Recent Reads: December 2015

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Recent Reads is a monthly reading wrap-up, with mini-reviews of all the books I finished in the past month. I’ll also share what I’m currently reading and any other books that are in the pipeline. Want to share your bookish happenings, too? Feel free to do so in the Comments section at the end!

Well, I can’t post my 2015 favorite books lists without sharing what I read in December, can I? 😉 I managed to squeeze in four books in December and have decided to review three of them. And beware – there’s all kinds of magical, mechanical, and speculative fiction goodness to follow, starting with my Read of the Month!
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Interview with Alyssa Palombo, Author of “The Violinist of Venice”

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Writers rejoice when their publishing dreams come true, but it’s equally thrilling when the same happens for a writing pal. I met Alyssa Palombo back in 2004, on an official messageboard for the symphonic rock band Evanescence. That’s where we bonded over music, the Boston Red Sox, and writing. We fell out of touch after a while, but I always remembered how helpful Alyssa’s feedback had been and wondered if she was still writing. The answer came in 2014, when I stumbled across Alyssa’s book deal announcement for her first two books. No lie – I was so happy for her, I freaked out!

Today, I have the immense pleasure of having Alyssa Palombo here on the blog. We talked about her historical fiction debut The Violinist of Venice, which comes out next Tuesday, December 15th. (Click here to read my review.) You’ll also learn how her music background helped with writing the book, and why she recommends reading outside your preferred literary genre now and then. And, um, there might be lots of some fangirling (on both her part and mine) about metal music and tea. 😉 Let’s begin, shall we?

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Recent Reads: October 2015

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Recent Reads is a monthly reading wrap-up, with mini-reviews of all the books I finished in the past month. I’ll also share what I’m currently reading and any other books that are in the pipeline. Want to share your bookish happenings, too? Feel free to do so in the Comments section at the end!

Something electric must be in the air. Out of the five books I read in October, I enjoyed four of them enough to write reviews. So, those positive bookish vibes that made September a great month for reading haven’t gone away yet. 🙂

What also made October a fun month for reading was including two “Halloween-ish” novels. Not scary horror stories by any means, but stories with a creepiness factor that fit the time of year. You’ll see what I mean as you check out the reviews, starting with my Read of the Month, which is…
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Stacking The Shelves, Vol. 15: Of Thieves, Musicians, and ARCs

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Stacking The Shelves is a weekly event hosted by Tynga’s Reviews that shares the books (both physical and virtual) that you recently purchased, borrowed from a fellow reader or the library, won from a giveaway, or received as gifts. Stacking The Shelves will post on Saturdays as new books are added to my shelves.

I don’t normally get ARCs because I’m so busy catching up on previously published books I haven’t read yet. (Plus, I don’t have an e-reader, and I’ve been told that it’s more difficult to get print ARCs.) But these two beauties arrived in the mail in the past week, and I can’t tell you how EXCITED I was / am to read them, especially since they’re two of my most anticipated 2015 books. 😀  Here they are!

(NOTE: I delayed this STS post a day to give enough time to highlight my first two DIY MFA articles covering Writer’s Digest Conference 2015.)

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Recent Reads: July 2015 (Plus, I’m Back from #WDC15!)

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Recent Reads is a monthly reading wrap-up, with mini-reviews of all the books I finished in the past month. I’ll also share what I’m currently reading and any other books that are in the pipeline. Want to share your bookish happenings, too? Feel free to do so in the Comments section at the end!

Back from my blogging hiatus! 🙂 And WOW, Writer’s Digest Conference was AWESOME! I don’t even know where to begin with describing what an invaluable experience it was. So, all I’ll say for now is that I’ll be writing two articles’ worth (possibly three) of conference coverage for DIY MFA.  It sounds like a lot, but I’ve been so “in the zone” that each piece seemed to write itself in a fingersnap. Unfortunately, this means I won’t have time for a Field Trip post here at the blog – but I’ll do a special edition of Stacking The Shelves instead.  Stay tuned for that on Saturday!

Now, Recent Reads. Last month’s debut of the new format went amazingly well. I’m so glad that readers enjoyed the shorter reviews, and that you’ve been understanding of the change in format. Today I’d like to add one more feature that takes advantage of the shorter reviews: Read of the Month, which highlights my favorite book from the past month. That way, you won’t have to search for the highest rating or most positive review. 😉

So, what did I choose as my Read of the Month? What other books did I devour, figuratively speaking? Find out below!

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Stacking The Shelves, Vol. 12: Long Ago and Far Away…

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Stacking The Shelves is a weekly event hosted by Tynga’s Reviews that shares the books (both physical and virtual) that you recently purchased, borrowed from a fellow reader or the library, won from a giveaway, or received as gifts. Stacking The Shelves will post on Saturdays as new books are added to my shelves.

All of the books in today’s stack have one thing in common: They take place in times or places very different from my own (and perhaps yours, too). It’s a mix of fantasy, science fiction, romance, and exotic cultures. Murder, mystery, magic, and family. Freedom, power, secrets, and friendship. Intrigued? Then what are you waiting for? 😉

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Recent Reads: “Shadow Study” by Maria V. Snyder

Shadow Study Shadow Study
Maria V. Snyder
Fantasy / Young Adult
409 pages

Synopsis:

New York Times bestselling author Maria V. Snyder wowed readers with Poison Study, the unforgettable story of poison taster Yelena. Now she’s back with a new tale of intrigue. 

Once, only her own life hung in the balance… 

Oddly enough, when Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. But she’d survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia. Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands — and protect her relationship with Valek. 

Suddenly, though, they are beset on all sides by those vying for power through politics and intrigue. Valek’s job and his life are in danger. As Yelena tries to uncover the scope of these plots, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked. She must keep that a secret — or her enemies will discover just how vulnerable she really is — while searching for who or what is responsible for neutralizing her powers. 

Yes, the days of tasting poisons were much simpler. And certainly not as dangerous…

Rating: 4 / 5

Confession: I hugged my copy of Shadow Study when it arrived in the mail. Yes, I was that excited to read it. Then again, Poison Study was one of my favorite reads of last year, and I devoured Magic Study and Fire Study a couple months later solely so I could stay on top of this series starting with the fourth book. So here it is, the newest adventures of former poison taster and current magician-diplomat Yelena Zaltana, and I’m thrilled with how it turned out.

Shadow Study takes place about 6 years after the original conclusion of the Study trilogy. Yelena is acting as political liaison between the countries of Ixia and Sitia and has fully embraced her role as a Soulfinder. She’s also still with Valek, her soulmate and the famed Ixian spy-assassin. No sooner does the couple reunite in Chapter 1 that crisis strikes – literally. Valek is ordered home by Ixia’s Commander to address the country’s growing smuggler network and is confronted by a young, hot-shot assassin who wants Valek’s job. Yelena remains in Sitia to investigate a past enemy’s escape from prison – and is grappling with the sudden loss of her magic. Given how many enemies Yelena has, she’s in great danger if they find out how vulnerable she is.

Like Snyder’s other novels, Shadow Study is impossible to put down thanks to its suspenseful chapter endings and urgent prose. Also, the first bit of conflict pops up within the first couple pages, so Snyder gives us reasons right away to worry about Yelena and the other characters. I was also fascinated by how interwoven the conflict threads became as the story went along. Each chapter drops hints that widen the overall scope. Once I put the pieces together, my mouth dropped open. And for the record, I’m not much of a plot-twist guesser, but there were two in particular that I guessed correctly – and both will have a HUGE impact on the next two Study books.

One welcome change between the three older Study novels and Shadow Study is the POV narration style. From Poison Study to Fire Study, it was from Yelena’s first-person perspective. With Shadow Study, Snyder alternates between Yelena (first person), Valek (third person), and Valek’s assistant and Yelena’s friend Janco (third person). While Yelena’s the one who drew me into this series, Valek’s sections steal the show here. Readers finally learn more about his past, from his early days as an assassin-in-training at the School Of Night And Shadow, to the moment where he enacts his ultimate revenge. It’s a fascinating trip down memory lane that explains Valek’s unique and lethal brew of logic, meticulousness, and cunning. Readers also get to see the beating heart beneath, and feel for Valek as his loyalties become entangled.

Janco’s POV, on the other hand… Sometimes he was so funny that I’d burst out laughing. Other times, he was downright annoying, and I wanted to smack him. Janco’s perspective is necessary, though, since he’s in a number of important scenes where Yelena and Valek aren’t present. But at the same time, I feel like I learned very little about Janco, especially in comparison to what I learned about Valek.

A couple other things about Shadow Study threw me off. First, there were times where the timing for one character’s POV wasn’t synchronized with the timing for another character’s sections. I’m not sure why this caught my attention. It hasn’t for other multiple POV books like George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Fire And Ice novels. But for some reason, I noticed it more with Shadow Study, and it jarred me a little. Also, Yelena’s independent streak drives me nuts sometimes. It’s not a complete drawback; I like that Yelena is decisive and follows her instincts, but she rarely asks for help. So when she strikes out on her own, I always know something bad is going to happen.

I could say so much more about Shadow Study, including the characters who returned from the previous Study novels (and also the Glass trilogy), and the new characters we meet. But the point is, Shadow Study is a fantastic new installment to the Yelena Zaltana saga. It’s tightly written, packed with tension and action, and full of new reasons to love its memorable characters. I’m still reeling a bit from the bombshell ending (“cliffhanger” doesn’t quite fit for this one – trust me) and the other revelations that emerge – but that just means lots of crucial choices and juicy conflict for Night Study and Dawn Study. And I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds from here!

Shadow Study will be out tomorrow (Tuesday, February 24th) in North America. Are you looking forward to reading it? If you’ve been lucky enough to read a pre-pub copy, what did you think of it? Let me know by commenting below or visiting the same review at Goodreads and Amazon.

Also, I’m hosting a giveaway for a signed U.S. copy of Shadow Study! Click here for my recent interview with Maria, then scroll to the bottom for contest details. The giveaway ends Wednesday, March 4th at midnight EST.

Beautiful People, Vol. 1: Valentine Edition

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Beautiful People is a monthly blog meme hosted by Cait @ Paper Fury and Sky @ Further Up and Further In. Every month they pose 10 questions for writers to answer about – what else? – their writing. 

I discovered Beautiful People last week through fellow writer-bloggers Grace & Steele. As soon as I realized this was a writing-related meme, I knew I should join in. 🙂

And since it’s a Valentine’s edition, guess what this month’s topic is? Yup – fictional couples from our stories! Here are my answers to Cait and Sky’s questions, focusing on my WIP’s protagonist Eva and her love interest Aurek. Continue reading

Playing Harry Potter Spell Book Tag!

Sumaira at Hyper About Books recently shared her Harry Potter Spell Book Tag list and challenged anyone who read it to take part in the game. Well, I couldn’t resist – I mean, we’re talking about Harry Potter, folks! So, here are the ten books I’ve chosen for my round of Harry Potter Spell Book Tag.

1. Expecto Patronum — A childhood book connected to good memories

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Elizabeth Koda-Callan’s Magic Charm Books: Each story tells of a little girl’s struggle to believe in herself using examples such as learning to dance, being cast in the lead role of a school play, and coping with the birth of a new sibling. As a child, I felt connected to the main characters because they were about my age and I could relate to their experiences. What made the Magic Charm Books so special, though, were the necklaces that came with each book. Koda-Callan obviously knew that children often need something tangible to help them apply the lessons they learn. What better – and prettier! – way to help little girls remember the Magic Charm Books’ messages of courage and self-confidence than by offering a necklace with a charm that symbolizes each book’s unique story? Continue reading

Recent Reads: “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
Fantasy / Paranormal / Romance

Synopsis:

When historian Diana Bishop opens a bewitched alchemical manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, it represents an unwelcome intrusion of magic into her carefully ordinary life. Though descended from a long line of witches, she is determined to remain untouched by her family’s legacy. She banishes the manuscript to the stacks, but Diana finds it impossible to hold the world of magic at bay any longer.

For witches are not the only otherworldly creatures living alongside humans. There are also creative, destructive daemons and long-lived vampires who become interested in the witch’s discovery. They believe that the manuscript contains important clues about the past and the future, and want to know how Diana Bishop has been able to get her hands on the elusive volume.

Chief among the creatures who gather around Diana is vampire Matthew Clairmont, a geneticist with a passion for Darwin. Together, Diana and Matthew embark on a journey to understand the manuscript’s secrets. But the relationship that develops between the ages-old vampire and the spellbound witch threatens to unravel the fragile peace that has long existed between creatures and humans—and will certainly transform Diana’s world as well.

Rating: 3.5 / 5, and *Unputdownable*

Well… How do you start a review on a 570+ page fantasy novel that combines witchcraft, vampires, forbidden love, Darwinism, alchemy, genetics, and boatloads of history stretching back for centuries? And that’s not everything readers will find in A Discovery of Witches, the first book of Deborah Harkness’ best-selling All Souls Trilogy. I’m a bit of a latecomer to this series (The Book Of Life, the concluding novel, was published in July), and a skeptical one because the paranormal genre doesn’t appeal to me. However, anyone I know who’s read the All Souls Trilogy adores it, so I figured I should give A Discovery of Witches a shot – and though I have some issues with this story, it really was worth reading.

When Discovery begins, historian and reluctant witch Diana Bishop comes across a long-lost alchemy manuscript known as Ashmole 782 in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Diana realizes the manuscript’s bewitched and returns it to the stacks that day, but her discovery has already set off sparks in the world of magic. Within days, Oxford is overrun by witches, vampires, and daemons, all eager for Diana to recall Ashmole 782 so they can discover its secrets. Among them is vampire-geneticist Matthew Clairmont, who positions himself as Diana’s ally and protector despite his skewed moral compass. Because some creatures have threatened Diana’s life over the manuscript – and as an unlikely romance blossoms between Diana and Matthew, those same rivals are willing to tear the two scholars apart.

Like with my previous review (Mary Weber’s Storm Siren), I’m going to start with criticisms despite the positive rating – because once again, I questioned whether I’d finish the book. Firstly, the pace of Discovery is excrutiatingly slow. The first chapter is crammed with backstory that could have been spread out more evenly in later chapters, and other scenes crawl because of the amount of unnecessary step-by-step details. Also, I was annoyed by the shifts in POV. Only four chapters are narrated outside of Diana’s perspective, and are written in third-person omniscient. So, the reader learns not only what Matthew’s thinking or feeling, but what other characters in the scene are experiencing. It was too jarring of a change for me, and thankfully the POV switches only a few times.

The final problem I had with Discovery was that I didn’t experience the conflict’s stakes with Diana. Instead of her being in the thick of the peril and dissention, the other characters (especially Matthew) often shield Diana or keep her at a distance from the villainy. When the antagonists do appear, their presence seems… random and convenient. The few fights and action scenes Harkness includes did take my breath away with their vividness and urgency, yet I wish more scenes like that existed in the story.

So, why did I keep reading Discovery? From Page 100 onward, I found myself completely sucked into the story (no pun intended because of the vampire characters). Golden nuggets popped up everywhere: the Bishops’ quirky and “alive” house, the incredible employment of the senses of taste and smell, the growing cast of unique and endearing characters, the symbolism of Diana’s name. Also, Discovery is quite funny at times! From certain one-liners or bits of dialogue (Matthew’s son Marcus and Diana’s aunt Sarah made for excellent comic relief) to the contrast between Harkness’ intellectual writing style and the absurdity of a given scene or flashback, I laughed with genuine delight throughout the story. Finally, I thought it was neat that Harkness tied much of the characters’ ancestry with historical events such as the Salem witch trials and various international wars. It added a richness and depth to the story that made it more authentic.

Ahhh, Diana and Matthew. Their courtship may have been why Discovery dragged on so long, but what a pleasure it was to watch them get to know each other and fall in love. Both characters are also beautifully developed. Matthew is charming, sophisticated, intelligent, and humorous when least expected – as well as evasive, overprotective of Diana, and struggling to rein in his unpredictable rage. Harkness has only scratched the surface of Matthew’s centuries-long life of emotional wounds in Discovery, and I have a feeling he’ll confront more as the trilogy continues. As for Diana, she’s the yang to Matthew’s yin. Her frankness, bravery, and ability to sponge-absorb all the information thrown at her make her a truly admirable heroine. Sometimes her childishness irritated me, and I hope Diana eventually outgrows it, but it didn’t prevent me from connecting with her.

So, yes, A Discovery of Witches was quite the discovery. While Harkness’ writing style could use some tightening and the story’s turtle-pace tried my patience, the characters and other redeeming qualities compelled me to keep reading. Hey, it’s not very often that I tear through a novel of this length in less than 2 weeks! That’s why I’m giving Discovery an *Unputdownable*. Hopefully the issues I had with this novel will be resolved in Shadow of Night (although the reviews I’ve read so far indicate they might not be). That news, however, won’t deter me from following Diana and Matthew on their search for Ashmole 782.

Have you read A Discovery of Witches? What did you think of it? If you haven’t read it yet, do you think you might check it out based on what you’ve read above? Let me know whether you found my review helpful by clicking here to find it on Amazon and selecting either “Yes” or “No.”