Friday, January 18, 2019

BLOOD OF TYRANTS


Review of BLOOD OF TYRANTS by NAOMI NOVIK
(eighth in the TEMERAIRE series)

I adore the Temeraire series. Novik has mastered an utterly unique and appropriate authorial voice for her characters and setting and the dragons’ personalities and interactions never cease to amuse me. However, I will confess this installment is probably my least favorite of the series so far.

Our human hero Laurence finds himself stranded in Japan with amnesia. It’s the amnesia element that hurt the storyline so much, in my opinion. Personally, I rarely enjoy amnesia as a plot twist. It feels like any interesting development goes on pause while we the reader must wait for the character to play catch up: remembering everything that we already know…and the character knew, too, pages earlier. Only once the amnesia aspect is resolved does the story start to move forward again. It didn’t help that I happened to be reading three books at once that utilized this amnesia twist.

Of course, the primary tension in BLOOD OF TYRANTS comes from the fact that Laurence is separated from Temeraire and does not remember a thing about his beloved dragon companion. For all that Laurence can recall, he’s still in the navy. While this does indeed create some tension – Will Laurence remember Temeriare? What will happen when they’re reunited? – I found myself unable to invest in this storyline as much as with the other books.

I believe there’s only one book after this left in the series and, even if BLOOD OF TYRANTS wasn’t my favorite installment, I will be very sad when Temeraire and Laurence’s adventures reach their end.  I expect to remember stiff, formal Laurence and his articulate, well-mannered dragon for decades.

Friday, January 11, 2019

VELOCITY


Review of VELOCITY by DEAN KOONTZ

This is a great book, but not really my taste. When I worked in a bookstore, I vastly broadened my horizons in terms of what I read. Before I more or less only read young adult fantasy, with some regular fantasy and mainstream fiction. Then my bookstore co-workers introduced me to mystery, romance, and numerous subsections of nonfiction. I would call VELOCITY horror, not normally my thing but I’ve learned not to let that stop me from trying something different here and there.

Average guy Billy finds a note on his SUV offering him a choice: take the note to the police and the writer will murder an elderly woman, or don’t take the note to the police and the writer will murder a blonde schoolteacher. Billy doesn’t take this first note to the police, convinced it’s a twisted prank. However, when a blonde schoolteacher is murdered Billy finds himself plunged into the very center of a serial killer’s messy game.

The story is too gratuitously violent and psychologically perverse for me, but I also think it’s exactly as one might expect for the genre and exactly what some readers are looking for. It’s certainly fast paced with dozens of extremely short chapters adding to the sense that the reader is speeding through this whirlwind story.

Aside from unexpected exceptions when plot summaries don’t encapsulate the full merit of a book, I think readers are good at sensing what they will enjoy. VELOCITY is well-written and dense with actions and twists. I expect that anyone intrigued by the above premise description will not be disappointed with the book. However, if it sounds too dark or violent for you, it probably is. When you try new things, not every thing is a winner and, though I commend VELOCITY as a well-written book, it also convinced me I won’t be an avid horror reader anytime soon.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Favorite Books Read in 2018


For those who follow my blog throughout the year, the books on this list won’t come as a surprise. I write long reviews, though, so below you can find much shorter descriptions of my favorite books from 2018. All the books I reviewed are linked to the original post.

Note that these are books I reviewed in 2018, not necessarily books published in 2018.

1.     AMERICANAH by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

You could call this book a sweeping love story or an immigration saga; both are accurate. Ifemelu emigrated from Nigeria years ago, but a reconnection with her college sweetheart makes her reflect on her difficult immigration journey, and whether she’s where she wants to be now.


Thirteen-year-old Charlotte has no idea what’s in store for her when she finds herself crossing the Atlantic Ocean without her expected companions. Though bred for a life of luxury and etiquette, she instead plunges into one of maritime adventure.

3.     ABARAT: DAYS OF MAGIC, NIGHTS OF WAR by CLIVE BARKER

This second book in the imaginatively illustrated ABARAT series follows Candy on further bizarre adventures in this dreamlike world. Meanwhile, the nefarious Christopher Carrion hunts her, meaning the reader can expect a build towards a dramatic, epic showdown.

4.     SEBASTIAN by ANNE BISHOP

One of my all-time favorite authors delivers another gem with this fantasy series. The incubus Sebastian lives in a world made up of separate, magically linked “landscapes” that change depending on their inhabitants’ thoughts and emotions. When a dark force escapes its imprisonment, the horrific monster threatens this entire world with its unusual and twisted powers.

5.     NO GOOD DEED by KARA CONNOLLY

Though a skilled archer, teenage Ellie might have more than she can handle when she stumbles back into the past: specifically Sherwood Forest, unintentionally playing a Robin Hood role. This novel straddles the line between serious and silly, making this addition to time travel literature a fun and refreshing read.

6.     INKSPELL by CORNELIA FUNKE

This trilogy, wonderfully rooted in book magic, continues with this second installment. Though they conquered the horrific villain that Meggie’s father accidentally brought from a fantasy novel into the real world, Meggie longs to explore the novel’s magical world. Everyone warns her that the world of Inkheart is as terrible as it is beautiful, but Meggie might have to see for herself.

7.     THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by PHILIPPA GREGORY

Philippa Gregory remains my “measuring stick” for quality historical fiction. THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL follows Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne Boleyn as well as King Henry’s mistress before he set both Mary and Queen Katherine aside for Anne. Gregory will make you feel every page as both Mary and Anne scramble for their ideal lives in a society disinclined to care what women want.

8.     THE SWEETNESS OF TEARS by NAFISA HAJI

This family epic switches between character perspectives for each chapter to collectively portray a complex and affecting family history. Skillfully written and expertly plotted, this novel impressed me on both micro and macro levels.

9.     CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? by SOPHIE KINSELLA

This silly, amusing chick lit novel starts with the heroine unintentionally spilling her every secret, big and small, to her new boss: work secrets, family secrets, boyfriend secrets. Once she realizes what she’s done, cue embarrassment and awkward encounters.

10.  IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by ERIK LARSON

This nonfiction history book follows the American ambassador in Germany before World War II: William E. Dodd. An unusual man for both his time and ours, Dodd believed politicians should focus more on affecting positive change and less on monetary rewards for mediocre work. Unfortunately, his perceived eccentric views led many to dismiss his warnings about Hitler.  

11.  WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by DONALD MAASS

Veteran literary agent Donald Maass delivers a unique and helpful writing guide that merges the actual craft of writing with the business of writing what sells. By framing discussions around stakes, characters, and conflicts, Maass addresses what works well in stories and what makes us readers invest. Even with familiar advice, Maass finds his own unique and refreshing phrasing.

12.  THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by LIANE MORIARTY

When a wife finds a sealed envelope addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting, she innocently mentions it to him. He begs her not to read the letter, to dispose of it and forget she ever found it. With her knack for exemplary characterization, Moriarty explores how far we can extend trust, and what happens when it’s broken.

13.  LIRAEL by GARTH NIX

The second book in Nix’s one-of-a-kind ABHORSEN series follows new characters: Lirael, who lives among prophets but never seems to come into her own powers, and Sam, son of Sabriel and Touchstone and the reluctant abhorsen-in-waiting. When a powerful entity starts gaining followers, these two unlikely heroes find themselves taking charge in unexpected ways.

14.  TONGUES OF SERPENTS and CRUCIBLE OF GOLD by NAOMI NOVIK

This unique historical fantasy series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, imagines an additional branch of the military devoted to dragons and their riders. TONGUES OF SERPENTS sees a disgraced Laurence sent to Australia with his dragon Temeraire, where they encounter a dangerous new creature. Then CRUCIBLE OF GOLD introduces the pair to the powerful Incas, who could greatly sway the course of the war depending on whether they align themselves with Napoleon or against him.

15.  TELL US SOMETHING TRUE by DANA REINHARDT

River lives for his incredible girlfriend Penny, so when she dumps him he sincerely believes his life is over. Then he meanders into a support group for teens with addiction where he expresses his Penny withdrawal by substituting “girlfriend” for “marijuana.” Over the course of an expected but nevertheless satisfying internal journey, River recognizes the far greater hurdles that others overcome and that his life is far from over.


This nonfiction collection features dozens of remarkable tales about real women from history who defied social norms and expectations. While not all make for ideal role models, these woman are certainly all memorable.

17.  MAGIC STUDY and FIRE STUDY by MARIA V. SNYDER

The second book in this trilogy finds Yelena reunited with her long-lost family and struggling to master her magic. Then she becomes the best hope for stopping a predatory kidnapper, but she’s far from ready. Her adventures conclude with the third and final book FIRE STUDY.

18.  PERFUME by PATRICK SUSKIND

In this creepy, gorgeously-written magical realism tale, Jean-Baptiste has an almost supernatural affinity for smell. Not only can he separate out individual scents and track them, but he lives for the eventual goal of discovering a method of bottling and preserving the perfect smell.  

19.  THE SERPENT KING by JEFF ZENTNER

If I had to pick only one favorite book of the year, this would be it. This young adult novel follows the friendship of three unique misfits in a small town. Believe me, the description does not do justice to this story’s stellar quality. Read it.

Friday, December 28, 2018

INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME


Review of INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME: A PORTRAIT OF DOMESTIC LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND by JUDITH FLANDERS

I read this book as research for a short story I’m writing set in Victorian England. However, the content here is so well delivered and organized that I believe this would be an enjoyable read for anyone remotely interested in this era.

While a thick book, these approximately 500 pages only scratch the surface of possible topics regarding an entire era. Even with long chapters, the book reads surprisingly fast, because practically every sentence contains interesting information conveyed through strong writing and a logical flow. Flanders organizes her content by room, which is fitting for the ideology of the era: that each room should have a specific, distinct purpose. Flanders also uses each room as a jumping off point for relevant topics such as money, servants, food, etiquette, and fashion. Add in several sections of lovely color photographs and this book is well packed with fascinating content.

INSIDE THE VICTORIAN HOME is clearly very well-researched with a hefty chunk of pages at the end devoted to footnotes and further reading. While this is the only research book so far that made the cut for a review (in other words, that I thought someone not specifically doing research would still enjoy), it also proved a great starting point for discovering other resources, especially nonfiction from the era (like the infamous Mrs. Beeton).

If you find yourself at all curious to know more about the Victorian era, I doubt I could recommend a better book.

Friday, December 21, 2018

THE HUSBAND'S SECRET


Review of THE HUSBAND’S SECRET by LIANE MORIARTY
(based on a review copy)

I have a growing love-hate relationship with this author’s work. I love her work, love love love her work. None of my criticisms will keep me from gushing about her to others or eagerly snatching up everything and anything she writes. However, she employs a specific suspense technique in all her work that is one of my top pet peeves in writing. 

The pet peeve in question is withholding information for as long as possible to build suspense. The reader knows that there is important information being withheld, but not what, the idea being that the desire to know what will keep one reading. In Moriarty’s case, she establishes very early on in her novels that there’s a big secret, almost every chapter will continue to elude to and tantalize about this secret, but typically the secret is not revealed until halfway or even two thirds of the way through the book. As a very character-centric reader, I find this technique skews the focus in a different direction than I want and only serves to frustrate me.

THE HUSBAND’S SECRET establishes the withheld information right in the title. What is the husband’s secret? Then the book opens with a wife finding a sealed letter addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting buried amide old boxes of paperwork. He’s out of town and when she innocently mentions the letter she found, he begs her not to open it, to throw it out and forget about it completely. Suspicious. The letter’s secret is not revealed until almost halfway through the book. Meanwhile, the chapters include plenty of scenes excessively reminding us about this unrevealed secret: the wife repeatedly staring at the letter in a battle of conscience, the husband telling her multiple times not to open it and not so artfully inquiring into where she put it.  

That’s not to dismiss the entire first half of the book. This technique annoys me enough that I would not like this author’s work if something didn’t more than redeem her books for me. That something is characters (and writing, though you can lump them together in this instance). Moriarty always presents a large cast of distinct and complex characters and I relish getting to know how each one sees the world differently. Even when I find myself frustrated at the slow reveal aspect, I nevertheless enjoy every word as I get to know the characters, their motivations and relationships. As a writer myself, I understand that Moriarty is prepping us for the big reveal by giving us time to invest in the characters. The first book I read by her - BIG LITTLE LIES - is in my mind a perfectly paced example of her own style. I never found myself frustrated about withheld information and the big reveal both surprised me and made perfect sense. Unfortunately, with the others I have read since then including THE HUSBAND’S SECRET I called the reveal before it happened, which then takes away from the effect of that moment and makes me all the more frustrated for how long I waited for that information.  

Another issue I had with this book is that the ethics of everything seemed black and white to me. This author specializes in complicated dynamics and moral grey areas, but nothing was grey here for me, though I expect others will feel differently. I do not mean this as the criticism it no doubt sounds like, for I still enjoyed reading about why these tortuously conflicted characters, with all their unique perspectives, see grey where I see black and white. Yet a small part of me felt much of their inner turmoil could be chalked up to nothing more special than self-justification and I couldn’t help wanting them to set aside all their excuses and do what’s right (in my opinion). That all said, this is exactly what I love so much about Moriarty. She makes me care. I feel so opinionated on everyone’s actions in her books, which isn’t the case with a dull or unbelievable character. I can’t wait to read what happens next to everyone and I have genuine emotional responses to decisions the characters make.

Despite feeling secret-taunted, I would highly recommend Moriarty’s work to anyone who will listen, but especially those most interested in good character development. The short chapters make it a fast read and her nuanced relationships make every single page up to  and beyond the big reveal addictively enjoyable.
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Friday, December 14, 2018

SEBASTIAN


Review of SEBASTIAN by ANNE BISHOP
(first in the EPHEMERA series)

I adore everything by Anne Bishop. She’s one of my all-time favorite authors, no contest, and SEBASTIAN is no exception.

I believe everything Bishop writes follows her own formula, a word that has a negative connotation, but I think she’s found a brilliant formula that she executes to admirable results. My pros and cons for each book tend to remain the same, though, because they are my pros and cons for her formula. That said, it’s mostly pros: a complex and interesting magic system, a large cast of unique and lovable characters, a steamy romance, and an underlying theme of fate as the hand of justice with karma punishing the bad and rewarding the good.   

In SEBASTIAN, Bishop crafts an utterly singular and compelling fantasy world. People shape the world: with their hearts, that is to say their emotions and thoughts. Positivity and kindness will create a beautiful world while negativity and cruelty design something far darker. Special people are gifted with the ability to mold the world with more deliberate skill, nudging it in the right direction. I will mention here that Bishop has a passion for gardening that comes through in all her work. In this case, the worlds are maintained, metaphorically of course, very much like a garden: tended and weeded so they can grow and blossom. These worlds, called landscapes, are actually separate and linked by magical bridges. Some bridges take you to a specific landscape while others could take you to many, but regardless you cannot enter a landscape unless it resonates with you on some level.

This book follows (surprise!) Sebastian, an incubus who lives in a landscape designed by his cousin specifically for demons like himself. Though painted by outsiders as a disgusting den of sin, there’s actually a lot of playful undertones to Sebastian’s landscape, not to mention a strong sense of camaraderie and loyalty.

When a meek, inexperienced, mistreated country mouse stumbles into his landscape, Sebastian knows she doesn’t belong. Admitting as much pains him, for after a lifetime of anonymous incubus sexual encounters, he finds himself inexplicably drawn to this shy woman and craving an intimacy beyond his own experience.

Meanwhile, an old threat escapes, promptly wreaking havoc within the landscapes. This monstrosity is difficult to summarize, but can basically lure those trying to cross into another landscape into its own instead, where the unlucky victims meet appalling deaths. The...thing is truly horrifying, as are the other antagonists, not to mention the added layers and twists to their backstory and motivations.

SEBASTIAN is yet another stellar example of why I adore Anne Bishop’s work.

Friday, December 7, 2018

CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET?


Review of CAN YOU KEEP A SECRET? by SOPHIE KINSELLA

This one was a re-read for me and actually quite matched my original impressions of it. The book is a lighthearted chick lit novel with unexpected moments of subtle feminism.

Our protagonist Emma is a nervous flyer. When her plane hits some extreme turbulence, she starts spilling her every little secret to the man sitting next to her, convinced she’s about to die. Of course, she doesn’t die, but she does learn not long later that she confessed everything from her real underwear size to a fib on her resume to none other than her new boss. Well, her boss’s boss. Or her boss’s boss’s boss. Point is he’s the head of the company. Awkward.

Emma is a laywoman, written very much in the style of Brigit Jones. She sometimes comes across as superficial, but I find that true of most chick lit novels. I think of them more as pure entertainment reading, not intended to provoke deep discussions of the human condition or turn my understanding of the world upside down. Nope, this book is designed to make you smile and laugh and enjoy, and that it certainly did.