The Returning by Christine Hinwood

I ordered a copy of The Returning by Christine Hinwood because it’s blurbed by two of my favorite authors: Megan Whalen Turner and Melina Marchetta. Of course, I had to read it! It also recently received the Printz Honor. Plus, both the premise and the cover looked intriguing.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Cam has a hunger, an always-hunger; it drives him from home, to war, from north to south. When he returns from war alone – all his fellow soldiers slain – suspicion swirls around him. He’s damaged in body and soul, yet he rides a fine horse and speaks well of his foes. What has he witnessed? Where does his true allegiance lie? How will life unfold for his little sister, his closest friend, his betrothed, his community, and even the enemy Lord who maimed him?

The writing is certainly different from anything that I’ve ever read. I’m not even sure what genre The Returning falls under – I feel like it’s a mix of both fantasy and historical fiction. Fantasy because it’s set in a different world (made up locations). Historical fiction because aside from the setting, I feel like it could be a story set in the past. There’s no magic in The Returning. The whole book focuses on the aftermath of the war between Uplanders and Downlanders and how it affects the various characters. I had a mixed reaction to this book: I’m glad I got to read it because I was intrigued but I didn’t end up loving it as I expected. It took me a while to get into the writing because of the shifting points of view. I felt like I couldn’t hold on to one character long enough for me to like him or her. Also, it’s a quiet kind of novel in the sense that nothing big or dramatic occurs. After all, we’re getting a glimpse of what life is like AFTER the war.

Overall, I think it’s a good book but I’m afraid it’s not something that every reader will enjoy. Like I said, I’m not a fan of the shifting POVs. At the start of the novel, I felt like every chapter was narrated by a different character (I think there were four or five various POVs). Just when I was starting to root for a character, the POV changes. I did like how everything came together in the second half of the novel but I was surprised at how fast the latter chapters moved in comparison to the earlier ones. The first half spanned months while the second half jumped a couple of years ahead. I liked that it’s a complex novel and that Christine Hinwood created so many layers to the story – we see what it’s like for a veteran soldier to go home, what it feels like for the family he left behind, how hard it is for him to make friends. I also liked the bit of romance weaved into the story but it felt underdeveloped. I think the narrative would have worked if the novel was longer because readers would get to know the characters more. As it is, I liked the book a lot more before I read it because it had so much promise. I feel bad because I could have fallen in love with The Returning but didn’t. If you’re curious about this book, I recommend that you still give it a try because you might end up liking it a lot more than I did. I’ve seen mixed reviews for Christine Hinwood’s debut novel – some loved it while it didn’t work for others – so I guess it really depends on the reader.

Other reviews:
Random Musings of a Bibliophile
Persnickety Snark
Books and Threads
Just Booking Around
Killin’ Time Reading

Retro Friday: The Moonspinners 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.

I’ve always wanted to go to Greece. It seems like such a lovely place, rich in culture and I would love to try authentic Greek food. I have no idea when I’ll be able to go though so I have to content myself with reading books with Greek settings. The Moonspinners is set in Crete and is the second Mary Stewart romantic suspense novel that I’ve read. I’m slowly enjoying going through her entire backlist.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Nicola Ferris, on leave from her job as a secretary in Athens, has been looking forward to a quiet week’s holiday in Crete, enjoying the wild flowers and the company of her cousin Frances.

But before she even reaches her destination Nicola stumbles on evidence of a murderous crime involving a young Englishman and a group of people tied together by blood and the bonds of greed. For the first time in her life Nicola meets a man and a situation she cannot deal with…

I love that Mary Stewart’s books have different settings. I may not be able to afford a trip to Crete, but I can afford to read a book about it. The Moonspinners has such an atmospheric setting and it was one of the reasons why I enjoyed reading it. I liked seeing Crete through Nicola’s eyes because even if she’s lived and worked in Athens for a year, she’s still a foreigner. The little town she stayed in is a quaint and quiet little place, on the brink of being discovered by tourists. She described Greeks as warm and welcoming, fascinated by newcomers and eager to please. The descriptions reminded me a bit of the Philippines – beautiful beaches, pleasant weather and people known for their hospitality. It sounds like a tourist’s dream place, right? It would have been if Nicola didn’t land right smack in the middle of a mystery. Being a nice person, she volunteers to help out even if those involved don’t want to endanger her.

I’m not a big fan of suspense or mystery novels but there’s something about Mary Stewart’s writing that draws me in. I’m never sure of the characters in the novel. I feel like I’m always nervous and worried for her main character, some of her scenes can really make my heart pound. And I’m never sure of the other characters in the novel – who is at fault, who is innocent and if they are hiding anything. I also like how Mary Stewart blends romance and suspense in her novels. Although I did feel like the romance in The Moonspinners was underdeveloped. I would have liked more scenes and conversations between Nicola and her man, I felt like they didn’t have enough time together. I liked the romance much more in Nine Coaches Waiting. Still, The Moonspinners is an oldie but goodie, I believe all of Mary Stewart’s novels are like that. I can’t wait to read the other Mary Stewart novels set in Greece: My Brother Michael and This Rough Magic. I have a feeling I’d enjoy reading those as well. Also, I’ve heard that there’s an old Disney movie based on The Moonspinners, I need to find a copy of that too.

Other reviews:
At Home With A Good Book and the Cat
Kate’s Bookcase

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Elizabeth Wein is one of my favorite authors and I was thrilled when I discovered that she’s releasing a new book this year, even if it’s not one of her Aksumite books. Code Name Verity is one of my most anticipated 2012 titles. It’s already available from the Book Depository and will be released in the US in May. Before I started reading this, I was warned by the author herself to have a box of tissues within reach. I’m usually not a fan of war novels but since I will read anything that EWein writes, I decided to steel myself and just plunge right into it.

Here’s the summary from Elizabeth Wein’s website:

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution. They’ll get the truth out of her. But it won’t be what they expect.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage, failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from a merciless and ruthless enemy?

You know that warning about having tissues on hand? Remember that when you read this. Code Name Verity is a wonderful, heartbreaking and riveting story about the friendship between two girls – “Verity” and Maddie. Take a look at that premise and you’d have an idea of why tissues will be needed. There’s a pivotal scene in the latter half of the book that had me in tears and I couldn’t stop crying until I reached the end. By the time you’re through with this book, your heart will ache for both characters and you’d want to squeeze yourself into the story just so you can hug them. I love Verity, she’s such a vibrant and sophisticated character, you can’t help but like her even when she’s clearly out of her element. She makes the best out of the situation and manages to amuse the reader with her anecdotes, enough to lighten the bleak situation. Maddie is also an interesting character – passionate about tinkering with engines and flying planes, she’s very different from her friend. They probably wouldn’t have met if not for the war, but they work well together and they make a sensational team. I love that the focus of the story is the strong sisterly bond between Verity and Maddie, which is unusual nowadays when most YA novels feature romances. YAY for girlfriends! I know next to nothing about World War II, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or flying airplanes, but that didn’t matter. I was wholly invested in Verity and Maddie’s story even if I didn’t understand all of the details.

I knew the writing would be clever, it is an EWein novel, after all. But Code Name Verity still managed to surprise me. I want to go on and on about how much I loved this novel but I’m afraid to reveal too much because the less you know about the book before you pick it up, the better the reading experience. If you trust my recommendations and feel like we have similar tastes in books, I urge you to read Code Name Verity. Let me know when you’re done so we can discuss all the spoilery details in private. If you’re a fan of historical fiction or spy stories, then this book is right up your alley. It’s the best book that I’ve read so far in 2012 and will be included in my list of favorites for this year. I would love to reread Code Name Verity but even knowing the events that will unfold, I think my heart needs to recover first. It’s not an easy read but definitely worth the effort. It’s the kind of novel that can make you feel. I have high hopes for this book because I want more readers to discover how amazing EWein is – her books really deserve to get more attention.

If you’re still hesitant about reading this book, check out this beautiful trailer:

I just found out about this but it looks like there’s going to be a Code Name Verity blog tour so be sure to drop by these blogs and see what they have to say about the book:

Also, check out these beautiful Verity and Maddie dolls that EWein’s friend Amanda made for her. I love how detailed their clothes and things are.

Retro Friday: Nine Coaches Waiting 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.

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart is one of the titles that Angie suggested when I asked her for recommendations similar to Eva Ibbotson’s novels. I’ve never read a Mary Stewart novel before so I decided I should give her books a try, they seem intriguing. I called the local bookstore and was thrilled to discover that the branch near my house had a copy. This book probably spent the shortest time on my wishlist – bought a copy on the same day I found out about it. Holly mentioned that she’s also interested in reading Nine Coaches Waiting so we decided to do a read-along. As always, it was a lot of fun reading a good book with a friend, even if we can only discuss our thoughts through online means. I think one of the perks of having read-alongs is you get to talk about spoilery details and things that you can’t mention in a review.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant — his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma — though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Linda is a very lonely young woman. Brought up as an orphan in England, she dreams of going back to her beloved France and jumps at the chance to work as a governess in a chateau located in the French alps. I thought the writing in Nine Coaches Waiting was beautiful and I was charmed by the atmospheric setting. Here’s a passage that I really liked:

“I’d live with loneliness a long time. That was something which was always there… one learns to keep it at bay, there are times when one even enjoys it – but there are also times when a desperate self-sufficiency doesn’t quite suffice, and then the search for the anodyne begins… the radio, the dog, the shampoo, the stockings-to-wash, the tin soldier…”

Linda forgot to include books, which are the best anodyne (had to look up the meaning of that word) for loneliness. It’s not surprising that she bonds with her charge, Philippe, who is also an orphan. Young Philippe may be a count but it sure doesn’t make his life easier. His Uncle Leon and Aunt Heloise may be interesting individuals but they aren’t exactly warm people – I was glad that he slowly became friends with Linda so that there was at least one adult who cared about him. When Raoul de Valmy enters the picture, the novel takes on a Jane Eyre and Cinderella feel. What’s even more delightful is that Linda was aware of it and kept making references to both stories. There’s a slow build-up at the start of the novel, plenty of time to enjoy the writing and get to know the characters. While the mystery wasn’t that surprising, the last few chapters had my heart pounding. I was scared for both Linda and Philippe and I wasn’t sure about a certain character’s innocence. There are enough twists and turns in novel to keep readers guessing. I breezed through the latter section of the book and was more than satisfied with how things ended although I wanted more of the romance. Don’t get me wrong, I think the romance was developed well but I just wanted more scenes between the heroine and her hero.

Nine Coaches Waiting is the first book that I finished this year and if all of the books that I read in 2012 are just as good, I would be one happy reader. Recommended for fans of Gothic mysteries and romantic suspense. I enjoyed reading Nine Coaches Waiting so much that I knew it wouldn’t be the last Mary Stewart book that I’ll read. I’m looking at My Brother Michael or The Moon-Spinners for my next Mary Stewart read because both books are set in Greece and I’ve always wanted to go there. Feel free to recommend your favorite Mary Stewart, would love to check them out!

Other reviews:
Book Harbinger
Angieville
She Reads Novels
At Home With A Good Book and the Cat
Everyday Reading

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

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’ve noticed that I’ve posted at least one Retro Friday review per month this year but I still don’t have one for December. I don’t want to break the streak so here I am, squeezing one last review before the year is out. Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn, the first book in the Lady Julia series, seems like the perfect choice for this. I used to read mysteries back in high school because I just borrowed anything that I could from friends. I think I was never really into it because I thought some of the aspects of mystery novels, such as murder, are creepy and I’m a scaredy-cat. I was looking for a cozy read this December and I’ve heard such good things about the Lady Julia Grey series that I decided to pick it up. Also, the second book in the series is set during Christmastime so it’s the perfect read for this time of the year.

Here’s the summary from Deanna Raybourn’s website:

“Let the wicked be ashamed. Let them be silent in the grave.”

These ominous words, slashed from the pages of a book of Psalms, are the last threat that the darling of London society, Sir Edward Grey, receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward’s death was due to a longstanding physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that Sir Edward has been murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers the damning paper for herself, and realizes the truth.

Determined to bring her husband’s murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward’s demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

This book has a winner of a start. Here are the first few lines:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

Those lines immediately make you curious as a reader and you can’t help but be drawn into the story. I was determined to find out who this Nicholas Brisbane was and why Lady Julia’s husband was twitching on the floor. December is such a busy time of the year so I read this book in bits and pieces. I remember there was one time when I read this in a coffee shop while waiting and some of the scenes had me smiling (another moment of crazy person smiling to herself while reading on her Kindle). I was frustrated that I didn’t have enough time to read the past few weeks because I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know both Julia and Nicholas Brisbane in this first novel. Smart and sassy Julia, who slowly starts to come out of her shell after her husband passes away. And the enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane – tall, dark, brooding and with an unusual past. These two are forced to work together to solve the mystery surrounding the death of Julia’s husband.

There are so many delightful aspects of this novel that just worked for me: the wild and unconventional March family, the banter and hint of romance between Julia and Brisbane, the plot that unexpectedly twists and turns. This is a novel (or series) that makes you invest in the characters. I loved Julia’s relationship with her father and I also loved that the Earl is such a liberal and open-minded person for someone living in the Victorian era. I also liked seeing how Julia relates to her sister Portia and her youngest brother Valerius. I have a feeling each book in the series will feature a different March sibling because Julia HAS nine siblings and I’m looking forward to that. I did guess who the murderer was but was completely blindsided by the reasons behind it. I gobbled this up as soon as I had free time on my hands and it made me happy that I finished it and started the second book just in time for Christmas. Silent in the Grave is a good start to a promising series. I’m glad that Deanna Raybourn has a backlist that I can look forward to. Yes to more Julia and Brisbane being partners in solving crime.

So that’s my last Retro Friday post for the year, which was mostly inspired by Angie’s lovely review of Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier (one of my favorite novels). I told her that I should up my game next year and should aim for at least two Retro Friday books per month. Old titles are awesome, you know? And I’m always interested in recommending under-the-radar books. Anyway, hope the rest of you are enjoying the year-end festivities! 🙂

Other reviews:
Angieville
Book Harbinger
Janicu’s Book Blog
Good Books and Good Wine
Tempting Persephone

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

I enjoyed reading Maggie Stiefvater’s books in the past but it wasn’t until I saw glowing reviews from blogging buddies and Goodreads friends that I became really curious about The Scorpio Races. It sounds different from anything else that she’s written and Maggie herself said that this is her favorite out of all of her books. How’s that for encouragement? I couldn’t pass up reading this one and I like that it’s a standalone novel.

Here’s the summary from Maggie Stiefvater’s website:

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

Sigh, what a lovely, lovely book this turned out to be. It’s the best Maggie Stiefvater novel that I’ve read and if you haven’t read any of her books, I recommend that you start with this one. The novel is narrated from alternating points of view – Puck or Kate Connolly’s and Sean Kendrick’s. Both are entered to compete in the deadly Scorpio Races, the annual event featuring water horses or capaill uisce. These terrifying water horses come out of the ocean only in the island of Thisby and unlike their land counterparts, they live on flesh and blood and love to hunt moving targets. A few islanders can tame them enough to ride them to the races, Sean is the most gifted when it comes to handling the water horses. Puck is the most unusual contestant in the race because she’s the first girl to enter and she’s riding her regular island pony, Dove, instead of a water horse. It was easy enough to like Puck – she’s a prickly character but brave when she needs to be and she’d do anything for her two brothers. She joins the race to discourage her older brother, Gabe, from leaving the island. While I’ve always lived in the city and can’t relate to the small town life in Thisby, I can understand how Puck feels about her homeland. To live in a place that’s not easy to love, a crazy place with wild typhoons or storms, a place that friends and family would rather leave so they can find better opportunities somewhere else. Yeah, that sounds pretty familiar. And The Scorpio Races is just as much about Thisby as it is about the water horses. Sean shares the same fondness for their homeland. When asked why he doesn’t leave, he answers with, “The sky and the sand and the sea and Corr.” Remove the Corr bit (although I wouldn’t say no to a magical water horse of my own) and that is exactly why I love the beaches in the Philippines.

I loved how the romance developed in this book, the pacing was perfect. It’s the best kind of slow burn, filled with intense, meaningful glances and one-liners that go straight to the heart. I ate it all up and savored all the scenes between Puck and Sean. These two are so very different from each other – one is feisty while the other is a quiet sort of person – but they also have so much in common. They’re tied by their love for Thisby and how they both care for their respective horses – the loyal Dove, for Puck and the blood-red, unpredictable water horse, Corr, for Sean. Both of them are orphans and because they’ve had to fend for themselves, they seem older than their teenage years. But I don’t mean to imply that the focus of the story is the romance because it really isn’t. Like I said, The Scorpio Races is about the island of Thisby, its people (viewed through the eyes of Puck and Sean) and the horses that they love. I know next to nothing about horses, I think I’ve only ridden a horse once in my entire life, but that didn’t keep me from being fully immersed in this novel. The Scorpio Races may not be for everyone (I’ve seen mixed reviews) but it makes me happy that it worked out for me. Beautifully written, it sucked me in and didn’t let go until I reached the end. One of my favorite books read this year, I recommend it to fans of horse stories and subtle romances.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the scenes from Sean’s point of view:

“As the sun shines low and red across the water, I wade into the ocean. The water is still high and brown and murky with the memory of the storm, so if there’s something below it, I won’t know it. But that’s part of this, the not knowing. The surrender to the possibilities beneath the surface. It wasn’t the ocean that killed my father, in the end. The water is so cold that my feet go numb almost at once. I stretch my arms out to either side of me and close my eyes. I listen to the sound of water hitting water. The raucous cries of the terns and the guillemots in the rocks of the shore, the piercing, hoarse questions of the gulls above me. I smell seaweed and fish and the dusky scent of the nesting birds onshore. Salt coats my lips, crusts my eyelashes. I feel the cold press against my body. The sand shifts and sucks out from under my feet in the tide. I’m perfectly still. The sun is red behind my eyelids. The ocean will not shift me and the cold will not take me.”

Other reviews:
Angieville
Book Harbinger
The Allure of Books
The Book Smugglers

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson is one of my favorite YA authors. She writes historical fiction novels with romance in them. I’ve read all of her YA novels except for A Song for Summer and I’ve been saving it up for when I feel like getting cozy with a good book. That time came up last week and I finally got to read this.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Eighteen-year-old Ellen never expected the Hallendorf school to be, well, quite so unusual. After all, her life back in England with her suffragette mother and liberated aunts certainly couldn’t be called normal. But buried deep in the beautiful Austrian countryside, Ellen discovers an eccentric world occupied by wild children and even wilder teachers, experimental dancers and a tortoise on wheels. And then there is the particularly intriguing, enigmatic, and very handsome Marek, part-time gardener and fencing teacher. Ellen is instantly attracted to the mysterious gardener, but Hitler’s reich is already threatening their peaceful world. Only when she discovers Marek’s true identity and his dangerous mission does Ellen realize the depth of her feelings for him—and the danger their newfound love faces in the shadow of war.

I mentioned this in my review of A Company of Swans last year but I want to say it again: there’s something about Eva Ibbotson’s writing that makes her novels comfort reads even when you’re reading them for the first time. Maybe because she usually writes about bright, happy, young women – all of them intriguing in their own way. They’re the kind of girls that everyone loves and Ellen is no exception. She’s young but has very motherly traits because her passion lies in taking care of the household and everything involved in that – cooking, baking, cleaning, doing the laundry and making everyone else more comfortable. At first, her liberated mother and aunts were disappointed because they wanted bigger things for her but they eventually accepted that Ellen is bound to excel in whatever she does. I love that Ellen was brave enough to go after what she really wanted even when it meant that she can’t be a doctor, lawyer or professor like her relatives wanted. She’s such a sweet person but with a backbone of steel that becomes evident when the need arises. It’s not surprising that all of the characters in book are drawn to her.

A Song for Summer is a charming novel but the latter part of the book was a bit frustrating. I wanted Ellen to get her happy ending, she deserved that and more for being the kind of person she is. I felt like she had to go through so much for it to happen. There were several bumps in the road when it comes to the romance in this novel and I think I would have loved the book more if there was less conflict. There were times when I wanted to knock some sense into the guy and tell him that he shouldn’t be hurting her feelings. But I guess that’s what happens when romance gets complicated because of war, everyone suffers although you can’t help but hope that things would eventually work out. Overall, an enjoyable read that I would probably pick up again but A Countess Below Stairs and The Reluctant Heiress are still my favorite Ibbotsons. I feel kind of bad that I’ve finished reading all of her YA novels because I want more of them! Oh well, I still have to go through her children’s novels and I have a feeling they’re good too. If you’re a YA fan and you’ve never heard of Eva Ibbotson, you should definitely remedy that situation. Her novels are lovely and something that can be enjoyed by any reader. Oh and if you have recommendations similar to her work, feel free to let me know. I would love to discover more authors like her.

Other reviews:
Angieville
Book Harbinger
Bookshelves of Doom
The Compulsive Reader

The Mark of Solomon by Elizabeth E. Wein

I think we’ve safely established that I’m a book pusher and there’s nothing I enjoy promoting more than under-the-radar books. I am constantly amazed that so many excellent books don’t get the attention that they deserve. I reviewed The Sunbird by Elizabeth E. Wein last year, hoping that more people would read her books but I haven’t been that successful because I haven’t seen reviews of that book in the past year. Also, it makes me sad that The Sunbird is now out of print. So now I feel like I need to talk about The Mark of Solomon, the duology that comes after The Sunbird, because the blogosphere seriously needs to show more Elizabeth E. Wein love.

Here’s the summary for The Lion Hunter, the first book in The Mark of Solomon duology, from the author’s website:

It is the sixth century in Aksum, Africa. Twelve-year-old Telemakos — the half Ethiopian grandson of Artos, King of Britain — is still recovering from his ordeal as a government spy in the far desert. But not all those traitors have been accounted for. Before Telemakos is fully himself again, tragedy and menace strike; for his own safety he finds himself sent, with his young sister, Athena, to live with Abreha, the ruler of Himyar — a longtime enemy of the Aksumites, now perhaps a friend. Telemakos’s aunt Goewin, Artos’s daughter, warns him that Abreha is dangerous, a man to watch carefully. Telemakos promises he will be mindful — but he does not realize that Goewin’s warnings will place him in more danger than he ever imagined.

I’ve already dubbed Telemakos as Gen-in-Africa so that should serve as enough encouragement for all Megan Whalen Turner fans out there. I originally found out about these books from Sounis, back when I didn’t have a blog and I got most of my recommendations from that community. If you have no idea what I’m talking about (shame on you!), Gen is the main character in the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner and he’s all kinds of awesome. Telemakos is young but he’s wise beyond his years. His upbringing as a half-British, half-Aksumite noble and his innate curiosity has landed him right smack in the middle of political intrigue involving several countries. I find it ironic that he has such a striking physical appearance – cinnamon-colored skin, bright blue eyes and pale hair – and yet he excels in subtlety. A line from page 11 reads: “Oh, the wealth of intrigue you heard when no one imagined you were listening.”

Elizabeth E. Wein is not afraid of letting her characters suffer and even though I’ve known from the start that Telemakos is as brave as they come, my heart goes out to him whenever something terrible happens. *huggles Telemakos* He also kept surprising me with how intelligent his strategies were. Sorry for being vague but he kept being thrown into situations where he had to make the most out of his wits if he wanted to keep himself and everyone he cares for out of harm. Also, the secondary characters in these books? They’re all so smart and complex and they keep readers guessing. You never know who’s really trustworthy. Which also paves the way for complicated relationships between the characters. I love that you can feel the love and respect that the characters have for each other but their interactions are never simple.

The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom should be read together because the first book ends on a major cliffhanger. I heard that they’re actually just one book that was split by the publisher, I have no idea why. The Sunbird is the first book about Telemakos and The Mark of Solomon duology continues with his journey. They’re historical fiction books set in Aksum (ancient Ethiopia), Africa but there’s a hint of Arthurian legend in them as well. Telemakos is actually the son of Medraut (Mordred) and the grandson of Artos (Arthur). So if you’re a fan of historical fiction or Arthurian tales or you just want to read books with excellent worldbuilding, multi-faceted characters and plots riddled with conspiracies then you should pick these up as soon as you can. And spread the word about them when you’re done reading.

Other reviews:
Blogging for a Good Book
By Singing Light
Sherwood Smith

Retro Friday: Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

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 picked up Summer of My German Soldier because I wanted to read its sequel, Morning is a Long Time Coming, which comes highly recommended by my book pusher friend Angie. Good thing I was able to find a bargain copy for just P29 (less than a dollar).

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Minutes before the train pulled into the station in Jenkinsville, Arkansas, Patty Bergen knew something exciting was going to happen. But she never could have imagined that her summer would be so memorable. German prisoners of war have arrived to make their new home in the prison camp in Jenkinsville. To the rest of her town, these prisoners are only Nazis. But to Patty, a young Jewish girl with a turbulent home life, one boy in particular becomes an unlikely friend. Anton relates to Patty in ways that her mother and father never can. But when their forbidden relationship is discovered, will Patty risk her family and town for the understanding and love of one boy?

I’m usually not a fan of novels set during wartime – I find them difficult to read because of all the hardships the characters have to endure. This is true in Patty’s case but not because of the war. Her mother and father are horrible parents and I don’t understand why they’re like that. It would’ve made more sense if they’re just bad people in general but they’re mean only to Patty – both of them treat Patty’s younger sister with affection. Her mother is mostly concerned with outside appearances and always criticizes Patty because she’s not pretty enough; while her father doesn’t like her inquisitive ways and believes that Patty should just blindly obey whatever he tells her to do. Her parents made me so mad that I wanted to hit them over the head with something hard. Aside from the family housekeeper Ruth, no one else values Patty and it’s a real shame. No wonder Patty turns to Anton, a German prisoner-of-war, for friendship. He recognizes her as the intelligent twelve-year-old that she is. Anton is several years older than Patty but he treats her like an equal. Patty doesn’t have any real friends either so it was a breath of fresh air for her to have someone like Anton in her life. I felt sad for Patty for most of the book but I’m happy that she found a good friend in Anton.

This book is a lightweight at just 199 pages but it took me a while to finish it because there were times when I had to pause and brace myself for some of the things that I knew will happen. So in a way, you can say that it wasn’t easy to read this book but it’s worth the effort because it’s a beautiful story about how friendships form in spite of nationalities, religious beliefs and pre-conceived notions. Who would’ve thought that a Jewish girl and a former Nazi soldier will hit it off. It’s amazing how so much was packed in such a slim novel – there’s so much depth in this one and I don’t think I’ll be able to justify all of it in a brief review. So many topics were tackled like racism, the complications of war and both physical and emotional abuse. It might sound a little bleak but I’m really glad I read this. Highly recommended for fans of middle grade or young adult historical fiction or wartime stories. If this sounds like something that you’d enjoy reading, please pick it up because I think Bette Greene is an amazing writer and I don’t see her getting featured that often. I can’t wait to read the sequel and I am hoping that things will be a lot better for Patty in that book. She truly deserves to be happy.

Other reviews:
The Children’s War
Bookfoolery and Babble
The Book Fetish

Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

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.

Song of the Sparrow is based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, an Arthurian poem about Elaine of Ascolat. I’ve never read a novel in verse before and I thought it would be a good idea to start with this one because I like the premise. I don’t read a lot of Arthurian tales either although I remember reading Le Morte d’Arthur for English back in high school and I love Elizabeth E. Wein’s books. When I saw an inexpensive used copy from Julie’s Sari-Sari Store, I bought it right away. Thanks to Celina for the heads up on where I could find a copy.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Since the days of King Arthur, there have been poems and paintings created in her name. She is Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott, and now there is a book all her own. The year is 490 A.D. and 16-year-old Elaine has a temperament to match her fiery red hair. Living on a military base with her father, brothers, and the rest of Arthur’s army, Elaine pines for the handsome Lancelot, and longs for a female friend. But when the cruel, beautiful Gwynivere arrives, Elaine is confronted with startling emotions of jealousy and rivalry. Can Elaine find the strength to survive the birth of a kingdom?

I was swept away by the beautiful writing in Song of the Sparrow. Maybe it’s because of the verse format but it felt like I was reading a fairy tale instead of a historical fiction book. I was easily immersed in the story and I knew right from the start that Elaine and I would get along just fine. Elaine is a girl stuck in a world full of men and she can be described as “one of the boys”. Her father brought her to Arthur’s camp when her mother died and she’s been there ever since. Her father and her two brothers fight alongside the knights of Arthur and she has great respect for all of them. As the only lady in their camp, Elaine’s sewing and healing skills are in great demand. She doesn’t mind because she’s friends with most of the men in their camp and she enjoys the freedom that her lifestyle allows. What I loved about Elaine’s character in this retelling is that she manages to show her strength without picking up a sword or fighting in a battle like other fantasy heroines (not that I don’t love them). Elaine’s infatuation with Lancelot is an integral part of the story because that’s what she’s famous for but I liked how the author provided a background for it – how Lancelot was always there whenever Elaine was lonely as a child and how he comes to the rescue the few times that Elaine needs help. It isn’t a tragic kind of love, which was how it was portrayed by other writers.

I don’t read much poetry so I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to relate to this one but surprise, surprise, the pages just flew by. To get a feel of the writing, check out the excerpt available in Lisa Ann Sandell’s website. The story provided not just a clear picture of Elaine but of other well-known characters like Gwynivere, Lancelot, Tristan and Arthur. I loved seeing how Elaine interacted with all of them, even Gwynivere who is everything Elaine isn’t – beautiful, ladylike, cold and cruel. I made an excellent decision when I chose Song of the Sparrow as my first novel in verse because now I’m curious about books written in a similar format. I wonder if other novels in verse are as lovely as this one. I highly recommend this to fans of Arthurian tales, retellings or novels in verse. Or maybe I should just say, read this if you want to fall in love with an exquisite retelling about Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott.

Other reviews: (manually generated)
Book Harbinger
See Michelle Read
Persnickety Snark
Inkcrush