Review: Honestly Ben, by Bill Konigsberg

27230789Honestly Ben, by Bill Konigsberg

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBTQIA

Rating: ✮✮✮

“We change. We keep changing. We won’t be finished products ’til the day we die.”

This review contains spoilers, and is also a bit personal. Please read with caution!

Openly Straight, this book’s prequel, is very special to me. It’s the book that helped me realize that I was attracted to girls; it is essentially the book that helped me come out to myself. Eventually this escalated to where I’m at today. Without Openly Straight, I don’t think I ever would’ve been honest with myself about my true feelings.

It was not a perfect book, but in a bittersweet way, I liked how it ended. I enjoyed Rafe and Ben’s relationship and wanted them to have their happily-ever-after, but the fight and loss of friendship was more realistic. It felt finite. So all it took was one look at Honestly Ben for me to know what was going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a bad book, just the same as Openly Straight wasn’t. I like the way Bill Konigsberg writes, I like how he characterizes, and I like the silly and sometimes extremely dark humor that he sprinkles in.

“I feel like we already have a truce,” I said. “I’ve placed my imaginary Maginot Line, and there is an uneasy accord along the Western Front.”

“Oh, Ben,” he said, and the gentleness of his voice made me look away. “Wait. Am I Hitler in that analogy?”

I hadn’t thought of it that way. “I guess.”

“So you made the Jewish guy Hitler. Nice.”

I also agree with basically everything this book is about: agape, or unconditional love. It’s a type of love that goes beyond anything physical or material, and can relate to anyone, paternal, sexual, emotional, etc. I strongly believe in this type of love; I don’t believe in soul mates, exactly, but that there is someone, or possibly multiple someones, that are out there and are so right for you that things like sexuality and gender don’t matter anymore. As Ben says repeatedly, he is not gay or bisexual, but he still loves Rafe despite the fact that he’s a boy. A lot of readers seem to be upset by this and claim that this is misrepresenting bisexuality, and as someone who was formally bisexual, I can understand their point of view – but at the same time, I get what Konigsberg was trying to say. I don’t think he was trying to be biphobic; I think he was trying to show that people love who they love without restriction. That is agape.

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Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

My problems with this book reside in other things, the first and foremost being that Honestly Ben feels like an excuse to give Rafe and Ben the HEA that they were deprived of in Openly Straight. Otherwise I can think of no other significance. There isn’t even a change of scenery; the book literally dumps you in where the previous left off. The result is that I felt like I was reading the exact same book. I would’ve liked something a little different: a new place a few years from now, maybe, but something to give it a change of scene.

This relates to the other thing, which is the advocacy. I want to mention that I have absolutely no opposition about advocacy in books whatsoever, because I think that’ll be the generated idea. I love it. This book touches various subjects, including misogyny, anti-war, gender identity, and of course homosexuality. These topics are very important to me, but when I see them in a book, I want them to be integrated in a way that flows with the plot. I want it to still be a book. Instead, all that it does is prop the book up for its lack of substance. I kept feeling like I’d fallen inside of Tumblr.

I felt the same way about David Levithan’s Every Day. I appreciate and support these things when they are discussed in books, but I don’t want it to be everything. I am still a reader; I still want to be entertained.

A good book all in all, but I wish that it had varied from its predecessor. If there are ever going to be any future books about Ben and Rafe, I’d like them to be experiencing new situations instead of dealing with old ones.

Review: A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows, by V.E. Schwab

Genres: Adult, Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✮

“Everyone’s immortal until they’re not.”

(Spoiler-free review for both the first and the second book! There’s a couple of minor things, but for the most part, I have exempted all spoilers.)

Dear Victoria Schwab:

I already thought that A Darker Shade of Magic was fantastic, but A Gathering of Shadows is incredible. It manages to pull off the impossible: it is a middle book that is obviously a middle book, and yet it is still entertaining from beginning to end.

I’m sure many of you have encountered “middle-book syndrome”, when the second book in a trilogy (or perhaps more, depending) suffers due to the fact that nothing monumentally important happens. There isn’t a sense of urgency or danger, and as a result, there’s this sense of idling, and the book suffers from a slow pace. A Gathering of Shadows feels like one of those books, those “spaces between”, as I like to call them, and yet, it is never boring at all.

This is probably due to the fact that in A Darker Shade of Magic, the world is being introduced to us even as the plot moves forward, but in A Gathering of Shadows, we have settled in comfortably, and the pace picks up. It’s still a magnificent world full of magic that continues to surprise and excite, and V.E. Schwab doesn’t let it grow dull. Everything is still developing. We begin to learn about the different countries that neighbor Arnes, about what’s inside of Black London, about magic itself. It’s a world that continues to grow and grow.

The characters are getting more complex as well, and I love it. Kell’s dark side is revealed, showing him a bit more hot-headed and temperamental; Lila, though still reckless, is learning to control her magic; and even Rhy, my precious ray of sunshine, is multiplying, exposing different sides to himself. He’s still the flirty boy that I remember, but he’s darker around the edges, and I didn’t realize how much I needed to see him as a flustered schoolboy until Alucard arrived.

Rhy hesitated, unsure what to say next. With anyone else, he would have had a flirtatious retort, but standing there, a mere stride away from Alucard, he felt short of breath, let alone words. He turned away, fidgeting with his cuffs. He heard the chime of silver and a moment later, Alucard snaked an arm possessively around his shoulders and brought his lips to the prince’s neck, just below his ear. Rhy actually shivered.

“You are far too familiar with your prince,” he warned.

“So you confess it, then?” [He] brushed his lips against Rhy’s throat. “That you are mine.”

Dear Victoria Schwab:

My poor fujioshi heart.

I tend to hate it when books save most of the action for the end, then leave me hanging on until the next book, since it feels like bait, but A Gathering of Shadows did just that – with the best cliffhanger ever, I might add – and yet, it doesn’t feel like it was misplaced, or all shoved into one area. The danger is being built up behind the scenes, and as the ending draws closer, it builds a sense of dread, which is a far more effective method than just having everything blow up in the last few chapters. If I didn’t have A Conjuring of Light waiting for me on my bookshelf, I would be screaming. But I do. So ha.

Dear Victoria Schwab:

Your books are the work of gods.

Review: The Immortal Rules, by Julie Kagawa

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The Immortal Rules, by Julie Kagawa

Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian, Paranormal

Rating: ✮✮✮

“You will always be a monster, there is no turning back from it. But what type of monster you become is entirely up to you.”

In her acknowledgements, Julie Kagawa mentioned that she thought she would never write a vampire book. Likewise, I thought I would never read a vampire book. Vampires, for the longest time, have failed to interest me, whether they were sparkly or not. (Especially if they were sparkly.)

Then I saw this:

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And I was like, okay. Vampires.

Julie Kagawa is the author of my beloved Iron Fey series, which I have praised over and over again for its fantasy action, depth, and a heterosexual romance that I can actually get excited about. The Immortal Rules is a completely different ballgame. It’s dark and gruesome, and of course, very bloody. I love the take on vampires, how twisted and cruel they are, and their elitist attitude towards humans. I love the rabids as I love all flesh-eating monsters, and I even enjoyed the gloomy dystopian world. As always, Julie Kagawa never bores me. She allows the characters to go off and develop on their own, but never strays too far from the original storyline.

My hesitation, however, is derived from a couple of things, and the first one is Ruth. Ruth is a member of the group that Allison joins up with that are searching for a city called Eden, which is supposedly run by humans. Her only notable character trait is that she is infatuated with Zeke, the love interest, and gets insanely jealous whenever Allison interacts with him in any way. She verbally attacks Allison and spreads rumors about her to the rest of the group, and whenever she’s in a scene, she is always trying to get closer to Zeke. This character type – the bitchy mean girl – is the reason why I used to avoid paranormal YA books in the first place, because usually their only purpose is to make the heroine look better. However, Allison is fierce and strong all on her own, so I don’t understand why Ruth exists, or why she wasn’t converted into a best friend. (Spoiler) : I could understand if she were carried over into the next book and underwent some massive character development, or perhaps served some higher purpose, but instead she dies – quickly, I might add, and in the last 25 pages – furthermore implementing her worthlessness.

The next thing regards vampires, and that is mainly that I want more of them. Though I agree with some of my friends on Goodreads that it’s strange that only Allison and Kanin – her creator – aren’t viewed as completely evil, I love my vampires that way. I love them villainous. And the thing is, is that Allison may be morally-questionable, but she’s not a monster. She goes on and on about her “demon” and how she struggles to control her thirst, but it seems weak. This is due mainly to Julie Kagawa’s bald, straight-forward writing style, which is fantastic in battle scenes but not so much with emotion. It’s hard for Allison’s angst to ring true when it doesn’t feel like she’s battling with anything, since everything she feels is told up front. Because of this, I’m eagerly anticipating more vampires, and hopefully they’ll be a lot more vicious.

The Iron Fey will still stand as my favorite of Julie Kagawa’s series thus far, though I admit that The Blood of Eden has its charms. Everything that I expected of The Immortal Rules came to me and more – I just wish that a couple of things had changed.

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

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A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab

Genres: Adult, Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮✮✮ +½

“I’d rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”

The third book in this trilogy came out recently, and as I always do with popular series of any kind―including, most recently, BBC’s Sherlock―I wait until it’s almost completed before getting into it. It’s usually by accident, or because it’s shoved into my face―as A Conjuring of Light was, all over Goodreads―and since I’d read Vicious not that long ago, I thought the timing was perfect.

Oh, was it good. It was spectacular. Though its setting is historical, this book is pure fantasy, full of elemental magic, seals, and curses―though the concept is very unique. There is a great structure of the different Londons, the terms for magicians and their powers, and how their world came to be with the sealing off of the doors and Black London. I don’t have much experience with parallel universes, but I love the way they’re written in this book.

There’s plenty of death and heartache to keep me occupied―the crueler, the better―and not only that, but we have the perfect villains to simultaneously love and hate in the form of Athos and Astrid Dane.

“I’m going to let you keep your mind,” said Athos. “Do you know why?” The blade’s tip bit in, and Beloc gasped. “So I can watch the war play in your eyes every time your body obeys my will instead of yours.”

God, how I hated them―and yet I loved them, too, because they were written so well. V.E. Schwab has a knack for writing bad guys, not just in her adult novels, but in her young adult books as well. Vicious may not have been as gruesome as I’d have liked it to have been, but I’m not going to deny that V.E. Schwab writes my favorite villains.

And also, my favorite supporting characters. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I adored Rhy. He reminds me of Wesley from The Archived, and if this is a character type that Schwab plans to continue using for the rest of her novels, then sign me the hell up.

“A fine idea,” said Rhy. “But no. We must go out, you see, because we’re on a mission.”

“Oh?” asked Kell.

“Yes. Because unless you plan to wed me yourself―and don’t get me wrong, I think  we’d make a dashing pair―I must try and find a mate.”

He’s flirty, funny, loyal, kind, probably bisexual, and I love him. He needs more screen time. I do love Kell―he’s charming and gentle, and he doesn’t even need to go out of his way to show it―and after a while, I did grow to love Lila, though I thought she was extremely reckless; but characters like Rhy need more appreciation. Cast away all of the brooding princes, the tall, the dark and the handsome. Give me a character that can make me laugh.

Ms. Schwab, I raise my glass to you. This book was fantastic, and I’m dying for more.

Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

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The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

Genres: Literature, Contemporary

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”

This was a book I had to read for class. I’ve enjoyed assigned books in the past, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to eat through this book so quickly. It’s tiny – not even 200 pages – but it wasn’t so much the length as my inability to put it down.

I am an atheist. I have little to no knowledge about many religions, particularly orthodox ones. I have tried multiple times to stretch my beliefs a little, to believe in a deity, but I can’t. It’s not how I think. Despite this, if there is a heaven, I would want it to be exactly like it is depicted in this book. Many if not all individuals worry about living a pointless life, of not affecting anything, and wondering why they’re even alive, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven is based around the idea that when you die, you meet five different people – some you know, some you might not – that drastically changed your life, and explain to you the significance of their encounters and what they mean. It’s a way of understanding how you mattered during the time you were alive, something we all crave to know.

It’s very easy to see how, from our perspective, we would feel worthless, whereas from an outsider’s point of view, we understand how important we are. Eddie believes he was very insignificant, that due to the war and his leg injury he didn’t live as fulfilled a life as he’d dreamed – but when he glances through it with his five people, he comes to understand that he did in fact serve his purpose, that his life wasn’t as gray as it appeared.

This is such an emotionally-packed book. Many of the lessons that Eddie learns are things that we’ve all heard before, but the way they are woven through adds a deeper sentimentality. There are quotes in here that are worthy of being put in pretty fonts on rainy backgrounds and pasted all over Tumblr.

“Strangers,” the Blue Man said, “are just family you have yet to come to know.”

This is a book that is easy to fly through, that is over and done with in a matter of hours, but might stay with you forever, just because of how deep it is. It’s a tiny reminder that no matter how we perceive ourselves, we are not as transparent as we seem.

Review: Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

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Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor

Genres: Young Adult, High Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮ 

“Enlighten me, Strange. In what version of the world could you possibly help?”

This book started out at five stars. Then it became four. Then it almost became one. I’m giving it a middle rating because I’m having a hard time making up my mind.

Laini Taylor is an author that, even if I’m not the biggest fan of her work, I admire with the utmost respect. Her writing is exquisite, and her stories explode with a creativity that I wish I could harness for my own. However, whenever I read her books, they always follow the same pattern: I am at first mesmerized, and then I am greatly disappointed. Then the ending is an explosion that makes up for some of that disappointment, and I’m tempted to read the second one.

The story itself is rich and wonderful. There’s a mystical city that lost its name and a young librarian named Lazlo Strange, who’s been obsessed with it since birth. Lazlo was orphaned and ended up at the Great Library by chance, and has spent his days obsessing about the Unseen City, diving into books and enriching himself with stories. For this reason, he has been dubbed “Strange the Dreamer”, and he has always believed that his dreams will never come true and he will never get to see the city he loves, the one that has become “Weep”. Of course, that’s not the case.

To dive into what the rest of it is about would, in a way, be like spoiling it for you. It’s one of those books that keeps secrets, and you have to read on to discover what they are. There are gods, and there are goddesses, and there is magic, and there is carnage, and that’s really all you need to know to get excited about it.

My low rating is due to one thing that ended up becoming many: the romance. I got sick of it. Laini Taylor’s style is very theatrical, and this is all well and good until people start smooching, because she drags it out so much that it starts to bore me to death. One kiss lasted seven pages. I’d have to use both of my hands to count how many times Lazlo described Sarai’s lips, and my toes for how many times he mentioned how beautiful her blue skin is. Not to mention the fact that it’s very instantaneous – Sarai appears in Lazlo’s dreams a couple of times, and they talk some shit about the moon and the sun, and just like that, they’re in love. I don’t get it.

It affected the pacing. This exact same thing happened in Daughter of Smoke and Bone: tons of magic and action that made the pages fly by, and then we’re slammed with a vending machine. (If you get that reference, I love you.) I started to fall asleep while reading, and at first I thought it was because I was simply tired. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before – but when it kept happening, over and over again, even after a decent night’s rest and a good dose of caffeine, I knew that it wasn’t me. I like romance, but it blighted the book so much in parts that it became nauseating.

Also, where was their chemistry? At first, I thought this was going to be an LGBTQ+ fantasy because there was tons of tension between Lazlo and Thyron, and I was eating it up. I’ll admit that I ship everything gay under the sun, but it felt like something was going to happen between them, and then nothing did, and then Sarai showed up and stole Lazlo away. I swear to god, if the next book doesn’t have Thyron at least pining for him, I am going to lose my shit.

Laini Taylor’s books are received really depends on the reader, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be the type of person that is infatuated with them. I love how she writes, and I love the way she thinks, but the way she executes them leaves something wanting.

 

Review: Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

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Vicious, by V.E. Schwab

Genres: Adult, Science Fiction

Rating: ✮✮✮

The absence of pain led to an absence of fear, and the absence of fear led to a disregard for consequence.

Morally ambiguous stories are some of my favorites. I’m drawn to them. I love anti-heroes, and I love the argument between what is right and what is wrong; what is considered to be “good” and what is considered to be “evil”. Vicious does a great job of showing that they can be the same thing, with different people giving it different names.

I loved Victor’s narration, and I was fascinated in his relationship with Eli when they were at university, how driven by jealousy and spite they both were. And even though I found him to be considerably less interesting than Victor, in a very twisted, sideways way, I understood Eli. I don’t approve of him murdering EOs simply because they exist, but—at least in the beginning—he was trying to prevent what he and Victor had started. Vicious carries one of the same themes as Frankenstein, which is that humanity’s greed to evolve can often lead to disaster, and by killing off EOs, he was trying to stop them from being exploited or causing humanity any harm. He just got way out of control, as anybody who treats themselves as God does.

I wish it had been a bit gorier. It’s definitely dark, but I was hoping for more interaction between the two of them, like a game of cat-and-mouse. More action, essentially. I found Eli’s chapters really boring, and I couldn’t stand Serena at all. If she had been removed, then that would mean that Eli and Victor are ensuing this battle while also having to evade the authorities, who were waived onto Eli’s side with her siren abilities. I think that would’ve been a lot more fun to watch. She made everything too safe.

This is the first of Victoria Schwab’s adult novels that I’ve ever read, and I did like it. It wasn’t quite as gruesome as I expected, though it did delight me here and there, especially when Eli and Victor clashed in chapter twenty-seven in the first part, when things went “horribly wrong”. It was definitely vicious, but not enough for me.

Review: The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories, by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

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The Curiosities: A Collection of Stories, by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff

Genres: Young Adult, Short Stories, Fantasy, Paranormal

Rating: ✮✮

She has been lonely all her life, but never so fully or so truly as she is tonight.

Critiquing a book of short stories is hard – especially when the stories are by three different authors. Rating them all individually would be too cumbersome, so I’ll settle with this: there were not a lot of stories in The Curiosities that I liked.

There was always some fissure, something so obviously wrong in each one. It was too short, too underdeveloped, too boring, too outlandish, or I just didn’t like it. I would finish one and start the next, and even if it was only a few pages long, it sometimes felt like I was beginning another marathon, simply because I was starting a new story with new characters and a new setting that kept disappointing me, time and time again.

The only author of the three whose work I’ve read is, of course, Maggie Stiefvater and her wonderful The Raven Cycle series. Because I loved those books so much, I expected to love her short stories just the same – but her stories are far from what I expected. The Raven Cycle is a loaded gun full of magic, intrigue, wonder, and sarcasm, and I only saw a little bit of that in her work this time.

“Put that out before you burn off your dick,” I said.

“I didn’t know you cared what happened to it,” he replied.

Given, these stories were all written quickly and left completely unedited. That’s extremely brave. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re published in a book, and as a consumer, I didn’t like the product.

The three stories that I enjoyed were The Bone-Tender, Neighbors, and The Lazarus Girl – all written by Brenna Yovanoff. Hers were undoubtedly my favorite, and I think her and I have a similar mindset. The kind of short stories that I love are creepy and full of sharp objects and monsters. There’s usually a twist, too, like in Neighbors. Reading her stories has me very curious about her novels, even if I didn’t like all of them.

I also enjoyed their commentary and their bantering, and I think it definitely opened up a door to how writing really works and their thought processes. I’d love to see them write a novel together; something cleaner than these stories. All of them left me feeling that they needed something more.

Review: Nevermore, by Kelly Creagh

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Nevermore, by Kelly Creagh

Genres: Young Adult, Horror

Rating: ✮✮✮

“Learn to awaken within your dreams, Isobel,” he called after her, “or we are all lost.”

The third star that I give this book is given very, very hesitantly. I’ve been very generous with my ratings lately, and part of me worries that I’m losing my nerve. Still, I always put entertainment above any other factor – because what’s the point in reading fiction if you don’t enjoy it? – and there is no doubt in my mind that I enjoyed Nevermore.

I did not at first. The most negative thing I can say about this book is that the beginning is absolutely terrible. It’s cliché and so “high school” that it’s straight out of a bad fanfiction – and I would know this because I probably wrote it five years ago.

Isobel is so blatantly a cheerleader that it makes her one-dimensional. Every time she said “the crew”, I swear to god, a part of me died. Her friends are the same way. Even Varen is drawn so deeply as The Goth Kid that at first, I had no respect for him whatsoever.

Resigned, Isobel rose and collected her notebook. She fumbled for her backpack strap as her mind repeated all the whispers she’d ever heard linked with his name. There were rumors that he sometimes talked to himself, that he practiced witchcraft and had an evil eye tattooed on his left shoulder blade. That he lived in the basement of an abandoned church. That he slept in a coffin.

 That he drank blood.

After surviving 150 pages of Isobel’s spiral down the Social Food Chain, things gradually started to get better. My favorite thing is how much things develop. Not only does Isobel turn around, but her relationship with Varen progressed steadily and I enjoyed watching them grow close. Barriers start to melt until they are no longer The Goth and The Cheerleader, but Varen and Isobel.

“You’re really a blond,” she said, her tone just short of accusatory.

“And if you tell anyone, I will come to you in the night and smote your everlasting soul.”

The problem is that this is not supposed to be a romance; it is supposed to be a horror story revolving around the mind and works of Edgar Allan Poe, literary rock star and one of my favorite authors, ever. True, Poe is definitely a recurring figure, but what we don’t see a lot of for the first two-thirds of the book are Varen’s nightmares – nightmares that are supposed to be based off of Poe. There are glimpses of them here and there, but for the mostly, Nevermore is split into two parts: Varen and Isobel’s relationship and Varen’s nightmares. The latter feels a bit crammed in, like despite the fact that this book is almost 550 pages long, there wasn’t enough room for it to be squeezed in.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the length is important. Even though I really hate high-school drama – I seriously can’t stand it – I completely understand why it’s necessary in this case. Varen created his nightmares, his dreamscape, inside of his journal which he writes in all of the time as a means of escape. He wants to get away from the people at school and his alcoholic father, and so he writes. It’s all a part of his characterization. In order for the reader to grasp why his dreamscape exists, they need to understand where it stems from. Thus, all of the bullying and ridicule the follows Varen and Isobel’s struggles to be accepted socially are vital because they point back to the heart of who he is.

What I think could’ve been done is more interweaving. Varen’s nightmares are actually gruesome and terrifying – I love it – and they follow Isobel into the real world before she can even see what they are. This, combined with her lucid dreams, I think is supposed to have the same effect as in Michelle Hodkin’s The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer – a book that is complete trash but I love anyway. The aforementioned book does a great job of showing a blossoming relationship between two young people while the protagonist, Mara, is tortured by strange visions and impossible events that make her feel like she’s losing her mind. Nevermore tries for that but never succeeds.

I also want to add that although the writing is excellent, if the whole book had been written the same as in that two-page epilogue – complete, knock-your-socks-off, blow-me-away kind of prose – then this would have been one monster of a book.

I enjoyed Nevermore mostly because it was hard to put down. It’s very fast-paced even for its length, and that’s what pushed me to keep going and see this book through. Even though for the most part, I consider this book to be what I call “bait” – the first book in a series that drags you along when nothing really happens, making it a giant prelude for the second book that you’re not interested in, anyway – it has me tempted for more. Mostly, I’m dying to know about Varen’s feelings for Isobel, when they developed and when she first appeared in his dreams. I also can’t wait to see how Kelly Creagh slips in more of Edgar Allan Poe’s fiction into his nightmares, because she definitely knows her stuff and alluded to many of Poe’s most popular stories – including one notable scene from The Cask of Amontillado. I hope that one of them happens to be The Black Cat, my favorite, because if there is I will completely lose my shit.