The Bridei Chronicles by Juliet Marillier

Seeing as how it's Christmas vacation and I've had some lovely time to myself with the hubby home all week, I finally decided to pick up a series that has been sitting on my shelf for probably over two years now. Ridiculous, no? Especially since it is by one of my favorite authors, Juliet Marillier. Although to be fair, I did need some serious time to devote to the entire series seeing as each book is around 500 pages. Unlike her Sevenwaters and The Light Isles series, The Bridei Chronicles are one continual story -- spanning only about ten years at most. Which is why I've decided to review all three here for you in one fell swoop instead of doing separate installments. Because frankly, I'm too lazy for that, you will NOT want to wait between reading each installment. Trust me.

**And in the interest of keeping things from getting too spoilerly, I'm going to be purposefully vague on some of the details.

Like any good sprawling fantasy, The Bridei Chronicles span several countries and lots and lots of characters. But mostly the series focus on one special boy named Bridei who is being raised to become the next great king of Fortriu. And it all begins with The Dark Mirror. Fostered out to be raised strictly by the powerful druid Briochan, Bridei is taught everything from a very young age -- history, politics, warfare, and even the lore of the druids. But such a demanding life is lonely for a young boy until one night when The Shining One sends a gift to Bridei, a tiny, perfect baby girl. Even though he immediately knows this baby is anything but human, Bridei claims her as his own sister and names her Tuala, against the wishes of Briochan. From the start, Briochan fights Bridei's affection for Tuala but the gods have a different fate in mind for them all.

I so love the set up of this series. Family, loyalty and above all learning when to put yourself second and when to put your wants and beliefs first. And it's all so intricately woven together: politics, history, intrigue, religion and enough adventure and trials to make your head spin. After watching Bridei and Tuala grow up and face numerous challenges it was so amazing to see them come full circle and come into the destiny they were always meant to achieve. And the mythology! Juliet Marillier is a master at weaving details of the Pict and Celtic (new this time!) gods right into the fabric of her stories. She never misses a beat with her gorgeous prose and characters. Bridei is one of those heroes who is so good but who has worked so exceptionally hard to be good that you don't even mind him winning at everything. In fact, it just wouldn't be right if he didn't.


Picking up about five years after the satisfying finish of The Dark Mirror, the next installment, The Blade of Fortriu finds Bridei and Tuala happily ensconced in their new castle while planning a large scale battle with the Gaels. In hopes of securing one last piece of political and military strength, Bridei has sent of his good friend and political hostage Ana, Princess of the Light Isles to marry an unknown Caitt chieftain named Alpin. To make sure she is safe and the appropriate terms met, Bridei also sends his most trusted though somewhat shady man-at-arms Faolan to see the mission through. But disaster upon disaster follows the company. Compounded with the layers of dark secrets they encounter once at Alpin's fortress, it'll take all of Faolan's cunning and Ana's perceptiveness to keep them from utter failure.

If there was one single character from The Dark Mirror who I wanted to see more of it was Faolan. Who wouldn't? As a Gaelic spy and assassin, Faolan is one of those dark, forbidding types who you just know has history. And boy, does he ever. I might have done a happy dance when I discovered he would be a featured character in Blade. His character was so extremely layered and slippery that I was extremely anxious for him for about 90% of the book. Oh, Ms. Marillier, you sure know how to spin out suspense to the extreme! My only complaint would have to be with the princess Ana. I was with her until about half-way through the story when she really started to get on my nerves. Which I admit was a first with a Marillier character, but luckily she did manage to develop a back-bone and I became interested (if only somewhat lessened) again. While The Blade of Fortriu didn't wind up to be my favorite book of series, it did end more than satisfyingly that I thought it might. Aaaand it served as an extremely important setup to the final book in the series. Which contains more Faolan. Don't you know I dove into that one straight away?


In The Well of Shades, Bridei is so close to finally realizing his dream of united and peaceful Fortriu. But he knows it is crucial to discover who are his true allies and those who are simply biding their time to strike once again. For this delicate mission, Bridei once again turns to his trusted friend and spymaster Faolan (yay!) who is not a little unchanged after his disastrous mission to the Caitts in The Blade of Fortriu. Hoping to finally put some of demons to rest, Faolan begins a journey to his homeland to collect intelligence and to fulfill a dying promise to a trusted friend. What he finds is Eile, a young girl who has more strength than Faolan has ever encountered.

To be honest, I really didn't know what to expect with this final installment in the Bridei story. While it does follow Faolan on his journeys for a large portion of the book, Ms. Marillier did manage to spend quality time with Bridei and Tuala and their many struggles at Cloud Hill for much of the story. Which was a happy reunion for this reader to be sure. How gratifying it was to see Bridei handling the challenges of being a king in a true partnership with Tuala. I just love the trust and respect between those two. And then there's Faolan. Goodness, I couldn't have imagined a better ending for that scarred man. Eile was a perfect feisty and fearless yet totally selfless foil to Ana's pale boring goodness (I know, harsh) from the previous book. Honestly, she's probably one of my new favorite Marillier heroines (right up there with Sorcha and Liadan) and I couldn't think of anyone better to challenge and love Faolan. All said and done, this was a stand-out series with intricately woven conflicts and much in the way of the power of redemption. There's a reason I will read simply anything Juliet Marillier writes. This series is a prime example.

series reading order:
~ The Dark Mirror
~ The Blade of Fortriu
~ The Well of Shades

Because everyone likes a second opinion:
Book Harbinger's review book one, two, three
Calico Reaction review book one
Chachic's Book Nook review book one

book source: bought

Dead Spots by Melissa F. Olson

Y'all are aware that I am a fan of the Urban Fantasy genre. Like, big time. I'm always looking for another new book to tickle my fancy and there are plenty of stories out there for me to take for a spin. Unfortunately it seems like a lot of UF debuts don't really much to offer in terms of originality or spark and so I've been getting discouraged of late, thinking "well, there's always my old standbys." That is, until I decided to pick up a largely unheard of debut by author Melissa F. Olson called Dead Spots. Read on, friends. This was a good 'un.

Vampires, werewolves, and witches are not just a story cooked up to scare you at night. A fact which Scarlett Bernard knows firsthand as she runs a type of 'house cleaning' service for the secret Old World. As a null, someone who basically defuses any type of magic just by coming within 10 feet of it, her services are highly rated and extremely rare within the magical community and as such often gets calls to clean up 'mistakes' and other messy situations before the public at large can ask any pesky questions. And she's doing pretty good at it -- or at least faking it pretty good while trying to figure out how to deal with all the hurt and loss she's been handed in the past few years. At least that's sort of working until she gets called to fix up a grisly murder scene and is caught by one very surprised detective, Jesse Cruz. Understandably, the head honchos of clan Wolf and Vampire are none too thrilled about Scarlett's new cop shadow and demand she make things right. Which she's trying to do, only how's a girl to solve a murder with absolutely no clues to go on?

Let's just say this book caught me hard. Hard enough to blow through it in one sitting that is. The story was intricate and multidimensional with plenty of fodder left unsolved for sequels to deal with. Scarlett at first glance does seem a bit predictable but she quickly reveals herself to be extremely layered and carting around a barrel full of grief and heartache. She's an exceptionally compelling individual with more to offer than she even knows herself.

My favorite aspect of Dead Spots has to be the memorable character interactions. With a perky vampire roommate, a dead scary (ha!) vampire boss, a cop with no idea what he's gotten himself into, and a somewhat complicated relationship with a werewolf named Eli, Scarlett's relationships are highly unusual and immensely entertaining. I do hope to get more of the bartender Eli in subsequent books as I have developed quite a soft spot where that werewolf is concerned. And although I didn't exactly love the squeaky, shiny persona of Jesse Cruz at first, he eventually won me over with his trademark persistence.

Dead Spots will inevitably be compared to the Sookie Stackhouse series -- and for good reason. Scarlett's youth and lack of training are very similar to Sookie's, along with the whole werewolf/vampire/witch trifecta but Melissa Olson makes the story her own with unique and believable characters and intriguing conflicts. I will definitely be back for more.

Wanna read more? Check out the first chapter here.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Cookies, Books and Bikes review
Mixed Book Bag review

book source: purchased

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo

Thanks to Holly I was altered to the fact that the Aussie debut, Good Oil by Laura Buzo would soon be making it's appearance in the US under the new name of Love and Other Perishable Items. I just knew it was something I had to pick up (even though frankly I was a little disappointed with the title and cover change). And just because I think the description from Goodreads is just so dang perfect, here ya go.
"Miss Amelia Hayes, welcome to The Land of Dreams. I am the staff trainer. I will call you grasshopper and you will call me sensei and I will give you the good oil. Right? And just so you know, I’m open to all kinds of bribery."

From the moment 15-year-old Amelia begins work on the checkout at Woolworths she is sunk, gone, lost… head-over-heels in love with Chris. Chris is the funny, charming, man-about-Woolies, but he’s 21, and the 6-year difference in their ages may as well be a hundred. Chris and Amelia talk about everything from Second Wave Feminism to Great Expectations and Alien but will he ever look at her in the way she wants him to? And if he does, will it be everything she hopes?
I had heard from various trusted reviewers that Love and Other Perishable Items (aka Good Oil to the rest of the world) was a title not to be missed, especially for fans of the Melina Marchetta ilk. Well, I'm definitely in that category and I can safely say this Aussie debut completely stole my heart. Most notably however is utter realness and believablity of Amelia and Chris' characters. I know many readers will immediately latch onto their struggles because they are the crises of every single teenager and young adult. Amelia facing the hopelessness of a crush she knows she'll never, ever be able to be with and Chris for his inability to settle on a course for his future -- the sort of limbo most college students inevitably face. On the surface, their heartaches and trials seem minor and not at all earth shattering until you come to understand them as individuals and reader, I can tell you, that they also now mean the world to ME.

How I wish I could go back and read many of those books Amelia is trying to figure out for the first time again. Her visceral responses to many of the seeming injustices of the characters lives (like why oh why did Pip wind up with Estella?? I always hated that ending anyways) so resonated with me.

And Chris *sigh* At times I simply wanted to smack that boy upside the head for his seemingly unendless supply of cluelessness. For all his book smarts and sociable ease, he sure drove me up a wall with his never ending ineptitude on the female front. My heart ached for Amelia as she listened to his many confidences, knowing she'd never have a chance with him. That said, Laura Buzo did have a flash of brilliance when she decided to split the novel POV's in chunks between the two protagonists. Gaining insight into Chris' own heartaches consequently left me longing to simply scoop him up and lovingly point him in the right direction. And the ending? Well, the word bittersweet comes to mind and beyond that I'm not gonna say anything because you just have to pick it up for yourself.

My only complaint? That it ended too soon. I'd love another chance to catch up with Amelia and Chris -- especially in another ten or fifteen years to see how they are getting on. Sadly, no sequel seems to be on the horizon but you can bet that Love and Other Perishable Items will be a title that I'll return to in the future. It's got a voice I just won't be able to forget easily.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Book Harbinger review
Chachic's Book Nook review
Inkcrush review

book source: Netgalley

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
As Retro Friday reviews go, this one has been a long time coming. I find I must start with a confession: I have never read a single, solitary book by Lloyd Alexander. Baffling, no? Looking back, I find it a HUGE oversight on the part of all those librarians I unabashedly pestered as a youngster. But I'm older now, and wanted to mend my ways and after some gentle prodding from Angie's direction, decided to have a go with Westmark as it was promised to include political intrigue and high adventure. Which was basically like dangling the proverbially carrot in front of a hungry horse.

On the run and facing imprisonment (or worse) Theo runs head-long into the finest charlatan ever to walk the streets of Westmark, Count Las Bombas and his dwarf companion, Musket. Although uncomfortable with their easy style of thievery, Theo is reluctant to part company after they are joined by the street urchin Mickle and eventually travel to the palace itself to face the Chief Minster Carrabas, who is determined to take control of Westmark for himself.

Fast-paced yet utterly subtle in it's detail Westmark was a revelation to me. I don't think I have ever read anything so tightly written with such deliberate adventure but still chock-full of complex discussions on right and wrong. By allowing the reader to follow Theo on his travels through Westmark, we are able to witness as he evolves and even get frustrated as his ideas of right and wrong are challenged by every single character he meets along the way. Yet due to stellar pacing and superb writing the book is never bogged down into a preachy mess.

Weighing in at just under 200 pages, Westmark packs quite a punch. Lloyd Alexander caught me over and over again with his seemingly innocent yet startling phrases like this opening line which reads:
Theo, by occupation, was a devil.
Which although being perfectly true, doesn't exactly mean what you think it might. You see, Theo is a printer's apprentice and those apprentices go by the title of a printer's devil. Makes perfect sense, no? But at the same time extremely memorable and a technique he uses to perfection throughout the entire series. I never got tired of these little flashes of creative genius. They never failed to catch my full attention with very little effort and usually with stunning results. Matched with the cleverness of how Alexander would then bring each detail to light was absolutely lovely. If this is what every Lloyd Alexander book reads like, you can be sure I'll be blazing through his oeuvre without delay.

side note: Just after I finished reading this standout trilogy, I discovered that the library at my alma mater has a exhibit in their special collections affectionately called "the box." It is comprised of many of Lloyd Alexander's manuscripts, original artwork and even several typewriters from his private office. Anybody want to pop over to the HBLL and check it out for me? Pretty please?

series reading order:
~ Westmark
~ The Kestrel
~ The Beggar Queen

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Angieville review
Book Loons review

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The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

It's been rather quiet around here because a couple of weeks ago I spent a fabulous week at the beach with my family. Over that six day period we enjoyed the most perfect weather -- sunny and warm with a slight breeze. Perfect weather every day except for one. That day it was cloudy with a cold, brisk wind that rushed at us from the waves. Never ones to let a little bit of weather daunt our leisure, we stayed that entire day parked alongside the crashing water. And as I watched the larger-than-normal waves surge again and again onto the beach I was struck suddenly by an irrepressible longing for a certain book. And as these things usually go, it was the one I hadn't thought to bring along. The particular book happened to be The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.
It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.
(via Goodreads)
Can you see now why this was the book I was longing for on the windy beach? All day I was certain I would see one of the fierce capall uisce surging up from the waves. Of course, that never happened. But as soon I arrived home, I did pluck my gorgeous copy of The Scorpio Races off the shelf and proceeded to devour the story once again.

No holds barred: this is my new favorite Maggie Stiefvater novel. It's one I can see myself reading over and over again because the story and the writing and the characters (horses included here) and the island itself are just so dang unforgettable. When I read it for the first time back at the beginning of the year, I remember feeling utterly swept away by all the drama and the tense wondering of who was going to die today? and the sloooow tension that was Puck and Sean and their race to find happiness. And now I can attest that The Scorpio Races holds up incredibly well to rereads. Incredibly well. No longer breathlessly curious to discover just how it would all turn out, I was able to pace myself as I watched Sean carve out his measure of happiness and Puck find a new rhythm with her brothers, Dove, and above all, with Sean.

What I perhaps enjoyed most about The Scorpio Races this time around is how sharply atmospheric it is. Part of what makes the island, the people and the races all come alive so distinctly is the fully grounded mythology Ms. Stiefvater creates for the water horses and the lives of those rooted in its traditions. Just the lore of Thisby alone was enough to give me shivers -- a violent island that didn't care one way or another if you lived or died.

Alternating point of view between Sean and Puck also does wonderful things for the story. Scenes and conversations between the two would often switch midpoint with such delightfully crisp results. Beginning as almost perfect strangers bent on winning the race, Sean and Puck eventually move towards uneasy friends and then perhaps to something even more. It's that last bit that Maggie Stiefvater does such a bang-up job with. By the end of the novel Sean and Puck's relationship is never quite defined (although alluded to by some perceptive onlookers) but that doesn't matter one bit as I was left utterly satisfied by the conclusion. There's something about a book that delivers an achingly unforgettable story without having to actually set down every single detail. Okay, okay. There's just something about The Scorpio Races period.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Angieville review
Book Harbinger review
Bunbury in the Stacks review
The Book Smugglers review
Chachic's Book Nook review

book source: purchased

Coming soon to a blog near you!

Be sure to mark your calendars for the upcoming Seven Days for Sevenwaters feature hosted by the wonderfully talented Holly of Book Harbinger. She's got some incredible guest posts lined up -- including one from Juliet Marillier herself -- (and one from coughcough yours truly) that you won't want to miss!

Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier

Dealing the worst kind abandonment a girl could ever have to face, Neryn has become a wanderer. Unable to return to her home village for years now -- a place filled with so many memories of death and pain she'd hardly be able to return even if it was safe -- or to settle down anyplace new in Alban, Neryn decides to set off for the mythical haven known only in whispers as Shadowfell. A place where one such as herself, a girl with the uncanny ability of communicating with the Good Folk, could finally find peace and safety from the merciless hunting of the King's men.

Though most people she meets along her way are too scared of King Keldec's wrath to help a stray girl, Neryn does encounter a select few who secretly offer her a meal or a slight kindness. Including a dark stranger called Flint, who after saving her life, Neryn cannot seem to shake from dogging her very footsteps. Along with her strangely persistent savior, the Good Folk become more and more bold with Neryn, hinting that ahead of her lies a great work and that she must be ready when the time comes. Fearful of accepting aid from either set of her new companions, Neryn swiftly comes to learn her part in the struggle to free Alban will be great and to succeed, she's going to need all the help she can get. But she just has to make it to Shadowfell first.

As soon as I put down this book I immediately flipped back to the beginning without hesitation, set on rereading the entire thing again right then and there. It's been awhile since I've had a Juliet Marillier book captivate me as much as Shadowfell did. And as always for me with her books, its the characters that are the true standouts in this story. I've seen that some readers have been put off by Neryn's wanderings but can I say how utterly opposite I felt regarding that solitary time? Such introspection is always welcome and Marillier proves once again that she has a deft hand when it comes to portraying young women figuring out how to become strong, brave and capable. That said, I adored the back and forth exchanges between Neryn and Flint too. Their slow, tender friendship was beautifully developed with plenty of secrets hinted at to keep things interesting. Likewise, Marillier's depictions of the Good Folk and their mythology never failed to delight. I so loved the glimpses of their individual personalities and their varying reactions to Neryn.

Admittedly, I was a wee bit happy to find Shadowfell a bit more...mature...than her previous YA novels, books I truly enjoyed but never really fell for. Shadowfell in contrast has everything I like about her adult fantasy novels, complicated heroines setting out on a seemingly hopeless quest aided by unexpected companions (and usually a good solid --and handsome-- hero) and the fickle Good Folk. Though there is also a definite shadow of darkness over this book which underscores the necessity and danger of Neryn's task. And makes for some compelling sequences I tell you what. I could not help holding my breath each time Neryn came thisclose to disaster. Shadowfell is the latest in a long line of beloved Marillier books and, I am extremely happy to report, the first in a new series. Because there's no such thing as too much Juliet Marillier.

Shadowfell is due out September 11, 2012.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
A Rogue Librarian's Reading List review
Book Harbinger review
Cuddlebuggery review
Raiding Bookshelves review
Read. Breathe. Relax. review

book source: NetGalley

For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen book? If you're reading this bloggy I'm more than a little positive you do. In fact, I'd wager a guess that many of you discerning readers place her timeless tale of Persuasion at the top of the pile. I do. More than a little bit. I remember cracking open its pages for the very first time after buying it at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England while on study abroad and just knowing that this was The Book for me. And it was. I've re-read it so many times but I still manage to cry (over Capt. Wentworth's letter of course) and to laugh and to smile and to sigh deeply at its end. So when I say that after hearing that a favorite author of mine was penning a retelling of said novel, I was a bit on tender-hooks. To discover that it was to be a post-apocalyptic retelling...well, say it isn't so Ms. Peterfreund.

As a Luddite, it has been ingrained in Elliot North since birth that her job is to watch over the laborers on her family's estate, the docile yet mentally 'incompetent' Reduced. 
Knowing full well she was the only North capable enough left to run the farm after the death of her sensible mother, Elliot nevertheless was ready to leave it all behind four years ago. Ready to leave with her best friend Kai, a Post-Reductionist (or a descendant of a Reduced who is normal) who was raised on the North estate. Yet responsible, practical Elliot changed her mind at the last moment as she forced herself to think of all those who depended on her for support and care, knowing her feckless father and prissy sister would never be able to keep things going on their own. A decision which left her heartbroken and alone, watching Kai leave for parts unknown with nary a word for over four years.

Imagine Elliot's surprise when Kai appears right in her backyard with a group progressive Post-Reductionists who want to rent her grandfather's boat building warehouse in order to build a new type of ship for exploration. No longer the childhood friend she remembers, Captain Malakai Wentforth (don't you love his new name?) is now cold and aloof and not at all pleased to be near Elliot. Which of course puts Elliot in a bit of a spot because how do you begin to tell your heart to stop loving someone just because they don't seem to want you anymore?


Diana Peterfreund you are a genius. Seriously. In a wash of classic retellings, you have managed to take my ALL TIME FAVORITE Jane Austen story,
Persuasion, and remake it into a heart wrenching Sci-Fi adventure without the aid of a single vampire or zombie. Who does that?! In all seriousness though, I loved every stinkin' detail about this book. She reeled me in with those first few pages of letters between Elliot and Kai as children and then proceeded to sink her hooks into my heart as I watched Elliot try her best, fail and yet still managing to keep going -- even in the face of extreme suffering and betrayal. That is my kind of character, someone who I was rooting for and sympathizing with from the moment I saw that lovely cover.

Part of what makes
For Darkness Shows the Stars such a special retelling is that I loved much how Ms. Peterfreund made this well-known story into her own. Yes, there are similarities between the two (enormously large ones in places) but readers can easily fall into the story and enjoy it solely on the basis of character conflict and story-building alone without having to have read Persuasion. My sole issue with this book is the ages of Elliot and Kai, who are eighteen at their reunion. I liked the characters being a bit past their prime in the original -- it added to the sense of life passing Ann Elliott by, but the age different does work here, if not as effectively.

I love reading authors' 
acknowledgments sections -- due to all the hidden gems contained therein -- and Ms. Peterfreund's proved exceptionally satisfying as she included Ms. Austen in her thanks saying: "Thank you for giving me the bones of this story, and forgive me the changes I've made to its DNA." Honestly, I can't think of a better way to describe this story. And really, I don't think she would have minded one bit.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Angieville review
Book Harbinger review
Good Books & Good Wine review
The Readventurer review

book source: my local library

Book Haul (2): Birthday Edition

Happy Birthday to me!

This year saw some very purty books come my way -- some old friends and some recently discovered treasures. Plus a few digital books that I purchased for my kindle with a gift card (
love family who know me so well!). 
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (!)
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Stand Down by Zack Emerson (I have been dying for a copy of this fourth book for ages!!)
A Breath of Eyre by Eve Marie Mont
Easy by Tammara Webber

I must admit Howl will be my very first ever foray into the world of Diana Wynne Jones and I am full of anticipation. Now the only question is...which to (re)read first?

Best of 2012 (so far)

Unbelievable. 2012 is halfway over! Crazy. So far this year has been a pretty decent reading wise. Not only have I discovered some truly unforgettable new books but I've also discovered some incredible oldies too. As of the end of June I've read 58 books, a little less than my tallies from previous years but still pretty decent. Out of those 58, here are some of my favorites (at least so far).
Click on the image to go to my review.

Published in 2012
             

Published before 2012

        

For their exceptional characters and unique storytelling abilities, Honorable Mentions should go to:
  

Embarrassingly enough out of these eight book I've only reviewed four. Shameful. Perhaps that should be my resolution for the second half of 2012.

So, what's on your Best Of list for 2012? Are you on track to meet your reading goals for the year? 
What fantabulous books have I missed out on? Anything you think I should pick up like right now?

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

When I first heard that Courtney Summers, an author known for her contemporary novels exploring tough issues, was writing a zombie apocalypse book I sorta scratched my head and had to reread the synopsis of This is Not a Test again. Sure enough zombie apocalypse. Really? At first I assumed it was another YA author jumping on the bandwagon, but really, it's Courtney Summers we're talking about here. The woman is an absolute genius with a pen and never does anything halfway so I figured I better give her latest a shot. 

One moment Sloane is worried about being punished for being late to breakfast (her dad is not a nice man at all) when pandemonium breaks out and the world ends. No joke. As she is swept up in a group of six kids who have barricaded themselves into Cortege High School against their friends and family turned zombies, Sloane doesn't know how long she can pretend. Because the morning the world ended for everybody else, Sloane had tried to end her own life. And just how does she expect herself to keep going when all she wants to do is give up?

This is Not a Test is NOT AT ALL what I've come to expect in your typical zombie book. That said, it is (for the most part) what I've come to expect from a Courtney Summers novel. First of all, this story is really a contemporary novel exploring the issues of life and death and family drama with a side of zombies thrown in to keep things interesting. If by interesting you mean bloody and run for your life. Which I do.

Courtney Summers is fantastic at exploring family drama without making you feel like you're watching a soap opera. While exploration of Sloane's terrible relationship with her abusive father and the abandonment of her sister are at the forefront, we also get a glimpse at the tight bond between Trace and Grace, twins who Sloane used to hang out with. I'm not sure why, but their relationship killed me folks. Watching them deal with loss and anger and forgiveness was a sight. But really, every single character and every single relationship was complicated and raw but still detailed with such haunting clarity.


I think the one point that
This is Not a Test utterly blows away every other young adult zombie apocalypse/end-of-the-world book is that this book doesn't just focus on the here and now; the physical and emotional turbulence of surviving such destruction. Sure, such problems are explored -- how to get food and water, finding shelter, whom to trust -- but This is Not a Test goes one step further (maybe I should say back?) by focusing on the past. In Sloane's case, her internal turmoil stems from something that happened a few months prior, when things were supposedly normal. Not because life as everyone knew it ended. For her, the world didn't end when zombies attacked that morning, it had already ended months ago. She had been ready to give up for weeks and now the prospect of trying to survive seemed pointless. Really, this isn't a novel concept when you look at Ms. Summers' previous books, but for this genre, it's nothing short of groundbreaking. Well played indeed.


Still not sure? Read this first chapter here.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
The Book Smugglers review
Bunbury in the Stacks review
Chick Loves Lit review
Good Books & Good Wine review
Presenting Lenore review

book source: review copy from the publisher

Retro Friday Review: The Wind-Witch by Susan Dexter

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
It's been quite some time since I came across a book this good. The Wind-Witch first popped up on my radar after a guest post Angie did over at Fantasy Cafe for her Women in SF & F series on under appreciated books in the genre. Truth be told, I had already read (and adored) a large percentage of the books she listed, so naturally, I glommed onto this one with promises of good things to come. And like so many other times, Angie's pick proved fantastic. First-rate. Marvelous. Superb. Well, you get the idea...

Druyan has lived her life as the dutiful daughter. Marrying when she was told, putting her talents to the skills deemed 'appropriate' for women. When her husband is unexpectedly killed, Druyan finds herself on a precipice -- submit meekly once again to her uncle, the Duke's, choice of a new husband or keep her loss private and work, work, work for a year and a day proving her holding profitable and become her own master. For once, Druyan follows her heart and chooses the latter. With the help of her meager farm help, her mythical horse Valadan and the unsuspecting raider turned farmhand, Kellis, Druyan begins to make Splaine Garth her own.

But Kellis is not simply a wounded foreigner hoping to pay a blood debt by working Druyan's farm. Cursed (or blessed) with the gift of sight, Kellis begins to see warnings of raiders invading Esdragon and even as he warns his Lady not to trust the visions, she is not content to simply do nothing. Each time Kellis scrys a vision of destruction, Druyan rushes off, fleet as the wind on the back of Valadan, to warn the unsuspecting victims. But Kellis cannot find it in himself to let his Lady ride off alone, unprotected, and their headlong flights bring unwanted scrutiny when they want it the least.

Heavens above, I think I fell in love with this one wholeheartedly from the very first sentence. First of all, it's full of lovely writing with a sloooow buildup of tension that I found myself all but gripping the pages in earnest concern as Druyan hurled herself into harms way time and again. Susan Dexter is such a wonderful storyteller. Truly. Her detailed passages of daily farm life contrasted against the looming threat of war never failed to thrust me right into the moment. Each sentence seemed to be crafted with such a loving touch that I wanted to mull over each word individually and digest them slowly.

Druyan has something of the wild wind within her (as you can gather from the title) but it has been battered down so thoroughly all her life, that the gradual loosening she allows was pure magic. Her quiet determination to save her farm, her friends, even her country utterly entranced me as I was constantly awed by her courage and loyalty. Under Kellis' careful and watchful eye, she becomes a woman of her own making and I loved every minute of it. I cannot recommend this treasure heartily enough and you better believe I've got the rest of the series already queued up in the TBR pile.

series reading order:
~ The Prince of Ill Luck
~ The Wind-Witch
~ The True Knight

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
All About Romance review
Angieville review
Stewartry review

book source: bought

The Awesome Factor

Don't know what to read this summer?
Check out this handy flow chart.
How bad is it that I want to have it printed out to hang on the side of my bookshelves?

Book Haul (1): fishpond & Sync


Well seeing as this is my first book haul post and all, I thought I'd post some lovelies I am most excited about that have come my way recently.

First up is also my first-ever order from Fishpond. I first heard about this site from Nomes (I think?) and although their prices are higher, they do have the added bonus of making available UK/Aussie books that I can't get over here. I was pretty impressed with their service -- three books for $14 and free shipping. I'm sure I'll be picking up books from them in the future. I bought the following, seeing as I cannot resist a pretty cover:
The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
The Demon's Lexicon & The Demon's Surrender by Sarah Rees Brennan

I can't begin to say how giddy I am that I now have a matching set of this fabulous series. *pets* I think it's time for a reread of all four books.
Also! It's again time for Snyc's list of free summer audiobooks. Be sure to check out their list here; there are quite a few I'll be downloading (Hello-oo Daughter of Smoke and Bone!).

I've gotten some other books for review recently and hope to get around to some of those soon...including Sarah Rees Brennan's latest Unspoken. Although I'm sure to kill my eyes reading it as I only have a digital copy I can read on my computer. Not my kindle. Why oh why do they do this to me?
Very good things to come though I'm sure.

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Eight years after watching her father, King Leck, be killed and inheriting the troubled kingdom of Monsea, Bitterblue still feels a long way from being settled as Queen. Secrets surround her. Secrets from her father's reign of terror, secrets about her own memories of her childhood, and the secrets seemingly everyone seems to hide in Monsea. Well Bitterblue is tired of secrets and the endless drudgery of pushing papers and signing documents -- she wants a chance to truly understand her people and their struggles. And so one night she decides to secretly leave the castle to do just that. Disguised and alone, she begins her exploration of Bitterblue City. What Bitterblue discovers on her nighttime wanderings is confusing, exhilarating and depressing all at once. In the secluded story rooms her people gather to recount tales of Leck's reign (often different from Bitterblue's own memories) and the adventures of renowned Gracelings such as Katsa and Po. There she also meets Saf and Teddy, two thieves who only steal what has already been stolen and who slowly teach Bitterblue about the real underlying problems of Monsea. Underscoring all this new information is the fact that as much as everyone seems to want to forget Leck and his horrible legacy, Bitterblue begins to understand that her people must uncover their hidden past before they can ever move forward.

Well, well, well. Talk about your emotional read. Like many of you I'm sure, Bitterblue is one of those books that I have been building up in my mind for a long time. Graceling effortlessly wowed me and Fire left me stunned beyond recognition so that I have been earnestly waiting this sequel of sorts ever since. What Kristin Cashore delivers is extremely different from her previous novels although strikingly similar at the same time. Bitterblue centers around many of the same characters we've come to love, like Katsa, Po, Giddon and even Fire makes an appearance but Bitterblue is decidedly a more quiet novel filled with political maneuverings and inner turmoil. For much of the book, Bitterblue is frustrated by her lack of understanding for what her people faced during her father's reign. Especially since she feels that to finally overcome their struggles, she has to know what demons they face daily. This is never more apparent within her own set of advisers, talented men who also served under Leck but who cannot seem to help Bitterblue move the kingdom in the direction she knows it must go. I'm sure partly this is intentional, but I became extremely frustrated with the runaround Bitterblue got from her advisers. Too much time was spent agonizing over and over the same details that I wish certain parts had been resolved a little more quickly.

Although I cannot say enough about the quality of Kristin Cashore's writing, in my opinion Bitterblue is not as strong a book as either Fire or Graceling. While excellent at developing feelings and the unraveling of secrets, I felt as if too much time in Bitterblue was devoted to political intrigues and the quest to understand history. I was not able to spend as much time with the people I really wanted to learn more about: Saf, Death (a fearful librarian who utterly stole my heart), Teddy, Giddon and many others. Frankly, although I was pleased with how Bitterblue's story was concluded as far as Monsea is concerned, I was not at all pleased with how we left her personally. Especially since Ms. Cashore gave us over 500 pages to get to that point! In the interest of not getting spoilery, suffice to say I feel like I still need yet another Bitterblue book to assure myself that she is truly going to be alright. I understand that such an emotional book was not meant to wrap up everything in a pretty little bow but I would liked to have seen a bit more resolution regarding her personal relationships. But that is not to say that Bitterblue isn't a beautiful book full of drama and ciphers and danger. It is. It's just not what I was expecting -- for good or bad.

series reading order:
~ Graceling - my review
~ Fire - my review
~ Bitterblue

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
The Book Smugglers review
Chachic's Book Nook review
Good Books & Good Wine review
The Readventurer review

book source: ARC from the publisher

Bitterblue Winners!



Thanks to everyone who entered my Bitterblue giveaway hosted by Penguin! 
The winners of a copy of Bitterblue are:

&

Please send me your address and I'll make sure a copy gets on it's way to you!

Smart Chicks Get What They Want

originally published at Book Harbinger's Seven Days for Sevenwaters but I wanted to make sure it wound up in my archives too.


Thank you very much to Holly for inviting me to be a part of her fabulous Seven Days for Sevenwaters series! I'm all aflutter at the chance to be able to talk about my favorite Sevenwaters book. And which particular volume of deliciousness am I going to blabber on about today? Hmmm. It was a little over two years ago that I devoured read this unforgettable series for the very first time. Believe it or not Daughter of the Forest simply blew my mind. And how could it not? It's an utterly gorgeous book full of long-suffering patience and love and sacrifice! Not knowing quite what to expect with the sequels however, I steeled myself not to get my hopes up too much ... just in case.Well, I settled into Son of the Shadows (book 2 in the series) and right then and there it was alllll over for me. Truly. Son of the Shadows was positively perfect in all it's heartbreaking hopefulness that it just had to become my new shiny favorite. And today I have the enviable pleasure of explaining just why my heart beats a bit faster every single time I pick up that extraordinary book.

A quick warning ... If you haven't gotten around to reading Son of the Shadows (and why ever not?!), I really don't want to spoil it for you. Really. So be warned. Spoilers, dishing over the villains, the HEA, and all those delicious details will be contained herein.

Like many other Juliet Marillier novels, what truly cemented my love affair with Son of the Shadows is its standout cast of characters. In addition to one dark, brooding hero with a mysterious past and his band of Merry Painted Men, it happens to contain one of my all time favorite female leads: Liadan, daughter of Sorcha and Red from Daughter of the Forest. Liadan is smart, she's resourceful, she's an infinitely caring person and one who values family above all else. But never fear! Our Liadan would never be described as a pushover. She's the type who utterly refuses to back down when it counts. And what's more, she knows what she wants and then goes out and MAKES it happen.

Case in point: At this point in Son of the Shadows Liadan has not had the best day. She's just been unceremoniously released by Bran and is now headed home to Sevenwaters brokenhearted and humiliated when the Fair Folk appear and decide to drop this bombshell.


Fair Folk: You've sorta been making some stupid choices in the man department.

Liadan: Excuse me? Are you talking to me?

Fair Folk: Yes, you. We've decided you need to stay near Sevenwaters. Forever.

Liadan: Huh?

Fair Folk: Oh and you can never get married.

Liadan: Whaaa???

Fair Folk: Promise?

Liadan: Uh, no.

Fair Folk: But! But! You could mess up the prophecy!

Liadan: Don't care.

Fair Folk: Well then. Doom on you! DOOM on you!

Liadan: Really. Don't. Care.


Remember now, Bran has just basically dumped Liadan after learning who she really was. And like many bad breakups, he said some truly not-so-nice things to her and Laidan is pretty convinced she's never gonna lay eyes on the man she loves ever again. But instead of swearing off men forever like the Fair Folk demand, she hasn't given up hope and chooses instead to decide for herself. Think of it: in the face of so much pain she still has hope for the future!

I truly don't think I've ever encountered a character with more hope than Liadan. She refuses to let fate dictate her path and instead fights for her own future. When the Fair Folk come back later and demand she choose Bran or her son Johnny (I KNOW! You'd think they'd learn by now), Liadan once again flouts their decree and then goes on to keep BOTH. But not because anybody handed her her happily ever after on a silver platter. Oh no, she's a smart chick with a very strong view on how her life will turn out and a deep understanding that she has to fight for that happiness. And guess what? She does get it all: her man, her son, and the chicken dinner. I'll just leave it to you to find out exactly how...

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity is the book I have been dying to read even before I knew it existed. It's the book I will still be talking about for the rest of the year (and probably much longer). And it's the book with so many complexly interwoven details that I'm sure it will continue to stun me for many rereadings to come. 

Verity, the code name of our narrator, is actually an Allied agent who has been captured by the Nazis in occupied France. Opting against torture, Verity (also known as Queenie to her friends) has agreed to divulge codes and other Allied wartime secrets for her captor, SS-Hauptsturmf├╝hrer von Linden. Thus begin the outpouring of secrets. Though even as she is proclaiming herself a coward (and traitor) with her every breath, Queenie is constantly needling her captors and poking fun at her own very dire situation with her endlessly dark and razor sharp humor. What Queenie does write to her captors however is not simply a list of British secrets and codes but the story of herself and her best friend Maddie, an airplane pilot. Woven into their initial introduction and developing friendship are all the details von Linden demanded asked for, but by setting it agonist the backdrop of their relationship, you have an inside view of the life of two strong-willed women during WWII: the secrets they kept and the lies they told.

Almost from word go, you get the immediate sense that Queenie is not all she proclaims to be. In fact, she herself describes herself thus:
I am in the Special Operations Executive because I can speak French and German and am good at making up stories and I am a prisoner in the Ormaie Gestapo HQ because I have no sense of direction whatsoever.
'Making up stories' indeed. With this one sentence very early on we get an immediate sense of the vitality and humor possessed by Queenie and that perhaps our storyteller is not as reliable as she proclaims herself to be. What makes this story so unforgettable (just like one of Queenie's stories) are the details. Hundreds of tiny historical facts about planes, the RAF, the WAAF, literature, and even the history of the ballpoint pen! I simply couldn't wait to pick up Code Name Verity as each time as I knew every page would contain  another adventure, another heartbreak.

Perhaps my favorite line from Cody Name Verity (and you better believe my copy has been bombed with bookmarks) is after Queenie and Maddie have just begun to get to know one another and Queenie writes,
It's like being in love, discovering your best friend.
This line, my friends, utterly encapsulates why I am head over heels for this book. Yes, it is full of surprises and intrigue but at the heart it is a beautiful story of two friends -- who would have never, ever become close had the situation been different -- but who did find each other and had one of those stunning relationships that you always find yourself completely giddy over. I can't say it enough, this book blew me away. I simply cannot get the story out of my head. Verity's voice and Maddie's story are so intricately crafted. It's one of those lovely stories that as soon as you finish, you just want to immediately jump right back into a satisfying reread to rediscover (or maybe even for the first time) all those seemingly innocent details inserted along the way. Just go ahead and read it now, I'll patiently wait for your gushing reply. Grab a box a tissues though, you'll be needing them.

And, if you get the chance, check out these links for a few interviews with Elizabeth Wein.
Shelf Awareness
~ Huffington Post (in which Elizabeth Wein reveals she's working on Part II of Code Name Verity!! wheeee!)
~ Kirkus

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy review
The Book Smugglers review
Chachic's Book Nook review
Maggie Stiefvater Five Things review
Steph Su Reads review

book source: NetGalley

Bitterblue Giveaway!


Thanks to Penguin today I have TWO copies of the newly released Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore to give away. This book is one of my most anticipated reads for 2012 seeing as I totally devoured Graceling and Fire. I'm sure you all want to get your hands on a copy of this lovely book too, right? 
All you have to do is leave me a comment telling me which Grace you'd like to have if you lived in the Seven Kingdoms. Please be sure to leave a contact email as well.

All prizing provided by Penguin.
Giveaway open to US addresses only, open until May 28, 2012.

About Bitterblue:
Bitterblue is the long-awaited companion to New York Times bestsellers Graceling and Fire.

Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck's reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle--disguised and alone--to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.

Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck's reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn't yet identified, holds a key to her heart.


Find out more!