Friday, June 16, 2017

All Hail, Lady Helen

I'm going to let you in on a little secret about me: I am not only a huge nerd, but I'm also a serious history buff.  My all-time favorite film character is Indiana Jones (followed a close second by Evie O'Connell - a fiercely independent librarian who isn't afraid to travel to Egypt for her studies, or to stand up to an ancient, evil mummy who is trying to steal her soul is, quite literally, the best EVER), and when I was a child, I really, really, really wanted to grow up to be an archaeologist. I could see myself tromping around Egyptian tombs in khakis and a pith helmet wielding a brush in one hand and a pistol to deter nefarious criminals in the other... 

One of my university professors came along just at the right time with his bountiful knowledge of all things ancient (see: old, antique, archaic) and spoke to my soul.  In addition to shaping the minds of the future, Doc actively worked as an archaeologist, and in the years I was at school he worked in Egypt, excavating one of the first known Coptic churches, and discovered the sunken ships from Columbus' second voyage off the coast of the Dominican Republic.  It was awesome to go along with him on his adventures - even if it was via his stories.  I learned more about the Ancient World from him than I ever thought possible, and will be eternally grateful. 

Alas, I did not grow up to be an archaeologist.  (I did, however, grow up to be a librarian, and I wouldn't say no to a trip to Egypt, or to meeting a mummy...)  But I have retained my deep love for exploration and history.  Therefore, I tend to gravitate toward historical books. I appreciate the energy and meticulous work it takes to produce a well-done historical.  I also turn into a raging green Hulk-monster when a historical is done badly.  (Seriously, if you're going to be lazy and not put in the research effort, why even bother?  Don't waste my time.)

Alison Goodman does historical well.  Nay, superbly.  In this particular instance, she is writing a "Regency" (takes place during the reign of King George III, when he was unwell and declared unfit to rule, so his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his stead) and the attention she pays to detail alone is astounding, right down to the types of fabric on the chairs in the Morning Room.  The dress, the food, the manners, the politics, the demands of society and rank - nothing is left out, and nothing is left to question.  Goodman must be very nearly a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Regency England.  It is to Goodman's credit that she teaches me things as I read.  I never felt as if the detail or explanations slowed the story down - rather, I believe they lend a richness to the narrative that helps establish its authenticity.  Hooray for history!

The Dark Days Pact continues the story of Lady Helen Wrexhall (you can read my review of book one, The Dark Days Club, here) as she settles into her role as a Reclaimer with the Dark Days Club.  It takes place nearly immediately following the events of book one, so there is no time lag between the two books.  Here is the brief blurb (from Goodreads) and cover:

June 1812. Just weeks after her catastrophic coming-out ball, Lady Helen Wrexhall—now disowned by her uncle—is a full member of the demon-hunting Dark Days Club. Her mentor, Lord Carlston, has arranged for Helen to spend the summer season in Brighton so that he can train her new Reclaimer powers. However, the long-term effects of Carlston’s Reclaimer work have taken hold, and his sanity is beginning to slip. At the same time, Carlston’s Dark Days Club colleague and nemesis will stop at nothing to bring Helen over to his side—and the Duke of Selburn is determined to marry her. The stakes are even higher for Helen as she struggles to become the warrior that everyone expects her to be.

I found this installment of the series very nearly impossible to turn off (I listened to this as an audiobook).  In fact, there were several times I sat in my driveway or in a parking lot with my car running, just waiting for a scene to end so I could find out what happened.  I was very invested in this story, and in the characters.  There is a lot more action in this book than in the last - and understandably so.  The world is already built, and readers are aware of the nature of the battle between Reclaimers and Deceivers, the role of the Dark Days Club, and the characters and which parts they play.  Thus, Goodman could far more quickly advance the story.  And advance the story does, by great galloping leaps and bounds.

Most of this book takes place in Brighton, which I loved.  The glimpses of the popular seaside town are a fabulous addition to the overall story, and Goodman places readers right in the middle of the bustle.  There is a library, and it was really interesting to see how the library was regarded as the "fashionable" place to register one's presence in Brighton.  See?  Libraries ARE cool.  (As if anyone needed convincing of that fact.)

The shining stars of this book, however, are its characters.  Goodman does a brilliant job of making them individual and unique, and of giving each of them their own voice.  Each had individualized strengths and weaknesses, and at least the main cast functions as a well-meaning, if not well-oiled machine.

 I find Lady Helen to be a stellar character.  She embodies everything I think a model character should - and NOT because Goodman is setting her up as some sort of scion of perfection.  Rather, she is written so real.  She has doubts, she makes mistakes, she goes left when she should go right.  But she learns.  And she tries.  She is not content to merely be adequate; she wants to be exceptional.  She throws herself wholly into her role as a Reclaimer, taking her oath as gospel, even to the point of putting herself in mortal danger to fulfill her duty.  The growth she demonstrates, and the ability to adapt and adjust to the demands of the situation is admirable.  She finds her teeth in this book, and she is the very definition of formidable.  I am a serious fan of Lady Helen.

I am not a Lord Carlston devotee.  Yes, he's handsome.  Yes, he's brave.  Yes, he's mysterious.  Yes, he's tragic.  But he's also bossy and presumptuous and grumpers all the time. Though I think Carlston is the best person to teach Lady Helen to care for her body while fighting as a Reclaimer, I do not think he's the best person to teach her to care for her soul.  Carlston has been through horrors, and has not come out unscathed (though, to be fair, who could?).  He has allowed his experiences to darken him, and allows his jaded view of the world to extend to Helen.

Darby.  Dear, sweet, reliable Darby.  It was the best decision Lady Helen ever made when she promoted Darby to lady's maid - and then to terrene.  Helen's success is made possible because of Darby's support.  Additionally, I am completely delighted by Delia, Lady Helen's disgraced friend who had an unfortunate encounter with a Deceiver, which (forever, because apparently there is no getting back into society's good graces once fallen) ruined her reputation.  She is sharp-witted, quick on the uptake, and is refreshingly honest in this world of manners.  She is no simpering debutante, and I believe she will prove to be one of Lady Helen's most trusted companions. Likewise, Pug Brompton is adorable, and I just want to squeeze her. 

The Hammonds, twins Michael and Margaret are, for me, on opposite ends of the likeability spectrum.  I adore Michael - he has a true heart, and a vulnerability that makes me want to give him a hug and protect him with a giant Highlander-sized broadsword.  Margaret, on the other hand, is like a mosquito I'd like to swat away, complete with the annoying whine.  Her concern is for Carlston alone, and everyone else is secondary.  This, to me, makes her a liability, rather than an asset. 

I may be in the minority, but the Duke of Selburn is my absolute fave. For the first half of the book he was in danger of me cursing him to the devil, but he definitely redeems himself.  There are those who believe he has nefarious intentions (ie, he may be the Grand Deceiver), but I do not think this is so.  I think that would be too convenient.  Rather, I think he genuinely cares for Lady Helen, and wants to see her safe, by any means.  He has yet to realize that he cannot physically protect Helen - he simply doesn't have the strength - but maybe he is the one to be able to protect her soul.  (I feel compelled to confess that, though it breaks my heart to say it, I think Selburn is going to die in the next book, killed protecting Lady Helen.)

The bad guys in this book, Lowry (just, ick) and Pike (though he is a member of the DDC, I want to challenge him to a duel), are completely repulsive and completely infuriating, respectively.  Goodman is so good at description that I actually found myself curling my lip in distaste during the scenes with Lowry.  He's so disgusting.  And Pike - ah, Pike - I understand his motives, but definitely not his methods.  And he's just so annoyingly stubborn.  Grrr.

All in all, I am anxiously awaiting the final book in this trilogy, because, as of now, I am worried for EVERYONE.  And that's the mark of a good writer - leaving your audience with a definite impression, and making them truly care about the characters and the story.

There are readalikes for this title listed on my review of The Dark Days Club, but some others are:
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray - this is the first book in a trilogy, and stars Gemma Doyle, a society girl whose family is shadowed by rumors of scandal.  She is introduced to an otherworldly, mystical order, and must decide whether or not to accept her role in an unfolding battle between good and evil.
A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess - this series features a heroine who discovers she has the ability to do magic, and is rescued from her dire situation by a master sorcerer, who takes her to train with other potential sorcerers.  Henrietta must learn to navigate the magical world, and figure out who are her friends and who are her enemies before London is destroyed.

A review post featuring Leigh Bardugo's  Shadow and Bone, and one focusing on some "writing" things on the horizon!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Top 10 Tuesday: Sigh-Worthy Heroes

So, in an effort to branch out from merely reviewing books to interacting with them, stay tuned for BLOG POSTS OF A DIFFERENT COLOR!

Welcome to Top 10 Tuesday!  Going forward, Tuesday posts will feature everyone's favorite thing: LISTS!  (Don't look at me like that - you know you love them.)  As a reader, I fully embrace lists as one of my greatest tools.  I have lists upon lists for everything - favorite characters, favorite series, TBR books, etc. - it's how I order my reading and writing life (and make sure I don't forget things).  Lists = life.

I thought I'd start out with something I've been thinking about a lot lately, in crafting the hero of the story I'm working on: what makes a hero?  So I started - you guessed it - making a list of attributes.  Then I started assigning those attributes faces.  And that led to... duh-duh-dummmmm...

(In no particular order, because seriously, how can you choose?)
 Most of these dudes have been depicted in film (some of them many times), so I've included pics of my favorite incarnation of each character.  And if you disagree with me, I have no problem fighting you.  (Or holding a semi-civilized discussion about why you're wrong...)

1. James Bond
  (Casino Royale and subsequent titles by Sir Ian Fleming)
Girls, gadgets, guns, and martinis - these are the things that come to mind when I think of Bond.  A man with good intentions (most of the time) and dangerous memories, the suave, ruthless spy is as close to the perfect man as one can get - if you like that sort of thing.  He's brave and well-traveled, and, apparently, knows how to do everything - from snow skiing to scuba diving to flying a space shuttle.  Not a bad guy to have around in a tight spot.

2. Fitzwilliam Darcy
  (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
What's more attractive than an arrogant man with a title, who wears an air of mystery like a cloak?  One that's good at hiding his feelings in an attempt at self-preservation, and adds to his already enigmatic aura.  That said, any man who is willing to buck societal conventions for love deserves mad props, even if his initial declaration of love is a bumbling mess of unintentional insults.  Anyway, he totally redeems his early missteps with his gallantry when Lizzie is in need, which shows his true character.

3. Gilbert Blythe
(Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery)
Oh, Gilbert, bless his heart.  He is tragically under the opinion that teasing a girl will make her like him...  However, he shows serious resolve when even getting a slate broken over his head doesn't deter him.  He grows up to be brilliant, witty, and adorably handsome.  One of the things I like most about Gilbert is his loyalty and selflessness.  He is not put off by Anne's coldness, and is willing to make sacrifices to help her.  Not only that, but he loves her for who she is, not who he wants her to be - something that is rare, and lovely. 

4. Sidney Chambers
(Grantchester mysteries by James Runcie)
There is something about this lost and wayward clergyman that absolutely makes my heart go pitty-pat.  He is 30% man of the cloth, 25% amateur detective, 25% hard liquor-swilling damaged soldier, 10% dog lover, and 10% jazz expert.  And he even looks awesome riding a bike in his Sunday best.  I think part of what draws me to Sidney as a character is his broken psyche, and the fact that he struggles with how to reconcile his past deeds with his current role as a spiritual leader.

5. Horatio Hornblower
(Beat to Quarters and subsequent novels by C.S. Forester)
A sailor with a sense of duty and honor, who can handle a pistol and a sword at the same time while climbing the rigging of a ship?  Ahoy!  One of the things I like best about Hornblower is his mind.  As he makes his way up the ranks of the Royal Navy, he is faced with crises and seemingly impossible situations aplenty.  Does he panic? No.  Does he run from danger?  Definitely not.  He uses his wits to get himself and his crew out of danger, if not in strictly by-the-regulations ways.

6. Jon Snow
(A Game of Thrones and subsequent novels by George R.R. Martin)
Honor before anything, except family... Technically speaking, my favorite Westrosi son is still dead (if we're only discussing the books).  But that doesn't stop the captain of the Night Guard from being awesome.  There's also the fact that he's the black sheep - the shame - of the Stark family (or so everyone thinks), an indication of Ned Stark's one dishonorable act, but that doesn't stop him from embracing his Starkness.  Perhaps, ironically, the most worthy to carry on the Stark name, Snow stands for loyalty and duty in an attempt to uphold the Stark reputation.

7. Dirk Pitt
(Pacific Vortex! and subsequent novels by Clive Cussler)
Perhaps my first literary crush, Dirk Pitt is the quintessential adventurer/explorer (sorry Josh Gates, but you just don't stack up).  This former Air Force officer loves danger, the sea, and classic cars (not necessarily in that order), and swings in and out of danger like it's on his agenda.  AND he lives in an old airplane hangar.  How awesome is that?  Pitt is a world traveler who has no problem staring the bad guy in the eye and laughing while he pushes the button on a remote detonator to blow something up.  He's like an awesome mix between Indiana Jones and MacGyver with a boat.

8. Westley
(The Princess Bride by William Goldman)
This farm boy-turned pirate never swerves from his devotion to his love, Buttercup, and does everything in his power to see her safe.  He's brash, arrogant, and clever - something that makes him both a most dreaded pirate and a dangerous adversary.  I love that Westley has such humble roots; he starts out as a farm hand, and ends up ruling the high seas.  It's an awesome reminder that anyone can overcome a particular set of circumstances if they put their mind to it.  Oh, ALSO, he survives being mostly dead.

9. Edmond Dantes
(The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas)
Betrayal! False accusations!  Mistaken identities!  And, above all, REVENGE!  Rawr.  The sheer cold calculation that Edmond Dantes possesses, to wait literally YEARS, until just the perfect moment to exact his revenge upon the Count Mondego for stealing his life and his love is clap-worthy.  And such complete revenge; he leaves nothing to chance, forgets nothing, is ten steps ahead, always.  And he ends up getting the girl and the son.  Whew!  And, if that's not awesome enough, one of this aliases is Sinbad the Sailor.  (Do with that information what you will.)

10. Radcliffe Emerson
(Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters)
I <3 Emerson.  If there was one man on this list I could take home in my pocket, it would be Emerson.  He is a bad-tempered, hot-headed reactionary with a habit for swearing at inappropriate times and shouting, who shoots first and asks questions later.  No, for serious.  I really do <3 him.  He's real.  He reacts to danger like a person should - with a mixture of fear and bravado, while considering how it will affect his family (which includes not only his blood family, but those he considers family).  He's a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn't put on airs for anyone, even when a little bit of tact could get him exactly what he wants.  (I feel compelled to admit that I may possibly have also just described my husband.  Apparently, I have a type.)  He's completely devoted to his wife, Amelia Peabody (and he's totally OK with her keeping her last name), and recognizes her as his partner, not his trophy, and doesn't try to stop her from doing ALL THE THINGS.  He just makes sure her pistol is clean and loaded.  All the love for Emerson.

(Because how can there only be ten happening hotties?)
Colonel Brandon
(Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)
This guy, though.  This brave and honorable army officer, who has inherited his family's estate, is reserved and humble in spite of his tumultuous and scandal-ridden background.  He steadfastly loves the overly-emotional Marianne Dashwood through her infatuation with the tragically weak and shallow (and, incidentally, not on this list) Willoughby, supports her unconditionally, and does everything he can to help her and her family.  He sees past her childish actions, loves her for her pure heart, and ultimately shows her that she deserves more than she even thought for herself.

Professor Bhaer
(Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)
Though the German expat may not be on everyone's list of sigh-worthy heroes, he makes mine because he's an adorably bumbling scholar with a sense of honor, who is humble and loving, and is reliable.  At first glance he may seem a little, well, boring, but I say NONSENSE to that.  He's merely brilliant and considering.  And I commend Jo for being open-minded enough to see him for the treasure he is.  And he not only loves Jo, but appreciates her and holds her in high esteem, as she deserves.  And I believe he is the best partner for her.

(The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper)
He's a dead shot raised by Native Indians, and is at home in the wilderness, and probably knows how to wrestle bears.  He is a protector, puts himself at risk to rescue Cora, the woman he loves, only to see her killed, and afterward joins the resistance against the tyranny ultimately responsible for her death.  This man stands up for his principles, and will not hesitate to remove things that stand in his way, or threatens those he loves. He ain't got time for that.

And there you have it!  Top 10 lists are fun!  (But also stressful because only 10?) Especially when they're as pretty as the entries on this one.

Upcoming: I've just finished two fabulous books: Shadow and Bone, book one of Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy (all hail the Darkling!); and The Dark Days Pact, book two of the Lady Helen series by Alison Goodman (did NOT see that one coming).  Reviews to follow!

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Court of Feels and Tears

Growing up, I was never a girly girl.  Raised a farm kid, I spent a lot of time outside in the dirt and in the woods.  I drove tractors, I built fences, I worked in the garden.  Dresses and tutus were not conducive to these activities - or to building forts and horseback riding.  And that was ok.  When the occasion called for it, I could dress up with the best of them - it just wasn't part of my every day.  Now, I look at my 3-year-old daughter, and watch as she runs around (inside AND outside) in her princess dresses and her damsel hat, and think if she wanted to wear that to ride her horse, she would.  Because it's her.  It wasn't me.

BUT, the fact that I always preferred my jeans over a skirt doesn't mean I didn't like fairy tales.  I read Peter Pan and the like, and loved the beautiful, friendly, sparkly fairies in the stories I read as a child.  It almost made them more special to me, because it was something so much more foreign to my own way of life.  And I've carried the love of otherworldly stories into adulthood.

That said, I don't know if I was just familiar with the wrong types of fairy stories, but I never thought blood, betrayal, war, and torture to be part of the fairy realm.  I blame Disney for this hole in my education.  

So, completely unprepared for what was to come, because I believed fairies to be small, winged creatures who lived inside hollow trees and flower petals, last fall I picked up Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses.  Ha.  More like A Court of Pain and Torture and Beauty and Devastation.  Goodness gracious, was that an emotional roller coaster.  Now, buried within this emotional minefield was an amazing story (loosely based on Beauty and the Beast) about a human who is kidnapped by fairies, and falls in love with the Lord of the Spring Court while learning the intricacies of fairy politics, all set against the backdrop of an impending war with an evil human king.  Sounds exhausting, no?  Yes.  The trick was navigating the assault on my (until then believed to be nonexistent) emotions in an attempt to get to the heart of the story.  By the end of the book I had come to terms with this new representation of fairies - and of humans in this fictional world - and had fallen in love with a new author.

At least then, when I picked up the second book of the series, A Court of Mist and Fury, I knew to steel myself.  As I did when the third title, A Court of Wings and Ruin, came out this month.  Here is the blurb from Goodreads, and the (gorgeous, beautiful, lovely, enchanting) cover:

A nightmare, I’d told Tamlin. I was the nightmare.

Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, determined to gather information on Tamlin’s maneuverings and the invading king threatening to bring Prythian to its knees. But to do so she must play a deadly game of deceit—and one slip may spell doom not only for Feyre, but for her world as well. As war bears down upon them all, Feyre must decide who to trust amongst the dazzling and lethal High Lords—and hunt for allies in unexpected places

It's hard to know what to talk about with a book like this - it's extremely long and involved, has plots within plots, and isn't for the faint of heart.  So, I thought I'd go with high-level stuff so as to give a good feeling for what someone would be in for if they haven't read the first two books of the series, and want to delve in.

Sometimes I wonder if Maas just dumped an armload of Scrabble tiles into a velvet bag and started pulling them out at random when she made up names for her characters.  Now, regular fairy tale and lore fans will recognize Tam Lin, but other than that, good luck pronouncing them all, and even more luck remembering them all.  Personally, I just made sure I had the key players down, and went from there.
Feyre- is our main heroine.  I say main, because there are several strong female characters in these books I consider to be heroic, all who play a pivotal role.  Fayre is not even my favorite female character, but that's ok.  I like that throughout the series we get to see her change.  She starts out as a weak, scared girl unwilling, really, to stand up for herself or any of those around her.  By now, though, she is fierce.  She protects those she loves - and even those she doesn't - because it is the right thing to do.  And she is loyal to a fault; sometimes it causes her more problems than it solves.  And she is brave.  I think I like that about her most of all.  She is not afraid to face her fears, to face those who threaten her, to make hard decisions.  I think her biggest fault is that she, for all her personal growth, is a little selfish.  Though she recognizes this and acknowledges it is a problem, she has not yet overcome this weakness.  Overall, though, I think Feyre is an admirable character.
Rhysand- is undoubtedly the hero.  It's in his very nature to be.  Decision after decision he makes for the good of his loved ones often are to his own detriment.  He endured years of torture at the hands of an evil enchantress to save his subjects.  Where Feyre is borderline selfish, Rhysand is borderline too giving of himself.  His love for his friends and desire for his people to be protected is his downfall, and this enemies know it.  However, he is someone who not only commands, but earns and deserves the respect of the people around him.  For those of you who are sitting there thinking this guy sounds so good he's boring, never fear.  Rhys is also a warrior unafraid to fight for his people, his love, his life.  And he's got serious powers.
The Cast- There are many supporting characters in this book, but I'll talk about my three favorites.  Lucien is the enemy-turned-friend who no one fully trusts, but everyone really wants to, because he's basically awesome.  He gave up everything to help Feyre, and I think he's going to be a key player in the upcoming installments.  Cassian is the warrior of my dreams.  He is smart, loyal, savage, and full of snarky wit.  He handles conflict like a boss, and has the ability to command the allegiance of legions.  Nesta is Feyre's older sister, human-turned-fey.  She is bitter, she is hard, and she is awesome.  Slowly (like, at glacial speeds), I can see her settling into her new life and her new identity, and I believe that, before it's all over, she is going to take the fey realm by storm. 

I like the setting of these books - it's fluid, and changes as the story moves.  Each of the seven courts is distinctly different, and reflects the personae of the ruler itself.  And then there are deep, hidden places, dangerous crevices where shades and shadows lurk; and bright, shining, glorious peaks where brave deeds are heralded.  The setting is the perfect backdrop for the epic-type quality of this saga.

These books are long.  And A Court of Wings and Ruin is, thus far, the longest.  But it's to accommodate the massive undertaking that is this continuing plot line.  Overview: fairy realm and human realm don't get along thanks to a massive war centuries ago; there are hard feelings; there is a wall that separates the two realms; evil king wants to take over the land and destroy the wall, leading to another war; good fae-folk want to resist; bad fae-folk don't; there are political maneuverings, betrayals, and machinations aplenty; there is much evil and much heroism.  And that's just the overview.  Nestled in here are awesome characters and the relationships between them, fairy and human history, a fascinating back story, and many, many other elements.  If you like epic stories, this is a great one.  

I haven't regretted starting this series; I haven't regretted a single minute I've spent reading what exists of it so far.  And I look forward to the continuing installments.  In fact, my regard for this series has inspired me to pick up Maas' other series - one that's been in publication longer than the Court series, and that's her Throne of Glass series, which features a sword-wielding lady assassin.  Yes, please.  There are currently five novels, one collection of novellas, and a sixth novel to be published in the fall.  I'm there. 

With regards to read-alikes: to try to come up with something that's exactly like this title would be difficult, as it's very unique.  However, there are some titles I would recommend that lay along the same vein.
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge -  This contains a complicated romance, an intriguing world, and danger at every turn.  It's also a loose Beauty and Beast retelling, and spotlights an intrepid, determined, and fallible heroine.
The Treachery of Beautiful Things by Ruth Frances Long - Caught in Fae politics she doesn't understand, the heroine of this fantasy story uses her wits and talents to save herself and her developing romance.  The book is lushly detailed and has equal parts romance and fantastical adventure.
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr - Themes of love and sacrifice feature in this fast-paced fantasy set in a reimagined faerie world. The strong -willed heroine becomes a pawn in a deadly faerie game and encounters magic, secrets, danger, and plenty of steamy romance. 

***One word of warning, though, about this Maas series - if you have an aversion to sex scenes, this may not be the series for you.  Though marketed as a YA series, I think it definitely rates for a more mature YA audience.

Soon to come:  Though a little late, May's book haul post; June's preview post; and a Top 10 Tuesday post.  


Friday, May 19, 2017

Dark Days Ahead

Stephen King's It ruined many things for me.

I have two cousins - brothers - who are very near my sister and I in age.  When we were kids, we did everything together.  Rather than cousins, we have always been more like siblings.  We would spend the weekends at one of our two houses, all four of us together camping out in sleeping bags on the living room floor, watching movies into all hours of the night.  It is because of my cousins that I was as happy to watch Rambo and Jaws and James Bond as I was to watch Cinderella.  (I have them to thank for at least a portion of what I consider to be a very well-rounded education that includes how to fashion a bow and arrows out of sticks, how to build a tree fort, how to cheat at poker, and the rules of basketball.)  There were movies we seemed to watch on a loop, like The Goonies, Cool Runnings, and The Neverending Story (I and II.  Nooooooo, Artax!  It still to this day rusts my pipe that Atreyu just let Artax sink into that mud) - these hold a special, happy place in my heart.  And then there are some that we only watched once, and it was enough to scar me for life.  Enter It.

How scary could a movie with John Boy Walton in it be, anyway?  Well, let me tell you, pretty flippin' scary.  And now, for the rest of my life, I am terrified of street gutters; I run out of the bathroom like a pansy every time the drain burbles; I cannot come within ten feet of a clown; and I have to read anything even remotely horror-ish with the lights on.  (And let me just say that it's one of the biggest nightmares of my adulthood that It is being remade into a film, because I watched the trailer the other day - huge mistake - and I had to watch an episode of Gilligan's Island afterward to assist my heart in returning to its normal rhythm.)

Anyway, now you know why I don't read much in the true horror genre.  (Although I think Stephen King is a brilliant writer, and count his 'Salem's Lot as one of my all-time favorite books.)  Horror just isn't my thing.  Instead, I have to step a bit left of center and pick up books that are more gothic in nature, and ring of the dark and creepy.  They still have that element of mystery and danger, but not the gore.  I don't like to be terrified, but I do like to be slightly creeped out.  There is a subtle difference.

One of the things that drew me to Alison Goodman's The Dark Days Club (aside from it being a bit dark and creepy) is the period setting.  Regency London is an interesting time, as there are many important historical events that took place in these years.  The War of 1812, Napoleon's rise and fall, the Luddite riots - these things all play against the backdrop of impeccable manners, curtsies, dinner parties, and balls.  Throw a little demon hunting into the mix, and you've got a rollicking good adventure story.  Here is the cover (I don't like this one nearly as much as the one portrayed in my May reads preview.  This is the US edition, and was picked up to correspond with the sequel, which shares this design) and the Goodreads blurb:

London, April 1812. On the eve of eighteen-year-old Lady Helen Wrexhall’s presentation to the queen, one of her family’s housemaids disappears-and Helen is drawn into the shadows of Regency London. There, she meets Lord Carlston, one of the few who can stop the perpetrators: a cabal of demons infiltrating every level of society. Dare she ask for his help, when his reputation is almost as black as his lingering eyes? And will her intelligence and headstrong curiosity wind up leading them into a death trap?

In some ways, this book reminds me of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, only a little more serious, and less steampunk-y.  But the heroine, Lady Helen Wrexhall, is smart, curious, and not easily scared off.  She attempts to exist as much as possible within societal constraints, while still accepting her role with the DDC.  She is not simpering and weak-willed, but neither is she a self-proclaimed Wonder Woman.  She reacts believably, in my opinion, to discovering her heritage, and I like that Goodman portrayed the decision to join the DDC in their work as a difficult one. 

One of the things I really liked about this book was Goodman did not present London society as stifling or ridiculous.  Lady Helen genuinely likes her life (even if her uncle is tedious, blustery, and disgusting).  She is strong-willed, but stays very true to her time and her character.  She has a lot to lose, and risks even more.  The setting of this book is very authentic - Lady Helen must fit her activities with the DDC in between dress fittings, Sunday promenade, and the next ball - and it doesn't temper the blow to her sensibilities when she realizes her abilities will keep he from marrying the Duke who admires her, and who would give her the best possible life she could hope for.

Another thing this book portrayed in a positive way was female relationships.  So often in YA fiction the "mean girl" trope reigns on high, and there are very few girls who are truly friends with other girls.  Additionally, relationships between daughters and mothers are strained, or simply non-existent.  Here, Lady Helen has a very lovely relationship with her aunt (both her parents are dead), where each has a genuine regard for the other.  As well, Lady Helen has an adorable friendship with Darby, her lady's maid, and several nice friendships with girls her own age.  There is no real sniping or cattiness, and these girls show a refreshing respect for one another.

So, a couple things to take note of:
First, there is no real romance in this book.  So if you're here looking for kissy-face huggy-bear, you're in the wrong book.  This book is very focused on Lady Helen, her character development, and only that.  There is a mystery concerning her parents that must be solved; she must accept her role as a reclaimer (what the demon hunters are called); she must navigate her family life and social life; there's a lot happening for her.  And though there are little seeds of a possible romance, it is peripheral.  Second, this book is long.  And it feels long.  It's not one of those Harry Potter-type 500 pagers, it's a Moby-Dick-type 500 pager.  Goodman is meticulous in her world building, and leaves nothing to chance misinterpretation; likewise, readers learn about this world as Lady Helen learns about this world, so the detail is necessary.  It's not necessarily a negative, just fair warning.

If you don't mind making a commitment to a longer book, you're looking for a book with a strong heorine- which accurately represents the time period- isn't weighted down by angsty teen drama and love triangles- that has an awesome supernatural twist- this book's for you.  (I'm not ashamed to admit that sentence completely got away from me, and had a mind of its own.)  I am looking forward to reading the second installment in this series, The Dark Days Pact.  Events at the end of DDC make it necessary I do so sooner, rather than later, because wow did things get dicey.

This reads like:
Soulless by Gail Carriger - this is set in a comparable time period, has a smart and likeable heroine who is not afraid to accept her gifts, and has a supernatural element.
The Diviners by Libba Bray - I went with this one, though it may not be as "similar" a choice as A Great and Terrible Beauty...  This one features a girl who comes into her gifts at a certain age, and must decide what to do with them.  This also has a great supporting cast of characters. It's set in New York City in the roaring 20s. 
These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker - this has a strong-willed heroine who isn't content to just sit back and let things happen to her, and also boasts a complicated plot with twists and many secrets.
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare - this series opener is set in Victorian London and features a heroine who must learn to deal with her gifts, and to rely on herself and her own abilities rather than others.

 While I compose my review post of Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Wings and Ruin, I'll need something fun to do keep things from getting too real.  Look for a Top 10 post early next week, and then we'll get down to business discussing All The Things about ACoWaR.  


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sherlocked (But Not Really)

 I have always had a particular love for mysteries.  As a kid, it was the section of the school library that I gravitated toward, and I spent a good portion of my elementary years going on adventures with Frank and Joe Hardy, The Boxcar Children, and Nancy Drew.  (We won't discuss the fact that now, as an adult, I've purchased nearly complete sets of the "original" hardcover Hardy/Drew editions, just so they can sit on my shelf and look pretty, and that one or four Nancy Drew titles may account for a few of the dollars in my contest jar...)  I've previously expressed my appreciation for Agatha Christie (as every book connoisseur should), and love a good cozy mystery, especially if it involves coffee and/or book shops.

In the "mystery canon", though, one name stands paramount as the standard against which all sleuths are measured: Sherlock Holmes.  The classic Holmes tales are timeless for many reasons, including the characters, the cases themselves, and the atmosphere of the stories.  They have passed the test of time, and remain both interesting and relevant.  In fact, Holmes has experienced a great resurgence in popularity in recent years.  If you've been paying attention, you will have noticed no less than three current incarnations of Holmes on film/tv, and countless new novelizations.  It's been an adventure in and of itself deducing which of them are "worthy" of acclaim. (Just in case you're wondering, BBC Sherlock is the Sherlock to end all Sherlocks.  Cumberbatch, Freeman, and Gatiss et al are brilliant beyond belief, and I hope they make more series of Sherlock forever and ever.)  But this is about books, not awesome British TV.  So... back to it.

I've given up hope of someone being brave enough to write a "Sherlock Holmes" book from Sherlock's POV.  In the classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series, all the stories are told from John Watson's point of view; this is also true of the New Charlotte Holmes series by Brittany Cavallaro.  In Heather W. Petty's Lock & Mori, it's Moriarty's voice we hear.  Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis Moriarty who only ever appears as a distant threat, on the peripheral of the Holmes stories as an ever-present shadow, is given a voice.  And here Moriarty is the impetus for the story; it's Moriarty's voice who carries us.  And what a voice she has.  Ahh - caught that, did you?  Yes, I said she.  Because in this version, James Moriarty is a girl.

Before I get any further into it, here's the cover (which I'm not crazy about- Sherlock looks like a teen serial killer, and Moriarty looks like she's pouting at the camera), and the book blurb from Goodreads:

In modern-day London, two brilliant high school students—one Sherlock Holmes and a Miss James “Mori” Moriarty—meet. A murder will bring them together. The truth very well might drive them apart.

Before they were mortal enemies, they were much more…

FACT: Someone has been murdered in London’s Regent’s Park. The police have no leads.

FACT: Miss James “Mori” Moriarty and Sherlock “Lock” Holmes should be hitting the books on a school night. Instead, they are out crashing a crime scene.

FACT: Lock has challenged Mori to solve the case before he does. Challenge accepted.

FACT: Despite agreeing to Lock’s one rule—they must share every clue with each other—Mori is keeping secrets.

OBSERVATION: Sometimes you can’t trust the people closest to you with matters of the heart. And after this case, Mori may never trust Lock again.

Yep, it's a contemporary setting, and Moriarty and Sherlock are teenagers.  (You'll notice I reversed the order in which I write their names - I did this on purpose because Moriarty really is the main character of the book, and Sherlock is relegated to the role of sidekick for once.  But Moriarty carries the story well, so I'm actually pretty ok with it.)  Those of you who said "I'm out!" when you read "teenagers", hang with me for a minute.

One thing I like about contemporary YA books is that the characters experience and deal with problems that no teenager should ever have to deal with; and then they SOLVE them!  I think this is great.  Even in fiction, it's beneficial for teens to see kids "their own age" using their smarts and resources to work out problems.  This book is full of those instances.  These teens are smart, and they get into trouble.  Lots of trouble.  But they don't panic; they don't give up.  They tackle the problems head-on, and look for solutions. This book isn't heavy on the teen angst, or on the drama, though there  is a smattering here and there; it seems just enough to remind readers that they're dealing with teenagers, but not enough to make them want to throw the book across the room at the wall.

The plot:  is very intricate, but isn't hard to follow, if that makes sense.  There are some twists and turns, but Petty is never in danger of losing her readers.  The plot builds slowly, and readers learn and figure things out as Moriarty does.  There is a limited point of view, as readers are only privy to what Moriarty knows, and not what Sherlock knows, and I think that works well.  For me, it makes the story seem more immediate and raises the stakes.

The characters:  are well-crafted, if not carbon copies of the original Moriarty and Holmes.   Let's talk about each one.
Moriarty: As I said before, none of the original Doyle stories have Moriarty meeting any of the other characters; even Watson has never encountered Moriarty.  So there isn't a lot to compare the character to.  That noted, I think Petty does a nice job of constructing the character.  Holmes fans will understand that the character would have to have some element of darkness to deserve the role of Holmes' enemy, so she does not create Moriarty to be innocent.  Rather, Moriarty has an existence that makes her darkness believable, and even understandable.  Moriarty is open-minded, and has no illusions about anything.  Even her friendship with Sherlock is not one built on trust, but on necessity.  It begs the question of whether their "friendship" will survive the subsequent installments of the series, given the wide gulf between their sensibilities.
Sherlock: Is nearly unrecognizable as the Sherlock Holmes of old.  Yes, he's quirky; yes, he's brilliant; but something has been lost in translation.  He (cringe) emotes.  And that took some getting used to.  He is very intuitive, less arrogant, and certainly not as self-centered.  For me, Sherlock was less successful than was Moriarty.  However, if I forget that I know anything about Sherlock Holmes, and just read it for the story, and judge the character on his own merit, it's less of a miss.
AND THEN THERE'S MYCROFT:  Mycroft, Mycroft, Mycroft.  Was 179% my mostest favoritest thing about this book.  I have always gravitated toward Mycroft as a kindred spirit (though the sentiment would make him shudder).  He is clever, stoic, resourceful, and he gets crap done.  You want something done, give it to Mycroft.  I have always thought there was something slightly terrifying about Mycroft and his ability to "solve" problems, and that is still the case in this example.  And I love him for it.

Just a note about the next two books (since this series is, reportedly, to be a trilogy) - I can see Moriarty taking continual steps toward a dark and dangerous path, and I think, even though Sherlock cares for her, it is not in his nature to follow her down said path.  It is my guess that it will eventually lead to one of those love-to-hate/hate-to-love relationships that can plausibly be the start of their arch-rivalry that the classic stories boast.  Just my two pennies...

Overall, I give this a favorable rating.  The plot was strong, the characters well-developed, and it held my interest enough that I will read the next installment of the series.

I would suggest this to anyone who has an interest in Sherlock Holmes and is interested in other versions of the character, and to people who like a good mystery with a twist.

Those of you looking for readalikes, check out:
 A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallari - A fresh take on Holmes/Watson descendants.  Check out my review here. 
Jackaby by William Ritter - While not an "official" Holmes novel, the titular character is obviously modeled on Holmes.
The Clockwork Scarab by Colleen Gleason - A cool twist on the Holmes/Stoker descendants.
Death Cloud by Andy Lane - This features Holmes as a globetrotting teen.

I have just finished a marathon reading of Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Wings and Ruin.  I'm recovering. Literally ALL the feels, and I'm not sure I'll ever be the same.  I'll get to that one as soon as I've had adequate time to consider everything that happened.

Friday, May 5, 2017

On the Horizon

So, for those of you who are curious as to how the Great Reading Contest of 2017 is going, I am currently at 30 titles and counting.  That's an average of about a book every 4 days.  If I keep going at my current rate, by the end of the year, I should have read somewhere around 90 books.  That's a lot of freaking books!   I'm looking forward to, at the year's end, doing a Top 10 list!  (I love lists.)

Classes are done for the semester, and I find myself with a little more time on my hands.  I hope to fill it with more writing, as I am tired to listening to the voices of characters in my head yelling to be recognized and made whole.  I also hope to keep reading at the pace I've been for the past couple of months. As I get back into the habit of composing regular blog posts, I find this a wonderful place to lay out my reading plan for the month.  I've planned eight titles, so two books a week.  Doable. There's a nice mixture, I think, of titles, and all of them are first-time reads for me.

My TBR pile is actually more of a TBR tower, so here's to hoping I can take it down a few stories.

In no particular order, here is my reading list for May:

Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty

As I've said, before, I'm a sucker for Sherlock Holmes.  These days, one can trip anywhere in a bookstore and fall into a new incarnation of the brilliant detective and his counterpart, Dr. Watson.  This book, though, doesn't feature Holmes and Watson, and Sherlock is not the main character.  It's about Holmes and MORIARTY!  And Moriarty is the main character.  AND... Moriarty is a GIRL!   (Rubs hands together in anticipation...)  This will likely be the title I start with this month - I'm itching to dive into it.  This is the author's first book, so I have slight reservations about her tackling such canon characters in her first foray into publishing, but here's hoping she's clever enough to pull it off.

A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas

 Oh, Fayre and Rhysand, how glad I am to see you back for round three. This is the third title in Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses series (yes, it's a rubbish title, since it's just the title of the first book - the series deserves its own name...), and it has been much-anticipated.  I came to the series just after the second title was published, and read the first two in rapid succession.  I very much enjoy the uniqueness of this series.  One of the things I really appreciate about Maas is that she writes strong female characters, and she writes them well.  They are not above making mistakes, and they are strong enough to accept help when they need it.  Also, this series has ALL THE FEELS, and the power to devastate me; I'm a little scared to read this one. 

This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab
I've seen a lot of Schwab's books on shelves, and she is generally well reviewed, but I've never read one. I like dark, gritty stories, though, and this may be right up my alley.  Additionally, it sounds like it has some Romeo and Juliet-esque qualities to it, which intrigues me.  Though post-apocolyptic, dystopian stories aren't my favorite, the plot of this book is unique enough to snag my interest.  Monsters (that aren't vampires or zombies).  And humanity divided into two city sectors, separated by a dark zone.  And the only hope of avoiding a war is the human daughter of a tyrant and the monster son of a doctor.  Sign me up.  I'm hoping I love this book; it'll be another author to add to my reading list who has a nice backlist.

The Librarians and the Lost Lamp by Greg Cox

 Yes, I'm a huge nerd.  And I'm totally ok with that.  When TNT produced their first Librarian film years ago, I fell in love with Flynn Carson for life.  He was brilliant and handsome and a complete bumbling dork - which was fantastic.  Throughout the subsequent films, my love for the Librarian only grew.  And then came The Librarians.  What?  More than one Librarian at a time?  Sacrilege!  BUT, I gave it a shot.  Season one was kind of sketchy for me because of the Ezekiel Jones character, but the stories were great - fun and clever, and just a little bit out of this world.  So, I stuck around for seasons two and three.  And now the team is my team.  This is the first tie-in novel for the series, with another to be released this fall.

The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman
 This is another new author to me.  The cover is what made me first pick up this book, but the dilemma of the main character is what made me buy it: will Lady Helen choose to become the belle of London society, or a demon hunter?  What the what?  I'm totally in!  Shadowy Regency London streets; a dark, handsome lord with a sketchy reputation; a mystery; and a sassy heroine - how can this miss?  One of the story tropes I always love is the dual-nature trope, where the character must present themselves to society as being one thing, while actually existing as something completely different.  I'd say socialite by day, demon hunter by night definitely falls into that category.  All the signs point to me loving this book; fingers crossed it doesn't disappoint. 

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

 It took me a while to figure out the title of this book.  Here's a hint: strange isn't an adjective. I love Laini Taylor's writing.  She has the most beautiful way of crafting words into sentences as anyone I've read.  That she chooses to use her talent to write the types of books I like to read, I consider a gift.  Her books tend to be moody, and just a little left of normal, which makes me like them all the more.  I've been anticipating this book since I finished her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy; she is just an author I will always read.  This is the first title in a duology - which I always like more than trilogies, where I feel like the middle book is just a bridge between the first and last chapters of the story.  I have very high hopes for this one. 

Catalyst by James Luceno

 What kind of self-respecting nerd would I be if I wasn't a Star Wars fan? I have gone into the new Star Wars films with some trepidation.  However, so far I've been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the films (even if The Force Awakens lacked originality...  And I'm still reserving judgment about the new Han Solo film.  I'm very cranky that Harrison Ford didn't just Indiana Jones it up and find the Fountain of Youth so he could play his younger self).  I'll admit that I watched Rogue One knowing that Mads Mikkelsen's portrayal of Galen Erso was going to be epic.  His character has such an incredible story that's not told in the film; I want to know more.  I want to know what happened to him in those lost years.  Here is my chance to find out.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

 This is the first installment of a planned trilogy that tells the story of Lada Dragwyla, the brutal princess-daughter of Vlad Dracul.  Heck.  Yes.  For one thing, I love, love, love books set in Eastern Europe.  There is such history, mystery, and tradition tied to that part of the world, that doesn't exist anywhere else.  Also, this is the Impaler in female form.  All the history of Wallachia, the Ottomans, the sultan Mehmed, with Dracula's daughter as the linchpin. I have read a lot of "Dracula books" in the past; this is the first to be brave enough to make the heart of the story a girl, and a bloody, dark, conniving, brilliant girl who is brave, and knows her own heart enough to do whatever it takes to ensure the survival of those she loves.

So expect reviews for these books as I finish them.  I hope to find one or two gems in the batch.  And I may find a minute or two to talk about some of the creative writing projects I'm immersed in.  Who knows.

Auf wiedersehn, until next week.  Lock & Mori, here I come. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Curse, A Kiss, and A Ghost

I am a Michigan girl, born and raised.  As far as I'm concerned, the Great Lakes State is where it's at. Oh, I've lived other places - the Midwest (Illinois), the East (New York), even the Great White North (Ontario) for a short couple of months - but, for me, Michigan will always be home.  Yes, the weather is insane, but I'm willing to deal with its bipolarity for the comfort of living in the place I really do love most.

This, to say, I have no particular ties to the South.  I've been there a handful of times for vacation and horse shows, but there's nothing about the South that gets me super-excited.  (Except New Orleans.  Which I love forever and ever, amen.  Some day I WILL write a book set in New Orleans, and it will take me a decade to write, so that I have to visit many, many times for research purposes.)  BUUTTT... there is just *something* about the designation "Southern gothic" that speaks to my soul.  Maybe because it conjures up images of dark, swampy nights and voodoo rituals, or of plantation houses haunted by the ghosts of evil deeds.  I have a love of gothic literature, originally inspired by Austen's Northanger Abbey, cemented by DuMaurier's Rebecca, and perpetuated by LeRoux's The Phantom of the Opera.  The dark and creepy resonates with me.  (Although, now that I think about it, I'm not sure what that ultimately says about me as a person...)

I had never read anything by Martina Boone, but something made me pick up the first two books of her Heirs of Watson Island trilogy (book the third was forthcoming, and I've now finished the complete trilogy).  The covers were lovely, but it was the premise of the series that caught my initial interest.  Here is the cover and blurb from the first book of the series, Compulsion, courtesy of Goodreads, because it's a pretty good overview of the series as a whole.  Additionally, the books all tell a continuous story, with no time lapse in between their narratives, so this gives you a good idea of what you'd be in for:

(Seriously, people, has there ever been a better tag line?)

All her life, Barrie Watson has been a virtual prisoner in the house where she lives with her shut-in mother.  When her mother dies, Barrie promises to put some mileage on her stiletto heels.  But she finds anew kind of prison at her aunt's South Carolina plantation instead - a prison guarded by an ancient spirit who long ago cursed one of the three founding families of Watson Island, and gave the others magical gifts that became compulsions.
Stuck with the ghosts of a generations-old feud and hunted by forces she cannot see, Barrie must find a way to break free of the family legacy.  With the help of sun-kissed Eight Beaufort, who knows what Barrie wants before she knows herself, the last Watson heir starts to unravel her family's twisted secrets.  What she finds is dangerous: a love she never expected, a river that turns to fire at midnight, a gorgeous cousin who isn't what she seems, and very real enemies who want both Eight and Barrie dead.

Whoo-wee.  Ghosts, curses, romance, and a quirky aunt - what could go wrong?  I'll just say up front that I really enjoyed reading these books.  So much, in fact, that I called my sister and demanded she buy and read them immediately (yes, even at the risk of encouraging her to advance in our bet).  They weren't perfect, but, for me, the questionable issues were far outweighed by the things I loved about them.  So, let's start with the things I didn't love:

Barrie.  Yes, the main character.  She was not my favorite.  She was controlling and too selfish for my liking.  I understand her being a little high maintenance because, well, teen age girl from southern California (am I stereotyping?  Whoopsie.), but there were times where I wanted to reach into the book and flick her nose.  Additionally, the leading man, Eight (no, not his actual name - he is Charles Beaufort VIII, so, Eight), is a little vanilla for my tastes.  He's ok - just a little too perfect, if you know what I mean.  He always does everything right, he's good at everything he does, and he's - of course - golden handsome.  He is dyslexic, and it feels to me like the author's way of killing two birds with one stone - keeping Eight from being infallible, and making her narrative inclusive.  I don't like pandering, and that's what Eight's character feels like to me.  So, no biggie - aside from the fact that my main gripe about this series is its two main characters.  (Hahaha.)  It says a lot about the plot, setting, and secondary characters that I kept reading.

The things I disliked about these books were few; the things I liked about these books were many.
FIRST, the setting.  In true (Southern) gothic fashion, there are historic plantations, but they're shadows of their former glorious selves.  There is subtle decay that peeks through the veneer, and in the case of one it's completely destroyed.  There is a creepy forest, an impeding river, and a sleepy town full of busybodies.  I felt immersed in Watson's Landing.

SECOND, the supporting characters.  Eccentric and quirky, but not to the point of being a caricature, Pru Watson is Barrie's deceased mother's sister.  She is smart, determined, and made of steel.  She suffered emotional abuse at the hands of her father, yet remained devoted to her roots and to her home.  She takes Barrie in without question, and accepts the girl unconditionally.  She gives Barrie space, doesn't hover, yet is there with much-needed wisdom just at the right times.  Cassie Colsworth is Barrie's cousin.  She is all Southern sweetness and charm - until she isn't.  Cassie has a fluid idea of right and wrong, and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve her goals.  I couldn't help but feel sympathy for her, as she has some difficult struggles she is forced to fight through, but I felt the character was written to be strong enough to handle them.  And finally, Mark, the figurative ghost that hovers over the narrative, is Barrie's godfather, who is, until she moves to Watson's Landing, the most stable thing in her life.  He is ill and slowly slipping away, and we get to see how that affects Barrie, and how she adjusts to losing the only thing she could ever count on (and, incidentally, how she learns she is not as alone in the world as she thinks).  It forces her to develop as a character.  His eventual death is devastating to Barrie, but the lessons he taught her are referred to throughout the entire story, so that though he is bodily absent, his spirit is ever-present.

THIRD, and on a more inconsequential note, there are several elements that Boone adds to these books that I particularly appreciate.  There is mythology aplenty, a mixture of Native American and African; there are horses, and they are done WELL - this is rare in fiction; there is mystery; there is romance.  And frankly, I think the base idea of this series is fascinating.  There's a centuries-old gift/curse that passes from generation to generation, and there's no avoiding it, no stopping it.  It's a classic case of "the sins of the father", and it really works here.  The question that arises is whether the "gift" is actually that, or whether it's another form of curse.  The problem is compounded when the characters start to question themselves, and whether they're making decisions based on their own thoughts, or based on their respective compulsive gifts/curse.  Watching them wrestle with (or, against, in some cases) their instincts and compulsions is both interesting and, at times, frustrating.  But it makes for great reading.

I would recommend this book to readers who appreciate a multi-volume series that doesn't have a time lag, who like family mysteries, a little romance, and a dash of creepy.

A couple good readalikes for this book are:
The Fall by Bethany Griffin.  This is a retelling of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher from the point of view of Madeline Usher, a descendant still trapped in the house by the Usher curse.
Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts.  This one isn't a YA title, but it is a Southern gothic tale with ghosts, a decrepit plantation, a family mystery, and danger.

If you've been paying attention, you know that I love Sherlock Holmes.  If you need a reminder of how much, read this blog post.  But there are SO MANY recent incarnations of the detective and his faithful sidekick, that one could almost be overwhelmed with choices.  Sadly, not all of them are good.  So, I picked up Heather W. Petty's Lock & Mori with an eyebrow arched by skepticism.  But it drew me in, because it's not the classic pairing of Holmes/Watson, but of Holmes/Moriarty.  And Moriarty is a girl with a sketchy background, and slightly wicked tendencies.  Stay tuned.