out of the water, honestly. I’m excited to see what she becomes, and I hope we see just as much of her in the next book.

Book Review: A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

20764879Title: A GATHERING OF SHADOWS
Author: V.E. Schwab
Release Date: 2016
Pages: 512
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads

I’m going to be a Fangirl of Olde for a moment, if you’ll forgive me:

OH MY GOD OH MY GOOOOOOOD!!!! THE BADASS OPENING CHAPTER!!! THE ELEMENT GAMES!!! HOW FREAKING CHARMING IS ALUCARD??? KELL AND LILA AND THE SEXUAL TENSION AND THEM BOTH WANTING TO SEE EACH OTHER AND RECOGNIZING EACH OTHER FINALLY AND THEN *THAT SCENE* THAT HAD ME SCREAMING INTERNALLY!!!!!!!

/okay, I’m done, I think.

Clearly, I loved this book. Despite the fact that, like the first book, it starts slow and takes a while to get to the main plot (the Element Games start 60% into the book), it works better here. We already know and love all the characters, so even if they’re not really doing much, reading about them doing anything is still going to be enjoyable.

The book opens up with Lila seemingly stranded in the middle of the ocean and about to be picked up by pirates. What you at first think is a desperate situation turns into something so goddamn awesome that sets the tone for all of Lila’s chapters in the remainder of the book. I definitely enjoyed her POV a hell of a lot more than anyone else’s: she’s freaking badass, reckless, and hella confident. There’s something straight-up awesome about a character like Lila, who is special and unique and powerful and knows it and owns it. I love seeming a female character who is just powerful and completely embraces it, rather than shying away from it or denying it. God, I just love her so freaking much. What an incredible character. Truly, what an absolute gift of a character Victoria Schwab has given us.

Lila’s chapters also introduce us to Alucard, a (bisexual?) privateer/pirate captain who I’m sure is going to make most readers swoon. He’s dashing and charming and slick, but he’s also fussy and friendly and loves his cat. Victoria Schwab takes a character that could have been just another trope, and makes him utterly real. His interactions with Lila are delightful; they at first have a will-they-won’t-they dynamic that kept me hooked. After Lila makes her way aboard his ship, Alucard begins to teach her magic, which Lila picks up on quickly (she’s a maverick, that one).  Though the development of their close friendship is subtle, by the end of the book it’s clear as day that these two are birds of a feather.

Throughout the book you can feel Kell and Lila pining for one another, even if neither of them really wants to admit it. Schwab plays with dramatic irony to up the tension of their eventual meeting, and it crescendos into an explosive climax that literally had me screaming on the subway. I love these two. I love them together and apart. I love their dynamic and I love their opposite personalities and I love it when they clash and I love it when they have each others’ backs.

Everything about this book was amazing. I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I know I was somewhat lukewarm about the first book, but this second one absolutely blew it out of the water. It’s tense, exciting, an absolute page-turner, features awesome new characters like Alucard, builds on old characters, develops a plot within a plot rather deftly, and ends on a wicked cliffhanger. Lucky for me, I already have the third book on my Kindle and will begin reading it immediately.