Friday, April 29, 2016

Dream Stalker - Amy Hopkins (Talented #1)

Dream Stalker: Talented: Book 1Dream Stalker is Amy Hopkins' first book, and is also the first in a series focusing on witches and wizards, collectively known as the Talented, who live in London.  The main character is half-blood Emma, who has minor Talent due to her mixed ancestry and runs a tea shop where she sells teas both normal and enchanted along with the help of her inherited boggart, Gibble, and her dog, Lenny.  But Emma's peaceful, tea-filled existence is jeopardized when a dream stalker begins targeting half-bloods with the goal of stealing their Talent and gifts for himself.  When Emma becomes his next target, she finds herself teamed up with full-blood Talent Harrod and his fully mortal brother Martin in order to figure out who's doing the killing and stop him.

I think this was a great world and a story that had really good bones, but it needs a lot more polish to be a good book overall.  Emma's tea shop is charming, Harrod and Martin were enjoyable characters, and Gibble turned out to be one of the most interesting "people" in the book once more information about him came out.  The world itself is interesting; it's Earth as we kind-of know it, but witches, wizards, and supernatural creatures collectively known as Otherworlders (like boggards, fae, giants, and so on) live some-what integrated lives.  Everyone is aware of everyone else's existence, even if they don't necessarily like them.  Half-bloods like Emma get the short end of the stick in it all, because they're kind of caught between the mortals and the Talented, which is a neat way to approach prejudice and discrimination (for example, if half-bloods want to visit the walled-in area of London where full-blooded Talents live, they need to show paperwork and their movements are tracked) but didn't really seem to make sense because, while people were campaigning for mortal inclusion, it didn't seem like any half-bloods had really bothered to speak up for themselves.  The Otherworld and the dream worlds were very well-done, with laws and happenings of their own that the story obeyed rather consistently.

But overall, consistency is something that's lacking in this book.  At one point, it's five half-bloods who have been targeted before Emma; at another it's six.  Harrod's last name changes from Passar in the early chapters to Umbers in a later one.  Emma says that two of the victims were her close friends, and yet there's not really any evidence of her having real friends other than possibly Harrod and Martin, once they meet; she seems to have many acquaintances, but no one she regularly talks to or involves in her life other than Gibble and her dog.  There's also a desperate need for an editor with an eye to the use of grammar, particularly in regards to dialogue.  Problems with punctuation in regards to dialogue abound in this book--and I'm not talking about general comma usage, which people are horribly divided on in general.  I'm talking about improper use of periods and commas at the end of people speaking, before the dialogue tag, like "Blah blah blah." Harrod said, which should be "Blah blah blah," Harrod said.  This is extremely standard and I have to think that, to some degree, Hopkins knows it, because in some places it's correct.  In others, not so much.  Some dialogue is missing ending punctuation entirely.  Hyphens are used where em- and en-dashes should be; there's not a real "dash" used properly anywhere in this book.  Things like Talent, various races, and the Otherworld are capitalized at some points and not at others, as if Hopkins couldn't decide if she wanted them to be proper nouns or just regular nouns.  After I finished reading, I did a quick re-run through of the book's first five chapters, just scanning to see what jumped out at me, and highlighted twenty-five instances of these errors.  There were probably more I missed.  They were all so obvious that really just one more quick line edit would have fixed them and made the book appear much more polished as a whole.  Sure, professionally-published books put out by the Big Four houses sometimes contain mistakes, but not on a scale even similar to this.

I also think that, lovely as the plot was, parts of it could have used fleshing out.  There are two parts where I really would have liked to see more of this: in regards to the "big reveal" about who the villain was, and in regards to what happened in the dream world.  First, though the villain does appear at one point earlier in the book, he is not really woven into the story as a whole until it's revealed what he's up to.  It seems like Hopkins wanted us to be feel betrayed by this person, but Emma didn't really have enough of a relationship with him for that to happen.  Seeing him worked a little more fully into the plot would have gone a long way toward maximizing the "twist" factor when the time for the reveal came.  Second, though I think the dream world at the end was overall very well done, possessing that sort of weird and disjointed logic that so often occurs in dreams, the part with the rat didn't feel fleshed out to me.  Was it a real rat or not?  That was never made clear, and it seemed like something more was going to be made of him, but it never was.  It just kind of fell off, and Emma let it go as if nothing had ever really happened.  Like the villain, I would have liked to see this worked in a bit more; a little more fleshing out on those two things would have made the story as a whole feel a bit more consistent and cohesive.

Overall, this was a good story but not a good book.  The world and characters have so much potential but sloppy formatting and editing and a poor eye to detail left me wanting more and wondering if I should bother with the second book, Barrow Fiend.  I'll probably try the sample to see if these problems have been resolved, because it should be apparent within that sample range.  There's so much potential here, it was somewhat disappointing to see it so roughly finished.

3 stars out of 5, but if it gets an update to resolve some of its finishing issues I would revise that upward.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Career of Evil - Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #3)

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)I am so bad at figuring out mysteries.  I swear, I'm the absolute worst.  I had a theory all throughout this one, but it is a good thing I am not a detective, because it was dead wrong.  As always, I fell for the red herring.  To be fair, though, Galbraith/Rowling can do a really subtle red herring; at points I felt like some bits were heavy-handed, but I'm starting to think that this is just a technique used in the mystery genre to keep you looking away from the real decoy, so that the truth jumps out at you from around the corner when it comes.

Let me back up.

So, Career of Evil is the third book in "Robert Galbraith," aka J. K. Rowling's, Cormoran Strike mystery series, about an ex-military private detective who has solved a few noteworthy cases in the relatively recent past, but is still struggling to keep his business above water.  Joining him is Robin, his assistant who really wants to be more of a partner due to a long-buried love of mystery solving.  The first two Strike novels involved murders, as does this one, but this one goes in two directions that the previous ones didn't: the pasts of the two main characters, and serial killers.  In this book, Robin herself becomes a target, stalked by a serial killer who we get perspective chapters from now and then.  Additionally, Galbraith starts to really lay out the pasts of the characters that brought them to where they are, in what I think is more detail than in the previous two novels.  The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm both had some of Strike's background in them, but very little of Robin's; that comes out more here, along with increased detail about Strike, amidst a slew of relationship problems for Robin and an increasing tension between her and Strike on several different levels.

Honestly, the characters are what fascinate me about these books more than the plots.  The murder mysteries are fun to try to solve, even if I never get them right, and are always just chilling enough without straying into territory that could be considered cheesy and overblown.  But Rowling has always had a knack for developing really believable characters, and she's carried that skill over into her Galbraith persona, making Strike and Robin three-dimensional characters who are more than just the sum of their parts.  Even the secondary and tertiary characters that appear here are nuanced to a degree that I think is rarely seen in fiction, which is nice.  It makes the story as a whole very complex and helps to create a full-bodied world that supports the story rather than just acting as backdrop.

But I still hate Matthew.  I know that is the point, but I hate him and I hated the chapters where I had to read about him for more than a minute or two because he was so terrible.  Also, this book relied very heavily on Blue Oyster lyrics, and it kind of made it feel like a fanfic.  Not that fanfics are bad (I've read some really excellent ones) but it seemed off from the tone of the first two books.

Overall, this series has maintained solid 4-star ratings from me, and that's true for this one as well.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Midnight Assassin - Skip Hollandsworth

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial KillerI adore crime shows.  Law and Order (the original one, with McCoy!) is amazing, and is Bones, and then, of course, there is the best of them all: Criminal Minds.  (NCIS and all of its spin-offs are terrible.  Do not talk to me about them.)  Criminal Minds focuses specifically on serial killers, a group of murderers which is both terrifying and fascinating.  Of course, in Criminal Minds they always get their man in the end, but in real life things aren't always so neat and tidy, especially in periods which pre-dated modern forensics.  The most famous historical serial killer is probably Jack the Ripper, but he wasn't the first person who sort of (and this is totally creepy to say but is true) revolutionized mass murder.  That honor appears to have gone to the Midnight Assassin, a serial killer who terrorized Austin, Texas starting in 1884 before up and vanishing.  This was four years before Jack the Ripper made his kills in London and about a decade before H. H. Holmes built his murder hotel to capitalize on the World's Fair in Chicago.  Unlike Holmes and like Jack the Ripper, the Midnight Assassin was never caught, despite killing at least seven people, and maybe a couple of more outside of Austin.

Skip Hollandsworth uses The Midnight Assassin to lay out the events of 1884 and 1885 that terrorized Austin.  Someone started breaking into the quarters of servant women and killing them with an axe, and then moved on to several more prominent members of the community.  Of course, it wasn't until well-to-do white women, instead of black servant women, started dying that anyone really took notice.  Racism was rampant in the day and Austin presumed that it had to be a black man, or maybe even a roving band of black men, who were behind the killings, even though at least one person said they thought the killer was white.  Two people were tried for two separate murders, despite there being little to no evidence that they were actually involved.  The whole thing was basically a debacle, with no one really having any idea of what was actually going on.  In fact, no one was ever actually caught, and when Jack the Ripper began killing women in London people thought that it might be the Austin killer, relocated to England.  This theory doesn't hold much water in modern times because the Austin killer and Jack the Ripper had very different styles, which is (and I can tell you this as a super-experienced watcher of Criminal Minds) pretty indicative that they weren't the same person.  Serial killers, we all know, tend to use the same method over and over again.

What's sort of weird with that book is that Hollandsworth lays out a bunch of false trails that I kept thinking were going to evolve into a theory about who the killer actually was, but they never did.  For example, the bits about the insane asylum seemed like they were going to result in one of the patients there at least being accused of the murders, even if they turned out to be innocent, but that never actually happened.  Consequently, I was left perplexed as to why such emphasis was placed on the asylum and its staff and inhabitants in the first place.  It seemed liked Hollandsworth wanted to tell this story, but there really wasn't enough source material to bulk out a cohesive theory, so he settled for just including random other happenings around Austin, like the asylum and the recounting of lots of parties.  The elections, at least, tied in to the story, because the scandal of the murders impacted them in a huge way.

Ultimately, though, this is an unsatisfying book because there's no theory.  Hollandsworth mentions at the end that he's still hoping more evidence will arise that might point to who the killer was, but I would have liked to see him take a stab at "solving" the case anyway and at least trying to support any idea he might have had.  As it was, the book ended on a "Yeah, we just can't know" note, which was kind of annoying because it meant the book was basically an expanded version of the Wikipedia page on the killings, without any substantive thought added into it.  Compared to the last book I read about a serial killer, Eric Larson's Devil the White City, The Midnight Assassin just ended up falling flat.

3 stars out of 5; a fascinating series of events, but nothing to elevate the book as a whole to another level.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Stranger's Obituary - Jessica L. Randall (Obituary Society #2)

The Stranger's Obituary (The Obituary Society, #2)The Stranger's Obituary is the second book in Jessica L. Randall's Obituary Society series, which may or may not be the last book in the series--so far #2 is as far as it goes.  It takes place in a town called Auburn, Nebraska where weird things happen.  There's a little girl named Juniper who can find lost things, some very spooky happenings that affected the heroine of the first book, Lila, and now we get to see some more weirdness.  Mina Fairchild is linked to music; when she hears a song associated with a person, she can see what happened to that person when they listened to it.  And her mother had strange abilities of her own.  Oh, and there's a ghost plaguing Mina's starlet sister, Bernie, who has returned to Auburn after a bad breakup with her Hollywood boyfriend, who is a real piece of work.

Mina and Bernie have other problems, too.  Mina is a shut-in; she writes a travel blog, but she has never actually been to any of the places she writes about.  In fact, she hasn't left Auburn since her mother brought her and Bernie there ages ago.  Bernie might be a starlet, but she left in a bit of a rush after stealing from her brand-new fiance for reasons that she's never been able to really explain to anyone.  Now that she's back, she wants to try to make amends, but things are, of course, a little more complicated than that.  Meanwhile, a body has turned up in quiet Auburn, which has also been swamped by tourists and journalists trying to get a glimpse of Bernie living a small-town life.

My thoughts on this book are similar to my thoughts on the first book.  It needs another light round of line edits; I saw a few words that I think were supposed to be other ones, and then there were a couple of instances where it seemed like Randall got confused with or forgot who was supposed to talking, which made some of the dialog not really make sense.  I would point to the specific instances of these, but I can't, because I think that, much like Auburn, this book is haunted.  It possessed  my Kindle and, once I opened it, literally wouldn't let me read another book.  It took away all the functionality of the Kindle except turning the pages.  I couldn't go to the menu, or even change how my progress was displayed on the bottom of the screen.  If I wanted to get out of the book, I had to hard restart the Kindle to get back to the home screen.  I thought this might have just been a problem with the download, so I deleted the book and re-downloaded it, but it kept happening, so I think it's something up with the actual file on Amazon.  This isn't Randall's fault at all (I presume something went wrong with the file conversion on Amazon) but it certainly made me reluctant to re-open the book after finishing it in order to pull specific examples.

The other thing that I also didn't love was the romance.  Bernie's romantic plot is great, with the revival of something with her former fiance, even though she's not ultimately sure what she wants from it.  Their interactions were wonderful, and you can tell that there's definitely chemistry between them even if they still might want different things.  Mina's romantic plot, on the other hand, seems to have been added just for the sake of it.  Her interactions with her romantic interest are few, and he does come off as stalker-y.  Again, I think this could have been remedied with the book being just a tad longer so their interactions could have been both more numerous and more nuanced.  The few prolonged scenes they did have were sweet, but overall I didn't think it worked.

Unlike the first book, I think the supernatural element fit in well here.  It was more fully woven into the story, and the feel of Auburn was better flushed out with it.  The things that happen in Auburn aren't big, grand supernatural things; they're small, cute ones that can still manage to be a little creepy, but they really fit in perfectly with Auburn's small-town, slightly-outdated vibe.  The Obituary Society itself makes a reappearance, too, and gives us a tiny bit of insight into how the events of the first book are still resolving themselves, and the members help Mina start to re-integrate herself into society.  She's not really an agoraphobe, as is suggested by one character; she's more like an extreme introvert, but with some motivation behind it which comes out later.  She's not actually afraid of going outside, and she does; she goes out, and talks to people, she just...doesn't like to.  I think Mina and Bernie both grew a lot as characters in this book, and Auburn was, again, very well-developed.

Like The Obituary Society, this was a very solid book.  4 stars out of 5, and I hope she writes more in this wonderful town.

Modern Romance - Aziz Ansari

Modern RomanceI'm not entirely sure why I read this book, other than a coworker said it was good.  I'm not really in the "romance" market right now, having been in a relationship for four years and not planning to end it any time soon, and the world of "modern romance," involving sexting, Tinder, online dating, and so on, which is what a lot of this book covers, has never really been something that intrigued me.  But the concept in general as interesting enough, I guess, because I saw it at the library and picked it up...though this probably isn't something I would have gone out and purchased.

In Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari, or someone ghostwriting much of it for him (I'm always so skeptical about books written by celebrities; not that they actually could write a book, because why wouldn't they be able to, but that they actually had the time to write a full book instead of just signing off on it and maybe putting a few touches here and there.  Maybe this is unfair of me, but I can't seem to shake it.) examines how romance has changed in "modern" times, basically since the rise of the internet and the smartphone.  It's a surprisingly academic work, undertaken with the help of some big focus groups and some scientists of various disciplines (who, interestingly, do not have their names on the cover).  They look at what romance was like for the generations who grew up and married before the internet and smart phones and online dating and the phenomenon known as "emerging adulthood" and how that has changed since all of those things came about, and to some degree how romance works in other places around the world, too.  They look at how we find partners, how we get in touch with partners, and so on, all the way to the "settling down" portion.  Along the way, they go to Tokyo and Buenos Aires and Paris, and even briefly Doha, to look at dating in those places, too.  But much of the focus is on how our phones have become so entangled in our love lives.  There were some interesting points here but nothing that I thought was really, really groundbreaking; I think if you thought through most of these things on your own, you'd come to the same conclusions, and the conclusions are basically what you'd expect.

Ultimately, the conclusion seems to be that finding your "soulmate" is now the desirable thing, rather than someone you can just be happy with, which was a thing in many of our parents' generations, and that there are a lot more choices now because the digital world has opened up and allowed us to connect with so many more people in so many new ways, and that can make the search for a "soulmate" even harder than it would initially seem.  There are some funny quips throughout this, but it is definitely not a humor book on the whole, so if you're looking for a comedy book here, you'll be disappointed.  Also, there were a few bits that I could have done without, like Ansari recounting the experience of using a Japanese masturbation toy.  I get it, people masturbate, it's healthy, blah blah blah.  That doesn't mean I want to read about someone I don't know doing it in more detail than I really felt comfortable with.  I'm never going to be able to watch Parks and Rec without thinking about that now.  It's ruined it for me.

Overall, I'd shelve this book as "mildly interesting but not compelling."

2.5 stars out of 3 for sheet interest level.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Queen of Shadows - Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass #4)

Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, #4)So, as you can find in my reviews or pretty much anywhere else on the internet that deals in book reviews, the Throne of Glass series got off to a rough start.  Throne of Glass introduced us to hidden princess/kick-butt assassin Celaena Sardothien, who despite being entered into a competition to fight for her life spent most of her time playing piano, wearing pretty dresses, and eating sweets that just appeared in her room.  You know, despite the fact that people wanted her dead...  There were some cool fantasy aspects to it, but overall it was rather lackluster.  However, the general consensus has been that the series has drastically improved over time--and I have to agree.

The third book in the series, Heir of Fire, ended with Celaena (now known by her real princess/queen name of Aelin, by which I will refer to her from now on) heading back to Adarlan after gaining control over her magical abilities in the realm of Wendlyn and getting a kick-butt blood-sworn fae companion in the form of Rowan.  Now, Aelin is actually back, and she has a list of things to accomplish.  First, she needs to rescue her cousin Aedion from certain death.  Second, she needs to get back a Wyrdkey which is currently in possession of her former master, Arobynn Hamel, the King of Assassins.  Third, she needs to either save or kill Dorian, who has been possessed by a demon, courtesy of his father.  Fourth, she needs to free magic, and kill the king, and...uh, list keeps going on.  But Aelin is now equipped to handle it, with or without magic, because of the events of Heir of Fire.  She's now a heroine who I can actually root for, and a heroine who very obviously starts to become not just an assassin or a lost princess, but a queen.

Meanwhile, the Blackbeak witch Manon is going out of her mind with frustration and boredom in Morath, where she and her witches await orders.  But as they wait, sinister things start to arise at Morath--things that impact the witches.

Queen of Shadows is a book in which things come together.  Manon and Aelin encounter each other, Rowan comes to Adarlan, Chaol and Aelin must work together once again, and Aelin's path to reclaiming her realm starts to become clear.  But that doesn't mean that everything is resolved.  Nope.  In fact, Maas drops a real bombshell at the climax of the book, revealing that all of the troubles up until this point have only really been the tip of the iceberg.  I have mixed feelings about this, because on one hand, it's very cool and very clear that things are about to go to hell in a handbasket quite quickly from here on out.  But on the other hand, I think that revelation could have pretty much been cut out, along with the bits about what's going on in Morath, and we still could have had a pretty satisfying conclusion to the series.

Now, the other thing that bothered me about this book: the ending dragged so much.  The last ten or so chapters all seemed like they could have been satisfying final chapters for this book, but they just kept on appearing.  Every character needed two or three chapters to wrap up what happened to them, which seemed excessive.  I think some of those could have easily been trimmed, or maybe shifted to the start of the next book instead.  As it was, I kept thinking the book was over, but it wasn't, and it kind of soured the end a bit for me.  It's like with the movie Lincoln.  You know, that amazing shot where he puts on his hat and walks down the White House stairs to go off to see the performance at Ford's Theater, that shot that would have been such a lovely, dignified ending, because we all know what happened afterward.  But that shot wasn't the ending: it then had to go on for another then minutes of his kid screaming and shots of him dead on a bed, which were completely unnecessary because it wasn't a movie about Lincoln's assassination.  This book was like that.  It was great, until the end, which then just went on way too long.

Finally, let me briefly speak about Rowan and Aelin, who seem to be a point of some contention among Throne of Glass fans.  I like Rowan.  He is awesome.  I totally support him and Aelin (Though that kiss at the end; what?  You built it all up for just THAT?).  That said, I still like Chaol and I don't hate the idea of him and Aelin together (this is the other main pairing right now, guys) but I do see how they have some serious issues with each other at this point, issues that are going to take two more books to resolve in their entirety if they can be resolved.  Right now, Aelin and Rowan seem like a more solid pair, connected as they are, though it'll be interesting to see how/if Maas resolves the whole "one is immortal and one isn't" thing if they stay together.  That said, I'm not placing all my bets on it, because Aelin has had three love interests in four books so far (and a fourth in the prequel novellas) and I wouldn't be surprised if something happened to introduce another suitor into the fray--though so far most blatant love triangles have been avoided, which I appreciate.

Overall?  A solid book.  It went on a bit too long past the climax, making the ending seem really interminable, but the story itself was great.  Things kept tying back into each other, and more very cool worldbuilding bits were brought up--the bones of the god of truth, anyone?  Still, I think it would have been easy for the series, with a few modifications, to end here, and while I'm sure the final two books will be good, I'm hoping that continuing this storyline doesn't end up being something we regret.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter #2)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter, #2)As everyone who hasn't been living under a rock since the 1990s is aware, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the second book in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, in which the eponymous Harry Potter continues his studies at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and takes on the dark magic master Lord Voldemort, as is his destiny.  What is there to say about this book that hasn't been said hundreds of times already?  Not much, so I'll make this fast.

Unlike Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which was all I remembered it being, I didn't like Chamber of Secrets as much as I did the first time or two I read it; now, granted, the most recent time I read it was six or seven years ago, but still.  It starts off with quite a bit of re-hashing what happened in the first book, which isn't something I'm really a fan of; if you absolutely need to recap things because it's been a while since your last book came out and you can't expect people to re-read it before moving on to the second, I still think you can work in a summary in a manner that's a bit more complex than "This happened.  Now this is happening." 

Anyway.  In Chamber of Secrets, Harry goes on with school while dodging somewhat questionable "rescue" attempts by the house elf Dobby and trying to figure out what's happening to students (and a cat) who keep turning up petrified, all while hearing voices that no one else can hear.  The Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher for the year is Gilderoy Lockheart, who is absolutely fabulous in pretty much every sense of the word; not downright evil on the inside, like Quirrel was, but with his own sinister twist that makes his shiny demeanor all the more interesting.  On the other hand, I didn't like all.  Really.  I honestly don't see what everyone finds so endearing about Dobby.  He has terrible ideas of how to go about saving someone and honestly, nothing in this book would have been any different if Dobby hadn't stepped in; he's a minor inconvenience, at best, not an integral part of the book's structure or plot.

Also befuddling to me is why the Chamber of Secrets go opened at all.  Now, with some spoilers for everyone who has been living under a rock since the 1990s: as the rest of us know, Tom Riddle's diary ends up being one of the seven Horcruxes in which Voldemort put a part of his soul.  Somehow this diary manages to suck the life out of people who write in it, and gives sixteen-year-old Tom Riddle a semblance of life in the process.  Lucius Malfoy plants the book in Ginny Weasely's belongings, and so the whole Chamber of Secrets fiasco gets started when she begins to unwittingly pour her heart out to it.  But what does bringing back a partial, sixteen-year-old version of Voldemort actually accomplish?  Closing Hogwarts?  Was that the end goal here?  Because, honestly, that's a pretty lame end goal.  Was it to destroy Harry?  Because that doesn't really seem like it was ever going to be accomplished without Harry actually going down to the Chamber which was, apparently, not part of the plan.  Was it to bring Voldemort back?  But we know that couldn't work because the Horcrux might keep him from dying entirely, but it can't actually bring him back, we see how that is accomplished in Goblet of Fire and it's quite a bit more complex than getting an eleven-year-old to write in a diary.  I'm completely befuddled at this point.  Honestly, it seems like Lucius Malfoy did it just to be...well, bad.  And impress the Dark Lord who he doesn't even know is still around.  What?  I'm confused.  That doesn't seem like the best use of his evil energies, quite frankly.

Don't get me wrong; we all know that Rowling is a great storyteller and has some wonderful characters and world-building in her head (though sometimes I wonder how much of it was actually planned out in advance and how much she just went along with, and how much we have over-analyzed these books).  But, for this one, I feel like it was just a way to kill Harry's second year while waiting for something more interesting to come along, and that it was worked in much better later in the series than in this book itself.  Still, a quick and enjoyable read, if one that's more palatable in the context of the whole than on its own merits.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Seven Black Diamonds - Melissa Marr (Black Diamonds #1)

Seven Black Diamonds (Untitled, #1)So, two things.  First, if you don't keep up on your book reviews, you can get very behind, very fast.  Oooops.  I had a bit of a binge read this weekend and didn't actually write up the reviews for any of the books as I was reading, so now I'm way behind!  Second, if you're looking at Seven Black Diamonds hoping for a continuation of Marr's Wicked Lovely series (which this book is kind of misleadingly touted as, with a description saying that Marr "returns to faery) keep on walking.  This isn't it.  Marr returns to faery in the manner that she's writing about people who are fae or part-fae again, but this is a completely different world set up than the Wicked Lovely books, which makes it a little off-putting when the familiar rules and characters aren't there.

Seven Black Diamonds takes place in the future, in a world where Africa doesn't exist anymore because it's just a toxic waste dump and where high society people are apparently hooked on old videos of Dancing with the Stars and learned to ballroom dance from them.  Our main character is Lily Abernathy, daughter of a crime lord, and also part fae, and strong fae, too.  Being part fae is illegal, because the Queen of Blood and Rage, who apparently rules both the Seelie and Unseelie courts, along with her husband (formerly the Seelie king) blames humans for killing her first daughter.  The Queen has a second daughter but doesn't care for her much, which is pretty awful of her.  The daughter is disfigured, to the point that some people call her "Patches" for how her skin looks, like she's been sewn together from different parts.  Why this happened is never explained.  Anyway, the Queen's on the warpath with humanity, wanting to wipe them out, and her weapon of choice is--get this--teenagers.  Teenagers who are part fae, and who are ridiculously famous for various reasons (musically talented, sons or daughters of famous people, actresses, etc.) and act as sleeper agents, putting out albums by day and then blowing up train stations or boats by night.

Lily finds herself mixed up with a group of these sleepers when her father sends her off to a boarding school that apparently doesn't have any classes.  Despite having kept her fae ancestry a secret her entire life, Lily immediately tells them all about herself and reveals all her secrets to one group member or another, particularly a guy named Creed because he is hawwt and fell in love with Lily immediately upon seeing her.  Rounding out the weird names of Creed and Lilywhite (seriously, Lilywhite) are Roan (yes, like a horse's coloring), Zephyr, and--best of all--Alkamy.  Seriously.  Alkamy.  There's also Will and Violet, which are pretty normal.  All of these people are, of course, #specialsnowflakes of their own.  And they're terrorists who are doing the Queen's bidding to help destroy the human race.  You know, the race that Lily was raised to be a part of, that her family is a part of, that her best friend and his family are a part of.  This does not seem to bother her at all, or at the most, it bothers her in a kind of abstract way; like, she doesn't approve, but she just likes them so much that she lets it go.  No.  Girl, no.  You don't befriend terrorists trying to wipe out your entire species because they're cool and famous!  Do you possess a brain?  Apparently not.

That said, the human world of this book was completely shallow and boring, so maybe it deserved to be wiped out.  The only cool parts of this book, world-wise, were the parts that took place in the Hidden Lands/faery.  The Queen herself turned out to be more interesting than I thought she would be, and infinitely more interesting than Lilywhite, who beyond her stupid decisions is a very stereotypical "I'm special but I don't want to be" character.  Eilidh was also interesting, as were Rhys and Torquil.  I would have much rather read a whole book about them than about Lily and her brainless cronies.  The world there was interesting, unlike the one that Lily lived in, and where most of the book took place.

I might read further in this series, but I doubt it; the books I'm interested in would feature the fae group heavily, rather than these Black Diamonds characters, but I have a feeling that Marr is going to focus on the Black Diamonds instead.  I have absolutely no interest in them.  Kudos to her for having a diverse group in which everyone is a straight white guy, but the characters themselves and the story overall were not compelling.  If you want to read a good faery story by Marr, go back and re-read Wicked Lovely.  It's far more worth it.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #2)

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling, followed up her first murder-mystery starring Cormoran Strike with another.  In the wake of solving the murder of Lula Landry, Strike has found himself doing much better, business-wise, even if his newfound semi-fame has its drawbacks, like reporters wanting to talk to him and people knowing who he is automatically, and making assumptions based on the Landry case.  But, a few months later, things have settled down some.  Strike is buried in piles of people who want to hire him to prove their partners' infidelities, which he's starting to find rather tedious even if it does pay the bills.  So when Leonora Quine shows up, asking Strike to find her missing husband, he's intrigued.  Owen Quine is a writer who had one good book and then a couple of rather bad ones, and now he's disappeared with the manuscript for his latest work after having a rather public fight with his agent about the book being unpublishable.  Leonora thinks she knows where Quine is, she just wants Strike to confirm it and make him come back.  But Quine isn't at a writer's retreat, like Leonora thought, and as Strike discovers rather quickly, Quine is actually dead, killed in the same manner as the protagonist of his manuscript--which has also been spread all over town and slanders rather a lot of people to boot.

As Strike works toward solving the mystery and protecting Leonora, who becomes the number one suspect in pretty straight order because of the rocky relationship between herself and her deceased husband, other things start to go wrong, of course.  The biggest of them is Robin, his assistant who was so integral to helping with the Lula Landry case and who stayed on with Strike despite numerous, more lucrative job offers elsewhere.  Robin's relationship with her fiance, Matthew, is on the rocks, and largely due to Strike himself.  Strike hasn't actually really done anything to make it this way; Matthew just seems like a jealous, suspicious person, and I did not like him one bit.  Not even when he has to deal with a death in the family.  I still couldn't bring myself to pity him just because of how awful he'd been to Robin the whole time, and Robin is my favorite character, so there wasn't much redeeming him there.  He eventually does start to come around, after he and Robin have a long talk about why she's working for Strike, and tries to be more supportive of her, which was good--but I can't help but feel that's all going to fall apart relatively soon, and he'll be back to being just awful to her all the time.  Meanwhile, Robin finds herself increasingly frustrated with Strike because she wants to be more involved in investigating cases, rather than just being an office administrator, and Strike seems to have dropped this idea despite seeming enthusiastic for it in the first place.

This plot was less convoluted than The Cuckoo's Calling, which I liked.  I didn't feel like there were quite so many angles, and I thought the smaller cast of involved characters really made for a better story.  I didn't figure out the mystery, though I did fall for the rather obvious decoy Galbraith/Rowling put in; I always do.  I would not make a very good investigative officer.  One thing that does bother me about this, though, is how Galbraith/Rowling just neglects to mention things that the point of view characters know in order to keep us in the dark.  Strike, for example, asks a friend to do something, which is basically worded as "He explained what he wanted and the friend agreed" without us knowing what the thing he wanted was in the first place.  I dislike this, because it's very obviously keeping things from the readers that we should know.  Strike knows it; why shouldn't we?  Probably because he's being built up to be a grand mastermind of mysteries, but I found it annoying when so many other things are teased out right in front of us to keep these things in the dark.  The other characters should be keeping the secrets, not the protagonist whose head we're supposed to be in.  Is this just a mystery genre thing?  I don't know, but if it is, I don't like it; I think the mystery and suspense could be perpetuated in other ways without deliberately keeping us in the dark about things that have already been discovered.

Still, this was a very good book, and I'm looking forward to reading the third.  Galbraith/Rowling just has such a way of creating situations and characters, of painting pictures with words, that I think the small sins here are forgivable.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A College of Magics - Caroline Stevermer (A College of Magics #1)

A College of Magics (A College of Magics, #1)
"It seems I have to save the world."

"Oh, dear.  Do you have the training for that?" Jane asked dryly.

Faris smiled and leaned back in her chair. "I doubt it.  But it seems I am the warden of the north."

So many people seem to have disliked or downright hated this book, which is heartbreaking to me, as it is my favorite book in the whole wide world and has been for more than a decade; I come back to read it again and again and again, far more than I've read any other book in my collection.  Much of this hatred seems to stem from the rather unfortunate editorial quote from Jane Yolen (whose works I also like, but whose quote seems misplaced here) claiming that A College of Magics is "A large step up...from Harry Potter."  I mean, we don't know what went in the middle of that quote that the ellipses have replaced, but that's not the point.  The point is that A College of Magics and the Harry Potter books have very little to do with each other, and A College of Magics actually has very little to do with said college at all.  I can see why this would frustrate a lot of people.  Similar mis-titles of books have greatly frustrated me in the past.  But I still can't help but think that, in their desperate need for something like Harry Potter, people have lashed out at this book for not being Harry Potter, rather unfairly, because it is a complete gem on its own.

If you haven't figured it out already, this is mainly going to be me defending A College of Magics against what I feel are very unfairly leveled accusations, and laying out what is so absolutely wonderful about this book.

"When this place was dedicated to St. Margaret, slayer of dragons, it was already old.  It was old when the wardens of the world held court in splendor.  It was old before that, when they walked abroad in the world, as free as minstrels.  Time sings in the stones here."

A College of Magics is set up in the style of a three-volume novel, rather cheekily, I would say, since three-volume novels are what the heroine and her friends spend so much time reading when they are supposed to be doing other things.  It follows Faris Nallaneen, the eighteen-year-old Duchess of Galazon who, despite having the birthright and title, can't really rule her duchy until she reaches her legal majority at age twenty-one.  In the meantime, her uncle Brinker rules Galazon, and he has sent Faris off to Greenlaw College, which is placed near St. Malo in France, in order to be finished.  Greenlaw is, first and foremost, a finishing school--which is the reason that Faris' eventual best friend, Jane Brailsford, was sent there.  But it has a reputation for turning out students who also learn magic, and who are therefore referred to as witches of Greenlaw in the world beyond upon their graduations.

She sat at the heart of the world.  Silent and serene, she balanced in the void.

The magic part is another place where I think people get too hung up on this.  People looking for a lot of flashy magic and lessons in spells (again, like in the Harry Potter books) are going to be disappointed.  The magic here is much more atmospheric and lends itself very much to the maxim that "believing is seeing."  Faris is our point of view character, and she doesn't really explicitly believe in magic--and so we don't see much of it.  She certainly doesn't outright learn it, because she doesn't think that she can; doesn't, in fact, think that learning it is possible at all.  She does eventually set aside her skepticism, but no real embrace comes in its place, leaving Faris as more of a magic agnostic than anything else. And so, while we see magic from others and we know that Faris herself is capable of magic, and has actually accidentally worked it on a few instances, it remains drifting in the background, leaving us wondering whether each of Faris' actions will have some magical repercussion.  I love this.  Magic exists in this world but it is, as we're told and as we can see, exceedingly rare.  But it is there, and sometimes you have to look harder than you would first think in order to see it.  They're subtle magics, but when you realize exactly what they are, they're impressive in their own right.  They also have their own place in the world, which the magics in Harry Potter do not.  Everyone is aware that magic exists, whether they can use it or not, whether they've encountered it or (more likely) not.  And so when it does make its appearance, it does, however unusual, belong.

"I know of no one and nothing that can restore that light once it has been extinguished."

Most of the book, however, does not focus on Faris at Greenlaw.  It focuses on her after she leaves, and travels to Paris, to Galazon, and eventually on to the other fictional country of Aravill (capital: Aravis) in order to fix a great magical wrong that one of her ancestors committed, and which has left the very structure of the world in jeopardy.  On this adventure she is accompanied by Jane Brailsford, a fellow student turned teacher at Greenlaw; Tyrian, a bodyguard assigned to Faris by her uncle to prevent her from leaving Greenlaw prematurely, but sent to him by a much more mysterious source; and Reed, a servant-slash-tennant at Galazon who is loyal to Faris and despises her uncle despite being in service to him, and who will help her take control of her lands at any cost.  Along the way, she runs into assassins, highway robbers, old friends, new friends, ghosts in the wings, anarchists, and a king who certainly wants something from her...

"Must I explain it to you, too?  Faris, you're the warden of the north."

The back of this book says it's aimed at ages 10 and up, and while there's no sexual content or cursing here, I really disagree with that, because I think most of this book is far above a 10-year-old's head.  It's not raunchy or explicit in any way, but it has a subtle humor to it that no little kid would understand.  I certainly didn't understand it as a kid, and I have to say that it has improved with age for me--much like Jane's aunt's plum cake.  For example, a middleschooler isn't really going to understand quotes from Shakespeare, the topics of Aristotle, references of Menary Paganell's "Pagan" tendencies (sex, guys, it's sex) or even the real menace lurking behind the figures of power in this book.  In that way, I think it's much better suited to an adult audience--another way that it differs from Harry Potter.  Harry Potter can be enjoyed by all ages, it's true.  However, I don't think there's much in it that a middlegrader outright wouldn't get; everything is pretty much put out there at one time or another.  You have to think more with A College of Magics, to grasp the pieces that are intentionally left foggy, and thinking seems to be a skill that many readers of this book have been reluctant to exercise, expecting everything to eventually be laid out for them in a Potter-like fashion.

"You may count on me until my last hour, and for an hour beyond."

Even the romance is a subtle thread running through the work rather than an outright plot point.  The two romantic interests are, of course, Faris and Tyrian, though it takes a while for this thread to emerge from the background into a place of slightly more prominence.  Let me say this: Faris and Tyrian are totally my OTP.  I ship them harder than any other characters I have ever encountered, including ones of my own making.  Their relationship is slow and subtle.  There are two kisses throughout the entire book, and not early on, either.  Does the relationship ever really come to fruition?  No, not really... But there's such potential there, lurking just off the page, that your imagination can fill in the blanks and guess at where it goes from there.  Tyrian and Faris' relationship ties strongly to the climax of the book, and the ending, even though their relationship isn't even close to the core of the story of Faris attempting to restore balance.  But, as in all other aspects of this book, Stevermer subtly works it up and in, along with the magic and menace that has been building in the background the entire time, into what is one of the most perfect conclusions I have ever read in a book.  Is it happily ever after?  No, not at all.  In fact, the first several times I read this book I wanted to throw it across the room because I was so upset with how it ended.  But as I've read it and re-read it, it has grown on me, a slow burn sort of affection that I now can't put aside.  It's not happily ever after with confetti and a bow.  But there's this perfect sense of resolution that just fits so well, that I can't say I would have rather had the confetti and the bow and the happily ever after.  Stevermer didn't go the fairy tale route with this, but the route she chose just works, and it's the reason I like bittersweet endings in books in general.

"If love were the only thing, I would follow you--in rags if need be--to the world's end..."

A College of Magics isn't big and bright and flashy like Harry Potter.  That's not Stevermer's writing style.  She's very subtle and very matter-of-fact at the same time.  She doesn't spend paragraphs and pages building up characters, but lets small details speak for themselves so we can build a mental picture of that character based off those things, like how Tyrian cuts cake using a knife of alarmingly efficient design, or how Brinker ordered every blossom picked off a family's quince tree to remind them that he owned their land.  This, and the way she builds up the magic, always in the background but always there, building its presence through feel rather through tell, is immensely impressive to me.  I long to write a book so subtle and yet with such lasting impact.  This is a beautiful fantasy, slow and yet sweeping, with a world that is both our own and not.  It is not flashy, like Harry Potter.  It doesn't really focus on a school story.  Instead, it is about Faris coming to terms with who she is and what she must do, not just for Galazon, but for the world, and the sacrifices that must be made to reach that end.  It's strikingly, achingly beautiful, and it is my favorite book in the world, and all of the people who hated it because it wasn't Harry Potter completely missed its point.

Above the college rose the spire, and on that height of heights, St. Margaret and St. Michael stood back to back, ready for new battles.

5 stars out of 5.

This book also fulfills the category of "A book that is guaranteed to bring you joy" for my 2016 reading challenge.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Scent of Magic - Maria V. Snyder (Healer #2)

Scent of Magic (Healer, #2)Almost three years ago, I read the first book in Maria V. Snyder's Healer trilogy, Touch of Power, and I utterly slammed it.  I don't regret this.  Despite not having re-read the book in that time, I distinctly remember how unpleasant the story was to begin with, and I have no desire to go back and relive that experience.  That said, while reading some other Snyder books and deciding to do a deeper study on how her writing has changed, I thought I pretty much had to finish the Healer trilogy so I could understand this part of Snyder's writing career and examine any changes within.  And so, after finishing the Glass trilogy, I rather reluctantly checked Scent of Magic out of the library.

Let's start simply: this book was better than Touch of Power, but I'm still not sure it was good.  Avry, our little special snowflake who you can tell is a special snowflake because her name is spelled specially (this is a tried and true method, I assure you) has survived the plague that killed every other healer in the fifteen realms that make up her world.  Or, well, she didn't survive it, but she was brought back to life by a weird plant.  No one understands this plant.  I'm not even sure Snyder understand this plant.  Throughout the first book, and now this one, it really seems like Snyder just went, "Oh, wouldn't it be cool if...?" without really thinking through any of the (missing) logic that could hold up these "cool" things.  Like how are the plants sentient?  If they're spread so far, over distances that are weeks and months apart over varied terrains, how are they really one (or two) organism(s)?  And how do their life/death properties really work?  AND, while we're at it, how on earth does crossing two plants together create a plague?  A new sort of toxin, sure, maybe, depending on the other plant in the equations, but an actual plague?  Like a virus or a bacteria?  That doesn't make any sense.  I don't think that's possible, even in Avry's world.  She tries to explain a way a few of these things throughout this book, and link the plants more closely into the central story, but I didn't feel convinced by any of the flimsy explanations offered.  Since the plants are pretty much the original source of all of Avry's troubles, this is kind of a problem.

In this book, Avry goes undercover in an attempt to conceal the fact that she's still alive--and wanted by pretty much everyone--so she can find her sister and maybe a way to stop Tohon and his zombies.  Of course this does not go as planned.  This is more of Snyder trying to tie in plot threads that she brought up in the first book, but didn't really integrate.  The problem here is that she's still so busy rushing from plot to plot that things get touched on and then brushed aside in a rush, so she can move on to the next thing.  This means that, in addition to plots seeming half-baked, the characters' reactions to them don't come across as genuine.  I mean, the death of an important character (and the apparent deaths of several more) result in reactions akin to, "Oh, that didn't go as planned.  Now he/she is dead.  That's unfortunate, and I'm very sad about it, and if someone else dies I won't be able to go n, but for now here's me, going on quite nicely, thank you very much.  Duty and all!  Hip hip cheerio!"  Okay, maybe not quite so perky as "Hip hip cheerio!" but the rest of it isn't very exaggerated at all.  Meanwhile, all the characters switch personas (mainly from hating Avry to being her best friends) within the space of a few pages and  continue to be so unobservant that it's truly mind-boggling that they manage to get anything done.  How did someone not manage to notice that several hundred extra prisoners of war appeared in their camp overnight?  And then there's Tohon in general, especially because Snyder tries to give him a really weird and stupid motivation in this book, which is that the reason he wants to take over the fifteen realms as the ultimate king is that he didn't get elected king while at school.  What?  In the words of the Monty Python troupe, "You don't vote for kings!"

Probably the best part about this book was Kerrick.  Kerrick, as I remember, was an ass in the first book and I didn't buy his romance with Avry one bit.  In this book, he and Avry are separated for all but a chapter or two, with Kerrick attending to a barbarian invasion in his home realm in the north.  This was interesting.  There's clearly something going on there, and the barbarians have some awesome season-based magic that I would have loved to see more off--we only got a glimpse of Winter's Curse and Summer's Touch.  Rakel was awesome and I wanted her to become a new love interest for this seemingly new-and-improved Kerrick.  I still don't think he should be a good love interest for Avry because of his past actions toward her, but I think he could be redeemed in general.  Maybe.  We'll see.  But as things stand at the end of this book, I'm not sure how much we'll see of the northern people.  Which is sad, because those characters were some of the coolest.

Oh, and this book ends with another total cop-out, especially because it's clear how the cop-out is going to be resolved.

Overall, this was better than Touch of Power.  Snyder wove some of the strands she just dropped in Power to conclusions, and she didn't really add any more brand-new strands that felt like they were discarded out of hand.  But the lack of character growth and the rushing about continue, meaning that nothing really comes across as sincere and it's hard to get emotionally involved in the tale.  Considering that The Mirror King had me getting a little teary-eyed over a character's sacrifice just yesterday, this is a bit disappointing.  It's better than Power, but it's still not good.  It's really just okay.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Mirror King - Jodi Meadows (Orphan Queen #2)

The Mirror King (The Orphan Queen, #2)It hasn't really been that long since I read, and absolutely devoured, the first volume of Jodi Meadows' new duology, The Orphan Queen.  When I left Wil, her burgeoning love interest (kind of; at least for one of his two personas) had just been targeted for assassination, and even if he lived, he was bound to marry another girl, and on top of all that Wil was confronting terrifying new dimensions to her powers.  She brought to life part of the wraith threatening the Indigo Kingdom, but doesn't know what the consequences will be, other than that she's now the keeper of a very terrifying boy who's made of the very stuff destroying her world.  It was a cliffhanger, of a sort, but one that I wasn't too concerned about because, you see, Tobiah/Black Knife is a Main Character, and, above that, a Love Interest, and that means he doesn't die halfway through a series, because Jodi Meadows is not George R. R. Martin.  It was a cheap trick and one that I think didn't really hold up, but no matter, because the second volume is here at last.  (Not really at last for me.  I didn't have to wait that long.)

So, how does The Mirror King hold up to The Orphan Queen?  Well... It's not as good.  The Orphan Queen had some really amazing elements to it, many of which were spins on my favorite fantasy tropes, which is always a great combination!  I mean, when something has all the things you like, it's hard to not like the thing itself; it's certainly possible, that's certain, but having all the things you like in one place is usually a good start.  Unfortunately, I think that The Mirror King, by its very nature, lost its hold on some of the things that made The Orphan Queen so awesome.  Secret identities, magical mysteries, and menacing monsters were all put aside in order to tackle the more political aspects of reclaiming a kingdom.  Granted, there are undeniably political aspects to reclaiming a kingdom; they're unavoidable if you want to make the whole reclaiming process realistic.  Wil has to struggle with her new responsibilities, but there's a growing rift between herself and Tobiah as the plot furthers, escalated by several events linked to Wil's powers and the wraith boy she actually created.  As a result, the romantic tension that laced The Orphan Queen was also largely missing.

I think that, overall, The Mirror King moved much slower than its predecessor and there wasn't as much to really pull a reader in.  I kept reading, because I wanted to know how it ended, but I was always looking for those intriguing elements and often not finding them.  The scene in the cathedral was awesome, but other than that there wasn't much that I really loved until the climax, when a few of the threads built up really come together.  They weren't compelling to follow individually, but I think that a revelation about one of the characters was very well done, as well as the direction that Meadows took it.  It was a fantastic addition to the mythology of the world, and a way to have a poignant twist at the end without it being really gimmicky.  I was heartbroken, because I was kind of hoping this character would have a spin-off series or something, but I totally support the ending because, despite my disappointment, it worked, and did so beautifully.  The ending in general was very fitting for the book; let me tell you, as I neared the end I became very unsure that it was going to be possible to wrap up in a good manner, and I was afraid that the book would have a rather bleak conclusion.  Instead, it was very satisfying, but still left enough open to the imagination so that you can play with how things ended up mentally.

Overall, a good book, but its strength definitely lies in its final part and its ending rather in the bulk of the story, which unfortunately focuses so much on politics and the machinations of the characters that it drags a bit--definitely more than its riveting predecessor.

3 stars out of 5.

This book also fulfills the category of "A book published in 2016" for my 2016 reading challenge.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Cold-Hearted Rake - Lisa Kleypas (Ravenels #1)

Cold-Hearted Rake (The Ravenels, #1)Well, guys, I've done it.  I've discovered a problem with historical romance books.  (This is somewhat facetious because yes, we're all aware that there are tons of problems with historical romance books in general and many more about specific books in particular, but still.)  The problem is this: they have to be read in one go.  You have to sit your butt down and read that book from beginning to end, or else it's way too easy to be jarred out of the story and, when returning to it, find the whole thing just too...something to bear.  Too cheesy?  Maybe.  Too tasteless?  Maybe that, as well.  Anyway, they're very easy to just lose the entire feel if you have to stop reading, whether it's for work or dinner or bed, and I find that they're very difficult to get back into after you take that break.  If you have a lazy Saturday and can plow through one (or two!) then great.  That'll have to be my strategy from now on, because I was really on a roll with this one...until I had to go to sleep or face the consequences the next morning, and when I picked it up the next day, I'd totally lost it.


Okay, so, on to the book itself.  First, I know that authors don't really get a ton of say in their titles, but really, can we stop having titles about rakes in historical romance?  The men referred to in these titles very very rarely are rakes in any real sense of the word.  It's just a cheap stand in to make a guy seem darker than he really is.  Devon, the hero of Cold-Hearted Rake, is neither cold-hearted (well, maybe at first, but certainly not for the vast majority of the book) nor a rake.  So it's kind of silly to refer to him as such.  He even blatantly says he's not in the book.  Now that that's out of the way... This book is about Devon, the new Lord of Trenear, who came into the title after his cousin unexpectedly died in a riding accident, and Kathleen, said cousin's widow.  But not really his widow because she'd only been married to him for three days when he died and she didn't even really know him before that.  So legally, yes, widow.  Emotionally, not so much, though she does bear some guilt for the accident that killed him and goes about blaming herself for it.  Devon doesn't want the responsibility of the estate he's inherited and plans to sell it, putting Kathleen and her three sisters-in-law (Devon's cousins) out of house and home in the process.  Initially, of course, he doesn't care about this, but Kathleen, in the way of true historical romance heroines, changes his mind by winning his heart without even trying.  Devon, of course, turns out to be an excellent estate manager, the family comes into a ton of money unexpectedly, and everything works out swimmingly.

Overall, I don't think this is Kleypas' best work.  It's really setup for the rest of the books in the Ravenels series, which will focus on Kathleen's sisters-in-law, Helen, Cassandra, and Pandora--and it reads like a set-up book.  All three of the Ravenel girls were more interesting than Kathleen was, and the start of Helen's romance with Rhys Winterborne (which takes up a good part of the second half of the book) was really more intriguing than Devon and Kathleen's romance.  Granted, I'm definitely more than a little put off at how slimy Rhys acted in the end; we'll have to see how Kleypas resolves that (or doesn't) to see if he can be forgiven; various apologies will have to be given at the very least if he's to be redeemed into a likable hero for Marrying Winterborne.  Devon was also an ass at more than one point in this, and I'm not convinced that he really came back from it.  His reactions to various situations at various times were far less than heroic, and the way he talked to Kathleen at times was...creepy.  Very.  I mean, it's obvious from his POV chapters that he wouldn't actually hurt her or anything, but that doesn't meant that she knows that and it doesn't mean that it's okay for him to say stuff like how her only choice is to go to bed with him before or after they talk, not whether she has a choice to sleep with him at all.  I wish Kathleen had been a bit more strong-willed in making Devon respect her, or that Devon had come around to that himself; I'm not convinced that he ever really did respect her.

This book...wasn't that great, honestly, considering the reservations I have about the characters' actions throughout.  HOWEVER, I love Kleypas in general, and I think the other characters in the series have more potential than Kathleen and Devon did from the get-go.  I definitely want to see what happens with Pandora (and West; is West going to get a book?) and I'm interested in seeing if Kleypas manages to transform Winterborne as well, so I'll probably keep reading the series, though it's not one I'll rush out to buy the moment each book hits the shelves.

2 stars out of 5, but I think there's room for improvement in the series as a whole.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ink and Bone - Rachel Caine (Great Library #1)

Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)Let me start by just saying this: this book was awesome, way more awesome than I anticipated it being.  I've read Rachel Caine before; her Weather Warden series is a great urban fantasy/paranormal romance one, and I've read some of her Morganville Vampire novels, too.  That said, while I've always found her books enjoyable, I've never thought they were absolutely amazing.  This book was amazing.  Of course, like all books, it has a few weak points--but it was such an amazing world with such awesome characters (I am beyond real words here, can you tell?) that I think its strengths far, far outweigh its weaknesses.

The book takes place in an alternate universe in which the Library of Alexandria was never burned, and in fact spawned "daughter" libraries throughout the world.  Across the ages, the Library has become more powerful than anything else, based on the idea that knowledge is power.  An example of how powerful the library is?  Austria pissed the Library off, so the Library destroyed Austria.  Austria does not exist in this world because the Library destroyed it.  The Library owns all original works and disseminates copies via things called "blanks" which are kind of like Kindles with pages and that you can write on.  The whole system works off of a premise of alchemy.  Owning real, original books is illegal and has led to book smugglers making huge profits when they can successfully find and sell a rare or unique copy of a book.  Meanwhile, people called Burners protest the Library's ownership of knowledge and burn books--and themselves--to draw attention to their cause.  Cities and countries aren't quite as we'd imagine them; for example, Wales and England are caught up in a torrid civil war.  And while the book takes place in the year 2025, there is a pseudo-Victorian/steampunk facade on it.  Automatons protect the libraries and secret areas, carriages are driven by steam, and while guns exist other weapons are still very prominent.  Combined, this makes a rich, fascinating world, and I loved how every detail was carefully placed to build the world, rather than just thrown in because it was "cool."

The main character of this book is Jess Brightwell, a young man who comes from a family of book smugglers.  He doesn't want to take over the family business, so his father buys him a chance to get a position in the Library, which he figures Jess will enjoy and which can be used to help the family get their hands on more rare works to sell.  In short order, Jess moves to Alexandria for training, a process that begins with thirty students competing for six spots at the Library.  Jess' classmates feature prominently in the book, and all of them have their own stories, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses; they all read like real people, which can be difficult for supporting characters to achieve.  The same can be said for Scholar Wolfe, their teacher, and his companion Santi, a member of the Library's elite guard.  I mean, seriously, these are awesome supporting characters.  They're not all white!  They're not all straight!  It's an incredibly diverse cast, but a diverse cast that isn't just window dressing for the story.  They're all fully integrated.  The training process takes up a lot of this book, and while it was interesting--it provides a lot of insight into how and why the Library operates and what might be wrong with it--I think the story really picked up when the students, Wolfe, and Santi are sent on a mission to retrieve a cache of rare books from a daughter library that is about to be crushed in the Welsh/English civil war.  It's at this point that we can really start to see that something is rotten at the Library's heart, and what the characters might be up against if they hope to escape or stop it.

Caine's writing in this one is also super absorbing.  The book is in third-person limited, but between chapters we also get to see some documents from various characters that are circulated around or kept in the Library archives.  In the other Caine books I've read, the writing was good but it was never something that blew my mind.  In this one, I couldn't stop reading.  Seriously, I was wandering around the National Mall in the middle of the cherry blossom festival with visiting family looking for somewhere I could sit down so I could read more.  I was a terribly rude hostess, I'm afraid, but hey, that's what a good book can do, and this book wasn't just good, it was excellent.  The plot was tight, the characters real, and the world intricately intriguing.  The story doesn't go quite where the blurb would make one think--really, the blurb refers to the end of the book more than the content--but it was amazing content nonetheless.  I got this from the library, but I'll be buying my own copy--in hardcover, because owning this on Kindle is a little too ironic for my tastes.

5 stars out of 5.  Awesome.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Spy Glass - Maria V. Snyder (Glass #3)

Spy Glass (Glass, #3)Spy Glass is Maria V. Snyder's conclusion to her Glass trilogy, which is a spin-off from her Study books; the main character, Opal, is a supporting character in the Study series, and many Study main characters make guest appearances in the Glass books.

In Spy Glass, Snyder wraps up a few dangling threads that had been left hanging, including what really should have been the main plot of Sea Glass, the second book in the trilogy.  Again, as with the other books in this set, plots appear and are brushed aside and things are barely linked to each other.  Opal spends most of her time rushing to and fro across the realm of Sitia without actually accomplishing much.  This is really a pity, because I thought Spy Glass had the strongest premise of the Glass books going into it, and was much stronger to start out.  Unfortunately, that all devolved once again, leaving a bit of a mess in its wake and a problem that Snyder just kept on perpetuating...

So, Spy Glass occurs in the wake of Sea Glass.  Opal doesn't have magic anymore, the result of draining her magic in an effort to save herself and her friends at the end of Sea Glass.  What she does have is a null shield in her, which means that magic can't really affect her and which is both good and bad.  But early in the book, Opal figures out that some of the blood harvested from her at the end of Sea Glass was never recovered, which means that someone could have it and be using it as part of blood magic.  Opal's entire story has been more or less about stopping blood magic rather than about learning to use her own glass magic, so of course she charges off to stop them.  This was really the strongest part of the book: Opal figuring out how to get the information about her blood, and then going to get said information.  This is probably because it was more like a Study book than a Glass book, and Snyder seems to have a stronger grasp of the characters and plots she created in the Study series.  But this part of the book also brings Devlen back into the picture, which is a huge huge huge problem because Snyder continues to push him as a love interest even though he has repeatedly lied to and tortured the heroine.

After Opal gets the information she needs, well... Things start to devolve.  Again, Opal is running every which way without really getting anything done.  She hithers and yons to her family's lands, to Kade's family's lands, to the Magician's Keep, to see a friend and investigate some black diamonds... And of course, she refuses to see things along the way and ends up in a world of trouble, with a bunch of people (everyone) thinking she's dead, when she's really been kidnapped and is set to be put into a cult as a breeder.  Ew.  This is the plot that should have happened in Sea Glass but somehow got pushed by the wayside for a bunch of, well, nothing.  In the rush to shove it into this book and wrap up everything at once, a few glaring things remain, such as how does Opal get magic back and use it if she still has a null shield?  What about her magic detectors?  Is that just going away entirely?  What about the glass messengers, since that whole operation got derailed and wasn't really what it was portrayed to be in the first place?  All of these are just left dangling, with no resolution in sight.  You can't really say that Snyder planned to wrap them up in the next set of Study books because those weren't even planned when Spy Glass was written.

And then there's Devlen.  Let's talk about Opal's relationships for a moment, shall we?  In Spy Glass, Devlen, the guy who kidnapped, tortured, and has repeatedly lied to and betrayed Opal, makes a reappearance, and to some degree keeps up his old deceptive behaviors.  Despite that, Opal continues to view him as a love interest, and in fact a more desirable one than Kade, her proclaimed boyfriend.  Granted, Opal and Kade's life goals don't really match up with each other.  Kade ultimately realizes this and deals with the situation like an adult, suggesting that they go their separate ways but that he will remain in her life to support her in a platonic manner if she needs him.  Opal, meanwhile, runs off and cheats on Kade with a guy who she has absolutely no reason to trust and who, at a few points, would have been perfectly happy to kill her.  But no, that does not matter to Opal.  All that matters to Opal is that he is a good kisser and has also lost his magic, so he understands her when no one else does.  Please.  This is a terrible relationship example.  Terrible.  I cannot even put into words how bad this is, and yet it's supposed to be all sweet and sexy and fulfilling.  NO!  IT IS NOT.  IT IS BAD.  PEOPLE WHO KIDNAP AND TORTURE YOU SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED AS VIABLE LOVE INTERESTS EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING TO DIE SOON.

And I do want to discuss one more thing: how Opal's story reflects the world of Sitia around her.  Throughout the course of Opal's three books, seemingly dozens of new types of magic have been discovered, from people being able to switch bodies, to people gaining extra magic if they inject the blood of another magician, to messengers and magic detectors, to cold glass magic, and so on.  Snyder tries to highlight how these discoveries have the potential to change how life in Sitia works, and they do--but that Opal somehow discovers or plays a hand in discovering them all lends itself to the impression that, without Opal, life in Sitia would have been completely stagnant, trapped where it was, and that she is a driving force of change, and that nothing has changed in Sitia for ages until Opal came around and sparked it all.  Opal is not  strong enough character to pull this off, and really it made Sitia feel as if it was lacking a rich history because everything is happening now.

Overall, Opal's story continued to its conclusion the way it had been all along: a hot mess.  It's a pity, because I think Opal could have been a very interesting character if she weren't so continually stupid and ineffectual, and if she had, every once in a while, made a decent decision.  As it was, she can't really be called a strong main character, the skews off in every other direction without resolving a lot of things that seem to be pretty important, all the while highlighting things that either aren't important or shouldn't have been.  The beginning part was strong, but once Opal really got on the road again, it lost all sense of true purpose and logic.  This was not a good conclusion, and this was not a good series.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Welcome to Nightvale - Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

Welcome to Night ValeAs many people know, Welcome to Nightvale is a popular podcast about a town, called Nightvale, that is weird, and where weird things happen.  Unlike many people, I have not ever listened to this podcast.  I struggle with podcasts in general because I start thinking about something else and then realize I've missed everything that's going on and have no idea what's happening.  But the idea of Nightvale appealed to me, so when I saw this book at the library, I snapped it up!

This Welcome to Nightvale focuses on two main characters: Jackie, the nineteen-year-old owner of a pawnshop that sells back everything for eleven dollars, but offers payments like a good night's sleep, and Diane, a mother working at a marketing firm and who moonlights as a PTA member even though her son finished elementary school years ago.  Diane's son, Josh, is a typical teenager who doesn't know who his dad is, except that he's also a shapeshifter.

Trouble stars for Jackie when a guy shows up at her shop, gives her a piece of paper that says "King City" on it, and then vanishes.  Jackie would have forgotten him right away, except that she literally cannot get rid of the piece of paper.  No matter what she does to it, it reappears in her hand moments later.  Her obsession with the paper and how to get rid of it begins to devour her life.  Meanwhile, two of Diane's coworkers go missing, and only one comes back--and no one remembers the other at all.  And then, of course, Diane's ex and Josh's father, Troy, has begun appearing around town in a variety of occupations.  Diane, knowing that Josh wants to meet his father, is determined to do something about this, but she doesn't quite know what and so resorts to stalking Troy for lack of any better plan of attack.  Diane and Jackie's paths begin to criss-cross and they eventually decide to work together to decipher the mystery devouring their lives.

The plot of this book isn't really anything to write home about, getting dragged to and fro by random occurrences that have no real explanation as to why and how they happen.  It's Nightvale itself that holds the real appeal here.  It's a place where the diner serves invisible pie, where writing utensils have been outlawed and you need a permit to turn on a computer at home, and where the City Council and librarians are the two most terrifying forces around.  Meanwhile, King City lingers at the edge of some people's awareness, but all they really know about it is that it's bad news for whoever goes looking for it.  These things were all, on their own, quite cool, especially the library sequences.  That said, I think this book relies a little bit too much on Nightvale's weirdness to carry the plot, such as it is.  Too many plot points existed as "Oh, that's just the way it is."  I do not favor this sort of explanation in storytelling.  Building a compelling world is difficult, but it has to be done and done well.  Worlds don't have to adhere to our own world's logic, but they should contain a logic of their own.  I didn't feel that Nightvale had any internal logic at all.  All of its aspects, from City Hall to the diner to the library to the taco stand to, well, everything, worked alone, but very few of them worked in conjunction with each other.  It means that Nightvale is a cool veneer to look at but there's nothing really driving it underneath.  This might, of course, be the point, but it's hard to say for sure, and I really didn't like it that much at all.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Poison Study - Maria V. Snyder (Study #1)

Poison Study (Study, #1)So, in the wake of the Maria V. Snyder books I've read recently being, well, disappointments compared to what I remembered Poison Study, Snyder's first book, being, I decided to re-read Poison Study and then the rest of Snyder's books and do an examination of what, writing-wise, happened in them to lead to what I personally feel is a decrease in quality.  Obviously, the best place to star this was the beginning, so I grabbed Poison Study from the library (my own copy is a couple of hundred miles away) and got reading.

Poison Study is Snyder's first book, and I can completely see why it landed her the opportunity to write more.  It begins with Yelena, a young woman awaiting her execution in the dungeons of Ixia's Commander.  Ixia has an absolute zero-tolerance policy for murderers, and so Yelena's bound for the noose...except she isn't.  Luckily for her, there is a loophole in the zero-tolerance policy.  The Commander's food taster recently died, and Ixia's militaristic Code of Behavior dictates that the position of food taster be offered to the next prisoner on death row.  Enter Yelena.  When Valek, the Commander's right-hand man and expert in the arts of assassination, poisons, and general sneakery, offers Yelena the job, she takes it, even though it doesn't pay anything--as Valek says, "The food taster is paid in advance.  How much is your life worth?"

But just because Yelena isn't going to be hung doesn't mean she can't die in any manner of other nasty ways--like poisoning purposeful or accidental, having her throat slit by goons of her victim's father, being assassinated by a magician from the neighboring realm of Sitia, etc.  And while she deals with these continued threats on her life, she also has to deal with burgeoning magical powers that are illegal in Ixia, evil chocolate, and of course Valek himself.  Throughout the book, Valek serves varied roles, such as mentor, protector, love interest, and even potential murderer.  He's definitely one of the coolest characters in the book, and I wish his relationship with Yelena had been a bit more pronounced.  It's not really a slow burn, because it's so subtle for most of the book, until BAM! it isn't anymore.  But Valek was awesome no matter what, having an immense repertoire of skills and knowledge while still managing to be human.

Poison Study is also much tighter than the other Snyder books I've read recently.  All of the plot threads weave together into a coherent whole without any of the dropped plots I've seen from her lately.  Only one character (the briefly-seen Mia) seemed to be superfluous; everyone else was worked in very carefully to suit Snyder's purposes.  This was such a relief, you can't even imagine!  I was so, so, so happy to realize that yes indeed, Poison Study did live up to my memories of it.  The writing's a bit rougher than I remember (I find first-person writing to be rougher in general, no matter who is holding the pen), and Snyder has a thing for info-dumping from time to time, but the book as a whole was great.  She doesn't shy away from Yelena's traumatic past at all; the book actually starts with Yelena's memories of being tortured so really, you know what you're getting into here.  She's a murderer who doesn't regret her actions at all, but is still a good person with a steady moral compass.  Basically she's great.  I never felt that Yelena was being blatantly stupid.  I never wanted to smack her for a dumb decision.  Sometimes she delayed a good decision for a while, but she didn't let it get to the point that it was a danger to herself and others, and she always went into situations as prepared as she could be, even if it didn't necessarily end up in her favor.

Ixia is an interesting setting, too--a country under a militaristic government but not at war, settling into the new way of life after generations of living in the shadow of what seems to have been a tyrannical monarchy.  Actually, a book set during that era could be really interesting.  The magic system isn't really developed fully because magic is forbidden in Ixia (though it does exist and does occur) but that didn't bother me because it's clearly going to be developed more in Poison Study's sequel, Magic Study, and a robust magical system wasn't important to the overall plot of the book.

So, to conclude, yes: Poison Study was all that I remembered it being.  It's a great story with a strong heroine who, despite having a tragic past, isn't cliched in the slightest.  Yelena and Valek are compelling main characters and are fully capable of carrying this story to its conclusion.  Poison Study is a great, unusual fantasy book, and I think it's worth a read for most fantasy lovers out there.

4.5 stars out of 5.