Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley | Book Review

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Where Things Come Back Rating: ★★★★

Does John Corey Whaley know how to write!

Goodreads Synopsis:

Winner of the 2012 Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris Awards, this poignant and hilarious story of loss and redemption “explores the process of grief, second chances, and even the meaning of life.” Kirkus Reviews

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town vanishes. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and, most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

As Cullen navigates a summer of finding and losing love, holding his fragile family together, and muddling his way into adulthood, a young, disillusioned missionary in Africa searches for meaning wherever he can find it. And when those two stories collide, a surprising and harrowing climax emerges that is tinged with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, and above all, hope.

BookishBlond Reviews:

This book is such a treat to read, primarily because of Whaley’s masterful plot construction. The plot is split – one story follows Cullen Witter as he navigates the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, following his cousin’s fatal overdose and his younger brother’s disappearance. The second story first follows a young missionary in Africa, whose eventual return to the States triggers a series of events that’s larger than his own story. At first, the two plotlines seem completely unrelated, but when Whaley does end up bringing them together… ooooohh boy. I didn’t predict it at all. Nothing surprises me, but the conclusion of Where Things Come Backmade my jaw drop in the best way.

Even so, I’m torn between giving this book three and four stars. In addition to the plot construction, I think the strongest aspect of this book is the small-town setting. Cullen’s story is set in rural Arkansas, but it really could be any small American town. The poverty and the hopelessness will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a small town. Cullen’s resignation that he, like his parents, will be stuck in his hometown forever rang true.

But I felt like Whaley’s characters were weak. Cullen reminded me too much of John Green’s typical hero – awkward, melancholy, sensitive, and very irritating. Cullen has an annoying habit of breaking into third person, i.e., “when one is doing X, he will think Y…” that is absolutely infuriating, especially when the technique is used in every chapter. Cullen also imagines those around him as zombies, which I presume is a coping mechanism after going through the trauma of a family member’s death and another’s disappearance. I guess I don’t mind this, but it was annoying to read so many zombie passages, especially since they weren’t exactly framed as separate occurrences from Cullen’s real life. Maybe Whaley was going for some magical realism?

The other characters – especially the girls – are beginning to bleed together in my memory. Not only does everyone have a similar name, but their voices are similar as well.

did enjoy this book’s quirks – The Book of Enoch, a holy book not included in the Christian Bible, is a prominent feature. I loved that. I also enjoyed the mythology of the Lazarus woodpecker. These topics lurk in the background of the book’s plot, and it’s just delightful. They’re unique, and I really appreciate Whaley’s decision to introduce them.

Overall, I am impressed with this book as a debut novel. Whaley knows how to construct a plot! But his characters could use some work. I didn’t feel emotionally connected to any of his characters, but I have no doubt that his characterization will improve as he continues to write. I will definitely be reading more of his novels in the future!

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Broken Things by Lauren Oliver | Book Review

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Broken Things

Rating: ★★★

Meh. Underwhelming.

I read Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall about ten years ago (yeah I’m old af) and I remember liking it (even though I gave it three stars on Goodreads apparently??) so when I saw the gorgeous cover of Broken Things I was like, okay. It’s time to read some more Lauren Oliver.

[Summer] became our everything, our tornado. We were caught up in her force. She turned us around. She made the world spin faster. She blotted out all the other light.

We couldn’t escape.

And maybe it’s the old influence, the winds still embedded inside, but now I’m the one who wants to destroy. I want to break the old connections. I want to flatten her back into the grave.

I want her to let us go.

Summer, Brynn, and Mia were best friends who were all obsessed with the same book, The Way Into Lovelorn and spent a lot of time writing fanfiction together. That is, until Summer was brutally murdered when the girls were thirteen. Summer’s murder was suspiciously similar to a series of events the girls had written about in their fanfic. Brynn and Mia were suspected of murdering their friend, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict them. And they really didn’t do it. Now, Mia is homeschooled and Brynn pretends to be an addict so she can stay in rehab centers. They haven’t seen each other since Summer died, but in the wake of the five-year anniversary of Summer’s death, Brynn and Mia reunite and begin asking questions. Who really killed Summer?

For the rest of the book, Brynn, Mia, and a few of their friends investigate what really happened to Summer. But this isn’t a thriller. Not at alllll. In fact, it’s a bit boring. There is no urgency or suspense to the investigation. This isn’t the kind of murder mystery that the reader is able to solve – Lauren Oliver doesn’t drop any hints for you to mull over (or if she did, I didn’t catch them). I’ll confess that I didn’t guess correctly who the murderer was, but I was actually disappointed in how the mystery wrapped up, even though I’m sure Oliver wanted to shock us. The story just doesn’t make a lot of sense; the conclusion felt like Oliver just picked a random character and decided to make them the murderer, without any build up. Completely underwhelming. And then Oliver cuts from the conclusion, the scene where the girls confront the murderer and finally learn the truth, to the epilogue, where the girls are happy and well-adjusted… wait, what? Why are none of the loose ends being wrapped up?

I really liked the book-within-a-book aspect of Broken Things. Stories are so important and so powerful, and they can offer a chance for readers to escape. All of the girls in this book had something they needed to escape from, and they found that escape when they read Lovelorn and daydreamed about the fantasy world. Adding to that world for themselves by writing fanfiction helped them cope with how much it can suck to be a thirteen-year-old-girl. I remember finding refuge in books when I about that age. I still do. The best part of reading Broken Things was being reminded of how I used to lose myself in books when I was in middle and high school. I never wrote fanfiction, but I really enjoyed that element of the story. The fanfic was mostly Summer’s project, and it really touched me that she was able to escape from reality – the foster homes, the dyslexia – by writing herself in to her favorite story.

The story is told in alternating chapters narrated by Brynn and Mia, but their voices were so similar that I kept getting them mixed up (thank god that the chapters were labeled with the narrator’s name – otherwise I never would have known). Frankly, Brynn and Mia were boring, and so was Summer. I get that Brynn and Mia would be completely traumatized by their best friend’s murder, not to mention being accused of said murder, but I didn’t get why Brynn and Mia were still so obsessed with Summer. Oliver tells us that thirteen-year-old Summer was exciting and interesting, but I just didn’t see it.

I did like the queer rep (Brynn is gay) but I also felt like Oliver threw that little tidbit in there just to have a gay character. Or maybe I’m just saying that because I didn’t like Brynn. Who knows.

This book would have been so much better if the murder mystery plot was designed better, and if the characters had a bit more to them. Still, I didn’t hate this book, which is why I’m giving it three instead of two stars. It was fun to read, and reminded me of Pretty Little Liars. I am disappointed that the writing was so blah, especially considering the number of books Oliver has written. I’m not impressed, and I won’t be reading any more of her books.

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand | Book Review

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Sawkill Girls

Rating: ★★★★

Girl power, a horrifying monster, cute f/f romance, a secret society, X-Men-like powers… wait, what kind of horror perfection is this?!

Remember that show Hemlock Grove? Well, it was a Netflix show that took place in a small town in Pennsylvania, where the sky was always gray and cloudy, and the huge, centuries-old trees blocked out what little sunlight there was. There was this rich creepy family that lived in a huge mansion, removed from the town, and there was SOMETHING that lurked in the thick woods, something that was killing and ripping apart girls.

This book reminded me a lot of Hemlock Grove. But way better.

Sawkill Island is the horror setting from your nightmares. The small island town is surrounded by a thick forest and populated by horses. I love horror, and this book certainly delivers on that side, but I think the best part of Sawkill Girls is the characters:

Marion: new girl in town, has a beautiful older sister and a mother who’s mentally ill (at least I thought so), white, a bit plump, still recovering from the sudden death of her dad.

Zoe: MY FAVORITE CHARACTER, total badass who likes the Alien movies, dad’s a cop, petite, black, natural hair with orange streaks, still recovering from the sudden disappearance of her best friend.

Val: queen bee, only daughter of a single mom, from the richest family in town, white, blond, a lot of her friends seem to mysteriously disappear.

These three girls, residents of Sawkill Island, become caught up in the mystery of the island. For hundreds of years, girls have periodically disappeared without a trace. Zoe’s best friend was the latest victim, or at least she was, until Marion’s sister vanishes one night. Zoe is convinced that Val’s family is somehow involved, but Marion is drawn to Val for other reasons.

This is a horror novel, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that a monster is somehow involved. When we finally got to see the monster, undisguised, I was so horrified that I almost shit my pants, and I’ll definitely be having nightmares for weeks. Holy moly, Claire Legrand, how did you come up with the idea for that thing?! I really want to describe it to you, but part of the horror is the shock of seeing it finally unveiled and advancing toward the girls. ENJOY.

Sawkill Girls is the sapphic horror novel you need in your life. It’s DARK, it’s CREEPY, and it’s all about girl power and overcoming the patriarchy. I love that Legrand’s heroines recognize their own powers and abilities as removed from the men in their lives, and I also love that Legrand acknowledges the unique problems women face when pitted against men: we don’t only have to overcome the misogyny, but also the tendency of society to pit girls against each other and encourage competitiveness between girls, when we really should be working together to kick ass.

I love the adorable f/f romance and the steamy love scene, and I also love Legrand’s treatment of asexuality. It’s subtle, but I appreciate Legrand’s affirmations that two girls can “sleep together” and “have sex” even though there’s no penis involved (thankfully). The attitude that it isn’t sex otherwise is prevalent and it’s great to see f/f sexual activity normalized in a YA novel. One of the characters is asexual, and Legrand shows us her struggles and insecurities without stigmatizing her or undermining her sexuality. That attitude is rare (although not as hard to come by as it used to be), and asexuality can be difficult to capture on page, but Legrand did it right.

I’ve never read anything by Claire Legrand before, but I’ll definitely keep an eye out for her next books, and I’ll check out her other work in the meantime.

Read this book. Trust me. Go get it. Nownownow.

The Wicked Deep by Shea Ernshaw | Book Review

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Rating: ★★★

If it’s dark and rainy, go make yourself a cup of tea and curl up in an old blanket with The Wicked Deep. Sure, this book isn’t perfect, but the reading experience is perfect for a cold and lonely night.

The Wicked Deep takes place in the creepy coastal town of Sparrow, Oregon: a West Coast Salem. The town is famous for its history: three young women, the Swan sisters, were drowned by the townsfolk after being accused of witchcraft. Each summer, tourists flock to Sparrow, where they hope to witness the town’s dreadful curse: the drowned Swan sisters rise from the dead to seek revenge by possessing three unsuspecting Sparrow girls, each of whom will kill a young man before the summer’s end.

Sixteen-year-old Penny Talbot lives off the coast of Sparrow on an island, where she and her mother take care of the lighthouse and grounds. After the school term ends, Penny attends the annual party the teenagers of Sparrow throw to celebrate the start of tourist season, where she meets Bo, a handsome drifter. Despite only just meeting this stranger, Penny offers Bo a job working on the island, and invites him to come stay with her and her mother. Weird and dangerous behavior, but okay. The Wicked Deep is about the rest of that summer, as Penny gets drawn deeper into the legend of the Swan sisters and fights to save Bo from being their next victim.

If you like the genre of spooky atmospheric books, you’re going to love this one. The writing is true to the genre, reminiscent of a fairy tale, and the small town of Sparrow is creepy and claustrophobic. I loved the undertones of magic, such as Penny’s best friend’s mother’s cake shop, which sells cakes that can cure any ailment, such as a broken heart.

I was torn between giving this book four stars (which is my default rating for a book I liked) or three stars. I ultimately rounded down, and here’s why: there was a lot about the book that was just off, and I can’t get over it.

First of all, like I mentioned above, Penny and her mother live all alone on an island, but in one of the first chapters, she ends up inviting a drifter to come live with her. Penny doesn’t really question whether this is a wise decision, but just gets in her boat and rows back home with a complete stranger. It really made me uncomfortable that the main character engaged in such dangerous behavior and the author didn’t even take a moment to let her (young!) readers know that this might not be a good idea. Second, Penny’s mom seems mentally ill. She’s been unable to function since Penny’s dad died a few years ago and is unable to even cook for Penny most of the time. Penny is pretty much on her own, but again, the author glossed over that a teenager was living all alone on an island without a stable adult to take care of her. Penny is sixteen and it felt weird to me that the author didn’t address her situation.

I also didn’t really love the characters. Penny is very bland (which escalates to a whole new level of twit-dom by the end of the book) and Bo is hardly a dashing hero (what exactly does that guy have going for him?).

Going in to this book, I was under the impression that it was a book about witchcraft (see: West Coast Salem) but there really isn’t any witchcraft in the book. The Swan sisters weren’t witches, but were more like revenge-fueled ghosts. I was disappointed that this didn’t end up being a book about witches, but that’s probably my own fault for not reading more reviews.

Still, overall, I did enjoy this book. It’s a quick read. The story is rather predictable, but the experience of reading this book was just perfect for a dark and stormy night.

Glow : Book I, Potency by Aubrey Hadley | ARC Review

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Glow : Book I, Potency

Rating: ★★

Oh boy. I don’t even know where to start with this one. How could a book about aliens and alien-human hybrids be so boring?

Seventeen-year-old Harper is pretty much an average teen living in Reno, Nevada with her mom, older brother, and younger sister. Harper is homeschooled, and her mom is really strict, so Harper doesn’t have much freedom, which is why she sneaks out to play soccer with her friends. It’s summer vacation, but life isn’t entirely carefree – a deadly virus has wiped out huge populations in Kenya and New York. The Maasai Mara Sleeping Syndrome is as mysterious as it is lethal – no one knows what it is, how it spreads, or how to treat it. Harper’s life changes forever when the Sleeping Syndrome hits Reno. The CDC has Harper’s neighborhood on lockdown, and Harper is alone in her house. Her mother and siblings were outside the area when the CDC shut the area down, so Harper is trapped, by herself, in her house.

At this point in the story, I was LOVING this book. It was like a YA version of Contagion. I love reading about diseases and was absolutely riveted by the story. Especially with the sci-fi twist:

Harper decides to make a run for it. Her neighbors are dying all around her, and she’s terrified. But her escape plan goes wrong, and she ends up in the clutches of the ALIENS who are responsible for the Sleeping Syndrome. Not only was abducted by aliens, but it turns out that Harper is actually an alien-human hybrid. The aliens are collecting the hybrids as the other humans die from the disease, because the hybrids are immune due to their alien blood. The plan, of course, is to exterminate mankind. The rest of the book follows Harper as she learns about the aliens and their civilization, and as she ultimately fights to save humanity.

Like I said, I loved this book at first, but that changed right after Harper was picked up by the aliens. After that, I was bored to tears. Hadley has some great ideas for a sci-fi novel, but it’s like she missed that day of school when you learn that writers should SHOW instead of TELL. This book is a whole bunch of telling, and it’s exhausting. The alien world is never actually showed to us, but revealed in conversations. All the the dialogue about the great alien race, their civilization, and their plans is almost unreadable. I don’t want to read dry passages about the aliens, I want to see their world and be shown what exactly is going on. Instead, the reader is forced to process pages and pages of Harper being told all about the aliens. The plot gets lost, and I found myself skimming a lot of the middle section of the book.

Harper herself turns out to be an extremely flat character. I mean, the girl was ABDUCTED BY ALIENS and sure, she’s a little startled, but she got used to the situation pretty fast. All of the hybrids she’s with are slowly losing their human memories, but Harper’s attitude is more than just a result of the memory loss. She’s so accepting of her fate and new identity – almost passive. Her fight to save humanity could have been so much better – there is a lot of scheming and plotting – but Harper’s boring personality makes everything fall flat. And it’s not just Harper’s personality, but the plot itself – there is no suspense, no urgency. It’s like Hadley is so focused on her worldbuilding that she neglected everything else. The characters are all completely forgettable and the plot was just underwhelming.

I really had to force myself to finish this book, but I’m giving it two stars instead of one because I did really enjoy the first hundred pages or so. It looks like Glow is going to have at least one sequel, but I won’t be reading it. Even so, I really hope Hadley dedicates more time to her characters and the story itself in her subsequent books. She does seem to have some great ideas for a sci-fi novel, but she hasn’t quite mastered how worldbuilding works yet. This book is 600 pages, and most of that was telling. I would like to see her actually stick her characters in that alien world and let her show it to us from their eyes. Glow didn’t need to be 600 pages, but I think it ended up being that long because all of the action takes place in Nevada and in the spaceship (or whatever the Base of Ki was), and we never actually got to the alien world, so Hadley had to painstakingly describe it.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I would recommend this book to anyone. There are so many other good YA sci-fi books out there. But all of the problems I had with the book are 100% fixable, and I sincerely wish Hadley the best of luck with the rest of this series!

ARC provided by Ruby & Topaz Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

The Waking Forest by Alyssa Wees | ARC Review

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The Waking Forest

Rating: ★★★★

The Waking Forest is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Kind of. It’s creepy, melancholy, and atmospheric. I loved every page.

There are two stories in this book. Eighteen-year-old Rhea Ravenna lives in a small town with her mom, dad, four sisters, and Gabrielle, her pet fox (!). Rhea is plagued by visions and nightmares – she sees a dark and menacing forest in their backyard, even though there’s  nothing there, and she sees images of death in the attic. The nightmares are getting worse, and now Rhea is sleepwalking – her nightmares are drawing her upstairs to the attic. Desperate for the nightmares to stop, Rhea begins sleeping in the attic, where she begins to see a shadowy young man, who comes to her every night (and possibly watches her sleep, a la Edward Cullen). She can’t see his face, but he is familiar to her, somehow. And he wants to play a game – if Rhea can guess his name, he will break her “curse” (his word!) and free her from her nightmares and visions. But instead of breaking her curse, Rhea’s nightmare deepens: every day, one of her family members disappears, and no one remembers them. What is a dream, and what is reality?

It should not be this easy for people to vanish. Disappearing should be difficult, rough and bloody. They should have to claw, tear, rip their way out, enduring some of the torment felt by the person left behind. There should be firecrackers bursting in their eyes; and stars snagging in their skin; and lighting bolts tangling in their hair, thrust under their fingernails. Explosions, abrasions, shudders, and shouts. Disappearing forever should not just be the quick and quiet opening and closing of a door.

The second story is that of the Witch, who lives in the forest. She sits upon a throne shaped like a tooth, surrounded by foxes, and grants wishes to the children who visit her in their dreams each night. Her alter is made of scabs, baby teeth, and shadows: gifts from the children in exchange for granting their wishes. Now, the Witch has a new visitor: a young man who is sometimes a fox: the Fox Who Is No Fox. Each night, this young man tells the Witch a story about a magical world with manticores, nymphs, sphinxes, and humans who must hide their magic. The Witch is enchanted by his story.

All right. I’ll tell you. But be warned: fairy story is a misnomer. There aren’t any fairies in it, you see, but there is a princess, and a curse, and a king, and a prince, and a future queen, and a gray gorgon, and a nymph, and a bright girl with bright magic. There are foxes and sphinxes and manticores. There is darkness and sleeping and magic and light, lots of light. there’s an attic and a castle and screams that put together what has been torn apart. There’s foolishness and laughter and love. Speaking of love – there’s also a boy, a great necromancer. He has many names, some of which are long forgotten, and others that no one will ever dare to forget. Oh – and there’s a witch. Still want to hear my tale, a fairy story that is no fairy story at all?

At first, the alternating chapters about Rhea and the Witch seem completely separate, but the stories merge halfway through the book. The story shifts entirely; it’s a bit jarring because the shift is so sudden, and it took me a few chapters to adapt. But I loved this book. This story is nightmarish and haunting, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

The Waking Forest is noticeably inspired by Strange the Dreamer, so if you’re like me, and need something really good to read after finishing Muse of Nightmares, you will love this book: it has magic that shapes dreams, blood or spirit that is filled with magic and can be extracted, and the characters have two hearts. Like Laini Taylor’s books, The Waking Forest celebrates the power of storytelling and the magic of dreams.

Alyssa Wees’ writing is gorgeous. The imagery is lush and vivid; it’s just delicious to read. This book is perfect for a dark and stormy night. Curl up with a mug of tea and read this book in one sitting.

Release date March 12, 2019, available for pre-order now!

ARC provided by Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review.

The quotes above were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.