Review: The Price Guide to the Occult

price

 

Details: Walton, Leslye. (2018). The Price Guide to the Occult. Candlewick Press.

Keywords: Witches, Pacific Northwest, Magic, Family

I have to tell you guys, being a book reviewer is serious business. I’m sitting on a million advanced reader’s copies and I have no idea how I am going to finish them all (because of course I have library books and my own that I’ve purchased to read first.). And people wonder why I never finish the TV series’ that I start…I’m a bit at a loss as to how I’m going to finish all these books, but I will persevere for the sake of my three readers. Or for myself. Probably the latter.

 

ANYWAY, the book I’m going to talk about today originally caught my eye with its title, The Price Guide to the Occult. Isn’t that great? So much going on in just a few words. I originally thought that the protagonists last name was Price and this was their sort of shadow book that was going to have the ins and outs of occult practices, which would have been pretty sweet. But the guide, which exists in the book rather than being the book, is a literal price guide, like how much each spell will cost the user. I thought this was very clever, but actually led to one of the first pitfalls of the book, which I’ll get to later.
The strongest aspect of this book was the sense of place it evoked. It takes place on an island in the Pacific Northwest, so already you have an idea of the environment: rainy, foggy, filled with trees and dudes in flannel. But Walton really plays with the setting to heighten the magical aspect of the plot. The fog thickens when something troubling is happening. The rain diverts characters from certain activities. The ocean and the creatures in it reflect the emotions of the characters. There are lots of cups of tea involved (which as we all know, I approve of). The main character, Nor, was definitely a product of this environment, which I thought worked really well for the rest of the story. Nor’s links to her home give her power in more ways than one.
Nor as a character was well drawn and believable. She has a sad back story (including self harm and child abuse), and Walton did a good job of not only showing the effects of this on Nor’s day to day life, but the realities and process of healing, which I think is super important, especially in YA. Nor is scared: to use her magic, to get close to people, to ask for help, and it makes her a believable and sympathetic character.
Nor’s grandmother, Judd, as also an awesome character. Grumpy and unapologetic, she’s as far from the idea of a healer that you can get. She was just delightful and I was happy every time she showed up. Judd also added to a large cast of women in the book, which was excellent, not only because, duh, but also because there were all different types of women. Some were motherly and some were down right evil, and it a spectrum of personalities that you don’t normally see.
Ok, so, now to the things I thought needed work. The first was the romance. There were two potential romantic possibilities, and Nor gets about the same distance with both. I know not very story needs a romance, but I felt that these relationships, especially the one with Gage, could have been used in a more profound way in terms of character growth. As it was, they seemed a little unbelievable. I didn’t really know why these characters were attracted to each other and then it all kind of fizzled out. It does seem like there might be a equal planned (though I’ve seen no mention of it), so maybe they will evolve, but as it is, it almost felt like the story could have and should have existed without the romantic factor.
The biggest weakness I found was in the ending, and Nor’s eventual show down with her mother so SPOILER ALERT:
Basically it seemed like Nor defeated her mother a little too easily. I didn’t feel that she confronted her own powers or what was blocking her enough to justify her overpowering her mother. And her mother just kind of…lost her power. I wanted this to be more of a moment, of her really recognizing Nor’s power and her own defeat. Also, does Nor have pretty much every power? Cause it seems like there nothing she can’t do (which would be a cool thing in terms of tamping down her power if that becomes a theme). I’m not sure if I am explaining this all that well, but it just felt too easy. Also, she just killed her dad with no real hesitation? Kind of weird.
And this is just a me thing, but I got SUPER frustrated with Nor not telling her grandmother the truth about her powers EVEN AT THE END. Like, I understood that she was scared, but her grandmother was literally the most trustworthy person on that island, and JUST ASKING FOR HELP WOULD HAVE STOPPED A LOT OF BAD THINGS HAPPENING. Communication for the win!
I thought this was generally a solid effort, and would definitely read a sequel. The plotting issues didn’t take away from the book, it just didn’t live up to the potential it had.
Excitement Level: Three Stars
Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: By the Book

by the book

Details: Sonneborn, Julia. (2018). By the Book. Gallery Books.

Keywords: Book nerds, retellings, Jane Austen, academia, romance

So, full disclaimer: Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel.

Don’t get me wrong, Pride and Prejudice, the perennial favorite, is amazing. Elizabeth is the bookish, sharp witted heroine that we all want to be, and Darcy is the brooding hunk (Kate Beaton has an excellent set of comics on this) with an appreciation for bookish, sharp witted women that we all pine for.

But I always had a soft spot for Anne. Shy and self- sacrificing, I found her journey more interesting in that she learned to stand up to people (especially her crappy family) and fight for her happy ending. And Captain Wentworth is just woof. Honorable and able to see Anne for who she really is, and forgiving? Yes and please. So all this is to say that I had pretty high expectations for this book.

I was not disappointed.

This book was delightful. It was one where I felt warm and fuzzy reading it, like returning to an old favorite but with new surprises. At a few points I made a girly squeal because of the cuteness of something that happened. It was well paced, and the writing was breezy without feeling superficial.

I loved the college setting. It evoked and environment of brick buildings and fall leaves and most importantly, BOOKS. Books were almost a character unto themselves (only to be expected from a retelling), even representing the state of the relationship between Anne and Adam. It also worked well for the placement of the characters in terms of career and love life, like Adam becoming the president of the university, or Rick being a writer in resident (like a soldier wintering for the season! So clever).

Also, Anne was a scholar of women writers who was constantly having to defend why they deserved to be studied. I loved this inclusion of the struggles of women in academia and the literary world.

In terms of the retelling aspect, the book actually combined a little bit of Persuasion with elements of Pride and Prejudice. This is evident in the character of Rick, who is something of a Wickham. He was delightfully despicable. I’m not sure who Larry, Anne’s good friend represented, but he was wonderful and brought great humor to the story.

The only thing I didn’t like was that there weren’t enough interactions with Adam, in terms of rebuilding the tension between them that leads up to the end. The story focused more on her relationship with Rick and her friend Larry, which is fine, but I feel like I needed to see Adam and Anne together more, learning about the people they have become and thus that they are even more in love with each other than ever. I also felt like there needed to be a little bit more of Dr. Russell’s character. In Persuasion Lady Russell is directly responsible for Anne and Wentworth’s parting, and I wanted to see more of that pressure behind this Anne’s decision to end it with Adam.

This is definitely going to be put on myself with other favorite retellings like The Madwoman Upstairs, and right next to Persuasion, so that I can look at my own library and smile.

Excitement Level: Five Austenesque stars

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: The Thief

thief

 

Details: Turner, Megan Whalen. (1996). The Thief. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Keywords: Thieves!, warring kingdoms, fantasy, old gods

It’s been a year, but I haven’t stopped reading so here is another riveting book review for y’all. And it’s, surprise surprise, a fantasy novel.

Megan Whelan Turner’s Queen’s Thief series has been on my radar for a long time. It comes up constantly on booklists I look at, and I have several friends who have read and loved it.

There’s also the fact that it was originally published in 1996, which was around the time I was moving away from The Babysitters Club and into more fantastical fare. I keep asking myself how the hell I missed this one going into my teens. A fantasy novel about a contrary thief and a curmudgeonly mage on a suicide mission? THIS IS MY CATNIP.

Well, I finally read it, gentle reader. And I must say it lived up to the hype, but not quite in the way that I was expecting.

A small summary: Eugenidies (is that not the best name?), a self-proclaimed master thief, is dragged from the cell where he has been imprisoned for bragging that he will steal the king’s seal. The Magus, the right hand man to the Kings of Sounis, wants Gen’s help in stealing Hamaithes’s Gift, a magic stone that guarantees a king or queen’s succession.

Aaand I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot.

But Rachel, you might be saying, that sounds down right simple as a plot.

Gentle reader, you are correct! It is a very simple plot, and the book itself is a rather gentle fantasy.  While there is some intrigue and definitely danger, reading it was like curling up with a warm cup of cocoa on a snowy day. It was also a pretty fast read. The prose was modern as well, and did not feel like it was written twenty years ago.

And I absolutely loved it.

This book kind of stumped me, especially as to why I liked it so much. It felt breezy and fast on some levels, which is not a bad thing, but not something I would necessarily look for in a favorite book. But I finished it and was kind of bowled over by its wit and the breadth of what happens in such a short timeframe. Turner also sets up some excellent intrigues to be explored in future books, but not by sacrificing the integrity of this story, if that makes any sense.

I think Turner’s talents as a writer are one reason. Eugenides is an extremely likable character for all his foibles, so the reader is eager to follow him on his adventure, mostly just to see how he’ll get out of all his scrapes. He’s a character that fits into a trope I particularly enjoy, which is one who plays the fool but is actually quite brilliant. He is also literally favored by the gods so it is great fun to watch him squeeze out of rather impossible situations.

I also think that while I described the book as gentle, the plot turns out to have a lot of humor and pathos combined with a little political intrigue with tight writing that doesn’t waste a lot on the navel-gazing that some high fantasy falls into.

My particular favorite portion of the book was when Gen is in the temple where Hamaithes’s Gift is kept. You learn a lot about his character and get insights into how the magic of the world works. It’s also one of the most atmospheric portions of the book.

I wish I could say more about the other characters and how the end sets up to the next book in the series, but I think it’s better to just read it and find out. This book holds some nice surprises, and it was one of the pleasures of reading it.

So basically if you’re looking for some fast paced, well written, fun fantasy with a little bit of an edge, this is your book. I’ve already started the second one, and whoo boy, Turner does not let up on her characters. But more about that later.

Excitement Level: Five Stars!

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

 

 

 

Review: Madly

Arrows through a heart against a pink and purple background.
The cover art is gorgeous.

Details: Alward, Amy. (2015). Madly. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Keywords: young adult, alchemy, magical potions, The Amazing Race, The Wild Hunt, royalty

Madly occurs in an alternate contemporary universe where alchemy and magic co-exists with modern technology. When the princess of the realm poisons herself with a self-administered love potion, the royal family calls upon every alchemist in the land to develop a cure — which includes Samantha Kemi, the latest alchemist in the long line of the famous (but now disgraced) Kemi Alchemists. Gifted at her work and possessing a true affinity for alchemy, Sam is keen to participate… but encounters a few barriers:

  • Her grandfather resents the royal family for a long-ago betrayal of the Kemi Family, and because of this longstanding grudge, refuses to help the princess. This means Sam is unable (at first) to participate in Auden’s Hunt.
  • The Kemi Family lack the funds and many of the material resources to travel around the world in order to retrieve the ingredients for the remedial potion. This is in direct contrast with the most well-known competitors, the corporate magical alchemists (I can’t believe I just wrote that phrase…), ZoroAster Corporation.
  • Sam has a crush on her fiercest competitor… who was the intended object of the Royal Princess’ love potion.

Madly read like a fantastical version of the reality show The Amazing Race. But in this version, contestants race against time around the globe to retrieve magical ingredients for an alchemical concoction while the princess slowly – and then quickly – goes mad. Parts of the novel that pertain to the Auden’s Hunt were absolutely convincing and enjoyable: The reader has no doubt of the realm being in danger, or of Sam’s new found resourcefulness in retrieving magical items from remote locations.

However, the romance is really forced. And while the romance between Sam and her crush, Zain Aster, contains pivotal plot points (especially for the Princess’ eventual recovery), the supposed rapport between the two characters felt stilted and odd. At times, I found myself a) not believing the romance, and b) giving no cares at all for happy ending between these two. Overall, though, the premise of the novel was fresh and original, the pacing was strong, and the secondary characters are a delight to read.

Excitement Level: Three stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.

Review: Fortune’s Pawn

Woman in a space suit with a virtual dashboard.
Space Opera FTW

Details: Bach, Rachel. Fortune’s Pawn. New York, NY: Orbit.

Keywords: space opera, female mercenary, aliens, mystery

Fortune’s Pawn is a solid space opera that features a young and ambitious mercenary who signs on with a ship with the prescient name of The Glorious Fool. Deviana Morris quit the infamous Blackbirds mercenary band in order to pursue her eventual ambition to become one of her home world’s finest armored warriors, the King’s Devastators — and Devi discovers that a successful year upon the Fool can translate a successful entry into the Devastators. However, once Devi is on-board the Fool, she realizes that nearly every member of the ship has significant — and dangerous — secrets to hide.

I love a good space opera. The sheer escapism in this genre has always captured my imagination. Many of the operas I read have borrowed heavily from the themes associated with the Western genre, such as the lone lawman striving to do good, despite his / her own moral failings. Or space as the hostile and inhospitable backdrop against which the depravity of men (and aliens) are showcased. Or a simple old-fashioned revenge story. The author, Rachel Bach, has certainly conveyed these elements in this first novel of her trilogy. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to read the second two in this trilogy.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Deviana’s exploits, I did at times wish for a bit more inner conflict to develop her into a more nuanced character. Deviana is a mercenary heroine with speed, strength, experience, resilience, and smarts. In essence, she is a badass. If you like this character type, you certainly won’t lack for it in Fortune’s Pawn. However, in the post-Buffy era, tough female heroes who kick butt and save everyone is almost passe. Perhaps I’m selfish, but I’d like a little more of Deviana.

Excitement Level: Three and a half stars.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this review. I checked this book out from the local library, and reviewed it on my own.