Friday, 27 February 2015

Review: Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn

Huge thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

On the verge of a stilted life as an aristocrat's wife, Poppy Hammond does the only sensible thing—she flees the chapel in her wedding gown. Assisted by the handsome curate who calls himself Sebastian Cantrip, she spirits away to her estranged father's quiet country village, pursued by the family she left in uproar. But when the dust of her broken engagement settles and Sebastian disappears under mysterious circumstances, Poppy discovers there is more to her hero than it seems. 
With only her feisty lady's maid for company, Poppy secures employment and travels incognita—east across the seas, chasing a hunch and the whisper of clues. Danger abounds beneath the canopies of the silken city, and Poppy finds herself in the perilous sights of those who will stop at nothing to recover a fabled ancient treasure. Torn between allegiance to her kindly employer and a dashing, shadowy figure, Poppy will risk it all as she attempts to unravel a much larger plan—one that stretches to the very heart of the British government, and one that could endanger everything, and everyone, that she holds dear. 

As you are all well aware by now, I love Deanna Raybourn’s books. They are beautifully written, fantastically researched and filled with glorious settings and characters. They tick all of my internal boxes for what makes a great read. My heart will always truly lie with the Lady Julia series, so whilst I loved the first two standalone books Raybourn released set in the 1920s, they couldn’t quite compete with my love for Julia. So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I sat down to read this book and discovered that Raybourn had very slyly been setting up a beautiful interweaving of stories. The three standalone 1920s books were carefully slotted together with appearances from characters in different books, and at the end of ‘City of Jasmine’ a very interesting appearance of the Vespiary. Which then linked back to the Lady Julia novellas. And then came full circle with this third book where Poppy (our plucky and feisty heroine) turns out to be Plum’s daughter. I could have cried. It was so wonderful to have that little glimpse of the characters from Lady Julia, through Plum’s scenes and Poppy discovering her Aunt Julia’s diaries that we ourselves know and love. It was wonderful and made this book incredibly special having that link.

The characters were brilliantly written as always, and I think Poppy is my second favourite heroine only to Julia. She was so wonderful. Funny and snarky and brave and determined and so full of life and stubbornness. (I wonder where she gets it from…) I was quite sad to know that we wouldn’t see any more of her story beyond this book, because by the end of the story I’d become rather attached. Raybourn has a fantastic way of writing characters that just makes them work. They feel real, their struggles and hopes and journeys and I love being given the chance to peek in on that.

The other highlight is of course the setting, and this time we were treated to a glimpse of England and then whisked back to Damascus which was a wonderful return. I loved Raybourn’s rendering of the city in ‘City of Jasmine’ and it was brilliant to return just after the Starke’s foray there. She brings the city to life until you can almost hear the vendors and smell the flowers and spices. This is a book that evokes all of the senses.

And then we have the plot itself. Full of twists and wonderful surprises as well as some dark and terrifying moments, Raybourn has an incredible gift for prose. She is a born storyteller and one who I will happily continue following as long as she may publish.

This is a wonderful book and stands well on its own without having to read any of the other books. However there is a huge amount of joy to be experienced for those readers coming to it off the back of the other 1920s books or from Lady Julia herself.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Review: Shadow Study by Maria V Snyder

Publication Date: 24th February 2015

Huge thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Once, only her own life hung in the balance.
Oddly enough, when Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. But she'd survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia. Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands and protect her relationship with Valek.
Suddenly, though, they are beset on all sides by those vying for power through politics and intrigue. Valek's job - and his life - are in danger. As Yelena tries to uncover the scope of these plots, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked. She must keep that a secret - or her enemies will discover just how vulnerable she really is - while searching for who or what is responsible for neutralizing her powers.

Yes, the days of tasting poisons were much simpler. And certainly not as dangerous.

I absolutely adored the original Study trilogy, particularly ‘Poison Study’ so when I heard that there were going to be more books in the series I, like most other fans of the books, was thrilled.
And whilst it was fantastic to be back with Yelena and Valek and co. sadly the book didn’t quite live up to the very high expectations I had.

It’s become a worrying trend with the last few Snyder books that I will tear into them eagerly, my interest will wane and then at around the half way mark I will put them down and go and read something else, which is tragic. They are such good stories, but the first half of each of the latest books is so slow and weighed down with story and exposition that isn’t needed that nothing really happens. Eventually I come back to them, and the second half is so much better, everything picks up the stakes get higher, the tension is raised and I am reminded of all the reasons that I love Snyder’s books. Shadow Study is no exception to this new trend. The first half was so slow, so much back and forth and no one really knowing what’s going on or what to do and a lot of that leads from Yelena’s feeling of being adrift and lost, but the story shouldn’t be impacted this heavily by that. There should still be action, forward progress and a level of interest retained by the reader. So I took weeks to read the first half and eventually took a break from the book altogether.

The second half was so much better though. The storylines started coming together, and whilst everyone’s individual journeys were important, everything works so much better when everyone is together. The tension is amped, everything felt more terrifying and real and I was flying through the end of the book. I just wish that the rest of it could have been the same.

I also had a few problems with how flat and one dimensional some of the characters seemed. The new introductions particularly, as well as Ari and Janco. This was most noticeable for Janco as we had some of the story from his point of view – important so that we could see more of the puzzle pieces come together, but by far some of the weakest bits of storytelling. It felt as though because they were characters we knew, nothing really had been done to flesh them out, and that was horribly evident once we started seeing the story through their eyes, instead of just through Yelena’s and Valek’s.

Other minor grumps come in the form of the heavy handed insertion of Valek’s back story, a fascinating story in its own right, but not handled particularly well as it was just dropped in from time to time in Valek’s chapters of the book. It felt random, yes it provided backstory and context, but it could have been its own novella (one I would have loved to read because it was fascinating seeing how Valek became who he is) and stopped weighing down the narrative with excursions into the past that only aided with some insight into the present.
Also with names – I’m sorry but there’s only so many times that I can read the words ‘Goo goo juice’ and not want to stop reading. There is so much imagination and creativity in this series and it’s let down by sloppy elements like this.

Despite the ranting there was a lot to love in this book. It was fantastic to be back in this world and to see where the characters were now. Once the pace picked up and we got into the story, it was truly brilliant. I loved the twists and turns and I am definitely left wanting to find out what happens next. There is so much to look forward to in the next book and hopefully now the ball is rolling, the pacing will be better in ‘Night Study.’ The second half is wonderful and reminded me just how much I love Snyder’s books, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite enough to undo the damage wrought in the first half. Fans of the series will love this new instalment, but be warned it does take a while to get going. Newcomers, I highly recommend going back to the beginning and starting fresh, jumping straight in at this point wouldn’t do the series any favours, and all issues aside this is a brilliant fantasy series.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Review: The Conspiracy of Us by Maggie Hall

Be warned for mild spoilers

Avery West's newfound family can shut down Prada when they want to shop in peace, and can just as easily order a bombing when they want to start a war. Part of a powerful and dangerous secret society called the Circle, they believe Avery is the key to an ancient prophecy. Some want to use her as a pawn. Some want her dead.
To unravel the mystery putting her life in danger, Avery must follow a trail of clues from the monuments of Paris to the back alleys of Istanbul with two boys who work for the Circle—beautiful, volatile Stellan and mysterious, magnetic Jack. But as the clues expose a stunning conspiracy that might plunge the world into World War 3, she discovers that both boys are hiding secrets of their own. Now she will have to choose not only between freedom and family--but between the boy who might help her save the world, and the one she's falling in love with.

I wanted to like this book, it had such a great cover and blurb and really sounded like it could be something quite exciting. It was being compared to ‘The DaVinci Code’ (which, shush, don’t tell anyone but I kinda enjoyed…) and had a wonderful array of masked balls, international travel and conspiracies. Plus a gorgeous cover. I couldn’t wait to read it.

I’m wondering now I’m on the other side whether it was just the wrong time for me to read it, because sometimes I come back and re-read a book I disliked and really enjoy it the second time around. However, this time it really wasn’t my cup of tea.

There were so many illogical choices and moments, starting with Avery deciding to run off with absolute strangers out of the blue because they said they knew her family (always trust random strangers kids!) and continuing right through wearing her contact lenses for three/four days straight, to hey you have to get married even though you’re not willing and it’s not legal without permission from your parent or guardian!

I know that it was supposed to be a young adult book and therefore we need characters who fit into that age bracket, but the idea that these big powerful secret society families would employ sixteen year olds to organise security/kill people/tote guns around seemed completely ridiculous. If the characters had been aged up to 18 – 20 then a lot of the issues would have been dealt with. As it was it was just irritating.

The other big issue for me was that it really wasn’t compelling. Given the high stakes, the racing around trying not to be murdered, you would think that I would have been racing through the pages to find out what happened, but instead I had to really push myself to keep reading. I was bored. It was a quick read, and once I sat down and got on with it I was through it very quickly, but there wasn’t any hook to keep me interested.

I also wasn’t convinced by the hints of the love triangle, or the romance involved. It just felt a bit flat and forced, but I think that was a spill over of my feelings about the rest of the book. However that could have also been a reflection on the characters as none of them seemed to have anything to them apart from Stellan. The dialogue was awkward and insisted on incorporating pet names in French as though to remind the reader where they were from, and no one was really developed beyond the basic character stereotypes.

It may be one I come back to again at a later point – it’s the start of a series so maybe there will be some development in a later book, but for now I really wasn’t fussed and it left me feeling decidedly non-plussed when I reached the final ‘twist’. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Review: The Iron Trial by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare

Huge thanks to Netgalley for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review

Most kids would do anything to pass the Iron Trial.
Not Callum Hunt. He wants to fail.
All his life, Call has been warned by his father to stay away from magic. If he succeeds at the Iron Trial and is admitted into the Magisterium, he is sure it can only mean bad things for him.
So he tries his best to do his worst - and fails at failing.
Now the Magisterium awaits him. It's a place that's both sensational and sinister, with dark ties to his past and a twisty path to his future.
The Iron Trial is just the beginning, for the biggest test is still to come…

I was very curious to see how the book would turn out, coming from two such well known and prolific authors as Clare and Black, but also because of the comparisons being made to Harry Potter.

Yes there are a lot of comparisons, but there are also a lot of differences too which helps once you get into it. There’s the school for magic, the trio of friends who band together, the sneaking around and general hijinks happening behind people’s backs, the prophecy, the Dumbledore and Snape like teacher figures, but there’s an awful lot in there that sets it apart from the Potter series. The series is always going to divide opinion, and there will always be people who can’t get into it or don’t want to read it because of the comparisons. For me personally it was like looking into a slightly skewed mirror until I got far enough into the story that it stopped being quite so obvious.

It was a bit unsettling though because I did always have Potter in the back of my head. And whilst every effort was being made to make magic school cool and exciting, I couldn’t get beyond some aspects of it. It was underground and cold and dark and no one ever really saw the outside world and the food, no matter how delicious it was described to be, sounded weird… I missed Hogwarts.
And if it hadn’t been so similar in so many ways, that comparison wouldn’t have been there.

Comparisons aside, it is still a very good book. Black and Clare make a great writing team and I really enjoyed the story. There were some great twists, some wonderful characters, and some really intriguing elements. I would have liked to get to know some more of the secondary characters better, and to see more of the magic lessons. I loved the main trio and I loved how the immediate comparisons were squashed and turned upside down by the end of the book.

I’m really looking forward to the second book because it feels like the set up has been dealt with and we can now move in to broadening the world and getting to know the characters better. There’s a lot that I want to know about this world. I think that a lot of the Potter comparisons will have been dealt with and the second book will begin to peel away and show a more individual and unique world to the one we were seeing here.

It is a much younger book, aimed at middle grade readers rather than young adult, and I know that the comparisons will put off a lot of people. However I definitely recommend giving it a go. The writing is good and the lead characters are wonderful. There’s more to it once you get into the story and I think that the series has some really fantastic potential. Let’s hope it lives up to it!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Review: My True Love Gave To Me (Anthology) edited by Stephanie Perkins

If you love holiday stories, holiday movies, made-for-TV-holiday specials, holiday episodes of your favorite sitcoms and, especially, if you love holiday anthologies, you’re going to fall in love with My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Holiday Stories by twelve bestselling young adult writers, edited by international bestselling author Stephanie Perkins. Whether you enjoy celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah, Winter Solstice or New Year's there's something here for everyone. So curl up by the fireplace and get cozy. You have twelve reasons this season to stay indoors and fall in love.

First off, Happy Valentine’s Day! And what better way to celebrate than with an anthology of love and fluff filled stories. Whilst this is technically a Christmas book, I think that the fluffiness contained within these pages is more than enough to satisfy any need for smushy love stories today.

The full list of authors is impressive: Rainbow Rowell, Kelly Link, Matt de la Peña, Jenny Han, Stephanie Perkins, David Levithan, Holly Black, Gayle Forman, Myra McEntire, Kiersten White, Ally Carter and Laini Taylor. A smorgasbord of incredible Young Adult authors from across a multitude of genres.

With every anthology you end up with a bit of a mixed bag of stories with some that you wish were much longer and had their own books, and others that you end up skimming or skipping entirely. Due to the incredible array of authors you also end up with fantasy stories getting cosy next to contemporary which can end up as more than a little confusing to change mindsets so quickly for each story. It might have worked slightly better had the order been rearranged, but that is a minor quibble and something that may not even bother most people. That said, having such a diverse range of authors with their individual styles, meant that there were a truly wonderful collection of stories filled with people of all races, ethnicities, religions and sexualities.

It’s bookended with two of the best stories, starting with Rainbow Rowell’s “Midnights” which tells a love story set on New Years Eve over several years and several midnights which just melted my heart into a pile of goo right from the start. It was a fantastic start to the book, but it also set the bar stupidly high which not all of the other stories lived up to. And then that ending with Laini Taylor’s “The Girl who Woke the Dreamer”. Oh my. I mean I love Taylor’s book so I was expecting something good, but this one completely blew me away. It was haunting and gorgeous and so completely different to anything else in the anthology. It sends you away on a truly incredible high.

The middle is a mixed bag, with some truly wonderful stories like Stephanie Perkins “It’s a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown” which will give you all of the feels a massive silly grin on your face by the end, and some that I didn’t even reach the end of. The fantasy stories feel a little out of place, but once you get past that Holly Black’s “Krampuslauf” and Kelly Link’s “The Lady & The Fox” are gorgeous and really add a different feel to the anthology.

Sadly for me the stories that let the anthology down were David Levithan, Ally Carter and Jenny Han, which was tragic given that Levithan’s was the only LGBT story in the anthology. I just didn’t connect to the characters in the same way as I did with the other stories.

This is a great anthology that is wonderful to dip in an out of when you need some guaranteed fluff and romance in a wide variety of styles and settings. I read it over Christmas and it was a wonderful piece of escapism around the holiday season. But given the content I also recommend it as a book to read today. It’s a wonderful collection of tales from some of the best YA authors writing at the moment and will leave you with a lot of the warm fuzzies.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Publication Date: 10th February 2015

Thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review

The poverty stricken Reds are commoners, living under the rule of the Silvers, elite warriors with god-like powers.
To Mare Barrow, a 17-year-old Red girl from The Stilts, it looks like nothing will ever change.
Mare finds herself working in the Silver Palace, at the centre of
those she hates the most. She quickly discovers that, despite her red blood, she possesses a deadly power of her own. One that threatens to destroy Silver control.
But power is a dangerous game. And in this world divided by blood, who will win?

There is a huge amount to love in this exciting new debut. Dystopian future where the colour of your blood segregates you? X-Men style powers and a whole lot of throw downs? Oh yes please.I thought this was a great debut, fast paced and full of brilliant ideas. There were a couple of stumbling blocks, but on the whole this was fantastic.

I loved Mare. She was a resourceful and determined and unfailingly brave. She has a few moments later in the novel where I wanted to shake her for not thinking things through, but on the whole she was a great heroine.
I also loved the boys. Thankfully this isn’t your typical love triangle (for reasons I won’t spoil here) so if the idea of the love triangle is putting you off, I highly advise trying the book anyway, you will be pleasantly surprised.

But most of all I loved the abilities, the range and breadth and how much they added to the story. Seriously, any type of abilities, be it X-Men or Graceling or anything inbetween, and I am sold. They were woven into the story brilliantly and added a whole other element of danger and intrigue. I would almost have liked to see them used more, but on the whole I think it was fantastic.

Some of the secondary characters could have done with a little more development, we weren’t really given enough time or space to get to know them so their actions sometimes felt a little forced whereas with a bit more development everything would have flowed much more smoothly.
But whilst I would have liked that, the pacing was really good with the right level of tension to keep you storming through the story.

However, three things stopped it from being a five star read for me. Firstly how obvious the ‘twists’ were. I spent the majority of the book waiting for both of them to happen, which took away a lot of the tension. I was still on the edge of my seat for most of it, but I knew what was coming and it became more of an ‘I told you so’ than an ‘oh my god I did not see that coming’ which was a shame.

The second thing was how incredibly near sighted Mare was. This plays into the first point, but I found it really frustrating when she was sneaking around getting up to hijinks and turning off the cameras as she went. Random patterns of blank spots are going to be easy to track where the person is going and who it is. It just pushed the limits of my gullibility trying to swallow that part. She should have been caught out by that right at the start, and instead she ended up feeling virtually invincible which just made me want to shake her.

And finally the fact that so much time was spent on the angsty teen plots and not really enough on the rebellion and the war. It felt like that was just a late addition to up the stakes on everything else, which was a shame and I’m hoping that will be rectified in the next book. The rebellion itself just felt a little bit weak. There was no rhyme or reason to it, just random sneaking around, not particularly well thought out plans and arbitrary attacks that anyone with a modicum of sense could see were just going to make the problem worse and not help in the slightest.

These things aside, Red Queen was a really fantastic read. Everytime I put it down I wanted to pick it straight back up again. It was engaging and fast paced and full of some brilliant ideas that work into a great debut novel and a promising start to the series. 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Review: The Anatomist's Wife by Anna Lee Huber

Scotland, 1830. Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister's estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when her hosts throw a house party for the cream of London society, Kiera is unable to hide from the ire of those who believe her to be as unnatural as her husband, an anatomist who used her artistic talents to suit his own macabre purposes.
Kiera wants to put her past aside, but when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to utilize her knowledge of human anatomy to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage--a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn't about to let her guard down as accusations and rumors swirl.
When Kiera and Gage's search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to both protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim...

So after my truly terrible experience with ‘Jackaby’, I was back to square one in my search for books like the ‘Lady Julia’ series by Deanna Raybourn. Until that is, I came across Angie’s review of ‘The Anatomist’sWife’ and without further ado I ordered it for the next day.

It is a very rare and utterly wonderful feeling to sink into a book and adore everything about it. To actually want to slow down your reading and savour the words. And then to discover that the book is the first in a series and there are several already published so you can continue to enjoy them at your leisure instead of the torturous wait of a year that new releases leave us with. ‘The Anatomist’s Wife’ gave me that feeling in spades. I haven’t felt so absorbed, captivated and enthralled by a book and savoured every page since I discovered ‘Silent in the Grave’ – and my love of that is well documented.

Everything about this book was perfection. I loved Kiera from the start. I loved her backstory that slowly came out – piece by terrible piece. I loved the setting, her family, the atmosphere of fear and terror that seeped into everything, and most of all I loved her tempestuous relationship with Gage. There are so many similarities with the ‘Lady Julia’ series, but not in a bad way, merely the time period, the subject matter and the intriguing and wonderful relationship between the heroine and the investigator involved.

The writing is sublime, the pacing wonderful and the slow climb of tension to the terrifying peak when all is revealed deftly handled. It is a quiet book, one that builds beautifully and is engaging and effecting. I loved that we were introduced to Kiera after the trauma and spectacle of her husbands death and the spectacle that followed. We find her at a point of exhaustion – everything is too much and beyond the capabilities of her recovering mind and spirit. And it was so wonderful to watch her come alive, to confront her past and her demons, to come to terms with it and be able to begin to heal, but also to be able to embrace what her past has taught her, and to begin to seize life again. And of course part of that was her relationship with Gage. I loved that she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him, she never succumbed to thinking he knew best – in fact to start with she is convinced that he has no real idea what he’s doing which was both amusing and brilliant to read. They are such a perfect pair and their friendship is tackled so wonderfully – another brilliant example of the slow burn and how effectively it can be utilised.

I cannot wait to read the rest of the series, one which is now a firm favourite based merely on this first book. I want to find out more about Kiera and see where her new found confidence and gumption takes her next, and of course, see her next meeting with the wonderful Mr Gage. This is a beautiful book, quiet, horrifying and at points genuinely terrifying. I savoured every page of it and cannot recommend it enough.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Review: Jackaby by William Ritter

“Miss Rook, I am not an occultist,” Jackaby said. “I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world’s a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain.”
Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby’s assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it’s an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it’s a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny.
Doctor Who meets 
Sherlock in William Ritter’s debut novel, which features a detective of the paranormal as seen through the eyes of his adventurous and intelligent assistant in a tale brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.

Oh Jackaby, you had so much promise and you really didn’t live up to it. But then, maybe I’m just a picky customer. Feeling decidedly in need of something close to Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series, Jackaby seemed like a pretty good bet. Mysteries! Deaths! Crime! Supernatural! Sleuthing! Victorian! Sherlock meets Dr Who? Oh yes please to all of the above!

So I dove straight in expecting to be blown away, but instead was mildly put out by the most ridiculous of things. Abigail Rook is supposed to be an English girl – admittedly she has been travelling for some time by the time the story begins, but still, she is a well bred English woman. So why does she insist on narrating and speaking with so many Americanisms? And not only that, but modern ones too? It was enough to make me weep with despair and my poor husband try and wrench the book from my hands. That one very idiotically simple thing virtually ruined the book for me. It put me in such a rubbishly grumpy frame of mind that enjoyment was pretty much squashed. Which is tragic because it could have been so very, very good.

There are so many brilliant ideas in this novel. Some were a bit of a stretch for me – the third floor was pushing my brain a little bit simply because I was expecting one type of book and was being given one that had more magic in than I was expecting. And as a result it could have been something brilliant. But the modern Americanisms in her thoughts and speech combined with a stupidly easy to spot murderer left me feeling more than a little disgruntled.

For fans of the supernatural and mysterious deaths with some wonderful fokelore and ideas woven in, this book is definitely worth a read, but be warned going in that if you are picky about English ladies speaking like English ladies, this book may well drive you up the wall.