Mini-reviews: Pretty Face + 3

Real life has been burning me out lately, so instead of getting stressed about the 20-ish reviews I still need to write, I’ve decided to Jack Bauer this situation and just write short ones! Here’s the first batch:

Pretty FaceShadow Bright and Burning, A

Lucy Parker, Pretty Face — I absolutely loved Act Like It, so Pretty Face went on my auto-buy list immediately. And I wasn’t disappointed; I devoured this romance between a beautiful actress who wants to be taken seriously and an older, talented but curmudgeonly director. If you like contemporary romance, you really need to give Lucy Parker a try!

Jessica Cluess, A Shadow Bright and Burning — Historical fantasy set in 19th century England is my jam, and when you add a bright young woman who is accepted into an all-male wizarding school, but she’s not actually the chosen one (or is she?), you can count me 100% in! I liked this book a lot, especially the bits about sorcery versus magic — and, of course, the hints of romance. Looking forward to book #2 in the fall!

Confession of Brother Haluin, TheBear and the Nightingale, The

Ellis Peters, The Confession of Brother Haluin — It’s always a delight to spend some time with Brother Cadfael and company, although this book doesn’t have one of the stronger mysteries in the series. Still, I love these books and am sad that there are only a few more left for me to read!

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale — This historical fantasy novel based on Russian folklore is gorgeous and haunting, and I couldn’t put it down! I loved the main character, Vasya (even though she’s one of those not-beautiful-but-still-somehow-beautiful types), and her determination to save her family and land despite everyone else’s fear and skepticism. I was especially fascinated by the character of Father Konstantin, who isn’t exactly evil but is definitely flawed! Also, the setting is vivid and compelling, and I say this as someone who doesn’t usually care too much about setting. This is definitely going to be one of my top books of the year, and I can’t wait to see what Arden will write next!

Mini-Reviews #1: Readathon leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t spent much time on this blog lately. *blush* What can I say — life has been busy for the past couple of months, and when I’ve had free time, I’ve preferred to spend it doing other things (like reading!). As a result, I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I haven’t written about yet, and the thought of sitting down to compose a full review for each one is incredibly daunting. So, rather than continuing to avoid the task, I’ve decided to do three batches of mini-reviews — just titles and authors of the books I’ve been reading, along with a couple of sentences expressing my opinions. Once I catch up, I plan to go back to my regular style of reviewing. But for now, here are mini-reviews for the books I read during April’s 24-hour readathon:

Love, Lies and SpiesAs If!

Cindy Anstey, Love, Lies and Spies — A fun, lighthearted bit of Regency fluff for those who enjoy YA historical romance. I found the spy storyline weak, and the romance wasn’t quite compelling for me — Georgette Heyer, this is not! But it’s a pleasant enough read for fans of the genre.

Jen Chaney, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew — This book will only appeal to people who really love the movie “Clueless” and who are fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie knowledge. Fortunately, I fall within this demographic, so I really enjoyed the book!

Hermit of Eyton Forest, TheAlways the BridesmaidWhy Not Me?

Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest — Full disclosure: this installment of the Brother Cadfael series features a male character called Hyacinth. But I still love this series about a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves crimes! (Who wouldn’t?)

Lindsey Kelk, Always the Bridesmaid — Entertaining British chick lit about a young woman named Maddie whose two best friends are at opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: one just got engaged, while the other is getting divorced. My friend pointed out that Maddie is a huge pushover, which she (my friend) found irritating. While I think that’s a fair criticism, I ultimately enjoyed the book for  its humor and romance, so I’d definitely read more by this author.

Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? — I think Mindy Kaling is very talented and hilarious, and this book had me giggling pretty much nonstop. I like that she isn’t preachy, she’s very self-aware, and she doesn’t apologize for her confidence (some might say arrogance). As she says in the book, there’s nothing wrong with being confident — as long as you’ve put in the hard work to back it up. Bottom line: if you like Mindy Kaling, you’ll like this book.

Review: The Rose Rent

Rose Rent, TheEllis Peters, The Rose Rent

In this 13th installment of the Brother Cadfael series, the Benedictine Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul is disturbed by yet another murder — and this time the victim is one of their own. Judith Perle, a young widow, rents a valuable cottage to the abbey in exchange for a single white rose to be paid from its garden once a year. Brother Eluric is charged with delivering the rose, but a few days before payment is due, he is found dead in the cottage garden. Moreover, the rosebush has been disfigured, its branches hacked off. As the monks mourn Brother Eluric’s death, Cadfael wonders who could have done such a terrible deed. His investigation ultimately centers around Judith Perle, whose wealth and beauty have attracted several new suitors. Because of the cottage’s value, any man who married Judith would want it to be included in her dowry; and if the abbey failed to pay the rose rent, the cottage would return to Judith’s estate without restrictions. As Cadfael searches for Brother Eluric’s killer among the men in Judith’s life, a kidnapping and a second murder ultimately reveal the culprit.

It’s hard to believe that a series could still be good after 13 books, but this latest installment of the Cadfael series was just as enjoyable to me as the first book. There’s a definite formula to this series: there’s almost always a romantic subplot, and the real-life historical events of the era occasionally impinge on Cadfael and the other inhabitants of Shrewsbury. But if you enjoy this formula, which I do, you’ll love the series! I always recommend starting with book one, [A Morbid Taste for Bones], but I think you could read this book without missing any key information and without spoilers for the earlier books. As for this novel in particular, I really don’t have much else to say about it! Simply put, I liked it and will continue with the series. Only seven more books to go!

Review and GIVEAWAY: Mortal Heart

Mortal HeartRobin LaFevers, Mortal Heart

This final book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy focuses on Annith, one of the most skilled novices at the convent of St. Mortain in medieval Brittany. She has lived her entire life in the convent but yearns to be sent on her first mission to the outside world, so that she can finally use her skills to serve the god of death. But the abbess has stubbornly kept her in the convent while allowing other, less skilled novices to go out on missions. When Annith hears that the abbess intends to make her the next Seeress, effectively locking her within the convent walls forever, she decides to leave the convent and find her own way to serve Mortain. Along the way she runs into a group of hellequin, doomed souls who can only redeem themselves by ushering the spirits of the dying into the afterlife. At first the hellequin terrify Annith, but she soon grows closer to their mysterious leader, Balthazaar. Will Annith be able to overcome her past, including the secrets the abbess is keeping, and forge her own destiny?

I was a big fan of Grave Mercy and, to a lesser extent, Dark Triumph, so I jumped at the chance to grab this galley at BEA! Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely enamored with the book, although I’m having a hard time pinpointing why. For one thing, the plot doesn’t have much forward momentum; there’s a lot about Annith’s past and the secrets hidden in the convent, but her current journey is much less interesting. I also found Balthazaar underwhelming as a romantic lead. There’s just no spark between him and Annith, possibly because the book spends so much time in the past. And although his big secret makes total sense in the world of this series, it made me less enthusiastic about him and Annith as a couple. That said, I do think the book is a good resolution to the series as a whole, providing some closure on all the main characters and resolving the dangling plot threads from earlier books. So I’d certainly recommend this novel to fans of the series, but I still think the first book, Grave Mercy, is the best.

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WIN THIS BOOK

Since I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to read this book, I’d like to give someone else a  chance as well. So with that in mind, I am offering one lucky winner my advance reader copy of Mortal Heart. It’s only been read one time and is still in great shape, I promise! 🙂 Here’s how to enter:

  • Comment on this blog post between now and July 3, 2014, at 11:59 p.m. (Eastern time). Be sure to mention that you are entering the giveaway!
  • One entry per person, please!
  • This giveaway is limited to US readers only. (I know, I know, sorry!)
  • The winner will be chosen randomly, and I’ll announce the results in a new post sometime on July 4.

And…that’s it! Good luck, everyone!

Review: The Sunne in Splendour

Sunne in Splendour, TheSharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour

When most people think of Richard III, they picture a hunchbacked villain who was obsessed with being king and who murdered the princes in the Tower as a result. But in this novel, the last Plantagenet king is portrayed in a very different light: Richard (or Dickon, as most characters call him) is noble and loyal to a fault, and these good traits are ultimately what cause his downfall. The novel begins with Dickon’s childhood, when his father, the Duke of York, is killed in the war against the Lancastrian Henry VI. Dickon’s oldest brother Edward subsequently takes his father’s place in leading the Yorkist faction against Henry; eventually, he is crowned as Edward IV, and Dickon becomes one of his most trusted advisers and most skilled battle commanders. But as Edward obtains more and more power, Dickon becomes disillusioned with his brother’s morally questionable choices, and the struggle of brother against brother mirrors the broader conflict between York and Lancaster.

As always, in this book Sharon Kay Penman manages to bring the Middle Ages to life. I always enjoy her vivid descriptions of daily life during this period, as well as her depictions of medieval religion, warfare, and politics. This book in particular is a fascinating political study, showing that the cutthroat nature of modern politics is rooted in a long tradition. I also like the fact that this novel approaches Richard III from a countercultural perspective. While I don’t know enough about the subject to judge whether Penman’s interpretation is justified, it makes sense to me that Henry Tudor (who acceded to the throne after Richard’s death) would want to do everything in his power to discredit his predecessor. It’s always important to remember that history is written by the victors! All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Richard III, the War of the Roses, or the Middle Ages in general.

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.

Review: The Raven in the Foregate

Raven in the Foregate, TheEllis Peters, The Raven in the Foregate

In December of A.D. 1141, the Benedictine Abbey of Sts. Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury welcomes a new parish priest to Holy Cross Church in the Abbey Foregate. The former priest was a kindly old man much beloved by his parishioners, so everyone is nervous about what to expect from the newcomer. Father Ainoth soon confirms the monks’ worst fears: although he is a scholar and a scrupulously holy man, he is extremely harsh with his congregation and soon stirs up bad feeling in Shrewsbury. When his drowned corpse is found in the river near the mill, it’s up to Brother Cadfael, herbalist and amateur detective, to solve the mystery. Cadfael also acquires a new assistant, supposedly the nephew of Father Ainoth’s houskeeper, but it soon becomes obvious that the boy is more than he seems. Meanwhile, both the abbey and the town continue to be affected by the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud.

This book is the 12th installment of the Cadfael series, and anyone who likes the series will enjoy this book as well. Once again Cadfael finds himself in the position of having to solve a murder, aid a pair of young lovers, uncover a political secret, and hide that secret from the local authorities in the interest of a higher justice. As a longtime fan of the series, I can’t help but love every Cadfael book, but I must admit that the prose does occasionally veer toward the purple end of the spectrum. Also, because Peters sticks to almost the same formula in every book, I found the plot pretty predictable. I was a bit disappointed that the murder and the political intrigue weren’t more closely connected; I thought more could have been done with certain aspects of the story to make the plot more exciting. Still, I love the series and definitely plan to read the remaining eight books. They’re wonderfully relaxing reads if you enjoy a medieval setting!

Review: An Excellent Mystery

An Excellent MysteryEllis Peters, An Excellent Mystery

In the summer of A.D. 1141, two Benedictine brothers seek refuge at the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury. They have fled the city of Winchester, where their former abbey has gone up in flames, a casualty of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud that still rages on. The older of the two refugees, Brother Humilis, is obviously a nobleman — and just as obviously dying from a mortal wound sustained many years ago in the Crusades. The younger man, Brother Fidelis, is mute, but he tends his fellow traveler with astonishing devotion. Brother Cadfael, due to his knowledge of herbs and their healing properties, spends a lot of time with these two brothers and eventually discovers that there is more to their story than meets the eye. Meanwhile, Cadfael also investigates the disappearance of a beautiful young woman who intended to become a nun but never arrived at her convent.

This book is the eleventh installment of the Cadfael series, but I think it can largely function as a stand-alone; newcomers to the series wouldn’t get lost if they jumped in here, though I still recommend starting with A Morbid Taste for Bones. These books are always comfort reads for me. I love the historical setting of a medieval monastery, and I enjoy seeing how Cadfael’s small world is affected by larger historical events. I also like the fact that these mysteries are firmly on the “cozy” end of the spectrum; there is often murder, but it’s never grisly, and there’s also romance and humor and a lot of lovely descriptions of monastic life. As for this book in particular, I definitely enjoyed it, but I’m pretty sure I read something about the solution to the mystery ahead of time, because it definitely didn’t surprise me. In fact, I think the resolution is fairly predictable even if you haven’t been spoiled. However, I still liked this book a lot and look forward to the next installment of the Cadfael series!

Review: The Last Enchantment

The Last EnchantmentMary Stewart, The Last Enchantment

This third book in Stewart’s Merlin saga picks up right where The Hollow Hills left off: Arthur has just been crowned High King of Britain, and now he must confront the various threats to his kingdom. He immediately engages in battle with the Saxons and attains victory after victory, but the more serious dangers to Arthur’s kingship come from within. First, Morgause has managed to hide away Mordred, the son she conceived during her incestuous liaison with Arthur, who will ultimately be Arthur’s doom. There’s also the necessity of ensuring the succession, which means Arthur must find a bride. And finally, some of the northern kings are chafing under Arthur’s rule, so he faces internal rebellions as well as external threats. Through all of this, Merlin remains by Arthur’s side to give him advice, friendship, and the occasional prophecy.

My biggest feeling on finishing this book is one of relief — I’m finally done with this trilogy! (Yes, there is a fourth book, The Wicked Day, but I don’t own that one and have no intention of reading it.) It’s not badly written at all, but it moves so slowly that I couldn’t wait to be done! I think the pitfall of telling Arthur’s story from Merlin’s point of view is that (at least in this version of events) Merlin likes to go off by himself to read or tend his garden or visit foreign lands, so he’s not by Arthur’s side during all the interesting parts. There’s almost nothing in this book about Arthur’s knights, or his relationship with Guinevere, or most of the famous legends of Camelot. In short, I found this book — and the series as a whole — pretty boring, although maybe Arthur enthusiasts would enjoy it more. Personally, it’s not something I ever need to read again.

Review: Devil’s Brood

Devil's BroodSharon Kay Penman, Devil’s Brood

Henry II, with the help of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has created one of the vastest empires known to Europe, and the time has come to parcel it out among his sons. As the oldest, Hal will succeed his father as king of England and will also rule over the French duchies of Normandy and Anjou. Richard, Eleanor’s favorite son, will inherit her lands as Duke of Aquitaine. Geoffrey will become Duke of Brittany through marriage to a prominent heiress. But even though all three boys have grown up, Henry still holds onto the reins of power, convinced that none of them are truly ready to rule in their own right. His sons’ lack of independence soon breeds resentment, and Henry is shocked by its consequence: with the help of their mother, they openly rebel against him. This novel is the story of the conflict between Henry and his sons, between Henry and Eleanor, and between the boys themselves, as their struggle for power leads to almost constant warfare throughout Europe.

I’ve been enjoying Penman’s Plantagenet series, and I think this is my favorite installment so far. It’s hard to believe that the major events in this novel actually happened…there’s just so much drama! I also found the portrayal of Henry and Eleanor’s (adult) sons to be fascinating. Geoffrey was my favorite, which will probably surprise any fans of “The Lion in Winter”; but based on Penman’s depiction, I think he would have made the best king. Sure, he was self-serving and manipulative, but so was everyone else in the book! At least he had a good strategic mind with an ability to make long-term plans, and he managed to win over the Breton nobles so that he could rule Brittany competently. The overarching conflict between Henry and his sons was both sad and frustrating. It seemed to come down to a total lack of communication skills and an inability to see the other side’s point of view. (Hmm, sounds familiar….) I’m glad I finally read this book, and I look forward to reading Lionheart in the future.