Two Minute Reviews: The Fairy Godmother and One Good Knight by Mercedes Lackey

Friday, September 30, 2011

Genre: fantasy, supernatural/mythic fiction
Series: The 500 Kingdoms #1
Pages: 496 (nook version)
Published: July 2004
Rating: 3/5

I found this introductory novel into a series of fairy-tale retellings to be more than mildly interesting and an admittedly clever premise for such a series. Subtly subverting the archetype of Cinderella for the first novel, Lackey interprets the fairy tale in an original and fun way; it feels fresh and new unlike a familiar or well-trod literary path. Lackey has a flair all her own and Elena lacked the passivity present in so many damsels-in-distress. 

I think the opening chapters fell a little bit flat, and were slightly boring the first hundred pages or so. I kept waiting for the magic (pun intended, I'm shameless) to happen and I never clicked with Elena as closely as I'd liked. Things I enjoyed from the novel: I liked the author's inventive idea for how magic works in this world and how said magic is channeled through certain people via The Tradition, a natural force responsible for the shaping and creating different versions of classic fairytales throughout all the Five Hundred Kingdoms.

The main character of Elena was annoying at first, but she grew on me, like the rest of the book did. I found her to be a bit too perfect and that itself is a big no-no for me: no Mary Sues need apply. However, Elena grows and changes from her stiff and stuffy first impression. The other characters in the book were fairly one-dimensional and lacked any real fire, except for maybe Alexander. And as the obvious love interest, I would've had many more complaints if he had been as wooden as the rest of the background characters. 

It was not as good as I hoped, quite honestly, but it improved drastically after all the introductory details and background were finished. The infodumping is minimal as Lackey keeps her worldbuilding simple and easy to follow/create mentally. I did feel a bit bored as the "lessons" with Alexander wore on, but the unicorns were more than enough amusement to make up for that. The only other main issue I had with the story was that the final conflict and resolution seemed rushed and stilted in their slightly predictable execution. A decent effort, overall enjoyable and easy to read, though far from outstanding. I hope for more in the second. I will say the book is worth the money in ebook form: it was only $5.76

Genre: fantasy, supernatural/mythic fiction
Series: The 500 Kingdoms #2
Pages: 400 (Nook edition)
Published: March 2006
Rating: 3.5/5

Much stronger plotlines (and less predictable as well) than its predecessor, along with a genuinely likable protagonist made One Good Knight an easy 3.5 out of 5.

This was a drastic improvement over the first in the series of the Five Hundred Kingdoms. Almost none of the problems I had from the first novel were in this sequel, and it was vastly more entertaining to read than The Fairy Godmother. Instead of focusing on the "Cinderella" fairytale, the second book is about the Greek legend of the Andromeda sacrifices in a small, poor Kingdom with no Godmother. I am a huge fan of Greek myths and legends and Lackey's handling of the popular tale was both amusing and surprising. 

First on the list of vast improvements is Andromeda herself. Andie is the main character and is actually that, a character instead of a cliche. She's smart, bookish, resourceful, and clever. She's a very engaging character, as were the villains of the story (which surprised me). Not content to do as she is told and is expected, Andie is a determined girl with heart and personality to burn. Though she may be a tad earnest and eager, she was a nice change from more popular and jaded heroines. I'm almost always also a sucker for a bookworm character: its very easy for me to relate to. . . hmm. . . wonder why that could be?

Second on the list of what I enjoyed: the conflict and resolution did not seem nearly as rushed as the end of the first book. It was much better plotted, without the random lulls and frequent rushes in narrative that plagued the first. On the whole, the entire novel felt more well-planned, thought out and written than the first. It's also much funnier and filled with more fleshed out characters instead of one-dimensional second-rate "personalities". As before stated, even the male villain specifically has more than one side and wrestled with Andie to claim the position of my favorite character.

One minor problem I had was that sometimes the actions of a character would make absolutely no sense, as in did nothing to help that character out and were blatant attempts to make the ending work to its predictable Traditional path. (Usually the actions of one or the other of the antagonists...)That being said, the ending did surprise me in a way that I totally loved and grinned while reading. A much better book than the first and I look forward to the next. And, like The Fairy Godmother this is a pretty cheap ebook - only $5.76

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Genre: fantasy, young-adult, supernatural
Series: Untitled series #1
Pages: 420 (hardcover edition)
Published: September 2011
Source: bought
Rating: 5/5

It's a rather large understatement to say I had high expectations for Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It was - and still is - pretty ubiquitous and lauded everywhere you find it mentioned. I was so keen on reading this novel I preordered it. I rarely preorder anything; bookbuying before seeing/touching the actual novel is one of the few area I can exercise some patience in. For example, the last book I preordered was George R. R. Martin's A Dance of Dragons after nearly six years of anticipation. But, lo and behold, even before the promised release date of September 27, a beautiful copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone appeared on my doopstep. I devoured it in two days, only stopping because of a headache so bad I literally couldn't see straight. Laini Taylor's amazing novel more than met my high hopes: she exceeded them in every way. It's a novel that delights and entertains, neither stinting on the drama and humor nor on acutely attractive brooding male characters.

It's hard to review something you love - I've had trouble reviewing this as well as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Book of Blood and Shadow by Robin Wasserman and Kate Morton's epic The Distant Hours. I sat on this particular review for over a week trying to analyze how I felt about it and how to express my opinions other than just fangirl squeeling ("Oh my god, I wish I was Karou. Oh, My. GOD. Akiva<33," etc). When you love a book, it's personal in a way few things are: you want everyone else to love it unconditionally, too, and hiss at any detractors. While Daughter is not the end-all be-all my review might sound like and I know many of you will not love it near as much as I did, it is and will remain one of my top favorite reads of the year/all-time. From the tagline "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well," alone I knew I was in for an epic star-crossed love affair and had faith that Laini Taylor would handle it with aplomb and not melodrama. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a fresh read with unique elements, and note as well this is a young-adult novel that is certainly not just for young-adults.

Daughter is not a paranormal romance. Daughter is not an urban fantasy. Daughter is not a fantasy. Daughter is not a coming-of-age young adult novel with significant supernatural elements. Or rather - it is not just one of those genres individually. It is a marvelous and utterly unique mix of all four. It's the story of Karou, a blue haired, tattooed, lonely artist in Prague. A girl that "moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx," and an utterly striking protagonist. Though clearly 'special' Karou is a magnetic character and one I like immediately without reserve. She's funny, human in the most defining sense of the word and not above a little petty revenge against those who need it. Surrounded by a cheeky best friend, the "master of the eyebrow arch" Zuzanna and her strange (more on that later) family, Karou manages to come across as a lonely and very alone young woman trying to balance a hidden demanding supernatural life with human problems like exyboyfriends, though without straying into self-pity. As the mysteries pile up around the young artist, I felt questions piling up in my head, wondering if the author would pull of answering all of them to my satisfaction: who is Karou? What is Karou? Where did she come from, and where/who are her parents? And like most reviews note: what exactly is up with the creepyass teeth?! While I thought the mystery went on too long at the time, the pacing and reveal feel absolutely perfect when they are - finally - uncovered. I should never have doubted.

The secondary characters are also mysterious, powerful... and above all, different. Hinted at in the tagline, Karou's adopted family is firmly in the "devil" camp - though the correct name is chimaera and one and all, from the snakelike Issa to the giraffe-necked Twiga, are never anything less than kind to the bluehaired waif they raised. I enjoyed the "humanness" Laini Taylor brought for her monsters. No side is black and white in this eternal way between angels and devils, and I thoroughly appreciate the 'human' monsters/crazed angels over a more black/white/ absolute scenario. Karou runs messages for Brimstone, a mysterious chimaera collector of teeth and granter of wishes - which allows her to eventually run into the angel foretold: the sexy and dangerous Akiva. A beautiful and forbidding seraphim sworn to fight the chimaera, Akiva sells his brooding mysteriousness and past pain without overplaying it.  It took me a while to buy into more than his obvious superficial appeal, but the haunting backstory added a layer of depth to his personality. His looong life is a nice foil for Karou's shorter mostly conflict free existence of whim.Their chemistry is palpable and sizzling: one of the more exciting YA romances I can think of, honestly. (Wow, this is still waaaay fangirlly. It's just that good.)

More love: Laini's writing. Not only is it lyrical and poetic, but she manages to personalize everyone and everything - often with a dab hand at humor or image. Like Zuzanna'a master eyebrow mastery perfectly creates a sardonic, but caring face. Zuzana bursts with flair and personality: all the fun isn't reserved for lead role Karou. And the sparkle is not just reserved for the people: the setting benefits from the author's talent as well. Prague. Oh my god Prague. Between this and Wasserman's addicting The Book of Blood and Shadow I'd say this has rocketed to the top of my "Cities I MUST Visit in Europe" list. From poetic and vibrant passages like this,

The streets of Prague were a fantasia scarcely touched by the twenty-first century - or the twentieth or nineteenth, for that matter. It was a city of alchemists and dreams, its medieval cobbles once trod by golems, mystics, invading armies.

to the day-to-day life of Karou, I was struck again and again by Ms. Taylor's narrative, consistently in love with the vibrant prose and the very-much-alive city it gave birth to. I loved the beautiful, not purple, prose, which consistently evoked colorful imagery of the setting, the characters, and the amazing world (in, within, around Prague) that wordsmith Laini Taylor has crafted. In a vibrant city of such history - and supernatural myths too of foundation by a witch - Laini Taylor breathes fresh life into old themes of forbidden love, fallen angels, and even the battle between good/evil/Heaven/Hell.

My few, teensy complaints: the "big reveal" to Zuzanna wasn't. It was offscreen and almost hastily brushed aside with a demonstration - and I wished for more time with the diminutive Czech scenestealer. I also felt that Karou and Akiva had a teensy bit of an instalove situation a la Twilight, but that fear was happily quashed. SPOILER AHEAD, please do not read if you've yet to get your hands on a copy. Seriously it's the next sentence. I also worry that the Karou I liked so much, identified with so closely - might "disappear" due tothe big twist/revelation near the end. I worry that the essential "Karouness" will be lost and I'll feel different about her in the second book. I hope not and have almost every faith Laini Taylor will not steer me wrong.

The story is striking and imaginative and unforgettable. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a genre-blending exercise of win, unlike anything I have read. It's a new, charismatic spin on the angel/devil/seraphim/nephilim/chimaera theme, populated with real characters with actual personalities - relayed by dialogue and deed rather than an infodump. I loved the nicely tuned balance of action and wit, drama with imagination and wordbuilding on a grand-scale. When's book two out? I cannot and hope not to wait long for another installment in this spellbinding world.

Review: The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark

Genre: supernatural fiction, urban fantasy
Series: The Fairwick Chronicles #1
Pages: 416 (nool version of NetGalley ARC)
Published: expected December 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

I went into this novel perhaps expecting a bit too much. I think I might have fallen in love with the gorgeous cover, and was waiting for a tour-de-force to knock me off my feet. The beginning introduction, an in media res glimpse at the world/monsters of the novel seemed to reinforce my notion: it was a genuinely creepy and intriguing way to introduce the reader to this world. Sadly, my hopes remained unfounded for the most part of the story, I will say I enjoyed this novel and had fun while reading it - I just never fell in love with it, nor the characters, nor the plot. Juliet Dark, an alias of the well-known author Carol Goodman, does a fine job of nearly all the elements in her premier foray into the supernatural/urban fantasy genre: I just never loved the story the way I wanted to. Set in Fairwick, New York, The Demon Lover is a first-person novel, told in the steady voice of associate professor twenty-six year old Cailleach "Callie" McFay (first quibble: "McFay"? Really? Obvious, much?) In Fairwick, as Callie quickly learns, the fae/faerie/brownies/vampires/incubi she believed to be entirely myth and legend are revealed as living, breathing, and often malicious beings.

Callie herself was one of my main issues with the story. I never really "got" Callie, or her apparently irresistible appeal for the men of the book. She was always just fine to me; never terribly riveting in her own right or conflicted enough to merit more than a cursory interest. As a lead character, she comes across as occasionally weak or milquetoast. I wanted to like Callie, but her personality is kind of blah and she lacks the vivacity and verve that makes me love characters the most. She's definitely a well-rounded and three-dimensional woman in her own right (family issues, an orphan with a 'forbidding' grandmother, a lackluster boyfriend) and even quite intelligent, but for me, she just fell flat. The few times I did see a spark of rapport with Callie were usually when she was interacting with a supernatural being in her community. One thing I did truly like about Professor McFay was the approach she took to the supernatural: mature, kind and open-minded - a total reverse for what I had expected from the character. No silly or annoying back-and-forth about how she only teaches fairy-tales, they can't be real! Callie is too intelligent for that, happily, and another major pet peeve of mine was avoided.

Another issue I had with the book was with the incubus. As a spirit that sucks the life from his victims through sex, the women are unaware that the "vivid dream" they're experiencing is, in fact, sexual intercourse. This genuinely skeeved me out - to me that edges a little to closely into nonconsent and rape. Having a dream about sex with another person is not the same as actually desiring, and consenting to, having sex with that person. The sex scenes might have been hot - Dark can clearly create some steamy scenes - it never obscured the memory of how the scene was created. It left a bad taste in my mouth that I recalled every time the incubus was an essential part of the flow of the story. There are some obvious Scottish influences at work in the novel ("Cailleach" and her history, the myth of the Ganconer) which added a layer of atmosphere the novel was otherwise lacking. I liked the random, but appropriate allusions to Celtic lore and myth: not every mythology has to be about the Greeks or Romans. The pace itself might falter a bit from time to time (the timeline of the actual novel rushes by so fast I was constantly surprised by how fast Christmas, New Year's, etc. were referenced) but that is a minor complaint in the face of my much larger one with the incubus and his victims. I will also say Dark is a brilliant descriptive writer often in the pages: the description of the Honeysuckle House at first appearance stands out particularly in my mind as vivid and filled with life.

Now that I've complained for a number of paragraphs, I want to throw out there what I did enjoy about this modern-day fairy tale. I appreciated the author's creativity and ingenuity by choosing an off-the-beaten-path "creature" for her story: the oft-ignored incubus. Though vampires, witches and fairies may be present, I find I will forgive much if there is something new supernaturally present. Much like Sarah Beth Durst's unicorn in Drink, Slay, Love I couldn't help but love the original choice of the author's. I found the incubus a cypher not easily deciphered or understood that served as the main force of antagonism and tension for the novel. There were several (slight) additional/mundane plot lines to keep the pace moving along, but none had the malevolent interest the incubus fostered upon the reader. I felt the most affinity and interest while simply figuring out the mystery of the incubus, or in exploring the mythology and history of myriad races in Fairwick's supernatural community than I ever did with Callie's romantical dilemmas.

Another area that Ms. Dark excelled within were the largeish cast of secondary and background characters. From the drunkenly amusing - if a taaad overdone - Phoenix, who seems to be a corollary to Callie herself (both young writers, struggling with a second novel with painful childhoods) to the sexy Irish writer with a broken heart, I felt more involved with them than Callie. Especially with the supernatural/fae characters: Dory Browne, the Brownie (see? again with the super-obvious surname), Diana, Casper, Fiona... all were interesting, dynamic, if not wholly rounded out individually. The book succeeds the most when it is centered around Callie and Company, rather than Callie alone, or Callie with Love Interest. I do intend to continue this series, though not much is known about the next book(s). I hope for more about/interaction with the community of Fairwick, more growth for Callie and interesting, original creatures to keep the magic alive in the promising forthcoming series.

Super-sized Blog Watch Wednesday!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Somehow or another, last week I forgot to write my weekly web writeup of all things cool and weird found on the internet. So, now that I've remembered, expect a little bit longer of a BWW this time! And here we go:

Why Star Trek is better than Star Wars, at least according to William Shatner. (video - CinemaBlend)

See Parks & Rec star Amy Poehler as 30 Different Alter Egos. (NY Mag)

Rachel Caine's 12-book series The Morganville Vampires has been contracted for a further three books. (Publisher's Weekly) You can find reviews for the first four in the series here (1 and 2), here (#3) and here (#4).

Have you seen The Princess Bride Monopoly Board? Now you have. No more "Jail", now it is The Pit of Despair, etc. I love The Princess Bride.

The Mark Twain Papers, located here, are currently FREE! So grab these while you can and enjoy the wit of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

It's Banned Books Week! Here's a list of the ALA's most recently challenged books by year/author. I'll probably read some Harry Potter and something by Margaret Atwood. Have you offended someone with your reading choices today?

Interesting and fun read on Mindy Kaling in the NY Times, written by one of my favorite authors (Curtis Sittenfeld.) (NY Times)

THIS is pure fun! Do it, just draw a stickman and see what happens.

I found this very interesting: a map of the United States, with the states relabeled as the countries with the closest GDP of that state. For example, my home state of Arizona has roughly the same GDP as Finland. (Business Pundit)

10 Films that Fail the Bechdel Test. The test is simple: two women discuss anything besides men onscreen. Surprising additions: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter.

Good news in the fight against AIDS. Yay science! (NewScientist)

Three articles from Cracked I enjoyed:

A "visual compendium of notable haircuts in Hollywood." It is exactly what it sounds like crazy. (

Also, the first teaser trailer for season two of A Game of Thrones is out! The night is dark and full of terrors.

Nic Cage is a vampire. There's proof.  (Geeks of Doom)

As a reviewer, I get a kick out of these. I also feel better about *my* reviews. Check out "Lone Star Statements" of books from Time's list of the 100 best. My favorite:

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

“Obviously, a lot people were smoking a lot of weed in the ’60s to think this thing is worth reading.”
Have you heard they've discovered Tatooine? Sadly, no Luke Skywalkers present. (The BBC)

Review's I've Posted:

That's it and that's all for this BWW. Enjoy your Wednesday, everyone!

Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 424 (hardcover edition)
Published:  July 2011
Source: won in giveaway from GoodReads
Rating: 4/5

Though Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton, better remembered as "Lavinia/Vinnie Warren" or "Mrs. Tom Thumb", was a diminutive woman, she had a huge personality and dreams that could not be contained in her thirty-two inches of height. Though not always likable or even particularly kind, Vinnie refused to be defined by her height ("My size may have been the first thing people noticed about me but never, I vowed at that moment, would it be the last.") With far more determination and strength-of-will than many believed her capable of, Mrs. Tom Thumb defied society's expectations and rules in a time of rigidity and routine in order to live the life she wanted. Melanie Benjamin's version of a real-life woman is captivating and hard to put down; I was never bored with Vinnie or her life back in the 1800s. In fact, when I reached the last page (40 years before the titular character's death) I wanted more about this interesting performer.

Lavinia Warren was a complicated woman. By turns inspiring, infuriating and confusing, Vinnie never fails to command attention on the page. One thing you could never call this strong, ferocious woman is boring (though apparently her real notes for an autobiography were quite dry). In a time when women were either married or a burden on their families, Vinnie chased her dream down the wild Mississippi River before the outbreak of the Civil War. Benjamin does a fine job of balancing Vinnie's desires for freedom with the traditional beliefs and ideas that tie her to home; the bond between Vinnie and her sister Minnie is particularly well-developed and one of the more compelling relationships of the novel. Vinnie's upbringing in rural Massachusetts is difficult and casts the girl in a sympathetic light from the beginning; between the not-so-hidden shame of her family and the pressure to conform to society's whims, Vinnie emerges as a forward-thinking and acting young woman. I wish I could say I liked Vinnie all the time; by the latter part of the novel (probably in the last one hundred pages) Vinnie's hard edges and unforgiving attitude lost some of the glow her earlier self had gained. It seems the more Vinnie traveled, the more she lost herself near the end. Her disdainful attitude and high opinion of herself took her from my favorite character in the novel (the first 300 pages) to my third favorite, after Minnie and P.T. Barnum. She's a complex woman, certainly. It seemed interesting to me that Vinnie was so determined to live her own life on HER terms, but she regards any other "dwarf person" almost as children (her sister, her husband Charles, Commander Nutt, etc.) almost as if Vinnie herself has forgotten she is just the same.

On the note of the side players, a few really stood out from the multitude in Vinnie's life. Sylvia, a performer from Vinnie's earliest days, serves as a cautionary tale for Ms. Warren. She demonstrates that life in showbiz is not all it's cracked up to be. Minnie, her younger sister from back home, is a nice contrast to Vinnie's steadily increasing ego. Kinder, simpler and much less jaded than her sibling, Minnie simply stole the show whenever she appeared. The relationship between Minnie and her husband was also one of the few genuinely caring relationships presented in the novel. Every other relationship was shown as troubled or unhappy: even Vinnie's eventual marriage to the famous General Tom Thumb would be devoid of genuine love or affection. P.T. Barnum, the infamous American huckster was an important figure in the real Vinnie's life and no less so here in the fictionalized tale.  I really enjoyed the dynamic Benjamin created between Barnum and Vinnie: he was the only character who could/would challenge her intelligence and he was the only nonfamily she loved. Their whole relationship was one of intellectual soulmates; each seemed to find in the other a kindred spirit of the mind found nowhere else on their travels. Vinnie even states of the circus entrepreneur: "[It was] as if he were the sharpening stone and I the edge of the knife." An affair of the brain, if you will, is what I would call the chemistry and feeling between the two. There's certainly more pop with Barnum and Vinnie than with Vinnie and her actual husband Charles. The main antagonist, Colonel Wood, seems largely a cat without claws, though he does liven up the segments of the novel which take place up and down the river.

The style of the novel is fairly simple and very easy to read. Told in a direct tone, with Vinnie occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address the reader directly (".... Reader ..."), The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb covers the most salient and interesting exploits of Vinnie's long-lived life. Interspersed with this fictional tale of a real-life woman, are newspaper "notices" such as the ones Vinnie would collect about herself. These snippets of news and notes adds an air of atmosphere to the novel that the narrative itself lacks. My complaints are small: I wished the end had been closer to Vinnie's real end - 40 years uncovered seems like quite a bit missed. I also noticed a few "key" phrases that were repeated a bit too often ( variations along the lines of: "tiny/small/delicate/manicured/hands") and disrupted my reading flow. I also wish Charles had been a more rounded character, rather than being presented as just a simple imitator with no real opinions of his own. He was the character I felt for the most - his rough and uncaring treatment from his wife was one of my least favorite aspects of Vinnie. This is an easily readable, avidly interesting novel that manages to remain (mostly) historically accurate without sacrificing interest, humor or wit. Melanie Benjamin is a clearly gifted storyteller and writer: there is absolutely no denying her Vinnie was alive and almost tangible, even if not wholly likable.

Review: The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski

Friday, September 23, 2011

Genre: young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 352 (uncorrected nook NetGalley ARC)
Published: May 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5

I'm sad to announce that I didn't really enjoy this novel nearly as much as I had anticipated. Sheridan Wells is a 16 year-old cake decorating savant, with a mysteriously missing mother, and a charming best friend that helps her to search for her mother. This is a novel that will make you hungry; either the frequent descriptions of Sheridan's fondant creations or her father's restaurant repertoire will get you, one way or the other. I only wish the characters had gotten under my skin and into my head the way the food did. I never felt truly connected or concerned for most of these characters; only two, a bit player named Lori and a love interest named Jack had me invested in his future in the story at all. I just felt that the book, on the whole, was lackluster: I didn't have much to takeaway from my time spent in Michigan with these characters.

Perhaps that disassociation had a lot to do with the character of Sheridan herself. Instead of inspiring sympathy, Sheridan alienated me for most of the novel. Sure, girlfriend has a ton of issues and problems in her life, but all she does about any of them is complain. Repeatedly. Her relationship with her father is understandably strained - a 16 year old abandoned girl living with her workaholic, rage-aholic father is bound to bring the tears and drama - but Sheridan never actually tries anything to make it better. Instead, she'd rather decorate cake and complain that her dad should make all the efforts to repair their foundering relationship. Sheridan hides for the most part: she replaces social interaction with cake decorating and fears to step outside her now-established routines. Sheridan had qualities that should have endeared her to me: she hates change and uncertainty (cornerstones of my own life), loves and cherishes her grandmother and works hard at everything she does. I never felt any real depth or emotion from the character: a lot of her actions and thoughts came off as contrived, for plotting. I also just simply could not get past her selfish attitude and expectation that the other party should always put in the effort. Sheridan would sound - and come off - a lot less sanctimoniously if she tried.

The supporting character cast similarly, left a lot to be desired. Sheridan has the token boy best friend, distant father and missing mother so popular in literature and I found myself wishing for a character to shake up the somewhat predictable path of the novel. While a teenage love triangle is hinted at, I found the setup quite laughable. Sheridan had NO chemistry with the third leg of the tripod: the only times Sheridan managed to get on my good side were when she was with her best friend/love interest Jack. The other boy, Ethan, was so wooden he seemed like more a part of the setting than the actual story: just a typical rich, pretty boy thrown into the mix for no other reason besides maximum angst potential. The "antagonist" of the novel, or one of them, also felt rather... lame. Describes as Sheridan's "archenemy" I had hoped for (at least!) some amusing bitchiness/dialogue, but once again this was a cat character with no claws. The only exceptions: the aforementioned Jack and the amusingly blunt Lori. I wish the two of them had had more time with Sheridan: their influence might've rubbed off on her a bit.

I did manage to have some fun with this one. The two crucial plot points of "cake emergencies" had me giggling in my chair. I defy you to read a freakout about cake and icing and not feel amused by such. I just ended this feeling so disappointed with the potential that the story had and the sad final outcome that I did not love it. Not a lot happens - this is a very character driven novel, and with such sad facsimiles of people, I never "got into the story" the way a reader should. It's easy to read, marvelously so - the pages whiz by without notice - but I can't help but wish there was more meat to the story.

Review: The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Author: Kate Ellison
Genre: mystery, young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 336 (nook version of NetGalley ARC)
Published: expected February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

The Butterfly Clues has a lot going for it - an engaging and different heroine, a convoluted murder mystery and a teenage romance with real chemistry and feeling that doesn't become saccharine or overwrought. With an intriguing beginning and a simple, easy, almost sparse style of writing, this is a novel that sneaks up on you and can be devoured in several enveloping stints of reading. With much more emotion and feeling than I had expected, Ellison wove a spellbinding tale of Penelope "Lo" Marin and the multiple mysteries surrounding her melancholy existence. This more than exceeded my expectations: I was looking for a quick read time-filler and I found a heartfelt mystery with great characters. Though not perfect - I called the murderer pretty early on in the story - I will definitely be on the lookout for more novels by this author.

Lo is definitely a likeable protagonist: I felt an affinity and rapport with her from the first page. Highly individualistic, Lo has enough personality to fill the pages she graces. The first person is an excellent medium for Penelope Marin (I want to add the extra two on here for her sanity: Penelope Marin, Penelope Marin) to express her story, from her very distinct perspective. She suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and certain things (like saying her name three times in a row, or tap tap tap bananaing before entering a new room to ensure her safety) and rituals are the cornerstone of her life.  A mysteriously dead brother named Oren, and two extremely removed parents create loneliness and sadness in abundance for Lo ("I've learned to live without anyone" she says early on), and sympathizing/empathizing with her was never an issue for me. Though Lo has her less-than-perfect side (one of her compulsions is an unswervable need to steal an object when she feels threatened/lonely/scared) she always remains relatable. Moving a lot has a left a feeling of impermanence for most of Lo's life, and her theft is an attempt to feel attached to something if not someplace. Ellison does a great job of humanizing Lo's multiple issues and odd compulsions without judgment. She's definitely human and real, showcasing common teen issues ("I didn't think anyone really saw anything I did, barring incidents of incredible embarrassment,") along with her less common problems (Oren, parents, witnessing a murder.) 

Sadly the other characters, though mostly likeable, had none of the verve of Lo. The closest to matching her fire is Flynt, her mysterious, apparently vagrant love interest. While I do weary of the hackneyed and overplayed "sexy boy with a dangerous but mysterious past" in YA fiction, Flynt was a well-drawn "loose" personality, nicely contrasting with Lo's rigid routines and rules. The dynamic between the two works really very well: she only relaxes around Flynt, and he can be serious with her. While a love triangle is hinted at among them and another teenage character, it's quite obvious that the only match for Lo is with Flynt and the author doesn't descend into melodrama and angst for Lo to figure that out: she's self-aware and smart enough to make her own decisions. Tellingly of her parents, Lo's mother doesn't even appear for about 170 pages and event hen she's more of a shadow than a character. I can understand that the mom is grieving over her lost son, Lo's brother Oren, but the depth to which she abandons her daughter is astonishing and sad. I couldn't find much initial liking for Lo's father as well: burying himself in his work, and his uncontrollable anger with Lo over her unavoidable counting make for a less than perfect dad. I will say that I did find some redemption and hope for a few characters I'd given up on, later on down the line.

While the plotting can be a bit obvious and hard-to-believe lucky (Lo's discoveries of the butterfly/horse almost immediately after the report? Unlikely), I found myself not minding overmuch. Ellison reaches a bit for some connections in her story, but in the end the payout reaps the benefits and more than makes up for any lack of subtlety.  I guess I would say: the end more than justifies the means the author went to in order to achieve it. The disparate and compelling storylines keep the suspense high and my interest higher for the entirety of the story. I found myself postively racing through the final quarter of this novel: eager for resolution for Lo, for Flynt, for Oren and even for the murdered girl at the center of the mystery. I was never bored, and always guessing how the author would tie up all the loose ends. I did think the author had too many threads going at the same time, but I will say I was proved wrong in the end. Ms. Ellison manages to combine multiple disparate and seemingly random elements into a wrenching and touching finale. I was surprised by the strength of the emotions I had while reading this book, particularly the end. It was an impressive end to a book that captivated me from the beginning. I also have to add - how striking is that cover? It does a nice job - very evocative - of advertising the novel. Pick this one up.

Review: Blood Rock by Anthony Francis

Monday, September 19, 2011

Title: Blood Rock
Genre: supernatural/paranormal 
Series: Skindancer #2
Pages: 210 (NetGalley uncorrected ARC)
Published: August 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Picking up in the same narrative and stylistic vein of its predecessor Frost Moon, Blood Rock is an action-packed if somewhat overwrought adventure following the one and only Dakota Frost of Atlanta, Georgia. Once again running around her turf of Little Five Points, Dakota is exposed to brand-new, and admittedly, cool magic: animated, violent graffiti tags have been popping up all over the city. . . and killing humans, weres, and vampires alike. Once again Francis was not content with run-of-the-mill magical abilities and talents steadily used in UF/PNR genres, instead creating his own unique and potent systems of "mana". Similar the Dakota's tattoos lifting off her body to attack or defend their creator, the deadly graffiti are multi-dimensional and actively prey on passersby. Creating innovative magical ideas and systems is definitely a talent of the author's and the unpredictable paths such talents will take is one if the highlights this book has to offer.

Contrasting with such an epic supernatural problem (one of the many such problems that Dakota faces over the short 210 page length) is the epic domestic problem of Dakota's adopted daughter, the weretiger Cinnamon. While Cinnamon's slang ("I knows.. We knows... We says...") can truly drive me up a wall in the first chapters, it's been around from book one so I think I have adjusted and hardly noticed after a time. I like Cinnamon perhaps the best out of everyone in the novels: she has edges and a chip off her shoulder, but valid reasons are given, and the motivation and actions of the character often ring true when other characters do not. She also continues to change and become more of a character and less of a caricature each appearance. The relationship between the two adopted family members also brings out the best in each: Dakota is a softer, less wannabe bad-ass version of herself and Cinnamon is more human than tiger when with her mother. Cinnamon grounds Dakota in a way she was not in Frost Moon: she's less objectifying and in-your-face, and doesn't think she's invincible as a human in a world of supernaturals. Dakota continues to change and grow each novel: I liked her personally much more the second time around. I found her less "preachy" about the environment, and she is even shown to have opened her eyes to others views in politics - a far cry from her derision at Republicans in the first.

In addition to Cinnamon, much of the rather large background cast is shown once again. Familiar and beloved characters are seen again, often in new roles or with a new flair not seen in the first book. Even old villains are given a second chance, and are not as black-and-white as previously painted. I am getting quite weary of the back and forth between Dakota and her exgirlfriend, the Christian lesbian vampire queen Saffron: either be friends or don't. The constant drama between the two distracts from the main story without being interesting enough to validate that much time and attention. While the author kills off more than a few (and several of which I did not anticipate at all) to add gravitas and emotion to the danger, I found myself a little bored throughout the narrative. I cared about these characters certainly, but their deaths lacked any pull to make me desperate to solve the mystery of the graffiti. The frenetic pace that worked so well for the first seems to suffer a bit, and may also partly be to blame for my partial apathy: one event would happen and then the book was rushing on to the next page with hardly a fullstop. While the novel feels and reads just like the first in tone, the lack of pacing for certain important plot points detract from the overall takeaway from the story.

Though several of the side plot lines felt superfluous and rather unnecessary (legal woes over Cinnamon, the Gentry of the vampires, Trans in Blood Rock all felt very "filler" and not in the main vein of the original plot) I enjoyed this novel. I don't think Anthony Francis will end up becoming one of my favorite authors, but his books are enjoyable diversions for a couple hours when craving unique magic in a UF/PNR.

Added This Week: Lili St. Crow's Strange Angels and more!

I had a pretty decent haul shopping at my local Bookman's the other day. I got my first autographed copy of a novel as well, so I am pretty seriously stoked.

First up, at the amazing price of only $5 each:

 Dru Anderson has what her grandmother called "the touch." (Comes in handy when you're traveling from town to town with your dad, hunting ghosts, suckers, wulfen, and the occasional zombie.)

Then her dad turns up dead - but still walking - and Dru knows she's next. Even worse, she's got two guys hungry for her affections, and they're not about to let the fiercely independent Dru go it alone. Will Dru discover just how special she really is before coming face-to-fang with whatever - or whoever - is hunting her?

Poor Dru Anderson. Her parents are long gone, her best friend is a werewolf, and she's just learned that the blood flowing through her veins isn't entirely human. (So what else is new?)

Now Dru is stuck at a secret New England Schola for other teens like her, and there's a big problem - she's the only girl in the place. A school full of cute boys wouldn't be so bad, but Dru's killer instinct says that one of them wants her dead. And with all eyes on her, discovering a traitor within the Order could mean a lot more than social suicide. . .

Can Dru survive long enough to find out who has betrayed her trust - and maybe even her heart?

It’s a good thing Dru Anderson is fast. Because the sucker chasing her isn’t slowing down—and he won’t rest until he has tasted her blood and silenced her heart . . .

Dru’s best friend, Graves, and her strange and handsome savior, Christophe, are ready to help her take on the ultimate evil. But will their battle for Dru’s heart get in the way of her survival?

Two books by Maggie Stiefvater, one of which is autographed (Lament and was only $4.)

The Cold.
Grace has spent years watching the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—watches back. He feels deeply familiar to her, but she doesn't know why. 

The Heat.
Sam has lived two lives. As a wolf, he keeps the silent company of the girl he loves. And then, for a short time each year, he is human, never daring to talk to Grace...until now. 

The Shiver.
For Grace and Sam, love has always been kept at a distance. But once it's spoken, it cannot be denied. Sam must fight to stay human—and Grace must fight to keep him—even if it means taking on the scars of the past, the fragility of the present, and the impossibility of the future.

Sixteen-year-old Deirdre Monaghan is a painfully shy but prodigiously gifted musician. She's about to find out she's also a cloverhand—one who can see faeries. Deirdre finds herself infatuated with a mysterious boy who enters her ordinary suburban life, seemingly out of thin air. Trouble is, the enigmatic and gorgeous Luke turns out to be a gallowglass—a soulless faerie assassin. An equally hunky—and equally dangerous—dark faerie soldier named Aodhan is also stalking Deirdre. Sworn enemies, Luke and Aodhan each have a deadly assignment from the Faerie Queen. Namely, kill Deirdre before her music captures the attention of the Fae and threatens the Queen's sovereignty. Caught in the crossfire with Deirdre is James, her wisecracking but loyal best friend. Deirdre had been wishing her life weren't so dull, but getting trapped in the middle of a centuries-old faerie war isn't exactly what she had in mind . . .

The first two in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon:

 Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another...
In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon—when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an "outlander"—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord...1743.
Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire's destiny in soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life ...and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire...and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

From the author of Outlander... a magnificent epic that once again sweeps us back in time to the drama and passion of 18th-century Scotland...

For twenty years Claire Randall has kept her secrets. But now she is returning with her grown daughter to Scotland's majestic mist-shrouded hills. Here Claire plans to reveal a truth as stunning as the events that gave it birth: about the mystery of an ancient circle of standing stones ...about a love that transcends the boundaries of time ...and about James Fraser, a Scottish warrior whose gallantry once drew a young Claire from the security of her century to the dangers of his.

Now a legacy of blood and desire will test her beautiful copper-haired daughter, Brianna, as Claire's spellbinding journey of self-discovery continues in the intrigue-ridden Paris court of Charles Stuart a race to thwart a doomed Highlands uprising ...and in a desperate fight to save both the child and the man she loves....

and last but not least:
Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it's a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she's destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can't stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society's infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.

I have a review for Blood Rock by Anthony Francis in the works (literally opened in another tab) so expect that up soon. Also in the works are reviews for: The Night Circus (not perfect but beyond amazing) by Erin Morgenstern, The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison (delightful and suspenseful YA mystery) and The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski.

I'm pretty excited about ALL of these, though some will wait a while before I crack a cover. I'm trying to accumulate more of a series before beginning the first one: it's easier to stay in the "world", in the same mindframe. So Shiver, Lament, Outlander and Matched will most likely languish until I have some sequels lined up.

Review: Every Other Day by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Genre: supernatural/paranormal, young-adult
Series: N/A as of yet
Pages: 336 (nook NetGalley uncorrected ARC)
Published: expected December 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

An imaginative and unique supenatural/"preternatural" novel, though with its share of flaws, I enjoyed my first novel from the mind of Ms. Barnes more than anticipated. Every Other Day tells the unique tale of Kali D'Angelo, a half-Indian teeange girl with supernatural (which are called "preternaturals" in this novel, though that just makes me think of Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarrabotti, but I digress) abilities every other day. When she is "Other" Kali is an indestructible monster-killing machine - and I always thoroughly enjoy an ass-kicking female lead. Kali's unique abilities provide a nice dichotomy day-to-day between the powerful hunter and the normal teenage girl. She's a lonely and isolated young woman, which gives her a "hero complex" in order for others to see her. When a practical stranger named Bethany is marked for death - while Kali is human - Kali decides to try and save her while in her human, and thus much weaker, form. I had to wonder, is Kali performing a selfless act of kindness, or does she have a death wish? I liked a lot about this novel right from the set-up: from the kick-ass girl lead, a fair amount of snark and sarcasm, an unusual magical creature as an antagonist and a non-white protagonist. Unfortunately not everything in the novel lived up to my expectations for the story, but I will say I had a great time reading this.

Kali is a usually strong and mostly appealing protagonist for the story: her "voice" from the first-person persective is compelling and vibrant with emotion (usually anger, pity or scorn.) Kali is a typical teenager: seventy-five percent of the time I liked her, the other quarter she was so whiny and "poor poor me" I wanted to shake her. She has normal problems in addition to her supernatural fluctuations to keep her relatable and real: a strained relationship with a disinterested father ("half truths, obvious lies, accusations" is how Kali describes her relationship with her father), and a Mysteriously Missing Mom (a YA trope I'm pretty weary of). I appreciated the balance of problems: chapters didn't get bogged down in teenager drama, but nor was it a vampire/werewolf marathon for 336 pages. Corresponding with the day-to-day changes in Kali, the human and not-human, Kali's problems from both sides represent a different possibility for the character: humanity versus preternatural abilities. On her "other" days, Kali relies more on strength and brute force than finessse and intelligence as does while human. I do think a lot of the benefits of Kali's condition are veeerrryy convenient for the story: autolocation of any of her weapons, even if if has left her hand (it's a "sixth sense" of hers). She also gains immediate knowledge of how to use any weapon she can lay her hands on. I get that Kali is a badass hunter: it's been shown many times many ways, but those two benefits just felt like cheating.

Let's get to some of my favorites: the three dimensional background cast of characters. Not content with cardboard cutouts, Ms. Barnes went above and beyond and crafted a group of real-seeming and -acting people to support - or oppose - Kali. Her characters are truly what shine in this novel: from the not-so-typical-bitchy-Cheerleader Bethany to the tiny, but cheerful "school slut" Skylar, to the mysterious and sexy Zev who just might understand what Kali goes through... these characters were what kept me reading when Kali was whiny. When the chip off Kali's shoulder became too much and I couldn't find any humor in her, I'd just wait for an interaction between Bethany and Skye to get me snickering. I can say I didn't much care for Elliot, one of Skye's five brothers, at ALL: I do not dig the asshole standoffish routine and that boy had it down pat. Happily, this is a LOVE TRIANGLE FREE ya novel. Holy cow. The potential is there for one as Kali has chemistry with Zev and with both Vaughn and Reid (or was that just me, projecting? Reid is HOT) but the author exercised an admirable amount of restraint in that area. I sadly called the reveal of the Big Bad about 150 pages into the novel, but the author does a more than suitable job of trying to conceal and obfuscate the identity.Though the whinyness occasionally got to me, Kali grew on me as her attitude changed, as she became more proactive in rescuing people and herself.

There were fight scenes - often but well done. The wording was crisp and clear, making Kali's fights pop from the page. Not too repetitive with the same action words either, each conflict was different and exciting to to read. What did get repetitive were the details and specialness of Kali's condition. It doesn't need to be hammered into the reader's brain every chapter: they will remember from page to page how Kali is different. It doesn't need to be spelled out over and over. With such a fast-paced chain of events rushing through the pages, the unnecessary reminders about Kali's supreme hunting abilities distracted me and disrupted the flow of the narrative. The tension and urgency of Kali's continual count-down (Seventeen hours and forty-nine minutes.... sixteen hours and twelve minutes...etc) drives both the novel and reader forward very quickly: this is a novel I finished in one sitting, in two and a half hours. I do have to ask, though, are ALL the adults in this world incompetent or seriously evil? Parents, corporations, school nurses, all are shown to be either sinister or uncaring, and that bothered me a fair bit. 

I would like to rate this novel a 4, as I had such fun reading it and there is obviously a lot of imagination present with a great and completely individual hook, with even some sci-fi elements I never saw coming. However, the problems I've mentioned along with other issues I had (a random basilisk fight? Really? After another brutal fight and just pages before another? Feels excessive and unnecessary. And no reason is really given as to why Kali changes only every other day) leave me unable to offer more than a 3.5 out of 5. I wished for a bit more humor to lighten to dark and danger-filled tone: it got a little depressing after a while. The last seventy pages particularly flew by me: engrossing and chock full of action, and more surprises and revelations unforeseen that change the scope of the entire story. The ending was left nicely open for a sequel or follow-up with these familiar characters and I can't hope that there will be a book two.
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