Review: Her Royal Spyness - Rhys Bowen

Review: The Testing - Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau.
ARC provided by NetGalley.

Malencia Vale is very excited to be graduating school. Not only does graduation day turn children into adults, but she secretly hopes that all her hard work will finally have paid off, and illicited an invitation to University. Not just anyone can get into the United Commonwealth University, after all. In the wake of the Seven Stages of War - four man-made and three where the earth fought back - the United Commonwealth is extremely judicious in whom is admitted each year, only twenty candidates from all the colonies make it to Orientation. But Cia thinks she can make it, and that she will be the first one to go to University in years, becoming the pride of the Five Lakes Colony, and proving that all the hard work they have been doing to make water potable and foods edible will finally earn them the respect they deserve. Only there is no official from Tosu City at Graduation.

But he's only been delayed. In fact Cia is not the only one from her small colony, under a thousand people, to be selected to test for admission this year, she and three others, including the handsome and highly intelligent Tomas Endress, the artistic and beautiful Zandri Hicks and the shy but sweet Malachi Rourke. There is turmoil when Cia thinks there should be celebration, and in her excitement her father, himself a University graduate, reveals that the Testing is not just questions on paper, but a fight for your life where absolutely no one can be trusted. All that remains of his time in the Testing, are flashes of memory which haunt his nightmares.

Discovering a camera hidden on the skimmer that takes them to Tosu City, Cia finds that their every move is being watched by Tosu officials, and that the test may already have begun...

Review: The Salisbury Key - Harper Fox

The Salisbury Key by Harper Fox.

Harper Fox is the queen of sensuality. She enthralls us in her world effortlessly, and her characterization is simple but effective. She doesn't over-write, or leave us behind with leaps of imagination. Her details are as evocative as they are largely imagined by ourselves. But about the sensuality, I don't think I would care if no one ever had sex in her books, because the romance sparkles with such electricity, that I could read the non-sex sexiness for hundreds of pages. I jump to add, Salisbury Key is perfect as it is.

Jason Ross is a wealthy, and eminent archaeologist, his young lover Daniel Logan is an up-and-comer and his student, and their passionate affair ends as dramatically, and recklessly, as it began. Salisbury Key is pretty angst ridden. I mean, god, the novel begins shortly before someone commits suicide, that has to carry some weight or else there isn't a proper dimension to the severity of events. Despite, or because of the mysterious nature of Jason's death, Daniel continues to search the Salisbury Plain for the mysterious key which Jason's work had long been pointing toward. Lieutenant Rayne is introduced to help the stoic Daniel finish Jason's life work, but after a few heart-clenching days, Daniel's grief gets the better of him and the attraction between them both comes to a head.

Not over-playing the gay-in-the-military angle, Rayne and Daniel's budding relationship draws some unwanted attention, from friends of Jason's and military personnel who never wanted archaeologists digging around on Salisbury Plain in the first place. But suspicions are aroused when it becomes apparent that the excavations are seen as more than a nuisance, they are potentially even a threat to a secret which has been buried for decades, and should never, ever be brought back into the light of day.

Instead of discussing technique, characters and plot, I'm going to share with you a passage from the book which I really liked.
"But I didn’t have to find him. He was halfway down the stairs on his way to find me. When he saw me he came to a halt, and so did I, transfixed, throwing out a hand to the doorframe to steady myself. The old copper lantern in the hallway was shedding a warm glow from its amber panes. Jason, gripping the banister, looked as I might have imagined his ancient Greek namesake to do, after dealing with his golden fleece and dark-eyed exotic witches and his last Argonaut—descending slowly into his kingdom, his princely hall. Tired, with the salt of his voyages still tangled in his wet hair… So beautiful that my eyes stung, his summer silk robe clinging damply to the contours of his shoulders and back. He was naked underneath. It's front hung open, exposing him from the hollow of his throat to the place where his half-erect c--- was rising from the shadows of his groin."
As one reviewer succinctly says, Harper Fox's dramas should be unbearable, verging on melodramatic, but "somehow they have a wonderful reality, [and] this comes from the light touch within her writing." It's almost as though she's delicately retelling intimate secrets and tales from real people, whom she knows very well. If you enjoy great romance novels, give Harper Fox a read. Though this is the second of hers I've read, I'm willing to vouch that all of them are at least good.

272pp. Samhain Publishing. 3rd Jan. 2012
(Read/Skim/Miss) (Buy/Borrow)

Review: Labyrinth - Kate Mosse

Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.

Two heroines separated by 800 years, whose stories lie entwined by the heritage they share, and the secrets they must protect.

In 2005, in the south of France, Alice Tanner stumbles across a tomb hidden for centuries. By unearthing the artifacts within, she awakens an evil and involuntarily draws herself into a conflict of greed and religious absolution that has lasted into the present day. In 1209, Alaïs Pelletier du Mas, lives on the brink of a religious war which threatens to sweep across and destroy the south of France. From within her own family comes a sacred task of keeping three books hidden, and a threat which will not only tear them apart, but may destroy the very citadel in which they live.

Labyrinth is filled with mystery and a hint of magic. The books containing the secret of the labyrinth must be found before they can be used for ill, and what begins with a hesitant quest for knowledge for Alice, and an apprehensive preparation for war for Alaïs, starts coming all too fast. Things that could never happen, do happen, and worst fears are confirmed. Linked to her past by dreams and a privately kept family tree, Alice seeks out a historian, the man who appears to have all the answers, and may be more than he appears. In search of answers, she meets Will Franklin who is unwittingly deeply involved in the secret workings of religious devotees and in the eyes of others, heretics.

Labyrinth surprised me. I intended to read it quickly last winter before the mini-series aired, but kept being bogged down with the colorful historical facts of Alaïs's Carcassone and the comparative dullness of Alice's discovery of the cavern and subsequent blackout in the present day. But once I finally began to read this behemoth, I could not put it down, and the heavy difference between the two tales, as similar as they were, made it hard to stop between sections, and left me unable to find a favorite era for Kate Mosse to write in. It turns out that these two stories compliment each other perfectly, and while I prefer the historical richness of Alaïs's life, I don't think her story would have been satisfying on it's own. Alice is our lens, of a sort. She narrates things that she discovers about Alaïs, things that she has been dreaming about her ancestor's life, making it easier for us to understand even as she struggles to comprehend what is going on. This aspect of their connection, introduced early on, serves to connect Alice to her heritage as much as it makes me feel distant from her.

Kate Mosse's characters are vibrant, they interact organically, aside from an awkward sex scene near the beginning, in which Mosse valiantly tries to hide from us who Oriane's lover is. The result is frustrating as much as it is baffling. I was not surprised by the reveal, even as others within the novel reel from the betrayal. And it isn't that the sex is awkward purposefully, I'm sure Kate Mosse just wanted to keep the whole thing tasteful. There are some inequalities in character development, however. In the 13th century, villains sometimes appear as mustache twirlers and bosom-flaunters, and in the present day they are well-dressed sociopaths.

Parallels across the centuries are fantastic: Egyptian secrets invade the home of a socialite, and an old man enchants a young girl with tales of golden sand. The dark haired beauty has a loyal son, and immortality is both longed for and despised. As the tale unfolds, and we discover more about everyone, the story gains depth and richness. Kate Mosse folds you into the lush worlds she is privy to, and can be surprisingly with the breadth of her reach. Invoking chase scenes, dark smokey chambers of royals and subjects and the hunger for violence that we still fear today, Mosse has grasped the full meaning of 'the craft' and demonstrates it here. Her appreciation for the importance of the Bible, of stories within it, and about it, and her love of the Massif Central countryside, cannot be downplayed or overlooked.

There is no code-breaking, no whip-cracking antics, yet Labyrinth enraptures the reader, drawing one in for one mystery after the other. The transition wrenching us from engrossing past to thrilling present is easily forgiven as one races to find out what has happened in the meanwhile... 

544pp. Orion. 2005.

Review: Beautiful Darkness - Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

Beautiful Creatures was the popular beginning of a YA series by collaborative authors, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. That book was turned into a movie which did not explode at the box office in the way producers had it would, following the lead of Harry Potter, Twilight and the Hunger Games. They changed the plot a little, in ways which won't entirely damage possibility of a sequel movie - if they get the go-ahead - but they do make continuing to film the Caster Chronicles difficult.

If you've read the first book, you won't be surprised that all the damage from the fight with Serafine has to be dealt with, and a large portion of Beautiful Darkness does just that. If you haven't read Beautiful Creatures yet, you might want to skip to the next paragraph. Ethan lives, but without the full details of his escape, unlike the readers, who know about Lena's trade, unknowingly giving Macon's life to save Ethan's. She blames herself for it, and while the whole Duchannes clan watches Lena procrastinate on her claiming further, she becomes convinced that she claimed herself when she sacrificed Macon. This is the main drama of Beautiful Darkness and preoccupies our moody teenagers for the entire book.

Lena, unable to forgive herself, pulls away from Ethan, unwilling to be reminded everyday of what she has done, and afraid she will hurt Ethan again. To up the ante, a nice caster boy shows up, with all the strength of an Incubus, but none of the weaknesses. Marianne, who is unsurprisingly absent, since her role as Keeper forces her neutrality, has a protégé who offers Ethan the same distraction that John offers Lena. Tell-tale twitches and over-stated side-long glances aside, we have no idea what John and the siren Ridley are bringing with them. But this time it's not just Serafine with her eyes on Lena and Ethan, someone bigger and badder is backing her now, and someone whom everyone is afraid of.

It was hard to get through all the emotional baggage that this book carries with it from the previous one, and I'm not the first one to say a serious slim-down of these novels would most likely have meant books that really pack a punch. But the story is interesting none-the-less for the same reasons, suffering from book-in-the-middle syndrome, but if you can fly through this 500 page book, you will enjoy it. I often got bogged down with all the brow-rumpling I was doing, but once I relaxed and let my inner critic doze through it, the interaction and angst got downright exciting.

Anyone who was paying close attention to Ridley, and not skimming too much, noticed that she isn't not as Dark as she is said to be. Especially toward the end when she's saying bye to her toy, we suddenly see she isn't as invulnerable as she claims. That continues when Link tags along with Ethan on his quest across the underground Caster world, Ridley's nervous ticks, frowns and sad eyes make us keenly aware of what should have been more subtle. Ridley doesn't shine as a character, but we are very sympathetic for her because she's a girl, and she's given a bad hand. Since most of those reading the Chronicles are girls, Ridley is the character we get emotionally intimate with, not only because her Cousin is absent for the majority of this book as well.

Amma also kicks it up a notch with her spiritual intervention, and the ancestors get downright bad-ass toward the end, using their strengths to help Ethan protect Lena from her claiming. The historical snapshots as well are much less tedious than those we saw about Genevieve in the last book. And since it's a book, the glimpses we get are much more tantalizing, making some plot-twists really fascinating.

As for the new characters in this one, John and Olivia "Liv" Durand. John is so suspicious that he's boring, and works better on the page when he's merely alluded to. Liv on the other hand, has cool gadgets, and a handy role in the story. She's a Keeper-in-training, filled to the brim with caster knowledge, and like her Giles-like role-model, is forbidden from interfering  She is, thankfully, insatiably curious, and tags along with Ethan and Link to 'observe'.

Beautiful Darkness is not the strong sequel that Beautiful Creatures needed, and it sits, like Liv does, on the edge of passive and adventurous. Middle books in a trilogy or quartet are hard. There's often a formulaic need to have your heroes running across Middle Earth for the majority of the book. In middle books, your going from first book to last book, without much to do, unless you skimp on the fluff, which none of the Caster Chronicles do. This installment reassures me that the serious is mild, yet refreshing. A dude in distress who can barely handle himself, but doesn't mope, weep or brood. He gets angry, but also gets on his feet and faces the dangers of being in love with a Caster girl, no matter what. I just wished he had been a little more demanding of all the people who wanted to shut him out, and I wish Lena had felt less contrived. If you find yourself flipping slowly, listlessly in the first 200 pages, stick with it, skim if you want, but push through. Because if you are really interested in learning how all these freaking moons that Lena has to deal with are resolved, the latter half really is the more interesting part of the book. Here's to hoping the sequel throws some serious surprises at us.

503pp. Little, Brown & Company. 10th Oct. 2010.

Cover Curiosities #1

Maybe this will turn into a feature/meme, it needs a good name though.

I found this whilst digging around on LibraryThing; look at the Dutch cover of Labyrinth! 

Within the mountains of Carcassone, a great secret is buried...

Made as part of a celebration of Orion Publishing Group's twentieth anniversary.
Reminds me of a typical German book cover.

There's also the often used forest pathway with a girl holding a bird-cage. I found this edition at a relatives house:

She is actually the inspiration for this feature, as I once read a blog post from Caustic Covers, and now found an entire list on Goodreads for That One Woman with a Birdcage. The first thing I ever read about such occurrences in book covers I can't find anymore.

This meme will probably morph, as I highlight more book covers.