Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

Pages: 342
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5/4 out of 5 stars

After reading Uprooted and Heart's Blood, I wanted another Beauty and the Beast retelling and so I finally picked up Cruel Beauty.

Unfortunately, Cruel Beauty didn't live up to the other two for me. It didn't have the depth and coherence of the other two and there was something that kept me from really sinking into the story, though I can't totally put my finger on it.

The characters didn't quite do it for me. Nyx kept pushing everyone away, and that worked on me, too. I couldn't get close to her and as much as I wanted to warm up to her, I had a hard time connecting. She was so down on herself all the time for being cruel, but her actions didn't really line up with this. It all worked together to create a vague character that I couldn't ever really connect with or even remember clearly.

Her romantic interests also suffered from this vague personality and, like Nyx, while I wanted to like them they too kept pushing me away. I could never fully settle in with trusting them or even knowing who they really were. When everything was finally revealed, it felt more destabilizing instead of less.

I'm also not sure how I feel about the ending, but I won't say anything more on that. 

Then there was the story, and this I did really like. The magic was evocative and gave me just what I was looking for when I wanted more Uprooted. Exploring the house and unraveling the mystery gave me what I was looking for when I wanted more Heart's Blood. This is the kind of story where once everything is revealed I can spend a lot of time thinking over it all and savoring how all the pieces fit together.

Bottom line

Cruel Beauty came very close to being a great book for me. The structure is good and a few tweaks and a little more fleshing out and I think I would have easily loved it. I think I will enjoy it as a reread, now that I know what to expect out of the characters. I'm wavering between a 3.5 and a 4, but I think a re-read could bump it to a four.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

DNF Explanation: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

#1 in the Passenger series
Pages: 486
Released: January 5, 2016
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: DNF on page 62

Once upon a time there was a book called Brightly Woven, and this book stole my heart. It had it all: sleepover party main character Sydelle, swoony and sarcastic Wayland North, questing, creative world-building and magic, and did I mention the romance? I read Brightly Woven back in 2010, and I've been pining for more ever since.

So, of course I've done the only logical thing, which is to expect every subsequent book Alexandra Bracken writes to be as amazingly wonderful as Brightly Woven. Or, basically, to be Brightly Woven, just in different settings.

Enter, The Darkest Minds in 2012, which I was fulling hoping would be Syd and North Do a Dystopia. And, yeah, it so wasn't that. Everything took a big step down. Instead of an intricate world with a unique magic system I could latch onto, I got an interesting premise but a sloppily thrown together world with a whole lot of gaping holes. Instead of kick-butt Sydelle, I got whiny please-kill-her-now Ruby. Instead of swoony Wayland North, I got a dull and forgettable love interest. I was devastated, and I never bothered reading the rest of the series.

Which is a huge preamble just to get to Passenger, which, yeah, I was still hoping for Sydelle and North Do Time Travel Pirate Adventuring. And, ugh, I so did not get that.

Instead, I got The Darkest Minds, but worse.

TDM at least jumped into the action and kept it going. Passenger was a total snore-fest (at least, the parts I read). SO much time was spent repeating the same things over and over. I think this was supposed to constitute "character development" but, yeah, no, telling me over and over and over again about surface level character traits and interests is not "character development."

Basically, after 62 pages I now know that main character what's-her-name really wants to be a violin prodigy, is really nervous about her big debut performance, likes her violin teacher, and has a flighty, artsy but not particularly warm mom. Oh, and she's also really annoying, wishy washy, and has no life or backbone and isn't happy with her life choices. Yawn.

BUT, I do know I really, really don't like her. 

And the guy? Ugh, he's no Wayland North. He's not even that other boring guy from TDM. He's...erm, he sails on ships? I think I'm supposed to think he's adventuresome and smart and all that. Maybe?

So, yeah, characters 0. How about that plot?!

No, plot 0, too.

I thought TDM was thrown together. Ha. I did not know the meaning of thrown together, but Passenger has shown me the way. Absolutely awful pacing. I mean, terrible. Nothing happened in those 62 pages, (though I do think I caught some heavy handed foreshadowing and "cabal-esque" hint dropping) which made the book feel wandering and unsure of itself.

All the musician stuff was close, but not quite right. The ship stuff was erm, well, some of the things were sort of right-ish but at best were a bunch of jargony stuff that could be sort of right but doesn't really actually say anything to straight up not right.

I could give a pass on that. I mean, this is a light, fluffy, YA action book. It's not supposed to be heavy historical fiction. But, but, she could have just googled! I mean, crack open a Patrick O'Brian book to any random page and get some ship info. It's not that hard to get it right! Or, just don't put it in there at all and say "the ship had bigger and more guns than we did oh noes!" instead of trying to describe it in more detail. Either would work. I'd totally be ok with the vague approach. But this poor attempt at detail and getting it wrong is not ok.

But, this is the same problem as with everything else. It's all so hacked together and surface-level, relying on a mish-mash of "close enough" details and bash my head in repetition instead of depth. It just screams low effort. 

Bottom line

This felt like a hot mess. Is it a lack of editing? Rushed writing? I don't know what's happened, but over the course of three books, Alexandra Bracken has gone from an auto-buy author to a library-first, and now I'm sad to say but she's not even on my "consider reading" list anymore.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review: Shadow Magic by Joshua Khan

#1 in the Shadow Magic series
Pages: 336
Released: April 12, 2016
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: ARC from publisher
Rated: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is awesome! Unfortunately, that cover is so not awesome, so I'm a little worried Shadow Magic will get overlooked and that would be awful (also, sad because the illustrations inside are SO much better than the cover).

So, quick and dirty list of why Shadow Magic is great and should go on every TBR:

The world building is surprisingly developed. Each kingdom has a different legacy, magic, history, and culture. Mostly we get to focus on Gehenna, which is basically the kingdom of the dead (think zombies, ghosts, and other creepy dark things), but we also get to see glimpses of the kingdoms of Light, Fire, and erm, foresty stuff. I cannot wait to delve deeper into this world in the next book!

The characters are sleepover party material. Except Gabriel (the obnoxious prince of Light, set to wed main character Lily), because Gabriel was terrible. Until the end, when I even started to feel bad for him. But, the other characters? The best.

Lily is the new ruler of Gehenna since her parents and brother were just assassinated and the killer is still on the loose. She's understandably nervous about ruling, especially since she's a kid and her kingdom is falling apart around her, she's not allowed to do magic, and her uncle is trying to set up an arranged marriage with the kingdom of Light, their arch nemesis. Lily faces it all with spunk and determination.

It also helps that she has a trio of support and every one of these guys is awesome in his own right. Thorn especially. He's the guy riding the giant bat on the cover. Yeah. He's also the sarcastic down-on-his-luck type I can't help but liking. The other two? Well, you'll have to read the book, but one is a prince from the fire kingdom and the other is an executioner. And how could I forget Mary and Rose? They're the other side of Lily's support team, and they're equally awesome.

Twisty mystery. Ok, so Lily is new to her kingdom and learning the ropes. Thorn is looking for his missing father. The prince from the fire kingdom is a hostage of the prince from the kingdom of light. There's that arranged marriage thing that Lily is trying to get out of without ruining her kingdom or starting a war. There's a rogue necromancer raising the dead. Forbidden magic lessons. A murdered royal family and the assassin on the run. Multiple attempts on Lily's life. A few murders. And a giant bat.

There's a lot going on here and it was so much fun to read and unravel the mysteries.

Bottom line

I can't rave about this book enough! The end wraps up pretty well and there isn't a horrible cliffhanger or anything like that. You just know that there are more adventures in store for these characters, and I can't wait to follow them in Dream Magic

Recommended for both boys and girls, middle grade and above.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book Reivew: My Fair Gentleman by Nancy Campbell Allen

Pages: 256
Released: January 5, 2016
Publisher: Shadow Mountain Publishing
Received: ARC from publisher, via Edelweiss
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I'm going to use the word "nice" a lot in this review. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but I don't mean it that way at all. My Fair Gentleman is a solid feel-good book that doesn't really rock the boat in any way or grip me with massive emotions, but instead floats lazily, pleasantly, and enjoyably through the story. I've been on a "nice" book kick lately where I'm looking for sweet comfort reads, and this one fit the the bill.

Thankfully, both romantic leads were nice, likable people. The narrative viewpoint shifts between the two of them, and I enjoyed both perspectives equally. It didn't matter whether they were lightly sparring, slowly falling in love, or otherwise focused on their non-romantic endeavors and blossoming friendships (which were as good as the main romance), I just liked spending time with them.

The side characters were a happy surprise and all served to make me smile. Sure, the good characters were oh so good and the bad characters were oh so bad, but I didn't mind that. If I'd been in a more critical mood this probably would have been a point to quibble over, and I probably would have wanted a little more, more character depth, passion, plot details. But, I was in the fairy tale kind of mood where sweet characters and a simple happily ever after is enough.

Bottom line

Another satisfying entry into the Proper Romance Series of standalone, clean historical romances. Nancy Campbell Allen is a new-to-me author, but I've already requested her other Proper Romance Series book based on the strength of this one.

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Click on the cover to go to my review

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Pages: 435
Publisher: Del Rey, Random House
Released: May 19, 2015
Received: Library
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Mmmm this book was a delight in storytelling. That said though, it has some rough spots for me.

Sadly, the characters are the biggest points off for me, and I live for characters. While I liked Agnieszka, there was a something about her that kept me from truly loving her. All the ingredients were there and her character journey is awesome. But. Something. I do think I'll like and appreciate her more on my second read (and, yes, there will be a second read, and a third, and a fourth, and so on).

The Dragon was a big disappointment. He's too jerky for me to get behind and not fleshed out enough for me to like him beyond his prickliness. I needed more depth from him, and I didn't get it. I was really looking forward to his character, so this was crushing.

While the romance did give me hate-turned-love, it failed to give me sparks, toe-curls, or heel-pops (see disappointing Dragon). I'm not convinced he's worthy of Agnieszka. Part of me thinks she would be better off on her own, while part of me is disappointed at that idea because then she wouldn't get a happily ever romance. But, I think my torn feelings all go back to the Dragon being an unworthy happily ever after. I don't feel satisfied.

Then there was the pacing, which, at times, did not make me happy and pulled me out of the story. I could have done without the slow start (almost DNF-ed because of it) and the jarring jump from the tower/wood setting to the court setting. This last wasn't a bad thing, but it was unexpected and I don't like that and the transition could have been smoother.

But, even with all that, this is a Special Shelf book.

It's the Wood. It all comes back to the Wood. This palpable, living, breathing character in its own right. This menacing, creeping, constant presence that made me feel equal parts dread and intrigue. Figuring out how it works, what it is, and why it does what it does. Visualizing its actions, magic, and attacks. This kept my eyes glued to the pages, wishing I would never run out. The Wood has all the depth, backstory, and nuance that the Dragon lacks.

Also, the magic. This ties in with the Wood, but it also stood separate and in both cases I was enthralled. I was entranced by the descriptions, but I also loved how character growth was intertwined with magical expression. Characters wield magic and are changed by magic, victims of magic and allowed to be their true selves through magic.

This was a book I could touch and feel and become so totally absorbed in that the real world disappeared around me. I've thought back on the story many times since finishing it and it still keeps pulling me back. This was an experience I'm glad I had.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mini Reviews: YA Books

The House of Ivy and Shadow by Natalie Whipple
Pages: 360
Publisher: Harper Teen
Released: April 15, 2014
Received: Library
Rating: 3 out of 5

This is one of those sisterhood witch books where women witches all bond over magic, herbs, and feminine mystery. The plot flips between Josephine's normal life and her growing romance (boring, out of place) and her witch life where her family is under attack from some generational curse and a mysterious creepy guy and his mysterious and slightly-less-creepy-because-he's-dreamy sidekick.

There's a lot I didn't like about this book. The main character annoyed me. I could not get into her romance. There's a lot of "will there be a love triangle" set up, too. The whole book felt kind of eye-rolly.

But, there's something about it that I did like. I was totally engaged. I wanted to find out more about the curse. I actually liked the sisterhood magical bonding. It also felt a lot shorter than 360 pages.

Bottom line: I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn't read it again. This is a standalone.

Deadly Cool by Gemma Halliday
Pages: 303

Publisher: Harper Teen
Released: October 11, 2011
Received: Owned
Rating: DNF

I think I would have liked this book more if I had read it when I got it, which was probably about four years ago. I've changed as a reader and Deadly Cool isn't really my thing anymore. It's nice, but I have too many books on my TBR to spend time on a nice book that isn't grabbing me.

So, what is it? It's a high school book with a spunky main character who likes to lay down funny lines. She's likable, slightly insecure, and has been wronged by her cheating boyfriend...who she is determined to help prove innocent of suspected murder. The mystery seems cute and there is a blossoming new romance and a friend sidekick, all good things.

Bottom line: Good for fans of Clarity and The Liar Society


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

DNF Explanation: The Vatican Princess by C. W. Gortner

Pages: 400
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Released: February 9, 2016
Received: ARC via NetGalley
Rating: DNF at page 259 (64%)

I keep starting and erasing this review. I'm struggling because on one hand, I really, really wanted to love this book. I've been a big C. W. Gortner fan and I'd been looking forward to his take on Lucrezia for years. On the other hand, I did DNF it.

I think it all boils down to C. W. Gortner's portrayal of Lucrezia. She's too innocent, young, and dumb. Her attempts at scheming are childish and uninteresting. I wanted her to be calculating. I wanted her to be stronger. I wanted her to be someone I could root for, but instead I ended up feeling mild dislike.

And, now that I think about it, the other characters suffered similarly. For such a passionate, polarizing family, these characters came across as thin caricatures, not capable of evoking strong feelings in me or leaving any kind of lasting impression. Borgia himself was a weak, easily fooled old man. Ceasare was a stereotypical, boring Byronic hero, with none of the allure or intrigue I was hoping to get. Juan was just one-note evil.

Lucrezia kept hovering on the outside of the Borgia family schemes, but I never got to dive into them and it was hard to imagine the characters I was shown would be capable of any kind of interesting plotting. This made for a boring, frustrating read.

I kept waiting for something interesting to happen or for Lucrezia to take some control of her story, but that never happened. I get that she was a political pawn for her family and didn't have a whole lot of control, but she didn't even have any agency in her thoughts. Events just happened to her and she stumbled blindly through her life with this stupefying wide-eyed innocence, which makes little sense considering her family.

Maybe this is because Lucrezia is younger during the parts I read and she will grow to be a stronger person? I keep trying to make excuses because I so want to like this book, but I feel like I'm grasping for excuses.

Lucrezia also stumbled into a large number of graphically sexual situations. I guess that's fine in a Borgia book, but it felt like this book couldn't decide what it wanted to be: a revisionist redemption novel for pure innocent Lucrezia, a salacious sexfest, or a serious historical novel. I don't think it really succeeded in any of those areas and the combination didn't really work. The graphic parts also seemed almost boring and repetitive because they were used to show how evil the villainous characters were, and it was all very cackling and one-dimensional.

This may be a case of high hopes dashed. I fell in love with C. W. Gortner's The Queen's Vow and The Last Queen, about Isabella and Juana, two tempestuous queens with drama-filled lives. Neither woman is easy to like, but C. W. Gortner really showed the nuances of their characters. There was so much depth and historical detail packed into those books.

But this one just seemed to lack both the depth of characterization and the depth of historical substance that those other two books had. I didn't feel transported to that historical time period. Really, it could have been any "olden" time or place. I didn't feel like I learned anything, and I am far from a Borgia scholar. The few details included felt very surface-level and minimally researched. I didn't feel compelled to race to Google and start digging deeper into the history of these people and their time. I didn't feel much of anything and the whole thing had a very "phoned-in" vibe to it.

Bottom line

I guess this one is a miss for me, but I'm not giving up on Gortner just yet. I have a copy of his Catherine de Medici book, and I still have high hopes for it. But for this one, I'm very disappointed.

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