book reviews by Althea

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The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern *****

I wasn’t really ever one of those children who wanted to run away with the circus… but this book made me want to run away with the circus.

I didn’t actually think I’d like this book; it was a book club selection. I’m not sure why I was predisposed against it… but it doesn’t matter, because Morgenstern made quick work of those doubts!
I read this book till I fell asleep, then woke up at some absurdly early hour of the morning (after some lovely, inspired dreams), and finished it before going back to sleep.

Two children are trained by master magicians to participate in a vaguely defined contest of magic. What are the goals? How long will it last? On what criteria will it be judged? All they both know is the venue of the contest: a traveling circus. As boy and girl grow to man and woman, and grow in their powers, they create experiential, immersive, truly magical art in this circus that changes the lives of both the performers and the audience members of the Cirque du Reves.

The writing is gorgeously evocative.
While the format of the story is reminiscent of a fable, the people in it are real and believable (especially the clockmaker). While it is strongly romantic, it’s not simple or black-and-white. (Well, the circus tents may be black-and-white, but the ethical issues brought up are not.) Morgenstern perfectly creates otherworldly beauty that might – just might – be underlaid with horror.

In a completely random, and surely unintentional occurrence, reading this book brought me back to the art installations by lalalandia, where they would take over a house and create a different art environment in each room… water, smoke, sand, music…

But mostly, I wanted to just wrap a scarlet scarf over my black overcoat, and go to find the circus…


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Tithe – Holly Black ****

(Modern Faerie Tales #1)

I briefly met Holly Black at a signing some time ago, and I could just tell she was cool. Finally got around to reading a couple of her books. I was afraid they wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but – yeah, they’re cool!

They’re definitely YA – I think I would have enjoyed them even more if I were younger. Because there’s a certain age at which it’s really difficult to find books that reflect your reality while still being magical. For a pretty big chunk of us, ‘Bordertown’ was it. Now, there’s a lot more out there, I think.

In ‘Tithe,’ 16-yr old Kaye is just discovering, with ambivalence, the power of her own sexuality… like most girls around that age. Unlike most girls, she also discovers that she’s a changeling. Not even the knight of the unseelie court whom she rescues one dark and rainy night realized that she isn’t human, but her ‘imaginary’ friends from her childhood have plans for her that involve danger and sacrifice….

At times, the story gets a little bit silly. But at other times, it achieves real magic. I like books that aren’t afraid to portray parents as flawed human beings who aren’t always right, and that realize that kids that aren’t goody-goodies can still be good people.
The author does a great job of portraying the moral ambiguity of both courts of the Fey – and Kaye’s knight, Roiben, is Damn Sexy Hot! (no explicit action, though… sigh.)

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Lord of Snow and Shadows – Sarah Ash ****

(Tears of Artamon #1)

I bought this book just ’cause of the pretty cover art. I wasn’t familiar with the author at all.
About half way through the book, I ordered the two sequels, and just today I bought another book from the author. So – she’s won me over!

This is very enjoyable epic fantasy. I very much liked the semi-Russian feel to the culture, and the interplay/conflict between magic and technology/science. Yes, the characterizations and politics are a bit simplistic – but I thought it worked, in the context of a fable.

I enjoyed both the two main plot threads – first, the story of Gavril – a young artist whose mother has shielded him from knowledge of his father’s heritage: possession by a dragon-like spirit which gives great power, but only at the cost of ones humanity. Second – the story of Kiukiu, a girl who, similarly has had her heritage hidden. Her father was a magician who, through music, could cross the boundaries of life and death, and she also has unknowingly inherited powers.

Recommended for fans of Robin Hobb, Carol Berg, etc.

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The Crown – Nancy Bilyeau ****

(Joanna Stafford #1)

If you are a fan of Margaret Frazer’s Sister Frevisse mysteries – AND you are a fan of The Tudors (either the TV show or the historical time period in general) – there is no question: you should read this book immediately!

An intransigent novice leaves her cloistered order to be present at the execution of her cousin, whose family has fallen afoul of Henry VIII’s religious policies. Regardless of the interference of a handsome young man, she is arrested and questioned – and blackmailed into becoming a spy. There are rumors that her convent holds a valuable relic, and with religious establishments being suppressed and closed all over England, political factions are all out to seize as much wealth as they can.

Joanna is, at first, a reluctant investigator… but once details start coming to light, her naturally inquisitive nature comes to the fore, and she is compelled to solve the mystery.

The writing is good enough, and the research is thorough enough, that the book should satisfy fans of historical fiction – while the plot has enough twists and turns to satisfy those more familiar with the murder-mystery genre.

I received this book through the Goodreads “First Reads” giveaway! Thank you Goodreads!
However, I should note that I am not one of those people who feels required to give out good reviews just because I didn’t pay for a book! I always voice my honest opinion… just read my other reviews if you’re in doubt! 😉

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The Daemon Prism – Carol Berg *****

(Collegia Magica #3)

A worthy follow-up to the first two in the series. In this installment, the reader gets a fuller understanding of the prickly, difficult wizard Dante, and background on why he is the way he is.
Of course, his characteristics get him into the most untenable situations, and here, he finds himself in the position of being forced to hide his true motives once again.
The bulk of the book is his POV, but we also get a good chunk of Anne’s perspective, and a bit of Portier.

I thought this was going to be the last book in the series – but Berg definitely leaves it open for further events at the end! (Without creating an annoying cliffhanger – there’s definitely a satisfying sense of conclusion.)

I truly enjoy Berg’s writing – if you’re looking for traditional fantasy with all the good stuff that ought to be there, which is also well-written, with rich characters and settings… she’s your author.

Terrible, terribly embarrassing cover though. Really. Get a new artist.

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Eternal City – Nancy Kilpatrick ***

I was very enthused by one of Kilpatrick’s first books, the 1994 vampire novel ‘Near Death,’ and I’ve always thought it was cool that she’s part of the goth scene… but for some reason, I haven’t really followed her writing – I’m not sure why. Too many books, too little time!

‘Eternal City’ wasn’t bad. The story moves along at a fast clip, and there’s some good moments of horror and tension. The writing is pretty basic – it’s there to get the story across. It feels almost YA at times… expect for a kind of out-of-place and unexplained scene of attempted rape. (I would have edited it out – not because I object to rape being portrayed in novels, but because it does nothing to forward the plot. The reader expects to get back to it… but it never happens. It’s just random.)

Other than that, the story is a little silly, but it’s fun. A recently widowed mother and her son travel up north to a small Canadian town by a lake. The mother, Claire, has inherited land from her aunt, and has to decide what to do with it.
The lake has recently become the site of an exclusive time-share resort, and the resort’s owner, Virek, is heavily pushing to buy up all the land. However, the short-tempered but attractive hippie single-father neighbor points out to Claire that the resort seems to be ruining the local environment, driving the town’s economy into the ground, and is generally shady.
However, the weirdly attractive Virek seems to be making Claire an offer she can’t refuse…
But little does she know that the resort is shadier than even local-hippie-guy could have guessed, because, VAMPIRES!

Kilpatrick effectively captures the inherent creepiness of all-inclusive resorts. The vampires are original, cool and spooky.

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Changeling – Delia Sherman ***

Highly recommended for New York City parents looking for a good book to read aloud to their young children as bedtime stories.

For everyone else… well…
Having read some of Delia Sherman’s other books, I wasn’t expecting this to be quite so juvenile. It is definitely a kids’ book – aimed at 8-10 years old, I’d say, though younger kids would definitely enjoy it as well. However, a lot of the cleverness is probably going to zip right past a lot of kids, who might not have the background to ‘get’ all the references.

The tone of the book is primarily clever and silly, rather than eerie and magical. I can’t deny that I was hoping for the latter, not the former – it wasn’t bad, but I didn’t really get into it.

Still, I do think that NYC kids will enjoy the adventures of Neef and her Changeling twin, as they quest through a fairy-tale version of New York, visiting the Metropolitan Museum, Chinatown, Wall Street, roaming through Central Park, etc.