[Ren] Moon Called (Mercy Thompson #1) by Patricia Briggs

Moon Called (Mercy Thompson #1) by Patricia BriggsPick For Me badgeTitle: Moon Called (Mercy Thompson #1)
Author: Patricia Briggs
Published: May 12th, 2014
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of werewolves and I’m generally bored by shapeshifters and similar paranormal elements. I started this series because I was intrigued by a short story set in the same universe. All things considered, I thought this book was okay.

The protagonist, Mercy, is a badass werecoyote. She also doesn’t look like the person on the cover of the book, since she spends most of the time wearing ill-fitted borrowed clothes because she tends to lose or destroy her own shirts… but then again, when ever have fantasy covers been realistic. Problem is, for a badass werecoyote, she’s also rather dull. As I was reading, I felt as if the book had the potential to be really entertaining, if only I wasn’t stuck inside the boring POV of Mercy Thompson. Which, you know, is a bit of a problem since the series is named after her. I sat on this review for a while, and after a week or so the only thing I remember about Mercy’s personality is… uh… she has a cat?

The secondary characters are marginally more interesting, though my enjoyment of Adam was slightly dampened by the fact that he looks like a corner of a love triangle. The worldbuilding and lore is by far the most interesting part of the novel, even considering that I don’t care much for werewolves. In fact, I didn’t mind when the action was paused for a bit of info dump, though it might be annoying if you’re into whatever Mercy is doing at the time.

As for me, I’m on the fence about this series. Bits of it were really cool but I think I’ll need a break of several months before my next dose of werewolves, especially since a love triangle seems to be looming over the horizon.


[Ren] The Heiresses by Sara Shepard

The Heiresses by Sara ShepardPick For Me badgeTitle: The Heiresses
Author: Sara Shepard
Published: May 12th, 2014
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

Summary of the story: there are five rich girls, who all have rich girl problems. My problem is that five is way too many characters, given that they all have the personality of cardboard cutouts. No, wait, cardboard’s too cheap… faux marble statues, maybe. The beginning was rather dull. I read on the back cover that one of the poor rich girls was going to die, and I looked forward to that because it meant one less POV to keep track of, but I still had to spend several long chapters reading about her organic baby food and her designer footwear. Then she died! Hooray!

But the book remained dull. I feel very disappointed, because I was in this for the torrid affairs and illegitimate love children and dirty secrets, but everything was told in such a dull way! This might be the problem: things were told. Every time that there was some buildup because a character hinted at some dark secret in their past, a couple of chapters later they told me about it. And those flashbacks were so dry, it felt like reading a newspaper article. Not even a juicy gossip magazine, just a boring newspaper that only gives you the bare facts. Oh, look, this character is a murderer. This one had an affair. This one likes to party. Yawn. The few bits of suspence came from Poppy’s death. Here at least the action took place in the present and there was something a stake. Was it murder? Were the other heiresses in danger? I was hoping more of them will die because I didn’t like them very much, but at least that part of the plot was entertaining.

The characters were also a disappointment. I read Pretty Little Liars and it was entertaining enough, but the characters were kind of immature since they were all dumb teens. This book has adult characters, so I assumed I would like it better — wrong. Despite their age, the Saybrook heiresses all act like dumb kids. The dialogue is a gold mine.

“That hat is hideous, by the way,” [Elizabeth] added, turning back into the bedroom.
It’s Hermès, Aster wanted to snap.

Poor Aster hasn’t grasped the idea that things can be both hideous and expensive. She might be my favourite character, just because she’s the dumbest. She spends the book miserable because her allowance is being cut and she’s forced to work and she doesn’t, like, know how to use Excel or anything.

Again, the plot about Poppy’s death is the one redeeming thing about the book because the girls finally start putting their heads together and they try to figure out the Big Dark Saybrook Secret. There was quite a lot of red herrings, and at one point nothing seemed to make sense, but the solution was very neat and made me want to smack my forehead because of course that’s what happened, that actually made sense! I was actually very pleased with the end and with the fact that tiny rays of character development started to appear over the horizon.

…Is what I would have liked to say, but then the epilogue is like “fuck that, maybe I was lying before and that is not the real solution of the mystery, maybe there are many Bigger Badder Darker Secrets yet to discover, so get ready for the next 12 books!!!” so I’m back to disappointment after all. If (when?) book #2 comes out, please bludgeon me over the head so I won’t read it. It’s for my own good.

[Ren] The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell

The Princess Curse by Merrie HaskellPick For Me badgeAvengers vs X-Men badgeTitle: The Princess Curse
Author: Merrie Haskell
Published: September 1st, 2011
Rating: 4 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

I’m on a fairy tale kick lately, so I’m very happy that Isa chose this book for me to read. It’s a very interesting and original retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a story about a group of princesses who are forced to dance to the point of exhaustion every night. My first impression wasn’t very positive: to be honest I found that the first 40% of the book were rather slow-going and not very interesting, because nothing much happened aside from a lot of worldbuilding and introductions of characters. One of the problems is that I was already familiar with the story. So while everyone in the castle is wondering why the princesses’s slippers have holes in them every morning, I’m like “well that’s because every night they go down the secret tunnel and dance underground, duh”.

The book’s own backcover mentions the dancing and the underground, so it’s not even as if that’s meant to be a big spoiler. I felt that the first several chapters followed the fairytale too closely, and maybe it would have been more interested if the book had started with Reveka’s first attempts to discover a cure for the curse instead of starting so far back.

…Oh, right, Reveka. The original fairytale has some boring, nameless hero who tries to break the curse so he can marry one of the princesses. The book has Reveka instead. Reveka is thirteen and she’s apprenticed to the castle’s herbalist. She wants to break the curse and get the reward money so she can join a convent, because being a nun in the 15th century means you don’t have to marry some dolt and instead you can spend your life working in your herbarium and figuring out how plants work. That last bit doesn’t sound very interesting to me, but Reveka is super into plants so good for her.

I like Reveka, though at times I forget that she’s just thirteen because she acts and speaks as if she’s much older. That may be because back in the day people started working younger and got married younger and so on (and Reveka does point out a couple of times that she is old enough to be married) but she was just a little too mature to be believable as a kid. Still, she’s a funny protagonist.

“I understand that you don’t want to marry me,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know why, since I’m simply delightful to be around. But to each his own taste.”

One of my favourite things about Reveka is that she wasn’t suddenly all-knowledgeable about plants as the plot required it. Most of the time she didn’t know what to do and had to look things up in her book, or she had to ask the herbalist or other adults. Reveka is not a child prodigy, she’s a regular apprentice who sometimes gets things wrong because she’s still learning, and that made her sympathetic to me. I also liked how herbs and plants played such a central role and the herbalist was sort of a cross between a doctor and a scientist.

The setting is also very interesting: the country of Sylvania where Reveka lives is fictional, but very realistic and based on neighbouring Transylvania and Wallachia. I believe that many details, like the threat of a Turkish invasion and the style of dress and the ruling system, are actual historical detains. It’s very different from the generic fantasy setting that I imagined from the cover, and I was intrigued. Don’t get me wrong, the cover is very pretty, but Reveka wears a simple chemise and her hair is pushed back under a cowl so who is this stranger with the fancy dress and flowing hair?

Anyway. Halfway through the book Reveka finally figures out an important thing about the curse, and that’s when the book becomes, in a word, awesome. Up to then I was rather underwhelmed by the plot, but then the author started mixing in bits of other fairytales and myths. That made it much more interesting for me, because I no longer knew what was going to happen and the story felt completely original. I’m trying very hard not to spoil anything, because part of the fun was not knowing about each plot point in advance, but there’s a bit where I thought that the story was going to feature one of two YA tropes, and I was trying to figure out which trope I would despise less. But then the story subverted both tropes… by having Reveka act like a person with a brain who makes her own decisions about her life. And also by not making a thirteen-year-old fall in instalove with anyone, because the book outright acknowledges that it would be problematic and that we’re not going there.

The ending felt somewhat rushed… I didn’t even realize that we had reached the climax of the story, I thought that we were just leading up to it and then suddenly it was over and we had a happy end. So that felt like a letdown. But I adored how the epilogue let things open: it’s a bit like Chalice in that regard, that it lets me free to imagine what will happen next to the protagonist and everyone else in the castle. Like Chalice, I wish that there was a sequel but at the same time I’m glad this is a standalone, because I feel it’s better to finish a book wanting a little more rather than slogging through a trilogy and wondering why it’s dragging on for so long. And in this case I definitely want to read more from Merrie Haskell!

[Ren] Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle BennettPick For Me badgeTitle: Havemercy
Author: Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Published: January 1st, 2008
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

Mechanical dragons! Mecha dragons fueled by magic and piloted by daring aces, who protect the sky against a foreign army! I really wanted to care about this book, because the premise sounded awesome, but ultimately it just felt a bit bland to me.

First off, the book is divided between four POV characters, and those four don’t really interact with each other. Even after the POVs “pair off”, so to speak, the two pairs are literally miles away from each other and it felt as if I was reading two books about two separate groups of people. It took me a while to become interested in the characters and their story, because I kept bouncing back from one POV to the other, and they were all narrated in first person which was confusing at times.

Havemercy is what saved the book for me. I really liked her, and I kept feeling she needed more scenes. She was a huge part of Rook’s life and she only showed up once or twice, which was a shame. I did like the middle part of the book, when things finally started moving and the characters interacted more. The end was disappointing, though, and there was too much focus on the relationship between Hal and Royston which was boring because it was obvious that they were going to be together anyway.

I think my biggest problem with this book is that it doesn’t really have heart. It never made me care too much about the characters, because I never felt that they were really in danger. The Ke-Han were never going to invade, Royston and Hal were never going to be separated, Thom was never going to be sent away by the Esar. There was never any immediate sense of danger. There were many casualties in the end, but I got the feeling that the book didn’t care because it wasn’t any of the main characters, and so I didn’t really care either.

Part of the issue could be that the authors started off as fanfiction writers. If I had already felt an emotional attachment to those characters, I would have liked their story better. But the authors failed in getting me attached to the characters in the first place. It’s a shame, because there’s some really good worldbuilding and this could have been a stellar book, but it just didn’t grab me and it didn’t make me want to read more books set in this universe. Pity.

[Ren] Allegiant (Divergent #3) by Veronica Roth

Allegiant (Divergent #3) by Veronica RothPick For Me badgeTitle: Allegiant (Divergent #3)
Author: Veronica Roth
Published: March 18th, 2013
Rating: DNF at 25%
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

I tried. The first two books in the series were entertaining enough, there were some bad young adult tropes but they were an easy read as long as I suspended my disbelief about the ludicrous factions system. I thought “whatever, it’s just the way this crazy world is” and kept reading. The problem is that as soon as the book explained to me when the factions were formed and why, I laughed and abandoned the book.

The problem is that Veronica Roth wrote herself in a corner with the factions. There was no way to rationalize a system with that many flaws. The logical thing to do would have been to just ignore it and go with the story, focusing on the conflict between the factionless and the allegiant. Lots of successful books and movies have a basic premise that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that doesn’t matter much if the story is compelling. Unfortunately, not only the “explanation” of the factions made no sense, it also turned the book into a dead bore.

This is the third book already, so I would expect that most of the worldbuilding and character building has already been done (even though the world makes no sense and the characters are two-dimensional) and that the book would deal with solving all of the pending conflicts. Right? Wrong. Instead, the book just stops all action for a bunch of chapters, and literally sits down Tris and her friends to explain how factions work. It’s the clumsiest plot dump ever, it makes no sense, and it killed any interest I might have in finding out what happens next.

Why should I sit through I don’t know how many more chapters of new characters talking about what a great idea the factions are (they aren’t), and of Tris being stupidly noble (or nobly stupid, or just stupid), and of Four turning into a useless copy of Tris (down to the fact that his POV is indistinguishable from Tris)? Oh, right, because I wanted to find out whether Four dies at the end like I thought he would since the first book. Well, I asked Isa about that, and then she linked me to a review that told me real quick what happened at the end. It sounded completely ridiculous and I don’t regret cutting my losses and giving up on this book.

[Joint Review] Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Keeping the Castle by Patrice KindlPick For Me badgeTitle: Keeping the Castle
Author: Patrice Kindl
Published: June 1, 2012
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

Seventeen-year-old Althea lives with her family (a mother, two stepsisters, one little brother) in a crumbling castle in Northern England. Being pretty and penniless and extremely practical, Althea has decided that she will marry well and rescue her family from their genteel poverty. There aren’t many eligible men in the town of Lesser Hoo, especially after Althea’s sharp tongue sends her latest suitor running, but when the young and attractive (and rich) Lord Boring arrives, Althea resolves to marry him and solve her financial problems. Also because Lord Boring is young and attractive. But mostly because he’s rich. It’s too bad that Althea’s meddling stepsisters, Lord Boring’s very rude friend, and a whole host of neighbours, keep getting in the way…

Isa: Soooo, Ren picked this book for me in the May Pick-For-Me (I feel like I always say that in PFM reviews, despite the giant badge at the beginning of the post…) and I REALLY ENJOYED IT. I was determined to read it soon regardless of the PFM going on, but I’m glad that Ren’s choice pushed me to definitely go for it this month because it was really lovely.

Ren: And Isa loved it so much that I was spurred to read it too, and now I’m hijacking her review to rant about how good this book was. Like she said, it’s a lovely story: it’s funny and lighthearted and has all the elements I like in a Regency romance, while avoiding stale tropes and clichés. For example, Althea is very different from the usual romance heroines!

Isa: Which was really great. In general, the book was great and not at all what I expected. (Though I can’t even say what I expected, but it wasn’t this.) As usual I’m a victim of shiny covers, so the whole Regency setting came as a bit of a surprise (why? Isa, why??? your thoughts regarding this literally make no sense????) but it was definitely a welcome surprise! I know Ren reads a lot of Regency romance, so she’s already in her element when it comes to the genre, but for me it’s a bit different. I enjoy them, but I often struggle through them too. Don’t know why that is… perhaps because in my mind they just appear as this giant cluster of longwinded run-on sentences where the protagonists take ten pages to describe the exact way in which they are doing their needlework. Even though that isn’t remotely accurate in actuality!

Ren: Well… no, it’s not, really. But to be honest I started reading in the m/f romance genre only a few months ago myself. I’m not disparaging the genre, quite the opposite since you know I’m addicted to it, but the thing is that so many historical romances are just so serious! The heroine and hero are pining and angsting and crying because of their epic love, and so on.

Isa: That’s exactly it! There’s only so much angst and pining and seriousness I can take.

Ren: Keeping The Castle on the other hand focuses on humour and witty banter, and the last chapters made me smile so much that my face hurt. And Althea is very different from the usual romance heroines!

Isa: She really is! Althea was a refreshing change from what the dark recesses of my brain imagined. She’s witty and absolutely determined to find herself a rich husband, no matter what.

Ren: I loved that Althea’s goal is marriage instead of finding her soulmate. And I loved that she is beautiful even though not very accomplished, and she knows it and uses her looks to her advantage. It was a refreshing change from the usual heroine who’s incredibly talented but plain and so angsts about her looks until the hero sees her inner beauty.

Isa: Soulmates are useless anyway. Ain’t nobody got time for that. What if your soulmate is a boring vicar who keeps making fish faces? No, I think the best romantic matches are often made of people (or other beings, if you’re into that kind of thing) who can withstand a bit of healthy arguing and snappy banter. Which is what I loved about this! It reminded me a lot of the Parasol Protectorate series, which is equally witty and entertaining. And it’s not just the wit that was entertaining in Keeping the Castle. There’s also the general situation of Althea’s family that’s really tragic but also incredibly hilarious. Poor Althea for having had a grandfather who built a rickety castle on a cliff because he thought it was visually striking.

Ren: To be honest, it was striking! Just look at that adorable castle on the cover… I wouldn’t want to live there, especially with the leaky roof or the rats, but I could see why Althea didn’t want to lose it and I’d love to visit. Plus, the atmosphere is that of a typical English countryside village, and it’s full of ridiculous characters with names like Lord Boring, Lady Throstletwist, Dr Haxhamptonshire (pronounced Hamster) and so on. Everyone is delightful, and even the evil stepsisters amused me. Aside from Althea, my favourite characters were Mr. Fredericks (loved the banter!) and Miss Vincy (loved how she wasn’t reduced to the role of rival but had her own story instead).

Isa: Eheheheheh, I love the names, negl. It’s another one of the things that reminds me of the Parasol Protectorate. (You should read that, Ren.) (I mean, really. Lord Akeldama. You would love him. And Biffy. You would adore Biffy. Maybe I should sic Evy on you…)

Ren: (Yeeeah, right…) (We can talk about it after you read Captive Prince?)

Isa: I definitely agree with you on Fredericks and Miss Vincy. Any and all negative expectations I may have had were out of the window with these two. They were delightful and genuine, which counts for a lot when really most other characters don’t seem to have an ounce of common sense. Seriously, the whole village/town/smattering of estates must’ve known that Althea and her family weren’t exactly well off (and that’s putting it nicely) and yet they insisted on visiting with them. I love the way that was handled though! Not just the general plot but also the little things like Althea wrestling their domestic situation to suit the needs as best as they could!

Ren: I thought the same, but in hindsight it’s nice that they still visited and didn’t treat Althea and the Crawleys as social pariahs because they were poor. And I agree, it was great to see how Althea dealt with everything that happened. She’s funny and smart and resourceful and has more than earned her happy ending. Her, and everyone else in the story. Except for the ones who earned a stupid ending through their stupidity, but there’s no helping them really.

Isa: Frankly, it would’ve been disappointing if those hadn’t has a stupid ending because that wouldn’t have fit with the otherwise excellent writing. Well, mostly excellent writing. There was one thing that bothered me a lot, actually. I eventually got over it because I was just being unnecessarily nitpicky, but the author kept using ” tho’ ” as a substitute for “though”. Admittedly, I use “tho” as well when I’m lazy, but it kept disrupting the story for me. I’ve never encountered that before in historical fiction and it just kept making me think of internet things, actually.

Ren: Same here, tho’ (ha ha) I looked it up and it’s apparently a spelling that was occasionally used in letters and informal journals. Generally, I liked the writing style. Good banter, funny characters, a unique heroine: this book has it all and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it: fans of Regency romances should appreciate the freshness of the plot, while non-fans can get a glimpse of Regency atmosphere and wry humour.

Isa: Very funny you are. And you put it all very well there, I am jealous of your ability to use words. And because I can’t seem to add any more to this review other than flailing about how much I loved it, I’m just gonna add my favourite line from the book:

“I stared after the runaway couple with narrowed eyes and heaving breast. How could they? Without even discussing it with me?”

Isa: Althea’s thoughts and general disposition are just dead funny. Hands down one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and very deserving of the 4.5 teacups we’re handing out!
Isa and Ren

[Ren] Lirael (Old Kingdom #2) by Garth Nix

Lirael (Old Kingdom #2) by Garth NixPick For Me badgeSequel Spring badgeTitle: Lirael (Old Kingdom #2)
Author: Garth Nix
Published: April 29th, 2001
Rating: 4 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

This second book in the series picks up quite a bit after the events of the first one: fourteen years, in fact. So while I usually try not to spoil plot points about previous books in my reviews, this time I don’t think I can avoid some minor spoilers. If you’re considering reading the series, you’d better avoid this review and check what I wrote about Sabriel instead.

The titular protagonist, Lirael, is one of the Clayr, the women who live on a far-off mountain and see the future in the ice. When the book opens, it’s Lirael’s fourteenth birthday and she still doesn’t have the Sight. That, along with the fact that she looks different from the other Clayr, makes her somewhat of an outcast. I’ll just say it: the book starts with Lirael contemplating suicide. It might seem inappropriate, in a book geared towards middle grade, but I get it. Not all protagonists can be plucky and fearless and dream of adventure and handsome princes; some protagonists are quiet and withdrawn and sometimes wonder what’s the point of it all. And if you look past the darker themes of the book, I think it would be a great read for kids because at its core it’s a story about finding yourself and your place in life.

So anyway. Lirael. Isa will be pleased to know that I loved Lirael to pieces. Not just because of her personality, but also because she ends up working in a magical library with mysterious rooms and dangerous creatures lurking around. She’s a battle librarian with a magical dog! And the Disreputable Dog (or Disreputable Bitch if you want to get technical) is an awesome character herself. I loved the first half of the book. My only complaint about it is that the library isn’t much of a library. There are mentions of books, but from the description it sounded more like a dungeon with one or two books lying around.

The second half of the book, unfortunately, was more of a drag because of Sameth. Sam is Sabriel’s son and the Abhorsen-in-waiting, and he alternates POVs with Lirael starting halfway through the book. He starts off interesting enough, holding his own against zombies in Ancelstierre, but then he becomes completely useless. He keeps whining about not wanting to be Abhorsen and not wanting to use the bells and not wanting to do this and not wanting to go there and in short he acts like a spoiled brat. It was a chore to get through his chapters. I liked seeing characters from the previous books, but I’d have preferred if the whole book was from Lirael’s POV, because Sam’s POV didn’t give me much that was relevant to the plot anyway.

Plot which, unfortunately, ends rather abruptly in the last chapter. While the first book was self-contained, this one reads more like an extended prologue for the third book. An enjoyable prologue, though! And I was very much relieved to see zero hints of romance in this book, just magic and adventure and lots of awesome.

[Ren] Poison Study (Study #1) by Maria V. Snyder

Poison Study (Study #1) by Maria V. SnyderPick For Me badgeTitle: Poison Study (Study #1)
Author: Maria V. Snyder
Published: June 1st, 2004
Rating: 2 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

Just before being executed for murder, Yelena is offered a deal: she can become a food taster for the Commander of Ixia and survive… as long as she doesn’t end up poisoned, or killed by the Commander’s political rivals. Yelena also has several other problems: the father of the guy she killed wants her dead; she might have magic in a country where all magicians are put to death; and the (tall dark and handsome) chief of security poisoned her as a guarantee that she won’t try to run away, and she’ll die if she doesn’t get a daily dose of antidote.

This book was a bit of a rollercoaster. Several times I was tempted to drop it, but then something would happen that made me think that it wasn’t such a bad book after all. And, every time I’d convinced myself that I liked the book, something really dumb happened and I had to facepalm at the stupidity of the characters. I was torn between two or three teacups, but by the last few chapters I was skimming to get to the end, and I know I wouldn’t recommend this book; so two teacups it is.

The big problem with this book is how bland and generic it is. On the surface Yelena is a strong heroine, athletic and smart, but if you dig down she’s just made up from a bunch of fantasy YA tropes. And sometimes she doesn’t even make sense, like the fact that she’s been locked in a cell for most of a year but somehow she’s still got all of her athletic skills. Sometimes her character isn’t consistent, even within the same scene, like when during her first meeting with Valek she’s so scared because he has the power to send her to the noose, but when he starts asking questions she replies by being a sarcastic little shit. And sometimes she’s a bit of a Mary Sue, I mean, she’s an athlete and picks up poison tasting and close combat fighting and lock-picking in a matter of a few weeks. (And also some magic, because why not.)

The setting was also meh. Ixia is a military regime ruled by those eight generals, but it’s not clear what they do aside from continually showing up at the castle to have meetings with the Commander. Ixia has lots of snow in the north and borders with Sitia on the south. You know those very detailed fantasy worlds that give you the impression that you’re living in there for a few hours along with the characters? Yeah… this is the complete opposite. We don’t know anything about the setting, not even the level of technology of this place. The narration uses archaic words sometimes, and guards are armed with swords and not guns, giving me the idea that we’re in some kind of fantasy middle ages; but then they’d start talking about special ops and getting a tan, so I have no idea.

And Valek. Urgh, Valek! I really love spymaster characters, but the problem with having someone who’s supposedly a genius strategist with spies all over the place is that you can’t have him act like a bumbling moron. Valek is unfortunately extremely incompetent, to the point that he can’t draw obvious conclusions that are immediate for Yelena and the reader. Instead, he sulks and kicks chairs and lets the bad guys scheme right under his nose. I have no idea how he managed to survive in his position for so long… Oh, wait, it’s because the baddies are even more incompetent than he is. Cartoonish Disney villains are more effective at killing the heroes. Team Rocket could give the baddies some pointers about how to kidnap people.

The romance was very subtle, so it didn’t bother me for most of the book, but at the end Yelena and Valek are literally thrown together and out of nowhere they start waxing lyrical about their mutual love. That, coupled with the clichéd revelation about Yelena’s ancestry, was the last straw. Yet another book for the “wasted an interesting premise” pile.

[Ren] The Diviners (The Diviners #1) by Libba Bray

The Diviners by Libba BrayPick For Me badgeAvengers vs X-Men badgeTitle: The Diviners (The Diviners #1)
Author: Libba Bray
Published: September 18th, 2012
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 teacups
Find it at: amazonbarnesandnoblebookdepositorygoodreads

Evie O’Neill is the quintessential flapper: a girl who likes jazz and speakeasies and has the power to guess people’s secrets by touching their possessions. Trust me, that’s what everyone did in the Roaring Twenties. Almost every character in the book is a Diviner, which is to say a person with special abilities. But I’m getting sidetracked. That’s another thing that happens a lot in the book, sidetracking. I’ll come back to it. After her power causes a bit of a commotion in her town, Evie is sent to live with her uncle in New York. All sorts of cool and interesting things happen in the city, like ritualistic serial killings. Uncle Will runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult and he’s helping the police investigation, and Evie decides that it’d be ~the cat’s pajamas~ to tag along to a murder scene. This in hindsight proves to be a terrible idea because mutilated corpses are gross, and also because the killer might be a little supernatural and a lot determined to finish the job. Really, Evie, anyone could have told you that it was a terrible idea.

So, about Evie. She’s not an easy character to like because she’s very spoiled and inconsiderate and her main concern for the first half of the book are her clothes and whether she can get drunk at a party that night. But, for all her flaws, I liked her a lot. She’s a far cry from the usual pure and selfless heroine, and sometimes I just need to read about a main character who says this is me, this is what I want, I’m doing it for myself and damn the consequences.

Some mornings, she’d wake and vow, Today, I will get it right. I won’t be such an awful mess of a girl. I won’t lose my temper or make unkind remarks. I won’t go too far with a joke and feel the room go quiet with disapproval. I’ll be good and kind and sensible and patient. The sort everyone loves. But by evening, her good intentions would have unraveled. She’d say the wrong thing or talk a little too loudly. She’d take a dare she shouldn’t, just to be noticed. Perhaps Mabel was right, and she was selfish. But what was the point of living so quietly you made no noise at all?

The supernatural murder plot was suitably creepy, and I wish I didn’t have such a vivid imagination because there were quite a lot of detailed descriptions of grisly murder scenes. The mythology that Libba Bray came up with was very interesting. In general, the whole setting is great and it did really feel as if I was living in the 1920s for a while. I’ve read some reviews that mention the overuse of expressions like “the cat’s meow”, “giggle water”, “pos-i-tute-ly”… I have to disagree, I felt that the use of those expressions was very appropriate. Because it’s Evie who keeps using those words over and over, and it fits with her character of bad teenage girl who annoys her elders by overusing slang terms. In terms of setting, this book is pretty much perfect for me.

My only problem, and it’s a big problem, is that there are a lot of useless sidecharacters and subplots that go nowhere. The author had a story to tell, and it was a cool story, with a definite beginning and a middle and an end. But because this book is the first in a series, there are a lot of chapters that do nothing but set up plot points that (I assume) will be resolved in the next books. Take Memphis for instance: I like him but he has almost no connection with the main plot, the pentacle killings. Every couple of chapters the action grinds to a halt because we have to go and see what Memphis is up to. I more or less skipped one of his chapters towards the end because another murder is happening, someone is dead, I do not care that Memphis is writing sad poetry in his journal! I like books with lots and lots of characters, but in this case I felt as if the pacing suffered because of all the characters and story hooks that the author was trying to cram into it.

Without all the pointless extra characters and plots, I would have given this book 4.5 out of 5 teacups. As it is, it’s a 3.5 at most: it was exhausting to get to the end of it, especially because the last chapter is a series of vignettes of all the minor characters and all unresolved subplots, and I hope you paid attention to the unnamed girl with green eyes who served Evie dinner thirty chapters back, because it looks like she’s a Diviner too! I’m not sorry I read this book and I would recommend it to fans of this time period and of paranormal, but I don’t think I’ll read the sequel. Also because the cover of the sequel is different and not nearly as pretty as this one. The second book in the series, Lair of Dreams, will be released this August.

[Ren] Pantomime (Micah Grey #1) by Laura Lam

Pantomime by Laura LamPick For Me badgeAvengers vs X-Men badgeTitle: Pantomime (Micah Grey #1)
Author: Laura Lam
Published: February 5th, 2013
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 teacups

First things first, the back cover is nothing but blatant lies. It lies to the reader about the book’s entire premise, which is made clear in the very first chapters. Pantomime is not fantasy romance, it’s fantasy with an intersex protagonist. This is not a spoiler, by the way, it’s kind of the point of the whole book. Treating it as a spoiler is the equivalent of trying to talk about the Harry Potter books without saying that Harry has magic.

Here’s what the back cover blurb says:

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star. But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

Tell me that it doesn’t read like your typical, run-of-the-mill YA romance where a tomboyish girl meets a plucky street boy and they’re destined to save the world and fall in love and blah blah blah… To be honest I don’t even remember why I added this book to my to-read pile because it sounded so bland, and I was slightly horrified when Isa told me to read it for Pick-For-Me. So imagine my surprise when, oh, around chapter two maybe, it becomes clear that Gene and Micah are the same fucking person, and they are intersex. Also, they might have magic. I’m really pissed at what feels like a marketing attempt to straightwash the back cover blurb to make it sound more mainstream. It’s a cheap trick, the people who would recoil in horror by reading a honest blurb of this book will still recoil in horror after reading a few pages, and the people who might be interested in reading this book won’t pick it up unless they already know what it’s about. And, if it really was just an honest attempt to keep the book’s “secret” for a couple more chapters, there were better ways of doing it than pretending that Gene and Micah were two different people.

So let’s scrap the stupid blurb and start again. Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, has been raised as the daughter of a noble family but feels uncomfortable wearing dresses and attending debutante balls. Though, really, the real reason Gene is uncomfortable is the endless series of doctor visits that have gone on since childhood, because the parents want to “fix her condition” so Gene can be married off. When it becomes too much too bear Gene runs away from home and, dressed as a boy and using the new name of Micah Grey, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice. The story alternates between spring, when Gene was still living with their family, and summer, with Micah living in the circus.

As a protagonist, Gene/Micah is adorable. The author has done a wonderful job with their character arc, making them a complex and interesting character, and also one that is easy to relate to as they struggle to find acceptance and their own identity. I thought (from a cis, straight viewpoint) that the issue of Micah’s intersexuality was handled very well: Micah is so much more than what’s between their legs. Gender is also treated as something unrelated to the body one is born in, and really the reason I’m sticking with neutral pronouns is that Micah wonders several times “am I a girl or a boy?” and never comes to a conclusion. I’m already side-eyeing the description of the second book because it uses male pronouns, it could be that Micah ends up deciding that they’re a boy, but until that happens, choosing to wear pants does not mean choosing to be a boy. Plus, Micah never falls into any stereotypically male or female behaviour: as Gene they like to wear their brother’s clothes and go climbing, but as Micah they decide that wearing dresses is nice once in a while.

I liked Micah’s determination and subtle kickassery. And I loved that they weren’t above asking for help when they needed it. I liked that they were trying to get by without letting other people know how sheltered they’d been in their life, and it didn’t always work, but bit by bit they got better at disguising their origins. They felt like a realistic teenager, flawed but very relatable. I smiled when the old man told them “you might think you know everything but in ten years you’ll look back on your past self and laugh at how silly you’ve been” because Micah’s dismissal was spot-on. There was sort of a triangle going on, but it was tolerable, little more than an offhand mention when Micah realizes that she might like boys and girls. The romance was actually rather sweet, less like instant epic love and more like friendship with kissing. I liked the chapter where Micah took their date to the museum.

Also because that chapter hints about maaagic. Don’t forget about the magic. Micah might have magic and there’s the mysterious Penglass buildings, and the Phantom Damselfly that we never get a real explanation about… (By the way, the cover seemed a bit random but that’s actually a dragonfly on the mask, so it makes more sense that I thought.)

The negatives are mostly of a technical nature. I felt that the book could have used another round of editing. It wasn’t badly written, but several sentences were awkwardly phrased — or even had a case of “that word doesn’t mean what you think it does”. The pace was also somewhat lacking. The first few chapters jump back and forth on the night Gene/Micah joins the circus and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. Then, it almost becomes too linear, alternating between one Gene chapter and one Micah chapter. After a while, towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that Gene is about to run away and join the circus like we saw at the beginning of the book. But still Gene’s story continues, explaining in detail where they went and what they did until the very second that they saw the circus tent and decided to walk inside… yawn. I just skimmed two or three chapters because they told me absolutely nothing new.

Between Gene’s story and Micah’s story, I thought Gene’s was the most interesting. I felt like the characters surrounding Gene (their brother Cyril, their parents, their best friend Anna, even the maid) were more fleshed out. The circus had maybe two dozen characters but they felt kind of flat and aside from a couple of main characters the rest all faded in the background. Is it Tym the animal trainer and Tin the dwarf? Or the other way round? It doesn’t matter, they only show up in a couple of scenes each… And the description of the circus numbers (especially the titular pantomime at the end) also dragged on for longer than it ought to. To borrow from the circus theme, it felt like a background of painted canvas. It tries to dazzle you with all the details, but if you look closer there is no substance at all, no depth.

The way the pantomime was described, scene by scene, I kept expecting that something big would happen onstage. But it doesn’t. Again, I ended up skimming. It would have been much better to simply outline a few key scenes of the pantomime and the circus, the ones Micah was in, and describe the rest in a few words. As it is, it felt to me as if the author got so wrapped up in the circus imagery that she forgot she had a story to tell. The “resolution” of the plot is left to the very last chapters, and I use the term very loosely: everything happens rather abruptly and, in true first-book-in-a-YA-series fashion, almost everything is left hanging.