Catching up on reviews, part 1

I’m behind on a lot of reviews and short on time, so I will try to say a few words about the books I couldn’t get to. They’re all really good, and I’ve been having a great time just reading and enjoying the ride. If you want to know more about any one of them, let me know and I will write a more comprehensive review.

 

The Home Crowd Advantage (Peter Grant, #5.5)
The Home Crowd Advantage (Peter Grant #5.5) by Ben Aaronovitch
Read from May 30 to June 06, 2015
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

Read it here.

Takes place during the Summer Olympics of 2012 in London, and all security forces around the city are on high alert. Peter gets a call about a magical situation near an Olympic stadium that has turned into a standoff, so he rushes over to see if he can contain it by himself since Nightingale is out of town.

This is an interesting piece but it’s literally too short to review and reads more like an outtake than a short story. It sort of expands on Nightingale’s past, but not enough to tell you much of anything. And that’s why I think it’s an outtake–a scene too interesting to scrap but doesn’t necessarily fit into the next book.

If you’re looking for something to tie you over until Book #6 comes out, this story will sort of do it. It’s always fun to return to Aaronovitch’s London and see what Peter is up to these days, but these shorts make me want more.

 

The Mad Scientist's Daughter
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Read from April 30 to June 01, 2015
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A post-apocalyptic fairy tale for the robotics age about a girl who falls in love with a mechanical boy. I picked this book up on a whim not knowing much about it other than the author’s name, which sounded vaguely familiar, and I’m glad I gave it a chance because it’s a great story told by a talented writer.

This is YA but not too YA that it lost me completely. There’s enough YA in it for those who like YA, and there’s enough robot things in it for those who like robots and robot theories. The writing is engaging and uncomplicated, but the ideas presented are complex and compelling. Many of Isaac Asimov’s concepts of AI and robotics are examined through the love story, and I found that the author did a good job bringing these ideas to the present age and applying them to modern sensibilities. This is a long about way of saying this book can double as political satire since it explores issues concerning the humanity of robots, particularly their sentience and autonomy. Recommended for people who like a blend of fairy tale and sci-fi.

 

The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1)
The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur #1) by Hannu Rajaniemi
Read from May 01 to 31, 2015
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

A fascinating read about a fascinating world filled to the brim with fascinating advanced technology and mind-boggling concepts. This book completely blew my mind the moment I finished reading and kept me dazed in a book hangover for weeks afterward. I was blown away by the complex worlds (and worlds within worlds) the author created and I wanted to experience them over and over again. But now that those effects are wearing off, so are my feelings regarding the book’s ingenuity and the author’s prowess. That’s not to say I don’t like it anymore; I still like it a lot and look forward to continuing Jean le Flambeur’s flighty adventures. But I can’t help but see the fascinating world building as a distraction from a fairly clever (but thin) heist story set in outer space.

There are two story arcs that converge near the end. The thief’s story is all about cyberspace and neuroscience and outsmarting systems much clever than himself, and he’s quite a clever fellow. The detective’s story is woven with decadence and a steampunk atmosphere, as though someone brought Victorian England to outer space. Each story has a mystery and both the thief and the detective have to solve their respective mystery before their time runs out, but the things they’re chasing after aren’t what they seem. They’re mysteries within mysteries.

I enjoyed the chase and trying to stay one step ahead of both characters was exhausting and a lot of fun. I don’t read that much hard sci-fi, but I suspect this book might be a popcorn read in its genre. It’s fun, fast, and impressive–great, if you’re in the mood for mind games.

 

Fair Play (All's Fair, #2)
Fair Play (All’s Fair, #2) by Josh Lanyon
Read from May 23 to 25, 2015
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

I read Josh Lanyon not so much for story or mystery or character, but for setting and realistic portrayals of disjointed relationships. He likes to explore dysfunctional relationships and has a knack for making them seem realistic. His characters aren’t always likable, but their stories are hard to put down. However, I find the mystery elements in these stories not lacking exactly but not as interesting as the characters’ day-to-day life. This book is no exception. It’s a good story and all, and the writing is classic Lanyon, but it didn’t pull me in. Plus, the mystery was kind of dull and repetitive since something similar happened in the last book.

Elliott and Tucker have moved in together following the events of Fair Game, and their life on Goose Island is pleasantly domestic with Elliott still teaching history at the university and Tucker still an FBI agent. Then one night, they get a call informing them that Elliott’s father’s house (Elliott’s childhood home) has burned to the ground. The investigation turns up signs of arson and it turns out someone is after his father. So he takes it upon himself to find the person responsible. Meanwhile, the arson and attempts on his father’s life put more strains on his relationship with Tucker. Although things work out in the end, they take awhile getting there. I found myself bored for much of Elliott’s investigation.

 

Dust (Jacob's Ladder, #1)
Dust (Jacob’s Ladder #1) by Elizabeth Bear
Read from February 01 to May 18, 2015
Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

This is an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy. The story takes place on a living space ship, but a lot of magic is used throughout and there is a war going on that has roots in mythology. A lost princess with no memory of her past is found living among servants at an enemy house. The rest of the story is about rescuing her and trying to get off the ship.

I really wish I could have liked this book more. Elizabeth Bear’s writing style and ideas are interesting, but this book just wasn’t for me. Maybe I picked it up at the wrong time and the story didn’t grab me because I found myself distracted easily by other books, then having a hard time returning to this one. But I’m still interested Bear’s writing and will probably try something else by her. Probably the Eternal Sky trilogy, which is a historical fantasy set in a Central Asian influenced realm. All three books have received rave reviews, and I look forward to starting the first one.

 

Precious Dragon (Detective Inspector Chen #3)
Precious Dragon (Detective Inspector Chen #3) by Liz Williams
Read from April 27 to May 18, 2015
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

There’s nothing quite like returning to a beloved series. I don’t really know what it is about these books that just feel right to me. Singapore Three and Detective Chen’s houseboat feel like a second home to me by now because so much of the writing is dedicated to the vibrant locales. I feel like I can navigate the streets and back allays just by following the books’ descriptions of each neighborhood.

This book starts out slow and builds up momentum as it goes. Chen and Zhu Irzh return to Hell, but this time for a sanctioned trip to escort Ms Qi, an ambassador of Heaven, to the Minister of War. Of course the trip turns out to be disastrous, more disastrous than expected, and the group find themselves in the middle of an impending war with Heaven and Zhu Irzh, in particular, finds his family in the middle of a coup. Things only get more awkward and hilarious from there.

The combination of Liz William’s humor and her takes on Chinese mythology, satire, and fantasy never fail to entertain me. I like that she’s placed Heaven in the role of the aggressor this time. Hell has always been accused of war mongering, and that’s because it’s Hell–war mongering is part of its charms. But seeing Heaven in that role puts certain things in a different perspective. Perhaps Heaven and Hell aren’t as different as Heaven likes to think…

Side note: I always thought Singapore Three was a franchise city, like there are at least 3 cities modeled after Singapore all over Asia (or the world?). But what if Singapore has been destroyed completely twice before and this is the third time it’s been rebuilt?

 

Currently reading:

The Birthgrave
Birthgrave (Birthgrave Trilogy #1) by Tanith Lee

I’m really enjoying this book so far, but if I had to describe it or explain why I like it to someone who hasn’t read Tanith Lee, I wouldn’t know what to say. The bare bones of the story is mythological. An unnamed woman wakes up inside a volcano with no memory. A malevolent spirit only she can see torments her with death. She has strange powers that only affect people who believe in her. Villagers think she’s a god, but outsiders who don’t believe in her sought to use her as leverage or for their own gain. She goes from one village or settlement to the next, but isn’t able to feel comfortable enough to stay anywhere for long. And every place she visits, death and destruction always follow when she leaves.

Without giving too much away, I can only say how it makes me feel. The writing is mostly introspective and has an eerie undertone, and the atmosphere is dreamy and fantastical. There’s also an cold sense of foreboding running through the story. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, but maybe that’s because I haven’t read much classic SF/F. Will have to dig out older SF/F for future reads.

Side not: I’m at 45% now and there’s still no explanation for the various depictions of naked women on the covers. The nameless goddess has never been without clothes. Sometimes she even wears a long veil that covers most of her clothed body, so I’m confused as to why she’s always naked in cover art.

 

Otherworldly news:

I’ve been following the Women’s World Cup, and it’s great to see how much attention these games are getting. Coverage this year is exceptional compared to previous years; almost every game is televised and almost every major news network is covering some portion of it every day, which is a huge improvement.

Things continue to heat up as we move to the the semi-finals. With the exception of Brazil going home early, there hasn’t that many surprising moments, but every game I’ve been able watch all the way through has been exciting. Almost makes me want to forget about the FIFA fiasco. Almost. How many days until the end of the Age of Blatter?

Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Date Read: June 16 to 19, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: a lot of people
Recommended for: people who like realistic YA fiction

This book is ridiculous.

Ahem.

I mean, not for me.

Let’s start with some quotes

So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.

[…]

It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.

[…]

Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.

[…]

I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.

[…]

I wanted to be one of those people who have streaks to maintain, who scorch the ground with their intensity. But for now, at least I knew such people, and they needed me, just like comets need tails.

[…]

It’s not life or death, the labyrinth. Suffering. Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?

[…]

“Sometimes I don’t get you,” I said.
She didn’t even glance at me. She just smiled toward the television and said, “You never get me. That’s the whole point.”

Oh the humanity. There’s only so much of these I could take before the book becomes papier-mache (if it weren’t a borrowed or library copy). I’ve never quoted so much from a book I can’t stand, but I think these quotes are worth noting. They’re representative of the book as a whole. If you like them, you’ll like the book.

Objectively speaking, this book is a quick read and it’s not bad, not as bad as I make it sound. The basis of the story is about teenagers at a boarding school. One of them falls for a girl named Alaska, but it’s unrequited and the rest of the book is about dealing with grief. So it’s a fairly average, sort of nuanced narrative about the pains of growing up that has echoes of its forerunners, Perks of Being a Wallflower and Catcher in the Rye. What sets it apart from Perks and Catcher is all those quotable quotes above and a quirky cast of characters (and a manic pixie dream girl).

I had no expectations going into this book even though all I’d heard were good things about John Green’s writing, and after years of encountering rave reviews of his books and youtube videos, I finally got the chance to see what all the hype was about. His youtube videos–the educational ones–are great. They actually educate and cover a variety of topics and subject matter. I especially like his Crash Course series which covers literature, history, science, politics, and other subjects that might not be taught in some schools like psychology and sociology.

Green’s writing, however, is…just not for me. Not just because it’s YA, but because it’s wordy and tries too hard to be funny, heartfelt, and transcendent, all at the same time. Sort of like Nicholas Sparks but more self and socially aware, and aimed at a younger, hipper audience. So the result is prose that can easily be taken out of context and quoted all over the place–made into t-shirts, banners, posters, movies, etc etc. That’s the sense I got anyway, that Green’s writing tries too hard to be unparalleled and that I can literally see what he’s trying to do by telling this story. It comes across as forced and stiff and sometimes awkward. But maybe that’s a YA thing and it’s way over my head?

So in short, this book is not for me. It didn’t help that I found the plot and characters pretentious and overreaching, and I’m fully aware how that sounds coming from me, someone who counts Cloud Atlas, House of Leaves, and Infinite Jest among her favorites. So this isn’t a critique of the book or Green’s writing, but a reflection of my personal taste and why books like Looking for Alaska don’t work for me.

Sometimes pretentiousness works if it has a point and impresses more than repels. But sometimes it falls short and comes off as trying too hard.

DEF

Forgot to mention in the last post that this is an ongoing meme circling around twitter, and I was tagged by a few people whose tweets I can’t find anymore because twitter is a mess and looking for specific tweets always gives me a headache. So I’m doing the questions here.

DNF

Just recently I had to shelve Eye of the World for the third time. No reason other than a case of “wrong time, wrong book,” which happens to be a recurring theme for me when it comes to traditional high fantasy. Eye of the World was picked by one of my GR book clubs and I had every intention of finishing it by the end of May. And I actually got past all the world building this time around, but then my work load piled up and other books, more interesting and more time consuming, got in the way–specifically The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi, which took me longer to get through and unravel than I intended. Then Stories of the Raksura, Vol II arrived in the mail, and all my focus and energy went into not devouring it in one night. And that was it for the rest of May. There was just no chance to finish Eye of the World and I got tired of pretending like I could, so back on the shelf it went.

Best Ending of book or series

In terms of execution, it’s a tie between Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and House of Leaves by Mark Danielewksi, which is funny because they’re polar opposites. One is order and the other chaos. But they both experiment with different styles and voices to weave several narratives together, and I think the result is the most interesting I’ve ever read. Both endings are astounding and stay true to the structure and nature of the books. Cloud Atlas ends in an orderly fashion, just like how it starts. Everything comes full circle and it’s quite poetic to see all the pieces falling into place. House of Leaves, on the other hand, ends with a feeling. You know that feeling you have as you’re drifting off to sleep and you suddenly find yourself diving head first into an abyss and you jerk awake with your heart and adrenaline pumping full force? House of Leaves left me with that feeling. I’m still not sure what that means though.

But in terms of surprise, I would have to say The Giver by Lois Lowry. The ending is left wide open, and that surprised me most about this book. Since it’s YA, I was expecting most loose ends to be wrapped up in a tidy (albeit rushed) ending, but the book ends abruptly in the middle of a scene, if I remember correctly. I haven’t read the sequels, so I don’t know how Jonas’ life turned out or what became of the baby Gabriel, and I think it’s better that way, not knowing. Because knowing would ruin the jarring impact of the book.

Book that gave you the most FEELZ

Basically everything I’ve read by Octavia Butler. Unexpected feelz are the best and most memorable feelz, and unexpected feelz about ambiguous shapeshifting gender-defying aliens are feelz that stay with you long after you finish reading.

But if I had to pick just one book, it would have to be… A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. The writing is beautifully devastating. Even though I knew what would happen, I still wasn’t prepared for the ending.

“I wish I had a hundred years,” she said, very quietly. “A hundred years I could give to you.”

Gets me every time.

 

Currently reading:

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Magic Rises (Kate Daniels, #6) by Ilona Andrews

With Magic Shifts (#8) coming out later this summer and Magic Breaks (#7) arriving in the mail today, I figured it was time to get reacquainted with Kate Daniels and her chaotic, over-the-top, post-apocalyptic world. It’s a world I love with characters I’m fond of. My only complaint though is the focus of the series shifting away from Kate with the addition of so many new characters. It’s become more like an ensemble cast but with Kate still as the main POV. Another thing is the shift from Kate’s life as a lone-wolf mercenary to her domestic life as Curran’s mate. Just seems odd is all and somewhat difficult for me to adjust to, mostly because I find Kate being on her own much more interesting than her settling down–figure of speech, of course, since nothing settles down in this world.

While I recall books 1 through 5 just fine, I’m having trouble remembering the events of Magic Rises. I tacked it on on the tail end of an energetic UF marathon and I was just short of burning out by the time I finished, so there might have been some breezing through and skimming past key sequences of the plot. The only things coming back to me now is Kate settling into her role as the Pack’s mistress, the Pack’s trip to Europe to help solve the European Pack’s problems, a beloved character dies, and some new ones are added to the ever-expanding Pack family.

Since I recall so little of this book, it’ll be like reading it for the first time.

 

TBR soon:

something by Tanith Lee (haven’t decided yet)

She passed away recently and a post on bookriot lists 3 books as possible starting points for people who have never read her. And I’m among them but I’ve always been meaning to read her–is what we all say. Don’t know why I kept pushing her books further down my list in favor of other lesser works, but no more. I’m gonna read something by Tanith Lee this summer.

People say she wrote great stories and had a beautiful way with prose.

Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told–on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others–there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change–passing on the fire like a torch–forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all.

(quote from io9)

ABC

Author you’ve read the most

In terms of number of pages, it’s Charles Dickens since I’ve read most of his books and each must be somewhere 700 to 900 pages (MMPB editions).

But in terms of number of works (including short stories, novellas, and sometimes essays), it’s Brandon Sanderson.

Though neither are authors I read anymore these days. I think after surpassing the 10,000-page mark I just got sick and tired of both authors, and it didn’t help that both are/were formulaic writers who have/had a tendency to rehash the same kinds of characters and problems. After a couple of books, starting a new one by either was like reading the previous one over again. The writing got too repetitive and predictable for me.

Best sequel

It’s a tie between Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler and Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon. If I finish both authors’ body of work, Butler would become my most-read author in terms of number of works and Gabaldon in terms of number of pages.

Best cover art

Another tie, this time between Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen series (original hardcover editions) and Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series.

 

Currently reading:

Three great books

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The Reapers are the Angels (Reapers #1) by Alden Bell
Somber, eloquent, and quite beautiful. The writing style reminds me of early contemporary American. “Faulkner-esque” is what some reviewers call it. This book definitely rivals The Girl with All the Gifts in execution and could very well be the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read this year.

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Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone
A surprise, a pleasant surprise. I was lured in by the urban-fantasy-ness and blown away by the setting and world building. As a rule, I have low expectations for all urban fantasies, regardless of hype. So I went into this book expecting it to be average at best, but the depth and scope of Gladstone’s world building won me over. Looking forward to continuing this series.

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Stories of the Raksura, Volume II by Martha Wells
What else is there left to say about this series that I haven’t said in my last two posts? When an author hits her stride, it shows in the strength of the narrative and the writing is simply wonderful. Wells just gets better and better with every new Raksura installment. I’d prefer a full-length novel because I just love the Three Worlds and every single character in it, but the short stories and novellas are just as great and fulfilling in their own way. The ones in this second volume fill in the gap between the previous books and from past events before Moon’s time, but these are more than just fillers because each story adds something new to the continuous arc and expand on wonders of the Three Worlds.

 

Lately I’ve been on a roll with my book choices and have come across a bunch of great ones these past few weeks, and I’d like to tell everyone about them, but there hasn’t been enough time to write. When I do have time, writing and reviewing just seem like too much work. And it doesn’t help that I’ve been writing a lot for work. Not fun things like books and new releases, but reports and proposals and answering dumb questions that anyone could find the answers to on google. *internally eye-rolling forever*. So the inclination to sit down and type out a post, no matter how short and to the point, makes me want to take a nap instead, even if it’s a post about books I actually enjoy.

And besides, it’s summer. There’s always something to do and dogs to walk and backyard gatherings to attend, if only for the free booze. Someone I know always wants to break out the grill and torch a few burgers every weekend that it’s not raining, and someone else always wants to have “a few people over” or go out and “try this new place,” and at least one other person always invite me to their kids’ birthdays–like why? I didn’t even know you had kids… but that’s beside the point.

The point is it’s summer and I have a short attention span. My reading list has been great and I want to let everyone know about all these awesome books I’m breezing through, but writing complete reviews isn’t something I can accomplish. So posts from now on will most likely be a mash-up of updates, short reviews, memes, and a few other things.

Review: Stories of the Raksura, Volume 1 by Martha Wells

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: February 9 to 11, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by:
Recommended for:

The cover artwork for this series is just stunning. I love them all.

We return to the Three Worlds with this volume of four adventure-filled short stories (actually two novellas and two short stories) featuring characters from all three previous books and with special guest appearances by Indigo and Cloud.

 

“The Falling World” takes place after The Siren Depths, and it’s about Moon coming to Jade’s rescue. Now with powerful alliances like Opal Night and Emerald Twilight, the Indigo Cloud court is moving up the Raksura social ladder, with many other courts around the Reaches vying for their attention.

On a mission to visit a smaller court, Jade takes five of her warriors to discuss a trade deal, but on the day she’s due back, a young queen from that court comes to Indigo Cloud asking to speak with her. This causes a stir among the Arbora and Aeriat, and since no one has heard from Jade or the warriors since they left, Moon, Stone, and Pearl suspect she must have ran into trouble on the way there. Moon and Stone, along with a group of Arbora hunters, set out to find her and the others.

 

“Tale of Indigo and Cloud” goes back to a time before Indigo Cloud got its name and the colony tree was filled to capacity, with Aeriat and Arbora all over the place.

According to rumors, Indigo “stole” Cloud from a young queen at the Emerald Twilight court. But according to historical accounts, she did not. This story is about what really happened and how two courts almost went to war if not for some clever maneuvering on the part of a reigning queen. Since the courts came close to going to war, we get to see how courts prepare for or initiate war, and as usual, it’s a whole production, complete with nuances and posturing.

Best part though is seeing Stone as a little fledgling.

 

“The Forest Boy” is about Moon as a child. He had just lost Sorrow and his Arbora siblings to a Taft attack, and had been hiding out in the forest near the edge of town when two orphaned children found and brought him back to their foster parents’ house. The family was poor, but they took him in anyway and he lived with them for awhile. But he could not stay when one of the orphans saw him in his Raksura form.

A bittersweet story, told from the POV of an orphan boy. Makes you wonder how Moon’s life would turn out if he’d been raised in a stable home with decent people who cared for him, instead of bouncing from village to village.

 

“Adaptation” takes place shortly before Moon’s arrival, and it’s about Chime’s transition from Arbora mentor to Aeriat warrior. Life with wings is a challenge, both physically and mentally. For Chime specifically, though, becoming an Aeriat means losing his mentor and reproduction abilities, as all warriors are sterile and have no magic. It takes him a long time to adjust to the transition–and even now he’s still struggling with it–but with Balm’s help, he’s able to fly and the experience is unlike anything he’d ever imagined.

 

These stories are great, but too short. I need more. Good thing the second volume of short stories is coming out in a few days!

 

Just thought this is really cute.

Jade & Moon by Pentapus
(Jade & Moon by Pentapus)

Review: the Books of Raksura by Martha Wells

I’ve been sitting on this review for the past couple of months, not because I don’t have anything to say but because all I have to say is how much I love this series (I love it so very much). I went into the first book The Cloud Roads expecting to like it, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I enjoyed it. All three books are simply amazing, and they remind me of the fantasies I loved when I was younger, particularly the Earthsea Chronicles and the early Pern books.

Simply put, the Books of Raksura are such satisfying reads and so satisfyingly different from what you’d expect of high fantasy. It doesn’t take long for you to be fully immersed in the setting and adventures. It took me only a few pages to fall into the Three Worlds completely. I mean, how could anyone resist? There are flying islands, many of them now in ruins used to belong to long dead civilizations. The more you learn more about the Three Worlds, the more you want to live there, and I didn’t want to leave. I mean I literally could not put The Cloud Roads down and ended up breezing through the whole series, short stories and all, in a matter of days. It was a whirlwind experience, and it’s been a long time since a series sucked me in so completely that way. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise though. Martha Wells is an amazing storyteller.

Now onto the best part of the Three Worlds: Raksura. These are shapeshifters who have two forms: groundling, which is a humanoid form and the one they’re often in, and Raksura, which is a winged or wingless reptilian gargoyle-like form and the one they take when they fight or hunt. Winged Raksura, called Aeriats, are divided into three castes: queen, consort, and warrior. Wingless Raksura, called Arbora, are divided into four castes: mentor, teacher, hunter, and soldier. More about each individual caste here. Their functions and distinctions in Raksura court and society are a big part of the story, and I find their dynamic fascinating, so different from the usual Medieval European-like court politics of most high fantasies. And just their day to day lives are a treat to read about.

Raksura by Jessica Peffer
(Raksura by Jessica Peffer)

The antagonists of the Three Worlds are the Fell who are also shapeshifters, but they’re more like warped perverse versions of the Raksura. The Fell are also divided into castes and have some kind of society and pecking order, but they’re altogether much more medieval and bloodthirstier than the Raksura. They feed on other groundlings, are responsible for destroying civilizations all across the Three Worlds, and brutalize their own. Even Raksura fear them. But the interesting thing is it’s believed by some Raksura scholars that the Fell and Raksura once shared a common ancestor. When you look at the two races with that in mind, it adds more depth to the story and you begin to see their innate hatred of each other more clearly. Later books and stories expand more on this idea, but only a little bit at a time.

Fell by JessicaPeffer
(The Fell by Jessica Peffer)

Beautiful fan art. I had a hard time picture the line grandfather and major kethel until I saw Jessica Peffer’s versions.

 

Basic premise (and some spoilers)

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read
: January 30 to February 2, 2015

The Cloud Roads begins with a solitary Raksura named Moon, who had been living among various groups of groundlings for most of his life. He’s never been able to fit in anywhere and doesn’t even know what he is. At the start of the book, he’s been living for quite some time in a groundling village before inevitably getting kicked out again. This time, though, it leads him to find another Raksura (Stone), or rather Stone found and rescued him.

With nowhere to go and a desire to learn about Raksura, Moon decides to trust Stone and follow him back to his court, Indigo Cloud, which is only a few days’ flight away. On the way there, they stop by another court, but unfortunately not before it was completely destroyed by the Fell, which have increasingly become a menacing presence in these parts of the Three Worlds. Stone brings Moon to Indigo Cloud not only out of his goodness of his heart but for an ulterior motive, which is to help the court fight off the Fell.

As expected, Moon has a difficult time fitting into yet another group of people who view him with suspicion and sometimes distaste, but Jade, the young queen, takes an interest in him and he seems to like her too. However, all of that is put aside as more pressing matter arise and the Fell attack. Moon must decide if his place is to help the Raksura or leave because it’s not his fight. He decides to stay.

 

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read
: February 3 to 5, 2015

The Serpent Sea takes place after the fight with the Fell. Moon is now a member of the Indigo Cloud court and takes his place beside Jade as her Consort. He’s settling into his new role and has even made a few friends, but before he could get comfortable, new trouble finds its way to the court.

The survivors of Indigo Cloud decide to pack up and leave their pyramid mound. Too many bad memories there for them to stay, and like Stone said, the colony is too hard to defend from Fell attacks. So they head to the court’s original territory in the Reaches, the forest of their ancestors where Raksura originated. The journey is uneventful and they reach the colony tree in a matter of days. Once there, though, they discover the tree’s seed pod is missing and that the tree itself will die slowly if the seed isn’t recovered. Moon, Jade, Stone, and a number of beloved characters from the previous book head out to find the seed, and the journey takes them across the Reaches and into the Serpent Sea.

Reading this book was like going on the journey myself. There are so many awe-inspiring things to mention: an ancient leviathan with a city on its back magically enchanted to stay afloat, the city on its back, the museum in the city on its back, Niren’s flying boats, the vastness of the Reaches, the Emerald Twilight court, and last but not least the colony tree. It’s like a multi-level mansion-sized tree house complete with running water and platforms for farming. The world building and details in this series get better and better with each book.

 

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read
: February 5 to 9, 2015

Now that the Indigo Cloud court has settled into their new home, Moon and Jade focus their attention on starting a family, but conceiving proves to be more difficult than either had anticipated. Meanwhile, a powerful court with a powerful reigning queen on the other side of the Reaches makes a claim on Moon. She thinks he is the son she lost during a Fell attack on her colony many years ago. These events line up with Moon’s age and vague memories of that time and Sorrow, the Raksura he thought was his mother. According to Raksura law, if a consort hasn’t fathered a clutch yet, then his birth court still has claims on him. Once a “feral solitary” with no known ties and a muddled bloodline, Moon now has two courts that want him.

The Siren Depths is about lineages and bloodlines, of both the Raksura and the Fell, and they’re explored through Moon, his birth queen, their court, and what happened to their home in the East all those years ago. In short, Moon finally knows where he came from. Revealing any more would spoil the rest of the story, but I will say that it’s a great story full of surprises. It had me glued to each page; a few meals were missed and phone calls went ignored. Moon’s birth mother is such a great character (so great!), and her court and her side of the story are an intriguing addition to the narrative and Moon’s arc. They not only add interest and tension, but a whole heaping amount of history and heritage and so much more depth to an already rich vibrant series.

I will never get tired of rereading these books or singing their praises. They are, hands down, my favorite kind of fantasy and exactly what I had been looking for at the time to revitalize my love for the genre. If you’re tired of the same old fantasy books and want to try something new and different, give this series a go. Martha Wells never disappoints, and these books will take you on an unforgettable journey.

 

[ETA]

A post by Martha Wells (about Stories of the Raksura, Volume II) is featured on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever.

In many ways, the Raksura books are the books I’ve always wanted to write, it just took me writing a bunch of other books to figure it out.

Also on Whatever by Martha Wells:

* * * * *

Still captivating, still beautiful. These books bring my fantasies of flying and living in trees to life–well, as close to reality as possible.

This is my third reread and I still find this world and these characters as interesting as when I first picked up this series and read it in a matter of days.

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date Read: May 19 to 26, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by:
Recommended for: anyone who hasn’t read it yet

Like the Daily Telegraph quote on the cover says, “compulsively readable,” which sounds too casual for this book. So I’ll add: striking prose and imagery, a memorable POV, and a story that stays with you for a long time. The overall effect of this book is meant to do that–stay with you. Margaret Atwood chose her words carefully to weave this tale.

Finishing this book left me in a strange mindset that lasted for days. Speculative dystopian fiction tends to do that. What’s different about this book, though, is I can easily–too easily–imagine a theocratic regime, like the one in the book, taking over society after the country experience a crisis on the national level. I suppose this is due to Atwood’s superb writing. It’s hard not to imagine such a world. After finishing the book, I went back over a select passages and was amazed how realistic the descriptions of each scene were, still. These images are meant to stay with the reader. And perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to imagine life as we know it devolving into such a state. But perhaps it’s because many aspects of society has already began to devolve, bit by bit every day.

Offred, the titular handmaid whose name is literally “of Fred,” speaks of her current existence and explains many aspects and nuances of her life in this post-nuclear meltdown society where a theocratic government (“The Sons of Jacob”) has taken control.

My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried. This name has an aura around it, like an amulet, some charm that’s survived from an unimaginably distant past. I lie in my single bed at night, with my eyes closed, and the name floats there behind my eyes, not quite within reach, shining in the dark.

The new social order is set up according to the Old Testament. Women’s roles are restricted to those that concern the household and raising children. They can’t own property or work outside the home; they essentially become property again. These changes didn’t happen overnight though, but gradually over a short period of time, following a period of unrest after the new theocratic regime took control.

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it really isn’t about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.

Birth rates have decreased dramatically due to radiation poisoning. So to help raise those numbers, handmaids are “indoctrinated” and dispersed. For a few select men in power called “Commanders,” a handmaid is provided for their households. The handmaid’s singular role, like in Biblical times, is to breed. The belief is that in a few more generations this “handmaid system” will become accepted as part of the functioning society, and that “wives and handmaids will live together under one roof in harmony.” But the unfortunate thing for Offred is that she is a handmaid of the first generation and she, as well as every woman forced into acquiescence, still remembers how life used to be before the collapse. In her former life, she was college-educated and had a job; she was also married and had a daughter. Following the collapse, she was sent to be a handmaid, and what became of her husband and daughter is revealed later in the story.

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

Offred lives every moment with the fear of imminent death hanging over her head. At any moment, or at the whim of the Commander or his wife Serena Joy, she could be reported for violating the code of conduct and be sent to the colonies where the condemned are forced to clean up nuclear wastes. Basically, a death sentence, a slow painful death sentence. Everyone in the society lives in fear of the being sent to the colonies, but women, handmaids especially, are most vulnerable. If they’re deemed unfit or no longer of use, they’re shipped off. Each handmaid gets three chances to bring a baby to term. Once a handmaid has given birth successfully, she is exempt from the threat of the colonies. But a handmaid who cannot bear children will be labled an “unwoman” and off to the colonies she is sent. Offred is on her third and final chance.

What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, criscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.

Although inwardly she fights her role as handmaid and against the social structures that bind her, outwardly Offred appears to accept it and tries not to be a burden on anyone. The power dynamic as portrayed in the book is fascinating and should be explored further; it touches on and echoes many of the struggles we still encounter today. Although the picture painted is one of complete oppression, there are many subtle but well illustrated nuances in Offred’s narration that explore the extent of her subjugation. Another fascinating thing is the set-up of the theocratic society. It looks ludicrous when you first read about it–like, really, how could anyone subscribe to these ridiculous laws??–but then as you get further into the story, it makes sense in an absurd way–like, yeah, now I can see how that would work. What Margaret Atwood get at here is the mindset of the people in power. Offred’s perspective is sympathetic, of course, because it’s her story and she’s the one being held down, but in contrast to that, there’s the people holding her down and the intricacies of their hold on power. Many of the Sons of Jacob aren’t even aware how others suffer because of their will. For this alone, I’d shelve this book as horror.

Atwood’s writing is exceptional, and she juggles nuances with expert control. I especially like the way she transitions from Offred’s current life to her former one and back again throughout the story; the contrasts between past and present are jarring, but at the same time, exquisitely done. What amazes me the most, although it really shouldn’t, is that Atwood not only created such a believable nightmarish society but that she followed through and really delved into Offred’s life and the theocratic society. Everything is laid out, and she leaves no stone unturned. Well, almost no stone. The ending is left to your interpretation.

If it’s a story I’m telling, then I have control over the ending…
But if it’s a story, even in my head, I must be telling it to someone.
You don’t tell a story only to yourself. There’s always someone else. Even when there is no one.

Although it’s not an easy read, I love almost everything about this book. My only issue is the lack of quotation marks. It’s Atwood’s style, I know, but it makes it difficult to differentiate between thoughts and conversations. Overall though, this is a disturbing story beautifully illustrated.

Review: Jennifer Love Hewitt Times Infinity by Kevin Fanning

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: May 11 to 14, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: found during a bout of spring cleaning
Recommended for: people who like quirky stories

Interesting concept, nice prose. Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

This collection of short–really short–stories isn’t actually about Jennifer Love Hewitt the actress, but in my opinion, what she could have represented had she turned out to be more famous and/or had more pull in the entertainment industry. Things didn’t quite work out that way for her career, but this book imagines they did. It imagines her as an important cultural icon who’s deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and for that, I will shelve it as “fantasy.” Kidding.

As you might assume from the title, it’s all about about JLH, but…not really. It’s all about her in the sense that each story features a character called JLH and everything is told from her POV. These stories explore a variety of things, but they’re mostly focused on entertainment, fame, technology, interpersonal relationships, mythology (or rather how we weave mythology), and generally how we shape our lives and how we make sense of them. Which I think is interesting.

The writing would have been just fine without the JLH gimmick. I might have enjoyed it more without the gimmick. But I suppose Kevin Fanning had to do something to set his work apart from other writers who were also experimenting with similar themes and ideas. To me, though, having JLH as the common thread that ties the stories together actually makes the whole collection seem dated, and not in a good way, not unlike the actress herself. All while I was reading I kept thinking about I Know What You Did Last Summer, which led to me trying to recall when it first came out in theaters–it was 18 years ago.

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Has it really been that long? Kids born in 1997 are graduating from high school right this minute. Where has the time gone.

I’ll be honest here. I don’t get this JLH gimmick. I mean, I understand the idea behind it and what Fanning did with it, but I don’t see the point of it. Like, why pick a middling actress with a barely remembered career (who has, arguably, no impact on shaping our modern mythologies at all)? Because Fanning likes the sound of her name? Because Fanning wants to make everyone (or me specifically) remember I Know What You Did Last Summer and in turn remind them (me) how much time has gone by (and/or how much older we’ve all gotten since the movie’s release)?

Not ironically, I don’t remember how I came to own this quirky little chapbook. It was probably a gift from awhile ago. I’d probably meant to read it shortly after receiving it. Maybe back then it would have meant something. Now, though, it’s just another reminder of how much time has passed.

 

[ETA] So why JLH, is what people want to know

A friend from book club, Jules, said something interesting yesterday. He asked, “Why not someone more famous? Why not Tom Cruise?”

Then someone else, Emmy, from a different book club who’d overheard our talk said, “Tom Cruise Times Infinity…??”

And all three of us were silent as we pondered the very idea of an infinite number of Tom Cruises.

Jules and I simultaneously had a mother-of-god moment.

Then Emmy said, “See what I mean? Isn’t one Tom Cruise already too much?”

She’s got a point.

Review: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: April 17 to 21, 2015
Read Count: 2
Recommended by: found during a bout of spring cleaning
Recommended for: people who like nature

Everything was white, clean, shining, and beautiful. The sky was blue, blue, blue. The hemlock grove was laced with snow, the meadow was smooth and white, and the gorge was sparkling with ice. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I laughed out loud. I guess I laughed because my first snowstorm was over and it had not been so terrible after all.

My Side of the Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George in 1959, is a survivalist story about a boy who runs away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains, and he not only survives but thrives in the wilderness. Twelve-year-old Sam Gribley comes from a large family, and all the Gribleys are crammed together in a small apartment in New York. Sam couldn’t stand living in such a confined space with his parents and all his siblings anymore, so he takes off for his grandfather’s farm in the Catskills. The story begins with Sam already in the mountains preparing his humble tree abode for the first snowstorm. He discusses in detail some of the challenges he’s faced so far and his fear of the storm and not knowing what will happen after. Then gradually, he talks about his life in New York, his family, and how he came to the Catskills.

Sam lives off the land and learns how to be self-sufficient, while skirting the attention of the townsfolk living on the foot of the mountains. It seems everyone he meets is worried about him, everyone but his immediate family, that is. He details his successes and failures and ways in which he learns from both. One of his major achievements is building his house in a tree and another is training a falcon that he names Frightful. The passages where he and Frightful are together are some of the best moments in the book.

It’s not hard to see why this book won so many literary awards and has been a staple on reading lists for children ever since it was published. The writing is clear and descriptive, the adventures are fun and fascinating, Sam is a likable character who adapts easily to the wilderness, and various supporting animal characters are hilarious. They add much needed comedic relief to Sam’s narration.

As much as I still like this book, there are quite a few things I didn’t notice before that bother me now, like

  • Sam’s age
  • the fact that his family didn’t come looking for him (until later)
  • they also didn’t call the police
  • Sam’s extensive knowledge of the wilderness (for a city kid, he’s very well versed in survival skills)
  • the fact that he didn’t take any books with him
  • all the strangers he ran into were kind and helpful

Though none of these things occurred to me when I first read the book. Then again, I was only 9 at the time, so 12 seemed almost grown-up.

Everything came together too easily for Sam. Even some of his biggest challenges were resolved by nightfall. Food was plentiful and easily prepared, supplies were readily available, the weather was mostly fair and mild, shelter was easy to find, storage was easy to built, and no wildlife posed a threat to Sam’s livelihood. No wonder he had such a great time frolicking in the wild. But despite it all, I still love this story and these adventures to this day.

 

I was worried this book wouldn’t live up to my glorious memories of it, and that’s why I haven’t reread it. But after finishing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, I was in the mood for more survivalist tales. Should have gone with Jon Krakauer instead, someone I’ve been meaning to read for ages now, but I was also in the mood for something easy, upbeat, and fictional. So Krakauer was shelved once again.

My Side of the Mountain was and still is a very special book to me. It introduced me to the beauty of the natural world and made me appreciate nature and wildlife. As a city kid growing up in an industrial working-class community, all I knew was gravel and concrete and the occasional dandelions that grew in between the cracks. I had only seen the Catskills in pictures, but Jean Craighead George’s sweeping descriptions breathed life into those mountains. The sky and trees and streams and even the grass came to life right before my eyes, and everything about the wilderness was just so beautiful, so full of color and life. I hadn’t known it was possible to live off the land and be self-sufficient that far away from the cities; the whole idea was kind of mind-blowing. That was when I started reading more wilderness and survival stories, along with guides and documentaries, and learning all I could so that one day I could have an adventure similar to Sam’s. I haven’t been to the Catskills yet, but I do go camping and canoeing every year in the boundary waters and that’s almost just as good.

It wasn’t until years later that I took an active role in conservation and environmental issues, but it was this book that started it all for me. It made me appreciate the beauty of the wilderness even though I’d hadn’t yet seen it for myself at that point.

Review: The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: February 26 to March 2, 2015
Read Count: 1
Recommended by: loads of people on GR
Recommended for: everyone

Such intense, vivid writing for a stark post-apocalyptic tale of survival and desperation. The execution–no pun intended–is absolutely brilliant. I rarely wish for a sequel when a story is so well written, but I do hope Mike Carey has one in the works because there’s still so much left to explore.

Everything I have to say about the book itself encroaches on spoiler territory, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll just say this is the most realistic fictional account of life following an unavoidable apocalypse I’d ever read. The characters and their fears are well depicted, and their journey through a wasteland that was once rural England is fascinating and terrifying. And the thing that fascinates and terrifies me the most is how easy it is to imagine this story as reality, how easy it is to see yourself making this journey through a world in various states of decay and upheaval with predators, human and nonhuman alike, lying in wait. It’s a world so far removed from the comfort of our own, where certain death awaits everyone who ventures out into the open wasteland, but it’s portrayed in a very realistic way.

You can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them.

It’s not often that fiction scare me and it’s not often I enjoy the scare, but it’s hard not to like this book or the way Mike Carey writes. He mixes so many classic genre elements together to make them work in such a way that the story looks and feels new and fresh. The individual parts are familiar, but when put together, the whole of it feels unique.

I think everyone should read this book, even if zombie or apocalyptic fiction isn’t your thing. Aside from being well crafted and so suspenseful that you can’t put it down, it’s thought provoking. It will make you look at your world with new eyes and make you imagine a scenario in which you survive the apocalypse and must face a new reality in which you are alone, surrounded by the infected. In that it is like I Am Legend but more disturbing and deeply felt.

This really is a beautiful book, unexpectedly beautiful in so many unfathomable ways. Whatever you think this book is about, it’s so much more than that.

Melanie thinks: when your dreams come true, your true has moved. You’ve already stopped being the person who had the dreams, so it feels more like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago.

Melanie is a big part of the beauty in this book. She’s the element that makes the story new and fresh. She really is the girl with all the gifts.