A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

There are multiple Londons: Red London, full of magic and opulance; Grey London, gritty and without any magic at all; and White London, a city being slowly drained of magic (and ruled by two ruthless monarchs). There’s also Black London, which is full of chaos and dark magic. No one goes there.

Kell is the Red Traveler, meaning he’s one of the few magicians with the power to travel between worlds. He acts as a messenger, but he’s also a smuggler. He ends up with something dangerous: a forbidden stone taken from Black London. It brings danger with it.

Traveling to Grey London and hopefully to safety, Kell meets Lila Bard. She’s a thief who just happens to save his life. The two end up running together, in an effort to stay one step ahead of those who want the stone’s black magic for themselves.

First of all, I’m kicking myself: why didn’t I read this book sooner? It’s amazing, a rush of excitement from beginning to end. Every character is well written and fully developed. Also, no character is untouchable, something I really appreciate. Too often in fantasy, there are no twists, which makes for a boring book.

Doubly great is the fact that Schwab didn’t feel the need to force an overtly saccharine romance, instead letting her characters, and the plot, develop naturally. Kell is fantastic, but Lila really stood out to me. She’s hardcore, doesn’t apologize for who she is or anything she’s done, and doesn’t spend time dwelling on things and feeling sorry for herself.

I’ll be rushing out to find the next book, A Gathering of Shadows, as soon as possible. I have a feeling I’ll be reading all of Schwab’s books in rapid succession. I’m so excited to have found a new author to love!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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Furyborn by Claire Legrand

Rielle has a secret: she can control not just one element, which is common in her world, but all of them. When she saves her best friend from a group of assassins, she exposes her hidden talents and the possibility that she may be one of two prophesied queens: One of Blood; One of Light. The Blood Queen is foretold to destroy the world, while the Sun Queen will save it. To prove that she is the Sun Queen, Rielle has to undergo seven elemental trials.

Fast forward a thousand years. Eliana is a ruthless bounty hunter with an unusual ability: she heals incredibly quickly. She believes herself untouchable, but then her mother is kidnapped. She joins forces with a man she was hunting, called the Wolf, as part of a deal: she helps him, and he’ll take her to her mother.

These two very separate plots end up twisting into one story, working forward from Rielle’s perspective and backward from Eliana’s. The chapters switch back and forth between the two characters, and that’s how the story moves along.

The thing is, I had less than zero interest in Rielle’s storyline. While it sounds like it’d be the better of the two, it ends up being really boring. The trials she went through weren’t described well enough for me to picture them in my mind and I found my attention wandering. Before each trial there’s an unneeded description of a “costume” that has been made for Rielle to wear; it feels very much like a Hunger Games throwback to me, and not in a good way. There’s also a poorly written romance that doesn’t jive for some reason.

Eliana’s storyline was much more interesting to me. She’s a very self sufficient character, which isn’t always a good thing, making her flawed and easier to relate to. Her younger brother, Remy, is my favorite character. He is basically her moral compass and I think that’s a really cool idea.

This book unfortunately did something that is a huge pet peeve of mine: two characters, who had been at each other’s throats the entire book, survived something horrific, and immediately decided it was a good time to “go back to his room” to relieve some sexual tension. Okay, yes, I get the relief. But they were both very injured, had a huge story-changing bombshell dropped on them, and hadn’t seen other people they’d been separated from to make sure they were okay. Instead of pausing for breath, trying to figure out what had just happened, or even checking on whether other characters had survived, these two decide to have a make-out session. Ugh!

I did like the concept of working both forward and backward in a story and somehow meeting in the middle, I just wish that both plots were interesting. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible book, but it wasn’t great. It’s a good way to pass time, but don’t expect this one to stick with you.

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

It’s that time of the year. Everyone is thinking about the perfect gifts to give. Of course, I’m a big fan of giving books as gifts. Here’s my (shortened) list of ideas for each age group:

Board Books:

*Mustache Baby by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Joy Ang
This book and its sequel, Mustache Baby Meets His Match, are absolutely adorable. My toddler loves them, so I can say with certainty that they’re perfect for that age group. Incidentally, the third book, Arr, Mustache Baby, will be available on May fifth, 2019.

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Picture Books:

Bedtime for Batman by Micahel Dahl, illustrated by Ethen Beavers

This book makes the bedtime routine super. Splicing each task with a Batman equivalent (As the boy takes his bath, Batman says “Your dirty deeds are over!”), suddenly going to bed is more fun. There are others that are similar, such as Good Morning, Superman, so it would make a good gift bundle.

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The Duckling Gets a Cookie!? by Mo Willems:

No list of good picture books would be complete without a Mo Willems addition. This is my favorite in the Pigeon series, but they’re all great. If your little one hasn’t seen a Pigeon book yet, that must be remedied.

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Older Kid Books: 

Randoms by David Liss:

My ten year old devoured this book, decided he now loves the sci-fi genre, and is now reading it again. We’ll be buying him the next books in this series for Christmas. I haven’t read this one personally, but I have read adult books by David Liss and he’s a very talented writer.

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From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

I read this as a kid, then I read it with my oldest. It’s well written and a lot of fun. Part adventure, part mystery, all charm. No, it’s not a recent release, but it’s still guaranteed to grab your child’s interest.

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Young Adult:

Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake: The first three books in this series are now for sale, and the fourth can’t be released soon enough for me. This dark fantasy will suck you in and leave you wanting more. It’s the best YA I’ve read this year, and I’ve read a lot.

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Adult fiction: 
The 7 1/2 Death of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton: I won’t go into detail here (I talk about this book at length in another post), but this book is incredible. It’ll keep anyone fortunate enough to read it on the edge of their seat.

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Adult Nonfiction: 

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher: This books is full of sass and truth. Carrie Fisher had a way of combining hard situations with humor. Her take on bipolar disorder, which I have, is fantastic. While I’ve enjoyed several of Fisher’s books, at the moment Wishful Drinking is my favorite.

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I could keep going, but I’ll refrain. What books are you giving as gifts this year? What are you hoping to receive?

Hidden Gems

I’ve been thinking a lot about lesser known books. Books that are incredible, but for whatever reason, kind of slipped under the radar. Some of my favorites are hidden gems. Here are a few , in multiple genres, that I think should be read by more people:

The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman: A smart, thought-provoking fantasy, this series is a must-read. On a distant planet, Erna, there is a powerful energy known as the Fae. It both creates and warps, breathing life to dreams–or fears. Human magic users manipulate the fae, not caring that there are those who feed upon their use. To save this world from being overtaken by the dark fae, an ageless sorcerer who has done unspeakable things will have to work with a warrior priest.
This series is much more nuanced and complicated than I can easily go into without giving away key plot points. While the world the author created is interesting, it’s the themes of morality vs. desperation, redemption, and sacrifice that raise this dark fantasy above many others the genre has to offer.

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The Mammy by Brendan O’Carroll: I always looked at this series as a sort of Little Women with snark. Anges Browne (“Mammy” is what Irish kids call their mother) is raising her seven kids in Dublin. This book takes place during the 1960’s and is overflowing with wit, charm, and heart. The kind of story that brings a smile to my face, this is a great read.

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The Swans’ War trilogy by Sean Russell: A high fantasy, this series fits in well with other great fantasy works, such as The Lord of the Rings, and The Name of the Wind. The world the author created is big and beautiful, the prose descriptive and gorgeous. For fans of epic fantasy with masterful storytelling, this is one not to be missed.

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The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester: The mouthful of a title aside, this book is engrossing. When the Oxford English Dictionary was first being put together, submissions for the dictionary were sent in. Professor Murray learned that the majority of them were coming from one man, Dr. W.C. Minor. Here’s the twist: Dr. Minor was an inmate at a prison for the criminally insane. This is a true story, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

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Have you read any of these? What are some underrated books that you recommend?

One of Us is Lying

             I recently read One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus. The premise of the book is interesting: The Breakfast Club meets the game Clue. I’d heard some positive buzz, so I thought I’d give it a go. 

It begins with five kids being stuck in detention: Cooper, the jock; Addy, the popular one; Bronwyn, the smartypants; Nate, the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks; and Simon, the admin. of a gossip site that is invariable correct. Five kids go in, but only four come out. The rest of the book revolves around solving the murder of Simon, the gossip. 

The book alternates between the point of views of the four protagonists. I thought the author’s idea of introducing the “locked house mystery” to the YA genre was a good one and I was intrigued because I love unreliable narrators. Unfortunately, this book did not deliver at all. 

The lies that the title of the book refers to are all uninteresting and I saw the resolution (which I’m trying really hard not to spoil) coming from a mile away. The characters were incredibly cliche and the best thing about this book was the idea behind it. 

I’m probably being harsher toward this book than I’d normally be because there’s a situation in this book that I feel is seriously harmful toward an already misunderstood issue: mental health. I’ll not go into that more here because, again, I’m trying not to give spoilers. Suffice it to say, I was disappointed. 

That being said, I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority in my negative viewpoints. Like Lavar Burton always said, “You don’t have to take my word for it!”. If you’ve read it, what did you think? 

If you’re looking for a good mystery, pick up And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie instead. 

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Crocodile on the Sandbank

                                   I have read Crocodile on the Sandbank, and the rest of the books in the Amelia Peabody mystery series, many times. I absolutely love them! They are fantastic, easy reads, perfect for when you’re in a busy season (such as the waking hours) and want a quick read.
The first book takes place in the late 1800’s, in Egypt. The feisty Amelia Peabody has decided to leave her home in England and travel. She’s reached an age where she could almost be considered a spinster, and wants to experience new places and cultures. Coming to Egypt, she encounters a mystery, complete with a kidnapping attempt and a surprisingly lively mummy.

While the mystery is certainly interesting, this is a book that you read because the characters are so enjoyable. If I’ve had a tough week, I tend to reread this book as a comfort. It’s fun and lighthearted.

Amelia Peabody is like a female Indiana Jones, only with a more acerbic wit. The other characters that you’ll meet are equally enjoyable.You’ll fall in love with this book if you give it a read.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

This is one of those books whose cover caught my eye, prompting me to pick it up. Sometimes, you CAN judge a book by its cover. The cover promises secrets and fairy tales, and the book delivers.

Alice and her mother live a nomadic life. They never stay in one place very long, something Alice has grown used to. It seems almost like they’re on the run from something, although Alice’s mom won’t tell her anything about it.

Alice’s mother and her grandmother are estranged; her grandmother living as a recluse in Hazel Wood, her big estate. Her grandmother is the author of a book of fairy tales called the Hinterland, which Alice’s mom refuses to let Alice read. It’s an incredibly rare book, and has almost a cult following.

Alice’s grandmother passes away, and it seems as though Alice and her mom will actually be settling in and staying in New York. Alice makes friends with a boy named Ellery. It turns out he’s a Hinterland fanboy (go figure). But then, Alice’s mom is kidnapped and a note that says, “Stay away from the Hazel Wood” is found, along with a page torn from the elusive book of fairy tales.

Nothing is as it seems, especially when The Hinterland starts crossing over into Alice’s world. These are not your happily-ever-after Disney stories. They’re dark  and mysterious, full of danger and the sort of things that go bump in the night.

It was lyrically written and engaging, creepy in a satisfying way. The relationship between Alice and Ellery seemed a little one-note, but the world the author created more than made up for it. While I enjoyed the book, I was much more interested in the glimpses of the fairy tales seen throughout the book. I am especially dying to know the story of Twice Killed Katherine. If Melissa Albert ever publishes a book of Hinterland tales, I’ll be standing in line for a copy.

If you like your urban fantasy with a little bite, this one is for you.