Retro Friday: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

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 heard nothing but good things about Susanna Kearsley’s writing from some of my book blogger friends. I’ve been curious about her books for a while now so I was thrilled when my friend Heidi sent me a signed copy of The Winter Sea last year. I thought it would be a good introduction to Susanna Kearsley. I picked it up when I was in the mood for a historical fiction novel and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed reading The Winter Sea.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth-the ultimate betrayal-that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…

The Winter Sea and Mocha

Photo taken using Instagram.

I thought The Winter Sea was a lovely read with excellent characters, an atmospheric setting and unique plot. It’s funny how interested I was in reading a book that is heavily tinged with Scottish history when I know next to nothing about the Jacobite revolution. I had to do a bit of Wikipedia research to get a better understanding of this part of history. I think Susanna Kearsley did an amazing job of making history come alive by intertwining Sophia and Carrie’s stories. It was a pleasant surprise that I wasn’t bored by the historical aspects of The Winter Sea. I thought it was interesting how Carrie’s ancestral memory surfaces as she was wandering along Scotland, doing research for her next novel. She feels the pull of the place and decides that she needs to spend more time in that area. Being near Slains awakens something inside Carrie and she’s able to write about Sophia’s memories. That’s the only supernatural element in the book and I liked how seamlessly it was done. I love how Carrie describes her writing process and how she gets swept away by the stories in her mind. A non-spoilery snippet:

“…I could feel the stirrings of my characters – the faint, as yet inaudible suggestion of their voices, and their movements close around me, in the way someone can sense another’s presence in a darkened room. I didn’t need to shut my eyes. They were already fixed, not truly seeing, on the window glass, in that strange writer’s trance that stole upon me when my characters begin to speak, and I tried hard to listen.”

Carrie’s description of how writing makes her forget about everything else around her is similar to how I feel about some of the books that I read. Whenever I’m engrossed in a well-written novel, I tend to focus on it and ignore my surroundings. I really liked Carrie and Sophia and I was rooting for both of them. I loved that there was a sweet and slow burn romance for both of these ladies because they deserved to have that in their lives. Carrie’s story was more quiet and mellow compared to Sophia’s adventures during a difficult time in history. I was worried about how things will work out and that kept me absorbed in The Winter Sea until I reached the end. I even found the descriptions of the winter sea in Scotland charming, how it was described as kind of desolate but still has its own beauty. I’ve seen The Winter Sea compared to Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read the latter ages ago and wasn’t impressed. In my opinion, The Winter Sea is a much better read. I’m delighted to have discovered a new historical fiction author to enjoy. I’m already planning to reading the rest of her books. Mariana and The Rose Garden have been suggested as good ones. Although it’s a different kind of historical fiction, this reading experience reminds me a little of when I first found out about Mary Stewart just because it’s a lovely feeling to have an author’s backlist to look forward to.

Other reviews:
Angieville
See Michelle Read
Book Harbinger

Retro Friday: Fire by Kristin Cashore

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 read both Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore when they first came out. That was a few years ago, back when I didn’t have a book blog. I recently reread them for a discussion with my online book club YAckers. I loved rereading both and realized that I have never written a review for Fire. It’s a good thing I refreshed my memory by rereading it recently because that gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about one of my absolute favorite epic fantasy novels.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

FireIt is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.

This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she has the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.

Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City, the royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.

If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.

Fire is such an achingly beautiful novel. It is wonderfully written with engaging characters, set in a dazzlingly colorful world. Fire is a human monster, an amazingly beautiful person who can read minds and manipulate people through her powers – either with just the way she looks or by compelling them to say or do things. Having seen what her cruel father Cansrel was able to do with his own monstrous powers, Fire is very cautious with hers. She has no intention of manipulating people and doesn’t even want to be involved in court politics. But the kingdom is on the brink of civil war and Fire has a role to play in all of this.

I loved Fire’s character. It was a pleasure to see her stretch as she opens herself up to possibilities. It’s understandable that she’s afraid of what she’s capable of but she has such a good heart that she doesn’t really have to worry about it. Aside from Fire, there are also plenty of fully fleshed out secondary characters to love in this novel. Can I just take a moment to say how much I love Brigan? Remarkable character and brilliant in so many different ways. I loved how Kristin Cashore portrayed the relationships in this book – they’re very messy and complicated but work so well in the context of the story. I liked seeing the dynamics of different types of relationships – romantic, platonic and within families – in the story. There’s a lot of love in there but also has some sadness and violence mixed in. Here’s a snippet that illustrates this:

“She had thought she’d already reached her capacity for pain and had no room inside her for more. But she remembered having told Archer once that you could not measure love on a scale of degrees, and now she understood that it was the same with pain. Pain might escalate upwards, and, just when you’d thought you’d reached your limit, begin to spread sideways, and spill out, and touch other people, and mix with their pain. And grow larger, but somehow less oppressive. She had thought herself trapped in a place outside the ordinary feeling lives of other people; she had not noticed how many other people were trapped in that place with her.”

Fire just has everything that I look for in my epic fantasy reads. Great characters, solid worldbuilding, a slow burn romance that I can root for and complex relationships that feel realistic. I cannot recommend it enough. It makes me happy that Fire stood up to a reread and I loved it just as much as when I was first introduced to it. In fact, I had to wait a couple of days for the story to fade from my mind before I could move on to another book. After rereading both Graceling and Fire, I am now craving for a new Kristin Cashore novel. I will be eagerly waiting for news about what she will publish next.

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

Retro Friday: Medair by Andrea K. Höst

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.

MedairHaving previously loved Andrea K. Höst’s sci-fi novels And All the Stars and the Touchstone trilogy, I picked up her Medair duology when I needed to be fully absorbed by a good novel. It’s funny because out of all of her books, I wanted to read this epic fantasy duology first but I didn’t get the chance to read them until recently. Once again, I would like to thank the author for providing a review copy of the omnibus edition which contains both The Silence of Medair and Voice of the Lost. I feel that both books have to be read together so I’m glad I got them in one edition.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Medair an Rynstar returned too late to drive back the Ibisian invasion. Centuries too late.

When friend and enemy have become the same thing, what use are the weapons Medair planned to use to protect her Empire? There is no magic, no artefact, no enchanted trinket which can undo the past.

But no matter how Medair wishes to hide from the consequences of her failure, there are those who will not allow her the luxury of denying the present. Her war is already lost, but she carries weapons which could change the course of new battles.

With the skirmishes of war beginning, and hunters in near pursuit, it is her conscience Medair cannot escape. Whose side should she be on? What is she really running from?

Silence of MedairI was completely immersed in Medair’s world right from the start. I read the whole thing in just one weekend because I couldn’t get enough of the story and just had to reach the end as soon as I could. I wanted to be swept away into a wonderful world filled with magic and adventure and I’m happy to report that Medair lived up to my expectations. Having had prior experience reading Andrea K. Höst’s other novels, I knew there would be surprising twists and turns in both The Silence of Medair and Voice of the Lost and I was right. I was immediately intrigued by the premise – Medair is a Herald of her kingdom, tasked with finding a powerful magical object that will help her people win the war. She succeeded in finding what she was looking for, but she stopped to rest in a place outside of time and when she woke up, she discovered that 500 years have passed. Not surprisingly, Medair feels lost, with no idea how to move forward. A large part of the reader’s enjoyment of Medair would depend on whether one will be able to sympathize with her and the issues that she faces. Her narration is very introspective, going back and forth from the past to the present, and trying to reconcile the differences between them. There’s a lot of reflection on her part as she reluctantly becomes involved in making decisions that would irrevocably change the world she found herself in. I loved Medair’s character, I understood her hesitations, her feelings and her worries. She’s an intelligent and resourceful woman, loyal to her liege and her country, and inherently a good person. But completely at a loss with how much has been altered in her world. I do admit that there could have been less of her thoughts going around in circles, even Medair was self-aware enough to realize that she keeps doing that, but I wasn’t really bothered by it. I can see why the narration wouldn’t work for everyone but I’m delighted that I was completely engrossed by it. Aside from Medair, I was also invested in several other characters in the story and I loved seeing her interact with them even as she tries to keep a distance.

Voice of the LostThere’s a whole lot of history and political intrigue intertwined with the story, partly because of the invasion centuries ago, and also because of the alliances of the various governing bodies around the region. I enjoyed these aspects and how magic was also involved in all of it. I like that there weren’t any lengthy explanations on how the magic works but it never got confusing for me. I felt that it was seamlessly woven into the story. I believe that this review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about the romance in these two books. While I could see it coming, it was how the characters got there that mattered. In keeping with her personality and the situation she’s in, Medair doesn’t take her attraction to a certain someone lightly. As a result, there’s tension and ambiguity. I really had no idea how things would unfold between them. Andrea K. Höst has consistently surprised me with how she builds and develops relationships in her books. While I wasn’t exactly able to predict how things would end, I can say that there was a nice build up and I couldn’t see Medair’s story ending any other way. Similar to the Touchstone trilogy, I can see the Medair duology will be a very good reread. I look forward to finding the time for it. In the meantime, I need to work on convincing more readers to pick up her books because I seriously find it surprising that they’re not as well-known as they should be. I had a book hangover after reading these two books and the only solution I could think of was to start on another Andrea K. Höst title.

Other reviews:
Me and My Books

Retro Friday: Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

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 enjoy reading retellings because I like seeing how authors adapt the foundations of an older story and make it their own. I especially like reading fairy tale retellings because I’m a sucker for fairy tales in general. My favorite retelling of Sleeping Beauty is Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment. It’s been a while since I last read it but I still have fond memories of my reading experience. Isn’t it nice when a story stays with you months or even years after you’ve read it? I thought it’s the perfect title for a Retro Friday review – an old favorite that I recommend other readers to pick up.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

EnchantmentThe moment Ivan stumbled upon a clearing in the dense Carpathian forest, his life was forever changed. Atop a pedestal encircled by fallen leaves, the beautiful princess Katerina lay still as death. But beneath the foliage a malevolent presence stirred and sent the ten-year-old Ivan scrambling for the safety of Cousin Marek’s farm.

Now, years later, Ivan is an American graduate student, engaged to be married. Yet he cannot forget that long-ago day in the forest – or convince himself it was merely a frightened boy’s fantasy. Compelled to return to his native land, Ivan finds the clearing just as he left it.

This time he does not run. This time he awakens the beauty with a kiss… and steps into a world that vanished a thousand years ago.

I liked so many things about Enchantment. I found the storyline so interesting – what if Sleeping Beauty woke up in the modern world? There’s a nice blend of modern and medieval in the setting of the story – it was fascinating to see how a medieval character reacts to the modern world and vice versa. Both Katerina and Ivan are pretty much clueless when it came to exploring the other person’s world and they had to rely on each other. As much as I love reading medieval fantasy, I never realized the inconveniences in living in that time period until I read about them in Enchantment. I also really liked the Russian folklore weaved into the story because I’ve only read a handful of books that have a Russian flavor to them. I’m always curious about stories based on mythologies, folktales or legends that I’m not familiar with.

“The old tale of Sleeping Beauty might end happily in French or English, but he was in Russia, and only a fool would want to live through the Russian version of any fairy tale.”

One of the highlights of any good fairy tale for me is the romance and Enchanment had a really good love story. It’s funny how Katerina wasn’t initially impressed with her “prince” but that was mostly because she didn’t know him and wasn’t familiar with a modern person’s way of doing things. It was entertaining to see both Katerina and Ivan get to know each other as they explore the two worlds that they both inhabit. It was also a plus that their families are so involved in their lives and their parents had a stake in the bond that was forming between the couple. I felt like all the elements of Enchantment’s story came together nicely, making it such a delightful read. Highly recommended for fans of fantasy and fairy tale retellings.

Retro Friday: My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger

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 moment I saw my good friend Maggie of Young Adult Anonymous give My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger such a glowing review, I knew I would want to read it. I went on Goodreads and also realized that another friend, Flannery of The Readventurer, rated it highly. I wanted to grab a copy as soon as I could but since books are expensive here in Singapore, I waited until I was in Manila before buying the paperback. I’ve had my copy since December last year and only felt like reading it recently. I was in the mood for a fun contemporary YA read and thought My Most Excellent Year would fit the bill. It was published in 2009 so I realized it’s the perfect choice for a Retro Friday review.

My Most Excellent Year outdoors

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

Best friends and unofficial brothers since they were six, ninth-graders T.C. and Augie have got the world figured out. But that all changes when both friends fall in love for the first time. Enter Alé. She’s pretty, sassy, and on her way to Harvard. T.C. falls hard, but Alé‚ is playing hard to get. Meanwhile, Augie realizes that he’s got a crush on a boy. It’s not so clear to him, but to his family and friends, it’s totally obvious! Told in alternating perspectives, this is the hilarious and touching story of their most excellent year, where these three friends discover love, themselves, and how a little magic and Mary Poppins can go a long way.

I am happy to report that My Most Excellent Year lived up to my expectations. It is such a feel good, heartwarming kind of read. I have no idea why it isn’t more well-known. It’s been out for a while now and I think only a handful of my blogging buddies have read it. It’s a good thing I love spreading the word about under-the-radar titles because I need to convince more people to read this. At first glance, I didn’t think My Most Excellent Year was the kind of book that I would enjoy mostly because the story has alternating POVs (T.C., Augie and Alé) and their interests lie in American history and politics, baseball and musicals. While I love seeing musicals, I’m not a die-hard fan who knows all the songs, actors/actresses and notable performances. And I know next to nothing about baseball and American history. In spite of that, I was absorbed by the story because at its core, My Most Excellent Year is about family, friendship and first love. I was charmed by the thought of two boys, T.C. and Augie, deciding to be brothers when they were 6 years old. Not like two best friends who think of each other as brothers, they really act like siblings to the point that even their parents have gotten used to having two sons instead of just one. So they have a Mom, Dad and a Pop. They share their rooms in two households and they have vacations together. I thought it was so sweet how warm and accommodating their families were. This book has such great parents in it, I think it’s worthwhile to point that out since we rarely see wonderful parents in YA.

My Most Excellent Year - headings

During ninth grade, both T.C. and Augie have to deal with falling in love for the first time. It was so much fun to see them struggling to adjust to what they’re feeling (especially Augie, who hasn’t even figured out that he likes boys instead of girls). It was sweet how supportive they are of each other, not just in their love lives but also in their interests in general. Like T.C. would watch musicals with Augie even if he doesn’t really enjoy them. Being great guys, it’s not surprising when T.C. befriends a lonely, deaf six-year-old boy called Hucky and Augie was right there along with him. T.C. wanted to reach out to Hucky because he sees a young Augie in the little boy, while Augie thinks Hucky was exactly like T.C. when they were that age. I hope it doesn’t seem too confusing that there are a lot of characters in the book because it was very easy to get to know the characters. I also really liked the format of the book – emails between various characters (I loved how even the parents email each other about their kids), IM messages and diary entries. I could relate to the format because that’s also how I communicate with friends and family, especially now that I live away from home. This was such a lovely, immensely readable book, the kind that lets you end on a happy sigh. While younger in tone and feel compared to some of the other contemporary YA novels that I loved, I still highly recommend My Most Excellent Year to anyone who needs an uplifting type of read. I’m mighty curious about the rest of Steve Kluger’s back list.

My Most Excellent Year - Augie

Other reviews:
Young Adult Anonymous
The Readventurer
The Book Smugglers
Book Nut

Retro Friday: Tempting Danger by Eileen Wilks

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 have been meaning to read more urban fantasy because I want to find a series to follow aside from Kate Daniels. I’ve read the first three Mercy Thompson books and the first two October Daye novels but felt no need to continue with both series. I know so many friends love those two series and it makes me a bit sad that I wasn’t able to connect with them like I wanted. I might change my mind later on and give those two a try again but for now, I’m interested in discovering new-to-me series. The World of Lupi books by Eileen Wilks come highly recommended by Estara, she says it’s a must read for urban fantasy fans. It’s funny because I started the first book and immediate thought that it feels like a mix of both Mercy Thompson (werewolf hierarchy, culture and history) and October Daye (both MCs are investigating murders and they have special skills that come in handy for the situation).

Tempting DangerHere’s the summary from Goodreads:

Lily Yu is a San Diego police detective investigating a series of grisly murders that appear to be the work of a werewolf. To hunt down the killer, she must infiltrate the clans. Only one man can help her – a were named Rule Turner, a prince of the lupi, whose charismatic presence disturbs Lily. Rule has his own reasons for helping the investigation – reasons he doesn’t want to share with Lily. Logic and honor demand she keep her distance, but the attraction between them is immediate and devastating-and beyond human reason. Now, in a race to fend off evil, Lily finds herself in uncharted territory, tested as never before, and at her back a man who she’s not sure she can trust.

Lily Yu is a third generation immigrant in the US and I think it’s awesome that this series has an Asian female protagonist. There are no lengthy introductions about the world at the start of the novel, readers are just thrown into it and we learn more details as we go along. I did find the pace a bit slow but first books tend to be like that, to serve as an introduction to the series. I felt like there was more speculation, more thinking on Lily’s part rather than action. It’s a minor quibble because I was still engaged and kept reading to find out more. I found myself curious about this world and how magic is structured in it. The lupi seem like they have a rich culture and history, that isn’t well-known to outsiders. I look forward to learning more about them. Of course, I was also interested in the attraction between Lily and Rule. I wanted to find out how both of them will react to this unexpected connection between them.

Both Lily and Rule are complicated people and we get to know them a little in this first installment. However, I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface and there’s a lot of room for more character development and worldbuilding. I like how the story isn’t just focused on the two MCs, we also get to know their friends and family. Families are very important to both of them. I’m a fan of Lily’s traditionally Chinese grandma, would love to know more about her. While Tempting Danger can stand well on its own, I am curious enough about the characters and the world to continue with the rest of the series. There’s obviously more in store for Lily and Rule. I just find it a bit surprising that there are already nine books that have been released with more in the pipeline. I’m not sure if one couple’s story arc that takes that long will be able to hold my attention. I haven’t read the summaries for the latter books because I don’t want to see spoilers. I know there can be a lot that can happen by also focusing on secondary characters, all those friends and family that are significant in Lily and Rule’s lives. I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this series will work for me! I’ve already started the second book. I recommend Tempting Danger to urban fantasy fans, specifically the Mercy Thompson and October Daye series. I find it a bit surprising that Eileen Wilks isn’t more well-known.

Retro Friday: The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier

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 been meaning to read the rest of Juliet Marillier’s novels ever since I fell in love with her Sevenwaters series. It’s taken me a while to pick up another Marillier book because the huge TBR pile keeps distracting me with other choices. Nowadays, I’m behind on reviews so I thought it would be a good idea to sink my teeth into a doorstopper so I can catch up on blog posts. The Dark Mirror, the first in the Bridei Chronicles, is certainly one of those with its 670 pages.

Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

The Dark Mirror by Juliet MarillierBridei is a young nobleman fostered at the home of Broichan, one of the most powerful druids in the land. His earliest memories are not of hearth and kin but of this dark stranger who while not unkind is mysterious in his ways. The tasks that he sets Bridei appear to have one goal-to make him a vessel for some distant purpose. What that purpose is Bridei cannot fathom but he trusts the man and is content to learn all he can about the ways of the world.

But something happens that will change Bridei’s world forever… and possibly wreck all of Broichan’s plans. For Bridei finds a child on their doorstep on a bitter MidWinter Eve, a child seemingly abandoned by the fairie folk. It is uncommonly bad luck to have truck with the Fair Folk and all counsel the babe’s death. But Bridei sees an old and precious magic at work here and heedless of the danger fights to save the child. Broichan relents but is wary.

The two grow up together and as Bridei comes to manhood he sees the shy girl Tuala blossom into a beautiful woman. Broichan sees the same process and feels only danger… for Tuala could be a key part in Bridei’s future…or could spell his doom.

The Dark Mirror spans several years – it starts from Bridei’s childhood when he was first brought to Broichan’s household to endure long years of training. While not cruel, Broichan is very strict and Bridei’s childhood seemed a little bleak without the company of fellow children. Which is why he was ecstatic when he discovers a child left on the doorstep – Bridei names her Tuala and he firmly believes that she is a gift from the gods and he is meant to protect her. As always, I found Juliet Marillier’s writing lyrical and atmospheric. However, I couldn’t help but feel that the pacing of the book was slow. The first half of the book was devoted to Bridei’s learning and how he relates to Tuala as a child. While I liked Bridei, Tuala and several of the secondary characters, I didn’t feel as connected to them as I did with the Sevenwaters characters. I was curious enough about the story to keep on going – I wanted to see how Bridei would develop into a young man and how he’ll face the plans that have been laid out for him. I also wanted to know what Tuala’s role is in Bridei’s life, why she was entrusted in his keeping. But I wasn’t as invested in the story as much as I’d like. I felt a little detached and I guess that prevented me from falling in love with this.

I still believe Juliet Marillier writes excellent historical fiction – I enjoyed reading The Dark Mirror because it reads like a well-researched historical novel with just the right amount of magic to make things interesting. She’s still an auto-buy, auto-read author for me and I’m planning to read the other books in the series because I already have copies. I’m just hoping I’d like them more than I liked this one. The Dark Mirror is a quiet kind of story so I feel like it’s not something that every reader will enjoy. I feel bad that I didn’t find this as amazing as I expected because Juliet Marillier is one of my favorite authors and I can’t even explain why the book didn’t work for me. This experience reminds me of the first Marillier that I read: Wildwood Dancing and the fact that I didn’t love that either. The Dark Mirror really is a well-written novel but I think it just wasn’t for me or I wasn’t in the right mood to read this. If this sounds like your kind of thing then go ahead and pick it up but if you’re reading Juliet Marillier for the first time, I recommend that you start with Daughter of the Forest instead of this one.

Other reviews:
Book Harbinger
Calico Reaction

Retro Friday: Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

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.

It seems fitting to review an Ellen Emerson White title for Retro Friday because it was Angie who first introduced me to this author. Life Without Friends is a sequel to Friends for Life. I believe both titles are out of print and sadly, I wasn’t able to get a used copy of Friends for Life. I don’t think it matters though because I enjoyed reading Life Without Friends even if I haven’t read its companion novel. I hope those titles aren’t too confusing!

Here’s the summary from Ellen Emerson White’s website:

A lot of bad things happened to Beverly last year. Now she’s living a life without friends. It’s a lot easier that way. Then Derek comes into her life, just by chance. Bit by bit, Beverly opens up to Derek, and begins to trust him. She can tell him anything. Or almost anything.

There’s just last year standing between Beverly and Derek — the one thing he said he couldn’t forgive. Maybe it will ruin everything if she talks about it. And maybe it will ruin everything if she doesn’t.

Beverly has been through so much – she dated a guy who was involved in a lot of drugs and was part of the wrong crowd in school. To cope with the horror of the past year, Beverly has decided that it’s better for her to avoid everyone and keep to herself. Her father requires her to attend weekly psychiatrist sessions but even during those private moments, Beverly is afraid to open up. Poor Beverly! I really felt bad for her at the start of the novel. The title of the book – Life Without Friends – seemed really appropriate for her because she didn’t have any friends that she could turn to. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for her. Here’s a fairly spoiler-free snippet from early on:

“Alone again, Beverly relaxed somewhat. It was hard to believe that life could get any worse than this. More than once lately, she had thought about killing herself, erasing the fact that she had ever existed. It would be so easy, so—except that she wouldn’t. She didn’t respect people who committed suicide.”

It’s a good thing Derek unexpectedly appears in Beverly’s life and he’s determined to be friends with her. I think Derek is really a great guy – he’s thoughtful, friendly and does his best to make Beverly laugh. A tentative kind of relationship forms between these two. Derek is hesitant because he’s worried that he’s not good enough for Beverly, while Beverly doesn’t want Derek to know the horrible things that happened in her school. This book reminded me a bit of the Love Stories series published by Bantam Books and I devoured those when I was a teen. I think the romance in this novel is really sweet but Life Without Friends is more than just a love story. It’s about Beverly coming to terms with everything bad that happened in her life – from her mother passing away five years before to her getting involved with the worst kind of guy. I also enjoyed watching Beverly interact with the people in her life – her father, her stepmother, her younger brother and even her psychiatrist. I found the conversations during her weekly psych sessions funny. Sometimes, it’s nice to read something like this and remember a time when we didn’t have cellphones or the internet. Beverly reminded me so much of Meg from the same author’s President’s Daughter series – both of them intelligent young women experiencing difficult times in their lives. I kind of wish they got to meet in the last Long May She Reign. I’m hoping that Ellen Emerson White will release another book soon, I’d love to check it out if that happens.

Other reviews:
Angieville
See Michelle Read

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