The Leaving: A Review

The Leaving by Tara AltebrandoEleven years ago six kindergartners were taken from their school and disappeared without a trace. There have been movies and conspiracy theories but nothing close to the truth; no kind of resolution for the parents and siblings left behind.

Until now.

When five of the missing children come back they’re sixteen years old and healthy. They have no memory of what happened or where they’ve been held. They barely remember the lives they’re returning to. None of them remember the sixth victim, Max.

Scarlett returns to a mother she hardly knows and a life that doesn’t quite fit while Lucas finds a family that has moved on without him and threatens to shatter with his return. Avery remembers both Scarlett and Lucas as well as she remembers the day Max never came home. Now, eleven years later, she waits again for a brother who doesn’t return.

Everyone wants to know what happened. Scarlett, Lucas, and the others are desperate to fill in the gaps in their memories while Avery is grasping for some trace of her still-missing brother. All five of the returned children begin to find strange clues that seem to be leading them somewhere. But only Lucas and Scarlett–with Avery’s prodding–are willing to follow the clues wherever they may lead in The Leaving (2016) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando juggles three narrators and numerous plot lines over the course of this novel. The story alternates first person narrated chapters between Scarlett (whose narration includes unconventional formatting and patterned text), Lucas (whose barely-there memories surface as blocky black text), and Avery (who has the most conventional narration). All three of the narrators are white but from a variety of economic backgrounds which adds another dimension to their connected stories.

There is something inherently cruel about this premise which Altebrando explores with frightening detail. The prose here is sparse leaving details to the imagination that make the experiences of the kidnapped children all the more horrifying to imagine. There are no easy answers here and no clean resolution–something that gives The Leaving a lasting impact.

The Leaving is, ostensibly, a thriller. The novel is packed with suspense and razor-sharp tension in short chapters that build to a chilling conclusion. At the same time, this story is also a thoughtful character study. Who are we without our memories? Who can we become? Is a blank slate of a childhood that different from the gradual forgetting that comes as we grow older? Are the monsters we fear any less frightening if we don’t remember them?

The Leaving is an ambitious work of suspense that is atmospheric, eerie, and incredibly successful. A must read.

Possible Pairings: The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Breaker by Kat Ellis, The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, False Memory by Dan Krokos,  We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Pretending to Be Erica by Michelle Painchaud, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Suicide Notes From Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

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Break Me Like a Promise: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Break Me Like a Promise is the second book in Schmidt’s Once Upon a Crime Family series which begins with Hold Me Like a Breath. This review features spoilers for book one*

Break Me Like a Promise by Tiffany SchmidtMagnolia Vickers has spent years convincing her father and the other Family men that she is much more than a decorative young woman destined to spend her life on the periphery of their Business in illegal organ trafficking.

After a staggering loss, the future Maggie has been planning as her father’s successor is precarious at best. Worse, Maggie’s recent behavior has ruined her carefully constructed reputation with almost everyone in the Family–not to mention her parents.

Maggie is forced to set her grief and loneliness aside when a computer virus brings trouble to the Family. When Alex, the computer expert hired to fix the virus, brings his demands for a new kidney to the Family he quickly becomes Maggie’s problem.

As she learns more about Alex and the changing legislation, Maggie realizes that Alex can be more to her than a source of constant frustration–a lot more. But first Maggie will have to use everything she’s learned about the Family Business to help them move forward in a world with legalized organs and make sure Alex survives long enough to get his new kidney in Break Me Like a Promise (2016) by Tiffany Schmidt.

Break Me Like a Promise is the second book in Schmidt’s Once Upon a Crime Family series which begins with Hold Me Like a Breath. This novel features a different narrator and is set months after the events of book one. Although it contains spoilers for the first book in the series, it largely functions as a contained story. In this unconventional retelling, Schmidt incorporates elements from “The Frog Prince” into her unique world where organ transplants are illegal.

Given the premise (fairy tale retellings with organized crime!), I always knew this series was going to become one of my favorites. I wasn’t surprised when I enjoyed reading about Penny in Hold Me Like a Breath and I wasn’t surprised when I realized Break Me Like a Promise was easily one of my most highly anticipated 2016 titles.

Some reading experiences are more personal than others and such was the case here. Schmidt completely surpassed my expectations with her careful plotting and thoughtful writing. Every single piece of Break Me Like a Promise matters and every piece works to make the whole even more powerful.

The thing that really shines in this novel are the characters–especially Maggie. I identified a lot with Maggie and was deeply affected by her journey in this novel. That (along with the stellar plot and writing) is what made Break Me Like a Promise a standout novel for me.

I’ve talked before about hitting a rough patch a couple of years ago. I wrote a guest post about that overwhelming feeling of being in over my head and feeling lost. I even talked about seeing some of that struggle mirrored in a different book. I’ve started thinking of that time as triage because I was just going day-to-day and trying to get through because it was too hard and too scary to try and think further ahead.

Things are better now. Things are actually good. But while I was reading Break Me Like a Promise and watching Maggie work through the initial shock and grief of Carter’s death, I realized that I had been holding onto a lot of my stress and anxiety and mindsets from those bad years. I’m often too hard on myself and don’t treat myself very well as a result. I keep asking myself, “What else can go wrong? What if something happens?” It’s easy to think that once a traumatic event is over, that’s the end. It’s time to move on. But recovery–even for the person who was physically fine throughout, like me–doesn’t work that way. I have realized that I don’t remember who I was before my rough patch. I don’t know who I could be moving forward. I lost track of that somewhere.
My situation isn’t at all like Maggie’s but I identified so much with her throughout Break Me Like a Promise. It’s incredibly moving and powerful to watch Maggie’s growth during her story arc and to see her make sense of herself without Carter and as she makes her way in the world.
I recommend this series to fans of fairy tale retellings as well as sleek mysteries like White Cat or Heist Society.
Break Me Like a Promise is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and it’s also one I needed badly. I don’t think words can ever truly convey how much this book means to me but I hope the words in this review might convince you to check out Break Me Like a Promise for yourself. This book is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt broken and wondered how to be anything else; for the people who have moved on and for the people who are still trying to find their way. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, White Cat by Holly Black, Strings Attached by Judy Blundell, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, Heist Society by Ally Carter, The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Be sure to check out my interview with Tiffany about the book starting tomorrow!

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Mousequerade Ball: A Counting Tale: A Picture Book Review

Mousequerade Ball by Lori Mortensen and Betsy LewinIn a castle on a hill, in a great big hall, mice are getting ready for the Mousequerade Ball. They dress in their finest, they light up the hall. The mice come to feast and to dance and to have a grand time.

When an unexpected guest–a cat no less!–arrives at the hall, most of the mice are thrown into a frenzy. Just when the ball seems ruined, one brave mouse steps forward and sets the party back on course in Mousequerade Ball: A Counting Tale by Lori Mortensen, illustrated by Betsy Lewin.

Rhyming text lends a nice rhythm to this counting tell that starts with one great hall and builds as preparations are made and guests arrive for the Mousequerade Ball. When a cat comes to the party, the story begins counting down as the guests panic and consider running away. That is, at least, until one lone mouse declares that she has invited the cat to the ball to come and dance (which he does!).

This is a whimsical story that will charm readers of all ages. The counting text and rhymes make it appealing to even the youngest readers. Lewin’s illustrations add a nice dimension to the story with additional details and a touch of whimsy depicting the mice in their finery and frippery.

Mousequerade Ball: A Counting Tale is a great choice for storytime or one-on-one reading. The counting elements, rhymed text, and detailed illustrations guarantee it will stand up well to multiple readings.

When We Collided: A Review

When We Collided by Emery LordVivi falls in love with Verona Cove almost immediately. It is a small, painfully quaint town that seems to be brimming over with possibility. The perfect place for her painter mother to find inspiration this summer. The perfect place for Vivi to regroup after her painful departure from Seattle months ago. With a job in the pottery shop, breakfast at the diner each morning, and the perfect view of the ocean when she throws one of her pills away, Vivi is sure that this summer is going to be just perfect.

Jonah has been struggling. His father’s death is still a gaping, ragged hole of grief. His mother is falling apart–lost in depression that might be grief or might be clinical. He and his older siblings have been trying to keep the family together and mind their three younger siblings. But Jonah is starting to cave under the responsibilities and obligations.

Vivi and Jonah never expected to meet, much less fall in love. Over the course of one tumultuous summer they will do that and more. Together Vivi and Jonah might have all of the pieces to heal themselves. But after learning how to be together, they might also have to learn how to survive apart in When We Collided (2016) by Emery Lord.

When We Collided is Lord’s third novel.

This novel is narrated by Vivi and Jonah in alternating first-person chapters as they each tell their own stories and the story of their growing relationship. Vivi is coming to terns with her diagnosis with bipolar disorder (and the aftermath of her last manic episode) while trying to have a quiet summer with her mother. Jonah is still shattered by his father’s premature death and the sudden responsibilities he has had to take on as a result.

While Lord once again offers readers a sweet romantic plot, it is misleading to call this book a romance. Instead When We Collided is more the story of two people who meet at the right time–exactly when they need each other and when they can help each other the most.

Lord does a great job making Vivi’s life with bipolar disorder realistic and authentic. She is much more than her diagnosis. Her narration is frenetic and vibrant and makes it painfully clear when things begin to slip. While the trope of avoiding medication is tiresome, it’s handled decently in When We Collided and does end with Vivi committed to treatment and agreeing to discuss options more fully with her doctor before making and sudden decisions.

(There’s also a side-plot with Vivi looking for her father which is messy, poorly explained, and could have done with more research and development.)

By contrast, Jonah is easily the more grounded of the two and readily lets himself get swept up in Vivi’s whirlwind. His life is a nice contrast to Vivi’s and underscores that everyone has something they are working through and moving toward.

When We Collided doesn’t end neatly. Vivi and Jonah’s story is messy and complicated and open-ended. Neither character knows what will come next, and neither do readers. The only thing that’s clear for these two incredibly strong teens is that they are better for know each other and, no matter what comes next, they are going to be okay. Lord delivers another compelling and engrossing novel here. Recommended for fans and readers looking for romantic stories with complex characters and realistic portrayals of mental illness.

Possible Pairings: Finding Mr. Brightside by Jay Clark, The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle, Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, Wild Awake by Hillary T. Smith, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Book of a Thousand Days: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon HaleDashti, a “mucker” alone in the world, promises her lady that she won’t abandon her on the day they meet. Used to a nomadic life on the steppes, Dashti doesn’t know what she is agreeing to when she and Lady Saren are sealed in a tower for seven years after the lady refuses to marry a man who terrifies her.

Alone with seven years’ worth of supplies and their thoughts, Dashti begins to write of their time in the tower. She expects the darkness and the loneliness and even her lady’s erratic behavior. She does not expect to have to talk to two suitors on her lady’s behalf. Nor can she imagine the havoc both will wreak on both Dashti’s and Lady Saren’s lives.

When supplies begin to run low and Dashti wonders how much longer they can survive, this supposedly common girl will have to summon uncommon strength and ingenuity to save herself and Saren in Book of a Thousand Days (2007) by Shannon Hale.

Book of a Thousand Days is a retelling of the fairy tale “Maid Maleen” originally told by the Brothers Grimm. It is also reminiscent of Hale’s earlier novel Princess Academy in the best possible way.

The novel is written as Dashti’s book of thoughts with diary-like entries for various days. Book of a Thousand Days is also delightfully illustrated throughout. Dashti’s narration is frank and filled with thoughtful observations as she contemplates her captivity as well as her lowly station compared to Lady Saren who is gentry descended from the Ancestors.

Hale’s novel is set in a fictional world comprising the Eight Realms (as seen in a map at the beginning) which are loosely inspired by medieval Mongolia. Although much of the novel takes place in a tower, Hale still brings the landscape and culture of Dashti’s world to life as she create a unique culture filled with magic, mystery and music.

Dashti is a fantastic heroine who is as pragmatic as she is optimistic. Her resilience throughout the novel and her confidence–even when facing moments of doubt and great obstacles–are inspiring. Hale expertly showcases her growth throughout the novel and, by extension, Saren’s own attempts to become more than an idle Gentry lady.

Book of a Thousand Days is a sweet story filled with adventure and romance that will appeal to readers of all ages. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, The Reader by Traci Chee, Ice by Sarah Beth Durst, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Soundless by Richelle Mead, The Kiss of Deception by Marie E. Pearson, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Princess of the Midnight Ball: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day GeorgeGalen is a soldier returning from war. At only nineteen he has been on the battleground most of his life. He is world-weary and eager to return to Westfalin and try his hand at civilian life now that the war is over.

Rose is one of the twelve princesses of Westfalin cursed to dance each night for the King Under Stone where they wear out their dancing slippers every evening. Unable to speak out about their nightly activities or defy the King Under Stone, Rose and her sisters suffer in silence.

Many princes try to discover where the princesses go each night. All of them fail.

As the stakes grow higher, Rose and Galen will have to work together to break the curse and save Westfalin from threats found both underground and above in Princess of the Midnight Ball (2009) by Jessica Day George.

Princess of the Midnight Ball is the first book in George’s trilogy of companion novels following the princesses of Westfalin. It is also a retelling of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” fairytale.

Princess of the Midnight Ball is written in the third person and alternates between Galen and Rose’s points of view to create two protagonists who are very authentic instead of relying on character archetypes. George also flips several standard fairytale tropes upside down with her refreshing and well-rounded characters. Galen is levelheaded and cautious while still having enough charm to rival any prince. He also knits his own socks. Rose is clever, sharp and decidedly proactive as she works independently of Galen to try and save her sisters.

Together Galen and Rose are unstoppable as they face faeries, curses and other ills besides in their efforts to break the curse and save Westfalin. Despite having numerous secondary characters–just with all of Rose’s sisters!–George manages to present concise snapshot descriptions for each character without bogging down the narrative. This story can also appeal to a broad age range as it’s thin on gore or violence with a lighter tone overall.

Princess of the Midnight Ball is a delightful retelling that stays true to the source material while also adding original touches and memorable characters. A thrilling plot, sweet romance and genuinely scary villains make for a winning combination in this reinvented fairytale.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Selection by Kiera Cass, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Caraval by Stephanie Garber, Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, Beauty by Robin McKinley, The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier, The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Toads & Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde

Lady Thief: A Review

*Lady Thief is the second book in Gaughen’s Scarlet trilogy and picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book Scarlet. As such, this review has major spoilers for the first book.*

Lady Thief by A. C. GaughenScarlet thought she escaped her past when she joined Robin Hood and his band to protect the people of Nottingham. That was before the thief taker Gisbourne arrived to capture Robin and his band. Before Scarlet was forced to marry Gisbourne in a gambit to save everyone she cares about.

Now, Scarlet is irrevocably tied to Gisbourne even as she sits in hiding with Robin, John and Much. Rob’s time in the Nottingham dungeon has left him scarred and broken. The entire band seems on the verge of collapse when Gisbourne returns with a shocking offer for Scarlet that has the potential to change everything.

When Prince John and the royal court arrive in Nottingham for the appointment of a new Sheriff, Scarlet is drawn into a game of politics and secrets where losing could be deadly in Lady Thief (2014) by A. C. Gaughen.

Lady Thief is the second book in Gaughen’s Scarlet trilogy and picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first book Scarlet.

While Scarlet is an excellent introduction to Nottingham and Gaughen’s version of Robin Hood, Lady Thief moves the series in new directions as the story prepares for the conclusion of the trilogy. Lady Thief brings Scarlet back to the courtly life she abhors and offers quite a few surprises and promises of more to come before the trilogy concludes with Lion Heart.

Lady Thief also introduces an especially frightening villain in Prince John. I won’t get into details here because it’s a spoiler, but some of what Prince John inflicts on Scarlet is so horrifying that I almost didn’t finish this book. (A year ago, I would NOT have finished this book, if we’re being honest.)

It’s fascinating to see more of court life and, horrible person that I am, I am quite fond of Gisbourne so I enjoyed seeing a slightly different side to him here. Lady Thief still has a lot of action as Rob and the band scramble to keep Prince John from appointing another horrible sheriff. Now that Rob and Scarlet have made their feelings about each other clear, readers also get a bit more romance along with the expected action and suspense.

This book focuses more firmly on Scarlet and her character. Instead of just doing what she has to in order to survive, Scarlet is now forced to consider not just what she is willing to sacrifice but also what she is willing to become in order to protect Nottingham and those she loves.

Lady Thief is a thrilling, fast-paced novel with a gut-wrenching ending that will leave readers anxious to get book three in their hands. Recommended for fans of Robin Hood and historical fiction with a twist. Not recommended for squeamish readers who prefer to avoid violence and gore.

Initially, I was going to end my review here. That was when I still had plans to read Lion Heart. Since then, I’ve taken a hard look at things and decided it was best for me to part ways with this series. My reasons are personal and spoilery but here they are: Basically Lady Thief came really close to giving me a breakdown. I did not handle it well when Scarlet’s fingers are cut off. It is never a favorite thing for me to read but it felt particularly visceral here to the point that for hours after reading about it, I had to talk through everything with Kayla. It brought back every bad memory I have of relatives who were sick and relatives who died and, honestly, I felt physically ill while I forced myself to finish the book. Will other people feel that way or have such a violent reaction? Probably not. But the more I thought about Lady Thief the more I felt like the book had betrayed me and the more I realized I could not continue with the series.

Possible Pairings: A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, Fire by Kristin Cashore, Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund, Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell, Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson, Montmorency by Eleanor Updale, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White