Review: The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley

Monday, July 30, 2012
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural, mystery
Series: N/A
Pages: 426 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: first March 1999, reissued October 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Verity Grey abandons her comfortable job at the British Museum to seek adventure on an archaeological dig in the wilds of Scotland. But when she arrives on site, she discovers that the excavation is being led by a discredited and eccentric old man who has forsaken scientific evidence. Instead, the entire team is following the word of a local boy who claims that he saw a ghostly Roman soldier in the fields.

As she becomes entangled in a subtle web of treachery and danger, Verity begins to believe that there is a Roman sentinel haunting the site. And he's there to do more than guard the bodies of his fallen comrades...

A thoroughly satisfying mix of history, the paranormal, with a dash of romance to flavor, The Shadowy Horses does not disappoint.  A bit more romance-orientated than my previous read by this author (Mariana), I can still easily endorse Susanna Kearsley as fast becoming one of my favorite authors; one that is adept at creating a wide array of individual characters, as well as intricately setting up an atmospheric read. She delivers every time, and this is no exception. If I was impressed after reading Mariana, I am entering full-on fan mode after finishing this offering from Kearsley in less than a day. Taking on the well-known mystery and search for the Roman Ninth Legion in Scotland, I was hooked early on. I simply could not put The Shadowy Horses down, but was conversely reluctant to finish once I was firmly engrossed in the novel.

Kearlsey's descriptive (and it is very descriptive - from the countryside to the "not-posh" sitting room, Kearlsey crafts an easily imagined setting) and detailed style is present and used with a dab hand from the first chapter, to the benefit of both the locale and for the wide array of characters on the page. Both suspenseful and engrossing, each aspect of the novel, from the mystery to the romance to the supernatural, were all summarily well-handled and solid, with none detracting from the streamlined plot. These were characters who came alive for me as a reader, all with varying degress of characterization, as well as ones who made me care about each of them. This is a dynamic cast, with each character fully distinct, and, by and large, even with psychometric/psychic Robbie, one that doesn't strain credulity or irritate the reader. I do wish there had just slightly more of an antagonistic presence for most of the novel, but the minor conflicts and issues that were there, were enough to create increasing tension throughout the story.

The first person POV of protagonist Verity Grey makes it easy to root for her through her struggles to accept what is going on in Eyemouth; her inner monologue reinforces the first impression of an impulsive, smart, and very independent woman who can more than handle herself. The strength of the novel, much like with Mariana, lies with main character Verity. The other elements of the novel are well-done and unique, but it is Verity who takes the cake (with some help from an accent Scotsman with a love of history!), and who will stick out in my memory. I appreciated the restraint with which the author took to the romance - it's a large part of the novel, but it doesn't drown the plot in melodrama or too much of a love triangle.

The final conflict (and revelation of the antagonist) was a bit dry (ha!), but a nicely rounded denouement makes up for that slight misstep. Though Mariana will remain my favorite Kearsley (for now!), I loved The Shadowy Horses and think that this is an author that continues to impress and grow as a writer. This is an author who is very talented with crafting believable characters, with creating an atmospheric setting, and with making the past come to life. Well done and I can't wait for my next Kearsley read!

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Sunday, July 29, 2012
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Genre: fantasy, young-adult
Series: Throne of Glass #1
Pages: 350 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected August 7 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men—thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the kings council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her... but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead... quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

Hype is a strange beast, and one that is certainly no stranger to this long-anticipated fantasy novel geared towards young-adults. It can prime the pump for a well-deserved novel, or it can drag down an otherwise entertaining but not very well executed novel with unfulfilled expectations, as is the case here for my read of Maas's Throne of Glass. Advertised as a "Game of Thrones"  for teens meets an assassin version of The Hunger Games, the similarities and comparisons to other young-adult fantasy novels (particularly Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder -be sure to check out Amanda's great comparison review!) are unavoidable and lamentable. In addition to the misplaced hype and the whole "been-there-done-that feel", Throne of Glass suffers from a wide array of issues that kept me from loving this. I've had several days to digest and work out my-not-so-happy feelings towards this (and vacillate on my rating!), and while I will inevitably pick up the sequel, I do think Maas has a lot to learn about the fantasy genre, writing a credible romance, and crafting a better method of authorial sleight-of-hand.

Celaena Sardothien is a complex character, that is without a doubt, but one that is a little too enamored of her own looks, instead of worrying about, oh I don't know, LIVING. Even Katniss, for all her faults and flaws, doesn't worry about her good-looks when confronted by the people who ruined her life, and oppressed her people. I think Celaena will be divisive among readers: some will respond to her hard-edged confidence and others will be much less enthused with her inability to look at the bigger picture. There are many sides to her personality, and I will admit that she is admirably flawed and realistic for a YA protagonist. She's a strong, smart, capable, and decisive young woman, while only slightly suffering from Special Snowflake Syndrome. She's also arrogant beyond belief (though I didn't start to dislike that aspect until her arrogance about her skills was never backed up by her actions! One sparring match does not a Master Assassin make! And, after all, how many times, exactly, can Dorian sneak up on Celaena before she loses all credibility as The Greatest Assassin Ever?), cunning, deadly, and way, way, too invested in the superficial facets of Court life. The sheer amount of time clothing, especially Celaena's and Dorian's wardrobes, are described, lusted after, and compared is simply exhausting and dry.  

Another main issue I had while reading this was the clear and present focus on romance, a love triangle and angst instead of THE ASSASSIN-TASTIC DEATH MATCH. It's supremely frustrating to be told that Celaena is an amazing assassin and then see no proof of it, outside very few isolated events. What is the point of a Hunger Games death match between assassins if it's all offsides and offscreen? For almost the entirety of reading about the tournament, I was thinking "KILL SOMEONE, DAMNIT. Prove you're what you've been so enthusiastically saying about yourself." It's too much telling about Celaena's prowess, and far too little actual "showing" on Maas's part. The Tests and trials are glossed over, or focus on the least-actiontastic events (a poison ranking? Really? Harry Potterish much?) to the overall detriment of what was actually the most compelling aspect of the whole novel. Instead, the author ignores the good stuff in favor of awkward flirting, and endless descriptions of what every character is reading. It's a shame and a glaring misstep for any novel that seeks to be compared for the bloody and dark Game of Thrones.

Maas is a capable author, but sadly not one readers will be able to call subtle after reading first-in-a-series Throne of Glass. Celaena's mysterious past and real identity are both easy to suss out, and it's remarkable that none of the other characters manage to do so in the 400+ pages of the final edition. The super-obvious obvious plotting and writing, the easy-to-spot red herrings, and not to mention the heavy-handed approach to the love-triangle that takes up 75% of the novel, make for a very predictable novel. The "mystery" of who is behind the competitors death...isn't. It's both obvious from the start and then subsequently, hilariously frustrating how long it takes Celaena to cotton on to the real culprit. <SPOILER> Celaena's whole "Nehemia has a secret! Therefore, she must be the killer or maybe just politically savvy. Never mind that I've been lying the entire time we've known one another!!1!" subplot is particularly dumb. Be smarter than that, Celaena. Respect your readers more than that, Maas!</SPOILER>  

Third-person omniscient makes it easy for the POV to rotate around Celaena, Dorian, the Crown Prince of Ardalan, and Chaol Westfall, the earnest and awesome Captain of the Guard and show a wider view of the world.It also caused me to feel distant from the characters and kept me from fully investing. (Exception: Chaol. MOAR PLEASE.) Were the other two perspectives really needed? No, but nor do they detract from the narration. The love triangle manage to do that allll on its own. You can see it forming from the first chapter, and Maas never makes it worth reading about. It's all overwrought glances and touching, with little real emotion to back up the overused trope. It's not used to illustrate that Celaena is torn between two men who genuinely appeal to vastly different sides of her character, but rather to show how beautiful and alluring she is. No, thank you. The writing itself can be bloated with overdescription (the clothes! the glass castle! WE GET IT!), but Maas does reign it in occasionally to let a plot emerge.

Fun, but very flawed is my final verdict. Great ideas need great execution and that is not at all what happened here with Throne of Glass. Though Throne of Glass has been grossly overhyped and is quite often amateurish in its presentation, I can't deny that there are moments of great entertainment... but, sadly, they are not enough to earn this novel more than 3/5 stars.

Review: On The Day I Died by Candace Fleming

Saturday, July 28, 2012
Genre: horror, short stories, supernatural
Series: N/A
Pages: 206 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: July 10 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

The phenomenally versatile, award-winning author, Candace Fleming, gives teen and older tween readers ten ghost stories sure to send chills up their spines. 

Set in White Cemetery, an actual graveyard outside Chicago, each story takes place during a different time period from the 1860's to the present, and ends with the narrator's death. Some teens die heroically, others ironically, but all due to supernatural causes. Readers will meet walking corpses and witness demonic posession, all against the backdrop of Chicago's rich history—the Great Depression, the World's Fair, Al Capone and his fellow gangsters.

This is a creepy love-letter to Chicago, its history and to teens who love to hear things go bump in the night. Though I am slightly too old to be really creeped out by this collection of ten, often vastly different, stories of death and often weirdness (exception: Edgar's story was deceptively creepy and a nice ode to Edgar Allan Poe), I greatly enjoyed this unique frame for short stories. I'm not going to lie, the introduction/the first few pages and Mike's initial experience with a ghost reminded me greatly of Supernatural's pilot episode (woman in white appears mysteriously, "take me home"), but On The Day I Died quickly emerges as a fun, entertaining and weirdly awesome combination of horror and the supernatural; one of Candace Fleming's own unique invention.

From tales of "grow your own aliens" (David, 1941 - 1956) to a more modern form of horror (neglect and abuse  - Tracy 1959-1974) the ghosts of each child in White Cemetery each set out to tell their individual tales of woe to Mike, an unwitting participant in this yearly tradition. Though On The Day I Died focuses more on humor, the supernatural, creative forms of evil, etc. than on individual characterization for each ghost, the wide variety of the stories and their respective nature of death is more than enough to involve readers of all ages. Though this book's setting and each child is centered around Chicago, the various nods to other cultures (East Indian fakirs and a Sumerian death chant!) add a nice variety to several of the stories.

The shifts from Mike's POV (third-person omniscient) to the ghosts (told in first person) are not my favorite, but it works here. This is a deftly-handled short story collection, and if some stories (Lily [1982-1999], Scott [1995-2012]) lack the punch of others (Edgar [1853-1870], Evelyn [1877-1893], Rich [1965-1981]), all are still fun, creative and very enjoyable to read.

Recent Book Buys and Screaming Deals for eBooks!

Friday, July 27, 2012
I'm a strict budget lately. so of course I ran out and bought six books today with my sister. I've started to realize she's usually behind my book-buying splurges, but when you can buy 4 paperbacks and two hardback copies (Fly by Night and The Map of Time) for $18 -- is that really a bad thing?

(EDIT: and this morning I found several great deals for ebooks I just couldn't resist. So there are more additions to my TBR and "owned but not yet read" shelves!)

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (Trilogia Victoriana #1) (translated by Nick Caistor)

Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, The Map of Time boasts a triple play of intertwined plots in which a skeptical H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.

What happens if we change history? The author explores this question in the novel, weaving an historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting—a story full of love and adventure that transports readers to a haunting setting in Victorian London for their own taste of time travel.

 Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (Shades of Milk and Honey #1)

 Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.

When streetwise Molly Templar witnesses a brutal murder at the brothel she has recently been apprenticed to, her first instinct is to run back to the poorhouse where she grew up. But there she finds her fellow orphans butchered, and it slowly dawns on her that she was the real target of the attack. For Molly is a special little girl, and she carries a secret that marks her out for destruction by enemies of the state.

Oliver Brooks has led a sheltered existence in the backwater home of his merchant uncle. But when he is framed for his only relative's murder he is forced to flee for his life, accompanied by an agent of the mysterious Court of the Air. Chased across the country, Oliver finds himself in the company of thieves, outlaws and spies, and gradually learns more about the secret that has blighted his life.

Soon Molly and Oliver will find themselves battling a grave threat to civilization, an ancient power thought to have been quelled millennia ago. Their enemies are ruthless and myriad, but the two orphans are also aided by indomitable friends in this endlessly inventive tale full of drama, intrigue, and adventure.
"The Court of the Air" is a rollicking adventure set in a fantastical Dickensian clockwork universe that will appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman. 

Darkborn by Alison Sinclair (Darkborn #1)

 For the Darkborn, sunlight kills. For the Lightborn, darkness is fatal. Living under a centuries-old curse, the Darkborn and the Lightborn share the city of Minhorne, coexisting in an uneasy equilibrium but never interacting. When Darkborn physician Balthasar Hearne finds a pregnant fugitive on his doorstep just before sunrise, he has no choice but to take her in. Tercelle Amberley’s betrothed is a powerful Darkborn nobleman, but her illicit lover came to her through the daytime. When she gives birth to twin boys, they can see, something unheard of among the Darkborn. When men come for the boys, Balthasar is saved by the intervention of his Lightborn neighbor—and healed by the hands of his wife, Telmaine.

Soon he finds himself drawn deeper into political intrigue and magical attacks, while Telmaine must confront a power she can no longer keep sheathed in gloves, a power she neither wants nor can control.

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge (Fly By Night #1)

A breath-taking adventure story, set in reimagined eighteenth-century England. As the realm struggles to maintain an uneasy peace after years of cival war and tyranny, a twelve-year-old orphan and her loyal companion, a grumpy goose, are about to become the unlikely heroes of a radical revolution.

Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye hasn't got much. Her cruel uncle keeps her locked up in his mill, and her only friend is her pet goose, Saracen, who'll bite anything that crosses his path. But she does have one small, rare thing: the ability to read. She doesn't know it yet, but in a world where books are dangerous things, this gift will change her life.

Enter Eponymous Clent, a smooth-talking con man who seems to love words nearly as much as Mosca herself. Soon Mosca and Clent are living a life of deceit and danger -- discovering secret societies, following shady characters onto floating coffeehouses, and entangling themselves with crazed dukes and double-crossing racketeers. It would be exactly the kind of tale Mosca has always longed to take part in, until she learns that her one true love -- words -- may be the death of her.

"Fly by Night" is astonishingly original, a grand feat of the imagination from a masterful new storyteller.

High in the Transylvanian woods, at the castle Piscul Draculi, live five daughters and their doting father. It's an idyllic life for Jena, the second eldest, who spends her time exploring the mysterious forest with her constant companion, a most unusual frog. But best by far is the castle's hidden portal, known only to the sisters. Every Full Moon, they alone can pass through it into the enchanted world of the Other Kingdom. There they dance through the night with the fey creatures of this magical realm.

But their peace is shattered when Father falls ill and must go to the southern parts to recover, for that is when cousin Cezar arrives. Though he's there to help the girls survive the brutal winter, Jena suspects he has darker motives in store. Meanwhile, Jena's sister has fallen in love with a dangerous creature of the Other Kingdom--an impossible union it's up to Jena to stop.

When Cezar's grip of power begins to tighten, at stake is everything Jena loves: her home, her family, and the Other Kingdom she has come to cherish. To save her world, Jena will be tested in ways she can't imagine--tests of trust, strength, and true love.

And last but not least, I won from Blythe over at Finding Bliss in Books:

Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard (Something Strange and Deadly #1)

 The year is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…

Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper—

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor…from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including their maddeningly stubborn yet handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance.

I know that Something Strange and Deadly will be read soon, but the rest look amazing too! I love bookstores.

As for screaming deals on eBooks:

Red-Headed Stepchild by Jaye Wells (Sabina Kane #1) $.99 for Nook and Kindle 

In a world where being of mixed-blood is a major liability, Sabina Kane has the only profession fit for an outcast: assassin. But, her latest mission threatens the fragile peace between the vampire and mage races and Sabina must scramble to figure out which side she's on. She's never brought her work home with her---until now.

This time, it's personal.

The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1) -  $.99 for Nook and Kindle

Dear Reader,

I'm sorry to say that the book you are holding in your hands is extremely unpleasant. It tells an unhappy tale about three very unlucky children. Even though they are charming and clever, the Baudelaire siblings lead lives filled with misery and woe. From the very first page of this book when the children are at the beach and receive terrible news, continuing on through the entire story, disaster lurks at their heels. One might say they are magnets for misfortune.

In this short book alone, the three youngsters encounter a greedy and repulsive villain, itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast.

It is my sad duty to write down these unpleasant tales, but there is nothing stopping you from putting this book down at once and reading something happy, if you prefer that sort of thing.

With all due respect,
Lemony Snicket

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke - $1.99 for Nook and slightly less of a deal: $5.99 for Kindle

Welcome to the magical underworld of Venice, Italy. Here, hidden canals and crumbling rooftops shelter runaways and children with incredible secrets....

After escaping from their cruel aunt and uncle, orphans Prosper and Bo meet a mysterious boy who calls himself the "Thief Lord." Clever and charming, the Thief Lord leads a band of street children who enjoy making mischief. But the Thief Lord also has a dark secret. And suddenly Proper and Bo find themselves on a fantastical journey to a forgotten place. What they discover there will change the course of their destiny.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (Fire and Thorns #1) - $2.99 for Nook and Kindle

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can't see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

I love when I can find books I really want for such great deals. Happy book shopping!


The giveaway winner has been sent an email, so here's hoping I hear back! 

(Sorry this took so long - I've been put-off blogging/being online by all the recent brou-ha-ha-has and GR's recent actions about reviews.) As soon as I read a confirmation email, I will announce the winner and get the publishers to send the novel.

if I haven't heard back by MONDAY, July 30th, I will draw a new winner. So everyone, check your emails!

Blog Watch Wednesday

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fun Stuff:

And for those of you that thought Zoey Deschanel and Natalie Portman invented this: 75 years of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope.

These dresses made out of paper are so cool.

On a more light-hearted but still Batman related note: the cost of being Batman.

Speaking of money and Batman: TDKR opens to $249million worldwide.

These whimsical maps of Essos and Westeros don't really convey the dark tone of the novels, but are fun to look at. Fans, be sure to check out Casterly Rock.

Check out The Hotlympics! A tumblr post devoted to the attractive men competing in London 2012.

The Avengers - as dogs! I don't know about you but I think the Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye one is DEAD ON.

The Oatmeal has a great cartoon up to help you decide if you suck at your religion.

The Huffington Post tries to make up for supporting a hate site. To which I say: too little, too late. Shoddy journalism at best, blatant attempt for pageviews at worst.

There is a labyrinth of books! I love it.

Stephen Fry reads one of Shakespeare's sonnets. (Sonnet 130 for those who care.)

Review: Defiance by C.J. Redwine

Monday, July 23, 2012
Title: Defiance
Author: C.J. Redwine
Genre: young-adult, fantasy, post-apocalyptic, dystopia
Series: Defiance #1
Pages: 315 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected August 28 2012
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 3.5/5

Within the walls of Baalboden, beneath the shadow of the city’s brutal leader, Rachel Adams has a secret. While other girls sew dresses, host dinner parties, and obey their male Protectors, Rachel knows how to survive in the wilderness and deftly wield a sword. When her father, Jared, fails to return from a courier mission and is declared dead, the Commander assigns Rachel a new Protector, her father’s apprentice, Logan—the same boy Rachel declared her love for two years ago, and the same boy who handed her heart right back to her. Left with nothing but fierce belief in her father’s survival, Rachel decides to escape and find him herself. But treason against the Commander carries a heavy price, and what awaits her in the Wasteland could destroy her.

At nineteen, Logan McEntire is many things. Orphan. Outcast. Inventor. As apprentice to the city’s top courier, Logan is focused on learning his trade so he can escape the tyranny of Baalboden. But his plan never included being responsible for his mentor’s impulsive daughter. Logan is determined to protect her, but when his escape plan goes wrong and Rachel pays the price, he realizes he has more at stake than disappointing Jared.

As Rachel and Logan battle their way through the Wasteland, stalked by a monster that can’t be killed and an army of assassins out for blood, they discover romance, heartbreak, and a truth that will incite a war decades in the making.

There's a lot going on in those three-hundred-odd pages, the first-of-a-new-series by author C.J. Redwine. Defiance boasts a mix of several genres and subgenres, two decently flawed and interesting narrators and protagonists, and one of them a strongish female main character, as well as plenty of action and adventure to lure in readers and keep them invested.  Like my other 3.5/5 ratings, I want to stress that I really enjoyed this, particularly after the rough beginning, but just thought it could have been better with a little time and finesse. As it is, there's a lot to enjoy about this easily read, fast-engrossing young-adult novel. Uneven pacing, character issues aside, I am pretty impressed with C.J. Redwine's debut novel, and think it will find a wide audience. Defiance, at its best, is an inventive, creative and unpredictable novel, and for me, that was enough to merit an somewhat enthusiastic review.

The setting of tyrant-controlled Baalboden and the destroyed world Rachel and Logan live in is both a strength and a weakness for Defiance. The interesting mix of fantasy with flightless dragons (or "the Cursed One") and the post-apocalyptic clues/vocabulary ("periodic table" "algorithms" "Pythagorean theorem") make this world seem like it's possible version of the real world rather than a pure-fantasy imaginary land. But sadly not enough detail or worldbuilding is provided to for readers to form a clear, believable picture of what lead to this apocalyptic scenario or the picture the current conditions that the characters live in. What we do know about it/Baalboden/the world before the Cursed One comes early in the novel, and then bare lip-service is paid to creating a plausible current situation as much more time and attention is given to Rachel and Logan's struggles against the Commander and their alternating inner monologues. This is a first in a series so I am sure more detail and concrete answers are on the way, but the omission and neglect of information often got in the way of my truly being involved in the story.

Much like the setting, Rachel is both a credit to and a flaw for Defiance. (It doesn't help that her "voice" and that of Logan's can read almost interchangeably for the majority of the novel.) She's presented as a strong, headstrong girl in a misogynistic, patriarchal world that misuses and mistreats its women so it's obviously very easy to root for her, but she's also careless, self-absorbed, and stubborn beyond belief. The respective backstories for both her and Logan are delivered somewhat clumsily in infodumpy dialogue, but Redwine outgrows that early on and it doesn't overshadow the the narrative for too long. I like flawed characters, I appreciate them much more than a perfect protagonist with no life or vivacity, but Rachel can sometimes be very frustrating to read because she is so determined to make her own way without telling anyone or trusting her family. 

It's also frustrating for me that Rachel is literally the only girl in her walled city-state that can defend herself - it can make her bloodthirsty and dangerous personality look a bit inorganic for the novel and its setting. Surely Jared can't be the only parent who wants his daughter to able to defend herself in a world where a woman can be flogged to death for going outside without her "Protector"? That quibble aside, Rachel does eventually grow up and change for the better throughout the novel, so it's impossible to call her a one-dimensional character or even stagnant. I have high hopes for this character and her further characterization in the future books, as well as for fellow females Willow and Sylph to grow into more than just cardboard cutouts.

A strong-ish female protagonist, an interesting mix of fantasy and tech, dystopia and post-apocalyptic scenarios all make for a unique novel in the vein of The Hunger Games, etc. Fans who aren't too picky about their worldbuilding and detail with find much to enjoy here, especially those who enjoy bittersweet teenaged romance. The beginning is the roughest part to enjoy and get into, but once things start to gel together, it's easy to get lost in the story at the heart of the novel.

Review: Make Me by Parker Blue

Saturday, July 21, 2012
Title: Make Me
Author: Parker Blue
Genre: young-adult, supernatural fiction
Series: The Demon Underground #4
Pages: 224 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: April 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 1.5/5

Shapiro has a secret she’s desperate to keep—she’s lost her slayer powers. As the new guardian of the Encyclopedia Magicka, Val expected the books to give her powers to replace those that disappeared after she lost her “V card” to Shade. But the encyclopedia exacts a price for every spell, making the job of guardian a tricky proposition.

When a rogue demon kidnaps Val’s roommate Gwen and Micah, leader of the San Antonio Demon Underground, Val is plunged into the middle of a Solomon’s Choice. The rogue wants the dangerously potent Encyclopedia Magicka in exchange for her friends’ lives; the succubus leader of the Demon Underground in Austin is demanding the books be destroyed rather than let them fall into the wrong hands and wants Shade for herself, swearing to do everything she can to prevent Val’s turning over the books.

The kidnapping isn’t the only crisis Val faces. She’s been betrayed by Fang. Demons and vampires are disappearing. The vamps of the New Blood Movement are forcing Val to keep the terms of her agreement to work for them to combat this new threat.

The Demon Underground is challenging Micah's leadership, and everyone is depending on a now-powerless Val to set things right. Val needs all the help she can get. Even if it means forgiving Fang and spending time with a dangerously sexy cowboy-vampire.

My overall enjoyment with this series has severely decreased with each subsequent volume, and Make Me is no exception.  Many of the previously mostly enjoyable characters change drastically for no (or a supremely stupid) reason (Val, Shade, especially, come to mind), the pacing is off (very noticeable and distracting in the first and last segments), the uneven POV shifts from first person to third person omniscient, certain elements feel shoe-horned in and pretty deux-ex-machina-y (the Super Succubus thing), and... I was bored. A lot. Initially a charming if somewhat formulaic series about a teenage vampire Slayer, the Demon Underground series has grown bloated and boring. This is one of the novels I've gone back and forth on rating - from a 2 to a 1, finally meeting in the middle at 1.5 stars. There was literally nothing about this fourth foray into Val Shapiro's life that I enjoyed.

I hate not loving books I expect to enjoy. The first three (Bite Me, Try Me, Fang Me) were never the most original or innovative of the young-adult paranormal genre, but they were snarky and often funny, with a strong and decisive protagonist. The reads of the the first three sped be on the strength of Val, her inner monologue and Fang, the talking mind-reading hellhound. Now, that previously strong girl has morphed into a whiny, annoying and often harebrained version of the girl who used to be Val Shapiro. A love triangle and stupid assumptions mar a lot of what good Val does bring to the table; I won't deny I still like reading about can-do girls who can defend themselves, but I wish so much time hadn't been spent on melodrama and boy troubles. 

I had issues with the style and presentation of the novel and its plot from the beginning. Ones I don't recall having with the previous three, which either means this seriees is somewhat forgettable (true) or that something has changed, or I've just outgrown these particular books (entirely possible). For one thing, I hate hate hate when authors jump between first and third POVs for character narration. It's weird to be in the head of Val and then in the next chapter, be jerked to distantly viewing Micah and his subplot. It just doesn't work; it causes a problem in my reading and in also how I relate to and invest in the characters involved. I don't care what one the author chooses, but it should be one and it should be used for the entirety of the novel. Sure there are some authors and characters that could pull off the dichotomy, but Val and Parker Blue are not among them. 

I'm not even going to go into the myriad other problems I had with this book because I'm underwhelmed, disappointed and frustrated. I'm done. All I can really say is that I won't be reading the inevitable fifth addition to this series.

New Additions to the TBR Pile(s)!

Friday, July 20, 2012

I'll Tell You Mine by Pip Harry - won through Twitter contest

Kate Elliot isn't trying to fit in – that's the whole point of being a goth, isn't it?

Everything about her – from her hair to her clothes – screams different and the girls at her school give her a wide berth. How can Kate be herself, really herself, when she's hiding her big secret? The one that landed her in boarding school in the first place. She's buried it down deep but it always seems to surface.

But then sometimes your soul mates sneak up on you in the most unlikely of places. Like Norris Grammar Boarding School for Girls, where's she's serving a life sentence, no parole, because her parents kicked her out.

So, how do you take that first step and reveal your secrets when you're not sure that people want to see the real you?

An Australian YA writer blurbed by Melina Marchetta? Yes, please!

Gifted from author for review: Witchstruck by Victoria Lamb

 Meg Lytton has always known of her dark and powerful gift. Raised a student of the old magick by her Aunt Jane, casting the circle to see visions of the future and concocting spells from herbs and bones has always been as natural to Meg as breathing. But there has never been a more dangerous time to practise the craft, for it is 1554, and the sentence for any woman branded a witch is hanging, or burning at the stake.

Sent to the ruined, isolated palace of Woodstock to serve the disgraced Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and half-sister of Queen Mary, Meg discovers her skills are of interest to the outcast princess, who is desperate to know if she will ever claim the throne. But Meg's existence becomes more dangerous every day, with the constant threat of exposure by the ruthless witchfinder Marcus Dent, and the arrival of a young Spanish priest, Alejandro de Castillo, to whom Meg is irresistibly drawn - despite their very different attitudes to her secret.

Thrilling and fast-paced, this is the first unputdownable story in a bewitching new series.

 This sounds SO GOOD! I am eager to dive in and see what's in store for Meg.


 In which a witch bewitched the hatter's daughter - and then some....

Sophie lived in the town of Market Chipping, which was in Ingary, a land in which anything could happen, and often did - especially when the Witch of the Waste got her dander up. Which was often.

As her younger sisters set out to seek their fortunes, Sophie stayed in her father's hat shop. Which proved most unadventurous, until the Witch of the Waste came in to buy a bonnet, but was not pleased. Which is why she turned Sophie into an old lady. Which was spiteful witchery.

Now Sophie must seek her own fortune. Which means striking a bargain with the lecherous Wizard Howl. Which means entering his ever-moving castle, taming a blue fire-demon, and meeting the Witch of the Waste head-on. Which was more than Sophie bargained for...

I confess: I have heard great things about this book and author, but I have never read anything by her before. The fact that Christian Bale, my only love, voices Howl in the movie has nothing to do with me wanting to read this... ;)

 After reading, loving and being horrifed by Unwind, I had to see what else the author had to offer.

Nick and Allie don't survive the car accident...but their souls don't exactly get where they're supposed to get either. Instead, they're caught halfway between life and death, in a sort of limbo known as Everlost: a shadow of the living world, filled with all the things and places that no longer exist. It's a magical yet dangerous place where bands of lost children run wild and anyone who stands in the same place too long sinks to the center of the Earth.

When they find Mary, the self-proclaimed queen of lost kids, Nick feels like he he's found a home. But Allie isn't satisfied spending eternity between worlds. Against all warnings, Allie begins learning the "Criminal Art" of haunting and ventures into dangerous territory, where a monster called the McGill threatens all the souls of Everlost.

In this imaginative novel, Neal Shusterman explores questions of life, death, and what just might lie in between.
 I've heard a lot about Morgan Matson's Second Chance Summer, so I snatched this up when I saw it for $4.

 Amy Curry thinks her life sucks.

Her mom decides to move from California to Connecticut to start anew--just in time for Amy's senior year. Her dad recently died in a car accident. So Amy embarks on a road trip to escape from it all, driving cross-country from the home she's always known toward her new life. Joining Amy on the road trip is Roger, the son of Amy's mother's old friend. Amy hasn't seen him in years, and she is less than thrilled to be driving across the country with a guy she barely knows. So she's surprised to find that she is developing a crush on him. At the same time, she's coming to terms with her father's death and how to put her own life back together after the accident. 

Told in traditional narrative as well as scraps from the road--diner napkins, motel receipts, postcards--this is the story of one girl's journey to find herself.

The Spirit Lens by Carol Berg (#1 in the Collegia Magica series)

In a kingdom on the verge of a grand renaissance, where natural science has supplanted failing sorcery, someone aims to revive a savage rivalry...

For Portier de Savin-Duplais, failed student of magic, sorcery's decline into ambiguity and cheap illusion is but a culmination of life's bitter disappointments. Reduced to tending the library at Sabria's last collegia magica, he fights off despair with scholarship. But when the king of Sabria charges him to investigate an attempted murder that has disturbing magical resonances, Portier believes his dreams of a greater destiny might at last be fulfilled.

As the king's new agente confide, Portier - much to his dismay - is partnered with the popinjay Ilario de Sylvae, the laughingstock of Sabria's court. Then the need to infiltrate a magical cabal leads Portier to Dante, a brooding, brilliant young sorcerer whose heretical ideas and penchant for violence threaten to expose the investigation before it's begun. But in an ever-shifting landscape of murders, betrayals, old secrets, and unholy sorcery, the three agents will be forced to test the boundaries of magic, nature, and the divine.

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg (#2 in the Collegia Magica series)

 By order of His Royal Majesty Philippe de Savin-Journia y Sabria, Anne de Vernase is hereby summoned to attend His Majesty's Court at Merona...

Anne de Vernase rejoices that she has no talent for magic. Her father's pursuit of depraved sorcery has left her family in ruins, and he remains at large, convicted of treason and murder by Anne's own testimony. Now, the tutors at Collegia Seravain inform her that her gifted younger sister has died in a magical accident. It seems but life's final mockery that cool, distant Portier de Savin-Duplais, the librarian turned royal prosecutor, arrives with the news that the king intends to barter her hand in marriage.

Anne recognizes that the summoning carries implications far beyond a bleak personal future - and they are all about magic. Merona, the royal city, is beset by plagues of rats and birds, and mysterious sinkholes that swallow light and collapse buildings. Whispers of hauntings and illicit necromancy swirl about the queen's volatile sorcerer. And a murder in the queen's inner circle convinces Anne that her sister's death was no accident. With no one to trust but a friend she cannot see, Anne takes up her sister's magical puzzle, plunging into the midst of a centuries-old rivalry and coming face-to-face with the most dangerous sorcerer in Sabria. His name is Dante.

I am excited about all these, particularly I'll Tell You Mine, Witchstruck and How's Moving Castle. Reviews of most of these to be coming soon!

Review: Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

Title: Thieftaker
Author: D.B. Jackson
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural fiction, mystery
Series:  Thieftaker Chronicles #1
Pages: 333 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: July 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Boston, 1767: In D.B. Jackson's Thieftaker, revolution is brewing as the British Crown imposes increasingly onerous taxes on the colonies, and intrigue swirls around firebrands like Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty. But for Ethan Kaille, a thieftaker who makes his living by conjuring spells that help him solve crimes, politics is for others…until he is asked to recover a necklace worn by the murdered daughter of a prominent family.

Suddenly, he faces another conjurer of enormous power, someone unknown, who is part of a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of power in the turbulent colony. His adversary has already killed—and not for his own gain, but in the service of his powerful masters, people for whom others are mere pawns in a game of politics and power. Ethan is in way over his head, and he knows it. Already a man with a dark past, he can ill afford to fail, lest his livelihood be forfeit. But he can't stop now, for his magic has marked him, so he must fight the odds, even though he seems hopelessly overmatched, his doom seeming certain at the spectral hands of one he cannot even see.

I don't have much to say about Thieftaker upon finishing this medium length novel about a paranormal investigator of sorts. I wanted to love it, I was sold on the idea of the story itself (American historical fiction with magic! In Boston! In 1765!) but though I moderately liked this novel, it doesn't leave much of an impression upon finishing. I hate writing these kinds of wishywashy "wish I'd liked it better" reviews; they are the hardest to write and usually the least helpful to any other readers trying to decide to read a novel or not. With those warnings in mind, I would by no means say that D.B. Jackson's Thieftaker is bad novel - it's not that at all. It just didn't grab my attention and hold it the way I wished it would have.

Those three out of five stars are to show that this is a solid novel, one that will probably satisfy most urban fantasy fans. I liked this, I liked reading while I was doing so, but once I set the novel down, I felt little impulse to pick it right back up. I need to start a "it's not you, it's me" shelf. Sure, Thieftaker is original enough, but not enough is done with the setting and a large problem with the story lies with the pacing of the story itself. The fist 200 pages were a lot of set-up and very little momentum on the mystery aspect of the novel. It takes a little too long to get the ball rolling, plot-wise, and the mystery element suffers the most from its rushed conclusion. I didn't invest a lot of time or emotion on the plot or the characters here: sure, I liked the4 cast well enough, but none, not even the main character, stuck out as particualry memorable. There's something predictable at work here in Thieftaker, and it shows most when the focus is on the characters and not the supernatural.

Ethan Kaille is a more than serviceable protagonist. His voice is weary and he's had his share of bad times and mistakes; he's a world-weary conjurer wary of the society he lives in.  The third person POV didn't do much to help me invest in him; this is a character that is distant from everyone, including the reader, for the duration. He comes off a lot of as an Old Timey Harry Dresden at times; there are several marked similarities between their characters, personalities and abilities (ghost spirit guides named Reg and Bob, respectively.) (In a fight, I thibk I'd give Ethan the win, because he's slightly more cagey and unpredictable than Harry. But this isn't a cage match. I digress.) Their jaded, hardened outlook on life is nothing new for the urban (colonial?) fantasy genre, and though Ethan might not be the most original character ever conceived, he definitely grows on the reader as he uncovers more and more about the seedy underside of Boston.

The magic aspect, one of the main concepts of the story that drew me to this novel as I don't read a lot of supernatural historical fiction (Changeling does NOT count!), was solid but not spectacular or particularly innovative in nature. Latin and blood? Been done before, but it's not too bad a place to start, either. It's straightforward and easily understood, but hardly the most inventive route to conjure power. I felt that the fight scenes involving the magic left as little to be desired, but the draw in this for me after reading the first 200 pages was seeing who the overall antagonist was, not in the repeated altercations with Ethan's rival of Sephira Price.

With all that said, will I pick up book number two in this new series? Most likely. The good (and the okaaaay) outweigh the slightly bad in the case of Thieftaker and I will be interested to see where D.B. Jackson takes this character and this series. It's the first book and there's evidence that this author has talent, and will hopefully grow into a more detailed, evenly-paced writer. If you're interested in trying Thieftaker, there is a short novella, A Spell of Vengeance, written about Ethan. I'd suggest trying that $.99 ebook to see if this type of story and this particular character are a fit for you.

(I guess I had more to say than I thought!)
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