Serena’s Review: “Prickle Moon”

16056356Book: “Prickle Moon” by Juliet Marillier

Publishing Info: Ticonderoga, April 2013

Where Did I Get this Book: bought it!

Book Description: Prickle Moon” is a collection of Juliet Marillier’s best short fiction. It contains eleven previously published stories and five new ones. Included are the Sevenwaters novella, “’Twixt Firelight and Water”, the epic Nordic story, “Otherling”, and “In Coed Celyddon”, a tale of the young man who would one day become King Arthur.

The title story, especially written for the collection, concerns an old Scottish wise woman facing an impossible moral dilemma.

Other new stories in the book include “By Bone-Light”, a contemporary retelling of the Russian fairy tale “Vasilissa the Wise”, and “The Angel of Death”, a dark story about a puppy mill rescue.

Review: I don’t typically read many short story compilations. I like my stories lengthy with lots of room for world-building and character development. And yet, I bought this book! Well this is simply because Juliet Marillier is one of my all-time favorite authors. I’ve read all of her books and she is on a very short list (maybe 3?) of authors whose works I will buy without reading first. I’m sure as the months go by I will feel compelled to ultimately post reviews of all of her books, just out of sheer love and a tendency towards being a completionist. But my first post will be on this more recently read book of hers.

“Prickle Moon” features sixteen total stories; the length of each story varies quite a bit with a few lasting only a handful of pages and others taking up more meaty chunks of the total page count. Many of the stories featured Marillier’s staple touch: mixing fantasy elements with, often Irish, folklore and heritage. Her writing is beautiful, lyrical, and often heart-wrenching.

One of my favorites was the title story “Prickle Moon” which features, as the cover art would imply, hedgehogs and a wise woman struggling to find her place in a small world seemingly going mad with grief where she must face the terrible choices put upon her. I’m not ashamed, I ugly cried during this story.

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Tissues? Who said I needed tissues?? (source)

I also really enjoyed “’Twixt Firelight and Water,” though this is one of the lengthier stories and also one that is directly tied to Marillier’s “Sevenwaters” series. I’m not sure how approachable it would be to casual readers who are not already familiar with the world and the characters. However, if you have read that series, it was such a joy to read this short story and get more details on some of the more sidelined characters from the original stories.

Mariller is also known for her fairy tale retellings, another reason she’s a favorite of mine. And here she tackles Rapunzel and the story of Baba Yaga, both of which were also highlights of mine.

There were a few contemporary stories, as well as one that would have to be labeled science fiction. While I still enjoyed these, they were a bit jarring to run into after zipping through the high fantasy tales that mostly make up this collection. I wasn’t completely sold on the science fiction story, especially, but once I got into the rhythm of the contemporary tales, I found myself enjoying them as well. But it is ultimately pretty clear where her strengths as a storyteller lie.

As I said, I don’t have a strong background in short story collections, so I don’t have a lot of other books to compare it to. However, as a newcomer to this type of book, I found myself really enjoying “Prickle Moon.” I did catch myself often wishing that each story could be its own book, but, alas, I imagine that is always the challenge with short stories. If you enjoy short story collections, especially if you are a fantasy/fairy tale retelling genre lover, I strongly recommend “Prickle Moon.” Just make sure to have that box of tissues ready at hand.

Rating 8: A few of the stories were weaker than the others, but the strong ones were fantastic. Marillier’s beautiful writing style and strengths with fantasy writing were well-represented.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Prickle Moon” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it obviously should be on this one: “Collections of Short Stories.”

Find “Prickle Moon” at your library using WorldCat.

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Landline”

18081809Book: “Landline” by Rainbow Rowell

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, July 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble; it has been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts…

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review: I had read two of Rowell’s young adult novels, “Fangirl” and “Eleanor and Park” and really liked them before coming to this book. I had heard that she had an adult novel floating around, and had it casually on my mental “to read” list, but had never made a real effort to pick it up as it falls out of my usual favorite genres. Last week, however, it happened to pop up as an available audiobook at the library, and that was my sign that now was the time!

I went into this story not knowing much about it. In fact, I had even less than the book description given above, since I was really only checking it out on the strength of Rowell’s other books and the general knowledge that this was about a married couple. That’s about it. So, it was quite a shock when I got to the magical, time-travel phone about 1/4 of the way into the story! A good surprise though.

Georgie is a television writer with her longtime friend and partner, Seth, who has been married for the past 17 years to her college sweetheart, Neal, and has two small girls to complete her family. From the outside, they look like the poster family for a working mom/stay-at-home father lifestyle, with Georgie financing the family, and Neal caring for the two daughters. However, after years of struggles balancing her work/home life, Neal and Georgie’s marriage is coming to a crisis state. Enter time travel, magical phone. A connection for Georgie back to the Neal she knew in college when they were going through a similar rough patch in their relationship.

So, just from that description, this book was quite a step out from my typical reading habits. Magical phones aside (which largely, it really is, as it functions as a plot device and not a lot more),  this book was mostly about the relationship between Georgie and Neal, how they got to where they are now and discovering whether they have a future. It’s a romantic, non-romance book, I guess, featuring two lead characters who are anything but typical romantic leads.

I really enjoyed this book. It perfectly balanced the emotional challenges of a long term relationship without vilifying either of the main characters. I’ve read a few other reviews where Georgie came under strong fire as a narrator, but I felt that her struggles, her realization of poor choices and her own failings was the whole point of the story. She is not written to be an unlikable character, just an honest, flawed human being. Being frustrated with her for these traits misses the journey of the story itself. Neal, too, is not written as a perfect partner, and while Georgie is our primary focal point, one can see the role he plays in their relationship fairly clearly.

I also really enjoyed the role that Georgie’s best friend and writing partner, Seth, plays in the story. I had quite a few concerns when he showed up initially, wondering whether we were heading into love triangle territory, but I should have had faith! If there is one thing that Rowell has proven with her previous books, it’s that she knows how to write honest relationships. And, at their core, I don’t believe love triangles can reflect any honesty about human relationships. It’s just not the way people truly form relationships and attachments. Seth’s role in Georgie’s life is refreshing and integral. He has played a role in the weakening bonds between Georgie and Neal, but not due to any romantic entanglements.

I also really enjoyed Georgie’s interactions with the rest of her family, both her young daughters as well as with her mother, step father, and much-younger sister. I’m going to repeat the word “refreshing” here for how much I appreciated this focus on the other people and relationships that make up Georgie’s life. She is not only defined by the primary romantic relationship in her life, but it is clear that the influence and love that she relies on from these other members is paramount in her life. I always enjoy reading about sisters, especially, and Georgie’s mother was a great character, too.

I sped through this audiobook! Usually I just listen to my audiobooks during my commute and call it good, but I found myself listening to this one as I cleaned my house and even before bed. The reader was very good, and I felt the story itself was very engaging. If you enjoy contemporary novels, with a good dash of humor and an honest look at the challenges and joys of married life, I highly recommend “Landline.”

Rating 8: Very good, especially the deeper look into all the many relationships that make up the central character’s life.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Landline” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Chick Lit for the Beach” and “Married Couples – NA/Contemporary Romance.”

Find “Landline” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Mummy Case”

66534Book: “The Mummy Case” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Congdon & Weed, 1985

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Disgusted when he is denied access to the pyramids of Dahshoor and assigned to a “rubble heap,” Emerson finds his curiosity piqued when an antiquities dealer is murdered and a mummy case disappears.

Review: First off…what is this book description? No mention of Amelia at all? I got it off Goodreads and I have to imagine that it was re-written for a later re-print of the series, but whomever is responsible for it should be ashamed for so badly misrepresenting this book and the series as a whole!

So, with no build up whatsoever, I loved this book even more than the last one! Many of my favorite elements were still present, and the added characters were stronger than in the last, as well as the mystery and action being upped.

Amelia and Emerson are off on another dig, though much to their disappointment, they will be at a much less illustrious location than their fellow egyptologists who have managed to snag the much-desired pyramids of Dahshoor site. But perhaps this is for the best, since Amelia and Emerson must not only balance their dig, as well as the inevitable mysteries and deaths that Emerson claims that Amelia attracts to herself, but also their precocious son, Ramses, who is accompanying them for the first time on this trip.

Amelia remains, as ever, the darling of my reader heart and one of my favorite narrators to date. Her wit, practicality, and scathing observations of those around her are as strong as ever. And the relationship (battle?) between her and her husband is as fun as ever. So, full marks in those as carry over elements.

I have to admit that I was a bit concerned when I picked up this novel and realized that Ramses had grown to an age where he was going to be featured more strongly in the series. In the last book, he made a brief appearance in the beginning but was absent for much of the rest of the story. I was a bit worried that the humor that lies in his character (his sharp tongue, unbreakable “reasoning” for his misbehavior, etc) wouldn’t hold up under increased page time. Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed Ramses as a character! Peters struck the perfect balance between featuring him as a new element, both in the series as well as his effect on the dynamic between Amelia and Emerson, and retaining familiar aspects of the story. He doesn’t overwhelm other characters, but instead draws out some my favorite aspects from before.

I also really enjoyed the side characters in this book. Unlike the last book which heavily featured original characters (to varying levels of success), many of the characters in this book are famous archeologists of the time. It was fun reading about familiar names, especially through the lens of Amelia’s and Emerson’s views of them. I’m sure there is a lot of creative leave that was taken, but it’s fun to imagine the real life individuals with some of the bizarre traits and habits that Peters ascribes for them here.

All in all, this was a great third book in a series. While I still very much enjoyed the second book, it was exciting to pick up this one and see that it had corrected many of my few quibbles from the last and was heading in a strong direction: no longer am I concerned about Ramses’ portion of the plot! Bring on the child antics! If you enjoy historical mysteries, and especially comedic writing, I recommend this entire series. It’s not strictly necessary that you read the first two, but why not when they’re this good?

Rating 9: An excellent continuation and proof that I should be less snobby about kid characters!

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Mummy Case” is included on these Goodreads lists: “I shot the Pharaoh – Novels on Egyptian Myths and Mysteries”, and “The Funniest Books Ever Written (Any Genre).”

Find “The Mummy Case” at your library using WorldCat.

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank” and “The Curse of the Pharaohs”

Serena’s Review: “The Winner’s Curse”

16069030Book: “The Winner’s Curse” by Marie Rutkoski

Publishing Info: Farrar Straus Giroux, March 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined. 

Review: This book was somehow exactly what I expected and completely unexpected at the same time. I still can’t quite decide how I feel about it, but I’ll give it a go!

 The story starts off with a quick introduction to Kestrel, our protagonist who, as the daughter of a most-esteemed general and an astute strategist herself, is struggling against pressure to make big life decisions: join the army or get married. Beneath this all lies Kestrel’s true passion for music, specifically the piano, which is not an acceptable life path for individuals in a society where the arts are to be paid for, not to be done oneself. Cue life changing event: Kestrel finds herself drawn to a young slave, purchases him, and FEELINGS HAPPEN.

So, my summary probably gives some clues to the strengths and weaknesses of the story. The set up is pretty obvious and frankly I was a bit weary reading through the inevitable relationship build-up between Kestrel and Arin.

I was much more intrigued by the world itself. What makes the situation presented here so interesting is the recentness of things. Arin’s country was invaded and his people enslaved within his own lifetime, only 15 years ago. Often stories like these involve countries with a much more lengthy history. Kestrel’s questions regarding Arin’s previous life offer a fascinating view into what living in a conquered country would be like, for both the winners and the losers, when history has barely been written. The strengths of the book definitely lay in this area, especially with a twist that happened about 2/3 of the way through the story which really tossed the plot in a completely unexpected, and frankly, relieving direction.

The first two thirds, as I mentioned, were pretty typical and I was at times ready to put the book aside. As a character, Kestrel was…fine. She didn’t pop off the page for me, but she also didn’t fall into any traps that are often the downfall of YA heroines. Arin, for his part, had a lot less page time, but what there was from him was interesting. I did have trouble buying in to their relationship. The author did a respectable job throwing in good moments and discussions that could justify burgeoning feelings between these two. But, especially for Arin, it’s hard to imagine that years worth of resentment, fear, and anger could be overcome.

almost-care
Does Kestrel have feelings for Arin?? Does he have feelings for her??…Meh.  (source)

The twist truly does save it. I don’t want to give it away, as it was a game changer for me with the series, throwing some much needed reality onto a at times a bit cheesy romance plot. I was worried that much of the history of their various cultures and the current society they both inhabited would be too easily swept aside. Boy was I wrong. I was thrilled that the author “went there” on a lot of these issues and really forced her characters into tough situations.

While ultimately the book still came off as a bit too “light” for me, I admire the direction the author is taking this series and the ending really did pull it back from the brink. I’ll put it down on my list to follow-up with the series, but I’m also not in a super rush due to some of these criticisms.

Rating 6: Weak start, bland characters, but ultimately a decent recovery with an unexpected switch in direction towards the end.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Winner’s Curse” can be found on these Goodreads Lists: “Princes, Other Worlds and Future Lands” and “Interracial young adult novels”

Find “The Winner’s Curse” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Curse of the Pharaohs”

32143Book: “The Curse of the Pharaohs” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1991

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Victorian Amelia Peabody continues to journal her Egypt adventures, toddler Ramses left in England. Husband Radcliffe Emerson’s old friend Lady Baskerville fears a curse killed her husband Sir Henry, and soon engages the attentions of American Cyrus. The will funds continued excavation. But a lady dressed in white floats, flutters, spreads fear, and more death.

Review: Now that I’ve discovered these books, I can’t stop myself! On to the next Amelia Peabody adventure, where we learn that nothing, not home, not baby, not grumpy husbands, is too much for Amelia!

This book picks up a few years after the first. Amelia and Emerson are home in England with their toddler son, Ramses (cuz, of course, that’s his name!). Right off the bat, I loved what Peters does with this new family dynamic. It is clear that Amelia loves her son dearly, but her practical, acerbic wit holds for no man or baby! I love the no-nonsense approach to parenthood that she brings to her interactions with Ramses, especially when paired with Emerson’s own approach. It’s kind of a traditional gender-swap, with Emerson cooing over the infant, while Amelia lovingly scoffs at his failures to recognize Ramses’ toddler faults. It’s all very adorable.

But, of course, disturbance must intrude on this domestic affair, and it comes with the death of Sir Henry while on a dig in Egypt. Amelia and Emerson are appealed to take over the dig and to stamp out the rumors of curses that now threatened to overrun the exhibition. Honestly, a lot of the elements in the mystery itself were similar to those found in the first book in this series: the setting, the growing body count, and the ever-present superstitious fears of the locals. Amelia and Emerson’s reactions to these elements are also similar, though in this book, they do develop a very fun competitive approach to the whole ordeal, which is as amusing as it sounds.

The cast of characters is also very expansive, which serves both as a benefit and a detriment to the story at various times. We have cartoon-ish characters (like an elderly lady who dresses up as ancient Egyptians and is convinced that Emerson is her reincarnated pharaoh lover), as well as side character with no less than three love interests! Some of these characters were fun, while others…I just couldn’t keep track of! The love interests, specifically, seemed to merge in my head and I often found myself flipping back pages trying to remember which gentleman was which. There was one, however, who is American and his overblown “American-isms” were pretty humorous, I must say. I did find myself missing Evelyn and Walter, but if this novel serves as a reference going forward, I think I must come to accept the fact that other than Amelia, Emerson, and now, likely Ramses, the supporting cast is likely to be a rotating door. Ah well.

Ultimately, I breezed through this book as quickly as the first! I was curious to see how Peters had Amelia approach the vast difference in her life, now being a wife and a mother (so many stories can struggle with these types of transitions), but overall, I was impressed and look forward to many, many more adventures with Amelia Peabody!

Rating 8: Strong follow up novel. Rated a bit less due to repeated elements in the mystery and weaker supporting characters, but still a very fun read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Curse of the Pharaohs” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Archaeology Romance, Mystery, Suspense” and “Sleuths in Silks.”

Find “The Curse of the Pharaohs” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “The Crocodile on the Sandbank”

Serena’s Review: “And I Darken”

27190613Book: “As I Darken” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, June 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

Review: I stumbled across this book when researching new titles for our “Highlights” post for June. I think I almost did a double take with this one: a re-imaging….of Vlad the Impaler…as a brutal, hard-edged young woman. Ooookkk, then. Color me fascinated! Well, I picked it up this week, not knowing what to expect, and was blown away!

First off, I feel that this book description is misleading, this is as much Radu’s story as it is Lada’s. The chapters alternate perspectives between the two, and each brings such a different and fascinating angle/interpretation to the events they are both experiencing.

I’ll start with Lada. Now THIS is what I’m talking about when it comes to writing a compelling anti-hero! When they bill Lada as “brutal” in the first line of the book description, I was picturing the typical “faux fierceness” that is fairly common in YA protagonists (or maybe I’m still smarting after the disappointment that was “The Young Elites). But Lada is not this; she’s mean-spirited, viscous, self-centered, and completely sympathetic. A half-wild girl who yearns for the approval of a father who can’t get past the fact that she’s not the son he wanted, Lada’s arc is as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. Not only are the facts of her life tragic, the powerlessness and helplessness that comes with being a woman who has been thrown into the grips of a foreign power as a royal hostage with only the limited options of a forced marriage before her, but her inner struggle is so honest, frank, and, again, heartbreaking. Her love for her brother Radu, that she can only show by ignoring him to protect him, her growing feelings for Mehmed, her friend but also the man who would prevent her from re-claiming her homeland. This is good stuff, guys!

And Radu, I had zero idea what to expect with his story! And wow, did I love his story, too! His voice is almost the complete opposite of Lada’s. He, too, struggles to find his place in the world, both admiring and loving his strong sister, but also fearing and, at times, hating her for being what he cannot. It was so hard flitting from one character to the other and seeing how each sibling made choices that seemed right to them, but would be misunderstood and hurtful to the other. Radu also brings voice to a completely separate set of struggles and conflicts, both in his conversion to Islam as well as his burgeoning feelings for Mehmed.

I loved the details of this world, the intricacies of the Ottoman Empire and its relationship to the other world powers at the time. The setting was also refreshing for not being the typical medieval European setting that is more commonly chosen. The court of the sultan, the politics, the religion, all were explored with rich detail and woven neatly into the story. This is a massive book, and yet it never dragged.There is court intrigue, assassination attempts, sieges, first loves, marriage, the list goes on! And yet, I would say this book is largely a reflective story, leaning most heavily on the characterization of its two protagonists and their complicated relationship with each other and their mutual friend, Mehmed.

For a book that I just stumbled upon, and for one with such a bizarre concept at its core, “As I Darken” was a complete surprise. It was serious, reflective, tragic story, and one that ends with a great set-up for the continued saga. I strongly recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction and are comfortable with some tampering (small things…like making Vlad a woman!)

Rating 9: I really loved this book. Lada and Radu were such compelling characters and the setting was refreshingly new and vibrant.

Reader’s Advisory:

“As I Darken” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Quality Dark Fiction” and “Best Historical Fiction.”

Find “As I Darken” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Court of Fives”

18068907Book: “Court of Fives” by Kate Elliot

Publishing Info: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, August 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.

Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

Review: As advertised on the cover of this book, Kate Elliott is a World Fantasy Award Finalist, which puts me to shame when I admit that before this, I hadn’t read anything by her. But after reading “Court of Fives,” I definitely will!

Jes and her sisters walk a precarious and lonely path. As the daughters of a Patron father who has been making a name for himself with militaristic achievements and their Commoner mother, a woman their father can’t legally marry, they do not fit in either world.  With such limited choices, each sister must find her own solace and way forward, and for Jes, that escape is the Fives, an intricate, Olympics-like sports competition that rests at the heart of society. But when her world begins to crumble around her, Jes must put these same skills to the real test: saving her mother’s and sisters’ lives.

This was perfect timing, as far as books go. Just coming off the amazingness that was the Summer Olympics, I was perfectly primed for a book about an awesome woman athlete kicking ass and taking names. I mean, I’m pretty sure I would have been perfectly happy with this book if it had just been scene after scene of Jes rocking it out at the Fives competition. And that was one thing I truly appreciated about this story. Jes starts out fully confident in her abilities, and then…lives up to her own word! Sure, she meets legendary athletes who help her train, and I’m sure will play more of a role in future books, but Jes is never “downgraded” by “reality” which is so often the case with stories like this. Girl starts out really good at THING, meets boy who then beats her at THING, boy and girl form competitive relationship where girl improves over the course of the book to maybe be awesome by the end. There is none of that. Jes is clearly at the top of her game throughout the story, and gains the respect and admiration of her colleagues for it.

Especially from Kal. I loved their friendship. There’s never any doubt that Jes is the superior player, but Kal is a gracious friend who doesn’t feel the need to tear her own for this, but sees her for the mentor she can be in his own quest to improve. It was a fun dynamic.

Adding to that, I really enjoyed the clashing cultures, classism, and struggle due to colonization that is on display in this book. Each culture/society is well-rounded and it was interesting watching Jes come to the “history is told by the winner” conclusion. Her struggles as a child of two worlds and the realities of the choices she has before her were also well done. There were no easy answers, and it was never forgotten that Jes, her sisters, her mother, and even her father, were constantly bound by the roles that society imposed on them.

I also really enjoyed the relationship that Jes had with her family. Her challenging relationship with a father whose choices she didn’t always understand or agree with, her mother who chose a life of scorn from outsiders to be with the man she loved, and Jes’s sisters, all dealing with the same restrictions as Jes. I particularly enjoyed the sisters, and the fact that none of them became pigeon-holed into the roles they are initially laid out in. At first I was rather dismissive of them all: you have the scholar, check; the rebel, check, and the beautiful, spoiled baby of the family, check. But each character broke from their roles in ways that surprised me.

I really enjoyed this book. There was such depth to this world and the culture, and the mores serious issues regarding classism and imperialism were balanced by fun sports moments and lots of adventure. The ending also made some brave choices, denying Jes an easy resolution and setting readers up for the sequel. My library request is already placed!

Rating 9: A complicated and challenging world, peopled with fun characters. The beginning of a trilogy that earns its follow up stories!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Court of Fives” isn’t on many Goodreads lists, but it should be on “The Games We Play” and “Best Books About Family Relationships.”

Find “Court of Fives” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Crocodile on the Sandbank”

188230 Book: “Crocodile on the Sandbank” by Elizabeth Peters

Publishing Info: Mead Dodd, 1975

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Set in 1884. At thirty-two, strong-willed Amelia Peabody, a self-proclaimed spinster, decides to use her ample inheritance to indulge her passion, Egyptology. On her way to Egypt, Amelia encounters a young woman named Evelyn Barton-Forbes. The two become fast friends and travel on together, encountering mysteries, missing mummies, and Radcliffe Emerson, a dashing and opinionated archaeologist who doesn’t need a woman’s help — or so he thinks.

Review: I am on a constant search for new historical mystery series! There are so many of them, and yet, as my last foray into “The Anatomist’s Wife” proved, there is also a lot of variety in whats out there when balancing the mystery itself alongside any adventure/historical/romance genre elements. The “Amelia Peabody” series is one that I have heard a lot about, but have never gotten around to. I freely admit that the covers have always put me off, as well as the title of this first book which didn’t exactly spark my fancy. But, after my latest failures in this genre, I was ready to finally give it a go! Wow. Talk about cover snobbery leading me wrong! I absolutely adored this book!

 Before I start raving about the characters in this book, most notably, of course, Amelia herself, I will try and get through the standard parts of a review. For one, this book started out on a strong foot simply be being set in Egypt and featuring archaeology at the heart of its mystery. I greatly enjoyed the setting itself, and specifically Amelia’s no-nonsense, practical approach to most everything, never flustered by such things as sandy dunes and donkeys. No suitable housing situation? Why, she’ll make her abode in an emptied out tomb, nothing to worry about there!

The mystery itself was fun, if fairly ridiculous at times. But don’t take this as a negative, I laughed out lout many, many times in this book, and the romp, adventure, and questionably supernatural elements only added to what could have been a stuffy Victorian novel. But Amelia Peabody can never be stuffy, and so the mystery is not!

Amelia herself is everything I love in a narrator, witty, sarcastic, straight-forward, and, you have to imagine, slightly unreliable. She always knows best; she will take care of everything; if you don’t step in line, then you aren’t needed. All this wrapped up in a character who is, at her heart, a very caring individual, though she would never admit it! She takes in poor Evelyn under her wing, much to Evelyn’s own gratitude and, perhaps, dismay! Evelyn, herself, wasn’t a particularly interesting character, but I did enjoy the different parts of Amelia’s character that Evelyn brought out. And I always appreciate a strong female friendship in novels like these.

The romance was also lovely, being a very slow-burn, lightly emphasized affair. Emerson and Amelia are exasperated with the other right up to the point where…they’re not. But one has to imagine that with two such strong personalities, flare ups will always be inevitable.

As I mentioned earlier, I laughed more in this book than I have in quite a long time. I am so excited to pick up the next and see what adventures and villains lie in wait for Amelia next! I almost feel sorry for them, not seeing her coming!

Rating 10: I’m so excited to have found a new favorite mystery series! Amelia is amazing and I will follow her anywhere!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Crocodile on the Sandbank” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Historical Mystery” and “Fearless Females.”

Find “Crocodile on the Sandbank” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “Star of the Morning”

"Star of Morning"
Book: “Star of the Morning” by Lynn Kurland

Publishing Info: Berkley Trade, December 2006

Where Did I Get this Book: The library!

Book Description: Darkness covers the north, since the black mage has begun his assault on the kingdom of Neroche. Legend has it that only the two magical swords held by Neroche’s king can defeat the mage. Now the fate of the Nine Kingdoms rests in the hands of a woman destined to wield one of those blades…

In this land of dragons and mages, warrior maids and magical swords, nothing is as it seems. And Morgan will find that the magic in her blood brings her troubles she cannot face with a sword-and a love more powerful than she has ever imagined.

Review: This book came to me by way of boredom-browsing through the library, a habit that has been met with both good and bad results in the books I ultimately end up with. I chose this one purely on the cover and the description. I have a weakness for the fantasy warrior woman trope, and I’m not ashamed! And as far as this aspect of the story goes, I was definitely satisfied.

We’re introduced to a fully capable Morgan who has years of experience under her belt, isn’t taking back talk from anyone, and demonstrates her abilities repeatedly throughout the book. Often, I find fantasy stories can rely too heavily on telling readers that their heroes are great, all while getting caught up in other plots and never really proving this claim. Morgan is not this. She fights off wild beasts, she trains a lord’s set of guards, she beats up on the king, for heaven’s sake! We are repeatedly shown just how awesome she really is. And I loved it all. What’s even better is that Morgan is aware of her talent. She doesn’t downplay herself and is fully confident in her abilities. If anything, she’s on the arrogant side which plays great for humorous effect.(She regularly complains about how incompetent the king is, unaware that he’s the king, and it’s too much fun).

And it’s not only Morgan who’s aware of her skill. Other characters, male characters, mention and appreciate her skill as well, reinforcing her place as a uniquely skilled swordswoman. Major points for this! It’s always refreshing to read a fantasy novel like this where the female protagonist isn’t punished in any way for being what she is: an extremely talented fighter. She’s just who she is, and that’s enough for everyone around her.

The story is split between Morgan and Miach, the king’s youngest brother and archmage of the realm. Also her love interest. He was given much more time in the story than the plot synopsis indicates. If anything, it’s a dual protagonist set-up between the two. He was also a fun character and what time we spent with him was enjoyable. While I probably enjoyed Morgan’s sections more, I wasn’t bothered by Miach’s portions.

The biggest strength of this book for me was the humor. There were several laugh-out-loud moments for me. The dialogue was witty and Morgan’s inner appraisal of those around her was always entertaining. Again, her disdain of the undercover king, and his reactions to her bluntness, was hilarious.

I do have a couple of criticisms. This book is fantasy-lite. The worldbuilding is of the most generic type for stories like this. We could be in any average magical world and nothing is really unique about this one. Magic is just a thing, there is no explanation for how it works the way it does or any limitations on its range. The politics are very typical, and what we’re given of the history of the world isn’t presenting anything terribly interesting.

And I personally always ding a book when the major conflicts of the story hinge on people choosing to just not communicate. There are several decisions like this throughout the book that just made me want to slap people. It was easy to see the conflict being set up by these choices and the payoff wasn’t worth the frustration of watching characters so badly mismanage things for a purely contrived purpose. These decisions made no sense and when I can see the author’s hand this clearly, it aggravates me. It goes completely against the competent characters that have been set up so far to then make them behave in this way, and it only succeeded in taking me out of the story.

Also, the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it was wrapped up way too quickly and in a manner that almost undid a lot of the goodwork and goodwill the book had built up up to this point. This book is the first in a trilogy, and while I was entertained by it and there were a lot of aspects I liked, I’ll still put this on my to-read list but I’m not in a major rush to get my hands on the second one based on some of these flaws.

Rating 6: So good in so many ways! So frustrating in so many ways!

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Star of the Morning” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels” and “Magic, Adventure, Romance.”

Find “Star of the Morning” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Serena’s Review: “The Young Elites”

20821111Book: “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, October 2014

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.

Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen.

Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

Review: Phew! Look at that book description! Do I even have space left to write a review? I won’t get on my soapbox re: long descriptions as I’ve already indulged my “look at that awful cover” soapbox preaching recently.

Kate and I actually got to meet the author at ALA a few years ago at a young adult authors round table event where she was promoting this book. I had read her previous series and liked it and so was intrigued by what was coming next for her. I remember sitting at the table with her and listening to her talk about her inspiration as wanting to write a young adult novel from a villains perspective. Frankly, I was a bit skeptical. I feel that anti-heroes are incredibly challenging to write, and it’s not made easier by the marketing and popular tropes of the current young adult book scene which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to this type of creativity with protagonists. However, as I said, I liked her other trilogy so was willing to give this a go (even if it did take me another 2 years to get to it!). Alas, my skepticism was warranted.

Adelina is a survivor of a terrible illness that swept through her country when she and her generation were children, killing all adults who were infected and disfiguring the children who survived it. Now, many years later, these marked children are scorned by society as omens of bad luck and ill will. But some of them are developing extraordinary powers and learning to fight back and are called the “Young Elites.” So…right off the bat you have a problem. This is a society that despises these marked teenagers, even more so the one that have powers, and yet they’re called the…young elites. A very positive term. I know this is knit-picky, but it  highlights the general problem with this story: a general discordance between how characters are presented as villains/heroes, with a lot of back and forth that doesn’t make much sense when you start digging into it.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Adelina is not an anti-hero. She is written in a way that justifies, explains, and generally supports her every action throughout the book. An anti-hero needs to make questionable decisions while still being sympathetic, not just do the same thing that any ordinary person would do in a specific situation and then spend pages talking about their own “darkness.” I mean, she’s constantly waxing poetic about her “darkness” and her “fear” and her “hatred,” but then the second she does something maybe half ways sort of not ok, she immediately feels regret/breaks down crying. Generally, Adelina is extremely unlikable, and not in the way of a character who is unlikable because they are doing terrible things but could maybe still be intriguing. No, unlikable in the “whines a lot and makes terrible decisions one after the next” manner.

The book is also written in first person present tense which is by far my least favorite writing style. I’m not quite sure why it’s still in use. It’s just an awkward format to read. Adelina would refer to her own emotions as “my fear rises” or “my passion rose up” etc etc and it came off in such an awkward manner that I couldn’t take any of it seriously.

I really liked the concept and the general re-imaging of a fantasy world version of Renaissance Italy as a setting. I also appreciated the complicated, close relationship between Adelina and her sister. The book also goes out on a strong note, making a few surprising choices and setting up an interesting, and less predictable, path forward. It’s almost enough to make me want to keep reading. But…sadly I’d have to put up with more of Adelina herself, and I’m not sure I’m quite up for that.

All in all, I was pretty disappointed with this book, especially because of how much I liked Lu’s other series. It seems like she had a great idea, but quickly became overwhelmed with the true complexities of trying to write a true anti-hero character.

Rating 4: This was a  miss for me. A strong setting and good example of sisterly bonds was not enough to get me past an unlikable protagonist and clunky writing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Young Elites” is included on this Goodreads list: “Diverse Books by Diverse Authors” and “Best Books for Dark Happy Endings.”

Find “The Young Elites” at your library using Worldcat!