July 19, 2016

A Case of Wanderlust: My Top 10 Books Set in Europe

Top Ten Tuesday

I blame books for my random cases of wanderlust. Each of our major trips have some sort of literary stop (either a literary landmark or a place I read about in a book). I love books set in Europe: the majesty of the landscapes, depth of scenery, and fantastic history pulls me in every time. Here are my top 10 favorite books set in Europe:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (we’ll just count this as one!) | For everyone.
  2. Jewels of the Sun by Nora Roberts | For the romantic longing for moody cliffs and gorgeous Irishmen.
  3. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Greun | Historical chick lit with a little female power.
  4. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah | The life of two sisters in World War II.
  5. The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki | The first half of the life of Empress Sisi.
  6. The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell | Vatican intrigue.
  7. Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood | For the literary lover.
  8. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith | Good with a cup of tea.
  9. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent | Life, guilt and forgiveness.
  10. About Last Night by Ruthie Knox | For when you need a little extra romance.

 

Posted July 19, 2016 by Ellen in top ten tuesday / 0 Comments
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July 14, 2016

Review | Brown-Eyed Girl by Lisa Kleypas

Review | Brown-Eyed Girl by Lisa KleypasBrown-Eyed Girl by Lisa Kleypas
Series: Travis Family, #4
Publisher: Piatkus, August 11th 2015
Pages: 291
Format: Hardcover
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Wedding planner Avery Crosslin may be a rising star in Houston society, but she doesn't believe in love--at least not for herself. When she meets wealthy bachelor Joe Travis and mistakes him for a wedding photographer, she has no intention of letting him sweep her off her feet. But Joe is a man who goes after what he wants, and Avery can't resist the temptation of a sexy southern charmer and a hot summer evening.
After a one night stand, however, Avery is determined to keep it from happening again. A man like Joe can only mean trouble for a woman like her, and she can't afford distractions. She's been hired to plan the wedding of the year--a make-or-break event.
But complications start piling up fast, putting the wedding in jeopardy, especially when shocking secrets of the bride come to light. And as Joe makes it clear that he's not going to give up easily, Avery is forced to confront the insecurities and beliefs that stem from a past she would do anything to forget.
The situation reaches a breaking point, and Avery faces the toughest choice of her life. Only by putting her career on the line and risking everything--including her well-guarded heart--will she find out what matters most.

Avery Crosslin would rather blend into the background, thank you very much. As co-owner of one of the primer wedding companies in Houston, she thrives in the background, ensuring negative best men are kept away from wayward grooms and creating the brides’ wildest dreams. But when she meets Joe Travis, a man who seems to see through her oversize, bland clothing and see her. And that leaves this brown-eyed girl a little bit nervous.

I really don’t know how Kleypas does it. Her ability to create such vivid characters consistently knocks me off my feet. I loved Avery right off the bat. Her self-consciousness is so endearing; it’s a characteristic that allows every girl, red hair/brown eyes or not, to identify with her. She’s a woman who shines out of the spotlight, who thrives on details. From that moment, we had an immediate kinship.

Joe was the perfect mix of domineering romantic hero and giant softy. Kleypas (wisely) offsets his alpha male tendencies with insight into mind through dialogue that makes it easier to connect with him and understand what’s going on.

The side plot of Avery’s sister and her quiet romance were fantastic…I wish there was a novel just for them. The push and pull of their relationship caught me in and I found myself wishing they had a happily-ever-after too.

The plot is what really won me over when it came to Brown-Eyed Girl. It was so realistic: a girl caught between a boy and a life choice. It’s a gamble, but also a learning opportunity to trust your heart – one of the hardest lessons in life. Avery’s character journey isn’t dramatic. It’s a life journey that could happen to any woman, decisions that could face any one of us. It was how their relationship evolved around it that made Brown-Eyed Girl an absolute winner.

4 Stars

Posted July 14, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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July 12, 2016

10 Bookish Facts About Me

Top Ten Tuesday

As a longtime, hardcore bookworm, books have made a huge impact on my life. Here’s a few bookish facts about me that you might not know.

  1. I earned my degree in English lit. My favorites? Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and W.B. Yeats. Best contemporary book I read in college? Possession. YOU. MUST. READ.
  2. My grandpa bought me the first Harry Potter book and launched my lifelong love of reading. I still remember the bookstore clerk handing us the book, saying “There’s this great new series about a wizard…”
  3. I usually prefer books over movies, but with the big epics (think Outlander and A Game of Thrones), I love being able to see the characters first, then read them.
  4. Oh, and the first time I red Outlander, I hated it. Blasphemy.
  5. I named a family cat Sebastian because I was reading Twelfth Night in college.
  6. On our last move, I had ten paper boxes (you know, the ones offices get paper shipments in) full of books.
  7. I am on a lifelong book-buying freeze, unless I absolutely love the book. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to fit them all in our house.
  8. Anything by Sarah J. Maas and Amie Kaufmann are excluded from that ban.
  9. We always do a literary tour stop and bookstores on our vacation! Seattle has been the best so far.
  10. There’s a very good chance our firstborn child will be named Hermione. Don’t tell M.

Share your top ten Tuesday post below! I’d love to get to know you. 🙂

Posted July 12, 2016 by Ellen in top ten tuesday / 0 Comments
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July 11, 2016

Review | The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

Review | The Fifth Gospel by Ian CaldwellThe Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, March 2015
Pages: 431
Format: Hardcover
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A mysterious exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums. The curator is murdered at a clandestine meeting on the outskirts of Rome a week before it opens. That same night, a violent break-in rocks the home of Greek Catholic priest Father Alex Andreou. When the papal police fail to identify a suspect in either crime, Father Alex decides that to find the killer he must reconstruct the secret of what a little-known, true-to-life fifth gospel known as the Diatessaron reveals about the church’s most controversial holy relic. But just as he begins to understand the truth about his friend’s death and its consequences for the future of the Christian church, Father Alex discovers a ruthless stalker is hunting him—an enemy with a vested stake in the exhibit that he must outwit to survive.
Rich, authentic, erudite, and emotionally searing, The Fifth Gospel is a riveting novel of suspense and a feast of biblical history that satisfies on every level.

When Father Alex Andreou volunteers to help a new curator friend research the gospels to prepare for his new exhibit, he expects nothing extraordinary. Yet when his friend is killed in a mysterious meeting, Alex is pulled into a deep mystery involving the Shroud of Turin, a discovered fifth gospel, and more secrets the Vatican is desperately trying to hide. As Alex struggles to free his brother, arrested for murder, and uncover the truth, he will discover more than he ever expected.

I’m a sucker for religious history. The Da Vinci Code might have introduced me to the layers beneath the Catholic church, but it also launched a intense curiosity for all things religious (not just Christian, as you might have noticed). When I found The Fifth Gospel lingering on the shelf at the library, it felt like kismet.

To be frank, The Fifth Gospel is nothing like The Da Vinci Code. Caldwell tries to recreate the same fascinating mystery, the intense need to churn through the pages as quickly as possible, but the result is a little more lackluster. Don’t get me wrong – the plot is interesting enough, but not enough to hook me.

In fact, if it weren’t for the vast amounts of religious history, I probably would have chalked this book up to DNF and put it back in my library bag. Alex was interesting enough, but as much as I tried, I didn’t feel that connection with him, that investment. Why? He kept telling me how he felt, instead of showing me.

But the history…oh, it plucked my nerdy heartstrings. I know next to nothing about the Orthodox Church, but have been intrigued by it. I loved how Alex epitomized the differences between the two churches, even as a man (an Orthodox priest who worked for the Vatican) who belonged to both and neither at once. The light biblical theology and the heavy religious history piqued my curiosity enough to start delving into the history and traditions of the Orthodox.

Typically, the religious history/thriller fiction I’ve read portrays either a nameless or a fictional pope. I found Caldwell’s decision to use John Paul slightly unsettling. He isn’t depicted negatively – if anything, he’s a symbol of power – but the scenes with him yanked me out of the fictional world.

While The Fifth Gospel isn’t the heart-pounding, intense religious history/thriller I was hoping for, the amount of real history of examination of traditions makes up for it. If you’re looking for another Da Vinci Code, this book is a pass.

3 Stars

Posted July 11, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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July 7, 2016

Review | D.C. Trip by Sara Benincasa

Review | D.C. Trip by Sara BenincasaD.C. Trip by Sara Benincasa
Publisher: Adaptive Books, November 2015
Pages: 280
Format: Hardcover
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Author and comedienne Sara Benincasa takes a bold, fearless and irreverent look at the classic high school trip to Washington DC.
Alicia Deats is a new teacher chaperoning her very first high school trip to Washington DC, and nothing could be more terrifying than a class full of horny, backstabbing, boundary-pushing teenagers under her watch. To make matters worse, she embarrassed herself with her co-chaperone Bryan Kenner with one too many margaritas and an ill-placed vomiting incident at last year’s teacher mixer and is hoping this trip can be a fresh start for them. Alicia believes in positive reinforcement and trust to keep her students out of trouble, but best friend high school sophomores Gertie, Sivan, and Rachel have a different idea: they plan to take full advantage of the un-parented freedom that a trip to DC offers. DC TRIP by novelist-comedian Sara Benincasa is an honest and irreverent journey of sexual confusion, bar shots, drag queens, and pot cookies in the Rose Garden.

When Alicia Deats volunteers to help Bryan Kenner chaperone the sophomore class trip to D.C., she hopes it will be the chance to connect with him after their disastrous first meeting. But when the drama escalates in their group, Alicia and Bryan have their hands full keeping track of their students, who are determined to have a good time in the capitol.

I had no idea what I was getting into with D.C. Trip. From the book flap, I expected a cute romance between the two high school teachers chaperoning the trip (check) and a alternating tale of three girls, determined to explore the city in their own way (check). What I didn’t expect was the amount of cussing.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with cursing in dialogue. It makes it realistic and, if used well, a good point. But, here’s the thing with D.C. Trip – almost every other word that came out of the kids’ mouths would have had to be beeped out of the nightly news. It got to be irritating quickly. The usage overwhelmed the dialogue, and I found myself struggling to keep track of what they were talking about.

Each main character (5 in total – the two teachers and three students) had a small character journey, some more than others. Silvan’s was definitely the standout: a young lesbian struggling to find her place in the world who starts to stand up to the bullying she faces. Silvan was the most identifiable character by far. her friend Gertie took second with her longtime crush on a guy from her summer camp. The third of the group, Rachel, isn’t really memorable at all except for her hair flipping and her ability to find trouble.

While D.C. Trip is a pretty accurate description of high school drama, it’s entirely surface level. There’s little to no in-depth exploration of the characters or their situations. Without that level of detail, it just felt…flat.

3 Stars

Posted July 7, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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July 4, 2016

Review | Thirty Nights with a Highland Husband by Melissa Mayhue

Review | Thirty Nights with a Highland Husband by Melissa MayhueThirty Nights with a Highland Husband by Melissa Mayhue
Series: Daughters of the Glen, #1
Publisher: Pocket Books, June 2007
Pages: 356
Format: Paperback
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SCOTLAND, 1272. Connor MacKiernan, a descendant of the Fae Prince, is a warrior who lives only for honor and duty. Though he's vowed never to marry, that's exactly what he must do to save his sister. Enter a little Faerie magic, and the search for a bride is on. DENVER, 2007. Caitlyn Coryell is having a really bad day -- she just discovered her fiance with another woman! Imagine her surprise when she puts on some sexy lingerie and an antique pendant and Connor appears in her bedroom, begging for her help. He offers a simple yet outrageous adventure: travel to his time, marry him, and return home.
But nothing's simple when Cate is trapped in the thirteenth century. The wedding's delayed, someone's trying to kill her, and in the middle of all this, she realizes she's falling in love with a man who can only be her husband for thirty nights.

A 13th century Highlander who’s sworn off women. A 21st century woman who just realized her engagement is a sham. In a tale of time travel, Faerie magic, and family ties, Thirty Nights with a Highland Husband is one couple’s journey to discover true love.

The premise was a little odd. I loved how the opening set up the root of Faerie magic in the coming romance, but the magic that brought Cait into the past with Connor was just a bit strange. If you’re willing to suspend a little disbelief and roll with it, however, it’s a good story.

I liked Cait. Her 21st century sensibilities didn’t always mix well with the 13th century society, forcing her character to develop even further. Connor didn’t really come alive until their romance really started to bloom. I wish he had more qualities other than his devotion to his family. Don’t get me wrong; it fit him well. But he needed more.

While I didn’t quite buy the premise of the story, I liked Cait and Connor’s relationship. They each had a piece the other needed, something that could heal the gaping wound in the other.

I wasn’t too sure about the timeline. In many of the time-traveling Scottish romances I’ve read, time is measured the same, but Mayhue’s Thirty Nights doesn’t follow along those lines. Once I got used to it though, I loved it. It gave Cait room to grow and develop in the 13th century, learning how to handle her problems in the 21st.

Thirty Nights has some misses, but some hits as well, bright moments that shine through. I didn’t quite buy into the premise – it felt too contrived – but the resulting romance made a good read. Best of all, Mayhue’s ending seals the deal. It’s one of the best happily ever afters I’ve come across in a long time.

3 Stars

Posted July 4, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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July 2, 2016

Through Diagon Alley | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Through Diagon Alley | Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Series: Harry Potter, #7
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, July 2007
Pages: 759
Format: Hardcover
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Harry is waiting in Privet Drive. The Order of the Phoenix is coming to escort him safely away without Voldemort and his supporters knowing - if they can. But what will Harry do then? How can he fulfil the momentous and seemingly impossible task that Professor Dumbledore has left him?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The magical world has fallen. Despite the best efforts of the Order of the Phoenix, Voldemort has regained power and the world is falling into chaos. It’s up to Harry, Ron, and Hermione to finish the task Dumbledore left them: find and destroy the Deathly Hallows.

Out of the Harry Potter books, Deathly Hallows is by far the hardest book to read. It’s bittersweet, really. Rowling makes good on her promises and brings the ultimate battle of good and evil to life, but it’s still hard to say goodbye to a world I’ve grown up with.

Harry’s evolution from a teenager to a man is especially symbolic in the beginning. His flight from Privet Drive is the last moment of his childhood, torn away from him rather abruptly View Spoiler ». It’s a startling rip, an abrupt jolt into adulthood that leaves me surprised even when I know it’s coming.

I loved how Rowling tampers down the dark nature of The Deathly Hallows with light moments, especially with Ron and Hermione’s relationship. FINALLY! I loved the tension, the brief romantic moments that offset the terror that thrives throughout the book. The other highlight is Luna Lovegood, a character that’s quickly become one of my favorites. Her determinedly positive outlook on life brings light into the narrative.

The long-awaited final battle of good and evil was everything Rowling foretold. The battle of Hogwarts gives me goosebumps each time I read it, from McGonagall’s courage to the bravery of the students who join Harry to fight. It’s more than a great fight scene though – it’s the final battle of love versus hate, love versus obsession, love versus everything. Love is seen in every action the defenders of Hogwarts take, from Molly Weasley to (surprisingly) Narcissa Malfoy.

From the inside look to Dumbledore’s life to the evolution of the true natures of much-loved characters, The Deathly Hallows is a winner, through and through. As hard as it is to leave Harry’s world, it makes me excited to start his story all over again.

5 Stars

Posted July 2, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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July 1, 2016

Review | K is for Killer by Sue Grafton

Review | K is for Killer by Sue GraftonK is for Killer by Sue Grafton
Series: Kinsey Millhone, #11
Publisher: Ballantine Books, January 1970
Pages: 292
Format: Hardcover
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When Kinsey Millhone answers her office door late one night, she lets in more darkness than she realizes. Janice Kepler is a grieving mother who can't let the death of her beautiful daughter Lorna alone. The police agree that Lorna was murdered, but a suspect was never apprehended and the trail is now ten months cold. Kinsey pieces together Lorna's young life: a dull day job a the local water treatment plant spiced by sidelines in prostitution and pornography. She tangles with Lorna's friends: a local late-night DJ; a sweet, funny teenaged hooker; Lorna's sloppy landlord and his exotic wife. But to find out which one, if any, turned killer, Kinsey will have to inhabit a netherworld from which she may never return.
From the Paperback edition.

On the surface, Lorna Kelper was an ordinary girl, if a little private. In one of the more grisly cases at the Santa Teresa Police Department, she was found dead in her home, a case left unsolved for years. But when Lorna’s mother arrives on Kinsey’s office doorstep late one night, asking for help in finding her daughter’s killer, Kinsey can’t refuse.

Grafton’s 11th book takes a turn to the darker side. While I wouldn’t consider the Kinsey Millhone series light and fluffy, the dark nature of the victim and crime took the series down a darker path. Part was due to the life of the victim herself: a manipulative woman living on the edge, working as a prostitute and testing the patience of those who loved her. I didn’t identify with Lorna or her surviving family, but I felt for them. The arrogance, the denial, the hurt that haunts that household as potently as if Lorna’s ghost actually drifted in the halls.

Kinsey’s relationships didn’t feel quite as real in K is for Killer. I liked the minor characters, but they didn’t have the same vibrancy I’d come to expect from Grafton. They mist have been overshadowed by Lorna’s powerful character – it’s hard to overlook a whirlwind like her.

When Cheney, the new guy, arrives on the scene, I was thrilled. It’s about time Kinsey’s personal life got a little shakeup. At first, everything seemed fine, yet more than halfway through the book, he suddenly mentions a girlfriend. Kinsey doesn’t act surprised, but I found myself rocked and more than a little confused.

Despite a few plot holes, K is for Killer is fascinating. I had to find out what happened to Lorna, why it happened. When Kinsey tugs at a few strings in the family’s defenses, the whole ball unravels and opens the door to the most fascinating depictions of how different people handle grief and jealousy.

As a fan of Grafton’s series, I found K is for Killer fascinating, but without the previous context, it might fall flat for some readers. Yet I loved the darker turn and the focus on the grief, jealousy, and how it affects us.

4 Stars

Posted July 1, 2016 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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June 23, 2016

Review | Forever With You by Jennifer Armentrout

Review | Forever With You by Jennifer ArmentroutForever with You by Jennifer L. Armentrout
Series: Wait for You #5
Publisher: Avon, September 2015
Pages: 370
Format: Paperback
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In the irresistibly sexy series from #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout, two free spirits find their lives changed by a one-night stand…
Some things you just believe in, even if you've never experienced them. For Stephanie, that list includes love. It's out there. Somewhere. Eventually. Meanwhile she's got her job at the mixed martial arts training center and hot flings with gorgeous, temporary guys like Nick. Then a secret brings them closer, opening Steph's eyes to a future she never knew she wanted—until tragedy rips it away.
Nick's self-assured surface shields a past no one needs to know about. His mind-blowing connection with Steph changes all that. As fast as he's knocking down the walls that have kept him commitment-free, she's building them up again, determined to keep the hurt—and Nick—out. But he can't walk away. Not when she's the only one who's ever made him wish for forever . . .

Stephanie’s finally out on her own. Fresh from college graduation, she moves into her first apartment away from home and stumbles into Nick, the cute bartender at the nearby restaurant. Little does she know that the fling she considers a one night stand will bring out a secret that brings them together, possibly for forever.

Like other reviewers, I had some trouble getting into the groove of Forever With You. To be honest, I was stunned that Steph and Nick met so quickly in the book; I expected some character development on her side before Nick appeared and the romance commenced. It made for a bit of an awkward beginning, one that made me consider putting the book back in the library bag and picking up another. In the end, I’m so glad I stuck with it.

It’s the realistic situations and the emotions they evoke that makes Forever With You a contemporary romance winner. Steph’s struggle within herself for independence and Nick’s relationship issues create a push-and-pull within the story that add to the tension. It’s a constant guessing game: will they or won’t they?

I liked how Armentrout slowly reveals more about Nick’s character and his past. Since the story takes place from Steph’s perspective, we get to know her pretty well, but discover Nick as she does. Usually, I prefer when the narration switches between characters in a romance, but Armentrout’s decision to stick with Steph was right on.

The focus on family relationships was wonderful. Her unusual emphasis on both Steph and Nick’s family created a real relationship, using dynamics of everyday life. Adding in these elements made it easy to believe in the characters, motives and emotions that built Forever With You.

I didn’t quite buy into the female friendships Steph developed. They felt a little forced and awkward, a sudden jolt instead of a slow development. While they played a huge role in the end of the novel, their credibility didn’t hold up in the beginning.

In the end, Forever With You was a pretty good read. The play of warring emotions and motives of two independent people united by one secret created an intriguing read.

3 Stars

Posted June 23, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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June 20, 2016

Review | This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen

Review | This Lullaby by Sarah DessenThis Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Speak, March 8th 2004
Pages: 345
Format: Hardcover
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When it comes to relationships, Remy doesn't mess around. After all, she's learned all there is to know from her mother, who's currently working on husband number five. But there's something about Dexter that seems to defy all of Remy's rules. He certainly doesn't seem like Mr. Right. For some reason, however, Remy just can't seem to shake him. Could it be that Remy's starting to understand what those love songs are all about?

Remy Starr just isn’t a romantic sort of person. After planning her mother’s fifth wedding and watching her best friend fall apart after her boyfriend dumps her, Remy’s certain that love isn’t for her. But Dexter, a boy she met at her (fifth) stepfather’s car dealership, is determined to change that.

After reading Saint Anything, I was certain I’d fall for This Lullaby. Same author, same YA contemporary romance feel. Yet Remy’s story fell flat for me.

Her level of disillusionment/bitterness/logical thinking when it came to love was a major turnoff for me. She was so matter-of-fact, it was hard to find emotion in her. When I did, it felt contrived and wrong for her character. The only time it was believable? During a emotionally difficult dinner with her brother and his girlfriend.

For a majority of This Lullaby, it felt like Remy was holding herself above everyone else, looking down on them with disdain for getting caught up in the emotion of love. There wasn’t a redeeming quality to pull me in, to get me hooked into her character, until too late.

Don’t hate me, but I found Dexter’s character to be kind of weird. He lacked the charm of Dessen’s other romantic heroes. Instead, he was a bit creepy, showing up at random places and talking about her to his buddies without knowing much about her. It moved away from cute into the danger zones.

I get the idea of it: a deeply romantic guy to shake up a stubborn girl like Remy, but the execution was off. Instead of being charmed, I felt…icked. (I know that’s not a word, but you get the idea). Without that flare of hope, that redeeming quality, Remy felt like a lost cause, one even Dexter couldn’t save. I needed to believe that everything would turn out all right in the end. Instead, This Lullaby felt forced, and honestly just made me sad.

2 Stars

Posted June 20, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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