Review: The Shadow Queen

Shadow QueenC.J. Redwine, The Shadow Queen

In this YA retelling of Snow White, Lorelai Diederich is the princess of Ravenspire, which has been taken over by her wicked stepmother, a powerful sorcerer named Irina. Irina’s dark magic, which steals the lifeblood of Ravenspire itself, has bewitched everyone in the kingdom to obey her without question. Lorelai, her brother Leo, and their faithful servant Gabril are on the run and trying to start a revolution, but without much success. Meanwhile, the neighboring kingdom of Eldr is being overrun by ogres, so Prince Kol is forced to ask for Irina’s help. In exchange, Irina magically compels him to hunt down the fugitive royals and kill them. When Kol and Lorelai eventually do meet, however, they decide to join forces and oust Irina from the throne. But will they be able to overcome her powerful magic?

I’m a fan of fairytale retellings, and there’s a lot to enjoy in this novel — a strong heroine, a fast-moving plot, an intriguing fantastical world, and even some dragon shapeshifters! But while I liked the book, nothing about it particularly wowed me. Lorelai and Kol are both entertaining characters, but I feel like I’ve seen them before; feisty heroines with hidden potential and the conflicted heroes who love them are a dime a dozen in YA fantasy. I appreciated the attempt to give Irina some nuance, but all the other characters are fairly one-dimensional, particularly Gabril, who exists only to be a Loyal Servant. The world-building did pique my interest, but I wanted to know more about the magical system (the “rules” aren’t ever quite clear) and how the different countries interact. To be fair, the world is probably fleshed out more in the sequels, and I may end up getting them from the library at some point, but I’m not in a rush.

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Review: Beastly Bones

Beastly BonesWilliam Ritter, Beastly Bones

In this second installment of the Jackaby series, Abigail Rook has finally begun to adjust to life as the assistant of R.F. Jackaby, paranormal detective. However, she still remains interested in her first passion, paleontology, so she is delighted to learn that a relatively nearby scientific dig has unearthed what appears to be a brand-new species of dinosaur. Abigail is eager to travel to the site and participate in the excavation, but Jackaby isn’t interested — until the wife of the site’s landowner dies somewhat mysteriously. Together they travel to the dig and meet up with police officer Charlie Cane, an ally to Jackaby and possibly something more to Abigail. But they immediately run into several challenges, including two rival scientists who each want to claim the discovery, a brash female journalist who keeps getting underfoot, and the apparent theft of some of the bones. And then more people start dying. . . .

It’s been a few years since I read Jackaby, but I was so charmed by it that I always intended to continue with the series. By and large, I enjoyed this installment very much as well. Abigail is a wonderful heroine and narrator, smart and plucky without being The Best at Everything. And Jackaby, between his penetrating intelligence, abrupt demeanor, and genuine fondness for his friends, is a delight — think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, but more likable. I do think the plot has a bit too much going on — the dueling scientists are fun but don’t really add much to the story. Also, the tone is a little too light considering the high body count, but I suppose that’s to be expected with many books geared toward younger readers. But I liked this book a lot overall and look forward to reading the third installment soon!

Review: Heart of Iron

Heart of IronAshley Poston, Heart of Iron

Ana was raised an outlaw on the spaceship Dossier, under the rough but loving care of the infamous Captain Siege and her crew. She remembers nothing of her life before the Dossier found her; the only connection to her past is her Metal (robot), D09, who also happens to be her best friend. When D09 starts to malfunction, Ana is so desperate to save him that she’ll even steal the coordinates for the long-lost spaceship Tsarina, which is rumored to have the information she’ll need to repair D09. But her plan goes wrong when Robb, an Ironblood (upper class) boy who has his own reasons for seeking the Tsarina, gets the coordinates first. Now Ana and Robb find themselves on the same side as they search for answers. Meanwhile, the Iron Kingdom needs a new leader, since a rebellion several years ago killed the entire royal family. Robb’s corrupt brother Erik is next in line, but legend has it that one of the murdered emperor’s children may have survived after all. . . .

This book was originally pitched as “Anastasia meets Firefly,” and since I love both of those things, I figured I’d be the ideal reader for this novel! Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, but I want to emphasize that my problems with the book are very specific and may not be problems for another reader! It’s certainly a fun read overall, with a nice blend of outer space action and political intrigue. But for me, the book is missing the elements I was hoping for based on the premise. My favorite aspects of Anastasia are the con angle and the enemies-to-lovers romance, neither of which are present in this book. Instead, one of the main plot lines is a romance between a human and a robot, and I just couldn’t get past it. I think the discussion about artificial intelligence and consciousness is absolutely fascinating, but there’s not much debate about it in the novel; rather, all the “good” characters simply accept D09’s humanity, which just left me with a lot of questions and frustration. Also, I found the Firefly elements to be a little superficial: yes, there’s a ragtag crew of space pirates/adventurers, but only a few of them get any significant characterization. In short, all I can say is that this book didn’t deliver what I was hoping for based on the premise. But again, that has a lot to do with my own subjective expectations, and I expect that many other readers will love it!

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: 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: Girl, Prince, Single, Throne

Who's That Girl?Prince in Disguise

Mhairi McFarlane, Who’s That Girl? — This novel follows Edie, a young professional whose personal and professional lives are simultaneously ruined when she attends her coworkers’ wedding and the groom spontaneously kisses her. Of course, everyone blames Edie for the catastrophe, so her sympathetic boss sends her on a remote assignment to ghostwrite the autobiography of a hot young actor. The book is primarily a romance, but it also spends a lot of time on Edie’s dysfunctional family and on her growth as an individual. For me, this is another winner by Mhairi McFarlane, and I eagerly await her next book.

Stephanie Kate Strohm, Prince in Disguise — Sixteen-year-old Dylan has always felt invisible beside her beautiful older sister, Dusty. And when Dusty — a Miss America competitor — falls in love with a genuine Scottish lord, she becomes the subject of a reality TV show that documents their courtship. Dylan is less than thrilled about being constantly followed by cameras, even if it does mean she gets to spend Christmas in Scotland. But when she meets an adorably geeky British boy, things start to look up…until the drama (both real and manufactured) surrounding the TV show threatens to ruin everything. If you like your contemporary romance with British accents, secret passageways, and kissing in barns, this is definitely the book for you! In a word, it’s adorable, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of YA contemporaries!

Note: this book is one of the ARCs I picked up at Book Expo America, and the projected publication date is December 19.

It's Not You- 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're SingleBehind the Throne

Sara Eckel, It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single — If you’re a single woman over a certain age, chances are you’ve received a lot of well-meaning advice about how to find a mate: “You’re too picky.” “You’re too independent.” “You have low self-esteem.” The problem with this advice, according to Eckel, is that it assumes there is something wrong with you, when in reality, meeting the right person is largely a matter of luck. You can increase your odds by, say, participating in group activities that you enjoy, putting more effort into your appearance, or joining an online dating site. But none of this can guarantee that you’ll meet your match. Ultimately, Eckel’s point is that there is nothing wrong with you; you just haven’t met the right person yet. It’s a consoling message, and the writing is often witty and relatable, so I’d recommend the book for its target demographic.

K.B. Wagers, Behind the Throne — Hail Bristol has spent the past several years making a name for herself as one of the toughest, most dangerous gunrunners in the galaxy. But she’s actually a runaway princess of the Indranan Empire, and when her sisters are assassinated by unknown perpetrators, Hail becomes the reluctant heir to the throne. To do her duty, she must return to her home planet and familiarize herself with Indrana’s political situation and the intrigues of the court. She soon realizes that this job may be her toughest one yet. I found this to be an entertaining sci-fi novel, but I didn’t become invested enough in the characters to really love it. I do think the world building is very creative, and the political intrigue is compelling. Overall, this was a good but not great book for me.

Mini-Reviews: Scrappy, Baker’s, Alex, Warleggan

Scrappy Little NobodyBaker's Daughter, The

Anna Kendrick, Scrappy Little Nobody — This is a fun, breezy memoir by Anna Kendrick, an actress I generally enjoy and find likable. It’s not as funny as Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), but fans of those books would probably like this one too. I was interested to learn that one of Kendrick’s first roles was the little sister in the 1998 Broadway production of High Society — I love the movie version with Grace Kelly!

D.E. Stevenson, The Baker’s Daughter — D.E. Stevenson is always reliable for a sweet, old-fashioned comfort read, and this book certainly fits the bill. The titular baker’s daughter is Sue Pringle, a plain and practical young woman whose life is changed forever by the arrival of John Darnay, an absentminded painter. If you like this kind of thing in general, you’ll enjoy the book.

Alex, ApproximatelyWarleggan

Jenn Bennett, Alex, Approximately — This book is billed as a YA contemporary You’ve Got Mail, but I don’t think it really delivers on that premise. Teenager Bailey is obsessed with old movies, and she’s been corresponding with her fellow cinephile Alex over the Internet. Now she’s moving to Alex’s hometown to live with her dad, and she’s excited to finally meet him in person. But she quickly gets swept off her feet by her annoyingly cocky yet handsome coworker, Porter. Fortunately, as the book jacket reveals, Porter IS Alex! But this whole You’ve Got Mail framework — which is what attracted me to the book in the first place — is the merest background, and it barely has anything to do with the plot. The meat of the story is the teen romance, which just didn’t do much for me. Another take on the YA You’ve Got Mail story is Kasie West’s P.S. I Like You, which I enjoyed a lot more.

Winston Graham, Warleggan — Things really get going in this fourth Poldark book, which is full of twists and betrayals and Ross making even more terrible decisions. I’m starting to think George isn’t such a villain; he undoubtedly does some despicable things, but after the events of this book, it’s clear that Ross isn’t exactly blameless. Demelza is definitely the true hero of this series!

Mini-Reviews: Geekerella, Eight, Only, Herrings

GeekerellaEight Days of Luke

Ashley Poston, Geekerella — This is a cute YA take on the Cinderella story, where the protagonist is a teen who’s obsessed with the sci-fi TV show “Starfield,” and her Prince Charming is the lead actor in the upcoming “Starfield” movie. It’s an entertaining bit of fluff, but not something I’ll ever reread. I was also slightly annoyed with the main character because she mocks her “wicked stepsisters” for wearing makeup and caring about their looks, as if there’s something morally wrong with those things. Still, it’s a cute read, and you’ll probably enjoy it if the premise appeals to you.

Diana Wynne Jones, Eight Days of Luke — This may be a children’s book, but I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in Norse mythology. It’s the story of a boy named David who lives with his odious family and has no escape — until he meets the charming Luke, who takes him on several adventures. But it turns out that Luke is actually the Norse god Loki, and he’s in a lot of trouble with the other gods. This probably isn’t one of Diana Wynne Jones’s best books, but it’s still worth a read, in my opinion!

If You Only KnewFive Red Herrings, The

Kristan Higgins, If You Only Knew — Kristan Higgins is one of my auto-buy romance authors, but I’m really enjoying her forays into women’s fiction as well. This book still has a romance or two, but it also focuses on the personal journeys of Jenny, a wedding dress designer who’s struggling to get over her ex-husband, and her sister Rachel, who has just discovered her husband’s infidelity. Definitely recommended for fans of chick lit.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings — I’m a fan of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but I have to admit that this wasn’t one of my favorites. First of all, there’s no Harriet Vane, and I was really looking forward to seeing more of her after Strong Poison! Second, this is Sayers’s “alibi” mystery, where the solution involves railroad timetables and the like. I have to admit, I kind of skimmed over most of the in-depth alibi stuff, trusting that the denouement would give me all the information I really needed. So this wasn’t really the book for me, but I still found a lot to enjoy in Lord Peter’s antics and look forward to the next book in the series.