Love, Lies and Spies by Cindy Anstey

Love Lies and SpiesInformation

Goodreads: Love, Lies and Spies
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: April 19, 2016

Official Summary

Juliana Telford is not your average nineteenth-century young lady. She’s much more interested in researching ladybugs than marriage, fashionable dresses, or dances. So when her father sends her to London for a season, she’s determined not to form any attachments. Instead, she plans to secretly publish their research.

Spencer Northam is not the average young gentleman of leisure he appears. He is actually a spy for the War Office, and is more focused on acing his first mission than meeting eligible ladies. Fortunately, Juliana feels the same, and they agree to pretend to fall for each other. Spencer can finally focus, until he is tasked with observing Juliana’s traveling companions . . . and Juliana herself.

Review

Love, Lies and Spies is a cute and fun Regency-inspired romance that adds just a dash of danger to the plot by adding some war-time intrigue.  Protagonist Juliana Telford is insistent she is only interested in attending the London Season in order to sneak away and find a publisher for her and her father’s research on the lady beetle, but a dashing young gentleman might have other plans for her.

The “spies” part of the title could certainly have been played up more.  Northam, to be sure, is working on an important case involving treason for the War Office, but the author took the route of constantly mentioning small details about the case without actually giving an overview of the thing until about page 230.  (Seriously, I looked at the page number to confirm exactly how long it took me to figure out what Northam was trying to do because I spent most of the book confused.) And in the end, I didn’t find it that interesting.  It seemed like a small case and lots of watching and waiting. I’m sure a lot of cases are like that, but it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting writing.

The focus of the novel is primarily on the romance, and I think that if you go in with that expectation, you’ll enjoy the book.   It’s very episodic with lots of wondering of “When shall the protagonist ‘casually’ run into the love interest next?” Lots of scenes of small talk and subtle flirtations, lots of looking forward to and planning the next meeting.  Northam is, indeed, quite romantic and gallant, so watching the romance unfold is likely to be as fun for the readers as it is for Juliana.  There’s some social mingling and commentary as well, but don’t hope for it to be quite on the level of the Jane Austen novels that inspired the story.

The prose is inconsistent and alternately struck me as a good imitation of the Regency period and just off.   When Anstey nails it, she nails it, but Juliana frequently comes across as a simpering little fool based on her awkward dialogue, muttering things like “Oh dear! Oh dear!” and things that sound too stilted for anyone to actually think or say.  The opening chapter may be one of the best examples of this, as it’s amusing and engaging while just seeming wrong.  I laughed while also thinking Juliana absolutely ridiculous and just a little bit…not bright.  She shows her intelligence later in the story, particularly in the area of careful observation, but the things she says often made me question her.

I enjoyed Love, Lies and Spies.  It’s light and entertaining and frequently made me smile. It’s certainly not the best book of intrigue I’ve read, but it’s a cute romance.  Readers who like Regency-era romances will probably want to pick it up.

Note: There is a glossary in the back to help clarify some of the Regency-era expressions. I found most of them self-evident through context clues, but it drives me nuts to struggle through a whole book and only learn there’s a glossary after I’ve finished reading the entire thing, so I thought I’d point it out to other readers. So few books have glossaries that it never occurs to me to check for them before I begin reading, so they tend to be wasted on me.

Briana

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West by Steve Sheinkin

Information

Goodreads: The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey
Series: Rabbi Harvey #1
Source: Library
Published: July 1, 2006

Official Summary

A fresh look at Jewish folktales wise, witty, hilarious.

After finishing school in New York, Rabbi Harvey traveled west in search of adventure and, hopefully, work as a rabbi. His journey took him to Elk Spring, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains. When he managed to outwit the ruthless gang that had been ruling Elk Spring, the people invited Harvey to stay on as the town’s rabbi. In Harvey’s adventures in Elk Spring, he settles disputes, tricks criminals into confessing, and offers unsolicited bits of Talmudic insight and Hasidic wisdom. Each story presents Harvey with a unique challenge from convincing a child that he is not actually a chicken, to retrieving stolen money from a sweet-faced bubbe gone bad. Like any good collection of Jewish folktales, these stories contain layers of humor and timeless wisdom that will entertain, teach and, especially, make you laugh.

Review

The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey is a collection of short humorous stories about a rabbi who leaves school and finds a job in small Western town, quickly earning a reputation for wit and wisdom and his ability to fairly judge any case put before  him.  This background is necessary for the book because Rabbi Harvey’s history is explained only in one of the stories in the middle of the book; if you’re a reader who likes to go into books “blind” without reading the jacket summary, you might be confused, because there’s no introduction; the book simply opens with a story and goes from there.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this book, but I found it an entertaining collection of amusing, clever tales.  It was in the YA section of my local library, but I think it works well as an upper middle grade book, too, and the brand of humor is something I think could resonate with many middle schoolers.  The stories are not laugh-out-loud funny (at least in my opinion), but they’re quirky and amusing, and it’s great fun to watch Rabbi Harvey answer riddles and out-think others.

The combination of a Jewish community and a Wild West setting is a great one.  I’ve seen some other reviewers express skepticism of this, but I honestly never questioned it, and the book works really well.  There’s a nice combination of Western grit with traditional tales and wisdom, and I don’t think readers need to be particularly interested in either the Wild West or Judaism to enjoy the book.

This was a random find for me at the library. I checked it out because it just seemed so unexpected.  A graphic novel about a fictional rabbi just walking around being clever?  But after reading it, I will definitely be recommending it to others.

4 stars Briana

Starfall by Melissa Landers

Starfall by Melissa Landers

Information

Goodreads: Starfall
Series: Starflight #2
Source: City Book Review
Published: February 7, 2017

Official Summary

When Princess Cassia Rose fled her home world of Eturia to escape an arranged marriage, she had no idea her sudden departure would spark a war. Now after two years hiding as a ship hand, she is finally returning to her beloved home, but not in the way she imagined. Shackled by bounty hunters, she is violently dragged back to account for her crimes. Her only solace is that the Banshee crew managed to evade capture, including Kane Arric, her best friend…with occasional benefits.

Meanwhile, Kane and the rest of the crew of the Banshee plan a desperate rescue mission. But when they arrive on Eturia, Cassia isn’t exactly in need of heroics—she’s claimed her birthright as Eturia’s queen, but has inherited a war-torn planet simmering with rebellion. Cassia must make alliances, and Kane, the bastard son of a merchant, isn’t a choice that will earn her any friends. Kane knows he will never find someone to replace Cassia—and is certain she returns his feelings—but how can he throw away his own promising future waiting on a queen?

When the outer realm is threatened by the dangerous Zhang mafia, Cassia, Kane and the rest of the Banshee crew uncover a horrifying conspiracy that endangers the entire universe. In the face of unspeakable evil, Cassia must confront her own family’s complicated legacy on Eturia and decide once and for all who her real family is.

Review

I read and reviewed Starflight in January 2016, so I was hesitant when I began reading Starfall that I wouldn’t remember the plot, the characters, or really any necessary information to get back into the story. However, I dove right in and picked up enough to follow the story right away; Landers also does a nice job of referring to past events to prompt readers’ memories.  The plot picks up basically where it left off, although the points of view switch to two new characters.

After getting situated, I fell in love with the story right away.  The book is action-packed, featuring a runaway princess, space pirates, the mafia, and a civil war.  While I sometimes get bored with books where the characters are travelling through space for a long period of time, I found there was always something to keep my interest up in Starfall.

The characters are complex and well-developed. Cassia occasionally irritated me, but she has a big heart and a lot of strength.  She stands up for herself and what she believes in.  The love interest, Kane, also has a rich personality, and he goes through a lot of development over the course of the book.  Favorite characters from Starflight return, and a few more are introduced.

I admit this may not be the most original books I have ever read. A lot of space books I read seem to have much in common (or, I should say, the ones that occur predominantly on a space ship and not on some imagined colonized planet), and I did note the similarities of Starflight to Stitching Snow when I first read it.  However, this series is fun. I enjoyed the plot and the characters and overall had a good time reading it. Recommended.

4 stars Briana

Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Love and Gelato
Series:  None
Source: Library
Published: May 2016

SUMMARY

Before Lina’s mother dies, she insists that Lina go to live with her old friend Howard in Italy.  Somehow she forgot to tell Lina what her grandmother does–that Howard is really her father.  Lina doesn’t want to live with a man she barely knows.  And she certainly doesn’t want to stay in Italy, even if it is beautiful.  But then she receives her mother’s old journal and she’s suddenly experiencing Florence for the first time along with her mom.  As Lina continues to read, however, things don’t seem to be adding up.  Why did her mom leave Italy?  And who is Howard, anyway?

Review

Love and Gelato is one of those books where there would have been no book had the protagonist simply taken a sensible course of action at the start.  It creates a sense of “mystery” by refusing to have Lina ask Howard about his relationship with her mother.  Instead, Lina chooses to “hear it from her mom first” by reading her mother’s journal.  Conveniently very slowly so that she never has the information she needs in time. The funniest thing of all?  Lina’s not very astute when it comes to putting things together.  The journal tells her everything she needs to know–removing all mystery and suspense from the plot–but Lina conveniently misinterprets everything so the story can progress.

If you are willing to overlook the mediocre plotting, the book still has much to offer. The Italian setting, the sweet romance, and the father-daughter relationship between Howard and Lina will likely melt your heart.  It’s a treat to explore Florence together with Lina and her new friend Ren even if the history lessons are a bit heavy-handed.  Add the gelato and the promise of secret bakeries and  you have a recipe to appeal to the sweet tooth of many a reader!  (Spoiler alert: Unfortunately the secret bakeries are barely in the book, despite the book cover’s suggestion that they play a prominent role.)

The structure of the book ultimately disappoints.  I think the mark of an excellent writer is the ability to create a plot that does not rely on the stupidity of its characters to progress.  However, I’m sure many readers will not mind the plotting as long as they get to see Lina and Ren slowly fall in love.

Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton

Traitor to the Throne

Information

Goodreads: Traitor to the Throne
Series: Rebel of the Sands #2
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Official Summary

Rebel by chance. Traitor by choice.

Gunslinger Amani al’Hiza fled her dead-end hometown on the back of a mythical horse with the mysterious foreigner Jin, seeking only her own freedom. Now she’s fighting to liberate the entire desert nation of Miraji from a bloodthirsty sultan who slew his own father to capture the throne.

When Amani finds herself thrust into the epicenter of the regime—the Sultan’s palace—she’s determined to bring the tyrant down. Desperate to uncover the Sultan’s secrets by spying on his court, she tries to forget that Jin disappeared just as she was getting closest to him, and that she’s a prisoner of the enemy. But the longer she remains, the more she questions whether the Sultan is really the villain she’s been told he is, and who’s the real traitor to her sun-bleached, magic-filled homeland.

Forget everything you thought you knew about Miraji, about the rebellion, about Djinn and Jin and the Blue-Eyed Bandit. In Traitor to the Throne, the only certainty is that everything will change.

Review

Traitor to the Throne brings readers right back into the action-packed rebellion with Amani, her Rebel Prince, and their talented crew.  Though it has been awhile since I read Rebel of the Sands, the plot begins basically where it left off, and I was able to pick up the strands quickly.  The story is filled with all the good things that made the first book come to life: magic, romance, danger, and the weight of history.

There is a setting shift in this novel, and I understand why some readers who fell in love with the desert and Old West town feel of the first novel were disappointed to see it go in the sequel; I was a bit sad myself.  However, Hamilton makes the transition to palace harem and court intrigue incredibly well and proves that she is a master of the fantasy genre.

I like court intrigue in general, but Traitor to the Throne gives a very compelling look at the Sultan’s harem and what women do to survive in such a tenuous position and cutthroat environment.  Amani and her rebel friends show one type of strength, wielding knives and guns and magical powers, but the women in the harem work with something else: beauty and cunning and the will to survive.  The treatment of women, their apparently disposable nature, is not pretty in this world, but Hamilton shows that strength comes in many different shapes, and I adored it.

Favorite characters from Rebel of the Sands come back in Traitor to the Throne, and it is wonderful to see them continue to grow.  There are some new ones, as well, and they are all crafted with finesse and attention to making them multi-faceted.  The Sultan in particular is interesting, and readers finally get to see situation from his point of view—why he has made the decisions he has while ruling the country, and whether he thinks they were right or would go back if he could.  Hamilton delves into the complexity of politics and shows that there are not always black and white, easy answers.

The prose is still choppy in a way I cannot quite describe, an issue I had with Rebel of the Sands, as well, but overall the plot, characters, and world building carry the book enough that this is just a minor irritation rather than a deal-breaker.

Traitor to the Throne is a strong installment in what I can only assume will be a strong series through to the end.  I look forward to reading Amani’s next adventure and to seeing more writing from Hamilton.

4 stars Briana

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Exit, Pursued by a Bear
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: March 2016

SUMMARY

The cheer team is the pride and joy of Hermione Winters’ small hometown and she’s enjoying every last moment of being co-captain during her senior year of high school.  Then someone slips her a drugged drink at a dance .  The unthinkable has happened to her.  But Hermione Winters does not want to be pregnant. She does not want to miss her senior year of cheerleading.  She does not want to be that girl.  Hermione Winters is not going to let anyone else write her story.

Review

I initially picked this up because I thought it was a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, one of my favorite plays.  However, aside from a few names and the jealousy of Hermione’s boyfriend, the book bears little resemblance to the work from which it takes its title.  Rather it is the story of a girl who is drugged and raped at a party, and the aftermath of that experience.  It is a difficult book, but, strangely, not as difficult as most other stories I have read with similar narratives.

[Spoilers ahead for the rest of the review.]  E. K. Johnston seems to seek to present what she considers the ideal response to rape in this book, showing how Hermione’s friends and family almost unanimously support her in just the right way.  There a few hiccups where rumors start to fly and Hermione seems about to have to deal with victim blaming.  Then mostly everyone decides to ignore the rumors and/or to apologize for starting them.  Similarly, though there are complications with the police inquiry, this does not seem to bother Hermione much.  She also has the benefit of dealing with a very understanding and dedicated policewoman.  She eases into therapy at her own pace, not really feeling the need for it yet, but still having the best therapist ever, one who decides to take her on as his last case out of the great goodness of his heart.  For basically no money even though he’s quite prominent in his field.

Then Hermione finds out she’s pregnant.  You might think this would be a pivotal moment in the story but Hermione immediately decides she will get an abortion at the first possible moment.  She drives over with her best friend, has the abortion, and experiences exactly zero feelings of conflict or uncertainty and experiences exactly zero complications, aside from some cramping that she seems to categorize as nothing more than a slight nuisance.   Even the minister lauds her decision and promises to fight for her if anyone suggests she has done the wrong thing.  Everything at the abortion center goes off smoothly, leading Hermione to feel warm fuzzies and comradeship as she and the other women sit in the recovery room.  I didn’t really feel like I was reading the story of a woman’s choice, but rather a manifesto for the wonders and glories of abortion.  A small procedure and now your life is perfect, the advertisement–sorry, story–assures us.  Hermione’s life as a cheerleader and high school student will go on almost exactly the same way as it would have gone on before.

Somehow, this feels disingenuous.  Though certainly there are women who might have felt exactly as Hermione felt, is it quite as likely that they would have experienced nothing but ease and contentment throughout the whole process?  Is it likely they would not have heard from one voice who might have asked them if this was really their choice, or if they wanted first to consider their options for assistance?  Would they really never look back on the procedure and wonder what it all meant?  Or think about how their life could have been so different?  I couldn’t buy into the narrative because it did not feel like these were really Hermione’s emotions or thoughts. It felt like they were part of Johnston’s campaign to discuss avoiding teen pregnancy through this marvelous procedure she would like everyone to know about.

Of course, not every person will respond to a situation in the same way.  Not every rape narrative written will be the same because not every person is the same.   However, Hermione at times feels less like a person and more like a pawn, the piece Johnston moves to drive home her beliefs.  I celebrated her strength and I see value in her story, which assures readers that even if you feel broken at times, you have a strength and a resiliency that you can draw upon.   Which assures readers that when your strength and resiliency seem gone, you are allowed to draw upon the strength of others.  Her story should be told.  But I wish it had been told with a little more warmth and a little less didacticism.

The relationships in the book add some of that warmth, particularly Hermione’s best friend Polly (Shakespeare’s Paulina) who always knows what to say and always has Hermione’s back.  And the focus on competitive cheerleading also adds some interest to the story.  (Hermione would like you to know that she is a real athlete and that she works hard to do what she does.)  Hermione’s friendships and her routine ground her when everything seems like it might be about to fly apart.  They are charming.  You may want her friends to be yours, too.

I do see value in this book.  I think many other readers will, as well.  Yet other readers may think that Hermione ought to have experienced more conflict, more difficulty.  If not in her response to her rape, then perhaps in her experience with others.  After all, few of us live in an ideal world where all our friends and family always know just what to do and what to say, where we can afford the best medical and psychiatric care, where we feel like authorities always do the best they can for us.  Still, the book offers a portrait of strength and a glimmer of hope.  That may be just what some readers need.

4 stars

Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalo

Stalking Jack the Ripper

Information

Goodreads: Stalking Jack the Ripper
Series: Stalking Jack the Ripper #1
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Official Summary

Groomed to be the perfect highborn Victorian young lady, Audrey Rose Wadsworth has a decidedly different plan for herself.  After the loss of her beloved mother, she is determined to understand the nature of death and its workings.  Trading in her embroidery needle for an autopsy scalpel, Audrey secretly apprentices in forensics.  She soon gets drawn into the investigation of serial killer Jack the Ripper, but to her horror, the search for clues bringers her far closer to her sheltered world than she ever thought possible.

Review

Stalking Jack the Ripper takes readers to Victorian England, where protagonist Audrey Rose is learning forensics and flaunting all societal standards.  While the premise of the novel is a unique one, and Maniscalco has put clear effort into creating a world where people dabble with dark deeds and death to write a YA novel that stands out from the crowd, I ultimately thought the plot lagged.

Maniscalco takes an unsolved mystery and puts her own spin on it, but I found the solution to the mystery too obvious to guess too early in the novel, which was disappointing.  There are a limited number of characters in the book to begin with, and both the jacket summary and the snippet on the back of the hardcover give even more painfully broad hints.  Once you note this and account for some popular mystery tropes, it’s not difficult to tie everything together.  I would have liked a more surprising outcome, or at least more of a puzzle.  I also didn’t believe the Jack the Ripper character had particularly believable motivations or actions in many circumstances.

Beyond the mystery, the novel focuses on the life and personal development of protagonist Audrey Rose.  The book jacket calls her a “remarkably modern Victorian girl,” and that’s apt, so modern it’s nearly grating and definitely anachronistic.  I understand a lot of readers like anachronism; they want YA historical fiction heroines who break from the mold and do things they would not have actually been able to do in the time period.  However, Maniscalco simply takes things too far.  Audrey Rose does not only do remarkably modern things; she won’t stop explicitly stating how progressive she is!  The book is speckled with multiple direct remarks about how men cannot control her, how she refuses to dress properly, how she wants women to have rights, how she has her own mind, how women are the same as men, ad nauseum.  She has some decent points, but she won’t stop proclaiming them.  She can’t even put on makeup without thinking,

“I dreamed of a day when girls could wear lace and makeup—or no makeup at all and don burlap sacks if they desired—to their chosen profession without it being deemed inappropriate” (25).

Or attend an afternoon tea without assuming all the other girls must be like her and want to talk about exciting, manly, scientific things:

“As the afternoon wore on, I watched them, noting the role they were all playing.  I doubted any of them truly cared about what they were saying and felt immensely sorry for them.  Their minds were crying out to be set free, but they refused to unbind them” (149).

Indeed, she is disappointed to learn they might actually be interested in the silly conversations they are having…yet remarks multiple times that of course she is allowed to be interested in both fashion and science!  To think they are mutually exclusive would be absurd!

Basically, I tired of Audrey Rose early on, and none of the other characters saved the novel for me.  I have seen other readers swooning over the love interest, but to me the romance was too quick and forced; I didn’t feel any real spark or chemistry.  Audrey Rose and Thomas seem primarily to have their love of examining cadavers in common, and the fact that Thomas never bats at eye at all the supposedly scandalous things Audrey Rose does.  Indeed, I would have liked to see someone be scandalized because Audrey Rose seems to be all talk on this front; she continuously points out how she’s breaking social conventions and destroying her reputation, but hardly anyone seems to notice or care.  That makes it less believable and makes her seem less brave.

I almost DNFed this but carried on simply because I felt I could get through the book quickly, which ended up being true.  My standard for books I want to DNF is two stars, so that’s what this is getting.  Again, the concept is unique, and I think it could have been really great for a dark YA historical fiction, but never in the novel really worked for me.

Briana