Book Review: Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden

against-the-tideInspirational/Christian romances are not ones that I normally seek out for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is most definitely how freaking difficult it is to find GOOD ones. And by good ones, I mean stories that are actual STORIES, not thinly disguised moral lessons that sacrifice every element of good storytelling to get the author’s message across.

But the thing is, I want to find good ones. I like reading stories where faith plays a central role in the characters’ lives (see: Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph), and I have friends and family members constantly asking me for recommendations in this genre.

So when I saw Against the Tide nominated for a RITA (it ended up winning the RITA for Inspirational Romance), and read a glowing review for it on Smart Bitches (which is seriously my go-to site for romance novel reviews), and then saw it on sale for 99 cents, I bought it without a second thought.

Well, it fell solidly in the middle of the road for me. There were parts I liked and parts I didn’t, which ultimately culminated in a “meh” feeling for me overall. However, as far as Christian romances go, it was one of the better ones, in a large part because the author never forgot she was telling a story.

And really, it’s a good story. Lydia is a translator for the Navy in Boston in the late 1800s, a job she’s held for four years. After a childhood of uncertainty and fearfulness, she has job security and a home she loves, and she is not willing to let either go after she’s worked so hard for them. So when she must come up with several hundred dollars in order to purchase her apartment, she’s looking everywhere for translation work to supplement her income.

Enter Alexander “Bane” Banebridge, a young man who’s friends with the admiral that employs Lydia. He’s a bit of a scoundrel and he drives Lydia nuts, but it just so happens that Bane needs a translator for a number of documents, and he’s more than willing to pay for it.

As Lydia translates more and more of his odd requests, though, she starts to get suspicious as to what Bane really wants. And when she finds out, Lydia gets pulled into a fight she never expected, one that ends up testing every one of her personal limits.

Lydia’s personal arc was easily my favorite part of the entire story. I loved how she was forced to choose between what was legal and what was morally right, how she handled herself in the face of losing everything.

She had a tremendous amount of courage, something that wasn’t apparent even to her at the very beginning of the story, and watching her discover just how deep that ran was a joy to read.

I adored her as a character, and I loved seeing everything she overcame during the course of the story.

It was also nice to read a Christian romance that didn’t hammer you over the head with the religious aspect. Overall, I thought it was handled very well and very naturally.

My one real complaint on that front was that there was only one line near the end where Lydia mentioned she’d been reading the Bible. Given everything that had happened to her over the previous half of the book, I wished we’d been shown a little more of that: another mention of her reading or her thinking about the Bible or something, just to give the hint that it truly was something she was interested in.

However, I ran into problems with the romance itself. Bane came across as a bit too “the ends justify the means” for me, especially at the beginning and especially as a Christian character. He was trying to make up for his past, certainly, but at times it felt like he had just swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I didn’t care for the extremism.

He WAS fun to watch with Lydia, how he taunted her and teased her and ultimately opened up to her. I just wish we’d had a better sense of his limits in other things.

It also didn’t help that the pivotal moment in their romance–the moment when Lydia decides that she’s going to pursue Bane in a romantic way–was in Bane’s point of view. We don’t find out what Lydia’s decided until the next scene, so it’s only a brief few lines about her decision instead of the thought process that LED to that decision. It frustrated me, because that’s such an important moment to see in a relationship.

There was one other things that grated on me, but as it was near the end, I’ll mark it for spoilers. Highlight to read:

One of the major differences in Christian romances and regular romances is that in Christian romances, one of the characters is typically building a relationship with God as well, and that has to be just as believable as the romantic relationship.

What I disliked here was that, at the end, Bane set himself up as the one Lydia needed to have faith in: the one who would be her lighthouse, who would never let her down, etc. And…no. He’s human, humans screw up, and one of the points of Christian romances is that faith in God is vital and should be number one for both parties. That’s not what I got from this, and that annoyed me.

So in the end, Against the Tide was all right, but didn’t have the emotional connection I was looking for to make it great. A decent read, if you’re looking for an inspirational romance, and I loved the heroine’s journey, but as a romance itself, it just felt squarely mediocre to me.

Book Review: Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Author’s note: I won an ARC for this book earlier this year. The book itself comes out in hardback tomorrow, November 5.

Also, if you’re here for the #WriteMotivation update, I’ll be posting mine on Thursday this week.

curtises-and-conspiracesI’ve mentioned before that I kind of adore Gail Carriger’s novels, and while I’m patiently (okay, not so patiently) awaiting the Parasol Protectorate Abroad, I’ve been happily enjoying her venture into YA with the Finishing School series.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about Sophronia Temminick and her stay at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. For the first time in recent memory, the dirigible school is making its way to London, which is very exciting. However, the trip itself is more than what it seems, and Sophronia is just the person to get to the bottom of it.

Sophronia was, once again, a delight to read about, and in this book we really get a chance to see her character grow in unexpected ways. That was easily my favorite part of the book: not the plot itself, but seeing how Sophronia faced the challenges the new semester threw at her, and more importantly, seeing how she dealt with the consequences of her actions.

I wish I could say more about it, but so much of that is near the end of the book and tied up in the story that it would be a major spoiler to discuss, and it was so, so wonderful to discover it along the way. I loved how it brought home that all these characters operate in the varying grey areas of morality. They make decisions and make mistakes and they have very good reasons for doing what they do, even if what they do isn’t the right thing by any stretch of the imagination.

Plus, there was this bit, near the end, that sums up Sophronia so succinctly I might have hugged the book:

“Why is it always your problem to fix?”
“Because I see that there is a problem when no one else does.”

That, I believe, is why Sophronia will be my favorite character forever: because of how much she sees and how willing she is to actually get involved. She’s brilliant, and I’m so excited to see how she’ll continue to grow over the course of this series.

For fans of the Parasol Protectorate series, going to London means getting the chance to see some of the other characters we already know and love. The roles they play within this story are important, so they’re not just tossed in as Easter eggs for fans, but it still made me squeal with glee.

I enjoyed the plot, though not quite as much as the character development we see from Sophronia, and a sort-of love triangle was introduced, which I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. I did like getting to see a little more from Vieve, and I loved the friendship that’s building up between Sophronia and the other girls in her age group, but particularly Dimity.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is a great follow-up to Etiquette & Espionage, and I really can’t wait to follow this group of characters into book three.

Book Review: Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

As you might recall, I kind of fell in love with Grave Mercy, the first book in the His Fair Assassin series, earlier this year. So you can just imagine how excited I was to read Dark Triumph, the sequel and Sybella’s story.

I started and finished Dark Triumph in one day. If possible, I might have liked it even more than the first one, and that’s saying something, because I freaking loved the first one.

dark-triumphSynopsis courtesy Goodreads:

Sybella arrives at the convent’s doorstep half mad with grief and despair. Those that serve Death are only too happy to offer her refuge—but at a price. The convent views Sybella, naturally skilled in the arts of both death and seduction, as one of their most dangerous weapons. But those assassin’s skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to a life that nearly drove her mad. And while Sybella is a weapon of justice wrought by the god of Death himself, He must give her a reason to live. When she discovers an unexpected ally imprisoned in the dungeons, will a daughter of Death find something other than vengeance to live for?

Essentially this is a Beauty and the Beast story (and you guys know what a sucker I am for those stories), only it’s Beauty that’s broken on the inside. Beast may have a fearsome appearance, but his kindness and loyalty are never in question.

I absolutely adored Sybella. She’s harsher than Ismae, both in her actions and her narration, and she comes across as cold to other characters. However, that’s almost as much a mask as the seductress one she wears. She’s built up a number of walls and defenses for very, very good reasons.

Her background is absolutely heartbreaking, and it’s amazing that Sybella has put herself back together as well as she has. The scenes where she was at her home were tense and sickening, and an understandable desire for vengeance drives her for a large part of the book.

I loved seeing how she grew both on her own and through her developing relationship with Beast, and Beast himself was just as much fun in this book as he was in Grave Mercy. I loved that we got to spend more time with him here and learn more about him, because I enjoyed the hell out of his character in the previous story.

Sybella’s faith was also an important part of this story, but her relationship with Saint Mortain was different from Ismae’s because her role as one of his handmaidens is different, and I liked seeing her struggles and questioning.

If there was one thing that I didn’t like, it was the very end. It came about really abruptly, and I was frankly shocked to turn the page and realize there wasn’t any more. I wish it had been a little more fleshed out.

But really, that was my only complaint about this story. It was well-paced and well-written, and such a fantastic follow-up to another excellent book. I really, really can’t wait for book three in this series.

Book Review: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

leviathanAs a steampunk fan, I’ve been looking forward to reading Leviathan for some time. I knew a very little bit about the world, which sounded cool, and I’m always interested to see what different authors come up with for steamupunk worldbuilding.

What I got with this one was a really fun, briskly paced YA novel that kicks off a trilogy I absolutely can’t wait to finish.

Alek is a prince who cannot inherit his father’s throne, but his mere existence upsets a very delicate balance that’s thrown off when his parents are killed. He’s spirited away from his house one night by a small band of loyal men, and now he’s on the run from his own people.

Deryn is a soldier in the British Air Service, serving aboard the massive airbeast Leviathan, with one tiny secret: she’s a girl, not a guy, and she’ll be kicked out if anybody discovers her secret.

With war threatening, the Leviathan is sent on a special urgent mission to the Ottoman Empire. Soon, Deryn and Alek will cross paths, and they’ll both be swept up in an effort to stem the advancing tide of war.

Most steampunk novels I’ve read tend to take place in the mid-to-late 1800s, but Leviathan offers us an alternate take on the beginning of World War I. If you remember history class, you probably remember the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, which kicked off the Great War in 1914. In Leviathan, though, their deaths have a bit more sinister and personal cause, though the ultimate effect—international war—is the same.

I loved the way Westerfeld wove actual history with fantasy and slightly futuristic technology, particularly in regards to the technology on both sides: fabricated beasts for the British, walking war machines for the Germans. The descriptions of both are fascinating, and I especially enjoyed Alek’s and Deryn’s reactions to the other’s chosen technology.

The beasties, in particular, are really cool in how they’re all created for different, specific purposes: the hydrogen sniffers that search the Leviathan for leaks, the flechette bats used in aerial combat, and even the Leviathan itself.

Westerfeld’s technique itself is brilliant, switching viewpoints every two chapters. After the first few, you know exactly whose head you’ll be in when. It’s refreshing, and it gives you a chance to really get the most out of each storyline before jumping to the other one.

Plus, there are subtle differences (and not-so-subtle ones) in the way he writes in Alek’s viewpoint versus Deryn’s. Even though he does a good job of letting the reader know whose head we’re in, you can tell the viewpoint character from the dialogue and internal cadence. Deryn’s voice is spotted with slang and cursing, while Alek sounds very much like the noble he is. It’s glorious.

I adored Deryn. She’s a very quick thinker, courageous and bold, loves to fly and loves being on an airship. She’s very bound to her duty as a soldier, but doesn’t let her pledge to king and country keep her from thinking for herself. I liked Alek as well, but he’s a bit stiffer initially, considering his background. However, he definitely grows on you over the course of the story.

The illustrations littered throughout the book are absolutely gorgeous. I actually paused in reading to soak up the goodness of the art.

If you’re into steampunk already, I think you’ll definitely enjoy Leviathan. If you aren’t, then Leviathan is, honestly, a great introduction to the genre. The characters are great, the worldbuilding is phenomenal, and I really, really can’t wait to read more.

Book Review: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

After reading several books in a row that ranged from mediocre to DNF, I picked up Courtney Milan’s newest book, The Heiress Effect. Milan is, hands-down, one of the best writers I’ve ever read, so I was hoping her newest would be good.

It wasn’t just good. It was fabulous, and I couldn’t put it down. In fact, my friends probably got to hear me read aloud half the book because every time something awesome happened, I hugged my Kindle and squealed, and then had to explain why.

the-heiress-effectSynopsis:

Miss Jane Fairfield has made a career of social disaster. She wears outrageous gowns and says even more outrageous things. The only reason she’s invited anywhere is because of her immense dowry–which is all part of her plan to avoid marriage and keep the fortune-hunters at bay.

Mr. Oliver Marshall is the illegitimate son of a duke. His acceptance in society is tenuous as it is. If he wants any kind of career at all, he must do everything right. He doesn’t need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn’t need to fall in love with her. But there’s something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can’t resist…even though it could mean the ruin of them both.

I was really looking forward to this book because I liked Oliver, the hero, from Milan’s previous stories. I loved his relationship with Robert, the hero from The Duchess War, and I couldn’t wait to see Oliver as the hero in his own story.

However, Jane stole the entire freaking show and I loved every second of it.

By the end of the first chapter, you’re firmly in her corner. You completely understand why she’s trying her hardest to drive off any suitors. She’s brave and bold and brash, and even when she’s afraid, she doesn’t back down. You’re cheering for her every single step of the way.

Jane isn’t just bad with manners. She’s downright rude, saying things that don’t just toe the line of social rules; they jump screaming past them. “Outrageous” is quite possibly the kindest way to describe her dresses, as the first one she wears features four different kinds of lace. She came to the conclusion a long time ago that she would never fit in, so she’s going to stand out in the worst possible way to keep herself absolutely unmarriageable.

It’s hilarious to read about, but when she’s no longer playing for a crowd, Jane drops the act and we see how desperately lonely she is. And with Oliver, Jane has the first person, aside from her sister, that she can consider a friend.

Because of the circumstances of his birth, Oliver has spent his entire life with a foot in two worlds, and one of those worlds tries its best to keep him down. If he wants to accomplish anything, he has to play by the rules set out by those who came before him. And so he has, biding his time so that he can make the political changes he needs to.

However, there comes a point when the line between “biding your time” and “cowering” blurs, and that’s part of what Oliver has to deal with in his own arc. I loved him as well, loved watching him grow thanks to (in a large part) the women in his life—Jane, as well as his aunt and sister—and his final confrontation with Bradenton (one of the villains) is a sight to behold.

And I loved, loved, loved that Jane owned herself. She was never a damsel in distress, not really. She could and did take care of herself and handle her own problems. When she turned to Oliver it was not because she needed saving, but because she wanted the reminder that she wasn’t alone. Their relationship had balance.

Then, there was this line, which is one of the best lines I have ever seen a romance heroine utter EVER:

“I’m not a gift,” she said. “Or a prize that you’ve won. I’m a woman, and I want you because it will give me joy.”

Do you have any idea how rare it is to see that explicitly stated in fiction, to see a woman owning her desire and her sexuality without any kind of shame about it? Holy shit, that line might be one of the sexiest things I’ve ever read.

And this was one of the parts that made me shriek with incoherent glee:

“Do you think you’re squabbling with him [Bradenton] over me?” She smiled more brightly. “Oh, no, Mr. Marshall. You’re wrong. I’m squabbling with him over you.”

GO KICK HIS ASS, BABY; I’LL HOLD YOUR FLOWER.

Seriously, Jane was a thousand different kinds of amazing.

I adored the secondary romance between Emily and Anjan. Though it was shorter than the main story, it could easily have been its own book, but it worked very well as it was. My only issue was that I wanted more from Anjan’s viewpoint, because he was just great. One of his last scenes is easily a highlight of the novel.

Words cannot adequately express how much I loved this book. Everything about it was fantastic, and my nerdy little heart just absolutely adored it. While it is second in The Brothers Sinister series, you don’t need to have read the first book to enjoy this one.

Go pick it up. Now. It is worth every penny you will spend and then some.

Book Review: His Bride By Design by Teresa Hill

Earlier this year, my grandmother started giving me books. And by that, I don’t mean the occasional bag of half a dozen paperbacks; I mean thirteen grocery sacks of books at a time. It’s a wonder my roommates haven’t killed me yet for having random sacks of books strewn about the house.

Because of this, I’ve acquired a number of books I wouldn’t normally pick up on my own, including enough Harlequin category romances to supply my own used bookstore. I know a lot of people tend to stick up their noses at Harlequin, but I’ve found some gems there before, and I love romance anyway. So I was kind of excited at my haul.

Alas, the first book I picked up to read, His Bride by Design, wasn’t really worth it. It was a disappointment, because I had recently read a couple of fake-relationship stories that I really enjoyed, and I was looking forward to finding another one.

bride-by-designSynopsis from the back of the book:

Wedding-dress designer Chloe Allen had it all—her first celebrity client, a debut New York fashion show, even a happy engagement…her third, but who was counting? Then a catwalk catfight revealed her fiance’s cheating ways, and the media had a field day. To be painted as unlucky in love was a curse in her profession.

As brides-to-be rioted to return their Chloe originals, Fiance No. 2 rode to her rescue. Financier James Elliot IV couldn’t let her—or his secret investment in her business—suffer. They would play up a reunion romance for the cameras and get Chloe back on track. He had it all sewn up—but would their tabloid tableau vivant turn into the real deal?

Now, if you’re guessing that Chloe’s man was cheating on her with a model, you would be correct. What you might not guess is that he was cheating on her with a male model, which was a giggle-worthy twist since Chloe was kind of slow on the uptake.

What bothered me was how it was handled afterward. A blog (in the book) said “It’s the other men modern-day brides have to worry about,” which made me raise my eyebrows, as guys sleeping with other guys is not exactly a modern development.

On top of that, other brides actually were terrified their grooms were sleeping with their groomsmen, which also had me rolling my eyes. While I can kind of understand the superstitious aspect of it, this seemed like a weirdly specific fear that I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough for.

Then this conversation happened, after James found out someone’s put the video of Chloe finding out about her cheating boyfriend on YouTube:

“People are online watching a video of the brawl at Chloe’s show?”

“More than a hundred thousand people so far,” Marcy said.

James grimaced. “Someone’s keeping a count?”

“Of course. At the rate the video’s being downloaded, it could go viral at any time.”

A hundred thousand views in less than two days? I hate to break it to you, but that video’s not “about” to go viral; it has gone viral. Also, most people don’t actually download videos from YouTube. There’s no built-in functionality for that. And considering every YouTube video ever uploaded has its number of views just beneath it, “keeping a count” isn’t exactly difficult.

This kind of stuff frustrates the hell out of me. I don’t expect everyone to know the difference between HTML and CSS, but if you’re supposedly Internet-savvy, as Marcy is, I would hope you know how YOUTUBE WORKS.

However, even I can admit inaccuracies like that are usually minor issues in a story, and if the rest of it is good enough, I can forgive them. In this case, the rest of the story really wasn’t good enough to outweigh these mistakes.

I couldn’t get behind Chloe as a heroine. I liked her initially, but she was just so…wimpy after everything went down. She was so dependent on her assistants and then on James to do anything, it seemed.

I didn’t buy her as a woman who owned her own (successful) business. She didn’t even have any kind of plan for dealing with the fallout. Then, when James offered her a way to mitigate the problem, she burst into tears at the thought of doing it. She didn’t come across as strong enough to do what needed to be done to save what she cared about.

Then, they were kissing only thirty pages in. Which just never, ever works for me. Part of the fun of the romance is the journey in getting the characters from “Hello” or “I hate you” to “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” After thirty pages, I’ve barely gotten a chance to know these characters; I’m not even rooting for them to get together yet. It’s like everything’s happening way too quickly.

I was excited for a reconciliation romance on top of a fake relationship, but after about the first four pages of the book, it just kind of meandered downhill. It didn’t dive straight into crazy-terrible, which might have been entertaining in and of itself for the WTF level, but just kind of settled at “not good enough for me to justify continuing to read.”

Between the heroine I didn’t like, the mediocre writing, and the Internet-related inaccuracies, I just didn’t care enough to finish the book.