A Princess in Theory

Book Cover
title: A Princess in Theory
author: Alyssa Cole
pages: 360
format: Paperback
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 4/5

Between grad school and multiple jobs, Naledi Smith doesn’t have time for fairy tales…or patience for the constant e-mails claiming she’s betrothed to an African prince. Sure. Right. Delete! As a former foster kid, she’s learned that the only things she can depend on are herself and the scientific method, and a silly e-mail won’t convince her otherwise.

Prince Thabiso is the sole heir to the throne of Thesolo, shouldering the hopes of his parents and his people. At the top of their list? His marriage. Ever dutiful, he tracks down his missing betrothed. When Naledi mistakes the prince for a pauper, Thabiso can’t resist the chance to experience life—and love—without the burden of his crown.

The chemistry between them is instant and irresistible, and flirty friendship quickly evolves into passionate nights. But when the truth is revealed, can a princess in theory become a princess ever after?

I think I've basically expired from how adorable this book is. I was gleefully amused, from the very first page, when Ledi deletes what she thinks is spam mail from an "African Prince" claiming she's his long lost fiance. (Well, prince's assistant.) The descriptions of her stressful life and increasingly bizarre prince-assistant-emails are...okay, it seems rude to describe someone's stress as amusing, but it lends enough charge to the electronic exchange to have me laughing anyway.

Ledi really carries this book. I adored her so much. She's got a lot of storylines to juggle in this, from struggling with her past in the foster system to trying to redefine her friendships to gaining authority in her job and, of course, meeting the hot new stranger in her life who is just so "eerily familiar." It works, of course, because everything is connected, but also because her struggles are so richly presented and matched with her wit and determination and enduring good nature.

Thabiso is a little less rounded, and I felt like a few times the "he made it work because money" excuse was used too liberally. There were a lot of convoluted situations required to make the setup work, and the book used the same shortcut for all of them. :/  Thabiso's conflicts are all about trying to juggle his own needs with those of his country, and I very much enjoyed that his spoiled-prince qualities were...very much present without being cartoonish, and without making his better nature unbelievable. That's a hard balance to get right. And the chemistry he had with Ledi was awesome.

Things started to fall off the rails a bit at the end, when a Sudden Mystery was presented to...IDK, because we had a perfectly serviceable plot to begin with. To replace that plot, I guess. But it wasn't resolved to satisfaction, because it didn't pop up until the last third so it didn't have time to properly develop. Mildly disappointing, but not enough to detract from the utter charm of the rest of the novel.


Review: The Ugly Stepsister

Book Cover
title: The Ugly Stepsister
author: Aya Ling
pages: 452
format: eBook
buy it: Amazon | Goodreads
rating: 4/5

When Kat accidentally rips apart an old picture book, she's magically transported into the world of Cinderella--as Katriona, one of the ugly stepsisters! Life turns upside down now that she’s a highborn lady and must learn how to survive the social season, including how to get through the door in a huge metal hoop skirt. To get back, she'll have to complete the story, right to the end of happily ever after. But the odds are huge: the other stepsister is drop-dead gorgeous, the fairy godmother is nowhere to be found, and the prince, despite being insanely hot, openly dislikes balls. Can she ever return to the modern world?

This book was just so utterly...charming. I loved it. I was completely hooked by it. And all despite being chock full of tropes and having very little new to offer. ...I can't for the life of me figure out why it worked.

Kat is your typical, ordinary, everyday high school girl who exists in high school limbo between popular and friendless and has every kind of trouble talking to cute boys. The book even opens with her stuttering and stumbling when confronted with a hot exchange student. Totally typical for a YA. And...I...just....loved it? I know, I don't get it either, but the voice and the writing style was enough to make me go "Yup, I believe this, please tell me more!"

The hottie has no part to play in this book by the way, he's forgotten a few chapters later as Kat accidentally breaks an enchanted book (how did she get the book? WHO KNOWS.) and gets sucked into a England-ish, Regency-ish version of Cinderella. Cast in the role of the 'ugly' stepsister. A story where Cinderella is meek, the stepsisters are actually pretty beautiful, and the Evil Stepmother has basically the same plan as Angelica Huston in Ever After.

And again, it...just...works? There's nothing about this I haven't already seen, but Kat's reactions to everything are earnest and adorable. The plot throws in an invisible goblin to explain everything in a plot-dump and....yeah, I'm cool with it? Frankly, having the plot explained lets us get into the fun parts faster and I don't even care that it's a whole chapter of exposition. And it is a fun plot. In order to get back to her own world, Kat has to see the story through to its happy ending, but no one seems to want to play along. There's no ball on the horizon, Elle doesn't seem to particularly want to be rescued, and there's no fairy godmother in sight.

To make things worse (or better), Kat's attempts to bring Elle and the prince together just manage to make Edward interested in Kat instead! Oh no! It's so trite. It's so convoluted. And...it's fucking adorable. I can't help it. I love these two. Edward is sweet and charming and Kat is flustered and flabbergasted and probably the best saving grace about it is that she admits she's normal by her own time's standards and only special relative to this time. (To which Edward says "probably true, but I like you anyway" and aslkjfjkashdfkjlashdflkjhasdfkjlhasd)
Kat winds up embroiled in a worker's rights movement (it makes sense in context) and the whole thing is thoroughly simplified and compressed and...I don't care. It's a YA, written in a pretty young voice, and it's a B-plot. As a "teen's early introduction to Changing the System Takes Time" it's pretty good.

I just loved it. It was things I'd already seen, but done in a way that exactly suited me.

With a few caveats. (Yeah, you knew that was coming.) The fatfobia is rife throughout this book. There's an overarching theme of "beauty is the ultimate feature" which I can kind of overlook, because Kat's attempting to operate on fairy-tale logic and no one else in the book really goes along with her. But then she also equates "thin" to "pretty" regularly. And not just any thin, but "model-thin," which...nope. There's problematic lines throughout, likely more than I even noticed, but I picked out at least Islamophobia and transphobia. 

That, and, the target age group. Throughout the book I thought that it was aimed at mid-to-younger teens, like 15 ish. I guessed that just based on the voice and the complexity of what was going on, because the character herself is 17. I was happy to see something a little younger; so many YA these days is just NA searching for a label. But then the second book has her at 24 and she almost has sex in the first chapter and I'm going....holy rusted whiplash, Batman. What's the target age group?

IDK, maybe the target is 32, because I'm halfway through the sequel already.


Top Ten Tuesday: Ten of our favorite character names from books

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

I'm a linguistics nut, so of course that translates to names! I hate when names aren't consistent in a world, but I love clever ones that aren't too absurd. 
1.Truthwitch / Susan Dennard -


I love this name. Such a graceful variation on Sophia. Rolls off the tongue. I think it might actually be Arabic or Persian originally? In which case it's probably not related to the Greek except by sound.

2.Song of the Lioness / Tamora Pierce -


I've always loved this name. Pretty sure I wanted my parents to change mine at one point. I finally did meet a friend called Alana in later life, although she spells it differently--but the character was the impetus for her friendship with her now-spouse, so that's pretty cool.

3.Wild Magic / Tamora Pierce -

Numair Salmalin

Tamora gets another win. His whole name is epic and magical and rolls off the tongue. Although apparently I've been pronouncing it wrong, if the audiobooks are any measure.

4.Dark Lord of Derkholm / Diana Wynne Jones -


This was a dragon, and I loved this name so much that I totally stole it for a dragon character in one of my books. Gimme a break, I was 9. I have since given the character a much less purloined moniker.

5.The Wrath and the Dawn / Renee Ahdieh -


I'll pick the spelling from my favorite retelling, but I love this name in general. There's something mystical but also grounded about it. Strong, like the queen to whom it was given.

C.J.'s Selections

Whitley has zero interest in character names so you're getting extra me today.  
1.All the Bright Places / Jennifer Niven -


I've loved this name/nickname since before my beloved Theo came along, but his attachment to the name made me love it all the more. It's so cheeky and sly.

2.Golden Son / Pierce Brown -


It's a play on the Roman Victoria, but the shortening takes the elegant Latinate title and makes it sharper, harsher, pointier. Sort of like its owner.

3.Alice's Adventures in Wonderland / Lewis Carroll -


I've adored this name for years because of the most obvious incarnation of it, and I'll find a thousand ways to use it, mark you me.

4.Le Morte D'Arthur / Thomas Malory -


Another classic. Mordred just sounds as evil as he is, only the name doesn't actually mean anything evil, it's just really cleverly chosen. I also love the French (?) version, Medraut.

5.Children of Blood and Bone / Tomi Adeyemi -


So freaking pretty. It fits her character so well too, somehow both lovely and fierce at the same time, with those gorgeous open vowels that roll delightfully off the tongue.

Your turn! What character names do you adore? 


Review: Dread Nation

Book Cover
title: Dread Nation
author: Justina Ireland
pages: 455
format: Hardcover
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 3/5

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

This was an interesting book, and I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but there were several things that stood in the way of my wholehearted enjoyment. In fact, by the time I got to the end, there were a few things that retroactively made me side-eye the parts I liked at the beginning.

Namely, the school set up. At first I thought it was a clever idea, and I liked it. But 1) we didn’t stay in the school, so we really didn’t get to explore its context or implications and 2) the author’s note was basically “I found out about Native boarding schools and thought, wow, what if that happened to my people.” Which is, uh, never a good look on anyone.

Once the main characters left the school at one-third of the way in, we also leave everything promised in the jacket-cover summary and enter a zombie western. Which…isn’t really a new concept. Frankly I was disappointed to be leaving the Baltimore setting, which I thought was much more fraught and creative. The Kansas setting, on the other hand, was everything dialed up to 11. I'm not trying to say that's a terrible decision to make, and it was written well. But compared to the Baltimore beginning, it just seemed like a step down on the creative/new scale. I would have really loved to see the book carry on as it started and explore that set up.

But I can hardly ding the book for daring to not follow what I wanted it to do. I can ding it for being an utter snoozefest as a western and as a zombie story. It really took no creative risks with either of those genres. The zombies in particular annoyed me, although in the same way that most zombie stories annoy me. I just…can’t be scared of something when the MC can slaughter 20 of them at a time and then outrun them in a horse-drawn wagon. These zombies are slow and stupid and there were so many logistical plotholes in their history and application that it actively distracted me from feeling any amount of tension in the action scenes. Now, as I said, same problem I have with most zombies, but…there’s been decades of nerds writing entire think-pieces about how zombies make no sense and how to fix the plot holes. The info is out there for people who want to write zombie stories, no effort needed, just take the advice being actively shouted into the void. But nope.

It also follows the ‘empty west’ fallacy of assuming/talking like all of Kansas was just a total blank slate. There’s multiple lines even about how people were moving west because there’s fewer people around to get all zombified and be a threat. Which is egregious enough in a regular western, but really bad in a story where the dead come back to eat people. You know, what with all the genocide that was going on at the time. We saw exactly one live Native and one Native zombie in the entire book. (There were other issues, especially with the in-story discussion of the schools, Debbie Reese covers it here.)

I did really like the characters, their various attitudes and trials and the interactions they had with each other. Jane’s anger mixed with humor was glorious, and Katherine’s…whole….everything, I loved Katherine. They way Jane and Katherine interacted, the side characters and their complicated relations to each other, all of that was excellent. I adored every one of the characters in this book. I just wish they had…more to do, basically.

Note: Jane is bi and Katherine is ace and/or aro, and while that was nice to see, both aspects basically begin and end within the same two-page conversation, so as ‘rep’ I don’t know that I’d go wild over it? Katherine’s aro/ace-ness does lend another level to her storyline, but as her story happens mostly off-page, it feels more like another missed opportunity.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books we disliked but are glad we read anyway

Hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl

CJ's Selections

"Glad" might have a broad definition here. Does hate-reading count? 
1.Queen of Shadows / Sarah J. Maas - This book killed my love of that series. The first three were pretty tight and interesting and compelling and this was just...so bland. Dense. Plotless. The ships changed for no reason and the characters seemed different. At the time I was disappointed, but at least it dulled the pain when I later became disillusioned with her.

2.Turn of the Screw / Henry James - When I read this for my senior year AP Lit class, I'm pretty sure I compared it to watching an actual screw turn. But it's one of those books that you can commiserate about with most lit majors or AP lit kids, and it's one that I might read again someday...and maybe I'll like it this time?

3.Breaking Dawn / Stephanie Meyer - I don't care how much shade I get...I thought this book was awful. Even my super-Twilight-fan friend hated it, which was why she gave it to me. And it was so hysterically bad. Renesmee!? JACOB IMPRINTING ON A TODDLER!? I'm sorry. I can't. We can agree to disagree. But I'm glad I read it so that I understand years of memes and pop culture bits, or else I'd be lost.

4.Trylle / Amanda Hocking - Speaking of hysterically bad. It's just really hard to get past the idea of sexy trolls. Plus the guy basically stalks her and then she's in love with him? Eep? Plus there was a word misspelled with a zero in it? But I read it with my (at the time) friend in our mission to come up with the next bit PNR, so it was a fun bonding activity.

5.The Girl From the Well / Rin Chupeco - I didn't hate this book, I just didn't like it that much. It was like reading two different books smashed into one. But the one about the origin of the Ring/Ringu story was really badass. I wouldn't have known otherwise that it was a real legend, and even though I'm sure that Rin took liberties, it was a really cool intro to some Japanese folklore. I do love my creeptastic urban legends.

Whitley's Selections

This was a really interesting topic and really made me think, and as usual I come up with a few different answers on the same prompt.
1.Fifty Shades of Grey / EL James - Yes. That book. I suppose I'm glad I read it because this is the book I used to launch my Reading with a Vengeance blog, and picking FSOG certainly got me a lot of activity right off the bat. But more than that, I had a lot of really great comments while working on this project that were highly informative about the kink lifestyle and community, so I wound up learning so many things that I didn't even know I didn't know.

And even more than that, although it took a few years, I found some really great conversations revolving around the appeal of these books (and others like them) and how much of said appeal is rooted in purity culture. I realized the question of "why do women like this stuff" is...an actual question, and not just a prelude to eye-rolling the way I had treated it at first. It's a question with fascinating answers that can be discussed at length for days, and I'm very glad I read the books enough to be part of it.

2.Daughter of Smoke and Bone / Laini Taylor - "Dislike" probably is the best word for this one, as I can't really say I had...strong feelings for it any direction. However, I adored the second book in this series - Days of Blood and Starlight - and of course I couldn't have enjoyed #2 without having gone through #1. So in that sense, yeah, I'm glad I read Daughter, even though it'll never be on my reread list.  [[C.J.: We almost had words.]] 

3.Battle Magic / Tamora Piece - It...just...um...oh Tammy.

To be fair, I don't think Ms. Pierce could have won with this book. It was announced and anticipated so, so long before the actual book came out that there was no possible way to live up to the imagination of die-hard fans. But even with that in mind, this one...fell short. In a sense I'm glad this came out and I read it just so I can stop anticipating it. It's over, it wasn't great, now on to the next thing (and fanfiction) with clear slate.

4.Ship Breaker / Paolo Bacigalupi - I absolutely adored this book....for about the first third of it. At about that one-third point, certain characters and tropes wound up taking center stage and and I disliked the book from there on out, but wow that first third still sticks with me. It's some excellent worldbuilding and emotional scene-setting, and I'm very glad I got to read that good part, even if the rest of it still sits sour with me.

5.The Assassin's Blade / Sarah J. Maas -I can go back to people who said "it's all justified if you read the novellas" and cry "NO IT ISN'T."

...kinda worth it?

Your turn! Have you ever been glad you read a book you disliked?