Off the Shelf: A Review of A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

This is one of those times where you might say, “That series has been popular forever! Why are you just now reviewing it?”

To be honest, I don’t have a good excuse, and I deserve a swift kick in the rear for not getting around to it sooner.

I loved Victoria Schwab’s The Archived and The Unbound, and it has always been in the back of my mind that I need to read more of her work (I keep seeing rave reviews for Vicious, so that needs to move further up my to-read pile). When I say she’s ridiculously talented, it’s an understatement. I think it’s even safe to say that she was destined to write. Her workload is impressive, and it seems like she always has a new project (or two…or three…) in progress, but the fandom that has been built around the Shades of Magic series is a force to be reckoned with. I knew one day, sooner or later, I’d need to find out what all of the hype was about. It just so happened that now was that time.

A Darker Shade final for Irene

Summary (via Goodreads)

Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.

Kell was raised in Arnes—Red London—and officially serves the Maresh Empire as an ambassador, traveling between the frequent bloody regime changes in White London and the court of George III in the dullest of Londons, the one without any magic left to see.

Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

After an exchange goes awry, Kell escapes to Grey London and runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

 

Things I Liked:

I’m not sure why, but I struggled to get started with this book. It’s not that it was boring – not at all – but I found myself only reading a few pages before bed and quickly falling asleep. I wanted to savor the language and the author’s beautiful descriptions, but I felt like I kept losing focus. You might be wondering why this is listed under “Things I Liked” – well, that’s because it actually turned me on to something that I thought I severely disliked: audiobooks. As much as I love podcasts, I have always struggled to listen to an audiobook all the way through. It hardly ever happens. But, when I found myself struggling to stay focused in the first few pages of ADSOM, I decided that maybe I would give the audio version a try. Instantly, I was hooked. If I dislike a narrator’s voice, it often dooms the audiobook for me, but Steven Crossley was magnificent in most regards. I could easily sit back with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and just listen to him weave the story for hours (and that’s exactly what I did). I listened to the book over the span of two days, and I just couldn’t get enough. Schwab’s writing style is so cinematic that every glance, slight movement, and atmospheric difference to the different Londons was completely visible and real in my mind. I plan on enjoying the rest of the series on audiobook as well (something I never thought I would say).

Kell is one of the most intriguing characters that I’ve read in a long time. I love his demeanor, his Antari magic and language, and his devotion to his brother – Rhy (who I’m really looking forward to learning more about in the rest of the series because what little we did see of him is ADSOM was fun and fabulous). Lila wasn’t my favorite at the beginning, but (and this is my one complaint with the audiobook) I want to partially blame that on the narrator making her sound a little too over the top, and maybe she is, but I would have likely read her differently if I wasn’t listening to the audiobook. As the story goes on, and softer sides of Lila are shown just slightly, she started to grow on me.  Her insatiable desire for adventure redeemed her casual thievery and near constant snark to me, and by the end of the story, I couldn’t wait to see what next great adventure was in store for Lila. Also, I fully expect to see more of Holland, the only other Antari, in the rest of the series. I wanted to dislike him, but I just couldn’t, and instead I want to know more about this mysterious, haunting villain (but is he really?).

Huzzah! This deserves a mention – I love a book that can stand on its own without a romantic element being a driving force! I love that, although there are moments that will make you ship certain pairings, there’s really zero romance here. Lila and Kell are present together throughout most of the book, but instead of sticking them in romantic situations, they’re too busy using their ingenuity to save the many Londons. But hey, if that happens to come later in the series, I’d welcome it.

 

Things I Didn’t Like:

There is one thing I will say about the audiobook version…I wish there was a second narrator. Female characters start sounding a bit Monty Python-esque, and I think that factored in to why I disliked Lila at first.

There are parts that may seem a bit draggy and slow, but I’m torn in saying that, because there’s not a single line that I would cut. The world and the characters were so expertly crafted that you end up craving all of the little details and exposition.

Overall Rating:

5/5 It’s an easy five stars from me. I was hooked on everything about the world that Schwab created, and I can’t wait to delve further into its story. ADSOM is strange and beautiful, and it is everything a good fantasy should be. My only regret is not reading it sooner.

“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

Add A Darker Shade of Magic to your To Be Read List on Goodreads.

Off the Shelf: A Review of Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore

When I scroll through ARCs that are available to request, I often find myself getting into the bad habit of looking specifically for authors that I have already read. I like the familiar territory, especially if I really enjoyed a previous book by that author. The unfortunate part of that is that I often overlook some rather stunning reads because I didn’t give them a chance. I am so thankful that when it came to Wild Beauty, I didn’t pass it by. I’ve never read any of Anna-Marie McLemore’s books, which caused a brief hesitation, but there’s something about covers with whimsical silhouettes that tends to catch my eye. See how stunning the cover for Wild Beauty is? Take a look at the covers for some of her other work, such as The Weight of Feathers and When the Moon was Ours. They might say not to judge a book by its cover, but I believe that a beautiful cover can spark your curiosity. Without a doubt, Wild Beauty is certainly the kind of book that you are going to want to know more about.

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RELEASE DATE: October 3, 2017
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 
Summary (via Goodreads)
Love grows such strange things.

For nearly a century, the Nomeolvides women have tended the grounds of La Pradera, the lush estate gardens that enchant guests from around the world. They’ve also hidden a tragic legacy: if they fall in love too deeply, their lovers vanish. But then, after generations of vanishings, a strange boy appears in the gardens.

The boy is a mystery to Estrella, the Nomeolvides girl who finds him, and to her family, but he’s even more a mystery to himself; he knows nothing more about who he is or where he came from than his first name. As Estrella tries to help Fel piece together his unknown past, La Pradera leads them to secrets as dangerous as they are magical in this stunning exploration of love, loss, and family.

Things I Liked:
I have a confession – I don’t know the first thing about flowers, other than how NOT to keep them alive. I don’t exactly have a green thumb, and to be honest, I’m shocked that the petunias and marigolds I planted at the beginning of summer haven’t shriveled up and died yet. Within the first few pages of Wild Beauty, you will realize that Anna-Marie McLemore takes flowers very seriously – this chick knows her stuff! Of course, my first reaction to this was Uh-Oh…I’m in trouble. If I can’t get a clear picture of what is happening, then I start to lose interest. Didn’t happen here though! The author’s writing is so rich in description even flowers that I’d never heard of were blooming in my mind. The gardens of La Pradera are the primary setting, and they provide a vivid landscape on which the lives of the Nomeolvides women depend.

Another plus to this book is its representation of diverse sexualities. It seems like the Young Adult genre has been especially lacking in regards to LGBT characters. Wait, that’s not entirely true…what I mean is that it has lacked LGBT characters who aren’t just stereotypes.  Or ones that only serve as a plot device and ultimately just end up getting killed off. Annoying, right? It’s also a real problem when you’ve got LGBT youth looking for representations of themselves in what they are reading, only to find themselves hidden in the background, never out front. Wild Beauty delivers a cast of characters which are mostly all bisexual. The five cousins are all bisexual, some of the mothers and grandmothers are bisexual, and there’s also a genderqueer character that quickly became one of my favorite characters of the entire book. If you’re looking for more of this kind of representation in YA, Wild Beauty is the book for you, and I applaud McLemore’s dedication to researching and providing accurate representations.

Wild Beauty is a mix of Latino folklore and magical realism, but the aspect I enjoyed most was how the threads of each family’s history were all braided together in the most unexpected ways. I found myself being more and more drawn to Fel and the mysteries behind his sudden appearance in the garden. As his past started to come to light, I felt my heart breaking for him. He considered himself undeserving of the kindness and affection he received from the Nomeolvides women, especially that of Estrella. I adored this pairing, from getting to see Estrella’s conflicting emotions towards Fel and another character, to just how much Fel truly adored her. I’m not normally one for a whole lot of romance, and the author isn’t very heavy handed with it in this regard, but I did find myself racing through the pages to see how this relationship would play out.

Things I Didn’t Like:

I’ve probably said it a million times before, but what really gets me hooked on any book are the characters. I need fully-formed, flesh and blood characters that simply feel REAL. Unfortunately, with such a large cast of characters (the five cousins, their five mothers, their five grandmothers, Fel, Bay and her family, and many others), characterization falls a little short. Sure, some of those characters are meant to hang in the background and not all of them really have a part to play in the story, and I get that. I had a pretty decent mental portrait of Estrella, Fel, and Bay (and I totally adored all three). What I found to be especially tough though was keeping all of the cousins straight in regards to their names and ages. Maybe it’s just me, but mostly they all just started to blur together in my mind, which could get pretty confusing at times.

Overall Rating:

If the characters (other than Estrella, Fel, and Bay) had been a little more distinguishable, this book would have been a home run for me. I’m giving it a 4/5, and might even go so far as a 4.5/5. I find myself still reflecting on this beautiful story even weeks after I have finished reading it. I look forward to its publication so that I can start getting it into the hands of other readers who I know will be just as drawn in by the magic of the Nomeolvides women. This book definitely has me considering picking up some of the author’s other books, and if I ever get a chance to review another Anna-Marie McLemore title, I won’t even hesitate!

Add Wild Beauty to your To Be Read Shelf on Goodreads

“Even in its first faint traces, love could alter a landscape. It wrote unimagined stories and made the most beautiful, forbidding places.” 
― Anna-Marie McLemore, Wild Beauty

Off the Shelf: A Review of Scythe by Neal Shusterman

“There’s a very old expression,” Scythe Goddard told him. “To be painless is to be gainless.” He gripped Rowan warmly on the shoulder. “And I wish for you to gain much.”

Lately, life has been a little hectic, and I couldn’t be more relieved to have finally taken a relaxing little vacation. As with any vacation though, I needed something to read, and Shusterman’s Scythe definitely fit the bill. I know I’m a little behind on getting this ARC review out before the publication date (Nov. 22 – today!), but I spread it out over my trip and let myself get lost in the pages rather than racing through it to meet a deadline. Neal Shusterman writes in a way that you don’t want to miss even the smallest of details.

I have to say, I was absolutely giddy to get to review an ARC of Scythe. I discovered Neal Shusterman a few years back when I became totally engrossed by his Unwind series and the controversial themes that played out in such a dystopian setting. Shusterman is a master at crafting dystopias. Now, before you start getting all “Ugh. Dystopias are SO overdone!” – let me tell you this. These aren’t your typical post-apocalyptic YA stories about a character fighting for survival in a frightening environment created by a totalitarian government. Nope. That’s just not his style. In fact, the worlds Shusterman builds are almost ideal societies with just a small twist that make them somewhat unfavorable to the main characters. For instance, the world in which Scythe takes place, human beings have eliminated disease and freed ourselves from our own mortality, letting a virtual Cloud-on-steroids maintain our progression as a species. Scythes control overpopulation, a necessary job in this world, and a job which neither Citra nor Rowan had ever dreamed of wanting. Sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? But when the act of taking two apprentices is seen as a major controversy, particularly because of their affinity towards protecting each other, it is decided that only one will be named a scythe, and the other will meet his/her end at the new scythe’s hand.

scythe

Summary (via Goodreads)
In a world where disease has been eliminated, the only way to die is to be randomly killed (“gleaned”) by professional reapers (“scythes”). Citra and Rowan are teenagers who have been selected to be scythe’s apprentices, and—despite wanting nothing to do with the vocation—they must learn the art of killing and come to understand the necessity of what they do.

Only one of them will be chosen as a scythe’s apprentice. And when it becomes clear that the winning apprentice’s first task will be to glean the loser, Citra and Rowan are pitted against one another in a fight for their lives

Things I Liked:

I won’t lie, when I first found out that Citra and Rowan were to be forced to compete against each other for scythedom and that one of these star-crossed lovers would have to die, part of me wondered if the ending was going to be something along the lines of Hunger Games (Spoiler alert for all three of you who may not have read it), and that they’d both just end up threatening to glean themselves or something of the like. And sure, throughout the story and through both of their perspectives, they both entertain this thought. But the glorious part? That’s not what happens. I flew through the last quarter of the book, and I did not see the ending coming. Fair warning – the last line is going to be one that sticks with you well after you close the cover.

As a female reader, I generally find more in common with female main characters, but with Scythe, I somewhat flip-flopped. In the beginning, I really enjoyed Citra’s perspective and didn’t really give much thought to Rowan, or “the lettuce” as he describes himself, the unremarkable one. When they separated for training, they both face unique challenges, but Rowan truly has to confront his own beliefs and the beliefs of his mentor. Rowan became more and more intriguing to me, to the point I actually started to root for him to be the victor. The character I enjoyed most of all though was neither Citra nor Rowan. It was Scythe Curie. Why? Because that woman gave off a total Professor McGonagall vibe, and I loved every second of it. Honestly, I’d be happy to see Shusterman write an entire book devoted to her story.

It’s brutal. Really brutal. Don’t go into this expecting something light and fluffy, because you won’t find it. The gleanings are gruesome, with death being administered in a wide variety of ways, from sword to flamethrower. One thing the gleanings are NOT though is just there for shock value. These killings/gleanings stir inner ethical debates for the readers, which may have them taking sides among the scythes.

Things I Didn’t Like:

There was a big chunk in the beginning/middle where I lost my interest in the story. I persevered, because I knew Shusterman would make it worth my while, and I wasn’t disappointed. There was just a rut where not much was happening other than the apprentices being trained, which of course gave a lot more insight into their characters and some of the secondary characters, but really, not much was happening overall. The journal entries at the end of each chapter from various scythes sort of bogged down the story for me because, if they contained any pertinent information to the story line at all, the information was often revealed to the characters in other scenes anyways.

I did enjoy that the characters seemed to come from all sides of the moral spectrum, but Scythe Goddard got particularly annoying in a lot of ways. He’s obviously the “big bad”, and at times, you can see the reasoning behind his beliefs. But in a lot of ways he’s just like what The Walking Dead tv show has done to the character of Negan – made him too over the top to where he’s constantly flaunting just how much of a jerk he is. That’s Goddard, and he earned plenty of eye-rolls as I read.

Overall Rating:

4/5 I originally believed Scythe to be a standalone novel, but then about halfway through the book, I took to Goodreads to update my progress – and it turns out, I was wrong! Scythe is the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series. My curiosity is already bubbling! Will the rest of the series be about the same characters? Or will it focus on entirely new scythes? Either way, I hope to get my hands on an early copy of book two, whenever it becomes available. I feel like this is going to be another exciting series from Shusterman that everyone should keep their eyes on. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out some of his other books, particularly my favorite – Unwind.

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Off the Shelf: A Review of We Know it was You by Maggie Thrash

I picked up a copy of BookPage this week at the library, and in it, someone had reviewed We Know it was You. You could tell from the review that the author wasn’t such a fan but was trying to spin the review on a positive note. The part that stuck out to me most was that, when reading We Know it was You, you may find that “the satire may not resonate with all readers”. I’m not sure if that was meant to be an understatement, but I can tell you one thing, nothing about this book actually resonated with me, and that’s including the satire.

I received an ARC of We Know it was You from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I emphasize “honest” here because as much as I WANTED to like this book, I just didn’t, and I think it’s important to discuss why.

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Release Date: October 4, 2016

Summary (via Goodreads)
It’s better to know the truth. At least sometimes.

Halfway through Friday night’s football game, beautiful cheerleader Brittany Montague—dressed as the giant Winship Wildcat mascot—hurls herself off a bridge into Atlanta’s surging Chattahoochee River.

Just like that, she’s gone.

Eight days later, Benny Flax and Virginia Leeds will be the only ones who know why.

Things I Liked:
It’s a fast read. Something moderately lighthearted that you can read quickly in a matter of hours. I had a night where I couldn’t get to sleep, so I picked this one up and had it finished well before my alarm for work went off. As much as I didn’t enjoy it, I can say that you will want to follow through to the end, just to solve the mystery.

Things I Didn’t Like:
First off, I didn’t like ANY of the characters. They are so offensively stereotypical that it was just painful to read about them. You’ve got your gossip, your socially awkward Jew, your jocks, your cheerleaders, your strange foreigners, etc. And guess what? None of their actions make any sense whatsoever. Was there a real motivation for any of them? If there was, I couldn’t find it. Perhaps it was buried somewhere under all of the irritatingly pointless plot lines. I really thought at first that I was just irked because they sounded like annoying high schoolers. I thought, well, I sounded pretty annoying when I was in high school. But NO. It’s just that the author is forcing so many cliched tropes down your throat that the whole story is hard to digest.

Second, and this is the part we really need to talk about – I am so grossly offended by the way the topic of rape is treated in this story. If you’re looking for a book that spreads an unhealthy message about rape and sexual assault, well, you’ve found it. I won’t spoil all of the details, but I was actually intrigued that a book finally tackled the subject of a female rapist. That intrigue didn’t last long. Whenever it’s discovered that a character is essentially being raped, it’s like everyone just brushes it off as no big deal. No, we shouldn’t report that to authorities. No, the abuser shouldn’t be punished – she’s so pretty and rich! Let’s just keep her victim in the dark and do nothing about it. I’m sure that will work out just fine. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?! No. Just no.

Speaking of problematic sexual scenes, I think I almost lost my cool over one scene in particular. *SPOILER WARNING*
At one point, a secondary character…someone who really doesn’t do much in the story overall…sits in his car with a bayonet in one hand and is masturbating with his other hand. Yes, it’s graphic from start to ‘finish’. No, it did not add ANYTHING to the story. I’m still clueless as to why it was included. What purpose did it serve to the story? I don’t think it had one. I feel like the author included it solely for the shock value, thinking that sexually frustrated teenagers are going to think this story is automatically ‘cool’ because it included some detailed masturbation. Trust me though, the descriptions are cringe-worthy at best.

My biggest problem with this book though? Nothing gets resolved. The killer rides off into the sunset, never to be punished. Another victim will never see justice for being raped. Law enforcement is never informed – actually, no, worse than that. Law enforcement is INTENTIONALLY not informed. Not even when one of the main characters sits in a cop’s car just shortly after uncovering a child pornography ring. Does she tell the police about it? Nope! That might somehow impede the work of her teen detective club. I’m sorry, but that was just ridiculous.

Overall Rating:
According to Goodreads, this is going to be a series. I somehow doubt it though, because although nothing was resolved at the end, it had a certain sense of finality to it.  Either way, if there is a sequel, I don’t think I’ll be picking it up.
Some books can make you uncomfortable and challenge you in an exceptionally good way. This is not one of those books. It just leaves you uncomfortable, and that’s it. I’m giving it a 1.5 on the sole fact that I actually wanted to finish it and see how it all turned out. Disappointing as it was, it was a quick (although not painless) distraction.
I’m still not sure if it was really meant to be satire, or if that’s just what people are going to say to defend it. Me? I love satire. I did not love this.

Add We Know it was You to your To Be Read Shelf on Goodreads
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Off the Shelf: A Review of A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

It’s a wondrous feeling when a book burns so brightly in your mind that it’s all you can think about for days and days. I’m especially drawn to books that combine fantasy and magic, and in particular, books that can do so with an exciting and unique premise. A Shadow Bright and Burning is exactly that kind of book. It has a wealth of intriguing characters, hair-raising battles with terrifying monsters, and an abundance of twists and turns which are sure to make this a series you won’t want to miss!

 

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RELEASE DATE: September 20, 2016

Summary (via Goodreads)
I am Henrietta Howel.
The first female sorcerer in hundreds of years.
The prophesied one.
Or am I?

Henrietta Howel can burst into flames.
Forced to reveal her power to save a friend, she’s shocked when instead of being executed, she’s invited to train as one of Her Majesty’s royal sorcerers.
Thrust into the glamour of Victorian London, Henrietta is declared the chosen one, the girl who will defeat the Ancients, bloodthirsty demons terrorizing humanity. She also meets her fellow sorcerer trainees, handsome young men eager to test her power and her heart. One will challenge her. One will fight for her. One will betray her.
But Henrietta Howel is not the chosen one.
As she plays a dangerous game of deception, she discovers that the sorcerers have their own secrets to protect. With battle looming, what does it mean to not be the one? And how much will she risk to save the city—and the one she loves?

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Things I Liked:
There are several things about Henrietta Howel that I absolutely admire. She’s strong, passionate, and will do anything to protect her friends. A lot of this book is Henrietta finding herself and coming to terms with who she really is. She also has to deal with a lot of discrimination based on her gender, her magic, and her low birth. Henrietta handles all of these with a head held high and efficiently puts those who look down on her in their place. Her interactions with the other characters are both witty and clever, and I found myself taking a screenshot of quite a few humorous quotes from Henrietta and the other characters just so I could giggle at them again later. I think I fell in love with every scene where Henrietta truly used her power, setting herself ablaze, because you get a sense of how fearsome yet beautiful she is, and you feel the passion behind her desire to save people. She’s obviously one of the only females in a cast of characters that’s mostly male, but while the interactions with her fellow trainees are fun (especially the charming and sarcastic Magnus), I really enjoyed her conversations with the older characters like Master Agrippa, who first discovers her power, and the magician Hargrove, who at first I thought I would dislike but then rapidly became one of my favorite characters.

There’s also what some might call a love triangle. In my opinion, I foresee it being a love square, but we will get to that. The romance doesn’t take a leading role in this book. There’s so many other things going on, that I would have been turned off to the book if Henrietta was solely focused on a boy(s) and his opinion of her. Luckily, the romantic moments take a backseat to the story, and what moments are mentioned actually do a lot to further the plot and Henrietta’s motivations. As for it being a love square, I have to say that there’s one of Henrietta’s fellow sorcerer trainees that stands out above the rest to me –  Blackwell. While the relationship between the two right now might not seem more than just a strained friendship, I picked up on some heavy Pride & Prejudice vibes between the pair. I think this is something that will play out more in the next book (hopefully), and it’s definitely the ship I’ll be rooting for.

The world building is another excellent factor to this book. From the first page to the last, I felt like I was living inside this alternate world in Victorian London, plagued by demons known as the Ancients. The descriptions are vivid, and the author makes clear distinctions between the types of magical people and how those inside/outside the protective ward live. I’m looking forward to exploring this world further in the next book.

Things I Didn’t Like:

I’ve seen a few people complain that this book uses the same old tropes, and if you’ve read one fantasy novel, you’ve read them all so you may as well forget this one. FALSE. I’ve read so many fantasy novels that take the idea of a “chosen one” and it plays out on repeat across the board. Nothing new or exciting. A Shadow Bright and Burning took that idea and twisted it, something I rather enjoyed, because it shows you don’t have to be “chosen” to do great things.

So, sorry, not going to hear any complaints from me. I loved this book the whole way through.

Overall Rating:

I reserve 5 star ratings for books that truly deserve it, and this book is a well earned 5 star for me. It’s exactly the book I’ve been waiting for, and it’s a magical adventure from start to finish! It’s exciting, empowering, and absolutely enchanting. You’ll race to the finish, be left stunned by the twists in the ending, and then we can all commiserate about how long we have to wait until the next book in the series comes out.  Add this one to your TBR list IMMEDIATELY. Seriously! You don’t want to miss out.

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