Review: Tooth and Nail by Jennifer Safrey

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Genre: supernatural/mythic fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 320 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected February 7th 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.75/5

Gemma Fae Cross, a tough-girl amateur boxer whose fiance is running for congress, has just made a startling discovery about herself. She is half faerie - and not just any faerie, but a tooth faerie! A hybrid of fae and human, Gemma is destined to defend the Olde Way and protect the fae - who are incapable of committing violence - from threats to their peaceful and idyllic way of life, which must be maintained by distilling innocence collected from children''s baby teeth. But when a threat to the fae mission emerges, Gemma is called upon to protect her heritage, and become a legendary fae warrior... even if it means sacrificing everything she knows about being human!

Though I first gave Tooth and Nail four out of five as a kneejerk "That was pretty damn fun to read!" reaction, a couple days distance and thought has me edging it down ever-so-slightly to a 3.75/5 stars. Don't let that alarm or dismay you from giving this urban fantasy a try - personal pet peeves and a possible plot hole aren't enough to overwhelm the good in this modern-day take on the Tooth Fairy legend. First: I loved the idea behind Jennifer Safrey's novel: a female pugilist in the role of littlies' tooth collector? Inventive, clever and fun: all premises and hopes I had for this novel in those regards were fulfilled. Among things that I hadn't bargained on: the love-triangle (kick me), the genuinely freaky tooth-related nightmares Gemma has. Frequently. (Seriously, just no, no no.), or just how sinister adult dentists can be.

Gemma Fae Cross is the main character's name and while I find painfully obvious character names to be well, painfully obvious, I found myself liking the tough-natured and competitive Gemma. She's one of those type of characters that has a strong, vibrant personality on the page - one that was thankfully well-rounded and flawed, though not one I was initially invested in much.  "Bricks" short for "Brickhouse" is a competitive and good fighter in a very male dominated sport, so it's easy to say that Gemma both doesn't take shit from anyone nor pull any punches; two traits I love in a female main character. I also love that though Gemma has a serious relationship, Avery doesn't dominate her life or her thoughts. I was wary of the whole "giving up my job since he's a politician" but Gemma is an independent girl, even foolhardily so. I was also slightly disappointed by some of the things Gemma did throughout Tooth and Nail (<SPOILER warning!> like kissing mentor Svein when "so in love" with Avery, repeatedly not asking for help, failing to tell anyone what she is doing or neglecting to read her freaking guidebook/how-to-Tooth-Fairy manual given to her before tooth-collecting alone</end SPOILER warning), but forgave her flaws because, as her father so often told her, she is still human and capable of making mistakes. And she's also still pretty badass, flaws and disappointments aside.

As part of the "morning fae" (as opposed to their enemies, the "midnight fae"), Gemma is supposed to collect children's teeth for two years as a service to her race. Why? She works for Brimstone? The morning fae use the teeth as an attempt to regain "the Olde Way" - a way of life so long gone and innocent the fae can only remember while touching a human child's innocence - in the form of a tooth. Yes, it's a little weird and odd but I like the individual and creative mythology that Safrey worked for. My only issues and the possible aforementioned plothole from above: <SPOILER warning>If the evil dentist was plotting to ruin 'The Old Way' because he was a gasp! half-breed and never allowed to experience it . . .  why didn't he just touch one of his patients extracted teeth without a glove? If that's all it took to experience 'The Old Way', as seems to be the case both for Gemma's experiences, there was never one moment in all his years of schooling and practicing that the Doctor touched a touch barehanded? It strains my credulity and makes me hope that I either missed or forgot something contradicting this. <end SPOILER>) My other complaint is trivial in comparison: all of Gemma's training - both physcial or not- is off-screen! Why! I was bummed to miss out on Svein and Gemma's interactions as long as they don't kiss. Theirs is an interesting and often charged dynamic of two dominant personalities vying for control. I'd certainly be behind a relationship, they're interesting together in way Gemma and Avery aren't - but please, do NOT go the way of the love-triangle, Ms. Safrey. Either make Gemma choose Avery or Svein but the hints and allusions to romantic tension between Gemma and her fae mentor while she is living with another man is just too much.

Let's just get it out there. The tooth nightmares. I hated them. Hated hated hated. I guess I never had a tooth-related nightmare as a child/adult or one bad enough that I remember it to this day (though apparently they are quite common. Who knew?) but I totally, totally get the horror after reading Safrey's dark and twisted visions. While I can't attest that Ms. Safrey is the absolutely best storyteller I've come across, she is certainly an able and effective one. I might not've had those kind of dreams before but I wouldn't be surprised if they appeared now! While the nightmares were the only instance I particularly took note of Ms. Safrey's prose, I liked the direct tone and voice of this book. Gemma's voice never falters and is thoroughly believable.

Tooth and Nail is a promising introduction to a new urban fantasy writer in Jennifer Safrey. Her mythology is both strong and unique while incorporating a popular theme (fae/faeries/fey/whatever), and her characters are both strong and memorable. I would be interested in reading both other books by this author and any sequels planned for this particular world/series.

Two Minute Review: The Garden of the Stone by Victoria Strauss

Genre: fantasy
Pages: 375
Published: 1999/2011
Source: ARC
Rating: 4/5

At the heart of the Fortress lay the Garden.

At the heart of the Garden lay the Stone.

It was a living entity of power beyond understanding-not even by the men who had used its energies to control the unGifted masses, ever since the wrenching cataclysm that shattered the union of Hand and Mind and split the world centuries ago. Then came Bron, his arrival long foretold, destined to restore the balance between Hand and Mind. But Bron had other plans. He stole the Stone...and vanished.

Now Bron's daughter Cariad, a powerful empath and skilled assassin, must follow the footsteps of a father she has never known, into the depths of the same Fortress. Waiting there is Jolyon, her father's deadly enemy, a man whose thirst for domination is matched only by his taste for blood...and who possesses the power to satisfy both appetites. Cariad must learn the secret of Jolyon's strength before it is too late. For just as her father's arrival was prophesied, so too is his return. And this time Jolyon is ready-for Bron to die.

The Garden of the Stone was sent to me as a goodreads first read. Itwas signed by Vicki Strauss.
This was a very enjoyable book. I hadn't read the first in the series but didn't need to- this one stood alone just fine. The action and pace were good. The main character was deep and had realistic and interesting flaws. At the beginning of the story, she knows she will live to see her father in the Garden. What she fails to understand is that, because of this prophecy, she will rush into danger, not realizing that she would meet her father a changed woman. Not necessarily for the worst, but different.

My only problem with the book was that the villain's character was not realized enough. I would have liked to see some of his point of view. The rest of the characters were fully realized and understanding a bit more about why he was the way he was would have rounded out the story better.
Overall, a recommended read.

This title is also just $4.99 for Nook right now, so if you feel like giving this series/author a shot, now is the cheap time to do it.


Sunday, January 29, 2012
The awesome April has compiled a list of current on-going giveaways on blogs she frequents.

Here is the list!
E-book of Rapture by Phillip W. Simpson until Feb. 3
Book from The Book Depository, 100 followers giveaway until Feb. 3
YA Giveaway hop- two books- ends Jan. 31
Book of your choice from the list. YA and paranormal. Ends in 26 days!
The Way We Fall book giveaway until Feb. 6
Angelfall by Susan Ee giveaway- until Jan. 31
Many, many individual giveaways of YA fantasy! until Jan. 29
Drowning Instinct by IJB, one of my faves! Ends Jan 31
YA book giveaway ends Feb. 2
YA time travel giveaway ends Feb. 2

2012's First Blog Watch Wednesday!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
I've been failing pretty bad at blogging here in 2012. I had several days off (read: five), and I got supremely lazy instead of writing my reviews and have been playing catch-up ever since. The first two Wednesdays didn't even compute as Wednesday until it was either too late to post, or I was too drunk to coherently discuss anything. So here, on the final Wednesday of January, is the first BWW of 2012!

Reviews Posted:

Fun Stuff!

Gary Oldman talks about - FINALLY - being nominated for an Oscar.
I have huge love for Gary Oldman so this makes me a happy camper - I hope he wins!

Want the full list of Oscar nominees? Gotcha covered.
It's a crying shame Harry Potter is only nominated twice.

Speaking of all that is Harry, this little Harry Potter-themed joke made me laugh.

Lionsgate is getting pretty creative with the advertising for The Hunger Games. They've just launched their CapitolCouture site and it is both fun, and relevant to the books.

I want this - check out  a coffee table that doubles as a bookcase. Of course, no one would be allowed to out food/drinks/feet on it, for fear of damaging my babies. But it's cool. 

The Lovely Ewa has read and reviewed Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star.

It doesn't hurt that Heath is also on my "People I would Like to Narrate My Life" list, along with Misha Collins of Supernatural (he has a sexy voice!), Jim Dale (narrator of lost-love Pushing Daisies), Alan Rickman and Dame Helen Mirren.

Have you seen Neil Gaiman's library?
It is a library to aspire to. One day, I will have a room just as awesome. But two story, and with a moving ladder. </Beauty and the Beast inspired pipe dream>

A martial artist/contortionist tries to recreate women's poses from comic books....and is incapable. There is something very wrong here.

New TUMBLR of the Week! It's random and odd: GothsUpTrees.

I'd definitely read Lewis Carroll's version.  Dorothy Parker's as well.

This has been Out There On the Interwebs for nearly a month, but if you missed it: you can read a sample chapter from the next A Song of Ice and Fire novel, titled The Winds of Winter.

This is a seriously awesome blog post of photos inspired by Laini Taylor's Prague-centric novel  Daughter of Smoke and Bone
I think the pictures of Prague and and the changelings are my favorites.

I'd like to visit... all of them.

I love they included the Librarian from Discworld!

World, You Are Awesome Pt. 1: Princess Leia headphones. They come in brunette, blonde or ginger!

Alek, I'll take 'Crazy but hilarious sentences I never thought to read/say in my lifetime.

Venus looks tastyyyy.

Emma Thompson is: self-deprecating, awesome, and hilarious. Also: mannish.

This is crazy: young girl 'protected from rape by lions'. Nobody better mess with her ever.

If you've read and enjoyed Fracture by Megan Miranda (like I did), there's a free short story from Decker's perspective being offered on Facebook.

Review: At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5

A sweeping tale of sexual seduction and intrigue at the court of Henry VIII, At the Mercy of the Queen is a rich and dramatic debut historical about Madge Shelton, cousin and lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn.

At the innocent age of fifteen, Lady Margaret Shelton arrives at the court of Henry VIII and quickly becomes the confidante of her cousin, Queen Anne Boleyn. But she soon finds herself drawn into the perilous web of Anne’s ambition.

Desperate to hold onto the king’s waning affection, Anne schemes to have him take her guileless young cousin as mistress, ensuring her husband’s new paramour will owe her loyalty to the queen. But Margaret has fallen deeply in love with a handsome young courtier. She is faced with a terrible dilemma: give herself to the king and betray the love of her life or refuse to become his mistress and jeopardize the life of her cousin, Queen Anne.

"I wish I'd liked this more" were my first thoughts upon finishing, and being incredibly disappointed by, this Tudor-era historical fiction. For all its attempts to do something new within the uber-popular Tudor-prevalent historical fiction genre, this is a totally unmemorable effort. Perhaps "I wish this had just been better" would be closer to the mark with how I feel regarding this novel. The dialogue, the characters, the historical anachronisms --  all were just too much to handle or were just handled wrong. This is the story of Madge Shelton narrating the final three years of her cousin Anne Boleyn's reign as Queen of England - an intriguing and fresh approach for such a popular time and people. The anticipation of reading from a usually ignored/unknown perspective (historians aren't even sure if Margaret Shelton was one person or an amalgam of two Tudor-era courtiers named Mary and Margaret Shelton) had me eager to get my hands on this, but the actual narration and novel itself had me itching for the final page long before I hit the halfway mark.

Madge is brought to Henry VIII's Court at the young age of 15. Madge, unlike her contemporary peers and compatriots, doesn't like the decadent Court of Henry and Anne or its frivolities. I can understand why the author chose to portray Madge so uniquely among her time and place: it's easier to root for Madge before she becomes entwined in the conspiracies and gossip of the court. Her innocence is distinct and causes Madge to have a bit of notoriety attached to her name. My problem was that I just, well, didn't buy into the earlier naivete of her character. For one thing: Madge was the daughter of Anne Shelton (née Anne Boleyn), which made her the Queen's first cousin - a position to be used for much power and influence by using many courtiers/controlling access to the Queen/etc. I simply didn't buy that anyone from the grasping, upward-climbing Boleyns could be that innocent at Court, especially once under the direct nefarious influence of Thomas Boleyn, Lord of Wiltshire and the Queen's father. 

Madge herself is a decent sort of main character, my issues with her incongruent shyness/mousiness aside. She's a bit too wide-eyed and innocent to exist in such a time, but I had no major issues with her as a character. I do find her role as Anne's confidant to stretch believability: in the worst danger of her life, the Queen is going to confess her sex life to a teenaged cousin not known intimately to her before her precarious situation? It strains credulity that Anne and Madge would be so close when Anne was beset from all sides by Seymours, Dudleys, Catholics and their hidden eyes. I also had issues with the handling of the romance with Madge's "true love" at Court. A completely fictional character is created (Arthur Brandon, supposed bastard son of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk) in order to have an additional (compelling?) plotline of forbidden love...  which doesn't really work OR do much to advance the plot. Not only is their romance totally unbelievable for the times, the two don't have much spark or chemistry between them, nor a solid foundation for their "love". They see each other once, he falls in love, she resists till she just can't fight it anymore! - it's as instalove as historical fiction gets. I also have to wonder just why Madge's historical husband(s) weren't used (Sir Anthony Heveningham, or her latter husband Philip Appleyard, Esq.) and one was invented for her in this book. It was just weird, and seemed like messing with facts for nothing but kicks.

So far, reading along, you're thinking: "This doesn't sound too bad; there's definitely a dearth of reasons why this is rated so low. What's with this chick?" Well, here's the stuff that really irked me during my two-day read. 

1. The dialogue

Stilted, awkward and unrealistic, the dialogue weighed down the narrative, the flow, the pacing, everything of At the Mercy of the Queen. It was just bad; the rest if the novel flowed rather well but the speech was just off-putting. I have to give the author props for "trying" to make the characters speech authentic for 16th century English, but major demerits for how heavily it was employed. There's a fine line between a touch of authenticity and "Ye Olde Towne" cliches. Far too many "dost thou"'s and an egregious amount of "Think you this" had me playing Yoda from Star Wars everytime a character had a question. I also found how the characters spoke to one another to be either too obvious or too transparent. "If I don't do what the King wants I shall be in danger with no allies and then I shall have to marry dreadful, oily Henry Norris!" is pretty much how Madge expresses herself. It comes off totally false - it's an obvious way to clue the reader into the perils of action/nonaction within the Tudor Court. Characters feelings are relayed by their speech, not by any action or "showing".  At times, it's just irritating because no one talks like that, at other times it can be a bit condescending, as if the author doesn't think the readers intelligent enough to suss out the repercussion or who is who. Though the author falls short of Phillipa Gregory standards, it can feel a bit irritating to be constantly reminded of things I already know or figured out already.

2. Word anachronisms

This ties in with my above complaint about dialogue, but it bothered me enough to merit its own shiny numeral. I'm a history major obsessed with 15/16/17th century England (and Europe), so I know many of the things I find bothersome and obvious won't be noticed by and large. Some might think me pedantic for not being able to just gloss over them and enjoy the other aspects of reading. But part in parcel of my love for historical fiction is the feel of history that is created by a good one - a feel easily ruined by missteps like in this one. Errors I caught? "Zounds" - a medieval curse formed from shortening "God's wounds", but one that didn't come into the language until 1592 not 1536. "Pimp" is also used in the novel, as in "Anne pimped out her cousin Madge to Henry VIII" - again a word first used in 1607, not 1536.

3. Historical inaccuracies

Along with diction and speech, actual historical fact goes a long way to establishing credibility within a historical fiction. For the most part, Barnhill does a good job with chronology, actual events and such for the duration of the book. Some parts, however, were just dead wrong. For one, the book implies that Sir Thomas Wyatt died in 1537 in the wake and as part of Anne's downfall - ignoring the actual fact that Wyatt was imprisoned, released and died in 1542 peacefully as a free, innocent man.  Another error is the at-least-twice offering to "take tea" during this time mentioned in the book. Tea wasn't introduced into England until the mid-1600's- a full 120 years after Anne Boleyn's death. Thus Madge's offers of tea to settle Anne are just laughable. Lastly, Anne mentions the famous song "Greensleeves" as being written for her by King Henry VIII. This is just a myth - though a popular and prevalent one - and a little Googling research would've made that apparent to the author.

4. The title "At the Mercy of the Queen"

I think this title is just "off" - much as I found "The Winter Palace: a Novel of Catherine the Great" to be a misnomer for the contents within. The title "At the MERCY of the Queen" implies a power and influence that Anne just doesn't have in the last 3 years of her reign (aka the exact time the novel takes place during.) "Spy of the Queen" , "Envoy of the Queen" , "Sheltered Innocent Cousin of the Queen" or something along those lines would be much more indicative of the tone and events of the novel. For it is not Anne but Henry who sets the tone of everyone's actions within the novel - any power Anne accrued by his years-long pursuit has long waned before the beginning of the novel. Henry is the center of things in England, and Anne is at his mercy and whim long before her head is cleaved from her body. The only possible example of Madge being at Anne's discretion is when she is "pimped" out to service King Henry. However, had Anne said no to the scheme and been against the plan and had Henry desired Madge on his own (as is obvious and fact), the conclusion would've been same: Henry would've got his way and Madge would've been in his bed.

For all those gripes, At the Mercy of the Queen definitely - and easily - gets the fear and tension of this time down pat. Life, uncertainty and fear were the daily staples of life within Great Harry's Court, especially as he aged and was further disappointed. I wish Henry had more of a presence within the book - both him and his actions are usually removed from the forefront, with the focus of the novel on Anne and Madge reacting to whatever happened. If Madge had been more dynamic or Henry more involved, this might have been a mroe entertaining read. As it is, this is at times bland, at times frustrating and wholly unmemorable for fans of the genre. Anne Boleyn's story has been told much more intricately, much more historically correct and much more fun to read. Last word on this one: pass

Added This Week! 2012 Edition!

Saturday, January 21, 2012
So far in 2012 I've done pretty good on my book buying. I bought Neil Gaiman's American Gods for Nook because it was on for only $1.99 in  honor of its anniversary.

American Gods is Neil Gaiman's best and most ambitious novel yet, a scary, strange, and hallucinogenic road-trip story wrapped around a deep examination of the American spirit. Gaiman tackles everything from the onslaught of the information age to the meaning of death, but he doesn't sacrifice the razor-sharp plotting and narrative style he's been delivering since his Sandman days.

Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow's dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost--the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

Armed only with some coin tricks and a sense of purpose, Shadow travels through, around, and underneath the visible surface of things, digging up all the powerful myths Americans brought with them in their journeys to this land as well as the ones that were already here. Shadow's road story is the heart of the novel, and it's here that Gaiman offers up the details that make this such a cinematic book--the distinctly American foods and diversions, the bizarre roadside attractions, the decrepit gods reduced to shell games and prostitution. "This is a bad land for Gods," says Shadow.

More than a tourist in America, but not a native, Neil Gaiman offers an outside-in and inside-out perspective on the soul and spirituality of the country--our obsessions with money and power, our jumbled religious heritage and its societal outcomes, and the millennial decisions we face about what's real and what's not.

I also bought a book for Kindle titled Brightest King of Darkness (I always want to add "The" to the beginning but that is not how it is on the cover so.... yeah, it bugs me.) This is an indie author, but the book has a fair number of ratings (361, with a 4.17 average) so I figured it was worth the risk a la Susan Ee. It's only $.99!

Nara Collins is an average sixteen-year-old, with one exception: every night she dreams the events of the following day. Due to an incident in her past, Nara avoids using her special gift to change fate…until she dreams a future she can’t ignore.

After Nara prevents a bombing at Blue Ridge High, her ability to see the future starts to fade, while people at school are suddenly being injured at an unusually high rate.

Grappling with her diminishing powers and the need to prevent another disaster, Nara meets Ethan Harris, a mysterious loner who seems to understand her better than anyone. Ethan and Nara forge an irresistible connection, but as their relationship heats up, so do her questions about his dark past.

From NetGalley:

I have the first in a very interesting series. It's called Ice Song and its the first by Kirstem Imani Kasai. I LOVE the covers for both the books published so far.

The first, and next up on my reading list:

There are secrets beneath her skin.

Sorykah Minuit is a scholar, an engineer, and the sole woman aboard an ice-drilling submarine in the frozen land of the Sigue. What no one knows is that she is also a Trader: one who can switch genders suddenly, a rare corporeal deviance universally met with fascination and superstition and all too often punished by harassment or death.

Sorykah’s infant twins, Leander and Ayeda, have inherited their mother’s Trader genes. When a wealthy, reclusive madman known as the Collector abducts the babies to use in his dreadful experiments, Sorykah and her male alter-ego, Soryk, must cross icy wastes and a primeval forest to get them back. Complicating the dangerous journey is the fact that Sorykah and Soryk do not share memories: Each disorienting transformation is like awakening with a jolt from a deep and dreamless sleep.

The world through which the alternating lives of Sorykah and Soryk travel is both familiar and surreal. Environmental degradation and genetic mutation run amok; humans have been distorted into animals and animal bodies cloak a wild humanity. But it is also a world of unexpected beauty and wonder, where kindness and love endure amid the ruins. Alluring, intense, and gorgeously rendered, Ice Song is a remarkable debut by a fiercely original new writer.

The second, Tattoo, is in a totally different style but still striking. Also, probable spoilers for book one in the blurb:
Her fate is in her flesh.

In an environmentally fragile world where human and animal genes combine, the rarest mutation of all—the Trader—can instantly switch genders. One such Trader, the female Sorykah, is battling her male alter, Soryk, for dominance and the right to live a full life.

Sorykah has rescued her infant twins from mad Matuk the Collector. Her children are safe. Her journey, she believes, is over, but Matuk’s death has unleashed darker, more evil forces. These forces, led by the Collector’s son, cast nets of power that stretch from the glittering capital of Neubonne to the murky depths below the frozen Sigue, where the ink of octameroons is harvested to make addictive, aphrodisiacal tattoos. Bitter enemies trapped within a single skin, Sorykah and Soryk are soon drawn into a sinister web of death and deceit.

What about you guys? Any new books catch your eyes over the last few weeks?

Review: Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Title: Bittersweet
Author: Sarah Ockler
Genre: young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 384 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers via Pulse It!
Rating: 4/5

Once upon a time, Hudson knew exactly what her future looked like. Then a betrayal changed her life, and knocked her dreams to the ground. Now she’s a girl who doesn’t believe in second chances… a girl who stays under the radar by baking cupcakes at her mom’s diner and obsessing over what might have been.

So when things start looking up and she has another shot at her dreams, Hudson is equal parts hopeful and terrified. Of course, this is also the moment a cute, sweet guy walks into her life…and starts serving up some seriously mixed signals. She’s got a lot on her plate, and for a girl who’s been burned before, risking it all is easier said than done.

It’s time for Hudson to ask herself what she really wants, and how much she’s willing to sacrifice to get it. Because in a place where opportunities are fleeting, she knows this chance may very well be her last.
I just. . . loved this. While the beginning had me seeing echoes of the start of the film Stick It, it's easy and impossible not to be won over by this cute baking/hockey teenaged love story. I had fun reading it, I wanted to read it when I wasn't, and I feel comfortable - nay excited! - recommending it to others. If those are not the signs of a good book, I don't know what are. This is exactly the kind of adorable, heart-felt book centered around baking that I wanted to read last year. What I got instead was Christina Mandelski's The Sweetest Thing, and, well, to be nice let's just say it far from delivered on the promise of its title. Sports, baking, school, family - main character Hudson Avery is a well-rounded, personable, real, dimensional character and one I enjoyed reading even for more than three hundred fifty pages. Author Sarah Ockler has greatly impressed me with this, the first novel of hers I've read, and with another of hers sitting to be read in my "already-bought" TBR pile I'm eager to start Twenty Boy Summer.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first, nice, easy, and best of all: quick. Why quick? I have very little to complain about from this book. There's so much to love from Bittersweet: from Hudson's rounded and faceted personality to Dani's take-no-crap attitude to the delicious-sounding cupcake recipes, I either missed things I ought've been annoyed by (possible) or they just never existed (most likely). First: I found it to be a tad lengthy. I enjoy a well-told and long story, but I felt Hudson's last twenty pages or so could've used some condensing. I flew through this book and only felt that the end suffered from a need for shortening: the rest is well-developed and timed. Second: Hudson's mom, Beth, expects too much from her daughter with little to no input from the daughter. I don't mind the "pull together for the family" spiel, it's understandable and actually happening all across the country, but I did mind Beth's attitude towards Hudson. Hudson is very mature and helpful: runs a side business, babysits her brother, pays some bills, goes to school, etc., but none of that factors into her mom's decision-making. It's aggravating, especially since the book is all from Hudson's perspective. The frustration of Hudson never being heard or listened to permeates for the duration, and it was one of the few things about this book I disliked. The good news is that it doesn't happen all the time, only sporadically, so it didn't really intrude on my reading enjoyment.

Hudson herself is great. She's so not perfect I want all the authors of Mary Sues to take note. Hudson is flawed human being: complicated, confused, FUNNY (when getting kissed: "I was 92% hygienically unprepared"), strong, and most of all, real. I really liked Hudson's humor: she doesn't take herself too serious and her self-deprecating style isn't so jaded as to be worrying. She's not the prettiest, or the most popular, or even the most intelligent: she's a normal, talented girl. Actualized and vibrant, Hudson is a happy harbinger for the personalities of the rest of the characters within Bittersweet. She has dreams and desires, hopes and wishes and a real-life she feels stuck in. Basically, Hudson is a typical teen: easy to relate to, easy to root for. Let me tell you, this girl is also funny. Her voice is so authentic and real, she comes across like several awkward friends of mine - I loved the freshness and authenticity consistently present. I thought the family drama behind Hudson's story was both compelling and also real. Contrasting her individual desires for freedom and escape against family duty, Hudson's struggles through the book are mundane but universal. Sarah Ockler truly did a noteworthy job with the characterization of the people within this book. The author absolutely and repeatedly nails the emotions and feelings of so many teens with Hudson's understandable reactions and thoughts.

Another thing about this I loved: the secondary and even tertiary characters are real, and believable, rounded personalities. Even the jerk of the novel is shown to have more than one side - and not all of them bad. He's human and understandable, even if I wanted him gone long before the book ended. Dani, Hudson's best friend, is a fireball but a real friend. She calls Hudson on her shit and isn't afraid to do her own thing without her BFF. I really enjoyed the realistic nature of the friendship between the two girls; the up and down trajectory is authentic and isn't just for plotting. Ms. Ockler also pulled off a feat in YA: there was a love triangle present, however slight. I for once, wasn't alienated by it. It helps the situation that both boys have their own appeal supposedly (Team Blackthorn FTW), and that Hudson's less undecided/wishywashy and more figuring things out without being obnoxious about the attention. On a side note, I did find "Bug's" intelligence/precociousness to be a leeetle far-fetched for an 8-year-old, but hey, minor quibbles.

For all its cute romance, great characters, teenage dating and cupcake confectionery fun, Bittersweet is not without depth or emotion. Some of the curveballs Hudson and her family have to deal with will resonate with readers: the hard economy, the desires vs. duty theme Hudson explores, the broken family so common and still so problematic. Hudson's identification with Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthrone's The Scarlet Letter is a nice reminder of how Hudson - and a lot of teens - feel isolated, and alone within a group they should belong. Hudson is a special case because she is shunned by a select group - serious ice skaters - but that feeling of aloneness, of not being listened to (coughBethcough) is one a lot of teens will accept without thought.

Bittersweet is not just sweet and fun to read, it's completely evocative in tone. It's set in upper New York and Hudson is an outdoors kind of person. This is a novel that makes snow sound fun, exciting, new, full of possibilities and this is not actually true. I may live out west in Arizona, but I know snow. I live in Flagstaff, which in 2010 was the city with the most snowfall in the entire contiguous United States. At one time, we had more than Anchorage, Alaska. So yeah, I know snow and I love it for the first month it's here. Sarah Ockler, however, with her magnificent setting and through her lovely descriptive writing, has me craving a blizzard out here in Arizona. Right now. I wish there'd been one while I was reading this. This is the perfect read for a snowy day, and a cup of tea in front of the fireplace. With a cupcake, of course. So nicely done on the timing front - I say buy this one ASAP while it's still cold outside.

Bottom line: Look no further if you want a book with cute but not saccharine romance,  angst without melodrama, and a cast of varied and interesting characters. It's cute without beating the reader over the head with its own adorability. And Josh is hot.

Review: Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Author: Sasha Gould
Genre: mystery, historical fiction, young-adult
Series: Untitled #1
Pages: 272 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: expected March 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

Venice, 1585.

When 16-year-old Laura della Scala learns that her older sister, Beatrice, has drowned, she is given no time to grieve. Instead, Laura's father removes her from the convent where he forcibly sent her years earlier and orders her to marry Beatrice's fiancé, a repulsive old merchant named Vincenzo. Panicked, Laura betrays a powerful man to earn her way into the Segreta, a shadowy society of women who deal in only one currency—secrets. The Segreta seems like the answer to Laura's prayers. The day after she joins their ranks, Vincenzo is publicly humiliated and conveniently exiled. Soon, however, Laura begins to suspect that her sister's death was not a tragic accident but a cold-blooded murder—one that might involve the Segreta and the women she has come to trust.

From the initial sentence of, "His gondola slips through the water like a knife cutting into dark silk," I knew I was in for an atmospheric historical read. I love when settings are strong, vivid and alive almost (see: Constantinople in Theodora: Empress. Actress. Whore; Prague in Daughter of Smoke and Bone; Prague again in The Book of Blood and Shadow, etc.) and my hopes were set high for Venice and for Cross My Heart itself. The cover is pretty apt for the novel as well: showing both the light and dark sides to the fabled Italian city and foretelling a dangerous future for our intrepid heroine. Laura della Scala's tale didn't enrapture me as much as I'd anticipated from the eerie first sentence but instead grew on me slowly, involving me more and more as each chapter drew to a suspenseful close. A slow-burner rather than an instantly engrossing read, Cross My Heart should definitely be given the benefit of the doubt and read to the end.

Laura, a likeable if not totally remarkable teenage protagonist, was consigned to a convent at an early age. With an older sister to marry off ("through nothing but an accident of birth, she remains free, while I languish") and a spendthrift father Laura is nothing but a burden on her family. So once thrust from the convent, Laura is generally and genuinely unlike most girls her age of Venice: she is sheltered, naive and trusting - that is to say weak in a city of sharks above water. Laura's subsequent enrollment into the secret society of La Segreta exposes her to dark elements in her own hometown she never suspected. Going from under the thumb of the dictator-esque Abbess to the supervision of her father, Laura is never the one making the decisions about her own life: a situation many teens reading this will find easy to relate with and similar to their own modern-day lives. With that act of quiet rebellion that is simultaneously the first time Laura chooses something for herself, Laura eventually realizes she has only exchanged the convent's reins for her father's and her father's for the mysterious women in the society. There was only ever an illusion of control once she joined them, and Laura's life gets unpredictable and dark in the streets and canals of Venice.

The style of writing is elegant and feels entirely natural. I enjoyed Sasha Gould's consistently smooth writing and simple but steady style. Her style lends itself well to the tone of the book as well as to the city of Venice itself. I did wish for more detail and life from Venice the city; I loved what was there but I just wanted for more about the city and less about the colorful pageantry and parade of the noble class and their balls. There were several side plotlines threaded in with the mystery of Laura's sister's death that seemed slightly generic and fully predictable. The teenage romance with the painter, the "reveal" . .  even the decades-long feud that was ended with a whimper... all seemed slightly underdeveloped. What kept me going and interested was Venice itself, as well as the original mystery of what happened to Beatrice and why she was murdered. That compelling plotline was pulled off marvelously well: I was genuinely fooled by many a red herring placed by Laura's suspicions/the author and the eventual villain surprised and delighted me with what it meant for the storyline. In a slowly paced novel, I just wished it had felt less rushed at the conclusion and more in pace with the meat of the story.

Ms. Gould's keen eye for setting and atmosphere provide an excellent - and darkly alluring - setting for a murder-mystery with a splash of teenage romance. Though it was not a perfect outing and better than my first impressions lead me to believe, Cross My Heart ended with me keen on getting my hands on the as-yet-unnamed sequel set in the same beautiful and deadly city. Keep an eye out for this one later in the year: it's scheduled to hit the shelves March 13, 2012.

Two Minute Review: Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Thursday, January 12, 2012
Author: Ron Koertge
Genre: fairytale retellings, mythic fiction, supernatural fiction, short stories
Series: N/A
Pages: 96 (Nook edition)
Published: expected July 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

I'm not quite sure what to rate this one; it will most likely end up in the 3 - 3.5 region, i.e. good but could have been better. I liked it, sure, but here wasn't a whole lot to any of these twenty-three short, sometimes almost verse stories. While this is both an interesting and often quite strange collection of retellings of classic fairy tales/myths/legends, I found that the short style hampered my overall enjoyment of the tales. I did very much enjoy the varied differences and updates that Koertge implanted within these well-known stories (Red Riding Hood's very modern-teenage use of "..and then, like, we went to, like..." both reminded me of Clueless and my neighbor - both a good and bad thing ha). While this was read in less than an hour, Ron Koertge's collection of stories provided an excellent escape for a short period. This is a blunt read: each story is a quick and often dirty look told in Koertge's blunt but easily readable style. Don't look for any easy Happily Ever Afters here in this realm of twisted faery tales.

I liked the new perspectives and modern spins placed on old fairy tales, instead of rehashing just the same old story. I thought it provided a fresh look at beloved and memorized stories and added a dark humor all the authors own, like with story of Thumbelina: seeing it through the Mole's eyes instead of just the title character, or the five-POV tale of Rapunzel showing a multi-faceted situaion or reading Cinderella but in the stepsisters voice and eyes. Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses is a quick but vastly, often quite darkly, entertaining read. I think a little length padded on to each of these stories would've yielded a more finely tuned and outstanding work, but as it is, this is a creative and worthwhile read.

**I can only seem to find one image for the cover and it's too small to enlarge properly here. I'll edit with a cover image as soon as I can google one down.

Review: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

Monday, January 9, 2012
Author: Tad Williams
Series:  Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #1
Pages: 766 (mass market paperback)
Published: 1998 by DAW
Source: bought
Rating: 3.5/5
A war fueled by the dark powers of sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard - for Prester John, the High King, slayer of the dread dragon Shurakai, lies dying. With his death, and ancient evil will at last be unleashed, as the Storm King, undead ruler of the elvishlike Sithi, seeks to regain his lost realms through a pact with one of human royal blood. Then, driven by spell-inspired jealousy and hate, prince will fight prince, while around them the very land begins to die. 

Only a small, scattered group, the League of the Scroll, recognizes the true danger awaiting Osten Ard. And to Simon - a castle scullion unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League - will go the task of spearheading the quest for the solution to a riddle that offers the only hope of salvation, a ridde of long-lost swords of power...and a quest that will see him fleeing and facing enemies straight out of a legend-maker's worst nightmares!

The Dragonbone Chair is about the adventures of Simon, a servant in Hayholt Castle, who goes from simple scullion to reluctant hero over the course of this book, the first installment of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. I've had the books in this series on my to read list for awhile but have avoided them because of Williams' reputation of slow build-up.

There are several things to enjoy in this novel. The story, while somewhat formulaic, is nevertheless a fun ride through a colorful world of intrigue, magic, and religion. Williams successfully mixes different cultures and belief systems in a realistic manner, forming a diverse set of characters with varied backgrounds who bring their own personal tales to the table. Many of the secondary characters act believably and show how different factors- age, loyalty, sex, religion- can influence our decisions and create the messes that we as a human race seem unable to stop forming.

Williams also has a special way with words, as shown in the following passage:

"Glaring down into the muddy water, he had a sudden nervous premonition that the crabs were somehow a step ahead of him- were perhaps even now waiting for him to drop the cage down lardered with another pop-eyed head. He could picture a whole tribe of them scuttling over with expressions of glee to poke the bait out through the bars with a stick or some other such tool recently granted to crab-kind by some beneficent crustacean deity.

Did the crabs worship him as a soft-shelled providing angel, he wondered, or did they look up at him with the cynical indifference of a gang of ne'er-do-wells taking the measure of a drunkard before relieving him of his purse?"

He demonstrates his knack for description as well as delving into hilarious anthropomorphism, a favorite form of humor for me.

However, Williams' strong suit is also a vice, as he struggles with the correct ratio of description to action/ dialogue. He sometimes seems to get wrapped up in showing the reader these details and forgets that he has an obligation to move his story forward. I suppose that in itself is a backhanded compliment, since the description itself is done so well. But it is my biggest beef with The Dragonbone Chair and the main reason for its lower rating. The book probably could have been a lot better with the removal of about 150 pages.

I'm also not 100% sold on Simon as the hero. I can certainly see his slow progression into young adulthood, but I still feel there were too many deus ex machina-type moments where Simon is saved at the last second by sheer luck or being in the right place at the right time. I'd like to see more of him really figuring things out himself and taking charge in the next installment.

Overall, I would recommend this if you are a high fantasy aficionado, or if you love good description. But be prepared for a few dull moments on the journey.

Review: The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin

Sunday, January 8, 2012
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Genre: fantasy
Series: The Inheritance Trilogy #3
Pages: 575 (mass market paperback)
Published: October 2011
Source: bought
Rating: 5/5

For two thousand years the Arameri family has ruled the world by enslaving the very gods that created mortalkind. Now the gods are free, and the Arameri’s ruthless grip is slipping. Yet they are all that stands between peace and world-spanning, unending war.

Shahar, last scion of the family, must choose her loyalties. She yearns to trust Sieh, the godling she loves. Yet her duty as Arameri heir is to uphold the family’s interests, even if that means using and destroying everyone she cares for.

As long-suppressed rage and terrible new magics consume the world, the Maelstrom — which even gods fear — is summoned forth. Shahar and Sieh: mortal and god, lovers and enemies. Can they stand together against the chaos that threatens the Kingdom of the Gods?

The Kingdom of Gods is the last book in the Inheritance Trilogy, and it is written from the perspective of Sieh, god of childhood. Sieh, lonely and seeking comfort, finds himself (much to his own chagrin) befriending the current Arameri heirs, Shahar and Dekarta. During their bonding, however, something goes wrong, and Sieh is trapped as a mortal- a true one this time, for his godly powers are slowly lost, not to mention the fact that he is truly and irrevocably growing up. In delving into this mystery, a larger conspiracy makes itself known, and it becomes clear that

The Trickster is keeping a whopper of a secret- even from himself.

In this final tale, Jemisin really grabbed onto her craft and wrestled from it a story of delight and wonder. There are no superfluous descriptions or wasted moments- every scene is essential to the whole, making The Kingdom of Gods a serious page-turner.

My favorite aspect of this book, though, is how every few pages, I could picture myself with comic-like thought bubbles like:

Sieh is such a naughty boy!
LOL @ Sieh, what an ass!
Yeine did WHAT???... Oh, clever Yeine.
HOLY CRAP I did not see that coming! Etc.

Everyone's character- Yeine, Sieh, Itempas, Shahar, Dekarta...- shows signs of maturation, both in context and as creatures of fiction. The challenge they must all step up to is a great one, and it's fascinating to see how they each handle the pressure.

The book has few faults in my eyes, but one of them seems a common concern among fellow reviewers- the deus ex machina ending. However, I find this necessary in this case- the story is about gods. The author never tried to hide that fact - it's there in the title! I think a more appropriate description might be this made up term I'm using- deus ex deus. Even this, though, is a small flaw. The characters' actions have real consequences, and the ending is not exactly "everyone lived happily ever after."

The story of the god of childhood takes many unexpected twists and turns and encompasses many varying themes, such as loneliness, friendship, and the fascinating-if-fictional evolution of the gods. It's nice to see a trilogy that ends with the strongest book! Highly recommended.

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Genre: historical fiction
Series: Untitled #1
Pages: 464 (Nook NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: expected January 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5 

Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power. 

I'm still a little puzzled by The Winter Palace, even about three weeks after finishing it. It purports itself to be a novel revolving around the epic story of Catherine the Great, known originally as Sophie, during her first years in the Russian, and Romanov, court.  What is perplexing is that the story is about Catherine, but not told from her perspective and even as Sophie, the character is absent for much of the narrative. Additionally, the main power player and the most eye-catching character is not Catherine, even when she comes to power later on, but the Empress preceding her on the throne: Elizaveta Petrovna. "A Tale of Catherine the Great" just doesn't seem to gel with the story within the cover. I do wish the novel had actually been from the view of Princess Sophie Fredrika Auguste Anhalt-Zerbst, and not her tongue or gazette Barbara, though that is no fault of the former's. I was just always more interested in the real, recreated personages than fabricated one which was the most important. It's just a shame that Catherine was outshone by adoptive mother of her weakling, Prussian-loving husband.

That is not to say I didn't like Barbara, or as she's usually called in the book Varvara Nikolayevna. With a title of "ward of the crown" for the Empress Elizabeth, Varvara is little more than a beggar or an orphan with a glorified title. And in the Court of Peter the Great's daughter, "Life is a game and every player is cheating."  As a hidden spy, a "tongue", a "gazette", she is hard-edged and mercenary, interfering only when she knows she won't be detected. It's easy to feel sympathy for the young Polish girl in the Russian Court initially: sent there by her father after her mother's death for security, it turned out to be the least secure place her unwitting father could have sent her. She's lonely, ignored, outcast so it's easy, understandable even, that Varvara turns to secrets and whispers in order to assert some control, any kind of power in her powerless life. It's a perfect fit: the little mousy Pole that no one saw stumbles into espionage and thereby becomes important. She may wear off any true likeability the character progresses the harder Varvara becomes, but she is never not interesting to read when at court, scheming.

When Varvara learns she is not as important and powerful and protected as she had assumed, an unwanted marriage is manipulated on her. By crossing someone she ought not have, Varvara learns the only place she is truly happy is at the palace, trying to scheme Sophie, one day to be Catherine, into Elizabeth's and her son Peter's, arms. The book grew quite a bit duller when Varvara is forced from the court and into her marriage as Madame Malinka. The exile seemed to wear on for far too long and it was much duller reading than the high-risk and cutthroat Court life. I loved the tensions and secrets at Elizabeth's, and eventually Peter and Catherine's and then just Catherine's, courts. The book seethed with intrigue and distrust on all sides: from tensions between old name nobles and new name nobles based on ascension due to birth/money or merit, to the obvious distrust between Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter, to the hidden machinations of Varvara and Bestushev. Peter himself is a source of much discontent: from Elizabeth's disapproval of his Prussian affections to Catherine's dismissal of him as worthy, he does not lead a charmed life. He never seems present in the way the strong, if distasteful, woman are. He doesn't react to his wife's vicious rumors, or question the paternity of his heir: I hoped for more from the only male Romanov of the novel. Peter III is much more a tertiary character than anything else, and is interesting for his impact on both his adoptive mother and his wife.

For a novel supposedly about the life of Catherine the Great, but Elizabeth dominates the attention and the interest of The Winter Palace that Varvara doesn't on her rendezvous. With Catherine's situation tenuous (but still somehow not quite suspenseful on the page) as the result seven years of marriage with no heir, Ms. Stachniak posits that Sergei Saltykov was the future tsarevich Paul was the fruit of their illicit union. While history itself remains unclear (Catherine spread rumors it was true but Paul inherited many features from Peter III), the affair itself added a little spice to Catherine's mostly lifeless plotline. Even in the introductory pages of the character, when her own mother's amateurish attempts at Prussian information gathering put Sophie's situation in jeopardy, her storyline lacked urgency and drama. The list of affairs, though I usually detest them in literature, are both historically accurate and serve to show another side to the eventual most powerful woman in Russia. I liked the interplay between Varvara and Catherine: I was never quite sure where the two would go in their forays for information and power, but it was fun to read.

Though not what I expected, The Winter Palace is one of the better historical fictions set in Russia I've come across. If there had been more to Catherine, and to Peter, and less of a exceedingly trying lull midway through, I'd have found it to be in the 4 to 4.5 region of a rating. Some sections just fall short, and with more novels planned and on the way from the author, I have hopes for the fulfillment of my wishes.  I admit I was at first affronted the novel ended so abruptly and so early in Catherine's long-lived and noteworthy life, and at the time it chose to terminate the narrative, but it does make for a decent imperative to read the next book.
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