Book Review: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

theghostbrideThe Ghost Bride was something of an impulse purchase. It was featured in a books-on-sale newsletter I get, and I had an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket. So a novel set in late 19th-century Malaysia, about an old Chinese custom so rarely performed that few people even knew it was a thing? This was 100% up my alley.

And I’m glad, because it was a wonderful story, with some lovely description and an absolutely fascinating setting, well worth reading.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Though ruled by British overlords, the Chinese of colonial Malaya still cling to ancient customs. And in the sleepy port town of Malacca, ghosts and superstitions abound.

Li Lan, the daughter of a genteel but bankrupt family, has few prospects. But fate intervenes when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at a terrible price.

After an ominous visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy—including the mysterious Er Lang, a charming but unpredictable guardian spirit. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family—before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

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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 – Clockwork Blue by Gloria Harchar

Back in July I went on a Kindle binge, buying up a lot of really cheap or free ebooks because they all happened to be on sale the same weekend Clockwork Blue was one of the books I grabbed.

Clockwork Blue CoverReading Clockwork Blue was ultimately frustrating for a number of reasons: poor editing, a jerk of a hero (for at least the first half of the book), and way too many extraneous genre elements.

It’s a shame, because there were parts I liked and I think it could have been a good story.

Synopsis, courtesy Amazon:

Mission… Impossible: The pixies’ mission—if Allegro and Glissando are to accept it—is to secure the future of a troubled England. To achieve this, the Earl of Falconwood, better known as the Black Falcon, must marry Nicola Moore. Never mind the woman is a hoyden who makes the most atrocious hats decorated with machine parts, which she then dyes with her famous Clockwork Blue.

And certainly forget the earl is atoning for his brother’s death by purposely hovering on the fringes of the ton. Add to the mix Glissando’s tendency to slip to the side of the Mrasek, the ones who work to free the evil Lord Sethos.

But Maestro depends on the pixies—for better or for worse. To release the magic trapped in the Clockwork Blue dye—a magic that will safeguard England’s future—Malcolm and Nicola must not only wed, but they must also fall in love.

For the first half of this story, I got so irritated with Malcolm, our “hero,” that I wanted Nicola to punt him to the curb. With the whole forced marriage thing, we’re so much in Nicola’s point of view that it is difficult to ascertain Malcolm’s (or Falcon’s) motives.

Everything he does is, ostensibly, to get ahold of the dye. Which is fine, but Nicola alternates between seeing it in that light and seeing him as a project that needs to be fixed. And the back-and-forth gets really, really frustrating, particularly since he has given her NO reason to think he wants anything other than the dye.

It also doesn’t help that Nicola is constantly manipulated and pushed around for the first half of the book. She doesn’t win any victories with Malcolm. He occasionally accedes to her, but not because she’s outsmarted him or pushed him into a corner. I get the feeling that it’s all, very consciously, his decision. I hated that Malcolm saw Nicola as “malleable.” He doesn’t think he’s won a skirmish with her; he thinks he’s manipulated her into doing things his way. And that doesn’t endear me to either of the characters.

Fortunately, that aspect changed about halfway through the story, when we started getting more from Malcolm’s point of view and seeing why he thought and acted the way he did. It made him more sympathetic, but by that point I was so angry at him that it took most of the rest of the book for me to come around.

It bothers me especially because there are a few parts—a line here, a conversation there—where the characters intrigued me or made me laugh out loud, where I could see the glimmer of a relationship building. But it wasn’t enough to outweigh the problems.

Also, I have no idea why this is steampunk. Yes, Nicola puts clockwork gears on her hats and has a “barrelabout” (a…I don’t even know), but that’s it. Steampunk plays absolutely no part in the actual plot, which would’ve worked just as well as a regular historical romance.

This note on the Amazon page has been added since I read the book:

Note: This is a Christian New Adult Fantasy Romance. There are equal parts of Fantasy and Romance with hints of the Steampunk wave which is starting to become popular in the Alternate World. In Book 2, The Copper Tuners, the reader will see the Steampunk wave affecting society more.

I kind of wish this had been there when I’d picked the story up, because I would’ve expected less from the steampunk part of the story. That being said, I still wish those elements had been integrated more into the story instead of being so much window dressing.

In fact, it was the genre parts—particularly the stuff with the fairies—that made me keep rolling my eyes.

Now, I’m normally all for throwing in magic and fantasy wherever you can, but it just didn’t work quite as well here. I liked Allegro and Glissando well enough, but I was much more intrigued by the story between Nicola and Malcolm. There were a few parts where the fairies came in handy, but I don’t think it would’ve hurt the book at all if they hadn’t been there.

Besides, it seems Glissando got a makeover at some point, because the novel alternates between describing him as fat or thin or as having orange hair or green hair. I’d totally buy this if it had mentioned fairies could change their appearance at some point, but it never did, and Allegro’s description was consistent throughout the story. So I’d have a picture of Glissando in my head, and then I’d have to revise it every time I came across a conflicting description.

Then there are the Mrasek, or rather, aren’t the Mrasek. They show up in one scene early on and then vanish from the story, so completely that when one of them showed up at the climax (only mentioned by name; he doesn’t say a word) I had to search his name to figure out who he was. Why mention these super-evil villains if you aren’t going to DO anything with them?

And really, none of this extra stuff was needed. I actually liked the normal plot: Malcolm wants the dye, which just happens to be Nicola’s dowry. She doesn’t want to get forced into marriage because she saw how horrible it was for her grandmother; she wants to marry for love like her parents did. He, however, is up for doing just about anything to get said dye. There is plenty there for conflict and tension in the relationship.

Plus, there was the interesting stuff going on with the stockingers and the hosiers and the Luddite Rebellion. All of that would have been MORE than enough to craft an engrossing historical romance, but then there were fairies and “steampunk” for no good reason I could ascertain.

I don’t mind the addition of those things at all. But it has to be necessary to the story. There has to be a world built up where that’s a part of it. It has to be an ingredient in the cake, not just a decoration thrown on top at the last minute.

Now, this is the first book of a series, and maybe the fantastical aspects of this world play a larger, more integral role in future stories. (The added note on Amazon makes me think this is so.) But I really wish that had been brought in more in this book. As it is, it feels like too much was crammed into what could’ve been a really sweet historical romance.

Reading List Mini-Reviews, 1.30.2012

My movie-watching has been limited to a trip to the theater to catch Beauty and the Beast in its limited engagement (just FYI: it is just as good now as it was when I was six), and several DVDs for which I have reviews forthcoming.

However, I have made considerable progress reading the books currently on my shelf, and after a solid month of various romances (historical, contemporary, steampunk, and YA paranormal), I’m planning to dive into sci-fi with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein and Endymion by Dan Simmons.

Let’s see how quickly that breaks my brain, shall we?

EntreLeadership by Dave Ramsey
My first non-fiction book of the year! Since I’ve taken on more work responsibility in recent months, this book made its way up my to-read list pretty quickly. It’s an easy read, and a thought-provoking one. This is the book I used as a guide when I created my mission statement and my goals for this year.

I know that some people don’t necessarily care for Dave Ramsey because he’s very open about his Christian faith in his writing, but really, the business and financial principles he puts forth are solid and sensible. Whether you’re reading it for personal or business reasons, it’s a good book to pick up, especially if you’re in any sort of leadership position.

Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook
Yes, this one was already in the “read” pile when I finally posted my list, but since I read it in 2012, I’m counting it here. Also because I wanted to talk a little more about it.

I absolutely adored the first book in this series, The Iron Duke, and I bought Heart of Steel without downloading an excerpt first (first time I’ve ever done that) because I was positive I’d enjoy it. And I was right.

Heart of Steel features one of my favorite characters from the first book, Yasmeen Corsair, the airship captain. She’s a strong, badass woman, every inch the captain, holding her own in a field that is mostly reserved for men. And they respect her as one of them.

Her love interest, Archimedes Fox, is a great match for her and a great adventurer in his own right. They make a phenomenal team, both in the bed and out of it.

Plus, I love the world and the history that Brook has created here. The inventions, the zombies, the airships…I just love it. I liked The Iron Duke a little better than this one, but it’s still a damn good read. If you like romance and you are interested in steampunk, get thee to Amazon and acquire this series.

Unveiled by Courtney Milan
I picked up Courtney Milan’s ebook novella, Unlocked, in June, as a way to keep myself occupied on a plane ride. It was a great little historical romance, and I looked forward to reading more.

Unveiled is the first book in this series about the three Turner brothers: Ash, Smite, and Mark. (They were all named after Bible verses, and one of the cool things about each book is learning what their real names are. They’re each very appropriate for the characters.)

In this one, Ash, the eldest, has just revealed that the Duke of Parford was never actually married to his wife of 30 years, which makes all of his children — including his heir, Richard — bastards. Which means, according to the laws of inheritance, all of Parford’s land falls to the next closest male relative, which just happens to be Ash. (They’re fifth cousins twice removed or something like that.)

Margaret, Parford’s daughter, has decided to stay at the manor in disguise while her brothers go to London to plead their case, to spy and give them ammunition against Ash. What she doesn’t count on is finding out that her enemy actually makes a good duke, or that she’s falling for him.

This was a quick read, a good historical romance, and very enjoyable. I really liked Ash and Margaret, and the obstacles separating them were very real. Though I knew they would get a happily ever after, the question of “how” was always on my mind.

For most of the book, Ash doesn’t know who Margaret really is, and doesn’t realize that he’s actively trying to destroy her at the same time he is telling her he loves her. It’s a very interesting dichotomy, and it’s part of why I enjoyed the book so much.

In fact, I liked it so much that, in the two weeks since I read this initially, I’ve already bought and read the next two books in the series, Unclaimed and Unraveled (reviews forthcoming).

In short, if you like historical romances, pick this one up.

How about you? Read any good books lately? Or even better: read any bad ones?