Friday, August 29, 2014

House of Ivy and Sorrow

House of Ivy & Sorrow Natalie Whipple's House of Ivy and Sorrow is a very different novel from her debut Transparent. From the opening chapter I was intrigued: Jo Hemlock lives with her nana in an unusual house in a town full of magic. Though Jo's life hasn't been perfect (her mom died ten years ago from a brutal magical curse), she feels safe.

Safe, that is, until signs that the person who cursed her mother may be finding ways to get past the spells her nana set on the town. Until a stranger shows up inside the town, looking for her. And a boy she's always liked finally starts to notice her.

The opening chapter is magical: dark and warm and whimsical. I love the relationship between Jo and her Nana. And the intrigue sets in right away, which is nice.

It does slow down a little in the middle--we get more of Jo's relationship and less of the danger--but it picks up considerably at the end. I enjoyed Whipple's snappy dialogue and the development of Jo's first boyfriend. While some readers seem to think the lightness detracts from the gothic tone, it worked for me. (But then, I'm a wimp who generally doesn't do really dark stuff anyway).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty Rosamund Hodge's Cruel Beauty has been on my to-read list for sometime and I was thrilled to find it lived up to the hype. In this imaginative retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Nyx has been betrothed to the demon lord her whole life--and raised to kill him. Her family believes this will set her world (an alternate universe England with strong Roman overtones) free from the spell that confines them to their island beneath a parchment sky.

Nyx herself is willing, but bitter that she has been chosen over her sister because she is the expendable one. Not unnaturally, given the source material, she finds herself drawn to the demon lord in ways she did not expect. As she learns more about him and the spell-bound house he inhabits, she becomes more and more uncertain of her ability (or her desire) to follow through on the original plan.

There was so much I loved about this. The prose was gorgeous and smart. I loved all the well-placed allusions to Roman mythology. The book also reminded me of C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, both for the rivalry between the sisters and the idea of deep sacrifices--I was thrilled to find in the author's note that this link was not accidental. And the allusions to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets? Even better.

But I loved, loved, the romance. Nyx was strong and prickly, the demon lord dark and quixotic and with a biting sense of humor. Just the kind of match-up I adore.

The novel wasn't perfect: I still have some confusion as to how Nyx was so easily able to obtain the demon lord's keys and I didn't love the love-triangle aspect here, but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Things I Can't Forget

Things I Can't Forget Miranda Kenneally has made a name for herself writing contemporary young adult novels. Things I Can't Forget is a companion novel to Catching Jordan, an interesting look at a young woman (Jordan) who aspires to be a football player and who makes a cameo here.
What attracted me to this book was the premise: Kate has grown up in a tight religious community, but after a secret strains the relationship she has with her best friend, she's no longer sure about her place. A summer spent as a camp counselor at a Christian camp raises further questions for her, as she watches the other counselors (esp.) the dreamy Matt, practice Christianity in ways that are foreign to her.
As a religious woman myself, I love realistic depictions of religious teens. And I thought Kinneally (who grew up in a similar conservative community) did a fair job with Kate: she does come across as judgmental, but she's also a likeable character. I also liked that the inevitable "mind-opening" character arc did NOT come at the expense of Kate's faith.
I didn't love Kate's relationship with Matt, which escalated to pretty physical pretty quickly. I get that relationships do that, esp. for teens, but as Kate was raised to see chastity as an ideal aim, it seemed odd to me that it took her so long to ask herself what she really wanted from the relationship.
At any rate, it was an enjoyable read, just not a perfect one.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy, #1) I loved Brennan's Demon Lexicon, and I have been waiting for some time to get my hands on a copy of this particular book. It did not disappoint.

The premise was intriguing. Kami Glass has lived her whole life in a town under the shadow of the currently uninhabited great house. People speak of the Lynburns in tones of reverence or abhorrence, but no one is indifferent to them. But they've been gone for all of Kami's life. So when she hears they are about to return, the girl-reporter in her has to know what's going on. But what she finds is much more than expected.

To begin, all Kami's life she has talked to a voice in her head: Jared. She suspects she might be crazy, but Jared is familiar, comforting, and she's not about to give him up. Until the Lynburns return, and she finds that Jared is real--and he's one of them. Then, what was fascinating becomes terrifying. (In fact, I loved this part of the storyline, that Brennen did not romanticize how creepy and horrifying it might be to find that a *real* person has access to your mind and feelings. Particularly when that person is someone you might otherwise very much like). Not that she's ready to give up on Jared--her history with him runs too deep--but things are . . . complicated.

Not to mention, someone is doing dark magic in the village, leaving bloody animal carcasses in the forest. But when Jared starts seeing strange creatures in the wood and a girl turns up dead, Kami and her friends realize that it's up to them to figure out what's going on--and what the Lynburns have to do with it all.

Brennan has a knack for creating fascinating, flawed characters. I loved Kami--her outspokenness, her inquisitiveness, and even the fact that she wasn't conventionally pretty. (In fact, when Jared first meets her, he's not impressed).  And I loved Jared too. He was interesting, intense, prickly (in all the right ways) and outrageous. Kami's friends were fun and unpredictable too.

But more than the characters, I loved Brennen's writing, which was the perfect balance of dark, funny, and lush.

What I didn't love? The ending. I really disliked the ending and it's only (slightly) redeemed for me by the fact that there is a sequel . . .

Friday, August 22, 2014

Stolen Songbird

Stolen Songbird (The Malediction Trilogy, #1) This book was precisely the kind of lush, vividly imagined fantasy that I enjoy, and it focused around a mythical creature--trolls--that we don't often hear of. At least, not as the heroes. (Though I have my own suspicions as to what the trolls *really* are).

Cecile de Troyen's life is just about to begin (her diva mother has arranged for her to come to the city to begin a career as a singer) when she is kidnapped and sold to the trolls--as a bride for the king's son.

Cecile is not unnaturally horrified, both to find that the trolls she's always assumed were just a story are, in fact, real, and at her abduction and forced marriage. It's not that she finds her prospective husband unattractive (as a point of fact, the prince, Tristan, is unnaturally good looking). It's simply that he's a troll. He's not human. And he clearly has no time or affection for her. Their marriage is a matter of convenience, an attempt to fulfill a prophesy that says that a human bride can break the spell that keeps the trolls bound to their mountain. If she could run, she would. Unfortunately, their marriage vows also mean that Cecile can feel what Tristan feels--and if she dies, Tristan will die too.

Tristan is not entirely what he seems, either. Though trolls cannot lie, they are particularly good at misdirection and manipulation. And Tristan is in the middle of a campaign to challenge his father and change the face of Trollus. The more Cecile learns about Tristan, Trollus, and the spell that binds them, the more unsure she is about what she actually wants.

The book started out slowly for me, but I was intrigued enough to keep reading, and I'm glad I did. The romance between Cecile and Tristan was great (just the kind of heart-twinging conflict that I love), and Trollus was an intricate, vividly imagined world. While I do think the pacing of the book was also a bit slow (the story could have been trimmed without much damage to the plot or character development), the story was rewarding: a lovely, lyrical, dark fantasy.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Reluctant Heiress

The Reluctant Heiress If the title of Eva Ibbotson's The Reluctant Heiress sounds as if it should be a cheap Regency paperback, well, it isn't. Not quite, anyway.

Originally published in 1982 (and titled The Magic Flute, in reference to Mozart's opera), this book tells a story familiar to fans of Ibbotson's delightful The Countess Belowstairs: an impoverished noblewoman with an eccentric extended family and friends meets handsome, dashing rich man who can save her fortunes. And while all of this sounds pretty cliche, Ibbotson has a way of making the stories cozy rather than simply predictable.

Here, the heroine is an impoverished princess (Princess Theresia-Maria of Pfaffenstein, to be exact--Tessa to her many friends) in 1920s Austria who's perfectly happy spending her days behind the scenes at a failing theatrical troupe. While her great-aunts want to see her safely married to a neighboring lord, that's not what Tessa herself wants. She just wants to assist in the creation of great art. She doesn't need money, though the loss of  her beloved castle will undoubtedly hurt.

But when Tessa meets the dashing Guy Farnes, a self-made millionaire, her comfortable world begins to fall apart. Suddenly, she wants things she's not sure she can have--as Guy is already engaged to a lovely (if self-obsessed) young woman.

Guy himself is intrigued by Tessa, but doesn't think too much of her, until, in his quest to provide a perfect world for his fiance, he purchases Pfaffenstein and then hires the theatrical troupe Tessa belongs to to entertain his fiance at the castle. Drawn back into her old world (and into Guy's orbit), Tessa finds herself confronted with all the things she can't have.

While the ultimate resolution here was not at all surprising, there was something comforting in a well-told story wheeling along to its happily ever after. And I do find Ibbotson's characters delightful, if not entirely believable.

3.5 stars

Monday, August 18, 2014

My Life in Middlemarch

My Life in Middlemarch I love George Eliot's Middlemarch--always have, since I was first introduced to it as a sophomore in college. I wrote a lengthy contextual paper for that course, and wound up writing my honor's thesis on the book. Each time I read it, I'm amazed by Eliot's grasp of character and her insight into the human condition. And this was one of the first books I remember really seeing myself in the characters (both Dorothea, who one of my nieces is named after, and the sensible Mary Garth).

So when I first read about Rebecca Mead's book, I was intrigued, to say the least. The book is hard to categorize: part literary analysis, part biography of Eliot, part memoir, part book history.

While Mead can occasionally come across as a bit stuffy in the memoir part, I recognized myself in a lot of her experiences (the overly ambitious bookish teenager).  And I fully related to her account of finding herself in Middlemarch. I've done that myself, multiple times.

This isn't a book that will appeal to audiences looking for a quick, fast-paced read--but for those who are interested in the ways that books deeply affect the way we live our lives, this is a terrific read. Interesting, insightful, and smart, this book reminded me of all the reasons why I love reading. (And, not incidentally, why I loved Middlemarch so much).

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Dancing Alone at the Debutante Ball (IWSG)

IWSG Badge

 (My IWSG post is late in the day--I blame kids and blogger (which is still fighting me on the format)--but it's here!)
One of the great things about being in a long-term partnership is not having to date.
Sure, you miss out on the sizzling excitement of new possibilities (nothing quite like the prospect of  first kiss), but I'll trade the uncertainty and constant weighing of expectations for stability any day.
I was never much good at dating anyway. I'm not conventionally pretty, I'm introverted, I analyze too much, and the consciousness that I was being evaluated made me more than usually awkward.
I thought when I got married I'd left those sensations behind.
Last Friday, I sent out a new batch of queries (it's been over  year since I queried--and shelved--a middle grade novel). And suddenly, I'm awash with all those feelings.
This stage of querying--where I haven't heard anything yet (well, one request, but no rejections)--is kind of awesome. Anything is possible. Of course, reality will set in soon enough.
Since I'm querying a historical fantasy novel, my mind is bit fixed on historical comparisons. In nineteenth-century England, a young woman of a certain class was prepped for marriage her entire life. A debutante ball held in her honor announced her entrance to society--and her marital eligibility. (I don't think it's an accident that one's first novel is similarly called a debut).

This is currently me: wearing my prettiest dress (a nice shiny query letter), standing on the fringes of a society I hope to join, waiting for interested partners to ask me to dance (see the manuscript), in the hopes of a long-term partnership.
But the waiting is hard. The sense of powerlessness is hard (one does as much as one can to dress to flatter one's strengths, to reevaluate what isn't working), but there is only so much I can do if I want to traditionally publish--which I do.
It's good thing I love dancing (and writing). I may be waiting for a response, but I don't have to wait for a partner to dance my own waltz.
Anyone else in the query trenches feel like they're dancing alone at a debutante ball?

On the Fence

On the Fence Kasie West does contemporary YA romance as well as just about any author I can think of--she ranks right up there in the company of Stephanie Perkins and Jennifer E. Smith (okay, she's not quite Rainbow Rowell, but I can live with that). Her books are sweet, funny, and filled with normal characters who have generally healthy relationships but still imperfect lives.

Charlie (Charlotte) Reynolds has grown up with three older brothers, a neighbor (Braden) who might as well be a brother, and a doting dad. And while Charlie is an outstanding athlete, sometimes she wonders if she missed out on the feminine touch her mom might have brought. When Charlie gets a job at a downtown boutique to pay for speeding fines, she's convinced she's entered an alien world of makeup, frilly clothes, and other girly things she's never really understood.

But to her surprise, there are elements of this girl-world that she enjoys (including friendship with other girls), and as long as she can keep this a secret from the guys (she's not sure she can stand their ridicule) she's good. There's even a boy who might be interested in her. Of course, first she has to figure out how to reconcile all these new, good things with the confusing feelings she has for the boy-next-door, Braden, who clearly only sees her as his friend's little sister.

I thought the friendship-based romance here worked well, and I loved that Charlie was able to experiment with new things (makeup!) without losing the essence of who she was. And West does an excellent job of including just enough darkness (what actually happened with Charlie's mom, and why won't anyone talk about her) to keep the fun, fluffy romance grounded. Perfect summer read.