Mini-Reviews: Ruby, Angel, Bride

Ruby in the SmokeDark Angel : Lord Carew's Bride

Philip Pullman, The Ruby in the Smoke

I greatly enjoyed this historical adventure set in Victorian England. When 16-year-old Sally Lockhart’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she visits his business partner looking for answers — and stumbles into a sinister plot involving opium and murder. It’s just a really fun, pulpy novel for the MG/YA demographic, and I definitely plan to read the rest of the series!

Mary Balogh, Dark Angel / Lord Carew’s Bride

It’s a testament to how much I enjoy Balogh’s writing that I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Angel, even though it contains some of my least favorite romance tropes: reformed rake and revenge-seduction of the heroine. But the book doesn’t minimize the hero’s (initially) awful behavior or its painful consequences. The heroine doesn’t forgive him too easily, and he fully acknowledges how terrible his actions were. So I was ultimately able to root for the couple and believe in their happy ending.

I also liked Lord Carew’s Bride, though it wasn’t quite as emotionally resonant for me. Samantha has had a terrible experience with love, so she’s determined to keep her many suitors at arms’ length. Then she meets the incognito Lord Carew, who she mistakes for a common landscape gardener. He falls for her immediately, and she accepts his marriage proposal because she feels safe with him — and because the man she once loved is trying to weasel his way back into her life. I liked the hero more than the heroine in this one, but I do think they’re well matched. And I enjoyed seeing the villain get his comeuppance!

Mini-Reviews: Crimson, Still

Crimson BoundStill Life

Rosamund Hodge, Crimson Bound

I was pleasantly surprised by this YA fantasy novel, which is a (very) loose retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Protagonist Rachelle is a bloodbound, doomed to eventually lose her soul to the evil Devourer at the heart of the forest. In the meantime, she works as the king’s hired killer — until he commands her to guard his son Armand, whom she immediately distrusts because the people revere him as a saint. Yet when Rachelle discovers a possible way to change her destiny and defeat the Devourer, Armand may be her only ally. I liked the juicy plot and (of course) the romance, but my favorite aspect of this book is its unexpectedly serious examination of evil and atonement.

Louise Penny, Still Life

I’ve read so many glowing reviews of this series, so I’m a little afraid to say that I didn’t love this first installment. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t hate it either. I enjoyed the setting of a small town in Quebec, which is charming without being too idealized. And the mystery plot is interesting; I especially liked how the victim’s art contains a clue to the solution. But for one thing, I thought the book was doing too many things at once: introducing the town, describing the victim and her friends, introducing Inspector Gamache and his team…it was a lot to keep track of, and it was hard to tell which characters would turn out to be important. That’s normal for a series opener, of course, but it still made the book difficult to follow.

I also felt that the victim’s friend group was a little smug and snobbish. They’re mostly wealthy, mostly educated, mostly not originally from the small town…whereas some of the lower-class “townie” characters are painted as villains without one redeeming quality. Finally, I thought Agent Nichol was treated a bit unfairly. I read her as being on the autism spectrum (not understanding social cues, not able to see beyond the literal meaning of what people told her), so even though she unquestionably behaves badly, I wanted Gamache (and the book) to treat her with a little more compassion instead of writing her off as a clueless jerk. All that said, I may try the next book in the series, since it won’t have to do as much work of introducing the world and characters.

Mini-Reviews: Necromancer, Dimple, Scrapbook

Death of the NecromancerWhen Dimple Met RishiScrapbook of Frankie Pratt

Martha Wells, The Death of the Necromancer

This gaslamp fantasy follows Nicholas Valliarde, otherwise known as Donatien, the leader of a notorious criminal enterprise in the city of Vienne. He has one goal: to ruin the life of the Count of Montesq, who had Nicholas’s foster-father executed on a false charge of necromancy. In the middle of a heist that would further this goal, however, Nicholas runs into an unexpectedly life-threatening situation and soon learns that a real necromancer may be at work in the city. I really enjoyed this novel, especially the setting, which is like a fantastical version of 18th-century France. There’s also a really great friendship that arises between Nicholas and the police inspector who’s been tracking his criminal alter-ego. I will definitely continue with the Ile-Rien series, although this one stands alone quite well.

Sandhya Menon, When Dimple Met Rishi

Dimple and Rishi are Indian American teens who have never met, but their parents are friends and have tentatively arranged a marriage between them. Rishi knows about the arrangement and is happy about it; he loves his family and his culture, and he trusts his parents to choose an appropriate wife for him. Dimple, on the other hand, is more interested in computer coding than marriage, and she’s desperate to attend a prestigious summer program — one that Rishi happens to be attending also. When they meet, Dimple is enraged to discover the marriage arrangement. But the more she gets to know Rishi, the more she ends up liking him. This is a cute YA rom-com with insight into a culture I know little about. I recommend it if the premise intrigues you!

Caroline Preston, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt

This “novel in pictures” tells the story of Frances “Frankie” Pratt, an ambitious American girl who leaves her hometown to attend college, then travel to New York and Paris in hopes of becoming a writer. The book purports to be Frankie’s scrapbook of these eventful years of her life, with just a few sentences of narration on each page. The photos are of authentic 1920s artifacts — advertisements, ticket stubs, postcards, and the like — and I was very impressed by the author’s dedication to finding these artifacts and creating a story around them. That said, the scrapbook conceit is the cleverest part of the book; the plot and characters are all fairly two-dimensional. Still, this is a fun, quick read that would appeal to people who enjoy scrapbooking or are fascinated by the 1920s.

Review: Sherwood

SherwoodMeagan Spooner, Sherwood

This retelling of the Robin Hood legend focuses on the character of Maid Marian. When her fiancé Robin of Locksley dies on crusade, Marian sees it as her duty to protect the people of Locksley from the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham and his lieutenant, Sir Guy of Gisborne. When her maid Elena’s brother, Will Scarlet, is arrested for poaching, Marian is determined to save him, both for Elena’s sake and for Robin’s. But when she dresses in men’s clothing for her first rescue attempt, she is mistaken for Robin himself. The mistake gives Marian a daring idea: as a woman, she is almost powerless in society and cannot fight back against the corrupt laws that oppress her people. But as “Robin Hood,” she can actually make a difference. As her deception becomes more and more elaborate, she finds herself in increasing danger, especially from the enigmatic Gisborne. She also makes some hard choices as she learns how far she’ll go to protect her secret.

My all-time favorite version of the Robin Hood story is Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood. It’s just always felt true to me in a way that, say, the Errol Flynn movie (much as I enjoy it) doesn’t. To my surprise and delight, Sherwood gave me that same sense of truth from a very different perspective. This version of Marian is strong and independent, but while her heart is in the right place, she tends to act without thinking — a trait that usually irritates me, but it makes total sense for her character. And I love that she grows in this area throughout the novel, as she realizes that her impetuous actions sometimes have unforeseen consequences. Similarly, I love how this book gives some nuance to the Robin Hood legend: are his actions in robbing the rich to give to the poor always justified? Could he have worked within the law instead of deliberately flouting it? Finally, there’s a romance in this book that completely sneaked up on me, and I adored it. In short, I really loved this book; the moment I finished my library copy, I immediately bought one for myself! Highly recommended, especially if (like me) you also enjoyed Hunted.

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!