Archive | April, 2014

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.

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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.

Book Review: City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

19 Apr

ImageThe Bhinian Empire’s two-child policy and preference for boys resulted in a huge number of baby girls being abandoned, left for the wolves. The City of a Thousand Dolls was set up to accommodate the foundlings. The girls are split into major houses. They are trained to be nobles, healers, wives, mistresses–and when they are sixteen years of age, people of the Bhinian Empire speak for them at the redeeming. Everyone has a place. Everyone, that is, except Nisha. Belonging to no house, Nisha is threatened with slavery unless she can find out who is behind the mysterious murders plaguing the city. Aided by a clan of cats who Nisha can speak to, Nisha risks everything to solve the crime… even her life.

This book had a lot of potential, but I didn’t feel as though it delivered in full. What it suffered from was too big of a story in too few pages.

City of a Thousand Dolls offers an intricate, unique world that takes a step away from your typical medieval, sword-and-sorcery setting most fantasies take on. There was a strict caste system, “outsiders” living in the forest, the City itself with its divided houses and intriguing social structure. All in all, a fantastic, new, refreshing setting, clearly well-thought-out, but not so clearly executed. Much of the world remained undeveloped. Not enough time was spent looking at all of the details of the City; I had no sense of what the area looked like, or how the houses were arranged, or an in-depth view of the politics involved. Nisha had been living there for ten years and apparently knew it like the back of her hand, but by the end of the book I was still itching to know more–the bad kind of itch that comes from not knowing nearly enough to fully enjoy the story.

Similarly, there were several other places about which we know even less. The Kildi. The Sune. We’re told very little about either of them. Nisha spends all of three pages or so with the Kildi, discovers something quite important about them, and then she’s gone again. The House of Shadows could have been cut entirely, the Mistress of Shadows exchanged for some other character at the end, and I would not have missed anything, so little time was spent with them. Basically: all of this information was more than the book could hold. While everything was interesting enough, each element was not given enough room to develop properly, which made everything lack the details that could have made this book brilliant.

The same is true of the characters. There are an awful lot of them, and none had the chance to shine the way they could have done. Nisha was perhaps the least interesting. By the end of the book, I knew that she liked cats, liked Devan, felt as though she didn’t belong anywhere, and that was about it. I didn’t feel like I knew her at all; she was flat and boring, up until the end. I found some of the other characters slightly more interesting: Tanaya, Sashi, Zann. But once again, they weren’t given the opportunity to shine like I felt they could have, had they been given the time and space they deserved.

The main plot was fast-paced and exciting, but once again, it got bogged down by a few side plots that frustrated me. The side plots didn’t feel seamlessly interwoven; rather, it went something like “Oh, there’s a murder. Here, we’ll figure out what Nisha’s back story is while we forget about the murder. Now there’s another murder.” It got pretty choppy, and I almost gave up in the middle of the book.

That said, I did enjoy the ending immensely. I thought it wrapped up loose ends, and while I’d solved the murder quite early on, a few of my other predictions did not come true–rather, the revelations about a few of the characters were much more interesting than I had hoped. Those last thirty or so pages, plus the overall interesting premise, are enough to make me want to read the sequel. While the book wasn’t perfect, it was unique, and that’s something you don’t come across every day.

Book Review: A Taste of Lightning by Kate Constable

15 Apr

ImageTansy, Skir, and Perrin are forced to flee the city of Arvestel on the backs of a couple of the king’s horses after a rescue attempt gone wrong. Chased by soldiers and an evil witch, the three must return to the Cragonlands or die. Aided by Perrin’s beast chanting and Tansy’s quick thinking, can they outsmart their pursuers?

This is something like a companion novel to the Chanters of Tremaris series. While characters from that series are mentioned, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read those books before reading this one.

I wasn’t a fan of this book, unfortunately. While the world appeared to be well-drawn, and the magic well-thought-out, the characters simply weren’t interesting or well developed. Problem #1 is that both Tansy and Skir read like 12-year-olds, and when you find out they’re 16 it’s a bit of a shock. Plus, the dialogue wasn’t true to form. I did like that Tansy had a bit of an accent, but the others sounded like modern-day teenagers walking around in what was clearly a medieval-like world, and that’s one of my main pet peeves.

Basically, the book just didn’t hold my attention. Without caring about the characters, there’s very little for me in a book. This one just didn’t do it for me.

What I’m Doing Monday

14 Apr

Woops, forgot to do this last week! I fell a little behind last week due to not feeling great toward the end, and I’m behind already today because my husand’s off work and I never get anything done when he’s around. There WAS some Game of Thrones watching though, so there’s that… 

What I’m Writing
Last week, I wrote a series of articles about the origins of the states/provinces/counties/territories of most of the English-speaking countries: United States, Canada, Australia, England, Scotland, and Wales and Northern Ireland. I think I should probably suggest New Zealand and Ireland so they don’t feel left out…

What I’m Reading
The Taste of Lightning by Kate Constable

I also went to the library and stocked up. I’m in another book rut… I keep starting books that end up not interesting me. I feel like I’m getting caught “in-between” genres. YA is losing its appeal with all of its vampires, werewolves, and over-the-top romances; but adult books are boring, with too many characters and too complicated of a plot. I hate thinking when I’m reading. Anyway, here’s a pile of hopefuls I picked up:

Just a Girl by Jane Caro
City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett
A Novel of Intrigue and Romance by Michaela MacColl (yes, okay, I do know what I just said… but it’s Queen Victoria!)
The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

Camp NaNoWriMo
Is at a virtual stand-still… writing never happens when I’m in a reading-rut. 😦

Book Review: Legacy of the Clockwork Key (The Secret Order #1) by Kristin Bailey

11 Apr

ImageWhen a fire destroys Meg’s home, killing both of her parents, all she has left in the world is an old pocket watch she scooped out of the ashes. But soon she learns that the pocket watch is a key, and she starts unlocking a lot of secrets that might have been better kept hidden. There are now murders to solve, someone to bring back from the dead, and a man trying to kill Meg. Can she survive to see her mission through to the end?

The first 40 pages of this book caused me to go to Goodreads and click “want to read” on the two sequels. The whole plot set up was interesting, intriguing, and kept me turning pages. Unfortunately, it spiraled down from there.

While the plot continued to grip me, the characters did not. They felt flat and undeveloped. I didn’t know Meg any better at the end of the book than I did at the beginning, and didn’t like her any better either (considering I thought she was selfish, whiny, naive, entitled, and impulsive at the beginning, she had a lot of room to improve). I honestly didn’t care about any of them, let alone about Meg and Will’s relationship.

You all know I’m not into romance anyway, but done well I can appreciate it–this was not done well. When I see a female lead run into a rugged, brooding male character her age, I know that she is going to get together with him. I do not need to be reminded through her constant blushing, his constant looking at her feet, or a secondary character’s constant eyebrow wiggles and hints. Even more annoying is the main character’s assertion that “She doesn’t love him–does she??” The main character has a lot more important things to think about than romance. Quite frankly, subtlety goes a long way. A bit of mystery and obliviousness on the part of SOMEONE would keep me turning pages, rooting for the relationship to finally happen. If everyone knows it’s already going to happen from page 40, there’s no reason to continue reading.

Apart from that, those first 40 pages were quite well written and put me in the time period–then I felt like the author lost those important threads that tied everything together, and I became more and more disappointed. The plot continued to be interesting, if a bit oversimplified, but it wasn’t enough to keep me entertained. I probably won’t be reaching for the sequels.

Book Review: Lady Thief (Scarlet #2) by A. C. Gaughen

5 Apr

To read my review of the first book in this series, Scarlet, click here.

ImageThe Sheriff of Nottingham is dead, and a new sheriff must take his place. Among the contenders for the position is none other than Gisbourne, Scarlet’s spurned husband, who returns to Sherwood Forest with an ultimatum: Scarlet must live in the castle with him while Prince John is there, or he will make her life a misery when he is nominated sheriff. Ill-advised as this may seem, Scarlet takes him up on it, and ends up suffering one blow after another. Just when it seems things are looking up, the band of thieves finds itself a member short, and Scarlet is once again bent on revenge.

Though I didn’t like this book quite as much as I loved Scarlet, it was still a gripping, engaging read. Much to my surprise, it didn’t suffer from “middle book syndrome” which I’ve found with a lot of trilogies–where the middle book is simply a plodding bridge between the exciting beginning and the ultimate climax. Lady Thief managed to continue the story of Scarlet, picking up the old plot and warping it into a new, equally exciting one.

The main characters are all just as lovable, even with their rough edges, as they were before, and I found the love between Rob and Scarlet a bit easier to take and more believable this time around. I still loved Scarlet’s voice and her struggles to make herself become more “noble” and the strength she found when she found out who she truly was.

My only real complaint is this: the villains seemed too comically evil. They laughed cruelly, threw tantrums, relished in the pain of their victims… and I just didn’t see much of a motive. I prefer villains who, if they are not justified in their villainy in some way, are truly frightening. I just didn’t get that from Gisbourne or Prince John. Whenever they were on the page, they annoyed me more than anything else.

That said, this was still a great book with an ending that will gut you (and someone else). It promises an even better sequel, and I’ll be snatching it up as soon as it comes out (even if it’s only listed as Untitled with no release date yet on Goodreads…)

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