Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

Seraphina – Rachel Hartman Review

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Rating: ★★★

I love fantasy, but it can be difficult to find original twists on old ideas. This is a perfect example of that. Rachel Hartman’s novel takes dragons and makes them into something new and fresh, and crafts a world full of complexities, nooks and crannies. I loved reading Seraphina, and while I think that the plot could have been tightened up in parts, I really enjoyed it.

Seraphina is the newly hired assistant music mistress at the Goreddi palace, but she has arrived at a period of turmoil. Prince Rufus has just been violently murdered, and it appears that a dragon is to blame. Tensions rise between the humans and dragons, who have lived side by side in Goredd since a peace treaty between the two sides was signed forty years previously. In the novel, Seraphina gets drawn into helping Prince Lucian to investigate the murder, and balances this not only with court politics and her duties as the music mistress, but also with keeping a dark secret that could get her killed.

My favourite thing about this novel was Hartman’s world-building. I was sucked into this world where humans and dragons live side by side, and loved learning about all of the different facets of the society. I was intrigued by how dragons took on a human form, the rules that they lived by, and all of the more subtle details that Hartman included, like how a dragon in human form still had a particular smell, how dragons take care of their scales, how dragons are by nature logical and cold, and have to keep their emotions in check so as to not become too ‘human’. There is so much to unpick and love in this novel without even discussing the plot, and I am a sucker for a well-crafted fantasy world.

Although I did have some issues with the plot, I still found the story to be intriguing enough to keep me entertained. The plot was exciting and I loved how the different aspects and characters featured in the book all linked together like pieces of a puzzle. My main issue was that I found it difficult to care all that much about Prince Rufus, and I kept forgetting that he was at the heart of the investigation. I think I would have preferred it if we had at least seen a glimpse of him at the start of the novel to get a feel for his character, rather than jump right into a world that is grieving for him. Also, while I was excited when I found out Seraphina’s secret, I resented her ‘powers’ a bit for seeming a bit too useful, in a sense, and didn’t understand why they existed. I also found the ‘resolution’ to her secret being revealed to feel a little rushed.

Unfortunately, I felt like some of the weaker aspects of the plot reflected less than well on the characters. For example, Seraphina as a character was great to begin with. She was smart and ‘prickly’, and I admired reading about a YA female fantasy protagonist with a hard-earned and well-respected job. I liked her curiosity, her loyalty and her complicated feelings towards Orma and dragons. However, she seemed to fall in love with Lucian from one page to the next and with no warning apart from the fact that it was somewhat expected considering that he is a prince that kept popping up in her path. Although Lucian and Seraphina do spend time together and seem to get on, I wasn’t getting any romantic vibes, sexual tension, or flirtation going on between them, and the sudden declaration of love from Seraphina felt forced by the author, and in my opinion, makes her look a bit flighty.

Overall however, the world-building was enough to keep me hooked in this book. I wanted to know if the peace would survive, I wanted to know whose side the dragons were on, I wanted to know which dragons I could trust and who was secretly a dragon in disguise. This saved the novel from some of the less perfect aspects, and redeemed it in my eyes. Whilst I will definitely be putting the sequel to Seraphina, Shadow Scale, on my to-read list, I won’t be pushing it straight to the top of the list.

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Book Reviews, Historical

Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood Review

 

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Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve never read any books by Ernest Hemingway, or anything about him, but I was interested in this book ever since it came out. Instead of telling the story of the world famous author, it tells the story of his wives, and of the turbulent lives that they shared with Hemingway. Despite not knowing anything about Hemingway, as I said, I didn’t feel that this hampered my ability to enjoy the book, and I actually really loved it.

The book is split into four parts, each following a different wife. First is Hadley, then Pauline, Martha, then Mary. They each tell the story of their relationship with Ernest, but interestingly, from the end of their relationship. In most of the cases, the marriage is at the brink, and the wives are either desperate to save it, or eager to let go, and in the last case, Mary tells her story from after Ernest’s death. They go back from this unhappy ending to the happy beginnings, and then go through all the ups and downs of their relationships. I loved this from of telling events with hindsight of how the relationship would turn out in the end, and how the later events of a relationship influence the memories that the women have of earlier events. This was made even more interesting by the fact that there are overlaps in the relationships, as Ernest Hemingway often left one wife with the other waiting in the sidelines. What this means is that you often read the same event twice, whether it’s a dinner party, or a holiday, but through the eyes of the wife first, then the next wife, who was at the time the mistress, second.

There are many references to genuine primary documents in this novel, as Wood used references to real love letters and telegrams, which makes this all feel so much more substantial. I felt like I really was talking to the women in person, and you could feel their joy, anger, bitterness, or sadness. Although the four sections are not particularly long (about 80 pages), I felt like I really got to know the four different wives and their emotions, their hopes and their regrets. This was helped by the fact that the prose is simple, but still gets across what they feel strongly, so the novel never dragged on. Further, you get to see Ernest Hemingway from four different angles. Instead of Ernest Hemingway feeling like a substantial person that I had gotten to know however, Wood makes him stay a sort of enigma, as if neither wife really knew him fully or could ever hold onto him tight enough to make him stay. With each wife, he changes a little, and so you end up feeling the same desperation and confusion as the wives do.

I don’t read a lot of adult or historical fiction, but occasionally, when novels from these genres catch my eye, they are for a reason. I knew that I would enjoy this storytelling from the point of view of women who are typically not as well remembered as the man they loved. Instead of this being about Ernest, through his wives’ eyes, it was about the wives, and I loved the complete focus on their inner lives and emotions.

Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks

Rating: ★★★★

I had heard so much about this book before I read it, mostly in the form of raring reviews. When I finally landed a copy, I barely waited before starting to read it, and I was not disappointed. This is an example of a book really living up to the buzz around it, and now I completely understand why this book is so loved.

This book (I’m not going to write the whole title out again!) is narrated by Aristotle, or Ari. He is a lonely fifteen year old kid at the start of the book. He feels out of place in most places, uncomfortable with people his own age, and doesn’t know where he belongs. Then, one day, he meets the light, colourful and bubbly Dante. After initially bonding over their unusual names, they form a strong friendship, but as time goes on and Dante discovers that he feels more for Ari, Ari battles with his own feelings.

What made this book for me was that the relationship between Ari and Dante was more than your typical YA romance. Their friendship was real and founded on more than physical attraction. They actually have things in common and shared experiences that bind them. In fact, there is very little romance involved in this novel until near the end, and this means that we get to know the characters as themselves and appreciate their relationship to a deeper level. For someone who doesn’t always appreciate romantic storylines being the central plot of a novel, this made it much easier to appreciate the storyline.

I also adored the writing in this novel. The style is so calm and mellow, that it really let Ari’s emotions rise to the surface.  Benjamin Alire Sáenz has a way with words that really enables him to capture exactly what Ari is feeling and put it in a way that you understand it too. This is really important as the novel doesn’t have a clearly defined plot, it simply follows the central relationship over a few years. There are events over the course of the novel, of course, but they don’t form separate stories of their own. Without this excellent writing style, the book could have quickly become boring for me, but I was swept away by his writing and devoured the book in a single day.

The only reason why I haven’t given this book five stars is because I felt that the pacing could have been better. Ari’s own stubbornness and fear keeps him from coming to terms with how he feels, but I felt that there wasn’t enough foreshadowing or hints at how he really felt in the earlier parts of the novel, which meant that the ending of the story felt a tiny bit contrived and fake. I went along with it and enjoyed it anyway because I loved the characters and the writing style, but it did nag me a bit and I felt like this could have been done a bit better for the sake of consistency.

Overall, this book had well-developed characters and excellent writing, which are the most important things in a book for me. Although I found the plot to be a bit weak at points, I could look past these because I loved the other parts of the book. If you haven’t read this, I would definitely recommend it, even if you don’t typically read YA literature.

Bookish Tags, Other

T5W: Books Without Romance

Top 5 Wednesday is a weekly meme that was created by Lainey of gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam of ThoughtsOnTomes. Every week, I will post my top 5 of that week’s theme. If you’d like to learn more about it or join in the fun, head over to the Goodreads group where all the discussions take place here.

This week’s topic is books without romance. Sometimes, romance plots can follow certain cliches, and are, by their nature, usually quite predictable in their endings. For that reason, I don’t typically love romance novels, and prefer the romance to be a secondary storyline, or play a minor role, if any at all. Sometimes I love the cliches, and sometimes I want something new. This can be difficult to find, but it can be refreshing and if done right, can bring to light different themes that aren’t always explored as much, as well as exploring other relationship dynamics that characters have, whether they are friendships or family bonds.

Here we go!

1. The Red Abbey Chronicles – Maria Turtschaninoff

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When does this series not feature in one of my T5W posts? I don’t know if it ever won’t be here. I will find every opportunity I possibly can to talk about this. Romance is completely absent in the first novel, Maresi, and features slightly in the second, but never in the way that you expect it. Turtschaninoff’s writing is completely new and different, and so her exploration of love and romance is as well.

Read my reviews for the first two books in the series here and here.

2. American Gods – Neil Gaiman

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Romance features briefly at the start of this novel, but not for long. Before the story has even got going, Shadow Moon discovers that the love of his life Laura has died. From then on, he embarks on an adventure with the mysterious Thursday, discovering that gods are real, and that they are going to war. Although this isn’t a book devoid of romance, much like the Red Abbey Chronicles, this is not a story that is driven by romance.

Read my full review here.

3. The Way Back Home – Allan Stratton 

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The most important relationship in this novel is that of Zoe and her grandmother, who she runs away from home with to protect. I thought at one point that romance would feature, but it turned out to simply be a red herring. It was so satisfying to see a YA novel adventure that focused solely on the family relationships of the main character.

Read my full review here.

4. Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

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Another YA novel that focused on family bonds, Everything I Never Told You is one of the most interesting books I have read in this genre. In the very first page, we are told that Lydia, the favourite child of the Lee family, has died. Over the course of the novel, Ng explores not only the relationships between the characters, but the dynamics of interracial relationships, racial identity, the American dream, the pressures that children face, and guilt.

5. Uprooted – Naomi Novik 

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The whole way through this novel I expected there to be more romance. It just goes to show how conditioned we are to expect it. Although romance did feature, it only made an appearance two times, if I remember correctly. Other than that, there was so much more to the plot that it took a back seat, and it would have been just as good without it altogether, because the relationship between Agnieszka and ‘the Dragon’ is so complex regardless.

Read my full review here.

Book Reviews, YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Young Adult

The Dark Days Club – Alison Goodman Review

 

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Rating:★★★★★

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while now after stumbling upon it on Goodreads, and it did not disappoint. It had a little bit of everything that I love the most. Historical setting, magic, romance, lively lead character. It was all there. There was honestly nothing about this book that didn’t impress me, and it actually far exceeded my expectations.

The Dark Days Club is the first instalment of the Lady Helen series which follows Helen Wrexhall as she navigates both high society in Regency England and a newfound underworld of demonic creatures that threatens everything she knows. Helen has been raised to be every part the lady so that she can marry well and escape the stain on her reputation left by her mother, who was a traitor. However, at the same time that she is introduced to society, she is also introduced to the Dark Days Cub, led by the dark and dangerous Lord Carlston, who tells her that she, like her mother, is a Reclaimer, with powers that can help to protect thousands of human lives. Helen tries to navigate both of these worlds simultaneously, trying to keep them from clashing, but when the time comes, she may have to pick one over the other.

This book surprised me in so many ways. I loved how fresh the whole novel felt, it was like nothing I had read before. I found Alison Goodman’s writing to be refreshing in that it was told from a third person perspective with quite a lot of detail and description but never felt boring or dense, and made the story as a whole come to life. The fantasy world that she has created is imaginative and well-crafted, and I loved all of the detail that she included, from the superhuman abilities of a Reclaimer, to the rules that they must follow, to the effect that this has on them. I loved the concept of the Deceiver monsters living alongside normal society, invisible to normal eyes, feeding on different aspects of the human spirit. This was all elevated by the Regency setting. I haven’t read any darker Regency novels, because it is typically associated so strongly with romance, and so I loved to see these two worlds collide. On the one hand, Helen is a lady in London society. She is going to parties and balls, and she catches the eye of a Duke. On the other hand, she is also part of this entirely different world.

The Dark Days Club has many interesting characters. Some favourites were Darby, Helen’s maid, and Lord Carlston, your typical dark, brooding hero with a secret. However, the character that really made this whole novel was Lady Helen herself. She is smart and witty, but not annoyingly so. I never tired of her humour and she never felt like a caricature. You really get to know her and understand her, and the choices that she faces. Sometimes I feel like authors take for granted that we will understand the societies that their characters are growing up in, but Goodman makes it really clear that Helen is none the weaker for being raised to be a traditional lady, for considering a safe and stable life of being married to a wealthy man, or for changing her outfit multiple times a day. She really brings to life the world that Helen lives in and this makes it easier to understand the decisions that she makes and the personal challenges that she faces. I also really enjoyed the fact that Helen has agency of her own throughout the story. Rather than being forced into being a Reclaimer, she consciously takes steps to learn more about the world that she has discovered, and she has a real choice. If she wants, she can leave the Dark Days Club behind and return to a normal life, abandoning her powers and responsibilities. This makes you respect her even more, and makes me doubly excited to read the next part of her story.

Now, I have to stop this review before I end up babbling on and boring you all. I’ve already had to force myself to cut out waffle, spoilers, and in-depth discussions of characters and plot points from this review. So, let’s just conclude this review with a repeated statement from me that The Dark Days Club is everything that I have been looking for in YA fantasy fiction. It has realistic, multi-faceted characters, a new and creative fantasy world, and a wonderful historical setting.