Sunday, May 29, 2016

Memories of Ash - Intisar Khanani (Sunbolt Chronicles #2)

Memories of Ash (The Sunbolt Chronicles, #2)Let me start by saying this: Intisar Khanani is my favorite indie author.  I read her first book, Thorn, several years ago in one breathtaking sweep.  It was exquisite.  Khanani has a way of creating a world and characters who are real and who hurt and struggle just as we do, and who can also thrill in their successes and cling to the hope of the future.  Her books are not light-hearted or funny, but her words are poetry on the page, and Memories of Ash continued this tradition.  It follows in the wake of Sunbolt, a novella about a girl whose magical powers have been kept secret in a world where magic is regulated.  As a member of the Shadow League, Hitomi helped to work against Arch Mage Blackflame to counter his injustices.  In the process, she is captured and has to work not only to save herself, but to save a breather named Val, who could end her life with just one inhalation.

Memories of Ash picks up one year after Sunbolt ended, with Hitomi still recovering from the memory loss incurred by her sunbolt spell and learning magic from Brigit Stormwind, a loner mage who has taken Hitomi under her wing.  But Stormwind and Hitomi's lives are thrown into chaos when a rogue hunter shows up and takes Stormwind away on charges including treason.  Hitomi is left behind, her magic still a secret, but she quickly resolves to go after Stormwind and free her, because the charges are obviously trumped-up and will result in nothing but pain for everyone involved...except Blackflame.  Along the way, she visits the Burnt Lands, an area that was destroyed by mages hundreds of years before, and discovers a new talent for unraveling spells that lands her some assistance for the future.  A few characters from Sunbolt show up, as well, and we get to see more about the high-up workings of the Mage Council and a magic school for non-hidden mages.  This is marvelous world-building, but none of it feels superfluous.  It's all very tightly-knit, just as Sunbolt and Thorn were.  Hitomi also grows immensely as a character here, both magically and personally.  Magically, she continues to learn new spells and magical manipulations and discovers new talents which have looming potential but may never be fully recognized.  Personally, she moves to accept that she may never truly know the details of her past again, but that her amnesia doesn't have to be a chain that binds her from moving forward.

"I cannot ever truly know who I was.  It's time to discover who I may yet be."

And, perhaps best of all, we get to see a handful of characters who first appeared in Sunbolt!  They appear in different capacities, but they are there, and I really enjoyed seeing them again.  Khanani also introduces a couple of new characters who I think will make appearances in future books, as well.  Oh, and one more thing: Sunbolt was a novella.  It was delicious, and far, far too short.  Memories of Ash is equally delicious, but it is a full-blown novel.  I mean, I could easily still complain that it's far too short, because I would love to see what happens to Hitomi next, particularly regarding some things that were set up in the first half of this book, but I don't think that would really be fair.  It's 359 pages of beautiful writing, compelling characters, and breathtaking worldbuilding.  I can't wait to see these characters again, and see what else Hitomi's world has in store for her in the ongoing fight against Blackflame.  Unfortunately, it will probably be a while until that next installment comes out, but some things are worth waiting for.

Memories of Ash comes out tomorrow, May 30th, which gives you just enough time to snag the 142-page Sunbolt and read it tonight!  And if you do...

"Run far, run fast, and keep the wind in your hair."

5 stars out of 5.

I received a free advanced reader's copy of this book in return for an honest review, but I have had it pre-ordered since the pre-order went live; this is a book I consider well worth the money.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Fairy Godmother - Mercedes Lackey (Five Hundred Kingdoms #1)

13982Mercedes Lackey is a pretty prolific author of romantic fantasies.  I've read her Element Masters series (most of them, at least; I believe a few more have been published since I read them initially) and found that they were good in the fantasy element, but very light in the romance; I thought the Five Hundred Kingdoms series, the first book of which is The Fairy Godmother, would be a little heavier on the romance because it's published by Luna, which specializes in romantic fantasy and sci-fi. kind of was, once the romance actually appeared, but that didn't happen until a good way through the book.

So, The Fairy Godmother is a deviation from a fairy tale.  Elena Klovis is supposed to be Cinderella, but her prince is only eleven years old, so clearly that's not going to work; instead, when her evil stepmother and stepsisters leave town to escape their debts, she takes the first job offer that comes along...which just happens to be with a woman who turns out to be the Fairy Godmother for Elena's kingdom and some others, and who is looking for an apprentice.  The first fifty to sixty percent of the book deal with Elena learning to become a Fairy Godmother and make the Tradition, a magical force which tries to push people down paths following different fairy tale archetypes.  The job of a Fairy Godmother is to help along the good paths and try to diver the bad ones, working within the constraints of the Tradition to ensure that no backlash comes about.  When Bella, Elena's mentor, decides that Elena is ready, she promptly ditches Elena and is never seen again, not even to offer some friendly advice on some of Elena's harder cases.  In her absence, Elena steps up her Fairy Godmother game.

The romance comes into play when Elena sets out to question a trio of brother Questers headed down a Glass Mountain path, and ends up turning the middle brother into a donkey for his terrible behavior.  Since she feels bad leaving him to wander the woods and probably die, she takes him back to her home (also inhabited by a quartet of Brownies, though they don't seem to care about being thanked, which I could have sworn was a Brownie thing) so that he can work and learn humility and eventually regain his humanity--permanently, as she has to give him one human day per week or risk him forgetting his humanity.  The prince, Alexander, spends his time scheming to get away, and then eventually begins to learn his lesson.  And there are some romantic dreams, though there's not much real-life romance between them.  In fact, any time some real-life romance begins to emerge, Elena pushes back against it because she's afraid the Tradition is going to push her onto a path that will ultimately be detrimental to...well, everything.

The Fairy Godmother aspect of this was really creative; I liked how Lackey subverted so many fairy tales and turned so many into other ones, even inventing a few new ones.  While I expected a typical Cinderella story, I wasn't heartbroken when that wasn't what I got.  Elena's magic manages to be stereotypical and creative at the same time, following old paths while also forging new ones.  But I didn't believe the romance here at all.  It felt very, very fake, unlike the romances which slowly built up in the Element Masters series.  Honestly, it did seem that magic forced the romance in this, rather than the romance growing on its own...even though Lackey was trying to make it seem like Elena and Alexander found their way on their own.  Additionally, the "big baddie" forced in at the end was just that: forced.  It felt like a different story entirely.

I got this book as part of a set from the library, so I'll read the second one to see if The Fairy Godmother was more just world setup for the series as a whole, but I do hope the romance will be more pronounced in the other books, or else I won't continue with the series a whole.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Royal We - Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan

The Royal WeThis book has been on my to-read list for a while, so I was pretty excited when the Unapologetic Romance Readers group listed it as their second buddy read for May.  I snatched it up from the library and dove right in!  Unfortunately, The Royal We did not hit all the sweet spots I was hoping for.  In fact, this book was only okay.

The book starts with Rebecca "Bex" Porter fretting over her wedding to the grandson of the Queen of England, Nicholas; her phone is blowing up with ominous texts, we don't know from who, and it's clear that both she and her twin sister Lacey have done something bad, but it's not said what.  From that point, most of the book is a flashback that traces its way through Bex and Nick's relationship with all of its ups and downs, ons and offs.  Bex and Nick met when she went from Cornell to spend a semester abroad at Oxford, where he was attending, and by circumstance found herself subsumed into his friend group.  Originally she finds herself hooking up with his friend Clive, and just friendly with Nick, but obviously that changes.  While I found Bex and Nick's friendship adorable, once they moved into "more than friends" territory, I pretty much started hating everyone in this book.

Here's the thing: everyone in this book is terrible to each other.  Everyone.  Well, maybe not Bex's mom.  She's pretty nice.  But everyone else is nasty to everyone else and treats everyone else like shit on at least one occasion, and that's pretty hard to overcome.  Bex is also a ticking time bomb of a person and someone completely unsuitable to be a princess; I definitely agree with Nick's family and the press on that one.  She seems to spend all of her time drinking and sleeping around, while I objectively know that this is fine, because it's her life and whatever, I didn't approve of it, and didn't like her because of it.  Her self-destructive behavior also impacted the lives of everyone around her in a negative way, and I really thought that, while there were reasons for Bex to be upset, she also needed to grow up and face things like an adult instead of acting like a child.  I originally liked Nick, but he treated Bex pertty terribly on a couple of occasions when she didn't deserve it (there were other occasions on which she did) and that immediately put him on my bad list, too.  In fact, every character who originally seemed to be a good person eventually turned out to be nasty.  In that sense, this basically turned out to be a book about petty people doing petty things and generally being unlikable.

It's a pity, too, because this book had such potential.  It could easily have been about how nice people can be totally torn down by the press for things that they really shouldn't be faulted for, and how the press and politics and such can intrude on people's private lives to the point of actually destroying them.  In the beginning, it seemed like it was going that way...but raging sex in bathrooms (while hot; Cocks and Morgan can write some great kisses and steamy scenes that also manage to not be explicit) and year-long benders are hard to see as either romantic or sympathetic in my mind.  And when the book comes back to the original starting point and it becomes clear what's going on, it stops at a point before it becomes completely clear what the consequences of Bex and Lacey's bad behavior really will be.  Granted, it might have been hard to keep going and still find a good cut-off point, but I feel like that's a chance you have to be willing to take when you bring something like that up.

I'm not completely lost on this world (which does diverge from our own; the royal line is different going back pretty far, though all current events seem to be basically the same as far as I can tell) and I would actually really like to see a book about Freddie getting a love interest of his own and dropping the "Ginger Gigolo" personality, because I think Freddie might have a good core that could be explored, but I'd like to see less of the other characters in this book and a love interest who's a little more...wholesome.

2.5 stars out of 5; this just wasn't a hit for me.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Untamed - Madeline Dyer (Untamed #1)

Untamed (Untamed, #1) 
Untamed has been on my radar for a while and, to be honest, I had been avoiding it because I didn't think it would be very good.  I'm not quite sure what instilled this thought in my mind; maybe it was because it sounded like a generic young adult dystopian and my experiences with those have been mixed at best, maybe it's because the cover rubbed me the wrong way; the visual, to me, is lovely, but the way the title and author name are formatted grate on my nerves for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on.  But Untamed is turning a year old today, so I decided to give it a read--and I'm delighted to say that I was very, very wrong about that "it won't be good" impression that had somehow instilled itself in my brain.

The story follows Seven, a teenage girl who is one of the last Untamed in a world of people who have mostly been Enhanced.  Enhanced people have mirror-like eyes while the Untamed have normal eyes (I love this; special eyes are one of my favorite tropes) and the Enhanced aren't really capable of emotions, supplementing their feelings with bottled concoctions that can replicate the feeling of emotions, but only positive ones, like calmness.  This whole thing is kind of akin to how the inhabitants of Wonderland consume emotions derived from captured Earthlings or "oysters" in Syfy's awesome miniseries Alice.

The Enhanced can also consume other substances to give them super-human abilities like super speed; the substances, both the ability-givers and the emotions, are called augmenters, and once you've been augmented, the Untamed say you can never go back.  This seems particularly true for Seven, who finds herself kidnapped by the Enhanced while out raiding with other members of her group.  She's dragged back to the Enhanced city and promptly augmented and given the new name of Shania, which I hated because all I could think of was Shania Twain.  Seriously, this was running through my head the entire time I was reading the book:

It wasn't really appropriate mood-music.

Seven gets rescued, but her very presence puts her entire group in danger, and soon they--or what's left of them--are running from the Enhanced, who seem to think that Seven is the key to them becoming all-powerful or something.  Seven really only gets support from her group because she turns out to be a Seer, a skill that has cropped up in her family before but which she hadn't previously shown an affinity for.

Seven's Seer skill was pretty neat.  When she falls asleep, she enters the Dreamland, and has visions of things that will happen in the future, some of them more clear than others.  Though, in retrospect, the usefulness of this skill is somewhat questionable because at least one of the visions doesn't actually come close to coming true in the book.  It might be reserved for a future book, but the content of the vision combined with the note the book ended on doesn't make it seem likely, and Seven actually never really did anything to avert that one, so maybe her visions aren't all they're cracked up to be after all?  Intentional or plot hole?  The world may never know.  Anyway, she has to always wear a pendant passed down from her mother, another Seer, that protects her, or else she might get stuck in the Dreamland and never return.  And there's something about a symbolic bison who shows up there, which was neat but which I'm not really sure I understood the full symbolic significance of.

This book also deals with an interesting topic that I don't think a lot of young adult books do, and that's addiction.  It manifests itself a little differently in this, and it's kind of implied that it might be because Seven is Special, but she's definitely addicted to augmenters once she receives them, and she spends much of the book battling that addiction in secret, because bringing it out into the open could show her group how much she really is like the Enhanced, and then they might ditch her.  I've never had an addition (except maybe buying nail polish) but I thought Seven's came across as realistic.  She spends so much of her time fighting against the urge to give in, while simultaneously fighting to not let anyone else know in case they hate her for it.  To tell you the truth, I kind of sneered at her for this, groaning about why didn't she just get rid of the augmenter, while at the same time knowing that it wasn't that simple for her.  It made her a not-entirely-savory character, which is unfortunate but also true to life.

Though the writing, editing, and general characters were excellent, there were two things that I didn't particularly like about this book.  First, the main plot is a bunch of people running from another bunch of people, and not a heck of a lot actually happening other than this.  I'm going to make a comparison here that many will find flattering but isn't meant to be: it's like in Mad Max: Fury Road, where the bulk of the movie is literally some people driving to a place, and then turning around and coming back.  Sure, there's some fighting that happens along the way, but in the end it's kind of a fruitless road trip.  There wasn't a lot of substantive plot underlying this.  But that does bring me to the second thing I didn't like: the "romance," if you can even call it that.  It didn't feel like a romance at all, not even one of the more subtle young adult variety.  It was more like "I am aware of your presence and oh suddenly I am in love with you," and while I liked both characters involved, I didn't like how this "relationship" suddenly appeared without having too much development behind it.  It was just "meh" at best.

I think this story holds a lot of promise.  Seeing Seven's abilities develop will be interesting, and I'm also curious as to if she and her companions will try to penetrate the Enhanced civilization and bring it down, or work from the outside; if Seven will end up taken by the Enhanced again and have to fight to regain herself and her freedom, a la the Uglies series; and if her relationship will develop into something a little more substantial (I hope it does).  The writing here is excellent, far above the quality of most indies, and I could definitely tell how much work Dyer put into making sure it was publish-ready.  I really appreciate that.  I do wish that a bit more had actually happened in the book, but I think it's well set up for the sequel (I don't know when that's scheduled to come out) and I'll definitely pick up the next book when it arrives.  This was a solid young adult dystopian novel, and while it wasn't my absolute favorite, I think it's definitely worth a read.

3.5 to 4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Taste of Darkness - Maria V. Snyder (Healer #3)

Taste of Darkness (Healer, #3)I think I'm done with Maria V. Snyder.  I just keep giving her chances and she just keeps disappointing me.  Taste of Darkness is the sixth book in a row to do so, and I just can't justify continuing on with her works when I am continually let down.  Poison Study was so good, but all of her other works seem to be cardboard cutouts of it, with copy-pasted characters and settings that feel like stage pieces and could be knocked over by a breath of wind.  The entire Glass series felt like this, and now the Healer series has followed suit.

Taste of Darkness is the final book in the Healer trilogy, in which healer Avry and her boyfriend Kerrick, along with their compatriots, try to stop the armies that are taking over the Fifteen Realms in the wake of a plague that decimated the population.  Tohon, the former leader of the takeover, is (presumably) stuck in a stasis, and his second-in-command Cellina has taken over.  Do we ever really see Cellina, or Tohon's armies or, well, any of this takeover stuff?  Not really.  Instead, like in the other books, Avry and her friends spend most of their time running back and forth from location to location in a world that doesn't obey its own logic.

We have all of Snyder's signature characters here: the spunky heroine with unusual magical powers who is being hunted for them; the established love interest who's a badass; the two goofball sidekicks.  None of the characters have undergone any significant growth throughout the books.  The Fifteen Realms don't seem to differ from each other at all, and only three or four of them ever actually came into play.  Cellina is supposed to be leading an army against the forces Avry is allied with, but we never actually see her or it; she's just another throwaway character.  The staple piece of magic in these books, the Peace and Death Lilys (it bothers me to no end that this is not pluralized properly as Lilies) don't play by the rules that Snyder has established; apparently Peace Lilys can't actually bring people back to life, except that they have!  Three separate times.  And Death Lilys kill people, except when they randomly decide not to, and to help them instead.  Tohon apparently somehow protected his classmates from the plague so he could lord over them later, but it's never established how.  The two most interesting elements in these books were really the northern tribes, with their seasonal magic rather than the established eleven types in the Fifteen Realms, and the Skeleton King and his army, but there is no backstory or real exploration of either of these elements.  They're side notes, pushed off as soon as Snyder feels like Avry and her friends need to move for the sake of moving again.  They gallop about from place to place pursuing plots that never really fully develop and don't lend anything to the story as a whole.  Just like Snyder's other books, Poison Study aside, nothing is developed and there are plot holes everywhere.  It's a huge disappointment after how absolutely wonderful Poison Study was.

I don't know if it's because Snyder had more time to work on Poison Study (because it was her first book, and she could polish it before submitting it and being tied to a publisher's more rigid publishing schedule, which has since sometimes involved her releasing more than one book in a year) or if it's something else, but I'm sick of reading books from her that feature the same characters in different guises, worlds that aren't fleshed out, and abundant plot holes.  Snyder was apparently a one-hit wonder who hasn't actually produced anything really new since.

2 stars out of 5, for the potential alone, but I won't be picking up any of Snyder's other books anymore.  Seeing such potential just fall flat time and time again is more than my poor little heart can stand.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Reading Challenge Updates!

It's been more than a month since my last reading challenge update, and while I've read a ton of books in that time, I actually haven't read too many challenge books.  Oops.  I'll have to pay more attention to that going forward.  It can just be so hard when there are so many other books clamoring for my attention.  Still, I have made some progress, and a few adjustments to my upcoming challenge choices.


-A book that you've already read at least once.  I did Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for this one.  Upon re-reading it, I thought it was a good story in and of itself, but I'm not really sure that it served the series as a whole.

-A book that is published in 2016.  I did The Mirror King, which came out on April 5th, for this one.  It was good but not nearly as entrancing as its predecessor, The Orphan Queen, was.  A bit of a disappointment considering how hyped up I was for it!

-A murder mystery.  I used Grave Beginnings for this one.  The main character, Vincent Graves, is a soul who inhabits the bodies of people who were killed in supernatural circumstances, and in this book he's trying to solve the murder of the guy who he ends up inside.  Some really interesting premises here, but Graves drove me crazy for half the book (the first half) and I think it needed some editorial work.

-The first book you see in a bookstore.  I cheated a tiny bit with this one and went with the first book I saw in the library instead.  That ended up being Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau.  Another book with some interesting concepts, but overall it missed the mark for me.

-A book that's guaranteed to bring you joy.  A College of Magics is my favorite book and I enjoyed re-reading this time as much as I do every time.  I love Faris and Tyrian, I love Greenlaw, I love Aravis, I love it all.  Unfortunately, the poor book has suffered some pretty dismal reader reviews as the result of a poorly-chosen cover review that compares it to Harry Potter, when the two are really nothing alike.  A College of Magics needs to be approached for its own merits, not because Jane Yolen compared it to Harry Potter, but when you do read it for what it is, what it is turns out to be a real gem.

Still to Come

-A science-fiction novel.  Once again, I'm looking for a new title for this category.  I have a few books in my possession that would fit this, so we'll see which one I'll get to first...  It's likely to be The Three Body Problem or The Windup Girl.

-A book based on a fairy tale.  I adore fairy tales, so this category had a whole bunch of possibilities for me!  I settled on Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which is quite clearly an adaptation of Cinderella from the stepsister's point of view.  I read Wicked in high school and found it good but weird, so I'm interested in seeing how this one plays out.

-A National Book Award winner.  I don't really know much about book awards, as I tend to ignore them in favor of reading whatever interests me at the time.  So I had to pull up the list of National Book Award winners to have something to go off for this one.  Most of them didn't really intrigue me (who decides what makes a book award-worthy, anyway?) but I eventually picked The Shipping News off the list as looking at least mildly interesting.

-A book you haven't read since high school.  This is hard.  I tend to re-read books that I like on a fairly regular basis; hardly a year goes by when I don't re-read most of Tamora Pierce's works in a one-week binge.  That said, I know that the last time I read Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker was in high school, because I then lent it to someone who never returned it.  So I'll read that for this category.

-A book set in your home state.  For this I'm thinking I'll try to read American Rust by Philipp Meyer, which is set in a Pennsylvania steel town.

-A book translated to English.  I'm thinking Toilers of the Sea for this one.  Les Miserables, which is probably about on par with The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Victor Hugo's most famous book, is one of my favorites, so this should be a good one while adding in another classic for this list.  However, I also got Becoming Marta for free through the Kindle First program, so I might end up reading that instead.

-A book recommended by someone you just met.  I asked the NaNoWriMo Facebook group what they thought I should read this year; one reply was already on the list (Grave Beginnings) but the other was not; therefore, I shall be reading The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan for this category.

-A self-improvement book.  I don't really know what a self-improvement book is, other than a self-help book, and I don't really think I need a lot of help from books, so this one was a bit challenging.  So I went to Google and pulled up a list of best self improvement books!  An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth jumped out at me because one of my friends from college read it recently and rated it quite highly, so this one it is!

-A book written by a celebrity.  Okay, so I saw Elixir by Hilary Duff ages ago, probably when it first came out, but I didn't read it because I was skeptical.  I mean, celebrities writing?  Who does that?  And I'm always convinced it's really a ghostwriter doing the real work.  But now it seems like it's a good time to try this one out.  I was going to read Tina Fey's Bossypants for this, but I'm already reading a comedian's book for another category, so I didn't want to double-dip.

-A political memoir.  Now, politics really annoy me in general, so this category was not very exciting.  However, after some deliberation, I've decided to read Malala Yousafzai's memoir, I Am Malala.  While Malala isn't a politician who goes about campaigning for office, she is definitely a political figure due to the causes she represents and the consequences she has faced because of them.

-A book at least 100 years older than you.  I'm actually going to get around to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this one, because I want to read one of the steampunk novels that started it all as research for my own writing.

-A book from Oprah's Book Club.  After much perusal of the complete list (found here) I've settled on Malika Oufkir's memoir Stolen Lives, because the categories this year are sorely lacking in nonfiction and this seems like one of the better titles on the list in general--at least among those that I haven't read yet.

-A book recommended by a family member.

-A graphic novel.  I love Neil Gaiman but am not a huge fan of graphic novels, so I've avoided his Sandman series up until this point, despite buying my boyfriend the entire series for various occasions.  Now seems like a pretty good time to give them a go and start in Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes.

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation.

-A book that takes place during summer.  Apparently Atonement is set during the summer?  The internet says it is.  I've wanted to read Atonement for a while so this seems like a good place to slot it  in.

-A book and its prequel.  I am half done with this category after reading Hugh Howey's Wool and realizing it has a prequel, Shift.  I have Shift out from the library now so I'll be knocking this category out in the near future.

-A book of poetry.

-A classic from the 20th century.  I'm going to do Lolita for this one, because I feel like I need to squish a Russian novel in here somewhere.  What really makes a classic, anyway?  I don't know, but this list that I found says Lolita is one.

-An autobiography.  I picked up Papillon by Henri Charriere at a used bookstore in New Jersey (Broad Street Books in Branchville, if anyone out there is in the area; it was absolutely lovely and I look forward to going back the next time we're in the area) but put it down in favor of another title.  Now I wish I'd bought it!  Charriere wrote this book about his wrongful conviction for a crime and his subsequent escapes from prison.  Most autobiographies bore me on principal, but this one actually sounds interesting.

-A book about a culture you're unfamiliar with.  I'm leaning towards Shutting Out the Sun for this one, which is a non-fiction book about Japan's "lost generation."

-A satirical book.  I've partially changed my mind on this one; instead of Thing Explainer, I want to read What If? which uses science to answer absurd hypothetical questions and makes fun of how things work in general in the process.

-A book that takes place on an island.  I'm going to do And Then There Were None for this, because I got it on special from Amazon recently.  It's a closed-circle mystery, and while I know the premise, I don't know the details.

-A book you've been meaning to read.  I've had Street Fair on my Kindle for a while now, but keep prioritizing library books over it because they have due dates and it doesn't.  I'll have to make sure I get to it for this category!

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.

-A book you should have read in school.  This I'm going to fill with The Odyssey, which every other English class in my high school read, but my class as a whole did not because our teacher was too busy having raptures about the hero's journey in the Star Wars series to actually assign it to us.

-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF.

-A book published before you were born.  Let's face it: most of history is before I was born.  This means that I have a very wide scope of titles from which to choose.  I'm going to go with the classics and choosing Wuthering Heights for this one.

-A book that was banned at some point.  Maybe now that I have a public library card I can finally get my hands on Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I meant to use Perks for the banned book category last year, but could never get it from the library, so hopefully this is my year!

-A book you previously abandoned.  I'm planning on using Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for this one.  I've had this book for years, and started it at one point, but I just couldn't get into it.  I'm hoping that time will have improved it some for me, just like how I liked Vellum much more when I returned to it years after first purchasing and attempting to read it.

-A book you own but have never read.  I picked up The Mapmakers at the Smithsonian nearly a year ago, but haven't read it yet.  It...or the 400 other books on my Kindle...but I'll use The Mapmakers for this one.

-A book that intimidates you.  I admit it, I don't understand this category.  Beyond books full of advanced theoretical physics, I don't think there are many books that are downright intimidating, so I'm not sure what to make of this category.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Demon King - Cinda Williams Chima (Seven Realms #1)

The Demon King (Seven Realms, #1)
I've read some Cinda Williams Chima before, primarily (maybe only?) her Heir series, which starts with The Warrior Heir and deals with warring guilds of people with fantastic abilities, but is set in modern Ohio.  I liked her stories, but modern teenage fantasies aren't typically my thing, because they always seem to involve high school, and I hate high school as a setting.  Settings can really influence stories and so having the series set in Cleveland, a city I have been to many times but don't really like (I don't dislike it either, but honestly, there are better places to set a book) and fictional Trinity, which doesn't exist but I could imagine perfectly, wasn't the best fit for me.  So I was excited that The Demon King, the first book in her Seven Realms series, was a true-bred swords-and-sorcery fantasy set in a completely fantastic world.

I liked The Demon King better than I did the Heir series in general.  The setting and I got along better, and there is some fantastic worldbuilding in here.  For example, the Fells are a queendom (a queendom!) nestled at the foot of a range of mountains called the spirits, and legend has it that when each queen dies, she takes up one of the peaks as her spiritual home, and the peak becomes named after her.  The world is also split up into the eponymous seven realms after an event called the Breaking, when the Demon King kidnapped Queen Hanalea.  But as is typical, things are not all quite as they seem... The book is set a thousand years after this kidnapping, but the world is still dealing with the consequences, such as how the queen herself rules and the fracturing of one realm into seven in general.

There are two main characters here: Han and Raisa.  Han is a poor commoner who has connections with the clans who inhabit the Spirits and control the production of the magical items that wizards need to work their magic.  The book opens with Han and his friend Fire Dancer out hunting, and they run into a trio of young wizards who have set fire to part of the forest in order to drive deer down to a royal hunt occurring below.  At the end of the conflict, Han ends up with the amulet one of the wizards was using--an amulet that destroys everyone who touches it except Han.  Raisa, meanwhile, is the eldest princess of the Fells and the heir to the throne, though she expects not to rule until she old because her mother took the throne young.  Raisa is fifteen going on sixteen, the age at which she will officially become eligible for marriage, and she's dealing with all manner of romantic entanglements, including with a wizard--whom she cannot marry by order of a covenant that halted the Breaking--and her childhood friend turned hawt soldier, Amon.

No, not that Amon.

There are a handful of supporting characters, of course, but Han and Raisa are the main ones.  This is both a good thing, because we get both sides of a story that is unwinding in the Fells, and a bad thing, because I didn't care two cents about Han.  What can I say?  Poor boys bore me, and I had his story pinned from the beginning.  I mean, I had Raisa pinned from the beginning, too, but her spunk and romantic intrigues were enough to keep me going when Han really had nothing to offer that actually interested me.  Given that the last, long chapter of the book is primarily focused on Han, well... It didn't really end on a good note for me, especially because that last long chapter that focused on Han was a bunch of info-dumping of stuff I had already figured out.  I would have much rather read about Raisa and where she was headed, and how that was going (which took up about two paragraphs) than boring Han.  Fire Dancer might have made a more interesting character here, too--the tension between him and Digging Bird (and okay, I guess between Han and Digging Bird, too) will be interesting to see develop, but I'm not sure how prevalent that will be in the second book.

I'll definitely continue reading this series; the mythology in the background is beautiful and Raisa and Amon are too amazing to ditch.  Hopefully Han will start to become someone a little more interesting now that he's off into the wide world, and on a collision course with Raisa and her allies... We'll see about that, but as long as Raisa continues to get large chunks of the books, I'll stick with it for her.  She is just the type of heroine I like.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Grave Beginnings - R. R. Virdi (Grave Report #1)

Grave Beginnings (The Grave Report, #1)Grave Beginnings is an interesting book for several reasons, the primary one of which is that it's kind of tearing up the indie world and receiving rave reviews.  It's a paranormal mystery starring Vincent Graves, a soul who can't remember who he really is because he's inhabited so many different bodies in attempting to figure out what supernatural force killed the person, and how to kill it in return.  I've seen people liken it to the Dresden Files, of which I have only read the first one and didn't really care for it, but apparently if you like those, you'll like this.  On Grave Beginnings, I am divided.

I did not like the first half of this book.  Graves grated on my every nerve with his pop-culture references and snark.  I don't have anything against snarky characters in general, but Graves just seemed so insufferably smug about his smart-alec ways that I kept putting the book down and walking away just to master my patience with him.  Considering I had a self-imposed deadline on reading this book, that wasn't exactly good.  But the concept of Graves is pretty cool; I mean, he picks up skills and memories from all of the bodies he's inhabited, and they've obscured his own identity to the point that he can't remember anything about himself, not even his real name--Vincent Graves is a psuedonym he's adopted to suit his position.  But his "boss," a mysterious supernatural guy who goes by Church (or maybe is just called Church by Graves?) encourages him to try to reclaim his "life," as it is, by starting a journal.  Presumably the book is what Graves eventually records in that journal.  This whole setup appealed to me even when Graves himself didn't, so I kept reading.

And then I hit 50% in the book, and something strange happened.  While Graves retrained his snark and some of his smugness, much of that aforementioned smugness diminished, and the pop-culture references that had so annoyed me pretty much disappeared; there were only one or two in the entire second half of the book, whereas in the first half they were everywhere.  This greatly improved my reading experience.  What also probably helped was that, in the second half of the book, he starts working with another character who I think helped to rein him in to tolerable levels.  Once Graves became tolerable, the whole book became a heck of a lot better, and I read the second half in one sitting.

Other highlights of this book: Virdi can write a darn good action scene.  Whether it's burning down a building or fighting a supernatural being, I think the fight scenes were one of the best parts here.  Graves doesn't exactly specialize in combat but he's adept at using the environment to his favor, and his "partner" Ortiz ends up being pretty handy on her own.  She befuddled me somewhat as a character--she's a federal agent but jumps straight into solving supernatural mysteries without really questioning it.  Sure, she wants information, and I can understand some of her logic, but I would think there would be a bit more denial involved.  Then again, a lack of denial seems to be a staple of paranormal mystery books, so maybe that's only to be expected.

One more thing--this book needs another round of edits with an eye to homophones, comma splices, and grammatical structure, particularly regarding dialogue.  Comma splices abound here, and there are a bunch of instances of homophones being used incorrectly including its/it's, their/there, and beared/bared, though in fact the proper word in the "bared" case would have been "bore."  In regards to dialogue, there are a lot of instances of doing the whole "Blah blah blah." He said. thing.  There's also an abundance of ellipses; those could be labeled stylistic, far more than other issues, but reducing them and replacing some with simple periods instead could have made the impact of a lot of those sentences greater.  Overall, another round of edits could have lent this a bit of polish that I found lacking.

In the end?  I think it's a mixed bag.  There are some really cool elements here that I think Virdi does a good job of playing up, but Graves on his own annoyed me and there was a certain degree of polish missing from the book.  I know the second book is out now, so it'll be interesting to see how this proceeds--whether Graves resumes being a smug jerk who I can't stand or if he remains tolerable, and if the editorial issues are resolved.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Naked Duke - Sally MacKenzie (Naked Nobility #1)

The Naked Duke (Naked Nobility, #1)I spent my Saturday trawling through 4000+ titles on the DC Public Library's downloadable media page, looking for an intriguing romance to enjoy on my weekend.  I learned several things: most of them all look and sound exactly alike, and the ones that stood out to me must have stood out to everyone else, too, because they weren't available.  That said, I finally settled on a 7-book bundle of Sally MacKenzie's Naked Nobility series, because hey, seven books in one checkout?  Not too bad.  The descriptions of the plots sounded a bit contrived but I was willing to put up with that if the stories were good.  So I downloaded it, and off I went.

The first book in the Naked Nobility series, The Naked Duke, stars native Philadelphian Sarah Hamilton, who has just arrived in England after her dying father expressed his wish for her to go live with her uncle.  She gets off the stage too late to go to her uncle's residence, so looks for a room at an inn, only to have the innkeeper refuse her because he thinks she's a prostitute.  She's seemingly saved when someone apparently recognizes her and gives her a room.  Except it's not really her room, it's the room of James Runyon, the Duke of Alvord, who is surprised to find a girl (who he also thinks is a prostitute) in his bed.  He lets her sleep out of pity for prostitutes in general, but in the morning begins macking on her straightaway, and of course she enjoys it (before she fully wakes up, at which point she wallops him with a pillow) and of course they get caught.  Sarah has now been Ruined.  James is not opposed to this because it means he's honor-bound to marry her and he didn't really want to marry the girl he was going to propose to out of necessity anyway, but since Sarah is so opposed to the idea he agrees to put off the engagement, as long as no one else finds out about her ruination, as long as she agrees to let him try to woo her, which she does.

This was MacKenzie's first novel, and it shows.  The plot is exactly as contrived as I thought it was going to be; I mean, randomly ending up naked in bed with a duke?  I think not.  I was willing to let that go, given that the writing seemed good, there was some witty banter, and James and Sarah seemed like alright people...but.  BUT.  There's a subplot.  Of course there is.  This subplot is the reason that James was in a hurry to marry: his cousin Richard wants him dead so that he can inherit the dukedom he sees as his.  James' and Richard's fathers were identical twins, and while Richard's father never questioned his brother's right to the dukedom, Richard does, and he is determined to kill James to get it, and before James has an heir.  Richard is also very, very rapey.  This is a rapey book, and it came as a bit of a shock given the relatively lighthearted events surrounding the rapey bits.  Richard or his goons either rape or attempt to rape someone multiple times.  It's...ugh.  It's icky, really.  And the consequences of this, psychologically, are never really put out there and dealt with, which makes the whole rape business feel like a cheap trick thrown in for pure shock value.  There wasn't really any reason that rape had to come in to it at all; couldn't the whole "murder" thing have just continued?  It really put me off, and I wasn't sure what to think of this at all.

Additionally, I felt like the end of the book kind of just fell apart, like all of the tension and chemistry had just suddenly disappeared.  It left the end a bit "blah" feeling, and I wasn't really thrilled about that.  There'd been banter and crazy relatives and mistaken identity, and it all just came to a very lackluster ending.

I have the other six books in this series on my Kindle courtesy of that library bundle, so I'm going to keep reading for now and hope that some of the problems present in The Naked Duke resolve themselves; as I mentioned before, this MacKenzie's first novel, so I'm hoping she learned from experience and has something a bit more polished as her second work.  But for this one...

2.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Every Anxious Wave - Mo Daviau

Every Anxious WaveFor my reading challenge this year, one of the categories was "The first book you see in a bookstore."  Now, books are expensive these days and I wasn't going to shell out $20+ dollars for a book that I wasn't necessarily going to like.  So I did the next best, and comparable, thing: I went to the DC library website and grabbed the first book that popped up there.  That book happened to be Every Anxious Wave, which is about time travel.

Now, books about time travel and I don't get along, because there's just so much nonsense involved in them.  Time travel is a very complicated subject to tackle in fiction because of the very notion of time paradoxes.  Every Anxious Wave basically ignores these and just goes on its merry way, which really rubbed me the wrong way.  I think there are some very interesting things here, and the characters were intriguing, but time and time again the mechanics of it kept getting in the way of me actually enjoying the story.  Basically, I couldn't see the forest for the trees.  The very idea of a guy finding a wormhole in his closet, and then using that to get rich/get a girlfriend (kind of) was pretty lame, but once Lena entered the picture and started fiddling around it got more interesting.  I didn't actually think their relationship, or lack of thereof, was interesting, but what they were doing with time was...until they started to enter the whole "time paradox" territory, and then it put me off.  Alternate-Lena was more interesting to me, and I think Glory was probably the coolest character of all; the very concept of a girl who spends her entire life time-hopping to "fix" her life because of the mucking about her parents did could have been a compelling story on its own, about how our actions impact others, which was a very minor part of Every Anxious Wave.

The book definitely got better as it went on; at the beginning, Karl was pretty much insufferable to me, going on and on about his bar and his failed rock band and such.  Lena definitely made him a better person.  Watching him trying to stick to his morals while everything crumbled around him provided some unusual fodder, but then the story kind of deteriorated into "guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy time travels to try to get girl back."  Honestly, I thought the chaos from their fiddling about should have been more pronounced if Daviau wanted to really hammer home the "appreciate what you have" aspects of the novel.  Instead, the general feeling was that mucking about with time travel didn't actually have any real repercussions; a few things changed and a few people went missing, but overall everything was better.  The parts of what people could and could not remember were strange, too; for example, Lena's sister gets "disappeared" and Lena no longer remembers her existence, but when a version of Lena herself disappears, someone other than the person responsible remembers her anyway.  The ripple effect is extremely confined in this book, when it seems like, logically, it would be much more pronounced in a "real" time travel situation.

So, overall, this book was frustrating.  I could see so many interesting components but never felt that they were truly put together or emphasized in the right way to make this an amazing story overall.  The impact here could have been huge, but I think that it ultimately came home to just a "meh."

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Guilty By Association - E. A. Copen (Judah Black #1)

Guilty by Association (Judah Black, #1)
This book brought me fond memories of my teenage years watching Charmed, which was my favorite show in all the world.  Why is this?  Because one of the characters fairly early on talks about a wendigo!  Dedicated Charmed watches will remember that in Season 1, Piper got turned into a wendigo (because the sisters were always getting turned into some sort of magical creature) and then there was the original wendigo running around and the other sisters didn't know which was which and they had to shoot the real one in the heart with a flare gun to kill it, which, let's face it, was pretty bad-ass.  Piper, of course, escaped the chilling fate of being stuck as a wendigo forever because she hadn't yet eaten someone, or something like that.  It's been a while, and so I don't remember the specifics, but trust me, I remember that "wendigo getting shot with a flare gun" thing like it was yesterday.  In fact, I think after this review I'm going to go watch some Charmed for old times' sake.

Anyway.  Guilty by Association is E. A. Copen's first book and also the first in a series focusing on a paranormal regulatory/investigative agent named Judah in a world where supernatural creatures are out in the open.  She works for a government agency called the BSI, and I do not remember what that stands for, but they handle all issues relating to vampires, werewolves, and fae, and probably some other creatures we haven't encountered yet.  Judah is also a code name, hinting that name magic is something to be taken seriously in this world.  Anyway, Judah has just moved to Paint Rock, Texas with her eleven-year-old son, Hunter, after something went down in their old home in Cleveland to get her reassigned.  Paint Rock was once a normal town but was emptied of most of its human inhabitants and turned into a reservation for the area's paranormals, including a vampire coven, a werewolf pack, and a handful of fae.  The book opens with Judah discovering a dead werewolf in the laundromat, and it gets crazier from there as she tries to solve both the murder and what appears to be a connected series of kidnappings.

This was a great book.  In style and general feel, the thing it reminds me of most is Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series.  I'm not sure why this is, precisely, because the two aren't actually very similar in content at all other than that they're paranormal fantasies.  Maybe it's the writing style?  I've always found Caine's writing style to be very engaging, and that was definitely the case here.  All of Copen's characters were fully fleshed-out and served their purpose without seeming superfluous.  The most superfluous one I can think of was Patsy, but I suspect she'll be a bigger player in future books.  (I do hope there will be future books.)  At first, I really didn't like that Judah had a kid because 1) I do not like children and 2) The last book I read that heavily featured a child of the main character featured long and detailed descriptions of the child-friendly playlists they listened to and then ended in a ridiculous kidnapping plot.  That didn't happen here.  I think Hunter fit very well into the story, and his background and character development lend themselves heavily to the plot as a whole.  That was great; it's so annoying when children are featured as characters just as "wallpaper" for the sake of them being there, without them actually having any impact on the story.  Hunter had impact, and that makes him A-okay in my book!

The world building here was also well-done, though a little confusing when I think about it a bit more in depth.  The basic story is that vampires came "out of the coffin" to steal a Sookie Stackhouse phrase, and they dragged the werewolves and fae out with them in order to help share the heat.  That made sense.  What also made a lot of sense to me was the rampant discrimination against these "new" types of being.  Having them being forced out of their regular homes and onto a reservation was a very clear comparison to historical discrimination seen in the United States and I thought the point was very clearly made, though occasionally handled with some well-deserved lightheartedness, like when one character mentions that the cops manning the checkpoints between the reservation and the outside world are racist and another goes "Against werewolves or Indians?" or something like that.  What was a little more confusing was the way humans with magic are treated.  Judah has some magic, though not a lot, and it's implied that some humans have a lot more.  (Does Father Reed fall into this category or not?  He would seem to, but I have a suspicion that he's not actually human... Hm...)  But these humans, despite their supernatural abilities, don't seem to face any discrimination at all.  Judah faces a little bit of jibing when she first breaks out her abilities, but after that no one questions or avoids her due to them.  I wonder why humans with magic weren't lumped into a different sort of "other" group and also persecuted, though maybe not to the extent that the beings who very obviously are not human were.

I'll tell you what I missed in this book: a romantic subplot.  I know, I know, I am not obligated one, but I think it's the whole "this reminded me of Rachel Caine" thing that had me looking for one around every corner, because romance features pretty heavily in her books.  Did this book need a romantic subplot?  No.  Judah is a strong independent woman who don't need no man.  I can see where a romantic plotline, had there been one, could have been seen as pandering.  (But then, I like being pandered to.)  Did this suffer for not having a romance?  No... But come on, Sal was so awesome, how could you not be hoping they would hook up the entire time?  Granted, that might have made the whole episode in the Ways a little weirder, but still.  I wanted it.

This is getting a bit long, so I'll wrap it up with this: overall, this was a great book, and I would definitely read the next one.  I think Judah and the other inhabitants of Paint Rock have a lot of potential, and that there's probably some "big bad" brewing in the middle distance for them to face, if the end was any indication.  It's one of those books that wraps up all the plot points and has closure, but still leaves plenty of room for more.  Was it one of my absolute favorite books that I'll reach for over and over and over again?  Probably not; those books are few and far between.  But I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good, developed paranormal fantasy with a strong female character as the lead.

Also, I received a free copy of this book in return for an honest review--but I liked it so much I went out and bought a copy afterward, so that probably speaks for itself!

A solid 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Wool - Hugh Howey (Silo #1)

Wool Omnibus Edition (Silo, #1; Wool, #1-5)Guys this book has a prequel.  I am so happy about it.  Why?  Because I was having a really hard time finding books for "A book and its prequel" for my reading challenge, and this fits the bill!  This was originally going to be my "A science-fiction novel" selection, but I'm shifting it over to the book-and-prequel category (along with Shift, the second book/prequel) and I'll put something else in the sci-fi category, maybe The Windup Girl or maybe The Three-Body Problem.  I haven't quite decided.  Either way, I'm super psyched because I was going to end up reading Wizard's First Rule and The First Confessor for the book-and-prequel pairing, but I really didn't want to embark on a super-long series like the Sword of Truth is, so I'm very happy that an alternative just happened to present itself to me.  Whew!

So, on to the actual review.  I read a Hugh Howey book last year, Sand, and absolutely loved it.  And I really liked Wool was well.  I think Howey has a knack for writing post-apocalyptic scenarios.  In Sand, it was a world where water had mostly dried up and people went diving in the deserts that had taken over North America to find what was down there, all the while wondering what was causing the distant booms they could hear--booms that creeped me out more than I think was called for because sometimes you can hear distant booms from my apartment.  Yikes!  (The booms I can hear are the guns at Fort Myer, Virginia.)  In Wool, what exactly happened is a little up in the air, but I'm thinking it's a pretty safe bet it has to do with a nuclear apocalypse.  In the wake of whatever catastrophe it was, humanity--or what was left of it--went underground, living in a massive silo.  The outside is absolutely toxic, and it is a death sentence to step beyond the silo bounds, and so when someone commits a crime, they are sentenced to clean: to go outside and clean off the cameras that show the people of the silo the outside world.  Even though they can't go outside the silo, they are obsessed with the view, and cleanings are cause for both dread (for those who have to do them, and those who love them) and joy (for the people excited for the restoration of the view).  The book starts out with Holston, the sheriff of the silo, who is sentenced to clean himself because he expresses a desire to go outside.  His wife did the same thing three years before, and Holston is finally following her.  It's an absolutely stunning beginning to the book, and it definitely compelled me to keep reading.

Holston, however, is not our main character.  Our "main" character, if one can be determined because there's a little bit of an ensemble cast running about here, is Jules, a mechanic who was born in the middle levels of the silo but moved to the "down-deep" to work on the machinery that keeps the silo running.  She's selected to be Holston's successor, and it soon becomes clear to her and those who surround her that something is very rotten at the silo's heart, and what they've been told isn't necessarily what is true.

It's clear to us as reader's what going on from a very early time in the book, and watching the characters figure it out and survive is interesting.  The "dead" silo was an absolutely fascinating part of the story, and I think it was my favorite.  I wasn't so sure about the romance plot that Howey inserted; I like the characters on their own and don't think a romantic plot was really necessary in order to compel each of them to action.  I wanted to know more about the world outside and how it go there, and was a bit disappointed that information wasn't included, but that was before I realized that there was a prequel, so hopefully that will fill in some of the blanks for me.  The chapters I found the least interesting in this book were honestly the ones about the uprising, because I mean, it was an uprising.  I could kind of figure how that was going.  I wanted more focus on Jules and less on secondary characters, except Walker, because Walker was awesome.  His chapters were great and I think depicting the uprising from just his limited view would have been a really interesting way to go.

One final, quick note: there's a lot of chatter about the title of this book, because Wool does seem like a silly title.  Obviously the cleaners use steel wool to clean off the cameras that monitor the world beyond the silo, but I prefer to think of it in the metaphorical sense (and I'm sure I'm not the first and only one to do this) of the silo residents having had the "wool pulled over their eyes" in regards to what their world and lives are really like.  In that way, I think it's a fitting title and I'm perfectly fine with it, though there were certainly other good options out there.

Overall, a great sci-fi book but not one of my absolute favorites.  I do think Sand was a bit better, maybe because it was more self-contained and had a sweeping sense of scale and majesty that Wool, because of its space constraints, didn't.  4 stars out of 5.