Wednesday, March 14, 2018

DNF Explanation: Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Pages: 313
Released: January 2, 2018
Publisher: Berkley Books (Penguin Random House)
Received: E-ARC from publisher, via NetGalley
DNF: 31%

Jennifer Ashley is probably better known for her romance novels, but she does branch off occasionally and that's when she piques my interest. My one experience with her was her historical fiction take on Elizabeth I and I was pretty impressed with her storytelling, characterizations, and historical detail. So I had high hopes for Death Below Stairs.

The good? Just like in her Elizabeth book, Jennifer Ashley focuses on a historical craft and brings it wholly to life. In the Elizabeth book it was fashion and sewing, but in Death Below Stairs it's all about the food. The main character serves as the cook in a fancy British house ala Downton Abbey and the descriptions of the dishes she makes are detailed and divine. Honestly, I would have enjoyed the book if it was entirely about the cooking. The Downton Abbey feel of the upstairs, downstairs relationships and the big house was charming and thoroughly enjoyable.

So why the DNF? Mainly two reasons: I didn't like the main character and I didn't like her romance. The character of the main character didn't ring true to me and she was far too Strong Female Character for her own good. In an early scene she boldly sasses the master of the house while standing in defense of one of the servant girls who he occasionally likes to get handsy with. Now, don't get me wrong, she was in the right and the master of the house was very much portrayed as the Villain of the Piece, but it all felt so contrived. She also ran off half-cocked, which is behavior that would be more likely to get her fired than not. Which, a woman in her position would know and therefore not likely behave in such an eye-roll-inducing way. I know these traits are supposed to make us root for her, but it really just made me shake my head at her and find her off-putting and not realistic.

And then there's the romantic lead. He's a scoundrelly guy with Secrets who engages in work that isn't exactly above board. He has a network of spies and secret handshakes and disguises and he felt like such a contrived caricature and I just could not care less about him. He and the main character apparently have a history together, which is hinted at very strongly (which, really, the purpose was to hamfistedly direct the reader to the prequel novella) and yet he keeps so many secrets from her. I imagine this is supposed to make him seem dangerous and mysterious and therefore alluring, but I feel like I'm too old for that crap and I just want him to cut the childish games and be trustworthy, honest, and stable for her.

To be fair, much of this is simply a case of "wrong reader" as opposed to any real flaw in the book. The romantic lead is very much the adult version of the Dickensian street scamp, and that's a character I tend not to like very much.

Anyway, then, underneath all this, there is a murder mystery. I was interested in following this part of the story, but between the unappealing main characters and historically unrealistic vibe, I found it hard to stick with the story.

Bottom line

Readers who click with the main character and romantic lead should find enjoyment with Death Below Stairs. There are a lot of elements here I can get on board with and I want to love this series, but I think it's probably just not for me.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Book Reviews: Merrie Haskell

I reread The Princess Curse at the end of 2017 and I remembered how much I loved the book and how I had shunned Merrie Haskell's two follow up books because they weren't the longed-for sequels to The Princess Curse. I know, I make strange reading decisions.

I decided to suck up my disappointment that they weren't sequels and give them a shot in their own right. And now I'm sad that they don't have sequels and that I don't have anymore Merrie Haskell books to read. At this point, she's an auto-buy author for me.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers 
Pages: 336
Released: May 28, 2013
Publisher: Harper Collins
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Let's see...beautiful imagery, a scrappy band of friends, dragons, legends, subtle nods to The Princess Curse and touching lessons learned. Plus, magical horses. And a creepy dash of Blue Beard. There's so much packed into this slim book that it's hard to describe everything and do it justice. Merrie Haskell has a knack for referencing a zillion different stories while creating a story that is wholly her own. The result is a multi-layered treasure hunt and a story with texture and depth. Highly recommended.

The Castle Behind Thorns
Pages: 332
Released: May 27, 2014
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Received: Library
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I put this book off because I thought it would be boring. And, granted, it is a slower book. There isn't a ton of action. There's a lot of slow unraveling. The slower pace is a positive thing though and it isn't a boring kind of slow. It's a quiet, peaceful kind of slow. More like Juliet Marillier's Heart's Blood. The characters in this book needed to heal, and that is a process that takes time. The emotional healing of the characters ran parallel with the slow mending of the broken castle and made for a lovely, touching story. A book to sink into, savor, and let it work its slow-burn magic.


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

DNF Explanations: Path of Fate and Haven

Path of Fate by Diana Pharoah Francis
ARC from NetGalley

I originally added this series to my TBR because it was recommended for readers who like the Firekeeper series by Jane Lindskold. Mostly I'm guessing the link between the two is because they both have human main characters who are able to speak to animals. Maybe there's more of a connection?

What I do know is that the political system of the Firekeeper series is interesting, and the political system in Path of Fate was annoying. Firekeeper's felt like the world was created for the story. Path of Fate feels like the world and story were created for the author to send a thinly veiled message about the real world. And I don't want that. So, DNF.

Haven by Mary Lindsey
Finished copy from publisher

I feel guilty about DNF-ing this book. It came, unexpectedly, with a fancy package filled with confetti, a mug, candy, and other treats. So, in deference to materialism, of which I am always a sucker, I dropped everything and started reading Haven.

Unfortunately, Haven was written a few years too late for me. Had this been written during the Twilight craze, Haven would have been a smash hit. The characters are generally good people and it was easy to care about them. There's a heavy dose of "lost puppy, adoptive loving family" syndrome, and I'm a sucker for that. The paranormal aspects were typical, but in a good way. The teen angst was heavy, including a fairly prominent romance that would have likely had me swooning ten years ago.

Maybe I'm too old for this story. Maybe the Twilight craze is too far in the past. Whatever the reason, Haven seemed like a good book that I have generally positive feelings for and very little interest in actually reading at this point in my life. Readers who are still searching for the next Twilight should definitely check out Haven.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

DNF Explanations: YA and MG

Forever, Again by Victoria Laurie
Released: December 13, 2016
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: ARC from publisher
Read 62 of 360 pages

Well, I'm not sure if I'm disappointed I won't be reading more of this book or relieved that I found out now and not after more hours of reading.

I flew through the first 62 pages and I had every intention of finishing the book. I figured it would be a solid 3 or 3.5 star read: good, enjoyable, but nothing spectacular or something I'd reread. Still, I was enjoying the pacing and tension of uncovering the mystery.

And then I came across some low star Goodreads reviews with spoiler tags. And I clicked on them. And...I decided to DNF. The big reveal just seemed disappointing and not something I'd like, which makes the time spent with the book not really worthwhile. I can deal with a meh reveal if the characters and story leading up to that are still engaging and stand on their own, but after 62 pages, my impression of the characters was that they weren't going to become anything more than a vehicle for the mystery.

So, DNF.

The Adventurers Guild by Zack Loran Clark and Nick Eliopulos
Released: October 3, 2017
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Received: ARC from publisher
Read 6 of 320 pages

Chalk this one up to wrong book, wrong reader. I had high hopes: cute cover, fun premise, middle-grade adventuring...recipe for success. I didn't expect a writing style that grated on my nerves enough to make me put the book down with only a microscopic smidgen of regret. The characters and story felt stock, the writing serviceable at best, and everything had a very phoned in, paint-by-numbers kind of feel. No heart. Oh well, c'est la vie. Onto the next book!

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Book Review: Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn

Pages: 419
Released: June 11, 2013
Publisher: Harper Teen
Received: Own, won
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I've carted this book through three moves and before moving a fourth time I figured it'd be in my back's best interest to decide if this was worth schlepping again.

So is it? Eh, yes and no. I have access to e-copies through the library, and that's enough "ownership" for me. Now that I've read my paper copy, I think I'll trade it in at the local used bookstore for something else.

But that isn't to say I didn't enjoy the book. The premise is so different and engaging. I was hooked over the entire 400+ pages. The chapters are also tiny, which always helps. 

The mystery starts out with trying to figure out what happened to Annaliese, why she disappeared for a year and where she spent that year since her memories of that time are gone. Once that mystery starts unfolding, then another more paranormal mystery takes shape. Then as that mystery starts revealing itself, the mystery of what is Annaliese going to decide to do captured my interest. Each mystery was engaging and flowed seamlessly into one another, which kept the momentum of the overall story up and my interest never flagged.

While that is a lot of stuff and makes up for a good bit of the massive 400+ pages, there's also a lot of people drama mixed in filling up a lot of those pages. The parts with Annaliese's family had me hook, line, and sinker. Probably because I'm a sucker for heart-felt family stuff that feels secure and fluffy and loving. There a fierce love that felt palpable and gut-wrenching and good.

And then there was the romance, and that paled in comparison. It felt tacked on as the Required YA Romance, and while I fully admit I'm the kind of reader who generally wants a touch of romance in everything and whines when it's not there...I could have done without it here. Also, the teenage high school drama (friendship, mean girl, ex-boyfriend, new boyfriend, yada yada) was boring.

Part of me thinks this is because I'm old and not a teenager, and therefore also not the target audience. Part of me thinks it's because those sections were more filler and slowed down and interrupted the paranormal and mystery aspects of the storyline. Part of me thinks they were kinda necessary too though. So, maybe it would have been better if they had been kept in, but trimmed a little.

Bottom line

At one point I was tempted to just give this book away without reading it (cover judged it, still don't like the cover), but I'm glad I didn't do that. I'm glad I read this book. It was different, engaging, and touching. The paranormal bits weren't the typical thing, and I was overall satisfied with them. But, now that the mysteries are over, I'm ok with letting it go.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Book Reviews: Thrifty Time Travelers series by Jonathan Stokes

The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome 
Pages: 127
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Released: January 30, 2018
Received: ARC from the publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Let's see...
  • Fast paced
  • Short chapters
  • Ancient Rome
  • Tons of facts
Yep, this is a perfect book for me. It was no surprise that I loved this book. It really is a nice guide, touching on everything from dress, to technology, inventions, roads, politics, major events, people, places, problems and entertainment. Some things were a little cleaned up (it's hard to do Caligula for middle grade readers without leaving stuff out), but I don't think that gave a skewed impression of anything.

There's some light humor and everything is themed around the "thrifty guide" idea. This book is supposed to be a time travel guide produced in the future where a pretty shady sounding overlord runs the world and sells time travel packages. It's zany, kind of cute, kind of annoying, and easy to ignore if you just want to focus on history.

The book is interspersed with various asides (like pictures showing what you should wear if you want to blend in) that were enjoyable and helped create that "I'll read just one more section" feeling that I love. This was a fun book to introduce kids to ancient Rome, but also fun for me as an adult already familiar with ancient Rome. Recommended. 

*I need to take a moment to rave again about Jonathan Stokes' Addison Cooke series. It's funny, fast, filled with adventure, and just plain fun.


Like a middle-grade Magic School Bus, the Thrifty Guides take readers on funny and informative trips to the greatest moments in history!
The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome: A Handbook for Time Travelers is a snappy, informative travel guide that comes in the package with your time machine purchase in the year 2163. It contains information vital to the sensible time traveler:
  •     Where can I find a decent hotel room in ancient Rome for under five sesterces a day? Is horse parking included?
  •     What do I do if I'm attacked by barbarians?
  •     What are my legal options if I'm fed to the lions at the Colosseum?
Designed as a parody of Fodor's, complete with humorous maps, reviews of top attractions (Julius Caesar's assassination is a must-see!), and tips on who to have lunch with (Hannibal, assuming he doesn't kill you). If you had a time travel machine and could take a vacation anywhere in history, this is the only guidebook you would need.

The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution
Pages: 160
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Released: January 30, 2018
Received: ARC from the publisher
Rating: DNF

Yikes! Well, there's only so many mistakes and inaccuracies I can take. So, DNF.



Like a middle-grade Magic School Bus, the Thrifty Guides take readers on funny and informative trips to the greatest moments in history!

The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution: A Handbook for Time Travelers is a snappy, informative travel guide that comes in the package with your time machine purchase in the year 2163. It contains information vital to the sensible time traveler:
  •     Where can I find a decent hotel room in colonial New England? Are credit cards accepted?
  •     How can I join the Boston Tea Party without winding up in a British prison?
  •     What do I do if I'm being shot at by a cannon?
Designed as a parody of Fodor's, complete with humorous maps, reviews of places to stay and top attractions (Don't miss Paul Revere's midnight ride!), and tips on who to have lunch with (Alexander Hamilton, naturally). If you had a time travel machine and could take a vacation anywhere in history, this is the only guidebook you would need.


Jonathan Stokes ( is a former teacher who is now a rising star as a Hollywood screenwriter. He has written screenplays on assignment for Warner Brothers, Universal, Fox, Paramount, New Line, and Sony/Columbia. Inspired by a childhood love of The Goonies and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Jonathan wrote his first novel, Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas, published by Philomel in 2016. Born in Manhattan, he currently resides in Los Angeles, where he can be found showing off his incredible taste in dishware and impressive 96% accuracy with high fives.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Book Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

#2 in the Winternight Trilogy
Pages: 363
Publisher: Del Rey
Released: December 5, 2017
Received: ARC from the publisher
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

I love it when a sequel lives up to the level of the first book in the series. I adored The Bear and the Nightingale, and while there were a few loose ends, it could have easily ended as a standalone. So, when I heard there was going to be a sequel, I sighed and kind of wished the publisher would leave well enough alone. I was expecting the sequel to be a pale imitation and leave me wishing I too had just left well enough alone and stopped reading after the first book.

Thankfully, my worries were for nothing. The Girl in the Tower has the same magic and storytelling charm and I am so, so glad I picked it up. The same blend of fantasy, folklore, and history that worked so well in the first book continues to work well here. The chapters continue to be on the longish side, but that is also still not a problem for me. I flew through this book and had to force myself to read slower and savor the story. The characters continue to be likable, and while they still aren't hugely deep (fairy tale!), Vasya's storyline allows for more depth of character as we watch her try to come to terms with who she is and what she wants, and does not want, from life. 

Bottom line

Readers who enjoyed the first book should enjoy the sequel just as much. Katherine Arden has a gift for storytelling and her words and tales are enchanting. I cannot wait for the third book.

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