The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin (Review)


The Last Romantics
by Tara Conklin

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: February 5, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

The New York Times bestselling author of The House Girl explores the lives of four siblings in this ambitious and absorbing novel in the vein of Commonwealth and The Interestings.

“The greatest works of poetry, what makes each of us a poet, are the stories we tell about ourselves. We create them out of family and blood and friends and love and hate and what we’ve read and watched and witnessed. Longing and regret, illness, broken bones, broken hearts, achievements, money won and lost, palm readings and visions. We tell these stories until we believe them.”

When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time.

It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. A novel that pierces the heart and lingers in the mind, it is also a beautiful meditation on the power of stories—how they navigate us through difficult times, help us understand the past, and point the way toward our future.

ratingthree

“If you live long enough and well enough to know love, its various permutations and shades, you will falter. You will break someone’s heart. Fairy tales don’t tell you that. Poetry doesn’t either.” 

I had a serious love-hate relationship with this book. To start with, it’s stylistically beautiful. Fiona, the point of view character, is a poet, and this shines through in the writing style and really contributes to giving Fiona a distinct voice. (This aspect reminded me a lot of The Air You Breathe, by Frances de Pontes Peebles.)

This then is the true lesson: there is nothing romantic about love. Only the most naive believe it will save them. Only the hardiest of us will survive it.

And yet, And yet! We believe in love because we want to believe in it. Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles? The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it. Because when the lights go out and we sit waiting in the dark, what do our fingers seek? Who do we teach for?

The story begins with the major characters (a group of siblings) as children, as they endure what they later dub “The Pause,” the three year period in the wake of their father’s death when their mother rarely left her bedroom and they were left to fend for themselves. They are all thrust into roles which arguably alter their personalities in major ways for the rest of their lives, with the younger siblings’ sense of security shaken and the older siblings dealing with the additional burden of being forced into a parental role. The relationships between the siblings were one of the big highlights of the novel, with their familial bonds waxing and waning over the years and being tested in various ways.

The story itself… sometimes lost me. For starters, I didn’t entirely understand what Conklin was going for with her choice of framing device, as it didn’t seem to add much to the story. Fionna’s life story is told in retrospect from a somewhat dystopian future. She has become a world-famous poet and is speaking at an event and reminiscing on her life. Not a lot happens during the course of the events of the framing device, but just enough occurs that it leaves the reader expecting the focus to shift to the later timeline at some point. But there’s no follow through, and in the end I was left feeling like the story would have lost nothing if it had all simply been told in past tense from Fiona’s point of view without the framing device.

My second issue with this book has to do with a whirlwind romance that occurs for one of the characters when they are adults. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll be vague here, but suffice it to say that the character in question has as lot of problems and meets someone who is equally troubled. The way the romance plays out seems unrealistic and optimistic to a fault, in a way. It’s cut short for reasons I won’t spoil, but it seems as if Conklin wants us to believe that, had it not been for that, this would have turned everything around in that character’s life. And, despite the brevity of the relationship, it’s absolutely, 100%, for sure true love. 

Can a good relationship and support system help someone who is determined to turn their life around do so? Sure. Do I feel it was “earned” in this novel? No. Conklin seems to want us to buy into the pure potential in this relationship as some of the other siblings do, when the whole thing felt like an impending disaster to me.

Overall, I thought this was worth the read, despite the issues I had with it. Have you read The Last Romantics? Please share your thoughts in the comments! What do you think about the title of the novel in relation to Fiona’s blog of a similar name? Why do you think Conklin made this choice? Let’s discuss! 

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Review- The Sisters Hemingway, by Annie England Noblin

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The Sisters Hemingway
by Annie England Noblin

Genre: Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Wililam Morrow

Synopsis: 

From the author of Sit! Stay! Speak! comes the heartwarming story of three sisters who reunite after their beloved aunt’s death to repair their fractured relationships.

The Sisters Hemingway: they couldn’t be more different…or more alike. 

The Sisters Hemingway were coming back to Cold River…

Hadley, the poised, polished wife of a Senator

Pfeiffer, the successful New York book editor

Martha, who skyrocketed to Nashville stardom

They each have a secret…a marriage on the rocks, a job lost, a stint in rehab…and they haven’t been together in years.

Returning for the funeral of the aunt who raised them, the sisters must stay together in their childhood home, faced with a puzzle that may affect all their futures. As they learn the truth of what happened to their mother and youngest sister, and rekindle the bonds they had as children, bonds that had once seemed broken. With the help of neighbors, friends, love interests old and new—and one endearing and determined basset hound, the Sisters Hemingway learn that the happiness that has appeared so elusive may be right here at home, just waiting to be claimed.

rating

four

My thanks to William Morrow for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

The Sisters Hemingway is the story of three sisters as they return to their hometown for the funeral of the aunt who raised them. Hadley, Pfeiffer, and Martha have grown distant from one another during adulthood, as their individual problems dominated their lives. They each, with varying degrees of success, have wanted to maintain the polished veneer of their lives and hide their failures.

Martha, a country music starlet, has had far more success in music than she has in hiding her personal problems. Hadley, a senator’s wife, and Pfeiffer, an editor for a New York city publisher, are comparatively somewhat of a mystery to one another. As the story unfolds, the sisters slowly reveal their own secrets as they uncover a mystery in their deceased aunt’s old farmhouse.

The Sisters Hemingway is richly atmospheric, and the small town southern setting provides a distinct flavor to every scene, from sprawling farmlands to nosy neighbors. It’s very well paced, and the mystery will keep readers obsessively turning the pages. The relationships between the sisters were a huge highlight of the novel; watching these women who’ve grown so far apart rediscover sisterly affection made for a gratifying and heartwarming read.

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Thanks so much for reading! What’s your favorite novel you’ve read which focused on relationships between sisters? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Review – Elevation, by Stephen King


Elevation
by Stephen King

Genre: Fiction

Length: 146 Pages

Release date: October 30, 2018

Synopsis: 

The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.

Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.

In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

rating

two

The GoodReads Choice Awards have betrayed me. How this book managed to win the “best horror” category is beyond me, in part because it’s a really lackluster short story, but principally because… it’s not really horror. I’m not even sure it’s trying to be horror. It’s mildly unsettling for a few passing moments, but mainly, it’s just weird. And occasionally offensive, albeit I think unintentionally so.

Stephen King: I love you. You have written some genuinely good novels over the years. This is not one of them, and I truly think that if anyone without this kind of clout behind their name had submitted this to a publisher, it never would have seen the light of day.

Let’s start with my biggest issue with this novella. The crux of the plot is not, as you would assume from the blurb, Scott’s mysterious weight loss. No, it’s that the bland white male protagonist must rescue the local lesbian couple from persecution in small-town USA!!! Yikes. Said lesbian couple absolutely does not want to be rescued by Scott, but nobody really asked them, and what’s really important is Scott’s emotional development and proving that he is Absolutely Not Homophobic. It was also a really cringey experience to read about these women through the protagonist’s eyes, as he felt the need to ogle them at every opportunity. Please, mention her well-toned legs one more time. I don’t think I heard you the first four times.

Basically, what it comes down to is that politics and story are not well blended in this novella. I adore stories with social commentary, and I agree with King on a lot of issues, but the commentary in this case was so thinly veiled and clunky that at times that it has the effect of pulling the reader out of the story. (Side note: this was the same issue I had recently with Jodi Picoult’s A Spark of Light. If that book didn’t work well for you, you may want to pass on this one.)

I was not able to connect with a single character in this book. They were all very one-dimensional stereotypes, and I appreciate that it can be very difficult to create well rounded characters in under 200 pages, but I’ve read other novellas that did this so much better. (The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss, and Edgedancer, by Brandon Sanderson are all good examples.)

The final nail in the coffin for me was that there was no resolution to the mystery of protagonist’s weight loss. I’ve read and loved a lot of books with ambiguous ending which intentionally leave the reader with questions, so this is not an issue on its own. However, when combined with the thin storytelling, paper cutout characters, and clunky writing, this of all books cannot survive an ending with no satisfying resolution. Stephen King is a talented writer who needs someone who knows how to tell him no. Not every idea deserves to be published.

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Review – Her Pretty Face, by Robyn Harding


Her Pretty Face
by Robyn Harding

Genre: Thriller, Mystery

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: July 10, 2018

Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Synopsis: 

The author of the bestselling novel The Party—lauded as “tense and riveting” by New York Times bestselling author Megan Mirandareturns with a chilling new domestic drama about two women whose deep friendship is threatened by dark, long-buried secrets.

Frances Metcalfe is struggling to stay afloat.

A stay-at-home mom whose troubled son is her full-time job, she thought that the day he got accepted into the elite Forrester Academy would be the day she started living her life. Overweight, insecure, and lonely, she is desperate to fit into Forrester’s world. But after a disturbing incident at the school leads the other children and their families to ostracize the Metcalfes, she feels more alone than ever before.

Until she meets Kate Randolph.

Kate is everything Frances is not: beautiful, wealthy, powerful, and confident. And for some reason, she’s not interested in being friends with any of the other Forrester moms—only Frances. As the two bond over their disdain of the Forrester snobs and the fierce love they have for their sons, a startling secret threatens to tear them apart…because one of these women is not who she seems. Her real name is Amber Kunick. And she’s a murderer.

In her masterful follow-up to The Party, Robyn Harding spins a web of lies, deceit, and betrayal, asking the question: Can people ever change? And even if they can, is it possible to forgive the past?

rating

three

I received a free copy of this book through a GoodReads giveaway. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

**As you may know, I try to keep my reviews spoiler-free unless indicated otherwise. As a necessity of discussing certain aspects of the plot which impacted my enjoyment of the book, this review will contain more plot information than I generally like to include. No end-game plot twists will be revealed, but other minor spoilers do come into play here.**

Her Pretty Face is loosely based on events surrounding real-life serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Amber Kunik (the character loosely based on Karla) pushes the blame for her role in a murder solely onto her boyfriend and partner in crime, Shane Nelson. After she obtains a plea deal based on her testimony, video evidence later shows her to be a much more willing participant in the torture and slaughter than she had claimed. Amber walks free after an unjustifiably short prison sentence.

The major part of the novel takes place years later, and Amber has taken on a new identity and gone into hiding. While it is obvious from the importance placed on the Amber Kunik case within the narrative that we will see Amber again, we are not told anything about her new identity.

The biggest strength in this novel lies in its characters. The central POV character is Frances, somewhat of a misfit mom and painfully insecure around the other mothers at her son’s school. Her son has emotional issues and has been ostracized by the other children as a result of his acting out. Frances, in turn, has been ostracized by the other moms. When Kate comes to her defense in front of the other moms, Frances latches onto her in a borderline unhealthy friendship. Frances is lonely and guilt-riddled by events in her past; while her constant insecurity was occasionally grating, I truly felt for Frances and she made for a good protagonist.

We also get to peek into the mind of Daisy, Kate’s teenage daughter. I understand why these chapters were included, as they relayed information crucial to the plot and foreshadowed upcoming twists. That being said, Daisy’s chapters were sometimes difficult for me to stomach. Daisy is bullied quite relentlessly by some of the other students, but can’t be bothered to defend herself because she’s to above it all. Daisy is too cool for their petty, childish high school drama, because Daisy is very Mature for Her Age and Not Like Other Girls. I do think she improves as a character later in the book, but good lord did I have some eye-rolling moment with Daisy.

Finally, there’s DJ, the younger brother of Amber Kunik’s murder victim, Courtney. DJ’s chapters are told in flashbacks to the 1990’s, when Courtney first went missing and the subsequent murder trials for Amber and Shane. DJ is around ten years old when his life is thrown into disarray by the death of his sister. He develops and obsession with Amber Kunik due to her lack of remorse and ability to fool everyone around her into viewing her as a victim.

The problem with this novel comes with the plot twists. There are two instances where Harding’s attempts at misdirection are really poorly executed. You can’t spend several chapters hinting relentlessly at something without the average mystery reader picking up on the fact that they need to look elsewhere. Harding’s giant neon arrows pointing at red herrings only had the effect of eliminating them as actual suspects. Had the clues pointing at these people been a bit more subtle, I’d have actually been more inclined to be misled.

Her Pretty Face is a novel you can absolutely enjoy if you’re not going into it hoping to be surprised. If solving the mystery before it’s actually revealed kills a book for you, this is probably not the right book for you.

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Thank you for reading! If you’ve read Her Pretty Face, please share your thoughts in the comments!
Have you read any other novels based on real-life crimes?

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Fiction Pet Peeves

Hello, friends! I’m in a grumpy Monday kind of mood, so today I’m going to talk about some of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to fiction. Let me know some of yours in the comments. What little things immediately pull you out of a scene and make you cringe? In no particular order, here are some of mine…

Over-use of Slang to Establish Setting or Mood

A prime example of this for me is Libba Bray’s Diviners series. This series seems to be super beloved in the book blogging community, and I’m not trying to trash it as a whole. I enjoyed the story itself well enough, but it got to the point where it sometimes felt like every other word was “fella” or “doll.” With a lot of authors, slang is so overused that it makes their characters feel like caricatures. Pepper in just a little bit of it and call it a day; otherwise it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Insta-love

Love at first sight can be cute and done well, it’s just that it usually… isn’t. Just because the characters fall in love quickly doesn’t mean the audience doesn’t need to see the reasons they love each other. Even worse, however, is when characters who hate one another seemingly flip overnight because searing hated seems to be confused with sexual tension. Relationships between characters take as much development as the characters themselves; there are no shortcuts with this. This seems particularly prominent in YA, but I think it bothers me less in that context because I think a lot of teens are constantly “falling in love” at the drop of a hat. (I’m not judging; I was totally guilty of this.)

Gorgeous Female Characters made “Relatable” by Making Them Clumsy

Why is this such a trope? Authors write a gorgeous female protagonist (bonus points if she’s somehow blissfully unaware that she’s even remotely acceptable looking) who seems to be desired by all the male characters in sight. Then faced with the question of how to make this character feel more flawed and relatable, nine times out of ten, they just make her physically and/or socially awkward. Female characters can be flawed in just as many ways as male characters. It’s time to branch out a bit.

Male Authors with No Idea How to Write a Human Woman

We’ve all read books with female characters that would never have been written by a woman. The most recent book that had this effect on me was Artemis, by Andy Weir. I was in love with The Martian so I bought Artemis when it came out without even reading the blurb first. Then I started reading, and the female protagonist was… Mark Watney 2.0. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Mark Watney, but if I want to read about him, I can just read The Martian again. In Artemis, 99% of his personality was just imposed onto Jazz, and I couldn’t stop hearing Mark Watney’s voice through the whole book. It definitely pulled me out of the novel and diminished my ability to enjoy what was actually a pretty fun heist story.

Protagonists Internally Monologuing about Their Appearance

This is just lazy writing. We’ve all read scenes where the protagonist wakes up in the morning and goes to the bathroom mirror to begin getting ready for their day. They then take this opportunity to list all of their features for the reader’s benefit. (Bonus points if this is combined with the previous bullet point, where a male author can’t write women, and the protagonist proceeds to describe herself in an awkwardly sexual tone. No. Just no.)

A lot of the time, this awkward method of relaying information isn’t even giving us information that we need. A story doesn’t often require the reader to have an in-depth understanding of each character’s appearance. Things that impact how the character interacts with the world in a meaningful way should, of course, be prioritized. Is the character living in a society that’s racist towards their particular demographic? Are they ridiculously attractive or unattractive? Average and forgettable? Super short? This is information we probably need. What we don’t need is a female protagonist admiring the curve of her own hip as she stands in front of a full-length mirror in a nightgown. (Seriously, why do men write these kinds of scenes?)

Toxic, Creepy Relationships in YA

It’s 2018 and I’m still mad about Twilight, you guys. But honestly, petition for a genre marketed to young girls to stop romanticizing stalking, controlling behavior, men with anger issues, ridiculous power imbalances, etc. Give teenage girls healthy relationships as examples. Give teenage girls examples of female characters running the other way when they see these giant red flags waving all over the place.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these were some things that were on my mind today. Let’s discuss in the comments! What are some of your biggest pet peeves? Do you feel differently about any of the things I’ve listed here?

Thanks for reading!

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Review – Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman


Britt-Marie Was Here
by Fredrik Backman

Genre: Fiction, Contemporary

Length: 324 Pages

Release date: May 3, 2016

Synopsis: 

Britt-Marie can’t stand mess. A disorganized cutlery drawer ranks high on her list of unforgivable sins. She is not one to judge others—no matter how ill-mannered, unkempt, or morally suspect they might be. It’s just that sometimes people interpret her helpful suggestions as criticisms, which is certainly not her intention. But hidden inside the socially awkward, fussy busybody is a woman who has more imagination, bigger dreams, and a warmer heart that anyone around her realizes.

When Britt-Marie walks out on her cheating husband and has to fend for herself in the miserable backwater town of Borg—of which the kindest thing one can say is that it has a road going through it—she finds work as the caretaker of a soon-to-be demolished recreation center. The fastidious Britt-Marie soon finds herself being drawn into the daily doings of her fellow citizens, an odd assortment of miscreants, drunkards, layabouts. Most alarming of all, she’s given the impossible task of leading the supremely untalented children’s soccer team to victory. In this small town of misfits, can Britt-Marie find a place where she truly belongs?

rating

four

“One morning you wake up with more life behind you than in front of you, not being able to understand how it’s happened.”

Britt-Marie Was Here was my second book my Fredrik Backman, the first being the wildly successful A Man Called Ove. I was a bit surprised by the striking similarities in themes between the two books, even considering that they both come from the same author. Ove and Britt-Marie are both older protagonists struggling to cope with a fundamental sense of loneliness for the first time in their adult lives. They are both uptight curmudgeons who find love and meaning in places they didn’t expect, finding themselves fundamentally changed in the process.

That being said, Britt-Marie Was Here is very much its own story. Britt-Marie is not dealing with the death of a spouse, but with the dawning realization that she is not being treated the way she deserves. After years of marriage, after devoting the bulk of one’s adult life to a partner, what a terrifying prospect: it’s all been all wrong. Fundamentally, irreparably, wrong. Britt-Marie packs a suitcase, leaves the home she’s shared with her husband, and sets out to find a job after spending her life as a homemaker. This brings her to Borg.

Britt-Marie obtains a position as a caretaker of the rec center, where she meets a colorful cast of characters who have more to teach her than she could possibly guess. The most important lesson she must learn is this: it is never too late. It’s never too late to turn around a football match, to make new friends, to visit the city you’ve always wanted to see… to stand up for yourself and realize that a spouse who doesn’t value you doesn’t deserve you. Britt-Marie’s story is told with the charming blend of humor and poignancy which made Backman’s A Man Called Ove such a success.

Britt-Marie Was Here is perfect for fans of…

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A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment. And to love someone without measure, explode with passion… A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be… But after that? How many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves? How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud without a sense of shame? How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia? All passion is childish, it’s banal and naive, it’s nothing we learn, it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us… Overturns us… It bears us away in a flood… All other emotions belong to the earth, but passion inhabits the universe. That is the reason why passion is worth something. Not for what it gives us, but for what it demands that we risk – our dignity, the puzzlement of others in their condescending shaking heads…

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Review – Fellside, by M.R. Carey

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Fellside
by M.R. Carey

Genre: Horror

Length: 486 Pages

Release date: April 4, 2016

Publisher: Orbit

Synopsis: 

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

rating

four

(3.5 stars, rounded up to 4)

“It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.”

Jess Moulsen, our protagonist, wakes up in the hospital unable to remember what has landed her there. A niggling sense of dread turns to terror when she’s told she’s done something awful: in a drugged haze, she started a fire in her apartment complex which ended up killing someone. As soon as she’s recovered enough from her injuries, she will need to stand trial for murder. Fellside is imbued with tension from page one.

While Jess is the clear focus throughout Fellside, she is not the only point-of-view character. Fellside occasionally shifts to the thoughts of various workers in the prison from which the novel takes its name. I’ve heard a lot of people state they don’t like multiple POV stories in general; I am not one of those people. Exploring different perspectives tends to be one of my favorite parts of a novel. That said, I didn’t find the other perspectives in this novel nearly as compelling as Jess. In the long run, these shifts proved to be necessary the show the full scope of the story which Carey wanted to tell, but I found myself suffering through them.

GoodReads users have largely categorized this book as horror, but the label doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit. There are supernatural elements to the story, in the form of a ghost who visits Jess, and there are spooky moments, but the overall atmosphere doesn’t scream “horror” to me. Fellside is somewhat of a mystery and a story about moral redemption; Jess feels a huge sense of moral culpability for an act which she cannot remember. How does one atone for a misdeed which exists as a blank spot in their memory? The appearance of the ghost allows Jess to attempt to work through this question as she questions the truth of everything she’s been told by the authorities.

There was a lot that I loved about this novel, but it felt hampered by uninteresting side plots and poor pacing at times. All in all, I felt this was worth reading, but I was a bit frustrated by how close this came to being great instead of just good.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read Fellside? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
What’s a book that you’ve enjoyed which has supernatural elements set in the real world?

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