Friday, 5 December 2014

Review: The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister

Huge thanks to Netgalley for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review.

Release Date: 13th January 2015

Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus in The Magician’s Lie, a debut novel in which the country’s most notorious female illusionist stands accused of her husband's murder --and she has only one night to convince a small-town policeman of her innocence.
The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Waterloo, Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Is it a new version of the illusion, or an all-too-real murder? When Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, the answer seems clear.
But when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell. Even handcuffed and alone, Arden is far from powerless—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free… and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

When anything tries to compare itself to ‘The Night Circus’ I am hesitant. ‘The Night Circus’ is such a hauntingly beautiful novel that holds such a special place in my heart that nothing ever seems to come close to touching it. ‘The Magician’s Lie’ comes incredibly close though.

The novel is split, between the night when Arden’s husband is found dead and she goes on the run, only to be caught by Virgil, a police officer, and her retelling of her life story whilst in custody. One night and one incredible story later, Virgil must try and untangle what has really happened.

It’s an intriguing premise – a female magician in a period when Arden is the only one, a touring magic show, a desperate and breathless backstory with true love tangled up in it all. The novel is beautifully written and brilliantly executed. The only places where it stumbles are when we are brought back to reality and Arden trying to persuade Virgil of her innocence. The pace slows and I found myself desperate for them to stop talking and for Arden to get back to re-telling her own story.

The novel has been thoroughly researched and it shows, the characters and setting peel off the page and immerse the reader in the tale. It is brilliantly constructed and stitched together and I found myself coming to care about Arden and her story very quickly. She is a wonderful heroine with a fascinating life and I loved her from the start.

The secondary characters are all wonderfully written and the novel is held together by their relationships and interactions. It is startling evocative and beautifully descriptive and I found myself falling in love the further into Arden’s story we delved.

Whilst lovers of ‘The Night Circus’ will be drawn by the comparison, be aware that the emphasis is much heavier on the circus and the illusions and is based in reality with less magic, but that makes it no less magical to read. It is an utterly spellbinding book that explores magic, illusions and the desperate struggle for Arden as a woman to carve out her own place and identity in a male dominated society. I loved this book and it stayed with me long after I read the last page.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

It was on her nineteenth birthday that the soldiers came for Kelsea Glynn. They’d come to escort her back to the place of her birth – and to ensure she survives long enough to be able to take possession of what is rightfully hers.
But like many nineteen-year-olds, Kelsea is unruly, has high principles and believes she knows better than her elders. Unlike many nineteen-year-olds, she is about to inherit a kingdom that is on its knees – corrupt, debauched and dangerous.

Kelsea will either become the most fearsome ruler the kingdom has ever known . . . or be dead within the week.

This book appears to be quite the marmite book with people swearing up and down either that this is an awesome new fantasy, or it’s a big pile of garbage. Luckily I’d managed to steer clear of any reviews prior to reading, so I went in knowing only that there was a lot of buzz surrounding it, and that Emma Watson is attached to a film version currently in the works.

Let’s start by talking about the cover. I love it. It’s one of the best covers I’ve seen this year. Incredibly simple, powerful and effective. And whilst the plot contained within isn’t exactly simple, it certainly gives you a good indication of what you’re going to find.

This is a novel on quite a fantastic scope. It’s a mixture of so many different things – dystopian, fantasy, both young adult and adult, with a fantastic set of characters led by Kelsea.

It took me a little while to warm up to Kelsea, she comes across as a little arrogant, a little bit spiky to start with, but the longer I read the more I loved her. She’s bright and intelligent and determined and so overwhelmed by everything. She’s human, but she’s desperate to try and protect her people, to fix the wrongs that have been going on in her kingdom and be a good leader. However despite all her good intentions she is hampered because no one will talk to her, she has no real knowledge of the kingdom as it is now or during her mother’s reign, which leaves her blind and hobbled and trying to plug all the gaps in a sinking ship. I loved her fierce and wonderful she was, and I loved how insecure and unsure of everything she was as well. She is fiercely human, and you can ask no more from a character than that.

She is surrounded by a cast of brilliant characters. Fetch, the Mace, Pen, all of them help to guide her (and hinder her) and they are so brilliantly constructed. They treat her as their Queen, but also don’t truly respect her, and see her as nothing more than a little girl. It’s brilliantly realistic and wonderfully rendered and I loved watching Kelsea try to win them over, to gain that trust and respect that she desperately needs to try and rule her kingdom.

The world building was, on the whole, very good. I think what will be problematic for some readers is that because Kelsea knows so little, we the readers end up very much in the dark as well. There are lots of little hints at small parcels of knowledge that I’m hoping will be expanded upon over the series. It’s an intriguing world and I loved finding out more about it. It has beautifully woven together elements of a dystopian society as well as a more medieval feudal system. There could be issues further down the line if instead of more explanation the entire history of the Tear is just glossed over and we never learn any more about it as that would prove to be incredibly frustrating. However so far so good, and it provides enough detail to give you a grounding and idea of the world whilst leaving plenty of patches to fill in.

The plot itself is the third piece in the trio that make this brilliant novel work. It is fast paced and exciting, a tense work of art that had me racing through the book. It is also incredibly refreshing to have a plot unhampered by a tag along romance, and I think the book would be weighed down with that tagged on as well. There is so much going on, so much for everyone – fantasy, magic, assassin guilds, politics and scandals and a strong heroine at its heart. I absolutely adored this book. It’s the sort of novel I enjoy getting lost in and I cannot wait for the next book.

Read this if you enjoyed: “The Song of the Lioness Quartet” by Tamora Pierce. “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” by Rae Carson, and “The Seven Kingdoms Trilogy” by Kristin Cashore.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

When Varvara, a young Polish orphan, arrives at the glittering, dangerous court of the Empress Elizabeth in St Petersburg, she is schooled in skills ranging from lock-picking to love-making, learning above all else to stay silent - and listen. 
Then Sophie, a vulnerable young princess, arrives from Prussia as a prospective bride for the Empress' heir. Set to spy on her, Vavara soon becomes her friend and confidante, and helps her navigate the illicit liaisons and the treacherous shifting allegiances of the court. But Sophie's destiny is to become the notorious Catherine the Great. Are her ambitions more lofty and far-reaching than anyone suspected, and will she stop at nothing to achieve absolute power?

After reading a truly terrible young adult account of Sophie, (the future Catherine the Great) a few months ago, I remembered that I had on my shelves another telling of that story, this one recommended by an author I adore, so I decided to give the tale another go.

‘The Winter Palace’ is an intense and gripping story told by Varvara, a Polish orphan who is taken in by the Empress and set to work in the royal wardrobe. She is hungry, exhausted, constantly belittled, and feels she should be destined for greater things if only the Empress knew that she was there living in the palace. By sheer luck and her curiosity she comes to the attention of Count Bestuzhev who trains her and presents her to the Empress as a new spy.

Varvara is a fascinating protagonist. She has a disappointing tendency to become as flat and invisible to the reader as Bestuzhev demands her to be to the occupants of the palace, but on the whole she is an intriguing view point to watch history unfold from. She sees so much, is privy to so much and it is engrossing to watch her become embroiled in the very heart of everything, privy to the Empress herself. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of Russian history will know how the events of the book will play out, but Stachniak manages on the whole to still make it fresh and new and engrossing for the reader as you are enmeshed further along with Varvara.

Stachniak has re-created the Winter Palace with an eye for detail and an ability to convey the sheer grandeur and over indulgence of the period. It is stunning in its complexity and the vibrancy that fairly oozes from the pages as you are drawn into this world with its intrigues and politics and scandals. It is a lush and opulent depiction of life in Russia that Varvara hovers on the edges of, flitting in and out of the main tale and drawing the reader ever deeper into the web of secrets and lies that make up life in the Palace.

There is a distinct lack of urgency in places that really should be steeped in it. Varvara becomes caught up in redecorations of the palace, orders of new gowns and the mundane and the urgency is lost where it should be rampant. Whilst this is a story that details the rise of power and lead up to Catherine’s coup, it does feel that the story ends just as it gets interesting. There should be more of a thrill, an urgency as the pieces are put in place and Catherine takes control of the country. Instead it is a slow and sedate promenade that never fully forms and takes flight, which is disappointing when it could be so much more.

Stachniak has since written a sequel of sorts – a second novel this time from the perspective of Catherine (Sophie) herself, reflecting on her life. Following on from this breath taking foray into Russia and the world of the Winter Palace, I am looking forward to taking myself back there. Lovers of historical fiction will love this look at a crucial turning point in Russian history, and whilst it can drag in a few places, the writing on the whole is brilliant in its execution and will provide a fascinating fresh insight.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Review: As You Wish - Inconceivable Tales from the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princess Bride, comes a first-person account and behind-the-scenes look at the making of the cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.
The Princess Bride has been a family favorite for close to three decades. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 Greatest Love Stories and by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays of all time, The Princess Bride will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.
Cary Elwes was inspired to share his memories and give fans an unprecedented look into the creation of the film while participating in the twenty-fifth anniversary cast reunion. In 
As You Wish he has created an enchanting experience; in addition to never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, there are plenty of set secrets, backstage stories, and answers to lingering questions about off-screen romances that have plagued fans for years!
With a foreword by Rob Reiner and a limited edition original poster by acclaimed artist Shepard Fairey, 
As You Wish is a must-have for all fans of this beloved film.

I am a rather huge fan of The Princess Bride. I’ve been watching it ever since I was seven and my sister brought home a copy of it on video and I watched it on repeat. It has everything, it is a classic, it is utter genius and pure brilliance and if you haven’t seen this film or read the book, you need to remedy this immediately. As brilliant as the book is, I highly recommend watching the film first.

So when it was announced about a year ago that Cary Elwes would be releasing a behind the scenes making of book extravaganza, I was one of the people whose shrieks of joy could be heard the world over.

The book is beautiful, lovingly created with some gorgeous photographs and a wonderful piece of art hidden inside the dust-jacket. The whole thing reflects the film itself, it’s a labour of love with everyone involved coming together to provide stories, musings and recollections about the process and filming of The Princess Bride. It’s like putting on a favourite sweater and slippers and drinking a hot mug of tea – warm and comforting, familiar and wonderful. I laughed, I got a little teary eyed, and the whole thing was a magical experience, a beautiful way to go back and revisit the film and to hear from the team that brought it to us so many little tales from behind the scenes that helped make it even more brilliant.

The audiobook is also fantastic, read by Elwes himself with the other cast lending a supporting role for their own tales. It’s a labour of love for the people who love the film, by the people who loved bringing it to life.

My only complaint is that the writing does have a tendency to go round in circles and make the same point twice – it could have done with some tightening up and a bit of editing in places. On the whole though, this is a beautiful book, lovingly written and created, and one that adds another piece of magic to an already magical tale.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Review: Bonfire Night (A Lady Julia Grey Novella) by Deanna Raybourn

It's the autumn of 1890, and almost a year has passed since—much to their surprise—Lady Julia and Nicholas became parents. Just as the couple begins to adapt, a solicitor arrives with a strange bequest. Nicholas, it seems, has inherited a country house—but only if he and his family are in residence from All Hallows' Eve through Bonfire Night.
Neither Lady Julia nor Nicholas is likely to be put off by local legends of ghosts and witches, and the eerie noises and strange lights that flit from room to room simply intrigue them. Until a new lady's maid disappears, igniting a caper that will have explosive results…

I adore the Lady Julia mysteries in a way that defies attempting to explain it like a rational human being. Let’s just leave it at this: they are wonderful books and if you haven’t read them yet then you need to, because Raybourn is one of the best writers I have had the pleasure of reading. This series of books found me quite by chance when I had finished reading Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate Series and wanted something similar. Amazon, in its infinite wisdom suggested I read these, and I have never looked back.

They are brilliantly constructed mysteries with a wonderful heroine at their heart, a broodingly acerbic hero and a cast of excellent characters that make these such a pleasure to come back to. With all that in mind, when the news came out that Deanna Raybourn was parting from her publishers and the chances of another Lady Julia novel had just dropped to virtually non-existant, I was devastated. I love these books and I had hoped to get just one more book to tie up some more ends that had been left. Instead we got the novellas, and whilst I was initially hesitant, Raybourn has done a truly spectacular job of not only telling more of Julia’s story through the four novellas, but also weaving in elements of it into her three novels set in the twenties. Between them we’ve been given a very good idea of where Julia was heading and what happened to her after the events of ‘The Dark Enquiry’.

So with everything built up to a head with the Vespiary in the last novella as well as ‘Night of a Thousand Stars’ I was expecting more of a conclusion where we see the start of that, of how Julia and Brisbane become involved and set it up and the beginning of their parenthood with baby Jack. We definitely got baby Jack and parenthood but there wasn’t a whisper of the Vespiary anywhere, which was quite disappointing.

The novella was a beautifully written little side story, one that I could have quite happily read much more of, but as a final instalment for such a wonderful series? It really didn’t even come close. There was no real closure to speak of, it just felt like another one of Julia and Brisbane’s mysteries – something I am always happy to read – but it didn’t feel like the end of the series.

Part of me now lives in hope that one day we will get another book or novella, something to give us the closure needed on all of these threads (or some mention or cameo in another series just to tie everything up) but I have a horrible feeling that that may not happen. So my rating is not on the novella as a series end, but on the novella as a story (which is wonderful) instead.

Now let's just hope that the publishers decide to honour this series by creating a paperback with all four novellas in, so that all readers can enjoy them, not just those with e-readers.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Review: Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

Once upon a time…
A duke fell in love

Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, values order and self-control above all else. So when he meets a lady as serene as she is beautiful, he promptly asks for her hand in marriage.

With a lady 
Edie—whose passionate temperament is the opposite of serene—had such a high fever at her own debut ball that she didn’t notice anyone, not even the notoriously elusive Duke of Kinross. When her father accepts his offer… she panics.
And when their marriage night isn’t all it could be, she pretends.
In a tower. 
But Edie’s inability to hide her feelings makes pretending impossible, and when their marriage implodes, she retreats to a tower—locking Gowan out.
Now Gowan faces his greatest challenge. Neither commands nor reason work with his spirited young bride. How can he convince her to give him the keys to the tower…
When she already has the keys to his heart?

First complaint is a side note unrelated to the novel per-se. Why can’t publishers double check things like the names of their hero on the blurb of a book before okaying it? It was incredibly confusing and frustrating to go into the novel expecting the hero to be called Rhys and then wonder why he hasn’t shown up and this guy Gowan is there instead. Petty, but frustrating.

Right, the book.

I love Eloisa James’ novels. They are witty, clever, and full of fantastic heroes and heroines just waiting to pull you into a slightly more romantic world. Whilst nothing will beat the ‘Desperate Duchesses’ series for me personally, James’ retelling of fairytales as regency romances has been inspired. I adored Cinderella (A Kiss at Midnight) and Beauty & the Beast (When Beauty Tamed the Beast) but there was something about this version of Rapunzel that just didn’t quite do it for me.

I read romance novels for escape when life becomes particularly problematic. I like to know that there is a safe formula that will ensure a happy ending (with a few bumps along the way) and a wonderful hero waiting to sweep the feisty and intelligent heroine off her feet before the last page.

So when I’m faced with a truly unlikeable hero it kinda puts a crimp in my plans. Gowan really frustrated me. I understand that he was meant to grow as a person and develop and change, but given the awful things that he says to Edie, he never did enough grovelling to really creep back into my good graces. He decides to follow a regimented plan for their marriage bed and as a result doesn’t communicate or even really acknowledge Edie. Edie meanwhile is in so much pain from his ministrations that she lies woodenly in bed and tries desperately not to whimper and let him get on with it. Not exactly romantic.

Now I love that James decided to go with a new version of the story, I love that she tackled problems that you don’t normally see in romantic fiction – that the hero is too well endowed and that the heroine finds copulation not only not pleasant, but downright painful. This is excellent that it’s being explored in fiction. I learnt an awful lot about relationships and sex through romance novels, and this is something that I haven’t seen tackled before, so I want to stand up and cheer for the fact that James is tackling it head on. My issue lies with Gowan being so awful to Edie (to everyone actually) and yes he has an epiphany, and yes he apologises, but for me the reader who has just been through all this awful terrible nightmare along with Edie it is not enough. He wrecks her emotionally. And sorry is not enough to repair that damage. When he returns to her she is a shell of her former self and yes she puts up a small amount of resistance and yes he is repentant, but thirty odd pages is not enough to convince me that this abusive relationship has been repaired. It was not intentionally abusive, but the effect is still the same. There needed to be more redemption, a longer road to recovery, not a quick fix, and that let down the entire novel for me.

I imagine most people will read this book and enjoy it as they would any other of James’ novels, but for those people who have either experienced or witnessed abusive relationships, Gowan is not going to be a hero you end up rooting for.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing

The Jewel means wealth. The Jewel means beauty. The Jewel means royalty. But for girls like Violet, the Jewel means servitude. Not just any kind of servitude. Violet, born and raised in the Marsh, has been trained as a surrogate for the royalty—because in the Jewel the only thing more important than opulence is offspring.
Purchased at the surrogacy auction by the Duchess of the Lake and greeted with a slap to the face, Violet (now known only as #197) quickly learns of the brutal truths that lie beneath the Jewel’s glittering facade: the cruelty, backstabbing, and hidden violence that have become the royal way of life.

Violet must accept the ugly realities of her existence... and try to stay alive. But then a forbidden romance erupts between Violet and a handsome gentleman hired as a companion to the Duchess’s petulant niece. Though his presence makes life in the Jewel a bit brighter, the consequences of their illicit relationship will cost them both more than they bargained for.

This book was intriguing, with a brilliant premise, but unfortunately the execution was lacking and turned the concept into something more problematic.
With such a brilliant and horrifying idea at the heart, it was incredibly frustrating that half way through a love interest was brought in for Violet which then became the focus. The love interest itself was problematic – there was no build up of the relationship, no real relationship to speak of that the reader can see develop. Just a few stolen moments and then suddenly, ‘we’re in love!’ which has been done to death in fiction, particularly at the moment. It then provides a truly ridiculous springboard for a climactic end to the book, another cliff hanger for the sake of trying to keep readers hooked rather than a natural end to the book with a lead into the next one. The romance really slows down the story and takes away from the focus of the story which could be brilliant with a bit of work.

The premise is horrifying, twisted and dark, but also has the opportunity to handle a lot of issues that most books shy away from. It gives an opening to look at agency, consent and a lot of the issues that come with that. Instead it cotton coats those things with a light fluffy romance that ultimately takes away from the main story and everything that it could become.

As with so many books, there is so much potential, and it just isn’t fully realised. Instead making it more marketable with a romance. I really hope that with the following books the romance is pushed to one side and the social system and problematic issues with the Surrogates is addressed. Before the romance comes in the book is fantastic. It’s engrossing and horrifying, but also incredibly compelling with some wonderful characters. The class system and the way the Jewel is made up is fascinating and I loved the expansion of the world as Violet was trotted out and put on show – I wanted more of that!

It’s a light and quick read and shares a lot of similarities with so many other books in the Young Adult market at the moment – The Selction by Keira Cass and Wither by Lauren DeStefano with shades of The Hunger Games creeping in with other elements. You can see the Capitol creeping in once Violet reaches the Jewel and is repackaged and sold.

Definitely an intriguing read, but not without its problems. Fans of the three series mentioned above would probably enjoy most of the elements, but be warned about ridiculous romance subplots and frustrating cliffhangers.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Review: Vowed by Liz de Jager

The Blackhart Code:
Don't let the monsters grind you down
A Blackhart can see the supernatural behind everyday crimes. But some crimes hide even greater evils…

Kit Blackhart must investigate why children are disappearing from a London estate. However, their parents, police and fae allies claim to know nothing. And as yet more children disappear, the pressure mounts. Luckily, or unluckily, government trainee Dante Alexander is helping Kit with the case. Yet just as her feelings towards him begin to thaw, his life falls apart. As Kit struggles to unravel his problems and dangerous secrets, she meets fae Prince Thorn in her dreams – but their relationship is utterly forbidden.
Then Kit digs too deep, and uncovers a mystery that’s been hidden for one thousand years. It’s a secret that could just tear down our world.

I read the first book in this series, ‘Banished’ in March this year when I was stuck in hospital. I happened to have it on my kindle and devoured it in a matter of hours. I loved it. It was fast paced and funny and had such a fantastic plot that twisted and turned and kept me on my toes the entire time. The characters were brilliant and it was bursting with imagination and brilliance. So I was pretty excited to get my hands on the second book and get right back to where we’d left off with Kit and her friends. Only it didn’t quite turn out like that.
Yes there were still the characters I loved, plus a few new ones, and there was still the magic underside to the world we already know, but it didn’t quite have the same sparkle as the first book. The biggest problem was pacing. Whereas the first book keeps you on your toes with an array of pitstops on the ultimate quest as you race to figure out what’s wrong, this installment felt slow and sluggish. At five hundred pages it’s vying against a couple of the Harry Potter’s for sheer volume of story, but there is a distinct lack of meat to keep you interested for those pages.

I know the point is for the reader to experience the frustration along with Kit as she tries to solve the case with little to nothing to go on, but instead it merely prompted me to put the book down every few pages and go and have a break. An interesting story, no matter the length, will have me glued to the book and finished in a few hours, this book took weeks to plough through. The problem was it felt like a filler book. Not enough of a plot to sustain the length of novel before we get to the next book, with presumably a lot more action as it all kicks off. Quiet before the storm books are great when they’re done well, but this one just didn’t quite manage it. I wanted the action to be driven forward, not to watch as Kit ate breakfast, went clubbing and managed to get very little sleep.

Which was just disappointing given how much I loved the first book.

This is still a fantastic series from a brilliant new author, but unfortunately this isn’t as strong as her debut, I’m sure though that with everything being amped up for confrontations in the next book, the next installment will be back on top form and a breathlessly brilliant ride.

Fans of Cassandra Clare, Harry Potter and Laini Taylor should definitely check out the first book ‘Banished’, but maybe hold on for the second one until you can go straight from the quiet slow pace of the second book and race into the third.