Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Clearly I’m on a YA fantasy role here with reviews… Sometimes I get so thoroughly immersed in a genre it can be hard to pull myself out to switch to something else, something new and different. As I get to the end of a genre jaunt, however, my reviews tend to become a bit skewed, so take them all with a grain of salt.

Synopsis

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood – those with common Red blood serve the Silver-blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court.

Before the king, princes, and all the nobles, she discovers she has an ability of her own. To cover up this impossibility, the king forces her to play the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks everything and uses her new position to help the Scarlet Guard, a growing Red rebellion, even as her heart tugs her in an impossible direction. One wrong move can lead to her death, but in the dangerous game she plays, the only certainty is betrayal.

Review

Red Queen is part of a long line of YA fantasy books that have been written in the last five years or so to feature varying takes on power and poverty, haves and have-nots, and each primarily female author’s take on a strong, feminist, protagonist. The books that stand out are those that are spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Red Queen is neither.

It is an enjoyable book with a serviceable plot and intriguing characters. Were it published at a different time, I would call it unique and original. However, it came out halfway through the present YA fantasy boom and the influence of previous works is evident in Aveyard’s storytelling. Similarities to GracelingThe Hunger GamesThrone of Glass and Shadow and Bone are easy to pick out if you are as well versed in the world of YA fantasy as most of Aveyard’s target readers.

The writing is decent, the twists and turns of the plot and the effort into world building that Aveyard puts forth are not missed, this review would be much more scathing if Red Queen lacked in any of these areas, but it doesn’t have the ineffable “stand-out quality” that makes me remember years down the road, makes me anxiously await the next book in the series. Red Queen is at it’s best, another decent YA fantasy debut, and at it’s worst, another YA fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $10.99 • 9780062310644 • 416 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published June 2016 by Harper Teen • average Goodreads rating 4.08 out of 5 • read in May 2016

Victoria Aveyard’s Website

Red Queen on Goodreads

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Red Queen

 

Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Time for another beauty by Renee Ahdieh! She is quickly becoming oNE of my favorite authors and when the ARC  (advanced reader copy) of Flame in the Mist came into the store, my coworkers were nice enough to make sure it wound up in my hands!

Synopsis

There was only ever one expectation for Mariko, a prominent samurai’s daughter: that she would marry. Her twin brother was the one trained in the way of the warrior while Mariko was left to nurture her love of science and invention in secret. But on her way to the imperial city, where she was to meet her betrothed for the very first time, her convoy is attacked and everything changes. The assassins kill everyone – or so they think. Despite almost being burned alive, Mariko escapes.

Driven by vengeance, she flees the forest and seeks out her would-be assassins, the Black Clan, joining their ranks disguised as a peasant boy. She’s determined to discover who ordered her death and why – and to make them pay. Little does she expect to fall in love. And never did she expect to have to choose between them and everything she’s ever known. But when the secrets of the imperial city, the Black Clan, and her family converge, choose is exactly what she must do.

Review

Firstly, YAY GIRL POWER! Reading a new book by Renee Ahdieh reminds me just how much I really do love her first duology, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger. I had been holding off on reading Flame in the Mist until I was going on vacation because I knew once I got to the really good and juicy parts about halfway in, I wouldn’t be able to put it down – and I certainly did not want anything to interfere with my ability to read it straight through!

As with my review of Wrath and Dawn last week, I marvel over Renee Ahdieh’s storytelling. She creates such compelling characters and intricate plot lines that I love to sink my teeth into. She also has been some of the wittiest protagonists I have ever read to date. Her female protagonists are feminists – proud and fierce but still have their weaknesses and flaws. Her love interests for said feminist protagonists remind me of a certain male in A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy in the sense that they are loyal to their women and encouraging them be themselves 100%.

But back to Flame in the Mist specifically – I love the take on Japanese mythology (it is not at all based on Mulan, whatever rumors you may hear) and how Renee Ahdieh twists in a bit of Robin Hood lore as well (whether it is purposeful or coincidence I’m not sure, but I love it!). Mariko is a protagonist to be admired as well, and Ahdieh’s now trademark style of romance is still swoon-worthy, even for the most callused and cold-hearted of readers. I recommend it thoroughly and I cannot wait for the second book in the duology next May!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9780399171635 • 416 pages • published May 2017 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.03 out of 5 stars • read in August 2017

Renee Ahdieh’s Website

Flame in the Mist on Goodreads

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Flame in the Mist

 

Classics, Fiction, Mystery

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Just like A Study in ScarletMurder on the Orient Express was one of the Modern Readers’ Magical Mystery Tour books from last summer. Every since I saw The Mousetrap, one of Agatha Christie’s plays, and watched the Doctor Who episode that includes Agatha as part of the storyline, I’ve wanted to read one of her famed mysteries.

Synopsis

Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprising full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.

Review

For years I wondered why Agatha Christie had such an appeal, until my father-in-law gave my husband and I tickets to see the stage production The Mousetrap in Philadelphia one weekend. And I now know why she is the queen of mystery writing. Her plot and pacing are superb – it is easy enough to follow along, the writing in her books and the dialogue in the play made you feel like you were in the hotel/on the train with the inspector as they attempt to solve the mystery.

Christie reveals enough details and suspicious that the reader can attempt to solve the mystery themselves, but she also allows for enough wiggle room for you to eventually be surprised by the final twist without feeling completely blindsided. While I have not been a mystery reader for a terribly long time (this could probably be considered my first true mystery novel, save for a Patterson novel I read shortly after college), I have quickly come to appreciate the differences in storytelling required for a good mystery versus a good novel.

Suspense is key, but in moderation. If the crime is committed at the start, then there should be enough background build up for each character that it doesn’t feel procedural. If crimes are continuing to be committed, it should feel like at least one character’s life is still under threat.

After reading Murder on the Orient Express, I immediately went out and purchased more Agatha Christie books – they make for a delightful, quick, beach or summer read and I have enjoyed them immensely.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780062072495 • 265 pages • originally published in 1934, this edition published January 2011 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.15 out of 5 • read in June 2016

Murder on the Orient Express on Goodreads

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Murder on the Orient Express

 

Fiction, Mythology

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I have to admit, I’m a bit obsessed with the Norse. Since I first discovered the protagonist of my own novel, a Norse princess turned pirate back in December 2014, I’ve been trying to read anything I can get my hands on that might prove to be worthwhile for research. Add into it my love of everything Neil Gaiman writes, and it seemed like a perfect fit.

Synopsis

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredible strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki – son of a giant – blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman – difficult with his beard and huge appetite – to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir – the most sagacious of gods – is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

Review

Prior to doing any sort of research for my own story, the bulk of my Norse mythology knowledge came from watching the Thor Marvel movies. Not the greatest source of information, I’ll admit, but not the worst. I’d been looking all over for a comprehensive and easy to read book about the Aesir and Vanir, the two families of Norse gods, but had yet to find anything that really fit the bill.

When we first got word at the store that Gaiman was writing his own tome on the subject, my coworkers and I got very excited. I even more so when the books finally came in and I found the one signed copy the publisher had sent in! I started reading it straight away. Back in February. It’s July, and I just finished it.

Admittedly, I was going through a reading slump, but trying to get through Norse Mythology felt like slogging through the world’s densest bog. It has been the biggest chore of a read that I have undertaken in quite some time, and it’s not even 300 pages of prose. When I thought back on it, though, I realized that I actually don’t really like Gaiman’s writing. I love his stories and world building, but I don’t love his style.

Gaiman recounts the tales of the gods with prose that reads similarly to how a person would reasonably tell a story – the stories were oral traditions, and Gaiman clearly made a point to try to continue to honor that medium in print. As such, though, there are often times sentences and phrases that are clearly asides meant to be mentioned to those listening in the middle of a story – emphasis on the verbal component.

While I have not yet listened to the audiobook of Norse Mythology, I’m guessing that my review would read differently – it would probably be more favorable as then I would be hearing the stories in the manner in which I believe Gaiman actually intended – I would have been listening and not reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $25.95 • 9780393609097 • 304 pages • published February 2017 by W. W. Norton & Company • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read in July 2017

Neil Gaiman’s Website

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Norse Mythology

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult

A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy by Sarah J. Maas

#1. I will read anything by Sarah J. Maas. #2. It’s based on Beauty and the Beast. #3-#10. Repeat #1.

Synopsis

Books in TrilogyA Court of Thorns and Roses • A Court of Mist and Fury • A Court of  Wings and Ruin

A Court of Thorns and Roses Synopsis

Feyre is a huntress. She thinks nothing of slaughtering a wolf to capture its prey. But, like all mortals, she fears what lingers mercilessly beyond the forest. And she will learn that taking the life of a magical creature comes at a high price…

Imprisoned in an enchanted court in her enemy’s kingdom, Feyre is free to roam but forbidden to escape. Her captor’s body bears the scars of fighting, and his face is always masked – but his piercing stare draws her ever closer. As Feyre’s feelings for Tamlin begin to burn through every warning she’s been told about his kind, an ancient, wicked shadow grows.

Reviews

Original A Court of Thorns and Roses Review from May 2015

It’s no secret that I have become obsessed with Sarah J. Maas’ books. I’m going to BookCon in NYC next week for the sole purpose of meeting her. I flew through the first three books in the Throne of Glass series in a week – one week. When I found out A Court of Thorns and Roses would be more geared towards the “new adult” genre, I couldn’t wait to pick it up! While it still falls into the “young adult” realm, I think Sarah J. Maas is really starting to flesh out the middle ground between young adult and new adult to what I think “new adult” will eventually mean – slightly more mature young adult.

ACOTAR (I literally call is “ack-o-taar” which is, I admit, mildly annoying) is the story of Feyre (Fae-rah) and how she falls in love with a high fae lord, Tamlin. The plot is based loosely on Beauty and the Beast, and how Feyre must come to love Tamlin in order to free the land from a wretched curse. The story is told in two distinct parts – the first when Feyre comes to live in the realm of the Fae and the second when she has realized how she feels and discovered what she must do to save them.

My favorite part of the book, however, has little to do with Tamlin & Fae Co., but everything to do with Feyre’s older sister, Nesta. Nesta and Feyre have never gotten along and have resented each other for years for various reasons. When Feyre is taken to Tamlin’s court, she is not to see her family ever again and being rid of Nesta is perfectly fine by her. Later, however, she has the opportunity to see them and learns that Nesta came looking for her, had missed her younger sister. The two have the opportunity to connect and it is Nesta who ultimately helps Feyre understand what she must do to save the realm of the Fae (and the human populations as well).

Trilogy Review

It’s hard to go back two years later and read my review of the first book and kicking myself for not mentioning the character has become the book boyfriend to end all book boyfriends. Step aside Mr. Darcy, you’ve been replaced! It don’t want to spoil too much so this collective trilogy review will be brief.

Basically, the first book, ACOTAR is a world unto itself, and the second and third books are just spectacular. While the first book can be kind of slow and off to a rough start, the deeper you get into the world, and the books, the more it becomes clear what Sarah J. Maas was trying to do – the books are written in first person, through Feyre’s point of view, and as such, readers are only permitted access and information as Feyre is permitted access to information.

And then Rhysand saunters into the picture, which happens in ACOTAR, and things get all sorts of shaken up and spectacular. The second book, ACOMAF, is probably the closest thing to a perfect book that I have ever read, and Rhys plays a large part of that, but it has more to do with plot structure and the introduction of so many dynamic characters and finding out more information about the world.

It’s a wonderful series, and I understand it’s not for everyone, but I will recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who will listen!

Series Rating: 8 to 10 out of 10 stars

Best BookA Court of Mist and Fury

Edition for A Court of Thorns and Roses: Paperback • $10.99 • 9781619635180 • 448 pages • originally published May 2015, this edition published May 2016 by Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children’s Books • average Goodreads rating 4.29 out of 5 • read in May 2015

Sarah J. Maas’ Website

A Court of Thorns and Roses on Goodreads

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ACOTAR Series

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

Back in October, when this beautiful tome arrived at the bookstore, my coworkers were debating where it should be shelved. I chimed in by saying they could hold off deciding for a few days, because it was coming home with me! Then again, pretty much any book that comes into the store screaming “female badassery” comes home with me before too long!

Synopsis

Get ready! It’s a long (but good!) one!

Let’s face it: the list of historical women we learn about in school is lacking. It’s safe, it’s censored, it’s short. And even when we learn about a true legend – say, Harriet Tubman – we get half the story (and it’s usually not the half about her as a plantation-torching Union spy-master). This is just the list of women we know about. What about the women we don’t?

In place of complex, real-life heroines, we get sparkly, doe-eyed animated damsels who dominate children’s minds everywhere. Rejected Princesses is here to provide an alternative to that.

In this fully illustrated, deeply researched, and totally entertaining collection, Jason Porath offers 100 women too uncompromising, too untoward, or too uncomfortable to fit the modern princess mold. Gathering together a diverse set of some famous, some infamous, some forgotten, and some virtually unknown figures from history and myth, from all over the globe, this book presents the female role models we never knew we needed. Yes, there are a few princesses, but there are also pirates, spies, journalists, activists, concubines, empresses, ninjas, pilots, samurais, mathematicians, sword-slingers, and warlords too.

These women were rebels and rulers, pioneers in their fields, and fighters for their causes (and sometimes for themselves). In a time when women are still pushing for equal pay and equal opportunity, shouldn’t we be putting brave women like Sybil Ludington, Hatshepsut, Nzinga Mbande, Josephine Baker, Khutulun, Rani Lakshmibai, Harriet Tubman, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Joan of Arc on equal footing with Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty?

Women have always played a key, kick-ass role in revolutionizing our world. The girls of today are the latest links in a long chain of geniuses, warriors, and fearless women. It is the birthright of every woman to have a connection to that history.

Review

Like I mentioned in my previous review of Wonder Women, I love books that are compendiums of stories about different women who have done awe-inspiring things. The biggest selling point of this particular book for me is two fold:

  1. The author worked on my favorite animated movie – How to Train Your Dragon and helped bring one of my favorite characters, Astrid, to life! (the cake topper for my wedding was even Astrid & Hiccup!)
  2. He included Alfhild, a Viking princess turned pirate and the real life inspiration for the novel I’m writing!

In Rejected Princesses, Porath includes women who are princesses and commoners alike, who hail from all over the world, from all walks of life, of all manner of life experiences. The illustrations of each “princess” are exquisitely designed to highlight their uniqueness and specialties. Porath also designed a rating system for all the women, but not the usual misogynistic rating of hotness, but of the type of life they led, more similar to a movie rating from G to R. In this manner, Porath has ensured that Rejected Princesses can be suitable to all ages and for younger children, parents can determine which stories to share with their children.

So many of the women included would make terrific role models, especially given their diverse backgrounds, for any young woman, or man, and I absolutely cannot wait for a second volume! Porath continues to add new women to the Rejected Princesses‘ website and I hope that he will include them together in a a book just like with this volume!

Rating: 10 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $26.99 • 9780062405371 • 384 pages • published October 2016 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in November 2016

Rejected Princesses Website

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Rejected Princesses

Fiction, Mythology, Young Adult

Freya by Matthew Laurence

I don’t remember exactly how I wound up with the advance reading copy (ARC) of Freya, but it definitely had my name written all over it – from my obsession with Norse mythology, to a badass woman on the cover, I was definitely going to inhale this book.

Synopsis

Freya is myth. She is legend. And she’s about to make one hell of a comeback.

Sara Vanadi is more than she appears to be. In her prime, she was Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty, war, and death. Now all that’s left of her legacy is herself. Her power comes from belief, and for an ancient goddess in the 21st century, true believers are hard to come by.

She’s been lying low for a few decades, when all of a sudden a shadowy corporation extends an offer: join them and receive unlimited strength and believers—or refuse and be destroyed. Sara chooses neither; she flees with the help of a new friend named Nathan. With a modern power rising that wishes to bend the divine to its will, Sara decides to fight back—but first she needs some new clothes.

Review

First things first – Freya is a debut novel by a cool dude about a badass woman. I always check out reviews of books before reading them, but this time, I was the first to post a “review” of sorts on Goodreads and in going back to read the new reviews since the book was released in March (I read it in November), I have to say, I understand the complaints, but the pros outweigh the cons and the promise of more outweighs what the first book may have lacked.

Freya is the perfect book for young adults who spent their childhood reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and are looking for a mythology book that is a touch more grown up. The pacing is quick, the plot moves along at a steady pace, and the supporting cast of characters is richly described. While they may not yet be full realized, there is a lot of opportunity for them to grow and for the readers to get to know the various deities and mythologies better.

Sara/Freya is a fabulous narrator – in a debut, first in a series, YA fantasy, the most essential part of ensuring readership is to have a fully realized main character and Sara/Freya is such a character. And while some may complain about a pretty big structural point, that Freya is in first person, and there are certain things about Freya, what she is thinking, her background, and such that we as readers are not privy to, I personally enjoy the suspense and delight in the “not-knowing” aspect of the final plan to take down the big bad corporation. Freya marries the best parts of first and third person narration spectacularly.

I have only two complaints, and one is a silly one at that. The first, if Nate is going to be our main supporting actor, he needs a bit more of a role than simply “worshipper of Freya.” And the second, the silly one, the name Sarah, my own name, should always have an “H” at the end.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $17.99 • 9781250088178 • 352 pages • published March 2017 by Imprint • average Goodreads rating 3.42 out of 5 • read in December 2016

Freya on Goodreads

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Freya

Fiction, Historical

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I broke my own self-imposed rule – I watched The Last Kingdom on Netflix before I read The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. I had picked up the first book in the series after my sister gave my husband the most recent in the Saxon Chronicles for Christmas one year, not only because I was intrigued, but because the actor who plays Uhtred was on the cover and he looks almost exactly like my husband, to the extent that his own mother, my mother-in-law, agrees!

Synopsis

In the middle years of the ninth century, the fierce Danes stormed onto British soil, hungry for spoils and conquest. Kingdom after kingdom fell to the ruthless invaders until but one realm remained. And suddenly the fate of all England – and the course of history – depended on one man, one king.

The Last Kingdom is a rousing epic adventure of courage, treachery, duty, devotion, majesty, love, and battle as seen through the eyes of a young warrior who straddled two worlds.

Review

As I write this review today, I am happily watching season 2 of The Last Kingdom on Netflix, a season that I have anxiously been awaiting for nearly a year now. Between a new season of Vikings, a new season of The Last Kingdom, and a story of my own about the viking princess turned pirate Alvilda, I feel like I am practically in Valhalla. But onto the review!

When it came to the reading of The Last Kingdom, I half listened to the audiobook and half read from the physical book. The audiobook is wonderful – having already watched the first season of the television show, it was admittedly hard to hear a different voice reading the thoughts and feelings of Uhtred when I had grown so used to Alexander Dreymon, but Jonathan Keeble does a great job as reader. The audiobook also makes it easier to keep track of the characters and places, since, as with most books set in the time, almost every characters name is difficult to read and pronounce without assistance.

Uhtred is, as a main character, very similar to Quentin of The Magicians trilogy, and I have to admit, I characterize my relationship with them both as if they were real. Readers’ imaginations do tend to be quite vivid! I have a love-hate relationship with each, but it is perhaps stronger on the love side with the cocky and arrogant Uhtred. (A full review of The Magicians and my love/hate relationship with Quentin and the show to come in the near future!) The Uhtred who narrates The Last Kingdom, is a much older man, recounting the stories of his youthful adventures. As the first of 10 volumes in the Saxon Tales, it begins first with Uhtred’s childhood and how he came to be a man who straddles the worlds of Christian Wessex and Thor’s Danes.

The story is character driven, understandably with Uhtred as the narrator, and the pacing is quick as the story quickly progresses to cover numerous battles and life stages of our illustrious main character. It moves quickly and excitingly and is the perfect read/listen for anyone who enjoys the show, which remains loyal to the first book (I cannot speak of the rest of the books as I have not yet read them), or anyone who enjoys a thrilling historical fiction adventure!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Details: Paperback • $15.99 • 9780062438621 • 368 pages • originally published in 2004, this edition published September 2015 by Harper Paperbacks • average Goodreads rating 4.23 out of 5 • read in February 2017

Bernard Cornwell’s Website

The Last Kingdom on Goodreads

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Last Kingdom (3)