This was not at all what I expected. A lot more swearing, a lot more body humor, and a LOT more swamp-lifestyle dialect and bizarre POVs than I was prepared to read. It was good? But not for me?
Concept: super original
Writing: really polarizing
Overall impression: not for me, but probably a great book for its audience
Highfire comes out on January 28, 2020!
Highfire is the first adult fantasy novel from the acclaimed author of the Artemis Fowl series. I read Artemis Fowl ages ago, and I vaguely remember liking it.
Don't get it twisted—this book feels like a completely different species.
Vern is the last dragon on Earth. Except he's not really the visual of a dragon that we're used to. He's a 7-foot-tall, tusk-y, scaly interpretation of a dragon that honestly feels like a gargoyle. But that's not the main point—the main point is that Vern is sentient, old as hell, and is wasting away his twilight years as the vodka-drinking king of the alligator swamps of rural Louisiana.
Everett "Squib" Moreau is a kid born out of the swamp, with a rough-and-tumble upbringing filled with swearing, hard times, and a bit too much dynamite for the average kid—he's now down to 9 fingers. He's struggling to avoid the attention of the local cop, and he's definitely not prepared to meet Vern.
Regence Hooke is the crooked law of Squib's small town, and he's not exactly a well-adjusted man. Alright, let's admit he's a full on clinical psychopath. He's got a plan to make the swamp his illegal kingdom, and he's got it in for Squib, not the least of which because Squib's mom is on Hooke's "to-do" list. (Yeah, there isn't a more pleasant way to say that. Hooke is nasty, and being in his head makes you want to shower afterwards.)
I can be honest and say that I've never, ever read a book like this. Highfire is so breathtakingly original that I think all fantasy fans should give the first chapter a try, just to see what the author has done with the writing style and concept.
I like my fantasy with more, well, fantasy? I'm also not a fan of body humor (pee jokes, bodily fluid jokes, etc.), and I'm definitely not a fan of Hooke's POV and rape-y overtones, so 1/3 of the story was an automatic fail. Without Hooke's POV, this story might have been 4 stars.
I'd say if you're a fan of extremely dialect-driven narration, body humor, and/or unique fantasies, try this out!
Trigger warnings: Suicide attempt depicted, and graphic rescue scene. Dialogue about suicide. Internal rape dialogue. Extreme violence.
Thank you to HarperCollins for this giveaway ARC!
This is the kind of story that I love. It’s lingering, it’s mythic, and it leaves you on the edge of a conclusion. The story of traveling to the afterlife with a guide, but with such an interesting edge.
Concept: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Execution: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Pacing: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The Border Keeper opens with a landscape. A tiny house lies on the horizon of a desolate, completely empty desert. There is a low fence stretching across the world behind the house—it extends beyond all eyesight in either direction, and it leaves no shadow. The border.
A man walks up to this spot on the horizon. He’s traveled beyond his means to reach this house, and he needs to speak to the being inside: the border keeper.
The border keeper has been the border keeper for all time. She’s lived many lives, traveled many realms, and holds a bone-deep power. She is what stands between the realm and the other, the afterlife. And she’s not interested in attracting company.
But the man needs to go across the border, and he’s here to petition his case.
So begins The Border Keeper. With this impressive and visually gripping opener, the author had me hooked on the plot. I love underworld/afterlife stories and renditions, and this one was so incredibly singular, and perfect for its novella size. I wanted more, but I feel like I didn’t need more—it would have cheapened the questioning nature of the world and the mysteries of the border keeper herself.
However, the pacing bothered me. When you have limited pages, each page should have a specific purpose and carefully execute each plot point with the right amount of give and take. I found certain scenes to be rushed, leaving me confused, and other scenes to be completely, utterly unnecessary.
Honestly, give this one a go. It might surprise you! And if the plot doesn’t hook you, read it for the surprising humor and stunning visuals.
Fast-paced, fantastic setting, and the amount of drama that you'd expect from Pretty Little Liars, this is a fun romp for fans of boarding school mystery/thrillers.
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Reveal(s): Not overly surprising, but incredibly entertaining
Enjoyment: I love boarding school mysteries, so... yes.
Nestled in a small town in Virginia, there sits a prestigious all-girls boarding school catering to the elite. Appearances and social ties are everything, and these girls are primed for success at any cost.
Enter Ash, a girl with a secret and everything left to lose.
Ash has come to the Goode School to escape her tragic recent past and remake herself in the image of a Goode girl. Goode girls are honorable, smart, and polished. Goode girls are dedicated to their studies and are guaranteed spots at Ivy League schools. Goode girls can't afford to have setbacks or secrets.
But this "perfect" boarding school is built on secrets, hazing, and lies. Nothing is what it seems, and Ash finds herself not only in danger of revealing her true past but also getting crushed by Goode's other members—who have some serious qualms about an English girl one-upping them on their home turf.
I loved this devious, back-stabbing, girls' revenge mystery/thriller story. It definitely knows its audience, and it caters to us well. There is plenty of intrigue, hidden romance, double-crossing, atmosphere, and of course murder(s).
In particular, I loved the framing of the story—we have several POVs, and certain facts that I took for facts turned out to have different conclusions. Which was sometimes a nice surprise and sometimes an easily guessed—yet entertaining—reveal. I will say that I definitely guessed the largest mystery plot point, but I still kept reading because the story itself was so entertaining.
My main reluctance to rate this higher was due to the easy to guess plot points and the pacing. At times, this felt long. It IS long, but unlike some long books that feel short, this one feels as long as it is.
Come for the drama, stay for the drama! This is definitely a worthy inclusion into the genre of boarding school mysteries. I loved it.
Thank you to Harlequin - MIRA for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This is a masterpiece. This is flawless. This is the kind of book that comes along once in a decade. This cracks the foundations.
Erin Morgenstern is not for everyone. Her writing is for those who love the story for the sake of the story. The lyrical, meandering, and existential prose is not the standard format, and it takes no prisoners. If it's not for you, it's not for you.
Normally, I try to make some sort of sense in my review. Talk about the characters, the plot, the atmosphere. The Starless Sea is too close to my heart to describe accurately. (What more can I say about it than what it says about itself?)
It's about a subterranean library living labyrinthine space where the stories are often books, but not always.
Time and Fate are characters with an eternal love affair, but Fate was cursed to unravel over and over. Sometimes, Fate can put itself back together again. Time is always waiting.
Zachary Ezra Rawlins is the son of a fortune teller, and he discovers that his story has been fated since the moment he saw his door to the Starless Sea years ago. He didn't open the door then, but your story has a way of finding you even when you're not aware of its presence.
The Starless Sea is about metaphorical pirates, the Moon and her lover, Fate and Time, the power of the story, the cycle of beginnings and endings, owls, and bees. It has stories within stories, and perspectives that shift within the construct of time.
I loved it. I can't wait to read it again. As Morgenstern said in a recent interview, if The Night Circus embodied the concept of fall, The Starless Sea embodies the concept of winter. She says she's going to conceptualize spring for her next one...and I'm dying to read it.
Morgenstern, tell me a tale.
What a fun, fast-paced, and surprisingly modern take on a historical romance! It definitely maintained the best guilty pleasures of the old-school Harlequin tropes, but with a modern mindset that I appreciated. If you're not a historical fiction fan, don't let this novel's premise turn you off—this is one good story.
Enjoyment: all the stars
Set in England in the late 1800s, Bringing Down the Duke follows the two perspectives of Annabelle Archer, a 25-year-old Oxford student trying to thrive in London, and the Duke of Montgomery, a 35-year-old aristocrat with close ties to Queen Victoria. (I mention the age gap as it does influence some readers. I found it tasteful in this case, and very necessary for the plot due to the time period.)
Annabelle Archer is thrilled to attend Oxford's new college program for women, and even more thrilled for the scholarship that allows her to leave her small country village for London. There's just one catch: she must be an active member of the suffragist movement—which includes lobbying members of Parliament and inserting herself into the aristocracy's sphere.
Sebastian Montgomery is the most influential duke in the realm, and a notoriously cold man. He has no time for the softer things in life—he's too busy trying to secure his dukedom's future and reclaim the ancestral home that his father gambled away.
Obviously, these two find their paths cross in a definitive way. Bringing Down the Duke brings a little bit of Pride and Prejudice, a little bit of Jane Eyre, a little bit of Harlequin romance, and a LOT of well-written narrative.
My only complaint is that I wish some of the scene-to-scene transitions had been more logical. We went from A to B to D to C, and then in order to follow the romance, we abandoned some of the slow burn fire for immediate attraction...which felt like an abrupt shift.
A 911 dispatcher receives a call. It's her daughter. What would you do?
Writing: ★★★★ 1/2
Have you ever had a thriller where the writing was so good, so intense, that you enjoy yourself even as the plot takes off in odd directions? Yeah, that's Stolen Things.
Laurie is a 911 dispatcher. Her husband, Omid, is the local police chief. One day at work, the woman on the other end of the line isn't a stranger—it's Laurie's daughter, Jojo, and she's been drugged, assaulted, and left in an unknown location.
There is no force stronger than a determined woman with nothing to lose and everything to save.
Laurie, Omid, and the police team find Jojo quickly and discover that she's in the home of famously anti-police pro football player Kevin Leeds. Leeds' athletic trainer is found dead near Jojo. Jojo's friend, Harper Cunningham, is still missing. What happened?
Stolen Things takes off like a rocket. A woman on a mission, Laurie commits to finding the perpetrator and avenging her daughter's assault with a vengeance that was one of the reasons she voluntarily took herself of the police force—Laurie didn't trust herself to act rationally when it came down to the wire. Well, now it's down to the wire. And Laurie says f*** it.
One of the many things I loved about Stolen Things was its portrayal of motherhood as a source of strength, not weakness. Laurie was a strong character, and while some of her decisions where definitely questionable, I have to admit that I understood them. Her choices were bad or more bad, and she chose based on what would be the best for her family. There was a ruthlessness that I admired.
Things I didn't like:
The writing was killer, but the references to this exact place in time were numerous. As I was reading, I was able to resonate with certain cultural references, but at the same time it kept throwing me out of the story as I was reminded that this story was happening NOW, in 2019. I'm not sure these references will hold up in 5 years. I also struggled with the author's intense opinions shining through the mystery. Now, for the most part I was in agreement with the author's stance, but just because I agreed doesn't mean it wasn’t distracting—in my opinion, the mystery should have been the forefront.
Original notes: This was such an engaging read. I actually bit my nails while reading—call this an honest nail biter. Others have mentioned the heavy-handed beliefs of the author detracting from their reading experience, and I have feelings about that too. Review to come!
Thank you to Dutton via Netgalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
The Poppy War was good, this one is better
The Poppy War was brutal, this one is ruthless
The Poppy War enticed, this one demanded
The Poppy War sparked the war, this one incinerated the battlefield
There was nothing I did not love about The Dragon Republic.
Character growth: ★★★★★
War/Gore Factor: ★★★★★ (yeah it's still rough.)
The Dragon Republic is the explosive follow-up to R.F. Kuang's insanely talented debut novel, The Poppy War, and it does not disappoint—in fact, it packs double the punch. Haven't read the first book? Stop! Go find it! Read it! Love it! Then come back here! See if you agree with what I thought! Warning: it's going to spoil aspects of The Poppy War in order to cover its goodness.
Fang Runin (Rin) is not doing so well. At the end of The Poppy War, she's just watched her Cike commander/shaman/troubled love interest Altan sacrifice himself to the flames of the vengeful Phoenix god, and in her grief-torn rage she sets fire to an entire island. (An. Entire. Island.) She singlehandedly ended the Third Poppy War against the Mugunese...by killing an entire population in one swoop.
As we entire The Dragon Republic, Rin's struggling with the emotional backlash of that decision and sliding the slippery slope down to PTSD-inflicted opium addiction. She's shaky, hard to control, and hard to predict. The Phoenix is winning. Her characteristic ego is flailing. The last thing she wants is to be in control of the Cike, a small band of powerful shamans who are also held on the precipice of madness in order to commune with their gods and reap the supernatural powers. She's making poor decisions, and it shows. What can a soldier do when her commander abandons her?
She finds a new commander, a new war, and a new path toward vengeance. But is lending her war-ending powers to another puppeteer the answer to this game?
I can't say I was expecting this novel to unfold in this way it did—mainly due to the fact that the plot was impossible to predict. It had a lot more boats than I was expecting, and appealed to the inner pirate/adventurer in me. It introduced aspects of Western civilization-inflicted colonialism parallels that were disturbing to read and disturbing to reflect upon. In traditional Kuang style, it reflected aspects of China's history that will make your heart ache, and your conscience guilty. It reflected on female roles in the military, gender imbalances, and sexual violence as a result of war. I really appreciated these inclusions. It's not a pretty story, but it is a necessary one—and in the context of this fantasy world it has the potential for a glorious re-do. I can't wait for Rin to burn it down.
Also, the sheer amount of game-changing moments in this novel left me in a state of perpetual tension. Who will betray whom, and when, and how? Who will die next? How will Rin's characteristic impulsiveness react to this latest reveal? And where will Rin and Nezha's wonderful hate-to-maybe-more dynamic go as they dance around their lies and truths?
Like the first novel in the series, The Dragon Republic has a lot to say. It was brutal, it was vicious, it was nauseating. It took no prisoners and no one's life was sacred. But, it was also poignant, original, and absolutely thrilling. I can't wait to see where Kuang takes Rin next—it's going to be an explosive journey.
Thank you so much to Harper Collins - Harper Voyager via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Riley Sager's third novel brings to mind the classic intrigues of the Gilded Age, but with a distinctly modern twist. I loved this one, folks!
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Lock Every Door was not exactly what I expected when I assumed I was reading a Riley Sager novel. His 2018 hit, The Last Time I Lied, was a creepy, somewhat spooky, dialogue-driven narrative with barely-there descriptions that evoked vivid senses of atmosphere culminating in a pulse-pounding conclusion. Lock Every Door, by contrast, is a study in description, Hitchcockian-level creeping senses of unease, occasional action, and a reflection on modern times.
I loved it anyway, but it was different.
The Bartholomew is a stately apartment building with an exclusive list of New York's richest living within its historic gilded halls. The apartments are sumptuous, the clientele discrete. No press, no guests, and no prying allowed.
Jules is a recently single, recently fired 20-something girl scraping her way through life in New York City. Her family is dead/out of the picture, and she's essentially on her own in the world (excluding her good friend Chloe, who allows her to crash on her couch). When the advertisement for an apartment sitter finds Jules, she can't believe her luck. It's at the Bartholomew, and they want to pay her to apartment sit in one of New York's richest zip codes.
It's the deal of Jules' lifetime. But is it too good to be true?
The rules for apartment sitters seem strict, but Jules needs the money and figures she can ignore the odd parts of the job. That is, until one of her fellow apartment sitters goes missing. Jules quickly finds herself in a cat-and-mouse game with a villain that she can't find and the results are not what she expects.
Like Riley Sager's previous works, I had a fantastic time reading this. The writing is irresistible, and Lock Every Door is an unputdownable mystery. My only problem was its tough introduction--it takes a while for the plot to get going, and the descriptions of the apartment building are a bit much right on the offset. But, once you're invested in the narrative, all of the descriptions become part of the atmosphere so all is forgiven. The ending wasn't exactly shocking for me, but it was moderately surprising and still enjoyable. I confess, I wanted a similarly creepy ending to The Last Time I Lied, where the narrative spools out with an intriguing last call. The ending to Lock Every Door felt much more finite.
Thank you so much to Dutton via NetGalley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
What an unexpected find! Technically a science fiction novel, The Luminous Dead reads like a mystery/thriller diverse survivalist tale with doses of speculative elements and psychological intrigue. Also, lots of caves. Caves on caves.
Spook Factor: ★★★★
Characters: ★★★ 1/2
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
More people need to be talking about The Luminous Dead.
For those who like to blend their mystery/thriller with the speculative, it's an almost pitch-perfect entry into the niche.
The Luminous Dead follows the underground cave mission of Gyre, the protagonist, as she works under contract for a company exploring one of the many caves on the planet. Gyre's suit comes with a 24/7 communication link to a handler above ground. Her handler, Em, appears to have hidden motivations regarding the mission and things don't always go as planned.
Cue the suspense. This entire novel takes place with Gyre in the cave. We've got Em on the comm link, but it's mainly just this solo woman in the dark trying to survive and get to the last/deepest cave point to complete the mission. It's gripping. It's terrifying. Things happen to Gyre that I'll never forget. Gyre's mission is to travel between six Camps that Em and previous caving teams have managed to establish in the caves and get to the final marker. No one has made it to the final marker, but Gyre has nothing to lose and no way out but through.
If you have claustrophobia, this novel is not for you.
Considering the limited setting, limited dialogue, and repetitive scenery, the pacing is great. I never felt disengaged, and even found myself fighting not to glance ahead to relieve some of the narrative tension. Gyre's trip down into the belly of the beast is gripping and filled with many moments of psychological problems and survivalist dilemmas.
One semi-gross note: There are several bodily-function mentions in this, as the high-tech suit Gyre is wearing has adapted sections of Gyre's body to leave no trace in the caves. If you don't like discussions of body parts, fair warning.
What I didn't like: Between both Em and Gyre, there is too much of a focus on their mistrust for each other. Gyre flip-flops many times on trusting Em, not trusting Em, etc. This concept would have been completely fine, but the motivations and proof for this flip-flopping went back and forth. It wasn’t for me—I was here for the caves.
Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys cave exploration, speculative/horror elements, survival tales, LGBT+, and pulse-pounding intimate science fiction.
Unlike anything I’ve ever read. This Mayan death god myth-making tale was perfect.
First off, I am probably in the minority, but I did not see this story as overly similar to a Cinderella tale—the similarities end after the first few chapters. The marketing for Gods of Jade and Shadow bills it as a Jazz-Age Cinderella, but the story felt much more like Hades and Persephone with a dash of the Art Deco.
I could not get enough of this story.
Gods of Jade and Shadow follows the story of Casiopea, a girl growing up in rural Mexico in the early 1900s who discovers a chest of ancient black bones in her grandfather's bedroom. Accidentally cutting herself and bleeding on the bones, Casiopea resurrects the Mayan god of death, Hun-Kame. Hun-Kame was cursed and imprisoned in his bones (well, most of his bones) by his twin brother, and suffice to say Hun-Kame is not pleased with the turn of events. Finding herself tied to Hun-Kame through her blood, Casiopea embarks on a quest with the death god to collect his missing bones and defeat his twin brother to reclaim the Mayan underworld.
Obviously, the tone of Gods of Jade and Shadow is dark and mythic in scope—and it reads that way.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel was the gritty realism brought to the plot by Casiopea herself. She stands apart from almost every other female protagonist I've read. She's no-nonsense in the pragmatic sense, she's extremely dry with her humor, and she does NOT fall into any of the main tropes. Tie these personality traits in with Hun-Kame, an ancient god with no empathy and no sense of sarcasm, and you have a winning match.
Things I loved: Casiopea, Hun-Kame's inability to understand inflection, Hun-Kame and Casiopea's no-nonsense responses to the absurd, the LACK OF AN INSTANT ROMANCE, the adventure-style journey to different parts of 1920s Mexico, the unfolding of the plot, Casiopea's honestly iconic reactions to her cousin, the final climactic sequence, and again for the people in the back THE LACK OF AN UNDERDEVELOPED AND OVERHYPED ROMANCE. There’s a romance, but it’s supremely well done and slow.
Things I didn't love: Alright, I'll be honest. I struggled with the pacing and lack of intimacy with Casiopea at the beginning. It's a slow entrance and a different way to write fantasy—very much keeping in line with old school myth tales. However, by the end I was HOOKED on the writing style and loved the pacing.
Many thanks to Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.