Book Review: Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier (The Sevenwaters Trilogy #1)

12 Jul

Daughter of the ForestNote: This book contains more adult content than most books I review. I won’t mention all of the details in this review, but would recommend the book for those who are 18+.

Sorcha of Sevenwaters is the youngest of seven, and the only girl. She was meant to be the seventh son of a seventh son, destined for greatness, but instead her mother died shortly after she was born and her father threw himself into his campaigns against the invading Britons. Sorcha was allowed to run wild with her brothers, learning to respect the fey folk living in the woods around her home. That is, until her father marries the Lady Oonagh, who has her own plans for Sevenwaters. After Oonagh casts an evil spell, Sorcha is set on a path to save her brothers. But the path is long and difficult, and Sorcha grows tired of being strong enough to see it through…

This story is the retelling of the “Swans” legend you might know from your childhood fairytales. The plot is well fleshed out, filled with twists and turns that leave you wondering if Sorcha ever will finish the tasks set her by the fey folk. It’s a lengthy read, but I couldn’t stop turning pages.

I loved Sorcha–her determination, her loyalty, and her caring nature made her into a well-rounded character. But she wasn’t all bravado, either–she had her moments where she wanted to give up, but she always went back to her tasks. All of her brothers were different and well-rounded, each with his own purpose. The other characters, too, were enjoyable to read about.

The romance didn’t sit entirely well with me (let’s face it–I’m tough to please when it comes to literary romances!). I mean, the primary romance was fine enough. The secondary romance hinted at the beginning and thrown in again at the end wasn’t fleshed out quite enough for me to feel like it was anything other than an unnecessary complication.

I said before that this book has more adult content in it than most books I review. It’s also an adult book–not something in the YA section–which I don’t usually read. I just vastly prefer young adult books, which tend to be a bit more straightforward than adult books. Don’t get me wrong, you can still have all the twists and turns in YA that you can in adult, but YA has never seemed bogged down to me. Adult books tend to, which is why if I start them I rarely finish them.

I nearly gave up on this book about 50 pages in, when it started hopping from one seemingly unnecessary background story to the next. I’m so glad I stuck with it (and yes, those seemingly unnecessary background stories did become somewhat necessary!). This was a fantastic read, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series.

Book Review: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz

11 Jun

ImageMaud Mary Flynn is an orphan. She’s also a liar. She hates Barbary Asylum where she doesn’t get to wash enough, the headmistress is strict, and the girls are annoying. So when Hyacinth Hawthorne turns up looking for a child, Maud will do anything–even be polite and run up the back stairs in her stocking feet every time there’s a caller. Maud is a “secret child” and no one must know about her. But when Maud learns exactly what she’s a secret for, even her lying skills might not carry her through…

I couldn’t put this book down. I knew I’d probably like it, having liked another of the author’s books and reading a review of this book by my friend at Nine Pages. This was the sort of book whose story captivated me and I regretted every time I had to put the book down.

The characters were brilliant. Maud is feisty and lovable. Her growth and development through the book was quite well done, and I enjoyed rooting for her affections to change and cheering as they did. She maintained her “sauce” throughout the book, but she wasn’t without emotions other than anger and mischievousness, either. Overall, well-rounded, likable, and defiant. I kept my fingers crossed for her happy ending.

The rest of the characters were an intriguing mix. I hated Hyacinth from the get-go; Judith and Victoria I could give or take most of the time, until the very end when the former became hated too; Mrs. Lambert was more or less unexpected at certain points, which made her surprising when her overall purpose wasn’t hard to guess. (This is a really tough book to review without spoilers!) Muffet, of course, was my favorite character of them all with her quick learning and big heart.

The one character I thought the book could do without? Samm’l. Samm’l is Maud’s long-lost brother who has a bit part I didn’t quite understand. I didn’t feel Maud needed the additional back story to show why she was the way she was; being an orphan is enough to do that. I don’t think he added anything to the “secret child” story. I don’t think Maud needed that extra push to be a bit more curious about her situation… in any case, the appearance of Samm’l didn’t detract from the story, it just didn’t add anything to it.

The story itself is fast-paced, suspenseful, and thoroughly enjoyable with wonderful descriptions and a brilliant cast of characters. The pages will keep turning, and before long you’ll be looking at Goodreads wondering what else Laura Amy Schlitz has been writing. Recommended to all YA readers! 

Book Review: Copper Magic by Julia Mary Gibson

7 Jun

ImageThe summer of 1906 wasn’t supposed to be one of grand adventure. Violet Blake’s mother and brother have gone away, and may very well be dead. Her father has retreated to their failing farm, immersing himself in cherry trees. The church people have taken over Blue Lake. Violet’s busy-body aunt is trying to turn her into a lady. But then Violet finds the copper Hand, which seems to have magical powers. When Violet wishes with the Hand, her wishes come true. The Hand gives her hope she hasn’t had since her mother left, but soon Violet learns one very important rule: be careful what you wish for…

The summary might make this book sound a bit childish, but really it’s much more of a YA/Adult crossover. It’s about so much more than a magic hand–it’s about racism, the divide between the rich and poor, how everyone needs to take responsibility for their own actions. It’s more history and superstition than fantasy, but magical enough for everyone to enjoy.

The story is set in Michigan–my home state–and on a recent trip home I was informed that the author is actually stopping by my hometown bookstore where I worked throughout high school and college. Pretty cool! I wish I could be there for the signing, but alas. Anyway, the book screams Michigan–the water, the forests, the disgruntlement with tourists. I felt right at home reading this book.

But it was the characters who really drove this book. I loved Violet for her spunkiness, her willingness to make mistakes, her ability to set it all right–eventually. I loved Miss Nadia’s passion for photography. I loved Mercy’s desire for friendship and her ability to believe in the magic, and in Violet, til the end. Even some of the characters who weren’t exactly likable were good characters. Everyone was motivated by something, and even if you wouldn’t make their same choices, you could respect that they at least had a motivation.

All in all, I loved this book, but then, character-driven books are my thing. The plot itself moves a bit slowly, so if you’re looking for action you might want to turn elsewhere. Still, I think this book has a little something for everyone: history, culture, fantasy. Great for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Virgin vs. Qantas: Long-Haul Flights from Australia to the U.S.

12 May

Hey everyone! I’m sitting in LAX, bored, on my way back to Michigan after two years in Australia. As some of you probably know, I’ve been back and forth across the Pacific quite a few times, and I have now experienced both Qantas and Virgin Australia service between Brisbane and Los Angeles. If you’re reading this you might be thinking about taking a similar flight too, and wondering which one is better. After all, it’s 12 to 14 hours of your life. You want to spend that in comfort, don’t you?

These comparisons are based off my most recent memory of a long-haul Qantas flight taken in June 2012, and a Virgin Australia flight taken in May 2014.

Let’s Talk About Seating

I’m tall for a woman (5’11″), and leg room is hugely important for me! In this section, Virgin wins hands down. I was amazed by how much leg room there was. My knees usually brush against the seat in front of me on a Qantas flight. On Virgin, I had a good 4-6 inches extra wiggle room, which made stretching out and sleeping more comfortable.

However, Qantas wins on the seat pocket front. Virgin had very little room in the seat pockets. I couldn’t fit my e-reader in without fear of it falling out. And the safety card was so tall that when I put the tray down it bent the card forward. Not a huge issue, but something to be aware of if you like to stuff the pockets with things.

Entertainment

I watched five movies on my Virgin flight, all of them quite good, but I’m afraid Qantas wins this round. From what I can recall, Qantas not only had more options, it had more recent options. Sure, there were quite a few recent blockbuster hits like 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, but I’ve watched movies that were still in theatres on Qantas planes before. And like I said, there are simply more options from Qantas.

Meals

On long-haul flights, you’ll typically get lunch/dinner, a snack, and breakfast. Both carriers have a variety of options (some that cater to vegetarian needs). I can’t speak for everything, but I had the parmesan chicken on my most recent Virgin flight and I had something very similar on a Qantas flight a few years ago. The Virgin food certainly tasted better–the chicken looked like actual chicken breast rather than something processed.

However, I wasn’t as much of a fan of the Virgin breakfast. There were only two options: scrambled eggs, sausages, and hashbrowns, or potato bake, beans, and mushrooms. I didn’t like either of the options and only ate a little. Luckily, it comes with fruit and a banana muffin, so I was able to get something in me before going through customs! On the other hand, Qantas typically offers a “hot” or “cold” option–hot being something along the lines of one of the Virgin meals, and cold being cereal and milk. I would have loved some cereal for breakfast, and I might just take a little box with me on the flight back.

Qantas also presents you with a snack pack upon embarking, filled with little treats in case you get hungry during the flight, and goes around with fresh apples partway through. Virgin does not present snackpacks, and goes around with grilled cheese sandwiches partway through the flight. The sandwiches were good, but after so much time on planes, I find the lighter apples settle better than sandwiches! Both carriers also offer a snack bar, but I’ve never wandered past on either, and there’s plenty of drinks on both (including alcoholic beverages, free even for economy passengers).

Price

If you’ve been researching flights, you’ll know this answer better than I will. Flight prices change day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour. For what it’s worth, lately I’ve been finding that Virgin has had cheaper prices than Qantas.

Virgin vs. Qantas

As you can see, there are plenty of benefits and drawbacks to each. Your own preferences will shape your opinions on the carriers. Personally, that extra leg room is enough to make me want to choose Virgin every time, but at the same time I know that in reality I’ll choose whichever one is cheaper!

Hopefully this post was helpful. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below, and feel free to share your own experiences with Qantas and Virgin (and other long-haul carriers).

How do you structure your plot?

3 May

Lately I’ve been having an unprecedented burst of creative energy when it comes to The Thesis. This is perhaps spurred on by the embarrassment of a copy being entombed in my university’s library for the rest of time.

You see, I reread The Thesis and wanted to scrap the whole thing. There are people who disappear, names that change, the entire first chapter is soaked in rain which then disappears conveniently before it can cause any problems down the road. But most importantly, the plot is winding, meandering, with scenes that don’t contribute to the overall arc and an ending that doesn’t have much of a point anyway.

Of course, I’ve tinkered around with plot structure outlines before, but I was never very serious about really plotting things out, creating a coherent outline, or thinking about the different steps a plot really should go through to be coherent and satisfying to read. Truth? I hated those stupid plotlines I had to write out for book reports in school, and I can’t get them out of my head.

But structuring the plot, I think, is the key to getting some of these kinks sorted out. I’ve written and rewritten this story over and over again and having no outline or solid structure simply isn’t working. I need to write up a guide to follow to make sure I’m on track and not gallivanting off in the hills with some secondary character whose sole purpose is to have some immaterial side-arc. You know what I mean?

I know there are tons of books on this subject, but for a quickie I took to Google and found some promising links:

The 8-Point Plot Arc (quite like the look of this one: simple, yet satisfying)
Three-Act Structure
Six-Act, Two Goals

Then, of course, there are a few other plot-related help sites like the 11 Plot Pitfalls and How to Add Subplots. But I want to know: Do you struggle with plot? How do YOU structure your plot? Do you structure it intentionally at all? What resources have you used, and what worked for you? Any books on writing plot recommendations? Please leave me your comments below!

Book Review: Prisoners in the Palace by Michaela MacColl

26 Apr

ImageElizabeth Hastings has lost everything: her parents, her fortune, and her chance to marry into a title. When she enters into the service of Princess Victoria, she sees an opportunity to advance her position by gaining the Princess’ trust. Acting as Victoria’s spy, she doesn’t expect to unearth a plot to steal the throne. With the help of a thief and a scoundrel, she might just be able to secure the Princess’ future and her own–or be the cause of its undoing.

This was another refreshingly well-researched and well-written historical YA novel. The story is interspersed with letters and diary entries from both Liza and Victoria. Liza is a fictional character, and as such, her diary entries are of course fictional–but according to the Author’s Note at the back of this book, Victoria’s are actually authentic. Victoria apparently wrote a great deal throughout her lifetime. The author has read her diaries, and because of that she is able to give the Queen a very realistic voice throughout the book.

Many of the events that transpired in the book are also real. It was amazing to see what the author was able to do with some of these events, and learn a lot along the way. I don’t claim to be an expert on any period in history, but I am much more familiar with the Elizabethan period than I am the Victorian one, so it was lovely to learn a thing or two.

As for the characters, I absolutely loved Liza. While she did sit around and feel sorry for herself after the death of her parents, that took place shortly before the book started. She was fully aware of what awaited her on the streets of London if she did not take the job as a maid. She was fully aware that she was in a position to take advantage of the princess, and at first she was not ashamed to take full advantage. Not at all naive, wholly intelligent, cunning, and a little conniving at the start, as her friendship with Victoria developed she realized she wouldn’t ask anything of her. She helps Victoria get her crown and turns down the offer for any reward, which showed remarkable growth. Liza, like the writing itself, was incredibly refreshing.

The portrayal of Princess Victoria appears to be a contention in many reviews. It was somewhat surprising–Victoria is well-known for being well-loved as a Queen. In this book, the Princess is somewhat childish, throws tantrums, and doesn’t realize when she’s hurting others. While many reviewers found this annoying and not true to character, I thought her personality was a direct result of her treatment by her mother. Victoria wasn’t allowed to go out and meet people, she wasn’t ever allowed to be alone, or open her own mail, or even write in her diary without other people reading it. Whether or not this is actually what happened to the real Victoria, it happened to the Victoria in the book, and in my opinion her personality was realistic for the expectations placed upon her. No, it didn’t make me love the character, but again, it allowed room for growth and she redeemed herself at the end.

Really, my only complaint is the horrendous cover! You can’t really tell in the picture above, but it’s all shiny and awful. For a book with Queen Victoria in it, I would expect something that looks a little more historical. The only reason I picked it up in the first place is that it had fallen down on the shelf so the back of the book, which shows the summary in a newspaper-like format, was facing me. The cover of this book doesn’t have the title–I mistook it at first for “A Novel of Intrigue and Romance,” which isn’t as interesting either. Anyway, I’m glad I DID pick up the book, but I have to wonder how many other people are ignoring it because of how it looks on the outside.

What I particularly loved about the book itself was that the romance was downplayed, but still present enough to satisfy most audiences. Liza ended up on more or less equal footing with her romantic interest. There was mystery, history, intrigue, politics–what more could you want?

After finishing this book I rushed off to see if the author had any other books along the same line. She has a few–one about Emily Dickinson, another about Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and a third about Beryl Markham, a pilot. I’ll be checking these out soon.

Book Review: Witchfall (The Tudor Witch Trilogy #2) by Victoria Lamb

21 Apr

ImageIn this fast-paced sequel to Witchstruck, Meg Lytton is once again threatened from all sides: court remains dangerous with the Spanish Inquisition sniffing out would-be witches and torturing them, Queen Mary will do anything to sully Lady Elizabeth’s name, and Meg’s relationship with Alejandro has been condemned by the Spanish priests. Not to mention the mysterious dark spirits haunting Hampton Court and Meg’s visions of her old enemy, Marcus Dent. Time is running out, and Meg might not be able to save everyone: Lady Elizabeth. Alejandro. And most of all, herself.

I loved the first book in this series, so when I saw the second on Net Galley I rushed to snatch it up. Thank you so much to the publisher for letting me read it in exchange for a review! Second books in trilogies tend to make me nervous, because they so often act as a bridge between one major event and another–but Witchfall did not disappoint. If anything, I enjoyed it even more than Witchstruck.

What I like most about these books are the historical details that the author weaves in which transport the reader back in time. The way people talk, the way they dress, the straw mattresses they sleep on and the tallow candles they use–everything fits perfectly into Tudor England. It’s difficult to find YA historical novels that get this right, and it’s so refreshing to delve into books that have been well-researched and executed.

The characters were just as enchanting as last time–Lady Elizabeth with her alternating kindness and entitlement, Alejandro with his sweet battle between what he thinks is right and what he loves, and Meg with her determination and loyalty. There are a few new additions this time around–Richard, Master Dee’s apprentice, and Alice Upton, a new lady’s maid (who, by the way, earns the distinction of being the only minor character with my last name I’ve ever run across–unless you count Mrs. Upton in A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones, but her name was only mentioned in passing).

My only complaint about this book is that the ending seemed a bit rushed. The book is only 340 pages long or so, and given the monster books published in YA these days, I felt like this book could have been longer to let the story develop a little better when it came to the end.

I’m not complaining too much, though–this book is well-written and suspenseful. With its elements of history, romance, and fantasy, it’s sure to appeal to anyone. I can’t wait for the final installment.

Jodie Llewellyn

The ramblings of an aspiring YA author.

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