Review – Severance, by Ling Ma


Severance
by Ling Ma

Genre: Science Fiction, Dystopia

Length: 304 Pages

Release date: August 14, 2018

Synopsis: 

An offbeat office novel turns apocalyptic satire as a young woman transforms from orphan to worker bee to survivor

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.

So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?

A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.

rating

three

Severance feels like a zombie story that very much does not want to call itself a zombie story. While the people infected with Shen Fever don’t go around trying to eat brains, there is a very zombie-like quality to their mindless repetition of rote tasks. Then again, the narrator has a bit of a zombie-like quality to her as well, as do a lot of the work-obsessed people huddled together in New York City before the fever breaks out. (And, my God, does Ling Ma hammer that point home. The parallels between the meaningless rate race and the actual zombies are brought up so many times it seems like the author was afraid the readers would miss it.)

The overall tone of the novel may be best described as “sleepy,” which is an interesting choice for an apocalyptic novel, but I suppose it meshes well with the characterization of Candace. Prior to the fever breaking out, she was whiling away her youth in an office job she had more or less fallen into and didn’t particularly enjoy, but endured for the stability it offered.

Structurally, the novel bounces around a lot in time, which was somewhat disorienting at times. For the most part, it switches back and forth between Candace’s time working in her office and her later travels with a small band of remaining survivors. At one point, it switches without warning to give the backstory of her parents, detailing their coming to America from China and her mother’s struggle to adjust.

I think that the cultural aspects of the novel were one of its major strengths. Candace’s status as an immigrant is important to the story in a lot of ways, and her experience as someone who came to America as a child contrasted sharply with that of her parents. China would always be home to them. Despite being born there, Candace felt less connection, and struggling to speak Mandarin on an adult level became a source of embarrassment for her. I always find stories of first generation immigrants interesting, particularly the exploration of what it’s like to be essentially sandwiched between to cultures, and I thought this was something Ling Ma handled very well.

Overall, I enjoyed Severance, but found it somewhat lacking in terms of plot. The lack of structure in terms of timelines left things feeling somewhat disconnected, and it began to get very repetitive when it came to the point of drawing parallels between the drone-like qualities of both the fevered and healthy people in the story.

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Review – The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker

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The Dreamers 
by Karen Thompson Walker

Genre: Fiction, Science Fiction

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: January 15, 2019

Publisher: Random House

Synopsis: 

A mesmerizing novel about a college town transformed by a strange illness that locks victims in a perpetual sleep and triggers life-altering dreams—by the bestselling author of The Age of Miracles, for fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

rating

four

My thanks to Random House 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. 

If you like stories which answer all of your questions by the end and wrap everything up in a neat little bow, The Dreamers may not be for you. However, if dreamy, evocative prose and heartfelt relationships between characters are what make a novel worthwhile for you, I definitely recommend giving The Dreamers a chance.

The Dreamers alternates between the perspectives of multiple characters in the aftermath of the outbreak of a mysterious sleeping sickness. Sufferers fall into a REM-like sleep and cannot be awoken, but appear for all intents and purposes to be otherwise healthy. The science fiction aspect of the story remains in the background, while the reactions of people both on an individual level and as a group are the focus of the novel.

Facing rising panic in the community as the disease remains a total mystery and continues to spread, we get to know the young daughter of a doomsday prepper who never envisioned this particular possibility, the father of a newborn who is struggling with the danger to which is child is now exposed, the roommate of patient zero who feels guilty for not noticing and trying to help sooner, and a psychiatrist working to solve the mystery of the sleeping sickness. Pressure slowly mounts as a quarantine is put into place and each of these characters spends day after day in fear.

This rising tide of panic provides some of the most interesting passages in The Dreamers. The story is deeply psychological, pushing each character to their limits, often coming back to the same question: will you help when it becomes difficult, when it’s scary, when it can come at great personal cost? What is your breaking point? What if you would put your loved ones at risk in addition to yourself? With the constant threat of spreading this mystery contagion, some characters will step up and some will run for cover. At each step of the way, we are called to sympathize with them for these choices, whether or not we agree with them.

As I said, The Dreamers may not be for you if you need all of your questions answered by the final page of the novel. Despite thoroughly enjoying the process of reading this, I felt at the end that there was a lack of resolution. I wanted more answers. I wanted closure and a concrete sense that those who remained were forever changed by the experience. This lack of resolution kept this from being a five star book for me, but Karen Thompson Walker’s gorgeous prose and exploration of human emotions were well worth the time invested in this novel.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read The Dreamers? What were your thoughts? Do you prefer science fiction where the deviations from the real world are front and center, or consigned to the background and used solely as a catalyst to explore what it means to be human? Discuss in the comments!

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Review – Mirage, by Somaiya Daud


Mirage
by Somaiya Daud

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Length: 320 Pages

Release date: August 28, 2018

Synopsis: 

In a star system dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated moon.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty—and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

rating

three

“You do not kneel or bend, I told myself. To anyone. You continue.”

Can I just start by saying that I bought this book purely because of the beautiful cover. Seriously, look at it! I went into it totally blind without even reading the synopsis, so I had no idea what to expect. Mirage is part one of a three part series, and follows the story of Amani, a young woman who is kidnapped by royalty to serve as an expendable body double for the princess in potentially risky situations.

The book definitely feels like the first installment of a series in the worst possible way; it just feels very incomplete in a way that’s difficult to articulate, and I have to put that down to Daud working to set up the events of the next two novels. This actually wasn’t a huge issue for me, as I like some of the themes Daud is playing with, and I’m hoping that the payoff will be worth it in later books. This installment was super character-driven, which isn’t a huge issue in and of itself, but I’m hoping the sequel is a bit more plot-heavy.

It’s very obvious that the author is enamored with worldbuilding, and I do think the novel shines in that regard. Daud pulled from her own Moroccan heritage for inspiration in regards to establishing a culture in the novel, but she has set it in a science fiction environment, complete with imperial droids and colonies set up on moons. Mirage explores classism, colonization, and power dynamics in a really interesting and engaging way that meshes well with her worldbuilding. We see familiar political and cultural themes from the real world, and I think all the best science fiction does this. Lighthearted adventures in space are fun, but substance like this takes things up a notch.

Mirage also begins a romance subplot which will likely continue in the later books, and this was my least favorite aspect of the book. Like so many books in the young adult genre, Mirage seems to want to jump straight into the characters being totally enamored without much thought given to convincing the audience of this. Your mileage may vary here, but personally I was totally uninvested in this part of the story, and I was far more interested in exploring Amani’s fraught and complicated relationship with the princess.

I think more pages could have been devoted to showing the evolution of that relationship and Amani’s begrudging sense of sympathy for the princess, who she realizes has her own unique set of problems. Princess Maram is a deeply flawed person, and it never feels like Daud is trying to make us forget this, but her treatment of this character is nuanced, which I really appreciated. Maram is only half Vathek, a child of the Vathek king and the unwilling queen of the conquered people as a means to solidify his claim to her land. She is resented by her mother’s people as a symbol of the conquering class, and she is viewed with contempt by her father’s people for being an “impure” half-blood. Despite her position of privilege, she is without a place in the world (or entire star system, in this case) and she is in that sense a tragic character.

I wasn’t over the moon about this book, but I definitely enjoyed it enough to know I’ll pick up the next installment. My hopes for the next book: a bit less time in Amani’s head in favor of more plot development, make me buy into the romance or drop it altogether, and some kind of redemption arc for Maram. Amani and Maram should align their interests and take down the whole wretched system.

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Review – Warcross, by Marie Lu


Warcross
by Marie Lu

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

Length: 353 Pages

Release date: September 12, 2017

Publisher:Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers

Synopsis: 

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life.

The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down Warcross players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. To make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

rating

three

Warcross was kind of a frustrating read for me, because I like a lot of what Lu was trying to do, but some of her narrative choices and her writing style got under my skin. (This is nit-picky, but as an example, this book contains the ridiculously cliché phrase “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” at least twice. Emika also mentions her “rainbow-colored hair” more times than I could count.) Maybe I should go easier on the writing style when it comes to YA novels, but I feel like one can write simply enough for the genre while still writing well, and this novel did not accomplish that.

The worldbuilding also felt somewhat sloppy in some respects. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on in regards to the virtual reality technology, but the descriptions felt inconsistent. For example, Warcross is a specific game that comes with the VR glasses that exist in this novel, but there seems to be no distinction drawn between playing that specific game and using the glasses in any other manner; it’s all “playing Warcross.” This feels like an intentional narrative choice rather than a slip-up (maybe to emphasize how integral the game has become in everyday life) but it just ended up feeling muddled to me.

The romance subplot was exhausting to read. Hideo Tanaka enters the story like a YA-appropriate Christian Grey; none of the BDSM, but all of the brooding, lack of boundaries, and super hefty power imbalance. I can’t talk about my feelings about him in any depth without getting into spoiler territory, but I will say I liked where Tanaka’s story seems to be leading for the second book and lot more than I liked slogging through the shallow romance in this one.

Time for the obligatory Ready Player One comparisons. I’m of the unpopular opinion that Ready Player One is terrible (sorry, guys) and despite my issues with Warcross, I think I preferred it to Ready Player One. There is one thing I think Ready Player One does better, and that is in developing the real world well enough that it becomes obvious to the reader why a lot of people would prefer to spend their time in the Oasis. After finishing Warcross, I feel like I don’t know much about the real world in that novel outside of “there’s, like, a lot of crime.” However, Warcross makes a lot more of an effort for diversity and also doesn’t commit the crime of spending pages at a time on pop culture references that are clearly only for the author’s own amusement. Warcross also feels like it’s going to articulate a much more coherent moral message than Ready Player One ever managed to do, although that remains to be seen in Wildcard. 

Warcross is an engaging and fast-paced novel with a likable protagonist, an interesting (if somewhat underdeveloped) setting, and a plot twist that will have you reaching for the second book. So while I didn’t love this, I’ll definitely be reading Wildcard soon.

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Review – An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green


An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
by Hank Green

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 25, 2018

Publisher: Dutton

Synopsis: 

The Carls just appeared. Coming home from work at three a.m., twenty-three-year-old April May stumbles across a giant sculpture. Delighted by its appearance and craftsmanship–like a ten-foot-tall Transformer wearing a suit of samurai armor–April and her friend Andy make a video with it, which Andy uploads to YouTube. The next day April wakes up to a viral video and a new life. News quickly spreads that there are Carls in dozens of cities around the world–everywhere from Beijing to Buenos Aires–and April, as their first documentarian, finds herself at the center of an intense international media spotlight.

Now April has to deal with the pressure on her relationships, her identity, and her safety that this new position brings, all while being on the front lines of the quest to find out not just what the Carls are, but what they want from us.

rating

four

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is seriously… remarkable. This book was ridiculously fun and I got through it in a day. It’s one of those books where you’re ready for a sequel the moment you finish it.

Let me start with the negative; this was a debut novel and, of course, has some flaws. For starters, holy heavy-handed delivery of the moral, Batman. This book is not subtle in how it deals with the concepts of xenophobia, partisanship, and extremism. These themes were woven pretty seamlessly into the narrative itself, and they weren’t helped by the main character monologuing  about them straight to the reader. Hank Green, please realize that your audience can get your message loud and clear without you beating them over the head with it.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is also heavily imbued with modern “internet culture,” and while it was fun, I do think it will suffer for it and feel very dated not terribly far into the future. I think readers 15 years from now will pick this up and have the same general type of reaction that I had to Ready Player One, which was more or less “Good Lord, I get it, you like the 80’s, dude. Enough.”

That being said, I loved this book. The protagonist, April May, was quirky and intensely likable, despite being kind of a hot mess. (Side rant: I saw another reviewer on GoodReads label her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. PSA: this is a very specific term; can people please stop slapping that label on any quirky female character they happen to dislike? A crucial part of the MPDG definition is that the character exists solely to inspire the broody, male MC to find a new appreciation for life. You can’t label a main character whose only romantic relationships in the narrative are with other women a MPDG. It doesn’t fit.)

April is 23 years old and a recent college graduate at the start of the story. She is thrown into the spotlight accidentally and isn’t really equipped to deal with it. While the specifics of her situation are extraordinary, I feel like a lot of younger Millennials and older Gen Z kids will relate to her. April’s struggles mirror the way a lot of us feel about adulthood in general.

I also really liked the way Green used April’s character to tackle the issue of biphobia, which is something rarely addressed in fiction; more often than not, it is simply lumped in with homophobia if it’s directly addressed at all. But the fact is that biphobia often manifests in different ways than homophobia does in real life, and it was refreshing to see a writer acknowledge that.

While it’s awesome to see a novel tackle important social issues, it’s also important that they’re woven into an interesting story, and Hank Green definitely delivers on that front. The novel felt very well-paced, and the mystery surrounding the “Carls” was really engaging and hinges on interesting puzzles and attention to detail. April’s emotional journey and struggle to maintain a sense of identity in the face of crafting a public persona were executed really well, and April came across as flawed and stumbling without ever being alienating. Such a strong debut has me dying to see what Hank Green writes next.

“Even on this most terrible days, even when the worst of us are all we can think of, I am proud to be a human.” 

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Review – The Rule of One, by Ashley Saunders & Leslie Saunders

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The Rule of One by Ashley Saunders & Leslie Saunders

Genre: YA, Dystopia

Length: 258 Pages

Release date: October 1, 2018

Publisher: Skyscrape

Synopsis: 

In their world, telling the truth has become the most dangerous crime of all.

In the near-future United States, a one-child policy is ruthlessly enforced. Everyone follows the Rule of One. But Ava Goodwin, daughter of the head of the Texas Family Planning Division, has a secret—one her mother died to keep and her father has helped to hide for her entire life.

She has an identical twin sister, Mira.

For eighteen years Ava and Mira have lived as one, trading places day after day, maintaining an interchangeable existence down to the most telling detail. But when their charade is exposed, their worst nightmare begins. Now they must leave behind the father they love and fight for their lives.

Branded as traitors, hunted as fugitives, and pushed to discover just how far they’ll go in order to stay alive, Ava and Mira rush headlong into a terrifying unknown.

rating

fourI received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.

I was immediately intrigued by the concept of this book: identical twin sisters written by identical twin sisters. Ava and Mira are closer than most twins are, though not entirely by choice. The one child rule in this dystopian, near-future America means that they take turns going out into the world each day, and their struggle to maintain the facade of being a single person requires that they keep each other informed about every detail of their lives.

The lack of an ability to obtain a sense of individuality takes a toll on each of them, and the mixture of love and resentment between the sisters was a highlight of the novel. What must it be like when the person you love the most is also the reason you’re unable to live a full live, the reason you’re in constant danger? The Saunders sisters explore that ambivalence in this novel. On a similar note, I loved that this was a YA dystopian novel with no romance or (God forbid) a love triangle shoe-horned in for no discernible reason. The primary relationship in this book was between two sisters, which I found really refreshing.

That being said, some of the plot twists felt a bit too predictable, though maybe this is a product of reading a young adult novel as an adult. A lot of YA novels feel like they have the ability to appeal to a broader audience, but this one felt very YA. Teenagers will probably find this super compelling; older readers who have read more than a few dystopian novels will recognize the tropes and perhaps wish for something a bit more original.

The Rule of One was good for what it was: a novel that will hold a lot of appeal for teens. It was fast-paced with just enough twists to keep the reader engaged. I loved the concept of identical twins living as one person by necessity and the emotional consequences of that. The parts of the novel that addressed this issue were very strong, but I do wish there was more time devoted to it. Although it looks like there will be a book two; perhaps there will be more time to reflect on this in the second installment.

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Review – Nightingale, by Amy Lukavics

36982587
Nightingale
by Amy Lukavics

Genre: YA, Horror

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: Sept. 25, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

At seventeen, June Hardie is everything a young woman in 1951 shouldn’t be—independent, rebellious, a dreamer. June longs to travel, to attend college and to write the dark science fiction stories that consume her waking hours. But her parents only care about making June a better young woman. Her mother grooms her to be a perfect little homemaker while her father pushes her to marry his business partner’s domineering son. When June resists, her whole world is shattered—suburbia isn’t the only prison for different women…

June’s parents commit her to Burrow Place Asylum, aka the Institution. With its sickening conditions, terrifying staff and brutal “medical treatments,” the Institution preys on June’s darkest secrets and deepest fears. And she’s not alone. The Institution terrorizes June’s fragile roommate, Eleanor, and the other women locked away within its crumbling walls. Those who dare speak up disappear…or worse. Trapped between a gruesome reality and increasingly sinister hallucinations, June isn’t sure where her nightmares end and real life begins. But she does know one thing: in order to survive, she must destroy the Institution before it finally claims them all.

ratingtwo

Well, this book was certainly… an adventure. What started out looking like a book about a young woman suffering from Capgras delusion (a belief that someone close to you has been replaced with an identical impostor) slowly delved into weirder and weirder science fiction territory. (Or perhaps not; June is an unreliable narrator and it’s possible that the science fiction elements are all the result of a broken mind. Who can say?) I don’t want to give too much away in terms of plot, but rest assured that what you might expect from the blurb for this book bears little resemblance to the book itself.

While the unexpected is certainly not in itself a reason for a negative review, the plot twists in this book simply were not well executed. It felt like there was insufficient buildup and too many questions left unanswered. The overall result was a flimsy plot with horror elements that were far from horrifying. For example, Lukavics seemed to rely too much on gore and body horror to make the reader squirm. There was a lot of “ick” factor that simply wasn’t scary, with repeated mentions of worms crawling around in the brains of live people and the detailed description of a mangled corpse.

June had some potential to be a good protagonist, and she definitely had some elements which made her sympathetic. She bristles at the rigid expectations of her gender in the 1950’s, but it seems that Lukavics takes this trait too far in trying to drive the point home. June expresses irritation at one point that her mother expects her to wear clean clothes; hygiene is not a gendered issue, June. She is extremely resistant to learning to cook, and while this is something disproportionately thrust onto women, June honestly just seems disgruntled at the thought of being asked to do anything at all.

Her desire to be a writer when her family wants to turn her into a housewife was an engaging element of her character. She has no desire to marry the boy they’ve selected for her, for reasons which become more and more obvious as the plot moves along. I wish Lukavics had spent more time focusing on these issues rather than June’s disdain at being asked to do so much as clean up after herself. Flawed protagonists are fine, but whiny protagonists are generally unbearable. June has some internal struggles going on that would have made for really intriguing character development, but they were very shallowly explored. All in all, this book felt like a first draft; there’s a good story hiding under a bit of a mess.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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