Serena’s Review: “Radiance”

24473763Book: “Radiance” by Grace Draven

Publication Info: self-published, January 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: from the library!

Book Description: THE PRINCE OF NO VALUE

Brishen Khaskem, prince of the Kai, has lived content as the nonessential spare heir to a throne secured many times over. A trade and political alliance between the human kingdom of Gaur and the Kai kingdom of Bast-Haradis requires that he marry a Gauri woman to seal the treaty. Always a dutiful son, Brishen agrees to the marriage and discovers his bride is as ugly as he expected and more beautiful than he could have imagined.

THE NOBLEWOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Ildiko, niece of the Gauri king, has always known her only worth to the royal family lay in a strategic marriage. Resigned to her fate, she is horrified to learn that her intended groom isn’t just a foreign aristocrat but the younger prince of a people neither familiar nor human. Bound to her new husband, Ildiko will leave behind all she’s known to embrace a man shrouded in darkness but with a soul forged by light.

Two people brought together by the trappings of duty and politics will discover they are destined for each other, even as the powers of a hostile kingdom scheme to tear them apart.

Review: This book showed up on some list or another that focused on lesser know romantic fantasy stories. I had already read many of them but was intrigued by the list author’s description of this one which focused on the incredibly positive romantic pairing at the heart of the story. All too often with romance novels, I find myself having to hold back my eyerolls or intentionally speed read through sections where one member of the central pairing (or both) is exhibiting behaviors that are pretty unhealthy and sometimes border on abusive. It’s one of the main reasons that I tend to avoid books where romance is too much of the focal point at the heart of the story. But since its healthy romance was at the heart of the list author’s reason for including “Radiance,” I thought that this one was worth giving a shot!

Brishen and Ildiko come from to very different races. Ildiko is a human, born to live during the day. Brishen is a Kai, a human-like being who lives at night, possesses certain magical powers, and looks terrifying to most humans with his dark skin, white eyes, and sharp teeth. Unlike the book description above would imply, both know they are destined for a marriage that would align their people and have resigned themselves to this fate. Together, they face the challenges of skepticism from their own people who resist seeing a bond such as theirs and threats of violence from outside nations who feel threaten by the increased tie between human kind and the Kai.

It was difficult to write even that short synopsis above because this book is definitely a character-driven story. There is a story arc, but it is one that is only sprinkled in here and there and comes into play only at the very end of the book. Instead, most of the story is devoted solely to getting to know Ildiko and Brishen and portraying their blessedly realistic (and devoid of instalove!) relationship.

Through them, we get some interesting world-building. Ildiko’s people seem to be standard humans. We don’t spend much time in her world, however, as the story quickly shifts to the land of the Kai, as Ildiko and Brishen travel their to establish their home. I really enjoyed the descriptions of Kai culture, their dress, food, and lifestyle. It was all very different from humanity, but also struck closely enough that a marriage between the two peoples still makes sense.

Some of the more intriguing portions of these descriptions, the cultural norms and the physical appearance of each race, came from the blunt evaluations offered up by Brishen and Ildiko. In the very first few chapters, they establish a strong, trust-based style of communication that allows them to express their bewilderment and sometimes fear at the other’s way of life and looks. See, right off the bat, healthy relationship norms! Communication, it will do wonders! These descriptions and conversations also highlight the witty dialogue that makes up much of the book and was incredibly enjoyable. Brishen teases Ildiko about her “horse-like teeth” and Ildiko points out some the disturbing aspects of Brishen’s all-white eyes.

As I said, much of the story is simply focused on these two characters and how they slowly build a friendship and romance over the course of the book. They are also, at the heart of things, both just very good people. It seems like a weird thing to have to highlight, but this aspect of the story, their inherent goodness and the healthiness of the relationship they build, is what makes this book stand out as so satisfying. There are real challenges they face and neither simply brushes off the disturbance they feel at the other’s physical appearance, but mutual respect, friendship, and trust is slowly laid out as the foundation of their growing attachment. It’s just a lovely example of how you can write a romance novel without having to make your main characters brooding, bizarrely non-communicative, or just constantly misunderstood.

It looks like there are follow up books to this story, but it can also mostly be read as a standalone novel. It’s definitely a light, romantic read, so don’t go in expecting epic world-building or elaborate magical systems. The fantasy elements are all clearly there as support systems for the character-driven story at its heart. I very much enjoyed this book, and I agree with the author of the original list (I can’t seem to find it or I would link it!): this book is rare for what it is doing right with its romance.

Also, a quick note. This is a self-published novel, but I was able to check out an ebook at the library. Just another plug for all self-published authors out there: libraries are often willing to stock your ebooks, especially if you’re local and can point to some interest in your story. There’s definitely no harm in asking!

Rating 8: A magical unicorn of a romance novel where the main pairing is based on healthy relationship norms!

Reader’s Advisory:

“Radiance” is on these Goodreads lists: “Slow-burn romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Radiance” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”

37638211Book: “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel: A Story of Sleepy Hollow” by Alyssa Palombo

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: When Ichabod Crane arrives in the spooky little village of Sleepy Hollow as the new schoolmaster, Katrina Van Tassel is instantly drawn to him. Through their shared love of books and music, they form a friendship that quickly develops into romance. Ichabod knows that as an itinerant schoolteacher of little social standing, he has nothing to offer the wealthy Katrina – unlike her childhood friend-turned-enemy, Brom Van Brunt, who is the suitor Katrina’s father favors.

But when romance gives way to passion, Ichabod and Katrina embark on a secret love affair, sneaking away into the woods after dark to be together – all while praying they do not catch sight of Sleepy Hollow’s legendary Headless Horseman. That is, until All Hallows’s Eve, when Ichabod suddenly disappears, leaving Katrina alone and in a perilous position.

Enlisting the help of her friend – and rumored witch – Charlotte Jansen, Katrina seeks the truth of Ichabod Crane’s disappearance, investigating the forest around Sleepy Hollow using unconventional – often magical – means. What they find forces Katrina to question everything she once knew, and to wonder if the Headless Horseman is perhaps more than just a story after all. In Alyssa Palombo’s The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel nothing is as it seems, and love is a thing even death won’t erase.

Review: I’ve had a deep affection for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” ever since I was a little girl. My first exposure to it was the Bing Crosby Disney vehicle, with it’s jaunty music and admittedly all too terrifying Headless Horseman. My favorite adaptation is the utterly faithless but still WAY fun and interesting Tim Burton film “Sleepy Hollow”, as while Johnny Depp is a creep his portrayal of Ichabod Crane as an earnest and logical detective is a preferable contrast to the original superstitious gold digger Washington Irving imagined. But something that cannot be denied in either version, from the fairly true to the quirky retelling, is that the female love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, really isn’t given much to do outside of being an object of affection. While it’s certainly true that Christina Ricci’s version of Katrina is perfectly adequate (hell, she gets to be a witch, which is pretty neat), it is mostly Ichabod’s story. So when I read about “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” by Alyssa Palombo, I knew that I had to read it, as it is a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” but from a female centered perspective.

This isn’t so much a ghost story this time around as it is a romance and mystery, and it’s certainly presented through a feminist lens. Like in the original tale, Katrina is the daughter of wealthy farmer Baltus Van Tassel, but instead of being merely a point in a love triangle she is a sharp and independent woman who sees life beyond Sleepy Hollow and the path that is planned out for her. While her father does encourage her studies and her interests, ultimately he sees her marrying her childhood friend Brom Van Brunt, aka Brom Bones, who remains the WORST. Katrina has other ideas, as she has come to despise him because of his treatment of her best friend Charlotte, the daughter of the town midwife. Brom is very much the macho and of the time ideal of a man, popular and the son of another successful (and therefore land owning) farmer, though his misogyny and bigotry turns Katrina off. It’s a solid portrayal of a timeless villain, and while he remains antagonistic, Palombo does a good job of making him a little more complex than merely the town brute. But don’t get me wrong, he’s still awful.

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It has to be done. (source)

Katrina’s loyalties are to Charlotte because Charlotte is one of two profoundly meaningful female relationships she has in this book, the other being Nancy, her former nursemaid. I loved that not only do we get Katrina to steer the ship of feminist interpretations, but that Charlotte and Nancy provide examples of positive and supportive female friendship that could otherwise have been completely waylaid. It also is a good way to address horrific realities of the time in organic ways. It brings up the distrust people had towards women like Charlotte and her mother, who are midwives and herbalists who are seen as potential witches, and the evil that was chattel slavery, as Nancy is a former slave who is now employed by the Van Tassels. While it is made clear that she is  given a wage and has her freedom, her past as property is not ignored, and it is addressed in a way that shows the privileges that women like Katrina and Charlotte DID have during this time because of their skin that were not afforded to Nancy. These three women band together and support each other, and it felt fairly even handed, as neither Charlotte nor Nancy felt like props there merely to hold Katrina up.

The romance between Katrina and Ichabod was very satisfying as well. Since it is through Katrina’s eyes, her agency and intent are always present, as Ichabod is portrayed as a man of intellect who sees Katrina as an equal in all ways. Her self worth and independence are only bolstered by him, and their love affair is not only on even footing, it’s also VERY romantic. And smutty. My GOODNESS is this book heavy on the love scenes during the first part. Palombo manages to make these love scenes feel fairly real for the time and place, and the romance is a slow burn that really makes you root for Katrina and Ichabod, even if the original story has mapped out a very clear, and tragic, path for it to take. Unlike “Sleepy Hollow”, “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” doesn’t completely throw the source material out the window, and while I knew that going in there would absolutely be bittersweetness, I wasn’t prepared for how emotional Katrina and Ichabod’s romance, and his ultimate disappearance, was going to be. Palombo constructs a love that feels timeless and complex, and makes Ichabod far more than a gold digging schemer, as well as more than a deep thinking hero. Yet ultimately, this IS Katrina’s story, and while her love for Ichabod sets it in motion she is the one fully in control beyond her relationship with him. She has to make some tough choices in the wake of his disappearance, choices that she doesn’t want to make and yet must because of the time period, and her drive to find out what did happen to the love of her life, be it him running off or Headless Horseman taking him, make her an all the more intriguing heroine. Because while love is a huge theme, there is also a lot of grief, and what grief can do to a person.

But given the ambiguity of the original source material (was it a Horseman who was responsible for Ichabod’s disappearance, or a very mortal man?), “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” would be missing something if the supernatural aspect wasn’t there. Luckily, Palombo does have eerie elements. Katrina is haunted by visions of the Headless Horseman her entire life, her gift for Sight being a main theme in this book. She and Charlotte both have seemingly otherworldly powers, though they are never overdone or overshot. Given that I LOVE The Headless Horseman as a ghost and antagonist, I was worried that he was going to be more of an afterthought in this story. But while he does play a smaller role, and a more opaque one at that, there was enough of him and the idea of him that still gave him a presence throughout the narrative. Palombo brings in other folklore from the original tale and region (and provides handy author’s notes at the end about it), as Katrina collects and tells the stories of ghosts and spectres through the area. After all, she too is haunted by things, though they are perhaps more of this Earth. By the end of this book I really liked how the ghostly tales were woven into the overall story arc, and how they could serve as metaphors for the things that Katrina was going through. And yes, The Headless Horseman does have one pretty damn satisfying moment, as ambiguous as it may be. After all, he himself is an ambiguous character in the original tale, so this time around it feels extra sweet to see the big moment that is given to him.

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#teamhorseman (source)

Overall, I really liked “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel”. It retold a story that I love in a unique and female centered way. I’m setting this book on the shelf next to my copy of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” so they can coexist in the way the two tales really ought to.

Rating 9: A lovely romance with a bittersweet mystery “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” re-tells an old classic with a female focused lens, and brings it satisfying new characterizations.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but I think that it would fit in on “The Best Fairytales and Retellings”.

Find “The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”

36426163Book: “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” by Tess Sharpe (Ed.), and Jessica Spotswood (Ed.)

Publishing Info: Harlequin Teen, August 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A young adult fiction anthology of 15 stories featuring contemporary, historical, and futuristic stories featuring witchy heroines who are diverse in race, class, sexuality, religion, geography, and era.

Are you a good witch or a bad witch?

Glinda the Good Witch. Elphaba the Wicked Witch. Willow. Sabrina. Gemma Doyle. The Mayfair Witches. Ursula the Sea Witch. Morgan le Fey. The three weird sisters from Macbeth.

History tells us women accused of witchcraft were often outsiders: educated, independent, unmarried, unwilling to fall in line with traditional societal expectations.

Bold. Powerful. Rebellious.

A bruja’s traditional love spell has unexpected results. A witch’s healing hands begin to take life instead of giving it when she ignores her attraction to a fellow witch. In a terrifying future, women are captured by a cabal of men crying witchcraft and the one true witch among them must fight to free them all. In a desolate past, three orphaned sisters prophesize for a murderous king. Somewhere in the present, a teen girl just wants to kiss a boy without causing a hurricane.

From good witches to bad witches, to witches who are a bit of both, this is an anthology of diverse witchy tales from a collection of diverse, feminist authors. The collective strength of women working together—magically or mundanely–has long frightened society, to the point that women’s rights are challenged, legislated against, and denied all over the world. Toil & Trouble delves deep into the truly diverse mythology of witchcraft from many cultures and feminist points of view, to create modern and unique tales of witchery that have yet to be explored.

Review: I want to thank NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!

As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog numerous times, I am a huge fan of witches and witchcraft in my stories. Basically, if there is a witch, I want to read it. So imagine how genuinely thrilled I was when I heard about “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft”, a short stories collection edited by Tess Sharpe. Not only is it a collection of witch stories, it has a feminist centered theme of witchcraft. On top of THAT, there are also DIVERSE stories involving these witches, from authors like Zoraida Córdova, Robin Talley, Brandy Colbert, and more! My goodness did the description of this book get me in a witchy mood, and make me want to break out “The Craft”/relive my 8th grade Wicca phase.

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Hail to the guardians of the watchtowers of YA feminist witch fiction…. (source)

There are some really great stories in here, and I want to give them credit where credit is due. I will talk about my favorites and what it is about them that made them stand out.

(NOTE: Yes, this book originally had 16 stories in it, but after Tristina Wright was accused of sexual harassment her story was removed from the final product. My ARC had her story, but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in the final work I skipped it completely.)

“Starsong” by Tehlor Kay Mejia

A young witch named Luna has garnered a social media following because of her posts about star charts, fate, and magic. One evening she starts a conversation with a science minded girl who is very much a skeptic. As they start to chat over messages, Luna realizes that she’s starting to fall for her spirited intellectual nemesis. In terms of just sweet and calm stories, “Starsong” fit the bill. The first reason is that it feels very relatable with the social media bent that it had as it’s base. I liked the idea of a teen witch giving guidance to her followers and coming into herself in a medium she is comfortable with. And while I’m not so much into the romance genre in general, this one was super charming and didn’t feel overwrought or melodramatic as these two girls get to know each other and start to feel the first pangs of attraction. It’s just super cute, and since it’s the first story in the collection you get to ease into it with an upbeat first course.

“The Legend of Stone Mary” by Robin Talley

This one felt the most like the kind of witch story that I wanted from this collection, and it’s probably my favorite of the lot. A town has been long haunted by the urban legend of Stone Mary, a witch who was murdered a couple centuries prior and has supposedly put a curse on the town. Now there are legends and myths surrounding the gravesite of Stone Mary, a popular spot for teens to goof off at. Wendy is a descendent of Mary, and her family has long had an unspoken stigma about them because of the family line she is a part of. When she starts to start a romance with a new girl in town, she just wants to be seen as normal, but her lineage may have more of an effect on her relationship than she could have imagined. From the ghostly legend of Stone Mary to the actual real life consequences of small town small mindedness, Talley delivers a strong, somewhat bittersweet, story about what it’s like to be an outsider. The Mary legend is tragic and upsetting, and Wendy’s present day obstacles feel real and very much placed in Othering, be it because of her lineage, or because of her sexuality. There is also something of a twist that took me by surprise, and I think that it gave the story a little more depth. As someone who has memories of urban legends regarding graveyards (specifically the Black Angel in my aunt’s home of Iowa City), “The Legend of Stone Mary” was a treat in all regards.

“The One Who Stayed” by Nova Ren Suma

This is one of the darkest and saddest stories in the book (though just wait, we’ll be getting to the other one), but I didn’t expect any less from Nova Ren Suma. A coven of witches, brought together by trauma and pain, are preparing to bring in another member to their group as the same trauma is about to befall her. Suma is one of those authors who knows how to make the darkness in humanity twisted and blistering, but still present it in a bittersweet way. This story definitely has some strong implications in regards to sexual assault, so I have to give it a trigger warning, but the eeriness and the sadness is written in a flowing and haunting prose that I greatly enjoyed. While a large number of these books had very feminist roots, this one felt like a riot act towards those who do women wrong, and how victims can find their own voices and power by finding each other and coming together to support one another. This is also one of the shorter stories in the collection, though it packs a huge emotional punch that had me enthralled the entire time reading it.

“Why They Watch Us Burn” by Elizabeth May

This is the last story in the collection, and boy oh boy is it a strong note to end it on. Women accused of witchcraft are taken to a forest work camp and are made to ‘repent’ for their actions, though they are not witches, but victims of society. Shamed and silenced, abused and mistreated, a group of women come together to support, endure, and find their voices again. This story absolutely weaves together the idea of witch hunts and trials and applies it to modern social mores such as rape culture and misogyny, and it brings forth a powerful read that struck hard and hit home. Especially given the current social climate, where sexual abusers in the highest offices of Government get off without consequence and someone can be sentenced to THREE MONTHS for rape (AND STILL FEEL LIKE THE CONVICTION WAS TOO HARSH), “Why They Watch Us Burn” strikes a chord. It’s angry, it’s raw, but it’s also hopeful.

Another positive is this book is chock full of Own Voices authors and a lot of great diversity in it’s characters. Not only are a number of the witches in these stories LGBTQIA+, there is also a wide range of racial representation, with varying cultures having a huge influence on the types of witches that these characters are. The witches in our stories need not be wholly influenced by Anglo-Saxon mythology alone, and “Toil and Trouble” takes cues from all around the world.

And yet, if you take the collection’s stories as a whole, a large number of them didn’t really stand out to me. None of them were BAD, per se, but they were either a bit muddled, or a little too bland for my tastes. Some of the stories felt stilted and dragging, and with others I found my eyes glazing over (and I’ll admit it’s probably because of the high emphases on romance in those ones). So because of that, “Toil and Trouble” wasn’t the consistently satisfying collection that I expected it to be. The stories that were good were VERY good, but I wanted more of them to be as appealing to me as the four that I mentioned.

But in terms of important, diverse, and feminist anthologies, “Toil and Trouble” is absolutely noteworthy. The stories I mentioned are worth a look by themselves, and you may find more value in the ones I struggled with. And hey, Halloween isn’t too far away. This is the perfect read for the upcoming Season of the Witch.

Rating 6: While the strong stories in this collection are very strong and the representation is top notch, “Toil and Trouble” didn’t have the consistent strength across all of its tales of witches and witchery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Anthologies”, and “2018 Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy”.

Find “Toil and Trouble: 15 Tales of Women and Witchcraft” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “The Ones Who Got Away”

34569847Book: “The Ones Who Got Away” by Roni Loren

Publishing Info: Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the publisher

Book Description: It’s been twelve years since tragedy struck the senior class of Long Acre High School. Only a few students survived that fateful night—a group the media dubbed The Ones Who Got Away.

Liv Arias thought she’d never return to Long Acre—until a documentary brings her and the other survivors back home. Suddenly her old flame, Finn Dorsey, is closer than ever, and their attraction is still white-hot. When a searing kiss reignites their passion, Liv realizes this rough-around-the-edges cop might be exactly what she needs…

Review: Yes, you’re reading that right: this is a romance book review here on The Library Ladies. I think it’s probably the first strictly romance book we’ve featured! Neither Kate and I are avid romance readers, but I will admit that I’ve picked up one or two over the years. When I do read them, typically, I gravitate more towards the historical romances ala Julia Quinn and such. I think I’ve maybe read one or two Nora Roberts here and there, and that’s probably about it for contemporary romance. But when I was sent this e-ARC, I thought why the heck not?

After surviving a school shooting, Liv and her classmates have went on to live very different lives than the ones they had planned for themselves. Plagued with lingering PTSD and in a job that consumes her life and time, Liv barely recognizes the budding photographer that was her younger self. What’s more, when re-united at a documentary covering the aftermath of the shooting, she barely recognizes Finn, her secret high school fling whom she lost contact with after the tragedy. Together again, Liv and Finn find that some things haven’t changed, like their attraction for one another. But will they be able to find a balance between their old selves and their new, much more broken, current lives?

All romance novels have a “hook,” especially ones that are set up as a series where multiple women may be connected some how and each will go on to lead their own story and happily ever after. With this series, that hook is the shared trauma from a school shooting at the characters’ high school prom. I think a lot of romances live and die around the strength of any given series’ hook. Most historical romance novels use family ties, but I’ve read other contemporary romances where the ties are shared businesses and such. This one is perhaps particularly effective as it is a shared tragedy that would affect all of the main characters differently, leaving a plethora of avenues for the author to explore.

With Liv, it is her ongoing PTSD and her feelings of betrayal and abandonment by Finn, who left her in the closet they had been making out in when the shooting started. He went on to save another girl, Rebecca (whom I’m sure will get her own book) and be heralded a town hero. Finn, too, has his own fallout from this choice, going on to pursue a life as an FBI agent working to prevent killers from hurting more innocents. Both characters had a legitimate arc to build upon as the story progressed, and I appreciated the exploration of shared tragedy and the various coping (or lack of coping) methods that can be utilized by survivors of such events. Further, neither character is completely defined by this event, even though it changed the directions of their lives. The story highlights paths of healing and reclaiming ownership over the direction of life.

Of course, it’s a romance novel, so much of the story was based around the re-kindling romance between Finn and Liv. They had fairly solid chemistry, though I didn’t prefer their particular stereotype: reunited ex-lovers. I always enjoy romances where new characters are coming together for the first time versus stories like these where half of their conversations are relating back to moments during their highschool days. Sure, those were cute scenes, but it’s more interesting to me to see what’s going on now.

There’s also probably a reason I prefer historical romances if I’m going to read one. I don’t think of myself as prudish by any means, but there are some limits on just what I want to read about, particularly when we get into the man’s mind in some of these books. There’s nothing offensive or anything like that, but, more like, I have a hard time taking the man seriously when some of his train of thought is so juvenile sounding. I think the restraints on language and word choice help the historical fiction heroes sound a bit less like pubescent teenagers in a locker room. This isn’t to say that I disliked Finn, particularly. It’s just a general dislike that I often run into with contemporary romance.

As far as characters go, I did like both Finn and Liv. I liked that Finn, too, was still clearly dealing with things. It wasn’t just him protecting and comforting Liv, which I would have found tiresome very quickly. But he, too, needs the support of Liv to deal with the ongoing emotional fallout of his job as an FBI agent and the grueling requirements of his role there.

Without much knowledge of the genre or a good baseline for contemporary romance, I thought that this book was perfectly good for what it was trying to do. It’s “hook” was decent, and the supporting characters who are being set up for their own stories also seemed interesting. Finn and Liv were also solid. I didn’t love this book, by any means, but that could largely be due to the fact that this just isn’t my preferred genre. If you, though, like romance fiction, particularly of the contemporary type, I recommend checking out “The Ones Who Got Away.”

Rating 6: Perfectly solid for what it was, just never going to be a favorite of mine due to simple genre preferences.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Ones Who Got Away” is included on these Goodreads lists: “Best friends/childhood best friend falling in love” and “Best Second Chance Romance.”

Find “The Ones Who Got Away” at your library using WorldCat.

Serena’s Review: “Keeping the Castle”

12871232Book: “Keeping the Castle” by Patrice Kindl

Publishing Info: Viking Childrens Books, 2012

Where Did I Get this Book: the library!

Book Description: Seventeen-year-old Althea is the sole support of her entire family, and she must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors–or suitors of any kind–in their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then, the young and attractive (and very rich) Lord Boring arrives, and Althea sets her plans in motion. There’s only one problem; his friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans . . .

Review: This book has been hanging around on my Goodreads TBR pile for quite a while. Like, years. Between all the new releases and series that I’ve been reading so far, it’s never made its way to the top. Until last month when I was heading out on vacation and realized I had nothing on my Kindle that was particularly calling to me. Not to mention, I’ve been reading a heavy dose of fantasy/sci fi books recently, it was about time I got back to good, old historical fiction. So without further ado, I checked it out and raced through it.

The castle that Althea, her mother, her brother and her two snobby (but rich!) step-sisters live in is falling apart around them. Literally. Pieces of the ceiling pose a danger at any moment and the family must carefully arrange chairs when they have guests over to limit the risk of said chairs caving in from sheer age and decrepitude. Althea knows her duty: to save the castle by marrying well. Luckily, while fortune is not on her side, she does have a good amount of looks. Armed with this and a healthy dose of determination, Althea sets her eyes on their new neighbor, Lord Boring. But can she even get at him when the ever present, ever annoying Mr. Fredericks is always by his side?

From that description alone, you can probably guess the majority of the story. That, or having read/been exposed to any Jane Austen in your lifetime. I’m not leading with this as a criticism of the book (though it did have its downsides, which I’ll get into later), but as a general description of what this book sets itself up to be from the very beginning. There are no illusions of creating a completely distinct work. Instead, the story walks a line between parodying other classic works while also trying to work in a few surprises of its own. Some pieces of this were more successful than others.

Many of the characters had similarities to other stereotypical characters one usually finds in historical romance. Althea was an entertaining blend of Emma from “Emma” and Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice.” At her core, she’s a good-willed, smart woman. But she also has a healthy dose of foolishness that leads to all of the some-what expected shenanigans one could hope for from a light-hearted story like this. The two step-sisters were, of course, terrible, each exhibiting comical combinations of idiocy, selfishness, and petty cruelty.

The characters I was a bit more surprised with were Althea’s mother and the two gentlemen who are introduced. The mother was neither foolish nor absent! That alone is kind of shocker for stories like this. Instead, Althea’s mother is a very compassionate character and had her own mini arc throughout the book. As for the men, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that OF COURSE Althea has it all wrong about both of them. But their backgrounds and motivations where different than one might expect. This played to varying success. I liked the evaluation of Lord Boring and the choices he makes, revealing that in some ways, men and women in this time are not all that different.

But, while I liked Mr. Fredericks for the most part, I still struggled a bit with his “change” and the romance between him and Althea. Her frustrations with him are, largely, completely valid. And while he does make up for some his errors, I wasn’t quite convinced that I saw a discernible change in their relationship as the book progressed. Althea just kind of suddenly realizes that she has feelings. But it several of the better traits about Mr. Fredericks haven’t even been revealed! It isn’t a huge complaint, as I still enjoyed their scenes and dialogue together. But I also never really felt the chemistry between them either, which is a problem for a book like this where the romance is key.

As for the plot, like I said earlier, there are a lot of references to plot points from Jane Austen novels and the like in this book. While I enjoyed these for the most part, there were also moments when the book simply felt predictable because of how closely it was following the storyboard of those types of books. There were very few real surprises in here.

But, again, this is a book that one reads for the light, fluffy romance and for the writing style itself. There, the author very much succeeded. She did manage to neatly grasp the way of talking and writing that is common to stories set in this time period, and there were several turns of phrase that had me laughing out loud and highlighting bits.

All in all, it was a very pleasing book. It didn’t push any boundaries or surprise me, but it was just what it claimed to be: a light historical romance with some witty banter.

Rating 7: A fun, easy read, but don’t expect to be surprised or challenged in any way.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Keeping the Castle” is on these Goodreads lists: “Teen novels related to Jane Austen” and “Clean Regency (or around then) Romance Novels.”

Find “Keeping the Castle” at your library using WorldCat!

 

Kate’s Review: “Providence”

35226186Book: “Providence” by Caroline Kepnes

Publishing Info: Lenny, June 2018

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an ARC from NetGalley.

Book Description: A propulsive new thriller about the obsessive nature of love when an intensifying relationship between best friends is disrupted by a kidnapping.

Growing up as best friends in small-town New Hampshire, Jon and Chloe are the only ones who truly understand each other, though they can never find the words to tell one another the depth of their feelings. When Jon is finally ready to confess his feelings, he’s suddenly kidnapped by his substitute teacher who is obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft and has a plot to save humanity.

Mourning the disappearance of Jon and facing the reality he may never return, Chloe tries to navigate the rites of entering young adulthood and “fit in” with the popular crowd, but thoughts of Jon are never far away. 

When Jon finally escapes, he discovers he now has an uncontrollable power that endangers anyone he has intense feelings for. He runs away to protect Chloe and find the answers to his new identity–but he’s soon being tracked by a detective who is fascinated by a series of vigilante killings that appear connected. 

Whisking us on a journey through New England and crashing these characters’ lives together in the most unexpected ways, Kepnes explores the complex relationship between love and identity, unrequited passion and obsession, self-preservation and self-destruction, and how the lines are often blurred between the two.

Review: I wish to extend a thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!

You all know that I love me some Joe Goldberg from the “You” series by Caroline Kepnes. I love how sinister, creepy, and yet hilarious Joe is, as an obsessive stalker and serial killer who takes us into his mind and judges others in both deadly, and incredibly superficial ways. So when I heard that Kepnes had a new book coming out, this one called “Providence”, I figured that it would be similar in tone and execution. True, it wasn’t about Joe and his ongoing adventures in murder, but it was billed as a thriller with Lovecraftian themes. I went in with some very clear expectations of how this book was going to go down, expectations that were not met. But they weren’t met in the best way possible, because “Providence” is my first perfect 10 of 2018.

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This was me as I finished this book. So many happy and sad tears. (source)

“Providence” has sort of framed itself as a dark fantasy thriller, but at its heart it is a story about love and what love can do to a person, be it good or bad. Our three narratives we follow are from the perspectives of Jon, Chloe, and Eggs. I’ll start with Jon and Chloe since they are the heart of the book. Their deep and intense friendship really propels this book, as they truly and totally get and understand each other, even when others may not. So when they are split up because of Jon’s kidnapping, and then the dangerous ‘powers’ he is left with afterwards, the injustice of it all just hits you right in the gut. Their love definitely treads the line between obsession and devotion, but I always found both of them giving equally and taking equally so it was never a problem for me. I also loved seeing their own personal journeys in the novel, from Jon trying to survive and figure out how to reverse his deadly powers without drawing too much attention to himself, or harming others. His captor experimented on him, and driven by an obsession with Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” Jon now is completely toxic to those he physically encounters. His slow realization that he is toxic was so upsetting, and the lengths that he goes to try to reverse it all because of Chloe is so heartbreaking that I just felt my heart breaking for him every step of the way. Chloe, too, has her own difficult road she’s travelling, as she knows that she should forget about Jon (as she’s under the impression that he wants nothing to do with her) but just can’t get him out of her head or her heart. Things become all the more complicated when she turns to her high school boyfriend in hopes that he can help her forget about Jon. It doesn’t help that said boyfriend was also one of Jon’s main tormentors, and has always resented her attachment to her long lost friend.

Eggs is the third perspective in this book that I was prepared to find underwhelming. After all, juggling three perspectives and doing them all justice is hard enough as it is, and when you add in the obsessive detective trope it can come off as old hat and unoriginal. But Eggs also had such a rich narrative that I found myself juts as compelled by his sections. They way that he approaches Jon as a threat, and gets fed stories and perceptions that don’t match the actual realities of what happened, just adds to the dread for Jon and also the injustice of it all. But Eggs is no villain. He’s a man who is trying to find sense in senselessness, his motivation partially being because he can’t find the sense in his only child’s autism. This whole aspect of his background, as a father who loves his son but can’t connect with him and therefore stays away from him, gave his backstory the same level of sadness that Jon and Chloe each had. They are all looking for solutions, and none of them can find any.

But there is always hope in “Providence”. The goodness of the protagonists is always apparent and all of their hearts are in the right places, even if they sometimes make mistakes that hurt others and themselves. They are all written in such a way that I completely believed all of the choices that they made, and I understood their motivations. I was rooting for all of them, even if my rooting came in direct conflict with what each of them wanted and needed from each other. Caroline Kepnes had already convinced me that she knew how to write a darkly funny thriller novel with an entertaining monster for a protagonist. Now I know that she can also write people filled with goodness, even if their circumstances may hinder it once in awhile.

I loved “Providence”. It’s my first 10 rating of 2018, and I can see myself revisiting it again and again as I do with the Joe Goldberg series. Caroline Kepnes is amazing, and I continue to be in awe of her story telling abilities.

Rating 10: A powerful and bittersweet thriller about love, friendship, obsession, and fate, “Providence” is not only entertaining and engaging, it’s also touching and emotional.

Readers Advisory:

“Providence” is brand new and not on many GoodReads lists yet, but I think that it would fit in on “Counter-Lovecraft”, and “Star-Crossed Lovers”.

Find “Providence” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Song of Blood and Stone”

36347830Book: “Song of Blood and Stone” by L. Penelope

Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, May 2018

Where Did I Get this Book: ARC from the publisher

Book Description: Orphaned and alone, Jasminda lives in a land where cold whispers of invasion and war linger on the wind. Jasminda herself is an outcast in her homeland of Elsira, where her gift of Earthsong is feared. When ruthless soldiers seek refuge in her isolated cabin, they bring with them a captive–an injured spy who threatens to steal her heart.

Jack’s mission behind enemy lines to prove that the Mantle between Elsira and Lagamiri is about to fall nearly cost him his life, but he is saved by the healing Song of a mysterious young woman. Now he must do whatever it takes to save Elsira and it’s people from the True Father and he needs Jasminda’s Earthsong to do it. They escape their ruthless captors and together they embark on a perilous journey to save Elsira and to uncover the secrets of The Queen Who Sleeps.

Thrust into a hostile society, Jasminda and Jack must rely on one another even as secrets jeopardize their bond. As an ancient evil gains power, Jasminda races to unlock a mystery that promises salvation.

The fates of two nations hang in the balance as Jasminda and Jack must choose between love and duty to fulfill their destinies and end the war.

Review: I was super excited when I received this in the mail. For one, look at that gorgeous cover? I’m not usually a fan of covers with models, but I’ll make an exception for this one. Beyond that, I was intrigued by the premise and am always stoked when I can find fantasy fiction featuring a diverse cast of characters. And while there were some slower moments, overall, I really enjoyed this read!

The world is literally split in two by an impenetrable magic force field that has kept two warring civilizations separate for as long as anyone can remember, with only brief breaks of warfare every few centuries when the field falters. On one side, Elsira, a technologically advanced civilization has risen, longing for the day when their sleeping Queen will again awaken. On the other side, Lagamiri, a nation full of magic wielders who can control the elements, but who are ruled by a tyrannical and vicious God King. The prejudices are strong on each side. Jasminda, a daughter of both races, has grown up in a country where her skin marks her as the enemy, as an Earthsinger. She’s kept to herself these long years, finding isolation to be her best bet for a quiet life. That is until she meets Jack, an Elsiran soldier with his own secrets, but who also shows her that there are those out there who see her as more than just an “other.”

I loved the world-building in this story. The idea of magic users vs. technology isn’t anything new, but what really added to this take on it was combining it with other prejudices, on both sides, and the fear and ignorance that can come from these sorts of long-standing built up generalizations about people. Throughout the story, we are also given glimpses into the ancient history of this world, and this is really what solidified the concept for me. Through these, we see that the world wasn’t always this way, and in fact many things had been turned on their heads. The origin story was compelling and each chapter was intro’d with little parables from this almost forgotten time. I particularly enjoyed how each parable loosely connected to the happenings of each chapter.

Through this history and the current situation, Jasminda and Jack both portray different roles and experiences of segregation and prejudice. Jasminda has lived a life of not belonging. She’s grown up in a country that judges her for her skin color and her power, but it is her home. I enjoyed how much this fact was hit home. Just because she looked like those on the other side of the wall, didn’t mean she would be any more welcome there or that that should in any way be her place, based on only one part of her being. Jack, as an advocate and an example of a more tolerant and enlightened individual, still must learn to understand the true battles that those like Jasminda face. His idealism is often based in naivety. But through him, Jasminda, too, learns that not everyone is as they seem, and that there may be a way forward for both peoples together.

The story also had a strong through line on the experiences of refugees, and the terrible choices they face. Here, many Lagamiri secretly cross the border, hoping to escape the terror that is their homeland. This choice isn’t only leaving behind all they have known, but is to willing walk into a country knowing they will face a different kind of persecution there. They live in camps and face many injustices at the hands of a struggling nation looking for someone to blame. And yet, this is still a better choice than the horrors that wait back home.

For all of these positives, I did struggle with a few things. While the story took on some big concepts, giving detailed focus and attention to these challenges, I never quite felt connected to the story. Jasminda and Jack, while interesting protagonists, were each a little too perfect to feel real. They were just kind of…fine. I wasn’t hugely invested in their individual struggles, but happy to go along for the ride.

The story also isn’t helped out by a few strange choices with pacing and explanations for the magic system. The plot would zip through a few key moments, with very little clarity on what was actually taking place, and then suddenly move very slowly through other, more character-driven scenes. I think this is likely a show of where the author’s true interests and talents as a writer lie, but it makes for a rather bumpy reading experience.

Also, at different times, it felt like distances on the map changed drastically, or didn’t match with the expanse of the world that we’re told exists. It seemed, at times, that the entire country could be traveled in only a few hours, which doesn’t make sense given the references to geographical elements and the population that is hinted at. Further, while the magic system was interesting, I struggled to understand how it actually worked. For example, it was referenced several times that Earthsingers couldn’t kill with their magic, but could use the elements in every other way. But what does that actually look like? If they sent fire at someone, wouldn’t that still be killing with their magic? Or does it do nothing, and if that’s the case, then what power does that actually give them? I found it confusing, especially given the fact that this restriction was referenced more than once.

The romance, kind of like the two main characters, was also a bit too perfect. For all of theirs struggles, Jasminda and Jack’s love is never really the complicated or tragic “Romeo and Juliet” story that we’re promised. I enjoyed the romance, don’t get me wrong, but I think the misleading description played against it, in the end.

All in all, I very much enjoyed “Song of Blood and Stone.” It’s a great example of fantasy fiction tackling bigger topics like diversity, prejudice, and the challenges faced by refugees. However, there is a large focus on romance, so readers who don’t enjoy those elements might want to avoid this one, and the characters are also a bit flat.

Rating 7: Even with some missteps, would still recommend it based on the strengths of the challenges it addresses, especially set against an interesting fantasy backdrop.

Reader’s Advisory

“Song of Blood and Stone” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “Non-Caucasian Protagonists in Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Paranormal Romance” and “Fantasy Romance.”

Find “Song of Blood and Stone” at your library using WorldCat!