Thursday, May 31, 2012

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis

It isn't easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland—and a man Sunday’s family despises.

The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past - and hers?

My rating: ****
I love fairy-tale retellings. I thought this one would be a straight-up Frog Prince story, but boy was I surprised! There are over a dozen fairy tales making up Enchanted (I particularly loved a cameo from "Jack and the Beanstalk") and somehow Alethea Kontis has woven them all together seamlessly. And very enjoyably.

Sunday is the seventh daughter, but she also has three brothers and all of these siblings play an important part in the plot. That's a major cast of characters to juggle and I have to say that Alethea Kontis did it well. They all have such distinctive personalities that I didn't have a hard time telling them apart. I loved the whole story and all the magical elements. And let's be honest. I loved Prince Rumbold.

The romance is very sweet, but it does happen quickly. It's very insta-love, but this is a fairy tale, so I guess things work a little differently. And Sunday and Rumbold do have time to become friends, but that's only because she doesn't realize that he's her one true love.

My only complaint is that the ending left me a little confused. SPOILER (highlight to read): What was up with Monday? Was she really unhappy married to her prince? Why? Did she leave him at the end? I'm so confused. And Jack. WHERE THE RUDDY HECK IS JACK? You can't just leave me hanging like that. There were some storylines I really wanted more closure from (but I suppose she has to leave it open for a sequel some day).

Highly recommended for fans of fairy-tale retellings.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

White Cat, Red Glove, and Black Heart by Holly Black

Summary for White Cat:
The first in a trilogy, this gritty, fast-paced fantasy is rife with the unexpected. Cassel comes from a shady, magical family of con artists and grifters. He doesn’t fit in at home or at school, so he’s used to feeling like an outsider. He’s also used to feeling guilty—he killed his best friend, Lila, years ago.

But when Cassel begins to have strange dreams about a white cat, and people around him are losing their memories, he starts to wonder what really happened to Lila. In his search for answers, he discovers a wicked plot for power that seems certain to succeed. But Cassel has other ideas—and a plan to con the conmen.

My rating (for all three books): ****
I won't include summaries for the other two books, as they would definitely include spoilers, but let me tell you, all of these books are unique, imaginative, and very intense!

Such world-building! The whole idea of curse-workers (people who have various powers over others that they can use just by touching them with their hands) is awesome. Holly Black really filled this world out and there's a whole culture here. Everyone wears gloves and seeing someone bare-handed is bizarre and frightening.

So, I'll admit that I avoided this series for a while because I envisioned it being all about mobsters (and I was worried it would be mafia-esque and I have personal reasons to despise smooth-talking Italians - thankfully, no Italians in sight :D). I'm glad I finally caved in to all the good reviews I kept seeing and tried it out. As a bonus, all three books are out so there was no need to wait; I read all three back to back.

And I'm going to warn you straight up that it is a bit gritty at times, just like the summary said. There's LOTS of teenage drinking (even though I've never been drunk I'm pretty sure that I now know exactly what it feels like) and plenty of underage sex, though it's all off-page. This series is also very violent. Shootings, dead bodies, blood, nastiness all around.

Wondering what that says about me that I still liked these books with all of that going on.

Truth is, I loved Cassel. Despite everything going on in his family and all the things he's forced to do (sometimes without even knowing it), he's good. He only ever wants to be good and to help those he loves. Makes me sit and philosophize a bit. If I had been raised in Cassel's family, what would I be like. Yes, he runs cons, but wouldn't I if that's all I knew? Holly Black really digs deep into the psychology of what's it's like to be raised in a crime family. The whole setting and atmosphere was fascinating.

And talk about some complex relationships. No surprise really, when you have people in the mix with the ability to change your memories or emotions with a single touch. Overall, I loved all the characters and the complexity. There are also some very funny and sweet characters to lighten the heaviness of the plot (I loved Cassel's grandpa and his friends from school).

Speaking of which, is very clever, with lots of surprising twists and awesome resolutions to major problems. I was surprised that there turned out to be quite a bit of politics in the story, but it all goes along with Holly Black's great world-building. Cassel's world was bigger than just his personal problems. Loved that.

So, if the content doesn't turn you off, I recommend this series for its brilliant storytelling, fully-fleshed original magic system, complex characters, and creativity.

Recommended for fans of magic, contemporary fantasy, and heist books (such as Ally Carter novels).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen

Official summary:
Will Scarlet is good at two things: stealing from the rich and keeping secrets--skills that are in high demand in Robin Hood's band of thieves, who protect the people of Nottingham from the evil sheriff. Scarlet's biggest secret of all is one only Robin and his men know...that she is posing as a thief; that the slip of a boy who is fast with sharp knives is really a girl.

The terrible events in her past that led Scarlet to hide her real identity are in danger of being exposed when the thief taker Lord Gisbourne arrives in town to rid Nottingham of the Hood and his men once and for all. As Gisbourne closes in and puts innocent lives at risk, Scarlet must decide how much the people of Nottingham mean to her, especially John Little, a flirtatious fellow outlaw, and Robin, whose quick smiles have the rare power to unsettle her. There is real honor among these thieves and so much more--making this a fight worth dying for.

My rating: *****

And that's a very high five stars at that. Sometimes I think I should be more judicious with my five-star ratings so I can save them for books I REALLY love like Scarlet. It was such a fantastic book! I had planned to blog about Holly Black's Curse Workers series first, but as soon as I finished reading Scarlet this morning I knew I had to blog about it right away.

First off, I loved Scarlet. She's so human and complex and flawed and fierce. Her voice is very unique (and her grammar atrocious). The story is written in first person, and at first I thought it might bother me (she says 'ain't' constantly, always replaces 'was' with 'were', uses certain words over and over - pipes for throat, bits for, well, certain bits of anatomy, mug for face, etc...), but instead it helped suck me into the story and Scarlet's head even more (the same thing happened to me while reading Saba's voice in Blood Red Road). And it even turns out there's a very compelling reason in the plot for the way she speaks. I just felt for her so much; all the things she endures are awful. But she's brave and you do not want to get in the way of those knives. It was easy to cheer for her and hope desperately right along with her for everything she wanted (and for all those things she didn't dare allow herself to want).

I was worried that I'd have to endure a love triangle after reading the summary, but it's really, refreshingly, not. I thought it was pretty clear from the beginning how Scarlet really felt, so there wasn't much waffling on her part (she's really not the waffling type anyway). The romance is fab.u.lous. Meltingly good and very clean. And the male characters? Just as flawed and lovable as Scarlet. John is awesome. Equal parts dork and sincerely lovable fellow. Much (yes that's a name) was another character I loved for his toughness. Then there's Robin. So noble and brave, yet tormented. He's fiercely loyal and protective of Scarlet, but he lets her make her own decisions. And sometimes he was an idiot. Sometimes he said things that made me hate him. But in the end I loved him all the more for it.

I think I could talk about the characters all day. Sometimes book characters are too dramatic or too extreme to feel real, but the people in Scarlet are so real. I felt like I knew them.

ANYWAY, I've already rambled on too much probably (I can never keep my reviews brief, especially when I love a book, which always makes me want to gush) but I just want to say a couple more things. The story is great. The conflicts are a bit obvious and recycled in the world of Robin Hood retellings (fight the evil sheriff, save the poor oppressed people, evade and escape capture, plenty of thieving and such), but it's all very well done. The side plot with Gisbourne and Scarlet's past is very compelling. I loved the whole girl-in-disguise-as-a-boy thing, because it was an original take on it. The people close to Scarlet know exactly who she is and I thought it was a brilliant twist.

CONTENT ISSUES: There is a little bit of foul language and some crude references (typical medieval fare). One band of Robin's crew in particular isn't shy about his activities with women. Also, there is one person who discovers Scarlet's a girl after attacking her and feeling her chest and another evil guy who wants to take advantage of discovering she's a girl, but doesn't get very far.

Warning: This is a stand-alone novel with no immediate plans for a sequel, but it ends with several big fat plot-lines left open. BIG. FAT. Don't expect a lot of closure. You've been warned, so don't blame me if you finish it and feel the need to throw the book at the wall when you're done. This is what A.C. Gaughen had to say about it on her website:

*Will SCARLET have a sequel, or is it a standalone?
Scarlet was written as a standalone--it's very open ended because though her story ended, the situation in Nottingham certainly didn't. It's also been her challenge all along--to fight against pain and injustice while knowing that these things don't ever really end. They get harder, get easier, and come around again but they never end.
That being said, I can't say for sure if I'll NEVER write another Scarlet story. I love her voice, her friends and her world, so I imagine there's some room for inspiration there!

SPOILERS (highlight to see):

She's really Marian!!! I loved that. Also, what gives??? We don't even get to see a snogging scene between and Scarlet and Robin? I have to say, though, it says something for this book that it is so romantic without even having to seal the deal with a kiss. I think it's one of the  best love stories I've read in ages. It's really love.

Happy reading!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dear me, Mr. Holmes, dear me.

My rating: *****

No, I didn't just finish reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes, but I have just read 3 of the 4 novels and about a dozen of the shorts. I picked up a complete Holmes at a library book sale about, oh, 5 years ago and didn't touch it until a couple weeks ago.

And now I'm in love.

I had no idea they would be so good! Note to self: just because something was published in the latter-half of the 1800s doesn't mean it will read like a Dickens' novel (don't get me wrong - I adore Dickens, but I have to be in the right mood to get into the language). Holmes is so readable. So interesting! The pacing was just as exciting as many modern detective novels. And those brilliant Holmes-ian deductions!!! I've seen those Sherlock moments so many times in different tv/movie adaptations, but none of them wowed me quite the way the original source material did. Woah. Sherlock himself is just so cool and Dr. Watson... well Dr. Watson is one of the most likeable (nay, lovable) characters I've ever encountered in fiction.

I'll admit that part of my motivation for reading Holmes come from my current love of this:

(If you don't know who these people are, go find out right now. Start here.)

Have you seen the new PBS Sherlock series? Do you not love it? It is such a cleverly realized modern version of Sherlock Holmes.

Back to the books for a moment. I started with A Study in Pink, mainly because it's the first and also, half of the book takes place in Utah and deals with Mormons - something I was particularly interested to read about seeing as I am Mormon and grew up in Utah. I'll just say this.... so much creative license was taken with the religion that it didn't bother me because it wasn't anywhere near truth! Very creative, though. And a very interesting plot.

I also read The Hound of the Baskervilles and may I once again say how impressed I am with the new PBS series? They took the House of the Baskervilles plot, kept it recognizable, but completely modernized it and tossed in some big surprises.

Along with a few others, I checked out A Scandal in Bohemia (featuring Irene Adler - THE woman),  The Valley of Fear (hello Moriarty), and The Final Problem - which story the final episode playing this Sunday will be based on. I'm on pins and needles to see what they do with it, because it is intense people and well, I won't say anything else. But I'm excited!

So, if you've seen lots of Sherlock adaptations but never read the books, I highly recommend them. I recommend them if you have any detective story leanings at all. Or even if you don't, Sherlock might convert you! Give them a try. :D

P.S. Coming soon: a review of Holly Black's Curse Workers Series (WOW) and Enchanted by Alethea Kontis (so good!)