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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo (Grisha #1)

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Set in a Russian-inspired fantasy world, Shadow and Bone is the story of Alina, a young woman working as a cartographer in the army until, on a journey through the magically-dark-and-dangerous Fold (aka the Unsea) she shows off previously-unknown light powers and is swept off to be trained as a Sun Summoner and a savior of the people...falling into the grasp of the intriguing Darkling and leaving behind her best friend from childhood, Mal, in the process.  One of my friends loves this series, and Bardugo's associated duet that happens after these books (Six of Crows and its sequel) so I had this slated for one of my reading challenge categories for the year in order to finally get around to it.  Aaaaaand...?

Rage.  Ugh.  This started off with such promise.  "Who is the love interest here?" I demanded of said friend.  "I don't want to get my hopes up over nothing."  She refused to tell me.  "This book is going to crush me, isn't it?" I asked.  She liked my comment.  Because here's the thing...the Darkling is freakin' awesome and Mal is totally lame.

Yes.  I said it.  And coming off the high that was Uprooted just a little while ago, I was so looking forward to another magical-tutor-romance thing.  And for a while, it looked like I was going to get it!  I was intrigued.  The Darkling has, guess what, dark powers that compliment Alina's sun-summoning ones.  A light-mage/dark-mage pairing?  Okay, not the most original, but I thought there was promise there.  But as I read on, I started to get suspicious.  Mal wasn't responded to Alina's letters, for no apparent reason.  This clearly meant he wasn't getting them--they were being intercepted somewhere along the way.  And honestly, it just couldn't be that easy.  After all, there are three books in this series, and this is just the first.  I started to have a sneaking feeling that the Darkling was going to turn out to be a Big Bad and Mal was going to sweep back in and become the childhood-friend-turned-love-interest, which is a dynamic that I actually don't really like.  And if the Darkling became the Big Bad, it would mean that Bardugo was seemingly falling back on the tired, tired, tired trope of "light=good, dark=bad."  Which I really, really hoped wasn't going to happen, because I had such hopes here.

Overall, this was a book with a lot of potential.  It's a story with a lot of potential.  I have a bit of hope for it becoming fuller and more fleshed out in the next two books, which I definitely will read, but coming to the end of this one I find myself a tiny bit disappointed.  The writing is pretty clearly on the wall here, and I was feeling so miserable about it that I even went and read the jacket blurb of the third book.  I can already tell that I don't like where it's headed.  Sigh.  So much sadness here.

Another reviewer suggested that, if you liked where you thought this book was going but were disappointed in where it actually went, you should read Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses and its sequels.  I'm inclined to agree; while maybe not having the awesome Russian-fantasy-dynamic that the Grisha has (which is very cool and I'm so happy to see that authors are branching out into areas other than generic-medieval-England fantasy settings) it has the feel that I was actually looking for here.  I'd also recommend Uprooted.

So, yes, I will keep reading these books...but I'm going in steeled for the worst.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 19, 2017

I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm - Kelly Bowen (Lords of Worth #1)

I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm (The Lords of Worth, #1)One of my friends recently read this book and really liked it, so it became one of the next ones on my reading list!  Luckily the library had it available, so I was able to get to it quickly.  The story here follows Gisele, a woman who faked her own death to escape an abusive relationship and now works to spirit other women out of similar circumstances.  Deprived of one of her partners, she's on the hunt for a new one.  A man who can be a hero.  Gallant, who's up for helping a woman in distress, who can sweep her off her feet... When she finds Jaime Montcrief drunk in a tavern, he doesn't seem like the very picture of that, but after a quick test, she decides he suits.  And so off they go, to save the woman who's set to marry Gisele's former husband.

While this was a cute plot in some respects, the takedown of Gisele's former husband ultimately relies very very heavily on gaslighting him.  This is portrayed as being so clever; they're going to make him crazy so that he can't get married!  Ha!  Gisele also tries to justify it by saying he's already mad as a hatter, he just needs something to bring it out where other people can see.  But the thing is...Adam, said former husband, doesn't really come across as crazy.  Possessive as hell, yes.  Sadistic, yes.  Unsuitable for marriage, yes.  But actually mentally unstable?  No.  Gisele and Jaime actually set out to convince him he's crazy and to make him display it in public, and the entire time they were working on this, I couldn't help but think that if some roles had been reversed and they'd been gaslighting Jaime's former wife instead of Gisele's former husband, this wouldn't have slid by nearly as easily.  And when you flip the genders and you have an issue...well, that's an issue in and of itself.

What I did like here was the relationship between Jaime and Gisele.  Jaime doesn't pressure Gisele into anything even though he falls for her--and she for him--in pretty quick order, within the space of a few days.  He knows that she was abused, but he doesn't pressure her for the details.  He doesn't try to pressure her into kissing him or otherwise being intimate with him.  He doesn't try to "fix" her.  Instead, he lets her come to things on her own terms and supports her in her decisions.  Even when he disagrees with them, he hears her out and then makes suggestions for how to proceed safely, instead of taking what would be the route of some other popular romance heroes and locking her up or going off to solve things on his own without any communication.  Their dynamic was very good.

Another thing that I really liked here was the use of parallels.  There are so many instances in this book where Bowen brings back something mentioned earlier and makes a parallel scene out of it, tying together both visuals and themes to loop everything together.  This was very masterfully done, and I really appreciated it.

The writing was good and I liked the characters, and I'm definitely not writing off Bowen.  But I think the plot here needs to be looked at critically, because gaslighting anyone is not cool.  There had to have been other ways to resolve the problem here without making Adam question his own sanity.

Also, this looks like a Christmas romance, but it's not--I'm not even sure it actually takes place in winter--and has nothing to do with any dukes keeping anyone warm, so I'm not sure where the title and cover are supposed to play into this, at all.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Given to the Sea - Mindy McGinnis (Given Duet #1)

Given to the Sea (Given Duet, #1)Given to the Sea caught my eye as soon as I saw it on Goodreads.  It just has such a wonderful cover--like the girl is standing on one of those lighthouses that get hit by 50-foot waves all the time, where the keepers live in them totally isolated from the rest of the world.  And the girl herself...it's like she's a ghost.  And then there was the premise: of a girl who is supposed to be sacrificed to the sea in order to keep a killer wave at bay, but must have a child first to replace her, but who hates to be touched.  And the prince who wants to save his kingdom but doesn't want to be king, the twins who are the last survivors of their race.  It was all the makings of a great fantasy.

Ultimately, however, I didn't find this too intriguing.  The plot largely revolves around two pieces.  First, heroine Khosa needs to have a child before she can be sacrificed and everyone wants to get her pregnant.  (Why?  So their kid can die?  Totally weird.)  Second, Witt, the leader of the group called the Pietra, wants to invade Stille, the country that Khosa and the other characters call home, and basically kill all of its people.  Meanwhile it seems like the waters that surround their island(?) are rising even without a wave to threaten destruction.  But while all of this might have had promise, ultimately what it boils down to is a lot of angsting about Khosa not wanting to have sex while everyone wants to have sex with her, and Dara (one of the twins) angsting that everyone who she wants to like her is busy wanting to have sex with Khosa, and Witt planning an invasion.  The drama is very much of the teen variety without being at all intriguing, and I found myself continually waiting for something to happen.  The climax of the book ultimately has little to do with the actions of the main characters, of which there were too many--if there had been fewer, maybe McGinnis could have worked a bit more "happening" into the book.

Instead, I found myself wondering about a few worldbuilding things that aren't explained.  There's another group floating around in this book, the Feneen, which consists mostly of people with horrible deformities that were left out at birth and then adopted by other members of the group.  What is happening to the Pietra and the Stilleans that is causing them to have so many children with so many birth defects?  Meanwhile, the people of Stille who aren't deformed are living to be really old without apparently looking at it.  What's going on here?  And what's causing the waves?  Dara and Donil seem to have magic here but no one else really does, except maybe Khosa's dancing feet.  Why aren't the dancing feet a birth defect?  Uhm...there's just so much left unexplained, and it seems like things that mostly won't be explained in the second book, but instead are just supposed to be accepted.  Maybe I'm wrong there and they will be explained, but I'd at least like to see the things about the Feneen addressed here, because what?

I think the writing was okay, but it was nothing riveting.  The perspective flips between first and third person, which is something I've never liked because it just feels really, really inconsistent.  And the pacing is just so off.  I think there was an interesting premise lurking here but it wasn't really brought out well enough to shine on its own.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn

9867582It took me like 8 weeks to get through this audiobook.  About halfway through my Couch to 5k program this spring I decided that I needed a book to listen to while running, and Gillian Flynn might actually be riveting enough to keep my interest while going in seemingly endless circles around a track.  And this book has several narrators, which promised a better experience than my first audiobook, Anna and the French Kiss, which only had one--which I felt was to its detriment.

The story here follows Libby Day, who survived the slaughter of her mother and two sisters when she was eight, and lost part of her hand and part of her foot in the process.  She testified that her brother was the killer, and he's consequently been in prison for more than two decades.  Now running out of money, Libby encounters a group called the Kill Club who are willing to pay her to investigate her own family's murder...and so she starts digging.

Now, the actual description of this book makes it sound like Libby ends up being chased by a killer again, someone who's eager to finish the job.  Maybe someone who's even linked with another recent disappearance in Libby's area.  That's not actually the case, so don't get your hopes up.  No one is hunting Libby.  No one actually wants her dead.  She literally wanders into a killer's living room and starts prodding them, and the killer gets antsy--no spoilers there, because Libby wanders into a lot of living rooms in this book.  There's also no big twist in this book, no unreliable narrator who's suddenly found out like in Flynn's more recent Gone Girl.  The three main point-of-view characters here (Libby in the present day and her brother and mother from the day of the murders) are all reliable to the best of their knowledge; there's no misleading, they all lay things out as they find them.  I kept waiting for one of them to turn out to be unreliable, adding a whole new dimension to the story, but it just never happened.

Overall, the writing and reading here was okay, though slightly nauseating at times--I almost puked while listening to a description of a character vomiting, not gonna lie.  The three main voice actors do a good job with the voices, distinguishing them enough that they sound relatively realistic.  But the story itself just ultimately wasn't as riveting as I wanted it to be, hence why I had to renew the book twice in order to get through it.  And while the details eventually come out and justice is served, it just didn't feel very satisfying, and the denouement was definitely too long.  Maybe audiobooks just aren't my thing, and this worked better in the printed work?

Sigh.  The search for good material to listen to while running continues.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Thief - Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #1)

The Thief (The Queen's Thief, #1)I think I originally read The Thief way back when I was in fifth grade, so...in like 2003?  One of my teachers had it in her classroom library and I absolutely devoured it.  At the time, I don't believe it had any sequels, and I just learned that it had gained some in the past year--so of course I had to go back and read it first, being as it had been a decade and a half since I'd read it the first time! The thief in question in the book is Gen, who starts the story in prison for stealing the seal of the king and bragging about it in a wineshop.  He's taken out of prison by the king's magus, a sort of scholar, who believes he knows where a great treasure is--and needs Gen to steal it.

The world here is mostly based on ancient Greece, though for some reason there are also guns?  Kind of weird.  But for the most part, yes, Greece-based.  There are gods and goddesses lurking in the stories in the background, and two side characters that serve as the magus's apprentices and also as vessels for transmitting a lot of the background information that needs to be absorbed without it being downright info-dumping.  I thought this was very well-done.  What I actually didn't like here was Gen himself.

Here's the thing.  Gen is a brat.  He spends so much of his time acting downright obnoxious.  And yes, there's a reason for this, and it gets better, but for about two thirds of the book he's just as annoying as can be, and not only to the magus and his other travelling companions, but to me as the reader as well.  It was absolutely infuriating and I really sympathized with the other characters who wanted to strangle Gen...probably not an ideal situation for feelings towards a main character.  Despite having read this book before, I actually didn't remember much past the 70% mark, which is when Gen starts getting better, so I also had no memory of it improving, and found myself dreading dealing with him for the duration of the book.

While I liked the world-building, I also feel like it might have been a bit confusing for someone who didn't already have an understanding of ancient Greece.  There are a lot of things that are drawn from history here and not really explained in the book, so someone who hasn't actually taken a college-level course in ancient Greek history like I have might have been a little lost; I know I definitely understood more this time through, having taken such a course during my time as a history student in college, than I did when I read it in fifth grade.  Being as this is categorized as a children's book, I think a little more fleshing-out of the setting could have probably been useful.  I'm not sure how many fifth graders understand what an agora is or the various invading forces that went against Greece and how that played out, influences of which are floating about and are important in understanding the political climate on which the story spins.

Still, though, this was a fast and very enjoyable read.  The design of the temple in which the treasure is hidden was so cool--kind of Water-Temple-from-Ocarina-of-Time-esque.

Image result for water temple

Overall, I really liked this, and am looking forward to reading the sequels!

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Voyager - Diana Gabaldon (Outlander #3)

Voyager (Outlander, #3)Finally, finally, finally I have finished reading this book.  It feels like it's been an eternity.  This is one of those books that I'd pick up, put down, pick up again...walk away from... Honestly, I'm not 100% sure why I continue on with this series, except possibly because I bought them and now read them out of a sense of obligation?  But I only spent like $3 on the seven-book set so that doesn't really make sense.  But my boyfriend's mom likes them, so it gives me something to talk about with her, at least.

This is the third book in the Outlander series and is rather different from the first two in that, for a significant part of the book, Claire and Jaime are apart and so the book isn't entirely, or even mostly, from Claire's perspective.  Instead, a good chunk of it is in third-person perspective and focuses on Jaime, stuck in the 1700s after Culloden and the events after, and Roger, the young man assisting Claire and her (and Jaime's) daughter Brianna with researching what happened to Jaime since at the end of the second book they found out he hadn't died at Culloden after all.  Eventually, of course, they figure it out and Claire goes a-travelling again, and the book resumes is mostly first-person perspective (with one chapter still dedicated to Jaime).

Just like the first two books, this was slow, slow, slow.  I really feel like Gabaldon has a pacing problem that a couple of books hasn't seemed to fix.  There are short bursts of action here, but they're interspersed with these long, long periods of time in which we seem to see nothing but bubbling parritch and people going to and fro on boats.  Additionally, there's not a strong central plot here, which doesn't help matters.  Outlander was about Claire travelling through time and trying to get home and then eventually coming to terms with where she was and who she was with.  Dragonfly in Amber was about Claire and Jaime trying to change history.  Voyager is just about...them getting back together, I guess?  Other stuff happens, of course, but it's mainly a lot of going places by sea and it only really serves to prop up their ongoing reunion.  And also underlying all of this is the fact that Claire and Jaime have become one of those couples where all of their problems boil down to the fact that they don't talk to each other.

However, all of this doesn't mean that Gabaldon is a bad writer.  She has a wonderful sense of imagery and is really able to show the world that she's building, and all of the research that went into it as well as her own sense of supernatural whimsy that underlies much of the goings-on here.  She creates characters that seem whole, even the side characters--for example, we get to see grown-up Fergus in this book, and Jaime's band of smugglers also aren't bad at all.  She just seems to be a bit scattered in what's actually going on, heaving to and fro from one far-fetched scheme for her characters to be involved in to another.  In a more fantasy setting, this might be more forgivable.  However, in a historical setting, even one with a few magical elements interspersed (I mean, our main character is a time-traveler, guys) it reads more as her just making things up as she goes along rather than having a solid and persistent idea of what is actually supposed to be happening in the book.

And is Brianna ever going to become a main character?  She seems far too promising to waste by leaving her in the 1960s when it seems like the story isn't going back there, but every time I think she's going to take the stage, she never does.  Sigh.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.  I guess I liked it well enough, but again, there's nothing really compelling in it and I feel like I'm reading more out of some self-imposed duty than out of true enjoyment.  I liked the switch to the Caribbean setting, though, and wish it had been used a bit longer!

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThis book was utterly terrifying.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred, a Handmaid in a country called Gilead that has taken over at least part of the United States and, with heavy religious overtones, regulates all relations between men and women, as well as between women and women.  They justify it as saving the human race after some nuclear-type apocalypse hinted at in a few places caused birthrates to spiral downward and birth defects to shoot up.  Really, this isn't such a wild premise for a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel...except it shows that most terrifying of all things: the slide.

This book takes place with the Gilead regime in full swing, but Offred grew up and had a life, a husband, a child before it started.  So she remembers the slide from normalcy to what is the "new" normal, where fake news is used to control the populace, women are the property of  men, abortion is illegal, and Gilead is against the rest of the world.  And to me, that is the most terrifying thing of all: seeing how all these small steps can add up to such a huge difference, how each thing can be taken in stride, until the next generation won't remember what life was like before Gilead at all.  That next generation of girls will think life has always been the way it has.

Following the main narrative here, there's a section of "historical notes" which I originally intended to skip over, but I'm glad that I didn't.  It's actually a part of the larger story, giving some context and some closure to a few of the "holes" in the main narrative.  Atwood left a few things up to the imagination, such as what ultimately happens to Offred, but also gives some insight into the larger events that that surrounded her in Gilead.  It also hammers home the terrifying aspects as well, because it shows how the rest of the world wasn't really affected by the events in Gilead, and just turned their backs on the plights of the people there.  This is pretty much the case in most dystopian novels: one region goes crazy, and the rest of the world just backs away.  But for some reason it just feels so much more real in this book than in others.

This book is, of course, airing as a television adaptation on Hulu now, but it's really more striking than that because of the political times we live in.  It's a truly horrifying read because this book makes it so easy to see how things could go so wrong.

5 stars out of 5; an important book, I think, especially now.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Court of Wings and Ruin - Sarah J. Maas (A Court of Thorns and Roses #3)

A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #3)Well, the time has finally come: the conclusion of Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy.  This one picks up pretty much just where the last one left off: with heroine Feyre acting as a spy in the fae Spring Court, home of her former lover and almost-husband and hero of the first book in the series, Tamlin, who has sold out all of the island of Prythian and the human lands beyond it in order to retrieve Feyre from her new love and fated mate, the High Lord of the Night Court, Rhysand.  Are we all caught up?  Good.

Then let me just say that a lot happens in this book, despite it being off to a slow start.  Much like the second book, I was skeptical going in.  It just starts so slowly.  Feyre is going around the Spring Court acting so meek and broken while secretly sowing chaos, but honestly, we know there are bigger things afoot, and I wanted them to get on with afooting!  Luckily, the first part of the book isn't that long, and things pick up in the second and third parts, as Feyre and her family and allies prepare for war and then eventually go to it.

We have a large cast of supporting characters by this point, but Maas still manages to keep them all separate, distinct, and important, even with the addition of Feyre's sisters as newly-fae residents of the Night Court, and the re-appearance of Lucien as a bigger player, despite him having been absent for most of book two.  (At one point, Lucien vanishes for a long time and doesn't appear to have done much while he was gone; Maas has already said that she plans on writing more books about this world, so I'm betting the focus of one of them will be him, another possibly on Tamlin, and one definitely on the Swan Lake-like setup involving another side character.)  Two new relationships were kind of promised in this book, and they don't really develop much, which was a bit disappointing.  Also disappointing was the amount of info Maas revealed and then didn't expound upon--granted, she's said she'll write more about this world, as I mentioned before, but still.  This was the last book in the trilogy so it seemed like maybe not the best place to be leaving loose ends.  None of them were major...but still.

She also brings back old characters that I thought we probably wouldn't see again, such as the Bone Carver and the Weaver, and weaves (haha) them more fully into the narrative, which seemed well done.  Some big reveals were also reserved for this book--such as what the heck, really, is Amren?  Well, we finally find out.  Sort of.  Enough.  Also added in are several characters who are gay or bisexual, which was nice, because one wouldn't necessarily think of fae as being confined to binary sexualities, especially if we measly humans aren't.  However, this reveal might throw a wrench in her "mating bonds" trope--do they still have mating bonds if they're not heterosexual, and so won't be producing children?  It's said that bonds aren't always about love or even emotional compatibility but sometimes are just more about pairs that would create good offspring.  And if that's the case and these characters do find themselves permanently bound to people that they otherwise can't find attractive...well, that kind of sucks.

It's hard to say much about this book without spoilers, and it also doesn't have anything either rant-worthy or rave-worthy in it, at least not to my eye.  So, instead of prattling on, I'll just wrap it up and say that I liked this one, but I didn't love it.  It didn't pull me in as much as A Court of Mists and Fury did.  But it was still enjoyable, and has the added bonus of, I think, giving us a glimpse of what's probably coming up, to some degree, in Maas' other series, the Throne of Glass series, because she paralleled elements of the two very closely.  Which probably isn't very masterful writing but definitely makes the wait for the last Throne of Glass novel--not out until 2018!--easier, because this is basically a preview of how it will all be written and wrap up.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

UprootedUprooted was the Deliberate Reader book club title for June, and out of all the ones slated for the year, it was the one I was most looking forward to reading.  It had such good reviews and had been on me to-read list for a while, plus I always love a good fantasy.  And let me tell you:

This book was absolutely stunning.

Based in a fantasy that's grounded in Eastern rather than Western Europe, with a heroine named Agnieszka and mentions of Baba Yaga (Baba Jaga), it's a beautiful story about a valley and the girl who saves it.  Agnieszka expects her best friend, Kaisa, to be taken by the Dragon, the magician who is lord over her home valley and who takes a girl every ten years for purposes unknown.  The girls return unharmed but are obviously ruined and end up leaving the valley, always.  But when the time for the choosing comes, the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead, based on what appears to be a budding ability for magic...magic that is desperately needed to keep the Wood, the dark forest that corrupts all it touches and that slowly encroaches on their realm, at bay.

Some reviewers have called Agnieszka a special snowflake.  Well, she kind of is.  She has magic, magic that she has an intuition for as soon as she realizes what it really is that no one seems to have ever seen before.  However, Novik makes it clear through her writing that just because Agnieszka's magic isn't the kind that's in use among the magicians of the realm currently, that doesn't mean it hasn't been seen before, and that it's her connection to the valley that helps to make it so strong.  And Agnieszka is such a likeable character, too.  She's not all sunshine and rainbows; she acknowledges a deep jealousy of Kaisa despite her love of her friend, and she struggles with finding things out even though she sometimes has an intuition for them.  Less imminently likeable is the Dragon.  He's stubborn and mean and seems to be keeping his distance for no apparent reason, except that he is, because if he gets too close to the valley and its inhabitants it's possible the Wood could draw him in, and that would be something terrible indeed.  Woven into both of their characters is, of course, the magic system of the book as well.  In one respect, it revolves around foreign-sounding spellwords, which isn't something terribly innovative, but there are other dimensions, too, which means that it doesn't work the same for every person and each magician featured has their own talents; it seems like any other magician here would have just as easily been deemed a "special snowflake" as Agnieszka, in their own way.

There's a very, very minor romance subplot here that was absolutely delicious, mainly because the sorcerer/apprentice dynamic is one of my favorites (but notably does not extend to other teacher/student relationships, which I find downright creepy).  It's woven so well into the story as a whole, though it did mean that when Agnieszka went away from the valley for a while it read as being a lot slower because there wasn't that developing relationship, even though a lot of interesting and important things actually happened while she was in the city.  And outside the realm of romantic and teaching relationships, Kaisa remains a prominent characters throughout the book, which I didn't expect but really liked.  She becomes such an important person to show the potential and terror of magic and the Wood, and though she and Agnieszka and and Kaisa don't always get along and have their envies of each other, their friendship is deep and true and the book wouldn't have shone nearly as much without it.

The writing is beautiful, the story has good pacing and unfurls in a way that the odds seem insurmountable--I was honestly skeptical that Novik would be able to wrap this up in one book!  The end of the action did seem a bit rushed to me, but there was a wonderful denouement afterwards that wrapped up the characters' paths and left such potential for more.

Someone please point me to the fanfiction archive for this book, because I need more, and I need it now.

5 stars out of 5.