Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Set against the lush, exotic European colonial outposts of the 1920s, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn delivers the captivating tale of one woman who embarks upon a journey to see the world—and ends up finding intrigue, danger and a love beyond all reason. 
Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amid the backdrop of a glittering social set in prewar London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious—and recent—photograph of Gabriel, which brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt. 

With her eccentric aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artifact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it—even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel's disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history. 
Along the way, Evie must come to terms with the deception that parted her from Gabriel and the passion that will change her destiny forever...

It is no secret that I adore Deanna Raybourn’s books. They are well written, brilliantly researched and beautifully constructed, funny, smart, clever and entertaining and always, always have a fantastic heroine at their heart. What’s not to like?

I have to admit that ‘A Spear of Summer Grass’ was not quite as much my cup of tea as the Lady Julia mysteries, but with the release of her latest offering ‘City of Jasmine’ I am more on board with these latest 1920s standalones than ever. The brilliance of them is that each one is set to stand on its own two feet, and does so marvellously, but at the same time with each new release (just wait for Raybourn’s next novel set for release in September this year ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’) they become more and more entwined. You see familiar characters, minor cameos and it gives these fresh novels a sense of wonderful familiarity.

I will admit that I think that my enjoyment of ‘City of Jasmine’ was heightened by not reading the prequel novella ‘Whisper of Jasmine’ until afterwards. Because I hadn’t read it first it meant that there was a wonderful twist at the end of City that I wouldn’t have experienced with the same awestruck delight had I read Whisper first, so if you are trying to decide whether to read this novel, I highly recommend doing it that way around to start with – particularly if you are a fan of Raybourn’s other novels.

I don’t really want to say more because it is such a delicious book to go into when you don’t really know anything beyond the blurb. I shall simply say that it is just a brilliant as Raybourn’s previous novels. I adored Aunt Dove and Evie and had my heart in my mouth throughout most of the book. It is a fantastic romp with some darker moments as well. The scene setting was sublime and I absolutely loved the tie ins that start to weave all the stories together. If you weren’t such a fan of ‘A Spear of Summer Grass’ I highly recommend trying ‘City of Jasmine’ because Raybourn really seems to hit her 1920s stride with this novel. And also if you were a fan of the film ‘The Mummy’ I have a feeling you’ll love this one. A perfect piece of fast paced escapism with another feisty heroine.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Review: Queen of Someday by Sherry D Ficklin

Publication date: 7th October 2014

Thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Before she can become the greatest empress in history, fifteen-year-old Sophie will have to survive her social-climbing mother’s quest to put her on the throne of Russia—at any cost.
Imperial Court holds dangers like nothing Sophie has ever faced before. In the heart of St. Petersburg, surviving means navigating the political, romantic, and religious demands of the bitter Empress Elizabeth and her handsome, but sadistic nephew, Peter. Determined to save her impoverished family—and herself—Sophie vows to do whatever is necessary to thrive in her new surroundings. But an attempt on her life and an unexpected attraction threatens to derail her plans.

Alone in a new and dangerous world, learning who to trust and who to charm may mean the difference between becoming queen and being sent home in shame to marry her lecherous uncle. With traitors and murderers lurking around every corner, her very life hangs in the balance. Betrothed to one man but falling in love with another, Sophie will need to decide how much she’s willing to sacrifice in order to become the empress she is destined to be.
In a battle for the soul of a nation, will love or destiny reign supreme?

“For all you hardworking history teachers who want to hit me with a book after reading this. The line forms here. No pushing. Everyone will get a turn.” Any historical fiction book that begins with an author’s note like this should immediately ring alarm bells. I appreciate messing around with historical timelines to make a more thrilling story for the reader, so long as it is clearly stated that historical tampering has happened. However, ‘Queen of Someday’ not only doesn’t follow any sort of historical timeline for Catherine/Sophie, any sort of research of the period and dialogue appears to have been cursory at best.

When I pick up an historical novel, I expect realistic dialogue for the time period and realistic characters. I do not expect modern throwaway conversations or characters that are attempting to fill the ‘feisty heroine’ cut out and therefore act in ways that would never have been lauded and celebrated in this particular time period. It immediately throws me from the story and stops me from enjoying the book.

Trying to jam several different parts of Catherine’s life into this one short book causes even more problems. All historical accuracy is thrown over for unbelievable romances and one dimensional characters. Which is tragic because this could have been something brilliant. With a clearer cut plot and with fewer romances that have no spark to speak of, there could have been more time spent on character development which could have saved this novel.

I wanted to love this book. I love historical novels and when they are done well they can be some of the best form of escapism. But sadly there were just too many pitfalls for me to take any sort of enjoyment from it. Badly researched with too many aspects of Catherine’s life smushed into one small chunk of her life to try and provide more of an action packed storyline, and with one dimensional characters that never grabbed me or really came alive.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins

Budding designer Lola Nolan doesn’t believe in fashion...she believes in costume. The more expressive the outfit--more sparkly, more fun, more wild--the better. But even though Lola’s style is outrageous, she’s a devoted daughter and friend with some big plans for the future. And everything is pretty perfect (right down to her hot rocker boyfriend) until the dreaded Bell twins, Calliope and Cricket, return to the neighbourhood.
When Cricket--a gifted inventor--steps out from his twin sister’s shadow and back into Lola’s life, she must finally reconcile a lifetime of feelings for the boy next door.

So you know how much I loved ‘Anna and the French Kiss’? I have a terrible confession to make, I really didn’t enjoy ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’. And I feel terrible because everyone was saying how if I loved the first one then the second one was just going to blow me away, and really how couldn’t I love the second one given my feelings about the first? But whilst there were some awesome elements to Lola, she just didn’t do it for me in the same way that Anna did.

The problem for me was Lola herself. Whilst Anna was an engaging and fantastic narrator, Lola came across as incredibly immature and a little whiny. I loved the idea of Lola, she was feisty and didn’t conform and had her own very unique sense of self and didn’t let anybody crush that or take it away from her. All fantastic things that I really loved, but they just didn’t come across as they should have done. It was all very dramatic and over the top, completely over blown until it stopped feeling like it could be real, it was almost a caricature of the ideas.

Lola is desperate to be seen as unique and mature, but the overblown costumes actually detracted from that. I think there was a balance of costuming that could have really made the idea work, but there were moments that tipped her over from spunky individual, to young teenage girl craving attention. Which only served to highlight the terrible relationship with her boyfriend, Max. I didn’t see the attraction of Max at all, the whole way through the book he gave me the creeps and I just desperately wanted to get Lola away from him, so again a lot of the tension and drama of the story vanished with my dislike of this character.

I also struggled with the portrayal of Lola’s family life. The demands that she had to call and check in with her parent’s every hour? I felt like they were treating her like a much younger girl and it made a lot of the book feel less realistic. I know why it was done like that, but instead of adding to the story and making me feel for Lola, I just found it frustrating and threw me out of the story instead.

Cricket was essentially the redeeming factor of the book. I loved him. He was sweet and funny and added a much needed breath of fresh air to the story. When Lola had such an extreme reaction to Cricket’s return I was expecting to hate him, for him to have done something so awful that I wouldn’t be able to like him. But it turned out that he hadn’t really done anything, just been a boy and not communicated, but nothing so terrible that it deserved the reaction Lola gave. And I loved him. I just wish that I could have connected to Lola in the same way.

So whilst this book didn’t even remotely compare to ‘Anna’ I did still enjoy it, just not nearly as much as I was expecting to. I’m still very excited for the third book ‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ which is out next month. If you enjoyed ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ though I do recommend giving Lola a go, because I am definitely in the minority who didn’t enjoy it and even if you don’t connect with Lola, you’ve still got Cricket and the reappearance of Anna and St Clair to see you through. And we've got the setup to see all of the favourites back in the next book.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Review: Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris--until she meets √Čtienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, √Čtienne has it all...including a serious girlfriend. 
But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

I needed this book. In fact I probably needed this book a few months ago when I first moved to France, but hey, better late than never. This book just called out to me in so many ways, it made me laugh and cry and repeatedly put Anna in situations that I’ve been in and I felt for her so much. I moved to France at the end of October last year. I had mildly more control over it than Anna does in the book, but I spoke about the same amount of French as she does, and the entire thing terrified me.
It is so reassuring when you’re reading a book and you see situations and scenarios that are close to you, and you’re able to read them and go ‘hey, this is ok, I am not being ridiculous for feeling like this!’ And when Anna spent her first few weeks hiding in the school and not exploring Paris, and eating bread and fruit because she was too afraid to try and order food in French, I wanted to hug her and tell her I know exactly how you feel and I promise you it gets better.

This book basically felt like a mutual hug. I wanted to hug Anna, and it felt like in return the book was hugging me and telling me that it would all be ok and I would love this strange, crazy city and understand this language and that the experiences would be something I would look back on and cherish. So my review is pretty much guaranteed to be a love letter to this book that felt like a life raft at just the point that I needed it.

I loved Anna. Occasionally I wanted to shake her, but that was more that as I’m a bit older than her character I remember all too well the feelings and mistakes and I could see them coming and wanted to help her avoid them, so it was an odd mix of teenage me going ‘yup, totally understand and am with you on this one’ and adult me going ‘you idiot, you just need to communicate!’
She was funny and snarky and yes, a bit of a moron over boys, but at that age most girls are. I felt for her, I understood her frustrations and anger and heartache, and I wanted to hug her. She was such a fantastic character, brilliantly brought to life and full of such vivacious energy. She all but fell off the page and into my head, bringing all of the other characters with her. Particularly St. Clair.

Oh St. Clair, you and I totally need to talk. The stringing along of the girl and the girlfriend? Bad move, very bad move, but again given all the circumstances and happenings, I get it. So I was a bit torn by him. Yes he was dreamy and lovely and funny and I wanted to smush him and tell him things would work out in the end. But at the same time I wanted to throw things at him for being an inconsiderate arse.

There were points where I would have really liked a little more of some of the supporting characters, but on the whole I thought they were fantastic. They created such a brilliant group of friends to guide Anna in her first French foray, and I can’t wait to see more of Josh and Isla in the final book of the series.

It wasn’t just the characters that made me fall in love though, it was the setting as well. I’ve been lamenting the lack of English language books set in France, so it was fantastic to finally have a well written book that explore the city. Having it set in Paris, with the language and the exploration really lifted the book from an ordinary story into something more. There was an added element of magic and romance and I loved exploring the city with Anna.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s got brilliant characters, a wonderful setting and just such a well written and enjoyable story. It’s incredibly easy to lose yourself in and a very quick read – almost too quick, I want to go back and re-read it, I miss the characters already!
And for anyone who is feeling like a fish out of water, and experiencing being in an unfamiliar place, it is even more of a must read. I think it may even be about to turn into one of my chicken soup reads.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Review: The One by Keira Cass

The Selection changed the lives of thirty-five girls forever. Now, only one will claim Prince Maxon’s heart…
For the four girls who remain at the palace, the friendships they’ve formed, rivalries they’ve struggled with and dangers they’ve faced have bound them to each other for the rest of their lives.
Now, the time has come for one winner to be chosen.
America never dreamed she would find herself anywhere close to the crown – or to Prince Maxon’s heart. But as the competition approaches its end and the threats outside the palace walls grow more vicious, America realises just how much she stands to lose – and how hard she’ll have to fight for the future she wants.

Oh this series. It's one of those ones that if I think too hard about what I'm reading I have to stop, because there is so much wrong with this series, yet at the same time it is weirdly addictive...

The series had a lot of potential, but it falls into the trap of so many cliches that really it never stood a chance. The girls are all one dimensional, the drama is all one dimensional, and don't even get me started on the love triangle. America comes across as the sort of girl who would fall apart if she didn't have one of these boys to fawn over, which is incredibly irritating. I want strong heroines. Now that doesn't mean that they don't have to want to have a partner, but at least give them something that makes them their own individual person, not have their desire for one of the inevitable two boys vying for their attention be the only feature about them.

So yes, incredible irritation at the love triangle, and the terrible depiction of these girls as on the whole being vapid and one dimensional creatures that wouldn't survive without a man to prop them up. But at the same time, it's kind of compelling. If you asked me what made me keep reading this series, it would be quite hard to pin down, but there is just something that redeems these books. I just have no idea what...

The plot has so much potential, but is never fully realised, although it is great to finally see all these threads that have been set up in the first two books finally come together into quite an explosive finale.
And again, America could be a brilliant heroine if she could just stop stringing these two boys along. It's incredibly frustrating to read, particularly towards the end when she doesn't want to let go of Aspen based purely because she doesn't want to risk being on her own if Maxon doesn't pick her. All in all it is a mixed bag for the final installment in the series. Yes it's got some fast paced action and some brilliant moments, but it is also incredibly frustrating for the love triangle and wasted brilliance.

So if you enjoyed the first two books I definitely recommend picking up 'The One', and if you are desperate for some light fluffy (and highly irritating love triangle) action based in a castle where you can pretend to feel like a Princess along with the chosen girls, then try 'The Selection' and see what you make of the series.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Finding my way back to books

So you may have noticed the somewhat sporadic posting over the last year or so, as I fell off the radar, attempted to climb back onto it and failed spectacularly by going straight back into hospital. Basically I should never say I'm back, it is guaranteed to jinx it, I should just sidle back in when no-one is paying any attention...
It was quite an interesting time, because I was suddenly faced with multiple crises all at the same time, and for the first time in my life I reacted in a different way to usual. I stopped reading. I have so many books, I constantly have one in my bag or within easy reach just in case I get a spare two minutes to read a couple more pages. At no point ever in my life have I gone so long without picking up a book. I tried, oh believe me I tried. I tried new books, but they were usually discarded within a page, three pages, several chapters slogged over several months. I tried old favourites and could usually manage to get about half way through before giving up, but nothing managed to stick with me until the end.

Which meant I had an awful lot of free time to spend pondering all the things I really didn't want to think about that had caused the reading crisis in the first place.
It was a really pretty awful time, although some of the things that have come out of it have made up for it in spades. But it meant that I started trying to find new ways to fill in the gap that the books had left.
I went back to audiobooks. Although there was never anything so exciting as listening to a new book, I listened to my three favourites 'The Scorpio Races' by Maggie Stiefvater, 'Graceling' and 'Fire' by Kristin Cashore. I can now pretty much recite them all word for word from memory. It became one of my favourite things to curl up at night with my headphones in and disappear to Thisby or The Dells, or the Seven Kingdoms. They were familiar, and something about having someone else read the story to me was comforting, and snuck them in around the reading block.

Then there were the TV shows. I've always had a couple that I followed avidly and loved, but suddenly I was watching so many more, and boy was this the year to get invested in American TV. There was such a wide breadth of variety across the board. The staple supernatural in 'The Vampire Diaries' and 'The Originals', and boy did 'The Originals' knock it out of the park in its first season. It started off as quite a safe predictable show, and within a few episodes had completely twisted everything on its head and turned into one of the most compelling shows out there.
Then we had 'Starcrossed' sadly only for one series before it was cut. The incredible period drama 'Reign' which will get its own blog post because it was so incredibly awesome, detailing the life of Mary Queen of Scots when she was a teenager at French court. 'The Witches of East End', based on the novel by Melissa de la Cruz and due back for its second season this Sunday. Third seasons of both 'Revenge' and 'Once Upon a Time', of course the brilliant and breath taking fourth season of 'Game of Thrones' and a new discovery for me 'Sleepy Hollow' which I am currently forgoing sleep to plough through.

And finally after months of ignoring my books and watching TV shows and listening to audiobooks, I was stuck in hospital again and very, very bored, when I felt the first stirrings of wanting to read. I begged The Boy to bring me the first three Harry Potter's to re-read and to my surprise, devoured them. Once I got home I worked my way through the rest of the series, finding comfort in some very old friends. And once I'd finished? I picked up a new book.

Since then I haven't stopped, I've been working my way through books I have been desperate to read for months, consuming words like someone who has been starved for the last year. I can't put into words how relieved I am to finally be able to enjoy reading again, and to know that I will finish a book that I start. It felt like I'd lost access to a part of me that I'd taken for granted, and I am so grateful to have it back.
But whilst I missed all the books during that year, I loved discovering so many new things. Now it's just trying to find a balance between the two!

Which brings me, in a very roundabout way to the question I wanted to pose through this post. Have you ever had a patch where you couldn't read, or where you didn't want to? And what did you do to help yourself through it, and did you find other things in the process?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Review: City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare

Be aware there are minor spoilers for the book below

In this dazzling and long-awaited conclusion to the acclaimed Mortal Instruments series, Clary and her friends fight the greatest evil they have ever faced: Clary's own brother.
Sebastian Morgenstern is on the move, systematically turning Shadowhunter against Shadowhunter. Bearing the Infernal Cup, he transforms Shadowhunters into creatures out of nightmare, tearing apart families and lovers as the ranks of his Endarkened army swell.
The embattled Shadowhunters withdraw to Idris - but not even the famed demon towers of Alicante can keep Sebastian at bay. And with the Nephilim trapped in Idris, who will guard the world against demons?
When one of the greatest betrayals the Nephilim have ever known is revealed, Clary, Jace, Isabelle, Simon, and Alec must flee - even if their journey takes them deep into the demon realms, where no Shadowhunter has set foot before, and from which no human being has ever returned...
Love will be sacrificed and lives lost in the terrible battle for the fate of the word in the thrilling final installment of the classic urban fantasy series The Mortal Instruments!

I have always been an avid fan of 'The Mortal Instruments' original trilogy, I loved them. I thought they were fresh and innovative and the characters were brilliant. Then it was announced there would be a second trilogy to follow on from the first and continue the story, and I got excited all over again about another chance to go back into this world I'd loved so much. But there was something about books four, five and now six that didn't quite recapture the magic I'd felt with the original three.

So I was looking forward to 'City of Heavenly Fire' but it wasn't with the burning enthusiasm I had come to associate with Cassandra Clare, and for me personally the book really didn't live up to my previous hype and excitement.
Don't get me wrong it's still a fantastic book with a compelling story and a host of complex and beautifully written characters, but there were a few things that just let the book down for me.

Firstly it could have benefited from some heavy editing in places. There were places where it became so bogged down in description (particularly of peoples hair and eye colour which I only have a limited amount of interest in when there are wars on the horizon) that I really had to fight to keep my interest going.
My second big gripe is with a series of this scope with such a vast array of characters, I expected the stakes to be higher and for there to be more deaths. Maybe I've been watching too much Game of Thrones, but for me personally, if there's a massive war with battles all over the place, I expect there to be some casualties. I want to feel the stakes and how desperately the remaining characters want to win - to avenge and revenge those they've lost, and we just didn't get that. We had one death, one almost death and a tragic moment with a character that was on the way to being resolved by the end of the epilogue. It didn't feel real (yes I know, this is a book about demon hunters, but bear with me.) I want to be desperate for these characters, I want to cry for them and feel for them and be terrified that not all of them will survive. I don't want needless death, but on a war of this scale to have every one of the main characters survive and have a happy ending felt like a bit of a let down.

So I enjoyed the book. It was great, a fantastic bit of escapism with some characters I love and a world I've come to adore. The banter was brilliant, the plot was on the whole great, apart from a few parts where it dragged (but that takes us back to the editing) and it was fantastic to get another glimpse at these characters, and even to tie in some characters from Cassie's Clockwork series. But I didn't finish the book and the series feeling satisfied. I felt a little nonplussed, and if I'm honest, a little bit let down. But that's just one person, I'd love to know how you felt about the ending to the series, let me know in the comments section below.