ARC REVIEW: The Bird King – by G. Willow Wilson @groveatlantic

Title: The Bird King
Author: G. Willow Wilson
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
First published: March 12th 2019
Publisher: Grove Press
Finished reading: February 28th 2019
Pages: 440

“Once a story leaves the hands of its author, it belongs to the reader. And the reader may see any number of things, conflicting things, contradictory things.”

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

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I confess: the cover put me under its spell immediately and I knew I wanted to read this story even before I read the blurb. The premise of the story only enhanced my feelings though, as I’ve always had a special connection with Spain and its history. The mention of Granada alone, a city I’ve been lucky enough to visit myself and admire with my own eyes, would have been enough to make me jump up and down out of joy. Add the promise of a historical fiction setting with a focus on the last sultan of Muslim Spain, a setting right in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition and a fantasy twist, and I knew The Bird King was going to be something special. My instincts turned out to be right: this was such a stunning and absolutely fantastic read! It becomes clear from the beginning that the power of The Bird King is in the prose, attention to historical details and the hint of magical realism in part of the elements. The lines between fiction and fantasy are blurred and balanced in such a way that will surely mesmerize you before you reach the final page. The attention to detail and many descriptions really make the story and its characters come alive. We get a glimpse inside the Alhambra and its daily life under the last sultan and all things culture related. We also get an idea what the Spanish Inquisition was prepared to do in that time, although that is not the main focus of this story. Like I said before, the fantasy elements almost have a magical realism feel about them, something that really worked for me in this story. Each character is unique, well developed and easy to like… You will find yourself rooting for Fatima and Hassan and crossing your fingers they will be able to escape and find the mythical island where the bird king lives. People have complained about the slow pace, and while I agree the pace is indeed rather slow, it also makes it easier to fully savour the prose and all those wonderful descriptions and details. It helped me absorb every single detail all the better and I personally enjoyed every single minute of my time with The Bird King.

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Fatima has been part of the royal court of the last sultan of Muslim Spain ever since she was born, now a concubine to the sultan himself. She has been provided with everything she could wish for except for one thing: her freedom. Her closest friend Hassan is the palace mapmaker with a fascinating secret… He can draw maps of places he has never seen before in his life and even bend the shape of reality. This extraordinary gift is what will endanger his life when the representatives of the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrive to negotiate the sultan’s surrender. His gift is seen as sorcery and they demand Hassan to be handed over to the Spanish Inquisition… But Fatima cannot bear to part with her only true friend and will try anything for the two to escape their fate.

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Yes, the story of The Bird King is without doubt just as beautiful as that stunning cover. It’s a perfect mix of historical fiction elements, a magical realism feel and fantasy elements… With different cultures coming together through the journey of Fatima, Hassan and the people they meet along the way. The historical setting, details and descriptions are perfectly elaborated with a gorgeous and magical prose you will cannot help but fall in love with. The pace of this story is slow, but it will make it that much easier to fully savour every single chapter and detail of their journey. Fans of slower-paced historical fiction stories who don’t mind a little fantasy mixed in will most likely enjoy this fantastic story as much as I did.


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YVO’S SHORTIES #83 – The Bitter Kingdom & Friend Request

Time for another round of Yvo’s Shorties! This time around two completely different genres, but two books I ended up enjoying. The series conclusion The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson and the psychological thriller Friend Request by Laura Marshall.


Title: The Bitter Kingdom
(Fire And Thorns #3)
Author: Rae Carson

Genre: YA, Fantasy, Romance
First published: April 14th 2013
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Finished reading: February 6th 2019
Pages: 490

“It’s the highest art form, deceiving without lying. A word is the only thing in the world made more powerful by absence than existence.”


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WARNING: possible spoilers if you haven’t read the first two books yet. You’ve been warned…

I first started this series back in 2015, and it took me a long time before I finally continued it… Not because I didn’t enjoy the first book, but simply because other books got in the way. I finally read the novellas last year, and after reading the second book last month I was determined to read the third and final book ASAP so I could finish the series while memories were still fresh. I’m without doubt glad I picked up the final book, because The Bitter Kingdom definitely made this series end on a high note! I’m not sure if it is my new favorite, but I’m happy to say that all three Fire And Thorns books stay consistently strong and the final book doesn’t disappoint at all. Why was The Bitter Kingdom such a success for me? First of all, I could really appreciate the chapters from Hector’s POV. They were both refreshing and definitely a welcome addition to the story! I also liked how we finally get to learn more about Inverno and see more of that part of the world… The high fantasy worldbuilding is one of the best features of this series and it’s always great to see it expand. The writing is engaging and it makes it really easy to just keep turning the pages. The plot itself isn’t all that complicated, but offers enough action and a romance that will warm your heart instead of annoy you. The end did feel a bit too easy, but overall it does provide closure for this series and its character. I really enjoyed my time with this trilogy and can highly recommend it to fans of the genre.


Title: Friend Request
Author: Laura Marshall

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime
First published: August 9th 2017
Publisher: Sphere
Finished reading: February 9th 2019
Pages: 384

“I’m in a hall of mirrors, full of distorted reflections and false endings. I’ve lost track of which way I came in and I have no idea how to get out.”


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I recently bought a copy of Friend Request on a whim after remembering it being mentioned various times back when it was first published, and I couldn’t resist picking it up when I was in the mood for the genre. There is no doubt that Friend Request was a very entertaining psychological thriller with a few twists and turns I definitely didn’t see coming. The story starts slow and it takes a while for the pace to pick up. Basically, the first half has more of a character driven slower psychological thriller, while the second half is more of a suspenseful crime thriller with a fast pace and quite a lot of action. This made the story feel a bit unbalanced, but the second half made the story that much more thrilling. I mentioned twists I didn’t see coming, and this was definitely true, but I cannot help but wonder if some weren’t a bit too farfetched and dark compared to how the story first started? I do love my surprises though, so I’m a bit on the fence about how to feel about all this. I personally preferred the chapters set in 2016 over those in 1989, mostly because I’m not a real fan of high school drama and bullying. That said, both timelines seem well developed and help creating the suspense and intrigue around Maria and what is happening to Louise in the present. As for Louise: she can be quite annoying and I don’t understand some of her decisions, but her character with all its flaws does feel convincingly realistic. The mystery around what happened to Maria in 1989 and who is behind the messages in 2016 will definitely keep you intrigued until you find out the truth… And it will be hard to see that final twist coming. All in all Friend Request was still a very entertaining read despite the flaws I mentioned.


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YVO’S SHORTIES #64: An Officer And A Spy (DNF) & Educated

Time for another round of Yvo’s Shorties! This time around two books that didn’t manage to convince me. The first, An Officer And A Spy by Robbert Harris, sadly a DNF, something that rarely happens. And I had high hopes for Educated by Tara Westover after so many glowing reviews, but I guess it’s unpopular opinion time again.


Title: An Officer And A Spy
Author: Robert Harris

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
First published: September 26th 2013
Publisher: Knopf
Finished reading: November 12th 2018 
Pages: 429
DNF at 30% (129 pages)

“It seems to be a necessary part of the criminal mentality: to survive captivity, one must somehow convince oneself one is not guilty.”


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An Officer And A Spy is one of my TBR jar picks and a title I’ve been meaning to read for a while. I had been looking forward to it despite the mixed reviews, mostly because the setting sounded fascinating. I still think the setting on its own is very interesting and the general plot has a lot of potential. A possibly wrongly convicted officer, espionage, the threat of a war and other struggles definitely sound like a good recipe for a successful historical fiction read. Sadly, the execution of those elements in An Officer And A Spy just didn’t work for me. I have picked it up only to put it down again after only a few pages multiple times over the last few weeks. I’ve tried and tried to at least make it to the end to see if things improved later on, but in the end I decided to make the difficult decision to just DNF it. I hardly ever give up on a book, so it definitely makes me sad to do so… But between the superslow pace, writing style, too many descriptions and a lack of interest in both the plot and the characters, I think this was the right choice for me. An Officer And A Spy just never grabbed me and I was never able to stay interested in the story… It’s very possible this story simply wasn’t for me even though historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. A lot of readers did love it, so definitely don’t give up on it if you are thinking about reading it.


Title: Educated
Author: Tara Westover

Genre: Non Fiction, Memoir
First published: February 20th 2018
Publisher: Random House
Finished reading: November 14th 2018
Pages: 352

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occured to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.”


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It’s unpopular opinion time again… You’ve been warned. 

I have been looking forward to finally read Educated for months now, especially after reading so many glowing reviews. This is probably one of the reasons my expectations might have been too high, that and the fact that this memoir has been compared to The Glass Castle. The fact is: I was quite underwhelmed by all of it. This was not what I was expecting, and I feel sad for feeling this way, but it is what it is… I’m going to try and explain the reasons why. First of all, I know that I’m a skeptical person, and I don’t tend to believe things easily just because they are written down on paper. I also had a hard time believing Tara Westover‘s story as it was written down. Please don’t tell me I’m implying she is a liar, which I’m not. I do believe that she wrote Educated based on her memories, memories that can have gotten distorted over time especially if her early life has been such a struggle. And I really had to take her story with a whole lot of grains of salt to be able to continue reading. Like I said, I’m not saying she hasn’t had a tough life, or that her family didn’t do what they did, just that I didn’t find her story as told credible. I mean, for a survivalist family living in the mountains they sure have a lot of luxuries including at some point even a phone, TV and internet (not talking about the enormous mansion they seem to be having in the end). Her family life definitely wasn’t standard, with them not even having a birth certificate for a long time, not going to school and working in the junkyard etc etc. But I would rather call it eccentric for the most part instead. Also, at one point she describes her father as bipolar, something that is never confirmed as the same disease prevents him getting a medical diagnose. Still, I would have liked to have seen this angle developed further rather than just throwing the ‘bipolar’ word out and leave it at that. Another thing that bothered me were the many many serious accidents, a few life threatening, and somehow they are all healed with essential oils and other herbal cures? I do believe in holistic treatments along with medical care, but this is just getting too hard to believe. (I’m not saying they weren’t injured, just that the injuries maybe weren’t as bad as they remembered?) Anyhow, this reckless behavior and indifference towards general safety of others and the ‘miracle’ recoveries were just too much for the skeptical person in me to handle. Another thing I found hard to believe? Where all the money came from. First we are told they are poor, then money starts popping up everywhere somehow. I can get why her childhood chapters are a bit vague about money, but how on earth did she get the money together to get into a prestigious college and university? I know there are grants, but they don’t cover it all and it is a LOT of money we are talking about and very prestigious and expensive education. I mean, she goes to the UK and studies abroad for a long time? And then travels back and forth between the US and the UK multiple times? The flights alone cost a fortune, and surely aren’t covered by grants. A real mystery to me. There is also the question how she got into college in the first place, especially since she was never really educated at home in the first place. Somehow being able to get a superhigh score just by teaching herself advanced math and everything else in the test just doesn’t come over as credible to the skeptical me. Maybe she had a higher level of education than stated in the memoir before she started preparing herself for the test? I don’t know, but as it is Educated wasn’t at all credible to me. I’m not saying her being able to get her degrees isn’t admirable, and I’m sure she’s had a hard life especially with her despicable brother Shawn (I’m not even going into the abuse and her brother here, or we could still be talking tomorrow), but sadly her memoir wasn’t able to convince me.


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YVO’S SHORTIES #40 – Uprooted & The Shadow Cats

Time for another round of Yvo’s Shorties! This time two YA Fantasy reads that didn’t really convince me in the end… The first Uprooted, started out excellent but more and more things started to disappoint me. The second, The Shadow Cats, was short and the writing was solid, but the characters mostly let me down.


Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik

Genre: YA, Fantasy, Magic
First published: May 19th 2015
Publisher: Del Rey
Finished reading: August 19th 2018
Pages: 465

“There was a song in this forest, too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage.”


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I’ve been wanting to read Uprooted for years, but it was one of those titles that somehow escaped the top of my TBR pile every time and I kept posponing it. But no longer… I finally picked up my copy of Uprooted thinking it was going to be a dragon story, but I definitely didn’t remember the facts right. This isn’t a story about the mythical dragon, although there are other creatures involved. Was this a disappointment? Maybe, because I do love my dragon stories, but between the writing style, interesting worldbuilding and magic it was easy to forget all about that. Initially, I really enjoyed this story and I was positive it would receive a really high rating. The writing style is just wonderful, the worldbuilding is intriguing, I loved the many references to the Polish culture and Agnieszka’s character has an interesting background. I liked seeing the magic evolve and even tolerated the Dragon. But why o why does this story have to be destroyed by unnecessary and disturbing romance?!?! Seriously, I don’t understand the why of the introduction of this element, especially since it’s abrupt and doesn’t really make sense. Also, there was one x-rated scene that I found really unfit for a YA book. The romance alone made me lower the rating considerably, but that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. The pace was quite slow at points, making the story drag. Especially when Agnieszka is in the capital… And her character in general, with the repeated descriptions of her clumsiness and ragged appearance, really started to get on my nerves. Still, with the wonderful writing and the interesting worldbuilding, I’m glad I had the chance to get to know this story.


Title: The Shadow Cats
(Fire And Thorns #0.5)
Author: Rae Carson

Genre: YA, Fantasy
First published: July 17th 2012
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Finished reading: August 20th 2018
Pages: 54

“It’s a beautiful weed,” Elisa answers. “And the perfect flower for you to carry, for it is like the people of Khelia, strong and unstoppable, capable of blooming and thriving where nothing else can grow.”


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I really enjoyed the first book despite a few little problems I encountered back in 2015, but somehow I never picked up the sequels. I was going to read book two originally, but then remembered I had a copy of the novellas as well, so I decided to read those first. The Shadow Cats is actually a prequel to the first book and focuses more on Elisa’s older sister Alodia. I never really liked her, but if possible she comes over as even worse in this novella. Arrogant, aloof and speaking horribly about her sister… Yes, there isn’t a lot to love about her. And what about her running off alone?? Elisa was quite annoying as well, with her answer to everything being she needs to pray more. I did really like Lupita’s character though. The writing is solid as well and I loved the use of many Spanish words, both in names and other descriptions. Very creative!


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ARC REVIEW: All Things Bright And Strange – by James Markert @tnzfiction

Title: All Things Bright And Strange
Author: James Markert
Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian, Magical Realism
First published: January 30th 2018
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Finished reading: February 28th 2018
Pages: 336

“The beauty of the Bellhaven woods was like a desert mirage – an optical phenomenon inviting trouble, an illusion of light rays that disguised the truth.”

*** I received a complimentary copy of this book from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. ***

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There is just something about the cover that immediately intrigued me, and this book has been on my radar ever since I first heard about it. After I finished another book by the same author, What Blooms From Dust, I just knew I had to read All Things Bright And Strange as soon as possible. Magical realism can kind of be a hit or miss for me depending on how the elements are developed, but I really like how James Markert incorporates them into his stories. All Things Bright And Strange is another example of how I can actually really enjoy magical realism when it’s done right. The story starts out as a typical historical fiction read mostly set in the years after WWI. The main character, Ellsworth, is a WWI veteran along with several other characters, while others have lost someone during the war. I think this is probably my favorite element and the after effects of the war are very well described in the different veterans. A very important topic as well since there isn’t enough awareness when it comes to what veterans are going through! Grumpy Ellsworth really grows on you and he even reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman‘s Ove (HUGE compliment!). The characters in general are well developed and each plays its role in the events in Bellhaven. Some of their names even have special meanings… But that is something for you to discover as you are reading it  to avoid spoiling surprises. The magical elements mix quite nicely with the historical fiction parts, and the author did a great job creating the right atmosphere for the time period. And the descriptions of the chapel in the woods are wonderful. BUT. There was way too much religious talk to my taste, and All Things Bright And Strange should be classified as Christian fiction. True, a lot of different religions are making their appearance in the story, creating diversity, but I simply feel there was too much religious talking going on and some of it sounded almost like preaching. Which is why I ended up enjoying this one less than What Blooms From Dust, but if you don’t mind a healthy dose of religion in your story, you will enjoy it even better than I did. The descriptions of the strange things that are happening in Bellhaven are simply magical.

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The people of Bellhaven have always looked up to Ellsworth Newberry, asking for his guidance whenever problems arise in town. But after he lost his wife in the town fire and he came back from the war with his hopes for a future as a professional pitcher destroyed, he hasn’t been the same old self. Then he finally sees something strange is going on in Bellhaven… A small chapel is discovered deep in the Bellhaven woods, and it seems to have mysterious healing powers. People keep returning to find peace of mind, but is the chapel really a miracle or a potential problem in disguise?

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When I started reading All Things Bright And Strange, I actually thought I was going to enjoy it even better than What Blooms From Dust. Between the WWI veteran element and grumpy Ellsworth himself, it had all the signs of becoming a true winner… I mean, I even compared Ellsworth to one of my all time favorite characters Ove (A Man Called Ove). These feelings stayed for a long time, but slowly something started to irk me. I’m not a fan of a high dose of religious elements in a story, especially when it starts to sound like preaching. And there just was too much of it in All Things Bright And Strange… Especially in the second half. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I would have liked to see a label calling it Christian fiction. The writing is wonderful though with lots of magical descriptions and a well developed historical setting.


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ARC REVIEW: The Secret Of Heaven – by Felix Alexander @ReadingAlley

Title: The Secret Of Heaven
(Aiden Leonardo #1)
Author: Felix Alexander

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Adventure
First published: 2016
Publisher: ForeverPoetic
Finished reading: August 22nd 2017
Pages: 311

“The truth must be understood. Not solely for the purpose of being accepted, but for humanity as a whole to achieve enlightenment.”

*** 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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Every once in a while I like to change up genres and read something different. And while The Secret Of Heaven is partly a thriller, it was the promise of adventure and ancient mysteries that closed the deal for me. I love reading about conspiracy theories and secret societies so it is easy to say I was looking forward to this one, especially since I had previously enjoyed one of the author’s stories. Unfortunately things didn’t work out that way. I’m not sure if it just was me reading The Secret Of Heaven at the wrong time, but I really struggled to get a proper feel for this story. There are a lot of different characters involved and this makes it hard to keep up wih the what and who and how everything connects. More than once I had to stop reading and try to remember what the role of a certain character was and this slowed down the pace considerably. The plot also felt pretty chaotic and kept jumping back and forth between characters… Which took a while to get used to. I have to be honest here and say it took me a lot longer than expected to finish The Secret Of Heaven. The writing wasn’t bad and it really shows that the author has taken the time to investigate the historical details thoroughly. The (historical) descriptions are extensive and show just how important the so-called Lost Bible is… That said, those descriptions did also slow down the pace and while I normally love historical elements in a story, they didn’t manage to convince me in The Secret Of Heaven. As for the characters and their actions… I wasn’t really able to connect to them as there are simply too many characters in play in the first place; also, I’m not sure everything that happens in the plot is exactly credible. And while it kind of has that Dan Brown feel and sounds really promising, The Secret Of Heaven unfortunately didn’t manage to blow me away. Such a shame, because the story has a lot of potential!

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Professor of Biblical Studies Aiden Leonardo was the last person to see Lazzaro de Medici before he was murdered, so of course he instantly becomes the main suspect. The thing is: he cannot remember what happened the night before… Although he is certain he would never harm the man that took him in when his mother died. Something more complicated than just a simple murder seems to be at play though and Aiden soon finds himself right in the middle of a conspiracy, a hunt for a Lost Bible and a secret organization known as The Group. What will happen to Aiden and will they be able to find what they are looking for before it’s too late?

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I really thought I was going to enjoy this one and I’m still wondering if I picked it up at the wrong time, but the fact is that The Secret Of Heaven didn’t manage to convince me in the end. The writing isn’t bad and it shows that the historical elements are very well researched, but there were too many characters involved and the pace wasn’t as fast as I thought it would be with the extensive descriptions slowing it down. I normally love historical details so I was really surprised I wasn’t able to enjoy this story more!


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ARC REVIEW: The Lost Book Of The Grail – by Charlie Lovett

Title: The Lost Book Of The Grail
Author: Charlie Lovett

Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary, Mystery
First published: February 28th 2017
Publisher: Viking
Finished reading: July 26th 2017 
Pages: 336

“The library smelled substantial; it smelled of both life and death. The air was stale and still and Arthur felt the atmosphere of the place envelop him. He was home.”

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

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I admit I have a weird obsession with any title that has the word ‘book’ in it, so one look at the cover of The Lost Book Of The Grail and I was sold. Any lover of books about books and historical mysteries will be intrigued by the blurb of this story by Charlie Lovett. Trust me, I was one of them… And I have been looking forward to read it for a while now. That’s why I was slightly disappointed to find myself having mixed feelings about The Lost Book Of The Grail instead. On one hand, there were quite a few things I did love about this book. First of all, there are many many bookish references, quotes and descriptions that will appeal to any bookworm. The smell of books, the library, the old manuscripts… I could just imagine being there in Barchester myself just by reading the detailed descriptions and I always love when that happens. I also really liked the idea behind this story and the mystery around the manuscript and the history of Barchester and its secrets is intriguing. BUT. Unfortunately, the pace is slower than a sleeping snail and I had a really hard time to stay focused and keep reading despite the fascinating history. In fact, the plot actually feels pretty chaotic with the unorganized flashbacks, guidebook quotes and random quotes from other books. I admit it does add an original touch, but it also slowed down the already slow pace even more and made the story flow considerably less and feel quite haltered. Another problem I encountered myself with were the characters. To be honest, I was never able to warm up to them and they mostly felt like cliches. The ‘old school’ Arthur and ‘modern’ Bethany have textbook clashing views on anything bookish and I didn’t feel they were inspiring. Also, I could have done without the romance…  It didn’t add anything substantial to the story and only managed to make me enjoy the final part of The Lost Book Of The Grail even less. Another thing I struggled with is that the story, for being about a lost manuscript and the hunt to unravel the mystery before it’s too late, was actually quite uneventful and lacked suspense. I was really surprised by this, because when I read the blurb I thought their quest was going to be a whole lot more exciting. Oh well, we can’t like them all, can we?

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Arthur Prescott works as an English professor in the modern buildings of the University of Barchester, but he feels more at home surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts on the Barchester Cathedral library. He spends most of his free time there, researching his unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral… Although his secret obsession with the Holy Grail is never completely leaves his mind. When an American woman barges into his sanctuary with the task of digitizing the manuscripts, Arthur is appalled. But Bethany doesn’t seem to be what she appears to be and she turns out to be a fellow Grail fanatic… And soon she will join Arthur in a quest to find a missing manuscript with the story of the cathedral’s founder.

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I really wanted to like The Lost Book Of The Grail and there were certain elements I did enjoy very much. The history of Barchester and its secrets is fascinating and I’m sure many will appreciate the bookish quotes and references. The pace is incredibly slow though and the plot feels both a bit chaotic and lacks action. I also had problems connecting to the characters and felt they lacked character development or at least originality. Such a shame!


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