Review: Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft by Jody Gehrman

I have an urban fantasy confession to make: witches have never really done it for me. I love the idea of magic in general, but for some reason, whenever I’ve been presented with an array of supernaturals to choose from, the witches always take last place. That being said, I rather enjoyed my brief excursion into Audrey’s world, although my reaction might be due in part to my witch-biased low expectations going in.

Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraftdoesn’t stray too far from the typical young adult paranormal mould, introducing us to a likable yet unremarkable heroine with self-esteem issues, a rushed introduction to the supernatural world, and a case of the dreaded insta-love. Still, while the book does commit the foregoing offenses, it does so in a manner that is almost charming in its lack of pretension. This book never takes itself too seriously, and while that tends to drive me crazy much of the time, here it was an asset that helped to offset the book’s more generic qualities. Audrey might not be particularly compelling as a narrator (not to mention her unfortunate

Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft by Jody Gehrman

ascent to Mary Sue status), but she is sincere and thus eminently more likable than so many of the young adult heroines that predominate in the genre at the opposite end of the spectrum. Audrey is tossed unceremoniously into a world she never knew existed, yet the vehicle for her education is a delightful secondary character who I hope resists becoming overshadowed as Audrey’s mom inevitably gets a larger page-presence in future books. Even the romance angle was cute, albeit inadequately explored. Still, Julian is a nice guy without a hint of being a broodingly secretive alpha-asshole, and rejoice! There isn’t a whiff of a triangle so far.

While reading, I couldn’t help but compare the book to other stories that I’ve encountered before, and honestly, Gehrman does little to dissuade the tendency. Pop culture references proliferate throughout, with more than a couple of nods to Harry Potter, yet I didn’t get any Rowling vibes. No, my brain ran to more obscure gems in the film arena such as Halloweentown and Simply Irresistible. If you can’t recall those cinematic wonders, don’t worry- your ignorance is forgivable. I can’t say the plot was enthralling, but it kept my attention, which is commendable judging by my reading record of late. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll be picking up the second book in the series, but if you’re looking for something rather frothy to while away a fall day, Audrey’s Guide to Witchcraft is a good bet.

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Review: Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

I’ve been holding my breath for Thieftaker to come out since last year. D.B. Jackson isn’t an author I’ve read before,  yet he seems to have built himself a nice following. Thieftaker represents the subgenre of historical urban fantasy, one that I haven’t had much exposure to, and I’m sorry to say that I doubt I will be reading much of it in the future either. That shouldn’t be taken as a statement against Jackson’s abilities as a writer nor Thieftaker as a novel. This wound up being a read in which I could sense the quality of writing, but simply couldn’t connect on a personal level.

Thieftaker takes place in 18th century Boston, a setting that I never anticipated

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

being featured in an urban fantasy novel. Yet depite its unlikely locale, Thieftaker has all the trappings of the genre, in particular a skilled narrator in Ethan Kaille. Ethan reminded me of what Harry Dresden’s ancestor might have been like. That might be part of the reason why Ethan and I never clicked. (I only got through the first two books in The Dresden Files). I love reading books told from a male point-of-view, but not when the male in question exhibits that annoying habit of stoicism that so often seems to accompany the Y-chromosome. Ethan clearly has much in life that he’s passionate about: his profession as a thieftaker (a fascinating and apparently real relic of historical times), his failed engagement to a beautiful woman of his past, the question of whether to commit to the beautiful woman in his present, and the potentially lethal frustration of dealing with his main competitor, the (obviously beautiful) Sephira. Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and so less susceptible to this particular power of suggestion, but I got a bit tired of hearing about all of the beautiful women in Ethan’s life, no matter their relationship with him. I found Sephira in particular was a tiresome character, as her continual presence causing trouble in Ethan’s life never convinced me of anything aside from her feral grace. While we are told that she is a deadly foe, I witnessed no evidence of her competence aside from the muscle exhibited by her hired goons.

Despite my grievances, the magical system that Jackson has created is rather compelling and I’m sure that many will not have the same issues relating to characters as I did. I have no doubt that Thieftaker will be one of the breakout fantasy books for the year; it just wasn’t for me.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: A Guide for the Thrifty, Impatient, and Clever Visitors

After spending hours reading blog posts and articles recounting others’ visits to the Wizarding World, I thought I was prepared to visit Hogwarts and Hogsmeade in all their glory. Friends, I was wrong; the Wizarding World was even more magical than I hoped for, and while I can’t in all honesty say that I want to go back to Orlando again any time soon (heat, crowds, and gaudiness galore do not a happy Shortlatte make), I do so wish that the Wizarding World wasn’t quite so far away, because I would be holding season passes if I lived within a hundred miles of it.

Yet while my trip was as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be, I have a feeling that I might have been slightly less enamored of my experience if I hadn’t done so extensive research beforehand. As I mentioned before, many have written about their own trips to the park and have provided some useful tips to help get the most out of your visit. Unfortunately, most of these articles spend their time extolling the benefits of staying in an on-site Universal Studios hotel, as hotel guests get free express passes for the Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff rides as well as entry to the park an hour before the general public. Yet, when the boyfriend and I sat down to make travel plans, the pricey Universal package simply wasn’t an option, so I was forced to come up with some strategies of my own.

1. Do your research.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: there are a lot of useful tips that others have written about that will help you to navigate the park with the least amount of hassle and frustration. I won’t rehash what others have already said, but I will add that your research should span all aspects of your trip to the Wizarding World, including shopping. You might not realize it, but as exciting as the prospect of shopping in Hogsmeade might be, it also poses some serious logistical problems for park-goers. Shopping bags aren’t allowed on the rides, so if you’ve got something that doesn’t fit in a pocket, you’re going to have to rent a locker. Though lockers are free for a certain amount of time, there’s no guarantee that you will be through the waiting line and off the ride before the time is up, so you might wind up having to pay to stash your stuff. Not to mention the fact that the locker line is separate from the actual ride line, adding more time to your overall wait. Then there’s the pesky little problem of buying candy from Honeydukes in ninety-plus degree heat: many a Chocolate Frog have suffered a miserable melty fate from park patrons who insist on toting them around the park all day.

Obviously, visiting the Wizarding World without buying something isn’t an option, so my advice is this: don’t be afraid to do some shopping ahead of time online. I don’t suggest that you make any purchases, but the online shops give a good idea of the range of items available for sale, so you can get a sense of the souvenirs you simply have to take home with you. This leads to step number two: take advantage of the Potter merchandise for sale throughout Orlando. From the airport to the Universal shops in City Walk, most of the stuff available for sale “only” in the Wizarding World is actual available at other locations as well. My boyfriend and I stocked up on the items on our list, including those pesky Chocolate Frogs, upon arriving at the airport and visiting City Walk the night before. Not only did we not have to worry about the problems mentioned above, but we also didn’t have to wait in ridiculously long lines as we would have had we waited to buy our souvenirs at the park. That’s not to say that we didn’t make some purchases there as well, but we were able to wait until just before we were ready to leave the park.

2. Get up early.

Harry and company weren’t afriad to forego a little sleep when the occasion called for it, and neither should you be. As I mentioned already, if you don’t stay at a Universal hotel, you will be forced to wait in line at the turnstiles until the park officially opens. We got up at six and were at the park before seven, over an hour before the park opened to the general public. We were the first in line and were treated to an hour-long wait during which hordes of hotel guests breezed through the gates right in front of us. You will want to apparate all of those early entrants out of there, but it’s alright. The good news is that by the time you enter the park, the hotel guests have likely already ridden the Forbidden Journey, paving a clear path for you. So when you finally get in, powerwalk straight back to the Wizarding World and resist the urge to take pictures. Those shots of the castle will still be there in an hour, but the lack of line won’t be. We went straight to the Forbidden Castle and rode it without a wait, then went straight to the Dragon Challenge and did the same for both rollercoasters. By the time we got to the Flight of the Hippogriff, there was an hour-long wait, but we managed to experience the most popular rides relatively hassle-free.

3. Have a gameplan.

Ours was mentioned above. Yours might be different (though I highly encourage bumping the Forbidden Journey to the top of your list). Nevertheless, you need to have an idea of where your priorities lie and do those things first, or else the crowds will swamp you.

4. Once you’re inside the castle, slow down.

You can always go back through the castle on the single rider line or on a castle tour without having to wait on the monstrous line, but those only give you a limited view of the castle. So when you go through the first time, let people pass you as you go along and take pictures to your heart’s content. Stop and absorb everything, because unless you want to wait on the uber-long line more than once, this is the closest you will get to the good stuff.

5. Explore the shops.

The stores in Hogsmeade are crowded pretty much morning, noon, and night, but not unmanageably so. The only one that has a truly off-putting line is Ollivander’s, and we opted not to wait for the wand-choosing ceremony. Instead, we ducked through Dervish & Bangles into the adjacent store and checked out the wands there. If you’re really craving the ambiance of Ollivander’s but don’t want to brave the line, there’s a good wand set-up in the Owl Post that gives much the same feel.

6. Chow down.

You woke up at the crack of dawn and have been walking or standing for hours, so chances are you’ll be hungry early. We headed to the Three Broomsticks around eleven and were seated instantly. A few minutes later, the crowds stormed in, so if you can, eat early to beat the rush. You’ll get a great seat and be able to eat in peace. If you get thirsty, resist the urge to get a Butterbeer from one of the carts and head to the Hog’s Head instead; there’s rarely a line and you can buy the collectible mugs there as well. You can get pumpkin juice (and the delicious Hog’s Head Brew) there too, as well as in Honeydukes.

7. Explore all the nooks and crannies.

The designers did a bang-up job with this park. It feels like a real locale rather than a recreation, and nothing shows that off more than the details. Take the time to notice the subtle touches. Look up everywhere you go, because so much of the good stuff is hidden above your head. Duck out back entrances to the Three Broomsticks and down alleyways for unique angles of the castle not visible from the main road. Even the ATM’s and the bathrooms have little touches that bring the world to life.

8. Don’t neglect the kiosks.

Had I not taken my own advice and done some shopping research beforehand, I wouldn’t have known about the amazing Skele-Gro keychain sold only at the Wizarding World. As it turns out, it really is sold only in the park, as it’s one of the items not available in other Universal gift shops. Unfortunately, it also didn’t seem to be available in the Hogsmeade shops, as after several passes through I still couldn’t find it. Thankfully, I thought to check the outdoor kiosk outside the Castle, and I found it in all its glory.

9. Go back at night.

The Wizarding World is a totally different experience when as the sun goes down. The heat isn’t as intense, and the crowds die down a lot. Most importantly, the setting sun gives the town a beautiful glow that makes for great photo ops. Hogwarts truly is stunning in the dimming light.

I’m a Negligent Blogger

I know I haven’t posted much this week, and I’ve completely ignored the weekly memes I usually participate in. But you see, this week my brain has been occupied by bigger things, magical things.

Until I get home and get situated, I’m afraid I’m going to continue to be a bit absent here, but have no fear, I haven’t forgotten my wonderful blog; I’ve just been a bit preoccupied. And I promise to catch you up on all of the wonderful things that have been holding my attention. For now, I’ll leave you with this lovely little teaser and hope that everyone has had a wonderful week reading, blogging, writing, and doing all things literary.

Review: The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé

What an unexpected little book.

I requested this one after only a cursory glance at the description. Based on the standard sleepy-girl-in-a-pretty-dress cover, I was expecting another typical young adult paranormal, complete with impossibly gifted heroine and two swarthy sides to a love triangle. And that’s what Abé gives us…sort of.

I was completely unprepared for the strength of Abé’s writing. Having read a lot of young adult books that mistake conspicuous word choice for depth, it was lovely to read prose that felt unselfconscious in its own beauty. Two pages turned to twenty, and before I knew it I was completely sucked into the story, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. In an odd way, I count that as one of the book’s strengths; Abé’s worldbuilding isn’t particularly sophisticated, and upon closer scrutiny, it’s like a moth-eaten quilt. You get the feeling that there is a larger rationale connecting all the pieces (likely developed as a backdrop to her previous adult romance series), but the threads that we do have are pretty enough to prop up the weak parts.

The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abé

Perhaps even more surprising than my lack of scorn toward a poorly constructed magical system was my acceptance, even approval, of the “love triangle.” I set that off in quotations because it doesn’t fit the bill, exactly. Lora does develop relationships with two different young men, yet it seems clear to me that she considers only one of these to be romantic. There is no oscillation between options; she makes it clear who she wants early on, and she doesn’t feel guilty about taking what she wants because she never flirts with the alternative. The characters’ understanding of how the relationships stand is fairly universal; though one of the men admits to his strange obsession with Lora, I never got the sense that even he was truly invested in it from a romantic angle. It could be a bit disappointing, then, that I actually would rather have seen these two together in a romantic sense than who she actually ends up with, but to be honest I liked both guys. It’s a rarity in young adult paranormal nowadays, but Abé pulled off the impossible in creating two reasonably well-rounded male characters to root for. What’s more, she didn’t pull back on investing them with faults, though they are subtlely sown. Most importantly, Abé doesn’t try to convince or justify. Her characters are what they are, individually and in relation to each other, and you don’t have to approve of or understand the crazy fated turns that bring them together; you simply have to keep up with them. Regarding Lora’s romantic connection, it’s not epic, but nor is it the saccharine contrived mess that we are usually fed. It’s a dry love, giving only as much as it cares to, existing whether we believe in it or not.

As for Lora…I liked her. She’s snarky. She’s no pushover. She might be crazy, but she doesn’t spend time lamenting the fact. She’s endured some pretty horrible things in her short life, yet we hear only snippets, and those at unexpected points in the narrative. I love that, despite the occasional third-person perspective shifts to the two male characters, the story’s focus on Lora’s narration maintains the aura of an unreliable narrator. From what we see and hear through Lora’s eyes, there are a lot of unbelievable things occurring without much explanation or credence. Lora has thought herself crazy for years; who’s to say that she isn’t? It’s entirely possible that the events of the story are entirely a creation of her own imagination. Abé doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, and while I might be reading into this too much, that’s alright with me. It is, after all, the reader’s prerogative to interpret a story.

Following the ending of The Sweetest Dark, it’s not entirely clear whether Abé intends for there to be a sequel; it might seem odd, but I almost wish there weren’t, despite the melancholy tone that would lend to the story overall. Yet it’s a beautiful melancholy, a sweet ache as can only be accomplished by those surreal, unapologetic stories that are more Grimm than Anderson. Still, I suspect we will see more to come from these characters, though where Abé goes with this story from here is anyone’s guess; at the very least, it’s guaranteed to be a far cry from the standard fare.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme created over at The Broke and the Bookish that allows us to list our top ten answers to a different question each week.

This week’s theme is: Top Ten Books for People Who Liked Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner

These two talented ladies found inspiration in each other’s work, and it shows. There’s much of Howl in Gen, including an impossible wit and proclivity for temper tantrums. There’s also just enough fantasy to keep genre fans satisfied.

2. Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling

Flewelling’s series juggles numerous adult themes and so the tone is more mature than that of Jones’s classic children’s book. However, Alec and Seregil constantly snark at each other and get into hijinks reminiscent of Sophie and Howl’s adventures.

3. Graceling by Kristin Cashore

There’s decidedly less humor in Cashore’s series, yet fans of Diana Wynne Jones’ writing will surely find much to love in Cashore’s lush worldbuilding.

4. Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

Unlike Howl, Unspoken is set in modern times, yet Brennan has infused her story with the same wry humor that Jones was so well known for. Had Jones decided to write a gothic romance novel, Unspoken surely would have been its doppleganger.

5. A Matter of Magic by Patricia C. Wrede

Mairelon reminded me quite a bit of Howl, though he was rather less prone to histrionics. A Matter of Magic is a slower read than Howl and rather less funny, but it’s a great example of a fantasy of manners.

6. Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman can turn anything into gold, and his attempt at an original fairy tale is no exception. Both Howl and Stardust excel at not taking themselves too seriously, which I believe is an important but oft-overlooked elemet to any humorous fantasy novel.

7. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

McKinley is the queen of fairy tale adaptations, yet her Damar stories are just as brilliant. While Howl fans should seek out McKinley’s entire catalogue of work, The Blue Sword is a good place to start.

8. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

If you’re after humorous fantasy, you can’t do better than The Princess Bride.

Some other titles that aren’t quite as similar yet that might interest Howl’s fans include: Chronicles of Lumatere series by Melina Marchetta, Study series by Maria V. Snyder, Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

 

Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays is a meme started over on Should Be Reading that presents a different literary-themed question every week.

This week’s question is: 

What are you currently reading? Is it any good? Would you recommend it?

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

I’m between books at the moment, but I’ve got one of my absolute favorites queued up to read later this week. I recently discovered a young adult-focused book club that meets in my town. I have been meaning to join a book club for years. Yet every time someone reminded me of this fact, I would find excuses: the only ones I knew of were too far away, they only read general fiction, they met on days I was unavailable. Well, now I have no excuse to avoid book clubs as I found one close-by that meets on the weekend, particularly as this month’s selection is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. I first read Howl’s Moving Castle on a car trip a few years back, and I was shocked when we reached our destination because I had become so thoroughly engrossed in the story. Howl’s Moving Castle is witty and whimsical and so unexpected in its execution, and Howl is one of my favorite literary characters of all time.
While browsing through my regular book blogs this morning, I came across this wonderful post by The Readventurer comparing the book and film versions of Howl’s Moving Castle. I have to agree with the post: while I like the movie, the book will forever hold a special place in my heart. Even Christian Bale’s dulcet tones cannot eclipse the epic awe of Jones’s story as it unfolds on the page.