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ARC Review – Mark of the Plague (The Blackthorn Key #2) by Kevin Sands

28954112Title: Mark of the Plague (The Blackthorn Key #2)

Author: Kevin Sands

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Christopher Rowe is back and there are more puzzles, riddles, and secrets to uncover in this follow-up to the Indie Next pickThe Blackthorn Key, which was called a “spectacular debut” byKirkus Reviews in a starred review.

The Black Death has returned to London, spreading disease and fear through town. A mysterious prophet predicts the city’s ultimate doom—until an unknown apothecary arrives with a cure that actually works. Christopher’s Blackthorn shop is chosen to prepare the remedy. But when an assassin threatens the apothecary’s life, Christopher and his faithful friend Tom are back to hunting down the truth, risking their lives to untangle the heart of a dark conspiracy.

And as the sickness strikes close to home, the stakes are higher than ever before…

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!
Sam’s Review:

I LOVED The Blackthorn Key last year, and I still maintain that it is a million times better than Percy Jackson. Kevin Sands knows how to write a dark, twisted tale that still has a sense of wonderment and surprise, and Mark of the Plague definitely continues that trend.

There is so much action in this sequel, and I admit I got a little emotionally when the book frequently picked on Tom (he’s my favourite). There’s a larger mystery surrounding Christopher’s old master, Benedict, and with people becoming ill with a plague, it makes for a very emotionally charged adventure. What makes this a terrific follow up is that it borrows all the elements of what made the first book so great — putting the clues together to form the larger picture and uncover the larger mystery at hand. There was a lot of great twist and turns in the sequel that I thought were so perfectly timed, and it made for a fun and engaging read.

Plus the plague in this novel was so darn creepy, and I get that it’s based on a medevael plague, but geez, it’s nerve-wracking. There’s this huge sense of dread in the story about contracting this plague and Sands really puts the read through the wringer at times with what happens with some of these characters and this surrounding plague. No spoilers or anything, but I was pretty worried through a lot of this book in terms of a certain character’s fate.

This book is also much heftier in size compared to its predecessor, but it’s five hundread pages that read lightning fast. Frankly, I am thrilled that The Blackthorn Key has become a series. I think Kevin Sands just pours so much creativity into this series, and I love the way he gets his readers thinking about how to crack codes and read inbetween the lines. I also adore Christopher and Tom, and I thought Sally was a delight as well. There’s good, solid characterization here, and the adventure really makes it quite the thrill ride.

 

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ARC Review – Trouble the Water by Frances O’Roark Dowell

27206433Title: Trouble the Water

Author: Frances O’Roark Dowell

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Callie is fearless, stubborn, and a little nosy. So when she sees an old yellow dog wandering around town by itself, you can bet she’s going to figure out who he belongs to. But when her sleuthing leads her to cross paths with a white boy named Wendell who wants to help, the segregated town doesn’t take too kindly to their budding friendship.

Meanwhile, a nearly invisible boy named Jim is stuck in a cabin in the woods. He’s lost his dog, but can’t remember exactly when his pup’s disappeared. When his companion, a little boy named Thomas, who’s been invisible much longer than he, explains that they are ghosts, the two must figure out why they can’t seem to cross the river to the other side just yet…

And as Callie and Wendell’s search for the old dog brings them closer and closer to the cabin in the woods, the simmering prejudices of the townspeople boil over.

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

This was a book that wasn’t on my radar at all and it was sent to me unsolicited. I am a sucker for dogs being on the cover of books and this book is a few things: it’s a story of a dog becoming loved, two children from different sides of the fence becoming friends, and an issue of racism that is being propelled in segregated Celeste, Kentucky.

I adored this book and I loved it’s approach to a tougher middle grade subject matter. The friendship between Callie and Wendell is so beautiful and raw, and I love their connection to this dog who ends up lost. In fact, how the story of the dog was handled was quite lovely, very mysterious, as well. There’s an interesting ghost story and I won’t spoil this, but it was such a fascinating storyline that’s a part of the novel. SO GOOD.

And then there’s the segregation plotline, which was well researched and really done well. The town hates the friendship between Callie and Wendell, and it gets to levels where it’s so heartbreaking how they are treated. In fact, how racism effects the children just made me so sad at times. The ending is satisfying though, and it reminds readers about a point in time that was so horrible, and how even now how things still need to improve. This one is definitely worth powering through, as everything about it left me thoughtful. Check this one out!

ARC Review – Relativity by Antonia Hayes

25814254Title: Relativity

Author: Antonia Hayes

Rating: ★★★

Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Ethan Forsythe, an exceptionally talented boy obsessed with physics and astronomy, has been raised alone by his mother in Sydney, Australia. Claire, a former professional ballerina, has been a wonderful parent to Ethan, but he’s becoming increasingly curious about his father’s absence in his life. Claire is fiercely protective of her talented, vulnerable son—and of her own feelings. But when Ethan falls ill, tied to a tragic event that occurred during his infancy, her tightly-held world is split open.

Thousands of miles away on the western coast of Australia, Mark is trying to forget about the events that tore his family apart, but an unexpected call forces him to confront his past and return home. When Ethan secretly intercepts a letter from Mark to Claire, he unleashes long-suppressed forces that—like gravity—pull the three together again, testing the limits of love and forgiveness.

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

Relativity was a book I had heard nothing about until it appeared in my mailbox. I’ve been trying to get myself to read more adult fiction again, despite running a mainly MG and YA focused blog. There’s a lot of good in this book, though for me there was also a lot that held it back as well.

The book follows three main characters, Claire, Mark and Ethan, who are all family. Ethan has a unique generic case where he is able to see physics. He also has been separated from his father, Mark, for many years and wants to be reunited with him. Claire, Ethan’s mother, believes that the amount of sacrifices she had made for her family has amounted to her neglecting her own needs in life, but still feels as though she can’t put her needs before that of her child.

I really dug the emotional struggles that were present in the novel, because each of the characters all had different problems resulting in a need for wanting to be selfish. Claire has made sacrifices to no end but doesn’t feel valued, Mark wants his career and a family but doesn’t want to make either of these actually work, and Ethan is the product of two people who in a lot of ways didn’t necessarily want him for different reasons. It’s really sad to watch a lot of these people falling a part and the novel doesn’t really allow them to entirely get back together either.

That being said, while the plot was interesting, the writing was kind of bland. It was either over saturated in metaphors or everything felt so plain and direct. While I could sense the emotional struggles within the characters, sometimes I felt like the writing wasn’t able to convey that strongly. It definitely had it’s heartfelt moments, which I think fit the tone of the story well, and I liked the level of research that went into describing Ethan’s Shaken Baby Syndrome, and the backstory to that was intriguing, but I wish the writing did a better job of making me emote as a reader.

Relativity is a decent read, and I think for some readers will be an easy book to connect with. The overall story is really interesting and well put together, even if I found the writing a bit overdone or even lacking in places. It’s great for those though who want to be invested in a small scale story with only a handful of characters.

ARC Review – Daughters of Ruin by K.D. Castner

25785728Title:  Daughters of Ruin

Author: K.D. Castner

Rating: ★★★★

Synopsis: Rhea, Cadis, Suki, and Iren have lived together since they were children. They are called sisters. They are not. They are called equals. They are not. They are princesses…and they are enemies. Not long ago, a brutal war ravaged their kingdoms, and Rhea’s father was the victor. As a gesture of peace, King Declan brought the daughters of his rivals to live under his protection—and his ever-watchful eye. For ten years the girls have trained together as diplomats and warriors, raised to accept their thrones and unite their kingdoms in peace.

But there is rarely peace among sisters. Sheltered Rhea was raised to rule everyone—including her “sisters”—but she’s cracking under pressure. The charismatic Cadis is desperately trying to redeem her people from their actions during the war. Suki guards deep family secrets that isolate her, and quiet Iren’s meekness is not what it seems.

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!


Sam’s Review:

I must confess, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy Daughters of Ruin. It has a beautiful cover,that misrepresents the novel in a lot of ways. The blurb sounded interesting, but felt a little misleading. I was worried I was going to get a fantasy novel with a ton of romance in it just based on the cover alone, but what I got was quite the surprise.

Daughters of Ruin spans four POVs of view regarding four women who are forced to live together, though taken from rival kingdoms. There’s a lot of strong political intrigue, fantastic action sequences, and the heroines (minus one for me) were very well developed given that this novel isn’t very long. My favourite POVs to read were definitely Cadis and Iren’s, though I may or may not have been shipping them as a couple throughout the whole book. I loved their relationship and how they knew when they could sass-mouth each other and when it was time to get to down to business. I loved the politics in Rhea’s chapters and she grew on me as the novel went on.

But I hated Suki. I found her chapters very painful to read given the unique style they were in. I think there are better ways to share an internal monologue through text, but this wasn’t one of them. I found her chapters hard to read from a format perspective, and she was just a really whiny and annoying character to follow about.

The other thing about this book is that while the story does a great job of building itself, the ending is a tad weak. In fact, it feels like it should be sequel-bait because it’s simply ends. The resolve doesn’t feel as strong as it could, so I am wondering if there is going to be a series or not. And yeah, there’s romance in this book, but it’s more from a political standpoint, and this is really more about understanding the politics behind each heroines motives. That, I liked a lot.

Daughter of Ruin was an unexpected surprise for me, and I think those who love darker, more politically fueled fantasy would definitely get a kick out of this novel. I really just wish it had been a little longer, because I feel like there’s so much more that could have been explored. But each of the heroines really does have something to offer the reader, and I think given the craziness of this world and the fast-paced action, that this one will be an easier winner for fantasy fans.

ARC Review – The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

25785649Title: The Way I Used to Be

Author:  Amber Smith

Rating:  ★★★★

Synopsis: Eden was always good at being good. Starting high school didn’t change who she was. But the night her brother’s best friend rapes her, Eden’s world capsizes.

What was once simple, is now complex. What Eden once loved—who she once loved—she now hates. What she thought she knew to be true, is now lies. Nothing makes sense anymore, and she knows she’s supposed to tell someone what happened but she can’t. So she buries it instead. And she buries the way she used to be.

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

This was a tough book to read. It’s one that focuses on rape, consent, and how rape transforms someone. Eden, our heroine, spends a lot of this novel in self-reflection, transforming into a young woman who has had her world changed in a way in which she had no control. She becomes someone so drastically different after she is raped, and she is coming to terms with who she once was and who she has become.

The writing in this novel is absolutely stunning, and it makes for strong, absorbing storytelling. While I didn’t necessarily love the way in which it went through her four years of high school, it did grow on me as I read on. Sometimes it felt like time was moving crazy slow, other moments quick as lightning. It makes for a difficult yet unique approach to storytelling — how one event can make someone feel so polarized about themselves, and that’s a lot of what I felt the author was exploring.

I really loved Eden and her friendship with Mara. I loved watching their transformations go in completely different directions and yet they still were very bound to their friendship. In a lot of ways I felt like they were constantly rescuing each other from so much that has happened. The way in which their friendship was portrayed left me with a lot of thinking when I was finished the novel. There’s a lot of growth in Eden, and you see how complicated and complex she becomes as a character, and it’s shows so well in this story. I loved growing along side Eden.

This is a very challenging novel to read and I think it asks readers to look at difficult issues through different gazes. It asks people to understand that events can transform people for better or worse, and I feel like that is The Way I Used to Be‘s strong suit. This novel is beautiful as it is smart, and it definitely has the power to spark some real good conversation.

ARC Review – This Was Not the Plan by Cristina Alger

25111016Title: This Was Not the Plan

Author:  Cristina Alger

Rating:  ★★★★★

Synopsis: Charlie Goldwyn’s life hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. Widowerhood at thirty-three and twelve-hour workdays have left a gap in his relationship with his quirky five-year-old son, Caleb, whose obsession with natural disasters and penchant for girls’ clothing have made him something of a loner at his preschool. The only thing Charlie has going for him is his job at a prestigious law firm, where he is finally close to becoming a partner.

But when a slight lapse in judgment at an office party leaves him humiliatingly unemployed, stuck at home with Caleb for the summer, and forced to face his own estranged father, Charlie starts to realize that there’s more to fatherhood than financially providing for his son, and more to being a son than overtaking his father’s successes.

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!

Sam’s Review:

If I’m being honest, I don’t review a lot of a adult novels. It’s not because I don’t enjoy them, it’s usually because our blog has such a higher focus on young adult and middle grade. That being said, when I received This Was Not The Plan in the mail, part of me was a tad confused why I was getting it. Then I read the note inside from who sent it to me and decided I needed to give it a shot.

There’s not a lot of books out there that focus on male widows, let alone ones who are single parents. Charlie is a lawyer who works insane hours while his sister, Zadie, takes care of this son. When Charlie has a drunkin’ meltdown at a cocktail meeting, his feelings of what it means to be a corporate lawyer “protecting the bad guys” goes viral on YouTube, costing him his job. Forced to leave his position, it gives Charlie a chance to reconnect with his family, more particularly his son, in what turns out to be one of the crazy family reunions I’ve ever read about.

I loved Charlie as a character. Despite being uptight and very corporate, you get a sense that when he loses his job that “it wasn’t the plan.” Furthermore, this lack of planning continues to spiral in the novel, as so much more of his life goes from being planned to unplanned in the blink of an eye. He was married to a woman who didn’t believe in planning. Everything we learn about Charlie’s wife Mira is just interesting, and you get a sense that both characters couldn’t be more opposite to each other and yet they worked so well. The overarching theme of what it means to plan versus life just happening was quite inspiring at times, and it made for an engaging reading experience.

My favourite character by far was Zadie, though. She’s much more free-spirited and has a strong desire to teach her older brother how to live a little. The fact that he behaves like he is afraid to is part of the issue, but Zadie gives so much insight in terms of how living your life versus life living you can ultimately destroy a person’s well being. I also loved her relationship with Caleb, and I loved that she allowed him to express himself in any way he desired. I thought it was great how she also taught Charlie about how to accept Caleb’s openness for pink tutus and Dora the Explorer. I enjoyed that there wasn’t a romance really in this novel. Not that it would have been bad, but the author does this fantastic job of showing how Charlie just isn’t ready yet. Even if he thinks he’s ready, there’s that part of his that still hasn’t grieved his wife, that hasn’t had time to be the kind of dad he wants to be.

This novel is a fantastic read, and one that grabbed me right from the get-go. The characters in this novel are imperfect, but loveable. This is for lovers of contemporary fiction, and those who love stories about family. This Was Not The Plan ended up being a surprise favourite for me, and I hope others check it out and enjoy the overall message it illustrates.

 

ARC Review – The Year We Fell Apart by Emily Martin

22449806Title:  The Year We Fell Apart

Author: Emily Martin

Rating: ★★★★★

Synopsis: Few things come as naturally to Harper as epic mistakes. In the past year she was kicked off the swim team, earned a reputation as Carson High’s easiest hook-up, and officially became the black sheep of her family. But her worst mistake was destroying her relationship with her best friend, Declan.

Now, after two semesters of silence, Declan is home from boarding school for the summer. Everything about him is different—he’s taller, stronger…more handsome. Harper has changed, too, especially in the wake of her mom’s cancer diagnosis.

While Declan wants nothing to do with Harper, he’s still Declan, her Declan, and the only person she wants to talk to about what’s really going on. But he’s also the one person she’s lost the right to seek comfort from.

As their mutual friends and shared histories draw them together again, Harper and Declan must decide which parts of their past are still salvageable, and which parts they’ll have to let go of once and for all.

In this honest and affecting tale of friendship and first love, Emily Martin brings to vivid life the trials and struggles of high school and the ability to learn from past mistakes over the course of one steamy North Carolina summer.

Huge thank you to the author for letting me borrow an advanced copy of this!

River’s Review:

Ugh this book got me right in the feels! Emily Martin writes a very witty, funny, sad, and heartwarming contemporary novel that really took me back to a place in my life that I will probably never get over. And that was a little difficult for me to face, but sometimes I need books that are like therapy, and this was one of them.

This is the story about Harper and how she deals with healing herself and her relationships while coming to terms with her mother’s fight against breast cancer. In 2000 my Grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and I spent two years falling apart over it. Much like Harper I destroyed relationships and dealt with things by drinking and hooking up with guys that I shouldn’t have been. I destroyed my relationship with my best friend and really didn’t take care of myself. There were times when the things Harper did were the things that I’d done and I was just shaking my head and saying HARPER NOOOOOO.

I loved the characters in this book! Everyone was so real and so relate-able. Declan was swoonworthy and Cory was such a good friend. I really enjoyed how Harper got to know Gwen and Mackenzie. And I really wanted Sadie to get her just deserts. But really it was Harper who I really connected with. I understood a lot of her feelings and a lot of her pain and even thought I didn’t always agree with what she was doing, I could understand it.

This is the type of book I wish that I’d had when I was going through my Grandmother’s cancer.

Another thing I really loved was the subtle mid-western-isms (since the author is also from Michigan!) which just made it even more personable for me.

If you’re a contemporary fan like I am you’ll so want to check this out come January! It’s perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen, Jessi Kirby, and Sara Ockler.

Sam’s Review:

Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!

My co-blogger told me that I was going to have a bit of a hard time with this book due to the content. She was right. This is a novel that focuses on a young woman who has learned her mother has cancer and has a slew of other problems as well. Harper seems herself as a screw-up, a mistake, and she’s someone who wants to make amends with those she’s hurt.

The part of this novel that worked for me was in regards to Harper’s mother. I could relate to a lot of her feelings, as my own mother has had an eleven year on and off battle with cancer. There’s a lot of self-sacrifice and constantly feeling like you’re being selfish when you don’t want to do something. I understood Harper’s feelings perfectly, because living or taking care of someone with cancer can take a lot out of you both emotionally and physically. But I also could sympathize and understand a lot of Harper’s mother’s feelings — the chemo brain, the fog, wanting to be as strong as possible for yourself and others, it’s a lot of hard work as well. You feel like a burden on your loved ones when all you really want to do is feel like yourself. I understood both points of view since it’s something I live with every day.

But this book is full of emotions, which is what I truly loved about it. Martin writes in a way that is both witty as it is gut-punching. Harper is a character who makes so many mistakes and yet she is someone who I found myself sympathizing with throughout. She makes mistakes, she doesn’t feel as though she has self-worth, and yet she’s spiraling through so many emotions that she feels out of control. She doesn’t know how she can take care of anyone, let alone herself. I can identify with that wholeheartedly. Unlike Harper, I found myself clinging to others when things went bad, rather than pushing people away. Still, I understood a lot of her feelings and part of me just wanted to say how much I understood what she was going through.

The friendship element in this novel is fantastically well developed, and Martin gives us so much insight into Declan and Harper’s relationship. We understand how and why it fell apart, and yet the way in which they begin to converge in the story is just mind-blowing. Every character in this novel and their relationships felt so real. Also I hated Kyle. I hated him so much throughout the story and every time he was on the page I just kept cringing with disgust. He just made me so angry! But even he felt realistically portrayed.

If you love contemporary literature, especially ones that focus on tougher issues, this is a great choice. It not only shows grief, but portrays it in such a realistic way. Watching Harper fall apart and then collect herself was such a fantastic and important reading experience for me. She reminded me of myself when I was first going through dealing with my mom and her cancer. This is such a powerful and poignant read.