by Elissa Sussman

Cover Beauty Score: 10 out of 10
Goodreads Score: 3 out of 5

Plot Blurb: Set in a fantasy world where princesses are plenty and magic (which can only be used by females) is seen as a wicked curse, we follow the story of Aislynn - a princess that struggles to keep her magic hidden. It is her only duty to learn to control her urges to use magic and get married so she can be safe from its wicked taint. Unfortunately for Aislynn, she is awful at controlling it and instead of being married off, she get's "redirected" and is forced to become a fairy godmother (in effect, a lady's maid to other princesses). She is assigned to the princess regent and struggles to learn to control the what little magic she is allowed to use as a fairy godmother to aid her princess. In the process, she discovers that the country is not all that it seems, and the Path that they are all told to follow might not be as pure and safe as it seems.

My Reaction: Ok, so I admit it. I'm a cover art slut. You throw a gorgeous cover at me, and I can guarantee it will influence my decision over whether or not to buy a book. Have you seen the cover for this one? It's crazy beautiful. The blue is almost a gorgeous purple and the red lettering of the title "Stray" is slightly embossed. I wanted to give it more stars because of the cover. I really did.

What can I say about this book? I thought I was going to love it. A twist on the modern idea of fairy tales... a strict caste system in a fantasy realm where magic is rejected and seen as sin. I felt like there was a fairly obvious comparison here to the church and the rejection of anything "female." I mean, the girls are sent off to school after their first "occurrence," which I was originally confused and thought meant their first period - but later realized it was the first time a girl used her magic. They are then immediately shipped off to go to school to learn how to control this horrendous thing that has the potential to destroy them.

And then we have the element that if they fail to control themselves, all their worldly goods are taken away and their "loving heart" is removed, essentially casting them as a nun (they even have to cover themselves completely and wear a wimple!!!) and act as a servant to the other princesses. So we follow Aislynn as she struggles through the process of failing to control herself and ultimately is forced into the life of a fairy godmother, dealing with the loss of everything.

Sounds like a pretty unique and great story, right? It is! So why didn't I love it?

Although Sussman does an admirable job of writing in terms of semantics, there were elements of this story that felt unpolished. I felt like the writing wasn't concise enough - it was all over the place and inconsistent in its sincerity. One minute it was mature and eloquent, the next imaginative and full of imagery, and still the next it fell quite flat with meaningless descriptions and dialogue. There were elements that were lovely - a passage in particular about the rising moon resembling whipped butter was perfect. :-)

If it had only been the slight looseness of the writing, I could forgive it easily. I, above anyone, understand the individual discrepancies between authors. But what I couldn't get past was the lack of forward motion in this book. I felt I was waiting around the entire book - waiting around for something to happen. We spent entirely too much time watching Aislynn mope and hang around, being all weak and sad about her situation... I suppose Sussman meant for Aislynn's "Redirection" to a fairy godmother to be the kickoff for the story, but let me tell you - it certainly is not. The story really got going about 80% of the way through. When Aislynn gets off her butt and starts kicking ass and taking names. But we only got to know mopey Aislynn, so the fact that her man keeps calling her brave seemed a little weird.

And can we talk about Thackery for a moment? It might have been a little better if they had a little more chemistry. The romance bit fell flat for me, but I think it was because Aislynn wasn't fiery enough for my taste. Thackery comes off as a joking type A personality and Aislynn just didn't seem to mesh well with him. Where were the sparks? To be a girl that was supposed to be obstinate and willful, she sure seemed surprised every time she let loose a little magic. And the whole self inflicting pain thing? That's definitely a trait of someone who isn't super brave in my humble opinion... she wants to hurt herself because she doesn't value herself...

But maybe that's my entire issue with the book - I just couldn't identify with Aislynn as a heroine. She seemed like a secondary character in her own story. By the time the ball starts rolling with some action and I can finally see who she is - or at least the version of her that I can admire - you're already at the end of the book.

Ultimately, I feel Sussman should have gotten to the point a little sooner and spent a little more time devoted to Aislynn learning to control her magic and learn about life outside of the sheltered academy. It would have made the transition of her character much more believable, not to mention identifiable.

I'll debate whether or not I want to read the second book in this installment when it comes out and in the mean time, I can rest easy knowing that at least the book will look gorgeous sitting on my bookshelf.
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by Neil Gaiman

Cover Beauty Score: 10 out of 10
Goodreads Score: 4 out of 5

Plot Blurb: We follow the story of Tristran Thorne, a half human half fairy boy that goes to a magical world connected to ours through a wall in his little English town in order to find and bring back a fallen star. One he gets to the other realm, he realizes things aren't as simple as all that, and that the star is actually a headstrong girl named Yvaine. Trying to get her back home to give to the girl he's infatuated with, Tristran and Yvaine encounter all sorts of magical creatures and curses and obstacles, bringing them closer together and teaching Tristran a thing or two about being a hero.

My Reaction: So this book had a lot to live up to, because I'm completely in love with the movie version. If you haven't seen it, you definitely need to! That being said, this book is fairly different from the movie version, which I have to say, I didn't expect at all. However, as you can see from the nice rating I gave it, it was fabulous. I would expect little else from Neil Gaiman, though. He's a phenomenal writer and it definitely shows through in his work. His prose shines through in a simplistic way that reminds me somewhat of a whimsical Earnest Hemingway (if Hemingway wrote fantasy adventures).

This book is dark in the way that all realistic fairy tales should be - with the proper about of gruesome details and intricate myth-building that is necessary. The bit about the unicorn was particularly fabulous! It feels as though the world Gaiman created is tangible... the fact that it runs alongside our world makes it feel near. As though the book is somewhat like an old English text or something.

You certainly need to read the book and watch the movie, both, as they compliment each other well. I'm quite certain that my library has this book in the YA section, although I would argue that it should be firmly adult Fantasy. There are very mature themes and the writing is stellar - dark and whimsically foreboding. When you watch the movie, in comparison, it is a fun and magical adventure akin to a Disney storyline. Gaiman's book leans more towards Grimm mixed with Game of Thrones.

Overall? Go read it! It's certainly unlike most of the books I read on a daily basis, but it is well worth your time and attention. Come on... live a little and switch it up! You'll be glad you did :-)
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by Judith McNaught

Cover Beauty Score: 6 out of 10
Goodreads Score: 4 out of 5

Plot Blurb: Zachary Benedict is a famous movie star and director with a complicated past that gets framed for his wife's murder on a movie set. Julie Mathison, once an orphan on the streets, was raised to be the perfect daughter in her small town, and has so far succeeded. After Zach escapes from prison in an attempt to clear his name, he kidnaps Julie in a desperate plan to run away into the Colorado mountains. As they spend time with one another, they find that they have a lot more in common than they thought and they just might have found the person who can truly accept them, flaws and all. Together and apart, they try and solve the mystery that landed Zach in jail five years earlier.

My Reaction: I reread this book because I was eager for a romance set in the snowy hills of the mountains, and we all know I'm a huge McNaught fan. I hadn't touched this one since I bought it, probably around 5 years ago or so. It really drove home to me why I love McNaught, although I do have to say I prefer her historical novels. The plot is very character driven, and its 600 some pages can be attributed to the fact that each and every character has a detailed background that the reader gets to know.

McNaught's writing is superb, hands down. I love reading a book knowing you're not going to get the dribble that passes for acceptable these days. She really can weave a story that keeps you reading without becoming bored. The fact that she puts the entire background of a lot of the characters really educates me as a writer as to the extent we should be thinking about these characters. It's really phenomenal, how well she knows each of them.

So how do I feel about the book? I think I refer McNaught's historical novels because the dynamics between the men and women are very traditional. In the sense that there is a feeling of domination (not in a bad way necessarily) that works better for me set 100+ years ago. But let's face it. Zachary Benedict is kind of a dick. He totally redeems himself by the end, but still... chill out a bit, dude. It's the 20th century (in his world, at least).

And I hate to say this, because I ADORE McNaught, but all those "darlings" at the end? It felt like the lovin' was getting laid on pretty thick, there. I dunno. Maybe that was a popular endearment in the 80s. I'm sure my kids will shudder that we call each other "bae" right now.

Long story short, you'll never regret picking up a McNaught novel. But if you have to choose just one, go with one of her historicals. Then work your way through her full repertoire. Judith McNaught writes romance novels the way they should be - beautifully and with attention to detail and a deep meaning about the essence of a real relationship.
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