Review: “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (Guide, #1) 
by Mackenzi Lee (Goodreads Author)

2 stars out of 5
I really wanted to like this book.

It was one of a lot of people’s most anticipated books of 2017; when people got it and read it, they loved it; I don’t think I’d seen a single negative review from people whose opinion I trusted and respected. So I went into this book with not necessarily sky-high expectations, but at least the expectation that I would enjoy it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t. I really didn’t.

And I know exactly why I didn’t enjoy it, because it all boils down to: our garbage, trash-can of a protagonist, Henry “Monty” Montague.

Now, I’d wager you might be thinking: “But, Mad, he’s supposed be an insufferable trash can at the start of this book because it’s all about him learning and growing as a person.”

Mmm…but does he really? Because, at the end of this book, the only thing I saw that had changed was he’d gotten everything he’d ever wanted and learned, well, nothing. There was no lesson taught to Monty. He didn’t adjust his views of the world in any way, even when being repeatedly called out on them by both his best friend, Percy, and his badass queen of a younger sister, Felicity — seriously, this girl is a queen and Monty does not deserve to call himself related to her in any way.

Monty is a rake, to put it politely, and a spoiled, pampered, privileged af, rich white brat who does whatever the hell he wants with little-to-no consequence to put it not-so-politely. He drinks to much, he sleeps with whomever he wants, consequences be damned, and ultimately sees almost everyone in his life, save Percy, as either disposable, usable, or insufferable.

He gives no thought for the well-being of the other people who get caught along with him in his various sexual escapades, especially the women and how their reputations are much more adversely affected than his own; nor even how the situation would be completely different if, say, his friend, Percy — who is a character of mixed-race — was the one who had been caught in such a compromising position. And, oh yes, Felicity and Percy drag him for this, but it neverseems to set in, because there is a point where in the back fucking third of the narrative Monty is still oblivious and Felicity actually says: “If he doesn’t understand it, don’t explain it to him.”

LOUDER FOR YOUR TRASH CAN BROTHER IN THE BACK, FELICITY BB. Truly, a queen that he does not deserve.

But what I find most frustrating about this trash can of a protagonist, is how blatantly manipulative the narrative is in trying to force me to feel sympathy for him.

For nearly the entirety fo the narrative, Monty is never made to own up to his actions in a way that produces serious consequences that actually stick. Instead, characters frequently show Monty undeserved amounts of sympathy and pity, simpering at him how he’s had “a rough go of it” and yet never seem to expect an apology from him in return. Yes, there is at least one moment, where I understand feeling sorry for him, but this is something that is pervasive within the entirety of the narrative, and I find it vomit-inducing. God-forbid Monty just actually become a decent human being — silly, Mad, what am I thinking.

Even characters later, who know him only for a moment, add to the train of people consistently telling Monty that he “has value” (beyond his good looks) — of course he has value in thinking on his feet and getting out of tight spots. Do you know why that is? It’s because he is a human trash can whose consistently abominable behaviour has required him to learn the art of being a good liar and a con man in order to detangle himself from precarious situations. What’s shocking to me is how, if anybody tries to say this to Monty, he merely waves it off as “Oh, haha, I know.” He doesn’t hate himself for it, he doesn’t apologise for it, and it’s clearly not something that truly phases him with the grand exception of when it potentially interferes with his blossoming romance with Percy.

And yet the most horrifically manipulative part of this entire false journey of development for Monty comes in the form of his father. Let’s start with this: we are introduced to Monty’s stern, overbearing, and clearly perpetually-disappointed-in-Monty father very early in the narrative. Monty’s father makes it clear that if his son steps even one toe out of line during his Grand Tour, that he might as well not bother returning home, as he shall not be welcome. He makes particular note that he does not want to hear about Monty being caught with any young men during his Grand Tour. Therefore, yeah, right off the bat: Monty’s father is probably a massive douchecanoe. We don’t get any more interaction with him to confirm this, and all that we hear about him later comes from the lips of people who hate him; therefore we can remember that everyone is already biased against him.

That being said, I am in no way defending Monty’s father when Monty reveals that the man beat him to a bloody pulp after finding out he was sleeping with boys, which eventually led to his expulsion from Eton, an elite all-boys school in England. Abuse of that nature is not okay, but it is the only instance we hear of it, and it’s brought in as a way to say “Oh poor you” to Monty and soften the reader to him. Call me a cold, heartless person, but I’m not swayed by this. I’m not swayed because we already established that Monty’s father is a bit of a douchecanoe, so I wasn’t at all surprised by this. I was, however, surprised by how the narrative seemed to think this gave Monty some sort of moral high ground.


Monty’s behaviour is still appalling and reprehensible, and the narrative should know better than to say that such a revelation cancels out everything we have experienced from him up to that point.

And this is fairly early in the narrative — BUT WAIT…it gets better.

The “climax” of this novel — I use air quotes because I was yawning through most of it — features the final nail in the coffin of the defamation of Monty’s father. We learn that (surprise, surprise), he was just as big of a rake as Monty and that clearly. Must make all of Monty’s behaviour alright, because he’s mad at his father and his father is just as bad as he is.

I repeat: NO.

This provides Monty absolutely ZERO moral high ground. It does illuminate how Monty’s father looks at him and sees all of the same failings that he himself possesses, which adds an interesting element of self-loathing to their tempestuous relationship; it’s not just that he’s a douchecanoe, but a douchecanoe who sees a mirror image of himself in many ways, and tries very hard to stamp it out of his son. The methods are wretched and absolutely reprehensible, but this doesn’t excuse anything that Monty does. And I find it appalling that the narrative is written in such a way that it seriously suggests this.

When this novel finally ended, and Monty makes his verbal promise of “wanting to be better” solely because he got literally everything he wanted while destroying a whole lot of lives along the way and suffering only a physical consequence, I wanted to vomit. I was frustrated beyond belief and was so glad that I’d borrowed this book from the library as opposed to buying it, because it would’ve been a 500+ page waste of money.

The only positives about this novel were Percy, Felicity, and the privateers who appear in the back third of the book. I am firmly of the belief that Felicity, our asexual secret-surgeon-in-training queen, should have been the protagonist; I am firmly of the belief that she should have punted her worthless brother of a fence and left him behind the moment he literally committed robbery out of spite and nearly got them all killed as a result while never apologising for it; and I am firmly of the belief that this book had promise but needed Monty to be less of a trash can or show more clear growth throughout the novel to be worthwhile.

Given the pitch of the sequel, I have a feeling it’ll be infinitely better than this book just because it’s all about Felicity, pirates, and a science girl gang.


Review: “Shadowsong” by S. Jae-Jones

Shadowsong by S. Jae-Jones

5 stars out of 5
**A huge shout-out to Serena at Wednesday Books for sending me an ARC of this novel for the purpose of review**

For the monstrous, and those who love us.

I am slain.

Do you guys ever read books that are so, so good on an emotional level that you finish them and just have nothing left? Nothing. I am a husk, I have been officially drained and wrung out and felt every feeling under the sun.

And this started with the Author’s Note — no, really. The Author’s Note was the point where this feels train left the station. It’s rare, I think, to have an Author’s Note at the start of a book as opposed to its end, and this is one that is mandatory reading. S. Jae-Jones lays herself bare to the reader in a way that is both insightful and profound, prepping the reader for the madness-filled journey on which they are about to embark.

“Madness is not a gift,” I said angrily.
“Nor is it a curse,” the Count returned gently. “Madness simply is.”

This is a book all about madness. Characters flirting with madness, descending into madness, fighting madness, embracing madness, accepting madness.

What is madness?

As S. Jae-Jones says in her Author’s Note: “Madness is a strange word,” and, truly, it is. Madness can be destructive, transcendent, beautiful in a terrible sense, ugly in the realest sense, and a terribly painful truth. The madness of this novel and of its characters is the madness of both mental illness and a self-discovery, self-realization, and self-actualization.

”Who are you?” Josef asked, but his reflection’s mouth did not move in time with his.
I am you, the other Josef replied.
“And who am I?” he whispered.
The reflection only smiled

Sokrates once wrote gnothi seauton: know thyself. But to know oneself and to accept oneself are not the same thing, and I think that for many, the greater struggle is not so much to know but accept oneself. That is the journey Liesl must embark upon in Shadowsong.

If Wintersong was the discovering of herself, then Shadowsongis Liesl’s great reckoning with and eventual acceptance of herself. And that includes every beautiful and terrible and wonderful and ugly thing about herself. It is a difficult journey, it is a heartwrenching journey, and at the end of it all, it is a cathartic journey.

Yet it is not Liesl alone who must make this journey; so too must Josef and Der Erlkonig, the two other most central figures in this duology. And while Liesl is undoubtedly our protagonist, both Josef and The Goblin King must endure reckonings of their own as a result of the events in Wintersong.

S. Jae-Jones uses an “interlude” structure to weave the backstory of The Goblin King into the present-day narrative almost like a strange fairy tale — how appropriate, given the strange and otherworldly nature of the current Der Erlkonig. And yet within that interlude structure, as well as within the primary narrative, it is the small shreds of humanity to which The Goblin King clings that we, too, as an audience latch onto; those scraps of “sanity” that fight against the “madness”, the person we want The Goblin King to be that battles with the Der Erlkonig we fear he shall ultimately become.

The stakes are high, both on a macrocosmic and a microcosmic scale, with The Wild Hunt appearing like some kind of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to “right” the balance of the universe after Liesl and The Goblin King broke the “old laws” and, thus, spelled doom for not only themselves, but the rest of mankind. They ride through the night taking souls, all the while Der Erlkonig battles with the monstrous within him that seeks to consume every part of his body and soul the more he must ride with The Wild Hunt. It is only his connection to Liesl, and to the music she creates that helps keep that little flicker of humanity alight within him; her music acts as a bridge not only between the world of the Underground and the Living, but also as a bridge between the “human” and the “monster.” It’s dark and thrilling and fantastic.

As for Josef, the reckoning that comes for him is visceral and heartbreaking. Seemingly tangential for much of Wintersong, he truly takes center stage beside his sister as the deuteragonist, just as, honestly, he should be. The connection shared between Liesl and Josef — one of familial love and of music — has frayed in their time apart and in Liesl’s keeping of secrets from Josef. The erosion and repairing of this relationship drives Liesl and Josef for much of the story, but it in no way feels like a forced angst; given the events and revelations of Wintersong, and the hard truths to which both of these characters must own up, the fracture within their bond is understandable.

It is also compelling. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for sibling dynamics, but I was fully invested in the dynamic between Liesl and Josef. I hoped for nothing more than them being able to repair the damage done to their relationship, and to both find some form of happiness — despite knowing that, given S. Jae-Jones’ Author’s Note as well as the ending of Wintersong, this story was likely to come to a bittersweet end.

As for the music? Music remains, ever still, its own character within this narrative. If Philip Pullman used daemons as a manifestation of people’s souls, then so is music oftentimes used interchangeably with the souls of Liesl, The Goblin King, and Josef. It is music through which they can speak to each other; speak ugly truths and pretty lies, their darkest fears and greatest joys, and, ultimately, their love for one another. Love, in all shapes and forms, is the most powerful emotion in this novel, but you can bet your ass it’s not always a happy emotion.

As soon as you submit
Surrender flesh and bone,
That love takes on a life much bigger than your own.
It uses you at whim and drives you to despair.
And forces you to feel more joy than you can bear.
Love gives you pleasure,
And love brings you pain!
And yet, when both are gone,
Love will still remain.

Say what you want about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies (it’s got problems), the lyrics to its titular aria are pretty perfectly applied here. In fact, one could argue the lyrics wonderfully encapsulate the emotional core of the “love stories” that appear within Shadowsong. Whether it be a familial love or a romantic love, these characters feel all of its ecstasies and passions — two words with both positive and negative connotations.

I mentioned in my review of Wintersong that both the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as of Hades and Persephone, played a big role in the narrative, and Shadowsong continues that, banking particularly on the latter myth. In fact, the story of Persephone, and her transition from a bright spring goddess to the darker Queen of the Underworld, is paid particular attention directly within the narrative. It sets up what is the final evolution and Liesl’s character: the transition from light to dark has begun, now she must embrace the dark as a part of her, even if to the outside world, or even to oneself, it is “ugly” or “monstrous.”

You are the monster I claim, mein Herr.
Perhaps I loved the monstrous because I was a monster. Josef, the Goblin King, and me. We were grotesques in the world above, too different, too odd, too talented, too much. We were all too much.

If you haven’t guessed: I loved this book. I loved this dark journey through the psyches of our three primary players. I loved the interweaving of mythology and folklore with real, raw human emotion. I loved that, when I finished this book, I just sat there staring at the page, breathing in and out, feeling as though I’d been put through the ringer.

I know there are those who may not enjoy this series the way that I do, but something about it speaks to me on a very deep, visceral level. Something about these characters and their descents into their own versions of madness grip me in a way that few novels manage to.

And for that, I tip my hat to S. Jae-Jones for not only writing beautifully, but writing a beautiful story within that lush prose that grips my heart in its talons and refuses to let it go.

Brava, maestra. Brava.

Review: “Murder on the Orient Express” by Agatha Christie (narr. by Kenneth Branagh)

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieMurder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) by Agatha ChristieKenneth Branagh (Narrator)

5 stars out of 5
I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express a plethora of times. I’ve even listened to another audiobook rendition of it as narrated by Dan Stevens. And that production was lovely; I rate it highly for Stevens’ performance of a fun mystery.
But Kenneth Branagh is one of my faves. He’s a creator who, whenever his name appears, you have my attention. And while I will agree with anyone who critiques/criticises his film adaptation of this novel (even while I personally had great fun with it), I will say that listening to him read it was a pure delight.
Branagh breezes through different sexes and accents as if it’s second nature to him, and I never had difficulty in discerning which character was speaking. Given the number of players in this mystery tale, that’s a major plus. I’m sure that his various voices may not jive with everyone, but I thought they were great fun and made re-experiencing this story nothing short of a good time.

Review: “There’s Someone Inside Your House” by Stephanie Perkins

There's Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins
There’s Someone Inside Your House 
by Stephanie Perkins (Goodreads Author)

This book is…okay, I guess?

It is interesting to see an author like Stephanie Perkins, who really has made her bread and butter with YA contemporary romances, write something that is, essentially, a teen slasher-flick at its heart. Like, wow, OKAY, that is way out in left field and I 100% commend Perkins for doing something very different from what we’d expect from her.

I mean…there is a romance in here, but it’s also very much a slasher thriller.

But, see, that’s kind of the problem: this book is very clunky. The two elements of this teen romance and the teen slasher-flick story don’t always gel very well — it ends up coming across more like a B-movie than something where, when I finished, I thought “that was really good.”

It’s certainly entertaining in its macabre way — the way that only slasher films really can be entertaining — and when Stephanie Perkins wants to crank it up to eleven, she does so with gusto. I’d actually be interested in seeing her write more thrillers and continuing in this darker vein.

Maybe next time just ease off the romance.

Review: “Walk on Earth a Stranger” by Rae Carson

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Walk on Earth a Stranger (The Gold Seer Trilogy, #1) 
by Rae Carson

4 out of 5 stars
It took me far longer than it should have to read this book. It’s sat on my kindle for who knows how long, started at at least three different points in time, and only just finished now.

I don’t know why — okay, well, that’s not entirely true: I sort of know why?

This book is a slow burn, and something about the notably slow start made me antsy. Where was the adventure? The search for gold and the survival? Definitely not in the opening quarter-to-third of the book. It wasn’t until I was over halfway through the book that I realized how vital that slow start was: it allowed me to spend a lot of time with our protagonist, Leah Westfall, and to empathize with her before being flung into some rather harrowing situations with her.

And, wow, does the back half of this book PICK. UP. and pick up fast. The moment the wagon trains start heading west, that’s when the real adventure starts. There’s action, adventure, romance, births, deaths, and plenty of drama that never feels ridiculous. Despite the one element of magic — Leah’s “gold sense” — this is more historical fiction than it is anything else, and I, for one, cannot wait to see where the other two books take this story.

Review: “Tower of Dawn” by Sarah J. Maas

Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas
2.5 stars out of 5 

I. Hate. Everything.

Cards on the table: I love Chaol. Chaol is my favourite character in the Throne of Glass series followed immediately by Celaena. Yes. Celaena. Not Aelin. Celaena. They are basically different f-ing characters by this point, so I had to make the distinction.I wish I didn’t have to make the distinction. But, alas, that is what has happened with this series.

I loved the first two novels of the Throne of Glass series: they were mindless, fun fantasy-action stories where I figured: “Great. Now the assassin and her captain of the guard lover and the crown prince boy-toy will team up with our QUEEN Nehemeia (RIP) to take down the evil king and it’l ll be great.”

I was a sweet summer child, who knew nothing of the winter that is the (by this point) toxic relationship I have entered into with Sarah J. Maas’ writing.

Yes, I said toxic. I almost said abusive. And here’s why: Maas has a habit of inducing brain-damage in her characters — specifically, her male characters who are initially the main love interest before she writes some new dominant, extremely testosterone-filled, overly-masculine male hero to “dominate” and likely magically mate with her female protagonist.

Did you catch the bitterness in my tone? Get a taste of that saltiness? Oh, good. I just wanted to make sure it came through.

Now, here’s the thing (and why I say toxic): I can still enjoy Sarah J. Maas books, despite acknowledging a systemic problem like literally almost every single romance that shows up in all of her books — and that’s a lot of romances. They are trash. By the end, very action-packed trash…but trash, despite my constantly wishing that they were better than they were. That, somehow, someday, I will be able to say “YES. YES THAT IS ACTUALLY A GOOD BOOK AND I FEEL FREE!”

They have sentence structure that makes me wonder if she even actually has an editor checking on such things; they have “foreshadowing” that requires air-quotes because she likes to smash you over the head repeatedly with a fucking anvil until the moment of the “reveal” so that you can go “Oh, wow. Much surprise, very twist. I never could have predicted.”; and she also likes to assassinate her characters.

Not necessarily kill them, but assassinate their character in such a way that you cannot like them. You cannot like them because they were a previous love interest and we’ve now moved on to a new one.

This nugget bothers me more than anything else, specifically, when it comes to the Throne of Glass series. It bothers me because I love Chaol. He was an interesting character with a backstory I was intrigued by, especially when you used it to understand his personal code of ethics and the majority of his actions. But obviously we cannot have nice things, so Maas induced brain-damage in Chaol so that, in Queen of Shadows, he would behave entirely out-of-character in such a way that Celaena-who-is-now-Aelin (don’t even get me started) would never be at fault, and we could just say, “Eff Chaol, bring on Rowan.”

Unless you’re me, in which case, you’re still standing on the deck of the sunken USS Chaolaena, having never (and I do mean never) warmed to Rowan, and dreaming of what the series could have been.

What does this have to do with Tower of Dawn? Well, Tower of Dawn, is the “Chaol novel.” It is here to explain away his absence in Empire of Storms, and Sarah J. Maas’ attempt at retconning some of the brain-damage she induced in her otherwise great character. Because, you see, now he’s crippled and physically helpless, so we can very heavy-handedly make this story of physical healing also about inner healing — oh, and let’s throw in another new love interest, and make sure that his previous love interest goes off to fuck a prince, because gods forbid anyone be single in a Sarah J. Maas book.

I’m not giving it side-eye, what are you talking about?

This book grates on the very fibre of my being in so many ways I don’t honestly have time or energy to write them all down. Needless to say: it’s dull, it’s predictable, it doesn’t make me feel any better about what has happened in this series — and were it not for a few, very brief moments of interesting mythology/world-lore, I think I might have actually screamed as opposed to, you know, screaming internally and imagining myself spontaneously combusting.

Augh. Just…just release the last Throne of Glass novel already so I can finally stop seeing more of this garbage

Review: “Tess of the Road” by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Tess of the Road 
by Rachel Hartman (Goodreads Author)
3.5 stars out of 5

**Thank you to Random House for providing me a digital ARC of this novel via Netgalley for the purpose of review**

Cards on the table: I love Rachel Hartman’s Goredd universe. I remember first picking up Seraphina on a whim back in late 2012 and was swept away by Hartman’s elegant prose and richly-imagined world. From the creative way in which Hartman introduced and created her dragons within the human society to the way in which she introduced and integrated Goredd’s religion and its various Saints, as well as all the way to the characters.

After all, a rich world is nothing without characters to fill it, especially characters in whom I am deeply invested. I loved Seraphina and all the other characters that circled around her, whether it be her dragon uncle, the prince, her close friend — it didn’t matter, I was invested. They were without doubt one of the strongest elements of the novel, not only due to their complexity, but in just how much I cared for them; I wanted nothing but happiness for them. It made Shadow Scale one of my most anticipated reads of 2015, and getting access to the ARC of that novel was enough to get to cancel any and all plans I had and hunker down to read the entire novel in one sitting.

So getting the chance to return to Goredd, and from a different perspective…yeah, it didn’t take much to convince me I needed to read this book.

The first thing that struck me while reading Tess of the Road is how I had completely forgotten about Seraphina’s family. I had vaguely remembered her father, but — and I’m ashamed to admit it — her stepmother, stepsisters, and stepbrothers had entirely slipped my mind. I didn’t remember them at all. Needless to say, it took me a moment to realize that Tess was, in fact, one of Seraphina’s younger stepsisters.

And, unfortunately, Tess is no Seraphina. I feel it’s unfair to say as, of course, there’s no way that Tess could be Seraphina — to start with, she’s not half-dragon — and so to compare these two protagonists is an exercise in futility. They are incredibly different from each other, which is put into even sharper relief when Seraphina herself actually shows up, more than once to my great delight. The problem with Tess is not necessarily that she’s unlikeable, but that, for me, she’s grating. At first, I couldn’t grasp how Hartman could have written a character like Tess, one who was such a drag to follow and who did nothing to either endear me to her or invest me in her journey. Of course, the entire point of Tess of the Road is that it’s more a journey of inner self-discovery and healing more than any sort of plot, so starting with Tess as she is, it’s worth it to follow her journey. I still never quite warmed to her, but I most certainly softened towards her, especially by the end when she had come to terms with herself.

Also, I just had to add: wow, I really loathed Tess’s mother (Seraphina’s stepmother). I really, truly dislike that woman.

But moving on to the plot…there isn’t much of one. That’s not necessarily to the novel’s detriment as it makes it fairly clear that this is more an inner journey of self-discovery for Tess than it is a true road-trip novel of adventures — there is a road trip, and there are adventures, but they’re not necessarily the novel’s true focus. While that certainly does drag the pacing of what I had hoped would be a faster, more “fun” novel, part of me was willing to continue powering through some of the many points where I considered pausing my reading. Of course, I know that if I pause a Goredd book and then attempt to go back to it, it’ll be a struggle, and so, rather like Tess on her Road — capitalized by our heroine herself — I continued walking on.

Ultimately, this book lacked, for me, some of the magic of what made the original Seraphina duology so wonderful and borderline mind-blowing; there was a spark that just wasn’t present, and it made Tess of the Road a far more difficult reading experience than either of its predecessors. That being said, I still think that Tess of the Road is a phenomenal story of self-discovery and learning to live with, as well as love and forgive, oneself. The raw, personal journey of Tess is one that may not always endear the reader to her, but will certainly strike home and true with more than one person.

It just takes a bit of effort to get to that point.