Review: The Harlot Countess by Joanna Shupe

Saturday, May 30, 2015
Title: The Harlot Countess
Author: Joanna Shupe
Genre: romance, historical
Series: Wicked Deceptions #2
Pages: 352
Published: April 28, 2015
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

Maggie, Lady Hawkins, had a debut she’d rather forget—along with her first marriage. Today, the political cartoonist is a new woman. A thoroughly modern woman. So much so that her clamoring public believes she’s a man…

FACT: Drawing under a male pseudonym, Maggie is known as Lemarc. Her (his!) favorite object of ridicule: Simon Barrett, Earl of Winchester. He’s a rising star in Parliament—and a former confidant and love interest of Maggie’s who believed a rumor that vexes her to this day.

FICTION: Maggie is the Half-Irish Harlot who seduced her best friend’s husband on the eve of their wedding. She is to be feared and loathed, as she will lift her skirts for anything in breeches.

Still crushed by Simon’s betrayal, Maggie has no intention of letting theton crush her as well. In fact, Lemarc’s cartoons have made Simon a laughingstock…but now it appears that Maggie may have been wrong about what happened years ago, and that Simon has been secretly yearning for her since…forever. Could it be that the heart is mightier than the pen and the sword after all?

Shupe's novels are compared to a lot of Regency fiction. I'm talking public sex, voyeurism, masturbation, doggy-style steam. Where a lot of authors seem to do three-four sex scenes in a book, Shupe's got that in the first quarter. I like the way she writes her scenes, too; a good balance that isn't too clinical or ridiculously purple. She avoids words that set my teeth on edge. (YMMV. I just can't take cleft or tummy in another romance. Please god.)

Maggie was your typical eighteen year old debutante, a bit impetuous from her half-Irish heritage, but proper and eager to make a match. Then she rebuffed her best friend's fiance and he set about a smear campaign that she's never lived down. Hastily married off to an old man who preferred his mistress right up until the day he died, Maggie found ruination gave her freedom to explore art and help less fortunate women. Now back in London, she throws lavish, bacchanalian parties to disguise her greatest secret: she is the political cartoonist Lemarc.

Lemarc's favorite target is Lord Winejester, er Winchester, Maggie's former suitor who turned his back on her after Cranford's lies. Those who read The Courtesan Duchess will remember Lord Winchester as Simon, Julia's greatest friend and ally. And that's where I start to lose the book.

Simon in book one is not the same character in book two. No time has passed. Nothing has happened. Just in one book he's a supportive, loving friend with a mischievous side and in the next, he's a strictly regimented, pompous ass. This jewel of Parliament would never have taken Julia to Venice. This man schedules his visits to his mistress! It's like a totally different person. He and Julia are friendly, but there's no warmth. She's much more Maggie's friend, despite just meeting her 50 pages into the book.

The big mis stretched on a bit long, especially with addition of the last minute mystery. They could have made up sooner and given the blackmail more time, which might have given the reveal more shock or tension. As it was, the climax happened too fast. There was a secondary story set up involving a brothel, Pearl's return, and the link between Maggie, Julia, and the third book's heroine, but it's left entirely open for the last book. I didn't really appreciate that, since I did find the book a bit too long.

Despite those reservations, I liked Maggie and Simon. I'm at the point in my reading life where I just DNF romances where the H/h don't have chemistry, and these do. The frigging scene really cemented that for me. I liked the book, the revenge plot, the parties, and that again, Shupe moved the story out of London and onto the continent. It's not perfect, but a series to check out.

Book Tour Review: Love Is Red by Sophie Jaff

Thursday, May 28, 2015
Title: Love Is Red
Author: Sophie Jaff
Genre: thriller, mystery, supernatural
Series: Nightsong Trilogy #1
Pages: 384
Published: May 12 2015
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 2.5/5

This electrifying, addictive, and hypnotically beautiful debut spins suspense and literary fantasy into a stunning epic—the first volume in the Night Song Trilogy—ablaze with fear, mystery, and possibility.

Katherine Emerson was born to fulfill a dark prophecy centuries in the making, but she isn’t aware that this future awaits. However, there is one man who knows the truth: A killer stalking the women of New York, a monster the media dubs the “Sickle Man” because of the way he turns his victims into canvasses for his mesmerizing, twisted art.

Unleashed upon Manhattan after lying dormant for centuries, the Sickle Man kills to harvest the precious hues of his victims. As his palette grows, so too does his power. Every death brings him closer to the one color, and the one woman, he must possess at any cost.

While the city hunts the Sickle Man, Katherine must decide what to do about two men who have unexpectedly entered her life: handsome and personable David, and alluring yet aloof Sael. Though she’s becoming increasingly torn between them, how well does she really know them? And why is she suddenly plagued by disturbing visions?

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Katherine and the Sickle Man, Love Is Red is a riveting thriller that unfolds into an intense story of obsession and control, desire and fate. Katherine may not realize it yet, but with this haunting novel—as arrestingly original as Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, and Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls—her moment of awakening is here. And soon she will find herself fighting a battle at the edges of our world, among forces more dangerous than we can possibly imagine.

For me, supernatural thrillers live or die based on a few things: how well-developed the paranormal is within the storyline and the mundane aspects, how obvious or non-obvious the killer is to the audience, how developed the characters are, and how strong the writing is. Love Is Red did a number of things really right for me over the course of those almost 400-pages: the writing occasionally is strong, the mystery killer really is a mystery. But while I enjoyed some of the book, on the whole, I was rather whelmed by it on the whole.

Sophie Jaff is a good writer, and also a creative one. Her unique style and voice lends really well to vivid imagery and creating a lasting impression, as shown here in her debut novel. Her killer-at-large is particularly eloquent at times, using language inventively and almost like an example of synesthesia. While the entire novel wasn't a favorite for me, I did like how the author used language for her characters. It definitely made for a memorable reading experience. There were a few genuinely creepy and unsettling moments in Love Is Red, when Jaff's writing was just perfect and evocative.

I needed more substance for the worldbuilding/supernatural to solidify into something believable for me. The reader is introduced to characters and a story that all seem mundane, but also contains hints to, and finally is revealed to be, supernatural. However, there are a lot of terms and background agendas at work to which the reader is not privy. There's no real explanation or reveal about why all this happens or even what the point is. It's just too open-ended to work for me. I needed more foundation and detail than the novel provided so in the end, it didn't satisfy me when the big finale came around.

The first in a trilogy and a debut besides, Love is Red is being marketed pretty smartly. It is a good fit for fans of Lauren Beukes. Fans of the weird and the creepy will find another author to read with Sophie Jaff and Love is Red. If you're more open-minded about open-endedness and worldbuilding, I can see this being a genuine hit for that audience. 

About Sophie Jeff

Sophie JaffA native of South Africa, Sophie Jaff is an alumna of the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and a fellow of the Dramatists Guild of America. Her work has been performed at Symphony Space, Lincoln Center, the Duplex, the Gershwin, and Goodspeed Musicals. She lives in New York City.

Find out more about Sophie at her website and connect with her on Facebook.




Sophie’s Tour Stops

Monday, May 11th: My Bookish Ways

Tuesday, May 12th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Wednesday, May 13th: A Bookish Way of Life

Thursday, May 14th: Spiced Latte Reads

Friday, May 15th: Kahakai Kitchen

Wednesday, May 20th: Doing Dewey
Monday, May 25th: Booksie’s Blog

Tuesday, May 26th: Ms. Nose in a Book

Wednesday, May 27th: From the TBR Pile

Thursday, May 28th: Ageless Pages Reviews

Tuesday, June 2nd: Jenny Waldo

Wednesday, June 3rd: My Shelf Confessions

Thursday, June 4th: A Dream Within a Dream

Monday, June 8th: In Bed with Books

Review: Gabby Duran and the Unsittables by Elise Allen

Title: Gabby Duran and the Unsittables
Author: Elise Allen
Genre: middle grade, sci-fi
Series: none
Pages: 208
Published: May 12th, 2015
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

Case File: The First Unsittable

Summary: The Association Linking Intergalatics and Earthlings (hereby known as A.L.I.E.N.) has a new member. After months of investigation, Gabby Duran, Associate 4118-25125A, has proven herself to be a babysitter extraordinaire. Her celebrity clients fly her around the country to care for their rambunctious little humans. Our spy, Associate 4118-23432B, otherwise known as Edwina, believes Gabby can be trusted with the truth: aliens are living among humans on Earth. And here at A.L.I.E.N we believe that even extraterrestrials need a babysitter now and then. No one was up to the task until now.

After accepting the top-secret position, Edwina has paired our new associate up with her first charge, a little girl from the planet Flarknartia. The timing for associate 4118-25125A is less than ideal. It's a school day on Planet Earth, Gabby's audition for the solo part in the band is tonight, and this tiny alien is a bit more than meets the eye.

Can Gabby Duran, Associate 4118-25125A, First Sitter to the Unsittables, keep her otherworldly charge safe in the unpredictable halls of middle-school and keep A.L.I.E.N hidden?

A pretty cute and satisfying MG, though not one you can put a lot of thought into.

Gabby Duran is a twelve year old supersitter. She's in demand around the world, flying to movie sets to watch action stars' triplets and such. Since her dad's death in the Army, her mom's catering company isn't quite enough to pay the bills, (which her genius younger sister handles, along with all the books and scheduling for two businesses,) so Gabby's shouldering a lot of responsibility. When a mysterious woman in a black limousine offers her a ten minute sitting job at four times her usual rates, Gabby sees an opportunity to not only help the family, but save for her dream, a prestigious music college.

Edwina introduces Gabby to Philip, his parents, and their talking cat. Despite a rough start, the job is a total success and Gabby is inducted into A.L.I.E.N. as the official Sitter to the Unsittables. Aliens are among us and they really need a date night without their slugspawn.

First, Gabby says her charges have known her since they were infants. They're four. Who is letting eight year olds babysit? Who is letting twelve year olds fly across the country to babysit? The Babysitters Club wouldn't let anyone under eleven in, and then only as junior members who needed supervision. This is ridiculous. Someone call a child labor lawyer STAT.

Gabby's a great sitter though. She really loves the kids and engages them with a way that's charming to see. The main plot unfurls when she's forced to watch a shapechanging alien named Wutt while at school. (Are pre-teens in 2015 really going to get the Abbot and Costello joke when we meet Wutt's parents Hoo and Ayedunno? I did chuckle.) Gabby consistently puts Wutt's needs first, tries to be entertaining but educational, and really cares about her charge. When an anti-alien group, G.E.T.O.U.T. shows up and everything goes pear shaped, Gabby never complains. In fact, that's kind of my problem. Gabby's too perfect and adapts too quickly. I wanted to see her get a little more ruffled. She also keeps the existence of aliens a secret for less than 24 hours, which is why we don't entrust that knowledge to pre-teens.

On the moral side, there's a good lesson about appearances being deceiving. Content wise, it's absolutely ok for younger MGers, probably even reaching down to the 7-8 range. (Two brief references to dad dying in the army and one mildly scary chase scene where the heroines roll into a ditch.) In all, a cute couple of hours, but not a book I'll keep on my shelves, as my 11 year old nieces are probably already too old for it.

DNF Review: Still Waters by Emma Carlson Berne

Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Title: Still Waters
Genre: young-adult, supernatural fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 212 (ARC edition)
Published: December 2011
Source: publishers for review
Rating: N/A

Hannah can't wait to sneak off for a romantic weekend with her boyfriend, Colin. He's leaving for college soon, and Hannah wants their trip to the lake house to be one they'll never forget. 

But once Hannah and Colin get there, things start to seem a They can't find the town on any map. The house they are staying in looks as if someone's been living there, even though it's been deserted for years. And Colin doesn't seem quite himself. As he grows more unstable, Hannah worries about Colin's dark side, and her own safety.

Nothing is as perfect as it seems, and what lies beneath may haunt her forever.

I'm a person that likes finality, that craves it in all things. That kind of person that likes having all the answers and knowing exactly what lead up to those final conclusions. I mean, I used to peek at the final page of every book I bought I still totally do this just to glance at who might survive, scared to get attached to doomed characters.

For these reasons, I don't like to give up on books. For a looong time, I hardly ever ever did. I'm talking like maybe four out of hundreds in the last four years. I'd endure past recycled plotlines, push through just-plain-bad dialogue, obvious machinations and plotpoints, shoddy writing, just because "Hey, it might get better before the end. You never know." And that's true, it really could get better - but it totally doesn't. As it turns out, books that start off bad or bland or boring, those are the kind of books hardly ever actually get better, and then you're left with x amount of wasted time and a lot of excess frustration.

Last year, I got better at pruning through my TBR piles and what I had to read. I DNFd'd more books last year than I ever have in a single year before (12 out of 213), and I am growing ever more discerning here in 2012. So when I found myself struggling with reading Still Waters, thinking constantly to myself, "Just hang in. This could get better. It could get off this generic beaten path. Only [x] pages to go to FREEEDOM!" but, then, I realized, I don't have to finish this book. There is nothing compelling me to read it: not the plot, the characters, nothing. So after 152 pages, I called it quits.

No doubt some will love this book. I bet they'd also really enjoy Spellbound a book I DNF'd last year - as both are generic, young-adult thrillers, with vague paranormal framing, and are utterly, utterly unoriginal. Not for me, but no rating because hey, maybe after 150 pages, it really does get better.

But I doubt it.

Review: The Courtesan Duchess by Joanna Shupe

Tuesday, May 26, 2015
Title: The Courtesan Duchess
Author: Joanna Shupe
Genre: romance, historical
Series: Wicked Deceptions #1
Pages: 352
Published: March 31, 2015
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

Can a bold-faced lie lead to everlasting love? One by one, the impetuous heroines in the Wicked Deceptions series intend to find out, each in her unique way. . .

How to seduce an estranged husband--and banish debt!--in four wickedly improper, shockingly pleasurable steps...

1. Learn the most intimate secrets of London's leading courtesan.

2. Pretend to be a courtesan yourself, using the name Juliet Leighton.

3. Travel to Venice and locate said husband.

4. Seduce husband, conceive an heir, and voila, your future is secure!

For Julia, the Duchess of Colton, such a ruse promises to be foolproof. After all, her husband has not bothered to lay eyes on her in eight years, since their hasty wedding day when she was only sixteen. But what begins as a tempestuous flirtation escalates into full-blown passion--and the feeling is mutual! Could the man the Courtesan Duchess married actually turn out to be the love of her life?

The first half of Shupe's novel is steamy and intriguing, with great chemistry and a different locale than usual. Which is why the second half was pretty disappointing.

Julia is a duchess only in name. Her husband left for the continent without consummating their marriage, leaving her alone with her scheming new in-laws. Over the last eight years, they've removed her from her rightful home, slashed her allowance to a pittance, and propositioned her like a whore. The only way to make things right is to produce an heir by Nick, the estranged duke. How does one do that from 1,000 miles away? By hiring the most expensive courtesan to train you in the womanly arts, of course.

Nick's an unwanted second son with a dark family secret. He's entered self-imposed exile after his brother's death rather than take his family's abuse. Unable to accept their money, he plays the "Depraved Duke", gambling his way across Europe.

The book opens with a lady of ill-repute fingerbanging herself on Nick's lap, bringing, (strongly,) to light that this is not a sweet romance. Which is good, because the book works best as a seduction. "Juliette"'s flirting is excellent and I found her and Nick's relationship to progress very naturally. In Venice, the sex scenes are varied and well written. There's a good deal of focus on mutual pleasure with foreplay, oral, and manual stimulation. The dreaded hymen issue does come up, which I found kind of odd as both Julia's mentor and her maiden aunt advised her that ladies her age probably didn't have one. (Horseback riding. It's a killer.) So when it becomes soooooo important to the big mis, I just wanted to roll my eyes. At least the author didn't confuse it for the cervix.

Unfortunately, I just didn't like the book once it returned to England. Nick is cruel, running hot and cold. While I don't blame him, it went on too long for my taste. Suspecting her motives might have been to hide infidelity, Julia is shipped off to a country estate until a birth date can prove who the father is. From there, the plot is pretty standard. They hate each other, but they come together because of an injury/illness. The hero realizes he's been a dunderhead and tries to woo the heroine from scratch. Big mis, kidnapping, etc.

I'm not unhappy with The Courtesan Duchess, and I will be continuing the series, I just with it had finished stronger.

Boldly Bookish Tour & Giveaway: Lion Heart by A.C. Gaughen

Monday, May 25, 2015

I am so so thrilled to be a part of this tour. For my stop, I got lucky enough to ask A.C. Gaughen (!!!) about her popular Robin Hood retelling series. I am a huge fan of the series and even if I haven't quite totally recovered from the end of Lady Thief, I cannot wait to see what happens next in this imaginative take on the story.  

 Lion Heart by A.C. Gaughen

The eagerly-awaited conclusion to the Scarlet trilogy delivers another action-packed and romance-filled adventure.

Scarlet has captured the hearts of readers as well as the heart of Robin Hood, and after ceaseless obstacles and countless threats, readers will finally find out the fate of the Lady Thief.

Imprisoned by Prince John for months, Scarlet finds herself a long way from Nottinghamshire. After a daring escape from the Prince's clutches, she learns that King Richard’s life is in jeopardy, and Eleanor of

Aquitaine demands a service Scarlet can’t refuse: spy for her and help bring Richard home safe. But fate—and her heart—won’t allow her to stay away from Nottinghamshire for long, and together, Scarlet and Rob must stop Prince John from going through with his dark plans for England. They can not rest until he’s stopped, but will their love be enough to save them once and for all?

Lion Heart is the last of the trilogy and I wanted to know what was A.C. Gaughen's favorite aspect of adapting such a well-known tale. How did she make it her own? What was the hardest part of reinventing Robin Hood? Her thoughtful and thought-provoking response:

People come into the Robin Hood myth with a lot of expectations!  Everyone thinks they know the story, and that can be totally amazing, but a little damning too.   I actually think this was something I gravitated to really early on—if you look at the first words of Scarlet, where she is walking through the inn and thinking that people never really see her, it’s setting up a theme of the real vs. the perceived.  Scarlet is very much a character that is carefully sliding her feet along that line, bringing a new story to the forefront but also operating within an existing legend. 

This is something that I really toyed with throughout the series.  There are many familiar characters, from the band to Tuck, to Gisbourne and Allan a Dale.  There are tropes or scenes that people recognize, like the archery contest in Lady Thief, or the collection of taxes in Scarlet, or the ongoing struggles with the Sheriff and authority figures. 

But the series also balances a lot of my love of history.  The traditional characters of the legend are supplemented with historical figures, from Eleanor of Aquitaine (WHY is she so rarely associated with Robin Hood??!) to Isabel (Prince John’s wife is so rarely named or mentioned!), and the third book is much more replete with historical figures like Essex and Winchester. 

Probably most importantly, though, who Scarlet represents as a character was super important to me—I really love the idea that there are hidden stories that haven’t been told, because someone in history didn’t get to write their own narrative.  Scarlet is meant to be a character that picks up on historical possibility and also plays into the legend—why is Will Scarlet always portrayed as smaller, or fast but small, or grumpy and keeping to himself?—and fills in a missing space between history and legend.  Which is all to say that I know many readers come into the story with their own expectations and thoughts about Robin Hood, and some of that I am gleefully playing into—I love this story, every single time it’s retold.  But some of that I’m also deliberately challenging, and I know it’s uncomfortable for some readers because it doesn’t always jive with what they believe is the “canon”. 

Ultimately, I made this story my own in the same way that every book belongs to the author who wrote it—I wrote the story only I could tell, in the only way that felt right to tell it.  And hopefully fans will love Lion Heart just as much as I do!

I've personally always been drawn to Robin Hood stories and seeing such a great interpretation of it -- with a female character besides Marian! -- is rewarding, and with this author, a wild ride. Thank you so much A.C. Gaughen and Bloomsbury for this chance to delve a little deeper into a favorite series.

A. C. GAUGHEN is the author of Scarlet and Lady Thief. She serves as the Director of Girls’ Leadership for the non-profit Boston GLOW, creating opportunities to encourage and engage teen girls in the Greater Boston area. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland and a Masters in Education from Harvard University.

Visit A. C. online at and on Twitter at @acgaughen.

Also thanks to Bloomsbury --- a giveaway! The winner will get their choice of any of the four books featured on this tour: The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller, Lion Heart by A.C. Gaughen, and Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt. This giveaway is US ONLY and entrants must be 13 years or older to enter.

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Review: Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger

Sunday, May 24, 2015
Title: Waistcoats & Weaponry
Author: Gail Carriger
Genre: fantasy, steampunk
Series: Finishing School #3
Pages: 298
Published: November 4, 2014
Source: Purchased
Rating: 4 out of 5

Class is back in session....

Sophronia continues her second year at finishing school in style--with a steel-bladed fan secreted in the folds of her ball gown, of course. Such a fashionable choice of weapon comes in handy when Sophronia, her best friend Dimity, sweet sootie Soap, and the charming Lord Felix Mersey hijack a suspiciously empty train to return their chum Sidheag to her werewolf pack in Scotland. But when Sophronia discovers they are being trailed by a dirigible of Picklemen and flywaymen, she unearths a plot that threatens to throw all of London into chaos. With her friends in mortal danger, Sophronia must sacrifice what she holds most dear--her freedom.

You know it’s a Gail Carriger book when you read about fighting on top of a train, werewolf bites, and lovers’ betrayal and think, “is that it?”

Don’t get me wrong, Waistcoats and Weaponry is still funny, exciting, and full of charm, it just feels a little muted compared to the werewolf attack, Hive infiltration, snapping tethers of Curtsies & Conspiracies.

My biggest problem is the setting. Where Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality is a small space, Carriger always makes it feel mysterious and rife for exploration. Too much of this book takes place off school grounds and aboard an empty train. The conflict revolves too much around Soap and Felix sniping at each other and not enough about the Vampires vs. Picklemen, Round 2.

My second biggest problem is that in an effort to set up the Parasol Protectorate books, the cast of secondary characters is rapidly dwindling. This book needs Vieve, but she’s off at Bunson’s learning to be the evil scientist Alexia knows and loves. Sidheag is on her way back to Scotland to set up the events of Changeless. I love Dimity, but she can’t carry a whole adventure. And now with the love triangle more or less resolved, I have no idea who’s left for the last book.

The wit and humor are still there, evidenced by lines like, “Felix ran his hands through his dark hair, sounding like a resigned maiden aunt. ‘It’ll all end in tears and coal dust, you see if it doesn’t.’,” so I do still recommend continuing the series. The end was still a gut punch, and Sophronia’s new loyalties certainly set new plots in motion. It’s just all become a bit expected.

“Sophronia nodded, decision made. ‘Good. I think we should steal this train.’
Possibly as a result of being restless, possibly because they were accustomed to her outrageous ideas, there was no outcry at such a bold statement. Sophronia was a little disappointed.”

Me too, Sophronia.

Two Minute Review: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

Friday, May 22, 2015
Title: None of the Above
Author: I.W. Gregorio
Genre: contemporary
Series: none
Pages: 352
Published: April 7th, 2015
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Rating: 4 out of 5

A groundbreaking story about a teenage girl who discovers she was born intersex... and what happens when her secret is revealed to the entire school. Incredibly compelling and sensitively told, None of the Above is a thought-provoking novel that explores what it means to be a boy, a girl, or something in between.

What if everything you knew about yourself changed in an instant?

When Kristin Lattimer is voted homecoming queen, it seems like another piece of her ideal life has fallen into place. She's a champion hurdler with a full scholarship to college and she's madly in love with her boyfriend. In fact, she's decided that she's ready to take things to the next level with him.

But Kristin's first time isn't the perfect moment she's planned—something is very wrong. A visit to the doctor reveals the truth: Kristin is intersex, which means that though she outwardly looks like a girl, she has male chromosomes, not to mention boy "parts."

Dealing with her body is difficult enough, but when her diagnosis is leaked to the whole school, Kristin's entire identity is thrown into question. As her world unravels, can she come to terms with her new self?

There aren’t enough books with LGBT main characters, much less the less well known I for intersex. So when I heard debut author I.W. Gregorio was not only writing one, but writing from their perspective as a Yale school of medicine graduate? I could have done a jig. I feel Gregorio handles a difficult subject with aplomb, though as I’m not intersex it’s not really my opinion that matters.

Gregorio has built a realistic world where people don’t react well to the sudden announcement that their homecoming queen and star runner has testicles. This does include slurs against both trans and intersex people. The language is never condoning and the author’s note at the end gives a very fair explanation as to why the author felt the language was necessary, but I know these words are still deal breakers to some.

And yet, I didn’t feel enough conflict in the story. There are bullies and some misunderstandings between friends, but I didn’t feel any real threat or urgency to explain Kristin’s extended absence. The end does have a violent, sexual assault-y climax, but it’s written in the same laissez-faire style where I couldn’t believe anything bad would actually happen. In the end, the character actually has a great, diverse support system, which is what we want in real life but makes for a less impactful read.

Book Tour Review: Under the Same Blue Sky by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Monday, May 18, 2015
Title: Under the Same Blue Sky
Author: Pamela Schoenewaldt
Genre: historical fiction, general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 352
Published: May 5th 2015
Source: TLC Book Tours for review
Rating: 4/5

From the USA Today bestselling author of When We Were Strangers and Swimming in the Moon comes a lush, exquisitely drawn novel set against the turmoil of the Great War, as a young German-American woman explores the secrets of her past.

A shopkeeper's daughter, Hazel Renner lives in the shadows of the Pittsburgh steel mills. She dreams of adventure, even as her immigrant parents push her toward a staid career. But in 1914, war seizes Europe and all their ambitions crumble. German-Americans are suddenly the enemy, "the Huns." Hazel herself is an outsider in her own home when she learns the truth of her birth.

Desperate for escape, Hazel takes a teaching job in a seemingly tranquil farming community. But the idyll is cracked when she acquires a mysterious healing power--a gift that becomes a curse as the locals' relentless demand for "miracles" leads to tragedy.

Hazel, determined to find answers, traces her own history back to a modern-day castle that could hold the truth about her past. There Hazel befriends the exiled, enigmatic German baron and forges a bond with the young gardener, Tom. But as America is shattered by war and Tom returns battered by shell-shock, Hazel's healing talents alone will not be enough to protect those close to her, or to safeguard her dreams of love and belonging. She must reach inside to discover that sometimes the truth is not so far away, that the simplest of things can lead to the extraordinary.

Filled with rich historical details and intriguing, fully realized characters, Under the Same Blue Sky is the captivating story of one woman's emergence into adulthood amid the tumult of war.

Thoughtful and contemplative are two apt descriptors for Pamela Schoenewaldt's newest historical fiction novel, Under the Same Blue Sky. This is largely the story of Hazel Renner, a first-generation American-born German, and takes place before, during, and after WWI. Hazel grows up with the worldwide tension and the tumult, felt all the way from Europe to her homes in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the US.

Hazel and her family are "hyphenated Americans," meaning that they are immigrants or directly descended from someone who was. Like other minority and hyphenated groups such Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Native Americans, etc, whom have experienced bigotry and xenophobia in this country, the German émigrés in New York during this time were exposed to harsh prejudice and ill-conceived judgments. Suspicion against "Huns" and "Krauts" are leveled against Hazel and her family due to propaganda and news, and Schoenewaldt shows how that unrelenting rhetoric looks and feels from the other side. This a constant pressure exerts itself on various characters in several affecting and emotional ways.

Under the Same Blue Sky is a solid novel, where characterization is subtle but felt and plot is minimal. For the most part, it's a thoughtful and introspective look at WWI from an unexplored and unlikely point of view. When it concerns itself with those aspects of the plot and storytelling, this worked really well as a novel. With the introduction of Hazel's "gift", I felt the seams of the story start to fray. This is possibly due to how open-ended the author leaves the interpretation of that element. Is this a magical realism novel? Was it a placebo effect?

A strong introduction to this author, Under the Same Blue Sky was a satisfying historical read that left me curious about the author's other works. Hazel's story and perspective feel fresh and new; focusing on WWI rather than WWII was also a smart maneuver that served to keep this book and characters both original and memorable.

Discussion Review: Black Iris by Leah Raeder

Friday, May 15, 2015
Title: Black Iris
Author: Leah Raeder
Genre: new adult, romance, thriller
Series: N/A
Pages: 368
Published: April 28th
Source: publishers via NetGalley

It only took one moment of weakness for Laney Keating’s world to fall apart. One stupid gesture for a hopeless crush. Then the rumors began. Slut, they called her. Queer. Psycho. Mentally ill, messed up, so messed up even her own mother decided she wasn't worth sticking around for.

If Laney could erase that whole year, she would. College is her chance to start with a clean slate.

She's not looking for new friends, but they find her: charming, handsome Armin, the only guy patient enough to work through her thorny defenses—and fiery, filterless Blythe, the bad girl and partner in crime who has thorns of her own.

But Laney knows nothing good ever lasts. When a ghost from her past resurfaces—the bully who broke her down completely—she decides it's time to live up to her own legend. And Armin and Blythe are going to help.

Which was the plan all along.

Because the rumors are true. Every single one. And Laney is going to show them just how true.

She's going to show them all.

Joining me are Lyn and Kara from Great Imaginations!

Lyn: I have to admit, this is my first New Adult novel, and I have been very excited to read this author’s writing.  Everyone gushes over her style, and I can see why it is a big hit.  Is this anyone else’s first NA novel?

Jessie: This was my first official NA read! I pretty much have refused to recognize NA as a label or a genre or anything. Buuuuut… it’s Leah Raeder. She has built a strong fanbase and I do love pretty prose…

Kara: Definitely not my first. I mostly edit NA novels and Karina Halle writes a lot of NA and I read those as well. I mean, I work for her, but I would read those if I didn’t because I love her work. Outside of that, not really. I don’t read much NA romance, but I have a feeling Black Iris isn’t categorically like most of that either.

Lyn: So things came as a shock to me when I read this.  I screwed up and thought this was YA, because I’m illiterate or something. Anyways, I am no longer a NA virgin.

Jessie: I have to say that I was interested in this book due to the writing. The plot wasn’t that alluring to me as a reader, but even seeing Leah Raeder quotes on Goodreads was enough to convince I wanted to read this. I was right; the writing is gorgeous and the highpoint of the novel for me.

Kara: I liked MOST of the writing. It was definitely pretty, but there were places where it got a bit weird for me. Why did she keep saying “skull” when she meant “head?” Little odd things like that yanked me out of the narrative. But yes, it was poetic and beautiful and atmospheric, so I definitely see where you are coming from there.

Lyn: The writing was my favorite part. I enjoy an author who can put a twist on her words and her theme. This is a novel that would make for a great study for showing instead of telling.  Kara, I think she kept using skull for head to show that things were deeper than outward appearances, and dealt more with what was lying underneath.

Kara: No, I understand that she had a reason for this, but it was a stylistic choice that didn’t work for me. I liked most of it, but it got a bit purple in places. Which is really weird for me because I generally LOVE super thick writing that describes everything. IDK.

Jessie: I should specify – I loved the writing when it wasn’t about the romances/love interests. When Laney is just thinking or planning or existing, the writing is gorgeous. When she describes Laney’s various attractions, I get bored. I can only take so many descriptions about Armin or Blythe.

Lyn: I have to agree with Jessie on the writing portion.  When it was outside the beat-you-over-the-head romance, it really worked, and worked well. It was like candy. But when it returned back to the too in-depth intimacy, it was very tedious.

Kara: Speaking of Armin and Blythe, what did you guys think about the characters? This is where I suspect the conversation will get interesting. As a surprise to no one, I am sure, I LOVED Blythe. I am guessing lots of other readers hated her, but not me. Why? Because I basically am her. At least I once was. How did you guys feel?

Jessie: I loved her as a character and liked her as a person. I loved what she did to the plot, to Laney, etc, and I loved how complex and unconventional Blythe was. She wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t easily defined, and she wasn’t even all that nice, but she felt so real. That’s my real complaint about the remaining characters. Blythe feels so real, so realized, and then Laney comes across… overwrought and overdone, and Armin feels shallow.

Lyn: Character wise: yes, you guys, I freaking LOVED Blythe. For me, I wish I was more like her. I admired her devil may care attitude and her intensity. There was nothing held back. She didn’t hold herself to someone else’s standards. By Odin, she flat out states that a slut is a girl who likes sex, and cuts through the chorus of bullcrap all around her, the sexism, the anger, the lies, all of it. She was amazing.

Kara: Agreed. She was just so out there and so real, and so confident in who she was, I think. But also, she had no filter and just stated whatever the hell she felt, whenever she felt it. Laney, on the other hand, I didn’t much care for at all. I kept trying to pinpoint WHY that was and I think you might have nailed it, Jessie. There was just so much going on with her that I could never stick with her for long. Her personality was all over the place, and yeah, maybe she was overwritten. To me, Armin was a non-entity. I am having trouble remembering portions of the book and he is one of them. He’s completely unmemorable and generic.

Jessie: He’s the background noise to Blythe’s rock and roll. He’s overwhelmed by both the plot and the other characters because his whole function is that of “boy.” While I love the center stage for two such disparate women, Raeder never really develops Armin into more than a list of virtues and a few vices. He doesn’t breathe life the way Blythe does, and so he fades into a set piece instead of a main character.

Lyn: I really thought I was the only one who couldn’t stand Armin. My biggest issue with him was his broken record lines: “Trust me, trust me, trust me.” “I’m in love I’m in love I’m in love.” “Let me buy your affection.” He was such a terrible attempt at a white knight, and he drug down the storyline. He was a prop: the ATM, the doctor, the head shrink, and next to all of the women, including his sister, he was a whiny, sniveling cardboard cut out. Yes, he was overshadowed, and I understand it was on purpose, but I never found anything redeeming about him.

Kara: Yeah, agreed. He was completely cardboard, and a device to move the plot along. To me, this was a bit unfair to his character on the author’s part. I loved all the strong female characters, and I wish the same attention would have been paid to Armin. Make him horrible, make him shallow, I don’t care, but give me a fully fleshed-out character. He was so BLAH.

Jessie: Boring, Thy Name is Armin. (How you manage to be so in a diverse revenge novel I do not know)

Lyn: Yes, just so flat. Even Zoller had a personality. I just gave me a taste that the writer didn’t know what to do with him until he was needed.

Jessie: Petition that we pretend Armin was really Hiyam all along?
Lyn: Yes, please.

Jessie: What about plot, guys? I admit, I wasn’t impressed for much of the novel. It’s got a new angle with Laney, but this revenge plot is pretty formulaic. That said, Raeder does get pretty creative with it. That twist? I further admit I wasn’t fully prepared for the reveal that came after or the eventual fallout. That did a lot to renew my interest in the last parts of the novel. I wasn’t sold on eeeevery part of the final twist, though. Part of it seemed to come out of nowhere and just serve to make the finale less believable.

Lyn: The plot. This is going to be such a tangled web. Like the rest of the book, I either loved it or hated it. I thought that the plot, the twists, the intentions – all of it was way too clunky. It needed to stick to a love triangle, a mystery, or a slow reveal on the backstory. It was all just too much for me. Maybe I am a black sheep here, but I was so ready to give up when the big shocker came. I sat there, thinking, “Are you freaking kidding me?? Where did THIS come from?” It was too much on the twists for my tastes. And don’t even get me started on the ending of this one. Not impressed.

Kara: It was just too much for me, guys. I loved the writing, I loved the characters, but there was just simply too much going on for me in this novel. And on top of that, I just found the way the plot unfolded was just too hard for me to believe. It turned into a freaking action movie of a sort, and it was just all a bit too corny.
As for the twist, that did reel me back in again a bit, but it wasn’t enough to save the novel for me. It felt rushed and slapped together a bit at the end too. I feel so black sheepy saying this, but this novel didn’t work for me like it did so many other readers I trust. It felt like a book that still needed a lot more editing. *shrugs*

Lyn: I think this could almost have been a series, give us more clues about what is happening. Yeah, lead up needed a bit more bait, instead of pages and pages of drugs and sex. Which are fine, but I feel that they got more than their fair share of spotlight, when there were other way more interesting things happening. Coupled with an ending that was just beyond cheesy and rather goofy for the theme, I slowly lost interest in this one. It was pretty much downhill.

Jessie: It wasn’t a complete win for me either. The things about this that I liked, I REALLY LIKED. The other aspects? Well, they aren’t dealbreakers for me reading this author but they may end up being dealbreakers for how I rate Black Iris as a whole.

Kara: Agreed. I rated it fairly high when I finished it, but the more and more I keep thinking about it, the more my rating keeps dropping. Like I wanted to love it, but where were the consequences for Laney’s actions at the end? Bad plotting, man. That was just so hard to believe.

Jessie: The ending was a mess, especially compared to how great the beginning of the book was. And it also felt….. rather open-ended? I wasn’t a fan of that. Nor of the ahem… committee?… forming at the end. DO NOT TRY TO SERIES THIS SHIT, OK.

Lyn: I agree with Kara. I was really disappointed by the conclusion of the novel. Look, I understand wanting to bring balance to the world, but if you have to turn into a monster to do it, is it even justice at this point? That ending was corny, and considering how well the novel held some heavy issues with grace, I was feeling a bit let down by the last page. Why did it go from NA to MG in the last chapter? Why? Totally pulled a Nolan there.

Kara: I agree, Lyn. That was one of the things I kept thinking while reading. Some seriously HORRIBLE shit happened to Laney. I felt awful and I wanted to make everything better for her. But the revenge rampage she went on, what was that? How do two wrongs make a right? I get wanting to maybe get a LITTLE bit of revenge–that’s human nature–but the shit she did made her just as awful, or maybe not just as awful, but almost as awful? I just don’t see how that was okay.

Lyn: Especially when the police were never contacted in the first place! Look, I can totally understand going a bit Batman on someone’s ass when the authorities do nothing, and look the other way, but the police and the school administration was just automatically discredited, because, you know, this is a book aimed towards college kids, but come on.
In the end – loved the f/f relationship, the writing, and some of the plot, so 3 stars from me.

Kara: Yeah, I’m going with 3 stars too. I agree. Loved the f/f relationship between Blythe and Laney. That was my favorite part.

Jessie: Final rating? Mine is 3.5/5 The writing was fantastic (mostly), Blythe gets a star for her general Blytheness, etc.

More 2015 DNFs

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

 The night Quin Kincaid takes her Oath, she will become what she has trained to be her entire life. She will become a Seeker. This is her legacy, and it is an honor.

As a Seeker, Quin will fight beside her two closest companions, Shinobu and John, to protect the weak and the wronged. Together they will stand for light in a shadowy world.

And she’ll be with the boy she loves–who’s also her best friend. But the night Quin takes her Oath, everything changes.

Being a Seeker is not what she thought. Her family is not what she thought. Even the boy she loves is not who she thought. And now it’s too late to walk away.

Boring, bland, lifeless, rehash. Unoriginal. Mishmash of worldbuilding. I lasted 50 pages.

There Will Be Lies by Nick Lake

In four hours, Shelby Jane Cooper will be struck by a car.

Shortly after, she and her mother will leave the hospital and set out on a winding journey toward the Grand Canyon.

All Shelby knows is that they’re running from dangers only her mother understands. And the further they travel, the more Shelby questions everything about her past—and her current reality. Forced to take advantage of the kindness of unsuspecting travelers, Shelby grapples with what’s real, what isn’t, and who she can trust . . . if anybody.

Award-winning author Nick Lake proves his skills as a master storyteller in this heart-pounding new novel. This emotionally charged thrill ride leads to a shocking ending that will have readers flipping back to the beginning.

This was also boring, and uninteresting. I read for about 65 pages, skimmed to 150 and gave it up as not a book for me.

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

 Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence, to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

A captivating and powerful novel that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by one of today's most admired writers for teens.

So this was a bit of a surprise. I love Unwind with the power of a thousand bookworms, but this was so slow-moving, with such a negligible plot. It sat on my currently- reading  shelf for months. Once I would set it down, I felt no urge to pick it up and continue the story. I can see what the author was trying to do here, but it just did not work for me.

Scent of Triumph by Jan Moran

When French perfumer Danielle Bretancourt steps aboard a luxury ocean liner, leaving her son behind in Poland with his grandmother, she has no idea that her life is about to change forever. The year is 1939, and the declaration of war on the European continent soon threatens her beloved family, scattered across many countries. Traveling through London and Paris into occupied Poland, Danielle searches desperately for her the remains of her family, relying on the strength and support of Jonathan Newell-Grey, a young captain. Finally, she is forced to gather the fragments of her impoverished family and flee to America. There she vows to begin life anew, in 1940s Los Angeles.

There, through determination and talent, she rises high from meager jobs in her quest for success as a perfumer and fashion designer to Hollywood elite. Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, Scent of Triumph by commanding newcomer Jan Moran is one woman's story of courage, spirit, and resilience.

Another historical that just didn't keep my interest. The story is really similar to MJ Rose's Reincarnationist series. It wasn't strong enough or original enough to put in the effort for several hundred pages.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Backlist Review: A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Title: A Memory of Light
Author: Brandon Sanderson based on the novels and notes of Robert Jordan
Genre: fantasy
Series: The Wheel of Time #14; A Memory of Light #3
Pages: 912
Published: April 2013
Source: purchased
Rating: 4/5

"And it came to pass in those days, as it had come before and would come again, that the Dark lay heavy on the land and weighed down the hearts of men, and the green things failed, and hope died.” From Charal Drianaan te Calamon, The Cycle of the Dragon.

In the Field of Merrilor the rulers of the nations gather to join behind Rand al’Thor, or to stop him from his plan to break the seals on the Dark One’s prison—which may be a sign of his madness, or the last hope of humankind. Egwene, the Amyrlin Seat, leans toward the former.

In Andor, the Trollocs seize Caemlyn.

In the wolf dream, Perrin Aybara battles Slayer.

Approaching Ebou Dar, Mat Cauthon plans to visit his wife Tuon, now Fortuona, Empress of the Seanchan.

All humanity is in peril—and the outcome will be decided in Shayol Ghul itself. The Wheel is turning, and the Age is coming to its end. The Last Battle will determine the fate of the world...

So. 14 books, thousands of pages, millions of words. In the end, there was no way that Brandon Sanderson could completely 100% satisfy fans of the long-running and epic series. Let's be honest: it's hughly unlikely that Robert Jordan himself would have been able to, either.

I'm still not sure how many of those stars are for sheer nostalgia - at least one? - but this was a hell of a wrap up for a 12 year journey. I started reading these books when I was 13, I was 25 when I first finished this series, and I can say there were times when I didn't see this ever ending. Through its notable ups (books 1-6), its downs (8-11), its not-bad-but-could-be-better (7, 12) this has remained a big force in my fantasy reading. Forgive me for this pun, but there will be a void where The Wheel of Time once stood.

Favorites died, nations crumbled, deception and betrayal abounded, but fans who flocked to this series for its strengths - the characters, the immense worldbuilding, the complicated plots and plans - will at least be satisfied with Sanderson's strong finale.  


Review: Winter's Dreams by Glen Cook

Sunday, May 10, 2015
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: fantasy
Series: N/A
Pages: 296 (hardcover edition)
Published:  2006
Source: ARC for review
Rating: 5/5

Best known for his Black Company series of fantasy novels, Cook focuses on alternate realities, distant futures, self-sacrifice, and camaraderie born of loneliness in these 12 intimate stories. A black family is destroyed by racial hatred in “Song from a Forgotten Hill.” Diffident, conflicted antiheroes pay the ultimate price for comrades and causes in the six interconnected space-faring narratives of “And Dragons in the Sky,” “In the Wind,” “The Recruiter,” “Quiet Sea,” “Darkwar,” and “Enemy Territory.” An immortal must watch the death of the last city in “Sunrise.” A comic misadventure reverses the protagonist’s success in “The Seventh Fool.” A sword-wielding mercenary seeks the forgotten land of Moon in “The Devil’s Tooth.” And the concluding title story leaves the reader wondering if the preceding stories are but stolen dreams. Close first-person perspectives tug heartstrings in these tragedies of thwarted expectations. 

Winter's Dreams is a short story collection by Glen Cook. These stories are rich and varied. Although several are written in the same universe, they have a different direction; some hopeful, others tragic. In all there is a sense of existentialist philosophy, as Cook's characters struggle with the absurd and a need to find meaning in their own lives. Cook makes his mark as one of the best speculative short story authors out there.

At first, I found the collection jarring. These stories bounce from the purely speculative to science fiction to high fantasy magic. One of the stories, "In The Wind", was written in a pseudo-technical manner that made me put the book down several times. However, the more I read, the more I realized how brilliantly put together these stories are. They paint the universe, and it takes reading to the end to appreciate the whole picture. Also, the endings to each were satisfying in a manner rarely seen in short speculative fiction. I was more and more beholden to the magic of Cook's writing as Winter's Dreams went on.

The most impressive feat Cook pulls off in this collection is the variation in character between each story. All of the narrators feel like they have a unique voice, while still managing to be part of a whole. How is it possible for an author to do that? These main characters have a whole story and you're only reading a small piece of it. The depth is astounding.

It was difficult for me to decide which stories were my favorites, but I'll provide a few notes on those I did pick:
  • Ponce: A family befriends a dog who is somehow a conduit to true understanding. It's possible Cook is commenting on the power of our closeness to the animals we live with. There is certainly an emotional tug to the story. There is also a powerful message of hope in the face of adversity.
  • The Seventh Fool: A con man cons himself. This is a simple idea for a story but it's done with a relishing sense of the ludicrous and a laugh out loud ending.
  • The Recruiter: Possibly the darkest of these tales, a man vies for his freedom by taking that of others. This one was disturbing, more so because as a reader you can really put yourself in the position of the main character.

Glen Cook's short story collection will startle you. It will make you ponder. It might make you cry or laugh. One thing is certain: this collection will touch you in some way. Definitely recommended.

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