Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)

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Review #107

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. 

Following the death of her husband to cancer, Nour’s mother wants to be closer to her home country and her family. In the summer of 2011, Nour and her family move from their apartment in New York City to Homs, Syria. But Syria is changing, and not for the better. Shells and bombs become a daily occurrence, and when their house is destroyed Nour and her family are forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees.

Eight hundred years ago, a young girl named Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a world-famous cartographer who is embarking on a journey to make a map of the known world. Along the way, Rawiya ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

The gorgeous cover art for Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars is what initially attracted me to this book. I knew little to nothing about the plot, and therefore had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel that uses the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop for a story about family, bravery, and finding a place to belong.

A lot of attempts have been made recently to capture the refugee experience. The Map of Salt and Stars tells a deeply personal story. Nour doesn’t care why her neighborhood is suddenly being bombed. She doesn’t understand the political tensions between Libya and Algeria, or why refugee boats are shelled before they can reach shore. All Nour knows is that she has lost everything but her mother and two sisters. She knows that she wakes up every day in a different place, often cramped with groups of other people, all of whom are running away from the destruction and danger of war. By keeping laser-focused on Nour and her plight, Joukhadar ensures that the reader forms a close bond with her.

Also contained within the pages of The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Rawiya, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become an apprentice to the esteemed cartographer al-Idrisi. Her 11th century journey with him along a route similar to the one taken by Nour as she flees from country to country. I enjoyed Rawiya’s story and the fresh perspective that it offered. Most of our ideas of the ancient world are from the Greco-Roman viewpoint, but The Map of Salt and Stars shows it through Muslim eyes instead. While Europe was buried in the Dark Ages, the scholars and scientists of the Muslim world made terrific advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They also made some of the most detailed maps of the time period, and that is where Joukhadar sets her story.

The Muslim names for the ancient cities of the Mediterranean were unfamiliar to me, and I often found it difficult to know exactly where the ancient adventurers were at any given time. There is a map included along with the table of contents, but it is a bit inconvenient to switch back and forth to the map on an eReader. This may have been one of the reasons why Rawiya’s story fell short in comparison to Nour’s. Rawiya’s struggles against mythical beasts feel far removed from reality, where Nour must fight against an enemy that is far more real and more dangerous.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Map of Salt and Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Midnight Watch by David Dyer (2016)

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Review #106

As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead.

I was ten years old when James Cameron’s Titanic was released, and like millions of young girls in 1997, was completely obsessed with the film and the boyishly handsome, adorably baby-faced Leonardo DeCaprio. Twenty years later, my love for Leo has never faded, and neither has my interest in the story of Titanic and its place in history.

The Midnight Watch has the odd challenge of trying to sustain a narrative using characters that were only indirectly involved in the events of April 14, 1912. The story of the Californian, which was the nearest ship to the Titanic on the night of its sinking and could potentially have saved the lives of the 1500 people who died that night, is more of a footnote in the larger context of the Titanic story. The failure of the Californian to respond to the Titanic’s distress signals is one of the countless bits of misfortune that all came together to cause one of the most famous maritime disasters in history. Even James Cameron, whose insistence on historical accuracy during filming bordered on obsessive, did not include the Californian in his film. stating that switching perspectives to another ship took away from the feeling of isolation that the passengers on the Titanic must have experienced that night. In a way this book reminded me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, another instance of “background” characters being given the full spotlight.

Author David Dyer needed to present a cast of characters strong enough to make us forget that our old favorites such as Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, Bruce Ismay, and Molly Brown are conspicuously absent. He splits his narrative between Second Mate Herbert Stone, the watchman who first saw the white distress rockets sent up by the sinking ship, and Steadman, a bulldog journalist on the hunt for the truth about the Californian. Stone is plagued by guilt and indecision when he wakes up the morning after his midnight shift and learns the fate of the Titanic. His story is sympathetic, but pales in significance when viewed next to the deaths of over a thousand people on the Titanic. Steadman is the archetypal hard-jawed bourbon-soaked workaholic newspaperman from the turn of the century. His only defining characteristic is that he somehow manages to chase down leads and secure interviews with various higher-ups all while being soddenly drunk.

I did enjoy Dyer’s meticulous attention to detail, particularly when describing the Californian and its crew. Dyer worked for years as a ships officer, and he is clearly writing from a place of experience. I don’t know much about naval terminology besides port and starboard, so I enjoyed learning a little bit more about steamer ships. Also, it’s refreshing to read a completely different perspective on a well-known event. One of the things I love most about historical fiction is its ability to help me think of an issue from a variety of angles. The Midnight Watch offers a unique and creative approach to the enduring legend of the Titanic.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find The Midnight Watch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository!

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018)

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Review #105

 

Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life: he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

This is author Tana French’s seventh novel, and marks her first departure from her fantastic Dublin Murder Squad series. For The Witch Elm, French doesn’t stray too far from her distinctive style, and it’s clear that she feels the most comfortable when writing detective-style novels. Which is fine by me, since she’s amazing at it.

I’ve had a rather bad run of luck this year with thriller novels, but have always enjoyed French’s work. Her use of foreshadowing feels organically woven into the narrative, as opposed to awkwardly shoehorned in. By slowly building a sense of tension using small clues and a few shortly but intensely written passages, French ensures that when the plot reaches its climax, it feels like a genuine reveal as opposed to a cheat. I also have to give props to French for avoiding the horribly cliche “flackback” plot device that has been become nearly ubiquitous in modern thrillers. There is a reason I have never been disappointed by her novels, and her mature and richly descriptive writing style has a lot to do with that.

The main difference between The Witch Elm and French’s previous works is that the main narrative is written from a civilian’s viewpoint, rather than a detective. I did find myself missing the police perspective. Toby, as the main character, just wasn’t terribly sympathetic. He is privileged, entitled, and oblivious to the struggles of those around him. His love for his girlfriend Melissa was a saving point, but their relationship always seemed a little too good to be true. Hugo, Leo, and Susanna as the supporting characters were more interesting than Toby, and I would have liked to know more about their lives.

I won’t give away too much of the main plot, only that I kept expecting French to take a turn for the supernatural. Ivy House somehow gives off a misty, Gothic feel from the outer suburbs of Dublin. The creepy atmosphere of The Witch Elm reminded me of the forest passages from In The Woods, which literally gave me goosebumps when I was reading them. I would love to see Tana French venture into the world of horror. It would definitely be a combination of two of my favorite elements.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Witch Elm here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: Kingdom of Ash (ToG #7) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #103

The long-awaited conclusion to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, Kingdom of Ash sees Aelin and her friends risking everything they have to fight against the dark armies of Morath and the vicious Queen Maeve. Effort was made to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but some key plot points may be revealed.

Aelin has risked everything to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. Aware that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, though her resolve begins to unravel with each passing day.

For her final installment, bestselling fantasy author Sarah J. Maas wants to make sure that she harnesses every available drop of tension and substance from the world she has worked so long to build. I commented in an earlier post that the first installment of ToG felt rather flat and one-dimensional, with the heroine boasting about her prowess a hell of a lot more than demonstrating it. In the six books following Throne of Glass, the world of Erilea has taken on sharp definition and an emotional weight that builds satisfyingly to a final conclusion.

As always, Maas gets major props for having a diverse cast of kick-ass female heroines at the forefront of her novel. Aelin’s journey comes full circle here, and the readers have been with her for so long as she struggled towards her destiny that to see her reaching her potential was a wonderful moment. Maas has a tendency to use very dramatic writing when narrating Aelin’s point of view. It gives the proceedings a very operatic feeling, but occasionally goes too far to where it begins to feel like self-parody. The character arcs of other important female figures such as Elide and Manon Blackbeak are also brought to a satisfying conclusion.

As strong as all these characters are, Maas certainly does make sure that they are all happily settled in their committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships by the end of the novel. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the very traditional “happily ever afters”, but I definitely did notice that the plot would not allow for such-and-such characters to end up apart from one another. It ended up giving the final climactic scenes a predictable feel, since I knew that any of these matched-up characters would not be permitted to die.

At nearly one thousand pages, the rising action of this novel encompasses nearly two-thirds of the book’s length. There are periods when Kingdom of Ash spins its wheels a bit, and feels the need to check it with various characters even when there is no new information to report. It takes nearly seven hundred pages for all of the main characters to finally get together, which gives the middle section a bloated feel, like some of the slower episodes of Game of Thrones.

Overall, I have fully enjoyed my time in Erilea. These novels aren’t perfect but they’re a lot of fun and creative addition to the YA fantasy genre. I continue looking forward to reading more from Sarah J. Maas.

Full disclosure: I skipped Tower of Dawn, the sixth installment in the ToG series. I didn’t want to spent six hundred pages with Chaol, who I always thought was completely boring. I did not regret my decision, and was able to follow the plot of Kingdom of Ash without difficulty.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Kingdom of Ash as well as the rest of the Throne of Glass novels here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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Review #102

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains of North America.

Everyone loves a good post-apocalyptic novel! Station Eleven has been on my to-read list for over a year and I finally got a chance to read it after finishing my 100th book review last week.

The first thing I enjoyed about this novel was that Emily St. John Mandel has taken pains to ground her apocalypse firmly in the real world. This is not The Walking Dead where gasoline never goes bad and everyone has perfectly tweezed eyebrows. The merry troupe of the Traveling Symphony is unwashed and their horse-drawn caravan is worn. Young people are growing up hearing about extinct and mythic wonders such as electricity and internet.

The added element of the twisting, meandering timeline works well in Station Eleven, giving the scenes set in the past a dreamy, nostalgic feel. Since the main plot revolves around a character who dies in the first chapter, we view him from a multitude of perspectives. The people whose lives the actor touched weave together and interlock throughout the novel.

In a way, this was the most loving post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. Not necessarily in the romantic sense, but in the way that Mandel paints such a sentimental portrait of everyday items. Characters often glance longingly at light switches, air conditioners, and iPhones and I found myself appreciating all the many small conveniences that my small apartment affords me.

Most end-of-the-world novels have some sort of all-powerful antagonist that has driven humanity to the brink of extinction. Nuclear weapons, zombies, aliens have all played this role in the past. Station Eleven felt very different because it lacked a primary villain. The closest thing to a looming threat would be a cult of religious fanatics lead by a power-hungry prophet, but even they lack any real sense of menace. Almost as if the events of Stephen King’s The Stand had occurred without the dueling battling between Good and Evil. As if Randall Flagg had never walked the Earth and instead the lonely remnants of a barren new world live by one simple motivation. Survival is insufficient.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Station Eleven here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (2011)

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Review #101

For a high-schooler, Cas Lockwood has an unusual after-school job. He tracks down and kills ghosts, like his father before him. Folklore and rumors have brought Cas, his mother, and their ghost-detecting cat to Thunder Bay, Ontario to hunt down a spirit known as Anna Dressed in Blood.

I found the exposition and rising action of Anna Dressed in Blood to be wonderfully fun and creepy. Cas operates a bit like a one-man Winchester brother, roaming from small town to small town across North America in pursuit of evil spirits and malicious ghosts. Instead of a cool and competent older brother, Cas instead travels with his mother, who insists on cleaning his demon-killing knife after he returns home every evening from battling the undead.

Cas also evokes a memory of Buffy, in that he is often accompanied by his faithful Scooby Gang. There’s the newly hatched witch, the beautiful but down-to- earth popular girl, her testosterone-driven boyfriend, and the wise teacher who shows them the way. Despite all this, Anna Dressed in Blood managed to avoid feeling like a tired re-tread of old themes, but was often fresh and funny. Unlike some novels I have reviewed for this site, Kendare Blake understands how teenagers speak and act amongst themselves, which gives this novel a grounding in reality as a comfortable jumping-off point into the paranormal.

I went into this book expecting a ghost story, and I guess that’s what I got. The Supernatural vibe dies off after the first hundred pages or so, and is replaced by a rather generic “catch the monster” second act which plays it pretty much by-the-numbers. I enjoyed the overall writing style, but ultimately it failed to as expected. Namely, to scare me.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Anna Dressed in Blood here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (2018)

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Review #100

In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Kate Morton has been on my shortlist of favorite authors since I first discovered The Forgotten Garden way back in 2011. All of her novels merge historical fiction with mystery, often spanning decades and generations. Morton stays true to form with her latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, and manages to throw in a few surprises along the way.

Morton loves writing about crumbling English manor homes and her settings often serve as characters unto themselves. The majority of The Clockmaker’s Daughter takes place in isolated and empty Birchwood Manor, but far from the gloomy, neglected halls that characterized Morton’s The Distant Hours, Birchwood is haunted by a ghost of a different sort. The presence which roams the halls of Birchwood Manor is filled with curiosity and kindness for the occasional visitors that come to her home, which has been turned into a museum and historical site. When a new visitor by the name of Elodie Winslow turns up looking for answers that lead back to a long ago summer when a group of artists descended upon the manor, the spirit of Birchwood Manor realizes that secrets are about to be uncovered that have been buried for centuries.

The wonderful thing about Kate Morton’s writing is that it flows so smoothly from time period to time period. The bulk of the narrative follows a group of young artists who venture into the country for a summer of nature and inspiration. The technological and social changes that embody Victorian England are present here; it was interesting to read about the introduction of photography, which would bring about major changes to the art world as the popularity of portraiture faded.

The rest of the novel is set in the present day. It is partly narrated by Elodie, a young archivist who stumbles upon a sketchbook that has been hidden away for decades. The spirit of Birchwood Manor has its own voice as well, detailing the events that have occurred in the house in the long years since its arrival. This is the first novel by Morton to contain a solid supernatural element. There were whispers of fairies and magic in some of her previous works, but the ghost in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is a defined presence with real wishes and desires.

If I had a critique of this novel, it would be the title. While one of the main characters is the daughter of a clockmaker, that fact has no real bearing on the overall storyline. Too many novels are “The _____’s Daughter” or “The _____’s Wife”. It is often is used in fiction to give a different perspective on historical events; however, it is unnecessary in this case. Instead it serves to undermine a strong female character by forcing her to be named only under the title of a male who is not even terribly relevant to the plot. It just felt lazy.

Overall, this was another highly enjoyable novel by a woman who remains at the top of my list for favorite authors. My only disappointment is that I have to settle in for a long wait until her next novel.

My Rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Clockmaker’s Daughter here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Gone by Michael Grant (2008)

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Review #99

Sam watches as his science teacher suddenly blinks out of existence in the middle of a lecture. He soon finds out that all of the teachers and upperclassman have also vanished, leaving everyone under the age of fifteen alone in their small California community. At the same time, an impassable barrier appears in a ten mile radius around the town. Within days the bullies are running the show, threatening anyone who opposes them with violence.

It was finally my turn to pick a book for book club! The theme was “superpowers” and I dug around on Goodreads and Pinterest for a few hours trying to find the perfect book. I finally chose Michael Grant’s Gone based on the fact that it had a 3.8 rating on Goodreads and I had heard about it before on a list of best YA science fiction. When I finally settled in with my Kobo and began to read…

Dud. I had picked a big fat dud.

Here are just a few of the notes I jotted down while reading this book:

  • “Twenty pages. The word “brah” used at least once per page.”
  • “Was written specifically in the hopes of becoming a show on the CW.”
  • “Why is Quinn so racist towards Mexicans? Why is everyone okay with it?”
  • “Trying for LOTF. Failing miserably.”
  • “Please stop saying “brah””
  • “Grant writes teenager characters as if he read about them once in National Geographic.”
  • “They’re not very nice to the autistic kid, either.”
  • “STOP SAYING “BRAH””

 

My rating: 1/5. Points for feminist characters and very diverse cast in general. And the kid who went to work at McDonalds was kind of adorable.

You can find Gone here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

P.S. Next review will be #100 be sure to check it out!!

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Girl With All the Gifts (2014)

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Review #97

Melanie is a very special girl. She is the smartest in her class, and is always trying to please her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. Melanie is always very careful to follow the rules. Every day when the soldiers come to her cell, she makes sure to sit very carefully as they strap her arms and legs onto a wheelchair and cover her face with a plastic mask. As one soldier aims his gun steadily at her face, she jokes and says she doesn’t bite. No one laughs. No one laughs much anymore; not with the hungries prowling around outside of the army base where Melanie lives.

Then she gets to attend class with Miss Justineau and the other children, all of whom are bound into their own wheelchairs. Miss Justineau says Melanie is a genius. Melanie loves to tell Miss Justineau about all the wonderful things she’ll see and do after she grows up. She doesn’t understand why this always makes her beloved teacher look so very sad.

Of all the ghosts, ghouls, and monsters that can be found in horror novels and movies, zombies tend to be very hit or miss. The majority of zombie fiction is overly gory, with soulless villains that cannot think or feel or be understood and are therefore not terribly interesting. The ones that transcend the genre, novels like Mira Grant’s Feed or Max Brooks’ World War Z, choose to focus less on the walking dead and more on the people who are struggling to survive in a world where they are no longer the apex predators. The Girl With All the Gifts, like the aforementioned books, tells a very human story in the middle of an inhuman world. It combines the hard medical science of Grant with the intensely personal stories of Brooks to create something unique and fantastic.

This is a novel in which each of the characters has their own struggles and victories, flaws and strengths. The young schoolteacher finds herself doubting her own judgement when it comes to the fate of her students. The scarred and surly army sergeant is forced to confront his long-held biases about the world he lives in. Even the mad-scientist, who has sacrificed her own moral compass in her desperate journey to find answers, is relatable. By focusing on a small group of compelling individuals, author M. R. Carey is able to make the zombie apocalypse a more personal story.

As the leading protagonist, Melanie is a triumph. She is young and naive, hopeful and eager and engaging. She is smart and resourceful, but at the same time she’s a scared little girl who is struggling to understand the world around her. Carey walks a tight edge and risks making Melanie a little too perfect, but in the end she is just as fallible as everyone else and her motivations are often alien to the adults around her.

I won’t say too much about the overall plot, as experiencing it for the first time was half the fun. Melanie and the others are living on a protected army base approximately sometime after the majority of the population as succumbed to the “zombie” pandemic. The stumbling, rotting, and forever hungry remnants of the human race aren’t reanimated corpses, but are instead the victims of a type of fungal infection. The scientific explanation behind the hungries was one of my favorite aspects of this novel, as I had heard of this terrifying phenomenon taking place in the animal world and could readily imagine the destruction it could cause if it ever found a way to infect mammals.

I’ve been rather disappointed by thrillers lately, but The Girl With All the Gifts went a long way towards restoring my faith. This novel is exciting, suspenseful, and tightly written. It never lags for a second once the plot is set in motion. And it tells a story about what it truly means to be human, and humane, in a world where humanity has become endangered.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Girl With All the Gifts here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

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Review #96

When Louise Marshall receives a friend request on Facebook from Maria Weston, she is surprised to say the least. When they were in high school together, Louise wasn’t too kind to Maria. In fact, she was a bit of a bully. So why would Maria be reaching out after twenty-seven years? Plus there’s the fact that Maria is dead. Isn’t she?

My most recent post was entitled I’m Breaking Up With the Modern Thriller Genre. I explained how the recent trend towards unnecessary plot twists, shoddy characterization, and clumsy foreshadowing has killed my enjoyment of recently popular thriller novels. Friend Request by Laura Marshall was the book that broke this reader’s patience.

In this novel are the same tired cliches and overused stereotypes that have made the thriller genre an exercise in frustration. There are the obligatory flashbacks that serve no true purpose except to drum up a false sense of suspense. In this case, we visit Louise and Maria as they go through their senior year of high school in 1989. Instead of giving us a window into this time period which may have been fun or added relevant details to the overall plot, instead we just have Louise continually torn between her desire to be part of the popular crowd and her budding friendship with the new girl at school. There’s potential here for an insightful look at the long-term affects of teenage bullying, but Marshall never really connects the dots.

We also have multiple plot twists which serve no real purpose and fail to offer any surprises. When I think of novels such as Ender’s Game, Fight Club or any of Tana French’s Dublin Murder series, the thing that stands out is that all of the elements of the pre-twist narrative fall into place once the twist is revealed. If you go back and re-read any of these novels, you can logically and rationally follow the plot with the knowledge of the twist already in place. However, the plot twist in Friend Request is a cheat. It’s utterly out of left field and literally made me face-palm once I realized that this was what Marshall had spent so much time and effort building towards. I love a good plot twist but they need to make sense within the larger story, and the one in this novel fell completely flat.

I may have liked this book more if I hadn’t experienced a recent run of similar faux-thriller novels which can all be boiled down to “white woman with quirky but interesting career is somehow surprised when the past comes back to haunt her”. My frustration with Friend Request is ultimately due to my overall frustration with the current state of the thriller genre itself. I’ve decided to take a break and focus on a few other genres for awhile. Perhaps with some time I will be able to come back and appreciate this novel on its own merit.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Friend Request here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!