Retro Friday: Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc.
From the moment she first sets foot back in France, Linda Martin feels as if she's finally coming home. Even if she's not returning to her own home per say, she is returning in the role of governess to the quietly contained nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy. An orphan like Philippe, Linda quickly gains her footing with her new charge but it's the boy's family that keeps her on her toes. She never can quite find her balance in the face of the tremendous presence of his uncle Léon or the quiet ambivalence of his aunt. But it's the handsomely arrogant Raoul that keeps her "eggshell composure" permanently rattled. Yet when a series of accidents seem to point to an attempt on Philippe's life, Linda doesn't know what to believe or who to trust and time is running out.

Somewhat ashamedly I admit that Nine Coaches Waiting is my very first foray into the fabulous world of Mary Stewart. Which seems utterly absurd to me now that I've gone and read it because it reads like a laundry-list for All Things Michelle Adores. The language (can you get more romantic than French?), the setting (I swear I could see those twisting zigzag switchbacks leading up to the château), the frightening yet enigmatic Valmy family (Léon practically gave me the shivers with his puppet master-like remarks). And oh! The suspense! Told in Linda's first person narrative, I could not have been more caught up in her fears and triumphs and most importantly her unease concerning whom to trust.

It's like Jane Eyre and Rebecca (two of my all time favorite reads) went and had a gorgeously intelligent baby with a flair for the dramatic and a penchant for poetry. I don't think I've ever read a book that references another so subtly and appropriately. And the best part is that Linda even makes the Jane Eyre connection herself -- she is fully aware of the similarities but it only serves to heighten the aptness of the comparison, not lessen it. How does Ms. Stewart do that?!

Furthermore, Mary Stewart possess that rare quality in a writer of being able to not say something and have it mean a great deal. This may seem like a small thing, but I so appreciate an author who is willing to trust her readers to pick up the threads and make sense of their emotional import without beating the thought to death. It's a very quiet trait (and often very undervalued) but I think Ms. Stewart has it in spades.

Ms. Stewart certainly understands how to play upon this readers' emotions; despite its initial slow buildup, there was always yet another twist just around the corner to throw my heart back into overdrive. Truly when all's said and done Nine Coaches Waiting packs a bit of a wallop in the best way possible. I literally could not put it down and venture to say, if you're a Mary Stewart innocent like I was, I recommend you remedy the situation immediately.

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
The Allure of Books review
Angieville review
Book Harbinger review
Chachic's Book Nook review
She Reads Novels review

book source: purchased

Sync Summer Freebies!

Sync's series of free summer audiobooks is BACK! The first two titles (Of Poseidon and The Tempest) were released today and trust me when I say there are all kinds of good books to look forward to.

So go check out the 2013 schedule and mark your calendars for all the winners to come!

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

Okay, so after a stint of not reading any YA dystopian novels because my reactions were shall we say, less than positive, I decided to take a chance with Joelle Charbonneau's debut The Testing. A cut-throat university setting where students are expected to learn how to rebuild the world without being stabbed in the back by their class mates? I'll bite.

After the world was decimated and recognizable civilization all but destroyed, tiny pockets or colonies were established to help bring mankind back to life. Only the brightest and best however were sent to Tosu City, to the University, to learn how to help rebuild and become the future leaders. Cia is a young candidate, chosen from her primarily agricultural colony, selected for the Testing -- a rigorous testing to be allowed entrance to the University. Where the penalty for wrong answers is more than just a bad grade. Warned by her father to trust no one, Cia is packed off to the big city where her life and her family's will forever change. If only she can make it through her exams.

I was initially very much on board with the idea behind The Testing. But like so many others it quickly began to deteriorate into a less polished derivative of The Hunger Games. Which may be harsh to say fresh out of the starting gate, but let me say this: the comparisons are inevitable. Cia, a young girl from an unappreciated colony, travels to the big city, has unknown people 'watching' out for her, and must fight for her life to succeed. More than a little similar. The Testing started off at least with some original ideas but predictably fell into common tropes.

Let me back up, The Testing did have some good ideas - the general concept that after the world was all but destroyed, the colonists were trying to rebuild it by educating people on how to genetically alter plants and discover new energy sources - but the execution seems just short of believable. It's a book that wants to be technical but doesn't ever get much past general knowledge.

For example: we have Cia, a sixteen year old (prodigy, no less) who 'a few years ago' built a solar power system for her family. Okay, I'll buy that there are some very talented and resourceful teens who could accomplish that but I didn't get the sense that Cia was all that mechanically inclined beyond the author telling us she was by a few token descriptions. I'll be honest, I'm married to an engineer and from day one I knew his mind worked just a little bit differently from my own. To put it bluntly, Cia acts like someone's idea of how a mechanically-minded person thinks they would, but never really gets past the surface ideal. There is no fiddling, no try and retry, there isn't even jimmy-rigging for heavensakes (which I have learned is imperative to those of the mechanical bent)! And maybe I wouldn't be bothered quite so much if I wasn't intimately acquainted with someone just like that, but I am and thus Cia is utterly unbelievable. But kudos to Joelle Charbonneau for trying to write writing about a female interest in mechanical things.

Ultimately, my major problem with this book was the actual testing portion the candidates faced. Yes, it was intense and even a wee bit terrifying at times, but I began to wonder Is this really how they are searching for the best of the best? With the exception of the last survival exam (don't even get me started on that one), the tests were a gauge of intellect not knowledge. For example: what plants are poisonous, how to build a radio, history, etc. Nothing that checks for intuitive thinking. If I wanted to find the brightest future leaders, I think I would administer more tests of creativity and ability to learn and adapt rather than what they have already had in their teenage heads. So while The Testing had it's moments ultimately, it fails. In a big way.

The Testing comes out June 4, 2013

series reading order:
The Testing
~ Independent Study (Jan 2014)
~ Graduation Day (June 2014)

Because Everyone Likes a Second Opinion:
Heise Reads & Recommends review
Little Book Star review
Popcorn Reads review
Resistance is Futile review
Winter Haven Books review

book source: review copy from publisher

This Just In: Novel Gossip

I have met some truly amazing bookish people since I first started this blog. One of those lovely bibliophiles happens to be Chachic -- who I first started chatting with several years ago. She now lives in Singapore although I actually got to meet her for the first time a few months ago when she visited Los Angeles. Which was just so much fun. Awhile back Chachic and I did a readalong of Northlander and The King Commands by Meg Burden and since we enjoyed ourselves silly we decided to make it a regular thing...and thus the feature Novel Gossip was born!

The bloggers behind Chachic’s Book Nook and See Michelle Read chatting about books, thousands of miles apart.
For our inaugural post we chose to read The Chocolate Rose by Laura Florand, an outstanding contemporary chick lit author who writes about France and delicious chocolate and all sorts of other good things (but really, those first two items were enough of a draw for me). 
Head on over to Chachic's place to check out our full reactions to The Chocolate Rose.

Crash Course in YA

I have this wonderful friend that I've come to know better in the past year and it's slightly baffling how similar our tastes in books are. It all started with a surprise discovery of our shared devotion for Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson, all things Jennifer Crusie and Jane Austen which then spurred a back and forth lending of various books we thought the other had missed out on (a little October Daye here, some vintage Lisa Kleypas there).

But then I recently went to her house and discovered the woman had never really read any young adult novels to speak of (aside from a ill-fated brush with Twilight and a near miss with Hush, Hush -- one I responded to with: "No. Just say no, my dear."). She then proceeded to oh so casually ask me which YA books I recommended. Shut the front door. Well. You can surely imagine my sheer giddiness at being offered such a open invitation and I cavalierly said I'd make a list of my top favorites. Walking away I began thinking how fun this was going to be until I realized I was going to have to put together a list of my favorite YA books. Oh. Crap. A favorite YA books list. And I was supposed to do this how?

After much agonizing deliberating over which would be the perfect introduction to one of my favorite genres, these are the books I've come up with.

Fire (or Graceling, Bitterblue) by Kristin Cashore Fire is a comfort read to me. It's the book I have to reread about every six months because it is just that good. And every time I'm surprised. Fire's determination to be something other than her father is something to behold.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater This one is all about place for me. Although the feisty Puck and steadfast Sean may have something to do with it as well. Also, killer horses from the sea. (I was gonna say 'killer sea horses' but I didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea)

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein Because I'm still thinking about this story of two best friends facing all kinds of hurt during WWII. Nothing is what it seems and you will want BOXES of tissue.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak Another WWII book about a young German orphan girl but I've never encountered another story like it. This man’s prose will change the way you think. Seriously. He’s that good. I'll never forget some images from this book.

Beauty by Robin McKinley THE Beauty and the Beast retelling which sparked my love affair with this story so long ago. McKinley's imagination and lovely writing do all sorts of good things for this book.

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan This whole series is somewhat mind-blowing but this one, with its' focus on two very different brothers, caught me from the very first sentence.

Melina Marchetta -- Looking for Alibrandi, Jellicoe RoadSaving Francesca, The Piper's Son This is totally cheating but I love everything this woman has ever written. She's an Aussie writer with serious chops and her contemporaries and fantasies alike are jam-packed with such real people that I can't recommend them enough.

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier I could (and have) go on and on about this retelling of the seven swans story but really, Marillier does it so much better, so I'll just leave it to her then.

The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner A uniquely drawn fantasy full of political intrigue and EMOTIONS and one spectacular thief. Full stop.

Going too Far by Jennifer Echols Let's start with the classic bad girl meets good boy story and then turn it on its head with characters who totally rock and are so much more than they seem. Add in a dash of snarky banter and you're golden.

Bonus pick: The Road Home by Ellen Emerson White Sadly out of print, this book about a nurse during the Vietnam war broke my heart in all kinds of good ways. Rebecca is easily one of the most brilliant characters I've ever encountered.

So those are my picks -- but please tell me, for all that is holy, where would you have a novice YA reader start?