Review: The Girl in the Tower

Girl in the TowerKatherine Arden, The Girl in the Tower

In this sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya can no longer remain in her childhood home; not only is she now an orphan, but her neighbors fear and distrust her, believing she is a witch. Her only socially acceptable options are to marry or join a convent, but she cannot stomach either fate. Instead, dressed as a boy, she decides to seek adventure in distant lands, with the help of a certain frost demon. Meanwhile, Vasya’s brother Sasha is a monk living in Moscow, where he is a trusted advisor at his cousin Dmitrii’s court. But Dmitrii’s power is far from secure: a group of bandits is ravaging the Russian countryside, and Russia’s Turkish overlords are demanding an exorbitantly high tribute payment. When Vasya and Sasha’s storylines converge, Vasya must help to defeat another magical foe, while navigating a path between society’s expectations and her own desires.

I was a huge fan of The Bear and the Nightingale when I read it last year, and I said at the time that I was eager to read more by Katherine Arden. However, when I realized that this book was a sequel, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic — I had thought the first book would be a standalone. But fortunately, I ended up loving The Girl in the Tower just as much as the first book! I adore the setting and the writing style, and the plot of this novel had me glued to the pages. I love a good political intrigue, and I enjoyed seeing medieval Moscow through Vasya’s eyes. I do find Vasya slightly annoying sometimes — she’s one of those characters who seems to be amazing at everything — but I love how her choices always have consequences, both for herself and for the people she loves. Overall, I loved this a lot and can’t wait for book 3 to be published this summer!

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Review: A Gathering of Shadows

Gathering of ShadowsV.E. Schwab, A Gathering of Shadows

***Warning: SPOILERS for A Darker Shade of Magic***

Four months after the events of A Darker Shade of Magic, Delilah Bard is living her dream of being a pirate — well, privateer, technically — on the ship Night Spire under Captain Alucard Emery. She is also exploring her magical abilities under Alucard’s tutelage, while keeping her thieving skills as sharp as her knives. Meanwhile, Kell and Rhy are struggling with the aftermath of Kell’s decision to bind their lives together. The upcoming Essen Tasch — a competition between the best magicians of Arnes and its neighboring lands — provides an outlet for Kell’s frustration and also draws hordes of people to Red London, including a certain pirate-thief and her swashbuckling captain. But unforeseen dangers threaten Kell, Rhy, and Lila, and strange things are afoot in White London. . . .

I really enjoyed A Darker Shade of Magic, but for some reason it took me a really long time to pick up the second book in the series. I don’t know what I was waiting for, because this book definitely lives up to its predecessor! I love the world of this series, and  the plot — especially once everyone starts to converge on Red London for the Essen Tasch — kept me riveted. I also enjoyed watching the three main characters grow and change; it was particularly nice to get inside Rhy’s head for a bit and see that he’s more than just a pleasure-loving wastrel. I also liked seeing Lila get what she’s always wanted, only to discover that maybe she wants something different now. Fair warning, this book does end on a cliffhanger, so I’m glad I already have A Conjuring of Light on my shelves! I can’t wait to see what happens next and how everything turns out. I’d definitely recommend this series to fantasy lovers!

 

Mini-reviews: Journey, Burning, Bella

Journey to the River SeaBurning BrightBella Poldark

Eva Ibbotson, Journey to the River Sea — Maia is an orphan living at a boarding school in England, when one day she is adopted by distant relatives living in Brazil. She is eager to meet her new family until she discovers that they are selfish and cruel and only took her in for financial reasons. However, she finds consolation in the natural beauties around her, the strange vegetation and wildlife, and the friends she makes in her new homeland. I’ve read and loved all of Ibbotson’s adult/YA books, but I’m still discovering her works for younger readers. This is delightful, and I think it would appeal to kids (and adults!) who enjoy exploration and adventure.

Melissa McShane, Burning Bright — This is a Regency-era fantasy novel, so obviously it’s right up my alley, and I very much enjoyed it! Protagonist Elinor is a Scorcher, which means she can start fires with magic; and she’s also an Extraordinary, which means she can control and put out the fires as well. This talent makes her an extremely valuable prize on the marriage market, and her controlling father wants to snare a rich and powerful husband for her. To escape this fate, Elinor offers her services to the Royal Navy instead. There’s shipboard combat and pirates and romance — basically everything I’m looking for from this type of book. Highly recommended if the premise appeals to you!

Winston Graham, Bella Poldark — Phew, I can’t believe this is the last book in the Poldark series! Clowance decides whether to marry again and must choose between two suitors; Bella embarks on a career; Valentine stirs the pot, as usual; and a serial murderer is on the loose in Cornwall. Not every loose end in the series is tied up, but overall the book is a strong conclusion for the characters I’ve come to know and love over the past 12 books. It’s hard to believe there won’t be any more stories about them!

Mini-reviews: Three, Congress, Twisted, Piccadilly

Case for Three DetectivesCongress of Secrets

Leo Bruce, Case for Three Detectives — This parody of Golden Age detective fiction is an absolute must-read for fans of the real thing! It has all the traditional elements: an ill-fated house party, an impossible murder, a brilliant amateur detective (or three), and a bumbling local policeman. In this case, the three detectives — who bear striking resemblances to Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown, respectively — use their unique methods to arrive at three different solutions to the crime, while Sergeant Beef reiterates in the background, “But I know who done it!” The humor in this book is quite specific: if you’re unfamiliar with any of the three detectives being parodied, you’re missing out on some of the fun, but Leo Bruce really does get the voices of these three fictional detectives exactly right! Also, I was impressed by the fact that he had to come up with four different plausible solutions to the mystery. I’ll definitely read more by this author, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to fans of Lord Peter, Poirot, and Father Brown!

Stephanie Burgis, Congress of Secrets — This book checks off so many of my personal boxes, it’s ridiculous: The book is set in the 19th century, specifically at the Congress of Vienna that concluded the Napoleonic wars. Magic exists in the world but is being used by powerful men for very dark purposes. And one of the main characters is a con man! And there’s a romance! So, obviously I was predisposed to like this book, and it did not disappoint. I’ve already acquired more books by Burgis, and I’m excited to have discovered a new-to-me author!

Twisted Sword, ThePiccadilly Jim

Winston Graham, The Twisted Sword — Oof, lots of changes for the Poldarks and Warleggans in this book, and most of them are tragic. I won’t go into specifics for fear of spoilers, but in my opinion this is probably the saddest book in the series. It’s still a very absorbing and enjoyable read, though — after 11 books, I’ve really grown invested in the Poldarks, the Warleggans, and all their friends and neighbors in Cornwall and beyond. What I love is that Graham paints such a complete picture of life at the time, weaving the wider political, social, and economic landscape into his tale of these country families.

P.G. Wodehouse, Piccadilly Jim — I loved this book, which is pure farce of the silliest, most delightful kind! Wodehouse actually spent some time in America writing screenplays and musicals (!), and I could definitely see this book as an old-fashioned screwball comedy! It contains so many tropes of that era — mistaken identities, love aboard a transatlantic vessel, a boxer with a heart of gold — not to mention classic Wodehousian touches like a pair of disapproving aunts and a ludicrous kidnapping scheme. Highly recommended!

Mini-reviews: Poison, Best, Z, Crooked

Poison Dark and Drowning, ABest Man, The

Jessica Cluess, A Poison Dark and Drowning — ***Warning: slight spoilers for A Shadow Bright and Burning.***

Henrietta Howel is now a full-fledged sorcerer defending England against the Ancients, horrible monsters from another world. When she and her fellow sorcerers discover the existence of special weapons that might help defeat the Ancients, they immediately begin the search. But along the way, Henrietta learns some disturbing truths about the Ancients, her friends, and her own past. I have to say, I enjoyed the first book very much, but now I’m really nervous about where the series is going! Certain character developments were unwelcome, to say the least. But then again, the second installment of a trilogy often ends dark — think The Empire Strikes Back — and everything still turns out fine. I’m curious to see what will happen in the third (and presumably final) book now!

Grace Livingston Hill, The Best Man — An old-fashioned novel of romantic suspense featuring secret agent Cyril Gordon, who infiltrates a criminal gang and steals a secret message that has grave implications for national security. To evade the criminals’ pursuit, he runs into a church where a wedding is about to take place. The guests mistake him (he thinks) for the best man, so he stands in front of the altar…only to realize at the end of the ceremony that he is actually the groom! Now Cyril must not only deliver the message to the US government, but he must also deal with the stranger who is now his wife. Overall, this book was a fine read, but it is quite dated, and there’s really nothing remarkable about it other than the extremely farfetched premise.

Z Murders, TheAll the Crooked Saints

J. Jefferson Farjeon, The Z Murders — Everyman Richard Temperley takes an overnight train into London and must share a compartment with a surly elderly man. He goes from the train station to a hotel, where he sees his traveling companion sitting in an armchair in one of the public rooms — only to discover that the man has been murdered. Richard is, of course, a prime suspect, as is the woman seen leaving the hotel shortly before the victim was found dead. Of course, Richard falls in love with the woman and decides to clear her name (and his own) by finding the real murderer. The idea that the police would allow Richard such free rein to investigate is absurd, and the revelation of the true murderer is nothing short of bonkerballs insane, but I honestly enjoyed this book a lot! I’ll definitely seek out more by this Golden Age author.

Maggie Stiefvater, All the Crooked Saints — The tiny town of Bicho Raro, hidden away in the Colorado desert, is a place people visit for only one reason: to find a miracle. Daniel Soria is the current Saint of Bicho Raro, the one responsible for performing miracles; but the results are almost never what the seekers of such miracles expect. His cousin Beatriz could have been the Saint, but she prefers to focus on tangible, scientific pursuits. And the third Soria cousin, Joaquin, operates a pirate radio station under the name Diablo Diablo, hoping someday to become a famous DJ. All three cousins are changed irrevocably when two new visitors arrive in Bicho Raro, and these changes will alter the status quo for the Soria family forever. Much as I love Maggie Stiefvater, this novel didn’t quite click for me. The first half especially is very slow going, as Stiefvater sets up the world and explains the status quo; the second half is paced better, and I found myself getting more invested in the book. But I think the world-building gets too much emphasis, at the expense of character and plot. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of magical realism in general, so maybe this just wasn’t the right book for me.

 

Mini-reviews: Rebel, Murder, Carrie, Dance

Rebel MechanicsExpert in Murder, An

Shanna Swendson, Rebel Mechanics — This YA steampunk/alternate history tale is set in a world where the American Revolution never took place because the British upper classes have magical powers that give them access to technologies (such as electricity and automobiles) that the American colonists lack. However, the so-called rebel mechanics are hoping to start a revolution by harnessing steam power and thus leveling the technological playing field. Against this political backdrop, Verity Newton is a young woman with many friends among the rebels, yet she works as a governess for an upper-class magister. As the first stirrings of revolution begin, Verity must decide where her loyalties truly lie. This book is a fun steampunk romp, and I really enjoyed the central characters, especially Lord Henry. I’ll definitely be reading the sequels!

Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder — A historical mystery novel featuring Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth. The plot revolves around a staging of Tey’s play Richard of Bordeaux, and many of the suspects are involved with the play as actors, producers, and so forth. Even Tey herself is implicated in the crime, since the victim was a fan whose program Tey had signed shortly before the murder occurred. Overall I thought this book was pretty good; I enjoyed the blending of fact and fiction, and the mystery itself was interesting, albeit a little baroque. I may continue with the series, but it’s not at the top of my list.

Carrie PilbyMiller's Dance, The

Caren Lissner, Carrie Pilby — I’ve owned this book for years, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie on Netflix that I was motivated to pick it up! The titular character is a young woman with a genius-level IQ and zero tolerance for liars and hypocrites. As a result, she’s extremely isolated socially, until her therapist challenges her to mix more with the world by making friends, going on dates, and telling people she cares about them. Carrie reluctantly tries to follow this advice and learns more about the world in the process. I thought this book was just OK. Carrie’s voice is sharp and entertaining, but I’m not sure she actually learns very much throughout the course of the book. The various things she experiences and people she meets seem random and unconnected. I think this is a rare case where the movie is better than the book!

Winston Graham, The Miller’s Dance — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books!***

This book focuses most on Jeremy and Clowance, Ross and Demelza’s adult children, as they deal with career and relationship problems. Jeremy is still interested in steam power and has built a machine to help with the Poldarks’ mine. (I honestly can’t remember anything more than that about the steam-engine stuff!) He is also heartbroken that his beloved Cuby won’t marry him; she needs to marry a rich man to take care of her family’s debts. Meanwhile, Clowance and Stephen continue their relationship, but Clowance starts to have second thoughts. Another enjoyable installment of the series, and I’m curious to see what will happen next. Only three books left!

Mini-Reviews: Fantastic, Jayne, Trouble, Penhallow

Light Fantastic, TheLady Jayne Disappears

Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic — I read The Color of Magic several years ago and enjoyed it, but for some reason it took me a really long time to revisit Discworld. I’m sorry I left it so long, because I really enjoyed The Light Fantastic! The book has a lot of fun with the “chosen one” trope as the failed wizard Rincewind and his unwanted companion Twoflower race around the Disc trying to prevent the end of the world. I will definitely continue with the Discworld series, although I’m trying to decide whether I should read it in publication order or approach it one “cycle” at a time (i.e., read all the Rincewind books first). Advice is welcome!

Joanna Davidson Politano, Lady Jayne Disappears — I don’t usually read “inspirational” novels, but I’m open to them if the premise sounds interesting, and I thought I’d give this one a try. It’s about a young woman, Aurelie Harcourt, who has spent her childhood with her father in debtor’s prison; when her father dies, she is brought to live with rich but emotionally distant relatives. I just really didn’t connect to this book; I found the writing style obnoxious and the plot too predictable. The references to God felt shoehorned in, and Aurelie’s faith didn’t ring true to me. Not recommended.

Trouble with Destiny, ThePenhallow

Lauren Morrill, The Trouble with Destiny — This cute but forgettable YA romance centers around Liza, a type-A teenager who’s very proud of her position as drum major of her high school band. In an effort to raise money to keep the band program from being cut, she enters the band in a competition that will take place (for some inexplicable reason) on a cruise ship. While there, she reconnects with a former crush, butts heads with a best-friend-turned-rival, and unexpectedly connects with the quarterback of the football team, who isn’t as dumb as he seems. I found Liza a very frustrating character — she’s selfish, shrill, and completely blind to what’s going on around her. So overall, I didn’t hate this book but didn’t particularly like it either.

Georgette Heyer, Penhallow — Much as I love Georgette Heyer, I have to admit that I really did not enjoy this book. It’s one of her so-called mystery novels, but the murder doesn’t occur until at least two-thirds of the way through the book, and the murderer’s identity is never a secret. Additionally, every single character is deeply unpleasant. Without an actual mystery to solve or a character to root for, the book just didn’t hold any appeal for me. I still love Heyer, but I’d definitely recommend trying a different book; Envious Casca is her best mystery, in my opinion.

Mini-reviews: Fête, Tide, Red, Battle

Fête Worse Than Death, AAngry Tide, The

Dolores Gordon-Smith, A Fête Worse than Death — Jack Haldean, former World War I pilot and current crime writer, becomes involved in a real murder investigation when an old wartime acquaintance turns up at the village fête and is later found dead in the fortune teller’s tent. Jack is convinced that the man’s death is somehow connected to a mysterious scandal from the war, and his investigation soon reveals that the commonly believed version of events is not the whole story. I quite enjoyed this book — Jack is a likable and sympathetic main character, and I appreciated the fact that he was willing to work with the police rather than against them. There’s also a good supporting cast that I suspect will recur in later books. Overall, I think this is a very solid start to a historical mystery series, and I’m glad that my library has several more of the books!

Winston Graham, The Angry Tide — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books.***

It’s funny — a number of dramatic events occur in this book, but nevertheless I feel like it’s a little short on plot! Ross is now a member of Parliament, which he has conflicting feelings about. He also makes yet another terrible impulsive decision, hurting Demelza but surprising no one. Ossie continues to be the world’s actual worst human being. Pascoe’s bank is in trouble, thanks to Warleggan skulduggery. Drake considers marriage. All in all, I’m happy with where things are at the end of this book and intrigued to see what will happen next!

Red-Rose Chain, AArabella and the Battle of Venus

Seanan McGuire, A Red-Rose Chain — Just as things are looking up for Toby and the gang, the Kingdom of Mists receives a declaration of war — and for some reason, the queen thinks Toby is the perfect person to stop said war from happening. Toby is appointed ambassador to the neighboring Kingdom of Silences and must find a way to convince King Rhys not to invade. But when Toby and her entourage arrive in Silences, they are shocked to discover various secrets the king is hiding. I’m a longtime fan of this series, and this book was a fun read as well, but I think my enthusiasm is beginning to wane. I’m still definitely invested enough to stick with the series until the end; I think I read somewhere that the 12th book will be the last. But I won’t be too upset when it’s over — it’s starting to feel like the characters are nearing the end of their journeys.

David D. Levine, Arabella and the Battle of Venus — ***Warning: spoilers for Arabella of Mars.***

This sequel to Arabella of Mars is just as much swashbuckling fun as the first book. Arabella learns that her beloved Capitan Singh has been captured by the French and imprisoned on Venus. She is determined to rescue him, so she obtains passage to Venus with roguish privateer Daniel Fox. When she arrives on the French-occupied planet, she sees how brutally the English prisoners and native Venusians are treated, and she hatches a daring escape plan under the very nose of Napoleon himself. I’m really enjoying this series and will definitely continue if and when a third book is released!

Mini-Reviews: Byline, Chilbury, Swans, Duet

Good Byline, TheChilbury Ladies' Choir, The

Jill Orr, The Good Byline — When Riley Ellison learns that her childhood best friend Jordan has committed suicide, she’s both grieved and shocked. Jordan’s mother asks her to write the obituary, so Riley begins to investigate Jordan’s life. She soon becomes convinced that Jordan didn’t kill herself, and she teams up with a local journalist to discover the truth. Meanwhile, in an attempt to get over being dumped by her long-term boyfriend, she subscribes to an online dating service, with entertaining results. I have to say, I enjoyed the chick lit aspects of this novel much more than the mystery aspects—Regina H., Personal Romance Concierge, was a delight! But the mystery was very predictable, and I didn’t buy Riley’s somewhat indifferent reaction to her former BFF’s death. I’d consider reading a future book in the series, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath.

Jennifer Ryan, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir — An epistolary novel set in an English village during World War II is obviously going to be right up my alley! The book is narrated by five girls and women from the village, who cope with their fear and grief by singing in an all-female choir. The not-so-subtle theme is that the women have finally found a way to raise their voices, exert their power, and make decisions for themselves. I wasn’t quite gripped by all of the characters—I loved Mrs. Tilling but didn’t care so much for Venetia and Kitty—so I didn’t absolutely love this book, but it’s still a very good read for fans of WWII novels.

Four Swans, TheOur Dark Duet

Winston Graham, The Four Swans — ***Warning: spoilers for previous books in the Poldark series***

In book #6 of the series, the Poldarks and the Warleggans maintain an uneasy truce. Demelza is drawn to a young naval officer who has fallen in love with her. Caroline and Dwight struggle in the early days of their marriage. Elizabeth and George confront the elephant in the room, Valentine’s paternity. Osborne Whitworth continues to be the worst. Drake tries to get over Morwenna, and Sam Carne falls in love with an unsuitable woman. Meanwhile, parliamentary elections are held in Truro, with surprising results. This series is still going strong, and I’m eager to see what happens next. I do find the books a bit too long, and they’re easy for me to put down. Still, I have to keep reading to see what (hopefully) terrible fate will befall Ossie!

Victoria Schwab, Our Dark Duet — ***Warning: spoilers for This Savage Song***

After the events of This Savage Song, Kate and August have gone their separate ways. Kate is hunting monsters in Prosperity, while August is desperately trying to defend the few humans left in Verity from the monsters — especially Sloan, who somehow survived the events of the previous book and who now has grand ambitions. This is a very good conclusion to This Savage Song; it provides a dark but satisfying ending, and I also found it a quick, absorbing read. I didn’t really like the introduction of Kate’s friends from Prosperity — they should have been either more important to the plot or cut altogether. Also, there’s a bit too much gore and violence for my liking. But people who enjoy dark fantasy should definitely pick up this duology, and fans of the first book won’t be disappointed.

Mini-Reviews: Station, Artistic, You, Book

Station ElevenArtistic License

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven — This novel centers around an apocalyptic event, a virus that wipes out 99.9 percent of the world’s population. There are two major narratives: one involves a famous actor who dies just as the virus begins to spread, and the other is set several years after the virus, focusing on a traveling theater troupe and orchestra whose motto is the Star Trek: Voyager quote “Survival is insufficient.” I was much more interested in the latter story than the former, and I also found the postapocalyptic landscape somewhat implausible (there’s not a single person left alive who can figure out how to keep a power plant running, yet there are multiple cellists?). So my feelings about the book are mixed, but overall I liked more things than I disliked.

Elle Pierson, Artistic License — When I discovered that Elle Pierson was a pseudonym for Lucy Parker, I downloaded this book immediately! The heroine is a painfully shy art student; the hero is a tough-looking security guard who is extremely insecure about his “ugly” looks. Their budding romance is threatened by the baggage they each bring to the relationship. This book really worked for me because I loved the main characters and how they both cherished the most “unlovable” parts of each other. It’s not quite as polished as Act Like It or Pretty Face, but it’s still a very enjoyable contemporary romance.

It's Not Me, It's YouBook Jumper, The

Mhairi McFarlane, It’s Not Me, It’s You — This is a chick lit novel about Delia, a girl whose life is turned upside-down when she proposes to her longtime boyfriend, only to discover that he’s been cheating on her. She promptly moves out of their shared home and relocates to a new town, where she gets a new job with a shady boss. Ultimately, Delia has to uncover the boss’s shenanigans with the help of several friends, including an abrasive-yet-handsome young journalist—all while her ex-boyfriend desperately tries to win her back. On the surface, the book is about a woman choosing between two men, but really, it’s about the choice between two lives—the familiar vs. the unknown, the safe vs. the brave. I liked this book a lot, and Mhairi McFarlane will definitely be one of my go-to authors for this type of read!

Mechthild Gläser, The Book Jumper (trans. Romy Fursland) — When Amy and her mother move from Germany to their ancestral home in Scotland, Amy discovers that her family has a special legacy: they can “jump” into books and spend time in their favorite fictional worlds. As Amy practices her book jumping skills, she learns that someone is stealing important plot elements from her favorite works of literature (the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, the cyclone from The Wizard of Oz). While solving this mystery, Amy also uncovers secrets from her family’s past and embarks on a romance with unforeseen complications. I really liked the premise of this book, and I was impressed by the ending, which is a little darker and more complex than I’d expected. But overall, this was just an okay read for me. A more interesting take on the book jumping premise is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.