Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Review: Mystic Dragon by Jason Denzel

Mystic Dragon
Released by Tor on July 17, 2018
Available for purchase on Amazon

The second book in the enchanting epic fantasy series for fans of Robert Jordan from the founder of Dragonmount

Seven years have passed since Pomella AnDone became the unlikely apprentice to Mystic Grandmaster Faywong. Despite having attained significant accomplishments as a Mystic, Pomella feels incomplete. She laments that her Master isn’t teaching her quickly enough.

As a rare celestial event approaches, Pomella feels her lack of experience more than ever. The Mystical realm of Fayün is threatening to overtake the mortal world, and as the two worlds slowly blend together, Moth is thrown into chaos. People begin to vanish or are killed outright. Mystics from across the world gather to protect them, among them Shevia, a dark and brilliant prodigy whose mastery of the Myst rivals even that of the greatest High Mystics. 

Shevia will challenge Pomella in every possible way, from her mastery of the Myst to her emotional connection with Pomella's old friend Sim, in this fantasy adventure perfect for readers of Robert Jordan from one of the strongest voices in the Wheel of Time community.


ANNA'S REVIEW
★★

This book started on a really strong note and quickly got off track.

This book was interesting to begin with. Though it is technically a sequel, it didn't feel like one and it opens on an interesting magic system (where you harness Myst, which feels kind of like the Force) and a compelling action scene. And for the first several chapters, I was very engaged and really excited about this book. The characters were fascinating and their backstories really felt like they added to the world and to the story. And the magic system kept getting more complex and the politics of magic wielders really fascinated me. It was a slow build that really felt like it would pay off and I was really enjoying reading it.

And then, about halfway through, things changed suddenly. The slow crescendo picked up without warning and immediately went from a growing p to fff. It was an abrupt shift that felt forced and unnatural and it was unclear how we got from the first half to the second half. Suddenly, we're at what feels like the climax of the book, but we're only 2/3 through and it keeps building and building, but without any breaks or really any additional character development. It felt like the first half of the book was completely dedicated to setting the scene and getting to know characters and the second half was completely action. And that was unfortunate. Plus, the longer the action went on, the less sense it made. The ending came out of nowhere and really didn't make any sense and I felt like we had suddenly (again, everything in the second half is sudden and unexpected) come to a halt and the book was over. And I didn't even quite understand what had happened - there were no signs or clues of the twist ending that the author tried to throw in and so it really fell flat and felt forced.

It feels like this author excels at character development and struggles with coherent plot. Reading the characters' backstories and how they get to the action made a lot of sense and was really rewarding. As soon as we got away from character development and focused completely on THINGS ARE HAPPENING NOW, a lot was lost and it felt like an entirely different (and much worse) book.

I may be interested in giving this author a second try because I was so impressed with the first half of this book, but the second half made me lose a lot of faith in this author's ability to craft a coherent story and I'll be approaching his future books warily.




What are you looking for in a fantasy sequel? What magic systems appeal to you?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: Space Unicorn Blues by T.J. Berry

Space Unicorn Blues
Released by Angry Robot on July 3, 2018
Available for purchase on Amazon

A misfit crew race across the galaxy to prevent the genocide of magical creatures, in this unique science fiction debut.

Having magical powers makes you less than human, a resource to be exploited. Half-unicorn Gary Cobalt is sick of slavery, captivity, and his horn being ground down to power faster-than-light travel. When he's finally free, all he wants is to run away in his ancestors' stone ship. Instead, Captain Jenny Perata steals the ship out from under him, so she can make an urgent delivery. But Jenny held him captive for a decade, and then Gary murdered her best friend... who was also the wife of her co-pilot, Cowboy Jim. What could possibly go right?


ANNA'S REVIEW
★★


I have some mixed feelings about this very complicated and bizarre book.

Gary is half unicorn, half human and has just been released from prison when he gets pulled into a plot to deliver mysterious packages across the universe. Will he be able to let go of old grudges to complete the mission?

There was some good in this book, in spite of the 2 star rating. The world-building (or rather, universe building) was complex and interesting. It was a strange mix of science fiction and fantasy. Not only is there space travel, but typically fantastic creatures exist across the universe. The author obviously had put a lot of thought into the politics and cultures within the world. While things sometimes were confusing or a little too convoluted, for the most part, the universe was built well and was interesting to read about.

The diversity was also well-done. For the most part, it wasn't too heavy handed or down-played. Characters are accepting of their (and others') identities - except for the bigoted villains, of course. And there was a lot of diversity - different races, sexualities, and gender identities.

But....even with all that, this book had some serious issues. Below are some SPOILERS because I cannot stop myself from talking in-depth about the problems in this book.

The biggest issue I took was the poor development of characters. While the author obviously had some ideas about how characters were supposed to be, often the actions of the characters didn't fall in line with the overtly-mentioned aspects of their personalities.

Take Jenny, for example. Throughout the book, Jenny is shown to be a take-charge kind of person who never stops fighting. She always has a plan and is never afraid to fight for those she loves. This is all mentioned explicitly and shown implicitly throughout the book. However, at the beginning of the book, we are told that Jenny has spent the previous 10 years waiting around for Gary to get out of jail. She's bummed around doing small jobs, but couldn't do much else because she didn't have a ship. With everything that we're shown about Jenny's character throughout the book, this doesn't make any sense - she just sat around doing nothing for a decade and then she's ready to be a go-getter once again?

What also confused me was Jenny's feelings toward Bala - or magical creatures. Jenny is in a relationship with a magical tree/druid creature. However, it is told many times that Jenny (while in this relationship), took Gary (our half-unicorn character) captive for years and mistreated him. This discrepancy felt odd to me - why would Jenny be okay with Bala in some instances, but feel justified in taking one as a slave in others? If this discrepancy had been addressed head on, I would have felt better about it.. But it's never mentioned. And we're just told that, in the 10 years she did nothing, Jenny changed and now feels more sympathetic to Bala and their plight. But why didn't she feel that way the whole time she was married to a Bala who was losing rights and constantly on the run from the authorities? It made no sense.

Jim is another character I took issue with. His character makes little sense and entirely functions as a villain. He is very clear about his hatred for Gary throughout the entire book, but is okay moving forward with a plan to bring Gary on board and helps moves this plan along. It is only when Gary is back on board that Jim is shown to have a problem with Gary and starts doing little things to antagonize him. Why would Jim go along with this plan at all if he hated Gary? And if he chose to go along with it in spite of hating Gary, why wouldn't he try to kill Gary on sight?

Along those same lines, the author seemed to be unsure about whether Jim was supposed to be a quirky, but likeable character, or an evil villain. There are a lot of characters who are written to show both their good and bad characteristics, but Jim's character was not written well to show this balance. Obviously, most people have some good and some bad in them. But Jim's character felt disjointed when he was obsessed with grilled cheese in one paragraph and turning in Bala to the authorities in the next. It didn't feel like the same character. Also, grilled cheese isn't a personality trait and I wish the character of Jim had been fleshed out more than being 1) useless, 2) obsessed with grilled cheese sandwiches, and 3) evil.

And with that in mind, here is what confused me most- why are Jim and Jenny still hanging around together? Jenny is clear about thinking Jim is useless and sketchy. Jim gets irritated with Jenny. Jenny knows that Jim hates Gary. Why would Jenny invite Jim to help in a mission to rescue Gary with all that in mind? And why would Jim accept? On top of that, Jim and Jenny supposedly hung out for 10 years doing almost nothing or reconnected after 10 years to do this job - which makes no sense. Ten years is a long time - neither of them found any new connections or realized their incompatibility in that time? What's keeping them together - a love for Jim's deceased wife? Their relationship makes no sense, especially as it becomes more and more clear that Jim isn't useful on board and that Jenny doesn't trust him at all.

The writing is often unclear. It took me a long time understand the cultures and the universe because things were revealed just a little at a time, but in a very confusing and disorienting way. For the first 1/3 of this book, I really had no idea what was going on (partly because the first 5-6 chapters are a contest taking place in a bar that has no real impact on the rest of the story).

Overall, this is a fun book for people who enjoy silly sci-fi stories. But if you want good character development, don't pick up this book.



Have you read this book? Are you interested in reading this book? What do you look for in a science fiction story?

Friday, June 29, 2018

Review: City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies (Poison Wars #1)
Released by Tor on July 3rd, 2018
Available for purchase on Amazon

I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me... 

Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he's a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state. 

But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising...and angry.


ANNA'S REVIEW
★★★★

What an excellent fantasy debut!

This is a unique book. Many fantasy stories deal with all-out wars and very overt aggression. This story, while it did featured a siege, was a lot more concerned with subtle aggression - poison, political intrigue, spying, etc. And that made it very interesting and unique. None of our characters are paladins or warriors. In fact, they can barely hold weapons some of the time. Our main characters are much more concerned with learning about poison and finding hiding places to spy on people from. They aren't effective in the ways some fantasy characters typically are and I found that change refreshing and interesting.

The world in this story was really unique in some regards. The main city comes from a matriarchal society - women bear children and those children remain part of the woman's family. In fact, it seems that marriage is not a concern in this society at all - when a woman gives birth, there is no concern for the father and the children are raised within the large extended family. That was very unique and I wish this had been a bigger deal in the story - it's mentioned in passing a few times and comments are made about how weird it is when people leave their families (their aunts and uncles and mother, etc) to start their own family (two parents and children). Perhaps in future books, this will be addressed in more depth. The rest of the world was interesting, but not all that unique or significant. There are guilds that basically run the city. There's a lower class that's been treated unfairly by the ruling class and they want change. The "magic" system was interesting, though as a religion (which it is), it isn't that unique. But regarding it as magic makes it more interesting. Overall, it was an interesting world in so many capacities, but a fairly typical fantasy world in other capacities.

The main characters were the one part of this book that I didn't like. While most of the characters were written in interesting ways and had some personality, the two main characters just felt....meh. Our two main characters take turns narrating and there was nothing about their views of the world or their narrating voices that helped to tell them apart. Often, I'd have to go back to the chapter heading to remind myself who was narrating currently. I should have been far more attached to the main characters than I was and I should have been able to get a sense for their personalities and their wants and needs and interests, but most of what I learned about the main characters were things they revealed about each other - i.e. "Jovan cares so much about Tain," "Kalina is sickly and weak and needs me to take care of her," etc. There are ways to reveal your character without making other characters do the work of explaining them and I wish these characters had more clear personality.

Overall, this is a rewarding and interesting read and I'm excited to see more from this author.



Have you read this book? Are you interested in reading this book? What do you look for in a fantasy novel?

Friday, June 22, 2018

Resolutions: Read 100+ books in 2018

Huzzah! Another 2018 resolution completed!



Last night, I finished my 100th book of the year. Given how much I've been working these past couple months, I wasn't sure I'd be able to keep up on reading. And while I honestly haven't read as much as I would like to, I was still able to finish my goal very far ahead of time - which gives me hope that I get a lot more reading done before the year is out. Ideally, I'd love to beat my 2017 record of 187 books in one year, but that may or may not happen.

You can see my 100 books here!


How is your 2018 reading challenge going? What recommendations do you have for people who are falling behind?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

On reading to become well-educated

I've recently been exposed to Susan Wise Bauer's list of books for the Well-Educated Mind (this blog has the neatest and clearest copy of her list that I could easily find). The friend who told me about it talked about how she and her partner were working through the list separately and that they felt it would be a lifelong project to read through this list. I was impressed with her dedication and with the broad range of perspective that her exposure to this list had given her so far.

That being said, this list is one person's perspective of what a well-educated person should have read. There are a lot of classic texts and a lot more modern ones. There's some diversity on this list as well. It got me thinking about what I would add to this list or what more I would want to consider someone well-educated. And here are a few of my ideas:


  • Eastern books - Most of the work on this list comes from Western authors. Though there is a lot of diversity on the list, it is mostly confined to Western countries or ancient Greek and Roman writings. I'd love to see some ancient Chinese, Indian, or Japanese works in translation listed on here. And the broadness of this request shows how little I know about Eastern literature, but I'd love to learn more and this list could be an excellent start to that exposure. And knowing about world cultures should be an important part of being well-educated.
  • More work by women - This is another area that I feel like this list could be expanded more. I understand that throughout history, women's writing has not been as prominent or as beloved as men's writing. However, there are plenty of modern women writers that deserve recognition or that must be read for one to be considered well-educated. I was glad to see Toni Morrison on this list, but the poetry section seemed especially sparse for women. Again, I wish I knew more about poetry to better recommend specific women poets to be included, but this list would be an excellent opportunity to expose people to more important women's writing.

What would you add to or remove from this list? What books do you think someone must read to be considered well-educated?

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Updates and new adventures

Guys, blogging is tough. When I started this blog, I was certain I'd have the time, energy, and creative power to post 3 times a week. And for awhile, I kept that up. Then, a few months ago, I brought that down to twice a week (plus blogging memes periodically when I felt like it). Now, my life has changed again and I'm realizing that there is no way I can keep up with twice a week. I just started an internship that occupies my 9a-5p hours, plus I'm working many evenings and weekends. There simply isn't time for me to blog so often at this point in my life. So, for the remainder of the year, I'll be doing at least one post every week (and hopefully more blogging memes or posts when I have time and energy to do more).

I've also started posting reviews on my blog. When I first started, I wanted this blog to be a place for book discussions and book lists and I hoped that book reviews could stay on my Goodreads account. However, as I've gained more perspective on book blogging (and lost free time), it's become clear to me that posting reviews makes a lot of sense (especially since I have more blog followers than Goodreads followers).

I'm excited to continue this blogging adventure and I'm so glad I've kept this up as long as I have (15 months so far)! Hopefully, I can continue this for many more months:)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Fruit of the Drunken Tree
Released by Doubleday on July 31, 2018
Available for purchase on Amazon

In the vein of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a mesmerizing debut set against the backdrop of the devastating violence of 1990's Colombia about a sheltered young girl and a teenage maid who strike an unlikely friendship that threatens to undo them both

The Santiago family lives in a gated community in Bogotá, safe from the political upheaval terrorizing the country. Seven-year-old Chula and her older sister Cassandra enjoy carefree lives thanks to this protective bubble, but the threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations hover just outside the neighborhood walls, where the godlike drug lord Pablo Escobar continues to elude authorities and capture the attention of the nation.

When their mother hires Petrona, a live-in-maid from the city's guerrilla-occupied slum, Chula makes it her mission to understand Petrona's mysterious ways. But Petrona's unusual behavior belies more than shyness. She is a young woman crumbling under the burden of providing for her family as the rip tide of first love pulls her in the opposite direction. As both girls' families scramble to maintain stability amidst the rapidly escalating conflict, Petrona and Chula find themselves entangled in a web of secrecy that will force them both to choose between sacrifice and betrayal. 

Inspired by the author's own life, and told through the alternating perspectives of the willful Chula and the achingly hopeful Petrona, Fruit of the Drunken Tree contrasts two very different, but inextricable coming-of-age stories. In lush prose, Rojas Contreras sheds light on the impossible choices women are often forced to make in the face of violence and the unexpected connections that can blossom out of desperation


ANNA'S REVIEW
★★★★
I have definitely never read a book like this before and I learned so much about Columbian history while reading.

Chula and Cassandra are young when their mother hires Petrona to clean their house. What starts as a working relationship soon becomes much more than that for Chula - and getting close to Petrona will change their lives in ways they never could have imagined.

For the first several chapter of this book, I was intrigued by the beautiful writing and the well-done character development. It was a lovely book and I was enjoying getting to know about another culture. But as the book went on, that changed considerably.

Is it wrong to say I was not expecting this book to be what it was? I expected a deep, lovely, sweet book about a family accepting a young girl into their home. And for a long time, that's exactly what it seemed like. But the book got darker and darker as it went on, but in a really satisfying and meaningful way. I wasn't expecting to get so attached to these characters or to want to know so much more about the conflicts they experienced.

The author was especially masterful in showing that not everyone gets a happy ending. Some books end on a happy note, but it feels artificial. This book presents itself in the beginning as one that ends on a happy note (The family immigrated! The girl got married! There's a cute little baby!), but by the end, you understand that it's so much more complicated than that for our characters and there's so much more to consider when trying to understand their happiness. The ending is bittersweet and the author handled this perfectly - along with leaving some hope and change open for Petrona in the end.

I especially was intrigued by Pablo Escobar, who I know was a real person who really terrorized Columbia for years. Hearing old news reports is one thing, but reading about how one man tore apart so many lives and families puts things into a new context. I want to learn more about that period in Columbian history and not a lot of historical fiction books make me that excited to learn more. This book is fantastic in that regard - you're so wrapped up in the lives of the characters that you don't notice how much you're learning until the guerillas are a central part of the plot. I was slowly eased into learning more and now I want to keep going.

Highly recommended to lovers of Latin American literature and those with an interest in family dramas.


Have you read this book? Are you interested in reading this book? What cultures are you excited to read more about?