Book Tour Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

Friday, February 28, 2014
Title: Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Author: Nancy Horan
Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 496
Published: January 21 2014
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5
At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne leaves her philandering husband in San Francisco and sets sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and a nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists' colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent and opinionated belle Americaine.

A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature, and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson's charms. The two begin a fierce love affair, marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness, which spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health. Eventually they settled in Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried underneath the epitaph:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson is a household name for his short stories and his classic novels. However, veteran author Nancy Horan focuses on the epic untold story from Stevenson's real life: that of his turbulent and passionate relationship with his wife Fanny. Their story is one that spans decades, and is one that poets write about. It's full of longing and pain, passion and misery, separations and reunification. From their less-than-auspicious beginning (she was married, he was eleven years her junior, both were less than solvent) to his all-too-soon death in Samoa at only 44 years old.

Horan excels at recreating her own versions of these real-life people. Though Stevenson is considered a famous author, his wife's story (or even name) is much less known. Before reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, I'd never even considered Robert Louis's Stevenson's wife. After reading Horan's deliberate and dense accounting of these years of her life, it seems like a gross oversight. Fanny Osbourne is determined, clever, capable, and likeable. She makes the best of everything that comes her way -- as a mom, as a wife, as a friend -- but she's not infallible. She makes mistakes, goes back to the wrong man, but you still care about this complicated woman. She supports her husband's efforts, but she has talents and interests of her own. Her story is outlandish for her time, but you cannot respect her gumption.

The romance is epic here in Horan's second novel and pretty central to the entire plot. Fanny is a complete woman, who doesn't need a man but wants one. Her relationship with Louis is one between equals who genuinely care about one another, but it definitely goes through its rough times and trials. They complement each other well as a couple, but their relationship takes a long time to solidify and mature. They are tested by outside factors, their own insecurities, but even knowing the eventual outcome of their story, reading about Fanny and Louis is compelling.

This is a long book. It moves pretty well, but I can't deny that I wished for less detail and more noticeable movement at times. I fell in love with the characters early on due to the immense amount of characterization Horan uses, but it's a double-edged sword as that can also make for slower plot progression. It's not too much to note, but Under the Wide and Starry Sky can feel about 60 pages too long by the end. I also didn't care for when the narrative would jump from Fanny's 3rd person to Louis, as it felt random and wholly unneeded for the plot.

Nancy Horan's second novel is impressive. Its far-reaching scope, the intense amount of detail and observation, the well-drawn and dynamic characters.... all make it remarkably easy to fall into the story of Fanny's life. Horan's talent as a storyteller is written across every page and makes Under the Wide and Starry Sky more than worth the read, for returning fans of Loving Frank or to newcomers just reading this ambitious writer.

Review: The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

Thursday, February 27, 2014
Title: The Countess Conspiracy
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: romance, historical fiction
Series: Brothers Sinister #3
Pages: 295
Publication: December 17, 2013
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/5

Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.

So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership...even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.

Reviewed by 

Courtney Milan has outdone herself.

I can always count on the Brothers Sinister to give me swoon worthy romances with delicious heroes and strong, unique heroines. I like Minnie and Jane. I loved Serena. Violet has blown them all out of the water.

She’s not very nice. She’s rather selfish about her arrangement with Sebastian. But she’s logical and smart and a scientist. Not a bluestocking who’s juuuuust on the wrong side of respectability. An honest to God, inspired by Rosalind Franklin, reviled for her work scientist. Now, more than any of her other books, this one plays loosey goosey with actual historical details to make Violet’s contributions bigger and more impactful, but that only makes her more awesome.

Both Violet and Sebastian are really expertly layered. They’ve both gone through a lot of emotional turmoil and it brings them together. Both are dismissed and feel rejected by their families for different reasons, but I think the theme of searching for affection and respect is one a lot of people relate to, and it softened both of their characters into something wonderfully human. Yet, their problems are never waved away. Some family members reconcile fully, some only tentatively, and some...don’t! Just like real life, you can’t instantly bridge every gap with a kind word and a revelation.

Yet, for all that emotional turmoil, there’s really no big mis. Sebastian admits early on that he’s been in love with Violet for years, and while she lets her insecurities get in the way of fully believing that, it never falls into romance cliche. There’s a disagreement on how to handle a climactic reveal, but while both characters worry about what the other will think, it’s short lived. This is a couple that talks to each other.

Now, do you read romance novels for the sex? It’s nothing to be ashamed of; I often do. I look to Ms. Milan for hot, enthusiastically consensual scenes, in fact. But while I loved everything else about it, this book didn’t turn my crank. I found Sebastian’s first, (and second,) declaration of love unbelievably romantic, but the sex? Eh. I will say, hooray for condoms! More romance novels should include them!

There’s so much good here. Violet’s mom’s revelation, (I LOVED IT,) sciencesisses, romance based on respect, fertility issues that don’t just poof with a magic dick. I can’t say enough good about Courtney Milan, the Brothers Sinister, and The Countess Conspiracy. If you like historical romances, or have ever thought about trying one, I don’t know how you could be disappointed.

February DNF/Two Minute Review Round Up

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Some interesting inclusions this month. You may have noticed that I am being much more cutthroat with DNFs in 2014 because when you really think about it, life is too short to read books you don't want to.

All That Glows by Ryan Graudin - ARC provided by publishers via edelweiss

 Emrys—a fiery, red-headed Fae—always embraced her life in the Highlands, far from the city’s draining technology, until she’s sent to London to rejoin the Faery Guard. But this isn’t any normal assignment—she’s sent to guard Prince Richard: Britain’s notorious, partying bad boy and soon-to-be King. The prince’s careless ways and royal blood make him the irresistible for the dark spirits that feed on mortals. Sweet, disheveled, and alive with adventure—Richard is one charge who will put Emrys’s magic and heart to the test.

When an ancient force begins preying on the monarchy, Emrys must hunt through the London’s magical underworld, facing down Banshees, Black Dogs and Green Women to find the one who threatens Richard’s life. In this chaos of dark magic, palace murders and paparazzi, Emrys finds herself facing an impossible choice. For despite all her powers, Emrys has discovered a force that burns brighter than magic: love.

DNF'd at: 300/480 or 63%


I told myself I would at least try this and it was:

-overwrought metaphors which are

-full of purple prose and mangled syntax
- the book is meandering and plotless while still managing to be
-full of instalove between
-utterly bland characters who remain consistently



no sense of place -- why set your story in England/Britain if you're not going to use the locale?

 Rating: 1.5/5 (ideas, some sentences that worked nicely)

Witch Finder by Ruth Warburton (Witch Finder #1) - ARC provided by publisher via NetGalley

 London. 1880. In the slums of Spitalfields apprentice blacksmith Luke is facing initiation into the Malleus Maleficorum, the fearsome brotherhood dedicated to hunting and killing witches.

Luke’s final test is to pick a name at random from the Book of Witches, a name he must track down and kill within a month, or face death himself. Luke knows that tonight will change his life forever. But when he picks out sixteen-year-old Rosa Greenwood, Luke has no idea that his task will be harder than he could ever imagine.

DNF'd at: 220/375 or 59%


Where is the plot? Why should I care about these characters? How is the cover more interesting than anything going on in the novel? 

Rating: 2/5 (didn't hate the romance, decent/solid writing) 

The Shadow Prince by Bree Despain (Into the Dark #1) - ARC provided by publishers via edelweiss 

Haden Lord, the disgraced prince of the Underrealm, has been sent to the mortal world to entice a girl into returning with him to the land of the dead. Posing as a student at Olympus Hills High—a haven for children of the rich and famous—Haden must single out the one girl rumored to be able to restore immortality to his race.

Daphne Raines has dreams much bigger than her tiny southern Utah town, so when her rock star dad suddenly reappears, offering her full tuition to Olympus Hills High’s prestigious music program, she sees an opportunity to catch the break she needs to make it as a singer. But upon moving into her estranged father’s mansion in California, and attending her glamorous new school, Daphne soon realizes she isn’t the only student in Olympus who doesn’t quite belong.

Haden and Daphne—destined for each other—know nothing of the true stakes their fated courtship entails. As war between the gods brews, the teenagers’ lives collide. But Daphne won’t be wooed easily and when it seems their prophesied link could happen, Haden realizes something he never intended—he’s fallen in love. Now to save themselves, Haden and Daphne must rewrite their destinies. But as their destinies change, so do the fates of both their worlds.

DNF'd: 65% in (or about 330 pages)


An extreme case of instalove. Boring, staid, overly perfect characters. Little plot progression or even acknowledgement that there is a plot besides the overwrought romance. The "chosen one" trope is also in full effect and horribly noticeable. A waste of an interesting premise/adaptation of the Persephone myth.

Rating: 1/5

Elusion by Claudia Gabel and Cheryl Klam - ARC provided by publishers

Soon, Elusion® will change the world and life as we know it.

A new technology called Elusion is sweeping the country. An app, visor and wristband will virtually transport you to an exotic destination where adventure can be pursued without the complications—or consequences—of real life.

Regan is an Elusion insider. Or at least she used to be. Her father invented the program, and her best friend, Patrick, heir to the tech giant Orexis, is about to release it nationwide. But ever since her father’s unexpected death, Regan can’t bear to Escape, especially since waking up from the dream means crashing back to her grim reality.

Still, when there are rumors of trouble in Elusion—accusations that it’s addictive and dangerous— Regan is determined to defend it. But the critics of Elusion come from surprising sources, including Josh, the handsome skeptic with his own personal stakes. As Regan investigates the claims, she discovers a disturbing web of secrets. She will soon have to choose between love and loyalty…a decision that will affect the lives of millions.

Suspense, thrills, and romance fuel this near-future story about the seductive nature of a perfect virtual world, and how far one girl will go to uncover the truth behind the illusions.

DNF'd: 280 pages or about 70%


Disappointing execution of an interesting concept. Reminded me way too much of the Realms, from Under the Never Sky, though. Characters are shallow, boring, unlikeable, or all of the above. A lot of infodumping going on in the beginning. I was bored and just wasn't invested enough to read 400 pages.

Rating: 2.5/5 (creative ideas for technology, pretty well-constructed mystery)

Book Tour Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

Monday, February 24, 2014
Title: The Perfume Collector
Author: Kathleen Tessaro
Genre: historical fiction, mystery
Series: N/A
Pages: 464 (hardcover edition)
Published: April 2013
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

A remarkable novel about secrets, desire, memory, passion, and possibility.

Newlywed Grace Monroe doesn't fit anyone's expectations of a successful 1950s London socialite, least of all her own. When she receives an unexpected inheritance from a complete stranger, Madame Eva d'Orsey, Grace is drawn to uncover the identity of her mysterious benefactor.

Weaving through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London, the story Grace uncovers is that of an extraordinary woman who inspired one of Paris's greatest perfumers. Immortalized in three evocative perfumes, Eva d'Orsey's history will transform Grace's life forever, forcing her to choose between the woman she is expected to be and the person she really is.

The Perfume Collector explores the complex and obsessive love between muse and artist, and the tremendous power of memory and scent.

I've had my eye on The Perfume Collector since Danielle's awesome review in May of 2013. (That cover didn't hurt, though. It is memorable, and chic, and vaguely historical. Basically, it makes me want to read this book yesterday.) In a story somewhat akin to M.J. Rose's The Book of Lost Fragrances, Kathleen Tessaro ably transports her readers to a rich, detailed, and evocative plot, where themes of memory, loss, and independence are subtly woven into the narrative. Using the two lives of Grace Munroe in the 1950s and Eva d'Orsey in the 1920s, Tessaro weaves an immensely readable tale of secrets, skeletons in the closet, and she does so with remarkable success.

The narrative frame for the plot -- two women with similar lives and an unexpected connection, with one being in the "present" (aka the 1950s for The Perfume Collector), and one in the past - is a familiar one, done before by Susanna Kearsley, Kate Morton, and others. But Tessaro uses the idea smartly. The jumps between storylines are smooth in their alternations between Eva and Grace, and while the mystery is very obvious, the shifts keep the reveal from feeling too long in coming. The book is in no rush and moves at a steady, if slower pace, but it allows the reader to really get to know both of these complex women. It helps that both main characters are interesting people capable of carrying a plotline on their own, though Eva's story is perhaps the more engaging despite her more mercurial nature.

This is a book that made me want to travel -- both overseas to the places mentioned and back in time to the eras depicted. 1950's Paris has never seemed so full of both possibilities and problems. Tessaro's writing is evocative and that easily lends to creating an atmospheric feel for her story, be it whatever decade or whichever location. Paris, especially, comes alive when Eva, and later Grace, travel there. This is a book that feels very Parisian -- the debates on perfume, on clothing and fashion --all just seemed to me very authentically French. That place-as-character is always an added benefit to well-done historical fiction, and Tessaro has it in spades here with The Perfume Collector.

I loved nearly all of this, but the "big mystery".... isn't. The main complaint that can be leveled at this novel is that it falls prey to a few historical fiction tropes that keep it from perfection. The lack of mystery for the mystery element is the biggest one, but the rest of the plot is pretty easy to see early on into the book. It doesn't feel entirely predictable, just that The Perfume Collector is largely more concerned with the story of the characters' personal evolutions into various roles. 

The Perfume Collector is a lovely, and atmospheric read. Eva and Grace's stories are woven together with skill and pathos, and reading Kathleen Tessaro's novel was an addictive pleasure. In many ways, this is a beautiful book, and I finished it very impressed by the author. 

Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Saturday, February 22, 2014
Title: Side Effects May Vary
Author: Julie Murphy
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Published: expected March 18 2014
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 3/5

What if you’d been living your life as if you were dying—only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?

When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, her prognosis is grim. To maximize the time she does have, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs—however she sees fit. She convinces her friend Harvey, whom she knows has always had feelings for her, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge (humiliating her ex-boyfriend and getting back at her arch nemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger and reliving some childhood memories). But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission.

Now Alice is forced to face the consequences of all that she’s said and done, as well as her true feelings for Harvey. But has she done irreparable damage to the people around her, and to the one person who matters most?

Julie Murphy’s SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY is a fearless and moving tour de force about love, life, and facing your own mortality.
The lovely Ashley from yAdult Review was so right when she pointed out that readers will either love or hate Julie Murphy's debut novel Side Effects May Vary. It's just that kind of book, and Alice is that kind of difficult protagonist. For myself, I loved parts of this, and moderately tolerated others. It can be funny, sad, honest, and overwrought. It's full of a wide spectrum of emotion, be it positive or negative. I also really enjoyed that this author explored a different angle for a cancer patient story -- what happens when you're prepared to die.. and you don't? -- and I thought Side Effects was a realistic representation of how a confused, angry teenage girl might feel in that situation.

I enjoyed prickly Alice for the most part (unlikeable heroines that evoke pathos = the best), but I have to admit I lost my heart to Harvey early on. Besides the Cancer Stuff, Side Effects is largely an exploration of the relationship between the two narrators. Alice is almost Summers-esque in her difficultness. She can be selfish, unlikeable, and hard to understand. But Murphy characterizes her so well that you can at least understand Alice, if not grow to like her. BUT BUT BUT Harvey. I love Harvey. He is easily the best character in the entire novel. He may be a tad too perfect, but I loved his contrast with Alice, his openheartedness, and his eventual growth into a more mature, independent person.

I wanted to come away from this feeling all the feels, but besides a few swoons for Harvey and a few laughs, Side Effects May Vary didn't really impact me on that deep of a level. I liked the story (for the most part) but it never emerged into a favorite for me. It may just be too short, or the outcome too obvious, but I just don't think it was as meaningful as I had expected. For the most part, this novel felt fresh and original, and as unlike as The Fault in Our Stars as two cancer books can be. I would be interested to see what Murphy writes after this.

Book Blast for UK Release of The Chalice

Friday, February 21, 2014
The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

Paperback Publication Date: February 13, 2014

Orion Publishing

Paperback; 432p

ISBN-13: 978-1409135807

Series: Joanna Stafford #2

Genre: Historical Mystery

A curse to kill a king, a fight to save a nation. Follow young Joanna Stafford right into the dark heart of King Henry VIII’s court in this stunning Tudor thriller.
England, 1538. The nation is reeling after the ruthless dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII.
Cast out of Dartford Priory, Joanna Stafford – feisty, courageous, but scarred by her recent encounter with rebellion at court – is trying to live a quiet life with her five-year-old charge, Arthur. But family connections draw her dangerously close to a treasonous plot and, repelled by violence and the whispered conspiracies around her, Joanna seeks a life with a man who loves her. But, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot escape the spreading darkness of her destiny. She must make a choice between those she cares for most, and taking her part in a mysterious prophecy foretold by three compelling seers.

Joanna embarks upon a testing journey, and, as she deciphers the meaning at the core of the prophecy, she learns that the fate of a king and the freedom of a nation rest in her hands.

Praise for The Chalice

“Expect treason, treachery, martyrs and more.” — Choice magazine

“A time in which no one at all can be trusted and everyday life is laced with horror. Bilyeau paints this picture very, very well.” — Reviewing the Evidence

“Bilyeau creates the atmosphere of 1530s London superbly.” — Catholic Herald

“Bilyeau continues from her first novel the subtle, complex development of Joanna Stafford’s character and combines that with a fast-paced, unexpected plot to hold the reader’s interest on every page. — Historical Novel Society

“Joanna Stafford is a young novice caught up in power struggles familiar to readers of Hilary Mantel and C.J. Sansom, but with elements of magic that echo the historical thrillers of Kate Mosse.” — S.J. Parris, author of ‘Heresy,’ ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Sacrilege’

“Second in this compelling and highly readable Tudor thriller series following the 16th century adventures of (now cast out) nun Joanna Stafford. Treason, conspiracies and a dangerous prophecy draw Joanna back from the quiet life she had made for herself after being cast out of Dartford Priory – but she isn’t prepared for the gravity of the situation she finds herself in or the responsibility she now holds. Nancy Bilyeau has followed up her impressive debut with an accomplished historical thriller perfect for fans of C. J. Sansom, Philippa Gregory and S. J. Parris.” — Lovereading UK

“Sharply observed, cleverly paced and sympathetically written, this book more than fulfils the promise of THE CROWN, itself named as last year’s most impressive debut novel by the CWA Ellis Peters judges. If Joanna Stafford is to return to see out the final years of Henry’s tempestuous reign and the accession of his Catholic daughter Mary, I am sure I will not be alone in waiting eagerly for her.” —

“A stunning debut. One of the best historical novels I have ever read — ALISON WEIR
THE CHALICE offers a fresh, dynamic look into Tudor England’s most powerful, volatile personalities: Henry VIII, the Duke of Norfolk, Stephen Gardiner and Bloody Mary Tudor. Heroine and former nun Joanna Stafford is beautiful, bold and in lethal danger. Bilyeau writes compellingly of people and places that demand your attention and don’t let you go even after the last exciting page” — KAREN HARPER, bestselling author of MISTRESS OF MOURNING

“Rarely have the terrors of Henry VIII’s reformation been so exciting. Court intrigue, bloody executions, and haunting emotional entanglements create a heady brew of mystery and adventure that sweeps us from the devastation of the ransacked cloisters to the dangerous spy centers of London and the Low Countries, as ex-novice Joanna Stafford fights to save her way of life and fulfill an ancient prophecy, before everything she loves is destroyed.” — C.W. GORTNER, author of THE QUEEN’S VOW

“Bilyeau paints a moving portrait of Catholicism during the Reformation and of reclusive, spiritual people adjusting to the world outside the cloister. This intriguing and suspenseful historical novel pairs well with C. J. Sansom’s Dissolution (2003) and has the insightful feminine perspective of Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s The Heretic’s Wife (2010).” — BOOKLIST

“As in The Crown, Bilyeau’s writing style means that the story reads almost flawlessly. The narrative really makes the reader throw themselves into the story, and makes it so the book is really difficult to put down. I was really very impressed with Bilyeau’s writing (As I was in The Crown), and honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough.” — LOYALTY BINDS ME

“THE CHALICE is a compelling and pacey time machine to the 16th Century. And when you’re returned to the present, you’ll have enjoyed an adventure and gained a new perspective on a past you’d wrongly thought to be a done deal.” — Andrew Pyper, author of THE DEMONOLOGIST
“The Chalice is a gripping, tightly-plotted mystery, with a beguiling heroine at its heart, that vividly conjures up the complex dangers of Reformation England. Bilyeau’s deftness of touch and complete control over her complex material make for a truly exciting and compelling read.”— ELIZABETH FREMANTLE author of QUEEN’S GAMBIT

“THE CHALICE is brimming with sinister portents, twisted allegiances, religious superstition and political intrigue. It’s a darkly fascinating Tudor brew that leaves you thirsting for more.” — PATRICIA BRACEWELL, author of SHADOW ON THE CROWN

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About the Author


Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013.

Some earlier milestones: In 1661, Nancy’s ancestor, Pierre Billiou, emigrated from France to what was then New Amsterdam when he and his family sailed on the St. Jean de Baptiste to escape persecution for their Protestant beliefs. Pierre built the first stone house on Staten Island and is considered the borough’s founder. His little white house is on the national register of historic homes and is still standing to this day.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Author Links



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Book Blast Schedule

Monday, February 17

Mari Reads
The Lit Bitch
Book Drunkard
Closed the Cover
Historical Tapestry
Royalty Free Fiction
Passages to the Past
Just One More Chapter

Tuesday, February 18

Princess of Eboli
Words and Peace
Big Book, Little Book
Curling Up By the Fire
Peeking Between the Pages
Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Historical Fiction Obsession

Wednesday, February 19

Broken Teepee
Kincavel Korner
A Bookish Affair
CelticLady's Reviews
The True Book Addict
Teresa's Reading Corner
So Many Books, So Little Time

Thursday, February 20

Drey's Library
Booktalk & More
Must Read Faster
Reading the Ages
The Maiden's Court
Historical Fiction Connection
Sharon's Garden of Book Reviews

Friday, February 21

HF Book Muse-News
On the Tudor Trail
Flashlight Commentary
Ageless Pages Reviews
Muse in the Fog Book Reviews
Confessions of an Avid Reader

Review: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Title: The Emperor's Blades
Author: Brian Staveley
Genre: high fantasy
Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1
Pages: 480
Publication: January 14, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.

Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.

Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.

Reviewed by Danielle

Three siblings, Adare, a master politician; Valyn, an elite soldier; and Kaden, a disciplined monk, use their individual talents to solve three individual mysteries that weave together into a larger conspiracy for their father’s throne. While the plot could come out of dozens of Tor books, The Emperor’s Blades doesn’t read like your typical high fantasy. The language is lush and challenging, overflowing with descriptions that almost tip to purple. Its prose is the true star and is very impressive. It’s so good, and such a pleasure to read, that it almost makes up for the fact that the first three quarters of the novel are actually very light on events.

The emperor is murdered! Off screen. A prostitute is tortured! Off screen. A monster attacks the monastery! Off screen. Every thing in Adare’s storyline! Off. Screen. It’s frustrating.

Instead, we spend a lot of time Kaden and Valyn, seeing the ins and outs and daily struggles of their very different training regimens. I will say, I loved watching Valyn learn to be at Kettral. In a genre where we’re expected to just accept that a farmboy can be a blademaster in 3 months or a different farmboy can suddenly command armies without flaw, I liked seeing the boys work for their gifts. Kaden’s was a bit more hit or miss for me, as his training is very internal and mostly comprised of menial labor while his teacher delivers long, exposition-filled monologues. It did let me feel very close to the character and humanized him, which is good considering the nature of his talents.

I wanted to love Adare just as much, but, I’m not kidding, she gets five chapters. Worse, they’re spaced out across the four-six month time line, making every thing that happens in her area seem disjointed and distant. Her big reveal moment, (all three of the kids get one,) lacked impact, because we hadn’t been allowed to grow to like the characters involved. The way she handled it showed guts and the political mind we’d been told she possessed, but again, I just needed to see more of her to justify her inclusion.

None of the reveals had enough payoff for me. As I said, Adare’s lacked emotion. Valyn’s was the most “ah ha!”, as pieces finally came together, but the villain was still...exactly who we suspected. Kaden’s last few chapters actually had several surprises and probably the biggest reveals, but it was all shrugged off in the text. Again, some of this is Kaden’s skill, which renders him emotionally vacant, but none of the side characters acted like these events were out of the ordinary, either. (Hint, they really, really are.)

I liked the boys a lot, and that’s why it’s frustrating that they act too old and unaffected, (Kaden is 17, Valyn is 16. So why, when they see Valyn’s 15 year old sniper, do they both think, “she looks like a child!”, when they’re children, too?) This is a problem with a lot of books in the genre, but it’s still a pet peeve. They both go through a lot, there’s no denying that, but their voices read well beyond their years and nothing seemed to shock them. Either age them up or let me feel some childlike confusion and frustration.

On the plus side, the few battles we get are very well written. I’m especially fond of the entirety of Hull’s Trial. The world building is aces. I would have liked an expanded glossary, but that’s a quibble. The author has taken the time to build a whole world, not just what’s immediately important to the plot, and it shows. Likewise, there’s not a ton of magic, but what we do see is logical and consistent with the system that’s been explained.

In the end, I can overlook some frustrating pacing and an underdeveloped third POV for really great writing, tight world building, and complex characters. Truly, the author is on to something special with this series and I can’t wait for it to continue. If he expands Adare’s POV and remembers that not all the plot lines need to come to a climax at once, (this isn’t porn, it’s fantasy,) I think book two will be a five-star knockout.

Review: Morning Glory by Sarah Jio

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Title: Morning Glory
Author: Sarah Jio
Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Published: November 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3/5

New York Times bestselling author Sarah Jio imagines life on Boat Street, a floating community on Seattle’s Lake Union—home to people of artistic spirit who for decades protect the dark secret of one startling night in 1959

Fleeing an East Coast life marred by tragedy, Ada Santorini takes up residence on houseboat number seven on Boat Street. She discovers a trunk left behind by Penny Wentworth, a young newlywed who lived on the boat half a century earlier. Ada longs to know her predecessor’s fate, but little suspects that Penny’s mysterious past and her own clouded future are destined to converge.

Sarah Jio is a five (soon six)-times published writer, and though her stories are engaging and cleverly constructed, they can also feel emotionally manipulative and predictable. I have a love-hate with each of the three books by this author I have read; I want to love them, but it's impossible to ignore the mass-produced feel they present. I find that there is obviously a formula at work with Jio's novels (the correlation of the present and past storylines, a mystery that ends up involving both characters), but, for some reason, I always end up liking the characters she creates. I keep coming back to see what stories she has written, but I stay for the people she defines so vividly.

The characters are what bring me back, but I was halfway sold on Morning Glory when I figured out this was a basically a murder mystery/romance set in a houseboat community. It definitely is an original setup and the inclusive feel of "Boat Street" really works in the favor of the mystery air. The secondary cast members don't do a lot but hang out and have secrets and mysterious pasts, but their overall addition is one of complicity and willful silence. You don't get to know the Toms and Lenoras even as well as Naomi and Gene, but you know they're all hiding something on Boat Street.

Morning Glory focuses on the dual lives of Penny, a housewife in the 1950s, and Ada, a widowed former magazine editor in 2008. At times this story felt a lot like the American version of Marian Keyes' Anybody Out There? but without the humor and a lot more infidelity. By which I mean, both these women have incredibly sad storylines (see: emotional manipulation) with heartbreak and loss, but I really grew to like both of them, Penny especially. They're quite different from one another in most ways, but the ways Jio finds to connect them work.

I could have done without the mystery, but it really does end up being central to the plot and tie everything together. I enjoyed this, but it can be so frustrating, when meeting the new character of Alex for the first time I already know what role he will play in Ada's life. It's boring when I meet Penny and realize "hey, Ada's gonna figure out a mystery about you" because I've read two books by this author before and all of Jio's novel proceed alike. There is no element of surprise -- even when the mystery is solved, even when the epilogue is read.

Like her other novels, Jio's latest is a mixed bag for me. I always want to like her books more than I actually do, but I feel comfortable with rating this latest one three out of five. There were some good points, there was some formulaic plotting, and excellent characters. 

So, I rationalize thus: 
1 star: plot/plot execution/mystery element
2 stars: characters/character interactions/writing

Review: Ask Again Later by Liz Czukas

Monday, February 17, 2014
Title: Ask Again Later
Author: Liz Czukas
Genre: contemporary, young adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Published: expected March 11 2014
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 4/5

Despite what her name might suggest, Heart has zero interest in complicated romance. So when her brilliant plan to go to prom with a group of friends is disrupted by two surprise invites, Heart knows there's only one drama-free solution: flip a coin.

Heads: The jock. He might spend all night staring at his ex or throw up in the limo, but how bad can her brother's best friend really be?

Tails: The theater geek...with a secret. What could be better than a guy who shares all Heart's interests--even if he wants to share all his feelings?

Heart's simple coin flip has somehow given her the chance to live out both dates. But where her prom night ends up might be the most surprising thing of all...

Ask Again Later is the ocean of fluff from which all other fluffy books originate. By which I mean this was possibly the most fluffy book I have read so far this year and I loved every. single. page. of it. It was so much fun to relive a first prom with Heart and her friends that I can see myself rereading this soon in the future in addition to recommending it to friends starting now. It's a breezy, entertaining, and amusing romp throughout its various and potential outcomes. Following the story through the two possible versions of Heart's junior prom is a creative outlet for a pretty familiar YA plot, and Czukas should be proud of her engaging and appealing debut.

The plot is variation of the Pivot Point/Sliding Doors/"alternate outcomes from a single decision" pattern, but focused around the night of a school prom. Czukas alternates chapters with the different possibilities for Heart's night at prom (one with a pity date, one with a closeted friend), allowing the reader to fully view how each option would have played out throughout the night. Each storyline has similarities and differences, but it's easy to see which choice works best for the main character (and it's easy to pick a favorite outcome). Some aspects of the story can feel stereotypical for a high school prom (mean girls! Drunk dates! Ex girlfriend drama!), but for the most part, Ask Again Later acquits itself admirably when it comes to accurate but interesting depictions of teenagers.

Heart is a fun protagonist. Her name is the most cringe-worthy of all cringe-worthy names (Heart LaCoeur. Really. I'll just let that sink in.), but her characterization is pretty fantastic. She feels like an old friend right from the start. Her voice is warm, funny, and self-aware without feeling too mature for her age. I liked her and enjoyed her narration, but I did think she was a little too passive about being involved in the decisions about her own prom date. I wanted her to make her own decisions, instead of feeling pressured into either one. Besides Heart, her friends were a lively, engaging bunch, more than able to compete for attention. None of them is really defined (besides Chase) as much as I would like, but there's some life and diversity to them, which is always appreciated. Plus, as a group, they have charisma and seem like they're real friends to Heart.

Ask Again Later is the perfect antidote to a feels-wrecking book. It's the cure to your book hangover.  There's drama and silliness in equal measure, of course, but it's a truly engaging and fun contemporary, guaranteed to bring the adorbs. It's cute and fluffy and left me with a big smile when I  finished. 

Review: Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

Sunday, February 16, 2014
Title: Heartbeat
Author: Elizabeth Scott
Genre: young adult, contemporary
Series: N/A
Pages: 304
Published: January 28 2014
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

Life. Death. And...Love?

Emma would give anything to talk to her mother one last time. Tell her about her slipping grades, her anger with her stepfather, and the boy with the bad reputation who might be the only one Emma can be herself with.

But Emma can't tell her mother anything. Because her mother is brain-dead and being kept alive by machines for the baby growing inside her.

Meeting bad-boy Caleb Harrison wouldn't have interested Old Emma. But New Emma-the one who exists in a fog of grief, who no longer cares about school, whose only social outlet is her best friend Olivia-New Emma is startled by the connection she and Caleb forge.

Feeling her own heart beat again wakes Emma from the grief that has grayed her existence. Is there hope for life after death-and maybe, for love?

Elizabeth Scott is a pretty distinctive writer. It's easy to pick her books out by her sparse, pared-down style, but also from their often vaguely reminiscent of real-life and controversial premises. I'm always drawn to the tough topics she chooses to write about, as she approaches everything in a very different manner, but something in the execution is usually lacking for me. This is the third novel by Scott that I have read in the last year and it's the first to crack a 3.5/5 stars. 

Scott likes to explore the tough subjects. Death is a familiar face in every book of hers that I have encountered, and it is so here again in Heartbeat. Scott has never been an author to shy away from negative emotions, bleak POVs, or no-win situations. She tackles this touchy subject as bluntly as is her style, but reserves final judgement. Main character Emma's feelings about what has happened are obvious (but prejudiced), but they're not presented as the final/right word about how to deal with this situation. Emma doesn't look beyond her mom's personal fight and Heartbeat is not really a commentary on final rights.

The story of Emma's mom is sadly familiar but this book is really the story of the fallout waiting for the baby, instead of focusing on the decision about the mom's condition. This makes it much more Emma's story than her mother's. It's Emma's journey from grief to acceptance and maturity. Emma is a difficult character. She's selfish, bitter, angry, self-centered and scared. She's unlikeable. But I can understand Emma. I was like Emma myself a few years ago for a short period of time. She isn't perfect and smiley and happy, but she is real and an HONEST representation of a grieving teen. 

Honestly, I would have liked Heartbeat better if it had been without a romance. That isn't to say I didn't like Caleb (he was okay, had some interesting moments and characterization) but this story was never about Emma finding a boyfriend for me. I wanted it to be about Emma's personal struggle and that soon after losing her mother in such a painful way, well, I don't think a romantic relationship is the best idea. I really liked that she had such a strong friendship with Olivia (who is awesome), but wished a romantic relationship had been more hinted at as a possibility than an absolute coupledom by the end.

Heartbeat is a good book; the best of Elizabeth Scott's I've had the chance to read. I didn't cry because I wasn't terribly emotionally invested, but I was interested in the outcome and seeing how Emma grew and changed over the course of the novel. I love that this author continues to explore the harder aspects of teen life and can't wait to see what comes next from her. This isn't the easiest of books to read, despite how quickly it reads, but it will speak to a certain kind of reader.

Review: Sekret by Lindsay Smith

Saturday, February 15, 2014
Title: Sekret
Author: Lindsay Smith
Genre: historical fiction, supernatural
Series: Sekret #1
Pages: 337
Published: expected April 1 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
Rating: 3/5

Yulia’s father always taught her that an empty mind is a safe mind. She has to hide her thoughts and control her emotions to survive in Communist Russia, especially because she seems to be able to read the minds of the people she touches. When she’s captured by the KGB and forced to work as a psychic spy with a mission to undermine the U.S. space program, she’s thrust into a world of suspicion, deceit, and horrifying power where she can trust no one.

She certainly can’t trust Rostov, the cruel KGB operative running the psychic program. Or handsome Sergei who encourages her to cooperate with the KGB. Or brooding Valentin who tells her to rebel against them. And not the CIA, who have a psychic so powerful he can erase a person’s mind with his own thoughts. Yulia quickly learns she must rely on her own wits and power to survive in this world where no SEKRET can stay hidden for long.

Sekret is an ambitious first novel -- an intriguing mix of historical fiction, espionage, and totalitarianism -- and it mostly succeeds at some of the things it tries to do. It feels very different from its contemporaries for numerous reasons in addition to those named above, but the tired plot devices that were used (love triangles! Wheee!) were unfortunate and unneeded. While I ended up tentatively liking this by the end, it was nowhere near the success I had anticipated upon reading the synopsis. However, the series has good bones and I would return to try the second novel.

Sekret is the story of Yulia Chernina, a teenage political fugitive in her own native country. In Khrushchev's USSR not only is "everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others" but psychics, like Yulia, are hunted and kidnapped by the KGB, used to fight the American CIA in the space race. Moscow, 1963 is a very dangerous place for someone like Yulia and when she is inevitably forced to work for the KGB, all the secrets surrounding her life slowly reveal themselves and have direct impact on several key events of the plot. Yulia is a decent protagonist. I can't say I ever truly liked her, but I liked things about her. She has spunk and anger, but she fails to think things through, or to think before reacting. At first it's understandable, but by the end it's an issue. She didn't evolve enough for me, and the Yulia at the end of the novel felt like the Yulia we began the story with.

None of the characters really sparked with life or caused me to invest emotionally. Across the board, they all felt somewhat flat. Yulia and her love triangle compatriots Sergei and Valentin have the most characterization, but they each lack personality and complexity. It's not even hard to predict the eventual "winner" of the triangle because subtlety is not involved with the characterization of either boy. From Larissa to Ivan to Misha and Masha, they feel like actors playing a role, rather than real teenagers. They are labelled either friend or foe (of Yulia) early on, though neither side receives more attention. The antagonists, Kruzenko and Rostov, pack enough menace but they both are depicted as entirely villains. There's no complexity to either of them, either.

Now for the things I enjoyed. First among these is the thoroughly Russian atmosphere that permeates Sekret. Lindsay Smith obviously knows a lot about Russian culture and history and that knowledge is reflected back by how atmospheric her debut novel is. It doesn't read like a bunch of American teens set in 1960s USSR. No, it reads like these are Russian kids in their own country, with their own slang and traditions. It's so refreshing --- even if America is the faceless enemy. Maybe ESPECIALLY because America is the enemy. 

Also: real psychics working in government agencies. We've all heard about CIA experiments so it's quite novel to read about real ones being used against the United States. Smith creates or uses various aspects of the talent, from psychometry to "remote viewing" to empathy for her teenage operatives to use and between them, they can recreate a variety of viewings, from past to present to future. It's an admittedly cool idea and though Sekret wasn't as nearly action-packed as I had expected, Smith uses the supernatural element naturally and organically.

Smith also pulls off some smart twists as Sekret winds its way towards the end. I refuse to ruin the effect that reading the book provides, so all I will say is that though I called one twist the other made my jaw drop in surprise. Some of the novel felt like it loses sight of the plot, but when Smith brings it all together, it works for the most part. For a debut, it's not bad. I've read much worse. For what it's worth, Sekret is interesting enough, with enough potential, to keep me looking out for a sequel, if not rushing out to stores to get a finished copy of this.
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