DNF Review: Love and Other Unknown Variables by Shannon Lee Alexander

Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Title: Love and Other Unknown Variables
Author: Shannon Lee Alexander
Genre: contemporary, romance
Series: Standalone
Pages: 350
Published: Expected October 7, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 1 out of 5
Charlie Hanson has a clear vision of his future. A senior at Brighton School of Mathematics and Science, he knows he’ll graduate, go to MIT, and inevitably discover solutions to the universe’s greatest unanswered questions. He’s that smart. But Charlie’s future blurs the moment he reaches out to touch the tattoo on a beautiful girl’s neck.

The future has never seemed very kind to Charlotte Finch, so she’s counting on the present. She’s not impressed by the strange boy at the donut shop—until she learns he’s a student at Brighton where her sister has just taken a job as the English teacher. With her encouragement, Charlie orchestrates the most effective prank campaign in Brighton history. But, in doing so, he puts his own future in jeopardy.

By the time he learns she's ill—and that the pranks were a way to distract Ms. Finch from Charlotte’s illness—Charlotte’s gravitational pull is too great to overcome. Soon he must choose between the familiar formulas he’s always relied on or the girl he’s falling for (at far more than 32 feet per second squared).

Reviewed by Danielle

“I meant how long until you die?

And there we go, after 163 pages of Charlie Hanson being one of the worst people in young adult history, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rarely do I have the “pleasure” of experiencing a character who is such an unmitigated ass, but C-Man takes the lead right out of the gate by conducting “experiments” of touching girls without their permission and acting confused when they respond negatively. He’s just never going to get the hang of women. :(

Chuck is a theoretical mathematics genius at an exclusive private school for the sciences. He’s been planning on attending MIT since he was 9 and he won’t let anything stand in his way of becoming valedictorian, being accepted to his dream school, catching the eye of a great mathematician who will take him under his wing until Charlie wins his first Nobel Prize. And yet, while we’re told all of this, the only schooling we ever see is Charlie purposely sabotaging his English class, because books and literature are for plebeians. Wouldn’t such a driven and ambitious character try his best in every class to ensure his place as the top student?

The school has a reputation for poor English grades and driving off any teacher foolish enough to try and teach it to them. This year, the poor lamb lead to slaughter is Ms. Finch, an unorthodox young woman who reads the class novels, just for the fun of it, and takes them outside to view the world in a different way. O Captain! My Captain! Sorry, wrong piece of media. Despite trying to engage with the students on a mathematical level, Chuck’s BFF, James, launches a full scale bullying attack on her, which Charlie, reluctantly at first, supports and escalates.

It’s not just his teacher Charlie bullies. He’s rude to his friends, to the point where it’s an ongoing “joke” that he never apologizes. He admits that he doesn’t remember he has a sister unless she’s right in front of him. He runs over Mrs. Dunwitty’s flower garden and is forced to do yard work for her to make up for it. He’s openly hostile and refers to her as Mrs. Dimwit, because…? (He does HAVE parents, unlike James and the Love Interest, but they’re in perhaps two scenes, so I have no idea how he treats them. We have a serious case of missing adults in this book.) This isn’t “genius with no social skills”; this is full on asshole.

The love interest is Charlotte, an enigmatic and moody young woman with hope tattooed on her neck and feathers drawn on her shoes and fingertips smudged with charcoal, who just so happens to be the English teacher’s sister. Charlie is obsessed with her from the second he sees the back of her neck. I have no idea how Charlotte feels; she doesn’t get a point of view.

Not every love interest who changes a character’s life is a manic pixie dream girl, but Charlotte is. She spends all of her time at Charlie’s house, ostensibly because she’s lab partners with his sister, but really to teach him the joy of old musicals, abstract art, and taking risks. I chose to DNF when her secret was revealed, because it’s extremely derivative of another MPDG romance by a certain “savior of young adult” that just became a movie. I also found it completely out of place, because the foreshadowing suggested she was mentally ill, possibly suicidal, not dying of cancer.

I hate this book too much to try to finish it. I’m completely baffled at who the audience for a book about hating books is supposed to be, and how I can possibly root for, or fall in love with, this main character. Again, I did stop just shy of the halfway point and you may find the end redeems the beginning, but I don’t recommend trying it to find out.

Book Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing

Saturday, September 20, 2014
Title: The Jewel
Author: Amy Ewing
Genre: young adult, dystopia
Series: The Lone City #1
Pages: 358
Published: September 2014
Source: Book Expo America
Rating: 2/5

The Jewel means wealth. The Jewel means beauty. The Jewel means royalty. But for girls like Violet, the Jewel means servitude. Not just any kind of servitude. Violet, born and raised in the Marsh, has been trained as a surrogate for the royalty—because in the Jewel the only thing more important than opulence is offspring.

Purchased at the surrogacy auction by the Duchess of the Lake and greeted with a slap to the face, Violet (now known only as #197) quickly learns of the brutal truths that lie beneath the Jewel’s glittering facade: the cruelty, backstabbing, and hidden violence that have become the royal way of life.

Violet must accept the ugly realities of her existence... and try to stay alive. But then a forbidden romance erupts between Violet and a handsome gentleman hired as a companion to the Duchess’s petulant niece. Though his presence makes life in the Jewel a bit brighter, the consequences of their illicit relationship will cost them both more than they bargained for.

I knew early on that The Jewel and I were not going to be bookish best friends. But we were cruising along to a comfortable acquaintance -- the kind where I would smile companionably if I were to see The Jewel walking down the street --  when the instalove romance hit. That's when I knew that all The Jewel and I would be to one another was ambivalent and disappointed. In the span of a few pages, the few pages it takes our lovers to meet, The Jewel went from aggressively adequate to le boring. 

There are a few interesting things happening in the book before it derails into Instalove Central. The city's severe stratification -- both socially and geographically -- is an intriguing setup for the characters to operate within. The rules governing the society itself can be confusing until it's almost too late to care, but this dystopia can sometimes feel like the successor of The Handmaid's Tale it calls itself. The general feel of some characters can feel... very familiar (Cinna, is that you? Prim, what are you doing here?) but Ewing fashions main character Violet into more than she first appears. 

The things that work against the book are glaring and annoying. The names of the characters -- Ochre. Garnet. Carnelian. Ametrine. -- are silly, verging on ridiculous. I can't take a character named Ochre to be anything more than words on a page; he never felt real, like many of his compatriots. It doesn't help that Violet is really the only fleshed out character, but these other ludicrously-named people only serve to jerk me out of whatever worldbuilding Ewing was trying to create.

However silly the names or non-dimensional the side characters, it really is the romance that wrecked my read of The Jewel. It is boring to read two people "fall in love at first sight." Not only is it not believable, it just kills the story. Love is more than attraction and availabilty. You never get the sense that Violet and Ash represent more to one another than a chance to make a choice. They don't know each other, not really, and thus makes it impossible for me to care about them as a pair. I did not ship it because this ship is nothing more than a hollowed-out, weak hull. It sinks, it doesn't swim (mixed my metaphors BUT YOU GET THE POINT.)

I don't know if I will pursue this series. I was interested in Lucinna's machinations and the Duchess's mysterious motivations, but I need more from the principal character than love for her sister and longing for a man she barely knows. The interesting world and society can only take you so far into a book. The cliffhanger is evil and ends on a terrible point so I may be not be immune to trying the second book. Just know that The Jewel takes cues far more from The Selection than The Handmaid's Tale.

Review: Firebug by Lish McBride

Title: Firebug
Author: Lish McBride
Genre: Supernatural Fiction
Series: Firebug #1
Pages: 368
Published: Expected September 23, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Ava can start fires with her mind . . . but is it a blessing or a curse?

Ava is a firebug—she can start fires with her mind. Which would all be well and good if she weren't caught in a deadly contract with the Coterie, a magical mafia. She's one of their main hit men . . . and she doesn't like it one bit. Not least because her mother's death was ordered by Venus—who is now her boss.

When Venus asks Ava to kill a family friend, Ava rebels. She knows very well that you can't say no to the Coterie and expect to get away with it, though, so she and her friends hit the road, trying desperately to think of a way out of the mess they find themselves in. Preferably keeping the murder to a minimum.

Reviewed by Danielle

I described Firebug to my husband as, "like Sookie Stackhouse, before the fairies, but well written and intentionally funny." World building wise, I’ll stand by that. There are vampires and weres and a supernatural war happening under the nose of average humans.The plot is more action driven, but there is a mystery and interesting politics. It made me remember why I used to love the supernatural genre. Unfortunately, it took a while to get there.

Firebug is set in the same world as Ms. McBride's other, popular series, and I think that's to the detriment of new fans. The world building is confusing and information on the supes is doled out in a spotty and inconsistent manner. The book almost lost me right off the bat by dropping us into lovey-dovey time with Ava and her boyfriend, and catty, girl-fighting with his best friend. This doesn’t represent the rest of the book, but I started off with such a bad taste, it was hard to invest at the beginning. Additionally, every time the plot would start to pick up, we’d be treated to an exposition filled flashback. I’m not sure that was the best way to deliver the world’s information, because I felt disconnected from the main story.

Areas where supernaturals live are either ruled by the Coterie, a sort of vampiric mafia, or a Council, which is probably in the Coterie’s pocket. Most supes have no choice but to work for the Coterie in exchange for magic to pass as human, protection, or to pay off family debts. Ava hates the Coterie, but she’s been drafted into service as a soldier for her mother’s sins. She serves as hitman and intimidator along with her BFFs, Ezra the werefox and Lock, the half dryad. Firebugs, like Ava, are rare and Venus, the head baddie, isn’t going to let her leave the fold without a fight.

This book has a lot of fun elements and I enjoyed it, but beyond the world building, I have reservations. Duncan is introduced as Cade, Ava’s guardian’s, foster father and Ava’s adopted grandfather. He’s been one of a handful of constants in her tumultuous life. Which makes it weird that she’s so ready to turn her back on him and mistrust him. Approaching the climax, she spends more time mad at him than Venus.

Speaking of the climax… It wasn’t all I wanted. It’s a big scene with a lot of action and supernatural powers flying all over the place, but the actual writing didn’t communicate that enough. Major events felt skipped over, take place off screen, or just didn’t carry enough emotional weight. Even Venus’ death had the wind taken out of its sails by Ava’s heavy reliance on Lock and his constant whispers of “cupcake” while his sort of girlfriend burns their boss alive. I found that a very strange stylistic choice.

Firebug hasn’t replaced the Croak-shaped hole in my heart like I was hoping it might, (snarky teenager in the death business with fire powers, can you blame me?) but it very well may respark my love of supernatural fiction. I’m hoping with world building out of the way, the next book can focus more on the present mysteries and less on the flashbacks.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Series Review: The Bridgertons by Julia Quinn

Series: The Bridgertons
Author: Julia Quinn
Genre: romance, historical fiction
Pages: 3,422
Published: 2000 - 2006, 2013
Source: borrowed library, purchased
Average Rating: 4 out of 5

Set between 1813 and 1825, the Bridgerton Series is a collection of eight novels, each featuring one of the eight children of the late Viscount Bridgerton: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth. I didn't originally set out to write an eight-book series; at first it was just going to be a trilogy! But readers really took to the Bridgertons (and to the mysterious Lady Whistledown, whose gossip columns "narrated" the first four books), and I found myself rather enamored with the family, too.

Reviewed by Danielle

Today we're trying something a little new, as Ageless Pages bring you our first series review. While each book is technically a standalone, the series is so huge and sweeping, that I feel it bears looking at together. I've reviewed the collected "second" epilogues from Happily Ever After after their original novels, because that made sense to me. 

The Duke and I: The first book in the Bridgerton Series introduces us to the concept of the giant Georgian family with their stairstep children and alphabetical names. I LOVE the first three quarters of this book. Daphne is a headstrong, but innocent, lady who ends up forced into marriage after being caught on a dark walk. Her husband, Simon, is hot, snarky, and a total rogue. Seeing them come together would have been my favorite book in the series, and possibly in the genre, except for the eensy weensly little issue of spousal rape. Ew, even remembering it makes me mad. That's a genre twist that should have died in the 80s. Still, if you like banter, look no further. And Violet, Daphne's mom. I loved her so much I developed little hearts in my eyes.

Second Epilogue: Taking place 20 years after the end of The Duke and I, a very sweet little story about Simon finally confronting part of his tortured past to help one of his nephews, (not a spoiler because he has about twenty-eight of them,) and making peace so he and Daphne can move forward with an exciting surprise. I liked seeing so far into their future to see how some of the most immature characters in the series became such great people.

The Viscount Who Loved Me: Unfortunately, Anthony Bridgerton is my least favorite character. He's a pompous, stuffy, know-it-all who treats his siblings like recalcitrant children. That's a shame, because I love Kate. She's probably my favorite spouse. It made for a so-so read with only one stand out scene: the pall-mall game. Croquet has never seemed like such a fun hobby, particularly when your real objective is to sink the most aggravating character's ball into the lake. I gave it four stars at the time, but little stuck with me through the series. I would lower its score.

Second Epilogue: Knowing where her bread was buttered, we pick up several years later with another pall-mall game. Since the death mallet brought Anthony and Kate together, they've launched an elaborate prank war in order to steal the black mallet and then sabotage each other's game. As instrumental parts of the original wooing, Daphne, Simon, Colin and Kate's sister all join them for this yearly treat, which is actually really cute. It's not an important part of Bridgerton history, but it's fun to read.

An Offer from a Gentleman: Best. Book.

In this loose retelling of Cinderella, Sophie Beckett is an earl's well cared for by-blow. After his death, her evil stepmother and stepsister force her into servitude, as you do, (though she has a second, good stepsister who does try to make things easier.) Sophie sneaks into Violet Bridgerton's masquerade ball and it's love at first sight between her and Benedict Bridgerton. That's just the start of their story, which spans the years as Benedict searches for his mysterious lady in silver, while trying to save a poor, abused serving maid who looks awfully familiar. It's magical.

Second Epilogue: Posy, the not-evil stepsister, gets her own brief HEA with a vicar, resulting in a HILARIOUS line, as Sophie and Benedict see the new couple kissing, '"Normally I'd say to call the priest," he remarked, "except that seems to be what got us into this mess in the first place."' Of all the books, this is the one I bought in paperback so I can reread it annually.

Romancing Mr. Bridgerton: We all know the trope. True love is the best friend, (or your sister's best friend,) you never thought to look at. This is especially true for Colin Bridgerton, who was caught in the last book positively shouting that he will never marry Eloise's closest companion, Penelope Featherington. So, you know where this book is headed.

It's still sweet, and if you've been following the Lady Whistledown column from the previous books, a nice wrap up to that plot. (Though I wish it wasn't, it gave the books a connection that I feel the other four are missing.) It's one of the less memorable books, though, and I think it shows here and in the second epilogue that it was really setting up book 5.

Second Epilogue: Penelope and Colin go to Eloise's wedding and tell her the events of this book. An absolute miss for me.

To Sir Phillip, With Love: Eloise runs away to visit a (male, widowed) pen-pal who has asked her to marry him, for the sake of his children. I don't hate any book in the series, but this was definitely the closest I came. Eloise's selfishness is the only thing that reads any differently from Daphne. She doesn't seem to have any likes or wishes, (besides letter writing,) She's as childish as the kids she's supposed to be teaching better. Likewise, Phillip is as absent as it gets. He's supposedly a botanist, but I never felt like he loved flowers. And Anthony shows up to be all stern daddy. Euck.

Their romance felt like a rehash of the first four books, the kids didn't bring out anything good in Eloise, (though they did cause some funny scenes,) and Phillip's demanding speech in the portrait hall was gross to the nth degree. I definitely feel this one's skippable.

Second Epilogue: Ms. Quinn's first first person POV as a grown up Amanda, (one of Phillip's twins with his first wife,) narrates her own journey to matrimony. She talks a lot about Eloise being the best mother ever, but again, that character never shows herself. It was a perfectly charming short story, until the time skip in the last few pages that got waaaay too sexual with no build up .

When He Was Wicked: The other Bridgerton books are pretty sweet. There's always one or two sex scenes, but they're pretty vanilla. The books are genial, charming, and full of pretty people with easily solved problems. This book....

Well the spice is turned way up, firstly. Secondly, it deals with some pretty heavy issues of miscarriages, death, infertility, grief and guilt. Quinn does a great job of distinguishing Francesca as her own character, (something she struggled with in some other books,) and Michael is a great match for her. It's not easy to do hot and tender in the same book, in the same scene even, but it's well managed. Second best in the series.

Second Epilogue: This wasn't for me. After years of suffering infertility and seeing her stupidly fertile family give birth to scores of babies, Francesca breaks down over the fact that she'll never have a child of her own. She realizes she's blessed with a big family and starts to feel content with her place in it. And then, boom, baby. Anyone who reads my romance reviews KNOWS HOW MUCH I HATE THAT TROPE.

It's in His Kiss: Hyacinth Bridgerton and Gareth St. Clair are my OTP. I love their adorable, bickering little hearts. Two headstrong protagonists drawn together to solve a mystery that involves house breaking, hidden compartments, and mysterious letters in a foreign language. Plus, it features copious Lady Danbury, the requisite crotchety society matron, who is always hilarious. It's only two cons, one big, one small, that kept it from a higher score. The first is another compromised heroine. Stop that. The second is WHY WOULD YOU NAME THIS BOOK AFTER AN EAR WORM? I've had:

If you want to know
If he loves you so
Its in his kiss
(Thats where it is)

stuck in my head for TWO MONTHS.

Second Epilogue: The end of It's in His Kiss was really disappointing, apparently not just for me, but for a lot of readers. The second epilogue tells the story of Hy's daughter who is just. like. her, (mothers of difficult daughters everywhere start cackling and aren't quite sure why,) as she embarks on her own Season and tortures her poor mum. It also resolves the mystery that the previous epilogue left hanging. Cute but nothing truly special.

On the Way to the Wedding: We bid fare thee well to the Bridgertons with a book that has zero connections to the actual Georgian England. Or reality.

And I loved it.

 It's pure wish fulfillment fantasy with a run-in objection to a wedding, blackmail, kidnapping, love at first sight, practically every character from the last seven books, fourth wall breaking, and silliness. I haven't had so much fun with a book in ages.

Again, there are some writing issues as Gregory feels identical to Colin at the same age. Hermione, the heroine's best friend and a major, major player in the beginning of the book's characterization was spotty and I didn't believe she would get into that situation. Lucy is perfect. It's obvious why she's best friends with Kate, because they're the best spouses. I can't believe it's over, but there's no better way for the family to go out.

Second Epilogue: TEARS!

At the end of the novel, Lucy gives birth to her eighth and ninth babies. This story picks up immediately after as she fights for her life following complications with the birth. Gregory must face the idea of losing his beloved wife and raising nine children alone, (which is the exact situation of poor Violet, whose husband died just a few weeks before Hy was born.) Romance novels are not supposed to make me cry. Rude.

But a great short story.

Violet in Bloom: The Happily Ever After collection ends with a novella about Violet. It takes place at a few important points in her life: as a child feuding with the horrid Bridgerton boy, as a teen re-meeting Edward and falling in love, as a young mother, as a widow finally allowing herself to move on, and as a great-grandmother, surrounded by family. I wish we'd seen and spent more time with Edward, and the dancing scene at the ball with the kids having a fit because she was dancing with someone other than dad was weird and I'm not sure it fit the rest, but I liked the story a lot. After the first novel, she never factored in as much as I would have liked, so seeing her childhood and some of the big events from her POV was wonderful. It's one of three new stories in the collected anthology, and I'm not sure I'd buy the whole book just for the novella, if you've already read most of the second epilogues, but if you haven't, there's enough good to make it worth a borrow at least.

I hope it's obvious that I love the Bridgerton series. A few of the older books are starting to show their age with plots that are no longer en vogue, (*cough*Daphne*cough*,) and the similarities are pretty obvious, especially if you marathon them, but there's a lot of fun to be had. As an introduction to one of the biggest HR writers, I think this would be a phenomenal starting point. If the whole series is too much of a commitment for you, I do recommend starting with An Offer from a Gentleman as the best book and the best standalone, but I think you'll find that you want to be a Bridgerton as much as I do.

Review: A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall

Saturday, September 13, 2014
Title: A Little Something Different
Author: Sandy Hall
Genre: contemporary, young adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 272
Source: publishers for review
Rating: 3.5/5

The creative writing teacher, the delivery guy, the local Starbucks baristas, his best friend, her roommate, and the squirrel in the park all have one thing in common—they believe that Gabe and Lea should get together. Lea and Gabe are in the same creative writing class. They get the same pop culture references, order the same Chinese food, and hang out in the same places. Unfortunately, Lea is reserved, Gabe has issues, and despite their initial mutual crush, it looks like they are never going to work things out.  But somehow even when nothing is going on, something is happening between them, and everyone can see it. Their creative writing teacher pushes them together. The baristas at Starbucks watch their relationship like a TV show. Their bus driver tells his wife about them. The waitress at the diner automatically seats them together. Even the squirrel who lives on the college green believes in their relationship.

Surely Gabe and Lea will figure out that they are meant to be together....

I have one word with many elongated syllables to describe Sandy Hall's debut: cuuuuuuuuuuuuute. It's cute. It's cutesy and whimsical and it's meant to make you ship the ship of awkward Gabe and shy Lea. Using many more POVs than I usually see, some with very unique viewpoints (squirrels! benches! surly and grumpy males of young adult age who are not an eventual love interest!) Sandy Hall uses these various perspectives to bury you in feels and adorableness.

A Little Something Different is the perfect popcorn novel. It's brisk and different, adorable and endearing. Though there are a few issues with the writing (girl on girl hate for nothing but highlight? Come on now.), it's a breath of easy-reading, pure fun. The characters are distinct and likeable, even the ones who really don't care if you like them or not coughVictorcough. The many POVs help to really create a sense of community for both Gabe and Lea -- and also make it so that the entire novel boasts a lot of distinct personalities.  

If I had to pick another descriptor for A Little Something Different, I would go with "fun". It's just plain fun to read; to get caught up in this will-they-or-won't-they narrative about two such complementary characters. The romance is sweet without being saccharine, important without being overly dramatic, and the characters all have a group and individual chemistry that makes it so easy to invest in the outcome. The small doses of humor are doled out with care and help to keep the story from veering into too much of one aspect. Even if the end is slightly predictable, the author still makes you hope and wait and root for this couple.

The first novel from Macmillan's Swoon Reads, I would have to say that Sandy Hall's debut is a great fit and good harbinger for the imprint. Good contemporary romances are hard to find, but A Little Something Different's originality and adorableness make it stand out.

Book Tour Review: Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift

Friday, September 12, 2014
Title: Shadow on the Highway
Author: Deborah Swift
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Highway Trilogy #1
Pages: 294
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 3/5

Abigail Chaplin has always been unable to find a position as a maidservant like other girls, because she is deaf. So why do the rich Fanshawes of Markyate Manor seem so anxious to employ her? And where exactly does her mistress, Lady Katherine, ride out to at night?

SHADOW ON THE HIGHWAY is based on the life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe, the highwaywoman, sometimes known as The Wicked Lady. A tale of adventure and budding romance set in the turbulent English Civil War, this is a novel to delight teens and adults alike. 

The first book in a series but which can also be read as a standalone, Deborah Swift launches her Highway Trilogy with some memorable characters and interesting plotlines with Shadow on the Highway. Set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, with an unusual protagonist in an uncertain position with an unpredictable mistress, main character Abi's struggles are both real and fraught and make for a rapid read. Full of historical detail and information (communes! In England! In 1651!), Shadow on the Highway is a quick but mostly appealing read.

I was drawn to this book because it does a few things differently than most English-centric historical fiction I read. For one, Abi is a commoner, and two, she is deaf. And I loved that Swift didn't let her disability be the whole of her characterization. Being deaf is only part of the full picture that is Abigail. She's smart, hardworking, stubborn, and loyal. She makes mistakes, she saves the day... she has many facets and attributes. Her relationship with Lady Katherine makes for some drama, but it's a steadily evolving and changing bond between the two young women.

I wasn't as much of a fan of the supporting cast as I was of Abigail. Lady Katherine has her moments but a lot of her actions didn't ring completely true for me. I could see her leading a double life, but a triple life as a Lady/Thief/Maid? That was too hard to believe, no matter how strained and distant her relationship with her husband and stepfather. Ralph, too, needed a bit more development to feel real. I liked that Swift used him to bring some different ideas to the story, but as a person, Ralph wasn't as defined as I would have liked. 

Shadow on the Highway was a good starter for a YA historical series. The plot was neatly wrapped up with satisfaction while still leaving ample room for more story with the two planned sequels. The historical detail and Abi herself were easily my favorite parts of the novel and I look forward to what the author will write next.

Book Tour Review: Madame Picasso by Anne Girard

Thursday, September 11, 2014
Title: Madame Picasso
Author: Anne Girard 
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 432
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

The mesmerizing and untold story of Eva Gouel, the unforgettable woman who stole the heart of the greatest artist of our time.

When Eva Gouel moves to Paris from the countryside, she is full of ambition and dreams of stardom. Though young and inexperienced, she manages to find work as a costumer at the famous Moulin Rouge, and it is here that she first catches the attention of Pablo Picasso, a rising star in the art world.

A brilliant but eccentric artist, Picasso sets his sights on Eva, and Eva can't help but be drawn into his web. But what starts as a torrid affair soon evolves into what will become the first great love of Picasso's life.

With sparkling insight and passion, Madame Picasso introduces us to a dazzling heroine, taking us from the salon of Gertrude Stein to the glamorous Moulin Rouge and inside the studio and heart of one of the most enigmatic and iconic artists of the twentieth century.

Paris, love affairs, and art make for an engrossing read with Anne Girard's debut novel Madame Picasso. Focusing on the 1910-1914 years of Pablo Picasso's life (around the beginning of his Cubism period) the author recreates and re-imagines a vivid version of the famous painter and his first great love. Marcelle/Eva is as complicated and fascinating as her more famous male counterpart and Madame Picasso is the stage of which she is the star. Together the two of them carry the story, expanding on what we know of both the famous artist and his mysterious muse during their time together.

The relationship between the two main characters is charged from the start. They both complement and challenge one another; their relationship is always evolving and changing throughout the course of the novel. From the rather inauspicious beginning of their love to the bittersweet end of Madame Picasso, Girard sells these two with their chemistry and charisma. Picasso, a noted lothario, found his other part in Eva -- she inspires him as his muse, and encourages him as his lover when Cubism was still finding its footing in the art world. 

The book is both engaging and vivid -- from the Moulin Rouge to the country getaway of Céret, Girard's version of 20th century France is readily imagined. Given to detail and description, it's easy to see the world that Picasso and Eva lived in under her pen. Their famous friends and rivals -- from Fernande Olivier to Max Jacob to Georges Braque -- also come to life with equal vivacity. Girard is equally capable of capturing time, place, and people with her clear prose. Madame Picasso is a strong novel, and an impressive debut.

I love when historical fiction makes me curious about the real people that inspired a fictional retelling about their lives. I don't usually venture into the 20th century with my historical reads, but Madame Picasso was a breath of fresh, modern(ish) air. Anne Girard takes turn of the century Paris and Pablo Picasso and fully makes both into her own here with Madame Picasso.

Review: The Island of Excess Love by Francesca Lia Black

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Title: The Island of Excess Love
Author: Francesca Lia Black
Genre: young adult, retellings, supernatural
Series: Love in the Time of Global Warming #2
Pages: 224
Published: August 26 2014
Source: publishers for review
Rating: 4/5

Pen has lost her parents. She’s lost her eye. But she has fought Kronen; she has won back her fragile friends and her beloved brother. Now Pen, Hex, Ash, Ez, and Venice are living in the pink house by the sea, getting by on hard work, companionship, and dreams. Until the day a foreboding ship appears in the harbor across from their home. As soon as the ship arrives, they all start having strange visions of destruction and violence. Trance-like, they head for the ship and their new battles begin.

This companion to Love in the Time of Global Warming follows Pen as she searches for love among the ruins, this time using Virgil’s epic Aeneid as her guide. A powerful and stunning book filled with Francesca Lia Block’s beautiful language and inspiring characters.

There's a lot to take away from finishing a Francesca Lia Black novel, but most often I find myself impressed with her imagination and the dream-like quality of her writing. Both aspects of her storytelling style are distinct and memorable and make for a wholly original reading experience. When you read a Francesca Lia Black novel, they are among the first and last things you notice. For me, that makes reading her novels both fascinating and hard to review critically. Updating and changing the Aeneid for a modern-ish retelling with LGBTA teen characters isn't something that just any author would try and only FLB could pull it off with such aplomb.

For all that I can enjoy and appreciate the author's unique style and diverse cast of characters, I never really connected to Pen or Hex or Ez or anyone else in this book. It's partly due to how short the novel is, and to the distant way the author writes each of them. I know how Pen thinks and feels as the narrator and main character, but I never had that sort of familiarity or knowledge of any of the side characters. They're more names with attributes attached (that one is a singer, this one is an artist) than real people. They never evolved into fully-fledged characters for me. 

The imagery and writing are meshed together well, but the book also meanders for a while. It's nowhere near as fast-paced as Love in the Time of Global Warming, and it can feel/read directionless for the first part. And as much as I enjoy Block's writing and originality, there were several plot points I could not enjoy (like the baby, the cheating, etc.) and which detracted from both the story and the characters. I found the latter issue especially out of character for who we've seen Pen become in these two books. It was a disappointing inclusion.

The Island of Excess Love is a vividly-rendered story, with great writing and an unusual cast. It's full of monsters and madness, and Francesca Lia Block is just the author to pull off such a gamble.

Review: The Wonder by Colleen Oakes

Friday, September 5, 2014
Title: The Wonder
Author: Colleen Oakes
Genre: fantasy
Series: Queen of Hearts Saga #2
Pages: 238
Published: Expected September 23, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

An Exiled Princess.
An Ancient Tribe.
A Dangerous Stranger with Unknown Loyalties.

Dinah, the former Princess of Wonderland Palace, has been chased into the wilds of Wonderland after the brutal murder of her brother and the ruin of her impending crown. Now, as her half-sister Vittiore sits on the throne beside her Father, the brutal King of Hearts, Dinah finds herself alone in the forbidding Twisted Wood with only Morte, a homicidal beast, for company.

Hunted by the King and his army of Cards, Dinah struggles to evade those who long for her head, including Cheshire, the King’s clever advisor, who is slowly tightening his grasp around her. Spurred on by her rising terror, the former Princess finds herself at the center of a web of conspiracy reaching far beyond the Palace and deep into the mysterious Yurkei mountain tribes.
Even with the balance of an entire Kingdom at stake, Dinah knows something that her allies and enemies do not: that the most dangerous conflict of all has already begun as she battles the enticing rage that beckons her ever closer as love slips further from her grasp.

The second book in the bestselling and award-winning Queen of Hearts Saga, The Wonder takes readers back to the most wondrous and curious places in Wonderland, and continues this darkly addictive tale featuring one of the most infamous villains of all time.

But be warned…not every fairy tale has a happy ending.
This is the story of a princess who became a villain.

Reviewed by Danielle

This review does contain spoilers for book one: The Crown.

The Wonder isn't a perfect sequel, but it's pretty darn wonderful. Oakes has continued to build one of the most unique and vivid worlds I've come across in a fairy tale retelling.

On that score, I wish there had been a bit more done with the Yurkei. After a world of pink snow, color changing flower oceans, and maddening roots, it was a little disappointing that their society is your standard nomadic horse warriors. There was the suspended tent and the mushrooms, but they were almost more confusing as I didn't get how the horses and the birds fit together. Their inclusion was great, though, and the encounter and time with them was very important, so I'm happy to have met Mundoo and Bah-Kan, even if it could have gone farther.

Undeniably darker than The Crown, the remainder of the world building is devoted to the Twisted Wood, full of snakes, bears, and poisoned berries, and the Darklands, a swamp that you really don't want to experience. There's a scene in a tunnel that is creepy and reminiscent of the Black Tower. But the real threat continues to be the King of Hearts. Dinah's flight hasn't just hurt his plans, but his pride, and he will never stop hunting her.

There's good character development for Dinah, some coming from memories of her mother, who we really got no information on in the first book. There's also a big moment where she accepts and embraces her destiny, which was excellent. She still has a tendency towards selfishness and her rages sometimes feel unprovoked. I could have lived without the scene by the lake, frankly. It felt like a step back.

I think the best part of the novel is the newest character, Sir Gorrann, the gruff old Spade set on vengeance. Dinah desperately needed someone to stand up to her and a reminder that she'd been unusually blessed, (up until the whole "framed for murder" thing.) The evolution of their dynamic over the course of the story was undoubtedly a highlight and a big part of Dinah's growth.

The Wonder continues this series in a big way. It's tense and has a surprising amount of heart. There's a massive, game-changing twist. The references to the original Wonderland are well integrated with the new world in a way that keeps it fresh. It does feel a bit like a bridge between the first and last books and pacing wasn't always smooth, but in all, a short novel I'm happy to recommend.

Review: Talk Sweetly To Me by Courtney Milan

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Title: Talk Sweetly to Me
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: romance, historical fiction
Series: The Brothers Sinister #4.5
Pages: 109
Published: August 19, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Nobody knows who Miss Rose Sweetly is, and she prefers it that way. She's a shy, mathematically-minded shopkeeper's daughter who dreams of the stars. Women like her only ever come to attention through scandal. She'll take obscurity, thank you very much.
All of England knows who Stephen Shaughnessy is. He's an infamous advice columnist and a known rake. When he moves into the house next door to Rose, she discovers that he's also wickedly funny, devilishly flirtatious, and heart-stoppingly handsome. But when he takes an interest in her mathematical work, she realizes that Mr. Shaughnessy isn't just a scandal waiting to happen. He's waiting to happen to her...and if she's not careful, she'll give in to certain ruination.

The heroine is a mathematical savant and the hero makes dad jokes. They fall in love watching astronomical anomalies. And it's an interracial love story that deals with race in a sensitive manner without uttering one food based adjective. I couldn't love this book any more if it came to life and brought me wine.

I wonder if Ms. Milan is deliberately writing stories that Harlequin would never dare publish, or if she left Harlequin because they wouldn't dare on her stories. Chicken and egg. I waxed rhapsodic about what makes the Brother’s Sinister heroines so special in my last review, so I won’t repeat myself. Rose is as strong as Serena, as smart as Violet, and as self-assured as Free, but with a wonderful vulnerability that the more socially-secure heroines don’t have.

Her partner is Stephen Shaughnessy, first introduced in the Suffragette Scandal as the outrageous male feminist who wrote the delightful “Actual Man” columns. He’s a bit older now, and is writing novels in addition to his columns, but he’s the same cheeky scamp. No wonder he has a roguish reputation, he’s the kind of character I go gaga for.

The story works fantastically well as a novella. There’s a good balance of gooey happy stuff and “we come from different worlds” tension that never drags with unnecessary miscommunication or contrived separations. If I had one quibble, I wish the book was “sweet”, (see what I did there?) because the one sex scene didn’t flow as well as the rest of the story.

My fangirling level has reached critical maximum. If I can’t convince you to read this book where the hero both says, “But beware - if I have to drawn another diagram, thing may become graphic” and, “You look at the sky and see not pretty lights, but a cosmos to be discovered,” and both of those are absolutely perfect in the context of their conversations, I don’t know what else to say. Buy, devour, love the Brothers Sinister.

Review: The Suffragette Scandal Courtney Milan

Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Title: The Suffragette Scandal
Author: Courtney Milan
Genre: romance, historical fiction
Series: The Brothers Sinister #4
Pages: 281
Published: July 15, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5 out of 5

An idealistic suffragette...

Miss Frederica "Free" Marshall has put her heart and soul into her newspaper, known for its outspoken support of women's rights. Naturally, her enemies are intent on destroying her business and silencing her for good. Free refuses to be at the end of her rope...but she needs more rope, and she needs it now.

...a jaded scoundrel...

Edward Clark's aristocratic family abandoned him to die in a war-torn land, so he survived the only way he could: by becoming a rogue and a first-class forger. When the same family that left him for dead vows to ruin Miss Marshall, he offers his help. So what if he has to lie to her? She's only a pawn to use in his revenge.

...and a scandal seven years in the making.

But the irrepressible Miss Marshall soon enchants Edward. By the time he realizes that his cynical heart is hers, it's too late. The only way to thwart her enemies is to reveal his scandalous past...and once the woman he loves realizes how much he's lied to her, he'll lose her forever.

Reviewed by Danielle

"A paper written by women, for women, and about women obviously NEEDS a man to speak on its behalf. If it is a joke for men to speak on behalf of women, then our country, our laws, and our customs must all be jokes, too."

I see what you’re doing with this book, Courtney, and I approve.

The Brothers Sinister series has played a lot with what a romance heroine is. She's a survivor, a prodigy, an individual, a scientist, a feminist. She's more than a love interest. She's a fully realized character. These tenets have come to a raging boil with Free, out titular suffragette. Through her character, Ms. Milan has a lot to say on women's rights in Victorian England and their parallels to modern struggles. It's not your typical bodice ripping fare, and that's why it's so special.

I adore that Free’s able to be open and sexual and throw Edward off his game. Their relationship felt wholly unique. I loved both characters individually and together. At first, their romance is overshadowed by the plot against Free, but as the book progresses and both characters soften, there’s a really interesting part where they’re separated and writing letters, (including Edward’s infamous puppy letter that melted me into goo,) that tied back into Free’s parent’s romance from the prequel novella. It’s a little thing that I didn’t connect initially, but it fleshed out the world and reminded me how much I’m going to miss these characters.

It’s not a perfect book. The villain’s motivations felt thin and I don’t think a lord can just decide he doesn’t want to pay attention to his tenants anymore. Still, this is also the book that gives us TWO beta romances featuring queer characters. That’s something I’ll forgive a lot for. It’s smart, well written, and sexy. I know there’s a coda to the series still coming, but with the epilogue, I’m happy to bid the Brothers Sinister farewell.

Review: Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper

Monday, September 1, 2014
Title: Salt & Storm
Author: Kendall Kulper
Genre: fantasy, historical fiction
Series: None
Pages: 416
Published: Expected September 23, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 2 out of 5

A sweeping historical romance about a witch who foresees her own murder--and the one boy who can help change her future.
Sixteen-year-old Avery Roe wants only to take her rightful place as the witch of Prince Island, making the charms that keep the island's whalers safe at sea, but her mother has forced her into a magic-free world of proper manners and respectability. When Avery dreams she's to be murdered, she knows time is running out to unlock her magic and save herself.
Avery finds an unexpected ally in a tattooed harpoon boy named Tane--a sailor with magic of his own, who moves Avery in ways she never expected. Becoming a witch might stop her murder and save her island from ruin, but Avery discovers her magic requires a sacrifice she never prepared for.

Reviewed by Danielle

Salt & Storm is a creative debut with a great blurb and a top notch cover. Which is what makes my initial review:

My face is the personification of the :\ emoticon.

all the more disappointing. It’s not that Salt & Storm is a bad book. I applaud the author for trying something new with the standard supernatural love story and for creating a magic system with real consequences. But unfortunately none of that makes up for some very serious problems.

Avery is not a likable or relatable character. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I got the sense that the book thought she was. Despite the fact that she’s selfish and rude and has no interests or thoughts outside of escaping back to the witch’s cabin, she’s immediately adored by the love interest, rooted for by the townspeople, and captures the mind of a mysterious smuggler. The argument could be made that the townspeople never cared for her, only her status as the witch, but even so I felt like the book never saw Avery as badly as I did. Especially the way she treated Tane.

We need diversity in young adult literature, so I was absolutely thrilled to meet Tane, a Pacific Islander who is out for revenge when his made-up fantasy tribe was slaughtered while he was learning to be a whaler. While there are problematic elements to that backstory, it was when I learned that Tane’s magic comes from his traditionally carved tattoos that I became really upset. Without going too deep into history, what Captain Cook and his missionaries did to the Pacific Islands and their culture, including tattoos, is despicable. To take a lost art, especially in a time when people like the Māori are still struggling for basic rights in their home islands, and use it as a cheap and lazy backdrop for “strange” magic is not right. (Funny how all the “strange” magic in this book seems to belong to people of color.) Inking up your white girlfriend with no spiritualism or ritualism behind it, for the sake of magic, is doubly so.

Beyond that, I had a lot of pacing issues. For a book that constantly drills urgency following Avery’s dream, I felt like too much of the plot was stagnant. There’s also a lot of introspection following the climax and I wasn’t in love with how it was presented. I absolutely hated the final part, where characters reveal brand new motivations and apparently cheat death through the power of familial bonding. For such an angry book, it was schmaltzy.

I wanted so much better from Salt and Storm. The climax is ballsy, but the end didn’t follow through. The love interest is a person of color, but used in a lazy way. There’s interesting ideas explored in the magic system, but they could have played a larger role in the story. The only thing I really loved was the way the time period came alive. There’s some beautiful prose, especially when describing the whaling lifestyle. It’s obvious the author is talented and passionate, it just didn’t all come together this time around.

September's Planned Reads

September! It's here! I have been slacking somewhat in the posting department. I got slumpy and then I got lazy and then I got busy. However, here's to self discipline kicking in and me getting back on the blogging wagon.

Planned reads for September:

Madame Picasso by Anne Girard
I've never been that interested in Picasso the artist but Picasso the man is making for a very interesting read. I have a review going up for the blog tour and I'm not sure how I will end feeling about this one.

Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper
A BEA book about witches and the ocean and maybe an interracial romance?? This pubs earlish in the month so I plan to have it read and reviewed here in the next day or so.
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