Review: Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Blue Lily, Lily BlueMaggie Stiefvater, Blue Lily, Lily Blue

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in the series!***

Blue Sargent and the Raven Boys are approaching the end of their quest to find the long-lost Welsh king Owen Glendower. But as always, there are complications. First of all, Blue’s mother is missing, and the cryptic note she left behind says only that she is “underground.” Is she one step ahead of them in the search for Glendower, or has she gotten involved in something more sinister? Then there’s the fact that Colin Greenmantle, the person who hired the Gray Man to kidnap Ronan in The Dream Thieves, is in town — and he’s the boys’ new Latin teacher. Worst of all, when Blue and the boys finally locate the cave where Glendower rests, they realize that their troubles are only just beginning. For there is more than one entity dwelling in this cave, and some things are better left asleep…

As a fan of the previous books in the Raven Cycle, I pretty much devoured this installment. I think it might be my favorite book yet in the series, because it’s finally starting to pull together the various plot threads and character relationships that have been simmering since the first book. More secrets are revealed, the plot continues to twist and turn, and various characters’ motivations are slowly uncovered. I really like the fact that Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah have become this inseparable unit now. In the first two books, there was a lot of tension between various members of the group, with everyone trying to figure out whom to trust. But in this book, they have finally accepted each other and decided to work together. I also love how certain characters (Blue and Adam in particular) are thinking about their futures: Even if they do manage to find Glendower, what happens then? So I’m very excited to see how things will turn out, and I can’t wait for the release of the fourth and final book next year!

R.I.P. IX Challenge Wrap-Up

I’m a couple days late on this, but with the end of October came the end of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril IX challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings.

RIP ix peril the first

The “challenge” was simply to read books that fit within the genres of mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror, and/or supernatural. Peril the First had a goal of four books, but I ended up reading ten:

1.) Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
2.) Lauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla
3.) Ashley Weaver, Murder at the Brightwell
4.) Seanan McGuire, The Winter Long
5.) Sylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen
6.) Roberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case
7.) Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes
8.) Diane Setterfield, Bellman & Black
9.) Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
10.) Maggie Stiefvater, Blue Lily, Lily Blue

To be fair, some of these books are a bit of a stretch…for example, while Good Omens has angels and demons and the Apocalypse, its tone is far from dark. The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla includes vampires and a murder, but it’s really a delightful Regency romp. But I’m counting them anyway, dangit! This non-challenge is supposed to be fun! 🙂

I did enjoy most of the books I read for this challenge, but my standout favorites were Good Omens and Blue Lily, Lily Blue. My least favorites were The Shadow of the Wind and The Neruda Case, both of which dragged for me. What books did you read for R.I.P.? Did any of them scare you?

Review: Good Omens

Good OmensNeil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

Since the beginning of the world, the forces of good and evil have been preparing for battle, and now Armageddon is imminent. The Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse roam the earth, the Antichrist is about to be born, and the end times are at hand. But angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley aren’t terribly enthusiastic about the upcoming war and ensuing destruction of Earth. In fact, they’ve both become rather fond of the planet and the foolish humans who populate it. So unbeknownst to their superiors, they strike a truce: neither one of them will attempt to influence the newborn Antichrist in their favor. Little do they know that, thanks to a mix-up at the hospital, they’ve focused their efforts on the wrong baby! Meanwhile, the Antichrist grows up as a perfectly normal human boy called Adam Young, who knows nothing about his special destiny. But as the signs of the end times become harder to ignore, Aziraphale and Crowley must race against time to prevent Adam from unwittingly using his powers to destroy the world.

This book is a delightful romp through the Book of Revelation and common cultural perceptions regarding the end of the world. It truly has something for everyone, from demons to witchfinders to psychics to aliens, and I lost count of the jokes that made me laugh out loud! I loved the fact that Famine (one of the Horsepersons) was a diet guru, and that one of Crowley’s most notable Hellish accomplishments was the M25 motorway surrounding London. The book’s plot is rather sprawling, and I wasn’t a big fan of every storyline (didn’t care too much about Anathema Device, for example, although I loved Newton Pulsifer — the name alone!). But then again, who cares about plot when there’s such brilliant silliness to enjoy? I do think this book would be best enjoyed by people who are at least somewhat familiar with the Book of Revelation, because otherwise you won’t get all the jokes! But I honestly think that anyone who enjoys British humor will find this book hugely entertaining.

Review: Bellman & Black

Bellman & BlackDiane Setterfield, Bellman & Black

This atmospheric novel tells the story of William Bellman, who makes one decision in childhood that will alter the entire course of his life. When he is ten years old, he and a few friends are playing in the field near their village, and they see a rook on a far-off tree branch. Will bets his friends that he can hit the bird with his slingshot, and to everyone’s astonishment, he actually does it. Will and his friends soon forget the incident, but from then on, rooks become a touchstone and a bad omen for William Bellman. As he gets older, he becomes more and more successful: first he get a job at his uncle’s mill, then rises through the ranks until he eventually runs it. He marries and has children, and he begins to make a very comfortable living. But when an illness sweeps through the village and takes most of William’s family, he will do anything to save his remaining daughter — including making a desperate deal with the mysterious Mr. Black. William’s encounter with Black leads him to an entirely different business venture, one that eventually threatens to consume him.

I absolutely loved Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale, so I had high expectations for this book. Unfortunately, I’m coming away from it with mixed feelings. The writing style is just as rich and gorgeous as I remember, and I found myself reading very quickly despite the slow-moving plot. I also admire the novel’s atmosphere of suspense; it has a wonderfully autumnal, sinister quality, despite the fact that not a lot of scary stuff actually happens. In fact, that may be my biggest problem with the book: there’s this great buildup of tension throughout the novel, but in the end there’s no payoff. The interludes about rooks — and William’s encounters with them throughout the book — are meant to heighten the suspense, I think, but I didn’t really understand their role in the story. Frankly, I was a bit confused about the story as a whole; I was expecting a Faustian narrative in which William essentially sells his soul for success, but that’s not really what happens. In short, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be taking away from this book — but I’m definitely not giving up on Setterfield yet!

Review: The Lady Vanishes

Lady Vanishes, TheEthel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes

Iris Carr is a privileged young Englishwoman enjoying a holiday somewhere in Europe with a large group of friends. But when her crowd is ready to leave, Iris decides to stay an extra day and enjoy the beauties of the mountains by herself. When she boards the train to go home, she is immediately isolated from the other passengers because she doesn’t speak the native language. So when a talkative English spinster named Miss Froy introduces herself, Iris is glad to have the company, even though Miss Froy is rather a bore. After a long chat, Iris takes a nap in her compartment; but when she wakes up, Miss Froy is gone! Eventually she begins to worry, so she finds a young Englisman to act as interpreter and ask the other passengers where Miss Froy went. To Iris’ shock, they all claim not to remember Miss Froy and say Iris must be imagining things. Iris knows she didn’t imagine Miss Froy, but without any evidence to the contrary, how can she be sure? And if the lady does exist, why won’t anyone admit to seeing her?

Recently I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and really enjoyed it, but I had no idea it was based on a book! I’m glad I discovered the novel, though, because with all due deference to Hitchcock, the book is better. While the movie is a somewhat straightforward thriller, the book has more psychological tension because it keeps you in the dark about Iris’ mental state for much longer. Are the other passengers involved in some sort of unlikely but sinister conspiracy, meaning that she and Miss Froy are both in danger? Or, perhaps even worse, is Iris having a mental breakdown and imagining the whole thing? Either way, she’s trapped in a nightmarish situation, and the book does an excellent job of heightening this tension. I also think the book’s ending is better than the movie’s; while the film ends with a dramatic shootout, the novel has a much more subtle conclusion. So I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone who likes psychological thrillers, especially if you’ve seen or plan to see the movie!

Review: The Neruda Case

Neruda Case, TheRoberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case (trans. Carolina De Robertis)

Cayetano Brulé, one of the most respected private investigators in Valparaíso, is on his way to meet a prospective client when he stops at a restaurant for lunch. When he opens the menu, he sees a photograph of Pablo Neruda and immediately recalls his first case as a detective, in which his client was the Nobel laureate himself. Suddenly it’s 1973, and Cayetano (a Cuban by birth) is somewhat adrift in his adopted homeland of Chile. At a political party with his wife, Cayetano meets Neruda for the first time, and they soon strike up a conversation. Later, Neruda invites Cayetano to his home and makes a surprising request: he wants Cayetano to find a missing person, a doctor whom Neruda knew many years ago. Cayetano’s search takes him to Mexico City, Havana, and even East Berlin, and he eventually learns that Neruda’s desire to find the doctor is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, Chile is also experiencing a period of upheaval, as Salvador Allende’s Marxist government is succeeded by the dictatorship of Pinochet.

This novel attempts to do many different things, with mixed results. As a mystery, I think it falls flat; there is no real urgency to Cayetano’s search, and the results of his investigation ultimately don’t matter very much to the story. The book is more successful at painting a portrait of Pablo Neruda at the end of his life. I feel like I got a sense of his personality and his importance to Chile as a political figure. Best of all, this book does a wonderful job of depicting the political situation in Chile at the time and relating it to the wider issue of global politics. It’s no coincidence that Cayetano mostly visits Communist countries, in an era dominated by the Cold War and the ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The novel is definitely not neutral on this subject; both Cayetano and Neruda favor Allende’s government, while Cayetano condemns his wife’s more radical Communism. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting much more than I was by the story. So I’m glad I read this book, but I won’t be seeking out any more installments of the series.

Review: The Midnight Queen

Midnight Queen, TheSylvia Izzo Hunter, The Midnight Queen

Gray Marshall is a promising student of magick at Oxford’s prestigious Merlin College, but his life changes instantly when an ill-fated midnight expedition results in the death of one of his classmates. Although Gray had nothing to do with the violence that resulted in this tragedy, he soon learns that everyone is blaming him. His tutor, Professor Appius Callender, whisks him off to the professor’s country house as punishment for his supposed misdeeds. At first Gray is miserable there; his magickal powers seem to have deserted him, and he is forced to work in the professor’s gardens all day. But then he meets Sophie, the professor’s kind and intelligent daughter, and he soon discovers there is more to her than meets the eye. As Gray and Sophie become closer, they begin to uncover shocking secrets about Sophie’s family, as well as a conspiracy that threatens not only Gray but the entire kingdom of Britain.

I hardly ever buy books on impulse anymore; usually I’ll only shell out money for an author or series I already know I like. But this book jumped out at me because of its beautiful cover, and then the lure of a Regency-era fantasy with romance totally sold me! Overall, I’m glad I took the plunge in buying this book, because I really enjoyed it. Gray is a very endearing hero: studious, shy, and hardworking, with a stutter that appears when he’s nervous. He’s well matched in Sophie, a heroine who is strong without being abrasive and forward-thinking without being anachronistic. The book moves fairly slowly, which might bother some readers, and I also felt that the plot was a bit scattered. For example, Gray frequently mentions his various siblings, but only one of them is even “on page” in this book, so I was a bit confused and distracted by the other sibling references. Still, I suppose these loose ends and tangents might be resolved in a sequel; if one should materialize, I’ll definitely be seeking it out!

Review: The Winter Long

Winter Long, TheSeanan McGuire, The Winter Long

***Warning: SPOILERS for previous books in this series!***

Things finally seem to be looking up for October Daye. Now that the malevolent, usurping Queen of the Mists has been dethroned and the true queen reinstated, Toby’s biggest problem is having to dress up for court functions. But of course, this pleasant state of affairs can’t last, as Toby learns when Simon Torquill — the man whose spell once turned her into a fish for 14 years — suddenly re-enters her life. Shockingly, he doesn’t seem to want to harm Toby this time; in fact, he claims that he’s only trying to protect her from another, more powerful enemy. Toby knows she can’t trust Simon, but the more she investigates his allegations, the more it seems he’s actually telling the truth. Someone from Toby’s past is out to get her, and it’s the last person she would ever expect. Can Toby once again protect her loved ones, defeat the bad guys, and live to fight another day?

Seanan McGuire actually wrote a little intro to this book in which she said, “Everything I have done with October’s world to this point has been for the sake of getting here.” And indeed, this book is a game-changer for the series, shedding a whole new light on the events of previous books. I love the fact that McGuire has plotted this series so meticulously, and it really shows in this installment. Now I want to go back and re-read the entire series, so I can pick up on all the little clues I missed the first time around! So plot-wise, I really loved this book, and I’m very intrigued to see what’s next for Toby and the gang. At the same time, though, I’m a little nervous about the future of this series. With every new installment, it seems that the stakes get higher and higher, and Toby becomes more and more important in her Fae world. In the first few books, she seemed refreshingly ordinary, but now it seems that she’s some kind of Chosen One, which is a trope that often bugs me in fantasy novels. I’m definitely still hooked on the series for now, but I hope that I will still be enthusiastic after future installments!

Review: Murder at the Brightwell

Murder at the BrightwellAshley Weaver, Murder at the Brightwell

Amory Ames and her husband Milo are having marital difficulties. They met just a few years ago and married quickly after a whirlwind romance. But now Milo is spending most of his time in various fashionable European cities — and gaining quite a reputation as a playboy — while Amory sits at home. Then one day Amory receives a visit from Gil Trent, a longtime friend and former fiancé, who needs her help: Gil’s sister has just gotten engaged to a thoroughly unsuitable man, and Gil hopes that Amory can persuade her not to go through with the wedding. Intrigued by Gil’s reappearance in her life, and angry at her husband, Amory agrees to help. She accompanies Gil to the fashionable Brightwell hotel, where Gil’s sister, her fiancé, and a small group of friends have gathered. But Amory gets more than she bargained for when the fiancé is murdered, and the culprit must be someone she knows….

This is one of those books that you’ll enjoy if the summary sounds interesting to you. I really like traditional English mysteries set in the first half of the 20th century, and this novel is a solid addition to that tradition. Amory is a likeable narrator and protagonist, and even though her amateur sleuthing seems a bit unnecessary (given the presence of a competent police inspector on the case), at least she’s not obnoxious or too stupid to live. The mystery plot is reasonably satisfying; it’s not particularly original or shocking, but the killer’s identity did surprise me. There’s a strong romantic subplot in the novel as well, as Amory must choose between Gil and Milo. I’m a fan of romance in my fiction, so I enjoyed this plotline, although I was never really in any doubt about whom Amory would choose. All in all, I enjoyed the book and would certainly read a sequel if one materializes.

N.B. I received an ARC of this novel at Book Expo America. The US publication date, per Amazon, is October 14.

Review: The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla, TheLauren Willig, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla

In the autumn of 1806, a popular novel called The Convent of Orsino (written by none other than Miss Gwen!) has sparked a vampire craze in fashionable society. Rumors swirl around one man in particular — Lucien, Duke of Belliston — whose long absence from society is seen as evidence that he is a creature of the night. Practical, outspoken Sally Fitzhugh is determined to prove this rumor false, so she seeks out an acquaintance with the duke. For Lucien, the rumor escalates from inconvenient to dangerous when a young woman is murdered at a society ball, with what appear to be fang marks on her throat. Lucien and Sally quickly realize that someone is framing Lucien for the murder, so together they decide to find the real killer. Is it someone with a personal grudge against Lucien, or could the nefarious French spy known as the Black Tulip be at work again? The more time Lucien and Sally spend together, the more they are drawn to each other; but before they can be together, they must defeat a cunning killer.

This 11th novel in the Pink Carnation series once again combines romance, historical fiction, and a touch of intrigue for a very enjoyable read. I wasn’t totally enthused about the plot of this installment beforehand, since vampires aren’t really my thing, but fortunately they’re not a big part of the story. I also didn’t completely warm up to Lucien or Sally, both of whom seem like types rather than characters…Sally in particular just seems like a younger version of Miss Gwen. But there’s still an awful lot to enjoy in this book! I was pleasantly surprised by the resolution of the mystery, which is quite clever and hangs together well. And as always, I adore the light, tongue-in-cheek tone of the series; it doesn’t take itself too seriously and aims to be entertaining above all else. I should mention that the contemporary story takes some significant steps forward in this installment, with Eloise facing important decisions both personally and professionally. So I’m really looking forward to the next (and last!) Pink Carnation novel, which will finally tell the story of the Carnation herself!