Awakened

By Ciara Duggan

After losing her parents in an accident only she survived, Hannah is desperate for answers. Haunted by the events of that tragic night, she struggles to move on, yearning for some deeper truth about her loss.

But when it comes time to turn a new page and move cross country for college, she vows to leave the past behind. After all, Bellcliff University is a thousand miles away from the ghosts nipping at her heels.

Yet when Hannah accidentally awakens a handsome witch from a hidden cave near campus, she realizes he isn’t the only thing stirring out of slumber. Hannah has roused all magic…including the devil herself.

As if spells, curses, and college jitters weren’t enough, this witch claims to know Hannah from four centuries prior—and their connection is more than casual.

Thrust into a world of sorcery and monsters, Hannah must fight to keep the magic she’d unleashed from claiming a price far too steep for her to pay. 

Thanks to Netgalley for this eARC in exchange for this honest review. 

I’m not quite sure what I expected when I began to read this book. I think I was looking for a really great magical story. What I got was witches and vampires. Had I read this book back in the days of Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood (Sookie!), I might be writing a different review. But it’s 2021 and I think fantasy stories have evolved beyond just witches and vampires which is why this book was a miss for me. 

On the plus side, I think this was a great effort by the author. The writing style and the pace of the book was nicely done. It wasn’t too long and the story didn’t really linger in one place for longer than necessary. 

On the minus side, I’m not a fan of reincarnation stories, or stories with vampires. I did enjoy the witches and the attempt to create a type of lore with the behind-the-real-world-world-building but overall, it felt a little deflated. The love interest didn’t interest me. It all felt…well…a little too young. 

That being said, I do hope to see more by this author. I may not have loved the story but I always will praise a good attempt. 

⭐ ⭐ 

House of Salt and Sorrow

By: Erin Craig

In a manor by the sea, twelve sisters are cursed.

Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls’ lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. Her sisters have been sneaking out every night to attend glittering balls, dancing until dawn in silk gowns and shimmering slippers, and Annaleigh isn’t sure whether to try to stop them or to join their forbidden trysts. Because who—or what—are they really dancing with?

When Annaleigh’s involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it’s a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next. 

I am so drawn to tragic stories set on or by the sea. As a child, I fell in love with the original story of The Little Mermaid. Her fate, so painful, really ignited in my heart of love stories like this. When I first came upon this book, I didn’t know it was retelling. I often say I’m not a fan of them but…well…maybe I am! 

This book has a little bit of everything I love in it; set by the sea, princesses and fairy tales, a touch of Greek mythology, ghosts, mysteries and a magic curse. I picked it up and was hard pressed to put it down (stupid real life! stupid job!) but I did. All in all, it only took three days to read so it’s a fast read. There’s no slow moments in this story. 

Now, the original story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses was a bit of a snore fest, to be honest. It was a delightful surprise to see the author embellish and twist this into something gothic and ghostly while keeping the thread of the original story intact. 

There are some notable themes here. Probably the most obvious one is grief. The book opens to the funeral of Eulalie, the latest sister to die. The main character, Annaleigh, struggles to process the losses of all her sisters throughout the book. Her grief deepens as she comes to believe foul play took her sisters and not fate. We feel Annaleigh’s loss and heartbreak quite keenly, especially when two more sisters are lost later on in the book.

It was quite a challenge to keep all the characters organized in my brain. The author helps by breaking up the sisters a bit, having the “triplets” of Rosalie, Lenore and Ligeia and then the “graces” of Verity, Mercy and Honor. Between the girls and so many other supporting characters, I would suggest reading this with a notebook to help keep everyone straight. However, each character stands on their own, having their own voice, so to speak. I enjoyed and felt attached to them all. 

There is a love interest for Annaleigh and by the climax of the story, we question whether or not he is real as Annaleigh realizes she’s been tricked and played with by the evil Kosamaras, the harbinger of Madness. Cassius plays the part of the love interest nicely without distracting from the main story or taking over and becoming the hero. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Yes, it was a little predictable in places and while the love interest didn’t take away from the story in any way, it really didn’t add a whole lot to it. The world building was incredible and the setting was beautifully written. The characters were believable and relatable without them being too much out of their own time or element. The gothic, ghostly elements were all there for me to make this a great read on a chilly, rainy night. 

All in all, this was a very enjoyable read and a great introduction to this author. I look forward to reading more by Erin Craig. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

If The Shoe Fits

By Julie Murphy

After having just graduated with a degree in shoe design, and trying to get her feet on the ground, Cindy is working for her stepmother, who happens to be the executive producer of America’s favorite reality show, Before Midnight. When a spot on the show needs filling ASAP, Cindy volunteers, hoping it might help jump-start her fashion career, or at least give her something to do while her peers land jobs in the world of high fashion.

Turns out being the only plus size woman on a reality dating competition makes a splash, and soon Cindy becomes a body positivity icon for women everywhere. What she doesn’t expect? That she may just find inspiration-and love-in the process. Ultimately, Cindy learns that if the shoe doesn’t fit, maybe it’s time to design your own.

Cinderella meets The Bachelor. 

Ideally, I’m over retellings, especially the main Disney princess stories. And you couldn’t pay me enough to watch The Bachelor. So why would I even consider reading this book? 

One reason – Plus size female protagonist. In my own mind, that’s exactly what I am – a plus-size, real life heroine!

After watching a few blips and blurbs from Julie Murphy’s instagram, I knew this book was for me. I read it under 24 hours and wasn’t disappointed – not even once. 

I’ve read a few stories where the author threw in a plus-size character, I guess for good measure. However, no one has told it from a real fat girl’s perspective. Julie Murphy got into my head and laid bare all my fears, all my feelings, all my self-doubt created by a skinny world, all the rejection I have dealt with due to my weight, even my fashion struggles and she did it while making me laugh. 

For that, Julie Murphy has found in me – a fat girl – a huge (no pun intended) fan! I read this book and for the first time in all my 52 years decided to cross the word “ugly” out of the phrase “fat and ugly”. I went to my full length mirror and saw a plus-size, dimpled, double chinned beauty looking back at me. 

The story of a fat girl winning a prince should be told over and over and over again until Hollywood gets it, until the fashion world gets it and until plus size men stop writing “slim, active girls need only reply” in their dating profiles. 

This is a book I will read over and over and over again. I will take this book out and read Cindy’s story whenever I feel bad about myself. I will remember how she took bits and pieces of a LuMac collection and strutted down a runway like the Queen she was! 

Thank you, Julie Murphy, for showing us fat girls some love, for telling us through this book we are beautiful and we DO deserve to get the prince in the end!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Marvelous Mirza Girls

By Sheba Karim

To cure her post–senior year slump, made worse by the loss of her aunt Sonia, Noreen is ready to follow her mom on a gap year trip to New Delhi, hoping India can lessen her grief and bring her voice back.

In the world’s most polluted city, Noreen soon meets kind, handsome Kabir, who introduces her to the wonders of this magical, complicated place. With Kabir’s help—plus Bollywood celebrities, fourteenth-century ruins, karaoke parties, and Sufi saints—Noreen begins to rediscover her joyful voice.

But when a family scandal erupts, Noreen and Kabir must face complicated questions in their own relationship: What does it mean to truly stand by someone—and what are the boundaries of love? 

I picked up this book to read after hearing the author was a huge Gilmore Girls fan. I’m also a fan of the show and so I was excited to see what Sheba Karin could do with a story where the relationship between the mother and daughter mirrored the relationship between Lorelai and Rory.

I wasn’t disappointed as the mother/daughter relationship is nicely done and very much in the same vein of Gilmore Girls. Noreen and Ruby have an open, honest relationship. Ruby struggles in her relationship with her parents more for cultural reasons than monetary. The conversation between Noreen and Rudy is quick, witty and fun. But that’s where the Gilmore Girl parallel ends. 

After the death of a loved one, both girls travel to India for a summer. Aaand this is where I got lost. I embraced the total idea of being transported to a place I’ve never been and experience a culture I know little about. And perhaps because I knew so little is why I was so lost. The imagery and scenery was beautifully written. However, I kept needing to go to Google to find out what a phrase meant, or what a cultural reference was. Having to do that as often as I did broke up my reading that I got more than just a little distracted. I do want to learn more about the Indian culture as I find it to be meaningful and lovely and full of so much color but perhaps I needed to do that before I tried reading this book. 

There was just no character development for me. I didn’t see Noreen grow or evolve at all during the story, or what I read of the story. The storyline seemed consist of little more than her meeting up with Kabir and his friends over and over. I did get that she was grieving. In fact that theme was very nicely done. The way one’s world irrevocably changes after the death of a loved one was threaded evenly into the story and in a very realistic way. 

The underlying political themes flat out annoyed me. I don’t mind LGBTQ+ themes or themes of racism as they’re important for us to read. However, I felt like they had nothing to do with the story. They weren’t a main focus and did nothing to further the plot along. In fact, for me, they were distracting. 

I wish I could have loved this. I wanted to. But in the end, I couldn’t finish it due to lack of storyline, no character development and a flat support cast. 

⭐ ⭐

Victoria Grace the Jerkface

By S.E. Clancy

Ever since Tori Weston and MamaBear were abandoned by her dad, finances have been tighter than a new pair of skinny jeans. As if keeping her grades up for scholarships and working every spare moment weren’t enough, Tori gets suckered into visiting a retirement home and paired with ancient resident Marigold Williams. After learning she’s the only one to visit Marigold in decades, Tori becomes a regular at Willow Springs. Besides, someone has to help with her history homework.

Few books make it to my read-over-and-over-again shelf. This book now resides there. I will pick this up again and again just to feel all the warmth, all the love, all the kindness and all the laughter this story gives. 

First, as a single mom of two early twenty-something girls, I really loved the relationship between Mamabear and Tori. Mamabear is strong, protective, funny and an excellent role model working hard to give Tori as much as she can. I related with her a lot. She set the boundaries for Tori in those tough moments of decision and yet, within those boundaries, we get to see Tori grow and flourish. And their text message conversations were hilarious. It reminded me very much of conversations I’ve had with my girls, usually via text and usually when they were in the next room. 

Victoria Grace is the perfect “flail” girl. She’s awkward and funny and puts her foot in her mouth one too many times when confronted with a boy she likes. She’s learned the art of not needing scores of friends and is super faithful to the one friend she does have, Madison, even when Mads gets to be a bit too much for Tori.

She’s a great role model for young girls here. Hard working with the ability to sacrifice wants in order to get things she needs: a car, for example. She works hard for her grades and at her two jobs. Of course, Mamabear is a great example of doing that, having had to raise Tori alone after her dad took off. 

Tori signs up to volunteer to spend time with some elderly folks at a local nursing home – actually, Mamabear sorta lets her know that while she has a choice, she also doesn’t have a choice. And there, she meets Marigold. 

Marigold is a resident of the nursing home who’s led this wonderfully interesting and somewhat sad life. She’s worked in Hollywood for most of her life, was unlucky in love and, until Tori came along, thought to die alone with no family and no one to visit her. Tori’s unselfishness and tenacity is able to help with the latter but we’re left wondering about the former. What happened in her marriage and who was the starlet she was an assistant to? 

Tori enters the nursing home much like I would expect any teenager to; smelling weird smells and wishing she had an invisibility cloak as she walked the halls to get to Marigold’s room. Along the way, she meets Jasmine, another resident with dementia who tells Tori she’s beautiful and she reminds her of her own granddaughter. Every time Jasmine reached for Tori, my heart broke a little just thinking about how many real live Jasmines there are in the world, sitting alone in a nursing home not knowing who they are or why they’re there. 

I loved the way Marigold demanded the respect due her, instantly setting the tone for the relationship between her and Tori. Their relationship grows from that mutual respect and they take and give it to each other in droves. As their relationship evolved, it was interesting to watch Marigold interact with Tori, giving her pearls of wisdom and advice. She seems to steal a little bit of Tori’s youth, using it to energize her until the very end. Through Marigold, Tori gets a glimpse of life at the end and is able to size up what really matters in her life; her relationship with her mom and her boyfriend and showing kindness to those around her, even those she doesn’t know like the soldiers she writes to. 

Heartwarming story and wonderful characters aside, this book is a gentle call to action. Especially today, when folks seem meaner, more selfish and more polarized than ever, it’s a call to find that kindness inside of you. To step outside of your box and reach out to those you don’t know to help them. To take extra steps to quit under-estimating our young people and pay attention to our elderly, for they have so much wisdom yet still to give. To know family and friends are the most important things we can ever have. To learn to appreciate what we have in the here and now and know that once we do, better things usually show up in our lives. 

My advice – Read this book. Then read it again. Then read other books. Then go back to this one and ready it again. A box of tissues is optional but always a good idea.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐