Friday, October 21, 2016



The story of Helen of Troy is certainly appetizing bait for a writer. However, Helen rarely appears in retellings as anything more than a passive - if beautiful - catalyst. Friesner sets herself the challenge of portraying Helen not as the typical damsel in distress but a capable, remarkable young woman overwhelmed by impossible circumstances.

People comment on Helen’s appearance from a young age. She enjoys the attention, until her sister’s jealous remarks made Helen think harder about what it means to be beautiful. As her sister Clytemnestra laments, Helen often doesn’t earn this special treatment. Helen also starts to realize that this “gift” of beauty will likely infringe on her previous freedom more and more the older she becomes. People will expect her to behave a certain way and to fulfill feminine ideals. Perhaps it’s because she’s young and perhaps not, but Helen yearns for adventures besides marriage and children.

She starts training in secret with her brothers and goes on to learn whatever she can about weaponry and fighting arts by spying, disguising herself, and seeking out willing mentors.

For me, the greatest strength of this novel is undoubtedly the characters and relationships. Clytemnestra may not be the nicest to Helen, but she probably molds Helen for the better by making her consider why everyone treats her differently. Helen also has a sweet if complicated relationship with her brothers. They’re torn between respecting her capabilities and a sense of duty to steer her back towards traditional feminine roles. Whenever she announces what she wants to do, they’re usually doubtful and mocking, but they do get credit for admitting when they underestimated her. The best part is that all these personalities are so subtly delivered; I never felt the author hitting a point too hard.

I normally don’t pick out specific quotes from books. I may notice the quality of the writing overall, but it’s rare for me to find individual lines that I feel the urge to mention. With NOBODY’S PRINCESS, though, I kept finding quotes that fit that wonderful combination of funny and wise, such as “The gods protect me from men who mean well!” I also liked “it wouldn’t be the first time a man found courage he never knew he had until he met the right woman.” I think “man” and “woman” in that phrase can be changed out for “person,” but I’m a big believer in the catalyst relationship where meeting someone new ends up changing your whole outlook. Last I’ll mention “A rock at the bottom of a well is safe from worries too,” a reminder that sometimes we compromise comfort for a little adventure.

But there’s no compromising with NOBODY’S PRINCESS! This is a fun, fast read with understated depth and warmth.

Friday, October 14, 2016



Harriet has lived a dreary, dull life penned up with her conservative father and aunt in 1912 Cambridge. They permit her one indulgence, ballet, but certainly neither approves of the art. Then someone offers Harriet a place in his ballet company set off for a South American tour. It seems the adventure she’s dreamed of all her life, except her father would never allow it. Given a choice between submit and rebel, Harriet goes against her good girl instincts and chooses rebel. She sneaks off to join the company against her father’s wishes and finds a happiness exceeding her wildest dreams. Of course, her father and the man he hoped Harriet would marry are determined to bring her home, ideally ashamed and contrite.

With this premise, Ibbotson delivers another complex and engaging young adult historical romance. Ibbotson’s books are very similar and many of my comments remain the same despite the specific novel. That all said, if the books are formulaic it’s a successful formula and I would happily read as many as she could write.

Each book features a wide and diverse cast and, though having a big cast may be a commonality, Ibbotson makes each character unique and plenty surprisingly layered. In A COMPANY OF SWANS, I particularly like Marie-Claude, a gorgeous dancer who many, men especially, wish to peg as a loose and simple harlot for her enviable curves and mermaid-like, long, blonde hair. Except Marie-Claude already has a fiancé to whom she’s devotedly committed and, thankfully, her intelligence isn’t inversely proportional to her looks either. Part of why I like this character so much is because authors often fall into a trap of making their heroine the most, or worst – only, likable female in the book. It shouldn’t detract from one woman’s strengths to acknowledge other strong women.

Another trend throughout these novels is that the heroines are rather interchangeable. Though they have different hobbies, their general outlook and personality are the same. Harriet is young and naïve, but also smart, considerate, passionate, and not someone to underestimate merely because she’s growing into herself. All the books feature a much older romantic interest who’s drawn to the heroine for her refreshing innocence and purity. That may be the only thing that irks me a little in these books: the importance placed on “purity.” In defense of the novels, the author seems to mean more of a purity of spirit: being a good person. That said, sometimes the heroines are such good people that they seem annoyingly Mary Sue. I like the parts when one of them has to battle a negative emotion like resentment or jealousy more than when the character seems too wholesome to feel such petty emotions.

I intensely admire how Ibbotson describes characters’ appearances. She has so many distinct ways of crafting an image in the reader’s mind, and she uses vivid, unusual words for writing about features rather than simplistic descriptions like “big nose” or “brown eyes.” In general, Ibbotson claims an utterly unique writing style. Some works are more about plot than writing, but I believe I could pick out Ibbotson’s writing from many random samples. Her writing can be wordy and indulgent, but always endearingly passionate and heartfelt.

Sadly, Ibbotson only wrote five of these delightful young adult historical romances. Additional reviews to come, though other than plot descriptions you will find much of my commentary on these books the same for all.

Friday, October 7, 2016


(review based on an advance reading copy)

As if Jessie’s life didn't change too much already when her mom died, now her father has abruptly remarried and moved them to a new state to live with the new stepmom and her son. This is also means leaving Jessie’s school and all her friends in Chicago and starting new in Los Angeles, which feels like a completely different world. Lucky for Jessie, a mysterious stranger emails her offering to help her learn all the insider tips for surviving at this snooty school.

Of course, the stranger refuses to reveal his identity, only stating that he wouldn’t be able to make this same connection with her if he introduced himself in person. I loved the cast of this novel, which is packed full of varied and layered characters, many of which seem flatter until Jessie pays closer attention. The premise also provides an entertaining mystery, because Jessie can’t help assessing everyone she meets – or sees from afar – as her potential mystery friend.

The voice really won me over. Jessie feels familiar and unique. Believable and likable. Young but mature. As with a lot of young adult novels, a good chunk of this book is interior monologue as Jessie takes in the world around her, and I loved reading everything through her perspective, especially since she does in fact grow over the course of the story.

My only complaint is that ending felt abrupt and focused entirely on wrapping up the romance plot thread at the expense of all others. Sometimes how a book ends can tell you as much about the story as the rest of this book. I would have pegged the novel more as a story about Jessie learning how to look closer at people. Then the ending suggests it’s really meant foremost as a romance.

Regardless, this one stood out from the plethora of young adult novels out there thanks to a crisp and district voice, lots of faceted characters, and fun mystery begging for a big reveal.

Friday, September 30, 2016


(first in the KINGDOM ON FIRE series, review based on an advance reading copy)

Henrietta has long hid her magical powers, terrified of the repercussions if the wrong person discovers a woman with these gifts. Then she learns of a prophecy that a female sorcerer will save her land from the demons tormenting it and suddenly her shameful secret uplifts her status and becomes something to celebrate. There’s a major catch, though. Henrietta suspects she’s likely not the woman of the prophecy…but if she admits that then everything she’s longed for will be taken away again.

This is a fast paced, fun novel with a strong emphasis on romantic tension. Henrietta enters a world dominated by males, which means she has a lot of male attention directed her way. I liked how the author showcases so many different types of relationships and attraction. I found Magnus in particular a very believable hypocrite. Having been raised primarily by women, he’s a proud feminist and woman’s advocate and yet at the same time he’s a shameless womanizer who often diminishes women to objects of attraction.

The magic system sometimes felt a little too arbitrary for my taste. Why does it work one way for some people and another for other people? Fingers crossed that further books in this series flesh out the inner workings a bit more, but as it is from this first book I often found the magic felt a little too limitless and out of control. Checks and balances usually make for a better magic system, especially when there’s a clear cost for every gain.

All in all, though, a fabulous, addictive first book and I look forward to reading on in the series.

Friday, September 23, 2016



Someone gave me this middle grade book when I was 13, and I thought I was too old for it. I kept it, though, and finally read it for the first time in late college only to find myself shocked at how much it affected me. How many times do I need to re-learn that target age isn’t that much of a factor in terms of a book’s power? When I started my blog, this one made the cut for ones I needed to re-read for a fresh review. I don’t generally re-read books and one of my great fears is that I’ll discover some of my all times favorites lose their luster upon a closer look. I have already found some that don’t hold up to my memory, but I’m relieved to say that ESPERANZA RISING was just as good on the second reading!

Esperanza lives a privileged life in Mexico on her father’s ranch, until he’s murdered by bandits while out repairing a fence. It seems her world can’t be any more shattered at the news of her beloved father’s death. Then her cruel, powerful uncles start pressuring her influential mother to marry one of them, providing all her popularity to their name as well as the ranch, too. One of the servant families (and close family friends) convinces Esperanza’s mother to flee to the U.S. with them. While the idea of avoiding her terrible uncle seems smart enough at first, Esperanza doesn’t fully realize everything she’s giving up: a private education, beautiful dresses, expensive toys, a huge ranch.

This new start requires that Esperanza work, too. While hardly a spoiled brat, she doesn’t transition to her new role without complaint. At first, it feels she can’t do anything right even when trying so hard. To make matters worse, some people enjoy seeing the “fallen princess” failing at simple tasks. As if that weren’t enough, Esperanza’s mother then takes ill as well, leaving Esperanza in circumstances that will truly test her character.

Munoz Ryan is a talented writer. Her invisible writing says a lot with a little. I get a strong sense of several different characters in a very slim novel through perfect dialogue and actions that reveal plenty.

The ending is simply beautiful. Endings don't make or break a novel for me. Some great books have quite forgettable endings. However, the best endings resonate like this, echoing the novel’s theme without feeling forced.

Friday, September 16, 2016


(first in THE OTHERS series)

Bishop is one of my all-time favorite authors, so it was with pleased surprise that I found a book by her I had not yet read sitting patiently on my to-read shelves.

The story takes place in an alternate contemporary reality, but with the twist that “the Others,” fae and their like, lived here long before humans. While the Others and humans have found a way to co-exist, humans will always want to eliminate their rivals and the Others are always ready to remind the humans who holds the real power.

Meg is a blood prophet, which means when someone cuts her skin she sees visions of the future. Humans have a law allowing for “benevolent ownership” of blood prophets, the argument being that their visions make them too crazed and unpredictable to take care of themselves. When Meg manages to escape, she flees towards the Others. While the Others are dangerous themselves, human law does not apply on their territory, meaning Meg cannot be dragged back and returned to her human owner. She finds a simple job sorting mail for her shape-shifter (essentially werewolf) landlord Simon. However, Meg’s unique gift earned her Controller a lot of money and they want her back. When the wrong people start tracking her down, Simon and his friends will need to decide how much they’re willing to put on the line to protect a near-stranger human.

From here, both my praise and criticism will sound very similar to any other reviews of Bishop’s work. I always adore her huge, varied casts of characters as well as pretty much each individual character. I also cherish the amazing combination of dark and cute; she really knows when to provide what for that perfect balance. In my mind and for my taste, her novels are near perfect.

My criticisms are more objective. None of them bother me or diminish her novels in my perspective, but I can pick out the same weak spots in her books that I know would irritate some readers more than myself. First, too many characters. If you often struggle keeping track of lots of names, her books will doubtless confuse you. Second, the villains are too evil. I will admit to usually preferring more complex antagonists. Most all of Bishop’s villains are simply selfish. How villainous they are depends on how far they’ll go to pursue their own selfish wants. Third, the heroines are too Mary Sue. Everyone either adores or detests them. It sometimes feels like the world has shifted to revolving around this protagonist. Because I always like her heroines myself, I forgive this without much complaint.

I didn’t realize this is the first in a series when I started it. However, I didn’t find myself irritated at that realization as I often am, because Bishop found such a good closure point. I did, however, moan, “Nooooooooo!” because I wanted to keep reading the story to the finish and didn’t have the next book.

Friday, September 9, 2016



I already read this entire series years ago, but I wanted to re-read them to review on my blog. It’s a collection of short, witty middle reader novels where terrible and unfair things keep happening to our perfectly likable main characters.

Most fiction, especially that for younger audiences, strives for an upbeat tone, a happy and neat ending, and often even a nice moral. This one breaks that mold. The title warns you and the narrator continually warns you: if you want a happy story, read something else.

Siblings Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were once happy, before this first book even started. They had two wonderful, loving parents and lived in a huge mansion that provided everything they could want. Then their parents died. The children are sent off to live with their nearest relative, Count Olaf, who’s a cruel oaf and only after their vast inheritance. He concocts a plan to take that inheritance for himself, but the children may not survive once he has what he wants.

Sadly for these children (and for any readers who can’t stand this type of book) it seems all the adults, even well-meaning ones, are incompetent. Our protagonists try to turning to kind people for help, but no one can see what’s really going on. While I understand how this style does annoy some readers, I believe it’s a powerful metaphor for children in unfortunate situations themselves who feel the world is turning a blind eye to what’s really going on in their life. And all the more empowering because these kids don’t let the fact that there’s no knight in shining armor stop them from trying to save themselves.

I do recall that this series can become a little same old same old as you keep reading, but I’m only on book one so far in my re-reading, so I’ll call it out when it feels that way. I remember the plots as being similar in outline: siblings sent to new home, problem with new home, they resolve it, another something bad happens anyway to take away happy ending.

My favorite aspect of this series, however, is the wry humor. You’ll find ample instances of playing with both words and expectations in these pages, many of which actually make me laugh aloud (not an easy feat for such an avid reader). Delightful how unfortunate events can be so amusing.