Publisher: Viking

December 4, 2017

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. I

by Elle Katharine White, Lev Grossman, Mary E. Pearson, Philippa Gregory
Publisher: Harper Voyager, Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), Touchstone, Viking

Returned to the Library is a (new!) feature where I sum up the latest books I’ve returned to the library or put down unfinished.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IHeartstone by Elle Katharine White
Publisher: Harper Voyager, January 2017

A debut historical fantasy that recasts Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice in an imaginative world of wyverns, dragons, and the warriors who fight alongside them against the monsters that threaten the kingdom: gryphons, direwolves, lamias, banshees, and lindworms
They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.
Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again.
Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.
It’s a war Aliza is ill-prepared to wage, on a battlefield she’s never known before: one spanning kingdoms, class lines, and the curious nature of her own heart.
Elle Katharine White infuses elements of Austen’s beloved novel with her own brand of magic, crafting a modern epic fantasy that conjures a familiar yet wondrously unique new world.

Oh, how desperately I wanted to love this book. A Pride and Prejudice retelling in a fantasy world? Yes, please!

But I couldn’t get into the characters or their story. Once I realized that a majority of the characters shared similar names (or at least names starting with the same letter), I felt disillusioned and lost interest in the story.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IThe Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson
Series: The Remnant Chronicles,
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), July 2015

Held captive in the barbarian kingdom of Venda, Lia and Rafe have little chance of escape. Desperate to save Lia's life, her erstwhile assassin, Kaden, has told the Vendan Komizar that she has the gift, and the Komizar's interest in Lia is greater than anyone could have foreseen.

Meanwhile, nothing is straightforward: There's Rafe, who lied to Lia but has sacrificed his freedom to protect her; Kaden, who meant to assassinate her but has now saved her life; and the Vendans, whom Lia always believed to be savages. Now that she lives among them, however, she realizes that may be far from the truth. Wrestling with her upbringing, her gift, and her sense of self, Lia must make powerful choices that will affect her country... and her own destiny.

I loved Pearson’s first book, but The Heart of Betrayal didn’t hold the same allure for me. Pearson starts the narrative off just as she left it at the end of The Kiss of Deception, but without a little background, I felt lost. The dynamics and motives of the Kozimar were interesting, but not enough to keep me hooked.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IThe Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory
Series: ,
Publisher: Touchstone, August 2017

The latest novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Philippa Gregory features one of the most famous girls in history, Lady Jane Grey, and her two sisters, each of whom dared to defy her queen. Jane Grey was queen of England for nine days, dying on the scaffold for her faith. But few people know about her two sisters, cousins to Elizabeth I who also faced imprisonment and death sentences for treason. Katherine Grey was the beauty of the family who earned the lifelong hatred of her cousin Elizabeth I when she married for love. Mary Grey was an extraordinary little person known as a dwarf in Tudor times, who defied convention to marry the tallest man at court in her own secret love match. The fascinating story of three idiosyncratic Tudor girls and their challenges to the most powerful Tudor woman of all is the subject of the next novel from the author who defines what it means to be a writer of historical fiction (RT Book Reviews)."

Gregory’s work is typically one of my favorites (one of her books was in my 10 Books I’m Grateful For list), but The Last Tudor and I started off on the wrong foot instantly. Why? The narrator. She was whiny, selfish, and narcissistic. Granted, she was a pre-teen girl, and most pre-teen girls have at least one of those unfortunate characteristics. I would have stuck with her longer, but without the immediate historical context, The Last Tudor felt more like work than fun.

Returned to the Library: The DNF | Vol. IThe Magicians by Lev Grossman
Series: ,
Publisher: Viking, August 2009

A thrilling and original coming-of-age novel for adults about a young man practicing magic in the real world.

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

At once psychologically piercing and magnificently absorbing, The Magicians boldly moves into uncharted literary territory, imagining magic as practiced by real people, with their capricious desires and volatile emotions. Lev Grossman creates an utterly original world in which good and evil aren’t black and white, love and sex aren’t simple or innocent, and power comes at a terrible price.

The Magicians was, honestly, built up in my mind. I knew they had started a Netflix series about the show, but I wanted to read the book beforehand. I expected a lot more from this wildly popular book, but the only winning element was the beautiful atmospheres Grossman created. I liked the magical school entry exams, but the main character was so uncomfortable in his own skin that I felt just as awkward. Not a winning combination for me.

Posted December 4, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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October 12, 2017

Review | Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

Review | Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin DickeyGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey
Publisher: Viking, October 2016
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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An intellectual feast for fans of offbeat history, Ghostland takes readers on a road trip through some of the country's most infamously haunted places--and deep into the dark side of our history.

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America's ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and "zombie homes," Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as "the most haunted mansion in America," or "the most haunted prison"; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget.

With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living--how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made--and why those changes are made--Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. Spellbinding, scary, and wickedly insightful, Ghostland discovers the past we're most afraid to speak of aloud in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.

Even if the paranormal isn’t your cup of tea, there’s no denying a certain mystical element to American history. From the haunted streets of Salem to the plains of the Native American nations, there’s a piercing awareness that we’re not alone. Colin Dickey’s Ghostland was meant to tell this story.

I say “meant” intentionally. Dickey divvied up his book first into different types of ghost stories (graveyards, cities, etc.), then into various locations within each category. I was thrilled. Usually, I’m not a big paranormal fan, but the prospect of combining my recent love for true crime (thanks to My Favorite Murder) and our newfound desire to travel America, I was hooked. The chapter that sealed the deal? New Orleans. I went to the Big Easy a year ago for work, so I can’t wait to go back with M.

But I digress…

I was hoping Ghostland would tell me the ghost stories of America, paired with the unique history of each, and leave me marking my travel map with must-sees. Instead, Dickey dissects each tale with a faintly condescending academia, implying how people are crazy for not looking at these stories in a coherent light.

Sure, finding out the truth about the secret staircase in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s home, House of Seven Gables, was fascinating. Unique. Defined America’s perception of not only the house but the author. But I wanted the story, not the analytics.

Chapter after chapter, story after story, Dickey analyzed each tale to death (no pun intended) so that I began skipping his critiques and read the short paragraph telling the story, then researching it on Wikipedia.

So why three stars? Because Dickey was honest about the book’s focus. I had built it up in my mind to be more than it was. His versions of the stories were engaging and fascinating, inspiring me to search them out for myself.

If you’re looking for tales about haunted America, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. But if you are hoping for a realistic perception and critical analysis of America’s ghost stories, Ghostland is for you.

3 Stars

Posted October 12, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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April 27, 2017

Review | Broken Harbor by Tana French

Review | Broken Harbor by Tana FrenchBroken Harbor by Tana French
Series: Dublin Murder Squad, #4
Publisher: Viking, July 2012
Pages: 450
Format: Hardcover
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The mesmerizing fourth novel of the Dublin murder squad by New York Times bestselling author Tana French
Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, the brash cop from Tana French’s bestselling Faithful Place, plays by the book and plays hard. That’s what’s made him the Murder squad’s top detective—and that’s what puts the biggest case of the year into his hands.

On one of the half-built, half-abandoned "luxury" developments that litter Ireland, Patrick Spain and his two young children are dead. His wife, Jenny, is in intensive care.

At first, Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, think it’s going to be an easy solve. But too many small things can’t be explained. The half dozen baby monitors, their cameras pointing at holes smashed in the Spains’ walls. The files erased from the Spains’ computer. The story Jenny told her sister about a shadowy intruder who was slipping past all the locks.

And Broken Harbor holds memories for Scorcher. Seeing the case on the news sends his sister Dina off the rails again, and she’s resurrecting something that Scorcher thought he had tightly under control: what happened to their family one summer at Broken Harbor, back when they were children.

With her signature blend of police procedural and psychological thriller, French’s new novel goes full throttle with a heinous crime, creating her most complicated detective character and her best book yet.

A home invasion in a small seaside town in Britain leaves a family destroyed. For any other murder detective, this case might be too much to handle, but for murder detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, it’s his job. But when the case starts to bring back painful personal memories, Mick wonders if it’s time to throw in the towel…or work harder than ever to catch the killer.

Heading to the wanna-be luxury complex of Broken Harbor to investigate a brutal murder isn’t easy for any detective, but for Scorcher, it’s especially painful. That’s what makes him a winner in French’s fourth Dublin Murder Squad installment: he’s a naturally complex character. By-the-book on the job, caught in a family conflict, and unsure of where his life is headed next, Scorcher isn’t just any old cop. It’s this complex perspective that makes Broken Harbor so compelling to read.

I loved the interactions between Scorcher, his rookie partner, the ME, and the rest of the crew. Each has such memorable personalities that complement Mick and the plot itself perfectly. French weaves each character interaction, step and motivation so deliberately that you don’t realize the masterfulness of her work until the back cover closes.

To say Broken Harbor kept me on my toes is an understatement. There was never a dull moment from the first moment Scorcher and Richie step into the blood-splattered house to the final page. It was the constant conflicts that come with everyday life –  problems with coworkers, family fights, broken hearts – combined with the powerful of mystery of just who did it that brought this police procedural to life like few books I’ve read before.

For me, Broken Harbor is a definitely a winner, and one I can’t wait to read again. Have you read any of French’s Dublin Murder Squad? Which one should I read next?

4 Stars

Posted April 27, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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September 26, 2016

Review | The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

Review | The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs WallerThe Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller
Publisher: Viking, March 2016
Pages: 392
Format: Hardcover
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Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls barely know their father, a plant hunter usually off adventuring through China. Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan reneges on his contract to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid. He will be thrown into debtors’ prison while his daughters are sent to the orphanage and the workhouse.
Elodie can’t stand by and see her family destroyed, so she persuades her father to return to China once more to try to hunt down the flower—only this time, despite everything she knows about her place in society, Elodie goes with him. She has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China. But now, even if she can find the orchid, how can she ever go back to being the staid, responsible Elodie that everybody needs?

It started the moment Elodie showed Deacon Wainwright the plant, the forbidden orchid blooming on top of the glass house her father built for her younger sisters. Soon, Elodie’s family is caught up in their father’s world, a place of mystique, secrets, and men that will stop at nothing to get what they want. Can Elodie save her family and her father’s reputation in the wilds of China?

I had some with this book, issues that kept the rating at three instead of four stars. While I realize the condescending attitude men showed towards the woman in The Forbidden Orchid may have been historically accurate, it was infuriating. At every turn, Elodie was told she couldn’t speak out, couldn’t ask questions, couldn’t look at an orchid because it might tempt her…Really? This effect would have been offset if there was one (ONE!) man that didn’t look down his nose at a woman, but it was rare. At first, I thought Elodie’s father, famed botanist and adventurer, would be the one but View Spoiler ». The closest was Alex, Elodie’s new husband, but even he had a few moments.

Regardless, I was hooked into The Forbidden Orchid from the first chapter. I loved the dynamics between Elodie and her nine sisters, how their mother coped as a woman essentially on her own, and their interactions with the townspeople. The level of detail with even the most minor of characters brought life to the book.

I loved Elodie and Alex’s relationship, although I may have rolled my eyes once or twice (or more) at some of Elodie’s reactions. They had the same sweet, enduring romance that caught my heart when I read Waller’s first foray into YA, A Mad, Wicked Folly. Besides bringing a little bit of light into a rather dark situation, it forced Elodie to grow up in ways she never would have had to in the family home in Kent.

Once Elodie, Alex, and her father land in China, I was hooked. Every detail came alive. I felt like I was walking in an 1800s opium den or riding a horse in the hot Chinese summer. It was vivid, memorable, and extraordinary.

While The Forbidden Orchid has some misses, its hits by far make up for them.

3 Stars

Posted September 26, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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April 4, 2016

Review | Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Review | Saint Anything by Sarah DessenSaint Anything by Sarah Dessen
Publisher: Viking, May 2015
Pages: 417
Format: Hardcover
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Peyton, Sydney's charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion's share of their parents' attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton's increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?
Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.
The uber-popular Sarah Dessen explores her signature themes of family, self-discovery, and change in her twelfth novel, sure to delight her legions of fans.

There’s always a lot of focus on those involved in accidents. The what-ifs, the wonderings and sometimes the anger. Rarely do we think about those that aren’t directly involved in the accidents, but are just as broken as those who are.

When Sydney’s brother Peyton, the family golden child, starts down a bad road, the family tries to pull him back. But Peyton’s poor decisions end up in a horrible drunk-driving accident and a jail sentence, throwing his and his family’s world into chaos. Sydney’s family, trying to learn how to keep it together, is falling apart: her mother obsession with Peyton’s well-being blinds her to what’s going on in her own home, Sydney’s dad is trying to keep the peace, and Sydney just doesn’t know where she fits in anymore. That all changes when she meets the slightly chaotic but lovable Chatham family.

I’ve read a lot of books that deal with the power of grief, but none that so poignantly portray the painful, long-lasting effects that one person’s actions have on a family. Peyton and the teenager weren’t the only ones harmed by the drunk-driving accident; it shattered many people’s worlds. I like how Dessen met the topic head-on and explored how the decisions we make don’t only affect us, but those we love. Peyton’s decisions affect Sydney, destroying their relationship and her relationship with their parents. The grief and shame Sydney carries with her makes it hard for her to move on, to rebuild her life and relationships.

I loved the warm chaos of the Chathams. They’re the family that always made you feel at home the moment you walked through the door, who didn’t mind if you stopped by just for a chat. The loving support system that emulated from the household was exactly what Sydney needed to get her feet back under her and face her fears.

The one character that left me extremely unnerved (as I think he was intended to) was Peyton’s friend, Ames. Ames is, to put it simply, incredibly creepy. He slowly slides into Peyton’s empty place in the family and (constantly) oversteps his boundaries with Sydney. He acts as a thermostat in the family: early on, Sydney’s parents don’t notice anything strange about his actions, but as the story progresses, the rose-colored glasses come off. Sydney herself can be measured against Ames’ actions in Saint Anything – her disgust at his actions and instinct to stand up for herself grows with the story.

I’m late to the Dessen fan group, but I can say that this won’t be my last novel of hers. Saint Anything was clever, occasionally funny and incredibly heart-warming.

4 Stars

Posted April 4, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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