Book Review – Ash by Malinda Lo

ashAt the beginning of the year, you may recall my determination to read a wider variety of authors and protagonists in an effort to diversify my bookshelves and broaden my horizons. To that end, I picked up Ash by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of the Cinderella story.

After the death of her father, Aisling (known as Ash) is put to work by her cruel stepmother in an effort to pay off her father’s debts. Trapped in an unfamiliar house in an unfamiliar city, Ash clings to the hope that one day she’ll be taken by the fairies on the slim chance she’ll get to see her mother again.

When she meets the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, Ash’s desires change, but it may already be too late. Because she’s made a bargain with a fairy prince, and he’s not so eager to let her go.

What I loved most about Ash was the writing. As I mentioned before, it had a very dreamlike, lyrical quality that fit perfectly with a fairy tale retelling. It drew me in immediately and kept a hold on me throughout the entire story.

Normally putting the history of a country in your second chapter is a guaranteed way to turn me off (see: Sword of Shannara), but Lo makes it work beautifully. I think it helps that she focuses on the changing role of magic in the world and how it ultimately ties into Ash’s life, rather than a complete history. It’s all important information and it all comes into play later in the story, with how different characters react to magic and fairy tales, and it adds an extra dimension to the world.

The entire story is third person limited, from Ash’s point of view, so we’re living inside Ash’s head and seeing everything through her eyes. We feel her pain and anger at everything that befalls her after the death of her father, her desperation to see her mother again.

It’s easy to see why she ignores the cautionary tales about the fairies: because she has nothing to tether her here. It’s not until she meets Kaisa that Ash starts to want something else.

I loved the slow build between Ash and Kaisa, and their relationship was very gentle in its progression. I wish they’d met sooner, or managed to have some more time together, because I loved their interactions and I desperately wanted more.

Rather than a fairy godmother, Ash has a fairy prince, Sidhean, who is not the bippity-boppity-bo type. He’ll help Ash, all right, but not for free, and her bargains with him are what drive a large part of the novel’s conflict.

Where Ash struggles is that there seems to be a lot of summary and narration and internal thoughts, and not as much dialogue, conflict, and actual character interaction. Because I liked the writing so much, this wasn’t something I noticed until I was well more than halfway through. However, I do wish it had been better balanced.

The ending was another weakness. It came across as abrupt, like the main problem was solved too easily, and I would have liked more of a denouement after the climax. It would have been nice to get a better sense of where the relationship was going and how they intended to make it work.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ash, and I look forward to reading some of Malinda Lo’s other work.

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: 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: 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.

Book Review – Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey

exclusively-yours-webOne of the kinds of romances I’ve come to enjoy more in recent years has been the reconciliation story: that is, two people who used to date/be married getting back together after a breakup. It’s a much different kind of story than the regular romances, which start with the meet-cute and proceed through the initial courtship.

Rather, this is a story about two people who already know each other, and knew each other extremely well at one point in time. And I love watching them come to know each other again as they learn what’s changed about their relationship and what remains the same, and seeing if they can learn to avoid the pitfalls that brought about the breakup in the first place.

In Exclusively Yours, Keri Daniels is a writer for a celebrity magazine, and her boss could give The Devil Wears Prada‘s Miranda Priestly a run for her money. And when said boss learns Keri once dated reclusive bestselling writer Joe Kowalski, she gives Keri an ultimatum: get an interview, or find a new job.

They may have broken up 20 years ago, but Joe Kowalski certainly hasn’t forgotten Keri. And when she comes to town looking for an interview, he decides to have a little fun with her. Joe’s about to go on the annual two-week family camping trip, where there’s no electricity and no cell service, and lots of mosquitos. He invites Keri along, and for every day she sticks around, Keri gets to ask Joe one question.

However, it’s not just the mosquitos and lack of amenities Keri has to contend with: there’s Joe’s entire family, who wants them to get back together, except for Joe’s sister (and Keri’s former best friend), who definitely doesn’t. And then there’s the fact that their former chemistry comes roaring back with a vengeance. Can Keri and Joe survive the family vacation?

I don’t read nearly as many contemporary romances as I do historicals, but if this is any indication, I need to read more. Exclusively Yours is HILARIOUS.

I loved Joe’s unique idea for giving Keri the interview, and Keri’s tenacity in the face of activities she hadn’t done in twenty years or more. I loved the sections from Terry’s point of view, seeing why she was so angry with Keri and seeing her own romance as a subplot. I really loved watching both broken relationship slowly rebuild and rekindle.

Keri and Joe have some great banter, and I loved watching them reminisce about the good old days as they’re getting to know each other again. They’ve both changed a lot over the past twenty years, and Joe has become so reclusive to outsiders that Keri really has no idea what he’s gone through.

Plus, the entire Kowalski clan is fantastic. With parents and siblings and children all running around, the opportunity for shenanigans is endless, and all of them enjoy giving Keri and Joe all kinds of trouble regarding their relationship.

You can see why Keri falls in love with the family almost as much as she falls in love with Joe, which is a wonderful thing to see in a romance novel.

My sole problem with this book came at the end. I (for the most part) bought the happily ever after, but it just felt a little too pat. I didn’t fully understand why Keri made the decision she did, except perhaps because she was supposed to. It felt like certain things that had been important to her throughout most of the novel weren’t resolved satisfactorily.

Which is a shame, because up until then, I loved the book. It’s probably one of my favorites I’ve read so far this year, and the hiccup at the end is a minor thing in the larger scheme of the novel. It just made things feel a little off for me.

If you like funny, contemporary romances, you really should read Exclusively Yours as soon as you get a chance.

Book Review – A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold

a-civil-campaignI wanted to read A Civil Campaign as soon as I read this introduction to a review of the omnibus Cordelia’s Honor:

Lois McMaster Bujold wrote what is quite possibly the most famous, beloved, and awesome science fiction romance ever, A Civil Campaign. A Civil Campaign is a Regency Romance set in space, with manners, fantastic clothes, and awkward dinner parties mixed with cloning, recovery from physical and mental trauma, inter-galactic politics, humor, sadness, glowing HEAs, and much more.

Doesn’t that sound fantastic? Really, why wouldn’t you want to read it?

I am here to report that A Civil Campaign lives up to the hype. I absolutely adored it.

This picks up a few months after the events of Komarr, with Miles back on Barrayar and bound and determined to start courting Ekaterin properly. However, he knows that she’s not all that keen on getting married again, so it’s a SECRET courtship. A secret courtship that he tells absolutely everybody about except for her.

(Don’t worry. He gets smacked for this. A few times.)

Then there’s his brother, Mark. Mark returns home from university with a brilliant scientist (that he may have helped escape from prison), a girlfriend, a bunch of bugs, and a business idea that involves all three.

And during all of this, Miles’s foster brother, Gregor (who also happens to be the Emperor of Barrayar), is getting married, which means that wedding preparations are taking up a great deal of everyone’s time.

It. Is. AWESOME.

I loved the way the various plot threads intersect and the culture clash between the staunchly traditional and conservative Barrayar society and the more progressive Beta Colony. I loved the more serious political plots moving under the romances.

I loved getting to meet Miles’s family: Mark, Ivan, Gregor, and his parents, Cordelia and Aral. Even though I hadn’t read the previous books that built the relationships between these characters, I still got the sense of camaraderie between them all. And I loved seeing how Ekaterin and her son, Nicky, slowly became integrated into the Vorkosigan family.

I loved seeing Miles in love and generally stumbling over himself and becoming his own worst enemy as he tries to do what he assumes is the right thing. (Because it’s what he wants, of course it’s the right thing.) And when he screws it up and it’s identified how badly he screws it up, Miles does apologetic like nobody’s business.

Ekaterin really grows in this book as well. After all the events of Komarr, it’s wonderful to see her come into her own, to stand up against people who want to beat her back into the mold she just escaped. And over the course of this novel, she becomes more than a match for Miles.

A Civil Campaign is much longer than most of the romances I’ve read (400 pages in a hardback), but it never feels that long. With everything that’s going on—the wedding plans, romantic plots, political plots, and business plots—it needs the space. The pacing’s brisk, and I was never bored.

There are so many things I want to talk about in this, but half the fun of the book was the discovery, seeing how all the best-laid plans you learn about in the first few chapters of the book just go straight to hell by the middle of it.

If the idea of a Regency-style romance set on another planet intrigues you, and if the elements from the quote at the beginning of this post pique your interest, then you must add A Civil Campaign to your TBR list. It was such a joy to read. I really couldn’t put it down.

I’d recommend reading Komarr first to get to know Miles and Ekaterin before you jump into this one, but as both are really, really good, you won’t be sorry.