Friday, July 18, 2014

DNF Explanation: Midnight Thief by Livia Blackburne

Read: 123 of 368
Received: ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
Released: July 8, 2014

What can I say about Midnight Thief that hasn't already been said in pretty much every review I've already read for this book?

Not much. For once, my opinion seems to align with the norm. Hooray! It's nice to be able to join the popular crowd's table once in a while.

I just wish that didn't mean I ended up disliking the book. Because, oh boy, I did NOT like this book.

So, echoing practically everyone, I loved the set up—assassins, thieves, magic, hate-turned-love—basically all the ingredients of a perfect book. And, after reading the prequel novella and loving it, I figured it was a pretty safe bet I'd love Midnight Thief to pieces.

Wrong, wrong, oh so wrong. Sure the ingredients are great, but you can't make a great cake with expired and low-grade ingredients.

(Though, I was just recently fed a sweet potato casserole that was made, unbeknownst to me until AFTER I had consumed a far-too-large portion, with milk that had expired a month ago and miraculously was not spoiled. It was actually the best sweet potato casserole I've had, so I dodged food poisoning and came out ahead, which is completely undermining my analogy here. But, anyway.)

Or, in the case of a book, you can't make a good story with mediocre world building, hollow cliches, weak writing, and (the gravest sin of all) bland, stupid characters.

The final straw for me was when orphan-helping thief (yet righteously pure, can you tell she irritated me?) Kyra joins the assassins' guild because she'll get paid a lot but then rants and gripes about how killing is wrong and all the members of the assassins' guild are evil meanies. Please, I'm picking up a book about thieves and assassins because I want them to be badass thieves and assassins. I don't want Sister Superior (irrationally and hypocritically) raining on my parade for 368 pages.

(So, no, unlike old milk, apparently, there is no hope for books with rotten ingredients.)

There's apparently a twist at around the 3/4 mark that redeems things (to a point, so I hear), but I couldn't bring myself to push through to that point. I DNF-ed a third of the way in and although I keep getting lured in by the siren song of that premise, I'm quickly reminded of all the reasons why I DNF-ed in the first place and the urge to pick it up again is squelched. WANTING this book to be something more than it is just doesn't make it so.

Bottom line

If I were (a lot) younger and hadn't had my expectations bar set super high by the awesome novella, I might have actually liked Midnight Thief. Maybe. At least, more than I did. I probably would have at least finished it.

As it is, nope. Go back to the drawing board, clean up the writing issues, flesh out the world, and develop those characters! Midnight Thief could have been so much more.  


Looking for another book like this?
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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book Review: Thief's War by Hilari Bell

Knight and Rogue series
Release Date: March 8, 2014
Publisher: Courtney Literary 
Pages: 254
Received: ARC from author
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Why isn't there more buzz about this series? 

The Knight and Rogue series is one of those hidden gem series that doesn't seem to get talked about a whole lot but I'm gobsmacked as to why (except maybe the covers. Gotta say, I'm not a fan of them).

I'm going to try writing this review a little differently because, let's be honest, who doesn't shy away at the sight of a review for a fourth book in a series you haven't read?

But I WANT you to read this review. Not for me, but for the books, so I'm going to avoid ALL spoilers. (Still worried? Fine, here's my review for the first book instead.)

Why you should read the series

Brothers in arms

Michael and Fisk start out as reluctant allies and carry that hate mixed with love thing throughout the series.  They're polar opposites, so they're always bickering over which approach to take and worrying that the other is going to get hurt because they're doing something stupid (so each believes).

The beauty is that they're both often right. Michael is the chivalric knight (in an age where knights are ancient history) driven to do the right thing, even if it burns him. Fisk is a snarky conman and thief used to looking out for himself. Michael's a glass half full kind of guy. Fisk is definitely the glass half empty type.

They both contribute a lot to their partnership and I love seeing them work together to become a team greater than its parts.What makes it even better is both characters get to narrate, so we get to see everything first hand through both of their perspectives.


Each book has its own central mystery and Hilari Bell definitely knows how to write a good mystery. The clues are subtle enough that the resolution isn't totally obvious, but they're also not so hidden that I couldn't pick up on them. They come together at a nice pace, too, so the plot is always steadily building toward the big reveal. 

Character depth

Michael and Fisk are the type of characters who feel real. Stick them in a random situation and I know exactly what they'll say and what they'll do. I could tell you which jokes they'd laugh at and which would fall flat for them. Put them in a tavern and I could point out the lady they'd fall for.

As far as character depth and development, Hilari Bell has written Michael and Fisk a cut above your average character. Each book sees them grow and change and come more fully into themselves.

Not your typical fantasy

These books are set in a kind of fantasy 18th/19th-ish century, but they're not at all Jane Austeny. The characters aren't improper, but they're not Proper either. It feels more...American, maybe. Whatever it is, I like it.

The world building is pretty different, too. There's a whole system of magic and I like how even the characters don't know entirely how it works. Experiments, speculation, and fear surround magic and discovering how it works is another layer of mystery threaded throughout the books.

Improves with each installment

I wasn't IN LOVE with the first book, but I did like it enough to buy the sequel when it was on sale. I'm glad I did, because I liked that book even better. The second and third are a toss up for me as to which one I like better (maybe the second, but then again, there was that scene in the third...), but the fourth really raised the stakes (and that ending!) and now I am dying to read the fifth.

Bottom line

Each book is a solid, stand-alone fantasy/mystery, though they should definitely be read in order. If you're just starting out with the series, I highly recommend giving both the first and second book a shot before making any decisions. I think the story really hit its stride in book two.

For those already familiar with the series but perhaps a little wary because Thief's War isn't published by Harper Teen like the previous books, don't worry at all. The fourth book is a worthy addition and well worth the purchase.

I might even go so far as to say it's the best in the series, but then I remember that scene in book two...and that scene in book three...and that other scene in book two...

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about Thief's War that I haven't addressed?
Feel free to ask in the comments!

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my reviews/Goodreads.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Giveaway: Divided by Elsie Chapman (US/CA)

Divided by Elsie Chapman
Sequel to Dualed

Info for the giveaway:
  • What you can win: A finished copy of Divided by Elsie Chapman
  • As always, you do NOT have to be a follower
  • This giveaway is US/CA only
  • You must be 13 years of age or older
  • One entry per person
  • I will contact the winner through email and the winner will have 24 hours to reply before a new winner is chosen 
  • This giveaway closes on June 30th 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Mini Review: Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine by Kristinana Gregory

Release Date: September 1, 2002
Publisher: Scholastic 
Pages: 188
Received: Library
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Royal Diaries series 

This book is gross.

You know how sometimes you can read a historical fiction book and not really feel like you're IN the time period? Yeah, not this book.

Hats off to Kristiana Gregory because this lady nails the historical time period despite the thoroughly modern middle grade voice used for Eleanor (complete with groan-inducing "diary I must hide you in a clever place!" thoughts scattered throughout the book. I swear these diary book heroines spend 1/4 of the pages talking about hiding their diary).

Mostly Kristiana Gregory accomplishes this sense of "place" by throwing in every random bit of disgusting 12th century detail from parasitic worms to bathroom accommodations. You can also play a rousing game of 1000 Ways to Die in Medieval Europe! because, holy cow, red shirts abounded in this book.

On the plus side, all these bits of barf-inducing gore totally made me spend at least three hours on Wikipedia looking up all the historical bits Kristiana Gregory threw in (Wikipedia confirms them, btw, though I still haven't found that eye worm thing described in quite that way. Oh, and that reminds me, Ms. Gregory, mind explaining to my students why I was gagging in the library?). 

But, hey, what do I expect from a book set in the 1100s? Those were gross times and life was definitely cheap. So points to Kristiana Gregory for keeping it real and packing in a ton of historical details between covert diary stashings (and even managing to combine the two! Flea ridden diaries, yay!). 

And, ya know, I know it was a total diary gimmick, but I SO wanted Eleanor to snoop in her sister's diary. Which is to say, I was getting pretty into these characters and I'll be the first to say I'm shocked because they weren't written with that much depth, but I was still totally invested.

Of course, like all these Royal Diaries books, this one ended right before the good stuff really started. But that's necessary because all the good stuff is hardly fodder for middle grade books. Still, these books serve their purpose better than I would have ever expected.

Bottom line

Packed with historical detail, the Royal Diaries series is an excellent way to read about the early years of great historical figures (years often skipped over in adult books).

Don't expect great depth of characterization or to know the real Eleanor (or any of the historical protagonists in this series) because she's written with the voice of a modern middle grade girl (albeit one expected to do needlepoint and marry for political gain).

But that's ok, because as an introduction to Eleanor's childhood and her world, this book definitely serves its purpose. 

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Have you read any books about Eleanor?

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my reviews.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy + Giveaway (US)

Release Date: April 29, 2014
Publisher: Walden Pond Press 
Pages: 516
Received: ARC from publisher
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Special Shelf

Crossing my fingers

After being burned by so many disappointing series enders, I was starting to fear even Christopher Healy would let me down. Thankfully, The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw delivered and I got (almost) everything I wanted.

I read a little bit each night, trying to spread it out over the longest possible amount of time. But that didn't work very well. Mostly I just went to sleep later than I intended each night. But happy, because this book is a downright joy to read. 

For those who haven't started the series yet

You have no more excuses. The final book is out, it's fantastic, and the entire series is well worth reading. Also, you need to read these books in order.

Here's what you can expect:

  • Humor! Nearly every sentence is funny. Seriously.
  • Memorable characters. Not just the main characters, or even the secondary characters. EVERYONE. If someone is present, they're memorable.
  • Conversations with fellow readers that go something like, "And that scene?! Gah, too funny!" "But wait, that OTHER scene! Even better!" "And what about when they..."
  • Don't even try to engage in a "Who is your favorite character" conversation unless you have a few days to spare, comfortable seating arrangements, and snacks. This could take a while.
  • Totally fractured fairy tales
  • Sweet romances
  • Disaster, mayhem, and unexpected consequences
  • Adventure
  • Non-stop action. Sure they're long books, but they're easy to fly through. Also, there's pictures. 
  • Camaraderie and relationships that are totally aw-inducing
  • Grudges, feuds, magical objects, and tongue twisters
  • Puns
Also, there's my reviews for The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (book 1) and The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle (book 2). 

For those who have started the series

Here's what you can expect: 

  • A resolution to the romance questions (I'm almost 100% on board. There is one romantic pair I wish was handled differently)
  • Appearances made by every single character ever from the previous books
  • New characters, including a genie (wishes!!) and a cadre of colorful bounty hunters
  • Pirates and high seas adventuring (also, marooning)
  • A questionably-stylish hat
  • Quests, chases, escapades, and escapes
  • Coup d'etats, battle, torture, and rousing speeches in every kingdom
  • Bards
Bottom line


  • Christopher Healy is an auto-buy author and his books are a must-have staple in any library
  • I need to find a way to bribe, convince, cajole or otherwise make him write more books in this series because I'm so not ready for this to be over
  • I don't even have words to explain how much I loved the end of the Stumpy Boarhound scene. And the bard scene. And the...
  • Franchise this. I'm talking movies, action figures, sticker books, theme parks. Let's make it happen.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Info for the giveaway:
  • What you can win: An autographed (!) hardcover of The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy
  • As always, you do NOT have to be a follower
  • This giveaway is US only
  • You must be 13 years of age or older
  • One entry per person
  • I will contact the winner through email and the winner will have 24 hours to reply before a new winner is chosen 
  • This giveaway closes on June 14th  

Do you have any questions about The Hero's Guide to Being an Outlaw that I haven't addressed?
Feel free to ask in the comments!

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my reviews.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Book Review: Death Sworn by Leah Cypess

#1 of the Death Sworn duology
Release Date: March 4, 2014
Publisher: Greenwillow 
Pages: 352
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

I will always compare

Mistwood was one of those middle of the road books for me that didn't quite cut it in a lot of ways, but still managed to linger in my mind years later.

So, I was curious to see what Leah Cypess would do next, and when I discovered that what she was doing next involved assassins and magic, well, I was pretty much convinced I needed to read this.

Fair or not, I couldn't help but compare Death Sworn to Mistwood, but lucky for Death Sworn, the comparisons were definitely weighted in its favor. Mistwood was very much a debut book with its exciting premise but shaky execution. Death Sworn feels a lot more polished, with the richness and depth I sensed Leah Cypess could deliver, but didn't quite manage in Mistwood.

I don't know if we could be friends, but I'm sending the invite

Like Mistwood, Death Sworn features a main character who is hard to like. Ileni is cold, distant, and keeps herself to herself. Luckily, this is a first person book, so I got to spend a ton of time in Ileni's head getting to know all her thoughts and feelings.

Ileni was handed a bag of total suckage she right before the book started. Her magic, the thing she had defined herself by her entire life, was fading and, oh yeah, she was going to be exiled as a result. Friends, family, teachers, boyfriend, they were all, "Here's your bag. See ya." Nice, right?

Ileni is justifiably ticked off, confused, frustrated, and despairing. But she does it with steel and grit and a pissed off determination. I liked that she chose to embrace a simmering anger (though her feelings of loss were also so heart-rendering), because I was fuming on her behalf. Some characters take a little while for me to warm up to, but not Ileni. I was ready to fiercely back her up from page one.

Thankfully, instead of moping she channels all those feelings into a devil-may-care approach to life and volunteers to train a bunch of assassins, because what does it matter if they kill her?


The assassins Ileni meets aren't nice fluffy assassins. They're not even allies. Ileni's teaching them is part of some tensely grudging pact made between the two groups and no amount of gritting teeth and playing nice hides the fact that they don't like or trust one another.

I loved that Leah Cypess took this approach. Sure, I'm a reader who likes the whole "let's get along" rag-tag friendship thing, but that's also pretty been-there-done-that. The tension, distrust, and prejudice Leah Cypess had her characters maintain throughout the whole book was refreshing and realistic. I totally bought into these characters because their actions and thoughts made sense, which in turn added depth and realism to the world she created. 

Plus, those were some SCARY assassins! I know I was looking at them through Ileni's definitely not trusting eyes, but, yikes. It was fascinating reading about them and their skills are believably assassin-grade, but I can't say I like or trust them.

Readers who have trouble getting cozy with assassins because they kill people might appreciate Death Sworn. There's no tip-toeing around what they are, that they kill on command, and that their way of thinking is not comprehensible to someone who is not an assassin. To Ileni (and me) they seemed like the kind of people where you'd tap your head and mouth "They're not quite right" (except of course you wouldn't actually do that because they'd freaking kill you).  


Of course there's romance!

Think of it more like the season six Buffy/Spike romance where she's with him for all the wrong reasons. She's broken and hurting and he's serving a purpose, but somewhere along the way numbing escape leads to healing.

It's not the rainbows and That Kiss kind of romance. In a lot of ways, it's not satisfying. It's messy and a little uncomfortable, and I'm still not convinced I can trust him.

There's a lot of back and forth and uncertainty in their relationship, but that makes sense. When are emotions ever logical and consistent? Especially when they're unexpected emotions that go against everything you've ever been taught in life. It might have been less confusing and unsettling had they just went with their feelings and declared their love cultural teachings be damned, but that's what we call insta-love.

So, the romantic in me is still holding out hope, but I'm glad they haven't eloped just yet. Both of these characters are still developing and this is only the beginning of their story. Their relationship so far was less a romance and more an important part of their growth as individuals—a growth that is not yet complete, and in that regard it was written very well.

Mystery! Politics! Intrigue!

I'm a character girl, so watching all the character nuances unfold and shift probably would have been enough to sustain my interest. But, there's also the mystery, which was more than enough to hook me.

Ileni's driving force and the only thing she really cares to live for is solving the mystery of who killed the previous two teachers...and who therefore might be trying to kill her (and as much as Ileni doesn't really care about living, she also doesn't actually want to die).

What at first seems like a simple murder unravels into something MUCH more. I can't give details, but the reveals totally satisfied my political intrigue loving heart. Each layer Ileni uncovers leads to greater peril, ups the ante, and exposes things about her world. I cannot wait until the next book comes out to see how this is all going to unfold.

Also about that world—it's beautifully written. Ileni starts her story entering the dark, claustrophobic, labyrinthine caves the assassin's call home. It's foreign and stifling and made the world seem extremely small.

But, slowly (mirroring Ileni's internal re-birth), as the story unfolds and Ileni learns more, the world opens itself up and my pin-prick focus dilated to reveal a richly developed world with political structures, cultures, and history of which I feel I have only scratched the surface but definitely want to learn more.

Bottom line

This wasn't the easiest book in a lot of ways because of how alien the assassins feel and how terrified and angry Ileni is throughout pretty much the whole book. But it was fascinating. I could not get enough of it. Death Sworn gripped me and would not let me do anything but read until I had finished the book, and then it left me desperate for the sequel.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my review/Goodreads.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Book Review: The Queen of Last Hopes by Susan Higginbotham

Release Date: January 28, 2011
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark 
Pages: 345
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

The War of the Roses seems to be The Next Big Thing for historical fiction fans who are all Tudor-ed out. And with good reason! While Henry VIII might be known for his many wives and religious turmoil, the War of the Roses is a period of, well, WAR.

And I love a good war.

With all the feuding sides, crownings and dethrownings, intrigue, and romance, the War of the Roses is definitely worth checking out. But where to begin?

I've started my fictional foray with Susan Higginbotham's The Queen of Last Hopes, a book I've long pined for (mostly because of the cover, which I apparently didn't even look at all that closely because what is with that flower?!). Starting here was an excellent choice.

The Queen of Last Hopes follows Margaret of Anjou's perspective, though it dives off here and there to look through the eyes of several men when Margaret wasn't present for the action. Normally I hate this willy nilly narrative style, but I hate missing battle scenes even more, so I was more okay than not with the author's choice.

Margaret makes a good narrator, but it's also her voice that made me knock off half a star. I don't know what it was, but something kept me from truly connecting with her and becoming invested in her, despite being totally invested in the events surrounding her. While there were some aspects of her I felt I knew very well, I couldn't shake the feeling that a part of her was hidden from me and I didn't fully know her. She was more of a C. W. Gortner's Isabella for me than a Juliet Grey's Marie Antoinette. Still, that's pretty high praise.

But those events, oh my gosh those events! This is a crazy war and Margaret's story follows major battles, desperate flights to safety, bargaining with the enemy, and so many coup d'etats my head was spinning. I never felt like I was reading a dry history lesson.

Though I almost wish I did feel that a little more. The peripheral details could have been more prominent, though I'm the kind of reader who wants to be lectured on stuff like the type of material used to make flatware during the time period. This lack made me feel a little less "living and breathing" in the actual time period, so that's the other reason for a half a star off.

But I can live with that. This is more a people and events kind of book, and Susan Higginbotham excels in those areas. While Margaret felt a little reserved, she wasn't a total blank slate. I was totally invested in her relationship with her husband and the way she grappled with his madness and frailties and her feelings for him. I have to admit, I sobbed a few times.

Her relationships with other characters were also emotional, but I had a harder time getting involved with them. This was partially because they were less developed (except for one, which, yeah, I was definitely into that one), but also partly because half of them went by the same name. When one died, his heir inherited his titled and thenceforth was referred to by the title.

So, you'd have the Duke of Somerset, until he died, and then we follow his heir...the Duke of Somerset! It got a little confusing and I guess names matter, because I think this carrying on of the same name made me have a harder time connecting with the different men.

Major players on both sides make an appearance and, while it could be because this is my first fictional taste of these people, I liked Susan Higginbotham's take on them very much. Margaret was given a fair shake (unlike the she-devil interpretations that seem to abound) and though this is obviously a Team Lancaster book, I thought the author's portrayals of the Big Bads of the House of York were balanced.

The author does take artistic license in a few instances, but they do derive from historical rumor at least and she has a very nice author's note at the end clarifying fact from fiction. I'm usually a huge stickler for REAL OR GO HOME, but these changes didn't bother me much because they could have happened.

Bottom line: I went out and bought two more of her books soon after finishing The Queen of Last Hopes, so there you go. I'm a fan. 

FYI, this is an adult book. Margaret has relations and there's a boatload of violence (which, obviously! This is a War of the Roses book!)

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Have you read any sympathetic books about the House of Lancaster?

Looking for another book like this?
You might like:

 Click on the pictures to go to my reviews.

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