NetGalley Review: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

The Thinking Woman's GuideThe Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Baker
Read: July 17 – July 25, 2013
NetGalley selection.

Many thanks to Penguin Group – Viking for sending me this advance review copy via NetGalley!

Release Date: August 1, 2013
ISBN:
9780670023660
Price: $27.95 USD
Format: Hardcover

Goodreads Book Blurb: Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman.  During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty.  Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.

Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.

My Opinion: When I saw this book on NetGalley, I had to have it. Something I have been craving lately is a strong female character, particularly in a fantasy setting. I requested this book and was so excited when I was approved.

Unfortunately, my excitement only lasted about 100 pages into the book.

With a title like The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, I imagined the character to be a headstrong woman who was secure in herself and her opinions. I thought she wouldn’t take any bull from anybody, and that she would be an accomplished magician by the end of the book. Nora was none of these things.

A lot of the time, her lack of matching characterization to the promises made in the title were written off as being tied to enchantment. This didn’t fly with me. I think in the end, the title was just a really bad choice for the book.

There is another reason for this. Not only did Nora not present as a “thinking woman”, the book didn’t have much in the way of magic in it, either. For a book titled The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, this was nothing short of a tragedy.

Emily Croy Barker’s book is the first one I have read recently that features what I have dubbed the “constructed-patriarchy trope“. In writing fantasy, authors have so many options open to them. Why do they fall back on creating an oppressive patriarchy for their characters to overcome? In this instance, it may have been an effort to make Nora seem more like a “thinking woman”, but it fell flat.

Another character I had a very hard time liking was Aruendiel. He was the typical alpha male, very much a jerk, yet somehow endearing. The only difference in The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is that he is not stunningly good-looking.

Writing-wise, Emily Croy Barker is good. The prose was decent, but the storytelling was lacking. There were a lot of tangential  things brought in that did nothing for me with regards to the whole story, and instead just bogged down the book bringing it in at over 500 pages. I love long books, but this one could have easily been shorter.

Not having read any Austen myself (I know, I know, bad Erin) I found the Pride and Prejudice references overdone and tiresome by the end of the book. They also seemed really out-of-place to me, but that could also be because I haven’t actually read P&P, and don’t know the story.

Even knowing this is a part of a planned series, the ending really aggravated me, as open-ended endings tend to.

Bottom Line: The title was a bad call on this one. Inherently it is not a horrible book. The writing itself is good, and some of the imagery is wonderful. But I had such high expectations of it because of the title that it really fell flat for me. As always, I encourage my readers to make their own call. But if you decide to pick up Emily Croy Baker’s book, imagine it is titled differently, with no reference to magic or amazing female characters.

NetGalley Review: Tumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts

Tumble & FallTumble & Fall by Alexandra Coutts
Read: July 12 – July 17, 2013
NetGalley selection.

Many thanks to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for sending me an advance copy for review via NetGalley.

Release Date: September 17, 2013
Price: $17.99 USD
ISBN: 9780374378615

Goodreads Book Blurb: A novel about the end of days full of surprising beginnings. The world is living in the shadow of oncoming disaster. An asteroid is set to strike the earth in just one week’s time; catastrophe is unavoidable. The question isn’t how to save the world—the question is, what to do with the time that’s left? Against this stark backdrop, three island teens wrestle with intertwining stories of love, friendship and family—all with the ultimate stakes at hand.

My Opinion: In theory, this was a great book for me. In practice, it was anything but.

The biggest thing I really missed in Tumble & Fall was a sense of urgency. The world is ending in a week, and while there is nothing anyone can do about it, that doesn’t need to translate into a lack of urgency. Even if there was nothing I could do about it, the impending end of the world would send me into a tizzy.

The characters were a little thin, and I wasn’t entirely sold on their reactions. Part of this could be the narrative style Coutts chose, opting for a three-way shared narrative. If a two-way shared narrative makes it hard to connect to the characters, a three-way was even worse. And the connection between the narrating characters was tenuous at best.

I didn’t find anything groundbreaking in the prose in Tumble & Fall, though there wasn’t anything technically bad. The words were right, the grammar was correct, but the story lacked the sparkle and magic that makes stories come alive and live within the reader.

One thing I did really like was the ending. Normally I hate endings that don’t tie everything up nicely, but I was so intensely afraid that Coutts was going to end Tumble & Fall with something akin to “And the asteroid missed Earth. Hooray!” that I was pleasantly surprised with the ending. This was also a spot where I feel like Coutts finally came into her strength with prose, and the final twenty pages or so read very hauntingly.

One plot hole I found really aggravating. If the asteroid is large enough to do damage akin to ending the world (or so they think) and is aimed for a direct hit… wouldn’t it be visible to the naked eye?

The Bottom Line: Not an end-of-the-world/apocalypse book by any real stretch. That whole plot point could be removed with minimal rewrites and no real damage to the main stories. Triple narrative makes the characters hard to connect to, and their motives hard to follow. The whole book lacks urgency.

If slow-paced contemporary romance is your thing, I would suggest checking this book out when it is released. For me, that is very much not my thing, so I found little enjoyment in Tumble & Fall.

NetGalley Review: After the Ending by Lindsey Fairleigh and Lindsey Pogue

After The EndingAfter The Ending by Lindsey Fairleigh & Lindsey Pogue
Read: June 30 – July 8
NetGalley selection.

Released: February 22, 2013
Price: $14.99 USD
ISBN: 9780988715417

Many thanks to Lindsey Fairleigh, Lindsey Pogue and L2 Books for the review copy via NetGalley!

Goodreads Book Blurb: The Virus spread. Billions died. The Ending began. We may have survived the apocalypse, but the Virus changed us.

When people started getting sick, “they” thought it was just the flu. My roommate, my boyfriend, my family…they’re all gone now. I got sick too. I should have died with them—with the rest of the world—but I didn’t. I thought witnessing the human population almost disappear off the face of the earth was the craziest thing I’d ever experience. I was so wrong. My name is Dani O’Connor, I’m twenty-six-years-old, and I survived The Ending.

The Virus changed everything. The world I knew is gone, and life is backwards. We’ve all had to start over. I’ve been stripped of my home, my dreams…all that is me. I’m someone else now—broken and changed. Other survivors’ memories and emotions haunt me. They invade my mind until I can no longer separate them from my own. I won’t let them consume me. I can’t. My name is Zoe Cartwright, I’m twenty-six-years-old, and I survived The Ending.

We’ve been inseparable for most of our lives, and now our friendship is all we have left. The aftermath of the Virus has stranded us on opposite sides of the United States. Trusting strangers, making sacrifices, killing—we’ll do anything to reach one another. Fear and pain may be unavoidable, but we’re strong…we’re survivors. But to continue surviving in this unfamiliar world plagued by Crazies and strange new abilities, we have to adapt. We have to evolve.

And more than anything, we have to find each other.

My Opinion: After The Ending. Oh gosh. What can I even say? There wasn’t much I liked about this book, though when I requested it I had high hopes. Everyone dies from a Virus? Sweet. The remaining people have special powers? Cool. Two female protagonists? Awesome.

The Virus was very blandly written. After coming from the amazing medical research prowess of Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant, this was just horrible. There was not enough information for the nerd in me, and there was too much information for the emetophobe in me.

The story of After The Ending was very bland and predictable, overall. It was also rife with holes. 90% of the population has died, and yet there is still internet? Odd. People died in a very quick succession, yet gas is pretty much universally hard to find? Interesting.

The characters of Dani and Zoe were not the strong, diversified female protagonists I was hoping would kick some ass and take some names in this post-apocalyptic world. They were both guilty of the hallowed title of Mary Sue. They were highly interchangeable and I often forgot whose point of view I was reading from. They both read younger than 26. I am 26, and I don’t act like them. It was all very high school. Boys, girl drama (because women only cause drama, right?), more boys, bad guys who want to do bad things, occasionally the special powers popped up… and more boys!

With the point of view switching… I don’t think I have ever found a book I liked where they swapped point of view every single chapter. It seems forced. After The Ending was no exception. But then it switched about two-thirds of the way through, and we had multiple chapters of one character. That was almost more aggravating than the constant switching.

Also, can we talk about calling the end of the world “The Ending”? Why not call it “The End”? Much less awkward.

There is sex in the book. Eventually. It is written more like bodice-ripper sex than post-apocalyptic sex. It was jarring to have the word “sheath” used. No. Just no.

There also wasn’t much interaction with “Crazies”. I recognize that most people died, but the conflict would have been much more interesting if it had been “Crazies” driven, rather than boy-driven.

So, what did I like? Even though I saw it coming a mile away, and it was completely cliche, the ending was OK.

Bottom Line: Honestly? Unless you are looking for a boy-driven almost-young-adult read, this book will only disappoint.

Review: The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

The Sugar QueenThe Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
Read: May 15 – May 16, 2013
Personal read.

Goodreads Book Blurb: Twenty-seven-year-old Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night…. Until she finds it harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tenderhearted woman who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother…

Fleeing a life of bad luck and big mistakes, Della Lee has decided Josey’s clandestine closet is the safest place to crash. In return she’s going to change Josey’s life—because, clearly, it is not the closet of a happy woman. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey is soon forgoing pecan rolls and caramels, tapping into her startlingly keen feminine instincts, and finding her narrow existence quickly expanding.

Before long, Josey bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who makes the best sandwiches in town, is hounded by books that inexplicably appear whenever she needs them, and—most amazing of all—has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush.

As little by little Josey dares to step outside herself, she discovers a world where the color red has astonishing power, passion can make eggs fry in their cartons, and romance can blossom at any time—even for her. It seems that Della Lee’s work is done, and it’s time for her to move on. But the truth about where she’s going, why she showed up in the first place—and what Chloe has to do with it all—is about to add one more unexpected chapter to Josey’ s fast-changing life.

Brimming with warmth, wit, and a sprinkling of magic, here is a spellbinding tale of friendship, love—and the enchanting possibilities of every new day.

My Opinion: This is the first of Sarah Addison Allen’s novels that I have read. I will definitely be checking out more, because I really adored this story!

The Sugar Queen was not at all what I expected. I was thinking something more along the lines of Chocolat, but even with it not being what I thought, I was hooked very early on. It is a light and fluffy read about friendship, stepping outside your comfort zone, and a dash of love.

Story-wise, there were a few things I didn’t understand or relate to very well. One was Josey’s shame at her sugar stash, and therefore her inability to just tell Della Lee to leave. It would have been a very different book, of course, but it was a minor thing I didn’t understand. The other was Josey’s shame at how she behaved when she was younger. Maybe this is because I have no concept of “southern Belle”.

Writing-wise, Sarah Addison Allen doesn’t do anything complex or overly magical. The prose is basic, though readable. The plot was fairly light and fluffy. There are a few twists, most of which I saw coming fairly far away.

The characters in The Sugar Queen are really fun, though at times I found them to be a little flat. I especially loved Chloe and the books that follow her around. In the end, I really felt like Josey did grow and change over the course of the story, which is not something you see often enough these days.

Bottom Line: A sweet, light, and fluffy read that delivers a few twists and some really likeable characters.

Review: Glory in Death by J.D. Robb

Glory in DeathGlory in Death by J.D. Robb (In Death #2)
Read: April 29 – May 1, 2013
Personal read.

Goodreads Book Blurb: It is 2058, New York City. In a world where technology can reveal the darkest of secrets, there’s only one place to hide a crime of passion-in the heart.

Even in the mid-twenty-first century, during a time when genetic testing usually weeds out any violent hereditary traits before they can take over, murder still happens. The first victim is found lying on a sidewalk in the rain. The second is murdered in her own apartment building. Police Lieutenant Eve Dallas has no problem finding connections between the two crimes. Both victims were beautiful and highly successful women. Their glamorous lives and loves were the talk of the city. And their intimate relations with men of great power and wealth provide Eve with a long list of suspects.

My Opinion: This second installment in the crime procedural/romance is even better than the first. Robb/Roberts has gotten her feet under her, and she is running.

I found the characters were much more accessible this time around when I dipped into the world of Eve Dallas. They are still developing, which is fantastic, but they were also so much more present. And of course, this book introduces one of my favorite characters.

I didn’t see who the killer was right away, but I did get it before the reveal, which I liked.

Once again, the sex scenes in Glory in Death are overdone, but I kind of expected that. It doesn’t really add much to the story to know exactly how the characters are boinking each other, but I don’t feel like it took anything away, either.

The futuristic setting is almost an afterthought in this book, but since it just seems to be getting better, I am eager to see how Robb/Roberts tackles it in upcoming books.

Bottom Line: Another great romp through crime and sex. What more could you ask for?

Review: Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter

Alice in ZombielandAlice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter
Read: April 16 – April 17, 2013
Personal read.

Book Blurb: She won’t rest until she’s sent every walking corpse back to its grave. Forever.

Had anyone told Alice Bell that her entire life would change course between one heartbeat and the next, she would have laughed. From blissful to tragic, innocent to ruined? Please. But that’s all it took. One heartbeat. A blink, a breath, a second, and everything she knew and loved was gone.

Her father was right. The monsters are real….

To avenge her family, Ali must learn to fight the undead. To survive, she must learn to trust the baddest of the bad boys, Cole Holland. But Cole has secrets of his own, and if Ali isn’t careful, those secrets might just prove to be more dangerous than the zombies….

My Opinion: This is my final lesson in walking down the young adult aisle at my local library and picking books up that seem interesting. No. Bad. Stop it! *swats self with a newspaper* Sometimes I wind up finding awesome books. Sometimes I end up with books like this.

OK, we all know the old adage of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” but we can’t help it. Look at that cover. Look at that tagline (Off with their heads). Look at the series name… White Rabbit Chronicles. I would be lying if I said I didn’t completely judge this book by those things. I was expecting a twisted retelling of Alice in Wonderland, but with flesh-eating monsters. I mean, the flesh-eating would probably be toned down, because it is a young adult book. But you know. There was a certain expectation.

An expectation that was in no way met. Dear all authors ever: People will judge your book by what you put on the cover, images and blurbs included. Do not write an order that your book cannot fill. Please. For the love of all the sparkly things.

Alice in Zombieland is just another young adult drama. But this one is written by an author who generally writes romance. So the alpha males are even more alpha, the insta-love is even more insta-, and the makeout scenes are completely overdone. I mean, since when does a kiss turn into almost sex? When a romance writer writes it, that’s when.

The book takes a different approach on zombies, but I found it too steeped in cloaked religion to get into it. It is something that popped up every so often, this cloak and dagger religious stuff, and it didn’t fit at all.

The writing is very inconsistent. The existence of zombies is a huge secret, so naturally like, half of the characters know by the end of the book.

I just… I can’t even. I really disliked this book.

Bottom Line: This book builds up your expectations, but doesn’t deliver anything besides another trite teenage drama.

Review: Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel's DartKushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
Read: March 7 – April 15, 2013
Book club selection – fantasy romance

Book Blurb: The land of Terre d’Ange is a place of unsurpassing beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good…and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt.

Phèdre nó Delaunay is a young woman who was born with a scarlet mote in her left eye. Sold into indentured servitude as a child, her bond is purchased by Anafiel Delaunay, a nobleman with very a special mission…and the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel’s Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one.

Phèdre is trained equally in the courtly arts and the talents of the bedchamber, but, above all, the ability to observe, remember, and analyze. Almost as talented a spy as she is courtesan, Phèdre stumbles upon a plot that threatens the very foundations of her homeland. Treachery sets her on her path; love and honor goad her further. And in the doing, it will take her to the edge of despair…and beyond. Hateful friend, loving enemy, beloved assassin; they can all wear the same glittering mask in this world, and Phèdre will get but one chance to save all that she holds dear.

My Opinion: Oh man. This book had been on my to-read list for forever. I was really excited when it came up for book club, because I finally had a “reason” to read it. And with a book topping 900 pages, I needed a reason.

I am still not entirely sure how I feel about this book, and I finished it a while ago. I loved the world that Jacqueline Carey built. I liked Phèdre well enough as a character. I didn’t even mind the somewhat gratuitous sex. I hated the politics, though.

Politics are one thing that generally take a story from wow to snore for me. And Kushiel’s Dart has a lot of politics. A lot of intrigue. To be perfectly honest, I glossed through most of the political stuff. It lessened my understanding of the story somewhat, but it also pumped up my enjoyment, I think.

This is not fantasy in the strictest sense of the term. It is set in an alternate Europe, with parallels to our own world drawn generously. There was no magic, so to speak, but the world was so different from our own, it really transports you.

There is so much to this book that I don’t really know how to review it.

Bottom Line: A detail-rich, intrigue-driven book. Alternate history, and a fantasy twist. This book has a little bit of everything, and is beautifully written to boot. Heavy on the politics.