Snow Like Ashes by Sara Raasch

Admittedly, I was disappointed by Snow Like Ashes and had to push myself to finish. Readers who aren’t as concerned with logic or better writing will be satisfied with this teen fantasy romance.  But comparing it to Game of Thrones or describing it as a high fantasy is stretching it a bit; what we have is a love triangle romance with a (honestly kind of silly) world thrown around it.

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Story: Meira and 7 others are the only group to escape the sacking of the Winter kingdom years previous. In order for Meira’s secret love, Prince Mather, to take back his crown, he needs to find two halves of a locket that are the key to his kingdom’s magic. While seeking the magic locket, Meira is thrown into the company of young Prince Theron, heir to a different kingdom. She is torn between which of the two handsome princes she really loves.

Writing: From the beginning, I had a hard time with the writing. There are a LOT of cliches in there (orphaned girl who may be special, romancy anguish when people should really be concentrating on surviving, forced marriage to a dreamy prince, etc.). Couple that with very modern sounding dialogue and already there is not a lot to really grab onto and keep interest. But when very little happened at the 60% mark except Meira alternately yelling at her princes or skipping heartbeats at their naked chests – I was getting bored.

Worldbuilding: we’re given a lot of tell but with no show. In a supposedly magical world – it would have been nice to actually see magic. We’re told of this intricate magic system but don’t really get to see it until very late in the book. But the big problem for me had to do with glaring logic holes. E.g., the Kingdom of Winter has inhabitants who all have blonde hair/blue eyes. The other ‘seasonal’ kingdoms also have distinct hair/eye/skin colored people.  But all the kingdoms are next to each other and interact and intermarry. So I’m not sure how it would be possible for them to have any history (trading/intermarrying/intermingling) and yet still all have distinct features in thier particular kingdoms.  The logic of the worldbuilding only makes sense as a construct of an author’s mind and not as a society that could have actually organically grown to this result.  It was hard to take the world seriously.

Romance: it’s the romance that will keep teens reading, even if it is yet another 3-way. I found both princes rather flat and bland – lacking nuance and depth of character. They were handsome accessories for Meira but not really an intricate part of the story. Honestly, I’ve played Japanese dating sims with boys who had more personality than the two princes in this story. And Meira is like a puppy, all overreaction and overemotional. I would have thought “Sir” might have taught her restraint or patience (or wisdom, please) in all those years but apparently not.

I think that those who have actually read quite a bit of high fantasy (including George R.R. Martin) will find Snow Like Ashes lacking in many aspects. But those who want a simplistic angsty teen romance love triangle will enjoy this book.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, Fantasy, romance | 1 Comment

Fish by Bianca Bagnarelli

A part of Nobrow’s 17×23 series (a smaller, shorter format designed to introduce new authors), Fish is the type of story that is quite uniquely suited as a discussion tool between parent and child about grief and loss. Sparsely told, read in minutes, but to really understand the depth takes a lot of exploration over time. It’s an emotive rather than reactive meditation that is over very quickly at 24 pages.

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Story: Milo lost his parents to the river in a tragic accident.  He’s unable to come to terms with the fragility of life, especially since death is all around him: a school of dead fish in the river, dead flowers on the dinner table, beheading shrimp in order to eat them. They all add up to Milo’s questioning of his world and how it was so suddenly disrupted.

Fish is a very raw story that isn’t about growth or resolution. It’s about the moment, the searching for meaning and understanding in a random event. There are subtle clues in the art throughout the story highlighting Milo’s confusion: he passes a decorative skull on a wall, dead leaves on the ground by a nicked plant bed, a sawed off tree trunk in the background…. You won’t notice them at first but each reread underscores the precision and need for each panel.

The art is appropriately clean and infused with an appropriately sunset-themed palette. The skill is apparent – there is a quiet serenity in the art that belies the emotional turmoil within. Milo’s loneliness is underscored by a sparsely populated French Riviera and inability to connect with his friends/relatives.

Due to the brevity and subject matter, this is the type of graphic novel you read if you want to feel something afterwards – to create an inner dialogue. But if you are looking for an adventure or require resolution in your stories, you’ll likely be disappointed by Fish. It’s very much a story of one day in the now.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith

Radiant tops my list of best books of 2014; neither the cover nor the blurb accurately foretold just how good a story was contained within. Very intricate and unique world building combined with highly nuanced characters to create a story full of pathos. I couldn’t put it down once I had started reading.

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Story: Xhea lives on the ground in a post apocalyptic Canadian City with magic-powered floating cities. Humans have found magic and it fundamentally changed the world, creating inequalities based upon the strength of a person’s innate magic. It is currency and coin, and the heart of Xhea’s poverty. For she doesn’t have magic, only a very rare ability to see/hear ghosts. On the ground are the poor and in the outskirts, the Walkers – zombie like humans who are a horror of their own.  When Xhea is paid to temporarily separate a ghost from a man, she will become unwittingly embroiled in world politics. For the ghost, Shai, is special. And the two girls will need each of their unique skills if they are to survive what is about to come.

Both main characters, Xhea and Shai, are very fully formed. Each is strong in a unique way that will both help and hinder their journey together. But it is their interactions and halting friendship that give this story heart. Rather than being enemies or screeching females, each recognizes the gravitas of their situation and make use of their talents.  For once, we have characters who understand just how perilous their lives have becomes and act accordingly.

The side characters are just as human (or inhuman, as in the case of the ghosts). There are no mustache twirling villains or too-good-to-be-true friends who will end up as tombstones. Rather, loner Xhea has those she can sort of depend upon but whom will end up disappointing when she runs into trouble with the Towers.

The human aspect of the story is very well complemented by a fascinating and intricately conceived world.  From the politics of the elite in the Towers to the scrabble on the ground – it all makes sense and it is all incredibly unique. A post apocalypse world with magic running throughout – powering elevators or cars and defining the worth of people. It’s a capitalist society run on magic rather than gold or currency.

There’s a lot to like here. Those who are looking to avoid yet another sloppily written, illogical YA dystopian with copious amounts of meaningless action culminating in a soppy insta-luv romance will find a lot to love with Radiant.  It’s the antidote to the rash of very poorly written books springing up since Divergent and Hunger Games became popular.

I eagerly look forward to the next book in the series and I give my highest recommendations for Radiant.  Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, dystopian, Fantasy, sci fi | 1 Comment

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place by Julie Berry

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is an engaging boarding school murder mystery in which a gaggle of very silly Victorian girls find themselves in an unfortunate situation. It’s somewhat incorrectly presented as a biting children’s satire when in reality what we have is a straightforward tale of luck and pluck. There’s little humor, dark or otherwise, other than droll dialogue. But that’s not a bad thing – this is a fun book but one that will likely work better with a more mature reader who can appreciate its low key ambiance and sublime observations on human nature.

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Story: A boardinghouse in England is home to several girls and their irascible headmistress. When both the headmistress and her brother die suddenly at the dinner table, the girls are at a loss. If the bodies are brought to the authorities, they will lose their friendships and be shipped back to their parents/guardians. But hiding two bodies, fending off suitors, as well as discovering just who did the deed, will take all their innate resources.

As suitable for a Victorian milieu, we’re not talking overly smart girls here – they are rather silly, inane, and pretty much doing the best they can with what Victorian life has allowed them. Each has a unique character which is emphasized in a very Victorian way by an adjective in front of their name (e.g. Pocky Louise).  Most of those nicknames are negative in some way or other and that does tell a lot about lief at the turn of the century for girls in England.

The story flows smoothly and it is amusing to watch the girls get out of predicament after predicament as they try to hide the bodies. Nothing they do is overly clever; rather, they each have a bit of talent (acting, sleuthing) and that talent is just enough to get them by. As such, this isn’t a funny book or one that is ‘full of outrageous twists.’ The plot is fairly straightforward and it is obvious from the beginning that the girls will not be able to conceal the murders for too long.  Some amusement arrives from their rather simple-headed responses or personalities but this is a very droll British low key humor type of story. I was greatly reminded of the movie Arsenic and Old Lace while reading.

I definitely enjoyed The Scandalous Sisterhood. Those looking for tough, smart, intelligent women probably won’t enjoy the silly girls. But it is a good story for the era it is placed and definitely well written. The murder mystery has enough legs to carry through to the end without disappointment at the reveal.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, Historical | 1 Comment

Chicken: A Fresh Take on Classic Recipes by Marcus Bean

Chicken: A Fresh Take on Classic Recipes is a solid cookbook – a large selection of recipes from around the world giving new perspective on a meat staple. For me, however, I found the book frustrating to follow and a bit too advanced (I had neither the equipment nor the knowledge to follow many recipes).  The formatting of the recipes and lack of images keep this at a four star rating but I appreciate that for more experienced cooks, this is definitely a 5 star book.

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The book gives a great introduction on the history of chicken but also how to buy, prepare, and cook it. It’s basic info but a good reference for those who might have holes in their cooking education dealing with chicken. It’s the one part of the book I found the most useful. The recipes are meant to give us something new – adding in the latest popular foods e.g., kale and quinoa and showcasing how different cultures use chicken. The book is arranged in 3 main sections: Weekday meals (light and main meals), Weekend meals (light and main meals) and then Dinners and Celebrations (appetizers and main meals). At the end are basic recipes (e.g., chicken stock) and accompaniments.

The layout of the cookbook was a bit problematic for me. Recipe instructions are given in paragraph form. That makes it very difficult to continually follow and then reference back – it’s easy to get lost when it is all words stuck in 8-9 paragraphs. I always prefer steps to be numbered in block form for easier reference when actually cooking. As well, all ingredients are listed on the right of the page – when you have 25 ingredients, it gets a bit hard to reference. Those could also have been broken down into types (e.g., spices together, vegetables together, herbs together, etc.).  The entire page is monochromatic – color keying or even using different fonts/type/italics would have helped make the recipes easier to look at and follow. Especially since there are so few pictures so I had no idea what I was preparing was supposed to look like or how it was to be presented.

The recipes are quite interesting – a lot far more interesting than my family is probably going to invest in eating (or that I want to buy all the ingredients for/prepare). For that reason, this felt very much like an old fashioned ‘cook’s’ cookbook – written by and intended for those who love cooking. Since I don’t fall in that category and just wanted interesting inspirations for family dinners, I probably fell very much out of the intended audience for the book.

Those that love cooking will fall in love with the diversity and depth of the recipes listed. There is a world class list of recipes here – from chicken waterzooi to smoked chicken, mango, and asparagus verrine. So although this isn’t a cookbook I can use much, I can readily attest that this is a very good recipe and cookbook for the cooking aficionado.  This will challenge what you have done with chicken in the past and give you fresh new ideas for the modern chicken meal.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, cookbook, non fiction | Leave a comment

Steampunk Soldiers by Philip Smith, Joe McCullough

This is a wonderful idea and so well executed: an alternate history modern world finding a ‘lost’ set of illustrations from the ‘era of steampunk,’ showing military uniforms of various countries. All have historical grounding but then spiced with a bit of different types of steampunk suitable to the cultures. This book was great fun to read and I appreciated that there was a story in addition to all the steampunk military goodness. This ticked off all the boxes for steampunk and historical/military aficionados.

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Story: It’s been nearly 100 years since the meteor shower of 1862 gave the world hephaestium. The element burned longer, hotter, and brighter and gave rise to new inventions/brought the world firmly into the steampunk age. Some countries prospered from the meteors’ gifts, others fell into ruin. But the greatest application was the military. And although we live in the age of computers, supersonic train travel, and cybernetic prosthetics now, we remember the steampunk age fondly. Fortunately for us, the lost illustrations of Miles Vandercroft, art student, are found by a descendant. Vandercroft illustrated the soldiers he encountered while on a grand tour – but those illustrations were forgotten after his untimely death in 1909. Now they are now printed in their full glory for us to marvel at our military steampunk past!

Since this is a ‘faux’ portfolio publishing, the lion share of the book is the full page ‘plates’ of illustrations of various soldiers. Each could be right out of a military uniform book – with the exception that they have been cleverly but sparingly outfitted in very steampunk ways. Each plate features a full page write up of the type of soldier as well as his history (each history has been uniquely changed in this alternate universe). Reading the histories is as entertaining as drooling over the beautiful color illustrations.

The ‘plates’ are ordered by countries, with some countries having very interesting ‘histories’ (e.g., the Confederate Army brokered a stalemate peace with the Union upon the election of McClellan as President of the US in 1869). The focus is definitely England and Europe but Asia and other countries are represented as well.

The authors really had fun with the histories. E.g., Germany and Japan went metallic men way but Russia used the hephaestium biologically to make their soldiers super powered (at the expense of longevity, of course).  There were fun ‘lessons learned’ in the 100 years since the meteors hit and the world dealt with the hephaestium.  It’s worth going back to a history book to see the tweaks the authors made in history to create their alternate universe.

The true star here are the layout and illustration work. This is very beautifully presented. Authenticity to actual military uniform books is adhered to religiously (almost amusingly) and yet there are treats throughout. This isn’t a romantic view of steampunk with ladies in bustle dresses – it’s all soldiers with pseudo futuristic  weapons, armor, accessories, or other equipment.  E.g., the Finnish soldier uniform is the exact white worn in the Winter War but with a hephaestium powered ski machine attached.  Very fun!

If I had a quibble, it’s that the authors killed off Miles in 1909 – but so many of the fashions were WW1 era. E.g., there are nurses and female soldiers in 1918 type fashions rather than the modified semi bustles of the turn of the century or longer dresses of the 1900s. It’s a minor quibble I know but for a book adhering to history so beautifully, it mattered to me.

In all, this is a great book for historical or steampunk fans. It’s an alternate universe presented in a stunning graphical format that really works.  Huge kudos to the authors and illustrators! This is definitely one for the coffee table that bears many repeated viewings/readings.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, Historical, Steampunk, urban fantasy | Leave a comment

Icebound by Corinna Rogers

I wish I could get into Icebound – it sounded intriguing and I’m always happy to get my hands on an urban fantasy or an M/M book. But this novella missed on nearly all points for me: wooden characters, wince worthy dialogue, swiss cheese worldbuilding, and a romance that left me completely unmoved.

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Story: in a world where the fae have suddenly returned, Shane is a mage and his partner, Drake, a warrior for the church. When Shane bargains his soul away to the Ice King to save the life of Drake, both find themselves on separate paths. But there is something unusual about Shane’s magic – and he may not be as cold as the Ice King thinks. When they are forced to work together after 10 years apart, they may be more dangerous to each other than the soul stealer they hunt.

Novella’s typically eschew worldbuilding in exchange for a more intense story. But in this case, I had a hard time understanding anything that was going on. We’re given a lot of tell, very little show, and actions constantly contradict the words. E.g., we know that Shane isn’t as cold as he should be from the loss of his soul (as we are told over and over), yet he gets over emotional about everything – angry, lustful, etc.  So does he have less emotion or not?  We can’t tell from the dialogue/actions.

The dialogue and interaction of the two main characters were really cringeworthy.  Guys using the term ‘baby’ when doing hard erotic sex really turns me off – as do the constant mood changes before, during, and after said sex. We’re told the guys haven’t had a relationship in 10 years and dislike each other – but then they are bantering like best buddies in 5 minutes. Then hard to each other.  Then joking around again. I was getting whiplash.

About half way through I sort of understood what was happening. But by then, I was so uninterested in the characters and world that I went on autopilot for the rest of the book. There just wasn’t anything to keep me engaged.

Honestly, the writing was very weak. I had expected much better going in. That said, I’d love to see more from Harper Collins in this type of genre.

Reviewed from an ARC.

Posted in ARC, Book Reviews, romance, urban fantasy | Leave a comment