A promising start to the Three Dark Crowns series and a new author for me to try


Three Dark Crowns
 (Three Dark Crowns #1) by Kendare Blake
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With the recent release of the second book in this series I decided that I really needed to get myself organised and delve into Three Dark Crowns before I started hearing too many spoilers about the series online. I haven’t read any books by Kendare Blake before but reviews about Three Dark Crowns seem to be generally good and the plot sounded really intriguing so I was happy to give it a go.

This is a dark, fairytale in atmosphere story about 3 sisters, triplets, who are born Queens then separated and fostered to different homes based on their special talent. When they turn 16 they will each have the chance to fight for the throne, whoever wins will reign until their own triplets are born. The two losers will be killed at the hand of the victor.

The first chapters of the book are quite lengthy as we are introduced to each of the triplets in turn. Firstly we meet Queen Katherine, a poisoner, who is able to withstand any venom and can create deadly potions of her own. We meet the people raising her after 3 generations of poisoner Queens they have grown powerful and will do anything to put a 4th poisoner Queen on the throne. Katherine is not as strong as she looks though and is struggling to survive the demands placed upon her.

We then meet naturalist Queen Arisone, wild and carefree she has grown up surrounded by friends who have protected her and now she turns 16 she needs to face up to the fact that her gifts have not arrived as yet, she should be able to make flowers grow and fields bloom and animals do her bidding but she cannot and soon everyone will learn the truth.

Finally, we meet Queen Mirabella, the Elementalist who can command the elements, the wind, fire, water and the earth. Mirabella is strong and word has spread of her strength. The priestesses of the temples have led her tuition and they will stop at nothing to oust the poisoners from the throne and see the true Queen ascend to her rightful place, even if they need to rig the outcome.

This book was wonderful, it is full of really great characters in the lives of each of the Queens who we come to love. Particularly wonderful is the world of Arisone and her best friend Jules, the strongest naturalist in the community who will do anything to protect her friend and help her to become the new Queen. The characters in the story are really well crafted and it is so easy to become invested in them all and they are all quite distinct so although there are lots of them across each of the three queens courts you don’t get confused.

I really enjoyed the atmosphere in the book, the question of whether the sisters will come to fulfil the prophecy and kill each other or who is the rightful queen. The book asks you to question which one is your favourite but as the book goes on you find each girl has her own attributes that would make her a good Queen but if I had to say which one I was rooting for secretly I’d have to say Arisone but then the cliff-hanger at the end of this book was wonderful and left me quite shocked and desperate to see how this will progress as we move into book 2. It helped to make sense of some of the story in Three Dark Crowns but sets up wonderfully for us to continue the story.

I loved my first experience of Kendare Blake’s writing, I really enjoyed the style in which the book was written. The narrative was exicting and the plot moved along nicely with plenty of action without skimping on the relationships within. I would highly recommend this book and I know I won’t be able to hold off long before picking up the sequel, One Dark Throne.

A very special book about a bond of sisterhood and survival

One by Sarah Crossan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I sit and think about how to put into words my feelings about this book I am still somewhat stunned by it, having just read the final pages. I am trying to think about the last time a book left me feeling quite so emotional and quite so bereft now I have finished it. It’s hard to imagine that I only picked it up 24 hours ago and yet it has left such an indelible mark upon me that it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read.

The winner of The Carnegie Medal One by Sarah Crossan was somewhat of a revelation to me when I picked it up last night. I had picked it up in my local library having heard nothing about it and glancing at the blurb on the back had established it was a story of conjoined twins and their lives together. Finding it in the teen section I had expected a contemporary light-hearted read so you can imagine my initial surprise when I opened the pages to find that the book is written entirely in free verse. I have never read a book written in this style before and I initially wasn’t sure whether it would detract from my enjoyment of the story or if I’d struggle to immerse myself.

I found very quickly that this was not the case, yes the pages are generally very short, although it came in at 434 pages I literally flew through it, I read it in a day but I wasn’t sitting consistently reading so I reckon you could do it in just a few hours. The style of writing is engaging and draws you in, it isn’t rhyming prose but the way it is written is carefully structured to draw out the important parts of the story and to allow you to focus in on certain phrases and emotions making it a powerful and impactful read.

The story is that of Grace and Tippi, conjoined twins who are about to start high school for the first time. Told from Grace’s perspective we learn about their life together, the way that the world views them, the challenges they face and the most important thing of all – how they are two people with two different personalities and beliefs, not just one. Their story of beginning school for the first time and the way this makes them feel is heartfelt and this along with the story of the struggles their family face just to keep them cared for medically and the impact this has had upon each member is heartbreaking. It is the ongoing struggle the girls face to lead normal teenage lives that build the foundation of the book and their strength together that hits home.

The girls are clearly beginning to struggle medically and are scared to think about what this might mean for their future and this book takes us on that journey with them. All the time you root for these girls, you want them to be happy because as they say in the book being conjoined twins isn’t the worst thing in the world. Surely there are many worse things that could happen to a person than being joined to the person they love most in the whole world?

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, I know I’m going to bore everyone for the next year or so recommending this one as one of those very special books that will remain with me forever. I am so very glad I didn’t allow it’s format to sway me not to read it. I am so pleased that I took the time to delve into the world of Grace and that her story has been recognised by so many as worthy of recognition. Sarah Crossan has delivered a very clever, touching and inspiring book. I’d give it more stars than 5 if I could.

A better than expected look at the love of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must be upfront and declare myself absolutely obsessed with Hamilton the musical, from the first time I heard it I’ve been hooked and it’s helped both me (and my children) learn so much more about the history of the United States and the key figures in its establishment. Coming from the United Kingdom this is something we do not generally cover in our education system and it’s been great to learn through a medium so engaging as the music and lyrics of this wonderful show. Of course, one of my favourite relationships in the show is that of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler and when I saw this book it immediately caught my attention.

Melissa de la Cruz has been known for writing Young Adult books for a while and previously has penned the novels that accompany the Disney Descendants franchise. For me this nearly put me off this book altogether as I wasn’t quite sure I wanted someone to take the Hamilton romance and simply translate it from stage to page and add a lot of Young Adult sugar coating on top. I didn’t want it to taint my enjoyment of the love story because it was being dumbed down for a younger audience.

You can imagine my surprise therefore when I found this novel to be written in a style that immediately pitches itself as both intelligent and informed. This is not simply someone who has seen the show and decided to further romanticise the story. Instead, there has been significant research into the Schuyler family and the relationships between Eliza and her two sisters Angelica and Peggy. There is not simply an exact copy of the chain of events portrayed in the musical but instead, this story of Alex and Eliza’s love takes us through several years where initially they didn’t find it easy to like one another and events surrounding the war threatened to see Eliza dislike Colonel Alexander Hamilton quite significantly.

In this story, we find that rather than being the meek and somewhat giddy character she can appear in the show Eliza was hugely involved in the war effort, proactive and greatly intelligent. Her two sisters are instead the more vivacious characters who found it easier to mingle in the society their station raised them to

The only disappointment I had with this book was that once we reached the Happy Ever After moment when Eliza marries Alexander the story comes to its close, now fans of the show will know that this was very much only the beginning of their story and that there is much still to tell. I had hoped a little glimpse into this and felt that I could have cheerfully kept reading for another 200 or so pages. I wanted to know about the raising of their family, their changing relationship and the challenges they faced as Alexander grew more involved in the establishment of the new United States of America.

This book was much much better than I had anticipated, I flew through it in only 2 days and I would recommend it to any fans of the musical. It’s not simply a cliched retelling but an intelligent and well-written novel which enhanced my understanding of a romance which took place against the backdrop of huge change and revolution.

A beautiful conclusion to Rhysand and Feyre’s love story

A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns & Roses #3) by Sarah J. Maas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I kicked off my July reading this month with the third book in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J Maas. I’ve read this series quite quickly over the past month or so and it was my first experience of this author but I’d heard such great things that it drew me to this series and I am so glad that I did.

This third book in the series will be the final one Maas writes from the perspective of Feyre and her mate Rhysand, we are anticipating more books in the world Maas has built but they will be focusing upon different characters from the world and so this book was where Maas had to really bring together all the threads of Feyre and Rhysand’s stories and make sure she also laid the groundwork for the book that is to follow.

This means that we pick up in this book immediately after the end of Book 2, with Feyre returning to The Spring Court with Tamlin having been torn apart from her mate Rhysand. Feyre is playing double agent though and has pretended she never felt anything for Rhys and is now going with Tamlin for the sole purpose of trying to infiltrate his court and find out all she can about their alliance with Hybern and the King of Hybern’s plans to attack the human realm. This return to the Spring Court was a great opening to this book, it allows us to connect with those characters we fell in love with in Book 1, Lucien and Alis and to allow us to re-examine the relationship with Tamlin and see just how dysfunctional it could have been.

The subterfuge Feyre undertakes to cause disharmony in the Spring court is a wonderful opening to the book, the wiles she uses to make Tamlin trust her while sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of those close to him about his actions are brilliant. Feyre has reached the point in this book where she is strong and sure of herself, she has learned much about the strength of her powers and is willing to use them to ensure she protects the human world and to get back to the night court and Rhysand.

There is so so much that happens in this book, at nearly 760 pages and each one full of so much action it would take a long long review to break down each and every plot point and would also spoil for readers who haven’t delved in yet, however, there are a few areas I feel worthy of discussion at this point.

Firstly is the way in which this world and it’s characters have expanded over the course of the three books. When I think back to A Court of Thorns and Roses I now realise how small the world Maas painted was compared to where we finish at the end of A Court of Wings and Ruin. Throughout the books she has added to the world piece by piece and book by book until at the end of this series we have met such a rich cast that the world feels truly three dimensional. This is one of the things I have loved most about this series, Maas never makes any character feel short-changed from their time on the page. She takes the time to develop them all enough, to give them light and shade and a back story that we feel engaged in them, we like or dislike them enough that we truly care about their fate. This is really exciting because as we move away from Feyre and Rhysand in this series there are so many possibilities of who we could focus upon next that it is going to be so exciting to find out who Maas may choose. Will she follow Feyre’s sisters and their mates? Will she follow the story of Myriam and Drakon, who’s story was only hinted at near the end of this book? Will she explore Lucien’s backstory and his uncovering of his heritage? Each and every option sounds amazing and this is because of the way Maas builds her characters and weaves them in so that you never feel overwhelmed or confused about who is who but she almost without you noticing builds a whole world fo you to lose yourself in.

The second thing about this book was the way in which the action unfolded, I found this book had a really strong start, it immediately was back into the story with no stopping to fill in any backstory just moving the story along. I did find a little dip around 100 pages in and I’m not sure if that was down to me and I had a little struggle for 50 pages or so then suddenly I was back the moment and I could not put this down. My husband took my children out for the day on their school holidays and I got some precious alone time and for the 4 hours they were away I read this solidly getting through 250-300 pages. When my daughter came home she asked me how I could read that long without getting bored and I said to her that this book had had me shouting out loud at it’s pages. Punching the air in joy and at it’s ending crying my eyes out. It took me through so many emotions that it left me feeling drained by the end. There were such wonderful high moments and then heartbreaking moments that Maas had been building to over the course of all the books. Characters we had only touched on had their moment in the spotlight and left us loving them in ways we never thought they would evoke from us.

Finally, I am going to be sad not to follow Feyre and Rhysand in the next book, I love them and their relationship. They have become one of my all time favourite couples in any books I’ve read because of the way in which they support each other without question through all they do. The way they each are happy to let them be their own individual people with thoughts and decisions of their own whilst they are absolutely devoted to one another. We are given a small and unusual glimpse of what is to come in their future in this book and that was one of the most touching moments for me. I would dearly love to touch on them from time to time as the series moves on but whoever Maas focuses upon next has a huge legacy to live up to in this couple. They have been a joy to follow and I know I am not alone in having them very high on my favourite literary couples list.

I am delighted I have discovered Sarah J. Maas as an author and will be taking time over the months ahead to delve into her Throne of Glass series also, although I have a couple of other series I’d like to complete and try first. I now fully understand why so many readers were excited about this series and can say these books absolutely do live up to the hype they have received.

A mystical tale of a magical carnival filled with intrigue and adventure

Caraval (Caraval #1)by Stephanie Garber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a debut novel and the first book in what is rumoured to be a new series of novels. Written by Stephanie Garber, Caraval is a magical novel with a mysterious and fantastical setting which has set the Young Adult world alight this year. I had to, therefore, give it a try and see if all the hype around this book lived up to the reality.

SSet on the fantasy Isle of Trisda, we meet sisters Scarlett and Donatella. Brought up by their father the governor of the Isle of Trisda we become aware that is is a calculating and cruel man who controls his daughters by punishing them physically when they disobey him, but adds his own twist to this by punishing Donatella when Scarlett steps out of line and vice versa, meaning the sisters know that if they disobey their father their sibling will feel the physical pain of his displeasure. Scarlett has had a marriage arranged by her father to a mysterious Count whom she has never met and her marriage is due to take place within a few weeks but she has never met her future husband.

Scarlett has been writing her whole life to a magical and mysterious figure called Master Legend who runs a magical game called Caraval. Caraval is a festival to which you have to be invited and if invited you are allowed to participate or simply watch the game in progress. The game takes place over 5 nights and you follow a series of clues, almost like a scavenger hunt, which will lead you to a prize beyond your wildest dreams. Scarlet and Donatella have been dreaming of going to Caraval since they were children and suddenly a few weeks before her wedding, they receive invitations from Master Legend himself to attend as his special guests.

With the help of a young sailor called Julian, Scarlett and Donatella run away to Caraval which is being held on Master Legend’s private island. When they get there, however, Tella is kidnapped and Scarlett quickly learns that the item everyone participating in the game needs to find that year is her sister. All the clues will lead them to Tella. The prize at the end will the granting of one wish by Master Legend. Scarlett and Julian must, therefore, work together to try and reach Tella first but the mystery of Caraval is that whilst you must take it seriously you must never be so swept away that you forget it is just a game.

Garber has created a really fantastical world in Caraval, it is magical but has a certain darkness to it. Things are mysterious but you never know whether you can quite trust them to be real. The characters themselves are often hiding secrets and you are never sure which of the people are actors within the show and which are genuine participants. Behind it all, we learn that whilst Caraval is just a game a young girl died there a few years before when she became too swept away and people warn that Caraval can drive you mad. Master Legend himself is said to wear a different face each game and finds it fun to make girls fall madly in love with him.

I loved the writing within this book, Garber uses really good descriptions to set her world of Caraval, using lots of food related descriptions of the world around her such as the sand looking like spun sugar or the sky appearing a buttery texture. She makes it feel full of mystique and her characters are described really well and she focuses a great deal on the elaborate costumes and places that Scarlett visits. You lose yourself in the wonderful world you are reading about.

I found the first half of the book to be a little slow as it took a time to build up the actual setting for the book and therefore most of the action was packed into the second half. I also found myself getting frustrated with the lead character as she became too bogged down in the romantic entanglements she found herself in and lost focus on the game of Caraval itself and the actual goal she had, which was to find her sister. I would have preferred less romantic focus and more action and twists and turns in the game of Caraval instead.

The ending of the book frustrated me a little as well as we build up lots and lots of tension and emotion in events at the end of the book which are then negated a few chapters later as just being “part of the game”. It felt like the toils and turmoil Scarlett endured were suddenly worth less than we had invested in them as a reader. It was nice to have resolution but a little of it felt too easy.

The ending is clearly setting up for the next book in the series but it’s unclear as yet whether this will be one book, making this a Duology or whether we can expect several more books to take this to a full blown series. I will absolutely read the second book as we have too many unanswered questions and relationships that I would like to spend more time immersed within and we still have much to learn about Master Legend himself which I feel is going to be an ongoing theme to a climax later in the writers story. In fact on reflection this book appeared to be a great deal about creating the setting and the stage for the books that will follow and it has certainly done that and created many many fans along the way.

 

A touching and emotive novel set in WWII occupied France about sisterhood and friendship

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a month or so of sticking mainly to Young Adult fiction, I felt the need to read a “grown-up” book and one of the most frequently talked about books online was The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a book full of emotion and guaranteed to make you cry was the vibe that people game me about this story and it sounded like just what I was looking for.

Set in France during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War we follow two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle and their two different experiences during this time. Vianne lives just outside of a small village with her daughter Sophie and husband Antoine who is called away to fight for France and upon their surrender is captured as a Prisoner of War. Her younger sister Isabelle is a willful 17-year-old who has been expelled from countless boarding schools and is sent to live with her sister during the war by their father who has had little contact with his daughters since the death of his wife many years before.

The first thing I loved about this book was the way that we followed the two sisters throughout the years of the war, from the early years when hope was high and people believed it wouldn’t go on too long and that human kind would never be so cruel as to allow the kinds of torture the Nazi’s would inflict upon people. From their different perspectives, it’s a really insightful book as we see the two sides to the story. Isabelle’s strong beliefs and outspoken nature mean she struggles to be complacent with the changes to French life when the German’s arrive and take over. She is insolent and headstrong and this leaves her sister fearing she will do something to place them all in danger.

Vianne, on the other hand, is trying to comply where she can, to keep her head down and raise no attention to herself and her daughter. When a German officer begins living in her home she struggles with reconciling the image of the harsh Nazi officer with the sometimes gentle and kind man she meets. People begin to question if she is too close to her lodger and she feels it hard to judge what is acceptable to take for her survival and what to be classed as collaborating.

From these point of view of these two different women we follow the resistance movement during the war, the defiant and dangerous acts that were undertaken to help allied pilots who became stranded in France and also the risks taken to help protect Jewish children from the prisoner of war camps. The tearing apart of families and the loss of friends and the sense of community.

I love that we see two different extremes of the German officer, it was nice to not have them all painted as intrinsically evil but instead to look at the internal struggles many suffered as the German campaign to eradicate Jewish people grew as the war went on. Whilst many reveled in the power it brought them others just wanted to go home to their families as much as the French women longed for their men to come home.

This book was beautifully written, it was such a wonderful story of sisterhood, family, motherhood and the things we will do to survive. A really moving piece and at times, as promised, a tear-jerker. I now understand why it is given such wonderful reviews and is regarded so highly. It was my first Kristin Hannah novel but I am sure after this it will not be my last.

 

A marvellous summer read from my favourite author

The Sunshine Sisters by Jane Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always get really excited when there is a new Jane Green book released, I have become used to having a shiny new story from one of my favourite authors on my book stand ready just in time for summer reading and this year didn’t disappoint with the release of The Sunshine Sisters in June.

This book is, like all Green’s books, a tale of family. It begins with an actress Ronni Sunshine preparing to end her own life due to illness. She is frail and in pain and has been storing painkillers and despite the reservations of her three daughters she has made her decision and she wants to choose how she leaves her life.

From this point the book goes back in time and follows the lives of Ronni’s 3 daughters Nell, Meredith and Lizzy. We follow the girls from their childhood with their famous B-list actress mother and learn quickly that their relationship with her is strained. Their mother is narcissistic and focused so much on her own career she fails often to pay attention to her children. She criticises them and her personality overshadows them and over the years she drives them away and sows seeds of disharmony between them. Nell, a single mother, chooses to run a farm near to her mother but is lonely and finds it difficult to form relationships. Meredith has moved to London and struggles with her self-image and is planning to marry a man she doesn’t love. Meanwhile, Lizzy, the youngest, is a celebrity chef who is cheating on her husband and is a risk taker who spends little time considering other people.

This book is about the journey the girls go through as they are called home by their mother for her to share news of her illness and about how they each have to face the demons of their relationship with Ronni. Ronni wants nothing more than to reunite her girls before she passes away and that is the fundamental story of this book, the desire of a mother to bring her girls together to support each other in a way she never did.

I read this book so quickly, I literally did it in under 2 days and I loved every single second of it. I though each of the characters brought something different to the story and the way their points of view were told was really engaging. Nell was strong and capable on the outside but scared of carrying the huge burden of her farm alone and lacking anyone to share her troubles with who would be there for just her. Meredith was the gentlest of the 3, second guessing herself all the time, scarred by a mother who always told her she wasn’t good enough and settling for a man who showed her the slightest bit of attention she was my favourite of the sisters and I longed for her to be happy and find acceptance.

Lizzy was the most complex of the 3, she was ballsy and most like her mother with a confidence in herself the other two sisters lacked. She had a different relationship with her mother and has forged a similar career where she is in the public eye and as a result she is repeating many of her mother’s mistakes. She was the one it was hardest to like but the one who Ronni had to all appearances the most loving relationship with but she was inherently a good person.

The emotion in this book was outstanding, Ronni is a character we want to hate. She’s portrayed as a pretty awful mother and yet in this book we learn that there are things about our parents we will never know until it’s too late. I also loved the quote from this book that I think bears relevance to all of our lives…..

“It doesn’t matter how many years go by, how grown up we think we are, how much we presume we have changed or evolved, when we are back in our childhood homes, we become exactly who we have always been”

That is the crux of this story that although we may move away and grow we will at some point come home and when we do family will be the only people who shared that experience with you of growing up in your home and only there and with those people can you make your peace with yourself and with those you love.

Another incredible and touching novel this is Jane Green at her absolute best, it’s just an incredible book and absolutely one of my favourite reads this year, it deserves every one of it’s five stars.