Book Reviews


unbecomingTitle: UNBECOMING
Author: Jenny Downham
Publication Information: Scholastic, 2016 (first published 2015)
Pages: 389
Source: Overdrive (ebook) – Stonewall Honor list
Genre: Young Adult – Mystery, Family Drama
Warnings: Non-graphic sexual content, legal alcohol consumption, homophobia
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People who like family dramas and multiple storylines set in different time periods. Also has crossover appeal with adult readers.

Katie’s life is falling apart: her best friend thinks she’s a freak, her mother, Caroline, controls every aspect of her life, and her estranged grandmother, Mary, appears as if out of nowhere. Mary has dementia and needs lots of care, and when Katie starts putting together Mary’s life story, secrets and lies are uncovered: Mary’s illegitimate baby, her zest for life and freedom and men; the way she lived her life to the full yet suffered huge sacrifices along the way. As the relationship between Mary and Caroline is explored, Katie begins to understand her own mother’s behavior, and from that insight, the terrors about her sexuality, her future, and her younger brother are all put into perspective.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I really enjoyed UNBECOMING, despite how slowly it felt like it moved. It took me a little while to get into it, but I was sucked in by the mystery about halfway through as I kept reading to find out what had happened between Caroline and Mary all those years ago to led to their estrangement. I also really enjoyed watching Katie develop a relationship with her grandmother even as I rooted for her to stand up for herself to her mother and her schoolmates.

There are a lot of things packed into this book, and I think Downham wove them together masterfully. There’s the main storyline, with Mary winding up on Katie and Caroline’s doorstep with dementia and trying to care for her while Caroline wrangles with the healthcare system to get Mary placed into a home, but then there are actually multiple storylines, as Mary’s story and Katie’s story are woven together to paint a picture about Mary and Caroline’s estrangement. We get to see Mary as a young woman who refused to be unashamed of her sexuality and her decision to give up Caroline for adoption. We also get to see Katie’s struggles to define herself despite Caroline being controlling, not to mention the bullying she faces at school because she kissed a female frenemy – which complicates things for Katie, who is questioning her sexual orientation. That particular storyline I thought was handled sensitively, and I thought Downham did a respectable job capturing how confusing it is not to understand that particular facet of one’s identity.

My main complaint is that while there’s a lot of focus of Mary and Katie, we barely glimpse Caroline’s perspective. While intellectually I could understand why she might be controlling and cold as a person, I never really felt sympathy for her. A lot of that might have to do with the fact that she was cast largely as a villain in both Mary and Katie’s storylines: she was the daughter who rejected her mother, and the mother trying to enforce her will on her eighteen-year-old daughter. This could’ve been softened if we’d gotten more of her voice.

Book Reviews


Author: Rhys Bowen
Publication Information: Lake Union Publishing, 2017
Pages: 398
Source: Kindle First selection
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction, Mystery
Warnings: Light torture, references to war violence, light sexual content
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People who think Downton Abbey could’ve used a little more espionage.

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

(Summary from Goodreads)

I found IN FARLEIGH FIELD very enjoyable thanks in large part to the strong resemblance it bore to Downton Abbey, one of my favorite shows. Like Downton, it was set in a large country estate and followed the exploits of an upper class family during wartime.

The book follows multiple points of view as the Westerhams and the people in the nearby village wait for the surely inevitable German invasion. While some of the characters grated on me – Dido, the second-youngest daughter, particularly – I really enjoyed reading the chapters from Pamela, Ben, and Margot’s points of view (which was, fortunately, most of them). Phoebe, the youngest daughter, was also a delight and I would’ve loved more chapters from her point of view.

Central to the story’s plot is a mystery – who is the soldier who parachuted into the field at Farleigh, and who was he trying to contact? I figured it out pretty early on, but I cared about the characters enough that I didn’t really mind too much. I also loved the world Bowen crafted, both the upper class dinner parties and the intelligence bureaus Pamela and Ben worked for.

Verdict: Predictable mystery made up for with solid characters and setting.

Book Reviews


Author: Robert Beatty
Series: Serafina, #1
Publication Information: Disney*Hyperion, 2015
Pages: 293
Genre: Middle Grade – Historical Fantasy, Mystery
Warnings: Some scary images, mild violence
Rating: 3.5 stars
Recommended For: Readers who love atmospheric settings and don’t mind being scared a little.

Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.

But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.

Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

(Summary from Goodreads)

SERAFINA AND THE BLACK CLOAK was a nice fusion of historical fantasy and mystery elements, all revolving around the mysterious forest surrounding the Biltmore estate and twelve-year-old Serafina, who ventures into the forest to save the children kidnapped from the estate by an evil man wearing a black cloak.

My favorite part of this book was the setting. It’s set in North Carolina in the late 1800s, and the Biltmore estate – and the surrounding forest – really came to life in an atmospheric way that was deliciously creepy.

Another thing that kept me reading were the dual mysteries at the heart of the plot. The main mystery is the identity of the man in the black cloak – Serafina is sure it’s someone from the estate, but she has to figure out who it is. There’s also the mystery of who her mother is; Serafina was raised in the basement of the main house by her father, and she’s always wondered about her mother. I think both mysteries were woven together really well and the pacing was just right.

I also loved how much of this book was a story about friendship. In the course of unraveling the mystery of the man in the black cloak, Serafina befriends Braeden, the nephew of the estate’s owner. Neither of them has had a real friend before and it was lovely to watch them figure out what it means to be a true friend in a way that wasn’t overly sappy.

TL;DR: An atmospheric + deliciously creepy story about saving kidnapped children and what it means to be a friend.

Book Reviews


Author: Andrea Hannah
Publication Information: Flux, 2014
Genre: Young Adult – Mystery
Rating: 4 Stars
Recommended For: People who love them some plot twists with a heaping side of guilt.

After her little sister mysteriously vanishes, seventeen-year-old Claire Graham has a choice to make: stay snug in her little corner of Manhattan with her dropout boyfriend, or go back to Ohio to face the hometown tragedy she’s been dying to leave behind.

But the memories of that night still haunt her in the city, and as hard as she tries to forget what her psychiatrist calls her “delusions,” Claire can’t seem to escape the wolf’s eyes or the blood-speckled snow. Delusion or reality, Claire knows she has to hold true to the most important promise she’s ever made: to keep Ella safe. She must return to her sleepy hometown in order to find Ella and keep her hallucinations at bay before they strike again. But time is quickly running out, and as Ella’s trail grows fainter, the wolves are becoming startlingly real.

Now Claire must deal with her attraction to Grant, the soft-spoken boy from her past that may hold the secret to solving her sister’s disappearance, while following the clues that Ella left for only her to find. Through a series of cryptic diary entries, Claire must unlock the keys to Ella’s past—and her own—in order to stop another tragedy in the making, while realizing that not all things that are lost are meant to be found.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Why I Picked It: I follow Andrea on Twitter and Instagram (which didn’t influence my review at all). Also, the cover is gorgeous.

First of all, I want to talk about how well the cover ties into the book. We’ve got the two girls clutching each other, which accurately speaks to the fact that this is a story about two sisters. Then, the sisters are standing in the middle of some really creepy looking trees, which I think accurately reflects the feel of the book since it definitely had me on edge the entire time I was reading it.

The book started off pretty slow for me. The entire first section of the book shows up what happens before the main story – the part where the main character, Claire, is trying to find her missing sister, Ella. I understand that the information we get from that part is important to understanding Claire’s mental state and Ella’s motivations later on in the book, but I have to wonder if it needed to be presented that way since I felt like it slowed the pace down a bit toward the beginning.

Once I got through Part One, though, and the mystery really kicked into gear, I was in. OF SCARS AND STARDUST is full of twists and turns that had me saying “NO WAY!” in multiple places. As soon as Ella goes missing and Claire and Graham start looking for clues and start uncovering the truth about certain past events, the book is fast-paced and never slows down.

I also loved how well Hannah presented Claire, whose sanity is in question throughout the entire book. The entire time I was reading, I had to question if certain things were actually happening, but at the same time, I really wanted to believe Claire because it was so clear how much she cares about Ella and feels responsible for what happened to her. Claire may or may not be experiencing delusions, but she always felt fully formed, which I feel is important when dealing with a character like this.

Another thing I really loved is the setting. OF SCARS AND STARDUST takes place mostly in a small town in Ohio, and captured that small town feel. But at the same time, it was really atmospheric and because of that – as well as how Claire perceives her surroundings – it added a lot of tension to the book.

TL;DR: OF SCARS AND STARDUST starts off slow, but once the mystery element of the story comes into play, it’s a fast-paced story full of twists and turns that’s hard to put down.

Book Reviews, Debut Author Challenge

Debut Author Challenge: THE CONSPIRACY OF US

Author: Maggie Hall
Series: The Conspiracy of Us, #1
Publication Information: Putnam Juvenile, 2015
Genre: Young Adult – Mystery
Rating: 4 Stars
Recommended For: People who like conspiracy theories, settings that make you want to travel, mysterious and dangerous European boys.

Avery West’s newfound family can shut down Prada when they want to shop in peace, and can just as easily order a bombing when they want to start a war. Part of a powerful and dangerous secret society called the Circle, they believe Avery is the key to an ancient prophecy. Some want to use her as a pawn. Some want her dead.

To unravel the mystery putting her life in danger, Avery must follow a trail of clues from the monuments of Paris to the back alleys of Istanbul with two boys who work for the Circle—beautiful, volatile Stellan and mysterious, magnetic Jack. But as the clues expose a stunning conspiracy that might plunge the world into World War 3, she discovers that both boys are hiding secrets of their own. Now she will have to choose not only between freedom and family–but between the boy who might help her save the world, and the one she’s falling in love with.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Why I Picked It: As we all know by now, I’m all about the girls in dresses covers. Combine that with the comparison to THE DA VINCI CODE (which I read in a single afternoon back in the day), and I knew I had to read this one.

The mystery in this book was the main thing that kept me turning pages, since it moved super fast and I loved how the history of Alexander the Great and the Diadochi were incorporated. That being said, preparation to suspend your disbelief going into this book is important, since the main character, Avery, makes some decisions I couldn’t quite understand. Number one being, running off to Europe with two boys she barely knows, one of which followed her around town and brandished a weapon at her. I understand that she wanted answers about her father, but jumping on a plane without bothering to try talking to her mother first? That was a little far-fetched, for me. But once I set that aside, I was able to get really into the story.

There is a love triangle in this book. I happen to love love triangles, as long as they’re done well, and this one was done well. I could understand Avery’s attraction to both of them, and while I found Stellan to be a slightly more compelling character because of his motivation for working for the Dauphins (and also because he broods and is morally ambiguous, really), I think either boy would be a solid choice. I really appreciated that, while they kept warning Avery she had no idea what she’d gotten herself into (which is fair, since she didn’t), they also didn’t underestimate her, and she also played an equal part in solving the mystery. Additionally, it’s not actually that clear which boy Avery is going to end up with, which should make the romance aspect of the next book really interesting. (I mean, it’s clear which direction Avery is leaning, but there’s also room for that to change. CONFLICT.)

Finally, the setting is fantastic right from the beginning. Avery starts out in a small town in Minnesota and ends up visiting Paris and Istanbul, and each setting felt unique thanks to Hall’s use of details that grounded us in each setting. At the same time, the use of detail didn’t feel overwhelming. I think Hall did a great job balancing the exposition with the action in the story.

TL;DR: Overall, THE CONSPIRACY OF US is a fun mystery with wanderlust-inducing settings and a fast pace that just takes some suspension of disbelief to get really invested in.

Book Reviews

Review: Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars (Pretty Little Liars, #1)Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read Pretty Little Liars because my sister told me to watch the TV show, but I refuse to watch the TV show until I’ve read the books. I didn’t have very high expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Pretty Little Liars is deliciously trashy, which is one of the things that kept me reading. There were a couple times when I texted my sister and said, “Wait, WHAT?” because these girls make some very questionable decisions. (My sister’s response was, “Don’t bother with the books why are you reading them STAHP.” Or something along those lines.) But once I told the more analytical part of my brain to pipe down, the book was fun.

I wasn’t super keen on the characters. I didn’t really care about Aria or Spencer’s storylines, I actively despised Hanna and Ali, and I was interested in Emily’s storyline, but not to the point where I was willing to throw down if things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. Honestly, the characters were my least favorite part of the book.

The mystery was really intriguing, though. Or should I say mysteries? The first mystery revolves around what happened to Ali, something that hangs over each of the other girls’ heads even though they’re not friends anymore. The second mystery is about who “A” is, and why she’s threatening to spill their secrets (and how does “A” know the secrets, to begin with)? I actually have no ideas, and wanting to find out the answers to my questions is enough to make me want to read the next book in the series.

If you’re looking for something as filling as Gossip Girl or The Selection but want a little added suspense, Pretty Little Liars would be a good fit for you.

View all my reviews

Blogging from A to Z, Book Reviews

W is for Whimsical – Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I’m not usually a huge mystery person (at least, not in the sense that I read specifically for mysteries), but I also knew that since the Sherlock Holmes stories are classics, I had to at least give them a try. And, given my love for Victorian literature, I was pretty much sold. (Also, it totally helps that they were free for my Kindle on Amazon.)

I ended up loving all of the stories. Holmes is a very interesting character, not to mention all the quirks of the other characters who showed up, and many of the cases were just so bizarre, I had to keep reading to figure out how they were even possible. (Clearly, I am far more like Watson than I am like Holmes.)

So, basically, I’m going to have to go and read some more Sherlock Holmes, because I’m hooked.