Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten Books I Read in 2013

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly blog event sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.

By and large, 2013 was a lukewarm year for books by my count.  That's not to say that there weren't a few home runs throughout the year.  Here are most of the ones I could think of, in no particular order.

1&2. Throne of Glass/Crown of Midnight
These books made a splash with the blogosphere and it's easy to see why.  Adventure, romance, well-developed lead characters and driving political issues.  Can't wait for the sequels.

 3&4. Shadow and Bone/Siege and Storm
This series has pretty much split the reviewers, it seems.  A lot of people love them (like me), but it seems like an equal number of people scorn them with a vitriol I reserve for Twilight and the Inheritance Saga.  I have to love them because they made me feel with my cold, reptilian heart, and that doesn't happen often.

5. Fortune's Pawn
Haven't written a review for this yet, but the main character, with her kick-ass abilities and zero bullsh*t tolerance, won me from the first five pages.  There is even a romance in the middle of this space opera that I actually *gasp* cared about.  Sequels comes out in February and April 2014 and I will be pre-ordering both.

6. Hyperbole and a Half
Allie Brosh's blog is a wonderland of absurd childhood memories and hilarious social interactions. The book is a mix of new stuff and old classics which never fail to make me laugh.  The two chapters on depression might be the best and most brutally honest - and hilarious - depiction of mental health issues I've ever read.

7. Redshirts
Did not see this one coming.  A delightfully funny spoof of Star Trek that should make almost any reader laugh.  Also, sci-fi hijinks and chapters reminiscent of Star Trek IV: The One With the Whales. 

8. Shades of Earth
This whole series surprised me with how good it was.  I was honestly expecting to feel "meh" about it, but just opening the covers made me spend my entire evening tearing through the book.  The series ending felt true to the spirit of the narrative.  Worth a read - and possibly a re-read.

9. Bioshock: Rapture
Yes.  A book based on a video game.  Fascinating story of how a utopia (an Ayn Rand-esque utopia) can quickly devolved into political turmoil.  You don't need to have played the games to appreciate this story.

10. Bossypants
Ah, Tina Fey.  A fresh look at feminism among myriad other topics.  You will laugh, I promise.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes

Title:  Falling Kingdoms
Series:  Book 1 of Falling Kingdoms

In a land where magic has been forgotten but peace has reigned for centuries, a deadly unrest is simmering. Three kingdoms grapple for power—brutally transforming their subjects' lives in the process. Amidst betrayals, bargains, and battles, four young people find their fates forever intertwined:

Cleo: A princess raised in luxury must embark on a rough and treacherous journey into enemy territory in search of a magic long thought extinct.

Jonas: Enraged at injustice, a rebel lashes out against the forces of oppression that have kept his country impoverished—and finds himself the leader of a people's revolution centuries in the making.

Lucia: A girl adopted at birth into a royal family discovers the truth about her past—and the supernatural le gacy she is destined to wield.

Magnus: Bred for aggression and trained to conquer, a firstborn son begins to realize that the heart can be more lethal than the sword. . . .

The only outcome that's certain is that kingdoms will fall. Who will emerge triumphant when all they know has collapsed?

Unless you have not heard of this book at all, it's hard to escape hearing it billed as "Game of Thrones for Young Adults."  I should really know better by now that when a publisher says "Book is the next Famous Book, just like Hugely Famous Book!" they are going to be horrible wrong.  Does that mean that Fallen Kingdoms is bad?  Absolutely not.

While it lacks the epic scope and of Martin's massive saga, Falling Kingdoms doesn't fall completely on its face.  The growing conflicts among the three nations are clearly explained, setting the stage for the main drama.  The characters are distinct from one another - even if their narrative voices are not - and their motivations mostly make sense.

There is enough action throughout the story to keep a reader turning the pages, if not with enthusiasm, at least with curiosity.  The plot progresses steadily and ramps up just as it should to the final conflict.  The book even ends with a not-quite-cliffhanger, setting the stage for the sequel(s).

So far, so good.  Yet I'd have a hart time wholeheartedly recommending this book to anyone.  Again:  this is not a bad book.  It's just a shallow book. 

The characters start out largely what they'll be by the end of the book.  Their development, such as it is, is so loudly foreshadowed that nothing really comes as a surprise.  The small changes in their arcs do not drive any emotional relationship between the characters and the reader, and it's incredibly hard to invest in a book when you aren't bonded to anyone in the pages. 

This shallowness seeps into the world-building as well.  The three countries are defined, their problems are delineated and the stage is set for the main conflict.  And then we never hear anything more about the places.  It doesn't ever really feel like a real place, just a painted backdrop where the characters can act out their little dramas.

Finally, there is the plot.  Here is it:  rival kings find reasons to go to war that affect the lives of four young people.  I understand this is not War and Peace; it's not even trying to be.  But once again, the abrupt and generic nature of the plot doesn't do much to grab a reader's attention and hold it. 

And, hey, it can't be a young adult novel without some sort of romance shoved into the pages somewhere, right?  Alas, the only real romance in this book is hardly the stuff of legend and ends abruptly for the sake of the generic plot.  Hooray.

I know I've done a lot of ragging on this book in this review, but it's NOT BAD.  I just think the genre has more to offer then this.  If you feel like reading it, go ahead.  Just don't expect fireworks.
2.5 out of 5 stars.

My favorite books of 2013

Every year I try and compile a "favorites" list of books that I have read throughout the year. Some of these books were not published this year it just happened that 2013 was the year I got around to reading them. I have included my review of the book instead of the book blurb in most cases. Enjoy!

#1 Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline

Adult/Young Adult crossover, Science Fiction
Thanks Ernest Cline for making me act like your main character, Wade. I did not want to leave my room or intereact with real people until I had finished your book. I don't even know where to start. I felt connected right away because of the references to 80s pop culture and the author's obvious love for all things GEEK. I found this futuristic world so interesting and so plausible it was a little frightening. I loved this book! All of you should read it. Now!

#2 The Composer is Dead (2009) by Lemony Snicket

Picture book, humor, music
** spoiler alert ** This picture book/audiobook/musical recording was amazing! I don't read a lot of picture books and I have not read anything by Lemony Snicket but after hearing  an interview with Lemony Snicket on Fresh Air I knew that reading something by him was inevitable. I laughed out loud with the humorous undertones as an investigator goes through an entire orchestra, questioning whether they have killed the nameless composer. Clever, witty and dramatic you must read and listen to this book no matter whether you like picture books or not, whether you know about orchestras or not. A few of my favorite lines are "This is called decomposing" and "Violins are the stars of any orchestra". Actually, just reading about the violin section brought back fond memories of playing 2nd violin throughout my school years. Don't miss the informative quote about second violins, apparently we are a lot of fun at parties. Other memorable quotes include "Everyone forgets about us, said the Violas bitterly" and of course "...the Conductor! You've been murdering composers for years!" Ok, I won't quote any more. The music is great and all of the profiles of each orchestra section ring true. I'm being a bit evangelical about this book so please, read it for you and if you happen to have kids read it for them too!

#3 The Fault in our Stars (2012) by John Green

Young Adult, Abe nominee 2014, Realistic Fiction
Hazel is 16 and has terminal cancer. She knows she will die one day and it will be sooner rather than later but for now she is alive.  She is part of a teen cancer support group where she meets Augustus. His cancer is in remission and he is gorgeous. They become fast friends and grow closer as the book goes on but love and life is not easy when you are ill. There are funny moments and incredibly sad moments.  A very quotable and memorable book. And yes, it will be a movie next year. I dare you not to cry when reading this book.

The rest are unnumbered:

Winter of the World (2012) The Century Trilogy #2 by Ken Follett 

Adult, historical fiction
The second book in a planned trilogy, spanning a century, is just as good as the first. I love the historical context(WWII), I love the characters, I love that this author can create so many authentic characters. Even though I haven't read the first book in a couple years I was able to remember most of what happened before and how all the characters are related. One of my favorites! I also highly recommend Pillars of the Earth by Follett. Amazing read!

The Shining (1977) by Stephen King

Adult, Horror
My review is really long and can be found here:

The River of no Return (2013) by Bee Ridgeway

Adult, historical fiction, fantasy…multiple genres
Goodreads plot synopsis: “You are now a member of the Guild. There is no return.” Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life's advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman.
My comment: This has everything I like in a book; history, time-travel, mystery, romance.I love it!

The Golem and the Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker

Adult, historical fiction, magical realism
The review is from an earlier post. It can be found here:

Seraphina (2012) by Rachel Hartman

Young Adult, fantasy
I LOVED this book! I really liked the main character. She was interesting, layered and not perfect but also not annoying! I liked the idea of dragons in this book. It was original and different. The ending did not leave you hanging but it was not completely resolved either. I just thought it was a great book and got angry every time I had to put it down or was interrupted. 

Honorable mentions: 

I do not have a personal review that I have written about these books but I did read them this year and they have stuck with me, in a good way!

Young Adult, Realistic fiction, 4 stars

Young Adult, Magical historical realism  ( I do not think that is a genre but it describes the book well). 
4 stars 

Adult, Nonfiction, 3.5 stars

Young Adult, Narrative Nonfiction, awesome! 4 stars

Young Adult, a story told in pictures, letters and other graphics. Very original and interesting. Read while listening to Chopsticks (unknown composer) and Bright White Jackets by April Smith. 4 stars.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel

Sixteen-year-old Peggy is a well-bred orphan who is coerced into posing as a lady in waiting at the palace of King George I. Life is grand, until Peggy starts to suspect that the girl she's impersonating might have been murdered. Unless Peggy can discover the truth, she might be doomed to the same terrible fate. But in a court of shadows and intrigue, anyone could be a spy—perhaps even the handsome young artist with whom Peggy is falling in love...

After a time of not-really-reading-a-whole-lot, it's nice to get back into the swing of things with a book exactly like this one.  Palace of Spies is not going to be the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games, and there's nothing wrong with that.  Instead, it's a historical fiction-plus-mystery with a dash of romance tossed in for good measure.  
After losing just about everything, Peggy finds herself in the company of people who ask her to take the place of a recently deceased courtier and spy for them.  Of course this plot requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief:  no one except perhaps identical twins looks that alike, and even with weeks of training and drills it would be hard to take on both the attitude and behaviors of someone you have never met.  However, once you have beaten your disbelief into dust, you are left with a delightful story that skips along cheerfully and doesn't fail to satisfy.  
The initial court scenes introduce a panoply of characters that each carry some mystery.  As she tries to figure out details for her benefactors, she starts to uncover evidence that perhaps her lookalike was murdered - and was perhaps part of a plot far more sinister than simply an illicit love affair.  There aer plenty of historical facts worked into the narrative to please those who are craving a little HF and there is enough goo-goo eyed scenes to sate the romance craving as well.  Mystery!  Politics!  History!  Romance! What else could you want?  However, this is the first book in a projected series, so don't expect everything to be wrapped up neatly with a bow at the end.
I don't have much else to say about this book.  It's fun, it has its high points, and it's a quick read. Recommended!
4 out of 5 stars!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Automatically Lose a Star

While reading (or listening to) a book, I often think "what is my current rating of this book" to keep tabs on how my mood changes based on character or plot development.  Sometimes a book can have a derivative storyline but then toss a super twist at the end that skyrockets my opinion of it.  Sometimes I might not like a character, but their dialogue is so well-written that I can't help but appreciate the book a little more for it.  The opposite holds true as well.

As I consider books, there are many things that can affect how I feel about it.  Obviously.  However, there appear to be certain things that will almost always negatively affect my rating.  This isn't intended to be an exhaustive list.  I will almost certainly be plumbing the depths of my curmudgeonliness as time goes on.

1.  Having to re-read sentences to make sense of them.
 Somewhere the Super-Official Writer's Handbook they tell you to read your work out loud at least once before publishing to catch the things that aren't phrased quite correctly.  Not every sentence needs to be a work of art, but unless I'm reading a book outside my native language, the writing should not impede my understanding of your narrative.
Greater Sin:  If I have to read something out loud to sound it out...
Deadly Sin:  ...and after listening to it, my husband can't explain it, either.

2. Jumping from topic to topic without transition.
I suppose this is akin to info-dumping.  I am not talking about a paragraph about the setting followed by a description of the main character.  I'm talking about the main character thinking about their difficult relationship with their mother and then their Spanish finals and then about how they like dragons and then about the Battle of Hastings and then which flavor of ice cream they like and then what they're wearing and then about that strange man they saw and then about their hometown.  It's too much for a reader to follow.  Individually, I can handle all of these things, but in a string they make no sense.
Greater Sin:  Info-dumping in stream-of-consciousness...
Deadly Sin:  ...while head-jumping narrators.

3. Inducing laughter - in a scene meant to be deadly serious.
If I'm giggling but the author is trying to be earnest, something has gone terribly wrong.  Sometimes it's because the author chose words poorly, or because the scene is so over-the-top.  I have a few examples from my favorite dead horse:  the Inheritance Saga.  First example: I'm sorry," Brom apologized. If he's saying "sorry", I don't think the "apologized" speech tag is necessary.  Not the worst thing ever, but once you notice something like that, everything starts to become annoying.
Greater sin: Apropos of nothing, while flying over the ocean, Eragon realizes the world is round.  Because reasons.  *insert headdesk here*
Deadly sin:  Paolini actually uses the expression "dolorous cacophany."  Oh, and something about soldiers stamping "their left foot."  The paraphrased "dolorous cacophony of their left foot" has become a sort of code word in my household for "bad writing."

4.  Forcing readers to use your glossary to make sense of the text.
I know, I know: context defines words.  However, if I cannot figure out the meaning through the text and have to rely on the glossary, no matter how trivial, it takes me out of the story and starts to feel like homework.
Greater sin:  Bone Season and it's mock-slang glossary.
Deadly sin:  Inventing a language and having whole swaths of dialogue in your made-up language only translated by frequent field trips to the glossary.  (Yes, this is another swing at Christopher Paolini.)

5.  Using serious social issues as a cheap plot device.
There are people that struggled with abuse, homophobia, bullying, etc on a daily basis.  Handling these issues tastefully can give a book depth.  Using them as "it's getting boring, time to bust out a rape" makes me want to vomit.
Greater sin:  In The Warded Man, the sole female protagonist is characterized by her virginity. Toward the end of the book she is gang-raped.  Afterwards, she immediately jumps in bed with essentially the next man she sees who happens to be the main hero.  Because logic.  And cheap plot device.
Deadly sin:  Black City for having its heroine metaphorically raped by her not-vampire boyfriend because she touched him and got him excited.  The victim-blaming is supported by the text instead of being discounted. 

Do you have any "you did not go there" things that automatically discredit a book?

Monday, December 9, 2013

One Mini-Review & Three DNFs: Stormdancer, Under the Mound, Hild, His Last Duchess

Somehow I have gotten behind with a couple reviews and realized that I have a small stack of books needing some comment.  Let's play catch up!  Whee!

Mini-ReviewStormdancer by Jay Kristoff.
Not sure why I didn't write a full-length review of this book.  Great heroine, exciting world, interesting characters, adventure, intrigue - and a griffin!  What's not to like?  It seems like the greater blogosphere is reading this; it won't be hard to find decent reviews if you want a more robust one.  4+ out of 5 stars.

Now for the DNFs.
Under the Mound by Cynthia Heinrichs
 A book about mysterious goings-on at a famous cairn mound in Scotland - this should be great!  For whatever reason, I couldn't find the hook in this story.  Perhaps it was just a case of "right book at the wrong time" but I didn't make it more than 50 pages in before I lost interest.  I'm still intrigued enough by it to consider reading it another time, but I'm not sure it'll be high priority.

Hild by Nicola Griffith
After seeing a review on NPR.org I had to read this story about a 7th(?) century saint.  Alas, this book is written in a style that I have a hard time reading, breaking my emotional attachment to any character with startling regularity.  Both sentences and paragraphs are long-winded, sometimes requiring multiple readings of the same chunk of text over and over to "get it."  AND there's a glossary - which you will almost certainly need to use to understand parts of the text.  Other people seem to have loved this book, but it didn't work for me.

His Last Duchess by Gabrielle Kimm
I think I wasn't in the mood for this when I started to read it.  What starts out as a story about political alliances in renaissance Italy quickly devolves into "drama" about a husband's inability to consummate his marriage.  I picked up historical fiction and got a melodramatic romance novel instead. Maybe another time.  Maybe not.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Review: Premeditated by Josin L McQuein

Premeditated by Josin McQuein

A week ago, Dinah’s cousin Claire cut her wrists.

Five days ago, Dinah found Claire’s diary and discovered why.

Three days ago, Dinah stopped crying and came up with a plan.

Two days ago, she ditched her piercings and bleached the black dye from her hair.

Yesterday, knee socks and uniform plaid became a predator’s camouflage.

Today, she’ll find the boy who broke Claire.

By tomorrow, he’ll wish he were dead.

This is one of those books that made waves in the greater blogosphere, initially when the inquiry letter was posted and again when the cover/release date were announced.  Some people that I follow - and usually agree with - loved it.

Which of course means that I am ragingly indifferent towards it.

The concept is genuinely great and it's easy to see how the protagonist can get wrapped up in a complex revenge scenario through her grief and survivor's guilt.  When someone you love and care for hurts themselves (in this instance, it's "hurts themselves into a coma") I really can understand how things which might seem crazy become normal.  Expected, even.  The lengths she goes to "avenge" her cousin's honor and health are commendable...if somewhat crazy.

Next good thing:  Good handling of LGBT issues.  One of the periphery characters comes out of the closet to Dinah by the end of the book and our fierce heroine basically says "You're gay?  Oh.  Okay.  Some things make more sense now.  Talk to you later."  No judgment.  No bigotry.  Just calm, disinterested acceptance.  You know, pretty much all of us want to be treated with respect to our sexuality.  Thank you, Josin McQuein.
Respectful handling of modern social issues.  Well done!
 As a bonus, the book was well-written, giving the reader a decent grasp of setting and characters, all without slowing the pace of the story.  I was never really bored by the events, which is saying something.

Now for the parts that lost me.
Impaired Judgment.
After seeing her cousin wounded to the core by a jerk, Dinah decides to wound someone else to the core.  Without proper investigation.  Without verifying details.  Without photographic evidence.  Without considering that her anger and grief might be clouding her judgement. 
Her gung-ho, "let's get this jerk" friends don't help, either.  Neither of them take a moment to say "Are we sure about this?  This is some serious stuff, Dinah."
Again, I understand that grief does strange things to a person, but Dinah is an otherwise clever person and she doesn't notice things that even I noticed...while I was reading this in little bursts throughout participating in NaNo.  You're playing with someone's life, Dinah!  Let's pay attention to the details!

Mommy Issues
Dinah has a picture-perfect relationship with everyone except for her mother.  This makes complete sense because, while her father is a decent put-upon guy and her aunt/uncle are practically the Cleavers, her mom is a nut job.  The perfect caricature of a pageant mother and drama queen, Mommy Dearest (whose name I've forgotten) has to be the most over-the-top insane parent I've seen in a book for a long time.  I know there are people like her in the world, but that doesn't mean it makes for great reading - or make the heroine more sympathetic.  All the while she's condemning her mother for her selfish hysterics, Dinah is planning to browbeat a fellow student into committing suicide.  And by the end, I don't think she even makes the connection between her mother's nuttiness and her own.  Hypocrite much?

While this book didn't exactly shoot the moon for me, I didn't hate it and I think for most readers who want to read it, it will be a very satisfying read.  I do believe that this is a good book, just one that didn't strike a chord with me personally.

3 out of 5 stars!