Review: The Iron Traitor by Julie Kagawa

Saturday, November 30, 2013
Title: The Iron Traitor
Author: Julie Kagawa
Genre: young adult, supernatural
Series: The Iron Fey: Call of the Forgotten #2
Pages: 348 (ARC)
Published: October 29 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

In the real world, when you vanish into thin air for a week, people tend to notice.

After his unexpected journey into the lands of the fey, Ethan Chase just wants to get back to normal. Well, as normal as you can be when you see faeries every day of your life. Suddenly the former loner with the bad reputation has someone to try for; his girlfriend, Kenzie. Never mind that he's forbidden to see her again.

But when your name is Ethan Chase and your sister is one of the most powerful faeries in the Nevernever, normal simply isn't to be. For Ethan's nephew, Keirran, is missing, and may be on the verge of doing something unthinkable in the name of saving his own love. Something that will fracture the human and faery worlds forever, and give rise to the dangerous fey known as the Forgotten. As Ethan's and Keirran's fates entwine and Keirran slips further into darkness, Ethan's next choice may decide the fate of them all.

Julie Kagawa takes a break from writing post-apocalyptic vampires and to return to her fae roots with The Iron Traitor. Picking up about a week after the events of the spinoff series' first novel (The Lost Prince), original protagonist's Meghan Chase's little brother Ethan continues his story with the author's trademark action, brisk pace, and creative worldbuilding. With solid writing and an authentic male voice, Kagawa eagerly jumps into an all-new adventure featuring her newest addition to the Nevernever -- the antagonistic Forgotten.

The book is at its best when it focuses on action and suspense. Kagawa has always been an author who can write the heck out of an action scene and that is prominently on display here (the epic battle with Ethan, Keirran, Ash, and Puck versus a forest spirit is particularly memorable). She struggles a bit with the first hundred pages. Not only is there a pretty detailed rundown on the previous novel (which was personally helpful but does weigh down the pace), but nothing much of note happens to anyone. It all reads like filler, like a set-up to the main attraction.

Once Keirran is finally found, the book takes off. Before, Annwyl, Ethan, and Kenzie were all hunting for him, and the book lacked a spark --- but once they're working together to hunt down a cure for the Fading Summer Court exile, the pacing and the action improve. Kagawa has room to breathe and her visual style of writing works well to foster a sense of place for both mundane and action scenes. There is a nice balance between the romance and real life for everyone involved. It's obvious that there will be romantic tension forthcoming, but it's kept to a minimum plot point.

As for characters, they are not as strong as they could be. Keirran and Ethan are probably the most rounded with Kenzie being the least dimensional. Whereas Ethan has grown past some of his immature behavior and prejudices, Kenzie is stubborn. And sick. That's really all there is to her in both these novels. Moving beyond one character to the group as a whole, there are surprising parallels between Kenzie/Annwyl and Ethan/Keirran. Annwyl's Fading (aka dying) mirrors Kenzie's sickness plotline pretty closely. It's also incredibly refreshing that there are zero love triangles in The Iron Traitor. For a YA novel that heavily focuses on two couples...well, that's unheard of. But appreciated.

Part of those enthusiastic four stars is down to pure nostalgia. While I do enjoy Ethan's story more on a technical basis, and Kagawa has improved greatly from her first efforts, the first Iron Fey quartet is my sentimental favorite. Kagawa is smart and is aware of her dedicated fanbase and thus throws in some fun cameos throughout the novel. Meghan, Ash, Puck, Grimalkin, and Razor all play various roles in the plot of The Iron Traitor. Most are either helping or chasing Keirran, Ethan, Kenzie, and Annywl as their go about their various quests throughout the novel, but their continued appearances are charming.

And as for the ending... well, if you know fans of the series that have read this I am sure you have heard EARFULS about it. All I can say is... that's one way to end a book. I may go insane waiting for the third novel, but sure, we can go with that, Julie Kagawa. It doesn't break my brain at all no I am lying tell me what happens because holy shit cliffhanger.

(This is the actual note I wrote down about how this book ended.)


Two Minute DNF Review: Eat, Brains, Love by Jeff Hart

Title: Eat, Brains, Love
Author: Jeff Hart
Genre: young adult, zombies
Series: Untitled #1
Pages: 352
Published: October 1 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 2/5

Two teenage zombies search for brains, love, and answers in this surprisingly romantic and laugh-out-loud funny debut novel with guts.

Jake Stephens was always an average, fly-under-the-radar guy. The kind of guy who would never catch the attention of an insanely popular girl like Amanda Blake-or a psychic teenage government agent like Cass. But one day during lunch, Jake's whole life changed. He and Amanda suddenly locked eyes across the cafeteria, and at the exact same instant, they turned into zombies and devoured half their senior class.

Now Jake definitely has Amanda's attention-as well as Cass's, since she's been sent on a top-secret mission to hunt them down. As Jake and Amanda deal with the existential guilt of eating their best friends, Cass struggles with a growing psychic dilemma of her own-one that will lead the three of them on an epic journey across the country and make them question what it means to truly be alive. Or undead.

Eat, Brains, Love is supposed to be a funny, gory, weird book. It's in that weird/alternative zombie- niche that Isaac Marion first carved out with Warm Bodies in 2010. It's not your typical run-run-danger-I'm-gonna-get-eaten zombie read. As implied with the title, there's a lot more humor and romance to be found here than in a typical walking dead situation.

I didn't dislike the book -- I just wasn't invested enough to keep going. Even after Jack and Amanda "necrotize" in the school cafeteria and start eating their classmates, I was strangely disconnected. A kid gets feasted on -- it's Jack's best friend! -- and I just went, "Eh. Sucks." For a book to work, it has to click emotionally. Be it with the characters themselves, with the writing or the plotting. If there's nothing keeping me turning those pages, I won't. Alternating perspectives and a brisk pace help, but the story itself is nothing to write home about.

I will say that the mythos Hart creates for his zombies is both original and intriguing. The idea that "necrotizing" leads to eating humans which leads to a reprieve from necrotizing.... until the next time the person needs to feed. They're not the classic perma-zombies, but a weird mix of alternatively human one moment and zombie the next. I can't really vouch for how well Hart sells it since I was out of thereabout 135 pages in, but it definitely has potential.

This just wasn't a good fit for me. I've been venturing more and more into the horror genre, but the YA versions seem to leave me colder than their adult counterparts. If you're a reader who enjoys YA zombies, this is your book. (This is from a book packaging company, which may help explain its blandness.)

Review: Parasite by Mira Grant

Friday, November 29, 2013
Title: Parasite
Author: Mira Grant
Genre: horror, science fiction
Series: Parasitology #1
Pages: 504
Published: October 29 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley 
Rating: 3.5/5

A decade in the future, humanity thrives in the absence of sickness and disease.

We owe our good health to a humble parasite - a genetically engineered tapeworm developed by the pioneering SymboGen Corporation. When implanted, the tapeworm protects us from illness, boosts our immune system - even secretes designer drugs. It's been successful beyond the scientists' wildest dreams. Now, years on, almost every human being has a SymboGen tapeworm living within them.

But these parasites are getting restless. They want their own lives...and will do anything to get them.

I wouldn't suffer through 500 page tome about sapient tapeworms if it was for any author besides Mira Grant. I'm still rather .... apprehensive... when it comes to horror novels, but when it comes to Seanan McGuire's alterego, I am willing to give anything a chance. This is the author that convinced me I could like a zombie novel. If she can do that for a non-horror-fan like me with the Newsflesh series,  I have nothing but hope for the forthcoming Parasitology books.

I decided to 100-page rule Parasite. I was interested, but a book with a similar premise (The Troop by Nick Cutter) had been far from a good fit earlier this year. Usually I don't wait that long to tell if I will continue, but I know from experience that Grant's novels can begin in a rather plodding fashion.  Like Feed and especially Deadline before it, Parasite suffers the most from a meandering pace. It just takes too long to get going. There is a ton of set up needed in order to get the reader up to speed and that can make for some dry reading. It does end up being worth the time and effort, so stick with it.

And those first hundred pages are good. They aren't great, but they're enough to hook an audience. The basic set up behind the life of protagonist Sal/Sally Mitchell is interesting, and the author's plotting/creativity are a big draw. I did think her writing could have been more subtle --- there is one BIG twist in particular that feels telegraphed to the audience beforehand. I mean, I was happy to have my theory proven right but I'd pick being surprised over that anytime. Besides that small issue, Grant excels at envisioning and selling dire, futuristic worlds. It's not zombies, but a self-aware and motivated parasite makes for a great antagonist. The call isn't coming from inside the house anymore -- it's coming from inside your own body.

Mira Grant/Seanan McGuire is an author that writes with conviction, be it about biters or about walkers. Sal herself may be uncertain about what is going on, but under Grant's able hand the narrative is strong once it hits its stride. She refuses to coast on the horrifying premise and pure gore -- instead, Parasite dives into government testing, corporation coverups, and big conspiracies. It's smarter than a purely action-driven novel is, though a bit more action would have gone a long way.

The book is a dense 500 pages, but it's 500 pages packed full of the creepy and horrifying. Still, it provides an excellent launching point for the series. The facts are established, there have been several surprising twists, and the first book ends on a well-done cliffhanger. There are some parts I would strongly advise against eating while reading, because there are some truly stomach-turning moments to be found. The science may not be as airtight as the author would like, but the way it is handled and explained seems functional, at least for a first book.

Parasite is very much a first-in-a-new-series novel, but it holds up rather well under the pressure. The foundation has been laid to create a truly special series and Mira Grant won't disappoint.

Review Take Two: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Title: The Republic of Thieves
Author: Scott Lynch
Genre: fantasy
Series: The Gentlemen Bastards #3
Pages: 650
Published: October 8 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4.75/5

With what should have been the greatest heist of their career gone spectacularly sour, Locke and his trusted partner, Jean, have barely escaped with their lives. Or at least Jean has. But Locke is slowly succumbing to a deadly poison that no alchemist or physiker can cure. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmage offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him or finish him off once and for all.

Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body - though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Locke is opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean's imploring - and the Bondsmage's mention of a woman from Locke's past: Sabetha. She is the love of his life, his equal in skill and wit, and now, his greatest rival.

Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha - or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend.

Excuse me, while I have a fangirl moment to myself. See, I have been waiting for this book -- any book -- from Scott Lynch for 6 years. When I heard, finally, definitively that The Republic of Thieves was a publishing go for 2013, you cannot imagine my mixture of happiness and total apprehension (unless you are another Lynch/Martin fan). And then I was granted an ARC and the trepidation grew. So I cracked the cover.

I didn't look up for four hundred pages and five hours. I couldn't. It was impossible.I only stopped when Real Life demands could not be ignored for a minute more. And I resented that intrusion into my return into the lives of these great, clever, arrogant, amusing, deadly characters.

While the Republic of Thieves remains largely unconcerned with rehashing the details of the two previous novels, it is kind of important to remember what was revealed in both The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. I would recommend a reread and while it may be tough to wait through hundreds of pages to get to the new material, it's more than worth it. Your comprehension at the situation Jean and Locke find themselves caught up in will increase and you'll have a greater understanding of the complex, evolving relationship(s) between Sabetha, Locke, and Jean.

The narrative works the same way it has for the previous novels -- the current storyline of Jean/Locke vs. Sabetha -- along with alternating chapters about their training at the hands of Chains in Camorr. As an author, Lynch may be a bit too fond of the chapter cliffhanger, but each storyline holds up thanks to the strong performance of the characters and the talent of the author. When it comes to characters, I've widely and frequently expressed my love for the criminal that calls himself Locke Lamora. He's a great character; an utterly reprehensible antihero. And while I would have loved a third episode of the Locke Lamora Show, Lynch cleverly draws more on Jean Tannen and on the often-mentioned-but-never-before-seen Sabetha Belacoros.

Let me tell you, is Sabetha more than a match for the combined team of Locke and Jean. She's crafty, ruthless, devious. I want to be her when I grow up. She's a force to be reckoned with and the chance to see Locke and Jean tangle with someone of their own caliber is remarkably entertaining. She uses all the tools at her discretion, and it's hard not to admire her when she gets one over on the Bastards. They're out of their element in Karthain and she isn't afraid to use any and every advantage. She's a strong character -- not just a strong woman. Her sex is superfluous to her high levels of awesome. And while Locke is attracted to her, it's for more than her looks. Hell, I can't decide if I am attracted to her or if I want to be her.

I can talk and talk about characters, but despite my immense affection for nearly everyone, there is actually more to The Republic of Thieves than just Locke and Jean and Sabetha politically pranking one another with varying degrees of severity. There's detailed worldbuilding, steadily built up over years and books and hundreds of pages; there's inventive storytelling and plotting with the characters we've come to know so well; there's subtle magic that plays pivotal roles in the plot. Lynch's world is often a harsh place, but you cannot deny it is a well-drawn one. Lynch also plays it smart with the backstory element -- while the current storyline may be the more compelling, the birdseye view into the shaping of the group (along with chances to see Bug and the Sanzas!) is appreciated.

With four more planned books to go in the Gentlemen Bastard series (The Thorn of Emberlain is the next expected), Scott Lynch has a lot on his plate and a lot of expectations to fulfill. Luckily, this is an author that never does what you expect and manages to make you like the outcome. His story paths are unpredictable and matching wits with the likes of Chains' crew is easier said than done. His talent is both immense and obvious.

It had been a long time since I'd had the pleasure of a first read of one of Lynch's novels. Like my lovely coblogger mentioned, his open struggles to write and to deal with his depression leave me with nothing but respect for both him and what he has created. His work is more than worth the wait for Scott to get better. I can't wait to see what he chooses to do next with his series. If the first book was cited as a fantasy meets Ocean's Eleven, and the second a better Pirates of the Caribbean, the third would definitely have to be a Shakespearean movie adaptation -- with Bondsmagi. Don't worry --- it completely works. 

Danielle's lovely review can be found right here.

Review: Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Kate Alender

Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Title: Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer
Author: Kate Alender
Genre: young adult, contemporary, mystery
Series: N/A
Pages: 307 (ARC)
Published: September 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2/5

Colette Iselin is excited to go to Paris on a class trip. She’ll get to soak up the beauty and culture, and maybe even learn something about her family’s French roots.

But a series of gruesome murders are taking place across the city, putting everyone on edge. And as she tours museums and palaces, Colette keeps seeing a strange vision: a pale woman in a ball gown and powdered wig, who looks suspiciously like Marie Antoinette.

Colette knows her popular, status-obsessed friends won’t believe her, so she seeks out the help of a charming French boy. Together, they uncover a shocking secret involving a dark, hidden history. When Colette realizes she herself may hold the key to the mystery, her own life is suddenly in danger . . .

Acclaimed author Katie Alender brings heart-stopping suspense to this story of revenge, betrayal, intrigue — and one killer queen.

One of the things I find most disappointing in novels is wasted potential. Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer boasts one of the weirdest and yet coolest-sounding plots I've heard of, but over the course of nearly 300 pages, utterly fails to make use of that originality and creativity. I wouldn't go so far to say that this is the absolute worst young adult novel I've read in 2013, but it certainly is one of the most disappointing. There is a lot of potential, but the author found herself out of her depth and couldn't pull it off to satisfaction.

The problem with the novel lies not with the writing, for it's pretty short, to-the-point-no frills-kinda-stuff and very readable (WITH A FEW EXCEPTIONS)*, but mainly with the characters and the misuse of great ideas. There's no way around it: almost the entire cast is awful, one-dimensional, or evil. It is one thing to write an unlikeable character or an antihero, but it is another to write characters so stereotypical and awful that you alienate your readers from investing in your story.

*the real exception I want to stress is this: "His eyes, which already looked like the sun setting on a pool of liquid gold, got even sparklier."
from 27% into the ARC. That is just... Wow. no. "Sparklier"? Really?

Main character Colette is selfish, self-centered, and self-conscious. I wanted to care about her, but when she is impressed with French people for being French, I just gave up. The author tries to flesh her out with Home Problems & Money Issues, but she's as stock as her two best friends, Pilar and Hannah. (Though I do appreciate that at least two of the main/main-ish cast are non-white.) When Alender loses focus, the book can read like Mean Girls in Paris. Which, fine, I would totally read. But that is absolutely NOT what I signed up for when I opened Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer.

As far as Marie herself goes, she is entirely wasted. Her scenes of murder are surprisingly and weirdly cut-and-dried in tone and voice. It's all relayed in an almost bored way. "His/her head separated from his/her body." The way she is written, the ghost has no teeth, no bite to her hauntings. Sure, people die but there's no suspense about any of it. There's nothing new done with the fact that a 18th century French Queen has come back from the dead to...- wreak vengeance on those who have wronged her? I'm sorry but that is such a rote supernatural plot I half expected the Brothers Winchester to show up at Le Petit Trianon.

Insofar as this is being called a "mystery", I would advise that it is not a typical one. It isn't about unraveling who the killer is -- hello, it's there in the title -- but about why and why now. And when all is said and done, I don't really think there is an answer for why it took 200 years for Marie to decide to get back at her betrayers. It's not addressed and not even mentioned, but I kept wondering -- why wait until the people who had hurt her were dead? Doesn't it make more sense to strike when the perpetrators themselves were alive?

If that were all, I could still see myself rating this around a 3/5. But then the final confrontation came...and went, with barely a whisper. SPOILERS! The great-great-great?-grandchild of your best friend saying she is "really sorry" is an anticlimactic way to end a novel. It was rushed, and far too easy. No burning of bones, no great altercation... just some yelling, some apologizing... and that's it. Problem solved for Colette. To say that was a let-down of an ending doesn't even begin to cover the disappointment. It's not enough to promise awesome things -- you have to actual fulfill those things. I was promised a thrill ride of a serial killing ghost story. I got a Mean Girls with a Love Triangle while people-get-murdered-occasionally story. Which one would you rather read?

My New Arrivals, Bookish-Wise

Monday, November 25, 2013
I haven't posted one in a while, so I have some ARCs, some physical book buys, and some new ebooks to round out both my real and e-book shelves.

Storm Glass by Maria V. Snyder -- Glass #1 -- bought because it was only $1.49!
Fixing Delilah by Sarah Ockler -- bought because it was only $3.07!!
She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick -- sent from the lovely people at MacMillan.
Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce -- Fairytale Retellings #1 -- bought because COVER.
The Rook by Daniel O'Malley -- The Checquy Files #1 -- bought because WEIRD AWESOMEness.

 See? THAT COVER. I just.. it's perfect. Whoever decided to change it needs to be fired because NO.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke -- Between #1 -- bought because cover and mixed reviews intrigued me.
Premeditated by Josin L. McQuein -- bought because Blythe loved it and it sounds fantastic.
Friday Never Leaving by Vikki Wakefield --bought because Aussie YA. 'Nuff said.
Champion by Marie Lu -- Legend #3 -- bought because IT'S ALL OVER AFTER THIS.
Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger -- Finishing School #2 -- bought because Sophronia is my spirit animal.

What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris -- Sebastian St. Cyr #1 -- bought because Renae loves it and that means it has major potential.
Forever by Maggie Stefvater -- Wolves of Mercy Falls #3 -- bought because I've had the first two for years, waiting to have the third in paperback before I read them.
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater -- bought because COVER. I admit I owned this on Nook, but I needed a physical copy.

Rebel Heart by Moira Young -- Dustlands #2 -- bought once in paperback so I can start the first.
Never Fade by Alexandra Bracken -- The Darkest Minds #2 -- bought because I loved the first (though I will need a reread -- it's all bit foggy a year after reading.)
American Pacifica by Anna North -- bought because amazing premise.


World After by Susan Ee -- Penryn and the End of Days #2 -- bought because OMG FINALLY OUT. Also, the I got the pre-order for Kindle at just $2.99 a month or so ago.

Night of Cake and Puppets by Laini Taylor -- Daughter of Smoke and Bone #2.5 -- bought because without a full-length Daughter novel in 2013, I was facing some serious Taylor-withdrawal.

Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner -- The Queen's Thief #2 -- bought because this has been recommended to me so many times I lost count. I had the first but I hear the second is better so I bought it for when I finished The Thief.

So that's it for me! I like what I got; a lot of YA, but I have wanted most of them for forever. Or they were pretty. Or on sale. Whatever. BOOKS.

DNF Review:The Translator by Nina Schuyler

Sunday, November 24, 2013
Title: The Translator
Author: Nina Schuyler
Genre: general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 303
Published: July 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: NA

In silken prose and with subtle suspense, Nina Schuyler brings us a mesmerizing novel of language and translation, memory loss and heartbreak, and the search for answers in a foreign country.

When renowned translator Hanne Schubert falls down a flight of stairs, her injury is an unusual but real condition--the loss of her native language. She is left speaking only Japanese, a language learned later in life. With her personal life at a crossroad, Hanne leaves for Japan. There, the Japanese novelist whose work she translated stunningly confronts her publicly for sabotaging his work.

Reeling, Hanne struggles for meaning and seeks out the inspiration for the author's novel--a tortured, chimerical actor, once a master in the art of Noh theater. Through their passionate and intriguing relationship, Hanne begins to understand the masks she has worn in her life, just as the actor dons the masks that have made him a legend of Noh. The demons from her past and present begin to unfold and Hanne sets out to make amends in this searing and engrossing novel.

This one is another on me. Sometimes things just don't fit right, and that's how I feel about The Translator. It's not a bad book, it's just not my kind of book, writing or character-wise. I thought about not reviewing The Translator, but I do think a lot of people would enjoy this more were they to hear about it. 

I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I just couldn't get a read on any of the characters. Hanne's dry narration didn't help either. Her situation was interesting, but her voice wasn't. It was dull and lifeless and I wasn't invested in anything. Too much is told directly to the reader through Hanne rather than shown through word and deed. That's a big bookish turn off for me and The Translator is guilty.

Another issue I had was what the book was about. It's centrally concerned with language and identity, and I was expecting a historical fiction -- based on that gorgeous cover. My hopes for content aren't the book's fault, but the storyline present in the novel was of much less interest to me. After seven days stuck roughly 64% into the novel, I set it down for good. It's a classic "it's not you, it's me."

Certainly, for the right audience, The Translator will provide a full and satisfying reading experience. Unfortunately, I have far too many books I want to read to waste so much time on one I know I won't end up being happy about when I have finished. So it's onward to a new story for me, but I do want to mention to this to potential readers who are interested in this type of fiction.

Review: Lady Thief by A.C. Gaughen

Thursday, November 21, 2013
Title: Lady Thief
Author: A.C. Gaughen
Genre: historical fiction, mythic fiction
Series: Scarlet #2
Pages: 322 (ARC)
Published: expected February 11 2014
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Scarlet’s true identity has been revealed, but her future is uncertain. Her forced marriage to Lord Gisbourne threatens Robin and Scarlet’s love, and as the royal court descends upon Nottingham for the appointment of a new Sheriff, the people of Nottingham hope that Prince John will appoint their beloved Robin Hood. But Prince John has different plans for Nottingham that revolve around a fateful secret from Scarlet’s past even she isn’t yet aware of.

 Forced to participate at court alongside her ruthless husband, Scarlet must bide her time and act the part of a noblewoman—a worthy sacrifice if it means helping Robin’s cause and a chance at a future with the man she loves. With a fresh line of intrigue and as much passion as ever, the next chapter in Scarlet’s tale will have readers talking once again.

It's been almost two years since I read A.C. Gaughen's delight debut Scarlet, a cheeky little Robin Hood retelling featuring Maid Marian... as Will Scarlet. It was fresh idea and the execution was top notch; rewriting such a beloved and familiar tale is a tough job but the author acquitted herself admirably well. Since then I've read other novels about Robin Hood, but none have surpassed this genderbending young adult series as my favorite.

A.C. Gaughen is a smart, evolving author. She has grown since her first novel and Lady Thief reflects this new maturity and growth. On the whole, Lady Thief is crisper, engaging, clever. The plotting is tighter, the characters are more vibrant and realistic. That's not to say that Scarlet wasn't great and a ton of fun to read because it was -- but there was room for improvement. With this second novel, one that doesn't miss a beat, Gaughen shows she is honing her craft and her abilities have only sharpened.

When I say that this is an author to watch, I mean it. She pulls off some impressive authorial sleigh-of-hand throughout these two books. Not once, not twice, but three times was I greatly surprised by the path the author chose to take. She took some risks with her story and her characters -- while there are clear good vs. bad guys (like Richard vs. John), some are wonderfully morally gray in their presentation. It's easy to dismiss Gisbourne as the overall antagonist, but some subtle hints and comments show the would-be Sheriff as more than a one-note villain.

Scarlet/Marian remains the same stubborn, fierce, determined girl she was before. She's dynamic and active, fully involving herself in plots and plans with her band. It could be difficult to read about her treatment over the course of the novel, but Scarlet is so stalwart it's hard to dwell on her misfortunes when she is too busy saving Rob to linger. Her voice is authentic and clear, but her dialect can take a little adjustment. She is prone to running unprepared into tense situations and can make for a frustrating narrator due to her stubbornness. She's fallible, and human and imperfect.

The second time around the romance still has a few missteps, but it was evenly handled. Forced into marriage with Gisbourne to save Robin, Scarlet is once again the center of a love triangle. While the John Little - Scarlet - Rob triangle detracted from the first novel for me, this one actually added something to the novel. Her sham of a marriage to save Rob is unusual to say the least. You don't see a lot of married YA heroines. Much less married-but-loves-another YA heroines. Her struggles to annul her marriage and be with Rob play a a key but smaller part of her motivation for the whole book.

There is still plenty of story to explore in Robin Hood/Will Scarlet's myth for Gaughen to explore and remake in her own style. There are several deviations from the main plot by now, but the changes illustrate Gaughen's individual plot ideas and mesh within the larger frame easily and well. The book winds up after some crucial developments, and while the wait for a third novel will be painful, if it follows in the pattern of Scarlet and Lady Thief before it, it will be the best novel yet.

Review: The Most Improper Miss Sophie Valentine by Jayne Fresina

Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Title: The Most Improper Miss Sophie Valentine
Author: Jayne Fresina
Genre: Romance
Series: Sydney Dovedale #1
Pages: 373
Published: June 5, 2012
Source: Purchased
Rating: 3/5
"Wanted: one husband, not too particular. Small dowry, several books, sundry furnishings, and elderly aunt included. Idlers, time-wasters, and gentleman without other attachments need not apply." —Miss Sophie Valentine

A Scandalous Lady

Sophie Valentine knew placing an ad for a husband in the Farmer's Gazette would bring her trouble—and she was right. When the darkly handsome, arrogantly charming Lazarus Kane shows up on her doorstep, the nosy residents of Sydney Dovedale are thrown into a gossiping tizzy. After all, it's common knowledge that Sophie is a young lady In Need of Firmer Direction. But even Sophie isn't so scandalous as to marry a complete stranger . . . is she?

Seeks Handsome Stranger

Lazarus Kane has been searching for Sophie half of his life. She may not remember him, but he could never forget her. But the past is a dangerous thing, and it's best if his remains secret if he wants to tempt Sophie with...

A Most Improper Proposal

Reviewed by Danielle

It's a shame that a book with such a clever, unique blurb turned out so bog standard. Every HR trope appears to have been tossed into a blender and spat out into a plodding, confusing mess. Including, but not limited to, the following:

Gambling family member who has lost the family fortune
     Heroine must marry for money
Ugly duckling (mildly "disfigured" heroine treated like the Elephant Man)
Poor boy made good
Pining ex-lover
     Love triangle
Love at first sight
Reunited childhood sweethearts
Good People Have Good Sex
Meddling aunts
Mysterious past
Mysterious illness
Reformed thief
Fake names
Buried treasure
Plot moppet
Secret baby

It's incredibly uneven, starting off well but dragging through the middle. Then there are a half dozen sex scenes that all take place in the last quarter. Weirdly paced.

Sophie and Russ are fine characters, but they didn't light my world on fire. I understand the plot is that Sophie is torn between the girl she was and the woman she thinks she should be, but I still found her characterization spotty and inconsistent. I never felt there was a reason Russ had searched for her for so long.

(Also, Sophie's hair naturally curls when she's in love. That's...not how hair works.)

Again, it's not a bad book, just far more boring than the blurb would lead me to believe.

Book Tour Review: Haven by Laury Falter

Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Title: Haven
Author: Laury Falter
Genre: post apocalyptic, horror, young adult
Series: The Apocalypse Chronicles #1
Pages: 258 
Published: June 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 3.5/5

On an ordinary day in early September, Kennedy Shaw leaves for school unaware that within a few minutes the world she knows will be gone - succumbed to an outbreak of epidemic proportions. After finding a safe haven inside the security of her enclosed high school, she learns that four others have survived, one being a bold, mysterious transfer student from Texas whose unruffled demeanor harbors more than a cool interest in her. As they struggle to survive the dead fighting their way inside, will Kennedy discover there is more to life than survival? And will she and the others find a way to live in this terrifying new world?

As a young adult novel featuring a small group of survivors in a high school during zombie outbreak, Haven bears a strong resemblance to Courtney Summer's This Is Not a Test. I would recommend this short novel for fans of Summer's tightly-wound narrative -- each are smart survival stories that focus on such disparate, fractious teenagers struggling to survive. It's the first in a planned series, and will fit right into the young adult zombie/horror niche.

While there are some key similarities between the two novels, Falter's Haven is far more concerned with action than Summers was. There are plenty of risky situations and narrow escapes, especially when main character Kennedy and her mysterious love interest Harrison are patrolling/scavenging. There are some interesting interpersonal dynamics at play between Beverly, Meu, Doc, Kennedy, and Harrson, but it's not stressed, nor a focal point for the novel. Haven is clearly plot-driven, rather than character-driven. 

This is an entertaining, occasionally brutal read. When it sticks to survival and mystery, Haven is great. It's when the novel gets lost in love stories and romances that I found myself hoping the Infected would pop up. I can appreciate that Kennedy and Harrison at least vaguely knew each other before the events of the novel and that they take at least a few weeks (it's hard to tell -- the passage of time in the story can be uneven) before falling in love. I just don't really buy into them as a couple. They are both so isolated and secretive as people -- I just don't see it as authentic when they claim to be unable to live without the other.

While Haven isn't a perfect read, Falter can't be faulted for trying. Her writing is nondescript but strong, and her sense of action is well-illustrated throughout the novel. Her characters start out woodenly but improve, but none (outside the main pair) have really become more than a name on a page as of yet. There is plenty of time for that to happen in the further books to come and I hope it does as Mei, Doc, and even Beverly have potential to become memorable characters.

I am a big fan of open-ended horror novels, and Laury Falter pulls that trick off rather neatly here. Of course, I expect that there will be some kind of resolution in the next book about what happens on the final page in Haven, but I love that it ended where it did. It was a smart way to end the novel and keep readers in suspense. All in all, this was a very quick, engaging read. If you like narrowly-focused, actiontastic stories of zombies and high schools, you can't go wrong with Haven.

Review: Mystic City by Theo Lawrence

Monday, November 18, 2013

Title: Mystic City
Author: Theo Lawrence
Genre: young adult, retellings
Series: Mystic City #1
Pages: 416
Published: October 9 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5

Aria Rose, youngest scion of one of Mystic City's two ruling rival families, finds herself betrothed to Thomas Foster, the son of her parents' sworn enemies. The union of the two will end the generations-long political feud—and unite all those living in the Aeries, the privileged upper reaches of the city, against the banished mystics who dwell below in the Depths. But Aria doesn't remember falling in love with Thomas; in fact, she wakes one day with huge gaps in her memory. And she can't conceive why her parents would have agreed to unite with the Fosters in the first place. 

Only when Aria meets Hunter, a gorgeous rebel mystic from the Depths, does she start to have glimmers of recollection—and to understand that he holds the key to unlocking her past. The choices she makes can save or doom the city—including herself.

Mystic City tries. It really does. Despite pacing issues, a treacly sweet romance (full of instalove!), it really does want to be an inventive and bleak Romeo and Juliet retelling. was.... pretty readable. I wouldn't go so far to say it was good, but I did finish it within a few hours of beginning.

The thing is, and what I kept thinking as I read --- do we need a Romeo and Juliet retelling, even one mixed with fun magic and technology and dystopia elements? Is it too much? Does it work? And the answer really is no. Besides being both the most overrated and least understood (by today's teens, anyway) of Shakespeare's play, Romeo & Juliet has been done so many times it's grown tedious. Lawrence attempts to breathe new life into the beaten horse that is the tale of two overwrought teenagers in "love", but it doesn't hold water.

There are countless books, movies (so many in fact, we can rank the best 10), even zombie adaptations of this silly plotline. What did Romeo know of real love? What Juliet know of being in a real, adult relationship? Nothing -- and neither does Mystic City's Hunter and Aria. Their relationship is baseless and frivolous. His male rival for her affections -- in name if not in actuality -- is as one-note and shallowly-drawn as well. I can't root for two teens who hardly know themselves and much less each other to be together. I can't care about an antagonist who is predictable and boring -- even to root against him. If my only choice is apathy, something has gone wrong. Give me some other source of drama. Focus on the political feud and less on hormones.

Some aspects of the story could use tightening but overall, I did have fun with Mystic City in spite of myself. I liked the mix of magic and technology. I am not to clear on how it all works, exactly, but I like the ideas and how Lawrence incorporated them into his story and how his characters use them together. There are some spots where the book reminded me of X-Men a bit and I wanted more of that. The writing is serviceable if nondescript, but Lawrence's style is suited to his chosen genre.

Review: Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci

Sunday, November 17, 2013
Title: Tin Star
Author: Cecil Castellucci
Genre: science fiction, space exploration, young adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 241 
Published: expected February 25 2014
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

On their way to start a new life, Tula and her family travel on the Prairie Rose, a colony ship headed to a planet in the outer reaches of the galaxy. All is going well until the ship makes a stop at a remote space station, the Yertina Feray, and the colonist's leader, Brother Blue, beats Tula within an inch of her life. An alien, Heckleck, saves her and teaches her the ways of life on the space station.

When three humans crash land onto the station, Tula's desire for escape becomes irresistible, and her desire for companionship becomes unavoidable. But just as Tula begins to concoct a plan to get off the space station and kill Brother Blue, everything goes awry, and suddenly romance is the farthest thing from her mind.

All hail the wave of space-centered young adult science fiction. As the lovely Gillian called it earlier this year in September, this seems to be a new trend for YA novels. Cecil Castellucci's Tin Star kicks off this trend for me, and it was a inviting introduction. This quieter story about 14-year old Tula Bane, the abandoned Human on an unfriendly space station in a galazy far far away makes for a diverting, I'm-so-glad-this-could-never-happen-to-me kind of entertainment.

Tin Star is a shorter novel, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer weird imagination. It makes for a quick read, with nondescript but adequate prose and a great hook. Tula's story takes a while to get going but eventually finds a solid pace and sticks with it. Her first person narration can come off as pretty flat at times, but when I considered she spent more than three years isolated in a hostile environment, well, I let that slide. Her unemotional approach  has worked in her favor and enabled her survival, but it won't endear her to all readers. She may not be labelled "likeable" but she is smart, cunning, and determined. She's admirable, and the way she scrounges a living where none expected her to survive clearly illustrates that.

The novel takes place in an unnamed future, where human space travel is possible and alien contact is nothing new. There is a somewhat confusing system governing the "Major Species" and the "Minor Species" as well as the "League of Worlds" and the way species can travel and settle on new worlds. It's all mentioned but never really explained. And while it's not like this is a novel where the plot hinges on believable science or credible worldbuilding to actually work, a more forthright way of explaining the function of these unexplained bodies would be helpful to picturing and understanding the story. It would have been especially nice when a larger portion of the later novel is devoted to a political coup that disrupts the lives of those on Yertina Fray.

There are wides swathes of this that I greatly enjoyed -- Tula, the small hints that added up to a big surprise, the various aliens Castellucci would create, Heckleck, Tournour -- but several areas were greatly lacking. The romance angle particularly was difficult to swallow. When Tula is torn between a Human boy and girl, as well as an alien, I had to roll my eyes. And it predominately all went down in the last quarter of the novel. It was too much too fast. I could understand Tula's curiousity about her own kind, but I wanted her to focus on her revenge, not on kissing Els and Reza. Happy endings with a partner aren't required and if I am reading a space story about a hard-edged girl, I don't really need to see her paired off to feel like the book ended well.

Speaking of, I felt that the ending is solid, if left open slightly. There is resolution and if the story is not complete, 100% sealed up, the reader could still walk away from Tin Star completely satisfied and without need for a sequel. However, the way the author ended it, there would be intriguing and original potential to continue exploring this world. A little more worldbuilding, a little less romance and there would be little to complain about here. As is, I will be curious to see what the author does from here.

Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Saturday, November 16, 2013
Title: Cruel Beauty
Author: Rosamund Hodge
Genre: young adult, fantasy, fairy tales
Series: None
Pages: 349
Expected Publication: January 28, 2014
Source: Publisher via edelweiss
Rating: 4/5
Graceling meets Beauty and the Beast in this sweeping fantasy about one girl's journey to fulfill her destiny and the monster who gets in her way-by stealing her heart.

Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex's secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

Reviewed by Danielle

I hate when I finish a book and know the review is going to be hard to write and come off more critical than I want it to. So let me start with this. Cruel Beauty is a phenomenal fairy tale retelling that isn’t pigeonholed by the original. Its inspiration is obvious, but its story is entirely its own. I found it imaginative, romantic, and endlessly intriguing. As the product of a debut author, I can only hope we’ll get many more twisted tales out of this world.

As I said in a status update, Beauty and the Beast is infinitely improved by giving the beauty a spine. Nyx has been raised her whole life to know that she will marry the Gentle Lord, the king of demons who rules over the land. Growing up with that knowledge hasn’t made her a particularly nice person, especially when she sees her cheerful, happy twin being adored by the family. A female protagonist who is allowed to be selfish, angry, and troubled is rare and refreshing, though an early confrontation pushed the character too far to the “cruel” side and I did have some trouble reigning my feelings for her back to center. Still, Nyx hasn’t just been raised to wed the Gentle Lord, but to kill him with her carefully practiced Hermetic arts, this world’s magic.

Those Hermetic arts are probably my biggest problem with the story. The idea is that all magic combines four base elements, and to remove magic, you must “turn off” the elements. The Gentle Lord and his castle are clearly beings of magic, so to remove them from the land, all one would have to do is enter the castle and nullify the Hermetic arts. This is a HUGE plot point at the beginning as Nyx slinks through the Gentle Lord’s castle, searching for the elemental “hearts”, so that she can deactivate them. But notice I said, “beginning”?

Remember Chekhov's gun? I’m not saying everything must point directly at the endgame, I like twists, too, but the hearts feature so heavily at the start of the narrative, and so little in the conclusion, that I felt like we wasted a lot of plot time searching for them. Same with the Rhyme that foretells how to kill the Gentle Lord. It’s repeated over and over, but it’s not present in the end. Both added to the world building, but they’re just window dressing. And in a very claustrophobic book that sometimes amounts to Nyx wandering through pretty rooms, I could have done with less window dressing and more action.

There are some overall plotting issues I wish I could change, from little things like the magic mirror, (Spoilers: If Shade has taken all of the previous wives though the door, and the door breaks the mirror, then how is the mirror unbroken?) to bigger issues like abrupt characterization changes. Nyx’s growth worked for me, as she slowly turns from the hard-hearted and bitter assassin to someone open to friendship and love, as did Ignifex’s gradual revelation that he too is trapped by circumstance. Shade and Astraia’s, however, came kind of out of nowhere. And while Astraia’s was a bigger difference, Shade’s changes seemed to waffle throughout the rest of the story which was even more jarring.

What did work for me from the first instance to the very end, was the banter between Nyx and Ignifex. Their relationship could easily be written in the same Stockholm Syndrome-y way that other adaptations have taken, but because Hodge makes it clear from the beginning that Ignifex respects Nyx for her spirit, I think they’re able to come to it in a much more equal manner. <end of book spoilers!> Likewise, their happily ever after didn’t change them as characters. They had new life experiences in the new timeline, and learned the value of love and togetherness, but they were still sometimes selfish or mean. Nyx had reservations about whether she could love the prince when she fell in love with the demon, which is totally reasonable!
Again, this review is harsher than I mean for it to sound. Cruel Beauty is an exceptionally fun, fast paced read that made me very happy. It has some plotting issues that don’t stand up to scrutiny, but overall I found it to be a great updating and merging of classic stories.

Review: Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

Friday, November 15, 2013
Title: Palace of Spies
Author: Sarah Zettel
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Series: Palace of Spies #1
Pages: 368
Published: November 5 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

A warning to all young ladies of delicate breeding who wish to embark upon lives of adventure: Don't.

Sixteen-year-old Peggy is a well-bred orphan who is coerced into posing as a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. Life is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that the girl she's impersonating might have been murdered. Unless Peggy can discover the truth, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate. But in a court of shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy—perhaps even the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love...

History and mystery spark in this effervescent series debut.

Remember how awesome Miss Congeniality was/is/will foreverbe? Okay. And now picture that in the 1700's with Princesses and Jacobean/Hanoverian politics instead of a bomb threat.

Okay. I lost you there a bit, didn't I? With the "Jacobean/Hanoverian politics" bit, right? It's okay. Stay tune. It all sounds intimidating. It sounds Very Historically Important. And while it is, but it is also pretty key to the plot of Palace of Spies. BUT the good is that Sarah Zettel explains it so well you won't even notice when you've picked a side in the succession debate hundreds of years in the past. 

At eye level, this story is really a mix of Miss Congeniality meets Etiquette & Espionage mixed with Gilt and Maid of Secrets. And while I think the plot bares some similarity to all of the above, the story is wholly original. I used to think "romp" was ill-used for historical fiction, but this totally is. It's fun and funny, but it packs some suspense in there too. Zettel is a smart author and her ability to create distinct, developed characters and, at the same time, to foster a strong sense of atmosphere is impressive.

I really enjoyed the characters. I've always been able to do so with Zettel's characters and Peggy is no different. Her voice is strong, distinctive and lively through her close first-person narration. She's funny and smart, but somewhat out of her depth when caught up in the likes of Tinderflint, Mr. Peele and Mrs. Abbott's conspiracy. Through her various roles and her ups and downs, Peggy starts to learn there's more to what she is doing than she is told and she may not be safe. The erstwhile Margaret Preston Fitzroy slips into her spy role after a book-montage of training specific skills, facts, etc., with ease, but the life of a courtier is ever one of a false-facer and a liar.

The mystery aspect is similarly well-done as the rest of the novel. It was convoluted and smart enough to keep the final revelation an actual surprise. There are some noticeable details absent, but I liked the difficulty presented. All too often, it's far too easy to spot the culprit way before the book wants you to, but there is none of that here. Above all. the book remains clever and fun until the end.

The first in a planned series, I'd say that Palace of Spies is a great place to launch. The humor is well-handled, the plot is fresh, the pace is brisk, and the characters are engaging. There is a lot of room to explore further along in this series -- Robert's employer, Peggy's dad, Jacobite plots -- and I think that Sarah Zettel won't let me down.
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