Review: The Mysterious Madam Morpho by Delilah S. Dawson

Last year, Dawson’s debut novel Wicked As They Come introduced one of the most unique and delightful landscapes I’ve come across in the paranormal genre for a long time. The world of Sang is dark, twisted, wonderfully irreverent and impossibly sexy.  In this novella, Dawson plunges readers back into her world, and I couldn’t be happier to return.

The story is rather short yet surprisingly well-developed for its truncated page time. Dawson effectively balances the necessity of reuniting us with past characters (because what Blud book would be complete without an appearance from Criminy?) with further developing the characters and creations that populate her fantasy world. I was so pleased with the pace of the worldbuilding with this novella, as it allows us a better glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes in the caravan as well as a taste of life in the cities. I adored Mr. Murdoch and could have read twice as many pages recounting the various inventions he has contributed to the circus. Madam Morpho’s talent is equally as enchanting, and while I won’t spoil some of the surprises that are in store by going into detail about how her show really works, I will say that Dawson has succeeded in emphasizing the steampunk underpinnings of her story in a way that I haven’t seen before.

As for the characters, I didn’t connect as strongly with Madam Morpho as I had

The Mysterious Madam Morpho by Delilah S. Dawson

with Trish, which proved to be somewhat of a struggle as I read, but her chemistry with Mr. Murdoch more than made up for any shortcomings I found in her character. I wish we could have gained a bit more insight into Mr. Murdoch’s psychology, as it plays quite an important role in the story and I felt that the story ended on a rather unresolved note. Yet in this regard Madam Morpho‘s ending was rather similar to the resolution of Tish and Criminy’s story in the previous book, and Dawson has shown that she is willing and eager to revisit their storyline, so I’m hoping that further installments in the series give us more insight into how Madam Morpho and Mr. Murdoch’s relationship allows each character to grow past their insecurities.

Overall, The Mysterious Madam Morpho is a great installment in the series and makes me greedy to get my hands on the second book, Wicked As She Wants, next year.

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Review: This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

I was lucky enough to win a copy of This Is Not a Test the week it was released, though based on the wonderful reviews it was receiving, I likely would have gone out to purchase a copy regardless. Though I’d heard praise for Summers’s contemporary young adult, I’d never read any of her works. Still, descriptions of This Is Not a Test as a “contemporary-with zombies,” rather than a zombie book, had me intrigued despite Summers’s reputation for writing rather somber stories.

For those hoping to read about gore and bloodshed, you won’t be entirely disappointed by This Is Not a Test. I can’t say the above-mentioned description got it completely right, as this story contains enough disturbing material to make those wary of the zombie genre shy away. Yet, ultimately, this book truly isn’t about what’s beating on the doors to get in; it’s about the demons that already live inside us. Summers’s decision to narrate the story through the voice of a suicidal teenager was simple yet quite brilliant, as the stark questions raised by the fight for survival

This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

become all the more uncomfortable when viewed with a sense of detachment. A particularly beautiful effect of this approach was the highlight on survival not merely as a solitary endeavor, but as one in which the fight to live is endured as much for others as for oneself.

It’s rare that an author can sustain such a large cast of characters without allowing any single one to come to the forefront as someone to root for, yet Summers has achieved the nigh-impossible. I didn’t identify myself with any of the characters, didn’t feel the queasy nervousness of their dubious survival, yet I sincerely wanted them all to be alright. I’m not sure I would like to be friends with any of them, yet I cared about them. In an environment that brings the best and worst of people to the surface, Summers unerringly reminded us of the large expanse of gray in which most people live their lives, though shades of black and white might flitter at the periphery.

Ultimately, there was only one place that this story could be headed, and Summers doesn’t shy away from it. The end scene is a tad ambiguous, and the effect rather deprives readers of closure, but any other ending would have seemed far too disingenuous. While some might be displeased with the direction this story takes, I loved the journey that Summers takes us on from start to finish. This Is Not a Test is one of my top reads for the year. I’ll definitely be checking out Summers’ back-catalogue when I get the chance.

Cover Reveal: Purgatory Reign by L.M. Preston

Today I’m happy to be a part of the cover reveal for Purgatory Reign, an upcoming young adult paranormal romance novel by L.M. Preston.

Purgatory Reign by L.M. Preston

Something evil this way comes, unfortunately for it, Peter Saints is waiting.
Seventeen-year-old Peter Saints’ life stinks. But things are about to get much worse. First, his parents are murdered in front of him. Then another victim dies in his arms.
 
Visions plague Peter with warnings that something wants him for a sinister cause. It desires the one thing that Peter refuses to give –  his blood.
 

On the run with Angel, a scruffy kid, Peter starts to unravel the mystery. It’s the one secret the heavens sought to hide from the world. Unfortunately, when Peter finds the answer he hopes that will save the girl he loves, he opens the door to a great evil that happens to be salivating to meet him.

Purgatory Reign will be released in e-book format in March 2013, with a print edition to follow in May 2013.

Review: Zombie Vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

I rarely read anthologies. Even rarer still do I review them. To be honest, Zombies Vs. Unicorns exhibited the vast array of talent representative of anthologies that makes me hesitant to buy them in the first place, so I’m not quite sure why I feel inspired to review it as well. Perhaps it is because, amidst the variable levels of quality, I found a couple of stories that I wish had been fleshed out into full-length novels. Maybe I simply feel like establishing my allegience (despite my love for eccentric animals, I am Team Zombie all the way). Whatever the case, I’ve decided to give some brief impressions of my Zombies Vs. Unicorns experience.

The Highest Justice by Garth Nix

It could be a symptom of having been the first story I read way back when I bought the book (and thus having had the most time to languish unremembered in my thoughts), but I don’t recall being particularly enamored of this first story.  2/5

Love Will Tear Us Apart by Alaya Dawn Johnson

I’ve never read any of Johnson’s work before. Alright, truth time, I’d never actually heard of Johnson before purchasing this anthology, but I’ll surely be seeking out more of her work in the future. This story, though short, packed a huge emotional punch, and it delivered on so many fronts: a zombie plague masquerading as an infection, resultant sentient zombie who’s torn between kissing and eating his lover, bonus points for boy/boy romance, and great musical references. Really, this story earned the highest rating possible when it started things off with an Arctic Monkeys-inspired chapter title.  5/5

Purity Test by Naomi Novik

My boyfriend and I had an hour-long drive ahead of us, so I decided to read a story aloud to pass the time. Forty minutes later, my head hurt, and not simply due to sore vocal chords. I could barely manage to finish this story, and I’m still not quite sure what it was hoping to achieve.  1/5

Zombies Vs. Unicorns Anthology

Bougainvillea by Carrie Ryan

Though I have The Forest of Hands and Teeth sitting on my bookshelf, the only piece of Ryan’s writing that I’d read thus far was a short story for the Enthralled Anthology (one of the only stories in that anthology that I wound up liking). Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for this one, as I found the nonlinear timeline confusing and the characters rather unsympathetic.  2/5

A Thousand Flowers by Margo Lanagan

This story felt like an Angela Carter tale: slightly confusing, otherworldly, menacing, and wholly uncomfortable. I would never have thought a story about unicorns could feel so wrong, but Lanagan managed to create possibly the most disturbing story of the bunch.  4/5

The Children of the Revolution by Maureen Johnson

I’ve read a few of Johnson’s books, and this story read much the same as her other writings. I found it fun, but without a whole lot of substance or innovation. Still, she managed to keep me interested, which is more than I can say for a lot of the stories in this collection.  3/5

The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn by Diana Peterfreund

I’m a huge fan of Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series, but I haven’t read any of her unicorn books yet. That might change, if my reaction to this story is any indication. While I wasn’t particularly enamored of the characters featured in this story, she created a unique world unlike any I’ve read before. I’d like to see how much farther she can take the concept of killer unicorns before it starts to feel contrived.  3/5

Inoculata by Scott Westerfield

Westerfield’s world, while somewhat intriguing, read far too much like the introductory chapter to a series. It didn’t stand on its own two feet, which is a shame, since I felt that he had a whole lot more to say on this subject. Kudos for a subtlely drawn girl/girl relationship. 3/5

Princess Prettypants by Meg Cabot

I’ll admit, The Princess Diaries series is a guilty pleasure. However, if this story is any indication of the tone of Cabot’s other series, I’ll be steering clear. Cabot was asking for ironic humorous chuckles, but I wasn’t feeling any. 2/5

Cold Hands by Cassandra Clare

I could go on for days about the various grudges I hold against Clare. Instead, I will simply say that, as usual, Clare has delivered an inadequately thought out world with a saccharine romance that just barely managed to keep me reading.  2/5

The Third Virgin by Kathleen Duey

While I felt the idea for this one (an addicted unicorn; who knew?) was novel, the writing kept me at a distance. It was too reminiscent of the detached prose of Patricia McKillip, whose writing I simply cannot get into no matter how much others might love her.  Still, I recognize the quality of writing, even if I didn’t relate to it personally.  3/5

Prom Night by Libba Bray

Many other readers raved about this story, but it didn’t draw me in like most of the other zombie stories in this collection.  Unfortunately, I skimmed much of it, and so don’t have a whole lot to say.  1/5

Despite a lot of average writing, Johnson and Lanagan’s stories really knocked it out of the park for me, and so they managed to bump the rating for the whole anthology up a notch. Check this one out if you have the time.

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.

Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

I’ve had Anna Dressed in Blood on my TBR list for quite a while now, and with high priority. The only reason it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it is because I’m unforgivably cheap and I haven’t been able to find a copy used. So when I saw a shiny new Barnes and Noble coupon sitting in my inbox a few weeks ago, I knew what book that discount would go toward. I won’t lie; my expectations for Anna were pretty sky-high after reading nearly universal praise from my fellow bloggers. Based on the reviews I had read, I was anticipating this to be a read rather outside of my comfort zone. While I thoroughly enjoy a good Grade B horror movie, the campier the better, horror often has the capacity to freak me out, particularly that of the haunting-ghoul-in-abandoned-house/hospital/mental ward variety. From what I’d read of Anna, it seemed to fit the bill of every story that has me watching the shadows at night, and the first few chapters did nothing to dispel me of this notion. Anna‘s opening is electric, spares no punches, and quite frankly, had me doubting whether it was wise to continue reading it when I knew I’d be going to sleep all by my lonesome that night.

Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Unfortunately, despite my misgivings, I wish Blake had been able to sustain the sheer creepiness of the novel’s early chapters, but ultimately Anna failed to live up to its hype. I couldn’t help but be let down the further I read, especially when the book had initially promised to deliver a truly unique, mostly unexplored level of scare for the YA genre. Blake had the potential to knock it out of the park, and when Anna first appeared on the page I was sure that she had. The Anna of the early chapters is like no other protagonist I’ve read in the genre, perhaps not quite unapologetic in her wrath, yet utterly frightening nonetheless. What’s more, she had presence on the page; I anticipated her return at the same time that I feared it, and though I wanted to learn about her history that had led her down this path, I didn’t feel that I needed to. It was enough to witness rather than needing to see behind the scenes.

Cas wasn’t quite as successful a character for me, though I appreciate Blake’s contribution to an unfortunately small pool of young adult books narrated from the male perspective. It’s not as if Bake failed to create a believable male teenage voice, but I nevertheless didn’t connect with Cas. It might be due in part to the wealth of backstory that Cas relates to the readers; I tend to have difficulty getting to know a character through anecdote alone rather than by witnessing the events as they occur. Still, I loved Cas’s interactions with Anna and couldn’t wait to see how Blake would justify Cas’s feelings for someone who can be so very inhuman. Sadly, things fell apart for me around the midway point, as the qualities I had loved until this point simply vanished. Anna’s unsettling demeanor, the sense of foreboding, the potential for development of great side characters like Thomas and Carmel take a backseat as, with a bit of magic and a pinch of luck, Anna is transformed from Samara’s long lost cousin into an utterly generic teen queen.

Suffice it to say, the Anna of the book’s second half was not a character to inspire awe in the reader. I’m glad that Blake didn’t completely neuter her main character, as at least Anna retains the ability to turn freaky-eyed and fabulous, but by allowing Anna to achieve her humanity so abruptly, Blake took the easy way out. Compared to reading about Cas’s struggle to come to terms with his feelings for someone with questionable merits and dubious morals, allowing Anna to toggle between murderous wraith and sympathetic victim made the whole affair seem far too sanitized.

Review: Spark by Brigid Kemmerer

When I requested a review copy of Spark, I broke one of my avowed reading rules: never read a series out of order.  Yet I knew that Spark would only remain on NetGalley for a few days longer, and I had read so many rave reviews of Storm, the first in Kemmerer’s Elementals series, that I knew I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. Requesting Spark wound up being a good move; after reading the descriptions for the first two books in the series, I have to say that Gabriel’s bad-boy-falls-for-smart-girl trope appealed to me more than his older brother’s storyline.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I’m intrigued enough by the world Kemmerer has built to seek out the first in the series, but if I happen to come across it I’d gladly give it a go.

Kemmerer deftly works two of my favorite underused themes into her new series: control of the elements, and brotherly love.  Usually, it seems like the latter is portrayed between a pair of siblings (see Rob Thurman’s Cal Leandros series, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series, and Supernatural).  However, Kemmerer isn’t content with giving us a measly duo, so instead we’re treated to a horde of brothers (two of them twins, at that).  Reviewers have been praising the dynamic Kemmerer has created among this sibling gang, and while I could see the underpinnings of something sweet, I believe this might be an example of why series are best started at the beginning.  I couldn’t help but feel that the foundations of these relationships were solidly established in Storm, and that Kemmerer took it for granted a bit in Spark.  Usually, I would applaud an author for foregoing the urge to rehash and repeat past

Spark by Brigid Kemmerer

events for the sake of new readers, but when I happen to be on the other side for once, I can appreciate why authors summarize.  I followed the story just fine, though I was a bit lost on some of the finer points.  It also took me a while to figure out who was connected to whom familialy and romantically, though I was pretty confident on this point midway through.  Still, I felt that something was missing (and no, it wasn’t a spark, although that would be conveniently ironic).  While I could see that these brothers cared immensely for each other, I felt too much like a bystander to their affections without getting a sense of how their personalities really worked together.

Apart from this criticism, I quite enjoyed the story, but it never elicited enough excitement to warrant a higher rating.  Gabriel was a good narrator, if a bit typical for his stereotype.  I would have liked to see him interact more with his twin brother Nick, as I felt that this was one of the relationships for which so much importance lay in the backstory that I wasn’t privy to.  I had a more difficult time connecting with Layne, much to my surprise and disappointment, as I usually love reading about the shy, brainy chicks (I am one myself, after all).  Yet Layne just seemed a bit too self-involved, despite her air of subservience and altruism.  I did like her relationship with her brother Simon and the way that this factored into her growing regard for Gabriel.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing; it was a formula I should have loved, but it never quite got to the point where I was rooting Gabriel and Layne on.  I was more concerned with Gabriel’s potential conviction as the unknown arsonist, and felt that this storyline was insufficiently resolved.  I suppose Kemmerer intends to explore it more in the next installment.

Overall, Kemmerer’s writing feels exactly like the type I usually gravitate toward, so I struggle to pinpoint exactly what it is that prevents me from loving this series.  Perhaps I ought to give Storm a chance and see if it changes my impressions of its successor; at any rate, I think that the Elementals series is a great new addition to the young adult urban fantasy genre.