Mini-Reviews: Goddess, Deceit, Bryony

Tessa Dare, Goddess of the Hunt

Lucy Waltham has been in love with her brother’s friend Sir Toby Aldridge for ages, but he still sees her as a little girl. To make Toby notice her, Lucy decides to practice her seduction skills on another of her brother’s friends, Jeremy Trescott. Appalled by her scheme to chase Toby, Jeremy resolves to stop her by any means necessary — even if it means letting her seduce him instead. Despite the farfetched plot, this book is enjoyable Regency fluff with likable main characters. I read most of it in one sitting and regret nothing! This author has been hit or miss for me, but I’d definitely recommend this book for fans of historical romance with some heat.

Ashley Weaver, The Key to Deceit

Just weeks after her first espionage mission, Electra “Ellie” McDonnell is once again summoned by Major Ramsey to help with a case. A dead woman has been recovered from the Thames, and Ramsey suspects her of spying for the Germans. He needs Ellie’s lock-picking skills to open a locket found on the woman’s body. What they discover points to a dangerous spy ring that is sending photos of strategic London locations to the Nazis. As Ellie and her criminal associates help pursue the spy ring, she also continues her investigation into her mother’s past — and finds herself torn between old friend Felix and the antagonistic but attractive Ramsey. I’m enjoying this series for its blend of mystery, WWII setting, and romance, and I’m eager for the next installment to come out (probably not till next year, alas!). If you enjoy these genres, I’d definitely recommend the series, although you should start with book #1, A Peculiar Combination.

T. Kingfisher, Bryony and Roses

I’m a sucker for Beauty and the Beast retellings, and this is a great one! When Bryony gets trapped in a snowstorm and is about to freeze to death, she suddenly finds herself on a path to a secluded manor house infused with magic and inhabited by a Beast. At first she resents being trapped in the manor house, but she gradually learns that the Beast is a prisoner as well, and she sets out to discover how to break the house’s sinister enchantments. The strength of this retelling is in the characters, especially Bryony: she’s pragmatic, stubborn, funny, and a devoted gardener who is determined to grow things herself, without the help of the magical house. I loved her snarky interactions with the Beast as they get to know each other better. If you love fairy tale retellings, I’d highly recommend this one, and I’m excited to continue exploring T. Kingfisher’s work!

Mini-Reviews: Falling, Shoe, Kiss

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free

Space engineer Leo Graf doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to keep his head down and do his job. But his latest assignment involves genetically engineered humans called quaddies — they have a second pair of arms instead of legs, which makes them excellent workers in a zero-gravity environment. When Leo learns how the quaddies are exploited and what their eventual fate will be, he decides to take action. I enjoyed this competently written sci-fi adventure, but I wasn’t blown away. Parts of it feel dated now (understandably, since it was published in the ’80s), and the story and characters aren’t particularly unique. Still, the book does raise some interesting moral questions, and I’m excited to continue with the series!

Julie Murphy, If the Shoe Fits

Aspiring fashion designer Cindy has just graduated from design school, but now she’s at a loose end and feeling creatively blocked. Due to her stepmother’s connections, she is offered a place on Before Midnight, a Bachelor-esque reality show. Cindy is skeptical, but she thinks it could be an opportunity for her to publicize her name and brand, as well as break some ground by being a plus-size woman on a show full of thin beauties. But when she unexpectedly falls for the guy on the show, she has to figure out how much of their relationship is actually real. This novel, loosely based on Disney’s Cinderella, is a cute, quick read, but nothing about it really stood out to me. The love interest doesn’t have much personality, so I wasn’t invested in the romance. It’s a fine read if you like the premise, but definitely not a keeper for me.

Mary Balogh, Only a Kiss

Percy Hayes is the Earl of Hardford, but despite acceding to the title two years ago, he’s never been to the Hardford estate; located in the “wilds of Cornwall,” it’s a world away from his carefree, pleasure-filled life in London. Indeed, when he finally visits the estate on a whim, he runs into a bewildering set of problems and responsibilities. He also meets the beautiful but cold Imogen, Lady Barclay, and finds himself unwillingly attracted to her. But she carries deep emotional wounds from the Napoleonic Wars, in which her husband was tortured and killed, and she’s seemingly impervious to Percy’s charm. Can he convince her to open her heart? This sixth book in the Survivors’ Club series is one of my favorites. I loved seeing Percy’s normal charm and poise desert him in his conversations with Imogen, and his growth as he embraces his responsibilities is very satisfying. Definitely one of the strongest books in the series, in my opinion!

Mini-Reviews: Thorn, Orange, Duke

Intisar Khanani, Thorn

Despite being a princess, Alyrra is a nobody. Abused and neglected by her family, she has nothing to look forward to except a politically strategic marriage. But when she is betrothed to the prince of a neighboring kingdom whom she has never met, she suddenly finds herself embroiled in intrigue and magic. A sorceress curses Alyrra to switch bodies with her lady’s maid, so no one recognizes her as the true princess and she must work as a goose girl instead. But Alyrra is content with her new life — until she realizes that she has a duty to ensure the good governance of her new kingdom, not to mention protect the life of the prince. Overall, I really enjoyed this book! Alyrra is a sympathetic heroine, and I enjoyed watching her slowly, painfully grow throughout the story as she realizes that she can’t avoid her real life forever. There are some pacing issues and some awkward character introductions that had me flipping backwards to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I also wanted some of the secondary characters to be more fleshed out, particularly Kestrin. But I liked the book despite these issues and will plan to read more by Khanani.

Note: This book was originally self-published in 2012, but it was subsequently rereleased by a traditional publisher. According to the author, the rerelease has “gone through four rounds of professional edition . . . the middle of the book was replotted, and the story overall has grown by about 20,000 words.” So, since I read the original self-published version (which was gifted to me years ago), my comments may not be particularly applicable to the version that’s widely available now! I’d actually like to read the rereleased version and see if the issues I complained about have been addressed.

Ellery Queen, The Chinese Orange Mystery

When Ellery Queen accompanies his friend Donald Kirk to a dinner party at Kirk’s hotel suite, he is shocked to discover a murdered man in the waiting room of Kirk’s office. The crime is bizarre for a number of reasons: not only does no one recognize the corpse, but there is absolutely no identifying information to be found anywhere on or around the dead man. Moreover, everything in the room has been turned backwards or upside-down — furniture, art, even the victim’s clothes. As Ellery’s policeman father investigates the case officially, Ellery also does some sleuthing among Kirk’s friends and family, and he eventually discovers the identity of both the victim and the murderer. I enjoyed this mystery and found the solution very clever; I never would have guessed it, but it does make sense and is fairly clued (although the killer’s motive is a little weak). Even the list of dramatis personae drops a few hints! Recommended for fans of Golden Age mysteries — and even though it’s part of a series, it can definitely be read out of order.

Loretta Chase, Ten Things I Hate about the Duke

This second novel in the Difficult Dukes series focuses on Lucius, Duke of Ashmont, whose wild and rakish behavior is a well-known society scandal. He has no interest in reforming his wicked ways, however, until he crosses paths with strong-minded bluestocking Cassandra Pomfret. I’m not a big fan of the “reformed rake” trope, but I liked that Lucius spends most of the book acknowledging his faults and genuinely making an effort to improve himself. He admires Cassandra’s strength and intelligence, and he supports her without trying to take charge or get in her way. I should say that, while this book can technically stand alone, it does refer back to events in A Duke in Shining Armor. I’m looking forward to the third book now, which looks like it will have a marriage-in-trouble plot…unfortunately, it’s not out yet!  

Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Review: Hunted

HuntedMeagan Spooner, Hunted

Yeva has a comfortable life as the youngest daughter of a prosperous merchant: she is a lady-in-waiting to the local baronessa and has a chance at a good marriage. But Yeva has always been happiest hunting in the nearby forest, following in the footsteps of her father, who was a skilled hunter before becoming a merchant. So when her father loses his fortune and must return to hunting to support his family, Yeva is not heartbroken — until her father begins raving about a mysterious, cunning beast in heart of the forest. When he does not return from his latest hunting trip, Yeva goes after him, only to find that the mythical Beast is real . . . and that he has plans for Yeva.

So, that plot summary pretty much covers the setup of the book, but I feel like it leaves out all the interesting parts, which of course happen after Yeva encounters the Beast. I love a good Beauty and the Beast retelling, and this is now one of my favorites, along with Robin McKinley’s Beauty. The Beast is appropriately terrifying at first, and Yeva has a very good reason to hate and distrust him (she thinks he killed her father, though the reality is more complicated), yet he can also be thoughtful and kind. I loved how their relationship develops throughout the novel and how the Beast’s human side becomes more prominent the more time he spends with Yeva. I also really enjoyed the magical setting with its nods to Russian folklore. In short, if you’re a fan of fairy tale retellings or of this fairy tale in particular, I highly recommend this book!

Also, thanks to Angie for the wonderful review that inspired me to pick up this one!

Mini-reviews: Silver, Dark, Mammoth

Spinning SilverNaomi Novik, Spinning Silver

I won’t hide the ball here: this is my favorite book of 2018. I read it in September, but I should probably have waited until now because it is a perfect book to read in wintertime, with biting cold temperatures and the constant threat of snow. I loved all three of the novel’s heroines, especially Miryem, who is cold and uncompromising and unlikable and not ashamed of it. I loved the creative take on the Rumpelstiltskin story. I loved how all the main characters have hidden depths to them, and I loved the development of the two romances. I’ll admit that the pacing is slow, especially in the beginning, but that just gave me time to soak in the lush descriptions of the wintry village and to get to know the characters a little better. I highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy, especially if you loved Uprooted!

Dark Days ClubAlison Goodman, The Dark Days Club

In this Regency fantasy novel, Lady Helen Wrexhall learns of the existence of Deceivers, demons who survive by stealing energy from living humans. She also learns that she is a Reclaimer, a human capable of spotting and killing Deceivers (who take human form and are thus able to hide in plain sight). Initiating her into these mysteries is the Dark Days Club, a society of Reclaimers led by the broodingly handsome Lord Carlston. But Lady Helen isn’t sure she wants to accept her newfound destiny, and she soon finds herself torn between two worlds. I liked the premise of this book (Regency fantasy is my catnip!), and the writing style is quite good, but I just didn’t find myself very interested in the Deceivers or in Lady Helen’s struggle. I may read the sequel at some point, but I didn’t love this one as much as I was hoping to.

MammothJill Baguchinsky, Mammoth

Natalie is a plus-size fashion blogger and dinosaur enthusiast who is ecstatic when she wins a prestigious paleontology internship. But when she gets there, she has to deal with professional and personal insecurities, as well as disillusionment with her scientist hero. She also meets some new people who aren’t what they seem and finds herself in the midst of a love triangle (or polygon). As a fellow plus-size person, I both related and didn’t relate to Natalie. Some of her insecurities felt very real to me, but she also had this weird habit of guessing other people’s weight, which is not something I have ever done. It seems like something a thin person would assume a fat person would do, if that makes sense. So I have mixed feelings about that plotline, although I do think it’s great to see more plus-size main characters in fiction! As for the internship drama, I wasn’t very compelled by it. So, not a bad read, but not a great one either.

Mini-Reviews: The 13 Clocks; Chalice

13 ClocksJames Thurber, The 13 Clocks (illustrated by Marc Simont)

This odd little book is like nothing I’ve ever read. A sort of fable or fairytale for adults, it’s the story of a wicked duke who is keeping captive the beautiful Princess Saralinda, and of the noble prince who must complete an impossible task in order to rescue her. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, yet the overall mood is creepy and melancholy. Neil Gaiman was the perfect choice to write the short introduction, because his writing gives me a similar (though even darker) vibe. I would definitely recommend this to anyone, and I think it will be even more interesting on a reread.

***

ChaliceRobin McKinley, Chalice

Robin McKinley is an author onto whom I imprinted sometime in my late elementary or middle school years. Novels such as The Blue Sword, Beauty, and The Outlaws of Sherwood were my introduction to the fantasy genre, and they remain some of my all-time favorite books. Chalice was written several years later, and while I still bought and read it immediately, I remember not loving it as much as McKinley’s other books. Because of my memory of that disappointment, I’d never reread it until now, but I appreciated it more this time around. I loved the protagonist, Mirasol, and her stubborn attempts to do her duty in an unusual situation. It was a pleasure to sink into the lush descriptions and slow unfolding of the story. It is a very slow-moving book, which might put off some people; but if you like McKinley’s style of writing, you’ll like this one.

Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

Girls at the Kingfisher Club, TheGenevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Hamilton sisters have been trapped all their lives. Their father is a harsh, cruel man who desperately wanted a son but got twelve daughters instead. He keeps them locked in the house at all times, never allowing them to catch a glimpse of the outside world. As the girls grow up, the eldest, Jo, finds a way to make their lives bearable: they sneak out of the house every night and go dancing. In the murky underworld of 1920s New York, it’s easy to blend in with the crowd, to trade a dance for some champagne or gin, to stay out all night just to feel young and alive. But Jo knows that her sisters’ freedom is incredibly fragile, and she is always watching to make sure that no girl reveals her true identity, gets caught in a police raid, or (worst of all) falls in love. When her father announces that he wants to marry off the girls to various business associates, Jo must take desperate action. She reaches out to a man from her past, a bootlegger who almost stole her heart. But her need to protect her sisters may cost Jo her own chance at happiness.

The premise of this book intrigued me immediately — a retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses set during the Roaring Twenties? Sign me up! And thankfully, the novel more than lived up to my expectations. One of my favorite things about it is the setting; New York City in the 1920s really came alive for me. The book captures the glamor and freedom and excitement of dancing all night in a smoky club, listening to a hot jazz band, and drinking exotic cocktails. But it also evokes the dangers of the era, where alcohol was illegal and nightclub raids were commonplace (unless you paid off the right cops). This setting is perfect for the Hamilton sisters’ story, as they are trying to break free but also to stay safe. I was also impressed by the characterization of the sisters; there are twelve of them, so obviously some are more fully developed than others, but they all have at least one unique quality. I also enjoyed the romance in the book, which was bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction or fairy tale retellings!

Review: Transformations

TransformationsAnne Sexton, Transformations

This book is a collection of poetry, and I don’t really know how to review it, or even whether “reviewing” is appropriate for something that is supposed to strike you in a fundamental, visceral way. The poems are all re-imaginings of fairy tales as told by the Brothers Grimm, and Sexton uses the old stories to shed light on modern themes and concerns. For example, here’s the end of “Cinderella”:

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

The stories are all set in that quasi-medieval fairytale past, which is interestingly juxtaposed with some very modern language. When the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is cooked in the oven, “Her blood began to boil up / like Coca-Cola.” When the prince in “Cinderella” tries the glass slipper on every maiden in the kingdom, the narrator observes, “The prince was getting tired. / He began to feel like a shoe salesman.”

All in all, this collection didn’t make a huge impact on me, but I would recommend it to people who like poetry and fairy tales. I’d definitely like to read more of Anne Sexton’s work!

Review: While Beauty Slept

While Beauty SleptElizabeth Blackwell, While Beauty Slept

This loose retelling of Sleeping Beauty follows the fortunes of Elise, a peasant who dreams of a better life. Growing up, she listened to her mother’s stories about working at the king’s palace and fantasized about going there herself one day. When a tragic outbreak of the pox kills most of her family, Elise decides she has nothing to lose and sets out to follow her dream. But working at the palace turns out to be more complicated than Elise anticipated. She sees that the king and queen, though apparently blessed with both love and riches, are devastated by their childless state — especially because the king’s brother has a jealous eye on the throne. She also observes the complicated relationship between the queen and Millicent, a relative of the king’s who lives in the palace and has a reputation for witchcraft. When an heir to the throne is born at last, Elise is caught up in the turmoil that ensues; eventually, she is the only person who can ensure the future of the kingdom.

I’m a big fan of fairy tale retellings, so I was excited to find a copy of this book at the library. Overall, I really enjoyed it, but I would caution fantasy lovers that it’s much more of a historical novel than a fairy tale. There’s hardly anything supernatural in the book; although Millicent plays the part of the evil fairy in the Sleeping Beauty tale (and even curses the newborn princess), her ultimate strike against the royal family has nothing to do with magic or sorcery. But I love historical fiction, so I very much enjoyed this magic-less tale. And many elements of the Sleeping Beauty story were still incorporated into this book; I especially liked the burning of the spinning wheels. Elise got on my nerves sometimes — she’s a bit too judgmental and superior for my liking — but ultimately I was interested in the story she told. The ending, in particular, packs a real punch! So all in all, I’d recommend this book to fans of historical fiction or fairy tale retellings.