All’s unfair in love and war

Title: The Ring and The CrownCover

Author: Melissa de la Cruz

Publisher & Release Date: Hyperion, April 1

The Hook: Four girl lives’ collide in a lavish and magical London Season, with hearts and entire kingdoms in peril.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Once they were inseparable, just two little girls playing games in a formidable castle. Now Princess Marie-Victoria, heir to the mightiest empire in the world, and Aelwyn Myrddyn, a bastard mage, face vastly different futures.

Quiet and gentle, Marie has never lived up to the ambitions of her mother, Queen Eleanor the Second. With the help of her Merlin, Eleanor has maintained a stranglehold on the world’s only source of magic. While the enchanters faithfully serve the crown, the sun will never set on the Franco-British Empire.

As the annual London Season begins, the great and noble families across the globe flaunt their wealth and magic at parties, teas, and, of course, the lavish Bal du Drap d’Or, the Ball of the Gold Cloth.

But the talk of the season is Ronan Astor, a social-climbing American with only her dazzling beauty to recommend her. Ronan is determined to make a good match to save her family’s position. But when she falls for a handsome rogue on the voyage over, her lofty plans are imperiled by her desires.

Meanwhile, Isabelle of Orleans, daughter of the displaced French royal family, finds herself cast aside by Leopold, heir to the Prussian crown, in favor of a political marriage to Marie-Victoria. Isabelle arrives in the city bent on reclaiming what is hers. But Marie doesn’t even want Leopold-she has lost her heart to a boy the future queen would never be allowed to marry.

When Marie comes to Aelwyn, desperate to escape a life without love, the girls form a perilous plan that endangers not only the entire kingdom but the fate of the monarchy.”

Overall Impressions: The combination of what was essentially a Regency romance (minus the Regent) with dark fantasy and political intrigue was a pull for me – I love both of those genres, and was eager to see where de la Cruz would take it. From the jacket flap and the snippet on the back of the book, I was expecting a serious narrative with magic, mystery and romance. Apart from a few snippets about Avalon and Merlin, there wasn’t much magic to be seen, though. About halfway through, the romantic pairings were pretty obvious and I was ready to enjoy a fluffy romance set in magical world instead. Then with about 30 pages left to go, the narrative took a huge turn into unexpected deaths and plots.

The Highs: De la Cruz spent most of her time on the characters, their lives and romances, so characterization was very well done and believable. The strength of their personalities and individual dreams carried the story beautifully… until about 30 pages from the end.

Buzzkills:

This felt like a mishmash. The major dynamic should have been between princess Marie and her mage friend Aelwyn; there was plenty to explore there, from their childhood together, to Marie’s curious health problems, to Merlin’s reasons for calling Aelwyn home and her own goals as a magician, not to mention the apparently minor issues of hostile rebel forces, systemic poverty across most of England, and the competing forces of magic and industrialization. However, much of the narrative veered away into the life and trials of Ronan (and to a lesser extent, Isabelle), which while an interesting read were not, in fact, that important to the eventual plot.

This had potential as a great magical world – the conflict between the wild magic of Avalon and the strictly controlled British mages, the lockdown on magic outside the official magicians, Aelwyn’s ability to take souls and transform people, the secret of Pandora’s box – there was some great foundation laid. And then buried under first a fluffy romance setup and then a  furious whirlwind of political plotting that was hastily resolved and ruined everyone’s lives. I’m not a believer that every book should have a happy ending, but wow.

All of the evil in this book came from men. Liars, cheats, sorcerers and molesters, most of them. Even the most annoying of the women were merely victims of circumstance. As a feminist, this bothers me.

Now that I’ve finished, the title made some sense; but it really wasn’t what this book was about at all, barring the last chapter.

The Source: Galley from a PLA conference

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor moonstones were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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Something’s not right on this plane

Cover artwork for Unaccompanied MinorTitle: Unaccompanied Minor

Author: Hollis Gillespie

Publisher & Release Date: Merit Press, December 2013 (ebook), January 2014 (hardback) — I’m a little confused about this.

The Hook: Teenage MacGyver on a plane vs. bad guys

The Lowdown (from goodreads): “Fourteen-year-old April Mae Manning spent her life on airplanes with her flight attendant parents. When her father dies in a crash, April’s mom marries a pilot who turns out to be an abusive jerk, and gets Mom confined to a psychiatric hospital. So April takes off, literally, living on airplanes, using her mother’s flight benefits, relying on the flight crews who know she’s been shuttling between divorcing parents for a year. Then, there’s a hijacking, but why is April’s “dad” on board? April flees to the cargo hold with another unaccompanied minor she’s met before, and they fight to thwart the hijackers, faking a fire, making weapons from things they find in luggage. At last, locked in the cockpit with a wounded police officer, the boy, and his service dog, April tries to remember everything her parents said to do in a crisis above the clouds. But she knows it won’t be enough.”

Overall Impressions:  I loved this thrill ride of a story and tore through most of it in one sitting. (There was a break to go to work.) Picture an action/adventure movie set on a plane but instead of Bruce Willis, Nicholas Cage, Samuel L Jackson or Harrison Ford saving the day, it’s a teenage female MacGyver with wide-ranging inside knowledge of how airlines work. She’s (practically) a third-generation WorldAir employee (on both sides), after all, and has practically memorized the entire run of MacGyver*. And I kid you not about the movie likeness – this book features a body thrown from a plane, a bomb in a bag, an undercover cop, surprise family revelations – and it left me with that same great feeling of adrenaline and “good guys triumph!”

(You’ve officially been spoilered.)

April Mae (she corrects people more than once on the spelling) Manning is wonderfully resourceful, self-confident, inquisitive, competent and snarky character who has taken to running away from  her scuzzy stepfather by slipping onto WorldAir flights. She’s a nightmare of custody issues – the jerk stepfather has primary custody, even though he basically ignores  her, and her mother is temporarily checked into a psychiatric facility – escapes from kidnapping, and the air is where April feels safest.

April’s intimate knowledge of WorldAir workings and the amazing numbers of employees she has met make her quick to notice when something looks hinky, and she pulls together with her band of rebels – friends Malcolm and Flo and police officer Ned Rockwell – to thwart the bad guys.

The story doesn’t allow for many shades of gray – the good guys are basically good, the bad guys pretty much bad – but the bad guys’ plot turned out to be something different than I anticipated and delightfully circular.

The story’s a blast and the characters form a wonderful family – part blood, part choice.

The Highs: April’s great voice. Much of the story is told from the perspective of a police/FBI witness interview/interrogation, and she’s just so crisp and sure of herself and steamrolls the agents.

April and her mother love each other so much, and while Elizabeth hates that she doesn’t have her daughter and feels lost fighting against the courts, she’s taught April all kinds of lessons she relies on while away from her mother. Most important, especially when things go wrong: “Don’t freak out, figure it out.”

When April, Malcolm, Flo and Ned all attempt to contact someone official about the hijacking and bomb and can’t get past automated phone trees.

I love how Ms. Gillespie took very cliche roles – precocious minor; scrappy dog; police officer with a history of questioning orders; sassy, super-tough flight attendant; older character with a string of past relationships and possible substance abuse – and mixed them up into something frothy and fun and effective.

Officer Ned’s attachment to his boots.

I am not an animal person, so I’m putting this in: I even liked the dog.

Buzzkills:  Minor character deaths – the reader doesn’t spend much time with them, but April’s memories of them made me wish we did.

Family court has completely failed April and her mother.

The Source: Bought the ebook.

*Pause to google correct spelling of MacGyver and look at pictures of Richard Dean Anderson for a moment.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor a free airplane ride was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Antici….pation for April 2014

Cover for Going Over

Image linked from the author’s blog. Link goes to the Edelweiss description.

Our monthly round-up of intriguing titles – and really, we feel showered in them this month. (Given that April started on a Tuesday, some of these books are already in the hands of readers – huzzah!) Summaries come from Edelweiss.

Title: Going Over

Author: Beth Kephart

Publisher & Release Date: Chronicle Books, April 1

The Hook: “It is February 1983, and Berlin is a divided city with a miles-long barricade separating east from west. But the city isn’t the only thing that is divided. Ada lives among the rebels, punkers, and immigrants of Kreuzberg in West Berlin. Stefan lives in East Berlin, in a faceless apartment bunker of Friedrichshain. Bound by love and separated by circumstance, their only chance for a life together lies in a high-risk escape. But will Stefan find the courage to leap? Or will forces beyond his control stand in his way? National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart presents a story of daring and sacrifice, and love that will not wait.”

Cover art from Stolen Songbird

Cover art linked from author’s website.

Title: Stolen Songbird

Author: Danielle L. Jensen

Publisher & Release Date: Strange Chemistry, April 1

The Hook: “For five centuries, a witch’s curse has bound the trolls to their city beneath the ruins of Forsaken Mountain. Time enough for their dark and nefarious magic to fade from human memory and into myth. But a prophesy has been spoken of a union with the power to set the trolls free, and when Cécile de Troyes is kidnapped and taken beneath the mountain, she learns there is far more to the myth of the trolls than she could have imagined.”

Title: Dreams of Gods & Monsters

Author: Laini Taylor

Publisher & Release Date: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, April 8

The Hook: “In this thrilling conclusion to the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy, Karou is still not ready to forgive Akiva for killing the only family she’s ever known. When a brutal angel army trespasses into the human world, Karou and Akiva must ally their enemy armies against the threat–and against larger dangers that loom on the horizon. They begin to hope that it might forge a way forward for their people. And, perhaps, for themselves–maybe even toward love. From the streets of Rome to the caves of the Kirin and beyond, humans, chimaera, and seraphim will fight, strive, love, and die in an epic theater that transcends good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy.”

Title: Noggin

Author: John Corey Whaley

Publisher & Release Date: Athenum, April 8

The Hook: “Travis Coates has a good head…on someone else’s shoulders. At some point or another, his head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado. Five years later, it was reattached to another guy’s body, and well, here he is. He’s still sixteen, but everything and everyone around him changed. If the new Travis and the old Travis find a way to exist together, there are going to be a few more scars.”

Title: Earth Star

Author: Janet Edwards

Publisher & Release Date: Pyr, April 15

The Hook: “Eighteen-year-old Jarra has a lot to prove. After being awarded one of the military’s highest honors for her role in a daring rescue attempt, she finds herself-and her Ape status-in the spotlight. Jarra is one of the unlucky few born with an immune system that cannot survive on other planets. Derided as an “ape”-a “throwback”-by the rest of the universe, she is on a mission to prove that Earth Girls are just as good as anyone else.

Except now the planet she loves is under threat by what could be humanity’s first ever alien contact. Jarra’s bravery-and specialist knowledge-will once again be at the center of the maelstrom, but will the rest of the universe consider Earth worth fighting for?”

Title: She Is Not Invisible

Author: Marcus Sedgwick

Publisher & Release Date: Roaring Brook Press, April 22

The Hook: “Laureth Peak’s father has taught her to look for recurring events, patterns, and numbers–a skill at which she’s remarkably talented. Her secret: She is blind. But when her father goes missing, Laureth and her 7-year-old brother Benjamin are thrust into a mystery that takes them to New York City where surviving will take all her skill at spotting the amazing, shocking, and sometimes dangerous connections in a world full of darkness.”

Title: The Taking

Author: Kimberly Derting

Publisher & Release Date: HarperTeen, April 29

The Hook: “When sixteen-year-old Kyra wakes up behind a Dumpster at the Gas ‘n’ Sip, she has no memory of how she got there. With a terrible headache and a major case of déjà vu, she heads home only to discover that five years have passed . . . yet she hasn’t aged a day. Confused and lost, Kyra isn’t sure how to move forward unless she uncovers the truth. She turns to Tyler, her former boyfriend’s kid brother, now seventeen and undeniably attractive. As Tyler and Kyra retrace her steps from the fateful night of her disappearance, they discover.. there are others like her who have been taken . . . and returned.”

Lions and Tigers and Blue Gingham, oh my!

Title: Dorothy Must Die Dorothy Must Die

Author: Danielle Page

Publisher & Release Date: HarperCollins, April 1

The Hook: Page twists an old story on its head: Dorothy is draining Oz of its magic, monkeys are cutting their wings off in desperation, and the remaining Witches are fighting to overthrow her despotic rule.

The Lowdown (from Amazon): My name is Amy Gumm—and I’m the other girl from Kansas.
I’ve been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.
I’ve been trained to fight.
And I have a mission:
Remove the Tin Woodman’s heart.
Steal the Scarecrow’s brain.
Take the Lion’s courage.
Then and only then—Dorothy must die!

Overall Impressions:   Amy is “trailer poor”, with an addict mother who barely seems to realize she’s there and an arch-nemesis in pink and sequins at school. So when she’s swept up into a tornado and plonked down in Oz, you’d think she’d be better off. Unfortunately, this Oz is far grimmer than the one from the storybooks. Seriously dark, in fact – one of the first people you meet is literally melted out of her skin by Dorothy’s goons. I kept getting surprised at how gruesome some of the fates were that befell various characters.

Amy’s inclusion in the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked is heavily coerced, defined as “good” only when compared to the total, capital-E Evil of Dorothy. The reader is kept guessing throughout the entire training and even later what the  Witches are really up to – and how much of the truth they’re actually sharing with Amy. It adds an extra layer of uncertainty with the obligatory love interest, Nox, as well, because Amy repeatedly discovers their interactions are deliberately designed to force her to tap her inner magic.

You quickly find out why their methods are dirty, though: as soon as Amy sneaks into the Emerald City, everything else was unicorns and fuzzy bunnies in comparison.

The Highs: I love the new spin on the mythology of Oz – Page clearly did her research, tying in elements that will please both fans of the original L Frank Baum series as well as the silver screen adaptation. I was completely absorbed by the characters and the world-building right from the start – there’s solid story-telling peppered with surprises around every bend. I enjoyed the threads of unknowns that pulls the reader through the story – who’s Pete? How was Amy “bound”? Why are the shoes so captivating?

Dorothy’s ferociously unfair punishments and insane rules are made all the worse by the thought-policing over the servants and subjects of the lands of Oz, something that will resonate with readers as its own special kind of horror. I think other fans of dystopian fiction will appreciate this post-apocalyptic sort of Oz,  as well as fans of dark fairy tales, such as Meyer’s Cinder and Chalice by Robin McKinley.

Buzzkills: Honestly, the romance included felt a little rote. I was far more interested in following Amy’s journey to the Emerald City to kill Dorothy.  Fortunately for me, the relationship wasn’t really central to the story, although some readers might prefer more.

The Source: Galley from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor green goo was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.