June 29, 2012

Retro Friday Review: The Canterbury Papers by Judith Koll Healey

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
Okay, all you lovers of Grave Mercy. Listen up. I think this book is for you. I first read The Canterbury Papers about six years ago, though it was originally published back in 2003. This is Judith Koll Healey's first novel, though she was a previously published poet and author of short fiction. It was the cover that caught my eye in the bookstore. When I picked it up and read that it took place during the 12th century and involved the crafty Eleanor of Aquintaine and the Knights Templar, I knew I would be reading it. But when it had to go and have one of those sink-your-fingers-in matte covers, I just went ahead and purchased it on the spot. Behold my susceptibility to pretty, tactile covers, for it is great. I love anything to do with the Plantagenets, and this one piqued my curiosity double because it is set after much of the traditional drama. It helps that the protagonist is a real-life "forgotten princess" and that Ms. Healey gets to play around with the historical possibilities inherent in her choice of character. I have always loved historical fiction, and I find myself returning to it again and again when I'm in need of some good mental engagement and a visit with figures I've studied and been fascinated by for years. 

Princess Alais Capet of France thought the nightmare was over. When her long-standing betrothal to Richard the Lionheart was abruptly severed by his ever-scheming mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alais was devastated and bewildered. Now a middle-aged spinster, she has grown used to living alone at her brother's court, to the idea that she will never marry. Then an unexpected missive arrives from Eleanor. It includes an imperious demand from the imprisoned queen. Alais is to retrieve Eleanor's letters to Thomas Becket from their hiding place in the Canterbury Cathedral. She is to deliver them to Eleanor before they are discovered and threaten the throne of England itself. In exchange, Eleanor promises to divulge certain information about a family member Alais thought long gone. Unable to ignore the potential goldmine, Alais embarks on the dangerous quest and stumbles across a string of murders, the devious King John, as well as the famed Knights Templar on a mission of their own. Caught up once again in the endless machinations of the Plantagenet family, Alais risks abduction and death to find what she once lost and discover if her future will be one worth living after all.

It's wonderful to read about such a mature character. As a girl, Alais became a pawn in a much larger game of thrones. In the intervening years, she retreated from the pain of the past into a numbing and solitary life. When the larger-than-life Plantagenets attempt to use her as a pawn in their game once more, they are all somewhat surprised to find she has grown up in the intervening years, and she will not be the docile girl they knew. I became thoroughly enamored with Alais very shortly into this absorbing novel. The hand she was initially dealt played out very poorly. She's reached a stage in her life where she believes this is as good as it gets. But her response to one last adventure is such a rewarding one. I was equally caught up in the overarching mystery itself and in Alais' personal path toward fulfillment and revival. Healey's treatment of the period and her filling in of the gaps where Alais Capet is concerned is excellent. The writing is even and smooth, the characterization subtle and full of depth. To the outward eye, Alais is taciturn and reserved. But to the privileged reader, she is a keen and wry observer of the misalliances and foibles of each of the royals swirling around her. She is so easy to sympathize with, and it is her compelling blend of vulnerability and steel that kept me at her side for the duration. It is also what earns her the loyalty of a certain character who proves integral to the conclusion of the mystery and Alais' personal journey. There is a lovely, quiet romance here between mature adults. And I sat back and just let myself enjoy the way Healey leisurely wove it into the story. All in all, an intelligent and engrossing read about one of my favorite historical periods and one I have enjoyed returning to for its richness and its winsome protagonist.

Retro Friday Roundup

A Girl Walks into a Bookstore . . .  review
Historical Tapestry review
Historically Obsessed review
S. Krishna's Books review

June 27, 2012

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire

I was warned about reading this book. And I did go back and forth for awhile before deciding it wasn't for me. Or I wasn't for it. That I wasn't that intrigued. Or that I didn't want to hate myself in the morning. Take your pick. You're familiar with the hype/trainwreck induced cycle of warring self-doubt and insatiable curiosity, yes? Then you understand. And I honestly didn't give it a second thought after making that decision. Then I read and loved Easy. And I immediately started running across comparisons, mentions of similarities. Plus, several of these new-ish, self-published new adult authors have been all over the place lately, and, well, all that curiosity washed over me full force once more. So I decided I wanted to decide for myself. I think I went in expecting one big hot mess from start to finish, albeit a hot mess I couldn't look away from and would be compelled to see through to its inevitable overwrought ending. You see? I had been warned. But Beautiful Disaster still managed to surprise me. In both good and bad ways.

Abby is cardigans and pearls. She's straitlaced and together and interested in finding a dependable, going places boyfriend. Except she's totally not. Abby is dedicated to getting good grades and keeping all her ducks in a row. She's not at all interested in attending one her university's underground fight clubs just to see what it's like. Except she totally is. And that's how she meets the infamous Travis Maddox. His name alone inspires men to sit up straighter and glance over their shoulders. His rakish reputation precedes him, and it seems women fall at his feet as a matter of course. But when these two seeming opposites meet at one of Travis' fights, sparks fly as it were. And a friendship is born in lieu of a romance, as Abby is determined not to become another one of the hapless females Travis leaves in his wake, and for his part, Travis seems unable to look away from a girl who seems to like him well enough but clearly doesn't want him. While their respective friends are somewhat skeptical, somewhat intrigued by their burgeoning friendship, it's what they're hiding from each other--the combustibility of it all--that might cause this fragile new thing to go up in flames before they can figure out just what it is they're dealing with.

I loved the first half. Loved it, I say. Right from this first encounter:
When I finally reached the front, Marek grabbed Travis with his thick arms and attempted to throw him to the ground. When Marek leaned down with the motion, Travis rammed his knee into Marek's face. Before Marek could shake off the blow, Travis lit into him; his fists making contact with Marek's bloodied face over and over.

Five fingers sank into my arm and I jerked back.

"What the hell are you doing, Abby?" Shepley said.

"I can't see from back there!" I called to him.

I turned just in time to see Marek land a solid punch. Travis turned, and for a moment I thought he had dodged another blow, but he made a complete circle, crashing his elbow straight into the center of Marek's nose. Blood sprayed my face, and splattered down the front of my cardigan. Marek fell to the concrete floor with a thud, and for a brief moment the room was completely silent.

Adam threw a scarlet square of fabric on Marek's limp body, and the mob detonated. Cash changed hands once again, and the expressions divided into the smug and the frustrated.

I was pushed around with the movement of those coming and going. America called my name from somewhere in the back, but I was mesmerized by the trail of red from my chest to my waist.

A pair of heavy black boots stepped in front of me, diverting my attention to the floor. My eyes traveled upward; jeans spattered with blood, a set of finely-chiseled abs, a bare, tattooed chest drenched in sweat, and finally a pair of warm, brown eyes. I was shoved from behind, and Travis caught me by the arm before I fell forward.

"Hey! Back up off her!" Travis frowned, shoving anyone who came near me. His stern expression melted into a smile at the sight of my shirt, and then he dabbed my face with a towel. "Sorry about that, Pigeon."

Adam patted the back of Travis' head. "C'mon, Mad Dog! You have some dough waitin' on ya!"

His eyes didn't stray from mine. "It's a damn shame about the sweater. It looks good on you." In the next moment he was engulfed by fans, disappearing the way he came.
They were just too much fun. In fact, my favorite thing about Abby and Travis was their friendship. The motorcycle rides, the dancing, the doing homework together, the laughing. I mean, it was always headed for a conflagration relationship-wise, but the friendship was honestly just so much fun while it lasted. So for the first half of the book, this book and I were BFFs. The problem came at right about the halfway mark, at which point things got monumentally sketchy. The romantic tension was pretty high throughout. The good kind of high. So I was strangely underwhelmed (when the romance actually started going places) at how uninvolved Abby seemed to be when it came right down to it. The character depiction led me to believe Travis was utterly invested, but Abby never seemed to be on the same page. She said she was. But I never felt it. Which resulted in the whole thing feeling very one-sided just at the moment when it should be expanding and growing. It through me right out of the narrative, this empty gap in the arc of their relationship. I bought that he loved her, in as unhealthy a fashion as he did. But Abby's lack of response confused and disappointed me. And it really did feel like a flaw in characterization. Then right on the heels of this blip, the whole book goes right out to lunch. And it never recovers. The plot, the characters, the writing spin away into the void. All that fun, careful development (much more restrained than I was expecting) of the beginning disappeared in what felt like the space of a page.

So I didn't hate myself in the morning. On the contrary, I actually mourned the characters in the morning. How's that for unexpected? The Travis and Abby of the first half were hard to let go. They were so full of life and danger and laughter and jagged edges that I loved them. I went through my day wanting to be around them. Unfortunately, they up and left on me. And the characters who took their place left me utterly cold. The what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, frothing at the mouth frantic, we suddenly haven't learned a thing from the past 200 pages shenanigans that littered the second half had me dropping my nook in my lap in bewildered exhaustion. To be led to care so much for half the book and then to wind up caring so little it didn't even register on the scale was quite the feat and an ignominious one at that. I don't regret my time with them. I just regret their premature loss. It was always a bit of  freak show, but it could have pulled it out in the end instead of crashing and burning so spectacularly. Turns out violence and angst and absolute dysfunction for violence and angst and absolute dysfunction's sake just doesn't do it for me. And the thing is, the characters of the first half deserved better. I suppose I can't complain too much. After all, I was warned. So long Travis & Abby. You rocked. And then you really, really didn't.

Buy: Amazon | B&N

Adventures in Biblioland review
Dear Author review
Janicu's Book Blog review

June 22, 2012

Wanted Pretties

Wow. These books . . . they need to be on my shelf. Like I am starting to glance at my calendar and mumble about how many months left in the year. Not only have they all three been on my must-have list for some time now, but they got themselves such fantastically pretty covers to boot. Way to go, little books! Way to stand up for yourselves and demand the eye-catching treatment. Now why do you have to go and be out next year?!

Catherine by April Lindner
This is the second novel from Ms. Lindner. After falling utterly in love with Jane, her contemporary retelling of Jane Eyre, I was signed on for life. But knowing that her sophomore novel is a contemporary retelling of Wuthering Heights sort of nudges me over into supreme fangirl territory. How will she update that bit of insanity? I can't wait to find out. Love the idea, love the cover, love everything.
Due out January 2nd

Unravel Me by Tahereh Mafi
I'm incredibly pleased with the cover revamping that went on with the paperback of Shatter Me, and very happy the cover of the sequel will match it. I know people really went one way or the other with Ms. Mafi's first book, but I am firmly in the excited for the next one camp. It will have Warner in it, yes? Then everything's gonna be CRAZYTOWN. I approve of this entirely.
Due out February 5th

Let the Sky Fall by Shannon Messenger
This one is a new-to-me author, though I'm familiar with her online presence. I would have been happy without the couple on this cover, as I'm digging the rusty, dusty clouds and the clean, clear font. But I'm not opposed to the romantic touch the floating pair add and hope it bodes well for what's inside, which by all accounts includes sylph guardians, musical weapons, and general storminess.
Due out March 5th

June 19, 2012

Easy by Tammara Webber

I ran across a passing mention of Easy on Goodreads the day before yesterday. And, like any good reader on the hunt for the next new thing, I followed my sniffer to a reliable source or two. In this case, my sources were Jane from Dear Author (who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time at BEA this year) and Sarah of Clear Eyes, Full Shelves. That's right. Those kinds of reliable sources. And so something like five seconds passed between me reading their comments and me clicking the purchase button on my Nook. Somehow I had never heard of Tammara Webber before, but I was thrilled to find out this, her latest, was a new adult novel. I seem to always be in the mood for them these days, and new ones by new-to-me authors are positively sparkly with potential. Don't you just love reading books that make you want to sit up and blog? That make you want to wave your reader flag high and recruit others to read it so that you can dish about it together at some future date? Easy was one of those books for me. I finished it last night and haven't been able to think of much else since.

Jacqueline is kicking herself for making the exact mistake her mother told her she would. She up and followed her boyfriend to state college rather than attending a prestigious music conservatory to pursue her career as a concert bassist. It's just that she and Kennedy had been together for over three years. Who would have thought they'd get a mere handful of weeks into their freshman year before he dropped her like a hot potato in the name of sowing his wild oats? Not Jacqueline, that's who. But it happens. And now she's forced to keep going through the motions, while she figures out what in the world she's supposed to do at this school she doesn't belong in, in a life she doesn't recognize. It starts with changing her name back to what it was before Kennedy got his smarmy hands on it. It continues with a subtle shift in seats in the econ class she shares with her ex, so she won't have to look him in the face and see how quickly he moved on. It ramps up with a series of emails exchanged with her geeky econ tutor and a series of chance meetings with a mysterious boy she encountered one black night under the blackest of circumstances. And it catches fire with enrolling in a self-defense class with her roommate to take back what others would claim as theirs. Each individual shift doesn't amount to much, but combined this series of decisions changes her life. 

Easy starts out simply, luring you into the false notion that it's a simple book about predictable people. If you're reading the first few pages and wondering, know that it all unfolds in good time. And as it unfolds, it refuses to pull its punches. I found the way it dealt with issues of empowerment and discernment wholly engrossing. Ms. Webber states in her acknowledgments:
I couldn't have written Easy without the help of my husband, Paul. The creation of good fiction begins with raw, honest emotions--whether the author is penning a story about a mouse who wants dessert, or a sprawling epic of Tsarist Russia. The subjects touched on in Easy come with an even deeper obligation to remain true to those emotions. Paul encouraged me constantly to fearlessly portray my love of hidden connections, and my belief that our close relationships with family, friends and lovers--any and all of these, if we're lucky--are capable of healing the traumas all of us experience in our lives.
It took no great effort to empathize with Jacqueline's trauma and with her growing sense that everything bad (and it gets pretty bad) happening in her life now dates back to that one bad decision. The litany of regrets drummed through my head along with hers: if only her vision had been clearer, if only she hadn't walked alone to her car that night, if only . . . if only. But the beauty of this book is that it's tightly centered on Jacqueline's forward trajectory, on not only her recovery and resiliency, but on the way she is able to put her knowledge and experience to good use and make a difference in the lives of others. She is both the beneficiary and the giver of unexpected kindnesses in her personal and academic lives. Which leads me to Landon and Lucas. These two boys she cautiously becomes friends with are just high, high points in this incredibly enjoyable novel. They are kind. They lift as opposed to stifle. They are forces for good in one girl's life. And it should probably be mentioned here that one of the two's interactions with Jacqueline will set your heart to racing. And I mean racingTammara Webber really strikes a lovely balance between the development of the romance and Jacqueline's personal path toward independence. I was incredibly satisfied with the ending, and I will definitely be back for more. Because this book? It's just so easy to love.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of Jessica Park's Flat-out Love, Jennifer Echols' Going Too Far, all things new adult, and just substantial, swoony contemporaries in general.

Buy: Amazon | B&N

Clear Eyes, Full Shelves review
Dear Author review
The Life of Fiction review
Obsession with Books review
The Readers Den review
Reading in the Corner review
Steph Likes Books review

June 1, 2012

Retro Friday Review: Alanna the First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
Okay, deep breaths all around. Are you ready for another one of those retro reviews in which I regale you with nostalgic views of my childhood reading and rhapsodize on another heroine who contributed to making me who I am today? If you're not (and I totally would not blame you in the slightest--I know how I can go on about these things), you should probably just swish on by, cause Alanna is sort of the mother of them all when it comes to characters who own a little piece of my soul. She's right smack dab there in the company of Harry, Aerin, Meg, and Dicey. As I think about those girls and the effect they initially had (and continue to have) on me, I'm back in that familiar circle of awe. What would I do without them? Alanna got me through being 13, and years later I think about her on a regular basis. I realize so much of your connection to characters and their stories has to do with the age at which you as reader make their acquaintance. And, truthfully, I'm not at all offended  if you come to the Song of the Lioness quartet later in life and don't find yourself as fully bowled over as I was (though I will likely nudge you in the direction of finishing the series just to see because they're short, what can it hurt, plus the characters grow up, the books get better and better, and really no one should miss that ending . . . ). But all fangirling aside, I will say that it is impossible to overstate how hard I fell for this series and that imagining my life without them is not only distasteful but unfathomable.

Faced with being unwillingly separated and sent away to the palace and the convent respectively, twins Thom and Alanna of Trebond take matters into their own hands. Born out of Alanna's determination, the twins decide to switch places. Thom will go to the convent to train as a sorcerer. Alanna will masquerade as Thom's twin "Alan" and train to be a knight. When she's won her shield and proved her worth to king and court, she will reveal her true self and make her way as a knight-errant in search of adventure. It all seems so easy initially. But, of course, the unusual course she chooses reaches into every aspect of Alanna's life and alters it. Because, her obvious deception aside, she has also been gifted with certain abilities that she fears, abilities that could ruin her chances at the life she wants if they come to light at an inopportune moment. It is therefore with a certain reluctance that Alanna makes friends among her fellow pages at the palace and the denizens of the capital city of Corus. Going it alone feels like the safest course. But Alanna soon learns that she will need what friendships she can cobble together if she is to embrace all of who she is and survive the swirling danger lurking in the bowels of the castle.
"That is my decision. We need not discuss it," said the man at the desk. He was already looking at a book. His two children left the room, closing the door behind them.

"He doesn't want us around," the boy muttered. "He doesn't care what we want."

"We know that," was the girl's answer. "He doesn't care about anything, except his books and scrolls."

The boy hit the wall. "I don't want to be a knight! I want to be a great sorcerer! I want to slay demons and walk with the gods--"

"D'you think I want to be a lady?" his sister asked. "'Walk slowly, Alanna,'" she said primly. "'Sit still, Alanna. Shoulders back, Alanna.' As if that's all I can do with myself!" She paced the floor. "There has to be another way."
That first page still makes my stomach all jumpy. And basically those of you who love girls in disguise tales can sign up here. Alanna was one of my very first experiences with such a story line, and the danger and audacity and excitement got to me something fierce. She captured my loyalty and affection in one fell swoop.  Because she knew what she wanted, and she was going to get it if it killed her. But along with that dedication and, yes, ruthlessness, came incredible loyalty, the voracious desire to learn, and a great capacity for love and friendship. Far from perfect, however, Alanna screws up. Royally. She says the wrong thing, she stumbles over her doubts and fears, and she occasionally doesn't see what's right before her eyes. But she's so vibrant and hell bent on being the first female knight in more than a century, and she always, always owns up to her mistakes and rectifies them. Happily, she is surrounded by a killer cast of mischievous pages, loyal retainers, wise women, gallant knights, dubious dukes, one noble prince, one arch nemesis, and one steal-your-heart-and-never-return it thief. And it's these secondary characters who provide such wonderful fodder and foils for our would-be knight. Because of them, the humor and the grand coexist in top-notch harmony. Returning to Tortall is like returning home. And Alanna? She still feels so real to me, it's as though I could reach out and grab her arm. When she grimly deals with her changing body, I feel her frustration. When she awakes from countless nightmares of the obstacles and responsibilities awaiting her, I gulp along with her and wipe the sweat off my brow. And nothing, but nothing, will keep me from reading her story to my daughter when she's old enough. Because Alanna is one of those girls she will need to know. Who will remind her that it's okay to be different, it's okay to rail and rage at life, that she can hold in her hands the dreams closest to her heart, that she is strong, too.

Reading Order
Alanna: the First Adventure
In the Hand of the Goddess
The Woman Who Rides Like a Man
Lioness Rampant

Retro Friday Roundup
April @ Good Books and Good Wine reviews Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews
Liviana @ In Bed with Books reviews Sabriel by Garth Nix
Kay @ The Infinite Shelf reviews Being Nikki and Runaway by Meg Cabot
Melissa @ One Librarian's Book Reviews reviews Curse of the Blue Tattoo by LA Meyer
Emilia @ That Midwestern Library Type reviews Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Book Harbinger review
Good Books and Good Wine review
See Michelle Read review
Unabridged Andra review
What I Read and What I Thought review