fiction

Book Review: Sophie Last Seen

This was, somehow, more emotional than I originally anticipated. It’s about the mother of a girl who went missing at the age of 10, six years ago. So I knew it was going to quite a hard read. But… wow.
I’m going to be super careful here, as I really don’t want to give anything away for potential readers. There are a few sub-plots that I may reference, but I don’t think that will ruin the main story.
Jesse Albright is the mother of Sophie, or ‘Bird Girl’ as the media dubbed her. Sophie was a difficult child, with some kind of condition that doctors couldn’t quite pinpoint. The only thing that really kept her calm when she reached the ‘red zone’ was birds. She watched them, read about them, wrote about them, drew them… Hence the title ‘Bird Girl’.
The book is set six years after Sophie’s disappearance. Jesse has seoarated from her husband, who has a new family, but she still lives in the old family home. She collects ‘clues’ that she believes Sophie has left her – anything from clothing to road signs to letters. Sophie’s case was never closed; Jesse is determined to find her daughter.
Sophie’s best friend, Star, has a lot of issues of her own. Her grief manifests itself in the form of Sophie’s ‘ghost’, and the only way for Star to keep her away is cutting herself.
Jesse’s relationships with everyone – her ex-husband, her friends, even Star – have been almost completely severed. Her life is a mess. She can’t paint anymore, her house is full of junk, and even being near the now-teenage Star is painful.
That’s all I’m really going to say about the plot. Jesse continues to look for her daughter, with the help of a detective working on another missing girl case.
Jesse’s desperation is palpable; my heart broke for her. Her life was a downward spiral, and everything she did seemed to make it worse. When she started to re-build connections, and even build new ones, I was so happy for her. Slowly, she edged closer to happiness, even if she will never really get closure.
The small details Adelstein used to link Jesse’s later life to her old life with Sophie were fantastic. They were possibly a little romantic, but I think they were sweet. (The crows visiting Jesse and Star right at the end was probably the best.)
Throughout the whole book I shared Jesse’s tentative optimism, despite all the signs against Sophie being alive. I thought this was really fantastic. 5 stars!

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Book Review: Dark Fantasy Stories

Dark Fantasy Stories (Illustrated) by S.S. WolffA huge thanks to Hidden Gems for providing me with the opportunity to read this anthology!

I haven’t read a huge amount of anthologies but am becoming increasingly fond of them. I like having a collection of similar but unique stories all in one place. I was under the impression that these would be quite creepy/scary stories, but they were only slightly ‘dark’ in my opinion. They all had fantasy elements, as the title would suggest, and were all rather good.

Of course, as it’s an anthology, I’m not really reviewing the individual authors’ writing. Instead, I’m going to focus on the editing and the selection of the stories included. The chouces are definitely quite unique, all fantasy tales with supernatural elements. There were some that I especially enjoyed, and some I was not quite so fond of. Overall, I think there was a pretty good range of stories.

As for the editing, I did notice some strange mistakes. There was misplaced punctuation, for example, and I saw a few letters replaced by ‘lookalikes’ – such as replaced by rn. As the copy I own is a review copy, it is possible that the mistakes I noticed were edited out in the final publication, though.

It was a rather short book, which can be seen as both a good and bad thing. 3.5 stars.

Book Review: Paper Bag Mask

A huge thanks to Hidden Gems for providing me with a copy of this book in return for my review!

This book is about a prank. Kind of. Not really. It’s complicated.

AP student Redmond Fairweather steals the whomper.

Ok, so the ‘whomper’ is this little wooden sword his AP History teacher, Mr. Street, uses as a prop in class. There’s nothing particularly special about it – the origin is different every time Mr. Street is asked about it – but he seems strangely fond of it. And when Redmond sees Mr. Street handing a suspicious little bag full of powder to a student, he decides that Mr. Street deserves a little pain.

And then Redmond, Alice and Deep (his two best (and only) friends) are making a ransom video, wearing paper bags over their heads to disguise their identity.

He didn’t plan it. He actually meant to give it back almost immediately, but then the exremely popular (and hot) Elodia Cruz confronts him about it, telling him he must not return the whomper. It turns out that Redmond isn’t the only one getting weird vibes from his teacher – there are rumours of past interactions with students, not to mention how his current wife was originally a student where Mr. Street was working as a TA.

Bit by bit, Elodia and Red (as Elodia calls him now) gather a team, including members of the school’s most popular band. Red and Alice start dating, Deep is clearly falling for the singer of the band, and Elodia is shocked at how much she realises she likes Red. It’s all very, very exciting.

Then the plan escalates. They decide to steal the giant whomper (a paper-mache debut to the original built by a past class, measuring about ten whole feet). And then, naturally, there’s another ransom video. And finally, Red tells Elodia what he saw happen between Mr. Street and Jasmine (the girl who received the bag of drugs, who also happens to be Elodia’s best friend). Linked with the rumours of the ‘White Whale’, a teacher distributing drugs through a network of students, the gang decide to out Mr. Street. Publicly.

They post all the videos online, including a final one where they destroy the whomper for good, and out Mr. Street as the White Whale. It becomes really quite messy. There are police involved, Alice and Red’s relationship is on the line, and they’re even interviewed on national television. Red thinks this is it, he’s finally been seen, he’s liked by the other students. And then it gets worse. And worse. And worse.

This was a super enjoyable book! It was set in high school (I think the students are around 17, so that’s the equivalent to Sixth Form here in the UK), so it was aimed at a slightly older audience than a lot of other YA books. It had a great sense of humour throughout, and an informal, ‘chatty’ kind of vibe. But there was a lot of more important stuff, deeper topics like drugs and even abuse being broached. And of course, there was the typical kid-messing-up-big-time followed by kid-finding-his-true-self aspect that pretty much all coming of age novels have.

I did notice a few tiny mistakes with grammar, simple typos and such, as well as a few instances where double punctuation has been used. This may have been purposeful, to give that whole teen voice, but I thought it just looked incorrect/immature/unprofessional.

Overall, I really did like this. I found myself feeling genuinely embarrassed on Redmond’s behalf, and although I could see where he was going so wrong at times, I couldn’t help but read on and see what happened. 4.5 stars!

Book Review: Two Skies Before Night

A huge thanks to Hidden Gems for providing me with a copy of this book in return for my review.

At first I thought this was a detective novel, but I soon realised that it was far more sci-fi than I anticipated. This combination of science fiction and detective elements was really unique and honestly, I loved it.

Initially, Detective Lang is working on a double murder case. It seemed quite simple at first, if a bit strange what with all the bizarre descriptions of characters. It got a bit confusing when Lang began commenting on the ‘undersky’ and people from ‘Above’ and ‘Below’, but I soon figured it out. All these different elements made a thoroughly intriguing story, and things I didn’t think were important at first turned out to hold quite a deal of significance.

The Powers were really interesting. The few that were described were so strange, and I loved them. The few times these Powers interected with citizens of the City were strange, too, and I was really intrigued to see what the Powers actually did. They were like gods, feared but almost worshipped by everyone. I would have liked to find out a bit more about them – perhaps there will be a sequel that will reveal more.

There are a lot of intertwining details, which I always appreciate. It was definitely a unique story, with a lot of exciting moments and unexpected discoveries.

One issue I had with this book was that there were a few mistakes, misplaced commas and so on. The copy I received was a review copy, so I can’t be sure whether these mistakes are in the final publication, but I thought I should point them out just in case.

Overall, this was a really interesting book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Mr Doubler Begins Again

I loved Mr Doubler right from the start. He’s a potato farmer. He loves potatoes, his whole life revolves around potatoes. He may be lonely and old, but he has his potatoes to focus on. He’s content.

But when Doubler’s cleaner and friend is taken seriously ill, he realises just how lonely he really is. His children aren’t there for him, not really. He hasn’t even left Mirth Farm for twenty years. Miraculously, though, Mrs Millwood’s absence pushes Mr Doubler to make changes and new friends.

This book was almost like a coming-of-age novel, except for a slightly older character. Mr Doubler essentially builds his life anew, making new friends and even serving as the catalyst for other wonderful budding friendships. And while Doubler has been in a dark place after the loss of his wife, he actually finds a way to accept it and move on.

Doubler was a really loveable character, if a bit awkward and arrogant at times. He very much reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant in terms of his lack of social etiquette. It was truly amazing to watch him find himself, and I seriously respected him for confronting his son, Julian. Though Doubler hasn’t had much to do with his children for a while, he does still keep in contact. But Julian’s sudden show of apparent affection throws Doubler off. With the help of his friends, Mr Doubler realises – and more importantly, accepts – that his son isn’t actually a very nice person, and his only motivation is financial. Doubler also manages to reconnect with his daughter, and accept that his wife’s absence was not his fault, though Julian disagrees.

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The ending was so sweet, too! It wasn’t overly happy – there’s still a shadow over the characters, a possibility of further loss – but it still made me smile. It was really lovely to just see Doubler so content and comfortable in his life at last.

The only criticism I have is that there were a few typos and such, but as I read an ARC and not the final publication, I’m not too worried about it.

Overall, this was a really lovely book. It sounds boring – an old guy who grows potatoes? – but it was full of some really important things. 4.5 stars.

Book Review: Rebel Song

First of all, thanks so much to the Hidden Gems ARC programme for providing me with the opportunity to read and review this book!

Rogan Elwood is a teenage orphan who owns a vineyard in Arelanda. He’s pretty normal – his most noteworthy trait is being the son of a rebel martyr, who he is inevitably following in the footsteps of. The Cause, as they call themselves, are deeply unsettled. They want change, and were not disheartened by failed previous attempts at uprising.

And then along comes El. She’s beautiful, and definitely from a family with power (and money). Rogan meets her by chance, but the pair agree to meet again, and again, and again… The couple soon become close, and El decides it’s time for Rogan to know who she really is.

The heir to the throne. Princess Elyra Ballantyne.

They know that continuing their affair is dangerous – almost a certain death sentence – but they can’t stay away. And when things don’t seem like they could get any worse, Elyra discovers Rogan’s link with the rebels working against her family.

There’s a lot of politics and strategy, and no shortage of corrupt individuals in powerful positions. Sometimes there were a few too many characters and details to keep track of, but overall it was a thoroughly intriguing story. I felt genuine hatred for some of the characters, and sadness at the loss of others. I was even quite invested in El and Rogan’s relationship, which is rare for me as I don’t tend to like romance.

Elyra was perhaps a bit too naive and headstrong, but she exhibited fantastic character growth. Rogan was probably my favourite character, though he definitely had his flaws.

My main criticism is the grammar and punctuation throughout this novel. There are a lot of mistakes, and it was a bit frustrating at times. Other than that, I really enjoyed this. The writing was good, and I felt real emotion for the characters. 3.5 stars.

Book Review: The Dollmaker

I’ve read pretty mixed reviews on this, and I must admit that it certainly wasn’t the kind of book I’d normally read. It had a very strange atmosphere to it, almost creepy at times.

Andrew recalls some of his childhood and youth, and his instant love for a doll he saw in a window. I actually felt that there was no sense of time even from the start – it took me a while to figure out how old Andrew was in particular parts of his story, let alone how old he is now. This was probably the root of my main issues with this book; I just couldn’t make sense of the timescale.

The introduction of Bramber’s letters was an interesting aspect, though I soon found similar troubles here: I did not feel the passing of time. I also had trouble keeping up with the characters. Still, the story being outlined was intriguing and quite exciting where Bramber’s past was concerned.

Bramber’s letters are included in-between Andrew’s own story, where he narrates his journey to surprise Bramber with a visit. They had never seen pictures of each other, or even spoken on the phone. It was a risk, but one Andrew felt was worth taking. Throughout this journey, Andrew tells more stories from his youth – several of which are quite – almost disturbingly – sexual.

It is also interspersed with Ewa Chaplin’s Nine Modern Fairytales, which all include a dwarf in some way. These stories were all rather creepy on their own, and Allan regularly refers to aspects from them in her writing.

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I do not want to go into detail recapping the plot. My three main points to convey in this review are: it had a very distinct, strange aura; there seemed to be a distinct lack of time passing; I personally felt no real connection to or interest in any character. I felt very detached from this book when I read it. There were no faults with the writing that I could identify, I just simply didn’t click with it. That being said, I do appreciate the writing itself, and so am giving this book 3 stars.

Book Review: The Secret of the Silver Mines (Dylan Maples Adventures #2)

I didn’t know that this was part of a series when I first requested it but luckily it was perfectly fine as a standalone read. It’s a young adult adventure novel, but I definitely got the feeling that it was aimed at younger young adults than myself. The main character is 12-year-old Dylan Maples, so I assume the target audience is around that pre-teen age, too.

Dylan’s father often moves around for his work, which is as a lawyer. They’re now moving to Cobalt, in north Canada. “Hicksville”, as Dylan calls it. It’s only for a few months, but Dylan is dreading leaving his friends behind. Cobalt is bound to be so boring. How will he ever survive?

But of course, Dylan finds adventure in this seemingly sleepy town. As usual, I won’t tell too much of the plot, but I will say that Dylan finds himself in the middle of the law suit his dad is working on.

Dylan makes a friend in Cobalt, too – Wynona. He meets her almost immediately, though they don’t become acquainted until a little later on. Their relationship remains platonic, though it is fairly obvious that there are some deeper emotions.

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Personally, I found this to be quite a young book. It included a huge amount of similes and metaphors and what I’d consider ‘simplistic’ writing. It wasn’t bad, it just felt like it was a bit too young for me to enjoy.

For a younger audience I could see this as being quite interesting, though I found it a little slow at times. 3 stars.

Book Review: Finding Grace

Yesterday I finished Finding Grace, a short historical fiction book I was given the chance to read thanks to NetGalley. It follows Grace, a thirteen-year-old girl living in a Belgian convent in 1975. She was left on the steps as a baby, along with her disabled sister, Dotty. But Dotty recently died, and everything is changing.

Grace is moved to the girls’ boarding school dorm. She soon becomes close with Fran, but also has a few run-ins with the stuck up Deirdra. While helping Fran with a history project Grace discovers an old journal kept by one of the nuns at the convent during the war. It tells her horrific story of abandonment, rape and loss.

All the while, the girls are trying to find out more about Grace’s past, and avoid the wrath of the horrible Sister Francis. Eventually Grace does get some anwswers, but they were certainly not the ones she was looking for.

I’m not usually very interested in historical fiction but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Even though it was short, the characters were well developed and the plot was exciting and intriguing. I felt immersed in the setting, and felt empathetic for Grace. I actually felt quite invested in her and her search for knowledge.

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There were a few typos and such, but as this is only a review copy I can’t be sure whether the final publication will include them. It was a quick, interesting read, a good introduction to historical fiction. 4 stars!

Book Review: McDowell

Thanks to OnlineBookClub.org for providing me with the opportunity to read and review this.

This was, in my opinion, a very strange book. I shall attempt to summarise the plot briefly, but I’m afraid I am going to find it quite difficult. The plot was very… all over the place, for lack of a better term.

As the title suggests, this novel follows the life of Hiram McDowell, a wealthy surgeon and father. He has been married several times, and is currently with his wife Carole, who has two daughters of her own. One of the first noteworthy happenings involves one of these daughters, Tasha, and Hiram’s son, Billie. Tasha falls pregnant with Billie’s child. Hiram refuses to accept this, denying Billie’s involvement with Tasha or his responsibility with the child. A restraining order is placed against Billie, and he falls into a depression of sorts. The next major event involves Hiram’s eleven-year-old grandson, Jeremy. His mother has known something was different about him for a while, but her husband refused to listen. Eventually, Jeremy goes on a killing spree, shooting classmates, teachers, his sister and his mother, before then shooting himself. But he is not dead – severely brain-damaged and unconscious, but alive nonetheless. Hiram’s second daughter, Sophie, tries to encourage Jeremy to communicate with them, to show that he can hear them. But McDowell does not believe he will ever recover.

Soon, Jeremy passes away. Evidence suggests McDowell’s involvement in the death; murder? Euthanasia? He is convicted and sentenced to several decades imprisonment. But before long, McDowell decides he doesn’t deserve this, and so he escapes. His past experience in hiking and mountain-climbing enables him to survive without proper human contact for weeks, months, at a time, until he believes it is safe enough for him to migrate back into society. He begins a new life, developing different identities and beginning to earn a living again. He meets a lot of people, many of which become quite attached to him. But the law soon comes after him, and he is forced to move on.

In the end, McDowell is betrayed by a woman who’s life he saved. He is shot dead, accused of resisting the arrest despite no evidence of any weapons or fighting.

Of course, there are a lot of subplots that I haven’t included. There are also a lot of characters that have gone unnamed; too many, I believe. I couldn’t keep track of all the different characters and stories in the end. I got a bit lost, and felt no emotional connection to any of them whatsoever. This was probably my biggest criticism; there was a distinct lack of emotion. At the end of the novel, it was suggested that McDowell had grown as a person since his arrest, but I didn’t see any of this character growth myself. I didn’t feel anything.

Another issue I had with this book was the repetitive nature of the writing. Several details were repeated within close proximity, removing any subtlety to the writing. I also found that the inner dialogue of characters was not particularly convincing, sounding clunky and awkward.

Throughout the book there were paragraphs in italics, supposedly a separate narrative/summary of the events. But these paragraphs sounded exactly the same as the rest of the writing, and I failed to understand why they were separated from the rest of the text by being in italics.

I know there are a lot of negatives in this review, but I didn’t actually hate the book. I can’t say I enjoyed it, either, though. There was definite room for improvement, and very little that was noteworthy in a positive way. I’m giving this book 1 out of 5 stars.