Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book Review: Daughter of Xandu by Dori Jones Yang


Athletic and strong willed, Princess Emmajin's determined to do what no woman has done before: become a warrior in the army of her grandfather, the Great Khan Khubilai. In the Mongol world the only way to achieve respect is to show bravery and win glory on the battlefield. The last thing she wants is the distraction of the foreigner Marco Polo, who challenges her beliefs in the gardens of Xanadu. Marco has no skills in the "manly arts" of the Mongols: horse racing, archery, and wrestling. Still, he charms the Khan with his wit and story-telling. Emmajin sees a different Marco as they travel across 13th-century China, hunting 'dragons' and fighting elephant-back warriors. Now she faces a different battle as she struggles with her attraction towards Marco and her incredible goal of winning fame as a soldier.

My thoughts

The reason that made me want to pick Daughter of Xandu up is although I'm an avid YA historical fiction reader- as many of you will know- I've never read something set in the Mongolian empire before because of the typical setting being the Tudor or Victorian eras. So something different and fresh sounded a lot of fun! 

The narrator is the beautiful and headstrong Princess Emmajin  who is determined to be just like her boy cousins and dreams of doing the impossible: serving her country in the Mongol army when no women has ever done so before. All through her childhood, she has heard stories of glory on the battlefield that her ancestors experienced that have been told from age to age. It is a life like this that she craves instead of the seemingly dull and pointless frivolities and pampering of court life or the duties that come from marriage and children.

I loved the character of Emmajin and really connected with her character early on her book because although she has  seemingly impossible aspirations, she is not afraid to pursue them but keeps herself grounded, with the realisation that she may have to accept the life she has been born into lo. On one hand she is strong and fierce when practising horse riding and archery but she is also shy around some people, making her realistically flawed. She endures tough times to try and achieve her dreams but throughout the book she really develops  as a young women and she begins to see the world through different eyes  as she gets to know the initially distrusted strange foreigner Marco Paolo.

Emmajin's relationship with Marco Paolo- the foreigner from far away Venice  in Christendom (Europe) she was asked to spy on by the Great Khan- was something that I really enjoyed seeing develop, grow and change during the course of the book. Their initial distrust of each other slowly changes and Emmajin is fascinated by his tales of Europe and his beloved Venice and he loyalty to her country is tested. It was lovely how they were from completely different backgrounds but they found so much in common and could really understood each other. The end to their story might not be all that realistic but for what was was described of the time before but it left me happy and that's what matters most. Before reading this book, I didn't know the first thing about Paolo apart from the fact he was a famous historical person so I'm happy to say I now know a lot more and it was really interesting to find out about his story! Oh, and did I mention he's handsome too?

The other characters in the story felt very real too and were well written even though there was quite a wide array. I really wish there could be a sequel to this book so I could read more about them!

The best historical fiction makes you feel like  the period the book is set in  so familiar and alive and that's what Daughter of Xandu succeeded in doing- excellently! Knowing nothing about the culture of the Mongol empire, I was fascinated to learn about the different traditions, the harsh life in army, the system of the royal family and the empire. Whilst the story was not loaded with description, the fact that Dori Jones Yang actually went to the places the book is set and hunted down the spot of the ancient site Xandu is clear. One part I especially enjoyed reading was the account of a ferocious battle between the Mongols and the Burmese, where they used elephants and other tactics. 

Verdict: Daughter of Xandu is an enthralling and fast paced tale that was special for me because of it's unique setting in Mongolia at the time of the great Kubai Khan featuring Marco Paolo, a strong willed heroine with a big dream, tons of adventure and of course romance. If you like historical fiction or even just a story with heart, then I'd definitely recommend it!

Rating: 5 stars

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Book Trailer: Velvet by Mary Hooper

If my review posted earlier this week of Velvet by Mary Hooper- which is published this week in the UK- intrigued you,  then check out this lovely trailer that captures the dark and creepy feel of the craze for spiritualism in Victorian London.

You can read the remainder of the Velvet blog tour at the sites below!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Book Review: Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen

Beautiful DaysGoodreads description

For the bright young things of 1929, the beautiful days seem endless, filled with romance and 
heartbreak, adventure and intrigue, friendship and rivalry.
After a month in New York, Cordelia Grey and Letty Larkspur are small-town girls no longer. They spend their afternoons with Astrid Donal at the Greys’ lush Long Island estate and their nights in Manhattan’s bustling metropolis. But Letty’s not content to be a mere socialite. She is ready at last to chase her Broadway dreams—no matter the cost.
Cordelia is still reeling from the death of her father at the hands of Thom Hale, the man she thought she loved. Now she is set to honor Darius Grey’s legacy . . . and take her revenge.
Promised to Cordelia’s half brother, Astrid is caught up in a world of dazzling jewels and glittering nights—and the sparkle is blinding. Charlie Grey is a gangster playing a dangerous game; and for Astrid, Cordelia, and Letty, the stakes could be deadly.
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Luxe comes the second book in an epic series set in the dizzying last summer of the Jazz Age.

My Thoughts

Beautiful Days is the second in the Bright Young Things series set in 1920s New York and it follows on soon after the first book Bright Young Things end, continuing the story of Astrid Donal, Cordelia Grey and Letty Larkspur- a flapper, a heiress and an aspiring starlet. Anna Godbersen is the queen of this  glamorous era and she really knows how to bring the sparkling world of speakeasies, bootlegging and jazz to life through her descriptive writing.

We find the girls having spent an summer lounging around the pool together and Letty and Cordelia are not the small town girls they once were but have found their place amongst the numerous New York socialites who live for a night out at a club in a sparkly dress. However Letty soon realises that this empty life is not what she dreamed of and that she can't let her dream of becoming a famous singer slip away; Cordelia settles into the Grey family and embarks on a new plan to open a new club down-town along with her bootlegger brother Charlie and Astrid's tumultuous romantic relationship with Charlie continues on its ups and downs.

One of my favourite things was seeing each of the three heroines develop and change but like in Bright Young Things, I found myself identifying with and caring about Letty the most  because she works hard to chase her dream of seeing her name in bright lights come true even when it looks as there there's no hope. I felt that she was the least spoiled too, not being wealthy like Astrid and Cordelia and her trying to make her own way in the city made for the most interesting story. Each of the girl's stories was interesting in its own way though and what I like most of all about them is that they're depicted as going through the same problems and heartaches that girls experience today as they make their own way in the world.

Fans of romance will be glad to hear that more romantic attachments are formed although they are far from smooth. The attractive bootlegger Charlie and Astrid are still together but their relationship is complicated and though they clearly love each other, there are obstacles that they must get over. I get the vibe that there is something mysterious underlying their relationship that hasn't come to light yet so I'm looking forward to seeing how everything turns out for them in the next instalment in the series Cordelia is reluctant to let a man into her life after the heartbreak she last experiences but one young man manages to worm his way into her heart, creating another unpredictable storyline. Still, like I mentioned in my review of Bright Young Things, I didn't connect with any of the romantic interests very well and they didn't hold much appeal so the romance was too stale for me. 

Whilst the characters are developed well, it is the historical setting of the twenties that I love the most about the book with the gorgeous dresses, lavish houses, bright lights and glitz of Manhattan and Long Island as well as the dangers of gangs and the sadness and emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyles of social giants that lie behind the glamour. It just goes to show that there was a lot to the jazz age that comes to mind when we think of it.

Verdict: Anna Godbersen has topped Bright Young Things with its sequel, providing an escape to the roaring twenties with a thrilling plot and well developed main characters coming of age. However there is something missing which I can't quite work out. If you enjoyed Bright Young Things, then you'll love Beautiful Days too"

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

I'm Back and Summer Reading!

I looked a bit like this a few weeks ago-
only it was a lot colder and less sunny!
Hey everyone! You may have noticed that I hadn't posted for a few weeks until yesterday and that's because I decided to take a bit of a break this summer to spend time with my friend from Italy who stayed for the month and get used to my new job. I had a really fun summer holiday in Cornwall and although I didn't get in nearly as much reading as I hoped, I did read some brilliant books. However I'm glad to say that I'm back now because I definitely missed blogging!

Here's what I read:

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Septys

Just Listen by Sara Dessen

Daughter of Xandu by Dori Jones Yang

Velvet by Mary Hooper 

Boys Don't Cry by Malorie Blackman

Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen (review later this week) 

In other news, I did my first ever guest post over at Rebecca Books as part of her summer themed week last month on the topic of summery covers. Rebecca has a wonderful blog and this week had a great line up of posts so if you're interested, go and check out my post here.

I've got a few reviews planned but posts might not be as regular as usual in the next few weeks as I get used to the extra school work I'll be getting from starting GCSE courses. So, things should be back to usual soon but just bear with me for the moment!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Book Review: Velvet by Mary Hooper

Goodreads description

Velvet is a laundress in a Victorian steam laundry. With both her mother and father dead, she is an orphan and has to rely upon her own wits to make a living. The laundry is scalding, back-breaking work and Velvet is desperate to create a better life for herself. Then Velvet is noticed by Madame Savoya a famed medium, who asks Velvet to come to work for her. Velvet is dazzled at first by the young yet beautifully dressed and bejewelled Madame. But soon Velvet realises that Madame Savoya is not all that she says she is, and Velvet's very life is in danger ...A romantic and thrillingly exciting new novel from an acclaimed and much-loved historical writer for teens.

My thoughts

I first heard about Velvet when Mary Hooper was in the first stages of writing it, about a month before her previous book Fallen Grace was published as she visited my school and I loved the sound of the storyline of a young laundress mixed up in the Victorian spiritualism industry. Hooper is the author that introduced me to historical fiction (for which I’m eternally grateful!) so her books are automatically on my must-read list.

The story is told from the point of view of the heroine Velvet in the first person, an orphan who works as a laundress. I warmed to her character within the first few chapters because despite growing up in a home with an abusive father who regularly came home drunk and spent his wages on gambling, she still had the courage to believe that she could make a better life for herself and remained positive. I admired her strength and determination to live independently and better herself in an era where it was frowned upon for women, particularly in the working class, to have high aspirations. She also had a rather sweet innocence because of her inexperience in the ways of the world that led her to seem gullible sometimes, especially when it came to her encounters with mediums. At times I found this a little annoying but I had to remember Velvet’s background and the setting.

It was really clever how there are passages with Velvet’s employer Madame Savoya- the medium- with her clients that let the reader know the secrets of her work whilst Velvet does not because it gave a completely different viewpoint. Although the down side was that it made some of the plot a little predictable. Madame Savoya herself was an interesting character and she made me wonder how mediums like her could live on the riches conned from her poor clients without feeling guilty.

I was glad to find the historical detail that I love so much in Hooper’s writing because it gave the perfect sense of Victorian London, providing intriguing insights to life in that era without unnecessary details that weigh the narrative down. . The main focus is on the business of mediums and spiritualists who use the popularity of the spirit realm amongst the upper classes during Victorian times and the vulnerability of the bereaved to trick people into giving up their money. I really enjoyed learning about how this industry was conducted and the lavish lifestyles mediums led through it. There was also a harrowing passage that shows the atrocities of baby farms and the historical note at the end gives more information on this for readers who are interested in finding out more. As in her other books, famous Victorian characters appear in the book too such as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle and the baby farmer Amelia Dyer. It is clear that a lot of research has gone into creating this authentic atmosphere and it really pays off.

For those looking for a bit of romance, there is a smidgen that was enough to keep me satisfied but it’s really a background story that doesn't get developed much in the story and left much to my imagination at the end. 

Verdict: Mary Hooper has again transported me back in time with Velvet’s relatable characters, wonderfully compelling writing style and fascinating insights into the spiritualist world of Victorian London. Despite this, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that it didn't top Fallen Grace as I was so hoping it would but if you haven't read this or anything else by Mary yet, I recommend you do!

Rating: 4 stars

Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy for review.

If you like the sound of Velvet, check out the first post on it's blog tour to celebrate the UK release this week over at Wondrous Reads for an interview with Mary.