Friday, January 13, 2017

Americans Still Reading Real Books, Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke, The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, The Graces by Laure Eve and The Secret Language of Stones by MJ Rose

This is the first heartening news of the new year!

Gallup: 'Most Americans Are Still Reading Books'
"During the past year, about how many books did you read/listen to,
either all or part of the way through?"

According to a recent Gallup poll
Americans "are consuming books at nearly the same rate that they were
when Gallup last asked this question in 2002--before smartphones,
Facebook or Twitter became ubiquitous. More than one in three (35%)
appear to be heavy readers, reading 11 or more books in the past year,
while close to half (48%) read between one and 10 and just 16% read

Although the number of respondents who said they read no books in the
past year was double the first time Gallup asked this question in 1978
(from 8% then to 16% now), the figure has been fairly steady near the
current level since 1990.

The results are based "on an open-ended question that asked half of
Americans to recall the number of books they read all or part of the way
through in the past year--the trend wording--and the other half to
recall the number of books they read or listened to all or part of the
way through. Given that there was no meaningful difference in the
answers, the results to the two versions were combined," Gallup

In other notable findings, 91% of adults aged 18-29 read at least one
book in the past year, compared to 85% of adults aged 65 and older.
Nearly 40% in both age groups read more than 10 books. Baby boomers are
having an impact on the 65 and older category, where the percentage who
reported reading one or more books increased from 68% (in 2002) to 85%.
Among respondents who read at least one book last year, 73% said they
most often read printed books, 19% electronic books and 6% audiobooks.

Gallup concluded that "despite Americans' ability to access more
information, social networks, games and media than ever before, as well
as the lingering rumors of the book's demise, Americans still say they
are reading books.... This suggests that book reading is a classic
tradition that has remained a constant in a faster-paced world,
especially in comparison to the slump of other printed media such as
newspapers and magazines."

Long Live the Queen by Kate Locke is the final book in the Immortal Empire series, and, as with the first two books, it's a blast of steampunk fun to read. This time, our heroine Xandra is caught up in the hunt for a being created from one of her stolen ova, a being that has been made as an assassin and is controlled by someone very high up in the government. Here's the blurb:
Xandra Vardan thought life would be simpler when she accepted the goblin crown and became their queen, but life has only become more complicated. Everyone -- vampires, werewolves and humans -- wants the goblins on their side, because whoever has the goblins -- wins.
Queen Victoria wants her head, Alpha wolf Vex wants her heart, and she still doesn't know the identity of the person who wanted her blood. What she does know is that a project from one of the 'secret' aristocrat labs has gotten free and she's the only one who can stop the perfect killing machine -- a sixteen year-old girl. With human zealots intent on ridding the world of anyone with plagued blood and supernatural politics taking Britain to the verge of civil war, Xandra's finding out that being queen isn't all it's cracked up to be, and if she doesn't do something fast, hers will be the shortest reign in history.
The fantastic conclusion to the series that started with the spectacular undead steampunk debut, God Save the Queen and The Queen is Dead.
 Though the mad and bloody chaos that is the hallmark of these books propels the plot along at breakneck speed, the author still takes time out to flesh out several key relationships and even outs one of the main characters as a member of the aristocracy. There's a wedding, a coronation, death and betrayal, which is all one could really ask for in a well-told tale, and throughout we have the plucky Xandra who grows up and manages to save the day, all at once. Locke's prose is witty and wonderful, and her storytelling abilities unparalleled. An A, with a hearty recommendation to anyone who loves urban fantasy and Steampunk with flare and a dash of romance.

The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen is also the final book in a trilogy, and what surprised me about this hefty volume was the amount of history and background on all the characters and the world that we were exposed to herein. It was somewhat like reading a prequel interspersed with the last story in the series, so you get two different time periods, and having to switch from one very intense POV to another can be dizzying. Here's the blurb:
The thrilling conclusion to the New York Times bestselling Tearling trilogy.
In less than a year, Kelsea Glynn has transformed from a gawky teenager into a powerful monarch. As she has come into her own as the Queen of the Tearling, the headstrong, visionary leader has also transformed her realm. In her quest to end corruption and restore justice, she has made many enemies—including the evil Red Queen, her fiercest rival, who has set her armies against the Tear.
To protect her people from a devastating invasion, Kelsea did the unthinkable—she gave herself and her magical sapphires to her enemy—and named the Mace, the trusted head of her personal guards, regent in her place. But the Mace will not rest until he and his men rescue their sovereign, imprisoned in Mortmesne.
Now, as the suspenseful endgame begins, the fate of Queen Kelsea—and the Tearling itself—will finally be revealed. Publisher's Weekly:In this centuries-spanning epic adventure, Johansen concludes the Tearling trilogy (after The Invasion of the Tearling) with Queen Kelsea Glynn risking everything to save her beloved, beleaguered homeland from troubles both internal and external. Beset by visions of the time after the Tear’s founding some 300 years ago, she struggles to understand how the past defines the present and what part the malevolent Orphan, the enigmatic Fetch, and the ruthless Red Queen of Mortmesne have yet to play in the destiny of their world. Numerous stories play out against a wide backdrop, with the death of a dream creating hope for the future. Johansen’s vision—a society tearing itself apart amid the effort to redefine itself—is ambitious, and the conflict is fleshed out through myriad character arcs, some more compelling than others. However, the bittersweet resolution, which wraps up the story quite nicely, undermines much of what transpires here. The historical scenes carry more weight and significance than the chaos of the present, though Johansen adeptly describes the destruction and despair. This is a solid, if not entirely satisfying, end to the series.
I have to say that I agree with the Publisher's Weekly review, in that I would just be getting into the groove of Katie's view of the Tearling 300 years ago, when I was roughly pulled back to the mess that Kelsea had gotten herself into with the Red Queen, who was completely insane by the end. SPOILER ALERT. I felt that the ending was something of a cop-out, where due to Kelsea's choice during a weird moment in the "timestream" with William Tear, she manages to transform the town into the socialist utopia that Tear had dreamed of, before human greed and Row's jealousy and insane lust for power, as well as religion, began to undermine the Tearling colony and rot it from the inside out. Her choice wipes out all the horrible past problems and even turns Kelsea's ridiculously vain mother into a decent human being, as if by magic. It made little sense to me that just because she chose one way, somehow there were no weapons and no strife and everything was nearly perfect. Those who have read the entire series will probably also scratch their heads at this abrupt 360 degree change. Still, it was a very engrossing story, told in excellent prose with a very twisty plot. The book deserves an A, with a recommendation to those who read the first two books and a warning that they won't be able to put it down once you've opened it.

The Graces by Laure Eve was recommended to me as a magical YA book, rife with witches and secrets, when in reality it is about a very disturbed teenage girl named River who lives in poverty with her pathetic mother and has a crush on the "Graces." The Grace teenagers include twins Fenrin and Thalia (who sound like they were named from a book on Norse mythology) who are older, and Summer, who is River's age. Of course, the Graces are elegant, beautiful and wealthy, and they seem to have the entire town wound around their fingers. Apparently, few can resist their charms, though the Grace parents seemed like real asshats to me, cruel and capricious and snobbish. Yet River longs, yearns and seems desperate to be taken in by the Graces, because she somehow feels that they can help her "find" her father and make her feel loved and cared for. She pathetically debases herself in nearly every way possible to be with these people, and inevitably develops a passionate crush on Fenrin, though it is apparent to the reader from the outset that he's gay. This is yet another book that I am chagrined that I paid full price for. It wasn't worth it. Here's the blurb: When a glamorous family of teenage witches brings a mysterious new girl into their fold, they unwittingly nurture a powerful black magic that could destroy them all. This paranormal YA fantasy features intrigue, spells, and a devastating twist. In The Graces, the first rule of witchcraft states that if you want something badly enough, you can get it . . . no matter who has to pay.
Everyone loves the Graces. Fenrin, Thalia, and Summer Grace are captivating, wealthy, and glamorous. They’ve managed to cast a spell over not just their high school but also their entire town—and they’re rumored to have powerful connections all over the world. If you’re not in love with one of them, you want to be them. Especially River: the loner, new girl at school. She’s different from her peers, who both revere and fear the Grace family. She wants to be a Grace more than anything. But what the Graces don’t know is that River’s presence in town is no accident.
This fabulously addictive fantasy combines sophisticated and haunting prose with a gut-punching twist that readers will be dying to discuss. Perfect for fans of We Were Liars as well as nostalgic classics like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 1996 movie The Craft, The Graces marks the beginning of a new wave of teen witches.
I didn't feel the prose was sophisticated or haunting, I felt that it was obscure and murky, and the plot labyrinthine when it should have been a clearer path. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would find very little to like in the wishy-washy, lying and none-too-bright hanger-on River, who, though she actually has power that everyone else lacks, doesn't use it for good until she's forced to, and even then, she doesn't want to face the fact that her actions and use of magic has consequences that no one else can fix for her. I also disliked the Graces, because, other than their physical beauty and charm (and money) I didn't find them very interesting, or worthy of such adulation by everyone in the school and town. They seemed very immature and petty, mean and cruel and their parents were horrible. But of course, shallow as everyone appears to be in this book, we are supposed to forgive them everything because of their gorgeous faces and bodies. Ugh. I couldn't find any characters in this novel whom I didn't loathe as soulless liars and frauds. I felt this novel only earned a C, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who enjoys YA fiction because there's no joy anywhere to be found in this waste of a tree.

The Secret Language of Stones by MJ Rose is in complete contrast to the above book, because it was well worth the full price that I paid for the hardback edition of this sumptuous novel. This is the 9th book of Rose's that I've read, devoured, actually, and I always love the fact that her publisher creates such a beautiful physical book to surround her stories. This novel is no exception, with lovely end papers and a gorgeous cover painting in the purples and blues of twilight, I imagine that many readers will want to judge the book by it's cover and buy it just to be able to see it glamorizing their shelves. Those who don't pick it up and actually read it will be missing out, however, on a banquet of a book, full of luscious descriptions of Paris and beautiful jewelry created during World War 1. Here's the blurb:
As World War I rages and the Romanov dynasty reaches its sudden, brutal end, a young jewelry maker discovers love, passion, and her own healing powers in this rich and romantic ghost story, the perfect follow-up to M.J. Rose’s “brilliantly crafted” (Providence Journal) novel The Witch of Painted Sorrows.
Nestled within Paris’s historic Palais Royal is a jewelry store unlike any other. La Fantasie Russie is owned by Pavel Orloff, protégé to the famous Faberge, and is known by the city’s fashion elite as the place to find the rarest of gemstones and the most unique designs. But war has transformed Paris from a city of style and romance to a place of fear and mourning. In the summer of 1918, places where lovers used to walk, widows now wander alone.
So it is from La Fantasie Russie’s workshop that young, ambitious Opaline Duplessi now spends her time making trench watches for soldiers at the front, as well as mourning jewelry for the mothers, wives, and lovers of those who have fallen. People say that Opaline’s creations are magical. But magic is a word Opaline would rather not use. The concept is too closely associated with her mother Sandrine, who practices the dark arts passed down from their ancestor La Lune, one of sixteenth century Paris’s most famous courtesans.
But Opaline does have a rare gift even she can’t deny, a form of lithomancy that allows her to translate the energy emanating from stones. Certain gemstones, combined with a personal item, such as a lock of hair, enable her to receive messages from beyond the grave. In her mind, she is no mystic, but merely a messenger, giving voice to soldiers who died before they were able to properly express themselves to loved ones. Until one day, one of these fallen soldiers communicates a message—directly to her.
So begins a dangerous journey that will take Opaline into the darkest corners of wartime Paris and across the English Channel, where the exiled Romanov dowager empress is waiting to discover the fate of her family. Full of romance, seduction, and a love so powerful it reaches beyond the grave.
MJ Rose's prose is, as mentioned above, gorgeous and lush, and her plots never lag, but always move at a dignified pace to their beautiful ends. I fell in love with Opaline and her quest to help mourning families with her magical ability to read a final message from a loved one in a piece of jewelry wrapped around the hair of the deceased. Then when she falls in love with one of the soldiers who speaks to her before the pendant jewel is even completed,  I was reminded of a favorite movie that I'd seen when I was in my late teens called "The Ghost and Mrs Muir" that was about a woman falling in love with the ghost of a sea captain. It seemed the ultimate in romance to me at the time, because it proved that love lived on after death. Here, however, I knew that the young man (SPOILER) couldn't really be dead, not if he was interacting with Opaline enough to have spectral sex with her. Still, their love affair was mesmerizing, and yet the air of sadness that was woven throughout the book because of WWI and the horrifying end of the Romanov family made it bittersweet. A well-deserved A, and a recommendation to anyone who enjoys historical romance or historical fiction with a magical twist. Anyone who has ever loved and lost, or who is still in love, will adore this incredible story, written by master wordsmith MJ Rose. 

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