Friday, November 30, 2012

The November Round-Up!

Well, November was a pretty good month for me. I'm just coming off a week's much-needed vacation, I finished my NaNoWriMo novel (well, I made it to 50,000 words anyway), and I made a plan for my December (My Re-Read Rollout!). And besides all that, I managed to read a few books! Here's the breakdown of my November reads:

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Fiction, Historical. A
Pros: Excellent period detail, thoughtful Catholic themes, engaging characters and conflicts. Cons: Pacing is a little slow.

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor. YA, Fantasy. A
Pros: Excellent worldbuilding, compellingly ambiguous themes, excellent writing. Cons: Kind of a bummer book.

Beguiling the Beauty, by Sherry Thomas. Romance, Historical. A-
Pros: Gorgeous writing, intriguing themes, exquisite period details. Cons: Asshat hero, heroine is a bit of a doormat in the latter half of the book.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone, by Kat Rosenfield. YA, Contemporary. A-
Pros: Lush writing, good suspense, excellent setting. Cons: Inconsistent characterization.

When the Duke Returns, by Eloisa James. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Bubbly writing, good description, swift pacing. Cons: Future Couples hog too much screentime, hero is a selfish ass.

The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay. Fiction, Historical. C
Pros: Good period detail, lovely writing. Cons: No real plot, cop-out ending.

Crewel, Gennifer Albin. YA, Science Fiction. C-
Pros: Creative world-building idea, solid writing. Cons: Inconsistent heroine, misogynist gender themes, slutshaming, ridiculous love triangle.

The Blessed, by Tonya Hurtley. YA, Fantasy. F
Pros: I'm still a Catholic after reading it! Cons: Inconsistent worldbuilding, abysmal pacing, a total lack of plot until the last third, nasty unsympathetic protagonists, gratuitous violence against women, and misappropriation of Catholic religious elements.

"Crewel," by Gennifer Albin

The Protagonist: Adelice Lewys. While born with a miraculously powerful ability to weave the fabric of reality, her parents have taught her to suppress it to avoid calling attention to herself.
Her Angst: Unfortunately, the government finds out about her powers and proves willing to do just about anything to control it for themselves.

The Secondary Cast:

Amie: Adelice's little sister, who is captured by the Guild after their parents try to protect Adelice from being taken away.

Enora: Adelice's Spinster mentor - a genuinely nice gal, with some pretty dangerous secrets.

Maela: Adelice's superior, and an insanely power-hungry villain who may or may not be anger-banging her personal assistant.

Erik: Maela's personal assistant, who may or may not be getting anger-banged by her, all the while trying to love-bang Adelice with his eyes. Love Interest #1.

Jost: The head valet of the Coventry, assigned to care for all the Spinsters. Gruff, but kind - and fully aware of the Guild's evil ways. Love Interest #2.

Cormac Patton: The leader of The Guild, who has a definite thing for underage girls.

Pryana: Adelice's training-mate-turned-enemy, thanks to Maela's machinations.

Loricel: The Creweler - the one Spinster capable of creating (rather than just re-weaving) raw matter. Without her, their world is toast, and she's not a spring chicken anymore.

Angst Checklist:

  • My Parents were Murdered and Then Written Out of Existence
  • Two Boys, One Love Triangle
  • Literally Everything Bad That Happens Is My Fault
  • Gender Roles
  • The Needs of the Many Versus the Needs of the Few
  • Caring For Your Appearance and How That Automatically Makes You a Terrible Person
  • Dystopian Futures
The Word: I really wanted to like Crewel. It seemed to have such an interesting story - in an alternate world, the fabric of reality itself is maintained and woven by powerful women known as Spinsters, and every girl who demonstrates potential for weaving is taken away at the age of sixteen to train in the Coventry to help maintain the ordered nature of their world.

Unfortunately, Crewel turned out to be a dud for two major reasons. Firstly, it tries way too damn hard to be The Hunger Games. Secondly, for all of its colourful attempts to present gender roles in an interesting way, it only ends up solidifying sexist ideas. 

In the dystopian world of Arras, Adelice Lewys returns home after being tested for Spinster abilities, unwilling to tell her parents that she failed. Not that she failed to prove herself a Spinster - but the very opposite. She failed to hide the amazing weaving skills her rebel parents have trained her to repress since childhood, and she can't bring herself to tell them that the Guild will soon be coming to take her away.

Which turns out to be a monumentally stupid decision, since once the Guild shows up, her parents resist and her father winds up murdered. Captured and sedated, Adelice is dragged off to the Coventry against her will. 

As Adelice quickly learns, the Spinsters and the Guild can control the very weave of reality itself, and they use this phenomenal cosmic power to make life harder for just about everyone in existence. Not only can they kill people from a distance (by "ripping" their threads), but they can rewrite people's very identities. Revolution is impossible because Spinsters can even "spot" treasonous thoughts because they cause a person's thread to change colour. Even though Adelice has the potential to be an incredibly powerful Spinster, she has no desire to play God or by the Guild's rules. 

Now, all of this would be lovely and exciting, except that the storytelling in Crewel is incredibly derivative of its literary predecessor, The Hunger Games. See if any of this sounds familiar - Crewel has:
  • A cloyingly innocent little sister character whose safety guarantees the protagonist's compliance
  • A beloved dead father figure to inspire the protagonist's rebellion against authority
  • A government-sanctioned team of stylists whose leader becomes a friend who also harbours rebellious leanings
  • A love triangle between a charming but untrustworthy diplomat and a damaged, rough revolutionary. 
  • A voracious and tacky media machine for which the protagonist is forced to primp and pose in gowns to promote the party line. 
As well, I found the gender dynamics of Crewel were incredibly troubling and hypocritical, even though the unfair treatment of women seems to be a major theme of the novel. The society of Arras is incredibly repressive towards women: girls are segregated from boys and held to high "Purity Standards." The only jobs available for women are as as secretaries, teachers, nurses, and factory workers. In fact, most people in society want their daughters to become Spinsters, since it seems to be a far more powerful and influential position than any woman could expect otherwise. 

And yet, almost every female character other than Adelice is either a) a shallow twit who cares only about make-up and clothes, b) an evil power-hungry slut, or c) a victim. 

Every woman who is depicted as ambitious, as wanting more than what the male establishment allows her to have, is not only written as a villainess, but as a sexually aggressive and/or promiscuous one. Maela is the main baddie - a violent and unstable psychotic who apparently keeps Erik (Adelice's Love Interest #1) as a sexual plaything while secretly wishing to be the wife of Cormac Patton (the President Snow leader of the Guild). 

Second to that is Pryana. Pryana - without actually doing anything evil  - is depicted as evil and inferior to Adelice because she uses men's physical attraction to her to gain power for herself, such as when she dances and flirts with (gasp!) ugly, old, fat men at a social function while Pure Heroine Adelice only dances and flirts with thin, young, hot boys. Oh, and Pryana likes shopping, clothes, and looking hot! TOTALLY EVIL, right?

Because Adelice, our heroine, is such a fine, upstanding individual. So selfless, so caring. So in love with burly, rebellious valet Jost, who tragically lost his teen bride and baby daughter to the Evil Guild of Evil. Yet when our Selfless, Caring Heroine discovers her Super-Special-Spinster powers don't involve time-travel, her first thought is relief because if she had the power to go back in time and save Jost's family, she's not sure she'd be able to do it. 

I am dead serious. Adelice, our heroine, is glad that she doesn't have the power to go back in time and save her OWN family, because it would also mean she would have to save THE WIFE AND BABY of the boy she has a crush on. Really. REALLY. TOTALLY SELFLESS HEROINE, right?

But what about the Spinsters? They have the power to control weather, transport matter, rewrite existence, and even read people's intentions in the colours of the threads. Surely there must be a girl-power reason that all Spinsters are women? There is! As Adelice discovers, the (entirely male) Guild only chooses to train women as Spinsters because women are more easily controlled

I almost threw this book at a wall.

I am not even kidding. That is seriously the book's worldbuilding. Women, apparently, are chosen to be Spinsters not because only women have this power but because women are just naturally more easy to manipulate than men. Just dangle some diamonds and Colin Firth DVDs in front of their faces and they'll do anything, am I right ladies?! Women won't care that they're murdering people or ripping entire societies out of existence so long as those hot baths and foot rubs keep coming! 

Do yourself and your ovaries a favour - avoid this misogynist Hunger Games rip-off. 

You can purchase Crewel here. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

December is: AnimeJune's Re-Read Rollout

December is fast approaching, I won NaNoWriMo (three days early, hollah!), and it's the time to relax. With Advent upon us and Christmas approaching, it's definitely a month to take comfort in the things that really matter to you.

It's the month where I spend time with my loving, wonderful family, watch comforting Christmas movies on a wide spectrum of cheesiness, laugh at all the terrible-awesome Christmas episodes of my favourite TV shows, and cuddle up under blankets while snow flutters down outside.

I decided that this year, December would also be a month of comfort reads. I have a huge TBR, which I compulsively add to every chance I get, so I often can't justify going back to re-read something when I've got a mountain of new reads to explore. But that's really not fair. Whenever I read something really wonderful, I shouldn't just let it moulder on a shelf and never read it again.

So come December (once I've reviewed Crewel), I'll be doing entirely re-reads, with select titles from different genres. If I've already reviewed the book, I'll write a post on whether it's held up, the important themes and ideas I derived from it, and other interesting things the author has written. If I haven't had a chance to review it on my site before - well, then I totally will.

The list is as follows - I've chosen a major title from each genre to read, and a secondary title to read if there are still December days remaining on the calendar.

The Classic Title:
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery Seconds:
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

The Literary Fiction Title:
The Birth House, by Ami McKay
Gentlemen and Players, by Joanne Harris

The Romance Title:
The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh Second:
Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie

The YA Title:
Beauty, by Robin McKinley
The Greenstone Grail, by Amanda Hemingway

The Fantasy Title:
Fitzpatrick's War, by Theodore Judson Second:
The Innkeeper's Song, by Peter S. Beagle

The Gamechanger Title: (i.e. the book I didn't really like at first, but want to reread now that I've read and loved the author's other books)

Private Arrangements, by Sherry Thomas

"The Virgin Cure," by Ami McKay

The Protagonist: Moth "Ada" Fenwick. Born in the slums of New York City, she longs for a life of luxury, ease, and comfort. But how far is she willing to go to achieve that? When she's 12-years-old?

The Secondary Cast:

Dr. Sadie: A female physician who treats the members of Miss Everett's brothel, but once Moth arrives, she fears she is enabling the lifestyle more than protecting the victims of it.

Mae: A young courtesan-in-training who recruits Moth into the service of Miss Everett's brothel. While ostensibly in Miss Everett's employ, she's not averse to making a little something on the side.

Alice: A naive fellow courtesan-trainee who befriends Moth, even as Moth worries about Alice's dreams of finding true love and marriage in the service of a brothel.

Cadet: The young man-of-all-work for Miss Everett's brothel - both Alice and Moth have crushes on him.

Mrs. Wentworth: Moth's first employer, to whom she's sold as a ladies' maid by her mother. Kept a virtual prisoner in her own home for "embarrassing" her husband, she has since gone insane and cruelly abuses Moth.

Mr. Wentworth: Mrs. Wentworth's absent husband, whom Moth runs into at the brothel. While she initially sees this as an opportunity to revenge herself upon his hateful wife, her schemes go predictably awry.

Mr. Dink: The kindly owner of a carnival sideshow who offers Moth part-time employment as a display girl while she's training at Miss Everett's.

Theme Checklist:
  • Poverty
  • Prostitution
  • Gender Roles
  • Talking Trees
  • Sexuality
  • The Concept of Virginal Purity
The Word: This was a book I had originally decided I wasn't going to review - why? Because I really didn't know how to. The Virgin Cure is a superficially entertaining novel with some interesting period detail and lovely writing, but little to no plot structure. Even by the end of the novel, I couldn't figure out what the book was trying to say.

I picked this one up primarily because I really enjoyed McKay's debut, The Birth House, when I read it in university. The Birth House was a deft novel exploring gender roles and the importance of childbirth  in early 20th century Newfoundland when a male obstetrician declares war against the local midwives. 

I was expecting similarly awesome feminist themes in The Virgin Cure, especially since the author reveals she based one of the characters, Dr. Sadie, on her own great-great-grandmother.

Our main character is Moth, the 12-year-old daughter of a Gypsy fortuneteller who lives in the slums of New York City in the 1870s. She and her mother live in abject poverty, which leads Moth to decide that she will do anything it takes to garner a life that has a featherbed, a roaring fire in the grate, and two pug dogs at her feet. As the narrative indicates, slum-child Moth is no innocent to the ways in which women are used and abused, so her willingness to do "anything it takes" has a larger scope than one initially thinks.

Before she can properly formulate any plans to run away to make this fortune, her mother abruptly sells her into the service of a wealthy recluse named Mrs. Wentworth. Her mother's choice doesn't seem entirely cruel: as a lady's maid, Moth will have decent food and shelter as well as regular wages. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wentworth is also completely insane and monstrously abusive. When Mrs. Wentworth's punishments culminate in coming after Moth with a pair of shears, Moth escapes with the help of the butler and a stolen piece of Mrs. Wentworth's jewellery. 

Unfortunately, she arrives back at her old house to find that her mother has already left for parts unknown, leaving Moth to fend for herself. After spending some time begging and (unsuccessfully) thieving, she is eventually befriended by a pretty, well-dressed girl named Mae, a recruiter for Miss Everett's Infant School, an exclusive, high-class brothel. Moth sees this as her ticket to obtaining that feather-bed-and-pug-dog life she's always wanted, even though her misgivings grow as her training proceeds. 

The Virgin Cure serves as an examination of the types of employment women took to survive by themselves in the 1870s. Through Moth's eyes, we see women as fortunetellers, beggars, shoplifters, bakery assistants, hot corn girls, maids, cooks, prostitutes, courtesans, and sideshow acts, with Dr. Sadie standing at the very apex as a successful woman doctor, and she is still shunned by high society and her wealthy family for her choice of profession. 

While the period detail and the examination of courtesan life is fascinating and highly entertaining, the novel really has no plot other than Moth's eventual realization that, hey, prostitution is a pretty nasty business, maybe I should earn my living elsewhere. After that Captain Obvious Epiphany, the ending is a disappointing cop-out that conveniently does away with the usual consequences that would follow Moth's actions, leading to some inexplicable and contrived developments that serve to give Moth a picture-perfect happy ending that makes absolutely no sense. 

It also muddles the general themes. McKay perhaps does too good a job describing the grinding despair of slum life and the hopeless state of female employment versus the risky-but-regulated luxury of courtesan life, so Moth's eventual decision to reject prostitution seemed unrealistic. McKay spends most of the book describing how these women had to get these sorts of jobs because they didn't have any other choices, because society didn't give them any other options, because the alternative to working was starvation and death. In the scenes where Dr. Sadie tries to talk Moth out of prostitution, even Dr. Sadie has to acknowledge that the other options available to Moth (workhouses, charity boarding houses) cannot compare to what the brothel offers.

Moth actually choosing the possible eventuality of starvation and death over prostitution seemed a curiously old-fashioned idea, the idea that death is preferable to the loss of physical innocence. And the novel cops out of even that  - she miraculously obtains outrageously successful non-whorish employment afterwards as the inconceivable cherry on top of the Implausible Sundae. Moth is depicted as morally superior to the girls who choose to make their living as courtesans - but that message is undermined by the fact that Moth, thanks to the Magic of Plot Contrivance, has an Honest and Unrealistically Lucrative Job waiting in the wings for her. 

Those other girls at Miss Everett's, or the hot corn girls, or the professional housebreakers or the put-upon maids, none of them have the option to join Mr. Dink's travelling circus (for reals) - so why are they seen as Less Special than Moth? Again, the ending of this novel seemed incredibly old-fashioned - old-fashioned in the literary sense, following the tradition of 19th century novels where the heroine who chooses Pious Poverty over Sinful Luxury has her virtue rewarded by the narrative with a miraculous job, or a lost-lost relative come to claim her, or a forgotten fortune to keep her in non-slutty linens for the rest of her days. 

The surprising appearance of such fairy-tale morals in an otherwise soberly realistic novel surprised me, and weakened the novel's ultimate impact.

You can purchase The Virgin Cure (not THAT way, you pervs!) here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Beguiling the Beauty," by Sherry Thomas

The Chick: Venetia Fitzhugh. When the arrogant Duke of Lexington condemns her as a scheming beauty during a university lecture, she decides to seduce him in disguise in order to prove him a hypocrite.
The Rub: She's in for a dilemma once she falls in love with him - will he still love her and be able to see beyond her staggering beauty once he knows who she really is?
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Christian de Montfort, the Duke of Lexington. The first time he sees Venetia Fitzhugh, he falls in love with her beauty, only to hate himself for it once he apparently learns he true character.
The Rub: While he comes to love his anonymous baroness lover aboard the ship Rhodesia, he can't quite shake his obsession with Venetia.
Dream Casting: Christian Bale.

The Plot:

Christian, Age 19: Wow, Venetia Fitzhugh's a looker!

Mr. Townsend: Too bad she's a terrible wife! Remember me as a flawless, faithful, totally trustworthy husband.... *kills himself*

Christian, Age 29, at Harvard: Wow, Venetia Fitzhugh's a gold-digging tart!

Venetia: *LE GASP!* Wow, what a prick! I shall revenge myself by seducing you!

Venetia and Christian: *anonymous veiled sex!*

Venetia: Wow, that backfired spectacularly.

Boat: *docks in England*

Christian: Marry me!

Venetia: Wow, look at the time! *flees*

Christian: *researches* She was Venetia the whole time? Wow, what a gold-digging tart!

Venetia: I love you, you moron.

Christian: Wow, I am a moron. Let's be happy together!

Venetia: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
  • 1 Secret Identity
  • 1 Inappropriate Harvard Lecture
  • 1 Monumental Case of Misogynist Sour Grapes
  • 2 Dead Husbands
  • 2 Cases of Sequel Baiting
  • 1 Awesome Stepmum
  • 1 Sexy Cruise
  • 2 Romantic Fossils
The Word: Oh, Sherry Thomas. You're like Mary Balogh. I will never not like your books (except that first one which I did like, I just didn't connect with, but it's one I should probably reread now). And I did enjoy this book, even though the hero is kind of an asshole.

Venetia Fitzhugh is hot. I mean super hot. Spontaneous-marriage-proposals-from-strangers hot. Our 19-year-old hero, Christian, the Duke of Lexington, takes one look at her during a cricket match and is immediately obsessed with her. Unfortunately, his infatuation is thwarted by the fact that she is married. A few years later, he runs into her distraught husband Mr. Townsend in a club. Mr. Townsend confides in Christian how his marriage to Venetia has ruined him, and he kills himself shortly thereafter.

As Mr. Townsend's enormous debts to jewellers come to light, Christian, in probably one of the most epic cases of Sour Grapes ever, convinces himself that Venetia Fitzhugh is a greedy, callous gold-digger who uses her beauty to snare men. When she marries an incredibly wealthy older man when her mourning period is scarcely over, this only cements her tawdry whorishness in Christian's mind. 

But he's still obsessed with her. And this makes him hate her even more - even though he's never even spoken to her in person.

Nice guy, right?

Venetia, with two unfulfilling marriages under her belt and a comfortable income, has no idea who the Duke of Lexington is until she sees a flyer for a lecture he's giving at Harvard University. Venetia and her sister-in-law Millie are in the United States in order to keep Venetia's sister Helena occupied and supervised. Helena, it appears, has been carrying on an affair with a married man and her family hopes to keep scandal at bay by keeping her an ocean away from her lover and throwing other eligible men in her path. Eligible men like the Duke of Lexington, an influential scientist (I quite enjoy how many of Sherry Thomas' heroes are scientists and mathematicians). 

During the lecture, however, Christian is speaking about the evolutionary purposes of beauty and decides to use Venetia as an unnamed example of how a beautiful woman can still be welcomed in society despite her obvious slutty man-ruining ways. Venetia, present at the lecture, is horrified and humiliated. She decides to get her revenge by proving Christian a misogynist hypocrite (which shouldn't really be all that hard) and books a ticket on the same boat home as he, under an assumed name and a veil, intending to seduce him.

However, their romantic encounter does not go as planned. Venetia finds it liberating to interact with a man unaware of her physical beauty, and discovers that Christian is actually a charming, intelligent chap when he's not busy blaming women he can't have for his boner. Christian, for his part, loves Venetia's scientific interests and sense of humour, and most especially, for how her presence makes him utterly forget about his obsession with Slutty McGolddigger. 

But what will happen when the ship lands in Britain?

Okay, so as you can probably tell, I wasn't a huge fan of Christian at the beginning. However, the ultimate hypocrisy of his beliefs (his anger at women relying on their beauty leading him to think the very worst of Venetia because of hers) is not lost on the reader or on the heroine. He's still a fascinating character and the progression of his relationship with Venetia is intriguingly layered. Sherry Thomas's clever writing turns the cliche of love at first sight on its head. It's clear that Christian's initial obsession with Venetia is just that - obsession. One-sided, narrow-minded and ultimately selfish, it has everything to do with Christian's sexual gratification (or lack thereof) and nothing at all to do with Venetia's thoughts, interests, or feelings. Christian's obsession with Venetia and his love for the Baroness (her alias) are two different things that Christian has to reconcile with as the story progresses.

That being said, I rather wish Venetia had been a bit stronger of a heroine. I appreciated how she defended herself, how unselfconscious she was of her looks, how confident she was in her own character, and how she refused to kowtow to Christian's opinion of her. At the same time, however, once she falls in love with Christian she becomes rather meek and cowardly, terrified of losing his esteem once she's obtained it. She comes into her own at the end, but it's a little sudden.

Barring that, with the use of thoughtful themes on beauty and obsession, some excellent writing, period detail, and secondary characters, Beguiling the Beauty is a solidly enjoyable read.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Days of Blood and Starlight," by Laini Taylor

The Primary Cast:

Karou: A teenage girl as well as the resurrected soul of Madrigal, the chimaera who dared to love a seraph, Karou has now rejected that love and lives in shame of it. She's become the chimaera rebels' new resurrectionist to atone for her crimes - even as she starts to doubt their new, ultra-violent tactics.

Akiva: Horrified at his complicity in the destruction of the chimaera (done in wrong-headed revenge for the death of his chimaera beloved), he knows Karou will never forgive him - but he'll still do whatever he can to protect the chimaera from the seraph emperor's forces.

The Secondary Cast:

Zuzana: Karou's awesomely cool human BFF. With rain or shine, or burning Moroccan deserts,  or possible man-eating monsters, or evil angels ... she'll still be there to have Karou's back!

Mik: Zuzana's totally smitten violinist boyfriend.

Thiago: The glorious leader of the chimaera's surviving rebel forces - and the man who initially murdered Madrigal when he caught her and Akiva together. Although he acts like he'd like to kiss and make up. Awkward.

Ziri: A former friend of Madrigal's, he becomes Karou's ally. More than a little in love with her, when he gets the chance to prove his undying loyalty, he takes it - in a spectacularly surprising fashion.

Liraz: Akiva's half-sister and fighting partner. Initially a loyal soldier to the cause, with Akiva's help she comes to see that their emperor cares nothing for their lives if it means more glory for himself.

Hazael: Akiva and Liraz's humorous and light-hearted brother. A comic relief who can actually hold his own in a fight.

Jael: The seraph emperor's creepy, bloodthirsty, scar-faced, super-rapist general brother. Well that sounds promising.

Angst Checklist:

  • War
  • Genocide
  • Sexual Assault
  • I'm totally responsible for the massive genocide of my people so I'm not allowed to be happy or have nice things, ever.
  • How to Make Friends and Influence Seraphim
  • My boyfriend is willing to cross deserts to marry me, how can I best use this to my benefit?
  • Wolfheaded Bitches Be Crazy
  • I have to Friendzone my former murderer, how awkward is this going to be?
  • Flying is still awesome
  • Promoting Peace and Hope during Wartime
  • Recovering from Grief
  • Forgiving Transgressions

The Word: Previously, in Daughter of Smoke and Bone...(which I highly recommend you read first)

Karou was a teenager studying art in Prague by day and collecting teeth for her loving family of monsters by night. While she'd grown up knowing her horned father-figure Brimstone loved her, he refused to tell her anything about her heritage or the mysterious tattoos on her hands.

In the novel, she wound up stumbling upon a millennia-spanning war between monsters (chimaera) and angels (seraphim). She discovered that she had, in fact, been born a chimaera named Madrigal, but had been murdered for falling in love with Akiva, a seraph. As it turns out, Brimstone had secretly resurrected her into human form with his magic, in order to preserve the hope that monsters and angels could one day give up their war and live in peace.

However, before Akiva and Karou could figure out who she really was, the seraphim armies (using Akiva's inside information) stormed the chimaera capital of Loramendi and razed it to the ground - with all of Karou's family (Brimstone included) inside.

And now, for Days of Blood and Starlight...

Karou is devastated by the annihilation of Loramendi and her chimaera family, and tormented by her unwitting culpability in it. To atone, she puts her Brimstone's training to good use by becoming a resurrectionist for the remaining chimaera forces, a person capable of collecting a dead chimaera's soul and reattaching it to a new body. She spends her days slowly rebuilding rebel leader Thiago's soldiers into newer, stronger bodies - using her own physical pain to summon the powerful magic.

The Karou in this book is a much darker, sadder creature than the protagonist of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. For the first several chapters, she's so deeply mired in guilt and self-hatred that she can't even bring herself to reach out to her former chimaera friends, who now suspect her as a traitor, or question Thiago's increasingly brutal tactics. While she hasn't entirely forgotten Brimstone's ultimate dream of peace, she has no idea how to breach the topic without confirming everyone's suspicions that she's an angel-loving traitor.

For the first half of the book I wondered if we would ever see a glimmer of that fierce, clever Karou again, but Laini Taylor doesn't let us down. Karou's character development parallels that of the land of Eretz - after so much suffering and death, can anything as brave and beautiful as the idea of peace bloom again?

And without spoiling too much, let me just say, thank God for Zuzana and Mik. This book would have been hideously depressing without them.

Akiva, meanwhile, rotating on his own guilt rotisserie for his complicity in the destruction of Loramendi and his unwitting betrayal of Karou/Madrigal, returns home with his siblings, Hazael and Liraz, with the intent to stir rebellion against the seraph empire from within. While they attacked him in the previous book for his pro-chimaera ways, Akiva's siblings slowly start to realize that the seraph Emperor's thirst for conquest will not be satisfied by the extinction of the chimaera, and there's no telling how many more seraph lives he'll gladly funnel into the war machine to get what he wants.

While this book maintains the gorgeous use of language and original world building of its predecessor, Days of Blood and Starlight does suffer a little from Middle Book Itis. Things are almost unrelentingly bleak and difficult for our protagonists from beginning to end, the pacing drags in places, and while it does further the storyline and set up an excellent plotline for the next (final?) book, when all is said and done, not too much physically happens in this novel until the very end.

That's not to say that nothing happens, but Days of Blood and Starlight is a more introspective novel. Our characters spend more time analyzing and reacting. Akiva and Karou now fight for opposing sides, and as each side tries to up the stakes in bloodier and more horrific ways, our protagonists wrestle with the gruesome and conflicting ethics of war, and wonder if either side even thinks about peace - or only about victory.

As you can probably tell from reading this review, Laini Taylor has written an incredibly dense fantasy epic. The lavish settings, the mythology, the expanding cast of characters, the world-building, the backstories and character histories and drama - even in a book where "not too much physically happens" there is still so much going on that you can't help but be dazzled by it. Days of Blood and Starlight is an intricately-developed, gorgeously written follow-up that carries the story forward and promises even more to come.

You can purchase Days of Blood and Starlight here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (19)

It's time for the Weekly Wanting, folks! This week was a surprisingly fertile one for books that caught my interest, as this longer than usual Wanting post will demonstrate.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism.
Cover Snark: Teen Angst Now Comes with a Swimsuit Competition
The Story: Our heroine, who dreams of becoming a professional swimmer, is rendered an outcast by her near-magical ability to force people into revealing unwanted truths in her presence. 
Why I Want It: The story sounds so interesting - what would you do if your mere presence made people uncontrollably start TMI'ing around you? What would it be like to be friends with or hang out with someone with this power? And what secrets will she wind up finding out? Unfortunately, looks like I'll have to wait until March 2013 to find out.

Genre: YA, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Perfect book for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
The Story: Teenager Adam Strand is so very bored with his life that he's killed himself 39 times - even though, inexplicably, he keeps coming back to life afterwards. It'll take something truly special to make him appreciate life and the bonds of connection that come with it.
Why I Want It: Well, mainly because the idea sounds a lot like Groundhog Day. That being said, the blurb does make Adam out to be an obnoxiously selfish ass so we'll have to see if the creative story and good writing will counteract that. (Released February 26, 2013)

Genre: Historical, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Old-School is the Best School.
The Story: Valente takes on the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless, with a nuanced, modern twist. 
Why I Want It: Cathrynne M. Valente. See: In the Night Garden, Cities of Coin and Spice, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland. Case closed. (Already released)

Genre: YA, Fantasy.

Cover Snark: This cover looks so radioactive I think I got cancer just from saving this image to my computer.
The Story: Our hero has been invisible his whole life thanks to a curse his magician grandfather cast on his mother. When he finally meets a girl who can miraculously see him, life's peachy - until his grandfather re-enters his life and the magical poop hits the fan.
Why I Want It: Magic, wizards, teen romance, and David Levithan. That's a match made in heaven if I've ever heard one. (May 7, 2013)

And that's it for this week! What books are you guys eagerly wanting?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"The Blessed," by Tonya Hurley

The Protagonists:

Agnes: Even though her suicide attempt fails, this naive Catholic schoolgirl still holds out hope that true love exists. But why is she drawn to this strange church during a hurricane?

Cecilia: An underground musician who's left to drown in a puddle and wakes up in the hospital with a strange new purpose. Just don't let her go near any open iron maidens, she's super clumsy. You can get stigmata from those things!

Lucy: A venomously awful and self-centred socialite who's made a living out of being famous for being famous - until she finds out who her real friends are when she accidentally overdoses at a club. Wait, no, I was wrong - she's venomously awful and self-centred throughout the book and spends most of the story trying to make everything about her.

The Secondary Cast:

Sebastian: The book's Hot Male Mentor and designated Catfight Lightning Rod, Sebastian escaped from a psych ward to find our three heroines and inform them of their destinies - in the slowest and vaguest way possible.

Dr. Frey: An eeeevil psychiatrist whose motivations and allegiances remain unclear for the entire book. His villainy's demonstrated by his desire to, uh, prescribe the proper treatment and medication for mental illness. Apparently treating mental disorders should be left up to Jesus. It says a lot about this book that his weapons of choice against our heroes are logic and medical reasoning. If logic is an enemy to your story, you need to look at your book, and look at your writing choices.

Angst Checklist:
  • Help! I'm a Vicious Celebutard surrounded by other Vicious Celebutards!
  • My Music Is Too Pretentious for Regular Clubs Therefore I'm Broke
  • I Tried to Kill Myself for Attention but All I Got Was the Opposite of Attention
  • Psychiatry is the Devil. Literally.
  • Catholic Churches are losing ties to their roots, I mean where you can find a decent parish with a functional iron maiden anymore?
  • Hot Abs for Jesus
  • Sex dreams in which you die violently that are still hot
  • Sex dreams only without the sex and lots of trippy imagery
  • Sex dreams only with no sex and no dreams where you bash your head into mirrors, fall into iron maidens and set your hair on fire. Uh, the way Jesus intended.
  • Heroism is for suckers, unless you do it in over-described fabulous wardrobes
Tweet It! My livetweets reading this hot mess are Storified here.

The Word: I spent about 4 hours figuring out how to write this review. How best to convey the utter disgust and rage I felt reading this terrible, offensive, insane-in-the-membrane book. I must have stopped and started a dozen times. Finally, I decided to keep it simple, and let the madness flow out of me naturally.

I was actually excited to read this book, if you can believe it. As a practising Catholic who is also writing a novel about saints for NaNoWriMo, I thought this book (which I picked up at BookExpo America) would provide the perfect creative inspiration.

I was wrong.

Our three "heroines" (and I use that term extremely loosely) all wind up in the ER on the same night after their Darwinian attempts to remove their defective genes from the YA Heroine gene pool failed - Agnes tried to kill herself to spite her mother and her ex-boyfriend, Cecilia the pretentious-preachy indie musician drunkenly drowned in a puddle, and professional famewhore Lucy accidentally overdosed at a club.

While convalescing, they each mysteriously receive a strange bone chaplet with a unique gold charm on it that draws them to a run-down church in Brooklyn.

Now, in a decently-written YA, this would start the plot going and lead these heroines on a journey to find out who they really are and what their purpose is. However, that would require writing and developing a female character deeper than the layer of dust this book will soon acquire at the Used Book Store. And why do that when it's so much easier to describe their designer outfits or the expensive furniture and accessories in their bedrooms?

To save on having to give the protagonists enough character development to motivate their own choices, the book has the heroines do things because they mysteriously "feel" that they should, or because a vague force compels them to make uncharacteristic decisions.

It's thanks to these inexplicable plot contrivances that our booze- and pretension-addled heroines wind up in a decrepit old church where a Hot Mysterious Male Mentor Figure named Sebastian awaits. Because he is a Male Person with Abs, it takes about five minutes before all three of our heroines are venomously catfighting for his attentions.

And that's pretty much the book. All these girls do is snipe at each other, fawn over Sebastian, and find new and Catholic-inspired ways to hurt themselves.

No, really. The Blessed is aggressively, offensively stupid for a number of reasons - the vapid and unpleasant heroines, the grotesque random violence, the wonky plotting, the overly-vague and half-assed world building, and the amateurish writing larded with unnecessary adjectives and speech tags.

Worse, The Blessed fails because nothing of note really happens for the vast majority of it. Sebastian waves his arms around and makes a lot of open-ended and non-specific statements about finding a destiny, and it takes him until nearly the very end of the book to reveal what the cover artwork, book marketing, and back cover blurb already did: that the heroines are the reincarnations of the Saints Agnes, Cecilia, and Lucy.

So for the first 300 pages of this book there is no conflict, there is no explanation, there isn't even any development of the very, very slight supernatural plot.

For 300 pages, we have to read about how three hateful girls fight over a man, slutshame each other, and brutally self-harm themselves during a Random Religious Ecstasy (not making this up) in a church during a hurricane without any real reason for why they're there and why we have to read about it.

Even by the end, the worldbuilding is laughably threadbare - Agnes, Cecilia and Lucy have to save the world by doing, uh, good stuff, and by fighting the evil people who are hunting them, er, because they're just evil. What, were you reading this book hoping to learn something?

Plus, if one of the girls dies, the whole world is screwed. Because it's not like there are literally hundreds of other saints waiting in the wings. Or, you know, Jesus. He's usually on hand for these world-ending events. Unless, of course, the author just pilfered random bits of Catholicism without grounding it in any sort of internal logic or actual research. Gee, wouldn't that be offensive?

Honestly, The Blessed is just a heinous mess of random unpleasantness strung together with pseudo-Catholic-hipster pretension. It's ugly and convoluted and disorganized and violent and pointless. It portrays girls as glitzy objects of ridicule who are destined to be brutally victimized. The narrative has no established purpose until the very end and even then it cannot conclude it.

I suffered this book so that hundreds of thousands of you could be spared. Don't let my miraculous sacrifice be in vain.

Avoid this book, in memory of me.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"When the Duke Returns," by Eloisa James

The Chick: Lady Isidore Del'Fino, a.k.a. Duchess of Cosway. She's been married 11 years - to a husband she's never seen. She hopes by attending an infamous houseparty that she'll be able to scare him back to England.
The Rub: Her gallivanting explorer husband wants a annulment. After knowing her for all of a day. That'll sting the ego.
Dream Casting: A younger Morena Baccarin.

The Dude: Simeon Jermyn, Duke of Cosway. Having returned from exploring the middle and far East, he discovers his wife is not the prim maid his mother described, but a darkly sensual hoyden.
The Rub: After a decade spent learning how to suppress his animal desires, he feels them all for his wife, Isidore. But decides to name a saint aboutr her, even it means more press.
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:

Simeon: Hey, I'm here at this houseparty to take you home...

Isidore: SWEET!

Simeon: ... and get an annulment.

Isidore: BOO.

Simeon: But feel free to visit me on my estate...

Isidore: YAY!

Simeon: ...that smells like poop because the toilets are backed up.

Isidore: BOO.

Simeon: Also my mum.

Simeon's Mum: Hello, I'm this novel's Token Parent, here to be Intolerable for No Reason other than to Explain the Hero's Shortcomings.

Isidore: Well it looks like we're getting along and finally starting a relationship ...

Simeon: YES!

Isidore: ...except I want a man who loves me AND likes me, and better clothes. See? TWO people can use ellipses.

Simeon: I'm sorry - how about I rescue you from pirates?

Isidore: Okay! Let's get married!

Simeon: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Marriage By Proxy
  • 2 Horrible Parents (1 Deceased)
  • Several Backed Up Toilets
  • 1 Staunchly Loyal Butler
  • 1 Virgin Hero
  • 1 Vengeful Blacksmith
  • Several Thousand Carefully-Sewn Diamonds
  • 1 Useless Plot Device Brother
  • 1 Shipwreck
The Word: In this fourth book in Eloisa James' Desperate Duchesses series, Isidore and Simeon were married by proxy when Isidore was twelve. For the last twelve years, Simeon gadded about the world living as an explorer and an adventurer, while Isidore got older, hotter, and 

Finally, in the events of Duchess by Night, Isidore travelled with her friend Harriet to the houseparty of the infamous Lord Strange, hoping to scandalize her husband enough to get him to come home and make their marriage a real one. The good news - her plan works. At the behest of his horrified mother, Simeon finally travels back to England to set eyes on his wife for the first time.

The bad news? After only a few days' acquaintance, he decides he'd rather annul the marriage. Simeon, being the benign type of selfish ass particular to Eloisa James novels, believes that true manliness is achieved by shirking one's family and responsibilities to fart around the Orient keeping oneself emotionally repressed. Back in England, he takes one look at his super hot Italian wife and immediately knows that maintaining the art of the Middle Way around her would be impossible. He's honed his mind so finely, that he's even managed to remain a virgin.

His weird idiosyncrasies can be attributed to (again, in typical Eloisa James fashion) his flamboyantly horrible mother, who has turned his estate into a festering, foul-smelling stye in his absence. Hundreds of unpaid bills litter the place, the building is falling to pieces, his baby brother Godfrey was pulled out of Eton due to their mother's unwillingness to pay the tuition, the cheated townspeople hate him, and every water closet on the property has backed up, lending a particular perfume to the place on damp days.

So really, Simeon doesn't need the extra stress and he lets Isidore know that she's "off the hook." But Isidore will not be put aside so easily. She had to wait 11 years in limbo because Simeon needed to "find himself," so she's determined to get those years back with interest by seducing Simeon and taking "annulment due to nonconsummation" off the table.

Now, it sounds like a cute premise, and Eloisa James can certainly sell it. She's a master of clever dialogue, setting and description. Her books may not always make sense, or even be very good, but they are always entertaining on one level or another. However, at her worst her books can be all fluff and no substance - very pretty, well-described, sumptuous fluff, but once the sparkle wears off one realizes the story didn't make sense and the hero was kind of a jerk and the ending was far too easy.

First of all, once again, I felt like Jemma/Elijah/Villiers' story took up way too much time. I'm not talking a few scenes here and there - I felt like they had half the book, leaving only the other half for the novel's actual protagonists. Listen, Sherry Thomas managed to convey a years-spanning Reunited Marrieds story in one book, so I'm less convinced these days that Eloisa James needed five (!) to do hers justice. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with buildup and I am looking forward to Jemma and Elijah's book, but I felt their presence in this novel was very intrusive and sapped energy away from the other couple.

And man did they need it. I quite liked Isidore - she was hot-tempered and forthright without being obnoxious, and was refreshingly free of self consciousness. However, I had several problems with Simeon. Mainly, he's an astonishingly selfish and patronizing asshole. Eloisa James is quite adept at giving us thoughtless jerkoff heroes who grow to realize people other than themselves exist, but I never really got the sense that Simeon truly realized how much he'd limited Isidore's choices by staying away.  And once he does come to his senses and declares his love, Isidore has an out-of-the-blue whiplash moment of doubt and flees into the Novel's Black Moment, a development that made little sense.

Secondly, so many of the novel's plot points seem contrived. Simeon comes home to find his estate in shambles and his tenants impoverished and resentful because his father and mother, for inexplicable reasons, up and decided to stop paying bills. The mystery around this added a layer of tension and suspense to the first half of the novel. As Simeon confirms, the estate was never in any financial danger and there was always plenty of money - so what made them stop paying their creditors and tradesmen? In the end, it's written off as "Your father was just insane" - and no further explanation. Narratively, it was a frustrating let down and contributed nothing to the overall theme of the story. It was just a cheap way to place extra tension on the hero.

That, in a nutshell, is why this wasn't a perfect novel. The characters are witty and charming and entertaining, but the story never really examines beyond their witty charm, or at least very deeply.This makes When the Duke Returns a bubbly, fun novel to read - but a harder one to remember.

You can purchase When The Duke Returns here.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (18)

Well, thanks to some excellent progress with NaNoWriMo, I have time for a Weekly Wanting post! Enjoy!

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical.
Cover Snark: Actually a pretty decent cover, can't complain.
The Story: A girl in the 1930s is sent to live with a friend of her father's in the small town of Manifest. While she initially thinks the town is just some lame backwater, she discovers a whole host of secrets to explore.
Why I Want It? Reason the First - Newbury Medal winner. Reason the Second - Small Town Secrets are my literary crack. Reason the Third - a fab review from the Booksmugglers!

Genre: YA, Fantasy, Historical.
Cover Snark: "You're a wee little puppet man!" 
The Story: A girl with death-obsessed parents + evil magician + two plucky orphans + Victorian setting = funtimes!
Why I Want It? Consider it giving in. I was only mildly interested when the book first came out but the good reviews have been so constant and detailed that I can't help but want to read it now!

And what books are you guys eagerly wanting this week?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone," by Kat Rosenfield

The Protagonist: Becca. Graduated salutatorian from her high school class, she has a bright future ahead of her - and, most importantly, outside of her stifling small town.
Her Angst: When her boyfriend dumps her on the same day an unidentified corpse is found outside of town, she wonders if planning any sort of future is possible if everything is ultimately unknown.

The Secondary Characters:

James: Becca's highschool drop-out boyfriend. Broke up with her right after having sex on graduation night. Regrets his actions afterwards, but is there something else going on?

Amelia Anne Richardson: A college grad who discovers late in her education that her passion is for theatre, not business. But will her boyfriend approve of her switch?

Craig: The troubled, sadistic son of the town success story, who brags about how the murder happened right outside his backyard and refuses to let the cops search his property.

Angst Checklist

  • My Boyfriend Pulled a Pump-and-Dump on Me
  • Dead Moms
  • The Uncertainty of the Future
  • Risk versus Reward
  • Small Towns versus Big City
  • Townies versus Rich Summer Home Owners
  • First Loves
  • Action, Responsibility, and Consequence
  • Violence Against Women

The Word: This was an impulse grab for me. While I was at a library for a very successful NaNoWriMo write-in, I saw this jutting out of the shelf and recognized it as a book from my Wishlist that had come highly recommended from an extremely respected source (author and videoblogger John Green), so I grabbed it and jumped into it right after finishing Sacred Hearts.

Becca has her whole life planned out. After graduating with high marks, she'll spend one last wistful summer with her boyfriend James in their backwoods New England town and then drive away to experience the world - eventually leading her to law school and on to a successful career in a big city.

However, two things happen on graduation night that smash her confidence and unhinge her desire to do anything but stay put. One, her boyfriend James (a troubled high school dropout), cruelly breaks up with her after one last bang; and two, the battered, unidentified corpse of a young woman is discovered by the side of the road outside of town.

As their small community erupts into a fevered frenzy of gossip and speculation, Becca retreats further and further into panicked paralysis. She identifies with the nameless victim - a young woman who, despite her own well-laid plans, met her bloody fate alone in the dark - and finds herself unable to contemplate any sort of future for herself. When her boyfriend guiltily apologizes and tries to reconnect, she latches on to that, even as she realizes her trust of him will never completely grow back.

Along with these plot lines, we also get alternating chapters told from the viewpoint of Amelia Anne Richardson - the nameless victim - in the days and hours leading up to her demise.

So it wouldn't be going out on a limb here to say that Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is not a happy book. It most assuredly is not - it's a lyrically-written examination of violence against women, and the quiet bravery of women who choose to make, break, or change their plans in the midst of a chaotic and bloody world. On one side, we read of the triumph and joy that Amelia Anne feels as she discovers her true passion for acting - even as we know her story will end in a battered heap by the side of the road. On the other, we read about Becca and feel frustration as this intelligent girl with a bright future is now too terrified to think beyond the next moment of being with her deadbeat boyfriend.

The characterization in this book was excellent - even if I felt disconnected from the protagonist for much of the novel. While reading, I thought her panic and angst seemed a little overblown, but on later reflection it made sense. While she doesn't want to stick around in her fading, backwoods town, being sucker-punched by two devastating examples of the uncertainty of the future (breakup and death) would make any teenager rethink their priorities and wonder if the devil they know is better than the one they don't. That being said, her characterization hiccups somewhere near the end with a surprisingly dark and sudden plot twist.

James, Becca's boyfriend, is wonderfully depicted as well. While on paper he sounds like (and, frankly, is) kind of a loser, he's a fully-realized character and a decent guy who allowed tragedy and misfortune to derail his life. He's the living proof of what will happen to Becca if she allows her pain and fear of the unknown to keep her from escaping her hometown and following her dreams.

As well, the setting of Amelia Anne is almost like a third character. In terms of small-town depictions, it rests somewhere between Alice Hoffman familiarity and Lauren Myracle contempt. The stagnation and despair of the older residents reminded me very powerfully of Myracle's Shine (which depicted a backwater North Carolina town), but at the same time, it has its own history and social ecosystem (which call Alice Hoffman to mind).

I liked this. It's easy in fiction to depict small towns as either Perfect Bubbles of Good If Eccentric Neighbourly Values (as romance tends to do) or Festering Cesspools of Broken Dreams and Sad People (as YA often does). Really, it depends on what kind of person your character is and neither kind is necessarily bad. While, to be honest, Amelia Anne does lean more towards Broken Dreams, the author gives the setting enough layers and subtext to make it a believable setting.

As well, the writing is gorgeous, ornate, lyrical and descriptive. While this does slow down the pacing a bit, it's nevertheless lovely to read.

In short, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone is a dark, lyrical novel that explores the bravery of challenging the unknown, even if the result is tragedy. Despite some cluttered language and a troubling surprise plot twist at the end, it's a strong example of YA literature.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

"Sacred Hearts," by Sarah Dunant

The Primary Cast:

Suora Zuana: The dispensary mistress whose unique upbringing by a doctor left her with significant medical and herbal training as well as a burning scientific curiosity. Sometimes, however, she fears her scientific mind keeps her from truly getting in touch with God.

Suora Serafina: A teenage girl forced into the convent against her will for having an affair with her music instructor. Despite her furious desire to escape, she and Suora Zuana develop a reluctant friendship.

The Secondary Cast:

Madonna Chiara: The Abbess of the convent of Santa Caterina. While she and Suora Zuana share a personal friendship, she cannot show favouritism while keeping a close watch on the political currents that might bring unwelcome reform to convent life.

Suora Umiliana: The novice mistress. Exceedingly devout, she believes in reform and wants to bring a more rigid way of life to the convent - as well as a change in leadership.

Suora Magdalena: An extremely pious and elderly sister kept in seclusion who purportedly experiences stigmata and religious ecstasies. Her presence signifies the conflict between Madonna Chiara and Suora Umiliana: the Abbess keeps her in isolation in order to keep unwanted attention away from the convent, but Suora Umiliana wants to proclaim the presence of this "living saint" to bring change to the convent's way of life.

The Word: The story takes place entirely within the convent of Santa Caterina, settled within the Italian city of Ferrara in the 16th century, while religious reform is running rampant throughout Europe. It's a period of history in which dowry prices are so high most families can't afford to marry off more than one daughter - except to Christ, that is.

Suora Zuana has spent sixteen years in the convent, ever since her physician father died, leaving her with his books and his knowledge but no family to take her in. Now working as the convent's dispensary mistress, she is responsible for developing remedies, practising medicine, and studying her father's craft. While she sometimes finds convent life restricting, she also appreciates that she would never be able to pursue her scientific curiosity anywhere else in the outside world.

Her remedies come in handy when the convent acquires a new novice - the 16-year-old Suora Serafina, who comes with a dowry as wealthy as her heart is unwilling. Furious and despairing at being torn from her privileged life and forced to take the veil after her romance with her music teacher was discovered, Suora Serafina feels convent life is akin to being buried alive. When her wild howling threatens to keep the entire convent awake, Zuana gives her a potent sleeping draught. To reward Suora Zuana for her quick thinking, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, orders Serafina to assist Suora Zuana in the dispensary. There, the two women end up forming a delicate friendship.

But not everyone is calm and content with convent living. In the outside world, as a result of Protestant accusations of lechery and corruption within monasteries and convents, the Council of Trent has declared that nunneries should be reformed - by separating them even more fully from the outside world. Musical instruments other than the organ would be removed, the style of musical compositions would be severely restricted, convent-performed theatricals would be banned, and bars and grilles and bricks would be applied to convent windows to prevent moral "contamination."

Suora Zuana knows that such changes would make life unbearable for the nuns of Santa Caterina, many of whom have, like Suora Zuana, discovered their secondary vocations as passionate musicians, playwrights, and craftswomen within the autonomy of the convent. While the abbess' political connections and their current arrangement with the local bishop help to shield Santa Caterina from the Papal inspectors, any undue scandal within its walls could draw the wrathful eye of the reformers to their doorstep.

However, as Suora Zuana builds a friendship with the deeply troubled Suora Serafina - a girl who refuses to accept her fate as a nun and continually develops plans to escape - Zuana comes to wonder whether the maintenance of the convent's peace is worth the squashing of one girl's sanity and future.

As a practising Catholic, I took a lot away from this book, in the spiritual sense as well as the literary sense. I really appreciated the attention to detail and the exploration of every nun's personal search for God, and the way convent life was designed to open the spirit and bring people closer towards an intimate relationship with Christ. Even Suora Umiliana, who is essentially the antagonist, is far from a hypocrite in her beliefs and is sincere in her motivations for reforming the convent.

The characters are all splendidly realized and fleshed-out. I enjoyed reading how the scientific Zuana - herself an unwilling novice - came to sympathize with Serafina, while at the same time understanding how Serafina's actions could negatively impact the whole convent. These characters undergo significant struggle, both externally and with their own belief systems and goals. While the ending seemed a little bit easy, at the same time, half the story is the description of convent life and the intricate relationships of the women within. In many ways, the plot itself is rather simple and almost a secondary aspect of the novel.

That being said, this is a richly detailed and spiritual historical novel about a fascinating way of life in the 16th century - a way of life that allowed female autonomy and artistic expression in a period when few other institutions did. Definitely worth checking out.

You can purchase Sacred Hearts here.