Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Back in 2009, I actually met Kristin Cashore at the Sirens Conference. I hadn't actually read the book even though the paperback version came in before I left for the conference. But it was still fun because Kristin is just a fun, cute person and definitely is very nice. She signed my copy of Graceling, which is always fun. I have the other book, Fire too, and I'm looking forward to Bitterblue.

About the Book from Goodreads: "Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone."

Overall:  I liked this book. It has many characteristics that I'm fond of when I read a book. It's a fantasy novel with a strong female main character who knows how to take care of herself along with an interesting plot and world. The story was a little slow in spots, particularly near the beginning, but in the end I enjoyed reading the book.

Characters: Katsa is a decent main character. She has her flaws, her moments but overall she is a strong female who isn't afraid to take a risk. And she grows during the story. Her character really develops as she discovers things about the conflicts going on, the other characters and much about herself. Having her interact with the different characters like Po and Bitterblue really did help. Speaking of other characters, I did end up liking Po. It's good to see a male character who interacts with a strong female without being too overbearing or cocky. I'd really like to see more of Katsa and the others in the future. I know the third book follows Bitterblue but if any came that would follow Katsa I'd probably check it out.

Story: This is one of the stories I couldn't quite predict. There are a few points I could see coming but there were plenty of surprises too. The world is well developed and what starts off as a somewhat small sounding conflict grows to a bigger even with a whole different villain that first expected. I enjoyed reading for the plot and seeing how the characters made their way through.

Dawn's Verdict: 7.5/10

The Villa Girls, by Nicky Pellegrino

The cover was irresistible so I selected The Villa Girls by Nicky Pellegrino as my latest 'chick-lit' type novel. I found it a light-weight easy page turner geared to escapist romance readers and there's nothing wrong with that. It follows the tried and true recipe which has given Pellegrino a readership niche in a romance novel sub-genre that blends the traditional culture and food of Italy with the promise of an unlikely holiday love affair. Well, how irresistible is that! Worked for me!

I have flicked through Pellegrino novels before but this time the language, appeal and structure lent itself to a younger market but I think there were too many adult themes for it to be graded YA. As a mature adult, I certainly found it interesting, if not challenging. Whilst it lacks the zap, action and feistiness of contemporary ‘chick - lit’ it provides a sincere and pleasurable love story for teens poised and hopeful on the brink of an independent life. It is laced with the excitement of early adventures that include holidays overseas, thinking about future options and of course tentative encounters with the opposite sex (but without any explicit detail).

The themes of The Villa Girls are family unity, loyalty and love seen from several perspectives.

I think the author handled conflict and suspense well to build the tension and plot. I adore the warmth and culture of the two Italian families that carry the storyline and reader along. Meals, recipes and hospitality are an intrinsic part of Italian life and Pellegrino's writing, so it is these colourful descriptive interludes that worked best for me.

Whilst the four villa girls - Rosie, Addolorata, Lou and Toni - are all drawn into the overseas ventures, most of the chapters revolve around the parentless and vulnerable Rosie befriended by Addolorata and the Merlinetti family. Her experiences with them at home in London and at Little Italy, the family restaurant, are charming. Chef and Dad, Beppi Merlinetti is a memorable figure and threatens to run away with the book.

The most rounded character in the novel is Enzo, heir to the Santi Olive Estate in Southern Italy. Chapters backgrounding the traditional rituals undertaken on the estate and his relationship with his Nonna (grandmother) were thoughtfully rendered giving insights into the at times rigid expectations demanded of him. These fuel his desire for escape which ultimately peaks in an unexpected love affair with a holiday visitor, an English photographer.

I wanted a quick, undemanding read when I chose The Villa Girls and it was definitely that. The story didn't disappoint, but I admit the author had me entranced towards the end. My main source of nourishment came from the wonderful array of food presented. The reason for this is that Pellegrino is obviously Italian and returns to Italy from her home in New Zealand on a regular basis.

So pick up The Villa Girls if you love fraught romance, Italian wine and food and family interaction with a difference.

There's a great Q and A with the author here.

L'Aussie's Verdict: 8/10

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This book drew me in with the title and book cover. While the covers with dramatic faces and pretty women can be appealing, sometimes I like a simple and well chosen tree. I'd never heard of the book until I saw it on the shelves in the store but purchased a copy anyways.

About the book from Goodreads: "Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he's still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.
       He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin's fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart."

This book is different. Most of the reading I've been doing in fantasy lately has been young adult and this is a book that probably could be placed in the attempted category for college age (20's). Quentin is a very intelligent boy getting ready to find his way into college and adulthood when his life takes an unexpected twist. And that twist takes him on adventures he never imagined would happen, which is all cool for a novel but wow, this book feels long. In fact, it is almost two stories in one. The first part of the book is about Quentin, how he discovers the magic university and his years studying there but once he graduates things change. The years and adventure after making it through school is a story itself.

I don't have the Harry Potter background that some people may have, since some have made correlations between the two stories. So, I can't say much on whether it does have similar aspects. It's very different than what I've read before. The main character was a bit hard to relate to at certain points but in general he was interesting enough. However, since he is super intelligent, the language of the story with how he thinks and speaks has to reflect that. While I have enough education, it still slowed me down when I was reading.

The world created for the story with the interplay of the city with the university in the beginning of the story. The travels north through unusual, magical means, and the other locations did make for an interesting story. There are some scenes that certain readers might find awkward (fox scene anyone?) and in general, I don't think this is a novel for every reader. Some will probably not like it and others will think it's great, like with most novels. I liked it for the most part and my stepdad even made it through the book, though we book found it a bit slow.

Dawn's Verdict: 6.5/10

On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels

Here is something a little different than the normal fiction review. Since all three of us posting on this blog are writers, I'm sure we have all read a couple of books on the craft. And there is a new Friday romance writers blog hop going on, so this book may come in handy for other writers. I didn't buy this book for myself. My older stepsister bought it for me for Christmas over a year ago because she knew I was interested in writing.

About the book: "According to the Romance Writers Association, more than 50 percent of paperback fiction read and sold in the United States is romance, and more romance titles are published every year than in any other genre. Many writers try writing romance first because demand for the genre is so much greater than any other. For those new to the genre and/or to writing, this book provides a starting point for developing the skill set essential to writing a best-selling romance novel.

On Writing Romance is a thorough reference that will provide readers with detailed descriptions of more than 20 subcategories within the romance genre, tips for avoiding clich├ęs, specific instruction for creating the perfect romantic couple, guidelines for drafting those all-important love scenes, submission information for breaking into the genre, and much, much more."

While I don't consider myself a romance writer, per say, I did find this book interesting and somewhat informative. It all depends on what type of writing you do because it is geared towards the general, m/f romance novels. While, in general, the book refers to romance as a story between two people, the main focus of every chapter is on a romance story between a man and a woman. She does mention on a regular basis that there are exceptions such as gay romance. Which is what I write when I write in the genre: m/m romance.

Layout - This writing book has a decent layout with different sections that divide between "getting ready to write," "framework," "writing the novel," and "submitting." The very beginning provides a good introduction to the genre, general requirements along with a discussion on picking/researching a story. Every section has a wealth of information for the romance writer and I did learn new things with each section, though I did actually know quite a bit of it from the years of learning about writing in general.

Audience - The obvious audience for this book is suggested by the title. Romance writers, especially newer romance writers, will find this book useful. But even those who don't write romance as the main storyline can get some useful information in reading about methods for books in the genre because often times the romance will be a subplot in many different genres. Readers should just remember that the book is focused on writing romance novels, which have their own specific requirements (like happily ever after endings) that the author focused on, for good reason.

Overall Thoughts - Not a bad read. I've read a number of books on writing, mostly for fiction books in general. While this isn't a book I would have thought to purchase myself, I am kind of glad my stepsister gave it to me. It's one of the few books I've been given as a present by siblings that I have managed to finish reading over the last 5 years. Solid, useful book for romance elements in writing and easy enough to read. I would recommend other writers, and romance in particular, at least consider checking it out.

Dawn's Verdict: 8/10

South of Charm, by Elliot Grace

Amazon Editorial Review

We're huddled in the far corner of my bedroom. Arms wrapped around our knees in the dark. The approaching footsteps grow louder. Ominous thuds. Our mother, but somehow not. She's standing outside my door. We listen to the creak of the hinges. My sister clenches my arm. "She's coming," she whispers. "She's broken."
I've watched Elliot Grace's journey to write this novel and to find a publisher. He has worked hard and his book was released recently by Wooster Books. I've yet to read the whole book, but I saw the first review today and I thought it would be a good way to support a fellow blogger and to get Elliot's book out there as it will be some time before I can read it in full. How do I know it'll be good? Because Elliot has posted many excellent excerpts on his blog, So close, and talked so much about his characters that I feel I know them well. I love Elliot's emotive writing style. He reminds me of Pat Conroy who is one of my favourite writers.

Here is an excerpt to give you an idea of Elliot's magic with words:

Alone in the dark, one arm hugging the other, I studied the knee-high ocean of wheat billowing in the breeze.  A field butted up to our backyard, the year's crop still green, their stalks thin like rye grass.
And as I sat, I thought of Richie Frank's laugh, like the boisterous call of a blue jay.  I wondered if Brad had caught me in height, or perhaps passed me by.  He'd been gaining on me the summer past.
And while I knew I'd be seeing them in less than a day, I felt certain that my friends were long gone.
Then as I watched the darkened silhouette of a field moving as one, I spied a pair of golden eyes shimmering amongst the harvest, and realized an old friend had returned.
Dad had scoffed at the idea of bringing the cat on moving day.  "That old thing?" he'd said.  "He won't make it through the winter no matter where he lives.  Leave him be."
The wheat parted, and the cat sauntered into the yard.  He walked with a limp, his coat no worse for the wear, but covered in burrs and field dust.  He made his way to my side, where he rested his haunches, regarding my shock with disinterest.  As if a cat making a ten mile trek across the county to reunite with a friend was common practice.
"It's you," I said.  "You're here."
I reached behind a mangled ear and with thumb and forefinger, massaged his scruff.  He managed a purr, broken and laced with phlegm.  A moment passed before he lifted a paw to his tongue and started cleaning.  He had his work cut out for him.
"You're the first visitor I've had out here," I said.
Now to the review:

Jennifer at Serendipity's Library has written the first review of South of Charm. It is posted on goodreads and she has graciously given me permission to reprint it here:

It was good!

I picked up Elliot's book on Friday and did not put it down until yesterday (Monday) afternoon.

The story is about a ten year old boy who is forced, along with his four year old sister, to watch his parents’ marriage disintegrate. His mother starts acting completely out of character....I won't tell you why you will figure it out on your own. Most of the story is told from his perspective and I found it both sad and interesting to look at the violence and abuse parents can sometimes inflict on each other through the eyes of their child. You will want to think some parts of the story seem unrealistic...but pick up any newspaper and you will realize that the sad truth is this is probably happening everyday in your own town.
On a happier note I love that there is a baseball aspect to the story...cause its summer time and baseball is the king of summer. Go Phillies! Although the little league coach is a complete jackass.
I found myself yelling at the characters which is a good sign....if I care enough to show how crazy I am without caring who is looking at me....well then, that my friend means the book and characters are well written.
Normally my reading leans towards the Horror, Mystery, Paranormal type novel but South of Charm
was a nice break from that and it really made me think...which sometimes I like to do.

L'Aussie here again. I have trouble rating this book as it has so many themes both adult and YA. I asked Elliot how he would categorise it. Here's his reply:

'My editor insists that it's an adult book, and has shelved it accordingly. I'm hesitant to agree.  Yes, there is some adult content. Very little swearing, and when asked, I've given it a PG-13 rating.  It's one of those coming of age stories involving our youth, as they face a very mature problem, a la Stephen King's "Stand by Me." (I think it was actually called "The Body," before Hollywood bought the rights.)  Not sure if this really answers your question, but when asked, I simply call it a coming of age story for everyone.' 

Now because I haven't actually finished Elliot's novel I asked Jennifer where she would place the little rooster bar below. She said a solid 8 out of 10! Thanks Jennifer!

Jennifer's Verdict: 8/10

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

I have finally read a book in this series. So many people kept telling me I should read the books but it took me awhile to find the time. It helps that I had a friend read it at the same time as me. Part of the reason I hadn't read the book yet is I wasn't sure which series to read first: The Mortal Instruments or The Infernal Devices. The second one is actually the prequel series to The Mortal Instruments and I always find it weird to read books/series and then find out a book or books came before it. I still might check out The Infernal Devices at some point but for now, I''ve got City of Bones and eventually will read its sequel, City of Ashes.

About the book from Goodreads: "When fifteen-year-old Clary Fray heads out to the Pandemonium Club in New York City, she hardly expects to witness a murder—much less a murder committed by three teenagers covered with strange tattoos and brandishing bizarre weapons. Then the body disappears into thin air. It’s hard to call the police when the murderers are invisible to everyone else and when there is nothing—not even a smear of blood—to show that a boy has died. Or was he a boy? "
This is Clary’s first meeting with the Shadowhunters, warriors dedicated to ridding the earth of demons. It’s also her first encounter with Jace, a Shadowhunter who looks a little like an angel and acts a lot like a jerk. Within twenty-four hours Clary is pulled into Jace’s world with a vengeance, when her mother disappears and Clary herself is attacked by a demon. But why would demons be interested in ordinary mundanes like Clary and her mother? And how did Clary suddenly get the Sight? The Shadowhunters would like to know. . . .

Characters: They are a bit different. There is a kind of a triangle, with the friend and new guy but it's not quite the usual characters used in the same situations. While I liked almost all of the characters most of the time, many of them had moments where they annoyed me a little bit. Like Simon's, the friend, had a personality that at times with his remarks would bug me. And I normally root for the friend over the mystery boy but he makes it less of a need. And the main character... Clary isn't very observant, especially when it comes to Simon. Like, there are several moments where she notices something or he does something and she doesn't catch on until he flat out comes out with it. Wanted to shake her a little. And even Jace got to me with some of his moodiness. I think I'm going to like Alec but will have to wait and see as they develop in the series.

Story: Thankfully, this story had action and Clary was willing to take action. She ended up in a few of the situations but she doesn't just wait to be saved, whether Jace was there to rescue her or note, though he is around most of the book. There are twists and turns that keep the story moving forward, which is always good to see in a book. Action helped to keep the story flowing and interesting even though a few of the chapters were really long.

Overall Impression: It was interesting. At first I wasn't sure how I would feel about the book and I did put the book down for a couple of weeks as I waited for my friend to get a copy and then again for another week since I ended up with a bad cold. But I did become interested in the story the author created. It is one I'm sure many readers will like, especially those who like a mixture of fantasy/paranormal creatures used in a single story. While it didn't strike my fancy in a large way, I still mostly liked the book.

Dawn's Verdict: 7/10

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