ARC REVIEW: The Last Valentine – by Felix Alexander @ReadingAlley

Title: The Last Valentine
Author: Felix Alexander

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance
First published: February 13th 2017
Publisher: ForeverPoetic
Finished reading: May 24th 2017
Pages: 241

“In their infinite wisdom they fail to realize that love keeps us young after youth has passed and is the only memory worth remembering when the shadows of forgetfulness linger on the horizon of old age.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Reading Alley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I love stories with a different setting so the fact that The Last Valentine is set in Puerto Rico was a big selling point for me. Add the promise of the combination of a historical fiction and mystery read, and I just knew I had to read this story…And it has definitely turned out to be an enjoyable read. Both the 1930s setting in Puerto Rico and the whole mystery around the labyrinth of love letters stood out for me. The descriptions are well done and I found myself looking forward to discover more about both the characters and what would happen to them. The writing style is enjoyable and also very quotable. I loved the inclusion of various Spanish words in the prose; it made the story feel that much more authentic without slowing down the pace for those who don’t understand the language. The main plot of trying to unravel the mysteries around the labyrinth is intertwined with various love stories, secrets and conspiracies that will keep you interested until the very end. I did feel the dose of forbidden love, love triangles and romance in general was a bit too high for me and some of the characters started to annoy me because of it, but that might just have been me not liking those elements in general in the first place. It’s not just the romance between the characters though, because The Last Valentine also talks a lot about romance itself with the help of for example love letters, romance quotes etc. If you enjoy a well written romance novel with a dose of mystery and historical facts will probably enjoy it even better than I did!

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Olivia Villalobos is the daughter of a drunkard police investigator and never knew the truth behind the disappearance of her mother. One day she finds a bloodstained love letter in the hidden compartment of her father’s coat… she is convinced it belonged to the man recently found dead, and is determined to find the Labyrinth of Love Letters to deliver it before someone else takes it away. The labyrinth is believed to be an urban legend, but is that all there is to the mysterious place? Olivia starts her search with the help of her best friend Isaac Quintero and soon they realize they might find more than they were looking for…

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The Last Valentine isn’t just another historical romance novel. The 1930s setting in Puerto Rico is without doubt well executed and helped set the right atmosphere, but it is the whole mystery around the Labyrinth of Love Letters and other secrets and conspiracies that will keep you intrigued until the very end. The dose of (sappy) romance cliches was a bit too high for me, but I did appreciate the many quotable references to romance in general. Romance fans will most likely love this story!


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ARC REVIEW: Flame In The Mist – by Renee Ahdieh

Title: Flame In The Mist
(Flame In The Mist #1)
Author: Renee Ahdieh

Genre: YA, Fantasy, Retelling
First published: May 16th 2017
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Finished reading: May 1st 2017
Pages: 368

“Sometimes we must fall forward to keep moving. Remain motionless—remain unyielding—and you are as good as dead.
Death follows indecision, like a twisted shadow. Fall forward. Keep moving. Even if you must pick yourself up first.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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As soon as I saw the cover and the mention of Mulan, I was sold. Flame In The Mist has been on my list of most anticipated 2017 releases ever since, and I still cannot believe my Netgalley request was actually approved. I read a teaser back in January in one of the Buzz Books editions, and what I saw was GOOD. So good that my expectations were extraordinary high when starting this new series by Renee Ahdieh, but somehow Flame In The Mist managed to be ever better than expected. I practically devoured its pages and loved every single minute of it. The setting, the writing style, the characters (Mariko, Okami!!!), the plot… It doesn’t happen often that I hand out the full five star rating, but I just couldn’t give this story any lower. Both the worldbuilding and the writing style feel rich, engaging and very well developed and executed. I also enjoyed that Flame In The Mist is set in Japan and talks about a culture I’m personally not all that familiar with. The characters started to grow on me almost instantly and I LOVED Mariko as a main character. A little note though: even though this story basically blew me away, I did feel my love would have been even greater without the romance… It’s not all that distracting, but there is a hint of a future love triangle I’m not that sure/happy about. It was too insignificant to influence my rating though. I just cannot wait to find out what the future has in store; the wait for the sequel is surely going to be a long one! If you like the genre, this is definitely a must-read.

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Even though Mariko has a long list of skills, she has long known her future has been out of her hands simply because she was born a girl. She is the daughter of a prominent samurai and at the age of seventeen now promised to the son of the emperor’s favorite consort. Mariko has no choice but to do as her father wishes and accept this political marriage, but it seems like fate has different plans for her in store. In route to the imperial city of Inako, the group is ambushed by a gang of bandits known as the Black Clan and Mariko narrowly escapes with her life… She is believed to be dead, and Mariko decides to use this to try and find the Black Clan. Will she be able to discover who was behind the attack and will she be able to restore the honor of her family?

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If you like well developed fantasy reads with gorgeous prose, setting and interesting characters, you are in for a treat with Flame In The Mist. The only thing that would have made me enjoy this story even more would have been the exclusion of the romance scenes; otherwise this first book of a new series is simply perfect. In fact, I can’t wait to read the sequel and the first book hasn’t even been published yet… More than recommended!


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ARC REVIEW: Among Friends – by Heather Murray

Title: Among Friends (Travels In Cuba)
Author: Heather Murray

Genre: Non Fiction, Travel, Memoir
First published: October 6th 2016
Finished reading: April 20th 2017
Pages: 298

“Ephemeral things are tragic because they are never repeated, but they are wonderful because they may be kept in memories in our brain, and they may be recollected as many times as we wish.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a lot during my early twenties and exploring different cultures/countries is still something I’m really passionate about. When I was contacted about Among Friends: Travels In Cuba I immediately knew I wanted to read this memoir, especially since one of my best friends actually went to Cuba for a month in January and I wanted to compare experiences. I admit my knowledge of Cuban history and culture is pretty basic, since my University courses mainly focused on South America… So I was looking forward to learn more about this country. One of the first things that stands out in this travel memoir written by Heather Murray is the lack of political talk, something I’m rather grateful for to be honest. Instead, the author focuses on her own experiences while visiting Cuba various times during the span of eight years; the last time being in 2015. I agree it’s really hard (maybe even impossible) to get a proper feel of a country as an outsider/foreigner, but I enjoyed reading her experiences while visiting Havana and various other destinations in Cuba. Her friendship with Julian and other Cubans definitely help to shed some light on how life really was lived by the Cubans during those years… And I liked how detailed the descriptions of the various places she visited were. The prose was easy to read and all in all it was an enjoyable travel memoir. Low on social-cultural and political details, but highly entertaining for those who enjoy the genre!

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Spread over a period of eight years, Heather Murray travels to Cuba various times to visit her friend Julian. What started out as two collegues writing letters grew into a friendship when she traveled to Cuba for the first time for a conference… The country and its people made a big impact and various visits followed afterwards. Both Havana and other provinced to the west and east are explored with the help of Julian and other Cubans; and the country definitely shows some changes over the years. This memoir is packed with personal experiences and many detailed descriptions of the various destinations in Cuba.

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If you are looking for a well written, entertaining and ‘light’ travel memoir that focuses on the travel and daily life of the locals rather than the more serious topics, Among Friends is without doubt an excellent choice. The descriptions of the various destinations and excursions are very well done and I could almost imagine being there myself as well. As stated in this memoir, it shows that Cuba has been through some changes in the last ten years and it shows… At least that is what my friend told as well. Recommended!


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ARC REVIEW: The Last Gods Of Indochine – by Samuel Ferrer

Title: The Last Gods Of Indochine
Author: Samuel Ferrer

Genre: Historical Fiction
First published: September 20th 2016
Publisher: Signal 8 Press
Finished reading: March 13th 2017
Pages: 422

“I told Jean-Luc I feared entering a world where everyone is a stranger; the truth is, I am escaping from a world where everyone knew me too well.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I confess I’m terribly behind with my ARCs and this historical fiction story was long overdue. The Last Gods Of Indochine belongs to one of my favorite genres and both the Cambodian setting, era and reference to local mythology had me intrigued immediately. This novel by Samuel Ferrer surely didn’t disappoint. The Last Gods Of Indochine is mostly set in Cambodia and has two main storylines: one set in the 1920s and one set in the 13th century. I was instantly charmed by the story of Paaku the Lotus-Born all those centuries ago, and the mythology and ideas of his world are intriguing. His chapters are without doubt my favorite part of this novel, and I enjoyed learning more about both his world and his character. I wasn’t instantly convinced by Jacquie on the other hand, and it took me some time to connect to her. It was very interesting to read about her journey to Cambodia though and the circumstances under which both her grandfather before her and Jacquie herself had to travel in those days. I also particularly enjoyed their travels within Cambodia and it was nice to see both storylines slowly connect. In short, The Last Gods Of Indochine is a well written historical fiction story with an intriguing plot and a fascinating read in general for fans of the genre.

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In medieval Cambodia, Paaku the Lotus-Born is an orphan raised by a Vishu priest. One day something incredible happens and the community starts to believe Paaku might be the incarnation of a god… Something that might turn out to be dangerous for him and he is not sure if he wants that title in the first place. Meanwhile, in 1921, Jacquie follows the footsteps of her grandfather and travels to Indochina. Her grandfather was a famous explorer who died during his travels, and Jacquie wants to learn more about the country he explored. Soon she starts learning about the tragedy of Paaku’s history and the storylines slowly intertwine…

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If you enjoy reading well written historical fiction stories with an interesting setting and a touch of (Asian) mythology, The Last Gods Of Indochine is an excellent choice. Two stories set in two completely different centuries slowly start to intertwine… And the ‘modern’ world clashes with the medieval story. I had a great time reading this novel and especially Paaku’s POV stood out from me. Such a fascinating story!


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ARC REVIEW: A Gentleman In Moscow – by Amor Towles

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Title: A Gentleman In Moscow
Author: Amor Towles

Genre: Historical Fiction
First published: September 6th 2016
Publisher: Hutchinson
Finished reading: February 24th 2017
Pages: 462
Rating 4,5qqq

“No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and Hutchinson in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I first heard about this book last year and originally wanted to read it before the Goodreads Choice Awards last November, but I wasn’t able to get a copy in time. I’ve heard nothing but great things about A Gentleman In Moscow ever since and I was delighted to both find it mentioned at Netgalley AND actually receive an ARC copy of it shortly after. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, but it’s been a while since I last read a story set in Russia. This novel by Amor Towles starts in the 1920s and follows the main character during the next two decades, successfully combining historical facts with the personal stories of the characters and making A Gentleman In Moscow that much more intriguing to read. Sure, this novel has quite a slow pace and that might disencourage some readers. But the prose and descriptions more than make up for it and the slow pace can be explained in the first place by the fact that it’s a mostly character-driven story. It’s beautifully written story that will appeal to both fans of the historical fiction genre and to those who enjoy a proper character-driven story. Because it’s the main characters who make this book into such a lovely story; without Count Alexander Rostov and his new friends at the hotel, this story would simply fall apart.

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On 21 June 1922, the life of Count Alexandre Rostov is about to change forever… In fact, he is lucky to be still alive the next day. The Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is forced to spend the rest of his days inside the Hotel Metropol just across the Red Square. And they don’t take him to his usual suite either; he is led to a small attic room without even a proper window. Rostov is forced to embrace his new life stripped of everything that used to define him, and it makes him question what makes us who we are… And during his years at the Metropol, he slowly starts to discover new ways to find purpose in his life.

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If you want to try the historical fiction genre, but are afraid of dense fact-ridden bricks that are difficult to read, A Gentleman In Moscow will come to the rescue. It’s true that the pace is a bit slow, but apart from the beautiful descriptions of the 20th century Russia this novel is mostly about the life of Count Alexander Rostov inside the hotel and the way his character develops over time. It’s a truly fascinating read and the prose is wonderful; more than recommended!


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BOOK REVIEW: A Man Called Ove – by Fredrik Backman

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Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman

Genre: Fiction, Humor, Contemporary
First published: August 27th 2012
Publisher: Atria Books
Finished reading: November 22nd 2016
Pages: 337
(Originally written in Swedish: “En man som heter Ove”)
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“We always think there’s enough time to do things with other people. Time to say things to them. And then something happens and then we stand there holding on to words like ‘if’.”

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There has been a lot of hype around Fredrik Backman‘s work this year, and I thought it was about time to find out just exactly what everybody was raving about. And boy do I regret not having picked up my copy of A Man Called Ove earlier! This originally Swedish book was in one word BRILLIANT. I fell in love with both the prose and main character from the very first page and it’s been a while since a book has been able to make me laugh and cry at the same time. Ove has managed to win over my heart, grumpiness and all, and he is hands down one of my new favorite characters. He really reminded me of Carl, the grumpy old man from the movie Up! And Ove’s character is just as endearing in his own grumpy way. Apart from the prose itself and the fabulous character, Fredrik Backman is also able to combine heartbreaking and sensitive topics with a humor that is right up my alley. The humor might not be for everyone, but even so I would suggest trying A Man Called Ove if you haven’t already. It’s without doubt one of my favorite reads this year!

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Ove is a grumpy man who finds his solitary world turned upside down when a young family moves in next door. He is the kind of man with strict routines and a short fuse. People around him call him ‘the bitter neighbor from hell’, but is he really bitter just because he doesn’t seem friendly all the time? Behind his cranky exterior is a story and a sadness that will slowly be revealed as random things start happening when the family next door moves in.

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This is not the first time I have been blown away by a Swedish book, and A Man Called Ove has definitely been added to my list of all time favorites. I’m having a hard time writing a coherent review, but what I can say is that I strongly suggest reading this story. It’s just that good! I’m aware the humor I myself loved might be a turn off for some, but even so I would say it is worth the try. I will be looking forward to read his other books soon.

ARC REVIEW: The Bitter Side Of Sweet – by Tara Sullivan

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Title: The Bitter Side Of Sweet
Author: Tara Sullivan

Genre: YA, Realistic Fiction, Contemporary
First published: February 23rd 2016
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Finished reading: October 6th 2016
Pages: 336

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“We sit like that until the sun bleeds into the night sky and the cracks in the wooden shed door glow pink. When this happens I know we’ve made it through the worst of it. Pain is like sadness; both are easier to bear in daylight.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I have a weak spot for stories set in (for me) foreign cultures, so I was sold as soon as I read the blurb of this novel by Tara Sullivan. I’m glad I decided to read it, because the story simply blew me away. Even though The Bitter Side Of Sweet is a fictional story, it’s based on actual facts and it shows the author knows a lot about the topic. The descriptions of both the general setting, the cacao farm and the characters are very well done and help you form a better picture of something that is actually happening right now in those countries. The main characters and young brothers Amadou and Seydou are fictional, but they are an example of what thousands of children have to go through while they are being forced to work at a cacao farm under difficult conditions and without pay. And I can assure you, it definitely gives you something to think about. The story itself might have a few flaws including the credibility of the young brother’s journey, but the strong message behind The Bitter Side Of Sweet makes you forget all about them. Overall it’s without doubt a brilliant read I can recommend to everyone who enjoys the genre.

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Set in modern-day Ivory Coast, two young brothers are struggling to survive on a cacao farm. Amadou and Seydou are forced to work without pay and have to chop down enough cacao pods every day to avoid punishment. The higher the number, the safer they are and the higher the chances of not getting beaten. And who knows, the bosses might let them return home again if they work hard enough… The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how high the debt to his bosses is and they won’t tell him. They were only trying to earn money during the dry season, but were tricked into forced labor instead. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive; until Khadija comes into their lives. She is the first girl ever to come to camp and has a wild spirit. She doesn’t stop her attempts of escape, involving the brothers against their will. But it does remind Amadou what it means to be free…

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My intuition was right when I first saw The Bitter Side Of Sweet mentioned, because it was exactly the book I enjoy reading. It’s a well written story with a fast pace and strong message that is not easy to forget. The characters are well developed and even though their ‘adventure’ is not at all times completely credible, it is still an excellent read. Therefore I can recommend this story to anyone who enjoys the genre and/or has an interest in the topic.