Review: Whitley: Witchmark

Book Cover
title: Witchmark
author: C. L. Polk
pages: 272
format: Paperback
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 4/5

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family's interest or to be committed to a witches' asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans' hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

A murder mystery set in a post-world-war pseudo-England, this book was engaging and deft and juggling a lot of different themes and plots. There were so many subplots going on, and yet I never lost the thread of the plot in the least, and everything was tightly plotted and excellent and keeping the reader consistently engaged throughout it all.
I loved Miles as a character, but specifically as a PTSD veteran doing his utmost to help his fellow soldiers. He had really beautiful soft side that I absolutely adored, this kind of...stubborn softness, almost. He was so determined to do the right things, and those things were usually being comforting and kind and gracious to his patients. His fraught relationship with his family was less soft, but every bit as stubborn, and it rounded out his character in a marvelous way.
His family I rather hated, though, especially Grace who was supposed to be more of a morally-gray type. I'm not sure if I was just reading too much into it, but I kept waiting for a twist that never came because a lot of her actions read as deeply wrong to me, and the reveal that there's no reveal soured me on her whole...everything.
The only problem I had with the plot was the romance. The romance because there wasn't enough of it! Our two leads were both great characters in their own right, and they worked well together and had chemistry and a really soft, sweet attraction to each other. But the romance didn't seem to be a focus for the book, due to all the murder investigating going on, and the leads actually didn't spend much of the book together. By the end, while they had a lot of potential, I just didn't feel like they'd gone anywhere with it and then *boom* proposal. I was really taken aback by that.


Review: Whitley: To Kill A Kingdom

Book Cover
title: To Kill A Kingdom
author: Alexandra Christo

pages: 352
format: ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 5/5

Princess Lira is siren royalty and the most lethal of them all. With the hearts of seventeen princes in her collection, she is revered across the sea. Until a twist of fate forces her to kill one of her own. To punish her daughter, the Sea Queen transforms Lira into the one thing they loathe most—a human. Robbed of her song, Lira has until the winter solstice to deliver Prince Elian’s heart to the Sea Queen or remain a human forever.

The ocean is the only place Prince Elian calls home, even though he is heir to the most powerful kingdom in the world. Hunting sirens is more than an unsavory hobby—it’s his calling. When he rescues a drowning woman in the ocean, she’s more than what she appears. She promises to help him find the key to destroying all of sirenkind for good—But can he trust her? And just how many deals will Elian have to barter to eliminate mankind’s greatest enemy?

Yesssssss killer girls who actually kill things, why did it take so long for me to find one? Feels like every book I've had so far that promised 'brutal' girls winds up with no on-page death, or the plot twists in knots to justify things, or some other 'out' so the girl can still stay 'good.' Not Lira, tho. Nope, she's murdering boys in the first few chapters just for the pure pleasure of it.
And ooooh I love Lira so much. I love her whole story, from fucked up childhood to kinda-redemption arc. I love that it was clear from the start that she was molded into being a killer and probably wouldn't have picked that for herself, but also that the book doesn't shy away from the fact that she thoroughly enjoys it anyway. I love the way her affection for her cousin is displayed without going over-the-top with the whole 'what is love, I don't know this emotion' angle. I just love her.

Elian is cool, too, I guess. But have I told you about Lira? lol, okay, being serious again, Elian is a fine hero and counterpart to Lira, and the two have good chemistry and play off each other really well. I liked the way his passion was described, but let's be honest, his greatest asset was as a foil to Lira. The rest of his crew was more interesting as individuals.

The plot was a solid adventure story with lots of swashbuckling and fighting and an epic battle and satisfying ending and I'm sorry, I just don't have much to say about books that I like? It was a good, more adventure-y retelling of The Little Mermaid and you should read it.


Review: Whitley: Goblins of Bellwater

Book Cover
title: The Goblins of Bellwater
author: Molly Ringle

pages: 288
format: paperback
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 4.5/5

Most people have no idea goblins live in the woods around the small town of Bellwater, Washington. But some are about to find out.

Skye, a young barista and artist, falls victim to a goblin curse in the forest one winter night, rendering her depressed and silenced, unable to speak of what happened. Her older sister, Livy, is at wit’s end trying to understand what’s wrong with her. Local mechanic Kit would know, but he doesn’t talk of such things: he’s the human liaison for the goblin tribe, a job he keeps secret and never wanted, thrust on him by an ancient family contract.

Unaware of what’s happened to Skye, Kit starts dating Livy, trying to keep it casual to protect her from the attention of the goblins. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Kit, Skye draws his cousin Grady into the spell through an enchanted kiss in the woods, dooming Grady and Skye both to become goblins and disappear from humankind forever.

It’s a midwinter night’s enchantment as Livy, the only one untainted by a spell, sets out to save them on a dangerous magical path of her own.

CW: Depression, Sexual Assault
I really loved this book. The atmosphere and the characters and the magic of it all were just so evocative and lovely. It was a pretty slow book, not high on the magic/adventure, and it's largely a character piece that spends a lot of time mired in magical allegories for depression/assault, but I also really felt the depression angle hard and I...it's weird to say I loved it but I did. 

The relationships in this book were pretty snazzy. Livy and Skye's connection as sisters and their interdependence on each other is a big part of it, and I really felt their love for each other. Livy and Kit developing a budding romance was well-done, and I loved their level of communication and consent and just all around cuteness. Skye and Grady were really fucked up (and here is the CW for magically-induced lust and all the consent issues that brings with it) and yet...it's openly acknowledged as such and around that parts of it were still really sweet? IDK, that one's still hard for me to parse, but all the other bits were great.

The goblins especially I loved for being so thoroughly unhuman and marvelously wicked. I honestly loved how little explanation we got for them. There was a ton of backstory on their connection to Kit, but very little about them as a 'species,' and it made them feel all the more magical and mysterious as a result. We learned enough to be properly scared of them, and that was plenty.

The only part that didn't hit home for me was the ending, where a very slow and introspective book suddenly tried to have an action ending. A lot of the second half of the story was 'oh, how do we break the curse' and...let's not get spoilery and just say I wasn't satisfied. Nothing that they considered in their 'how to break it' phase actually affected the ending, and I like my mysteries to be more cause-and-effect than that.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Sensory Reading Memories

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

I'm a pretty sensory person, so there are a lot of books I associate with flickers of a feeling, smell, or image. Unfortunately, most of those memories are of reading in bed, so I tried to pick some the more interesting ones from the bunch. Here are five.  
1.Caraval / Stephanie Garber - I was in a bad mood, in my apartment in Memphis, waiting for my parents and family to get there for Thanksgiving. I was really missing them and feeling down, so I picked up CARAVAL. I read it in one sitting. It was just what I needed to escape into.

2.All the Bright Places / Jennifer Niven - I cried a lot when I read this book. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom in Michigan, half in and half out of the closet, holding it and crying. I'd read it in one sitting and I immediately went back and re-read all the parts I'd dog-earred. Then I got my paints out and painted, because there was just so much emotion I needed to let go of.

3.I'll Give You the Sun / Jandy Nelson - I was on the beach in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic when I read this book. It was part of a stack of ARCs I'd brought back from my first (I think) BEA. I totally fell in love with the characters, and I remember smelling that lovely ocean breeze while I flipped page after page.

4.The Chronicles of Chrestomanci Vol 1 / Diana Wynne Jones - I remembering getting this book from my parents in my Easter basket. It was super thick, so my mom was hoping it'd take me longer than a day or two to get through it. I ended up reading it in Australia. It also sparked a lifelong love affair with Diana.

5.Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince / J.K. Rowling - I remember just getting this and then having to go to a party or something for my riding instructor (I was still riding horses back then). I was so annoyed because all I wanted to do was sit down and devour it. I ended up carrying it around with me pathetically the whole time.

Whitley's Selections

1.Alanna: The First Adventure / Tamora Pierce - I don't know if it was this book specifically, but it was this series. I first read it in middle school, and I still associate it with the feeling of sunshine. In fact, I associate it with a specific picture of myself from middle school, me and the girl who recommended it to me posing in front of a brick wall. I remember standing next to that brick wall and waiting for her to show up so I could squeal about how excited I was having just finished reading...whichever book I was on.

2.Lies / Michael Grant - I reread the first two books in order to read this one when it came out and JUST SO HAPPENS at that time I was also in a week long Combat Lifesaver course. These are unrelentingly grimdark books, which is one thing when you're reading them a year apart, and another when you're doing three in a row while there's powerpoint slides full of bloody wounds showing. I still feel acutely uncomfortable with this series and have never finished it.

3.Beauty / Robin McKinley - This book will always make me think of that maroon minivan my family had while I was growing up. I took this book with me on every single road trip (twice a year, Christmas and summer) to visit grandparents, and dutifully reread it each time.

4.Dragon Sword and Wind Child / Noriko Ogiwara - I found it in a school library. I can't remember which school, or which grade level, or literally anything else, but I can still tell you the exact layout of this library and every single section in it. I remember where this book was (along the left hand wall, on the shelf closest to the floor) and how I found it because I was so bored I just flopped over on the ground. I remember the other books I found while randomly killing time in that room, too, but this one was my favorite. 

5.Wren's War / Sherwood Smith - Elementary school, in that tiny apartment right after my parents split up, my mother's bathroom. I can still see her, curling her hair to get ready for something, as I burst into the room sobbing uncontrollably. I scared that poor woman so bad, she had no idea what was going on for several minutes as I just cried at her, only to find out I'd read a book that didn't have a perfectly happy ending with all the loose ends tied up and all the dead people brought back to life.

I was young, it was the first time that had happened to me! [[C.J.: Omg Whitley. x_x;;;;]]  

Your turn! What books do you associate with strong memories?


Review: Whitley: Torn

Book Cover
title: Torn
author: Rowenna Miller

pages: 480
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: DNF

Sophie is a dressmaker who has managed to open her own shop and lift herself and her brother, Kristos, out of poverty. Her reputation for beautiful ball gowns and discreetly-embroidered charms for luck, love, and protection secures her a commission from the royal family itself -- and the commission earns her the attentions of a dashing but entirely unattainable duke.

Meanwhile, Kristos rises to prominence in the growing anti-monarchist movement. Their worlds collide when the revolution's shadow leader takes him hostage and demands that Sophie place a curse on the queen's Midwinter costume -- or Kristos will die at their hand.

As the proletariat uprising comes to a violent climax, Sophie is torn: between her brother and the community of her birth, and her lover and the life she's striven to build.

I was so excited to get my hands on this book. So ready to get me some rebellious seamstresses and revolutions and magical garments. Wooooo, bring it on!

And then I got the book, and....slowed down real fast.

It's a really plodding, ponderous book that's dense with politics talk. It required a pretty immediate shift in my expectations, but once I did that, I thought we'd still get along. There was a lot of worldbuilding and a lot of background to the rebellion, which can be interesting if handled well, and I loved the quasi-Regency-era world. Sophie's magic was far more sedate than I would have preferred, the kind of magic that could be mistaken for 'coincidence' because it's not overtly visible. M'kay, still rolling with it.

But it was so sloooooooooow. And I just wasn't feeling Sophie as a main character. I can get behind the concept of a character dragged into things against her intentions, that's find and can make some decent drama, but...maybe not when 33% into the book and you're just starting to maybe even start to get dragged? Her brother was massively more interesting and active and involved, while Sophie was just plugging her ears and making nice with the ruling class. Sophie would have made a great character for a cozy mystery, or maybe a contemplative character-driven novel, but in a revolution-fantasy? Meh.

I hated the way this book handled class, and it's the thing that made me ultimately put the book down. Sophie is positioned in a way to potentially show a lot of conflict. She's one of the few people who makes the system work, so she's largely concerned with keeping the status quo because she's comfortable and any upset the system risks putting her out of work. Now, that's a terrible attitude when people are dying and shit, but as a starting point that she can grow away from, it's got potential. Only she doesn't. She stubbornly clings to that whole 'I got to cozy up to the ruling class' attitude and digs in hard. And then develops a romance with a duke. And, just, I, uh... people are dying? I know the duke is hot, but still?

And maybe she shifts away from that later in the book, but considering the summary paints the revolutionaries as the bad guys, I'm pretty sure it would be more of a 'both sides have some bad to them' thing.

The last thing, which pushed me over the edge, was the way the book tried to flatten all problems onto the same level. Sophie starts talking with her duke friend, and he goes "ah, but woe is the aristocrat, who has all these responsibilities!" Fuck the what, boy?

He literally says that because peers inherit responsibilities to their land and can't just bugger off, that's exactly the same as the poor being deliberately prevented from engaging in business and forced into permanent underclass status.

(Also, shitty peers who don't meet their responsibilities exist and guess who suffers for that because it's not the peer.)

And our lead character? "Aw, uwu, I didn't think of that way, you poor hot man, let me cuddle your sadness away."

Pffffft. No thanks.