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The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong

Title: The Summoning

Author: Kelley Armstrong

Series: Darkest Powers #1

Genre: YA Paranormal

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Chloe Saunders used to have a relatively normal life. But now she finds herself in the middle of some really strange situations because:
~She suddenly starts seeing dead people.
~She gets locked up in a group home for unstable teens.
~The group home isn’t what it seems.

“My name is Chloe Saunders and my life will never be the same again. All I wanted was to make friends, meet boys, and keep on being ordinary. I don’t even know what that means anymore. It all started on the day that I saw my first ghost—and the ghost saw me. Now there are ghosts everywhere and they won’t leave me alone. To top it all off, I somehow got myself locked up in Lyle House, a “special home” for troubled teens. Yet the home isn’t what it seems. Don’t tell anyone, but I think there might be more to my housemates than meets the eye. The question is, whose side are they on? It’s up to me to figure out the dangerous secrets behind Lyle House… before its skeletons come back to haunt me.” –Goodreads

The Review:

Well, color me surprised, this book was great!

I’ve been such a grinch with YA over the last few years because they’re just not singing to me like they once did. A small part of that is poor title selection, but the bigger part is that I’m tired of all the repeating tropes and weak writing that gets forgiven as long as the book has a love story and a trendy theme. But hallelujah, The Summoning had some real substance and depth.

I went in with high expectations because Armstrong is an author I’ve read (Women of the Otherworld) and enjoyed (mostly… the series is hit or miss). My success rate with YAs written by adult-genred authors is much higher. But even here I was surprised at how off the beaten path the story took me.

For starters it’s dark, taking place in a group home / asylum for disturbed teens. The main character is young but seems to have a good grasp on common sense and how to take care of herself (a rarity), but still gets the benefit of the doubt for human error. Also, it contains some not so typical characters, including (gasps!) a few somewhat unattractive ones. In the spotlight!! Wow. That alone gets kudos.

And finally, what impressed me the most was how much the book creeped me out. I listen to most YA before bed to help me fall asleep (because I don’t have to pay as close attention as I’d need to for an adult fantasy), and there were a few scenes that had me staring at the dark ceiling in the middle of the night, trying to ground myself back into reality so I could sleep. Granted, I’m a total, unapologetic wimp when it comes to scary stuff (can’t do it. Nope.), so take my marveling with a grain of salt. However, it did ding my creep-o-meter a lot more than almost all of the adult urban fantasy / paranormal books I’ve read, so either it appealed to my personal scare triggers or it was just exceptionally done. Either way, for a YA, it blew expectations out of the water.

Recommendations: I’m not sure where the story is headed, so I’m still reserving final judgement, but overall this is a strong read and I recommend it to paranormal fans who are tired of the same old YA tropes. It was well written, creepy, and a totally unexpected delight of a read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Title: Battle Ground

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #17

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Harry has faced terrible odds before. He has a long history of fighting enemies above his weight class. The Red Court of vampires. The fallen angels of the Order of the Blackened Denarius. The Outsiders. But this time it’s different. A being more powerful and dangerous on an order of magnitude beyond what the world has seen in a millennium is coming. And she’s bringing an army. The Last Titan has declared war on the city of Chicago, and has come to subjugate humanity, obliterating any who stand in her way. Harry’s mission is simple but impossible: Save the city by killing a Titan. And the attempt will change Harry’s life, Chicago, and the mortal world forever. -Goodreads

The Review:

A miraculous, all-encompassing, book-long battle which involved almost every single side character we’ve met to date. It was expansive. It was action-packed. And it was well written. A truly cinematic novel of epic proportion!

You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I almost always enjoy Dresden novels, but I have to admit that this one required a bit more effort to get through than I’d hoped it would. As all-encompassing as the story was, in execution it was more an endless series of mini battles. The heavy hitters of this world all converged to save Chicago… one after another. You’d think with all of that constant action and excitement that I would be page flipping like mad to see what happened next. But instead I found the conflicts too repetitive to hold my focus. Reconnect with an ally; kill something. Rinse; Repeat. It didn’t offer a lot of plot variety. For me, anyway. I usually have trouble with battle scenes unless the focus is more on the overall tactics and strategy than the individual clashing of swords (or wizard staffs). This was very much the latter.

I did like the voice of the story – it’s comforting to “come home” to a Dresden novel, especially after all this time. I will say there was a very noticeable overuse of the word “freaking.” It was funny the first two times it was used, but then it got distracting from there. Even so, Harry’s a great character, made even better by the plethora of secondary personalities. Oddly, how engaged I was during any particular scene had more to do with how interested I was in the side characters within it (as it turns out, there were only three that had me completely enthralled). Butcher dramatically changed a few of the characters’ overall trajectories, which I appreciated because of the variety it added, but I’m not sure I’m on board with the direction some of them are now headed… we shall see.

Overall, for my personal tastes and expectations, I did not enjoy Battle Ground as much as I wanted to. I think the repetitive nature of it gave my brain a lot of free time to pick apart other aspects of the story I may not have noticed otherwise. I will still be continuing on in the series because when one of the books works for me, it REALLY works for me. As it stands, this one is just middle of the road in the whole scheme of the series.

Recommendations: if you’re already a Dresden fan, how could you NOT pick up this novel? My conservative rating is probably going to be in the minority, so keep that in mind. If you haven’t started the series yet, it’s a staple in the genre for a reason, but it does take a few books in before it really finds its “magic.”

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Jim Butcher, and NetGalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of Battle Ground.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk

Death and Relaxation by Devon Monk

Title: Death and Relaxation

Author: Devon Monk

Series: Ordinary Magic #1

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Police Chief Delaney Reed can handle the Valkyries, werewolves, gill-men and other paranormal creatures who call the small beach town of Ordinary, Oregon their home. It’s the vacationing gods who keep her up at night. With the famous Rhubarb Festival right around the corner, small-town tensions, tempers, and godly tantrums are at an all-time high. The last thing Delaney needs is her ex-boyfriend reappearing just when she’s finally caught the attention of Ryder Bailey, the one man she should never love. No, scratch that. The actual last thing she needs is a dead body washing ashore, especially since the dead body is a god. Catching a murderer, wrestling a god power, and re-scheduling the apocalypse? Just another day on the job in Ordinary. Falling in love with her childhood friend while trying to keep the secrets of her town secret? That’s gonna take some work.Goodreads

The Review:

I’ve had a high opinion of Devon Monk’s writing for a while now, so when Death and Relaxation was offered as a review copy (audio production quality) I snatched it up. I’ve been on a pretty hard urban fantasy kick lately, but I’ll admit this series wasn’t even on my radar (probably because of the atrocious cover). But I tell you what – it hit the spot!

It had a great combination of concept (small town Oregon where gods go to vacation), character (a young female police chief who takes over the department after her father dies), mystery (who the heck is ballsy enough to commit a murder in a town of gods?), and love story (the cute dynamic between the MC and the love interest – it’s just enough to be a clear selling point of the novel, but not overdone to the point where it becomes the sole focus). It was one of those books perfectly suited to my mood, and because it came from a seasoned author I trust, I was able to turn off my over-critical eye and just enjoy the ride.

Admittedly the concept wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, but it’s clear from the start that its main purpose is to enhance the quirky nature of this small touristy town. I started with the novella (Dues and Don’ts – Free on the author’s webiste), which I would recommend because it sets the stage on what to expect in this town a lot better than the first book. It incorporated the tradition of local artisans hiding glass figurines along the beach for tourists to find, which apparently is something that actually happens in the town the series is based on. I was enamored with the whole thing. I think the fun dynamics between all the characters in this little community is my biggest source of delight. Quirky fun things like rhubarb cooking contests an long-standing interpersonal squabbles (which, naturally, involve the whole town). Any Gilmore Girls fan out there will get a better idea if I say it’s a supernatural version of Stars Hollow (only without the aggravating characters that take the fun out of the scenes – Mayor Taylor Doose, I’m talking to you).

The only ding against its rating is that I thought the solution to one of the main conflicts of the story was completely obvious right from the start. I can half-rationalize it away if I try hard enough. Like, maybe the main character had too many things going on to see it clearly. But really it would’ve made the book stronger to either hide it better or to have the characters figure it out sooner. So far that has been my only gripe.

This is one of my new personal favorite series starters – I enjoyed it that much. It is definitely more on the lighthearted side of the genre. There’s not a lot of dark grittiness that sets the tone for comparable series. But maybe that’s what I’d needed – a bit of a pick-me-up. :)

Recommendations: start with the novella! I’d hand this series to people who like urban fantasy without the semi-horror aspect. It’s actually a great crossover novel between uf, mystery, and romance. If you can snag the GraphicAudio version, you’re in for a treat! Go in with a light heart and have some fun. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Peace Talks by Jim Butcher

Peace Talks by Jim Butcher [July 14, 2020]

Title: Peace Talks

Author: Jim Butcher

Series: Dresden Files #16

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Release Date: July 14, 2020

The Overview: When the Supernatural nations of the world meet up to negotiate an end to ongoing hostilities, Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, joins the White Council’s security team to make sure the talks stay civil. But can he succeed, when dark political manipulations threaten the very existence of Chicago–and all he holds dear?Goodreads

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The Review:

Peace Talks was everything I hoped it would be and more. Totally worth the wait! ^_^ Especially because we’re getting TWO Dresden novels this year (Battle Ground is currently slated for release September 29th!).

The last few Dresden novels have been hit or miss. Ghost Story and Cold Days were by-far my least favorite books in the series. I briefly considered abandoning it, but then Skin Game (possibly the best of the series – PARKOUR!!) came along and fuego! – total re-ignition. I didn’t know what to expect after so much time between books, but luckily Peace Talks was more of all the things that make this series great: good characters, funny dialogue, supernatural politics, lots of magic, and stakes that keep getting higher and higher. It’s a relief because I wasn’t sure I liked the direction the story has been heading in the last few books. Butcher jumped the shark at some point and I was afraid it was going to get too far from the original essence of the story while dealing with the multidimensional shit. It didn’t. Instead it struck a nice balance between the familiar and the new concepts.

The book did take a bit of time for gentle reintroductions to the characters, but it wasn’t distracting. Frankly I could’ve used more reminders on the differences between the white court, the red court, the winter court, the summer court, etc. I’ve got most of it straight, but still get lost on occasion with anything to do with the fae. That’s more of an attention span thing though – early on in the series, all the evil beings sounded and acted the same so I never bothered to get them straight. Now I’m paying for being lazy because they’ve stuck around. Anyway, Peace Talks wasn’t as action-packed as Skin game, but it more than made up for it with political intrigue and plot-advancements between key characters. There were definitely a few “omg!” moments. The story arc didn’t feel as robust as some of his other books, but that’s probably why we’re getting another novel this year. I’m ready for that one to knock me on my ass.

Really, the only thing that would’ve made my reading experience of Peace Talks better is James Marsters crooning to me on the audio version. Other than that, it was awesome!

Recommendations: Dresden continues to be an absolute joy to read, and seems to embrace its flaws to the point where it wouldn’t be a satisfying Dresden novel without them (they’re not so much flaws anymore as trademark Dresden-isms). If you haven’t read this series yet and are even mildly interested in the genre, it’s a great pick (give it until at least book 4). Oh! And if you haven’t had a chance to read the novellas yet, now would be a good time to pick up the Bigfoot ones before diving into Peace Talks. ;)

I’d like to thank Berkley Publishing Group, Netgalley, and Jim Butcher for providing an early review copy of Peace Talks – you made my year!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Title: Rosemary and Rue

Author: Seanan McGuire

Series: October Daye #1

Genre: Urban Fanrasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer. -Goodreads

The Review:

Okay, there weren’t a lot of remarkable things about this first installment, but I’ve tried enough urban fantasy series to not let a slow start scare me off (ahem… Kate Daniels). That said, there were enough good things about it to give me hope for what’s to come.

Truth be told, I’m just so excited to be finally starting a new UF series that I’m willing to overlook a slow start. The book focused a little too much on character introductions and info dumps (so many info dumps). But there were also some great interactions and exciting conflict scenes. So now that all the setup is out of the way, I’m hoping the next book will provide some momentum.

Right off the bat, I liked the main character. She’s a changeling, and that variety of non-human dynamic is what set the story apart. Most UF characters straddle two worlds, but her particular situation was really interesting and so far it’s the selling point of the series. And her backstory! There’s a fantastic underlaying plot to the whole book that had me instantly hooked within the first ten pages. It set up a character who was capable, but more or less starting at rock bottom, and that’s oddly compelling.

My biggest criticism at this point (other than pacing) is that most of the side characters came off a bit caricature, so I’m definitely hoping for more duality and depth going forward. Other than that, everything else was quality.

Recommendations: Rosemary and Rue was a slow start to the series, but with a lot of promise. At this point, I’d still hand you some of my other favorites first (Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison) because I can attest to their momentum, but let’s keep an eye on this one – I have a feeling (and some endorsements) that say(s) it’s going to get good.

Other books you might like:

 

by Niki Hawkes

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DNF Q&A: Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Title: Raised by Wolves

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Series: Raised by Wolves #1

Genre: Teen Paranormal Romance

Rating: DNF

The Overview: Adopted by the Alpha of a werewolf pack after a rogue wolf brutally killed her parents right before her eyes, fifteen-year-old Bryn knows only pack life, and the rigid social hierarchy that controls it.  That doesn’t mean that she’s averse to breaking a rule or two. But when her curiosity gets the better of her and she discovers Chase, a new teen locked in a cage in her guardian’s basement, and witnesses him turn into a wolf before her eyes, the horrific memories of her parents’ murders return. Bryn becomes obsessed with getting her questions answered, and Chase is the only one who can provide the information she needs. But in her drive to find the truth, will Bryn push too far beyond the constraints of the pack, forcing her to leave behind her friends, her family, and the identity that she’s shaped? -Goodreads

Did you really give Raised by Wolves a chance?

Yes… after saving it for a rainy day for nearly 10 years, I made it to about the 85% mark before setting it aside.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre?

Kind of. I’ve certainly read others in the YA Paranormal genre that I thought were better. For the most part though, I tend to lose patience quickly with this type of story, preferring instead adult urban fantasy. These YA books tend to lack grit and are usually more focused on the love story than anything else. That said, they can be fun reads and I’ve read a few I really enjoyed:

 

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

JLB is responsible for one of my absolute favorite YA series – The Naturals. I was nervous picking up some of her earlier works, but figured the same basic quality would be there… no comment.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

We all have a few things that drive us absolutely bonkers in books. Two of my most prominent ones are endless dialogue/explanations and characters who make stupid decisions solely for the sake of advancing the plot. This book had those two things in abundance, and they effectively killed any interest I had in the other components. You would think with all the time the character spent explaining to the reader and other characters how things work, she would be bright enough to reason through her own decision-making. But the removal of common sense would put her in danger and, as that’s the only thing the plot relied on, it had to happen or there would be no book. I thought her reasoning behind hunting for the killer felt contrived and didn’t have the proper substance behind it to drive an entire plot.

It also suffered from a consistent lack of forward plot progression. What happened overall could’ve been condensed into a short story (which might have actually been quite good). But instead it was a long, drawn out novel of endless dialogue and info dumps. I think I dropped it around 85%… that’s harsh. It probably would’ve only taken me another 20 minutes to get through it.

I’m not even going to start ranting about the whole “the boy is my everything” trope that was also present because we’ll be here forever.

Was there anything you liked about Raised by Wolves?

Nothing. Usually I can set aside personal tastes and find some silver lining that might make it recommendable to certain types of readers, but not in this case.

Would you read anything else by this author?

An emphatic YES!!! All of the things I’ve criticized about this book were non-existent in her Naturals series. Nowadays, she’s such a proficient writer and so good at creating characters with substance and meaningful motivations that I’ll devour anything else she decides to publish. Every writer worth their ounce of ink improves on their craft with each novel. Quite frankly, the leap from this book to The Naturals is so extreme, I can hardly believe its from the same author. She teaches psychology at Yale (or at least, she did several years ago when I first discovered her), and her later works are always infused with fascinating tidbits from her field of study. It’s awesome.

*This nifty Q&A format is one I borrowed (with permission) from Nikki over at There Were Books Involved – thanks Nikki! 

by Niki Hawkes