Mackenzi Lee – The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

With a cover and synopsis like that, who could resist this book? I personally was hoping for some fun, light entertainment with a little bit of romance and a lot of bickering. Plus an epic road trip through Europe. While I didn’t enjoy the second half of the book as much as the beginning, it still delivered on most of those points and had me giggling for a few hours.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE
by Mackenzi Lee

Published by: Katherine Tegen Books, 2017
Hardcover: 513 pages
Series: Guide #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy.

Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.

Henry “Monty” Montague is a scoundrel who gets into trouble very easily but has a lot more difficulty getting back out again. His relationship with his father is strained, to say the least. As a bisexual young man in the 18th century, his escapades – be they with young men or women – are not something his father approves of, especially since he was to inherit the estate. Until the baby brother came along, that is. Now Monty has one last chance to prove he can be a responsible adult – a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and, much to their dismay, a chaperone who is to show them the wonders of all the greatest cities on the continent.

It’s hard to dislike Monty, despite his really being an irresponsible, ungrateful young rake. He cares about very little in the world (mostly himself, his secret love Percy, and copious amounts of alcohol), but you can tell right from the start that he has a good heart and just needs to grow up a bit. The Tour seems just the right time for that. While things start out pretty much as planned (by his father, that is), Monty gets into deep trouble pretty soon. He, Percy, and Monty’s sister Felicity don’t even reach the halfway point of their journey when they are set upon by highwaymen, have to flee, discover truths about each other that they didn’t even suspect, and must work together as a team to get out of this adventure alive!

We’re not courting trouble. Flirting with it at most.

This book had everything I had hoped for at the beginning. Quippy banter, a budding romance between Monty and Percy, lots of fun adventures and not-so-fun danger. Things dragged a bit when the group reached Spain and begin an entirely new adventure, but because the characters were so lovely, I didn’t mind too much. Percy’s being dark-skinned may not be an issue for Monty or Felicity, but 18th century Europe has other ideas and it is frequently shown that even though he is an English gentleman, Percy faces a lot of challenges because of the color of his skin. Felicity, in turn, is sent to an finishing school from where she is supposed to emerge a skilled young lady. Skilled, that is, in the arts of singing, stitching, and other stuff she doesn’t have the least interest in. Monty is just Monty, wanting to drink and party and sleep with beautiful people. In the beginning, at least.

When someone close to him is revelealed to suffer from a disability, Monty’s thinking slowly changes. He realises what’s important in life, and who he wishes to be loyal to. As light as it may be, as funny as his scrapes are, this is truly Monty’s coming-of-age story and he doesn’t grow up all at once. It’s a slow process with more mistakes to make and misunderstandings to clear up. But I was very happy to see that, by the end, Monty had indeed grown. He’ll perhaps never be a gentleman of utmost perfection but he learns to do the right thing, and to consider the feelings of others – especially those he loves.

While the writing in this book wasn’t very special, I adored the dialogues and the more romantic scenes. Monty and Percy have a particular relationship that makes it maybe even harder to start something more than friendship than if they had serendipitously met on Monty’s Tour. Having grown up together, often sleeping in the same bed, sharing almost everything with each other, there is already so much intimacy between them, that it seems like such a small step to just fall in love. Mackenzi Lee did a beautiful job of letting these two find their way to each other slowly, through many obstacles, and start something more substantial than one of Monty’s flings.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and I am so excited that there will be a second part following Felicity’s further adventures. She started out as an annoying side character but grew on me so much that I consider her as one of the gang. By the end, she is probably the most kick-ass of the trio (Hermione, anyone?).

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Second opinions:

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Kerstin Gier – The Silver Trilogy (Silber)

In times of emotional turmoil, I turn to a certain type of book. Either it’s well-loved favorites like Harry Potter, or if I want something new, I go for books I know are easy to read, easy to stomach, definitely end well, and have plenty of silly drama about who goes to the prom with whom. Kerstin Gier delivers exactly that, and while her Silver trilogy is not nearly as good as the time travel books she wrote a while ago, they entertained and distracted me from life in just the right way.

THE SILVER TRILOGY (Dream a Little Dream, Dream On, Just Dreaming)
by Kerstin Gier

Published by: Fischer, 2013-2015
Hardcovers: 413, 416, 464 pages
Series: Silver #1-3
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The dog was snuffling at my bag. 

Mysterious doors with lizard-head knobs. Talking stone statues. A crazy girl with a hatchet. Yes, Liv’s dreams have been pretty weird lately. Especially the one where she’s in a graveyard at night, watching four boys conduct dark magic rituals.

The strangest part is that Liv recognizes the boys in her dream. They’re classmates from her new school in London, the school where she’s starting over because her mom has moved them to a new country (again). But what’s really scaring Liv is that the dream boys seem to know things about her in real life, things they couldn’t possibly know–unless they actually are in her dreams? Luckily, Liv never could resist a good mystery, and all four of those boys are pretty cute…

Since I read all three books back to back, I decided to review them as one complete story instead of doing single reviews per volume.

Liv and her sister are used to moving around, living in all sorts of places of the world, but never living there for long. Moving, starting new schools, making and losing friends is nothing new to them. Until their mother promises to stay settled in a charming cottage in England where she can do her job at Oxford University and the girls can finally have a proper home. Except they never make it to that cottage. Instead Liv’s mother wants to move in with her new boyfriend and his two children. Additionally, weird stuff happens in Liv’s dreams. She recognises people from her school whose names she doesn’t even know, she learns things she never heard before in dreams, and they turn out to be facts… Things are definitely not quite right.

The strength of this story is definitely the family interactions and how the characters grow into their new home, which of course has very little to do with this being a fantasy story. More on that later. At first, Liv and her little sister Mia are strongly opposed to their new siblings. Grayson seems constantly preoccupied with his phone and Florence only remains posh and composed until she finds out she’ll have to give up some living space for the new girls’ nanny! Sure, all the characters are big walking, talking clichés but there is no doubt that the way they are pushed on each other makes them each grow and even come to care for each other. It may just be my current situation, but I almost teared up a little when these four behaved like proper siblings.

Initially, I was in it for the fantasy aspects, especially because they have to do with dreams. However, that part is never really developed and the plot strays and meanders and doesn’t ever quite find its footing. In the first book, Liv is trying to help out her new brother Grayson and his friends combat an evil demon whom they accidentally summoned last Halloween. Without spoiling anything, all I can say is that the second book revolves around something completely different and the fact that they can all control their dreams (to some degree) is more of an added superpower that doesn’t do all that much. In the third book, Kerstin Gier seems to have realised that the trilogy is only held together by the real-world teenage drama rather than her fantasy side plot, and tried to unify things a little. It didn’t really work out but at least the big bad of the third book is truly terrifying and made for some suspenseful moments.

This is also the story of Liv growing up, discovering first love, and making a home for herself. The romance was done pretty well (no love triangles, yay!) although some conflicts between the love birds seemed incredibly forced, just to get things moving a little. Again, in a different state of mind, my opinion of these books would probably be way harsher, but as a light read in between meatier books, this is just the thing to fall into.

There is also a sub-plot that’s basically Gossip Girl. Liv and Mia’s new school has someone called Secrecy who seems to know everything about everyone and posts embarrassing and hurtful things on her blog. She reveals secrets, discusses (in not very flattering ways) people’s clothing style or weight, even makes remarks about very personal or very painful things such as whether a couple has had sex yet (and if no, why not), or who someone is going to date next, now that their boyfriend died! Lifting the secret of who Secrecy is falls mostly into Mia’s care and while it is revealed, it only happens at the end of the last book.

Look, it’s no Ruby Red trilogy, but it is quite a bit of fun with hilariously overdrawn characters, some romance, and a lovely family. I liked it.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

I find it quite interesting how different the German and English covers are. The German ones seeme geared at a younger audience while the English ones can’t stop the girl-in-a-pretty-dress trope. I do like the keyhole though.

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Romance and cakes: Marissa Meyer – Heartless

I like Marissa Meyer’s books. There’s very little reason for me to like them, but I do anyway, because they are comfort reads, they have fluffy romances, they play with fairy tales, and they are simply fun. In her first book not set in the Lunar Chronicles universe, Marissa Meyer shows that she has grown as a writer and is not running out of ideas.

HEARTLESS
by Marissa Meyer

Published by: Feiwel & Friends, 2016
Hardcover: 453 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine.

Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the King and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.

This is the story of how a lovely, ambitious young girl turned into the Queen of Hearts we all know from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first thing I noticed and loved was that Catherine had hopes, and dreams, and agency! From the beginning, when Cath bakes a set of lemon tarts, we are shown that she loves baking and that she has plans to open her own bakery one day. She also has a best (female) friend! Be still, my heart, remember that there are good YA books out there and this is one of them.

Cath’s best friend is their family’s servant girl Mary Ann. While Cath is more of the creative, baking brain behind their shared plans, Mary Ann is good with numbers and approaches decisions logically – so she’s the business manager, if you like. Not only was it wonderful to see two girls being friends but to see them complement each other so beautifully in reaching their dream. Cath is also, however, the daughter of a Marquis and Marchioness, and thus spends a lot of her time at balls and tea parties thrown by the King of Hearts. Who has his eyes on her and might ruin her dream by asking her to marry him. Add to all that the new court Joker, and romance (and disaster) is bound to happen.

Many people have said that this book moves along more slowly than the Lunar Chronicles and that is true. But the slower pace only bothered me during the middle of the book. The beginning was wonderful because it set up the characters, who each have distinctive voices and mannerisms, and the world in which Cath lives. Sure, it’s Wondreland, but it’s not exactly the Wonderland we know. Marissa Meyer added a lot of little, original details that may remind you of Lewis Carroll’s novels, but give it a flavor of its own. Many well-known characters also make an appearance, and some of them get the chance to become quite three-dimensional. Thus, I suppose, the slower plot.

Hatta, this version’s Mad Hatter, quickly became a favorite of mine, although I also have a soft spot for Cheshire, who in turn has a soft spot for Cath’s baking. All the side characters who get to say a few words, had personality! As much as I loved The Lunar Chronicles, I can’t say that the characters were a strong point. In Heartless, however, they absolutely are. And while a lot of character development happens in the last quarter of the book, it does happen, and it is understandable why it happens.

With a villain’s origin story, it will always hinge on the reason they became evil. And the more I read about Catherine, the more I rooted for her and her dream bakery, the less I could imagine her turning into that dreadful Queen of Hearts who wants to chop everyone’s head off. I can’t tell you any details, but I really liked how things fell into place and turned Cath into an evil monarch. There is quite a lot of backstory to it all, and it involves many people other than Cath. There are some surprising revelations, and a few moments where you go “aaah, that’s why”. Cath’s transition happened maybe a bit too fast and I was devastated about her relationship with Mary Ann. But then, we always knew this wouldn’t be a book with a happy ending.

Because the middle really did drag along terribly, I am not completely in love with the book. But for a great beginning, strong characters, ideas worthy of Wonderland, a Poe-quoting raven, and a great way of turning a girl into a villain, I must give Marissa Meyer credit. She did a wonderful job with this and I hope she plans on revisiting more fairy tales. I know there are a lot of them already, but I’d love to see her origin story of Captain Hook.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

 

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Tansy Rayner Roberts – Dance, Princes, Dance

After the delightful Glass Slipper Scandal, I wanted to know how the story continued ASAP. Luckily, Tansy Rayner Robert’s podcast series Sheep Might Fly has the entire second book in the Castle Charming series available (start here). Tansy reads the story herself and while she is not an audiobook narrator (there are chuckles, she sometimes has to repeat a sentence, and all the usual stuff that happens when normal people read out loud. It’s actually quite endearing), this was another nice entry in a cute book series.

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2017
Audio serial: 140-ish minutes
Series: Castle Charming #2
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: They called her Ziggy, or Zig.

Welcome back to Castle Charming. Winter is upon us, which means the annual tournament of Rookery is underway, a game that pits Royals against Hounds. Meanwhile, fairies steal castle residents away each night, and persons unknown have run up a mysterious bill for far too many dancing shoes. When you live in a fairy tale kingdom, you have to expect to rescue the occasional prince — but for Kai, Dennis and Ziyi, it’s becoming a habit. Can the boys stop pining after each other long enough to step up as heroes?

Tansy Rayner Roberts writes this series for her Patreon patrons and she mentioned in a few episodes of this audio serial that she is writing as she goes. That shows a little, unfortunately, but I also got the feeling that Roberts had certain ideas in place from the start that she wants to play with over the course of the entire series, however long it will turn out to be.

Dance, Princes, Dance mostly plays with the fairy tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses, but it also expands on the characters introduced in the first book. I mentioned in that review that I thought both Kai and Dennis were gay because they were clearly falling in love with each other. One of them, however, is bisexual and we learn a bit about their previous romantic interests – anyway, they still can’t keep their eyes off each other. There are some more romantic revelations in this part, which I liked, although at least one of them (Amira) felt a little forced and strangely out of place in the plot.

The plot itself is also quite jumbled, which I guess is the product of having to write a chapter for a deadline without having everything plotted well in advance. As with the first book, things happen very quickly, and there’s barely enough time to let important moments sink in. When Kai accidentally betrays somebody’s trust, for example. While there are scenes dealing with this situation, everything is over and resolved way too quickly and there’s just no time for getting into the book emotionally.

With the Twelve Dancing Princesses plotline, Tansy Rayner Roberts used the excellent (if slightly cheap) way of getting deeper into her characters’ heads. Being whisked away to a fairy ball every night and only being able to escape by speaking a truth is the perfect recipe for unearthing old secrets or certain thoughts that haven’t been spoken out loud yet. Obviously, every person involved in the fairy enchantment reveals something big about themselves. Some of these revelations didn’t come as a surprise (Kai and Dennis were so obvious), but others did and I appreciated that a lot.

The princes, who have been stand-ins for random celebrities who get into trouble, have personality now. And Prince Cyrus especially gained a lot of depth in this story. Other plot threads set up in Glass Slipper Scandal aren’t advanced here very much: Kai and the ink magic, the probability that Kai is the lost Prince Charming, the fairies and their involvement in people’s lives… but I guess we’ll learn more about these things in coming instalments.

I didn’t like this book as much as the first, but I will follow the series anyway because it is light, charming, and just fun.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

 

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Tansy Rayner Roberts – Glass Slipper Scandal

I found this book by accident. Tansy Rayner Roberts had offered a free copy of one of her books (Musketeer Space) so I browsed through her books on Goodreads a bit, discovered this one’s awesome cover, looked up what it was about and immediately got it. Turns out, Roberts (of whom I’ve only read Love and Romanpunk before) is writing a sort of fairy tale series which you can listen to for free. As I’m writing this, the ebook version is also free on Smashwords. So go get your copy now!

GLASS SLIPPER SCANDAL
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Tansy Rayner Roberts, 2016
Ebook:  50 pages
Series: Castle Charming #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “The best thing about magical ink,” said Amira, “is that it smells different to everyone.

Charming is a kingdom where fairy tales come true, which has been bad news for its troubled royal family, but good news for the gutter press that thrives on the scandals and gossip provided by their teenage Princes Gone Wild. Kai is a rookie reporter at the Charming Herald. Dennis is a new Royal Hound, charged with protecting the self-destructive princes from disaster.
Disaster arrives in a pumpkin coach… The story of the century will be wearing glass slippers… and Castle Charming will never be the same again.

As you may guess from the wonderful cover and title, this novella (novelette?) takes the piss of fairy tales as well as newspapers. There are several main characters, but the first we meet is Kai, a brand new journalist who’s looking for the story of the century. And that story will quite naturally involve the royal twin brothers, who are always good for a riveting headline and a front page picture. With the Autumnal Fling coming up – an occasian that is sure to leave at least one of the princes engaged to an eligible princess – you don’t have to wait long for the first news-worthy scandal.

But the story also follows Dennis, who is assigned to Royal Prince Guarding Duty with his stone-faced (and hilarious) partner Corporal Jack. And we get to see the upcoming social event of the year through the eyes of one of the many princesses, Ziyi of Xix, who hopes to break free of her life through marriage. The story flows quite naturally from there. With two princes who like to get drunk and party, an ambitious princess, an equally ambitious young journalist, and a royal guard, you know hilarity will ensue.

I loved the writing so much. It’s quirky and fun and super quick to read. The world building is done effortlessly through dialogue, the chapter headings are all newspaper headlines, and the characters – while not super three-dimensional – are nice and varied. Both Dennis and Kai are gay and seem to develop a thing for each other, Corporal Jack is pure excellence, and Ziyi is far more than just another princess trying to snag a rich prince.

The plot moves fast, maybe a bit too fast. I would love a longer version of this story (and whatever sequeles Tansy Rayner Roberts decides to write), but as a nice comfort read for an afternoon at home, this was perfect. There’s an interesting back story that builds on familiar fairy tales, and Castle Charming is a place where magic is bound to happen and where fairy tale tropes have become a thing you expect. Plus, the world holds many more things to discover. The magical ink mentioned in the very first sentence is just one of them. Through Kai and Ziyi, it becomes obvious that, although this takes place around Castle Charming, the world is a big place and there are other countries and cultures yet to discover.

Tansy Rayner Roberts has written a lovely spin on fairy tales, peopled with her own characters in her own world, and I for one can’t wait to discover what the second volume, Dance, Princes, Dance holds in store. And then I’d like at least ten more tales in this universe, please.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good!

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Austin Chant – Peter Darling

I stumbled across this book via the Read Diverse Books challenge and because it’s a sequel/retelling of Peter Pan with a grown-up Peter who falls for Hook, I had to read it. While I thought the story had several problems with plot, pacing, and the ending, there were some truly enjoyable parts. Plus, it’s a really quick read if you’re looking for a short retelling of a beloved children’s classic.

peter-darlingPETER DARLING
by Austin Chant

Published by: Less Than Three Press, 2017
Ebook: 164 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6,5/10

First line: James Hook was bored.

Ten years ago, Peter Pan left Neverland to grow up, leaving behind his adolescent dreams of boyhood and resigning himself to life as Wendy Darling. Growing up, however, has only made him realize how inescapable his identity as a man is.
But when he returns to Neverland, everything has changed: the Lost Boys have become men, and the war games they once played are now real and deadly. Even more shocking is the attraction Peter never knew he could feel for his old rival, Captain Hook—and the realization that he no longer knows which of them is the real villain.

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This book is both a sequel and a sort of retelling of the original Peter Pan. Peter is returning to Neverland after spending ten years in the real world. He is grown-up, he wishes to forget everything that happened in London, and simply wants to return to being the proud and insolent youth we all know. But Neverland has changed, as have the Lost Boys, as has Captain Hook.

The first few chapters deal with Peter finding the Lost Boys at peace with the pirates, and with their new leader Ernest, a quiet and thoughtful young man. He also finds Hook, bored out of his mind, and ready to rekindle the war between them. This part of the story was my least favorite. It felt like the story didn’t know what it wanted to accomplish, the pacing was incredibly off, switching between not-so-well written action scenes and boring moments without any impact on the overall story arc. Additionally, we are told Peter is ten years older, but he still acts exactly like the original Peter Pan, the child who would not grow up. So the dialogue felt jarring at times and I had trouble imagining a 20-something man (or even a 16-year-old) saying the things he says and behaving the way he does. But what has always made Peter into who he is was his power to forget. The fairies take care of that and give him back his memories – and that’s when the Peter of this book began to feel like a proper character.

With Peter’s reemerging memories come a few flashbacks to what happened during his ten years at home. Peter grew up as Wendy Darling, making up stories of who he really is, the magical boy Peter Pan. The flashbacks were so short and far between that I wasn’t sure why they were included at all. Each scene was over before it could begin properly and, yes, the gist of it (Peter Pan being a transgender man) gets through, but there was no time to really understand what Peter’s life was like. It felt very superficial – maybe parts of those scenes were cut during editing for whatever reason, but all the flashbacks felt like they were cut in half. Either make them proper scenes or even full chapters, or leave them away completely. Personally, I would have liked to find out more about Peter’s life in London.

peter-darling

The Neverland plot also takes a considerable time to get rolling. At first, it’s all exposition and fighting Hook, running away, fighting Hook again, talking to the Lost Boys, and getting to know Ernest, their new leader. I was also quite confused about Ernest as a character. I immediately liked him and felt he had a lot of potential, especially in balancing impulsive and battle-eager Pan. But he was only really present for the beginning of the story (and shortly at the end), but had no actual role to play. Again, either use the character or leave him out completely. The way it is, a great character was wasted… unless there’s a sequel planned which will feature him more prominently. I don’t know, I’m just guessing here.

The real heart of this story, for me, was the romance between Hook and Pan. Once these two are stuck together and have to kind of get along to survive, that’s when I got really interested. Their relationship was intriguing and tense and need I mention how much I love Hook?  It was especially his humor and his confidence that made him shine as a character. Peter also got a chance to grow as a person and understand his own feelings a bit better, but Hook stole the show on every page. Their romance was really well done and I loved reading about these two people realising how they felt about each other.

The writing was competent, but there were moments when it drifted and got really bad. The best written scenes were the ones filled with sexual tension between Hook and Pan. The battle scenes were boring to read and felt more like a transcript of a movie scene. Some of Peter’s moments of introspection made me cringe. They read like a child’s journal entry rather than a proper narration. As for the descriptions of Neverland and Peter’s surroundings, I felt like the author was trying to be poetic but the effort showed too much, so most metaphors fall falt for me. On the other hand, the dialogue was fun to read, and each character had their own distinct voice. Hook was definitely the shining star, in every possible aspect.

Another interesting thing that didn’t get nearly enough time to be explored was Neverland itself as well as its inhabitants. Austin Chant turned the Neverland fairies into insect-like creatures, although they are never fully described. But add a few too many eyes here, a couple of antennae there, a creature with lots of legs, and you get the idea. I loved that he came up with something new to make Neverland feel interesting, instead of just going with the world created by J. M. Barrie. But the fairies and a story about an old pirate captain are the only original additions to the world building. And, much like the flashbacks, they weren’t present nearly enough for my taste. See, there’s good stuff here, just never enough of it, which makes me kind of happy (because yay, good stuff) but also disappointed (what, that was it?).

Without spoiling anything, I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt rushed and didn’t adress some open questions that are really important to both protagonists. With a story that actually took care to show things aren’t black and white, that explores complicated relationships and features a protagonist still so unsure about himself, the ending felt like a cop-out, a happy end for the sake of a happy end, but without showing us how things work out. Maybe Chant is leaving room for a sequel, in which case I’d be more forgiving for ending Peter Darling this half-heartedly.

Because of the romance, the amazing James Hook, and the bits of original worldbuilding, I quite enjoyed this read. But I don’t feel the urge to pick up any of the author’s other books. If he writes something longer, where he takes more time to explore his characters and scenes, and where the pacing is a bit more balanced, then you can count me in.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Good

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Other reviews (mostly more favorable than mine):

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Cute but unoriginal: Alethea Kontis – Trixter

I have many feelings about Alethea Kontis’ Woodcutter Sisters series. The first two books were adorable, enchanting, and just total feel-good reads. The third book was a big mess. Which is probably why the author’s contract for the rest of the series didn’t get renewed and she started writing spin-off adventures about the Woodcutter’s young brother Trix. This book is a cute middle grade adventure that didn’t offer many new things and is rather weak, but still kind of nice. You know… for a lazy afternoon when you don’t know what else to read.

trixterTRIXTER
by Alethea Kontis

Published by: Alethea Kontis, 2015
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Trix Adventures #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: Trix Woodcutter ignored the twinges in his belly and the ache in his heart as he raced across the meadow.

Trix Woodcutter is the long prophesied Boy Who Talks to Animals. He’s also a foundling prankster scamp who places his family under a sleeping spell so that he can run away from home. Compelled by a vision of his dead birthmother, Trix departs on the eve of a Great Catastrophe, only to find himself caught in the maelstrom. Armed with little more than his wits and the wisdom inherent in all fey-blooded youth, Trix confronts a legendary Animal King, faces off against a ghostly feline, rescues a damsel in distress, and discovers more about himself than he ever wished to know.

And this adventure is only the beginning.

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Elle Katherine White – Heartstone

Despite utterly disliking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I found silly, unfunny, and unoriginal, I had high hopes for this new take on the Jane Austen classic, featuring mythical creatures and a dragon rider Darcy. As a retelling, it wasn’t great, but at the end, the author’s original ideas took center stage and turned this into a quite pleasant reading experience.

heartstoneHEARTSTONE
by Elle Katherine White

Published by: Harper Voyager, 2017
Ebook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: I’d never seen an angry hobgoblin before.

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Helen Oyeyemi – What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I managed to spend this week at home in bed with a terrible bronchitis, so not only didn’t I read a lot (90% of my time was spent sleeping, sweating, and coughing… seriously, it’s not pretty), but I also didn’t tell you about the books I had read prior to turning into a pale, clammy monster. Today, I feel a little better and can stare into a computer screen without headaches, so let’s do some catching-up, what do you say?

what-is-not-yours-is-not-yours2WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS
by Helen Oyeyemi

Published by: Picador, 2016
Hardback: 263 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).

Oyeyemi’s creative vision and storytelling are effervescent, wise, and insightful, and her tales span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities. Is a key a gate, a gift, or an invitation? What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours captivates as it explores the many possible answers.

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Normally when I review story collections, I like to talk about each story a little bit but I won’t do that here. As with most collections, I loved some stories, liked others, and disliked one or two. But “dislike” isn’t the right word because the few stories that I’d rate a little lower are simply ones that didn’t stick in my mind, not even a week after I read them. I do remember while reading them that I thought they were weird, strangely-constructed tales that start one way, then take a crazy turn and end up being about something completely different. That doesn’t make them bad stories, they just didn’t work for me (much like Oyeyemi’s strange novel Mr. Fox).

Before I get into my favorite stories and why they are so wonderful, one thing about their interconnectedness. Oyeyemi tried what Angela Slatter does so perfectly in her story collections (in case you want my fangirling thoughts, here are my reviews for Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible). One story’s side character comes back later as a protagonist, or a new side character, or we go back in time and see their childhood – and that’s how the stories are supposed to be connected and tell one bigger tale. Except it doesn’t really work all that well in What is Not Yours is Not Yours. First of all, the stories are so different in tone, setting, and time period, that it was difficult for me to find any sort of common ground. And when I did recognise a character from a previous story, I had a hard time reconciling that person in the current story with who I met before. There was one mention of some previous characters that made me smile, because we find out what happened to them after their story ended, but in most tales, I didn’t really need them to connect to the rest of the collections. The stories stand on their own.

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Now. Here’s why you should read this collection. It has fairy tale-esque stories, like “drownings”, filled with evil tyrants who drown their enemies in the swamp, princesses and the perfect fairy tale voice, but it also has paranormal-ish (and seriously creepy) tales like “Presence” about a couple who tries a new sort of therapy which is supposed to help the bereaved reconnect with their dead loved ones. It was a truly chilling tale, but the creepiness levels were always just right.

There is one story that chilled me to the bone for other reasons. When a Youtube video exposes a famous musician – Matyas Füst – as having beaten up a girl, the world answers. And it answers pretty much the way you’d expect our world to answer. The social media attacks are aimed mostly at the victim, the half-hearted apologies by the celebrity are eaten up by his fans, and hey, why not use this incident to write a new song that will make him some more millions? This story was both sickening and fascinating, because we also see how a fan tries to justify her idol’s actions so she can keep liking him.

Then he stood over her in all his wealth and fame and arrogance and shrugged when she said she wasn’t going to keep quiet about this. Matyas Füst had shrugged and asked her if she thought anybody was going to give a shit that someone like her had got hurt. A nameless junkie with seriously crazy English. Look at you, he said. And look at me.

But by far my favorite story – and maybe because it is such an uplifting, hopeful one – was “A brief history of the Homely Wench Society” which tells of two Cambridge University clubs. The Bettencourt Society is basically the rich boys’ club and no women are allowed in their hallowed halls. Except when they pick the most beautiful girls to have dinner with them. However, the not-so-beautiful girls are fighting back. They created their own club whose purpose is to see the Bettencourt Society go down.
While this story starts as a basic us vs. them/boys vs. girls/beautiful vs. plain/rich vs. poor type tale, it slowly unwinds into something more complex and more hopeful. And inter-club romances make it just a little bit harder to keep hating each other. My favorite part was definitely the prank the Homely Wenches pull by breaking into the Bettencourt library and exchanging some of their male-authored books with some female-authored ones they brought. And both sides soon have to admit that the others have pretty good taste in books (and nobody gives a shit if the writer was male or female). It was adorable and I loved every part of the story, but that prank and the ending especially left me beaming with joy.

The book’s opening story “Books and Roses” was also beautifully told and although it has a healthy dose of magical realism, was the perfect tale to fall into. It’s also the beginning of the collection’s theme of keys. Much like the recurring characters, I didn’t think the key theme added much to the collection, because the subject matter and voice is so different from one tale to the next, but it is a lovely bit of imagery. I was also reminded just how many things can be considered keys and in how many shapes and sizes keys actually come.

Pretty much as expected this was a mixed bag for me, but I will continue to keep my eye out for Helen Oyeyemi’s books. When she goes too abstract, I usually don’t get much out of her fiction, but when she hits a note I like, she really hits it. I can’t wait to discover what she will come up with next.

MY RATING:  7,5/10 – Very good!

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Kendare Blake – Three Dark Crowns

I got this book in a bookish subscription box (The Nerdy Bookworm Box), otherwise I probably wouldn’t have read it so soon after publication. Before you pick this up, know that it is NOT what the synopsis promises. It’s not a royal Battle Royale, a bloody fight between three siblings to the death. It is the preparation for that fight. That’s not a spoiler, trust me, that’s a fair warning that will make you enjoy the book more.

three-dark-crownsTHREE DARK CROWNS
by Kendare Blake

Published by: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2016
Paperback: 407 pages
Series: Three Dark Crowns #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: A young queen stands barefoot on a wooden block with her arms outstretched.

Every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.
But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
If only it was that simple. Katharine is unable to tolerate the weakest poison, and Arsinoe, no matter how hard she tries, can’t make even a weed grow. The two queens have been shamefully faking their powers, taking care to keep each other, the island, and their powerful sister Mirabella none the wiser. But with alliances being formed, betrayals taking shape, and ruthless revenge haunting the queens’ every move, one thing is certain: the last queen standing might not be the strongest…but she may be the darkest.

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We are introduced, one after the other, to each of the three queens fighting for the throne of Fennbirn, a magical island about which way too little is learned over the course of 400 pages. Katherine, weak and fragile, has been raised as a poisoner but her gift has still not properly set in. She is basically tortured on a daily basis by her host family, the Arrons. They let venomous snakes bite her, feed her all sorts of poisonous food, in order to build up resistance. But Kat comes away from it mostly scared and broken and full of scars.
Arsinoe is a naturalist and, just like her sister, shows very little gift. She is still waiting for her animal familiar while her best friend (and host sister) Jules has one of the most powerful gifts ever seen on the island. Her chapters are the longest and most detailed, because Jules is as much a protagonist as Arsinoe is.
Mirabella, already famous throughout Fennbirn, is the only queen with a powerful elemental gift. She can controll storms, lightning, and even fire. But she lives secluded and under constant surveillance by the priestesses of the Temple.

Three dark queens
are born in a glen,
sweet little triplets
will never be friends

Three dark sisters
all fair to be seen,
two to devour
and one to be Queen

So much for the set-up. Three Dark Crowns follows these three young queens as well as some side characters in alternating chapters and although they are all supposed to be different, the storylines and characters are all extremely similar. First of all, the side characters could easily be interchanged without anyone noticing. Most of them are just names thrown around when convenient. One side character, Luke, seems to be able to do whatever is needed for the plot at the moment. He is a librarian but also cooks and runs a coffee shop? Turns out, he can also sew dresses… and that’s as far as his personality goes. The others are literally just names, most of which I couldn’t keep apart because there is no description, not even age or relations. Sometime in the middle, I finally figured out that Madrigal is Jules’s mother, not some friend of the girls. I am the first to accept that I sometimes read inattentively, but this is not my fault, this is bad writing. Each girl gets a love interest, each is pushed or driven by a mentor figure, each has at least one friend to confide in. They do have different hair styles, which seems to be more important than giving their friends a past or character traits.

As mentioned, Arsinoe gets the most pages, Katherine gets by far the least. But I found her to be the most interesting character because she has it the hardest. But once the scheming Natalia, her mentor, throws young Pietyr in Kat’s path, this book is all about romance. Never mind why three queens have to battle to the death or how eating poisonous stuff without dying is going to help Katherine survive. Let’s talk about kissing because young adults are all hormonal idiots who want to read about kissing and nothing else. ARGH!!

Arsinoe, Jules, and Mirabella also get a love interest and, sure, some of that creates conflict, but come on! That’s not what it said on the tin. Do we really need another stupid love triangle? Kendare Blake tried to balance the r

omance with female friendships but by leaving the queens’ friends (except Jules) such bland, blank papers, the friendship becomes virtually worthless. Jules and Arsinoe are a great team, but Mirabella’s two friends, although one of them gets a story arc of a sort, are just stand-ins so Mirabella has someone to talk to. It’s a wasted opportunity if I ever saw one. However, Arsinoe’s storyline also contains the most world building and the best characters and development. Low magic, as the islanders call it, was mentioned plenty, although its roots are left unexplored. Joseph and Billy, the only two men with personality, also appear in Arsinoe’s story. This makes me belive that we are meant to like her best – so if the other two die, I won’t be surprised, but it is a rather obvious and cheap way of going about it. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

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Finally, at the very end, the plot actually moves foward. The queens each have to demonstrate their gifts in a ceremony that marks the beginning of the year in which they are to kill each other until only one queen remains. And shit goes down during that ceremony! Before that, the powerful houses of Fennbirn scheme around a bit, but because apparently young people are also too dumb to get subtlety, it’s all very obvious and the schemers are not very smart. Again, the villains of this story are also interchangeable. Put a serrated blade in ones hand and icy blond hair on the other, they are still basically the same person.

The ending did have two twists, one of which became sort of predictable while reading the novel. The other, I will happily admit, took me by surprise and actually made me say WTF! But is a two-page shocking twist enough to justify 400 pages of lame romance and a very unbalanced view of three sisters thrown into a terrible situation? I mean, Kendare Blake wrote the book she wanted to write, not one I wanted to read. But if you have a premise so interesting why would you not explore that at all? And if you build a world with so many strange rules, different sets of magics, why not mention anything about that? It makes me think that none of it is actually thought-through, but just window-dressing for some teen romances.

Fennbirn, for example, is super intersting but we only get glimpses of why when the delegations from the mainland arrive. It’s also a much smaller island than I originally thought (there is a cool map in the beginning of the book) because a character can walk, in a few days, over half the island. The magical gifts that the people of Fennbirn posses also don’t make much selse. Elementals are cool, and Naturalists are also interesting. But Poisoners, the only really non-staple fantasy magic, are pretty useless in my eyes. Anyone can learn how to mix a poison and, sure to survive poisoning is useful but what is the point? What’s the greater scheme of things? Why are poisoner queens so powerful when – forgive me – an Elemental can control the elements and a Naturalist might have a seriously vicious animal familiar. How would a battle between such people look? Well, if you want to find out, I guess you’ll have to wait for the sequel because this book ends just before the battle begins.

As many flaws as this story has, I did enjoy the read. I can’t tell you why because when I think about it, everything is wrong, there are plot holes all over the place, the characters mostly aren’t very good and the romances drifted into soap opera territory really quickly. But it was still fun. The chapters are short, I kept being pushed by the hope of learning more about the world, and I did grow to like the queens, although Katherine remains rather pale because she appears so little in the book. Look, it’s better than some other cliché and trope-ridden YA but not by a large margin. There are good ideas here, I only have to wait for the sequel to see if they actually come to anything. And at least, after reading this, I’m ready for some smart science fiction. I shall take delight in the lack of tropey YA love triangles!

MY RATING: 6/10 – Okay

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