Serena’s Review: “Flame in the Mist”

23308087Book: “Flame in the Mist” by Renee Abdieh

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, May 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from NetGalley!

Book Description: The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath.

So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace.

The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Review: Right off the bat, there were several things going for this book when I first saw that it was coming out. First and foremost, I had very much liked Abdieh’s previous YA fantasy duology, a re-telling of “One Thousand and One Nights, “The Wrath and the Dawn” and “The Rose and the Dagger.” Together they made up a unique re-telling of one of the few remaining fairytales that hasn’t been beaten into the ground (this coming from an avid fan of fairytale re-tellings), and the style of writing appealed to me with its lyrical quality. “Flame in the Mist” had the same elements. To its detriment.

I want to applaud the author, however, for sticking to her guns in choosing lesser known stories and focusing her world-building and characters on non-European/western settings and cultures. Here we have what is essentially a “Mulan” re-telling set in a proto-Asian setting. I don’t have a wealth of knowledge of Chinese/Japanese/etc cultures, so I can’t speak to those aspects of the book (similar to my lack of knowledge of the “realism” of the Middle Eastern setting used in her previous duology). However, both that series and this are set in fantasy worlds, for all their similarities, so outside of blatant issues (which there were none that I could tell), there was a lot of free reign to build a completely new world order/culture with this story. This was one aspect of the story that I really enjoyed. It was refreshing to read a fantasy story that takes place in an eastern setting. This left not only the fantasy elements to learn and to explore, but also the immersive quality of being quite outside my own culture, while still having threads to tie back to what little I do already know of the regions of the world that this story draws from. Full marks for world building.

Unfortunately, that leads me to the rest of the story, all of which I had more issues with. First off, I feel that, as a reader, I would have been better served having this book not presented to me as a “Mulan” re-telling. For better or worse, my knowledge of that story is pretty well tied up with the Disney version. I know the story is based on a traditional Chinese fairytale of a young woman who dresses and fights as a man, but I haven’t read it and couldn’t even speak to the accuracy of Mulan. So…Disney’s all I’ve got with this one. And as far as this book goes I got far too little of this:

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And far too much of this:

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One of the things that made Disney!Mulan’s story appealing were the noble and, most importantly in this case, understandable reasons for why she does what she does. Her hand is quite literally forced, for love of her father and nothing more. Sure, she feels out of place in her own skin and that she is letting her family down, but she never contemplates abandoning home until the situation with her father being called to war comes to play. Not so with Mariko.

For all intents and purposes, Mariko is quite acceptable as a daughter. Sure she’s frustrated and angered by the fact that she is being traded away in marriage, but alas, such is the life she was born to lead. In the short introduction we are given to her character before the action sets in, we are given every reason to think that Mariko is above all a practical and dutiful daughter. These are traits she prides herself in. But then her caravan is attacked, her guards and maid killed, and she finds herself wandering around in the woods alone. And this is where I first knew there were going to be issues for me with this book. Mariko rightly worries that her situation is going to be problematic for her family to explain; when/if she returns home, her virtue could be called into question due to this, and through this, her family’s honor. What is to be done? Obviously, running away, disguising herself as a boy, and tracking down those who attacked her so that she can save her virtue. Somehow.

I’m a fantasy reader, I’m more than happy to turn my brain off and go on many an adventure where implausible things happen. But only so far as the world allows. This type of blatant, plot-serving faulty logic drives me bonkers. How in the world could dressing up as a boy and hanging out with a bunch of (male!) thieves improve her chances of retaining her family’s honor and her own virtue? Nothing about it makes sense. And unfortunately, this type of backwards thinking continues for Mariko throughout the story. She sometimes even made the right decision, but made it for such the wrong reason that I couldn’t even give her credit for it.

Beyond this, I’ve found that in this, the third book I’ve read by this author, the writing is starting to get on my nerves. What came off as lyrical and appropriate in the previous duology, read as strained and forced here. Perhaps the focus on storytelling that was at the center of the other two books simply lent itself better to this type of writing, and now, removed from that topic, it simply felt awkward. It’s hard to even describe, really, as sentence-by-sentence there’s nothing wrong with the writing. But as I kept reading, it just kind of built up as an annoyance, and enough of one that I repeatedly found myself putting the book down.

“The Flame in the Mist” was not for me. I could never get behind Mariko as a main character with her blatantly contradictory thought process and decision making, and the more dramatic and lyrical writing style seemed to rub uncomfortably with this more action-oriented tale. For those looking for a good woman/warrior story, pull out the classic “Alanna” series instead. Or, hey, check out the “Bloodbond” series that I recently finished up and loved.

Rating 4: My expectations were too high for this wanna-be-Mulan story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Flame in the Mist” is included on these Goodreads lists: “SF & F Atlas – Asia” and “Fairytales for Wild Girls.”

Find “Flame in the Mist” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “To Catch a Killer”

29939266Book: “To Catch a Killer” by Sheryl Scarborough

Publishing Info: Tor Teen, February 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Erin Blake has one of those names. A name that, like Natalee Holloway or Elizabeth Smart, is inextricably linked to a grisly crime. As a toddler, Erin survived for three days alongside the corpse of her murdered mother, and the case—which remains unsolved—fascinated a nation. Her father’s identity unknown, Erin was taken in by her mother’s best friend and has become a relatively normal teen in spite of the looming questions about her past.

Fourteen years later, Erin is once again at the center of a brutal homicide when she finds the body of her biology teacher. When questioned by the police, Erin tells almost the whole truth, but never voices her suspicions that her mother’s killer has struck again in order to protect the casework she’s secretly doing on her own.

Inspired by her uncle, an FBI agent, Erin has ramped up her forensic hobby into a full-blown cold-case investigation. This new murder makes her certain she’s close to the truth, but when all the evidence starts to point the authorities straight to Erin, she turns to her longtime crush (and fellow suspect) Journey Michaels to help her crack the case before it’s too late.

Review: Back in the mid 2000s, the world was introduced to the character of Dexter Morgan in the book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter”, which in turn became a hit television series. In this book/TV series, the premise is that Dexter, a forensics lab employee in Miami, is a murderous psychopath, his psychopathy put into place when he witnessed his mother brutally murdered when he was a toddler and was left in a storage locker with her body for a couple of days. In “To Catch A Killer” similar circumstances just leaves Erin with some mild PTSD and a deep interest in forensics. Now I don’t know which situation is more true to life, and my guess is that for a lot of people it would be more a happy medium between the two. But that said, I’m less inclined to believe Scarborough’s scenario than Dexter’s.

Honestly, there were a few things in “To Catch A Killer” that I had a hard time stomaching. For one thing, it felt to me like many of the characters weren’t terribly well thought out. First of all, there’s Erin. I liked Erin enough, actually, she had a solid voice and some pretty fun snappy moments. But like I mentioned above, I just have a hard time thinking that a person who went through that kind of trauma would have more issues than a fascination with forensics and some pretty remote and just mentioned in passing PTSD symptoms. Oh, and a hard time trusting boys, leading to a dating drought in her life. While I did appreciate her quirks and her interests (as I too was a fan of “Natural Born Killers” when I was a teenager), I was never quite buying how together she was, especially since it made it sound like Rachel, her guardian, never really wanted to discuss the murder with her, or even talk about her mother at all. Along with Erin feeling a bit unrealistic, her friends were broad templates of the ‘awesome best friends’ without ever really having much depth added to them. Spam especially, who is the ‘cool gamer girl with the funky sense of style’ trope, and never really moves beyond it. Lysa also functions as a loyal but pragmatic sidekick, there to be a voice of reason and to temper down Spam’s spitfire. I did enjoy that the three of them have their own “Cheater Check” service, where they offer up their forensic investigative services to catch cheating boyfriends and girlfriends, so it wasn’t just Erin who was a science minded lady. I’ll always support girls having science minded role models in fiction. And then there’s Journey, the love interest/potential suspect. Erin knows that he couldn’t have done it, which takes on an interesting angle that could have been explored. While it may be a sort of trite angle, without it Journey is a bit watered down. He has a tragic backstory as well involving his father, but it never really elicited much emotion from me. These teens never felt like they were real teens, but a broad idea of what teenagers act like.

The mystery of ‘who killed Miss P/Erin’s Mom’ is the bigger theme of this book, and the smaller one is ‘who is Erin’s Dad’. Within the first few chapters I had pretty clearly figured out the answers to both questions, and while many red herrings were thrown at me, I ended up being right in the end. I think that had I enjoyed the journey of getting to the conclusion, had I enjoyed the characters and enjoyed how they pieced things together, I would have liked this book more overall. I don’t necessarily read books like this just for the mystery, but for the detection and the investigation. The only parts that I really enjoyed involved Erin’s uncle Victor, Rachel’s brother. He’s an FBI Agent who has written a number of books about crime investigations, and I did enjoy it when he and Erin interacted and geeked out over forensics. These scenes were both fun because of the well researched science that was involved, and because the chemistry between Erin and Victor did feel genuine. Their moments of science and tech geekery were really fun ways to introduce this kind of stuff to the reader, and I really can appreciate that.

I think that overall “To Catch A Killer” had promise, but it just wasn’t the book for me. Perhaps someone super into forensics would enjoy it more, but it didn’t quite stand on it’s own when it wasn’t talking about that stuff.

Rating 4: While it had scenes and moments of cool science and a pretty solid (if not at times unrealistic) main character, “To Catch A Killer” didn’t stand up underneath all it wanted to do.

Reader’s Advisory:

“To Catch a Killer” is fairly new and not on many specific lists, but I think that it would fit in on “Forensics: If It Doesn’t Walk, We Bring Out The Chalk”, and  “Forensic Fiction”.

Find “To Catch a Killer” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Wintersong”

24763621Book: “Wintersong” by S. Jae-Jones

Publishing Info: Thomas Dunne, February 2017

Where Did I Get this Book: ebook ARC from NetGalley

Book Description: All her life, nineteen-year-old Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, mysterious Goblin King. He is the Lord of Mischief, the Ruler Underground, and the muse around which her music is composed. Yet, as Liesl helps shoulder the burden of running her family’s inn, her dreams of composition and childish fancies about the Goblin King must be set aside in favor of more practical concerns.

But when her sister Käthe is taken by the goblins, Liesl journeys to their realm to rescue her sister and return her to the world above. The Goblin King agrees to let Käthe go—for a price. The life of a maiden must be given to the land, in accordance with the old laws. A life for a life, he says. Without sacrifice, nothing good can grow. Without death, there can be no rebirth. In exchange for her sister’s freedom, Liesl offers her hand in marriage to the Goblin King. He accepts.

Down in the Underground, Liesl discovers that the Goblin King still inspires her—musically, physically, emotionally. Yet even as her talent blossoms, Liesl’s life is slowly fading away, the price she paid for becoming the Goblin King’s bride. As the two of them grow closer, they must learn just what it is they are each willing to sacrifice: her life, her music, or the end of the world.

Review: This book has been marketed as a good read for fans of “Labyrinth,” and while I’m familiar with the movie, I wouldn’t say that I’m a die hard fan by any means. I think I’ve only seen it once? But from what I remember, this book description does seems very close to that story. Perhaps too close? I have read several iterations of the “Goblin King” fairytale, however, and have had a hit or miss run of them. But I’m always intrigued by the basic arc and curious to see what new twists each author will bring to a fairly established story. However, while “Wintersong” is written beautifully, after reading it I wouldn’t list it as one of my top choices for this type of story.

Basically, this story can be split into two halves. The first deals with Liesl’s mission to save her beloved sister Kathe from the clutches of the Goblin King who has stolen her away. For the most part, I very much enjoyed this first half of the book. Liesl’s relationship with her sister is realistically complicated, based in both deep familial love but also challenged by Liesl’s jealously of the perfection she attributes to her sister based on her beauty. While this strained relationship could at times leave Liesl looking a bit selfish and self-centered, I felt like it also tapped into the true undercurrents that develop in many sibling relationships. And the fact that beneath it all Liesl would do anything, even sacrifice herself, to save her sister properly orients both her character and the sisters’ relationship as a positive one.

The second half of the story is where it goes a bit off the rails for me. This is kind of surprising, because as much as I loved the first half, I always knew where the meat of this story would lie: Liesl’s time spent as the wife of the Goblin King. And typically, this is the part of these types of stories that I enjoy the most. That said, it is also the most challenging to write as now the Goblin King must be developed to have more layers beyond villainy and the complicated relationship between him and his stolen bride must be more fully fleshed out.

And while there were elements of this half of the story I did enjoy, I also felt like the novel became a bit confused about what it was trying to do and say. Honestly, it almost feels as if this book would have done better if it had been marketed as an adult fantasy novel. Being pushed into YA territory leaves the physical aspects of the two’s relationship rather strained and almost working against the author’s arc of self-discovery for Liesl. It just felt odd at times.

The Goblin King’s transformation into a tragic, romantic hero also felt like something we have seen too often before. And while that isn’t always a fault (as I said, I’ve read many of these types of novels), this book’s descriptions of him at times seem to take its own angst and oh so tragic beauty too seriously. The lyricism of the novel that serves the story so well in its world building and descriptions of music, begins to feel a bit empty and cliche when it comes to their romantic relationship.

At this point in the review, I would say the book was coming in at a solid 5. I liked the first half, didn’t really like the second half, so a very middle of the road read. However, I won’t spoil it, but I was very disappointed with the end of the novel. I understand what the author was trying to do. However, there are too many questions left unanswered, and, again, the beautiful tragedy of it all seemed to be taking itself too seriously for the type of book this is. I hear there is a sequel in the works, and I do not appreciate books that leave cliff hangers that require readers to continue to get any sense of resolution. Sure, leave the door open and set the stage, but end it in a way that is still satisfying if readers don’t want to continue. So yes, I was unhappy with the end of the book. It may work for some, but it didn’t for me, hence the extra drop in my rating of it.

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!

 

 

Serena’s Review: “The Anatomist’s Wife”

13542496Book: “The Anatomist’s Wife” by Anna Lee Huber

Publishing Info: Berkley, January 2012

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

Book Description: Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes.

Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage–a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl.

When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim…

Review: Well, I guess it was coming. I had been on a historical binge for the last few weeks, mostly to great success, so there was bound to be a come-down heading my way, and sadly that come-down arrived in the form of “The Anatomist’s Wife.” Really, I should have been skeptical at the title alone considering that “The [insert occupation here]’s Wife” has been the working title of every new work wanting to make a name for itself in the historical fiction world for the last 5 years at least. But the cover was so beautiful! And what if it was another great historical woman detective series that I could just dig my teeth into for the next few months! And look at how pretty! Alas, this book suffered from failings in writing, narrative, and characterization, as well as fell into a few tropes that are particular pet peeves of mine.

For the good, on the whole the writing is fairly strong. The author wasn’t pulling any narrative marvels out of her hat, but it was clear and concise, and for the most part, the dialogue was believable and interesting. Unfortunately, there were also a few distractions. The story is set in Scotland, and while it is explained that many of the characters are from London and thus devoid of a Scottish accent, the author chooses to sprinkle bits of the dialect into the story in such a way that is very distracting. Kiera’s brother-in-law, for example, is originally from Scotland but has apparently lost much of his accent due to schooling. Fine, sounds believable. But then at bizarre intervals throughout the story, he suddenly starts speaking in a deep brogue.

The other sticking point I found with the writing was the author’s choice to write from first person. I’ve long held the view that first person narration is much more difficult to write than third person, and there’s a reason many readers don’t prefer it due to these challenges. For example, in this story, Kiera refers to her own hair as “chestnut tresses” at least twice. No one thinks of themselves like that! Or, if they do, they are a thoroughly strange and probably unsavory character. There were also several anachronisms in the way that Kiera thought/behaved. I’m all for the strong, independent woman character in historical mysteries like this, but there were at least 12 too many eye rolls for even my taste.

Which leads into one of my biggest criticisms of the story: Kiera herself. It felt like the author wasn’t sure whether she wanted to write a historical mystery or a romance novel. And this indecision resulted in very inconsistent characterization for Kiera. She would wildly vacillate from one extreme to another. First as a competent, confident, and independent-minded widow who has seen the nasty parts of the world and has chosen to use the skills she has gained from this to solve a horrendous murder. And next as a weepy, weak, irrational, love-stricken lady who literally clings to the men around her. I’m all for fully rounded out characters, as that’s just a true portrayal of people. We all can be competent one minute and irrational the next, but there’s usually a good explanation for the change. Definitely a better one than “she needs to have an emotional breakdown so that when the love interest sweeps in it’s romantic!” which is often what it felt like here.

Further, there were two tropes of romance novels (at this point, I’m pretty convinced that that was what the author should have written and just left off the whole mystery to begin with) that I absolutely can’t stand. First, while most romance novels have a progression of feelings between the heroine and the hero that can often start with some level of dislike, this book took this idea and would speed the process up one minute and rewind it the next. Kiera hates Gage, he’s a rake! Gage pays her a very small compliment and Kiera’s heart is fluttering and she doesn’t know why! Kiera really doesn’t like him, look at all that flirting! But her stomach swoops when he walks in the door! What can that be about? She definitely doesn’t like him. Sigh. It was exhausting and undermined Kiera as a person. She came across as completely unaware of herself and those around her, which is not a good trait in a want-to-be detective.

Second, Kiera was constantly criticizing the women around her for being shallow and silly. Even worse, she was constantly being told by one man or another how unique and special she was because she “wasn’t like other women.” In general, if the only way a book/author can make the main female character worthy of praise is by tearing down all the women around her, maybe the main female character just isn’t that special to begin with? Like I said, I’m all for the strong, independent women character, but you don’t get there by implying that any other type of woman whose interests might align with the more traditional roles women have played is somehow lesser.

The mystery was adequate. I was able to predict the killer fairly early on, which is always disappointing, but there was a good trail of clues to follow and things tied together nicely. The secondary characters were also interesting, especially Kiera’s sister Alanna who had much more spunk and fire than Kiera herself, sadly.

All in all, I was pretty disappointed by this book. If you are more interested in a historical romance novel with a dash of a mystery, I might recommend this. But not the other way around.

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(source)

Rating 4: A very “meh” mystery and an irritating leading lady makes for a not great reading experience.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Anatomist’s Wife” is included on these Goodreads Lists: “The _______’s Wife,” and “Best Romantic Mystery Series.”

Find “The Anatomist’s Wife” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Don’t Breathe a Word”

9581507Book: “Don’t Breathe A Word” by Jennifer McMahon, Lily Rains (Narrator)

Publishing Info: HarperAudio, May 2011

Where Did I Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: Two young lovers find themselves ensnared in a seemingly supernatural web that ties them to a young girl’s disappearance fifteen years earlier in this dark and twisty tale from the New York Times bestselling author of Island of Lost Girls and Promise Not to Tell. Jennifer McMahon returns with a vengeance with Don’t Breathe a Word—an absolutely chilling and ingenious combination of psychological thriller, literary suspense, and paranormal page-turner that will enthrall a wildly diverse audience including, among others, avid fans of Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child), Laura Lippman (I’d Know You Anywhere), and Tana French.(In the Woods).

Review: I have had very mixed results with Jennifer McMahon. Before I started “Don’t Breathe a Word” I had read three other books of hers. I liked “The Night Sister” and “Promise Not To Tell”, but I wasn’t impressed by “The Winter People”. I was looking for a new audiobook, and decided to try this one. I had pretty high hopes for it as I started it, walking around my neighborhood at dusk. I was taken in by the story of Phoebe, a woman with a dark past, and her lover Sam, a man whose sister Lisa disappeared fifteen years prior when she was twelve and he was ten. Lisa had been obsessed with the idea of fairies, and thought that she had been chosen to be the next Fairy Queen to Taylo, King of the Fairies, and she disappeared without a trace. But then Sam and Phoebe get a phone call from a woman claiming that she is Lisa, and has returned from the Fairy Realm. So now Phoebe and Sam are trying to find out if this is Lisa, and if so, where she had been all this time, because fairies can’t be real, right?

Well don’t ask MacMahon, because she kept changing her mind about that little fact. And this probably isn’t actually what happened, but as I was listening to this book the evidence kept jumping between being something supernatural going on, or something very real and very insidious. While I think that it’s fine if a writer does these things occasionally to raise questions,  making the reader keep jumping back and forth between these questions gets tiresome. Eventually I didn’t even care anymore if it was actual fairies or some creep who preyed on a young girl, and that’s generally not a feeling you want your reader to have. I also had a hard time with the characters in this one, as none of them were particularly likable. Phoebe made terrible and stupid decisions, Sam was two dimensional AND something of a jerk to Phoebe a good chunk of the time, and Sam’s cousin Evie, a mysterious presence in the story, wasn’t threatening enough OR sympathetic enough, both things that her character needed to be depending on what the reader was supposed to believe at the time. The one character who seemed the most authentic was Lisa, whose perspective we got as well in the weeks leading up to her disappearance. I liked those parts more than the modern ones, as that was the only part that didn’t shift back and forth about whether or not this was a story about fairies or a story about evil people. For Lisa’s parts, it was about the dysfunction of her family and the tragedy that befell her because of it. I was mostly on board for her parts, and could forgive the rest of it…. But then…..

SPOILERS. SCROLL DOWN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW

Okay I am going to just talk about the ending, because that is where I just completely wanted to toss my phone out the window. So the book spent a lot of time making you wonder if fairies took Lisa, or horrible people. It turns out that she was kidnapped by her aunt Hazel, Evie’s mom, who was raped by her grandfather, and gave birth to a secret son who was part Fairy (as Hazel’s grandfather was rumored to be a Changeling fairy). So Lisa was held in captivity by her aunt, not taken to the fairies to be a bride to Taylo, but to be breeding stock with her cousin. SUPER YUCK, but okay. I was satisfied with that solution… BUT THEN, Phoebe and Sam have a baby, and MacMahon decides that “Oh wait, Taylo is actually real and he set up Phoebe and Sam through his influence and magic and he wants their baby and steals her away, replacing her with a changeling”. I was livid. You had an ending. You can’t just change your mind in an attempt to pull the rug out from under the reader!!!

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There is no other way to describe how I felt.

END SPOILERS

But I do want to say that Lily Rains, the narrator for this book, did a pretty good job. She changed her voices for every character and had a lot of life and passion in her voice.

The end pretty much ruined the rest of the book for me, and I really hate it when that happens. “Don’t Breathe a Word” had potential, and I do like MacMahon enough to give her another chance. But definitely skip this one in favor of “The Night Sister” or “Promise Not To Tell”.

Rating 4: A strong start, a shaky middle, but then an end that unraveled everything before it.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Don’t Breathe a Word” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Changelings”, and “WTF Endings”.

Find “Don’t Breathe a Word” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “A Court of Thorns and Roses”

A Court of Thorns and Roses Book: “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J. Maas

Publishing Info: Bloomsbury’s Childrens, May 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description from Goodreads: When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow grows over the faerie lands, and Feyre must find a way to stop it… or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.

Review:  Last year our bookclub read “Throne of Glass” by Sarah J. Maas. The series was wildly popular with young adults, so we were diligent and added it to our list. Long story short, I was not a fan. I’ll refrain from getting on my soapbox for that book, but I make no promises that it won’t get pulled out again later in this review! Either way, when I saw that Maas’s next book was going to be a fairytale retelling, and one of my favorites, I decided to give her another go.

Fairytale snob moment: this book is often referred to as a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling. But actually! It is more accurately retells the fairytale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (“Beauty and the Beast” is a more recent retelling of this older story) in which a girl is stolen away by a polar bear king, and after failing to save him from his curse (in the traditional version she actually makes things worse), she must travel to an ogre queen’s castle and perform three impossible tasks to rescue her prince. It’s all quite lovely and romantic. I’ve always been particularly fond of this fairytale, especially the fact that it boils down to the prince being a damsel-in-distress who must be saved by the heroic maiden. Fun times!

So, first off, I really liked that aspect of this story. It does follow the fairytale in many ways while also adding its own creative twists. There were large segments in the middle and sections of the end where I was just breezing along enjoying the heck out of the story. Feyre is a great main character. She is flawed, but courageous. Her prejudices against fairies are given the proper amount of time to recede, and her emotional journey is believable. I particularly enjoyed a moment in the book where she has to completely readjust her opinions of her two sisters. In the beginning of the story, they are presented as the typical evil sisters that we are used to seeing in these kind of stories, and I was very disappointed that the book seemed to be going the “other women characters must be bad to make the heroine even more special” route. But, much to my surprise, this gets turned on its head in a way that is very emotionally satisfying.

The love story had the potential to be insta-love, but it was able to just walk that line enough that I bought it in the end. Your own tolerance level for that kind of thing will largely determine how successful this aspect of the story is. Tamlin is your typical hero, not much to say there, really. I honestly liked his companion Lucien much more.

But, as much as I loved parts of this book, I equally hated other parts. It was a very uncomfortable pendulum swing, honestly. I’m going to try to limit my rants, but man, some of the choices made in this book were so frustrating. First, there were small choices, like referring to women as “females,” that were so jarring that I almost put the book down.

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What is this decision? What does it add to the story overall to use this type of terminology that is so inherently dehumanizing? I mean, is it as simple as that? Some weird attempt to not use the word “woman” as a way to differentiate them as fairies rather than humans? If so, it doesn’t succeed. Especially when it is paired with another one of my biggest complaints about the book.

This might be a spoiler, but the section I’m going to talk about now ultimately has no affect on the plot, which is actually a large part of the complaint itself. Towards the middle of the book, Maas sets up this whole fairy festival which essentially boils down to Tamlin being “taken over” by magic until he’s a sex-crazed beast who must choose from a line of fairy females to sleep with that night to replenish the kingdom’s magic. It is so awful! Pair this thought with the overuse of the term “female” throughout the book. Maas has essentially lined up a bunch of fairy women, reduced them to “females” with no characteristics other than their function as a sex objects, and had her hero lose his humanity to beast magic, then select one of these women (she has no choice if she’s selected) to breed with. And Maas go further! Having Lucien explain the ritual to Feyre as unpleasant because Tamlin “won’t be gentle.” Umm…so icky. And at the end of the whole bit, there is zero, I repeat ZERO, impact on the ultimate story by having this scene. Other than, maybe, giving Tamlin an excuse to go all “dominant” and bite Feyre on the neck when she wanders out of her room the same night as this festival. Can you say “not worth it” loud enough? Especially since he goes back to being the sweet, caring love interest the reader is used to the very next day and for the remainder of the book. The whole thing is just gross.

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And sadly, this type of weird sexual objectification continues towards the end of the story with Feyre herself. I’ve always loved the ending of the original fairytale with the heroine attempting to complete her three impossible tasks. And, again, when this story is sticking to these origins, it’s very strong. I loved the tasks that were set up and Feyre’s struggles with them. So, why?! Why do we need to introduce what I can only assume is going to be the third character in the seemingly required love triangle, Rhys? A character who, even while helping Feyre through the tasks, in the mean time, has her dressed in lingerie each night, has her entire body painted so that he can tell if anyone else touches her, refers to her as his property, and then drugs her with fairy wine so she loses her senses and seductively dances in front of the entire fairy court and sprawls around on his lap. Again, I say, why?! What does any of this add to the story? Maas has already set up the fact that this court is terrible, and that Feyre is suffering getting through these trials. What does it add to have this element?

And, as these books can never just be stand alones, there is going to be a sequel, which this book sets up to strongly feature Rhys. Ugh. And this is where my main problem with this type of love triangle lies. Love option one: a man you’ve grown to love over months of time spent with him, someone who has proven his love to you through self-sacrifice and respect, and a person who you’ve now literally gone through hell to save. Love option two: a man who has, sure, helped you out a time or two, but in repayment has forced you to become his “love slave” essentially for two weeks every month for all eternity, and has dressed you up, drugged you, and humiliated you in front of hundreds of people. Yeah. Those are equal options. How could she ever choose?! It’s obnoxious. And yes, I see the clever Persephone/Hades thing you’re setting up there, Maas. It’s not cute.

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Ok, that was long. All in all, I was more upset by the fact that at times I was thoroughly enjoying this book. Honestly, if you just took out these bits I’ve mentioned you’d have a kickass fairytale retelling that I’d probably be raving about. But these other parts kept hitting like buckets of cold water being repeatedly dumped on my head throughout the story. Very disappointing.

Rating 4: The bad parts were a 1, but the fact that there was so much potential and parts I truly enjoyed, I bumped it up. Sadly, I couldn’t get past these flaws.

Reader’s Advisory:

“A Court of Thorns and Roses” is included in these Goodreads lists: “Best Retellings of Beauty and the Beast”and “Best Books about Faeries.”

Find “A Court of Thorns and Roses” at your library using WorldCat!