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REVIEW:  Between the Spark and the Burn by April Genevieve Tucholke

REVIEW: Between the Spark and the Burn by April Genevieve...

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Dear Ms. Tucholke,

Between the Spark and the Burn is the follow-up to your debut, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which I read and enjoyed last year. It continues the story of Violet, whose life was rocked when the Redding brothers walked into her life. I won’t summarize what happened in that book — the review’s linked right there. But I will warn new readers that because the books are tightly linked, there may be spoilers in this review. Tread carefully!

The story picks up a few months after Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Despite his promise, River still has not returned to Violet and she begins to fear the worst. Then one night, on a late night paranormal radio program, she hears rumors of weird occurrences and “devil sightings” in an isolated country town. Suspecting that it might be River–or worst, the murderous Brodie–she and Neely (the third Redding brother who stayed) go on a road trip.

They arrive, only to find that River–or Brodie–is gone. But they find clues pointing to other places the brothers may have gone. So their road trip leads them on a chase from one town to next, as they track the brothers. They always seem to be one step behind, until they catch up to River in a North Carolina island community. There, Violet learns her fears were quite founded. Now to find Brodie — except he might be closer than any of them ever suspected.

While I think Between the Spark and the Burn has the same dreamy gothic tone as its predecessor, I enjoyed this book a lot more. I’m fond of road trip stories, and this is basically a gothic monster hunter road trip story! All of my favorite things in one.

I really liked Violet in this. She loves River. She always will in some way. While I wasn’t really okay with these feelings in the previous book for reasons I explained in the linked review, I apprecated how much Violet has grown in the months between. She doesn’t trust River anymore because despite his promise not to, he’s used his powers and they’re harming people. Because of this, she refuses to let herself fall into the same trap again. He’s bad for her, she realizes it, and she makes the correct decision. Essentially, all of the misgivings I had about the first book are addressed. The screwed up relationship is presented as screwed up. It’s not presented as romantic. I loved that this happened!

I also really liked the burgeoning relationship between Violet and Neely. It’s a variation on one of my favorite tropes: Girl goes after guy… and ultimately ends up with guy’s brother/best friend instead. And while you can argue that it’s Bad Boy (River) versus Nice Boy (Neely), I didn’t view it as a love triangle for the reasons I stated above. I understand why other readers would, but by the time they catch up with River, I felt confident that Violet’s feelings for him stopped being romantic and became one more of responsibility and debt. Because of the things River did in the past, and because of the horrible things he does in this book, Violet will never feel the same way about him as she once did. She can’t.

The twist involving Finch made me gasp. It was so obvious. The signs were all there, but I was determined to believe that I was wrong. Never have I been so sad to be right! (I mean this in a good way.) Still, well done on that particular plot thread.

One thing I wish the book had more of is close female friendships. Violet’s friend, Sunshine, is absent for large stretches of the book and while Pine and Canto are introduced, the former only makes brief appearances and the latter is wrapped up in Finch. It just seemed like it was all about Violet and her relationships with the brothers. Yes, that is the premise, but it would have been a nice to see another dimension to her life.

If you imagine a Stephen King story written for the YA set in a gothic style, you’ll get this book. I think the two books together make a fabulous whole. And if you were like me, and viewed the romance in the first book with distaste, know this book will satisfy you. B+

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW:  Caught! by JL Merrow

REVIEW: Caught! by JL Merrow

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Dear JL Merrow,

There are some books which take time to reveal their joys and others which hook a reader from the start. Each have their own place – sometimes the book that is not immediately catchy turns out to be a comfort read for years to come. This was a book I relaxed into from the beginning.  Told from the first person perspective of elementary school teacher Robert Emeny, Caught! is a little delight.  Just like the picture on the cover, Robert is a somewhat quirky man but he is never a caricature.  He is precise and ordered and kind of shy.  He prefers bow ties but has a few of the regular sort of ties for emergencies.  Apart from when he’s running or sleeping, he’s always wearing a tie.  He’s the type of guy who knows he has precisely twenty-six minutes of his lunch break remaining and that he takes thirteen minutes in the shower.  While it could come across as annoying, in Robert it was endearing. I think that was because at a bone-deep level he is a genuinely kind and honourable man.

Robert has recently moved to Shamwell after leaving his previous teaching role (at a prestigious high school teaching A-Level Maths) in sudden circumstances which are not fully revealed until late in the book.  He has taken a job at St. Saviour’s Elementary School  where he earns significantly less money. It is, in many ways, a step down for him.  Fortunately, some years after the death of his father (which left he and his mother penniless), his mother remarried well and Robert now has some financial support from his family.  This support enables him to rent Old Hatter’s Cottage in the middle of the village.

Robert is sometimes slow to pick up on cues and tends to second guess himself, so his romance with Sean Grant, a local pest exterminator, has a shaky start.  Sean’s twin nephews Wills and Harry (yes, really) are in Robert’s class (where Robert is called “Mr. Enemy” by almost everyone).  As Sean’s sister Debs (a single mother)  is recovering from recent chemotherapy treatment, Sean often does the school run and attends other school functions.  Sean is openly bisexual (yay for more bisexual representation!) and Robert is initially convinced Sean’s interest lies in the direction of Rose Wyman, a fellow teacher at St. Saviour’s and Robert’s friend.

Robert does have some anxiety over dating a bisexual man – he wonders if Sean will get a craving for ladyparts and leave but they talk about it and Sean is able to put Robert’s mind at rest on that score.  The explanation is simple but not simplistic and makes sense without being trite. I felt it was an understandable concern – Robert is only attracted to men so he is a bit at a loss to understand bisexual attraction but once he and Sean discuss it, the matter rests and falls into the category of “not a big deal”. I appreciated it was there but that not much was made of it.

At the same time he left his previous teaching post, Robert’s relationship with fellow teacher, Crispin, ended too.  After his heartbreak over that breakup and the circumstances surrounding it, he is shy of getting involved again.   Sean is a bit touchy about the social differences he perceives between he and Robert but Robert isn’t at all a snob.

Even though the story is told only from Robert’s perspective, I felt I got to know Sean reasonably well, as there was plenty of dialogue in the book.  I enjoyed their interactions and the way they celebrated their differences as well as the things they had in common (of which there were surprisingly many). They have a good sexual chemistry and there are some sexy scenes but it’s not terribly explicit, which I thought suited the book perfectly.

The kettle boiled noisily and we broke apart, both of us breathing rather quickly. “Um. Coffee?” I said, my voice shaky.

“Uh, yeah. Wow.”

“Wow?”

“Definitely wow. Talk about your hidden depths.”

I gave him a sidelong look. “Not that hidden, surely?”

“Depends. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the way you dress— it’s different and fun and all that—but yeah , it’s not exactly in-your-face sexy, is it?” He gave my rear a gentle squeeze. “Course, when I saw you in your running gear, with your hair all messed up and that… I mean, most of the time you’re so put together, you know? It was like… Shit , this is a bad analogy, ’cos I liked you before, anyway, but it was like that really corny moment in films when the girl in the lab coat takes off her glasses and shakes out her hair, and suddenly she’s gorgeous.”

I frowned. “I don’t wear glasses. And my hair’s too short to shake out. Plus, and I really feel I should emphasise this point to avoid any possible misunderstandings, I’m not a girl.”

Sean laughed. “I told you it was a shit analogy.” He brought one hand up to stroke my face, and I fought the urge to nuzzle into it as his other hand slid farther around my waist. “But you are gorgeous.”

I enjoyed Robert’s interactions with the students and in particular, young Charlie. I loved how Charlie grew through the course of the book. The scene with Charlie’s dad was a favourite but I will leave it for readers to find out why.

Rose was somewhat of a caricature, even though I liked her quite a bit.  She is loud and forthright but as it happens, that is just what Robert needs – without her interference perhaps he and Sean would never have been. She did have some story of her own and wasn’t merely there to be the enabler for Robert’s romantic adventures but I think some will regard her as too over the top and stereotypical.

I loved some of the word pictures you drew and some of them made me laugh out loud.

Fordy’s always rather exuberant brows had now entirely met in the middle, like a couple of very small, coy ferrets exchanging a kiss.

There were a few times in the story that I felt Robert’s dialogue didn’t fit my image of his character – mostly this was when he was being a bit sexually provocative but this may well have been a failing of my imagination rather than anything else.

Generally, I prefer when characters talk to each other and I’m not a fan of misunderstandings.  That said, Robert has very good reasons for not sharing his secrets with Sean immediately and I didn’t think their falling out over it was drawn out.

Robert, somewhat unexpectedly for him, finds a home and a community in Shamwell and he and Sean make a lovely couple.  I had so much fun reading this book.  I give Caught! a B+ and my recommendation. I’m definitely looking forward to more Shamwell Tales.

Regards,
Kaetrin

 

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