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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:  Omens by Kelley Armstrong

REVIEW: Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Dear Ms. Armstrong,

I’ve been a fan of your work since the very beginning. Some books work better for me than others, but that’s to be expected from an author with a sizeable backlist. When your Otherworld series ended last year, I wondered what you’d do next. I knew you’d be writing another Nadia Stafford book but was that it for the adult realm? Then one day I opened up my mailbox to find that Jane had sent me an ARC of your latest book, Omens.

omens-armstrongOlivia Taylor-Jones is a privileged rich girl. There is no dancing around this fact. She comes from a filthy, stinking rich Chicago family, has an Ivy League education, and is engaged to a young CEO who’s being groomed for political office.

Then everything comes crashing down around her when tabloid journalists and bloggers break the news that she’s adopted. What’s more, her birth parents were infamous serial killers who murdered 8 people. The scandal and ensuing attention proves to be too much, leading her adoptive mother to flee to Europe (how nice of her) and driving Olivia out of Chicago.

Where she goes, though, is the small, insular town of Cainesville. There she hopes to learn more about her parents’ pasts, in the hopes of making peace with the newly uncovered truth. But her investigation only leads to more secrets, including mysterious abilities that seem to have awakened and grow stronger by the day.

I hesitate to call this an urban fantasy. It takes place in a small town where everyone knows each other (and their business) and where you can’t get a job until the locals get to know you. Small town gothic would be more accurate perhaps. As with all your previous books, Omens has a writing style that’s easy to read. It’s never a struggle and that’s so comforting to me.

Despite the fact that Olivia is so ridiculously privileged, complete with her “Oh, let me help the poor!” deal in the beginning that allows her to counsel them but never exposes her to the reality of their lives, I found myself sympathizing with her. It’s helped by the fact that even after she learned of her adoption, she continued to think of her adoptive parents as her real parents while the serial killers were just those people who gave birth to her. In so many stories, upon learning they were adopted, the protagonist drops everything to find their “real” parents, as if all the years spent with their adoptive parents amounted to nothing.

That said, I also liked that it didn’t gloss over the complications of having memories of your birth parents. Olivia as a little girl adored her birth parents and the news that she was adopted causes all those old memories to resurface. She may not call them her parents, but she loved them as a little girl and those feelings don’t entirely go away.

On the surface, I suppose you could say this is a narrative about a rich girl who gets knocked off her pedestal and is exposed to the real world. I don’t think that’s what this story is doing, however. Not entirely. For one, Olivia’s privilege is called out many times over the course of the novel. There’s nothing stopping her from asking for money from her family other than pride, after all. Nor is there ever a sense that she can really up and leave her new “poor” life and return to her old one. I mean, of course she can leave Cainesville and return to her Chicago mansion. There’s nothing stopping her from that either. But her entire world as changed, based on the perceptions of the people around her, and a person can never go back from that.

The fantasy aspects in Omens are subtle. There are no werewolves or witches here. Olivia’s ability relates to seeing and interpreting omens, actual omens. Omens related to luck, omens related to the weather, and omens related to death. The mysteries of Cainesville are never explained in this book but readers who know their European folklore (or are willing to google a few words) will get a big hint. I found myself preferring the subtle approach here because the branch of the supernatural world this deals with has never been my favorite, I admit.

Despite all this, however, I found myself finishing the novel and coming to an abrupt realization: nothing really happens in this book. Olivia meets her birth mother, thanks to the efforts of the lawyer who used to represent her birth parents. Her birth mother insists upon their innocence and sends Olivia to investigate the circumstances of the last couple they allegedly murdered. The investigation leads to secret conspiracies and then… And then…

And then?

That’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? There is no “and then.” The circumstances of the final couple’s murder are revealed and that plot line is resolved, but we don’t learn anything else. Not the mystery of Cainesville. Not the meaning of Olivia’s abilities. Not the depths of the secret conspiracy she may have uncovered. We don’t even learn if her birth parents are actually innocent. Omens is very much a set-up book, and I wish that wasn’t the case. The earlier novels of the Otherworld series were self-contained and standalone, despite being part of a series, and I miss that format. I really wish Omens didn’t show signs of following the pattern set by later novels in your previous series instead.

For readers looking for romance, there isn’t much of one here. There’s an implication of something brewing between Olivia and Gabriel, the lawyer helping her, but the relationship is more similar to the relationship between Nadia and Jack from the assassin books. There’s something there but chances are it’ll be slow to form, and there’s a high probability Olivia will take a detour along the way.

I enjoyed Omens for its intriguing premise and compelling character conflict. What I’m cautious about is the execution and payoff, since recent novels from you fell short for me in this area. I’m willing to stick along for the ride but I’m definitely keeping my expectations in check. C+

My regards,
Jia

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