I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Life update: a haunted house company moved in basically across the road from us, and sometimes I think I can hear people screaming from there at night.
This is the stuff that Halloween dreams are made of.
Also Lecia Cornwall’s book The Lady and the Highlander, a dark, seductive fairy tale with spooky, shivery imagery and a heroine who puts all the letters into “intrepid.”
When the book opens, Laire MacLeod’s beloved and fierce father is marrying a beautiful and mysterious woman named Bibiana. Soon after, her father, sisters, and clan-members are swept away in a bacchanal that shows no sign of ending, and the only people who seem unaffected are Laire—who doesn’t drink spirits—and Bibiana and her unsettling entourage, including her Sealgair, or hunter.
The hunter’s actually Iain Lindsay, a leader of his own clan who’s under self-imposed exile after a tragedy involving his late wife. For the last several years he’s been under obligation to serve Bibiana, a woman whose beauty helps disguise how deadly she is, and every day is a struggle between his lingering vestiges of honor and the guilt that’s poisoning him.
But when Laire starts to learn the deadly truth about Bibana and her entourage, she and Iain are forced to decide which parts of themselves they’ll listen to. Will Laire be brave and canny enough to save her family? And will Iain follow his better nature and aid Laire in her quest, or his worst?
The Lady and the Highlander’s a rich treat. It’s passionate and vivid, with provocative imagery that made me lost in the story even as I had a very visceral response to what the author describes. The Snow White vibes give the story a timeless feel to savor, but even more impressive is how much agency Laire has and how determined she is to save her family though she’s been sheltered her entire life. And though Iain’s initial lack of sympathy toward Bibiana’s victims made it hard for me to connect with him, his subsequent musings and actions make his good heart and overall integrity apparent.
That undeniable pull between Laire and Iain is delectable, especially once Bibiana pits them as enemies of the other. It’s pretty delicious seeing how much they want the other (and how much Iain respects Laire) even as he’s sent to kill her and she must defend herself against him. Ultimately, there’s a thrilling pay-off that gives me all the romance feels.
While I was all-in for most of Laire’s quest, the ending of this novel leaves me a bit disappointed. The reservations that both characters had maintained are summarily dismissed, and it lacks the more substantive emotional response that I had anticipated.
But for most of the book, from that first critical meeting of Laire and Bibiana throughout Laire’s bruised, stumbling quest from the only home she’s ever known, I was entranced, appreciating Lecia Cornwall’s distinctive voice and story.
I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Thea Harrison’s American Witch was the last book to surprise me. I picked it up & read a few chapters, and before I knew it I was absolutely sucked into this story of enemies-to-lovers, older hero-heroine, witch-coming-into-her-own goodness.
Molly Sullivan discovers her magical powers the same night that she discovers that her husband has been sleeping with another woman in their bed. Neither discovery goes down smooth.
She’s soon approached by Josiah Mason, District Attorney and fellow witch, who proceeds to offer her help and guidance and oh yeah, steer her & her amazing powers into the direction that would be most advantageous to him, his ambitions, & his mission. For years, Josiah & a like-minded coven of witches have been itching to get revenge against the older witch who betrayed them, & the moment seems closer than ever.
But Josiah’s attraction for Molly is greedy and demanding, & the attack against her & the conspiracy she’s wrapped up in seem to be intimately tied to his own revenge plans. To quote Scooby Doo: Ruh roh.
I kind of love this book. There’s a keen sense of suspense, both with Molly & Josiah’s relationship and the magic plot, a beautiful enemies-to-lovers plotline that kept me invested from the first frosty exchange, & a fantastic heroine arc with Molly—who absolutely refuses to kowtow to Josiah at any point in the book—becoming even stronger as the book progresses. After years of subsuming her own wants/needs to her cheating husband, Molly makes it clear from the opening line that that shit won’t fly anymore, and I loved it.
Let’s not forget about how Thea Harrison ties Josiah’s life to a compelling historical moment that still has conspiracy theorist-tongues-wagging…
And you can hopefully see where some of my excitement is coming from. American Witch has the magic, the drama, the fights, the sexiness that make a book devour-able, and I can’t wait to see where the trilogy goes next.
I received a complimentary ARC of this book via Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Ghostly visions of the past. A dangerous magical mirror and pearl. Family secrets coming to light like monsters in a bedroom. *Sings These are a few of my favorite things. To read about.
Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows was a delightfully eerie surprise when I discovered it nestled deep in my Kindle history the other day. Told from different perspectives—historical and present-day—and containing the gothic and romantic elements that I adore in Susanna Kearsley & Kate Morton’s books, House of Shadows had me enraptured from the word go to the final, satisfying lines.
I’ll try to keep the plot’s description simple though Cornick grandly pulls off a big story. Part of the book surrounds Queen Elizabeth Stuart, a 17th-century monarch who’s been sent off to royal exile and dreams of a better world, one she and her husband hope to create through the use of a magical mirror and pearl. And then we have Holly Ansell in the present-day, whose brother Ben is missing, and who runs into other mysteries as she looks for him: like the aforementioned mirror and pearl, the diary of a courtesan she discovers on her search (that’s the novel’s third perspective), and the ghostly visions she keeps seeing as she lives and works in the village her brother was last in.
House of Shadows reads like a detective novel of sorts, with Holly on the search for her brother, feeling like every clue she solves in this larger mirror & pearl historical mystery is taking her closer to finding him. Cornick’s historical descriptions are lush and lovely and her depictions of complicated women interesting and astute. I love how she captures different personalities in this book and how she not only makes aha connections between the characters but also links them to moments in time. These women feel the weight of their personal (and sometimes global) histories, and that’s part of what makes them so compelling to watch—and root for.
Like Morton’s books, Cornick’s features a “historical” romance and a “contemporary” one. I had some slight issues with the pacing of the contemporary one but then it turned suspenseful in the way that I adore.
House of Shadows is a scrumptious treat, and one I heartily recommend as we run headlong into fall. Give me all the ghost stories (with romance and magic and mayhem!).
4.5 out of 5 stars
I received an ARC of this book via Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
She’s a charmer of beasts who has a bounty on her head. He’s the assassin in charge of killing her.
That sounds like the perfect premise of a fantasy romance to me.
Smart and wildly inventive, Maxym M. Martineau's Kingdom of Exiles had me captivated from the first page. It’s the kind of book I can really sink my teeth into: a morally complex, live-life-on-the-edge-of-danger heroine and hero (who are determined to kill and/or use the other for much of the book!)*, a diverse round of secondary characters, and a true dilemma facing them all that I have faith they’ll overcome, even if I don’t see how.
Even better are the closing pages, where Martineau ties up things just enough to leave me satisfied, but also leaves enough undone to hint at the craziness to come. Because when the final paragraph is over, there are still secrets between the characters—secrets each narrator has hinted at to the reader—and secrets which are guaranteed to wreak absolute havoc in a future book.
Kingdom of Exiles is enemies to lovers done splendidly. Martineau took me on a gripping adventure that left me wanting more: more of her originality, drama, romance. She has a lot to bring to the genre—she already has this very impressive addition—and the exciting news is that I think she’s just getting started.
*Seriously, I had big reservations about some of the things the hero and heroine were doing but they show major growth throughout the book.
TNW Arbitrary Rating: 4.25 stars. (See how useless my rating scale is?)
Q: What fantasy romance read do you recommend to everyone? One of mine is Naomi Novik's Uprooted.
I never realized how much I was looking for an indomitable heroine until I met the women who populate Sarah J. Maas’s books. And I never understood how much it would mean to me that an indomitable heroine be flawed—that is, like a normal person who makes mistakes and not a perfect person who becomes a perfect sacrifice—until I encountered Aelin in Maas’s Throne of Glass series.
Because it actually means something that the same person who could protect others and make tough decisions, who could make sacrifices for the good of others and save the world, could also be a person whose personality is sometimes abrasive, and who often does cringe-worthy and occasionally awful things, AND does both those good and bad (mostly good) things as a woman.
The truth is that for a long time I admired those perfect heroic characters, and a lot of times in my reading experience, those perfect heroic characters were men. Another truth is that for a long time, I felt uncomfortable reading about flawed women, because I wasn’t always (and to some degree, still am not) entirely comfortable with some of my own flaws. And another truth on top of that one: I’m trying to be aware of my own gender biases, the ones that whisper softly that women should be polite and nurturing and selfless, humble and kind, and that flare up when I see women who don’t seem to be embodying those values.
I am a work in progress.
As much as I love being a mom, treasure it, adore it, there’s also quite a bit of guilt and self-recrimination tossed into the mix. I frequently compare my own actions and thoughts to some idealized notion of mommyhood that I feel I’ve seen exhibited by other moms in my life, or moms in books or movies. I had a rough time with the weight of that guilt for a while, and it was hard, and sometimes still is, to walk away from it. It’s long-lasting, guilt, and once you feel it, it’s difficult to forget about.
That’s not to mention the day-to-day inadequacy I sometimes feel, the kind that’s not really related to being a mom, but maybe to being a woman. Did I really say that? Why don’t I understand that? Why are my ankles so thick? Why am I not more like _____?
But books, and characters like Aelin, help.
Some people like to pretend that books don’t matter, that words are meaningless. But like someone else once noted—books can make us “brave” (I’m so sorry that I can’t remember who said this. I think I saw it on Twitter.) Words have power, and a series of words that are masterfully strung together can make us admire and love and dislike and hate characters; those strung together words can not only intrigue us, they can invest us in characters’s decisions, question them. They can make us wonder what we would do in the respective character’s situation. And if a time comes necessary, as that one unremembered source above suggested, the responses we’ve had to books and characters and specific actions we’ve read about can help us see the right thing, and give us the motivation to do it.
Sarah J. Maas writes beautifully, terrifically. On a basic literary level, you’re missing out on quite a lot if you haven’t read her. But for me, the biggest part of her appeal comes from the fact that she writes flawed women and I am a flawed woman.
I’ve done good things and I’ve done some bad and I can be funny and annoying and smart and not-very-smart and kind and rude and sometimes I can hit a note like Adele(ish) and sometimes I glance around and make sure no one heard me sing, it's so bad, and it’s all okay, because I’m human and I'm trying. It can be tempting to dwell on the areas where we’ve failed or might fail. But I want to believe—I do believe—that mistakes and heroism (on a small or big level) are not incompatible; that identifying as a woman and being a hero are not incompatible. That flawed women are capable of saving the world and doing it with a smirk--or smile, or frown, whatevs, you be you--on their faces.
I think that you’re either a vampire person, or you’re not. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of gray area there, in my experience. I’ve been a vampire person since I first saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer and realized that it was possible to save a gymnasium full of people in an impossibly huge dress and win the love of a 90s era Luke Perry. I’ve covered a lot of vampire ground since then and I’m happy to report that we have a new smart, fierce vampire story to add to the conversation: Chloe Neill’s Wild Hunger, the first book in her Heirs of Chicagoland series—a spin-off of her wildly popular Chicagoland Vampires series.
In Wild Hunger, we get Elisa, vampire daughter of Ethan and Merit, and Connor, shifter son of Gabriel and Tonya. They kinda sorta can’t stand each other at the beginning. Elisa and Connor have grown up teasing, taunting, and fighting each other, but Elisa’s return from a long sojourn in Paris gives them opportunity to get to know each other again.
What they find is surprising.
But they don’t have a lot of time to dwell on that, because Connor is heading to Alaska to re-commune with the Earth and his Pack, and Elisa is headed back to Paris, but first they have to prove that Riley, one of their friends and a member of Connor’s Pack, didn’t murder a vampire at a party celebrating the beginning of European vampire peace talks.
Complicating everything is the monster living inside Elisa.
Elisa’s the only existing offspring of vampires, and so it’s easier to hide her little problem: there’s also huge magic inside her. It feels dangerous and deadly, and she tries to suppress it because she knows it’s related to a wicked sorceress and how her mother Merit became pregnant with her in the first place.
Only Connor has seen the monster inside Elisa that she tries to ignore. Will it bring them together or pull them apart?
Told in first person from Elisa’s perspective, Wild Hunger is deftly told—it’s vivid and gripping. I love a fierce heroine, and Elisa is strong and compassionate, not afraid to risk herself if it might help someone she cares about. It doesn’t hurt that she’s skilled with katanas and has a monster inside her. Elisa's relationship with Connor is pretty chaste and straightforward at this point, but I have my doubts that will last long, particularly since the tension in this world is so high already. Elisa is a vampire and Connor is a shifter, and though they are wildly attracted to one another, a lot of people don’t want those to mix. Add to that volatility fairies, and you’ve got a real powder keg situation.
Like in her other books that I’ve read, Neill offers us in Wild Hunger a thoroughly and thoughtfully created world. Though the stakes are always high—we’re talking world domination and peace on Earth, people—Neill doesn’t forego the personal either. Defeating enemies and preventing them from subjugating others to their terror-filled reigns is important, yes, but so are relationships and love.
When I left this book—regretfully—I was both satisfied with how the plot worked out and already looking forward to the next one. I have my suspicions about where it will all go, but since Neill is the author, I know I’ll also be surprised.
I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a dazzling fantasy romance that will leave you breathless, but at its heart it’s about sisters. What we do for family. What we do to protect those whom we’ve loved and fought with and adored since birth. What that responsibility for another living soul can do to you and for you.
Over the course of our lives together, my sister and I have switched bedrooms more times than I count, planned and participated in numerous talent shows in which we were the only talent (and mine was debatable), called one another names (we both a keen psychological instinct for hitting the weak spots), held and comforted the other, and hit one another with remotes (okay, that was just me. But she must have deserved it and afterwards she called me a “stupid ass” so we’re even).
The point is: sisters are unlike anything on this earth. On one hand, she is a potential threat to your current happiness with her long memory and access to old Glamour Shot photos, but on the other, she is a living record of how you got to now, and your life-long best friend made flesh. Some of your quirks might really annoy the other (hello!, my sister is chronically late and I’m chronically sensitive) but you. don’t. ever. mess. with. my. sister.
Garber captures this sisterly dynamic in Caraval with the Dragna sisters, both of whom are victims of their father’s abuse and long for escape. Scarlett has been attempting to protect her little sister Tella from their abusive father, the Governor of Trisda, since their mother disappeared. She believes that she’s finally found a permanent way to do it by marrying the Count, a man she’s never met before but who writes kind letters. Her sister sees their escape through Caraval, a magical competition orchestrated by a wizard named Legend. This year, the prize of Caraval is a wish.
Scarlett’s always been drawn to the promise of Caraval’s magic but she resists her sister’s pleas to go there, until the matter is taken out of her hands and then Tella is kidnapped. As a result, Scarlett must navigate through the brilliant, dangerously unpredictable world of Caraval, searching for her beloved sister. As Scarlett attempts to solve the clues, this is what she knows to be true: she must rescue her sister Tella from kidnapping, she must leave Caraval in time to marry the Count, and she must resist Julian, her unreliable guide in Caraval, who seems to have some magic of his own. All the while, Scarlett must remember that she must not “let your eyes or feelings trick you,” and that there are consequences to losing and winning.
Caraval is a book to enjoy in the moment, but it’s also a book to chew over. I find myself even now remembering certain parts of the book with the knowledge that I gained at the end, trying to put it all together and see the story from different points of view. And Scarlett is a character to admire: she pursues her sister through the terror and beauty of Caraval with ingenuity and aplomb.
If you’re looking for an inventive tour de force, an explosion of color and sound, look no further. Admit your ticket to Caraval at the door and unlike Scarlett, don’t worry about allowing yourself to be “swept away.”
Psssst! If you like Caraval, try: the sequels to the trilogy, including Legendary, book 2. Also, try The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and the movie Sing (hey, the stakes aren’t as big, but we’re still talking about competition here and what people want versus what they think they should do.) Maybe Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus—I read this years ago and think it’s time for a re-read.
I could make so many excuses about why it’s been so long since I’ve posted a book review but I’m a mature adult who prioritizes and takes responsibility for her actions.
Imagine a dark black line striking out the entirety of that sentence.
It turns out that I am going to offer my excuses and they’re two pretty big ones: my toddler, who learned how to crawl out of his crib in Autumn of 2017, thereby wrecking my life (I mean, asserting his independence in a totally normal and acceptable way—that’s what I’m supposed to say, right?), and my newborn, who has been a smiling cherub who only occasionally messes with my sleep but who still demands a lot of my time. Naturally.
Despite the lack of time that I’ve had for writing and LuLaRoeing, my childcare responsibilities have lended themselves well to reading. I’ve been reading so much lately and it’s been amazing. Amazing. *imagine me as a loveable winter-plump hermit tucked into a cozy nest of books, diapers, and breastfeeding pump parts.*
One of my favorite things about being a voracious reader is the thrill of being introduced to an incredible new writer. When that happens, I’m overwhelmed with hope and anticipation and greed—don’t worry, it’s very cute and not at all Gollum-like—at the thought of all of the future literary wonders that will come my way, now that I know where to find them. And that’s what happened to me a few weeks ago, when I discovered Sarah J. Maas.
[Editor’s note: This is where I stopped typing and got off the couch to pick up my crying baby. Will resume later.]
[Editor’s note: blog post resumed nearly three full days later.]
Since my discovery of Sarah J. Maas, I’ve read 8 books of hers, a fact which does not embarrass me in the slightest because once again, the books are amazing, and I’ve got a Goodreads goal, dammit. The aforementioned books encompass two different series, and the one that I’m writing about today starts with A Court of Thorns and Roses.
Feyre kills a wolf in order to feed her starving family.
[Editor’s note: toddler whines “mom” and pulls me away from computer. Blog post resumed roughly a week later. Ahhhhhh!]
Let’s start the summary again, shall we?
Feyre kills a wolf in order to feed her starving family. Shortly thereafter, a beast arrives at her home and informs her that she’s broken the treaty between humans and faeries, and she can either die or follow him to his faery home and live with him there until her death.
She chooses to live and what follows is incredible storytelling. The beast is actually a High Lord named Tamlin, and his people and those surrounding them are under the control and influence of an evil faerie named Amarantha. Don’t worry: huge things are going to happen between these characters; exciting things; terrifying things; beautiful things, but that’s all. that. I’m. going. to. say.
That’s all that I will say about this series, because I would be very sad if I ruined any of the magical plot for you and didn’t allow you to discover this on your own. But there are some pronouncements that I will make about this series.
That’s all that I can tell you about the series because I refuse to ruin the surprises. You’ll thank me later.
Psssst! If you like this book, check out: Elizabeth May's Falconer series and Maas's Throne of Glass series. You lucky dog, you.
Reading Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale—a sumptuous wonderland of magic, faith, and terror set in medieval Northern Russia—was an engrossing experience. Arden’s world is powerfully realized, and reading it was a bit like staring into a snow-globe, and then being able to step in and out at will.
I first encountered this book several months ago. I really enjoyed reading it, but for some reason, I only made it 37% of the way through before abandoning it to other interests. But I knew that I wanted to come back, and this week I stepped away from my romance novel reading (the amount of recs I’ve gotten lately has been insane), and returned to the beginning of this jewel of a book.
When the book opens, Marina tells her husband that she’s pregnant, and though her husband is worried, she wants to have the baby because she knows that this baby will be just like her mother, who possessed magical abilities. As Marina tells her husband, “power is a birthright to the women of her bloodlines. Olga is your daughter more than mine, but this one…this one will be different.”
Marina dies in childbirth, and as she expected, her daughter Vasya can see things, talk to things, and do things, that others cannot. While Vasya’s family members and fellow villagers have faith in the chyerti, supernatural beings that protect their homes and families, they can’t see them or talk to them, as Vasya does. She protects both the chyerti and her fellow humans, often sacrificing her own comfort so that the old ways can continue. And as she learns as the book progresses, it’s desperately important that the chyerti stay strong, because something evil is awakening.
Pitched against this supernatural battle is the very real human drama of religion. Vasya knows that abandoning the chyerti will lead to the villagers’ doom, and yet her step-mother, who can see the same things that Vasya can, but who is terrified by them and finds comfort in her maniacal faith, and a new Priest, who feels elevated by the villagers’ love and fear, tell the villagers otherwise. As conditions in the village worsen and it becomes increasingly apparent that Vasya is different than they are, the villagers start to see Vasya as a threat.
When the major conflict comes, it's all on the table: the old faith and the new, the supernatural and the human, the dogmatic and the tolerant, and it’s moving and terrifying.
This is a rich, decadent, dark chocolate cake of a book, and Vasya is the heroine that we’ve been looking for.
Need to Know: Things We Lost in the Fire is creepy, sinister, and mesmerizing.
After reading Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection*, Things We Lost in the Fire, I’m a little scared to go to bed tonight.
The stories are macabre and grotesque, teeming with people, things, and phenomena that should not exist, but do. Set in Argentina and primarily featuring female narrators, the stories are linked together by common themes including, as others have noted, pervasive violence and destruction. But what I found even more fascinating is how the women in Enriquez's stories respond to the violence and destruction: whether they act in some way--and how those efforts do or do not pay off--, or whether they do nothing, which offers a kind of hollow safety.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “End of Term,” a haunting story focusing on teenage girls, one of whom is seemingly mentally ill. The narrator is one of many at the school who observes Marcela pull out her own nails and later, cut herself on the face. Other incidents of Marcela’s self-harm follow, and the narrator finds herself first interested in a detached sort of way, and then, increasingly invested in finding out why Marcela harms herself. In this story, Enriquez plays with distinctions between madness and truth and the thin line between being a detached observer and someone who has become too dangerously involved.
Enriquez paints Buenos Aires and other cities within Argentina compellingly, if terrifyingly. She focuses little on the natural landscape except to indicate how it’s been affected by elements of the supernatural. Instead, her stories are primarily grounded in the places where people dwell: the “slums,” strange houses, police academies turned inns, and most frightening of all, the homes where the characters should be safest.
Sometimes relationships with others provide some type of bulwark against outside forces, but many times, the stories highlight how very alone these characters are.
Most of these stories provoked a visceral response from me: a clenched, tense stomach or a wince. But I kept reading, and that’s because Enriquez offers much to her readers. Concise prose, often with the air of the colloquial. Characters who are relatable in their uncertainty and their fear. And a sharp and unsettling exploration of how fragile the borders are between safety and danger.
*Translated by Megan McDowell.
I received a copy of this book from Blogging For Books, but all opinions expressed in this post are my own.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.