Review: Under a Dancing Star

Under a Dancing StarLaura Wood, Under a Dancing Star

In 1930s England, 17-year-old Beatrice Langton longs to be a scientist, but her parents have a different plan in mind for her: because she’s their only child, and they no longer have the money to maintain the estate, she must marry a rich aristocrat and restore the family fortunes. But Bea’s “outrageous” behavior at an ill-fated dinner party gives her life a new direction when her parents decide to send her to her uncle’s home in Italy. Far from being chastised, Bea is thrilled — especially when she arrives in Italy to find that her uncle and his bohemian fiancée are essentially living in an artists’ commune. She is soon enjoying the freedom of her new life, with one exception: one of the artists, Ben, is as argumentative and obnoxious as he is handsome. But when their friends dare them to embark upon a summer romance, Bea reluctantly agrees. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment, and she’ll gain some much-desired life experience. But when their pretend relationship becomes all too real, will their very different backgrounds keep them apart?

Much Ado about Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play, so I’m game to read any and all retellings, especially if they’re set in interesting historical periods! This one takes place in the 1930s, so I couldn’t help but compare it with Speak Easy, Speak Love, which is another Much Ado retelling set in the 1920s. I absolutely adored Speak Easy, Speak Love, and I must admit that this book suffers a bit by comparison. It’s a light, fun read, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Bea and Ben, but to me it lacked the substance of Speak Easy, Speak Love. It’s also not as good a retelling of Much Ado — it focuses on the Beatrice and Benedick story but jettisons the Hero/Claudio plot entirely, merely keeping a few of the character names. I did love the way this book subtly paraphrased some of the most famous lines from the play, rather than quoting them outright; I thought that was a great way to pay homage to the original play while still keeping the language appropriate for the characters’ ages and the time period. Overall, I enjoyed this book and would read more by Laura Wood, but if you’re looking for a YA Much Ado retelling set in the early 20th century, I’d definitely recommend Speak Easy, Speak Love instead!

Review: Call Down the Hawk

Call Down the HawkMaggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk

Ronan Lynch is a dreamer, someone who’s able to take objects from his dreams into the waking world. But lately he’s been having trouble with his dreams: he can’t always control what he brings back, and he’s unable to stay away from his home (near a ley line in Virginia) for any length of time. So when he encounters someone else in his dreams, another dreamer who calls himself Bryde, he’s eager to learn more — even though everyone else in his life warns him it’s incredibly dangerous. Meanwhile, Jordan Hennessy is an art forger on a mission to steal a particular painting that just so happens to have been dreamt by Ronan’s father. But complications ensue when her mission brings her into contact with Declan Lynch, Ronan’s uptight and seemingly boring older brother. And then there’s Carmen Farooq-Lane, who is part of a government agency tasked with finding and killing dreamers, because the agency believes a dreamer will cause the end of the world. But the more she learns about the agency’s agenda and tactics, the more she questions her role.

This book is set in the same world as the Raven Cycle, and while it is technically a stand-alone, I really think having the background from TRC is helpful for understanding the world of the novel and the characters of the Lynch brothers in particular. At the same time, I think fans of TRC might be disappointed by how little the other characters from that series appear. Adam is in a few scenes, but Gansey and Blue only appear briefly via text message. So I’m not quite sure who this book is for, if that makes sense; it seems like it would fall short for both newbies and TRC fans. Also, there’s a lot going on in this book, and I’m not sure it all works; the disparate stories take a long time to converge, and before they do, it can be tedious and confusing to figure out what’s going on. I did really like Declan’s story in this book; he was an intriguing character in the Raven Cycle, and I was glad to see more development for him here. But the Carmen sections particularly dragged and didn’t seem necessary for the plot. Of course, this is the first book in a projected trilogy, so maybe she’ll become more integral later on. But I should say that, while there’s no cliffhanger per se, the main plot lines are not resolved in this book. I’ll most likely continue with the trilogy to find out what happens, but so far I’m not enjoying it as much as the Raven Cycle.

Review: The Lady Rogue

Lady RogueJenn Bennett, The Lady Rogue

An unconventional young woman growing up in the 1930s, Theodora Fox has a thirst for adventure. Her father, Richard, is a well-known treasure hunter who travels the world collecting rare and precious artifacts. Yet despite Theo’s eagerness to accompany her father on these trips, he usually ends up leaving her behind, allegedly for her own protection. When Richard fails to return from one such trip, Theo is worried that he’s gotten into trouble and decides to take matters into her own hands. With the help of Huck Gallagher, Richard’s protégé and her own former love interest, she looks for clues in her father’s journal and soon realizes that he was on the trail of a supposedly magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Vlad Dracula. Now Theo and Huck must retrace her father’s footsteps into Romania, where they soon discover that they aren’t the only ones on Richard’s trail. They also encounter murder, magic, and a dangerous secret society with its own plans for Dracula’s ring.

This book sounded like it was going to be a fun, adventurous romp, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it. I find myself getting a bit grumpy about YA lately, and this book is a good example of why: I just found Theo to be incredibly immature. She’s one of those headstrong, anachronistic heroines with implausibly amazing skills (in Theo’s case, codebreaking) and a fairly self-centered worldview. She doesn’t really grow or change throughout the novel, although I’ll grant that she does make one very good decision at a climactic moment. But I just didn’t care about her or her quest. The treasure-hunting aspect of the novel is also disappointing, since Theo and Huck are terrible detectives; they wander around Romania cluelessly and finally stumble upon the exact individuals who can tell them what’s going on and what to do next. Finally, the romance irritated me; it was all angst and physical attraction, no true compatibility. Also, I hated the characterization of Huck — he’s from Northern Ireland, and he’s an incredibly broad stereotype (says “Jaysus” all the time, calls Theo “banshee” as a pet name). In short, this one definitely wasn’t for me.

Review: Graceling

GracelingKristin Cashore, Graceling

Throughout the Seven Kingdoms, some individuals have superhuman powers known as Graces. A person’s Grace might be harmless or even useful, such as the ability to swim incredibly fast or to easily perform complex mathematics. But even those Graced with these benign abilities are viewed with suspicion and fear. Katsa, the niece of King Randa, is Graced with superhuman strength, which means that Randa uses her as a threat and a punishment to anyone who crosses him. Katsa hates being used to harm innocent people, and she has begun to fight back by forming a secret Council to rescue those whom Randa seeks to hurt. In the course of one of the Council’s missions, Katsa meets Po, a prince of a nearby kingdom who is Graced with fighting. As they become closer, Po encourages Katsa to stand up for herself at Randa’s court. The two of them also encounter a mysterious plot that sends them on a journey to the farthest reaches of the Seven Kingdoms, where they discover a king hiding a terrible Grace.

I bought this book when it first came out (10+ years ago!) because there was so much good buzz surrounding it; now I finally understand what the fuss was about! I found this book an enjoyable and compelling read. Katsa is a somewhat typical “strong female heroine,” but she’s saved from being too perfect because her Grace is powerless against the Grace of the book’s villain. I liked her stubbornness and independence, and I liked that she was nowhere near as emotionally fluent as the hero. Po is a dream of a love interest; not only is he handsome and able to fight Katsa as an equal, but he also truly respects her and doesn’t try to change her, even when she’s at her most frustrating. My biggest complaint with the book is that the pacing is odd. It almost seems like three different books — one at Randa’s court, another during Katsa and Po’s journey, and a third about the final showdown with the evil king. Personally, I was most interested in the first section, and I would have liked to read an entire novel about the Council and how Katsa finally gets the courage to stand up to Randa. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend this book to YA fantasy fans!

Review: Pumpkinheads

PumpkinheadsRainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks, Pumpkinheads

Deja and Josiah are high school seniors who have worked at the local pumpkin patch every fall for the past three years. They don’t interact much in winter, spring, or summer, but when they’re working together at the Succotash Hut, they’re firm friends. This year, introspective Josiah is contemplating the bittersweet fact that tonight is his last night at the patch; in response, outgoing Deja declares that they need to make the most of it by having an adventure. She encourages Josiah to finally approach his longtime crush, the girl who works at the Fudge Shoppe, but Josiah will only do it if Deja comes along for moral support. Their mission takes them all over the pumpkin patch, from the various food vendors to the bumper cars to the corn maze. Along the way, they reminisce about how they first met and about how much they’ve enjoyed their time at the patch. When Josiah finally catches up with the Fudge Shoppe girl, he realizes that he needs to accomplish one more mission before leaving the pumpkin patch behind.

I’m a big Rainbow Rowell fan, so I was predisposed to like this book even though I don’t normally read graphic novels. And I will say that, while Faith Erin Hicks’s art is very cute and charming, it didn’t add very much to the story for me. But I think I’m just not a very visual person, so your mileage may vary! Anyway, I very much enjoyed the story, which perfectly encapsulates that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia that comes with the end of an era. I also loved the contrast between Josiah and Deja in their attitude toward change: Josiah is a melancholy, head-in-the-clouds type, whereas Deja is more pragmatic and confident. She gives him the kick in the pants he needs to get out of his own head, while his gentleness and sincerity disarm her. I completely bought their friendship and enjoyed watching it develop as the story unfolded. The plot is not particularly suspenseful, but there were times when I genuinely didn’t know how everything would turn out. (I had certain hopes, but I wasn’t sure until a fair way into the book.) Overall, this is a lightweight but very enjoyable story, and I’d love to see it as a movie!

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Ten Thousand Doors of JanuaryAlix E. Harrow, The Ten Thousand Doors of January

In the first years of the 20th century, January Scaller lives a small, safe life in the home of her guardian, Cornelius Locke. Locke House is large and richly appointed, full of rare treasures from faraway lands. January’s father works for Mr. Locke by finding these treasures, so he is often gone for months or years at a time. As a result, January grows up feeling lonely and out of place. Then one day she finds a book called The Ten Thousand Doors, and it introduces her to the concept of Doors, or portals to other worlds, which introduce change and new ideas and revolutions. January is captivated by the book and by the idea of Doors, especially when the book turns out to have a connection to certain surprising abilities of her own. Eventually January sets off on a quest for her past, a quest that involves finding and passing through the right Door. But a malevolent society of rich and powerful men is bent on closing the Doors, and she must ultimately use everything she’s learned to preserve the freedom of multiple worlds.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced YA adventure novel, this is not the book for you. It takes its time in setting up January’s character, her world, and a seemingly unrelated plot that (predictably) ties in with the main story. In fact, nothing really happens plot-wise until about halfway through the book! Normally this would bother me, but in this case, I was immersed in the lovely writing and the magical, faintly gothic atmosphere. I’m not usually someone who reads for setting or style, but there are some books that you just sink into — that feel like magic — and for me, this is one of those books. In terms of characters, this is very much January’s story, and much of the book focuses on her thoughts and reactions to things. I would have liked some more insight into Jane and Samuel, two of January’s allies who help her in her quest. We do get their backstory, especially Jane’s, in some depth, but I never felt like I really got to know them as people or understand what made them tick. The book contains some (slightly heavy-handed, I thought) social commentary and a lovely, quiet romance. Overall, I really liked it and think it will end up on my top 10 list for 2019!

Review: Sorcery of Thorns

Sorcery of ThornsMargaret Rogerson, Sorcery of Thorns

Elisabeth is an orphan who was raised in a Great Library among the grimoires, books that have been enchanted by the demonic power of sorcery. She hopes one day to become a warden so that she can protect the pubic from the evils they contain. When one of the library’s most dangerous grimoires escapes, Elisabeth successfully stops it from harming anyone, but her presence on the scene is viewed as suspicious. She is taken to the capital city to be tried for sabotage, but there she soon realizes that this one incident is part of a much larger and more dangerous plot. Her only ally is Nathaniel Thorn, a powerful sorcerer whom she has every reason to distrust. But as they work together to discover the real saboteur’s identity and purpose, Elisabeth learns that there is more to sorcery — and to Nathaniel — than meets the eye.

I’ve become somewhat disenchanted with YA fantasy recently, but the premise of this novel intrigued me, so I decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I really loved it! Elisabeth is in some ways a typical YA fantasy heroine; she’s great with a sword (despite never having been trained) and has hitherto-unsuspected special powers. But she also strikes me as a real person, someone who has to confront her fears and prejudices as she learns that the world is more complicated than she thought. And I adored both Nathaniel and his demonic servant, Silas; their relationship is almost more compelling than that between Nathaniel and Elisabeth. The plot is exciting and action-packed, and I love that the villain’s identity is revealed early on; the book doesn’t underestimate its readers’ intelligence. Most of all, I enjoyed the flashes of humor throughout the book, as the characters joke and tease even in the most serious, life-threatening situations. In short, I loved this book and will definitely seek out Rogerson’s previous novel, An Enchantment of Ravens!

Review: Duels & Deception

Duels & DeceptionCindy Anstey, Duels & Deception

After the death of her beloved father, Lydia Whitfield is determined to keep her family’s estate up and running, but her hot-tempered, alcoholic uncle thwarts her at every turn. Lydia’s only solution is to marry a suitable man who will allow her to run things as she chooses. She already has an unofficial understanding with her neighbor, Lord Aldershot, so all she has to do is draw up the marriage contract. Her plan hits a snag, however, when she meets her lawyer — or rather, her lawyer’s clerk, a handsome young man named Robert Newton. He seems to understand Lydia in a way that no one else does, and she finds herself getting distracted by his broad shoulders and kind brown eyes. Complications ensue when Lydia and Robert are abducted by persons unknown, and they must work together to discover who engineered the kidnapping and why.

I’d previously read another book by this author, Love, Lies and Spies, and while I wasn’t crazy about it, the adorable cover of this novel convinced me to try again. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the cover much more than the book! Even as someone who enjoys a light and fluffy Regency romance, I found this novel utterly insubstantial. The attempts at humor are grating, and the setting is nothing more than window-dressing. The mystery of who kidnapped Lydia and Robert isn’t compelling enough to carry the plot, and a separate storyline involving Robert’s best friend and a duel seems to be completely shoehorned in, with no relevance to the A-story. However, that side story does contain the only marginally interesting character in the book, Robert’s best friend Vincent Cassidy. Perhaps it’s just as well that the author hasn’t written a full novel featuring him, because I’m sure I’d be doomed to disappointment if I read it!

Review: Field Notes on Love

Field Notes on LoveJennifer E. Smith, Field Notes on Love

Hugo Wilkinson is feeling trapped. He loves his parents and his five siblings, but he’s never particularly enjoyed the notoriety that comes with being a sextuplet. Now all six of them are heading off to their hometown university in the fall, but Hugo is beginning to wonder if it’s truly the right path for him. On top of everything else, he was supposed to be going on a romantic train trip across America with his girlfriend this summer, but she’s just dumped him, and all the tickets and hotels are in her name. Now Hugo is stuck — unless he can find another girl named Margaret Campbell who’d be willing to go with him. Meanwhile, Mae (full name Margaret) Campbell is an aspiring filmmaker in need of a little adventure. She decides to take Hugo up on his offer, and as they travel across the country together, their immediate connection deepens into something that surprises them both.

As someone who finds the idea of traveling across America by train both appealing and romantic, of course I couldn’t resist this book! And as I expected, it was a fun and charming read, although not particularly substantial. I think the book spends a little too much time setting up the plot, trying to make the whole scenario plausible, when in reality we all know it’s implausible and are perfectly willing to suspend our disbelief — otherwise we wouldn’t have picked up the book in the first place! I also didn’t quite buy into Mae’s internal conflict, which is about learning to let her guard down and be vulnerable — but the book never explains why she’s so guarded to begin with. Hugo’s conflict, about balancing his family’s expectations with his own wants and needs, was much more believable for me. I did like the sweet romance and the uniqueness of the road trip, but ultimately this isn’t a book I will ever revisit.

Review: Last of Her Name

Last of Her NameJessica Khoury, Last of Her Name

Stacia Androvna has grown up happy on a fringe planet near the edge of the galaxy. She’s never paid much attention to politics, although she knows that things have been fairly bleak since the revolution that overthrew the Leonovan empire. Still, she never expected that the unrest in the galaxy would affect her — until the direktor Eminent himself, the leader of the revolutionary government, shows up on her planet claiming that she is a Leonovan princess. Stacia doesn’t believe it, but she knows she must escape or die. Now on the run with her childhood friend Pol, she is determined to save the rest of her loved ones, especially her best friend Clio. But the direktor Eminent will do whatever it takes to capture Stacia, and there are also Loyalist forces hoping to find and use her for their own ends. Is Stacia really the princess, and if so, will she be able to use what little power she has to save her friends?

I adore the Anastasia animated movie and was excited to read a book that sounded like a sci-fi take on that story. Unfortunately, the plot of the novel is quite different; while the setup is clearly based on the execution of the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution, the rest of the plot is essentially an action movie set in space. Which I have no problem with, but it’s not what I was expecting or hoping for. The book is a fast read that’s jam-packed with plot, which definitely kept me turning the pages. Some of the twists were very clever, although some went a bit too far for my taste — it kept feeling like the book should end, and then there would be yet another attack/betrayal/reversal of fortune. I didn’t really connect to the characters, but maybe that’s my issue and not the book’s; all these spunky YA SFF heroines are starting to feel the same to me, so I found Stacia rather two-dimensional. Overall, I liked this book fine, but I was a bit underwhelmed.