The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follet

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Ken Follett is known worldwide as the master of split-second suspense, but his most beloved and bestselling book tells the magnificent tale of a twelfth-century monk driven to do the seemingly impossible: build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.

Everything readers expect from Follett is here: intrigue, fast-paced action, and passionate romance. But what makes The Pillars of the Earth extraordinary is the time—the twelfth century; the place—feudal England; and the subject—the building of a glorious cathedral. Follett has re-created the crude, flamboyant England of the Middle Ages in every detail. The vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries become a familiar landscape. Against this richly imagined and intricately interwoven backdrop, filled with the ravages of war and the rhythms of daily life, the master storyteller draws the reader irresistibly into the intertwined lives of his characters—into their dreams, their labors, and their loves: Tom, the master builder; Aliena, the ravishingly beautiful noblewoman; Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge; Jack, the artist in stone; and Ellen, the woman of the forest who casts a terrifying curse. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, each character is brought vividly to life.

The building of the cathedral, with the almost eerie artistry of the unschooled stonemasons, is the center of the drama. Around the site of the construction, Follett weaves a story of betrayal, revenge, and love, which begins with the public hanging of an innocent man and ends with the humiliation of a king.

At once a sensuous and endearing love story and an epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age, The Pillars of the Earth is without a doubt Ken Follett’s masterpiece.

MY RATING: 1 STAR

I was really excited to read this, and I’m not sure why (it might have something to do with the sequel sitting on the shelf and staring at me for years before I ever laid hands on the original) and now that it’s behind me, I’m lukewarm about the whole experience.

Ken Follet’s medieval epic takes place in twelfth century England during the Anarchy, starting with the death of king Henry I and the subsequent war over the succession and up through the murder of Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lots of ground to cover. Amid that terrain is Follet’s story of the construction of a cathedral, with various themes such as obsession, rivalry, corruption, faith, love, and all the pillaging, conniving and backstabbing you can handle.

In a twist, I’ll give the good stuff first. I liked Prior Philip. In fact, Philip was the only character consistently doing something interesting. Granted, Ellen was one tough cookie and Jack was almost as interesting, but Philip’s determination to see Kingsbridge Cathedral completed was what saved this thing for me.

Insofar as it could be saved, that is. At nearly a thousand pages long, you would think either the whole thing should be a masterpiece or an editor should be fired. Maybe I won’t go quite that far, but they definitely need a stern talking-to. Follet’s writing wasn’t up to task. The research was lacking. The characters were one-dimensional. The plot was predictable. In the hands of someone familiar with the genre, this could have been great, but Follet is primarily a suspense writer, which is a different ball game. I wanted to be swept up and carried away, but I spent much of the time bored to distraction. It was just so…bland. The good people and the bad people had the usual motives (the good to be stalwart, courageous and faithful; the bad to be self-serving, ruthless and bloodthirsty) and events stayed true to those motives. The good people toiled hard to noble ends, the bad people thwarted them on occasion but the good toiled on, and so on and so on. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What I found most insufferable was villain William Hamleigh. His whining, sulking and bellyaching were enough to get on my nerves, and his constant complaint about people who didn’t fear him as he saw proper finished the job. Then we just had to go one step further into the pillaging territory, in which young master William took great enjoyment out of raping and torturing at will. All right. I get the picture. This guy is a BAD GUY. In nearly one thousand pages, I literally lost count of the rape scenes and wanted to drive a wooden stake through the book when I realized there were enough for me to lose count. Graphic, gratuitous shock factor that doesn’t make me despise William as much as it makes me want to backhand both author and editor. I repeat, I GET THE PICTURE. MOVE ON.

In the spirit of moving on, I’m going to wrap this up. There’s much more to nitpick about, and in trying to find some redeeming factor I can only fall back on Prior Philip. The rest is too formulaic, with some tedium and overkill thrown in for good measure, and the ending was so contrived it’s barely worth the time and trouble. I saw it through because I was too stubborn to give up…

…and because I finally want that sequel to stop staring at me from the shelf…

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Seven Black Diamonds – Melissa Marr

Seven Black Diamonds, book one

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Lilywhite Abernathy is a criminal. Her father’s “unconventional” business has meant a life of tightly held secrets, concealed weaponry, and a strict code. But Lily’s crime isn’t being the daughter of a powerful mob boss. Her guilt lies in the other half of her DNA—the part that can coax ancient rumors from stones and summon fire with a thought. Lily is part fae, which is a crime in her world.

From the time before she was born, a war has been raging between humanity and fae. The Queen of Blood and Rage, ruler of both the Seelie and Unseelie courts, wants to avenge the tragic death of her heir—a death that was the fault of reckless humans.

Lily’s father has shielded her from the repercussions of her ancestry…until she is sent to the prestigious St. Columba’s school, straight into the arms of the Black Diamonds.

Mysterious, glamorous, and bound together in their mission but constantly at odds, Zephyr, Creed, Will, Roan, Violet, and Alkamy are a Sleeper cell of fae, planted in the human world to help destroy it from within. With covers as rock stars and celebrity children, the Black Diamonds carry out the queen’s war against humanity. And unbeknownst to Lilywhite, she’s been chosen to join them.

Now more than ever, Lily’s heritage puts her in peril, and even the romantic attention of the fae singer Creed Morrison isn’t enough to keep Lily from wanting to run back to the safer world of organized crime.

Melissa Marr returns to faery in a dramatic story of the precarious space between two worlds and the people who must thrive there.

MY RATING: 3 STARS

I’m a fan of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, and it looks like they leaned heavily on its success to promote Seven Black Diamonds, but this is an entirely new universe of fae. No Summer/Winter/Dark/High Courts. No invisible fae playing not-so-innocent tricks on mortals. This time, it’s the now-united Seelie and Unseelie courts (though the differences between them are never really made clear) in a war against humanity perpetrated by the Queen of Blood and Rage as vengeance for the death of her daughter.

You won’t know that right away, though. In fact, it’ll take awhile to figure out anything for certain, because the narrative jumps POV between several characters at first and all the information is garbled. This is definitely the first of a series, as it spends most of its time establishing the characters and their roles and relationships without a great deal of plot, or even world building. That’s a shame, because all of those elements were handled much better in Wicked Lovely, and you’d think that Ms. Marr’s skill to that end would only have developed.

This is another one to be taken as-is, because it could have been so much more. In my opinion, it needed to be longer. The Black Diamonds are essentially child soldiers, fae-bloods raised among humans and tasked with killing them. To disobey the queen’s orders means death for the entire group. I would have loved to see more of that aspect than the half-hearted romantic entanglements that were carbon copies of WL. So much emphasis was put on Aislinn’s struggle between mortal life and fae destiny in WL and the synopsis of SBD hints at the same, yet Lily didn’t seem all that conflicted from my perspective. The setting is a school for wealthy, highly privileged children, yet it goes to waste with the characters spending most of their time in a night club (more flashbacks of WL, anyone?) I could have used more from Zephyr and Eilidh, as they were the main source of action, and can only hope they get a bit more attention in coming books.

I’m not going to write this off as a total wash because while I had some issues with it, I did enjoy it, getting into it even more the farther it went along (though I saw the plot twist coming almost as soon as the book started). While it mostly makes me want to revisit WL, I’ll be sure to keep my eyes peeled for the next book.

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Guile -Constance Cooper

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In the Bad Bayous the water is thick with guile, a powerful substance that wreaks unpredictable changes on objects, animals, and even people who soak too long.

Sixteen-year-old orphan Yonie Watereye scrapes a living posing as someone who can sense the presence of guile, though in fact she has no such power–it’s her talking cat, LaRue, who secretly performs the work.

While hunting for the secrets of her mother’s past, Yonie discovers that someone is selling dangerous guile-changed objects for malicious purposes. Soon the resourceful Yonie and her feline companion face threats that could end their adventuring forever.

Reviewers have called Guile a refreshingly unique cross-genre novel with fantasy, mystery, and adventure elements.

MY RATING: 3 STARS

Enchanted objects, talking animals, and a treasure hunt. This was charming for sure, and unique, and it threw out any and all cliches you expect with fantasy, adventure, and mystery novels. Unfortunately, it just didn’t sink its claws into me. There was nothing wrong with it, it’s just that it never had the I-gotta that Stephen King sets so much stock in. No urgency to unravel the mysteries and see how it all turns out.

Don’t get me wrong, it had its moments. The setting was an interesting mash up of Southern bayous and Cockney alleys. The characters were likeable, especially LaRue the cat. It wasn’t a demanding read, fairly easy to come back to when convenient. I can appreciate what it is, and accept it as such. The only trouble is that it never really came alive for me. The words on the page were never more than words on a page. There are plenty of books more exciting, thought-provoking, suspenseful, and immersive, but there are a LOT more books that are a lot worse. This one falls somewhere in the middle, and sometimes that’s a good place to be.

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Firstlife – Gena Showalter

Everlife, book one

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ONE CHOICE.
TWO REALMS.
NO SECOND CHANCE.

Tenley “Ten” Lockwood is an average seventeen-year-old girl…who has spent the past thirteen months locked inside the Prynne Asylum. The reason? Not her obsession with numbers, but her refusal to let her parents choose where she’ll live—after she dies.

There is an eternal truth most of the world has come to accept: Firstlife is merely a dress rehearsal, and real life begins after death.

In the Everlife, two realms are in power: Troika and Myriad, longtime enemies and deadly rivals. Both will do anything to recruit Ten, including sending their top Laborers to lure her to their side. Soon, Ten finds herself on the run, caught in a wild tug-of-war between the two realms who will do anything to win the right to her soul. Who can she trust? And what if the realm she’s drawn to isn’t home to the boy she’s falling for? She just has to stay alive long enough to make a decision…

MY RATING: 5 STARS

I’m writing my review three days after I finished reading, and I’m still feeling the hangover. I’ve seen a lot of muddled reviews on this one, but I thought it was the best YA fantasy I’ve read in a very long time, and I’m in fact fretting right this minute that my review won’t do justice to my feelings.

Let’s start with the concept: Life on earth is only the beginning, and when you die here, your soul goes either to Troika, the realm of light and justice, or to Myriad, realm of shadow and emotion. Life on earth, or Firstlife, is for deciding where you’ll spend your eternity. The undecided ones go to the Realm of Many Ends, stuck in purgatory forever. Sounds cool, right? Here’s the thing, though, that was a much neater summary than what you’ll find in the book. The world building was just as muddled as the reviews. Once I figured out the rules, however, it was (wait for it) one big roller coaster ride and there was no escaping (just guess) all the feels.

I liked Tenley, aka Ten. She was stubborn and tough, resentful of those in authority forcing her to sign with one realm or the other. Her freedom to choose for herself meant everything to her, and she was determined to hold onto it at any cost. Trouble is, persuasion came in the form of Laborers (think recruiters) Archer of Troika, and Killian of Myriad. Each desperate to sign her for his own realm, and soon committed to protecting her from those who consider her indecision a threat in itself. I loved Archer and Killian as much as I loved Ten. The development of the trio, particularly Ten and Killian, moved alongside the action of the story and the best part? NO STUPID TEENAGE LOVE TRIANGLE! IT’S A MIRACLE!

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m an emotional reader, and if a book plugs into my feelings and starts scrambling things around, I’ll be sold on it. This one, for instance, had me curled up in a corner booth at McDonald’s for three hours, biting my nails, tapping my foot, and almost beating the book on the table, I was so wound up. And the ending? I needed a quiet room to decompress afterwards. It also made me think, comparing the vastly different codes of morality represented by each realm and how logic, principle, and emotion often clash, resulting in chaos. Ten’s fascination with numbers made a quirky addition that was a bit charming, and there were several points where I wasn’t quite in tears, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t choked up.

This was my first Gena Showalter book, and it definitely won’t be the last. Anything this intriguing and exciting, with the capacity to reduce me to a basket case in the middle of a restaurant, is worth more of my time. The hardest part will be waiting for the next installment!

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A Drop of Night – Stefan Bachm

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Seventeen-year-old Anouk has finally caught the break she’s been looking for—she’s been selected out of hundreds of other candidates to fly to France and help with the excavation of a vast, underground palace buried a hundred feet below the suburbs of Paris. Built in the 1780’s to hide an aristocratic family and a mad duke during the French Revolution, the palace has lain hidden and forgotten ever since. Anouk, along with several other gifted teenagers, will be the first to set foot in it in over two centuries.

Or so she thought.

But nothing is as it seems, and the teens soon find themselves embroiled in a game far more sinister, and dangerous, than they could possibly have imagined. An evil spanning centuries is waiting for them in the depths. . .

A genre-bending thriller from Stefan Bachmann for fans of The Maze Runner and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods.

You cannot escape the palace.

You cannot guess its secrets.

MY RATING: 2 STARS

I was excited going into this, having seen the comparison to The Cabin In the Woods and expecting something just as trippy and unpredictable. In hindsight, I’m disappointed. File this one under “could have been.” Or maybe “almost there.” The elements were present, but the presentation was lacking.

Where should I start? The synopsis was a little misleading, for one thing. Bachmann’s style was rough and choppy, which kept me from sinking into the story. The threads of the plot only ever remained threads, tying themselves together at the last minute and never weaving into anything substantial. Anouk herself was a major hurdle, abrasive and unpalatable at the start and taking way too long in developing into a sympathetic character.

Those are the nitpicks. And the fact remains that this could have been a really awesome book. Lots of action and suspense, a few really tense moments, and I had to guess my way through the whole thing. The ending was a letdown, and I was left feeling frustrated that the concept never lived up to its potential. It could have been the intense fantasy thriller it promised to be, but by the last page I still hadn’t budged from my “meh” reaction.

Skip this if you want. You’re not missing much. Rad cover, though…

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Jane Two – Sean Patrick Flanery

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A young Mickey navigates through the dense Texas humidity of the 70s and out onto the porch every single time his Granddaddy calls him, where he’s presented with the heirloom recipe for life, love, and manhood. But all the logic and insight in the world cannot prepare him to operate correctly in the presence of a wonderfully beautiful little girl who moves in just behind his rear fence. How will this magical moment divide Mickey’s life into a “before and after” and permanently change his motion and direct it down the unpaved road to which only a lucky few are granted access?

MY RATING: 5 STARS

Before I get started, let me put this into perspective. Jane Two was the most excited I’ve been about a book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, made it as one of only four books I’ve ever read twice in a row, and marks the closest I’ve ever come to literally throwing a book across the room. As it is, I reached a point where I had to slam it shut and storm away, swearing like a sailor while trying (and failing miserably) not to cry.

Yep. It’s a big deal.

What we have here is easily one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. Funny, engaging, and often heart-rending, I had to start again as soon as I finished, just in case I missed something. The narrative itself stuck out right away, pure storytelling told with such honesty it feels like equal parts memory and confession. If you’ve read Mr. Flanery’s blog “Shine Until Tomorrow” (and if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?) then you’re already familiar with his writing style. Informal, straightforward, profound and at times poetic. When the words given are so personal, you can’t help but absorb them on a personal level, and if I’ve read anything else written in such a way, then it escapes me at the moment. I’ve certainly never read anything with this level of vulnerability about it, which in turn inspired a personal vulnerability that left me open for it to hit harder.

Love forms the undercurrent of the story, particularly protagonist Mickey’s love for his Granddaddy and love for Jane, the beautiful little girl on the trampoline. Granddaddy was written of with the utmost respect and reverence, “a real man, long before they were outlawed.” His words of wisdom were one of the reasons I reread immediately, and one of the reasons anybody who can read should read this. When Granddaddy spoke, I listened. And then there’s Jane. If Granddaddy gets respect and reverence, then that leaves her adoration and longing. Jane is sacred, as necessary as breathing. That’s how Mickey sees her, and that’s how she translates on the page. Everything circles back to Jane, and it’s one of the most beautiful and painful journeys I’ve ever read. I refer you to the aforementioned slamming, storming, and swearing to describe the state of my emotions.

That’s really what sells me on Jane Two, is the emotion. Growing up is serious business, and Mickey’s growth from a boy into a man is filled with its fair share of missteps, triumphs and tragedies. Again, the honesty and vulnerability stands out. Truth hurts, truth sets you free, and both sides of the coin are exposed time and again. The joy and sorrow of life itself are visited with equal importance, regarded as a lesson to be learned and never forgotten, but rather shared and passed on, so others might learn as well.

There’s not much left for me to say, and yet there’s so much more to Jane Two than what I’ve said. Life lessons, handed down from beloved elders or learned alone the hard way. Missed chances and second chances. The magic of childhood and the tragedy of growing up. Most of all, it’s first love and true love, and how sometimes they’re one and the same.

Read this. Read it often. It’ll hurt, trust me, but it’s worth it. It’s all heart and honesty and it’s already earned a spot on the shelf next to my favorites. What more can I say than that?

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Stay Tuned!

Hi! How are ya? I guess you know this means good news: I’m trying to get back in the swing of things over here! I’ve got a few new books I doubt I’ll be able to keep quiet about, which means you’re probably going to hear all about them sooner or later. In fact, I’ve got a review or two in the works right now, so you won’t have to wait very long. Hang in there! It’s on the way!

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