Book Review: King of Scars (King of Scars #1) by Leigh Bardugo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Publisher: Imprint
Publication Date: January 29th, 2019
Pages: 514, hardcover
Source: Own

Face your demons… or feed them.

The boy king. The war hero. The prince with a demon curled inside his heart. Nikolai Lantsov has always had a gift for the impossible. The people of Ravka don’t know what he endured in their bloody civil war and he intends to keep it that way. Yet with each day a dark magic within him grows stronger, threatening to destroy all he has built. 

Zoya Nazyalensky has devoted her life to honing her deadly talents and rebuilding the Grisha army. Despite their magical gifts, Zoya knows the Grisha cannot survive without Ravka as a place of sanctuary—and Ravka cannot survive a weakened king. Zoya will stop at nothing to help Nikolai secure the throne, but she also has new enemies to conquer in the battle to come.

Far north, Nina Zenik wages her own kind of war against the people who would see the Grisha wiped from the earth forever. Burdened by grief and a terrifying power, Nina must face the pain of her past if she has any hope of defeating the dangers that await her on the ice.

Ravka’s king. Ravka’s general. Ravka’s spy. They will journey past the boundaries of science and superstition, of magic and faith, and risk everything to save a broken nation. But some secrets aren’t meant to stay buried, and some wounds aren’t meant to heal. 

After falling headfirst into the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix, I decided to go ahead and read all the books that take place in the Grishaverse. The Six of Crows duology will likely remain my favorite of Bardugo’s work, but Nikolai was my favorite character in the original trilogy, so I was looking forward to reading his story and getting his POV.

Which… well.

King of Scars is very uneven, which is surprising considering how deftly Bardugo handled multiple POV characters and chapters in Six of Crows. I think the main trouble I had with King of Scars is that, despite being the literal title character, Nikolai just doesn’t have as much of a presence here as I would have thought. It’s hard to explain, but I noticed a definite difference in his chapters versus, say, Zoya and Nina’s. We were in Nina and Zoya’s heads pretty firmly, especially Zoya; Nikolai, however, felt a bit more removed from the reader. Considering what a force his character was in the original trilogy, this was surprising. 

It honestly felt as if Bardugo was more interested in Zoya’s character than Nikolai’s. Which is fine, but maybe then just make the story about Zoya and stay in her head instead of trying to force Nikolai into the equation as well. 

Nina’s storyline felt too removed from the main one in Ravka, though I do see how it’s going to come together in the second book. It was also frustrating in the climax of the book to continually switch POVs from Zoya and Nikolai to Nina in Fjerda. If something big and epic was happening with Zoya and Nikolai, I didn’t want to cut away to Nina’s storyline in the middle of it. This is the issue with having multiple POVs spread across different locations undergoing different storylines. Six of Crows kept the crew together and going through the same events, so it flowed better. Here, it was just irritating. I honestly wish Nina’s POV had been taken out of this novel and given her own, maybe a novella. It would have worked better.

The potential romance between Nina and Hanne fell a bit flat to me, which was surprising, considering the fact that I wasn’t overly into Nina and Matthias as a couple. But Bardugo wrote them in a way that, while it wasn’t my cup of tea personally, I could see how they worked together, and their interactions had an ease and a flow to it that Nina and Hanne simply lack. It felt like Bardugo was trying to force the attraction and really make her readers believe it, which consequently made me not really buy into it.

I’m also uncertain how to take to the development of the lore in the world. Once Nikolai and the others are in the Fold, it just exacerbates the issues the book had been having with being more interested in Zoya’s character than Nikolai’s. He doesn’t do much during this part until the end; meanwhile, Zoya is learning and growing in groundbreaking ways. It was an interesting take on the Saints, but their inclusion didn’t feel entirely natural.

We’ll see if Rule of Wolves resolves these issues or if it’s just more of the same.

Book Review: Death in Daylesford (Phryne Fisher #21) by Kerry Greenwood

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication Date: June 1st, 2021
Pages: 336, paperback
Source: NetGalley

Taking the waters has never been more delicious–or dangerous…

When a mysterious invitation for a spa holiday arrives for Miss Phryne Fisher from an unknown retired Captain Herbert Spencer, Phryne’s curiosity is piqued. Spencer runs a retreat in Victoria’s rural spa country for shell-shocked veterans of World War I. It’s a cause after Phryne’s own heart, but what can Spencer want from her?

Phryne and her faithful servant Dot set out for Daylesford, viewing their rural sojourn as a short holiday. While Dot gets to know the remarkable women who run the hotel where they are lodging, Phryne enjoys an enticing meal–and dessert–with the attractive Captain Spencer. But their relaxation is short-lived as they are thrown into treacherous Highland gatherings, a mysterious case of disappearing women, and a string of murders committed under their very noses. Meanwhile, back at home, Phryne’s three wards are busy solving a mystery of their own when a schoolmate is found floating facedown near the docks–and pregnant at the time of her death.

With her usual pluck and deft thinking, Phryne methodically investigates the strange goings-on in this anything-but-tranquil spa town.

Phryne and Dot visit a small town with big secrets in Death in Daylesford, the latest from Kerry Greenwood in the Phryne Fisher mystery series.

While the titular mystery gets most of the attention, there is a submystery that Phryne’s wards, Jane, Ruth, and Tinker, solve handily, with help from Dot’s police beau, Hugh. All the characters put in at least a brief appearance.

Phryne and Dot investigate the disappearances of several women in rural Australia, as well as the murders of several men. Are the crimes being done for love or money…or both?

Phryne is her effervescent self in this one, choosing her lovers and her libations with care. The book has a different tone than some of the earlier ones, and Phryne seems less patient with some foibles she might have shrugged off in earlier novels.

Still, it’s a solid entry in the series, and fans and newcomers alike will enjoy it and cheer Phryne on.

Highly recommended. 

Book Review: Raymond the Buffalo by Lou Beauchesne

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Juvenile fiction picture book
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publication Date: May 11th, 2021
Pages: 48, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

Raymond is a brave, strong and hairy buffalo. Gilbert is a quiet, growing and not-at-all hairy boy. Raymond is the hero of Gilbert’s favorite book, and Gilbert brings his favorite book everywhere. When an unfortunate incident separates the two, Raymond finds himself in a very unusual situation–outside of his book and loose in the local library! There’s nothing for Raymond to do but wait for Gilbert to come find him. But as the days turn into months and months into years, Raymond has to be brave and make a new home in the library shelves and a new friend in the librarian, Nicole.

This adorably illustrated picture book celebrates the love we have for books and the strength of friendship.

Pickles with lemon, anyone? That’s the favorite snack of Raymond, the titular character in Lou Beauchesne’s Raymond the Buffalo. Gilbert adores Raymond, and carries the well-loved book everywhere, until one day, dinosaurs catch his eye. Raymond’s book is accidentally scooped up by Gilbert’s mother when she gathers his library books, and Raymond is sent through the book drop at the library. Raymond escapes the book drop, but will he be reunited with Gilbert?

The illustrations by Kate Chappell are adorable. Raymond is fluffy and brown and you really do want him to leap from the page so you can cuddle him (assuming he doesn’t really smell like a buffalo, that is). This is a great book for children who are beginning to read independently. The chapters are short and easily read in one sitting.

The book explores Raymond’s relationship with Gilbert, and also with the librarian. There’s sadness and a search to belong, but also friendship. One important takeaway might be to always stay put if you get lost, so your loved ones can find you quickly.

Children will enjoy the illustrations and Raymond’s adventures as he explores the library and tries to find his way home.

Book Review: Auntie Poldi and the Lost Madonna (Auntie Poldi #4) by Mario Giordano

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: May 18th, 2021
Pages: 352, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

There’s only one Auntie Poldi: bewigged, cursing in Bavarian, and knocking back a wee shot of grappa as a pre-breakfast aperitif . . . or is there? No one is as they seem (and sound) in this hilarious new mystery featuring Sicily’s sultriest sleuth.

Strange dealings are afoot in the Apostolic Palace—a nun leapt to her death shortly after participating in a seemingly routine exorcism. But when a priest clad in Gammarelli and a Vatican commissario with an almost unholy level of sex appeal turn up at her door, Poldi is shocked to hear that she’s a suspect in their case.

Who is the woman being exorcised, and where has she disappeared to? And why in the world does she claim, in perfect Bavarian, to be Poldi, Isolde Oberreiter, of Torre Archirafi?

Poldi will need all the help she can get to clear her name, but her nephew has been distracted by a love affair gone sour, someone in the town has been spraying graffiti death threats on her front door, and her local friends seem to be avoiding her. And even Vito Montana balks when Poldi discovers that the case hinges on a lost Madonna statue, stolen years ago from the pope himself.

Forza, Poldi! With a pair of mysterious twins dogging her every move and a mandate to maintain sobriety, will Poldi be able to find the lost statue in time, and survive her sixty-first birthday?

Poldi’s nephew is back from the City of Lights and once again takes us on a rollicking ride, propelled by the (somewhat plausible) adventures of his sexagenarian Sicilian-Bavarian sleuth, Auntie Poldi. Take one beehive wig, a liter of grappa, a dash of Baron Munchausen, and a cup of Auntie Mame, and you might just end up with Poldi.

Auntie Poldi and the Lost Madonna begins with an exorcism, where the possessed claims to be Poldi. Soon after, one of the nuns who witnessed the exorcism plunges to her death. Poldi sneaks in to the Vatican to investigate, and uncovers an unholy conspiracy. Encounters include the Pope, twins in fluorescent sneakers, a doppelganger, and, of course, Death and his clipboard.

Poldi’s nephew’s character growth continues, as does his attempt at writing a novel of his own. Given the plotline of that, you do have to wonder how many of the embellishment’s to Poldi’s stories are from Poldi herself.

We also learn the history of the Sad Signora.

Poldi and Vito team up in this latest outing, and their relationship is forever altered. As in the preceding novel, Auntie Poldi and the Handsome Antonio, the Lost Madonna has several red herrings, and Poldi must face her past in order to save her future.

The writing, as always, is exquisite. I don’t know how much to attribute to Giordano, the author, and Brownjohn, the translator, but between the two, they produce magic. Go be mesmerized by Poldi.

Highly recommended.

Book Review: Pride Puppy! by Robin Stevenson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Juvenile picture book
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Publication Date: May 11th, 2021
Pages: 32, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

A young child and their family are having a wonderful time together celebrating Pride Day–meeting up with Grandma, making new friends and eating ice cream. But then something terrible happens: their dog gets lost in the parade! Luckily, there are lots of people around to help reunite the pup with his family.

This rhyming alphabet book tells a lively story, with rich, colorful illustrations that will have readers poring over every detail as they spot items starting with each of the letters of the alphabet. An affirming and inclusive book that offers a joyful glimpse of a Pride parade and the vibrant community that celebrates this day each year. 

P is for “Pride Puppy!” Written by Robin Stevenson and illustrated by Julie McLaughlin, this rhyming alphabet book is a rollicking run through a day at a Pride Parade. A family celebrating Pride Day at the parade loses and eventually finds their dog, encountering many different people and activities. 

The blurb included in the ARC describes the illustrations as “busy, bright, and dynamic,” and they certainly are. The artistic style will appeal to young children, as will the rhyming cadence. The book is decidedly queer-centric, and the blurb also states that the family is purposely non-gendered. 

This is a great introduction for young readers to the LGBTQ+ community, and I recommend it.

Book Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Genre: Women’s fiction
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: May 4th, 2021
Pages: 448, trade paperback
Source: NetGalley

A woman desperate to turn a new page heads to the Scottish coast and finds herself locked in a battle of wills with an infuriatingly handsome bookseller in this utterly heartwarming debut, perfect for readers of Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Thea Mottram is having a bad month. Her husband of nearly twenty years has just left her for one of her friends, and she is let go from her office job–on Valentine’s Day, of all days. Bewildered and completely lost, Thea doesn’t know what to do. But when she learns that a distant great uncle in Scotland has passed away, leaving her his home and a hefty antique book collection, she decides to leave Sussex for a few weeks. Escaping to a small coastal town where no one knows her seems to be exactly what she needs.

Almost instantly, Thea becomes enamored with the quaint cottage, comforted by its cozy rooms and shaggy, tulip-covered lawn. The locals in nearby Baldochrie are just as warm, quirky, and inviting. The only person she can’t seem to win over is bookshop owner Edward Maltravers, to whom she hopes to sell her uncle’s antique novel collection. His gruff attitude–fueled by an infamous, long-standing feud with his brother, a local lord–tests Thea’s patience. But bickering with Edward proves oddly refreshing and exciting, leading Thea to develop feelings she hasn’t felt in a long time. As she follows a thrilling yet terrifying impulse to stay in Scotland indefinitely, Thea realizes that her new life may quickly become just as complicated as the one she was running from.

Thea goes North, and discovers that sometimes, a book CAN be judged by its cover in Jackie Fraser’s The Bookshop of Second Chances.

Thea’s marriage has dissolved after she discovers her husband has been cheating on her with a family friend. Luckily, she has just inherited her Scottish uncle’s property. She goes up to sort the estate, and decides to stay for a bit and figure out what she wants next. She meets the local curmudgeon, who also owns a secondhand bookshop, when he comes to purchase some books and revalue her uncle’s collection. Thea applies for a job with him, and we see Thea building a new life in the North.

Thea has a good voice, and it’s refreshing to see a middle-aged heroine who isn’t completely hapless and hopeless. Her reactions are what you’d expect from someone in her situation, and she doesn’t wall herself off from others while she grieves her dead marriage.

Now, her love interest and boss, Edward, is a bit lacking in several areas. He and his brother seem to be stuck in adolescence, and I struggled to see what Thea saw in him. He’s rude and the fact that he kept sleeping with his brother’s exes just to get at him would have been enough to put me off.

Somehow, though, I was rooting for Thea and if Edward is her choice, well, at least she’s moving forward. Moderately recommended for lovers of tatty bookshops, irascible Scots, and second chances.