It’s hard to review a book like Stephen King’s It, because there is nothing I can possibly say about it which hasn’t been said before. Despite that, I thought I’d share my thoughts on this tome, because I’ve spent the past three weeks gradually clawing …
Tag: three star review
Establishing a centuries-old conflict between the two countries of Kalyazin and Tranavia, Wicked Saints is a dual perspective novel following a Kalyazi cleric and the Tranavian prince. When we meet Nadya she’s in the cellar of the monastery where she lives, peeling potatoes as a …
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
- UGH THE INSTALOVE
- I mean it’s awful
- HONESTLY SO BAD
- 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,
When The Beautiful was announced, everyone I heard talking about it said it was a duology. Alas, after finishing The Damned I have realised that that is not the case – in fact, it’s rumoured that there are another two books to come in The …
Another month means it’s time for another set of TBR jar reviews. I picked out a wide range of titles for June and could hardly remember anything about any of the titles, so it was fun to discover them throughout the month.
Before you check out my reviews, I’d love it if you could check out the Black Lives Matter carrd. It collects links for petitions and places where you can donate to support the cause, so if you have some spare time or money it can make a huge difference.
The Memory Game by Sharon Sant – 1 star
I had high hopes for The Memory Game. The blurb was reminiscent of Phyllida Shrimpton’s Sunflowers in February which I read back in 2018, but after finding that story a little bland I thought The Memory Game might impress me more.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. I hated The Memory Game, and if it hadn’t been so short – coming in at under 150 pages – I would have abandoned it, review be damned!
David is dead, killed in a hit-and-run accident, but he’s still hanging around. His mum can’t see him, and neither can his best friend… In fact that only person able to see David is Bethany, the girl he used to bully.
I wrongly assumed that David was going to be trying to solve the mystery of his murder, so I was disappointed when Bethany suggested that and David said the identity of the hit-and-run driver didn’t matter. Really, man?! Someone killed you and you’re just blasé?
That wasn’t even the first thing about this book that annoyed me. David’s a massive sexist, blaming the girl he had a crush on for his death because – wait for it – he was only on that road because he was heading home after work, and he only had a job so that he could save money to take Ingrid somewhere nice IF she said yes when he eventually asked her out. Oh boy. Just take responsibility for your own actions, you moron! Then there are the jokes about him possibly following her home and watching her in the shower… Gross.
There is a reason why David is hanging around, which I saw coming from a mile away (and hoped I was wrong about). It’s a disappointing, unsatisfying conclusion. If it hadn’t been published back in 2013 I would have expected a sequel to be on its way, because the story ends very abruptly and it feels unfinished.
However, despite the fact that I really didn’t enjoy this book I was quite impressed by the concept of the memory game itself, which David and Bethany play together. David feels as though he’s fading away and is losing himself, so Bethany describes tastes, smells and feelings which he’s forgetting – it’s very simple, but the scenes featuring the two of them playing the game are some of the most enjoyable in the story.
Lucy and Linh by Alice Pung – 3 stars
To paraphrase a quote from this book: this wasn’t good, this wasn’t bad, it was nice.
After Lucy wins a scholarship to the prestigious Laurinda school, she begins writing letters to her old friend Linh to tell her about everything that goes on at the new school. From the Cabinet – the three most popular girls, who manipulate and bully anyone who crosses them – pranking a teacher so badly that she quits to the headmistress seemingly condoning the behaviour. Laurinda life would be hard for anyone to adjust to, but Lucy’s immigrant parents and downtrodden neighbourhood make it even harder for her.
Lucy tells Linh all about her first year while trying to work out how she fits into the world of Laurinda and who she really wants to be. Would she rather sit by and let the people in power get away with their terrible deeds, or does she want to stand up as leader of the underdogs?
There’s a big twist towards the end of this book which I don’t want to spoil, but I assumed that was where the story was going and I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy it as much as other readers seem to. I’d been expecting something with a bit more drama, but Lucy and Linh almost reads like literary fiction rather than YA: the writing is a lot floatier, and the story is extremely character-driven. At times it doesn’t even feel like it has a plot, because when you boil it down it’s simply Lucy attending school for the majority of the book. In fact, I was far more interested in Lucy’s mother’s story: if this had been a book following her – having a new baby in a foreign country while working all hours of the day and night to provide the bare minimum for her family – I think it would have been much more interesting.
That being said, I did enjoy Alice Pung’s writing style. The descriptions of Stanley, Lucy’s hometown, are very evocative, while she gives Laurinda its own unique aspects so that it stands out from amongst other fancy private schools I’ve read about in the past. I think it helped that this book was set in Australia, as I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel like this which wasn’t set in America or the UK!
This just didn’t really have any impact on me, and I think I’m going to end up forgetting about this completely sooner rather than later.
Southern Perfection by Casey Peeler – 1 star
I was really looking forward to reading Southern Perfection, but I ended up being completely underwhelmed. I was expecting something a bit more like One Chance Night by Eliza Boyd – which I only gave three stars, but for some reason really sticks out in my mind – so I think I can partly blame my expectations for the reason that this book fell so flat.
However, the synopsis is also hugely misleading. Referencing appearances being ‘not what they seem’ and ‘all the questions are answered with one night, one song, one story, and one boy’ you’d think this would be a cute contemporary romance and not much deeper than that, right?
Wrong! The secret that Raegan Lowery is hiding is that her Grandaddy has leukaemia, so there is far more to this story than I’d expected. If this had been more obvious based off of the description I might not have been as disappointed, but I was looking forward to reading a summery romance, not a girl struggling to come to terms with her grandfather’s impending death.
If Southern Perfection had been solely focused upon Raegan and her Grandaddy, I probably would have given this a higher rating. That plotline is handled very well. Raegan wants her Grandaddy to undergo chemotherapy, while he values the quality of his life over the quantity so is hesitant to do the treatment. This is highly realistic (although Raegan wasn’t as supportive as I thought she could have been. Her constant storming out and flouncing off didn’t seem like the actions of a girl who would do anything to keep her Grandaddy happy).
But, of course, there has to be the romance aspect, and I HATED the relationship between Emmett and Raegan. Emmett has recently come back to town, and because he gave Raegan a toy bunny rabbit when her parents died when she was seven, it’s a-okay when they fall in love within a week.
Raegan hides Grandaddy’s illness from him, then gets really pissed off when he figures out something is going on… Then Emmett hides something about Grandaddy from Raegan, so they have another blow out, just for him to hide something else from her as soon as he possibly can. What?! Just learn how to talk to each other if you really love each other that much!
Not only that, but this book is really poorly written. The characters are flat, and even though Grandaddy’s ill I just couldn’t find the energy to care because none of the characters are three-dimensional. I’ve lost a grandparent to cancer, so you would think this book would hit me right in my feels, but I felt completely neutral (comma bored) throughout the entire story. I just wanted it to end, and I really wish I’d DNF’d.
I was tempted to give Southern Perfection two stars, because the discussion of Grandaddy’s illness was very well done, but then the epilogue happened. OH BOY. I have no words for how much the ending irritated me. Blegh. Nope. Next!
Friend Request by Laura Marshall – 4 stars
Friend Request is the best thriller I’ve read so far this year.
It all starts with a friend request on Facebook. Maria Weston wants to be friends… which wouldn’t be a problem if she hadn’t been dead for 25 years.
Louise is terrified that someone has discovered her involvement in Maria’s death and they are coming after her, so she quickly finds herself thrown back into the teen drama she’s desperately tried to leave in the past.
It all comes to a head when she attends her old class reunion, and the next morning the body of one of her old classmates is found. With another death to investigate, it seems likely that the police are going to discover the truth about what happened to Maria, but will they get to the bottom of the mystery before the mysterious creator of the Facebook page gets their revenge on Louise?
The beginning of this book was ridiculously slow. Louise constantly alludes towards the terrible thing she did to Maria, but we don’t find out exactly what that was until quite a way into the book. However, as soon as that secret is out the pace ratchets up dramatically, and I read the last quarter of the book in one sitting in the middle of the night (this is not the kind of book you can dip into for a chapter or two when you’re trying to fall back to sleep!).
Jumping from 1989 to 2016, this book was half adult thriller and half YA drama, so it was right up my alley. The flashbacks fleshed the characters out a lot more, and by the time you reach that fateful night you find yourself really rooting for Maria to make it out alive. I tricked myself that she was going to be behind it all on multiple occasions while reading, even though it was so obvious that that couldn’t be the case!
I wasn’t surprised at all by the identity of the person behind Maria’s Facebook page, but I loved the twist which came afterwards regarding Maria’s fate. Turns out, Louise wasn’t as responsible for her death as she thought she was… But I’m not going to ruin the surprise for you, because I gasped when I realised where the story was going. More often than not I can figure out the culprits in thrillers and I always feel a little disappointed, but Laura Marshall wove the red herrings throughout her story so cleverly that it was such a huge surprise to discover what actually happened.
I’m so glad I read this book. After reading quite a few disappointing thrillers so far this year, it’s nice to find one which got my heart pounding and kept me guessing for the majority of the story.
The Boy Next Door by Katie Van Ark – 3 stars
Maddy and Gabe have been skating partners since they were six, but they’re much older now. When their skating coach decides it’s time for them to start doing more romantic routines, Maddy thinks it’s the perfect opportunity to finally show Gabe why they should be together.
Gabe is known for only being interested in each of his many ex-girlfriends for two weeks at the most, so when he starts developing feelings for Maddy he’s sure they’re going to go away. When they don’t, he has to decide whether he’s willing to risk their friendship – and their skating career – for the chance of a relationship which might fizzle out almost as soon as it’s begun.
My actual rating for this book is 2.5 stars because it was painfully average. I was certain I was going to love this one, so this is probably my biggest disappointment this month.
All of the foreshadowing was so heavy-handed. There was a mystery surrounding Maddy’s father which I guessed as soon as it was even hinted that there was a secret he was keeping. Meanwhile, there are constant references to the fact that skating is Maddy’s only plan for life, so when something bad happens towards the end of the book it’s so predictable that I found myself shouting ‘Finally!’ rather than experiencing any sort of emotional reaction. The same thing happens with a subplot regarding another skating pair, but then that doesn’t get dealt with at all – I’m not sure whether Katie Van Ark was planning on writing a sequel and then never got around to it, but there’s are quite a few things which are left dangling in a wholly unsatisfactory way.
Then there’s all of the ice skating language which is shoehorned in throughout the novel. It is CONSTANT, but one of the most irritating examples was when something was referred to as ‘ice-crystal clear’… Come on, surely crystal clear is a good enough turn of phrase!
The relationship was cute enough, but there’s a whole lack of communication between the two which causes a lot of angst and I didn’t find that believable at all. If you’ve been skating with someone for over ten years you’ll know how important communication is, so I don’t think that these two would be as terrible at talking to one another. It also gets majorly cringey towards the end of the book, and I found myself glad that it was over when it ended.
That’s not to say this book was bad. The skating aspects were described beautifully, and I could find myself visualising the choreography which Igor set them really easily. Maddy’s competitive nature comes across brilliantly while her and Gabe are practicing, and I loved her character during those scenes (but sadly when it comes to the relationship she becomes a bit of a simpering wreck). The contrast between Maddy and Gabe’s perspectives was also handled really well: their voices are very distinctive, and it’s impossible to get confused about who you’re following.
Unfortunately The Boy Next Door is currently Katie Van Ark’s only novel, which is such a shame because I would love to read more from her. This wasn’t the book for me, but I found her writing so easy to digest and would have loved to have seen where she went from here. Maybe one day.
I hope you enjoyed this round of TBR jar reviews! This wasn’t quite my worst month of picks, but it was pretty close… Hopefully July will be a bit more successful.
See you soon,
I took part in How To Train Your Gavin’s Believathon between the 11th and the 24th of May. If you haven’t heard of Believathon, you can learn more about this readathon here, but it’s basically a celebration of all things middle grade. Middle grade is a genre I’ve always meant to read more of, so I was beyond excited to have an excuse to prioritise it for a couple of weeks.
I’m going to take you on our Believathon journey and share my thoughts of each of the books we read. We completed all eleven prompts – just, we finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with about half an hour to go – so I’ll tell you which book we read to journey to each location and fulfill each of the prompts Gavin created.
Ready? It’s time to Journey to the Stronghold!
The Poacher’s Pocket Inn: A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison – 5 stars
Our Believathon journey started at The Poacher’s Pocket Inn, where we had to read the first book in a series to progress on to the next location. For this I chose the book which inspired the prompt, Michelle Harrison’s A Pinch of Magic.
A Pinch of Magic is the first book in a middle grade trilogy following the Widdershins sisters: Betty, Fliss and Charlie. Betty has always dreamed of leaving Crowstone, the island where they live, but when she and Charlie attempt to sneak off to the fair for some Halloween fun they discover some pretty shocking family secrets.
First they learn that their family have three magical heirlooms which have been passed down through the generations, which seems pretty sweet… Until they learn that there is also a family curse, and if they leave Crowstone they will be dead by the next sunset. Ouch.
Using their magical artefacts and a prisoner named Colton who claims he knows how the answers, the Widdershins sisters attempt to solve the mystery of the curse only to end up with a race against time on their hands. Can they end the family curse, or will they all be dead by sunset?
There are so many things I loved about this story. Each of the sisters has such a distinctive personality that it is impossible to get them mixed up, but they all bring something to the plot: there’s no way that this story would work if just one of the sisters was trying to end the curse.
I also thought Colton was a really fun character who added a great dynamic to the cast. If this was YA there probably would have ended up being a focus on romance, but instead we get to watch a friendship develop between him and each of the Widdershins sisters, who aren’t sure whether to trust him to start with (due to the fact of him being a prisoner and all).
I wasn’t expecting A Pinch of Magic to be so dark, but there are a fair amount of deaths discussed in this story – one of the perils of a family curse I suppose! That aspect made me love the story even more though, and I can totally understand why I’ve seen so many adult readers and reviewers absolutely raving about this series.
My actual rating for A Pinch of Magic is probably closer to a 4.5, but I couldn’t resist rounding up this magical story as I enjoyed it far more than I thought I was going to. The ending is really clever, and I didn’t see the solution coming at all. You do need to suspend your disbelief a little bit, though, so don’t try to look at it logically – it is a magical story, after all!
Yellow Brick Road: Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz – 4 stars
The next stop on our Believathon journey was the Yellow Brick Road, for which we had to read a book we’d been meaning to read years ago. Torn between Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and Stormbreaker we ended up going for the latter, as my mum has been bullying me to read these books for at least ten years.
Stormbreaker is the first book in the Alex Rider series. After Alex’s uncle dies and things don’t quite add up he decides to investigate his death and discovers he was actually an MI6 agent, and they hire Alex to finish the case his uncle started.
Again, this was more of a 3.5 star, as it is quite cheesy (all of the bad guys are foreigners; Alex has been studying kung fu for years and yet still has a training montage showing how useless he is) but it is utterly entertaining. I think this book took me maybe three hours to read from cover to cover, because it’s high octane from the very first page.
Stormbreaker is definitely not the best book I’ve ever read, but I can certainly see why these books are so popular, particularly amongst young boys. I’m already looking forward to seeing what Alex gets up to next!
Baba Yaga’s House: Dreaming the Bear by Mimi Thebo – 4 stars
After travelling down the Yellow Brick Road it was time for a brief stay at Baba Yaga’s House, where we had to read a book featuring a family relationship.
Dreaming the Bear follows a girl called Darcy who gets seriously ill after he parents move to Yellowstone. She ends up befriending a bear who is also ill – suffering from an infected gunshot wound – and does everything she can to help her, bringing food to the cave which she is trapped in.
Despite the fact that this is under 200 pages it is an absolute tearjerker. Definitely make sure to keep tissues nearby, because you’ll almost certainly need them: books don’t make me cry very often, but I was welling up a couple of times while reading this one.
Dreaming the Bear is written in a very interesting style. The book jumps from Darcy’s perspective to the bear’s perspective which isn’t that unexpected, but Darcy also disassociates at points so not only does the viewpoint change but it also switches from first to third person quite freely which is an unorthodox choice. I did find it hard to get into the story at the beginning, but by the halfway point I was absolutely flying through: once you can get your head around the way that the style is jumping around it’s a very quick read.
The Wonderfalls: Wonder by R.J. Palacio – 5 stars
The next stop was The Wonderfalls, for which we had to read a book featuring a disability. We decided to pick up the book which inspired the prompt, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which also would have worked well for the Yellow Brick Road because I’ve been meaning to read this for donkey’s years.
Wonder tells the story of a boy called August, who is attending school for the first time in fifth grade. August has a facial abnormality so his parents have homeschooled him until now, but after visiting the school and seeing the potential Auggie decides to give it a go.
As I just said, I don’t often cry at books. That being said, I had to put Wonder down twice because I was crying too hard to continue. This is an absolutely heartbreaking book, but it’s also hopeful and inspiring. It destroys your faith in humanity but it goes a long way towards restoring it before the end of the book.
Wonder is brilliant because it is honest. As well as following Auggie himself we get the viewpoints of a couple of the other people in his life. The way that they think about August can be horrible, particularly in the case of Via, August’s sister. R.J. Palacio gives all of her characters depth and it makes the story feel very authentic: Via has sacrificed a lot because of Auggie and is slightly begrudging about that fact, while Will wants to be friends with August but knows it isn’t cool so says mean things about him to try to fit in with the popular crowd. Those scenarios are both painfully realistic, and nothing is sugarcoated in this story.
Although Wonder follows a 10-year-old boy, this is a story which will appeal to readers of all ages. I’m so glad that I decided to wait to read Wonder, because I don’t know if it would have had such an emotional impact on me if I’d read it before becoming a parent myself. I have gotten far soppier in the past two years!
This is a hard read, but I highly recommend it. The film adaptation came out in 2017 so if you’ve seen it please let me know if you’d recommend it: we don’t have much time to watch films, but this is one I’m really interested in seeing if it’s done well!
100 Acre Wood: Zom-B by Darren Shan – 3 stars
After the beauty of The Wonderfalls, it was time for a ramble through 100 Acre Wood. Unfortunately we didn’t see Winnie-the-Pooh, but we did spot a book with a yellow cover: Zom-B by Darren Shan!
Zom-B follows B, who we get to know through a bunch of high school drama before a zombie invasion breaks out and everything is flipped on its head.
Zom-B is more of a 2.5 star than a 3 star because I didn’t think it was bad, I just thought it was forgettable. This reads more like an extended prologue than the first book in a series. The zombies themselves only appear just after the halfway mark, and the cliffhanger ending means that the rest of the series is going to go in a completely different direction and this book isn’t necessary.
There’s a shocking reveal which I didn’t see coming which makes you look at the first half of the book in a completely different light which was fun and increased my enjoyment a lot, but a chapter later something happens – I’m not going to go into spoilers – but the way that it played out was very flimsy and unconvincing.
My main complaint about Zom-B is that the cast of characters is too large. This is obviously so that the zombies can kill people off left, right and centre when they (eventually) appear, but none of B’s friends are three-dimensional enough to make you care when they get slaughtered. In fact I was cheering the zombies on, because it meant I had less people to try to keep track of! It would have been far more effective if Darren Shan had written five fully crafted characters for the zombies to kill, rather than a group so numerous that I had forgotten about half of them before they’d even been killed off.
That being said, Darren Shan wrote B’s father really well. He’s a racist and seems to be part of a political group similar to Britain First, and even though he is absolutely deplorable he is the most realistic character we meet.
I will be picking up the next book in the series to see which direction Shan takes the rest of the series in, but this was nowhere near as good as I had expected. At least it was super short, and the version I read had illustrations throughout which made things a bit more interesting.
The Deepwoods: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – 4 stars
Wandering from 100 Acre Wood into The Deepwoods, we found that we’d somehow stepped through a hole in time and found ourselves in the past. The only way to get back to our time was to read a book published before 2000, so we decided to begin our reread of the Harry Potter series.
If you’re new here, you won’t know this about me, but I’ve only ever read the first three books in the Harry Potter series. I keep trying finish them but it just doesn’t happen, so this is actually the fourth time I’ve read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I feel as though I took it in better this time, so I’ve actually dropped my rating from 5 stars down to 4 because I’ve finally been able to put my finger on why I am not a fan of the ending.
I’m assuming that you’ve all read Harry Potter so I’m going to get a bit spoilery here. If you haven’t, please continue on your Believathon journey and meet me at the Mermaid’s Lagoon!
At the end of the book, Harry Potter discovers that Professor Quirrell is working with Voldemort, harbouring his soul and helping him regain the powers he mysteriously lost when he came up against baby Harry. Harry blacks out, waking up in the infirmary a few days later and missing a chunk of the action, which Dumbledore kindly fills in for us.
Now, I’ve never been a huge fan of the ‘protagonist blacks out’ trope, but it has taken me this long to figure out why it doesn’t work in this situation. Earlier in the book, someone – cough QUIRRELL cough – enchants Harry Potter’s broomstick while he’s playing Quidditch, and he almost falls to his death. We leave our protagonist with his Bucking Bronco broom and pop down to the spectator’s stands, where his friends Ron and Hermione are trying to save him.
Now, my question is this: if J.K. Rowling isn’t opposed to moving between characters then why don’t we move to Dumbledore’s perspective when Harry blacks out? By having Harry black out the reader misses out on one of the most compelling parts of the story, and we get cheated out of a lot of tension and drama.
It’s a small complaint, but it feels like a very lazy way to finish off a book which – up until that point – can’t easily be improved.
I still enjoyed the rest of the story – Hogwarts is great, the world is well-crafted, the dry humour throughout had me giggling and I was genuinely surprised that I didn’t remember how funny parts of this book can be – but I didn’t feel the same love that I’ve felt for it in the past. I don’t know if that’s because I’m older or just because I’m a more critical reader, but it’s making me nervous about how I’m going to feel towards the rest of the series.
We also read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets during our Believathon journey, but you’ll just have to keep reading to see our thoughts on that…
Mermaid’s Lagoon: The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar – 4 stars
After making our way back to this timeline, we found ourselves in the Mermaid’s Lagoon, where we had to read a book featuring a female bond. What better way to celebrate women than by taking a trip on The Ship of Shadows, a pirate ship with a crew of only women and girls!
The Ship of Shadows tells the story of a girl called Aleja who finds herself inadvertently joining the crew of a notorious pirate ship. Despite always wanting to go on an adventure, Aleja feels guilty for leaving her family behind, but she has no choice but to help the gang on their mission to Morocco if she wants to get back home. Searching for fragments of a legendary map, Aleja and the crew must use all of their wits and wiles to figure out the clues left behind by the previous captain of the ship while escaping the clutches of a band of pirate hunters.
Aleja is constantly told that girls can’t go on adventures, so I loved the fact that she showed everyone by joining one of the most infamous pirate crews on the seven seas (even if it does happen accidentally!). This is the kind of book I would have absolutely loved reading when I was younger, and when my daughter is a bit older I’m definitely going to be recommending it to her. The lore behind the ship itself is very intriguing – people believe that the shadows are ghosts, but they’re actually the imprints of past members of the crew which are sticking around to help out – while the riddles and mysteries were very intelligently crafted.
I’m seriously hoping that this is going to be the first book in a series (the map is split into a few pieces, after all!) because I adored every member of this crew and would happily go on a few more adventures with them. My favourite member of the gang has to be Frances, who is totally cake-obsessed (I can relate). However, I think the best thing about The Ship of Shadows is that there’s really good representation throughout: multiple members of the crew have lost limbs, there’s a f/f relationship, and there are people from all different backgrounds, which is totally authentic considering a pirate ship would pick up crew members from all around the globe!
The Ship of Shadows isn’t out until July 9th, so I’m really grateful that I was able to read this early via NetGalley. Make sure you grab a copy yourself when it comes out: who can resist badass lady pirates?!
The Brolly Rail: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend – 5 stars
To travel between Mermaid’s Lagoon and Orion Found, it was time to hop on The Brolly Rail and read a book featuring transportation. As we borrowed Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow – the book which inspired this prompt – from the library a couple of days before lockdown, it was the perfect time to start this magical middle grade series.
Nevermoor has been described as for fans of Harry Potter, but I’d say it’s actually better.
Morrigan Crow is a cursed child. Bad things happen around her. Every month her father is forced to pay people back for the property damage and lost business Morrigan has caused, while Morrigan herself has to write letters apologising to everyone who feels as though they’ve been wronged by her. Her whole life, Morrigan has known that she will die on her 12th birthday… But when Eventide, the fateful night of her death, is brought forward a year, Morrigan’s life seems as though it will be cut even shorter.
Enter Jupiter North, who whisks her off to the world of Nevermoor to take part in the Wundrous Society trials. If Morrigan can pass the trials, she will become a member of society and be allowed to stay in Nevermoor forever. If she fails, she’ll have to return home to certain death at the hands of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow. High stakes, right?!
For a middle grade book this is rather chunky, coming it at almost 500 pages, so I thought it was going to take a few days for us to get through. I couldn’t have been more wrong: we read three quarters of the book in one sitting, because it’s absolutely impossible to put down.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I loved Nevermoor so much, but amongst other things this book contains: a handful of interesting trials, a Magnificat, found family, an umbrella transportation system, a Big Bad, the constant threat of deportation, friendship in unexpected places, and a chandelier which grows itself. Add that all together and combine it with one tenacious little girl who has a far tougher life than she has deserved, and you’ve got the makings of one of the best middle grade books I’ve ever read.
The world is so well-crafted, and I’m already eager to dive back in and read the sequel. With the third book being published in August, now is the perfect time to join Morrigan Crow on her adventures if you haven’t already.
Orion Found: The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day by Christopher Edge – 3 stars
Hopping off the Brolly Rail, we found ourselves in the out-of-this-world land of Orion Found. To get back to our Believathon journey we had to read a book related to space, and for this one we read The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day, which was featured in Gavin’s Believathon recommendations video and just happened to be one we already owned.
Starting this review off with a disclaimer: I’m not sure I’m smart enough to really understand this book, so I’m not really surprised that I didn’t enjoy it all that much.
The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day tells two stories in one, which is impressive considering it’s just over 150 pages. When we first meet Maisie she wakes up on her birthday to an empty house. Heading downstairs and looking for her parents, she opens the front door to discover nothing. Through the window she can see the neighbour’s houses and the front lawn, but when the door is open there is nothing but blackness. Blackness which begins rapidly devouring Maisie’s house.
Then Maisie wakes up. She goes downstairs and begins celebrating her birthday with her family. You think it was all a dream, until the next chapter throws us back with Maisie, who is in turmoil and desperately trying to work out what is happening.
There is a huge twist in this book and I don’t want to ruin it, so I’m not going to get too specific in this review, but I can tell you that this story might have been the longest 150 pages I’ve ever read. I thought we were going to be able to fly through it in less than an hour, but basically every time we switched between the Maisies I found myself feeling distracted and restless, and I couldn’t stop putting it down and doing other things. This might be because I don’t have a very scientific brain and psychics is one of the most exhausting subjects – not only am I not very scientific, but my spatial awareness is little-to-none – so if I’d known how much of this book would focus on Maisie’s love of the sciences I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.
It’s very intelligent, and if I’d read it when I was younger I might have enjoyed it a bit more, but it just went completely over my head.
That being said, I loved seeing a female middle grade character who was so interested in science! Perhaps if I had read this at a younger age it might have sparked more interest for the subject, and it’s definitely good to encourage young girls to develop a passion for STEM.
I did think the ending let the book down a little bit – it dampened what was a powerfully impactful story – but I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.
Black Ice Bridge: Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell – 5 stars
Coming back down to Make-Believathon, we found ourselves rapidly approaching the Black Ice Bridge. We could see the Book-Keeper’s Stronghold in the distance and we knew that the end was in sight, but the Black Ice Bridge was quite rickety and unstable. To give ourselves the courage to cross it we had to read a book featuring an adventure or an expedition, and for that we chose Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell.
Wonderscape was on my radar after Gavin gave it a gushing five star review a couple of months ago, so I was beyond grateful to be accepted to read and review Wonderscape via NetGalley.
This is a book which starts off with a literal bang. Arthur is on his way to school when his neighbour’s garden gnomes start exploding. He and fellow students Ren and Cecily call the police, but while waiting for them to arrive they hear a dog in distress barking in the house. Knowing that the house has been abandoned for a few years, the trio go in to save the dog, and moments later find themselves upon a research vessel with none other than Sir Isaac Newton!
It turns out that Arthur, Ren and Cecily have been transported to the 25th Century, right into a game called Wonderscape. This in-reality adventure game uses the latest in technology to allow its users to travel to different realms, completing tasks and challenges to win the honour of meeting famous figures from throughout history.
Isaac Newton has some bad news for them, though. Due to timey-wimey constraints, if they don’t make it back home within 48 hours there’s a good chance that the universe will erase their existence. Desperate to avoid becoming puddles of goo, the three classmates race against time to work out how to escape the Wonderscape before time runs out.
The best word to describe Wonderscape is propulsive. This story is non-stop action and the tension doesn’t let up for a second. Jennifer Bell cleverly never lets the reader forget about the time bomb ticking in the background, with Arthur regularly updating us on how much time is left causing your heart to beat just that little bit faster with each chapter that passes.
I thought the concept of the Wonderscape was so clever, and if it was a game which actually existed I’d be addicted to it! At points I was getting some Ready Player One vibes – it has certainly put me in the mood to re-read that story – so if you’re a fan of Ernest Cline’s debut but would like to try branching out into reading middle grade then this is a great place to start. (Or vice versa! If you read Wonderscape but are looking for something a bit more grown up, Ready Player One is awesome).
Parts of Wonderscape also gave me Marvel movie vibes. You think you know what the story is, but then another plot is revealed and the stakes get even higher. We read the second half of Wonderscape in one sitting for that exact reason: when you realise there’s more to the story than just getting the three main characters home safely, you need to know how it’s going to end.
My favourite thing about Wonderscape was probably Cloud the dog, who isn’t just a dog… But I’ll let you find out what’s special about Cloud when you pick up this book!
Wonderscape is published on June 4th, so you only have a few days before you’ll be able to read this story yourself.
The Book-Keeper’s Stronghold: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling – 3 stars
We made it to the end of our Believathon journey, but there was a huge snake blocking the entrance to the Book-Keeper’s Stronghold! To vanquish it we had to read it a sequel, so we decided upon Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as I mentioned earlier.
Giving this book just three stars is probably the most unpopular rating I’ll ever post on this blog. It’s pretty sacrilegious to rate any of the Harry Potter books less than 5 stars, so claiming that one is middle-of-the-road is not going to go down well…
Again, assuming that you’ve read Harry Potter – because who hasn’t?! – I’m going to get a bit spoilery and not bother describing the plot. If you’re in the minority of people who haven’t picked this one up yet, please keep scrolling!
There were things I enjoyed about this book – the flying car, Aragog, and the delightfully loopy Gilderoy Lockhart – but it was all kind of overshadowed by J.K. Rowling’s recent behaviour (this article discusses something which happened AFTER I finished Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but Rowling’s repeated transphobic behaviour isn’t something which seems as though it’ll be going away any time soon).
When you’ve got male characters being treated with disdain and talked about derogatorily for going into the girls bathroom it could just be brushed off as boys being boys – wah wah, girls have cooties don’t get anywhere near them! – but knowing about Rowling’s feelings towards trans people gives it really uncomfortable connotations. It doesn’t just happen once, either, it’s a conversation which pops up multiple times throughout the book and every time I physically winced.
This would have been a four star book, matching its predecessor, but I just can’t condone that kind of attitude. However, I also can’t rate this any lower, because it is a popular classic children’s book for a reason: the character development is authentic, the mystery is intriguing and there are even some subtle NSFW jokes to entertain the adults and go right over the children’s heads, as the best children’s cartoons always manage to achieve. It’s conflicting and frustrating, and one of the reasons I think the saying should be changed from ‘don’t meet your heroes’ to ‘don’t let your heroes have social media accounts’.
I’m still going to carry on reading the Harry Potter series, but I’m definitely feeling more and more apprehensive. It’s extremely hard to separate an author’s beliefs and actions from their work – if you can manage it, power to you, but it’s something I struggle with – and I can’t help but critically view their releases in relation to that.
We did vlog our Believathon journey, too, so if you’re interested in watching those they are over on my BookTube channel.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Gavin for creating Believathon and being such a champion of middle grade books. He’s certainly helped reignite the spark of my love for middle grade, and I’m looking forward to continuing on with some of these series over the next few months (and taking part in Believathon III: The Mystery of the Missing Maleficarum, in November!).
My hands are about to fall off from all of this reviewing, so I’m off or a nap. See you tomorrow for my stop on the blog tour for Again Again by E. Lockhart!