Serena’s Review: “Rebel Angels”

51428Book: “Rebel Angels” by LIbba Bray

Publishing Info: Ember, December 2006

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

Book Description: Ah, Christmas! Gemma Doyle is looking forward to a holiday from Spence Academy, spending time with her friends in the city, attending ritzy balls, and on a somber note, tending to her ailing father. As she prepares to ring in the New Year, 1896, a handsome young man, Lord Denby, has set his sights on Gemma, or so it seems. Yet amidst the distractions of London, Gemma’s visions intensify–visions of three girls dressed in white, to whom something horrific has happened, something only the realms can explain…

The lure is strong, and before long, Gemma, Felicity, and Ann are turning flowers into butterflies in the enchanted world of the realms that Gemma alone can bring them to. To the girls’ great joy, their beloved Pippa is there as well, eager to complete their circle of friendship.

But all is not well in the realms–or out. The mysterious Kartik has reappeared, telling Gemma she must find the Temple and bind the magic, else great disaster will befall her. Gemma’s willing to do his intrusive bidding, despite the dangers it brings, for it means she will meet up with her mother’s greatest friend–and now her foe, Circe. Until Circe is destroyed, Gemma cannot live out her destiny. But finding Circe proves a most perilous task.

Spoilers for “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

Review: Oof, this review, it’s going to be tough. It seems that “Rebel Angels” is widely believed to be the stronger book of the first two in Bray’s “Gemma Doyle” series. But man, I had some problems with this one.

But first, the good. There is no questioning Bray’s strength as a writer. The dialogue is always excellent, the descriptions of Victorian London are spot on. She includes many historical details that keep the atmosphere rich and poignant, and she’s mastered writing her action set pieces, something that was perhaps lacking in the first book. Further, the stakes have been raised in this book. Gemma, Felicity, and Anne have experienced real hardship with the death of their friend Pippa. And Circe, Gemma’s mother’s murderer, seems to circle ever nearer throughout this story. I enjoyed the expansion of both the “real world” setting, moving the story out from the walls of Spence Academy and into the social workings of London itself, as well as that of the Realms. We get to move beyond the perfectly lovely Garden and begin to see that now that the magic is released, things aren’t quite right in this magical land. Further, they might not have been right even before when the Order was in power.

So, there you go. This is a long book (a mark against it, really, since I think Bray could have used an editor to help trim this book up in places), but the writing and general plotting of the story are strong and got me through it. And considering my list of complaints to come, getting through it in a timely manner is actually a big mark in…something’s favor.

First off, the characters. As I said, there were some serious happenings in the first book. Pippa died. Felicity (and Anne in following her) did some truly awful things in the pursuit of power. It was made clear that the Realms weren’t all pretty flowers and magical powers with no strings attached. With this all, characters needed to grow! Other than mourning Pippa’s death, the threesome of girls quickly falls into the exact same pattern of behavior they exhibited in the first book as if they had learned absolutely nothing.

Felicity continues to bully Gemma into making bad decisions with the Realms, behaving as if it is still the free-for-all they had first supposed it to be, as if she hadn’t sacrificed a deer bare-handed in the previous book only to come this close to becoming a dark denizen herself. She routinely advises Gemma to ignore warnings and plays hot and cold with her friendship. You’d think that after coming through together what was experienced in the first book there would be a real foundation of friendship. Instead, we continue to see examples of a “mean girl” who only cares for Gemma when it is convenient. This doesn’t speak well to Gemma’s character either for tolerating such one-sided friendships (Anne has similar issues, siding with Felicity in all of her worst moments and never giving anything back to Gemma to justify Gemma’s continued loyalty).

Further, about half way through the story Bray introduces a dark backstory for Felicity with regards to her family. I have mixed feelings on this as I do think in many ways it was handled very well. But it was also used as a magic wand to somehow excuse Felicity’s behavior, which I don’t agree with. Further, after showing up briefly, there are many implications that are never fully addressed, which leaves the whole situation feeling all too close to a “plot convenience” which doesn’t sit well at all.

Anne has changed not at all. If anything, her character’s uselessness is doubled down upon. She has gained no bravery, no sense of self worth, and has actually actively stepped back into bad behaviors (self harm) that much time was spent on overcoming in the first book. Why was our time wasted then if she wasn’t going to improve at all here? And in this book, I can’t think of a single time when she truly aided the group. She was nothing more than dead weight throughout the entire story, and has now been given almost every negative stereotype a character like her can have, and gained none of the the strengths one would expect from a character moving beyond and through these set backs. Halfway through the book she ends up in a dangerous situation, and I was openly rooting for her to just be written out of the book. Alas, no.

And Gemma. The problems with Gemma aren’t even character problems. For the most part, I still very much like her as a leading lady. Unlike the other two, she has more sides to her that fully flesh her out and make her character arc interesting to follow. And while she does seem to grow throughout this book, there is the same problem from the previous to this: she has learned nothing! She naively believes everything that is told to her by every single person, even when she has explicitly been warned against this. Told not to trust anyone in the Realms? She immediately trusts EVERY SINGLE PERSON SHE MEETS. Oh, here’s a girl who was in the Order before and has made herself “mad” to avoid Cerci? Let’s NOT believe anything she has to say. It’s endlessly frustrating.

What’s more, the story opens with the reader witnessing a scene that explicitly makes it clear that a few characters are set against Gemma from the start. But then we have to go through an entire book watching her naively work with these characters. So not only is Gemma herself frustratingly naive to follow, making all of the wrong decisions for no good reason, but the reader is already set ahead of her, knowing more than she does from the start and yet still stuck in her ignorance. For any canny reader, the “twists” could be spotted a mile away which just makes it all the more frustrating watching Gemma and Co. struggle on. When she finally does realize things, there isn’t any breath of relief. You’re already 100 pages past that stage and simply want to smack her for not getting it earlier. Her following morose is all the more infuriating.

And lastly, the third member of the love triangle (you know it’s bad when the presence of a love triangle hasn’t even made the cut for my list of things to vent about) is essentially a date rapist and THIS IS NEVER ADDRESSED. He tries to get Gemma away from the others at a ball, and when this doesn’t work, he gets her drunk on absinthe, and then lures her to a remote part of the house and begins seducing her. They’re only interrupted by one of her visions which scares him out of it. And then the whole thing is forgotten, other than Gemma being embarrassed by her own behavior mid-vision!

There is zero discussion about this man’s intentions, the wrongness of his drugging her and attempting to seduce her, or anything. He continues to be a romantic interest! For a book, and author, that makes a big deal about talking about feminist and societal issues, I honestly couldn’t believe what I was reading. I kept waiting for the admonitions to role in, for Gemma to realize what a scumbag this guy was, for anything! There was nothing. It was left as if nothing had happened, he had done no wrong, and Gemma’s only concern was the worry that her own behavior would put him off. There’s no excuse for this. For young women reading this book, they are left with a scene like this presented as ordinary, ok, and not worth revisiting other than potentially shaming the girl caught up in it for getting too drunk and putting off the potential husband.

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(source)

So, it’s clear I had a lot of feelings about this book. For as many complaints as I had, I do feel compelled to finish the series, if only to see where Bray ends up leaving her characters in the end. Again, a lot happened in this book and you’d expect some character growth to come out of it, for us to have new versions of the same characters in the next book. But I had that expectation for this book and was utterly disappointed, so I’m not holding out hope. My prediction is that they will all behave the same exact way for way too many pages. I guess we’ll find out.

Rating 4: Complete lack of character growth and some very irresponsible messages leave this book as a disappointment.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Rebel Angels” is included on the Goodreads lists “Victorian YA Novels” and “Private School Paranormals.”

Find “Rebel Angels” at your library using WorldCat!

Previously Reviewed: “A Great and Terrible Beauty”

 

 

Serena’s Review: “Flame in the Mist”

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

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!