Book Tour Review: The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Title: The Mirrored World
Author: Debra Dean
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 256 (hardcover)
Published: August 2012
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 3.5/5

The bestselling author of The Madonnas of Leningrad returns with a breathtaking novel of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagant royal court of eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

Born to a Russian family of lower nobility, Xenia, an eccentric dreamer who cares little for social conventions, falls in love with Andrei, a charismatic soldier and singer in the Empress's Imperial choir. Though husband and wife adore each other, their happiness is overshadowed by the absurd demands of life at the royal court and by Xenia's growing obsession with having a child—a desperate need that is at last fulfilled with the birth of her daughter. But then a tragic vision comes true, and a shattered Xenia descends into grief, undergoing a profound transformation that alters the course of her life. Turning away from family and friends, she begins giving all her money and possessions to the poor. Then, one day, she mysteriously vanishes.

Years later, dressed in the tatters of her husband's military uniform and answering only to his name, Xenia is discovered tending the paupers of St. Petersburg's slums. Revered as a soothsayer and a blessed healer to the downtrodden, she is feared by the royal court and its new Empress, Catherine, who perceives her deeds as a rebuke to their lavish excesses. In this evocative and elegantly written tale, Dean reimagines the intriguing life of Xenia of St. Petersburg, a patron saint of her city and one of Russia's most mysterious and beloved holy figures. This is an exploration of the blessings of loyal friendship, the limits of reason, and the true costs of loving deeply.

Lyrical, visual, and beautifully told, Debra Dean impressively evokes eighteenth century Petersburg, Russia with ease here in her newest historical fiction novel. The Mirrored World boasts lovely prose, unforgettable characters, and an engaging tale. This is the deceptively simple but very compelling story of two cousins - Xenia, the "Holy Fool" and Dasha, her devoted and quiet counterpart - as they live through the lives and deaths of their husbands and of the multiple reigning Empresses in 1700's Russia. Vivid and lushly rendered, Dean's style and talent for atmosphere create a memorable and unique read. Elegantly and with an eye for detail and place-as-character, Dean's recreated Russian society is alluring, dangerous, and always unpredictable.

I enjoyed this look into Dasha and Xenia's unusual life, both when they are together and when Xenia strikes out on her own, but I didn't quite love it. The lives of saints and holy fools make for interesting fodder for an audience to read, but truly capturing their spirit on the page can be very hard. Xenia is more knowable/accessible in the first half of the novel - before she loses her beloved husband - and Dasha is quite removed and distant for the entire novel. It's hard to get a close read on either, and I struggled to emotionally connect with the characters at the heart of the novel. That isn't to say these two women aren't thoroughly interesting, because they invariably are. Their lives closely mirror one another early on; from unusual marriages (for love, with a eunuch), estrangement from their birth families, early widowhood, etc., these two women are far from the norm expected of their sex in their era. I just never felt like I was especially invested in what would happen to either.

Both main characters are presented well enough; it's just that the pace and speed at which the story moves can make it even more difficult to get a grasp on either one, or on their husbands. Dasha, as the narrator, has the benefit of a well-rounded first-person inner monologue, but she is more passive observer than passionate participant. I wanted more life from Dasha - even when she is married, she continually holds part of herself back. She never reads like she is fully in the moment, or living her life. Perhaps seeing her beloved cousin so wrecked by heartache Dasha hesitates to go down the same road; and fearing to get hurt, ventures very little in the way of genuine emotion. And though she does also lose her husband, Dasha emerges as a much different woman than Xenia when that happens later on in her life. 

For a novel about a saint, or a holy fool, there is not much said about religion itself in The Mirrored World. The contrast of the "haves" and the "have-nots" is much more on display than any church dogma. As someone who is unlikely part of each group in Russian society, Xenia evolves as an interesting and complicated figure. Someone who is chastened for her generosity and unusual way of life while her former compatriots strive to ignore the less fortunate, Xenia's extreme piety would both help her and harm her in the eyes of fellow Russians. Xenia's marked evolution from slightly spoiled girl to grieving and utterly selfless "matushka" is evenly-handled. Dean never explicitly explains the mindset of her version of St. Xenia, but she does create authentic pathos for this woman came to be revered as a saint of her native city.

The Mirrored World will appeal to readers who look for more than just a look at royalty/nobility in their historical fiction. In her unique position as both noble and beggar, Xenia Grigoryevna provides a new perspective into the life of Russia during the reigns of three Empresses: Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine. In a novel characterized by its strong women, it is the two main characters that will remain the most memorable. Dean's talent for lovely prose is obvious and lends well to an evocative and rich setting in which the characters flourish. The Mirrored World may feel a bit short, and gloss over periods of time too quickly, but it cannot be denied that it is a captivating and alluring read.

Top Ten Tuesday #12 :Favorite Beginnings/Endings In Books

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created here at The Broke and the Bookish.

List by Danielle

This was a really fun list to make. I could only remember a couple of books with great opening lines, so I got to go through my whole library, rereading first pages, remembering who drew me in the first time and who, (*cough* Martin *cough*,) can't write a hook. And I actually ended up with far more than 10. Still, I mostly narrowed it down to these opening lines:

1. "The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning." - The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

2. "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense." - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling

3. "In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move." - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

4. "I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army." - Old Man's War by John Scalzi

5. “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” - Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

6. "Sometimes, I worry that I'm not the hero everyone thinks I am." - Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

7. "Locke Lamora stood on the pier in Tal Verrar with the hot wind of a burning ship at his back and the cold bite of a loaded crossbow's bolt at his neck." - Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

8. "Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face." - Watchmen by Alan Moore

9. "So there I was, tied to an altar made from out-dated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil librarians." - Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

10. (tie) "All my life I've wanted to go to Earth. Not to live, of course—just to see it." Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein

10. (tie) "That fool of a fairy, Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me." - Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine 

And, one bonus ending. I'll admit, I'm a bit biased, because I actually got this one tattooed on my shoulder. 

1. "The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois. 'Make a wish,' said his mother. 'Make a wish.'" - Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

What are your favorite beginnings or endings of books? What draws you in/makes you need the next in the series? 

Review: The Cutting Room Floor by Dawn Klehr

Monday, July 29, 2013
Title: The Cutting Room Floor
Author: Dawn Klehr
Genre: young adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Published: expected October 8 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2/5

Behind-the-scenes secrets could turn deadly for Desmond and Riley

Life in the Heights has never been easy for seventeen-year-old Riley Frost, but when she's publicly dumped and outed at the same time, she becomes an immediate social outcast at her high school. So Riley swears off romance and throws herself into solving the shocking murder of her favorite teacher, Ms. Dunn.

Riley turns to her best friend, budding filmmaker Desmond Brandt, for help. What she doesn't know is that Dez has been secretly directing her life, blackmailing her friends, and hoping his manipulations will make her love him. When his schemes go too far, Dez's web of lies threatens to destroy both of their lives.

The Cutting Room Floor is a weird book. It swings between so many ideas and plot avenues that it seems to possess a bit of an identity crisis. This is a book that can't decide if it wants to be a murder mystery, a romance, or an "Issue" novel. In just over 330 pages, The Cutting Room Floor repeatedly flits between the murder "mystery", the "romance", and Riley's struggle with her sexuality; it's always trying to tackle each angle and in doing so, fails to create any kind of real or lasting impression. To sum it up as succinctly as possible, this book was an interesting premise, met with lackluster execution.

If the author had picked just one, or maybe even two, themes to go with, The Cutting Room Floor would have been much better off. Nothing - from characters to plot to the multiple themes - is really developed. None of the plotlines get the focus or attention needed to create a reasonable plot structure. The characters are tropes, or one dimensional or impossible to care about. The only interesting character is Dez, and that's because he rapidly emerges as a controlling, manipulative, creepy jerk. The main attribute used for Riley is how much she lets her sexuality define her throughout the novel.  While the murder of her favorite teacher is supposedly the focus of the plot, much more of Riley's inner moologue is devoted to examining who she wants to date, or what gender she is attracted to. Which would be fine, and good, but then why is there a murder mystery involved in the first place? Why ignore it to watch Riley wrestle with her impulses? It all feels too thrown together, too all over the place and The Cutting Room Floor needs some serious editing.

A book about a confused high school girl wrestling with being homosexual, or even bisexual, would have been welcomed. A straightforward murder mystery about a beloved but aloof teacher would have been interesting. A YA romance about two best friends who become more than that through adversity/working together closely/etc/ would have been done before, but had possibility. Klehr, in trying to throw all of them together, detracts from everything that might have recommended her novel. Her characters suffer from lack of dimension, her plot(s) are all over the place, the writing is passable, and the few bright spots are lost in the overwhelming amount of superfluous angles. The murder mystery is abandoned for 80% of the book after it is introduced. How it is concluded, and how it coincides with the plot about Riley's love life is both just too convenient and too little too late.

This is a frustrating read, but it's not the most horrible thing I've read. It's not completely boring, and nor is it reminiscent of anything else I've come across. There is some originality - the narrative-as-script for example - work really well within the frame of the story. There is potential here, but there's too much being juggled for any real involvement on the part of the audience. It falls flat, there are some pretty large plotholes, and the characters are a wash. But for all that, a little more restraint, a little more editing, and there would've been more to enjoy about The Cutting Room Floor. I am just disappointed, and think that readers searching for a genuine whodunit or a psychological thriller will find themselves disappointed as well.

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Saturday, July 27, 2013
Title: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Series: N/A
Pages: 405
Published: expected September 10, 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .

But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

This was a big surprise for me. I really didn't expect to like it - First, I had read and greatly disliked this author's almost universally loved Eleanor & Park. And second, the first fiftyish pages seemed to back up my apprehension about the writing style and the overly precocious main character. And then... well it gets good. And funny. And just so charming. And so-on-the-nose that it's almost painfully easy to relate to and with Cath. I was going to write off reading any future (or past) Rowell books if this attempt didn't work out, but instead, I find myself (tentatively) sitting on the "fan" side of the fence. Fangirl has a lot of heart, and it really does have a lot to recommend it. If you loved Eleanor & Park, or even if you didn't, I think this is a much stronger novel; one that better showcases Rowell's talents and allows her characters to shine.

Around a third into the novel, I was starting to get caught up in the tale being told. Rowell may not impress straight out of the gate, but she more than makes up for lost time when she hits her stride. She writes with humor, earnestness, and true understanding of how a homebody/nerd/writer would feel once away from home, and out of her element. If you've ever felt like a fish out of water, or didn't fit into college right away, Cath's story will feel almost too familiar. Rowell gets it. She knows, or remembers, how that first-time-on-your-own truly feels and she put those feelings into words so neatly here in Fangirl. The creation of the books of Simon Snow with which Cath is obsessed - which to me reads like a mix of Harry Potter (mages, wizards, school of wizardry) mashed with Twilight (creeper vampire love interest watches someone sleep, overly done love triangle) - will send readers into nostalgia for how they once (or still do in my case) feel about their favorite fandoms.

I think a lot of readers will identify with Cath, either willingly or otherwise. She's a complex mix of flaws and humor; she's a loner, but she isn't alone. She makes mistakes, she judges prematurely, she's stubborn and imperfect. But you still grow to like and care about this mess of a girl. Most notably, Cath hasn't had the easiest of lives and finds solace in her preferred fandom and in writing some pretty-well known and widely read fanfiction as "Magicath." And while I admit I wasn't the biggest fan of the fanfiction examples/"Simon Snow" excerpts interjected before some chapters (I even skimmed the later ones...) I still found a lot to enjoy about Cath's story. Her ongoing struggle to find a life independent of the twin sister she has always relied on is both honest and real. Honestly, Cath struggles with a lot throughout Fangirl: to reconcile a real life with her online obligations, to find friends of her own, to love someone beyond the omnipresence of Simon Snow and Baz. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's awkward, sometimes it's embarrassing, but through the novel, Cath takes risks, tries new things, and grows as a character.

In such a character-focused novel, presenting three-dimensional and complicated characters is key and Rowell succeeds - not only with Cath, but her sister Wren, her roommate Regan, her friend Levi, with the mom she has never really known.. etc. Characterization really is the strongest aspect of Rowell's writing. There is a plot at the heart of the novel, but it's one that has been done many times before in YA/NA that is really takes backstage to the characters on the page. The reason it's so easy to care about Cath and her friends is because they are all so well-drawn on the page. No one is perfect, no one is boring. The romance isn't perfect, but it is sweet and slow-building, and through its inevitable ups-and-downs, Rowell makes you root for Cath to find a way to a real relationship. With a nonfictional vampire/mage.

If I had made a bet with myself before starting Fangirl about whether I'd like it, I would have lost. My preconceptions were wrong. As a continuing member of some pretty intense fandoms myself (hello, Harry Potter, hello Supernatural!), Cath's story is close to home in so many ways. Rowell has an impressive ability to capture her audience with fresh characters, subtle story lines, and true humor. Her writing is not without an occasional stumble (the fetal smile sentence is laughable, really), but for the most part, it is smart and authentic (emergency Kanye dance party, anyone?). So many topics are touched on in Fangirl - what it means to be family, real friends, first love, college, first times, alcoholism, mental health - but Rowell carries it off rather well for such a long and varied story. 

I will buy a copy of Fangirl when it comes out. I can't wait for a chance to revisit Cath and Regan and Levi and Simon Snow and Wren. For a novel that wasn't expected to do much for me, I have thought about this novel a lot in the two weeks since I finished it. It's cute and fun and funny and moving. I don't think my review does this smart little novel justice. Just know that if you were curious about it, or if you're passionate about a fandom, Fangirl is likely a book for you. Rainbow Rowell has grown and improved as an author and this story is diverting and engrossing in the best of all possible ways.

Review: Dance of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Friday, July 26, 2013
Title: Dance of the Red Death
Author: Bethany Griffin
Genre: young adult, dystopia
Series: Masque of the Red Death #2
Pages: 336 (ARC edition)
Published: June 11, 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 2/5

Bethany Griffin continues the journey of Araby Worth in Dance of the Red Death—the sequel to her teen novel Masque of the Red Death.

In Dance of the Red Death, Araby’s world is in shambles—betrayal, death, disease, and evil forces surround her. She has no one to trust. But she finds herself and discovers that she will fight for the people she loves, and for her city.

Her revenge will take place at the menacing masked ball, though it could destroy her and everyone she loves…or it could turn her into a hero.

With a nod to Edgar Allan Poe, Bethany Griffin concludes her tragic and mysterious Red Death series with a heroine that young adult readers will never forget.

Reviewed by Danielle

This entire review contains spoilers not only for Dance of the Red Death, but book one as well.

What the hell happened to this series?

Masque of the Red Death was a really fun, atmospheric affair dealing with teen grief, suicide, drug use, and sex in a world inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story by the same name. It supposes what life would be like outside of the abbey with disease striking down the poor, as well as the feeling of unrest that would come with having a ruler who hides in his home while the people suffer. It ends with all the major characters on a balloon, floating towards Prince Prospero’s palace and their predestined party, ready to confront him for what he’s put the city through.

So why it takes them 80% of the second novel to reach the eponymous ball is beyond me.

Dance takes place immediately following Masque and instead of flying straight to the palace, our heroes instead spend 270 pages wallowing in their love triangle. People who read the first book may recall Will BETRAYED Araby at the end of book one, which would seemingly eliminate him from competition, but no. We are not that lucky. Instead, the characters wander through all of the sets from the first book, despite having two homicidal maniacs after them, while Araby bemoans having to choose.

There are so many plot holes, rushed developments, characters appearing out of nowhere and disappearing just as easily. Frankly, it’s badly written. Examples:

”The Hunter” is released into the swamp because Thom feels bad for the prisoner. Elliott is furious. This isn't mentioned again until they’re back in the same house in the swamp and he magically reappears at the same time as the heroes. Thom ALSO hasn't been mentioned in about as many pages. They exist solely for these two scenes.

Mina, another character they find in the swamp, has NO development, yet they let her join the band and follow them around for the rest of the book. They find her. 100 pages later she leads them to an orphanage. The end.

Araby is told her father is dead. She pays a man on the street a diamond for his glasses as proof. He’s not dead. There’s no explanation as to how the man got the false information or the glasses. Elliot gives her the diamond back in the next scene with no explanation as to how he got it. Prospero uses the glasses as part of his ball. No explanation for that either.

Araby figures out that the water pump is in the swamp. She risks her life to give this information to Will and free him so he can activate it. She forgets to tell him where she hid the keys to make it run.

The maids and the jailer who agree to help her free Will are killed and displayed at the ball. Will still escapes. No explanation as to how.

She tells Will she’s also freeing him so he can take April, who is dying from the virus, to her father, the murderous Reverend Malcontent, because he has a cure. April dies offscreen while this conversation happens.

Prospero commissions a giant, mysterious clock just so he can die at the foot of it. While this hearkens back to the original story, it doesn't fit in this one. Several other references to the original are shoehorned in.

Especially in a fantasy novel, suspension of disbelief is important. I could move past one or two unexplained coincidences, but the fact that Prospero seems to be several steps ahead of the heroes, including planting one of his seven items for Araby ON Elliott, and knows things that no one but Elliott does, seems to indicate he’s either a genius and mastermind, in which case he should put up way more of a fight at the end, or much more likely, Elliott is on his side.

Which takes us to the end. Will and Thom risk life and limb to make sure Elliott holds elections once everything is done. They set Araby up as a hero who helps the common people, who rescues orphans and brings clean water to a city under plague, while Elliott is a power-mad dictator like Prospero. Elliott runs unopposed.

When you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras. The fact that the world is suddenly sunshine and children’s laughter doesn't jive with the gradual change to villain they've set up for Elliott. Either the book is so badly written that the author accidentally, to use a wrestling term, turned a love interest heel, or the main character installed another dictator on the throne and is more concerned with throwing birthday parties than worrying about her mistakes. Either way, what a horrible ending to this duology.

Review: Raven Flight by Juliet Marilier

Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Title: Raven Flight
Author: Juliet Marillier
Genre: fantasy, young adult
Series: Shadowfell #2
Pages: 416
Published: July 9 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

Neryn has finally found the rebel group at Shadowfell, and now her task is to seek out the elusive Guardians, vital to her training as a Caller. These four powerful beings have been increasingly at odds with human kind, and Neryn must prove her worth to them. She desperately needs their help to use her gift without compromising herself or the cause of overthrowing the evil King Keldec.

Neryn must journey with the tough and steadfast Tali, who looks on Neryn's love for the double agent Flint as a needless vulnerability. And perhaps it is. What Flint learns from the king will change the battlefield entirely-but in whose favor, no one knows.

Juliet Marillier is a talented author. That much is obvious upon opening and reading the first chapter of her books. However, she is not perfect and further, even this veteran fantasy author is not impervious to falling victim to fantasy tropes that hamper an otherwise good story. The story created in Shadowfell is continued here in Raven Flight, but on the whole, the second novel is weaker, less creative, and spends far too much time involved in one form or another of a quest. This is still an immensely readable book - it's fast-paced and easily read, but it is not without error.

When I read Shadowfell late last year, I was a big fan. It was easy to get caught up in the magical alt-Scotland - "Alban" - that Marillier used to house her story of forbidden magic, an oppressive king, and one girl fleeing for her life. However, the setting takes a back seat here in round two, giving way to focus on a lot of talking, a lot of training, and A LOT of Neryn journeying from one place to another. It's not to say that I didn't enjoy Raven Flight, because I did once it hit its stride late in the narrative. It's just not quite on the same level as the book that came before. It's definitely a victim of sequel syndrome, but! It was still good and fun enough to make me excited for the eventual sequel sure to be on the way. 

If you don't remember book one, a reread might be helpful. There is some summarizaton of the events that came before, but on the whole, Marillier is concerned with new action and a new plot. There are a lot of the same characters, but the author spends little time revisiting them to reintroduce the audience. Neryn is again the main character and chief protagonist. She is as I remembered her, but the path she takes in book two is less harrowing and less compelling that what she went through before with Flint by her side. It may also the lack of real interaction and chemistry between Neryn and her love interest made the journeying less riveting to read about. Neryn has grown since Shadowfell - less naive, more aware, haunted by her abilities - but the book sorely misses her repartee with Flint now that Tali has assumed the role of second lead.

Due to the lack of Flint during the majority of Neryn's plotline, it's obvious that romance is a minor aspect to the novel. Instead Raven Flight focuses more on Neryn's attempts to bring together an alliance between rebels, chieftains, and the fey to overthrow the despotic King Keldec and to train her magical abilities as a Caller of the Good Folk. And writing towards those goals is where the novel stumbles. For in order for Neryn to foster the alliance the rebels so dearly need, she needs to be trained by all four Guardians of Alban... which are strewn across the four corners of her country. That makes for a lot of time walking to find one of the mystical Guardians, then the inevitable (and long-winded) training sessions once they are found.... and, well, all that makes for less than page-turning fare. Tali makes for a good companion and the evolution of her relationship with Neryn from antagonistic acquaintances to real friends is believable and shows Tali to be a more dimensional character.

There is some action, and some genuine surprises mixed in, but on the whole, Raven Flight is a weaker than expected sequel. I love a girl that can kick ass as Tali does, or one that grows and learns as Neryn does... but it's not the most invigorating read. It does some interesting things, and it isn't exactly boring, but it lacks the flair and originality that so marked Shadowfell. Instead it is comprised of more typical fantasy fare, with long segments of traveling and training. The few times Flint shows up in the novel, it's easy to see that his contribution is sorely missed across the board. His role is complex and he is a complicated character. His chemistry with Neryn, his conflicting loyalties all make for more interesting aspects than what Neryn undergoes throughout the novel.

I was a little disappointed by the path that Raven Flight took for the majority of the narrative, but in the last chapters, Marillier really takes it up a notch and saves this from a 2-star read. Several events and revelations keep the emotion high and the outcome unpredictable. They don't wholly make up for what came before, but will definitely leave readers on edge waiting to see how everything will turn out.

Review: The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Title: The White Princess
Author: Phlippa Gregory
Genre: historical fiction
Series: The Cousins' War #5
Pages: 528 (hardcover)
Published: July 23 2013
Source: publishers provided a finished copy for review
Rating: 3/5

The White Princess opens as the news of the battle of Bosworth is brought to Princess Elizabeth of York, who will learn not only which rival royal house has triumphed, Tudor or York, but also which suitor she must marry: Richard III her lover, or Henry Tudor her enemy.

A princess from birth, Elizabeth fell in love with Richard III, though her mother made an arranged betrothal for her with the pretender to the throne: Henry Tudor. When Henry defeats Richard against all odds, Elizabeth has to marry the man who murdered her lover in battle, and create a new royal family with him and his ambitious mother: Margaret Beaufort, The Red Queen. But, while the new monarchy can win, it cannot, it seems, hold power in an England which remembers the House of York with love.

The new king’s greatest fear is that somewhere, outside England, a prince from the House of York is waiting to invade and re-claim the throne for the house of York. Fearing that none of his new allies can be trusted, Henry turns to his wife to advise him, all the time knowing that her loyalties must be divided. When the young man who would be king finally leads his army and invades England, it is for Elizabeth to decide whether she recognizes him as her brother and a claimant to the throne, or denies him in favor of the husband she is coming to love…

The Cousins' War series continues with the story of Elizabeth of York - granddaughter to Jacquetta Woodville, narrator of Lady of the Rivers (book three in the series), daughter of the protagonist from The White Queen (book one), daughter-in-law to the main character of The Red Queen (book two),  and niece to Anne Neville, the focus of The Kingmaker's Daughter (which is book four). Though the series is not completely told in chronological order (which would consist of The Lady of the Rivers as the first, not third, entry) , Gregory makes it easy to pick up Elizabeth's story and connect it to what has gone on in the novels that preceded her story. 

Gregory is at her best when she writes adult historical fiction, and The White Princess is a strong, if repetitive and slowly-progressing, addition to her long-running series on what was then called the Cousins' War and is now termed The War of the Roses. Following Elizabeth from 1485 when she was the not-so-secret lover to the last Plantagenet King (and her uncle) Richard III to 1499 and the execution of her nephew by her Tudor husband, this detailed historical fiction fleshes out her character moderately well. It's a long book, and while some areas do drag in pace, Gregory gives voice to a woman who is long overlooked in favor of both her lover and then her husband. First person has been hit or miss for this author in the past, but she acquits herself well with the voice and narration of Elizabeth.

Those familiar with Gregory's style will find much the same to offer here in The White Princess.This is an author that knows what works for her, and sticks with it. There's no POV switching or too much subtlety, but there is minute detail and description that works well to foster atmosphere and a real sense of place for the audience. It's an interesting book, but it can be rather dry and slow-going, especially when it takes the author a bit of time to really get the plot moving a long and the characters interacting with one another in meangingful situations. Characters from the other novels play pivotal roles, especially the mothers of both Elizabeth and Henry, so while reading the prior novels isn't required, doing so would prove helpful in order to keep who is who and who wants what and who is against who, etc. straight.

Elizabeth, as the narrator and most defined character, is one of the better aspects to the novel. Her life is a complicated one due to her torn loyalties amongst the factions at her new husband's recently established court. England under Henry Tudor's nascent reign is a snarl of loyalties, families, alliances and betrayal; one that Elizabeth must navigate to help her family survive as losers in the winner's Court. She undergoes a constant tug-of-war between loyalty to the house of her husband and child and that of the house of her father and former lover. Though her relationship with her husband begins roughly (he killed her love, he rapes her to create Arthur), it grows into companionable friendship and creates real struggle for her as her own mother foments rebellion and plots to put another in Henry VII's place.

The White Princess can take turns into harsh territory, especially in regards to the treatment of women. Notably the first interactions between the future King and Queen can be hard to read. Henry, and his formidable mother, are shown in less than flattering light when first shown. It can be hard to grow to like him after the way he mistreats his intended, but Gregory succeeds in eventually portraying him as more than he appeared. Constantly wracked by suspicion and fear, her Henry VII is a complex and unpredictable man. You may not like him as a character, but you cannot deny that he is more than a one-dimensional character. Where she might lack in suspense and plotting, Gregory has proven her characterization is top-notch and lends well to creating interesting, well-defined versions of historical personages.

This is a series that just continues to grow. The White Princess ends with 10 years left in the reign of the fist Tudor king, and with a sixth book due out (The Last Rose), Gregory's novelization of the War of the Roses will continue - likely from another character's point of view. Fans of this author will find more to enjoy with her latest effort, and it stands as a rather solid entry in her bibliography. With a Starz tv show centered around this series, I only expect it to find a wider audience in the future, and have faith that the author can keep up at the same level.

Book Tour Review: The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton

Monday, July 22, 2013
Title: The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora
Author: Stephanie Thornton
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448
Published: July 2nd 2013
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 5/5

Where Theodora went, trouble followed…

In sixth century Constantinople, one woman, Theodora, defied every convention and all the odds, and rose from being a common theater tart to become empress of a great kingdom, the most powerful woman the Roman Empire would ever know. But the woman whose image was later immortalized in glittering mosaic was, in fact, a scrappy, clever, conniving, flesh-and-blood woman full of sensuality and spirit whose real story is as surprising as any ever told…

When her father dies suddenly, Theodora and her sisters face starvation on the streets. Determined to survive, Theodora makes a living any way she can—first on her back with every man who will have her, then on the stage of the city’s infamous amphitheater in a scandalous dramatization of her own invention. When her daring performance grants her a back-door entry into the halls of power, she seizes the chance to win a wealthy protector—only to face heartbreak and betrayal.

Ever resilient, Theodora rises above such trials and by a twist of fate, meets her most passionate admirer yet: the Emperor’s nephew. She will thrive as his confidant and courtesan, but many challenges lie ahead. For one day, this man will hand her a crown. And all the empire will wonder—is she bold enough, shrewd enough, and strong enough to keep it?

 "I both dreaded and feared to reach so high. It only meant I had further to fall."
The Secret History, p.254

Stephanie Thornton proves that not all debut novels have to feel and read like debuts. The Secret History is a dense, detailed, atmospheric, and just an endlessly fascinating look at one of history's forgotten women. In a time where a woman was property, with little to no power of her own, this pleb-turned-patrician created her own opportunities and seized power for herself and her husband. Thornton ably recreates Theodora's tumultuous life from early age, steeped in poverty, to her triumphant, if troubled, reign as Augusta of the Byzantine Empire. Though this passionate and intelligent Empress has been largely overlooked by most historians and historical fiction writers, and even though I already knew her life story before reading The Secret History, this is a book that makes reading this unlikely pauper-to-princess tale firsthand utterly compelling.

This is a book that takes many harsh turns over the course of its 450 pages; there is rape, abuse, torture, prostitution, and endless extramarital affairs. However this is not a salacious novel - whatever Theodora had to do to survive, she did. Though she was many things - intelligent, stubborn, secretive, pragmatic, quick-tempered, brave, arrogant - above all, she was a survivor. Cast into poverty by her father's death and her abandonment by her political faction, Theodora and her sister Comito become actresses to help their mother and younger sister live. Her life may not always be easy to read about (from the clinical, cold loss of her virginity, to her abuse and abandonment in a foreign port at only 16) but Thornton builds from these desperate situations to recreate a version of the woman who was smart and wanted much more than to be a pawn of the men in her life and bed. From those who loved and supported her to those her saw her as no more than an up-jumped whore, you could not deny that Theodora was always a woman to be reckoned with.

Theodora as the main character and first person narrator is the best part of The Secret History. Through her observant eyes, the reader gets a vivid look at life in different stations during Constantinople under the reign of three different Emperors (Anastasius, Justin, and her husband Justinian). From poverty to notoriety to infamy, Theodora could not be ignored by her society as she made her way toward Justinian and eventually the throne. She is captivating and compelling, even when she is at her worst or when she makes the wrong decision. The characterization of Theodora evolves deftly throughout the narrative; from the beginning it is obvious that Thornton has a passion for crafting well-defined and multi-dimensional characters. Her Theodora is smart and strong-willed, but she is far from perfect and thus much more interesting to read about.

There is an abundance of well-defined characters in the book.  The secondary characters of Antonina and Justinian especially reap the benefits of Thornton's strong characterization. The relationships the Theodora forges with each are complicated - Anotinia evolves from a one-note antagonist to a close friend and helpful supporter. Stephanie Thornton takes extra time and detail to craft a faithful but interesting representation of the Emperor Justinian. Of all the things shown about this ambitious man, his love for Theodora is paramount and The Secret History subtly takes care to show how his regard for his wife both helps and hurts his goals as Emperor. Their relationship goes through phases of struggle and accord, but through it all, Thornton shows Theodora to be the equal of her imperial husband in every way. Even when they find themselves at odds, the relationship between them is complex and engaging to read about.

Politics play a huge part in the life of Theodora and in the main plot of the novel. Weaving in historical events - the Nika riots, the general Belisarius's threat to her/Justinian's reign, etc. - within the narrative frame, the author recreates political intrigue with personal struggle equally well. A huge strength of the The Secret History is that the story is just as compelling when it focuses on the machinations and schemes of those factions that surround the Augustus and his Augusta. The details and aims for opposing factions can make for a bit of drier reading, but the author doesn't linger overlong on ancient political agendas. And though Theodora is remembered for her support of Miaphysite Christianity, religion is also not a huge aspect of the novel.

Stephanie Thornton skillfully interweaves fact with fiction, supposition with authorial discretion, all to the benefit of the novel. As the immensely readable author's note says, Thornton takes history into her own hands to fashion a better narrative for her readers. Certain characters have liberties taken with their actions and history, but it fosters more conflict for Theodora to contend with as the novel winds to a close. New reasons are created for actions not explained historically, and the decisions Thornton makes allow for a more cohesive view of Theodora and Justinian's lives.

The first in a series about some of history's "forgotten women", The Secret History is impressive. It's a great launching point for such a series and under this author's talented vision, I have complete faith the sequels (about Hatshepsut, and Genghis Khan's wife and daughters) will be just as detailed and engrossing. A full 5/5 stars, for while minor issues pop up (pacing), this is one of the best historical fiction novels I've had the pleasure to read. Ever. Readers will be entertained by this interesting, complicated, powerful woman who seized the opportunities that came her way, regardless of how society thought she should behave. Theodora is a fascinating woman and Stephanie Thornton's version is a well-rendered and thoughtful depiction of both her and her remarkable life. 

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Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Tuesday, June 25
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

Wednesday, June 26
Review & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary

Thursday, June 27
Review & Giveaway at The Maiden’s Court

Monday, July 1
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books

Tuesday, July 2
Review at Let Them Read Books

Wednesday, July 3
Review at Book Journey

Friday, July 5
Review at Layered Pages

Monday, July 8
Review at Book Lovers Paradise

Tuesday, July 9
Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair

Friday, July 12
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

Tuesday, July 16
Review at Unabridged Chick

Wednesday, July 17
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick

Thursday, July 18
Review & Guest Post at The Lit Bitch

Friday, July 19
Interview & Giveaway at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books

Monday, July 22
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews

Wednesday, July 24
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

Thursday, July 25
Review, Interview & Giveaway at Enchanted by Josephine

Friday, July 26
Interview at A Bookish Libraria

Monday, July 29
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict

Thursday, August 1
Review at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books

Friday, August 2
Review & Giveaway at Bippity Boppity Book

Review Take Two: This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

Friday, July 19, 2013

Title: This Song Will Save Your Life
Author: Leila Sales
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Series: N/A
Pages: 288 (ARC edition)
Published: expected September 27 2013
Source:publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 5/5

Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing.
Told in a refreshingly genuine and laugh-out-loud funny voice, This Song Will Save Your Life is an exuberant novel about identity, friendship, and the power of music to bring people together.

Reviewed by Danielle

This post, (and book,) may be triggering for bullying, self harm, and suicide. Please be safe.

This Song Will Save Your Life speaks to me so clearly. The first two chapters are the most honest, poignant depictions of that crushing sense of depression that comes with being bullied. The way Elise describes little things piling up until it does seem like the only logical choice is to kill yourself, is so, so true. I know, because I was there. I felt like I was drowning, so I decided to.


I didn’t go through with it. Someone recognized my cry for attention. A few months later, I became really active in the internet/book community for the first time and I felt like I had a safe place. And in that way, I relate to Elise again. She may have been sneaking off to an underground dance club after midnight while I was roleplaying in a chat room, but the point is being able to find yourself and people who like and respect you. Life doesn’t become sunshine and unicorns, but it does get a whole lot better when you know you’re not alone.

I don’t even want to review TSWSYL. I want to buy you all a copy and let you experience trauma and love at the hand of Leila Sales. But, since Macmilllan was nice enough to give me a review copy, let me just bullet point my favorite things.

  • Swearing! From a teenager! In YA!
  • No love triangle! No finding wuv, twue wuv in high school! Poor romantic decisions!
    • Including sex! That isn’t magical and perfect with the boy you love forever! From YA!
  • Different kinds of friends and different friend groups. Not everyone is your BFFFFFF or worst enemy.
  • Precocious, not perfect main character. There’s a difference.
  • Elise’s growth, especially with the kids at school, without resorting to cheesy cliches like "bullies are actually the most troubled" and shit.
  • Divorced parents who don’t like each other but can be civil for their kid.
  • Queer characters, characters of color, characters of size, douchebags, prisses, every kind of side character.
  • Honestly, this book is my whole freshman/sophomore years and it’s perfect. 

One thing I didn’t like:

  • Elise’s stepdad and how he spoke to her. Seriously, her mom should never have let that happen and it’s never mentioned again. I get that he’s upset, but that was so, so not OK and her mom didn’t say anything. Really disappointing showing from all the adults.

I’m just overflowing with appreciation and goodwill for this book. I can’t think of anyone who has experienced bullying or loneliness that wouldn’t get emotional about it, but it’s also funny and heartfelt and genuine. As I initially posted when I finished, I’ve never loved a contemporary novel this much.

Book Tour Review: The Tudor Conspiracy by C.W. Gortner

Thursday, July 18, 2013
Title: The Tudor Conspiracy
Author: C.W. Gortner
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Series: The Spymaster Chronicles #2
Pages: 352
Published: July 16 2013
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 3.5/5

Winter 1554. Brendan Prescott, spymaster to the Princess Elizabeth, has discovered that he is connected to the Tudors by blood as well as allegiance. Though his secret is known only by a few, it could be his downfall as he is called to London to protect the princess.
Accompanied by his young squire Peregrine, he reluctantly leaves his sweetheart Kate behind - but in the city he discovers that no one is quite what they seem. What fate does Queen Mary intend for her sister? Is Robert Dudley somehow manipulating the princess, even though he is locked in the Tower? And should Brendan trust the alluring Sybilla, Mary's lady-in-waiting, who professes to be on his side?

As he tries to unravel the mysteries of the Tudor court Brendan's life will be put in danger many times, and along the way he learns more about his own past.

The second foray into Gortner's historical mystery/thriller series, The Tudor Conspiracy doesn't miss a step. Though it begins five months after the events of The Tudor Secret's conclusion, this sequel is off and running from the minute William Cecil reenters the lives of those ensconced at Hatfield. Finding himself once again embroiled in the snakes nest of Court, fighting to save his embattled Princess, Brendan Prescott is up against daunting odds and unforeseeable twists and turns. With the same sly narrative maneuvering that marked the first book, C.W. Gortner is able to keep the plots complicated, the betrayals unexpected, and the thrills coming as Brendan races headlong into all kinds of danger.

No longer embroiled in the succession crisis of 1554, Brendan is caught up in the net of a Hapsburg embassy, a determined Princess and an unyielding Catholic Queen of a Protestant country. When anonymous letters reach mastermind intelligencer Cecil, Brendan can't abandon Elizabeth to a foe determined to see her dead. Despite his uneasy relationship with Elizabeth's most trusted adviser, with his unique past and unlikely talents, Brendan is pulled back to Court - away from the quiet life he had been settling into with his love, the fictional Kate Stafford, and his mischievous squire Peregrine. These three invented characters are no less compelling than the real-life counterparts they find themselves up against. Kate may need more time and attention to truly be a three-dimensional character, she is important if less directly involved this second go-round in Gortner's version of Mary's England.

Though Prescott's birthright is a fiction, it gives him a unique and compelling perspective on how things would fall out between the royal half-sisters he finds himself torn between. Placed in a dangerous post of his enemy's household, "Beecham" soon learns nothing is as it seems, and everyone has their own game to play in Mary I's Court. The external pressures levered against Prescott as he spies and double agents his way through Court's seedy underbelly make for a story full of suspense and anticipation as plot after plot unravels to implicate an unlikely main antagonist. Gortner skillfully sets out red herring after red herring and the reveal is ingenious once Brendan finally sees all the cards on the table. The final portion may be a tad too long to keep the same level of suspense as the first 270ish pages, but the conclusion is more than enough compensation for the time spent reading the novel.

The first novel was a fun adventure, but the stakes are higher and the plots more convoluted the second time around. Characters die. Others are betrayed. Everyone lies. The Tudor Conspiracy is a work of fiction, but the author includes several key historical people and events to add to the overall feel of the novel. Edward Courtenay, The Wyatt Revolt and more all play key pivotal parts in the plot of the novel. Though this could be read as a standalone, several lingering questions from the first book are definitively answered here. It's a fast read, helped in part by the short span of time covered, but Gortner keeps the action incoming and the revelations surprising.

The Tudor Conspiracy boasts a steady plot, efficient pacing, and a solid conclusion. In fact, it seems very final - the main plot has been resolved and Brendan is left with little opportunity to continue his efforts. However it is easy to glean room for further novels featuring this intrepid and able character in the future. I think there is more story to be had, and as each novel has improved, I would have hopes and expectations for a third Spymaster Chronicle. 

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Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Tuesday, July 16
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Review & Giveaway at The Tudor Book Blog
Wednesday, July 17

Thursday, July 18
Review at Amused by Books
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Review at Psychotic State Book Reviews

Friday, July 19
Review at The Broke and the Bookish
Review & Giveaway at Enchanted by Josephine
Interview at The Tudor Book Blog

Monday, July 22
Review at A Bookish Affair
Review at Jenny Loves to Read
Review at A Muse in the Fog Book Reviews

Tuesday, July 23
Review at Bippity Boppity Book
Guest Post at A Bookish Affair

Thursday, July 25
Guest Post at Confessions of an Avid Reader
Interview at A Writer’s Life: Working with the Muse
Feature & Giveaway at Ramblings From This Chick

Friday, July 26
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

Monday, July 29
Review at Books in the Burbs
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Review at Writing the Renaissance

Tuesday, July 30
Review at Raging Bibliomania
Guest Post at Flashlight Commentary

Wednesday, July 31
Review at A Chick Who Reads

Thursday, August 1
Review at JulzReads
Guest Post at A Chick Who Reads

Friday, August 2
Review at Cheryl’s Book Nook
Interview at Bibliophilic Book Blog

Monday, August 5
Review at Historical Tapestry & Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages

Tuesday, August 6
Review at From L.A. to LA
Review & Giveaway at Luxury Reading
Guest Post at Historical Tapestry

Wednesday, August 7
Review at Review From Here

Thursday, August 8
Review at Book Nerds
Interview at Review From Here

Friday, August 9
Review at Always with a Book
Review at Book Lovers Paradise

Monday, August 12
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Bloggin’ ’bout Books

Tuesday, August 13
Review at The Bookworm
Guest Post at A Book Geek

Wednesday, August 14
Review at My Reading Room
Guest Post at Book Nerds

Thursday, August 15
Review at Book Journey
Interview at My Reading Room

Friday, August 16
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time

Monday, August 19
Review at The True Book Addict
Guest Post at So Many Books, So Little Time

Tuesday, August 20
Review at Lost in Books
Guest Post at The True Book Addict

Wednesday, August 21
Review at Broken Teepee

Thursday, August 22
Review at The Eclectic Reader
Guest Post at Broken Teepee

Friday, August 23
Review at Tanzanite’s Castle Full of Books

Monday, August 26
Review at Layered Pages
Review at A Bookish Librarian

Tuesday, August 27
Review at Book Addict Katie
Interview at Layered Pages
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