Retribution Rails: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Secrets are like bullets.”

cover art for Retribution Rails by Erin BowmanReece Murphy never wanted to become the notorious Rose Kid. But he hardly had a choice

Five years ago Luther Rose rode in and killed the entire family Reece had been working for. Thanks to a mysterious gold coin, Reece has a different fate. If he can identify the man who gave him the gold piece, Reece can walk away. Until then he has to be part of the Rose Rides–something he can hardly escape thanks to his horrible deeds and even worse reputation as the Rose Kid.

Charlotte Vaughn and her mother are still grieving Charlotte’s father when her uncle begins moving to claim their estate and holdings for himself. Charlotte hopes that following a lead on a big story will help jump start her career as a journalist and bring her one step closer toward self-sufficiency and thwarting her uncle.

Both Reece and Charlotte’s plans are derailed when they cross paths on opposite sides of a botched train robbery. Charlotte could be Reece’s chance for freedom while Reece offers Charlotte the story of a lifetime. Charlotte and Reece know better than to trust each other but they both hope that with a little luck and a lot of grit they can use each other to get exactly what they need in Retribution Rails (2017) by Erin Bowman.

Retribution Rails is a companion novel set ten years after the events of Vengeance Road. While this novel works as a standalone it does reference previous events  throughout.

Written in dual first person narration this novel follows both Charlotte and Reece as they chase dreams and futures they are not sure they’ll ever manage to claim. The contrasts between these two helps to play with their changing perceptions of each other while also highlighting their similarities–particularly in terms of how single-mindedly they pursue their goals.

Reece and Charlotte are often difficult characters–Reece with the past he tries to forget and Charlotte with a surprisingly vindictive personality–and sometimes make the wrong choices. But those stumbles only add to their resiliency and growth throughout the novel. Their chemistry–even when they’re fighting–adds another dimension to this gripping story.

Readers familiar with Bowman’s work will find everything they loved about her first western in Retribution Rails along with a tighter plot which acknowledges the privileges and costs inherent to westward expansion and, in particular, the movement towards rail travel. Retribution Rails is a clever and fast-paced novel filled with adventure, redemption, and just a hint of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

An Enchantment of Ravens: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Why do we desire, above all other things, that which has the greatest power to destroy us?”

cover art for An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret RogersonIn the town of Whimsy Craft is currency. The fair folk value human artistry and creativity above all else–they crave it and collect it in lieu of creating on their own. For the right talent they might even offer humans their most coveted prize: immortality.

Isobel has made a comfortable life for herself and her aunt and sisters in Whimsy thanks to her skills as a portrait painter. But even Isobel’s talent can’t protect her from the whims of the fair folk. Any fairy client is dangerous–even Isobel’s oldest and most likely harmless patron, Gadfly–but royal ones especially so.

Isobel hopes to dazzle Rook, the autumn prince, with her Craft and then never see him again. Instead, her inclusion of human sorrow in Rook’s expression may doom them both in An Enchantment of Ravens (2017) by Margaret Rogerson.

An Enchantment of Ravens is Rogerson’s debut novel.

Isobel’s first person narration is candid and self-aware with prose that is delicately woven on a sentence level and serves well to compliment the story’s masterful world building.. She is keenly aware of the dangers of the fair folk, particularly their promise of immortality from the Green Well. The beauty and charm of the fair folk stands in stark contrast to their terrifying lack of humanity offering a nuanced interpretation of the fae that will appeal to fans of Holly Black’s faerie novels.

Instead of being drawn in by all of this glamour, Isobel is at pains to maintain her agency and control. Throughout An Enchantment of Ravens she remains utterly pragmatic and logical even as she is forced to do wild and unexpected things–with caring about and trusting Rook being the most illogical of all.

Isobel is a singular heroine and Rook an admirable foil and ally. This character-driven novel is further enhanced with a strong group of secondary characters notably including newly immortal Aster and my personal favorite, Gadfly. This standalone novel builds to a surprising and truly satisfying conclusion as pieces fall into place as neatly as the brushstrokes in one of Isobel’s portraits. An Enchantment of Ravens is an inventive and unique fantasy filled with fairies, danger, and romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, Legendary by Stephanie Garber, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Perilous Gard by Mary Elizabeth Pope, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, A Well-Timed Enchantment by Vivian Vande Velde, Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Jane, Unlimited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

—–

“There are many lives in every life.”

Jane’s life has always been ordinary and she has never minded that. When her Aunt Magnolia dies under strange circumstances, Jane is suddenly adrift and alone. She doesn’t know exactly how Aunt Magnolia died. She doesn’t know if she wants to go back to college. All she really knows is that if she is ever invited to Tu Reviens, she has to go. It was the last thing Aunt Magnolia asked her to do.

When Kiran Thrash, an old acquaintance who is as wealthy as she is mercurial, breezes back into Jane’s life with an invitation to the Thrash family gala at none other than Tu Reviens Jane immediately accepts.

The island mansion is not at all what Jane expects. Strange figures lurk in the shadows. Art goes missing and reappears at will. An ex-wife hides in the attic, while a current wife is missing entirely. Then there’s Jasper, the lovable Bassett Hound who has an uncanny attachment both to Jane and to a painting with a lone umbrella.

In a house filled with questions, Jane knows that all she has to do is follow the right person to get answers. But first she has to choose in Jane, Unlimited (2017) by Kristin Cashore.

Jane, Unlimited is Cashore’s latest standalone novel. Inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure stories among other things this novel reads as five interconnected stories spanning genres.

After enjoying but not quite loving Cashore’s Graceling trilogy, I was fully prepared for Jane, Unlimited to be the Cashore book that I would love unequivocally. I’m happy to say this genre-bending delight did not disappoint.

The novel opens with “The Missing Masterpiece” (my favorite story) where Jane tries to find a missing Vermeer and make sense of myriad clues in a mystery reminiscent of The Westing Game. This section also does all of the heavy lifting introducing Jane, her deceased Aunt Magnolia, Kiran Thrash, and her rakish and charismatic twin brother Ravi. This novel also introduces Jane’s umbrella making–a motif that helps tie all of the novel’s pieces together.

In “Lies Without Borders” Jane explores the mystery of the missing painting from a different angle in a sleek spy story that will appeal to fans of Ally Carter. The madcap action and continuously surprisingly and charming characters make this section another favorite.

Cashore turns her eye to horror in “In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One.” After finishing this creepy tale you won’t be able to look at your library or your favorite books in quite the same way. When you re-read this book on a structural level (and trust me, you’ll want to) this section is also key for highlighting the structure of the novel.

“Jane, Unlimited” is the section that ties the book together so I won’t tell you too much that could spoil the story. There are zany clothes, mayhem, frogs, and a lot of Ravi which makes this story a delight. Sure to be a favorite for fans of Douglas Adams and Dr. Who.

This novel wraps up in “The Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting” in which some mysteries are solved and some bigger questions are raised as Jane figures out why, exactly, Jasper the Bassett Hound is so very fond of her. This whimsical segment concludes the story on an optimistic note as Jane (and readers) realize that when one door closes another opens–literally.

Jane, Unlimited is a thoughtfully layered and intricately plotted novel. Depending on how you want to read it this book could contain five separate but overlapping stories, it could be one arc where all these outcomes eventually come to pass. There’s really no wrong way to interpret this story which is part of the charm. Whatever appeals to you about Jane and her adventures I guarantee you will find it in at least one part of this novel.

I first hear about Jane, Unlimited during a job interview at Penguin for a job I didn’t even come close to getting. Back then the book was just some new contemporary novel that Cashore was working on and I didn’t think much of it at the time. When it finally came time to read the book, I found that I could think of little else. Around the time of that interview I found out that one of my aunts had suffered a stroke that would prove fatal–something I didn’t know when I kept calling and calling to tell her about scheduling that job interview and asking her advice on what to wear and to practice questions. I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my aunt but I remember those messages I left her vividly. And I so wish I could have told her how this all came together in such a strange full circle way as Jane’s aunt Magnolia was such a big part of Jane’s story as she tries to figure out which path to choose.

In case it wasn’t already clear: I loved this book. It’s perfect and everything I want. Cashore populates the story with a cast of characters that is thoughtfully inclusive and painfully charming and expertly blends genres and plays them against each other throughout this clever novel.

Jane, Unlimited is a must read for anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, readers who like their books to resemble puzzles, and, of course, for anyone looking for an excellent story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen,The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art by Mathew Hart, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry, Oceanic Wilderness by Roger Steene, Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark (as seen in Scientific American, May 2003), The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

If you are interested in some of the art that inspired (or features) in this novel:

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

Strange the Dreamer: A Review

“He’d sooner die trying to hold the world on his shoulders than running away. Better, always, to run toward.”

No one knows what happened in Weep two hundred years ago to isolate the wondrous city from the rest of the world.

Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with Weep since he felt the city’s true name stripped from his mind when he was five years old. Now he spends every free moment tracking down what clues he can about the city as it once was and hints to what might have transpired there.

Unlikely as it may be for a war orphan turned into a lowly junior librarian, Lazlo’s greatest dream is to visit Weep and see its wonders with his own eyes. He knows such opportunities, such legends, are more suitable to men like Thyon Nero–a scholar renowned through the land for his alchemical wonders–but that does little to tamp down his hope. Lazlo is a dreamer who survives on a steady diet of magic and fairy tales. To deny the possibility of either in his own small life is unthinkable.

When an unexpected caravan led by Eril-Fane, the Godslayer, arrives Lazlo has to embrace his dream and strive for the impossible: not just the chance to see the Unseen City for himself but possibly the chance to save it.

The city is more than even Lazlo could have expected filled with wonders and horrors in equal measure. The city is still haunted by the centuries long legacy of war and terror under the Mesarthium–blue-skinned gods who came down from the sky when the city was still whole.

There are problems to solve in Weep and answers to find. But as Lazlo explores his dream city, he realizes there are also more questions as his own dreamscape becomes something he doesn’t recognize with moments that are strikingly, vividly real, and a blue-skinned goddess who seems nothing like the terror he’s heard about from the Godslayer.

In a world where the old gods are dead and dreams have weight, Lazlo will have to decide what he wants to protect and what he’s willing to lose in Strange the Dreamer (2017) by Laini Taylor. Welcome to Weep.

Strange the Dreamer is the first book in Taylor’s latest duology which will continue in The Muse of Nightmares. While this story is very obviously unfinished (the last line of the novel is “Because this story was not over yet.”) Strange the Dreamer does provide a partially contained arc in terms of Lazlo’s journey and growth as he comes into his own upon arriving in Weep.

Through Weep and its history Strange the Dreamer artfully explores themes of forgiveness and recovery as both Lazlo and the rest of Weep struggle to determine next steps for the wounded but healing city. The imagined city of Weep is evocative and vibrant with distinct customs, landscapes, and even language. The use of language is demonstrated especially well with the words in Weep’s native language used to start each section of the novel.

Taylor builds drama that remains taut from the opening prologue until the very last page. Written with an omniscient third person point of view this story is very self-aware and encompasses numerous points of view. This narrative structure and the tone of the novel are deliberately reminiscent of the fairy tales that Lazlo so richly loves and serve to underscore the fairy tale nature of Strange the Dreamer where magic continuously appears in seemingly mundane and unexpected places.

Strange the Dreamer is a captivating fantasy sure to appeal to readers looking for an intricate and unique story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Reader by Traci Chee, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Lirael by Garth Nix, A Darker Shade of Magic by Victoria Schwab, All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

The Keeper of the Mist: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“There was something appalling about the steady progression of time, or at least about dividing time into sharp little seconds and counting them off, like a knife flicking through the day, tick tick tick, and nothing anyone could do to turn back the hands of time.”

Keri’s main focus since her mother’s death has been running the family bakery on her own. She doesn’t have much time to think about her father, the Lord of Nimmira, who has never wasted a thought on Keri. Nor is she inclined to entertain predictions about which of her half-brothers will take up the title of Lord upon their father’s death.

When Nimmira’s ancient and inscrutable magic chooses Keri as the unlikely heir her focus shifts abruptly from baking to all manner of details implicit to overseeing her small country as its new Lady. Caught between larger countries eager to conquer each other and absorb its resources, Nimmira has relied on its border mists and a strict policy of isolation for generations. Keri should be able to control and maintain the mists as the new Lady. Except they continue to fail after her ascension and no one knows why.

Keri’s Timekeeper is counting the seconds, minutes, and hours to something important. But he can’t–or perhaps won’t–explain what exactly that is or how Keri can prepare for it. Keri’s best friend Tassel acclimates quickly to her role as Bookkeeper but even her magic can’t help unravel some of Nimmira’s deepest secrets. Then there’s Cort, Keri’s unlikely Doorkeeper. Cort is steadfast in his commitment to protecting and maintaining Nimmira’s borders. But will he and Keri finally be able to see eye to eye as they try to restore the mist?

Change is coming to Nimmira. Only time will tell if Keri and her friends will be ready to face it in The Keeper of the Mist (2016) by Rachel Neumeier.

The Keeper of the Mist is a charming standalone fantasy novel with a beautiful cover. It is also, as a hardcover edition, very poorly edited with typos and repeated phrases. While that doesn’t detract from the story, it did often make for a frustrating reading experience.

Keri’s story is a novel of manners with the feel of a regency romance (though don’t tell that to Keri or Cort) with a healthy dose of fantasy. Keri is scattered and sometimes lacking in confidence but she is also a woman of action who, once she commits, is prepared to do the right thing and follow through.Tassel and Court serve as excellent counterpoints to Keri and the relationships between these three characters are an excellent underpinning for the rest of the novel.

Everything about The Keeper of the Mist comes back to time. Keri’s ascension to Lady has to happen on a very specific schedule. The expiration date for the mist is clearly in sight if the magic border isn’t fixed. Foreign intrusion is imminent as Nimmira becomes more visible to its neighbors. All of this urgency lends itself to a fast-paced story. Unfortunately that same urgency underscores the fact that this story is very slow and much more focused on characters than plot.

The Keeper of the Mist is a contemplative coming-of-age fantasy about friendship, embracing change, and facing challenges head on. Recommended for readers who enjoy well-realized regency fantasies in the tradition of Patricia McKillip or Diana Wynne Jones.

Possible Pairings: Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Uprooted by Naomi Novik, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Roar: A Review

Aurora Pavan looks the part of a powerful princess from one of the oldest Stormling family lines. Everyone expects Rora to soon take up her mother’s mantle as queen using her abilities to control and dispel dangerous storms that plague all of Caelira to protect their kingdom. It has been this way since the first storms appeared generations ago.

No one knows the dangerous secret Roar and her mother have been keeping. Rora has no storm magic.

An arranged marriage to a ruthless Stormling prince from a neighboring kingdom can help Rora keep her secret and her kingdom safe. But Cassius Locke is dangerous and the more Rora learns about him the more she fears marrying him on any terms.

Legends tell of how the first Stormlings claimed their magic by facing storms and stealing their hearts–something she learns may still be possible from a storm hunter who reveals that he too was born without magic but has it now.

Determined to finally choose her own fate, Rora sets out to face a storm–and her future–on her own terms in Roar (2017) by Cora Carmack.

Roar alternates close third person point of view between key characters including Rora and Cassius among others. Quotes from Caeliran legends and songs help to expand the world. Carmack’s fantasy debut begins with a fascinating premise where storms plague the kingdoms of Caelira and only a select few can control them. Unfortunately the full potential of this premise is never quite realized.

You can see Carmack’s roots in contemporary romance here with Roar’s focus on interpersonal relationships over external details that would help to clarify the setting and magic system. Centering relationships from the beginning of the novel also leads to a slow start as Rora builds up to her storm hunting adventure.

Roar is a sexy, dramatic high fantasy that will appeal to readers who prefer character-driven books. Readers looking for a sweeping romance and adventure will be eagerly waiting for the sequel.

Possible Pairings: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, The Queen of Blood by Sarah Beth Durst, Reign the Earth by A. C. Gaughen, Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas, Snow Like Ashes by Sarah Raasch, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

*A title of this copy was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Library of Fates: A Review

Sikander, the emperor of Macedon, arrives in peaceful Shalingar after conquering Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Bactria, and Persia. Sikander asks Princess Amrita to become his bride as part of a peaceful treaty between the two nations but the negotiations soon end in bloodshed and force Amrita to flee.

Haunted by the loss of her kingdom and everyone she loves Amrita helps Thala, an enslaved oracle, escape imprisonment. Together Thala is certain that she and Amrita can find the Library of All Things and convince the Keeper of the library to allow them to change their own fates.

As Amrita and Thala come closer to changing their fates, Amrita has to come to terms with the fact that her old life may be impossible to reclaim and a new life can only be found through sacrifice in The Library of Fates (2017) by Aditi Khorana.

Khorana’s sophomore novel is a standalone fantasy imbued with elements from Indian folklore and Hindu mythology combined with elements of the author’s own invention including a giant magical spider that allows characters to travel through time and space.

This story is hampered by anachronistic phrases and details that fail to coalesce into a coherent world or logical magic system. Basically all of background suggests that this story is set around 300BC which fits with the inclusion of Macedon and other countries that are mentioned. In spite of that Amrita and her friends continuously use words and phrases that have origins in the 1800s. Because of this the dialogue feels especially English/American which makes sense given the author being American but also rings untrue as the characters themselves are not (and in fact are probably speaking the fictitious Shalingarsh language throughout). Of course, The Library of Fates would always be read in English by English readers but the offhand linguistic choices often serve to draw readers out of the story.

As a narrator Amrita is an uneasy blend of naive and impetuous while also being seemingly the only character in the novel unaware of her true connection to a mythical goddess called Maya the Diviner. Every character Amrita knows in the palace has been aware of this connection since her birth and kept it from her. Literally. Every. Character.

Despite the inherent tension of an early love triangle, relationships remain underdeveloped save for the endearing if abrupt friendship between Amrita and Thala. As Amrita ponders her odious marriage arrangement with Sikander, she suddenly and completely falls for Arjun, her best friend since childhood. This forbidden love is dropped when Amrita is forced to leave Shalingar without him. A new love interest is introduced for a dramatic star-crossed love story that is largely toothless because the second love interest appears in about ten pages total of the entire book–and that only after the story hits the halfway mark.

Interesting concepts including the Library of All Things itself are bright spots in this otherwise unfocused story where many of the most exciting moments are related in asides or flashbacks. A serviceable if not well-realized fantasy that will appeal to fans of The Wrath and the Dawn and The Star-Touched Queen.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a review in the June 1, 2017 issue of School Library Journal*