REVIEW of The Drowned Vault, by N.D. Wilson

20 Jan

drownedvault1201This review should have happened several months ago, back in 2012. It’s part of my catch-up for the new year to get this book review blog back on track.

I bought The Drowned Vault, by N.D. Wilson the day it was released and read it cover to cover by the next day. Cy and Tigs, responsible for the havoc wreaked in the last book and for losing the Dragon’s Tooth, experience the animosity of the Order of Brendan in Ashtown. Only a few friends will teach them the skills they need to progress in the Order. When Dr. Phoenix begins tracking down the Immortals and killing them with the Dragon’s Tooth, the rest of the Immortals, led by Gilgamesh of Uruk, come to Ashtown demanding justice. The meeting erupts in a brawl that will ultimately send Cy, Tigs, and their keeper Rupert, into flight away from Ashtown and into the unknown.

Arachne figures in this book as the most interesting new character. She uses her weaving skills to not only protect Cyrus and Antigone but also to remake them into something super-human. The two Smiths learn the real story of John Smith, their famous ancestor, who became immortal himself and was imprisoned in a drowned vault. But unlocking his chains will unlock an evil even greater than that of Dr. Phoenix. <scary music>

An excellent sequel to the first book. Looking forward to book three….

REVIEW of Deerskin, by Robin McKinley

16 Nov

Robin McKinley is one of my all-time favorite YA authors. Not only do I love her imaginative stories, but she also writes with grippingly beautiful prose. Deerskin, a fairy tale adaptation written for adults, was one of the few McKinley creations that I had not read. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this Kirkus Review of it:

 Turgid, lurid, soporific fluff. Might have made an adequate fairy tale at a twentieth of the bulk. McKinley will have to do much better than this to capture an adult audience.

WHAT? How could anyone call a McKinley book turgid or lurid? Determined to prove this review wrong, I immediately checked out the book from the library and moved it to the top of my TBR pile.

Princess Lissar was the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the world, and when her mother died, her father was completely heartbroken. Never would he find another woman to match her…until his own daughter begins to grow into womanhood. If this is starting to feel creepy to you, there’s a reason for that. Lissar’s father decides to marry her, and when she rejects him, he rapes her and leaves her to die. Along with her faithful fleethound, she painfully flees into the forest and spends months recovering her health. Blessed by the moon goddess with a changed face and a dress of spotless deerskin, Lissar travels to a nearby kingdom where she works in Prince Ossin’s kennels taking care of his fleethounds. She finds a remarkable affinity for the stout, dog-loving prince, and he is impressed by her beauty, diligence, and determination. The story comes to a dramatic conclusion when her father shows up in the same kingdom, seeking to marry Ossin’s sister.

This book is based on an old fairy tale named Donkeyskin, a fairy tale I remember reading as a child. Consequently, I knew where the story was going, and the king’s behavior toward his daughter wasn’t exactly a surprise. I wasn’t very far into the book, however, when I realized that the disparaging Kirkus review might be a little closer to the mark than I was previously willing to accept. As Lissar wanders into the forest, I found myself skipping paragraph after paragraph of, yes, turgid description. And the scenes of her examining her body and reliving the rape were, yes, downright lurid. McKinley’s YA fairy tale adaptations are full of charm and beauty. This book seemed more like the psychological analysis of a rape and incest victim. And while there’s probably a place for that sort of thing somewhere in the literary world, it’s not the cream and sugar I like to stir into my fantasy novels.

REVIEW of The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley

15 Nov

It’s been several months since I last wrote a review on this blog and, coincidentally, several months since I finished The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley. During that time I’ve been reading a little less, writing a little less, and making frequent trips to the hospital with my oldest son. But rather than let my book reviewing languish entirely, I’ve decided to catch up by posting some shorter reviews of books I’ve read during my hiatus.

The Rose Garden is the third Kearsley book I’ve read. I was incredibly impressed with The Shadowy Horses, I enjoyed The Winter Sea, and I am happy to say that The Rose Garden in no way disappointed my expectations. In this book, the heroine Eva comes to Cornwall to spread her dead sister’s ashes in the place that the two were happiest. She reunites with childhood friends and faces the difficult task of grieving, but another task even more difficult is dealing with the strange time travel episodes that continually beset her. The old house lies on ancient ley lines, and Eva finds herself inexplicably transported back and forth across a span of 300 years. During her time in the 1700′s, she  finds romance with Daniel, a gentleman, a widower, and a fearless smuggler. He, in turn, finds much to admire in her, providing her with a new wardrobe, teaching her how to do her hair in the correct eighteenth century style, and protecting her from all that threatens her in the unfamiliar past. As the book winds to a close, Eva must make a choice–stay with Daniel and be his wife, or live in the present in the world she has always known.

The plot of this book reminded me of the Hugh Jackman/Meg Ryan movie Kate and Leopold, but there is a poetic beauty to Kearsley’s story that kept it from feeling cliche. I don’t often give books five stars on Goodreads. This one, I will.

REVIEW of The Woodcutter, by Kate Danley

9 Apr

When I was little, my favorite part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show was always the “Fractured Fairytales” segment. I loved how they took classic fairy tales and gave them a humorous twist. Lately, this same idea has become increasingly popular as TV shows like Once upon a Time and movies like Shrek put their own spin on the folk stories of long ago.

The Woodcutter, by Kate Danley is a novel that draws from a wealth of fairy tale lore. A horrifying beast has been prowling the forest, terrifying innocent girls like Cinderella to death, and it is up to the Woodcutter, the guardian of the forest, to put things to rights. But when the Woodcutter begins his quest, he discovers that deeper doings are afoot. The Twelve Kingdoms themselves are under threat from a nefarious Queen and her consort the Gentleman. Stolen pixie dust, moving palaces, Rumpelstiltskin, twelve dancing princesses, and a boy named Jack all find their place in an epic adventure that takes the reader to fairyland and beyond.

Danley weaves together fairy tales in a fascinating web, creating a whole new story with great depth and emotion. In many ways, her book is the opposite of Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime series. For Fforde, the nursery rhyme and fairy tale allusions are all there to provide tongue in cheek humor. For Danley, the shards of story are there to craft her own beautiful mosaic. She skillfully paints the character of the Woodcutter, a man whose greatest desire is to go home to his ordinary Wife, but who must instead shoulder his duty to guard the Wood as did his father before him. His pain at being childless and his pity for the helpless create a multi-dimensional protagonist easy to empathize with.

Kate Danley’s book is self-published and may be difficult to get a hold of through the library. It is certainly worth the extra effort to find it, however, and I enthusiastically recommend it to all aficionados of fairy tales, fables, and mythology.

REVIEW of The Winter Sea, by Susanna Kearsley

5 Apr

I discovered Susanna Kearsley a little over a year ago when I read, enjoyed, and reviewed The Shadowy Horses. Ever since then I’ve been looking to read more of her books. The historical fiction community on-line has been raving about Kearsley’s novel The Winter Sea, and I was finally able to get a hold of it at the library.

The Winter Sea is a timeslip novel with half of it set in present day Scotland and half of it set in the early eighteenth century at the same location. The protagonist, Carrie McClelland, is a historical novelist working on a novel about one of the Jacobites’ attempted invasions. She comes to Scotland to research her story and get inspired by the scenery and the ruins of the castle at Slains. Carrie rents a cottage from Jimmy Keith, one of the old locals who still speaks the Doric dialect, and makes the acquaintance of his two handsome sons: Stuart, the playboy who thinks Carrie is sure to fall for him, and Graham, the history lecturer at the university in Aberdeen.

Living near the ruins of Slains, Carrie experiences writing inspiration of a magnitude she’s never felt before. Every night she writes like a woman in a dream and comes out of her trance to discover that she’s typed 5,000 words or more. Her fictional heroine, Sophia Paterson, is named after one of her ancestors from the Jacobite period. But as Carrie writes more and more about Sophia, describing her sojourn at Slains, her relationship with John Moray, and the treacherous plots swirling around her, a startling thing happens. What Carrie thought was fiction, an invention of her own brain, turns out time and time again to be the stuff of history. Everything that Carrie has written about Sophia is confirmed by her research in the primary source documents. Aghast at her own seemingly psychic abilities, Carrie searches for a rational explanation to explain away the coincidences. But with fiction and history inseparably intertwined, Carrie is faced with another problem: how can Sophia have a happily ever after when all of the actual events say otherwise?

The Winter Sea didn’t fully capture my interest until I was about halfway into the book. Usually, in a timeslip novel, I find myself more interested in the events of yesteryear than in the modern story. But with this book, it was the opposite. I found Carrie McClelland far more engaging than her heroine Sophia. Perhaps it was because the historical setting was during an era that doesn’t really capture my fancy–give me anything that takes place after the Tudors and my interest wanes considerably.  Eventually, however, I was pulled in to the story and became involved with the characters. Although The Shadowy Horses still remains my favorite Kearsley novel, The Winter Sea was a worthy second. And if I can ever find time to make it down to the library, I have another Kearsley there waiting for me….

REVIEW of The Crown, by Nancy Bilyeau

20 Mar

I didn’t enter any historical fiction reading challenges this year, and consequently, the amount of historical fiction in my TBR pile has significantly declined from last year. The Crown, by Nancy Bilyeau is the first historical novel I’ve read, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t pass it up! It’s a historical whodunit that belongs right up there with Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books and Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels–and if you know my penchant for Peters and Davis, that’s high praise indeed.

Set during the reign of Henry VIII of England, The Crown follows the story of Joanna Stafford, a novice at Dartford Priory. In an era when the monasteries are being dissolved to satisfy the king’s cupidity, it is an unfortunate time to be taking holy orders. When Joanna breaks the rule of enclosure to travel to see the execution of her cousin Margaret, she runs afoul of the authorities and is imprisoned, along with her father, in the Tower of London. The Bishop of Winchester agrees to let her return to Dartford on one condition: she must search for and find the ancient crown of Athelstan which is rumored to be hidden there. Her father will stay a prisoner to ensure that she accomplishes her mission.

Bilyeau paints a rich world of religious life in Tudor England and surrounds Joanna with memorable characters–a chivalrous constable, a tormented friar, a hard-nosed prioress, an ambitious prelate. The past life of the protagonist unfolds tantalizingly throughout the course of the novel, always making you want to know more about her. After a murder takes place in the priory, the story intensifies to the point that the book is impossible to set down. I stayed up far too late finishing this book, and the ending did not disappoint! All in all, The Crown is a superb debut novel, and I look forward to reading whatever else Nancy Bilyeau publishes in the future.

REVIEW of Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale

19 Mar

Midnight in Austenland, by Shannon Hale is a sequel of sorts to her bestseller Austenland which I read and reviewed last month. While the first book had overtones of Pride and Prejudice as Jane Hayes tried to figure out the haughty Mr. Nobley, this book plays up aspects of Mansfield Park with a doormat heroine and a staged theatrical and Northanger Abbey with a gothic mystery and a suspected murder. Charlotte Kinder is a sweet and intelligent thirty-something-year-old whose husband has just left her for another woman. Depressed and alone, Charlotte discovers and devours Jane Austen’s books. Thanks to her on-line landscaping business, Charlotte is possessed of limitless wealth. She decides to take a trip to England and visit Pembrook Park, a sort of theme park for wealthy women interested in role-playing characters from the Regency period.

Having already read the first novel, I found that the novelty of Austenland lost a little bit of its luster for me. Charlotte goes through the same experience of finding romance as Jane Hayes did in the first book, being torn between two different actors in the cast, one of whom loves her truly, and one of whom is only pretending. Hale mixes up the plot a little by putting Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the proprietress, in financial distress. Pembrook Park is in danger of shutting down, and someone there, it seems, is ready to kill to stop that from happening. As mysteries go, the clues to the murder were poorly contrived. In one dramatic scene, Charlotte catches the murderer hiding the keys to the victim’s BMW inside a vase. I found it extremely strange that he would still have the keys after submerging the car and the body in the estate’s pond.

Overall, Midnight in Austenland was a bit of a disappointment to me. If I hadn’t been running short on library books, I might not have taken the time to finish it.

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