Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Keeping up with the Challenge: Reviews on First Frost, Alias Hook, Illusions of Fate and The Magician's Lie

Books, books and more books. The challenge continues with reviews of the next four books of the New Year Book challenge. And these books were definitely a high, a great experience overall for these reads.

Let's dive right in.

First up for review was the latest release by Sarah Addison Allen, First Frost, book 2 in the Waverly Family series. I reviewed Allen before on my site but I haven't reviewed Garden Spells, the book that first introduced readers to the extraordinary talents of the Waverly Family. Women in the Waverly family are born with unusual talents and are known for the apple tree that grows in their fenced in garden behind their home. For years, Claire Waverly lived on her own in the family's hometown, honing her talent for using certain flowers in different recipes for various outcomes to establish a successful catering business. Claire's sister Sydney and her daughter Bay moved back home in Garden Spells, making the majority of the first book's plot to deal with the sisters learning to live together and trust one another again, embracing their heritage and their connection to family.

First Frost picks up nearly ten years after the events of Garden Spells. Claire has expanded with building a candy making business which leaves her unable to tend to her catering business, and the stress is taking its toll on her. Sydney is worried about giving her husband a new baby and focusing on her salon in town. Bay, Sydney's daughter, is working through the trials of high school with her best friend beside her, all the while watching the boy she knows she belongs with have nothing to do with her. While each Waverly woman deals with their struggles, a stranger comes to town with claims that can change what they have come to know, for better or worse.
I always look forward to the next release by Sarah Addison Allen. She has a way of weaving her stories so that the magic seems natural, its something easily accepted because the focus of the plot and the writing doesn't depend on the use of magic but on the development of the characters and their relationships. When I read that Allen would be returning to the Waverly family for her next book, I pulled out my copy of Garden Spells to reread in preparation of the new release. I would recommend that readers pick up a copy of Garden Spells if they plan on reading First Frost. The story benefits from understanding the development established in the first novel. Various favorite characters return and connections are better understood in this novel if the reader is familiar with the faces seen before in the previous book and how they are a part of the Waverly existence.

The only quibble I have with this book is that the plot with the stranger who rolls into town doesn't seem to do much in carrying the novel along. There is a separate moving plot for Claire, for Sydney and for Bay, and the stranger only deals especially specifically with one of them, but in the end, I felt that the conflict didn't pack as much of a punch as Allen's previous novel conflicts had managed to do. In the end however, I wanted to see how the Waverly family had come along, how they'd grown together and apart and managed to lead individual lives while still staying a family, and that is exactly what I got with this release. Recommended for fans of Allen's previous works. To new Readers, I suggest grabbing a copy of Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen or The Girl Who Chased the Moon to really get an understanding of Sarah Addison Allen's incredible talent.

Rating: 8 Stars

Next up on the list, the wonderful Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen. The book is about the villain of the Peter Pan story, told from his point of view about his existence in Neverland, doomed to spend an eternity fighting a war against Peter and his little followers, a battle that will never end. Cursed and hoping for a way to break it, Hook's story picks up when Stella Parrish dreams her way into Neverland in defiance of Pan's rules about women in his world. Stella learns more about Neverland than Hook has ever managed to do, and in the hopes of understanding what magic she could possibly have, Hook allies himself with Stella. Together, they work to understand the hold that Pan has on Neverland and all its occupants, including the power he has over Hook and the power that Hook still has over his own destiny.

I'd learned of Alias Hook through regular book browsing at the store. I hadn't heard much about it so I decided to hedge my bets and request the book from the library. When I sat down with the library copy, I blazed through 100 pages in one sitting, making me wish I'd bought it. Of course, when I returned to the store to buy my own copy, they were all gone, from every store in the city. I quickly ordered my copy online and have since bought a copy for my sister as a gift, that's how much I loved this book. I've tried reading various books that have used Peter Pan as an inspiration. My impression is that some of them have worked while others, well, not so much. Alias Hook, to put it bluntly, WORKS. The story was incredibly developed, outlining a whole past for Captain James Benjamin Hook, detailing how he ended up the marauding Captain of a ship filled with cutthroat sailors and the downfall that made him virtually a prisoner on Neverland.

The reader is taken through the journey that leads Hook to his curse and then gets to see how he begins to grow up, to take responsibility for his existence and work for something more. Peter Pan makes his appearance, and while the usual tidbits are seen, as in that he can't grow up, he keeps a Wendy to take care of him and the boys, he plays fighting games against the people of the First Tribes, he's also cast with a more villainous light, seen as an impulsively cruel child who looks at Hook as the favorite toy he loves to destroy. It was refreshing and interesting to see this development while clearly keeping Pan as a child, a little boy who loves to play games and can essentially throw a tantrum when things don't go his way and who lacks the understanding of life that he could have if he allowed himself to grow up.

The writing was brilliant, engaging and interesting, drawing the reader into the story by investing them in understanding why they should care about the villain of a childhood story. The timeline jumps back a forth for a while, showing Hook's past in pieces that hold the most sway over his current fate. Some readers might find those chapters a little slow but for me, I think it paid off in the end to see the jumps, to show that the story basically focuses on what is almost two different Hooks, the villain and then the man who wants to overcome his past in the hope of a better future. I rooted for Hook and I rooted for Stella.

We see Stella through Hook's point of view, and as a result, her story is only learned through what she divulges to the Captain, but what we do learn develops a worthy companion to Hook, a woman who was powerful enough to gain entry to Neverland on her own. Readers learn about her past, what made her desperate to get to Neverland, what connections she already had to the island and what hope she provides for Hook while learning to also hope for herself again. Jensen took the material and created a vibrant world that could stand on its own while still respecting the source material. I recommend this book to everyone looking for a great fantasy read that turns a story you know by heart into something extraordinarily new and engaging, a study of characters, hope and the benefits of growing up.

Rating: 9 Stars (I want to give this a 10 but I'm the kind of reader that enjoys the slow build to a story, reading all the minute details that other readers might be bored by, so this gets a 9 here so readers will know what to expect if they take a chance on this interesting read.)

Next book up for review is Kiersten Whites's Illusions of Fate. This book follows Jessamin, a young woman from the island of Melei, recently moved to the country of Albion to attend school and working at a hotel to help pay her expenses. She meets Finn, a young man who is a part of the nobility who also has a talent for magic. Conflict arises when its discovered that Finn has a certain knowledge about magic that has the Lord Downpike willing to do anything to gain the information for himself. Together, Jessamin and Finn work to stay safe and stop Lord Downpike before he can get what he wants.

I've reviewed White's books on my site before, in fact, her trilogy was some of the last reviews I posted on my site over two years ago. She excels at creating female characters with a bit of fight in them. Her heroines don't need to be saved but they are smart enough to accept help when it's needed. They don't fall over themselves because of a boy. They can think and argue and excel. Jessamin is no different. Added to her conflict, she has to deal with racism at school and the struggle of working for a living while the aristocracy sneers down their noses at her.

She doesn't despair and manages to make lasting friendships for herself with Finn and with Eleanor, a young woman who befriends Jessamin at a party. The two girls support each other and fight for each other, establishing a healthy friendship that serves to make each of them stronger in the long run. There is a slowly developed romance between Jessamin and Finn that was handled with skill, allowing for the reader to enjoy the side plot while the focus stayed securely on stopping the machinations of the evil Lord Downpike. The only drawback is that the book seemed to rush to tie up loose ends in the final chapters. I'm not sure if this means there won't be a sequel or if this is definitely a standalone novel. Either way, it's definitely worth a read.

Rating: 8 Stars

Last book for today, The Magician's Lie by Greer Macallister. The book follows the Amazing Arden, a famous female illusionist. Her famous trick? Sawing a man in half on stage and then putting him back together again. Except one night, the trick is different and while many believe it was just a change of pace, a body shows up backstage, identified as Arden's husband. Policeman Virgil Holt finds Arden fleeing and manages to arrest her, taking her into custody where he ends up listening to her side of the story that has led her to that very moment, claiming her innocence in the murder.

Again, regular book browsing brought this novel to my attention. Kudos to the cover designer for this book. My eye was caught by the cranberry color of the gown and the contrast of the dove against the gown and I was drawn in to the book's orbit and it didn't let me go until I finished reading. The writing was concise, the development of the novel moved along at a pace that keeps the reader interested. Nothing drags, everything progresses at a reasonable pace. Unfortunately, I didn't love this book as much as I'd hoped I would. While I was definitely invested in Arden's story and everything that was revealed about her, I wasn't very keen on the antagonist of the piece. It almost felt like, "oh, by the way, here we are, this is the character to stay away from", because the true threat never seemed to be realized.

Arden remained in control of every detail she gave of her story, and her calculated retelling of her interactions with the antagonist made it seem too far removed to be of much consequence. I couldn't understand why a woman with such grit and determination could allow something like this to dictate her life, not to mention the fact that she never told the truth to someone who could actually help her. Instead, it seemed like she kept everything bottled up nice and neat inside her and when the antagonist came rearing their ugly head, it seemed like it was an excuse to keep up her traveling, to not commit herself to her relationships past those of a working nature. It was too convenient, too neat, and everything tidied up by the end of the book in an ending that felt a little fast. Recommended for readers who like historical fiction with a little magic.

Rating: 7 Stars

Check back next week for the next installment of reviews for the New Year Book Challenge.

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