Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Review: Trancing the Tiger by Rachael Slate

3 stars

Trancing the Tiger by Rachael Slate is a paranormal romance with a unique premise. It's set in an alternate modern day or near future, where the earth - particularly North America - has been ravaged by the Red Plague. Having lost her parents to the disease, Lucy Yeoh comes from her home in the US to her father's birthplace of Penang, Malaysia to meet her uncle. Unbeknownst to her, she's also walking into Ground Zero of the divine war that unleashed the plague. And fighting on the frontline is Li Sheng, who seems to think that he, Lucy and some other misfits are the hosts of the spirits of animals of the Chinese Zodiac, bestowed on them by the mythical Jade Emperor. To Lucy, it soon doesn't sound as crazy as it seems. But as her relationship with Sheng (and his resident Tiger) heats up, so too does the fight against the rival Kongsi, the Council of Elders, and the agents of the Plague God.

The world of Trancing the Tiger, particularly the setting of Penang and use of Chinese mythology, was well-done, as was the character of Lucy. When Sheng kept trying to convince Lucy that she was one of 'The Chosen' who bear an animal Zodiac, my inner geek started reciting "Into each generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness...". And even though she wasn't a Slayer, Lucy actually was a Buffy-esque heroine. She was a good combination of diffidence and strength, given she was facing life in a strage place after the death of her parents. It was Sheng who I wasn't so keen on as a character. I didn't really get a sense of him; it seemed like he had almost no character traits outside of his alpha-male Tiger-ness, his desire for Lucy, and his sense of duty to the Chosen who made up his Kongsi.

There were also some other elements I felt didn't work so well. Perhaps it's because I'm not a big reader of paranormals, but there were several things that happened that I found quite weird, such as Lucy's Rabbit randomly deciding to fling herself all the way to the ceiling of a room, where she hung in a manner more befitting a gecko than a rabbit. And although I enjoyed the ending, I felt like there was something of a lull and then a great flurry of action, as opposed to a gradual build toward a denouement. 

On the whole, though, Trancing the Tiger was a solid read, and I'll probably read the next in the series for the freshness of the premise.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Review: The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale

4 stars

Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days takes its title from a saying of the main character's mother: that you have to spend a thousand days with someone before you can truly know who they are. And yet, the heroine of Book of a Thousand Days, Dashti, has such a strong character voice that I felt I knew her long before our time together was up. 

In Book of a Thousand Days, Dashti commentates her transition from being a 'mucker' peasant to a lady's maid, followed by years of darkness as she is imprisoned in a tower with her mistress, who refused to marry the lord her father had chosen. As her lady slips further and further into depression, Dashti realises their food stores will run out long before the seven years of their prison term and must discover a way to escape before they both succumb to hunger.

The synopsis left me a bit doubtful about how the author would maintain the reader's interest when the characters and setting were so static and isolated. However, Dashti's reminiscences from her childhood and her sketches of their surroundings, as well as the occasional interaction with the world outside, stopped the reader from becoming bored. In fact, if I was to find fault with any part of the plot, it would not be that part of the book at all, but rather the ending. I felt like everything was stitched up too neatly and quickly at the end; Dashti's fate turned on a sixpence, somewhat devaluing the previous complications with her love interest.

From Dashti's descriptions and sketches, the setting of the Eight Realms is lyrically developed as a fictional version of medieval Mongolia, but it is only since I finished the book and did some googling have I come to realise that aspects of Dashti's world that I assumed to be fictional were in fact true parts of traditional Mongolian culture. 

Thanks largely to the strength of Dashti as a character and Hale's Mongolian-inspired world, The Book of A Thousand Days managed to simultaneously be whimsical but authentic, simple but moving. It's meant for an early-teen audience, but it makes a breath of fresh air for anyone looking for something a little bit outside the box.  

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Recommendations: Some Swashbuckling Romances for Me Hearties

Since today be the Nineteenth of Semptember in the Year of our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen, all ye landlubbers have hereby been given leave to pretend ye are sailing the seven seas...

That's right, Talk Like A Pirate Day has rolled around again. If you are not aware of Talk Like A Pirate Day, you have clearly been living under a rock, but you can get up to speed by reading about its origins here. For those whose seafaring talk is more lacking than the powder monkey's deck-swabbing skills, you can brush up on your lingo and get some first rate pick-up lines here. And for those looking to extend their vocab even further, why not incorporate some German pirate slang into your repotoire? Frankly, I think English pirate lingo can never match the beauty of expressing surprise by saying "Da fällt mir doch der Papagei von der Schulter!" (That makes the parrot fall off my shoulder). In honour of this most important holiday, I have collated some of my favourite seafaring romances that will make the parrot fall off your shoulder: 

To Catch a Pirate by Jade Parker
This book was my introduction to the pirate sub-genre, and was one of the books that made me realise I loved romances. As a YA, it's reasonably chaste, but my dog-earred copy attests that it's still an excellent read. It features Annalisa, the daughter of a British governor to a small Carribean island. When her father is accused of allowing pirates to steal the money meant to build his colony, Annalisa sets off to bring the true perpertrators - including the dashing James Sterling - to justice.  

The Pirate Wolf Trilogy by Marsha Canham
Marsha Canham is the queen of all things pirate, (and her Kindle editions are wonderfully cheap), but the Pirate Wolf Trilogy, following members of the Dante pirate clan, are stand outs.

The Captain of All Pleasures & The Price of Pleasure by Kresley Cole
Kresley Cole is better known for her paranormal romances, but these two novels feature characters and romance that rival any of her later work. In The Captain of All Pleasures, Nicole Lassiter takes her father's place in the Great Circle from London to Sydney, competing against her father's long-time rival Derek Sutherland. The Price of Pleasure centres around Derek's brother Grant, who is sent to find Victoria, an English girl supposedly lost at sea.

Seduced by a Pirate by Eloisa James
A companion novella to The Ugly Duchess, Seduced by the Pirate was a quick and entertaining read, featuring James' characteristically quirky characters. Sir Griffin Barry jumped out of a window on his night of his wedding to an arranged bride. 14 years later, he comes home, unsure of what he'll find.

P.S. In a sentimental aside, I'd like to dedicate this post to Safak, who liked nothing better than making all his classmates swab the decks, fight imaginary 'villian' foes and ultimately get eaten by sharks during our Class IV drama classes. I secretly loved being your captain much more than being your teacher and I'll never find another first mate as dedicated as you.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review: Mistress Firebrand by Donna Thorland

4.5 stars

Set during the American War of Independence, Donna Thorland's Mistress Firebrand is a historical romance, with stress on the 'historical'. This is the first book by Donna Thorland I have read, but her detail-rich style is reminiscent of Joanna Bourne, whom I love. Except instead of Revolutionary France, we have Revolutionary New York, where Jenny Leighton is a playwright and bit-part actress at the only theatre still operating in Manhattan. She's desperate to exchange the America's provincial theatre scene for the bright lights of Drury Lane, and when she finds out that the British Army general and dramatist Johnny Burgoyne is anchored in the Hudson River, she is determined to secure his patronage.

Severin Devere is one of the Loyalists' best spies, but he's on babysitting duty, trying to keep General Burgoyne focussed on the war and away from pretty young things.  But the irrepressible Jenny makes his assignment more complicated than anticipated and then, the next time they cross paths things become even more difficult: Severin is under pressure to prove his loyalty to the British, while Jenny has made her way onto the British's hanging list for writing seditious plays.

As a reader and as a reviewer, I often stress character development over plot. I find that good characterisation covers a multitude of sins, but Mistress Firebrand made me remember how invested one can become in a good plot. It was extremely refreshing that, unlike so many more romance-y historicals, the hero and heroine didn't cause themselves unnecessary angst. When they were forced apart, it was a result of genuine, insurmountable external conflict, instead of their general blockheadedness or A Big Misunderstanding. On the flip side, this meant I needed to do some googling here and there, because a solid understanding of the War of Independence is key if you want to understand what is going on. I can't complain though, because, as I said, the depth of historical detail was something I really enjoyed about the book.

So too was Severin as a character. He was witty, thoughtful and kind. Although it doesn't mention this in any of the blurbs (it's actually quite nice that it's not being touted to sell books), he was also half-Mohawk. Displaced to England as a child, he's spent his whole life having to be "more English than the English" to disprove people's assumptions about him. Despite this, he is still frequently on the receiving end of casual racism and prejudice, and perhaps this plays a role in how he is extremely understanding of the precarious position Jenny and the other female characters are in. 

In fact, Thorland did an all-round superb job of capturing the nuances of the 1770s, in terms of both race and gender. There is no disdain for the actresses - including Jenny's Aunt Frances - who are regarded by society as little more than prostitutes. After Jenny realises that Aunt Frances sent her to Burgoyne with the intent that she would become his mistress, she bears her little ill-will, stating that it her aunt's way of trying to secure her future, and it was society who gave a woman the measly choice between being married or selling herself, with no other ways to make her own way in the world.  

With its stand-out plot, original and interesting hero and feminist undertones, Mistress Firebrand far exceeded my expectations and 75% of literature in the genre, and I'm so pleased that Donna Thorland's 3 books in this series are currently making their way across the Pacific Ocean to me. (Crazily, the kindle versions are so expensive it was cheaper to get the paperbacks shipped to Australia).

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