Tag Archive: book review


The Brilliant Death

Later posting this than I wanted to be. We started working on characters for my Saturday night game and that took longer than I expected it to. This one I actually won a review copy of through BookishFirst. Here’s Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death. Enjoy!

The Brillian Death cover

Teodora DiSangro is her father’s secret weapon. A streghe just like out of the stories, able to turn her family’s enemies into music boxes and other trinkets. Family is everything to her. So when Vinalia’s new ruler, the Capo, sends toxic letters to the heads of all five families, killing all of them but her father. The Capo demanding that all five families send their heirs to his court might give Teo the chance she needs to find a cure if she can find a way to become the DiSangro heir, the son the Capo is expecting to arrive. For that, she will need to find a way to not only trust the streghe who delivered the toxic letter to her father but also convince them to teach her how to change her form like they do. As she grows to know the other streghe and uncovers the layers and layers of secrets in the Capo’s court will she be able to complete her mission and leave, or will Teo become trapped in a web of deception and danger?

Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death is a book that feels a bit unbalanced in its content. The lore is lush and feels fairly deep, the myths that get talked about feel real to the world. There’s a weight to Teodora’s feelings and Cielo’s studied carelessness that works well. But then there are places where it feels like things could have been worked in much better earlier on to avoid stretches of what feels like over much exposition.  I am going to stay away from talking about the genderfluid  aspects of the protagonists. It seems well written, but that is from an outside perspective so I do not really feel qualified to talk too much about it.

The first segment of the book is all set up. The reader is introduced to Teo, her family, her life, her home, and her magic. It shows her frustrations with what seems like her inevitable lot in life as contrasted with how very much she loves her father and her family. The exposition here feels well done. There’s a degree of wonder shot through with frustration and grief when she realizes that Cielo is another streghe in addition to having been the one to deliver the letter that nearly killed her father. Characters feel rounded and like they have their own stories going on, they wind up being easy to get interested in. Even if one Teo’s brothers is cartoonishly cruel and the start to Teo and Ceilo’s mutual attraction feels a little rushed, the first half of The Brilliant Death is pretty fantastic.

It is around the end of the first half that the book started to lose me. Teodora learns how to shift into a male version of herself, to better pass herself off as the DiSangro heir, and is introduced to the other four houses heirs and the Capo’s court and all its intricacies. And the story hits a wall. This part might largely be due to events that drastically cut my time for reading, but the book became very easy to put down once Teo and Cielo reached the capital and their mission properly began. It felt like being pulled back to the start of the book, there were several new characters who needed to be introduced all at once and Teo had never been to the Capo’s court so that had to be expanded on. But the new characters and the court felt so much less fleshed out than the characters and places from the first half. It was like pausing in the middle of a book and starting another book from much earlier in the author’s career.

I confess, in addition to the slowdown in the middle of the book, The Brilliant Death also suffers from an ending that disappointed me greatly even as I saw it coming. It felt very much like Capetta didn’t want to tie any of her major plot threads up. The end felt less like the protagonists heading off into another story than them running away to the sequel. Which is a shame because it could have had a good ending that still offered room for a next book to exist and felt like a complete story had been told in this book rather than the first in a series. There was so much introduced right before the end and no page space for it. That took me way more out of the reading experience than the loss of momentum from entering the Capo’s court did, that had a clear purpose and provided character introductions the reader needed at least. This just leaves me with a disappointed shrug and a vague disinterest in the next one because now I don’t trust her to tie up any of her important plot threads there either.

So that brings me here. The Brilliant Death is by no means a bad book and I quite like the ideas present in the setting, but I feel like it could have been written more smoothly. I feel like my major complaints are ultimately forgivable in light of how much I enjoyed the first half of the book. And while I am left with no plans to go out and buy the second book, I would likely read it if it was gifted to me. I will likely take another look at Capetta’s work on another series too, I think she is capable of writing something really good. For now though, The Brilliant Death gets a three out of five.

I think this book might have kicked off my recent reading streak. I enjoyed it a great deal and very much appreciate Entangled Teen’s providing me with a copy for review. Here’s Pintip Dunn’s Malice. Enjoy!

Malice cover

In a shattering flash of electricity Alice was visited by a voice claiming to be from the future. A voice that would go on to inform her that one of the students at her school is the creator of a virus that, in her time, has killed all but a third of the human population. A voice that charges her with finding out who this person is and stopping them before it is too late. But the voice’s orders often feel contradictory or nonsensical and Alice finds herself questioning if following its orders is really the best way to save the future. Is there anything that she can do to save the future outside of the voice’s orders? And why is it so insistent that she avoid one specific boy?

There is a lot to recommend Pintip Dunn’s Malice. The concept is interesting, the idea of a sort of indirect time travel and the implications of that fascinate me. So does the way the story was laid out, with Alice being pulled in different directions by the voice and her own feelings and fears, but it does so while laying out a solid path to who the virus maker might be and building layers of characterization for most of the cast.

The characters for the most part felt like characters. They felt like they existed for more reasons that to support the romance sub plot between Alice and Bandit and, more importantly, most of them felt like they could have been the protagonists of the book if it had been written from a different angle. Even the nameless background students feel like they could have been characters. Alice notes people interacting in the background as part of describing her surroundings. The only real exceptions here have their reasons for being comparatively out of focus, though there were a couple of characters that I found myself wishing we had seen more of.

The plot is well laid out, a reader can pretty easily catch on to where things are going. Though enough unexpected happens that the book never gets boring. Even the romance subplot is well done, it feels like Alice is actually getting to know Bandit rather than just them suddenly being in love. It fits well with the plot too, supporting and complementing it rather well.

One of the only things I have a real complaint with is how the confrontation with the virus maker was handled. It felt rushed in an odd way, almost like Dunn only had so many pages she was allowed and was running out of them. There was all this set up baked in for the virus maker, right up to the climax where the virus maker sounded both heartbreakingly young and so far gone that it sort of made the rest of the ending not work for me. It was not the worst ending that I have ever read by any means, but I would have liked for it to have been given a little more space to settle in.

I had a lot of fun with Malice. There were moments when I wanted Alice to go ahead and figure out what was going on so that we could get into the fighting back part. There were moments where something clicked and I just knew where things were moving. It was a book that I was willing to go with the flow on and see how things fell into place. The writing was well plotted and, while Malice is vehemently a standalone book, I find myself looking forward to what Dunn writes next. So, this earns a four out of five from me.

 

Selected

So, this came out later than intended. I admit, I kept putting both the book and the review aside for other things. It has been a fun weekend for me though. This one is thanks to the kind folks at Entangled Teen, here’s Barb Han’s Selected. Enjoy!

Selected cover

Easton Academy is a prep school for the elite of the elite in New Maine, the kind of school where Legacy students from old money families go to make connections before heading off to college and whatever their parents expect of them. Victoria Aldridge is not old money. Is not nouveau riche. Is not typical of the students that walk Easton’s hallowed halls.  She’s part of the new Selected program, lower class students with high IQs or brilliant athletic performance backed by rich patron families. As long as she does as well as expected, as long as she is the best, her family has food and a safe place to sleep and she has a shot at a bright future. At least that’s what she has been telling herself for the last three years. When one of her friends is caught passing her a mysterious note everything in her life at Easton starts to crack. If she wants to figure out what’s going on she’ll have to learn to trust the Legacy boy who’s started showing interest in her out of the blue. If she cannot, she might not make it out of Easton alive.

Barb Han’s Selected is a book that feels very much like it knows that it is the first in a series and so does not bother telling a compelling or complete story on its own. Which is a shame because the premise is really interesting. The nation is split in fifty countries and Maine has developed a rich/poor divide that would make a cyber punk dystopia salivate. Our protagonist has to be the best of the best at the fancy school she’s been selected to attend so that her family can have a better life, even as she’s the target of resentment from many of her classmates. But then the most attractive boy in school shows up and we toss that right out the window until the final third or so of the book. Let’s start there.

I feel like this is a case of the author having solid ideas but either not enough of them to give the story substance or she just really wanted to write a romance story and slotted the dystopian ideas around it. A fair amount of that is down to the protagonist, Tori. The reader is introduced to her in her Junior year of high school at Easton Academy and despite, as we are told her having a really high IQ and breaking the curve for all of her tests, she is desperately worried that she has not done well enough on a recent test. Fair enough, her family relies on her Selected status for a better life, but we never really see her struggle with her classes or her dancing in any meaningful way. Classes are easy, she’s brilliant. Tests are easy, she’s brilliant. Dancing is easy, she’s been doing it all her life.

Maybe the book was meant to focus more on her social struggles, her friends disappearing, but so much of the text focuses on her relationship with school golden boy Caius that her friends fade into the back ground. There wasn’t really time put into making the reader care about her friends or friendships, so when things started to go wrong it had no impact. Tori’s friends are, in fact, consistently pushed to the side either in favor of more focus on the romance aspect or because Tori just can’t talk to them about her feelings and what’s going on, they would never understand.  Similarly, so much focus was put on her relationship with Caius that it both seemed to swallow up everything else and left me hoping that something would happen just to get him off the page for a little while. Plus, there were enough moments of Caius talking about his feelings for Tori that just felt super uncomfortable and manipulative, not liking her having a male friend, repeated angry moments early on about her thinking a Legacy like him would have an easier life than her, and other more minor stuff. It made it really hard to buy in to the romance to start with.

If the romance was cut out of Selected it feels like all but around a third of the book would be gone.  This remaining third or so of the book, much like the setting, has some solid ideas and could have made for a really awesome book. Unfortunately, it takes half or more of the book for the plot to really get going and by that time I had long sense stopped caring about the characters or what happened to them. There are some moments from early on that, in retrospect, were setting up elements for a reveal later but they fell flat because the intervening text failed to support any of Tori’s friendships enough for the characters to feel like proper characters. It is frustrating. It is frustrating because there are so many ideas here that could have been good with a little more work, really good if some of the focus on that work was moved to letting the other characters be more rounded.

That is about all that I can say about Selected. There was a lot of potential in both the setting and the ideas behind the plot. But it got sacrificed for a frankly bland instant romance that had a lot of red flags early on. I will not be there for the next book in this series or, likely, the next several books Barb Han writes. Selected shows that she has solid ideas, but the writing lets them down badly.  It earns a two out of five from me.

So, here’s a review where I dip my toe in a setting that I know not a ton about. I feel like the book stands well enough on its own to be enjoyable even if you aren’t super familiar with the rest of the Star Wars extended universe. This has sort of inspired another thing I want to talk about. For now though, enjoy!

Star Wars Queen's Shadow cover

On the last day of her rule Queen Amidala stayed ensconced with her handmaidens and trusted guards, relaxing on the one day she could before trying to build a life as Padmé Naberrie. A life she would have to put off building once the new Queen asked her to continue serving Naboo. The planet needed a new representative in the Galactic Senate, who could be a better fit? Who else loves Naboo and its people well enough to fight for them? And so Padmé agrees to take up the mantle of senator, to remain Amidala for as long as she is needed. A senator needs to be a much different person than a queen though, Padmé and her handmaidens will need to figure out what that means if she is going to navigate the Galactic Senate.

I confess, I started E. K. Johnson’s Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow because I wanted something science fiction but with little to no narrative consequence. So a book focused on a character who, while I’m certain other aspects of her personal arc have been covered on other books, by definition cannot be allowed to do anything that would have consequences for the greater Star Wars narrative seemed like it would fit the bill pretty well. The blurb suggested that it would be mostly character work, something that sounded really good honestly. It was pretty well exactly what I was looking for.

As much as this is a book about Padmé, and her change over from Queen to senator, it’s also very much about her world and the people she surrounds herself with. Early on each of Padmé’s handmaidens get a fair amount of focus all the better to drive home how close they all are and how much they care about Naboo, how idealistic Naboo’s culture is even after the Trade Federation’s attack. It gets the reader attached to everything Padmé is about to leave behind. Gives a taste of her relationships and the rules she’s lived by before leading into a place where those relationships and rules are not nearly as effective as they had been at home, are in fact detrimental in some ways. I adored that. Having the protagonist not only very clearly relying on others, but having that be a core feature of how she is able to accomplish things and adapt is something that I had not really realized that I miss in a fair number of other books. Because Padmé’s handmaidens are more than just her staff, she trusts them with her life and there’s this support structure there. Especially with Sabé, Padmé’s best friend and bodyguard and body double, very nearly the deuteragonist in some places where she acts as an agent outside of the happenings directly in the Galactic Senate.

I found myself wanting to see more of the handmaiden characters as the book went on and focused more on Senator Amidala. I find myself wanting to see more of them having finished the book, it left me curious about how they would deal with the Empire but not doubting for a moment that each of them would rebel in her own way be that art or politics, providing space for those displaced or fighting directly. I want to know where they went from the last chapter of Queen’s Shadow and where that took them.

That also leads me to one of the only issues I had with Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow.  The ending, specifically the epilogue, just completely took me out of it. The final chapter wrapped things up on a low note but left the reader with a sense of hope. Padmé and her team are going to keep fighting for what’s good and right in the galaxy.  The Epilogue shattered that in a way that starts off beautifully mirroring the first chapter but that also feels unnecessary and almost mean spirited in how it deals with some of the characters. It took me from knowing that cannon will still happen with everything that implies and hammered it in like a crooked nail in an otherwise fantastically built piece. It killed the sense of hope that the final chapter ended on and that’s what I find myself coming back to over and over like a missing tooth. The death of hope and how very out of place it feels in the context of the rest of the book.

That’s my only big issue and, aside from a couple of odd romance-ish moments that felt a little out of place, I think it was my only real issue. If not for the epilogue Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow would be a five out of five for me. It leaves me wanting more from the characters and I am definitely planning on looking for more of E. K. Johnson’s work. So, all told Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow earns a four out of five.

Given Away

Full disclosure, by the time I had this review written the book that it goes with had been removed from the Kindle store. I almost feel like I’m cheating a little by posting it, but I read the book and I have opinions about it. Not necessarily constructive opinions, but it was something I wanted to talk about. So, without further ado, here is Briar Lane’s Given Away.

Given Away cover

Anya and Catie have been friends since they were kids and have hit every major milestone of their lives together, from rooming together in college to moving to the same city after graduation. Now they plan on sharing one of the biggest milestones of their lives, their bridal shower in Las Vegas. But as they get closer to marrying their respective fiancés worries begin to surface for both. Anya wonders if she should be relying so heavily on Catie for emotional support, isn’t that what her loving fiancé is for? Catie feels years of friendship slipping into a terrifying distance between then, worried that they won’t see each other as much anymore after their vows are said and done. Can their friendship survive the bridal shower weekend? Can love bloom where friendship has grown for so long?

Briar Lane’s Given Away is a book that I found disappointing pretty well from the word go, and my problems with it just sort of piled up like a forty car wreck of poor writing choices and bad editing. Spoilers ahead for a handful of things, I feel like I need to talk about them to get across some of the issues I had with the book.

                Given Away alternates its narrator, so some chapters are from Anya’s perspective and some are from Catie’s perspective. Unfortunately, if it was not for Anya talking nigh constantly about what great friends she and Catie are but she should totally be spending more time with her fiancé, since after they get married he will be her rock and all, and Catie worrying that she’ll never get to see Anya again after they get married and wondering if she really even wants to marry her fiancé, I would have had a serious issue telling the two apart. I actually did have issues telling the two apart for some chapters, something that was not helped by the author seeming to forget the names of her protagonists’ fiancés a few times. The lack of character voice extended to both of the fiancés and the Greek chorus of bridesmaids, who at least had the excuse of being largely kept out of dialogue despite one of the big scenes being a big catching up dinner for them all.

Alongside the issues with character voice are Lane’s habit of telling the reader about characters and situations rather than showing them. Both of the protagonists’ fiancés are treated like stand up guys for the first half or so of the book, the reader is told repeatedly about how great they both are. This lasts right up until the story needs them not to be as good as they were set up to be so that Catie can walk in on hers about to cheat on her and there can be a dramatic breakup leading to her tearful confession of love to Anya. Even Anya, one of the protagonists, is hit by this when she feels that her fiancé isn’t listening to her or respecting her feelings about Derek cheating on Catie, so suddenly her fiancé is also terrible and she’s off to find her best friend the love of her life. None of these characterization changes feel earned by the narrative, which leaves both protagonists feeling at best so in their own heads that they shut out everything else or simply so oblivious to their partners’ feelings and behaviors that they really shouldn’t be in a relationship. It is frustrating to say the least.

All that lead to my not enjoying the book. I did not like the cheating plot on either side, or the telling characterization, or the weirdly sudden sex scene after Anya leaves her fiancé and goes to find Catie. The sex scene seriously felt much more detailed than the rest of the book and went from zero to sixty-nine in seemingly no time and was just jarring and out of place. All of that would have left the book with a two out of five and a note that I would likely not read more of Briar Lane’s writing in the future. That would have just left me feeling like I had been waiting for the book to get better.

But there were two things that bothered me enough to drop the book to a one out of five, two things that were absolutely avoidable and that have little to do with the story itself. The first issue was the sample of Lane’s next work at the end of this one. This is not something that generally bothers me, it can be a great way to find other books that you might like. But in this case the out of place sex scene hit and then a flash forward to a year later at what was, according to my app, around the seventy percent mark for the book’s page count. The author dedicated nearly a third of her page space to advertising her next book in one that desperately needed an editor or a beta reader and at least one more going over. But then she also promised one last chapter of Given Away, an exclusive chapter that the reader could download if they just followed the included link. The link lead to a website that wanted me to sign up to it to get the opportunity to download the chapter that the author just couldn’t include in the book proper, so I guess I will not be reading that chapter.

Those two issues left me feeling more than a little cheated. Which of course leads to this, it is not hard to give Given Away a one out of five. It is worryingly easy to keep finding things that I did not like in Given Away. I can only hope that it is some other reader’s cup of tea and that Briar Lane keeps working on her writing and has the opportunity to improve. After her hiding a chapter of her book away on a website that requires sign up to access, I will not be there for the rest of her career.

 

Never Just Friends

So, this got delayed a little. Got some stuff going on that made it a little harder to write than I’d like to admit. But this was a book I had a really good time reading. So here is Lily Craig’s Never Just Friends. Enjoy!

Never Just Friends cover

Having feelings for your best friend, as Georgie knows well, is terrible. Having feelings for a best friend who has not only just come out to you, but also assured you that she would never date you, is worse. So Georgie does the only thing she can to deal. She leaves town, finds a new job and tries to start a new life. Through a year of distance and worry Madelyn has come to realize that the love she holds for her best friend is romantic. She hopes that she can take time during their yearly cabin trip to mend the rift that has opened up between her and Georgie. Mend the rift and make her feelings known. But Canadian winters can be brutal and a sudden snow storm traps the two together in their cabin. Trapped by the weather the two will have to deal with their feelings and the distance created by miscommunications.

I feel like, before digging into the review here, I have to admit that friends to lovers is one of my favorite fictional romance tropes. I like the history that it can give characters and the familiarity that it tends to bring which, at its best written, can make the evolution to romance feel more natural or can bring really good drama. In most ways Lilly Craig’s Never Just Friends delivers on that.

Something that really worked for me in Never Just Friends was the way the chapters alternated between the present, with the events in the cabin as Georgie and Madelyn try to work around their feelings, and the past, showing bits of their friendship from when they first met right up to the year before. It does a good job of keeping the characters’ history and the reasons why two people who are as totally different as Georgie and Madelyn would still be sticking together after years and years. It also gives a really nifty look into who the characters were and who they became as they grew up. These looks into the past are really something that it feels like the book needs to work, the characters’ attraction could feel a little one sided and shallow without it. Georgie is shown to be more than a little emotionally shut off, not really willing to put herself out there, especially after having her heart broken by Madelyn at the start of the novel. The sections of their shared history help keep Madelyn going after Georgie so doggedly from feeling forced.

There’s actually a lot baked into Never Just Friends that really works for me, though a lot of it also verges on spoilers to talk about so I won’t go into it here. Similarly, there is not a lot that I find myself wanting to complain about. There are some places where either protagonist could have been toned down a little. Georgie’s temper flares up more than feels entirely reasonable a couple times and Madelyn can feel almost a little manic pixie dream girl desperate in her attempts to get Georgie to hear her out. Neither issue is a major one and both fit pretty reasonably with their respective characters, but there were spots where it felt more like an awkward necessity to move the plot along or maintain drama than something that was natural to the moment.

So, where does that leave me? I really liked this book. The characters were a little more complicated than I’m entirely used to in romance novels and the chapters that covered their history together was a really nice touch. While there were bits that felt like they were pushed a little further than necessary for the sake of the plot, they didn’t distract terribly from the narrative flow. For me, Never Just Friends earns a four out of five. I also admit that I did not realize that I was reading another Lily Craig novel until I was most of the way through and needed to redownload the book after clearing space on my phone, so points to her for range. I’m likely to seek out more of her work at this point.

Yule Love Her

I’m both more that a bit late getting this one reviewed and a bit early for the actual start of Yule this year. But this seemed like a good spot for something short and sweet. This one’s courtesy of NetGalley, here’s Jodi Hutchins’ Yule Love Her. Enjoy!

Yule Love Her cover

Artist and semi-recent transplant to Seattle, Joy hasn’t been in a relationship in the year since she found her previous significant other cheating. With a string of one night stands, she hasn’t really considered it. At least not until a chance meeting on the bus introduces her to harried personal assistant Bec. They quickly form a rapport and Bec soon works up the courage to ask her to lunch. When casual dates nearly turn into something more, Joy suggests taking things slow and seeing where things go.  As Christmas nears, neither can expect that an unexpected meeting and a misunderstanding might ruin their chances at happiness together. Can they make this work, or will Joy and Bec be spending the holidays alone?

In a lot of ways Jodi Hutchins’ Yule Love Her just feels like it doesn’t have enough space to develop the characters or to build any sort of conflict. It’s just one of those stories that really isn’t served by being as short as a novella is, especially with how much of the story’s content is covered by the blurb. It quickly becomes pretty obvious where most of the story beats are going to hit, if not exactly how, while leaving the characters oddly naked of development.

Put bluntly, there’s more built up to the sex scene than there is to the story’s climax. And that bothers me more than a bit since this is billed as romance rather than erotica. There are a lot of places where it feels like there should have been more. More build between Bec and Joy. More build up for the antagonist as the antagonist. That one especially seems like it had a skeleton in place that just never really got fleshed out. The lack of extra space to buff that out made the climax feel badly placed, like the antagonist wasn’t built up to that level of reaction.

More of the legitimately cute moments between the protagonists would have been fantastic. Or more character moments, show the two of them opening up to each other more. Joy could have talked to Bec about her art more or the kinds of people who order commission work from her. Bec could have talked more about the job she’s hoping to get or more about her boss beyond the aggressive need for control and being mad at her for being late. Because I wound up kind of feeling like these two got together because the story needed them to. Which is a shame, because with a little more time on page out and about doing things together Joy and Bec could have been a really fantastic couple. But it felt like it kept getting sidelined by physical attraction, which fair, but I still found myself wanting more meat to the relationship itself with the physical bits as a sort of dessert to that.

The pacing is what makes most of the problems I have with Yule Love Her. Like a lot of novella’s I’ve read, it feels like there was meant to be more but it needed to fit a word limit. So important things might have gotten cut. Which is a shame because I think this could have been a really nifty romance if it had been given twice as much page space so things could be built up better. And it isn’t bad, I would read a different book by Jodi Hutchins, just preferably a novel length one. I want to see what happens when she has space to dig in and do more with the surrounding plot rather than needing to dance around a reveal.

So yeah, there were definitely parts to Yule Love Her that I enjoyed. There were parts I would have liked to see more of, mostly character stuff. Joy and Bec dating and Bec and her job or her boss kinds of stuff mostly. There was some stuff that made the end feel not entirely genuine that could have been worked around a bit more. But, overall, it has a lot of promise and I want to see more of Hutchins’ writing to see her live up to the promise that Yule Love Her shows. So it gets a three out of five from me. Worth checking out if you want a quick read between celebrations.

Way late on this. I took a nap earlier and slept through my alarm, so best laid plans there. This was the kind of read that I didn’t know I needed until I was midway through it and kept pausing to bother my poor mother about bits that I was really enjoying. So, with no further ado, this is Lily Craig’s Pretend Girlfriend. Enjoy!Pretend Girlfriend cover

The best revenge, they say, is living well. When Celeste Lamontagne receives an invitation to her cheating ex-girlfriend’s wedding she knows that isn’t true. The best revenge is being seen living well, and to do that Celeste will need a happy relationship to show off during the wedding cruise through the Mediterranean. A happy relationship with a girl outside the social strata she and her ex share so no one can discover the truth, that she hasn’t let anyone close since they broke up. That’s where free spirited stylist Lane comes in, all she has to do is play the part of Celeste’s loving girlfriend for the duration of the cruise and she’ll be set up with a second chance in New York’s fashion scene. They just have to convince a yacht full of people that they’re a couple for two weeks without getting caught. Two weeks without stumbling over each other, spilling the secret, or butting heads too hard might be manageable if they can handle the sparks stirring up between them.

A solid three quarters of the appeal Lily Craig’s Pretend Girlfriend held for me starting out was that it is built on the fake dating trope. That sort of deal where two characters fake a relationship for one reason or another but it’s obvious from the start that one or both of them are totally into the other, and of course they wind up together because it’s a romance trope. It’s meant to have a happy ending. I have no idea why I’m as about this trope as I am, but here we are.

Pretend Girlfriend has more than a fair amount of repetition and not a ton of plot. There’s some places where it feels kind of soap opera-esque, with really big reactions to things the reader hadn’t been in on either. Despite all that, it is a lot of fun. Celeste and Lane are two very different characters from two very different sets of circumstances. They play off each other well for a lot of the book and the places where they don’t do a good job of setting up a situation where their personalities would absolutely clash.

There is a lot of mutual pining and deciding that the other is just in it for the job. That, I admit, got a little old especially since it was intercut with the characters making huge strides in caring for and getting to know each other. It was never so bad that it became unreadable, but it did get to a point where it felt like it was being used to keep Celeste and Lane in a holding pattern longer than necessary. It also made the cruise feel like it had gone on for far more than two weeks by the time the climax hit.

Contrasting that though, I really enjoyed the bits with the two out and about at the cruise’s various stops. Celeste trying to show she cared and finding that she was enjoying herself while with Lane was pretty great. The banter between them was fun. And it actually felt like Celeste was loosening up and having more fun as the book continued.

So, yeah, Pretend Girlfriend was a lot of fun. It doesn’t need much of a plot because the focus is squarely on the protagonists getting closer and falling for each other. It’s fun and light and a little ridiculous, so Pretend Girlfriend gets a four out of five from me. It has a base trope that I really like and fun characters that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

This is one that’s been giving me all kinds of trouble writing a review for. It’s one that I really enjoyed reading, but that is really hard to talk about without risking serious spoilers. Obviously something I want to avoid there. This one’s courtesy of netGalley. Here’s Mira Grant’s In the Shadow of Spindrift House. Enjoy!

In the Shadow of Spindrift House cover

Straight lines don’t exist in nature. There is no place for them among the curves, the twists, the softened edges. The House stands, all ruler straight lines and sharply measured angles, above a dying town that the sea reclaims street by street. The House stands, holding tight to its secrets and waiting. Harlowe Upton-Jones has been searching for answers for as long as she can remember. It’s what found her the teen detective group that would become her family. It’s what she’s good at. But a teen detective group can only stay teens so long and it’s all Harlowe can hope to do is find one last big case. One last big case to keep the band together or give the group a proper send off. One last big case that might find her the answers she’s been looking for since her parents’ murder. The legends surrounding Spindrift House twist in on themselves bending the Answer Squad’s story into something it was always meant to be, something it was never meant to be.

In the Shadow of Spindrift House by Mira Grant is decidedly Lovecraftian in its horror, which in a lot of ways makes it kind of hard to talk about. The house itself is this inescapable thing for Harlowe, something she’s been keeping back from showing the other members of the Answer Squad for years but that she also knows is the big mystery. The one that could make them hit the big time, the one she hopes will keep her friends together for a little longer. The book is a story of losing battles and inevitabilities, buried family secrets and friends growing up and growing apart.

A lot of the story is driven by Harlowe being desperate to hold on to her present, to avoid facing the future for just a little longer. She doesn’t see any prospects for herself, no colleges that would take her that she could afford to go to, the girl she loves is planning on moving on with her life now that the mysteries are drying up. It’s that desperate fear that takes them to the Spindrift house and let’s Harlowe make excuses to just stay a little longer and a little longer. After all, Addison would be so mad if they left  and missed out on the reward money. Or maybe she just imagined the truly creepy things going on, they should just take a little longer and keep looking. There’s a fair amount of that.

In a lot of ways, the atmosphere of the story builds on mundane fears and frustrations. The Answer Squad are at a point in their lives where they can’t really be teen detectives anymore, and Harlowe feels more than a little trapped by the changes she’s staring down. She’s the one with no plan. She’s the one that weird things are happening to in Spindrift house. In a lot of ways it feels like the mundane is the root of all Harlowe and, by extension, the Answer Squad’s troubles within the story. They’re high school graduates, so the local authorities don’t have as much patience for them solving mysteries the police couldn’t. There aren’t many mysteries headed their way anymore, so they can’t support themselves with it, so Addison is getting ready to go make something of herself and start a career. Harlowe feels adrift and scared that she’s going to lose the people closest to her, so she pulls out the nuclear option of final mysteries.

Then Spindrift house itself has this fantastic oppressive atmosphere. The weight of time and all the fears that have driven Harlowe to lead her friends here. The things that are just off, that are wrong in little ways that add up. Then, there’s a reprieve, a moment with the Answer Squad just being a group of friends. It eases up for a little while to let the reader breath and to restart the cycle of rising tension. The writing in In the Shadow of Spindrift House is tight and satisfying even as a number of things begin to feel more and more inevitable.

This is much further on the horror end of things than a lot of things I read. But a slow creeping sort of horror, an internal horror that’s too big to properly fight, as opposed to something more action oriented. That is absolutely to its credit. Grant did a fantastic job here, especially with regard to the atmosphere. So, of course In the Shadow of Spindrift House gets a five out of five from me. It makes me want more of this setting and this type of horror.

I’ve rewritten this at least three times. It was a lot of fun to think about and I kind of want to do a book vs series vs novella now, but I also didn’t want to just sit here comparing it to the web series. This one’s thanks to the awesome folks at Kids Can Press, via netGalley. Here’s Kim Turrisi’s adaptation of Carmilla. Enjoy!

Carmilla cover

When college freshman Laura Hollis’ roommate goes missing after a party she calls everyone she thinks might be able to help find her. Instead of help, she gets stuck with Carmilla, the roommate from hell, an aloof philosophy student who responds to seemingly everything with sarcasm. But the more Laura digs, the stranger things get. And the stranger things get, the more it seems like Carmilla knows much more than she lets on. The more it seems like Carmilla might be interested in her for less than nefarious purposes. What’s a girl to do with a mystery to solve, a very possibly vampiric roommate, and homework piling up by the day?

So, Kim Turrisi’s Carmilla is an adaptation of an adaptation, the Kinda TV web series of the same title started out in 2014 and has grown since. Being an adaptation can make things a little clunky at times, things that work well in video don’t always translate well to writing. But, it’s also not tied to a web cam anymore or just the initial script. The novel seems to tie in some things from parts of the web series’ setting that were introduced later as well as a few new scenes away from Laura’s updates regarding the missing girls mystery.

Not being tied to one web cam in one room is both a positive and a negative. The new scenes can be a lot of fun and add to the feeling of the setting and to Laura’s relationships with other characters. But, it can also feel like there’s just not quite enough to them or of them. The library scene stands out for me on this. We get Laura and La Fontaine and Carmilla breaking into the library and Carmilla knowing things that make getting where they need to be easier. That’s great, it adds to her as a character, it’s something new. Then they get into the library and things play out and are described nearly the same as they were in the web series. It didn’t feel as exciting as the characters being attacked by a flaming card catalogue should have been. It felt like I was being told what happened rather than seeing them experience it. There was a lot of room to expand or to fill things in a bit, and it feels like the author didn’t take it.

The exception to this feels like Laura’s crushes on both Danny, the TA for one of her classes, and of course Carmilla. Being in Laura’s head instead of just seeing her actress react, the reader gets a lot more details on how she feels about these two. Being into Danny because she’s sweet and straight forward in standing up for the missing girls and Laura herself. The attraction to Carmilla while still thinking she’s a terrible person and how that mellows into being into Carmilla the person. There’s a lot of internal stuff added here that makes it flow well.

There was kind of a weirdness about how some of the speech tags were done, especially when it comes to Carmilla. Maniacal laughter doesn’t really mesh with the whole disaffected philosophy student thing, or the whole aloof vampire thing, either way. Some things with Kirsch coming across as whiny, almost wimpy, in a way that feels odd given his whole friendly frat bro character. If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say that the tags that take me out of the narration feel too big for their moments or even their characters. It isn’t a huge issue, but it is a notable one.

It’s an interesting thing. I know that a lot of my enjoyment of the novel comes from my enjoyment of the web series. I know there were moments where I was left waiting for a particular bit or where something filled in a little bit more and it feeling better tied in for that. Turrisi’s adaptation does feel unfinished in places, possibly as a result of working from the script rather than the finished series, or maybe just as a result of things not translating well between one format and another. There are places where I felt thrown off by knowing there was more, and that does knock the book down a little for me. But I also want to see novels for the next two seasons and the movie as well. I’m left hoping that this is part of the lead up to something new coming, something more. I enjoyed Turrisi’s adaptation of Carmilla.

And that leaves the final score in a strange place. As a fan of the web series and knowing what they already managed, I would be inclined to give the novel a three out of five. But I also know that if I was just reading the novel on its own, knowing that the romancy aspect is a fair sized part of it, I would be more likely to bump it up to a four. So a four is where I’m going to leave it with the hope that, if there is a next book, it does all the things this one could have made this one fantastic.

Sort of a one more thing that I hope was a result of reading an ARC rather than the finished book. In the original season one of the web series La Fontaine isn’t specifically said to use they/them pronouns, it’s possible they aren’t entire out at that point, though they do go strictly by La Fontaine or Laf. As a result of this, she/her pronouns are used for them in the first season of the web series. The novel introduces them as gender queer, but still uses she/her pronouns for them in some places where the character speaking would know to not do that. It seems like the kind of thing that happened as a result of just transferring things over, but is also a sign that this could have been looked over again. That’s a big mistake to glance over.