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The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski

The Winner’s Curse came to my attention when my good friend Nomes mentioned that it’s one of her favorite reads for this year. For some reason, this title flew under my radar when it first came out. I think the cover doesn’t really represent the story very well and might be one of the reasons why I wasn’t initially curious about The Winner’s Curse. I tried reading a couple of chapters just to see if it’s something that I would be interested in and I was fully absorbed. I was surprised at how easy it was to get into the story.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Winner's CurseAs a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him — with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

The Winner’s Curse is set in a make-believe world but has no magic or mythical creatures in it so it has more of a historical fantasy feel to it. Kestrel is the daughter of a well-known general, which is a pretty big deal since their society holds the military and warfare in high regard. The Valorian empire is already huge and yet it still continues to extend its reach and enslave the nations it conquers. The story is set several years after the Valorians have conquered the Herrani people. While Kestrel loves her people and she knows that slavery is part of their culture and their way of life, she doesn’t really approve of it. When she unexpectedly buys a slave at an auction, she has no idea what to with him. But she recognizes Arin’s strength of spirit and admires that. A friendship slowly develops between the two of them. Kestrel is bound by the constraints of the Valorian society – she only has two choices when she comes of age: to join the military or to get married, neither of which are very appealing to her. She’s not a good soldier even if she keeps training and she’s not interested enough in any guy to marry him. She’s great at military strategy, which is why her father keeps pushing her to enlist, but she’s not passionate about that kind of thing. What she loves is music, something which Valorians believe shouldn’t be taken seriously. A snippet to show how Kestrel feels when she plays the piano:

“Music made her feel as if she were holding a lamp that cast a halo of light around her, and while she knew there were people and responsibilities in the darkness beyond it, she couldn’t see them. The flame of what she felt when she played made her deliciously blind.”

I wish I felt that strongly about music but I don’t have the skill or talent for it. Instead, I will liken Kestrel’s passion to how I sometimes feel when I read – entirely focused in the world created by the author, paying no attention to other tasks that need to be done. Which is exactly what happened while I was reading The Winner’s Curse. To be honest, I have a hard time pinpointing why I enjoyed this book so much. I suppose it’s mostly because I like Kestrel, I like Arin and I like how their friendship developed. They’re both intelligent characters who slowly learn to respect and trust each other, in spite of their differences and the enmity between their nations. I also liked the setting and the contrast between the Valorian and Herrani cultures. How one was all about gaining power by expanding its borders, and one was a more peaceful culture centered around the arts. I was engrossed by The Winner’s Curse and yet I also feel like it could have been a stronger book. Let’s put it this way, this is a good introduction to the series and the story arc wraps up nicely but I feel like by the time the sequel comes out (maybe next year?), I would have forgotten most of the details in this one. It wasn’t mind-blowing but it was a pleasant and enjoyable read which I recommend to YA fans, even those who don’t usually read fantasy.

Other reviews:
Fantasy Cafe
Good Books and Good Wine
Ivy Book Bindings
Shae Has Left the Room
The Bookish Manicurist
Alexa Loves Books


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Retro Friday: Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

The news of Mary Stewart recently passing away reminded me that I’ve been meaning to read more of her novels. I have a few of her romantic suspense novels in my TBR pile, one of which is her first novel Madam, Will You Talk? When I found out that this book is set in Provence, I was immediately curious and I wanted to read it sooner rather than later.

Madam Will You TalkHere’s the summary from Goodreads:

Charity had been looking forward to her driving holiday through France with her friend Louise – long, leisurely days under the hot sun, enjoying the beauty of the Provencal landscape. But very soon her dreams turn into a nightmare, as Charity becomes enmeshed in the schemes of a gang of murderers.

While I do read cozy mysteries from time to time, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of them. But there’s something about Mary Stewart’s writing that just draws me in. There’s a certain charm in her books that lets me see what life must have been like at that time. I like that her heroines are smart and capable ladies, even if they don’t believe they are. Madam, Will You Talk? is about Charity, a young English widow who goes off with her friend Louis on a summer vacation to the South of France and unexpectedly gets involved in a murder mystery. This is how she feels when she runs right smack into trouble:

“I was alone. Any help I got now would only come from myself, and I was well aware that I am not the stuff of which heroines are made. I was merely frightened and bewildered, and deeply resentful of the situation in which I found myself.”

I believe Charity handles herself very well for someone who was supposed to be on a holiday but ended up being chased all around the country instead. I love how Charity’s excellent driving skills come in handy and a powerful car becomes her weapon:

“I laughed. I was as cool as lake-water, and, for the moment, no more ruffled. The feel of that lovely car under my hands, in all her power and splendour, was to me like the feel of a sword in the hand of a man who has been fighting unarmed.”

I wish I could drive like that! The setting of the book starts in Avignon and explores the surrounding areas including Nimes and Marseilles. Mary Stewart’s descriptions made me want to visit Provence and all the places that Charity went to. One of the reasons why I enjoy this author’s romantic suspense novels is because each book is set in a beautiful and vibrant location. It says something about Mary Stewart’s writing that she can make these places come alive. She also has a way of keeping readers in suspense all throughout the story. I feel like I was right there with Charity, while she was being chased by a suspected murderer. I was cheering her on while she zoomed her car through all those French highways. I kept turning the pages because I wanted to get more information. I was very curious about how the mystery will be solved and how the romance will develop. As with all other Mary Stewart mysteries that I’ve read, Madam, Will You Talk? ended on a satisfying note. Another good romantic suspense read. I look forward to reading the rest of her books.

Other reviews:
Miss Darcy’s Library
Quirky Bookworm
Gudrun’s Tights
Bookwitch


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Novel Gossip: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Novel Gossip

The bloggers behind Chachic’s Book Nook and See Michelle Read chatting about books, thousands of miles apart.

Novel Gossip is a new feature that my good friend Michelle and I started a few months ago. Our inaugural post was The Chocolate Rose by Laura Florand. We both loved Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (my review, Michelle’s review) last year so Rose Under Fire was one of our most anticipated reads this year. Since it’s a book set in a concentration camp, we were pretty sure that it would be heartbreaking and that it would be a good idea to read this together so we can provide moral support as we go along. Click here to read our thoughts about this historical fiction novel. While we did our best to refrain from putting in spoilers, it’s pretty hard to have an in depth discussion without going into some of the things that happened within the book. If you’d rather go into Rose Under Fire without prior knowledge of its contents, then feel free to skip our discussion (although we hope you’d drop by after finishing the book).

Rose Under Fire UK and US

The UK and US editions, side by side

As always, we had so much fun doing this. It was an interesting conversation since I’m not familiar with concentration camp novels while Michelle has read a lot of them. Plus we grew up in different countries and had different history lessons concerning World War II. It’s funny how details like this affect our reading experience. Watch out for our next Novel Gossip title: Madam, Will You Talk by Mary Stewart.


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Retro Friday: A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

One of my blogging goals this year was to write more Retro Friday reviews but I haven’t been able to do that lately. Sigh, you know what happens when real life gets in the way of things. Anyway, I thought I’d get back on track by reviewing one of my favorite books.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

A Countess Below StairsAfter the Russian revolution turns her world topsy-turvy, Anna, a young Russian Countess, has no choice but to flee to England. Penniless, Anna hides her aristocratic background and takes a job as servant in the household of the esteemed Westerholme family, armed only with an outdated housekeeping manual and sheer determination.

Desperate to keep her past a secret, Anna is nearly overwhelmed by her new duties – not to mention her instant attraction to Rupert, the handsome Earl of Westerholme. To make matters worse, Rupert appears to be falling for her as well. As their attraction grows stronger, Anna finds it more and more difficult to keep her most dearly held secrets from unraveling. And then there’s the small matter of Rupert’s beautiful and nasty fiancée…

I can’t believe I’ve never written a review for A Countess Below Stairs (also published as Secret Countess). This and The Reluctant Heiress (also published as Magic Flutes) are my two favorite Eva Ibbotson novels. I’ve recommended both of them to so many friends. There is just something about Eva Ibbotson’s writing that makes her books feel good reads. A Countess Below Stairs is historical fiction but it has a fairy tale feel to it, with a Cinderella kind of vibe going on. I think it’s quite obvious from the premise where the story will go but how it gets there is what really matters.

The Secret CountessThe main character, Anna, is one of those people who always sees something good in any situation. Anna was pampered by doting parents and because they were members of the Russian aristocracy, she pretty much got whatever she wanted. Surprisingly, she grew up to be down-to-earth instead of being a snob. Can I just say that I love how Anna’s family – her parents and her brother – is such an important part of her life? Anna is the kind of person that manages to brighten up everyone else’s day just by being so warm and pleasant. She keeps that sunny disposition even when her life changes drastically from living in luxury to having to work as a downstairs servant. Nope, poverty doesn’t affect Anna’s outlook in life. It’s not surprising that she easily develops a friendship with Rupert in spite of the difference in their social classes. Rupert is a dependable type of person and he feels that it’s his duty to marry well to keep Westerholme running. And there lies the problem. What I found interesting is that the story doesn’t just focus on Anna and Rupert but also includes a whole cast of secondary characters to liven things up. It may get a little confusing to keep track of everyone but I think part of the fun is seeing how Anna interacts with everyone around her.

Writing this review is making me want to reread the novel. I wish I had my copy here with me but sadly, it’s back in Manila. I’ve gone through Eva Ibbotson’s adult (now marketed as young adult) titles and would love to get more recommendations similar to her writing. If you’re interested in historical fiction or if you just want a feel good book, then you should definitely pick this up. A Countess Below Stairs also provides an interesting glimpse of what life is like for servants back in the day, which is why I think this would be a good read for any Downton Abbey fan.

Other reviews:
The Book Smugglers
The Captive Reader
Things Mean a Lot
Random Musings of a Bibliophile


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The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse

The Coming of the Dragon by Rebecca Barnhouse is a retelling of the latter part of Beowulf. I don’t think I’ve ever read Beowulf or a retelling based on it. I don’t know much about this epic tale because we never studied it for school. The Coming of the Dragon came highly recommended by both Brandy of Random Musings of a Bibliophile and Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library so I decided to give it a go. Also, I’m very curious about the companion novel, Peaceweaver, because Ana and Thea of The Book Smugglers gave it a positive joint review. You can imagine my delight when I discovered that both books are available in the library. Yay for making the most out of my library membership!

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Coming of the DragonWhen he was a baby, Rune washed up onshore in a boat, along with a sword and a pendant bearing the runes that gave him his nickname. Some people thought he was a sacrifice to the gods and wanted to send him right back to the sea. Luckily for Rune, King Beowulf disagreed. He lifted the boy from the boat and gave him to Amma, a wise woman living on a farm far removed from the king’s hall, to raise as she saw fit.

Sixteen years later, Rune spends his summers laboring on the farm. And at King Beowulf’s request, he comes to the hall each winter for weapons training. But somehow he never quite fits in. Many people still fear he will bring a curse on the kingdom. Then a terrible thing happens. On a lonely crag on a mountain that belongs to the giants, someone awakens a dragon. It is time for Rune to find the warrior inside himself and prove to the doubters once and for all that he is a true hero.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now then you’re probably aware that I read all kinds of books but I rarely venture into middle grade territory. I only do that when a book comes recommended by book bloggers I trust. And when I end up enjoying the book, I usually feel like I would have loved to read it when I was in the target age for it. The Coming of the Dragon is one of those novels. I really liked Rune’s character development – he starts off as an insecure young man but grows into something more as the story progresses. I understood how difficult and confusing life must have been like for Rune while growing up. I mean it’s hard enough to figure out what you’re meant to do with your life but with Rune, he had to deal with not knowing who his real parents are or where he came from. He desperately wants to prove himself, he just needs the chance to do so. I liked how the change in his character from the beginning to the end wasn’t drastic, it felt believable based on the challenges that Rune experienced.

There is magic in this book but most of it is subtle, aside from the presence of the dragon. The novel reads more like historical fiction instead of epic fantasy. Maybe I should just describe it as historical fantasy and leave it at that. Like I said, I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to Beowulf or this time period so I’m not sure how accurate the setting is. What I can just say is that I enjoyed reading about the characters and their struggles to overcome their biggest foe: the dragon. I found the first few chapters a little slow but things picked up towards the end. Also, I got the feeling that the kingdom wasn’t that big? I was wondering why there weren’t more people who were there to fight against the dragon. Although that might really be the case, Beowulf’s kingdom might just be a small one. I was really curious about Peaceweaver after reading this one and was a bit disappointed to discover that it’s not a sequel but a companion novel instead. It doesn’t continue the story after The Coming of the Dragon but occurs simultaneously with the events of the novel and features a different character. I’m still interested in reading it though, I just hope Rebecca Barnhouse returns to Rune’s story. Would you happen to have any other recommendations based on Norse mythology?

Other reviews:
Charlotte’s Library
Random Musings of a Bibliophile


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Retro Friday: I Capture the Caste by Dodie Smith

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie over at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is a favorite of so many readers. It’s been on my radar ever since I read The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice a few years ago and heard that the two books are very similar. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to pick up I Capture the Castle but you know what it’s like, you have to be in certain mood to read some books. I finally felt like reading this a few days ago and I’m glad I did.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

I Capture the Castle tells the story of seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family, who live in not-so-genteel poverty in a ramshackle old English castle. Here she strives, over six turbulent months, to hone her writing skills. She fills three notebooks with sharply funny yet poignant entries. Her journals candidly chronicle the great changes that take place within the castle’s walls, and her own first descent into love. By the time she pens her final entry, she has “captured the castle” – and the heart of the reader – in one of literature’s most enchanting entertainments.

I write this sitting in the office chair in front of the computer at home. Ha, thought I’d just try that out since I Capture the Castle starts with “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Dodie Smith’s writing reminded me a bit of Eva Ibbotson’s young adult titles in the sense that it has a fairy tale feel even if it’s a historical fiction novel. And since I love Eva Ibbotson’s books, it’s no surprise that I enjoyed reading this one. What can be more whimsical than living in an old castle? Of course, it’s not as dreamy as one would expect when the Mortmain family can’t even afford to buy necessities. It presents a good contrast: living in a beautiful and majestic place but trying to make ends meet. I liked how Cassandra didn’t let that bother her – she loves living in the castle and she’s more tolerant of their reduced circumstances than her sister older sister Rose. Cassandra is a reader and a dreamer and she’s able to appreciate the beauty around her in spite of her family’s problems. Sure, she worries but she’s never bitter about their situation. I wanted to highlight so many of the passages that she wrote but I’m choosing to quote this one because I can relate to it:

“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it – or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don’t suppose many people try to do it.”

Cassandra is obviously a girl I can be friends with. The rest of the characters are also quirky and they come alive through Cassandra’s descriptions. I love that she starts a journal because she wants to improve her writing. Also, writing by candlelight or moonlight adds to the atmospheric feel of the novel. In the months while she’s writing, Cassandra really grows as a character. I like how she falls in love and learns to evaluate herself by examining her own feelings. I wasn’t into the romance as much as I’d like but I appreciate how it contributed to Cassandra’s character development. After all, I think that’s what the novel is all about – the life of a young woman set in 1930s England. I have a used copy of the edition that has the movie cover and I must say that I’m not a fan of its design. I’m itching to watch the movie though and see if it’s just as good as the book. Maybe I can post about it here on the blog as well. I Capture the Castle is a delightful read, I feel like this is the kind of book that you can read even if you’re about to experience a reading slump. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers and fans of Eva Ibbotson’s YA novels (note that those titles were originally published for adults and only repackaged as YA a few years ago). I wouldn’t mind reading more books similar to this one.

Other reviews:
Book Snob
Thoughts On My Bookshelf
The Reading and Life of a Bookworm
She Reads Novels


21 Comments

Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen

A.C. Gaughen’s Scarlet is a Robin Hood retelling. I found out about it when trusted book bloggers started giving it positive reviews. I was delighted when this pretty little book showed up in a surprise package that I received a couple of weeks ago. Again, thank you to the lovely ladies – Angie and Holly – for sending me a copy of this. I couldn’t resist reading it right away, you guys know how fond I am of thieves in fiction.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.

I can’t get over how gorgeous the cover design for Scarlet is – doesn’t that just draw you in? It’s the kind of cover that would attract my attention even if I knew nothing about the premise. I think Scarlet’s eyes look very expressive and I love that she’s disguised as a boy in the cover, because that’s how she usually is in the book. Few people know that Will Scarlet is actually a girl. Just in case you didn’t know, I also enjoy reading girls in disguise stories. Scarlet is one prickly character. Even though she’s been working with Rob, John and Much for the past couple of years, she still doesn’t fully trust them. She works with them but she still holds a part of herself back, never explaining her past and where she really came from. Which is funny because these boys want to take care of Scarlet. Can I just say that I found it refreshing that there are only four people in Robin’s band in this retelling? It makes it easier to keep track of them and be invested in who they are as characters. Rob is the leader, John the playful charmer and Much is the quiet one. Here’s a funny little quote about the band:

“Of a band with three actual boys, why is it that all the maids lust after the fake one?”

My heart went out to this little group – how they do the best that they could to provide for the people and shelter them from the Sheriff’s cruelty. As much as Scarlet pretends that she only stays with the band because it’s convenient for her, she does it because she cares for the people. Here’s another snippet that I really liked:

“I left little packages in front of the doors; the people looked for them in the morning, and I knew, in some bit of a way, it bucked them up.

I did as much as I could, but it weren’t like I could get everyone something every night. That seemed like the cruelest part. I tried not to think ’bout the people that woke up and rushed to the door and didn’t find nothing; it made my chest hurt.”

You got to love a thief with a conscience. She steals not for herself but for the people. It’s rare for a sneaky thief as good as Scarlet to be afraid of anything but her comrades quickly discover that there’s something about Gisbourne, the Thief Taker, that frightens Scarlet. I liked this air of mystery about her, it made the book a quicker read because I kept going, waiting for Scarlet’s past to be revealed. I also liked the slow burn romance although I’m not a fan of the love triangle. It’s not surprising that more than one guy is interested in our feisty heroine but I did feel like it was unnecessary for her to have more than one love interest. As expected, Scarlet was a really enjoyable read. Highly recommended for fans of Robin Hood retellings, thieves in fiction and girls in disguise. Will I be checking out A.C. Gaughen’s books in the future? Definitely.

Other reviews:
Angieville
Book Harbinger
Bunbury in the Stacks
Emily’s Reading Room
Steph Su Reads

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