Friday, March 22, 2019

Book Review: The Cottingley Fairies

The Cottingley FairiesThe Cottingley Fairies by Ana Sender

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Between dull illustrations, poor explanations of the time period, and a lack of overall wonder Ana Sender's take on the famous Cottingley Fairies story is a real let down. Maybe this true story is just too complex to put into a children's novel; or perhaps the issue is that the story itself is a bit difficult to pull a moral from? Either way I was less than excited by the end.

I'm so disappointed that there is no real set-up or explanation of the time period in which the girls created their fake fairy photos. It mentions the war but doesn't really give the feel or mood of the real depression that had fallen over the world. I also feel like there is a an overall lack of mischievousness to the girls actions. Whereas the way I've read and heard tell this story in the past is that the girls were aware that tricking adults was a poor choice; but by the time the photos had been circulated so far they didn't know how to take back the lie.
Additionally the portrayal about Sir Author Conan Doyle is just sad. Sender makes him seem like some pathetic old man that was desperate to believe anything. Using Doyle's involvement and writings to discuss how much many of us (myself included) wish there was proof of real fairies would have been far more effective, relevant to the audience of children, and upheld Doyle's respect (which I believe he has more than deserved by legacy of his amazing literature he left us all with).

The Ending
I'm going to assume you all know how the story ends and not consider it a spoiler given that it happened almost 100 years ago. There is a distinct opportunity here to leave behind the idea that fairies and magic could still exist. Sender sets us up for the impact of the final line fairly well. Yet the narrative that comes before makes it feel like our old lady is trying too hard, loosing her mind or just a little crazy when she indicates that the fifth photo is real. Perhaps that's my cynical adult mind thinking too hard but I didn't feel like there was a sparkle of a chance that fairies might be real at the end. This is really the moment where children might actually care about this story or become enamored with it. And while the words were mostly right, in context with the rest of the book, it just falls flat.

The biggest let down here really is really the illustrations though. There is nothing exciting or even colourful about them. I also would have liked to have had an explanation that photos were in black and white back then so that children can understand how the paper colour wasn't obvious. This book assumes children are not smart enough to understand the true story here and that really bugs me. We should be authentic in our story telling to children (especially in true story cases) or just not tell those stories at all. Again maybe this is just not a good story to be in an illustrated book. The only people I can think that might be interested in this are those whom collect or are obsessed with the Cottingley incident.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: The Thorn Queen

The Thorn QueenThe Thorn Queen by Elise Holland

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

DNF @ 30%

For the first couple chapters of The Thorn Queen I was starting to wonder if I was hitting a reading slump. I was also having a bit of trouble focusing and caring about another book I was reading. So I added a third book to the mix that was lovely, powered through it and two more. That made me realize that it wasn't me it was Elise Holland's story that was the problem.

Don't tell, show
While this is a middle grade level read there is really no reason why it would have to be dull and boring. I feel like we are all broken records when it comes to this saying but it is sooo important when it comes to writing a great story; show, don't tell. If you are telling me what the landscape is in half page paragraphs then you are likely doing it wrong. Unless you have descriptions that are flowery and beautiful, like Tolkien or Sanderson in high fantasy write, it's likely that readers will yawn and skip the content. This becomes a problem as then people aren't really engrossed in your world. The easiest way to show and not tell descriptions of the landscape is to give us the feelings and description via a character's perspective. Whether they are talking to someone else about what they see or from a first person perspective.

Taking into account that the average fantasy set novel for children is in a traditional quest form; I have no issues with the proposed plot that Holland puts forward. However, the very first scene of The Thorn Queen is so different and engaging (in which our lead gal falls on a prince) that to suddenly change the story over to a quest that doesn't include said prince, or the world in which we first meet our lead gal, made the events that follow dull. I did really like the introductory scene and was excited for those first 10 pages; but unfortunately that tapers off. Especially when I realized we were going on a quest and not going to encounter the prince again for some time (at best). When setting up a quest story you have to be careful not to oversell the reason and then drop your characters into a boring journey. The exception to the rule is if you are carrying a ring to Mordor (lol); but even in The Lord of the Rings we have the Mines quickly after council showing that this will not be a boring quest for our fellowship.

It's possible had I given this book a little more time I might have gotten into it; but given that each time I picked it up I got a couple pages and wanted to switch books it just doesn't seem worth it. I can honestly say that I hope children don't receive this book as their first introduction to fantasy as they will likely be turned off by it and that would be tragic!

To read this and more of my reviews visit my blog at Epic Reading

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Book Review: Tin Crickets

Tin CricketsTin Crickets by Joseph Wise

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dystopian horror. While this may seem redundant as a genre let me explain what makes this genre (and Tin Crickets) a little different. The best example I have to correlate to this is The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which I was unable to get through; I also bailed on the movie as it was far too horrifying for me). These are books where the reality is so harsh it's horrific. Because not all dystopian books are at this level. Think of The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Station Eleven. These are all dystopian books that have possibly horrifying elements to them but do not belong in the horror genre. Tin Crickets belongs in the horror genre right next to Stephen King and Mira Grant.

What Makes it Horror
I've often argued with my husband (who loves horror) what makes a book or movie horrific. We've come to the conclusion that there are a few things that always seem to be present:
- blood, blood and more blood
- the likelihood of the main character(s) surviving
- major injury, illness or mental distress to a human or human-esque character
Think about it. These are always present traits. Whether you're encountering Pennywise, cannibalistic mermaids, a plague or 'the evil' it's always about human peril.
Joseph Wise has given us all these things and a little more in Tin Crickets. And he's done it with teenagers at the helm.

Tin Crickets is told through the eyes of an ambitious and frustrated teenage boy. He wants change to happen in his dystopian, messed up city (where he is trapped, as leaving means death) and so he takes to the streets with his friends and a trusty handi-cam video camera to capture all the injustice being done by the people in charge of the city. His hope is that it will incite anger, riots and eventually change.
Along his side we have three other teens. Each with their own complex and personality to bring to the table. I wasn't a huge fan of the only girl included in the quartet but did appreciate that Wise didn't immediately sacrifice her as many male authors are prone to do. Our pushy and in-charge lead boy gives us the story of Tin Crickets in a way that may be a bit skewed. And certainly there is room to infer for yourself the information he is given along his journey.

The First Half
I adored the first 50% of this book. Absolutely loved it. It's engaging, fast and different. While a dystopian story Wise gives us an entirely unique setting and backstory that isn't as cliche as some dystopian books have used recently. The politics and ethics touched upon during the first 100+ pages are brilliant.
And then it all goes a bit sideways.

Suddenly I'm in a Horror Movie
I don't really expect dystopian books to turn into horror movies. Maybe I'm naive but the extent to which Wise takes the plot, gore and twisted reality of Tin Crickets was a bit more than I expected. At about the 50% mark I started to realize that this was no longer a political commentary on society and our downfalls but was becoming a straight up gore fest. With evils encountered that are both 'healthy' human, ill human and less-than human popping up. Our crew runs into horrors that include: mutilated animals, medical experimentation's, and straight-up murder in a variety of different ways. I kept reading because I was desperate to learn what happened to our teens and how it would all resolve.

The Ending
Obviously I don't want to give spoilers; but let's just say the ending was a bit disappointing. I was expecting a little more carnage (like we experience around the 75% mark) and a lot more loss overall; whether that be of humans, infrastructure, society, etc. It should be noted that the last 15% or so slows down a lot. This is not a high-climax and then over book. Wise takes us through some aftermath of the horror experienced and brings us to a satisfying (if not complete) conclusion.

For an independently written novel Wise has done a good job. I would have liked a little less of the telling in the horror-esque sections and a little more of the politics and conspiracy that we had at the beginning. Tin Crickets would make a great movie and perhaps with some tweaks and pulls of the politics through the entire book would elevate it to into 4-5 star territory. I would say if you are intrigued by the premise it's a decent read. You likely won't be shouting from the rafters about it but you are unlikely to walk away disappointed in having read it.
I would certainly read Joseph Wise's writing again and hope to read more stories with a conspiracy or political center point from him.

Please note I received a free copy of this book from BookSirens in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Book Review: Five Feet Apart

Five Feet ApartFive Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't normally review books immediately after reading the last page. This gives me an opportunity to think and process what I've read and get my emotions in order. For Five Feet Apart I am breaking that rule as I feel that my emotions are important to why I wasn't a big fan of Rachel Lippincott's teenage romance story. First it's important to know I had a friend with cystic fibrosis...

My Brush with Cystic Fibrosis (CF)
Almost 20 years ago I lost a friend. I was 16 years old at the time. The last time I saw my friend Scott he was 17 and in the hospital. Scott was a great friend. I was in marching band with him and he was a funny, energetic and loving boy. We all knew his days were numbered. In the late 90's the average lifespan of someone with cystic fibrosis was about 17 years old. Scott lived to be 18. Always proud of making it a day past his 'expiry date' as he called it. As though he was yogurt that would spoil after a certain time. I suppose knowing he'd have a short life gave Scott an appreciation and affection for living that none of us (including myself) as teens were capable of understanding or appreciating. I'm still not sure I truly understand today at 36 years old. I tell you this so you can understand that CF is not just another awful disease to me. CF both was and wasn't my friend. It was integral to him and yet not a part of his personality. However it is a part of his legacy. I cannot forget (and wouldn't want to) those scary moments in parade routes, touring with our band or playing in a practice room when Scott would get an 'attack' (as he called them) where he couldn't breathe or coughed up mucus.

Why I Hate Books Written to Make You Cry
I have always hated contemporary books where the sole purpose is to make you cry. I couldn't stand the overdone teenage philosophy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green or the plot twist of My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult or any of the other similar contemporary stories. Now this isn't just because I'm not a big crier; it's also because I just don't understand the point of a story when the primary reason is to make you cry. I'd much rather experience a truly poignant romance that evolves over time during the plot of a good book. Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Mariellier both come to mind when I think of amazing love stories that develop in spite of the challenges and plot in the story; instead of the love developing because of the plot.

Why'd I Even Bother?
I decided to read Five Feet Apart even if I don't love the sob fest story. Here's 3 key reasons why:
1) I like to read popular books so I can have an informed opinion,
2) I wanted to experience the CF of 'today' as much of the science and the lifespan have nearly doubled since I last encountered CF, and
3) I keep hoping someone will write a contemporary teen romance that I can fervently endorse.

The Writing & 3 Stars
I can say that Lippincott writes in a fast-paced, easy to read format. This is a very quick, no-time or words wasted story. It's also very representative of how many teens are likely to think or speak in similar situations. So while I didn't like a number of things (see list below); I cannot deny that Five Feet Apart is well written and has good characterization. Lippincott has you on the hook the entire time you're reading. Whether it's at a critical 'tragic' moment or just our lead boy watching YouTube videos of our lead girl. Each moment leads into the next and kept me flipping the page. This is the primary reason I give it 3 stars.

And So We Come to The Troublesome Items...
While on one hand I appreciate that Lippincott wrote a book about CF and helped CF gain some recent exposure; I just can't say this is a 'good' representation of what CF is like for those that live it each and every day. I cannot (and will not) speak for them, or for my long-lost friend; but I can tell you about what I saw, heard and experienced while at my friends side.

CF is a disease that takes your breath away & causes panic
It doesn't just make it difficult to breath like an asthma attack it actually stops your breathing in many ways. I remember many times my friend Scott would gasp for breath and you would hear nothing enter his lungs. The key, for him, was to stay calm. As I'm sure we can all imagine not being able to breath is horrifying and induces an instant panic attack. Sometimes I thought the panic must be worse for him than the lack of breath as the panic exacerbated things every time. There is one small moment of panic that our lead gal experiences. Every other 'panic' any CF teen i Five Feet Apart has is short lived, and is brought under control seemingly by sheer will. No examples of techniques or tricks to calm down, no counting, no breathing exercises, nothing. It's like the panic goes away with magic (just like they seem to find their breath).

One thing that was always a constant for Scott was the mucus. He always had handkerchiefs, ziploc bags and wet wipes or alcohol wipes in his pockets and bags. Why? Because he used them to cough up his mucus, seal the ickiness and then wipe off his mouth, hands, etc. Romantic right? This would happen multiple times a day (minimum) for Scott. Even on his best days he probably accumulated 5-6 bags minimum. Any physical activity would generally make this mucus loosening worse. The irony of it all is that the mucus leaving his system was a good thing. It meant he could (usually) breath a little better. Now if that's happening even without physical exercise let's address what our teens do.
In Five Feet Apart our teens do all of the following: run up and down 3-5 flights of stairs, laugh, swim, cry and a multitude of other things. Not once during these activities does mucus play a part. They are described as out of breath and coughing but no description of the ick factor that is so common for those with CF. Why? I assume because it's not pretty, elegant or romantic. Imagine an entire Harry Potter movie of Ron belching the slugs and knowing it's NOT CG. Disgusted? Likely. That is how I've always imagined Scott felt (I couldn't ask him as that movie scene came years after his passing).

Clapping is when someone else helps a CF patient to gain their breathe or dislodge mucus. It involves specifically hitting them between the shoulder blades and on the front of their chest with both hands, and with a certain amount of force. My understanding is that it is still common today. This doesn't happen even once during Five Feet Apart. Even a nurse doing it to another patient or a parent or friend asking if they can help could have happened. Instead it's completely ignored. Scott's friends, family and teachers all knew how to do this. There wasn't anyone who was close to him who didn't do this for him; in addition to patting his back and rubbing it in circles to help him calm and regain his breath.
Masks, Masks & More Masks
Whenever I visited Scott in the hospital; be it early on (years prior) or in the last few months of his death there was always one thing that was a constant. Masks. We all wore them. Not just the CF patients. And if you were at the hospital in the CF/Respiratory ward you were usually interrogated by a nurse in advance of entering a CF patient's room. They wanted to know when you last had a cold/flu or felt a bit off. If you weren't feeling all that great that day you'd be sent home. No chances were taken that you would pass on a flu or cold or something worse to a hospitalized CF patient. While masks play a role in Five Feet Apart they sure do seem to be conveniently left behind a good 80% of the time. I guess they aren't sexy enough.

The Drugs & Treatments
I cannot speak to the current drugs or treatments that exist for CF these days. So I could be in left-field here (however I take anxiety drugs and have a chronic pain condition, so I'm doubting much has changed); but anytime you have many drugs involved in your system there are side effects. Not even once does Lippincott mention the side effects of the drugs. None of our teens seem to experience urgency to urinate, constant thirst, dry mouth, digestive issues, headaches, dizziness, increased chest pain, etc. And that is just a small snippet of the side effects many of the drugs can cause. I remember days where Scott would tell us the side effects of the drugs were wearing him down faster than his limited breathing.

It's unbelievable to me that our teens are constantly enjoying pudding and milkshakes; yet no one discusses the nutritional issues that CF usually comes with. While our teens have feeding bags at night, I never felt like it was well explained or described why (and certainly none of them seem to have the nausea that generally comes with feeding bags). I believe a critical part of treating and understanding CF is nutrition. Absorption of nutrition and vitamins is usually low in CF patients; and my friend was no exception. He never had caffeine, high sugar items (ie: candy, slurpees, chocolate, etc.), or chips. What he did always have was carrots, Gatorade, grapes, cheese strings and jerky. Those happened to be his favourites. And so it bugs me a lot that the teens seem to eat anything they want with no consideration for nutrition. Now maybe because they are hospitalized and on bags it's okay? I don't know except that it stood out to me.

Why is Reality Not Enough?
One thing I continue to struggle with understanding is why reality is not enough for these types of books? Why must authors include more tragic events around our suffering characters? There are no less than 3 MAJOR moments in this book where things are revealed or happen that could easily have been removed and the book would still be tragic and romantic. Just add in any of the discussions or items above instead of those 3 major moments. The need to go 'over the top' is such a Hollywood trait and I hate how it's translated to influence today's fiction. I'd be okay with the same romance story and dynamic between our teens without the 'extra' tragedy. Let the disease itself be awful enough; because in real life it is more than enough to deal with.

I'm sure I'm missing dozens of other things to point out and I would encourage everyone with interest to read more about CF from reliable health sites. There are also lots of sites, stories and social media written by first-hand CF sufferers that will be far more meaningful than my thoughts and comments.
Unfortunately I have my doubts that the movie will be any better. Based on the trailer I've seen it might be worse. While I do appreciate that a book was written where the teens have CF. I just wish it was a little more on par with real life. This doesn't seem like too much to ask does it?

Finally let me recommend a book that two years ago made me think of Scott (even though it's not CF related). It's a contemporary teen story about death and loss. The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord is a realistic and moving look at death. It made me laugh, cry and cry some more; and not in a glossy, hyped or over the top way. Instead Lord addresses the intricacies and messiness of mortality in a genuine and heartwarming way. I'd really like to see more realistic contemporary stories like Lord wrote. I wish Lippincott had captured more of the reality and less of the teen puppy romance.

Review dedicated to my friend Scott. You are never forgotten my friend and always cherished. May the notes of your clarinet be clear and constant, always. ~Mel

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Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Book Review: The Good Demon

The Good DemonThe Good Demon by Jimmy Cajoleas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you want dark, broody teenage angst this is your book. There is magic in the air and most of it is ominous in Jimmy Cajoleas novel The Good Demon. If you take the idea of being at one with yourself and by representing all your emotions (including the bad ones) as yourself, plus a demon that lives inside of you, then this will intrigue you. Two questions then come to mind: What happens when someone takes that demon away? And what would you do to get that part of yourself back?

There are some very good metaphors and comparisons in the context of The Good Demon that relate directly to what I recall it being like to be a teenager. There are also moments where I feel like the demon is displaying what I want to even do today (like smack someone for being a jerk). This unique take on our extreme emotions being acted out by a demon that controls our body (when it chooses to) is a great example of what things like rage, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues can cause. Where it's really no longer us as the person making a rationale decision to act. Instead it's the disorder itself taking over. I loved the parallels that could be found in Cajoleas Gothic story. The ending really is the icing on the cake here to all the comparisons, moments and struggles throughout The Good Demon.

Dark and Creepy
There is no doubt this is a young adult horror novel. We meet demons (of course) and magical occult figures that are likely not out to make your life better per say. Easily my favourite part of the book is the One Wish Man. I imagine Doug Jones playing this role (were this a movie) where the One Wish Man has long, unnatural fingers, is lanky in height and overall just seems a bit too odd to be entirely human. As I adore the work of Jones in many TV shows and movies this really enhanced my experience of the One Wish Man. I so rarely see characters as real life people but this one was just so distinctly described that I knew it couldn't be anyone other than Jones.

It's difficult to have friends when you are in a dark, foreboding space. We've all seen this either first hand or witnessed someone else do it. Someone sabotages the friendship for no real reason other than they need to lash out at someone. Cajoleas does a good job of setting up our lead gal with the preacher's son in an unlikely, yet perfect, friendship. It also opens the door for each of our main teens to react to one another as both friends, possible romantic partners and as diametric opposites of good and evil. There is also a final test to this friendship that has no bearing on 'love' or romance that I really liked the spin of.

If you'd like to read a Gothic teen book this definitely fits the bill. Just know that there is a lot of implied, and obvious, mental health disorders addressed including: depression, anxiety and expectation stress. There is a 'first time' sex scene in it but it's nothing graphic in my opinion.
While perhaps not a five star book I would say that Cajoleas has brought us a unique teen perspective to looking at our inner voices and determining if they are our own or those of a demon.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Book Review: Seraphina

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last few years have brought us some amazing fantasy written by Canadians. Seraphina is devious, thrilling, filled with mystery and (of course) romance. I adored every minute of it!
Rachel Hartman's first book in her dragon (infested?) world is wonderful. Not only do we have a strong heroine to view the world from but she is surrounded by supporting characters that are well developed and could easily carry the story themselves. I especially adore the Prince and Seraphina's teacher.

Dragons Galore!
It seems that I've read a lot of books lately where there is one dragon or a rebirth of dragons. Instead of there being lots of dragons there are very few of them. So it was really nice to read a book in which there are lots of dragons and even two distinct different breeds of dragon! Of course giving a world many dragons presents it's own issues which Hartman addresses elegantly. From the issue of how do dragons and humans interact, to the destruction a dragon falling from the sky can create (never mind if they are looking to burn a town to nothing), to trying to hide a giant dragon. As our dragons can take human form many of these issues are easier to resolve but not all of them. And I adored how Hartman handled the challenges that a large dragon may have next to a teeny tiny human.

Inter-species Hanky-Panky
Yep, there is a huge focus all on when dragons get it on with humans. All these nuances are touched upon in Seraphina, and Hartman even gives us a selection of cross-species (not supposed to exist) characters whom are both human and dragon. It's really interesting how unique each of them is. And I will confess that I now really want scales hidden on my body somewhere. It'd be even better if those scales could match the patterns of my pet snakes (lol).
Seraphina herself is one of these born of a human and a dragon cross breeds and so we are able to experience the challenges of someone who is considered to be an abomination try to hide and exist in a world that is not at all understanding of their existence. I believe many who feel they don't fit into our society (be it due to race, culture, sexuality, physical appearance, etc.) will find this to be very relatable narrative.

The Music
Seraphina is an accomplished musician. There is a lot of talk in Hartman's series opener about how music is not just about hitting the correct notes; but also about being able to put soul and emotions into said music. Of course, our leading gal is the best around. It's wonderful to discover all the different (and unique) instruments Seraphina plays as well as what she thinks of when she is playing to create such emotion that resonates amongst the crowd of listeners with her music. If you are a lover of music I think you will really appreciate the amount of effort Hartman has put into the musical culture of this world.

The Prince
Royalty always brings in distinct elements to fantasy novels. Hartman has done a brilliant job of building a bridge to understanding her primary royal character the Prince. As a bastard the Prince is nearly as much of an outsider as Seraphina herself. Their interactions are just delightful, and the friendship that starts to form and subsequently become the possibility of something more is done with a gentle yet frustrated passion that I really appreciated. No insta-love or ridiculous admissions of lust or love early on here. Instead we are treated to a realistic (with dragons) picture of how love tends to evolve over time. While you may be attracted to someone that doesn't mean they are your immediate soulmate and I really appreciated the way Hartman treated this.

The Mystery
While at the beginning Seraphina seems to lack plot or a direction forward, this is resolved by the 25-30% mark when the mystery of a dragon, whom was thought to be dead, is discovered to probably be alive. It's not always apparent that this is our plot and mystery to focus on but by the end it's easily understood. And those moments in which there may not seem like a clear driving plot forward are some of my favourite as they are filled with character development and emotion that keeps me wanting more and more of our characters.

All the Other Things!
There are so many more elements to Seraphina that could be talked about. From the dragon slayers that are in hiding, to the politics of the dragon/human alliance, to the complex relationship between Seraphina and her father, to the treatment and intolerance of the humans towards the 'lesser' dragon species that has become a nuisance in their towns. I could probably go on and on about it all. Instead I'll just encourage you to read this book!

I cannot wait to dive into the second book of this series. What's especially exciting is that many people that I trust whom have read the second book say it's even better!!! Now I just need to find a gap to squeeze it into as I cannot stand to be one of the few who hasn't read it yet.
Overall, I regret that it has taken me so long to get to reading Seraphina. I should have read it a few years ago when it first came out! If you are a dragon or fantasy lover then you need to read this book. It's YA/Teen but the story and world are so wonderful that I believe even that high fantasy adult readers will still be enamored of it.
What's more is that this is a series unlikely to be made into a series or movie anytime soon as the production costs of the dragons would be very high. I'm always hopeful that we can keep a few 'special to the book community' series to ourselves. Not that I don't love the media created from books but it's nice to feel like us readers still share a few secrets from our non-reader counterparts. I believe Hartman may have created one of these, best kept to the written page, series. For that reason if nothing else this is a must read for all fantasy and dragon lovers.

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Book Review: Infinite Blue

Infinite BlueInfinite Blue by Darren Groth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very different short novel about a professional teenage athlete, her loving boyfriend, devoted coach and crazy, obsessed with winning, mother; and finally a real odd outcome. Infinite Blue is the perfect read for any teenage athlete that needs to gain some perspective or has injured themselves. It deals with a girl who is a world-class swimmer and her artist boyfriend.

Darren Groth has really given us a story about life changing moments and how we cannot anticipate them; nor can we be prepared for how we might respond afterwards. Infinite Blue addresses the highest and lowest of those moments. Both from athletics and teen love perspectives. One of my favourite things about this book is that it shows why teenage love rarely survives. When jobs, money and life goals are on the line you gotta go for them... and not for random awkward boy. Whether we like it or not this is the reality of how opportunities tend to fall out at that age. Choosing a boy or girl over a once in a lifetime opportunity is rarely the right choice when you are 16. That may seem sad but it's reality. Groth does a good job of showing this and handles it well by finding alternate ways our characters cope and make decisions in order to come to the end of his story.

The Pusher
We've all had this person in our life at some point (or will if you haven't yet). The person, be it family, friend or lover, that pushes you to be more than you might otherwise strive to be. This can go one of two ways of course, it can be the push you need to truly succeed and you'll appreciate that person forever because of it. Or it can be too much and you'll collapse under the pressure of that person's expectations. In Infinite Blue it's our athlete's Mother that is the pusher. And like so many parents she is living vicariously through her daughter's success. These are dangerous parents and Groth does an excellent job of showing why parents (in particular) need to be aware of when they've pushed too hard and how they may actually be contributing to the poor mental health of their child. Infinite Blue does a good job of showing that we all need to be aware of how our expectations are affecting others and be prepared to pull back when needed and ensure we keep communication on-going with the person we are mentoring or trying to help. They are still their own person and ultimately need to feel like they have the control and power to direct their lives in the way they wish to.

Infinite Blue has some really great messages and meanings. However it didn't rank higher than 3 stars for me because it felt a little too set-up. There wasn't enough of the struggle in-between the big moments for me. It focused a bit too much on the large moments in life (kind of like a Hollywood movie) and not enough on the feelings, emotions and struggles that come between those times. Perhaps it's because it's fairly a shorter novel. Or maybe it's just that I wanted more from our characters. I especially felt like our lead character (the tortured artist boyfriend) was just there to tell the female athlete's story and not really to tell his story. I'd have liked a lot more of his emotions, dreams and feelings to round out the overall story and feel like he was as important of a character as our engaging female.

To read this and more of my reviews visit my blog at Epic Reading

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, March 11, 2019

Book Review: Drop by Drop

Drop by Drop (Step by Step, #1)Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful read that really surprised me. It's set-up with a science fiction premise, all plastics in the world are melting or breaking down (at random); but in actual fact the book is about the characters in a small town and how they cope with daily life as things around them stop working.

Easily the best part of this book is the characters. I loved or loved to hate them all. All the classic archetypes are here: the rich snob, the smart entrepreneur, the poor family with too many children, the cranky hermit, etc. And each of them is set-up and developed in such a way that you aren't bored or bogged down by too many details. Morgan Llwelyn does a wonderful job of introducing a lot of people without loosing the main plot/push of the story. I will say that near the beginning it's a bit overwhelming to meet so many characters but if you hang in there you will find that it's not so bad as the story progresses and each character starts to be defined further.

Near the beginning of Drop by Drop Llywelyn comments on how we (as a society) have allowed ourselves to become so reliant on technology and computers. Interestingly this is the second book in three months that I've read where the author specifically pointed this out. The concern of course being that if technology, the internet, satellites, or any sort of product that supports them breaks down (for whatever reason) then everything starts failing. From cars to information sharing to medical devices to refrigerators; we've put technology of some sort into everyday items that we cannot (reasonably) live without. This leaves us very vulnerable.
It's enough to make you really think about daily life as the plastics in Llywelyn's book start to break down. For example; did you know that most tires are no longer made of solely rubber? They have a synthetic (plastic) additive to make them cheaper these days. Did you know that most toilets aren't entirely ceramic? Or that your appliances have plastic/synthetic components in them? Once you really start to think it becomes apparent that almost everything would breakdown into nothing.

Conspiracy Theories & Communication Breakdowns
During Drop by Drop we learn that there is no explanation to the breakdown of synthetic items made of certain man-made components. We also start to see the ability to travel and pass information along become a barrier. Our small town setting quickly becomes isolated and reverts back to the 'old days' modes of communication. Including an eclectic, odd combination of town folks that get together every Wednesday night group. It's like an 1800's salon setting and is easily one of the moments in the book where you realize how important it is to have a variety of opinions and perspectives in your life.

I absolutely adore this book and cannot wait for the next one. There is a mini-cliffhanger to draw out into the second book; but certainly if you weren't intrigued by the breakdown of society near the end you could read this on it's own and still really enjoy it. I cannot wait to see more of the science, conspiracies and (most importantly) our characters coping with all the changes in the next book. Llywelyn may be known of her Celtic Irish novels but there is no doubt that she can write science fiction with the best of them. I hope Drop by Drop doesn't get put aside by sci-fi fans because she isn't a 'sci-fi writer' usually. It would be a shame for Drop by Drop to be missed out by those who will likely love it. I also believe that Drop by Drop is a great introduction into dystopian science fiction for those that prefer a character driven story. The science is really interesting but it's not the core of the story. Like I said before this is a story about people coping with extraordinary circumstances.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Book Review: Firestarter

Firestarter (Timekeeper #3)Firestarter by Tara Sim

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yes I took forever to read this as I savoured every bit of it. I even almost came to tears twice near the end which is really not like me. Those two things alone are indicative of how much I love this series. It has so many amazing elements: gods, weird time, gay boys in love, great friendships, spirits, magic (of sorts), terrorists, family and a cast of characters to adore.

I can't say much here about Firestarter as it is the third in the series. This is one trilogy where it's really important to read all three books in order. The entire story arc begins in the first 100 pages of Timekeeper (book 1). I love that it's clear that Tara Sim had the whole story thought-out in advance. Or at least she faked it well if she didn't (lol). All three books feel cohesive across each novel and at no time did it feel like there was filler.

Be prepared. That's really all I can say. But have some tissues ready because, like any good series, everyone does not make it. The choices made by Sim of those who do or don't make it are well placed. Each character that finds love, dies or discovers a new life by the end of Firestarter has a purpose and tells a morale that Sim has chosen.

Just Amazing
Did I mention that I love this series?
I know I'm a broken record on this one but I really do adore it and cannot wait for Sim to release more books! If this is what she can do with her first YA trilogy I can't even begin to imagine what her next might be like. I hope she's fiercely writing so we all get another magical treasure from her.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Book Review: The Gilded King

The Gilded King (Sovereign, #1)The Gilded King by Josie Jaffrey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where is TOR/Macmillian when we need them?
This is a book that should absolutely be under TOR. It's that good. For those that don't know TOR/MacMillian is considered the top fantasy publisher (with Orbit right on it's heels) in North America. And Josie Jaffrey's book would fit in perfect with their style and format of books. I'd also love to see some tweaks made by an editor at a large publisher as that would vault The Gilded King into five star territory.

The Characters
Fantasy books may seem like they are always based on the new worlds or situations created to those who haven't read too many of them. But those of us who have read more than we can count in the fantasy genre know that the best novels have strong characters and an interesting world that is along for the ride. The Gilded King is all about the characters. We have our (typical) slave girls, a vampire who isn't cruel (my Buffy self wants to write soul here, lol), and a vampire who is searching for someone in the Red. Between them we get the story of why the Blue exists, what the Red is like and what might happen if the two meet. Along the way we experience questions about morality, choice, and devotion. What would you risk to free yourself? And what would you risk to find someone?

The Supernatural
There's a lot of lore and history to learn here. You also have to quickly catch on to the set-up. In a nutshell, there is virus that infects humans and supernatural alike (the supernatural are more or less vampires and zombies but different names) but changes them in different ways. The 'Blue' is an area that is free of this virus with a severe class set-up. The 'Red' is more or less everything outside the 'Blue' that is more wild and deadly (so the Blue say). The use of commonly known 'monsters' like vampires and zombies with a twist is brilliant. We don't need to learn a whole new type or breed of human; instead we just need to learn the twist that Jaffrey has given her variation. And of course figure out the new names she's given them. I'm not telling you'll have to read it!

But not Perfect
I've been told recently that I am a tough reviewer and rater. I suppose that were I to consider that this is an indie published book I might give it 5 stars because it is excellent for being indie. But I refuse to rate books at different levels just because. I want to keep a standard for only rating the highest at 5. So here's the thing, Jaffrey is clearly a talented writer and I am really looking forward to more of the Sovereign series; as well as more writing in any realm!
What The Gilded King needs is a little bit of massaging in the middle, a little more connective tissue early on (I will admit to being confused on a couple occasions with the lore; and not in the way in which a reveal creates but because I just missed something), and finally just a wee bit of editing from a top professional. If these three things were tweaked this would be a story that could easily rival the likes of C.S. Friedman.

This is an exciting new voice in fantasy/paranormal genre. Not urban supernatural and not full fantasy; but instead somewhere in the middle and unique in it's own way. I just bought the second book and eager look forward to diving back into the world that Jaffrey has made. If you want vampires with a different taste and zombies inside a beautiful fantasy world and feel then The Gilded King is definitely for you.

I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, March 1, 2019

Book Review: The Paris Seamstress

The Paris SeamstressThe Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was blown away by The Paris Seamstress. I read a lot of WWII, female perspective fiction. I enjoy learning about the challenges overcome, feel that reading historical fiction helps honour those that came before and teaches us what to do or not to do in the future. Usually in a WWII book you are prepared to be emotionally wrung out by the end or even in the first 10%. The Paris Seamstress is different. It's not any less impactful but it's a very different story from a different outlook on WWII other than the heart of Europe, the front-line fighting or a concentration camp like we are familiar with.

Our lead gal has been sent to New York, USA in order to be out of the way of the Nazi's invading and about to occupy Paris. Our Parisian lead gal is in her late teens/early twenties through the book. She is about to have to fight hard just to survive on the streets and in the fashion industry of New York. Luckily she has had an upbringing in the Paris fashion scene and can copy fashions (or create her own) that will help her generate income. But first she has to break out and be noticed in New York.
One of the great things about how Natasha Lester has set-up The Paris Seamstress is that it could be any time period, and any woman's story of breaking into any industry. There are specifics of course here in terms of gender, the war creating a lack of supplies, and also being an immigrant but these are the 'things to overcome' that could be easily modified. The core of this story is about fighting to be seen, heard and become an influence on society in some way. Don't be dissuaded if you aren't big into fashion. Clothing is not the heart of the story; overcoming odds and persevering is what this book is really about.

The most endearing part of this story is the characters. Not only is our lead gal genuine, tough but emotional, and hard-working; she is also passionate in so many ways. Be it in her romantic relationships, her work or her desire to be successful or her sorrow over the losses of the war.
There are other wonderful supporting or 'almost main' characters including her business partners: another young gal working as a model and a man she meets on the boat on the way to New York (who cuts the fabrics economically). There is also a charming (and rich) suitor but you'll have to read it to learn about this mysterious man. I can't tell you about most of the other wonderful people we encounter as there are too many spoiler opportunities! Just know all the characters are well fleshed out and endearing in their own ways.

The War Carries On
We do experience (from a far) Pearl Harbour and the introduction of the USA into WWII. Lester also takes us back to the streets of Paris during occupation for a time and all around New York experiencing classes from dirt poor to filthy rich. These varying view points give a well rounded out feel for what WWII was like for those not in the heat of the battle or occupation; but instead living in a bustling city like New York. Even our time in Paris during occupation is a little surreal and a bit jolly at moments (which Lester does on purpose to show a point). Eventually of course the war does taper off and we find out what happens to our leading characters; but don't be deceived the war is still a major factor and is what drives many of our character decisions.

The 'Present' Story
Did I make it sound like the whole book was set in WWII time? Yeah I wish.
My sole complaint about The Paris Seamstress is I could have lost ALL of the present day story with the granddaughter of our fashionista in New York and missed not a lick of her story. There is a mystery throughout the book that she keeps alive; but I really didn't care about it at all to be honest. It felt unnecessary and the 'reveal' was way more relevant to the impact it made on our WWII characters than it was to the present time ones. I just wanted to keep being along for the stories of our characters during WWII. Of course the mystery ties everything together but honestly without it this is still be an amazing five star book. It felt like an editor told Lester something like, these days people like the split perspective in time for historical novels so add that in. I'd have preferred more scenes with our leading lady encountering high society and snobbery in New York, or our model's exploitation concerns than read about the present day granddaughter at all.

If you want to read about a strong female lead in WWII I think you'll really enjoy this. There is a lot about fashion but I'm not a very picky fashion girl and didn't find it boring. Most of the fashion talk is about conserving and using cheaper fabric, creating clothes women want to wear (not have to wear) and other feminist style ideas. There is a romance, and it is bittersweet. I can't say much more than that. For sure this is a novel about staying strong, ensuring you believe in yourself and that life is not fair but we find a way to carry forward and be content (if not truly happy). It is more driven by our characters than the mystery itself. I adored this book and cannot wait to recommend it out to all historical fiction fans and even readers outside the genre boundaries. A good story about people creates a space where the genre becomes irrelevant and is instead just a great character driven read.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Book Review: Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries, #4)Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It appears this is the last (for now, written Feb 2019) of the Murderbot Diaries novellas from Martha Wells. The good news out of this is that we are getting a full length novel!! That's right a lot more Murderbot coming our way soon.

What can I tell you about this book... if you already liked the first three novellas you'll enjoy this one too. It brings our favourite bot full circle. Back to the company of the original crew in All Systems Red. Except this time they have the data to cause a stir.

Murderbot evolves up to this point in the series. We see them (in my mind Murderbot is a girl... however I give you gender neutral pronouns as a way to not impose my opinion on anyone) progress to a point where they can control way more droids, scanners, systems, etc. than we would have ever thought possible. That comes at a price however and Exit Strategy is all really about what the price is and how far Murderbot will go to bring down the Company.

There is all the same snark, sarcasm, humour and clever wit in Exit Strategy as in the first three books. I still think book 2 was my favourite because of the ship ART. There isn't quite the same relationship in Exit Strategy between them and another bot as we had in books 2 and 3. But because we have our human leads back I barely noticed. Exit Strategy ramps up fast, and you MUST have read book 3 prior to getting into this one (they are seamlessly connected from one page to the next). Overall I still love Murderbot and am in agony waiting for Wells to give us more!

(Related but Unrelated Note: I'm super annoyed Wells fantasy trilogy is out of print because now I want to read everything she has ever read!)

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Monday, February 25, 2019

Book Review: My Friend Sleep

My Friend SleepMy Friend Sleep by Laura Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best kind of children's stories are the ones that have a lyrical pace to them. Writing a children's book may seem easy, and maybe many are. Canadian born Laura Baker steps her writing in My Friend Sleep up to a level so many other children's books by turning the words into a poetry with a lullaby tempo. Paired up with the gorgeous illustrations of Hannah Peck from the UK, My Friend Sleep is sure to become a parent and children's favourite. This is the kind of story that could have the staying power of I'll Love You Forever and could be gifted to parents from their adult children in the future.
I honestly cannot say anything but good things about this gorgeous story about falling asleep and not being afraid of the dark. I wish I had this book as a child and cannot wait to gift it to all the little ones in my life.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: How to Fracture a Fairy Tale

How to Fracture a Fairy TaleHow to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So I’m a little frustrated. I read an eARC of this that had no linked table of contents and so I didn’t know there were authors notes to go with every story at the back!! I would have liked these at the beginning or end of each story within the book context. Especially because some of the notes Jane Yolen made at the end of the book are key to understanding her decision to include the story or why she changed what she did.

The Tales
There are a lot of fairy tales in this book. Some are multi-sectioned and upwards of 75 pages. Others are not even 1000 words long. The variety is well spread-out and you could easily choose to read these in any order you wanted. None of them rely on you having read the story before.
I really enjoyed the ones based on traditional fairy tales. There are many that are not based in stories you may know. Some are from foreign folklore many may not be familiar with (but what a great time to learn about it!) and others have biblical context to them. As someone who is familiar with the commonly known Bible stories this was fine for me but someone less versed in religious text may find this frustrating.

What's a Fairy Tale?
Yolen's collection has really made me think about what is a fairy tale? Does Disney need to have made an animated movie for it to count? (I hope not!) Does it need to be 'well known' and who defines what is common enough? Does it need to have a strong moral? A princess? An evil villian? You get where I'm going with this. It's hard to define a fairy tale. And so my thought on what is a fairy tale is different from Yolen. Once I accepted that to be the case things were better for me. The first Bible story threw me for a loop; even though I really enjoyed the one where the man is taken to Hell and then Heaven to see 'what they are like'.

The Best?
The obvious question with anthologies is, which story is best? I don't know if I can answer this. There are so many great merits to most of the stories in this anthology. There are a couple duds (including one early on, so what out!) but overall a clear 80% or more of these stories are excellent. I did really enjoy the unique take on Rumpelstiltskin (a personal fave), the dragons whom no one remembers and the Snow White reversal.

There are a lot of hidden gems in How to Fracture a Fairy Tale and I'm confident any reader could find at least one or two stories they liked. That is perhaps the true genius of Yolen's writing and interpretations is that she sees them from all different perspectives. There is no one 'fracture' point of view that all the stories are told from. Instead it's as though a different person wrote the stories in some cases.
The introduction by Marissa Meyer is repetitive, dull and easily skipped. It feels included to capitalize on her name recognition. But don't skip over Yolen's short introduction to the stories. She has a couple important things to say about what she deems a fracture and how fairy tales have evolved over the years.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Book Review: Slayer

Slayer (Slayer, #1)Slayer by Kiersten White

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nostalgia can be a powerful emotion that makes it difficult to rationally and subjectively review a topic or book. So I forewarn you that as a teenager I was heavily influenced by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By the time Buffy and Angel were done on television I was 21 and had heard the messages of Joss Whedon weekly through my formative years.

I like the choice of time period in Slayer. We are told it happens 3 years after Season 8 ends. Therefore 2 years after L.A. is sent to Hell and shortly after magic has disappeared. Just long enough after for people to have started to adjust (6 months) and set-up what there life is like now without magic. We meet our watcher teenagers that lead the story during a time when they are in hiding and no longer really needed; as there are now a large number of Slayers and no more to be made if magic stays away. If you are familiar with the Season 9-10 comics then you will know exactly when this is likely to be taking place.

Lead Gal
Like Buffy and her friends our lead gal is a teenager who is frustrated with her life. She hates Buffy (much to my amusement as Buffy was never my favourite character) and blames Buffy for her life being ruined now that there are too many Slayers and no magic left. Unfortunately as Slayer moves through it's narrative our lead gal becomes difficult to sympathize with. She's a bit whiny and certainly needs to get some perspective on what it was like to be Buffy and crew faced with the decisions they were. Luckily perspective is (*cue eye roll*) exactly what our lead gal receives. I can't help but feel it's extremely cliche and boring.

I found it incredibly difficult to feel like the Watchers were as important as they make themselves out to be. Maybe because Scoobies are easily found to do research and a Watcher 'education' is not required? Maybe because I cannot forget how the Watchers showed up that one time on Buffy's birthday and tried to tell her how it was going to be from the helm of the old boys club? Or maybe it's because I dislike the idea that a powerful and strong girl isn't capable of also being smart enough to remember details about demons or do her own research? Perhaps ironically I'm about as far away from being a Slayer as anyone could be. I'm more of a Xander or Willow type that has their nose in a book researching (as many of you reading this review likely are too!). This led to a difficulty to really care about this set of lost Watchers in the woods. In fact they might be as creepy as the watcher in the woods from the movie and book of the same name (and from 90's pop culture). Not only are they undesired by the general public but they are in hiding and trying to influence without being seen.

The Cameos
I really loved the cameos! We get to encounter all kinds of people we know from the Buffyverse. But here's the thing; what if you read this and didn't know anything about the 'verse, you would be lost. Many characters who 'show up' in some way shape or form (in person, in dreams, in flashbacks, etc.) are never actually named. Now a fan of the show knows that a dark haired Slayer who says "five by five" is Faith. And we know the significance and intent that Faith may give an opinion or advice from. But for the average reader with limited Buffy knowledge this context would be completely lost. I'm not sure if that is okay or not. I suppose it depends on the purpose you believe this book was written for. Overall if the idea was to bring in a new, younger generation of Buffy fans then this is definitely a huge problem with the set-up Kiersten White went with.

Whether White intended to write this for existing fans or to draw in a new audience, it misses the mark. Slayer really only scratches the surface of what could be and misses out on a lot of the inherent darkness that always existed in Buffy. There is no real character that embodies what a vampire with a soul is like. As the anti-hero is always my favourite this perhaps felt like a bigger miss to me than others might feel. I craved more darkness and moral ambiguity than there was.
Additionally there are almost no vampires in this book. Weird right? Totally weird. I'm not sure why this decision was made but it felt like the wrong decision. Of course there are a million other demons in the Buffyverse; but I really craved and hoped for a vampire story and instead I got a demon enemy with a sprinkling of vampire on the side; almost as an afterthought. The disappointment at no classic one-on-one vampire vs slayer fights really struck me by the end of the book.

Comedic Relief
As is often the case in a Whedon built universe 'the' comic relief is one of the most important and interesting characters. In this case our comic relief was very obvious; and I loved the introductory description of our demon in a Coldplay shirt. It greatly amused me and sets up some context for our demon right away. I couldn't help but think of Doyle (from Angel) at times while this demon spoke. There were comments or thoughts that really resonated with me as being something Doyle might have said at some point had they been able to keep his character alive longer in Angel (look up Doyle and the actor if you don't know why he was written out of the show). This was easily my favourite part of the story. In fact without this cute demon I might not have hung in for the whole book.

Slayer has all the required elements of a Buffyverse story: gay couple, mysterious outsider, geeky girl, comedic demon, watcher(s), some fighting and a 'baddie' to investigate. Yet somehow it misses something for me. It was fine. Nothing special. In fact if you stripped the Buffy lore out and changed some names it could easily be an average teen novel of today. Maybe this is what bugs me about White's take on the Buffyverse... it's too average. Buffy was a leap ahead of it's time in the 90's and I really wanted this to feel like the next step forward. Instead it felt like we were reminiscing about the past and capitalizing off the reboot fever of the 21st century.
This won't be joining my Buffyverse, the same as the last couple seasons of the comics don't exist in my brain. You see, I have an idea of Buffy in my brain that may no longer be achievable; and maybe it's the nostalgia of my age and the time when Buffy was new and the best thing ever. Or maybe it's that I've grown past the ability to relate to the Buffyverse and Buffy-style characters anymore. I am 36 years old after all. Whatever the reason this was a miss for me and one I'm disappointed to put to the side and (mostly) forget; but also one where I accept that I may not be the target market and my heart may be too close to this universe to be totally objective.

To read this and more of my reviews visit my blog at Epic Reading

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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