BLOGTOBER Day 3: TBR Jar Round #8

BLOGTOBER Day 3: TBR Jar Round #8

In September I did things a little bit differently because it was Bookoplathon (hosted by Becca and the Books). I pulled five books out of my TBR jar as normal, but ended up pulling another two books out of the jar throughout the month when I landed on the ‘randomize your TBR’ prompt.

Rather than giving those two books their own post, I thought I’d combine them all together in here (particularly because I failed to read both The Legend of the Light Keeper by Kelly Hall and The Words That Fly Between Us by Sarah Carroll, both of which I’m hoping to get read in October, so this post would have been quite short if it had only featured three book reviews!).

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on the five books I pulled out of my TBR jar and actually managed to get read in September.

The Dark Light by Julia Bell – 1 star

I was planning on reading The Dark Light in a couple of months as part of a ‘reading the ten lowest books on my TBR’ challenge, but alas, I pulled it out of the jar and had no choice but to read it in September.

The Dark Light is a dual perspective story following Alex and Rebekah. Alex is a rebellious girl who is in trouble with the police after setting fire to the home of a girl who had been bullying her. Alex’s foster parents agree that she needs to be rehabilitated, so they send her to a religious community on an island, where Alex meets Rebekah, who has lived on the island for her entire life. Rebekah soon finds herself developing feelings for Alex, and she begins to wonder if there’s more to life than the little community she is a part of.

When the leader of the group starts claiming that the rapture is coming soon both girls become desperate to escape and to live their lives to the fullest before moving on to Heaven, but things don’t go smoothly.

I was apprehensive about reading The Dark Light after reading Julia Bell’s other novel, Massive. I ranted about it at length and pretty much decided I’d never read another one of her books, completely forgetting that I had The Dark Light on my NetGalley already. Oops.

Somehow, this book is even worse than Bell’s debut.

The main problem with it is its length. Coming in at under 300 pages, it’s impossible to emotionally connect to the characters because they are severely underdeveloped. If the story had only been told from one of their viewpoints it may have been more impactful, but the dual narrative was wholly unnecessary.

All of the events are rushed, even from the first page. Alex committing arson takes place in the space of a couple of paragraphs, and what could have been a really powerful opening is instead totally confusing (and not in an intriguing, unputdownable kind of way…). The same thing happens at the end of the novel: all of the dramatic, cataclysmic events happen in one or two chapters, and it leaves you feeling completely unsatisfied.

On top of the rushing, the character development is unrealistic. Rebekah has lived her entire life surrounded by this community, believing that the rapture is real and its coming will be the best day of her life, so for her to abandon all of her beliefs for a girl she has literally just met makes no sense.

The relationship between Rebekah and Alex is also very frustrating: they develop feelings for each other as soon as they meet, despite the fact that they’ve hardly spoken, and their feelings cause them both to morph into entirely different people which couldn’t happen that quickly. The events of The Dark Light only seemed to take a week at most, but opening your mind to religious ideas when you’ve always been an atheist – or turning your back on the beliefs that you’ve had ingrained in you since the day you were born – just would not happen that fast.

Don’t even get me started on the ending. Man, it had me raging. If I’d been reading a physical copy of the book I would have thrown it across the room, no question. I’d definitely recommend skipping this one.

Awake by Natasha Preston – 1 star

Awake was very similar to The Dark Light, in all the worst ways. Featuring a girl who is kidnapped and taken to a cult to be the sacrifice which will allow all of the other members to go to Heaven – the same cult she was stolen from to save her life when she was a child – it looks like September was the month for me to read awful books about unhinged religious communities.

I had so many problems with Awake that I can’t even be bothered to write a proper review, so here are some bullet points:

  • the two perspectives are written identically, and it’s impossible to tell whether you’re reading from Scarlett or Noah’s viewpoint if you take a break halfway through a chapter
  • how old is Scarlett? She’s been missing her memories for a decade, but she’s only forgotten everything before her 4th birthday, so she should be 14… But she’s referred to as both 15 and 16 as well. Huh???
  • why didn’t Scarlett’s parents change their names when they escaped from the Eternal Light in the first place? It can’t be that hard to find two people called Jonathan and Marissa with their children, Scarlett and Jeremy. They’ve been moving around the country to escape the Eternal Light, so why the hell didn’t they change their names at least once?!
  • who can actually remember anything before they were 4? I sure as hell can’t. Does that mean I was supposed to be a sacrifice for a cult and my parents aren’t actually my parents? The premise is just so painfully flimsy
  • I mean it’s awful
  • Noah is new to the school and UTTERLY CREEPY and Scarlett falls head over heels in love with him, tells him her tragic backstory within a couple of hours of knowing him, starts fantasizing about what it’ll be like when they’re married and living together, all within the first couple of weeks of knowing him. Cringe.
  • the writing is horrible. I can’t remember reading such a bland, boring book before. The main character is about to get sacrificed and I’m here yawning and just wanting it to be over. It’s impossible to emotionally connect to anything that’s going on. It’s also far too long – the events in the last half of the novel could have been far more interesting if they’d been compressed to 25%, and then the lead up to the kidnapping could have been properly fleshed out so that it was possible to care about the characters

To summarise: 1 star read and a strong contender for worst book I’ve read this year (which is impressive because I have read some corkers in 2020!).

The Boy From the Woods by Jen Minkman – 3 stars

When I pulled The Boy From the Woods out of my TBR jar, I thought it was going to be awful.

Let’s be honest, the cover is more than a little bit cringe, and the description did not do it for me at all.

So, imagine my surprise when I ended up thoroughly enjoying this book, so much so that I ended up reading it in one sitting!

Retelling a traditional Austrian folktale, The Boy From the Woods is perfect if you’re a huge fan of retellings but are getting tired by all of the new takes on Beauty and the Beast or the Arthurian tales.

In The Boy From the Woods we follow a girl called Julia who has finally bagged the boy of her dreams. Julia has been in love with Michael from a distance for years, but it isn’t until prom that he finally notices her. However, their romance is the definition of a ‘whirlwind’: Michael takes her out once, sleeps with her and then doesn’t call her when he says he will. Awks.

Things go from bad to worse for Julia when she stumbles across the scene of a motorbike crash in the woods, and the victim is none other than – you guessed it! – Michael himself. Instead of being able to avoid the boy who has humped and dumped her, Julia is instead forced to get him help, leaving her wondering why his amnesia was so strong that he couldn’t remember anything apart from her name. Did she mean more to him after all?

It’s always great to read a book set in a different country, and I found myself getting The Summer of Us vibes throughout The Boy From the Woods because the European setting is very well-crafted. It’s also helped by the fact that the characters take a trip to London towards the end of the novel and stay in a hostel, which is what the gang of friends get up to in The Summer of Us! I loved learning the fact that shops in Austria close for lunch! That’s certainly a fact about the country that I’ll never forget, because it’s so jarring compared to my experience living and working in the UK.

Being self-published, I wasn’t expecting the writing to be all that impressive (I’ve had some bad experiences with self-published novels in the past, okay?!) but I was thoroughly impressed throughout The Boy From the Woods. Jen Minkman writes some brilliant one liners, and her dialogue is very realistic, giving each of the characters a very strong voice and making me care about all of them.

I did enjoy the story a lot, although I could see where it was going from a mile away so the dramatic ending didn’t have a huge impact on me. However, if you can’t predict what’s going to happen I have a feeling some tears could be shed at the end of this one, because it’s a bittersweet ending. I applaud Jen Minkman’s bravery for taking the story in the direction she did, and for not leaving the story open-ended or writing a sequel; sometimes it’s nice to have a book with a sad ending, because not all stories have happy endings in real life.

I’m really interested in reading more of Jen Minkman’s work in the future, as her writing hugely impressed me, and I’m so glad that I gave The Boy From the Woods a chance.

Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne – 3 stars

The more time passes since I finished Brightly Burning the less kindly I feel towards it, so I thought I’d better get this review written sooner rather than later.

Brightly Burning was marketed as a Jane Eyre-retelling in space, and it does what it says on the tin.

Stella is a governess who is hired to work on the private ship the Rochester, and she is dismayed when she arrives and there are some freaky things going on. Instead of staying with the rest of the fleet – who are orbiting the Earth in the hopes that it will one day become inhabitable again, á la The 100 by Kass Morgan – the Rochester has decided to strike out from the pack and orbit the Moon instead, meaning Stella is far from home, all alone and desperate to get to the bottom of why strange things keep happening on this allegedly haunted ship…

If you know anything about Jane Eyre you’ll be able to guess what’s going on, but Alexa Donne does add a YA twist to things by making Hugo Fairfax a younger captain with a slightly less scandalous hidden past. I was a bit peeved that she didn’t manage to shoehorn in the famous “Reader, I married him” line – what’s more quintessential Jane Eyre than that?! – but I did enjoy the world that she crafted… I just didn’t enjoy Jane Eyre at all, so of course I wasn’t going to love a Jane Eyre retelling! If I had read Jane Eyre before I requested this on NetGalley I never would have requested it, so it’s just fortuitous that I didn’t dislike it as much as Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel.

The Names They Gave Us by Emery Lord – 4 stars

The Names They Gave Us is a conflicting book to review, because up until the last couple of chapters I was fully prepared to give it five stars and declare it a new favourite.

Lucy’s life is flipped upside down when she discovers that her mum’s cancer has returned. Lucy – a devoutly religious pastor’s daughter – begins to question her faith, crossing boundaries she’s never even considered approaching and acting wholly out of character as she comes to terms with her mum’s diagnosis. Her change in behaviour causes her boyfriend, Lucas, to put their relationship on pause, which makes Lucy feel even more grateful that it’s only a couple of weeks until she gets to go off to church summer camp to work the days away.

However, Lucy’s mum discovers a job opportunity at Daybreak, a neighbouring camp for teens who have difficulties in their lives. Whether they’ve lost relatives, experienced bullying about their gender identity or have gotten pregnant at an early age, Daybreak has seen it all, and their supportive program is just what the doctor ordered for Lucy. She’s apprehensive – and certainly not looking for love – but her summer at Daybreak ends up changing her life for the better.

Well, until those last couple of chapters that I mentioned…

If this had focused solely on the story of Lucy working at Daybreak and falling in love with fellow camp counselor Henry, it would have been a five star read. Lucy’s inner turmoil – can I still believe in a God who would allow my mother to get cancer twice? – is very realistic, and her anguish is palpable from the first page. She is a very ordinary character which may cause some people to call her boring, but because of how plain she is I enjoyed the story that much more. It’s easy to put yourself in Lucy’s shoes and empathise with her, as I’m sure not many people would react to being in this situation in a positive way.

However, Emery Lord takes the last few chapters and tries to make the story bigger, and it does not pay off. The majority of The Names They Gave Us is intimately focused on the goings on at Daybreak, and that works brilliantly – all of the campers are given strong personalities, and I loved the weekly bonfire hangouts where the counselors gather to drink and share their best and worst moments from the week – but the sudden shift in focus comes out of nowhere. Lord suddenly begins telling an entirely different story mere pages before the book ends, and it left me feeling disappointed and frustrated. At least write a sequel or an epilogue (one of my least favourite things, so you can tell how annoyed I was by the ending if I was actually crying out for one!). I can kind of see why she made that choice – life is messy, and things don’t wrap up neatly with a bow on top – but it was very unnecessary and it took the focus off of the topics that the story had been tackling earlier on.

I’m rounding my rating for The Names They Gave Us from a 3.5 star up to a 4 because of how impressed I was by 90% of the book, but if the last few chapters didn’t exist it would have been one of the easiest 5 stars I’ve given this year which is so annoying. I’m definitely going to give Emery Lord’s other work a go, though; this is my first Lord book and I enjoyed it a lot, so I’m glad I already own a couple of her others!

That’s it for this set of TBR jar reviews. As you can see, this was a pretty mixed bag – nobody wants to read two 1 star novels in a month, let alone two which were so similar! – but at least these were all very quick reads.

Have you read any of these books? If so, do you agree or disagree with my ratings?

See you tomorrow,