Review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

Alice and the Fly Book Cover Alice and the Fly
James Rice

A spellbinding debut novel by an exceptional new young British talent.

This is a book about phobias and obsessions, isolation and dark corners. It's about families, friendships, and carefully preserved secrets. But above everything else it's about love. Finding love - in any of its forms - and nurturing it.

Miss Hayes has a new theory. She thinks my condition's caused by some traumatic incident from my past I keep deep-rooted in my mind. As soon as I come clean I'll flood out all these tears and it'll all be ok and I won't be scared of Them anymore. The truth is I can't think of any single traumatic childhood incident to tell her. I mean, there are plenty of bad memories - Herb's death, or the time I bit the hole in my tongue, or Finners Island, out on the boat with Sarah - but none of these are what caused the phobia. I've always had it. It's Them. I'm just scared of Them. It's that simple.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from the author via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

I’m hard-pressed to express my feelings regarding Alice and the Fly. If I were to rate this book purely on enjoyability, I would only be able to grant it 2 stars – it’s definitely not a cheery novel, and I wouldn’t classify it as a pleasant reading experience. In fact, I’m not sure I can even say that I liked this book. That said, I have to credit James Rice for his storytelling abilities – this book is original, surprising, and boasts a thought-provoking plot.

Alice and the Fly is narrated by Greg, a young man who suffers from a crippling phobia and extreme social awkwardness. Nicknamed “Psycho” by his peers, Greg is an outcast at school and at home. The only bright spot in his miserable world is his classmate Alice, to whom the book is addressed in the form of a letter/journal.

Alice and the Fly gets major points for being completely unexpected. I confess that, at first, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the story was going. The book has a distinct The Perks of Being A Wallflower vibe, and I couldn’t help comparing the two stories at every turn. There are lots of parallels between the two: an epistolary format, a lonely narrator on the fringes of the social scene, a concerned teacher who tries to guide him through life, a childhood friend who’s passed away, etc. Also similar to Perks is the feeling that there’s some sort of buried trauma, though you don’t know what it might be.

The more I read, though, the more I realized that Alice and Perks are two very different books. One major difference is that Charlie, the protagonist in Perks, is endearing; Greg is harder to feel close to. Even though the majority of the book is written from his perspective, I always felt like he was a million miles away. And, though I sympathized with Greg, I can’t say that I empathized with him. In fact, at times he made me downright uncomfortable. He fixates on Alice, secretly following her around, lurking outside her home, and relying upon proximity to her (without her knowledge) for comfort. There’s one scene where Greg picks up Alice’s discarded cigarette butt and puts it in his mouth in order to feel close to her, then holds the smoldering nub of the cigarette in his hand until it burns a crater in his palm, because he’s unwilling and unable to let it go.

Another big difference between Alice and Perks is the family dynamic. The characterization of Greg’s parents is masterful, one of my favorite things about Rice’s book. The best words to describe them would be “preoccupied” and “self-absorbed.” Greg’s dad, a plastic surgeon, is a workaholic who’s so immersed in his work that he brings pre- and post-operative photos to the dinner table, and eats with only one hand so he can shuffle through his paperwork with the other. Greg’s mom is even more fascinating. She’s an anxiety-ridden social climber who’s constantly redesigning and renovating the house, fussing over gourmet coffees, and perfecting her charred salmon entrée to impress her hoity-toity, high society friends.

I would go so far as to say that Greg’s mom is one of the book’s biggest testaments to Rice’s talent as a writer. She’s got all the elements of your typical rich, appearance-obsessed housewife, but without being a cliché; Rice rounds out the stereotypical characteristics with other traits that show the complexity of the mother’s character. Her positive attributes are pronounced, as are her flaws and vulnerabilities. She’s surprisingly tender at times, shockingly fragile at others. I’d happily read an entire book about Greg’s mom, just to learn more about what makes her tick.

Something else I liked about Alice is that Rice does a great job of keeping you guessing up until the end. Given how distant Greg is, you get the feeling that you’re missing pieces of the narrative, or at least pieces of what you should know about his life. There are his frequent allusions to the unnamed “Them,” as well as hints about something that happened to his sister at some place called Finner’s Island. Interspersed with Greg’s narration to Alice are transcripts of worrisome interviews with Greg’s family, which build a sense of mystery and anticipation, giving you the impression that the story’s leading up to something big.

My biggest rub with Alice and the Fly is its bleakness. I get that novels can’t – and shouldn’t – be rainbows and sunshine all the time, but the ugliness and grimness in this particular book were oppressive and unrelenting. There’s little to no brightness to mitigate the awfulness, and because of how distant Greg is, you can’t even turn to him for comfort or solidarity.

This bleakness, coupled with how hard it was for me to connect with Greg, made me hesitate before I finally gave Alice and the Fly a 4-star rating. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see myself ever rereading this book, and I admit I’d be happy to put it behind me. That said, I can’t deny that it’s fantastically plotted and written. The story is admirably crafted by a very talented author, and I did not see the ending coming (I’m always pleased when a book can surprise me that way). My suggestion is that if you’re at all intrigued by my review of Alice and the Fly, you should give the book a shot. It may not make you feel good, but it will keep you thinking about its characters and plot long after you put it back on the shelf.

Review: Dead and Breakfast by Kimberly G. Giarratano

Dead and Breakfast Book Cover Dead and Breakfast
Kimberly G. Giarratano

Despite living in Key West his whole life, 18-year-old Liam Breyer is a skeptic of the supernatural until a vengeful spirit, murdered fifty years ago, nearly drowns him in a swimming pool. Luckily help arrives in the form of pretty — albeit homesick — ghost whisperer Autumn Abernathy, whose newly-divorced mom has dragged her to the island to live and work at the Cayo Hueso, a haunted bed and breakfast.

Although they initially mistrust each other, Autumn and Liam team up to solve the decades-old mystery. But on an island where every third resident is a ghost, dealing with an unstable spirit has deadly consequences. If Liam and Autumn don’t unmask the killer soon, they’re likely to become Key West’s latest haunted attraction.

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

A free ARC of this book was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.

After finishing Dead and Breakfast, I confess to feeling a little underwhelmed. The novel started off strong, with intergenerational drama and a vengeful, violent ghost, but it was ultimately undermined by instalove, lackluster characters, and a way too convenient ending.

For the first several chapters, Dead and Breakfast does well. The action begins when Autumn Abernathy, one of the novel’s two protagonists, relocates to Key West with her divorcee mother to manage the Cayo Hueso Bed and Breakfast. Autumn, who has always been able to see and communicate with ghosts, soon discovers that the Cayo is inhabited by the spirit of a young Hispanic girl murdered in the 1950s.

The Cayo’s spooky resident isn’t your friendly Caspar-like ghost – she’s out for blood, and she’s fixated on Liam Breyer, the cute young handyman who does odd jobs around the bed and breakfast. Autumn and Liam join forces to try to resolve the ghost’s unfinished business before she ends up harming them and/or destroying the Cayo.

Dead and Breakfast will feel pretty familiar to those who’ve read Giarratano’s other works to date, which also focus on girls who can speak to ghosts and must try to discover how they died. One thing that differentiates this book from the others, though, is that the ghost in question is a badass. She’s not content to sit back and wait while Autumn investigates; she takes matters into her own hands in whatever ways she can, and she isn’t afraid to possess people or cause them harm. An aggressive, pissed off, violent ghost was a nice way for Giarratano to change things up.

Another thing I enjoyed about Dead and Breakfast was the setting. After reading this book, I’m dying to take a trip to Key West. The atmosphere, food, music, and culture seem like a lot of fun, and I’d love to attend a street festival, take a midnight ghost tour, or eat seafood from a roadside stand. I will say, though – for a book that’s set in one of the most haunted cities in America, featuring a B&B whose main attraction is supposed to be its spooky tenants, I expected to see a lot more ghosts than I did. There were only two, and that was kind of disappointing.

One of my biggest complaints about Dead and Breakfast was the romance. I didn’t mind the attraction that formed between Autumn and Liam, but the depth of it wasn’t realistic. I found it hard to believe that they’d developed such an all-consuming relationship in such a short time, falling so deeply in love that they were willing to sacrifice their goals and drastically alter their life plans. It felt out of character and majorly detracted from the book. Certain interactions felt melodramatic, too, like [START SPOILER]Liam’s drinking and his temper tantrum about Autumn leaving for college[END SPOILER].

This, plus the fact that the book wrapped up far too neatly (it was super unrealistic and didn’t do justice to the story or the characters) prevented me from being able to give Dead and Breakfast as high a rating as I originally anticipated. That said, I still have high hopes for the next Cayo Hueso Mystery book. Maybe I’ll get more of those ghosts I wanted as the series continues!

Review: The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale by Danielle E. Shipley

The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale Book Cover The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale
Danielle E. Shipley

Welcome to Avalon, a Renaissance Faire where heroes of legend never die. Where the Robin Hood walking the streets is truly the noble outlaw himself. Where the knightly and wizardly players of King Arthur’s court are in fact who they profess to be. Where the sense of enchantment in the air is not mere feeling, but the Fey magic of a paradise hidden in plain sight.

Enter Allyn-a-Dale. The grief of his father’s death still fresh and the doom of his own world looming, swirling realities leave the young minstrel marooned in an immortal Sherwood Forest, where he is recruited as a member of Robin Hood’s infamous outlaw band. But Allyn’s new life may reach its end before it’s scarcely begun. Their existence under threat, the Merry Men are called upon to embark on a journey to the dangerous world Outside – ours – on a quest which must be achieved without delay, or eternity in Avalon will not amount to very long at all.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Because I’m on a life-long quest to find and devour books about Robin Hood and his Merry Men, I was delighted to stumble upon The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale. A Renaissance Faire populated by living legends like King Arthur, Merlin, and the dashing Robin Hood? Count me in!

At the start of the story, newly orphaned minstrel Allyn-a-Dale is brought, rather unexpectedly, to the mystical Avalon. Avalon is a “place of magical renewal,” a refuge where legendary beings are kept alive and well by the magic of the fey. In order to keep the modern-day people who don’t live in Avalon (known as “Outsiders”) from discovering their secret, the legends hide in plain sight, operating Avalon as a Renaissance Faire and pretending to be actors portraying their real selves.

“While you’re in Avalon, you are employed by the Faire. Do room, board, and conditionally eternal youth sound like fair wages to you?”

Allyn is graciously permitted to join the Faire’s residents as one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. All goes smoothly until someone steals the magical artifact that concentrates the faeries’ power and keeps Avalon’s residents alive. Robin and his crew vow to recover the artifact, and they venture into the modern world in pursuit.

Legendary characters and modern ways of life clash in this book; in many ways, it’s quite jarring. For example, I found it disconcerting that the wizard Merlin owns a computer. Likewise, there’s something vaguely horrifying about hearing one of the Merry Men utter the words “chillax, you pedant,” or seeing Queen Guinevere “grooving along to the Rock Minstrel’s ‘Round Table Rhapsody’” while playing a Dance-Dance-Avalon video game.

That said, there are times when it’s amusing to see the Merry Men try to assimilate to contemporary culture. Will Scarlet, Robin’s cousin and fellow outlaw, is an Outside/pop culture enthusiast, and he serves as the Merry Men’s sometimes-bumbling-yet-always-energetic guide during the jaunt through the “real” world. There’s a great scene when the group is initiated into the mysteries of placing an order in a fast-food drive-through, and I enjoyed the irony of Robin shopping for clothes at Target. (Archery…targets…get it?) Best of all, though, is when Will tries to engage the Merry Men in a “traditional road-trip game,” at which time his companions totally fail to grasp the nuances of the Alphabet Name Game.

There’s a great deal of goofy humor in The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale, some of it hitting its mark and some of it not. A few of the cheesier lines had me wincing, like when Merlin learns Allyn’s name and asks, “How do you spell that?” Allyn promptly supplies, “T,H,A,T,” which made me groan out loud.

“His gaze incredulous, Allyn whispered, ‘Do you really rob people?’
‘Unless you count the outrageous price of an ice cream cone around here, not so much nowadays,’ Will said, with a matter-of-fact shrug.”

My main complaint about this novel is that it’s simple and one-dimensional. While I found it to be a very pleasant book, I would have liked greater complexity and depth. It was much lighter and fluffier than I expected, and the characters’ lack of substance left me unsatisfied.

Ultimately, while I enjoyed adding this new Robin Hood story to my quiver (see what I did there?), the overall tone wasn’t exactly what I’d bargained for. I find I prefer more complex Robin Hood tales, with conflict and an edgy tone, to the light-hearted versions like this one. That said, The Ballad of Allyn-a-Dale boasts a fun premise and great writing, so if you’ve an interest in merry outlaws, it’s still worth giving this book a shot.

And now, I’ll leave you with a few amusing quotes from the book:

“There’s a lot of overlap, I’ve found, between the truth and the impossible.”

*****

“…Merlin paused between the chairs of Gawain and Lancelot, turned to face those assembled, and announced, ‘Just so everybody knows, we are all thoroughly screwed.’”

*****

“‘Thank you,’ said Allyn, lovingly embracing his guitar-lute as a mother would her ugly baby.”

Blog Tour, Giveaway, and Review: The Midnight Sea by Kat Ross

Tour banner for The Midnight Sea by Kat Ross

About The Midnight Sea

Book cover for The Midnight Sea by Kat RossThey are the light against the darkness.

The steel against the necromancy of the Druj.

And they use demons to hunt demons….

Nazafareen lives for revenge. A girl of the isolated Four-Legs Clan, all she knows about the King’s elite Water Dogs is that they bind wicked creatures called daevas to protect the empire from the Undead. But when scouts arrive to recruit young people with the gift, she leaps at the chance to join their ranks. To hunt the monsters that killed her sister.

Scarred by grief, she’s willing to pay any price, even if it requires linking with a daeva named Darius. Human in body, he’s possessed of a terrifying power, one that Nazafareen controls. But the golden cuffs that join them have an unwanted side effect. Each experiences the other’s emotions, and human and daeva start to grow dangerously close.

As they pursue a deadly foe across the arid waste of the Great Salt Plain to the glittering capital of Persepolae, unearthing the secrets of Darius’s past along the way, Nazafareen is forced to question his slavery—and her own loyalty to the empire. But with an ancient evil stirring in the north, and a young conqueror sweeping in from the west, the fate of an entire civilization may be at stake…

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Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

three stars
(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)

The Midnight Sea is a tale of magic and forbidden love, set in ancient Persia. Let me repeat that. Magic. Forbidden love. Ancient Persia. Need I say more?

For those of you who need just a little more information before you run off and grab a copy of this book, allow me to set the stage. The book’s protagonist is Nazafareen, a young nomad whose life is forever altered when her sister is possessed and killed by a Druj, a kind of demon. Devastated, Nazafareen devotes her life to eradicating Druj from the land and joins the Water Dogs, a special force that harnesses the powers of chained Druj – daevas – and uses them to fight their evil brethren.

“It had been five years since the wight took my sister, but the flames of my guilt and hatred had not dimmed. If anything, they burned hotter than ever. I had fed them everything I was, everything I had. In many ways, they were all that was left of me.”

Nazafareen is assigned to a young and mighty daeva named Darius. The two are bonded to one another so that Nazafareen can wield his power, a necessity that both parties resent. It facilitates a flow of thoughts, emotions, and sensations between the two that’s disorienting at best and panic-inducing at worst.

“I wasn’t alone anymore. Floodgates opened in my mind, releasing a torrent of alien emotions. Next to me, Darius drew a sharp breath as the same thing happened to him, although I barely heard it. Panic surged through me, followed by an aching loss so deep it tore a hole in my heart. I didn’t know if it was mine or his, or both feeding off the other. And I felt his power, a deep, churning pool of it, held tight in my fist.”

As you can guess from the book’s synopsis, the intense dislike Nazafareen and Darius feel for one another eventually morphs into acceptance, then into grudging respect. They begin to see each other as more than vicious daeva and tight-fisted master, and the more time they spend together, the more they’re forced to question everything they’ve been taught about the conflict between their races. Their doubts are further amplified when the Water Dogs are dispatched to track down a group of escaped, rampaging daevas, a journey that brings several unpleasant revelations.

I thought I would be most captivated by the forbidden romance in The Midnight Sea, but what ended up being even more compelling was the theme of repression that runs through the book. Darius has been raised in captivity, conditioned to believe he is twisted and sinful, redeemable only through discipline and control. He must suppress his “wicked nature,” just as he and Nazafareen must reject their “unnatural” feelings for one another. These two aren’t the only ones battling against themselves. Ilyas, the Water Dogs’ captain, is also waging an internal war, one I found endlessly fascinating and that made him one of the most interesting characters in the story.

“We all had our ghosts, I thought. People we had loved – or hated – so much that they had become a part of us. No one’s choices in this life were really their own. Even our brave captain was driven by desires and insecurities that had more to do with the accident of his birth than anything else.”

I was enamored of the book’s setting as well. The story takes place in a fantasy version of ancient Persia, a backdrop to which I haven’t had much exposure. Not everything is historically accurate, and in her author’s note Ross admits to placing real people and events in contexts that aren’t necessarily factual, but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment. It was refreshing to read descriptions of religious practices, scenery and climates, dietary norms, and other cultural matters that I haven’t seen a thousand times before. Hurray for originality!

All in all, The Midnight Sea is a promising start to this new series, and I have high hopes for the sequel. Ancient-Persian fantasies with conflicted characters may not have been my standard fare in the past, but I’m thinking I need more of them in my future!

Author Bio

Author photo of Kat Ross

Olympus Digital Camera

Kat Ross worked as a journalist at the United Nations for ten years before happily falling back into what she likes best: making stuff up. She lives in Westchester with her kid and a few sleepy cats. Kat is also the author of the dystopian thriller Some Fine Day (Skyscape, 2014), about a world where the sea levels have risen sixty meters. She loves magic, monsters and doomsday scenarios. Preferably with mutants.

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Giveaway

Xpresso Book Tours is giving away a $30 Amazon gift card to one lucky winner. The giveaway is open internationally and can be entered via the Rafflecopter form below.

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Review: The City’s Son by Tom Pollock

The City's Son Book Cover The City's Son
Tom Pollock

Tom Pollock's debut novel and the first volume of the Skyscraper Throne series, The City's Son is an imaginative tale of adventure set in a city that is quite literally alive.

Beneath the streets of London lies a city of monsters and miracles, where wild train spirits stampede over the tracks and glass-skinned dancers with glowing veins light the streets.

Following a devastating betrayal, Beth Bradley, a sixteen-year-old graffiti artist, is suspended from school. Running from a home that she shares with her father who has never recovered after Beth's mother's death, Beth stumbles into the hidden city and meets Filius Viae, London's asphalt-hued crown prince. And her timing couldn't have been more perfect. An ancient enemy is stirring under St. Paul's Cathedral, determined to stoke the flames of a centuries-old war, and Beth and Fin find themselves drawn into the depths of the mysterious urban wonderland, hoping to prevent the destruction of the city they both know and love.

Review:

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The City’s Son is the essence of urban fantasy: a tale of wonder, set in a city whose very foundations are alive with magic. In Pollock’s novel, London is the domain of Mater Viae, a powerful goddess who rules as Lady of the Streets. After reigning for centuries, Mater Viae has been mysteriously absent from her realm for nigh on 16 years, and a usurper is gathering his forces to take control of the city.

Reach, the Crane King (we’re talking the machinery crane, not the bird crane), is slowly overtaking London, increasing in power each day. A force of urban sickness, Reach is the “city’s own greed, killing itself in its haste to grow.” With Mater Viae gone, the only person left to defend London is Filius, Mater Viae’s 16-year-old son. The task seems impossible until Filius’ path crosses that of Beth, a lonely human teenager whose recently-widowed father is too sunk in his grief to properly care for his daughter. Beth joins Filius in his quest to battle Reach and his minions, and The City’s Son chronicles their attempts to recruit the various magical beings living in London and wage war against the Crane King.

The City’s Son reminded me very much of The Night Circus, in that I enjoyed its creativity and imagination but wasn’t sold on the characters and plot. What first drew me to this story was the promise of London being “a city of monsters and miracles,” and in this matter Pollock certainly delivered. Unbeknownst to most of London’s human inhabitants, nearly everything in the city is alive, animated by magic. The trains are powered by Railwraith spirits, and the streetlights are illuminated by glowing lamp people who communicate by blinking in flashes of semaphoring light. There are Scaffwolves – vicious metal beasts formed of construction scaffolding – and glass Pylon Spiders that scurry about the city via Internet/telecom wires and feast on people’s voices.

Pollock’s got a vivid imagination, and he fills his pages with inspired creatures and striking language. Filius has skin the color of cement, sweats oil, and has arms that can crush steel girders. Another character gives the impression that his “smile was indestructible, that you could put [his] smile through a car-crusher and his grin alone would come out whole on the other side.” Mater Viae is said to have “laid the foundation of the streets[…] and the bones of the roads buried under them. She stoked the Steamwraiths’ engines and gave the lamps their first sparks. She forged the chains that hold old Father Thames in place.” The City’s Son is a fantastical, wondrous world in which anything is possible.

As creative as the world building is, the plot and characterization leave something to be desired. Beth’s allegiance to Filius, in particular, felt like a stretch. Beth meets Fil in the street one day and decides almost immediately to not only join his cause, but to forsake her father, home, and life to do so. I realize the two of them are supposed to be kindred spirits, drawn to one another because they both know what it’s like to feel lonely and abandoned, but Beth’s instant and unwavering devotion felt unnatural to me.

I wasn’t impressed by Filius, either. He is foundering under the weight of his subjects’ expectations, unable to measure up to his beloved, mighty mother. Although I usually root for underdogs, the problem with The City’s Son is that Filius isn’t just perceived as inept by other characters; he’s seen that way by the reader as well. I like my crown princes brave and heroic and powerful; Filius is none of those things. He lacks experience, has no clue what he’s doing, and especially doesn’t know how to lead an army against a force of evil.

The City’s Son is great in terms of imaginative magic and creative world building, but if you’re looking for something more I’m not sure this book will provide it. It does have great quotes, though, so I’ll leave you with a few of my favorites:

“Only the people you love can scare you witless enough for true courage.”

“Graffiti tangled over the wall, but there was nothing interesting, only messy, graceless tags. Beth had no time for signatures like that. Bricks were a journal for her, not a megaphone; she didn’t paint to shout about her impact on the city but to show the city’s impact on her.”

“‘Inseparable, they used to call us,’ she said, ‘like it was ordinary. Like it wasn’t a bloody miracle to have someone who can tell you’ve got a broken heart by the way you button your coat.’”