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.

Friday, November 30, 2018

AMERICANAH


Review of AMERICANAH by CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

I loved this book, no doubt because it’s all about character. I would describe it both as a sweeping love story as well as an immigration saga. The book opens with Ifemelu, who emigrated from Nigeria to the United States. From there, the story tips back to tell of her passionate college relationship with Obinze. A recent reconnection with him makes Ifemelu reflect on her life from then to now.   

I love the quality and quantity of conversations raised by this novel. After a brutal new immigrant experience, Ifemelu found financial stability in a blog about race. She specifically examines all the different variations of experience that find themselves rolled into one label. Nigerian emigrants have a vastly different perspective than African Americans, for example. The book further explores issues of race and perspective through Ifemelu’s relationships: her college sweetheart and fellow Nigerian Obinze, a white American, a black American. Every relationship is distinct and race is undeniably a factor.  

I hesitate to call anything in this book authentic, because I am not qualified to assess that. I am not Nigerian and have never been to Nigeria. However, I will mention that Ifemelu makes several comments that I have also heard, sometimes word for word, from Nigerians I know who now live in the United States.  So I may not have direct experience, but that alone convinced me this book must be a pretty authentic, relatable depiction of life for a Nigerian immigrating to the United States.

AMERICANAH is one of those books that I truly believe is for everyone, even if you’re not convinced. The writing is effortlessly seamless, the characters dynamic and compelling, the relationships all the more enthralling, and the themes highly relevant.

Friday, November 23, 2018

THE IRISH PRINCESS


Review of THE IRISH PRINCESS by KAREN HARPER

This historical novel follows the Irish royal rebel Elizabeth Fitzgerald, known as Gera, during the period when Henry VIII brought most of her family to destruction. I enjoyed the book, but it did fall a little short of my personal historical fiction standards. 

I found the voice difficult to follow and, thus, distracting. I have read many great historical novels where the dialogue is more modern than period-accurate. This never bothers me (assuming we’re avoiding overt modern slang), because the style keeps the story moving along and makes the flow more natural. I have also read historical novels that aim for something closer to how people talked during the period. However, in the case of THE IRISH PRINCESS the book doesn’t fully commit to either, which produces an awkward blend of old and modern speak.

I also didn’t invest in the romance. Historical fiction binds the author to predetermined outcomes regarding relationships, but skilled authors either convince us why two unlikely people fell in love or clarify why unwilling partners found themselves married off against their wishes. Historical fiction also comes with the added challenge that sometimes period romances look, shall we say, less romantic to a modern eye. In this case, the man is much older than the girl. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact age difference from the novel’s description, but looked it up later and confirmed he was 11 years older than her. However, I would have guessed the age gap was double to triple that from how the man is described in the book, which then left me confused, unconvinced, and squeamish about Gera’s intense attraction towards him.

The pacing also felt a little lacking. Gera fixates on revenge, but doesn't take much action. While that may be historically true, the best historical fiction (and fiction in general) makes the events feel driven by the characters. Unfortunately, Gera felt more like a witness to history and you could easily remove her from her own story without changing much. I also didn’t understand the choice of opening scene; it seems misleading, putting focus in the wrong place.

On the other hand, what I loved the most about the book is Gera’s passion. Not romantic. I mean the passion in her spirit. Her passion for her family. For Ireland. For revenge. She’s a driven girl who blooms into a driven woman, which also means she’s ahead of her time unfortunately.

Harper certainly presents Elizabeth Fitzgerald as an intriguing figure in history. Immediately after finishing the book I started looking into Gera some more. THE IRISH PRINCESS is a bit like a drink that only makes you thirstier. I enjoyed it, but now I need more about this fascinating Elizabeth Fitzgerald.    

Friday, November 16, 2018

THE WRATH AND THE DAWN


Review of THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by RENÉE AHDIEH
(first in THE WRATH AND THE DAWN series)

This book almost didn’t make my cut for a review; I have such strong criticisms that I feared a review would read mostly negative. However, when measuring whether or not to review a book, I try to ignore all the little (or big) aspects I disliked and simply ask myself: did I like the book? Would I recommend it to someone else? And, yes, I liked THE WRATH AND THE DAWN. I would recommend it to young adult fantasy readers, especially those who prioritize a strong setting.  

The summary of my criticisms is that I found this a good story full of plot holes. If you’re so inclined, you can easily rip at those holes until the story is in shreds. I suppose it’s a matter of credibility and suspended disbelief.

Let me describe the premise. Every night, Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride, only to have her executed at dawn the next morning. After he murders Shahrzad’s best friend, she volunteers as his next bride, determined to murder Khalid herself before he can continue his vicious, unexplained killing streak.

The book is gorgeously atmospheric and one can easily imagine yourself there, living the plot with these characters. I liked Shahrzad; rooting for her comes naturally. She’s obviously brave with cunning patience and well-spoken poise. I also liked the romance, though I won’t say I bought it 100%. Enemies to lovers is difficult to write and when not executed perfectly ends up feeling like, “Uh, why is she now making out with the enemy?”

My primary criticism is that I wanted to know why Khalid kills his brides at the start of the story. I couldn’t invest without this information and grew increasingly frustrated the longer that remained a mystery, only to discover the explanation is being withheld as a big reveal for the end. That meant I never fully invested. Without specific spoilers, there are also numerous other, smaller questions that distracted me throughout the story. Either it’s a genuine plot hole or my question wasn’t addressed to my satisfaction. Regardless, the book presents several circumstances as a no-other-choice situation....except I see other choices and find myself thinking, “But why don’t they just...?” One specific I can share is that it’s never clarified for me why Khalid spares Shahrzad that first night. It seems to come down to an emotional, lucky fluke, but I want her actions to have saved her and instead it feels like she owes her life to well-timed chance. In general, the author hand feels heavy. If asked why a character did something, I would say it’s because the author needed them to do that to move the story forward rather than because of any logical motivation on the character’s part.

I waffled about reviewing this one, because I know my criticisms sound very harsh. However, when I asked myself if I would recommend it to others my answer is still a confident yes (especially if I can tell you up front that you won’t find out why Khalid kills his brides until the end, so don’t wait on that). At its core, this novel is beautiful and successfully transports the reader to another world.
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Friday, November 9, 2018

LIRAEL


Review of LIRAEL by GARTH NIX
(second in the ABHORSEN series)

This second book in one of my favorite series follows not one but two main characters: Lirael and Sam.

Lirael lives with the Clayr, those gifted with the prophetic Sight. Each year she watches more and more of her sisters gain their Sight while Lirael remains Sightless, wondering if the power will ever come to her. She makes do, finding work as a librarian as well as an unlikely friend in the Disreputable Dog, a magic canine creation as entertaining as she is loyal.

Sam is Sabriel and Touchstone’s son, destined to follow in Sabriel’s footsteps and become the next Abhorsen. Except Sam is terrified of death. He can’t bring himself to admit as much to his parents, but becoming the Abhorsen is about one the last things in the world Sam wants. Unfortunately, rather than communicating his doubts, Sam lets his fears turn to procrastination by refusing to study his assigned materials. That lack of discipline could prove detrimental to the entire realm when an undead threat emerges, Sam is expected to help stop it....and he’s barely studied anything regarding how his powers should work.

Both Lirael and Sam feel more adolescent to me than Sabriel ever did. Not to diminish the scale of their problems, but they both come across as whiny at times and occasionally I simply wanted them to get over themselves. Lirael wants a talent she doesn’t have. She clearly has other talents that she refuses to acknowledge, because in her mind they are not The Talent. Sam doesn’t want to follow in his parents’ footsteps. Again, the scale adds complications and pressure, but these are typical problems at their root. I mean none of this as a criticism by the way. I found the teenagers believably egocentric and enjoyed watching their character growth. I admire how Nix makes the fantastical so relatable. One apt line in particular stood out to me, referencing Lirael obsessing yet again over her desperate desire for The Sight: “It was like worrying a toothache with her tongue. It hurt, but she couldn’t leave it alone.”

I love the Disreputable Dog. I love animals in my stories in general, especially when they play an active role and have strong personalities. Mogget makes an appearance, too, and I’m especially pleased to say the two animals cross paths since their mysterious-magic-dog versus ancient-demon-cat banter is not to be missed.

I found LIRAEL a little slower than SABRIEL and suspect it’s because this installment cuts off to be continued in the next book. Though all part of a series, SABRIEL works as a standalone while LIRAEL does feel like half a book...and I cannot wait to start the next one!

Friday, November 2, 2018

THE SERPENT KING


Review of THE SERPENT KING by JEFF ZENTNER
(based on a review copy)

If I ranked all the books I reviewed this year, this one might very well snag the number one spot at the top of that list. I loved it. No, I’m a little in love with it.

The publisher sent me this one unsolicited along with others I had requested and, in all honesty, it doesn’t sound like much. The blurb on the back doesn’t make it sound intriguing and if I summarize the premise without any gushing, I probably won’t make it sound intriguing. It’s a story about three misfit friends navigating high school. Well, aren’t they all? But wait: you really need to meet these ones.

First there’s Dill, probably the most unusual of their small pack. His father, nicknamed The Serpent King of the title, essentially led a cult and is now imprisoned. Dill feels buried under his parents’ expectations. His father expects Dill to continue his twisted legacy while his mother expects Dill to drop out of high school so he can start working full-time to help support the family. Dill is also a talented musician, though shy and hesitant about showcasing his skill since his father saw Dill’s musical aptitude as merely another way “to spread the word through song.”

Second there’s Travis, easily my favorite character as I’m a sucker for anyone who lets their dork flag fly out in the open without shame. Travis is obsessed with a fantasy series and even carries a staff with him everywhere. He knows doing so makes him as easy target for ridicule but the staff is meaningful to him and above all else Travis is true to himself. However, his adorable geekiness is shadowed by his abusive father. Not even his closest friends know, and as Travis suffers along with his mother he wishes he could be like the brave, strong heroes of his favorite series.

Last but not least there’s Lydia, whose strong will and bossy demeanor can be both admirable and overpowering. When people tease their trio at school, she returns with whip-speed, smart, withering comebacks. Lydia wants more for herself than this small town life. She maintains a successful fashion blog and has plans for New York next year. However, her critical remarks about their hometown and everyone in it cause tension with her friends, both fearful she can’t wait to leave them in the dust, too.

I found this book absolutely stunning. The more that I read, not to mention the more that I write myself including studying and breaking down a book into its pieces, the more critical a reader I become. Even when I love a book I almost always have some nitpicky criticisms. THE SERPENT KING I simply adored. Read it.
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