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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wintersong - S. Jae-Jones

WintersongThis book enchanted me from the moment I read the description, about how a girl has heard stories of the Goblin King her entire life, and has savored them, but only half-believed until her sister is stolen away to be his bride.  Elisabeth, who has always dreamed of being a composer while her younger brother shines as a gifted violinist, is ready to sacrifice everything to save her sister: her music, her life, her freedom.  But maybe it's not such a sacrifice after all, because for once in her life, she feels wanted, desired, something that hasn't happened before.

Obviously, there are some parallels here to the cult film Labyrinth, starring the one, the only David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King.  The stealing of the sibling, the promise that the heroine and the sibling can be free if they can escape, the goblin ball, the peach.  There's clearly a lot of inspiration from the film here.  That said, this doesn't attempt to be a novelization of the film--though there is one of those, if you're interested.  Rather, Jae-Jones takes some of the most hypnotic elements from the movie and twists them and builds them into something completely different that is definitely an "inspired by" rather than an "adapted from."  And people draw inspiration from everywhere, so I have absolutely no problems with that.  There's also a pseudo-Persephone story here that was an element I really liked.  And the sacrificing of the Goblin King's name...that's a very nice trope, one I definitely favor, that made me want to love this book so badly.

Unfortunately, the romance here just didn't click for me.  One of the reasons that Elisabeth agrees to become the Goblin King's bride, in addition to saving her sister and presumably the world, is that he wants her.  And while that might have been true--the way he wants her but still tries to protect her seems to indicate that, certainly--I never really felt that Elisabeth truly wanted him.  She was attracted to him, yes, but I'm not sure she wanted him "entire," as they said so frequently.  What Elisabeth really wanted was to be wanted, and that was the main draw.  She wanted to be wanted in a distinctly sexual manner, because Elisabeth isn't pretty.  She's downright plain, something that's emphasized again and again, along with that her real beauty is on the inside.  But still, being physically desired is something new for her, and I think that was what she wanted, more than anything else.  And once she got it, once it was hers...she wanted to leave.  Which doesn't exactly ring as a fairy tale love for all time to me.

The end here was also a disappointment to me.  While some might feel that it suited the book, which was dark and dreary and I don't think really a "young adult" book at all, despite the heroine's age, I felt like there was a way to make this a true romance with a traditional "happily ever after" ending, but without going beyond the bounds of being realistic for the established universe.  There was a pattern of Goblin Kings being replaced, and a precedent of at least one leaving with his bride--so why couldn't it have come full circle?  It didn't have to perpetually solve the problem of the sacrifice to end winter, but for this particular pair it could have worked.  It sort of makes me wonder if Jae-Jones is planning a second book to possibly resolve some of this, though it doesn't look as if this has been announced as part of a duology or longer series.  Of course, it just came out a few weeks ago, so there's still time.

So, yes, there were enchanting elements to this book.  The premise, the music, the promise of romance, the looming threat of eternal winter...they all had so potential.  Unfortunately, I feel like the romance didn't fully develop on both sides and that the ending didn't suit the established book.  I'm all for bittersweet endings, as long as they fit--but this one didn't, and it marred the experience for me.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard (Red Queen #1)

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)Red Queen is one of those books that I really didn't have any intention of reading, except everyone was raving about it, so I shrugged and added myself to the library wait list.  Of course the loan came through at the worst time, at the beginning of a month when I started working on various other book club reads, but alas, the timing was it was, so I dug in.

Mare Barrows is a red-blooded commoner in a world ruled by silver-blooded elites who also possess strange powers, like the ability to manipulate water, or fire, or heal people, or shut down others' powers.  Mare's country of Norta is engaged in an ongoing war against the Lakelanders, and every Red who isn't employed when they turn eighteen is conscripted into the army.  Mare's three older brothers are in the war and Mare is resigned to being conscripted, too, though her younger sister has a job as a seamstress.  But when Mare's best friend loses his job when his boss dies, she becomes determined to steal enough money for the two of them to steal away...an act that only results in her younger sister's sewing hand being irreparably broken.  Desperate to repair the damage she's done to her family, Mare tries to steal as much as she can, but inadvertently steals from Norta's crown prince, who instead of punishing her gets her a job at the castle.  But when Mare accidentally falls into the middle of the Queenstrial, when eligible girls from Silver families show off their abilities in hope of winning the hand of one of the princes, it's revealed that she's not just a Red, though she bleeds like one--she has the never-before seen ability to create and manipulate lightning.

Mare ends up posing as a Silver princess, trying to balance her sense of self-preservation with a desire to help her people.  She joins a Red resistance with a hope for changing the status quo and tries to avoid the crown prince's bride, Evangeline, while dealing with her attraction to both the crown prince, Cal, and his younger brother and her supposed fiance, Maven.

I didn't really like this book.  It gets off to a very slow start, the world building is confused, and Mare is not a great heroine.  Much of the book is just Mare going from lesson to lesson and fretting about how everyone will find out she's a lie, and trying to hide her activities by turning of the security cameras that abound in the palace, like everyone else is completely stupid and won't figure out that all the cameras just happen to turn off whenever the girl who can control electricity is up to something.  For the world, it has a mix of magic and technology that could be intriguing, but doesn't really end up working.  Mare remarks a few times that they Silvers don't actually have amazing technology, that it's all manipulated by their abilities--but they have cars, and motorcycles, and apparently nuclear technology?  That doesn't seem like stuff that can be made with magic.  And what makes Silver blood silver, if the thing that causes their abilities isn't what does it?  Because Mare clearly has abilities, too, and her blood is very red.

The "commoner masquerading as a princess" trope is one that I would normally love, but I just couldn't like Mare.  While her loyalty to her family is admirable, she's told repeatedly of exactly what to watch out for, but she refuses to listen to anyone and so is completely blindsided when things don't turn out the way she expected.  And I really didn't like Kilorn, Mare's best friend, as a character, either.  He was just kind of a jerk.  And the supposed romance wasn't really here, either.  Despite Mare repeatedly saying how attracted she is to Cal or how much she cares for Maven, there doesn't appear to actually be anything there.  Maybe there's a tiny bit of something at the end, but it's clearly bound for another love triangle in the next book, and I'm not really sure I have the patience for that.

Overall, I'm not so sure what has people raving about this book.  Some of the supporting characters are interesting--Julian, for example--but while the end fight was cool and made me want to root for Mare, I don't think she's a strong enough central character to carry the series, not with her inability to see exactly what's in front of her face, and the promising world is just a flimsy skin over a logic-less void.  I can't really see myself picking up the other books in the near future, not with another 1600 more interesting books on my to-read list.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hunted - Meagan Spooner

HuntedI read the books Meagan Spooner wrote with Amie Kaufman, the These Broken Stars books, which I loved, and when I saw that she had a Beauty and the Beast retelling coming out, I was super excited.  I couldn't wait to see what Spooner would do on her own, and her Beauty sounded awesome: she's a huntress!  How cool.  So I snatched this up the day it came out.  Luckily I had the day off work, because I absolutely devoured this book.

The story follows Yeva, the youngest daughter of a wealthy merchant in medieval Russia.  When Yeva's father loses everything in a caravan that's attacked by the Mongols, he moves the family to his old hunting cabin.  Once a great hunter, he takes to the woods once again...but something is hunting him in return, and it begins to drive him crazy.  When he vanishes, Yeva, who used to hunt with her father, sets out in pursuit of him.

The family dynamics here are so wonderful.  Yeva has such a loving, supportive family.  They all care for each other and lift each other up, even when one person's interests might go directly against another's.  Positive relationships are so rare in fairy tales and young adult books, so seeing one here was a real treat.  But what was an even bigger treat is the main story itself.

It does take a while to get going; this isn't a fast book.  But the writing was beautiful, slowly drawing us into the Russian fantasy world that Yeva inhabits.  Yeva is called Beauty, just as her sisters were named for Grace and Light (though they all have given names as well) but she doesn't get everything she wants just because she's beautiful.  She wants more than her life in their town, desperately, and is actually relieved when they move to her father's hunting cabin, because she thinks she'll be happy if she can just return to hunting in the forest with him like she did when she was younger.  What she really wants is to find the mythic Firebird that her father told her stories of, but she'll settle for hunting.  But as she begins to hunt, working hard to regain skills she's lost, she stumbles into the problem of her father's vanishing--and then his evident death.  Catching and killing the Beast responsible for his death becomes the next thing Yeva wants, and the driving force in the story.  Even when she's the Beast's captive, her motivation is to stay long enough to find his weak spot and kill him, no matter what kindnesses are shown to her.

Minor spoilers here regarding the nature of the curse and the flaw at the center of the story.  There is one big central flaw in this story that I could find, and it has to do with the nature of the Beast's curse.  The Beast has been cursed by the Firebird and the curse can only be broken if the Firebird returns to him on its own.  There's a little twist here, of course, which I won't reveal, but if it's believed that the way to break the curse is to get the Firebird to come back voluntarily...then why would the Beast be trying to kill it?  *scratches head*  I don't think killing it really counts as it coming back voluntarily.

So, yes, there's a central flaw in the logic of the story.  Spooner kind of accommodates for this at the end of the book, where of course breaking the curse isn't what they thought it would be, but it definitely did mar the reading experience for me.  However, I still loved this book.  The slow build (though not a slow burn) and the way that Spooner parallels Yeva's and the Beast's stories was wonderful.  There's a very, very slight love triangle but it's not used in a typical sense, and there is no Disney Gaston here to serve as a central villain.  Really, there is no villain in this book, which I think actually is one of its strengths, because it means the characters are pitted against nature and against their own inner selves, which is a strong conflict to go with.  The overlaying of the fantasy world with the normal world also really worked here, as did Yeva's growing awareness of it.

So, this is not a perfect book.  But I loved it nonetheless, and I can definitely see myself reading it again in the future.  If you like fairy tale retellings, I would definitely recommend this one.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Dark Lover - J. R. Ward (Black Dagger Brotherhood #1)

Dark Lover (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #1)Vampires are not my thing.  They never have been.  But there's a category for a vampire romance in the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 reading challenge, so I perused the lists of vampire romances that people love, and Dark Lover basically topped them all.  And so off to the library I went.

This book is...interesting.  On one hand, the romance is mostly okay, so that's a plus.  On the other hand, everything else is so harebrained and way-out-there crazy that I couldn't help but giggle to myself the entire time I was reading this.  It starts on the very first page when the heroine's father, Darius, is trying to get one of his buddies to agree to help Beth (the heroine) through her upcoming change into a vampire, as she is unaware that she's half-vamp.  The buddy's name?  Wrath.  And there are more of them!  Tohrment.  Rhage.  Vishous.  Zsadist. These are really their names.  And of course they all dress in black leather and carry around an entire armory with them.  And they can teleport!  Yes.  It's true.  And they inhabit some vampire society in which females are kept out of sight, which is totally weird and very medieval.  Not cool.  And apparently vamps can only actually feed on each other for real nourishment, not humans?  But that doesn't make any sense.  (Yes, I'm talking about vampires making sense.)  Because then it's just kind of an endless circle of sucking on each others' wrists/necks/whatever, without any new nutrients actually entering the system?  How does that work?  So confusing.  So weird.  And Wrath is apparently blind but he never actually has any trouble seeing things except to cut up his meat at dinner(because vampires eat normal dinners, too).

But, as I mentioned, the romance is okay.  It's not great.  There are definitely still issues with it.  Like how Wrath is supposed to be the biggest, baddest vampire, but turns into a cuddly puppy as soon as Beth enters the picture.  And how Beth and Wrath fall in love pretty much the instant they lay eyes on each other, and instantly do the sexing.  Okay, I take it back, the romance wasn't really that good.  It had its moments, when the two of them were acting relatively normal, but the premise that their relationship is based on is just so weird that, the more that I think about it, the worse it seems in retrospect.  Like, Wrath was her dad's friend.  And he's like four hundred years old!  Why is it that beings that are centuries old are constantly falling in love with twenty-somethings?  That's just weird, y'all.  Talk about an age gap.  And Wrath acts like he's twenty-something, too, down to the way he dresses and talks, despite the fact that he's literally seen centuries go by.

Oh, and there's a subplot that revolves around a bunch of soulless and undead humans who study martial arts (yes, seriously) trying to kill all the vamps.  (Again--seriously.)

So, yeah. This book was hokey.  I enjoyed parts of it while actually reading it, but looking back on it, those parts are fading away fast, because the more I think about it the more outlandish and bizarre it all was, and I can't really say that it was good.  Overall, this reads like something a teenage goth would have written on Quizilla in the early 2000s, though this admittedly probably has better spelling and grammar and isn't written in the second person.  (Thank the stars for that.)

2 stars out of 5, and I feel like that might be me being generous.

A Kiss for Midwinter - Courtney Milan (Brothers Sinister #1.5)

A Kiss For Midwinter (Brothers Sinister, #1.5)Hallelujah, I have finished the category!  After having such a hard time finding a book that actually fit the "A Christmas romance" category for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 reading challenge (info here), I finally just went for this little novella by Courtney Milan.  I normally wouldn't use a novella to fulfill a category--full-length novels are much more my thing--but I was fed up of grabbing supposed Christmas romances and finding that they really were no such thing.  I figured I had done my due diligence in the novel department, and I really wanted to just move on.  That said, I knew I liked Courtney Milan, and I've heard from several people that her novellas are fire, so I figured it was a pretty safe bet.  And the description featured Christmas.  Heavily.

Which brings us to the story itself.  It starts with the hero, Jonas Grantham, silently watching as his elderly mentor examine a young woman who has been ruined and is now pregnant.  Jonas has doubts about the man's medical abilities, but has promised to stay silent--what he's really hoping to gain is the man's medical practice after he retires.  But he rather suspects that a concoction the man has prescribed for nausea is more likely a poison.  Between his doubts and his promise, though, he doesn't say anything, and leaves.

Fast forward ten years.  Jonas is now a doctor in his own right, and he's looking to marry someone, mainly so he can have a constant source of sex without risking disease.  To further his goals, he has compiled a list of the ten prettiest girls in town, hoping that one of them will agree to marry him.  But then there's Lydia Charingford, who would be number eleven on the list, and who also seems to--strangely--hate him.  Until he realizes that she's the girl he saw five years before, the one who was ruined, and she seems to think he's been judging her, making fun of her, and overall disliking her the entire time.  But Jonas doesn't dislike Lydia.  He likes her very much.  So he makes her a bet.  She'll go on three house calls to see patients with him, and if Lydia can't find a bright side to one of the situations, she'll have to kiss him.  If she can find the bright side--a specialty of hers--to all of them, then Jonas will have to never speak to her again.

This is a quick romance, being so closely focused around the Christmas season, but it's not an instant romance, which I liked.  Jonas' blunt honestly astonishes Lydia, but she's drawn to it, too, and appreciates that he gives her the truth.  And Jonas is in turn drawn not only to Lydia's looks, but also to her spirit, and he doesn't consider her to be "ruined" at all.  He's quite the burgeoning feminist, really, advocating (albeit on a small scale) for the sexual liberation of women.  And men.  Everyone.  Equality!  Huzzah.  It's a great little romance, and intertwined with it is Jonas' struggle with his father, who has failing health, some degree of dementia, and has also become something of a hoarder.  It's heartbreaking, but seeing Jonas' struggle and why he does it is so moving, and I think it added a nice dimension to this other than the main romance.

Overall, I was very happy with this.  I think it definitely could have been longer--seeing the romance drawn out more, and building up the subplots would have been nice--but it was a quick, enjoyable read.  One thing with short form in general is that the characters don't tend to develop much in and of themselves, though their relationships might, and I think that was a ding against it, but that was the only big thing.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Managed - Kristen Callihan (VIP #2)

Managed (VIP, #2)Now let me tell you, this is a properly-done slow burn romance!  I thought Mariana Zapata was queen of the slow burn, and she is excellent, but this blew Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me out of the water.  Absolutely awesome.

So, Managed is the second book in the VIP series, but it's one of those series where you don't really have to read the other books--they give you some context, but you don't really need them.  That said, I did like the first book, Idol so I'd say give it a shot.  In this second volume, our hero is the manager of the hit band Kill John, Gabriel Scott.  And our heroine is Sophie Darling, a social media specialist headed to London for a job interview.  Sophie ends up in first class, much to her surprise, and next to Gabriel--who's very not happy about it and very surly and very afraid of flying.  Sophie distracts him throughout the flight through blowjob jokes and forced snuggling, thinking that they'll never see each other again...except, of course, it turns out she's interviewing for a position with Kill John.  And she's the one behind some rather nasty pictures of the band's lead, Jax, getting out a few years ago.  It's awkward.

Sophie and Gabriel are attracted to each other right away, but Gabriel doesn't get involved with people in the band, and Sophie is also determined to remain just friends.  Except a mean case of jet lag ends up in them not being able to sleep without each other.  So she moves into Gabriel's bus.  And they sleep.  And the limits start getting pushed, and jealousies rise up, and it's all just so delicious.  Just like with Idol, I found the conflicts realistic (for the most part) and the characters both believable and empathetic.  And Gabriel is British which of course is awesome.  There did seem to be some conflicts with the first book, though, particularly regarding the backstory of the band and how they got together--the story here seems distinctly different from the one Killian presented in Idol.

Still, I absolutely loved this book.  I devoured it in one sitting and can't wait for the others--and there should be at least three more!  Yaaaas.

5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor - Lisa Kleypas (Friday Harbor #1)

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor (Friday Harbor, #1)I picked this up in another attempt to fulfill the "Christmas romance" category for a reading challenge I'm doing.  It didn't work.  This was a much better book than my first attempt for that category, Debbie Macomber's Starry Night, but that didn't come as a surprise; I knew going into it that Lisa Kleypas was guaranteed to have a better offering.  However, there were only about 500 words in this book that actually contributed to the Christmas season at all, with the rest of the book taking place from around March through Thanksgiving.

The story follows Mark Nolan, who gains custody of his six-year-old niece Holly when her mother dies in a car accident.  Mark and his brother do their best with Holly but she refuses to speak, until one day when Maggie, the owner of a new toy store in town, coaxes words out of her once again.  Maggie and Mark are immediately attracted to each other, but hold back from entering into anything more than a tentative friendship.  Mark is also involved in a relationship with a girlfriend who lives in Seattle (I think), which is one of the reasons they hold back.  Good for them; cheaters are terrible.

Though this is a short book, it's also a slow burn because of the long span of time the story takes place over.  As with her historical romances, Kleypas does a wonderful job of building the relationship between the two characters.  Their every meeting has a spark that just builds and builds, and it's delicious to watch.  Friday Harbor is also a wonderful setting, and Kleypas does an amazing job of bringing the Pacific Northwest to life to someone like myself who has never been there.  Friday Harbor is a small town on a small island, where everyone knows everyone, and Kleypas shows both the downfalls to this--like how everyone knows everyone else's business--and the up sides--like how supportive the people can be of each other.

Overall, this is a short book, but it was really well-done; I just wish it had been a bit more on point with the whole "Christmas Eve" thing it promised.  If you've read Kleypas' historical romances before but haven't ventured into her contemporary offerings, I think this would a good place to start because of its length--long enough to develop, but not too long of a commitment if it doesn't work out.

4 stars out of 5.