Friday, June 14, 2019

ANIMAL!


Review of ANIMAL!: THE ANIMAL KINGDOM AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT BEFORE by JOHN WOODWARD
(a DK SMITHSONIAN KNOWLEDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA)

I’ve recently read several animal encyclopedias for research. While I doubt any average reader will take on more than one, I’ve narrowed down the encyclopedias I read to a few worthy of reviews. Of those, I think ANIMAL! might be my number one favorite.

For starters, this encyclopedia is very generous with the photos. I especially appreciate that fact given the subject matter. I would much rather see a photo of an animal I’ve never heard of before than read a description about its physical attributes. (Yes, with some other encyclopedias I found myself very curious about a specific animal’s appearance based on text description—and often running a Google search to satisfy that curiosity—but frustrated about the lack of photos in the encyclopedia itself.) Not only does ANIMAL! provide at least a small photo for almost every creature mentioned, but every few pages display a much larger photo with an additional focus on that particular animal.  

I love how many animals are included in this encyclopedia. For some creatures, such as penguins and alligators, I was familiar with the most well-known sub-species but had no idea how many variations exist. The text blurb for each animal is short but sweet, providing the most important information along with a unique or interesting characteristic or two.

Packed with stunning photos and fascinating information, I would recommend ANIMAL! to anyone looking to know a little more about all the other living things sharing our planet. For that matter, the next time I want a broad knowledge of a complex subject, I’m looking for another DK encyclopedia first!

Friday, June 7, 2019

BELLADONNA


Review of BELLADONNA by ANNE BISHOP
(second in the EPHEMERA series)

I love Anne Bishop. One of my all-time favorite authors.

I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to add for my review of BELLADONNA that I didn’t already say with SEBASTIAN, the first book in this series. BELLADONNA reads like more of the same, in the best possible way.

But to make a little effort (and not set a record for shortest, least helpful review), BELLADONNA focuses on said title character’s preparations for the final showdown with the Eater of the World. The book also introduces a new character, Michael, whose admirable powers are feared rather than appreciated in his landscape. Fate brings him to Belladonna, but fate may also tear them back away from each other.

Aforementioned final showdown will likely feel familiar to readers of Bishop’s BLACK JEWELS series. As I’ve claimed before, Bishop follows a definite formula: one all her own, thoroughly satisfying, and always fleshed out with intriguing characters and magic system details. However, it’s easy to draw numerous parallels between the heroines, the villains, and the sacrifice said heroines make to defeat said villains. In BELLADONNA, I particularly liked the details about how this specific sacrifice affects the Eater of the World, more nuanced than simple destruction.

Everything I read by Anne Bishop, BELLADONNA included, ranks among my favorites. I would recommend her work to everyone, although more realistically to those whose tastes align with the following three descriptors: dark fantasy romance.
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Friday, May 31, 2019

THE ARTIST'S WAY


Review of THE ARTIST’S WAY by JULIA CAMERON

Lately, I’ve read several books about writing, including many classics such as this one. As soon as I began reading THE ARTIST’S WAY, it became apparent that it’s different than its peers. For anyone unware, THE ARTIST’S WAY is less a collection of advice and thoughts about writing as it is a more structured, reader-participation-required 12-week program. The idea behind the program is that many of us are “blocked” creatively. This doesn’t refer only to writers, or professional creatives. Cameron makes the very valid point that our society tends to project a message that one either is or isn’t a creative person. She argues that everyone is creative, but some have “blocked” this impulse, because of negative feedback. The idea behind this program is to explore those demons, work through our blocks, and release our natural creativity.

So as for my bias, I am not a particularly spiritual person, but I have lately been coming around to all the benefits spirituality, especially mindfulness, has to offer. On a superficial level, this book seems cheesy to me. There are a lot of invented terms to summarize complex ideas as well as corny statements that have me fighting an eye roll impulse. I’m very intrigued by psychology, but this reads like pseudo-psychology: insightful observations of the human condition delivered in layman, fanciful vocabulary rather than accurate psychological terms. While wise, some statements still irk me by neglecting relevant research and treating the human mind more like magic than science.

That said, I do find Cameron’s take on creativity very insightful. And, as my years of reviews demonstrate, I’m a big believer in being a critical thinker, a critical reader. Some people act like you either like a book or you don’t, but I prefer to break books down into their parts and discuss both what I loved and what didn’t work for me. Anyway, my longwinded point is that I suspected, if I could set aside my cynicism, I could gain something from doing this program.

It’s worth mentioning that I never considered myself blocked, which means I’m not exactly Cameron’s target audience. Nevertheless, I related to her introductory claim that we all have untapped creativity that we ignore for all the wrong reasons. I wanted to give her program a sincere effort, but I went into it skeptical that I would gain anything.

Boy, was I wrong. To boil the program down to an overly simplistic summary, at the core of all twelve weeks of reading and various exercises Cameron has you consider, again and again and from numerous different angles: what you wish you were doing, why you’re not doing it, and whether that why is truly valid. It didn’t take long for me to discover that I was blocked in ways I didn’t expect. I think of myself as a writer. I am comfortable claiming that identity and I write regularly without allowing any doubts or insecurities to slow me down. I didn’t expect this program to help much with my writing, and I was correct. (Okay, correct-ish.) What I didn’t realize is how many other creative pursuits I have given up, for all the wrong reasons. You know, the wrong reasons Cameron cites. For one example, I used to paint and sketch. Then pursuing writing professionally made me turn my critical, editorial eye to my artwork. My art is underwhelmingly decent in technical skill and pretty unremarkable in terms of innovation. While I think (and hope) my books might earn me money one day, I never expect my sketches or paintings to do so. Despite that, I still love painting and sketching. I find the process meditatively soothing and I experience a sense of pride for the end result regardless of how it might rank on some grander scale. I also love surrounding myself by my own artwork; instead of some stranger’s painting on my wall, I can look up and think, “I did that.” This program made me realize I stopped doing something that brings me happiness simply because I didn’t think I was good enough to justify the time commitment or expense of materials. Now I’m painting and sketching again, after almost a decade away from those activities, and thrilled to be reunited with those hobbies.

Aside from specific activities that I’m now doing but I wasn’t before I started the program (and I could list many more), THE ARTIST’S WAY has helped my developing interest in mindfulness and finding balance. We all know the world bombards us with cruel and inaccurate messages, but sorting them is easier said than done. This program teaches invaluable emotional tools for self-therapy, self-assessment, self-care, and self-compassion. I was writing plenty before this program, but I feel emotionally healthier about my writing (and everything else) now. Happier. More relaxed. Cameron definitely helped me root out some of my “negative core beliefs” and replace them with more positive affirmations.

I will also mention that when I was waffling on whether or not to try the program, a friend offered to do it with me. I would really encourage this to anyone already a little skeptical. My friend and I are both people who believe when you open yourself up to new experiences, you can gain something, even if not everything promised. While I would indeed rave about this book and program now, there are still plenty of small specifics that I found cheesy, trite, or pointless. I enjoyed having a friend with whom to compare reactions to said specifics. Especially because it demonstrated how much everyone brings their unique perspective to everything they do. Even though we both started the program hesitant about learning anything, we often differed on exactly what we found astute versus silly. It all had to do with what struck a chord with our own distinct experiences.

If you’re a scientific-minded person like myself, you’ll likely balk at some of the invented, sentimental lingo Cameron uses, but I would nevertheless urge anyone interested to give this program a sincere try. (Sometimes with syrupy words,) Cameron presents a genuinely helpful and insightful perspective on creativity and pursing what makes us happy.

As this book isn’t “like the others,” this review won’t be like my others. Since THE ARTIST’S WAY introduces a 12-week creativity program, I intend to follow this review with a post for each week of the program. (Note: I’ve already completed the program, and the posts will be staggered with my other reviews, not one every week, so this isn’t a “live” posting series.) In addition to a friend offering to join me, another thing that convinced me to try the program was reading other such blog posts. Cameron originally designed her program as a class, and when she realized how effective her students found it she published the program in book form to share with more people. However, I do see the benefit of going through the experience with others. If you don't have that option, blogs can help you feel more connected to different perspectives.

In summary, I would describe THE ARTIST’S WAY as guided self-therapy focused on creativity. Cameron provides the tools, but you do the work; you will get out of it what you put into it. Be prepared for plenty of self-reflection and surprising insights.
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Friday, May 24, 2019

THE SCARECROW QUEEN


Review of THE SCARECROW QUEEN by MELINDA SALISBURY
(third in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

My adoration of this series grew exponentially with each book. This concluding novel broke my heart, but also amazed me for it for its capacity to affect my emotions. I adored this series and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a YA fantasy trilogy that stands out in the crowd.

First, let me warn that this review contains some spoilers for the first two books.

THE SCARECROW QUEEN opens with all of our main characters in precarious positions and the author isn’t any kinder to them throughout the book. Errin is being held prisoner by Aurek, as Leif secured her safety (or rather her life more than her well-being) by promising her hand in marriage to the Sleeping Prince. However, Aurek is beyond understanding any kind of love or affection (total psychopath) and really sees Errin as little more than an interesting toy. Which means disposable if no longer pleasing. Meanwhile, Twylla flees for her life, well aware that she might be the best and only shot for destroying Aurek. With this in mind, she tries to launch a rebellion, a seemingly impossible undertaking.

I have entirely mixed feelings about Leif’s role in this story, but cannot deny that Salisbury made me FEEL and feel intensely. His character isn’t at all who I thought him to be, and at times I felt frustrated by that, but on the other hand he’s not at all who Twylla thought him to be and I related so strongly with how she must feel about that. Unfortunately, Leif’s complicated character overshadowed the rest of the story for me. I skimmed a lot, hoping for more satisfying explanations regarding his motivations.

The book didn’t provide nearly as much closure as I wanted, and I both love and hate it for that. The hate part is more obvious; I feel tortured by the unanswered questions the author has left me to brood over. As for the love part, I also feel the open-ended nature taps into a genuine aspect of real life; sometimes we don’t ever get to understand why that person did what they did. Also, regardless of any yearning for anything more, I am impressed at how strongly Salisbury made me feel. There are several standout, dramatic scenes in this novel that I not only pictured so clearly as I read them, but continue to play over in my mind.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SPINNING SILVER


Review of SPINNING SILVER by NAOMI NOVIK

Miryem is the daughter of the local moneyleader, but her sweet, compassionate father never follows through on actually collecting the debts owed him. As they slide into crippling poverty, Miryem takes over, earning herself a reputation as a hardhearted woman who practically turns silver into gold. Unfortunately, the fairy king hears these rumors and takes them literally. He comes to Miryem with high demands, which in turn carry high rewards for success…and high prices for failure.

Then there’s Wanda, who comes to help Miryem’s increasingly well-off household with chores and, in so doing, earns herself a little peace from her abusive father. Our last heroine is Irina, whose father intends to marry her to a cruel tsar. Only Irina knows that the tsar is possessed by some kind of demon, and that their marriage will mean her death. Each of these women work alone, and sometimes together, to craft their own destiny.

I love all three heroines. They’re all strong and smart, but in their own unique ways. However, the story switches between their perspectives…all in first person. It was definitely confusing and sometimes took me several sentences of a new chapter to piece together whose viewpoint we’re in now.

SPINNING SILVER finds that sweet spot between fairy tale retelling and original story. It has that wonderful combination of familiar and fresh, not to mention that beautiful haunting sense of mysterious old magic. Even Novik’s name for the fey—Staryk—sounds so recognizable that I thought it must be from something I read before. Well, if it is, I can’t track it down now. I think she just nailed the balance of innovative familiarity. I would recommend this book even to those who claim to have already met their fairy tale retelling limit. SPINNING SILVER doesn’t read like any story you’ve read before.

Friday, May 10, 2019

THE LAST ANNIVERSARY


Review of THE LAST ANNIVERSARY by LIANE MORIARTY

First let me say that I liked this book. I like (often love, sometimes adore) all of Moriarty’s work. However, interestingly enough THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is both my least favorite so far as well as the one that best handled my pet peeve about her writing.

That pet peeve is that she always plants a piece of mystery bait early in the story to keep the reader hooked out of a desire for answers. I find this tension technique overdone and unnecessary, especially in Moriarty’s case since she writes such strong and intriguing characters. The withheld mystery in THE LAST ANNIVERSARY is regarding a local legend. A baby was discovered abandoned, the parents mysteriously gone with no explanation. However, it’s clear from an opening chapter that at least some people know the true story behind this mystery and, as is standard for a Moriarty novel, those secrets will not be revealed until the dramatic ending.

The withheld mystery didn’t bother me as much in this novel as it has in others, I suspect because Sophie doesn’t know either. While the book dips into other perspectives, I viewed Sophie as our protagonist and felt comfortable watching secrets unfold along with her. I think it frustrates me more when a character already knows something, but only ever thinks about it with vague, veiled wording meant to intrigue without explaining. Or even when someone else knows, but all it would take is simply asking them.

Moving away from my pet peeve point, though, what I adore about Moriarty’s writing is the nuanced characters and how all the relationships pop with believable chemistry. Yet I experienced that the least in this book so far. The characters felt a little flatter, less developed. I didn’t buy them as people I might meet, like I normally do with her characters. I struggled keeping track of everyone, as well as their relations to each other.

Having established that this one is opposite to my usual Mortiarty impressions, let me back up and explain the premise a bit more. Sophie is single when her one-that-got-away, and now married, ex approaches her with a bizarre situation. His aunt has passed away…and left her house to Sophie, much to the fury of other family members. Sophie loved that house, probably part of why the aunt left it to her. It’s on a small island infamous for the unsolved mystery. Generations back, the aunt’s family found that abandoned baby in a house they rented, with absolutely no sign of what happened to the parents.

Aside from the underdeveloped characters, I do have a few more criticisms with this one than I normally do with this author. I’m afraid I called almost every single twist in the entire book, including the main one about the original Munro Baby mystery. My frustration over this is lessened by the fact that there was one small twist near the end that I didn’t see coming and I was pleased to be taken by surprise by that one. 

Unfortunately, I will also say that the final explanation for the big Munro Baby mystery didn’t fully satisfy me. I have to suspend my disbelief far too much to be convinced, especially in proportion to how long that information is dramatically withheld. The explanation seems to rest entirely on the incompetency of others.

Honestly, I think this is fantastic book that fell a little short of the high bar I set for Moriarty’s work. The short chapters make it a fast read, and, as ever, Moriarty infuses everything with suspense and complicated relationships.

Friday, May 3, 2019

THE SLEEPING PRINCE


Review of THE SLEEPING PRINCE by MELINDA SALISBURY
(second in THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER trilogy)

This trilogy started very well with THE SIN EATER’S DAUGHTER
and I was excited to read the next book. Initially, I was disappointed that THE SLEEPING PRINCE opens in a new perspective, especially since the first novel ended on a slight cliffhanger. However, our new heroine Errin won me over as much as Twylla, arguably more so for being a little more relatable. (No poison skin or anything like that.)

Errin does connect to the first book. She is Leif’s sister. Leif left Errin and their mother for his job as a royal guard in a foreign country, supposedly to help his family financially, but Errin has not been feeling particularly helped. Whether his heart was in the right place or not, Errin’s brother abandoned her to handle both money issues and a mother with severe mental health problems. Now that The Sleeping Prince has awoken and is sweeping through every country, killing by the hundreds, Errin will need to figure out how to move her unpredictable mother away from their dangerous position on the border.

Errin is not entirely without help. She befriended a peculiar outlier named Silas. He wears a hood at all times and Errin has never seen his face. Their friendship is rocky; they clearly like each other, maybe more than like, but both have secrets from the other and a lot to lose if they misplace their trust. Despite all that, Silas is all Errin has right now.

I found Errin’s dream sequences odd and irrelevant, but—as with opening on a new character—trust the author. Salisbury knows what she’s doing, and by the end of the book any confusion or criticism I had smoothed out and made sense to me.

THE SLEEPING PRINCE builds to a powerful, unexpected, emotional (but, yes, cliffhanger) ending that left me desperate to start the next book immediately.
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